A few years back, when the air was fresh and the world was new, some of us thought that the election of Ronald Reagan was only the beginning of the beginning of “morning in America.” It is a common mistake. Some decades have an identity for those who set their mark upon them. In periods like the 1890’s, the 1920’s, and the 1960’s, while most people went about their business of working, living, and dying, if you were a decadent poet in London, a stockbroker or novelist in New York, a student at Berkeley, Madison, or Columbia, it was an age of gold. Some true believers manage to keep the faith right up till the end: The best social critic of the counterculture, Philip Slater, published his New Age prophecy—The Pursuit of Loneliness—in 1970, and there are conservatives who, at this very minute, are planning the last phase of their coup d’etat.
It is hardly likely. For all the great successes of the administration, the important fact remains that the enemy is still in undisputed possession of the major institutions that control the formation of attitudes and the building of character: churches, schools, “the arts,” the press are all enemy territory. Students may rebel, for a time, as students do; they may vote Republican or support the draft to spite their graybeard professors; but in the end most will be reabsorbed into the radicalized mainstream of American culture.
The great successes of American conservatism before Reagan were due to the intellectual or imaginative power of a few outstanding men. Something happens to a student who has read Witness or The Conservative Mind or seen Mr. Buckley in debate. An aspiring writer or intellectual who has learned to appreciate Frost and Eliot and Andrew Lytic has taken the first steps toward committing treason against the regime. In the heat of the moment, many conservatives have forgotten that their real source of strength did not lie in resentment against the welfare state or the million and one little pamphlets on SDI or Central America that are choking the U.S. Postal System. Under the thumb of President Joe Biden, we shall have the leisure to remember.
It is a good sign that some conservatives at Hillsdale, ISI, and The Heritage Foundation have been taking stock. Recent issues of Modern Age and Policy Review have included trenchant reevaluations of conservative ideas, and Hillsdale’s Center for Constructive Alternatives has held a series of important conferences on the state of American culture. The most ambitious reconsideration of conservative principles has been undertaken by Paul Weyrich through the Institute for Government and Politics arm of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation. Weyrich’s “cultural conservatism” project has resulted in three essays (published as “Essays on Our Times”), a response by Chester Finn, and a draft proposal, “Cultural Conservatism: A New National Agenda,” completed in March. Taken together, these statements represent a serious attempt to rebuild a conservative ideology out of the rubble of New Right populism and the disarray of Neoconservative ideology.
For Weyrich himself, a “cultural conservative” is anyone who affirms the basic traditions and principles of Western culture. William Lind, who directs the project, sketched out four major themes in his essay: first, that traditional values are necessary for “individual fulfillment”; second, that the breakdown in conventional morality is leading to serious social problems; third, that “society, including government, must play an active role in supporting traditional values”; and finally, that in looking for solutions we must take a long view that recognizes the wisdom of our ancestors and considers the needs of future generations.
In an article in The American Spectator (November ’86), Chester Finn describes the project’s goals as “unexceptionable” and attempts to put meat on the bones and muscles provided by Weyrich and Lind. Finn, an assistant secretary of education, lists 10 cardinal tenets with corresponding actions to be undertaken by the nation’s educational systems. Recognition of our common cultural tradition requires, for example, the transmission of “cultural literacy” in the schools; since democracy is “the best form of government known to man,” we must “stop teaching that all political systems are equally legitimate”; and since our common culture is symbolized by heroes and holidays, schoolchildren must be taught to “understand why we observe Independence Day, Memorial Day, Martin Luther King’s birthday, and Easter.”
Most of what Finn had to say is, to use his own word, “unexceptionable,” especially coming from a Department of Education employee. Some conservatives, however, stuck at the elevation of democracy to a first principle. Much of the Old Right had been explicitly elitist. In addition to European Catholics like Thomas Molnar and Erick von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, most traditionalist writers had celebrated the virtues of order, stability, and indeed aristocracy. The cult of democracy does not, after all, include among its worshipers Irving Babbitt or T.S. Eliot, Albert Jay Nock or Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk or James Burnham. Indeed, the editor of TAS has been derided (in The New Republic) for insisting on the term republic. A great deal of mischief—New Deals and Five Year Plans—has been done in democracy’s name, and conservatives were supposed to be providing a sort of loyal opposition—republican or elitist—to the spirit of the age.
Even more to the point was William Hawkins’ response in a letter to TAS (February ’87):
The U.S. is a democracy and conservatives must work within it. However, democracy merely defines the political arena in which elites battle for the power to advance their agendas. Democracy is not itself one of the values for which conservatives enter the arena. . . . Democracy is not a necessary condition for cultural conservatism, nor will it by nature advance conservatism. On the contrary, democracy can only work if conservative values are so deeply engrained that they will guide the majority in a responsible exercise of its power.
In most quarters, this would have been received as an unimpeachable statement of the conservative position, from an economist who has written for Chronicles and National Review and had his work quoted in the Wall Street Journal. Assistant Secretary Finn’s curt rejoinder had a vaguely inquisitional ring:
Anyone who doesn’t start with a deep and abiding affection for and belief in democracy has no standing, in my view, to participate in the conversations about “cultural conservatism”—or about much else!
But an open discussion on these questions is precisely what is essential, if cultural conservatism is to get past first base, and it is the neoconservative Finn’s willingness to debate on Weyrich’s own New Right turf that gives the project its air of excitement. (Norman Podhoretz, another neoconservative, has also commented on the project, in a newspaper column.)
To their credit, the framers of the draft “Cultural Conservatism: A New National Agenda” are remarkably open to a variety of viewpoints. Lind is a sort of “neoliberal” Democrat, and his chief collaborator is the Old Right Catholic William Marshner. On specific questions of policy, the draft is solid, especially on family issues. We might die happy if either party incorporated these prescriptions into its platform. The draft agenda even lashes out against the elevation of “procedural values” like equality or the free market over traditional moral principles, but beyond details it is hard to find a quarrel between Finn and Weyrich’s group. Both agree that the creation and dissemination of a cultural ideology is a legitimate government activity. All appear to believe that such an ideology can be devised without insisting on any religious or metaphysical foundation. Lind, for example, declares that his creed “does not require anyone to believe traditional values are true absolutely, that they derive from God, from natural law, or from some other source outside secular human experience. It asserts only that Western culture is functionally true.”
But it is in the metaphysics of culture that problems begin to emerge. In what sense can any culture be described as true, much less functionally true? If we speak of the culture of the Navaho or the Nuer, we would never dream of saying it is true or false, but the cultural conservatives take a curiously idealistic view of culture as “the ways of thinking, living and behaving that sustain a people and underlie its achievements . . . a nation’s collective mind, its sense of right and wrong, the way it perceives reality, and its definition of self.” While this sort of definition might do for a cognitive anthropologist or a disciple of George Berkeley, it will never do as the basis of a bread-and-butter political movement. “It’s all in the mind, yuh know” is the Beatles’ version of reality, not—one had thought—the conservative tradition. Early anthropologists did, it is true, include knowledge and beliefs in their definition of culture, but they also included the more concrete manifestations of art and law. Since it is virtually impossible to know what a man really believes, cultural anthropologists had to concentrate on folk tales, codes of behavior, kinship systems, and artifacts. The rules of etiquette and literary forms are more palpable than mere beliefs. Our neighbor’s moral views are hard to discern, but the books he reads and the code of manners he lives by are a fair indication of his “culture,” and what is more, they present opportunities for correction.
We are caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, cultural norms have no transcendent origin either in the will of God or in the laws of nature; on the other hand, culture itself is elevated to the status of Mind, a sort of invisible god. But if our cherished “values” (whatever that vulgarism can be supposed to mean) do not derive either from nature or from nature’s God, then they can be defended only on the limited grounds that some of us in this culture happen to find them useful; but we are in no position to argue that incest, adultery, and bad manners are things bad in themselves.
Cultural conservatives are not alone in believing that the current Kulturkampf is being waged by friendly parties who have fallen out over a misunderstanding. All we have to do is explain to the other side, politely, of course, that their views are undermining the status quo, and they will apologize and help us to set things right. But the revolutionaries who have been reconstructing society since the 1790’s are not misguided defenders of civilization: They loathe our cultural traditions and moral principles precisely because they are the bulwarks and foundation of everything the revolutionaries seek to destroy: the family, individual freedom and responsibility, social stability. Our enemies have their own traditions, their own principles, their own culture. Not only that, they have their own gods on their side—Social Justice, Equality, and, above all, the Future. Chester Finn is smart enough to realize that few atheists will sign on to any form of cultural conservatism; still, he maintains, “I have said nothing that would oblige a bona fide cultural conservative to believe in God, much less to participate in any particular branch of organized religion.”
Here at Chronicles we are constantly barraged with manuscripts explaining why conservatives don’t have to believe in God or value religion. I always ask the same question: What is it you think you are conserving? We used to have a simple name for this civilization of ours: It was called Christendom. By using knives and forks a man ate like a Christian; by displaying charity or good manners he was said to do something like a Christian. Actual religious faith is something else. Many of Christendom’s staunchest defenders have been, like David Hume, skeptical of theology and irritated by the clergy’s pretentions—every sect and denomination is overrun with its own version of the Bakkers. It would, in any case, be bad manners to inquire into what our friends and allies really believe deep in their hearts; however, we do expect self-described conservatives to “act like” Christians and leave metaphysical speculations to philosophers. Otherwise their only effect will be to dishearten the strongest conservative strain in the American populace—believing Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Mormons.
“The long march through the institutions” of American culture was accomplished long ago, but there is no sign that the cultural conservatives have a plan for recapturing the citadels. No party can be built around such abstractions as “democracy” or “traditional values.” I can imagine a coalition of Darwinists and Fundamentalists to defend human nature against social engineering, because both sides accept the roots of human behavior as givens, but cultural conservatism excludes any such alliance based on natural law. I can also conceive of a comfortable relationship between people who share a taste in music and books, but on this point of serious music and literature, the cultural conservatives are remarkably reticent. The draft statement declares explicitly that the most important component of culture is not high culture but the values of ordinary people. Near the end, they concede that aesthetics does matter but confine their attention to a paragraph on the international style in architecture.
There are issues more pressing than the performance of a Bach partita or the decay of rhyme. However, it is a serious, indeed a deadly mistake to dismiss serious art so cavalierly. High art is really only “high” in a civilization that is falling apart. How high were Shakespeare or Beethoven or Aeschylus? All had broad, middle-class followings—the sort of people who today read James Mitchener novels or tune in to “easy listening” stations on the radio. Where, after all, do ideas come from? It can take a generation or two for the pernicious nonsense of a Voltaire or a Dewey to seep down to the level of pamphlets, magazines, and television shows. Conspicuous figures like newsreaders and TV producers are little more than mouthpieces that parrot what they learned from professorial mouthpieces 30 years ago. The highbrow fancies of the last century, which became the middlebrow fads of The New Republic in the 20’s now fuel the efforts of Norman Lear and Dan Rather. The best available escape from the revolutionized mass culture is the direct and powerful appeal of an artistic masterpiece, the effect of what Russell Kirk calls the moral imagination.
Mention of Dr. Kirk brings us to the nub of the problem. As a man of letters—essayist, literary historian, and writer of tales—Kirk is in a long line of English and American writers and critics who have turned their attention to cultural problems. In nearly every period of English literature, there have been one or more pundits who have given the law on taste, fashion, and morals. Ben Jonson may have been the first, and after him came Dryden, Addison, Samuel Johnson, Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, and T.S. Eliot. The American side is heavily weighted towards philosophical essayists—Emerson, Babbitt, Trilling, and Kirk himself These men turned prophet only after they had established their credentials as leading writers. They threw down the gauntlet to barbarism and bad taste only after they had demonstrated their own right to represent this civilization. Arnold’s pronouncements on culture are sometimes unendurably priggish, but he had earned his spurs both as a poet and as a critic long before he assumed the prophetic mantle.
One is forced to observe that few contemporary claimants for the job of Elijah or Sam Johnson have ever produced a sonnet or short story—not, at least, one that has come to our attention. They might reply that as the French Revolution had no need of scientists, a populist mass movement has no need of poets and essayists. Unfortunately, there is no such mass movement: There is only a mailing list. And if there were a resurgent populism of the Wallace type, its members would have little patience with manifestos on values. At this point, only Jesse Jackson knows how to work a crowd with diatribes against bankers. New York City, and big business. Jackson knows very well that the true populist—for all his settled virtues—is a radical consumed with envious rage against his superiors. Given half a chance, a good populist movement would tear down both the liberal managerial state and the new conservative “counterestablishment.” Populists are the material out of which revolutions, not restorations, are made.
Anyone who sets out to restore civilization in the United States will have to begin recruiting a few poets, novelists, and musicians as a first step. So far, the conservative movement is overloaded with economists and political analysts. Wherever we turn on the right—old, new, or neo—there is no sign of an Eliot on the horizon. Ray Bradbury, perhaps, comes closest as a writer who fires the reactionary imagination, and it is to Russell Kirk’s credit that he unmasked the conservative Bradbury. Until the projectors can succeed in recruiting more serious thinkers (and better writers), cultural conservatism will remain what it is at this point: a highly advertised parade that consists of a piccolo player and a few floats. We are still waiting for the elephants.