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How Conservatives Failed the Culture

How Conservatives Failed the Culture

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Published by: lomaxx21 on Sep 24, 2012
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09/26/2012

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VIEWPOINT
I
How
Conservatives Failed
“The
Culture
Claes
G.
Ryn
Omc~
ROFESSIONS
to the contrary, manyself-described American intellectualconservatives have
a
thinly veiled dis-dain for philosophy and the arts. Evenamong academics indifference to what
lies
beyond broad ideas and popularculture
is
common. The ruling assumption
of
the now dominant strains of intel-lectual conservatism seems to be thatthe crux of social well-being
is
politics:bad politicians ruin society; good politi-cians set
it
right. Nothing fascinates con-servatives more than presidential poli-tics. For social problems to be
effec-
tively remedied and for worthy objec-tives to be achieved, “our” candidatemust win the next election, “ourpeopleman the government.Many supposedly intellectual conser-vatives seem to consider ideas and cul-ture from afar,
as
itwere, feeling no deeppersonal need.for or intimate connec-tion with them. Some are in a way at-tracted to the arts or even to philosophi-cal speculation, but
see
no significantand immediate connection betweenthese and the
life
of
practice. Ideas andthe arts are mainly pleasant diversions.Many others have only slight interest inphilosophy and culture for their own
sake.
More or
less
consciously, theytend to assess either thought or imagi-nation from the point of view of whetherit advances or undermines the political
~
cause that they assume to be incontest-able. Does the book, lecture, play, movie,or song help or hinder the cause?
Al-
though such works may enlighten orentertain, they do not strike these indi-viduals
as
having intrinsic and indepen-dent authority. Works of thought andimagination are for them not intriguingand potentially unsettling forces thatmight trigger painful self-examinationand unpredictably reconstitute one’sown accustomed views; making sense
of
them
is
not
so
much a matter of soul-searching as of locating them on thepolitical spectrum.One might explain these reactionsas instances of the social decline nowwidely bemoaned. Schools, families,and other institutions have not con-veyed the excitement
of
ideas and thehigher arts, leaving the young largely“tone-deaf” and unaware
of
theirdeeper appeal and formative influ-ence on civilization. For persons notstrongly drawn
to
them in the firstplace, the element
of
sheer decadencein the dominant intellectual and cul-tural
life
of today has only reinforcedexisting prejudices.
A
related explanation for truncatedconservative approaches to thought andimagination
is
the spread of an ideologi-cal frame
of
mind. In this century leftist
Modern
Age
117
 
ideology has been the most influential.It has been often extreme and has causedgreat human suffering. But the left hasno monopoly on ideology. Even the bestof ideas can start to separate from thechangeability and complexity of real
life
and harden into reflexive and reduc-tionistic propositions.There
is
a sense in which ideology-aswell as partyprograms, slogans, etc.-
is
not only inevitable but legitimate: toadvance practical objectives
it
is
fre-quently necessary, especially in poli-tics, to summarize and codify ideas inorder to mobilize support and exhort toaction. Ideology in that sense
is
notnecessarily incompatible with humanepurposes. Neither
is
there anything in-herently objectionable about the popu-larization
of
difficult ideas. The full
im-
port
of
sound philosophy may be appar-ent only
to
relatively few, but thoseinsights need to be communicatedbeyond the circle of learned experts.What
is
complex must be made simple.In the process of transmission there
is
a danger that thought will hardeninto ideology, but good popularizerswill try, by means of well-chosen con-crete illustrations, for example, not toturn ideas into abstract and sweep-ing generalizations that ignore thetexture of real
life.'
The health
of
society requires thatelites be continuously reminded bygenuine intellectuals and artists notto mistake ideology for eternal veri-ties.
If
that indispensable task
is
notperformed or
if
the reminders are notheeded, undue influence will fall tothe more inventive and ambitiousideologues. Their politically chargedformulations may start to acquire a
life
of their own. In the absence
of
avital intellectual and aesthetical culturethat challenges and breaks up the
en-
crustations of ideology, such personsmay gather unto themselves large newresponsibilities unsuited to their prepa-
l
,
ration and temperament. They may startacting the role
of
arbiters
of
goodness,truth, and beauty, perhaps establishthemselves as authorities in the univer-sities. Trying to meet the expectationsthat traditionally surround such roles,ideologues may acquire greater subtlety,but the affected disciplines and institu-tions are damaged by the association.Ideology
is
now rampant in the uni-versities. Since virtually
all
of
it
is
of
the
left,
it
might seem beneficial
to
have itbalanced in some small measure by
ide-
ology of the right.
Yet
for political cor-rectness
of
one kind to compete withpolitical correctnessof another kind maybe a marginal intellectual advantage forthe longer run. Together, the weeds inthe garden suffocate and crowd out theflowers.The ideological mind-set, formedas it
is
at bottom by
a
desire to domi-nate rather than illuminate,
is
anintruder in philosophy and the arts. It
is
closed in upon itself and resentfulof competition. Instead of cultivatingthe openness to new influences thatmarks real philosophy and art andletting itself
be
exposed to the pos-
sible
intellectual turmoil of fresh in-sight, ideology shunts inconvenientthought and imagination aside. Ideo-logues produce propaganda, althoughsometimes propaganda
of
a sophisti-cated kind. When such individuals
set
the tone, the intellectual and ar-tistic
life
suffers.In
all
avenues of human action,achieving particular objectives re-quires that the will be asserted andavailable resources marshalled. Ittakes power. The power sought andexercised in politics
is
but an exampleof an ever-present need
of
humanaction in general. Without power, greator small, nothing gets done, be it forgood or ill.*
Yet
a drive for power thatis not substantially and integrallyconnected with the free and indepen-
Winter
1996
 
dent sphere
of
ideas and culture-to saynothing here
of
the all-important im-perative of morality-becomes amerely self-advancing and self-grati-fying manipulation
of
other humanbeings.Who
is
today the paradigmatic con-servative intellectual, the kind of indi-vidual to whom educated and readingconservatives look for authoritativejudgments and to whom they
ulti-
mately defer?
He
seems to be a crossbetween an intellectual and a politicalactivist, less a thinker concerned withthe fundamental and enduring ques-tions of
life
than
a
“policy wonk,”
less
a learned scholar than
a
media pun-dit. Although possibly bright and ar-ticulate, this type cannot long
be
distracted from his absorbing inter-est: politics and politics-related ques-tions and schemes. He seems un-touched by philosophical depth or byany deeper aesthetical need or sensi-bility.Individuals
of
this description canwield considerable influence over thekind of decisions that appear to themmost important. But these personsare not
so
much independent agentsas unwitting instruments of largerforces-a fate they cannot bemoanbecause it does not reach their con-sciousness. Because of
a
weak graspof the dynamic
of
human existence,they have difficulty understanding thescope of social problems. Their lim-ited awareness of what really shapesthe long-term direction
of
a
society orcivilization-specifically,
of
the rolesplayed by thought and imagination-leads to inadequate analyses
of
theexisting political and social situationand
of
what might bring real and lastingimprovement. These persons are fre-quently surprised by events and areprone to defeating their own stated
ob-
j
ect ves.Unless ideas and art have somedirect and obvious relationship to poli-tics, many intellectual conservativesregard them
as
having negligible practi-cal importance and to be provinces ofthe left in addition. Because philoso-phers and artists can be expected tofavor the wrong causes, it
is
desirable tomobilize opposition to them from withintheir own ranks; yet, apart from thispolitical problem, these conservatives
see
no large and compelling reason toworry about professors, writers, com-posers, and artists. After
all,
society
is
moved not by them but by individualswho pursue more “practical” pursuits,especially persons who affect publicpolicy and, most prominently, leadingpoliticians.
To
the bearer, this view ofwhere the real power
lies
representshard-nosed realism. In actuality, it ex-emplifies a narrow and shortsighted un-derstanding
of
what shapes the future.The decline of academia and the gen-eral culture has assumed such blatantforms and started to have such an obvi-ous impact on society at large that nowa-days the conservative political intellec-tuals are paying more attention. But theseriousness
of
those problems
is
notunrelated to the mentioned assessment
of
what sets society’s long-term direc-tion, an assessment that
is
in line withthe more questionable aspects
of
Ameri-can pragmatism. In the last two decadesespecially, the “realism” of conserva-tives who assume the centrality ofpolitics has detracted from and un-dermined an earlier and rather differ-ent kind
of
American conservatism,which started to gain new momentumin the early
1950s.
Its leaders sawideas and imagination as being at thebottom not only of the troubles ofcivilization but also of any possibilityof renewal. “Realism” competed withand drew attention away from effortsto bring about the kind of intellectualand cultural renaissance that even-tually might have arrested or reversed
I
Modern
Age
I19

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