We rightly honor the 20th-century visionaries who created a network of think tanks, foundations, magazines, and publishing houses to provide crucial support to conservative thinkers who couldn’t get tenured jobs in academia. Upon this basis a powerful movement arose that went on to ramify and diversify itself in many ways. The result is a major accomplishment. But it represents, if you will, the left side of the conservative mind.
For years conservatives have favored the rational left brain at the expense of the right. With apologies to Russell Kirk, the conservative mind is unbalanced — hyper-developed in one respect, completely undeveloped in another. It’s time to correct this imbalance and take the culture war into the field of culture proper.
We need to invest in the conservative right brain. A well-developed feeder system exists to identify and promote mainstream fiction writers, including MFA programs, residencies and fellowships, writers’ colonies, grants and prizes, little magazines, small presses, and a network of established writers and critics. Nothing like that exists on the right.
This is a major oversight that must be urgently addressed. We need our own writing programs, fellowships, prizes, and so forth. We need to build a feeder system so that the cream can rise to the top, and also to make an end run around the gatekeepers of the liberal establishment.
I remember the first time I heard this argument. It was in 1994, at a Washington conference. Twenty years later, I’ve heard it made again and again, yet still, so many of the money men on the Right just don’t understand it.
For one, as Bellow says, they’re far too left-brained. They can’t conceive that culture is critical. It seems so ethereal compared to politics, policy, and economics, all of which is measurable. How do you measure the effect of subsidizing a writing program, or patronizing a humanities center? Often you can’t, not directly. But that doesn’t mean they are ineffective.
Which brings us to a second point: art and culture should not be approached from an instrumental point of view. This is why, for example, so much contemporary Christian filmmaking is so bad: it’s designed to culminate in an altar call. It’s about sending a message, not telling a story. I’m personally aware of a conservative donor and investor who poured millions into an independent film because he thought it was wholesome, and would improve the character of its viewers. I watched the movie in a private screening, and it was terrible. A total waste of money. My sense was that the investor had no idea what he was paying for, and in fact he wouldn’t have paid for a film that was anything other than moralistic propaganda.
That model is not what conservative artists and writers want or need. What would it mean for the conservative donor class to become authentic and effective patrons of conservative writers and artists? They would need to have reliable advisers from the arts and humanities who could help them identify worthy causes and artists — and then trust those advisers. For example, if I had $100 million dollars, I would contact a conservative humanities professor like Wilfred McClay and ask him where my donation could do the most good in nurturing conservative talent in the arts and humanities.
Second, donors have to adopt a more expansive idea of what culture is, and what cultural institutions and artists need support. The Dallas Institute of Humanities & Culture is an extraordinary institution that more conservatives should know about and support. It is not a political institution, not at all. What it does is teach classes and foster discussion groups about the Great Books and the Western tradition. Every city should have a Dallas Institute, and monied conservatives ought to be among their patrons. If we are not about preserving and passing on the literary and artistic patrimony of our civilization, what, exactly, do conservatives want to conserve?
Third, I would be cautious about building a parallel culture to the mainstream. I think it can be helpful, but if I were a donor, I would be more interested in providing scholarships for conservative students to train in mainstream schools, make mainstream connections, and try to compete outside of the ghetto. I don’t think this is an either/or proposition; conservatism needs both. But I would think hard about whether the institution I was planning to fund will be a hothouse necessary to nurture conservative talent until it is strong enough to thrive on the outside, or a bubble in which ideologically similar people learn how to speak only to people like themselves.
Fourth, conservative investors in culture have to be in it for the long run. If I had a pile of money to donate, I would probably cut a check to the Dante Society of America , and earmark it for the development of outreach programs to teach Dante to high school students and ordinary people. Why? Not because this will result in electing more Republicans to office, but because I am convinced that there is deep wisdom and beauty in The Divine Comedy that American culture would benefit from rediscovering. I would hope for some tangible result from my donation, but in general, it’s hard to predict where and when the tree of knowledge that one patiently waters will blossom.
Similarly — and here I will sound a self-serving note — investing in a small magazine of ideas like The American Conservative may not seem like much, but I genuinely believe that those who do give to TAC are laying the groundwork for a kind of conservatism that will be much more influential in the decades to come. I am often surprised when I travel by the kind of people I meet who say they’re TAC readers. Some are conservative, some are liberal, but all of them say them come to this magazine because they find things here they can’t easily find elsewhere. In my case, a gift subscription a conservative friend bought me in the 1980s, when I was a college student, to The American Spectator made an enormous difference in my life, and helped me to become a conservative. It was not only the arguments TAS writers back then made, but the lively, funny way they made them that eventually won me over. I loved the magazine even when I argued with it. More than the specific arguments in the magazine’s pieces, it was the overall sensibility that struck a resonant chord within me. These guys were conservatives, but they didn’t seem angry about it (this was before Whitewater). TAS introduced me to new and unfamiliar ideas, and did so in a way that I, a campus liberal, was able to receive. To me, it’s interesting to contemplate how my life and career would have gone had that one conservative not “donated” a gift subscription to TAS to me.
I hope TAC has the same impact on young (and not so young) readers today, introducing them to ideas from an alternative conservative point of view, and helping them to see that neither the mainstream right nor the mainstream left, however dominant, have a monopoly on ideas.
In the end, the denouement of the same-sex marriage debate, and the dim prospects for religious liberty in its aftermath, ought to teach conservative donors a powerful lesson: you can keep electing Republicans, and pass all the tax cuts you want to, and you can funnel your millions into think tanks. But if you lose the culture, you’ve lost something of incalculable value.
One of the best things to read on this topic is this 2011 essay by the conservative political theorist Claes Ryn, who is hard on his own side for disdaining arts and culture. Excerpt:
Ideology is now rampant in the universities. Since virtually all of it is of the left, it might seem beneficial to have it balanced in some small measure by ideology of the right. Yet for political correctness of one kind to compete with political correctness of another kind may be a marginal intellectual advantage for the longer run. Together, the weeds in the garden suffocate and crowd out the flowers.
The ideological mind-set, formed as it is at bottom by a desire to dominate rather than illuminate, is an intruder in philosophy and the arts. It is closed in upon itself and resentful of competition. Instead of cultivating the openness to new influences that marks real philosophy and art and letting itself be exposed to the possible intellectual turmoil of fresh insight, ideology shunts inconvenient thought and imagination aside. Ideologues produce propaganda, although sometimes propaganda of a sophisticated kind. When such individuals set the tone, the intellectual and artistic life suffers.
In all avenues of human action, achieving particular objectives requires that the will be asserted and available resources marshaled. It takes power. The power sought and exercised in politics is but an example of an ever-present need of human action in general. Without power, great or small, nothing gets done, be it for good or ill. Yet a drive for power that is not substantially and integrally connected with the free and independent sphere of ideas and culture-to say nothing here of the all-important imperative of morality-becomes a merely self-advancing and self-gratifying manipulation of other human beings.
Who is today the paradigmatic conservative intellectual, the kind of individual to whom educated and reading conservatives look for authoritative judgments and to whom they ultimately defer? He seems to be a cross between an intellectual and a political activist, less a thinker concerned with the fundamental and enduring questions of life than a “policy wonk,” less a learned scholar than a media pundit. Although possibly bright and articulate, this type cannot long be distracted from his absorbing interest: politics and politics-related questions and schemes. He seems untouched by philosophical depth or by any deeper aesthetical need or sensibility.
Individuals of this description can wield considerable influence over the kind of decisions that appear to them most important. But these persons are not so much independent agents as unwitting instruments of larger forces-a fate they cannot bemoan because it does not reach their consciousness. Because of a weak grasp of the dynamic of human existence, they have difficulty understanding the scope of social problems. Their limited awareness of what really shapes the long-term direction of a society or civilization–specifically, of the roles played by thought and imagination leads to inadequate analyses of the existing political and social situation and of what might bring real and lasting improvement. These persons are frequently surprised by events and are prone to defeating their own stated objectives.
Unless ideas and art have some direct and obvious relationship to politics, many intellectual conservatives regard them as having negligible practical importance and to be provinces of the left in addition. Because philosophers and artists can be expected to favor the wrong causes, it is desirable to mobilize opposition to them from within their own ranks; yet, apart from this political problem, these conservatives see no large and compelling reason to worry about professors, writers, composers, and artists. After all, society is moved not by them but by individuals who pursue more “practical” pursuits, especially persons who affect public policy and, most prominently, leading politicians. To the bearer, this view of where the real power lies represents hard-nosed realism. In actuality, it exemplifies a narrow and shortsighted understanding of what shapes the future.
Read the whole thing. Shelley was right: poets really are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” in that whoever provides the stories for a society and shapes its myths holds its reins. But as Ryn warns, it is a dead end to approach art and culture with the desire to dominate rather than to illuminate. If the conversation that urgently needs to happen on the right, especially among the donor class, is going to go anywhere, it needs to ponder from the beginning the difference between domination and illumination. And so do young conservatives considering vocations in the arts, humanities, and journalism. Do you want to illuminate our beautiful, tragic, mysterious world, or do you want to dominate it? How you answer that question matters more than you can possibly imagine.