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Ericka Andersen at C11 points us to this trainwreck of an argument by Lee Siegel, which doesn’t deserve to be refuted so much as it needs to be studied as a kind of intellectual disaster area, but she then makes an odd observation: If the WSJ is right in claiming that “Republicans have the upperhand” […]

Ericka Andersen at C11 points us to this trainwreck of an argument by Lee Siegel, which doesn’t deserve to be refuted so much as it needs to be studied as a kind of intellectual disaster area, but she then makes an odd observation:

If the WSJ is right in claiming that “Republicans have the upperhand” in the culture battles, they are only right on one front. That is that, Republicans are usually conservative and cultural conservatives are the foundation of this country. The problem is that culturally liberal have the upperhand on the entertainment, publishing and media industry – reflecting a false image of American life and American values.

This needs to be taken apart a bit.  Siegel wants to claim that Republicans benefit from political fights over cultural issues (which I am taking here to be the fights primarily over regulation of sexuality, reproduction and marriage) because they are drawing on their organic cultural experience, as opposed to an artificial cultural experience.  However, as sympathetic as I am to Romantic distinctions between organic and mechanical life as applied to culture, we are going astray if we forget that culture is itself the product of artifice and the artefacts created by men are the cultural goods that we value.  There is still more confusion if we think that some cultural products are “merely” artificial, if we think that liberals “do” culture while conservatives “are” culture, or if we simply assert that “the entertainment, publishing and media industry” falsely represent American life and values when we, the culturally conservative nation (according to Andersen), consume and support the production of these false representations.  If these industries are offering false representations, a large part of the “foundation” of the country is buying into those representations for one reason or another, and we are at least to some extent what we consume. 

It is probably worth questioning how much of a culturally conservative nation we are (and not just because, as Kennan said, we are conservative at home and revolutionary abroad), since a principal reason why cultural conservatives exist as a distinct and politically mobilized group is that cultural conservatives have been losing for decades.  We have an explicitly cultural politics because traditional culture has been retreating or disappearing at a fairly rapid clip, so much so that conservatives are supposed to be excited by the idea that a political candidacy is more important than raising up a family.  The recourse to politics to repair cultural damage is, according to the dichotomy Siegel uses, a fundamentally liberal endeavor.  Meanwhile, in pursuit of a political agenda cultural conservatives have largely been willing to abandon or de-prioritize the work of creating and sustaining the culture they want to have, and they have become satisfied with the reassurances offered by an extensive apparatus of celebrities courageous truth-tellers who cultivate their resentment on a daily basis and console them with the empty promises of election victories.       

Ms. Andersen’s distinction and Siegel’s argument remind me of arguments that dissident medieval religious movements were more spiritual or more popular or more genuine than “elite” religion represented by the Church hierarchy and high-level theology.  According to the divide suggested above, folk religion and heresy would be the real, “organic” religion–even though it is a cultural product every bit as much as theological treatises and elaborate liturgy–and an established religion or orthodoxy would offer a false representation of that religion.  Perhaps GOP political writers and the modern rehabilitators of old heresies could get together and brainstorm ideas about the villainy of elites; the former’s paeans to the periphery and anger at the metropole would, in another context, endear them to many a cultural historian.  Christians especially should be wary of arguments that offer unqualified praise for the virtue of rusticity and alienation from the cultural elite, since a huge portion of the cultural achievements that make up our heritage was produced thanks to the patronage of elites. 

Obviously, the important thing in all of this is the content that is being produced and the attitudes towards family life, social order and community that are being reproduced, but it will do us no good to avoid responsibility by claiming that the disorder in our culture is simply something imposed upon us from the outside as if we do not participate in it.  There are exceptions, of course, and you can cite examples of many people who have almost entirely dropped out of mainstream culture, but their very withdrawal is an admission that the prevailing culture is not one that is very agreeable to conservatives.

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