For the last couple of days, I’ve been writing about American culture and American politics. The two are basically inseparable, I find. Anyway, for the first part of the series, go here; and for the second, go here. I will now wrap up.
There is a defeatist strain among conservatives. Some say, “You know, we’ve done our best. We’ve tried our best in politics. Let’s just give up, and tend to private life, such as it is. Let’s look after our families, our places of worship, our friends. The culture is lost to us. The Left owns it. They have vanquished us. Politics follows culture. So, we’ll just cling to our guns and religion, exactly as Obama said we do.”
These conservatives are resigned — if only for the moment — to being a Remnant. Or to living in a kind of dhimmitude, whereby we are tolerated by the majority culture, but know our place.
(Dhimmis in Muslim societies are non-Muslims who are allowed to exist and practice their religions, but are not equal citizens and live on the sufferance of the majority.)
Back in 1999, Paul Weyrich wrote a letter that prompted an interesting conservative debate. He said, “We need to drop out of this culture, and find places, even if it is where we physically are right now, where we can live godly, righteous and sober lives.”
As you may recognize, Weyrich borrowed the phrase “drop out” from Timothy Leary and that druggie Left gang from the 1960s. They said, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” (I think it’s more understandable under the influence.)
To a degree, conservatives have been living apart for a long time. There’s the homeschooling movement — feared and hated by the Left, because it means that some children won’t be raised by the NEA. There are certain charter schools.
A couple of months ago, a friend of mine told me that his teenage son and his girlfriend were wearing purity rings. Purity rings? I had never heard of them. They are rings, as I understand it, that pledge to reserve sex for marriage.
I hate to break it to you, but we didn’t have purity rings when I was in high school — or purity anything.
For conservatives, the temptation to drop out altogether may be strong — but those who want to resist have options. The options are two, as far as I can tell: make as many inroads as possible into Left bastions; and build your own bastions.
The day after Election Day, our Mona Charen went on National Public Radio. All the other guests on the program were “exultant liberals,” as she put it. Her job was to be the token — the dhimmi, if you will. Was she right to participate? Or should she have said, “To hell with it,” leaving the field to the Left alone?
She was right, of course (although I would have hated to do the task). By what she said that day, she may have made an inroad — may have reached some people.
The Witherspoon Institute is an inroad. It’s an elegant little conservative speck on the Princeton University campus. It is tolerated, apparently, as a dhimmi. Let us have more Witherspoon Institutes, if we can.
Incidentally, public records tell us that 157 Princeton faculty and staff contributed to the presidential nominees this year. One hundred fifty-five contributed to Obama, two to Romney. The two were a visiting lecturer in engineering and a janitor. (The janitor, interviewed by the student newspaper, said he made his donation out of pro-life convictions.)
Then there’s building your own — your own institutions, your own bastions. Not just your own Witherspoon Institutes (valuable as they are), but your own Princetons (much harder). Two, three, many Hillsdales! (Again, one of us righties has borrowed from the Left — who yelled for “Two, Three, Many Vietnams!”)
In 1986, Sidney Blumenthal wrote a book called The Rise of the Counter-Establishment — meaning our establishment, the conservative establishment: our think tanks, magazines, etc. Blumenthal hated that establishment, of course.
Anyway, why not make it bigger? With more publications, more TV stations, more charter schools, maybe a movie studio or two. More of everything, everything we can think of, everything but the kitchen sink (and maybe the kitchen sink, too).
More “counter” — as in counter-establishment, counterculture, and counter-revolution.
I have mentioned Gertrude Himmelfarb in this series — her book One Nation, Two Cultures. She wrote another book: The De-Moralization of Society. She has also written about re-moralization. How do you do it, once society has been de-moralized?
Not easy, needless to say. I suppose you start with yourself. And then work outward, if you can.
Five years ago, there was an ad in concert programs in New York — programs at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. It ran in the programs for a month or two, as I remember. (I saw it almost nightly, working as a critic.) The ad had the most prominent position, right next to information on the evening’s music and performers.
What was the ad for? A perfume, and it was straightforward porn — soft porn. It showed a pubescent girl, looking about 14, lying naked with the red, swollen lips of her mouth vulgarly parted. It was a sick scene.
This ad was not in Esquire or Cosmo, mind you. It was in program booklets for Manhattan matrons. And it was perfectly normal. No one cared, apparently.
I wrote about the ad every chance I got: in concert reviews, in my column, in blogposts. I did what I could to a) draw attention and b) perhaps embarrass. Did I do any good?
I doubt it — but you can at least cry out as you go, you know? You can still do that, although I await the next Supreme Court ruling.
In the recent campaign, Obama ran a kind of ad called The Life of Julia. “See how President Obama’s policies affect Julia throughout her life.” This was a woman married to the state, in a way. Looked after by the state, and by Barack Obama in particular. She loved Big Brother — or Big Husband, or Big Father. Whatever.
At some point, “Julia decides to have a child.” No mention of a husband. No mention of marriage. “Julia decides to have a child.” Where does the child come from? Whole Foods?
A nation of Julias is a very different nation from the nation we have been — which is really what the current political struggle is about. Or is the struggle over? Has the “Julia” side won, utterly?
On the human scene, there are no permanent victories, I realize — and no permanent defeats. But sometimes it’s hard to see that.
The United States is far from a dictatorship, thank heaven — we’re a glorious liberal democracy — but I still think that what Natan Sharansky says about people under dictatorship may apply. What goes for closed societies, goes for open societies, to a degree. Hear me out for a second.
Sharansky says there are three groups. There are two tiny groups at either end of the spectrum, and the vast middle in between.
The two tiny groups are true believers and dissidents. The true believers are the people who support the ruling party, and are the ruling party. They are ideologues, unshakable. The dissidents, obviously, are people in open opposition to the ruling party. They’re willing to speak their minds, and to go to jail for doing so.
And in the vast middle? People who are keeping their heads down, just getting by — not wanting to cause trouble or to be troubled. They just want to get on with life. The dissidents can give them courage — the courage of their inmost convictions. They may even tip them into action. The people in the middle may say, “You know, those crazy dissidents are right. The way things are in this country — it’s wrong.”
Most people in the world go with the flow. A few people, it seems, change the flow, for better or worse.
I think of a couple of examples in our own country. I have used these examples many times before. One day, in about 1990, I think, Jesse Jackson held a press conference and said, “Henceforward, black Americans will be called ‘African Americans.’” Hours later, the people around me were saying “African American,” though they had never used or even heard that phrase in their lives.
It was stunning. Jackson and his allies changed the culture — a little part of it — on a dime.
How about smoking? In my lifetime, smoking was stigmatized — it was made uncool. And this was long after the surgeon general’s report.
It will never happen with alcohol, of course, and it will probably never happen with porn. Or with adultery or divorce. But smoking was stigmatized and virtually outlawed, short years ago. The remaining smokers are pariahs, out on the sidewalk.
What I’m saying is, culture is a strange and wondrous thing. When “they” — the great “they” who decide the culture — move, all of us move. Weird.
Another thought occurs to me: At the Salzburg Festival, in particular, people will say to me, “Wasn’t that a wonderful production?” (This will refer to an opera production.) I’ll say, “No, actually. I thought it was abominable, a disgrace. It did violence to the score and the libretto. The director hijacked the opera. It made no artistic sense whatsoever.”
They’ll say, “Really? I think so too.”
You see, all they needed to know was that it was okay to stand up to the commissars — not even to stand up to them, merely to disagree with them, in private. They needed to know that it was okay to think what they actually thought. They needed someone to say, “Come on in, the water’s fine.”
People are terrified of being thought uncool, conservative, square, not with-it. Bold others can help them get over their terror.
A lot of people know it’s wrong that junior-high kids are screwing one another. They just need to know that it’s all right to think that — that they are not bad, repressive people.
I have a friend who works for a celebrity. The celebrity often mouths left-wing views. Has all the left-wing attitudes and poses. My friend says, “It’s not that he has come to these views on his own. They were not formed from years of study, thinking, and experience. He’s just impressionable. If it were cool in his circles to be right-wing, that’s what he’d be.”
Shortly after the election, I was talking to my colleague David Pryce-Jones. He was talking about the need to press on — to resist defeatism, to stick with politics, and do your best. For one thing, he said, the world will crowd in on you. You may want to leave politics alone; but politics may not necessarily leave you alone. You may have to fight for your space.
He said he had recently been contacted by a man from the BBC — out of the blue. David had never heard of him. The man said, “I want to talk to you. You’re the only person I’ve ever come across who has the same ideas I do. I dare not open my mouth, where I work.”
Well, said David, there’s one BBC man — and maybe there will be others. And maybe, as their numbers grow, they will feel bolder.
Many of us have had people from “mainstream” organizations “come out” to us. A nice experience.
David also talked about the little magazines that sprouted after the war, when Communism was making strides in the democratic world. These were humane, anti-Communist magazines: Encounter in Britain; Preuves in France; Der Monat in West Germany; Quadrant down in Australia. They made a difference. They were eventually damned as CIA creations, but they still made a difference — they told the truth.
And “think of George Orwell,” said David. Orwell was dying of tuberculosis, but he used the last of his strength to write 1984. That made a difference. It struck a blow, a blow from which Communism and the Left reeled for a long time.
We don’t all have the talent of Orwell (or David Pryce-Jones). But we can do what we can, in our myriad ways. Here a little, there a little, chipping away, defending, advancing where possible. Setting an example. Providing an alternative. Reminding people of the better angels of their nature. Standing for what we regard as true, whether it’s popular or not.
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