Magazine | December 3, 2012, Issue

Against the Tide

Notes on the culture and what’s possible











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President Obama ran an ad saying, “Mitt Romney. Not one of us.” That’s putting it pretty bluntly. Nixon used to talk that way, but only privately. “Is he one of us?” I’m not exactly sure who Obama’s us is. But Romney is not one of them. Neither am I, and neither, possibly, are you. In 2004, the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee, John Edwards, went around saying there were “two Americas.” He meant rich and poor. Are there two Americas when it comes to culture and morality? (Scary word, that last one.) It would seem so, yes. And it’s clear which America is on top.

Romney was a man out of his time, in a way. Out of time and out of step. He was a throwback — a conservative businessman who believed in free enterprise, loved his church, gave a ton to charity. He didn’t even drink, poor devil. “The Sixties left no mark on him,” people observed. Some thought this was great, others bad.

Toward the end of the campaign, the New York Times ran a very good article that marveled at Romney’s language. The headline was, “Gosh, Who Talks Like That Now? Romney Does.” For some, the GOP candidate was too square for words. On a morning show, David Axelrod, Obama’s political strategist, said of Romney, “He’s just in a time warp.” After the election, the Washington Post ran a column headed “The Republicans’ 1950s campaign.”

One of Obama’s ads featured an actress named Lena Dunham. It was pitched to young women, and to the hook-up culture they inhabit, and almost everybody inhabits. “Your first time shouldn’t be with just anybody,” said the actress. “You want to do it with a great guy.” She was not talking about a husband. (Don’t mean to shock you.) In a country where this ad succeeds, rather than backfiring, can someone like Mitt Romney be elected? “The culture is a sewer,” I once heard Mark Helprin say. This very morning, I saw an ad on a cab that was frankly, unblushingly pornographic. T. S. Eliot wrote, “Paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space.” He hadn’t seen anything.

Obviously, this question of two Americas — a cultural divide — has been around for years. In 1999, Gertrude Himmelfarb published a book called One Nation, Two Cultures. There is the dominant culture, she said, and a more conservative culture — a “dissident culture,” in her words. The book came out in the wake of the Lewinsky affair, which pitted Bill Clinton versus Ken Starr. There could hardly be two more different Americans. Which one is the nation’s sweetheart? And which one was resoundingly demonized?

“It takes a village,” said Hillary Clinton. “It takes a village to raise a child.” In an important sense, it does. The child is shaped by everything around him, in the home and out. In the mid-1980s, Tipper Gore wrote a book called Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society. Gore and her husband were dabbling in a kind of social conservatism at the time. Frank Zappa and other cool cats mocked and reviled them. The Gores quickly got with the program, dropping the stodgy stuff and rising in the Democratic party.

Who runs the village? What are the forces that shape men and women? Well, we could name education, K through graduate school. The movies. Popular music. Entertainment television. The news media. In all of these areas, the Left holds sway. Where does the Right hold sway? Country music, talk radio, NASCAR — it’s hard to go on.

One brief word about education: The Apgar Foundation is devoted to supporting Western civilization on college campuses. I serve on its board. Often, we’re involved in efforts to establish Great Books programs, or Great Works programs. We want students to have the opportunity to know Locke, Beethoven, and other such folk. You might be shocked at the resistance we get from administrators and faculty. They think it’s all a right-wing plot (which, perversely, it is, in a way). In a speech a few years ago, Bernard Lewis reflected on his own field, Middle East studies, and academia in general. He said we are seeing “a degree of thought control and limitations of freedom of expression without parallel in the Western world since the 18th century, and in some areas longer than that.”

Now and then, young editors and writers at National Review will say to me, “Lighten up — it’s no big deal. Yes, the Left dominates, but we turned out all right. Plus, it’s fun to be embattled. It’s fun to swim against the tide.” The answer is, it’s fun for some — but inconceivable, or at least unattractive, for others. Most people go with the flow. It has probably always been this way, in every time and place. It’s unnatural to come out from the world and be separate. People like to think of themselves as rebels, with or without a cause. Very few are.

#page#One brief word about Hollywood: For as long as most of us can remember, businessmen in movies have been villains. Heroes have been such people as environmental activists. During the recent campaign, the Left used “Bain” as a scare word, a bogey word: “Bain!” (Bain Capital, of course, is the business that Mitt Romney co-founded.) In late December, a new Matt Damon movie will come out. According to reports, it will portray hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as evil. The movie is bankrolled by Gulf Arabs. Fracking would be a boon to American energy, without harm to the environment. But can you fight City Hall? Can you fight Hollywood? Many more people watch Matt Damon movies than bother to learn anything about oil production.

Since Election Day, conservatives have been morose, understandably. Morose and defeatist. “We’ve done our best,” some say. “Let’s just give up — quit politics, 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. Politics follows culture. We’ll cling to our guns and religion, just as Obama said we do.” These conservatives are resigned (for the moment) to being a Remnant. Or to living in a kind of dhimmitude, whereby we’re tolerated by the majority culture, but know our place.

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.” The temptation to drop out — a phrase Weyrich borrowed from Timothy Leary and the gang — may be strong. But for those who want to resist, there are options.

Conservatives can do two things, as far as I can tell: They can make as many inroads as possible into Left bastions; and they can build their own bastions. The day after Election Day, my colleague Mona Charen went on National Public Radio. 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 left the field to the Left? She was right. By what she said, she may have made an inroad — may have reached someone.

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 is 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). 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. Anyway, let’s make it bigger. Let’s have more publications, more TV stations, more charter schools, maybe a movie studio or two. More of everything, more “counter.”

Another colleague of mine, David Pryce-Jones, was talking the other day about the need to press on. The need to resist defeatism, and to counter. He mentioned that he was recently contacted by a man from the BBC. This came out of the blue. 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, there’s one BBC man. Maybe there will be others, and maybe, with numbers, they will feel bolder. Many of us have had people from “mainstream” organizations “come out” to us. A nice experience.

Pryce-Jones also spoke 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 Pryce-Jones: He was dying of tuberculosis, but he used the very 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 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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