Phi Beta Cons

Rabid Culture Warriors, Those Conservatives

Here is an article in The New Republic by Rick Perlstein entitled “What Is Conservative Culture? Mass Martyr.” It has two points to make. One is that the grounds of conservative culture come not from Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke, and other thinkers and intellectuals, but rather a “performance culture” that began in the Cold War Fifties and ended up shaping American politics in the post-Cold War. The other is that this culture is profoundly hypocritical in that it casts itself as beleaguered and shunned, but is in truth “so dominant that one can live entirely within it.”
Where to begin? First, Perlstein’s examples of conservative performance:

“An illustration popular among college conservatives in the 1960s: a peace symbol-shaped B-52 bomber with the words drop it on the wings”;
“the John Birch Society meetings in suburban parlors nationwide, in which chapters no bigger than two dozen members–a cell structure ostensibly to prevent Red infiltration but that, as it happened, was also the ideal size for a cocktail party–plotted how to forestall the Communist takeover of the PTAs by taking them over first. “I just don’t have time for anything,” a Dallas housewife told Time in 1961. ‘I’m fighting Communism three nights a week.’” 

There are other, similarly off-beat examples that are supposed to stand as representative of conservative thought. But why multiply caricatures?
What is more misleading is the idea that conservatism is “dominant” in the culture worlds. Is there any way to construe the leaders and influential voices in the following culture worlds as ideologically conservative?

  • the art world
  • museums
  • libraries
  • K-12 education
  • higher education
  • television and film

There are other, smaller realms to list (hip-hop, malls, etc.). But Perlstein would probably claim that, for instance, malls are a free-market zone entirely in accord with conservative economic freedoms, not recognizing a difference between, on one hand, cultural values and effects, and, on the other, economic behaviors. He makes a related confusion in a later statement:
“The liberal colossus is somehow still just as colossal [to conservatives], despite the fact that Republicans have controlled Congress and the White House and shifted the news media’s center of gravity to the right for several years.”
Needless to say, politics is one thing, culture another. For a conservative to flip on the television and find liberal ideology flooding his living room is no less significant if a Republican sits in the White House.

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