The Next Battles in the Culture War
by Herbert I. London
In Slouching Towards Gomorrah, Judge Robert Bork makes the claim that “Decline runs across our entire culture.” Having described a book-burning at Yale, Bork concludes with the comment, “The charred books on the sidewalk in New Haven were a metaphor, a symbol of the coming torching of America’s intellectual and moral capital by the barbarians of modern liberalism.” Alas, the barbarians are at the gates, and, despite an occasional cultural victory by the Right, any realistic assessment of American cultural life today must acknowledge that the Left has utterly triumphed in the kulturkampf.
Writing in the pages of the Village Voice, Richard Goldstein contends, “The Culture War is Over! We Won!” There is no question about the “we” to whom he refers. As Goldstein notes, “. . . in the other America . . . the nation of home entertainment centers—the Republicans have no legs. Their rolling attacks on Hollywood and gangsta rap, their crusade against the evil empires of Levin and Eisner, . . . their jeremiads against Jenny Jones, have all but fallen on deaf ears.”
Among spokesmen for conservatives and for liberals, on one point there is consensus: the Left has won the culture war. A 1960s generation weaned on polymorphous perversity is different from its ancestors. Believing that the self is the measure of all meaning and the arbiter of what is right, the 1960s generation arrived at adulthood worshipping the great demiurge solipsism. In its rejection of tradition, of all that came before, this generation assumed a societal tabula rasa that could be imprinted with self-expression. In this so-called postmodern period, what I feel or think is all that counts; “responsibility” and “duty” are obsolete words from an increasingly anachronistic age.
Against this backdrop of unbridled self-expression is a technological revolution in which everyone is encouraged to express himself without restraint. Thus the virtual superhighway leads directly to the Tower of Babel. Standards are impossible when radical egalitarianism demands that everyone be heard and the contemporary statues of Daedalus give every voice amplification. Amid the din, taste and probity are drowned out. A cultural Gresham’s Law is at work: the tasteless drives the tasteful out of existence. If this statement seems exaggerated, compare the popularity of gangsta rap with the financial struggles of most symphony orchestras.
Even the institutions that once stood as guardians of the good, true, and beautiful have succumbed to the baneful influence of popular taste. A recent poll of twenty-two major colleges and universities revealed that thirteen English departments have dropped their “great books” requirement. Shakespeare has been downgraded in the contemporary curriculum. Beginning with the class of 1999, English majors at Georgetown University will not be required to study Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer.
Compounding these egregious decisions are the many examples of conservative newspapers stolen or destroyed by those who dislike their arguments. At the University of Pennsylvania, University of Texas, and George Washington University, student newspapers have been stolen, with scarcely a murmur from the administrations. These targeted raids on conservative student newspapers violate the very intellectual standards a university should seek to protect and preserve.
When the university is in thrall to the symbolic and ephemeral and the chattering classes deny freedom to those with views in disfavor, there can be little doubt that a seismic cultural shift has been wrought. Relativism is the handmaiden of complacency with any belief system, and vitiating standards has been the catalyst for the dumbing down of American students. If students rarely read good books, how will they know what is good? If they are told that truth is an illusion designed to reinforce the status quo, why should they pursue truth, and if they are led to believe that beauty is only in the eye of the beholder, why should they accept the judgment of the past?
The modern museum, presumptively the repository of cultural artifacts that should be preserved, has become a center for the storage of detritus. Instead of offering what may be uplifting, the modern museum provides a menu of the shocking, degrading, and politically correct, and its myrmidons defend its shows as manifestations of “anti-art” or as a critique of bourgeois sensibility. Curators don’t defend shows as another form of beauty, but as intentionally ugly and deformative.
Similarly, language has slid down the rabbit hole of deconstruction. Words are now whatever you want them to mean, and every form of language, even the most crude, has bubbled out of the cauldron of democratization. Coarse language has been accompanied by coarse behavior, its natural outcome. As a consequence, manners have been relegated to the ash heap of a bygone age.
This litany of cultural deterioration merely confirms that the culture war is over for the time being, and that refinement, taste, and aesthetics are missing in action. For those who lament this outcome, little in the way of solace is available. Judge Bork, for one, says that we should hope for the best, but he prescribes precious little besides hope.
Suppose, however, that the ambiance of freedom, converted by radicals into license, were to be turned into a cultural instrument for rejuvenation. In Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Fahrenheit 451, a group of outcasts defeated in a culture war retain a sense of the worthy by assigning to memory every one of the classic texts. They form a community of moral archivists, with each person assuming responsibility for memorizing a text. In this way, they prevent the book burners from destroying the notable culture of the past.
It seems to me that the Bradbury approach has much to recommend it. With Shakespeare increasingly out of fashion at college campuses, Dante replaced on Stanford’s classic reading list by an Ecuadorian indigene, and Milton and Chaucer denigrated as irrelevant, dead, white, European males, the time may be swiftly approaching when reading the classics of Western civilization will be an act of rebellion, a guerrilla action in the remaining years of the culture war.
The museums, colleges, films, magazines, newspapers, television, radio, book publishers, and music companies have already been conquered by the radical sensibility. There is no sense in discussing containment or rollbacks, nor is there any point in taking much satisfaction from a Rush Limbaugh, Apollo 13, or other occasional nod to conservatism. I am chary of using Trotskyite language, but it is a counterrevolution I am calling for, based on “parallel structures.”
Traditionalists are inept at engaging their adversary in the culture war, conservatives with money and power are too often coopted by media panjandrums, and most conservatives are unwilling or unable to recognize the influence of culture on politics. Thus traditional viewpoints in the media have been easily supplanted by radicalism during the past four decades. A direct assault on cultural pollution is therefore unlikely to succeed. For those who determine programming, a moment of retreat today is worth a dramatic lunge forward sometime in the future. Thus there is a growing recognition that the virtuecrats (this is not a term of derision) do not have staying power. Surely any cultural influence they do have pales before the growing market for the hedonistic, violent, and pornographic. In Antonio Gramsci’s terms, the Left has captured the culture.
As with any prisoner of war, cultural traditionalists do not have many options. One can leave this nation, but there are few places inoculated against American popular culture. One can surrender, but this is acceptable only for those who do not understand culture. One can fight back, but the odds against success are formidable.
What can be done—in my judgment—is somewhere between retreat and resistance. I call it an oasis strategy.
In some respects the oasis strategy recreates the approach of Gramsci’s progeny who “infiltrated” institutions until their numbers represented a critical mass. At universities, for example, most committees are dominated by former student activists who are now tenured. Although their activism has diminished with age, the radical sensibility still shapes their decisions.
In this cultural desert, those with a traditionalist stance must assert it in modest but meaningful ways. A museum should be devoted to the best that has been achieved in artistic forms. By the “best” I am referring to that which is spiritually enriching, aesthetically pleasing, and technically uncompromised. A college should be established without any concessions to the zeitgeist, where students would meet rigorous requirements without electives, read the great works of our civilization, be literate in two foreign languages, have numerical skill, and be familiar with scientific laws and methods. A radio station should be organized to play great music from shows, operas, and classical recordings, disregarding popular music and vacuous palaver. A film company should be designed around family entertainment that neither patronizes nor deprecates the human experience. These films will not indulge the vulgar with coarse language, but instead teach and edify through great storytelling and inspiring myth.
Wherever there are openings, traditionalists should try to advance their agenda by “leavening” institutions now dominated by the Left. For example, if affirmative action judgments militate against fair play and the pursuit of excellence, these arguments should be emphasized and perhaps fictionalized into film and television programs. How can a society with our legacy resist appeals to fair play?
As cultural consumers, traditionalists should shun the bad and embrace the good, noting—for those who care—what is meant by the true, good, and beautiful. When there is a sound adaptation of a Henry James novel into film, one that avoids the gratuitous sex and vulgarity James himself would have deplored, traditionalists should go out of their way to praise it as a hopeful cultural indicator.
There are many other possible illustrations. My point is that where edifying cultural items exist—and there are already several examples—they must be cherished as the traditional response to cultural degradation. Just as Bradbury’s characters roamed the forest primeval reciting their assigned books, traditionalists must resist sensate culture within the oasis where their culture flourishes. Traditionalists should be immune to the charge that these institutions are elitist. Affirmative action and radical egalitarianism have no place in the oases; these are institutions where merit and excellence count and are rewarded.
The best response to a degrading culture is its opposite, forcefully defended within a psychological island of like-minded adherents. Occasionally, unlikely visitors may find succor in the oasis—and may even be converted. But the most likely scenario is that the traditional cultural oases will remain isolated and bereft of widespread support. A lack of popular support, however, does not suggest a lack of moral victories. As long as there remain a few hardy souls who recognize greatness, all is not lost. Being the last defenders of a superior culture is an admirable calling to which some noble people will unquestionably respond. Now we must build the institutions to which they can gravitate.
Popular culture doesn’t need traditionalists. In fact it doesn’t want us. Our duty, then, is to cultivate our own little gardens, rejecting what is demeaning and restoring what is uplifting. It won’t be easy, but it is certainly better than merely hoping for the best.