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arts and humanitiesThat leading politicians wield great power nobody will deny. What is not so well understood is how limited that power is. Over time, especially, politicians are superceded by forces largely beyond their control. They must yield to those who mold the fundamental ideas and sensibilities of a people, those who affect their hopes and fears, direct their attention, and select and define the issues of the day.

Society’s long-term evolution is profoundly affected by those who shape the mind and imagination of a people. They set the tone in the arts, the entertainment industry, the publishing houses, the electronic media, the press, and academia. When these are pulling in the same direction, not even a landslide political victor can overcome them. For real and lasting change to be possible, first the culture has to change.

In the following discussion, American and Western civilization will be described, for brevity’s sake, as torn between traditionalists—those who stress humanity’s dependence on the achievements of previous generations—and radicals—those who turn their backs on history and want to realize visions bearing no resemblance to actual human experience. That this is a simplified picture of our predicament hardly needs saying. Human beings do not fall into neat categories. Also, traditionalists, for example, could not hope to preserve the ancient heritage that they claim to cherish without restating and developing it in new circumstances. Indeed, at a time of profound dislocation, attempts to preserve and protect traditional insights and patterns of life may, to those who embrace dominant beliefs and practices, look like radical departures.

The power that may be ultimately decisive in setting society’s direction is found in what will strike many as an unlikely place, in the arts and humanities broadly understood: in the arts—from dramatists, novelists, and movie-makers to composers and painters—and in academic disciplines—from philosophy, history, and English to politics and psychology. In these fields, trendsetters have long been chipping away at the moral and spiritual core of what can loosely be called traditional Western civilization. Hence the basic orientation of our society. Putatively conservative political victories here and there have made little difference to the fundamental trends of Western society.

To take up first the role of intellectuals, consider the late 1960s and early ’70s when the New Left and the counterculture attacked not only the military-industrial complex but all traditional civilization. This rebellion could trace its roots at least as far back as Rousseau. These were the radical children of indulgent liberal parents who had already done their part to undermine traditional beliefs by rejecting moral universality and making abstract, “scientistic” rationality the arbiter of truth. The new campus radicalism soon spread into the larger society, partly through sympathetic coverage in the media.

Because the turbulence on the campuses and elsewhere subsided, many wanted to believe that radicalism was petering out. The opposite was true. The campus radicals and their less radical-looking sympathizers did not disappear. Many of them found permanent, congenial homes in the colleges and universities. They stayed—as faculty. Since their days on the ramparts they have, whether as unreconstructed or somewhat chastened radicals, taught millions of students. They or their students are now senior tenured professors, department chairmen, deans, provosts, and presidents. They sit on curriculum and personnel committees. They select new faculty. They influence the criteria for promotion and tenure. They pass judgment on which books will be published or rejected by university presses, which articles will be published or rejected by academic journals. They have profoundly affected standards of scholarship and truth and even define intelligence. By designing SAT, LSAT, GRE, and other tests, they bias admissions.

People do not inquire deeply into what their children or grandchildren will be taught in college. They are more concerned about the relative prestige of a school. And that ranking, too, is determined by the same trendsetters.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the state of academia is that even those most widely reputed to be the defenders of traditional beliefs are also helping to subvert them. The Straussians, for instance, have long sought to persuade unsuspecting traditionalists that philosophy is incompatible with convention and “the ancestral.” To celebrate the American founding, says Harry Jaffa, is to “celebrate revolution.” America, he asserts, is the “greatest attempt at innovation that human history had recorded.”

The professoriate teach all future professors but also all future high-school, secondary, and elementary schoolteachers. Those entering academia are already acclimated because their high-school teachers tend to mimic the professoriate who taught them. In this way alone, professors in the humanities reach deeply into the popular consciousness. The biases of schoolteachers are all the more effectively inculcated because children are exposed to them outside of school as well. Television programs, movies, and music confirm and embellish the ideological and emotional slant that students absorb during the school day.

Of the old campus radicals who did not stay in academia, a large number gravitated toward communications and entertainment. As TV producers, directors, and editors, they decide what is news and how selected stories should be covered. As scriptwriters, they decide what behaviors to admire and detest, what to take seriously and what to dismiss, what to laugh and not to laugh at. As editors at publishing houses, they decide what subjects are of interest and which books deserve to see print. As critics, they decree what is art and what is not. As songwriters, they set society’s musical beat.

Not all people in the communications, entertainment, and knowledge industries are drawn from the old campus radicalism, but each year for decades whole armies of new graduates, educated by a largely radical professoriate, have invaded these institutions and society in general. The business world and the professions are no exceptions.

Over time, the professoriate has evolved ideas even more radical than those of the 1960s and ’70s. Yet many contend that in the 1980s conservative values finally triumphed in America when Ronald Reagan won two presidential elections in landslides. Now the ascendant neoconservatives tell Americans that their society is in good shape and getting better. They have assigned to the United States the ambitious task of bestowing its enlightened values on the entire world, starting with the Middle East.

To refute the triumph-of-conservatism thesis does not even require going outside of practical politics and economics. During this era of alleged triumph, the federal government expanded by leaps and bounds, while state and local autonomy contracted. The 10th Amendment is a dead letter. Laws that extend government’s control over society continue to pour forth from Washington, and Americans are being asked to become the pliant wards of a national-security superstate. Traditional constitutional restraints are barely operating.

In the six years of the current administration alone, the national debt has doubled and the federal budget has grown by 25 percent. The deficits in the federal budget and in the country’s balance of payments are enormous.

And these are merely the political and economic symptoms of larger moral-spiritual, intellectual, and cultural developments. Have those who keep talking about triumph of conservatism no sense of the decline of education at every level, of private and public morality, of family, and of churches? In the movies, on television, in the press, in music, on videos, in novels, and elsewhere, attitudes and behaviors are portrayed as normal or admirable that would have dismayed virtually everyone just a generation or two ago. The institutions of America’s national culture tolerate or welcome almost any denigration of traditional civilization. They teach those who resist to make their peace with inevitable change. The indefensible can always be defended with reference to freedom of expression or tolerance. Those who resent the radical bullying are afraid to speak out because they know the awesome power of the ruling forces to ridicule, intimidate, and retaliate.

Not even the most skilful politicians could reverse this sustained assault on what remains of traditional Western society, because politicians can only marginally change the imaginative and intellectual momentum that fostered the radicalism in the first place. Over time, Washington’s power is dwarfed by the power of the elites in the arts, communications, entertainment, and publishing—the industry revolving around the Hollywood-New York axis—and the academic circles with which these elites are closely intertwined—what may be called the Boston-Berkeley axis.

Deep down, each society lives by a predominant vision of human existence: what life is like and what it should be. All of us have deeply rooted intuitions and ideas that together constitute our basic outlook on reality, our notion of its dangers and opportunities. We approach the world from within a particular sensibility that gives existence its pace and coloration. In our most private recesses, we form hopes for what life might one day become for us. We live on and for such more or less realistic visions. Though this inner self varies with the circumstances and personalities of individuals, societies evolve a predominant state of mind and imagination. Individuals are connected by an emotional and intellectual substratum that gives them similar aspirations. Whatever this predominant pattern of sensibility and belief, it sets the direction of social life in general and of public debate and practical politics in particular. Politicians who violate this mindset risk their political lives.

Enormous power lies with those who shape the mind and the imagination and make others see life through their eyes. Deep in our personalities are the marks left by the imaginative and intellectual masterminds who create the tenor of an age.

Granted, most people are not exposed to high culture and don’t even want to be. But highbrow culture eventually reaches them in diluted, filtered-down, lowbrow form. The sensibility of seminal works of art and thought are transmitted into the general consciousness through popular movies and novels, soap operas, and the imagery of advertising.

When artists really capture our imagination, they make us see the world as they do. What they present as contemptible we, too, begin to despise. What they convey as admirable and intriguing we want to emulate. D.H. Lawrence wrote, “we live by what we thrill to.” Those who enter deeply into our imaginations make us “thrill” to certain goals, make us want to realize them. They help shape our innermost values and our perception of reality.

Contemporary Western society exhibits deep tensions between what remains of traditional civilization and the spreading counter-culture, which by now has its own traditions. These are tensions not just among people but within particular persons who harbor incompatible dreams and have neurotically divided minds and imaginations. In a crunch, the anti-traditional elites can play upon and mobilize radical prejudices that have gained a foothold within many a self-described conservative.

Conservative intellectuals and activists often have an open or thinly veiled contempt for the arts and humanities. The disdain is only partly due to their thinking that this is where the Left hangs out. Many professed conservatives denigrate the humanities primarily because they believe that they have little practical importance, have little to do with “the real world.” To turn society right, you need to win more elections. They have difficulty understanding why purported political victories are repeatedly nullified, though the values and beliefs of the American people continue to slide in a radical direction.

The greater the conservative neglect of the arts and humanities, the greater the grip of the anti-traditional forces. Conservatives have excused their inattention by telling themselves that the radical dominance of the humanities does not really matter in the long run. Who cares about flaky professors, writers, composers, poets, and artists? What matters is politics and economics. These “realists” do not understand that increasingly politicians and businessmen, as well as the general population, resonate with the sentiments of these “flakes.” Inattention to and disinterest in the humanities reveal a failure to understand what really makes human beings tick. They are themselves signs of precipitous cultural decline.

Traditional civilization is threatened with extinction because pleasing but destructive illusions have become part of the way in which most people view the world and their own lives. The hold on society of those who created and fed these illusions cannot be broken mainly through practical politics.

What is most needed is a reorientation of mind and imagination. The great illusions of our age must be exposed for what they are so that they will start to lose their appeal. This can be done only through art and thought of a different quality.

While the so-called Right worried about so-called practical matters, the Left took control of activities that could help refashion society’s imagination. The Left understood the power of directing the mind. Those who wished to dismantle traditional civilization thought and acted strategically and reaped extraordinary advantages. Having managed to dominate the artistic and intellectual life of Western society, they have had little difficulty keeping supposedly conservative political forces on the defensive, even when the latter ostensibly controlled the government. The countercultural forces have kept the Western world at war with itself.  

Many conservatives seem to believe that artists and intellectuals are naturally and almost inevitably on the Left. If that were so, all efforts to renew traditional civilization would be condemned to failure. But there is nothing inevitable about the radical dominance of the mind and the imagination; these trends since the Enlightenment are in some respects an historical aberration. The radical mindset was created over many years by committed people. People of equal commitment and creativity could dismantle it over many years by unmasking and replacing it with a deeper, more realistic view of life. Radicalism advanced first and foremost by means of a march through the culture. A renewal of American and Western traditions, if one is still possible, could be effected only by another march through the culture. Such a development would require a surge of inspiration springing not from the political and economic periphery but from the moral-spiritual depths.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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12 replies to this post
  1. Thanks to Winston and Claes. Now we're onto the core of it, and as Americans used to say, "we're cooking with gas." If the conservative thrust is limited to tax rates and economic growth, and even liberty and what the enemy call isolationism, we have lost.

    So how do we get from here to there? What is the agenda for recapturing a culture? What are the key alien concepts to be overthrown? A good beginning step may be to see where conservative values have triumphed in the modern arts, attracting mass audiences and money. I'd start with Tolkien, whose popularity seems to have never abated, but for whom there was never a follow-up metaphorical map taking us home to tradition and community, belief, bravery and sacrifice. I'd give a lesser award to George Lucas'es Star Wars films, and not only because Yoda occasionally reminds me of a certain scholar from Planet Mecosta. Westerns, out of fashion, once did it too. The strategic essence here may be that a work of conservative art must start anew and not presuppose any audience knowledge of or sympathy with the Permanent Things as such, but knowing that a powerful current of myth and values courses deep within most people.

    Brad? Winston? John? Barbara? The rest of us? If TIC cannot move this forward at least in terms of diagnosis and prescription, then who the hell can?

    Stephen Masty

  2. Thank you, Claes, for your thoughtful and lucid essay on the need to renew the culture. I share your concern, and for that reason have reincorporated my work under the banner of The Center for Cultural Renewal. I am in the process of seeking out the exceptions — the poets, painters, playwrights, Hollywood script writers, songwriters, and novelists who are creating works that point one toward the True, the Good and the Beautiful. As we all know, they are few and far between. But they do exist.

    I am thinking of the luminous novels and paintings of Michael O'Brien, for example, or the imaginative lyrics and music of Over the Rhine, or the poetry of Luci Shaw and B.H. Fairfield. In Hollywood Barb Nicolosi Harrington is teaching scores of young writers enrolled in Act One the craft of great script writing, while infusing it with uplifting (but not saccharine) content. Brad Winters is writing taut scripts for major television shows in New York, where he has put reflective soliloquies into the mouths of convicts. Makoto Fujimara is painting in New York and fostering a group of Christian artists. There are others as well, many of whom converge in the summer through the Glen Workshops, organized by Greg Wolfe of "Image," a journal of arts now twenty years old. (See http://www.imagejournal.org) I commend these efforts to you, and will report in more detail soon.

  3. This is for our younger readers and contributors, who may not yet have met the brilliant and courageous Cleas Ryn. His most recent book, one of those I called "unshakable books" some years ago, is one you all should read. It is "America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire." Dr. Ryn has the courage to stand, in print and in person, before neocons and other members of the War Party and expose them as people of what C.S. Lewis called "hollow chests." Like Russell Kirk he calls for the great tradition of the humanities to coax us back to the true measure of republican government. He understands that the moral imagination is prior to politics. I hope that he will continue to grace us on this site with his presence and moral force.

  4. Would that these most obvious of facts permeate the minds and hearts of the politically obsessed on the right. When I first started thinking along these lines after the 2006 election there were not many who realized we should do more regarding culture than just complain. But even though there are many now on the right who acknowledge the power of culture to shape the minds and hearts of the public, there are very few actually doing anything about it. Given that political obsession has a 50 year head start this shouldn’t surprise us.

    And what does that obsession consist of? Lots and lots of money and lots and lots of time dedicated to thinking, writing, and acting in the political and economic arena. There are not many think tanks dedicated to cultural pursuits, but there are political and economic think tanks in every state in the union, not to mention the behemoths like Heritage and AEI in DC.

    That’s why we started a cultural think tank called The Culture Alliance. Maybe “think tank” isn’t the best model for really engaging culture, but it’s one the politically obsessed with money can relate to, and without money nothing happens. TCA has bounced along in fits and starts these last couple years, but I am convinced that sooner or later our vision and mission, obviously shared by those at TIC, will catch on with an increasing number of people who fear for our country’s future.

    What is that vision and mission? Dr. Ryn writes about we call the “Cultural Influence Professions,” (or CIPs) because these professions obviously have a profound and lasting influence on American culture, because they influence the American people. Without a broadly conservative strategic engagement *in* the CIPs American culture and society will continue to “progress” just like the secular left wants. There are many ways to do this (Barbara gives us excellent examples), but unless we have an increasing number of conservatives (and others who embrace and appreciate the traditions and values that made America great) actually working in these professions not much is going to change.

    This is a generational battle, and it cannot succeed by isolated individuals flailing away with no overarching purpose and support. It has to come from a network and community of people with passion for the same goals. It’s going to take some of the hundreds of millions of dollars that go toward political advocacy to support these efforts. And it’s going to take promoting a vision of cultural renewal in our families and to our young people, and that this renewal will only come from *within* those professions Dr. Ryn writes about.

  5. Dr. Ryn,

    A most insightful and tactful essay. Indeed, and to put it less tactfully, the station of most in life is that of suggestibility. As such, they cannot help but be wholly prisoner to the zeitgeist. It is the duty of those that can actually think to craft a thought-world for them that is both wholesome and serves their fundamental interests.

    You wrote:

    "The hold on society of those who created and fed these illusions cannot be broken mainly through practical politics.

    […]

    A renewal of American and Western traditions, if one is still possible, could be effected only by another march through the culture."

    The time is well nigh when all euphemism, whether intentional or not, must be cast aside. If the blood-peoples of Europe and her diaspora are not preserved then "the West" according to any reasonable definition will perish along with them. There is a demographic window in which the reclamation of our destiny can be affected and it is quickly closing. Our people are entitled to live sovereign and free in their own lands. In short, they are entitled to their very existence. And correspondingly, what means we use so that we may remain forever who we are, we are entitled to.

    What man who does not wish to see a Final end put to the European peoples could deny it?

  6. Prof Ryn writes, "For real and lasting change to be possible, first the culture has to change." This is something I've been saying to anyone, who will bother to listen to a poor, working stiff like me, for years. It is also why I lend what effort I can to Mike D'Virgilio to make the Culture Alliance a reality. If we are not affecting the Cultural Influence Professions (CIPs) all the political victories in the world are nothing but a rear-guard action against an ever expanding Nanny State. As much as I support AEI, Heritage and other politically-oriented conservative think tanks, if judged by results (reducing Washington D.C.'s size and scope, and establishing smaller, limited government), their effort must be judged a failure.

    I have solid conservative friends who continue to believe that a quality university education will only be found at an Ivy League school, or that Hollywood and New York only care about money. At the same time these folks attend every Tea Party rally they can. They sign petitions, send money, write letters, and make phone calls to politicians in D.C. and their local government offices. Over and over and over again they engage in these actions, effectively pounding their heads against the wall of party politics, and wonder why nothing changes.

    Nothing changes because the CIPs are dominated, by the radicals Prof Ryn describes above, people who believe conservatism results from a psychological imbalance (do not be shocked in a decade or so if conservatism is an entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly referred to as the DSM-IV).

    In America there is a single locus of Power, but there are two poles of Influence. That locus of Power, Washington D.C., is driven by what emanates from the poles of Influence, New York and Hollywood. If those poles are not re-oriented such that American culture once again promotes faith, liberty, and personal responsibility, which is nothing more than another way to describe what Dennis Prager calls the "American Trinity," all the political action in the world, as noble and well-meaning as it may be, will be futile.

    On every bit of currency floating around this great country is, "In God We Trust," "Liberty" and "Et Pluribus Unum." There are workers in the fields, engaging the Cultural Influence Professions – people like Andrew Klavan, Vince Flynn, Brad Thor, Dean Koontz, visual artist Steve Penley, Prof. Brad Birzer, Jon Voight, and handfulls of others. Not only must their work be supported, but we must be encouraging the next generation that embraces the American Trinity to follow these folks. That is what I want to do, and that is what the Culture Alliance wants to do, support those laborers already working the fields, and encourage others to join them.

  7. Mr Crandall is surely right to encourage our consumption of good books and our patronage of good authors. Yet I wonder if America's cultural Poles (LA, NYC) are poles anymore. Winston just appeared on a rather splendid nationwide radio talk show (linked on TIC) broadcast from some place in Louisiana of which I never heard. People repulsed or bored by Vegas bus off to somewhere called Branson, Mo. while the market share of the big networks plummets and video hits are made in some 17-year-old's garage on a thousand bucks worth of kit. When I wrote a docco on Reagan 30 years ago and they edited it in Hollyweird, the machine that made subtitles cost $1m – now they give them away with a tank of gas. Technology allows conservatives to 'do a blitzkreig' around the enemy's cultural fortresses, all that is needed now is good ideas and good production values – no need to peddle a conservative script to a leftist commissioning editor. Anyone wishing to commission and print or broadcast good works of art can do so cheaply if he takes his eyes off megamillion-dollar feature film budgets and looks in his garage. The amazing thing for people such as we (except that we tend to be technophobes) is that technology is already breaking Behemoth Media into virtual – Glory Be! – communities! TIC is one of them, and part of a larger bunch of communities. The implications and opportunities are enormous, but the onus is upon us.

    Stephen Masty

  8. The things that Stephan talks about are happening, and no doubt that the power of the axis is diminished some, but New York and LA will always exert tremendous cultural influence, and we kid ourselves if we think otherwise. That is why these entertainment and media/publishing centers need to be penetrated by right minded people.

    And in education the need is as great or greater. Almost 60 million American children are educated every day in public and private schools, and almost all are getting the bilge of statism inculcated into them. And the millions of kids that attend our colleges and universities are not getting taught what my daughter is getting taught at Hillsdale. As long as the left dominates education the uphill climb to cultural renewal might as well be Everest.

  9. Without knowing the exact numbers, I'm confident enough to bet a fair amount of money (and I don't have that much disposable income) that the numbers of people visiting Las Vegas dwarfs the numbers visiting Branson. Yes, technology exists that allows people to bypass the Hollywood & New York production machines. But how much noise do those projects make versus the cacophony coming from, for example, Broadway's Spider-Man production or the latest films appearing at your local mega-plex?

    Mr. Masty is right to applaud those who bear down and create projects before the, as he calls them, "leftist commissioning editor[s]" come calling. But Mr. Masty is fooling himself if we can all just sit back and expect Branson, MO, or some self-published podcast is going to counter the Left-wing dominated Entertainment-Industrial Complex feeding the Cultural Influence Professions in America today.

    Thinking that we don't have to worry is, at best, naive. Did the Marxists who made up the Frankfurt School, which came to dominate Columbia University sit back and wait for a writer here, a teacher there, and an artist over there to bring the Communist message to America? No, absolutely not. They thought and worked strategically to spread their Marxist message of class warfare, and history as destiny through the cultural apparatuses.

    I fail to comprehend conservatives who think the American Trinity, "In God We Trust," "Liberty," and "Out of Many, One" will simply be absorbed by the populace, as if by magic.

    I'm not dismissing the efforts of those few writers, artists, teachers, journalists, and filmmakers who appreciate America's foundational values. But liberty and personal responsibility loving Americans must provide the same, if not more, support to these folks and the numerous others, required to reform the culture, as is provided to organizations like AEI, Heritage, CATO and the almost countless others who think all that matters happens in Washington D.C. (and whose efforts, when it comes to public policy and politics, when judged by results are out and out failures).

  10. Gentlemen, profound apologies if I implied that we need neither work nor worry, nor that existing efforts are sufficient. I meant that technology has opened a door. Producing good new things, then demonstrating audience-appeal through new and inexpensive media, may be the fastest way to breach the enemy barricades because the enemy love money even more than they love ideology. As for the politically-obsessed so-called conservatives, 'fuggeddabouddit' – most wouldn't know culture if you spilled it into their Petrie dish and the same for the Babbitts (Sinclair Lewis, not Irving) and right-wing, self-made, ' butter-and-egg-men'. These poor slobs get dragged off by their fat wives once a year to see 'Oklahoma' at the Kennedy Center and they think it's Monteverdi. New siege engines (technology), armed with new projectiles (real art with real values), will attract new financing, I believe.

    Stephen Masty

  11. I am heavily indebted to Claes Ryn's and Irving Babbitt's thought and example, and I agree with what both have said about the importance of the imagination, that what we imagine matters at least as much as what we think or reason.

    But, I still feel as if there is an important element missing or under-emphasized here and in some of the comments. I get the sense that there is an attempt to replace legislation by politics with legislation by art, that by a proliferation of morally substantial art crafted by an elite, a certain kind of imagination can be jammed through the collective psyche and that this will, in turn, bring about a saner form of politics.

    If it is true, as I also believe, that "we live by what we thrill to", I am doubtful that this can be willed in quite so conscious a manner. I have a form of society in mind, for example, a liberal, constitutional republic a la Ron Paul, and now I am made aware that this requires a particular kind of imagination, so I go about "backing" this or that form of art that I believe is associated with this kind of society.

    For people like Ryn and the other commenters, I am sure you have no interest in debasing art in such a fashion or reducing it to such a role, but I cannot help but feel that this is the direction the argument is running in. We will try to 'legislate' within our own individual souls what art (music is the form I primarily have in mind) we will thrill to, and I cannot see how this is possible.

    I don't think that we can attribute the state of society primarily to our failure to understand the link between imagination and action. We had centuries (I take it) of relatively 'moral' music–certainly nothing like rap music–and yet here we are today. What came loose? I, for one, believe that we are not in a political crisis as much as we are in a civilizational crisis being played out every day on radios and i{ads and that there is no musical form past or present fit to address it. I cannot imagine a civilization that can run without poetry, but ours seems to be doing everything it can to do so, and the kids are filling in the gaps with rap music. My sense of the sentiment expressed above by Ryn and others is that there is a desire to somehow reverse this tsunami (if you will) through the efforts of "high culture", almost as if the antidote to Tupac were simply Bach. I can only say I think that there is something more profound going on, and we may not have the ability to manipulate its outcome either with legislation or art as tools used to so specific an end as political or social reform.

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