conservatives

Claes Ryn (How Conservatives Failed ‘The Culture’) is characteristically forthright about what he sees as conservatism’s main difficulty: its neglect of the imaginative realm of culture and the arts in favor of politics. This emphasis is not only a reversal of traditional conservative priorities but is self-defeating. Ryn’s own work is a testament to what a realistic conservative vision looks like, infused with imagination and an informed understanding of human society. Cultural questions are treated by the Right now as reasons for political engagement and partisan fundraising, as if Hollywood, Broadway, and the TV networks cannot be fought on a purely imaginative basis.

Ryn acknowledges some of the positive attributes of the political conservative movement, including its sincerity and some victories, but the situation has grown only more dire since he wrote this essay 15 years ago. The most popular conservative pundits now write almost exclusively of politics, and the quality of engagement with important questions of culture and imagination has been diluted severely. Bright spots remain – one thinks of the New Criterion, for example, which still seriously engages the arts, but the most important non-liberal source of the reflection Ryn is seeking, the journal Image, is outside the conservative community, for reasons its editor, Gregory Wolfe, explained in his recent collection of pieces from that journal. But his work, critical as it is, only illustrates Ryn’s larger point: the unifying culture that conservatives should have been defending they have let dissolve and have not developed imaginative responses to the current cultural crisis facing the West.

The typical response from conservatives is that politics, and its adjunct law, influence culture and so are properly a conservative focus. I don’t think Ryn disputes that these areas are important, just that they are not the most important. In many ways, the Tea Party is a version of the 1970s and 1980s evangelical resurgence. Although the rise of the Religious Right had some good effects, as a cultural matter are you better off, as the saying goes, thirty years ago than you are today?  The governing political ideology does affect culture, but Ryn is right to argue that it should not determine culture. The historian Christopher Dawson uses the example of the early Christians bursting upon the desiccated Roman world, creating a new order.  This example I think shows both the overwhelming power a unified culture can have, as well as a warning against the temptation to cocoon away from the larger culture.

And yet, and yet. Russell Kirk, whose own work was a conscious attempt to recreate a living conservative tradition, remained hopeful that resurgences were possible. And his lived example remains a counterexample, as does Peter Viereck, when the memory of the political strategists fades away.

If one looks, there are ways to build a vibrant culture for oneself and one’s family, but this is predicated on the same false prophecy if individual self-creation that liberalism has preached; it can ever be only a partial solution. What is lacking when Ryn wrote, and even now, are conservatives who can grapple imaginatively with the new technologies and media to develop a true counter-narrative to secular liberalism.

This is difficult work, more difficult than writing op-eds on the farce of the presidential electoral process, or the Supreme Court nominee guessing-game, but it is the more crucial.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreReprinted with the gracious permission of the author.

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2 replies to this post
  1. I have been a conservative "grappler" using new technologies since 2000. During that time I found that people conscientiously seek internet sites, including communities on Facebook and other social networks, to confirm their own prejudices. The communities become short comment zones for one political opinion after another. The Heritage Foundation is investing a great deal in using the internet to promote conservative thoughts and ideas on culture, security, economics, education, etc. While it is making an important contribution it does not appear to be impacting the culture beyond its mailing list.

    In recent decades there has been one impressive "conservative" cultural victory. Even non-conservative pollster agree that young people have gone from being advocates of abortion to supporters of life. This shift in attitudes has been dramatic and why it happened needs to be studied by conservatives. Why in this area, where the mainstream media and the elites continue to defend and promote abortion, has this shift occurred. There are many contributing factors but at least one is the political decision to focus pro-life activities on the partial birth abortion issue. This coupled with scientific and visual evidence that children in the womb are alive played an important role in changing the tide. And there are many other reasons that can be useful in turning the cultural tide in other areas. If anyone is interested in carrying on this conversation with me just contact me at roth11570@yahoo.com

  2. That is interesting AHR, because that is certainly not the case in Britain, Australia and much of the West I belive. Unfortunately, abortion in these places is as 'popular' as ever. It would be interesting to know the reasons for the divergence.

    The problem with the above piece and that it is a response too is they don't seem to give a proper idea of just what they mean by conservative. I'm a traditional conservative, indeed a traditionalist, and much of what goes by the name conservative, in Britain and America, seems as alien to my perspective as liberalism(indeed it seems to heavily imbibe liberalism.). Whether the likes of Sean Hannity, the Heritage Foundation or Newt Gingrich achieve much seems to mean little from where I'm sitting, they are harldy going to move society and culture in the direction of a truly imaginative, traditional. conservatism.

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