by Gerald J. Russello
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.