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How should a conservative interact with popular culture? We live in a time when popular music mocks religion, prime time television depicts homosexual relations and multi-generational groupings as “the new normal,” films depict literal orgies of gory sadism, and all promote narcissistic nihilism with a snarky self-confidence expressed in gutter language. How should we respond in our daily lives?

A morally valid response would be open rejection. One of the more famous stories about Russell Kirk is that he found one of his children had smuggled a television set into his home and literally tossed it out the window, where it hung by its cord for some time. The story generally garners appreciative laughs—including, no matter how often I hear it, from me. And such gestures have value. But the television has become a rather important tool in our society (as has, of course, the computer). What is more, we cannot escape mass culture by simply turning it off. Perhaps most important, our newspapers and news sites are active propagandists for popular culture. Newspaper “lifestyle” sections laud the latest trends in shallow self-indulgence as the “news” sections tell us that only fools and bigots fail to share the liberal mindset. Even the much-lauded Fox news pushes sex advice and cultural dreck under the name of “celebrity news” on its website.

What should we do, then? Simply ignore the bad guys, turn off the television and the internet, stop the newspaper subscription and lead purer, better lives? I have been so tempted and, after I stopped working in Washington some years back, took a determined, year-long vacation from the news. When I came back to it, slowly and carefully, nothing much had changed. But I did come back to it, in part because I remembered my brief stint in the first (George H.W.) Bush Administration. We all were convinced that Clinton could not win. And one of the reasons for that foolish confidence (or acquiescence—few of my friends were terribly happy with our empty-chair-in-chief) stemmed from selective reading. Once or twice a day staff would receive “the clips” from the newspapers—actually, mostly the Washington Times. And, just as with this last election, the Republican Party echo chamber assured us that all would be well. I do not often read newspapers today. But I do keep tabs on them—from the smug utilitarianism of the Wall Street Journal to the smug solipsism of the New York Times—reading some stories and scanning more in order to have an idea of what new silliness is becoming the conventional wisdom of the major parties that seem to rule our public life.

Scholars and those in religious orders may be able, if they wish, to ignore their society’s popular sewage, but it is a dangerous stance, even for them. Eventually Kirk himself allowed a television to find a permanent home in his basement (largely for the purpose of watching videos relevant to his work), though that medium never gained him as an audience member.

My friend and fellow contributor to The Imaginative Conservative, Peter Lawler, seems to take a different view of popular culture from Kirk’s. He urges us to “watch more TV.” Of course, this is Peter’s sardonic way of introducing his highly critical analysis of some of the most vapid, pseudo-lifestyle viewing (“Girls”) on offer. I have been known to watch a fair amount of garbage myself (gothic horror movies are a favorite) and thoroughly enjoy analyzing the heresies and other forms of social abnormity on display, even as I find them somewhat enlightening in regard to the sorry state of our culture. But we should not forget that this is the pastime of the intellectual. It is not that most people are not “smart enough” to take apart the ideologies wrapped up in popular entertainment. But most people do not analyze social institutions, beliefs, and practices for a living, so it would not be a job-related pastime for them. At least as important, most people have kids and need to be concerned about the intellectual (as well as spiritual and moral) atmosphere in their homes. And all of us need to be worried about the intellectual, spiritual, and moral atmosphere in our own heads.

When I found out that my 13 year-old daughter had a song by “Linkin Park” on her iPod and told her that song was going to be deleted and her means of getting songs for that device were being substantially altered, her response was “but I do not listen to the lyrics.” My reply was instinctive: “yes, but you still hear them.” That “Linkin Park” is a group of twits should be obvious from their name—yet another bit of reverse snobbery, with its intentional misspelling intended to seem “urban.” The lyrics are that mix of self-indulgent anger and shallow nihilism, expressed in vulgar language, so common in the suburban “alternative” mainstream that has come to dominate popular music in the post-rap age.

I was quite shocked to find that my daughter had such garbage on her device—a device it took years for her, with much help, to get me to buy for her, even though “all her friends had one.” My daughter, who has had an exclusively parochial education, opined on seeing a girl at camp wearing typically trashy modern clothes that “you can tell she does not go to a Catholic school.” She zealously censors her 11 year-old brother’s entertainment for the slightest deviation from moral cleanliness, vetoing songs and shows I would have let pass. But she is a child of the computer age, so I was wrong (and lazy) to think that her general good character, her taste for Christian music, and her hearing my music at home (classical, jazz, progressive) would keep her from hearing mind-numbing garbage. As to her “not listening to the lyrics,” this is where the real danger lies. Too many of us believe that we can enjoy bits of mass culture while rejecting the rest—even enjoying the (truly awful) music of Linkin Park without being corrupted by the even worse lyrics.

The lesson I, at least, take from this is that being a decent, conservative parent requires vigilance, not just early on, but as one’s children approach the dreaded teen years. This is why I understand people who want to simply tune out all of popular culture. When I stay at hotels I occasionally watch television, and am always shocked at what is allowed to be broadcast to children, often in their prime, after school, viewing hours. One blessing we have found is that, if you raise your children from an early age on only DVDs they become so thoroughly intolerant of commercial interruptions (if not of their retched content) that they have no desire to watch commercial television. But the appetite for entertainment remains, and if you get a service like Netflix you have the same problem as with cable—garbage mixed up with the not-garbage, and even promoted as a kind of “public service.”

My intention is not to provide a detailed “how to” guide for raising children in the Age of Dreck. I have not earned that right. But it is important to note that children will be exposed to our popular culture and that both children and adults often wrongly assume that they can hear or see without being affected by it. Once, after listening to the public radio news broadcast for too many days in a row (long commute) I remember thinking its reporting on a particular issue was accurate. Then I stopped, recalled how many strange stories and bits of loaded language I had been hearing, and got myself a new batch of books on tape.

My point is simply this: popular culture is the smog in which we must live at least part of our lives. We have no choice but to face it, now and again, if only to keep track of where it will strike next. But it must be approached gingerly, and in small doses, lest we begin to think it normal. Some of what is popular also is good. But one’s judgment, like one’s character, requires constant maintenance. And this I do know: the best way to protect oneself and one’s children from cultural garbage is to keep everyone engaged with cultural beauty—good music, good books, and activities that uplift, not by preaching, but by exposing us to beauty, virtue, and all the gifts of the moral imagination. As with so much else, then, the enemies are pride (the notion that “it will not affect me”) and laziness. Idle hands, and idle minds, truly are the devil’s workshop.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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16 replies to this post
  1. Thank you Bruce! This is much needed advice for me, something I've always struggled with. It's terribly hard to be a young person and at the same time be at polar odds with Pop Culture. It has my generation under a spell. I've always been at war with it and see myself as a cultural foot soldier for my faith. It's also my way of self preserving my philosophy and not fall under "the spell." I try to let some of it in, but it's not easy. Fr Robert Barron who leads the New Evangelization from Word on Fire says we can't live in the cave, so I'm trying, but the smut it puts out just brings out the worst in me. Thanks again.

    Justin

  2. I find that in conservative circles there's usually a good deal of doublethink regarding culture. On the one hand, there's the complaining that everything produced post-1960 is trash, yet on the other hand, conservatives scrounge through pop culture, desperately reading conservatism into it. I can't tell you how many times pseudo-news sites like PJMedia and Breitbart run articles praising the "hidden conservative message" in recent movies and television shows, sometimes even recent video games. Twilight becomes a fable on the importance of abstinence, the Hunger Games, a polemic against the Obama administration's executive overreach. The Dark Knight becomes a defense of the Bush administration's invasive surveillance policies. The entire Modern Warfare & Battlefield series become hymns to America's military. Every action movie becomes an advertisement for gun ownership, every police procedural a lesson in the importance of tough-on-crime policies.

    It's become a bromide among conservatives to say, "we must remember that politics is downstream of culture!!" but we still act as if the reverse were true. we analyze culture in terms of politics, we treat all art as propaganda. I remember in particular one truly awful article on Breitbart where local madman Kurt Schlicter was going on about the evils of being a nerd– but made an exception for Star Trek, because, you see, Star Trek teaches us about the necessity of violence, and its fans all grow up to be engineers. You see, kids? it's okay to be a nerd, as long as being a nerd means you vote for Bush or help us win the trade war with China.

    furthermore, this attitude of "high art good, pop culture bad" amounts to a refusal to admit that art is just as much a folk phenomenon as an academic one. to treat virtuosity as the only standard, to treat art as a matter of pure skill and ignore the value of "three chords and the truth"– it reduces art to athletic competition. Who can paint the most photorealistic picture? who can play the most notes-per-minute? who's got the biggest vocabulary?

    Mr. Frohnen in particular is committing a subtle leap of logic, equating classicism with conservatism. in other words, assuming that everything we consider "high culture" must necessarily contain a message in line with contemporary conservatism. He states in his introduction that the art he so loathes mocks religion, normalizes homosexuality, is filled with violence, and promote "narcissistic nihilism." In his conclusion he states that the cure for this is to be "engaged in cultural beauty."

    In doing so he sets up a false dichotomy: "things that offend conservative sensibilities" versus "cultural beauty". This is absurd on its face. much of what we remember as high art contains messages that today's conservatives would call unabashedly leftist: Voltaire's attacks on religion, Steinbeck's attacks on the wealthy, Twain's attacks on mindless patriotism. To the modern ear, Igor Stranvinsky's The Rite of Spring sounds like just another orchestral piece. But to audiences in 1913, it was brutal, savage, chaotic, offensive, and the ballet that accompanied it, disgustingly libertine.

    Chances are that any classical art, music, or literature that you enjoy was loved by the liberals of the era in which it was produced, and hated by the conservatives of that same era. "conservatives taking back the culture" might just be an intrinsically self-contradictory goal.

  3. Thank you for this. There are several subjects you touch on that particularly hit home with me. I too have encountered those that will counter every mention of bad television with a declaration of their abstinence, and one doesn't like to argue with a prohibitionist. But prohibition is a tricky solution, and more imperfect than its proponents want to admit. Besides marginalizing us more and more from those around us, eschewing television hardly matters since there are cultural meta-messages through other media — music, slanted news, advertisements — and so the question is still the same.

    And the question is, how do you save the culture from itself? In pandering to the lowest tastes, those who produce pop culture are creating a generation less and less able to practice critical thinking, let alone self-restraint or moral discernment. I like the advice to increase the exposure to better art, literature and music. I have also heard advice to become a culture *creator* (even if it's only on a very small scale) rather than just being a culture *consumer*.

    I do wonder where we're headed, and what can be done to delay the inevitable train wreck. Conservatism in this country is increasingly embattled and asked to account for itself (witness the comment above) while the liberal narrative is put forth as what all enlightened, right-minded people want. Until we can find a way again to gain respect and be heard, I don't know what we can do to alter things, other than just be here and not be afraid to call things as we see them.

  4. Justin —
    FWIW, I know exactly how you feel — I'll bet a lot of people here do. I had the same problem growing up in the '60s and '70s. By comparison now, that stuff all seems much less awful. But it didn't feel less awful at the time. Every day seemed to bring new offenses and new shocks. I had to just pick my battles and settle for being regarded as the oddball in college classes. But in the long run, keeping your sanity and your integrity is worth all the hassles.

  5. The problem with your comments James is they take no account of most of the distinctions in the debate and to not really attempt to get at the real issue. You carelessly throw together the comments of those on Breitbart's website with Bruce and the opinions of TIC.

    You make no attempt to truly draw the boundaries between the aesthetic and the moral aspects of art, nor between folk and popular art and high art (and their perversions.).

  6. Grace,
    Good points, as those that seem to make distinctions between the "sacred" and "profane" in ways that aren't clearly differentiated at times, are not prone to invent or create "outside the box" of defined appropriateness. Appropriateness is a cultural conditioning in itself.

    A liberal is not necessarily "bad" or "evil", nor is conservatism necessarily backwards. It is a matter of how one designs their views of what is best, instead of "perfect" or "ideal". There is much more grey, then not in matters of culture.

  7. I admit that bringing other websites into this might be a cheap shot, but I was in no way trying to accuse Frohnen of believing exactly the same things as the other people I mentioned. Rather, I was attempting to use Mr. Frohnen's piece as a springboard for discussing the broader issue of the relationship between movement conservatism and culture as a concept. A relationship which, I believe, is defined by cynicism: high culture is often praised but rarely understood, and popular culture is a seen as some kind of wild stallion that needs to be broken and made into a workhorse.

    the whole "take back the culture" schtick seems to me like an exercise in bad faith. the idea that liberals took over the whole of the infosphere and are conspiring against us is used as an excuse for never questioning ourselves. particularly, never asking "what if conservatism's bad reputation is its own damn fault?"

  8. The cultural argument is a sticky wicket to be sure. Much of what is produced today as "pop" culture is trash and certainly not beautiful, it is designed like candy to be consumed, give a rush and then have its wrappers thrown away. Much of Katy Perry's current work makes obvious reference to this, as she makes it quite obvious that she is something to be sold. Lady GaGa also makes statements about the consumer culture with performances such as her "meat dress." I think it is possible for both to be at times be critiquing the way the current culture deals with the female form and "sells sex" but yet neither is engaged in anything that I would term "conservative" art. And that is for good reason, what is popular is often not conservative. Yet, it is often the case now, that what reifies the Good, the Beautiful and the True, may have at one point been as radical to its time as Katy Perry and Lady GaGa appear to us. Mozart I think could be one of those examples, or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring cited above. The first composers of Opera in the 1600s were trying to bring back Greek Tragedy, a radical experiment to be sure, and yet no form of art is perhaps more conservative now than Opera. So I think the question of what makes something a conservative art form best answered by looking at what our society has held onto and conserved, reifying that initial radical experiment into something timeless and beautiful. Our Constitution is similar. It was a radical document when written. Only in America could Conservatives stand for something so radical.

    All art carries a message. I like the current Transformer movies as they clearly show good versus evil and depict a struggle for Liberty over Tyranny. Many other Super Hero movies do as well. I also love the old westerns for their moral compass and entertainment values. Much of the movies and music today is in the gutter. But some raises our eyes to the heavens. We need to support art in which we find our values depicted. A BUYcott is much more effective than just a boycott. We also need to PRODUCE culture whenever possible and network with other conservatives that are producing culture as well. Many of the great stories and literature that contained conservative values are no longer being read and made into movies. Maybe there is something we can do to change that, or to bring them back.

    Ultimately though the culture is fallen because it reflects us, and we are fallen. It has always been thus. In every culture at every time in history there have been dangerous images, thoughts and ideas to the members of that society. There has always been beauty as well however, and the same computer that can bring up negative images, can bring up images/sounds/instances of beauty from any time or period in the history of the world. We may feel that there has never been more ugliness around us, but there has never been more beauty either. If only we go out and find it.

    The flattening of the information age gives power not to the studio exec or the record promoter, but to the parent as never before, if we just use it.

  9. I think Scott Boston is right. Conservatives ought not oscilate between the extremes of watching Girls or generalizing, as the author does here, and claiming that "all promote narcissistic nihilism with a snarky self-confidence expressed in gutter language."

    First, it's politically imprudent to assume that everyone in the entertainment industry is a snarky nihilist. In fact, it is called the "entertainment" industry, not the High Minded Society of the Arts. Linkin Park, just to give one example, did the theme song for Transformers, which (here I heartily agree with Scott Boston), is an excellent morality play for all ages (although the 80s cartoon is better, and the UK marvel comic the best). Granted, Linkin Park was likely selected for the same reasons that Vannilla Ice did the music for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, because they are popular singers whose music might attract a larger audience for the film.

    Now if Linkin Park attracted a larger audience for Transformers – that's good. We must often use the low to get to the high.

    There are, however, plenty of great works of pop culture, many of them Japanese, but also American, that deserve to be celebrated.

    There are also two distinct ways of dealing with nihilism in art, one conscious, the other not. The former sort is perfectly fine. A great example here is Alien, which deals perfectly well (that is in a manner demonstrating moral consciousness) with the issue.

    Our generation has also got its John Waynes and Humphrey Bogarts. Sylvester Stallone, Arnold, Peter Cullen – just to name a few.

    In the end, we ought to take a que from Nietzsche, who advised a pathos of distance, a sort of levity towards things which do not take themselves very seriously.

    As an aside, I haven't had a TV since I was 14, and I think Scott Boston's closing sentence is true and gives reason to hope.

  10. What surely is necessary is an idea of the ways in which popular culture, in the abstract and historically, can be positive and the ways in which it can be negative. There also needs to be an evaluation of the different levels and forms of art and culture, including the imaginative. For example, above The Transformers films are cited positive moral works of popular culture. But this would seem to focus on a moral message at the exclusion of questions of imagination and symbolism, aesthetics, and form (for example, in this context, questions of the imaginative benefits and downsides of science fiction).

    Also, we need to recognise the degree to which what we today call popular culture is different to what it was in the past. Centralised industries have a hand in what is known as a popular culture like never before. I'm an Englishman and a significant part of what passes for popular culture in modern Britain comes from the US, especially Los Angeles.

    I think that some of those above, like Scott and Peter, also use the term conservative in an incautious manner. After all, surely, for Imaginative conservatives at least, the point is not simply to be conservative in the sense of just preserving the past; rather, it is act and judge according to the enduring values and permanent things of Western civilisation. Personally, I find the term conservative quite awkward. I almost never use it without a modifier like imaginative or traditional.

  11. Nice essay Bruce, and fine comments all, especially James's.

    I co-blog with Peter Lawler over at Postmodern Conservative and have my reservations about his "watch more TV" sardonic slogan. A lot of my blogging over there is on music, in a series I call "Carl's Rock Songbook." I honestly think it is the best conservative rock criticism out there, and I as it hasn't, IMO, received the attention it deserves, I thought I'd call it to your attention.

    My stance is NOT one of "listen to more rock." Yes, I say one should listen to it more carefully, because some rock songs, especially ones from the "golden era" of 1965-1982, do stand as poetic cultural signposts that matter, and will continue to matter to our culture the way Wordsworth once did to the English and the way Homer did to the Greeks. Rather, in terms of musical quality simply, I openly say that swing, country, classic R+B and rock n' roll are all better than rock for our "good times" purposes, and that classical music is better all around.

    One thing I am interested in, however, is that rock hipsterism, following its own highest aesthetic judgments, eventually brings one to a kind of dissatisfaction, not just with the dreck, but with the best contemporary stuff–i.e., it brings you to the odd conclusion that our pop culture has been in an odd pattern of "recyclement" since sometime in the 80s or 90s, i.e., from some time after the changes unleashed by 60s culture Revolution had become consolidated.

    Here's a sample of two of my better essays in the series: one on the "Sounds of Silence," http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/postmodernconservative/2011/10/24/carls-rock-songbook-25-simon-and-garfunkel-sounds-of-silence/ and one on the recyclement pattern, as discussed by Simon Reynolds in his book Retromaniahttp://www.firstthings.com/blogs/postmodernconservative/2012/06/17/carls-rock-songbook-51-simon-reynolds-and-kurt-andersen-on-our-cultural-cul-de-sac/ .

  12. This is a very interesting discussion for me. I consider myself a traditionalist conservative, but my interest in politics was awakened in me long after my interest in music. My parents are conservative(ish) – my (English) father a true devotee of Thatcher. Unsurprisingly his loyalty to economic liberalism trumped his loyalty to tradition. Anyway, I digress.

    My point is that since the first time I heard Led Zeppelin (aged 8!), I've had a life-long passion for rock and roll music. You name it – rockabilly, hard rock, heavy metal, punk rock – I love it all and I've played it all throughout my almost 15 years as a regularly-gigging drummer (I've even turned down potential career opportunities in the past, instead choosing to cling to my fantasy of a music career).

    Needless to say vulgarity abounded (and continues to abound) in many of the bands I played in, songs I performed, and groups of musicians I knew. Never once did I feel I was betraying my principles, however. For one thing, part of my desire to make a career in entertainment was inspired by my wish to turn Gramsci's theories against the left. More importantly, though, I believe the mode isn't as important as the message. I'm all for vulgarity if it's being used to glorify what is good in the world. It's vulgarity for vulgarity's sake that's wrong.

    I'm no fan of Linkin Park (I think their music is awful), but I can respect, to an extent, their ability to write a decent heavy pop song. Rock music is no different from man – it has the capacity to be both good and evil. For every nihilistic, amoral little hellchild for whom Linkin Park is means of expressing his rage, there are kids like my friend from back in my high school days, for whom I can honestly say listening to Linkin saved his life. He had been contemplating suicide and for whatever reason Linkin Park's lyrics really spoke to him and brought him back. It seems clear to me that even the most vulgar rock music is just a tool – and either God or the Devil may speak through it.

  13. I find it disturbing that Imaginative Conservatives can’t imagine a cultural revival/renewal/renaissance. What’s the difference between a nihilist who stands by while civilization crumbles and a conservative who does the same? The results are the same.

    The alternative to darkness is clear: light a candle. (This alternative was mentioned by Grace, an earlier commenter.) The equipment to produce and distribute your own art has never been more affordable or accessible. If you want to dismiss me as besot by gadgets, then I’ll point out that hardly any gadgets are required to recite poetry, produce a Shakespearean play, or perform improv comedy. If you don’t have the time or talent to make good art, support someone who does. (The BUYcott that Mr. Boston mentioned.)

    What if the revival never comes? What if such amateur efforts don’t save the world? They’re more entertaining than yelling at your television. I don’t see this as taking back the mainstream culture but creating a counter-culture.

  14. James Martinez: Great comment, but I must caution about one thing: “Furthermore, this attitude of ;high art good, pop culture bad’ amounts to a refusal to admit that art is just as much a folk phenomenon as an academic one.”

    There are three different categories here, not two: high culture, pop culture, and folk culture. Pop culture is widely regarded as erasing folk culture. For example, classical music has always drawn inspiration from folk music and folk dances. But popular music means that most of the world listens to the same thing everywhere, rather than each locality having its own folk traditions. Ken Myers’ excellent book, “All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes” discusses these three levels of culture at length. So, I can say, “High culture good, much folk culture good or at least very interesting, most pop culture bad.”

    (As an aside, the decline in creation of new folk music caused by popular music is drying up the wellspring from which classical music flows.)

    Allen Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, pointed out that folk music can be shared across generations, but popular music divides the generations. His example was that the whole family cannot really gather around the piano to sing “Hot for Teacher” by Van Halen.

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