Sadly, very few Americans remember Canon Bernard Iddings Bell (1886-1958)—this, despite the excellent work done by Cicero Bruce and Lee Cheek in his name. And, in his own day and age, Bell served as one of the leading scholars of what would eventually be called conservatism. He relentlessly defended the western canon and the liberal arts, Christopher Dawson’s ideas of Christian culture, and the thought and reputation of his fellow iconoclast Albert Jay Nock. He wrote some of the most penetrating and trenchant cultural criticism produced on American soil while also being—arguably—the first American to recognize the existence of post-modernism. Indeed, one of Bell’s books is entitled Postmodernism and Other Essays (1926), and it is listed in one history of postmodernism as the first work to employ the term. The Oxford English Dictionary lists only one earlier mention of the term, in the then-prominent English theological periodical, The Hibbert Journal (1914).
Not bad for a conservative writer whom almost nobody remembers.
In a healthy attempt to resurrect Bell in 2001, ISI Books wisely re-published one of his classic works, Crowd Culture: An Examination of the American Way of Life, with a serious and deep introduction by Cicero Bruce. Originally published by Harper and Row in 1952, the book brought together four lectures Canon Bell had delivered on April 22 of that year at Ohio Wesleyan University. The lectures were “The Picture,” “The School,” “The Church,” and “The Rebels.” Bell would pass away only six years later, and, consequently, these lectures serve as a good summary of his own thought as developed during his adult years.
“The chief threat to America comes from within America” is Bell’s opening line to the book.
Given the then-recent success of the United States against Japan and Germany in the war and the then-current Cold War with the Soviet Union, this is a rather astounding statement. It also, in many ways, completely obliterates standard histories of post-1945 conservatism, which stress the anti-Communism of the era as the main bridge across all non-leftist thought, whether variations of conservatism or libertarianism. How else, these scholars argue, could such a figure as Joe McCarthy arise? Didn’t everyone on the political and cultural right seek sameness in order to fight the dread communists?
The most serious danger to the American character came not from the terrorist ideologies reigning abroad, Bell argued, but from the failure to distinguish personalities and individual persons at home. Americans, as a whole, had given up their individuality in exchange for a mass conformity and the false belief and notion that such a crowd-culture would bring security. They gave up purpose for purposelessness and critical thinking for tapioca mediocrity. We had, Bell claimed, traded ingenuity for luxury, and luxury for morals. In our desire for security and shiny things, he wrote bitterly, we Americans would gladly become slaves in our industry and politics, selling our very humanity to the most corrupt.
Throughout Crowd Culture, Canon Bell reminded his readers that real success and true excellence always come from the individual human person going against trends, and never from a committee. True patriotism and real honor demand individuality, he argued again and again. The cry to help the common man has become merely a call for superficiality of the masses and rapacious power placed in the hands of the few.
This revealed itself rather clearly in the reading trends of the late 1940s and early 1950s:
In former days a liberally educated minority bought books and read them; the rest, if not enlightened by letters, were not corrupt in respect to them. They did not extol trash, and worse than trash, as reputable literature. Nowadays Demos, having learned to read, reveals an infantile taste by what he reads, the greater part of it rubbish and not a little of it garbage.
In particular, Mickey Spillane shocked Bell like no other author. How could a sensationalist of sex and violence sell so well, Bell lamented. I, The Jury, the “exceptionally low creature” is nothing but a “pander,” the joy of the “Common Man.” Here, Bell reads very much like Richard Weaver in the grand rhetorician’s attack on the supposed cacophonic banality of jazz. Bell made similar arguments against college and professional sports, seeing each as nothing more than our modern re-working of Roman bread and circuses.
Whether one agrees or not with Bell or Weaver matters not in specifics, as the argument matters. Have we traded our own individual tastes for those of the PR-men, the Ad-men, the marketers, the sellers of ready-made standardization, the promoters of the new and improved rather than the good and the true? Have the corporations become our new gods? “Happiness, which is what all men desire,” Bell wrote, cannot be purchased; it is an illusive something not for sale.”
It must be noted that Bell was not alone in arguing against conformity. Other prominent figures on the American right, such as Russell Kirk, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Robert Nisbet argued no less persuasively that personality mattered. On the left, such figures as C. Wright Mills feared the same and would soon influence even serious country-club golfers and moderates such as President Dwight Eisenhower.
Probably no one expressed the fear of crowd culture more than the radically eccentric father of modern conservatism, Russell Kirk. Armed with his typewriter, Kirk wrote from his converted Dutch barn in Michigan and traveled the world, armed with a sword cane, a revolver, and a three-piece tweed suit. Citing Bell as a friend and an authority in his works of the 1950s, Kirk praised the Anglican man of the cloth repeatedly. Even his very language—such as the embrace of “Demos”—came from Bell. Kirk’s fiercest attack on conformity came in his magisterial 1954 book, Prospects for Conservatives. “This, in essence, is the future which ‘capitalists’ and ‘socialists’ and ‘communists’ all are arranging for us. It may be an efficient program. It is not a human program.”
As the world of conservatism degenerates into sectarian squabbles, media yelling matches, and the shenanigans of salesmen, we would do well to remember that the founding fathers of American conservatism despised all such things. They wanted not sameness but excellence. Or, in the words of Bell: “The whole cult of comfort is petty, ignoble, unworthy of human nature, absurd.” To chase it, he argued, is to chase the unnatural. Rather than elevating us, it will, ultimately, only degrade. Rather than embracing our humanity, we will merely sink into sub-humanity, circling the abyss while never even knowing that our footing is insecure.
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.