June 27, 2006


Mass Martyr: WHAT IS CONSERVATIVE CULTURE? (Rick Perlstein, 06.27.06, New Republic)

Ask a conservative activist to explain what anchors and unites their fractious movement, and he will point to ideas: to weighty tomes by Eric Voegelin, Russell Kirk, Wilhelm Roepke, Edmund Burke; to the development of the philosophy of "fusionism," by which the furrow-browed theorists at National Review cogitated their way past the conflicts between the traditionalist, libertarian, and anti-communist strains of the American right. They will make it sound almost as if the 87 percent of Mississippians who voted for Barry Goldwater did so after a stretch of all-nighters in the library.

They will not mention an illustration popular among college conservatives in the 1960s: a peace symbol-shaped B-52 bomber with the words drop it on the wings. Nor will they discuss the annual "McCarthy-Evjue" lecture that student conservatives in Wisconsin (among them, present-day right-wing luminaries David Keene of the American Conservative Union and Alfred Regnery, formerly of Regnery Publishing) put on to honor their favorite Wisconsin senator and to mock William Evjue, the editor of the Madison newspaper William F. Buckley labeled "Prairie Pravda." (They advertised the lecture on pink paper.) They will not mention the Southern Californians who flocked to church basements, high school auditoriums, and VFW halls to hear hellfire-and-brimstone lecturers like World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, author of The Socialistic Sixteenth--A National Cancer, or the Reverend Billy James Hargis ("Is the Schoolhouse the Proper Place To Teach Raw Sex?").

And they certainly will not mention the John Birch Society meetings in suburban parlors nationwide, in which chapters no bigger than two dozen members--a cell structure ostensibly to prevent Red infiltration but that, as it happened, was also the ideal size for a cocktail party--plotted how to forestall the Communist takeover of the PTAs by taking them over first. "I just don't have time for anything," a Dallas housewife told Time in 1961. "I'm fighting Communism three nights a week."

They will not mention, in short, the extraordinary role the development of a self-contained and self-conscious conservative culture played in transforming the politics of the United States. One way to define "culture" is not as a set of ideas or a static social code, but rather as the performances people enact in their everyday lives that outline the boundaries between those who belong and those who don't. "Culture" is the set of practices that reminds each individual within the group that they are normal and correct, that their beliefs are natural and true.

Conservative culture was shaped in another era, one in which conservatives felt marginal and beleaguered. It enunciated a heady sense of defiance. In a world in which patriotic Americans were hemmed in on every side by an all-encroaching liberal hegemony, raw sex in the classrooms, and totalitarian enemies of the United States beating down our very borders, finally conservatives could get together and (as track twelve of the Goldwaters' Folk Songs to Bug the Liberals avowed) "Row Our Own Boat."

But now conservatism has grown into a vast and diverse chunk of the electorate. Its culture has become so dominant that one can live entirely within it. Shortly after the Republicans took over Congress in 1994, a Washington activist could, if he so chose, attend nothing but conservative parties, panels, and barbecues; a recent Pew Research Center study suggested that partisan divisions are increasing at the community level. And yet, far inside these enclaves, conservatives still rely on the cultural tropes of that earlier period: At one living room "Party for the President" in 2004, a woman told me, "We're losing our rights as Christians. ... and being persecuted again." The culture of conservatives still insists that it is being hemmed in on every side. In Tom DeLay's valedictory address, as classic an expression of high conservative culture as ever was uttered, he attributed to liberalism "a voracious appetite for growth. In any place or any time on any issue, what does liberalism ever seek, Mr. Speaker? More. ... If conservatives don't stand up to liberalism, no one will."

How to explain these strange continuities? And what does it say about the politics of our own time? Kirk offers no answers, because what holds the movement together isn't its intellectual history but its cultural one. [...]

I often exchange e-mails with two favorite conservative activists. I started out with a plan: One of them posts frequently on FreeRepublic; another writes on his blog of FreeRepublic's "shrieking lunacy." I've tried to get them to fight each another. It never works. They've got me, a liberal, to bug. That is how conservative culture works so well: the joy of feeling as one in their beleaguered conservatism.

No matter how often I chastise him, Friend Perlstein continues to believe that the true pulse of conservatism can be found in the drool-immersed comments section at Free Republic, just because the core of the modern Left is accurately depicted at foil-wrapped places like Democratic Underground and Daily Kos. But, as he accurately points out in this essay, conservatism has triumphed quite thoroughly and restored its natural dominance of American culture (after all, that's why there's something wrong with Kansas). The proper place to look for conservative culture is, therefore, American culture in general.

The National Review lists he makes fun of richly deserve it, but the folks at NR or The Weekly Standard are really just variants within the rather marginal intellectual class, as they made accidentally clear in their hilarious answers to a few questions from The New Republic that put them at odds with the overwhelming majority of Americans, especially conservatives. It's not that conservatism is embattled in the country at large but that this crowd is a minority within their peer group. Meanwhile, those lists are inevitably superfluous when all of the great rock songs, novels, movies and all comedy are conservative.

Of course, Friend Perlstein reveals why he gets this all so wrong when he says that Russell Kirk is no help in defining what unites the conservative movement. In reality, Mr. Kirk provided a coherent set of themes that you'll notice not only bind conservatives of various stripe, but which define America's deeply Judeo-Christian and Anglicized culture. It's pointless to search for a discrete Conservative culture because American culture is itself conservative. The more interesting task would be to try and find any important American cultural artifact--novel, movie, etc.--that deviates from Kirk's conservative themes to any significant degree. There are either none or so close to none as to be dispositive.

'Superman Returns' to Save Mankind From Its Sins (MANOHLA DARGIS, 6/27/06, NY Times)

There's always been a hint of Jesus (and Moses) to the character, from the omnipotence of his father to a costume that, with its swaths of red and blue, evokes the colors worn by the Virgin Mary in numerous Renaissance paintings. It's a hint that proves impossible not to take.

Intentionally or not, the Jesus angle also helps deflect speculation about just how straight this Superman flies. Given how securely Lois remains out of the romantic picture in "Superman Returns," now saddled with both a kid and a fiancé (James Marsden), it's no surprise that some have speculated that Superman is gay. The speculation speaks more to our social panic than anything in the film, which, much like the overwhelming majority of American action movies produced since the 1980's, mostly involves what academics call homosocial relations. In other words, when it comes to Hollywood, boys will be boys and play with their toys, whether they're sleeping with one another or not, leaving women to weep, worry and wait to be rescued.

Every era gets the superhero it deserves, or at least the one filmmakers think we want. For Mr. Singer that means a Superman who fights his foes in a scene that visually echoes the garden betrayal in "The Passion of the Christ" and even hangs in the air much as Jesus did on the cross. It's hard to see what the point is beyond the usual grandiosity that comes whenever B-movie material is pumped up with ambition and money.

Psssst...the point is that's why Superman is an American cultural icon. Duh?

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 27, 2006 12:27 PM

That is how conservative culture works so well: the joy of feeling as one in their beleaguered conservatism.

Friend Perlstein does his fair share of projection, and seems unusually unaware of the fact.

Posted by: joe shropshire at June 27, 2006 2:28 PM

Mr. Perlstein's argument is so carefully reasoned and well stated, it really doesn't lend itself to comment. Well done, sir.

Posted by: erp at June 27, 2006 2:47 PM

I didn't say FreeRepublic was the purest example of conservative culture. I said Tom DeLey's farewell speech was.

I also singled out an anonymous friend who blogs as a pretty pure example, too...

I also mock those who say things like "all of the great rock songs, novels, movies and all comedy are conservative" in the part about Bach.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at June 27, 2006 5:41 PM

I haven't read the Perlstein article in full yet, perhaps tomorrow. It remains to be seen how, or even whether, he treats with the gun culture.

The great mistake of the left was to waken the sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve by going after the guns.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 27, 2006 5:46 PM

Tom DeLay's legislative accomplishments, on a par with LBJ's, are the purest expression of modern conservatism, which is the politics of government in the Anglosphere.

I'm a triumphalist. The embattled schtick is for the movement conservatives who lost the party to Reagan, Newt and W.

Bach is obviously the greatest of the musical conservatives. The point is that NRO picks bad songs that they think are conservative when they could just list the best of all time, which just happen to be conservative.

Posted by: oj at June 27, 2006 5:48 PM


And no one at NRO or the Weekly Standard has ever fired one.

Posted by: oj at June 27, 2006 5:50 PM

"it's no surprise that some have speculated that Superman is gay. The speculation speaks more to our social panic than anything in the film"

Huh? The only such "speculation" comes from homosexuals attempting to appropriate a cultural icon.

Posted by: b at June 27, 2006 5:54 PM

So, of Rick's three favorite conservatives, one's a dead libertarian, one's a Freeper and one's a lefty.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 27, 2006 6:45 PM

Oj: NRO is pretty sound on the gun issue. They run John Lott articles regularly and Jonah Goldberg beats the drum now and then. They know how much they need us, and both the libertine and traditionalist wings of mainstream conservatism are ideologically sympathetic.

Buckley was never good on guns. He had a kind of snooty attitude about gun control, what you might expect from someone who can afford to hire his own armed guards. It was though he shared the prejudice that gun people were ignorant yahoos (sometimes called "wahoos"). Weekly Standard people are a little bit that way.

That's all right: our tent is large enough.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 27, 2006 7:01 PM

The Buckleys were hunters. I'm not seeing David Frum and Jonah Goldberg going after grouse.

Posted by: oj at June 27, 2006 7:16 PM

Hey, Lou, let's make a deal. If I promise not to interfere with your guns, can you promise to stop painting them as the high-water mark of Western civilization?


But, tell me, what's the matter with Massachusetts? Seriously, isn't this game about who is the high-handed majority and who is the poor oppressed minority getting a little tired, seeing as neither side will (quite properly) agree that that is any evidence of truth. Democracy does not confer wisdom, although it obviously did in 2004.

Posted by: Peter B at June 27, 2006 7:31 PM

Of course as David points out, with all the lefty triumphalism you have to wade through around here, it is a bit hard not to feel embattled.

Posted by: joe shropshire at June 27, 2006 9:07 PM


Got a few things to say here...

1.) I had no idea you were one of the Right's "favorite conservative activists."

2.) Perlstein says in one breath that you criticize Freepers and then seems to insinuate that you feel united in your beleaugured conservatism with other Righties who you barely criticize. Has he read your comments about neocons and libertarians?

3.) On the other hand, I don't know why you bring up that TNR survey -- most of the conservatives were either ambivalent or hostile about evolution. Perhaps I should peruse the responses again in detail, but as I recall those unalterably opposed to teaching ID were limited to Charles Krauthammer and Richard Brookhiser.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 28, 2006 12:07 AM


Also, any idea who this other guy is that Mr. Perlstein wants you to fight?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 28, 2006 1:19 AM

Sure, Rick e-mails a few of us hysterically claiming that the fascist night is descending upon America and then he wonders why we make fun of him instead of fighting each other?

Meanwhile, the conservatives on his list send him articles that describe how badly the Left is getting butt-whipped. I'm not sure why he dragged us in with the NRO crown, because we're all rather triumphalist.

Posted by: oj at June 28, 2006 8:00 AM


They're almost all Darwinists. America, especially conservatism, is Creationist.

Posted by: oj at June 28, 2006 8:06 AM


Saying most of those conservatives are Darwinists (by which I assume you mean your usual definition, i.e., life evolved by random chance and God either doesn't exist or played no role) seems silly in light of their responses.

Here is what I know about these guys, based both on their responses to that survey and well as information I've read about them. Kristol, Norquist, Frum, Goldberg, Buckley, Buchanan, Carlson, and Ponnuru all believe in God, thus apparently ruling them out as "Darwinists" (again, by your definition). I'm reasonably certain that Stephen Moore is a believer as well, along with Podhoretz (there have been quite a few anti-Darwinist pieces in Commentary lately).

I'm completely unsure about Brookhiser: He likes to talk about the importance of morality but I'm racking my brain to think of a time he's specifically connected it with religion. In his recent book on the Founding Fathers, he expressed opinions on church-state relations that would delightfully irritate Barry Lynn.

Tierney and Brooks seem iffy -- they might be believers but also conceivably aren't. I don't believe Charles Krauthammer is a religious believer in the usual sense. James Taranto has admitted to having no religion, although he doesn't seem opposed to religion in general.

Even if one assumes the last five are all atheists -- and that's doubtful -- there's still no way most of them can be called Darwinists in your usual sense of the word. At best, we can say that once you get into the more intellectual realms of conservatism, you see a decline in religious fervor -- although certainly the majority still retain belief in God.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 29, 2006 1:06 AM

Nope. They are Darwinists which is why neocons aren't copnservative on moral issues, like abortion.

Posted by: oj at June 29, 2006 8:37 AM


Huh? Read the Weekly Standard lately? Anti-euthanasia, anti-cloning, opposed to same sex marriage, etc. Joseph Bottum is an editor and wrote a stunning article when John Paul II died. They run Stanley Kurtz and Wesley Smith practically every other week.

I still don't understand how you figure these guys are Darwinists if they believe in God.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 29, 2006 2:26 PM

Not to mention the Weekly Standard went all-out over the Schiavo situation.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 29, 2006 2:28 PM

Bill Kristol has recognized in the wake of McCain that the neocons can have no real influence in the GOP without at least pretending that God matters.

Posted by: oj at June 29, 2006 3:14 PM

They don't.

Posted by: oj at June 29, 2006 3:15 PM


You're just assuming -- you've given no good reason to distrust them when they say they believe in God (although I'm curious which of the purported God-believers you see as liars).

If you've got a subscription to the Weekly Standard, prowl through their online back issues sometime. There's plenty of social conservatism in there that predates the McCain campaign: Mary Eberstadt wrote her famous article on the mainstreaming of child pedophilia in 1996, for example.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 29, 2006 9:43 PM

Excuse me, shouldn't have said "child pedophilia," obviously that's redundant.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 29, 2006 9:45 PM

Yes and Fred Barnes is a social conservative just as both WS and NR publish Ramesh Ponnuru, Michael Novak and others, but the neocons are just ethnic Jews, as their answers reflect.

Posted by: oj at June 29, 2006 9:48 PM