September 17, 2008

HE COMES THIS CLOSE...:

The Triumph of Culture Over Politics (LEE SIEGEL, 9/13/08, Wall Street Journal)

[O]ne stark distinction stands out among the differences between contemporary liberals and conservatives (the real differences, not the manufactured ones). Liberals always think that there is something broken in politics. Conservatives always think that there is something wrong with the culture.

These conflicting urgencies have given the conservatives mostly the upper hand for over a quarter of a century. Since culture is more immediate to us than the abstract policies and principles of politics -- and seemingly more dependable than politics' often fluid expediencies -- a politics of culture is going to be more successful than mere politics. For many people, the idea that Republican politics are wholly responsible for the country's ills is hard to accept. You can't feel politics. Rather, such people blame a culture of selfishness and irresponsibility for the deepening malaise (the word that sank President Carter among liberals who thought they smelled a Christian conservative in progressive clothing). You experience selfishness and irresponsibility in the flesh every day.

Let me clarify what the word "culture" means in this context, a la the Christian right and Mr. Bloom's descendants. If hearing the word "culture" makes you think of Rossini, the latest translation of "Anna Karenina," the Guggenheim Museum or "The Wire," then you're probably a liberal -- or, at least, an unreconstructed "cosmopolitan" conservative. But if the word culture means for you forms of courtship, or sexual preference, or the relationship between parents and children, or the set of rituals that revolve around the ownership and use of a gun, or, most passionately of all, ways of living, and believing, and rejoicing, and suffering, and dying that are hallowed by the religion you practice and embodied in the church you belong to -- if for you, culture does not primarily signify opera or HBO, then you are probably celebrating Sarah Palin's ragged, real-seeming life. In that case, you are what might be called either a heartland or a Bloomian conservative.

Broadly speaking, liberals segregate culture from ordinary existence. They will "do" culture and then "do" the rest of life -- gaze at a Vermeer, say, and then work on finding the perfect daycare center. But for conservatives, raising children, using the discipline of faith to endure illness or setback, cherishing life at its conception are cultural tasks and values inseparable from the challenges of everyday living. The liberal idea of culture as edification or diversion implies abundant leisure time. The conservative idea of culture as the practice of getting through life (like the anthropologist's idea of culture) implies time under siege by work and adversity; this is culture defined as the meaningful beliefs and activities that are the response to necessity and adversity. Culture in this sense is as familiar as the eight-hour day, and as intimate as biological function. It is a matter of life and death. Call it organic, as opposed to fabricated, culture.

This is why Thomas Frank's greatly influential 2004 critique of the Republicans' cultural strategy, "What's the Matter with Kansas?", has had such a negative effect on the Democrats' fortunes, for the simple reason that Mr. Frank assured Democrats that they didn't have to respond to the way the Republicans were manipulating organic culture. Mr. Frank cogently argued that the Republicans used cultural issues to distract their constituents from Republican economic policies which, ironically, were harming the very people who were voting for them. Mr. Frank believed that what Democrats had to do to win back the White House was to keep hammering away at Republican-induced economic disparities. Barack Obama's campaign is doing precisely that. For many people, however, faith in organic culture is intimate and empowering, while faith in politics is like trying to have a conversation with the TV.


Mr. Siegel is right on the edge of the final insight but then fumbles. The Left is at war with the organic culture of the American people -- Judeo-Christianity, republicanism, families, ownership -- because that is what has to be destroyed in order for them to impose their political policies. The culture affords people independence from politics and is, therefore, intolerable to liberals.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 17, 2008 11:44 AM
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