The prominent editor and publisher Adam Bellow has a big idea. He wants to bring together a new generation of conservative artists and story-tellers to challenge liberalism’s dominance of American literature and popular culture. Toward that end, he wants to build a national network of institutions, credentialing activities, and funding streams to produce conservative-themed art and entertainment. With Liberty Island, his new online gathering-place for conservative creators, and his ambitious manifesto (“Let Your Right Brain Run Free”) recently published in National Review, Bellow is prepared to lead the charge to, as he puts it, “carry the culture war into the field of popular culture.”
I know and respect Adam Bellow. And I agree with him that part of the shallowness of U.S. popular culture today is that it’s so often a jukebox for liberal clichés. But I believe that his new idea is misguided, for two reasons.
The first is that Adam’s main goal — creating art specifically to influence politics — is wrongly conceived. Good art frequently deepens our political views, much to our advantage, but marshalling political zeal to create politically-themed art is a recipe for mediocrity and failure. It’s hoping to achieve through politics what can only be achieved apart from politics. Intellectually it’s pretending, as the literary critic Lionel Trilling put it, that “the recalcitrant stuff of life” with which the artist must wrestle can somehow be rendered into “pellets of intellection or crystallizations of thought, precise and completed, and defined by their coherence and procedural recommendations.” Sorry, it just doesn’t work that way.
Or at least, that’s what the artists I admire seem to believe. William Faulkner said that “the only thing worth writing about” is “the human heart in conflict with itself.” There it is again: the disorderly, unruly stuff of life. Faulkner’s engagement with it was nearly the opposite of political labeling and advocacy. Can one imagine Faulkner going to his desk each day hoping ultimately to make clearer why people should vote this way, or join that cause, or believe in this political ideal? I can’t.
To me, the greatest American song-writer of recent generations is Bob Dylan. His philosophical and political views infuse much of his work, including some of his most famous songs. But as he’s made abundantly clear to anyone who’ll listen, he detests the idea that his music is linked to a political agenda. Which is one reason why, in the opinion of many critics, his music means so much to our culture, including our politics. It’s an irony, isn’t it?
In his writings, the literary scholar and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis points to what we can call the principle of indirection. Some things we want we can’t get directly. We want to be happy, but happiness is both highly elusive and usually the fruit of other pursuits, such as duty, excellence in one’s vocation, and loyalty to family and friends. We want art that promotes our politics, but art is larger than politics and usually can’t be achieved through political mobilization. If we aim only at the thing, we miss the thing.
The second reason why Adam’s project is wrong-headed is that, even to the degree that it succeeds, it will likely do more harm than good to American civil society.
Adam seeks to create a new American subculture defined by its commitment to conservative-themed arts and entertainment. Alas, similar segmentations have already occurred in other domains of American life. Conservatives can already get all their non-fiction from conservative book imprints such as Sentinel, all their news from conservative news outlets such as Fox, and all their expertise from conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation.
One result, admittedly, is a larger number of conservative authors, personalities, and analysts. But the larger result for the subculture (and today’s liberal subculture has the same problem) is life in the echo chamber. All you hear are things you already believe. Genuine questioning — the essential requirement for the life of the mind — gets replaced by the clarification of orthodoxy, or what communists used to call the party line. Genuine engagement with opponents — the essential requirement for democratic civil society — gets replaced by denunciations in absentia of scoundrels out to ruin the country and idiots too dumb to walk in from the rain. Simplifications rule. The intellect stagnates. Anger is in the saddle. Polarization increases.
To me, even the name of Adam’s enterprise, Liberty Island, reflects this way of conceiving the world. Conservatives, you are an isolated minority, surrounded on all sides by dullards and enemies. Move away from this foreign land. Relocate to our conservative island, where everything is good and where you’ll only find other people just like you. And you’ll really love the entertainment!
David Blankenhorn is president of the Institute for American Values. You can follow him on Twitter @Blankenhorn3.