A couple of days ago, LI took our inner Mencken out for a stroll over a conservative blog, Right Reason. One of the guys who produces Right Reason, Max Goss, actually noticed -- which pleases our vanity, we must admit, even as it has become a bit of a bemusement how, properly, to respond. Goss makes four points about our post, but doesn't address the central issue in it, re the contemporary conservative drift from the central theme of conservatism. We think that there is one justified complaint running through all of Goss's objections, which is that we used a disproportionately defamatory tone when writing about the weblog, without really quoting from it. As he says,
4. "Right Reason is the perfect blog for the era of big government conservatives: it is bold, brassy, and speaks in talk radio vulgate for the vulgar." Here I am simply at a loss. Which posts resemble the speech of, say, Michael Savage?"
That said, we think Goss doesn't quite get LI's objection to what we have labeled the "factionalism" on display at RR. We don't object to a conservative analysis of, say, central elements in analytic philosophy -- or to simply making observations about analytic philosophy. Between that, however, and the question, "is analytic philosophy conservative?", there is a world of difference. The later question thrusts politics -- and identity politics, at that -- into a pre-eminence in a domain properly defined outside the political sphere that violates the precepts of the whole conservative tradition, which is about preserving the separation of politics and other domains of culture.
Once you make the move towards creating an identity politics out of conservatism, the voice will follow. No, not the voice of Michael Savage, the writers of RR surely are smarter than that, but certainly the tiresome voice of academic identity politics which filters down to the Savage level.
What instigated pouring out the vials of opprobrium on RR? It was a post entitled High Culture and Conservatism, which began:
"American political conservatives enjoy an uneasy relationship with high culture.
There are, of course, those who define their conservatism precisely in terms of high culture - of the preservation and transmission from past to future generations of "the best that has been thought and written."
But economic and religious conservatives might wonder what's in it for them. For it is far from obvious that the canonical works of literature, music and visual art are much help, on the whole, when it comes to defending the free market or the altar and hearth. It would be one thing if the canon consisted primarily in the holy scriptures of democratic capitalism and Christianity. But these days it is liable to incorporate Marx alongside Adam Smith and Nietzsche alongside the Bible.
Moreover, the present-day heirs of Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot who man the high cultural battlements, notably in the pages of The New Criterion, seem to have welcomed the whole of modernism into the keep. But, for better or worse, the average American political conservative has probably never even quite swallowed The Wasteland or Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. So is he at all likely to get much more out of the works of, say, Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning than he does out of Piss Christ or the chocolate-covered Karen Finley? Perhaps he may be forgiven for wondering whether he has much at stake in the struggle to defend traditions that culminate in the likes of abstract expressionism and serialism against the assaults of the postmodernist wreckers. Better, perhaps, to abolish the National Endowments altogether, defund college humanities divisions that seem to do nothing useful anyway, and head down to the NASCAR track, put on a Garth Brooks album, or take in a movie. After all, while Mel Gibson may not have the highest of brows, at least he can be counted on to fight the good fight for God and country, and to keep you awake while doing so."
This hairsplitting -- the economic conservatives, the political conservatives, and the conservatives that drive Candy Red Trans Ams - is very much what LI was talking about. And the idea that we dicker about High Culture with people who have no education in it, on the principle that, I suppose, education is unnecessary for an opinion in these things, was once labelled, by some conservative, the ideology of "trousered apes."
So: that's the bone we have to pick. Still, Max, who was nice enough to reply to us, was right to point out that, with the time and effort that goes into putting up a collective weblog, we were much too hasty in generalizing about it, and that it has more potential than we gave it credit for in our post -- we were attacking it as a stalking horse for all the sins of contemporary conservatism. Sorry, Max.