How Conservatives Lost Heaven
If I had the chance at an elevator pitch with a rich conservative, say Rupert Murdoch or the Koch brothers, I would beg, plead, and cajole for one thing: a well-funded Conservative Chair in Popular Culture.
I'm thinking of a position helmed by a thinker who can contribute substantive thought and lengthy essays about American popular culture. Topics wouldn't have to just be blockbuster superhero movies or silliness at the MTV awards; the scholar could delve into jazz, old movies, crime fiction, experimental music, whatever. Greil Marcus by way of Robert George.
A Conservative Chair in Popular Culture would address the left's control of popular culture, but could do so in a way that was not reactive. By acknowledging that the battle for culture is a long one and that pop culture speaks to the deepest values and longings of people, a conservative focus on films, novels, comic books, and music could do what plain old conservatism has not been able to: change hearts and minds.
Recently jazz saxophonist Mark Turner released The Lathe of Heaven, an album which takes its title from a novel of the same name by science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin. The book describes the life of a man, George Orr, whose dreams actually become reality. He is encouraged by his psychiatrist, Dr. Haber, to start improving the world. Yet Haber's utopian dreams end up making things worse. Le Guin has called The Lathe of Heaven "a Taoist novel" rather than a utopian or dystopian one. But many reviewers see in the book a Hayekian warning about liberal social engineers. It's telling that no matter what good conditions are conjured by George Orr's dreams, it's never enough for Dr. Haber. He simply can't be happy.
This is an intriguing confluence of artistic projects -- an acclaimed jazz musician produces an album based on a noted science fiction novel with anti-utopian overtones. Yet because conservatives, unlike liberals, don't have a decades-old infrastructure to publicize such a work -- never mind a bright cultural mind to engage with it -- The Lathe of Heaven will most likely go unnoticed by the conservative media. And the same conservatives who ignore it are the ones who next week will be bemoaning the fact that the left "owns the culture."
If the left does own popular culture, it's because they worked hard for it, employing the conservative values of perseverance and creativity. There is a chasm that separates the infrastructure that the left has erected over the last 50 years to celebrate and interpret popular culture and the tiny space that establishment conservatism allocates to popular culture. It is for this reason, more than any claim that American popular culture is irredeemably decadent and leftist, that the right seems lost in the world of movies, music, and bestsellers. Every month, if not every week, important works of popular culture go unnoticed by the right. These are often things that speak to people's souls -- films that wrestle with questions of honor, novels, like Le Guin's about the meaning of sex and politics, music that explores the limits of self-sacrificial love.
And the right has nothing to contribute to the conversation.
In 1967 a college student named Jann Wenner borrowed $7,500 and founded Rolling Stone magazine because he wanted to cover the music and culture that was providing poetry to his generation. Around the same time a student named Martin Scorsese was graduating from New York University's film school, and a young would-be novelist named Ursula Le Guin was having her first five novels rejected. In other words, these artists, and many others, laid the groundwork for what they would eventually become -- the liberal establishment. They played the long game. This is why if musician Mark Turner had been inspired by Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, a book that imagines a race that can change its gender, there would be an interview in the New York Times, play on the internet, a mention in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, maybe even a spot on Letterman. The structure is in place so that when an artist reinforces dominant liberal values, he or she has an instant pipeline to the people.
When liberalism grew ascendant in the popular culture of the 1960s and 70s, conservatives simply reacted to it. To some extent this was understandable: the left's cultural revolution was brought to us, they were (and are) the aggressors, and it was necessary to respond. It still is. The right needs its Michelle Malkins and Ann Coulters, foot soldiers on the front lines. But it also needs Martin Scorseses and Alec Baldwins. It needs artists and dreamers and writers and weirdos. A lot of garbage came out of the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s, but so did a lot of worthwhile art. Saturday Night Live changed more people than National Review.
Imagine if the Heritage Foundation, probably the most visible conservative think tank, had a Chair in Popular Culture, helmed by a passionate and knowledgeable connoisseur of film, television and music. More, imagine if upon its founding in 1974 -- around the time Scorsese was shooting his breakthrough film Taxi Driver -- Heritage had create a small office for the study of pop culture. Just think what could have blossomed if they had tossed a few dollars to a young conservative or libertarian novelist or filmmaker. Or started a new journal that could have served as an alternative to Rolling Stone. We might not be flailing so much today with our parasitical endeavors that feed off the creativity of the liberal host.
Had conservatives had the foresight to engage, they would not be playing catch-up with the culture today. The Lathe of Heaven wouldn't be some strange jazz record from a musician we know nothing about, or an artifact from the bizarre world of science fiction. It would be something that we could actually speak about with some insight, and possibly even respond to with an equally compelling artistic vision. We wouldn't face relegation to the dustbin of pop culture history.