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Whose Conservative Culture?

I’m attending a gathering next week at which the topic for discussion is “New Directions in Cultural Conservatism.” I plan to seethe.

Why? Because the conversation will be about political theory, the fine arts, and literature, which are what the men and women sitting around that table believe constitute culture. Nobody will mention guns, NASCAR, or the martial arts unless I pipe up.

Changing the course of cultural conservatism — however you may wish to define either term — is assumed necessary by the now-considerable power of the Left; by the fact that the electorate has given over Congress and the White House (and, by extension, the judiciary) to liberals. That this has this happened in a country in which twice as many people self-identify as conservative rather than liberal remains something of a mystery. Thus we reflect.

The mystery is solved in part simply by considering the serial failures of the Republican Party. I haven’t much to say about that, except to note that the trouble with the GOP is that it has no pope — cardinals in abundance, but no pope. What has happened to the Republican Party is not unlike the crisis that has beset the Catholic Church. Indeed, the same sort of smarmy characters seem to have served Caesar as had been serving God, but with one, big difference: Benedict XVI. Out of the scandals of the Church has come a great leader, a man who has restored Catholic confidence in Catholic tradition and who offers hope for a Catholic future. But the GOP has no pope, and its failures seem almost irredeemably hopeless. There’s no longer much republicanism among Republicans and no leader I can name.

There are many high-level conservative confabs and much head scratching, and out of it may come some real leadership, some honest-to-God Republicanism for a change. But I’m worried that this tunnel vision about culture is wrecking us. Frankly, your conservative intellectual has more in common with your liberal intellectual than with most Republican voters and precious little in common with the vast majority of the American people. When Nick Kristof writes in The New York Times that the election of Barack Obama signals the end of the ”anti-intellectualism that has long been a strain in American life,” it isn’t only the Lefties who think this a good thing. Stimulating cocktail party debates between libs and cons may flourish, but outside the safety of high-rises and embassies, poor old liberty is being mugged.

I’ve written in the past about sports, and some conservative intellectuals have told me they like reading my stuff, but they also never fail to add: “But personally I know nothing about it!” I’ve even heard some of these fellows fairly spit venom about sports or movies or car culture or popular religion, and it’s a point of pride with them that everything in their purviews is “high.” Culture is “high” art; religion is “high” church. And the thing that is so infuriating about liberal intellectuals is exactly the same thing that is infuriating about conservative intellectuals: a narrow-minded arrogance that insists they know better about everything than the Bible-thumping, gun-owning, NASCAR-loving, gin-rummy-playing folks who wouldn’t live in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, or San Francisco even if they won the lottery. (It’s not just the Left that haughtily refers to “fly-over states.”)

These intellectuals wax eloquent about the atonal compositions of Arnold Schoenberg but are repelled by the lyrical songs of Alan Jackson. The best of them read Thucydides and apply classical insights to war, but their sons don’t serve in the military, and I know from personal experience that if you have a soldier-son the smart guys think you’re a sucker. Conservative intellectuals argue about small-r republicanism and the rule of law, but they’re clueless that sports more effectively connect the country to these traditions than does any journal article. As Wilmore Kendall put it, Americans have it all “in their hips.” Picture John Wayne walking; Tiger Woods striding down a perfect putt.

Conservative intellectuals are entitled to whatever cocoons they wish to spin, but they are missing the extent to which they might connect to power in these United States simply by embracing American culture — in its entirety. The last time I was at the Metropolitan Museum it was crowded, but not as crowded as Yankee Stadium, and it takes nothing away from Jacobello to admire Jeter. The greatness of the Middle Ages and a great middle infielder are both culture.


Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.