You Can Lead A Bore To Culture, But You Can’t Make Her Think

This was originally posted on my old blog Veritas et Venustas in September 2008. I’m not reposting most of my old political commentary from there, but I’m making an exception for this one because it starts to get into an important issue: Modernist architecture is usually not progressive today, and traditional design is not necessarily conservative. Just ask President Obama.

With apologies to Dorothy Parker

PalinWink STEVE SCHMIDT and his Rovian crew have transformed the Obama – McCain contest by dropping Sarah Palin into it — and then doing that voodoo they do do so well. “At some point during the past week, the Republican ticket flipped. Sarah Palin became the principal candidate in the general election, with John McCain her much-diminished running mate,” Toronto’s Globe and Mail accurately reported today. “’It’s an astonishing and unprecedented development in American presidential politics,’ MSNBC’s political journalists blogged Friday on their First Read website.”

On the cover of today’s Weekend Journal section, the Wall Street Journal has an interesting and insightful analysis of this historic event, titled The Triumph of Culture Over Politics. “Liberals always think there’s something broken in politics. Conservatives always think there’s something wrong with the culture,’ journalist Lee Siegel writes. “Why that gives Sarah Palin and the Republicans the edge in November.”

My biggest difference with the essay is that presents only two primary poles: Democratic / Liberal and Republican / Religious Conservative. Rove and Schmidt might like us to think that, even though they know it’s not true. The Pentecostal Religious Right doesn’t have enough voters to elect national candidates on its own, as everyone knows. And, on the other hand, a conservative national candidate can’t get elected without the support of the Religious Right. Necessarily included in the winning Republican coalition are atheistic Libertarians, Ivy-educated intellectuals and effete Eastern bankers who have no interest in goin’ moose huntin’ with Sarah Palin. But they all pretend they’re gun totin’ populists.

In the second half of the 20th century, the Democratic party moved to the Liberalism that Republicans complain about, and it still has that element today. But we’re in the 21st century now, and there are new paradigms. Politically, Barack Obama may be Exhibit A. Why? Because he is more Classical Liberal, or Progressive, than 20th century Liberal.

In The Triumph of Culture Over Politics, Siegel presents Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind as an important symbol of the changes going on in the 20th century. He glosses over the link between Bloom’s Great Books and intellectualism to Sarah Palin’s Hockey Mom, but summarizes it in the word “values.”

He’s right that there’s a link. Between Palin and Obama, however, it is clearly Obama, who taught at Bloom’s university, who also shares Bloom’s intellectualism and love of learning. Does anyone imagine Palin writing a book about Great Books? As Mayor, she pressured her town librarian about censoring books and turned down expansion requests for the library while proposing and building a $15 million sports complex.

Intellectualism is not a matter of liberalism or conservatism, and neither are values. Unlike Libertarians, Obama and even the Clintons share religious values with Palin and Bloom. But unlike Bloom, Obama and the Clintons haven’t clearly distinguished the expression of their values from the Modernist and materialistic liberalism that often dominated the Democratic party in the second half of the twentieth century.

Take the example of abortion. A progressive Catholic might be be pro-choice, more concerned about abortion than any other political issue. A conservative Libertarian might be pro-life. What distinguishes their choices is not whether they are conservative or progressive, but their opinions about the sanctity of life.

Conservatives are right when they say Modernism and Modern Liberalism became elitist. Modern literature, modern art and modern architecture were all esoteric, even though the original intent was to be progressive, bringing social and economic reform. Now we are at the end of Modernism, and it has become more esoteric and elitist than ever. Conversely, traditional art and architecture are populist, and New Urbanism and its Traditional Neighborhood Developments have taken the social reform mantle from Modernism.

Obama made a Classical colonnade for his convention speech, and that McCain’s crew ridiculed it as elitist. Traditional architecture is elitist? It’s what almost all of Palin’s voters want. And I happen to know that Karl Rove has a vacation home in a Duany Plater-Zyberk designed traditional neigbhorhood, while his old boss Dubya has hired traditional architect Robert A.M. Stern to design the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

Values, intellectualism and tradition are neither conservative nor progressive. Or to put it another way, there are progressive and conservative values, intellectualism and traditions. Tradition evolves. Modernist ideologue Michael Sorkin tries to present Classical architecture as the architecture of slave owners, but the first Black candidate for President (who is undoubtedly Sorkin’s candidate), chose Classical architecture for its evocation of Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I’ll take all bets that despite the McCain campaign’s ridiculing of columns, Bush’s library will have columns.

Obama also mentioned all the symbols of democracy in Washington that use columns, like the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the White House and the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. It’s possible that Obama is one of those who sees the connection between Natural Law, Democracy and Classicism, as the Founding Fathers did. Bloom & Company would like to claim this exclusively for conservatives, and Modernism rejected the connection. It is another area, like religious or spiritual values, where the right has tried to monopolize the field, but where there are progressive, moderate and conservative positions. A part of the change Obama talks about is this broadening of the political discussion, rejecting 20th century Liberalism as the only alternative to present-day conservatives. Classical Liberalism is an American heritage, not just a Neo-Con tradition.

Personally, I agree with many conservative complaints about 20th century Liberalism. But Obama is my answer to the issue, not Palin. The Republicans are so cynical about this that they’ve almost said the last few weeks that it’s better to have a President who wants to go moose huntin’ than read a book. And that huntin’ is a better qualification for leading the nation than a good education. But I don’t think I can take four more years of someone who says “nucular” having their trigger-happy finger near the button in the Oval Office.

Palin’s official introduction to the admiring throngs at the Republican convention began with the words “Mother, Moose Hunter, Maverick.” Which one of those, exactly, qualifies her to be President of the United States of America? For that matter, why is having your plane shot down a qualification?

We’ve already had 8 years of the President You’d Rather Have A Beer With. How’d that work out? Today, Alan Greenspan said Bush has given us the worst economy he’s ever seen, and for at least 150 years our standing in the world has never been lower. Putin laughs at us when we say he shouldn’t invade other countries, and our allies hang their heads. Palin apparently doesn’t think of these things.

Siegel’s not wrong. Democrats need to appeal to the heart, as well as the head and the pocketbook. Obama, despite his intellectualism, can do that. Elect Obama, and vote for real culture. Elect Obama, and we can kill two birds with one stone. If the McCain – Palin ticket isn’t elected now, Palin could never make it through the bruising debates of the Republican presidential primaries.
The Triumph of Culture Over Politics
Liberals always think there’s something broken in politics. Conservatives always think there’s something wrong with the culture. Why that gives Sarah Palin and the Republicans the edge in November.
Wall Street Journal
By Lee Siegel
September 13, 2008; Page W1

Culture war, culture war! In our nation of revivals — theatrical, cinematic and political — this one sounds exciting, and promises a riveting new story line in the riveting presidential campaign. But the idea of a resurrected culture war is all sound bites and flurry, and not much else.

That was when the Reaganites pronounced government irrelevant, even obstructive, to the improvement of social life, thereby shifting the Republicans’ center of operations from politics to culture. In short order, the Reagan revolutionaries invited into their cause the Christian right, who set their self-contained cultural universe against secular cultural values that the liberals had never dreamed would be under explicit siege.

Still, the Christian perspective had to be tempered and made more inclusive. Enter Allan Bloom. In 1987, Mr. Bloom published his bestselling “The Closing of the American Mind,” an attack on what he perceived as coarse popular culture and a destructive political correctness at the universities. Taking up the Christian right’s banner in his cosmopolitan intellectual’s hands, Mr. Bloom married the religious right to the mostly secular neo-conservatives. He began the work completed by William Bennett in the latter’s sensationally popular “The Book of Virtues.” Mr. Bloom redefined culture as “values.”

Mr. Bloom gave the impression that it was hopeless to fight for his beloved Great Books because the Great Books had been driven to extinction by angry left-wing professors and vulgar forms of diversion. High culture was irretrievably lost to the average person. Culture for Mr. Bloom now meant not literature or art, but the struggle for the American individual’s endangered “soul” (a word repeated throughout his book). This secular Armageddon was vividly embodied by Mr. Bloom in his now-notorious image of a solipsistic American teenager masturbating alone in his room while listening to deafening rock and roll. In one stroke, Mr. Bloom submerged politics irrevocably, and fertilely, in culture, and he defined culture in the broadest way as the necessity of living a meaningful life. Values, in other words.

As a result of all this intellectual tumult, one 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.

Everett Collection
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.

But organic culture has its squalid side, too. Blindness to the role culture plays in politics, even contempt for raising the subject, also lies behind the Democrats’ fatal blindness to the brute fact of race in America. When, during the primaries, the Clintons seemed to allude to the subject of Sen. Obama’s electability in light of his race, they were accused by many of their fellow Democrats of “playing the race card.” It is fairly incredible that it was, for the most part, not until this summer that liberals began publicly asking themselves if the country was ready for a black president. That it was not until recently that liberals began wondering with any forcefulness whether people really were telling pollsters the truth about their attitudes toward race. (“Will race influence your vote for president?” “Race?! Me? Are you kidding? Of course not!”)

For 18 months, the majority of liberal commentators wrote so rapturously and unskeptically about Sen. Obama’s candidacy that you would have thought he was just a white guy with a deep tan. It was as though people were afraid that if they spoke honestly about racism as a stumbling block to his candidacy, they would be taken for racists themselves. Indeed, it was as though by ignoring racist attitudes when writing about Sen. Obama, liberal commentators conferred on themselves the virtuous idealism that they were fantastically attributing to the country as a whole. It is an elementary psychological fact that we sometimes praise to an absurd degree what makes us slightly uncomfortable — or that we put the source of discomfort in an impossibly ideal light in order to put as much distance as possible between us…and the person we fear we may actually be.

Politics, by definition, is the art of making the abstract palpable and real. Within the realm of organic culture, abstract ideas about life are already embodied in life itself. Bill Clinton might have preached to the crowd in Denver about the importance of the “power of example,” but it’s the Republican strategists who practice that idea with consummate skill. Years ago, the Republicans seem to have abandoned Russell Kirk, the intellectual progenitor of modern American conservatism, for Mark Burnett — the creator of “Survivor” and the father of reality television, a form of entertainment in which you come to relish the example of chastised ambition. Reality TV’s winners earn your affection by running the gamut of ordeal and humiliation. In the same way, the Republicans have intuitively grasped a new, virulent strain of democracy, accelerated by the Internet, in which authority must be humbled before it is allowed to lead, or to lead again.

Authority that is pre-humbled, as it were, has the tactical edge. John McCain’s tale of ordeal as a P.O.W. in Hanoi doesn’t only demonstrate his heroism and patriotism. It portrays his humiliation and the shattering of his ego, as Sen. McCain himself has stressed. The terrible image of Sen. McCain being beaten without mercy in some filthy torture chamber is an image of powerful authority — a national politician, a United States Senator — being made to bend to the higher power of malevolent necessity. It is an image that feeds contemporary democracy’s leveling maw.

Sen. McCain is not above us, this carefully crafted story tells us, he is not on the elevated level of those three sitting ducks in a row, the articulate, intellectually aloof, Ivy-educated politicians Al Gore, John Kerry and now Sen. Obama (that name! like having a Democratic candidate for president named Pruschev at the height of the Cold War). Sen. McCain is very much unlike Sen. Obama, whose equally crafted autobiography tells a tale of youthful indecision, wandering, mild drug use and eventual redemption as a privileged young man working among the poor and disenfranchised. Sen. McCain, however, started in a dark hole of startling setback, a place that is a more extreme echo of other, mundane places where so many people find themselves day to day.

Sen. Obama still struggles with the sin of pride, he tells us with his confident grin and his air of perfect poise. You could be forgiven for thinking that he is proudly displaying his scorn for his own oversized pride. Sen. McCain, on the other hand, confesses, with his lean, Bogartian mouth set in a near-grimace, that “I’ve been an imperfect servant of my country for many years.” And then he describes for us the gripping origins of his imperfection. Meanwhile, Professor Obama explains, eloquently and stirringly, the theoretical distinction between “ought” and “is.” The difference between the destiny-battered Republican candidate and the issue-arrayed Democratic one is like the difference between a mass-market paperback and a college syllabus.

The Republicans’ cultural fluency has lately given them yet another advantage over the Democrats. For this season has given us the first truly postmodern election. Modern political campaigns are amalgams of politics, spectacle and entertainment. Postmodern campaigns teem with fluid identities, unmoored meanings and blurred boundaries to the point that stable terms like “politics,” “spectacle” and “entertainment” barely exist as separate concepts. These innovations, if you will, are shifts in the culture, and the total submersion of politics in a cultural atmosphere is a trend perfectly suited to the party of organic culture.

All the postmodern qualities are present and thriving. There is historical pastiche, as Sen. Obama gives us a shmear of JFK, a sprinkle of LBJ, a smidgen of FDR and dollops of MLK, and as Sen. McCain offers up a little Reagan here, some Nixon there and a bit of Truman everywhere. There is a kind of speeding relativity, as the candidates change long-held positions in a second, and even assimilate each other’s positions. And there are fungible selves, as the two nominees respond almost hysterically to an illusion of majority opinions: a few right-wingers yell and McCain chooses a right-wing running mate to appease them (as if more than a relative handful of evangelicals were going to either vote for Obama or stay home and risk letting Obama win); a few Hillaryites scream and Obama decides not to choose a female running mate so as not to inflame them (as if more than a relative handful of disaffected Hillary supporters were either going to vote for McCain or stay home and risk letting McCain win).

The most surprising development is the way the Republicans — the party of Christian fundamentalists and of Allan Bloom’s epigones — have deftly adapted to the postmodern ambience. Both Obama and McCain are working the levers of the YouTube universe, Obama by telling his supporters that “This election is not about me. It’s about you,” and McCain by declaring that “I don’t work for myself. I work for you.” In this new, participatory culture, “you” has become a sort of generalized first person, and the first person — of the ubiquitous memoirists, for example — does the work of a particularized “you.” Vicariousness, in other words, has become a universal principle. We love people who make it possible for us to imagine inhabiting their lives. This perhaps explains the rising distaste for leaders whose crowns are not made of thorns, whose realm of life we cannot imagine penetrating. In both those senses, Sarah Palin exerts a wide appeal to a certain type of voter.

In this climate, what might seem to be Gov. Palin’s blatant struggles with inadequacy serve as proof of her potential to lead. She wins the vicarious sweepstakes hands down. Every revelation of a seeming deficiency in her temperament, judgment or character offers a new avenue of access into her life. Then, too, the Republicans have, with Gov. Palin, made their acceptance of her shortcomings proof of their commitment to caring. All the abstract talk in the world about compassionate change cannot match an example of forgiveness in action. As for Obama the abstract talker, his autobiographical tales of triumph over ordinary human imperfection stick him with the appearance of being insufficiently imperfect to lead.

It is bad enough for Sen. Obama that in his “complexity” he seems to bear the same relationship to action-hero, yet-no-dummy McCain that nuanced and complex Adlai Stevenson bore to action-hero, yet-no-dummy Eisenhower. Even worse, in Sen. Obama’s elevated way of thinking and speaking, he cannot touch what seem to be the mean, petty, vindictive, narrow-minded hockey mom’s achievements in the realm of sheer human messiness. To put it another way, the jangling twists and turns, contrasts, incongruities and outright contradictions in the team of McCain and Palin make them the perfect duo for our mega-distracted culture. (The P.O.W. factor meets the WOW factor.) Obama and Biden are like the warp and the woof of a traditional stereo system — each one completes the other. Watching and listening to the Arizona senator and the Alaskan governor, side by side, or one after the other, is like listening to an iPod, instant messaging, watching TV and talking on your cellphone all at once.

No, there is no culture war. There is only the Republicans’ unilateral mastery of the cultural strategy. The Democrats consider any attention to the practices and prejudices of everyday living a mendacious diversion from the “issues,” while the GOP, the party of the status quo, has proven itself astoundingly skillful at using its cultural antennae to adapt to new times. Who knew? The Republicans may or may not be the party that will effect change. But they are certainly the party that knows how to ride it.

Lee Siegel’s most recent book is “Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.”

About John Massengale

Architect, Urbanist, Author, Educator
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