Winning Politics, Losing Culture

The Goldwaters

Photo by Max Sparber — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

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… But if the word ‘culture’ means for you forms of courtship, or sexual preferences, 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, believing, and rejoicing, and suffering, and dying that are hallowed by the religion you practice and embodied in the church that you belong to — if for you, culture does not primarily signify opera or HBO, then you are… either a heartland or a Bloomian conservative.

So argues Lee Siegel in a Wall Street Journal analysis of the cultural background to the McCain and Obama campaign for the White House, posted this week in KArts Culture News.

Lee Siegel, who is as controversial for his views as he is for his online behavior, is without a doubt one of the more literate, passionate, and keenly intelligent cultural critics in America. He perceives two kinds of Americans: those who think the “problem” is in our politics, and those who think the “problem” is in our culture.

Siegel argues that the conservative analysis — and election tactics — of American culture became most prominent during the Reagan years, and in the cornerstone books of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and with William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues (and, don’t forget William Henry’s In Defense of Elitism).

For Siegel, liberals separate culture from daily life — they do a museum, then do the rest of their daily life. Culture is a leisure time activity, not the defining part of their daily life activities as it is for conservatives. Culture as entertainment outside of daily life is “fabricated” culture; culture as the very core of one’s daily life structure and choices is “organic.”

Conservative v. Liberal. Organic v. fabricated. Get it?

Conservatives want to take back cultural understanding from all those left-wing professors — those sixties’ radicals who have become sedentary college professors jealous of the economic success of others, who are so angry at the smallness of their own lives they teach from an even smaller palette of experience and artistic work. Take that, politically correct syllabi!

However, notice that in Siegel’s definition of the different approaches to culture, he gives so many more positive possibilities to the conservative definition. Culture is not about opera, museum going, and reading, it’s the really important stuff! Culture is your life and death, and the sex in between!

Siegel has culture “as the necessity of living a meaningful life.” Fair enough, and no doubt true enough.

However, this argument of left-right cultural distinction makes it sound as though the conservative goal is to separate us from thinking about — questioning — our daily existence, our way of loving, our way of behaving, our way of interacting with others, especially those outside our own geographic fence.

As defined here, the conservative cultural approach has the possibility to be solely about one’s own kind, closed to those outside the community of like-minded. The liberal cultural approach has the possibility to experience, interact, confront, and understand the lives of others.

Are the conservatives afraid of the lives of others? This might make winning politics, but not great culture.

- Bill Reichblum

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