With regard to Mark Butterworth's piece immediately below, and the Jonah Goldberg essay he references, both make cogent arguments for their positions...and both largely miss the point. But that's so often the case with even the brightest and most observant commentators on cultural matters that I can hardly fault them for it. Nevertheless, duty calls with an iron voice, and I shall not shirk the summons.
Herewith, a little "Sunday school" for two of the brightest and worthiest writers on the Web.
The home truths about people -- that is, the base facts about our natures, particularly our natures regarding what we'll seek, accept, tolerate, and reject from one another -- are more frequently overlooked or dismissed outright when the subject is "culture" than in most other venues of commentary. This is partly because all such commentators have an agenda they'd like to retrofit to the culture, but far more because of the fallaciousness of all arguments that treat the expressive elements of a society as something that can be dealt with in isolation from other aspects of that culture.
"Culture" isn't just books, music, movies, and popular entertainment; it's the mental gestalt that prevails in the society at issue. Its expressive elements cannot be separated from the rest. Indeed, any attempt to treat with "culture" separately from matters such as the dominant convictions, ambitions, and fears in a society is doomed to miss everything that's significant about it.
I contend thus not merely as a thinker -- a "public intellectual," if you will -- but as a storyteller of some ability who's striven for more than two decades to advance theses that are routinely labeled "countercultural." I have reason to know what's possible and what's not from my own experiences.
The first home truth pertinent to "culture," which shall henceforward lose its quotes and go naked before the Gentle Readers of Liberty's Torch under the assumption that you know what I mean by the word, is a simple one:
In any society at a given point in time, there will be a dominant plateau of assumptions, values, and priorities from which the great majority of that society's members begin all their mental exertions. That plateau is sometimes called "common wisdom," which misconceives it somewhat but will do for our purposes even so. We most often speak of "common wisdom" when we want to discuss contradictions to it or departures from it. There's a tendency among commentators to treat "common wisdom" as the refuge of those who can't or won't think for themselves. That causes us to underestimate its power.
The "common wisdom" of a society at a selected point in time is the aggregate of conclusions formed by past generations and past experience. A great part of it will be accurate enough for practical purposes. Some of it is almost certainly wrong -- wrong, at least, in having been applied beyond the domain to which it is proper. But the "wrong" part is sustained by the authority of the "right" part, just as the "right" part is sustained by the weight of experience and the respect we nominally accord to our progenitors. To argue successfully against some "wrong" aspect of the "common wisdom" is difficult for precisely this reason.
There's this as well: The "common wisdom" of an era reflects not merely the thought processes and experience of past generations; it also expresses their motivators: their desires, fears, and beliefs. If the present's motivators have departed significantly, or within particular demographics, from those of the past, the "common wisdom" will be challenged, -- possibly sotto voce -- along those fault lines. The challengers who dare to raise their heads above the cultural trench lip will be widely recognized: among those who agree with them or are persuaded by them, as innovators; among those who hew to the "common wisdom," as destroyers.
In this lies the second of the home truths that pertain to culture:
Something He Doesn't Want To Hear.
Messaging, in the context of culture, is about planting or nurturing a countercultural seedling -- that is, a strain of thought that jumps off the dominant plateau to advance a thesis that departs from the "common wisdom" in some significant way. This is as true of political messaging as of any other sort.
For example, given a culture in which the dominant plateau includes the following assumptions:
- Morality is relative;
- Property is a matter of convention rather than right;
- Material success is mainly a matter of luck, plus knowing the right people;
...attempts to nurture the conviction that morality is absolute, or that property rights are natural rights, or that material success is the consequence of insight, innovation, courage, and perseverance, are inherently countercultural. The "common wisdom" will resist them; only those who are willing to depart from the "common wisdom" long enough to adopt different assumptions will treat with them even tentatively. He who dares make such an attempt will be assailed by the overwhelming majority and championed only by a minority, perhaps a tiny minority. He must be prepared for it and unsurprised by it.
Consider one of the most forthright and popular attempts to challenge the assumptions above: Ayn Rand's novels, particularly Atlas Shrugged. Rand's magnum opus was attacked viciously from every corner of American culture in the Fifties and Sixties. Indeed, even supposedly conservative organs such as National Review, which might have been assumed to favor Rand's theses, felt compelled to denigrate it. Its departure from "common wisdom" required the reader to abandon some of the most strongly felt assumptions carried forward from the Thirties and Forties. To accept and champion Rand's thesis put one at odds with the great majority of those around him. Such persons incurred moral disapprobation, sometimes to the point of condemnation and ostracism, for doing so.
Rand and those who agree with her were, and are, up against a third home truth:
By The Opinions Of Others
Than We Like To Think Or Admit.
The most powerful counteragent to the "common wisdom" is always and everywhere the same. It's one that anyone would recognize, though it often embarrasses us to speak of it: the desire to be like our heroes.
The polemicist who can depict a countercultural hero -- that is, a hero who champions a countercultural proposition -- in an attractive and winning fashion will simultaneously win the allegiance of some of those who admire him for that proposition. This is not easy, especially when the proposition at issue requires some mental exercise to grasp. Nevertheless, it can be done. The proof of the pudding is in its counterexamples: the attempts by prominent purveyors of entertainment to identify the ideas they despise with unattractive proponents.
Consider as examples two movies of some years ago: Wall Street and Other People's Money. Both movies identified an important idea -- that investment capitalism and the desire to make money thereby are good and worthy -- with an unattractive proponent. Wall Street's Gordon Gekko was crude, ruthless, and dishonest; Other People's Money's Lawrence Garfield was personally unappealing, not the sort of hero most of us would hope to see in ourselves. (It didn't help that he was portrayed by Danny DeVito, either.) Thus, the first movie was explicitly anti-capitalist, as one would expect from Oliver Stone; the second was implicitly so, despite the value of its overt message.
Movies that promote explicitly pro-freedom, pro-capitalism ideas through the actions of attractive heroes we would largely adjudge as noble and worthy of emulation are rare...from Hollywood. But such movies are occasionally made by little production companies outside Hollywood's orbit; John Aglialoro's movies of Atlas Shrugged and Bill Whittle's Declaration Entertainment are currently attempting exactly that.
What such producers must accept a priori is that their offerings, being countercultural -- slaps in the face of "common wisdom" and the fears of disapproval most of us harbor -- will not be popular. The mass audiences that flock to Hollywood's special-effects-heavy productions will largely spurn them. At best, they will plant a mustard seed; at worst, they will reassure a remnant population that the dream of freedom has not entirely departed from our shores.
That is the lot of the man who makes pro-freedom entertainment.
Or pro-capitalism entertainment.
Or pro-Christian or pro-family entertainment.
But it doesn't suggest that the attempt itself is worthless, as Goldberg imputes.
Neither does it suggest that the Koch brothers should buy Universal Studios, and hire Mark and myself to write scripts for it.
Respect the power of the culture -- the real, gestalten culture.
Accept that in today's milieu, your efforts will be countercultural, and therefore unpopular.
But plant your mustard seeds where, when, and as you may.