“I often think it’s comical – Fal, lal, la!
How Nature always does contrive – Fal, lal, la!
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!
Fal, lal, la!”
This wonderful lyric from Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Iolanthe is quoted in Steven Pinker’s fascinating book The Blank Slate. It illustrates the Harvard psychologist’s argument that there may be a genetic predisposition toward one political leaning or the other. Pinker writes:
The Right-Left axis aligns an astonishing collection of beliefs that at first glance seem to have nothing in common… Why on earth should people’s beliefs about sex predict their beliefs about the size of the military? What does religion have to do with taxes? Whence the linkage between strict construction of the Constitution and disdain for shocking art?
Pinker believes the answer may lie as much in a person’s nature as his nurture.
Both the Gilbert and Sullivan lines and Pinker’s book came back to me last week as I read this article in the movie trade paper The Hollywood Reporter about a poll they sponsored on the movie-going habits of Republicans and Democrats. The poll confirmed what many of us believe: Republicans go to the movies less, in part because they feel their values will be assaulted on-screen… which, of course, they will be.
But looking further, the poll also showed results that, while in no way surprising, do tend to confirm Pinker’s idea that there may be some genetic underpinning to our political positions:
► Republicans prefer family films; Democrats like edge. From hundreds of Oscar winners and classics, Republicans were far more likely to name as favorites The Sound of Music and It’s a Wonderful Life; Democrats favored Bonnie and Clyde and The Silence of the Lambs. Among recent films, Republicans were likelier to choose Soul Surfer and Secretariat. Democrats? The Social Network, Bad Teacher, and Easy A.
This makes visceral sense, but I’m not sure there’s any sound philosophy behind it. Perhaps I’m a genetic sport, but I know I don’t fit into either of those categories. A political right-winger to my shoes, I think It’s A Wonderful Life and Bonnie And Clyde are both excellent movies, and The Sound of Music and Silence of the Lambs are both okay but over-rated (Lambs the novel, however, is awesome). I couldn’t finish Secretariat, thought The Social Network was amusing but shallow and forgettable, and have no intention of seeing either Soul Surfer or Bad Teacher, though I could imagine watching the latter if it came on late night TV.
You might think this a mere matter of aesthetics. I have real moral problems with the film Bonnie and Clyde, but it’s clearly a better piece of movie making than The Sound of Music… and so on.
But in fact, my outlook spills over into many other areas of life. For instance, it has made choosing a church, even a denomination, problematical. I believe in what many would call a fairly strict Catholic theology and yet find myself deeply uncomfortable with Catholicism’s hierarchical structure and narrow sexual attitudes. When I want theology, I read the present Pope, who is a genius. When I go to church, I’m stuck with the blithering leftists currently running Anglicanism into obsolescence.
In other words, it’s not just a matter of enjoying the élan of “liberal” style but wanting it to deliver conservative content. My “mixed” attitude derives from the very same source as my conservatism: I really dig being part of the human race — not the human race as leftists (and some rightists) dream it should be, but real humanity, as it always has been and still is. I want to know us in all our inspiring brilliance and goodness, but also in our hilarious corruption, stupidity, pettiness, and insanity. I’m awestruck by the heroism of a medal of honor recipient like Dakota Meyer, but I’m also fascinated by a Tiger Woods, who had everything people covet in life, including a gorgeous wife, and threw much of it away for some cheap bangs with some dumb broads. I am uplifted to see a church elevate a great mind like Joseph Ratzinger to its papacy, but also weirdly amused by an establishment that showers its highest honors on a lunatic nonsense monger and hypocrite like Al Gore. Yes, I’m depressed by human evil and cruelty, whether it’s some Communist slaughtering his neighbors to make the world more “fair,” or some other type of pervert ruining the life of a child, say, to satisfy his own cravings. But I don’t want to close my eyes to these atrocities. They’re part of this wounded creation and I want to look at them squarely and say with Shakespeare’s Prospero, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”
It’s the arts more than anything that show us the human panoply in full array — and do it, for the most part, without committing the sins they depict. To take a strictly leftist or conservative approach to culture is to live half blind. Trust in God and affection for mankind demand, it seems to me, that we allow every life that is not vicious to live itself out in its own way. That philosophy is not only what makes me an American conservative, it’s what allows me to enjoy good art of every kind.