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Ed Driscoll

Pop Goes the Culture

January 7th, 2013 - 8:28 pm

In his Weekly Standard article on former NPR employee Ken Myers, who nowadays self-produces what he describes as the audio equivalent of Saturday Review, Andrew Ferguson writes:

“I’ve always thought that beautiful art was a great apologetic resource,” Myers says. Beauty is the chief attribute of God, said Jonathan (not Bob) Edwards. “Beauty points to a Creator.” Yet the church, Myers says, “capitulates more and more to the culture of entertainment.”

“It’s a way of keeping market share. But they’re digging their own grave. There’s a short-term benefit, but in the long term the kinds of cultural resources they need to be faithful to the Gospel won’t be there.”

Things haven’t been much better in the conservative movement, to the extent that it still exists. The idea that conservatives should have a special interest in high culture—the best that has been thought and said, sung and played, carved and drawn—has been selectively applied. In speeches and in the Journal Myers has often raised the question of why political conservatives, who defended the literary canon, the Great Books, with such energy in the eighties and nineties, went limp when it came to defending other traditional forms of cultural expression.

A watershed may have been reached when Rush Limbaugh, who would replace William Buckley as conservatism’s chief publicist in the early ’90s, chose as his show’s theme music a Top 40 track by the Pretenders—a self-conscious contrast, Limbaugh has said, to the baroque trumpet concerto that opened Buckley’s TV show Firing Line. Buckley’s fanfare had signaled that he aspired to something lively but elevated, slightly at an angle to the surrounding popular culture. The Pretenders’ guitar riff was meant to signal that Limbaugh’s conservatism would have none of that stuffy stuff: He was fully at home with what had become of American culture and wasn’t terribly curious about what had come before.

The indifference among conservatives toward beauty and order—toward artistic aspiration itself—shows how deeply they have imbibed the relativism and subjectivism of the culture in which they live and move and have their being. Myers likes to use the term “emotivism,” taken from the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Emotivism is a handy tag for the secular dogma that all judgments of value are merely expressions of private emotion and taste, telling us nothing about the world as it is and not defensible on objective grounds. Along with everyone else, conservatives and Christians are uncomfortable with a hierarchy of aesthetic judgments. They have come to believe that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder; it’s not a quality inherent in things themselves but a matter of opinion.

Ferguson concludes that paragraph by writing with plenty of sarcasm: “Bach .  .  . Chrissie Hynde .  .  . who’s to say who’s lovelier?” Obviously, the answer in terms of depth and musical technique is of course the former. But it’s worth mentioning that from all accounts, WFB loved Rush; he interviewed him at least once on Firing Line, and for a time in the 1990s, the two shows happily co-existed, until eventually, Buckley retired from his hosting duties, before eventually stepping down from National Review.

Just as a personal anecdote, while I appreciate Firing Line very much today, I found it more than a little inaccessible in the 1970s and 1980s, when I first began to approach the Dark Side of the Force. As I wrote in my encomium to the show from last year, when I stumbled onto a huge cache of the shows Amazon made streamable for free, for its Amazon Prime members:

Just in case someone thinks I was soaking all this in as a teenager Alex P. Keaton-style, I found Buckley’s on-air style more than a little off-putting; it was only hearing Rush Limbaugh’s show with its rock music soundtrack (Rush, in his heart of hearts, is the greatest AM DJ who ever lived), and reading PJ O’Rourke (and later on the Internet Jonah Goldberg and James Lileks) that I realized one could be somewhere on the right and not have to discard his sense of humor, and love of pop culture. Which may explain why Buckley rarely seemed to receive from the left the full nelson treatment that Rush endures. Buckley’s erudition made him acceptable to New York’s liberal intellectual culture in the 1960s; it also ensured that until it received a populist spokesman, it was possible for Old Media to keep conservatism safely in the corner on PBS an hour a week.

But in the early 1990s, hearing someone defending the tax cuts that fueled the economic growth that powered the previous decade, the winning of the Cold War, and opening his show with a song from an album I owned? I don’t have to toss my CD collection on the bonfire? I’m in!

On the other hand, there’s also the issue with establishment liberalism’s abandonment of middle- and highbrow culture, which Ferguson and Myers describe in-depth. Check out the opening to A&E Design Classics show I uploaded to YouTube last year on the Barcelona Chair, with shots of Leonard Bernstein, Vladimir Horowitz, ballet, stage, etc. That version of A&E has long since expired, and even the History Channel is far more interested in shows such as Pawn Stars and Swamp People than actually documenting history these days.

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