Life is short, said Hippocrates, but art is long. There is a practical corollary to that great truth: elections are won and lost in the politics of the moment, but it’s the culture that makes the nation.
In the aftermath of President Obama’s victory, conservative political thinkers will have to ask themselves some hard questions. How much of our defeat was due to strategy and how much to structure? How can we reach out to struggling workers without sacrificing our commitment to free enterprise and individual liberty? How can we speak to single women without losing voters committed to family values and the lives of the unborn? How can we welcome the children of illegal immigrants without compromising our belief in the rule of law?
The smartest political writers in the country, all of whom are conservative, will now be addressing those questions. I’m an artist; I play the long game.
To win that game, to create an electorate more deeply committed to true liberty and resistant to the sort of cultural scare tactics the president’s campaign team used so effectively, there are three areas to which conservatives need to commit intellectual and financial resources—three areas that our intelligentsia and funders, in their impractical practicality, too often ignore.
The mainstream news media. Major news outlets, like ABC, NBC, CBS, and the still influential New York Times have now become so ideologically corrupt that they are engaging in the sort of Nixonian cover-ups they once prided themselves on exposing. Their studied creation of non-scandal scandals and non-gaffe gaffes on the right and their active suppression of such true scandals as Fast and Furious and Benghazi on the left amount to journalistic malpractice on behalf of the state. The late Andrew Breitbart understood the depth and extent of the problem better than the cooler establishment heads who wrinkled their noses at him. He declared a guerrilla war on the media in the name of truth.
While Breitbart disciples like John Nolte, Ben Shapiro, and Joel Pollak continue that underground fight, it is long past time for conservative minds and money to take the battle to the mainstream. How is it possible that the mind-boggling success of Fox News has failed to spawn half a dozen imitators at least—especially venues for the libertarian young with their antic sense of political incorrectness? Rupert Murdoch, God love him, can’t live forever. It’s time for others to step up.
The entertainment industry. Conservatives think when they have won an argument in the newspapers, the fight is over. Leftists know their Hippocrates. They know they can rewrite history in novels, on TV, and in the movies, and a generation later, their false versions will be accepted as truth. As former ambassador Joseph Wilson said, when his questionable actions were rendered heroic in the dishonest movie Fair Game: “For people who have short memories or don’t read, this is the only way they will remember the period.” It’s not that conservative ideas don’t make their way into popular entertainment; it’s that they always come in disguise. Even leftists love deeply conservative films like the Lord of the Rings and Dark Knight trilogies, because they recognize good values when they’re not forced to apply them to real life. But conservatives themselves quail when conservatives speak their values plainly in the arts. Too preachy, they cry, too much propaganda, too much . . . too much . . . conservatism! We don’t need more conservative artists. We need an infrastructure to support them: more funding, more distribution, sympathetic review venues, grants and awards for arts that speak the truth out loud.
Religion for intellectuals. Normally, I would have said number three was “reforming the academy,” but I believe this is where the fight for the academy is centered. Recently, a number of books by secular intellectuals have noted the disaster that is postmodern relativism—the nihilist philosophy that has corrupted and gutted Western liberal education. Education’s End, by Anthony T. Kronman, Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians, by Marcello Pera, and What Ever Happened to Modernism?, by Gabriel Josipovici, come to mind. All lament the abandonment of our commitment to the Great Conversation—the intellectual’s belief that the creative tension of the uniquely brilliant Western literary and philosophical canon can lead us in the direction of moral truth.
But the authors cannot fully grasp the nettle of the solution. Many assume that the Great Conversation depended on the sort of open mind only secularism can provide. As Kronman puts it: “Every religion insists, at the end of the day, that there is only one right answer to the question of life’s meaning,” thus rendering the pluralism of the Great Conversation impossible. I would contend the opposite: only the existence of a God in whose image we are created can support the notion of moral truth at all. It was always Judeo-Christianity, and that alone, that made the Great Conversation possible. Pera understands this intellectually, but cannot really plunk for faith. And therein lies the problem. The triumph of science, the comfort of Western life, and a sophisticated elite virulently hostile to religion have all contributed to an intellectual atmosphere of unbelief—a sense that atheism should be the default mode of reasonable, thinking people. That is a mere prejudice and needs to be answered in the culture, not with Bible-thumping literalism and small-minded judgmentalism—nor with banal happy-talk optimism—but by sound argument made publicly, unabashedly, and without fear. John Adams and the other Founders were right about this: an irreligious people cannot be free. Liberty lives in the palace of moral truth, and you can’t build that palace on the empty air.
In the aftermath of a crushing electoral defeat, all this may seem a distant business, an airy conversation for another day. It isn’t. The demography of the country is changing, but demography is not destiny. Ideas are. We must retake the culture and begin speaking truth to a new America.