Daniel Crandall Asks The Provocative Question: Is America inhospitable ground for freedom?
The hot ticket in the conservative movement is either a Tea Party or Townhall meeting. Nary a week goes by that some conservative pundit is not talking about some Joe or Jane Q. Public confronting their elected representative and speaking truth to power at an event so dubbed. A popular clip, for example, making the rounds is one former Marine speaking truth to power to his elected representative.
Professor Claes G. Ryn’s latest, “Debacle: The Conservative Movement in Chapter Eleven,” from the National Humanities Institute newsletter Epistulae, is a bracing bucket of cold water tossed on these fired up folks.
The protests exemplify Prof. Ryn’s assertion of the conservative movement’s “obsession with politics and its disproportionate interest in public policy and economics.” Small wonder this given that the movement’s “trend-setters have been intellectual activists, journalists, and heads of foundations and think tanks rather than serious thinkers.”
Putting aside Ryn’s characterization of the conservative movement’s overemphasis on politics and economics, one cannot deny Ryn’s larger point, “For a society really to change, its mind and imagination need to be transformed,” not just its politics and economics. For this to occur one must till the cultural soil in academia, New York and Hollywood.
Ryn explores “an issue that illustrates well the deep intellectual confusion within the movement” by focusing on the idea of freedom. Burke’s idea, as Ryn paraphrases it, that “people wishing to be free have to exercise exceptional self-control” represents the beginning of a deep understanding of freedom’s source and ultimate meaning. Locke’s idea, per Ryn, that “freedom will flourish if only external impediments are removed” turns a philosophical concept into an ideology. Furthermore,
“The ideology of freedom does not ask whether the preconditions for freedom are present in a particular society. It simply assumes that freedom will blossom once dictators have been kicked out. Utopianism used to be a monopoly of the left. In recent decades it has been the stock-in-trade of putative ‘conservatives.’”
This “conservative” utopianism applies at home as much as it does abroad.
I have seen a deep hunger to understand the nation’s founding, and the Constitution’s origin among the Tea Party activists I have met. Glenn Beck, through his 912 Project, promoted studying The 5000 Year Leap, a very approachable “popular” history, in order to satisfy this hunger.
This book, unfortunately, is like Harry Potter looking into the Pensive. It gives the illusion that one is going deep into a subject when in reality one has barely penetrated the surface. For most of these newly minted activists, however, this is all the fuel they need to keep the fire for the political fight stoked.
They want ammunition with which they can defeat their political opponents as much as they want to understand American history. Glenn Beck and The 5000 Year Leap gave it to them. Once that goal is reached, many seem to believe that liberty, personal responsibility, limited government, a strong national defense, patriotic duty, public charity, etc., would descend upon the nation like manna from heaven.
I talk to folks at the Tea Party and “Obamacare” protests about the role of culture in the current political and social situation. They acknowledge the ideologically Left-wing caste of today’s education, journalism and entertainment establishments. After expressing agreement on dilapidated condition of America’s cultural institutions, they immediately revert back to political arguments, Republican virtues, Democratic demerits (or Republican and Democratic demerits) and how to stop the Obama-Pelosi-Reid machine.
Prof Ryn wrote,
“Real freedom grows out of historically evolved character traits and institutions. It cannot strike roots in inhospitable soil. This is as true in the marketplace as in politics. You want maximum economic freedom? Then make sure that there is morality and culture that foster a maximum of individual responsibility. In an economy manned increasingly by gamblers and crooks and dominated by greed and short-sightedness the line between honesty and crime dissolves, and the misuse of economic freedom invites the imposition of external controls.”
It is time we put this analysis to work on American cultural institutions. The first-time political activists I meet must recognize that the ground beneath their feet is rather inhospitable to the traits that founded this great nation. A culture of liberty and personal responsibility will not come to be because these activists win an argument over Obamacare.
Folks, today, are divorced from their heritage by art, entertainment, education and journalistic institutions that tell us, day after day, that this heritage is something for which they should be ashamed. It is an insurmountable task, to expect anyone, even those on the Right, to expound on the idea that conservatism should be “conservative of something, a heritage that it wants creatively to preserve.” Insurmountable, that is, if we do not reconnect people with that heritage.
That reconnection can happen only if we get down to the hard work of reforming the cultural influence professions. This is a task not only for “serious thinkers,” like Prof. Claes G. Ryn, but also for artists, writers, filmmakers and journalists serious about their craft and dedicated to ‘freedom’s source and ultimate meaning’.