The Achilles heel of most conservative cultural critics is their tendency to characterize repugnant works of pop culture as establishing that society as a whole, or some great swath of it, is irredeemably corrupt. In commenting, for example, on Carol Iannone’s scathing review of the pro-homosexual and apparently exceedingly vulgar and imbecilic British film The History Boys (written by the overrated and immensely asinine author Alan Bennett), Lawrence Auster of View from the Right claims that "the British elites despise their country, their culture, their history, and secretly or openly wish to have done with it all."
Auster says that this movie shows that Britain is on a "path to national suicide."
One play, of course, does not a culture make, and Auster can undoubtedly claim his point is that The History Boys is not conclusive in itself but is revealing as part of a massive chain of evidence of corruption. Auster, however, writes, "by the time the movie ended, the realization hit me that the British elites that created a movie like this, that praised and recommended a movie like this, seek with cold and deliberate malice the destruction of their country."
Now, that is surely wrong, and it is why conservatives so seldom gain much traction in discussions of culture. The "irredeemably corrupt society/elite" argument is simply an unsophisticated, incorrect, and uninteresting critique.
There is undoubtedly a significant proportion of the British elite that is as corrupt as Alan Bennett, and there is surely a goodly portion that is sympathetic to them although they cannot bring themselves to go that far. But there are also certainly a great many who don’t accept the premises of Bennett and his ilk. That’s the Omniculture: Everything happens.
Look at the BBC and other British television, for example, and you’ll find a good deal of material that is repugnant to the sensibilities of a reasonable, spiritually and mentally healthy person, and you’ll also find much that is sensible and good. Even in openly sleazy shows such as Mile High and Footballers’ Wives there are highly traditional assumptions and moral lessons to be derived. It all depends greatly on the viewer’s own point of view.
Things are just a lot more complex than Auster appears to be willing to recognize. It seems clear to me that people are struggling, in England and the United States alike, to find a wordview, mentality, and culture that makes sense after the post-World War II demolition of American society’s shared values. It is a process that is ongoing today, and no one can say where it will ultimately lead, whether toward destruction, regeneration, or a perpetual unhappy tension between the two. It is simply not ours to know at this point.
The fact is, anybody can cherry-pick a few especially vivid examples of popular culture on either the wilder or more traditional edges of the Omniculture and claim that things are getting worse or getting better. But the creation of simple dichotomies and the demonization of one’s cultural enemies will get us nowhere. False and/or simplistic, Manichean statements simply undermine one’s credibility and that of one’s allies in the struggle to redeem the culture.
I have a further reply to Mr. Karnick at my website:
That’s a great question, Larry, and that’s what this site is all about, to ask that question about American society in particular and the contemporary West in general. I think that we must measure cultural products against a set of unchanging basic values, and in my case these are those of what C. S. Lewis termed “mere Christianity.”
As to what the norms of a society are at any particular time, I think that this will necessarily be approached somewhat intuitively, as there is far too much information and too much room for interpretation of motives and intentions for any firm conclusions to be drawn from all available evidence. However, I certainly think that, despite these limits, we can and should make judgments and draw conclusions about the state of a particular society, especially our own. Such analyses will have to be based on factors such as the popularity of artifacts, the extent to which people can be believed to be in agreement with the premises of various cultural products, the persuasive power of those artifacts, etc. In the current case, my judgment is that The History Boys is not compellingly significant, given that whereas trendy movie reviewers liked it, audiences stayed away. But these are definitely the right questions to ask and important judgments to make. I only caution that it’s important to gather a wide variety of evidence and look at it carefully before drawing any sweeping conclusions.
Ok, I take Sam Karnick at his word that he is not a reductive individualist and that he believes in firmly held communal values by which a society expresses and perpetuates itself. What then are the criteria he uses for determining what the dominant beliefs and norms of a culture are? If The History Boys, which was treated as entirely normal by the movie reviewers, the award organizations, and the culture generally, does not characterize British culture at this time, what does?
Larry, you’re ignoring the huge difference between classical liberalism and modern liberalism. Burke was one of the founders of classical liberalism. Surely we share an admiration for him, right? Burke did not see society as merely a lot of individuals, nor do I. Far from it. I absolutely do not suggest that a society can survive without firmly held communal values. I think that we must have them. Unequivocally.
See, for example, the several posts just in the past few days in which I have said that the lack of a shared set of values is what is causing the troubles of our contemporary culture and society. (And any reading of this site and my other writings ought to make it perfectly clear that I think the values of Christendom are the values we must have in order to sustain the kind of society you and I would both want to live in. In addition, in contrast to your suggestion above, I think that Muslims do pose a serious danger to the West and that multiculturalism is an entirely deleterious phenomenon that makes mass immigration into the U.S. even more jolting and socially disruptive than it would otherwise be, which is itself considerable. These are positions I have made clear for many years.)
No, all that I have questioned is the notion that Bennett’s film represents the thinking of the British people as a whole. I believe that it does not.
The current British culture is a vast thing composing a huge variety of notions. It, too, is an Omniculture. (And I do not claim that this is a good thing, simply that it is true.) Bennett’s type of thinking is definitely a part of it, but upon my (admittedly limited) observations of British culture as a whole The History Boys is by no means representative of it. It didn’t get very good reviews in Britain, and grossed only 4.2 million pounds there. Casino Royale and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest made more than ten times that much in the UK. I can’t even calculate how many movies made more money in the UK than THB last year because the lists don’t go down that far! Given all this, one can only conclude that The History Boys does not characterize Great Britain at this time.
By emphasizing the fact that not all British people like this movie, Mr. Karnick again misses the point I was making about the character of a culture and how it expresses itself. In any society, the great mass of people don’t do much of anything of public importance and merely follow along. All cultures are led by creative (or destructive) minorities that actually shape and define the culture.
Liberals (and Mr. Karnick describes himself as a classical liberal), tend to see society in terms of the individual and have difficulty seeing beyond the level of the individual. Thus by Mr. Karnick’s reasoning, Islam is not really a danger, because the “great majority of Muslims” do not actively wage jihad, and Hispanics don’t really pose a threat of transforming the U.S. culturally, because only a small minority of Hispanics actively push multiculturalism or bilingualism.
These and similar opinions are expressions of the modern, liberal mind which fails to see society holistically. By a consistent application of this reductive-type reasoning, if a man decides to cross the street, he doesn’t really want to cross the street, because only his brain wants to cross the street and his brain is only a small portion of his entire body.
Thanks for your comment, Larry. However, I think that you misunderstand my point, which is of course my fault entirely. The essential fact to bear in mind is that there are “certainly a great many who don’t accept the premises of Bennett and his ilk.” I agree that there are thoroughly repugnant phenomonena and trends in Western popular culture. Anyone with a reasonably intact soul could not possibly deny it. However, my point is that one or a few items do not a culture make, much less a civilization. My observation is that Alan Bennett and his ilk are more of a fringe phenomenon than your argument suggests, and that their influence is very far from monolithic. I have seen nothing since then suggesting that I should change that assessment.
Regarding my comment about The History Boys, “[B]y the time the movie ended, the realization hit me that the British elites that created a movie like this, that praised and recommended a movie like this, seek with cold and deliberate malice the destruction of their country,” Mr. Karnick replies that I am being simplistic, because I am supposedly presenting as the general belief of all British elites a belief that may only be shared by some and opposed by others.
It is typical of the modern mind to reduce a fundamental matter such as the spiritual identity of a society to a question of statistics. By Mr. Karnick’s reasoning, if it could be discovered that only a minority of the Athenians of the Periclean Age believed in and participated in the cult of tragedy, or that only a minority of the ancient Israelites really believed in Jehovah instead of other gods, then fifth century Athens did not really have a tragic age and ancient Israel was not really represented by monotheism. This is obviously wrong. The subject is a matter of how a culture expresses itself and understands itself. It is a matter of what is seen as normal in that culture. A society that produces The History Boys, a society that praises and recommends and rewards such a movie, is a society that by that very fact is expressing certain things about itself. I described in the above quote what it expresses.
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