Embracing countercultural conservatism

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As the nuclear dust settles following the election, conservatives seem in disarray. However, the routing offers a real opportunity if the right is willing to seize it: the opportunity to create powerful and long-lasting art that can actually win people to our side.

The late leftist writer Alexander Cockburn once made the observation that Mad magazine had done more to change American youth culture in the 1950s and ’60s than any political movement or presidential election ever could. Mad was funny, sexy, biting and artistically arresting. That could also be said of movies and rock and roll. Like a lot of conservatives, I remember the presidency of Ronald Reagan, but the night I went to see the first “Star Wars” film in 1977 had just as profound an effect on my thinking. Both Reagan and Luke Skywalker taught me the importance of courage, family and perseverance — and the grand images from that first “Star Wars” film linger in my subconscious more indelibly than Reagan’s speeches.

Conservatism has become a marginalized movement, and fringe movements are often incubators of powerful art. Moreover, leftism in art is played out, and has been for many decades. Display art that condemns “Western hegemony,” cultish songs celebrating Obama, visual artists who reject the patriarchy and capitalism, condom-tossing feminist performance artists — these now represent the establishment, and are all as dull as President Eisenhower and his putter ever were. In fact, conservatives are facing a situation not unlike 1959 America, a year which was the subject of an interesting book by Fred Kaplan. In “1959: The Year Everything Changed,” Kaplan argues that after nearly a decade of conformity, America in 1959 showed the first signs of a revolution. It was the year of Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue,” Jasper Johns and Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, beatniks, the beginning of the birth control pill and the invention of the microchip.

Conservatives can be modern versions of these countercultural outcasts — and we can have fun doing it. Moreover, conservatives are actually in a stronger position than many of the artists of the 1950s, considering that many of our ideas are already evident in the art world and in popular culture. The new James Bond film is a celebration of real masculinity, individual initiative and traditional values. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has a new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, and it includes photographs of the artist getting arrested by, and giving the finger to, the communist Chinese authorities. Punk rock has a long streak of anti-liberal satires and outright libertarianism, from the Dead Kennedys to Johnny Ramone.

What would help us, of course, is for artists to get some recognition from conservatism’s establishment guard, which needs to step aside or support us. I have argued in this space and elsewhere that conservative individuals and foundations need to get behind the documentary I am producing about Whittaker Chambers. I won’t belabor the point here, but I will note that a well-known conservative foundation rejected our application for funds to pay for historical footage, the same foundation that has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to think tanks, schools, legal groups and pro-business advocates. The situation reminded me of something once said by the late Richard John Neuhaus, one of the wisest conservative thinkers of the past 30 years. A liberal group wanted to build a soup kitchen in New York, but a competing group wanted to use the space for a new chapel. To the liberals, of course, it was a no-brainer: the soup kitchen was needed, and must be built. Neuhaus replied that this thinking was all too common in orthodox liberalism: liberals just assume that a soup kitchen would help more souls than a chapel.

For too many establishment conservatives, think tanks, foundations, businesses and weekly political magazines are more important than bands, plays, poetry and films. But think of it this way: Imagine it’s the year 2020. President Clinton has just been re-elected to her second term. Conservatism has been pretty much outlawed. In a small bedroom somewhere in America, a teenager is on his computer doing research on marginal political movements of the 21st century. His first encounter with conservatism will either be a speech by William Kristol (or, God help us, Dick Morris) or a beautiful and artistic film about Whittaker Chambers. Which would make the greater impression on him?

Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.

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