Bottum’s down: The problem with conservative eggheads

Mark Judge Journalist and filmmaker
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The world has lost God. It is no longer seen as enchanted by regular people. This is a problem that Christians and conservatives need to concentrate on reversing. Because it’s a bigger problem than gay marriage.

That’s the basic point of “The Things We Share,” a controversial essay by Joseph Bottum that appeared recently in Commonweal magazine. Bottum, a Catholic intellectual and former editor of First Things magazine, argues that the gay marriage battle is lost, and that conservatives need to focus on reorienting people towards God. “The goal of the church today must primarily be the re-enchantment of reality.”

Bottum’s essay has been called “discursive” and “meandering.” I prefer to think of it as something that is good preparation for taking on “Ulysses.” (Or maybe reading “Ulysses” is necessarily to work your way up to Bottum.) But behind the rhetorical thicket is an obvious problem with conservatism: the fact that it is run and financed by people who either care only for politics, or are so intellectual that they cannot see the enchantment in front of their faces. You might say they’ve disappeared up their own back passages, but the potential for excess punnage with Bottum’s name is just too dangerous. They’ve been so isolated in think tanks, magazines, and political websites that they are no longer engaged with the culture, or even the world at large. Like liberals in academia, conservative journalists and intellectuals tend to get recruited young and then settle into a long career of agitating for political causes, squirreling away at think tanks, and writing essays and books few people read. They stop going to movies, reading popular novels, and falling in love with bands, then they complain that the world sucks.

When was the last time Joseph Bottum went to a movie? Read a popular novel? Gone to a museum? Listened to a great new rock band?

Politics is downstream of culture. That’s a famous quote from the late Andrew Breitbart. I would only add too that: and culture is where people often find their enchantment, their connection to God. And the fact is, today conservatives are losing battle after battle because we do not support the people who create or reveal the spiritual enchantment of the world: filmmakers, painters, poetic scientists, artists, musicians. In short, the popular culture. People go to movies not only for intellectual stimulation, although that can certainly be part of it, but for spiritual enchantment. “Star Wars” became a phenomenon for two reasons: the enchantment fans felt at being able to zoom amongst the stars, and the theme of faith being more important than technology. (“Use the Force, Luke.”)

A crucially important fact that right-wingers tend to forget is that Ronald Wilson Reagan was an actor. And in the compelling 2007 book, Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History, John Patrick Diggins makes the following observation: “If government is the call of duty, democracy is the theater of desire as well as freedom, and the actor, more than the politician or the preacher, knows that the heart vibrates to dreams born of desire.” Reagan would not have been Reagan, would not have been as successful a leader, had be not been an actor. Had he not been devoted to an art whose primary effect is enchantment and, when done right, spiritual understanding and uplift.

I’m a journalist and a filmmaker, and one of my regrets is that I did not begin to fully devote myself to the latter art until after Reagan was out of office. As I’ve mentioned before in the Daily Caller, I’m currently producing a documentary about Whittaker Chambers, the great Christian mystic and anti-communist. Several months ago, something quite telling happened. I applied for a small grant from a conservative think tank so that I could purchase some historical footage for the documentary. The think tank, a well known one in the conservative world, turned me down. A few weeks later they then gave a $250,000 prize — at least ten times the amount I had asked for — to George F. Will.

Decisions like this will ensure that the right continues to lose — and not only elections, but in the culture at large. If we don’t inspire and support the artists who create enchantment, by default the other side does it. Hollywood, pop bands, and bestselling novelists create the magic and tell the stories that people hear, and we never support the few of our own who are in these fields – and then we stomp our feet and wonder why the left owns Hollywood.

Andrew Breitbart got this, but he’s gone and no one has filled the void. Why doesn’t the Heritage Foundation have an Office of Popular Culture? What shouldn’t the Ethics and Public Policy Center have a pop music critic? It may help to have someone on site who understands rock and roll, if only to not look completely clueless when something like the Miley Cyrus disaster happens. Her performance was not just an affront to morals, but deeply offensive to rock and roll when it is done right — rock and roll that is, well, enchanting. When conservatives don’t draw those distinctions and simply issue pronouncements about the decline of culture, they look like idiots.

Ronald Reagan was an actor. Ronald Reagan was an artist. He would have understood the subtle, artistic and enchanting film I am trying to make about Whittaker Chambers, and would have been the first to write a check – that is, if he didn’t want to be in the film himself. The conservative movement has not produced another Reagan, and it most likely never will. It’s too busy tweeting about the last liberal outrage and paying the salaries of people like Joseph Bottum, who sit in think tanks and at foundations and scratch their chins while the rest of the world absorbs the stories, and thus the worldview, of their opponents. It’s enough to make you feel disenchanted.

Mark Judge