Entry from October 14, 2008

These are remarks I delivered to a roundtable discussion at the America’s Future Foundation in Washington on the topic: “Pop Culture: Conservatives vs. Libertarians” on Tuesday, October 14th, 2008. Also taking part were Kelly Jane Torrence of The Washington Times, Philip Terzian of The Weekly Standard and Ross Douthat of The Atlantic Monthly. The discussion was moderated by Jillian Bandes.

It seems to me that the first thing we have to be clear about is whether or not this is a debate, or even a discussion, about censorship. Unless there is anyone here who wants to make a robust case for censorship, I propose we stipulate that it is not. I myself am not frightened by the word and do not believe — as there is good evidence the Founding Fathers did not believe — that the First Amendment should cover works of art or literature, still less movies or video games, that community standards would once have considered to be indecent. But one of the regrettable consequences of the prevailing but erroneous opinion that it should cover such works is that there is now no longer anything that could be described as community standards of decency. Lots of individuals may have their own ideas about what is decent and indecent, but as a community we have long since chosen to adopt the libertarian approach to culture while reserving to ourselves the right to grumble about it when it offends us.

What I want to do is explain why I think this approach is mistaken. For the purposes of this discussion, I do not propose the passage of any laws or the appointment of a public censor or even the re-institution of the Hays Code for the movies. There is a case to be made for all these things as a way to re-grow a sense of public decency on the ground where it has been clear-cut over the last 40 or 50 years. But they are not the only ways to do this. Besides, any proposed restrictions on speech would first require a rationale which, I think, could only be found in certain principles that have been neglected or repudiated during my lifetime and that, I think, conservatives should be championing. The first and foremost of these is the principle of self-preservation. A national community should have the same right to defend itself and its corporate identity, however “diverse,” that an individual has, and the capacity for self-defense and self-preservation is crippled or even destroyed without, at least, the following five things — a list not meant to be exhaustive.

    • Patriotism and pride in one’s country.

    • A knowledge of its history and traditions which encourage patriotism and pride.

    • A willingness and ability to use force against its enemies, and to honor those who undertake the risks of employing that force.

    • A belief in some transcendent meaning or purpose to the national as well as the individual life.

    • A willingness to reproduce and to take the time and effort required to inculcate in the rising generation the values — I would rather say, virtues — necessary to self-preservation.

Hollywood and the popular culture generally as we find them today could have been designed to undermine and subvert these values. In some respects, I think they have been designed with this purpose in mind. I haven’t got time to go into all the various ways they do this, but I do want to mention one which encompasses many others and which is likely to generate as much discussion today as it generally does when I bring it up. This is the mainstreaming of fantasy as a legitimate art form. Once confined to young children’s literature and allegorical works, fantasy is now everywhere, even in that most realistic of media, the movies, to the point where it has all but crowded out other, more realistic forms of representation. Ultimately, fantasy severs the connection between art and life that is the foundation of the Western mimetic tradition — one of the things we ought to be proud of. When people start saying, as I have so often heard them say, “it’s only a movie,” they have stopped expecting the movie to look like real life.

That is bad for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that, as I believe, the next step is to stop expecting real life to look like real life. I know this is the contention that is bound to produce the most furious dissent, so let me give an example. It is the idea — by no means confined to the movies — of “violence.” Though the idea of generic violence — violence, that is, as an aesthetic phenomenon, divorced from any moral context which would give it meaning — was by no means original with the movies, from the 1960s onwards the movies have adopted generic or aesthetic violence as their own to the point where it is rare if not unheard of to see violence represented any other way.

And not only in the movies. Even though when we ourselves are assaulted we instantly understand violence’s moral context — or, to put it another way, we have no doubt whatsoever as to who are the good guys and who are the bad guys — when we encounter violence without that immediacy of personal experience, we tend more and more to adopt the movies’ view of it, which is that there are no good guys and bad guys but only a vast grey area in which, as they say, “violence begets violence.” This is how, if polls are to be believed, most Americans see the war in Iraq. Last summer, a very distinguished historian from Oxford and Harvard went on television to tell us that this is also how we ought to look at World War II, once thought to be the very definition of violence’s moral context as applied to warfare.

This is a utopian fantasy, an expression of the wish to believe that all violence is preventable by a judicious mix of intelligence (what Barack Obama calls “judgment”) and conciliation on the part of those it threatens. And though I don’t say that this form of utopian fantasy on the part not merely of a few dreamers but of serious people who have studied history is entirely owing to the predominance of fantasy in movies and the arts, I don’t think that the two forms of fantasy can be entirely independent of each other. In any case, both work to undermine at least the first three of the five needful things mentioned above and, I would say, all five. Though I don’t want to ban fantasy, I do believe that, without an awareness of fantasy’s dangers on the part of the audience for popular culture and a consequent demand for something better, we diminish our capacity for self-preservation.

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