A Conservative Response to Popular Culture

How should a conservative interact with popular culture?  We live in a time when popular music mocks religion, prime time television depicts homosexual relations and multi-generational groupings as “the new normal,” films depict literal orgies of gory sadism, and all promote narcissistic nihilism with a snarky self-confidence expressed in gutter language.  How should we respond in our daily lives?

A morally valid response would be open rejection.  One of the more famous stories about Russell Kirk is that he found one of his children had smuggled a television set into his home and literally tossed it out the window, where it hung by its cord for some time.  The story generally garners appreciative laughs—including, no matter how often I hear it, from me.  And such gestures have value.  But the television has become a rather important tool in our society (as has, of course, the computer).  What is more, we cannot escape mass culture by simply turning it off.  Perhaps most important, our newspapers and news sites are active propagandists for popular culture.  Newspaper “lifestyle” sections laud the latest trends in shallow self-indulgence as the “news” sections tell us that only fools and bigots fail to share the liberal mindset.  Even the much-lauded Fox news pushes sex advice and cultural dreck under the name of “celebrity news” on its website.

What should we do, then?  Simply ignore the bad guys, turn off the television and the internet, stop the newspaper subscription and lead purer, better lives?  I’ve been so tempted and, after I stopped working in Washington some years back, took a determined, year-long vacation from the news.  When I came back to it, slowly and carefully, nothing much had changed.  But I did come back to it, in part because I remembered my brief stint in the first (George H.W.) Bush Administration.  We all were convinced that Clinton could not win.  And one of the reasons for that foolish confidence (or acquiescence—few of my friends were terribly happy with our empty-chair-in-chief) stemmed from selective reading.  Once or twice a day staff would receive “the clips” from the newspapers—actually, mostly the Washington Times.  And, just as with this last election, the Republican Party echo chamber assured us that all would be well.  I don’t often read newspapers today.  But I do keep tabs on them—from the smug utilitarianism of the Wall Street Journal to the smug solipsism of the New York Times—reading some stories and scanning more in order to have an idea of what new silliness is becoming the conventional wisdom of the major parties that seem to rule our public life.

Scholars and those in religious orders may be able, if they wish, to ignore their society’s popular sewage, but it is a dangerous stance, even for them. Eventually Kirk himself allowed a television to find a permanent home in his basement (largely for the purpose of watching videos relevant to his work), though that medium never gained him as an audience member.

My friend and fellow columnist Professor Peter Lawler, seems to take a different view of popular culture from Kirk’s. He urges us to “watch more TV.” Of course, this is Peter’s sardonic way of introducing his highly critical analysis of some of the most vapid, pseudo-lifestyle viewing (“Girls”) on offer. I’ve been known to watch a fair amount of garbage myself (gothic horror movies are a favorite) and thoroughly enjoy analyzing the heresies and other forms of social abnormity on display, even as I find them somewhat enlightening in regard to the sorry state of our culture. But we should not forget that this is the pastime of the intellectual. It’s not that most people aren’t “smart enough” to take apart the ideologies wrapped up in popular entertainment. But most people don’t analyze social institutions, beliefs, and practices for a living, so it wouldn’t be a job-related pastime for them. At least as important, most people have kids and need to be concerned about the intellectual (as well as spiritual and moral) atmosphere in their homes. And all of us need to be worried about the intellectual, spiritual, and moral atmosphere in our own heads.

When I found out that my 13 year-old daughter had a song by “Linkin Park” on her iPod and told her that song was going to be deleted and her means of getting songs for that device were being substantially altered, her response was “but I don’t listen to the lyrics.” My reply was instinctive: “yes, but you still hear them.” That “Linkin Park” is a group of twits should be obvious from their name—yet another bit of reverse snobbery, with its intentional misspelling intended to seem “urban.” The lyrics are that mix of self-indulgent anger and shallow nihilism, expressed in vulgar language, so common in the suburban “alternative” mainstream that has come to dominate popular music in the post-rap age.

I was quite shocked to find that my daughter had such garbage on her device—a device it took years for her, with much help, to get me to buy for her, even though “all her friends had one.” My daughter, who has had an exclusively parochial education, opined on seeing a girl at camp wearing typically trashy modern clothes that “you can tell she doesn’t go to a Catholic school.” She zealously censors her 11 year-old brother’s entertainment for the slightest deviation from moral cleanliness, vetoing songs and shows I would have let pass. But she is a child of the computer age, so I was wrong (and lazy) to think that her general good character, her taste for Christian music, and her hearing my music at home (classical, jazz, progressive) would keep her from hearing mind-numbing garbage. As to her “not listening to the lyrics,” this is where the real danger lies. Too many of us believe that we can enjoy bits of mass culture while rejecting the rest—even enjoying the (truly awful) music of Linkin Park without being corrupted by the even worse lyrics.

The lesson I, at least, take from this is that being a decent, conservative parent requires vigilance, not just early on, but as one’s children approach the dreaded teen years. This is why I understand people who want to simply tune out all of popular culture. When I stay at hotels I occasionally watch television, and am always shocked at what is allowed to be broadcast to children, often in their prime, after school, viewing hours. One blessing we have found is that, if you raise your children from an early age on only DVDs they become so thoroughly intolerant of commercial interruptions (if not of their retched content) that they have no desire to watch commercial television. But the appetite for entertainment remains, and if you get a service like Netflix you have the same problem as with cable—garbage mixed up with the not-garbage, and even promoted as a kind of “public service.”

My intention is not to provide a detailed “how to” guide for raising children in the Age of Dreck. I haven’t earned that right. But it is important to note that children will be exposed to our popular culture and that both children and adults often wrongly assume that they can hear or see without being affected by it. Once, after listening to the public radio news broadcast for too many days in a row (long commute) I remember thinking its reporting on a particular issue was accurate. Then I stopped, recalled how many strange stories and bits of loaded language I’d been hearing, and got myself a new batch of books on tape.

My point is simply this: popular culture is the smog in which we must live at least part of our lives. We have no choice but to face it, now and again, if only to keep track of where it will strike next. But it must be approached gingerly, and in small doses, lest we begin to think it normal. Some of what is popular also is good. But one’s judgment, like one’s character, requires constant maintenance, And this I do know: the best way to protect oneself and one’s children from cultural garbage is to keep everyone engaged with cultural beauty—good music, good books, and activities that uplift, not by preaching, but by exposing us to beauty, virtue, and all the gifts of the moral imagination. As with so much else, then, the enemies are pride (the notion that “it won’t affect me”) and laziness. Idle hands, and idle minds, truly are the devil’s workshop.

This column first appeared Monday, January 28, 2013 in The Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission.


Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

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