Against culture war

Travis LaCouter offers perspective for conservatives of both the cultural and political variety. His piece in Humane Pursuits was a contribution to the John Jay Institute’s recent “What’s worth conserving?” symposium. I’ll excerpt liberally, because Travis perfectly echoes my own feelings about the short sightedness of culture war:

More than halfway through The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis’ classic allegory of one soul’s journey into purgatory, we meet an unhappy ghost sporting an ugly lizard on his shoulder. The lizard represents the ghost’s festering sins and is preventing him from mounting the steep path to Heaven. An angel offers to kill the lizard, and then insists upon it, but the ghost initially demurs. He has grown attached to his sin, hateful but protective of it. The angel finally must act violently in order to kill the wretched creature.

The position of most conservatives these days resembles that of the reticent ghost. We have grown comfortable with the many and varied sins of our culture, clinging to them for dear life. It is almost exclusively from conservatives that we hear rigorous and endless denunciations of “the culture”—of relativism, nihilism, nominalism, emotivism, progressivism, individualism, secularism, historicism, transhumanism, materialism, and the other horrible “–isms” that we are told plague us at every turn.

But this mentality is precisely the lizard that whispers in the ears of conservatives today, tempting us to comfortable categories of good and evil. Too many conservatives rely uncritically on stale labels in order to help make sense of a complicated world, and have little patience for arguments that so much as whiff of ideological impurity.

What is needed is not another cantankerous jeremiad but a creative and unafraid reckoning with the world as it is; conservatives must once again become capable of making culture in a world that is as messy, complex, and disorienting as any that has ever existed.

Why engage with a messy, complex, and disorienting environment? Because this is life. No amount of nostalgic chest beating or silver bullet legislation will itself restore any particular aspect of American life. Only people can do that in relationship with one another. And by buying into the war mentality we make ourselves basically unattractive, and this has consequences:

Every war has casualties, and a generation of humane artists has been caught in the crossfire of our Culture War. Meanwhile, the benefit of the War for conservatives remains far from clear, but we continue to insist upon fighting it. Wars destroy—what we need to do now is to create, to build up the culture with Beauty that speaks to Truth. And it is not enough simply to preserve the achievements of the past, though sadly this has become the conservative default position. We must once again exert ourselves in the hard work of making culture, for the legacy we wish to preserve is a creative one.

We conservatives must kill the lizard on our shoulder that is telling us to take no prisoners in the Culture War while simultaneously counseling pretentious passivity when it comes to actually building culture. These temptations are a quick path to cultural suicide. What we ought to conserve is that precious and delicate spark of dynamism and creativity that we can then fan into the flame of civilized, vibrant culture.

We need fewer belligerent grievances, and a greater engagement in family and community life. Raise young people in touch with their classical heritage, and the humanities, and acquainted with the good, the true, and the beautiful. That’s what culture is.

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