Many years ago, as the luncheon speaker at a meeting of the John Randolph Club in Rockford, Illinois, Tom Sheeley gave a thought-provoking lecture interspersed with a splendid performance of classical guitar. His main theme was the need for form in art; and all these years later, one line stands out in my memory: “What is creativity without editing?”
Later that afternoon, while introducing the founder, editor, and chief author of a certain Catholic magazine, I turned Tom’s question into a joke, with the title of the magazine as the punch line. My use of his words was good for a quick laugh, but the question Tom raised is one I have returned to many times over the years in moments of serious reflection.
As I noted last month, conservatives in the United States have long ceded the realms of literature and art (here broadly construed to include all forms of imaginative media, including music, theater, and film) to the forces of the left. First neoconservatives and, now, increasingly self-identified paleoconservatives have dismissed or even ridiculed Russell Kirk’s emphasis on the moral imagination. The time is too late, they argue; the stakes are too high; if we spend our time on the long, hard work of creating a culture that can properly form the moral imagination of the rising generation, the left will dominate national politics, increase its hold on the U.S. Supreme Court, and everything we care about will be in danger of being outlawed or worse. In such dire straits, politics—especially national politics—is all that matters.
The reality, of course, is that the left already dominates national politics, even in the age of Donald Trump. And the left dominates national politics precisely because those who not only should have conserved what was best in what we call (for lack of better terms) Western and Christian culture but should have continued to add to that cultural patrimony in new and creative ways ceded the battleground at the very moment when the left began to embrace the power of the culture to form the imaginations of future generations.
In the left’s Long March Through the Institutions, the transformation of politics and law is the last step, not the first. Every major “revolutionary” Supreme Court decision that has eroded traditional social order and morality was itself a product of cultural changes that preceded it. Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges, to name just two, were much more the judicial rewriting of laws to reflect cultural changes that had already occurred than they were the cause of those changes. In both cases, the imagination of the American people had been formed (or rather deformed, in a literal sense), by film and television especially, to accept as normal the horrifying reality of infanticide by the people directly charged with the safety of those children—mothers and fathers and doctors who had sworn first to do no harm—and the elevation of deliberately nonproductive sexual acts to the level of a lifelong commitment to love, honor, and cherish one’s spouse and to protect and rear any children who may result from that union.
To put it another way, Harry Blackmun and Anthony Kennedy were less the authors of Roe and Obergefell, respectively, than Norman Lear and the creators of Modern Family.
Which brings us back to Tom Sheeley and his question. We are in dire need of stories good, beautiful, and true to help form the imagination of a generation for whom things that would not only have been unthinkable to previous generations, but are untenable as the basis of a lasting culture and society, are the norm. We have an opportunity, because there is among that rising generation an increasing appreciation for art of a higher level than the cultural equivalent of McDonald’s that previous generations of conservatives have been all too happy to consume. And among some of that younger generation, there is both the desire and the creativity to produce such works of art—especially in the realm of narrative nonfiction writing, and film and shorter narrative video.
All of that is a very good thing, which could help to turn the cultural tide. As the rubric of this column implies, if we wish to reverse the Long March Through the Institutions, political action isn’t enough: There must be a Countermarch. And the sooner we start moving, the better.
But the danger that we face is obvious. Even the best imaginations of this rising generation have been formed, at least in part, by the forces of cultural deformation. They are looking to create works of art that are good and true and beautiful, but the lens through which they judge goodness and truth and beauty is cloudy and flawed. Their imaginations may be wellsprings of creativity, but their works are in need of editing.
And that’s where the efforts of older generations must come in. It’s all too easy to dismiss the tattooed millennial, drinking his craft beer and eating his kale and quinoa salad while agonizing over his struggle to remain independent in order to realize his own vision. But my grandparents raised kale (though not quinoa), and there was a time when even the movement conservatives who regarded Coors Light as the height of taste claimed to value independence.
A recent study by University of Maryland sociology professor Philip Cohen has found that the divorce rate in the United States dropped by 18 percent between 2008 and 2016, and—surprise—those tattooed millennials are the cause. Their craft beer and their kale and their desire to stay married are all signs of an innate conservatism manifesting itself in new and creative ways. But their creativity is in need of editing. They can be a force for the right kind of cultural change, if we help them.
Or, if we continue to insist that the hour is too late and national politics is the only answer, we can let them fall into the cultural morass of the left for lack of leadership from our generation. The choice is ours. Will we be their editors?
First published in the November 2018 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.