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Preferred Citation: Paul Starr, "The Cultural Enemy Within," The American Prospect, no. 4 (Winter 1991): 9-11.
When controversy shifts from economic to cultural questions, the right today becomes the party of alarm and indignation. To listen to some cultural conservatives--not merely to the fundamentalist legions called to arms by the Reverend Wildmon, but also to some of our high priests of rigorous taste--American culture has been taken over by the enemies of culture. "[O]ur culture is in deep and terrible trouble." A "profound malaise ... now pervades virtually every sphere of cultural life. ... the arts have been captured by the enemies of art." The "new barbarians" in the arts and universities have imposed "race, gender, and multiculturalism ... as the only acceptable criterion of value," and those who disagree are being driven out of universities, museums, and other cultural institutions by "the real McCarthyism of our time--liberal McCarthyism." These are the characteristically measured words of the critic Hilton Kramer in last September's number of his journal The New Criterion.
That same month Kramer and other contributors to a symposium in Commentary were wrestling with a puzzlement: With communism in collapse and American ideas triumphant around the world, how is it that many in the United States continue to be so harshly critical of our country? For neoconservatives like Kramer, the correct answer is that while the "left" has been beaten politically, it has now holed up in its last redoubt--America's cultural institutions--from which it spreads pernicious, anti-American ideas.
Who are these leftists? The left, says Kramer, "nowadays includes almost (if not quite) everybody in the media, the academy, the arts, the literary and publishing worlds, the entertainment industry, and the Democratic party." And the left's agenda, Kramer explains, is rooted in the idea that "Amerika" is "intolerably repressive" and the "principal source of evil" in the world. This idea, he says, "currently prevails at almost every level of cultural life," from our universities down to our "wretched pop music."
To qualify as an anti-American or as an enemy of the culture apparently does not take much. Nearly all the readers of this journal need have little doubt of their immediate eligibility. But enemies of culture and America surely must be everywhere. Who, after all, listens to that "wretched pop music"? Who tunes in to the "one-party" media? If the infection pervades "almost every level of cultural life," the terrible thought suggests itself that the preference for anti-Americanism comes from ... the American public itself, perhaps even a majority of it.
Of course, this is not the conclusion that conservatives themselves draw. They blame the cultural elite, liberals, and the government for all that disturbs them about American culture in part, I think, because it is hard for them to face up to the awful truth that they are at war with the public whose values they are ostensibly defending. How ideologically awkward this recognition would be: Much of the culture conservatives despise is being generated in that fiercely competitive marketplace they so often extol. It certainly isn't government arts administrators who finance the pop music that Hilton Kramer finds so "wretched."
I am not suggesting that conservatives have no business criticizing the arts endowment, or that limits on federal arts grants, or even a shutdown of the endowment, would threaten freedom of expression in America. In the endowment controversy, free speech is not at issue. To assure free expression, the government is not obliged to provide any funds to artists. But if it does, taxpayers certainly have every right to complain when their money is used for purposes they do not approve. In a democracy, artists cannot reasonably expect to get money from government while keeping the issue of their support out of politics. With government money comes political contention--and rightfully so.
But neither would eliminating the endowment do much to reduce what conservatives find offensive. In America today, throwing artists to the mercies of the art market scarcely seems a way to ensure that they will avoid explicit and controversial depictions of sexuality. Competition in the marketplace of ideas and images is the great motor of the cultural trends that conservatives abhor. But committed as they are to free market premises and to defending the goodness of the American people, they have no way of frankly expressing, much less achieving, their aims.
An older conservatism, more willing to use the state to enforce its moral and cultural standards, could be more straight-forwardly disparaging of popular taste and direct in its advocacy of censorship. But the newer conservativism, particularly the free market, populist variety, has to maintain a mythology of a chaste public misled and debased by its liberal cultural leaders.
Of course, there is a political logic to cultural populism. If the Democrats can campaign against the rich, why can't the Republicans campaign against the professors, the press, and the artists? In American politics, populism is a card both can play, which is perhaps one reason why it generally seems to cancel itself out.
The neoconservatives are not cultural populists, but they play the same game of blaming the cultural elite and the adversary culture. Rather than make careful distinctions, they characterize the entire cultural landscape and intellectual leadership in the most dire and unqualified terms. There is yet another irony here. To the neoconservatives, as Hendrik Hertzberg pointed out last May in The New Republic, "condemning American business or American military interventions is 'anti-American,' whereas wholesale vilification of American newspapers, American schools, American universities, American movies, American museums, and American book publishers is the least that can be expected of defenders of American values."
The neoconservatives' effort to identify their own cultural sensibility with Americanism, and contemporary culture with anti-Americanism, seems to me, on its face, positively bizarre. I am not sure who can define what in our cultural life is, or is not, genuinely American, but I am fairly certain that Hilton Kramer et al. are not the ones to tell us. There is also something deeply abhorrent at work here in the practice of trying to settle arguments about politics and culture by making sweeping accusations of disloyalty. Those who take legitimate offense at unwarranted accusations of racism cannot reciprocate with unwarranted accusations of anti-Americanism.
The very notion that the "left" dominates American culture is based on a highly tendentious conception of the left. After referring to the collapse of Soviet communism, Horner writes in the Commentary symposium, "Though the Left has thus been routed, it still retains its hegemony in matters cultural"--as if he were talking about the same group, or at least people with similar ideas. Conservatives like to put liberals into the same boat with the far left, the better to sink them both. This overinclusive use of the category "left" not only implicates liberals in the failures of communism; it implicitly denies that liberals were ever opposed to communism. And it enables the neoconservatives to create a picture for themselves of a culture in the grip of treason.
Studies of America's cultural institutions show an altogether different picture. Compared to the American public, journalists, for example, are somewhat more liberal, but they are by no means far to the left. And the higher one looks in the great media corporations, the more conservative political opinion becomes. As a result, the effect of any liberal tilt among the working press is effectively neutralized.
The academy is split. The science, engineering, and economics faculties tend to be relatively conservative, the remaining social sciences and humanities more liberal. A few fields, such as English, have a significant proportion, though still a minority, who identify themselves as "left" rather than "liberal," but there is nothing like the homogeneity of "politically correct" opinion that the neoconservatives conjure up when talking of "liberal McCarthyism."
The intellectual movements influencing the academy today, such as feminism and multiculturalism, surely have as much claim to being part of legitimate American traditions as do their conservative critics. The issues they raise beg for careful distinctions. In the name of multiculturalism, for example, some want to expand the sense of American identity and enrich the common culture, whereas others--advocates, really, of a new tribalism--insist that only the members of each group are capable of representing it (in both the aesthetic and political senses of that word). The former is completely consistent with liberal values; the latter, deeply antagonistic to them. It does no good to treat both tendencies with either a blanket curse or a blanket endorsement.
These movements do not, in any case, form a coherent ideology in the classic, nineteenth-century sense; it is pointless, and irrelevant, to talk about a "left" in terms that have long been outdated. By collapsing liberals and all vaguely leftish movements into the collapse of communism, the neoconservatives may think they have poured discredit upon all the cultural and intellectual tendencies they dislike. But they are really just turning themselves into a curious, if belligerent, anachronism.