Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Wretch Like Me

In the Weekend Journal, Lee Siegel gave a much more dignified and historical view of the U.S. 'culture wars' than I ever do, blinded as I am by the undignified results of the historical process he outlines. In his piece Siegel asserts that part of the communication gap is the product not solely of the two sides' differential weighting of 'culture' in their political reckonings, but their distinct ways of defining it. For Liberals, culture is a Vermeer or a Mahler symphony, while today's Conservative cannot but view culture, as Siegel says, in the anthropological manner, as 'the practice of getting through life.' Culture is thus what you do with your season tickets for Liberals, and how you live your life for Conservatives. While the Left has long asserted that 'everything is political,' it might now be equally true to claim that for the Right 'everything is cultural.' I'd say the two mean the same thing, but I can't hear myself think over the blaring Shostakovich or the stream of messages from church about the fundraising.

I suspect I agree with Mr. Siegel's view of the two sides' perception, or definition, of culture, but disagree with any hint that culture, however construed, does not markedly influence our political stance or voting decisions. For example, liberal or conservative, 21st century or 18th, certain values are implicit in Western culture. Those values then condition not merely our decisions, but what questions we are even capable of asking en route to taking decisions on one issue or candidate. If this is true, not knowing who Mahler is does not invalidate the many shared assumptions, or cultural inheritance, the non-Mahler-knowing individual has in common with his operagoing, Irigaray-reading, International-Herald-subscribing counterpart.

And this brings me to a post I aborted when it went off in so many directions. One of my points was going to be about the insipidity of the Left's unceasing plaint that the Right always want to 'legislate morality.' In the name of all that is Magna Carta, children, that's what laws do! We may believe that a given legislation legislated morality wrong, or that a candidate poses a threat to what we believe is right, but to the extent that we are not in fact discrete, isolated monads but rather members of a polity - a culture, perhaps, even - with assets, concerns, needs, streetlights, highways, and social institutions (and whatever else you want to throw in there) in common, proscribing first-degree murder or grand larceny has rather more in common with the Decalogue than with a text on descriptive economics.

Laws against murder, theft, rape, and child abuse reflect legislators' and governments' (and, we hope, under a representational system, their constituents') moral stances on those issues. (Yes, they are also expedients toward a society's stability, security, and continuity, and it wasn't in hopes of cultivating a God-fearing, Republican citizenry that Hammurabi promulgated his set of suggestions) but when Liberals assert that single, low-income mothers should have access to social services, medical care, parenting resources and financial assistance, they are as much taking a moral stand about a society's responsibility toward bettering mothers', poor peoples', and childrens' lives as are religious Conservatives with regard to the same society's responsibility toward embryos and fetuses when they argue that we as a society have some responsibility for the unborn. Either is an attempt to 'legislate morality' just as is enacting laws against domestic violence or armed robbery.

Obviously the Left has come to grasp this to a greater extent than Siegel gives them credit for: in many states as fully as at the national level, a candidate from either major party with any hope of winning must, for example, trot out his religious credentials and attempt to convincingly portray his personal friendship with Jesus Christ as the most important and influential relationship in his life (I don't remember sola φιλíα from any theology I've ever studied, but that's politics for you!). He must conjure up a spiritual rags-to-riches story to entrench the narrative of the relationship in voters' minds not only as the bedrock of his views, obviously, and as guarantor of good, clean, ethical behavior if elected (his party represents God, after all, and he is the current incarnation of his party), not to mention proof of his just-like-us faith, falls, and redemption (literally, too, for those of you somehow outside the reach of American media), but also as an arc that will be replicated in his saving us and the country, as well, just as he through grace was able to save himself. Religion becomes theatre, however heartfelt it might actually be in some candidates, and we end up with a bunch of agnostic aspirants and speech-writers falteringly inserting Martin Luther alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. into word-heavy but content-free campaignspeak.


Chris Bumcrot said...

I've been searching the Web for commentary on Siegel's WSJ piece (which I found irritatingly eye-opening). Most of what I found was written by people who didn't seem to understand what Siegel wrote. You were able to pick it up, juggle it behind your back, and header it into your pocket. Plus, you were funny about it. I look forward to reading more.

Vifargent said...

Wow, thank you! I can't imagine how anyone could find this blog, and I'm sure most people would be terrified if they did, but I am not only grateful for the physical agility metaphor, but darned glad someone besides me and my mom thinks I can be funny.

I really enjoyed his 'irritatingly eye-opening' essay, as well, but the thing that, arguably, I like most about Siegel is that his NR 'sprezzatura' identity was uncovered because he couldn't stray too far from his own characteristic phrasing. I take great comfort in that every time I start to type 'patently' for the third time in a blog entry.

Thanks again!