“Hoo boy!” as Albert the Alligator of “Pogo” fame used to say. Mark Gauvreau Judge stirred up a storm in the American Spectator with an article deploring the conflation of conservatism with populism. Judge is the author of two recent books, God and Man at Georgetown Prep: How I Became a Catholic Despite 20 Years of Catholic Schooling , and Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington’s Only World Series Championship .
He also wants it to be known that he is something of a sophisticate. Playing with last year’s fashion of the “metrosexual,” he calls himself a metroconservative, or metrocon for short. Reflecting on a mindlessly vulgar but extremely popular song, he writes:
It represented the one thing I truly cannot stand about modern conservatism: its defense of anything dumb, tacky, and second-rate, as long as it comes from “the people.” The common man is deified by the right. NASCAR, an absolutely idiotic “sport” which consists, as the joke goes, of “a bunch of rednecks makin’ left turns,” is hailed as red state America’s favorite pastime—and ipso facto comparable to the Olympics of ancient Greece. Actually, scratch that: NASCAR is not treated as something grand and noble, which makes it all the worse. To populist conservatives, the simple fact that Bush country embraces the sport makes its aesthetic quality quite beside the point. This is the sport of people, we are told ad nauseam by folks like Laura Ingraham, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity, who “work hard, go to church, and play by the rules.” They are the ones who watch the WWF—a “sport” even apes laugh at—and who read the Left Behind series of books, which should probably be called Theology for Dummies .
This attitude would be less irritating if it were an acknowledgment of reality rather than a celebration of the mediocre. When Bill O’Reilly goes into his just-an-average-Joe-from-Levittown riff, he doesn’t come across as a man who aspires to lose some of the provincialism of his upbringing, much less expand into different areas of knowledge and artistic appreciation. He’s proud of being a blockhead. Yet—of course—the liberals are worse. Baby boomers still dress in jeans and T-shirts (like their NASCAR counterparts), listen to music that’s 40 years old (the Stones anyone?), and try to sound like teenagers to impress their kids.
As you might have gathered, Mark Judge is a young man with a point of view. But then he turns to making nice with those whom he has insulted:
What makes this so sad is that I firmly believe in the common sense, decency, and wisdom of the American people. I just wish that the attempts at self-improvement common among the masses up until the 1960s hadn’t gone out of style. People once read Reader’s Digest to keep up with the best books and thinkers. They felt guilty about not understanding classical music. They shamed those who dressed like pigs. In his masterpiece Transformation in Christ , the great theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand claimed that there are two phases of growth for the human person. The first is physical, and the second spiritual. After the physical growth stops, the human person starts to grow towards God. This, in Hildebrand’s view, entails a growth in appreciation of, among other things, aesthetic beauty and the arts. It means going from pop music tunes to symphonies, from blue jeans to slacks, from Old Spice to Polo. It means trying to improve yourself.
Mark Judge concludes with this:
As it stands now, things don’t look good for the metrocons. George Bush is the antipode to our kind—unlike Ronald Reagan, an actor used to cleaning up well and who looked as comfortable in a suit as he did on a horse. But he’s a good man who’s perfect for the job at hand—the War on Terror—so he gets a pass. Here’s hoping that in 2008 we conservatives put forth someone who is for low taxes, the War on Terror, and no white shoes after Labor Day.
Judge’s article elicited a torrent of letters, mostly unflattering. He is an insecure young man with cultural pretensions, said some, while others settled for his being an insufferable snob.
At the risk of adding to my notoriety for even-handedness, let us try to be fair and balanced, as it is said on the Fox channel. Judge is right that conservatism is not populism. William F. Buckley’s famous quip about preferring to be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston phone book rather than by the Harvard faculty was never put to the test. Mind you, I share the sentiment but am not at all sure I would want to see it put to the test.
Populism has taken many forms in American history, both of a rightist and leftist bent. Fortunately, we seldom face the stark choice of being ruled by the snobs or ruled by the mobs. And a majority is not the same thing as a mob. A majority, by definition, includes a lot of ordinary people—for whom, as Lincoln observed, God must have a special affection since he made so many of them. The alternative to snobocracy and mobocracy is representative democracy.
Nor must we choose between snobs and slobs. Judge is right in saying that a half century ago there was the Reader’s Digest striving to encourage cultural uplift. There was also the Book of the Month Club and the many cultural projects of the New Deal devoted to celebrating the common man while trying to make him a little less common.
The discussion of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow in American public life has a long history. Dwight Macdonald, a “Gentile Cousin” of the New York Intellectuals, had a powerful influence on the discussion. Joseph Epstein wrote some while back in The New Criterion :
“Masscult & Midcult" is Macdonald’s most ambitious intellectual effort. A rerun of the old highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow triad developed by Russell Lynes, the essay is a characteristic performance. Written with not a little dash, it struggles to cut deep without quite being able to do so, despite an early Adorno quotation and much waving about of the flag of classical modernism: two Picassos rampant upon a field of Finnegans Wake.
"Masscult & Midcult" has two chief concerns. The first is to make the case that mass entertainment is "an instrument of domination." The second is that Midcult, or the middlebrow, will infect true High Culture, and its values "instead of being transitional¯’the price of progress’¯may now themselves become a debased, permanent standard." Some good things get said along the way. Of the Lords of Kitsch, as he calls them, Macdonald says "never underestimate the ignorance and vulgarity of publishers, movie producers, network executives, and other architects of Masscult." He declares "a tepid ooze of Midcult is spreading everywhere," which seems to me also correct, though this was predictable with the rise of higher (half-) education.
Of course, Macdonald, who died in 1982, was very much a man of the Left. In the dialectical sleight of hand that only Marxists claimed to understand, he thought it important to protect the revolutionary future from the aesthetic aspirations of the great unwashed. Mark Judge is of a very different temper. He is appalled by the tastes of the people who have been admitted to the conservative club.
If there is nothing like good taste, it is undoubtedly true that much of today’s conservatism is nothing like good taste. Between Bach and rock, we all have our preferences. (Judge, incidentally, has repeatedly berated conservatives for failing to appreciate what he insists are the meritorious aspects of rock music.) As several letters on the American Spectator article noted, depicting conservatives as knuckle-dragging rednecks is not the most winsome way of advancing their cultural uplift. Judge admires “metrocons” such as William F. Buckley, while failing to appreciate that a mark of their sophistication is that they would never dream of writing an article like the article he wrote. The reason is not hypocrisy but courtesy. A mark of a gentleman is that he never makes a public issue of being a gentleman.
It is not entirely beside the point that I like Mark Judge and think he has a promising future as a writer. His book on Georgetown Prep is both instructive and fun. But at the end of the day, the common good does depend in very large part on all those people who “work hard, go to church, and play by the rules.” As Dietrich von Hildebrand also understood, aesthetic growth is less important than the growth in grace that takes place in the ordinary.
As for NASCAR races, I don’t know, never having been to one. From what I once saw on television, the people seemed to be greatly enjoying themselves. Dr. Johnson said a man is seldom so innocently employed as in the making of money. That truth can be expanded to many things that are not important to me. I never cease to be amazed by the innocent pleasures so many derive from doing things I do not do. A good many of them say they’re grateful for what I do, for which I’m grateful. And if they show up in white shoes after Labor Day, I’ll not make an issue of it. Who knows? Maybe it’s the latest thing, having taken over from the fashion that somebody called metrocon.
In addition to which :
“Gays and the Priesthood” is an extended reflection in the February issue by Father Neuhaus on reactions to the recent Vatican instruction. He asks whether we are headed for “The Truce of 2005,” comparable to “The Truce of 1968” that followed the widespread rejection of the encyclical Humanae Vitae . Other articles you will not want to miss are Stephen Barr on design and evolution, David Klinghoffer on the folly of a Jewish war on the “religious right,” and Avery Cardinal Dulles on the pope’s critique of the Second Vatican Council. To become a subscriber to F IRST T HINGS , click here .