Cultural Leadership

Rick Warren, the halfway-liberal evangelist briefly involved in the President’s inauguration, offers two tweets on cultural leadership, for those who believe the task can (and should) be undertaken:

Politics is always downstream from the source of culture. By the time a law is proposed, the water’s already contaminated.

If you’re serious about changing culture, start with music. Its power is unequalled. That’s why I mentor musicians.

I read these together, as a syllogism, which I think is probably correct:

(1) If your goal is to influence national politics, (2) remember that culture is prior to, and more powerful than, politics. (3) Therefore, to change politics, one must change culture.

The law rarely leads. In most cases — like in desegregation — it lags far behind, waiting for the ascendancy of a newer and more progressive generation to write their lifestyle and beliefs into law. And when the law leads, even if it effects cultural change, it rarely prompts the kind of consensus that results from organic development. To that extent, the preacher is on to something, but for one serious problem: I don’t think it’s possible to affirmatively lead the culture in the top-down manner he assumes. Put another way, I don’t think one can countermand organic cultural change through the counseling of individual players, or even through aggressive activism.

This is the flawed background assumption of the “culture wars”: that leaders, or groups largely disconnected from the dominant popular culture, can arrest the pace of its change. To my knowledge, it’s simply never happened in human history — and certainly not in a free society — but for whatever reason, it’s still an act played out in every generation, the culture going in one direction, and some remnant of the old guard attempting to “stand[] athwart history” yelling “Stop!” Maybe the background culture comes from a more genuine place; maybe, as an amalgamation of multiple influences, it’s less susceptible to voices narrowly focused on a single theme.

Whatever the reason, I don’t believe that cultural conservatism, as an ideology, has ever won a battle, despite hewing to Warren’s playbook. Rome hellenized despite the Catos, and was later Christianized despite Julian & his elites; the Catholic church lost its temporal influence despite the Papacy; the Beatles drowned out Cole Porter; the South desegregated despite Thurmond & Helms; and America will come to accept gay marriage despite her Santorums. Who’s to say whether it’s good or bad, but it is the course of history. “Politics is always downstream from the source of culture,” and the current’s too swift to paddle backwards.

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8 comments

  1. “This is the flawed background assumption of the “culture wars”: that leaders, or groups largely disconnected from the dominant popular culture, can arrest the pace of its change.”

    Your statement here is a bit muddy. I think what you are simply trying to say that no leader or group can stop change. I would agree. But when you talk about the pace of change that is a different thing and in that respect leaders and groups have been successful many times. Your example of desegregation is apt. Surely if Congress had embraced desegregation in 1900 it would have ended much earlier than it did?

    And of course that is the whole point of conservatism. Conservatism is not just about preserving those institutions and traditions that work but also about slowing the pace of change down to a speed that society can hande.

    1. “…slowing the pace of change down to a speed that society conservatives can hande.”

      1. Kris – Allow liberalism to run unchecked and believe me society cannot handle that one. The Left and Right need each other.

  2. What in the sphincter of hell does any of that have to do with the essence of culture: hurricanes?

  3. Come now, Ames, that’s not a syllogism. A syllogism looks e.g. like this:

    A: Major premise (All men are mortal)
    B: Minor premise (Socrates is a man)
    C: Conclusion (Socrates is mortal)

    What do they teach kids in law school these days? [/bah] [/getoffmylawn]

    1. A: Major premise (in studying you must have learned that man is mortal)
      B: Minor premise (you would have put the poison as far from yourself as possible)
      C: Conclusion (I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me)

      Logic is fun!

      1. Logic is fun!

        Only until you start to hit the second-order logic stuff. That can make grown men break down in tears like little girls.

        (That’s not a syllogism you’ve got there either, by the way, but I think I’ve overdrawn my quota of anal-retentiveness by now.)

        1. I am VERY disappointed! Now if you’d said about my use of “logic” or “syllogism” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” That would’ve worked.

          So would “I would not say such things if I were you” I suppose…

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