October 20th, 2009


Avoidance of Works

Over at Pajamas Media, failed agriculturalist/pre-Christian reactionary Victor Davis Hanson boldly comes out of the closet as a non-consumer of modern culture. Hanson, who has long been the leading intellectual light of the ultra-conservative movement due to his tenuous grasp on the same classics that his comrades call Gore Vidal an elitist for reading, has enough grasp of history to know that he’s walking in the leaden footsteps of every old crank of the last five hundred centuries, but his claim to be “not particularly proud of this quietism” is belied by the fact that he goes on to write two thousand words about how the fault is in our stars and not ourselves.

What’s so absurd, so depressing about Hanson’s tired tirade is that we’ve seen it a million times before, and from people on every point of the political spectrum. When he asks his readership “Have you stopped reading, listening, watching, and paying attention to most of what now passes for establishment public or popular culture?”, all he is really saying is “Are you, like me, an exhausted old crackpot?”, just as exhausted old crackpots once asked his father, who likely responded in the affirmative. But instead, he acts as if the culture wars are over, and culture lost.

It’s easy enough to ignore Hanson’s broad-brush dismissals of the entirety of film, television, literature, music, and sport on their face: he is, after all, waking his hand over a swath of human endeavor that incorporates everything from Michael Bay to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, from Two and a Half Men to The Wire, from Tom Clancy to B.S. Johnson, from P. Diddy to Radiohead, and declaring it all beneath his notice. It’s not even hard to single out instances where he dispenses examples of the corruption of culture that give his game away: his complaint, for example, that too many modern action movies feature politically correct gay heroes (?). His contempt for Hollywood films that make villains of big corporations, ignorant of the fact that Hollywood is run by big corporations and their decisions are invariably driven by the market factors so beloved by the right. His predictable fag-bashing of young metrosexual actors and that horrible crazy rap music. His rage at a president who dares to think his education could be used for a positive effect on the world. His bizarre belief that the greed of sports owners is a recent development, and his naked yearning for the days before athletics were ruined by the presence of Negroes. And his clockwork-predictable arrival at the conclusion that the only books worth reading are ones having to do with the field in which he happens to be an authority.

What’s so dreary about this approach is that it’s so boring. It’s so easy. Keeping up with the culture of which you are a part can be difficult; I know that more than most, because a lot of the way I make my living depends on my staying culturally au courant. And I’m older than many of my colleagues; I can certainly recognize the temptation to just give up, to throw up my hands and say it’s all too much, that I just want to be left alone with my remembrance of things past. This is a natural impulse, though not a noble one; when once ceases to care about the culture, one ceases to be part of the culture, and that can be extremely alienating. So rather than blame it on one’s own failings, however understandable, the next natural but ignoble instinct is to say that it is not you who failed, not you who left, but the culture. Hanson calls Michael Moore, Kanye West, and David Letterman “all parasitic on the very culture they mock”; but, by the same turn, Hanson and those like him are all parasitic on the very culture they ignore.

They have done, or failed to do, the same thing as reactionary nostalgists have done since Horace: they have decided that the culture is not worth their attention, and become reluctant champions of dying tradition merely because it is easier to remember the past than engage with the present. But where Hanson & Company diverge is that they have turned a vice (an unwillingness to commit themselves to an understanding of, if not an appreciation of, the culture of their countrymen) into a virtue by means of the basest aesthetic sleight-of-hand: if I don’t like it, goes this laziest of all tricks, it must not be art. This is not only sloth and disengagement dressings itself up as nobility, but it also displays an unappealing ignorance (and worse, a feigned one on the part of people like Hanson) about the very nature of art and culture. Condemning all of a national culture without bothering to learn a thing about it is like loudly denouncing an act that no one is willing to defend: it’s laziness and self-satisfaction masquerading as a superior moral position.