Wednesday, January 04, 2006
The epitome of Red-State culture? Probably not.
CIAO. Thanks to Ace of Spades, I discovered a piece in the American Spectator by Mark Gauvreau Judge. It's called Right- Wingtips and it's a must-read because it's an unusually candid and revealing essay by a self-styled MetroCon, i.e., a metrosexual conservative.
The kernel of his argument is interesting and quite defensible:
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.
This would be a productive idea to examine in the contemporary American context if it had been broached by someone who is not, like Mr. Judge, blind, deaf, and dumb to esthetic beauty and the arts. In his comment on the piece, Ace of Spades seems chiding rather than scornful, and almost defensive:
I'm sure he does like the symphony, but his appreciation of it was surely spurred by the desire to ultimately appreciate the symphony. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but many people have better things to do than cultivate their tastes. Cultivated tastes are just wonderful and all, but there's a steep entry cost in time and money to achieving them which many just can't be bothered with.
Still, there is something of a good point here. If NASCAR shouldn't be dogmatically denigrated, neither should finer pursuits. And really, well-paid, culturally-blue-state Northeastern city dwellers shouldn't go on and on about the virtues of hick culture unless they actually do admire it and enjoy it -- which I suspect many really don't.
Hey, I'll admit it: I don't really find Larry the Cable Guy very funny at all. "Git-R-Done"? What the hell's that supposed to mean?
Here, Ace of Spades seems to be conceding far too much, especially the notion that "aesthetic beauty" really might be synonymous with what is called high culture. I suspect , though I don't know, that Ace doesn't much care for the symphony himself and therefore feels compelled to back off a step in the face of a more cultivated adversary. I feel no such compulsion. Mark Gauvreau Judge is a poseur and a jackass, and he doesn't understand a damn thing about culture other than fashion.
Exhibit One: in the immediate aftermath of his reference to Hildebrand, Judge smoothly loads his own definition of esthetic value into the idea, as if he and Hildebrand had agreed on the specifics together:
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.
Old Spice to Polo? Is this really to be assumed as an axiom from a book called Transformation in Christ? Can we have a New Testament citation in support of that?
I'm not nitpicking. Judge gives us several similar lists of cultural comparisons that matter. There's this, for example:
There's William F. Buckley, the pluperfect conservative metrosexual. Buckley, whose National Review turned 50 last year, is the picture of style, erudition, dignity, and grooming. He's more Polo than Gillette, goes to the symphony, and would look lost at a rodeo. Buckley is representative of the older conservative order, people like Jeane Kirkpatrick, Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol who can speak about Beethoven and Brahms more than Alan Jackson and Jeff Foxworthy. They read the New Criterion -- a kind of Bible of the metrocon -- and buy Christmas presents at Brooks Brothers instead of Wal-Mart. [italics mine]
(W)hen I sobered up and became a conservative -- which also meant a return to Christianity -- I began to experience the second growth that von Hildebrand speaks of. I went from Levis and punk rock to Saks and swing dancing. I poured out the Old Spice and went to Nordstrom's for a bottle of Truefitt and Hill of London (founded, the bottle reminds us, in 1805, when Lord Nelson won the great battle at Trafalgar). I stopped wearing sneakers and white socks. Like George Will -- a Hall of Fame metrocon -- I began to prefer baseball to football. And I never stopped liking Woody Allen films -- yes, I call them films. I didn't stop growing -- in fact, this was when I started growing. [italics mine]
Growing what, one wonders. My guess? Affectations. The most important information Judge provides about himself is in the biographical blurb at the end, where we learn that he is:
...the author of God and Man at Georgetown Prep: How I Became a Catholic Despite 20 Years of Catholic Schooling (Crossroad, 2005) and Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington's Only World Series Championship (Encounter, 2003).
Lawdy, Lawdy. We're looking at an open-and-shut case of hero worship. William F. Buckley first came to fame for writing a book called "God and Man at Yale." And George Will ("Hall of Fame metro-con"), who has written a couple of books about baseball, is notorious for his love of the Senator-like Chicago Cubs. Mr. Judge, whose adolescent "uniform was studied rock and roll grubbiness -- mullet (hey, it was the '80s), ripped jeans, rock band T-shirt," appears to be formulaically recreating himself in the image of conservatism's two most pompous commentators. How seriously are we to take his scorn for NASCAR?
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.
He doesn't tell us what we should prefer to this. Grand Prix Racing (Euro-pansies chasing each other through the most glamorous capitals of Europe)? Maybe not. How about yacht racing, like the Buckleys would do. Now there's a "sport." Wealthy gentlemen with lockjaw accents and wives who wear khaki slacks and Polo cologne driving their million-dollar yawls around buoys off the Nantucket shore. That's a pastime all Americans should really be able to get behind.
The sad thing is that there truly is a worthwhile point buried in the mire of Judge's self-congratulatory confession. The point about growing is valid. But it's much much bigger than Judge and the elitist snobs of the left and right -- or the slobs of left and right -- can comprehend. Esthetic beauty and genuine cultural value are to be found at every level of society. No one has a monopoly, and one's personal choice in cologne has virtually nothing to do with the equation.
NASCAR can be beautiful, even if its practitioners know nothing of fashion. What they do instead is push themselves, their machines, and each other to the limit of their capabilities in an artificially created arena that may require them to give their lives in exchange for an intangible honor -- being the best. Along the way, they create fabulous works of art in the form of their racing cars and their driving performances. Much the same can be said for another object of Judge's derision, the rodeo. If these are not "sports" in the truest sense of the word, then nothing else is, either.
By the same token, red-staters have no right to ridicule Grand-Prix racing, or ocean yacht racing, skiing, or bob-sledding.
More, the same principle can be extended into every part of life and the arts. Growing is about increasing the realms in which we experience curiosity, appreciation, and respect for those who lead the effort. No one of us can like or aspire to understand everything, but it behooves each of us to add interests rather than replace our old ones with more fashionable substitutes. That's not growing; it's leaving valuable parts of ourselves behind.
Of course, it's much more challenging to be selectively appreciative than sweepingly disdainful. It requires discrimination to recognize that much of all music, from classical to hip-hop, is junk and still retain the curiosity and receptiveness it takes to identify works of genuine merit. For some of us it's hard not to be as dismissive of contemporary "high" art as Mr. Judge is of country music, but it would be equally wrong. If I'm inclined to regard Phillip Glass as a pretentious phony, Harold Pinter as a derivative bore, and Richard Dawkins as an arrogant didact, I must still retain the esthetic and intellectual rigor to see and learn from good post-modern music, contemporary playwrights, and academic scientists. Quality is really not a matter of fashion, but of vision, imagination, and execution.
Those who turn their noses up at most of their fellow citizens are rightly suspected of being snobs rather than gods. That's the answer to the question Mr. Judge only thinks he wants an answer to: why the Coulters, Ingrahams, and O'Reillys defend cultural pursuits they probably aren't avid fans of themselves. Out there in the America of church suppers, tractor-pulls, square dancing, Four-H competitions, bluegrass festivals, motocross, hog-calling contests, the Grand Ole Opry, pro-stock drag-racing, heavy-metal rock concerts, deerhunting, Harley-Davidson poker runs, RV conventions, barbecue cook-offs, and Larry the Cable Guy, there is both mediocrity and an abundance of what even von Hildebrand would probably recognize as esthetic beauty. And among the supposed unwashed are also people who love opera, Renaissance art, Shakespeare, Rodin, Fellini, the America's Cup, and even baseball. A lot of non-metro-cons probably know this instinctively. Mark Gauvreau Judge may have at one time too. Too bad he's forgotten; he's the less for it, no matter how appealing his cologne.
No offense, Ace. I think you'll take my point.