Symposium: Cherry Picking from Western Civ and Pop Culture Alike

Samuel Gregg is surely right that conservative intellectualism has many strands. During my own relatively short political engagement, I have gone from a 12 year old neoconservative, to a Mike Huckabee-supporting high schooler, to a libertarian, to a Lockean, to a realist, to the classical-liberal localist that I think of myself today. But Ian Tuttle is also right to point out that these internal debates conservatives share are not necessarily synonymous with “Western Civ.”

When conservatives talk about upholding Western Civilization, we usually mean that we’re defending the humanism of Ancient Greece, the history of Christianity, and the European rule of law and property. But when liberals hear our defense of Western Civ, they assume we’re claiming a couple thousand years of reactionary baggage. Of course, we’re actually cherry picking the works of Aristotle, St. Augustine, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Calvin, Dr. Johnson, Winston Churchill, Frederick Hayek, etc. Perhaps we ought to be more truthful about what we’re up to, lest we get stuck defending centuries of human folly. Here’s to honest cherry picking.

The other problem with “Western Civ” is that, for better or worse, it conjures up a vision of a curmudgeonly old Latin professor. I have nothing against old Latin professors, but they’re probably not going to inspire the masses. Nor do they have to. The ideas of conservatism are broad enough that one scholar’s study of Cicero is another Average Joe’s vote against political tyranny.

But conservatives really do have to improve the way we engage pop culture. They don’t have to endorse Miley Cyrus and her ilk, but they should at least try to understand why thousands of Americans were tweeting about her. The best examples I’ve seen of true conservative engagement have come from Peter Lawler and Emily Esfahani Smith. Professor Lawler makes the case for watching more TV for the social and political commentary it offers. He even thinks there’s a moral subtext to HBO’s Girls. Smith is the young editor of the blog, Acculturated, which discusses the contemporary TV and Internet under the assumption that “pop culture matters.”

From reading Lawler and Smith, one senses that they are well versed in Western texts without their needing to explicitly harangue about the Decline of Civilization. Instead, they intelligently pick and choose which elements of tradition are most relevant and important to the current conversation. Part of being conservative is knowing when it’s prudent to prioritize.