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Luke O’Sullivan: The culture wars have to be fought at the level of culture


If you’re anything like me, modern arts and culture doesn’t so much edify you, as assail you with a feeling of helplessness. It’s not just the obvious things I’m talking about here: the preoccupation with sex in pop music aimed at our children, or the pre-watershed television shows which seem to condone drug taking and promiscuity. It’s the dull obscurity of post-modern literature, and the juvenile irony of contemporary art. From the crude to the supposedly sophisticated, much modern arts and culture aims to stop us from thinking about truth and beauty, and instead to get us on message with trendy ideas about gender and sexuality.

The problem is that, as everyone keeps pointing out when budget cuts are looming, arts and culture has a huge impact on society. It reaches into every area of our lives. If the things we watch on the telly or listen to on the radio are good then it will make us better, if they are infantile or base then it will, gradually, infantilise and debase us. Childish and base voters will elect childish and base leaders. Childish and base leaders will… well they’ll pass legislation like the recent gay marriage bill.

It is often said that the battle for widespread acceptance of gay marriage was won by two things. One was Will and Grace, the sitcom about a quirky singleton in her early thirties and her gay best friend which ran for eight seasons between 1998 and 2006, the other was Brokeback Mountain, the 2005 film based on Annie Proulx’s short story about gay cowboys. Will and Grace made legislators laugh, Brokeback Mountain made them cry, and that, apparently, was enough to make them redefine the institution on which Western society has existed and flourished for millenia.

There are lots of other examples of this: Orwell’s 1984 was credited with solidifying Western opinion against Communism, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, with easing the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the US; the Spielberg film Jaws, meanwhile, led to the slaughter of tens of thousands of great white sharks.

Why have social conservatives been so slow to cotton on to the power of art and culture to shape the public’s opinions and actions for better or worse? Why have we failed to organise ourselves behind the artists and institutions which can put across the socially conservative point of view so much more effectively than a stump speech or a party manifesto?

The Conservative Woman has been fighting on the front line of the culture wars for getting on to two years now, and its success shows what can be achieved by little more than wit, conviction and a connection to the internet. But a strong front line needs depth in the arrière-garde. Powerful defences need to draw on a coherent, contemporary, culture. As G K Chesterton put it: “the true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”

This is the focus of Quadrapheme, an arts and culture blog I run with a group of recent university graduates. We want to tell the stories that the liberal media either don’t see or intentionally overlook, and we want to draw attention to, and join up, the disparate artists and intellectuals who are already doing this.

Take for instance this story about the Anglican vicar and ex con Paul Cowley, who fights recidivism among recently released prisoners. The cynic would say that we haven’t heard of him because unlike a Vicar of Dibley or a Rev. Adam Smallbone, Paul is a man of conviction whose Christian beliefs contradict, rather than affirm, permissive liberal norms.

It’s important that people like Paul Cowley get air time because it challenges the false idea that the liberal left have a monopoly on social justice. It’s this same falsehood which means that when humanitarian disasters like the immigration crisis strike, it is the liberal left who are perceived as having authority on questions of right and wrong, even though when it comes to family life or human dignity it is social conservatives who are far more sound. As we can see from the chaotic events unfolding across Europe, that skewed focus has a real impact on our lives.

It’s also important because if the general public is persuaded by programmes like the Vicar of Dibley and Rev. that Christians are well meaning but ineffectual buffoons, they are more likely to be quiescent as Christians are pushed out of the public square and have their freedoms restricted.

It’s also important to use blogs and social media to spread the word about the intellectuals and storytellers, contemporary and classic, who can shape, enrich and communicate our view of the world. We have all heard of liberal tripe Fifty Shades of Grey, but what about C.S. Lewis’s long-overlooked masterpiece Till We Have Faces or Amy Sackville’s recent novel about an artic explorer, The Still Point?

So, to cure the cultural malaise we need to spread the ideas and stories and promote the intellectuals and storytellers. Social conservatives must get back onto the front foot and start thinking of culture not as something we have a right to enjoy, but as something we have a duty to support and create — discerningly.


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Luke O'Sullivan
Luke O'Sullivan
Luke O’Sullivan is the Editor of Quadrapheme, a conservative cultural review site.

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