Note from the Editors: This essay is part I of a three-part series arguing how the Right can reclaim culture from the left. Part II can be found here and part III, here. *This should not be confused with our first print issue “Art & Literature for Dissidents“.
Reclaiming Art & Literature, Part I: Why Bother Writing?
“All literature implies moral standards and criticisms — the less explicit the better.”
— Evelyn Waugh
The most demoralizing right-wing literary project of the past decade is a publishing house called Liberty Island. Founded in 2014 by Adam Bellow, whose father was Saul Bellow (winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature) the project seemed initially like a good idea. Adam Bellow wrote an essay about it for National Review in 2014 titled “Let Your Right Brain Run Free.” He sounded pretty convincing in some parts. But the project had no impact whatsoever, it was a total failure. Its YouTube page has forty-seven subscribers and a couple of hundred views per video. The best Liberty Island publication was probably “The End of Sparta” by Victor Davis Hanson. But for some reason it got taken off the website. How the whole project has survived this long is a mystery: it can’t have ever sold more than a few hundred books in total since 2014. Is it all some kind of avant-garde performance art? Is it a scam? After all the new owner’s name is David M. Swindle. But you know Liberty Island probably is legitimate since nobody seems to be making any money.
Most people I talk to have real jobs and couldn’t care less about new conservative art or literature. Well, they do care, but they’re apathetic about making it happen. If you’ve got Penguin Classics on your bedside table and you’re happy watching Criterion Collection or Masters of Cinema DVDs instead of new movies or TV shows, who needs something new as a ‘cultural product’?
But society in general does. Part of the reason the left dominates culture and society is that they’ve understood that if you want to change society, you must change literature first. It’s the long game for getting society on your side.
Except most of society isn’t ‘intellectual’. In fact, not even the smartest people you know are ‘intellectuals’. Many people prefer to outsource their thinking so they can get on with the rest of their lives. And most people don’t think the way philosophers think. People think in stories, not propositions, formulas, or arguments. That’s why fiction is important. You change people’s minds with narratives. Even facts, data, and evidence are useless without a basic story to hold them up as a skeleton.
It could be argued that when it comes to politics literature doesn’t matter — it’s too ‘literary’ — mass culture matters. That’s true, up to a point. Mass culture (or pop culture) in a mass democracy can’t be ignored. But if the Right seeks to influence society, then it has to think about literature too.
There’s actually no strong, attractive conservative high culture right now in any major Western country, unless you count classical music and other kinds of ‘museum art’ made before the 1960s. As for a conservative pop culture or a mass culture: nothing. There are nostalgia TV shows for seventy-year-olds, but what about pop culture or mass culture, aimed at normal people under thirty? Where the hell are the conservatives? They don’t even have country music anymore.
The problem comes from the type of ‘conservatism’ that’s dominated since World War Two. It’s not really conservatism; It’s just the right-wing of a liberal party elite which is completely disconnected from anything that people care about. Conservatives who were allowed to have any power or influence abandoned culture in favor of economics and think-tank politics. But free-market economics is not exactly a cause you’d stake your life on. Few would write poems about it either.
One of my uncles, himself a soldier, remembers arguing with an American diplomat about the Iraq War in 2003. This supposedly ‘conservative’ diplomat believed that if Saddam Hussein was gone and the Ba’ath Party fired, then the Iraqi people would welcome Americans as liberators and start practicing liberal democracy. The diplomatic walked away thinking he’d won the argument, when all he’d done was regurgitate press releases.
The conservative movement in my lifetime has always been this deluded, self-righteous and self-important. This variety of conservatives always thought they were so correct that they never had to bother trying to convince anybody they were — their superiority was ‘self-evident’. Mostly, they were simply out of touch, and often proudly so. You see it even today with people patting themselves on the back talking about ‘free speech’ (even though they’re useless at protecting it in real life). But they don’t want to take in any disagreeable ideas, they just want to be seen advertising the fact they could (theoretically) do so.
This is why they have to go. It must be understood how and why the culture war was lost so badly. In retrospect, most conservatives didn’t even fight. Look at the impotence of the ‘cultured’ conservatives. Have you ever read The New Criterion? I know more people who write for it than read it. They like things that are old but can’t really justify them to a normal person in ordinary language. They say they want to fight for Old Master paintings and Latin in schools, and so on, except that they don’t really want to fight.
The basic problem with this kind of ‘conservatives’ is that they don’t even pretend to have an argument for why anybody should care about Beauty or culture, or for why those things are much better than the things they hate. Their response to any real disagreement is to simply call their opponents “philistines,” before slinking back into their offices. For them, it seems, high culture is little more than a delightful status symbol, which if it is unaffordable for or unattainable by the poor and weak, is all the better.
But if you want to write, or call yourself a writer, you have to ask yourself why you’re writing. You also have to figure out what you’re creating, what the point of it is, who your target audience is, and why people should listen to you, when they already have Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot and all these other writers who are guaranteed not to waste their time. Nobody’s going to answer any of these questions for you, and talking about these questions with other writers just slows down finding the answers.
Enter Jordan Peterson. Every single coffee-shop screenwriter and would-be bestselling novelist I know is studying his podcasts trying to find out the secret formula to literary stardom. Fifty years ago people did the same with Joseph Campbell’s books. Seventy-five years ago it was Carl Jung. A hundred years ago it was Sir James Frazer.
Writers always try to use books like this for shortcuts. But Jordan Peterson has a formula that only works for him. His audience is made up mainly of people who never heard their parents reading aloud from the Bible, so when they hear basic stories from the Book of Genesis for the first time they’re completely blown away. Jordan Peterson’s whole act is Christianity for people who are afraid to believe in God. There’s a huge audience for that, and you’re not going to capture it unless you can come up with a better fake Christianity than the one he has.
Peterson is also a bad example for writers because he’s better at talking than writing. 12 Rules For Life is extremely badly written. The 2021 sequel is even worse. But the lectures, interviews, and podcasts from 2017 and 2018 are great. If you want to be inspired by Peterson, YouTube is all you need. Still, in the end, Jordan Peterson is just a psychology professor who accidentally got famous. He can inspire you, but after a while you run out of things to learn from him. You need your own point of view.
Jordan Peterson is also not going to give you any shortcuts when it comes to creating something. His podcasts on the Bible aren’t a substitute for sitting down and reading scriptures. Educated people make fun of Christian fundamentalists for only reading the Bible, but have you ever sat down and talked with a Christian fundamentalist? A smart one knows the Bible better than you know literally anything else you ever learned at college. I’ve talked to people who left school at fourteen and grew up with no books in the house except the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. People like that still have more literature in their heads than every single BA in English I’ve ever met. Including professors, no, especially professors.
It’s easy to get discouraged. A lot of talented writers on the Right have decided to give up looking for audiences and write for themselves. Others I know might as well be writing for themselves because they’ve self-published their work and have no idea how to do publicity. This is the worst way to sabotage yourself because you end up getting frustrated that nobody’s reading your work, and then the downward spiral begins. Your work gets more and more warped, because you start trying to punish the world for not paying attention to you, and that makes people pay even less attention, which makes you even more twisted.
You can sympathize with the black-pilled failed writers, but must not get influenced by them. They’re even worse than the literary talkers (the people who spend hours and hours talking all night about their future literary projects and never actually writing anything). The talkers are just wasting their time and enjoying themselves.
The conservative movement people have got one thing right. People on our side really have won all the arguments and have nothing left to prove. Our enemies might even know we’re right. But we’re losing the war because we’re not good at communicating our ideas to normal people.
We haven’t got audiences, we haven’t got patrons, we haven’t got resources, we haven’t got mainstream avenues of communication. Institutionally we’ve got nothing. We have no access to literary agents or other mainstream gatekeepers. Most of our writers aren’t part of any Oxbridge or Ivy League power network, or if they are they have to work so hard to keep from getting exposed that they can’t really do anything.
On the other hand, our enemies are complacent. Even the intelligent ones among them. Their problem is that even though they have all the power and authority, they know they’re playing a losing game: they’re losing their influence in the real world.
In truth, the whole ‘culture industry’ was becoming hollow even before Covid. Now these people know that fewer and fewer people are listening to them or buying their books. They’re panicking. All we have to do is be patient and put together a proper strategy for winning mass audiences and put it into action. We can win the 2020s.
Lockdowns helped our enemies start to destroy themselves. Now it’s time to start taking the initiative. If you’re a writer, this is your chance to lead.