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The Warren Report

J. Bottum has fun with Spencer Warren and our friends at the Claremont Institute.

11:00 PM, Jan 20, 2003 • By J. BOTTUM
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IT'S ALL RATHER COMPLICATED. You see, there are West-coast Straussians and East-coast Straussians, and the West-coast Straussians think that the East-coast Straussians . . . except that Harvey Mansfield . . . still, back at the University of Chicago . . . in Xenophon . . . but when Allan Bloom and Fr. Fortin were in Paris . . . the esoteric . . . and if you compare the Seventh Letter with Aristotle's account of Plato's unwritten doctrines . . . Harry Jaffa . . . Machiavelli . . . the Federalist Papers. . . .

Oh, never mind. There are only three people who can sort all this out: The first is dead, the second is insane, and the third is Peter Berkowitz. The point is that the Claremont Institute out in California recently decided to declare war on The Weekly Standard and the rest of the doctrinally impure publications of East-coast conservatism. You can find the opening salvo in Precepts, the Claremont Institute's weekly newsletter. It's a 1,500-word complaint from Spencer Warren about the "aesthetic relativism" that allows young reviewers in our pages to "endorse violent, vulgar and even obscene movies that have no redeeming aesthetic values," and it concludes, with the obligatory more-in-sorrow-than-anger note, "How sad."

Well, maybe it is a little sad. I thought we got along with the Claremont crowd a little better than that. This, Charles Kesler, is how you repay the glowing notice we gave the revived Claremont Review of Books? Et tu, Mark Blitz? Hey, Ken, what price the word of the Masugis?

Still, I can take an attack as well as the next man (if the next man is as thick-skinned as, say, John Henry Newman and as appreciative of jokes at his own expense as, say, Richard Nixon). But these "younger conservatives" that Spencer Warren goes after--why, each one of them is like my child. (Actually, my only child is a five-year-old girl named Faith, and her current fascination is books about pirates, but, you understand, we're working on a metaphor here.) And what mother could stand idly by while her ducklings are savaged?

SO, let me gather them under my wing and respond to Spencer Warren's "A Conservative Generation Gap." Stand back, boys and girls. Papa may not know Kurosawa from Coca-Cola, but get him riled up enough, and he'll show you how close reading works.

Warren begins by describing these young authors' "aesthetic relativism." Now, it will turn out that nothing he describes is actually relativism: Not one of the reviews he names suggests that there are no universal standards or that all opinions are equally good. Deploying a philosophical vocabulary he hasn't quite mastered, Warren confuses what he considers bad taste with the denial that there is such a thing as taste. Victorino Matus, Eli Lehrer, et al. praise things he despises and mock things he loves--and thereby, he insists, they manifest a "disregard for age-old standards of beauty, excellence, and good taste."

It's possible, I suppose. I've tried for some time to get The Weekly Standard's younger editors Vic Matus and Jonathan V. Last to read "Oedipus at Colonus," with no luck. And if you had seen the way our editorial assistants Beth Henary and Katherine Mangu-Ward rolled their eyes when I quoted one of Martial's epigrams last week, you would have wept. (Not that Martial is exactly a model of good taste, but the point is that kids today--they ain't got no respect. Why, when Spencer Warren and I were young, children knew their place. The sky was bluer, too. And school was uphill, both coming and going, through the blinding snow.)

So, where should we go to see these "age-old standards of beauty, excellence, and good taste"? Come, my friends, while Spencer Warren takes us skipping past the Parthenon, Mont St. Michel, the Sistine Chapel, the Prado, and the Hermitage to arrive at 1950s movies. That's right. The era that thought Jayne Mansfield was an actress, Bob Hope a comedian, and Adlai Stevenson an intellectual. The era in which Hollywood gave us "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla," "Fire Maidens From Outer Space," "I Was a Teenage Werewolf," and "Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman"--to say nothing of "The Silver Chalice" and "Sincerely Yours."