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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."

Okay, okay, I know that last paragraph sounds unfair. It has the shape of an unjust summary. But, it isn't, really, for--trying to grasp both ends of the rope at the same time--Warren has tangled himself up in a double bind. You see, he opens with a swipe at young Chris Weinkopf, who questioned the value of movies as art in a piece in the American Enterprise magazine. That all the great movies ever made "should be dismissed down the memory hole by even one writer in a distinguished conservative journal is," Warren writes, "extremely unfortunate."

It looks to me as though Weinkopf, whether right or wrong, was nonetheless attempting to promote "age-old standards of beauty, excellence, and good taste" by his mild dismissal of movies as at best "good pyrotechnics." But Warren commits himself to defending the artistry of movies in general--and then to denying that artistry in movies like "8 Mile" (nodded at by Eli Lehrer and Eric Cox), the "Die Hard" films (declared enjoyable by Weinkopf), and "Terminator 2" (lauded by Matus). "If the ratings system had any meaning," Warren writes, "'8 Mile' would have been rated NC-17 for the filthy language alone--for which reason it deserves condemnation by every conservative who understands the paramount importance of protecting our children's innocence and upholding traditional standards of decency."

One's first impulse is to tell him to lighten up. Didn't he ever read the American Spectator back in those long-ago days when everyone at it was 20 years old and had a sense of humor five or six years younger? One wants to ask if this is the same Spencer Warren, "professional movie buff," who praises "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and insists Richard Franklin's "Psycho II" is better than Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho"? Is this the same Spencer Warren who names "High Plains Drifter" among the greatest conservative movies ever made? That's the film, you remember, that has Clint Eastwood shoot three men, one between the eyes, and rape a woman on the street, all within the first five minutes.

Regardless, he's planted himself a tough row to hoe by arguing this double whammy, and his solution is to claim that the high point of western civilization came in the 1950s--and then to note that The Weekly Standard has "twice in the past year criticized 1950s movies basically as hidebound and barren. This (left-wing) cliché is totally inaccurate."

I don't know. Over the past few years, the Standard's back-of-the-book has published essays that mentioned 1950s movies by such critics as Terry Teachout, John Podhoretz, Jonathan Foreman, Donald Lyons, S.T. Karnick, and--yes--even Spencer Warren. Some of those 1950s movies were praised, and some dismissed. Here at The Weekly Standard we may have strong editorial policies about war with Iraq, the vileness of cloning, and the need to reroute the Arlington connector on I-66. (Don't ask me about that last one; it's a Fred Barnes thing.) But we don't have much of a policy about Vincente Minnelli's "The Band Wagon" or Andre De Toth's "Day of the Outlaw."

But that isn't the same as saying we're relativistic about them. It's rather the opposite: an insistence that critics make the case for their likes and dislikes. Many films these days are crude and vulgar. So were many films made in the 1950s. The "younger conservatives" published back here in the East are able to see past the crudities and vulgarities of the movies of their time to see a few of the eternal verities of art (just as Spencer Warren claims to be able to see past the crudities and vulgarities of the movies of his time), and those young writers are willing to try to make their case.

Of course--doing a little serious philosophy here for a moment--that's possible only in a universe possessing the unity of truth, beauty, and goodness: a world in which beauty is illuminated by rationality, rationality by morality, and morality by beauty. And that--adding a little natural theology--can take place only in a universe that manifests the fact that it is created. The exoteric purpose of those reviews--finishing with a little Straussianism--is to pick out from amidst the dreck of contemporary culture a few elements that entertain and instruct. But the esoteric meaning, ah, Mr. Warren: the esoteric meaning is God.

Vic Matus's great love for "The Terminator" or Jonathan Last's for Lord of the Rings isn't the first place I'd personally go looking for the Divine. But then neither is Spencer Warren's "Gigi."

J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.