“Every socialistic type of government . . . produces bad art, produces social inertia, produces really unhappy people, and it’s more repressive than any other kind of government.“
— Frank Zappa
Actually, Frank, so do secular liberal democracies.
Let me explain.
Stories are how cultures transmit truths about themselves, about the world at large, and about existence itself. This has held true ever since human beings discovered the miracle of language and speech.
Stories are both created by and create a culture, and culture is the glue that holds a nation together. People are animated by belonging to something. At the base level, this is belonging to a family, which is then extended out to a tribe, then to a town or village, then a nation, and then broadly to a civilization. As this group one belongs to expands, the familial ties grow more attenuated while the cultural ties grow. Otherwise, the whole thing falls apart.
Religion, obviously, plays a pivotal role in this phenomenon. There is nothing wrong with this, no matter what your low-IQ professors tell you. Religion is a fundamental part of what it means to be human, and even the most secular atheist person who claims to believe in nothing actually does believe in something even if they never bother to think about what that something is.
This pertains to stories because stories and culture are the beginning of the great chain of causation that affects the course of human history. If you look around at stories today, your kneejerk reaction will be to say that they’re all horrible. But this is not so. Some stories are popular beyond some flash-in-the-pan moment in the spotlight. No matter the latest cursed modernist fad, the stories that resonate stick because they hold timeless human truths, which are as old as time.
Modern philosophies of nihilism and materialism and cargo cult progressive voodoo can’t create stirring stories. The creators who try to spread a culture of death and despair know this, so they try to bathe traditional heroism in their bleak worldview, all to mixed success.
Things that are actually positive, uplifting, and life-affirming sometimes slip through the cracks. These tend to be pretty big hits because everybody loves a happy ending. Everybody likes feeling good about themselves. Sometimes, this dark view of humanity as a meaningless existence fueled by random chemical and biological interactions that have no purpose beyond eating and sleeping and defecating and fornicating gives way to stories about the fact that life matters. Heroism matters. Doing good matters, and that there is an actual objective good that must be valiantly fought for and jealously guarded.
Is anybody going to really be inspired by stories where the main message is “Kill the babies”?
Maybe there are some sick weirdos who are. There must be, or else John Irving’s The Cider House Rules would not have been optioned as a feature film. Have you read The Cider House Rules? John Irving is a wonderfully talented writer who is able to set-up dramatic scenes better than almost any other writer I have read. However, he is a dyed-in-the-wool progressive, and this gives his stories which could otherwise pack a powerful, maybe even transcendent, emotional impact into the literary equivalent of coitus interruptus: right when you’re getting to the point where the good, the beautiful, and the true could be glorified to reach some ineffable pinnacle of literary achievement, Irving brings us back down into the gutter and subverts these expectations. His progressive worldview does not allow for otherwise.
The moral of The Cider House Rules is that abortion is good and Christians are evil women-haters for being opposed to it. We’re supposed to sympathize with Dr. Larch and Homer Wells and the women whose babies they kill at the women’s behest, but Dr. Larch and Wilbur are actually the villains.
This is the danger of such a worldview and why, even when a story appears to exemplify goodness and truths about human nature that even the ancients would appreciate and approve of, the nihilism and subversion takes over. Baby-killing as a moral imperative, as an objective good, is the takeaway of The Cider House Rules.
I almost feel sorry for Irving. Such a talented man with such a warped worldview. Many of his other novels exemplify this—for example, I do not understand his bizarre fascination with incest in books like Last Night in Twisted River and The Hotel New Hampshire. In fact, the latter book nearly made me vomit.
I ask you this, though: do people feel good after reading John Irving’s novels? I cannot speak for every reader, but I certainly do not. A Prayer for Owen Meany came close to eliciting such feelings, as the titular character’s selfless sacrifice at the end was heroic and inspiring. Yet of the John Irving novels I’ve read, A Prayer for Owen Meany was certainly an outlier.
Conservatism doesn’t get off the hook either against the accusation of leading to bad art.
Ayn Rand fans may not like it, but “Profit!” “GDP!” “Free markers!” “Just leave me alone!” and “Every man for themselves!” don’t make for compelling stories either. Meaning is not found in stuff or broad, undefined ideas. I say this as one who has read all four of Rand’s novels. As philosophical treatises, one may find something of value in them. As actual stories, my opinion is that only her first, We the Living, works as a novel because it details life in Russia shortly after the Communist takeover as written by one whose family lived through those times.
Atlas Shrugged is not good as a novel with the sole exception of how Rand nails the disgusting, slimy, intellectual and personal dishonesty of her villains. However, the exaltation of profit absent any metaphysical constraints or considerations left me cold.
You cannot base a culture on materialism. If you are not asking and attempting to answer the big questions about why we are alive, what our purpose is, and what we should do with the limited time we have on this Earth, you’re merely killing time until you die. That is just as hollow a worldview as nihilistic bleakness where the only thing that matters is raw power and the exercise thereof.
Adherents of the former worldview find themselves wanting to, yet utterly incapable of, standing up against the latter worldview. Because the latter worldview is, contra the talk about loving science and so on, is a replacement faith. It is a moral crusade with its own sacraments and virtues and deadly sins.
You cannot defeat a religion with consumerism. You cannot defeat a morality with paeans to the power of economics. You can only defeat it with a counter-morality.
And moralities are promulgated through stories.
Contra Mr. Zappa, secular liberal democracies have spent generations disarming their citizens from being able to counter this replacement ideology that has spread through the judicious use of culture. This ideology goes by many names, but at the end of the day, it is a subversion and inversion of what we broadly call “tradition.” As a result, the United States is a nation gorging itself on material possessions, yet also crammed full of bad art, social inertia, unhappy people, and governmental repression.
But the day is not lost because the day is never lost. The key to a better future lies in the past. Go forth and create.