As J. Bottum defends his "children," younger associates of his at The Weekly Standard who may lack discrimination in their praise of movies, may I defend my old dog, who scared them (and may have even chewed on them). I beg reconsideration of the judgments of the Warren Court, that is, of Spencer Warren, who sternly accused them of "aesthetic relativism." But first we need to scope out the esoteric message. (I note that in the list of nine items that begins his essay, "the esoteric" is the fifth or middle term; we're on the same wavelength, Jody!)
First of all, this East Coast-West Coast Straussian business obfuscates and is itself a case of "geographic relativism." Let's use the term Jaffanese American (or Declaration of Independence conservative) rather than "West-Coast Straussian." I do not know that Warren belongs to either "gang" (as The New Republic once put it). Second, Warren explicitly praises The Weekly Standard as "a distinguished conservative journal" and one of the authors he criticizes as "estimable," nonetheless. Nowhere does he call any of the reviewers moral relativists or nihilists. And I too would affirm the importance of the Standard for preserving and enhancing American liberty and virtue. In particular, the Books and Arts section (for which I have written) features contributions of enduring significance.
But when we accept as given the crudeness of our times, we allow corrosion to seep into our souls. A lack of discrimination in minor matters may betoken a graver crisis. The Spencer Warren Report's major point in defending the '50s was not that it represented some height of Western Civilization, as Bottum presents, but rather that its movies showed visually (i.e., aesthetically) a decency that is lacking in current popular entertainment. Here are standards that we can readily find at a respectable local video store and measure ourselves against.
Finally, lest the Claremont Institute be taken as embracing a Warren Report single-bullet hypothesis, let us note the variety of movie reviews we publish. In our method we whole-heartedly agree with Bottum: "The esoteric 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." Those elements will vary from occasion to occasion, from film to film. I would argue that, for example, "The Terminator" has edifying elements of Christian allegory. I don't know that the violence of "The Godfather" or "Saving Private Ryan" is worse than that found in, say, John Wayne's "The Searchers"—all fine films. As we should be elevated, not repelled, by the shock of Flannery O'Connor's stories, so should we approach some instances of contemporary art, including movies, in the spirit of Aristotelian wonder.
Insightful older moviegoers such as Warren offer the younger ones a universe they may be unaware of and which may improve the contributions they will surely make throughout their rising careers. That was education we felt worth imparting. In this regard, consider some Claremont-style objections to the examples of '50s puerility and other judgments Bottum raises: Bob Hope went to entertain the troops. Jayne Mansfield was a pin-up, not an actress. "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and "High Plains Drifter" (a copycatting of Kurosawa) are in fact highly moralistic movies. (Warren, by the way, has in fact never endorsed either film; Bottum must have gotten that notion from an internet posting of someone else with the same name and from a misreading of his National Review cover story on conservative movies.) We Jaffanese-American-Declaration conservatives place morality over aesthetics and often over even metaphysics. (Compare my review of
"Chicago" on our website, with John Podhoretz's in the Standard. [On the web for subscribers only.]) Not that I want to pick a fight, you understand.