An interview with Mark Judge

The University Bookman is pleased to present this interview with Mark Judge, one of the most interesting writers on contemporary culture. Judge is a writer and filmmaker who writes regularly for The Daily Caller and other publications.

Mark, thanks for being with us. In a recent article on Joseph Bottum’s piece in Commonweal on gay marriage, you took the opportunity to criticize conservatives for abandoning the culture. You write that conservatives have “been so isolated in think tanks, magazines, and political websites that they are no longer engaged with the culture, or even the world at large.” How did conservatives, for whom questions of culture ought to loom largest, come to such a pass?

Well, I think that liberals have always been better at culture. The arts just tend to attract liberals. But in earlier decades Hollywood and other manufacturers of culture made films and works of art with themes of beauty, honor, courage, and integrity because that’s what the culture wanted—and also because that is what was allowed by the censors.

It’s important to remember that liberals and the left are often separate—or at one time they were. Up until the 1960s, liberals could make great films that were also patriotic and celebrated the virtues. But when cultural revolutions of all kinds swept through the West in the 1960s, the far left took over and conservatives just abandoned the field. We forfeited everything to the left—rock and roll, cinema, indie publishers. We just went to sleep. Instead of forming culture-shaping institutions, we founded think tanks. And people went into them to write papers. Papers are great. But we also needed, and need, novelists, filmmakers, musicians.

In your view, is “the culture” dominated by the left, as many conservatives claim, or is the picture more complicated? Many people, not just conservatives, have become very selective in the media they consume, because of the fear that popular culture is speaking to the lowest possible human instincts. Or is this simply a mistaken equation of popular culture with whatever the corporate media decide to broadcast?

The funny thing is that the culture is dominated by the left, but because the human soul cries out for certain timeless themes, conservative themes keep popping up despite the people that control the culture. Thus we get movies like The Dark Knight Rises and a great novel like Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which is about loyalty, generosity, the cost of the truth, and the meaning of love. You get all these rock and roll bands singing about love, a love that is transcendent and can alter reality itself. The timeless themes push through despite who is controlling the curtain.

How does one render such conservative, even old-fashioned, ideas as commitment, loyalty, manliness, modesty, and courage to win an audience in today’s world?

The concept is simple. Tell a good story. Most so-called Christian art today is awful. It’s ham-fisted and triumphalist. Tell a good, intelligent, understated story—like this documentary I am working on about Whittaker Chambers. Found creative organizations to support conservative artists and let them create. We don’t need another think tank.

Can you name some artists or performers we should be watching for?

Right now I’m stuck on this Scottish band The Twilight Sad, who are just amazing. Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling is a national treasure and should be on the Today Show twice a year. I mentioned Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which is a brilliant novel. The filmmaker Terrence Malick is always good. Brian Michael Bendis is a writer for Marvel Comics and his stuff is fantastic, especially when he teams up with the artist Alex Maleev. Their Moon Knight series is just magnificent. There is more than enough great stuff out there. You just have to walk outside and find it.

Russell Kirk and others thought “high” and “popular” need to be mixed; popular culture gives texture to high, and high culture in some ways sifts popular culture for the best of it. Do you see such a distinction and if so does it still make sense today?

It’s funny: I write for the Templeton Foundation website Acculturated, and I recently did a piece for them about how, growing up in my family, the lines between high and popular culture were totally blurred. My parents would take us to the Kennedy Center to see plays and hear classical music, and then we would have a party on the weekend and play AC/DC and the Beatles and talk about God and comic books. It was Tolkien and Jack Kirby and Dostoevsky and the Iliad and Robert Frost all mixed together. I suppose it’s good to have teachers and gatekeepers to have standards, which is why I love a magazine like The New Criterion. The critic Martha Bayles once had a great description about some popular culture being so genius that “it pushes itself into the realm of high art.” These are people like Sinatra, Coltrane, Martin Scorsese.

So the standards are important, and it’s important that fans of popular culture stretch themselves and engage in high art. I love comics, but I also go to symphonies to expose myself to something classical. It reminds me of a great line from punk rocker Joey Ramone. A journalist asked him if he liked punk rock or the pop star Ricky Martin. “Why can’t I have both?” Ramone answered. Exactly.

If politics and Beltway conservatism is not going to persuade us, what will?

Stories. Stories and art and beauty. That’s what it’s all about.

You have also written a lot on manhood or womanhood and what it means to be a grown-up man or woman. Where do you see good popular examples of what it means to be an adult male?

I’m working on a book about that very topic right now. We are lacking in modern examples, but I often think of someone like John Paul II, who taught us about kenosis—the emptying of oneself for the sake of others. To be a man is largely about knowing how to die well—how to live and die for others. We don’t have many contemporary examples. Most of them are in the movies—Harry Potter willing to sacrifice himself for his friends, Batman becoming Gotham’s savior, things like that.

You note the anomaly of conservative think tanks rarely engaging with popular art firms. To speak of a particular medium for a moment, let’s discuss video games. Millions of people play them, and some defend them as a new version of the playground, where such virtues as teamwork and bravery can be developed. Is this a medium conservatives can support, and if not, how do we address the vast appeal of such games?

I’m not a fan of video games, so I can’t really speak to that. I prefer sports where you actually have face-to-face contact with other human beings. I think conservative themes can be found in video games, as they can in the rest of the culture. But some of it to me just seems too sedentary.

What projects are you working on now?

The main thing is Whittaker Chambers: A Documentary Film. The Chambers-Hiss case has everything a storyteller could want—excitement, espionage, court scenes, family drama, theology, politics. As I’ve written many times before, it is shameful that it has been so difficult to raise money from conservatives to help finish this project. That really says it all right there—conservatives are forever complaining about culture, yet can’t be bothered to raise $25,000 to secure some historical footage for a movie about Whittaker Chambers and his book Witness, which is an Ur-text of the modern conservative movement. Good thing I grew up with bands like the Clash, who always preached the Do It Yourself ethic. The conservative intelligentsia certainly isn’t going to help us. And that is bad news for future generations, who will remember and be changed by a film much more than a policy paper.