The Two Great Objects as One

 

Wilberforce’s reformation of England’s decaying morals made possible the abolition of slavery.  Wilberforce biographer Kevin Belmonte maintains that Wilberforce understood the connection between the first and second Great Objects, and that “the linkage was deliberate and Wilberforce believed the abolition of the slave trade could not have taken place without a concurrent moral reformation to strengthen the consensus that the British slave trade was a tragic national sin.”[7] 

 

It is not clear, however, that Wilberforce understood at the outset how necessary cultural reformation was to the success of the abolition of the slave trade, and eventually slavery.  As a legislator, his instinct was to win the old-fashioned way, through power and petition.  But as Ernest Howse observed in his book Saints in Politics:

 

All the workers were being gradually convinced that their only hope lay in an appeal from Parliament to the people, an appeal that would be viewed with little favour in eighteenth-century England.  Wilberforce at first had been suspicious of such tactics.  He approved of promoting petitions to Parliament….  In his first labours, however, Wilberforce "distrusted and disowned the questionable strength which might be gained by systematic agitation."  He did not then favour the use either of corresponding societies or of public meetings.  Be he was to be taught by his cause.  He found that his hope lay only in the people; and in a short time he and his friends became the most persistent agitators in all Britain.  "It is on the general impression and feelings of the nation we must rely," Wilberforce confessed early in 1792.  "So let the flame be fanned..." [8]

 

Consider the civil rights laws of the 1960s.  These laws would not have passed without the prior decade of an active civil rights movement.  The countless personal sacrifices of African Americans who bravely endured the retributions of water hoses, police clubs, dog bites, and church bombings – broadcast on the nightly news to the outrage of a nation -- changed the minds of enough Americans to demand the abolition of Jim Crow laws.   It’s true that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 continued to change hearts and minds, but their effect was predicated on a prior reformation of manners.  In the end, filibustering southern politicians were unable to stand in the way of the cultural demand for change.  The law simply reflected the growing culture of racial equality.

 

Culture is upstream from politics.  Certain legislative goals from either political party are impossible absent a change in the culture.  And when a political party gets out-of-step with the prevailing cultural ethos of the nation for a sustained period of time, voters are apt to vote them out of office.  It’s no wonder that politicians are constantly polling their constituents on every issue under the sun: they are trying to stay in step with their electorate. 

 

This intuitively rings true for us, after almost two decades on Capitol Hill.  Legislating is not conducted in a vacuum but in a cultural context in which people’s foundational beliefs have already been shaped.  The sectors that are intrinsically world-view shaping include the family, religion, academia, peer groups and associations, the news media and entertainment.  Wilberforce and his colleagues engaged virtually every one of these sectors to “reform the manners” of their cultural context, making their legislative goal to end the slave trade eventually achievable. 

 

Arts, Entertainment and the Elites

 

Several years ago, as we surveyed our political relationships and networks, we realized that there was one sector, the only inherently “culture-creating” sector, arts and entertainment, with which we had virtually no strategic engagement. This was not the case for the Clapham Circle. William Wilberforce the politician knew he needed more than bills in Parliament and a general improvement in the moral climate to change people’s hearts and minds about slavery.  He and his fellow abolitionists turned to the arts to set forth the case for change.  They understood that it takes more than abstract propositions or personal piety to change culture.  It requires images and creative words to stir people’s souls. 

 

Ernest Howse continued his observation regarding the effort to shape broad public opinion regarding slavery:  

 

The flame was fanned accordingly.  New experiments were attempted.  Even before his time the abolitionists had adopted unusual methods of propaganda.  . . . Cowper's poem, “The Negro's Complaint,” has been printed on expensive paper and circulated by the thousand in fashionable circles, and afterwards set to music and sung everywhere as a popular ballad.  Wedgwood, the celebrated potter, had made another effective contribution to the cause.  He designed a cameo showing, on a white background, a Negro kneeling in supplication, while he utters the plea to become so famous, "Am I not a man and a brother?"  This cameo, copied on such articles as snuff boxes and ornamental hairpins, became the rage all over England…[9]

 

On the eve of the first debate on slavery in 1788, Hannah More published the poem entitled “Slavery.”  The abolitionists commissioned a print of a slave ship visualizing how Africans were abused.  A few decades later in America, a novel called Uncle Tom’s Cabin would help to ignite the abolitionist movement that would lead ultimately to the Civil War.

 

It is a timeless truth that art shapes belief at a deep and often subconscious level.  Damon of Athens wrote, “Give me the songs of a nation, and it matters not who writes its laws.”   And what was true for the Greeks and for Wilberforce’s time is no less true today, and perhaps more so.  Arts and entertainment, especially in commercial “pop culture,”  have an enormous impact on what we think today.  The notion that entertainment is “just fluff” or a “wasteland” betrays a profound misunderstanding of how the creative side of our brains shapes what our logical side believes.  

 

Think back to your adolescence and try to recall the impact that political debate had on you.  If you are like most people, you may be hard-pressed to recall more than a few political events or speeches.  In contrast, think about how many songs you knew by heart, how many movies you watched, and what commercials and TV shows you can still remember. Far from diverting our attention, it was, and still is, stories that shape us.  They teach us what to love and what to hate.  They inspire us, enrage us, and help us to understand complex issues.  It is no wonder that Jesus taught in parables: narratives speak to our souls in ways that abstract propositional truths cannot. 

 

So what are the cultural artifacts today that shape hearts and minds?  Pod-casting, streaming music videos (even on your cell phone), comic books, novels, video games, magazines, sit-coms – the list is endless.  Perhaps more than at any time in the history of the world, our society is captivated by arts and entertainment.  It is not enough for academic lectures to be informative: the professor has to be “culturally relevant.”  Commercial ditties stick in our minds.  The television is stuck in the “on” position.  And our iPods are stuck in our ears. 

 

Our media elites are our “Greats” today.  And like 18th century European elites, in many cases they are “patterning” lives and behavior that promote vice rather than virtue.  Even more disconcerting, the cultural artifacts they create do the same.   A disturbing fact is that much of today’s ubiquitous entertainment industry is leading to the coarsening of American society.  Musicians who sing songs glorifying violent rape win Grammies.  Movie directors who marry their step-children are lifted up as avant-garde.  Films that make light of bestiality and glamorize prostitution are “edgy.”  Hotels make their profits by in-room pornographic videos.  Many people of all political and ideological stripes worry about the corrosive effect of the entertainment industry on our society.  They worry that far from being innocuous fun that exposes the hypocrisy of Victorian ethics, the entertainment is leading us to become numb to things we should hate. Some people fear that we are reaping domestic violence, child abuse, pedophilia, as well as disregard for the weak and vulnerable.

 

Any effort to address the social pathologies that plague our nation must involve the “Greats” of arts and entertainment.  Thankfully, many do take on ills such as global AIDS, adoption and drug abuse.  Rather than just cursing the darkness, many of today’s Wedgwoods are seeking to reform the manners of our civilization by working with and through the arts.  Tom Wolfe, Bono, Bill Cosby, Oprah, billionaire Phil Anschutz and even Angelina Jolie are using their craft and position to promote the common good.  They aren’t perfect, but they are cognizant that with their public profile comes public responsibility.

 

The Great Objects Applied

 

As political animals, we believe the battles over who controls the Congress, who sits on the Supreme Court, and who sits in the White House are vitally important.  We think it is a shame that too many Americans do not vote.  But we are clear-eyed about the limits of politics – not just what the limits should be, but what they are.  Law will continue to be more a reflection of the soul of a people than its shaper.  Plato was right when he said that the government is simply the soul of a people written in large letters.

 

Once one understands the primacy of culture and joins in the effort to renew it according to transcendent standards, the question of one’s political label becomes less important.  A healthy culture is about lifting up the good, the true, and the beautiful.  These are not ideological categories.  There is plenty of common ground for cultural renewal among individuals who differ on the particular role law should play.  Some citizens may join in the cultural fight against social pathologies, even though they oppose legal restrictions on those pathologies.  This applies to violent prime time television, pornography, divorce, and many other social maladies.  This is not to say that the policy differences are inconsequential.  But renewal can be furthered even without political agreement, again, because culture trumps politics.

 

American in 2007 is very much like England in 1807.  We have elites, a culture that often promotes vice rather than virtue, and social pathologies such as high out-of-wedlock birthrates and sexually transmitted diseases that threaten the public health.  We need a reformation of manners.  Let us suggest several lessons that we could apply from Wilberforce and his colleagues’ successful enterprise:

 

(1) Elites must be recruited.   Our entertainment elite set trends, shape behavior and fashion beliefs.  The PBS Frontline show “Merchants of Cool” documented the way in which corporate America taps pop culture icons to sell their products.  Just as the landed gentry and upper society were recruited to use their power and prestige as a public good, so must our elites be recruited to do the same.  In addition, we must encourage our best and brightest to go into the culture-shaping sectors to become the next elites, and we need to build the institutions to support them in their vocational pursuits.  Non-profit groups like Act One, which mentor young aspiring film-makers on how to write high-quality scripts that tell the truth about the world and are accessible to a wide audience, need to be encouraged and supported.

 

(2) Earnest dialogue must be initiated.  A community needs to be created that allows conversations to take place between poets and politicians regarding the great objects we face as a culture today. For example, when one catalogues the cost of the sexual revolution (out of wedlock births, sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS, abortion and marital infidelity), there is an obvious public policy consequence.  But how can the consequences of the sexual revolution be addressed without engaging arts and entertainment – the very vehicles through which the revolution was first propagated?  We have been privileged to be part of a dialogue with artists in New York, Hollywood, and Nashville.  Many writers, singers, and film-makers realize that they are no less in the field of justice than those of us in policy.  Policy-makers may have a larger impact on next year’s election, but artists will have a huge impact on elections 10 and 20 years from now.  We need to be in conversation with each other. 

 

(3) Promote virtue rather than vice.  When the cover of Forbes magazine announces that “Bad Ass Sells,” we know that the wrong thing is being exalted.  Essayist and author Walker Percy said that bad books lie, and good books tell the truth.  More and more artists are producing works to tell the truth, to restore cultural health and wholeness.  Alternative rock bands like Switchfoot and P.O.D. are making Top 40 songs that speak to the consequences of the sexual revolution and no-fault divorce. Their impact may not be felt for a generation, but they cannot help but make a difference.  U2 has been doing this important work for almost 30 years and still going strong.

 

(4) Capital must be invested.    Over the course of our conversations with "culture creators," the refrain we keep hearing is "investment and distribution."  The issue is not simply creating ennobling art, but finding the means to disseminate it to the public.  The Internet, technology and grassroots marketing may address the distribution question over time, but investment will undoubtedly continue to be a challenge.  It is critical that wealthy individuals do more than just donate money to worthy causes, but also choose to invest wisely in entertainment that will positively shape society.  E-Bay founder Jeff Skoll started Participant Productions, a film development company which has as its mission not to make blockbusters but messages -- movies that promote social and economic justice. "I think of this as philanthropy," he said in Wired magazine.  "Participant is the only production company in town that has a double bottom line: social good plus financial returns. It's too early to tell how our returns are going to look -- though all signs are promising -- but social good is what we're really after." [10]

 

Conclusion

 

The reformation of manners was not just a project for Wilberforce’s time, but for every time and every culture.  His courageous and visionary life spent working to free the slaves and renew the culture is instructive in our fresh attempts to restrain evil and exalt the good. 

 

Politics is not enough.  William Wilberforce is our patron saint in this regard.  He led with both political conviction and a recognition that political activity is not conducted in a cultural vacuum.   An exclusive or even primary focus on law to transform society is short-sighted.  It is the cultural fields, long overgrown with tares from decades of neglect, which need to be plowed and re-sown.  We who care about cultural renewal must learn it is the unwritten constitution of culture that shapes the written constitution of a nation.  The sooner we get this straight, the sooner our efforts will produce lasting fruit.

 

We cheer the rediscovery of William Wilberforce. His tireless years devoted to the reformation of manners bore rich fruit, from the abolition of slavery and a deepened concern for justice in the public square to a greater attention to personal virtue.  His strategic use of law, and much more his engagement of the arts, civic associations, and the natural aristocracy of his day instruct us how to pursue today’s pursuit of a more just and compassionate society as we, too, seek to make goodness fashionable.

 

 

 

 

___________________________

 

[7] See Kevin Belmonte, William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company, 2007).

[8] See Ernest Howse, Saints in Politics: The "Clapham Sect" and The Growth of Freedom (London: Allen & Unwin, 1971).

[9] See Ernest Howse, Saints in Politics: The "Clapham Sect" and The Growth of Freedom (London: Allen & Unwin, 1971).

[10] Michael S. Malone, "The Indie Movie Mogul," Wired, February 2006.

 

 

 

 

 

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