“The Fortunes of Permanence-Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia”
by RUTH KING
July 9, 2012
It is summertime and the reading is hard. I am overdosed on the tomes that warn how our schools, our culture, our academies, and our justice system are failing. The "caliphate" is coming, capitalism is dying, pseudo environmentalism is ruining the planet and industry, we are on a downward spiral, the sky is falling and only obesity, the new bi-partisan national obsession, is going up. Don't get me wrong. Most of those books are informative and worth reading, but I'm suffering from crisis fatigue and a desire for a touch of political amnesia and an Anthony Trollope novel.
Therefore it was with some hesitation that I started Roger Kimball's new book "The Fortunes of Permanence-Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia." Roger Kimball gives the lie to those who claim that culture, language, erudition and wit have been hijacked by multiculturalism.
His knowledge is dazzling and in the most elegant and witty prose sparkling with quotes from Aristotle to Stefan Zweig, he debunks the modern self-righteous and destructive attitude that all points of view on all subjects have equal value and merit.
In a recent column about the notorious and atrocious writer Alice Walker, professor and critic Edward Alexander wrote of Irving Howe for whom the substitution of Alice Walker for John Keats in the American curriculum epitomized the debasement of public education. As Kimball illustrates, the debasement continues as cultural reversal and Elton John is now put on the same level as Bach.
The irony is that with a keyboard and mouse information is virtually instant and yet students know less history, less geography, less mathematics and less literature. They are indifferent and blasé in schools more concerned with teaching self esteem and promoting deviancy as dissidence. As Kimball puts it "Data, data everywhere but no one knows a thing."
The curse of perceived multicultural parity has even infiltrated the judiciary. Here is how Kimball describes the court: "The task of judges is to uphold laws that have been passed down to them, not make new ones....On issues of free speech and religion to sexuality, feminism, education and race, the courts have acted less as defenders of the law than as an avant-garde establishing new beachheads to promulgate the gospel of left-liberal establishment."
But this book is not only a commentary on the depredations of multiculturalism or the reverse racism of "affirmative action", or the apathy and indifference that replaced outrage and determination only a decade after 9/11, or what he calls the passion for the "lowly hyphen" as in African-American, or Asian-American which really means provisionally American.
Kimball describes the fraud of the current art scene. Much of what is billed as innovative, challenging and unusual is, in fact, vulgar and pedestrian. As the author describes one egregious example..."it is outrage by the yard, avant-garde in bulk, smugness for the masses."
His essays on Rudyard Kipling, Malcolm Muggeridge, G.K Chesterton, James Burnham (I confess to ignorance and James who?) are gems of information.
A particular delight for me is the chapter "Rereading John Buchan. " Buchan, who described himself as "high- low brow" was author of a spy thriller "Greenmantle" in 1916 which describes a German effort to manipulate a radical Islamist group in Turkey. Kimball quotes a protagonist in the book: "Islam is a fighting creed, and the mullah still stands in the pulpit with the Koran in one hand and a drawn sword in the other."
There's more. Kimball mines this from another character in the book. "There is a great stirring in Islam, something moving on the face of the waters....Those religious revivals come in cycles, and one is due about now. And they are quite clear about the details. A seer has arisen of the blood of the Prophet, who will restore the Khalifate to its old glories and Islam to its old purity." Goodness gracious! Islamophobia in 1916!
Kimball evokes expectations that there is still time, however limited, to "take our country back" from the tyrannies that have been implemented by coercive utopians, liberal elites and the dogma of political correctness. Outside of the liberal media and political elite there are stirrings of rebellion against the usurpation of America's core values including religion.
He is right. I have seen these manifestations of patriotism in a small town in Connecticut where holidays of national pride and gratitude such as Memorial Day, Veterans' Day and July 4th are observed by citizens who march and proudly display the flag.
In the preface to this superb book, Roger Kimball writes: "it wasn't that long ago that a responsible educated person in the West was someone who entertained firm moral and political principles. When those principles were challenged, he would typically rise to defend them. The more serious the challenge, the more concerted the defense."
Roger Kimball is exactly the responsible and educated person he describes and "The Fortunes of Permanence" is the most concerted defense indeed. Read it.
Roger Kimball has graciously consented to answer some questions.
R.KING: Please tell us something about The New Criterion and Encounter Books and the Broadside publications.
R.KIMBALL: Well, The New Criterion just celebrated its 30th anniversary. "Ho-hum," you say, "The Times of London has been going under its current title since 1788."
Yes, but The Times is not a pugnacious, independent cultural review dedicated to spreading the gospel of high culture, democratic capitalism, and bourgeois values while casting an unsparing eye on the multitudinous naked emperors littering the academic and cultural landscape.
When Hilton Kramer left the New York Times in 1982 to start The New Criterion, many people thought he was crazy. Why give up a secure position of power and influence in order to start a little magazine that thousands, instead of the millions, of people would read? Hilton never regretted the decision. Not only did he enjoy the work of editing and writing for a serious cultural monthly more than laboring on the self-consuming ephemera that is the fate of daily journalism, but he understood that influence comes in various gradations of quality. The Times (back then) had millions of readers and you count on "everybody" having read a piece you wrote for the Book Review or in the arts pages (this was back when people actually read the Book Review--a long time ago now). But you could also count on their forgetting about it almost instantly.
True influence was not only a matter of numbers. It was also a matter of the right numbers. T. S. Eliot's Criterion, for which The New Criterion is named, never had a circulation above 700, yet it was one of the most influential cultural journals of the last century because it was the right 700.
The New Criterion is a lot bigger than The Criterion ever was, and we've been around longer, too. Eliot's magazine had a respectable tenure of 17 years, running from 1922 to 1939. The New Criterion has survived, and thrived, for almost twice that time and we have, I believe, been going from strength to strength. Eliot said that the function of criticism was twofold: the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste. That, along with his concern for transmitting the masterpieces of our "common culture," is also at the center of what The New Criterion endeavors to do. We aim to be serious, but not academic. We put a premium of vigorous prose and honest criticism. Above all, we aim to foster awareness of the cultural conversation that is at the heart of Western culture.
If I had to say in a sentence or two what we were about, I'd mention a positive as well as a negative side to our vocation. We early on made our reputation for the negative, polemical task of ridiculing the ridiculous in the world of academia and throughout the establishment culture. That brought us the displeasure of the politically correct commissars of culture who direct most of the institutions of academic and cultural life in this country, but it also brought us the gratitude of many who cared about the future of culture and who were saddened by the many betrayals of taste, intelligence, and sensibility they saw around them.
The New Criterion also won the gratitude of its readers for the positive work of battling what I have called cultural amnesia. Since the founding of the magazine, we have run long and thoughtful essays on a wide range of figures and movements from the long history of Western cultural achievement. I'm not sure there is another cultural monthly that has displayed The New Criterion's breadth of vision, matched with an abiding commitment to readable prose. If any of your readers is unacquainted with The New Criterion, I hope they will take a moment to remedy that lack by going to our web site at www.newcriterion.com where they can sample our wares and, for a modest consideration, subscribe!
As for Encounter Books, it has an interesting history. Cast your mind back to the immediate post-war period. An outfit called the Congress for Cultural Freedom set up a suite of liberal but anti-Communist magazine throughout the World. There was Preuve in France, Monat in Germany, There was Quadrant (the only one still publishing) in Australia. And in England, there was Encounter, in many ways the flagship of the enterprise.
As I say, these magazine were liberal--they featured folks as far Left as Susan Sontag--but they were also fiercely anti-Communist. Encounter's first editors were Irving Kristol and (representing the home team so to speak) Stephen Spender. All went swimmingly until 1967 when Ramparts magazine, then edited by a young left-wing fire brand called Peter Collier published an article revealing that a portion of the funding for the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and therefore for Encounter, came from . . . yes! from the CIA.
There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. In truth, it was an open secret that the CIA was involved in the funding for the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Stephen Spender denied knowing it, but not while his hand was on or even near a Bible. Mel Lasky, who had succeeded Irving as the American editor (and eventually became the sole editor) first denied the truth of the accusation but eventually, and soon, the proof was incontrovertible.
The damage to the magazine was severe. Front-page articles in the papers denouncing this propaganda effort by the CIA, etc. Many writers announced they would never write for the magazine again. The bad publicity almost sank Encounter. But it stumbled on, an always distinguished but increasingly financially uncertain enterprise.
Fast forward to 1990: I had published my book Tenured Radicals and was working as managing editor at The New Criterion. Would I, came the query, be interested in editing Encounter? Mel Lasky was nearing retirement, and it was thought that an American editor of (ahem!) sound political views would be apposite.
Why yes, said I, I'd love to edit Encounter. I was flown over to London, met with Mel, whom I'd met a couple of times before, and had lunch at the Travelers Club with Encounter's publisher. The deal was that I'd become the editor and an American foundation would help Encounter get its financial house in order--provided that Encounter could also attract some English money.
Fatal proviso! No other country, I think, has the culture of private philanthropy that America enjoys. All Europe, even, alas, England, which once had a robust culture of private charity, expects the state to do everything. That's a long a dismal story, one of the depressing chapters in the Book of Socialist Depredation. The long and short of it is that no English money was forthcoming, so the American foundation demurred, and Encounter folded.
Folded, but did not die, not quite. For the American foundation bought the name "Encounter" and, several years later, decided to set up a book publishing venture. As a founding publisher they decided to tap an older, wiser, and politically mature Peter Collier, who set up shop in San Francisco and set Encounter Books on its path to glory.
Peter did all the hard work of setting up the business and establishing Encounter's bona fides. In 2005, when he was eying other pursuits, Peter was deputed to ask me whether I would be interested in taking over the helm of Encounter. I pondered a bit, saw that it was a terrific opportunity, and that it could have important synergy with The New Criterion. So I took over and moved Encounter to New York at the beginning of 2006, where we set up shop in the same building as TNC, and the rest is history. "Serious books for serious readers," is how Peter put it, and we've endeavored to live up to that injunction ever since.
Encounter Broadsides--we've published thirty to date--are part of that task. "Ammunition for serious debate" was our motto. Combining an 18th-century sense of political urgency and rhetorical wit (think The Federalist Papers, Common Sense) with 21st-century technology and channels of distribution, I saw Encounter Broadsides as an integral supplement to our publishing program.
The publishing of books is at the center of what we do at Encounter. But a book is by nature a long-gestating creature. Even after being written, a book typically takes six or nine months-often longer-to makes its way to the market. Books offer essential, thoughtful perspectives on the issues that confront us. But in the age of the 24-hour news, the crucial work performed by books needs to be supplement by a form of commentary that is at once thoughtful and timely. The rise of the internet and the weblog has provided a deluge of nearly instantaneous commentary on every conceivable subject. Valuable as that new media has been, however, it has tended to be ephemeral in its effects and abbreviated in its analysis. What was needed was a new-or rather, a revival of an old-genre that is supple enough to respond quickly to unfolding events and yet authoritative and detailed enough to have an important effect on the debate over policy.
Enter Encounter Broadsides. This series of pamphlets features essays of some 5000-7000 words: long enough to elaborate a case, short enough to be composed quickly by a seasoned writer and to be read in a sitting. We've had great success with the series and, in the last year or so, have begun to add internet video to our offerings. Check out what we have on offer at EncounterBroadsides.
R.KING: What do you think about the cult of global warming and its influence on free enterprise?
R.KIMBALL: Preposterous. Ridiculous. Malevolent. Mendacious. That's for starters. A couple of decades ago, the philosopher Harvey Mansfield observed that "Environmentalism is school prayer for liberals." Indeed. And ha, ha. I laughed back then, because it was so obviously true. But winding down, surely: who could take these environmentalists seriously? Little did I know. The environmental mountebank Al "Green Profits" Gore hadn't even invented the internet yet, let along gotten around to spreading mass hysteria about a putative global warming whose chief measurable effect was to line his pockets with tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars via the various "green" business schemes (many of which exist on the backs of the taxpayers) he invested in. As for the whole Global Warming scam, take a look at what former NASA climatologist (and Encounter author) Roy Spencer has had to say on the subject in The Great Global Warming Blunder, Climate Confusion, and his Broadside The Bad Science and Bad Policy of Obama's Global Warming Agenda
R.KING: So many of the programs you deride in your book were instituted under President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" initiatives. Are there any that have any merit today?
R.KIMBALL: No. The whole Great Society was a disaster. In the name of helping the poor, Johnson instituted an unsustainable governmental behemoth the purpose of which (as Johnson saw it) was to solidify loyalty of the underclass and the taking-class (all those public-sector union workers) to the Democrats. The effect, however, was to create a culture of dependency that, quite apart from its monumental fiscal irresponsibility, was effectively to enslave generations of workers under the soft (well, softish) tyranny of government control. If I had my way, we'd turn the clock back to 1964 before any of this "Great Society" ("Great Fraud" is more like it) legislation took place. This is not, by the way, to say that we do not need to think of ways of helping the poor. It was, after all, Samuel Johnson, not Lyndon Johnson, who observed that providing a decent provision of the poor is "the true test of civilization." Like most conservatives, I am not against government. It's just that I believe we should begin with the most local authority, which is self-government. You don't have to be Immanuel Kant to appreciate the virtues of autonomy, i.e., giving the law, the nomos, to yourself. That is the best aspect of the Enlightenment tradition, to form a polity that encourages self-government, self-reliance, autonomy. When that fails, as, given the imperfection and limitation of human nature, it surely will fail, we move outward, first to family, then to local communities, then the individual states. The federal government, that unwieldy leviathan, should be the resource of last resort. Few of us command an aircraft carrier. We sometimes are in need of an aircraft carrier. That is a moment when the federal government comes in handy. The same can be said of the interstate highway system and other, but not many other, enterprises.
R.KING: Why have the liberal elite and media turned so viciously against Israel...some even going so far as to praise Hamas? After all Israel has multicultural attitudes and social programs that are so compatible with liberals' goals?
R.KIMBALL: This is one of the great mysteries of the modern world. Israel began life as the darling of the Left. But it prospered. It stood up for itself in the face of implacable enemies all around it. That was unforgivable, especially in the face of the abject failure of the Arab world. For a fuller answer to your question, let me point to Sol Stern's Encounter Broadside A Century of Palestinian Rejectionism and Jew Hatred. He lays it all out in 5000 or 6000 words.
R.KING: In 1990 you wrote "Tenured Radicals-How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education" and in November of 2008 as speaker at the Manhattan Institute you stated:
"And there have, let's face it, been plenty of other proposals. Indeed, the task of reforming higher education has become a vibrant cottage industry, with think tanks, conferences, and special programs, institutes, and even lunch talks cropping up like mushrooms after a rain. I think, for example, of the Manhattan Institute's Center for the American University, The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Robert George's Madison Center at Princeton University and a dozen similar initiatives around the country."
Have any of those initiatives been successful?
R.KIMBALL: Well, I think they have all been successful, on their own terms. The problem is academic culture as a whole, which really hasn't improved at all--if anything the left-wing and obscurantist viruses I described in Tenured Radicals have gotten worse. Around the time of that talk you mention, I was planning to write a book called Retaking the University. There were, I thought at the time, various hopeful signs. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that academic culture as currently configured is a hopeless case. We have just published a terrific Broadside by Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds called The Higher Education Bubble. Glenn anatomizes the dismal economic bubble that condemns the whole higher education system as we know it to oblivion, but he only touches on the politically tendentious nature of academic culture and the wholesale degradation of what used to be "liberal arts" education. Sure, there are little pin points of light, but mostly it is a politically correct wasteland. Here are a few questions we should keep in mind as we think about the character of the university today: Why should parents fund the moral de-civilization of their children at the hands of tenured antinomians? Why should alumni generously support an alma mater whose political and educational principles nourish a world view that is not simply different from but diametrically opposed to the one they endorse? Why should trustees preside over an institution whose faculty systematically repudiates the pedagogical mission they, as trustees, have committed themselves to uphold? Take your time.
R.KING: Finally. Who is your favorite modern American president? (Just for the record mine is Calvin Coolidge.)
R. KIMBALL: Well, Coolidge gets very high marks for actually reducing government spending and telling some busybody aide: "Don't just do something. Stand there!" But I have to say that Ronald Reagan seems a great giant to me. His place in history is assured by his masterly achievement of facing down the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union. (Remember what contempt the PC commentariat lavished on that idea when Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative?) And then there was his observation that the 9 most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." It is amusing to remember how the legacy media (AKA, the "mainstream" media) kept telling us what a dunce Reagan was. Consider how much wisdom is contained in this observation: "Democracy is less a system of government than it is a system to keep government limited, unintrusive: A system of constraints on power to keep politics and government secondary to the important things in life, the true sources of value found only in family and faith." Just imagine, if you can, Barack Obama or (per impossible) Joe Biden making such an observation.
R.KING: I could probably ask hundreds of questions, but let these suffice.
Thank you Roger Kimball.
Ruth King is a freelance writer. She has written a book and articles on gardening, and also writes a monthly column in OUTPOST, the publication of Americans for a Safe Israel.