Named after the London-based journal founded and edited by T.S. Eliot, the New Criterion has for twenty years carried on a brave and much needed defense of our cultural and artistic inheritance. The journal was founded by Hilton Kramer and has been home to many of the most brilliant conservative intellects of our time, some of whom are represented in this latest collection of meditations. The battle over culture is the most important that we now have to fight and cannot be engaged in without serious analysis of what is actually happening in the worlds of art, literature, and scholarship. This analysis is what the New Criterion provides.
The Survival of Culture, edited by Kramer and his right-hand man, the indomitable Roger Kimball, consists of chapters taken from their journal. The theme is the fate of our cultural inheritance at the hands of those whose duty it is, on the conservative view, to transmit it. Thanks to political correctness, thanks to the rampant individualism that infects the educational system, and thanks also to the “multicultural curriculum,” which instills a universal vagueness and relativism, young people may be brought up knowing nothing of their culture. If you believe, as conservatives tend to believe, that a shared culture is a necessary ingredient in social harmony, you cannot welcome this.
American conservatives have reacted strongly to the liberal counterculture that has infected schools, universities, and the media. But we should recognize that political correctness and the multicultural curriculum are not confined to America. Half the contributors to this book are British or British colonials, and all of them have the same grim story to tell—the story, in a nutshell, of le trahison des clercs. Wherever you look among opinion-forming elites in the West, you find a “down with us” mentality, a desire to blame the evils of the modern world on the only political systems that have tried to rectify them, and a determination to undermine the institutions, habits, and laws that have made the Western world so dominant. Our universities are infected by a “culture of repudiation” by which the Western inheritance is systematically debunked, negated, or ridiculed in order to withhold it from the next generation—whose only reason for being at a university is to acquire it.
Writers in this book give many trenchant examples, and I suspect that few of our readers will need to be reminded of the worst of them. The prodigiously witty Mark Steyn brilliantly exposes the contradictions and self-refutations of the “down with us” mentality in a chapter that ought to be on every young person’s reading list. As Steyn points out, the constant stirring up of guilt about the Western past—which is the dominant theme of the modern humanities—is really a kind of flight from the present, a way of proving your morality without the trouble of adopting it. And this habit of denigrating one’s own culture has political consequences: “Bill Clinton has for years been too busy apologizing for the sins of his predecessors to apologize for any of his own: ‘I cannot tell a lie. My slave-owning predecessor George Washington did cut down that cherry tree.’”
The political scientist Ken Minogue tries more soberly to understand contemporary nihilism. According to Minogue, we live among the “new Epicureans,” for whom individual choice is everything. People prove their worth by rejecting every role, custom, or authority whose credentials come from outside the self:
Each person seeks to detach himself from his particular character and situation in order to find a preferred location at the level of universal humanity. Particularity—being a schoolgirl and subject to rules, being pregnant and subject to restrictions, being homosexual and subject to suspicion when engaged in certain tasks—are all seen as forms of imprisonment incompatible with an open society. And the warders of this prison are the institutions that constitute society.
Minogue believes that we are experiencing a deep crisis of Western civilization, which is not to be cured by some legislative project, still less by any national or spiritual revival of the kind for which—I suspect—the majority of decent Americans are yearning. To this I would simply add that we are living through the current phase of the Enlightenment, unembellished by high culture or the memory of Christian virtue.
Other writers in The Survival of Culture focus on the tenured professors, who enjoy all the privileges of the academy in return for relentless debunking of the civilization that made this possible. Prominent among such establishment radicals is Edward Said, whose “cultural war on Western civilization” is exposed to withering criticism by Keith Windschuttle. Said’s analysis of “orientalism”—the supposed disposition of the West to caricature other civilizations as “static,” “exotic,” and mired in ritual—has been a mainstay of cultural criticism in our universities. Nowhere does Said explore how Arab and Muslim civilization has viewed the West, how Hinduism has viewed Islam, how Polynesian polytheism has been regarded in China, or Japanese Shintoism in Korea. By avoiding comparative judgments Said is able to overlook the virtues of Western culture—its openness to outside influence and tolerant endorsement not only of alternative traditions but also of posturing intellectuals like Said, who pretend not to belong to a civilization that pays all their cultural and material expenses.
Robert Bork discusses the Supreme Court and the subversive role that it has played in the hands of the liberal elite. The independence of the judiciary, one of the finest concepts of the original American settlement, is integral to a democratic constitution. But when the judges are chosen by a liberal elite, Bork persuasively argues, and when that elite stands in an adversarial relation to ordinary society, the result is a subversion of legal and moral norms. Bork is a martyr to the principles that he so ably defends, and conservatives should take heart from his example and prepare to defend the Constitution from its guardians.
I read all the chapters of this book with pleasure and agreement, and with only one small but persistent complaint, which is that the writers, in their understandable melancholy over what has been lost, do not pay enough attention to what remains. Genuine conservatives still play a part in Western culture. Modernist architecture may continue to disfigure our cities, but architects like Robert Adam in Britain and Alan Greenberg in America are successfully developing the classical alternative. Rock music may have invaded the mental space of the young, but it is being edged out by the new tonality of John Adams, John Corigliano, and their like, themselves making space, in their own crazy way, for the revival of serious classical music of the kind represented in Britain by Nicholas Maw. The skeptical Tom Wolfe and the conservative Saul Bellow still dominate American fiction, while poets like Rosanna Warren, who belong firmly within the tradition that reaches back through Eliot and Pound to the symbolists, have a following among the almost young. In every sphere of cultural endeavor someone, somewhere, is both trying to keep our culture alive and either succeeding or mourning.
True, the subsidies go to the desecrators and the nihilists, and this is depressing. But it is in the nature of subsidies to gravitate to the things that least deserve them. That is the Devil’s work. (Oddly, the Devil is never mentioned in this volume; nor, come to think of it, is his Great Adversary.) If the State controls the museums, you can be sure that, like the public schools, they will be gradually voided of their spiritual and intellectual significance. The way forward for conservatives is to privatize as much as they can of the national culture and to establish, in place of the culture of repudiation, a habit of affirmation, which will enable future generations to belong to their past.
Roger Scruton is a philosopher and former editor of the Salisbury Review (UK). His most recent book is The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat.