This Is Important (Part I)


I’d like to spend a little time on a book — the latest book of Roger Kimball, who is the editor of The New Criterion, and, less important, my friend. (Actually, I’m not sure whether that’s less important.) As usual in this space, I will not write a proper review. Rather, I will share some things about the book, and some things that occurred to me as I was reading it.

Roger titles his book “The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia.” That’s kind of a strange title, isn’t it? Does permanence have fortunes?

Our author addresses the question of his title in his very first sentences. “[T]his is a book about memory,” he says, and “a defense of permanent things at a time when they are conspicuously under siege.”

Absolutely. This book is about some of the things that matter most: to a culture, to a society, and to an individual. It is a brilliant book, too, and an edifying book. While reading it, I felt I was holding in my hands an important volume — one that I would keep, and return to, over the years.

I don’t know about you, but I just about never go back to a book. There are other things to read, and do. This book, I intend to go back to. It’ll make you eat your vegetables. It will also offer hot-fudge sundaes for the mind.

The preface is headed “Mostly About Relativism,” and it has an epigram from Walter T. Stace, the British philosopher: “As a rule, only very learned and clever men deny what is obviously true.” That seems to me obviously true — which may rule me out as a learned, clever man.

Impromptus readers are invited to keep their opinions to themselves . . .

In his discussion of relativism, Roger mentions the long-running ad campaign for HSBC. You will see these on airport gangways. I’ll provide an example here.

There are two photos: One is of a tent in the desert (I think); the other is of the deck of a cruise ship. For some, the one is a “holiday” and the other is “hell.” For other people, it’s the other way around.

Roger thinks this ad campaign is an abomination — which made me kind of nervous: because I’ve always liked these ads, and I fear Roger may know better than I. My view is: At least they’re giving me options, and not telling me my view is wrong!

In reading Roger on relativism, I thought of something I once heard Bill Buckley say: The purpose of an open mind is to close it on some things. This is a well-known aphorism, I think.

I believe someone had said to Bill, “There are no closed questions here at Yale.” “Oh?” said Bill. “Even the question of Nazism versus democracy?”

Roger writes, “It is often said that an anthropologist is someone who respects the distinctive values of every culture but his own.” As an old anthropology major, I smiled at this. So very true. To his credit, a professor in my department said, “Some people always think life is better among the Bongo Bongo.” He also referred to the “life-is-better-among-the-Bongo-Bongo syndrome.”

“What a relativist really believes,” writes Roger — “or believes he believes” — is that “1) there is no such thing as value (as distinct from mere preference) and 2) there is no such thing as truth.”

I thought of Rigoberta Menchú, the Guatemalan who won the Nobel Peace Prize for 1992. She was famous for a totemic memoir, I, Rigoberta Menchú. I write about her in my history of the Nobel Peace Prize — a book dedicated to Roger Kimball, and to Martha Apgar (another friend of mine, and of Roger’s).

When her book was exposed as untruthful in many respects, Menchú responded that she had spoken her own truth — “my truth,” she said. That is a very modern notion. Or perhaps this way of thinking has been around forever.

I seized on the below passage, for reasons I will tell you:

It’s a short step from Rousseau and his celebration of the emotion (as distinct from the reality) of virtue to Robespierre and his candid talk about “virtue and its emanation, terror.” Lenin was a utopian. Hitler was a utopian. Ditto Stalin, Pol Pot, and . . . you can extend the list. All were adept practitioners of what Johnson calls the twentieth century’s “most radical vice: social engineering — the notion that human beings can be shovelled around like bags of cement.”

The Johnson Kimball is quoting is Paul Johnson, the British historian.