A couple of weeks before reading this passage, I was in conversation with a well-known intellectual. I said to him, “Do you think it’s too much to say that you can draw a straight line from the French Revolution to Lenin and on to the Khmer Rouge?” He literally laughed in my face: “Yes, that’s saying too much.”
Frankly, I don’t think so. I recently revisited the story of the Khmer Rouge when I wrote a piece for National Review on the international tribunal in Cambodia — the tribunal trying, or not trying, the Khmer Rouge. A few hours ago, I attended a performance of Dialogues des Carmélites at the Metropolitan Opera.
This opera, by Poulenc, deals with the terror of French revolutionaries, and their murder of a group of nuns.
The leaders of the Khmer Rouge were educated in Paris, of course. They were educated by venerators of 1789, and heirs of those revolutionaries. Pol Pot studied in Paris. So did Ieng Sary, who just died (while still on trial). So did Ieng Thirith, Ieng Sary’s wife, the “social-affairs minister.” She has been excused from her trial on grounds of dementia.
She majored in Shakespeare at the Sorbonne! Fun, huh?
Anyway, I see clear similarities between revolutionary France and “Democratic Kampuchea.” It’s really not very hard.
Another swatch of Kimball:
Confusing national loyalty with nationalism, many utopians argue that the former is a threat to peace. After all, wasn’t it national loyalty that sparked two world wars? No, it was that perverted offspring, nationalism, which was defeated at great cost only by the successful mobilization of national loyalty.
Again, I thought of Bill Buckley — who said (something very close to), “I’m as patriotic as anyone from sea to shining sea, but there’s not a molecule of nationalism in me.”
Kimball remarks an “irony”: that “relativism and tyranny, far from being in opposition, are in fact regular collaborators. . . . This surprises many people, for it seems at first blush that relativism, by loosening the sway of dogma, should be the friend of liberty.”
“The essence of education,” said Allan Bloom, “is the experience of greatness.” This got Bloom branded an “elitist,” as Kimball notes. But “Bloom’s commitment to greatness was profoundly democratic,” Kimball continues. Not egalitarian but democratic.
As Kimball says, “The true democrat wishes to share the great works of culture with all who are able to appreciate them; the egalitarian, recognizing that genuine excellence is rare, declares greatness a fraud and sets about obliterating distinctions.”
Exactly. That’s why Menchú is served up with Matthew Arnold, if Arnold is served up at all.
Kimball serves up a passage from Chesterton, a passage that I cherish — for it is burningly, blazingly true: “Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked. . . . It may be that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal, and that you are a paralytic.”
And just think: Chesterton said that fairly long ago. How about now? In any event, the desensitization of our society is one of our hallmarks.
We also get a passage from Brave New World: “Seven and a half hours of mild, unexhausting labour, and then the soma ration and games and unrestricted copulation and the feelies. What more can they ask for?” Aldous Huxley was some seer: describing college as we know it.
Kimball writes that Brave New World “may be a second-rate novel — its characters wooden, its narrative overly didactic — but it has turned out to have been first-rate prognostication.”
I thought of my experience with 1984 — which I read relatively late, which is to say, in my late twenties, or perhaps early thirties. I can’t remember. I always assumed that 1984 wasn’t very good as a novel — invaluable as lesson and warning, but otherwise . . .
I was shocked to discover — this is just my opinion — that 1984 is a rip-roaring good read. A page-turner. Containing one of the most affecting love stories I have ever seen in print.
Is mine an eccentric opinion? I have others . . .
I think I have gone on long enough for one day, and will continue tomorrow. Thanks for joining me, Impromptusites (and Kimballites).
To order Jay Nordlinger’s book Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.