The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, by Roger Kimball (St. Augustine’s Press, 360 pp., $35)
Conservatives have long understood the importance of fighting the cultural war against the Left simultaneously with the much more straightforward and easily delineated economic and political wars. In many ways, the cultural struggle is even more important than the others: Long after both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have left the political scene, we will be living with buildings built either by classicists or by brutalists, listening to music composed either by tonalists or by atonalists, reading poetry that either scans and makes sense or doesn’t, and watching movies that either attempt to entertain and provoke thought or instead to disgust and provoke self-hatred. The cultural war frames our very existence, therefore, and marks out the parameters for the lesser struggles over what King Lear dismissed as “who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out.”
When the Purple Hearts and Congressional Medals of Honor come to be awarded for courage in the face of the enemy in the cultural war, no breast will be more highly decorated than that of Roger Kimball, editor and publisher of The New Criterion magazine and author of books such as Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America, and The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art. These books name names, and alongside this new one they make up an important body of work that now almost amounts to a new conservative political philosophy in itself. What Kimball is saying is not only right and important, but also can be used by conservatives as live ammunition in the frontline trenches of the culture war.
The Fortunes of Permanence seeks to achieve nothing less than the blending together of the thought of Edmund Burke and that of Alexis de Tocqueville, and to explain how their truths can be used to turn around the disasters that have beset Western culture in recent decades. Thus Burke’s timeless messages about the importance of institutions, customs, and habits, and about the fragility of cultural excellence — so easy to lose, so incredibly hard to regain — are meshed by Kimball with Tocqueville’s lessons about the central dialectic of democracy, the eternal seesaw between equality and liberty. Kimball is perfectly at home at what Lionel Trilling called “the bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet,” and is convinced that the seesaw has tipped far too far in favor of equality over liberty, both in America and right across the West.
Essentially an exercise in cultural pathology, The Fortunes of Permanence identifies and trains a powerful light upon the enemies of excellence and truth. Relativism has mutated from a spore bacillus in French universities in the Fifties and Sixties to infect virtually the entire culture, even though intellectually we all of course know perfectly well that Mozart is qualitatively better than your two-year-old with a tambourine, that Rembrandt is better than Jasper Johns, and so on. “When Elton John is put on the same level as Bach,” Kimball writes, “the effect is not cultural equality but cultural insurrection.” By denying that there is any such thing as absolute value or truth, the relativists are effectively denying that there are any worthwhile values or truths per se. Yet, as Kimball shows, “relativism has assumed the role of cult religion in the West.”
Kimball’s pithy destruction of what Pope Benedict XVI has called “the dictatorship of relativism” ought to be engraved in letters three feet high on the portico of the Sorbonne. This book shows how it is not “ethnocentric” (i.e., racist), nor elitist nor intolerant nor narrow, to prefer the Western intellectual and cultural heritage to the others on offer, but rather that it is logical. He quotes the British philosopher Walter T. Stace’s superb aphorism that “as a rule, only very learned and clever men deny what is obviously true; common men have less brains, but more sense.” This book is an attack not merely on relativism, but also on the paralyzing cowardice that overcomes intelligent people when called upon to fight against it. “When people’s ideas are challenged,” Kimball rightly points out, “deference to the challenger rather than defense of the principles is the order of the day.” A society that has abolished social deference toward one’s betters and seniors nevertheless demands it toward anyone who trashes one’s values and assumptions.
After the relativists came the PC-mongers of the 1980s and 1990s, with their war on language, custom, humor, and identity. The road to serfdom is paved with good intentions, and Kimball takes a well-aimed crack at do-gooders, in a brave chapter titled “What’s Wrong with Benevolence,” which seeks to establish that, all too often, philanthropy is “less a virtue than an emotion,” and moreover one that can do incredible damage. He sees in much modern charity, especially when undertaken by governments and corporations at great distances rather than locally by directly concerned individuals, precisely that self-satisfied “telescopic philanthropy” denounced by Dickens in Bleak House, when Mrs. Jellyby practiced it on behalf of the people of Borrioboola-Gha on the banks of the Niger while her own feral children went around unfed and ill shod. Kimball sees in the general benevolence of Rousseau, Marx, and other citizens of the world a series of terrible dangers and provides with this book an important philosophical treatise against utopianism and social engineering.
The “Age of Amnesia” in the subtitle can hardly be denied. Although 90 percent of Ivy League freshmen know who Rosa Parks was, only 25 percent of them know who spoke of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Some 40 percent of high-school seniors are unable to say within half a century when the American Civil War was fought. Small wonder, therefore, that the Left can so routinely bend the past to its own purposes, attempting to equate pride in American exceptionalism with racism and exploitation. Thus Cecilia O’Leary of American University identifies American patriotism as a right-wing, militaristic, male, white, Anglo, and repressive force, and Richard Sennett of New York University denounces “the evil of a shared national identity” and describes the erosion of national sovereignty as “basically a positive thing.” Kimball denounces those who “look to the past only to corroborate their sense of superiority and self-satisfaction,” and he tells us who these people are.
Yet the book is uplifting, too. There are plenty of heroes, apostles of freedom such as Friedrich von Hayek, James Burnham, Leszek Kolakowski, and the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 who attacked the 9/11 hijackers on the way to Washington, D.C. “As a result” of the latter act of heroism, writes Kimball in a typically arresting phrase, “the plane crashed on a remote Pennsylvania farm instead of on Pennsylvania Avenue. Who knows how many lives their sacrifice saved?” Kimball emphasizes the importance of cultural confidence, such as that exhibited by writers such as John Buchan, G. K. Chesterton, and Rudyard Kipling, and he analyzes and criticizes the malevolent and seductive blandishments of statist “democratic despotism.” He presents the Hayekian themes of limited government and individual liberty as an effective counter, and although President Obama himself is only glancingly referred to, the whole Obaman zeitgeist is firmly in Kimball’s firing line.
Kimball also mounts an effective, unapologetic defense of the values of the English-speaking peoples, again citing the work of Burnham and Kolakowski, a defense of the pragmatic tradition that he is proud to describe as “the bourgeois virtues” of thrift, trustworthiness, sobriety, and hard work, which to his mind have provided the most nurturing home for high-level cultural achievement and the development of genuine individuality. The greatest threat to this derives from the dependency culture that the Left sedulously injects into the American body politic, with all the infantilizing effects of which Hayek warned in his 1944 clarion call, The Road to Serfdom. The more the government takes into its domain, the less power and influence the individual has over his own existence, and the less the individual will produce of value. Kimball shows how Hayek’s thought makes as much sense in the cultural sphere as in the economic and political. With the coming presidential election fast shaping up to be the most unambiguous Hayekian-versus-Keynesian struggle for decades, with the Republicans just as consistently promoting Hayekian precepts for the economy as the Democrats are clinging onto Keynesian verities, Kimball’s book has powerful overtones for the November race.
Kimball quotes the great British writer John Buchan, who wrote in his memoir, Pilgrim’s Way: “The world must remain an oyster for youth to open. If not, youth will cease to be youth, and that will be the end of everything.” I can think of no better present for a young person today than a copy of The Fortunes of Permanence; for anyone wanting to try to make sense of a world gone awry — and looking for arguments to help set it back on its axis — this is a fine oyster to open.
– Mr. Roberts is the author most recently of The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War.