Notes & Comments September 1991
The counter-revolution abroad, the cultural revolution at home
With this month’s issue, The New Criterion commences its tenth year of publication. It seems an appropriate moment in which to cast a glance over a decade that has witnessed historic changes of the greatest magnitude in culture and politics both at home and abroad, and this—in part, and with a focus on culture—is what we have set out to do in this Special Anniversary Issue.
In articles on a diverse range of subjects, from the fate that has overtaken the writing of history, the vicissitudes of literary life in America, the culture of classical music, and the conception of the art museum as a cultural institution, to the way certain figures from the past—among them, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, and T. E. Lawrence—continue to exert a significant influence on the present, we have made this an occasion to re-examine some of the major intellectual and cultural developments of this tumultuous period. In addition to these more or less topical articles, we are also including the usual number of essays, reviews, and poems that stand apart from the disfiguring conflicts that now beset our cultural and political life. This is the largest single issue of The New Criterion we have published, and we offer it to our readers as both a summary of what we have come to stand for in this embattled decade and as an earnest of our future endeavors.
In many respects, especially in political developments that have lately taken place abroad, this has been a thrilling decade. In the period that began with the election of Ronald Reagan and culminated in the Gulf War and its aftermath eleven years later, we have witnessed the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, the destruction of Communism’s political and moral legitimacy in Western Europe for politicians and intellectuals as well as for the public, and its agonizing death throes in the Soviet Union itself. We have also seen the United States re-emerge as the beacon of freedom and hope for all of the oppressed people of the world. This fateful turn of history, which is as much an event in the moral life of civilization as it is a political victory against the power of totalitarian tyranny, occurred a lot sooner than most of us had any reason to expect. Yet it was not a quick or easy or painless victory for those on both sides of the Iron Curtain who had worked so long and so hard and sacrificed so much, which for many meant their lives, for such an outcome, while little dreaming that it would finally be achieved before the end of the century that had been dominated by the atrocious enemies of freedom.
In our euphoria over the death of Communism, moreover, it should also be remembered that this was what the difficult and divisive years of Cold War struggle had always been about.
In our euphoria over the death of Communism, moreover, it should also be remembered that this was what the difficult and divisive years of Cold War struggle had always been about. This was what the much maligned champions of the anti-Communist crusade in the Western democracies had always sought to obtain with their pleas for adequate defense budgets, their uphill battles for an informed and intelligent foreign policy, and their steadfast resistance to the many ways in which our Communist adversaries had manipulated the intellectual and cultural life of the West to serve their own interests. For the Cold War was always as much a war of ideas as it was a contest for military superiority, and it was a war of ideas in which many talented people in the West—people of intellectual influence and great cultural renown—fought on the side of the political enemy. That, too, should not be forgotten in the wake of this costly and hard-won victory.
It will always be a mark of moral and intellectual dishonor for the West that in this historic and protracted encounter with the adversaries of freedom and democracy so many of our most gifted writers, artists, scientists, and intellectuals were more energetically engaged in opposing our own political institutions and the ideas essential to their survival than in questioning either the lethal political doctrines that were designed to destroy them or the elaborate edifice of cultural mendacity that was spawned by the Communist movement for the express purpose of bringing down the democratic societies of the West.
Indeed, it must never be forgotten that in the epic struggle between freedom and tyranny in the twentieth century, a large part of the intelligentsia in the West supported the interests of tyranny against the beleaguered defenders of democracy. Already some of the figures who loomed so large in the Cold War period—Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertolt Brecht, Graham Greene, and Bertrand Russell, among others, not to mention their less gifted but no less “committed” American counterparts—have begun to look permanently compromised and discredited because of the vocal and programmatic support they gave to some of the most despicable political regimes of our time, or indeed of any time. Future generations will—if we are lucky, anyway—marvel that it was not the Western defenders of Communist tyranny who suffered so conspicuously from censure and opprobrium in the Cold War period but those who took up the anti-Communist cause.
What keeps the memory of this vast moral forfeiture so painfully alive even today, in the face of Communism’s historic debacle, is the dark legacy which this record of intellectual loyalty to anti-democratic ideologies has left us to grapple with in the last decade of this century.
How this political legacy will be negotiated in the Soviet Union, and whether it can be sufficiently neutralized for democratic institutions to take root in a society and in a culture that has little experience of them, remains a question not likely to be given a definitive answer for some years to come. All that we may be certain of is that the fall of Communism does not lead automatically to the triumph of democracy.
It is not only in societies newly emerging from the long night of totalitarian rule, however, that the legacy of intellectual loyalty to anti-democratic ideologies poses an immense threat to free institutions. The democratic societies of the West have proved in recent years to be acutely vulnerable to the insidious influence of this legacy, which in the United States has lately asserted its influence in the form of a virulent cultural revolution.
It is indeed one of the ghastly historical ironies of this last decade of the twentieth century that at the very moment when a counter-revolution of enormous force and consequence has been sweeping through Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the name of freedom and democracy, an anti-democratic cultural revolution of immense destructive effect has acquired in the United States so great a momentum and so large a measure of intellectual respectability that it has already taken possession of huge and crucial areas of our social, cultural, and intellectual life, and is now well on its way to transforming the institutions of political life as well.
This is a cultural revolution that is now being fiercely waged in the classrooms of our schools and universities, in our arts institutions and in our mass media, in our private foundations and in all those agencies of government that directly impinge on social policy and cultural programming. It is a cultural revolution that has already resulted in an abridgment of free speech and the corruption of public debate, and as we recently saw in Senator Kennedy’s ruthless and successful campaign to oppose the nomination of Professor Carol Iannone to a place on the National Council on the Humanities, its consequences are now making themselves felt in the highest levels of the Federal government.
In the course of the last decade this cultural revolution has acquired new labels and new agendas, of which the movement that goes by the name of “multiculturalism” is no doubt the most capacious and the most lethal, but the essential lineaments of this revolutionary impulse have been apparent for some years now, and so have been its disastrous effects on education, on the arts and humanities, and on the entire tenor of moral debate and political argument in our society. It is a cultural revolution that has succeeded in making race, gender, and class the touchstones governing every question that concerns the life and thought of the nation, which means that it has succeeded in undermining the very principles upon which our nation was founded.
It was in large part to address and to oppose the terrible consequences of this cultural revolution that The New Criterion was launched in 1982. It was our purpose from the outset to sound an alarm about the direction in which this revolution was heading while at the same time providing within the means available to us a critical forum where the life of high culture could be pursued without fear of the kind of political intimidation and intellectual coercion that were already well established, even then, in so many institutions of our cultural life. It was inevitable that we would be accused of exaggerating the threat that this cultural revolution had already made manifest, yet in retrospect it now seems to us that we woefully understated both the size of the threat and the scale of the destruction that had already occurred. In an editorial statement for our inaugural issue, we wrote as follows:
A very large part of the reason for this sad state of affairs is, frankly, political. We are still living in the aftermath of the insidious assault on mind that was one of the most repulsive features of the radical movement of the Sixties. The cultural consequences of this leftward turn in our political life have been far graver than is commonly supposed. In everything from the writing of textbooks to the reviewing of trade books, from the introduction of kitsch into the museums to the decline of literacy in the schools to the corruption of scholarly research, the effect on the life of culture has been ongoing and catastrophic. Yet the subject is one that has scarcely been studied. It would probably take the combined talents of a Gibbon and a Tocqueville to tell the whole shabby story on the requisite scale, but one does not have to be a genius to recognize some of the more egregious results of this flight from intelligence and intellectual scruple. The cultural landscape is littered with its casualties and debris.
Yet if we compare these observations with the recent reflections of Paul Oskar Kristeller, one of our greatest living scholars in the humanities, we are in a position to measure the still greater losses our cultural and intellectual life has suffered in the course of a decade. In a lecture called “A Life of Learning” that was sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies and published in the Summer 1991 issue of The American Scholar, Professor Kristeller spoke as follows about our current situation:
We have witnessed what amounts to a cultural revolution, comparable to the one in China if not worse, and whereas the Chinese have to some extent overcome their cultural revolution, I see many signs that ours is getting worse all the time, and no indication that it will be overcome in the foreseeable future. One sign of our situation is the low level of our public and even of our academic discussions. The frequent disregard for facts or evidence, of rational discourse and arguments, and even of consistency, is appalling, and name-calling is often used as a substitute for a reasonable discussion. Every interest group demands immediate action in favor of its own goals and easily resorts to noisy demonstrations or even to violence. What we need is a careful examination of all pertinent facts and arguments, followed by a rational decision that may be a fair compromise between the groups and interests involved. Instead of recognizing that along with many problems that we cannot solve (at least at the present) there is a solid core of knowledge to which we should hold on and which should set a limit to our arbitrary thoughts and actions, we encounter a pervasive kind of skepticism or relativism that claims that any opinion is as good or justified as any other. Every statement made before the last five years or before the latest fad is considered hopelessly antiquated, and “traditional scholarship” has become a term of opprobrium.
I do not know what the future will bring, and my expectations are rather grim, not only for our education and scholarship, but also for our economic, legal, and political future.
Professor Kristeller’s reflections are all the more poignant and resonant when we recall that he is one of the most illustrious members of the generation of German scholars who came to this country to escape the consequences of an earlier cultural revolution—Hitler’s.
It is also worth pointing out, as still another measure of our current situation, that the very organization which sponsored Professor Kristeller’s lecture—the American Council of Learned Societies—had already joined in the attack on what he calls “traditional scholarship” by the time he came to give his lecture. The pamphlet published by the American Council in 1989 under the title Speaking for the Humanities is itself a doctrinaire defense of the intellectual practices so eloquently decried in this account of “A Life of Learning.”
In the political upheavals of the Sixties, we were promised by the leaders of the radical intellectual Left a “long march through the institutions” that would revolutionize our culture and our society. With its unmistakably Maoist associations, this promise—or threat—of a “long march” that would sweep away the foundations of Western democratic society sounded at the time almost too extreme and too chilling to be taken entirely seriously, yet the radical Left has succeeded in mounting the cultural revolution it promised us, and its doctrines have now, a quarter of a century later, become institutionalized in the academy, in the arts, and in many other vital centers of our national life. As the counter-revolution proceeds abroad, the cultural revolution at home leaves us an intellectually crippled society, and it remains to be seen whether this ghastly historical irony will prove to be a permanent historical tragedy.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 1, on page 1
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