Notes & Comments September 2016
The New Criterion at thirty-five
On the legacy and bright future of our middle-aged magazine.
With this special, expanded issue, The New Criterion embarks upon its thirty-fifth season. As we’ve had occasion to point out on previous anniversaries, the longevity of The New Criterion is itself noteworthy. Serious cultural periodicals tend not to be long lived. Ones that are as independent-minded and outspoken as The New Criterion enjoy an especially parlous existence. Which is to say that three-and-a-half decades is not just notable, it is astonishing. T. S. Eliot’s Criterion, from which we take our name and whose critical ambitions we seek to emulate, had a run of seventeen years, from 1922 to 1939.
Of course, mere longevity is one thing. Persistent critical vibrancy is something else. It is not for us to comment on our success in that department. We understand that the self-reflection occasioned by anniversaries often shades into self-promotion. We offer instead the testimony of the issue you hold in your hands (or that you browse on the internet): is there any other publication in which you would find such a collection of insightful critical essays and reviews on so broad a range of topics?
While you ponder that, we would like to draw your attention to one anniversary initiative and then step back and say a few words on what The New Criterion is all about.
Three-and-a-half decades is not just notable, it is astonishing.
The initiative is a year-long series of essays on the perils and promises of populism, a subject that is much in the public eye not only in the United States but throughout the Western world. The series begins in this issue with a long historical overview of the phenomenon of populism in the United States by the distinguished historian of American conservatism George H. Nash. Among the other contributors to the series will be Daniel Hannan, Roger Kimball, Andrew C. McCarthy, James Piereson, Fred Siegel, and Barry Strauss. All in all, there will be ten essays, which we will collect and publish next year in book form.
What Mr. Nash says towards the end of his essay resonates closely with one central aspiration of The New Criterion. “For three generations now,” he writes,
American conservatives have committed themselves to defending the intellectual and spiritual foundations of Western civilization: the resources needed for a free and humane existence. Conservatives know that we all start out in life as “rough beasts” who need to be educated for liberty and virtue if we are to secure their blessings.
That pedagogical task has traditionally been the province of many institutions, the family first of all, but also schools, churches, and those multifarious cultural enterprises to which we have entrusted the preservation and transmission of the civilizational values that have defined us. It is one of the oddities of our age that many of those institutions not only have reneged on that trust but also now operate more to challenge and undermine our cultural patrimony than to preserve it. The virus of political correctness, a protean and multifaceted pathogen, has provided the fuel for that subversion. So thoroughly has political correctness infested our cultural and educational institutions that simply telling the truth about many historical or cultural realties has become a perilous act of dissent. To document this phenomenon, you need only visit your local college or art museum.
This phenomenon, though as yet unnamed, was already on the horizon in 1982 when Hilton Kramer and Samuel Lipman left their day jobs to start The New Criterion. The forces of disintegration—what the note to our inaugural issue called “the insidious assault on mind that was one of the most repulsive features of the radical movement of the Sixties”—have since accelerated as many of the more outlandish attacks on culture have become institutionalized, taken for granted as features of the cultural landscape.
From the beginning, our response at The New Criterion has been twofold. There was, first, a polemical side to our interventions. If we discovered an emperor without clothes—the absurdities of “deconstruction” in the 1980s, for example, and the many kindred academic and cultural deformations of more recent years—we did not hesitate to describe his nakedness. This is an age that makes the satirist’s job difficult: reality outstrips satire with increasing velocity. But that challenge does not mean that the satirist’s task is any less essential. Nietzsche once observed that you do not refute a disease, you resist it. In the realm of culture, some of the most effective specifics are condign satire, ridicule, and all the other weapons in the armory of rhetorical invective. These we have endeavored to deploy with apotropaic vigor.
Those who are ignorant of the past condemn themselves to an impoverishing spiritual parochialism.
But polemics are only one facet of what The New Criterion is about. Another concerns what we have called “cultural amnesia.” Santayana once famously remarked that those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it. Perhaps. But he could have added that those who are ignorant of the past condemn themselves to an impoverishing spiritual parochialism. This is a point made with crisp elegance by the British man of letters David Cecil. “There is a provinciality in time as well as in space,” he wrote in Library Looking-Glass.
To feel ill-at-ease and out of place except in one’s own period is to be a provincial in time. But he who has learned to look at life through the eyes of Chaucer, of Donne, of Pope, and of Thomas Hardy is freed from this limitation. He has become a cosmopolitan of the ages, and can regard his own period with the detachment which is a necessary foundation of wisdom.
It has become increasingly clear as the imperatives of political correctness make ever greater inroads against free speech and the perquisites of dispassionate inquiry that the battle against this provinciality of time is one of the central cultural tasks of our age. It is a battle from which the traditional trustees of civilization—schools and colleges, museums, many churches—have fled. Increasingly, it has seemed to us, the responsibility for defending those “intellectual and spiritual foundations of Western civilization” of which George Nash spoke has fallen to individuals and institutions that are largely distant from, when they are not indeed explicitly disenfranchised from, the dominant cultural establishment. Leading universities today command tax-exempt endowments in the tens of billions of dollars. But it is by no means clear, notwithstanding the prestige they confer upon their graduates, whether they do anything to challenge the temporal provinciality of their charges. No, let us emend that: it is blindingly clear that they do everything in their considerable power to reinforce that provinciality, not least by their slavish capitulation to the dictates of the enslaving presentism of political correctness.
As Allan Bloom once observed, the net effect of these attacks on what we might call the presence of the past has been to limit freedom in the most effective way possible: “by the impoverishment of alternatives.” Edmund Burke once observed that “He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.” But the monoculture and presentism enforced by political correctness have, in one avenue of cultural life after another, deprived us of such productive antagonists. It is a cruel irony that the gospel of uniformity in our cultural and educational institutions should travel under the banner of “diversity.” Is there anything less diverse than the crowd of stultifying social justice warriors, virtue signalers, crybullies, and policers of “safe spaces,” “micro-aggressions,” and “trigger warnings”? These are imperatives catalogued with definitive astringency by George Orwell in Animal Farm and 1984. The result in our cultural and educational institutions has been to transform what Burke extolled as “antagonists” into heretics who must not be argued with but silenced, publicly shamed, repudiated.
Ours is a battle from which the traditional trustees of civilization have fled.
Looking back on The Criterion from the 1940s, Eliot noted that he intended it to be partly a means of fostering “common concern for the highest standards of both thought and expression” and partly a means of discharging “our common responsibility . . . to preserve our common culture uncontaminated by political influences.” Those desiderata go a long way towards describing our ambitions in The New Criterion. The concern for high standards of thought and expression might once have been taken as given, but we well remember the energetic follower of Jacques Derrida who extolled the reader-proof inanities of deconstruction because “unproblematic prose” and “clarity” are “the conceptual tools of conservatism.” Really, you cannot make it up.
Eliot’s comment about preserving a “common culture uncontaminated by political influences” brings us close to a basic premise and exposes a curious irony. The premise, or perhaps we should say the faith, in a common culture that is worth preserving has in many exalted precincts become fundamentally negotiable these past few decades. That falling away, that existential withdrawal, names a spiritual crisis of large, if amorphous, proportions. At The New Criterion, on the contrary, faith in the vitality of a common culture provides the cynosure of our entire critical enterprise.
The curious irony we mention revolves around the affirmation of cultural achievement “uncontaminated by political influences.” From the beginning, The New Criterion has warned about the politicization of culture, the subjection of culture to political imperatives. The triumph of political correctness represents the perfection of that subjugation. But is not The New Criterion a conservative organ? And is not the ambition to conserve a sphere of culture “uncontaminated by political influences” itself political? In a sense, the answer is Yes. It is political in the sense that it rests upon the affirmation of a certain vision of the world, a vision according to which we recognize a common culture worth preserving for its own sake, free from the intrusion of the enfeebling provincialism of contemporary political imperatives. The issue, at the end of the day, is not so much the presence of politics in culture as the absence of non-politics. For well nigh thirty-five years, The New Criterion has endeavored to stand up for the integrity of our common cultural inheritance, the enabling pressure of its rich and multifarious claims on our allegiance. With this issue, we embark on the next thirty-five.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 1, on page 1
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