Reading Behind Enemy Lines: Peering in at “The New Criterion”

I usually don’t feel like I’m a dirty liberal at all while reading The New Criterion, a conservative version of those magazines that seem to see themselves as the preserver of what might be called “high” culture, curating it almost as if for a future age that will care about it a little more. Recently I’ve found a reappraisal of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry anda review of a Picasso biography, and when articles in The New Criterion approach art and culture this way, it is as good a magazine as I’ve ever read—and if I could afford it I would subscribe to it and the London Review of Books, and read them in tandem.

When it becomes merely political, though, the magazine mirrors those people on the left which it suggests enjoy their status as victims; this since The New Criterion also seems to love its position as the voice for a suppressed minority opinion, crying in the wilderness. It’s amid writing like this that I feel more liberal than ever, and as if I’ve crossed over into enemies lines somehow. A good example is editor Roger Kimball’s 1997 essay, “Virtue Gone Mad”. (I would encourage everyone to go and read it before it disappears behind a paywall. The article is one of a series, but I haven’t seen any of the other parts posted.)

For Kimball, no doubt everything has gotten worse since 1997. He talks of the eroding of higher education, which I understand but think Harold Bloom expresses betterbut I never thought college was the way to make me a better writer or reader anyway. The main focus of the article, though, is how the Sixties’ generation pretty much ruined American cultural and moral life. Rock n roll, TV, and the movies come in for heavy criticism, and while I wouldn’t blame hippies for creating our amused to death cultural moment, I agree that most TV and movies are crap; and I’ve written elsewhere that while I lean on Bruce Springsteen now and then, I know at bottom that Euripides is more my kind of crutch. Add to this many of the sillier parts of academia and public life that have come to the fore recently—obsession with safe spaces, trigger warnings, cultural appropriation, and a general willingness to favor comfort and forced silence over the discussion of things that are difficult and probably without an answer—and I generally agree with him.  

But not for long, considering the institutions and ideals Kimball wants to reinvigorate in the place of many admittedly flawed systems:

They [the radical demands of the Sixties] have insinuated themselves, disastrously, into the curricula of our schools and colleges; they have dramatically altered the texture of sexual relations and family life; they have played havoc with the authority of churches and other repositories of moral wisdom; they have undermined the claims of civic virtue and our national self-understanding; they have degraded the media and the entertainment industry, and subverted museums and other institutions entrusted with preserving and transmitting high culture. They have even, most poignantly, addled our hearts and innermost assumptions about what counts as the good life.

I’m amazed that the answer to our ills would be “the authority of churches and other repositories of moral wisdom,” since while I’ve written that there’s nothing more important than religious faith, this inevitably ends will some call for uniformity, which can only work if it is imposed. (In any argument of this kind there will always be a call to submit to authority, and I would say the same to leftist.) And as to notions of sexual relations, family life, and civic virtue—I can only guess from the rest of the article that Kimball means to bring back some version of family life that won’t yield the difficultly or strain of modern relationships, and a life which in general reflects unquestioning pride in country and past—such things, apparently, which flourished without fail before the 1960s, an idea that is clearly nonsense. Kimball merely seems to be committing that most conservative of all sins, calling for the revival of a nonexistent golden age where notions of state, religion and family all supposedly meant much more than they ever really have.

If changes to religious, academic, sexual and cultural life has really been as drastic and unfortunate as Kimball says, and even if I agree with some of his points even slightly, the one saving grace I would give to the left running amuck everywhere is that—despite itself and its recent tendency to silence or shame those who disagree with them—it has at least shown all of these things to be vastly more complex than a supposedly “better” and more “conservative” time would have allowed. Put simply: religion is complicated, sex is complicated, family life is complicated, national life and history are all complicated. The ways of understanding these things which work best for some, or if imposed might even organize our society better if only we would all fall in line, will simply never work, even in that naïve time that 1997 seems to be. It is no longer a viable organizing principle. There is only holding hands across the mess.

If we’re living amid religious and sexual and cultural chaos, it’s because we’ve finally been allowed to admit that these things are uncertain. That we haven’t yet found the language or vocabulary to discuss any of this sensibly, or to talk about it at all without looking again for certainties whether left or right, doesn’t mean that these uncertainties shouldn’t have been found.  


As a side note, and to see where Kimball has gone in the last twenty years, his Twitter feed is a sad indication. I was wondering why I’ve rarely, if ever, seen a negative article about Donald Trump in The New Criterion, and thought for a moment that maybe they considered themselves above even mentioning him, the president who’s proud not to read books and who would probably be bored to tears by Kimball’s vast and loving output on art and history. Turns out, though, that Kimball loves the guy, and even compared him to Pericles of Athens; and indeed, maybe Trump Tower is the Parthenon our culture really deserves. Kimball’s is the best example of any I’ve seen of an immensely intelligent person who has felt victimized politically for so long that, in this case, he simply takes utterly thoughtless joy in watching an orangutan run through the house, just because of how it annoys those whiny liberals.

It’s also completely bizarre that Kimball has fallen in line behind Trump, given that Kimball was prescient enough, in 1997, to quote T. S. Eliot, who had this to say about becoming full and engaged with merely violent emotions. If this doesn’t describe the furor of Trump’s supporters, or the general tenor of discourse on all sides, I don’t know what does:

[For it is “by no means self-evident,” Eliot wrote] that human beings are most real when they are most violently excited; violent physical passions do not in themselves differentiate men from each other, but rather tend to reduce them to the same state; and the passion has significance only in relation to the character and behavior of the man at other moments of his life and in other contexts. Furthermore, strong passion is only interesting or significant in strong men, those who abandon themselves without resistance to excitements which tend to deprive them of reason, become merely instruments of feeling and lose their humanity; and unless there is moral resistance and conflict there is no meaning.