The Magazine

Ideas in Battle

A publisher's reflection.

Jul 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 42 • By ROGER KIMBALL
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At a June 4 meeting in Washington to observe the tenth anniversary of Encounter Books, sponsored by the Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, Roger Kimball, editor of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books, offered some introductory remarks, "Encounter and the Power of Ideas."

The work of the Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana is not as well known today as it should be. But nearly everyone knows Santayana's observation that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." As the publisher of Encounter Books, a press concerned with ideas and public policy, I often think of Santayana's admonition. It always inspires a certain fear and trembling, especially when I remember it in conjunction with that old Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times."

We certainly live in interesting times. It is an age in which "faster" is synonymous with "better," when yesterday seems like ancient history, and when empty hortatory words like "change," "audacity," and "innovation" are widely regarded as beneficent talismans of universal future happiness--a happiness that never actually arrives but which, so we are told, is always just around the corner.
At such a time, simply remembering where we have been as a culture is of paramount importance. And it is worth pausing to note that a crucial part of remembering is facing up to reality, which means having the courage to call things by their real names. One of the most corrosive legacies of political correctness is the culture of intellectual and moral euphemism that results. It is part of Encounter's mission to resuscitate those essential cultural memory markers and speak frankly about the constellation of ideas that lead, and mislead, contemporary public life.

Who are we, we Americans of the 21st century? How did we arrive at our present prosperity? What sacrifices were made by our forbears to bequeath us the richest, freest, most physically secure society in history? What good ideas did the Founders of this republic promulgate to our eventual benefit? Equally important, what bad ideas did they shackle, tame, and inoculate us against? It is worth stressing the bad ideas. Santayana's observation about the dangers of forgetting the past is fearsome not only because of the good things we might miss, should forgetting progress and metastasize; it is fearsome also because of the many bad things that we thought we had vanquished only to see them striding buoyantly over the horizon once more.

More than two decades ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan ruefully noted that Republicans had become "the party of ideas." Although it is not universally acknowledged, especially in Washington, Moynihan was right about that, as recent American political history amply attests on issues from welfare and taxes to free markets and national security. And this fact tempts me to indulge in an extended parenthesis. Recently the New Yorker ran a long piece by George Packer about the alleged bankruptcy of conservative ideas. The newsstand edition even featured a headline wondering whether the GOP was "brain dead," a question which prompted me to ask "compared to whom?"

Packer's article was unsatisfactory in ways large and small. Where, one wonders, was the New Yorker's vaunted fact-checking department? Why had they not scrupled to verify the many misquotations and mischaracterizations that bedizen the piece? Packer seemed to mistake intellectual sobriety with intellectual weakness. Compared with the situation a few decades ago, conservative ideas enjoy enormous influence in our society nearly everywhere that doesn't begin with the words "University of .  .  ." On economic matters, for example, it is widely understood that low taxes and free markets conduce to the production of wealth, and that what Friedrich Hayek called "the extended order of cooperation," aka capitalism, is enormously more successful at ensuring prosperity and underwriting liberty than any of the sentimental, socialistic alternatives on offer.

It is part of the responsible exercise of intelligence to recognize the difference between ideas that work and produce desirable outcomes, and those which merely produce a species of moral intoxication. Packer points to no left-liberal ideas that can compete with conservative ideas; he merely assumes that because conservatives are not beating a gong called "change" they have run out of ideas. The truth is that conservative ideas are regnant, and those who support them understand the wisdom of Lord Falkland's observation that "When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change."