The Magazine

Ideas in Battle

A publisher's reflection.

Jul 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 42 • By ROGER KIMBALL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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."

There is much more that might be said about Packer's article. I'll confine myself here to noting his description of the New Criterion as a "dour" publication, a characterization which suggests that Packer either doesn't know what the word "dour" means, that he has never read the New Criterion, or that he was engaged in this article primarily in a species of ideological combat masquerading as journalism. These options, I should note, are not mutually exclusive.

But let me return to Pat Moynihan. I wonder what he would say were he with us today. It was the philosopher Samuel Goldwyn, I believe, who spoke of feeling as if it were "déjà vu all over again." I know what he means. Ideas that have been tried and found wanting; tried and found to be disastrous: the totalitarian temptation in all its many guises; the multifarious utopian schemes for universal beatitude; efforts to curtail freedom in the name of an abstract republic of virtue--all these ideas were thoroughly discredited only yesterday but, like some strange villain out of a science fiction movie, they have suddenly changed shape and are poised to attack again. We have yet to learn--even now, even at this late date--that promises of liberation often turn out to conceal new enchantments and novel forms of bondage.

Consider, to take just one issue that Encounter has weighed in on often, the various efforts to deconstruct American identity and replace it with a multicultural "rainbow" or supranational bureaucracy. Such efforts have made astonishing inroads in the last few decades and, especially, in the last several years. As the political philosopher Samuel Huntington has noted, the attack on American identity has counterparts elsewhere in the West wherever the doctrine of multiculturalism has trumped the cause of national identity. The European Union--whose unelected leaders are as dedicated to multicultural shibboleths as they are to rule by top-down, antidemocratic bureaucracy--is a case in point. But the United States, the most powerful national state, is also the most attractive target for deconstruction.

It is a curious, not to say alarming, development. It corroborates James Burnham's observation that "liberalism permits Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution." For what we have witnessed with the triumph of multiculturalism is a kind of hypertrophy or perversion of liberalism, as its core doctrines are pursued to the point of caricature. As the Australian philosopher David Stove pointed out, we in the West "set ourselves to achieve a society which would be maximally tolerant. But that resolve not only gives maximum scope to the activities of those who have set themselves to achieve the maximally-intolerant society; it also, and more importantly, paralyzes our powers of resistance to them."

Freedom, diversity, equality, tolerance, even democracy--how many definitive liberal virtues have been redacted into their opposites by the imperatives of political correctness? If a commitment to "diversity" mandates bilingual education, then we must institute bilingual education, even if it results in the cultural disenfranchisement of those it was meant to benefit. The passion for equality demands "affirmative action," even though the process of affirmative action depends upon treating people unequally.

Since September 11, these issues have taken on a new urgency. The murderous fanatics who destroyed the World Trade Center, smashed into the Pentagon, and killed thousands of innocent civilians, took the issue of multiculturalism out of the fetid atmosphere of the graduate seminar and into the streets. Or, rather, they dramatized the fact that multiculturalism was never a merely academic matter. In a sense, the actions of those terrorists were less an attack on the United States than part of what the former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called "a war to reverse the triumph of the West."

We are still very far from being in a position to assess the full significance of September 11 for the simple reason that the detonations that began that day continue to reverberate. A battle of wills, a contest of values, a war of ideas, was initiated--or at least openly acknowledged--on September 11. It is much too early to predict the course of that conflict.

Indeed, September 11 precipitated a crisis the end of which we cannot see. Part of the task that faces us now is to acknowledge the depth of barbarism that challenges the survival of culture. And part of that acknowledgment lies in reaffirming the core values that are under attack. That reaffirmation is another part of Encounter's mandate. Ultimately, victory in the conflict that besieges us will be determined not by smart weapons but by smart heads. That is to say, the conflict is not so much--not only--a military conflict as a conflict of world views, of ideas.

And that is where institutions like Encounter Books can play an important role. My point is that when we speak of publishing and the power of ideas, we need to give at least as much attention to criticizing seductive bad ideas as we do to promulgating the good ones. Indeed, because vital good ideas that impinge upon politics and social life tend to be elaborations of relatively simple home truths, the critical project of exposing bad ideas is often tantamount to revealing the good ideas that the bad ideas had obscured or perverted.