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Roger Kimball: A Voice in the Cultural Wilderness


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Victor Davis Hanson



In some 21 essays, Roger Kimball — author of seminal books like Tenured Radicals and The Long March, editor of the The New Criterion, and publisher of Encounter Books — lays out a general indictment of what we might loosely call “modernism” in the West. By that term, Kimball means the rejection of over two millennia of classical values that accelerated following the horrors of World War I, and which came to full fruition in Europe and the United States after the catastrophe of World War II, before crystallizing in the 1960s amid the social upheavals sparked by the Vietnam War.


To understand what had been lost in the 20th century West, a critic would have to be a literary scholar. He should be intimately familiar with art and attuned to popular culture. He would also have to be knowledgeable about classical music and the reactions to it, conversant with European tastes, and acquainted with subjects as diverse as economics, political science, and architecture. Few observers other than Kimball are, so his multifaceted and deeply learned lamentation deserves a wide readership — not just for his accurate diagnoses, but also for the singularly learned manner in which he offers antidotes and prognoses.


For Kimball, the culprits for our decline are obvious and fall roughly into a few categories: cultural relativism, or the all-encompassing idea that there are no longer any permanent or absolute criteria by which we might assess anything as either excellent or poor; multiculturalism, the doctrine that non-Western cultures cannot be judged by Western values and therefore are exempt from the sort of censure that is routinely employed by Western critics in reference to their own societies; utopianism, the notion that man is perfectible with proper training, plenty of money, and a coercive enough government run by enlightened elites; and liberal elitism that results when large numbers of well-off Westerners are able to divorce themselves from, and thus are ignorant about, the grubby mechanisms that account for their wealth, and so can indulge in ideas whose pernicious cargoes have no direct consequences to themselves.




A single review cannot do justice to this rich collection of essays; but in a brief epilogue to the volume, Kimball seems to sum up of his worldview with homage to the Anglo-American tradition of individualism, skepticism, and self-reliance. And while the forces of collectivism and big-government paternalism have been on the march in the Anglosphere, Kimball sees hope, both in the reaction of the populist Tea Party movement and the popular unease with what Britain has become. I might add as well that the current implosion of the eurozone reminds us that Great Britain still possesses some vestiges of common sense and skepticism not found on the continent.




The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia

Rodger Kimball



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