gall and gumption

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What Is Roger Kimball For?

Roger Kimball has been celebrating the second edition of his book "Tenured Radicals" the book that, along with Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind launched a genre: the revisionist history in which weak-minded liberal punks, with their political correctness, their godlessness, multiculturalism, their irony, their closet Marxism and out-of-the-closet sexual out-thereness, have brought Western Civilization to its knees. At the back of it is what I call The Permanent Elegiac Mode: The gods are dead, there is no more reverence for tradition, there is no more beauty, art is ugly, only a culture that has utterly lost its bearings would produce a piece of art that I personally loathe, and there is nothing left for a man of principle to do but mope around and pine for the glory days -- this is my favorite part: of some other country's Empire -- when real men were like Lord Kitchener.

No, no, not that Lord Kitchener
. You wish. I meant this one.

At the front of it, unfortunately, is the culture war, and that's what Tenured Radicals is for. Kimball certainly has grounds to celebrate. Like Dryden's Mac Flecknoe, he can truly claim to be "blessed with issue of a large increase."

You know, I wrote that, and then I said to myself: come on, now, Kimball is at least trying to be a serious person; you can't blame him for the dulness and mendacity of people like Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru, he's trying to keep this all on an intellectually respectable level, see, you're getting cynical and careless from reading all those lefty blog comments and--

Shortly after I wrote an essay on the subject of "Retaking the University" in The New Criterion, one thoughtful internet commentator responded with an alternative that I must have had somewhere in the back of my mind but had never articulated explicitly. This forthright chap began by recalling an article on military affairs that poked fun at yesterday's conventional wisdom that high tech gear would render old fashioned armor obsolete. Whatever else the war in Iraq showed, such tried and true military hardware was anything but obsolete. The moral is: some armor is good, more armor is better. "It makes sense," this fellow concluded, "to have some tanks handy."

He then segued into my piece on the university, outlining some of the criticisms and recommendations I'd made. By and large, he agreed with the criticisms, but he found my recommendations much too tame. "Try as I might," he wrote, "I just can't see meaningful change of the academic monstrosity our universities have become issuing from faculties, parents, alumni, and trustees."

What was his alternative? In a word, "Tanks!" He called his plan Operation Academic Freedom and I think you will agree that it has the virtue of simplicity that William of Occam, for example, famously recommended. Here's the plan:

We round up every tank we can find that isn't actually being used in Iraq or Afghanistan. Next, we conduct a nationwide Internet poll to determine which institutions need to be retaken first. . . .

The actual battle plan is pretty simple. We drive our tanks up to the front doors of the universities and start shooting. Timing is important. We'll have to wait till 11 a.m. or so, or else there won't be anyone in class. Ammunition is important. We'll need lots and lots of it. The firing plan is to keep blasting until there's nothing left but smoldering ruins. Then we go on to the next on the list. If the first target is Harvard, for example, we would move on from there to, say, Yale. So fuel will be important too. There's going to be some long distance driving involved between engagements.

Well, perhaps we can agree to call that plan "B," a handy recourse if other proposals don't pan out.

This no doubt won him big laughs among all the thoughtful people in the audience, these conoisseurs of high culture.

But there. Kimball candidly confesses that Plan A to overthrow the University, attacking it with Think Tanks--as opposed to the Plan B Tank Tanks--and stealth professors hooked and crooked and snuck into the institution strapped to the undersides of endowed chairs, is not making any political or intellectual headway. They've got the people in there ready to preach but no one is terribly interested. In fact the only people who seem interested in advancing Kimball's cause are the same ossified old farts who found his schtick funny in the 1980s -- and the witlings of Regnery Press, who, having mastered the concept, have taken it to new depths of low, so low that it's not even a culture war any more, it's a war of invective waged by stooges, so incompetent that you'd like to hand them a couple of sheep's bladders to whack each other with and elevate the tone of the proceedings. I must assume, too, that these folks in the audience never get tired of Kimball's forays into the modern world. You know the drill: Kimball hears about an art exhibition that he knows to the very marrow of his bones he will loathe. So he goes to it! Wouldn't you? He comes back with his hair on fire, with grisly reports of the death agonies of Western culture.

During one depressed period of my life some years ago it was a comfort to me to take adult ed art classes. I remember one watercolor class where this one older lady would make the same complaint every week: Lucian Freud's paintings were shockingly ugly and weird, and why did anybody want to look at them? Every week she would wonder why people looked at something she didn't like. It was impossible to answer this question. I mean, you can't reason with people like this. And they always think that that murky, bat-infested guano-scented belfry where they store their cranks, freaks, nail-clippings and manias is the central town square in the citadel of light and reason.

And so Kimball wants to fight the culture war with bitching, politicking, old rich bastards, and tanks. But not, it appears, by producing any culture. Roger Kimball is the editor of an influential literary magazine, and how many of these are there? He's an author with a wide audience. I should think no-one could ask for a better platform for the dissemination of their good, interesting, insightful ideas about education, the humanities, and culture. I mean, sometimes it's all I can do not to sing at everybody I meet about whatever I'm reading. I like writing and talking about literature because I love the stuff -- really love it, and if I have right feeling about it, if my judgment about it is al right, or even if it isn't, all I have to do is speak the truth about it.

As Bob Marley says, "I t'row me corn; me no call no fowl."

I have never found it necessary to await the removal of a bunch of my enemies, the advent of a Better Class of Person, perhaps belonging to some other period of history, when we all lived in an anthopologist's paradise. No, that is fantasy. Really, fantasy. People who want to live in a world that is purged of the things they don't like (art, people with wrong ideas) and think "Boy! I shoulda been born in medieval Japan, or Renaissance Florence, Victorian England, or on the Starship Enterprise, or wherever it is that Aragorn lives!" and think that the bad luck of being conscious here, now, is what keeps them from the fullest expression of their earth-shaking brilliance, are fantasists.

Kimball doesn't seem all that interested in culture, though he likes the job of acting as its representative to rich old reactionaries who emerge from their bunkers to hear him josh about blowing up universities with tanks. And thanks to someone like Kimball you can understand something that seems paradoxical: you may have imagined that a censor is an unhappy,dyspeptic sort of person, prudish, suspicious, narrow, a hater of the arts. Well, that may have been so long, long ago. Kimball is here to teach you what people in totalitarian countries learned in the 19th and 20th centuries: that the censor is often a person who professes to love and be moved by the very arts he seeks to control.This happens for two reasons: 1) the censor is a mediocre mind who is going to cut literature down to the size of the censor's own conceptions until the undeserving public learns to appreciate the censor's literary gifts, or 2) the culture-loving censor role gives specious intellectual respectability to a sustained effort to destroy the censor's political enemies, on his own account or on that of the political party he serves.

Because if he were serious about using culture to fight the culture wars, he could have offered up something that would have won on intellectual and creative merits. During the eighties, I was as antideconstruction and anti-pomo as anyone you could find. I also was not terribly interested, even as a "postcolonial Caribbean woman of color" in studying or teaching Caribbean literature. I'm interested in Caribbean literature now, but not at all in the way that it was taught during the multiculti craze. Those trends just did not speak to the way that I was interested in literature, to say the least, and that way, frankly, still has me spellbound. I lost friends over this, and in very outspokenly making my views known, I was putting my career in some jeopardy. Yes, postcolonial Caribbean woman of color, but No, can't abide Derrida and loves Samuel Johnson, Pope, and the metaphysical poets. And in the midst of all this I could only with honesty write what I believed. I read a paper at an academic conference and the organizers broke up the session as soon as I finished reading so that no one would have time to ask me any questions, they were so scandalized. I took these risks because I believed in what I was learning on my own, I saw it in relation to what the rest of the profession was doing, and I could argue anybody into the ground about it, and I was quite ready and happy to do so.

At any era in the life of a profession, there is a certain irreducible level of stupidity. I remember having one of my classes howling with laughter at the introduction to a volume of Shakespeare's sonnets, edited in the 1950s or 1960s, in which the editor was doing his desperate best to explain away the fact that the object of all those love poems was another man. It was Shakespeare, who was the first writer to have a whole industry dedicated to him, and he could not have those kinds of feelings because English professors for the past 100 years had been writing that he was the embodiment of the highest Western values -- at least as those professors understood them. One of the things you are supposed to learn in any profession is what belongs to intellectual fads, to the prevailing braindeadness of the time, and what belongs to the stuff that actually helps you know and judge and act. It takes actual work to teach students not to thoughtlessly project their assumptions -- fashionable assumptions or unfashionable it's still missing the point -- on to the people and lives and works of another time. Kimball has had a good long ride pretending that there is no difference between these things, but what has actually been the result? He has helped to coarsen the whole conversation about culture by making it about political attacks. He has helped to blur the distinction between between political ratfucking and actual cultural production, which has enabled all sorts of dullards to rise up and engage their ratfucking talents while believing themselves to be titans of intellect.

Who has rallied to the cause over the twenty years since "Tenured Radicals" first came out? That roomful of fossils at the Manhattan Institute, and Jonah Goldberg and Dinesh D'Souza, and a whole host of posturing, lying dunces. That is humiliating. That is, as the expression goes, EPIC FAIL.

And speaking of epic, I'm sure it's just about time for you to read The Dunciad again.


At 12:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it as bad to fantasize that culture would be improved if a person were transported slightly forward in time, assuming that this--

"I read a paper at an academic conference and the organizers broke up the session as soon as I finished reading so that no one would have time to ask me any questions, they were so scandalized."

--is not going to show up on Youtube?

At 3:41 PM, Anonymous Chad said...

Ah, you touched on my only problem with my being a professional Michel Foucault-basher; I'm inevitably lumped together with anti-academic reactionaries like Alan Bloom.


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