Attentive readers will recall the announcement in these virtual pages of an impending event sure to electrify the literary bourse, the publication — in just a few weeks now — of my new book The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia. Twitter may not yet be atwitter with the news, but you, discerning soul that you are, can be the first on your block to pre-order the book, which will be available in a wide variety of electronic formats in addition to the usual page-turning, hardcover print edition, by the simple expedient of clicking here. And that’s not all: in my continuing effort to bring cheer to a weary public, I am delighted to unveil today, Friday, May 18, 2012, the second preview of coming attractions, this from the book’s preface:
It is one of the great mysteries—or perhaps I should say it is one of the reliable reminders of human imperfection — that higher education often fosters a particular form of political stupidity. [The philosopher Roger] Scruton anatomizes that stupidity, noting “the educated derision that has been directed at our national loyalty by those whose freedom to criticize would have been extinguished years ago, had the English not been prepared to die for their country.” This peculiar mental deformation, Scruton observes, involves “the repudiation of inheritance and home.” It is a stage, he writes,
through which the adolescent mind normally passes. But it is a stage in which intellectuals tend to become arrested. As George Orwell pointed out, intellectuals on the Left are especially prone to it, and this has often made them willing agents of foreign powers. The Cambridge spies [Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, et al.] offer a telling illustration of what [this tendency] has meant for our country.
It is also telling that this déformation professionelle of intellectuals encourages them to repudiate patriotism as an atavistic passion and favor transnational institutions over national governments, rule by committee or the courts over democratic rule.
And this brings us to yet another irony: that relativism and tyranny, far from being in opposition, are in fact regular collaborators. (See below, “What’s Wrong with Benevolence.”) This surprises many people, for it seems at first blush that relativism, by loosening the sway of dogma, should be the friend of liberty. In fact, as Mussolini saw clearly, in its “contempt for fixed categories” and “objective truth,” “there is nothing more relativistic” than fascism. And it is not only fascism that habitually makes use of relativism as a moral softening-up agent. Modern liberal democracies champion reason in the form of a commitment to science and technology, but there, too, relativism shows itself as the friend of various strains of dehumanization. As Gairdner notes,
wherever the materialist attitude of modern science is combined with relativism, we can predict that moral and political statements will soon emerge about the worthlessness of some forms of human life and how we ought to be eliminating certain classes of unworthy people such as “unwanted” children by abortion, or the very old, or Jews, or the infirm by outright genocide or euthanasia.
Why does relativism, which begins with a beckoning promise of liberation from “oppressive” moral constraints, so often end in the embrace of immoral constraints that are politically obnoxious? Part of the answer lies in the hypertrophy or perversion of relativism’s conceptual enablers— terms like “pluralism,” “diversity,” “tolerance,” “openness,” and the like. They all name classic liberal virtues, but it turns out that their beneficence depends on their place in a constellation of fixed values. Absent that hierarchy, they rapidly degenerate into epithets in the armory of political suasion. They retain the aura, the emotional charge, of positive values. But in reality they act as moral solvents, as what Gairdner calls “value-dispersing terms that serve as an official warning to accept all behaviours of others without judgment and, most important, to keep all moral opinions private.” In this sense, the rise of relativism encourages an ideology of non-judgmentalism only as a prelude to ever more strident discriminations. “Where conditions permit,” Gairdner writes, the strong step in,
either to impose a new regime or, as in the Western democracies, where overt totalitarianism is still unthinkable, to further permeate ordinary life with the state’s quietly overbearing, regulating role. Relativism is the natural public philosophy of such regimes because it repudiates all natural moral or social binding power, replacing these with legal decrees and sanction of the state.
Tocqueville did not, I believe, use the term “relativism,” but he vividly delineated its political progeny in his description of democratic despotism, another leitmotif in the reflections of The Fortunes of Permanence.
“Permanence”: It is curious how hollow that stately word sounds to modern ears. Are we moderns not on the side of innovation, the untested, the new? In the preface to a collection of essays called Giants and Dwarfs, Allan Bloom, the author of The Closing of the American Mind, insisted that “the essence of education is the experience of greatness.” Almost everything that Bloom wrote about the university flowed from this fundamental conviction. And it was just this, of course, that branded him an “elitist.” In fact, Bloom’s commitment to greatness was profoundly democratic. But this is not to say that it was egalitarian. The true democrat wishes to share the great works of culture with all who are able to appreciate them; the egalitarian, recognizing that genuine excellence is rare, declares greatness a fraud and sets about obliterating distinctions.
As Bloom recognized, the fruits of egalitarianism are ignorance, the habit of intellectual conformity, and the systematic subjection of cultural achievement to political criteria. In the university, this means classes devoted to pop novels, rock videos, and third-rate works chosen simply because their authors are members of the requisite sex, ethnic group, or social minority. It involves an attack on permanent things for the sake of the trendy and ephemeral. It means students who are graduated not having read Milton or Dante or Shakespeare—or, what is in some ways even worse, who have been taught to regard the works of such authors chiefly as hunting grounds for examples of patriarchy, homophobia, imperialism, or some other politically correct vice. It means faculty and students who regard education as an exercise in disillusionment and who look to the past only to corroborate their sense of superiority and self-satisfaction. The Fortunes of Permanence aims to disturb that complacency and reaffirm the tradition that made both the experience of and the striving for greatness possible.