Roger Kimball: A Voice in the Cultural Wilderness

Kimball's latest book, The Fortunes of Permanence, is named after its first essay, which reviews what has been lost by reminding us of how thinkers as diverse as Hannah Arendt, Matthew Arnold, G.K. Chesterton, Jean-François Revel, and Alexis de Tocqueville variously understood the fragility of culture -- the tenuous and centuries-long effort to elevate us above our savage natures. By the same token, Kimball laments how a Norman O. Brown, Aldous Huxley, or Herbert Marcuse, beneficiaries of such traditions, had the luxury to amuse, titillate, and shock us by contemplating culture’s demise:

The survival of culture is never a sure thing. No more is its defeat. Our acknowledgment of those twin facts, to the extent that we manage it, is one important sign of our strength.

As an undergraduate classics major, I once had Norman O. Brown as a professor in two small advanced Greek (Greek Lyric Poetry) and Latin (Lucretius, De Rerum Natura) classes at UC Santa Cruz between 1972 and 1973. The more Brown wove his daily, off-topic narratives of unconstrained sex and Marxist-Freudian liberation -- learned and sonorously delivered -- the more I noted the disconnect between Brown, the utterly conventional man (owner of multiple new expensive Volvos, resident of an expensive and expansive home on an exclusive golf course, and childishly defensive about his own lapses in Greek syntax and grammar), and Brown, the reckless advocate of New Age sexual morality for others who were less learned, secure, and wealthy. In Brown’s defense, as a good Marxist-Freudian he seemed to explain his own contradictions as a sort of false consciousness or psychological projection.

In “Institutionalizing Our Demise,” Kimball dissects the contradictions of affirmative action and multiculturalism. There are of course many, but Kimball’s incisive indictment might be best summed up with the irony that those critics who have succeeded through the Western liberal tradition, and the magnanimity of Anglo-Protestant ethical values, are often the most likely to turn around and tear them down -- often in worry that they are losing street cred as the supposedly permanently oppressed. America, which alone seeks to establish a meritocracy and a multiracial society united by shared values, is so often damned because its embrace of the good is not quite perfect.

I often see Kimball’s paradox first-hand in California’s Central Valley, the ground zero of illegal immigration over the last three decades. From the first-generation Mexican national refugee, who after reaching the sanctuary of the United States feels magically delivered from the poverty, racism, and class oppression of Oaxaca, to an angry, far more affluent and secure second-generation -- nursed on Chicano Studies, La Raza pop history, and a deep resentment of the supposed unfairness of the United States -- is only about twenty years.

The fault is not entirely the immigrant’s, but the elite hosts who established an educational system more designed to alleviating their own sense of guilt than to facilitating integration and assimilation into American life -- the time-honored ways for immigrants to achieve economic and social security. Kimball, in brilliant fashion, notes those hypocrisies.

After all, the ability for hyphenated and affluent minority careerists to find an edge from their loud “otherness” in some ways is predicated on the inability of forgotten others of the underclass to achieve basic education and employment parity. In other words, without the entry of millions of fresh impoverished and non-English-speaking illegal aliens, the pool of self-identified third-generation Mexican-Americans would, in the fashion of 20th century Italian-Americans, shrink, as ethnicity became incidental through intermarriage and integration rather than essential to their careerist personas.