The power of ideas, or "it's déjà vu all over again"

Last month, the Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, graciously hosted a symposium on "Publishing and the Power of Ideas" to mark the 10th anniversary of Encounter Books. I am pleased that The Weekly Standard has published a version of my introductory remarks in its current issue. Here's an excerpt:

It was the philosopher Samuel Goldwyn, I believe [though one reader tells me it was Yogi Berra], 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."

. . .

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.

Read the whole thing here.