Only America, a friend of mine once insisted, could produce the New Criterion. This friend happened to be American, but his point stands nonetheless. America alone is sufficiently large, wealthy and self-confident to sustain a conservative arts journal of such consistent quality.
The New Criterion is 30 years old this year. The anniversary has given its editors cause for consideration as well as celebration. They have commissioned a series of essays on the questions prompted by the unnerving nature of the future. The themes of these essays — America’s place in the world, the West’s malaise, the constant tension between continuity and change — might be reduced to this sentence in Roger Kimball’s piece on the political lessons of culture:
‘Things we had taken for granted seem suddenly up for grabs in some fundamental if still-difficult-to-grasp way.’
It seems to me that bewilderment is the prevailing sense of the times, as certainties vanish under a weight of apparently freak misfortunes. Even the common faith in cyclical economics is being undone by events that are beyond the wit of most. The reputations of and trust in forecasters, experts and leaders have withered through this sullen economic climate.
The sense of listlessness appears to be especially prevalent among those who matured during the days of plenty, cosseted under the wings of their parents, the most comfortable generation that has ever lived. Their expectations bloated by the false promise of expensive qualifications, their lights then dimmed by low wages or unemployment. Something more than their material comfort has been lost.
It is natural in such circumstances to look at times past, when the mass of humanity felt itself similarly adrift. This at least is the view of the New Criterion’s editors. In addition to the essays, the magazine has inaugurated an award for service to culture and society in honour of Edmund Burke. The first recipient of the award, presented earlier this year, was Henry Kissinger, who gave a speech on foreign policy to mark the occasion. Its contents will hold few secrets for observers of Kissinger. He said:
‘The distinction between idealism and realism rejects the experience of history. Idealists do not have a monopoly on moral values; realists must recognize that ideals are also part of reality. We will be less frequently disillusioned if we emphasize a foreign policy designed to accumulate nuance rather than triumph through apocalyptic showdowns, and our values will benefit over the longer term.’
(For those who are interested, Kissinger has expanded on this point in a recent article for the Washington Post. Essentially, the complexity of the Arab Spring, and the apparent failure of liberal democratic movements in the Middle East, requires that the US reconcile idealism and realism to secure a measure of stability to protect its strategic interests.)
Kissinger went on to say:
‘Such an effort must be based on an awareness of our cultural heritage—the preservation of which is a vast challenge in our social media and Internet age. The generations brought up on books were obliged to internalize concepts and think through complex ideas transmitted across time. When information is acquired by being “looked up” on the Internet, a surfeit of information may inhibit the acquisition of knowledge, and respect for it. When facts are disaggregated from their context and called up only when needed, they risk losing the coherence of historical perspective. As Burke wrote, “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”’
Indeed, but Kissinger’s concern about social media sounds down the ages to Caxton and beyond. The Internet may have given record label executives a colossal headache, but it ought not to have worried teachers unduly. A university tutor once advised me that the Internet is not wholly unlike a copyright library. Theoretically, you have quick access to an unimaginable volume of information, 99 per cent of which is useless. It is the function of education to learn which information is valuable, understand its context, and then fashion all of that into knowledge.
The West’s present difficulties are, obviously, a test of many things, ranging from the resilience of its people to the malleability of its sacred public institutions. An Old Master will blanch unless its canvas is cleaned, which requires care and the best training that money can buy. Given our parlous state, the training will have to be better even than that.Tags: America, Economy, Education, Henry Kissinger, Journalism, Literature, Philosophy