Summer Reading

I’m on vacation for most of August, sitting by Lake Erie enjoying the breeze, reading, and (at the moment) writing a bit. Among the books I’ve been reading are three that couldn’t be more different: Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media, Roger Kimball’s The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, and the Everyman’s Library edition of George Orwell’s Essays. I’ve been enjoying them all in different ways, which I think makes me more Orwellian than Chomskian or Kimballian (if those are the proper adjectival formations).

Manufacturing Consent and The Fortunes of Permanence are politically opposite but  methodologically almost identical, which might surprise people familiar with only Chomsky or Kimball. Both books focus only on the worst of their enemies and ignore any mitigating evidence or circumstance that doesn’t suit their purposes. With Manufacturing Consent, I can almost forgive this, as the injustices committed by the U.S. Government at times are considerably greater in scope than those committed by the leftist academics Kimball demonizes. Herman and Chomsky do a pretty good job of explaining how the U.S. Government and Big Business use the mass media as tools of misinformation designed to bolster the image of the U.S. and American corporations at the expense of anyone who criticizes them. Someone would have to be hopelessly naive to believe that governments and powerful interests worldwide are always trying to make their side of the story the story, but the analysis of specific cases is powerful evidence for the how.

When reading it, though, I have to wonder how naive someone has to be to believe that it could be otherwise, or that the U.S. Government and American corporations are especially wicked because they act in the way they do. What’s missing isn’t the proof of how they act, but the corrective attitude that acknowledges that the U.S. Government is no more wicked or duplicitous than other governments, only more powerful. I’m inclined to believe Lord Acton that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Were all the communist regimes the U.S. illegally overthrew themselves the picture of perfect justice? The implicit tone and focus throughout the book is that if the U.S. Government interacts with any other countries or people it is almost always in the wrong, with the concomitant assumption that the other countries or people are therefore always in the right. Can this really be true? Is the world really made of perfect heroes and villains? The saving grace is that Herman and Chomsky occasionally admit that some truthful news and information manages to struggle through their Propaganda Model and they are providing an  important alternative point of view on the injustices of a government that would prefer not to admit them.

Not so with The Fortunes of Permanence, which displays both the best and the worst that Kimball has to offer. Kimball is great on cultural topics but ridiculous on political ones because of his Manichean worldview and limited scope. Get him going on John Buchan or The Dangerous Book for Boys or Rudyard Kipling and he’s lively and perceptive. Even letting him have a go at the knee-jerk relativism pervasive in our culture can be fun. But when he starts ranting about the enemies of permanence (in values, traditions, etc.) and he’s either willfully naive or completely blinded by faith in the Republican Party and all it stands for. Since Kimball seems like a very smart man to me, I have to wonder. For example, his enemy is almost always the same: “academic multiculturalists.” (And no, this book is from 2012, not 1988.) Relativism is destroying all our values? Terrorists are attacking us? The culture is awash in vulgarity? Traditions and values are eroding? Blame those darned academic multiculturalists. From what I can tell through reading a number of his books, Kimball encountered a bunch of frivolous intellectual popinjays during a sojourn in a humanities grad program and was scarred for life. I can sympathize. I put up with the same uncritical, relativist nonsense in grad school as well, but I had enough perspective to know that academic multiculturalists don’t rule the world because first, they don’t even dominate academia or the humanities, and second, outside of academia no one pays any attention to them except, apparently, Roger Kimball.

It’s especially peculiar that in a book about the erosion of what T.S. Eliot called “the permanent things” Kimball ignores the elephant in the culture that drives innovation and change in everything from values to automobiles at a relentless pace: an economic system that survives only by developing new everything all the time. Oldfashioned conservatives understood that one of the most powerful forces against traditional values and culture was capitalism and its constant need for novelty. After a brief analysis near the beginning of the way an HBSC bank ad campaign promotes relativism, economic concerns disappear from the book. The U.S. Government is always good, corporations are always beneficent, and all would be right with the world if we could just get rid of those all-powerful academic multiculturalists! Compare T.S. Eliot in The Idea of a Christian Society, pondering the aftermath of the Nazi invasion of Poland, which left him and others shakened with “a doubt of the validity of a civilisation. We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us. Was our society, which had always been so assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premisses, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?” Eliot had enough sense to know that a devotion to finance was more dangerous to “the permanent things” than a devotion to academic multiculturalism, however one happens to define that beast. Kimball knows this, too, but rarely mentions it. When it comes to his criticism of cultural or intellectual relativism, Kimball has a compelling subject; it’s just that he lays all the blame on his favorite bugaboos while ignoring other much more likely sources. What I like about Kimball is his intellectual seriousness and cultural criticism, but the implication that everything bad in our culture is somehow the fault of leftist intellectuals strikes me as willful blindness.

After those hopelessly partisan though enjoyable books, how refreshing to turn to Orwell’s essays. If you know Orwell only through Animal Farm and 1984, then you don’t know Orwell well enough. He’s long been something of an intellectual hero of mine. The best virtue of George Orwell, aside from his delightful prose, is his unflagging intellectual honesty, a virtue appallingly absent in most political writers. Orwell was a committed socialist and a staunch critic of totalitarianism, in a time when being a member of the British left often meant going along with the party line from Moscow and licking Stalin’s bloodstained boots while judging the Soviet Union by its intentions and Britain by its worst results (does the rhetorical ploy sound familiar?). To criticize Stalin over, say, starving millions of his own people or the Moscow show trials, was to play into the hands of the enemy, i.e. the capitalist British government. A good socialist just doesn’t do those sorts of things. To show, as Orwell did in An Homage to Catalonia, that the communists fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War were basically a bunch of ruthless bastards willing to betray anyone to get their way was itself a betrayal. That’s because political fanatics don’t believe in honesty, only victory, whether they’re fanatical warmongers who think the road to American greatness lies in invading countries that haven’t attacked us or fanatical communists who think that any means, no matter how horrible, justifies the end of communist utopia. Orwell wouldn’t hide from the fact that there are bad apples in every lot, even your own.

Orwell differs from most political writers in that he criticizes the unjust or ridiculous wherever he finds it, not just if it’s caused by someone on the “other side.” Comparing Kimball and Orwell on the British Honours is instructive. Here’s Kimball:

But what seems at first to be an effort to establish cultural parity turns out to be a campaign for cultural reversal. When Sir Elton John is put on the same level as Bach, the effect is not cultural equality but cultural insurrection. (If it seems farfetched to compare Elton John and Bach, recall the literary critic Richard Poirier’s remark, in Partisan Review in 1967, that “sometimes [the Beatles] are like Monteverdi and sometimes their songs are even better than Schumann’s.) It might also be worth asking what had to happen in English society for ther to be such as thing as “Sir Elton John.” What does that tell us about the survival of culture? 

I found this passage slightly amusing and outrageously pompous. “Recall” that 1967 article in the Partisan Review! Um, yes, I’m recalling that, because a 45-year old article on the Beatles is exactly the sort of literary classic I make sure to keep in ready memory, especially since no publication ever had a more profound impact on the American psyche as the Partisan Review. Notice that no one has actually put Sir Elton John on the same level as Bach. Even so, what relevance to the discussion does some critic 45 years ago claiming that sometimes the Beatles wrote better songs than Schumann’s have? The analogy is terrible. My god, Kimball, are you implying that some Schumann lieder are to be considered on the same level as the works of Bach? The Mass in B Minor alone could kick the stuffing out of all of Schumann’s lieder and the St. Matthew’s Passion could sweep along behind and take out the symphonies! By the time the Brandenburg Concertos and the cello suites were through monkey-stomping what was left of Schumann’s ouevre anyone with a conscience would recall the glory days when all Schumann had to contend with were the Beatles. And why pick on Elton John’s knighthood? I find it very hard to believe that Kimball is unaware that plenty of scoundrels have been knighted for doing considerably less than raising over $30 million for charity and giving us Madman Across the Water.

Here’s Orwell on the 1944 Honours List:

Looking through the photographs in the New Years Honours List, I am struck (as usual) by the quite exceptional ugliness and vulgarity of the faces displayed there. It seems to be almost the rule that the kind of person who earns the right to call himself Lord Percy de Falcontowers should look at best like an overfed publican and at worst like a tax collector with a duodenal ulcer.

And the next paragraph, just because it’s funny:

But our country is not alone in this. Anyone who is a good hand with scissors and paste could compile an excellent book entitled Our Rulers, and consisting simply of published photographs of the great ones of the earth. The idea first occurred to me when I saw in Picture Post some stills of Lord Beaverbrook delivering a speech and looking more like a monkey on a stick than you would think possible for anyone who was not doing it on purpose.

Kimball goes after Sir Elton and Orwell after Lord Percy de Falcontowers. However, Orwell also had the intellectual honesty to criticize the failures and shortcomings of his political comrades, something you will rarely if ever find in Kimball or Chomsky. Orwell escaped the flight from complexity in a way few writers do.

Okay, back to my reading.