November 16, 1995
The Culture Wars In Perspective
ROGER HERTOG: Good evening. I'm Roger Hertog, Chairman of the Manhattan Institute. I'd like to welcome you to our annual Walter B. Wriston Lecture.
I have an ambitious agenda this evening with much to say and little time to say it. In that vein, I'm reminded of the indomitable Clare Booth Luce, who had a tendency to become a bit long-winded when expounding on a topic close to her hear. During one such occasion, she paused somewhat disingenuously and asked the moderator, "Have I gone over my allotted time," she said. To her surprise, the moderator replied, "There's no clock in the hall, Miss Luce, but you've got a calendar right behind you."
Seriously, as Chairman of the Manhattan Institute, there's no greater pleasure than introducing the Wriston Lecture. If there is any of you still uninitiated to our annual ritual, there's probably nothing else we do at the institute that's as emblematic of who we are.
In the past nine years, our topics have ranged from literature to urban governance, from physics to welfare reform. Our speakers have included V.S. Naipaul, Tom Wolfe, the Reverend Jimmy Ray Younblood, Carver Mead, Rupert Murdoch and last year, James Q. Wilson. Although these presentations, diverse as they are, have had a shared common theme that ideas count, that they can materially change the tenor of public discourse. The focus on ideas examined by leading intellectuals in their fields, is what we have tried to do in terms of these lectures. We believe they've become somewhat of a public institution, a New York institution. We take great pride in that.
Needless to say, institutes like ours depend upon inspired leadership. In that respect we have been very fortunate as an institute. For the past 15 years, we've enjoyed the benefit of having William Hammett at the helm of our organization. As I'm sure you all know, Bill retired this year. Unfortunately, he couldn't be here this evening.
I want to take a moment and pay tribute to his contribution. It is not hyperbolic to say that if it weren't for Bill, we wouldn't be sitting here this evening. It was his vision, entrepreneurship and his uncanny ability to recognize and then promote gifted scholars that made the institute what it is today.
There's another equally important reason to be grateful to Bill Hammett. He left us the legacy in the person of Larry Mone, his able lieutenant and our Vice President of Programs for the past 10 years—12 years. As you well know, Larry was named President this year. So to Bill, thank you and God speed, and to you, Cathy and Larry Mone, where are you? Please stand up. May you meet the challenges of these interesting times and lead us ably into the future.
Finally, it is my task to introduce the introducer of our guest lecturer. While introductions are meant to be short and perfunctory, in this case the risk is the opposite because there's so much that can be said. To begin, consider the date November 27, 1972. A date little noted and not celebrated for anything special on almost anybody's calendar in this room. But it should be. Because November 27, 1972, very close to exactly 23 years ago, is the date that Robert L. Bartley became the Editorial Page Editor of the Wall Street Journal.
It was announced in a tiny little item only nine lines, approximately 50 words, so unimposing that if you blinked, you probably missed it. Now in the interest of full disclosure, Bob's appointment as Editor did have unintended consequences, or possibly we could just chalk it up to a coincidence of sort. On almost the very day, November 27, 1972, the Dow Jones average hit a major league high. Indeed, within weeks, the Dow began a relentless, I underscore relentless, two-year descent that ultimately consumed 45% of its value and more of mine.
It was the deepest bear market in US stocks since the Great Depression. Now consider all of this happened in a nine line announcement of Bob's new position. The way I calculate it, that's a 5% drop in the Dow for every line of Bob's announcement. Imagine what would have happened if there were ten lines. Or what if they got carried away and made the announcement, God forbid, in 20 lines. There would have been nothing left. But of course, all kidding aside, what all of us actually associate Bob's appointment with is winning not losing.
Bob's editorship has been one of the single most influential forces in what we have come to call the conservative revolution. In fact, Bob has made the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal the most valuable piece of media real estate in the world. Whether you're interested in business or not, if you want to know and understand what's going on, you have to read the Journal's editorial page.
Indeed, Bob Bartley may be the least famous but most important journalist of the latter half of the twentieth century. I take great pleasure in introducing Robert L. Bartley.
ROBERT L. BARTLEY: Thank you very much, Roger, for those gracious words. I didn't know that I had the power to move markets, but maybe I could move a few minds. My great reaction tonight is isn't this a perfect night for Manhattan Institute's annual soiree. We've got the government closed down and we've got the stock market up 46 points to a new record, probably some relation to those two events. Bonds were up a whole point despite the best efforts of the Treasury Secretary to talk them down. If we could only keep this deadlock going for a few more days, if we get this 90 day deadlock they're talking about, we'll be at Dow 6,000.
Down in Washington they're only allowing the essential employees to come to work. The non-essential ones have to stop not working. At the IRS the essential ones are the ones that do the audits and the non-essential ones are the ones who send out the refund checks.
Now, we're really gathered here tonight to honor and listen to a refugee from that bedlam, a refugee from Washington. AEI tells me that everyone there is essential and they're not part of the government anyway. Nonetheless there's great confusion down there. Almost as much confusion as when the government is open.
It's my task here tonight to welcome Irving Kristol back to New York where he's always belonged. In my experience, moving to Washington is a terrible idea. He says he likes it which I think means that everyone is entitled to one mistake. Especially Irving because I have to say in all sincerity that he has been a very major influence on my life. I'm sure he has been a very major influence on the life of everyone in this room. I think he has been a major influence on everyone to whom intellectual life matters.
I think that since the founding of the public interest in about 1965 he has probably been the most politically influential intellectual in this society.
Irving is kind of the second wave of the conservative revolution that we are celebrating tonight. The first wave, of course, started with, is represented by Bill Buckley as an intellectual and Barry Goldwater as a politician. They really did stop history. They showed the society there was an alternative to what was going on. All of us who followed after them owe them a great debt of gratitude.
People standing before history yelling stop are an honored breed. That occupation is not exactly to everyone's taste. So we needed a second wave of conservative revolution. This is represented by Irving Kristol as the intellectual and Ronald Reagan as the politician. Both of them, of course, following on the left. Therefore we call it particularly, Irving has a patent on the word "neoconservative" meaning new, starting again, conservative. Their great contribution was in a way to make conservatism intellectually respectable or perhaps you should say respectable among intellectuals. Or perhaps even more important, you should say intellectually self-confident which I think what the conservative movement has become under, largely under Irving's tutelage.
I am old enough to remember the 1960's and the 1970's and they were a very lonely time for me and I think for a great many people in this society because society was undergoing a great tumult. I think it was crystallized for me, and I think maybe for many of the neoconservatives, by the fact that we had invested a great deal of kind of emotional capital in the intellectual class and the intellectual life, and we found in the 1960's that the intellectuals were not up to defending free speech.
On the university campuses we had a kind of totalitarian anti-free speech movement going on, in a way under the guise of protest against the Vietnam, war. This kind of left us all wondering, well, what are our lodestars, if it's not going to be the intellectual class?
Into this void was suddenly thrust a little publication called "The Public Interest" founded in 1965. Always a very small publication. But I started reading it and I think a lot of very influential people started reading it, people who later turned out to be influential. It gave us a kind of intellectual home. Yes, here were people who were thoughtful, aware, careful, but sincere about the intellectual life and not usually cowed by the passing fads of the moment.
After awhile I started to attend the dinners, the annual dinners of The Public Interest. I sat around at the Century Club listening to these discussion of circulation. Well, it's maybe down to 8,000 from 10,000. Most of the circulation discussion I was involved in had to do with figures like 1.8 million. So it was a little bit of a change, but I have to say that Irving graced our pages as well, as I am sure all of you know, as one of our original members of the Board of Contributors that we started back in 1972. It had an enormous influence on our pages, on society in general.
I think this influence was probably best summed up but Pat Moynahan, one of his compatriots at the Public Interest, who later said well, an amazing thing has happened, the Republicans have become the party of ideas. Quite a confession for someone like Pat Moynahan, and no doubt quite a revelation to him. I think he probably pretty well understood how it happened.
Of course, it's still going on. I try to explain to European audiences who have trouble understanding what's going on in America, is the first thing you have to understand about Newt Gingrich is that he's an intellectual. He's a history professor, he teaches classes. Dick Army has a Ph.D. So, for that matter, does Phil Graham. You kind of have a part of intellectuals. I think more generally in those particular cases you have a party that tends to think from first positions to consequences, at least as well as a political party can.
In no small part, this is Irving Kristol's accomplishment.
What manner of man could do this? I once thought that I could probably recite by heart everything Irving ever wrote but it turned out not to be true because I picked up his new book, Neoconservatism, the Autobiography of an Idea and he has in there a little essay of his own biography which I would commend to you all if you haven't already read it. He keeps returning to the point that he was born bourgeois. All of his instincts, genes I suppose, led him to kind of a middle class conventional or even religious kind of temperament.
He also describes in there meeting a girl at the Trotskyite meeting in Bensonhurst. They were married when he was not quite 22 and she was 18. Dan (?) later described it as the best marriage of our generation. Now that's surely true in the longevity of the marriage, now well over 50 years, and the accomplishments of both parties and in the progeny of that marriage, as I'm sure we're all quite aware of.
The intellectual trait that this autobiography reveals that Irving is most proud of is his skepticism. I mean this is a man who can write a book called Two Cheers for Capitalism. He's skeptical even about his own enthusiasms. I think we may see some of that tonight in his title "The Culture Wars In Perspective."
But this is a special kind of skepticism. It is not crabby skepticism. It is unfailingly civil. Irving has an amazing knack of being to say the most outrageous things in the most moderate way.
Most especially, it is not a paralyzing skepticism. No one has ever accused Irving of being unable to make up his mind. He never leaves the leader or listener in the least doubt about what he thinks and often what he thinks offers you fresh and eyeopening insights.
So I'm sure in this lecture tonight, we'll see this special skepticism, this moderate, decisive, insightful skepticism. So I give you the godfather of the neoconservatives, Irving Kristol.
IRVING KRISTOL: Thank you, Bob. It's a great honor to be here tonight for the Walter Wriston lecture. It's also a great pleasure to give the lecture named after a man whom I have regarded as a friend now for many years. Anything I say here which sounds critical of businessmen, does not apply to Walt Wriston.
I'm going to talk about the culture wars the best I can in view of the fact that there's no light. That's all right. I'll shed what I can.
The culture wars we're living through is, in my opinion, the central fact of American life today. At least as important as the political conflicts in Washington over the budget or the tax code or the size and shape of our welfare state. This is not the situation as commonly seen by the business community, even though the very legitimacy of that community is ultimately what these wars are about. These wars are about a kind of civilization we've bequeathed to our children, which strikes me as no less significant than the size of the national deficit we've bequeathed to our children.
Do I exaggerate? Am I being paranoid? Well, as my late friend, the literary critic, Anatole Briard, is reported to have remarked, paranoids seem to be the only ones who notice things any more. One of the astonishing features of life in these United States today is the bland acquiescence of the American people in all of the calamities that rain down upon them. There is a massive unwillingness to notice.
This is especially evident in the relations between parents and children. We parents are all eager to send our children to the very best colleges, but God forbid we should ever ask them what they do when they get there. We really don't want to know. We cover up this display of parental blandness by saying, we have raised our children well and we have every confidence in them. Such confidence may or may be justified. But why does it extend to the teachers and administrators of the college about whom parents know nothing? Well, better not to know.
The problem we would be creating for ourselves is the realization that all of use are willy-nilly full-fledged involuntary participants in the culture wars.
Recently I was at a dinner party at which was present the CEO of a major corporation, who was also, as so many CEO's are, the trustee of a university of some distinction. I asked him if he was aware that his university had unisex bathrooms, showers and toilets. He was astonished to hear this. Astonished to the point of disbelief. Will he when next on campus inquire into this? No he will not. He will regard it as beneath his dignity to do so. Better not to know.
Trustees after all deal with big issues which means money issues. Educational and social issues, which are the raison d'etre of a university, issues that shape the minds and characters of the students, such issues are best left to the faculty and to the administration. Besides how important is it really that students may be using unisex toilets and showers. Surely it's more important that they have the newest and finest computers available to them.
Actually this incidence of unisex bathrooms, like that of unisex dormitories, which I have not yet mentioned, is of the greatest importance, once you understand that this is part of a larger conscious effort to convey to the students an ethos wildly at variance with the ethos of our bourgeois society. That it represents for them, that is for the faculty concerned, and the militant students concerned, one minor victory in the culture wars.
The professors at this university, not all, just most, know something that the business community does not know, namely that our bourgeois society is a rock upon which our market economy rests. Unisex bathrooms are intended as a blow against capitalism. Sounds ridiculous, but in fact, it is not at all ridiculous. They know what they are doing. To demean modesty as a virtue may not be a world shaking thing but it is the demeaning of a virtue and prepares the way for the demeaning of other virtues, the sum of these virtues being integral to the fabric of our bourgeois capitalist order.
What we call the culture was is a combination in another guise of the ideological crusade of the past two centuries against a modern bourgeois capitalist order. The collapse of the communist regimes has shattered communist and socialist fantasies. Marxism today is just a branch of academic sociology and a withering branch at that.
Culture is now the battlefield of choice for the left. It is strategically a brilliant choice on their part since, after all, it includes the kind of education that children receive and the kinds of entertainment that they are habituated to enjoy.
Moreover, the opposition to this strategy is enfeebled by the deference we all feel toward officially designated guardians of education and culture. Parents feel ill-equipped to argue with administrators or teachers over whether this is or is not a desirable curriculum. Trustees are intimidated by professors whose academic freedom they are committed to defend. All of us are bowled into impotence by something called the art world which receives the kind of deference once reserved for a religious community.
There was a time when a person could say in self defense, I may not know much about art, but I do know what I like. This after all has been the attitude of most of the human race for most of its history. Today we are no longer free to say that. Instead we have to concede that we don't know what we like, but are open to instruction by professionals in the field as to what it is incumbent upon us to like, at least for the moment.
One of the reasons the culture wars are such a one-sided affair is that the defense really can't understand why the wars are being fought at all. After all, a bourgeois society such as ours treats intellectuals and artists very well by historical standards. They have more freedom than ever before, more opportunities than ever before, greater affluence than ever before. What is the source of their animus against this society?
I think we can find a clue by looking at a poem by Shakespeare. A poem inserted into his play Troilus and Cressida. It's a justly famous poem, which is paean of praise to an aristocratic social order. I quote only a few non-consecutive lines.
The heavens themselves, the planets and the center, observe agreed priority and place.
Take but degree away and whom (?) can hark what discord follows.
Strength should be the lord of imbecility and the rude son should strike his father dead.
Fore should be right, or rather right and wrong and everything includes the self of power.
Power into will, will into appetite
And so on...It's a beautiful and powerful poem and it should give on pause to wonder why hasn't any poet ever written a comparable poem about a more egalitarian bourgeois capitalist order. Why is it so unthinkable that a poet of talent should even try to write such a poem of praise of far more egalitarian and in some ways far more just order?
I think there are several reasons which add up to a kind of explanation.
To begin with, intellectuals and artists are all convinced, every one of them, that their talents enrol them into the ranks of a natural aristocracy. There innermost ambition is to achieve a degree of honor and recognition from other aristocrats, which is to say, those of high social status.
Unfortunately, the more capitalist a bourgeois order is, the more difficult it is to find people of high social status, a status that is more than temporary or artificial, that is not hallowed by generations of money which presumably lead to some sort of superior breeding. In any case, the fact remains the intellectuals and the artists are constrained to sell their talents for money to people whom they generally despise, including a lot of people sitting here.
So these intellectuals and artists selling their work to people who in their opinion have no taste or refinement, or if they have, they're not interested in discerning it. They feel that their talents have been debased by the production of commodities for consumption in a marketplace.
No serious painter or poet or writer can calmly contemplate his work as any kind of commodity, no matter how rich his rewards.
But there is something more to be said about this. There are some subterranean ambitions involved as well as this almost obvious ambition on the part of artists and intellectuals for a place in the sun. Ever since the period of the French revolution, intellectuals and artists quite publicly and aggressively have presented themselves as successors to the clergy. The clergy being in their view, an anachronistic class. It is the artists and the writers henceforth it was proclaimed, (inaudible) who are the new spiritual guise for our society. Art, they feel, can and should replace religion as offering the spiritual experience appropriate to a post-religious secular era.
If you took a poll of New York intellectuals and artists, and posed this question to them, blazing fires break out simultaneously at St. Patrick's Cathedral and the Museum of Modern Art, if we could save only one of these buildings, which one would you choose? Well, the answer is pretty obvious. In the views of artists and intellectuals, museums have replaced cathedrals as institutions that merit reverence. I have little doubt that a majority of New Yorkers would reach a quite opposite conclusion since they, quite sensibly in my view, regard religion as superior to and more important than art.
Religion, after all, offers a guide to the perplexities of living, whereas art offers nothing more than, though it is something important, a transient, if sometimes memorable, spiritual experience.
In any case, such ambitions on the part of our intellectuals and artists can induce a rather weird kind of political myopia. Thus, all during the Stalinist period of Soviet history, distinguished writers and artists, Picasso, Brecht, Saucher, were apologists for the Stalinist regime despite the fact that their own work was permanently banned in the Soviet Union. They could not publish there.
When they were asked how can you support this regime that suppresses all of your work, their answer would be well, at least there they think we're important enough to ban. They care. Only recently Salman Rushdie in an interview made an exactly similar observation about the Ayatollahs in Iran. They care. The British reading public, even though he felt they may buy his book, they never bought enough of his books in his opinion, but even though they buy his book, don't really care, don't take him seriously enough.
Is this conflict between the intellectuals and the artistic communities on the one hand and our modern societies on the other, bread into the very flesh and bone of modernity? It certainly seems to be the case. Still, there have been periods when the antagonism has been relatively muted. Muted by the fact that a major cultural institution, the University, was relatively immune to the dissident passions of the intellectual and artistic classes.
Two such periods in the United States, at least, were the decades between 1870 and 1914 and again between 1920 and 1945. In these decades, the University was our peacekeeper.
In the first period prior to World War I, the University was in loco parentis to its students. This meant that the morals and characters of the students were a serious concern of the institution. The students observed the dress code, often attended compulsory chapel where they were assaulted by prayer on whatever appropriate occasion.
For their education in the humanities they read and studied some great books, not too many. These were young gentlemen after all. The University did not see itself as any kind of academic hot house. They read some Greek and Latin classics, certainly read Shakespeare, read some history, memorized dates, got the chronology straight, but they did not study contemporary history or contemporary literature. If they wanted to, they could read on their own, although they were not encouraged to do so. That was the pre-World War I university.
What applied to the students of this university applied with equal effect to the faculty. All college contracts with faculty then contained a clause allowing the professor to be dismissed if he were found guilty of what was called moral turpitude. It was never precisely defined. In those days apparently everyone knew what it was. But if a faculty member got divorced, he was forced to leave. Some other university might hire him if the divorce wasn't too messy, but a divorce was taken seriously. Of course, if you had a love affair with a student, his academic career was probably over.
But, that phrase, moral turpitude, only has any meaning if one has a pretty clear idea of what moral rectitude is. If you don't know what moral rectitude is, you're not going to worry about moral turpitude and that clause now is no longer in anyone's university contract.
Though the university was respectful of religion, this pre-1950 university, it had become by the beginning of the century, a secular institution. Religion was regarded along with the great literature of the past, as an integral part of our moral heritage. The Bible was perhaps seen as the greatest of books, but it was not read as a divinely inspired text. It was read as book.
The general approach to the liberal arts might be described as a conservative secular humanism rooted in the past in the literary and artistic past, its progenitor was Renaissance Christian humanism as represented, say, by Erasumus. A Christian humanism that focused on good conduct while pretty much ignoring theological doctrine. In its own way, this version of secular humanism liberated students intellectually from their parochial environments without personally alienating them from this environment.
The morality inherent in this conservative secular humanism was assumed to be more or less the same as our Judeo-Christian morality. It was just the theology that had been deleted.
This conservative secular humanism continued to dominate the university after World War I to an ever decreasing degree. Still, when I entered City College in 1936, it was not a typical college at all since it was a commuter college, but its educational philosophy was still what might be called a watered-down conservative secular humanism.
There were plenty of radical students. I was one. And a fair number of radical professors. But in the curriculum and in the classroom, the traditional notion of higher education prevailed. If you wanted a Bachelor of Arts degree, Latin was compulsory, as was one year of higher mathematics, one year of science and a one year course in English literature beginning with Beowulf and proceeding in a remorseless progression all the way to the Victorians when it stopped. Nothing too modern. Nothing too contemporary.
It was a perfectly good education. It was not from the perspective of today an interesting education. No effort was made to pander to our interests, which were the natural interests of young men in New York City at that time, namely, sex and politics. Perhaps I should add sports. We still had the Brooklyn Dodgers.
All of the radical students at City College got this traditional conservative education and I have never met one who looking back experienced any regrets. This was especially the case since for many of us another education was taking place outside the classroom. Robert Nisbert, a splendid sociologist, was found of pointing out that in those days prior to 1950, there were no intellectuals on college campuses, only academicians. These inhabited two different worlds, inhabited by two different breeds. When a professor reviewed a book by an intellectual in one of the learned journals, he would often call it brilliant, meaning clever but deficient in learning.
When an intellectual writing, say in Partisan Review reviewed a professor's book, the most dismissive thing he could say about it was to call it academic, meaning learned but utterly lacking in imagination.
College students could, if they so desired, bridge these two worlds. Outside the classroom we could read and did read modern literature, which was not taught at all in the classroom—Kafka, Mann, Joyce, none of them were read in the classroom—too modern. Didn't know if they would last. We also could go to the Museum of Modern Art to see cubists, expressionists, surrealist paintings, never discussed in any of our art appreciation classes.
We could go to 52nd Street and listen to excellent jazz which was never discussed in any of our musical appreciation classes.
So the modern writers we read were all anti-bourgeois. We, regardless of our politics, did not feel that we were involved in any kind of culture war. Somehow we managed to straddle without too much difficulty, the new modernist trends in literature in the arts, anti-bourgeois trends. We could straddle those with the conservative humanist tradition and the conservative humanist education we got in the classrooms. The university providing an education that was a balance to the non-academic culture.
After World War II, this all began to change. I recall the exact moment when I sensed that this major crucial change was coming about. It wasn't the appearance of the beats who were creating some noise. I didn't take them seriously. No literary critic in those days took the beats seriously. No literary critic today should, but they do. Never mind.
In my case, the illuminating moment came with the publication of Phillip Roth's first novel, Letting Go in 1962. I read it because I admired some of Phillip Roth's short stories and was utterly baffled by it. It concerned a coterie of young professors— I summarize from memory—teaching literature at a midwestern university, more or less like the University of Indiana, and it described how utterly miserable they were in their professional and private lives. Why they were so miserable was a mystery to me. Their married lives seemed stable enough. These were assistant professors taking their first steps on a career that could lead to lifelong academic tenure, which seemed to me then, a kind of holy grail well worth the pursuit.
Well, one day a younger literary critic visited my office and spoke with enthusiasm of the novel. I explained to him that I could not for the life of me understand why these young college teachers, teaching a subject they loved, with such wonderful prospect before them, why were they so miserable?
He looked at me pityingly and said, "Irving you just don't understand." For the next 20 years people, some of them only a few years younger than I kept saying to me, "You just don't understand." And this is the end of World War II. Five years constitutes a generation. I mean people were five years younger than you, could come up to you and say you'll never understand, you just don't understand. You're out of touch.
By now, however, I think I do understand. Some important things were happening to which I was not really paying sufficient attention. I knew they were happening. I just didn't know what their meaning was. I didn't know what their import would be.
First, we had the incredible explosion of higher education after World War II. Hundreds of thousands of young people swept into the university. They found the university not to their liking. The didn't like its curricula, they didn't like its rules, they didn't like its regulations. These were products of a newly affluent society and of an elementary and high school education which for the large part was a lot more permissive and progressive than the schools I had gone to. They found the whole structure of the curriculum and the mode of teaching it alien to their sensibilities.
The parents of these children wanted those children to have every advantage and what these children wanted was an education that was more relevant to use the code word of the 1960's. By relevant they meant an involvement in contemporary politics and contemporary culture including contemporary popular culture. All within the framework of their college life. Simply put, they didn't come to the university to be shaped by it. They came to it to shape the university and felt they had that prerogative.
Also swept into the university at the same time were thousands of junior faculty to whom the traditional academic career, a quiet life of scholarship and teaching, had very few attractions. What they wanted was recognition, not academic recognition, that they knew how to get. You spent a life time writing and studying and you get academic recognition. They wanted recognition at least on the campus. They wanted to be celebrities. They wanted to be quoted in the newspapers. They wanted to be invited to the White House. What they were doing there as professors, well, someone had to do the job, and they had all the requisite degrees and they were very clever. And there they were. They, like their students, decided that the old university had to go and to be replaced by something more modish, more "relevant."
Then almost independently of these other developments, there is the fact that the culture itself underwent what can only be called a mutation. It happened so quickly and so decisively. Really, in the late 40's and early 1950's, there was a word called highbrow and there was a word called lowbrow, and we used to have very solemn conferences sponsored by the Ford Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation on the future of American culture and will the middlebrow corrupt the highbrow and will the lowbrow derail the middlebrow and some very interesting books were written on that subject.
At the same time that interesting books were being written on the subject of leisure, since everyone knew then that automation would result in no one having to spend any time at work and the big problem would be what are we going to do with all these tens and tens of millions of people with all that time on their hands? So a lot of effort went into trying to figure out jobs for people to take care of these non-working types.
In any case, that whole discussion collapsed, swept away in the 1960's by what we then called the counter-culture and today call post-modernism. Suddenly, almost overnight, all those highbrows who found the New Yorker to be the quintessential middlebrow magazine, suddenly they found themselves writing for it and being very well paid.
They also found themselves writing for Playboy whose fiction editor had been the previous editor of the Kenyan Review, a very distinguished literary magazine.
At the same time the culture itself moved beyond a whole highbrow, lowbrow, middlebrow discussion into the realm of the post-modern, which is art that entertains by its ingenuity while still being culturally sensitive in the sense of hostile to the bourgeois culture around it. Much of this art is deliberately transient, designed not to last. The concept of enduring art does not exist in the post-modernist culture of today. That's not what they're trying to create. Whatever Crispo means to convey by enveloping the Reichstag in plastic, the basic fact about this phenomenon is that the plastic will be coming off and that the art, such as it is, will vanish. Perhaps it shouldn't be coming off. I cannot be the only one who contemplates with some equanimity a permanent plastic envelope around it. But the point is what we might call the religion of art, where art was taken seriously and the idea was that people engaged in art and literature made enduring things, things for the generations or the centuries, hopefully, this whole religion of art aiming to replace religion itself, this seemed to have reached an end in the mid-1940's and I would say with the advent of abstract expressionism in painting, which was the last gasp of this high seriousness in art. The abstract expressionists were very serious artists.
The post-modernists in all the arts, not only in painting, are not at all serious, except in their political orientation. They are deliberately playful and often deliberately self-destructive, just to show how playful they can be. A museum devoted to Andy Warhol's pop art—the museum now exists, well it might be interesting to visit, but no one is going to be elevated by going there. Andy Warhol would die if he thought anyone was elevated by going there. That's not what he was doing, trying to elevate people.
An English artist just this past month to the general applause of the arts community in Britain, has, how shall I put it, painted a canvas and on the canvas he has pasted his own feces giving it the shape of a cruciform, so what you have, a cross made out of the painter's own human feces arranged in some pattern on the canvas, obviously not for eternity. The art critics, including the art critics of the conservative newspapers, said this is a very serious art. We have to take this man seriously. I think it's fair to say that these days blasphemy seems to be the only kind of religious statement that art critics recognize as legitimate.
Something of the sort is happening in literature as well. There are no such things as great books. There are books called texts. These days what you study in university—you study all sorts of things. I must say that even though I know what they're doing is wrong I do find myself envying those college students who get academic credit for reading comic books or watching old movies. All this and (?) too. Never had that at City College.
The Italian philosopher and critic and novelist, Umberto Eco, has very nicely caught the absurdity of the fallout of spirit of post-modernism. He writes, "I think of the post-modern attitude, as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, I love you madly, because he knows that she knows and she knows that he knows that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say, as Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly. That's the solution." Note the assumption that this very cultivated woman would know who Barbara Cartland is and if some of you don't, there'll be someone at your table to enlighten you. She too has a place in our post-modern culture.
There is, in general, a lack of intellectual seriousness which is entirely characteristic of this peculiar thing we call post-modernist culture. Post-modernist art. One gets a sense that reading the so-called texts, which we used to call poems or novels, it is forbidden to read them for pleasure. You have to read them, pick them apart and show how they come out and mean exactly the opposite of what the author thought he was saying or something that he couldn't have imagined he ever would have said, enough to give cerebral exercise to the student and to write a Ph.D. thesis saying things that have never been said before. A lot of things are being said these days that have never been said before.
But in all our post-modern intellectual and artistic pursuits, the absolute relativism which does prevail, even as it deplores standards in general, nevertheless, has its own. It is argued that every culture, primitive, historical, contemporary, is generally unique. Nevertheless, in all culture the categories are race, gender and class, especially race and gender. Especially gender. The only ones permissible for a scholar to apply to them. These are the categories that are permanent in the human social situation apparently. The only ones.
In the same way, what we call multi-culturalism today is only multi up to a point and not much of a point at that. In our university, black studies, women's studies, Hispanic studies, Asian studies, etc. etc. are always without exception linked by a uniform ideology, a politically correct ideology. Women or blacks who do not subscribe to this ideology are not regarded as authentic women or blacks and are discouraged from entering these classrooms and are sometimes forbidden to enter and subscribe to those courses.
It is easy and tempting to poke fun at what we call the excesses of post-modernism, which are not excesses at all. They're the very guts of post-modernism. But there's a serious political substance here beneath the frivolity. There's even a serious metaphysical substance beneath this frivolity. After all, the attitudes that we find so grotesque do derive from the two most important influential philosophers, two great geniuses, of the past century, Nietcshe and Heidiger, both German, though it was through their French apostles Veridan and (?) that the glad tidings were brought to America.
What distinguishes post-modernism is that it is infused with a keen sense of an ending, an ending to all major traditions of Western civilization, philosophical, religious, political. It has that sense of an ending in its bones and at its fingertips. Post-modernism is nihilist precisely because it has this sense of an ending. It is self-conscious about its nihilism, as much opposed to secular rationalism as to religious faith. As much opposed to liberalism as to conservatism. As much opposed to science and technology as to theology. And as much opposed to the preceding modernist tradition in the arts as to traditional art, namely, the art of earlier centuries.
I don't think this nihilistic sense of an ending is just literary or aesthetic posturing. I think something very profound and real is going on in our civilization. What economics and sociologists blandly call modernization is being quite successfully challenged by what can be called post-modernization. In once sense the challenge is doomed since nihilism obviously can never become a living system at least for any society, but the destructive impulses that it unleashes can create an emptiness in the souls of men that can lead to enormous damage.
That void in the souls of men will not be filled by any simple revival of yes dears, belief in a progressive, tolerant, secular rationalist humanism which has been the pseudoreligion of humanity for the past two centuries.
It is far more likely to be filled by a religious resurgence from below, a revulsion against the nihilism of (?), by the people who are committed to the moral traditions of Western civilization. Traditions that support our bourgeois capitalist society. But, it might well be a religious resurgence that is not necessarily committed to the cultural traditions of the civilization of the West, our civilization.
We seem to be witnessing today such a resurgence and such revulsions still in embryonic form by people who have the sense of a beginning, not a sense of an ending. Just how this will work out remains to be seen. But there can be no doubt that this non-modern religious impulse will play an increasingly crucial role in the culture wars in years ahead.
For the past three centuries, culture has trumped religion. It is now conceivable that religion will once again trump culture. The challenge for some of us sympathetic to this revival of religion, may yet turn out to be how to preserve the cultural heritage of Western civilization within a new religious context. A context that is not all that friendly to culture per se. That might be no easy matter.
Where amidst all this confusion and passions of the culture wars stands the business community, to return to my original point. A survival in a sense is what this war is all about. But so far as I can tell, the organizations of the business community and most of its mentors, excluding those present tonight, see themselves as non-combatants. Most are very busy people after all, they have relatively short time horizon imposed by the nature of their enterprises. It's understandable they tend not to get involved particularly since many of the battles are being fought over issues that seem quite foreign to them.
The business community, particularly in its organized sections, as in the Sherlock Holmes story, may turn out to be the dog that didn't bark in the night. I have often wondered what happened to that dog.
Thank you for listening.
ROGER HERTOG: I want to thank Irving for that marvelous speech. I know we're running late, but it's a Manhattan tradition, why not one or two questions from the audience?
IRVING KRISTOL: I've already answered all their questions.
ROGER HERTOG: Well, then, thank you all for coming.