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The Highest Criterion: An interview with Roger Kimball

By Bernard Chapin
web posted March 17, 2003

Anthony Burgess once said that whenever he read Ulysses by James Joyce his reaction to his own writing became "why even bother?" I have had the same experience after reading the works of Roger Kimball. Mr. Kimball is the Managing Editor of The New Criterion but he is also one of the journal's most prolific writers. Reading his work is similar to reliving the great lectures one received in college (back when lectures weren't considered oppressive). He writes on all cultural topics but what I have found particularly impressive is his unforeseeable achievement of making artistic philistines like myself interested in topics within the art world. His work is stimulating for a variety of reasons but primarily it is due to Kimball, despite being infinitely learned, possessing a style that is highly readable. Amongst his lively sentences is an uncanny ability to place his subjects within the context of the larger issues that embody our culture.

Roger KimballWe on the right often ask "Where are our tough guys? Why don't we stand up to these fabricators?" Read Kimball and you won't ask anymore. He never shirks from the duty of exposing the poseurs of the SRL (Self-Righteous Left-interviewer's term). Here before us, bespectacled and sporting a bowtie, is one of our greatest enforcers. Kimball, despite his civilized appearance, lands Tysonesque roundhouses with a greater strength and frequency than many of our other commentators put together. The libertine deconstructionists must lament the day he chose to forgo an academic career as he would have been much easier to deal with within the catty world of our universities. I'm fairly certain that the likes of Dr. Fish and Dr. Derrida quiver in slouched post-modern angles after being informed by an overpaid colleague that Roger Kimball has written something about them.

His work, The Long March, may be the finest non-fiction book that I've ever read. In it he meticulously dissects the great hysterics of 1960's whose moronic gallivanting across our universities and political system has brought so much misery to the west in the decades that followed. I hope that many of our readers are unfamiliar with Kimball so that the joy of gazing at the words and arguments of one of the last great knights of western civilization will lie ahead of them. You may think that what I am writing here is just hype but in the scrolls that follow you will see that my introduction is nothing compared to the glitter of the analysis below. Let us now, in this enterstageright.com exclusive, examine the Grand Examiner himself.

1. The first thing I'd like to ask, and I know this would be of great interest to our readers concerns our culture. Specifically, have conservatives lost the culture war? And, if not, what kind of countermeasures can we undertake to make sure that there is still something left of western civilization?

Ah, the culture war. Have conservatives lost? It seems like such a simple question. Why is it so difficult to answer? There are a several reasons. In the first place, when we speak of "the culture war" we mean a conflict with multiple fronts, different and sometimes opposing goals, and shifting allegiances. The dumbing down of higher education is part of the culture war. So is the institution of political correctness and the activist judicial culture that imposes the values of a liberal elite on more and more areas of life. So is the sexual "revolution," so-called, and the disintegration of the family. Ditto the imperatives of multiculturalism, with their assumption of cultural relativism and egalitarianism. The culture war embraces what has happened to institutions like The New York Times, which has long since subordinated reporting the news in order to shill for all things trendy; the culture war also embraces the degradation of popular culture, the proletarianization of public taste, and the failure of manners. If the culture is a plural phenomenon, so too are "the conservatives." There are plenty of people who call themselves conservative who worry about one aspect of the culture war but cannot get worked up about another aspect. The liberal media is always going on about "the vast right-wing conspiracy," etc., but in fact conservative opinion in this country is a much more heterogeneous thing than liberal opinion.

These two things -- the multiplicity of "fronts" or battles that constitute the culture war and the diversity of conservative opinion -- make it well nigh impossible to give a single answer to the question "have conservatives lost the culture war?" That said, however, I believe that any conservative who contemplates the cultural landscape today must come away sobered if not, indeed, depressed. There has been a steady loss of cultural capital as one educational institution after the next -- schools, colleges, museums, and so forth -- waters down its offerings in the name of diversity or populism. There is some irony in the fact that as educational rhetoric proliferates, the content of the education becomes ever more anemic.

The dilution of culture is one problem: for all the marvelous "information technology" we command, people seem to know less and less; their cultural range of reference has contracted to the tiny circle described by the latest headlines and characters of this year's sitcoms and "reality" programs (i.e., virtual reality programs). But if the content of culture has been steadily eroded it has also become increasingly tawdry. The culture war is also a moral war, a war over the definition of the good life. Most of the news from that front of the culture war is discouraging.

At the same time, there are grounds for hope. For one thing, the conservative reaction to the depredations of the culture war are more articulate, more widespread, and more effective now than ever before. The putatively liberal establishment -- that is to say, the establishment that calls itself liberal but is really only politically correct -- still commands most of the institutions that we entrust to preserve and transmit culture. But there have been a series of rude awakenings in the past decade as parents have discovered what their children are being taught -- and not taught -- in schools, as the blatant partisanship of the media has become more and more a matter of public knowledge, as the forces of "transgression" have transformed much of the contemporary art world into a repellent carnival of freaks. Looking around at the dominance of the politically correctness, it is easy to throw up your hands and say: "It's all lost." But that would be to underestimate the many examples of rebellion against this culture of decadence. The home-schooling movement, the proliferation of conservative talk shows and internet sites, the robust culture of conservative commentary in magazines like The New Criterion, National Review, and The Weekly Standard: these are signs of light, adversarial ripostes to what Lionel Trilling called the adversary culture of the intellectuals. We've got a long way to go. But that shouldn't keep us from acknowledging the long way we have already come.

2. In your journal The New Criterion your "Notes & Comments" section, which is the first appearing, seems to me to be an excellent, albeit brief, way of counter-attacking the people who presently degrade our culture. Is this your mechanism to fight the culture war? This month's concerns Laura Bush and the poets and their "squeals from the nursery" (http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/21/mar03/notes.htm). Again, is this section of your journal your method for combating those ideas you find the most offensive?

We've been running the Notes and Comments section of The New Criterion since 1990. It has been a convenient way to articulate a kind of editorial position on a wide range of issues. The New Criterion is often described as a conservative magazine. In fact, most of the magazine operates in a realm apart from politics: we go to great lengths to deal with cultural issues on their own terms. Our art criticism is concerned with art, our literary essays with literature, and so on. Of course, at a moment when culture is heavily politicized -- this brings us back to the issue of the culture wars -- then staking a claim for the relative autonomy of culture will seem to be a provocative gesture. The Notes and Comments section is, in general, the one part of the magazine where we engage directly with cultural politics. We have run our share of polemical essays in the body of the magazine, but the Notes and Comments section is where we try to comment on and engage with topical issues. Since we are a monthly, we are basically exempt from participating in the "news cycle"; but we have found that our Notes and Comments section provides an effective way to intervene in some of the more important cultural controversies. We know from our readers that it is one of the most eagerly read parts of the magazine, and we have been as pleased by the irritation that it causes as by the praise it has elicited. The writer William Dean Howells once said that the problem for a critic is not making enemies but keeping them. We like to think that our Notes and Comments section, which often has a polemical edge, helps us attend to Howells's admonition.

3. Regarding your background, I notice that a doctorate is never mentioned after your name. Is this do to the fact that you just do not list your educational accomplishments? Is it due to the fact that pursuing a doctorate may have been superfluous to your professional goals? Or, and I'm hoping that this is the answer, that you felt that you could not stomach seven years of a heavily politicized curriculum in the leftist enclaves known an as American universities?

I was a graduate student at Yale and fully intended to embark on an academic career. When I moved to New York in the mid-1980s, I was hard at work on a dissertation on the philosophy of art. But once I started writing regularly for magazines like The New Criterion I found myself drifting further and further away from the culture of academia. Long before I published Tenured Radicals in 1990, it had become clear to me that, at many institutions, academic life in this country was a grim affair: warped by politics, distorted by hermetic "theorizing," disfigured by unreadable prose and pretentious posturing. It was not a world I aspired to join. I should also point out that, after the publication of Tenured Radicals, it was not a world I would be invited to join. That book, along with Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, became a book that academics loved to hate. I was at first alarmed by the venom lavished on me and the book but I soon learned to see the comic side of the spectacle. In any event, it became crystal clear that an academic career was out of the question -- what university would have me? -- and I let the dissertation languish. I should say for the record, however, that I regret not having finished the degree, since I believe one should finish what one starts.

4. I like to refer to your work as being "hyper-intellectual fusion" because your essays are multidisciplinary and cannot be confined to one area of scholarship alone. Your pieces are the product of a mind steeped in history, literature, art, politics and everything else that can be consumed by the senses. How do you describe yourself to people who ask? What's your first answer? Editor? Writer? Critic? What is it that made you chose this unlikely profession?

When people ask me what I do, I generally say "writer," but of course that term covers a multitude of sins. In fact, I believe that my work as a critic and my work as an editor are all of a piece. I write for many magazines and newspapers, but The New Criterion is my primary forum, and I like to think that the distinctive blend of interests and perspectives that stamps The New Criterion adds up to a coherent and valuable cultural offering. T. S. Eliot (whose magazine The Criterion inspired the name of The New Criterion) defined criticism as "the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste." We try to live up to that definition. As for why I chose this odd combination of activities -- editor and critic -- I can only say that it would be closer to the truth to say that they chose me. I wrote. I edited. One day I woke up and found I was a writer and an editor.

5. As a former student who was bewildered by the maze of postmodernism, I must tell you how comforted I was to encounter your work. You have the habit of seeing through the veneer of the Tower of Babel from which many in our universities speak by using common sense. With Foucault, in your work Experiments Against Reality, you make the wonderful connection that it is not surprising that a homosexual practitioner of sadomasochism believes that every institution is really a scene of unspeakable domination and subjugation. With Warhol you let the man's words describe his essence "Art is what you can get away with." How long did it take you to catch on to the techniques of obfuscation in the Academy? Was there a period where you doubted yourself and that maybe it was just you who were confused by their logorrhea disguised as argument? An example might be a professor's early morning journal entry involving a sentence like this to describe a note to his secretary: "deconstructive praxis of meta-cognitive outcomes based on the discourse of Derrida."

There are many things about the academic life as I imagined it that appeal to me: here was a life in which one could devote oneself to reading great books, talking about them with intelligent colleagues and eager students, and writing about them for interested readers. I love academic libraries, those great repositories of thought. But I soon learned that there was a great distance between my picture of academic life and real academic life. The warning bells went off quite early, in fact. I first encountered Derrida in college. He was all the rage among some of my teachers. I made a dutiful attempt to see what the fuss was about. I concluded that he was a clever charlatan. The same thing happened when I was prevailed upon to read Paul de Man. It happened again with the work of Michel Foucault. I had an ingrained allergy to the work of such people. It was partly a revulsion to their style -- hermetic, all-knowing, rebarbative -- but more basically it was a revulsion against the nihilistic assumptions that provided the emotional fuel for their work and the logical solecisms that put it over on protégés, whose cynicism about traditional culture was matched only by their credulousness when it came to the latest French import.

6. Art's Prospect is your 2002 release. I read it and also read about it in The Weekly Standard. It is said to be an example of a revolution in publishing today. The publisher is Cybereditions. Could you explain what's unique about it's publishing process?

The publisher of Cybereditions suggested I collect some pieces for an "e-book" with a paperback adjunct. Art's Prospect was the result. It was a noble effort on the part of the publisher, but it was not, I think, a publishing success. Perhaps this method of publishing will eventually become popular, but at the moment it lacks the support of the book publishing industry. Libraries do not buy such books. Neither do book stores. They are not reviewed. They exist in a shadowy world of indeterminate publicness. Nevertheless, I am grateful to Cybereditions for their efforts; the response to Art's Prospect, though small, was very enthusiastic. So I am going to be publishing an expanded version with Ivan R. Dee next fall. It will be available in hardcover and will, I hope, attract its share of readers.

7. The thing that I love most about your work is that it teaches but it also avidly takes up a position. There's no equivocating in your pen. This sentence from Art's Prospect illuminates: ".for those interested in the psychopathology of the culture, Gilbert and George present a noteworthy specimen- an unusually malignant boil or pustule on the countenance of contemporary culture." [p.182] Is the fact that we're too diplomatic and polite a hindrance to the conservative side in the debate on culture today? Is it due to our fear that the media may label us mean spirited?

The 19th-century English critic William Hazlitt described the "common-place critic" as one who searched for truth "in the middle, between the extremes of right and wrong." I believe that one should be forthright in one's criticism. If something is garbage, there is no reason to describe it as discarded domestic foodstuffs in an odoriferous state of dissolution: it is garbage. There is a place for dispassionate analysis, even-handed inquiry, careful intellectual pluralism. There is also such a thing as the perversion of those ideals -- a perversion that is sometimes due to cowardice, sometimes to a desire to obfuscate, sometimes to both. The New York Times is a master of the genre. It prints a highly tendentious piece about some controversial issue, but pretends to maintain its even-handedness by a token quotation from someone on the other side of the issue. Or consider the recent BBC memorandum advising its correspondents that, in the event of war with Iraq, scrupulous even-handedness would be maintained. The Iraqi side was to be granted equal time and, lest the BBC be accused of prejudicing its audience, British troops were never to be described as "our" troops. Some might call that even-handed; I think it borders on treason.

8. I read somewhere, sadly I don't recall where, that an academic said "I am not the first person to have been persecuted by Roger Kimball." How have your enemies responded to you? How badly have they acted in retaliation for your words? Tell us a story about their misbehavior.

Well, probably the most amusing episodes occurred at the annual meetings of the Modern Language Association in the years following the publication of Tenured Radicals. I went two or three times and reported on the meetings -- briefly in The Wall Street Journal, at considerable length in The New Criterion. I was generally not recognized, so I could sit inconspicuously in the audience taking notes while listening to my work being abused as (for example) "a leaden-footed, pig-headed attack." Occasionally, however, I was recognized. At the MLA meeting in San Diego in 1994, I was in the men's room when Homi Bhabha (if you don't know who he is, don't ask: you have lived a charmed life) and one of his acolytes sauntered in. They had noticed the name tags my colleague Hilton Kramer and I were wearing and were discussing the awfulness of our presence at the convention. I forget the adjectives, but they were pungent. It wasn't until I turned around and walked past them that they noticed me and put the name tag to the face. They froze like post colonialists caught in the headlights. It was a delicious moment.

9. The Long March was the first of your works I encountered. I remain grateful to this day as it debunked many of the lies I was brought up with and it explains so much of the current strife in America. If you had to name one movement or belief that was the most destructive offspring of the 1960's which one would it be? How about which person or thinker was the most destructive?

Gosh, this is a tough one. There are so many candidates to choose from. One movement or belief? Perhaps the attitude -- it was a belief that became a movement -- that traditional sources of moral wisdom and social identity were the enemies rather than the guarantors of happiness. The hedonist ideology that defined the 1960s -- an ideology that expressed itself in the rise of the drug culture and the fall of conventional restraints on behavior -- worked its way into every facet of cultural life: it affected families, churches, educational institutions; it changed the way we thought about ourselves and each other. It was a change that proscribed traditional virtues from patriotism to modesty, and that encouraged instead a culture of narcissistic rebellion. In The Long March I provide a sort of rogues' gallery of examples -- of individuals and movements -- that it would be tedious to try to encapsulate here. Still, I do not think I can do much better in a brief compass than I did in the introduction. The Long March, I wrote, "looks behind the received wisdom about 'the Sixties' to the animating ideas, passions, and personalities that made that long decade a synonym for excess and moral breakdown. Above all, The Long March aims to show how the paroxysms of the 1960s continue to reverberate throughout our culture. The Age of Aquarius did not end when the last electric guitar was unplugged at Woodstock. It lives on in our values and habits, in our tastes, pleasures, and aspirations. It lives on especially in our educational and cultural institutions, and in the degraded pop culture that permeates our lives like a corrosive fog." I hope that at least is the start of an answer.

10. Okay, now a hard one. Rock n' roll. You believe all it ".offers is a prefabricated Dionysius ecstasy, blatantly sexual, conspicuously nonrational." (The Long March, p.188) Are you making a categorical rejection of rock music here? The Beatles? Bob Dylan? Is there anything in this genre of music that you find palatable? I write in the voice of a man who grew up on rock and still loves it but I must point out that it does not preclude my affection for other forms of music. Classical and jazz are a big part of my life. Also, I believe that the highest emotions, such as love, can be conveyed in this medium. Are there exceptions to your rule?

Ah, rock 'n roll. My pages on rock in The Long March were probably the most often criticized. Is their anything in rock I find palatable? Sure. I grew up with rock music. But what is palatable is not necessarily good for you. I think that Bob Dylan is a clever songwriter -- pretentious, vastly over-rated as a "poet," clever. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were very clever songwriters. Not in the league of Cole Porter, and certainly not in the league of Gilbert and Sullivan, but clever. There are many other clever rock songwriters. But my objection to rock focuses not on the tunes but on the basic intent of the music, which I believe (as you quote) amounts to "prefabricated Dionysius ecstasy." I believe, in other words, that Allan Bloom had it right in The Closing of the American Mind when he argued that rock is a potent weapon in the arsenal of emotional anarchy. In some ways this is a very old argument. In essence, it is a Platonic argument. In The Republic, Plato argues that music is such a powerful stimulant of the emotions that the state should be cautious about what sorts of music it encourages. Some "modes" of music, he thought, encouraged noble emotions, other forms encourage base emotions. Aristotle did not put the matter quite so starkly, but he, too, recognized that music was a powerful educational force that could be used as well as misused. Rock music is now ubiquitous, of course, and to some extent we all tune it out. But its basic message -- what makes rock rock -- is not the sweet strains of Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" but the amplified, percussive assault that addresses not the head or heart but lower organs. Again, this is a complicated question that deserves a complicated answer; the biggest question is whether music can shape one's basic emotional responses. I would say, yes, it can. Does it then follow that music can corrupt as well as nurture the emotional life of individuals? Again, I would say yes. (Hardly a new idea: consider, e.g., what Nietzsche has to say about the baneful influence of Wagner.) If civilization is about nuance, restraint, discrimination, and order, rock, I believe, is anti-civilizational. Of course, every civilization requires some home for the irrational, for the Dionysian. Does rock, perhaps, offer an appropriate home for such impulses? I am skeptical. But I can see that any attempt to answer that would lead on a discussion that is much, much too long!

Mr. Kimball, thank you for your time and we'll look forward to another twenty books in the years to come.

Bernard Chapin is a school psychologist and adjunct faculty member in Chicago. He can be reached at emeritus@flash.net.

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