The high ground: An interview with Kenneth Minogue
By Bernard Chapin
As a long time reader of The New Criterion, I’ve come across Kenneth Minogue’s name several times. Not only is he the author of excellent essays, unlike the average conservative commentator, he is also a member of the professorate. Currently, he is an Honorary Fellow of the London School of Economics, and began his career at the college in 1954 as an Assistant Lecturer in Political Science. Mr. Minogue was born in New Zealand and primarily attended school in Australia; although, he also took an Economics degree from London University. In 2003, he was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal for services to political science. He is the author of numerous papers, essays, and books such as The Liberal Mind, The Concept of a University, Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology, and Politics: A Very Short Introduction.
BC: Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions, Mr. Minogue. Let me begin by asking you that, as someone with an extensive background in the university, indeed as someone who wrote The Concept of the University in 2004, what should be the defining characteristics of such institutions?
KM: The basic point about universities is that they are reflective rather than practical institutions. Nothing in them is ever urgent. The current decadence of most places calling themselves universities is that they are full of unsophisticated people with opinions about how society and its members ought to conduct themselves – along with a passion to entrench those opinions in binding rules. Many professors today are simple moral dogmatists who think that we at last know for certain what is right and wrong. The only thing we may actually be confident about is that, in a generation or two, these opinions will be replaced by others.
BC: Does it make one an incurable romantic to argue that higher education’s purpose is to search for truth? How anathema is such a notion today? How prevalent are those “scholars” whose primary interest is not truth but the practice of indoctrinating their students?
KM: As the classic formulation had it, universities are distinguished by the “disinterested pursuit of truth” – a somewhat risky pursuit at times. Amid the current vulgarity, many students would not even understand the word “disinterested.” Scholarship and reflection can certainly be found patchily all over the place, but all too many professors are merely peddling some form of political salvationism. Universities used to be stocked by the unworldly and the rich. Both sets of people were valuable because they were not trying to “get on” by trying to please future employers. This gave the academic world in earlier times a sense of adventure, of openness.
BC: What do you make of political correctness? There are those who would argue it’s a thing of the past. Frankly, I don’t see how that’s possible. It seems to me that cultural Marxism is more regnant than ever, would you agree?
KM: In my time, a great deal of what used to be intuitive and instinctive (such as good manners) has been replaced by the rule-bound and rationalised. Political correctness is a politicised version of good manners offering power to the kind of meddlesome people who want to tell others how to behave. As to Marxism, it was merely one more illusion that purported to be the key to life. It is significant in that it reveals one of the dominant passions still at work in our civilisation – the passion to create happiness by technology in the hands of a supposedly enlightened elite.
BC: If you were to rewrite The Liberal Mind, what specifically has changed since its original publication? Many of us, in America, insist that conservatives are the real liberals, and refuse to make use of term “liberal” when describing the left. Do you think that it’s misleading, in an age of hate crime legislation and creeping socialism, to pretend that a statist disposition equates with liberal tendencies?
KM: The Liberal Mind was a critical account of precisely what Americans call “liberalism”, which is a sentimental kind of egalitarianism. My targets today would focus even more directly on the fake compassion diffused by politicians trying to sound like men of the people. It is vital never to forget (if I may adapt Scott Fitzgerald) that “the powerful are different from us.” Turning politics into a kind of soggy public benevolence at the expense of taxpayers does no service to anyone.
BC: Forgive my non-detachment, but what a magnificent article you penned this month for The New Criterion. It’s called “Democracy and Political Naiveté” for those who may not have read it. One of your central arguments is that “some classes of people are more dangerously naïve than others.” I had to laugh when I saw it as it would definitely offend every cultural commissar in existence, but could you tell readers why this is the case?
KM: “Democracy and Political Naivete” was concerned with contemporary pieties. Piety is a form of respect for one’s religion, as when the Romans admired “pious Aeneas.” In politics, piety is merely corrupt, largely because it is focused on abstract classes of people such as Gays, Blacks, Women and others who sometimes package themselves as victims. Don’t get me wrong – some of my best friends are Gays, Blacks, Women etc. but I don’t have to genuflect every time they are presented as suffering, and often suffering because of White Male brutes like me. One should always be alert to the targets of ridicule and derision in public life (authority, pharmaceutical companies, corporations, evangelists) on the one hand, and those who automatically evoke pity on the other.
BC: How much has widespread female participation in electoral politics to blame for the triumph of emotion over reason in regards to government’s stance on the big issues of the day?
KM: Yes, the abstract class of “women” has quite a lot to answer for. Plenty of women are of course bright, amusing and hard headed, but there is a lot of wimpish sentimentality being peddled by professional women. Harvard has become a laughing stock because of the Larry Summers affair, with some women going faint at the suggestion that women – as a class – might not be naturally good at maths. The problem results from the Annie Oakley view of women as able to do exactly what men do (which obviously they can’t) and which sells everything valuable about female distinctiveness down the river in exchange for an absurdity. One consequence has been to sentimentalise life and diminish important virtues (by no means exclusively male) such as courage and self-control.
BC: You mention that the male chauvinist position is that men are more creatures of reason than are women, but it seems to me that it is also the feminist position. Is not the truly sexist position one which asserts that Woman, by nature of her genitalia, has something more important to say about politics than Man?
KM: As I said in the piece mentioned above, some women have a distinct and valuable talent for politics. I think the French, for example, lost a trick in going for the Salic Law (excluding female rules) in the Middle Ages. But my guess is that more women than men want to spend taxpayers’ money in supposedly improving the lives of those who cannot do much for themselves.
BC: Is “intellectual” wholly a term of derision nowadays? Is there any merit to the concept of certain individuals maintaining the role of intellectual in society? This question has perplexed me ever since I read Paul Johnson’s work on the subject.
KM: Public intellectuals are journalists, and professors are a lot closer to journalism today than they used to be. Being a journalist used to be a deadly insult in academic terms; no longer. It used to be the case that the French had intellectuals, and the English were merely educated. These days we have intellectuals coming out of our ears. And they are useful, no doubt, in turning public issues into matters of rational debate. Even in answering your questions, I am behaving rather like an intellectual. Few of us today can resist the pleasure of having opinions on subjects we know little about. That is why we need Socratic irony so badly.
BC: What are you working on at the moment?
KM: I am currently working on a book that tries to track the way in which our moral sentiments have evolved in the last century or so. Moral integrity in our dealings with our immediate associates – family, friends, colleagues – has become of less significance than taking up an “ethical” attitude to strangers who are supposedly in need, such as the poor and those living (according to one of those idiotic statistics diffused by charitable lobbies) on “less than a dollar a day.” The dominant strain in morality is philanthropic: it admires devoting one’s life to caring for others. It is “ethical” in a political sense, and no doubt in some ways admirable, but it suits best those who don’t really have a life of their own to lead.
BC: Lastly, and I generally ask this question, do you think that conservatives have a chance to win the culture war? If not, can we at least roll back some of the gains made by the left?
KM: I regard Conservatives as people in touch with reality, and radicals as people aspiring to improve the world. In a sense, I suppose, we need both, though the dominance of improving political radicalism in Western countries these many decades seems to me to have made most things worse. Human beings, as Eliot said, can’t bear much reality, so conservatives had better resign themselves to being a kind of saving remnant. Reality seldom wins votes. So we can’t win, but winning isn’t everything. Integrity is much more important.
BC: Thank you for your time, sir.
Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago whose work addresses cultural and political issues. His book, Escape from Gangsta Island: A School’s Progressive Decline, was recently released while a new book, Slaves to the Feminaria, will appear this summer. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.