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The Post-Nintendo editor: An interview with James Panero

By Bernard Chapin
web posted May 9, 2005

James Panero is the Associate Editor of The New Criterion, which is a journal that analyzes politics, the media, literature, art, and dance. His biographical information can be found here. He also has written several critical essays for TNC, concerning such topics as the Africa in Evelyn Waugh, the painter Marsden Hartley, and a fine memorial for a scholar.

BC: James, you are the Associate Editor of The New Criterion which is, in my opinion, the finest journal produced in the world, but, for those readers unfamiliar with the publication, what are its merits? What makes it pen and quill above its competitors?

Mr. Panero: Good question.

When I first encountered The New Criterion in college, I thought it was the strangest thing I'd ever seen. Here was an art magazine without pictures, a political magazine that took culture seriously, and a culture magazine that was uproariously funny. It was different and I loved it, even if I couldn't understand a word. Of course, once you get into The New Criterion, as I've learned, pretty soon you can't understand a word in all of those other magazines.

The New Criterion is forward thinking -- a magazine of a future I'd want to live in, featuring the future's most famous writers. It's also a magazine that's content to wait for its readership to come round to it. So the readership, when it does come around, becomes a self-selecting club. That's the great intangible detail The New Criterion has going for it.

BC: Why should we be interested in the arts? What specifically do poetry, the theatre, dance, and fiction have to offer us in this age of lightning information?

Mr. Panero: The funny thing about information in the information age is that it tends to be a one-sided affair that wants to move in and leave its stuff at your place even through you're merely friends. Television has somehow gone from welcome visitor to obnoxious roommate you can't get rid of. The internet and weblogs may offer some relief from all this, but the internet risks replacing the one-way conversation with a two-way soundbite. The level of discourse isn't always that much better than what you find on TV.

The need for civilizing discrimination is greater than ever. That's where The New Criterion comes in. Great art is always participatory. It engages the mind and heart in ineluctable ways. The New Criterion treats great art as an occasion for escape and conversation. As for art that is not so great, there's still some great conversation to be had of it. The New Criterion, among other things, is therefore a great deal of fun. Some people have suggested that, as an editor and critic at The New Criterion, I have the greatest job in the world, and they're right.

BC: Before I get any farther, I’d like to bring up the question that everyone’s been waiting for. When you’re working directly with Roger Kimball, can you actually feel yourself becoming smarter? Does one sense neurons multiplying between the ears?

Mr. Panero: That's an experiment waiting to happen. I wouldn't be surprised that if you put Roger Kimball and a lab mouse in the same room, the mouse could eventually quote Wodehouse.

Roger and our colleague David Yezzi and I and recently went in on an old sailboat together. The office conversation now alternates between Matthew Arnold and the merits of caulk. That's what is so likeable about Roger. He's not only intelligent, he's smart. He's got street smarts, which gets reflected in his writing style, and a wicked good sense of humor. If I told you he sleeps only four or five hours a night, is something of a walking Bartlett 's, and is great fun both in and out of the office, would you believe me? Well, it's true.

Roger matches his erudition with a love of practical knowledge. For example, he co-wrote the computer programs we use to produce The New Criterion. Whenever we have a technical question on layout, one call to Roger and it's "tilde, dot ess-ell-pee, backslash, hyphen, backslash, one point two five ess-eye." Right off the top of his head. Another example: Roger bought an iPod a few weeks back. He already knows more about it than any college freshman. So there you go.

BC: How do you describe your view of the world? Would you say that you are a classical liberal? A conservative? Perhaps a traditionalist?

Mr. Panero: I would say that I am James Panero. I would also say that I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes. I would also say that I'm very easy going except when I get worked up.

BC: Is there any point in our even fighting a culture war nowadays anyway? So many people view the world before 1960 as being a collective blur. Is it still possible to interest those with Nintendo attention spans in the achromatic past?

Mr. Panero: One day I plan to write a book titled "Up From Nintendo." I was born into the MTV generation. Now I am member of The New Criterion generation. It seems to me a natural evolution for the self-aware.

BC: Here in Chicago we recently had protesters in town. I tried to get my friend to carry a sign reading, “Question Authority! Be a Conservative!” I think the sign most appropriate for youth in America , and it also strikes me as being an exact fit for your life. You grew up on New York’s Upper West Side, attended Dartmouth and Brown, and must have been criticized at every turn by the limousine liberals around you. Did you find that being surrounded by such opposition made your views more defined and impregnable?

Mr. Panero: If you want to get a sense that liberalism has become the ideology of the geriatric set, spend some time in the Upper West Side of Manhattan . Growing up in the most liberal voting district in the country, I saw it first hand. To me liberalism came to mean matted hair, a self-satisfied disposition mixed with bouts of paranoia, and squeaky shopping carts. How can you not rebel against that? So yes, my nascent conservatism was a form of rebellion. I subscribed to National Review and read it on the M7 bus on the way to school. But at my Upper West Side school, traditional and conservative was the cool way to be. One time my school tried to loosen its dress code, and a number of students formed a "committee on tradition" to bring back the jacket and tie. Of course, I didn't meet conservative children with actual conservative parents until I went to college. For someone to have Republican parents -- that was a revelation to me.

As for my political maturation, liberalism has a remarkable way of turning you off the more you encounter it. At Dartmouth, I was shocked at how liberal, or I should say "illiberal," the Dartmouth administration could be. As a school with a liberal administration and a moderate to conservative student body, Dartmouth's attitude towards its students is nothing short of frightening. I believe that you can at once love a school and loathe its administration, and for those of us who loved Dartmouth there was The Dartmouth Review, the famous independent weekly that is still thriving after a quarter of a century. I joined the Review my freshman year, and I found my own education at that paper, becoming editor my Sophomore spring. The Dartmouth Review, my major in Classics, and my fraternity made for a great four years and left me with a strong sense of what you might call identity. So when I encountered the Mandarin culture of Brown as a graduate student, let's just say that it didn't put that identity in doubt. Instead I applied for a job at The New Criterion.

BC: Brown University must have provided you with an endless stream of politically correct horror stories. Can you share with us something graphic concerning your experiences in the academy? Was it PC that caused you to leave? Do you think that it’s possible for conservatives to succeed at our universities without selling out their ideals?

Mr. Panero: Is it possible for a conservative to succeed at Brown without selling out his ideals? No.

At least as a graduate student, it has become impossible, and that's Brown's loss more than mine. But let me preface that by suggesting that it's nearly impossible for anyone to make it through most graduate programs in the humanities without selling your soul in one way or another. Graduate students are the last vestige of legalized slavery in the Western world, and the sin of slavery hangs over the university. Graduate work has become enfeebling, infantalizing, and self-abnegating -- and believe it or not it's still better than the lecturing jobs you'll get once you graduate. In a speech I gave at Brown a little while ago, I suggested that liberal ideology is at the heart of this increasingly corrupt system. I believe that more than ever. If you want proof that liberals make things worse once they get control of a culture, just compare academia with the real world. Academia has become liberalism's own miserable dystopia. At Brown I probably could have endured the politics. It was the misery of academic life and the mistreatment of my fellow grad students that encouraged me to leave.

If you want more examples of this, read "Pictures from an Institution," my article about Brown in the December 2004 number of The New Criterion.

BC: I once had a professor who, like you, majored in Classics and used to tell us how much it saddened him that the business major and all the hyper-specialization of undergraduate education (pre-law, pre-med, etc.) made his field of study obsolete. What would you say to those who would argue that, in today’s world, it’s economically infeasible to concentrate on the Classics?

Mr. Panero: People divide into two camps. It's possible to tell the two apart by suggesting you majored in Classics. The first camp asks what you intend to do with it. The second camp says they wish they had majored in Classics too. For the small percentile of people who actually did major in Classics, we know the advantages the Classics confer. It is an enlightening experience to read something two thousand years old and feel that it could have been written yesterday. Classics puts human experience, especially literary experience, in perspective. As for those people who wonder about the utility of Classics, don't they know that it's nearly impossible to write an original sentence in English without some knowledge of Latin? I suppose many people have become content to work with the facsimiles of language over the original, and I think the results of this decision are obvious. The secret of Classics is that it's the most utilitarian major around. The best law schools and medical schools and banking firms all know this. Have you ever heard of not getting a top job because you majored in Classics? Never.

BC: Mr. Panero, there are a great many ideas and individuals who fall under the general heading of “conservative.” You once had this to say about a heroic writer of our age and his weblog:

But these encomia are bittersweet, for we must bid adieu to a longtime blogroller and TNC ally Bernard Chapin. His Chapin Nation regretfully stole our idea for running tawdry pictures of pin-up girls between blogposts, and we just can't have that. Bernard, you will be hearing from our lawyers.  

Now I have to ask here, is not the unashamed gaze at scantily dressed women the most conservative and traditional thing that one can do nowadays? Think of the heteronormative implications. There are legions of activists at Harvard who are eagerly awaiting your answer with bullhorns and placards at their asexual sides.

Mr. Panero: Look. First off, Robert Bork reads my weblog. Can you imagine Robert Bork clicking over to a pinup girl? I'd rather not think of it. Second, I'm all for normative social relationships. I wish our culture was more like Italian opera and less like German opera. But I also believe that pinup girls belong on the nosecones of fighter planes and not on intellectual weblogs. As a corollary to this, you should know there's a girl at Dartmouth right now who has a pin-up of Hilton Kramer on her dorm-room wall. Think of the heteronormative implications in that!

BC: Lastly, for your fellow book lovers, what recommendations do you have for us? What are your all-time favorite works?

Mr. Panero: My favorite book is the Bible and my favorite author is Jesus. My second favorite book is Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Melville was a New Yorker, and I think you need to be a native New Yorker to get his super dry wit. Moby-Dick is the funniest book I've ever read. Suggest that to most people and they think you're nuts. But I know whence I speak, because Herman Melville just happened to be reincarnated as my father, and my father is just about as funny as the great white whale featured in Melville's classic tale. My third favorite book is not a book at all: It's my subscription to The New Criterion.

BC: Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Panero.

Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at bchapafl@hotmail.com.

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