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The Future of the European Past


The dazzling accomplishments of Western science and modern capitalism have made us vastly richer with an unparalleled degree of personal and political liberty, yet the moral and cultural achievements of European civilization — the very achievements that underwrite our prosperity and give meaning and purpose to our liberty — are everywhere under attack.


Writing in 1790, Edmund Burke reflected sadly on the likely consequences of the French Revolution and its wide-ranging attack on the legacy of the European past. Although the Terror was still more than two years off, Burke already saw the abyss into which the Revolution threatened to precipitate the accumulated cultural, moral, and political achievements that together made up what he called the glory of Europe. When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, Burke wrote, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment we have no compass to govern us; nor can we know distinctly to what port we steer.

Now all is to be changed...All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

Against the ruthless innovations of unanchored novelty, Burke commended the deliberate resources of the European past: a check to unseemly haste, a prop for irremediable incapacity, a guide and tutor for stubborn passions. Tradition is one word for this moral repository; prejudice was the word that Burke tended to favor. To modern ears, perhaps nothing in Burke sounds stranger than his praise of prejudice; for us, prejudice means enmity unschooled by reason. But for Burke, prejudice had a positive charge. It signified above all the distilled spontaneity of tradition. Prejudices were those pre-judgments that helped to render a man's virtue his habit by educating the pulse of feeling, civilizing manners, instinct, taste, and sensibility. As Burke understood, at issue was not so much the direction of reason as cultivation of the reasons of the heart, without which, he warned, we are condemned to the anarchy of moral weightlessness.

As we approach the year 2000 and a new millennium, Burke's premonitions gain a new urgency. The dazzling accomplishments of Western science and modern capitalism have made us vastly richer and technologically more competent than any society in history, while the institutions of liberal democracy have secured us an unparalleled degree of personal and political liberty. At the same time, however, the moral and cultural achievements of European civilization the very achievements that underwrite our prosperity and give meaning and purpose to our liberty are everywhere under attack.

In Notes towards a Definition of Culture, T. S. Eliot remarked that culture described simply as that which makes life worth living. The disturbing truth is that the vital commitments and (in Burke's sense) prejudices that nourish and perpetuate culture are in a state of advanced decay. In virtually every precinct of cultural life, latitudinarian political imperatives, abetted by the dead weight of historical ignorance, have worked like a corrosive acid, distorting and disfiguring the legacy of our European past. In American colleges and universities, the European past from the time of the Greeks on down is under indictment on charges of racism, sexism, and sundry other violations of politically correct standards of social policy. Institutions that once served as proud custodians of European cultural traditions art museums, theaters, opera houses, ballet companies have similarly come under fire for failing to meet the new political standards, and have hastened to alter their programs and productions accordingly. In the offices of every publication that engages in intellectual pursuits from mass-circulation newspapers and magazines to small-circulation critical reviews and academic journals the discussion of the European past has likewise become, in effect, a battleground for mapping out the future of our own culture.

The very concept of a liberal arts education is, of course, an invention of the European past. So is the idea of liberal democracy. This is why our universities and arts institutions have historically regarded themselves as the intellectual guardians of the Western tradition. Yet in the face of a concerted political assault from radical multiculturalists, on the one hand, and left-wing historical revisionists, on the other, the traditional priority given to the European past in American cultural life has been made an issue of fierce and contentious debate not only in the classroom, the museums, and on the stages of our performing arts institutions, but in the halls of our legislatures and even in our courts of law. What is being demanded in the name of political correctness is nothing less than a sweeping repeal of our own cultural past insofar as it is seen to have been unduly Eurocentric a term that has been transformed from a badge of honor into an accusatorial epithet.

In Europe, meanwhile, political and cultural developments raise many questions about the ability of our European contemporaries to deal with a debilitating crisis of confidence in regard to their own most exalted traditions. Immigration from the Third World, the war in Bosnia, and the spread of religious fanaticism have made the authority of Europe's cultural traditions problematic to Europe itself. So has the widespread embrace of the most debased varieties of American popular culture. The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the loss of faith in the welfare state in at least some parts of Western Europe have created great opportunities for a renewal of Europe. And yet, as David Pryce-Jones argues in his essay Ancient Ghosts Stir, the very concept of a centralized European community now threatens Europe with a form of bureaucratic collectivism that bears some dismaying resemblances to the totalitarian systems that have made so much of Europe's history in this century a nightmare.

With Islamic fundamentalism advancing from the East, a supra-welfare bureaucracy emerging from Brussels, a decadent popular culture everywhere annihilating custom, morals, and tradition, and newly inflamed ancient ethnic hatreds attempting to fill every spiritual void, it is not at all clear how much longer even Europe can hope to remain Eurocentric in its fundamental cultural loyalties.

It was in the hope of clarifying the prospects for European culture our culture as we approach the millennium that The New Criterion undertook this series of ten essays on the future of the European past. Our goal was primarily one of cultural diagnosis: What are the symptoms of our current crisis? What attitudes and policies have encouraged its development? What resources do we command to address it? The result is not a systematic analysis but a group of snapshots taken from various angles. Some of the essays deal with the fate of particular disciplines or art forms classical music, the study of the Greek and Roman classics, art history others deal more broadly with cultural-political trends in various segments of American and European society. As with any such collaborative portrait, readers will discover important differences of emphasis, perspective, and opinion among the contributions to this volume. But although there is no unanimity of opinion in these essays, there are some recurrent themes and concerns.

One recurrent theme is the ubiquity and destructive influence of pop culture. As John Gross observes in Knocking about the Ruins, many of the ingredients of the common brew will be tediously familiar to Americans; most of them, indeed, are American in origin. Rock, rap, Rollerblades; Disney and McDonald's; Quentin Tarantino, Beavis and Butt-head, Michael Jackson; and, if you want a handy symbol to sum up the whole phenomenon, you couldn't do much better, for the moment, than the ubiquitous baseball cap...

There is, of course, nothing new about the enormous impact of American popular culture in Europe. It is a story as old as Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley; as old as Phineas T. Barnum (and in some respects, let it be said, a tribute to the superior energy and efficiency of the American product). But two things have changed over the past generation or so. First, Europeans have become more adept at generating mass entertainment and catering for mass consumption, in a manner which may still ultimately derive from American models but is far from merely imitative. (The Beatles were an obvious landmark here.) Secondly, pop culture is now so pervasive that it is thought of as being international rather than primarily American. There is much less transatlantic glamour attaching to it than there once was. It is part of the air that everybody breathes.

The inescapability of popular culture is one problem. Its increasing perniciousness is another. Anyone concerned about the future of the European past must view the accelerating degradation and viciousness of even mainstream popular culture with alarm. The widespread dumbing down of pop culture and its glorification of violence, sexual pathology, and hedonistic consumerism are disturbing symptoms of a culture that has gone dangerously astray.

The problem is not simply the everyday life of pop culture bad though that is. In some ways even more worrisome is the acceptance, indeed the celebration, of pop culture even in its most mindless and corrupting manifestations by intellectuals. Already in the 1950's, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt noted in The Crisis in Culture that the chief danger to society came not from the purveyors of popular culture but from a special kind of intellectual, often well read and well informed, whose sole function is to organize, disseminate, and change cultural objects in order to persuade the masses that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and perhaps educational as well. There are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say.

Arendt wrote at a time when this process was only beginning to make itself felt. Today the special kind of intellectual she describes has become the norm, bent not only on transforming all culture into a form of entertainment but also on erasing the very distinction between high culture and entertainment. These are points upon which Mark Steyn reflects in his essay Present-Tense Culture.

It's not that pop stars want to be intellectuals, but that intellectuals want to be pop stars a uniquely contemporary crisis. The threat to the European past comes not from mass vulgarization but from elite vulgarization. The most popular forms of contemporary culture Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, The Bridges of Madison County, Whitney Houston and Celine Dion ballads are unchanged in their bourgeois sentimental efficiency from their equivalents a hundred years ago. What's different is that, whereas a century ago our betters were telling us to put down our parlor ballads for Mozart and Beethoven, now they tell us we should be listening to Rapeman or Suicide.

Everywhere one turns, distinctions are erased: between high and low, accomplished and mediocre, better and worse, proper and improper. It's not simply that rap lyrics are elevated in status to the point where they are now studied in colleges alongside Shakespeare (absurd and destructive though that development admittedly is): no, even as rap music is elevated, Shakespeare is downgraded by the imperatives of social history. Shakespeare, too, must be regarded as another cultural text, not essentially different from and certainly not essentially better than a rap lyric.

One might describe this process as the universalization of the democratic impulse: applying democratic imperatives to the cultural realm as well as to the political realm. In fact, though, it is not so much the universalization of democracy we are witnessing as its trivialization. Cultural egalitarianism transforms equality into the enemy instead of the companion of excellence. As the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut noted in his book La Defaite de la pensee (The Undoing of Thought),

The artist used to be at war with the Philistine. Today, for fear of being tainted with elitism or with failing to meet the elementary requirements of the democratic outlook, your intellectual abases himself before the power-hungry world of show-business, or fashion, or advertising. The extraordinarily rapid transformation of ministers of cultural affairs into administrators concerned with entertainment as such, passes without comment.

In other words, what we have witnessed is an epidemic of intellectual slumming: a failure of principle that is at the same time a corruption of sensibility. The pseudo-Dionysian appeal of rock music and the drug culture that accompanied its rapid triumph throughout the world has played an important and still incompletely appreciated role in this cultural degringolade, helping to legitimize novel forms of hedonistic abandon and undermining salutary habits of restraint and emotional delicacy.

The future of the European past is threatened in other ways as well. A second recurring theme in these essays concerns the prospects of traditional humanistic inquiry and the study of languages it presupposes. In Possessing the Golden Key, the classicist John Herington argues that

in the last resort it is language that lies nearest to the heart, whatever society, whatever literature is under study. The future integrity of classical studies, if not their survival, depends ultimately on the future of Greek and Latin learning. Only if such learning continues can we look forward to genuine, firsthand research, or count on the honesty of future translations. Much the same, of course, will apply to the study of any of the other great national literatures that have arisen on the European continent; the future of the European past generally seems to be bound up with the future of language studies.

As anyone familiar with the state of academic research in the humanities today knows, we are faced with an increasingly grave crisis of literacy. Indeed, the crisis is twofold. Not only is there a widespread failure of literacy on the rudimentary level more and more people are simply unable to read and write competently but also there is a corruption of language at the highest levels that amounts to a new form of elite illiteracy. Answering to the brute illiteracy of the masses is the polysyllabic illiteracy of the overeducated. Aggravating both sorts of illiteracy are the host of seductive technological innovations that, notwithstanding their undeniable power as tools of communication, threaten to undermine literacy even further by undermining the primacy of our commitment to language and literature. Anyone who sets out to predict any aspect of future society, Mr. Herington points out, must begin by acknowledging that we are now in the midst of a cultural transition compared to which the transitions from oral to written literature, and from manuscript to print, may prove to have been quite minor affairs. When the elementary schools are being wired for the Internet, who knows what is about to happen, for good or ill, to the entire educational and social structure? Is the book likely to preserve its primacy, or even, in the long run, its existence as an instrument of education or entertainment? Will the word (whether spoken or printed or just looming greenly on a computer screen) be able to make headway against the roaring torrent of visual images?

The essays in this volume (several of which have been revised and expanded since they first appeared in The New Criterion) cover a great many topics, from the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe to the corruption of historical studies under the influence of cultural studies, deconstruction, and other efforts to blur the distinction between historical fact and fiction. If there is an element common to them all, it is a concern with what Burke might have called the rehabilitation of prejudice: the rehabilitation of those unspoken commitments and modes of feeling that link us with the past, not as something dead and behind us, but as the surest source of strength for what lies ahead.



Kramer, Hilton and Richard Kimball. "Introduction." The Future of the European Past, 3-8. Grand Rapids, MI: Ivan R. Dee Publishers, 1997.

Reprinted by permission of Ivan R. Dee, Publisher. The Future of the European Past, copyright 1997 by Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball ISBN 1-56663-178-5, can be ordered direct by calling 1-800-462-6420.

The Author

Hilton Kramer is the editor of The New Criterion and author of The Age of the Avant-Garde and The Revenge of the Philistines, and Abstract Art: A Cultural History. He writes the weekly Media Watch column for the New York Post.

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Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and an art critic for the London Spectator. Mr. Kimball is the author of Tenured Radicals, Revised: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, Experiments Against Reality: The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age, The Survival of Culture: Permanent Values in a Virtual Age, Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity, The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America, and Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse. He is a frequent contributor to many publications including The Times Literary Supplement, Modern Painters, Literary Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Public Interest, Commentary, The Spectator, The New York Times Book Review, The Sunday Telegraph, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, National Review, and The National Interest.

Copyright © 1997 Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball
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