This essay on The New Criterion by George Scialabba (
not our own Scott McLemee, thank you very muchmisattribution now corrected) has been getting some recent attention because it says harsh things along the way about cultural diversity. Although Scialabba certainly doesn’t like the culturalist left very much, his discussion of its problems are a class of a diversion on the way to the main argument of the piece, which concerns the problems of the cultural conservatives who criticize them.
the New Criterionists sometimes boast that they and not the multiculturalists are the true democrats, applying to themselves Arnold’s words in Culture and Anarchy “The men of culture are the true apostles of equality. [They] are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of the society to the other, the best ideas of their time.” But it is a hollow boast. Arnold freely acknowledged, as Kramer and Kimball do not, the dependence of spiritual equality on at least a rough, approximate material equality.
in these and other passages Arnold demonstrated his humane moral imagination and democratic good faith. Kramer and Kimball have yet to demonstrate theirs. Finally, there is the complicated matter of disinterestedness, or intellectual conscience. That both Kramer and Kimball would sooner die than fake a fact or twist a quote, I do not doubt. But disinterestedness is something larger, finer, rarer than that. To perceive as readily and pursue as energetically the difficulties of one’s own position as those of one’s opponent’s; to take pains to discover, and present fully, the genuine problem that one’s opponent is, however futilely, addressing—this is disinterestedness as Arnold understood it.
Arnold thought he had found a splendid example of it in Burke who, at the close of his last attack on the French Revolution, nevertheless conceded some doubts about the wisdom of opposing to the bitter end the new spirit of the age. …I wish I could imagine someday praising Kramer and Kimball in such terms. But alas, I know nothing more un-New-Criterion-ish.
This, and other essays, are collected in Scialabba’s new book, which is just out (I got my copy yesterday), and which I can’t recommend highly enough. This bit, on Robert Conquest, has the quality of the best aphorisms:
It may be a delusion, as Conquest repeats endlessly, to imagine that state power can ever create a just society. But one reason some people are perennially tempted to try is that private power is generally so comfortable with unjust ones.
I’d enjoyed Scialabba’s essays very much when I read them individually, but to be properly appreciated, they should be read together. NB also that Scott, while entirely innocent of the essay quoted above, did write the introduction to the new volume.