books  book review

 The Fortunes of Permanence
 by Roger Kimball

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise Reviewed by T. Nelson

R oger Kimball seems like one of those wild and crazy bowtie-wearing, stay-up-until-nine-o'clock, ultra-sober literary guys, more of a traditionalist in the mold of Roger Scruton than a typical conservative. But, like Scruton, he's amazingly well educated about culture as well as political history. Post-modern art and architecture, he suggests, are more to be pitied than hated; the poor devils have run out of boundaries to transgress. Their products are not much more than the (in some cases literal) pieces of carp that comprise them; they have become boring and predictable—visual evidence, Kimball would probably say, of the unsoundness and barrenness of their philosophy.

So it is with Marxism, which is the main focus of this collection of essays. Kimball says Marxism is “as wrong as it is possible for a theory to be wrong.” Yet despite 100 years of failure and mountains of dead bodies, the idea that humans can engineer a better world by forcibly eliminating inequality is still clinging to life. Kimball asks: Why do so many intellectuals still subscribe to these sentimentally appealing but provably unsound ideals?

Each chapter discusses this question from the point of view of a different thinker: G. K. Chesterton, John Buchan, Rudyard Kipling, Richard Weaver (the author of Ideas Have Consequences), and others. These writers all understood that building a utopia based on a false understanding of human nature is doomed to miserable failure, and said so in courageous and articulate ways.

Marxism may be dead at the moment, but it has the darndest habit of coming back to life. The impulse to build an egalitarian system exists today in the form of political correctness and feel-good leftism. In “What's Wrong With Benevolence” Kimball gets to the psychology of it. He says benevolence makes the purveyor of benevolence feel better—more smug and more self-righteous. Where else, other than government, he asks, are the pleasures of smug self-righteousness to be had for so little cost? By getting big government to do the work, the liberal can make others pay to make him feel smug. In return the government gets what governments always want: to become bigger.

In the chapter “Does Shame Have a Future?” Roger Kimball critiques an article written by a college professor named Martha Nussbaum discussing the practice of forcing ex-cons to post signs in front of their residence advertising that a child molester, or a burglar, or a sign thief, or whatever, “lives here.” His point of view is reminiscent of James Kirchick, writing in last month's Commentary, who decried British papers like the Guardian for carrying Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA, calling it “Treason Chic.”

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The Commentary article was wrong-headed in many ways, not least because it tried to throw cold water on the gradual awakening on the Left that big government can be as oppressive in the West as it was under Communism. We should blow on the faint embers of Constitutionalism among the left when we find them, not stamp them out. They are too rare.

In the same way, Kimball applauds the public humiliation of criminals by saying “By calling attention to a criminal violation of human dignity, the law reinforces the ideal of human dignity” [p. 163]. It seems to me that both Kimball and Nussbaum are missing the point here. One measure of the worth of a society is how we treat our criminals. We're proud of the fact that we don't torture them or work them to death in labor camps. Nussbaum appears to have said quite a number of wacky things, like suggesting that necrophilia should be legalized, and that having a personal computer is a basic human right. But on this one issue it might just be she was trying, however clumsily, to make a valid legal point. Inflicting unusual, degrading punishments on people who already paid their debt to society, and inventing new punishments because of emotional feelings of disgust or rage toward the perpetrator, can only undermine the concept of justice. The future of our civilization depends as much on living up to our ideals as on winning the battle of ideas.

In the battle against feel-good ideology, at least, Kimball says the story of William Godwin gives us hope. Godwin's ideas of abolition of private property inspired Malthus to refute them. Malthus in turn inspired Charles Darwin. Today no one remembers Godwin, and Darwin's ideas are widely accepted.

Kimball believes the only way to defeat socialism is with the pen: “Socialism will be conquered to the extent that egalitarianism is conquered.“ [p.255] “The hunger for equality is among mankind's most brutal passions ... The rise of political correctness has redistributed that lust over a new roster of issues: not the proletariat, but the environment; not the struggling masses, but ‘reproductive freedom.’” Despite some apparent victories, the fight against ideas represented by nice-sounding words like egalitarianism that, in reality, mean their opposite, is still the biggest challenge we face.

sep 30 2013