I hardly ever spend time reading books that I'm likely to agree with. In an America where liberalism has been actively hunted for so long, I figure it's more important to know what the other guys are saying and arguing. At the very least--listening to the way that American conservatives think and argue will confirm you in your liberal or progressive worldview. And the views they represent and the justifications they give for them represent a warning. I always appreciate a warning.
Jacques Barzun (who died the other day at the age of 104) received the embrace of American conservatives late in life. Barzun was an American scholar (born in France) who had become one of the leading historians of Western culture by the 1950s. I'm not going to list all his achievements here (a link to his obituary appears below.) But when he reached his nineties he wrote a book summarizing his observations and conclusions about his lifelong study of the cultures of the West (Europe and America.) The book was called "From Dawn to Decadence," and I'm sorry to say that I bought it on remainder. It's a book I thoroughly enjoy, even though I think Barzun's conclusions are wrongheaded.
The structure of book is the story of the ideas, art, and worldviews that Barzun believed were essential for an understanding the development of Western culture over the past 500 years. The order of presentation is basically chronological. But Barzun is willing to leave strict chronology from time to time when doing so makes for clearer explanation. Along the way, he identifies key works to readers who want a deeper understanding of a particular topic or personality. (These aren't footnotes; they're recommendations for further reading that appear in the body of the text.)
Barzun identifies recurrences in Western history in capital letters (so you know that he believes them to be the key recurrences.) These are societal trends, trends in the thinking (such as SELF-CONCIOUSNESS, PRIMITIVISM, and EMANCIPATION) that fall into favor and rise in political and social importance during different historical periods. But the tone of the book is not heavy--it's very readable, enjoyable, and filled with "luminous detail."
I've been reading it for a couple of years. That's what I do when I find a book that I enjoy very much. (The last time I did that was with Gibbon'a "Decline and Fall.") When the subject matter of a book is so rich and so rewarding, and the telling so enjoyable--you don't want it to end.
It's also a frustrating book, and here's the issue. One of the historical experiences that seems to have influenced Barzun's thinking on Western culture was one he lived through personally. This was the crisis of student revolt in the late nineteen-sixties on college campuses across the country--in particular, Columbia University in Manhattan where Barzun was a revered and authoritative figure.
How dare they--how dare these ignoramuses and philistines in their twenties revolt against the experience and authority and knowledge of liberal scholars such as Barzun? I don't think he ever got over it. The very nerve, that they would oppose the Viet Nam war and the draft--and take active measures to take over the campus, taking a dean hostage. The clowns, running the circus! Barzun had chronicled similar incidents in European history, in 1830s France and 1848 Europe--but the idea that such an incident could occur in his lifetime and on his intellectual watch seemed to scare the shit out of him.
And the feeling of persecution of the informed Western mind stayed with him, right through the end of his career. Persecution by philistines and left-wing populists--who wanted to overthrow the genius and advances of Western culture and replace Goethe and Beriioz with pandering crap and comic books. Barzun found kindred souls in Bloom and other conservative academics, who swore up and down that the new academia and Dinesh D'Souzas "tenured radicals" wanted to discard five hundred years of Western culture and replace it with substandard garbage that appealed to the students' life experience.
And that's the flaw in Barzun's take on the fate of the West. The threats to the legacy of the West come from what he called the PRIMITIVISM of the world's fundamentalists--the evangelical fundamentalists of America who would subordinate empirical findings of science to their own religious doctrine; who would subordinate the vision of individual artists to their twenty-first century conservative religio-political interpretation of the Bible. The threats to the Western legacy consist of the twenty-first century conflation of Chinese market reform with their Western philosophy of Marxism and Soviet totalitarianism. The threats to the Western legacy include its rejection by fundamentalist Islam.
But Barzun's identification of threats to the Western legacy (with the modern liberal state, "the tyranny of students," the demand for political correctness) is late twentieth century academic provincialism; a localized joke. Those "forces" are among the weakest in modern cultural life. They're what he saw in the groves of American academia. But they're nothing compared to the conservative media that tend to support Barzun's siege mentality about the questioning of priority for "dead white European males."
Barzun cites Edmund Burke as the greatest political thinker of the late eighteenth century. Edmund Burke was not the greatest political thinker of the late eighteenth century. Edmund Burke was (as we say in New Jersey) a fuckin' douchebag who said true and penetrating things on occasion. No one outside the conservative movement cites Burke or his thought as an inspiration for practical governance or a model for the modern Western nation/state. The greatest political thinkers of the eighteenth century West were found in pre-Revolutionary America: Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton (and possibly James Madison.) They combined a passion for reform, liberty and popular representation with practical statesmanship.
Those are still the goals of the modern Western state and its propaganda. Propaganda is not necessarily a bad term. Propaganda that aims at inclusion of the views and interests of political minorities (and majorities in some cases) is a good thing. it's not a sign of decline. It's a sign of Western progress. It's a sign of increasing faith in the power of representative democracy to improve the lot of humanity.
At one point Barzun identifies democracy as "majority rule," but it's not that simple. Western democracy (in particular American democracy) calls for majority rule while at the same time protecting the maximum rights of the individual to pursue his or her expression or happiness. It's not simple, it's complicated--and the practical results are often ugly and unjust. But it's time-honored and thoroughly contemporary; it's a goal that's still worthy of pursuit--not a sign of "decline."
As more people struggle for inclusion in the Western democratic model, cultural xenophobia rises. Will these people who want their views heard and enforced "ruin" the Western experiment? Maybe so, if your view of the apotheosis of Western culture is Mozart and Berlioz and the Romanticists--Western culture as the object of rebellion within the existing parameters of the Western culture.
But to a large degree, Western culture is "about" rebellion against existing Western culture. Barzun's magnum opus looks at Western culture and sees decline in the twentieth century...because at the end of the end of that century Western academia and culture begin to voice doubt about the value of the legacy of the past five hundred years.
Barzun didn't have confidence in the West and its pluralism to produce a new and vital culture, based on inclusion of voices that the Western cultural elites had intentionally ignored in his lifetime (for alleged lack of technique or relevance.) He didn't see vitality or intelligence in the modern West's acknowledgment of its boredom. He didn't see the vitality in the modern West's quest for political stability and economic security for its citizens. He didn't see vitality in the attempts of minority cultures to preserve and honor their own legacies. He didn't see the vitality of the struggle for inclusion and relevance by people whose interests and voices had been marginalized during the five hundred years he analyzed--and how that struggle persists in the present day.
Those goals are all worthy goals for humanity. You weigh those goals against Barzun's identifications of the greatest achievements of the greatest minds in Western culture--and you find them just as worthy, if not more. They're not a sign of the "decadence" of Western culture. They're a sign of its advance.
LINK: NYT's obituary for Jacques Barzun: "Jacques Barzun Dies at 104; Cultural Critic Saw the Sun Setting on the West"