It’s the culture, stupid: its art, its history, its philosophy. Mike Walsh is on it.
My thesis is simple: we can learn more about the nature and practice of politics from, say, The Oresteia or The Aeneid—to give just two examples more than two millennia old—than we can from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and that the visit of Vladimir Horowitz to the Soviet Union in April 1986 (about which I wrote a cover story for Time magazine) did more to hasten the collapse of the USSR five years later than all the white papers and policy statements from the American talking-head establishment wonks of the day.
The new book is more prescriptive—a kind of how-to combat manual of cultural touchstones from which we as inheritors of the Greco-Roman enlightenment can recollect our strengths and moral authority, reject the false equivalences of multiculturalism, accept that Western syncretism (known disparagingly now as “cultural appropriation”) is something profoundly good and beneficial to all cultures, and from which we can draw a renewed vigor in our defense of ourselves.
In Monday’s speech in the beautiful new Visitor Center, I located a signal change in the Western education system that, at the time, looked like an advance: the American reaction to the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Suddenly, America felt it was losing its technological edge over the Soviets so American schoolchildren became acquainted en masse with the wonders and joys of the slide rule and the hard sciences. The effect was immediate: we quickly regained and maintained our advantage over our antagonists, but it came with a price: the downgrading of the importance of the arts as a civilizing and ennobling force in American public (and private) life.
So while the emphasis on tech eventually resulted in the creation of the personal computer and the iPhone, it also reduced the literary and plastic arts from essential elements of nationhood to “entertainments” for the wealthy; triggered the coarsening of society and, worst of all, cut both America and, shortly thereafter, the Western European nations from the wellsprings of their shared patrimony. This may not entirely have been by design, but it was seized upon by the nascent philosophy of the Frankfurt School, which by this time had been transplanted from pre-Nazi Germany to Columbia University in Manhattan and quickly spread throughout the American system of higher education.
The result? To take just one example, the New York City public school system went from offering a model education in music and the arts to needing police officers in the schools—a reflection of the overall changes in demography, to be sure, but also of the decivilizing effect the loss of a democratized high culture entails. More Mozart, fewer metal detectors…
In The Fiery Angel, I am not arguing that the arts should be politicized—that way lies the corpse of the old Soviet Union (and this is treated at some length in the chapter entitled “The Raft of the Medusa”). Rather, I am saying that the arts both predict and comment upon historical-political developments in ways that no dispassionate analysis can manage. Try this sequence of events on for size:
Beaumarchais–Mozart–The French Revolution–Beethoven–Napoleon. From Le Marriage de Figarothe play, to Le nozze di Figaro the opera, to the start of the French Revolution and fall of Louis XVI is a span of only five years, and yet in that time the royal edifice was first lampooned, then sexualized, and finally pulled down around the aristocrats’ ears. Those with sensitive antennae—among them Louis XVI himself, who initially forbade public performances of Beaumarchais’ play—could see what was coming. Most could not.
Our Progressivist-run government schools have thoroughly perverted and politicized the history curriculum, “balancing” any notion of American greatness, uniqueness, and benignity (when those notions aren’t excised altogether) with immaterial nonsense like “Washington owned slaves!” and other such irrelevancies, and that’s no accident. It’s resoundingly evident that any lasting reversal of the cultural enervation the Left has deliberately inflicted on us must begin with instilling a proper appreciation for Western civilization, its achievements, and the intellectual and artistic roots of its unprecedented success in young minds.