Descent of the adversary culture

Dartmouth Professor of English Jeffrey Hart opened my mind to the great tradition and more during the four years I was his student. A long-time senior editor at National Review, Professor Hart contributed “The secession of the intellectuals” to NR’s 15th anniversary issue in 1970. Thinking of Power Line’s own 15th anniversary a few years back, I returned to that essay. NR editor Rich Lowry kindly arranged for the publication of the essay online to help us celebrate the occasion.

The essay hit me with the force of revelation at the time. Some of the contemporary references date the piece. The situation described in 1970 has deteriorated considerably over the past 50 years, yet the essay pierces to the heart of the matter and the heart of the matter abides. Making the necessary changes, the essay reads like it could have been written yesterday. Here is the opening:

At a patriotic rally in Seville during the Spanish Civil War the founder of the Foreign Legion, General Millan Astray, a colorful and frequently wounded figure, made a speech that has long been remembered. His climactic utterance has been variously reported, but he seems to have shouted “Abajo la intellegentsia!”—Down with the intelligentsia! Doubtless the general was caught up in the tumultuous enthusiasm of the rally; nevertheless, he gives you, as they say, something to think about, for his words point to the special, the peculiar moral problem of the intelligentsia, or, as we would be more likely to say, the intellectuals — i.e., their habitually antagonistic, and sometimes even treasonous, relationship to their social setting, to their surrounding society.

This settled antagonism, this spirit of inner defection, exists in its most concentrated form in the academy (the only American institution, let us note, that is entirely run by liberals, and, not coincidentally, the institution furthest along toward disintegration). But the attitude spreads out beyond the academic foci and affects those who participate in one way or another in what we can very broadly call intellectual culture: the media, the arts, publishing. Madison Avenue and so forth. The key assumption — it may be powerful and aggressive, or muted though still very much there — is that all insight, imagination, refinement, all spirituality even, spring from, or at least are inextricable from, an initial nay-saying to the surrounding society: to the Babbitts, the boobs, the “alumni,” the Legionnaires and TV watchers, the whole array of insensate philistinery. When the negation is felt with special force, distance can lend enchantment to the alien and to the actual enemy: to Che, the Vietcong, Ho. The negation can become treasonous. Abroad, our enemies are always somehow admirable, our allies (a shrinking group) always corrupt, despicable, laughable — for after all they are connected with America. At home, the Panther and the SDSer become sympathetic figures.

For the “Black Panthers” reference substitute “Black Lives Matter.” For “Students for a Democratic Society” (SDS) substitute “Antifa.”

Professor Hart remarks in his penultimate paragraph:

The dominance of this kind of sensibility in the educated classes of our society is surely cause for alarm, since it cannot but follow that those who lose their grip on the reality of the world will shortly lose the world itself: the world cannot be governed by sentimental illusions. Poor fools, one cannot but sigh, poor fools, the barbarians will make short work of you.

Professor Hart concludes:

The antidote, surely, lies in the various modes of recovering a sense of the reality of the world. The foundation, perhaps, should be the recovery of a sense of history. Without the materials of historical comparison, observes Daniel Boorstin, “we are left with nothing but abstractions, nothing but baseless utopias to compare ourselves with. No wonder, then, that so many of our distraught citizens libel us as the worst nation in the world, or the bane of human history (as some of our noisiest young people and a few disoriented Negroes tell us). For we have wandered out of history. And all in the name of virtue and social conscience. We have lost interest in the real examples from the human past which alone can help us shape standards of the humanly possible.” And besides the historical sense, both imaginative literature and rational analysis can be restorative. It is through the imagination, after all, that we form our “images” of the world, and when the imagination operates powerfully those images correspond in an intimate way with the reality. And it also seems to me vital to reassert the claims of rational analysis, that spirit of skepticism which clears away the illusions that veil the reality and corrupt the judgment.

Our friend Kathy Kersten updates the situation described here in her brilliant First Things essay “Adversary culture in 2020.” The essay is published in the February 2021 print edition of First Things. We will return to it when it emerges from the First Things paywall.

Notice: All comments are subject to moderation. Our comments are intended to be a forum for civil discourse bearing on the subject under discussion. Commenters who stray beyond the bounds of civility or employ what we deem gratuitous vulgarity in a comment — including, but not limited to, “s***,” “f***,” “a*******,” or one of their many variants — will be banned without further notice in the sole discretion of the site moderator.