A few essays have taken their place in the great tradition as masterpieces of intellectual demolition. Among such classics stands Samuel Johnson’s Review of Soame Jenyns’ A Free Enquiry Into the Nature and Origin of Evil. Jenyns’s “glib optimism” in the face of human suffering (as Walter Jackson Bate called it), and his complacency over the problem that suffering poses to religious belief, struck a nerve. If Johnson knew anything from his own painful experience and deep reflection, he knew that an irreducible element of tragedy inhered in our lives.
Hugh Kenner’s learned essay reviewing John Harrison’s book The Reactionaries followed in Johnson’s footsteps. Kenner’s essay provides the best modern example I know of anger provoking genius into a review that stands on its own as a masterpiece. Kenner was the foremost expositor of literary modernism. In a 1967 book, the forgotten critical mediocrity John Harrison had brought Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Pound, Eliot and Lawrence before the bar of brain-dead left-wing judgment and found them all wanting on political grounds. In his review of Harrison’s book (“The Sleep Machine,” collected in William Buckley’s anthology Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?), Kenner noted that Harrison’s book had been a critical hit among the tastemakers despite Harrison’s utter cluelessness regarding the authors under discussion.
Kenner was not amused. “This fatuity, this ignorance, this silliness, this stark insensibility,” he wrote in his review, “none of it would be worth five minutes’ attention but for the highly symptomatic fact that reviewers paid it no heed at all in their headlong endorsement of Mr. Harrison’s attitudes.” Kenner is sorely missed as the Harrisononian symptoms have developed into the cancer that permeates our culture.
As Johnson did to Jenyns, as Kenner did to Harrison, Heather Mac Donald did to Yale President Peter Salovey in her City Journal essay “The true purpose of the university.” In this essay Mac Donald addressed the “highly symptomatic” piffle of Yale President Peter Salovey. Mac Donald first sketched the farce at Yale:
Of all the Black Lives Matter–inspired protests that were sweeping campuses at that moment, Yale’s shrieking-girl episode was the most grotesque. In reaction, Yale groveled. President Salovey sent around a campus-wide letter declaring that he had never been as “simultaneously moved, challenged, and encouraged by our community—and all the promise it embodies—as in the past two weeks.” He proclaimed the need to work “toward a better, more diverse, and more inclusive Yale”—implying that Yale was not “inclusive” —and thanked students for offering him “the opportunity to listen to and learn from you.” That the shrieking girl had refused to listen to her college master—or to give him an opportunity to speak—was never mentioned; she suffered no known repercussions for her outrageous incivility. Salovey went on to pledge a reinforced “commitment to a campus where hatred and discrimination have no place,” implying that hatred and discrimination currently did have a place at Yale. Salovey announced that the entire administration, including faculty chairs and deans, would receive training on how to combat racism at Yale and reiterated a promise to dump another $50 million into Yale’s already all-consuming diversity efforts.
From the farce at Yale Mac Donald moved on to a general critique of the childish ignorance Salovey defended and perpetuated. She wrote, for example:
If ever there were a narrative worthy of being subjected to “stubborn skepticism,” in Salovey’s words, the claim that Yale was the home of “hatred and discrimination” is it. There is not a single faculty member or administrator at Yale (or any other American college) who does not want minority students to succeed. Yale has been obsessed with what the academy calls “diversity,” trying to admit and hire as many “underrepresented minorities” as it possibly can without totally eviscerating academic standards. There has never been a more tolerant social environment in human history than Yale (and every other American college)—at least if you don’t challenge the reigning political orthodoxies. Any Yale student who thinks himself victimized by the institution is in the throes of a terrible delusion, unable to understand his supreme good fortune in ending up at one of the most august and richly endowed universities in the world.
In the same Johnsonian spirit Victor Davis Hanson took up the case of Emmanuel Macron in “The Mad, Mad Meditations of Monsieur Macron.” He essentially rose to the defense of Donald Trump in his 2018 National Review column addressing Macron’s disquisition on nationalism. Quotable quote: “What makes a Macron reveal his idiocy so candidly, aside from his innate ignorance?”
I think Macron was a stand-in for his ilk shoving their ignorance down our throats every day in the United States. VDH has struck many such blows against President Biden and the Democrats’ revolutionary orthodoxy over the past few years. His historical learning may inspire us further to combat the ignorance in our own ways.
Since then, however, VDH has departed National Review. He discussed his departure with Tucker Carlson last year (video and transcript here).
Now comes Michael Anton to smack down NR in the American Mind column “Reductio ad Hitlerum.” The proximate cause of Anton’s smackdown is Mike Watson’s NR article “Carl Schmitt’s Disappointing American Disciples” (behind NRO’s paywall). Anton is more or less an unnamed drive-by victim (“Claremont published the infamous ‘Flight 93’ essay [by Anton] that implicitly compared American progressives to al-Qaeda”) of Watson in his assessment of the “post-liberal” and/or “common good” right, or something. Watson somehow assimilates Anton and the Claremont Institute into the ostensible subject of his article.
Anton concedes that his response necessarily depends on “abstruse, academic stuff.” However, Anton’s response culminates in this perfectly lucid condemnation of NR:
National Review presents itself as the flagship publication of American conservatism, but then goes around calling conservatives it doesn’t like Nazis. Those who call you Nazis are not your friends but your enemies. No one who is not a fool takes advice from his enemies, or assumes that said advice is well intentioned. It may be useful, even necessary, to know what your enemies are saying about you, but that’s about as far as it goes. In the case of NR, which as best as I can tell no longer has much influence, it doesn’t even go that far.
Whole thing here.