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September 05, 2007

Christie Davies has rarely found a collection of articles as interesting and valuable as those selected from the New Criterion and published as Counterpoints: Counterpoints - Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer

Posted by Christie Davies

Counterpoints: Twenty-Five Years of the New Criterion on Culture and the Arts
edited by Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer
Pp. 500. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007
Hardback, £22.99

Counterpoints is a truly splendid book. I could not put it down until I had read all, well nearly all, the forty-two essays on culture and the arts that it contains. It is wonderful to own a copy since you can annotate it; mine is now biro laden. It is the best of the best, an excellent selection from a leading, American edited journal, but with very strong British contributions. I call it a journal because of the high seriousness of the contents but it is not academic in the bad sense. The essays are aimed at the general cultured and intelligent reader not the specialist and are admirably clear. Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer deserve our congratulations, as does the publisher Ivan R. Dee. I feel suddenly cheerful to discover in an age of published trivia, dull academic writing and political correctness that thought is still alive and well.

The British Dimension
Many of the British contributors will already be familiar to regular readers of the Social Affairs Unit Web Review, notably the erudite Kenneth Minogue and the two celebrated medical intellectuals, the cultured Anthony Daniels from France and his severe Scottish counterpart Theodore Dalrymple.

Here too are American writers of similar winning clarity, often also writing about very British topics, as when Brooke Allen writes about Simon Raven, Roger Kimball on John Buchan, Ben Downing on Patrick Leigh Fermor, or John Derbyshire about Aldous Huxley, who remained a British subject to the end of his life, an end eased by LSD. I had not realized until now that his application for American citizenship had been turned down because he was a non-religious pacifist. A Quaker or a Mennonite can become American, but at that time, the McCarran era, Huxley's ethical objections to the military, rooted in his "metaphysical" outlook or in a secular ethic, were not acceptable grounds for not being willing to fight for the nation into which you sought to be inducted. Perhaps we should make our own would-be immigrants say in advance that they have no objection to serving in our armed forces. In Huxley's case, given that he was old and that his very bad eyesight had kept him out of World War I and qualified him to teach at Eton instead, it seems a bit excessive. Yet the Americans immigration controls were greatly superior to those they have today. The same is true of Britain as we can see from Mark Steyn's It's the Demography, stupid, and Roger Scruton's Enoch Powell: Should he have spoken? Scruton would not be permitted to express such views in Belgium. So much for freedom of speech in Europe.

Freedom of Speech, Christians and Muslims
Despite Robert H. Bork's well-expressed doubts about the way the American Supreme Court has extended the meaning of the First Amendment in his fine essay Adversary Jurisprudence, we could do with First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech in Europe. In the Netherlands and Sweden clergy have been arrested for expressing traditional Christian teachings on homosexuality. Their views may be abhorrent, but in a free society they deserve to be tolerated in the same way that we tolerated the appalling lies of the communist, Eric Hobsbawm, here wonderfully excoriated by David Pryce-Jones.

It is also curious that the denouncers of the Christians are quite happy to view benignly the sundry Islamic spokesmen in Europe who believe in the literal truth of the Koran, including its condemnation of sodomy; sodomites and catamites are still liable to imprisonment, flogging and expulsion in many Muslim countries and they soon will be in Europe, once immigration and low Christian birth-rates bring about a Muslim majority. It is curious how most militant gay campaigners - with exceptions such as the brave Peter Tatchell - are unable or unwilling to see this and certainly afraid to say so.

Likewise the village atheists of the Dawkins variety, as Kenneth Minogue shows in "Christophobia" and the West, restrict their attacks to Christianity (and its Jewish father), even though it offers no threat to them - and indeed in a largely secular society has little power. Joseph McCabe must be chuckling in his grave. There is, as Minogue points out, a peculiar contrast between the

extraordinary solicitude for Islamic sensibilities
among certain western intellectuals and their
insouciant clobbering of Christian totems.
It is partly that Christians, however offended, feel that it would be bad form to murder even the most vicious critics of the beliefs that are central to their identity but it is also linked to these intellectuals' hatred of the West, a historically Christian civilization.

Nonsense at the Smithsonian
We can see this again in Heather McDonald's Revisionist Lust, an essay on the politically correct attempts to distort and destroy the Smithsonian Museums in Washington DC, a great American institution founded with British money. Even the natural history exhibits were relabeled by feminists because the dioramas made the male animals look dominant, as with one particular family of stuffed lions. Given that the King of the Beasts leaves the females to do most of the work, they may have a point - even though they do not know what it is. The leonine idyll is to be found in many villages in rural Africa, where the men initially clear the ground where crops will be planted, but then leave the women to do all the agricultural work, while they sit around and chat. It was only the arrival of the meddling and oppressive Europeans with their mines and offices and zeal for building roads and railroads that disturbed this Eden for Adams. I am not sure how this fits the official Smithsonian view propounded by one Mary Jo Arnoldi that:

we have to make sure to let people know there are as many Africans working in science labs as are working in the fields.
Assuming that the word "Africans" includes women as well as men (how could she even think otherwise?), this is quite simply a lie. Africa has many fields and very few laboratories. Nor are there many Africans working in science outside Africa. An easy way to check is to look at the names of the authors of science articles in leading periodicals and see how many of them are African. My guess is that there will be very few indeed, in marked contrast to other categories of non-European names such as Indian, Chinese, Japanese or Korean. This would remain true even when other variables were held constant. What is more, it is not going to change much over the next twenty years. It is very dangerous for the Smithsonian to mislead visitors in this way. What Africa needs most of all is to have the developed countries open their markets to African agricultural produce and to have laboratory scientists in other countries do research on African problems such as tropical disease. If people believe Africa is full of scientists, rather than backward peasants, they will be disinclined to help in either respect.

Heather MacDonald has discovered other nonsense at the Smithsonian such as Barbara Clark (or Clark Smith) on equality of the sexes among the Iroquois. MacDonald asks:

Whom is she kidding?
Does Clark really believe that
gender roles were less rigid among the bloody Iroquois than in England or America?

Much feminist scholarship is dishonest in this way. It regards the peoples of the world with simpler technologies not as an interesting study in themselves but as a source of weapons with which to attack modern, scientific "patriarchal", capitalist societies. Look at their reading lists and you will still find Margaret Mead's study of Samoa but not the subsequent studies of Samoan society that show that Dr Mead began incompetent and ended crooked. The Samoans themselves find her work offensive. Surely that in itself is enough to get it deleted from any P.C. reading list? Also since we know she screwed up in Samoa, why should we trust Mead's accounts of sex roles in different tribes in New Guinea that purport to show that they are infinitely malleable. Men and women differ in their very essence and this sets limits to the ways in which any particular society can be organized.

But wait, here is a "we" story.

Our Cherokee story is one of balance - men and women, animals and plants, complementing each other's lives.
This statement is, as Macdonald says, as vacuous as the message in a Chinese fortune cookie, though I must apologize to our Chinese readers for the comparison. For all I know, there is a hidden wisdom in fortune cookies that is clearly lacking in the Smithsonian. Even if such a balance ever existed, which may be doubted, the Cherokees soon went civilized. They took up Western agriculture, devised their own alphabet and owned black slaves. I am still waiting for the Cherokees to be fully compensated for the value of the slaves expropriated when their state was annexed by Andrew Jackson, who seems to have been the first imperialist neo-con Jackson to invade for democracy.

Appreciations and Denunciations
Many of the essays in this volume are either appreciations of the work of a particular individual or denunciations of their faults. Both are valuable but the denunciations are more satisfying. Praise for a good thinker's work is always of necessity inadequate and incomplete but the destruction of a bad one can be final. When someone is right it is difficult to assess the extent of their achievement but when someone is wrong they are wrong.

Among those whose works and lives are appreciated are F. R. Leavis, Lord Acton, Paul Valėry and T. S. Eliot, as well as those mentioned earlier.

But it is the denunciations that delight. Here are Keith Windschuttle on the hypocrisy of Noam Chomsky and Anthony Daniels on his fellow psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, from which I learned of the murder of Oscar Kambona's son by the Tanzanian secret services, a matter never property investigated by the British authorities. Wonderful stories of evil, of Hydes rather than Jekylls, though the Caledonian Dalrymple might argue that many of them are "justified" sinners.

James Franklin on Thomas Kuhn's Irrationalism: a superb essay
But for sheer analytical destructiveness give me James Franklin on Thomas Kuhn's Irrationalism, which not only undercuts Kuhn's absurdities about the way science evolves but adds in a good critique of "social constructionism". Social constructionism implies that scientific laws are nothing more than social constructs, working agreements among scientists, little different from the compacts and conspiracies of diplomats, lawyers, art critics, feminists, structuralists, Foucauldians or exponents of queer theory.

There can be no doubt but that science is a social construct and that perceptions of a particular finding or theory change over time - but so what? Science is radically different from other mere social constructs. If the police are not looking, you can break the speed limit with impunity but no motorist on the M1 can evade the laws of motion or gravity. We could tomorrow, in principle, replace our legal system with sharia law, ban feminism on pain of death and declare all international treaties void. The adjustments required might be painful and morally doubtful but that is all. You cannot dispense with science in the same way since its rules are external to us. Apart from anything else the material world would soon clobber you and you would not be able to argue your way out of it. As Galileo (cited by Franklin) put it:

If what we are discussing were a point of law or of the humanities in which neither true nor false exists, one might trust in subtlety of mind and readiness of tongue and in the greater experience of the writers, and expect him who excelled in those things to make his reasoning more plausible, and one might judge it to be the best. But in natural sciences whose conclusions are true and necessary and have nothing to do with human will, one must take care not to place oneself in the defense of error; for there a thousand Demosthenes and a thousand Aristotles would be left in the lurch….
Such a view is not welcome to those in the humanities and they worship Kuhn, a historian of science, because he seems to have reversed Galileo and to have put the scholastics back in a position of equality. Franklin has checked the Arts and Humanities Citation Index for 1976-1983 and found that the most cited work was Thomas Kuhn's 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It was still doing well in 1999. Given that most of those citing it have neither the ability nor the training to understand Kuhn's work, their reverential treatment of it is very odd indeed. That it is Al Gore's favourite book adds a touch of low comedy as well.

Franklin has an excellent explanation:

The basic content of Kuhn's book can be inferred simply by asking: what would the humanities want said about science? Once the question is asked, the answer is obvious. Kuhn's thesis is that scientific theories are no better than ones in the humanities. [In other words science too] is all theoretical talk and negotiation which never really establishes anything.
If I may, I will add two points with which I think Franklin agrees. First the problem lies not in the humanities as such, which are a worthwhile object of study, but in the "theories" they have generated, which are not testable, nor falsifiable and whose practitioners provide no reasoned criteria for deciding between them when they differ. Worse still the practitioners of these theories are quite unable to see that this is a problem. Very often the theory is driven only by what a group wants, which is a very good reason for being sceptical of its value. Why dress up "want" statements in obscure abstractions?

Second, when faced with criticism, Kuhn has denied the more radical interpretations of his work, though in ways that are evasive and ambiguous.

It is because of these evasions and ambiguities that Franklin is forced to provide us with what he calls a "caricature" of what Kuhn actually said:

A caricature of his opinion is this: a science, say astronomy, is dominated for a long period by a "paradigm"….. Most work is on "normal science", the solving of standard problems in terms of the reigning paradigm. But anomalies - results the paradigm cannot explain - accumulate and eventually make the paradigm unsustainable. The science enters a new phase as a new paradigm…… comes to seem more plausible. Defenders of the old order, who cannot accommodate the change and usually cannot even understand the concepts in which it is expressed, gradually die out and the new paradigm is left in control of the field.
If all that is meant by this is that the advance of science can at times be jerky and that from time to time a particular once well-accepted theory is superseded and discarded, then what Kuhn has said could be reasonable but there is nothing very original about it.

But even so, most of the time this is not what happens. There is a continuous, cumulative and progressive advance in scientific knowledge, something that is not true of the humanities or the dodgier social "sciences". If I am asked whether the chemistry of today is superior to that of 1900, I can say with very considerable though not total certainty that it is and that by far the greater part of the advances are never going to be reversed. Science is not an arbitrary lurching from one fashionable fad to another in the way that, say, social theory or literary theory are. Quite frankly who gives a drat today about the once much talked about Talcott Parsons or Lėvi-Strauss or about "structuration", yet the contemporary excitements that have superseded them are no more profitable.

By contrast, much of the physics or chemistry in textbooks for secondary schools today is not very different from what was taught a generation ago but it is still valid. It may be incomplete but it still works, a point that is fudged by Kuhn's supporters. By contrast "theories" developed outside science end up in the dustbin of courses on intellectual history. They are often interesting and worthy of study but we rightly afford them a lower status.

Franklin again makes the point very clearly:

Further reasons for Kuhn's success are not hard to find. He gave permission to anyone who wished to comment on science to ignore completely the large numbers of sciences which undoubtedly are progressive accumulations of established results - sciences like ophthalmology, oceanography, operations research and ornithology to keep to just one letter of the alphabet. That certainly saved a lot of effort. Kuhn's theory also had a special appeal to social scientists. Political scientists, sociologists and anthropologists recognized Kuhn's picture of disciplines putting the accumulation of evidence to the background while putting to the fore fights about theory; they were delighted to hear that what had previously been thought an embarrassment was the way it was done in the most respectable sciences.
I think I can add something to Franklin's account at this point, since I once tried to ask why it is that some sciences at particular junctures seem, albeit very rarely, to undergo "scientific revolutions" and others progress without any significant disruptions. My article was published in Biology and Human Affairs, vol. 53, No. 2, 1988 pp. 64-75. It is not a pukka academic piece but it contains enough of interest for the curious to wish to seek it out on inter-library loan - I doubt if it exists in electronic form.

My hypothesis is that logjams happen in the steady flow of science, when it becomes necessary to challenge not just a scientific "paradigm" but the sense of the fixity of things derived from everyday experience. For these reasons it must have been difficult for many to accept at the time that the earth goes round the sun and spins on its own axis. It doesn't feel like that. Likewise to be told that length and distance, mass and time are not in fact constants is a challenge not just to physics but to our sense of how the world impinges on us. The same is true of the evolution of species or continental drift.

When such changes also involve the upsetting of fundamental social beliefs and institutions, there is even more of a problem. American geologists in the period before plate tectonics stubbornly refused to accept the idea of continental drift, despite the strong evidence for it, because it would have eliminated the sacred and eternal gap between the corrupt Old World and the New World of cities on the hill. By contrast when Dalton's dictum "Thou can not split an atom" was overturned, no-one cared very much, even though Avogadro and Arrhenius had earlier had problems being heard because of the shadow of Dalton's authority. The idea of the atom as billiard ball is not part of the "feel" of the world, nor has anyone a social investment in it. By contrast, look at the intense opposition to the well-established thesis that the massive differences in general intelligence between individuals are largely innate.

In saying this I am not denying that, purely incidentally, a scientific view on a complex matter is a social construct; look for example at the way the so-called consensus on global warming was constructed. On balance of probabilities I am willing to go along with the warmers, but, if a bookmaker were to give me very good odds, I would be willing to bet a modest sum of money against their being right. By contrast I would not bet at anything at all, whatever the odds, on the proposition that the overall achievements of chemistry of the last hundred years will turn out to be wrong. Social constructionists say to me, "But you can't be absolutely certain". I don't need to be. I merely need to be far more certain than I am of other forms of knowledge. Science is not a matter of faith but of reasoned probabilities. But you should, indeed must, read Franklin.

The Progressives turn against Science
It is very curious how the progressive mind has turned against science. They loved using Darwin to bash Christian fundamentalists, and revelled in Comptean positivism; many physical scientists even adopted "scientific" Marxism because it purported to use the same kinds of models they did.

But then the leftists realized to their horror that science was a key factor first in the triumph of the West over competing civilizations and then in the victory of capitalism over socialism. One of their responses has been, as Kenneth Minogue shows, to go Olympian and to try to snap the connections. The other is the absurd relativism of the Smithsonian under a Mr Robert Sullivan as quoted by Heather MacDonald:

He announced breezily on his arrival that the "western scientific-anthropological world view is merely one more alternative way of knowing and encoding the world, no more valuable or accurate, no less ideological or culture-bound, than any other".
It is very doubtful whether the holder of such opinions is a fit person to run a museum. A western scientific view of the world may or may not be more "valuable" than the alternatives but it is certainly more accurate. Perhaps those who live in a magic garden are happier or more spiritual than those whose world lacks these enchantments but to live in such a garden is to be far more culture-bound. Their understanding of the natural and material world is grossly inferior to ours. Our problem is the opposite; we are not sufficiently culture bound and we live in a disenchanted world. The further assault on our beliefs, traditions and history by the anti-Smithsonizers will only make matters worse.

Long may the New Criterion Flourish
The New Criterion is undoubtedly a key defender of the intellectual and artistic legacy of Western civilization. Our culture, what's left of it, needs to be defended both from the ultra-modernists who have no respect for any legacy whatsoever and the western multi-culturalists who respect all legacies (however meagre) except their own. Long may the New Criterion flourish. Counterpoints is a good indication that it will.

Dr Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain.

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This is most interesting. Regarding the Kuhn bit, I have never got hold of the philosophy of science, being too busy actually doing it. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t rule out allowing sociologists to study how scientists interact while they do what they do. Here is a series of three interesting books by Harry M. Collins and Trevor Pinch:

The Golem: What You Should Know about Science (Canto) 
The Golem at Large: What You Should Know About Technology 
Dr. Golem: How to Think about Medicine

The second of these has an excellent chapter on how AIDS activists overrode the stumblebummery of the scientific-medical establishment in the USA in order to get approval for the treatments they needed. But now we come to:

traditional Christian teachings on homosexuality. Their views may be abhorrent

Abhorrent to whom? I doubt if the Neds or Swedes are advocating the persecution of homosexuals as seems to happen in Africa, where the traditional tribal abhorrence of homosexuality (also shared by Prof. Davies’s Celtic ancestors, according to Tacitus) is backed by clergy quoting Leviticus. But even in that most modern of societies, the US of A, one does not have to be religious to dislike man-on-man. I see reference to John Derbyshire (a most “kosher” right-wing contributor to the National Review Online), who has written on this matter in a article entitled The Abolition of Sex. (Incidentally, Derbyshire has written a most excellent book Unknown Quantity: a Real and Imaginary History of Algebra. This is the only book which can explain higher algebra to one such as myself who only knows the lower algebra.) Moreover, imagine a tale in which the Fairy Godmother, in addition to blessing the newborn with good looks, intelligence and wealth, were also to make him/her LGBT.

As Prof Davies himself explains in “The Strange Death of Moral Britain”, the traditional British abhorrence of homosexuality is based on two factors. One is the military view that it’s not good for the military (try telling that to the Ancient Greeks). The other is that the French were very much into it. Now that strikes me as a very good reason. As it says in Philippians 3:19;

Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.

Now St. Paul was writing that about certain individuals, but don’t the middle two just describe the French National Character? Nowadays lots of people admire self-destructors such as Jimi Hendrix, but it was in French literature from a previous century that, I think, one found glorification of death by V.D.

So why doth the venerable Professor keep slamming on at Leviticus? Is it, perhaps, something to do with his predilection for gay porn which he has manifested in quite a few articles on this very website?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at September 11, 2007 08:45 PM

"... and the two celebrated medical intellectuals, the cultured Anthony Daniels from France and his severe Scottish counterpart Theodore Dalrymple."

Pardon me? Somebody tell him, please! Or tell me ... which one of us is suffering from delusions?

Posted by: Frank Pulley at September 23, 2007 11:14 AM
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