Temporal Provincialism

Our reader Robert, a.k.a. Whitewall, posted in the comment-thread to our previous post a link to an editorial piece from The New Criterion (by way of Instapundit; the original is here). It deserves promotion from comment to post.

The piece, which is presumably by Roger Kimball, the editor of New Criterion, uses a beautiful phrase — “temporal provincialism” — to describe our culture’s vanishing sense of cultural stewardship.

Mr. Kimball, who is writing here on the occasion of the magazine’s thirty-fifth anniversary, quotes George Nash on the transmission of civilization from generation to generation:

For three generations now, American conservatives have committed themselves to defending the intellectual and spiritual foundations of Western civilization: the resources needed for a free and humane existence. Conservatives know that we all start out in life as “rough beasts” who need to be educated for liberty and virtue if we are to secure their blessings.

The essay continues:

That pedagogical task has traditionally been the province of many institutions, the family first of all, but also schools, churches, and those multifarious cultural enterprises to which we have entrusted the preservation and transmission of the civilizational values that have defined us. It is one of the oddities of our age that many of those institutions not only have reneged on that trust but also now operate more to challenge and undermine our cultural patrimony than to preserve it. The virus of political correctness, a protean and multifaceted pathogen, has provided the fuel for that subversion. So thoroughly has political correctness infested our cultural and educational institutions that simply telling the truth about many historical or cultural realities has become a perilous act of dissent. To document this phenomenon, you need only visit your local college or art museum.

… Santayana once famously remarked that those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it. Perhaps. But he could have added that those who are ignorant of the past condemn themselves to an impoverishing spiritual parochialism. This is a point made with crisp elegance by the British man of letters David Cecil. “There is a provinciality in time as well as in space,” he wrote in Library Looking-Glass.

To feel ill-at-ease and out of place except in one’s own period is to be a provincial in time. But he who has learned to look at life through the eyes of Chaucer, of Donne, of Pope, and of Thomas Hardy is freed from this limitation. He has become a cosmopolitan of the ages, and can regard his own period with the detachment which is a necessary foundation of wisdom.

It has become increasingly clear as the imperatives of political correctness make ever greater inroads against free speech and the perquisites of dispassionate inquiry that the battle against this provinciality of time is one of the central cultural tasks of our age. It is a battle from which the traditional trustees of civilization—schools and colleges, museums, many churches—have fled. Increasingly, it has seemed to us, the responsibility for defending those “intellectual and spiritual foundations of Western civilization” of which George Nash spoke has fallen to individuals and institutions that are largely distant from, when they are not indeed explicitly disenfranchised from, the dominant cultural establishment. Leading universities today command tax-exempt endowments in the tens of billions of dollars. But it is by no means clear, notwithstanding the prestige they confer upon their graduates, whether they do anything to challenge the temporal provinciality of their charges. No, let us emend that: it is blindingly clear that they do everything in their considerable power to reinforce that provinciality, not least by their slavish capitulation to the dictates of the enslaving presentism of political correctness.

There is more; please go and read it.

I had never heard the phrase “temporal provincialism”, but it is a first-rate coinage. The idea it expresses, though, is one that I have written about before. Because I see it as a pathological narrowing of the channels through which the life-blood of the past flows into the present and the future, I’ve called it “historical stenosis”. And in the sense that the present is always being born from the womb of history, it has also reminded me of the tying off of an umbilicus — though that is really far too optimistic a metaphor. A far better one is the cutting of a flower.

In Culture and Metaculture, back in 2013, I made this gloomy assessment:

Our new “culture” has lost its sense of extension in time. Under modernity’s ascendant doctrine, the long history of the West is only a litany of sins, deserving not propagation, but repudiation. We have no legacy, no heritage, to cherish for posterity; we have pulled up our own roots. If our new American “culture” has any history worth remembering at all, it is no more than a few decades old, and consists almost entirely of the destruction of the past.

In our “brave new world”, then, we are cut off from both past and future, imprisoned in the present as no generation of people has ever been before. We have lost — jettisoned — both our rudder and our compass, and are unmoored and adrift.

Earlier this year, I added:

Until now, every generation of every civilization saw itself as a living bridge between past and future — as heirs and beneficiaries of the productive labor of their forebears, and stewards of that treasure for children yet unborn. But now, having pulled up our roots (and salted the earth from which they sprang), we have no inheritance to cherish and preserve; that which we have not simply squandered, we have taught ourselves to despise. We have, therefore, nothing to offer our posterity, and so if we think of it at all, it is only to turn away in guilt, and to focus on what we can take for ourselves right now.

… It’s often been said that civilization is, at bottom, the organization of “low time preference”: the deferral of present consumption to take advantage of the increase of the relative value of future goods. But in order for that strategy to work, one has to be confident in a stable future. When things change too rapidly, and we can no longer be sure that our efforts today stand a reasonable chance of bearing fruit in later years, it drives time preference toward the present. And that, in turn, undermines the very foundation upon which civilization is erected.

So when a civilization becomes unstable, or when the pace of change becomes too rapid, there is a cascading time-preference effect, a kind of negative-feedback loop that begins to take hold.

All of these things, then, work together: multiculturalism, through a process of historical “stenosis”, severs the past; this loss of heritage, in turn, diminishes a society’s sense of obligation to its ancestors, and stewardship for its descendants; rapid technological and social change diminishes the surety of the future. All of this drives time-preference toward the present — which manifests itself in hedonism, present consumption, loss of social cohesion (why pull together when there’s nothing to pull for?), and declining birth-rates. Finally, the foreshortening of time-preference attacks the bedrock of civilization itself, in an accelerating, destructive cycle.

Can we escape from this downward spiral? Perhaps — but as our commenter Robert said in the previous thread, a “forceful reaction has become necessary”. Time, and entropy, are not on our side.

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14 Comments

  1. Kevin Kim says

    “a forceful reaction has become necessary”

    I can agree with the basic sentiment, but a forceful reaction taking what form? Aren’t we primarily talking about the need for a change in thinking and values, i.e., the need for internal work? Or are we talking more externally in terms of physical overthrow—revolution and large-scale violence? Or is it some combination of the internal and the external?

    Posted September 1, 2016 at 7:46 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Key question, Kevin.

    The very first thing that’s needed, as Kimball says in his essay, is to overcome the fear of swimming against the current: to be willing to say that the Emperor has no clothes.

    From the beginning, our response at The New Criterion has been twofold. There was, first, a polemical side to our interventions. If we discovered an emperor without clothes—the absurdities of “deconstruction” in the 1980s, for example, and the many kindred academic and cultural deformations of more recent years—we did not hesitate to describe his nakedness.

    The Trump candidacy seems to have been, in this regard, a very important and encouraging breakthrough.

    Posted September 1, 2016 at 8:04 pm | Permalink
  3. If we continue down this path of “foreshortening of time-preference”, then sooner or later, everyone will realize it is time to cut and run. The “cut” will manifest itself as “take all your winners” and the “run” will be from your blood-thirsty descendants who will have been “robbed” of their inheritance and their own futures. It won’t be pretty.

    But hey, it’s what passes for “progress” these days. So how’s that hopey-dopey working for ya, Lefty?

    Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:11 pm | Permalink
  4. Whitewall says

    “Can we escape from this downward spiral?” Kevin in the first response above may have part of the answer–internal work (thinking and values). With more attention being given the SJW movements on college campi and the betrayal by professors and administrators of our Western Civ. heritage…parents and taxpayers have responded by cutting off funds and limiting budgets of these institutions. My wife and I have slammed our check books shut on our respective alma maters and told them why. Turns out we aren’t alone. We have condemned our schools for being too cowardly by not inviting conservative scholars to speak. We and others have openly condemned the coddling of campus “brown shirts” and their intolerance of opposing ideas. In some ways, today is a “play the record backwards” of the 1950s and 1960s speaker ban laws that were in force on so many campi. My state-NC-had one in the 1960s to keep communist speakers off campus. This brought about a war among pols and editors. The law was overturned.

    Another part of the answer may be more activist and overt with the possibility of confrontation involved. We see this sort of thing from the Left and it is almost expected and accepted. At some point, the Left will not have the streets to themselves. These leftists are enabled by academics, politicians and media people. Confront the enablers constantly with their shame and cowardice. Make it a never ending crescendo. Those who get traction in our culture seem to do so loudly and successfully. This sort of thing can be difficult for the inexperienced but it will be necessary, if for no other reason than forestalling the day when a different sort of faction will appear who will act in ways that most of us never want to witness. This faction will demand their own identity if everyone else is allowed an identity.

    Hopefully, if history is any guide, Leftist “success” will speed up their demise and those who are the opposition will have a ready audience. I don’t know if the alternative to failed Leftism will be a movement, a party, or maybe a unique individual, but there will be something.

    Posted September 2, 2016 at 9:59 am | Permalink
  5. JK says

    Holy ‘overcoming the fear of swimming against the current’ Batman, here’s David Frum. Writing in The Atlantic.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/what-was-so-shocking-about-trumps-immigration-speech/498386/

    Posted September 2, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  6. Whitewall says

    Frum’s article is devastatingly true and I’m sure won’t be allowed to be true. It and he will have to be attacked. This brief synopsis by Frum can easily be a main thrust of Conservatives with any guts, All Alt-Right speakers and writers or just average people to push back hard against the open borders crowd. A prime opportunity. Clear, clean and simple.

    Posted September 2, 2016 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  7. Whitewall says

    By gosh, I have some good company today: from Instapundit…
    “Yes, and it’s not just Democrats. But I see on Twitter that (Frank)Bruni’s getting a lot of butthurt reactions from the left. Because the truth hurts. And the truth is that the political establishments of both parties, and the media (but I repeat myself) have let down the American people through a failure of self-discipline and a want of responsibility. Now the bill is coming due, and Trump is just the first, smallest installment.”

    “Tea Party people were polite, and were betrayed and demonized. Trump supporters are angry, and are betrayed and demonized. What comes next?”

    Posted at 12:29 pm by Glenn Reynold

    Posted September 2, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  8. Frum’s article is about truth that is manifest. Hence, it is essentially pointless. Because manifest!

    There are 2 kinds of people in our society — those who acknowledge manifest truth, and Leftists.

    Well, OK. There is a third kind — those who need to look up the word “manifest” in the dictionary, but won’t. Because 0bamaphone.

    Posted September 2, 2016 at 3:10 pm | Permalink
  9. JK says

    Yeah, essentially

    http://www.factcheck.org/2009/10/the-obama-phone/

    but it is, handy shorthand.

    Posted September 2, 2016 at 3:23 pm | Permalink
  10. https://youtu.be/tpAOwJvTOio

    Manifest destiny.

    Posted September 2, 2016 at 5:58 pm | Permalink
  11. antiquarian says

    I see things similarly. A temporal cosmopolitan might see that as human beings become wealthier in the societal sense– that is, in the sense of requiring fewer hours of work to purchase basic goods needed to live– they become more leisurely and happier on average. When that happens, people are more willing to listen to the arguments of the Left. Expressed in reverse, the difficulty of life in the past– the unavoidability of practicality– was a great force assisting conservative arguments. Money now intermediates between people and reality.

    The particular conservative argument it previously helped and which now needs other reinforcement is that human nature is a real and perennially relevant phenomenon even in the face of the ability to talk for pennies with someone on the other side of the earth. That common thread, human nature, explaining human behavior in any era, is what they would learn if they were not temporally provincial. They’ve come to believe that technology has reinvented humanity, and that nothing is therefore impossible. But temporally provincial people are modern Pharisees, so ignorant of history that they’re doomed to repeat it. Some in fact steer themselves or are steered to that ignorance by those who desperately desire to deny the restrictions of human nature on their ambitions and fantasies.

    Posted September 3, 2016 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  12. antiquarian,

    I have written about “the restrictions of human nature” in my blog post:

    On the perfectibility of human nature

    Posted September 3, 2016 at 4:42 pm | Permalink
  13. Whitewall says

    I took a peek at Maverick Philosopher a while ago and saw this being newly recommended…
    http://rightlyconsidered.org/

    It is to be a blog written by philosophers, academics and the like who hold fast to the Right side of issues.

    Posted September 4, 2016 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  14. JK says

    Quick somebody notify the Paki Helicopter Rescue Service to switch the grid to Arizona’s Superstitions.

    http://www.sltrib.com/news/4299045-155/utah-climbers-missing-on-pakistan-mountain

    Posted September 4, 2016 at 12:58 pm | Permalink