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.