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Conservatism and Multiculturalism

Winter/Spring 2011 - Vol. 53, Nos. 1 - 2


This editor's note appears in the Winter-Spring 2011 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


Contemporary Western society is bedeviled by a dilemma largely of its own making: the intractable contradictions of multiculturalism. We are the beneficiaries of a culture created largely by many generations of our ancestors that has resulted in unparalleled wealth, comfort, freedom, and artistic and intellectual attainment. The privilege of being born into such a world, however, has generated in many men and women not gratitude but rather a sense of entitlement mingled with resentment and guilt. The denigration of achievements of the founders of Western civilization and of its characteristic institutions, so typical of academic and political discourse over the past several decades, serves to assuage the moral discomfort of the recipients of a great cultural heritage, which, along with the benefits it confers, demands deep respect and a heightened sense of responsibility. It is hard to feel that one truly deserves the opportunity of living in a world of such material abundance and spiritual richness; it is daunting to stand erect under the burden of preserving such a legacy. There is, no doubt, a certain emotional relief in assuming an attitude of patronizing disdain towards the men and women who made possible the extraordinarily affluent world of Western civilization with all its imaginative and intellectual possibilities; and to condemn it on behalf of non-Western cultures, which have somehow, supposedly, been cheated out of their rightful glory by the ascendancy of the West, offers the satisfaction of sanctimonious virtue at a very economical price. The only flaw in this plan is that few of the West’s domestic critics are keen to relinquish the conveniences and personal latitude it provides, so the moral anxiety only returns in a different form.

Nowadays the most prominent object of multicultural deference is Islam. The progressive elite of the West rarely misses an opportunity to admonish the less enlightened members of the civilization, with their residual Christianity, for ignorant intolerance of Islam and bigoted abuse of Muslims. Regrettably, Islam, either as a religion or as a political society, hardly fits the profile of multicultural diversity and tolerance advocated by its self-appointed defenders. Hence the dilemma, which has resulted in the devising of a Utopian myth of Islamic history: during the Middle Ages, Muslim civilization was a beacon of intellectual and artistic attainment and cosmopolitan sophistication in contrast to the ignorance and barbarism of medieval Christendom, whose emergence from the “Dark Ages” almost wholly depended on the benign influence of Islamic culture. In what we regard as a very important essay, Dario Fernandez-Morera confronts a specific example of this myth, the idealization of the seven-century Moorish domination of the Iberian Peninsula. Fernandez-Morera provides an array of historical facts and insightful arguments that demonstrate how the influence went in the other direction: it was the Romanized Visigothic kingdom, defeated and obliterated by Islamic invaders, which furnished the inspiration and the elements of the cultural achievements of the latter—including both the materials and the key architectural features of the famous mosque in Córdoba.

Of course, the multicultural temptation is by no means an innovation of the late twentieth century. Moshe Roshwald provides a subtle account of the deleterious effect of excessive cosmopolitanism on the spiritual condition of the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), one of the most remarkable literary figures of the nineteenth century. By his own account, his alienation from the faith of his fathers, from his native Germany (he is buried in Montmartre in Paris), from his romantic poetic roots—all contributed to a spirit of Zerrissenheit, or inner conflict. Roshwald leaves the final judgment to the reader, but it seems undeniable that Heine embodies a poignant instance of the personal cost of noncommittal detachment from faith and culture.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, the forces of dissolution—political, cultural, and spiritual—had intensified in manifold ways. Michael M. Jordan reconsiders the catastrophic abandonment of the classic literary works of the Western tradition in the interest of cultural diversity in education. What Jordan adds to the by now familiar laments over curricular decline is the proposition that the “great books” do not function in an intellectual and spiritual vacuum. He recommends that a great books education embody a specifically Christian orientation, that these classic works be taught as temporal exemplars of the Logos.

T. W. Hendricks’s discussion of the biblical poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson invites us to see how a major American poet of the twentieth century maintains the traditional relationship between Western literature and the Sacred Scriptures that are the foundation of the Western civilization. Hendricks’s detailed treatment of the specifically biblical elements of formal poems by a traditional poet writing on overtly Christian themes defies the protocols of politically correct multiculturalism, which seeks to homogenize spiritual experience, aesthetic response, and moral virtues into a mélange of indistinguishable and indifferent ingredients. Hendricks’s interpretation of Robinson’s biblical poetry reminds us that the distinctiveness of literary works is the source of their power and meaning. The distinctions among poets embody cultural differences and reinforce our sense of the difference this makes.

If conservatives are to wage war against multicultural dissolution successfully, then we must have a firm grasp of what it is that is worth conserving. Jack Kerwick raises in provocative fashion the issue of defining conservatism in his spirited defense of Michael Oakeshott’s version against the strictures of Irving Kristol. According to Kerwick, Kristol’s understanding of the United States as a “creedal nation” based on an ideology rather than a tradition hardly counts as conservatism at all. While Kerwick’s argument is likely to be controversial, the points he urges deserve to be debated thoroughly: how far can we maintain, in the face of an ideological demand for diversity, a culture founded altogether on abstract propositions rather than on the stability of concrete custom?

Perhaps we may consider as an oblique contribution to this debate a set of three essays in this issue offered as a tribute to the memory of the journal’s former editor, the late George A. Panichas, who passed away in the spring last year. Jeffrey Folks takes a broad view of Panichas’s principles as a moralist and cultural critic, Bruce Frohnen considers him specifically as a literary critic, and my essay is a reflection upon his work as an editor—which has meant so much to me as his successor at Modern Age. Remembering George Panichas is a way of reminding ourselves that conservatism is best defined in the life and work of the men and women who have dedicated themselves to defending the moral, spiritual, and intellectual legacy of the West.

In our “Commentary” section, Grant Havers recalls the work of another exemplary conservative of the twentieth century, Wilmoore Kendall. I also especially commend in this section William Carroll’s concise and lucid explanation of the difference between Creation, as it is conceived in theological and metaphysical terms in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and scientific investigations of the “Big Bang” that are the currently be carried out at the recently completed Large Hadron Collider on the Franco-Swiss border.

The reviews in this issue of Modern Age deal with a widely diverse group of topics, but each review in some fashion places the book under consideration in the context of the unique civilization of the Western world. The very diversity of perspective that is available within the Western tradition implicitly signals the folly of multicultural ideologues in their effort to impose superficial, politically factitious variety upon a society that by its nature already accommodates more profound differences of interest, outlook, and commitment than any other culture or polity. E pluribus unum is a fitting motto not only for the United States but also of the civilization that is its foundation. Finally, we are delighted to offer three arresting sonnets by Mark Amorose, which deploy a traditional poetic form to dramatize two exemplary figures from the early Christian centuries and to reflect upon a Christian sacrament so as to mark their abiding relevance for our lives today. —RVY