Friday, July 27, 2012

An Old Criterion

What do you think about quoting Henry Kissinger addressing a group of fellow conservatives? The June New Criterion features Kissinger’s remarks at “the inaugural Edmund Burke Award for Service to Culture and Society at The New Criterion’s 30th Anniversary Gala in New York City on April 26th, 2012 (“The Limits of Universalism," The New Criterion, 6/2012)  Those who hate The New Criterion should remember that T.S. Eliot, the author of a wonderful essay about the impersonality of the artist, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” was the editor of The Criterion after which The New Criterion is ostensibly named. For Eliot haters, this fact will only fuel fire over The New Criterion’s often procrustean traditionalism. The talk is an attempt to adjudicate what Kissinger calls “a family quarrel” between neoconservatives who aim to import democracy and Burkean conservatives who take a more gradualist approach.  “For Burke,” Kissinger remarks, "society was both an inheritance and a point of departure” and he goes on to further quote Burke who argues that it’s better to follow a cautionary path that “leads us to acquiesce in some qualified plan that does not come up to the full perfection of the abstract idea, than to push for the more perfect which cannot be attained without tearing to pieces the whole contexture of the commonwealth.”  Kissinger points out that Burke  “sympathized with the American Revolution because he considered it a natural evolution of English liberties” and “opposed the French Revolution, which he believed wrecked…the prospect of organic growth.” Even though he’s quoting Burke, the tone is admiring and it’s odd at this late date to be making value judgments about something which next to the Russian Revolution is a virtual primer in Hegelian dialectics. But Kissinger invokes the same Burke quote about acquiescence twice in his speech and he also uses Burke’s argument as a way of distinguishing the organic approach it avers from "Realpolik” or the supposedly idealist or value orientated approach that some of his neoconservative colleagues support. Which brings us back to Eliot and tradition. Turns out Eliot and Burke had lot in common.

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