Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come merely from habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of error left over for experiment however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on. ... The work of preserving society is sometimes onerous, sometimes almost effortless. The more elaborate the society, the more vulnerable it is to attack, and the more complete its collapse in case of defeat. At a time like the present it is notably precarious. If it falls, we shall see not merely the dissolution of a few joint-stock corporations, but of the spiritual and material achievements of our history.
In the realm of arts, letters, and ideas, the New Criterion has labored valiantly to defeat barbarism, or at least to hold it at bay, or at the very least to alert us to its assault. Often caustic and polemical, it is almost always wittily so. The New Criterion debunks the fashionable fatuities produced by neophiliac passions.
Which brings me to one of my favorite stories, told by the magazine's founding editor, Hilton Kramer. He was for years the culture editor for the New York Times and each week there was a meeting of editors. Each week, invariably, the top editor, whom I will call Max, would begin by asking, "Hilton, what's new?" After years of this, one week Hilton answered, "Max, nothing is new." Without skipping a beat, the editor responded, "Hilton, is that a trend?" Please join me in raising a toast to the next twenty-five years of the New Criterion.
It was the perennial question of whether you effect needed change by working "within the system" or by taking a stand apart from it. This gifted young man was determined to take the former course, achieving a position of influence and affluence which he could then use to advance his cherished ideals.
I offered the caution, by no means original, that, when one grows accustomed to compromise, he might, upon achieving the desired position, forget what it was that he intended to do with it. I wish I had remembered at the time this gem by Jean Cocteau: "Too many milieux injure an adaptable sensibility. There was once a chameleon whose owner, to keep it warm, put it on a gaudy Scottish plaid. The chameleon died of fatigue."
The above items are from "The Public Square" in a forthcoming issue of First Things. To become a subscriber, click here.