In a most interesting critique of an essay by Roger Kimball in his blog “Word and Silence,” Tim Miller raises some interesting questions about the role of the critic in today’s society. Since I regard myself as a social critic of sorts — certainly not of the stature of Robert Kimball — I was intrigued. Miller confesses that he has been “behind enemy lines” in reading Kimball’s essay in The New Criterion, a conservative publication. (Heavens, what next!) But it is best to know what the devil is up to, as I am sure Miller would attest.
In any event, while he hesitates to follow Kimball in embracing Donald Trump (as I do), Miller tends to be sympathetic with many of Kimball’s criticisms of contemporary society. But, in the end, he has a problem with Kimball’s concern that we have lost sight of any sense of authority. Also, he insists that there never was a golden age in which everything was hunky-dory and that whatever bed we have made for ourselves we had best learn how to lie in it. Those are my words, by the way. Miller takes more words to say the same thing much more eloquently.
In any event, I am inspired to raise the question of just what the role of the critic is in today’s world. To be sure, it is not a popular one. Folks would generally prefer to keep their collective heads in the sand and not think about what is going on around them. I do think that Kimball is right and that something went terribly wrong in the 1960s when the kids took over, American society became child-centered, and the attack on the “Establishment” (which was long overdue and richly deserved) resulted in tossing out far too much of lasting value in what we loosely call “high culture.” Much needed to be changed, to be sure, but declaring open war on anyone over 30 and on all of Western Civilization was marginally stupid, to say the least.
In the end, the critic simply asks us to open our eyes and see what is going on around us. My blog posts are not overly popular, and I understand that. No one wants to read some old curmudgeon in Minnesota carping about the wrongs around him, especially if those woes are not generally acknowledged by those who are busy making money and having as good a time as possible. The glass is half full, many would say, and they don’t want to read some guy telling them that it is really half empty.
The purpose of social criticism, as I understand it, is to raise issues that are worth raising, ask disturbing questions about the goings and comings of contemporary men and women, and hope that all this generates thought. Things are not as they were. There never was a golden age in which everything was as it should be. But, on the other hand, imagine yourself, if you will, in a world in which you KNOW that you will be rewarded in heaven, that folks like Donald Trump will rot in Hell, and that this is as certain as 2+2=4. Think of the peace of mind that a fellow like Dante must have experienced as he imagined himself in the afterlife walking with Virgil and Beatrice to see sinners punished and look on the face of God. Those were awful times, in so many ways, but they were also certain times, times in which there was a solid center to life and things were black or white. A person’s life made perfect sense and the authority of both the Church and the powers above gave comfort and succor to those who suffered. We no longer have that certainty; our world is coming unglued. Miller’s concern with Kimball’s stress on our need for authority is misplaced. We do need authority: kids need it and adults need it. It may not come from above or from the Church, but it should come from parents and teachers who provide structure for the kids and from something more assured than common opinion for the rest of us — whether it be “values” or a conviction that there is something greater than the self.
Times have changed. To point that out would be trite, but the observation is not designed to make people pine after a time when things were more certain. It is designed to help us better understand the present which is so very different. This may take thought and it may even be a bit difficult at times, even painful, but the critic’s role is to help us get our heads out of the sand (or wherever they happen to be at the moment) and look around. That’s it. Nothing more and nothing less. Criticism should not be dismissed out of hand because the critic is deemed to be a pessimist. We should all want to know what is going on and if some, like Kimball, are able to help us better understand and see things in a broader perspective we are all better off for it in the end. Ignorance is not bliss; as Socrates noted long ago, the unexamined life is not worth living.