A recent essay by conservative English philosopher Roger Scruton accuses the West’s cultural elites, or an influential component of them, of being antagonistic towards their civilisation’s cultural achievements, of repudiating the art, music, architecture and literature that accumulated within a vibrant tradition from the Ancient Greeks to the beginning of the twentieth century.
Scruton begins his essay by observing that those who attempt to defend or renew the West’s cultural legacy are attacked as eccentrics or reactionaries. “This is especially the case in the universities and cultural institutions, where a kind of morose antipathy to the Western inheritance accompanies a deep suspicion of all those who wish to teach it and to build on it.”
This antipathy goes well beyond self criticism, which has characterised the West and fuelled its cultural changes. “Through all such upheavals our forebears maintained a distinctive continuity of interest and inspiration, which can be seen in all the institutions that survived into modern times, and of course in the extraordinary artistic traditions that are the glory of our civilisation.”
“At a certain stage, however, and for no apparent reason, self-criticism gave way to repudiation. Instead of subjecting our inheritance to a critical evaluation, seeking what is good in it and trying to understand and endorse the ties that binds us to it, a great many of those appointed as cultural stewards – professors of humanities, curators, producers, critics, cultural advisers and commissars – chose rather to turn their backs on it. The prevailing idea seemed to be ‘this is all dead and gone. We can pretend to be part of it, but the result will be pastiche or kitsch.’ And this repudiation of the tradition has been accompanied by vigorous denunciations of the social order and mores of those who formerly enjoyed or created it, whose sexist, racist, hierarchical, etc. attitudes apparently distance them incurably from us living now. I think everybody who has attended a humanities department in one of our universities will be familiar with this attitude, and with the ‘culture of repudiation’ that has arisen around it.”
Scruton could have added that the repudiation goes beyond the “social order and mores” of the peoples who created it to cold indifference towards those people’s very demographic continuity. He does not explore this harshest and most final of repudiations of the West but it is clear that like cultural hostility it also springs from the very institutions that should provide cultural leadership – the universities, museums, and artistic companies that train the next generation of creators, disseminators and critics.
Future historians will want to know how this top-down revolution occurred, how the West entered its Spenglerian death spiral. It is a question that we would do well to answer now, before the process becomes irreversible.