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Rewriting liberalism

Culture | Fighting squished history & other cultural buzz

Issue: "The tolerance police," Dec. 19, 1998

Rewriting liberalism Fighting squished history & other cultural buzz » by Chris Stamper Rewriting the liberal view of history
Everything you know about Western Civilization is wrong. Or at least misunderstood. Danish political historian David Gress says that the rise of the West has been oversimplified by both its multi-cultural opponents and collegiate defenders. In From Plato To NATO, perhaps the most important book of the year, he digs deep into the roots of Western identity. He says history has been squashed by centrist liberals into the Grand Narrative-a simplistic mold that squishes everybody from Plato to Dante to the present in one triumphant tale about liberalism and modern democracy. Pieces that didn't fit or point back to Greece or forward to John F. Kennedy have been excised. Western Civ jumped from Greece right over Christendom into the Enlightenment and modernity. To the background went Christian history (considered an illiberal relic of an ignorant time) and Europe's Germanic forebears (politically incorrect after World War I). "The premodern West was flawed, since it was not democratic, egalitarian, secular, or peace loving," Mr. Gress writes, "but rather seemed defined by hierarchy, faith, and war." The Cold War liberals who propped up the Grand Narrative were themselves shoved out by radical postmodernists. Neither side fully grasps the Western heritage. For several hundred comprehensive pages, Mr. Gress looks at Western history's eras through the eyes of the people who influenced the Grand Narrative, from T.S. Eliot to Hollywood sandal operas. He says the New West of capitalism and Churchill and Coca-Cola grew from the Old West, a synthesis of Roman, Christian, and German cultures and a score of unsettled debates about politics, culture, and religion. What evolved from the old story was a type of universalism that de-Westerned the West into a set of abstractions about liberal democracy that can be taken everywhere from Bangkok to Burma. This can't work, says Mr. Gress. Only if people are literate in their own culture can they effectively communicate with others. And a civilization that cannot sort through its origins will have a hard time bearing the burdens of the future. Rewriting the liberal view of philosophy
Roger Scruton may be one of the most important thinkers you've never heard of. As a scholar, pundit, and magazine editor, he penned several readable philosophy books and was one of the leading lights of the Thatcher revolution. Like British pop star Cliff Richard, Mr. Scruton's notoriety doesn't cross over well to our side of the Atlantic. Mr. Scruton is a conservative, not a Christian; his robust work seeks to revive sane society, but stops well short of calling men back to God. Still, his able analysis and extraordinary ability to make complex issues understandable makes him worthwhile. In his Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy (Penguin) he makes a bold move at bringing big ideas to lay readers. Mr. Scruton avoids technical terminology in the name of rescuing philosophy from the "cynical hedonism" and pseudo-scientific tedium of academia. He scoffs at the inhumanity of postmodernism, where he says "all beliefs are simultaneously both doubted and affirmed, though in inverted commas." Mr. Scruton's main target is scientism, which he sees as running over human nature like a steam roller. Man is more than atoms, he says, and our thoughts and actions have meaning. "My hope is to put philosophy to its best use," he writes, "which is shoring up the human world against the corrosive seas of pseudo-science." So he digs in incisively from topic to topic-from freedom to morality to history. About the existence of God, he shrugs that "the short answer is that I don't know" before launching into his discussion. Mr. Scruton says religion helps us overcome our sense of being alone in the cosmos, gives meaning to nature, and allows us freedom and dignity. Yet he himself is trapped between the nihilism of abused science and his own agnosticism. Mr. Scruton is great at finding all the right questions but he's lost with no answers. And now, for a children's film completely different
One would think that a new movie version of The Wind in the Willows that reunites the Monty Python crew would be a sure success. But this sharp-witted film (Columbia Pictures, rated PG for fanciful villainy and gunplay) was barely released last year and now lives with two names: The Wind in the Willows in theatrical re-release and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride on video shelves. Either way, this neglected burst of imagination deserves a look. The movie's wild ride with Hollywood is best explained by looking at what writer-director Terry Jones made. He broke every current convention of children's fare. In lieu of big-budget spectacle, he used human actors with a lot of gesture (and a little makeup) as the animals-in performances that would make Bert Lahr proud. This Wind focuses on car-crazy Mr. Toad (Jones) and his crusade to save Toad Hall from the bad old weasels (a cross between schoolyard bullies and forest fascists led by Antony Sher). Meanwhile, Mole (Steve Coogan) needs a new home and Rat (Eric Idle) just wants to go on a picnic. Best of all is Badger (Nicol Williamson), who tries to save Toad from himself. Toad finally winds up in court and his attorney (John Cleese) is less than supportive. Meanwhile, the weasels take over Toad Hall and wreck the joint. Mr. Jones's loose adaptation sometimes misfires, but happily stays away from the usual formulas. Supposedly the filmmaker also slid in political messages, but they are nearly invisible and easily forgivable. Instead of 1990s cynicism, this picture set in a storybook version of Edwardian England is far closer to author Kenneth Grahame's 1908. Those expecting something more like Aladdin or Antz won't understand what they're seeing. No one will be selling action figures from this one. Mr. Jones's sophisticated silliness spares us the bathroom humor and grotesqueness that have plastered recent kids' movies. And he gives a movie audience a rare chance to use their imaginations.

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