In Prospect

Summer 1998

CITY JOURNAL articles often secretly aspire to transcend journalism and achieve the condition of literature, and none have so triumphantly succeeded in doing so as this issue’s extraordinary lead story, contributing editor Theodore Dalrymple’s "A Taste for Danger." Here "literature" doesn’t mean "fiction," à la Steven Glass or Patricia Smith; it means literature as George Orwell practiced it in such classic essays as "Shooting an Elephant" or "Such, Such Were the Joys"—fiercely honest pieces of concrete reporting that go beyond the particulars at hand to illuminate universal truths. It is a large claim, to be sure: but Dalrymple’s essay may well rest on the shelf next to Orwell 100 years from now—if mankind still reads.

Dalrymple likes to travel to what Joseph Conrad called "the dark places of the earth"—the darker the better. He likes to visit war, revolution, social collapse, partly for what such anarchy teaches him about human nature, stripped of its customary drapery of civilized life. And what he learns is how much that drapery of civilization humanizes people, transforming homo sapiens from weasels fighting in a hole into creatures capable of achieving decency, dignity, self-respect, and compassion.

Into something more, in other words, than a brute or a mechanism. But armies of thinkers seem to view man as merely that. For instance, whenever someone parrots the inhuman cliché, fathered by Le Corbusier, that "a house is a machine for living," one can’t help replying: Yes, but only if a person is a machine for—what? Presumably for performing all those mechanical functions that in Corbusier’s arid, bureaucratic utopia make up the sum of human life. It was this dehumanizing spirit that Edmund Burke saw at the center of the French Revolution. It came easy to the revolutionaries to kill the king and queen because of this spirit, Burke argues: they lacked reverence not only for royalty and womanhood but for humanity. "On (their) scheme of things," he says, "a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order." Any idea that would make them more is fiction and superstition.

But all the ideals that make us human are fictions and superstitions—manmade constructs such as honor and duty, decency and forbearance, and above all the idea of our own humanity—which become real if we believe in them and live our lives by them. That’s the truth Dalrymple comes to: there’s nothing more moving, more worthy of respect in his eyes, than the millennia of effort, continuing in our own lives, that have made us men, not brutes.

That transformation is the work of culture; and in their different ways, many stories in this issue bear on how culture does its work well or ill. David Watkin’s article on the Houses of Parliament, "An Eloquent Sermon in Stone" (page 94), shows how good architecture, operating on principles diametrically opposed to Le Corbusier’s, expresses ideals and holds them up as a standard for life. In our own day, if education is one of the main channels by which culture transmits ideals, the goings—on at one of New York’s public high schools that Heather Mac Donald describes in "An F for Hip-Hop 101" (page 56) should cause disquiet about how debased a version of culture New York’s students are receiving. Though its subject is much more upscale, Hilton Kramer’s "Reflections on the Changing Times" (page 43) examines a related cultural debasement: it shows how the nation’s newspaper of record absorbed the 1960s’ cultural revolution and now retails a prosperous, indulgent decadence whose highest concerns are "lifestyle" issues, from planning a menu to choosing a sexual "orientation."

But those who deplore such cultural developments are not powerless. If you are worried that TV’s steady diet of trashy nihilism and vulgarity will coarsen your kids’ imagination, the solution, as Harry Stein explains in "Pulling the Plug" on page 88, is simple. And as Tucker Carlson reports in "The Politics of Virtue" on page 66, the next presidential race may very well center on how to restore the nation’s traditional ideals after the cultural ravages that the 1960s left behind.

For though those traditional ideals may be manmade fictions, centuries of human experience, as Dalrymple learned on his dark journeys, have shown that they lead to the best of which man is capable.