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Hard times at the British Museum

The retiring director of the British Museum, Dr. Robert Anderson, says that he ’ prefer[s] paternalism to populism’. The good doctor gives away too much by the phrasing. Neither paternalism nor populism is at issue in current disputes over the nature of the museum. The paternalist doesn’t give people the best he has, and the populist doesn’t favor a totally managed society in which “culture” becomes a personal lifestyle accessory.

What prompted the comment was Dr. Anderson’s concern that the very essence of the British Museum is now at risk because of declining funding and public support. The basic problem

, as he sees it, is that:

there is waning enthusiasm for the traditional functions of museums. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport [!] … has plenty of money to give out, but collecting and interpreting the artefacts of human history is just not where it’s at. The museums that get money today are those that play to the new government agenda of social inclusion: running projects to improve self-esteem or reduce prejudice, or using new technologies to increase community participation. There is little support for the idea that objects and knowledge have a value in and of themselves.

The problem to which Anderson refers is not just a problem with Britain, government funding or museums. Throughout the organized arts community—foundations, government agencies, educational institutions, scholarship—the agenda of inclusion increasingly trumps everything.

Even those who continue to believe that there’s something in the arts that can’t be reduced to politics, sociology or entertainment have to go along to get along. Stage companies that present straight renditions of the classics feel obligated at least to engage in assertively nontraditional casting. No Ibsen household is now complete without at least one black member. I saw a rather good rendition of the Oresteia, the Aeschylus trilogy that dramatizes the replacement of the inarticulate female order of guilt, remorse and vengeance symbolized by the Furies by the public male order of justice, law and limit symbolized by Apollo. The three Furies had to include one man, and the Court of Areopagus one very pretty woman.

What’s going on? Certainly the situation shows the grip that PC liberalism has on our cultural and governing elites. However, it goes deeper than that. Elites don’t exist in a vacuum, and the problem is not simply one of arbitrary agendas adopted by foundations, government and other institutions. As Anderson points out, interest in what the British Museum and other traditional cultural institutions do really is declining, and apparently across the board.

The situation reflects genuine acceptance throughout society of a liberal outlook in which (as I’ve suggested elsewhere)

the requirement of equal freedom for [opinions and values] can be satisfied only by suppressing all of them. The problem is that expression is directed at others, so to express a view is at least to a degree to impose it on others and suppress their contrary views.

The result is that liberal ideology and views that support it become the only things that can be publicly asserted. They

are the inevitable content of public celebrations and holidays, of all education that is not strictly technical, of respectable religion, and of art, most notably officially-subsidized art that proclaims its own adventurousness. All other ethical, aesthetic and cultural matters must be kept strictly private or otherwise trivialized.

In other words, PC rules, and it rules for serious reasons that won’t soon go away. Not only our elites but the public as well has, by and large, accepted it.

So what to do? Every outlook has weak points, especially those that are as poorly rooted in the actualities of human life as PC liberalism. The people are usually more concerned with human life than ideology, so it is natural for counterrevolutionaries to appeal to them, their attitudes, and their habits. Nonetheless, the people are not the font of all wisdom. On some points they must be led, and in any event traditionalists must attack what opposes tradition from whatever positions of relative strength they can find. The incapacity of liberalism to deal with high culture in a satisfactory way is a serious point of weakness in its citadel, the knowledge class. Traditionalists should take that point very seriously, and in addition to whatever appeals to the people they make they should consider what common ground they can find with members of cultural elites—like the many who share Dr. Anderson’s concerns.