In the end, this generally interesting—and, in parts, fascinating—look at culture and its vicissitudes is long on diagnosis...


British philosopher and conservative polemicist Scruton (An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Philosophy, 1997) attempts to defend the high culture of the West by means of an all-embracing theory of modern culture’s development and decline.

Drawing on the work of anthropologists and sociologists, Scruton traces the core of any common culture to its roots in religion. Here, he maintains, in the beliefs and observances that surround the various passages of life (i.e., birth, death, and marriage) the community provides not only for its physical reproduction, but for its cultural reproduction as well. High culture, Scruton holds, is no less dependent on religion; it, too, in a heightened and imaginative form, provides a moral education in a world where religious faith is no longer a live possibility. In his fascinating historical narrative, Scruton traces the development of high culture from the Enlightenment (when aesthetics supplanted faith) through the development of Romanticism (and the growth of sentimentality) to the high Modernism whose death is the central fact of today’s culture. Scruton sees Modernism (and its paradigmatic figures, such as Wagner, Manet, Baudelaire, Eliot, and Schoenberg) as a last, heroic attempt to reassert the ordering power of art against the tsunami of popular, commercial culture. As Modernism degenerated into the merely avant-garde, however, high culture embraced kitsch and lost its ability to create order within the culture it had erected. The second, more polemical half of Scruton’s survey examines the shortcomings of such disparate features of our cultural landscape as photography and film, British youth culture, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. Taking his cue from Confucius’s Analects, Scruton concludes with a call to live “as if”—to cling to the traditions of our culture without metaphysical systems or religious creeds.

In the end, this generally interesting—and, in parts, fascinating—look at culture and its vicissitudes is long on diagnosis and very short on treatment. In a world without faith (and, increasingly, without its aesthetic transposition), Confucius isn’t going to point the way.

Pub Date: June 15, 2000

ISBN: 1-890318-37-X

Page Count: 168

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2000

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.


Custer died for your sins. And so, this book would seem to suggest, did every other native victim of colonialism.

Inducing guilt in non-native readers would seem to be the guiding idea behind Dunbar-Ortiz’s (Emerita, Ethnic Studies/California State Univ., Hayward; Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War, 2005, etc.) survey, which is hardly a new strategy. Indeed, the author says little that hasn’t been said before, but she packs a trove of ideological assumptions into nearly every page. For one thing, while “Indian” isn’t bad, since “[i]ndigenous individuals and peoples in North America on the whole do not consider ‘Indian’ a slur,” “American” is due to the fact that it’s “blatantly imperialistic.” Just so, indigenous peoples were overwhelmed by a “colonialist settler-state” (the very language broadly applied to Israelis vis-à-vis the Palestinians today) and then “displaced to fragmented reservations and economically decimated”—after, that is, having been forced to live in “concentration camps.” Were he around today, Vine Deloria Jr., the always-indignant champion of bias-puncturing in defense of native history, would disavow such tidily packaged, ready-made, reflexive language. As it is, the readers who are likely to come to this book—undergraduates, mostly, in survey courses—probably won’t question Dunbar-Ortiz’s inaccurate assertion that the military phrase “in country” derives from the military phrase “Indian country” or her insistence that all Spanish people in the New World were “gold-obsessed.” Furthermore, most readers won’t likely know that some Ancestral Pueblo (for whom Dunbar-Ortiz uses the long-abandoned term “Anasazi”) sites show evidence of cannibalism and torture, which in turn points to the inconvenient fact that North America wasn’t entirely an Eden before the arrival of Europe.

A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8070-0040-3

Page Count: 296

Publisher: Beacon Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

Did you like this book?


For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

Did you like this book?