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'The Other War on Poverty: Finding Meaning in America'

8:08 AM, May 5, 2012 • By DANIEL HALPER
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Worth watching or reading: Leon Kass's Irving Kristol Address, "The other war on poverty: Finding meaning in America," delivered earlier this week at the American Enterprise Institute's annual dinner:

Full text:

I am deeply moved and honored more than I can say by this award from my esteemed colleagues and friends at AEI, and especially because of its association with the name and memory of Irving Kristol, a man for all seasons. Irving Kristol was my teacher, editor, mentor, patron, and friend, as he was for many other people in this room. He gave multiple boosts to my career, beginning forty years ago when he welcomed a young scientist into the pages of The Public Interest, in the process teaching him how to write. My wife Amy and I are forever grateful to both him and Bea for their kindnesses and friendship, in good times and bad. I feel Irving’s presence this evening, even as we all miss his person. I feel also the presence of our dear friend and colleague, James Q. Wilson, a man, like Irving, the likes of whom we shall not see again. To have known and worked with such men is an immeasurable blessing. I hope this evening to honor their treasured memories.

* * * * * *

On this occasion twenty years ago, in his Boyer Lecture entitled “The Cultural Revolution and the Capitalist Future,” Irving Kristol explored the growing gap between our thriving capitalist economy and our unraveling bourgeois culture. Regarding the economy, he showed how capitalism had produced a widely shared prosperity that put paid to arguments in favor of the socialist alternative. Regarding the culture, he showed how succeeding waves of elitist opposition to our inherited moral, aesthetic, and spiritual standards had issued finally in a nihilistic anti-culture, hostile not only to religion, family, patriotism and traditional morality, but even to the promise of enlightenment reason itself.

Concluding with a look to the future, Kristol foresaw both good news and bad. In the short run, he was confident that the nihilism preached by our elites would not prevail politically, because our sensible, bourgeois, property-owning democracy breeds its own antibodies that “immunize it, in large degree, against the lunacies of its intellectuals and artists.” For the long run, he was much less sanguine:

But a society needs more than sensible men and women if it is to prosper: It needs the energies of the creative imagination as expressed in religion and the arts. It is crucial to the lives of all of our citizens, as it is to all human beings at all times, that they encounter a world that possesses a transcendent meaning, a world in which the human experience makes sense. Nothing is more dehumanizing, more certain to generate a crisis, than to experience one’s life as a meaningless event in a meaningless world.

Bourgeois society . . . has produced through the market economy a world prosperous beyond all previous imaginings—even socialist imaginings. . . . [But] this world, with every passing decade, has become ever more spiritually impoverished. That war on poverty is the great unfinished task before us.

Now Irving Kristol was second to none in his appreciation of America’s political genius and commercial spirit. He esteemed the blessings of freedom and prosperity and he extolled the bourgeois virtues that make them possible. But he also knew that freedom and prosperity were not ends in themselves and do not alone guarantee a life with purpose, a life with meaning, a life of genuine human flourishing. And he was concerned that the very successes of the American enterprise might tragically lead us to neglect those higher human goods.

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