All posts filed under: American History

The Common Law (Oliver Wendell Holmes)

[Admin’s Note: This is a guest post by Jared, who has a tendency to drift between British and American spellings, but who has recently been trying to standardise (ha ha) on the former.] One of the most interesting topics to me, a total neophyte in the field of law, is the comparison between civil law (i.e., law decreed by a sovereign), and common law (i.e., law constructed by judges in the Anglo-American tradition).  The topic is deep and weighty, and one in which it’s hard to cleanly resolve a question along the lines of which might be “better.” Everything is subtlety and nuance, comparison of principles and implementation, and a noting of the successes and failures of each in history.

Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism (George Hawley)

This is an excellent book, doubly excellent in that the writer, George Hawley, has written a book both even-handed and superbly accurate in detail about a difficult and controversial topic.  I am personally deeply familiar with nearly all the facts covered in this book, and Hawley has not fallen into any significant error.  Moreover, his analysis is generally excellent, so as a package, this book is a valuable contribution to understanding what I call the Great Fragmentation—the splintering, and reforming, of what until recently was a relatively monolithic instantiation of mainstream American conservatism.  Finally, this book implicitly poses a fascinating question—should the Right adopt a new principle, in imitation of the Left, that there are no enemies on the right?

On the “Dark Enlightenment,” and of Curtis Yarvin / Mencius Moldbug

My project here is to analyze, in the detail required for all necessary understanding, the thought of Curtis Yarvin, who wrote under the pseudonym Mencius Moldbug.  Yarvin is the most prominent figure of what has been called the Dark Enlightenment, one thread of modern reactionary thought.  My short summary is that he offers mediocre analysis with quite a few flashes of insight.  Even so, his thought is mostly worthless, because his program for political change is silly, since it fails to understand both history and human nature, and is ultimately indistinguishable from the program of the Left.  Overall I was very disappointed, and this write-up is shorter than I expected when beginning my project, since there is not all that much interesting to talk about.

The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It (Angelo M. Codevilla)

I stay away from the shouters, such as Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin.  Sure, they’re right in their conclusions, most of the time, but the lack of nuanced thought annoys me.  There are plenty of ways to get easily worked up today, without seeking out more that don’t offer a corresponding benefit.  Angelo Codevilla is not a shouter, but this is at least a half-shouter book, as shown by that Limbaugh wrote the Introduction.  As is the case with most books of conservative woe, it has nothing of substance to offer about how to fix the problems it identifies.  Still, it has one interesting insight, and one cautionary lesson.  And I am here to offer the solution to the problem Codevilla talks about.  It’s not even radical!

The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics (Salena Zito and Brad Todd)

Most honest postmortems of Trump’s election are by Democrats focusing on what they missed.   Usually, they are either narrow exercises in vote counting or more holistic attempts to understand Trump voters.  In the latter group are Joan Williams’s White Working Class and Ken Stern’s Republican Like Me.  The common thread in these is discovery, a dawning realization that there are people out there with legitimate, even compelling, reasons to vote for Trump.  Republicans, on the other hand, haven’t engaged much in postmortems.  They have engaged in recriminations, or a facile triumphalism, but few seem to have analyzed Trump’s election in a focused, professional, way.  The Great Revolt fills that gap.

All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (Henry Mayer)

William Lloyd Garrison is one of those nineteenth-century American figures about whom most people know a little, realizing they are important to American history, but whom few can discuss with expertise.  Into that same category I’d put men like Henry Clay, John Fremont, perhaps even Stephen Douglas, and quite a few others.  Garrison is probably more neglected than those figures.  But this book is an excellent corrective, not only showing the importance of Garrison for his time, but showing us how his principles apply today in a similarly fraught moral climate, and offering lessons in how society’s powerful approach, or fail to approach, moral issues, then and now.

Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy (Jonah Goldberg)

I think this book is meant as a #NeverTrumper manifesto, an attempt to create intellectual backbone for that wispy band of conservative holdouts, who crouch behind the crenellations in their National Review fastness, wondering why the final assault on them has yet to begin—not realizing it is because everyone has forgotten about them.  Strictly speaking, though, I have no idea what the point of this book is, because it’s a jumble of thoughts, anecdotes and superficial facts, strung together with no clear audience and only the most simplistic of analysis.  It’s a boneless mess.

American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll (Bradley J. Birzer)

Charles Carroll, once famous as the only Catholic signatory of the Declaration of Independence and the last signatory to die, is no longer much in the public consciousness.  If asked to name a signatory, most people would say “John Hancock,” since he wrote his name in big letters.  Thomas Jefferson would also come to mind; perhaps also John Adams, Samuel Adams and Ben Franklin, especially for those who watched the John Adams miniseries on HBO a few years back.  Not that long ago, though, Charles Carroll would also have sprung to mind, and Bradley Birzer’s goal is to, if not restore Carroll, at least clear away some of the dust that has covered his memory.

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (David Sax)

Although no author likes to have his book lumped with another, this book is an excellent complement to Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants.  Both books discuss, from different angles, possible practical reactions to the modern dominance of digital toys and tools.  Today, when companies such as Facebook and Google are increasingly under fire from across the political spectrum, David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog reminds us of one possible response—not attack (although I am personally all for attacking such companies), but a return to the active use of pre-digital things.  He takes us on a persuasive tour of analog offerings, and makes a compelling case for their continued persistence and growth, even if he seems unaware of some of the less socially beneficial results of that trend.

Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America (Cass Sunstein, ed.)

Cass Sunstein has gathered an ensemble cast of today’s intellectual Davoisie (several of whom taught me in law school) to tell us, in seventeen separate essays, whether Trump is the harbinger of American structural doom, and if so, how.  It is illuminating to read this book immediately after having read Glenn Reynolds’s The Judiciary’s Class War, with its distinction between the ruling Front-Row Kids and the ruled Back-Row Kids. This is because ultimately nearly all the authors presented here believe that “it” can’t, or is extremely unlikely to, “happen here,” because they expect the Front-Row Kids to be able to stop “it.”  That is, in different ways but with the same result, the authors expect that people just like them will continue to rule, Trump and the peasants be damned.