This book was once famous, but was mostly forgotten when Communism died and so-called liberal democracy seemed ascendant. It is increasingly famous again, and relevant, in these days of a new creeping totalitarianism, this time in the West itself. Such timelessness is the signature of a classic work, so my goal today is to explicate Václav Havel’s thought, and to show why its time has come round again.
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.
Ross Douthat has a job that is, I would guess, either enviable or unpleasant, depending on the day—that of being the only regular conservative contributor to the New York Times. A frequent focus of Douthat’s is that most counter-cultural of doctrines, orthodox Roman Catholicism. If you want to suffer, you need only visit the comments section in the Times for any Douthat column, especially one on Catholicism. Exposing yourself to the firehose of bile and stupidity there will show you what Purgatory will be like, although perhaps Purgatory will be an improvement. Undaunted, Douthat now offers a full-length book on the changes being brought about by Pope Francis.
This book addresses what is, as far as the material comforts of the modern age, the central question of our time—can mankind have it all? The author, Charles Mann, does not answer that question, though I think his answer would be, if forced, “probably yes.” What Mann offers, rather than canned answers, is a refreshingly and relentlessly non-ideological work, comparing two philosophies of human development, embodied in the lives of two men of the twentieth century. The first, Norman Borlaug, engineered the saving of hundreds of millions of lives and won a Nobel Prize. The second, William Vogt, prophesied a global doom whose arrival date has been continuously postponed for fifty years, and then shot himself, whereupon he was forgotten until this book.
When I first started reading this book, which I pulled more or less at random off my shelf, I was a little mystified why I had bought it. I thought, from its title, it would be political philosophy, but instead it was intellectual history, of the last quarter of the twentieth century. The book seemed crisp and dispassionate at first, though it quickly revealed itself as somewhat meandering and biased. After a little research, I realized that in 2012 Age of Fracture had won the Bancroft Prize, awarded to books of American history. Most people probably haven’t heard of the Bancroft Prize, but it is regarded as very prestigious, so I must have bought this book because it was publicized in that context. But when I finished reading it, the more I thought about it, the more I disliked this book.
In the past few years, a variety of liberal academics have adopted a Gorillas in the Mist sensibility when trying to understand conservatives. Like Dian Fossey, they creep, wearing a ghillie suit, through thick and steamy jungles alien to them, hoping to grasp what it is that makes these creatures tick. Sometimes they become fond of these primates, and in their own clumsy way, try to improve their lives by protecting them from threats they appear too dumb to see. Like Fossey, most of them are obsessives with tunnel vision, bound in chains by premises invisible to them. Katherine Cramer, author of The Politics of Resentment, fits right into this model, even if Wisconsin is a long way from Rwanda, and a lot colder. She offers us a book that is half morality play, half sociology study, and all clueless.
In today’s world, discussion about morals is a lost art. In part, this is because stupidity is on display everywhere, and encouraged to be so, even though most people’s thoughts and opinions are less than worthless, as a glance at Facebook or The New York Times comment sections will tell you. More deeply, it’s because America is dominated today by the nearly universal (but wholly unexamined) belief that the only legitimate principle of moral judgment is John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle”—that no restriction on human action can be justified other than to prevent harm to another. The Righteous Mind is an extended attack on the usefulness of the harm principle as the sole way to understand and justify human morality, combined with detailed explanations of the much broader ways in which people can and do view morality. The author, Jonathan Haidt, uses this framework to understand political differences, and to plead for an increase in rationality and civility to arise from that understanding.
Republican Like Me belongs to a certain phenotype, which we can call the “anti-jeremiad.” Whether on the Left or the Right, people of good will sometimes write a book after discovering what they did not earlier know about their political opponents. They make those discoveries by exposing themselves to opposing thoughts and attempting to understand the people who hold them. Thus enlightened, they attempt to find common ground, lamenting the polarization of today’s American society. Probably because the educated Right necessarily is necessarily continuously exposed to the thought of the educated Left, and not vice versa, such anti-jeremiads can mostly be found by authors from the Left. A classic of the genre is Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, which largely parallels Ken Stern’s book, although Hochschild offers more focus on the personal likeability of her political opponents, and Stern’s voyage of discovery offers more focus on the plausibility of their arguments. There is always room for another, though, and this genre has rarely been as well done or as timely as in this …
Let us talk of many things, as the Walrus said, but primarily, of neoreaction. What follows is the start of what I hope to make an extended exploration of this line of thought, for which I have much sympathy. I embark on this project for four reasons. First, to amuse myself. Second, in order to make my own thinking coherent, for confusion already stalks the land, and why add to it? Third, in the hope that what I say may bring value to others, since a man should not bury his single talent. And fourth, so that in some small way, in a manner yet to be revealed, this combination of analysis of others and thoughts of mine will help to either forge the future, or smash and remake the present.
Mark Lilla has been a bad, bad boy. He has dared to point out the feet of clay upon which stand King Liberal, and he, like Cassandra, will not be thanked. Still, this short book is an excellent political analysis, and it points the way, if only loosely, to a wholly new order of things, thus starting to answer my perennial question, “What is next?