The heroes of every age are often not seen as heroes during their lives, or if so viewed in their own age they are not so viewed in later ages. And doubtless perceptions of heroes change as one future passes into another. But for us, today, Churchill and Orwell are heroes to many, and whatever else may be true, this alone gives the two men something in common. Thomas Ricks uses this commonality as the springboard and organizing theme for his book, which is a competently written capsule biography of its title subjects, combining examination of the men with examination of their time. His book offers both an interesting narration of known facts and some fresh insights by the author—neither an easy feat when dealing with heroes.
It is hardly news that the West has led the world economically for the past 200 years, or more. This superiority (let’s be honest—that’s what it is) academics commonly call the “Great Divergence,” a term coined by Samuel Huntington in 1996, though the study of Western economic superiority began much earlier. There are many sub-questions one can ask—e.g., what constitutes “the West”? Is it England? England and parts of the Continent? How does America fit in? When exactly did this takeoff begin? Are other countries now catching up, or even passing, the West? But these sub-questions are all small change compared to the most important question—why did the West diverge from the rest of the world at all, when all of world history up to that time exemplified the Malthusian Trap, where productivity increased too slowly to increase per capita output even when aggregate output increased?
How We Got To Now is competent enough, but it feels threadbare. It feels like a narrative designed to punctuate a picture show that is missing its pictures. It probably feels that way because it is that way—it was written to accompany a PBS television series (which is flacked on the cover of the book), and, unfortunately, without the moving pictures, the book doesn’t stand on its own very well.
Twenty years ago, that liberal Baal, philosopher Martha Nussbaum, assigned me to read The Golden Bowl, by Henry James. She said it was the best book she had ever read. Maybe it was, but it was unreadable, and I am just as smart as Nussbaum. The problem with The Golden Bowl is that you know Henry James is very bright, yet you have to struggle so much to get at the meaning that you wonder if there is any meaning there—or is it all just a parlor trick to gratify the author’s vanity and flatter the reader who claims to understand? But, certainly, the weight of learned opinion favors Henry James as a genius and me as an imbecile. A similar freighted opacity characterizes Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger. As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on who’s the imbecile.
I did not like this book as much as I expected. In part that’s because, as an American, a narrative of British decline resonates with me less deeply, simply because much of the culture, politics and daily life of Britain is not familiar to me. In part it’s because the book is written in a somewhat didactic, overly episodic, fragmented fashion. But mostly, I think, it’s because I’m weary of conservative jeremiads that don’t offer any constructive recommendations on what to do. After all, as my mother used to tell me, “if there’s no solution, there’s no problem.” Conservatives who bemoan how bad things have gotten (and they have gotten very much worse in Britain since this book was written, 1999, or even since it was re-issued with a new Introduction, 2008) need to offer real alternatives and solutions, or they might as well not bother.
This is a silly and shallow book. But it is not worthless, because it serves to exemplify and clarify modern political fracture lines. In the West, the major political split today is between those who view the modern liberal project of maximum individual freedom and maximum democracy (as long as the voters make the correct choices) as the ultimate and unquestionable good, and those who view that project as either inherently defective or sharply limited in the good it brings to humanity. If Ryszard Legutko, in his criticism of European “liberal-democracy” in The Demon in Democracy, had conjured that demon to physical form, it would be James Kirchick—although, perhaps, Kirchick would manifest only as an imp or familiar, in thrall to some greater demon lurking in the wings, such as George Soros.
The Benedict Option is, as I expected, an outstanding book. Rod Dreher has definitively shown that he is the Pope Urban of a new and dynamic movement, and this book has occasioned much commentary in the mainstream press. Unfortunately, the main point of Dreher’s book—to make a countercultural call for individual and group Christian renewal focused on communities of believers—has been somewhat lost in a secondary point, the real and growing persecution of Christian believers in mainstream society. This was inevitable, I suppose, because persecution is more interesting to outsiders than a call to holiness, but unfortunate, because it caricatures Dreher and tends to erode receptivity to his message.
This book failed in the two goals I set for it, either of which I would have accepted. It did not teach me anything new about drugs, and it did not teach me anything new about Nazis. Sad!
For the past few months, we have been subjected to a tedious, hysterical stream of comparisons of Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. As a reader of this book, The Coming of the Third Reich, will quickly figure out, such comparisons are both vicious and ignorant. One thing is clear to the reader of this book, the first of massive trilogy covering the Third Reich, and that is there is little evidence that we are heading the way of 1920s and 1930s Germany—but that if we are, it has nothing at all to do with Donald Trump. Nonetheless, this is an interesting book of history, and just because it’s not a warning, per se, does not mean that it does not contain interesting lessons.
Published in 2014, this book has an eerie vibe, redolent of a past that seems distant but really was just yesterday. Intertwined with gentle criticisms of Nordic foibles is an iron self-confidence that “we,” a group constantly referred to but never defined, desire above all things “modernism”: absolute equality of result and a rejection of sex differences, collectivism, atheism, multiculturalism, the death of traditional cultures through multiculturalism, and the active, aggressive suppression of any view or speech deemed “right-wing.” Viewed from the post-Brexit, post-Trump, pre-Le Pen perspective of early 2017, this seems as quaint as nostalgia for steam locomotives. It worships something that was hollow and imaginary then and is now, fortunately, being dragged out, still struggling weakly, to be thrown on the ashheap of history. Reading this book is like seeing a man venerate a statue of Mithras—it just seems odd, with a frisson of fading menace.