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.
Reading this book is like wearing sackcloth and heaping ashes on your head. It certainly brings home to you that things have gone wrong, but unless the act of penance itself calls forth redemption, which sadly today it does not, without further action it only makes you feel bad and gets you dirty.
This book, a book of essays, is effectively a companion to Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon In Democracy. The core theme of both books is that “liberal democracy” is inherently defective; the books explore why and what that implies. Whereas Legutko’s project is to compare liberal democracy to Communism, to explain their similarities and what that has meant for post-Communist Europe, Patrick Deneen’s is to explain how the American founding itself implies liberal democracy, and therefore, in a culture that needs renewal from the evils created by liberal democracy, conservatives are wrong to call for a return to the Founding—for, like the serpent in the Garden, the evil has been there since the beginning.
This is a self-help book. I don’t mean it’s to be found in the bookstore under the sign “Self-Help,” where people gather to remake their lives by unlocking the secret of costless auto-regeneration. Rather, this is a self-help book because it, like the famous Kitchener poster, points at the reader and says, “You—there is a problem, and you are the solution.” Of course, since the author, Charles Chaput, is a bishop (and an archbishop at that), and this is not Pelagianism, the reader is not expected to act in isolation, but with the guidance and help of God. He is to act nonetheless, and much hinges on what he does.
The right to be armed is the right to be free! This call, like the battle cry of the Archangel Michael, Who is like God?!, echoes down the ages of Man. If you are not armed, you are always wholly at the mercy of tyrants. Who can argue with such a truism? A lot of people, actually. For the phrase does not, in fact, echo down the ages of Man. It dates only to 1941, when this book, a now obscure science fiction classic, was first published—and the principle itself is not much older. So, rather than making this review the pro-weapons screed my (few) readers doubtless expect, I will explore the principle itself—in particular its limitations within a conservative philosophical framework.
There is a scene in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, in which a character comes across a book of philosophy (Schopenhauer) and realizes in a soaring epiphany that it contains the answers to all of life’s questions. For me, this book served much the same purpose—it explained to me why certain things are the way they are in the modern world. Although, sadly, it did not explain “all of life’s questions,” such as what is contained in Area 51. (I will also gloss over that the character in Mann’s novel quickly forgets the supposed answers and then drops dead of a tooth infection.)
Mary Eberstadt’s It’s Dangerous To Believe offers very clear analysis and very wrong recommendations. Eberstadt eloquently describes how the elite and powerful in today’s America have subscribed to a new religion, the religion of sexual autonomy without limit, and are increasingly using their immense power to punish heretics, in the form of traditional believers. But, because she misapprehends the historical processes at work, she fails to adequately address how the targets of oppression can, or should, respond, and her actual suggestions are harmful fantasies.
[Italics are my interlocutor; regular text is me.] Hi Charles, I’ve been pondering the Republican debacle that is Donald Trump and would love your view. I’m wondering what alternatives a Republican with coherent conservative principles is supposed to do in the coming election. Is the anti-Hillary vote a vote for Trump? Or is a conservative vote a Libertarian vote at the expense of the general election? It just doesn’t seem like there is any good option for a conservative with a sound mind. Do you lean toward Trump to stop Hillary and forego the dignity of the country, or do you vote your beliefs and vote Libertarian, preserving the dignity of the US but conceding four years of democratic leadership? Or is there another option I’m missing? ______, good to hear from you. First off, congratulations! And we’re glad you’re moving back to __________, too! This is a good question, of course, and one not frequently directly addressed, because most of the players have a particular ax to grind. That is, if you’re a conservative …
“The Fractured Republic” is a fantastically original book. It is very optimistic, yet clear-eyed, which is a rare combination. Most optimistic books about modern politics are also simplistic. They typically consist of vague and belligerent paeans demanding the recapture of America’s past. Yuval Levin’s book, on the other hand, is the very opposite. It is precise and even-handed. And far from demanding recapture of the past, Levin explicitly rejects any such attempt. At the same time, Levin believes that we as Americans, liberal and conservative, can jointly renew our society without retreading the past, and in this age, such optimism is no small thing.