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Category: Social Behavior

Book Review: Discourses on Livy
(Niccolò Machiavelli)

Niccolò Machiavelli is known today for two things: the adjective “Machiavellian,” and the book from which that adjective is derived, The Prince, which provides advice for monarchs who accede to power.  But Machiavelli wrote more than one book, and his second-most-famous book is this one, Discourses on Livy.  In it, he provides advice for the founding, structuring, governing, and maintenance of republics, along with advice to individuals holding power, and a good bit of practical military advice.  All this he extracts primarily from the extant writings of the historian Livy (64 B.C.– A.D. 12) on early Roman history, although he also brings in much other matter, including his own personal experiences and then-current events (Machiavelli wrote Discourses about 1517).  Thus, this book is part history, part mirror of princes, and part advice to those holding power in a republic on how not to get killed.

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Book Review: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Jonathan Haidt)

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.

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Book Review: Leviathan Wakes
(James S. A. Corey)

Leviathan Wakes is extremely well written, with a tight plot and carefully chosen prose.  This alone separates it from the vast majority of today’s science fiction.  Nor is it tendentious message fiction, further separating it from most modern science fiction, which is all about the navel-gazing identity of the characters, mostly as thinly veiled metaphor for present-day political conflicts.  Thus, the taut, straightforward story here has broad appeal, which is doubtless is at least part of the reason it has been serialized into a TV series (on SyFy), called The Expanse.  I haven’t seen the series, but if it is reasonably faithful to the book, it is probably very much worth watching.  Most importantly, it shows how a modern version of Manifest Destiny could work, a consummation devoutly to be wished.

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Book Review: Five Children and It
(E. Nesbit)

Five Children and It is a book that resonates on two levels.  On one level, it is an outstanding and well-drawn children’s story.  We read it to our own five children to general acclaim.  On another level, it is a glimpse of upper-class child-rearing in Edwardian England, very interesting as social history to today’s adults, even with no children around.

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Book Review: The Once and Future Liberal (Mark Lilla)

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?

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Book Review: The Color of Law
(Richard Rothstein)

Some years ago, I lived for a time in Oak Park, Illinois.  Oak Park has for decades been filled with rich white liberals, who live just across the street from a City of Chicago neighborhood, Austin, that is filled with poor black people.  Yet, for some reason the citizens of Oak Park simply can’t fathom, people from Austin almost never move to Oak Park.  Who can say why?  Well, Richard Rothstein can.  His book, The Color of Law, shows all the ways in which the racist government of Oak Park, and innumerable other government functionaries across the nation, have aggressively worked for decades to keep black people in inferior, segregated housing.  Rothstein’s service is to precisely set out why this happened, how it was done, and what exactly the effects today are.

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Analysis: On Rebellion

[This post duplicates my review of Captain Blood, without the book-specific parts.  I am cross-posting it because it fits in two categories, Reviews and Analysis.]

American history is full of rebellion—the War of Independence and the Civil War, of course, but also unsuccessful smaller-scale rebellions—Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, John Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry, and the leftist rebellions of the 1970s.

We can conclude that rebellion is relatively commonplace and that it arises from different causes.  What I want to talk about is when it is intellectually and morally justified.  We will examine theory and practice, Aquinas and Rogue One.  I am sure that writing this will probably get me on some list, or rather some additional lists, and prevent my being appointed to any government position—at least, in the current dispensation.  But since I doubt if the current dispensation will last, this is probably not the hobbling it seems.

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Book Review: Captain Blood
(Rafael Sabatini)

Captain Blood, to the extent it is mentioned today, is remembered as a 1935 movie that made the career of Errol Flynn.  The story was originally this novel, published in 1922.  It is the story of an Irish physician who, in the late Seventeenth Century, settles in the southwest of England, in Somerset, after wandering the world for a decade.  He is caught up in the Monmouth Rebellion, in which a bastard son of Charles II rebelled against James II and lost the 1685 Battle of Sedgmoor, the last battle fought on English soil.  Captain Blood (his name is Peter Blood; the title is not a nickname, as one might think of a pirate novel), treats a man wounded in the battle.  He is therefore dealt with as a traitor, even though he took no part in the rebellion itself, but his death sentence is commuted to being sold into slavery in Barbados.

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Book Review: Cake: A Slice of History (Alysa Levene)

I’ve always liked food history—maybe because as a small child I spent quite a lot of time reading The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire, a Time-Life cookbook my mother had, and from it learned quite a bit of history.  Many, if not most, modern cookbooks contain large sections of history, and many food history books contain a lot of recipes, such as Anne Mendelson’s Milk.  So there is significant overlap between the two genres.  This book, Cake, by Alysa Levene, falls more into the history category and less into the cookbook category.  It offers a largely successful blend of well-written data dump and mild social commentary—satisfying, like a cake!

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Book Review: White Working Class
(Joan Williams)

Joan Williams wants to “Overcome Class Cluelessness in America.”  This is an admirable goal, and in many ways this is an admirable book (or brochure—it’s very short).  But reading White Working Class (which, despite its title, gives equal time to both the white and black working class) makes the reader squirm.  The reader appreciates the author’s, Joan Williams’s, attempts to objectively examine her class, that of the “professional-management elite,” or “PME,” but winces at her frequent inability to actually understand the working class, or to view the working class other than primarily as potential foot soldiers in the march of progressive politics.

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