This book is an academic study of an obscure movement, Traditionalism. The name has a specific meaning; it does not mean traditional forms of belief, that is, generically, conservatism. Rather, “Traditionalism” is a type of Gnosticism, holding that a core of hidden knowledge, contained within all true religion, is the cure for what ails the modern world. I certainly think that the modern world needs curing, though I don’t think that Traditionalism is what the doctor ordered. Still, the pull of Gnosticism across time and space must mean something. But what? Mark Sedgwick’s book helps us begin to answer that question.
This book, a brief work of cultural history, outlines four parallel aspects of three political systems: the American New Deal, Italian Fascism, and German Nazism. The point of Three New Deals is that these political systems shared core similarities in certain programmatic manifestations. The author, Wolfgang Schivelbusch, fortunately does not claim that the three systems were essentially the same. He offers, instead, a discussion of the interplay between the governed and the governors in each of these systems—how each shaped the other, in ways that can be compared and contrasted across systems. The result is a book of modest interest from which, perhaps, something more can be spun. While cultural history is interesting, my purpose is not to examine Three New Deals as a view on the past, but as an onramp to the future. What applicable lessons, what tools, can we learn from this look at the troubled 1930s, when, like now, liberal democracy seemed like a dying system? By lessons, I do not mean pedagogical lessons, helping us to get liberal democracy back …
Along with left-wing books decrying the supposed Trump-driven decline of democracy, I have been reading right-wing books about the supposed Trump-driven realignment of politics. They have mostly been tedious, and this one, Frank Buckley’s The Republican Workers Party, has not improved my mood. It is poorly written, unoriginal, blinkered, simplistic, and annoying. Worst of all, reading the book is like watching a spastic jumping frog. It lurches from half-covered topic to half-covered topic, never settling on anything. Don’t waste your time.
This is an academic monograph, rather than a work of propaganda or political inspiration. Those looking for a rabble-rousing polemic in the style of today’s mass-popular conservative authors, or of a Wayne LaPierre speech, will be disappointed. What the reader gets instead is far more valuable: an understanding of modern history as it relates to gun control, and illumination of how gun seizures may work in practice if our own government turns criminal.
As the ideological tectonic plates shift in America, many apparently settled matters have become unsettled. This creates, at the same time, both conflict and strange bedfellows, though I suspect the latter will become used to each other soon enough. Such once-settled matters include hot-button cultural matters like nationalism, but also dry, technical matters of little apparent general interest that are of profound actual importance. Among these are the place in our society of concentrations of economic (and therefore political) power, the subject of the excellent Tim Wu’s awesome new book, The Curse of Bigness. What Wu is hawking is “Neo-Brandeisianism,” and I am buying what he is selling.
Since I am an apocalypse monger, but a practical one, I do not worry about alien invasions or the reversal of Earth’s magnetic field, but I do worry about pandemics. This book, Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider, is a recent offering in the pandemic literature that has become popular in the past twenty years. It focuses on the only known pathogen likely to create a future pandemic, the influenza virus, through its greatest past outbreak, the Spanish Flu of 1918. I read books like these partially for history knowledge and partially to understand what to do in a similar future situation, and Pale Rider is useful for both.
Carl Schmitt, preeminent antiliberal, is that rare thing, the modern political philosopher relevant long after his time. The simple remember him only for his grasping embrace of Nazism, but the more astute, especially on the Left, have in recent times found much to ponder in Schmitt’s protean writings. He did not offer ideology, as did so many forgotten political philosophers, but instead clear analysis of power relations, untied to any specific system or regime. So, as the neoliberal new world order collapses, and the old dragons of man, lulled for decades by the false promises of liberal democracy, rise from slumber, such matters are become relevant once more, and Schmitt informs our times, echoing, as they do, his times.
It has long been an article of faith on the Right, including for me, that the Left has undemocratically imposed its views on the country for decades by using the Supreme Court as a super-legislature. I had a discussion with a friend of mine this past weekend, an actual centrist (bizarre, I know), who suggested this view is wrong, or rather exaggerated. He challenged me to demonstrate my position, stipulating that it is obviously true with respect to abortion. For the most part, I failed his challenge, but today we will explore to what degree and why it matters.
In 1974, philosopher Thomas Nagel famously asked “What Is it Like to be a Bat?” Nagel rejected reductionism, the idea that all consciousness can be reduced to simpler components identical for all sentient beings. Instead, he held that for each type of conscious being, there is a unique mindset embodying what it feels like to be that type of being. These subjective experiences are called the “qualia” of consciousness, the internal viewpoints inherent to a sentient creature. Nobody can say what the qualia of a bat are, but I am here to analyze a closely related question: what are the qualia of a liberal?
It seems to me that we in the West are like men in a cavern, out of which lead many paths, none signposted. Some paths lead to bright futures, but other paths lead to terrible ones, among them those where, once again as we did not so very long ago, we slaughter each other over ideology. And the way back is closed, so we must choose one path forward. The service of this book is that it illustrates Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s dictum, that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Thus, reflecting upon this book may help us choose the correct exit from the cavern, and to that end, it is worth bearing the unease that comes over us when we read books like this.