A few weeks ago, I watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Quentin Tarantino’s movie delivered to me what I have been seeking. Namely, the exact point America careened off the path to flourishing, abandoning our long, mostly successful search for ever-increasing excellence and achievement. It was 1969. As the shadows lengthen and the darkness spreads, perhaps it does not matter when twilight fell. But why twilight fell does matter, and much of the answer can be found in the pages of Amity Shlaes’s new book, Great Society, which narrates the decade’s massive expansion of government, and of elite power, all in the service of the Left, that we were told was certain to give us Utopia, but instead destroyed our civilization.
I am skeptical of those who predict the future by looking at the past. It’s not that history follows a random walk, like the stock market. Quite the contrary—it is easy to show certain patterns in history. But predicting how and when those patterns will yield any particular result in any given society seems like astrology. Peter Turchin, however, offers a very convincing, and very well-supported, tying of patterns to data. I’m still not sure it’s not astrology, but I’m half convinced. And this is a good book to read in January 2020—because right now is when Turchin predicts, in America, the swelling discord of the title.
Much modern popular history is mendacious, written with an ideological agenda that deliberately distorts, or omits, or simply lies about, the truth. Sometimes, therefore, reading history written in the past can offer better information. Earlier historians were often more objective, ideology being less prevalent. Their biases, if they have any, are usually obvious. Thus I thought that Only Yesterday, a semi-famous history of the 1920s, published in 1931 by a mass-market journalist/intellectual of the time, Frederick Lewis Allen, might teach me something new about that decade. But I found, to my sorrow, that I learned little new, and I was instead again reminded of how early the rot in America’s ruling classes set in.
I have long known in my gut that usual measures of social wealth, most of all GDP, are fraudulent, in that they falsely identify value where there is none. I have intuited we were all being lied to, and that those who assured us that ever more value was being generated by our society by what appear to be objectively valueless activities were, at best, hiding something. This outstanding book, by left-wing economist Mariana Mazzucato, explains what is being hidden, what hard truths are being avoided, and what she thinks we should do about it. And while I don’t agree with all her prescriptions, or with her rosy view of government competency, the first step on the path to self-improvement is admitting you have a problem.
If the word hagiography had not already been coined, it would need to be invented for this book. To David Levering Lewis, Wendell Willkie was a combination of Saint Michael and Saint Francis. He was a world-bestriding colossus, a credit to his country, and a wonderful exemplar of what a Republican can and should be. After reading this book, though, I pick a different progenitor: Judas Iscariot. Willkie was a pocket Judas, true, having more gross vices and less cold malice than the original, but a Judas nonetheless. For Willkie betrayed his wife, his party, and his country. And, like Judas, he accomplished nothing but the designs of his enemies, and left behind only his corpse.
American Genesis is a cultural history of the grand century of American technology, from 1870 to 1970. Thomas Hughes published his book in 1989, when Americans believed that the grandeur of American technological achievement had matured into something less flashy, yet more durable and equally pregnant with accomplishment. Hughes linked a valedictory history of early inventors with a narrative of those inventions becoming embedded in vastly greater systems, which appeared to offer continued technological progress. But 1989 was a long time ago, and as it has turned out, we have been left with the worst of both worlds. We lack new and beneficial world-changing technologies, and the massive systems, supercharged by the internet, dominate and dehumanize our lives in ways previously unimaginable. It may not be American Terminus, yet, but finding a new path is necessary to recapture the now-cobwebbed spirit of enthusiastic achievement this book chronicles.
Conservatives have long complained about the administrative state, the monster that swallowed America. Many complaints focus on the end result: how the administrative state is a tool of the Left, that accomplishes innumerable Left goals, all destructive. Other complaints, more technical, focus on how crucial elements of the American constitutional system, such as separation and enumeration of powers, have vanished, destroyed by the Blob-like growth and flailing tentacles of the administrative state. John Marini steps back even further, to show how the administrative state is utterly incompatible with the philosophical vision of America’s founding, and is rather the fruit of poisonous modern philosophies, deadly to any society based on natural right and reason.
Just in time for the first Democratic presidential debates, I have finished candidate Andrew Yang’s manifesto, The War on Normal People. From its title, which subversively suggests there is such a thing as normality, you can tell that Yang is trying to be different. From its subtitle, you can learn of Yang’s core big idea, universal basic income, UBI. I was prepared to be unimpressed, but really, the book is well written, and UBI, as Yang explains it, has a certain attraction, even though it’s utterly unachievable in a democratic system. In the coming less-democratic system, however, maybe there is something here we can use, and at least Yang is offering something new, which may get him traction in the Democratic field.
Richard Nixon’s name is often invoked, but what we hear, for the most part, is not history. Rather it is incantation, much like watching a medieval morality play, where every character has his place, and Nixon’s is Evil. Given this, John Farrell’s 2017 biography performs two services. The first is to go behind the stage and show Nixon in all his lost complexity. The second is to show how the destruction of Nixon has been used as the template in attempts to similarly destroy Donald Trump. For people like me, who did not live through the Nixon years and only know of him through the malevolent mumblings of senile Baby Boomers, lost in their delicious opium dreams of youth and JFK, this book is therefore most enlightening, both of the past and the present.
Michael Anton is the man who today best communicates the fractures among the Right. He identifies, and exemplifies, growing incompatibilities among conservatives, both on the issues of the day and in beliefs about desirable political structures. Anton first came to public notice under a pseudonym, Publius Decius Mus, writing in 2016 during the brief life of a pro-Trump blog, the Journal of American Greatness. In September of that year, Anton published a famous essay, “The Flight 93 Election.” His first point was that, like the passengers of Flight 93, Americans opposed to the permanent boot-stamping dominance of the Left had an existential choice. They could, as it were, charge the cockpit by taking a chance on Trump. Or they could passively accept Hillary, and face certain political death. His second point was that their behavior when faced with this choice showed that the conservative movement, as it exists now, was wholly worthless. These claims were, no surprise, controversial.