All posts filed under: American History

Breakfast with the Dirt Cult (Samuel Finlay)

In 1952, Ralph Ellison published, to great acclaim, his first and only novel, Invisible Man. The book narrated how Ellison’s protagonist, a black man, suffered social oppression. But that was long ago, and one thing black people definitely don’t suffer anymore is oppression. Rather, many dish it out, aided by their allies of other races, as seen most dramatically in the terroristic Floyd Riots, but it happens every day in every organization in America. The targets are, most of all, those at the bottom of today’s social hierarchy—heterosexual (that is, normal) white men outside the professional-managerial elite. And Samuel Finlay’s Breakfast with the Dirt Cult is, one might say, the new Invisible Man.

Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead (John Michael Greer)

I am both pessimist and optimist about our future. I expect our civilization, that of the West, to end entirely, and soon. Yet at the same time, I believe we can have an intensely bright future thereafter—not a return, certainly, but something wholly new, informed by the wisdom and knowledge of the past. Moreover, I think that technology, rightly ordered and used, will be a pillar of that future, if we reach it. John Michael Greer, a man hard to categorize politically, agrees with my pessimism, but not with my optimism, especially as regards the future use of technology. Today we will explore whether I should amend my beliefs, through the prism of Greer’s Dark Age America.

The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann (Ananyo Bhattacharya)

This is a disappointing book. Not awful, but not good. The Man from the Future manages to take the life of the polymath John von Neumann and to make it dull, never giving us any real sense of the man, although we do get some sense of his accomplishments. Beyond that, it’s filled with bad history about ancillary matters, making the reader wonder about the veracity of core biographical matters. And worst of all, the author, Ananyo Bhattacharya, wastes our time by endlessly trying to shoehorn into von Neumann’s story fantasy contributions by supposedly marginalized people, who are unknown because they did nothing worth noting. All this turns what might have been an excellent book into a chore.

Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic (Ben Westhoff)

Fentanyl, Inc. updates Sam Quinones’s seminal 2015 Dreamland, about the American opioid epidemic, focusing on the synthetic opioid fentanyl, the use of which has exploded in the past five years. No doubt, increasing drug use is a very important topic for the future of America. Unfortunately, Ben Westhoff’s book covers it in a disorganized and blinkered fashion, where the author shrinks from obvious conclusions. The title itself shows the problem. It implies some fictional central entity controls the fentanyl trade, and points the finger at imaginary “rogue chemists.” A much more accurate title would be Fentanyl: How the Chinese and the Mexicans Are Deliberately Killing Americans.

Underwriters of the United States: How Insurance Shaped the American Founding (Hannah Farber)

A review by me of this book has been published in the outstanding quarterly American Affairs, to which everyone should subscribe. The first paragraph, and a link to the entire review, and the journal itself, can be found below. Property insurance is everywhere, but it is rarely prominent in the public mind. Its internal workings are obscure, full of technical language, esoteric customs, and mind-numbing legalese. Most people give it little thought beyond what is absolutely necessary. Nonetheless, as Hannah Farber’s Underwriters of the United States makes clear, property insurance is a powerful social force in any complex economy. And surprisingly, this excellent academic analysis of underwriting in the American shipping industry, up until 1860, has much to say about America today. Most of all, it makes us consider how corporate entities, and more generally concentrations of private wealth and power, can and should interact, and be permitted to interact, with the rest of the nation. . . . . Read more at American Affairs!

The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World (James Burnham)

Who rules? That’s what we all want to know. The Managerial Revolution, James Burnham’s still-influential 1941 book (the subject, for example, of recent pieces by Aaron Renn and Julius Krein), gave that eternal question a fresh answer. Broadly speaking his was, we can see eighty years later, indisputably the correct analysis. Burnham agreed that capitalism, private enterprise as the engine of the ruling class, was dying, the usual opinion in that tumultuous time, but made the entirely new claim that what would replace it was not, as most assumed, socialism, but a new thing. Namely, the ascent of managers, a new ruling class, who would hugely expand government and use it to mold society into new forms for their own benefit.

Fitzpatrick’s War (Theodore Judson)

Fitzpatrick’s War, a prophetic 2004 work of fiction, which I read on a whim, has, somewhat to my surprise, stuck deeply in my mind. Not only does the book echo events that have happened since its publication, it also bids fair to predict the broad outlines of the immediate future. What is more, Fitzpatrick’s War caused me to think about two other topics that interest me, which as it happens are the central themes of this book. First, as our civilization falls backwards in confusion, can we arrest and reverse apparently-inevitable decline? And, not obviously related, but in fact necessarily related, what will God’s judgment be on violence, even arguably-justified violence, that is the certain result of civilizational upheaval?

Young Men and Fire (Norman Maclean)

Not long ago, as I wrote, I was listening to a playlist on Spotify (I listen to music when I write, but never when I read). It was Spotify’s weekly list of suggested songs based on listening history—for me, a mix of genres, heavy on thumping EDM (electronic dance music), my preferred writing music, but also indie folk. One song caught my attention—“Cold Missouri Waters,” a haunting song about thirteen smokejumpers dying while fighting a forest fire. I was interested enough to look up the song, and found it relates a true story, equally haunting—the Mann Gulch Fire, in 1949. And from there I found this classic work, now thirty years old.

America Moved: Booth Tarkington’s Memoirs of Time and Place, 1869–1928 (Jeremy Beer)

A hundred years ago, Booth Tarkington was probably the most famous and successful author in America. But today, even in Indiana, his birthplace and the state with which he is forever associated, and where I live, Tarkington is forgotten. Purdue University has a dormitory, Tarkington Hall, at which my late father was a faculty advisor. Pathetically, the Hall’s website says of Tarkington only that he was “a Purdue student of two years who as an alumnus, made multiple generous donations to Purdue.” Time has left Tarkington behind. Perhaps this is fitting, though, because he was entranced and bound by nostalgia, an understandable but ultimately pointless guiding principle.