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.
This is a strange little Colonial-era book that, nonetheless, tells us something about America today. It was written by a protean Frenchman, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur. Born French, in Caen, he fought on the Plains of Abraham for Montcalm, and was wounded. He then became a British citizen, married, and settled down to farm in the Hudson Valley in 1769. But he did not want to take sides in the War of Independence, so he went back to France, and returned to America only in 1783. This book was published to wide acclaim in 1782, and the most interesting part of it, by far, is Crèvecœur’s anguished description of how, despite his hopes for the Enlightenment making all men better, it didn’t, as shown by the hatreds and violence engendered by the war.
I have always had a fascination with the 1950s, even though they ended many years before I was born. But I know little that is not trivia or surface knowledge. My excuse is that it seems difficult to find good histories of the 1950s that are not either narrowly focused or crammed with ideological claptrap blended with Baby Boomer preening (David Halberstam’s awful The Fifties is an example of such a combination). This book, William Hitchcock’s The Age of Eisenhower, seemed like a reasonable way to try to expand my knowledge.
I am almost ashamed to review this book. It is like reviewing Fifty Shades of Grey—the mere fact that someone publicly admits he has read it degrades both him and his listeners. My only defense is that Steve Bannon has repeatedly stated this book is a major influence on his thought. He’s a clever man. So I sought wisdom by following his lead, but instead, I got a rotten egg. While I still have a great deal of respect for Bannon, having read this book, the Respect-O-Meter has dropped by roughly 60%. He may gain the respect back, for example by correctly predicting the results of, and the impact of, this coming May’s elections to the European Parliament. But it will be a task, after subjecting me to The Fourth Turning.
My great-grandmother’s cousin, William Pridham, was a rider for the Pony Express. This is not a family legend, as are many Pony Express stories; he is listed in the Appendix to this book, which is a crisp, compelling story of the brief life of that once-iconic American enterprise. The family connection is really why I picked this book to read, and I was not disappointed in my choice.
In 2002, the law firm for which I worked was involved in the Dollar General debacle, helping clean up the mess after the company restated financial statements due to massive accounting fraud. I didn’t know much about Dollar General at the time. But I do remember that a firm partner told me that one of the company’s directors had succinctly described their business model to him. “We sell shit, to poor people.” Cal Turner, Jr., has written this book to explain that business model and his part in it.