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 trying to understand how human beings create value through their actions, and what that implies for humanity. Although this goal is hardly original, and has occupied much brighter thinkers than me for much of their lives, it is a necessary step in defining Foundationalism, because how we occupy our hands and minds, and what effects that has on us and society, are critical components of human flourishing. And the economic path we have been on for the past several decades has led to the opposite of human flourishing, surface appearances notwithstanding. To guide us to flourishing, we must understand why that is, and what can be done differently.
I am a Sohrab Ahmari fanboy. I endorse his recent full-throated calls for creation of a post-liberal future, and admire that he has boldly claimed the mantle of leadership. What matter if Ahmari’s prescriptions are not yet fully coherent? The mark of a true leader is one who can inspire others to follow him. A man who claims to know with precision every step along the way, and the solution for every problem, is an ideologue or a grifter, not a man of destiny. This short book, Ahmari’s first, though barely three years old, is interesting primarily not for its topic, the ideological degradation of contemporary art. Rather, it’s interesting for what it shows about the arc of Ahmari’s thinking, about the march of post-liberalism, and about how art relates to post-liberalism.
We in America have long thought highly of ourselves. This feeling crested during the early Cold War, when most Americans believed that our “system,” our way of life, was superior to any other—especially Communism, but more broadly any based on any other values. Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize winner, was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974 because he was too famous to be killed. We initially praised him; he vigorously attacked Communism, and we assumed that meant he endorsed our American system. But he disabused us of that assumption in this famous speech, given as the Harvard commencement speaker in 1978. The reaction of the American elite was frothing fury, and Solzhenitsyn was cast out from polite society. Examining his speech now, forty years later, we can see what Solzhenitsyn got right, and what he got wrong.
High architecture, that of grand buildings, is a bridge between God and man, and a sinew binding state and people, the ruling class and the masses. Low architecture, that of daily living and daily use, is key to satisfaction in the life of a populace. Thus, a coherent and uplifting architecture, high and low, is, and has always been, necessary for any successful society. I will return below to what architecture we should have, why, and what needs to be done to achieve it. Today, though, we most definitely don’t have a coherent and uplifting architecture, and Robert Stevens Curl, in Making Dystopia, explains what the abomination of Modernism is and why it utterly dominates our current architecture.
Last year, I went to the State Fair, and simply sat and watched the people pass by. The vast majority were lower class, and looked it. I tried, for a change, to ignore the externals and imagine myself conversing with individuals with whom, to an outside observer, I have nothing in common. Chris Arnade wrote Dignity to document a similar exercise, though one far more in-depth. He travelled the country, talking to many people from the lower classes, what he calls the “back row.” Then he wrote up what he had learned, and added a great deal by filling the book with pictures, so that the reader can perform the same exercise I did at the State Fair, and ponder respect and the back row in today’s society.
I am often asked to define my political program, Foundationalism. In essence, this is a request to state its core principles. The ultimate, first-level principle of Foundationalism, is that it is a politics of future past. It is to be a new thing, informed by the wisdom of the old, constructed around what is past, what is passing, and what is to come. Given that, what are the second-level principles of Foundationalism? I am just as interested in the answer as are my questioners. Some of Foundationalism’s principles are, if you read my writing, fairly obvious, at least in outline. But one surprises many: Space, or more precisely, the conquest of Space by mankind.
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.
Liquid Rules, like most good books in its genre, explains in an interesting way why certain things are the way they are. This is popularized science, and such books tend to fall into one of two categories, straight science or politicized science. I could have, if I had wanted to read the latter on vacation, picked instead The Uninhabitable Earth, a recent screed on global warming by David Wallace-Wells. Fortunately, however, I chose wisely, and therefore learned a few things while enjoying myself, instead of choking on the dry and boring leftovers of global warming alarmism.
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 …