The great social argument of this instant is whether everyone should now, because of the Wuhan Plague, be required to wear face masks, and if so, under what circumstances. Today, therefore, I will offer a complete analysis of mask wearing, something I have seen nowhere else. True, I normally disdain writing about transitory matters, which this likely is, but the Plague and the varied reactions to it in the policy realm say much that reflects light onto broader and more permanent topics, and this is particularly true of masks, arguments about which condense matters of greater import.
Starship Troopers, sixty years old, is a famous work of science fiction. As with most Robert Heinlein novels, the point is more the ideas than plot or character. Heinlein therefore often swerves dangerously close to message fiction, but it never becomes intolerable. This book is Heinlein’s vehicle to explain who he thinks should rule a society and what principles should inform that ruling class’s actions. His main goal is to attack universal suffrage as stupid, which is true enough, although his proposed alternative is too artificial. While I’m interested in the franchise today, and its relationship to aristocracy and hierarchy, I’m equally interested in secondary aspects of the book, in particular what the role of women should be, if any, in the military.
Years ago, I lived in Budapest with an elderly Hungarian relative, my grandfather’s cousin. She had lived through World War II as a young woman. One day, as we were eating lunch, she reminisced about the Russian invasion and conquest of Hungary in 1945, which she survived. She looked at me and said (in Hungarian), “Always remember, when you are grown and are a powerful man, that war is a terrible thing.” We all know this, but it is easy to forget the personal impact of war—both on soldiers and on everyone else in a society. This uneven book is a reminder of those costs, and an opportunity to ponder when they are worth paying, as civil war slouches ever closer to us.
Do any American children learn about William Tell today? Do any Swiss children learn about him? Very few, if any, I suspect. My children do, but only because last year I was reminded of William Tell by Ernst Jünger’s The Forest Passage, and so I went and bought what few children’s books are still in print about the Swiss hero. Among those was The Apple and the Arrow, winner of the Newberry Medal in 1952, which I have just finished reading to my children, to their great delight.
Almost always one reads a book of future-looking political theory long before or long after its substance has been proven or disproven. It is quite another experience to observe theory offered just yesterday as it morphs today into reality. So it is with The Decadent Society, released in February, a month ago. It sharply identifies our problems, and speaks abstractly of possible futures for both America and the rest of the world, in which our problems are solved, or not. But all changed futures require a mechanism of change, that in February we were lacking. Now, the Wuhan coronavirus, and, much more importantly, its knock-on effects, have delivered a possible mechanism, and a changed future rises in the shadows. History has, perhaps, returned.
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.
For Americans who think that so-called liberal democracy is neither, and in any case is a dead end, successful modern societies with a different political model always intrigue. In the West, notable such are Hungary and Poland, who have effectively executed a mild and tentative turn away from the most extreme vices of liberal democracy, though there is a long way to go. Singapore, which has apparently successfully blended economic success, certain virtues, and limited democracy, offers another possible model, one with a longer track record. Unfortunately, Singapore’s example is of very limited use to a future well-run America, and this book of the thoughts of Lee Kuan Yew, who built modern Singapore, helps show why.
We live in an age lacking dynamic leadership. We are instead led, if one can call it that, by men who are clowns, feminized, or confused—or, often, by confused feminized clowns. The idea of a charismatic, ambitious, intelligent, unapologetically masculine leader has entirely vanished from our minds, in part because we see no examples among us, and in part because we are indoctrinated such men are retrograde and properly consigned to the past, and we should accept our new, apparently vat-grown, “leaders,” typically resembling some hybrid of John Kerry and Trigglypuff. Still, a heretical little voice whispers to us, pointing out that eras of human flourishing and accomplishment are always led by men of glory, and asking us, why is that?
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.
We all like to imagine ourselves as heroes. We watch movies, and we instinctively put ourselves in the place of the hero, not in the place of the villain. We read the histories of twentieth-century tyrannies, and we assume we would be the resistance fighter, not the collaborator, informer, or toady to the new archons. Maybe we would be heroes. But probably not, if history is any guide. Czeslaw Milosz’s 1951 The Captive Mind explores, through the author’s personal experience, what motivates seemingly morally strong, thoughtful men to instead cooperate with, and often embrace, evil. Sadly, this question is as relevant today as seventy years ago, which makes this book very much worth reading for its insights into the future, as well as into the past.