This book defies easy characterization. It is, to be sure, a biography of the last of the great German medieval emperors, Frederick II Hohenstaufen. But it vibrates with a subdued roar under the surface. By turns it is fierce, melodramatic, evocative, pitying, and electric. Maybe, in 1927, with Germany at its nadir, Ernst Kantorowicz was trying to channel the modern age of steel and thunder, translating it through the works of a long-dead megalomaniac king into a hoped-for new era. Or maybe he aimed to wake the ancient ghost of Frederick, stirring him from his long sleep in the Kyffhäuser Mountains. Either way, Kantorowicz did see reborn the German energies he thought should be reborn. But as with most summoned spirits, the rebirth did not advantage the summoner.
Rusty Reno, editor of the prominent religious conservative journal First Things, here couples an original diagnosis of how we got to the vicious decay of now with very muted prescriptions. This is a good enough book, earnest and intent, but it is cramped. Reno offers as an alternative not strong gods, nor even coherent positive visions of the nationalism and populism of the title, but only the tired and repeatedly failed call to return, though some unspecified mechanism, to vaguely conceived virtue. I’m all for virtue, but Reno refuses to acknowledge that, more likely, and more desirable, the strong gods are those who will inevitably, as Kipling said, with fever and slaughter return, to scour the Earth in preparation for the rebirth of actual, living virtue.
I am fascinated by what is to come. For someone who came of age imbibing the narrow, facile, weak, always-second-place conservative pieties of the late 1980s and the 1990s, the chaotic fluidity of today’s Right is something entirely new. There are no straight lines of sight; all is a jumble of splintered mirrors. In this chaos, of which Trump is only one manifestation, it is a sign of something, or rather of many things, that this self-published book by an pseudonymous author, calling for adoption of a supposed ethics of the Bronze Age, is receiving a lot of attention. And as much as I hate to admit it, or think I hate to admit it, the philosophy that runs through this book is likely to drive a lot of discourse, and action, in coming years.
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.
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.
Among the many idols of our age, there is one that rules them all: John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, the belief that an individual’s choices may never be legitimately hampered, by anyone at all, except if he is harming others. Bizarrely, this idea, radical in 1860 when Mill published On Liberty, has now even been enshrined as the core principle of our Constitution, at least if you believe Anthony Kennedy and the majority of the Supreme Court. This book, of which you have probably never heard, was published in 1873 and is regarded as the best contemporaneous refutation of Mill. Maybe it is, but its refutation is too narrowly based and accepts far too many of Mill’s premises. It is a start to overthrowing the golden calf, but only a start.
I am in an odd position with respect to Hungary. Because I’m half Hungarian, speak the language (rustily now) and two decades ago spent nearly a year there, I know much more than most Americans. In fact, the first post-Communist prime minister, József Antall, was my grandfather’s first cousin. On the other hand, my knowledge of current Hungarian events is gleaned mostly from English-language media, which is almost all both grossly ignorant and grossly biased. Lasse Skytt, a Danish journalist resident in Hungary, has arrived to help me out, by offering an excellent neutral view of Hungarian politics, deliberately designed to be purely informative, rather than polemical.
The American conservative movement is traditionally dated to 1955, the date William F. Buckley started National Review to “stand athwart history.” For decades, conservatives looked back to that event as some combination of Moses parting the Red Sea and Prometheus bringing fire to Man. Some still do, dreaming misty-eyed of the past as they fumble for their dentures. But it is obvious, in retrospect, that nothing Buckley did ever accomplished anything. On the contrary, he and his myrmidons, like Judas, delivered America bound into the hands of its enemies.
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.
In Conformity, Cass Sunstein takes common sense about how decisions are informed, and distorted, by social pressure and makes it both better and worse. Better, because he shows why common sense is confirmed by logic and experiment. Worse, because he makes it feel pedantic. But if you reflect on the discussions in this book, and apply them to current events and your own thinking, you can get some interest and excitement back into your brain, and maybe benefit yourself and society as well.