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.
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.