Joan Williams wants to “Overcome Class Cluelessness in America.” This is an admirable goal, and in many ways this is an admirable book (or brochure—it’s very short). But reading White Working Class (which, despite its title, gives equal time to both the white and black working class) makes the reader squirm. The reader appreciates the author’s, Joan Williams’s, attempts to objectively examine her class, that of the “professional-management elite,” or “PME,” but winces at her frequent inability to actually understand the working class, or to view the working class other than primarily as potential foot soldiers in the march of progressive politics.
Already before I began writing this review, I was worn out reading books with a similar theme, that of Christian renewal, including Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land. I was already going to retire and turn to reading biographies for a while. It is not, of course, Reno’s fault that this is the final book I read in the chain. I have tried to ensure that my being worn out does not color my perception of the book. Nonetheless, I was disappointed in this book. While what it says has value, and Reno’s heart is in the right place, his book is largely derivative and superficial, and it omits, for all practical purposes, any real plan for achieving the goal of its title.
This is the second volume of historian Steven Hayward’s voluminous biography of Ronald Reagan. As with any modern, widely documented life, “voluminous” does not mean “comprehensive”—there is no such thing, and Reagan in particular is the type of man who, when writing about, the biographer must select his facts and weave them into a coherent whole that takes the measure of the man. In this Hayward succeeds brilliantly, while simultaneously illuminating the America of the 1980s—for as I noted when reviewing the first volume, this biography is about the Age of Reagan, not merely Reagan himself. But compared to that first volume, this volume, subtitled The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989 is much more about Reagan and less about his times. Or rather, it is about his times, but viewed nearly exclusively through the prism of Reagan, who after all molded those times more than any other human being. The first volume viewed the times largely through other prisms, including most notably Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Here, the focus settles and stays on Reagan himself.
Tyler Cowen is a popular economist, known for an influential blog (Marginal Revolution) and a set of books on economics directed at a general audience. In Average Is Over, a book from 2013, Cowen predicts an American future of increased economic (and thus social) division, as new technology enables those most conversant with it to profit, and forces others to be paid less as they become relatively less productive. This is a common historical occurrence, of course, where those whose skills are no longer valued by the market, from hand weavers to buggy whip makers to floppy disk craftsmen, must ultimately retire or retool, often never regaining their previous income, though the economy as a whole, and thus average and median income, expand in the long run despite short- and medium-term pain and dislocations. The difference in Cowen’s analysis is that he forecasts a permanent division, the result of ever-improving radically new technology and the failure of some, or many, to properly orient themselves with respect to that technology.
Twenty years ago, that liberal Baal, philosopher Martha Nussbaum, assigned me to read The Golden Bowl, by Henry James. She said it was the best book she had ever read. Maybe it was, but it was unreadable, and I am just as smart as Nussbaum. The problem with The Golden Bowl is that you know Henry James is very bright, yet you have to struggle so much to get at the meaning that you wonder if there is any meaning there—or is it all just a parlor trick to gratify the author’s vanity and flatter the reader who claims to understand? But, certainly, the weight of learned opinion favors Henry James as a genius and me as an imbecile. A similar freighted opacity characterizes Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger. As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on who’s the imbecile.
I did not like this book as much as I expected. In part that’s because, as an American, a narrative of British decline resonates with me less deeply, simply because much of the culture, politics and daily life of Britain is not familiar to me. In part it’s because the book is written in a somewhat didactic, overly episodic, fragmented fashion. But mostly, I think, it’s because I’m weary of conservative jeremiads that don’t offer any constructive recommendations on what to do. After all, as my mother used to tell me, “if there’s no solution, there’s no problem.” Conservatives who bemoan how bad things have gotten (and they have gotten very much worse in Britain since this book was written, 1999, or even since it was re-issued with a new Introduction, 2008) need to offer real alternatives and solutions, or they might as well not bother.
This is a silly and shallow book. But it is not worthless, because it serves to exemplify and clarify modern political fracture lines. In the West, the major political split today is between those who view the modern liberal project of maximum individual freedom and maximum democracy (as long as the voters make the correct choices) as the ultimate and unquestionable good, and those who view that project as either inherently defective or sharply limited in the good it brings to humanity. If Ryszard Legutko, in his criticism of European “liberal-democracy” in The Demon in Democracy, had conjured that demon to physical form, it would be James Kirchick—although, perhaps, Kirchick would manifest only as an imp or familiar, in thrall to some greater demon lurking in the wings, such as George Soros.
The Benedict Option is, as I expected, an outstanding book. Rod Dreher has definitively shown that he is the Pope Urban of a new and dynamic movement, and this book has occasioned much commentary in the mainstream press. Unfortunately, the main point of Dreher’s book—to make a countercultural call for individual and group Christian renewal focused on communities of believers—has been somewhat lost in a secondary point, the real and growing persecution of Christian believers in mainstream society. This was inevitable, I suppose, because persecution is more interesting to outsiders than a call to holiness, but unfortunate, because it caricatures Dreher and tends to erode receptivity to his message.
Reading this book is like wearing sackcloth and heaping ashes on your head. It certainly brings home to you that things have gone wrong, but unless the act of penance itself calls forth redemption, which sadly today it does not, without further action it only makes you feel bad and gets you dirty.
This book, a book of essays, is effectively a companion to Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon In Democracy. The core theme of both books is that “liberal democracy” is inherently defective; the books explore why and what that implies. Whereas Legutko’s project is to compare liberal democracy to Communism, to explain their similarities and what that has meant for post-Communist Europe, Patrick Deneen’s is to explain how the American founding itself implies liberal democracy, and therefore, in a culture that needs renewal from the evils created by liberal democracy, conservatives are wrong to call for a return to the Founding—for, like the serpent in the Garden, the evil has been there since the beginning.