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.
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.
I hate milk. I find many of the recipes in this book frankly loathsome, were I to try them, which I won’t. On the other hand, I like science and history (and ice cream). So despite my stomach churning at some of the recipes and descriptions, I actually enjoyed reading this book.
Last month, in December 2016, maybe as a Christmas gift to himself, Thomas Sowell announced that he was retiring. Technically, he announced that he was retiring from writing a syndicated column, but at age 86, it seems likely that he does not intend to write any new books, either. This is unfortunate, but his work is done. There can be little doubt that Sowell’s many works, taken together, by themselves would be adequate to educate someone raised by wolves on everything any person needs to know about economics, political economy, and much of history.
[This is a reaction requested from me regarding a Washington Post article, by Alex Nowrasteh, titled “The right has its own version of political correctness. It’s just as stifling.”] This is not convincing, because it posits a false analogy. (It is also extremely badly written.) The analogy is false because it falsely defines “political correctness.” Conservatives don’t regard PC as bad because it shows that people have strong feelings, or because those feelings are believed to be irrational. (A side note: PC has been around for 30 years, not 10. See my review of Thiel’s “The Diversity Myth,” which was written in 1996.) They regard PC as bad because in wide swathes of America, and disproportionately in elite occupations, it is used as both reason and mechanism to punish those who fail to toe the line on whatever today’s PC orthodoxy is. (That orthodoxy, and the weighting of its different tenets, as with any religion substitute ideology, shifts constantly—see, e.g., transgender rights.) That is, PC imports ideological concepts as a tool to punish and silence ideological opponents, …
Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe” is in some ways an original book, and in some ways not. It’s original in that it applies the truism that modern Western life is alienating specifically to the mental issues afflicting veterans. It’s not original in that, although he seems not to know it, his book is an entry in a long line of books identifying and analyzing the alienation of individuals common in modern American society. Those books long since identified and discuss what Junger ignores—that intermediary institutions, now largely defunct, alleviated this alienation in times past. Instead, Junger posits a false dichotomy—between the tribal life of community and modern American life, ignoring that society long since developed structures, now fallen into abeyance, to provide that small-scale community in the midst of a large society.
“Liberal Fascism” is really a history book, not the book of political analysis I expected it to be. I didn’t love this book (written in 2007—apparently a 2009 version is updated to include talk about Obama), even though it’s famous among conservatives. I’m not sure why I didn’t love this book. Maybe it’s because despite the book’s aggressive thesis, it is over-careful not to give offense. Maybe I think its thesis is overstated. Maybe it’s because the strain of combining a complete history, intellectual analysis, and polemic regarding the American Left for the past century shows, in lacunae in the book. Or maybe it’s because the style of writing, which I would call “unflashy expository,” just isn’t compelling to me. Nonetheless, I still think the book is very much worth reading, because the history it relates is valuable to know.
“The Fractured Republic” is a fantastically original book. It is very optimistic, yet clear-eyed, which is a rare combination. Most optimistic books about modern politics are also simplistic. They typically consist of vague and belligerent paeans demanding the recapture of America’s past. Yuval Levin’s book, on the other hand, is the very opposite. It is precise and even-handed. And far from demanding recapture of the past, Levin explicitly rejects any such attempt. At the same time, Levin believes that we as Americans, liberal and conservative, can jointly renew our society without retreading the past, and in this age, such optimism is no small thing.
Like Daniel Burnham, Francis Fukuyama makes no small plans. “The Origins of Political Order” aspires to be nothing less than an all-encompassing explanation of how human beings created political order. This book carries Fukuyama’s analysis up to the French Revolution; a second volume carries the story to the modern day. This volume is mostly taken up with creating and discussing a coherent framework that explains political order before the modern era. Much of what Fukuyama discusses here is non-Western societies, which makes it particularly interesting.