This book was once famous, but was mostly forgotten when Communism died and so-called liberal democracy seemed ascendant. It is increasingly famous again, and relevant, in these days of a new creeping totalitarianism, this time in the West itself. Such timelessness is the signature of a classic work, so my goal today is to explicate Václav Havel’s thought, and to show why its time has come round again.
Cass Sunstein has gathered an ensemble cast of today’s intellectual Davoisie (several of whom taught me in law school) to tell us, in seventeen separate essays, whether Trump is the harbinger of American structural doom, and if so, how. It is illuminating to read this book immediately after having read Glenn Reynolds’s The Judiciary’s Class War, with its distinction between the ruling Front-Row Kids and the ruled Back-Row Kids. This is because ultimately nearly all the authors presented here believe that “it” can’t, or is extremely unlikely to, “happen here,” because they expect the Front-Row Kids to be able to stop “it.” That is, in different ways but with the same result, the authors expect that people just like them will continue to rule, Trump and the peasants be damned.
In the past few years, a variety of liberal academics have adopted a Gorillas in the Mist sensibility when trying to understand conservatives. Like Dian Fossey, they creep, wearing a ghillie suit, through thick and steamy jungles alien to them, hoping to grasp what it is that makes these creatures tick. Sometimes they become fond of these primates, and in their own clumsy way, try to improve their lives by protecting them from threats they appear too dumb to see. Like Fossey, most of them are obsessives with tunnel vision, bound in chains by premises invisible to them. Katherine Cramer, author of The Politics of Resentment, fits right into this model, even if Wisconsin is a long way from Rwanda, and a lot colder. She offers us a book that is half morality play, half sociology study, and all clueless.
Republican Like Me belongs to a certain phenotype, which we can call the “anti-jeremiad.” Whether on the Left or the Right, people of good will sometimes write a book after discovering what they did not earlier know about their political opponents. They make those discoveries by exposing themselves to opposing thoughts and attempting to understand the people who hold them. Thus enlightened, they attempt to find common ground, lamenting the polarization of today’s American society. Probably because the educated Right necessarily is necessarily continuously exposed to the thought of the educated Left, and not vice versa, such anti-jeremiads can mostly be found by authors from the Left. A classic of the genre is Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, which largely parallels Ken Stern’s book, although Hochschild offers more focus on the personal likeability of her political opponents, and Stern’s voyage of discovery offers more focus on the plausibility of their arguments. There is always room for another, though, and this genre has rarely been as well done or as timely as in this …
Mark Lilla has been a bad, bad boy. He has dared to point out the feet of clay upon which stand King Liberal, and he, like Cassandra, will not be thanked. Still, this short book is an excellent political analysis, and it points the way, if only loosely, to a wholly new order of things, thus starting to answer my perennial question, “What is next?
In the distant past—five months ago—I believed our country could heal its divisions. Sure, we’d always have disagreements, and sure, our new President was always going to be unpopular with a lot of people. But, after all, he had won a democratic election. The Left would regroup, consider why its offerings had been rejected, and perhaps dial back its extremism. But I was wrong. The Left has instead doubled down on hatred. This was shown yesterday, when the fear and anger created and nurtured by the Left over the past two decades, deliberately whipped to a fever pitch in the past months, caused the first attempted political assassinations of Republican Congressmen. In this harsh light, the split of the country originally posited by Kurt Schlichter in People’s Republic no longer seems as unrealistic as I thought in my November 2016 review of that book. As Schlichter accurately says, “Yes, the Left hates Trump, but its hatred is really for us.”
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.
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.
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.
[This colloquy sprang from a Facebook discussion (largely, but not always, an oxymoron) about “fake news,” which I alleged may exist, but not in the sense used by the Left, and that in the sense used by the Left, it was merely a proxy for suppression of conservative speech. As always, italics are my interlocutor.]