100 books in 2020, Big Books in 2021

My big picture reading goal in 2020 was to finally crack the 100 books in a year mark which I have been approaching for a few years. I was able to accomplish that and so look for a different approach in The Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty-One.

Side note: I always feel a little guilty about counting graphic novels, novellas and other forms of very short books in my books I have read count. But this is in tension with my desire to read 100 books and to track every book I have read. And to be fair, I listened to a number of audio courses which are equal to quite large books given the number of hours involved. So I will call it even.

I will admit to sometimes being put off by very large books for two reasons. 1) hard to get to 100 if you are reading large tomes 2) I struggle to stay engaged and get a lot out of large books because I don’t always have the large blocks of time required to read such books well. I started thinking about this even as I was on track to read 100 books in 2020.

But as a way to challenge myself and read some books that I have had on my TBR pile for some time and have had recommended to me multiple times, I decided to declare 2021 the year of big books.

I also want to attempt to focus on some key interest areas in my reading: classics, books on conservatism, books on writing and books on faith and/or theology.

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The central mode of contemporary progressive politics & the reciprocation of the The Right?

Kevin Williamson has some bracing and provocative analysis/commentary in his weekly newsletter, The Tuesday, this week:

Defining the limits of respectability is, in fact, the central mode of contemporary progressive politics. Contemporary American progressives do not engage with conservative ideas or nonconforming political opinion — they simply attempt to define those as infra dig and outside of the boundaries of that which polite intellectual society is obliged to consider.

The Right has reciprocated, in its way. And that is a big part of what the Trump phenomenon is all about: so-called nationalists who despise the commanding heights of American culture, politics, and business, along with the institutions associated with them. Hence the bumptious anti-“elitism” of contemporary conservatives whose creed is “American Greatness” but who sneer at the parts of the country where most of the people and the money are, who sing hymns of national glory while abominating the East Coast, the West Coast, the major cities, the Ivy League, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the major cultural institutions (and, indeed, high culture itself as effete and elitist), the political parties, trade associations, broad swathes of the economy (“financialization”), newspapers — even the churches, as conservative American Christians (from Catholic to Evangelical) embrace a new antinomianism based not in religion but in the politics of cultural resentment.

Williamson goes on to point out how all of this has little connection to the “Real America” we hear so much about these days but alas:

There is much that is in need of reform in American life. But reform is not very much in fashion among populists, who are ensorcelled by the much more exciting prospect of revolution — and destruction.

This gets a bit at why I feel so politically and ideologically homeless these days.  Not quite comfortable in the “establishment” wing of the GOP having serious questions about foreign policy, and the overall direction of Bush era GOP for lack of a better term, but also not comfortable with the Trump world and the at least adjacent anti-elite/populists.

If you haven’t already, I recommend you subscribe to The Tuesday.  Interesting commentary and always some fund language stuff too.

Jonah Goldberg on Post-Liberal Conservatism

Where the post-liberals have a point is that humans are happiest in communities, families and institutions of faith. The solution to the culture wars is to allow more freedom for these “little platoons” of civil society from which people draw a sense of meaning and belonging. If Sacramento wants Drag Queen Story Hour, so be it. If some other community holds a socially conservative version of the same, that’s fine too.

What America needs is less talk of national unity — from the left or the right — and more freedom to let people live the way they want to live, not just as individuals, but as members of local communities. We don’t need to move past liberalism, we need to return to it.

Jonah Goldberg

If you must choose …

“I suggest that if you must choose, it is better to be poor and free than to be snug and a slave. I suggest that if you must choose, it is better to live in peril, but with justice, than to live on a summit of material power, but unjustly. I suggest that if you must choose, it is better to stand up as a suffering man than to lie down as a satisfied animal.”

Barry Goldwater (in a speech written by Russell Kirk), via Russell Kirk: American Conservative by Bradley J. Birzer

Before You Wake: Life Lessons from a Father to His Children by Erick Erickson

One of the weird things about my lingering inability to post book reviews with any sort of consistency is that I have continued to read; often quite a lot.  Last year I read/listened to 100 books!

One of those was Before You Wake: Life Lessons from a Father to His Children
by Erick Erickson.  Like so many, I never got around to posting a review of the book here.  Well, today is his birthday so I got the idea that maybe I should finally offer my thoughts on his book.

It is not easy to review books by people you consider friends; even if the friendship is mostly online rather than in person. I have known Erick for many years, and consider him a friend even if we have met only on a couple of occasions. Although our politics are both conservative, we bring quite different perspectives to blogging and politics.  But I have always appreciated the passion and insight Erick brings.  Plus, he is famous and I am not … So take that for whatever it is worth.

What struck me about this book was how personal it is. It has the flavor of a memoir rather than an advice book. And then there are recipes at the end. But it makes sense somehow because you can tell how much joy cooking, eating and entertaining give to Erick.

Erick offers insight into how he became the person he is today not in terms of his political philosophy but in terms of personality and interests. His childhood, in the US and in the Middle East, made a big impression on him. He recalls with relish and joy his experiences. At times you might wonder what it all means and how it ties together. But I think it is just something that Erick believes made hims who he is. And he is trying to capture that for his children and for readers who might be interested.

The other aspect that comes through is how increasingly Erick is viewing his life through the lens of his faith and his community rather than through politics and elections. He stresses over and over again that what he wants for his children is that they love God, love their family and seek to be part of a community that reflects the Creator; that they love their neighbors and serve others.

This is not a radical idea from a Christian perspective, but for those who only know Erick from partisan politics, and the world of talking heads and talk radio, this might seem oddly communitarian and localist. As tribalism, and with it a toxic public square, has come to dominate our politics Erick has clearly felt called to something different. Admittedly, he struggles with how that looks like day-to-day but his preference for something different comes through clearly in this short book.

His family’s medical challenges, his career path in the often unstable world of political commentary, and his growing fame online, on TV and on the radio, all provide opportunities to learn and grown.  Erick walks the reader through these events and seeks to pull our pearls of wisdom to offer his children.  There is nothing particularly profound but there is also plenty of advice worth taking.

I always used to joke online that the biggest secret about Erick was that he was a really nice guy involved in an often ugly business. This book brings that “secret” out into the open. Erick’s mantra might be boiled down to faith, family, friends and food. Seek community and connection in these, he tells his children, and you will find purpose and meaning. 

I doubt a lot of people who disagree with Erick’s politics have or will read this book.  Which is a shame because we could do with a world where more people got to know each other who disagree.  And this book will help you understand Erick Erickson the person rather than Erick the talking head or Erick the radio host.  It won’t change your mind but it might change how you see pundits and those in the news. 

Plus, if you happen to be a foodie or cook, you get the added bonus of what sound like a bunch of delicious recipes.

Suicide of the West and Its Critics

The first part of my review of Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg sought to outline the book’s argument (1900 word outline, I know).  In this post I want to address some of the critics of the book and thus explore the tensions noted at the start of my review.

Many of Goldberg’s critics charge that he ruled out the answer that must underlie any true restoration or rehabilitation of our society: God.  I think this is an unfair criticism in a couple of ways; tactical and philosophical.

From a tactical standpoint, they ignore the fact that Goldberg removes God for the sake of argument not because he is an atheist or thinks religion plays no role.  He is aiming at persuasion in a democratic public square where reason and decency are the highest form of argument. To argue from the perspective of faith would be to lose a sizable chunk of his audience from the very beginning.

Philosophically, Goldberg is arguing from a position of pluralism and common ground because he believes it is the best way to defend and shore up the blessings of the Miracle.  The book is full of calls for strengthening and restoring civil society, for creating space for institutional pluralism, for refusing to ground meaning in national political symbols and language.  The place for religious values and faith to flourish is in this system, not in a hoped for near universal faith-based worldview or culture.

Two critiques/reviews are worth noting.  Let’s start with Jonah Goldberg’s Soulless Case for Liberty by Richard M. Reinsch II.  Allow me to quote a section that represents the heart of this critique:

Does the Enlightenment Miracle provide the best understanding of America? And if it doesn’t—if in fact there are better tributaries that nourished the American Founding—does that mean that Goldberg’s diagnosis of what ails America will be similarly off-target?

This is not to affirm Rousseau’s political project, but it is to say that you have to take the rough with the smooth. If you are going to set the Enlightenment Miracle as the standard of human excellence, one that we are losing, you must also clearly state the dialectic it introduces of an exaltation of reason, power, and science that can become something rather illiberal. If man’s mind constitutes reality, then truly how far are you from arriving at Marx’s famous admonition that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

Frankly, I do not have the philosophical or historical chops to untangle the arguments Reinsch makes regarding Locke, et al.  But there are two basic points worth highlighting. One is the argument that the excesses of the Enlightenment are part and parcel of the Enlightenment.  In this view if you are going to celebrate the good, you must include the bad in the accounting; if you accept the blessing of the Miracle you must also accept Marxism, Communism, Scientism and a host of other extremes.

John Daniel Davidson’s review follows similar lines:

The fundamental problem with his argument is that it rests on an incomplete account of the Enlightenment and the liberal order. Yes, the Miracle gave us capitalism and democracy, but it also gave us hyper-individualism, scientism, and communism. It gave us liberty and universal suffrage, but it also gave us abortion, euthanasia, and transgenderism. The abolition of man was written into the Enlightenment, in other words, and the suicide of the West that Goldberg warns us about isn’t really a suicide at all, because it isn’t really a choice: we aren’t committing suicide, we’re dying of natural causes.

[…]

If Goldberg wants to preserve the Miracle, he’s going to have to do a better job of explaining how it happened. To do that, he’s going to have to look back further than 300 years and rediscover the old morals and virtues that informed the pursuit of happiness, that gave shape to human flourishing and gave people something greater than themselves to belong to. Western civilization depends on sturdier stuff than material wealth, or individualism, or even democracy.

First, I think this is a little unfair.  Goldberg is describing the ingredients that led to the Miracle not trying to define and argue the strengths and weaknesses of something broadly termed the Enlightenment.

Second, if you accept what Goldberg calls the Lockean Revolution (the individual is sovereign, our rights come from God not governments, the fruits of our labors belong to us, and no man should be less equal before the law because of his faith or class) as the basis for politics must you then accept any and all of the extremes of individualism, reason and science?  Does an appreciation for liberal democratic capitalism require accepting Marxism, Communism, and Socialism not too mention the extremes of the Progressive Era?

I think Goldberg makes a compelling, if limited, case that the extremes were more outgrowths of romantic and reactionary impulses than simply natural outgrowths of the foundational ideas.  But he understands that history is messy and that ideas are not teleological but interactive and contingent.

Look closely and you will see that both Davidson and Reinsch are putting a greater burden on Goldberg than he seeks to take up.  Goldberg sought not to offer the best explanation for America nor the whole of Western Civilization but rather the explosion of wealth and flourishing he calls the Miracle.  

As was noted in my review, civilization alone is not sufficient to create the Miracle.  The ancient roots of Western Civilization are important but they did not lead directly to the change Goldberg seeks to explore .  The “old morals and virtues that informed the pursuit of happiness, that gave shape to human flourishing and gave people something greater than themselves to belong to” can and did exist without the economic explosion that is at the heart of the book.

The irony of many of these critics, in my opinion, is that they are guilty of the very reactionary or romantic nostalgia-based impulse that Goldberg decries.  They seek a return to Christendom or at least a worldview based on Christian infused values. They seek a return to a civilization based on the values of Athens and Jerusalem via Rome.  This may be understandable and even preferable in theory, but, in my opinion, that world is not coming back. Can we use ancient wisdom to chart a better course forward and restrain the excesses of our culture?  Yes, but we can’t return to a pre-enlightenment West or rebuild Christendom.

Goldberg doesn’t deny the role Christianity played in the West and discusses and debates the role it played in the Miracle, but he rightly understands that Christendom alone did not create the prosperous West.  Liberal democratic capitalism did. Discussion of where we go from here must acknowledge where we are, how we got here, and plot a path forward not seek a return to a mythical past.

Other critics have questioned whether Goldberg’s argument can really be called conservative (see Davidson).  Before I get to this larger issue, this Trumpian comment at the end of Reinsch’s review I think it points to something:

Trump’s victory, along with the victory of the Brexiteers in June of 2016, led me to the following conclusion: when something like 90 percent of the smart, rich, pretty people throw it all at you and you still win, then a reassessment of politics in your democracy is surely called for. I’m a conservative after all, there are no formulas or templates. For those, I look to the libertarians.

This is what you might call paleoconservative virtue signalling.  It is an attempt to paint Goldberg with the brush of an out of touch and mistaken liberal elite (and the comments use this as an excuse to dismiss the book and author). Put aside Goldberg’s critique of Trump through the lens of romantic and reactionary ideas, and Trump’s clear lack of philosophical conservatism or knowledge of any of the history Reinsch covers, does the fact that Trump took advantage of Hillary Clinton’s historic weakness to win roughly 40k votes in three states, and thus the presidency, really call for a reassessment of politics in our democracy?  Maybe Trump is not sui generis but part of a larger pattern that Goldberg highlights; maybe he is a symptom rather than a cause.

Again, I think attempts to write Goldberg/SOTW out of conservatism is off for both tactical and philosophical reasons.  Tactically Goldberg is seeking common ground within the broad range of American political history. This might be called “classical liberalism” for lack of a better term.  For Goldberg, American conservatives seek to conserve the genius of the American founding. And he believes it is important, and possible, to find common ground on the values and principles contained therein with those who don’t see themselves as explicitly conservative.

I understand that there are strains of conservatism (paleo or traditionalist) that reject classical liberalism, roughly what Goldberg calls the Lockean Revolution, as a philosophical or political foundation.  But in my opinion this is not the dominant perspective of modern American conservatism and Goldberg is solidly within the confines of that group; fusionism rightly understood.

Goldberg acknowledges that the ingredients of the Miracle contain within themselves the possibility to undermine the larger project.  Capitalism and innovation are a threat to tradition and stability. Individualism and rationalism can lead to family and cultural breakdown and loneliness and isolation which leads to reactionary and romantic alternatives.  He spends time outlining Schumpeter’s and others arguments on these tensions.

Equally clear, is Goldberg’s rejection of progressivism and its heirs today; those who would overturn the Miracle.  He is seeking, again for lack of a better term, the vital center; a group who may disagree on specific policies and approaches but who share a commitment to liberal democratic capitalism.

While he rejects the romantic/reactionary element of both left and right, he is also deeply conservative and even traditionalist.  Again, he passionately advocates for the rebuilding of civil society, for pushing power down rather than up, and for the institutional pluralism that allows faith, family and community to flourish.  There is a whole chapter on the attack on the family.

The problem is that so many want to nationalize and universalize these battles as part of American politics.  The result is polarizing culture wars that don’t end up strengthening civil society, families or communities.

The challenge is twofold. One is that the mental division of labor critical to the success is unnatural and feels foreign.  Two is that applying these ideas work for the macrocosm but not for the microcosm; they work for the large society and world but not for our families, neighborhoods, and churches.

Goldberg’s answer is not a re-founding of Western thought on Judeo-Christian or pre-enlightenment philosophy  but rather a sort of localist pluralism.  Acknowledging and being grateful for the ideas and principles that allowed for the unprecedented economic growth and human flourishing of the last 300 years while recognizing the constant human temptation to tribalism and romanticism that undermines these values.  But at the same time defending, and at times rebuilding, civil society at the local level. Tending the gardens of family, civic organizations, religious communities, and local institutions.

Goldberg does not deny the tensions involved in this conservative project within a liberal democratic capitalist system but rather accepts it as the challenge we face.  

The question is whether we are up to it.

 

How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on The Firing Line

For some odd reason I had not really listened to the Federalist Radio Hour until just recently.  This despite being a huge fan of The Transom and all things Ben Domenech. But I am now tuning in on a regular basis.  He has had some fascinating authors on for extended conversations and it is refreshing in today’s soundbite world.

Speaking of that, I just finished listening to his conversation with Heather Hendershot, professor of film and media at MIT, and the author of the new book, “Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on The Firing Line.”  It is worth a listen.