Book Reviews

Documentary Offers Respectful Insight Into a Sad But Thoughtful Online World

“TFW No GF” is shorthand for “The feeling when you have no girlfriend,” and the search for community and identity among these young men left behind by American society is worth understanding and exploring.

Amazon is hosting a hot button film on its streaming platform about a subculture of disaffected young men in America who have formed their identities through an internet subculture called, “TFW No GF.” This is shorthand for “The feeling when you have no girlfriend.”

The project of up-and-coming documentarian, Alex Lee Moyer, originally was to be highlighted at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, until COVID-19 shut everything down. In an interview with Justin Murphy on Youtube, Moyer claims that what interested her in the world of incels and Frog Twitter was the reality that there is something more to explain the phenomenon than the dismissive buzzwords like racism and misogyny. In giving a fair shake to the infamous “Pepe the Frog” crowd, Moyer shows a great deal of courage as well as genuine curiosity.

Initially rejected by the Hollywood establishment, her project was dismissed because of claims that she had created a “cool” and “ironic” documentary about incels. In fact, it is primarily a documentary about sad men living in the interior of America with no outlet to vent their frustrations other than internet forums and Twitter. They are represented by the melancholy, Wojack meme. These young men, often adopting anonymous internet personas, have much in common with the opioid-addicted young men in middle America though instead of drugs, they use the internet to cope with their detached sense of reality.

Their online personas act as diaries that offer a window into their worldview. These are intelligent, young white men in their 20s and 30s often still living at home with their parents. Colloquially they are referred to as NEETS, meaning “not in education, employed, or training.” The most prominent of the NEETS featured in the film is KANTBOT, his Twitter account has just short of 40,000 followers and serves as a philosophical home to the world of online dissident thinkers. He’s also been questioned by the FBI and hosts a popular podcast called TEKWARS.

The “Kant” part of KANTBOT’s avatar is owed to the famed German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and is supposed to give credence to the high level of thought taking place in these circles. There are varying levels of public discourse going on between these individuals, effectively blending cringe humor with high brow philosophical critiques of modern life.

Because these men have found community by venting their frustrations online, the mainstream media has associated them with the likes of the Isla Vista and Charleston church shooters. Of course, in response to such charges, these young men create ironic memes that reinforce the association—mainly for the sake of competition to see which of them can cause the most controversy in the real world.

This is where the purpose of the documentary comes in because, in highlighting individuals like KANTBOT who acknowledge that the frustrations these young men are experiencing are real, the film explores ways to deal with these frustrations and prevent harm to others and further harm to the participants. A lot of people will watch this and feel like they’re watching potential mass shooters, but the sad truth is that these are regular guys our society has left behind.

To put it bluntly, the young men in “TFW NO GF” are dealing with a penetrating sadness they attribute to their inability to build a deep connection with a woman. The mainstream bent of our culture toward feminism leaves little room for these men to express their frustrations in the larger society. Moreover, there is little sympathy for them on the mainstream right as a popular clip of political commentator Kimberly Guilfoyle chastising an audience at UCLA demonstrates. For a number of reasons, these young men only feel at home in their online bubble. This particular bubble though may perhaps have an outsized influence on reality.

It is probably something lost on Guilfoyle, but the reality is that a large portion of millenials (in general, and not just in these circles) are largely limited to meeting potential partners online. It doesn’t add to the conversation or help the problem, frankly, to knock those who aren’t doing well with online dating, despite its growing ubiquity.

The problem these young men confront can be summed up by the fact that they are lacking in solid identity. The psychosocial benefits of having a purpose beyond yourself in life are crucial to the actualization of young men in every society. Modern American society has atomized these young men and many of them still find themselves dissatisfied even after they’ve addressed the superficial issues that were keeping them from being able to find women. Though the documentary is not explicitly political, it does paint the picture that this innate feeling of something being amiss is the reason many of these men view President Trump in a positive light.

Rather than delving too deeply into politics, however, the documentary instead chooses to focus mainly on the individual lives of these young men and their shared struggles. Naturally, the sub-culture is anti-establishment. KANTBOT’s portions are the highlight of the documentary because he is able succinctly to contextualize the ability of this group to affect reality. His ability to connect many of these young men to some semblance of a greater purpose has helped many of them off the ledge.

These communities promote intimacy in a masculine way and create a sense of competition based around posting unique information, something at which these men excel. Chances are if you’ve interacted with someone who has an anime character for an avatar, it was probably one of these guys. The line between their online lives and their real lives is quite blurred because they experience little to no genuine engagement with the other humans around them. Growing up firmly in the unfiltered age of the internet has forced these young men to mature really fast in some ways, and prevented it in others.

They have a penchant for high level trolling and express a sort of proto masculinity that leaves little wonder as to why they are at present square pegs trying to fit in a round-hole society.

Although the documentary was filmed before the advent of COVID-19 and social distancing, it is safe to say those experiences should give all of us a window into the world of NEETs, as so many of us have been forced to live like them. Consider this as you consider them. And consider, too, that these young men may very well soon see their potential to play a leadership role in society come to fruition as the world changes to become a place where online personae thrive. The vulnerability expressed by these young men in going public with their identities is the best part of the documentary. We should hope they benefit from the exposure and find ways to contribute to the larger society in the wake of the pandemic.

Moyer does an excellent job in her second outing and “TFW NO GF” is both topical and entertaining. In a striking comment, one of the young men profiled described the group in the following way: “It’s just a bunch of dudes… killing time.”

Killing time until what? That, of course, is what remains to be seen.

Book Reviews • Books & Culture • Center for American Greatness • Post • The Culture • The Left

Charles Reich, R.I.P.

Remember Charles Reich? Probably not. But you probably do know the phrase “the greening of America.” It is Reich’s coinage, the title his fruity 1970 bestseller that began life as a 39,000-word essay in The New Yorker.

I hadn’t thought about Reich for years. When the news came a few days ago that he had died, age 91, I was surprised to hear that he still had been with us. Fatuousness must have a life-extending effect.

Of all the silly pseudo-sages of the 1960s counterculture, Reich was surely one of the silliest. No single figure or theme captures the totality of the countercultural revolt of the period. But few figures better embody its ethos and the new sensibility it incarnated than the sometime tenured Yale law professor turned guru of higher consciousness. His book The Greening of America, published when he was 42, was both a blueprint for America’s cultural revolution and a paean to its supposedly glorious results.

The Greening of America long ago took its place beside incense, love beads, and bellbottoms as part of the stale, slightly comic cultural paraphernalia of the 1960s. Looking back at the book’s nearly 400 pages today, it is difficult to appreciate the enormous sensation it created when it first appeared. Did the country suddenly go mad? Quoth Reich:

In the world that now exists, a life of surfing is possible.

Even businessmen, once liberated, would like to roll in the grass.

All choices are the “right” choice.

Rationality does not like to blow its mind.

An examination or test is a form of violence.

Finally, speaking of the “ultimate sign of reverence, vulnerability, and innocence” of the liberated youth consciousness that he celebrates, Reich says: “Oh wow!”

“Oh wow!” Do not think that Reich sounds silly because he is quoted “out of context.” As Thomas Mallon observed in a look back at The Greening of America in The American Spectator, Charles Reich is one author who actually benefits by being quoted out of context. The more context you give him, the more preposterous he sounds.

And yet the late William Shawn, then the editor of The New Yorker, thought the book important enough to excerpt in his magazine, thus reminding us that his publication of Jonathan Schell’s hysterically alarmist book The Fate of the Earth in The New Yorker some years later was not simply a loopy aberration. Whatever his virtues as an editor, William Shawn had a large soft spot for unhinged left-wing drivel.

Does that sound too severe, too judgmental, too hard? Read on.

The New Yorker was still an intellectually respectable magazine in 1970, and the appearance of The Greening of America in its pages in September of that year gave the book tremendous advance publicity and cultural cachet. It also shows what tremendous inroads the long march of America’s cultural revolution had already made. When The Greening of America was published by Random House in October, it instantly became a best-seller: more, it became a national preoccupation. The New York Times had just started its op-ed page in September 1970, under the editorship of Harrison Salisbury. That fall, Reich appeared not once but three times on the op-ed page with restatements of his argument. In short order, John Kenneth Galbraith, George F. Kennan, Herbert Marcuse, and the critic Marya Mannes weighed in there with commentary on the book. This is in addition to the reviews and feature articles that the Times ran about Reich and his publishing phenomenon. Everywhere one turned, The Greening of America was being discussed, praised, criticized, often in the most solemn terms.

It was an intoxicating draught for many commentators. Writing in The New Republic, Peter Caws suggested with a straight face that “the genuine strengths of the book are two: its history and its economics.” Just so we have our bearings, here are a couple of brief examples of Reich’s thinking about economics:

Since machines can produce enough food and shelter for all, why should not man end the antagonism derived from scarcity and base his society on love for his fellow man?

The wisdom of the new generation is simply this: buy bread at the store when you want to spend your time in some other way than baking; bake your own bread when you feel the need to get back to basic things like dough and yeast.

Not that the responses to The Greening of America were uniformly admiring. Many, maybe most, serious responses were critical. Roger Starr wrote a long and politely devastating anatomy of the book in Commentary (a piece that we can only hope Caws read, since it patiently makes mince-meat of Reich’s historical claims). The poet L. E. Sissman wrote an even more polite criticism of the book in The Atlantic Monthly. Sissman remarked on the curiosity that the first-person singular pronoun never appeared in a book asserting that “the individual self is the only true reality.” Who or what is the “we” that Reich decorously employs throughout his book? It is, Sissman concludes, “the communal we of ‘all the people of the dining hall’ whose help Reich acknowledges in a postscript, of all the confused and alienated young admirers Reich has become in his thoughts.” (Reich confides in that postscript that much of his book “was written in the Stiles-Morse dining halls at Yale.”) Perhaps the pithiest critical summary of the book was provided by Stewart Alsop in Newsweek, who called the book “a bag of scary mush.”

Alsop was right. But it didn’t matter. None of the criticism mattered. One needn’t be a Hegelian or a follower of Oswald Spengler to recognize the existence, at times, of something like a zeitgeist. Reich began work on what became The Greening of America in 1960 when he left his job at a high-powered Washington law firm to go to Yale. His career hitherto—beginning with his editorship of the Yale Law Journal and clerkship for Justice Hugo Black—made him seem an unlikely candidate for the post of cheerleader for the cultural revolution. But by the time the book appeared a decade later, he had shed whatever lawyerly sobriety he once possessed and had become a veritable weather vane for the Zeitgeist, breathless-with-starry-eyes department. In an extraordinary passage at the beginning of The Greening of America, he furnishes us with prediction, manifesto, and credo all rolled into one. “There is a revolution coming,” Reich tells us.

It will not be like revolutions of the past. It will originate with the individual and with culture, and it will change the political structure only as its final act. It will not require violence to succeed, and it cannot be successfully resisted by violence. It is now spreading with amazing rapidity, and already our laws, institutions, and social structure are changing in consequence. It promises a higher reason, a more human community, and a new and liberated individual. Its ultimate creation will be a new and enduring wholeness and beauty—a renewed relationship of man to himself, to other men, to society, to nature, and to the land.

This is the revolution of the new generation. Their protest and rebellion, their culture, clothes, music, drugs, ways of thought, and liberated life-style are not a passing fad or a form of dissent and refusal, nor are they in any sense irrational. The whole emerging pattern, from ideals to campus demonstrations to beads and bell bottoms to the Woodstock Festival, makes sense and is part of a consistent philosophy. It is both necessary and inevitable, and in time it will include not only youth, but all people in America.

It is difficult to say what is more remarkable about this testimonial: its imbecility or its prophecy. Whether or not the revolution Reich describes was “necessary and inevitable,” it certainly did occur, and largely along the lines he delineated. His only mistake was in misconstruing the results: for whatever America’s cultural revolution promised, it delivered not “a new and enduring wholeness and beauty” but a cultural and moral catastrophe, the consequences of which we are still reckoning.

Con Games
As the manufacturers of successful patent medicines and miracle cures know, what matters is not the efficacy of the potion but the scope and vividness of the claims made on its behalf. The spiritual nostrum that Reich formulated consists essentially of two parts: first, an attack on contemporary life in America; and second, a utopian rhapsody about the emergence of a new, liberated consciousness. Neither part is distinguished by subtlety.

“America,” Reich tells us, “is one vast terrifying anti-community.” (Sounds like AOC, doesn’t it?) The source of the problem is the American Corporate State (upper case, please!), that “vast apparatus, working unceasingly to create a false consciousness in people.” Consequently,

work and living have become more pointless and empty. There is no lack of meaningful projects that cry out to be done, but . . . our working days are used up in work that lacks meaning: making useless or harmful products, or serving the bureaucratic structures. For most Americans, work is mindless, exhausting, boring, servile, and hateful.

More succinctly, “the majority of adults in the country hate their work.” In Reich’s view, this is not really so surprising, since “beginning with school, if not before, an individual is systematically stripped of his imagination, his creativity, his heritage, his dreams, and his personal uniqueness, in order to style him into a productive unit for a mass, technological society. Instinct, feeling, and spontaneity are repressed by overwhelming forces.” Which presumably means that the instinctive, spontaneous revulsion one feels for writing such as this is merely an illusion.

In chapters called “The Failure of Reform” and “Anatomy of the Corporate State,” Reich makes some stabs at explaining how we came to be in such dreadful spiritual torpor. He speaks of the failure of the New Deal, the rise of multinational corporations, the insidious influence of advertising and the media, war, of both the Cold and Vietnam varieties. There was nothing new in his diagnosis: scores of left-wing pundits had been decrying these and kindred evils at least since the end of World War II. But The Greening of America did stand out.

This is partly because of the extremity of Reich’s indictment: “America is one vast terrifying anti-community,” etc. It is also because of his quasi-evolutionary model of “three general types of consciousness” that supposedly “predominate in America today.” In fact, although his discussion is laughably crude, it was with his typology of “Consciousness I,” “Consciousness II,” and “Consciousness III” that Reich made his most indelible impression upon readers. Some went into ecstasies over it; others ridiculed it, twisting Reich’s talk of “Con III people” into “Con-game,” “Con-manship,” and the like. Everybody remembered it.

According to Reich, Consciousness I originated in the 19th century. Its hallmarks are the rugged independence and pragmatism of laissez-faire capitalism. Its proponents believe “that success is determined by character, morality, and hard work, and self-denial.” Once upon a time, such homely virtues had their uses. No more, though. Today, Reich explains, “Consciousness I types” include “farmers, owners of small businesses . . . AMA-type doctors . . . gangsters, Republicans, and ‘just plain folks.”’ (Gangsters, Republicans: you can see what a master of subtlety Reich was.) But just as other ’60s radicals abominated the mainstream liberal establishment more than they hated any conservative orthodoxy, so Reich saves his bitterest words for the liberals who embody Consciousness II.

Consciousness I he regarded as a crude anachronism, no longer much of a threat to the emergence of paradise. Consciousness II, however, defines the prevailing reality—“the inhuman structure in which we now live,” viz. the ACS—the “American Corporate State.” Although Consciousness II began in the (for Reich) laudable reforms of the New Deal, its progressive force spent itself long ago. Now it is typified in the mindset of “aircraft employees, old leftists, young doctors, Kennedy men, suburban housewives.” (Reich did have a talent for making lists.) With its “ethic of control, of technology, of the rational intellect,” Consciousness II was the real enemy of liberation. It was the rational intellect, especially, that bothered him, because “when experience is classified or analyzed it is also reduced.” Never mind that some such “reduction” is required if experience is to be articulate, coherent, or publicly communicable: Reich wants his experience raw and unedited. Consciousness II, he explains, “has been persuaded that the richness, the satisfactions, the joy of life are to be found in power, success, status, acceptance, popularity, achievements, rewards, excellence, and the rational competent mind.”

Well, that’s a start, you may say. But the problem is that Consciousness II “wants nothing to do with dread, awe, wonder, mystery, accidents, failure, helplessness, magic.”

“I’m Glad I’m Me”
Like many radicals, Reich was both terrified and obsessed by power: “It is not the misuse of power that is the evil,” he assured us; “the very existence of power is an evil.” Don’t bother raising objections: objections, arguments, qualifications, evidence: all the paraphernalia of rationality belongs to the unenlightened domain of Consciousness II. Reich has no time for any of that. He is interested in the supposedly higher Con, Consciousness III. Introducing Consciousness III, Reich sounds at first like an epidemiologist. It began with “a few individuals” in the mid-1960s; it “sprouted up, astonishingly and miraculously, out of the stony soil of the American Corporate State”; no one foresaw its appearance, but it soon “spread, here and abroad, by means invisible.”

Though it spread like the measles, Consciousness III is difficult to describe because, as Reich notes, the very attempt to say what it is draws on intellectual habits that Consciousness III rejects: “Authority, schedules, time, accepted customs, are all forms which must be questioned. Accepted patterns of thought must be broken; what is considered ‘rational thought’ must be opposed by ‘nonrational thought’—drug-thought, mysticism, impulses.”

Not entirely, though. Reich does allow that the “foundation” of Consciousness III is “liberation.” He adds that “the meaning of liberation is that the individual is free to build his own philosophy and values, his own life-style, and his own culture from a new beginning.” More generally, Consciousness III comes into being when an individual frees himself from the “false consciousness” that society imposes. People infused with the spirit of Consciousness III do “not believe in the antagonistic or competitive doctrine of life,” they “do not compete ‘in real life.’ . . . People are brothers, the world is ample for all. . . . No one judges anyone else.” Also, everyone rather likes himself: “Consciousness III says, ‘I’m glad I’m me.’”

If you are looking for a concrete example of what Reich had in mind when he praised this higher consciousness, think back to the American campus in 1970. “One of the few places to observe man partially free of the competition and antagonism that are the norms of our social system is in a college dining hall where many of the students are Consciousness III people.” Be that as it may, Reich was certainly correct to see the American university as one of the chief breeding grounds for the revolution he envisioned. He speaks in this context of the “conversions” that are “constantly seen on campuses today”: “a freshman arrives, his political views are hometown-Consciousness I, and suddenly he is radicalized.” Reich was correct about this. “In a brief span of months, a student, seemingly conventional in every way, changes his haircut, his clothes, his habits, his interests, his political attitudes, his way of relating to other people, in short, his whole way of life.” Indeed.

One might have thought that the author of these millenarian sentiments must himself be a happy Consciousness III type, full of confidence, optimism, and sassy derring-do. Not a bit of it. In The Sorcerer of Bolinas Reef, an autobiography that he published in 1976, Reich reveals himself to have been a pathetic soul, paralyzed with nameless fears and unsatisfied longings. The ordinary tasks of daily life filled him with dread; normal human relations were completely beyond him. “The most constant presence in my life was fear and anxiety,” he wrote.

I would wake up in the morning and feel the need to clench my fists and clamp my teeth and squeeze my toes together, which sent tension all through my body as waves of fear and worry came over me. The particular things I worried about changed from day to day or hour to hour or week to week but that terrible feeling of dread remained with me almost all the time. I hated that feeling. It made me afraid of living. It made me not want to wake up, not want to go out, not want to come home, not want to go to sleep.

The Greening of America is in part a paean to sexual liberation and polymorphous sensuality, an obvious heir to the thought of countercultural gurus like Herbert Marcuse, the other Reich—Wilhelm—and Norman O. Brown. “What the new generation has already achieved is a way of being with other people that is closer, warmer, more open, more sensitive, more capable of sharing, than prior generations have known.” But in The Sorcerer of Bolinas Reef, Reich tells us that he left Yale in December 1971 for a six-month leave of absence and went to San Francisco. There he responded to an ad placed by a male model and for $35 the prophet of Consciousness III and “closer, warmer, more open, more sensitive” relationships had his first sexual experience at the age of 43.

Revolutionary Bell Bottoms
Charles Reich’s sad and tawdry autobiographical revelations tell us something important about the psychological origins of his profound dissatisfaction with America and his fantasies of inhabiting a “higher,” trouble-free consciousness. What they don’t explain is why this personal diatribe against the world should have struck such a sympathetic chord.

Perhaps many other people felt similar frustrations, though Reich surely presents an extreme case. From the perspective of the 1990s and beyond, what is most extraordinary about The Greening of America is the extent to which its complaints, its modes of thought, and its ideals summarized the radical agenda of America’s cultural revolution. Reich’s insistence that utopia was to be won through “a higher, transcendent reason,” not politics per se, distinguishes his project from the violent activist crusades of the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, and other such groups, which were achieving critical mass just as his work was published. (At one point he writes that “the hard questions—if by that is meant political and economic organization—are insignificant, even irrelevant.”) But apart from this, The Greening of America offered an impressive inventory of radical concerns and shibboleths, most of which are still very much in circulation.

At the center of Reich’s gospel is an indictment of rationality coupled with a profound craving for extra-rational modes of experience. His celebration of drugs —which he described as “one of the most important means for restoring dulled consciousness”—has to be understood in this context, as do his hosannas to polymorphous sexuality and rock music. According to Reich, rock music possesses “a complexity unknown to classical music”; it offers “the mystical transcendence of ordinary experience.” In comparison to rock, he said, “Beethoven seems like a series of parallel lines.” Without drugs and rock music, Woodstock and the sensibility it celebrated—the sensibility that Reich eulogizes in The Greening of America—would have been impossible. Allan Bloom was quite right when he observed in The Closing of the American Mind: “Nothing is more singular about this generation than its addiction to music.” Bloom continued:

Rock music provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like “the drugs with which it is allied. It artificially produces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors—victory in a just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religious devotion, and discovery of the truth.

What rock offers is a prefabricated Dionysian ecstasy, blatantly sexual, conspicuously nonrational.

The rejection of rationality has many advantages. For one thing, it relieves Reich of the burden of producing evidence for his pronunciamentos—e.g., the claim that “the majority of adults in the country hate their work.” Reasons, evidence, arguments: what are they but stodgy appurtenances of the rational intellect? Transcending rationality also allows one to stop worrying about details like contradiction and consistency. Reich’s classification of people as belonging to one of three types of consciousness is the crudest, most patronizing sort of stereotyping imaginable. And yet in the midst of excoriating “farmers, owners of small businesses, . . . AMA-type doctors . . . gangsters, Republicans, and ‘just plain folks’” he tells us that Consciousness III refuses “to evaluate people by general standards, it refuses to classify people, or analyze them.” Of course, it is not that Reich wishes to stop classifying or evaluating people; by no means; he wishes only to classify and evaluate them according to the essentially subjective standard of “lifestyle.”

We see something similar in his rejection of “the whole concept of excellence and comparative merit.” Reich goes pretty far, far enough to suggest that he might have had a successful career as a politically correct college administrator or, indeed, in a Washington administration. “Someone may be a brilliant thinker,” he says, “but he is not ‘better’ at thinking than anyone else, he simply possesses his own excellence. A person who thinks very poorly is still excellent in his own way.” And yet here, too, it is clear that Reich was being “nonjudgmental” in a highly selective fashion. To take just one example: reflecting on traditional morality, Reich assured us that “to observe duties toward others, after the feelings are gone, is no virtue and may even be a crime.” “Crime” is a troubling word, surely, especially when used by a lawyer who believed “there is no situation in which one is entitled to act impersonally . . . with another human being.”

Reich did make a few gestures toward common sense. But they were only gestures. Early on he acknowledged that his categories of Cons I, II and III “are highly impressionistic and arbitrary.” And yet he proceeded to build his entire argument around them. Again, he said that the “basic stance” of Consciousness III is “openness to any and all experience.” Only later did it occur to him that this might have unpleasant implications. So he hastened to assure us that a “Consciousness III person” will not “engage in actions that violate his basic values; he will never kill or rape to try the experience.” One is glad to know that, of course; but why not? If one’s “basic stance” is openness to “any and all experience,” who’s to say that rape and murder are not among one’s “basic values” especially as values are something Reich insisted each individual must “create” for himself?

With the passage of time, the mushiness of Reich’s diagnosis has become painfully obvious. Sometimes, it is downright funny, as when Reich tells us that bell bottoms and other certified articles of countercultural apparel “deny the importance of hierarchy, status, authority, position, and they reject competition”—unless, that is, they come from a New York designer: “Bell bottoms fashioned by New York stylists do not have the revolutionary potential of Consciousness III culture.”

What made the mush scary, as Stewart Alsop discerned, was Reich’s moralistic pretension to special virtue and a knowledge that transcends “mere” facts. It is here that he remains in perfect continuity with today’s champions of political correctness. (One inevitably thinks of that other graduate of the Yale Law School, Hillary Clinton, who before she became a presidential candidate was a champion of the “politics of meaning” in the mid-1990s.) Again and again we have seen how the demand for total freedom has paradoxically resulted in greater and greater restrictions on freedom. What began in license ends in regulation.

“Consciousness III people,” Reich tells us, “see effortlessly what is phony or dishonest in politics, or what is ugly or meretricious in architecture and city planning, whereas an older person has to go through years of education [or perhaps we should say ‘re-education’] to make himself equally aware.” Simply by virtue of having the right attitude, of adopting the correct “life-style,” Reich’s apostle of Consciousness III is vouchsafed a “new knowledge”: “He does not ‘know’ the facts, but he still ‘knows’ the truth that seems hidden from others.”

The hubris of such claims is a familiar ingredient of millenarian enthusiasms. In his classic book The Pursuit of the Millennium, the historian Norman Cohn noted that “at the core” of certain Medieval millenarian sects was the adept’s belief that “he had attained a perfection so absolute that he was incapable of sin. . . . Every impulse was experienced as a divine command.” Cohn also noted that, translated into political terms, the presumption of such “new knowledge” is a recipe for totalitarian arrogance. Hannah Arendt observed in The Origins of Totalitarianism that the claim to special insight is closely related to “totalitarian movements’ spurious claims to have abolished the separation between public and private life and to have restored a mysterious wholeness in man.” (One recalls Susan Sontag’s contention that the North Vietnamese “are ‘whole’ human beings, not ‘split’ as we are.”)

Charles Reich assured us that “the consciousness of the liberals had proved inadequate to the task” of restoring the lost wholeness he sought. Nevertheless, the liberal establishment was delighted to conspire in its own disparagement along the lines Reich suggested. The path to enlightenment that Reich extolled was a path to nowhere —to “utopia” in its etymological sense. That did not prevent it from becoming a major highway “for the long march through American life.” The unhappy example of Charles Reich—his silly book, his 15 minutes of celebrity—should not distract us from the malevolence of the message he helped promulgate. He himself was rather like the unfortunate Seth, emperor of Azania, whom Evelyn Waugh described in his novel Black Mischief:

The earnest and rather puzzled young man became suddenly capricious and volatile; ideas bubbled up within him, bearing to the surface a confused sediment of phrase and theory, scraps of learning half understood and fantastically translated.

Although Reich managed pretty well to destroy his own life, he was too fuzzy-headed and inept to find many real disciples. In this respect, he was more a symptom than a cause. In the hands of people like Timothy Leary, however, the nonsense that made up Reich’s pseudomystical “philosophy” damaged countless lives and insinuated itself into the inner fabric of American life. Requiescat in pace.

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Book Reviews • Books & Culture • Identity Politics • Post • The Culture • The Left

Resisting the Politics of Victimhood

We are a self-contradictory people.

In our private lives, we affirm, or at least speak as if we affirm, the virtues of personal responsibility, self-reliance, self-discipline, wisdom, humility, generosity, and justice. These are the virtues that we strive to instill in our children. With an eye to this end, we appropriate measures to thwart the vices of irresponsibility, neediness, laziness, ignorance, arrogance, self-absorption, and a sense of self-entitlement.

And yet the politics of 21st- century America are unmistakably the politics of victimhood.

Is there a way to resolve this tension?  Is there a way to resist something as ubiquitous as the politics of victimhood while cultivating the virtues that are indispensable to a self-governing citizenry?

Peter Simon Liciaga has an answer.  Liciaga, a 58 year-old Puerto Rican man who originally hailed from the housing projects of the Bronx and who began studying the martial arts when he was 9 years old, is a sixth-degree black belt master of Tang Soo Do, a Korean-based martial art practiced by such notables as James Dean, Chuck Norris, and Michael Jai White.

Master Liciaga is also my master.

He has just published his first (but I hope not his last) book, Black Belt Strong: A Parent’s Guide to the Martial Arts.  

It is between the pages of this volume—so slender that it easily could be read within a single sitting—that Master Liciaga provides both adults and their children alike a means by which to immunize themselves against the infantilizing effects of victimhood politics.

While the martial arts are not required for the cultivation of those virtues that the human race has celebrated for millennia, the martial arts are indeed unique insofar as these virtues are intrinsic to their study.

To reiterate, the martial arts are alone among human activities insofar as they are designed to maximize all of one’s potentialities as a human being.

This is a point that Master Liciaga underscores repeatedly. In fact, it is the most basic principle that pervades his philosophy of the martial arts.

The martial arts, Liciaga has come to realize after decades of study, is a philosophy, not just of combat, but of life. If one reads with sufficient care, one will note that it is this metaphysical perspective that powers every word of Liciaga’s book.  

While the Western intellectual tradition is more heterogeneous than any other, if it could be said to have a dominant current it is the one advancing the notion of a mind-body dualism, which is endorsed either explicitly or implicitly by many of its most prominent contributors.

Despite the fact that, the embodiment of the Logos, Christianity, the faith of European Man for the better part of two millennia is a resounding repudiation of this fiction, mind-body dualism nevertheless persists.

Even today, the body is still treated in academia, politics, the popular culture, and even within the churches as if it was an extraneous possession, a machine to be controlled by the ghost inhabiting it.

This idea of the human-person is one that many of us have unconsciously imbibed. Master Liciaga disabuses his students of it in no uncertain terms:

The human being is a spiritual being, a unity of mind and body.  

You are not a mind possessing a body. Nor are you a mind and a body.

You are a mind-body, or an embodied mind.

Mind and body, in other words, are not two fundamentally irreducible substances, nor is it the case that body is ultimately reducible to mind or mind reducible to body.

The human being is a spiritual being, meaning a unity of mind and body.

Just as two sides of the same coin are distinct but  inseparable, so it is with our bodies and minds. They, each derive their identity from their relationship to the other side, but each is ultimately composed of the same stuff.

Between the mind and the body there is a symbiotic connection or a conversation, so to speak. The body communicates to the mind just as the mind communicates to the body.

This being the case, as the martial arts harden the bodies of their practitioners, they also sharpen their minds. Not only do the martial arts cultivate physical excellences—pliability, agility, balance, and martial prowess generally—they also instill such mental virtues as humility, practical wisdom, self-discipline, and even courage and a sense of justice.

Martial arts cannot improve on the excellence of the one thing at the expense of the other. It can only improve both simultaneously because the human-person is a unity, a spiritual organism composed of body and mind.

The martial arts are intrinsically antithetical to the Politics of Victimhood. As Master Liciaga underscores, not just in his latest manuscript but on a daily basis by way of his podcasts and while teaching his art at Dinoto Karate Center in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, the martial arts are inherently oriented toward empowering students—men and women; the young, the not-as-young, and the elderly; parents and children; blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians—so that they may in turn enrich and strengthen their communities.

Though he is the eternal optimist, Master Liciaga labors inexhaustibly to emancipate his students of any delusions they may have concerning the nature of life. Life is hard, and evil is real.  It is because of this view of life that Liciaga is the optimist that he is. The cheeriness with which he greets both the blessings and the challenges that each new day allocates to him is the means by which he combats, and helps whomever will listen combat, the pain and suffering of the world. (Incidentally, Liciaga, who is on Facebook, and other social media, welcomes people to contact him.)

This positivity, this confidence in oneself to surmount the travails of life, is the gift that Master Liciaga tries to bestow, not just upon his students, but upon all who would read his book and listen to his daily podcasts.

Everyone can only benefit from reading Peter Liciaga’s, Black Belt Strong: A Parent’s Guide to the Martial Arts.

Photo Credit: iStock/Getty Images

America • Book Reviews • Books & Culture • Cultural Marxism • Post • The Left

Smiling Through the ‘Apocali’

On the whole, the Right does little in the culture war but bitch. Intrepid individuals have endeavored to check the Left; and, if that individual happens to be an entertainer, it is often at the risk of his career.

A review of Apocali Now! By Evan Sayet and A.F. Branco (28 pages, $14.99)

Writer, producer, and comedian Evan Sayet is one such courageous soul. The author of The Kindergarden of Eden: How the Modern Liberal Thinks, Sayet has teamed with another brave soul, the nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist A.F. Branco, to produce a “faux children’s book” for readers of all ages: Apocali Now!

Apocali Now! walks readers and listeners through the cynical history of the Left’s false alarms of environmental end-times: global cooling, the ozone layer, acid rain, swine flu, mad cow disease, killer bees, missing bees, etc. Moreover, this fun, provocative book continues to punch above its weight by explaining the motive behind the Left’s bogus doomsaying—and why acquiescing won’t save the world, but will ensure the end of freedom—free thought, free speech, and free markets.

It’s a delicate matter to cite text when reviewing a children’s book. The verbiage will be sparse (and, in Apocali Now!, puissant). To quote too much would be unfair to prospective readers and the author (and, in this instance, the cartoonist, too).  That said, here is one passage which shows the author’s mastery of the children’s book genre and his trenchant knowledge of the Left:

Well, when I was your age,

they cried “Global Cooling!”

An Ice Age they said . . .

. . . then they said, “Hey, just fooling!”

At the time of this particular leftist false alarm, I was a young lad in Michigan who wasn’t particularly fond of winter. To this day, I’d still love to know the whereabouts of the clowns who spread this scam, so I can send them an invoice for the boxes of long underwear, ski masks, mittens, scarves, snowmobile boots, skates and ChapStick we bought back in the day to survive their “inevitable” Ice Age.

For the skeptic who considers the above hyperbole or doubts the fearlessness with which Sayet and Branco exhibited by writing this slim tome of truth, consider: Every year, schools invite elected officials to read to their classrooms. The Left’s elected officials will sanctimoniously declaim from a host of books propagandizing the apocalyptic scam of climate change. Let me know when you hear of a member of Congress reading Apocali Now! to the children.

As for the books name, Sayet and Branco explain it on the back cover: “‘Apocali’ is the made-up plural of apocalypse and the never ending apocalyptic visions used by greedy control freaks to increase their wealth and power.”

The Left wants to do so at your expense. Sadly, in the current Stalinist climate of the arts and entertainment world, Sayet and Branco are doing the exact opposite to bring readers their message, endangering their livelihoods to speak truth to power. Fortunately for them, the ultimate power in our free republic is not the censorial Left that screeches “the science is settled!”  (Yeah—if the Left likes the result.)

No, it is to the true power in our republic, the American people, Sayet and Branco are writing; and, yes, putting their fates in their fellow citizens’ hands. The least the Right can do is affirm their effort by buying, reading, and sharing with the next generation Apocali Now!

Photo Credit: Getty Images

America • Americanism • Book Reviews • Books & Culture • Greatness Agenda • Immigration • Post • The Culture

Making Immigration Great Again

In 1794 president George Washington wrote to Vice President John Adams on the necessity of assimilating immigrants to the new American republic’s way of life. Presciently, Washington lamented the prospect of immigrant ghettos and, as Americans would say two centuries later, multiculturalism. Settling immigrants “in a body,” Washington wrote, meant that “they retain the Language, habits, and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them. Whereas by an intermixture with our people, they, or their descendants, get assimilated to our customs, measures and laws: in a word, soon become one people.”

A review of Melting Pot or Civil War, by Reihan Salam (Sentinel, 224 pages, $27)

Two hundred twenty-four years later, a son of Bangladeshi immigrants makes a similar argument in the modulated language of social science. Reihan Salam’s Melting Pot or Civil War? is one of the best diagnoses of immigration policy in the past decade. The best prescription, however, remains Mark Krikorian’s The New Case Against Immigration (2008), also published by Sentinel.

Drawing on high-quality and ideologically diverse research, Salam, a former executive editor of National Review who in February became the new president of the Manhattan Institute, presents an empirically grounded critique of our current immigration policy. “High levels of low-skill immigrants,” he states, “will make a middle-class melting pot impossible.” The current system fosters inequality, has increased the poverty rate, and keeps a large section of our economy in a “low-wage, low-productivity rut.” What most concerns him is whether low-skilled immigrants’ children will assimilate.

Salam says that the crucial question concerns the type of assimilation: “amalgamation” or “racialization”? Will the children of newcomers enter a new “melting pot” and adopt the “culture and folkways of the established population,” entering the fabric of America “through ties of friendship and kinship”? Or will they grow up in “immigrant enclaves,” socially distant from mainstream America and “relegated to second-class status.”

Unfortunately, “[n]ot everyone is assimilating into the same America.” Many “are being incorporated into disadvantaged groups” and “often feel alienated from the mainstream.” As a result, “We are entering such a dangerous moment.” The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Salam reports, determined that 45.3% of immigrant-headed households with children relied on food stamps, compared to 30.6% of native-born households with children. The NAS study also declared that not only first-generation immigrants, but also their children and grandchildren, were “net fiscal burdens” for the nation.

From Salam’s well-documented critique of how our immigration policy actually works, we can draw significant conclusions, ones that Melting Pot or Civil War? implies rather than explicates. First, the argument advanced by prominent Republicans as well as Democrats that the assimilation process is intact is deeply flawed. Today’s immigrants and their children, we are told, are assimilating as quickly and thoroughly as the previous waves of immigrants in the days of Ellis Island. Hence, we needn’t worry about a Balkanized America: the children of today’s Mexican and Central American immigrants will assimilate just like those who arrived more than a century ago from southern and eastern Europe . . .

Read the rest at the Claremont Review of Books.

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America • Book Reviews • History • Post

A review of Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery, by Tom Cotton (William Morrow, 320 pages, $28.99)

‘That We Here Highly Resolve . . . ’

Part memoir and part history, U.S. Senator Tom Cotton’s Sacred Duty recounts in vivid detail the stories of the men and women who make up Arlington’s military detachment—”The Old Guard.” Those military units comprise America’s oldest regiment (established in 1784), which includes the Revolutionary-garbed Fife and Drum Corps and Continental Color Guard, the skilled rifle-handling Drill Team, and—the elite of the elite—the sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, who have stood guard at their post for every minute of every day since 1937.

Mostly however, the Old Guard comprises the highly trained platoons who honor our military veterans through dignified funerals conducted with deep respect and exacting attention to military precision—including 21-gun-salute “full honors” for senior officers and Medal of Honor winners.

Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, presided over more than 400 such funerals during his time in the Old Guard, commemorating, as he describes it, “our nation’s fallen, its warriors, their families, and our common heritage of freedom for which they sacrificed.” After graduating from Harvard Law School, he enlisted in the Army in 2005. To the surprise of his recruiting officer, he declined to serve in the JAG Corps and instead requested command of an infantry platoon. In between combat tours in Iraq and then Afghanistan (where he earned the Bronze Star) Captain Cotton served at Arlington in 2007 and 2008. Though the book includes several of Cotton’s personal recollections, it is virtually free of autobiography and self-promotion—a rare modesty for a U.S. Senator.

I visited the cemetery—for perhaps the fifth or sixth time—a few days ago, to connect with some of what I had read in the book, and get in the right frame of mind to write about it. As usual, one could see couples or small groups walking slowly along the paths. Occasionally one notices someone who has come to visit a specific gravesite. But most people, including the large groups of students typical this time of year, congregated near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The tomb is a large and impressive structure—and the changing of the guard is stirring to witness. Moreover, for those who don’t have a relative or loved one buried at Arlington, the tomb provides a connection that can appeal to every American.

“We venerate the Unknowns,” Cotton writes, “not merely as representatives of the unknown dead from four wars, but as heroes who embody the courage and sacrifice of all our war dead, from Lexington and Concord to Iraq and Afghanistan.”

I think there is another reason as well: people need something to gravitate toward. The cemetery, certainly on foot, seems vast—walking among the hundreds of thousands of individuals headstones easily can become overwhelming. One of the virtues of Sacred Duty is that it helps you get your bearings, to place the enormousness, the solemnity, and the ritual into perspective.

Cotton wisely avoids ambitious attempts at poetry; to capture the full meaning of Arlington would require a Shakespeare. Instead, he allows the historical facts, and especially the individual stories of both the living and the dead, to speak for themselves. From Private William Christman, the first soldier buried at Arlington in 1864, to Sergeant Jeff Dickerson—who took his emotional “last walk” as a tomb sentinel in March of 2018—the book is full of names, memories, and personal details that bring the heroes and guardians of Arlington into focus.

Sacrifice is a theme that naturally runs through the book, and one which has special importance in America. (“Now I know why your soldiers fight so hard,” one visiting foreign dignitary told the tomb guards. “You take better care of your dead than we do our living.”)

Since time immemorial soldiers have fought for home and hearth. That is no less true of America’s warriors. But what it means to defend this home—what it means to be an American soldier—has an extra meaning. Abraham Lincoln, in his eulogy of the great Senator Henry Clay, said, “He loved his county partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country.”

Living in a free country takes work. It even takes sacrifice—although from most of us the sacrifice is a far lesser one than that paid by those buried at Arlington. Nevertheless, there are virtues necessary for free government that cannot be ignored. Otherwise, self-government simply cannot work.

“Our founding principles are noble and just,” Cotton writes. “Our ancestors fought for those principles, and we ought to be ready to fight for them, too.” Citizens must fight for them, as well. But in a different way.

Republican citizenship means the willingness to subordinate our own narrow self-interest and policy preferences for the sake the common good. This is the essence of deliberative politics, where figurative battles take the place of literal ones. Politics, though a pale imitation of martial courage and the ultimate sacrifice, is in one sense incomparably easier than the physical and spiritual exertions needed in war.

But in another sense, it may be more challenging because it requires a permanent re-orientation of the soul. Republican citizenship has to be practiced as a way of life, so that toleration, compromise, and mutual respect become civic habits, and ultimately the foundation of civic friendship.

Our republic is in danger of losing all that has been won—at such immense cost—by those who gave everything, because, in our strident and punitive political climate, we seem no longer to know how to practice those essential virtues. Without them, the larger sacrifices won’t be able to save us. In the end, it is citizens who must be the guardians of “government by the people, for the people, and of the people.”

Without diminishing the need for Spartan virtue—the warrior’s courage and strength—we must remember why Americans fight. War, after all is for the sake of peace. America’s soldiers fight enemies abroad so that all Americans may remain friends at home.

Tom Cotton’s fine book shows us the nobility of those who sacrificed everything, and thus reminds us how small—and yet how necessary—are the sacrifices we must all make as citizens.

Content created by the Center for American Greatness, Inc. is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a significant audience. For licensing opportunities for our original content, please contact

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Book Recommendations • Book Reviews • Center for American Greatness • Donald Trump • Free Speech • Government Reform • Greatness Agenda • Post • The Culture • The Media

A Man for This Season

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Disclosure requires at the outset that I mention Victor Davis Hanson wrote a very generous foreword to my book on President Trump, though from a somewhat different angle. I would have declined this assignment if it required, in all honesty, to write a less than favorable review. That is not a problem. This is, and as any Hanson reader would expect, an excellent book. The title is in some respects misleading, as the author does not make the case for Trump as an advocate; he neutrally presents the reasons why an adequate number of Americans, conveniently distributed electorally, chose him as president.

A review of The Case for Trump by Victor Davis Hanson (Basic Books, 400 pages, $30)

Trump pulled off an extraordinarily perceptive analysis of the areas of discontent—identified both intuitively and by polling carefully. Trump recognized that the post-Reagan presidency and Congress had alienated a large and ever-growing section of public opinion stretching, with rare dissident patches, from upstate New York and Pennsylvania to the Rocky Mountains, and apart from Minnesota and Illinois, from Canada to the border and Gulf of Mexico. This has become the great Republican torso of America, and Hanson limns in always interesting insights about the steadily increasing disaffection of traditional, white, working and middle-class Americans at what they consider the desertion of their interests by the Democratic Party and the disparagement of them and of their opinions by the leadership of the Democratic Party.

Tens of millions of Americans, not necessarily immensely politically sophisticated, but well aware of what they liked and disliked, were steadily more offended by President George H.W. Bush’s frivolous renunciation of his infamous Clint Eastwood-imitative promise: “Read my lips—no new taxes,” and by his, as they perceived it, post-Gulf War foreign policy that was overly deferential to America’s enemies and to free-loading allies. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had been removed from Kuwait yet crowed that he had survived, was developing nuclear weapons and was the tip of the spear of militant, secular Islam. Bush’s support for continued Ukrainian and other ethnic republics’ adherence to the Soviet Union, and praise for the “confederation” of Yugoslavia, vaguely annoyed many Americans, especially when his son led us back into Iraq a decade later. The senior President Bush’s answer to a recession at home was just to spend more, even if it was borrowed, and even if doing so did nothing for the dwindling manufacturing sector of America.

In time, the people that Bill Clinton assured “I feel your pain,” evolved, in considerable measure, into the people that Barack Obama would asperse as “clinging to guns and religion.” They too were irritated. This was hard to take from a man who sat contentedly for twenty years in the pews of racist and anti-American pastor Jeremiah Wright, who dispensed his violent religion in fiery terms to the Obama family. The same loyal Democrats going back to the Roosevelt and Truman and Kennedy and Johnson years were singularly unimpressed by 2016 candidate Hillary Clinton’s consignment of them to the “basket of deplorables,” racists male chauvinists, rednecks, reactionaries, and bigots.

All politically informed people generally knew about this, but Hanson meticulously cites the Democratic leaders and describes Donald Trump’s cunning and well-thought-out pitch to what Richard Nixon called in a different context: “The silent majority.” Despite unprecedented media derision, Trump—once he got going as a candidate—exploited the rather muted proposals for tinkering with the decaying status quo of his talented group of Republican opponents, successful governors and former governors (Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee John Kasich, Rick Perry, Scott Walker), and prominent senators (Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz). They were a capable and previously respected group. 

But as the debates opened, Trump—though gratuitously abused by a vast echelon of the media—apparently was in the lead. In the early days, prominently placed among the contenders, only he dissented from the group-think of the other candidates of both parties. Only he wanted the NATO allies to pay more for their defense that the United States was providing, though it was distant from the possible source of danger, Russia. Only Trump called for the end to unequal trade deals, to a policy of truckling to China which enjoyed a $365 billion trade surplus with the United States and yet extracted exorbitant concessions from American companies to do business in China, and from disadvantageous trade agreements with Mexico, Japan, and Western Europe. Only Trump debunked the Palestinians as a serious interlocutor for peace.

Only Trump, among Republicans and Democrats, despite socialist senator Bernie Sanders’ supposed championing of the American working class, attacked globalism with its implications of supposed allies enticing American companies into their countries from which they would export unemployment back to the United States. All the other candidates in both parties were generally silent on these points, but Americans noticed, and as the primaries rolled by, the conventional wisdom than Trump was just brand-building and creating a great infomercial, gave way to hysterical attempts to “Stop Trump” on the Republican side, and then distance the party and its candidates at other levels from him.

Finally, in effect, they joined Hillary Clinton in protecting the United States from the “great ogre,” the unimaginable prospect of Donald Trump, blow-hard and checkered billionaire, sexist, racist, know-nothing, crook, tax-cheat, and ultimately Manchurian candidate-stooge of the Kremlin, being elected to the presidency. Most noteworthy, only Trump of all the candidates on both sides appeared to be serious about stopping the flow of millions of illiterate peasants across the southern border, contributing to a deadly influx of lethal narcotics. All the other candidates of both parties just repeated the tired platitude of “comprehensive immigration reform,” which everyone understood to mean, naturalizing millions of illegal arrivals and making purposeful (and inconsequential) noises about stopping the future flow of them.

Hanson makes the point very rigorously that Hillary Clinton was the one prominent Democrat who had a more dubious career than Trump’s, despite his less salutary business ventures, such as the unutterable hucksterism of Trump University. It was a fiercely nasty campaign, with both sides regularly charging the other with crimes. If there had been a Democratic nominee apart from the tainted Clinton and socialist Sanders, perhaps even the frequent blunderbuss Vice President Joe Biden, he might have won.

Hanson describes vividly the resonance of Trump’s key campaign arguments: “We don’t win anymore.” No one, he implied, was defending the national interest, and the middle and working classes had been put over the side and were overtly despised by the Democratic leaders over whose backs they had climbed to power, and they were selling America out to foreigners. How was the national interest served by allowing American allies to poach factories from the United States, export back into the country, creating more unemployment, and inducing the profit-making American corporations not to remit profits back to our shores, while Mexico in particular, made the arrangements even more one-sided by exporting illegally into the United States millions of impoverished and unskilled people, who then shipped back $30 billion to Mexico? Trump’s enemies replied that he was a racist, that providing in this way for the welfare of the underdeveloped world built international security and progress, and that it was in America’s interest and was its moral duty also. Only Trump realized that enough of the country was no longer buying into this to win an election with it.

Trump was running against the fading echoes of the Cold War, more than 25 years after the Cold War ended. Hanson, uniquely, makes the case that only Trump of the Republican candidates, could have made these points, (though Rand Paul approached some of them), and that only Hillary Clinton was more vulnerable than Trump was to the imputation of low ethics. When there is added to this the energy and careful targeting and tactics of the Trump campaign, his astonishing victory, the greatest upset in American presidential history, seems more comprehensible. He knew he had no chance in the states where the demographics militate against his positions, especially California and New York, most of New England, and Obama’s home state of Illinois. He focused relentlessly and ingeniously and with all the skills of populist communication he had learned in pulling more than 25 million viewers every week to his reality television production, on susceptible audiences with his very focused message.

Hanson recounts Trump’s generally successful record as president for two years, the astounding economic strength of the country, and his initial successes in facing down trade rivals and the North Korean regime. And he inserts the results of the midterm elections, where, in effect, NeverTrump pretend-Republicans were replaced by Democrats in the House, and the Republicans gained a seat in the Senate and replaced three Republicans hostile to the president with supporters. This enabled his supporters, who now thoroughly control the congressional Republican Party which was skeptical and uncooperative at first, to respond in the Senate to the much-heralded House Democratic investigations into every aspect of Trump’s life. The Mueller report’s benign conclusions for the president came after the book was finished, but only confirm the author’s views.

As only Hanson can, he muses on the possible destiny of this president as a tragic hero like Ajax or Oedipus, whose achievements could be made possible, but also limited, by his excesses. An interesting diversion follows, mentioning a number of literary and film figures.

But Trump could also be a successful president who is not a hero. Not every elevation to high office is a tragedy or a triumph of a hero. I think the betting must now be that Trump will be quite successful and will leave office relatively well regarded by most people. Appalling though it still is, the hatred of him is much less vituperative and self-confident than at the start of his term. And the changes he is seeking to the alliance system and the nature of international power alignments could be substantially realized, and be a stabilizing adjustment to post-Cold War conditions. Mideast peace, NATO, relations with China, all needed reassessment. And freed of the dirigisme and excessive taxation Obama had placed on it, the American economy is flourishing in a way that Trump’s predecessor said could only be achieved with a “magic wand.”

This is an exemplary, fair, and even-sided account of this president, his success as a candidate, and his prospects. It makes no pretense to being a biography and conveys almost nothing about Trump’s life until his emergence as a serious claimant on the presidency. But it is a much-needed and balanced perspective on the Trump phenomenon almost four years after he announced his candidacy to immense hilarity and ridicule.

Content created by the Center for American Greatness, Inc. is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a significant audience. For licensing opportunities for our original content, please contact

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2016 Election • America • Book Recommendations • Book Reviews • Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Donald Trump • Post • The Declaration

From ‘Flight 93’ to Air Force One

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Michael Anton, author of the most consequential pro-Trump article written during the 2016 campaign, “The Flight 93 Election,” returns with a short, 97-page book, After the Flight 93 Election.

Besides his original 4,300 word essay—the entirety of which Rush Limbaugh read on-air to an electrified audience shortly after it appeared in September 2016—Anton includes new material in the form of both a “pre-statement” and a “re-statement” of his original article. Those who were paying attention in 2016 will recall that Anton’s  stark presentation of the consequences of a Hillary Clinton victory—charge the cockpit or die!—and the continuing failure of Conservatism, Inc. with its succession of Bushoisie, helped to galvanize Republicans and conservatives who were uncertain about whether Trump’s unorthodox political presentation was in line with their hopes for the country. Anton showed why Trump was not just the only choice but, in fact, a sound choice.

But the struggle that consumed us then remains today, and perhaps is more desperate than ever: the people must still repudiate a resurgent Progressive Left as well as the flabby accommodationist conservatism of Beltway denizens still pining for the days of the Bushes, Paul Ryan, John McCain, and the “gravitas” of Mitt Romney. Anton’s withering assaults on these so-called “conservatives” exposed their foreign policy of futile war, uncontrolled immigration, “free trade” dogmatism, and their meek submission to political correctness.

In the continuing civil war, the D.C. “conservatives” and their mainstream media allies snarl supercilious sneers at Anton, 49, who served 14 months on the Trump National Security staff. Nonetheless, even some on the Left cannot help but appreciate his wit. In his Flight 93 essay Anton gave the con-jobs plenty to be mad about, with his mockery of their Davoisie ways and his comparing them to the “Washington Generals” facing the “Harlem Globetrotters” of the Left, to name just two of his more cutting rebukes (because they’re true).

For a few months in the spring of 2016 Anton developed the arguments that would eventually become his “Flight 93 Election” essay in frequently hilarious posts for an online and pseudonymous blog, the Journal of American Greatness, which abruptly ceased publication as the increasing notoriety of its arguments threatened the anonymity of some of its contributors who feared professional repercussions if outed. But the work of JAG, nevertheless, was a major contributing influence to the magazine you are now reading, which was established shortly after JAG went dark.

The majority of Anton’s book consists of new material explaining the intellectual grounding of Anton’s spirited election rallying cry. In making his case for Trump, I regard his work as a spirited corrective to Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, the late professor’s best-selling 1987 attack on the soft nihilism of the modern mind on campuses.

Likewise drawing from the great books, Anton makes his case for a rational patriotism, following the model in the Declaration of Independence and Aristotle. But Anton, unlike Bloom, wants to develop an “American solution” to form a shield against violent forces abroad and misguided or hostile critics from both the Left and Right at home.

Deploying these philosophic and practical texts, Anton, with his teachers such as Claremont Institute scholars Charles Kesler, the late Harry V. Jaffa, Thomas G. West, and John Marini, produces a “political argument” outlining and then defending “the essences of conservatism, Americanism, and Western civilization.” While the struggle for the controls in the cockpit of our hijacked republic required only desperate courage (together with an Anton shake of the shoulders), the ultimate political war cannot be won without intellectual clarity. But now in place of hijackers at the controls, America has a pilot. Whether our pilot can right the plane safely and continue flying is still an open question. Hijackers are still at the door and, besides, they’ve already damaged the plane.

“The fundamental choice we face in our time,” Anton insists, “is whether to maintain the consensus in favor of self-loathing and self-destruction or return to life and the conditions of life….” This is the “American solution”—the affirmation of a life of freedom, civilization, and the common good against the clamorous claims of imperious identity groups.

Thus Anton sees in Trump a defender of constitutional government—an anti-authoritarian advocate of limited government. Trump and his supporters are really advocates of self-government. Though just as Abraham Lincoln was falsely branded a dictator by his scurrilous opponents, so too Trump bears the scars of their latter-day successors.

In what way are identity leftists and NeverTrumpers the spawn of Confederates? Because at the heart of their objection to America is the notion that their wills should be unlimited, that government by consent is a joke, that the rule of some can be justified on the grounds of credentials, race, or purity of heart. In other words, legitimate government does not rest on the principle of human equality and the consent of the governed that it demands, as the Declaration of Independence maintains. Instead, these pretenders claim to rule legitimately by virtue of their status as “chosen” elites whose superior wisdom and understanding gives them title to it. Constitutionalism and the rule of law rest on principles which refute such tyranny.

As I noted in my own reflections on 2016, following Anton’s, “FDR in his First Inaugural address compared himself to Jesus Christ and anointed himself as commander in chief, with citizens as conscripts in his personal army. In his 1944 State of the Union address, Roosevelt characterized 1920s Republicans as fascists”—see the sixth paragraph from the end. Democratic presidents since FDR have accepted his view of the presidency. Today’s leftists are simply more intemperate versions of FDR.

Both Left and Right, liberals and conservatives—and Anton would gladly escape these outmoded and conventional labels—reject the notion that equality so understood is the American principle. President Obama regarded the Declaration of Independence as a justification for laws covering everything the leftist heart desires, while Anton would urge that the Declaration produced a government energetic but limited by the principle of consent of the governed in what it could rightly do. (The opinions of Justice Clarence Thomas are often the clearest brief analysis of this principle as applied to a particular situation.)

To emphasize Anton’s scholarly intentions, this review cannot close without mention of the several pages Anton takes to reflect on the meaning of names—in particular the pen name he used to write his blog posts and the original Flight 93 essay, Decius, which comes from Publius Decius Mus, the name of two Roman heroes described in Machiavelli’s Discourses. A scholarly objection to his using the name permits Anton to elaborate on his understanding of Machiavelli and the new “modes and orders” he wished to institute as an innovator and patriot. Machiavelli, he argues, uses the Decii in support of his view that republics (and religions) that wish to renew themselves must ever return to their beginnings.

The argument calls to mind Anton’s first book, The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style (2006). The brilliant satire about fashion, requiring its reader to compare these chapters with those of The Prince, bears as author the pen name Nicholas Antongiavanni. (Anton’s middle name is John.) Toward the end, he declares, following the original, “fashion is a harlot; and it is necessary, if one wants to protect oneself, to beat her back and spurn her enticements . . . .” In other words, “Young men, do not believe appearances!” His concluding, 26th chapter exhorts young Americans to “Seize Dress and to Free It from the Vulgarians.” For “if … American tastes have gone to hell, that only increases the glory, honor, and gratitude due to you for this marvelous deed.”

Michael Anton, defend us in battle!

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Book Recommendations • Book Reviews • Conservatives • Cultural Marxism • Identity Politics • Post • Religion and Society • The Courts • The Culture • The Left

during a confirmation hearing

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Since World War II, the war against Christianity that began in the Enlightenment has intensified across the globe. Every day, 11 Christians are killed, three-quarters of them in Muslim majority countries. In western European nations, Christians are marginalized, ignored, and mocked even as Muslim sensibilities and illiberal practices are carefully protected. And in the United States, supposedly one of the most religious of the developed nations, Christians are widely despised in popular and high-brow culture, and demonized by Democratic politicians like Senator Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.), who during a confirmation hearing insulted a Catholic nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals by scolding, “The dogma lives loudly within you,” recycling the old anti-Catholic smear that the nominee would be biased by her faith.

A review of Dark Agenda: The War to Destroy Christian America, by David Horowitz (Humanix Book, 224 pages, $26.99)

David Horowitz’s new book, Dark Agenda: The War to Destroy Christian America, is a meditation on this disturbing phenomenon and its dire implications for our republic.

Horowitz, a prolific author as well as the founder and namesake of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, is the most renowned bête noir of the Left and their progressive offspring. For more than 30 years of speaking, organizing, and writing he has been a scourge of their illiberal ideology and its totalitarian inclinations. An ex-radical leftist and Jewish agnostic, Horowitz defends Christianity because he understands the critical role it has played in the constitutional political order comprising unalienable rights and individual freedom. And as he explains, the serial assaults on Christianity have become a weapon for leftists to discredit all authorities beyond the state that pose a challenge to their bid for power.

Horowitz starts with the New Atheists of the 1990s such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Like most atheists, their works bespeak the mentality of what George Orwell called the “embittered atheist,” one who “does not so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike him.” This “unscientific animus,” as Horowitz calls it, explains the Left’s crude, irrational ad hominem insults of and contempt for Christians’ intelligence and motives, which is ironic considering how often the atheist “brights,” as many fancy themselves, are unhinged in their vitriol.  One reason for this “hatred and loathing,” Horowitz says, is because “they have faith of their own”: their own status as the chosen and saved, and people’s “liberators––pioneers of a new human race.” It is no coincidence that the atheist creed is the same as the Marxist ideology driving the American Left, which believes that “science will usher in a utopian age of reason, enlightenment, and social justice.”

The atheist attack on faith, then, is one front in the progressive war against America’s constitutional political order. As Horowitz puts it,

It is a war against an imperiled nation––a war against this nation and its founding principles: the equality of individuals and individual freedom. For these principles are indisputably Christian in origin. They are under siege because they are insurmountable obstacles to radicals’ totalitarian ambition to create a new world in their image.

The progressive ideology ascendant today in the Democratic Party is “social justice,” like its Communist forbearer, a pseudo-religion that promises redemption not through God, but themselves. But as Horowitz points out, in fact they are repeating the primal sin of Adam and Eve, who believed Satan’s false promise that by rejecting God, they themselves would become gods. Contrary to the social and economic determinism of the Left, moreover, our free will to choose our innate vices and flaws instead of God accounts for the injustices and suffering that “social justice warriors” claim to battle. As determinists, however, the Left must delegitimize human agency and responsibility in order to eliminate the rival authority of religion, and justify the centralization and concentration of state power that progressives have pursued for nearly a century.

Horowitz argues cogently and with a wealth of examples that such attitudes are inimical to the Founders’ core beliefs.

First, humans are by nature flawed and vulnerable to the lust for power. Hence the Constitution’s dispersing, checking, and balancing of powers both to respect the factional diversity of the colonies, and to make it difficult for one faction to monopolize all powers. Second, they knew that these constitutional mechanisms for protecting freedom necessarily relied on faith in the creator who had bestowed on us unalienable personal rights like “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that lie beyond the powers of government.

But with the European bloody wars of religion still fresh in their minds, they also understood that the denominational diversity of the American colonists meant that faith must be a protected activity of civil society. Hence the very first amendment in the Bill of Rights forbids a national state religion, the clause that has been corrupted into an unconstitutional “wall of separation” used today to banish Christianity from the public square and quarantine it in the realm of private life. But the amendment also “guarantees,” Horowitz writes, “all Americans the freedom to express and exercise their religious beliefs.” This Free Exercise Clause has been “the first casualty of the war against religion, and America,” for it stands in the way of the progressives’ need to delegitimize any authority over human life and action other than their own.

The bulk of Dark Agenda contains a history of several controversies that ultimately were settled by the Supreme Court rather than by Congress. Each directly and indirectly represented an attack on Christians and their rights enshrined in Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. This history also reveals the modus operandi of the Left and its penchant for ginning up “crises” and then relying on the unelected, unaccountable members of the Supreme Court to achieve their ideological aims.

The first is Engel v. Vitale in 1962, which banned prayer in public schools. The ACLU represented the five plaintiffs, one of whom was a founding member of its New York affiliate. Three courts had already rejected the complaint, the New York Supreme Court correctly noting that prayer in school was not a violation of the First Amendment, that no court in previous history had deemed it was, and that doing so “would be in defiance of all American history” and “would destroy a part of the essential foundation of American governmental structure.”

But the Supreme Court disagreed, arguing that it was a violation of the Establishment Clause because it did not recognize the belief of atheists. The pattern was set: a tendentious misreading of the Establishment Clause would over and over negate the Free Exercise Clause, justified not by legal and historical precedent, but by the ideological preferences of an activist faction. Subsequent decisions further chipped away at the presence of faith and Christian history in public schools. This purge created a vacuum that over the years has been filled with progressive and leftist ideology, leading to the intolerance and censorship dominating education today. As Horowitz writes,

As our freedoms are steadily diminished under the onslaught of “political correctness” and social justice fanatics, the true story of American freedom must be revised, rewritten, and censored by school officials, textbook publishers, and other tentacles of our “Ministry of Truth.”

Engel v. Vitale set the pattern for future attacks on the Christian foundations of the American order. Activists backed financially and legally by left-wing organizations would file suits that ultimately would be decided by the Supreme Court. Then the judgment would morph into a “constitutional right” that had never existed, or even been contemplated by the Founders. Thus was achieved a long-time progressive goal of revising the Constitution into a “living” document to be shaped by political ideology, and the creation of endless new “rights” to replace the natural rights bestowed by “Nature and Nature’s God.” The most powerful weapon for “fundamentally transforming America” had been forged.

Horowitz goes on to demonstrate this weapon’s success in subsequent decisions. Murray v. Curlett in 1963, a lawsuit brought by the unstable and troubled leftist firebrand Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founder and president of American Atheists. Her victory in the Supreme Court banned Bible readings and the recital of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools. The lone dissenter was Justice Stewart Potter, who wrote that the ruling was not enforcing neutrality toward religion, the tendentious interpretation of the Establishment Clause, but “the establishment of a religion of secularism,” which now, the Wall Street Journal added, was “the one belief to which the state’s power will extend its protection.”

Once again, as Horowitz writes, a “minority in America” relying on a minority that comprised the unelected, unaccountable Supreme Court “was able to impose its will on all Americans.” As a result, the critical mechanism of federalism, the check on the power of the Federal government by the sovereign people, their states and the powers delegated to those states, was weakened.

More Supreme Court decisions that undermined the Constitution’s protections of state and individual rights from overweening power followed. Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 struck down state bans on contraception, weakening the Christian doctrines and beliefs of millions of Americans, especially Catholics. Nothing in the Constitution justified creating this new right of contraception. So the activist supporters of the plaintiff, Planned Parenthood, sold the Court on a new right, “the right to privacy.” The Court’s reasoning was torturous and vague, as it had to be to justify such a right. So they rifled through the Constitution’s “penumbras” and “emanations” and “spirit” of other amendments in the Bill of Rights, a process redolent of seances.

The ultimate point, however, of the attack on contraception laws was the realization of the Cultural Marxist goal of turning sexual license into a force for “liberation” from a “patriarchal oppression” that chained women to their reproductive function and subjection to men. Hence the institution of the family, as well as religion, came under attack. That goal was further realized in the series of decisions that legalized on-demand abortion, the most important being Roe v. Wade in 1973. As well as being a direct assault on millions of Americans’ religious beliefs, this decision became the most divisive national issue since the Civil War, and still today sparks intense conflict.

After Roe, for the secular Left, Horowitz writes, the Supreme Court became “an all-powerful instrument . . . with which it could impose its radical, anti-Christian agenda on an unwilling nation.” The goal was not just abortion, but also to remove one of the bulwarks against the totalitarian impulses of the progressive technocracy that wants to aggrandize authority over all Americans. And their purpose was and remains to impose undemocratically its vision of human nature and society without having to persuade their fellow citizens through the constitutional mechanisms of deliberation and election that allows all citizens to have their say, and to hold accountable those politicians who are supposed to reflect the people’s will.

These are just a few samples of Horowitz’s much more detailed analysis of how battles in the culture wars­ like gay marriage or the role of religion in public life are part of a larger conflict over the nature of America and American citizenship. Should we be free, as the Constitution intended, to participate in the decisions that affect our lives and our most cherished beliefs? And should disagreements over first principles be solved through political mechanisms like free and open debate and deliberation, and participation in free and open elections? Or, as the leftists and progressives believe, should we be clients who cede their autonomy to a technocratic regime of state agencies and functionaries who demand the power to determine how our lives should be lived and our profoundest beliefs should be expressed?

We know what side David Horowitz is on, for he has spent decades battling against the hubristic pretensions of progressives and leftists who believe they have the superior knowledge to assume control of their fellow citizens’ lives, and shape them to achieve the Left’s utopia of perfect justice and equality. Horowitz also knows the gruesome consequences of those fantasies: genocide and murder that follow when any group of flawed human beings who forget the lessons of history and tradition, and promise heaven on earth but produce only mountains of corpses.

As Horowitz concludes, the election of Donald Trump has for the moment slowed this decades-long process of dismantling the American order and its Christian foundations. Trump’s unabashed defense of American exceptionalism and his practical achievement in reforming the federal judiciary, have challenged the power before which too many Republicans have quaked. But at this moment a new movement of self-avowed socialists and identity-politics tribunes have intensified the conflict and elevated it to new levels of invective, contempt, and outright hatred of ordinary Americans.

The stakes are high, and we all must arm ourselves against a well-funded foe that dominates the schools, the culture, and the media. David Horowitz, a veteran of numerous battles against the Left, has written an excellent guide to the history and ideas that have brought us to this pass.

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Book Reviews • Defense of the West • political philosophy • Post • Religion and Society

Soul, Man

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The soul is the most difficult and paradoxical thing in the world. In classical thought, the soul is our form, which activates and animates the matter of our bodies and makes us rational and free beings. It thus provides our access to metaphysical being itself—the understanding of everything that is. The soul is the space where the light of philosophy shines.

In Christianity, the soul came to be understood as the spark of the divine or the image of God, and also immortal. (This latter view is ascribed to Aristotle by the disciples of Saint Thomas Aquinas.) A bit later, with the birth of modern science, the soul vanishes altogether. We speak today of the soul largely metaphorically and call the hard sciences “soulless”—by which we mean that chemistry, physics, and information technology are cold, deterministic, and heartless. (The soul is not the same as the heart, but they go together.) In a more than metaphorical sense, however, modern science emerged specifically in opposition to any notion of the soul as the completion of the body. The ancients thought the soul the opposite of a metaphor; it makes the body real—but it does so in a way technology cannot grasp. Modernity sets aside the soul as irrelevant, outside the scope of scientific measurement, and, hence, a non-entity. But even modern science admits it has difficulties explaining consciousness—the residue of the soul in beings that think.

David Bolotin, retired after a distinguished career at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, believes Aristotle can provide useful instruction here. Indeed, he takes the philosopher so seriously on this matter that he has performed the monumental task of translating Aristotle’s short, dense treatise On Soul, plumbing the deepest wellsprings of the manuscript tradition in order to reconstruct what he believes to be a more faithful rendering of the original . . .

Read the rest in the Winter 2018-2019 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.

Image credit: Elliott Banfield/Claremont Review of Books

Book Reviews • Foreign Policy • political philosophy • Post

Defending the Nation

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For Yoram Hazony, governments are either nations or empires. This is a more superficial distinction than Aristotle’s, for whom a regime’s purpose is paramount, whether ruled by one, few, or many. Despite its limitations, however, Hazony’s new book, The Virtue of Nationalism, is worth reading because it focuses so succinctly on what nations are, why they are good, what distinguishes nations from empires, and why Western elites’ attempt to drown nations in “liberal” supra-nationalist institutions is bad. The book presents “an anti-imperialist theory that seeks to establish a world of free and independent nations”—un monde des patries, as Charles de Gaulle would have said.

The president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, and himself an Israeli, Hazony is a proud part of the prototypical nation: a people forever defined by the covenant they made with the Lord God. In quasi-Platonic terms, Israel is thus the idea of the nation. Others are nations insofar as they approach that idea. The Israelites defined themselves by their adherence to God, who shaped His people morally by giving them the Ten Commandments to instruct them in basic personal behavior. Hazony calls these “the moral minimum.” God at once endowed and limited his nation by giving them a land to be their own, while warning them—as he does in Deuteronomy 2:4-19—to “meddle not” with other peoples, whom He had also endowed with lands to be their own.

Ye are to pass through the coast of your brethren the children of Esau, which dwell in Seir . . . . Meddle not with them; for I will not give you of their land, no, not so much as a foot breadth; because I have given mount Seir unto Esau for a possession . . . . Distress not the Moabites, neither contend with them in battle: for I will not give thee of their land for a possession; because I have given Ar unto the children of Lot for a possession . . . . And when thou comest nigh over against the children of Ammon, distress them not, nor meddle with them: for I will not give thee of the land of the children of Ammon any possession; because I have given it unto the children of Lot for a possession.

From the beginning, then, Hazony shows that the prototypical nation was “living within limited borders alongside other independent nations…and uninterested in bringing its neighbors under its rule.” It welcomed strangers who said, as Ruth did, “thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” God willed that Israel rule itself, as the prophet Jeremiah declared: “And their nobles shall be of themselves, and their governor shall proceed from the midst of them.” Its rulers would serve the people, because only God Himself is master of all. Having freed Israel from the Egyptian empire, the Lord settled His people in the midst of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and other Near Eastern empires, whose masters intended to deprive of self-rule as many peoples—nations—as they could conquer.

* * *

Hazony rightly reminds us that “all states are perpetually on the verge of losing their cohesion and independence.” The Hebrew Bible first taught the fragility of political order, “at every moment either rising or falling, moving toward either consolidation or dissolution,” depending on “whether human freedom is aided or hindered by the state, and whether the extension of the imperial state [leads or not] to mankind’s enslavement.” Peoples who are free to rule themselves are perpetually at risk of giving up the conditions of nationhood—the moral minimum and independence—and hence of being absorbed into empires, as the Israelites eventually became the successive vassals of the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans.

Empire also results from the mistaken faith that only an authority superior to discrete peoples can prevent their pursuit of disparate purposes from ruining peace and prosperity. Hazony may be excused for attributing the Western world’s taste for empire to Catholic Christianity. But regarding the Holy Roman Empire as a continuation of Roman imperialism, as he does, misconstrues Christian political thought . . .

Read the rest in the Winter 2018-2019 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.

Image credit: Elliott Banfield/Claremont Review of Books

Administrative State • America • Big Media • Book Reviews • Center for American Greatness • Deep State • Democrats • First Amendment • Law and Order • Post • Progressivism • The Constitution • The Courts • The Left • The Media

The Mental State of the Ruling Class

In some ways, Todd Henderson is living the dream. He has worked as an engineer, a management consultant, a practicing lawyer, and ended up as a professor at his alma mater, the University of Chicago Law School, focusing on business regulation and securities law. Now he can add mystery novelist to his curriculum vitae with his debut thriller, Mental State.

The story, as well as the publication’s reception, sheds light on the sometimes toxic culture of our elite and their institutions. For all the talk of “engagement with ideas” and “encouraging critical thinking,” elite universities are more rigid and conformist today than perhaps any previous time in our history—yes, including the dreaded 1950s.

Henderson’s thoughts echo those of another University of Chicago professor who some 30 years ago noted we were experiencing the Closing of the American Mind.

By Chicago’s standards, Henderson is a man of the Right. In reality, he is more in keeping with the law school’s traditions of law and economics and libertarianism, made famous by two prolific and influential emeritus professors, Richard Posner and Richard Epstein. Unfortunately, Chicago is now becoming less distinguishable from peer institutions, not least in its demand for ideological conformity.

Mental State, as well as its tortured path to publication, exemplify this unfortunate trend.

Art Imitates Life
A good mystery or thriller, while not an account of actual events, is fundamentally honest. It presents believable characters and explores their motivations, problems, skills, and flaws. As such, Mental State is a good book, and it will prove to be of particular interest to lawyers, especially those uneasy with the “deep state.”

The story revolves around the supposed suicide of a law school professor, Alex Johnson, who resembles the author in important ways. He teaches at an elite Chicago law school, Rockefeller University, a facsimile of the University of Chicago, right down to the Bauhaus-style law school building.

What appears at first to be a suicide turns into a mystery, as the professor’s FBI agent brother, Royce, suspects the local police are missing something. He goes outside the normal chain of command to learn, not only about the death of his brother but also more about his brother’s life.

The professor is white collar, professional, bookish, surrounded by others of the elite, and variously reflects or rejects their styles. Considering the obvious resemblance to the author, the portrayal is brutal at times, exposing the deceased as flawed and venal, especially in his initial lack of courage in the face of institutional pressure. He is led astray not only by his ambition but also by the modest glamour that comes with being a law professor, such as the international conferences and hero-worshiping students.

His brother, by contrast, has common sense and tenacity, as well as no small measure of physical courage. He is an agent of the system, but he also really believes, as cops often do, in justice and in doing the right thing. The mid-level lawman has a corresponding blind spot to the gap between the ideology of the managerial elite—whose chief qualification consists of credentials bestowed by institutions like the fictional Rockefeller—and the gritty, Machiavellian reality of highly placed ideologues.

As if a suicide and the possibility of murder were not dark enough, the story also involves tolerance of the most grotesque double standards. The liberal president, who vaguely resembles Hillary Clinton, aims to appoint a suitably progressive jurist to the Supreme Court. The potential nominee has the right kind of credentials to ensure that he and the president make history. He would be the first Asian-American justice, has had a brilliant career, is a reliable progressive, and is connected from childhood to the late professor.

But he has a secret, and its exposure would be devastating to his candidacy. Was the professor killed as part of a cover-up?

The book ends up exploring more than one kind of hypocrisy. We learn how the elite looks out for its own and cultivates the future leadership class, selected chiefly for a combination of their academic pedigrees and ethnic diversity. Failing grades can be changed, particularly when they would damage the narrative. Indeed, even high crimes can be overlooked, so long as the cause is at stake. The individual and truth mean little compared to the cause.

This diversity bean-counting and concern for ideological goals have a dark corollary; underprivileged or not, inconvenient people are quickly and callously victimized when this serves the broader goal of advancing the agenda. One is reminded of the crude smear campaign levied against Clarence Thomas, whose black ancestry did little to deflect the mob of leftists that are usually so ostentatiously concerned for diversity. Among the managerial elite, the only kind of diversity that proves fatal, whether to one’s career or one’s life, is diversity of thought.

One of the more interesting aspects of Mental State—which was authored before Donald Trump descended the escalator, but only released this year—is the exploration of an emergent human type: the careerist, left-of-center, deep state bureaucrat. Echoing Peter Strzok, Andrew McCabe, and James Comey (himself a Chicago alumnus), a clique of political and law enforcement insiders at the highest levels of the federal government evince a disturbing willingness to bend any rules to serve the president in her pursuit of the right kind of Supreme Court appointee. After all, in the words of one of the fixers, “Our whole agenda would be in peril. . . . We just couldn’t let that happen.”

This is all fiction, of course. But it is a believable story of what might happen and how. We know strange things are afoot, and not only in the shady origins of the Steele dossier. Consider the aggressive efforts to sink a boy scout like Brett Kavanaugh, coupled with the indifference and slap-on-the-wrist treatment of Bill Clinton and Jeffrey Epstein. We have a powerful elite, concerned not only with ideological goals but equally with shoring up its own power and immunity from oversight.

The strong relationship between elite schools and the upper echelons of the nation’s political and business structures cannot be overstated. The Supreme Court at the moment is made up exclusively of graduates from Yale and Harvard law schools. Facebook’s founders and executives hail from Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and similar institutions. The culture of those elite schools is now becoming the culture of our tech giants and high government officials, up to and including their increasing indifference to free speech, their separation from the country’s more conservative or traditionalist interior, and their Draconian enforcement of the party line.

The most notable change from yesteryear’s elite is that today’s managerial elite makes no distinction between thoughts and actions. For them, good character is demonstrated by expressing the right kinds of opinions, and this low bar allows for extremely low behavior. This inversion of traditional morality ends up being the meta-narrative of Henderson’s novel, which begins as a thriller-mystery but ends up being an important critique of the spirit of the age.

Life Imitates Art
While it has been addressed elsewhere in some detail, one might imagine that a subversive work such as this did not receive the most welcome reception. Mental State was at one point unceremoniously yanked from Amazon and all pre-orders were lost. Amazon, like Facebook, Google, and the other tech monopolists, has decided to leverage its power not only for profit but also for progressive ends.

In addition, the author has received various threats, not only for the book but for making observations that ran counter to the acceptable narrative. Affirmative action—a theme of the plot and a source of controversy earlier this year involving Henderson’s criticism of Justice Sotomayor—depends, above all, on not noticing things. The elite not only must permit lower standards in the service of its group diversity, but its members and the general public must pretend that this is not happening at all. We’re just supposed to conclude the elite as a whole are what they tell us they are: “The best of the best!”

While those struggling in the business world may find much to envy in the protections of tenure, those protections are not what they used to be, particularly for conservatives, who make up a vanishingly small percentage of professors at elite institutions. Worse, they must self-censor if they are to avoid a sometimes violent and always insolent cohort of activist students, the cat’s paw of the equally leftist deans and professors. A sizable number of conservative academics publish their most interesting thoughts using pseudonyms.

This is not just melodrama. What is happening at these schools matters because it is not confined only to universities or at least not for very long. Universities are “beta testing” what will soon appear in the business world, in government, in the military, and in courts of law. This includes the labeling of nearly any right-of-center view as “hate speech,” the use of threats and intimidation against iconoclasts, and the Soviet-Style replacement of due process with “class justice,” as exemplified by the anti-truth formula “believe all women.”

Legal Realism Has Reached Its Logical Conclusion
Henderson and I were students at the University of Chicago’s law school around the same time. Compared to Harvard and Yale, Chicago was something of an oasis, a place of diverse views, vigorous debate, and rigorous scholarship. Scalia taught there for a time in the 1980s, but so did prominent liberal academics, Catherine MacKinnon and Cass Sunstein, as well as then-state-senator Obama. More recent events, including the reception of Mental State and a student-led attempt to kick conservative groups off campus, suggest the monoculture of other elite schools have started to undermine the unique culture of Chicago’s law school.

The roots of these elite law schools’ degradation may have deeper roots in what initially made them so influential. In the middle of the 20th century, each of these schools embraced the cutting-edge approach of legal realism to one degree or another. The alternative to legal realism is what most people think of when they think of law, sometimes called formalism. Formalism still exists in the world of practice, on the bar exam, in court, and at most schools, where the degree leads not to the Supreme Court, but rather the ranks of workaday practitioners. Formalism counsels that law is a closed and self-referential system, the careful and honest study of which can yield, more or less, correct answers to legal questions. It treats law as its own idiom, distinct from opinion, politics, or private morality.

Legal realism—similar to Marxism—suggests that all of this is a mask, an ideology. In its descriptive sense, legal realism teaches that law exists to serve the particular group in power and, by implication, to harm the socially and economically marginal. In keeping with the Progressive Era from which it sprang, legal realism also has a normative aspect: courts, lawyers, and legal educators should aim to fashion legal rulings and legal minds in order to advance the “correct” progressive agenda. The strong inculcation of “realist” views is the chief purpose of Chicago’s famous 1L course, Elements of Law.

Such a vaguely cynical point of view pervades elite legal education. It’s how a 200-year-old Constitution can be tortured to find au courant rights to gay marriage and abortion, while disregarding hoary guarantees like the right to bear arms. Wordy legal opinions mask this reality by design, appearing on the surface to involve the careful weighing of precedents and the precise applications of five-part tests.

But one may safely assume legal realists know the score; after all, everything in their education told them the law is just a tool, not an inherent limitation upon both the governed and the governors.

Legal realism planted the seed that grew into the contemporary decadence of the law’s elite ranks. After all, if all the robes, oaths, and judicial opinions are just a mask for the real reasons things are done—advancing progressivism—then perhaps other more egregious deviations from the formal constraints of the law may be authorized. It all comes down to the seductive lure of power masquerading as higher order wisdom and sophistication, a combination of “the end justifies the means” and “everyone is doing it.”

One thing these elite schools do undeniably well is select for intelligence. Through LSATs and undergraduate grades and thousands of applicants for comparatively few slots, the elite schools gather truly brilliant young people from every corner of the country and then dispatch them to the centers of power: New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Chicago.

The slow decline of the nation’s institutions and the increasing cleavage between the governed and the elite suggests that our governing elite should be chosen and educated in a different fashion.

Law and governance are not only about intelligence but also about character. But very little in the selection process for elite law school distinguishes the wise and the good from the merely clever. Worse, the pervasive “realism” of these institutions encourages the least mature and malformed characters to also pursue naked power. The product of a Yale or Chicago is far more likely to resemble the power-hungry and deceptive Mark Zuckerberg or James Comey than an Atticus Finch.

“Who guards the guardians?” The age-old question of Cicero does not suggest an easy answer, but one answer is the law, properly understood as containing limits. Mental State shows the pit into which a self-satisfied, clever, arguably well-intentioned, but ultimately immoral, elite may sink when the law is viewed not as a restraint, but as a mere mask. And, more frighteningly, Mental State asks what kind of ugliness we may encounter when we dare to look behind the mask.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the form of transportation Donald Trump used ahead of making his announcement in 2015 to run for president. The editors all know it was an escalator. The managing editor has been flogged.

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Photo credit: Carpe Diem

Book Reviews • Post

Nationalism Is Virtuous—Hazony’s Is Not

In his book, The Virtue of Nationalism, Yoram Hazony attempts to provide a much needed defense of the widely misunderstood and much maligned word.

A review of The Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony (Basic Books. 284 pages, $19.49)

Unfortunately, after misunderstanding the roots of American political thought, Hazony ends up expounding a theory of nationalism that should give readers some cause for concern.

Hazony believes that all forms of government tend towards anarchy or imperialism, so he favors nationalism which he sees as a moderating mean between these extremes. He defines nationalism as “a principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference.” His principles, however, lack the necessary moral guidance.

To see why nationalism is desirable, Hazony begins by presenting a historical framework to understand the confrontation between imperialism and nationalism in Western nations. This confrontation, he says, is central to both the Hebrew Bible and Protestantism which renounced the authority of the Holy Roman Empire and established two foundational principles for legitimate government: a minimum moral standard, and national self-determination. Hazony’s misunderstanding of the liberalism of Hobbes and Locke leads him to conclude erroneously that these two principles were overtaken by the liberal construction of the West. According to him, for liberalism there is “only one principle at the base of legitimate political order: individual freedom.” This, he implies, is incompatible with the two principles.

In the second part of the book, Hazony lays out his main argument. He makes the case for the “national state” as the best political order in terms of “collectives” such as families, tribes, and nations. He rejects the idea that people are motivated to act politically to protect individual rights. Rather, he says, they do so for “collective self-determination,” which is “the freedom we feel when the collective to which we are loyal gains in strength, and develops those special qualities and characteristics that give it unique significance in our eyes.” In other words, people are not motivated politically to protect their rights but instead to accumulate power. For him, the common claim that the British and American concepts of individual liberty are universals that immediately can be understood and desired by everyone is nothing more than “the cultural inheritance of certain tribes and nations.”

The family, says Hazony, is the strongest and most resilient of all institutions in human politics. It is the bond of loyalty to one’s parents that holds the family together, which extends to the clan, tribe, and nation. This bond of “mutual loyalty of individuals to one another is the most powerful force operative in the political realm.” The health and prosperity of the family—as well as every human collective—is measured by nothing more than “physical and material flourishing,” “strong internal integrity” (i.e. loyalty between its members), and by “the extent and quality of the cultural inheritance that is transmitted by the parents and grandparents to the children.” Note what is missing. There is no discussion of virtue or of any transcendent view of the good. In fact, as we will see below, any such claims are to be avoided.

Much like John C. Calhoun, Hazony believes that the original form of human political order is anarchical, unlike Hobbes and Locke who view the state of nature as social but not political, since politics begins when there is a common judge between individuals. Tribes have no governing authority over human beings, says Hazony, but come together to form a state better to protect themselves from a foreign threat. It is a great falsehood descended from Hobbes and Locke, he goes on to say, “that political life is governed largely or exclusively on the basis of the calculations of consenting individuals as to what will enhance their safety and protect and increase their property.”

It is hard to see how Hazony claims this to be a falsehood when he himself defines politics as “the discipline or craft of influencing others so that they act to accomplish the goals one sees as necessary or desirable.” What Hazony finds troubling is the idea that consent is involved in the calculations. There is “no such consent and no such calculation,” he says. These liberal thinkers, he claims, ignore “the bonds of mutual loyalty among its members” which are a necessary motive for the state to endure. In this respect, says Hazony, the state is a collective “of the same kind as the family,” a claim that Aristotle attributes to the barbarians.

As a result of the primacy of the collective in his political thought, Hazony rejects the idea that the freedoms guaranteed to individuals in England and America are had “by nature.” Rather, he claims that they are “the result of an intricate machinery developed through many centuries of trial and error.” Rights and freedoms are established by “balancing the powers of the ruler against those of the various tribes or factions of the nation assembled in the parliament; and by balancing the powers of both the ruler and the strongest tribes or factions against those of independent judges and juries that are tasked with determining the application of the laws to the individual.” For Hazony the task of government is not to protect inalienable rights, but to establish rights in a balance of power between the interests of the ruler and those of the ruled. A similar argument is made by Glaucon at the beginning of Plato’s Republic when he restores Thrasymachus’ argument that justice is the advantage of the stronger.  

Hazony rejects all forms of federal governance because they inevitably lead to a consolidated government and empire. This, he says, is also true of the United States.

“Throughout the history of American federalism, the national government has thus used the powers at its disposal to force the states to conform their constitutional and religious traditions to the range of behaviors it has considered acceptable,” he writes. For Hazony, the current form of consolidated government in the United States is a natural consequence of its federal constitution and not the result of Progressive deviations from it. Jefferson’s “overthrow of the Protestant constitutional and religious order in Massachusetts and Connecticut,” and Lincoln’s “war against the secession of the Southern states and the appalling right they asserted to own and enslave human beings” are examples of that.

It is hard to understand what in Hazony’s view justifies the claim that slavery was an “appalling” practice. Having done away with natural right, natural law, and universal truths in general, Hazony is left with collective self-determination and bonds of loyalty as the only foundations for political life. These will not do. Had he paid more attention to Hobbes, but especially to Locke, he might have noticed that the state of nature is not a hypothetical theorem but the actual condition of individuals with no common judge, a claim echoed by the American Founders. More importantly, he would have noticed that individuals in a state of nature are under a law of nature, a law not only that grants rights to individuals, but one that demands duties from them. As Locke clearly states in the Second Treatise “though this be a State of Liberty, yet it is not a State of Licence.”

Even though Hazony seems to recognize some form of immutable human nature by claiming that human intolerance is innate, he fears that it will be inflamed to the highest degree by disseminating “a worldview according to which there is but one true doctrine, and mankind’s salvation depends on the entire world submitting to it.” For him, universal truths inevitably will lead to empire which is why he concludes that “one can have no better destroyer than an individual ablaze with the love of a universal truth.” Yet a universal truth, specifically the one found in the liberalism of Locke is the one thing that would keep the individual ablaze and turned away from becoming a destroyer. The concept that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed,” is the strongest argument for the Nation-State and the strongest argument against imperialism.

In essence, Harzony’s position seems almost indistinguishable from Stephen Douglas’s “popular sovereignty,” which states that each national state is autonomous and can decide what is and what is not right for their own prosperity without any transcendent view of justice to guide it. This, of course, left Douglas incapable of recognizing the moral wrong of slavery. For Hazony, collective self-determination and bonds of loyalty are the only characteristics that all national states must share and these are insufficient moral guides for any political community. If Harzony does believe there is a transcendent view of justice, he does not make it clear in the book. On the contrary, all such universal claims are presented as suspect since necessarily, to his mind, they lead to empire.

Book Reviews • feminists • History • Identity Politics • Post • The Culture • The Left

Enough Masculinity to Make Any Soy-Boy Clutch His Pearls

It’s a dead certainty that any wispy-beard wearing a “This is What Feminism Looks Like” t-shirt will be first-eaten in the zombie apocalypse. One only has to see the young harridans on college campuses and the boy-weasels they lead around by their nose-rings to know we live not in an age of toxic masculinity but rather one of toxic feminism and beta masculinity. A country does not grow great or maintain greatness by the power of beta-masculinity. It grows great by virtue of the kind of masculinity now called toxic and that Harry Crocker describes in his new book, Armstrong: The Custer of the West (Regnery).

Crocker’s story is a good old-fashioned yarn, a tall tale. How else to describe a story that includes a troop of Chinese acrobats stuffed into a makeshift cannon in order to fool the bad guys, and a mean dog that understands German and helps the hero out of more than one tight spot. He actually says to the dog, “no barkenzie” and the dog neither barkenzies or woofenzies.

The book’s conceit is that General George Armstrong Custer never died at Little Bighorn but was captured by Indians and made a slave to a white woman-turned-squaw named Rachel. The fetching Rachel appeals to Custer’s innate and darned near irresistible masculinity to help her escape her captors and thus begins a rollicking gallop through a comic western landscape told by Custer himself as a letter to his wife Libbie.

Custer and Rachel, who is now his ward, escape to a nearby town whereupon Custer immediately is forced to kill a man. Escaping from the dead man’s friends, Custer runs plumb into “a camp of big, garish wagons—theatrical wagons” belonging to Miss Sallie Saint-Jean and her traveling troupe of showgirls, Chinese acrobats, and the like. Naturally, the troupe was in need of a Chinese trick shooter, so now-Chinese Custer steps up, but during that evening’s show he up and kills a few more miscreants whereupon he escapes, changes disguise and becomes Armstrong Armstrong, a U.S. Marshall on the hunt for the murderous Chinese trick shooter.

All of this happens in the first 30 pages. Whew. Armstrong Armstrong now leads his ward Rachel and Miss Saint-Jean’s troupe to yet another town, called Bloody Gulch, where there are damsels in distress, men enslaved, and children chained. The rest of the book pits our knight errant over against the malevolent Seth Larson and his band of gunslingers, and bloodthirsty Injuns.

Among the many delightful things about the book is its unabashed political incorrectness. There is a very clear line between good and evil. No shades of gray. The evil Injuns, as opposed to the good Injuns, are truly evil. What’s more, they’re dirty, and they stink. Custer calls them savages. Custer refers to the Chinese acrobats as Chinamen. He mocks the way Chinese “talkie talkie” English, a mockery now forbidden. And then there is Custer’s near obsession with beautiful women.

Just about every time Custer comes upon one of the ladies of Bloody Gulch he becomes a poet to the female form. About to rescue a sleeping damsel he describes “her golden tresses splashed over her pillow like sunbeams across the clouds, her beauty like that of a goddess from ancient Greece.” Before waking her, he even brushes his teeth with a pinch of salt “ready now for anything that might happen.” Keep in mind, this is a letter to his wife.

He describes Miss Sallie as spinning on a high heel and ambling down to the saloon “with a walk that, if I may be so blunt, would have brought some men to their knees.” Another wore, “black high heels that could drive both nails and a hard bargain.” Crawling through a tight tunnel behind Isabel Johnson, he notes her “bustle swaying gently to and fro as if borne on the waves of a salty ocean . . . ” He refers to the “calming effects of Isabel’s rolling bustles, beckoning like a beacon in the night . . . ”

I am put in mind of the visit of the French president to Washington, D.C. some months ago. The local paper ran a photograph taken from behind of Mrs. Macron and, more to the point, Mrs. Trump. The purpose of the photo was rather evident as Mrs. Trump wore a rather formfitting white dress. It was amusing to see the apparent hypocrisy of the usually feminist and tut-tutting Washington Post. Personally, I was somewhat startled at the subject matter which I described as “arresting” on Twitter and was promptly accused of favoring sexual assault or some such nonsense.

Crocker knows men used to be able to gaze upon a woman’s beauty but also that he could not linger lest the imagination is sinfully engaged. He might even comment but would go no further than a chaste “my-my,” maybe “my-oh-my.” But the toxic feminists and soy-boys of our time will surely call out “rape culture!” upon hearing any of this. There used to be a fairly bright line between admiring a woman’s shape and being a pig. Sadly, these days it seems men are either pigs or pussies, no in between, no place for knowing gentlemen, no place for Custer—or Crocker, for that matter.

Custer’s real business at Bloody Gulch is no less than the reestablishment of Western Civilization. Each of the primary progenitors of our culture has been strangled by Seth Larson and his band of cutthroats; families busted up, the church and the school closed. The only buildings in use are the hotel and the saloon. There aren’t even any cultural events, that is, not until Custer leads Miss Sallie and her troupe into town.

There is much to enjoy in Crocker’s book; a multilingual Indian who spouts Catholic catechism, theology, and philosophy, a Southern gentleman late of the Lost Cause secretly working for the hated Republican Ulysses S. Grant, plot twists and reveals, and manly speechifying on leadership, governance, duty, and even forgiveness.

Custer of the West says, “Heroism does not dim with age. Heroes do not fade from memory. They are immortalized in song and story, in statuary and stone, and no society—certainly not the United States of America!—that seeks to perpetuate itself can neglect its ancient, or not so ancient, heroes: its George Washingtons, its Andrew Jacksons, its Davy Crocketts, its Winfield Scotts, its McClellans, its Custers!” Custer even grants the heroism of “its Lees, Stonewall Jacksons, its A.P. Hills.”

There is enough masculinity in this book to make any soft-boy-feminist clutch his pearls and take to his fainting couch.

Photo Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Book Reviews • History • Post

A G.I. General in Full and at Last

Review of Omar Nelson Bradley: America’s G.I. General, 1893-1981, by Steven L. Ossad (University of Missouri Press, 492 pages, $36.95)

Until now most of what we know about General of the Army Omar Bradley has come from his own memoir, A Soldier’s Story (1951), a co-authored autobiography, A General’s Life (1983), and to a lesser extent from the war diary kept by his military aide, Chester “Chet” Hansen. The broader public who have not read these accounts know Bradley primarily from his appearance (portrayed by Karl Malden) in the 1970 blockbuster movie Patton, a film for which he served as senior military adviser.

Bradley’s accounts of his own life suffer from the drawback of most memoirs—the natural tendency to downplay or excuse failures and magnify triumphs. In Bradley’s case, the work of historians has been made more difficult by the stranglehold Bradley’s second wife, Kitty, held on his image and private documents until her death in 2004.

Steven Ossad’s well-researched biography of Bradley offers a refreshing take on the general’s life and service. He is even-handed in his judgments and presents a holistic portrait of Bradley, with an understandable focus on his service in World War II. The so-called “G.I. General” comes across as an able tactician who was a competent corps commander in Africa and Sicily, but who was then thrust into a role as army group commander in which he struggled. His post-war service as head of the Veterans Administration and as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—the position that earned for him a coveted fifth star—are treated as part of Bradley’s legacy.

Ossad also presents Bradley the man. Bradley was unable to admit fault, whether the fault be a base-running error in the 1913 Army-Navy baseball game or the more consequential failures to close the Falaise Gap in August 1944 or react appropriately to the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes later that year. He was a less than faithful husband who in his later years engaged in a long-term affair with the twice-divorced screenwriter and journalist Esther Dora “Kitty” Buhler, 30 years his junior, while his first wife Mary suffered from leukemia that would take her life in 1965. The result is the best treatment of Bradley to date and one that will no doubt stand the test of time as the definitive take on the general’s life.

Bradley grew up in rural Missouri before attending West Point, graduating in the famed class of 1915, the “class the stars fell on.” He missed combat duty in World War I and his service in the interwar period, while competent, hardly marked him for greatness. His break came in his posting to Fort Benning in 1929, where he served as head of the weapons section under the assistant commandant, future U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall. Having one’s name in Marshall’s black book ensured a choice posting when war came.

Bradley ascended quickly after mobilization began in earnest in 1940, serving as commandant of the Infantry School at Fort Benning before commanding the 28th and 82nd Infantry Divisions during their activation and training in the United States. Bradley would never serve as a division commander in combat, however.

Marshall dispatched Bradley to Africa in February 1943 to serve as assistant to Allied forces commander General Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. Bradley arrived at an opportune moment. U.S. forces had just suffered a major defeat at Kasserine Pass and Ike tasked him to determine the shortcomings that had led to the debacle. After Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. assumed command of the II U.S. Corps from the lackluster Lloyd Fredendall, Bradley became Patton’s deputy and shortly thereafter assumed command of the corps when Patton disengaged to plan the invasion of Sicily.

Bradley served competently as a corps commander in the closing stages of the Tunisian campaign and in Sicily. The latter operation brought him to the attention of the public, courtesy of renowned war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who spent three days with Bradley and provided favorable coverage of him. Pyle genuinely admired Bradley, and in his columns created an image of him as America’s “G.I. General.” Bradley most likely would have topped out at corps or army command, but fate intervened when reports emerged of Patton slapping two soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Patton would not lead U.S. ground forces into France on D-Day; instead, that job fell to Bradley.

In the preparations for the Normandy invasion, Bradley surrounded himself with officers with whom he had served in the Mediterranean. There was nothing wrong with this exactly, but Bradley and his team proved incapable of accepting advice from others who might have some to share.

For just that reason, Marshall had sent to England Major General Charles “Pete” Corlett, the commander of the 7th Infantry Division that had successfully invaded Kwajalein in the Pacific. Bradley ignored him; Corlett’s advice on the need effectively to bomb the shores of Normandy fell on deaf ears. Bradley likewise turned down the offer of specialized armored vehicles, British Maj. Gen. Percy Hobart’s “funnies,” with the exception of the mine-clearing flail tank. It would be the GIs who would pay the price for the G.I. General’s stubbornness and unwillingness to learn from others.

Bradley’s strengths and shortcomings shone in stark relief during the Normandy campaign. His refusal to heed the advice of others led to near-disaster on Omaha Beach, where lack of effective air and naval gunfire support nearly doomed the invasion and consigned more than 2,000 G.I.s to their graves.

Bradley’s next major decision was more inspired. After slugging through the Norman hedgerows for seven weeks, the Army launched Operation Cobra, Bradley’s plan to break through German defenses near St. Lô. Although hampered once again by poorly coordinated air support that killed several hundred U.S. personnel, Bradley’s forces succeeded in shattering the German defenses that had kept them penned in for nearly two months. Having achieved the long-sought after breakout, Bradley sullied the accomplishment by unfairly blaming U.S. airmen for short bombings, when his decision to withdraw the front by only 800 meters as a safety buffer had more to do with the fratricide than the airmen’s technical decisions.

Nevertheless, Operation Cobra succeeded spectacularly in nearly surrounding German forces in Normandy. Yet Bradley squandered the opportunity to finish the war by taking counsel of his fears, stopping Patton’s Third U.S. Army at Argentan and allowing 70,000 German troops and many of their all-important command and staff groups to escape the encirclement. Ossad sides with Bradley’s argument that allowing Patton to close the gap was unwise, one of the few instances where the biographer gets too close to his subject.

Ossad is justifiably more critical of Bradley’s handling of fighting in the Hürtgen Forest and the Bulge. The former battle should never have been fought; as 12th Army Group commander, Bradley should have vetoed the bloody attacks into the teeth of German defenses in the Hürtgen, instead routing the attack around its periphery. His decisions in the Bulge were just as poor and potentially disastrous. Bradley was far too complacent in reacting to the German counteroffensive, refused to move his headquarters into a position from which he could maintain effective control of his armies, lacked situational awareness of what was happening on the First U.S. Army’s front, failed to visit his subordinate commanders in the field during the first crucial days of the battle, and then exploded at Eisenhower when Ike justifiably temporarily assigned operational control of the First and Ninth U.S. Armies to Montgomery’s 21st Army Group. Bradley was sidelined, relegated to watching Patton drive to Bastogne and glory. The battle was the worst month and a half of his life and showed his limitations as a senior commander.

Bradley made better decisions to end the conflict, including a vigorous exploitation of the captured Remagen Bridge across the Rhine River, urging Patton to cross the Rhine in-stride, and the encirclement of the Ruhr Valley, which effectively ended German resistance in the West. By the end of the war Bradley was in command of four field armies totaling 1.25 million men, the greatest operational command in the history of U.S. arms.

After the war, President Harry S. Truman called on Bradley to take care of American servicemen as head of the Veterans Administration. While maintaining his four-star active-duty rank, Bradley undertook unheralded but important service as VA director, modernizing the creaky bureaucracy and bringing scores of senior European Theater veterans into the agency’s ranks. By the end of his tenure, he had transformed the VA into a more modern organization capable of meeting the needs of the 16 million new veterans who had served in World War II.

Bradley finished his service as U.S. Army chief of staff and, more importantly, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the latter role, he refereed the contentious “revolt of the admirals” and supported President Truman when he relieved General Douglas MacArthur of command of U.S. forces in Korea. Bradley also wisely kept U.S. strategy focused on Europe, famously opining to Congress that expanding the war beyond Korea would involve the United States and its allies in “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.” He was right on all counts.

Ossad has written a highly readable and entertaining account of one of the great figures of World War II, bringing the story of Omar Bradley to a new generation of readers and earning a justified distinguished book award from the Society for Military History. The biography is recommended for both specialists and lay readers interested in World War II and early Cold War history as well as those interested in military leadership.

Photo Credit: Keystone-France\Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Book Reviews • Cultural Marxism • Education • Post • The Culture

Frankly, I Do Give a Damn: Thomas Frank’s Essays About America

If America has a rendezvous with doom rather than destiny, if our end lies not in physical destruction but in moral decline and material decadence, we need only look at the false history we continue to manufacture. From the McMansions that litter the land to our neglect of the land itself, in which colleges crumble from within and presidential libraries collapse from without; in which the rot is a triumph of pseudoscience, on the one hand, and a series of pseudo-events, on the other, look to Thomas Frank’s new book, Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society, for a survey of the damage.

Start with the McMansion, a big box of exposed brick and cotton candy insulation. Or so it seems, since these houses are as much a corruption of style as they are a crime against common sense. How else to explain the existence of these mausoleums for the living dead, where the buildings decay faster than their residents? How else to describe these buildings, except to say they house more fifth columnists than all the columns of their tawdry exteriors combined?

These houses are anti-American symbols of excess, whose blueprints do not align with our national blueprint. In other words, if you were to take Woody Allen’s comment about the residential architecture of Beverly Hills—that it is Spanish, next to Tudor, next to Japanese—if you were to remove parts from each home and build a smaller but less symmetrical house; if you were to mix the sacred and the profane, with clay tiles here and high chimneys there; if you were to scar the mountains and spoil the prairies with these houses, you would have the McMansions of the managerial class.

Frank sees these houses for what they are: man-made disasters.

This observation also applies to his analysis of the intellectual architecture of our colleges and universities. Among our most prestigious schools, whose charters are old but not ancient, whose concepts are imports from the Old World to the New, Frank sees a wealth of arrogance and the arrogation of power by the few against the many. He sees an aristocracy of “talent” as no more talented than an aristocracy of wealth.

Frank sees what Michael Young, his political forefather across the Atlantic, foresaw 60 years ago: the rise of the “meritocracy.” The author of a book of the same name, Young coined the word meritocracy not in pride but in anger. A British MP and a Labour Party official, Young warned about the transformation of elite credentials into a means of social exclusion.

Before the best minds enacted their worst ideas, and the brightest men darkened policies foreign and domestic, Young knew status would become synonymous with smarts. He knew admission to Oxford or Cambridge, or Harvard or Yale or Princeton, would become a mandate to rule and a pathway to ruin. He knew the public would mistake scarcity for value. He knew those with the highest test scores would seek to occupy the highest realms of society.

And yet, those who were wise enough to know the limits of their own intelligence have been displaced by those who believe there is nothing they do not know. Thus ends not humanity but humaneness, as the bonds of community fray and the ties of citizenship fail to keep us together. Thus ends faith in God and country, as religion yields to reason and we have no reason to revere what we can neither measure nor see. Thus marks the end of America.

Fear not, however, because we can reinvent the present by rewriting the past. Rather, we can read all the news we want so long as it fits the stories our leaders want us to hear. The news is good, of course, inside the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park. Ditto for the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, and the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

Inside, freedom never dies and the middle class always thrives. Inside, the work is easy and the pay is good. Inside, opportunity is our birthright and a college degree is our passport to the good life. Inside, the streets are safe and the cities are clean. Inside, no price is too high and no burden is too great to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Perhaps we should stay inside—forever. Or perhaps we should stand up and fight.

Outside, we must lift our voices and lower our fists. We must lower them, not because we must love our enemies, but because we have no time to hate our enemies.

Thomas Frank would agree with me, I think, in spite of the likelihood of our disagreements. He would sooner try to save the middle class than say a prayer about its passing.

He wants to fight, too.

I do not have to support all of his ideas to know he has the right idea about what plagues us.

From those who would sooner salute the flag than burn it to those who would rather lower it from sight than see it drape another coffin as mourners lower it into the ground, Thomas Frank is no passive bystander.

Like us, he refuses to remain silent.

Photo Credit: YouTube

America • Book Reviews • Conservatives • History • Post • statesmanship • The Constitution

Getting Right with Alexander Hamilton

Why should anyone study the life of Alexander Hamilton? According to the Left, studying “dead white males” perpetuates racist, patriarchal, and heterosexual power structures that have subjugated minorities of all kinds since Columbus and his bloodthirsty crew dropped anchor in the New World. And for some on the Right, Hamilton was a precursor to the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson and FDR in supposedly arguing for a large and centralized government unmoored by any constitutional constraints. 

A review of Hamilton: An American Biography, by Tony Williams (Rowman & Littlefield, 208 pages, $19.95)

But as Tony Williams shows in his new book, these critics from both the Left and the Right get Hamilton wrong by equal degrees. In fact, Hamilton was a statesman of the highest caliber and advocated for a “strong, reputable, and honorable nation at home and abroad.” At a time when there is much confusion over the fundamental elements of politics such as nationhood, sovereignty, and consent—all things Hamilton knew almost instinctively—this biography is indispensable.

In clear and concise prose, Williams ably sketches out the broad strokes of Hamilton’s life, giving his readers a full and accurate picture of the man.

He chronicles Hamilton’s rise from poverty and obscurity in the West Indies, born out of wedlock to an absent father (John Adams in his more cantankerous years called Hamilton “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar”) and a mother who soon perished due to tropical fever. From these low origins, Hamilton went on to become General Washington’s aide-de-camp, fought at the battle of Yorktown, played a crucial role in getting the Constitution ratified, and served as the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. His life was cut far too short in a duel by the bullet of the despicable Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s archnemesis whom he called an “embryo-Caesar.”

Hamilton’s life would become the very model of the American dream, a meritocracy that actually delivered on its promises of social mobility. It demonstrated to Americans that in this novus ordo seclorum the natural aristocracy of “virtue and talents” Thomas Jefferson wrote about could triumph over an “artificial aristocracy” based on the wiles of human nature and accidents of birth.  

In lieu of examining every facet of Hamilton’s life, two overarching themes in Williams’ biography are especially useful for us today. First, Hamilton put his personal honor and reputation in the service of creating a strong national Union, and second, he rejected the rigid constraints of ideology in favor of a politics of prudence.

Hamilton’s National Union
Securing a national Union for the purpose of establishing “American greatness” was, according to Williams, the “glorious purpose” that animated Hamilton’s political life. In Hamilton’s understanding, the United States must be an economically dynamic nation aimed at achieving prosperity and maintaining peace with all nations.

Whatever disagreements invariably exist between citizens, it was plain to Hamilton—and the founders generally—that a common bond of friendship marked by similar character, traditions, and politics was the vital foundation upon which this perpetual Union would rest. The pluribus (or many) was to be founded upon the American unum (or one).

Hamilton took John Jay’s teaching on the importance of Union in Federalist 2 as self-evident:

Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people…descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs . . . .

The drive to create a formidable national Union that could be respected the world over was powered by Hamilton’s own deep sense of personal honor. Williams writes that in Hamilton’s understanding, “Honor was the measure of a man, the preservation of one’s public reputation. To have honor was to be heroic and manly.” Just as Madison taught regarding the character of office-holders and statesmen in Federalist 51, Hamilton “tied his honor and fortunes to that of America and the national honor.”

For Hamilton, as an “honorable man was free of debt and not dependent on any man,” an honorable nation must have good credit and remain free from foreign entanglements, guided only by its national interests. Independence of action was a vital prerequisite for the perpetuation of a great national Union.

Another necessary part of a national Union was an energetic government capable of protecting and defending the rights of its people. Williams argues that this is why Hamilton counseled for the “creation of a stronger constitutional government.”

In contrast to the confederal government of the Articles of Confederation, the government established by the Constitution needed to feature “energetic government with a strong executive” that “executed its powers and protected the liberties of the people.” Such a government must also have “the power to tax, regulate trade, and establish a national bank to set the nation’s finances on a proper foundation.” Buttressed by a “prosperous economy” and a “powerful military establishment to defend its interests,” the American national Union could exist for as long as the people could keep it.  

Hamilton Was No Ideologue
A second useful lesson Hamilton can provide us today is his rejection of political ideology and abstraction in favor of political prudence. Though he grounded his politics on the unchangeable natural law and natural rights principles of the Declaration of Independence, his statesmanship was always guided by the particular circumstances the nation confronted.

At a young age, Hamilton knew that to be useful, the theoretical must be able to inform the practical. While he was still toiling away in the Caribbean, he wrote to a friend that he was “no philosopher” and did not want to waste the rest of his life building “castles in the air.” Hamilton followed that path for the rest of his life.

For example, Hamilton as treasury secretary was not an advocate of a policy of pure free trade. He acknowledged that nations typically promote their own interests first and foremost and thus an equality of exchange between nations was rare. From this premise, he supported import tariffs and other means the American government could use to safeguard and promote its young domestic manufacturing sector.

Williams notes that Hamilton’s Report on Manufacturers charged the American government with “protecting innovation, protecting American manufacturers from foreign competition, and spending money on internal improvements such as roads and canals to facilitate trade and link markets.” While free trade was the internal policy of the United States, trade that promoted American interests above those of other countries formed the cornerstone of the nation’s external trade policy. Changing circumstances—not a strict adherence to a single policy irrespective of reality—would dictate American trade policies with foreign nations.

Williams also addresses an incident that many have used to claim Hamilton was an ideologue. In an hours-long oration at the Constitutional Convention, he supported the obliteration of the states and lifetime appointments for senators and the president. Williams argues that this speech “gave his enemies plenty of ammunition in labeling him a monarchist.”

But there is another interpretation of this event that Hamilton’s detractors overlooked then and now. Williams notes that Hamilton was a “brilliant political thinker and strategist” and could have offered this “radical plan” in order to make “the Virginia Plan seem more moderate and break the deadlock in the convention over” the competing Virginia and New Jersey Plans. Though it cost him politically, Hamilton’s speech likely saved the Union from being torn asunder.

Going so far as to campaign openly for his major political rival, Thomas Jefferson, in the Election of 1800 due to the prospect of the diabolical Aaron Burr becoming president, Hamilton’s political prudence was a key part of his public life.

In Hamilton: An American Biography, Tony Williams succeeds in his stated goal of writing “a consciously popular history aimed at a general audience.” But more than that, he presents a convincing case that America would not have become a great nation without Hamilton’s prudent statesmanship.

Photo credit: Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images

America • Book Reviews • Donald Trump • Europe • Germany • History • Post • self-government • statesmanship • Trump White House

The Great Junker: Bismarck’s Lessons for Today

We Germans fear God but otherwise nothing else in the world and that fear of God causes us to love peace and cultivate it.” — Otto von Bismarck, 1888

A review of Bismarck: A Life,  by Jonathan Steinberg (Oxford University Press, 592 pages, $21.95 [paper])

Bismarck: A Life, Jonathan Steinberg’s best-selling biography of the great 19th century statesman, is more than a full birth-to-death story. It delivers on a manageable scale the key events in the life of the unmanageably scaled Otto von Bismarck. Steinberg supports his narrative extensively with firsthand quotes, allowing the reader to judge for himself, even where Steinberg lays it on thick. Reading Bismarck, A Life one cannot miss the magnitude of the man’s genius at the “art of the possible.”

Steinberg strings his Bismarck on an unusual thread of the “sovereign self,” a concept Steinberg has invented. But this tends to conceal rather than reveal Bismarck. Steinberg’s “sovereign self” deemphasizes Bismarck the benefactor of a king, an emperor, and a people, and presents Bismarck as a flawed, selfish, megalomaniacal force of will.

Steinberg seems not to grasp what Bismarck did for Prussia and then Germany, and why it was such a high act of statesmanship. One suspects Steinberg cannot fully evaluate Germany of the 19th century because of what happened in Germany during the 20th.

Yet if the life of Bismarck is to be instructive in the 21st century, we ought to try to understand it for what it was.

A Tyrannical Personality?
No European statesman, other than perhaps the Tudor giant, Queen Elizabeth I, has so successfully unified his country and built its prosperity. Elizabeth’s Britain was in a near constant condition of aggression with Catholic Spain. And scholars do not blame Elizabeth for the English Civil War. Why then is Bismarck uniquely responsible for events occurring after his dismissal and death?

Steinberg’s approach uses Bismarck’s combative behavior to suggest Bismarck is best understood as a tyrannical personality. The reader cannot escape Steinberg’s suggestion—a rather conventional one—that Bismarck represents an anticipation of the German will-to-power madness of the 20th century. The charge, however, appears itself more like an act of will than a serious accusation, as the facts in Bismarck make their own case, res ipsa loquitor.

Rather than arrogating all power to himself, Bismarck answered to a sovereign king and emperor, as an American president answers to the sovereign American people. Bismarck ensured the subordination of the ministers and civil service, including himself, to the Hohenzollern monarchy, as he defended it against Napoleonic revolutionaries and later radical socialists. As he did so, Bismarck continually contended with parliamentary maneuvers in the Bundesrat and Reichstag and with the vicissitudes of public opinion (important even in an absolute Hohenzollern monarchy).

Bismarck did such a thorough job of loyally defending the rights of his sovereign that in 1890 a childish Wilhelm II could simply dismiss—without ceremony—the immensely popular Bismarck. Bismarck immediately and quietly accepted the Hohenzollern authority, though he continued to poke at Wilhelm II until his death.

Attributing to Bismarck German failures that came after 1890, in a particularly stinging chapter, Steinberg ties Bismarck to the rise of German anti-Semitism. But here again the facts Steinberg presents make another case. Bismarck appears to have treated his political enemies with equal aggression, regardless of whether they were Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish, and he treated his friends, while they lasted, equally solicitously.

Bismarck’s Jewish Problem
One reads with regret that Bismarck did on a variety of occasions disparage political enemies using anti-Semitic obloquies. And early in his career, Bismarck argued against Jewish participation in Junker dominated politics, blocking the sale of landed titles on the ground that the ruling structure of Prussia would become commoditized—and therefore disloyal—if it could be bought and sold.

This early political act reflected Bismarck’s dedication to the ancient Prussian system of little princes whose rights were microcosms of the monarch’s absolute power. The monarch rights were in turn a microcosm of Pietist notions of the divine. God’s authority over man was absolute, and direct, on account of the “priesthood of all believers,” derived from Luther’s Address to the Nobility of the German Nation (1520).

Yet Bismarck’s enormous intellect craved Jewish talent, alliance, and friendship. Bismarck’s Jewish personal banker, Gerson von Bleichroeder, was Bismarck’s political ally and personal intimate who aided Bismarck in digging Prussia out of the debts the impoverished state had amassed in the wars that precipitated German unification. It is clear that Bismarck, in addition to his friendship, understood Bleichroeder’s contribution as a Prussian and German citizen to the creation and success of the German Empire. Bleichroeder was ennobled in 1872.

Steinberg also acknowledges an event which he says “calls into question the depths of Bismarck’s anti-Semitism.” In response to the death of Ferdinand LaSalle, a Jewish socialist politician and the indirect founder of the German social democrats (SDP), Bismarck spontaneously remarked:

What he had was something that attracted me extraordinarily as a private person. He was one of the cleverest and most charming men whom I have known. He was ambitious in grand style … Lassalle was an energetic and witty man with whom it was very instructive to talk. Our conversations lasted for hours and I always regretted when they were over.

Steinberg relies on quotes from Richard Wagner (a ward of Bavaria’s intensely Catholic and possibly insane king, Ludwig II) to press his charge that Bismarck fostered rising German antisemitism in the late 19th century. But then later Steinberg casually observes that Bismarck did not care for or even listen to Wagner. An un-evolving Junker, Bismarck preferred Beethoven. Why smear Bismarck with Wagner’s hatred of Jews?

German antisemitism is revolting.

Steinberg strains too hard to lay this evil at Bismarck’s feet. The ennobling of Bleichroeder and a private remark may not be Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation but the thesis of Bismarck’s responsibility for German antisemitism is weak up to, if not past, the point of being unfair.

Patriotism vs. Vanity

But not all indictments of Bismarck are unfair. Bismarck lived as a mighty oak of German politics, and fault can be found there. Bismarck’s hyper-potent practical intellect cast a shadow over the new growth of other statesmen who might have succeeded him. Bismarck failed to anticipate an accumulating succession problem. Wilhelm I’s longevity taxed the monarchical structure and caused it to skip a beat at a critical moment. Frederick III, well prepared for the job, was on the throne for only a few months before succumbing to cancer, and the young and unteachable Wilhelm II ascended.

Steinberg makes too little of the pathological, deformed, and genuinely antisemitic runt, Wilhelm II, as the cause of the unravelling of the German Empire. The Hohenzollern stock had run dry and the super-state that Bismarck had assembled fell victim to the defect of hereditary monarchy: the arrival on the throne of “an ass for a lion.”

Wilhelm II’s vanity would not brook Bismarck’s towering character, and Bismarck admitted privately the certainty—given the new kaiser’s conceits—of his dismissal in 1890. What distinguished Bismarck as a statesman, however, is that he towered loyally—thinking always of the rights of his sovereign and his country. Bismarck offered the same loyalty to Wilhelm II he had offered Wilhelm I, and Wilhelm II viciously spurned it.

The virtue of Steinberg’s biography is, despite its theme of selfishness, in its fidelity to events it cannot help but show how Bismarck worked toward, and achieved, a singular political goal: A unified, Lutheran-dominated, Hohenzollern Germany, economically powerful, militarily secure, and most importantly, at peace.

Bismarck found Prussia, poor, weak, and threatened and made it rich, strong, and secure. His vision far exceeded that of any other single statesman of his age. Even the great Queen Victoria had both Gladstone and Disraeli. Two heads are better than one.

Bismarck characteristically saw events around corners. In a meeting in 1862, Bismarck foretold in detail to a shocked Disraeli how he intended to unify Germany. Bismarck had recognized the necessity of eliminating Austria from a German imperium, and of conflict with France as the unifying event. Bismarck played in the permutations of politics like no one else. Over eight years, three short wars, and great uncertainty, what Bismarck had foretold to Disraeli came to pass.

Following the birth of the German Empire, Bismarck turned his attention to a complex series of treaties with Russia and Austria. Bismarck forged domestic solidarity through legislative maneuvering that zigged and zagged from Kulturkampf to universal pension insurance. The tranquility Bismarck constructed lasted 44 years, including 24 years under Wilhelm II. This peace lasted arguably longer than any peace the United States has seen in its 242-year history. Yet Steinberg reflexively paints Bismarck a warmonger.

Perhaps this reflex can be traced to Disraeli. The English instinct—really policy—is to deem the top continental power, whether France or Germany, a threat. Disraeli remarked sourly on unification, saying the German “revolution” is war with France. For Disraeli, just as conservation and renewal of the French republic meant the violent export of revolution, the German “revolution” would be conserved and renewed with war.

Maybe so, maybe not. The “mystic chords of memory” of the German Empire would indeed include three wars that led to its founding. But it would also include Bismarck’s Pietist love of peace. And there was a practical matter to consider. Germany as the land in the middle could not afford war. Bismarck’s genius, aggressive as it was, worked sedulously to avoid it.

Juxtaposing Bismarck and Churchill
Wilhelm II threw away the fruit of Bismarck’s statesmanship, and blame for this should fall on the runt and not the great man. If Bismarck failed beyond neglecting to groom a successor, it was in that he bore responsibility for the German Empire’s written constitution. It had no default mode—no ambition to counter ambition—through which it could function without an enlightened statesman.

In fairness, however, German precision would not easily tolerate a constitution which muddled the origin of its sovereignty in the manner that English polysemy allows the English constitution to be a monarchy when seen from one side and a democracy when seen from the other. The characteristic exactness of Germans inclined against such duality, and the check on absolute monarchy of the Hohenzollerns was left to the character of the Hohenzollerns.

If Bismarck had built in checks and balances, such political mechanics would have had rely on the Junker class. But there lies a difficulty. The Junker ethos of absolute loyalty—which had served tiny Prussia so well in war—limited Junker taste for asserting rights against monarchical power. A statesman has to work with the matter he is given, and rigid loyalty is at once the virtue and vice of the German stuff.

America’s (and my own) favorite foreign statesman is Winston Churchill. Juxtaposing Churchill and Bismarck makes for an interesting contrast. Churchill is similar to Bismarck in political longevity, and in reputation for unusual and bellicose behavior. Churchill saved his country from perverted Prussian militarism that had fallen into the wrong hands, this time not through the defect of monarchy but through the defect of democracy: its tendency to collapse into demagogic tyranny.

Churchill saved Britain from the moral annihilation of capitulation to Hitler because Churchill, like Bismarck, saw around corners. Churchill spied the dimly lit path of chances leading away from physical annihilation, a path that would be well lit once Russia and the United States were in the war. Nonetheless, Churchill entered office in a Britain that was wealthy and powerful; when he left office Britain was poor and spiraling downward, a liquidating socialist state.

Bismarck, on the other hand, found Prussia weak and left it strong. In the 31 uninterrupted years during which Bismarck was in high office, Prussia grew into the greatest European power, maintaining peace, while other nations warred and took on the burdens of foreign imperialism. When Bismarck left office, the German Empire abroad—in contrast to the empires of England, France, and Russia—was immaterially small, having fewer than 6,000 colonists in East Africa.

The half-American Churchill themed his statesmanship on “great democracies” and Bismarck was devoted to a different—an unAmerican—sort of regime. That’s why Churchill is much easier for an American to appreciate. Still, is it intrinsically wrong to support the principle of a regime if it presents the best way forward to the safety and happiness of a people? “Prudence, indeed, will dictate . . .” reads the Declaration of Independence; there are conservative claims to preserve an imperfect and long-established form of government. Democracy is, as Churchill pointed out, the worst form of government, until you consider all the others.

Losing Sight of Peaceable Aims—And Learning Lessons
Bismarck worked within one of the others, which suited the inordinately loyal and conservative Junker class. Whether this was the right thing to do is a complex question that goes well beyond a “Tastes great! Less filling!” debate over democracy or monarchy, a discussion bound and gagged by filial devotion to the regime in which the discussion takes place, i.e., serious discussion in a particular regime type of another regime type is never fully permitted. Thus the answer to the question “Was Bismarck right in his support of an absolute Hohenzollern monarchy?” is, like for so many things, “It depends.”

Bismarck opposed revolutionaries and socialists and supported the monarchy because of the advantages of the latter for Prussia and for Germany, including an ability to respond to threats from East and West and the character of the Prussian and German people. With that peace, domestic and foreign, secured Germany became the best educated and in arts, science, and technology the most sophisticated country in the world. Germany from 1870 until World War I lived well, to use the Aristotelian description of the object of statesmanship.

But the monarchy failed. It lost sight of Bismarck’s peaceable aims, instigated a pointless naval rivalry with Britain, ventured abroad, went to war and collapsed thoroughly, despite having fought the entire war on foreign soil and almost never suffering greater losses in battle than did its enemies.

With an American form of government things might have been different. But that would have required flexible, practically minded Americans and the favorable American geopolitical situation. Perhaps this is why the following quote is often attributed to Bismarck: “There is a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.”

Bismarck’s manipulations of the sovereign Hohenzollern household and Reichstag politics, and the piratical way he sometimes did it, remind one of our current politics, substituting for a vacillating sovereign monarch the many minds of a sovereign people, including a mind to abdicate their sovereignty. The tweets, the feints with the public and legislature, the contests of wills with individuals and the press, and the political inconsistencies remind one vaguely of Bismarck’s incessant maneuvering, his insistence in a rule-oriented, Kantian society of playing chess as if all sixty-four squares were unoccupied.

Bismarck had a way of at once hating and loving and being hated and loved. One thing the loyal Bismarck hated most was any rebuke from the throne. It cut him to the core of his faithfully monarchical character. And as a practical matter, Bismarck knew if he could not control the kaiser, he could not implement coherent policy for his country. The kaiser half-hated Bismarck because his better half, Empress Augusta, fully hated Bismarck. Crown Prince Frederick William did not like Bismarck because bien pensant attitudes increasingly demanded gradual accommodation of liberalism as the right side of History.

So Bismarck maneuvered intrusively within the Hohenzollern family to get what he needed for the German Empire. The family despised the divisiveness until they loved the results. The American public—which stands in the position of sovereign in revolutionary America—may well end up feeling the same way about Donald Trump.

2016 Election • America • Book Reviews • Donald Trump • Greatness Agenda • Post • The Media • the Presidency

Why Trump Is a President Like No Other

Conrad Black’s erudite biography of Donald J. Trump is different from the usual in mediis rebus accounts of first-year presidents. He avoids the Bob Woodward fly-on-the-wall unattributed anecdote, and “they say” gossip mongering. Nor is the book a rush-to-publish product from former insiders of the Trump campaign or administration. Instead, Black, a prolific and insightful historian, adopts the annalistic method in carefully tracing Trump’s earliest years in business through his various commercial misadventures, financial recoveries, and sometimes wild antics. Black’s aim is to illustrate how much of what Trump has done since announcing his presidential candidacy in summer 2015 is hardly mysterious. Instead, Trump’s methods are fully explicable by what he has always done in the past—in the sometimes troubling, but more often reassuring, sense.

Black is neither a hagiographer nor an ankle-biter. He seeks to understand Trump within the three prominent landscapes in which Americans had come to know their new president: politics, the celebrity world, and the cannibalistic arena of high-stakes Manhattan real estate and finance. Of the three, Black is most jaded about the anti-Trump hysteria within the first two, not because the real estate business is inherently a nobler profession, but because it more often lacks the moral preening and hypocrisies of both the beltway and tabloids. The result is an argument that the first president to have neither prior political nor military service nevertheless has his own demonstrable skill sets that are making his presidency far more dynamic than either his critics or supporters quite imagined. Black’s unspoken assumption is that it is more difficult to build a skyscraper in Manhattan than to be a career politician or an evening news reader.

In Trump’s rise and fall and rise as a billionaire, Black never whitewashes his ruthlessness, his fast and loose relationship with the truth (e.g., “He is not so much a cynic as a methodological agnostic, not a liar as much as a disbeliever in absolute secular truths”), and his occasionally tawdry P. T. Barnum hawking.

As he guides the reader through Trump’s various land deals, casino crashes, name merchandising, risky hotel gambits, and golf course developments, Black offers unusual insight into how Trump, or for that matter anyone else, could survive such a rollercoaster of catastrophe and great fortune. While most of Trump’s rivals share his same carnivorous ethos, very few succeeded as did Trump.

What made Trump different from his competitors? Likely, his cunning, his almost Thucydidean reading of human nature, and his sixth sense about timing and salesmanship. In Plutarchian fashion, Black focuses on Trump’s physicality, especially his boundless energy and his impatience with nuance and self-doubt (“desperate cunning, unflagging determination, unshakeable self-confidence, ruthless Darwinian instincts of survival, and a sublime assurance that celebrity will heal all wounds”). Of course, the media and politicians were not ready for the naked applicability of these traits to the White House. But, as Black notes, the American people after decades of misgovernance were—as if to let loose Trump on their country as both avenger and deliverer.

How many times did critics recoil in shock at Trump’s coarse epithets such as “little Marco,” “low-energy Jeb,” “lying Ted Cruz,” and “crooked Hillary”—only to note that such appellations kept reverberating in their critics’ heads, both appropriate and humorous if often cruelly so? Whose careerist agendas fared better after provoking the counter-punching Trump? For Black, Trump became president because he outworked and outhustled his competitors, because he saw that most seasoned politicians were split-the-difference 51 percent hedgers—and that the country by 2016 desperately wanted some sort of Samson to tear down the pillars of a complacent if not corrupt establishment, even if they and their deliverer might sometimes be injured in the rubble.

Black instinctively captures the essence of the Trump paradox: How did someone supposedly so crude, so mercantile, and so insensitive display a sensitivity to the forgotten people that was lost both on his Republican competitors and Hillary Clinton? Certainly, no one on stage at any of the debates worried much about 40 percent of the country written off as John McCain’s “crazies,” Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” and “irredeemables,” and Barack Obama’s “clingers,” who were judged wanting for not capitalizing on the bicoastal dividends of American-led globalism.

Black notes the Trump-hinterland synergy. The country was looking for a third alternative to both free-market economics and neo-socialism, and yet again to both political correctness and the Republican often groveling surrender to it. Or as Black puts it, “Trump’s rise was an expression of sub-revolutionary anger by a wide swath of dissatisfied and mainly not overly prosperous or influential people.” But he adds that Trump was no third-party Ross Perot “charlatan” (or, for that matter, a Quixotic Ralph Nader), who came off quirky and without a workable agenda. Trump took a path that was far different from third-party would-be revolutionaries, in seeking to appropriate rather than to run against the apparatus of one of the two major political parties.

Most experts discounted Trump’s “make American great again” visions as anachronistic in the age of Silicon Valley cool, “peak oil,” the “knowledge-based” economy, and the “information age.” Trump doubled down and became even louder about free but fair trade, legal, diverse, and meritocratic immigration, “drill, baby, drill” oil policy, lower taxes and smaller government, an end to identity politics and political correctness, and a Jacksonian deterrent foreign policy that avoided both optional nation-building and the “blame America first” apologetics of Barack Obama’s “lead-from-behind” internationalism. Only half the country was ready for the Trump message (and perhaps less than that for the messenger)—but it was the more electorally important half in the key swing states of Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Trump assumed that even in the age of high techies and billionaire financiers, one can still not build a tower without the muscular labor of welders, cement layers, and glass installers.

Black’s final third of the book is magisterial, as he recites nascent Trump achievements—tax reform, deregulation, the end of the Affordable Care Act individual mandate, superb judicial appointments, curbs on illegal immigration, expanded oil and gas production, a restoration of deterrence aboard—against a backdrop of nonstop venom and vituperation from the so-called “Resistance.” He is certainly unsparing of the Left’s desperate resort to discard the Electoral College, sue under the emoluments clause, invoke the 25th Amendment, introduce articles of impeachment, and embrace a sick assassination chic of threats to Trump’s person and family. Some element of such hysteria is due to Trump’s ostensible Republican credentials (the Left had devoured even their once beloved John McCain, as well as the gentlemanly and judicious Mitt Romney), but more is due to Trump’s far more conservative agenda and his take-no-prisoners style.

Trump’s friends and critics assure us that his incessant twittering and carnival rally-barking are suicidal. Black is too insightful to settle for such a one-dimensional critique (while often lamenting that Trump’s bluster and rhetorical excess are hurting full appreciation of his otherwise solid accomplishments). Instead, Black sees much of Trump’s targeting as comeuppance and long overdue—given a sanctimonious, corrupt media, and a gatekeeping political class that weakened the country over the last two decades of fiscal, social, cultural, and military irresponsibility.

Three final themes make Black’s book different. One, he writes at times from firsthand experience as one who has known—and liked—Trump as an acquaintance rather than as a partner or adversary. His citation of Trump’s past displays of loyalty to friends and genuine concern for the middle- and working classes may be illustrated in Trump’s most un-Republican use of the first-person plural possessive—as in “our” miners, “our” farmers, “our” vets, and “our” workers.

Second, Black knows what it is like to be targeted by an overzealous prosecutor, and how the criminal justice system can be warped well before the advent of a formal trial. For Black, the yearlong and heretofore mostly empty pursuit of Trump the supposed colluder, then Trump the purported obstructer, is in some sad sense the logical trajectory of the American criminal justice system that gives federal prosecutors unchecked power, especially when driven by political agendas amplified by the tabloid press. Few of us have ever had a Robert Mueller hounding us 24/7, with partisan lawyers, opportune leaks, and false news fueling his inquisition.

Finally, Black is a singular prose stylist of what in the ancient world would be called the Asiatic, or florid and decorative, style—multisyllabic and sometime near archaic vocabulary, ornate imagery, melodic prose rhythms, diverse syntax, and classical tropes of deliberate understatement, juxtapositions of Latinate and Anglo-Saxon words, and plentiful metaphors and similes. In the modern world, few in English write (or can write) any more like Edward Gibbon or Winston Churchill, but Black does so effortlessly and with precision. So it is often a treat to read an Isocrates or Cicero in modern English.

Most readers, like myself, have never met either Conrad Black nor Donald J. Trump. But after reading this engaging biography, those of any political persuasion would wish to do both.

This was an excerpt from Conrad Black’s latest biography, Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other, and republished by kind permission of Regnery Publishing. Lord Black is a former newspaper tycoon, celebrated presidential historian, and occasional contributor to American Greatness. Buy the book, for goodness sake!

Book Reviews • Education • Post • Religion and Society • The Culture • the family

‘Educated’: A Product of Intelligence and Character

A mountaintop is as much a summons to greatness as it is a summit graveyard, where Mother Nature smites the worst elements of human nature; where the magnificence of the view vanishes into thin air, until the thinness of air transforms the festive into the funereal; where pride yields to punishment, until a place to rest becomes a permanent resting place for the wicked and the damned, and the damnation of fools.

A review of Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover (Random House, 352 pp., $28)

One person who is no fool is Tara Westover, author of Educated: A Memoir. She heeded the calling of the Lord and left the mountaintop to climb the Mount Improbable of art and science. She endured years of religious fundamentalism, where the predominance of certitude allowed ignorance to prevail.

Her book is a reminder of how man corrupts religion, not the corruptive power of religion. It is also a warning of what happens when you refuse to acclimatize to the terms and conditions of the mountain. The altitude sickness that ensues sickens a person’s mind as much as his body. It deludes Tara’s parents by having them deny her an education. It converts the holy into a nightmarish hallucination of imminent apocalypse and attacks by “the Illuminati.” It poisons her Mormonism with the rantings of a moron; of a man smart enough to know, but not strong enough to say, what the reader knows—that he is wrong about almost everything.

That man is Tara’s father, whose self-righteousness cripples his ability to do right and stop wrongdoing. He is in fact never wrong, not when he—and he alone—knows what God wants. This is neither the God of the Old Testament, whose commandments Moses receives at Mount Sinai, nor the Lord and Savior of the New, whose words Jesus preaches in the Sermon on the Mount. This is the God of a fanatic, whose will can only be done by forsaking the spirit of the law to enforce the strictest letter of the law. This is the God of faithless devotion, whose disciple is too fearful of doubt to be a faithful servant of the way, the truth, and the life.

This is a man who wages war from a mountain ridge. He surveys a fallen world, whose towns and cities he believes God will fell; whose hospitals and houses of worship will collapse; whose schools and libraries will crumble; whose time will come when the time changes, so the End of Days will be the first day of the rest of his life. How else to explain his dismissal of laws, language, culture, institutions, literature, history, and tradition? How else to explain his version of history, when Tara learns the history of a crime with no name against a people with an everlasting name?

History changes when Tara studies the Holocaust at Brigham Young University (BYU) and earns her doctorate in intellectual history at the University of Cambridge. She makes history by leaving the mountain for the slow ascent toward the apex of her profession.

Tara’s story is not, however, about her hatred of religion. Nor is the story of her father a tale of religious hatred. Their story is, instead, about the frailties of man. It is a story as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the history of all mankind: that those who believe every question has an answer, because they believe there is no question we cannot answer; that to believe these things is not to know God, but to know these people believe they are God.

To really know something, then, is to know how little we know. It is to know that to serve God is not to be a slave to God. Think of the alternative, because a God without mystery—a God who may as well text us, lest we bother to think for ourselves and interpret the text of the Bible—is more dictatorial than divine. He is, by this standard, more akin to an algorithm than a Creator: a celestial butler, the Ask Jeeves of the universe, with better search results.

An educated person, in contrast, knows the limitations of man, not God. Tara Westover is such a person. She knows that education is the gateway to enlightenment. She seeks to understand what the light reveals by shining the disinfectant of sunlight onto the darkest pages of history. She does justice to Justice Louis Brandeis’s admonition that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people who fail to avert evil through the processes of education.

She is educated, not because of the depth of her intelligence, but because of the degree of her wisdom. She has the humility that blesses the best readers of the Bible. She honors the Word through her love of words, ensuring that a house of many mansions also has many shelves of books.

Tara Westover’s education continues—no education is complete—so long as there are new ideas to discover and new debates about the oldest issues. Brave enough to stand up for herself, and bold enough to take a stand in defense of liberty, she is as much a standout in church as she is in the academy. She exercises oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness.

Among so many sheep, she is a shepherdess.