State of the Union

TAC Bookshelf for the Week of April 16

Matt Purple, managing editor: I sat out our last argument over pop political theory, touched off back in 2013 by the publication of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, a book I still haven’t read. To make amends, I’m closely following the current controversy over—talk about going back to first principles!—nothing less than the classical liberalism that undergirds the American founding. I’ve already read Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, which rejects that tradition by caricaturing it as a time bomb destined to explode our institutions and atomize us as individuals. Now along comes Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, the opposite terminus of opinion on classical liberalism. Whereas Deneen sees the Western psyche as haunted and lonely, Pinker can’t fathom why it’s so ungrateful towards its inheritance.

I’m only 50 pages into Pinker’s tome, but its very first page can flavor the water. A student in one of Pinker’s classes raises her hand and asks: “Why should I live?” Fear not, Pinker chortles, “my policy is that there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” His answer is pure Bill Nye the Science Guy: you can think! You can reason! You can appreciate the world’s richness, inquire about its mysteries, and improve the human condition! That the soul might need something deeper than this goes unconsidered, at least so far; it is liberation alone that nourishes Pinkerian man, liberation from superstition, poverty, and “authority” itself. If this is liberalism, then Deneen may have a point. Nonetheless there is worth in Pinker’s exercise, if only because affirming our present can dispel the mirages we sometimes see in our past. It is a good thing that we no longer fear witches in the woods or torture criminals on racks, that infant mortality rates have plummeted and famines rarely devastate communities, and we have the Enlightenment to thank for that.

On the fiction front, I’ve been wrapping up the fourth entry in John Updike’s Rabbit series, Rabbit at Rest, amidst news that the novels will be adapted for TV. I’m not entirely convinced this is a good idea. Updike was our bard of the mundane, forever intruding on his dialogue to painstakingly describe what other writers would dismiss as too small. When applied to his favorite subject, the carnal, the effect could be absurd (he once compared a penis to a cucumber, a salmon, a cashew, a banana, and a sweet potato in a single sentence), but when done right it produced little starbursts of familiarity as the reader recognized exactly what he was portraying (on airport music: “plucked strings, no vocals, music that’s used to being ignored, a kind of carpet in the air, to cover up a silence that might remind you of death”—we’ve all been there). But how do you import that onto TV where a background melody is just a background melody? You can’t and I fear the writers will decide to fill the space by magnifying the novels’ (already frequent) sex scenes. We’ll see.

♦♦♦

Daniel Kishi, associate editor: If Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now represents one end of the spectrum, and Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed represents the other, Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, published in 1991, falls far closer to the latter.

Much like Deneen, Lasch believes that a liberalism that prioritizes “progress” and is untethered from republican and democratic virtues is a liberalism destined for failure. Lasch believes that “the modern conception of progress depends on a positive assessment of the proliferation of wants.” Allergic to any concept of limits, constraints are anathema. 

Lasch is unsparing. This “insatiable” thirst for “more”—more autonomy, more freedom, more material comfort and wealth—animates both the contemporary Left and Right. In Lasch’s estimation, the Right’s commitment to capitalism and an unfettered free market is equally as destructive of families and communities as the sexual liberation project of the progressive Left.

In The True and Only Heaven Lasch identifies historical critics of “progress,” concluding that its most effective critics can be found in the populist tradition of the 19th century. Equally rooted in democratic, liberal, and republican traditions, the populists of this era believed that “property ownership and the personal independence it confers are absolutely essential preconditions of citizenship.” More specifically, it believed in “producerism; a defense of endangered crafts (including the craft of farming); opposition to the new class of public creditors and to the whole machinery of modern finance; opposition to wage labor.”

Published almost three decades ago, Lasch’s critiques will sound fresh to readers in 2018. Cracks in the consensus of the Center have given rise to populist movements on both ends of the political spectrum. Although Lasch, who died in 1994, anticipated this populist uprising, it’s unlikely that he would have been enamored by either Donald Trump (and his faith in the market) or Bernie Sanders (and his faith in states). For those dissatisfied with the fanaticism of the Center—but who find the populist brands of Trump and Sanders unpalatable—The True and Only Heaven is essential reading.

TAC Bookshelf for the Week of April 2

Grayson Quay, contributor: When Audible offered a free download of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried read by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, nostalgia for my past as a pretentious high school pseudo-intellectual reading far above my grade level seized me. I dove into the book and re-experienced several moments just as I had in 11th grade, while understanding far more of the historical references and gaining valuable new insights.

The Things They Carried is difficult to place in a genre. It’s somewhere in between a memoir, a novel, and a collection of short stories. The book begins with a dedication to “the men of Alpha Company,” naming several of the book’s characters as if they were real people. Also, O’Brien eschews his typical fictional alter-ego Paul Berlin and calls his soldier-turned-writer protagonist simply Tim O’Brien. O’Brien further blends fact and fiction by including a chapter of explanatory notes following the short story “Speaking of Courage.” In these “notes,” which actually serve as a separate short story, O’Brien—in the guise of an author writing non-fiction—mentions Going After Cacciato, a novel written by the real O’Brien, the one whose name appears on the book cover. The war buddy on whose story he claims to have based “Speaking of Courage,” however, is entirely fictional, despite the narrator O’Brien’s treatment of him as real.

A number of other postmodern stylistic touches round out the novel. Perspective shifts from one soldier to another—although we’re always meant to understand that we’re only hearing what narrator-O’Brien thought his sqaudmates were thinking—and the narrative is decidedly non-linear, with events often vaguely referenced before they’re actually portrayed. Several of the stories O’Brien claims to have heard second- or even third-hand. Untangling this narrative web is difficult, but rewarding.

In addition to my clearer understanding of the book’s formal aspects, however, I was also deeply struck by its content and its politics. In one story, O’Brien (the narrator) attributes his decision to go to Vietnam after being drafted to cowardice rather than courage. He rages against the blithe, uninformed patriotism of his Midwestern small town, imagining the Rotarians and other community leaders sitting around damning him for refusing to march off to a war he didn’t believe in.

Soon after completing the audiobook, I read Chase Madar’s excellent TAC review of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse. Thanks to O’Brien, I was able to better appreciate how that war turned a bunch of scared 19-year-olds into nihilistic killers. Gruesome little touches, like one soldier torturing a baby buffalo to death or the whole squad lining up to shake the hand of the corpse of an old Vietnamese man killed in an airstrike, bring home the true depravity of it all.

More than anything, though, The Things They Carried is a collection of war stories about telling war stories. “If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie,” O’Brien writes, adding, “you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.” If the people back home don’t like these types of stories, he says, they should stop sending their kids to war.

♦♦♦

Emile A. Doak, director of events & outreach: In honor of Holy Week, I’ve been reading the C.S. Lewis classic The Screwtape Letters. The correspondence between Screwtape, a highly placed assistant to “Our Father Below,” and his nephew Wormwood, a “junior temptor,” is far more than an amusing account of one man’s spiritual struggle. The satanic perspective that Lewis adopts provides unparalleled insight to the human condition.

Most timely, perhaps, is Screwtape and Wormwood’s discussion of whether to disclose their existence to “the patient”—in other words, whether to use the existence of Hell and evil spirits in their quest to separate souls from God. Their conclusion not to disclose their existence is circumstantial; Lewis, writing in 1942, has his fictional devils recognize that their present struggle is best served by concealing the spiritual realm, and instead corrupting their subjects through materialism and skepticism. That Hell’s existence is now seemingly questioned at the highest levels of the faith simply serves to vindicate Screwtape’s analysis. (He must be proud of his work.)

There is also caution for those of us who are politically inclined within the pages of Lewis’s classic. Screwtape, in his subtly sinister way, understands how easily temporal affairs can supplant Christ as the object of Christian faith. As he advises his nephew Wormwood, “Once you have made the World the end, and faith the means, you have won your man.” It’s not difficult to see the applicability of Screwtape’s insight to our modern American life. We’ve become far too inclined to define our faith by the causes we employ it to support—whether, for example, pro-life advocacy on the right, or social justice crusades on the left.

Yet for all its prescience on ecclesial and social affairs, The Screwtape Letters is ultimately a deeply personal spiritual read. Approaching spiritual warfare from the evil side is peculiarly enlightening; it allows us to see just how destructive our seemingly innocuous habits can be to the life of faith, and how truly omnipresent temptation is. It’s become all too easy to lower the stakes of our daily conduct, and chalk up the spiritual realm to a sort of distant ledger that only comes into play when meeting St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.  The perspective of Lewis’s devils reminds us that the state of our souls is constantly in flux. In our rapidly disenchanting and secular world, it’s a perspective that’s badly needed.

TAC Bookshelf for the Week of March 26

Robert W. Merry, editor: I’ve just read The Forty Years War: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons, from Nixon to Obama (2009) by Len Colodny and Tom Shachtman. I had not been familiar with Shachtman, but I had known Colodny as the coauthor of a fascinating book on Watergate, Silent Coup: The Removal of a President (with Robert Gettlin).

The Forty Years War traces the neoconservative movement to “a little-known, now-deceased civilian intellectual at the Pentagon, Dr. Fritz G. A. Kraemer.” This was the man who coined the phrase “provocative weakness,” the idea that U.S. bellicosity was a necessary foreign policy stance, irrespective of any immediate threats, because otherwise other nations would respond to a perception of U.S. weakness with provocative boldness. He also subordinated any kind of diplomacy to a policy of America throwing its weight around. And he heralded morality as a suitable underpinning of policy.

Kraemer was a mentor to both Henry Kissinger and Al Haig, as well as many other prominent giants of American foreign policy in the years from Nixon to George W. Bush. And his influence on policy discussions during that time was immense, but never more so than during the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks on America. In fact, write the authors, Kraemer was “the unacknowledged godfather of the George W. Bush administration’s ways of relating the United States to the rest of the world.”

This is a well-told tale and good history. The authors unwittingly pose a question that is unheralded but powerful as we look back over the past half century of American diplomacy. Who are the realists of the Cold War, and are they the same people who are realists in the post-Cold War era? The realists of today—Mearsheimer, Walt, Bacevich, this web site—decry the hardline foreign policy belligerence of the neocons—people such as Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, John Bolton. That’s because today’s realists see the neocons as wreaking havoc around the world, particularly in the Middle East. Exhibit A is Bush’s Iraq invasion.

But the greatest hardliners of the Cold War period were Ronald Reagan and the conservative commentator that he constantly read, James Burnham. And Reagan’s policies, advocated for years by Burnham, ultimately led to the West’s Cold War triumph. Colodny and Shachtman go to great lengths to deny Reagan any credit for the Soviet collapse. Unfortunately for them, they appear slightly ridiculous in the effort.

Reagan’s approach worked, and it was a realistic approach for the time. Now, however, we live in a different time, and realism has taken on a different guise in an era of cultural and civilizational clash. Fritz Kraemer’s philosophy had some value in Reagan’s era, but since the Cold War it’s proven dangerous.

♦♦♦

Rod Dreher, senior editor: I just returned from the Czech Republic, my first visit ever to that country. On the flight over, I began Michael Zantovsky’s Havel: A Life, the only English-language biography of the late Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright turned president of a free Czechoslovakia and of its successor state the Czech Republic. Zantovsky was Havel’s press secretary and personal friend. The book, which I finished while on the trip, was a bit of a disappointment, in that it offered a wealth of facts without a lot of interpretation. As someone unfamiliar with Czech politics and society, I learned what Havel said and did, but was left wanting to know more about what it meant.

Still, Havel’s story—and the story of the 1989 Velvet Revolution that ended 40 years of communism—is remarkable. Born into upper-middle-class privilege in pre-World War II Prague, Havel endured privation under communism, emerging as a playwright on the country’s theatrical scene in the 1960s. I knew vaguely of Havel’s association with the avant-garde rock star Lou Reed, and assumed that he was in some real sense part of the counterculture as we understand it in the West. Zantovsky explains that that is not true. Young Havel was certainly part of the Czech counterculture, but he was in no sense a revolutionary, cultural or otherwise. He was a conventional liberal—which still made him a threat to the communist regime. “Politically and philosophically, Havel was made in the sixties more than by the sixties,” Zantovsky writes. “His principal themes of identity, truth and responsibility had already been formed.”

Havel was a brave man, as the book testifies in its passages about the playwright’s stints as a political prisoner. But the whole world knows that. Interestingly, in a personal conversation I had in Prague with Daniel Kaiser, a Czech journalist who wrote a more critical biography—as yet untranslated into English—of Havel, I learned that in one of his prison terms, Havel agreed to collaborate with the secret police. Kaiser revealed this in his own work, though as I recall our conversation (I was not taking notes), Kaiser said that Havel was later filled with ambivalence and remorse over his weakness.

What I didn’t know about Havel until reading this book was that he was a compulsive womanizer who was chronically unfaithful to his long-suffering wife Olga (who also at times took lovers of her own). Havel was indiscreet to the point of cruelty to Olga, or so it seems to me. Indeed, most of the artists and writers in Havel’s circle of dissidents had complicated, even dissolute, sex lives. While in Prague, I asked one dissident, Kamila Bendova—who, with her late husband Vaclav Benda, was one of the few Catholics among the dissident leadership—how she regarded the morally lax personal behavior of her friends in the movement. Bendova said that the times were so hard that people were desperate for human contact any way they could get it. There’s wisdom and mercy in that answer.

The world admires, and I admire, Havel for being a voice of morality and humanism both under communism and in the years that followed. Havel: A Life, though unquestionably sympathetic to its subject, reveals that the great man was more fuzzy-headed in his idealism than I had imagined. This is no crime, of course. Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity and eventually the president of free Poland, was an uneducated electrician, but he still led a movement that brought down communism in his country. (Interestingly, Walesa, too, collaborated with the secret police, from 1970 till 1976.) Still, reading Zantovsky’s book, it became clear that the qualities that made Havel a superb moral leader before and during the transition out of communism handicapped him as a political leader. He was a man born to think and write, not to govern.

When I first arrived in the Czech Republic, I was startled by the lack of affection for Havel when I mentioned his name to the Czechs. Halfway through my journey there, I finished Zantovsky’s book and better understood this reaction. To many Czechs, Havel is something of a Gorbachev figure: a man more beloved in the West for what he symbolizes than in his own country, though nobody in the Czech Republic seems to hate Havel in the same way that many Russians revile Gorbachev (ungratefully) for losing the USSR. It’s only that they aren’t sentimental about his limitations as president. As Havel: A Life makes clear, the playwright—who often lacerated himself for his failures, moral and otherwise—probably would agree with them.

In fairness, for all of Havel’s shortcomings, the miracle of the Czech Republic’s exit from dictatorship without violence or recriminations was in large part due to him. Addressing the masses thronging Prague’s Wenceslas Square in those revolutionary days, Havel said, “Those who have for many years engaged in a violent and bloody vengefulness against their opponents are now afraid of us. They should rest easy. We are not like them.” But for Havel and his moral leadership in that terrifying crucible, things might have gone much worse for the Czech people. That will never be forgotten.

When I returned home, I dug up some novels by Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist who went into self-exile in 1975. I had adored them in the late 1980s and early 1990s for their sexiness and philosophical cachet. I revisited The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera’s 1979 novel, which precedes his best known work, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). I found that I couldn’t stand the thing, and gave up about halfway through. It was nothing but a disjointed and bloodless postmodern pastiche of watery philosophical musing and boring sexual hijinks. How strange it was to re-read a novel I had admired more than half my lifetime ago, and now find it to be so shallow, so shabby. “You make love like an intellectual,” one of Kundera’s characters tells her lover. It is not a compliment. Kundera writes books, and about sex in those books, like an intellectual. It is not a compliment.

TAC Bookshelf for the Week of March 19

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, executive editor: Most Americans under the age of 45 won’t remember the day the Vietnam War memorial in Washington first opened, nor the swirling controversy over its stark design—a long black scar cut into the National Mall, the names of more than 58,000 dead staring back in mirrored granite, not so much accusatory, but unshakable reminders of one country’s sacrifice for a war policy no one seems even capable of justifying anymore.

It’s been more than 35 years since that day—November 10, 1982—and Vietnam feels more like a phantom limb than the open wound it was then. It’s hard to recall, really, with our Vietnam vets now grandfathers heading into senior citizenship, the nearly impenetrable atmosphere that parade of thirty-somethings brought to D.C., and with them such a complex thrall of competing emotions.

That was why it was such an unexpected jolt of deja vu to pick up Peter Straub’s 1988 thriller Koko. Anyone who’s read Straub’s Ghost Story (1979) knows he can spin one hell of a spine-tingler. But Koko is more than horror and mystery—though on both counts he delivers with near-flawless construction—it’s his own attempt (he was 45 at the time) at exorcism, not so much of his own demons (he wasn’t in the war), but of the caricature, guilt and misunderstanding that was building up around the Vietnam generation in the 1980s.

Here Straub is at his best, recreating in the opening chapter, the November 10, 1982 parade scene from the eyes of the narrator, Michael Poole, one of five known remaining soldiers from a platoon that stood before a court martial for a village massacre during the war. Our narrator comes to D.C. to join the wave of vets: “together they were all so distinct that to Poole they almost felt like a secret country of their own.”

He meets up with his mates at a Woodley Park hotel roiling with veterans in varying stages of inebriation: Conor, the working class carpenter; Beevers, the sadist former lieutenant who can pretty much be blamed for everything that’s gone wrong; and Tina Puma, a troubled Manhattan chef with a 20-year-old Chinese girlfriend who makes him feel older and more vulnerable by the minute. Part Deer Hunter with a hint of the Dirty Dozen, the men are forced to hunt down another mate, writer Tim Underhill, who they think is responsible for several grisly signature murders in Bangkok and Singapore. They call the predator Koko. Spliced in with horrific flashbacks of recon missions and the emerging picture of what really happened to those Vietnamese children in the cave at la Thuc, Koko is a head-trip. The journey is often grisly and paranoid, metaphoric and dreamlike. But these men are real—many readers will recognize fathers, uncles, grandfathers, themselves. Searching for Koko gives them purpose (and the reader, genuine insight, devoid of the usual clichés), but it is clear, halfway through the book, that like Vietnam, all is not what it seems, then or now.

♦♦♦

Addison Del Mastro, assistant editor: If you read my articles, you know that I’m a big fan of urbanist and social critic James Howard Kunstler. His blogging is entertaining and touches lots of different current issues, but his 1993 book The Geography of Nowhere displays a Kunstler with more message discipline. The book contains little that will surprise an urbanism expert, but of course it is not written for experts: it is a popular book, and a highly accessible one.

There’s plenty of invective and anecdote here. Take his commentary on the architectural critics and their modernist ideology. Or a visit to Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village (a fake small town made of historic buildings Ford had collected over the years) that ends with Kunstler snidely noting that the faux town is pleasant mainly because there are no cars there.

There’s also a lot of what certain conservatives would label “socialism”: a concern for the public and civic realms and a skepticism of corporate interests, especially the real estate development and auto industries. But the book is also quintessentially conservative in a more temperamental sense, in that it gives the benefit of the doubt to traditional, time-tested practices.

But politics and opinion aside, Geography is still valuable because it also gets down into the weeds of zoning, town planning, street design, and other very technical topics that would never be widely read unless packaged alongside more entertaining fare. We learn, for example, that zoning more or less prohibits the building of traditional towns, due largely to a principle known as separation of uses (residential, commercial, and industrial sites must all be physically separated). The familiar pattern of meandering cul-de-sac neighborhoods and dense commercial highway strips is not an organic settlement pattern but a legal mandate. We also learn that humans intrinsically like streets with clear ends or destination points—consider classic small towns with a church or town hall in an island of land where the main street ends or splits—and that those ubiquitous meandering suburban roads probably cause some measure of psychic discomfort.

Above all, though, the book is about community, and its relationship to the everyday environment we inhabit. “A community is not something you have, like a pizza,” Kunstler writes. “Nor is it something you can buy, as visitors to Disneyland and Williamsburg discover. It is a living organism based on a web of interdependencies.” Destroy those intricate interdependencies, and you destroy community. Unfortunately, we haven’t stopped doing it.

♦♦♦

Mark Perry, contributing editor: People say all kinds of things about the past, and most of them, it turns out, aren’t even remotely true. William Faulkner is the exception. Mississippi’s purveyor of the southern “gothic novel” (whatever the hell that is) once wrote that “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” He would know. Faulkner imbibed history ever as much as he mainlined Kentucky bourbon, with history’s dark ghost as corporeal (or perhaps, more so) than any character in Absalom, Absalom!, As I Lay Dying, or Intruder in the Dust.

For Faulkner, the Civil War was one of those embodied beings (a living and walking presence in everyday southern life) and proof that we actually know very little about the things we think we know best. The examples are right there, staring at us. For instance, we know more about the Battle of Antietam now than General McClellan knew about it on the day after it was fought, and we have learned more about the beginnings of early Christianity in the last 50 years, I would venture, than we learned in the last 2,000. There is history, and then there is new history: books that provide uneasy narratives about events we think we understand, but don’t.

Two such are Waldo Heinrichs’ and Marc Gallicchio’s Implacable Foes and Victor Davis Hanson’s The Second World Wars. For those of us who take our history straight (rejecting the sweetener that Faulkner often added to his bourbon), the two narratives provide brilliant insights into the real history of World War II—rewriting the triumphalist narrative that Winston Churchill, William Manchester, and Martin Gilbert (as good as they are) so lavishly ladled out. Civilization’s second global war, Churchill (et al.) implies, was a near-run thing, and might have gone the other way, but for the dedication of those patriots willing to fight to the bitter end. That having come to grips with the Wehrmacht, the American Army couldn’t wait to get their hands on the Japanese.

Or not.

“Blood and Guts” Patton might have been “clamoring” to fight Japan, Heinrichs and Gallicchio tell us, but that wasn’t true for his soldiers, who were scrambling to meet the standards set by the government to be mustered out. George Marshall knew this well, turning down Eisenhower’s request for reinforcements in the war’s last year, not because the U.S. had reached the bottom of the barrel, but because the American people were tired of the fighting. Indeed, senior military officers wondered how many of America’s soldiers serving in Europe would simply jump off the trains taking them from east (where they would disembark) to west, where they would board ships bound for the Pacific. Which is to say that, by August of 1945, the Japanese weren’t the only ones looking for a way out of the war: so were we.

Hanson’s The Second World Wars is more than simply a companion piece to this, but a rejection of history’s initial, and largely accepted, judgment—that the Axis coulda, woulda, shoulda somehow won the conflagration, “if only.” For that to be even remotely true, the “if only” argument has to include the following. The Axis might have won “if only” they had developed a long range bomber (they didn’t), “if only” their armies were truly mobile (they relied on horses), “if only” they produced more submarines (they wasted precious resources on battleship behemoths), “if only” they were able to control the skies after 1942 (they didn’t), “if only” they coordinated their far-flung strategies (they never did), and, most crucially, if only they hadn’t underestimated the industrial power of their antagonists (they weren’t even close). By 1942, the U.S. alone outproduced all of the Axis nations combined—and the Red Army suffered 4.5 million dead in its first year of war against Germany, a number that was equal to the size of the German Army itself. And the numbers kept coming: by the end of the war, the Soviet Union deployed 500 divisions. The Germans relied throughout on hay and grass to power their military: the U.S. and its allied militaries ran on pistons.

It is true, perhaps, that America’s readers are so intoxicated by World War II that they can’t get enough of it—as they were once nursed on the milk of the Civil War. Yes, perhaps. Certainly my friends and family have noticed this, smiling wryly as I powered my way through the accounts provided by these two fascinating narratives. “Don’t you already know this?” they ask. My answer is to lift these two tomes at them, shaking them portentously. “No,” I say. “I don’t.”

TAC Bookshelf for the Week of March 12

Daniel Larison, senior editor:

  • Y Gododdin by Aneirin: This is one of the oldest Welsh poems, and it comes out of the tradition of early medieval literature that Wales inherited from the “Old North.” It recounts the names and deeds of the warriors of the Brythonic kingdom of Gododdin that fell at the battle of Catraeth sometime near the end of the sixth century. The Gododdin were the people that made up one of the three main kingdoms in what is now southern Scotland and northern England, and the court of its ruler was at Din Eidyn, the modern Edinburgh. Aneirin’s poem celebrates the valor of the men killed by a host of Angles in the calamitous defeat at Catraeth, a battle for which there is no other surviving evidence, and reflects the martial values that prevailed in early medieval Celtic kingdoms of the period. Perhaps even more interesting than this are the connections that the poem shows between the communities of northern Britain and Wales, which were in close contact until the close of the sixth century. Y Gododdin gives us a glimpse of one of the forgotten kingdoms of Europe. The poem is one of the classics of Welsh literature, and one of the earliest writings from early medieval Britain.
  • A Concise History of Wales by Geraint H. Jenkins. The history of Wales is bound up closely with the history of England, but perhaps because of that it has tended to be overshadowed by the latter. I realized in the last few years that I knew remarkably little about the people whose language Tolkien called “the senior language of the men of Britain,” and I have been trying to remedy that with some study of the language and reading more about the country itself. Jenkins’ short volume is a useful introduction. The name of the country itself offers something of a lesson in its history and its relationship with England. The lands west of Offa’s Dyke were defined as the lands of foreigners (wealas in Anglo-Saxon), and that label has stuck. Wales was formally united to England in 1536 and had been under English rule for centuries before that, but it retained its native language and kept its literary and poetic traditions alive down to the present thanks in no small part to the translation of the Bible into Welsh and the development of the eisteddfod, the music and poetry festival that is celebrated at both local and national levels and serves as a vehicle for preserving and promoting the Welsh language. The history of Wales is a fascinating example of how a country can maintain its cultural inheritance for centuries after it ceased to have its own independent rulers and legal institutions.

♦♦♦

Gracy Olmstead, contributing editor: I just finished Craefta book I mentioned in my last bookshelf—a couple weeks ago, and reviewed it last weekend for The University Bookman. If you are a fan of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, you will probably like this book. It follows many of the same philosophical themes, but offers more insights into ancient and medieval patterns of work and craftiness we’ve lost over the ages. Langland’s adventures in archaeology, farm life, and homesteading add a lot of color and character to the book.  

As to this week’s reads: I’ve started my sourdough journey (you can read about the journey’s beginnings here, and see my most recent loaf here), and so my sister-in-law just sent me Robin Sloan’s Sourdough. The novel follows a San Francisco engineer who discovers the wonder (and deeply fascinating science) of sourdough, and begins her own bread-making venture. NPR describes it thus: “It’s like Fight Club meets The Great British Bake Off.” As you can imagine, I’m intrigued.

When my toddler isn’t asking for endlessly repeated readings of P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? and Go Dog Go, I’m also aiming to read through the spring issue of The Hedgehog Review—particularly Alan Jacobs on our digital commons, and Christine Rosen on the digitally revealed life.

♦♦♦

Scott Beauchamp, contributor:

  • The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche by Stefan Zweig: Have you ever read Zweig? If not, put him on your wish list now, particularly his masterly The World of Yesterday, which is probably one of the best books about the Habsburg Empire ever written. Austrian by birth, Zweig was prolific during his lifetime, penning not only reams of journalism, but also novels and the most psychologically astute biographies you’ll lay your hands on. But what makes Zweig’s writing special isn’t just what he’s saying. It’s very much how he says it. As someone married to a German translator, I understand the difficulty of rendering long, symphonic sentences into a language which very much bends towards Anglo-Saxon simplicity, but it’s a true testament to Zweig and his translators that he doesn’t sound translated at all. He sounds like he’s singing breathlessly, his syntax cohering to the structure of each illuminating set of thoughts.
  • The Complex by Nick Turse: Reading an older book (this one is about a decade old) about topical subjects is usually pretty chancy, unless you’re going for a time capsule read. Unfortunately, stellar journalist Nick Turse’s imminently approachable rendering of the intimate relationship between the Pentagon and the private corporations which make the products we use in our daily lives is still very much relevant. It’s not going to convert the skeptical, but it will certainly get the home crowd pumped up.

TAC Bookshelf for the Week of March 5

Jacob Heilbrunn, contributor: I’m a big fan of the 1935 movie “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” which prefigures many of Alfred Hitchcock’s later thrillers, including “North By Northwest.” The author of the original 1915 book was, of course, John Buchan, about whom Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote a memorable essay in Encounter magazine in September 1960. So when I saw the novel Greenmantle, which Buchan published in 1917, on sale recently at Second Story Books, I nabbed it. It would be a gross exaggeration to call it a great work. In truth, it’s something of a potboiler, but it evokes the World War I era vividly and is good, clean fun. The novel centers around Richard Hannay who infiltrates Wilhelmine Germany to discover, with a bunch of his pals, what the dark secret is that the German military is planning in Turkey to “madden the remotest Moslem peasant with dreams of paradise.” It also has a cameo of Kaiser Wilhelm, who is portrayed sympathetically, and a hulking German Colonel named Ulric von Stumm, who is not.

A rather more serious work that I’ve been dipping into at leisure is Sir Francis Bacon’s Essays. Of particular interest to me was his essay on “Counsel.” It’s hard to read it without thinking of Donald Trump who relishes berating his advisers. Bacon thinks this is a bad idea: “The wisest princes need not think it any diminution to their greatness, or derogation to their sufficiency, to rely upon counsel. God himself is not without, but hath made it one of the great names of his blessed Son: The Counsellor.” Trump would probably think of breakfast bacon if you mentioned Bacon’s name to him, but I would hazard that it might do him some good to dip into one of the classic texts now and again, presuming that his newfound zeal for religion doesn’t mean that he’s preoccupied with studying the Bible itself.

Another oldie but goodie that I like to consult is Anthony Powell’s 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time. Powell, who leaned right, had a penchant for mixing in political commentary. One of the great passages in his opus occurs when Sir Gavin Walpole-Wilson, a former diplomat, rather inimitably complains about the lack of realism in the British Foreign Office: “All very well to have a fellow a century ago who could do the polite to the local potentate. …Something a bit more realistic required these days.” Kenneth Widmerpool agrees: “Professionalism in diplomacy is bad enough, in all conscience, without restricting the range of the country’s diplomatic representation to a clique of prize pupils from a small group of older public schools.”

Which brings me to an excellent forthcoming book from Roland Phillips called A Spy Named Orphan. It’s about Donald Maclean, a high-ranking Foreign Office official and member of the “Cambridge Five” spies who betrayed England to Stalin’s Soviet Union. Phillips traces Maclean’s betrayal back to his schooldays, noting that he attended at the age of ten Gresham’s School and says that the school had a unique ethos that “made it the perfect psychological training-ground for a nascent spy.” W.H. Auden said that its disciplinary code was a “potent engine” for transforming the students into “remote introverts, for perpetuating those very faults of character which it was intended to cure.” Maclean was not a stout patriot like Richard Hannay, but Phillips shows that he was also alive to the shortcomings of the Soviet Union, rendering him, in some ways, the most interesting and least doctrinaire member of his cohort.

♦♦♦

Grayson Quay, contributor: To amuse myself on long car rides and break up the heavy theoretical and canonical texts I read for my Georgetown classes, I tend to indulge in lighter fare when it comes to audiobooks, choosing plot-driven novels that don’t punish me if I lose focus for a second to check that I have the right exit. Lately, I’ve been enjoying Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge Trilogy—which consists of The Pillars of the Earth, World Without End, and A Column of Fire.

In his introduction to Pillars, Follett, who generally confines himself to World War II spy novels, explains how despite his lack of religious conviction, his fascination with cathedrals led him to research and write a novel about the decades-long construction of a twelfth-century Gothic cathedral in the fictional English city of Kingsbridge. The first novel, which Starz adapted into an eight-part miniseries in 2010, was followed by two more, set in the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, respectively.

Follett occasionally makes a historical or theological misstep, but generally his research is good, and the wide-ranging casts of architects, laborers, priests, nuns, knights, kings, farmers, and burghers gives a good cross-section of medieval society. There’s always building project, some intersection with larger historical events, and a love story in which Follett quickly throws two characters together only to keep them apart for decades with a series of contrived obstacles before ending the book with their joyful wedding.

As an added bonus, these are among the most pro-capitalist books I’ve ever read, a little like Ayn Rand but with fewer seventy-page monologues (none, in fact). Knights, instead of being portrayed as the chivalric figures of legend, are more like frat boys with unrestrained appetites for rape, and senseless violence. Even the good ones are hammers to whom every problem looks like a nail. The true heroes are the innovators and entrepreneurs like Jack Builder, who runs away to France and returns with the designs for ribbed vaults and pointed arches, or Lady Aliena, who becomes a prosperous wool merchant after her noble family is stripped of its lands and titles. The greatest triumphs take place on the building site, not the battlefield.

They may not be the most highbrow novels, but in a moment defined by the angst of “late capitalism,” it’s refreshing to visit a community where providing a needed service, making a quality product, and earning an honest profit is a cause for pride.

Of Course NATO is Obsolete

This editorial was published in the March/April issue of The American Conservative. 

Should the United States go to war with Russia to protect Montenegro, a nation of 5,332 square miles and some 620,000 people? Where is Montenegro, anyway?

You can answer the second question by consulting any map of the Balkans, where tiny Montenegro is wedged between Serbia, Bosnia, and Albania. You can answer the first question through a cursory consultation with the logic of national interest. The answer is no.

Yet the United States is bound by treaty to protect Montenegro militarily should Russia or any other nation violate its sovereignty. The fate of Montenegro has absolutely nothing to do with U.S. strategic interests. But the diminutive country resides in a region that has been of crucial cultural and geopolitical interest to Russia for centuries.

It’s the NATO treaty, of course, that requires U.S. protection of Montenegro. Donald Trump kicked up a storm as a presidential campaigner by declaring NATO “obsolete.” After Hillary Clinton retorted that it was “the strongest military alliance in the history of the world,” Trump explained he merely wanted the other nations to pay their fair share in alliance costs and also wanted NATO to do more to fight terrorism.

Later Trump allowed as how he didn’t really think the alliance was obsolete after all. He only said that, he explained, because he didn’t know much about it. But now, he said, he knew a lot more—enough to support the admission of Montenegro into NATO last year.

Trump was smarter when he was ignorant. Of course NATO is obsolete. It was founded as a Cold War defensive alliance to thwart any Western invasion by the Soviet Union, which had positioned some 1.3 million Warsaw Pact troops for such an incursion. NATO was indeed one of the greatest military alliances in world history. With America as its leader, it won the Cold War.

But that was 30 years ago. The Soviet Union is long gone, along with those menacing troops and the strategic threat they posed. The rationale for NATO has evaporated.

And yet it remains. Not only that, but it long since has abandoned its defensive posture and embraced an offensive temperament, moving inexorably eastward in a manifest effort to encircle Russia and remove its influence from territories that had been within its sphere of interest for centuries. Instead of an alliance to prevent war, NATO has become an institution generating tensions and hostilities where none need exist.

William S. Smith of the Catholic University of America noted recent meetings pulled together by NATO’s military committee chairman, a Czech army general named Petr Pavel. His sessions with his counterparts from Ukraine and Georgia, crowed Pavel, were “dedicated to Projecting Stability.” Given that those two nations are crucial to Russia’s sense of national security (and have been for centuries), wrote Smith, stability seems the least likely outcome of those meetings.

Now we have tensions rising in the Mideast between the United States and Turkey, which have competing interests in Syria. Turkey is a NATO member, which made sense in the Cold War as it was well positioned geographically to thwart Soviet expansionism. But now Turkey is developing friendly ties with Russia while snarling at the United States—and abandoning its previous interest in masquerading as a Western nation so it can join the EU. What happens when two NATO nations, from different civilizations, square off against each other?

Trump was right the first time. Those clinging to NATO simply can’t see that the world has changed and now requires new thinking, new geopolitical sensibilities, new alliances. To avoid obsolescence NATO must adjust to these new realities. If it can’t it should be killed off.

TAC Bookshelf for the Week of February 26

Lewis McCrary, executive editor: I was delighted to recently discover The Gargoyle Hunters, a debut novel published by architectural journalist John Freeman Gill last year. Because Gill is not among the few recognized authors in contemporary literary fiction who command instant adulation, there was perhaps too little coverage of his inventive work—though the Washington Post did praise it as an “unabashedly charming story,” and the New York Times interviewed Gill in its real estate section (and included a nice series of photographs of the kind of architectural detail celebrated in the novel). One wonders if the author’s clear admiration for traditional architecture also led some to unfairly dismiss it as reactionary nostalgia.

The novel, which follows an architectural salvager and his son through a series of adventures in the bad old days of 1970s New York City, will certainly engage those interested in the story of our built environment, particularly preservationists and admirers of the lost craft of ornament. Gill reminds us that these kinds of handmade details were de rigueur for even average townhomes until that tradition gave way to the blank facades of modernism after World War II.

Griffin, the young teenager at the center of the tale, is a well-developed personality, and his suffering of family breakdown in a post-1960s culture is poignant. But the very real buildings of New York—some of which survived the wrecking balls of that era, while others didn’t—are also described with an emotional intensity that is rare even for good architectural criticism. Most prominent is Cass Gilbert’s 1912 Woolworth Building, a skyscraper from an era when the neo-Gothic imagination, gargoyles and all, was allowed to soar above Manhattan’s streets.

♦♦♦

Matt Purple, managing editor: I’ve been reading Gore Vidal—not his political writings, which mix into an interesting brew a despairing “republic not an empire” paleoconservatism with a 1960s-predictive moral radicalism, but his novels, generally regarded as less influential than the essays. His first, Williwaw, is a tense tale at sea about a U.S. Navy ship near the Aleutian Islands that gets battered by a storm. It’s written in a minimalist style, which makes it a breezy read but does a disservice to its material. The seamen come off as carbon-copied and mechanical; it isn’t icebergs that imperil them but the Iceberg Theory. The remote Aleutians, an alluringly unique setting, never seem fully rendered.

A bit better, at least so far, is The Judgment of Paris, a novel far more predictive of the style that would later come to define Vidal’s fiction. The twinkling humor is there, on politics (“A suspicion was beginning to form in Philip’s mind that a certain type of energetic mediocrity might, after all, be politically more useful in a republican society than brilliance or wit or passion”) and on sex, Vidal’s two favorite subjects. His third, history, sees his protagonist skip from the bathhouses of Rome to a dig site outside Cairo, encountering ideological eccentrics and moral dilemmas along the way.

And then I suppose I can no longer dodge Myra Breckinridge. A proper reading of Vidal can’t be done without his most controversial and impactful work, whose fans even admit it was written in gleefully bad taste and whose enemies go much further. After famously calling Vidal a “queer” during one of their televised debates in 1968, William F. Buckley followed with “Let the author of Myra Breckinridge go back to his pornography.” Buckley had previously read Myra and concluded that it gives “gratification only to sadist homosexuals and challenge only to taxonomists of perversion.” Not the editors of conservative magazines then? I suppose we’ll find out.

♦♦♦

Emile A. Doak, director of events & outreach: With the publication of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, debate over the future of the liberal order is all the rage, especially within Catholic circles. Is liberalism inherently opposed to Catholic conceptions of the common good, or is liberalism a hospitable system in which Catholics may assert their positions in the public square? My sympathies tend to fall on the “incompatible” side, yet absent viable alternatives, I still find myself hesitant to philosophically jettison a Catholic cooperation with the liberal project.

So to give the other side of this emerging debate its proper due, I’m reading A Liberalism Safe for Catholicism? Perspectives from the Review of Politics. Editors Daniel Philpott and Ryan T. Anderson have compiled a collection of musings on the Church’s relationship to liberalism—particularly in America—from throughout the nearly 80-year history of the academic journal The Review of Politics. And what a collection it is: included are intellectual heavyweights like Jacques Maritain, Yves Simon, John Finnis, David L. Schindler, and James V. Schall S.J.

I’m not far into the collection, but already the essential fault lines are appearing. Any Catholic defense of liberalism must buttress against a slide into relativism, which neoconservative Catholic thinker David Novak does by endorsing a political variety of liberalism while opposing a philosophical. This distinction draws sharp rebuke from political scientist Thomas R. Rourke, who “argues that Novak has reduced the common good to the collection of individual goods.” For Rourke, the individualism underlying liberal political thought inevitably bleeds into the philosophical and religious realm, thereby belying a robust, Catholic conception of the common good.

Rourke’s and Novak’s debate is a microcosm of this intra-faith squabble. Is it possible to accommodate the Church’s commitment to truth to a regime that purports neutrality in most (if not all) matters of public life? Are the philosophical assumptions undergirding liberalism even truly neutral in the first place? And if not, what are the viable alternatives? In a world of Donald Trump and Brexit, A Liberalism Safe for Catholicism explores the vital questions facing not just the Catholic Church, but Western democracy itself.

TAC Bookshelf for the Week of February 12

Rod Dreher, senior editor: For a TAC review, I re-read Ross Douthat’s forthcoming book To Change The Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism. It really holds up, and as this papacy falters further—now the sex abuse scandal has directly touched the Pope, in the mess with the Chilean bishop—Douthat’s book is a must-read for understanding how Francis gets into these messes, and what it may portend for the future of Catholicism.

Late last week, I received in the mail Philip Lawler’s latest book, Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis Is Misleading His Flock. I can hardly wait to jump in. Lawler has long been one of the handful of must-read Catholic commentators on the Church—on the abuse scandal, certainly, but not only that. He’s a conservative, but not a bomb-thrower, and he has a deep understanding of how the Catholic Church works as an institution. It’s pretty clear from the book’s title what Lawler’s take on the papacy is, but I’m eager to crack this book open because everything Lawler writes about Catholicism is worth reading.

The impending Vatican concordat with Beijing has been in the news lately, with some conservative Catholics shocked that Francis appears to be selling out the underground church to make nice with the communists. Lost Shepherd was already printed by the time this news broke, but I flipped through to see if Lawler in any way addressed China. Sure enough, speculating on the future of the Vatican’s negotiations with Beijing, Lawler observed that Francis “typically betrays his anxiety to reach an agreement regardless of the cost.” He then uses the example of how Francis sold out the Venezuelan Catholic bishops in their struggle with the oppressive socialist government there. I didn’t know that had happened. And now it’s happening with China. See, reading Lawler really does teach you something.

This week I’ll be in France giving some Benedict Option talks. At week’s end, I’ll be addressing a national conference of French Catholic farmers and agrarians. To prepare for the talk, I re-read some Wendell Berry, specifically his great short book Life Is A Miracle. I don’t know if Berry is well known in France, but the French farmers are going to hear about him from me.

♦♦♦

Daniel Kishi, associate editor: I’m reading The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Your Head by Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law. In it, Wu charts the long-standing commercial effort to monetize what has become our most valuable commodity: our attention.

His narrative traces the developments of mass marketing and mass media, beginning with the 19th-century penny press and concluding with the rise of the 21st-century digital platforms of Facebook and Google. From print to radio, television to the Internet, the business model of the “attention economy”—harvest attention and sell it to the highest-paying advertiser—has remained largely the same. And yet, Wu argues that the introduction of each medium has enabled the “attention merchants” to become increasingly adept and efficient at hijacking our consciousness.

Equal parts history and social analysis, I’d recommend The Attention Merchants to anybody interested in the history of advertising, the formation of our consumer culture, and the drawbacks of an economy that richly rewards the harvesting of our attention.

♦♦♦

Scott Beauchamp, contributor: I’m not a huge fan of the New Yorker for a number of reasons, and not having read the magazine until I was already an adult means that I don’t have the nostalgic attachment that so many media people and East Coast people (and especially media people on the East Coast) seem to have. That said, I have a voracious appetite for John McPhee, and for all of the reasons that people usually can’t stand him. I know his prose isn’t flashy. I know he rambles on. I know he’s middlebrow. But I’m a sucker for the middlebrow deep dive. It’s why I also like The Grateful Dead and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—sifting through massive amounts of unique and oddly ambitious middling art is an addiction. So I was pleased to receive McPhee’s latest book, Draft No. 4, from my father in law for Christmas. Sure, it’s full of pretty obvious writing advice and anecdotes that don’t seem to go anywhere, but it’s McPhee! If you enjoyed any of his other books even slightly then you’ll find some pleasure in this slim volume of instruction and recollections.

I’ve been reading another slim volume, Tim Blanning’s The Romantic Revolution: A Historyas part of a much larger project that I’m working on. I’ve read pretty widely on the Romantic movement, and I don’t think you’ll find a more clear or concise introduction to what I think is an often misunderstood period of history. My only complaint is that it could stand to have a little more about Coleridge, the poet/essayist/thinker who introduced German philosophies of Romanticism to the English speaking world almost singlehandedly.

I won’t say too much about D.C. Schindler’s Freedom from Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Libertysince I have a review forthcoming over at The Public Discourse, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention in passing what for me could be the most influential book I’ve read in years. If you harbor some distrust of Locke’s definitions of power, will, and freedom but aren’t quite sure why, this book will definitely help to clarify your thoughts. Caveat Emptor: This book isn’t only for professional philosophers, but it’s pretty dense. It’s also worth the trouble.

TAC Bookshelf for the Week of February 5

Robert W. Merry, editor: Currently I am in the middle of The Russian Revolution: A New History, by Sean McMeekin, professor of history at Bard College. I hadn’t been familiar with McMeekin’s work, but the dust jacket says he is the author of seven books. Amazon lists among his titles July 1914, a day-by-day narrative of the events leading to World War I; The Ottoman End Game: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East; and History’s Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks.

The latter title intrigued me, particularly since an online entity called the World Socialist Web Site blasts The Russian Revolution in an essay by a writer named David North, who calls the book “simply an exercise in anti-communist propaganda from which no one will learn anything.”

I beg to differ. I consider the book a solid historical narrative rendered in crisp, unadorned prose. I haven’t reached the historical time in the tale when the Bolsheviks emerge to grab hold of the Russian destiny; perhaps when I do I will then see what rankles Mr. North so intensely. That will be an interesting exercise in critical reading when I get there.

In the meantime, I am learning a lot. McMeekin punctures a number of misconceptions about the onset of the revolution, which began in earnest in the streets of St. Petersburg with demonstrations that unfolded with a kind of festive spirit on February 23 (by the Russian Julian calendar). This day brought a fateful convergence—a sudden, unanticipated break in the winter weather, with temperatures climbing to 46 degrees Fahrenheit; and commemoration of the socialist-inspired International Women’s Day, which lured thousands of spirited folk into the balmy streets. That first day saw some 100,000 people join the celebration with little agitation or pushback from authorities.

But soon workers took the occasion to go on strike, swelling the second-day crowd on Nevsky Prospekt to 160,000. Authorities, increasingly alarmed, sought to check the inflow benignly by closing city bridges, but thousands merely crossed on the ice. Rougher elements showed up from Vyborg and Vasilievsky Island, where bread supplies were short, owing to a lack of fuel for the bakeries. By day three the crowd swelled further to more than 200,000 in what amounted to a spontaneous general strike. Blood was spilled, and soon the situation was entirely out of control.

Writes McMeekin: “We can only surmise what the ‘real’ motivations of the protestors may have been.” After all, bread was not in short supply through the winter (with the exception of the temporary situation noted above). Economic growth was roaring in Russia at the time. And there was little antiwar sentiment in the country as the conflict with Germany and Austria-Hungary continued; indeed, writes McMeekin, while the Russian war effort had languished in 1916, things looked much brighter as the new year of 1917 unfolded.

But among the elites there was plenty of tension and maneuvering, as respect for Tsar Nicholas II waned in response to his often hapless leadership. Contributing also were the German heritage of the Tsarina Alexandra, and the court machinations of the outlandish Grigory Rasputin (until his assassination by three nobles, including a cousin of the Tsar).

In any event, once the violence began and authorities finally moved aggressively to restore order, the situation was lost. The Tsar, off commanding his armies, couldn’t conceive of what was happening in St. Petersburg, and soon in Moscow and other cities. By the time he grasped it, it was too late.

The chaos that ensued serves as a kind of historical lesson. No society is immune from that kind of civic dislocation. And often the most stark and shattering historical developments are the ones that hardly anybody predicted.

♦♦♦

Gracy Olmstead, contributing editor: I just finished reading The New Localism by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, and highly recommend it. The style is very wonky and reads occasionally like a TED talk, but the principles they explore are vital for Americans to consider. The book amply demonstrates that localism is not chained to the partisanship and bombast that dominate our national discourse at present, and thus the book is hopeful and refreshing in a way many of us need right now.

Now that’s finished, I’m delving into Cræft: a fascinating book about our nostalgic longing for artisan things such as handmade furniture, homemade sourdough bread, homespun wool, and other manually-made (often ancient) items. The author ties our desire for artisanship and cræft to a deeper yearning for place and context. So yes, reading this book is like entering my crunchy con happy place.

Finally, I am two-thirds of the way through Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. I started this book last year, and kept setting it aside in order to write book reviews or meet deadlines. I’m hoping to finish it during this Lenten season. Thus far, Merton’s considerations of faith, culture, and God have been poignant, inspiring, and convicting. It’s one I’m sure I will re-read in the future.

♦♦♦

Emile A. Doak, director of events & outreach:  I’ve been revisiting Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. It’s a novel that I was first introduced to many years ago, before Donald Trump and Hillbilly Elegy jettisoned small town malaise into the center of the national conversation. Russo’s narrative focuses on the fictional Maine town that lends its name to the title, a blue-collar town that once thrived on the prosperity of the paper mill that made its home on the town’s river bank. Of course, Empire Falls, like countless other American small towns, loses the mill, leaving those who remain in the town—protagonist Miles Roby, chief among them—to navigate the uncomfortable challenges of post-industrial life.

Insofar as fiction has a way of clarifying and humanizing the most complex of social ills, Russo’s novel is up to the task. We see Miles’s steadfast devotion to his daughter, Tick—and his anguish as teenage Tick withdraws further and further from him amidst his messy divorce from her mother, Janine. Of course, the divorce itself is a quintessential Empire Falls story, as good hearted-yet-meek Miles loses Janine to the bombastically sleazy Walt “Silver Fox” Comeau, a man so opposite of Miles that it was inevitable that the town’s ennui would drive Janine straight to him. Walt’s constant presence at Miles’s Empire Grill certainly doesn’t help the uphill task of operating a struggling establishment that really should have closed with the mill.

Miles’s travails—personal, religious, professional—are not unique to fictional Empire Falls.  Russo’s novel, written over 15 years ago, wrestles with many of the questions driving our politics today. Is there a future for the American communities that have been left behind by the global economy and the information age? Should there be? And what of the people who call these places home—many of whom, like Miles, stay despite a desire to leave? Yet perhaps the most prescient question is implied by the title itself: Is “Empire Falls” a foreboding allusion to our current national moment?

♦♦♦

Grayson Quay, contributor: To amuse myself on long car rides and break up the heavy theoretical and canonical texts I read for my Georgetown classes, I tend to indulge in lighter fare when it comes to audiobooks, choosing plot-driven novels that don’t punish me if I lose focus for a second to check that I have the right exit. Lately, I’ve been enjoying Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge Trilogy—which consists of The Pillars of the Earth, World Without End, and A Column of Fire.

In his introduction to Pillars, Follett, who generally confines himself to World War II spy novels, explains how despite his lack of religious conviction, his fascination with cathedrals led him to research and write a novel about the decades-long construction of a twelfth-century Gothic cathedral in the fictional English city of Kingsbridge. The first novel, which Starz adapted into an eight-part miniseries in 2010, was followed by two more, set in the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, respectively.

Follett occasionally makes a historical or theological misstep, but generally his research is good, and the wide-ranging casts of architects, laborers, priests, nuns, knights, kings, farmers, and burghers gives a good cross-section of medieval society. There’s always building project, some intersection with larger historical events, and a love story in which Follett quickly throws two characters together only to keep them apart for decades with a series of contrived obstacles before ending the book with their joyful wedding.

As an added bonus, these are among the most pro-capitalist books I’ve ever read, a little like Ayn Rand but with fewer seventy-page monologues (none, in fact). Knights, instead of being portrayed as the chivalric figures of legend, are more like frat boys with unrestrained appetites for rape, and senseless violence. Even the good ones are hammers to whom every problem looks like a nail. The true heroes are the innovators and entrepreneurs like Jack Builder, who runs away to France and returns with the designs for ribbed vaults and pointed arches, or Lady Aliena, who becomes a prosperous wool merchant after her noble family is stripped of its lands and titles. The greatest triumphs take place on the building site, not the battlefield.

They may not be the most highbrow novels, but in a moment defined by the angst of “late capitalism,” it’s refreshing to visit a community where providing a needed service, making a quality product, and earning an honest profit is a cause for pride.

TAC Bookshelf for the Week of January 29

This is the third installment of the “TAC Bookshelf” series. Published each Monday, The American Conservatives editorial staff, along with some regular contributors, share with our readers what they’ve been reading of late.

Bradley Birzer, president: Since first reading Red Storm Rising while traveling across Europe via Eurail Pass in the fall of 1987, I’ve read every Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan book but one. This week, I sat back and thoroughly enjoyed the latest two in the series, Power and Empire by Marc Cameron and Point of Contact by Mike Maden. Though lacking the grand sweep of global events as seen in the previous Ryan novel, True Faith and Allegiance by Mark Greaney, these two recent Ryan novels were a joy to read. Each delved far more into the characters involved than the actual plots or tech knowhow that Clancy handled so well during his creation and run of the series. In particular though, Maden reintroduces us to the Catholic world of Georgetown and Boston College that so pervaded Clancy’s earlier novels. And Cameron once again gives us not just a fierce John Clark, but a brutal John Clark. Additionally, there’s a great personal story about gun ownership in a Texas Roadside restaurant and a middle-aged Texas woman who helps in the apprehension of some pedophiles. Indeed, though both novels were great reads, the Texas Roadside moment was worth everything in both novels combined. I actually cheered out loud as the story played out.

On a more academic level, I’ve been re-reading Robert Nisbet’s beautiful little 1976 book Sociology as an Art Form. With it, Nisbet explored the 19th-century understanding of sociology as a part of the humanities in juxtaposition to the 20th-century attempt to make it a part of the sciences. Most interestingly, Nisbet considered the key human faculty in all studies to be that of “imagination,” higher than rationality or passion in its uncanny ability to allow us to connect seemingly disparate things, one to another, thus transcending ego and pride.

♦♦♦

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, executive editor: I just finished The Demolished Man  (1953) by novelist Alfred Bester (1913-1987), often called the godfather of modern science fiction. While one might debate that moniker—science fiction is a strange and multiplexual creature, borne by many midwives—Bester was there, along with other godfather-greats like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and John Campbell, when baby cut her teeth in the late 1930s.

It was with Demolished Man that Bester won the first ever Hugo Award in 1953—and it was his first novel. Bester’s technique here is rooted in his radio-play days (Nero Wolfe, The Shadow), and the pulsing pulp and film noir aesthetic. But his head was clearly in the stars, and in the psychodynamics threading through postwar film and literature. Heady stuff. In Demolished Man, he follows a troubled tycoon with murderous intentions in a Huxley-like futureworld inhabited by “normals’ and “espers,” better known as “peepers.” Predating the pre-cogs imagined in 2002’s Minority Report (based loosely on a novel by Bester peer, Philip K. Dick), the espers are remarkably evolved telepaths at the peak of a highly regulated, hierarchical society. They rely on their own strict moral and ethical codes to advance human consciousness and to avoid the lapses of weaker men, esper or otherwise. When our “normal” tycoon Ben Reich commits the first murder in 79 years it is up to our master peeper cop, Dr. Lincoln Powell, to bring him to justice, not merely on the evidence found in Reich’s head (and in the subconscious of his only witness, a coquettish, traumatized girl), but through old-fashioned gumshoeing and chessboard strategy.

So far, so 1950s—complete with gal fridays, sandpaper slang like ”clever up!” and crumbums who scatter like mice as Reich and Powell stalk and pound the city in a race to outwit each other. But this is merely the surface of Bester’s pre-cyberpunk binge. His genius is in leading the reader to consider uncomfortable, complex, even existential pathways of human behavior by transposing them into otherworldly contexts. Here, he invokes paternalism and eugenics, godlessness and free will, and C.S. Lewis’s tyranny of the good, as it reaches for man’s elusive perfection. The end (no spoilers) is a horrifying surprise, and a cautionary finger wag at the Freudian acolytes of Bester’s day.

Ursula Le Guin, who died January 22 at the age of 88, was a pioneer in sociological science fiction, as was the late Ray Bradbury, whose Martian Chronicles is an achingly beautiful contemplation of human frailty, courage and conformity, love and faith. For these writers, exploring who we are was most effectively done in the great beyond, and decades later, we know it’s true.

♦♦♦

Daniel Larison, senior editor: In Search of the Phoenicians by Josephine Quinn: I have not finished this one yet, but Quinn’s thesis is intriguing and so far compelling. She argues that the people that we and their ancient contemporaries referred to as Phoenicians were not a self-conscious people by that or any other name. Not only was Phoenician the name given to them by Greeks and Romans, but there was no other collective name that they used for themselves. Instead, the inhabitants of city-states such as Tyre and Sidon identified primarily with their family and their city, and the surviving evidence from these places bears that out. What makes Quinn’s book especially interesting is her investigation of the later uses of the idea of a Phoenician people by modern nationalists from Ireland to Lebanon. The people who lived in the ancient cities of “Phoenicia” didn’t think of themselves as Phoenicians, but a remarkable number of people in other times and places have found that invented identity useful in making their own claims of nationhood.

The Last King of Wales: Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, c. 1013-1063 by Michael & Sean Davies: This is a study of a surprisingly neglected figure in medieval Welsh history. Despite being the first and only native ruler to unify all of modern Wales under his control, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn usually doesn’t receive as much attention as other kings and princes from the pre-Conquest period. That is a reflection of the short-lived nature of his accomplishment and the violent and brutal manner in which he realized it. The Last King of Wales is an attempt to take a closer look at the career and achievements of the only person who successfully united the various kingdoms of medieval Wales, and it offers an important reassessment of his place in the political developments of England and Wales before the coming of the Normans.

The White King: Charles I, Traitor, Murderer, Martyr by Leanda de Lisle: This is a sympathetic revisionist account of the life and reign of Charles I. In it, de Lisle draws attention to the king’s admirable personal qualities and principles, but also emphasizes his tragic flaws as a ruler that led to his defeat and execution. The White King tries to give a more complete portrait of Charles, who was more interesting and complex than the “man of blood” or the martyr that most have considered him to be.

 

TAC Bookshelf for the Week of January 22

This is the second installment of the “TAC Bookshelf” series. Published each Monday, The American Conservative‘s editorial staff, along with some regular contributors, will share with our readers what they’ve been reading of late.

Rod Dreher, senior editor: Late last year, a TAC reader put me onto Joseph Roth’s 1932 novel The Radetzky March which examines the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through the fortunes of one military family. It was one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I see why it is a favorite of conservatives. I can’t get the Habsburgs out of my head just yet, so I’ve been taking a deep dive into a winsome, idiosyncratic book called Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe. Its British author, Simon Winder, writes in the companionable style of Bill Bryson, which is not what you want for serious history, necessarily, but it’s a lot of fun by the fireside.

More seriously, in reading to prepare for the next book I’m planning to write, I devoured a couple of shortish books on beauty and transcendence. The first is a thin secular volume, one I read in a single sitting: On Beauty and Being Just by Harvard’s Elaine Scarry. In it, she makes accessible and persuasive arguments for the importance of aesthetics. Mostly she argues against cultural leftists who say that standards of beauty are oppressive. That’s not a mistake conservatives are likely to make, but the book is still quite helpful in teaching what beauty is, and how it affects us.

The second book, which I picked up immediately after I finished Scarry’s book, is The Sacred in Life and Art by Philip Sherrard. Sherrard was a British-born Hellenophile and convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. This book is about beauty, metaphysics, and religion, and can be heady stuff (sample line: “Beauty placed beyond good and evil usurps the place of the Absolute, with total indifference towards truth and goodness…”), though mercifully not because of the author’s style. Sherrard writes about deep concepts pellucidly, and is helping me think more carefully about the moral cost of our culture’s relative indifference to beauty.

Finally, I started reading the new print issue of Fare Forward, the ideas journal written by young Christian authors, including TAC alumni Leah Libresco and Tim Markatos. It’s one of the most vital and exciting magazines I’ve seen in ages.

♦♦♦

Andrew J. Bacevich, writer-at-large: I’ve read most of Evelyn Waugh and consider his Sword of Honour trilogy a true masterpiece. Brideshead Revisited ain’t half bad either. Admittedly, I am drawn to those books in part because of their Catholic themes and their searing critique of modernity.

Although I had heard a lot about Scoop, Waugh’s takedown of sensation-mongering British journalism, published shortly before World War II, I’d never gotten around to reading it. I used the post-Christmas break to correct that deficiency.  

Verdict? Not so hot. Scoop stands in relation to the Waugh oeuvre much as, say, Across the River and Into the Trees does in relation to Hemingway’s.  

While there are moments of high humor—especially when the resourceful Mrs. Stitch appears on the page—few of the characters in Scoop elicit either interest or empathy. They are less funny than pathetic. One can see in Waugh’s protagonist William Boot some slight resemblance to Guy Crouchback, the central figure in Sword of Honour. Both are innocents let loose in a world beyond their ken. But whereas Crouchback achieves some modest enlightenment as a consequence of his adventures, Boot remains implacably dim.  

The racist and anti-Semitic overtones will offend some readers.

♦♦♦

Daniel Kishi, associate editor: I’ve been reading Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction by Barry C. Lynn. In it, Lynn charts America’s political economic history, and argues that a reinterpretation of our country’s once robust antitrust (or anti-monopoly) laws has caused almost every sector of the economy to become dominated by a small handful of well-financed firms.

Whereas prior generations of American lawmakers (Democrats and Republicans alike) passed antitrust legislation in an effort to promote competition and preserve the economic liberty of small and midsize market participants, Lynn argues that a “revolutionary” shift occurred in the early 1980s. Under the influence of economists at the Chicago School of Economics, the Antitrust Division of Ronald Reagan’s Department of Justice adopted a set of merger guidelines that permitted, if not encouraged, the concentration of market power. Operating under a newly conceived “consumer welfare” standard, the Reagan administration—and every administration since—would only block a merger if it resulted in a rise of short-term consumer prices. Since large corporations could exploit economies of scale to deliver these low prices, industries now had license to merge into fewer and fewer hands.

Cheap consumer goods notwithstanding, Lynn says that this shift has been nothing short of disastrous. According to Lynn, industries dominated by a handful of firms contribute to a handful of negative economic consequences: the stagnation of wages due to decreased bargaining power of individual, non-unionized employees, the hindrance of innovation as a result of firms pocketing profits rather than reinvesting in additional research and development, and the socialization of economic risk as illustrated by the taxpayer-funded bailouts of Too Big To Fail banks and firms in the aftermath of the Great Recession.  

But perhaps most importantly, Lynn—a small-d democrat and small-r republican in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and Louis D. Brandeis—argues that economic concentration of such immense scale hinders the ability for small and midsize entrepreneurs, proprietors, and farmers to compete against their deep-pocketed competitors. Not only does this represent a loss of economic liberty on an individual level, but it also undermines the resiliency of local and regional economies—a reality that threatens the stability of our country’s communities and our very democracy itself. 

For those interested in this topic, Washington Monthly has published substantive analysis on market concentration for more than half a decade. The magazine’s most recent issue contains a piece by Leah Douglass titled “How Rural America Got Milked,” which explores how consolidation in the dairy industry has made the livelihoods of independent dairy farmers increasingly precarious.  


♦♦♦

Scott Beauchamp, contributor: Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States by longtime Berkeley sociologist George R. Stewart (1895-1980) is a grand, sweeping journey through the American palimpsest of place name etymology. I think what gives Names on the Land such a strong pulse is that it’s told more as an adventure story than a plodding index of bureaucratic revisions. Stewart draws on the playfulness and pomp of the proto-Americans who gave us such place names as Goethe Peak, Death Ball Creek, and La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco to craft a narrative resonate with the restless energy of its people.

This is a book meant to be read by the people who actually live in the places it mentions. Stewart’s stories more closely resemble anecdotes, jokes, or even riddles than dry academic-ese. One of my favorite anecdotes describes the spread of the name “Buffalo.” Stewart writes, “In every glade they looked for the shaggy beast with the ponderous head. Where they first saw him or his traces, they often called the place by that name. So, right across Virginia runs a line of buffalo names. Eastward there are none, for the buffalo had not come. Westward such names are fewer, for by the time men had reached those regions the buffalo had ceased to be a novelty. But north and south, from Buffalo Branch in Augusta County to Buffalo Springs in Mecklenburg, that line of names still shows where our ancestors first came to the range of the buffalo.”

I’ve long been an admirer of Stanford professor Robert Pogue Harrison for both his New York Review of Books essays and his wonderful podcast “Entitled Opinions” (I recommend you check it out if you’re not familiar), but I’ve only recently gotten around to reading his books. I wasn’t disappointed. The one I’ve been reading most recently is The Dominion of the Dead, an eloquent meditation on “the many places where the dead cohabit the world of the living.” Harrison draws deeply from the entire well of Western culture, referencing sources as varied Vico, Emerson, Heidegger, Rilke, Plato, and Giacomo Leopardi to make what basically amounts to a Humanist case for tradition. Harrison writes that, “To inhabit the world humanly one must be a creature of legacy. That explains why the living housed the dead before they housed themselves.” If books can act as houses, and I’m sure Harrison would agree they can, then this book is a splendid tomb, a temporary abode for the living reader, and a gift to future generations all in one.

I hadn’t read Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain since I was in high school, but a friend’s generous Christmas gift of a Word on Fire Classics edition, beautifully bound and with a forward by Bishop Robert Barron, gave me occasion to revisit the classic. I’m glad I did. There isn’t much praise that I can give Merton’s conversion story that hasn’t already been heaped on it, but it does make all the differences that it came to me at the precise moment I was emotionally and spiritually ready to revisit its message. The book sits on my nightstand and I’ve been going to bed earlier and earlier ever since I received it.

TAC Bookshelf for the Week of January 15

This is the first installment of the “TAC Bookshelf” series. Published each Monday, The American Conservative‘s editorial staff, along with some regular contributors, will share with our readers what they themselves have been reading. 

Robert W. Merry, editor: This week I descended into the dark netherworld of international intrigue with David Ignatius’s latest novel, The Quantum Spy, which certainly rises to the level his readers have come to anticipate. It is hugely entertaining, with plot twists aplenty and the highest of stakes on the line, but also is tremendously enlightening. Ignatius, who traverses the globe as Washington Post columnist when he isn’t writing novels, is known for the authenticity of his narratives, and this book is no exception. Here the fundamental subject is quantum computing—which, when it finally comes, will transform human life on this planet. Through his narrative of global intrigue, Ignatius educates readers on just what quantum computing is, why it’s important, and why the United States and China are locked in an existential race to unlock the key to computing that is thousands of times more powerful than anything ever seen before.

I tip my hat also to Clyde Prestowitz’s piece in the current Washington Monthly, a review of Dani Rodrik’s latest book, Straight Talk on Trade, a kind of sequel to his earlier Has Globalization Gone Too Far?, published some two decades ago. The earlier work warned that globalization was generating what Prestowitz describes as “fissures in developed nations between the better educated, who prosper under the new regimes, and the less educated, who do not.” Rodrik suggested a possible result would be “social disintegration.” Now we’re seeing that social disintegration, and Rodrik parses it in his latest book. The underlying merit in the Prestowitz piece (and presumably in the Rodrik book) lies in a measured approach that rejects much of the free trade regimen of recent decades without retreating to any kind of neo-mercantilism. The answer lies in the concept of “reciprocity” between trading nations, an idea as old as William McKinley.

♦♦♦

Matt Purple, managing editor: I’ve been reading Truman Capote, albeit purely by accident. Searching on Christmas Day for something festive beyond the usual Dickens, I stumbled on Capote’s A Christmas Memory, which I read, followed by its companions The Thanksgiving Visitor and One Christmas. The three short stories gently unfold the childhood of a boy named Buddy growing up in the Depression-era Deep South, as he prepares for the holidays, contends with a bully, and, in the slightly darker third entry, spends a Christmas with his philanderer father. The glaze of nostalgia is applied throughout, and sometimes over-applied, leaving the sense that Capote, by now living in New York City, was seeking something he’d left behind in his own Southern upbringing. That something is perhaps reflected in Buddy’s elderly companion Sook, a kind woman who remains child-like even at her advanced age.

From there it was on to Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, about a boy awakening to his homosexuality—the nature of the plot is covered in only the lightest Victorian concealer, which garnered considerable controversy at the time—and The Grass Harp, a novella about a group of lovable fugitives who hole up in a treehouse. Both works contain glimpses into Capote’s childhood mirror: adventures through the woods, fragile male protagonists, guileless adults, absent parents (Capote’s divorced when he was four). Cities like New Orleans and Washington, D.C. are distant and unreachable; snow is sought after but never found. Southern stereotypes are undermined by delightful misfits who evade pigeonholing. Capote, nemesis of Gore Vidal and host of what was supposedly New York’s glitziest party ever, had in him a Jeffersonian tenderness towards the agrarian. His Deep South is well worth a visit.

♦♦♦

Addison Del Mastro, assistant editor: I’ve been reading The Bones of the Earth by Howard Mansfield. I discovered this book while I was doing some research on the retail history of Route 22, one of New Jersey’s iconic post-war highway strips. It happened that Mansfield wrote a couple of pages about Route 22 here, and the kitschy midcentury signs and buildings there, some of which survive today.

The Bones of the Earth is not, however, so much about historic preservation or suburbia, as it is about cultural memory and how we think about the past. Mansfield visits some old stone bridges in New England and ponders how they were built with no mortar, by masons who could tell from the shape of a stone exactly where in the bridge it needed to go. He also wrote about a tradition sparked by the now-defunct Boston Post, in which the paper distributed gold and ebony canes to the oldest residents of several hundred New England towns, and stipulated that upon death, the cane would be transferred to the next oldest resident. At the time of its writing in 2004, a handful of towns still participated in the tradition.

When does a corporate sweepstakes like that turn into a genuine tradition? When does a faded neon sign of a smiling anthropomorphic bowling pin on an ugly highway strip meld into the nation’s cultural patrimony? Terms and ideas like “culture,” “historic preservation,” “the past,” and so many more have no clear definition and are based on many underlying assumptions. Mansfield wades into all of this to great, thought-provoking effect here.

♦♦♦


Gracy Olmstead, contributing editor:

  • Irresistible, by Adam Alter: Apple’s shareholders are putting pressure on the company to address smartphone addiction amongst its younger users. Jean Twenge’s book iGen shines a (rather troubling) light on the technological obsessions of today’s young adults. And more and more Americans are experiencing “nomophobia”: the fear of being without a phone or cellular connection. Which means Alter’s book and the topics it addresses—namely, technology addiction and the businesses that profit by it—are going to be relevant and important for a while. Thus far, it’s a fascinating and insightful book.
  • Water at the Roots, Philip Britts: Philip Britts was a farmer, poet, pastor, and member of the Bruderhof community during the early 20th century. He died at 31, but this collection of poems and insights shows the depth and richness of his wisdom during those shortened years. Britts’ writings are reminiscent of Wendell Berry’s: they touch on the same themes of earth and faith, community and presence. It’s a short but lovely read.
  • The Lifegiving Home, Sally and Sarah Clarkson: This is probably the coziest book I’ve read in a while, and it’s already inspired some thoughts on surviving January’s coldness by making home a haven. This mother-daughter team share thoughts both theological and practical on fostering a hospitable, creative, soul-inspiring space—and in a world that’s increasingly vacated the home (for long commutes and frenzied careers, eating out and movie theaters and gyms, etc.), the Clarksons’ vision of home is both inspiring and challenging. They encourage their readers to take back the home front, and make it a place that roots and nourishes hearts and minds, giving both a space in which to blossom.

♦♦♦

Mark Perry, contributing editor:

Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945, Rana Mitter

Few historians can equal author Barbara Tuchman’s exquisite timing. The Guns of August, her celebrated account of how Europe stumbled into World War One, was released just as John Kennedy was weighing a showdown with the Soviet Union, while Stilwell and the American Experience in China preceded by a year Richard Nixon’s opening to Beijing. The books rocketed onto the bestseller lists, garnered Tuchman a pair of Pulitzers, and solidified her standing as one of the premier historians of her generation.

The problem, of course, is that Tuchman’s views have failed the test of time—Germany did not stumble into a conflict in August of 1914, but purposely worked to bring it about, while the release of hitherto unaccessed archives in China show Stilwell to be far more feckless than Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, who Tuchman derides. In truth, the fault is not Tuchman’s: time’s gift is not simply that it leads to more sober reflection, but that it allows once-sequestered documents to illuminate history’s initial draft.

Such is the case for Rana Mitter’s Forgotten Ally, which (spurred on by Beijing’s new openness and Chiang Kai-shek’s partial rehabilitation) provides a startling and compellingly coherent account of China’s bloody conflict with Japan. Mitter’s narrative recasts the popular notion that Japan’s defeat resulted primarily from America’s military prowess—and two atom bombs. That’s true, but incomplete. The weight of the Pacific War was borne primarily by the Chinese, who lost four million soldiers and 11 million civilians (the Americans lost 65,000 soldiers, sailors and Marines), while facing the largest portion of Japanese ground forces. This was an ugly and bloody fight, matching in intensity anything the Red Army faced in Europe.

The acerbic Stilwell, sent by Roosevelt to help the Chinese, believed Chiang’s Nationalist forces could defeat the Japanese. Chiang knew better; his army was poorly trained, poorly armed, and many of his commanders were plotting against him. Chiang adopted a strategy that reflected this reality: he bled the Japanese, depended on the Americans to deliver victory, and saved his soldiers for the inevitable post-war face off against Mao’s communists. Or, to use a phrase popularized by Ulysses S. Grant, Chiang was determined to hold the beast, so long as the Americans skinned it. That “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell remained clueless about what Chiang was doing remains one of the great puzzles of the war—unresolved by Tuchman.

Chiang’s strategy worked. While Admiral Chester Nimitz and General Douglas MacArthur were fighting in the Pacific, Chiang’s ragtag division forces tied down hundreds of thousands of Japanese that might have been used against them. MacArthur, in particular, understood this, as evidenced by his later advice (to John Kennedy) that the U.S. “never get involved in a land war in Asia.” The warning is worth heeding, Mitter told me in a telephone conversation several months ago: “The Japanese kept thinking that at some point the Chinese would surrender,” he said, “but they never did. They just kept coming.”

Mitter is among a new generation of China specialists (the list includes Ezra Vogel, Richard Bernstein, Frank Dikotter, John Pomfret and Jay Taylor, whose biography on Chiang Kai-shek, The Generalissimo, inaugurated the rethinking), who are providing us with a new history that leaves readers with the discomforting notion that World War II was primarily a fight between the Soviet Union and Germany on the one hand, and China and Japan on the other. Which is not to say that Americans are wrong when they claim that “we” won the war against Japan, it’s simply to suggest that the “we” is plural.

Take Our 2017 Reader Survey

We at The American Conservative seek to advance a “Main Street” conservatism that promotes the flourishing of families and communities, smaller and more accountable government, civil liberties, and a realistic, restrained foreign policy. Thanks to you, we’ve been able to reach record numbers of readers with our message of principled, measured conservatism in this first year of the Trump era.

As we move forward into 2018, we’re eager to learn more about our readers so we can continue to cover the issues you find most important. Why do you read us? How do you feel about the Trump presidency so far? What are your thoughts on immigration? Foreign policy? Your favorite writers? Take our 2017 readers survey here, and help us reshape the Right!

 

Professor and Wife Get $500,000 From Evergreen College

Evergreen College Professor Bret Weinstein on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. (YouTube)

Professor Bret Weinstein of The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, will receive $500,000 from the college in a settlement announced this week. Readers of TAC may recall details of the campus turmoil that descended on Evergreen last spring, detailed in a cover story by Gregg Herrington in TAC’s September/October issue, also online here.

Weinstein was accosted on campus by students, and was advised by college officials that he should remain off campus for his own safety, as campus security personnel, it was stated, couldn’t protect him.

Students also commandeered college president George Bridges in his office, holding him there and subjecting him to more than four hours of verbal abuse before releasing him. A sampling of the abuse: “No fuck you, George. We don’t want to hear a goddamn thing you have to say….You talk so fucking much….No, you shut the fuck up.”

Weinstein, a political progressive who supported Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid, ran afoul of campus leftists when he challenged plans by students, faculty, and staff members of color to urge white students to vacate the campus for a day so nonwhites could contemplate their grievances without whites in their midst. In previous years, those of color had themselves vacated the campus as a demonstration of solidarity, but now the tradition took on a more menacing aspect to whites.

Weinstein rejected the underlying sentiment of the change. He wrote publicly: “There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles, and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away. The first is a forceful call to consciousness, which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself….I will be on campus on the Day of Absence.”

Subsequently, Weinstein’s class was interrupted by 50 protesters labeling him a “racist” and calling for his suspension. When police arrived to escort Weinstein out of the building, students sought to thwart the protective maneuver. The next day, for the sake of his and his students’ safety, he took the campus police chief’s advice and held class off campus.

Weinstein and his wife, Heather Heying, also an Evergreen faculty member, in July filed a $3.85 million tort claim against the college alleging it failed to “protect its employees from repeated provocative and corrosive verbal and written hostility based on race, as well as threats of physical violence.”

In an email to faculty and staff late Friday, Evergreen officials reported that the college will pay the Weinsteins $450,000 in redress and $50,000 to defray attorney fees. The announcement also stated the college “admits no liability, and rejects the allegations made in the tort claim.” It added that the Day of Absence activities “were not discriminatory. The college took reasonable and appropriate steps to engage with protesters during spring quarter, de-escalate conflict, and keep the campus safe.”

Both Weinstein, a biology professor, and Heying, who taught anthropology, resigned their academic positions at Evergreen, effective on the day of the settlement announcement.

TAC Welcomes New Managing Editor and Executive Editor

TAC Editor Robert W. Merry on Wednesday announced two major personnel moves in the TAC editorial operation. Kelley Vlahos will move up to fill one of the magazine’s Executive Editor slots (along with Lewis McCrary), while Matt Purple, currently deputy editor at Rare Politics, will become Managing Editor, to replace Kelley. In making the announcement, Merry said, “With these moves I believe we have congregated a sterling management team prepared and ready to help lead TAC to ever greater heights of editorial excellence and political influence.”

Kelley joined TAC on June 12 after nearly a decade as a mainstay TAC freelance contributor. She came to Washington in 1999 after five years of newspaper experience in Connecticut and worked for a number of publications and web sites, including ConservativeHQ.com and Bridge News, before landing with Fox News in 2001. More recently she was web editor and social media manager for WTOP. In her new role, Kelley will report to Merry and maintain managerial jurisdiction over day-to-day operations related to the TAC web site, social media efforts, and operational analytics. McCrary will continue to oversee foreign policy coverage, urban affairs writing, and TAC events.

Matt Purple has been at Rare Politics since 2014. A news and opinion web site established in 2013 by Cox Media Group, it aims its fare at a “younger, center-right audience.’’ Purple is a Catholic University graduate and has been involved in DC conservative commentary since his arrival as a college student. Following college Matt served as assistant managing editor at The American Spectator, and he has written extensively for such publications as National ReviewThe National Interest, the Washington Times, and the Daily Caller. In his new role with TAC, Matt will be charged primarily with ensuring that TAC’s web presence is timely, lively, and meaningful. Both Vlahos and Purple will write for TAC as time permits.

Kelley’s new role is effective immediately. Matt will begin his TAC duties on October 2.

Meet TAC’s New President

The American Conservative is pleased to announce Bradley J. Birzer as the new president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC.  Dr. Birzer’s appointment takes effect today, August 1.  Dr. Birzer will serve a one-year term while maintaining his full-time position as the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College.  He replaces Jeremy Beer, who will become chairman of the board of directors.

We are thrilled to be adding Dr. Birzer to our publication’s leadership. He has written for TAC for years, recently contributing pieces on novelist Margaret Atwood, the television series Stranger Things, and the great sociologist Robert Nisbet, a range of output that gives some indication of his extraordinary versatility. Dr. Birzer is the biographer of Russell Kirk, an icon of the type of Burkean conservatism that lies at the core of TAC’s identity. And he is an outspoken critic of recent American foreign policy and interventionist outreach.

Thanks to our readers, supporters, and all those who have helped steer TAC in recent years, TAC now reaches at least three times as many people as it did in 2014. We have thrived, even as other magazines and websites have folded. Our articles, programs, and events are helping to shape the conversation and the way people on the right, in the center, and even on the left think. Bradley Birzer will do a great deal to help TAC continue to grow its readership and expand its influence in these strange and turbulent times.

For all press inquiries, please contact Emile Doak, director of events & outreach, at [email protected]

The Government Tilt: How Crony Capitalism Distorts Markets

On June 15, The American Conservative convened a panel to explore the cozy relationships between government and business, and make the case that the growth of cronyism—and the policies that feed it—runs counter to a truly conservative economic policy.  Watch the full discussion here.

The panel featured:

Ambassador C. Boyden Gray, former Ambassador to the European Union (2006-2007).

David M. Smick, author of The Great Equalizer: How Main Street Capitalism Can Create an Economy for Everyone.

Tim Carney, commentary editor at the Washington Examiner.

Veronique de Rugy, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

moderated by Robert W. Merry, editor of The American Conservative.

Pratik Chougule Appeared on C-SPAN Washington Journal

TAC executive editor Pratik Chougule appeared on C-SPAN Washington Journal on Saturday to discuss his recent article, How America Turned Against Smart Kids.  The interview is available via C-SPAN at this link: https://www.c-span.org/video/?428742-5/washington-journal-pratik-chougule-discusses-gifted-education-us

TAC Is Hiring

The American Conservative is seeking a managing editor.

Primary responsibilities of this position include:

  1. Managing the TAC web edition, ensuring that it is plenished daily with fresh material of high quality;
  2. Writing a regular web-edition column;
  3. Assisting with the day-to-day operation of TAC’s Washington D.C. office.

Ideal applicants will have:

  • A worldview consistent with the philosophy and disposition of The American Conservative
  • Strong editing skills
  • An understanding of conservative media and how to create engaging content in this space
  • Interest in monitoring the day-to-day news cycle as well as anticipating longer-term events and issues
  • A demonstrated ability to work proactively and take initiative in a high-pace, rapidly-evolving office

Interested applicants should send a cover letter and resume to Pratik Chougule by email at [email protected]. Applicants must be able to work from our Washington, D.C office.

← Older posts