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TAC Bookshelf: Defending Our Constitutional Right to Associate

Here's what our editors and writers are reading this week.
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Bradley J. Birzer, TAC fellow-at-large: Our fundamental right to associate with whom we please—in our families, in our churches, in our schools, in our businesses, and in our fraternal orders—is under assault. That’s the argument made by Luke C. Sheahan in his excellent new book, Why Associations Matter: The Case for First Amendment Pluralism (University Press of Kansas, 2020).

The courts have progressively diminished just the idea of associating, even though they once espoused the “right to petition” and the “right to assemble” in the First Amendment as essential to a proper understanding of the Constitution. Sadly, recent court decisions have looked at the right to assemble merely as connected to free speech, thus only allowing association when the goal is to express some idea. Drawing on, fascinatingly, 19th-century political thought, as well as the work of Robert Nisbet, Sheahan properly re-orients the discussion in the present day, asking all the right questions and finding rather brilliant solutions. Why Associations Matter is a must-read and a must-own. If we lose the right to associate—beyond just expression—we lose our profound American identity.

At the suggestion of a dear colleague, Paul Moreno, I recently read the 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Edge of Sadness, by Edwin O’Connor. The novel follows a middle-aged priest and recovering alcoholic, Hugh Kennedy, who stoically accepts his post-drinking life as a happy and a contented one. Set in an unspecified New England city, The Edge of Sadness is at once playful, insightful, depressing, and hilarious. Similar in its themes to Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, it asks the existential question: has it all been worth it? And did I ever make a difference in this world? O’Connor’s writing is nothing if not profound. He is at his best when describing—with laugh-out-loud humor—how various ethnic groups think and behave.

Though we are, as I type this, in the middle of finals (online teaching is much, much harder than you might imagine), I have been treating myself to my own research in between grading this or that paper or exam. Currently, I’m working on a comprehensive biography of Robert Nisbet, and thus have had the great grand privilege of diving headlong into all of his works again. His little 1986 book, Conservatism: Dream and Reality, especially moved me, as he considered the profundity of Edmund Burke and the French Revolution—and even some 19th-century anarchists—on modern conservative thought. Frankly, this little book should be required reading for all American conservatives! But that’s just the professor in me talking.

And, yes, I’m thrilled as well that the new Stephen King, If It Bleeds, just arrived on my doorstep.



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