Like gorgeous daffodils, wonderful new conservative books are bursting out all over this spring. Fresh ideas, or at least elegantly formulated perennial truths — “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed,” in Alexander Pope’s fine phrase — offer fresh inspiration even to those of us conservative enough to suspect that there’s nothing new under the sun.
The Politically Incorrect Guide™ to Western Civilization
“Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go!” Culture war veterans remember the Stanford students, rallied by Jesse Jackson in 1988, lifting their voices to protest the notion that they should be required to learn about Western civilization. In the intervening decades, American campuses haven’t become any friendlier to the study of Western history and culture. In fact, large and increasing numbers of humanities professors consider it their job to sell their students on the proposition (self-evident to these same professors) that Western civilization is chiefly a source of various kinds of oppression — racism, sexism, colonialism, homophobia, and so forth. Which is where the latest Politically Incorrect GuideTM from Regnery (a sister company of Human Events) comes in.
This sparkling book, by Providence College professor (and Dante translator) Anthony Esolen, is, in fact, the ultimate Politically Incorrect GuideTM. Regnery’s popular series of small books on American history, Islam, global warming, Darwin, and so forth is designed to cut through the fog of political correctness in which these subjects have been enveloped of late. And there’s no subject more obscured and distorted by our reigning intelligentsia than Western civilization.
Cutting us off from the roots of our great civilization has always been the left’s agenda for our educational system — from John Dewey’s “reform” of the public schools to the latest “postmodernist” fads. While the ideal of a classical education is reviving in some quarters (especially among homeschoolers), the great mass of students in America’s high schools and colleges learn very little of our history and culture — beyond a general impression that everything before the 1960s was the bad old days, and that history is the story of the liberation of one after another oppressed group by gutsy, compassionate Leftists.
Esolen does a splendid job of rescuing Western history and culture from these tired clichés. Beginning with classical Greece and Rome and the Bible, making his way through the Middle Ages (less benighted than you may have thought) and the Enlightenment and American founding to the modern era, he tells the fabulous stories and introduces his reader to the world-changing ideas that have made Western civilization the greatest civilization, by far, that the world has seen. If you missed the classical education that ought to have been your birthright as a citizen of the West, and you want to remedy that lack, this book is a fantastic place to start.
Makers and Takers
The original subtitle for this book (scrapped for the impressive list of well-documented advantages of conservatism that the publisher finally decided to use) says it all: “Why conservatives do all the work while liberals whine and complain.” Peter Schweizer, the author of Do As I Say (Not as I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy piles up the data to prove his contention that conservatives live more productive, more honest, and simply happier lives than liberals.
Of course, liberals don’t think of themselves as whiners and complainers. They think they’re “speaking truth to power” and “standing up for their rights.” But consider what these liberal ideals mean for what a person thinks is the typical way to accomplish anything of value in the world. If things need changing, liberals don’t roll up their sleeves and create a solution. They lobby someone else for a fix to the problem. Instead of working to create more wealth, they get jobs in the public sector and redistribute other people’s money. Instead of giving to the poor themselves — Schweizer has shocking statistics on how little liberals actually contribute to charity — they argue that the government should end poverty.
While there’s no doubt that there are some problems that can be solved only by a fairer distribution of existing resources — in which case it makes sense to appeal to authorities who have power to do justice — it’s a crucial truth, persistently neglected by the left, that we can solve a lot of problems by working harder, inventing more cleverly, or simply pitching in to change things ourselves. As whiners and complainers achieve ever more political power, rewards are redirected away from people who are producing useful results and toward people who are good at persuading other people to like, approve of, or pity them (away from surgeons, toward trial lawyers and their clients; away from the students who achieve good grades and test scores by burning the midnight oil, toward the ones who write essays about the hardships they’ve endured). What Schweizer demonstrates is that the whiners and complainers don’t just distort the economy and skew the political process—they make themselves miserable, too.
The Really Inconvenient Truths
As skyrocketing grain prices, food riots from Haiti to Egypt to Indonesia, and panic buying of rice right here in America have amply demonstrated this spring, environmental scare-mongering is not a victimless crime. Ethanol mandates are taking corn out of the mouths of the poor to fill our gas tanks. (The same amount of corn as it takes to produce enough ethanol to fill up an SUV could feed a child in the Third World for a year.) And, as Iain Murray points out, corn-ethanol mandates — like countless other laws and regulations passed to diminish our carbon footprint, clean up the environment, or save endangered species — are themselves environmental disasters, burning through gasoline to produce biofuel, deforesting large swathes of Asia, and driving the orangutan toward extinction.
The ethanol boondoggle is only one of a long series of environmental and humanitarian disasters visited on the planet by environmentalists. While Americans were feeling good about themselves for banning the DDT that was supposed to be thinning the egg shells of bald eagles, Africans were dying of malaria transmitted by the mosquitoes that DDT could have killed. It’s not just that environmentalists neglect every other good in their rush to “save the planet” and its wildlife. They’re also quite selective about which kinds of pollution they worry about. Ever hear an environmentalist complain about the female hormones (from birth control and “morning after” abortion pills) in our drinking water? And yet hermaphroditic fish are turning up in rivers across the United States. Environmentalists, Murray demonstrates, are more dangerous than environmental hazards.
Hillary: The Politics of Personal Destruction
Deploring his impeachment woes, Bill Clinton griped about “the politics of personal destruction.” In fact, as was amply demonstrated during his presidency, he and his wife are past masters of that art. Now, when Hillary Clinton is locked in a political death-match with Barak Obama for the Democratic nomination, David Bossie helpfully reminds us of the nearly forgotten scandals of the first Clinton regime.
Hillary Clinton’s new-found supporters among the working men and women of America would do well to revisit some of these stories. Remember Billy Dale and the White House Travel Office? Bossie’s book is a powerful refresher course in the Clintons’ lack of respect for ordinary Americans and their willingness to ruin people’s lives if advantage might accrue to themselves or their friends and allies.
Boys Should Be Boys
In this follow-up to Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, her powerful case for paternal involvement in girls’ lives, Meg Meeker takes on the challenges of raising healthy boys in the 21st Century. Are there challenges? Just ask the parents of any growing boy. It’s not just the electronic temptations our culture teems with — violent video games, ever more vulgar music, and ubiquitous pornography. It’s also the less than boy-friendly environment in which they have to spend too many hours of every day.
We’ve all heard of schools that have banned dodge ball, even chase and tag. The parents at my son’s school — we’re lucky that it’s a very unusual one, not just all boys but all male teachers, who encourage the boys to climb trees, build forts, and re-enact the Trojan War — swap even more outrageous stories. One boy who came to an open house reported that at his current school the students were forbidden to touch snow.
Dr. Meeker demonstrates that boys need to have plenty of contact with nature, experience competition, spend lots of time with their parents, play at war with other boys, and know real opportunities for success (and failure). Boys Should Be Boys is an escape plan out of the sadly cribbed and confined place where too many of our sons are now.
An American Family: The Buckleys
Where did “the conservative movement” come from? If you think about it for a minute, it’s something of an oxymoron. Conservatives qua conservatives aren’t typically “movement” kind of people. That’s the paradox of the movement William F. Buckley, Jr. founded: It’s a remarkable accomplishment to have energized people across America to get behind a program to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop.”
Buckley — with his mid-Atlantic accent and his generous use of Latin tags — was an unlikely standard bearer for any American political cause. This charming memoir by his colorful brother Reid tells the story of Bill Buckley’s origins and, along the way, reminds us of how much that once was typically American is now retreating into our past.
Take, for example, the Buckleys’ obsession with acquiring the very best education for their children. Of course, American parents today still hope our children will do better than ourselves. But do we want them to know more? To be educated because education is good in itself, because it will make them better people? I’m afraid fewer and fewer of us understand the real value of education — something that Americans from the New England Puritans to Abe Lincoln in his log cabin to early 20th-Century parents like the Buckleys had bred into their bones.
And consider independence and self-reliance. Bill Buckley’s father lived large and took big risks. He took it for granted that he was responsible for his family’s welfare, even its survival. And finally, there’s the old-fashioned American religiosity. The Buckleys’ Catholicism made them unusual among their friends and neighbors, but their belief that it was intellectually respectable to be deadly serious about Christianity was the majority position. There’s plenty of food for thought in this memoir, but it’s also hugely entertaining. The reader can’t help thinking what fun it must’ve been to grow up among these smart, funny, energetic folks.
The Dirty Dozen
Of the “dirty dozen” truly appalling Supreme Court decisions reviewed in this jurisprudential hall of shame, the most patently absurd may be Wickard v. Filburn, the Roosevelt-era case that stretched the definition of commerce between states (and thus, the power of the federal government) to cover a farmer’s right — or lack thereof — to grow his own wheat on his own farm for the consumption of his own livestock and his own family. If growing grain for your own consumption is interstate commerce, then what isn’t? Decisions like these have given us constitutional law as it exists in America today: a warrant for a government of nearly unlimited powers.
The authors of The Dirty Dozen ably demonstrate that today we have neither the rule of law that the founders bequeathed to us nor the scheme of government that would best promote our freedom and prosperity. One cautionary note: The book is written from a libertarian, rather than a conservative, perspective. Readers concerned about the Supreme Court’s denying Americans the power to outlaw abortion in Roe v. Wade may be disappointed to discover that Levy and Mellor recuse themselves from including that case because, inter alia, “the end result of Roe is a legal regime that many proponents of individual liberty consider a permissible compromise.” Still, a great deal of vital information about 12 horribly wrong Supreme Court decisions — nd the devastating consequences for American liberty — can be learned from this powerful book.
A Conservative History of the American Left
The key insight in this comprehensive history of American leftism is that leftists are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again — because they make it a principle not to learn anything from the past. If, as a youthful revolutionary, you don’t trust anyone (even graying revolutionaries) over 30, you’re doomed to repeat the mistakes of previous generations of revolutionaries over and over again.
And American revolutionaries — along with creators of farming utopias, inventors of novel religions, and the rest of the cast of characters who make up the history of the American left — have made some of the most egregious mistakes you can imagine. If American leftists hadn’t done so much real damage to people’s lives, their history would be a non-stop laugh riot. Flynn treats us to a number of hilarious life stories along the way. My personal favorite: the female friend of Edgar Allan Poe who sampled every crackpot lefty lifestyle available in early 19th Century America in turn, from feminist free love to militant vegetarianism until, finally, she tried spiritualism — at which point Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier appeared to her in a séance, and she became a conservative Catholic for the rest of her life. Flynn treats us to dozens of sad but true stories and draws lessons from them along the way. Rural utopias, it turns out, tend not pan out because there’s not much overlap between the demographic of utopian intellectuals that like to sit around opining about the purity and perfection of the life of the soil and the demographic that knows anything — absolutely anything at all — about actually getting crops to grow. This bok is a fun and informative read.
10 Books That Screwed Up the World
Intellectual history can seem a bit pretentious. Its practitioners often appear to be skating over awfully thin ice. Did Descartes really, as is often claimed, introduce body-mind dualism into Western thought, dooming us all to live divided against ourselves? Did Hegel’s philosophy really cause the creation and detonation of the atom bomb, as I once heard a religious studies professor explain?
Benjamin Wiker’s contribution to this genre is more persuasive. Wiker makes a convincing case that the ideas of certain misguided (or malevolent) thinkers over the past 500 years have hardened into truisms that everyone now takes for granted but that aren’t true –conventional unwisdom that obscures rather than illuminates human nature and the world we live in. His aim in this book is to draw our attention to the blinders that we 21st Century people don’t even know we’re wearing — and to help us see the reality they’re hiding from us.
Wiker does a wonderful job of showing that bad ideas have consequences that are very bad indeed. From the time when Machiavelli invented a theory of ethics-free politics up to the point at which Margaret Mead projected her own hedonism onto Samoan society, the thinkers Wiker debunks have brought untold grief on the human race. It’s past time we quit drinking their snake oil.
The Moment of Truth in Iraq
Michael Yon’s dispatches from Iraq are widely admired — at least among the minority of Americans who, fed up with the mainstream media’s treatment of the war in Iraq, turn to the internet for honest reporting on our soldiers and the progress of our armed forces in that country. The rest of America knows what’s on the front page of our newspapers: body counts of American soldiers, dramatic photos of the havoc and mayhem of war, and gloom-and-doom analysis designed to reinforce the ultimate hopelessness of our cause. It’s often been remarked that, if World War II had been reported this way, the American public might well have been talked into ceding the Pacific to Japan and Europe to Hitler. Speaking of World War II, have you ever considered how ironic — or maybe shameful is the mot juste—it is that even as we civilians enjoy vicariously the endurance, courage, and victory of the heroes of World War II in History Channel offerings and glossy commemorative books, we turn our backs on the American soldiers who are suffering, daring, and succeeding in the war America is fighting now?
Michael Yon’s fine book is not just a celebration of our soldiers in Iraq. It’s also a superbly well-informed argument that we’re winning the war there and, in the process, reshaping Iraq — and very possibly the Arab world. As Yon sees it, our new “greatest generation” is showing young Arab men (each one of them, a potentially deadly enemy to us) possibilities that never entered their heads before. American soldiers are strong, and the Iraqis respect our strength. But they’re also learning to admire the Americans’ can-do attitude and to respect our soldiers’ gentleness toward civilians. Iraqis who cooperate in our pacification of Iraq are being initiated into what makes America great — in fact, into those very civilizational qualities that may one day make Iraq itself into a very different place. And Americans who have served in Iraq will bring back to America an extraordinary experience about what the building blocks of civil society really are — they’re bound to change America for the better, too.