Summer Reading Choices from L&L Writers
Summer is upon us. Here is what some friends of Law & Liberty intend to read during their leisure hours.
My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home by Michael Brendon Dougherty (Sentinel, 2019). The author had thought his Irish father had deserted his American family to decamp for Dublin, then found out his parents’ divorce had been more complicated and so went to look for his father and his heritage. Reviewers have heaped praise on this memoir, for both its beautiful writing and its sad evocation of the “global” Ireland of today that Dougherty discovered while reuniting with his father—an Ireland that has tragically lost touch with its own rich history and culture.
De Gaulle by Julian Jackson (Belknap, 2018). Jackson’s book has been described as a definitive biography of this towering figure of patriotic resistance who showed that it was possible to be a political and religious conservative and yet hate everything Adolf Hitler stood for. In the bitterest of historical ironies, Charles de Gaulle was ousted from power in 1968 by the feckless, fashionably Marxist, and thoroughly ungrateful generation of descendants of the French he had fought so hard to keep free during the ravages of World War II.
The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Ryszard Legutko (Encounter, 2016). Just the fact that he was recently disinvited by Middlebury College from speaking on campus would have been enough to make me want to read the latest book by this distinguished Polish intellectual. But read these words from his interview with the American Conservative shortly afterwards: “The book is about how liberal democracy tends to develop the qualities that were characteristic of communism: pervasive politicization, ideological zeal, aggressive social engineering, vulgarity, a belief in inevitability of progress, destruction of family, the omnipresent rule of ideological correctness, severe restriction of intellectual inquiry, etc. . . . The paradox is that in today’s liberal democracy there are more thought crimes than in communism: racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, ageism, binarism, Eurocentrism, white supremacy, and many others which a person like myself long ceased to keep up with. They give the latter-day Bolsheviks enormous power and countless instruments to silence all opponents.”
The Case for Trump by Victor Davis Hanson (Basic Books, 2019). Ordinarily I’d be loath to stump for a political figure and suspicious of hagiographical ventures by his supporters. But Hanson is a respected classical scholar with a fine mind and fine writing style who is devoted to his (and my) native California, which, along with the rest of America, is being inundated by uncontrolled immigration and the selfish, destructive political culture of its elites. If Hanson thinks Donald Trump can stanch this bleeding, I want to learn why and how.
The Poem of the Cid (Penguin, 1984). This medieval Spanish chanson de geste, which I’ve just started reading, is my guilty (that is, politically incorrect) pleasure of the summer: Christians versus Moors during the late 11th century. The prose translation in this edition is dull and prosy, but the original Spanish verse is en face, and it’s surprising similar to modern Spanish (a few changes in spelling and word order). The Cid himself is a manly antidote to today’s blather about “toxic masculinity”: brave, yes, but also honorable and generous to both friend and Moorish enemy when he is not on the fields of battle.
—Charlotte Allen, who was a frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard, is the author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.
My first choice for summer reading is In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England by Keith Thomas (Yale University Press, 2018). It is a deliciously old-fashioned topic, completely alien to the present-day atmosphere of tribalism, relativism, and bad manners.
Thomas, a distinguished historian who is Honorary Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, acknowledges that “civility was (and still is) a slippery and unstable word. Yet although it was employed in the early modern period in a variety of senses, they all related in one way or another to the existence of a well-ordered political community and the appropriate qualities and conduct expected of its citizens. . . . It also took on the larger connotation of a nonbarbarous way of living, what would eventually be known as ‘civilization.’”
After reading this book, I intend to revisit a beautiful work by the late distinguished sociologist Edward Shils that Steven Grosby edited and Liberty Fund published some two decades ago: The Virtue of Civility: Selected Essays on Liberalism, Tradition and Civil Society (Liberty Fund, 1997).
My recollection of first reading Shils is that he presented a strong argument associating classical liberalism (which he emphatically distinguished from modern collectivistic liberalism) with limited government and a vibrant civil society, independent from the state. He then argued that “civility” is the crucial spontaneous sort of glue that allows societies to enjoy orderly liberty and protects them from decaying into chaos and then resorting to arbitrary coercion. As does Thomas, Shils associated the concept of civility with a sense of restraint and self-control, and a disposition for accommodation with other fellow-citizens, especially if and when they endorsed different political views. Shils also associated this Adam Smithonian concept of fellow-feeling with a shared sense of reasonable patriotism.
Some of the main points Shils makes: “The existence of civility made the pluralistic societies of the liberal democratic age practicable.” “Civility and ideological radicalism are irreconcilable.” “The very notion of a common interest, of a concern for society as a whole, is abhorrent to ideological radicalism.” And here is a particularly pertinent one: “Populism which extols the virtues of one part of the society against all others is about as inimical to civility as is ideological radicalism.”
My third choice is again to revisit an old book by another old-fashioned author: the late distinguished philosopher Leo Strauss. I have already put on my desk An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays by Leo Strauss, edited by Hilail Gilden (Wayne State University Press, 1989). I intend to start by rereading the ninth essay, “What is Liberal Education?” As I recall from previous readings, it ends with a sweet note: “Liberal education is liberation from vulgarity. The Greeks had a beautiful word for ‘vulgarity’; they called it apeirokalia, lack of experience in things beautiful. Liberal education supplies us with experience in things beautiful.”
I am not sure reading Strauss is still allowed in most of our present-day universities, dominated as they are by what Edward Shils in the 1960s called ideological radicalism and “emancipationism.” But one can hopefully still read Strauss at the privacy of one’s home.
“Hopefully” is the right word here. Radical ideologues now say that civility, free-speech, and privacy are obstacles to their “emancipationist” causes. Some types of populists join them in attacking the “bourgeois niceties” (as the infamous Carl Schmitt used to say) of liberal democratic checks and balances. Sad examples of this can be found in recent books by Ryszard Legutko, from Poland, and Patrick Deneen, from . . . America.
Perhaps they all could be gently and firmly reminded of a beautiful passage of a speech that William Pitt (the elder) made in the British House of Commons in 1763: “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storms may enter, the rain may enter—but the King of England cannot enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.”
As the old saying goes, “An Englishman’s home is his castle.” I hope that our postmodern fashions and uncivil social media will not end up destroying that old frontier (yes, frontier, as in national frontier) of civility, which used to be called privacy.
—Joao Espada is director of the Institute for Political Studies at the Catholic University of Portugal.
The invigoration of nationalist currents since Election 2016 has encouraged a revival of “national history.” A few historians, rejecting the hyper-specialization and debunking tone that characterize much (although not all) academic historiography, have resumed the task of constructing a shared narrative for the American people in all its ethnic, religious, and political heterogeneity. Inspired by figures like George Bancroft, author of the once-standard History of the United States, from the Discover of the American Continent (1854-78), these writers believe a synoptic approach offers intellectual and political rewards that outweigh any disadvantage of superficiality or exclusion. Their work is a literary expression of the aspiration to render E pluribus, unum— from many, one.
The most prominent of these ambitious works is Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States. As the title suggests, the 900-page survey expresses Lepore’s conviction that America is a propositional nation, and that its history can be told as a progressive realization of the Declaration of Independence. In a brief companion volume, This America: The Case for the Nation, Lepore develops a sharp distinction between the liberal “Americanism” she favors and an ostensibly threatening ethno-religious nationalism. I am not persuaded that this distinction can be upheld so neatly.
Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story (a full review of which Ted McAllister posted at Law & Liberty last month) is a more modest and perhaps more successful effort. Intended as a high school textbook, Land of Hope not only surveys major figures and events but develops an argument for the internal coherence of American national identity. More than Lepore, McClay sees America as both universalist and particularist, creedal and cultural. To reject either element, he suggests, is to undermine a “vital tension” best understood and defended by Abraham Lincoln.
Every reader of such books will find his own points to quibble about, for some degree of simplification and omission is unavoidable. While I might exclude some themes or emphasize others, this kind of nit-picking is a low form of criticism.
A more fundamental objection involves the enormous importance that both Lepore and McClay attribute to narrative. Each suggests that a nation is essentially a story we tell ourselves. Revising and rehearsing that story is therefore a constitutive enterprise, with important consequences for public life.
I think this premise, common among writers, teachers, and others who work primarily with words, underestimates the role of institutions in the formation and maintenance of nations. To paraphrase Robert Nisbet, a nation is not just something we say to each other. It is something we do together. In the absence of common enterprises, often backed by coercive power, nationalism is more a literary than a political project. That is why nationalists have historically placed their hopes for solidarity in compulsory schooling, military service, national churches, and a state-managed economy as well as in historiography.
It reflects the challenge facing American nationalism today that McClay’s volume is more likely to be used in private or religious schools, or in home-schooling, than in our system of public education. In other words, his eloquent invitation to the American story will appeal most to those who have lost confidence in one of its historic bastions. Can we sustain a coherent national identity when it seems harder than ever to find common ground between religious and secular, urban and rural, and the descendants of old and new immigrants? That is the question these books pose.
—Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University and executive director of its Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom.
Everyone’s arguing about socialism nowadays. What is it? Is it bad? Is there any chance that Americans would want it? To get more historical perspective on these questions, I am reading Joshua Muravchik’s Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (2003). The title may seem to discredit Muravchik given recent political developments (and indeed, he’s issued an update, subtitled The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism, which I have not yet acquired). It’s a very compelling read, though, offering not just history but also real insight into the appeal of socialism, which Muravchik (the descendant of Marxist Russian Jews) describes as “the most popular political idea ever invented.” In a post-Christian world, people will keep on trying to build their heaven on earth. Once these experiments are embarked on, they tend to fail, for a simple reason. Nobody wants to live in them.
In a related vein, I hope this summer to finish a book I’ve been chipping at for a couple of years now, Jose Maria Gironella’s The Cypresses Believe in God (1953), It’s a novel about Spain in the time just before the horrific 1936-1939 civil war that claimed hundreds of thousands of Spanish lives. Several people have told me this book is the key to understanding that war, which is a strong inducement. Spain’s conflict offers an arresting example of the tragedy that can unfold when traditionalist and modern ideologies crash together in the crucible of an unstable political situation. It’s tough for me to get through 800-page tomes, especially since novels tend to feel like a luxury to me. This one has strong political relevance, though, and anyway, what’s summer without a little going off the grid?
Finally, my father’s recent work on paganism (and its similarities to progressive liberalism) has made me rather eager to read Anthony T. Kronman’s Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan (2016). As I understand it, this book is a sweeping intellectual history, written by a legal scholar who actually thinks of himself as a kind of modern pagan. I’m planning to keep Frederick Copleston at my elbow as I read. How fascinating, though, to get the story of philosophy from the perspective of someone who doesn’t want St. Thomas to win!
—Rachel Lu is an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and a contributor to The Federalist.
Daniel J. Mahoney
Uncle Dynamite by P.G. Wodehouse (1948). Reading Wodehouse is like eating chocolate: you know what you’re going to get every time, but there are a thousand ways to make it delightful. Wodehouse is ideal reading for vacation, and I always make sure that my summer includes one or two of his novels.
Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts (2018). I enjoy reading Churchill for the content, but also for the inimitable voice. Roberts gives what I have been looking for: a one-volume, critically acclaimed biography that tells the story in the voice.
Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (1987). When Tom Wolfe died in 2018, I read two volumes of his essays and loved their delicious social satire. Wolfe’s magnum opus offers a portrait of New York from Wall Street trade rooms to central booking, all with his incredible eye for the details that reveal social class, mores, ambitions, and ideologies.
The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard (2017). Winner of the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious book prize, this brief work of historical fiction gives an account of the key figures involved in the Nazis’ annexation of Austria in 1938. Vuillard reminds us that monumental evil began not in genius, but in ordinary human actions, competent and incompetent. Evil is not an unstoppable force but an outcome that can be chosen—or not.
—Nathaniel Peters is executive director of the Morningside Institute and a lecturer at Columbia University.
James R. Rogers
My summer looks pretty busy. But a few books I plan to read unrelated to work include these:
The Demons of Liberal Democracy by Adrian Pabst (2019). The book came out a few weeks ago. Pabst is in the “Red-Tory/Blue-Labour” line in Great Britain. I don’t reject Pabst’s concerns, but thought his earlier argument, in The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future (2016), written with John Milbank, a bit woolly-headed in both diagnoses and remedies. Still, there was enough “there there” to give him another shot.
A Secular Age by Charles Taylor (2007). Yeah, I know I should have read this years ago. But I’ve been busy. Taylor sets out to address the puzzle, “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” A lot hangs on the answer. If A Secular Age is even half as good as Taylor’s 1992 book, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, it will be a profound read.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe (1968). This has also been on my list for a long time. The world is still coming to grips with the turn in 1968. One of the great American essayists chronicles a slice of this turn.
Nostromo by Joseph Conrad (1904). I guess this is the summer for catching up on things I should have read years ago. I’ve read, and reread, a fair amount of Conrad. But I’ve never picked up what many consider to be his best novel. I will remedy that, Lord willing, this summer.
The Psalms through Jeremiah. I’ve read the Bible through a handful of times as an adult, and worked through numerous sections on their own. But not having gone straight through for a long time, two-and-a-half years ago I thought I’d read the Bible straight through once a year for the next three years. I’m now in the midst of my third read in three years. This summer I’ll be reading through the wisdom literature and then starting the prophets again. My improved familiarity with the events leading up to the exile (discussed in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles) really helped open for me a lot of the discussion in the prophetic books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the rest).
—James R. Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A & M University and a contributing editor of Law & Liberty.
Whether it is summer or another time of year, my reading is almost always focused on civil discourse, building trust in communities through conversation, the effect of technology on our exchanges with one another, and whether “hyper-polarization” is a real or imagined problem. Here are three books on my reading list for the next few months:
Blueprint by Nicholas Christakis (2019). It is, perhaps, unfortunate that many will recognize Christakis from the 2015 controversy at Yale over Halloween costumes and their regulation. Or perhaps not: It may be that Christakis is exactly the right person to engage us in an exploration of the surprising assertion that our biology actually unites us more than it divides us, and “that society is basically good.” I admit to a certain amount of skepticism about this claim, but I am confident that Christakis will make the journey of following his argument a worthwhile and thought-provoking one.
I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening) by Sarah Steward Holland and Beth Silvers (2019). I was immediately intrigued by this book, because I am always glad to hear that phrase from participants in the events that my organization hosts. It signals trust. The authors are “Sarah from the Left” and “Beth from the Right” from the popular podcast, “Pantsuit Politics,” and this is their first book. It purports to be, as its subtitle says, “a guide to grace-filled political conversations.” The authors take the point of view that, whatever the cause of polarization, “we are choosing it.” If that’s true, we can also choose otherwise, and their call for empathy and respect offers the prospect of escaping “the toxic environment surrounding politics” described by so many who attend our events.
Holland and Silvers call for individuals to take responsibility for their own role in polarization, and I’m excited to learn from them how we go about encouraging a conversation that allows us to “test our own beliefs against each other’s philosophies, to strengthen our relationship[s] by listening in order to understand, and to better appreciate our own core beliefs by having to articulate and challenge those beliefs.”
The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave the Community Behind by Raghuram Rajan (2019). Do you occasionally find yourself at a disadvantage because everyone you know is talking about a book you haven’t read? For me, that’s the latest book by the University of Chicago economist, a work he says is “about fundamentally restructuring the social contract that we have.” Richard Epstein has argued that Rajan’s understanding of community (the third pillar of society after the political and economic) is “flawed.” Angus Deaton seems to agree with Rajan’s account of community but is “skeptical that stronger local communities or a policy of localism (inclusive or not) can cure what ails us.” From my point of view, if a book has managed to get both Epstein and Deaton (and many others) to respond, it will be well worth the read.
—Jennifer Thompson is the executive director of the Center for the Study of Liberty.