Saturday, October 13, 2007

Book Selection(s) of the Month: Novak and Dreher -- plus Chambers, Rand, Gore, Lapham, and Mommy

novak.jpg Book Selection of the Month (October 2007): Prince of Darkness by Robert Novak and Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher (and more)

David Brooks wrote in the New York Times last week that the Republican Party has been faltering because it has gotten too ideological, giving up Burkean restraint for extremist religious, free-market (go, team!), or neocon creeds. He might be right that most Americans would prefer a more mushy, compromising, middle-of-the-road Republican Party, but one important objection springs to mind: behind the creedal rhetoric, the fact is we already have a mushy, compromising, middle-of-the-road Republican Party.

•The feared religious extremists have not outlawed abortion or porn or even done much to limit prostitution, which is de facto legal in places like New York City these days, as long as it’s not done on the street.

•Neocon hawks got their Iraq war but precisely because of that aren’t likely to see much more of their dreamed-of hegemonic empire erected.

•And despite the perpetual advances in technology and ever more efficient business practices that make the world seem, by some measures, ever more capitalist, from a policy perspective, we free-marketeers are almost always losers and have virtually no politician allies in either major party, save for the occasional marginal figure like Ron Paul or extraordinarily rare achiever/hero like Reagan or Thatcher (and even those two did numerous things, even in the economic sphere, to which we’d object).

And none of these is all that surprising if, like Robert Novak in his recent autobiography, The Prince of Darkness, you reflect upon the sordid, messy, unphilosophical, and generally unprincipled history of the two major parties. His fifty years of reporting in Washington, DC have often given him a Gump-like close-up view of major politicians and the events that shaped their careers (and U.S. history). I cannot stress forcefully enough (especially for my intellectual and ideological readers) how little politics has to do with philosophy, whether right, left, or otherwise. It’s something that intellectuals have a hard time wrapping their minds around — precisely because they like having ideas to wrap their minds around.

Nonetheless, political history is shaped by things such as: which region of the country a candidate chose to visit at which stage in his campaign, whether his ex-wife is still making news, how bad his head cold was during a pivotal stump speech, whether his handlers forgot to tell him that the local fishing industry is doing poorly this year, and whether an influential TV producer was his friend in college. Philosophy is something the candidates pay lip service to halfway through the stump speech — to throw a bone to the small subset of voters who care about such things, in as calculated a way as the candidate throws in references to local monuments and sports teams.

(One of the reasons that I manage to get along with some of the people on my Acquaintances page who obviously disagree with my atheist or free-market views is that I have no illusions about how many of us intellectuals and ideologues there are. We are a tiny community unto ourselves — and thus ought to learn to get along — regardless of whether we are libertarians, socialists, or evangelicals. Half the country doesn’t even read books and votes for reasons such as thinking one candidate looks taller or more paternal than the other, if they can even be bothered to remember more than one candidate’s name, which is not always the case — one reason name recognition is about the most important factor in elections.)


Back in the 1950s and 60s, Novak thought, like Brooks, that both parties were healthier to the extent they avoided ideology — but as time went on, he realized that natural as it might be for average Americans to recoil from ideology, non-ideological politicians are often the real threat — breaking promises, lacking a moral compass, double-talking, preferring cronies to intellectual allies, pork to principle. Would you rather deal with an up-front advocate of tax breaks and deregulation or someone who talks about how beautiful your state’s traditions of helping the poor are while he’s quietly pressuring the Department of Energy to dole out fat, poorly-overseen subsidies to a local real estate magnate, ostensibly to research solar power but mainly to refurbish the magnate’s offices? That’s pretty much the real choice.

As Novak recounts, prior to roughly Reagan or so, no one thought that GOP and Dem automatically equal conservative and liberal, respectively, and Novak’s long-view awareness of how depressingly, blandly non-ideological the parties have generally been still shows itself when (in one of his recent columns) he writes admirably non-partisan sentences like these:

Rangel also is considering the old millionaires’ tax, but applying it to much more than millionaires: a surtax on household incomes over $200,000. All this would reverse the tide of across-the-board tax reduction begun by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and renewed by Ronald Reagan.

You don’t see many politicians anymore who could, without lots of complex explanations, describe themselves as “a conservative and lifelong Democrat.” (Jonathan Funke, by contrast, calls himself a proud Rockefeller Republican, but he’s about the only one I’ve met in my own age bracket.)

For those already of a political-junkie bent, Novak offers an entertaining tour of the bizarre little contingent policy missteps, personality quirks, and bungled media appearances that decide history — with a lot of drinking (including the booze session that led to him losing all memory of a long interview with the bibulous Sen. Patrick Moynihan) and some gambling mixed in, not to mention his profound cynicism, funny comments about editing and writing, an intriguing and refreshing habit of telling us exactly what he earned for every gig (with adjustments for inflation!), and anecdotes about Jimmy Carter being a pathological liar (though not quite, perhaps, history’s greatest monster).

One depressing reminder how disillusioning the facts are: Novak describes interviewing Gingrich in very early ’95 and finding that Gingrich seemed already to be losing interest in details of the “revolution” of November ’94 and already to be thinking about a presidential run. Novak says that for a moment he thought Gingrich was joking when he said: I’ve accomplished about all I can at the Congressional level, don’t you think? Novak realized with alarm that the Speaker was serious, and he thought: But Gingrich hasn’t done anything yet!

On the bright side, the large element of randomness and chaos in politics means that sometimes one person can make a difference rather than just being steamrollered by purported forces of historical inevitability — witness the delightfully-named and stubbornly conservative Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, pugnaciously refusing to budge in his support for Bush’s welcome veto of S-CHIP, the program that taxes everyone to give health benefits to the non-poor.


Given how appalling and often futile mainstream politics is — despite the fact that each side rallies its troops by describing the enemy camp as making huge strides — I can’t help but be drawn to Rod Dreher’s book Crunchy Cons from early last year, even though I disagree with him on almost every specific point he makes. Dreher reports on the marginal but very interesting subset of conservatives, most of them very religious, who have defied the usual right/left boundaries to embrace lots of “crunchy,” green, hippie-like elements of the culture, such as organic food, resistance to real estate development, aversion to materialism and advertising, love of nature, and criticism of the way capitalism — or more accurately, business in combination with governmental powers such as eminent domain — disrupts and frays old community ties.

(Having just seen, with girlfriend Koli, Part 7 of Ric Burns’ amazing New York documentary, in which urban planner Robert Moses lays waste to entire New York City neighborhoods for decades, relocating fragile, often poor populations into inhumanly bland Le Corbusier-designed apartment blocks — until he is stopped in his tracks by Greenwich Village activists led by writer Jane Jacobs — I can sympathize with this seemingly anti-modernist view.)

Like the Amish or some of the paleoconservatives, Dreher understands that a consistent conservatism might have to reject modernity as a whole, both capitalism and big government, in order to restore local, traditional ties. Dreher concludes the book by praising Alasdair MacIntyre (as did I in an earlier Book Selection entry), the philosopher who thinks the best hope for morally renewing society is to withdraw from the mainstream and once more build tiny communities where uncontested virtues such as friendship, thoughtfulness, loyalty to family, reliability, honesty, and basic competence matter again. I admire taking these things so seriously as to think they may be worth quitting the rat race, turning off the TV, abandoning political parties, and spending time in quiet contemplation of things that really matter. And yet…

It’s all too easy to imbue the things one loves with a special, moral glow while disparaging everyone else’s heartfelt allegiances as shallow and phony. (The Marxists — who, like Jimmy Carter of all people, sometimes get spoken of sympathetically in Dreher’s book — have long denounced those of us who “think” we’re happy in capitalist society as suffering from “false consciousness,” an easy way to dismiss people’s opinions if they reject your political scheme.) Dreher repeatedly rhapsodizes about bottles of wine shared with his friends and family, or strolls through the old Brooklyn neighborhood he once lived in — but couldn’t we all write such sentimental accounts of our old haunts (even if some places, like a crime-filled Le Corbusier apartment complex, might genuinely be harder to rhapsodize about than others)?


I don’t mean to dismiss Dreher’s points altogether — indeed, I have worried almost since childhood that talking about morality gets you stared at like a relic from the Middle Ages and that being as warm-hearted as Winnie the Pooh is not considered as “cool” as being a take-no-shit ass-kicker — but I am wary of Dreher’s suggestion that capitalism is hopelessly at odds with the preservation of things like friendship (capitalism, done right, is as organic and complex a set of personal connections as the neighborhoods Jacobs loved). In fact, I’m not sure my own feelings have ever been more badly hurt than when I first realized, in college (the philosophical crucible and cultural alternate universe that was Brown, as I’ll begin recounting this coming Friday), that I was surrounded by intellectuals (students, professors, and the minds encountered in my textbooks) who ritually condemned, with a sneer both aristocratic and socialist, such omnipresent American phenomena as “strip malls.”

Indeed, highways lined with little stores had been such a familiar — and comforting — part of my own life (still reminding me today of the three-hour rides from Connecticut to New Hampshire to see Grandma), that I didn’t even know there was a term for them, let alone that it was intended to be a disparaging term. Condemning strip malls seemed as strange to me as condemning television (which admittedly is terribly addictive but has shown millions of people countless phenomena and parts of the world they would never likely have experienced firsthand), easy access to food, or comfort — and of course all these things are also periodically condemned by people like Dreher or numerous intellectuals on the left.

I’m willing to condemn much of what goes on in popular culture — and advertising/materialist culture — as moronic, and what degrades the brain undoubtedly cheapens and worsens life, even when we aren’t consciously aware of it (and even the clever parts of pop culture increasingly sound sniping and bitchy lately, from Gawker to Family Guy to Drudge to TV dramas generally). Yet surely an ethically-concerned, earnest crunchy con (and Dreher is indeed thoughtful and earnest — even emotionally-fragile and depressive-sounding at times, as when he recounts a conversation with liberals that left him weeping — rather than triumphalist and bombastic like a preacher or a Limbaugh) should be the last person to want to risk ingratitude. And what is it if not ingratitude to badmouth capitalism and science, which for the first time in human history — within just the past generation or so — have made it more likely for people to die of old age and old age-related diseases than of predation, murder, starvation, or some youth-killing disease?

(About half of prehistoric human males appear to have died of murder — to take one admittedly extremely pre-modern example — a reminder that at heart, males are probably “naturally” inclined to be murdering philanderers out to assemble an army of harem girls to impregnate beside the mountains of their rivals’ skulls — what an astoundingly feminist and pacifist coup the invention of monogamous marriage, with its male-taming effects, appears to be.)


One of Dreher’s interviewees, yet another of my fellow Phillips Foundation fellows, Read Schuchardt, once complained to me that capitalism kept him on a treadmill that made it hard to spend time with his wife and six children and (at the time) kept them crammed in a small New Jersey apartment. Without getting into a debate about apartment sizes and the fact that capitalism enables him to make a living talking about movies and TV (as a media studies professor in a Marshall McLuhan-esque mode), I had to at least note, at the risk of sounding rude, the grim but important truth that if we were living over a century ago, most of his children would probably be dead by now — and his life expectancy would be about forty or fifty. Is it contemptuous of family values to say that those advances matter? (I asked that basic question in a letter posted on the Crunchy Con blog that Dreher’s coworkers at maintained around the time of the book’s release.)

Similarly, much-maligned industrial agriculture is what’s keeping us all alive and fed at such little expense, using so little land per unit of food produced, compared to the hallowed oldy-times — and there is no truth to the anti-chemical health claims routinely made in favor of oganic food, but feel free to pay extra for it if you like the taste and think, rather parochially, that local farmers are morally superior to distant farmers.

(The desire to say a stoic, realist, and profoundly necessary “no” to overly idyllic visions of nature or the past is the reason that — as I will write about with increasing frequency over the next several months — I can’t help feeling there is a similarity between the admirably cynical, hippie-hating attitude of punk rock and the fiscal conservatives who arose around the same time, about thirty years ago — and I’m not the only one to make the connection, as this American Spectator article about Johnny Rotten, pointed out to me by Dan Greenberg, suggests.)


Some wit said that people who embrace non-capitalist systems are often like a casting director who sees the first auditioner, with his undeniable defects, and is so appalled that he shouts “Go away! I’m giving the job to the other applicant!” without ever waiting to see whether the other auditioner has flaws of his own, which may be even worse. That description can be applied not only to welfare-statists and to hasty, messianic, regulation-loving, who-needs-more-data environmentalists such as Gore (whether crunchy-con or crunchy-left) but also — it must be said — to religious believers.

Dreher and Novak both have kind words for Whittaker Chambers, whose book Witness recounted his conversion from communism to Christianity (and his subsequent outing of Alger Hiss as a communist spy, one of several famous ones that some on the contemporary left still don’t realize was an actual Soviet agent). That makes plenty of sense, not only because Novak and Dreher are both converts to Catholicism but because for both of them the conversion seems to have been an eruption born of some deep — and perhaps still unaddressed — emotional turmoil. Chambers leapt from being deeply devoted to one passionate belief system to another, as if he could not bear to spend a moment as a moderate, skeptic, unbeliever, or man without a system (he certainly didn’t like Ayn Rand’s atheistic, materialistic system, though, as he explained in a review of Atlas Shrugged reprinted by this week).

Novak alludes to problems with drinking and gambling — and his beautiful disgust with the everyday world of politics is on display on every page of his autobiography — with the result that his conversion experience — mishearing something a young woman said at a conservative gathering and taking that as a sign the Holy Spirit was speaking through her, as he puts it — seems like a break not only from his past (initially as an agnostic Jew) but from the matter-of-fact empirical clarity of his work as a political reporter. It’s like he went nuts for a moment, I can’t help thinking.

Don’t get me wrong — I love the man. He’s on the Phillips Foundation board of trustees that gave me a writing grant ten years ago and a decade before that, when I was a teen, was one of my earliest political influences, along with Sen. William Proxmire, the Democratic senator turned fiscally-conservative columnist who handed out “Golden Fleece” awards for the most absurd examples of federal spending, the sort of things that make it impossible to think of government as a “corrective” for society’s irrationalities and shortcomings.

But just as people often say “Society has problems — therefore government should act” without bothering to check the ugly details of how government works and asking themselves whether, in the real world, it is likely government can be a beneficial influence, so too do many people, I think, say “Society is full of sin and shallowness and meanness and stupidity — therefore we must give ourselves to the Lord” (and both institutions imply that tithes to them will somehow solve society’s problems).

Much as I hate to sound terribly, terribly negative (I swear I’m a nice, happy guy), why does it never seem to occur to people that perhaps society and markets are indeed shallow and stupid and so is government and so is religion? People like Dreher tend to assume — and admittedly there are plenty of hedonist morons out there who’d agree with him — that religion and crass hedonism are our only options. Why not conclude that they’re both imbecilic (and government too) and try to build something even better? To put it the way a language primer might:

WRONG: There are a lot of people leading hollow, shallow, unhappy lives in our materialistic, hedonist world — therefore we need government.

WRONG: There are a lot of people leading hollow, shallow, unhappy lives in our materialistic, hedonist world — therefore we need God.

RIGHT: There are a lot of people leading hollow, shallow, unhappy lives in our materialistic, hedonist world…and shallow, stupid people indulging in groundless, irrational religious belief…and socially-destructive naifs who think government can help.

And needless to say, encouraging religious belief is playing with fire — Muslim-raised former Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali has become sufficiently alarmed by the violent potential of her old faith, for example, that she now calls for the religion’s active suppression (as seen in a revealing Reason interview with her). I’m not calling for government censorship of religion, nor ignoring religion only to turn into shallow, stupid, party animals — but perhaps we should strive to rise above all these things.


In his admirable aversion to big, soulless institutions and his effort, for the most part, to seek non-governmental solutions, Dreher is at least reminding us (in a way libertarians should applaud) that it may be possible to reform even vast, path-dependent, almost unconscious social trends through individual, family, and neighborhood initiative rather than turning to the government for solutions (admirers of Ron Paul — such as me and Novak — have to respect that). The best argument for liberty may be the fact that we really can use it for more than shopping, even for such traditionally left-wing sounding ends as, say, fostering greater understanding between ethnic groups or genders, not to mention for humble, ritualistic maintenance of traditions — and for spontaneous, anarchic resistance to tradition. We can do a lot without government, and it would be playing into the government’s hands to suggest that if one is crunchy, one ought logically to favor taxes, spending, and regulation.

I will try not to dismiss Dreher’s insights, and I hope he will not give up on unregulated free markets and strict property rights as frameworks within which to achieve his social aims.

He notes his sympathy for G.K. Chesterton’s economic philosophy, distributivism, which is the intuitively-appealing idea that individual property is indeed the solution — and that we should thus hope to see ownership as decentralized as possible (that is, for example, prefer family farms to huge, impersonal agro-businesses). I don’t wish to dismiss the advantages we reap (and not in mere dollars and cents but in lives saved and opportunities created) through economies of scale, but there is something to be said for the secondary social effects of keeping institutions small.

I am reminded of another interesting book that I didn’t expect to like as much as I did: Lewis Lapham’s The Wish for Kings from about a decade and a half ago. Lapham complains in it that Americans have increasingly become suck-ups and courtiers who, both in the private sector and in government, have become more interested in sucking up to the powerful than in leading their own, individual, small-d democratic lives. The most interesting empirical point he made, and I think Chesterton and Dreher would like this as well, is that in the nineteenth century, most Americans were essentially self-employed — since they ran family farms — whereas in the twentieth century, everyone became accustomed to taking orders from the boss. As even arch-capitalist Friedrich Hayek warned, the employee mentality can easily become a passive-citizen-following-government’s-orders mentality as well.

One more reminder that, in the end, only a combination of anarchism and atheism can keep society safe. It takes a godless, anarchic, yet neighborly village (and I don’t just mean to raise a child — but if, like Dreher, you think child-raising is the central thing, check out Amanda Gersh’s blog about being a mom and lay off the politics for a while).


A few quick thank-yous (since, as the members of the Academy know, a 4,000-word blog entry is not the result of just one person’s effort):

Michael Malice recommended the Novak book and Koli gave it to me for my birthday.

•Paul Taylor and his father, back when Paul and I were in high school, encouraged me to watch The McLaughlin Group, where I first saw Novak (though, as you’ll learn if you read Novak’s book, he says he came to “loathe” McLaughlin).

•Novak’s former assistant, Tim Carney, wrote a book that shares a bit of Dreher’s paleo suspicion of the corporate and governmental elites being part of the same exploitative overclass, called The Big Ripoff.

•Ali Kokmen gave me Crunchy Cons.

Michel Evanchik reminded me of a brush with potential crunchiness that he and I both had in our past: in high school, we each considered, ever so briefly, applying to the tiny, farm-based college called Deep Springs — and I still have their intriguing postcard, full of book- and haybale-carrying students, tucked inside the front cover of the big Brown University dictionary that place gave me as an award/gift, perhaps influencing my ultimate decision to go there (and again, read this blog Friday, October 19 to start learning whether that was a smart move).

One drawback to Deep Springs, by the way, that I’m not sure either Michel or I knew about back in the day: it’s all-male. Not only is it best I didn’t go there, I wonder whether I should have gone to Columbia, with its sister school Barnard, all female, giving it an effective female-male ratio of something like 3-to-1, I think.

•It was Scott Nybakken who suggested I read The Wish for Kings, even though Scott has grown impatient with Lapham since then.


Todd Seavey said...

Ah! Here’s a friendlier overview of Rand for _Atlas Shrugged_’s fiftieth, from Reason’s Brian Doherty, in _Wall Street Journal_, which is slightly more capitalist than NR:

Ken Silber said...

Sadly, Todd, in this post-literate age, few people can make it through a 4,000-word post, and by the way Nietzsche’s name was actually misspelled on an exhibit caption that I saw at the Metropolitan Museum recently. I would say you are ahead of your time, and are basically writing for future genetically engineered people with higher mental skills. See you tonight.