Each year at this time, Liberty invites a number of interesting people to recommend books that they find interesting, for pleasant or challenging summer reading. The invitation says, “You may recommend one book, or many, and on any subject. The only requirement is that the books you recommend must be available for purchase.” The idea isn’t just to review a book; it’s to express an enthusiasm that may possibly become contagious. The idea is to let people know about a good book they might otherwise miss.
Here are the results.
“Fellow Travelers” (Vintage) is a love story set in Washington, DC, against the backdrop of the McCarthy hearings. It is unusual in two ways. First, the lovers are gay. Second, it just might be the only novel about the 1950s that suggests that the communists were at least as bad as Joe McCarthy. No surprise, since author Thomas Mallon calls himself a libertarian Republican and assisted Dan Quayle in the writing of his memoirs. Mallon is best known as an essayist (for GQ the New Yorker, and other magazines) and as the author of such historical novels as “Dewey Defeats Truman” and “Henry and Clara.”
“Fellow Travelers” displays his dedication to historical research. He talked to a lot of oldtimers and did a lot of digging in newspaper files. The book includes historical figures such as McCarthy and his aides Roy Cohn and David Schine, as well as lesser-known characters from the period such as Sen. Charles Potter (R-Mich.) and his aide, Robert L. Jones, who went back to his home state of Maine to run a McCarthyite campaign against Sen. Margaret Chase Smith. (Yes, he really did; I looked it up.)
The novel’s protagonist is an invented character – hand- some Hawkins Fuller, an old-line WASP who has just enough family money to keep him in Park Avenue circles. He works at the State Department, which was regarded by anticommunists as a den of “cookie pushers” reluctant to stand firmly against the Soviet Union. He sets his sights on Tim Laughlin, a young Irish Catholic from the lower middle class who believes fervently in Bishop Sheen and the fight against communism. “Nazism and communism were the same thing; every man in the street knew it,” he muses at one point. Only poli-sci professors thought the differences mattered. But as he pursues his affair with Hawk and gets a close-up view of McCarthy and his committee, Tim finds himself becoming “a believer in contradictions: that McCarthy was the devil doing the Lord’s work; that Christ was Lord and yet His laws could be disobeyed.”
For Tim the affair is tender and passionate, joyful and miserable, but always hidden. Homosexuality was not just against the law, it was despised. And it could cost you your job. Scott McLeod’s “Miscellaneous M Unit” (McLeod is another real character) was diligently searching out suspected homosexuals in the State Department, creating a Lavender Scare to accompany the better known Red Scare. Gays had few attractive options. Different people made different choices, and in the end Hawk and Tim choose very different paths.
If you like American history and politics, this is a fascinating book. Mallon is a graceful writer, and the historical accuracy makes it a great way to learn about both the facts and the feeling of the early 1950s.
In the last line of the book, set decades after the main story, Fuller reflects on “a world grown unexpectedly, and increasingly, free.” Mallon elaborated in an interview: “If you asked me when I was 18 and I was going off to college, what were the two biggest political developments I would want to see in my lifetime, my internal answer – because I wouldn’t have dared say the second part – would have been the collapse of communism and the liberation of homosexuals. By the time I was 40 both of those things had been in large part achieved.” That’s why this novel of a doomed relationship in a frighten- ing time is not ultimately a bleak story.
– David Boaz
David Boaz is the author of “Libertarianism: A Primer” and “The Politics of Freedom,” and is the editor of “The Libertarian Reader” and the “Cato Handbookfor Policymakers.”
The message of the pundits is that this is the summer of “presidential greatness,” at least as defined by the legacies of Franklin Roosevelt and, to a lesser extent, Abraham Lincoln. It is likely that FDR was never so much in fashion, even during his lifetime. The hosannas continue to be heard across the conventional political spectrum, ranging from neoconservative Conrad Black to left-liberal Paul Krugman. For this reason, the appearance of Burton Folsom’s Jr.’s “New Deal or Raw Deal? How FDR’s Economic Legacy Has Damaged America” (Simon and Schuster) is a very welcome corrective.
Folsom, a seasoned professional historian who knows his subject inside and out, is well prepared to take on what John Flynn called the “Roosevelt Myth.” He relies on extensive primary archival research at the Roosevelt Presidential Library and other places. Brick by brick, he demolishes the edifice so lovingly erected by Roosevelt worshipers over the generations, showing that New Deal policies not only needlessly extended the Great Depression but also systemically under- mined Americans’ economic liberties. Through his National Recovery Administration, Roosevelt both delayed recovery and had businessmen tossed in jail for doing nothing more than charging low prices. Most dramatically, Folsom describes in detail Roosevelt’s long and unsavory record of unleashing the IRS on his enemies and converting New Deal programs into a personal political machine.
Another well timed reexamination of presidential power is Ivan Eland’s “Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty” (Independent Institute). He surveys every president from Washington to G.W. Bush and comes up with surprising results, reversing the usual rankings of such people as Roosevelt and Wilson (“greats”) and such people as Harding (“failures”). He makes a compelling case for believing many of the so-called”greats” were not so great after all when it came to preserving liberty, peace, and prosperity. Libertarians will especially appreciate Eland’s method of giving high marks to such presidents as Cleveland, who championed limited government, free trade, and avoidance of foreign entanglements. Eland’s choices are not often predictable. He makes a provocative case, for example, that Carter was a better president than Reagan, the alleged champion of small government.
My final selection is on a very different historical theme. It is Jim Powell’s “Greatest Emancipations: How the West Abolished Slavery” (Palgrave-Macmillan). Powell treads on “forbidden ground.” Historians almost universally agree that the Civil War was the necessary precondition for emancipation, but Powell argues that the more violence that was involved in the process, the worse the outcomes tended to be. Among other things, war led to a backlash that nobody could control, a backlash that subverted civil rights for decades. Readers will be interested to see Powell’s reasons for believing that equal rights probably would have been achieved decades sooner if war had been avoided. He shows that other places (the British Empire, Brazil) offer lessons – valuable lessons, though often ignored – about how slavery could be peacefully abolished.
Powell provides a refreshingly abolitionist, yet antiwar, argument, which hasn’t been heard in a long time. He marshals convincing reasons for concluding that the United States would have been better off if it had chosen the nonviolent alternative put forward by Lysander Spooner and others. Warning: apologists for the Confederacy will not find any solace in this book.
– David Beito
David T. Beito is an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama, and author of “Taxpayers in Revolt” and “From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State.”
Global warming is a somewhat intimidating topic, because the debate hinges on specific, nontrivial scientific questions. Unfortunately, there is also a great deal of open intimidation being exercised by members of the scientific community. I have repeatedly found myself in contexts in which truly out- standing scientists have asserted with apparently complete assurance that there is no question that global warming is occurring, that a major component relates directly to human activity, and that we are clearly risking catastrophe unless huge resources are immediately committed to correcting the situation.
For a somewhat more nuanced view, I highly recommend “The Deniers,” by Lawrence Solomon (Richard Vigilante Books). Solomon establishes that the subject has not yet been clearly resolved, and he does so in a well-written, informative book. In my view, too many scientists with too much to gain personally have taken positions that are not defensible. It is time for concrete predictions that can be tested.
For example, “Will it be (on average) warmer or colder next year?” In fact, it got colder this year. As far as I can tell, this has not altered anyone’s position on global warming. So how about, “How many of the next 10 years will have average temperatures warmer than this year?” These are simple questions. Getting the answers is somewhat complex, and the answers will not resolve the overall dispute. However, the scientists who exhibit such certainty would do well to consider whether or not they are willing to make clear, simple predictions that can be tested. Remember when everyone was certain that overpopulation was the major threat, or when it was clear that we were running out of oil?
Recently, I went through the experience of watching major components of my retirement fund evaporate. You may have experienced something similar. I had thought of myself as reasonably well educated. I had studied economics a bit – certainly not as assiduously as many other writers in Liberty, but
Roosevelt delayed recovery and had businessmen tossed in jail for doing nothing more than charging low prices.
I fancied myself at least literate. Upon reflection, I realized that I was pretty clueless about many of the details. I decided that I should try to understand what happened (which is almost always much easier than predicting it). I have now read five or six books of varying complexity. Some of the effort was enlightening, and much was just painful. If you find yourself in my position, let me suggest that you start with two books: “The Mystery of Banking,” by Murray Rothbard (Mises Institute), and “Meltdown,” by Thomas Woods, Jr. (Regnery). I found both books at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, which has an offering of books that is truly wonderful.
Woods’ book is an attempt to clarify, from the perspective of Austrian, free-market economics, what happened in the recent financial crisis. His comments on the background events are clear and interesting. His two-page summary of the Austrian theory of the trade cycle is elegant.
Rothbard’s book is somewhat dated, but it is still an excel- lent place to begin learning about banking. His tutorials are clear, and he enlivens them with unorthodox conclusions that are always worth pondering (e.g., his position, which deserves discussion, that fractional-reserve banking should be illegal). I had never understood what was meant by “open- market operations,” let alone their implications, although this is something I should have understood.
I doubt that these two books will assuage the pain of what is happening today, but they may help you endure it with more understanding.
– Ross Overbeek
Ross Overbeek is a cofounder o f the Fellowship for Interpretation of Genomes.
Laughter is proper to man, Aristotle wrote, and I’ll not argue. I’ve long harbored doubts about the humanity of those unfortunates who do not know how to laugh, or when. This entry, then, is not for them. Primarily, it is for myself, to pass along authors who have made me laugh, in the hopes of find- ing others of kindred humor.
Along the great grotesque line that runs from Aristophanes to “South Park,” there is no more outré, gonzo comedian than Francois Rabelais (1494-1553). His mock-epic tale of the giant Gargantua and his even more giant son Pantagruel overflows all boundaries, in form and content. There are many levels on which it can be read, and all of them are funny; check the “List of fictional works” entry on the novel in Wikipedia for a heaping sample. The Donald Frame translation (University of California Press) generally gets the plaudits, Burton Raffel’s version (Norton) is very readable and cheaper.
At the opposite pole of decorum are the society horror tales of H.H. Munro (1870-1916), who wrote as Saki. His stories (complete in a Penguin paperback) are fey, malicious and graceful, whether inspired by the supernatural (“The Open Window”) or just the idle cruelty of a traveling companion (“The Unrest-Cure”).
You may notice that I am sticking with fiction; I figure that most libertarians in the market for a laugh already know to pick up P.J. O’Rourke, or follow him back to the source in H.L. Mencken. But how many think to pick up Mencken’s favorite author, James Branch Cabell (1879-1958)? For someone who was officially denounced by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and who successfully fought off an obscenity charge, and who had a further revenge by writing his inquisitors into the book as prurient Philistine pill-bugs, Cabell is woefully unknown. Start either with his “Jurgen” (the “obscene” one, you’ll know the passage when you hit it) or “The Silver Stallion,” and laugh along with the Sage of Baltimore. They’re in print by Overlook and Kessinger, respectively.
One last, and with it full disclosure: I am (slowly) writing a biography of this man, and one way or another my career will be bound up in his writings. But it would be a shame not to recommend to you R.A. Lafferty (1914-2002) and his tall tales, whoppers in which cities are destroyed and rebuilt three times in a night, or a love affair can continue through several layers of geologic strata. It’s a brew of science fiction, frontier lie, and blarney that Lafferty offers up, and he pours it forth in a prose that casually shatters every rule about storytelling dished out in workshops. “Show, don’t tell?” But all the fun is in the telling, when you have the crookie tongue of the Irish, and the neverending vista of the midwestern imagination. Pick up his anthology “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” (Ace), or search out his novel “Okla Hannali” (University of Oklahoma Press), which details the 19th century through the eyes of a Choctaw giant and folk hero.
– Andrew Ferguson
Andrew Ferguson is the critic-in-residence at the Institute for Impure Studies.
By now you may have seen the film “Watchmen,” or read about it in these pages (Liberty, June 2009). Whether you’ve seen the film or not, if you have not read the book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons on which the film is based, my top pick for your summer reading is that. The graphic novel takes place in an alternate 1985, at the height of Cold War tensions, in a world remarkably like the real world, except that it has superheroes. What would it be like, the book asks, if people really did put on costumes and become crimefighters? What kinds of people would do that? And how would they be regarded?
The book is deeply thought-provoking, raising questions about power, corruption, responsibility, and freedom, as well as questioning the nature of its own medium. If you have already read “Watchmen,” and if you enjoy puzzling out such things, you may also enjoy reading some discussion of its themes, which you can find in two recent collections: “Superheroes and Philosophy,” edited by Tom Morris and Matt Morris (Open Court), and “Watchmen and Philosophy,” edited by Mark D. White (Wiley).
If you have never read Herodotus, you really should, and if you’re going to do it this summer, you’re in luck, since by the time this sees print, Pantheon will have released the paper- back edition of “The Landmark Herodotus,” edited by Robert Strassler. Generally regarded as the first actual history book in the Western world, “The Histories” is Herodotus’ account of the wars between the Persian Empire and the autonomous but allied Greek city-states, and Strassler’s Landmark edition features a wealth of helpful features such as maps, annotations, and appendices by leading scholars. In stark contrast to
Remember when everyone was certain that overpopulation was the major threat or when it was clear that we were running out of oil?
the insane and self-destructive Peloponnesian Wars of a generation later, the Greco-Persian conflict is an inspiring story of the way in which small communities dedicated to preserving their own autonomy cooperated to repel multiple attempts at conquest. The recent film “300” tells one small part of this tale, and both admirers and detractors of that film will be interested to learn more about the actual Battle of Thermopylae. You have probably heard the spurious tale of how the marathon run got its name, but here you will learn what really happened, and you’ll be pleased to discover that the truth is even more interesting than the myth.
I have frequently recommended the work of Neal Stephenson in these pages, and if your preference for summer reading is for fiction, I will follow in my own footsteps and recommend his latest, “Anathem” (William Morrow). Stephenson has worked in both science fiction and historical fiction, as well as their overlap, and his latest is science fiction- alternative history about a world in which scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers are the ones who live in isolated monasteries. Stephenson often incorporates libertarian themes into his work, although rarely with any obviousness, and in any case he’s an engaging and entertaining writer.
Aeon J. Skoble is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Bridgewater State College, in Massachusetts.
“He had a certain kind of greatness, but he kept it to him- self. He never gave it away. He never gave anything away. He just – left you a tip.”
In “Citizen Kane,” that’s what Jed Leland, Charles Foster Kane’s former best friend, says of the great man who is the film’s protagonist. The movie is preoccupied with the question of whether Kane was a “great American” or only a “big American.”
Many libertarians ponder this question when they review the ranks of allegedly great and small figures in American political history. For me, some of the answers are easy. Washington was the greatest of them all – brave, yet judicious; nobody’s idea of an intellectual, yet fully in command of the profound ideas on which America’s tradition of constitutional liberty is based, and fully intending to apply those ideas, come what might.
Then there are figures who are seldom esteemed by any but the most bookish of libertarians – yet some of them were great people, nonetheless. The most lovable person in this category is perhaps Grover Cleveland. Again, he was nothing of the intellectual, but he was a brave man who understood the principles of limited government and applied them, no matter what. It is to people like Washington and Cleveland- and few presidents have been like enough to them – that we owe the present possession of our liberties. Allan Nevins’ classic biography, “Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage” (American Political Biography Press), will never disappoint a libertarian reader – even though it was written by someone who was not a libertarian.
Now, Abraham Lincoln. He is a man worshiped by the world at large; he is a man who has been reviled (often with justice) by libertarians. He freed the slaves, but at what a price! He terrorized the Supreme Court, turned habeas corpus into a laughingstock, provoked a horrible war by refusing to make an open statement of his aims and policies, promoted, in his domestic programs, the old Whig version of activist government … what more shall I say?
I say that Lincoln is more interesting than any of his policies, or any of the hallelujahs or anathemas directed at him. No president can be more interesting than Washington, but Lincoln comes close, if only for his deep psychological conflicts; his union of insatiable ambition with despairing lassitude,. of high idealism with desperate ruthlessness; his unequaled gifts of charm, persuasiveness, and real folk wisdom; and a closely allied gift, the possession of superb literary skill, unique and unaccountable by his environment, training, or general reading.
If there is a key to Lincoln’s peculiar, and mysterious, personality, it would be “Herndon’s Lincoln” (University of Illinois Press), a biography published in 1889 by William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner. After 1865, Herndon devoted himself to collecting records and anecdotes of the Great Man, a friend whom he sincerely loved. Nevertheless, his book gravely offended Lincoln worshipers with its home truths about his strange life before the presidency. Herndon is a good writer – not a fine writer, but a strong and continuously interesting one. He never bores, and he never loses touch with Lincoln’s strangeness and mystery, with the way in which the commonest, grossest actions of his life become questions, both about his own inner reality and about the life and meaning of his time and nation. Herndon was one of the many people to whom Citizen Lincoln left nothing more than”a tip,” but Herndon knew what to do with it.
And speaking of presidents, I want to add recommendations of books about three of these gentry who will never qualify as “great” but are nevertheless much more interesting than they are usually given credit for.
One is a brilliant account of Warren Harding and the mess that historians have made of his reputation. It’s “The Strange Deaths of President Harding,” by Robert H. Ferrell (University of Missouri Press). In 200 pages of crisp, precise, amusing, beautiful prose, Ferrell disposes of the silly and demeaning myths that have surrounded Harding’s life and death, and provides an intelligent and well-balanced reassessment. The “deaths” of President Harding are his assassinations by historians, and this book can be read as an education about how history can go wrong. Ferrell’s work is one of the four or five best that have ever been written on the American presidency. It’s worth at least half of a college education.
Contrasted with the modesty of Warren Harding is the pomposity of James Monroe, the popular chief magistrate who presided over the Era of Good Feeling, and who spent enormous amounts of time, bluster, and prevarication trying to get the federal government to pay him money that he imagined it owed to him. An instructive, and consistently amusing, book has been written about this, a book that illustrates what a mass of littleness a president may be. The book is “James Monroe: Public Claimant,” by Lucius Wilmerding (Rutgers University Press). It’s a book that ought to be better known. In fact, it’s a hoot.
Less of a hoot but even more instructive is Lewis L. Gould’s “The Presidency of William McKinley” (Regents Press of Kansas). This is an objective, scholarly biography – though much, much better written than scholarly biographies usually are. It is focused on McKinley’s role as manager of the Spanish-American War and creator of an American “empire.” We who are anti-imperialists often pay insufficient attention to how empires of various kinds are actually created. We scoff at the idea that they could ever be invented by people of intelligence, acting without a specific intention to rule the world or even to acquire any territory. Gould, himself a critic of imperialism, shows otherwise. The point, I suppose – my point, anyway – is the essentially libertarian idea that individual people are usually a lot more interesting than the political isms they are thought to represent.
– Stephen Cox
Stephen Cox is a prOfessor at UC San Diego. His most recent book is “The New Testament and Literature.”
Robert J. Norrell, a historian at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, is getting a cold shoulder from other historians. His newest book “Up from History” (Belknap Press) is the first major biography of Booker T. Washington since 1972.
The book is a big (500-page), detailed, and emotionally involving biography, set against the increasingly virulent racism of the post-Reconstruction South. It is a readable introduction to the life of a person, once famous, whose story has been lost to most of us.
Adding interest is the fact that Norrell has offended historians who like the old historiography, which had pretty much blotted Washington out of American history. Louis Harlan’s 1972 biography (which echoed views of the famous Southern historian C. Vann Woodward) had painted Washington as an Uncle Tom and self-interested conniver who placated Southern whites and undermined other blacks’ successes.
During his lifetime (1856-1915) Booker T. Washington became the most famous – and admired – American black man. His undisputed legacy was the creation of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and the pivotal event in his life was a speech in Atlanta in 1895 in which he said, “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” He offered Southern whites a soothing message of cooperation from blacks.
Norrell’s analysis of Washington’s actions reclaims his moral standing. For example, Norrell reveals that Washington made behind-the-scenes efforts to end lynching, racial discrimination by railroads and labor unions, and restrictions on
Here you will learn how the marathon really got its name, and you’ll discover that the truth is even more interesting than the myth.
voting. He gives a more nuanced view of the conflicts between Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, an important founder of the NAACP. Above all, Norrell argues that the rising tide of white supremacy forced Washington to demonstrate that blacks were not going to challenge the hegemony of whites. Norrell contends that it is “anachronistic” to blame Washington for failing to be a civil rights advocate a la the 1960s.
But historian Ralph Luker says that Norrell presents Washington as a “model of leadership,” which he finds distasteful. Another historian, Joseph Lowndes, says that Washington’s policy was “more of a choice than a constraint”- implying that a true leader would have aggressively challenged the tightening Jim Crow noose (not a phrase used lightly, since during some of the years in question there were 200 lynchings in the South). These people commented on a left-wing blog, the Talking Points Memo Cafe, which had a week-long chat about Norrell’s book. (I also participated in the discussion.)
So, these days, modern and (if I may say) politically correct historians are arguing that Booker T. Washington was either cowardly or greedy to propose a conciliatory position with whites. Yet they are in the odd position of arguing that race relations in the South (in a period of lynchings, mounting discrimination, vastly disparate funding of education, and vicious racial stereotypes) should not have deterred Washington from overt challenges to the white power structure. Since he was, instead, accommodating, they treat him disdainfully (and many, it appears, just ignore him).
The backdrop of Norrell’s biography is the extremely dangerous environment for blacks during Washington’s life. (An even fuller description can be found in Norrell’s 2005 book “The House I Live In: Race in the American Century” [Oxford University Press].) If the picture is correct, then Washington’s “choice” of policy was indeed highly constrained; another policy might have destroyed Tuskegee or Washington or both. No one has actually denied the accuracy of this picture, as far as I know. Those who condemn Washington have simply deleted it from their analysis – and deleted Washington, too. But Norrell brings him back.
– Jane S. Shaw
Jane S. Shaw is executive vice president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.
In past reviews of favorite books, I have neglected to mention one of my favorite authors, the ever-prolific Mark Skousen, whose works I have enjoyed immensely. Skousen recently brought out another delightful book: “The Big Three in Economics” (M.E. Sharpe).
This volume nicely complements some of his earlier work, which gives us laymen an historical introduction to economics. Here he focuses on three major economists, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Meynard Keynes, surveying their distinctive economic philosophies with his characteristic clarity and panache.
Skousen rejects the traditional academic view that likens the history of economic thought to a swinging pendulum, with Smith representing the rightward swing, Marx the left- ward, and Keynes the enlightened, moderate center. Instead, Skousen suggests a totem pole image of achievement, with Smith at the top, Keynes in the middle, and Marx at the bottom.
Skousen gives lucid and even-handed summaries of each thinker’s major work. For example, he credits Smith with a brilliant refutation of mercantilism, and with his seminal
Politically correct historians argue that Booker T. Washington was cowardly or greedy to propose a conciliatory position with whites.
idea that the division of labor drives economic growth, and GDP is the proper measure of a nation’s wealth. However, he notes that Smith’s ideas had their flaws, such as the distinction between so-called productive and unproductive labor, and – most importantly – a usual adherence to the erroneous labor theory of value. Skousen’s treatment of Keynes is equally balanced.
In attention to his extensive discussion of the three central figures, Skousen covers a number of other important economists as well.
My only disappointment concerns Karl Marx. Now, I’m just the layman here, but I was hoping Skousen could explain exactly why Marx is considered a great economist. He was influential to be sure – Lenin, Stalin, Castro, and Pol Pot saw to that. But what elements of his economic thought have enduring value? His predictions (as Skousen notes) have proven thoroughly wrong, indeed, ludicrous. The core tenet of his economic theory – the labor theory of value – was as wrong as it was unoriginal. So what made him a great economist?
The three contributions with which Skousen credits him – economic determinism, class analysis, and a stress on “modern” issues such as alienation and income inequality – seem to me either dubious or in any case not the concern of economics as a modern science.
As for economic determinism: no one disputes that economic structures influence other social institutions – family, law, government, religion, and so on. But is it the sole influence? And don’t the other institutions influence the economic ones? All of them causally interact in a chaotic, unpredictable way. Religion influences economics and vice versa; law influences economics and vice versa; religion influences family structure and vice versa; and so on. Endless intertwining feed- back loops make talk of ironclad causal historical laws some- thing beyond stupid.
Class analysis? Perhaps I have had to listen to too many PC academic discussions about whether it is “really” gender, or race, or social class that “determines” “consciousness.” But it strikes me that these discussions have proven remarkably sterile when it comes to interpreting literature or understanding science and philosophy (for example). Just how has class analysis improved economics?
Skousen mentions Marx’s discussions of “contemporary” issues such as alienation, greed, income inequality, gender, and the environment. But these issues were discussed long before Marx (who did have a degree in classics, so was familiar with Plato and Aristotle, and was aware of Rousseau’s writings on the environment, Mill’s on feminism, and so on). Where does any of this constitute a contribution to economics as a modern science?
But this is a minor quibble about an excellent and informative book. We all wish we could write as well as Skousen.
– Gary Jason
Gary Jason is a contributing editor of Liberty.
An ideal world, modestly conceived, wouldn’t differ too much from this one. The nature of things, and of their creator, would be the same – but humor and justice would be a little more prominent in the way they’d be arranged.
In that modestly ideal world, you would drop off your five-year old nephew at his friend’s birthday party, where Al Franken would make a balloon for him. At the comer bookstore, you’d find a prominent display of “Ball Two,” an erotic baseball thriller by George F. Will. Enticed by the cover, you might buy a copy.
Sin and nuisance would continue, and you would have every horrible experience you’ve ever had in reality; but this time, every lousy person, every Election ’08, every Buddha- pest and “Shock Doctrine” and “straight shooter” would have an unexpected value. They would meet a light in your mind that would convert them into knowledge, if not outright pleasure.
That distinguished politician from New York will make his usual scene on C-SPAN. Except now you will understand why: rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.
Your cousin will declare herself to be a better, humbler person. Yet you will know: humility is not the renunciation of pride but the substitution of one pride for another.
Even that free-spirited English teacher who forced you to question authority will suddenly make sense: though dissenters seem to question everything in sight, they are actually bundles of dusty answers and never conceived a new question.
The whole parade of lies, snickers, and delusions – by the time you realize your own baton-twirling role in it – will become for you a glorious striptease of human vanities. Just as it was once for Eric Hoffer” the “longshoreman philosopher” whose legacy has suffered unjust neglect since his death in 1983.
Best known for “The True Believer” (Harper) – a slim, timeless study of mass movements and fanaticism – Hoffer was for most of his life a dirt-poor California tramp whose seminal literary influence was Montaigne; a gentle agnostic whose favorite book was the Old Testament. Hoffer was a rugged individualist in the truest sense, and perhaps the finest American master of the aphorism that means more than it says.
“The Passionate State of Mind” and “Reflections on the Human Condition” (Hopewell), composed entirely of aphorisms, are the two Hoffer titles that never leave my bedside.
The suspicious mind’s utter lack of skepticism, the way in which solitude sometimes feels like an escape from the self, the likeness between secrecy and boasting: these are among the paradoxes not merely cited but explained, in terms of the dramas and delusions that produce them. Anyone wishing to dust his mind with some new, cliche-killing questions should read these books immediately.
Alec Mouhibian is an author based in Los Angeles.
This surely will be the most unlikely book review you’ve ever read in Liberty. My recommendation is “Beat the Reaper,” by Josh Bazell (Little, Brown). You might not be able to imagine why anyone would recommend this book. But I do, enthusiastically.
We’re at a horrible Manhattan hospital with one of the interns, Peter Brown. He’s having his typical lousy day, but this one gets worse than usual. A patient fingers him as Pietro “Bearclaw” Brnwa, a former hitman for the Mafia. The patient mentions this to someone on the phone. So our “hero” needs to disappear quickly in order to Beat the Reaper. But he has some ethical concerns for a couple of his patients, concerns that require him to stick around for awhile.
The action is grisly and the street language totally graphic. And yet . . . and yet, this is the most exhilarating book I’ve read in years. Don’t dismiss it because it sounds sordid or wacko. The author, a doctor himself – I don’t know about the rest of it – has an exciting career ahead of him, and this book is a really great read. There’s even a chance for moral redemption, which mayor may not pan out.
Just get it. And read it. I know I’m right.
– Andrea Millen Rich
Andrea Millen Rich heads Stossel in the Classroom, John Stossel’s project to develop critical thinking among high school students by introducing challenges to conventional wisdom.
I first read William Saroyan’s “My Name is Aram” (1940, Harcourt) a collection of short-stories about a young Armenian-American boy, when I was about twelve and a young Armenian-American myself. I had developed some literary ambitions by then – the sonnets I wrote to imaginary mistresses very often depended on words like”eschew” and “exacerbate” – so you understand that I was disappointed to find Saroyan, that famous Armenian man of English letters, to be so ordinary, so childish, such a simpleton.
It was ten years before I returned to Saroyan, and this mostly because – having achieved a few of my literary ambitions, and eschewed several others – I was expected to talk about the man with the huge moustache. He had won the Pulitzer, after all, and an Emmy, and there was no Armenian writer more famous and more anthologized than he. The guilt had accumulated over the years, and so I sought atonement in “The Human Comedy” (1943; Harcourt), the story of a tele- graph boy from Ithaca, a fictional town in the non-fictional San Joaquin Valley of California, John Steinbeck territory.
And yet again: William Saroyan was so ordinary, so childish, such a simpleton.
But something must have happened in the past ten years, because the ordinary, the childish, and the simple were suddenly charming to me. I was on page three and already “The Human Comedy” had returned me to my childhood – to the kingdom of smaller things, the time when clouds carried prophesies and death did not exist. I found myself in the San Joaquin Valley, that great, fertile expanse of nothingness between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the jurisdiction of a boy named Ulysses. “There it was, all around him, funny and lonely – the world of his life,” Saroyan writes. “The strange, weed-infested, junky, wonderful, senseless yet beautiful world.”
I could not know “nostalgia” when I was 12; I had not lost anything. Now I felt it, but I confess that I felt it in such a strange way, because this “nostalgia” was ushering me back to a childhood I never actually had. I did not grow up in the San Joaquin Valley. I never did witness the miracle of a gopher emerging from the earth. And yet I felt this “junky, wonderful, senseless yet beautiful world” in me. I even missed it. And I knew that everyone, especially every writer, deserves some version of it – a San Joaquin Valley of the imagination, where people are neither from Los Angeles nor from San Francisco.
The world of William Saroyan is the freest world I’ve known, a place where laws and literary theories do not afflict us, where the only point of life is to learn from the living of it, where no one cares to make an impression, where people are themselves the symbols of greater things and all of life is a mystery: a boy finding an egg in the nest. “He looked at it a moment,” Saroyan writes, “picked it up, brought it to his mother and very carefully handed it to her, by which he meant what no man can guess and no child can remember to tell.”
Reading these lines, I knew that I, too, had forgotten some great secret, and in that moment I almost knew what it was – a vague memory of my uncle taking me to a basketball game – but the more I tried to analyze it, the more I drilled into the past with my tools, the more distant and unknowable every- thing became.
– Garin Hovannisian
Garin K. Hovannisian is a freelance writer living between Los Angeles and Erevan, Armenia.