Judith N. Shklar
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984
268 pp., $16.50
Ordinary Vices has modest pretensions. It is, in the author’s words, a pre-philosophic “ramble,” “a tour of perplexities, not a guide for the perplexed.” It is a leisurely and colorful tour, through numerous literary and historical variations on a select number of vices-namely, cruelty, hypocrisy, snobbery, betrayal, and misanthropy.
Our tour guide disclaims any intention of being edifying: “I cannot think why any readers of this book would ask my advice on how to conduct themselves or about what policies they should choose” (p. 226). Still, she means to offer something more than a moral divertissement for just any idle cosmopolite. The tour is for “us,” liberal Americans, which is to say Americans.
There are several virtues to Ordinary Vices. Among them: The author recognizes the integrity of the moral universe. Her intelligent ramblings remind us at every turn of our humanity, rather than reducing it, as is customary among contemporary social scientists, to its subhuman determinants. She understands that the vices—and virtues—of man must be ranked if they are to be made intelligible. The book calls into question liberalism’s customary ranking of the vices under consideration. In addition, she calls to our attention in every chapter the great body of literature in which human vices and virtues are displayed with more clarity and proportion than is ordinarily manifest to us “in the flesh.”
The vice of Ordinary Vices is the author’s principled uncertainty. She obviously thinks western or American liberalism is worth preserving. And, however modestly, she intends to contribute to its preservation. Yet her entire discussion takes its bearings from her conviction that “as liberals we have abandoned certainty and agreement as goals worthy of a free people” (p. 249). If uncertainty of purpose is in our time the greatest threat to “us” liberals and Americans—and it is—then we should follow the author’s advice and not seek her advice as to the character or policies we should develop. In particular, we should be wary of her denigration of the “liberalism of natural rights” (pp. 35, 238).
Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984
210 pp., $16.50
This is a pathetic attempt to show that Reagan is an unfair, heartless, warmonger who hides behind talk about fairness, compassion, and peace. But he is not fooling the people, says UCLA historian Dallek. The author tries to answer the question: “Why is Ronald Reagan, a man whose life and career have been shaped principally by the values of the modern consumer culture, so devoted to old shibboleths about freedom, self reliance, and frugality?” In Dallek’s view, some of the most significant forces influencing Reagan and his movement are “non-rational.” Reagan’s speeches and positions merely satisfy psychological needs; they are vulgar cheerleading. Published in early 1984, the book was doubtless meant to influence the election. But it wasn’t the people who fooled themselves. Can a man whose work is merely self-indulgence of his own nonrational psychological needs call himself an historian?
The Trouble with America
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985
xx + 156 pp., $16.95
Presumably a well-meaning lament by a French intellectual who professes deep admiration for America, this book unwittingly tells us more about the intellectual climate of Europe. If all references to the country and people discussed were blacked out, one would probably think the book was about one of the demoralized and stagnating “social democracies” of northern Europe-France, Sweden perhaps. This effete European’s portrait of America is unrecognizable. What is one to make of his claims that America has “deteriorated badly,” is “in crisis,” beset by “confusion, passivity, and drift,” and that it has “lost its bearings”?
The Three Romes
San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985
320 pp., $17.95
The grandeur of Fraser’s theme contrasts oddly with his pedestrian treatment of it. The Romes—Rome, Constantinople, and Moscow—become in Fraser’s eyes mere cities—charming ones, to be sure, but cities all the same. There is nothing to distinguish them from Paris or London, or Peking or Tokyo. What does distinguish the Romes, of course, is their amazing hubris: they would, each of them, be the city “to rule the world and establish the kingdom of heaven on earth.” Perhaps this book is intended as an antidote to such pride, for Fraser delights in the trivial and the “offbeat” in what is now a conventional literary form. It is probably no accident that his most interesting treatment is of Constantinople; here the craven soul of the most effeminate of the Romes shows clearly through. The least heroic of the Romes, it is also the most modern.
The Romes deserve better. Fraser’s writing is in the modern conversational style and he makes it, like the Romes he sees, perfectly ordinary. Only the theme of the book—the idea of Rome, the universal city—rises above the mundane and the trivial. It is a measure of its power that even so ordinary a book as this cannot reduce the idea of Rome to its level.