rosted window panes, candles gleaming inside, painted candy canes on the tree. Santa’s on his way, and has filled his sleigh—with some good book recommendations from friends and colleagues of the Claremont Institute…
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Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
Senior Political Analyst, Washington Examiner
e may have reached the end of history, in Francis Fukuyama's definition of the phrase, but we have not yet reached the end of violent conflict and war. We may not be interested in war but, in the mot long attributed to Trotsky, war is interested in us.
For Christmas I recommend four exceedingly well written books which provide plenty of material for reflection on war, how it has been waged and how to prevent it.
Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist, by Niall Ferguson
An authorized biography by the brilliant historian which traces the development of Kissinger's idea up to the moment he accepted, after a day's delay, Richard Nixon's offer to make him National Security Adviser.
Forgotten Ally: China's World War II, 1937-1945, by Rana Mitter
A British historian's vivid account of a horrifying conflict which still reverberates today. It effectively demolishes General Joseph Stilwell's caricature of Chiang Kai-Shek, familiar to many from Barbara Tuchman's account, and shows Chiang to be an often effective though flawed leader. First published in Britain as China's War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival, it was retitled for publication here evidently to make it seem relevant to Americans.
Another British historian, this one telling a story which you may not have been eager to learn: how members of two intermarried Albanian families played key roles in relations between the Ottoman Empire, the Venetian Republic, the Papacy and the Spain of Philip II. Malcolm's scholarship is impressive and he makes vivid a strange world in which borders are porous, religious conflicts fester and ethnic hatreds rage along and over Fernand Braudel's Mediterranean—or perhaps it's not such a strange world, given what is happening there now.
Going back even further and into an even stranger world is Hillsdale professor Paul Rahe's The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge.
Thucydides told some of this story from the perspective of Athens. Rahe gives us the picture of the conflict which did so much to set the course of Western civilization from the much less familiar and much stranger city-state of Sparta.
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Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy, Claremont McKenna College
ow is a good time to reflect on the fundamental intellectual grounds of liberal democracy, and there are no better places to begin than with John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government and his A Letter Concerning Toleration.
For current but not too contemporary discussions of liberty and of the modern university, Isaiah Berlin’s Freedom and Its Betrayal, and Jacques Barzun’s The House of Intellect are useful. And, Leo Strauss’ view of liberalism in Liberalism Ancient and Modern deserves renewed attention.
One can follow these with Charles Rubin’s fine book on our technological future, Eclipse of Man, and then turn to Martin Heidegger’s discussion of technology in his Bremen and Freiburg Lectures, which give a relatively clear sense of the overall strengths (and faults) of this powerful thinker. A close study of Book VI of Aristotle’s Ethics, which influenced Heidegger, is a useful companion or antidote to him.
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Senior editor, Weekly Standard
ertrand Russell died at the age of 97 in 1970. Between his heyday as an icy mathematical philosopher and his dotage as a left-wing gadfly, he was a superb popular historian and sociologist. This year I enjoyed Marriage and Morals (1929), Power: A new social analysis (1938) and The Impact of Science on Society (1952).
Anachronisms abound in his books. Russell was born while George Eliot was writing Middlemarch, and lived long enough to hear David Bowie and Elton John on the radio. There is something literally Victorian in his philippics against the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race. No one argues more stridently for the tearing down of sexual barriers, but (the 3rd Earl) Russell cannot for the life of him see what is wrong with class barriers. (His objection to traditional sexual morality is that it can drive a randy young man to have sex with prostitutes rather than “with girls of his own class, in spite of the fact that with the latter, though not with the former, his relations are not mercenary and may be affectionate and altogether delightful.”)
Russell may be arrogant, stuck in the 19th century and ignorant of many things that less educated people know. But he more than compensates for these failings with a muscular prose style and a willingness, almost non-existent today, to follow a line of reasoning no matter where it leads. What an independent and enlivening mind! While Russell favored establishing a welfare state, he was among the very first to see (and perhaps the only early proponent to admit) that doing so would upend western culture altogether, since it would remove fathers’ role as protector and provider:
“If this should occur, we must expect a complete breakdown of traditional morality, since there will no longer be any reason why a mother should wish the paternity of her child to be indubitable. … Whether the effect upon men would be good or bad, I do not venture to say. It would eliminate from their lives the only emotion equal in importance to sex love. It would make sex love itself more trivial. It would make it far more difficult to take an interest in anything after one’s own death. It would make men less active and probably cause them to retire earlier from work. It would diminish their interest in history and their sense of the continuity of historical tradition.”
Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) is a short classic still available in paperback. He attacks “progressive” historians on the grounds that the idea of progress “commits us to a certain organization of the whole historical story.” Specifically it tends to “simplify the study of history by providing an excuse for leaving things out.”
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John J. DiIulio, Jr.
Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society, University of Pennsylvania
Thinking About China
ver the last fifteen years I’ve served as faculty director of an undergraduate fellowship research and community service program at the University of Pennsylvania. The program has been focused almost entirely on the U.S., but this time last year the program’s great benefactors gave a new gift intended to internationalize it. We are meeting that mandate with a special focus on China. What I knew twelve months ago about China you could fit into a tea cup with room to spare. But three trips, scores of in-depth discussions with more than a hundred Chinese nationals, and lots of reading (albeit it all in English) later, I now know enough about China to know how much I don’t know but wish to learn. Herewith is an annotated short list of books that I have read on my long march to becoming an amateur China hand:
In just shy of 600 pages, John Keay’s China (Basic Books, 2009) covers 5,000 years of Chinese history better than any other single-volume history of China I’ve yet read. Keay devotes only an Epilogue to the post-1950 period, but the book reinforced an insight that I had from getting to know many contemporary Chinese nationals: Americans of every demographic description are mostly historical amnesiacs, but the Chinese peoples (plural), young and old, rich and working class, are not only history-minded but almost fetishistic about knowing and referencing their nation’s history.
In fact, state-issued ideas about Chinese history and what it supposedly teaches condition almost everything about governance, society, and international relations that contemporary Chinese leaders think and say. Exhibit A might be Chinese President Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China (Shanghai Press, 2015). I got my English version of the book, which is a compendium of speeches by Xi, for free at a Chinese hotel. Xi is the fifth man to rule the People’s Republic of China (PRC) post-Chairman Mao, and the first PRC boss born after the Communist Party won control in 1949. I don’t know enough to referee the debate between China experts who view Xi as an authoritarian dragon in western sheep’s clothing and China experts who see him more as a wily, reform-minded politician-bureaucrat. But the book leaves no doubt that Xi is intent on stirring Chinese nationalism and patriotism by recalling or reinventing the Chinese past.
In another Chinese hotel, I was surprised to find an English-Mandarin Bible in the night table drawer, and a church across the street with a cross atop it so high that it could not but be seen from the nearby highways and for miles around. I’ve been making a special study of what passes for civil society in China, and finding that the situation is better in many respects, and worse in many others, than the conventional expert wisdom on the subject allows. And I’ve launched an inter-university effort called China-U.S. Partnerships for Educational Advancement and Cultural Exchanges, or China-U.S. PEACE. But whether you fly hawk or dove, for my money four books published over the last two decades cover the waterfront of deeply authoritative but competing perspectives on China’s rise and how to approach Sino-American relations: Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power (Vintage Books,1994); Avery Goldstein, Rising to the Challenge: China’s Grand Strategy and International Security (Stanford University Press, 2005); Aaron L. Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (W.W. Norton, 2011); and Thomas J. Christiansen, The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (W.W. Norton, 2015).
Finally, although it is not all about China, in their just-released book Why Leaders Fight (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Michael C. Horowitz, Allan C. Stam, and Cali M. Ellis offer this encouraging word: “As leaders with rebel experience in China continue to age out and the bureaucracy continues to select middle-aged men as heads of state, we expect to see a continuing decrease in risk acceptance of Chinese leaders,” which suggests a more optimistic “future of relations with China, both in the region as well as across the Pacific” than many other experts now predict. Here’s a Christmas prayer that Horowitz and company are right.
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Matthew J. Franck
Director, William E. and Carol G. Simon Center for Religion and the Constitution, Witherspoon Institute
Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Radford University
or new nonfiction:
This is a wise and accessible book, drawing on the author’s long experience as a teacher of political science, a student of the Constitution, the president of a “great books” college, the chairman of the NEH, and a founder of the American University in Iraqi Kurdistan. Agresto is rightly concerned about the future of American self-government, a concern ever more justified in the Age of Trump.
Charles T. Rubin, Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress.
“Transhumanism” is much discussed these days, but no one has considered the subject more deeply, nor plumbed its history so far back as Charles Rubin. Techno-dreamers of every stripe have found their philosophical analyst here.
Ryan T. Anderson, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom.
Anderson is the tireless champion of marriage between a man and a woman as a natural and civil institution with a central and indispensable place in our law, our politics, and our social order. In the wake of the Obergefell ruling of last June, this is the one book to read for understanding why and how conservatives must lead the continuing fight for marriage.
An uplifting story of amazing courage against seemingly impossible odds. Blind from early childhood, with no formal education until his late teens, Chen Guangcheng became the fearless advocate of freedom under the rule of law in Communist China. His opposition to the infamous one-child policy cost him dearly, with beatings, imprisonment, and house arrest. Chen's astounding escape from his captors is worthy of thriller fiction, but it’s all true.
In the category of fiction I am glad to have finally read, I nominate:
Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop.
This remarkably sensitive portrait of a Catholic prelate by a non-Catholic is based on the real life of a French priest who came to the southwestern United States in the nineteenth century. The unforgiving nature of the land is somehow overcome by the all-forgiving nature of the faith.
Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall.
This first novel by the outrageously talented Waugh seems clearly influenced by his much gentler idol P.G. Wodehouse (see, e.g., Viscount Tangent and his parents, the Earl and Countess of Circumference), but already one glimpses the sharp talons of a fiercer wit, and feels the moral gravity that will be more apparent in his late novels.
Last but not least, I’ve updated a reading plan I devised a few years ago (and published here first) for getting through all of Shakespeare’s works in a year, at a half hour or less per day. You can find the 2016 version here.
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Steven F. Hayward
Senior Fellow, Claremont Institute
Senior Fellow, Pacific Research Institute
F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
ere’s the best of (mostly) new books on my reading list at the moment:
Roger Scruton has two new books out. The first is How To Be a Conservative. Having written about food, wine, sports, music, and an irresistible memoir (Gentle Regrets), it’s about time Roger produced a self-help book. It isn’t really a self-help book, of course, and it presents a terrific engagement with the opponents of conservatism. The other new title from Roger is Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left. It’s a revised version of a book he first published in 1985, but this edition carries overdue takedowns of the current lefty celebrities such as the egregious Slavoj Zizek. For example, “If he had stayed in Slovenia, and if Slovenia had stayed communist, Zizek would not have become the nuisance he has since become. Indeed, if there were no greater reason to regret the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the release of Zizek on the world of Western scholarship would perhaps already be a sufficient one."
Larry P. Arnn has finally delivered the book we’ve been demanding from him for 35 years: Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government. Need I add more? To do so might risk committing a “terminological inexactitude” about its merits, though that is doubtful.
The Economist magazine’s dynamic duo of John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge have come out with another of their breezily-written chin-strokers called The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State. Much as I like these two, you should instead read the original: James Piereson’s Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order. Piereson was there first, with an essay three years ago entitled “America’s Fourth Revolution” that grew into this book. Piereson’s treatment is deeper and more serious that Micklethwait and Wooldridge.
I’m not a huge fan of Russell Kirk in part because of his inconsistencies and eccentricities, though I do like and enjoy some of his work, and he was one of the founding fathers of the modern conservative movement. It is fitting that he has attracted a worthy biography with Bradley J. Birzer’s Russell Kirk: American Conservative. Not too sure about that “American” part in the subtitle: between his capes, ghost stories, and other affectations, it might be more fitting to think of Kirk as a Lichtensteinian conservative.
On the science front (both social and physical), you must always pick up Matt Ridley’s latest, in this case The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge. Matt is now Lord Ridley, so read with good posture. Ranking next to Ridley for spunky good sense is Ronald Bailey, who delivers an exuberant sack dance in the end zone of decades’ worth of apocalyptic environmental predictions in The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-First Century.
And just in time for everyone's Christmas book list is our own Robert Curry's Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea, just out from Encounter Books. Like its title's sake from Thomas Paine, Curry appeals to the common sense of things, in a book he describes as suited to the citizen rather than the scholar. It's long past time, as they say on the ranch, to get the hay down from the loft and on to the barn floor where the cows can get at it. There's one self-evident truth that we can all cheer and get behind.
Finally, there’s one old fiction title (or is it fiction?) that everyone should re-read if they haven’t read it a first time: Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints. Originally published in 1973, it could easily be updated with a flood of Middle Eastern refugees flooding into Europe instead of Indian refugees as in the original. The climax of the novel sounds familiar:
“The strangest conclusion one can draw from these five crucial minutes of that shortest day—though it would have been perfectly clear, had one bothered to read the signs—is the fact that the refugee horde seemed so blithely unaware that this land it was about to make its own could possibly belong to others already. It had, indeed, been drained of its human substance, and offered no resistance.”
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Daniel J. Mahoney
Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship, Assumption College
inston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle were the two greatest statesmen of the twentieth century (alas, de Gaulle's greatness as a political actor, thinker, and writer is still insufficiently appreciated in the Anglophone world). Will Morrisey has written a gem of a book, Churchill and de Gaulle: The Geopolitics of Liberty (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) that combines attentiveness to geopolitics, the realm of necessity, and to moral principle and prudence: the realm of reasonable choice. He knows the speeches and writings of both men as well as anyone, and reveals the myriad ways in which they defended liberal and Christian civilization against tyranny in the form of "armed doctrine." He also fully appreciates the differences between the national and civic experiences of Great Britain and France, differences that shaped the statesmanship and political reflection of Churchill and de Gaulle. This is a book for every serious student of statecraft—and human greatness—in our time.
Roger Scruton is the most impressive conservative-minded philosopher writing in the English-speaking world today. His latest book, Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (Bloomsbury, 2015) is a learned, witty, and incisive dissection of the anarchism of Foucault, the nihilism-cum-indulgence toward totalitarianism of Jean-Paul Sartre, the turgid abstractions and soft leftism of Habermas and of many other darlings of the academic and cultural Left. His wonderfully informative and utterly devastating chapter on Badiou and Zizek, the fashionable theorists of something called "neo-Communism," is alone worth the price of admission.
My colleague Greg Weiner has written a beautiful meditation on the "Burkean liberalism" of the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan (University Press of Kansas, 2015) he elegantly traces the synthesis of liberal aspirations, appreciation of conservative limits, and prudent and tough-minded anti-totalitarianism that characterized Moynihan's thought and action. Weiner is also sensitive to the influence of Catholic social thought, particularly the doctrine of subsidiarity, on Moynihan's conservative-minded liberalism. Like Moynihan himself, this book is a model of political science speaking to the concerns of thoughtful citizens and statesmen.
If you want to come to terms with the soul of man under modern tyranny, you'll need to read Jay Nordlinger's indispensable Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators (Encounter, 2015). He illumines twentieth century tyranny in all its amplitude and, in the process, explores what it is like to be the son or daughter of one who habitually uses violence and lies as instruments for personal or ideological aggrandizement. Some became successor tyrants themselves and none came out unscathed. The chapter on Svetlana Alliluyeva (Stalin's daughter) is particularly poignant: this troubled soul and brilliant memoirist really did repudiate the ideological Lie and all its works.
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William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Government, Harvard University
y first book is Noel Malcolm’s Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World (Oxford). The empire is the Ottoman, and the author is the premier living Hobbes scholar, a man who sets the standard for historical writing and research.
Lucky admirers of Edmund Burke have two new must reads: Richard Bourke’s Empire & Revolution; The Political Life of Edmund Burke (Princeton), the historians’ Burke in a truly massive tome; and David Bromwich’s more theoretical An Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence (Harvard), the first of two volumes, and a masterful analysis of Burke’s thought in each successive expression.
This past year I have spent much time with Russell Muirhead’s The Promise of Party in a Polarized Age (Harvard), a book for today and a future classic. And I found two fine first books (forthcoming) in political philosophy from recent postdoctoral fellows at Harvard: Dustin Sebell, The Socratic Turn: Knowledge of Good and Evil in an Age of Science (Pennsylvania), a book as clear as it is profound; and Christopher McClure, Hobbes and the Artifice of Eternity (Cambridge), strikingly original on the boyishly impudent rhetoric of the man.
Last is Red Meat for conservatives: Peter Schuck’s Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better (Princeton), by a noted law professor with a keen eye for the politics of legal regulation.
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G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty, University of Oklahoma
Victor Lee Austin, Up with Authority: Why We Need Authority to Flourish as Human Beings.
Those who lived through the 60s and 70s will remember a popular bumper sticker that read: “Down with Authority.” A slogan so manifestly stupid that you almost felt that it was being offered tongue in cheek. Alas, it wasn’t meant that way, and its antinomian spirit seems to have survived and even become predominant in the present day. Hence the pressing need for this sparkling analysis, from the pen of the Theologian in Residence at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Fifth Avenue, in New York.
If you thought there was nothing new to say, or learn, about Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, think again. Ronna Burger has brilliant argued that the Ethics can be understood as a kind of implicit dialogue and debate with the Platonic Socrates, which suggests in turn that the contrast between Plato, as the elusive practitioner of the dialogic form, and Aristotle, as the master of the treatise, may not be as sharp as we have imagined.
I have meant to read this 1998 book for years, but only got round to reading it this fall. I wish I had read it years ago. It is a remarkably powerful book, one that every conservative should read, a book rich with implications far beyond what is suggested in its subtitle. It is a book that argues passionately and persuasively for the preservation of local knowledge and regional forms of order, over against the tyrannizing influence of high-modernist planning and ideology. Scott makes a stunning case for the ways in which the formation of the modern state was made possible, in crucial ways, by a thousand small changes—from the standardization of weights and measures to the creation of surnames to the establishment of cadastral surveys and population registers to the organization of transportation—which had the cumulative effect of making the population “legible.”
David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.
There is a good case to be made that David Bentley Hart is the most gifted younger theologian in the English-speaking world. His 2004 book The Beauty of the Infinite will endure for years to come as the finest work of aesthetic philosophy in a generation or more. But this small book deserves attention too, as one of the best responses to the curious phenomenon of the New Atheism, one that in the process recovers just how astonishing was the revolution of moral sensibility wrought by the advent of Christianity at the close of classical antiquity. Written in Hart’s dense, pungent, but unfailingly lucid and intelligent prose, it exemplifies the intellectual excitement of theology performed on the highest level, combined with a keen sense of the cultural and existential stakes in the current state of religious belief and practice.
Donald A. Yerxa, ed., Religion and Innovation: Antagonists or Partners.
I must confess to a bit of conflict of interest on this one, since I am one of the fourteen contributors to this volume; but its virtues are so great that they overmaster my reticence. This is a masterful compilation of essays spanning the entire range of human history, from ancient Mesoamerican cultures to the present, all of them exploring the key question of religion’s association with innovation. The essays show how complex the relationship is, and always has been, and emphasize the extent to which religious beliefs and practices have contributed to significant changes in human affairs—political and legal, social and artistic, scientific and commercial. Not invariably so, of course, and the book does not blink those instances in which the relationship has been antagonistic. But it shows that there are many more examples of partnership than we have been taught to believe.
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty.
I include this reading, not because I am a great admirer of Mill (whose work is often shallow, and replete with inconsistencies and loose ends), but because I can think of no book that is more desperately needed right now on our college campuses, and perhaps in our culture more generally. Perhaps it should be read along with Yale’s justly famous Woodward Report, which can be found here. But it is time for all of us to reread Mill, and ferret out whatever enduring truths there may be in him. I recommend using the Yale “Rethinking the Western Tradition” edition, edited by David Bromwich and George Kateb, mainly for the fine critical essays accompanying the text, especially the one by Jean Bethke Elshtain.
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John J. Miller
Director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College
National Correspondent for National Review
Russell Kirk: American Conservative, by Bradley J. Birzer
I met Harry V. Jaffa twice. The second time was to interview him for a National Review profile in 2013. The first was about 15 years earlier, at a Claremont Institute conference on immigration and citizenship. I was a panelist who made a favorable remark about Russell Kirk, the conservative writer. I don’t recall what I said, but it lit Jaffa like a firecracker. His explosive attack on Kirk left me dumbfounded, in part because back then I didn’t know much about Jaffa or his fiery personality. When it was over, Peter Schramm—who probably agreed with most of Jaffa’s reasoning—encouraged me not to take it personally. That’s just Harry, he explained.
So in reading Bradley J. Birzer’s excellent new biography, Russell Kirk: American Conservative, I was interested to discover how much Kirk admired Jaffa’s great teacher, Leo Strauss. “Many academics and intellectuals in the conservative movement of the twenty-first century would be astonished to know that Strauss and Kirk were once not only allies but at one point also close friends,” writes Birzer. In 1957, Kirk founded Modern Age, a quarterly journal that survives today, to defend Strauss from liberal attacks. Strauss tried to persuade the University of Chicago to hire Kirk. I wonder if Jaffa knew.
Birzer’s book contains much of the Kirk we’ve heard about before—the acclaimed author of The Conservative Mind, an advisor to Barry Goldwater, a man of letters who spent most of his life in rural Michigan. Yet it’s also full of surprises, as we might expect from the first scholar to receive extensive access to Kirk’s private papers. We learn, for example, that before Kirk came to regard T.S. Eliot as the greatest writer of the 20th century, he labeled him “a fraud.” (“Those silly notes to the ‘Wasteland’!,” wrote Kirk in 1948. “He is eager to show off the trifle he knows.”) We find that Flannery O’Connor was a fan, and that she once quipped that Kirk “looks like Humpty Dumpty (intact) with constant cigar and (outside) porkpie hat.” Finally, we get perhaps the best analysis of Kirk’s ghostly fiction yet to appear in print—a commonly neglected body of work that in fact reveals much about his thought.
Birzer covers it all, from Kirk’s family life and Catholic conversion to his disputes with Jaffa and other Straussians over the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. He also confronts a hard subject: Kirk’s notorious remark about how some neoconservatives mistake Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States. This unfortunate dig has prompted charges of anti-Semitism, but Birzer shows that it’s an error to view Kirk as anything other than a generous and humane intellectual who in this instance chose his words poorly.
Kirk once listed “variety and diversity” as conservative principles. His ability to generate debate even now, more than two decades after his death, points to the power of his ideas, including the contestable ones. Continuing to take them seriously says something about our willingness to accept the conservative movement as a big tent, full of riotous disagreement and colorful characters.
At last, we have the definitive book about this important, fascinating, and good man.
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Matthew J. Peterson
William E. Simon Distinguished Visiting Professor, School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University
obert MacFarlane, a Cambridge literature professor, has written yet another exquisite book on man’s relation to nature. Landmarks is a beautifully woven “word-hoard” from the British Isles: a glossary of words describing precise aspects of landscape as well as an introduction to a wealth of other writings on the natural world.
The unforgettable landscape of Pedro Paramo, a haunting 1955 novel by author Juan Rulfo, serves as a progenitor of Latin American magical realism still too little known to English readers. In a land of perpetual purgatory, where absolution is ever out of reach of those who seek it and disregarded by those most in need of it, the ghosts of local political corruption give universal insight into the flaws and longings of the human heart.
While written in almost the exact opposite style, the hardboiled realism of Raymond Chandler is an American unveiling of a corrupt culture. Break through the false, encrusted caricature of Chandler’s image that you may have inherited from popular culture by reading The Long Goodbye from 1953. If you want to supplement Chandler with an actual history of the corruption of the last century, journalist John Buntin’s delightful L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, published in 2009, limns its narrative around Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker and gangster Mickey Cohen. For a defense of the moral and intellectual principles of the genre, read 2008’s Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption, by Thomas Hibbs, Dean and Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University.
Since the end of the cold war, the debate within center-right circles about relationship between capitalism and political and cultural corruption, never mind Christianity, has been heating up. There is no better way to enter into that controversy than by reading Ambassador Michael Novak and Paul Adam’s Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is. The perfect coda to Novak’s mind since writing The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (perhaps the most influential moral defense of pluralist market systems written in the last 40 years), the debate surrounding his new effort will also be worth following.
For insight into the workings of the market today, Zero to One is a short, clear, and bracingly honest book sans ideological trappings. More than yet another Silicon Valley start-up self-help book because it springs forth from the unique mind of PayPal founder Peter Thiel, it’s worth the price of admission for its description of how every venture capitalist seeks to invest in a future monopoly, every business seeks to become a monopoly, and every monopoly seeks to hide the fact.
America’s first Secretary of the Treasury is the inspiration for Hamilton: The Musical, which is the closest thing to a monopoly that Broadway has seen in decades. After you listen, you should read Washington & Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America, by Professor Stephen E. Knott of the U.S. Naval War College & Tony Williams, a director at the Bill of Rights Institute. Their book is not merely a factual overview of the famous relationship, but a vigorous defense of the Federalist titans and their policies.
In a year full of wrangling over the images of prominent figures, from the Pope to the Donald, our gross societal ignorance of the operational principles and central issues of mass media have been laid bare. For a short course in the operational principles and problems of modern rhetoric, read the following three books, each even more relevant now than they were when originally published.
Propaganda, a 1928 defense of its title by the godfather of public relations, Edward Bernays, begins: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.” The man responsible for the fact you eat bacon with your eggs in the morning gives a more subtle argument for his opening claim than appears at first glance while giving the reader a hearty dose of how to.
In1961, historian Daniel Boorstin’s revelatory lamentation, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, laid out the problem with the direction that “intelligent manipulation” had taken. Media is driven by planned “pseudo-events" that exist in the gray area between “news” and public relations, designed to be reproduced such that they reach as many people as possible. Self-fulfilling prophecies, they are also ambiguous enough to provoke reaction and garner attention. While the hero of the era before mass media “stood for outside standards," the celebrities of mass media are thus "known for their well-knownness." Instead of the unchanging ideal of the Declaration of Independence, Boorstin says, we are now guided by ever changing images of our own creation, and “God himself becomes a pseudo-event.”
Americans watch between four and five hours of those images on television a day, never mind smaller screens or social media usage, and there is still no better book than Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death to make clear why this is a direct threat to democratic political life. The problem is not that we enjoy entertainment, but that we think that “the news” or “the debate” is something other than entertainment. The problem is not that one cannot produce Book TV, but that Book TV is bad television.
This Christmas will witness the dawn of popularly sold Virtual Reality devices. As we build another cave beneath the cave beneath the cave, it would be good to reread Book VII of Plato’s Republic for the first time, again.
If you wish to see past the light flickering on the walls of the cave, turn off the puppetry of the cable news channels and look directly into the increasingly nightmarish reality of rural and small town America by reading Sam Quinones’s Dreamland: The True Tale of Americas Opiate Epidemic. Quinones, a Los Angeles based journalist turned author, has a gift for storytelling born of unflinching observatory powers. His keen sense of the stories of actual and particular human beings allows him to reveal the heroin epidemic amidst our growing underclass that is still largely unrecognized by our coastal ruling class.
Look past the cartoonish sensationalism of our abstract national pseudo-debates and directly at the reality of urban gun violence by reading Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. Leovy puts the years of her groundbreaking Homicide Report at the Los Angeles Times to work in this gripping account of a murder that tells the story of the criminal justice system and black-on-black crime. It is a reality that puts evasive scholarship and self-serving Black Lives Matter punditry to shame.
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John J. Pitney
Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics, Claremont McKenna College
hree new works on the US House combine rigorous political science with genuine political savvy
Party Discipline in the US House of Representatives, by Kathryn Pearson.
This book is a richly detailed analysis by a political scientist with years of hands-on experience as a congressional staffer. It spells out the many ways in which leaders can influence members, while also striking a cautionary note. “Members may grow way of pressure from their leaders. Past Speakers who pushed their prerogatives too far have faced retribution from their own caucus.” John Boehener’s departure — which happened after the book’s publication – drives home the point.
Legislating in the Dark: Information and Power in the House of Representatives, by James M. Curry.
Do members of Congress actually know what they are voting on? For most lawmakers, most of the time, the answer is no. This smart, well-researched volume – which makes a nifty companion to the Pearson book – argues that the House has an information bias. “”Those who have the resources to obtain information can participate meaningfully and extensively. All the rest are left to represent their constituents in the dark.”
Ambition, Competition, and Electoral Reform: The Politics of Congressional Elections Across Time, by Jamie L. Carson and Jason M. Roberts.
The book makes ingenious use of little-known data to shine a light on congressional elections in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Contrary to myth, the authors find that party bosses sought out high-quality candidates, encouraging them to run by offering the safety net of patronage employment or future nomination to another office. Civil service laws and changes in election procedures shredded this safety net, making it harder to field strong challengers to entrenched incumbents. In other words, Progressive “reforms” led to less electoral competition and voter choice. – to which CRB readers would say “aha!”
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Professor of History and Political Science, Stanford University
or serious historical readers, here are three recommendations:
Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, by James C. Turner.
At a time when scholars left and right are agonizing over the future of the humanities, Turner, professor emeritus of history at Notre Dame, provides a brilliant account of how the modern humanities disciplines actually originated. This is a tour de force of intellectual history which explains how central problems of philology proved to the birth of modern learning.
The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832, by Alan Taylor.
Only a handful of historians have won two Pulitzer Prizes, and this book is how Alan Taylor joined that select group. Taylor's book is in part, but only in part, a contribution to the history of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. But more important, it provides an eye-opening inquiry into the diverse and complex ways in which masters and slaves occupied the same physical landscape and even the passing hours of the day and night. Few books better illustrate the tortured psychology of plantation life in the Chesapeake during the Revolutionary and Early Republic periods.
Eichmann before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer, by Bettina Stangneth (translated from the German by Ruth Martin)
Criticism of Hannah Arendt's familiar portrait of the Nazi mass murderer Adolf Eichmann as a bureaucratic agent of the "banality of evil" is no longer news. But Stangneth relies on an extensive reading of the texts Eichmann wrote in Argentina, and especially on tape recordings of lengthy conversations with other Nazis and their apologists, to produce a much more disturbing portrait than Arendt ever imagined of the zealot who played a massively active and impassioned role in the destruction of European Jewry.
On the fiction side:
The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
A psychologically astute portrait of a Viet Cong operative of mixed descent who is an aide to a South Vietnamese general whom he follows into exile after the fall of Saigon in April 1975. The narrative carries us into the life of the exile community in Los Angeles and then, more compellingly, back to the boundaries of Vietnam in a deranged mission of liberation. Plus there is a brilliant send-up of the making of Apocalypse Now!
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra
The war in Chechnya that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union is a story no one really wants to know, yet Marra, working with a small cast of wonderfully drawn characters, brings its tragedy alive in a moving and ultimately sympathetic way. As numerous reviewers have observed, this is an incredible first novel.
In the Night of Time, by Antonio Munoz Molina (translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman)
The story of a Madrid architect who falls in love with a young American admirer and finds himself carried into exile to New York while the loyalist cause in Spain is on the verge of collapse. A far more conventional novel than the author's earlier book, Sepharad, this novel moodily examines how the experience of exile and one's sense of personal time interact.
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James R. Stoner, Jr.
Professor of Political Science, Louisiana State University
Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom? (Columbia, 2015), edited by Akeel Bigrami and Jonathan R. Cole, has a title that caught my attention when it was published last spring, and for all the range of its contributors—from Noam Chomsky to Phil Hamburger—it cannot be credited with predicting the tidal wave against free speech and academic rigor that rolled over many campuses this fall. Still, the many issues the book raises and positions its authors express help put contemporary controversies in perspective. For a helpful guide to our current situation from an author who saw it coming from afar, read Donald Alexander Downs, Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus (Cambridge, 2005).
Expanding on his superb White Guilt (Harper, 2007), Shelby Steele embraces the label “conservative” in his new book, Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (Basic Books, 2015). As the subtitle suggests, however, this is not reading for the complacent or the self-congratulatory. Apparently written before “Ferguson” and the recent racial protests in the streets and on college campuses, Steele helps explain what is happening: both why liberals so readily concede to protesters’ demands, and why conservatives despise or—at our peril— ignore them.
Finally, Ralph Hancock’s translation of Pierre Manent’s extended interview, Seeing Things Politically (St. Augustine’s, 2015), is essential reading for Catholic Straussians and helpful to anyone coming to terms with Manent’s magisterial treatment of the history of politics and political philosophy in Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic (Harvard, 2013). Central to Manent’s analysis of and respect for politics is his attention to the power of human motives, and he is remarkably forthcoming here about his own.
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Director of Digital Communications, Claremont Institute
Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue, by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz
As recent events from Mosul to Paris to San Bernardino have taught us, the threat of Islamist terrorism is as great as it has ever been. Yet, many of our liberal friends persist in their refusal to identify the threat of radical Islam by name. So this brief dialogue between two men of the Left is especially refreshing. In this short book—you can read it in a single sitting—(in)famous “New Atheist” Sam Harris and British activist and politician Maajid Nawaz have an extraordinarily frank and civil discussion about Islam, Islamism, and how to defeat this latest threat to civilization. The authors alone make the book worthwhile. Harris has gained notoriety as an outspoken voice against liberal political correctness on the issue of Islamic terror, and Nawaz has a fascinating personal history that includes membership in an extremist group and imprisonment in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the true nature of the Islamist threat.
The Republicans: A History of the Grand Old Party, by Lewis Gould
Politics is a team sport, and, for better or worse, the fate of American conservatism is firmly tied to the Republican Party. So it behooves conservatives to learn about the history of the party of Lincoln. Luckily, Lewis Gould’s book-length treatment of the G.O.P. makes that task easy. This latest work is a revised and expanded version of Gould’s 2003 history of the party. Gould’s takes his readers from its founding in 1854, through the Taft-Roosevelt split of 1912, all the way to the present day. Unfortunately, like many works of history that delve into the recent past, The Republicans goes off the rails at the end. Gould begins to let his personal biases shine through in his discussion of the Reagan years, and his analysis of the Obama-era GOP sounds more like a Rachel Maddow monologue than sober historical analysis. Nevertheless, if you want to understand the history of America’s conservative party, there are few better books.
I confess that I have not finished this book. But as I note above, political history matters, and the election of the 1896 has a tremendous amount to teach modern students of politics. Even before the Progressive Movement reached its stride in the early 20th-century, 1896 anticipated the contours of our modern political divisions. Karl Rove leaves no stone unturned in this retelling, which must stand as one of the most thorough works of political history written by a non-historian. As the 19th-century came to an end, the G.O.P. cast itself as the party of nationalism, prosperity, and opportunity for all. Our modern politicians could learn a thing or two from William McKinley.
Claremont’s brand of conservatism isn’t exactly libertarian, but Cooke’s “conservatarians” represent a growing segment of the Right that can’t be ignored. There are an awful lot of pro-gay marriage, pro-pot, defense- and immigration-hawks running around these days, and Cooke provides keen insight into their thinking. The Manifesto’s defense of federalism is especially important in our age, when it seems every political question is turned into a national one. Even if most conservatives lack a libertarian streak, the country is sorely in need of a return to a proper constitutionalism that appreciates the structural protections of our liberty. Cooke appreciates that need better than most.
Levin’s treatment of the first Left-Right debate is several years old now, but with a presidential election right around the corner, it warrants re-reading. Through his explication of the deep philosophical disagreements between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, Levin provides depth and substance to today’s political debates. And Levin is up to even more than that. He wants to change the story the Right tells about itself and its origins. The modern Progressive Movement may have launched the first concerted assault on America’s founding principles, but it had more fertile ground on American soil than many conservatives would like to admit. If conservatives are to win the battle of ideas, we need to understand their history, and Levin’s work is an excellent place to start.
Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
No reading list would be complete without a timeless work of classic literature, and Dostoyevsky is just as relevant as he’s ever been. Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man rebels against the stifling technocracy and determinism he sees all around him, even as this rebellion costs him his happiness. 21st-century America isn’t quite as maddening as the 19th-century Russian civil service, but modern Progressivism’s historical determinism is just as crushing to the human spirit as the crass utilitarianism and egotism that drives the Underground Man to madness. As important as it is to tend to the conservative mind, we ought not neglect the conservative soul, and Dostoyevsky speaks to the latter more powerfully than most.
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Adjunct Professor of Politics, North Lake College, University of Dallas
A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy: From Russell to Rawls, by Stephen P. Schwarz
This is a very encouraging story of redemption for a large part of an academic discipline. The story Schwartz tells, written in exceptionally readable and informative prose, is that after decades of analytic philosophers rejecting metaphysics in favor of dry-bones predicate logic, there has been a (surprise!) return to traditional metaphysics (and as a result ethics) in mainstream philosophy. The key turning point occurred in the 1980s when analytic philosophers accepted an additional type of logic, the modal logic of necessity and possibility argued for by Saul Kripke. The author Schwarz himself was one of those initially trained in reductive philosophical methods, only to abandon them in favor of modal logic and traditional metaphysics. In a nutshell, analytic philosophy has reasoned its way out of nihilism. This is the book to read for those Thomists and Aristotelians who were previously turned off by analytic philosophy, and wish to learn what genuine philosophical insights it has had to offer over the last century.
Year of the Dog: One Year, One Team, One Goal, by Kurt Voigt
This book is pure enjoyment for football fans; in particular, high school football fans. That genre of nonfiction sports book so defined by Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights has a lot to offer in terms of what it tells about life in small-town America. Voigt follows a high school football team from the growing town of Springdale, Arkansas; to a native Arkansan like myself, I found his descriptions of the people to be Tocquevillian in their accuracy. As the town grew, the prestige and talent of its team and coaches grew. The coach of that Springdale team is now the successful college football coach of Auburn, Gus Malzahn. Year of the Dog captures Malzahn during his last year as a High School coach in Arkansas, in 2006; already he was respected as in Arkansas as a genius due to the book he wrote on the hurry-up offense (a book which helped spread that offensive philosophy to football at all levels). The quarterback of the team, Mitch Mustain, returned from injury during this season to become the top recruited high school quarterback in the country. The trials these characters persevere through in this book are examples of excellence, pure and simple.