From March 2020 I will keep a weblog of my reading – completing books, not the daily drip of posts, news and commentary… I will review each book in three sentences or less.
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States (2014) is written by one of the world’s finest historians, and is remarkably timely in the wake of the American 2020 election that shook up lazy assumptions about the political behaviour of Hispanic Americans, and more broadly of the tensions between race, culture and identity.
Alasdair MacIntyre After Virtue (1981/2007) has been on my radar since the early 1980s when I was studying at The University of Melbourne, and over the last fortnight I have finally read it. It proposes grounds for moral philosophy in Aristotle’s virtue, rather than the Enlightenment and Max Weber’s war of the gods of incommensurate values. The modern grounds lead to unresolvable disagreements. McIntyre proposes a return to virtue grounded in a specific idea of what is the best kind of life for a human being like to me to live. Virtue itself needs to be grounded in a practice, a sense of meaning or narrative about one’s whole life, and a tradition. I will take this idea up further in my text on political philosophy, The Ordinary Virtues of Governing Well, prefigured in this post, Do we repair our republics with big ideas or ordinary virtues?
March to July 2020
Angelo Codevilla The Ruling Class: How they corrupted America and what we can do about it (2010) I came to this book through the recommendation of The American Mind podcast, which I greatly enjoy in part because I do not anticipate it and do not always agree. It is ultimately a short and bracing pamphlet against the new nomenklatura, but its statement of faith in the American people I found both alienating and unconvincing. I am not of the Empire.
Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (2018) is a remarkable condemnation of the liberalism that underpins both progressivism and neo-conservatism, and is rooted in a freedom without the true, ancient liberty of constraint, responsibility and inherited culture. I made extensive notes of this important statement of political philosophy. It condemns liberalism as unsustainable – life without limits; as a collaboration between individualism and statism; as anticulture, a charge most resonant for me; and a degradation of citizenship. I will write a full post on this work, and believe the outline of steps for a life after liberalism, a kind of Benedict Option offers me a path forward by “developing practices that foster new forms of culture, household economics, and polis life.”
K.T. (Kathleen Troia) McFarland’s Revolution: Trump, Washington and ‘We the People’ (2020) is a remarkably observant account of the degradation of American democratic and legal institutions through the attempts by the FBI, CIA, Democratic Party leaders and legal associates to subvert and sabotage the Trump Administration. While McFarland is a brave witness to the political persecution by the American security state, especially in the framing of General Michael Flynn and McFarland, I was ultimately left disappointed by the final declaration of faith in a populist revolution under a banner that declares America is exceptional and the greatest nation on earth. My longer post on McFarland’s book is here: K.T. McFarland’s Revolution in Tamerlane’s Shadow.
Frank Dikötter, The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962-1976 (2016) shows the monstrosity of revolutionary and progressive ideology when combined with the total authority of the state. Tragic portraits of Madame Mao, the Gang of Four, and ultimately that inheritor, not reformer of the party-state, Deng Xiaoping are balanced with remarkable stories from new archival sources of ordinary people who both resisted and succumbed to the fervour of violent ideological possession, including those who learnt over time to beat people without remorse. Its final sentence is the lesson of Tiananmen Square, the ultimate coda of the Cultural Revolution: “The massacre was a display of brutal force and steely resolve, designed to send a signal that still pulsates to this day: do not query the monopoly of the one-party state.” (p. 322)
Peter Bergen, Trump and his Generals: the cost of chaos (2019). I bought this e-book after hearing Bergen speak on Steven K. Bannon’s Warroom: Impeachment podcast (episode 107). Its subtitle does not count the cost of military-intelligence complex which its story shows really dominates the political order of the United States of America. It relied too much on the perspective of that complex, and too little to the challengers of that order, such as Trump, Flynn and Bannon.
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Here are some older posts on what I have been reading, and saving from the flames of progress.