Book of the Month/June 2012

Tyranny_Cliches

In this very fine book, Jonah Goldberg rises to the defense of ideology, and about time somebody did. He acknowledges that there has been a stream of Burkean/Kirkian conservative thought that has been suspicious of ideology, but this has just been the natural prudence that wants to avoid movements in the grip of one idea. Those who have nothing but one hammer will soon see the entire world as a nail.

There is a nobler kind of ideology, what conservative Christians would describe as a biblical worldview. This is the ideology of anyone who has come to a conclusion. Chesterton once said that the purpose of an open mind is the same as that of an open mouth — it is meant to close on something. This is the kind of ideology that liberals hate — this is what they are at war with when they eschew “labels” of any kind. Theirs is the kind of hatred of ideological labels that enables them to think of bipartisanship as anything that agrees with them. They don’t like labels because the labels describe them accurately (p. 65).

And here is Goldberg’s main target — not so much the ideological commitments that liberals have, but rather the fact that they serenely believe themselves to be without any such commitments at all. Trying to show them that they really are partisans in the culture war of ideas is like trying to engage the prince Siddhartha under the yo tree in an argument over the chances the Red Sox have of getting to the World Series this year. Good luck.

This is a point that Goldberg makes again and again, very effectively. On issue after issue, where liberals believe themselves to be above the fray, in some sort of post partisan Nirvana, no dogs allowed, Goldberg hunts down the dog they actually have in the fight, and spays it. He does this on issues such as no labels, separation of church and state, social Darwinism, social justice, the living Constitution, the Catholic church, and all the rest of that jazz.

I enjoyed this book almost as much as I enjoyed his Liberal Fascism. Goldberg combines the best of libertarianism and conservatism in a way that is quite conducive to my taste. The only thing he is missing is the Christian foundation (he writes as a secular Jew), but his miss is a whole lot closer to the truth than the groveling that many Christians engage in when they apologize for things in Christian history that either require no apology, or which require a very different apology than the one being demanded. Goldberg is about as fair-minded as it gets. I suspect his fair-mindedenss is a function of having thought about conversion more than once.

It also helps that his sense of humor parallels mine, and for those who do not read this blog frequently enough, I am offering this as a compliment. Here are a couple examples.

 

“Alas, no one offered such a warning, and the camel’s nose got under the tent, the ship sailed, the horse got out of the barn and drove the wedge that toppled the first domino, which opened the floodgates, and now all we have left is a boiled frog” (p. 115).

“That’s why it is so important to teach social justice to future generations, so they can carry the torch that will one day burn Western civilization to the ground” (p. 136).

This is not a talking points book — it is filled with insights and argumentation to match. There are some real gems. One of the great ones was this:

“Hence, the great irony: Hayek, one of the greatest champions of individual liberty and economic freedom the world has ever known, believed that knowledge was communal. Dewey, the champion of socialism and collectivism, believed that knowledge was individual. Hayek’s is a philosophy that treats individuals as the best judges of their own self-interests, which in turn yield staggering communal cooperation. Dewey’s was the philosophy of a giant, Monty Pythonesque crowd shouting on cue, ‘We’re All Individuals!'” (pp. 54-55).

That insight there is pure gold, and should be treasured up in our hearts against the day when we are engaged in debate with pseudo-communitarians, who want the doctrine of the Trinity to be dragooned into service against the Spirit’s work of creating and maintaining individual liberty.

Another priceless section was the chapter showing which contemporary group in America is given the privilege of swanking around like particularly spoiled courtiers at Versailles during one of its more ridiculously silly  periods. That group would be the Hollywood glitterati, as out of touch as it is possible for human beings to get. If you were to ask where in America it would be possible to find a servant whose sole job was to help milady with her bras, you would need to start with the entertainment industry. Goldberg makes the interesting observation that this is the result of these glitterati being in possession of a very different kind of capital than a rich businessman has. A businessman who pulled that kind of stunt would be treated with the same kind of opprobrium that Marie Antoinette stills gets for it having been alleged of her. But stars of stage and screen can do this sort of thing without blinking, particularly if their names rhyme with Breisand or Ratolta.

Having thus far gushed, just a few quibbles to top things off. The fact that he is preeminently fair-minded about Christian history doesn’t eliminate the need for a bit of fact checking around the edges. He gets the central things so right (when so many get them wrong), the minor mistakes take on greater significance. They can be used as a reason for dismissing his entire argument, which would be a shame. For example, Cromwell did not lead a “Presbyterian rebellion against the throne” (p. 78). Cromwell was an Independent, which had its power base in the army, and the Presbyterians were quite another tribe, providing a great deal of resistance to the Cromwellian project. They were all Calvinists, of course, but that is simply because Christians didn’t have flat screen televisions back then, and they used to read their New Testaments of an evening.

Another minor error shows up when he says “Catholic inquisitions rarely sentenced people to death, preferring dismissals or excommunications or penance” (p. 246). Goldberg is quite right that the Catholic Church rarely executed anybody if the comparison point is Stalin or Mao. But the inquisitors had a CYA bit of casuistry which allowed them to convict a heretic and then turn him over to the “secular arm” with an ecclesiastical wink and a torquemadean nod.

Still, gee whiz. Why quibble? This was a great book. Buy at least three of them, and read at least one. That’s my suggestion.

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Javier R.

Goldberg is quite right that the Catholic Church rarely executed anybody if the comparison point is Stalin or Mao (emphasis mine) Actually it is true in comparison to much lesser evils than Mao and Stalin. In comparison to other European nations the Spanish Inquisition was a softy. To put it in perspective. In the entire 16th century a whopping 50 people were killed under the Tribunal.  From 1500-1599 only 50 people died. The street I live on has more people than that. In the 300 years of its existence 3000 to 5000 people died. Thats 14 people a year. Still want to compare this to… Read more »