Matthew J. Franck
Director, the Witherspoon Institute's William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution
Because Christmas brings out the "humanists" and avowed atheists to tell Christians that their beliefs are "myths" contrary to reason, it is worthwhile in this season (as in all others!) to consider the relation of faith and reason, and of the two together with political life. Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner's City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era is a breezy tour of the subject, intended for conservative evangelical Christians who wonder how to make an impact in public life without compromising the demands of faith. More depth is plumbed by Francis J. Beckwith in Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft, aimed at college students who want to live their faith and study politics with a view to making a difference in the public arena without surrendering to "secular liberalism." Notable in both books, considering that Gerson and Wehner are evangelical Protestants and Beckwith a former evangelical Protestant who returned to the Catholicism of his youth, is the stress on natural-law categories of thought as the way to advance the claims of both faith and reason in the public square.
Excellent accounts of the American founders' thoughts on such questions can be found in two books on the First Amendment. Vincent Phillip Muñoz's God and the Founders: Madison, Washington, and Jefferson (which I reviewed in the Summer 2010 CRB) is a superb treatment of the views of those three leading Virginians on the interaction of religious faith with republican constitutionalism. And Donald L. Drakeman's Church, State, and Original Intent is the best book yet published on the original meaning of the First Amendment's establishment clause, and sheds considerable light on how we came to such a distorted understanding of it on the modern Supreme Court.
Speaking of the Constitution's original meaning and the Supreme Court's assault on it, I welcome the appearance of Gary L. McDowell's The Language of Law and the Foundations of American Constitutionalism, a profound contribution to the defense of originalism in constitutional interpretation, as well as a trenchant critique of modern jurists and scholars who have blazed trails into fetid swamps of ant-constitutional mire.
The political book of the season is George W. Bush's Decision Points, a memoir of his presidency organized topically rather than chronologically. Bush had his critics on the Right as well as the Left, and history will be a long while sorting out the events of his turbulent eight years. But what shines through this book is Bush's essential decency and thoughtfulness, and an admirable ability to reflect humbly on his own frailties and missteps.
Chance and a well-stocked bookstore brought me to Mark Stein's How the States Got Their Shapes, published a couple of years ago. This book is a delight for anyone with an interest in the details of historical geography. Why is the northern boundary of Delaware a perfect arc drawn with a compass? How come Missouri has that bootheel? Principles, interests, and accidents went into making the fifty states' shapes: international negotiations, interstate conflicts, congressional bargaining, plus rivers, mountain ranges, longitudes and latitudes. Fascinating fun for geography nerds—and if you aren't one, Stein might make you one.
Finally, in the category of pure pleasure, readers of P.G. Wodehouse's inimitable oeuvre should know that Overlook Press is producing handsome hardcover collector's editions of all the master's books. A majority are out already, and a steady stream keeps coming. Still haven't found a copy of A Prefect's Uncle? Now it can be yours!
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Alonzo L. Hamby
Distinguished Professor of History, Ohio University
Yalta, 1945: Europe and America at the Crossroads, by Fraser J. Harbutt
Yalta: The Price of Peace, by S. M. Plokhy
These two volumes provide exemplary perspective on perhaps the most controversial American diplomatic meeting of the 20th century. Harbutt leads us into the conference with a meticulous account of British foreign policy in World War II and the way in which it placed Winston Churchill at cross purposes with both Joseph Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt. Plokhy painstakingly examines the meeting itself with reference to both atmospherics and hard policy issues. He concludes that the "concessions" given to Stalin were the Soviet dictator's to take anyway and that all three principals left feeling they had achieved their purposes. Churchill emerges as the leader with the clearest-eyed view of the future, possessing a frame of reference composed of equal parts of traditional conservatism and essential liberalism.
Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy, by Sidney M. Milkis
Edmund Morris's Colonel Roosevelt will doubtless garner literary accolades, awards, and lucrative royalties. Milkis will provide sustenance for those who want to go beyond a well-crafted narrative to a thoughtful analysis of T.R.'s views on "progressive democracy" and what it has to say to us today. This book rightly takes Roosevelt seriously as a political thinker with a coherent worldview.
Freedom's Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides, by Derek Charles Catsam
Catsam's stirring account of the Freedom Rides takes us to the origins of the civil rights movement, eloquently depicting activists who took great risks for principle and in the process helped create a more just America. It may also leave us wondering how the civil rights movement progressed from the sublime leadership of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Martin Luther King to Al Sharpton.
Bringing the Market Back In: The Political Revitalization of Market Liberalism, by John Kelley
Published in 1997, this 270-page volume remains an excellent introduction to the origins of the libertarian conservatism emerging as a major force within the contemporary Republican party. Ron Paul receives his due; Rand was not yet in anyone's viewfinder. The author is sympathetic to his subject and scrupulously fair in developing it. A dozen years ago, he could pronounce that the movement had a pulse. Today, it resembles a bull moose.
The Age of Roosevelt (3 vols.), by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Fifty years later, this unfinished three-volume work remains an essential treatment of its subject. Schlesinger's spin is relentless, but his history is nonetheless exceptional. Surveying the early New Deal, warts and all, he proclaims a triumph of democracy while admitting flaws in conceptualization and execution that somehow get lost in the final evaluation. It is a bit much to compare, as some have, The Age of Roosevelt to Henry Adams's History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and History of the United States During the Administrations of James Madison. Schlesinger lacked Adams's relentless sense of irony. Still, the overall excellence of these three volumes leads one to lament the lost second half of his life as the court historian of the Kennedys and a secondary figure in the celebrity culture of New York.
The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War, by Nicholas Thompson
This accessible account of the personal friendship and professional rivalry between George F. Kennan and Paul Nitze provides easy and enjoyable reading—perhaps a bit too easy, for the author (a grandson of Nitze) is primarily interested in introducing his characters to a wide reading audience. Intriguingly, Mr. Thompson seems to come down more on the side of Kennan than Gramps, but he tells us enough about the latter to reveal an intriguing character in need of fuller exploration.
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Charles C. Johnson
CRB Fellow, Claremont Review of Books
A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and their Endless War Against Israel, by Thanassis Cambanis
Hezbollah chieftain Hassan Nasrallah said that he hopes all the Jews from around the world will gather in Israel so they might be more easily obliterated. That prompted fears that Hezbollah, which survived Israel's onslaught in a way no Arab army ever has, was planning a Second Holocaust, while its patron, Iran, denied the first. That seems terrifying enough, but it is its appeal to ordinary Lebanese that makes such hatred all the more chilling. Offering members a messianic welfare state that ministers to their souls as well as their need for affordable medical care and the destruction of Israel has been good politics, enticing Muslims as far afield as America. Described as a state within a state, Hezbollah has, rather, sprung up from the remnants of a failed state—and its zeal won't remain contained within its borders for long. Can it be contained? Perhaps, but so long as it exists in its followers' blackened hearts, it is still a threat.
Hitch-22: A Memoir, by Christopher Hitchens
Death be not proud, but Christopher Hitchens, diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer, may have the last word on himself. Hitch-22, published before he knew of his impending demise, opens with a discussion of reading his own obituary, which was published in error but not without cause. Though he channels Monty Python's famous "Not dead yet" triumphantly as he journeys from one combat spot to another, it seems that America's most famous atheist has a guardian angel—and a generous liver. Critics have accused him, perhaps fairly, of name-dropping, but ‘Hitch' has known so many people that he would be doing the reader a disservice by not sharing some of his funnier anecdotes, like the time he was spanked by Margaret Thatcher, in full view of witnesses. The best anecdotes, though, aren't about Margaret Thatcher or tinpot dictators, or even funny at all. They are the touching sort that a man tells about his family. His father, a sailor in Her Majesty's Royal Navy, is justly celebrated for helping to send a Nazi raider to the ocean floor. Post-war, he is aptly described as "Tory without anything to be Tory about." Hitchens takes great care chronicling his mother's life, and her ultimate suicide. Clandestinely Jewish and every bit as vivacious as his father was Anglican and austere. Hitch's warm feelings for her make for emotional, but rewarding, reading. There isn't a hint of melodrama. His parents' was a war marriage, and was not to last. But Hitchens's memoir will last even if he will not.
Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, by William Powers
Fittingly the author of a book about our distracted age, Will(iam) Powers is a professional author-turned-cultural critic. I say fittingly because it seems will power is in short supply as the latest gizmo—iPhone!, blackberry!, Google!, and Facebook!—impede us from the connections that give life real texture as the "screens" in our lives vie for our attention with their incessant beeps and vibrations. The best ancients and moderns you won't be surprised to know wrestled with their own technological transformations. Powers happily dusts off his "seven sages of the screen": Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Thoreau...and Marshall McLuhan. Each teaches valuable lessons in how to manage our time and our souls. Despite what you may hear from Silicon Valley, the world hasn't really been made anew. Hamlet carried his own tablet, his own blackberry, after all. Powers, who takes the weekend off from digital communications in an "internet Sabbath," has inspired me to disconnect my home from the internet. No mean feat, that, at least initially. But one full of meaning now that the electric leash doesn't chafe.
The Housing Boom and Bust, by Thomas Sowell
Economist Thomas Sowell authors a book a week, or so it seems with the prodigious now-octogenarian(!). In a packed 192 pages, he chronicles how liberal Democrats, well-meaning compassionate conservatives, and the Federal Reserve's policy of low-interest rates helped bring about one of the greatest wealth-destroying policies of our time, all to help create more low-income home-dwellers at the expense of the rest of America. The NINJA (no income no job or assets) loans have slashed our home market and it looks likely never to recover. That would be bad enough, but it turns out that the so-called affordable housing crisis was brought on by restrictive local zoning policy. By deliberately constraining the supply of land to build upon, local governments all but guaranteed that the federal government would eventually swoop in to help those who couldn't pay their housing costs. All of this wheeling and dealing makes us wonder what would have happened if we just followed Dr. Sowell's current prescription: a constitutional amendment to limit the government's reach into housing markets? Eh, tea party?
While America Aged: How Pension Debts Ruined General Motors, Stopped the NYC Subways, Bankrupted San Diego, and Loom as the Next Financial Crisis, by Roger Lowenstein
If a page worth of history is worth a volume full of logic, perhaps it is also worth thousands of pages in financial regulations. Roger Lowenstein showed before the Obama stimulus and TARP that a coming politics of austerity will require difficult choices and that those choices aren't impossible. Indeed, as with our nation's first financier, Alexander Hamilton, it falls to this generation to design good pension policy from "reflection and choice." Let's hope we get it right before the next crisis.
The Bluest State: How Democrats Created the Massachusetts Blueprint for American Political Disaster, by Jon Keller
The "Scott Heard 'Round the World" hasn't quite reverberated past the January 2010 special election. Jon Keller is a rare independent thinker on one of Greater Boston's local television stations. In this book, he's trained his eyes on self-dealing, self-serving Bay State baby boomer pols who have made the state of Adams, Coolidge, and JFK unaffordable and illiberal. One-party rule gets the scorn it deserves, but Keller ought to have looked also at the "me-too" Republicanism that, like the recently defeated gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker, tries to beat the most liberal candidates by running at them from their left (with a self-styled gay "progressive Republican" life-time politician as his running mate). MBA candidates have seemingly managed the party into perpetual decline. Alas, if the politics of Obamcare meet the policies of RomneyCare in 2012, Keller might have to write a new foreword. Republicans across the country might cringe if they hear in an Obama-Romney debate: "Everything I learned about health care I learned from you, Mitt." Coming to a presidential race near you? Let's hope not.
The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That is Connecting the World, by David Kirkpatrick
The Facebook Effect is the true story on which the hit film The Social Network was based. Or as true as we're likely to get. The film's fictional Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook to get girls. The real Mark Zuckerberg has been with the same girl from long before he started Facebook. That pretty much sums up the movie's accuracy. What are far more interesting are his internal motivations and thoughts that David Kirkpatrick, long-time Fortune writer, brings to the fore. How did a company no one had heard of grow to 500 million profiles? True enough, the real Zuckerberg has some of the immoderation that characterizes those to whom success has come too quickly. He is after all, a 26-year-old self-made billionaire. His business cards boast that he was "CEO... b-tch!" But now that Facebook has grown from dorm room project to Silicon Valley would-be blue chip, the flip-flop wearing Harvard drop out dons a tie, as he pursues, in the words of The Simpsons's spoof, the only degree that matters—honorary, connecting the world one friend request at a time.