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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Trent England of Save Our States Interviews Allen Mendenhall

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics on May 31, 2022 at 7:00 am

Review of Benjamin and Jenna Storey’s “Why We Are Restless”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Historicism, History, Humanities, Philosophy, Scholarship on May 26, 2022 at 6:45 am

Reviewed by Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here in the Journal of Faith & The Academy.

Almost 2500 years ago, Aristotle posited that what distinguishes humans from the animals is not only our judgment and rationality, but also our unique capacity for love, affection, and bonding. The coronavirus pandemic is frustrating because, among other things, it forces us to suppress and neglect the very qualities that set humans apart from the rest of creation. Enforced isolation and social distancing deprive us of the opportunity to gather and fellowship, hug and touch, cultivate community and family. Alienation and quarantine are contrary to our nature as free and social beings.

For over a year I wondered whether I would embrace my 85-year-old grandmother again. She was confined to a nursing home just outside Atlanta; no family could visit her until recently. Restricting guests was for her own protection, but it didn’t feel right or good. Because the coronavirus isn’t sentient, doesn’t possess moral properties or exercise an agency of its own, we can’t get angry at it, punish it, argue with it, or condemn it as wrong or unfair. Hence our anxiety multiplies.

The pandemic only worsened an already pervasive problem, namely a growing sense of restlessness and unhappiness even as we in the United States enjoy widespread economic opportunity and astounding material prosperity. Benjamin and Jenna Storey, married professors who run the distinguished Tocqueville Forum at Furman University, diagnose this condition—societal malaise—in Why We Are Restless, the latest in a fascinating book series edited by Robert P. George and published under the imprint New Forum Books of Princeton University Press.

Their answer to this question about restlessness? It’s complicated.  

Short-term thinkers might point to the opioid crisis, social media, political parties, climate change, work hours, around-the-clock news, police brutality and so on to pinpoint root causes. These are merely symptoms of larger problems, however. Long-term thinking, an understanding of centuries of philosophical and historical trends, free inquiry, a willingness to adapt when new evidence presents itself, facility with foreign languages and difficult texts from different times and traditions—these make for a rational and dispassionate examination of the social ills of our moment. And the Storeys are adequately equipped and prepared for the task. They have selected four modern French intellectuals—Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), and Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)—to guide readers on a “quest” (the Storeys’ term) for contentment, which is, according to the Storeys, antithetical to restlessness or malaise.

The narrative goes something like this: Montaigne’s ponderous essays are, on the whole, about learning how to die, or coming to terms with the irrefutable reality of mortality. He developed the concept of “immanent contentment” to refer to the good life to which reasonable and thoughtful people should aspire. “Immanent contentment” involves “moderation through variation,” affirmation and friendship, and stability or equilibrium with some diversity of experience thrown in for good measure. Pascal came along to refute “immanent contentment,” suggesting that humans by their sinful nature are, unhappily, divorced from God. A proper life, in his paradigm, seeks reunion with the divine, or wholeness. Rousseau wasn’t much cheerier, acknowledging as he did the inevitable sadness of the human condition as well as the unavoidable futility of the relentless pursuit of happiness. His so-called “sentiment of existence,” however, posited ways we can enjoy the experience of being alive without despairing. Tocqueville, alas, located the industrious chase for immanent contentment within democracy and majoritarianism, social and political categories connected with labor and materialism. The Tocquevillian risks much suffering from the constant drive for happiness. Why? Because that drive makes the lack of contentment feel like failure, as if we tried but couldn’t succeed when in fact no amount of effort would have changed our lot.  

So where does that leave us? Perhaps with an amalgamation of instructive perspectives. Montaigne teaches us “to learn to be at home within ourselves and within our world, and to cease measuring our lives against any transcendent goal or standard.” Pascal renders the “restless unhappiness at the core of the modern soul, sadly seeking to absorb itself in a form of contentment not capacious enough to meet the demands of its self-transcending nature.” Rousseau imparts that “we cannot quiet our restlessness by going to either extreme”—the “natural and solitary” on the one hand and the “social and artificial” on the other—because “both are only parts of what we are: human beings are as social as we are solitary, as historical as we are natural.” Studying Tocqueville, we discover that we’re “[g]eographically transient, and never knowing what to expect from others in a social world always in flux.” Moreover, we “crave the reassurance” of our “fellows’ approbation, which proves to be as allusive as their whereabouts.”

The Storeys’ analysis of these four Frenchmen doesn’t lead inexorably to any one political platform or position. Conservatives and liberals, right and left, are equally wrong, reductive, and simplistic, according to the Storeys, because human complexities defy crude caricature. “Conservatives,” they tell us, “see liberals not as people earnestly if misguidedly working to alleviate entrenched injustice but as insular cultural elites signaling their virtue; liberals see conservatives not as people sincerely if mistakenly working to preserve traditional morality but as rich white men perpetuating their privilege.” Elsewhere the Storeys state, “The case our right makes for free-market economics assumes that perpetual economic growth is self-evidently good, an assumption little challenged by human beings accustomed to thinking of happiness in terms of immanent contentment, to which an ever-proliferating variety of goods and services is useful.” By contrast, “[w]hen our left argues for the redistribution of the same kind of resources, its position often rests on similar assumptions about the kind of flourishing our political arraignments should support.” The Storeys add that “the social aim of unmediated approbation frequently underlies both the celebrations of familiar intimacy dear to the right and the defenses of free erotic connection dear to the left.”

The Storeys’ copious endnotes are a store of knowledge and wisdom. One could spend an entire decade following the numerous lines of inquiry drawn here. That’s before one exhausts the extensive bibliography that rounds out this handsome hardback.

There are no throwaway lines in Why We Are Restless. In fact, this book is difficult to review because each of its sentences is carefully crafted, and each of its chapters contains memorable axioms and nuggets of insight. For instance, from the chapter on Montaigne: “The human problem lies not in our failure to cultivate our distinctly human faculties but in our misbegotten and doomed attempts to rise above ourselves.”

From the chapter on Pascal: “Modern human beings can follow their passions and pleasures, indulge idle or even voyeuristic curiosities, accumulate wealth and achieve ambitions with less shame or need for apology than their forbears. But doing so seems only to add to the mounting pile of evidence that the decisive obstacles to immanent contentment do not lie in the laws and moral norms modern peoples so relentlessly critique and overturn. The unhappiness that remains when such liberations have succeeded must have its source not in our laws but in ourselves.”

From the chapter on Rousseau: “Man’s fall is an accident of history; indeed, it is the accident that brings history into being. Our misery is of our own making; we are wicked only because we have adulterated ourselves. And yet we knew not what we did.”

From the chapter on Tocqueville: “The very hold the sentiment of human resemblance has over democratic human beings often prevents them from noticing just how remarkable it is. Human difference, after all, is more visible than human resemblance: our eyes see big human beings and small human beings, males and females, dark-skinned and light-skinned, the fine tailoring of wealth and the dishevelment of poverty. We never see a human being simply, which is an abstraction; we always see this or that human being, who has qualities that differentiate him or her from others.”

Some of these lines are summaries of the subject author’s texts or claims but articulated in the Storeys’ unique voice and vocabulary. That these passages are unoriginal—restating established sagacity—does not make them any less profound.

If you’re looking for self-help therapy, specialized research, pop-psychology, or easy-step prescriptions for success, grab another book. The contentment that is the Storeys’ subject is elusive, achievable only through difficult work, deliberate solitude, serious contemplation, deep learning in the liberal arts, and the kind of hard-won discernment that enables one to make good choices.

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Chris Shaffer, Author of “Moon Over Sasova”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, History, Humanities on January 12, 2022 at 12:28 pm

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Author Christy Alexander Hallberg

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Novels on October 7, 2021 at 7:00 am

Excerpt from Bruce Craven’s “Sweet Ride,” published by Codhill Press

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Writing on August 12, 2021 at 12:16 pm
Bruce Craven

Bruce Craven teaches a popular MBA/EMBA elective, Leadership Through Fiction, at Columbia Business School. He has also been a member of the Columbia Business School Executive Education faculty for 30 years where he teaches workshops in resilience, flexible thinking and emotional intelligence.    He also co-runs Craven Leadership LLC with his wife and business partner, Sherelle Craven. He published the novel, Fast Sofa, in 1993 and co-wrote the script for the film adaptation in 2001. His leadership book, Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones, was published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, in March 2019. He also published a collection of poetry, Buene Suerte in Red Glitter in 2019 with Red Dirt Press. He studied politics and literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz and received his MFA in Writing from Columbia School of the Arts. He lives with his wife and two sons in the Coachella Valley in California.
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This book is available for purchase at this link.

Part One: Dirty Martini, Excerpt from Chapter 7: Wild Child

Context: struggling screenwriter, George Nichols, with the help of his financially successful fiancée, a Hollywood film-industry manager, Nicolette Amberson, has flown to New York City in the late Nineties to pursue a screenwriting project about surfing, a sport George finds terrifying.

George arrived in New York on the red-eye, and exhausted, met Australian fashion photographer Mick Tanner, and a woman living downstairs in George’s building: Lilly Lejeune. Late that same night of his first day in town, George has arrived at a nightclub at Lilly’s invitation, with the plan of having drinks and talking more with Mick. 

Two muscle men in purple stretch-knit shirts and black dusters flip through clipboards and survey the people. At dramatic moments, the muscled guards remove the braided robe, unclasp the brass hook and allow the significant or the long-suffering to enter the nightclub. The security have ear-pieces and mumble into microphones. Black velvet curtains block the front of the club. A sign in blacklight reads “Haute Densite.” George joins the crowd, checking his wristwatch as if he’s in a hurry and people are waiting for him, both true.

  One hour later, George stands by himself. George is alone, except for the bouncers in black and purple. George’s bourbon high has dimmed to a grinding ache in the front of his skull. George wonders what solution could leverage him into being inside the nightclub instead of here outside on the street. The nightclub doors open and George gets a blast of the shattered rhythm of the inside: voices and laughter spilling out with music. George continues to stand near the two muscle men who think about Creatine, whey and egg whites, and dream of their next tuna wrap, packet of almonds, and pump session, maxing out in front of the mirrors, flooding their muscles with high reps at low weight.

   George nods at one of the doormen. Pick me…

   A sharp whistle snaps George to attention. It’s Mick on the other side of the braided rope. “What are you doing out here, mate?” The two bouncers look at Mick and look at George as if he just appeared from a cloud of smoke. They unhook the braided cord’s brass-plated hook from the stand and motion for George to step forward. “C’mon,” Mick slaps George on the back. “I’ve got this pretty waitress Eve waiting. She might join our venture, handle some of the office production. You been writing?”

   “Yeah,” George lies. His head hurts. This day has not ended for two days. He follows Mick down the hall, entering the crowded lounge area where there are purple banquettes, a long mirror behind the bar and a floor-to-ceiling painting of a Maasai warrior, gripping a spear. The carpet is blood red. An opaque partition of beveled glass reminds George of the glittering martini glasses stacked on Lilly’s bookshelf.

   A glass of fire passes in front of George in the hands of a man wearing a suit made out of shimmering white material. The man hands the red glass to a girl George has seen on a magazine cover.

   Mick introduces George to Eve, who sits on a circular lounge pod upholstered in wine-colored leather. Her purple dress is crushed velvet and her hair is tossed around her shoulders. Mick looks at George, “This Eve is something. She might be the gem in the crown. She said she’s on board with TNP.” Eve’s legs are crossed. She watches the room with amused calm. Eve’s cigarette hovers above a blue ashtray on an ebony table that has legs that are carved like hooves. Mick takes one of Eve’s cigarettes. “I told you about George…he just flew in today.”

   “Oh, sure,” says Eve, “The surf writer.”

   Mick heads to the bar to buy a round of drinks.

   George watches Eve smile at Mick as he turns and slides into the crowd. “Long day?” she asks George, still watching Mick.

   “I don’t have to say anything intelligent, do I?”

   “I doubt it,” Eve looks around the club. “Just arrived?”

   “This morning…but it feels like this morning was two weeks ago.”

   Mick sets the cocktails on the ebony table, “Eve has experience in…is it theater production? In Montana?”

   “Missouri,” says Eve. “I majored in theater.”

   Mick leans back, sips his pint of beer. “Then it’s settled. Hey! There’s Lilly.”

   George tries to turn casually, but his bourbon splashes on his wrist. He raises the glass and takes a strong sip of cold liquor. Lilly shines in a white cocktail dress rippling with sequins. She points a black cigarette holder at the faces of the men that surround her and pencils them in. Her eyelashes are heavy with mascara and her eyelids are lined with rhinestones. A man offers Lilly a cigarette. George remembers the photo of Audrey Hepburn in a black cocktail dress, the photo taped onto Lilly’s bureau. Lilly is a reflection in white, with a sequined clutch that has a silver clasp tucked under her arm. Mick and George watch her place the white cigarette in the long black stem and smile as the man lights her cigarette. The silver locket on Lilly’s neck, her shoulders sculpted, her white dress clinging. Lilly reminds George of a shimmering goddess. Lilly touches one of the men. He leans close to her. She turns to Mick, holds her hand up in a half-wave. “Be there in one minute,” she says across the noise and people before leaning back to address the circle of men.

   “Do you know her?” George asks Mick.

   “Know her? You could say that. I’m the lucky man that discovered her down South in Alabama. Lilly was a wild child. Still is.”

   “Discovered her?”

   “I was clipping away on editorial work, top-end material, on location in what the locals call the ‘Redneck Riviera.’ It was couture gear, all willowy crap no one could wear in the heat without sweating through it like tissue. My assistant was winding film when made a sound in his throat.” Mick laughs, “I thought he’d lost control of his bladder or was choking on a lozenge, but it was just Lilly he saw walking down the beach. He said, ‘There’s a lovely one.’ I thought I better have a look, professional responsibility and all. Lilly was on the sand, walking toward us. I was working with the Pentax 6X7, instead of the Hasselblad 120. My assistant was loading the second camera. He was in a foul mood since we had the scrim on the sand and couldn’t roll it. Two of his tall boys were trying to hold this 20×20-foot backdrop. I switched lenses and looked out near the water and focused on this young woman, late teens, in a bandanna top and cut-off jeans. Lilly was licking an ice-cream cone, one of those ice creams with the swirly vanilla inside the hard chocolate. The ice cream dripped on her wrist as she walked and I snapped a few shots out of curiosity. Lilly licked the ice cream. I got the snaps. The air was thick that day, high humidity. Our models were losing their patience and here walks this girl who just shimmered, licking the ice cream off her wrist, with a bandanna tied across her breasts and her sandals in one hand.” Mick stops. “She was breathtaking.”

   Eve crushes her cigarette, “How Beverly Hillbillies.”

   “I actually was convinced she was with one of the agencies. I knew right away I wanted to shoot her. My assistant walked over to introduce himself. You never know when a skinny local girl might break in big.”

   Lilly makes her way through the crowd.

   “She’s only skinny in the right places,” Eve says. “It’s not fair.”

   Mick says, “She’s got nothing on you, Eve.”

   Eve blushes. “My dad back in Kansas City would call her a ‘looker.’”

   “Us Aussies are vulnerable to beach girls.”
   “Men are just vulnerable,” says Eve.

   “Touche’,” says Mick. “My assistant brought Lilly over that day and she sat in the shade and watched us finish the shoot. I developed the shots back in New York and could tell she had something, but for all I knew, the girl was living in a trailer park in Baton Rouge or Memphis. I didn’t know my assistant had slipped her a card. Six months later Lilly drops by my loft on a go-see.”

   Lilly continues to sidle toward them through the crowded nightclub. She pauses under the grip of a man. Her eyes flash down to his hand on her shoulder. She smiles politely and wiggles free, poking her burning cigarette in the long holder toward the man’s hand in a mock threat, smiling. Mick says, “I set her up with some contacts. Worked to get her going in the business, but Lilly didn’t last. Hit a few road blocks…and created a few.”

   “Like what?” asks George, watching Lilly slide between two women, who hold black purses on gold chains, in black pants and white blouses. The women with flipped U’s of over-bleached hair and red mouths sip from matching glasses of chartreuse. One of the women, the shorter one, tugs at the blouse of the taller woman. Lilly’s eyes register a tall handsome man, with a narrow waist and a wide chest under his white open-collar shirt. He leans and kisses Lilly on each cheek. The taller of the two women grabs the handsome man, but his eyes are on Lilly. The man watches Lilly as he escorts the two women with dead hair and green cocktails to meet someone. Their gestures emphasize that they must meet now. Lilly watches the handsome man follow the two women into the crowd. The handsome man smiles at her and shrugs.

   “Her hands didn’t help,” says Mick.

   George’s eyes go right to Lilly’s mitts, manicured and clutching her sequined clutch with the silver clasp. Not freakish, but thick—her one visible imperfection.

   Eve says, “She is quite beautiful, but I see what you mean.”

   “Fashion isn’t the most-forgiving business,” goes Mick. “Still, Lilly could have worked more. She has the personality, but Lilly doesn’t have the discipline of the best girls. When she first walked into my loft, I felt here was a girl that would do what it took to make it, but I was wrong. What is it you Americans say? You can bring a horse somewhere?”

   “To water,” says Eve. “You can bring a horse to water…”

   “But you can’t make her drink,” says Lilly, running a finger across Mick’s neck. “Hey, Mickey…” Lilly skooches her sheathed butt onto George’s purple leather lounge pod, scrunching him to the edge of the fat crouton. George has to keep his shoes anchored to the floor to keep from sliding off the leather lounge pod and falling on the floor. George balances against Lilly who tosses everyone a big smile. “What’s up with the horses? You been hitting the OTB again, Mr. Tanner?”

   Mick and George look at Lilly.

   “Off Track Betting,” Eve says. “The lady would like to know if you’re playing the ponies, Mickey?”

   Mick smiles, “Hello, Lilly, it’s great to see you.” George’s jet lag gone, he sips his icy glass of bourbon. Lilly’s sheathed white dress presses against his arm, and George smells a fragrance he remembers from a long time ago.

   Lilly holds her hand out to Eve, “Lilly Lejeune, pleased to meet you.” The women shake hands. “You must be a friend of Mick’s?”

   “Yes,” says Eve. “I guess I must me.”
   “I know Mick’s type,” Lilly says.

   Eve waits for Lilly to continue. “All I mean,” Lilly explains, “is that Mick has exceptional taste. I hope I didn’t over reach…you know, speak out of line?”

   “Put your foot in your mouth?” asks Eve.

   “Right,” says Lilly and smiles. “Exactly.”

   “No problem,” says Eve. “Compliment accepted.”

   “Eve and I are just getting acquainted,” Mick says. “I invited her to join my company. We’re going to pull together a feature film, and I want someone to manage the office…George here is writing the script.”

   “A surf story,” George adds. “That was the meeting I was rushing off to this morning.”

   “A surf story?” says Lilly, without missing a beat. “All I know is that it better have teeny-boppers and hot-rods!”

   Mick looks at George, “Teeny boppers and hot-rods? What do you say, George?”

   “Why not…,” says George. “Vroom, vroom!” He raises his glass. “It’s really…” George has no idea what to add.

   Mick clinks his glass against George’s glass. “I can’t wait to read it, George.”

   “George looks so handsome when he’s writing,” Lilly touches George on the arm, “Doesn’t he, Eve?”

   “Yes,” Eve says, “If tonight is any indication…he must look very handsome.”

   Lilly pecks George’s cheek with a kiss. “My upstairs writer…”

   Mick looks at George. George shrugs at Mick. “I guess I’m the writer that lives upstairs…”

   The handsome man walks up to the four of them. He places his hand on Lilly’s bare shoulder. “Excuse me,” he says. Lilly’s hand touches his, their fingers fold together.

   The man disengages and nods to a man in traditional Saudi white robes and the red and white shemagh headwear. The man walks over to the Saudi with the same hand extended in greeting.

   George watches the handsome man. George doesn’t enjoy envy, but envy enjoys George. Envy finds George in coffee shops, behind the wheel at stoplights or even here in a nightclub in Manhattan. Envy holds up the mirror, and George tries not to look at himself.

   “Who needs a drink?” George asks, “This round’s on me.”

Is Intellectualism Gone?

In Academia, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, higher education, Humanities, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on May 5, 2021 at 6:45 am

The News Makes You Dumb

In America, Arts & Letters, Books, Communication, Humanities, Literature, News and Current Events, Writing on August 19, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in Public Discourse.

A pernicious notion seems to have settled into the minds of my generation (I’m 37) when we were little boys and girls. It’s now an unquestioned “fact” that “staying informed,” “staying engaged,” and “following the news” are the obligatory duties of sensible, responsible people.

They’re not.

Reading and watching the news isn’t just unhelpful or uninstructive; it inhibits real learning, true education, and the rigorous cultivation of serious intellectual curiosity.

Simply Gathering Information Is Not Educational

When I was a child, my parents, quite rightly, restricted my television viewing. I could not, for instance, watch television after 5:00 p.m. or for more than an hour on weekdays. (Saturday morning cartoons ran for a permissible two hours, before my parents arose from bed.)

The glaring exception to these rules was “the news.” Watching the evening news was for my family a ritual in information gathering, the necessary means of understanding “current events.” Whatever else people said of it, the news was, by all accounts, educational.

Was it, though? U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously refused to read newspapers. In The Theory of Education in the United States, Albert Jay Nock bemoaned “the colossal, the unconscionable, volume of garbage annually shot upon the public from the presses of the country, largely in the form of newspapers and periodicals.” His point was that a societal emphasis on literacy was by and large ineffectual if the material that most people read was stupid and unserious. Does one actually learn by reading the cant and carping insolence of the noisy commentariat?

“Surely everything depends on what he reads,” Nock said of the average person, “and upon the purpose that guides him in reading it.” What matters is not that one reads but what and how one reads. “You can read merely to pass the time,” the great Harold Bloom remarked, “or you can read with an overt urgency, but eventually you will read against the clock.”

The heart beats only so many beats; in one life, a person can read only so much. Why squander away precious minutes reading mediocre scribbling or watching rude, crude talking heads debate transitory political matters of ultimately insignificant import, when instead, in perfect solitude, you could expand your imagination, nurture your judgment and discernment, refine your logic and reasoning, and purge yourself of ignorance, by pursuing wisdom and objective knowledge, through the canon of great literature, with a magnanimous spirit of openness and humility?

Why let obsequious, unlettered journalists on CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC shape your conscience, determine your beliefs, or develop your dependency on allegedly expert opinion, as if you were a docile creature lacking the courage to formulate your own ideas, when you could, instead, empower yourself through laborious study, exert your own understanding, and free yourself from the cramped cage of contemporary culture by analyzing past cultures, foreign places, difficult texts, and profound ideas?

The Demise of Journalism

When I was in college, not so long ago, you could still find semicolons in The New York Times. I’m told they surface there every now and then, but journalistic writing, as a whole, across the industry, is not what it once was. I’m being hyperbolic, of course, and am not so pedantic as to link semicolon usage with across-the-board journalistic standards. Besides, the Kurt Vonneguts of the world would have been pleased to be rid of semicolons. All I’m saying is that popular media should be more challenging if it’s to have far-reaching, salubrious effects. Newspaper writing, print or online, seems to have dumbed down to the point of harming rather than helping society writ large, and the opinions aired on television and radio seem to have attached themselves to one political party or another rather than liberating themselves from groupthink and stodgy consensus.

Reading as an activity should lift of us up, not drag us down. It should inspire and require us to improve our cognitive habits and performance. The same goes for listening: how we listen and what we listen to affects our basic competency and awareness.

Not only have the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax displayed in “the news” diminished in sophistication, both in print and on television and radio, but also more generally the principal subject matter has moved from the complex and the challenging to the easy and simplistic. Media coverage focuses predominantly on contemporary partisan politics that occasion minimal cognitive energy.

There’s a reason why so many people pay attention to politics: it just isn’t that difficult to think about or discuss. It doesn’t demand rational labor or arduous engagement. It can be passively absorbed. Ratings of television news would not be so high if its content weren’t so simplistic and easy to process. People watch the news to take a break or relax, or to get a rise out of eye-catching scandals and circumstances. The distinction between journalism and tabloid journalism has blurred beyond recognition. In short, journalism is a dying art.

Dangers of a Digital Age

Smart phones and social media are part of the problem. Every age has anxieties about technology. We shouldn’t blame smart phones and social media for human sins. The discourse, not the medium through which it circulates, ultimately is the problem. Yet it’s a problem that smart phones and social media have enabled in a way that past technologies could not. To air an opinion, anyone anywhere can simply tweet or post on Facebook without channeling the message through editors or other mediators.

Digital and smart devices have accelerated editorial processes. The never-ending race to publish “breaking” news results in slipshod work. Online reporting is full of typos and errors. A few clever reporters employ terms like Orwellian, Kafkaesque, Machiavellian, or Dickensian to give the impression of literacy, but the truly literate aren’t fooled.

Have journalistic practices and standards declined as literacy rates have risen? Does an increase in readership necessitate a reduction in quality? Do editors and publishers compete for the lowest common denominator, forgoing excellence and difficulty in order to achieve broad appeal?

Demanding stories and accounts that enrich reading habits and exercise mental faculties aren’t merely salacious or sensationalized clickbait. So they’re difficult, these days, to find, unless you already know where to look.

In the 1980s, E. D. Hirsch, Jr. could write with confidence that newspapers assumed a common reader, i.e., “a person who knows the things known by other literate persons in the culture.” Neither journalists nor their readers today, however, seem literate in the traditional sense of that term. The culture of literacy—true literacy, again in the traditional sense of that term—has come under attack by the very scholars and professors who should be its eager champions.

Our popular pundits, mostly hired guns, supply unqualified, cookie-cutter answers to often manufactured problems; their job is not to inform but to entertain a daft and credulous public. “The liberally educated person,” by contrast, is, according to Allan Bloom, “one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration.”

Seek Wisdom and Discernment over Politics and Personal Preference

If we wish to consume the news, we should treat it as junk food. The human body cannot healthily sustain itself on candy bars alone. It requires a balanced diet, nutrition, and exercise. So it is with the mind. Fed only junk, it’s malnourished.

Every now and then we may indulge the vice of chocolate or soda without impairing our overall, long-term health. Likewise we may watch without permanent or severe detriment the screeching cacophonies of semiliterate blatherskites like Sean Hannity, Wolf Blitzer, Chris Wallace, Anderson Cooper, Tucker Carlson, Jake Tapper, or, heaven help us, the worst of the worst, Chris Cuomo.

Just know that during the hour spent watching these prattling performers present tendentious interpretations of fresh facts, militantly employing tedious details to service ideological narratives, you could have read an informative book that placed the applicable subject matter into illuminating historical and philosophical context. The facts may be simple and quick, but interpreting them requires knowledge of the past, including the complexities and contingencies of the relevant religious movements, geographies, anthropologies, governments, literatures, and cultures. Devouring ephemeral media segments and sound bites in rapid succession is not learning. It is gluttonous distraction.

Do not misunderstand me: I do not advocate a Luddite lifestyle or a withdrawal from society and the workaday world. I just mean that too many of us, too much of the time, are enthralled by fleeting media trifles and trivialities, and ensnared in the trap of mindless entertainment disguised as vigorous edification.

Let’s stop telling little children what my generation heard when we were kids. They should stay away from the news lest they fall prey to its mania, foolishness, and stupidity. They should read books—difficult books—and be challenged to improve themselves and refine their techniques. Rather than settling on easy, preferred answers, they should accept tensions and contingencies, suspending judgment until all angles have been pursued and all perspectives have been considered. Let’s teach them to become, not activists or engaged citizens necessarily, but intelligent human beings who love knowledge and learning, and who pursue wisdom and discernment before mundane politics.

Review of Adam J. MacLeod’s “The Age of Selfies”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Civics, Communication, Humanities, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication on August 5, 2020 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman.

Salma Hayek makes headlines each time she posts a selfie on Instagram. I know this because years ago I set a “Google alert” for the name “Hayek” so that I wouldn’t miss new articles about the great economist and legal theorist Friedrich Hayek. Now, for better or worse, Salma Hayek updates from around the Internet appear in my inbox every morning. We truly live in the Age of Selfies.

That’s the title of the latest book by my colleague, Adam MacLeod, a professor of law at Faulkner University Thomas Goode Jones School of Law in Montgomery, Alabama. The Age of Selfies is a quick read with a straightforward argument about the importance of reasonable, principled disagreement to our civic discourse, institutions, and education. Underlying our passionate disagreements about fundamental principles, MacLeod suggests, is an abiding agreement about the reality of right and wrong, good and bad, truth and error. We quarrel over political issues, he claims, because we hold sincere beliefs about what is or is not moral, presupposing that morality is not only existent but knowable. Most of us, anyway, reject nihilism. Effective, constructive disagreement is, therefore, possible among those who realize this central commonality that holds together otherwise incompatible convictions.

“That many of us speak and act as if moral and political questions have right and wrong answers,” says MacLeod, “indicates that, for all of our fractious disagreement, a consensus is emerging that there is moral truth—right and wrong—about questions that occupy our public discourse.” You would be correct if you guessed that the New Natural Law (an Aristotelian-Thomistic approach to jurisprudence popularized by John Finnis and Robert P. George) rests beneath the surface of this seeming optimism. To oversimplify, the new natural lawyers exposit that practical reasoning enables us to recognize and pursue ends that are intrinsically good and desirable, and that, moreover, fulfill our rational nature as human beings (“every person you encounter,” explains MacLeod, “is an agent of reason and reasoned choice”). It is only a small step, from there, to propose that sensible human beings of good faith can reason together to achieve workable peace and productive civility regarding even controversial matters involving, say, marriage or abortion.

Are the new natural lawyers correct about human nature? Is the human capacity for reason overstated? Do the horrors of the French Revolution caution against the Cult of Reason? What if David Hume was right that reason is the slave of the passions? What if the mind is inherently limited, its memory only partial and selective and its understanding of truth necessarily circumscribed? What if we see only through a glass darkly even if we follow the light of the world? What if many philosophical positions are merely pre-textual rather than genuine? What if they are expounded solely and perversely for political power or personal gain? What if their very terms reject compromise, dissent, or negotiation? What if most people are unreasonable and irrational, motivated more by passion and emotion than by logic and good sense? What if the ordinary response to conflict is anger and outrage rather than patient contemplation? What if hubris is more common than humility? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but, whatever they are, they could diminish the force of MacLeod’s arguments.

Yet they are great and hopeful arguments, predicated against the fashionable notion that what “we” are is simply “a collection of selfies, which are carefully crafted, externally projected images of individual self-constitution.” A person identifies himself or herself—or itself or they or whatever—with community brands (and the concepts they entail) without subscribing or adhering to the principles, doctrines, or teachings that define and govern that community. So, for instance, one can, today, identify as both a Muslim and a Christian even if those two religions are by their own tenets mutually exclusive. Who are we, the naysayers, to criticize this apparent contradiction if it feels authentic to the person professing it?

When people argue over the meaning of a guiding externality—a religious text, a statute, the language of a constitution, a novel—their interpretive differences are rooted in a common source (the document under consideration). MacLeod calls this common source a “neutral ground.” In a sense, MacLeod’s book is, more or less, an attempt to supply “neutral ground” where it is currently lacking, pointing out where people of differing viewpoints agree about the primacy and reality of morality itself.

When people argue, however, over internalities—that is, purely subjective preferences, emotions, or feelings—there is no common source, no independently measurable basis for assessing the validity or invalidity of the views a person embraces. The fact that a person holds them is supposed to suffice by itself. “The fundamental problem is that, on the whole,” MacLeod submits, “young people have made their moral reasoning thoroughly personal.” Accordingly, “[w]hat matters most to them—the only thing that matters to some of them—is that they are true to themselves.”

The ultimate wrong, according to someone who thinks along these lines, is to be judgmental or discriminating or otherwise unaccepting of the allegedly authentic identity of another. The supposedly non-judgmental person nevertheless believes that some actions are not okay, are out of bounds, or, to employ moral vocabulary, wrong. To condemn a person as judgmental is, after all, to express a judgment, to call someone else wrong. Relativism isn’t at play. To deem someone else’s judgment wrong is to suggest that a different judgment is right.

What is to be done about this muddle? This question is a variation on what MacLeod dubs “The Practical Question”: “What shall I do?” Every thinking human being must ask The Practical Question to act to fulfill an objective. For starters, we can stop treating the past as a monolithic category of horrible wrongs and mine it for the good, the beautiful, and the useful. Rather than dismissing all history outright, wrestle with it, search out examples and analyze tensions and contradictions. For an audience of teachers and students, this means working through disagreement and accommodating diverse viewpoints for the sake of clarity and understanding—not because each view is equally strong or valid but because the test of its strength or validity depends upon its being studied, weighed, and refuted.

The nature of rights and duties, the meaning and idea of truth, the concept of sin, the power of indifference—these and other subjects prompt MacLeod into showing that dialogue and conversation break down when, instead of enumerating reasons and arguments in favor of some belief, an adherent simply cites internal preferences as a sort of trump card to end debate. He celebrates private ordering and pluralism as key to self-governance and community harmony absent unwarranted state coercion or government compulsion. “We can,” he avers, “lower the stakes of our public controversies, lower the temperature of our civic discourse, and avoid zero-sum contests over totalizing plans of action if we will simply allow the plural domains of society to do their work.” Such diversity recalls the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity.

MacLeod’s urgent refrain-of-musts will echo in the thoughts and prayers of sensitive, conscientious readers: “If we are going to get anywhere in our discourse, then we must move beyond stereotypes and personal attacks. We must stop attributing to each other the worst motivations. We must instead seek to understand the reasonable, even admirable, motivations of people with whom we disagree.” This seems, and, I daresay, feels right.

And who knows? Maybe Salma Hayek, browsing her daily Google alerts, will discover her name in this very review, read The Age of Selfies, and then use her celebrity to promote practical reasoning about fundamental rights. A man can dream anyway. 

Review of Marcus Witcher’s “Getting Right with Reagan”

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities on July 29, 2020 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here at the Alabama Political Reporter. 

I am, as they say, a “Reagan Baby.” This fact used to stun people. “How can someone born in 1983 be a full grown adult?” they would ask. “Where has the time gone?” they wondered.  

Things have changed; years have passed. These days my undergraduate students have no memory of 9/11, let alone any realistic notion about what quotidian life was like in the 1980s, which, for them, is that strange and distant era of big hair, synthesizers, neon clothing, and bad films.

Marcus M. Witcher’s cleverly titled Getting Right with Reagan, recently released by the University Press of Kansas, sheds light on this transformative period, in particular on its leading political figure, the 40th President of the United States of America, Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Having written much of this book as part of his doctoral dissertation in history at the University of Alabama, Witcher (himself a Reagan Baby who’s now a Reagan scholar) argues that Reagan was not the stalwart conservative that Republican iconography and mythology have made him out to be. Rather, this telegenic, charismatic movie-star-cum-president was also conciliatory and pragmatic, appeasing Democratic politicians to transform aspirational public policy into operative legislation.

Republicans under 40 might be surprised to learn that Reagan’s conservative contemporariesjournalists especially, didn’t believe a Reagan Revolution had ever occurred, or that if it had, then it hadn’t accomplished what its proponents desired in terms of large-scale, long-term effects.

So why do conservatives today celebrate the coalition-building Reagan as their purist standard-bearer? Why are Republican presidential primary debates held, symbolically, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library? Why are Republicans obligated to pay lip-service to Reagan to demonstrate their conservative bona fides and party loyalty?

Witcher supplies five principal reasons. The first is that future Republican presidents, namely the Bush father and son, were not sufficiently conservative. They expanded the federal government in domestic areas such as education while adopting the foreign policy of a Woodrow Wilson rather than a Robert A. Taft. The second is that, in Witcher’s words, “fortuitous historical events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, … made [Reagan’s] policies appear prescient.”

The third reason is that the recession following the 2008 financial crisis resulted in conservative nostalgia for the more prosperous 1980s. The fourth is less about remembering and more about overlooking: “Social conservatives have forgotten how frustrated they were with Reagan during the 1980s for his inability to pass a right-to-life amendment and a school-prayer amendment.”

Finally, Reagan’s withdrawal from politics after he left the White House repaired his reputation. He was no longer a partisan target. The same might be said of George W. Bush, whose popularity has risen, even among Democrats, during the presidency of Donald J. Trump.

Witcher traces evolving perceptions of Reagan over the last 40 years. Readers looking for hero worship or biographical accounts of Reagan’s everyday experiences in the Oval Office should consult a different book. Those who are curious about Reagan’s role in the historical development of the conservative movement and its practical adjunct, the Republican Party, will find here the definitive study, one that implicitly raises grave questions about the future of conservatism during its present state of fracture and division.

Witcher’s claims are not without critics. For example, Paul Kengor, a professor of political science at Grove City College, referring to Witcher’s rendering of Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union and nuclear weapons, writes, Witcher sticks to an old argument about Reagan that appears to have staying power among liberal Reagan scholars who will not let go despite indisputable evidence to the contrary.”

My astute friend Don Devine, who served in the Reagan Administration as director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, has, in a convivial context, quarreled with Witcher. I was fortunate to witness firsthand a constructive, unplanned, and unexpected debate between doctors Devine and Witcher over cocktails in the hallway of a reception during a recent Philadelphia Society meeting. Both men are, shall we say, vocal in their opinions. And both stood their ground regarding their differing interpretations of the Great Communicator.

Getting Right with Reagan is admirably researched, with well over a hundred pages of footnotes and an extensive bibliography. But it reads, mercifully, like popular, highbrow entertainment, free of the pedantic jargon and convoluted syntax that so often mire scholarship published by university presses.

Witcher will become a faculty member in the history department at Huntingdon College this August. He is at work on future projects about American conservatism and will, I suspect, contribute to Montgomery’s intellectual scene, and maybe even improve its mediocre political discourse.

We all, critics and adherents alike, have much to learn about conservatism: what it is, why it is, and where it’s headed. If we can make sense of how Reagan became a figurehead of the mainstream Republican establishment, perhaps we can understand, if only a little better, our current political moment, with all its rancor and tumult.

Russell Kirk on Higher Education

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, higher education, History, Humanities, Imagination, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on February 12, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal 

Russell Kirk isn’t known as a policy wonk. The Great Books, not the mathematical or statistical models of economic technicians, were his organon of choice. He devoted essays to broad, perennial themes like “the moral imagination,” “liberal learning,” and “the permanent things.”

Read his numerous columns about higher education, however, and you might come away with a different impression, one of Kirk as a political strategist with a strong grasp of educational policy.

Kirk wrote on a wide variety of issues involving higher education: accreditation, academic freedom, tenure, curriculum, vocational training, community colleges, adult education, college presidents, textbooks, fraternities and Greek life, enrollment, seminaries, tuition, teachers’ unions, collective bargaining, student activism, British universities, urban versus rural schools, boards of trustees, university governance, the hard sciences, grade inflation, lowering academic standards, libraries, private versus public schooling, civics education, sex education, school vouchers, university presses, and more.

One of his go-to subjects implicates several of those issues: federal subsidies. He believed that federal money threatened the mission and integrity of universities in numerous areas.

For starters, he believed that federal subsidies—and, it must be added, foundation grants—created perverse incentives for researchers, who might conform to the benefactor’s “preferences” and “value judgments.”[1] Recalling the proverb that “[t]he man who pays the piper calls the tune,”[2] he cautioned against financial dependency on outside influences, which, he worried, could impose ideological conditions on grants to advance or purge particular viewpoints.

Moreover, the grantors, whether they were foundations or the government, would, he believed, quantify the value of their funded work according to measurable outcome assessments that were “easily tabulated and defensible.”[3] The intrinsic value of reading Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Herodotus, or Euripides, however, is not easily assessed in instrumental terms.

More fundamentally, Kirk viewed federal involvement in higher education as a step toward the centralization and consolidation of power at the expense of local variety. He foresaw the creation of the U.S. Department of Education long before it occurred.[4] Fearing the growth of an “educationist hierarchy” or an “empire of educationism” corrupted by “sinecures” and “patronage,”[5] he favored small, private, liberal-arts colleges, which, he believed, flourished when they committed to mission and tradition.[6]

“The American college—the small liberal arts college—is worth preserving,” Kirk wrote, “but it can be preserved, in our time of flux, only if it is reformed.”[7] Kirk’s reform was reactionary, not progressive.[8] It rejected the popular focus on vocation and specialization and sought to train “men and women who know what it is to be truly human, who have some taste for contemplation, who take long views, and who have a sense of moral responsibility and intellectual order.”[9] Even if they can’t be calculated precisely, these vague-yet-discernable qualities of literate people are beneficial to society writ large, in Kirk’s view. In other words, there’s an appreciable difference between literate and illiterate societies.

Kirk decried the alarming escalation of tuition prices. In 1979, he wrote, “Attendance at colleges and universities is becoming hopelessly expensive.”[10] Forty years later, the costs of attending college have risen exponentially. Kirk opposed federal aid or scholarships to students,[11] but not, from what I can tell, for the economic reason that the ready availability of federal funding would enable universities to hike tuition rates to artificially high levels. Perhaps, even in his skepticism, he couldn’t conceive of university leadership as so systematically exploitative.

We continue to hear echoes of Kirk’s observation that the typical college student “oughtn’t to be in college at all: he has simply come along for the fun and a snob-degree, and his bored presence reduces standards at most American universities.”[12] Elsewhere, he claimed that “[w]e have been trying to confer the higher learning upon far too many young people, and the cost per capita has become inordinate.”[13] The question of why students attend college is closely related to that of the fundamental purpose of college.

Uncertainty regarding the point of higher education—whether it’s to develop the inquisitive mind, expand the frontiers of knowledge, equip students with jobs skills, or something else entirely—seems more pronounced today in light of technological, economic, and population changes. Moreover, it remains true that “most of the universities and colleges are forced to do the work that ordinary schools did only a generation ago.”[14] Shouldn’t higher education accomplish more than remedial education? Doesn’t it have a greater end?

Kirk certainly thought so—at least if higher education were properly liberal. “By ‘liberal education,’” he explained, “we mean an ordering and integrating of knowledge for the benefit of the free person—as contrasted with technical or professional schooling, now somewhat vaingloriously called ‘career education.’”[15]

Kirk’s surprising wonkishness, and his facility in policy debates, always submitted to this overarching goal: Defending order against disorder, in both the soul and the larger polity.[16] “The primary purpose of a liberal education,” he said, “is the cultivation of the person’s own intellect and imagination, for the person’s own sake.”[17]

The aspiration of policy wasn’t policymaking. Kirk’s short-term strategies serviced a paramount objective: Namely, to seek wisdom, virtue, truth, clarity, and understanding. You can’t simply quantify the value of that.

[1] Russell Kirk, “Massive Subsidies and Academic Freedom,” Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 28, No. 3 (1963), 608.

[2] Ibid. at 607.

[3] Ibid. at 611.

[4] Russell Kirk, “Federal Aid to Educational Bureaucracy,” National Review, Vol. 10 (February 25, 1961), 116.

[5] Russell Kirk, “The Federal Educational Boondoggle,” National Review, Vol. 5 (March 15, 1958), 257.

[6] See generally Russell Kirk, “The American College: A Proposal for Reform,” The Georgia Review, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Summer 1957), 177-186.

[7] Ibid. at 177.

[8] Ibid. (“our age seems to require a reform that is reactionary, rather than innovating”).

[9] Ibid. at 182-83.

[10] Russell Kirk, “More Freedom Per Dollar,” National Review, Vol 31 (April 13, 1979), 488.

[11] Russell Kirk, “Federal Scholarships,” National Review, Vol. 2 (November 24, 1956), 18.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Russell Kirk, “Who Should Pay for Higher Education?” Vol. 23 (May 18, 1971), 534.

[14] Russell Kirk, “Federal Education,” National Review, Vol. 4 (December 28, 1957), 592.

[15] Russell Kirk, “The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education,” in The Essential Russell Kirk, edited by George A. Panichas (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2007), 398.

[16] Ibid. at 400.

[17] Ibid.

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