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Caleb Stegall reviews Bill Kauffman’s Look Homeward, America in the Fall 2006 Intercollegiate Review. Here is a .PDF form of the review.
Speaking of The Intercollegiate Review, I will be reviewing Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul for them. That’s going to be some good fun, if I can just make it through the book…
The size of government, that is. Michael writes a solid, favourable review of Joel Miller’s Size Matters at AFF’s Brainwash and considers the problems of deregulation in a society lacking in any strong bonds of cultural and moral community. Here is a snippet:
There may be a chicken and egg debate here. Were the people adventurers and innovators because they were free? Or were they free because adventurers and innovators assert and maintain their own freedom? The question for today may not be “What happens when the people are not free?” but, “What happens when the people do not want freedom?”
Last week I watched the DVD of The White Countess, one of those classy Merchant Ivory productions that critics adore and virtually no one goes to see. This is not because these are usually bad movies, but because most people wouldn’t know compelling filmmaking if they ran over it with their car (they would likely keep driving and never look back). It is the product of bringing together screenwriter Kazuo Ishugiro with director James Ivory of Remains of the Day fame once again. Ismail Merchant, the producer side of the Merchant Ivory label, died in the same year the film was released.
Starring Ralph Fiennes as a blind American retired diplomat Todd Jackson, now lending his name to give credibility to a business venture in Shanghai (gotta love that Open Door!), and Natasha Richardson as the eponymous White countess Sofia Belinsky, who is living in exile with her family, the film can best be described as a sort of Casablanca in reverse or, better yet, Casablanca inverted. (I should give credit to Leon Hadar’s post on The Lost City, which reminded me of the Casablanca comparison I wanted to make with Countess.)
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Each side seeks the imprimatur of the Founding Fathers and Meacham’s book renders judgment. The Founding Fathers occupied the “sensible center” of American life and promoted a non-sectarian public religiosity. There would be no coercion in American religious life but religion would influence public policy because it influences the men and women in this nation. From the Founding itself to Lincoln’s civil war to the Civil Rights movement, Meacham contends that the center holds. The thesis is as calm, moderate and ’sensible’ as Meacham himself. Too bad then that this book is so insipid, dishonest and ugly it could make the easygoing agnostic long for the clerical bloodshed of the guillotine and your local Unitarian nostalgic for the rack and thumbscrews. ~Michael Brendan Dougherty
Michael has another great bit where he digs into Meacham’s treatment of American history:
The American history that Meacham presents is almost comically like the caricature conservative critics make of American history classes in public high school. It goes like this: The Founding fell short of its ideals because of slavery. Then slavery, slavery slavery. Then Lincoln was our greatest President and then Wilson was a great idealist, then the evil isolationists were defeated by F.D.R - then Martin Luther King happened - and don’t say a bad thing about any of them. In Meacham’s story they are all perfect exemplars of the American Gospel.
Michael’s tone here is perfect and appropriately serious, but the picture he gives of Meacham’s understanding of history also calls to mind a similarly sophisticated account of world history in the movie Airplane 2:
McCroskey: Jacobs, I want to know absolutely everything that’s happened up till now.
Jacobs: Well, let’s see. First the earth cooled. And then the dinosaurs came, but they got too big and fat, so they all died and they turned into oil. And then the Arabs came and they bought Mercedes Benzes.
Already critics have jumped out of their Manhattan apartments to accuse Rod Dreher of selling a kind of lifestyle conservatism; that crunchy conservatism is another “choice” in the panoply of lifestyles that are afforded to us by the free market. Dreher’s book, often at great pains, tries to demonstrate that the sensibility that informs crunchy conservatism is a natural expression of the traditional values that political conservatives claim to honor. ~Michael Brendan Dougherty, AFF’s Brainwash
Kelly Jane Torrance reviews Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons at The American Enterprise. She gives a generally positive assessment, though no review would be complete without at least one shot across the bow:
There are some policy prescriptions, however, and most of them involve bigger government. His frequent rants against modern agriculture ignore how many people those methods have fed. He also advises, “Use government, within limits, to look after the poor and the weak without creating a culture of dependency.” Politicians and social scientists have been trying to devise such programs—without success—for decades now. Dreher’s earnestness sometimes gets the better of him. Perhaps his happy medium between a free market and a cohesive but overpowering society tilts too much in one direction at times. He’s learned a lot from Russell Kirk. But he may have forgotten some of the lessons of Milton Friedman.
Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World by Chantal Delsol (ISI Crosscurrents, 2003)
With Icarus Fallen, Chantal Delsol has written a thoughtful and timely book cataloguing the crisis of what she and others have elsewhere called “late modernity,” arising from modern man’s attempt to ‘liberate’ himself from his existential and historic condition and to (try to) eliminate the structures (i.e., politics, economics, religion, morality, etc.) that have persistently defined and filled human existence. In this reflection on the late modern condition, Delsol argues that contemporary (Western) man has emerged from the crucible of the collapse of earlier systems of meaning into what should be a veritable utopia of prosperity and peace since 1945. Modern man is confronted with the re-emergence, albeit often in different forms, of the fundamental structures he has tried to abolish, underscoring the impossibility of the original goal of elimination. However, because of the real (and perceived) disasters wrought by systems of certitude in the past, contemporary man is afraid of truth, so he banishes it only to find himself still longing for the meaning it provides, while remaining opposed to any real conception of absolute good (but still in need of a good) and trapped under the two oppressive weights of the neglect of ultimate questions and the substitute system of goods that makes up contemporary democracy and “human rights” worship.
There are many keen insights in the book, and there are passages that hint at brilliance, but there is also an uneven quality stemming from the author’s diffidence with respect to revealed religion and excessive confidence with respect to the political habits and institutions of Western societies. In the end, the book is a diagnosis of what ails late modernity and an affirmation that ultimate questions of meaning will not go away, but will become more pressing, because they are an unavoidable part of human existence, but it offers little in the way of remedies with respect to rediscovering truth and the respect for truth. Her preemptive dismissal of any sort of ‘return’ to Christianity as a way of knowing the absolute and finding certain meaning emerges from what can only be described as an intellectual’s studied detachment from authority. Even as she grants that religion is a permanent part of human life, she cannot grant that any religion has real access to the absolute, much less the only or uniquely privileged access to the absolute; even as she grants that political authority, the world of obedience and commands, is an unavoidable part of human life, I suspect she has no interest in any politics that enshrines the principle of authority. She is a good freethinking democrat (this is not meant pejoratively but descriptively), and she is warning the West that the tangible goods of the freethinking, democratic world are in serious danger under the current management with its very particular reading of the “philosophy of rights” and what democracy entails. Those of us in the religious, traditional and authoritarian camps can appreciate her observations, even if we cannot share her barely concealed hostility to most historic expressions of a rightist politics of meaning in the last 200 years.
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