Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, by Paul Johnson

Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and ChomskyIntellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky by Paul Johnson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

In the first and last pages of Intellectuals, historian Paul Johnson makes his succinct case against “the secular intellectual.” He says intellectuals are influential men who ignored the inherited wisdom of the ages, sought to replace the authority of God with their own reason, and proceeded to squeeze the culture into a shape of their choosing.

To test how suitable such individuals were to guide mankind, Johnson selects a small handful of representative philosophers, poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists and political malcontents. Beginning with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, each chapter exposes the strengths and weaknesses, mainly weaknesses, of each candidate.

The result is a very informative, yet sobering and ultimately mind-numbing survey of society’s general decline over the past two centuries or so.

It is unlikely Johnson employed an objective list of qualifications to settle on this particular shortlist of intellectuals, unless the parameters included such factors as: abused the generosity of others, mismanaged family relationships, suffered from sexual problems, and rearranged the facts in order to misrepresent even their own personal lives.

While some of the lost fragments of history are interesting, Johnson’s eagerness to demonstrate the parallels between them renders the study monotonous. He gives the subjects’ accomplishments only the most basic mention, while information about their personal debts and illegitimate children crowds out everything else.

If Johnson succeeds in driving home the point that intellectuals are dangerous liars with no morals who cannot be trusted to guide society, he simultaneously reveals himself as an inadequate guide to intellectuals. Or, at least, not a very entertaining one.

Term limits and the advantages of incumbency

RandPaul-JohnMcCainThe debate over term limits has bubbled to the surface again, thanks in part to a couple of events that occurred last week.

First, Sen. Rand Paul reaffirmed his support of term limits in a speech announcing his entry into the 2016 Presidential race. For several years, Sen. Paul has called for a Constitutional Amendment placing a term limit on members of Congress.

On the same day, John McCain announced his decision to run for reelection to the U.S. Senate, for what would be the fifth time. The two announcements weren’t exactly related, but it was an ironic pairing.

While term limits are popular with voters, were included in the Republican majority’s “Contract With America” in 1994, and are active in more than a dozen state legislatures, they’ve failed to gain much traction nationally.

Columnists like Matt K. Lewis argue that elections are term limits. Wouldn’t it be more in line with conservative or libertarian thought to trust the voters with these decisions, and not to limit their options? After all, Lewis reminds us, President Ronald Reagan wanted to end presidential term limits.

Even Reagan was wrong sometimes. The people who share this view often fail to contemplate the reasons why incumbents are so difficult to unseat. When former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost to Rep. Dave Brat in last year’s primary, it was huge news, because that almost never happens.

Incumbents don’t lose. Here are nine reasons why. Continue reading

Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible (Works, Vol 5)Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Life Together was written during an interesting period in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. At that time, he was leading an underground seminary, evading Nazi persecution and the party’s domination and corruption of the Christian church and its institutions.

Bonhoeffer’s religious instruction and devotional practices are described in Eric Metaxas’s engaging biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Life Together fills in the specifics and context behind Bonhoeffer’s personal habits, such as meditating on small portions of scripture for extended periods of time.

Life Together is a guidebook for Christians living out their faith with one another in small communities such as families. Bonhoeffer explains not only why such communities exist but also how they ought to operate and view each other, with Christ always at the center, bringing a new reality to every relationship.

Bonhoeffer emphasizes the necessity of taking the world as it is, and the importance of accepting the church as she is, not as one might wish her to be. That’s not to say accepting of sin, but rather accepting of reality, and embracing the role God would have us assume and learning the lessons He desires to teach us.

A brief study, Life Together focuses mainly on the basic elements of Christian life and practice: prayer, scripture reading, worship, fellowship, confession and meditation. As standard as these practices are in the church, Bonhoeffer provides deep and profound insights revealing meaning and importance that may not be obvious to the average Christian.

Life Together contains many of the signature, stylistic features of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, but is more polished and organized because it is a completed work, where Ethics was left unfinished because of the author’s murder at the hands of the national socialists.

12 reasons Hillary Clinton’s email secrecy is a problem

As the initial furor subsides following news of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email system while serving as Secretary of State, her political supporters have begun dismissing the controversy as much ado about nothing.

The passage of time, political partisanship and limits on the average American’s attention span will no doubt aid them in that effort.

So in order to preserve an outline of the specifics, what follows are 12 distinct reasons why Secretary Clinton’s email secrecy is a problem: Continue reading

The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, by Jonah Goldberg

The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of IdeasThe Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas by Jonah Goldberg

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jonah Goldberg’s second book is nothing like Liberal Fascism, his debut. While both books are concerned with correcting the historical record, challenging commonly-held assumptions and forcing the political Left to face its own ideological endowment, The Tyranny of Clichés is less focused and more rapidly paced. It also features the breezy humor of Goldberg’s syndicated column and online editorials, conspicuously absent from the first.

That’s not to say Goldberg’s follow-up lacks serious punch. But in place of the one hefty knockout blow of Liberal Fascism, the short chapters of The Tyranny of Clichés cover a wide range of subjects and deliver a combination of political jabs and hooks. In that sense, the book is closer in style to The Secret Knowledge by David Mamet, whose approving quote appears on the dust jacket.

In The Tyranny of Clichés, Goldberg exposes the ideological wolves lurking beneath a variety of common arguments (or mere catchphrases masquerading as arguments) and denies them unearned access to the moral high ground they’re accustomed to roaming, unchallenged.

“Progressives,” Goldberg writes, “hide their ideological agenda within Trojan Horse clichés and smug assertions that they are simply pragmatists, fact finders, and empiricists who are clearheaded slaves to ‘what works.'”

Goldberg saves his most succinct definition of the title for the chapter on science, more than halfway through the book: “[T]he tyranny of clichés can be understood as the use of allegedly nonideological insights to advance starkly ideological understandings of the world[.]”

While some of the clichés Goldberg targets are easily recognized and dispatched with, such as “violence never solved anything,” or “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” most of them are less obvious and require deeper examination.

If I have any criticism of The Tyranny of Cliches, it’s limited to the few times Goldberg resorts to clichés himself (although he admits to it immediately upon writing, “forgetting history can lead to repeating it”) and to my annoyance with the cover art. Roman Genn is a talented caricature artist, but the cover illustration does not match the mood of the book. Additionally, it gets the point wrong. If the clichés allow radicals to disguise their true intentions, the marionette should look unassuming and the puppeteer should be the pierced, shrieking, Che Guevara t-shirt wearing, cliché(!) Marxist student.

That said, readers will enjoy discovering many interesting pieces of forgotten history while watching Goldberg deconstruct, dismantle and debunk many of the popular arguments and expressions in currency today among progressives and reflexively anti-American radicals.

Novus Ordo Seclorum by Forrest McDonald

novus-ordo-seclorumNovus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution by Forrest McDonald

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I received this book as a gift and dropped in without knowing it was part three of a historical trilogy.

With Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution, historian Forrest McDonald completes the series he began with We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution, and followed with E Pluribus Unum: The Formation of the American Republic, 1776-1790.

McDonald submitted the first in the series as a corrective response to another study of the Founders, which had inappropriately interpreted the Constitution as a document “serving the economic interests of the Framers as members of the propertied class.”

In Novus Ordo Seclorum, or “new order of the ages,” McDonald completes his original argument that the Founders didn’t have a singular, shared, economic interest, while also responding to a consensus that had emerged among historians pinning the Constitution’s foundation to neoclassical republican ideology.

This consensus McDonald finds “ultimately unsatisfying” for a similar reason, because “it fails to distinguish among the several kinds of republicanism that were espoused,” reflecting regionally different social and economic norms.

While the Founders had many things in common – shared experiences, a shared reverence for republican governance, and knowledge of history and political theory – they often had different understandings of the terms, principles and preferred means.

And perhaps just as striking, the ideological reference points at their disposal were incompatible. Nothing in history or in theory had led them directly to the decisions they made in forming the Constitution, nor had they arrived at the outcome without serious deliberation, repeated compromises, and a leap of faith.

The result was a Constitution unlike any previously written, detailing a government assembled like none had ever been. There was no terminology even to describe its form, so the word “republic” was appropriated and redefined.

McDonald makes his case by offering “a reasonably comprehensive survey of the complex body of political thought (including history and law and political economy) that went into the framing of the Constitution.”

The survey is not an easy read, and it could certainly benefit from some formatting enhancements (subheadings, numbered lists, etc.). There is no captivating narrative, nor any engaging drama, just a sober presentation of facts, littered with footnotes. That’s the reason I give it a two-star rating, despite the importance of the subject, and the seriousness and reverence with which it is examined.

The serious reader will learn much about the context that shaped the Founders’ opinions, what ideas were at the ready, what kind of legal environment had been their custom, and what they had meant by key terms such as liberty, property, and equality.

McDonald also catalogs what was then understood about the relatively new economic field of study, and he identifies the camps that formed around various points during the Constitutional Convention.

What I appreciate most from Novus Ordo Seclorum is the impression of the Constitution as a delicate collage, the product of a diverse array of thinkers, compromises and considerations. The whole is stronger than the parts, and if any of them had been more or less dominant, the entire project could have fallen apart quickly, or never been completed in the first place.