Perhaps no poem captures the cultural and spiritual crisis facing the West in the aftermath of World War I better than “The Second Coming.” Although it is often tossed around thoughtlessly in modern pop culture, Yeats’s short poem evokes not only the anxiety of modernity—“the falcon cannot hear the falconer / Things fall apart”—but also the sense that something terrible and inevitable is emerging.
It begins with an “Initial Public Offering” (punctuated by nearly 40 parenthetical asides—some as long as a paragraph). In it, the author, disarmingly casual, explains his method. It goes something like this: Since 2007, Princeton professor Jeff Nunokawa has written a short reflection every morning in response to a phrase from a work of literature using Facebook’s Notes application. These were originally intended for his friends and current and former students, but at some point, he decided to select some out of the over 3,000, revise them (“And revise them. And revise them. And revise them.”), and publish them in a book “to address” our shared “state of loneliness.” The result is Note Book, “a work of strange and enduring wonder” according to The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead.
“All revolutions are failures,” George Orwell once wrote, “but they are not all the same failure.” Those alls should give us pause. Most revolutions—those in France and Russia spring to mind—certainly didn’t end well. But the American Revolution ended well. It created a stable and prosperous nation state, under a constitution that is still the law of the land two centuries after its adoption. New men, in a New World, violently shook off the bonds of monarchy, yet restored order in good time—something the peoples of old Europe never managed to achieve.
Charles Murray’s By the People: Rebuilding Liberty without Permission is an important book that advocates of constitutional government should consider carefully. While Murray overstates the case, his book articulates a novel argument, replete with insights on the nature of political corruption and how to fight it.
Murray’s book attempts two tasks. First, it argues that the federal state has become overbearing. During the New Deal era, Murray claims, the feds managed a remarkable inversion: whereas once the government was only able to do what the Constitution authorized, it can now do anything that it does not specifically forbid. In many cases, the government does what is explicitly forbidden anyway.
By the middle of 1940, with Europe prostrate at Nazi Germany’s feet and both Russia and the United States still out of the war, Britain’s leaders were focused more on survival than on victory. Neville Chamberlain had reached the point where he was contemplating a peace for Great Britain secured at the expense of the sovereignty of her allies. But after the loss of Belgium and the invasion of France, members of Parliament were demanding a new government.
The first issue of National Review in 1955 included the essay “Why They’ll Never Get Me on that Couch,” in which movie maven Morrie Ryskind declared himself a “non-conformist” for rejecting Hollywood’s latest craze, psychoanalysis. Five years later, in the same magazine, John Dos Passos put psychology on a level with communism when he wrote about “the twin myths of Marx and Freud.” Modern conservatism had it in for shrinks from the get-go.
In Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan, the young Tom Townsend remarks, “I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking.” Something very similar must have been on my adolescent mind when I bought a fat paperback copy of Gore Vidal’s United States—a collection of his essays up through 1992, which is about the time he lost his last trace of lucidity. I read a decent chunk of it, too. To this day it sits on my shelves, pages yellowing under the influence of all of the acid, in every sense, concentrated between its covers.
Lyndon Johnson had strong views about his showers. One unfortunate White House plumber was sent to the hospital due to a nervous breakdown after years of working to provide Johnson with a shower that met his exacting specifications regarding heat and water pressure. Thousands of dollars were spent on all this, yet Johnson still walked the halls at night to ensure that lights were turned off in every room so that no electricity was wasted in the president’s official residence.