“To Steve: the only other person I’ve been detained with.”
That’s inscribed on the first page of my copy of Crapitalism by its author, Jason Mattera. It’s referring to the time a Dave Obey staffer called the Capitol Police after she tried to manhandle me in a futile effort to stop us from asking the congressman about bizarre expenditures buried in Obamacare.
The years following the 2008 financial crisis have been difficult for those who adhere to the vision of society articulated by Adam Smith. The success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century shows how criticizing the theoretical justifications of the free market has become more fashionable in academic and elite circles than at any time since the end of the Cold War. And the scope of the Obama administration’s expansion of spending and government control over the economy has been truly alarming.
Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style is a maddening book, much the way doctoral students are maddening. At once a style guide, a work of aesthetics, and an overeducated explanation of writing precepts that many unwashed composition teachers nationwide already understand, it is a book sometimes too smart to get out of its own way.
Enoch Powell once remarked, “all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure.” Nelson Rockefeller, so unlike the gloomy Powell, would have agreed, and said so in his way. Near the end of his life, he told a former staffer “you’ve got to understand something. When you are a has-been you are a has-been. I am a has-been.”
Francis Fukuyama ought to be locked up and forbidden from writing again, if only for his crimes against the noble profession of book reviewers. This class of scribblers likes to start formulating their thoughts about a book early in the reading process. It’s best if the author lays out their entire argument in the introduction, so that the reviewer can proceed with ever increasing speed through what are, strictly speaking, unnecessary central chapters, before arriving at a conclusion that helpfully reminds them of what they liked or didn’t like during the early bits. Fareed Zakaria books are particularly well suited for this.
One afternoon on their way to court, Abraham Lincoln made a startling confession to his law partner and future biographer William Herndon. As they made their way along a rutted, bumpy Illinois road, Lincoln said that his mother, Nancy Hanks, was illegitimate. Her father was a “well-bred Virginia farmer or planter…”
The art of esoteric reading—scrutinizing a text for “hidden meanings”—has been lost.
Articulating the belief of many conservatives, Senator Marco Rubio recently said that “the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage.”
Henry Kissinger projects the public image of a judicious elder statesman whose sweeping knowledge of history lets him rise above the petty concerns of today, in order to see what is truly in the national interest. Yet as Kissinger once said of Ronald Reagan, his knowledge of history is “tailored to support his firmly held preconceptions.” Instead of expanding his field of vision, Kissinger’s interpretation of the past becomes a set of blinders that prevent him from understanding either his country’s values or its interests. Most importantly, he cannot comprehend how fidelity to those values may advance the national interest.
Partially as a consequence of being much admired, the novelist Ian McEwan has also been much criticized. The dominant trend of the complaints, aside from the general notion that he has been overpraised, is that he is too much a creature of his class: that the upper-middle-class, relatively powerful, relatively wealthy characters who populate his books (and, presumably, his life) are obnoxious in ways to which his narrative gaze is blind. It is said that they, and he, mistake their padded bourgeois concerns for proper objects of Serious Novels.