I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism by Charles R. Kesler
Unlike those on the Right who pegged the president as a hapless amateur in over his head or, worse, an anti-colonialist bogeyman, Kesler deftly reveals Barack Obama's high-stakes bid to be the savior of American liberalism. The book traces 100 years of ascendant Progressivism's hostile takeover of constitutional government, from Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson and the New Left. With his ruthless victory on Obamacare, the president may have won a spot in liberalism's pantheon of immortals, but Kesler asks if contemporary liberalism itself has become exhausted by its own unsustainable contradictions. The indispensable guide to Obama's—sigh—second term.
After America: Get Ready for Armageddon by Mark Steyn
Recommending Mark Steyn's America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It in a previous end-of-the-year round-up, I wrote that his jaunty take on the West's demographic decline was "the most fun I've had being depressed." His follow-up, After America, warns that European-style collapse awaits our country, too—perhaps sooner than we think. Thanks to the ravages of modern liberalism, "A statist America," writes Steyn, "won't be a large Sweden—unimportant but prosperous—but something closer to the Third World." Zipping along the way to this dystopian future, the book exhibits the same rapid-fire mordant wit, but the tone is more despairing. It's a little harder to laugh at one's own suicide note.
The Founders' Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It by Larry P. Arnn
This elegant essay corrects a century of liberal scholarship that has portrayed the U.S. Constitution as a reactionary counter-revolution against a supposedly radical Declaration of Independence. Concentrating on the ideas and reasoning of our two foundational documents, Arnn shows that they are not at odds but drawn from the same deep well of republican principle. A splendid introduction to understanding the purposes of American government.
Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat
Douthat's refreshing argument is that what ails America is not too much religion (as the Left fears) or too little (as the Right insists), but bad religion: "the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place." As he tells it, a combination of political polarization, the sexual revolution, globalization, rising incomes, and class snobbery in the second half of the 20th century undid the broad consensus of respect for Christianity's role in shaping public opinion—and the more churches tried to accommodate the prevailing winds, the swifter they declined. In their place rose the search for the "historical" Jesus (an all-too-human "Christ without a cross" popularized in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code), the prosperity gospel (of "name it and claim it" megachurch hucksters), feel-good spiritual self-affirmation (think Oprah Winfrey or Deepak Chopra), and—the one that hit closest to home for this reader—a messianic nationalism that treats politics with righteous zeal. Douthat closes with some possible paths to renewal and a gentle call to a richer, more orthodox faith.
Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church by George Weigel
I was all set to recommend a few older books from Weigel, one our most gifted contemporary commentators on the Catholic faith, when I discovered—merry Christmas to me!—that he has a new book coming out in 2013. His latest speaks of a Church that—having shaken off the siege mentality that defined it for the past few centuries after the shocks of the Protestant Reformation and French Revolution-is ready in the face of today's aggressive secularization to engage the world and preach the good news with renewed missionary zeal. The first half of the book traces a 20th-century "revitalization of Catholic biblical, liturgical, historical, philosophical, and theological studies" back to Pope Leo XIII and forward to the high-water mark of the Second Vatican Council. Often taking as its model Pope John Paul II (of whom Weigel knows a thing or two), the book's second half gives more concrete examples of what true evangelical reform would look like for the Church's popes, bishops, priests, religious, and laity, as well as its liturgy, intellectual life, and public policy advocacy. A beautiful call to living the faith joyfully.
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Thomas D. Klingenstein
Chairman, Claremont Institute Board of Directors
Charles R. Kesler's I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism provides a major contribution to the Claremont intellectual project, which began with Harry Jaffa recovering the possibility that the political philosophy of the American Founders is true, not just an historical artifact of a bygone age. Jaffa also fingered the Progressives as the culprits who, largely unnoticed, overthrew the principles of the founding. Many Claremont scholars, including Kesler himself, have gone on to explain how Progressive theory constitutes the intellectual headwaters of modern day liberalism.
In I Am the Change, Kesler goes even further, tracing out the liberal policies that logically, even inevitably, followed from the Progressive revolution. But his book is much more than a diagnosis. Like the doctor who diagnoses liver damage as being the result of too much alcohol, Dr. Kesler's diagnosis implies a prescription. Specifically, he implies that conservative policies must be defended on the grounds of justice, which, in turn, requires conservatives to again take seriously the natural law principles of the American Founding. The conservative challenge today is precisely that which confronted Abraham Lincoln: to apply founding principles to current circumstances. Kesler points the way forward.
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Professor, Naval and Military Strategy, U.S. Naval War College
Perhaps because I am thoroughly tired of the American scene right now, let me suggest some recent and not so recent offerings from across the Pond. George MacDonald Fraser's memoir of his World War II experience in Burma, Quartered Safe Out Here: A Harrowing Tale of World War II, is a minor classic of the genre; in a similar vein (with the hilarious dialogue this time in Scots rather than Cumbrian) is his The Complete McAuslan, based on Fraser's military service in the postwar British army in North Africa and the Middle East. Fraser is, for those not in the know, the author of the incomparable Flashman series, a riotously funny, R-rated defense of Victorian values and the British Empire.
Of more recent vintage, readers may want to take another look at Boris Johnson's Have I Got Views For You (originally published 2003), considering that this eccentric master of political theater (and current mayor of London) may well become the next Conservative prime minister of Britain.
For an incisive exploration of the state of British politics today, there is no better place to go than Peter Oborne's two jeremiads, Rise of Political Lying (2005) and The Triumph of the Political Class (2007). These gripping books should make Americans uncomfortable, because the story they tell is in many ways one of the ongoing Americanization of British politics. More than that, though, they expose the ongoing—and deeply sad—decay of the politics and culture of Old Europe generally.
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Daniel J. Mahoney
Professor of Political Science, Assumption College
Claremont readers will appreciate that political philosophy provides unparalleled access to the world as it is. The study of the great books of the Western tradition reveal not only permanent questions but answers—however provisional—that are among the most compelling available to human beings. It is in this spirit that Steven B. Smith approaches the study of Political Philosophy, a work based on a course that he taught for many years at Yale University. His finely crafted interpretations of ancient and modern political philosophers (as well as of the "politics of the Bible") provide a perfect balance between attentiveness to the enduring questions, and a contextualism that is necessary to understand a thinker in his own time. The book concludes with a robust defense of patriotism and political judgment and thus embodies the model of morally serious and civically engaged political science that Smith highlights in this work.
The study of the art of writing and the art of governance are also at the heart of Philippe Bénéton's splendid new book The Kingdom Suffereth Violence: The Machiavelli / Erasmus / More Correspondence and Other Unpublished Documents. This work, at once playful and serious, is the record of the "discovery" of a hitherto unknown three-way correspondence between Thomas More, Erasmus, and Machiavelli. Scholars like to speak about "humanism" in its different forms (they love to tame Machiavelli as a "civic humanist" of republican conviction) but Bénéton shows that humanism took profoundly different forms on the different sides of the Alps. More and Erasmus remained Christians and defended the unity of Christendom while Machiavelli defended a wisdom that was both pagan and quintessentially "modern." This "correspondence," and Bénéton's accompanying commentary, allow us to better understand the place and limits of "necessity" in moral and political life. It is learning—and art—at a very high level.
Every student of Winston Churchill's ought to welcome the new, augmented edition of Great Contemporaries: Churchill Reflects on FDR, Hitler, Kipling, Chaplin, Balfour, and Other Giants of His Age made possible by the eminent Churchill scholar James W. Muller and ISI Books. Originally published in the late 1930s, this work reflects on the eclipse of greatness in a democratic age. It reminds us that the late Victorian age saw a melding of aristocratic greatness and democratic politics that we are unlikely to see again. And the treatments of Trotsky and Hitler, among others, reminds us of the totalitarian subversion of modernity and human greatness that was quite advanced as Churchill wrote. The new "portraits" of H.G. Wells, Charlie Chaplin, Kitchener of Khartoum, King Edward VIII, and Rudyard Kipling show just how variegated was Churchill's art of portraiture. The introduction and annotation by Muller are superb and make this the authoritative edition of a classic work.
The reigning school of historiography in the field of Soviet studies pleads for us to see "beyond totalitarianism." In her masterly Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, Anne Applebaum issues a dissent. She allows us to see what exactly was entailed in the "totalitarian" destruction of civil society during the era of "High Stalinism." Concentrating on the Polish, Hungarian, and East German cases, she shows that totalitarianism had revealed its bankruptcy by the time of the Hungarian Revolution in the fall of 1956. But the residues of that project remained in tact until the final implosion of European Communism in the fall of 1989. Applebaum's book is enlivened and deepened by the interviews she conducted with numerous eyewitnesses, many of whom died in the course of her researching and writing the book.
For a model of a Christian who lives the life of reason, I recommend Fundamental Speeches from Five Decades by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). Claremont readers will be particularly interested in his reflections on the Christian roots of Europe and his deep and discerning reflections on the "Pre-political Moral Foundations of a Free State," a 2004 text that he presented as part of a debate and discussion with Jürgen Habermas.
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Harvey C. Mansfield
William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Government, Harvard University
First comes The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, with its 500th anniversary in 2013. If you care for politics, this is your book of books. If you don't care, Machiavelli shows you that you must. It's the same for modernity, for all of modern life: whether you care for it or not, this is for you. Read it with the question always in mind, who is The Prince? Choose any translation you like, but you won't find a better one than mine.
Next is a new book by one of the sages at Claremont McKenna College, Mark Blitz's Plato's Political Philosophy. It's a difficult book because Plato raises the issues that remain difficult for us, but Blitz shows us the relevance of those issues. They "orient and motivate all human beings from the start of our awareness." This means from our start as children, and Blitz begins his book, as he says Plato begins several of his dialogues, from parents' worries over their children. This is a book of philosophy that will help you outgrow any education you may have had in a department of philosophy.
Third, for a comedy mystery by Bill James from his series featuring two nicely-titled policemen, Detective Chief Superintendant Colin Harpur and Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles. As a reader you will find yourself in a near-constant chuckle, interrupted by moments of thought and appreciation—for this writer has depth as well as wit and beautiful expression. It is a long series you can join at any point, but I especially liked James's recent title, I Am Gold, for its Platonic resonance.
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