books book reviews

Conservative books

reviewed by T. Nelson

book review Score+4

The Fiery Angel: Art, Culture, Sex, Politics, and the Struggle for the Soul of the West
Michael Walsh
Encounter, 2018, 244 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

The past is the thing what brung us, says Michael Walsh in this highly literate defense of Western civilization. Walsh says there has been a century-long campaign to sever the arts from politics, and that both Left and Right are responsible. But, he says, literature, art, and music determine the course of history, and the Right had better start paying more attention to them.

He gives many examples, notably two:

  1. Count Gobineau → Father Jahn → Wagner → World War I → Communism and National Socialism → Hitler
  2. Beaumarchais → Mozart → French Revolution → Beethoven → Napoleon

According to Walsh, Arthur de Gobineau's book Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines inspired Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, known as the father of gymnastics, to create the turnverein or gymnastics club movement in Germany. This was taken up and dramatized by Wagner in Der Ring des Nibelungen, and the rest is history.

Walsh also says that within a decade of Beaumarchais's La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro, a play satirizing the French aristocracy, “the Bastille was stormed, King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, were arrested and guillotined, and the ancien régime fell.”

The connection might sound far-fetched to modern readers, but art and music, indeed all forms of cultural expression, were taken much more seriously in those days: Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring set off a riot, and Lincoln cited Uncle Tom's Cabin for setting the stage for the American Civil War.

In other words, art and literature powerfully define the terms of how people think, for better or for worse.

Walsh continually makes little jabs against atheists, like this one: “In the end, especially when death comes to call, most atheists accept Pascal's Wager and get their bets down accordingly.” This is a common refrain among conservatives, who associate atheism with leftism. However, atheism and Christianity aren't so far apart as they think—well, except maybe for that little detail about whether God exists or not. But atheism, properly understood, is nothing more than reverence for the immutable laws of nature, especially insofar as they apply to civilizations, making it a potent ally of conservatism. See here and here. (Read the . . . uh . . . whole thing . . . and the other whole thing.)

The title Fiery Angel refers to an opera by Prokofiev on a Faustian theme. Each chapter talks about some major work: The Divine Comedy, Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, etc.

Walsh knows a great deal about Western culture, especially classical music, and this book is fascinating reading. It's not as philosophical as similar books by David P. Goldman or Roger Scruton. It's more general than his previous book The Devil's Pleasure Palace, which focused mostly on the Frankfurt school of cultural Marxism. The sudden jumps here from history to modern politics are sometimes jarring, but he does it to make a point. Most importantly, his prose is much less purple than some of his Internet essays.

jun 17, 2018

book review Score+2

Militant Normals: How Regular Americans Are Rebelling Against the Elite to Reclaim Our Democracy
Kurt Schlichter
Center Street, 2018, 268 pages

Twenty years ago, few would have guessed that political correctness would someday plunge America into a Cold Civil War (as Angelo Codevilla calls it). Yet, in the view of many conserv­atives, that's exactly what happened. They're now debating how to react.

Kurt Schlichter of Townhall.com, an L.A. lawyer and former US Army colonel, is a prominent advocate of the fight-back-in-kind strategy. He views the political divisions in the US not as left vs right, but as “Elites” vs “Normals.” In this highly partisan book, he vents his anger about how the elite news media, the self-proclaimed experts, and the Trump-haters are unaccount­able, arrogant, smug, and self-deluded.

His demotic, down-to-earth writing style, with lots of one-sentence three-word paragraphs, undoubtedly works better in short columns than in a book, but it's still effective. If Schlichter had included stories from his experience in Iraq or Kosovo or from the courtroom, it might have strengthened his case about the importance of patriotism, freedom, and the sanctity of human life. But Schlichter's opinions will resonate with many everyday people—the ones who do most of the real work in this country—who would rather live their lives in peace, but feel that all they value is in jeopardy.

Schlichter also has harsh words for “Conservatism, Inc.,” which he says is part of the Elites. This is a widespread view on the right. Commentator Christopher Chantrill put it this way:

The reason we got Trump is that the conservative movement . . . failed to defend ordinary middle-class people from years and years of the left calling us all racists, sexists, and homophobes.

As Schlichter might say: This. Or as C++ programmers would put it: return *this;

Angelo Codevilla's 6,000-word article titled “Our Revolution's Logic” places these sentiments in a historical and philosophical context, and is highly recommended. If you're an American seeking to understand our situation, or a foreigner seeking to understand why Trump is popular in the USA, you should read this article. Yes, the whole thing.

oct 31, 2018

book review Score+2

Springtime for Snowflakes: Social Justice and its Postmodern Parentage
Michael Rectenwald
New English Review Press, 2018, 174 pages

Despite its title, this book isn't really about social justice, postmodernism, springtime, or snowflakes. It's the autobiography of an English professor working his way through the modern American university system, which he calls a giant SJW sausage factory.

Mostly it's the story of how Rectenwald studied under Alan Ginsberg, broke up with one girlfriend and found another, and moved from Pittsburgh to North Carolina and then to New York as he searched for a niche in academia, and his encounters with people stealing his ideas and starting fights over perceived insults. On one occasion, for example, he opposed hiring someone as an English professor because the candidate could not write a coherent grammatical sentence. Only later, after being thrown off the faculty search committee, did he discover that the candidate was a black female and therefore had to be hired, qualified or not.

That incident typifies Rectenwald's blind spot: he says he's a Marxist to the left of Bolshevism, but denies that postmodernism is in any way related to Marxism. He's uncomfortable with the “social justice” movement in spite of the fact that the entire field he works in worships at its altar. He's a guy who wants to be a part of a great academic tradition, not realizing that it is dead. In short, it's a guy setting himself up for a rude awakening.

And that's what he gets. He gets outed on Twitter as being skeptical of SJW ideology. He gets put on leave at NYU, and then promoted to full professor. Not exactly a Herculean struggle, perhaps, but at least Rectenwald has woken up, and these days that is an achievement worthy of praise.

Contemporary gender theory, says Rectenwald, is a form of Lysenkoism. His recommendation is for universities to recognize social justice as a religion because it justifies itself, as he puts it, not on evidence or rationality, but on the basis of belief and ritual. This would mean making social justice only one among many religions in a re-liberalized post-secular university.

But the message that actually comes across is: if you're a Marxist to the left of Bolshevism, you can survive being accused of being skeptical of SJW ideology on today's campus.

aug 12, 2018