books book reviews

Left-wing books

reviewed by T. Nelson


Republican Like Me:
How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right

by Ken Stern
Harper Collins, 2017, 294 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

Considering how much liberals claim to loathe stereotypes, it's remarkable how often they use them. It's pointless to ask libs what they think of conservatives, because most of them have little under­standing of conservatism—all they know are the stereotypes.

Ken Stern was one of them: he didn't know any conservatives personally, and like his Democrat neighbors took it as an article of faith that Republicans stood for bigotry, racism, and hatred. This is the liberal bubble that everyone talks about: an artificial world with fake, self-serving ideas. These ideas would evaporate like morning fog if the libs would actually talk to a con, and maybe that's why they so rarely do it: most people's values are invented to protect their social status, and evidence that threatens it is rejected.

When all the people you know, when all the people in your political sect agree with you, it becomes easy to relax in the certainty that you and your cohort are right, and the other side is not just wrong, but also taking a long, slow bubble-bath in the sea of craziness. . . . We can demonize them to our heart's content, there are just no brakes on our sense of self-righteousness. [p. 16]

To those of us outside The Bubble, many of its ideas appear ridiculous. In my many decades as a liber­tarian, I have never heard any white person making a statement that could be remotely construed as racist. To my neighbors, mostly right-wingers, race is irrelevant: blacks are just other people. In the real world, white racism is virtually non-existent, so libs have to manufacture pseudo-concepts like ‘micro­aggression’ to keep the narrative from collapsing.

Scene from The Prisoner
A man being attacked by The Bubble

But what would happen if, hypo­thet­ically, some lib made an effort to talk to a con and find out what they really think? Would it change their mind, or would they find some way to fit it into their narrative of class, race, and politics?

In other words, is Ken Stern sincere when he says that his goal was to re-evaluate his opinion of conservatives?

Answering the question isn't easy: Stern is talking to fellow libs and has to be careful what he says, or he'd be an instant outcast, and probably lose his friends and family as well. The Bubble ruthlessly protects its existence. Nobody who had a job and wanted to keep it could write a book like this.

But if his goal was to understand conservatives, he largely failed. The tip-off is in the title: it's a reference to the book Black Like Me about a journalist who pretended to be black to find out about blacks in the South. Just as John Howard Griffin didn't really turn black, Ken Stern didn't really turn Republican.

Only in Chapter 1, where Stern goes hog-hunting in Texas, is there much understanding of the viewpoints of his subjects. The issue here is gun control. Homicide rates declined by 55% from 1980 to 2014, mainly (in my opinion) due to the development of trauma centers. Other factors, such as increased enforcement, are important as well, while the Ferguson Effect works against it. Stern is mostly oblivious to all this, but at least he admits that the gun culture is not responsible for our high homicide rate.

Stern says, for example, that more children under five drown in bathtubs than all the children under 15 who die from accidental gunshots [p.25], but the bubble still owns him. Opportunity is not just access to a weapon; it is also factors like police response times (if any), sentencing rates, and community attitudes.

In most of the remaining chapters, Stern starts out harshly condemning conservatives, and then saying, much more gently, that libs also do similar things. He says “the scientific consensus is quite definitive” on global warming, and “deniers” are anti-science. But before libs get too smug, he says, they are the ones who oppose genetically modified organisms, and they should take a second look at nuclear power. He says more people die in car accidents in one day than have ever died from commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S.

Scene from The Prisoner

By page 143, in the chapter on creationism, he's in full metal stereotyping mode. His idea of mingling with Christian fundamentalists is to visit the Creation Museum, which leads him to say things like

It does seem painfully obvious that the Republicans have willingly and energetically assumed the role of the party that hates science, a label that was probably helpful in the Middle Ages and, sadly, not so electorally harmful now.

I'm not religious, but even I understand fundamentalists better than this. Here's a clue: fundament­alists believe that Darwinism threatens morality, which they believe comes from God. Creationism might be unviable as a scientific explanation of biology, but creationist beliefs have evolved (which is actually kind of ironic), and they are a small minority.

The statistic he cites that 62% of Republicans believe in creationism is also dubious. Fake surveys are even more common than fake news. Just today a survey came out claiming that 10% of Americans believe the chemtrails theory is “completely true” and a further 20–30% believe it is “somewhat true.” Who does these surveys? What the heck does “somewhat true” even mean? Something is either true or it's not.

A man being chased by The Bubble

Most of his attempts to understand Republicans amount to explana­tions of their beliefs as a reaction of poor whites to the loss of their jobs and their former privileged status. In other words, they are sad and pathetic, but perhaps understandable, and fellow libs should exercise more pity than anger.

In the last chapter, Stern pleads for less tribalism and intolerance of the views of others. He says the views of red and blue America are actually not very different.

So Stern really has two messages: one is that Dems and Republicans are not so different as you might think. The other, I suspect, is that he knows the danger libs face if they get labeled as ideologically intolerant, and he wants to recapture the mantel.

He's rightly disturbed by the nastiness of Internet social media. This reflects especially badly on the Left, and it's a tough problem because mobbing behavior is an expression of collectivism, and collectivism is what the Left is all about.

But The Bubble is relentless. Stern knows he must send tribal signals to other libs to avoid being burned at the stake. A side effect of this is that few conservatives will believe he's sincere when he faintly praises them.

Most Americans don't have tidy views, he says, despite the “white hot rhetoric of politicians, the hatefulness of Internet trolls, and the strident pack-journalism of todays press.” Here is his message:

Getting outside my liberal bubble, I found plenty to admire about conservative thinking: the notion of a moral order in a time of social uncertainty, skepticism about the effectiveness of government, . . . [and] faith in the power of the individual in a free society. However,, . . . the rise of Trump reflects the fact that the Republican party, at least for now, has become not a party of ideas but a party of grievances. . . . it should be a source of worry for everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike." [p. 236] Scene from The Prisoner

Maybe he gets points just for acknowledging that The Bubble exists, and a few more for trying to escape it. But if I were cynical, I'd say The Bubble just dragged him back.

nov 04, 2017; last edited nov 19, 2017


The Great Leveler:
Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century

by Walter Scheidel
Princeton, 2017, 504 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

These days when people talk about inequality, they mean economic inequality, which is to say differences in wealth between rich and poor people, rather than differential treatment by the government, which is now celebrated by the left.

The author, an open admirer of Piketty, says that throughout history economic inequality has been eliminated in only four ways: mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and lethal pandemics. The best known example was Commun­ism, in which governments murdered a hundred million people and eliminated entire productive classes in their quest to make everybody equally poor.

Scheidel admits that there's no evidence that economic inequality causes these calamities. He ends the book by saying that we should be careful what we wish for.

It is certainly encouraging to see a college professor take such a courageous stand in being generally opposed to mass warfare and a return of the Black Death. But if prosperity is destroyed by things that wipe out inequality then does it not follow that inequality may be a useful index, or even the principal driver, of prosperity? Perhaps countries ought to be proud of a high Gini index.

In this book Scheidel takes it for granted that inequality is a bad thing, but fails to persuade us. Indeed, if destroying inequality also destroys civilizations, perhaps inequality is something to be celebrated and encouraged at all costs. That is, after all, what he shows, but he seems oddly reluctant to say so. That makes me wonder: late at night, when the other faculty members are not around, after he unplugs his Alexa and pulls down his window shades, maybe he does consider that possibility.

feb 22 2020

Pedantry update: An astute reader has reminded me that under Communism the Dear Leader and his top party members are usually quite wealthy, which means that not everyone is equally poor. Let's just say that they are unequally poor, but some are more unequally poor than others.


Democracy Inc: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism

by Sheldon S. Wolin
Princeton, 2017, new ed. of 2008 book, 356 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

If you're looking for a compendium of all the weird stuff that academic liberals believed during the Bush era, you've hit the jackpot!

In the preface of this book, Sheldon Wolin professes disappointment in Barack Obama that his policies weren't left-wing enough. His thesis here is that American society is totalitarian, by which he means not totalitarian, but corporatist.

That confusion of terms seems to be deliberate. He wants to call America a totalitarian state, but he knows the idea would be absurd. So he makes up a new term called “inverted totalitarianism” which lets him use his favorite word while denying that it means what it says.

Only a visceral Bush-hater would discern similarities between an American president and the Nazi führer or argue that American democracy displays totalitarian tendencies. Because so much rides on the plausibility of what follows, my hope is that skeptical readers will resist the impulse to dismiss it and persevere instead.

And he's right. Note how he doesn't actually deny that he's arguing that American democracy displays totalitarian tendencies; he just says a Bush-hater would do it. Wolin doesn't compare Bush to Hitler. He compares him to Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini.

An inverted totalitarianism, he says, is a type of managed democracy:

[It] reflects the belief that the world can be changed to accord with a limited range of objectives, such as ensuring that its own energy needs will be met, that “free markets” will be established, that military supremacy will be maintained, and that “friendly regimes” will be in places in those parts of the world considered vital to its own security and economic needs. [p.46]

[Managed democracy] has come about, not through a Leader's imposing his will or the state's forcibly eliminating opposition, but through . . . integration, rationalization, concentrated wealth, and a faith that virtually any problem—from health care to political crises, even faith itself—could be managed . . . the regime ideology is capitalism, which is virtually as undisputed as Nazi doctrine was in 1930s Germany.

So why call it totalitarianism? Because he really, really wants to call Bush a Hitler, but he knows it's ridiculous. So he complains about

[D]ownsizing reorganization, bubbles bursting, unions busted, quickly outdated skills, and transfer of jobs abroad create not just fear but an economy of fear, a system of control whose power feeds on uncertainty, yet a system that, according to its analysts, is eminently rational.

Academics might not know this, but Wolin's critique of corporatism and militarism and of neoconservative ideology is shared by grassroots conservatives; these issues fractured the Republican party in 2016 and sent NRO and hurtling toward irrelevancy. Both left and right complain about the news media, the corporatism, and the empire-building.

If leftists could just purge themselves of the racists in their midst (racism being nothing more or less than blaming one race for the problems of another), their intense political hatred, and their fascination with big government, we would have grounds for constructive dialogue.

Wolin could have made that leap. Instead, he comes off as a tragic figure: stuck in the 1960s, in the shadow of Charles “Greening of America” Reich, stranded with sterile ideas that were too old and too left-wing and too contradictory even by academic standards. The New York Times might have liked him, but this book shows that his ideas were long past their sell-by date even in 2008. The concept of an inverted totalitarianism never took off because it never made any sense. It had to be tediously re-explained every time, and even after being explained it still didn't make sense.

Sadly, Wolin died without ever considering this possibility. As much as he clamored for change, change was beyond his ability.

may 05 2018; edited jul 21 2018