PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewWhat does an esoteric concept like Calvinist soteriology have to do with the rise of modern economics? Does laissez-faire have its roots in the arcane Quinquarticular Controversy? Can one find the origins of the welfare state in postmillennialist eschatology? Questions like these, according to the Harvard economist Benjamin M. Friedman, are essential to understanding his discipline today ... once theological questions are rendered into secular language, their relevance, and thus the importance of Friedman’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, becomes clear ... if someone had told me that a former chairman of the Harvard economics department would write a major work on Calvinism and its influence, you would have had to consider me a skeptic. Nonetheless Benjamin M. Friedman has, and the result is an awakening all its own.
MixedSlateHer open-mindedness toward questions of catharsis and its demands is what makes her book so fascinating. Her inability to offer anything like consistent answers to the questions she poses is what makes it so frustrating ... Nelson’s aim is to encourage her readers to suspend, at least for a few moments, whatever repulsion they may feel toward depictions of cruelty and toward artists who use them to explore the human capacity for cruelty, in order to appreciate the efforts to lead us into unfamiliar territory. But since emotions and perceptions vary so much from one person to another, her approach is inevitably highly subjective. Though Nelson occasionally ventures into theory, The Art of Cruelty is best read as a record of one person’s reactions to an impressive number of exposures to works of art, both familiar and esoteric. And in the end, perhaps an idiosyncratically personal account reveals the inescapable contradictions and tensions in the enterprise better than any tidy analysis could.
PanThe New RepublicFukuyama’s new pessimism is far deeper than his discarded optimism. The left-right dichotomy that formerly polarized liberal democracy dealt with the question of the proper size of government; compromise, at least in theory, was always possible. Today, he argues, we are dealing with problems of recognition and resentment, and they are more difficult to resolve. As Fukuyama pithily puts it: either you recognize me, or you don’t.\' On this key point, I believe, Fukuyama is incorrect ... Almost nothing in Fukuyama’s book is new ... Identity summarizes arguments that already seem dated. It is, moreover, primarily concerned with the recent past, and when it ventures to make a prediction, it simply carries current trends into the future. What, moreover, are we to do with the political conflicts raised by identity politics? Here too Fukuyama’s analysis is disappointing ... Simply being wrong, however, is not Identity’s major problem ... Identity...both begins and ends with a whimper. Nothing is startling and little is gained ... I am willing to bet that in five years, Fukuyama’s Identity will be all but forgotten.
PositiveThe New RepublicIs Buchanan of sufficient importance to sustain a narrative viewing him as the leader of a covert plan to transform America?...A tall order, no doubt—and far too tall. At times, MacLean sounds like the British writers who filled in the details of the lives of the Cambridge spies in elaborately plotted novels. She all but announces herself as a solitary truth-teller. She all but announces herself as a solitary truth-teller. If Buchanan and his friends want to change America, she argues, 'they should do it honestly and openly.' The trouble is that they did—and they still do. Buchanan, after all, won a Nobel Prize, which is not generally awarded to scholars who refuse to publish ... MacLean has nonetheless written a book that deserves attention. She is also, in my opinion, very much correct to conclude that this version of libertarianism 'actually wants a very strong government'—since any government that seeks to protect the few from the many, at least in a democracy, will require strong public authority to keep the majority in their place ... Democracy in Chains offers an essential guide to this strain of thought and the damage it has done.
PositiveThe New York TimesIt is, simply put, a page turner: FitzGerald is a great writer capable of keeping a sprawling narrative on point, even as it descends into discussions of Keswickian holiness, pretribunalist rapture and theonomic governance. Anyone curious about the state of conservative American Protestantism will have a trusted guide in this Bancroft and Pulitzer Prize winner ... Amazingly enough, The Evangelicals, for all its length, is not comprehensive.
PanThe New Republic...imagining himself a thinker on par with the political philosopher John Rawls, he creates absurd thought experiments and argues syllogistically, as if the life of the law is logic, not experience. He litters his book with phrases like 'imagine that' or 'suppose that,' sometimes multiple times in a single paragraph, and frequently asks us to ponder the havoc imaginary 'evil demons' could wreak, if only they had the power. This is the kind of high-flown political theorizing that never manages to land on earth ... There is, additionally, another major flaw in Brennan’s advocacy of special rights for smart people: The only way to establish an epistocracy is by blatantly non-libertarian means ... Despite—or perhaps because of—his disdain for politics, Brennan is ignorant of how politics actually work.
PanThe New York Times Book ReviewI wish Wilentz had made his point with greater modesty. The subtitle of his book includes the word 'hidden' and the first sentence the word 'secrets,' as if Wilentz alone sees clearly what is obscure to everyone else. Yet the 'keys' to understanding American politics he uncovers are strikingly mundane: Political parties are important, and so is economic inequality ... The oddity here is that if Wilentz really believes that 'the issue of economic equality has been the great perennial question in American political history,' and if he also wishes to develop in his audience an appreciation for our political parties, why would he tackle those themes with a string of loosely stitched, previously published essays, many of them book reviews?
MixedThe New RepublicFraser provides a brisk and entertaining history of limousine liberalism in all its linguistic manifestations, and his book is worth reading for that alone. Indeed, his analysis, if anything, is too prescient: Although Fraser was able to include a few words about Donald Trump in his introduction and at the end, we can be certain that the Developer of All Developers will rely on his quite vivid imagination to add new terms to the vocabulary of right-wing populism as he continues his campaign for president...Steve Fraser, like many on the left, tends to attack the rich and sympathize with the poor almost reflexively. Although I share those sentiments, I question whether the best way to create a more egalitarian society is for the left to continue to lodge its hopes with the less well-off, only to be disappointed when they do not act as leftists expect them to do.
PositiveThe New RepublicA tale of brave, lonely men facing a hostile world is the message Oppenheimer wishes to leave with his readers. This simply does not ring true, since none of these men made the turn by themselves ... In spite of these criticisms, Exit Right grabbed me as few books have done in recent years. This is political history at a very high level, especially when American politics seems to reach new lows every day. What a pleasure it is to be reminded that ideas do matter, and that those who devote their lives to them are doing something worthwhile.