Reading Conservatively

Five Books, a great and very interesting bookblog has a list of the five best conservative books as rated by some luminaries of the conservative movement. The list is what you’d expect—F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom came out as number one, followed closely by Whittaker Chambers’ Witness and De Toqueville’s Democracy in America.

But this got me thinking—a dangerous thing indeed! What would be my top five list of the best conservative books of all time?

So here are my rankings for the top five books on conservatism. Of course, some of them are part of the classic canon of conservative thought, but others a little more modern and accessible. After all, as important as Edmund Burke’s political and social thought is to the principles of conservatism, it’s not exactly the sort of thing you’d load onto your Kindle for a long weekend.

  1. The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk

    This is not easy weekend reading, but Russell Kirk’s book is one of the most important works for those wanting to understand modern American conservatism. It brings together some of the biggest luminaries like Edmund Burke and John Adams as well as some brilliant but obscure thinkers and weaves them into the foundation of a lasting ideology.

    If you are a conservative, you need to read this book to understand what the basic principles of conservatism really are. If you are not a conservative, this book is essential to understanding what conservatism is actually about. It is a seminal work. This, along with William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, are the foundational works of modern American conservatism. It is a master’s class in conservative political thought in one volume, and well worth reading and digesting.

  2. Parliament of Whores by P.J. O’Rourke

    This is one of my favorite books, one of the books I’d take with me to a hypothetical desert island, a book that I could read again and again. It is a trenchant and uproariously funny satire of American politics, and even though it dates from the early days of the Clinton Administration, it’s still relevant to today’s politics. If you were going to give one book to a friend to try to convert them to conservatism, this would be the book. It’s accessible, funny, and does a great job of explaining why conservatives believe what they do.

  3. Free to Choose: A Personal Statement by Milton and Rose Friedman

    Another classic, and also very accessible. Milton Friedman, of course, is a giant among conservative economists, and this is a very rare work&madsh;a book about economics that’s easy to read and easy to understand. Milton Friedman ties the concepts of individual liberty and economic liberty together and makes a persuasive case for why they are truly the same thing.

  4. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism by Michael Novak

    But what about the poor? What is the moral case for free markets? This book is the Theory of Moral Sentiments to Friedman’s Wealth of Nations. So many critics of conservatism accuse conservatives of not caring about the poor, of not caring about others, etc. But this book explains why these arguments miss the mark. Michael Novak is a theologian, and he approaches the topic of capitalism from a Christian perspective, but his moral insights are universal. Conservatives believe in economic freedom because a state that respects human rights will inevitably be capitalist—because democratic capitalism is the only system of government and economics that truly respect human rights. If that argument seems bizarre to you, then you need to read this book.

  5. Advise and Consent by Allen Drury

    I had to include at least one novel, and this is a largely-forgotten classic. So many political potboilers owe their existence to this book. It’s a tautly-written thriller that explores the inner workings of the U.S. Senate in the days before JFK. So many novels owe their existence to Drury—he is the forerunner of thriller writers like Tom Clancy and Dan Brown. Advise and Consent is the story of a President who nominates a Communist agent as Secretary of State, a conflicted gay Senator, and plenty of backroom wheeling and dealing in the Senate. It’s a book that’s over 50 years old, but still holds up quite well—perhaps even better now than in 1959.

Crashing The Gate And The Psychology Of Frustration

The ever-astute Josh Trevino has a very interesting review of Crashing The Gate, a how-to manual on “netroots activism” by Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong. I’ve always personally believed that “netroots activism” is ultimately a flash in the pan. Sites like The Daily Kos and RedState quickly degenerate into ideological echo chambers that serve narrow interests rather than expanding the appeal of a political party. At the same time, Kos punches well above his weight in Democratic circles, so it’s valuable to listen to what he has to say.

However, Trevino notes something he calls the “psychology of frustration” inherent in the book’s rhetoric. For example:

Moulitsas and Armstrong are frank proponents of outright mimicry of the mechanisms of GOP ascendacy. Alas that the book’s assessment of Republican successes and governance is risibly simplistic: a catalogue of cartoonish betes noirs and unexamined myths ranging from villainous “theocons” to assigning the blame for the flaws of the Katrina response on the wars in Iraq — and Afghanistan. Mistakes are made that belie even a passing familiarity with American political history: the era of LBJ is lauded as a golden age; and Richard Nixon is described as having “legitimate conservative credentials.”…

We know that they view the media as hostile, for reasons having more to do with the psychology of frustration than an objective reality. Academia, presumably, is a “single-issue group.” And so they buy into the mythos of the VRWC with tendrils extending into every corner of public life, because a malevolent monolith is a powerful motivator — not least to oneself. Paradoxically, a primary source of their information is the organs of the VRWC itself, which of course are going to tout themselves handsomely. The authors aren’t being uniquely naive: we got a left-wing hit piece done on my own organization a few weeks back. It was some of the best PR copy for us I’ve ever read.

Kos has always been a loose cannon – a political and ideological hack with dreams of grandeur. The essential problems with bloggers, or “netroots activists” or whatever today’s term happens to be is that they don’t match the rest of the electorate. Only a miniscule percentage of American voters are political bloggers – maybe a few thousand. Only a small percentage of American read blogs at all, and the real influence of political bloggers is concentrated in media and Beltway circles. For all the blogger triumphalism, the political impact of blogging has probably been wildly overstated – and given that I’ve been on the blogging hype train myself, I’m as much to blame for that as anyone.

What Crashing The Gate does is ask for a Democratic Party that’s narrowly catered to the interests of a few “netroots activists” who are trying to get the party to mock a straw-man view of Republican political power. While Trevino credits Kos and Armstrong for exposing the highly shady world of paid political consultants, the majority of the book is devoted to the same self-indulgence that Kos’ and Armstrong’s sites spew forth each and every day.

Trevino gives the book one of the most devastating rejoinders the authors could ask for:

If you’re a Democrat, facing off against the irate masses of the online left is a losing proposition. They may lack perspicacity, and they may lack equanimity: but they do not lack noise. For all the rhetoric about the power of the netroots, new paradigms, and empowerment, Moulitsas and Armstrong do not — or cannot — acknowledge that this is the fundamental source of their power, and the power of the dispersed tribe they have gathered to seize the Democratic Party, and eventually America itself. Irony of ironies: they have a Noise Machine. If Crashing the Gate is any indication, that’s all they have — and they don’t fully understand it.

That’s why there is one group for whom trying to stop them is not a losing proposition. That group is the Republican Party.

The left-wing blogosphere, with a few notable exceptions, is the same kind of noise machine that the “netroots” accuse everyone else of being. The projection is almost palpable. Kos and Armstrong engage in the kind of comfortable fictions that have led The Daily Kos to batting .000 in officially endorsed political candidates.

That doesn’t mean that the right end of the blogosphere gets off easy either. What’s the difference between a blogger and somebody with a bullhorn and a grudge? For all the talk about how blogging will change the media playing field, create An Army of Davids, and forever change politics, the question has to be asked whether or not we’re all succumbing to our own hype. Blogging can be greatly advantagous to politics in America, and there’s a definite Tocquevillian aspect to it. At the same time, it can also be used as a soapbox for the person with the loudest mouth – like talk radio if the callers rather than the hosts had taken over. Kos’ site is a perfect example of that – what uncommitted swing voter is going to take a look at Kos and think “Gee, those people sure are rational, logical, and open to new ideas.” Not many, I suspect. And sadly, that would be true for a number of right-wing blogs as well these days.

Crashing The Gate is an interesting read, although Trevino’s right in pointing out that having bloggers trumpet the benefits of political blogs is hardly going to produce the most rigorous and dispassionate analysis. However, it also inadvertantly reveals the self-referentialism, the self-aggrandizement, and the general narcissism of the blogosphere these days. Kos is right that the “netroots” are having a significant impact on Democratic politics today – what he doesn’t delve into is whether that level of influence is driving the party towards a more “progressive” future or straight into the wilds of ideological excess.

The Passion Reviewed

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a difficult, important, and sobering film. It is also a masterwork.

The Passion follows the last few hours of the life of Jesus Christ, and it does not flinch from showing the horrible suffering and anguish that transpired in those hours. Actor Jim Caviezel does a brilliant and heart-rendering job of portraying a suffering that is almost impossible to understand. His performance is beyond brilliant – he conveys the pain and anguish of the Passion with only a few lines in a nearly forgotten language.

Technically, this film is a masterpiece. The cinematography is some of the best I have ever seen. The locations, the costuming, the production design, all of it is practically flawless. Gibson’s decision to use Aramaic and Latin for the film’s dialog was a gutsy but necessary choice – it places the audience in the time and place of the Passion in a way that using English would make the piece sound inauthentic.

And this film strives for a sense of authenticity. The scourging of Christ is one of the most horrific scenes in cimematic history. It is a scene that is almost unbearable. At the same time it is necessary. That is what was done – that is how inhumane it truly was. The gore is not excessive in service of the film’s message – Saving Private Ryan was far bloodier – but it is the human aspects of Christ’s suffering that give this film its power. A scene with Jesus as a carpenter building a table and interacting with Mary lends the character of Jesus a sense of humanity that only magnifies his suffering in context. When we see him so viciously tortured, it is painful to watch. This is a film about suffering and pain – and the strength of a man who can endure unimaginable torture and yet still forgive those who torture him. Had Gibson backed away from the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion he would have backed away on the very heart of this film.

There are moments in this film that are nothing less than heartbreaking. The pain in the eyes of Mary, brilliantly played by Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern (the Jewish relative of an Auschwitz victim) displays a sense of profound sadness. Monica Bellucci’s Mary Magdalene has a small but well-played role. Pontius Pilate, played by the Hungarian actor Hristo Shopov and his wife Claudia (Claudia Gerini) each are given nuanced and weighty roles.

Of course, the question that most often haunts this film is the question of anti-Semitism. However, the film I saw could only be called anti-Semitic if one starts from anti-Semitic premises. Yes, the character of Caiphas is not sympathetic by any account, and Pilate is portrayed quite sympathetically, but those calling this film anti-Semitic forget that Jesus, the Apostles, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and many of those portrayed as sympathetic to Jesus are also Jews. The temple authorities at the time were deeply corrupt, but they do not tarnish the Jewish people anymore than the actions of the Nazis make all Germans somehow corrupt. The message of this film – and indeed the message of Christianity is not about laying blame, it is about forgiveness. I can see nothing anti-Semitic about a Jesus who argues that Christians have the moral duty to love their enemies. One can only think of The Passion is anti-Semitic if they’ve entirely failed to understand it – and Christianity as well.

Moreover, there’s a deeper reason why so many seem to have such a visceral hatred for this film.

The lesson of this film is not about laying blame with others. It is that we all share culpability for what happen. We cannot simply blind ourselves to our own iniquities. Each of us bears personal responsibility for what happened. Christians believe that Jesus died for our sins – all of us, and each of us bear the responsibility for what happened. That message is not easy to accept for many. Just being a “good person” isn’t enough. Just paying taxes isn’t enough. The empty expressions of false compassion that substitutes for the real thing are not enough. Faith in nothing more than oneself is an empty faith. Unless we are willing to believe in something greater than the mere self, we are no better than the crowds that condemned Jesus for their own selfish interests. To those whose life revolves around the latest Hollywood parties and constant self-promotion, it is a direct slap to the face to their entire way of thinking.

In a world of artifice, easy answers, and pop psychology, this film challenges us to experience suffering beyond anything we could ever truly know and understand, and by witnessing such suffering come to know the absolute best and the absolute worst of humanity simultaneously. It is a challenge to our comfortable pedestrian lives that speaks of something extraordinary. It is a film that brings the essence of Christianity into focus.

No wonder so many fail to understand it.

South Park Republicans Redux

Andrew Sullivan has more on the trends of "South Park" Republicans. As the article he links to states:

Talk to right-leaning college students, and it’s clear that Sullivan is onto something. Arizona State undergrad Eric Spratling says the definition fits him and his Republican pals perfectly. “The label is really about rejecting the image of conservatives as uptight squares-crusty old men or nerdy kids in blue blazers. We might have long hair, smoke cigarettes, get drunk on weekends, have sex before marriage, watch R-rated movies, cuss like sailors-and also happen to be conservative, or at least libertarian.” Recent Stanford grad Craig Albrecht says most of his young Bush-supporter friends “absolutely cherish” South Park-style comedy “for its illumination of hypocrisy and stupidity in all spheres of life.” It just so happens, he adds, “that most hypocrisy and stupidity take place within the liberal camp.”

Further supporting Sullivan’s contention, Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice-a “punk-rock-capitalist” entertainment corporation that publishes the hipster bible Vice magazine, produces CDs and films, runs clothing stores, and claims (plausibly) to have been “deep inside the heads of 18-30s for the past 10 years”-spots “a new trend of young people tired of being lied to for the sake of the ‘greater good.'” Especially on military matters, McInnes believes, many twenty-somethings are disgusted with the Left. The knee-jerk Left’s days “are numbered,” McInnes tells The American Conservative. “They are slowly but surely being replaced with a new breed of kid that isn’t afraid to embrace conservatism.”

Being a South Park Republican myself, I couldn’t have said it better.

The French Exception

I’ve been reading Jean-François Revel’s brilliant Anti-Americanism and it is one of the most singularly lucid books on US-European relations I’ve read recently. Revel pulls no punches in describing the virulent anti-Americanism that has swept the European continent. Revel makes this note:

Anti-Americanism is at base a totalizing, if not a totalitarian, vision. The peculiar blindness of fanatacism can be recognized in he way it seizes on a certain behavior of the hated object and sweepingly condemns it, only to condemn with equal fervor the opposite behavior shortly after — or even simultaneously… According to this vision — in the sense that Littré confers upon the word: a “phantom projection, a credulous fantasy of fears, dreams, delusions, superstitions” — Americans can do nothing but speak idiocies, make blunders and commit crimes; and they are answerable for all the setbacks, all the injustices and all the sufferings of the rest of humanity.

Indeed, this charge is borne out by the accusations levelled against the American people by the European media. We’re rabidly pro-Israeli, despite the fact that the Bush Administration has restrained Sharon on more than one occasion and have publicly supported the idea of a Palestinian state. We’re too imperalistic, but we need to give more foreign aid to everyone. George W. Bush is simultaneously a moron and the most dangerous man in the world.

Given the kind of vicious anti-American crap like Frédéric Beigbeder Windows on the World and Thierry Mensonge… err… Meyssan’s vicious libel September 11: The Horrifying Fraud, it’s refreshing that there’s a Frenchman who recognizes that the roots of anti-Americanism are the same roots which spawned two of the deadliest wars in human history on European soil. The same blind hatred of America today stems from the same roots of the blind hatred of Jews fifty years ago (indeed, anti-Americanism, anti-globalism, and anti-Semitism are often fellow travellers). Revel’s j’accuse against the continental madness is a work of great courage, great force, and is absolutely indispensible for understanding the nature of anti-Americanism in Europe and elsewhere.

Literary Catfights

It looks like Anne Coulter’s new book Treason has beaten Hillary Clinton’s screed on the Amazon bestseller list, running just behind Harry Potter and John Steinbeck. I give it a week before Hillary starts complaining about the VRWC again…

Little White Lies

Byron York writes in National Review that accusation of lying against Bush are backfiring for the Democrats. From the landing on the Lincoln to Iraqi WMD, the Democrats appear eager to find any charge against the President that will stick.

The problem with the Democratic Party is that they’re operating the same way the GOP did in the late 1990s. They have no idea how to be a real opposition party. A viable opposition party cannot expect to have any chance at regaining power unless they can stand on a platform that consists of more than attacking the majority. Republicans lost seats in 1996 and 1998 because they had nothing to stand on other than attacks on Clinton. Even major policy proposals were sidelined by Monicagate, Whitewater, and the other scandals of the Clinton Administration.

Now the Democrats are even more eager to dredge up whatever dirt they can. The Democrats are failing to learn from history – unless they can stand on something other than attacking Bush, they will remain a minority party. (Not that such a thing would be bad for the country at this point.)

So Long, Ari!

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer is stepping down this summer to return to the private sector. Considering that the campaign season will begin soon, this is a logical stop for many White House personnel. The stress of a White House job is immense, and turnover rates are high. As Fleischer himself joked, being the White House spokesman is about as stressful as decommissioning live nuclear weapons.

I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Fliescher in the summer of 2001, and he’s a genuinely nice guy. I met him shortly after Vice President Cheney had a heart spell, so he was understandably rushed and under great stress, but still managed to talk to a group of students and give a great speech on life in the White House. He’ll be missed, but he is sure to go on to great things in the future.

The High Cost of Peace

I’ve been wading through Yossef Bodansky’s dense but interesting book The High Cost of Peace: How Washington’s Middle East Policy Left America Vulnerable to Terrorism. It’s a very detailed look at how the policies of the George H.W. Bush and Clinton presidencies attempted to put political expediency above any real interests of peace or security towards Israel.

Bodansky is one of the foremost experts on terrorism and Middle Eastern policy, and he paints a very damning picture of a United States policy that clearly ignored the rising storm of Islamic militancy in the Middle East. This goes far beyond Bill Clinton’s unwillingness to go after al-Qaeda, but a reckless disregard for the interests of Israel in the peace process and a complete lack of understanding of the real nature of the threat.

I’ll try and get a full review in once I’ve finished the book either here or on Blogcritics. In the meantime, the book is available in bookstores everywhere.