The Transcendentalists and the Making of the Modern Mind

Transcendentalism constitutes one of the most significant moments and movements in the making of the American mind.  As a matter of fact, we cannot understand the contours of American thought without reference to this formative period and intellectual movement.  Now, we have a book that serves as a truly useful introduction to the Transcendentalists and their ideas.  In American Transcendentalism: A History, Philip F. Gura takes us into the minds and times of the Transcendentalists.

Gura, who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, offers a pleasing and stimulating combination of historical analysis and the study of ideas.  In addition, he is a good writer whose style will keep readers attentive and interested.

In essence, Transcendentalism was a movement that transformed American individualism from a reflex into a religion.  As Gura explains, “Transcendentalism thus was another in a long line of attempts to redirect the still incomplete American experiment, in this case by anchoring it in the sanctity of each individual’s heart.”

The Transcendentalists included, most famously, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, along with Margaret Fuller.  They were associated with Unitarianism, Harvard University, Boston, and the early history of the American republic.  They were eccentrics — but eccentrics with vast influence, then and now.

Gura adds spice to his narrative, citing Annie Russell Marble (who knew the Transcendentalists first-hand) as “a race who dove into the infinite, soared into the illimitable, and never paid cash.”  Nevertheless, the movement was hugely influential in moving the center of meaning into the realm of the individual consciousness.  Traditional theism gave way to panentheism and a vague spirituality. The path was set for the development of individualism as a total worldview — and for the shaping of the American mind.

Gura’s American Transcendentalism is a book that helps to explain the present, as well as the past.

Worldliness — Honest Talk About Seduction

My friend C. J. Mahaney and a few of his friends have written a powerhouse of a book in Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World (Crossway).  In its essence, worldliness is “a love for the fallen world,” C. J. explains.  “It’s loving the values and pursuits of the world that stand opposed to God.”  More emphatically, it is “to gratify and exalt oneself to the exclusion of God.”

Just in case anyone might miss how to apply this, C. J. and his team go right after major temptations inherent in worldliness.  Craig Cabaniss writes about worldliness and media with good insight.  To no surprise, Bob Kauflin goes after music, bringing the same theological insights he brings to his music ministry.  Take this zinger, for example:  Bob warns that a sign that music has become an idol is when our passion for Christ has waned but our passion for music has not.

Dave Harvey writes about worldliness and “our stuff.”  (Loved his warning about “virtual giving.”)  C. J. then turns to worldliness and dress, offering good and much needed advice, and Jeff Purswell then concludes by talking about the Christian’s right understanding of the world.  We are not here by accident.

Worldliness offers other good features, including a foreword by John Piper.  Most importantly, the book is Gospel-centered and avoids both legalism and antinomianism.  It is also well-timed for the Christmas season.  Read it, savor it, ponder it . . .  and then give a copy to someone else.

Quitting Church? Yes, No, and Maybe

Julia Duin, religion editor for The Washington Times, has written a book intended to shake up the church and to sound an alarm — people are leaving churches.

In Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do about It, Duin argues that “many, many evangelical Christians are slipping out or barely hanging on to their churches.”  Those words are sure to gain attention.

Duin backs up her argument with a solid mass of statistics.  Church attendance figures are misleading and bloated when supplied by churches themselves.  Statistics often cited to comfort church leaders are based on overly optimistic and dated reports.  The more current and research-based numbers are scary.  The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago estimates that church attendance has fallen from 41 percent of the population in 1971 to 31 percent in 2001.  At those rates of decline, no one will be attending church in 2031.

Of course, statistics are of real but often limited value.  Duin then goes on to offer reports laced generously with reflections on her own experience.  That blending of the personal and the professional is what makes the book interesting — and what makes it perplexing.

Just about any evangelical reader will find much here that seems real and sufficiently scary.  Most will nod in agreement when Duin points to certain trends and practices as contributing to the decline in church membership and attendance.  Critics of the mega-churches will find criticism here, as will critics of the seeker-sensitive movement, Reformed theology, and just about everything else.  Duin laments the lack of strong biblical preaching and teaching, but she also argues that many of the “teaching” churches lack a real connection with the problems of people in the pews.  She laments the mainstreaming of the Charismatic movement and relates her own very diverse background in basically unsatisfactory church experiences.  She is especially outraged that women are overlooked, under-appreciated, and often taken for granted.  Double that for unmarried women and single mothers.  She seems to oppose complementarianism but never actually declares herself.  This much is clear – she is not happy (and that goes for many of her friends and family members as well).

She wants churches to think “out of the box” and to engage the real needs of their own members.  She wants churches and church leaders to know that single people need help getting married.  She wants less fluff and more substance,  But, honest to goodness, I have no idea what the church she is seeking would look like.

Should church leaders read the book?  Yes.  Quitting Church will force pastors and church leaders to ask some very basic questions about the church — and about their churches.  There is a lot to think about here.  She speaks of people who “need sermons on unanswered prayer” who instead are confronted with “PowerPoint presentations on attaining breakthroughs.”  She offers anecdotes sure to arrest your attention.

Just be aware of the participant/observer tension found throughout this book, and read it as if you are in a conversation with a religion editor for a major national newspaper.  Listen, think, and take notes.

An excerpt:

My research suggested that people are simply not being pastored.  Often ministers are out of touch with what’s happening on the ground, as they are surrounded by a wall of secretaries and voice mail.  Congregants have to wait up to a month for an appointment, if they can get in at all.  Once-a-week home Bible study groups lack depth and theological know-how for help with the serious problems many of us face.  Many churches refer people to professional counseling that costs at least seventy-five dollars an hour. Those lucky enough to have a health plan that pays for counseling usually find the only counselors on approved HMO lists have no concept of a Christian worldview.

Quitting Church? Yes, No, and Maybe

Julia Duin, religion editor for The Washington Times, has written a book intended to shake up the church and to sound an alarm — people are leaving churches.

In Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do about It, Duin argues that “many, many evangelical Christians are slipping out or barely hanging on to their churches.”  Those words are sure to gain attention.

Duin backs up her argument with a solid mass of statistics.  Church attendance figures are misleading and bloated when supplied by churches themselves.  Statistics often cited to comfort church leaders are based on overly optimistic and dated reports.  The more current and research-based numbers are scary.  The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago estimates that church attendance has fallen from 41 percent of the population in 1971 to 31 percent in 2001.  At those rates of decline, no one will be attending church in 2031.

Of course, statistics are of real but often limited value.  Duin then goes on to offer reports laced generously with reflections on her own experience.  That blending of the personal and the professional is what makes the book interesting — and what makes it perplexing.

Just about any evangelical reader will find much here that seems real and sufficiently scary.  Most will nod in agreement when Duin points to certain trends and practices as contributing to the decline in church membership and attendance.  Critics of the mega-churches will find criticism here, as will critics of the seeker-sensitive movement, Reformed theology, and just about everything else.  Duin laments the lack of strong biblical preaching and teaching, but she also argues that many of the “teaching” churches lack a real connection with the problems of people in the pews.  She laments the mainstreaming of the Charismatic movement and relates her own very diverse background in basically unsatisfactory church experiences.  She is especially outraged that women are overlooked, under-appreciated, and often taken for granted.  Double that for unmarried women and single mothers.  She seems to oppose complementarianism but never actually declares herself.  This much is clear – she is not happy (and that goes for many of her friends and family members as well).

She wants churches to think “out of the box” and to engage the real needs of their own members.  She wants churches and church leaders to know that single people need help getting married.  She wants less fluff and more substance,  But, honest to goodness, I have no idea what the church she is seeking would look like.

Should church leaders read the book?  Yes.  Quitting Church will force pastors and church leaders to ask some very basic questions about the church — and about their churches.  There is a lot to think about here.  She speaks of people who “need sermons on unanswered prayer” who instead are confronted with “PowerPoint presentations on attaining breakthroughs.”  She offers anecdotes sure to arrest your attention.

Just be aware of the participant/observer tension found throughout this book, and read it as if you are in a conversation with a religion editor for a major national newspaper.  Listen, think, and take notes.

An excerpt:

My research suggested that people are simply not being pastored.  Often ministers are out of touch with what’s happening on the ground, as they are surrounded by a wall of secretaries and voice mail.  Congregants have to wait up to a month for an appointment, if they can get in at all.  Once-a-week home Bible study groups lack depth and theological know-how for help with the serious problems many of us face.  Many churches refer people to professional counseling that costs at least seventy-five dollars an hour. Those lucky enough to have a health plan that pays for counseling usually find the only counselors on approved HMO lists have no concept of a Christian worldview.

“Golda” — An Incredible Story About an Indomitable Power

With Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni poised to become that nation’s next Prime Minister, historical parallels to the late Golda Meir are inevitable.  “Golda,” as she was known, served as Israel’s Prime Minister from 1969 to 1974.  She was expected to be a caretaker Prime Minister who would quickly be replaced with a more conventional leader.  Nevertheless, her indomitable will and grandmotherly manner made her Israel’s indispensable leader during critical days in the nation’s history and in the context of the Cold War.

Born in the old Russian Empire in 1898, Golda Mabovich migrated to America as a little girl, settling with her family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  As a girl and young woman, Golda became urgently committed to the Zionist cause and moved to what was then known as Palestine in 1921 with her new husband, Morris Meyerson (she later Hebraicized her name to Meir).

When Israel emerged as a new nation in 1947, Golda was already recognized as a major figure in Zionist ranks.  She later moved through a succession of offices and responsibilities in the Israeli government, serving as Foreign Minister before becoming the nation’s first woman Prime Minister in 1969.

American readers of Golda, a new and fascinating biography of Golda Meir by Elinor Burkett (Harper), are likely to remember Golda’ starring role in history, especially on the international stage.  In a sense, Golda Meir’s leadership role cemented Israel’s special place in the American consciousness.  Even President Richard M. Nixon seemed to melt in her presence, and Israel got what the nation needed from America — vast financial support, overt and covert political support, and the sale of advanced American armaments and weaponry.  This was a grandmother who did business.

Less known to most Americans, but essential to this story, is Golda Meir’s political liberalism, her early decision to abort a baby (“her Zionist obligations simply did not leave room for a child”) and divorce from her husband.  Her story is instructive at many levels, telling the story of modern Israel through one woman’s role and legacy.

Her story is also a personal and national tragedy, as her legacy continues to divide the nation.  I found Elinor Burkett’s biography of Golda Meir to be most helpful in understanding the cataclysmic and chaotic events of Israel’s history, the internal divisions that existed in Israel from the beginning, the nation’s quest for a unified identity, and the socialist experiment that many intended the new nation to become.  On every page the backdrop is the young nation’s brave fight for survival.  The story of Golda Meir is often not pretty, but it is never boring.

An excerpt:

Her people adored her for all the wrong reasons — for how safe her towering strength made them feel and for the aplomb her edgy wit lent them — rather than because they heard their own hopes and dreams reflected in her exhortations about socialism, equality, and self-sacrifice.  While she was celebrated across the planet as the first personification of strong female political leadership, on the most pressing international issue — the alarming rise of terrorism — she was cast aside as a Cassandra despite what history has shown to be her prescience.  In her every attempt to move Israel toward peace, she was hemmed in — by the great game between the United States and the Soviet Union and by Israel’s political landscape as much as by her own obduracy.

And despite the reality that her nation’s political paralysis constrained her from accomplishing much of what she longed to do, she was nonetheless forced to stay in office well beyond her time because there was no other way for her to protect a nation at risk, from its neighbors, its refugees, its economic precariousness, and its own contentious divisions.

A woman of greater wisdom might have resigned and let the younger generation battle it out, no matter the cost.  A leader of foresight might have told her people everything they didn’t want to hear, that the situation was not sustainable, that a dozen problems were woven into the national fabric, and that they were living on quicksand.  A creative prime minister might have devised new approaches to everything from ethnic divisions to peacemaking.  And an innovator might have burst the bubble of arrogant self-consciousness by explaining that the political system was ossified or acknowledging that Israelis were not, in fact, the new superheroes.

A Kingdom No More

The world order has been so thoroughly transformed over the last century that some of the most powerful nations on earth no longer even exist.  Most recently, we saw this happen with the break-up of the Soviet Union.   But a national demise that rivals that of the Soviet Union is the disappearance of Prussia in 1947.

In Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947 (Belknap Press), historian Christopher Clark traces the emergence of Prussia as a global superpower and its collapse into national non-existence after World War II.  Clark tells the story very well, explaining how Prussia, originally just one among several German kingdoms, emerged as the organizing center of a unified, ambitious, and militaristic Germany.

Along the way, Clark offers insights that help to explain the unfolding history of Europe and points to the coming debacles of World Wars I and II — both wars forever linked to Prussian militarism and expansionism.

An excerpt:

On 25 February 1947, representatives of the Allied occupation authorities in Berlin signed a law abolishing the state of Prussia.  From this moment onward, Prussia belonged to history. . . .

Law No. 46 of the Allied Central Council was more than an administrative act.  In expunging Prussia from the map of Europe, the Allied authorities also passed judgment upon it.  Prussia was not just one German territory among others, on a par with Baden, Wurttemberg, Bavaria or Saxony; it was the very source of the German malaise that had afflicted Europe.  It was the reason why Germany had turned from the path of peace and political modernity.  ‘The core of Germany is Prussia,’ Churchill told the British Parliament on 21 September 1943.  ‘There is the source of the recurring pestilence.’  The excision of Prussia from the political map of Europe was thus a symbolic necessity.  Its history had become a nightmare that weighed upon the minds of the living.

On the Other Hand, Protestant Courage

David F. Wells is, hands down, one of the most insightful analysts of contemporary Christianity.  Well known as the Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Wells is a theologian best known for four courageous and important books, No Place for Truth, God in the Wasteland, Losing Our Virtue, and Above All Earthly Pow’rs.

Now, in The Courage to Be Protestant, Wells offers what amounts to a fifth volume in his series–a capstone to his argument.

In The Courage to Be Protestant, Wells bravely criticizes those who would offer theological and spiritual reductionism in the name of marketing as well as those who would steer the Evangelical movement toward the postmodern embrace of the “Emergents.”

Looking at present-day Evangelicalism, Wells sees shrinking doctrine and a disappearing church.  It takes no courage to “sign-up” as a Protestant, he argues, but it takes considerable courage to believe and act as a Protestant.

The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World is must reading.   After reading this book, go back and read Wells’ previous four-volume series.

An excerpt:

Traditional Christian faith holds to the outside God who stands over against us.  He is known not because we have discovered him, but because he has made himself known in Scripture and in Christ.  We are not left to piece together our understanding of him.  He has unveiled and defined himself for us.  He has broken his concealment.  He has come into view and has told us who he is and how we are to live.

The inside god of this contemporary spirituality is different.  He emerges out of the psychology, the inner depths, of the seeker.  He is known through and within the self, and we piece together our knowledge of him (or her, or it) from the fragments of our experience coupled with our intuitions.  In so many ways this god, this sacred reality, is indistinguishable from how we experience ourselves.

I discussed this important book with author David Wells on the June 5, 2008 edition of The Albert Mohler Program [listen here].

Five Minds Better Than One?

There is more than enough psychobabble in this world, and not enough genuine insight.  I picked up Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner unsure if I would find anything worthwhile but intrigued by his previous writings.  A professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Gardner is a leading theorist behind the notion of “multiple intelligences’ – the idea that intelligence is a diverse capacity, rather than a simple score on an IQ test.

The concept of multiple intelligences is both helpful and transformative, broadening the concept of intelligence to cover, for example, emotional intelligence as well as the knowledge of facts and concepts.  It takes little reflection to recognize that a failure to develop emotional intelligence can doom an individual to ineffectiveness — no matter how much knowledge the person possesses.

In Five Minds for the Future, Gardner points to five different modes of thinking, described as minds, that will be vital for effectiveness and success in the future.  It is no accident that the book is published by Harvard Business School Press.

Gardner describes the disciplinary mind, the synthesizing mind, the creating mind, the respectful mind, and the ethical mind as five essentials for the future.  Christian readers will gain a great deal from reading Gardner’s book.  Much of what he has to say is immediately applicable to life, to ministry, to education, and to parenthood.  Christians will want to say more than Gardner says in many respects, but his analysis of these five minds should be very helpful to the reader.

As a matter of fact, I found the book immediately relevant to my responsibility as an academic president — and to the work of the Christian ministry.  His secular analysis should lead to good biblical reflection.  As I read his layout of these five minds, I thought of Paul’s instruction to ministers in 1 and 2 Timothy.

Five Minds for the Future will help parents to think about their children in a new light.  The Christian parent must aim for more than is found in Gardner’s secular analysis, but certainly not for less.  The same is true for the Christian educator.

An excerpt:

When one speaks of cultivating certain kinds of minds, the most immediate frame of reference is that of education.  In many ways, this is appropriate: after all, designated educators and licensed educational institutions bear the most evident burden in the identification and training of young minds.  But we must immediately expand our vision beyond standard educational institutions.  In our cultures of today–and of tomorrow–parents, peers, and media play roles at least as significant as do authorized teachers and formal schools.  More and more parents “homeschool” or rely on various extra-scholastic mentors or tutors.  Moreover, if any cliché of recent years rings true, it is the acknowledgment that education must be lifelong.  Those at the workplace are charged with selecting individuals who appear to possess the right kinds of knowledge, skills, minds–in my terms, they should be searching for individuals who possess disciplined, synthesizing, creating, respectful, and ethical minds.  But, equally, managers and leaders, directors and deans and presidents, must continue to perennially develop all five kinds of minds in themselves and–equally–in those for whom they bear responsibility.

Five Minds Better Than One?

There is more than enough psychobabble in this world, and not enough genuine insight.  I picked up Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner unsure if I would find anything worthwhile but intrigued by his previous writings.  A professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Gardner is a leading theorist behind the notion of “multiple intelligences’ – the idea that intelligence is a diverse capacity, rather than a simple score on an IQ test.

The concept of multiple intelligences is both helpful and transformative, broadening the concept of intelligence to cover, for example, emotional intelligence as well as the knowledge of facts and concepts.  It takes little reflection to recognize that a failure to develop emotional intelligence can doom an individual to ineffectiveness — no matter how much knowledge the person possesses.

In Five Minds for the Future, Gardner points to five different modes of thinking, described as minds, that will be vital for effectiveness and success in the future.  It is no accident that the book is published by Harvard Business School Press.

Gardner describes the disciplinary mind, the synthesizing mind, the creating mind, the respectful mind, and the ethical mind as five essentials for the future.  Christian readers will gain a great deal from reading Gardner’s book.  Much of what he has to say is immediately applicable to life, to ministry, to education, and to parenthood.  Christians will want to say more than Gardner says in many respects, but his analysis of these five minds should be very helpful to the reader.

As a matter of fact, I found the book immediately relevant to my responsibility as an academic president — and to the work of the Christian ministry.  His secular analysis should lead to good biblical reflection.  As I read his layout of these five minds, I thought of Paul’s instruction to ministers in 1 and 2 Timothy.

Five Minds for the Future will help parents to think about their children in a new light.  The Christian parent must aim for more than is found in Gardner’s secular analysis, but certainly not for less.  The same is true for the Christian educator.

An excerpt:

When one speaks of cultivating certain kinds of minds, the most immediate frame of reference is that of education.  In many ways, this is appropriate: after all, designated educators and licensed educational institutions bear the most evident burden in the identification and training of young minds.  But we must immediately expand our vision beyond standard educational institutions.  In our cultures of today–and of tomorrow–parents, peers, and media play roles at least as significant as do authorized teachers and formal schools.  More and more parents “homeschool” or rely on various extra-scholastic mentors or tutors.  Moreover, if any cliché of recent years rings true, it is the acknowledgment that education must be lifelong.  Those at the workplace are charged with selecting individuals who appear to possess the right kinds of knowledge, skills, minds–in my terms, they should be searching for individuals who possess disciplined, synthesizing, creating, respectful, and ethical minds.  But, equally, managers and leaders, directors and deans and presidents, must continue to perennially develop all five kinds of minds in themselves and–equally–in those for whom they bear responsibility.

Lessons from the Bar Mitzvah

My guess is that most Americans assume that the practice of the bar mitzvah is a centuries-old norm among the Jewish people. That assumption is wrong, but the real story of the bar mitzvah is truly interesting. In Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America, author Mark Oppenheimer traces the history of the bar mitzvah and what it represents (or does not represent) in terms of the Jewish experience.

The bar mitzvah celebration has roots in medieval Judaism, but it became an important part of American Judaism only in the twentieth century, Oppenheimer explains. “The typical bar or bat mitzvah ceremony–the religious part, anyway–is quite simple. A boy of about thirteen, or a girl of about twelve or thirteen, leads a portion of the traditional Jewish Sabbath service and reads aloud some of the Bible portions assigned to that week,” he summarizes. “The event is supposed to mark the moment when a young Jew assumes the responsibilities of religious adulthood.”

The big problem is that few people really seem to believe that the bar mitzvah does any such thing. The thirteen-year-old who celebrates the bar (for boys) or bat (for girls) mitzvah is still a thirteen-year-old. Furthermore, the ceremony has been eclipsed by the celebration that follows. In wealthy Jewish communities, these parties are often outlandishly expensive. Oppenheimer provides an insider’s perspective on this transformation of the tradition.

Reading Thirteen and a Day is an introduction to many of the issues facing contemporary American Judaism and a truly interesting historical and sociological analysis of a familiar ritual. Christians reading the book are likely to think about how we conceive of early adolescents and the transition to adulthood — and the challenge of instilling a clear identity within our own children.

An excerpt:

The popularity of the b’nai mitzvah is not the result of their usefulness. There is no strong evidence that the bar or bat mitzvah will reverse Jews’ low birthrates or counter religious indifference. While committed Jewish families see b’nai mitzvah as necessary to raising a good Jewish child, that is no way to account for adult b’nai mitzvah–and what’s more, it’s no way to account for the enthusiasm of the children themselves, whose excitement has little to do with abstract notions of Jewish survival. B’nai mitzvah cannot be explained through Torah, which nowhere mentions the ceremony; Jews are not commanded to celebrate the mar mitzvah.

Rather, they are commanded to act like Jews; to pray, to tell the story of the Exodus every Passover, to reproduce young Jews, to circumcise the boys. But as rewarding as the Jewishly lived life can be, and as fun as reproduction is, they seem to express inadequately our religious peoplehood. What evangelical Christian express by being born again, or Mormons by going on a two-year mission, Jews express through the bar and bat mitzvah. They proclaim their commitment to Judaism every time they say their prayers, but this is the only time that make that commitment with an audience watching.

Please . . . Get a New Word

Books on political affairs and current events come regularly and many pack a partisan punch. This is especially true in the intense political season of a presidential campaign. Publishers have been releasing title after title into the political torrent.

One of the most interesting of these is Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning by Jonah Goldberg. A popular conservative commentator long associated with National Review magazine, Goldberg is a very capable writer. He has a rare ability to inject humor into serious argument — and to get away with it.

In Liberal Fascism he goes after the impulse to combine utopian visions with intellectual arrogance and a willingness to coerce others into compliance. Goldberg rightly traces the modern ideology of fascism back to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and deals forthrightly with the fascist ideology of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement. He then proceeds to argue that contemporary American liberalism embodies a new form of fascism — a fascism with a smiling face, perhaps more therapeutic than terrifying.

Goldberg offers solid insights in this book, and Liberal Fascism is a good introduction to many of the debates now raging with American culture. He also provides historical analysis and a sense of intellectual context. Nonetheless, the book has a major problem — its title.

Given the horrifying experience of the twentieth century, we should be extremely reluctant to use the term fascism without a direct reference to the murderous regimes of fascist Europe — and the Third Reich in particular. Intellectual credibility suffers when words are used carelessly and wrongly. Jonah Goldberg rightly complains that liberals often wrongly accuse conservatism of being latent fascism when engaged in argument. True enough, but turning the word on liberalism scarcely helps. Intellectual discourse and political debate are reduced to name-calling, and understanding is often lost. Liberal Fascism is worth reading, but the book and its argument would have been stronger and more credible without the reference to fascism.

An excerpt:

Again, it is my argument that American liberalism is a totalitarian political religion, but not necessarily an Orwellian one. It is nice, not brutal. Nannying, not bullying. But it is definitely totalitarian — or “holistic,” if you prefer — in that liberalism today sees no realm of human life that is beyond political significance, from what you eat to what you smoke to what you say. Sex is political. Food is political. Sports, entertainment, your inner motives and outer appearance, all have political salience for liberal fascists. Liberals place their faith in priestly experts who know better, who plan, exhort, badger, and scold. They try to use science to discredit traditional notions of religion and faith, but they speak the language of pluralism and spirituality to defend “nontraditional” beliefs.

Please . . . Get a New Word

Books on political affairs and current events come regularly and many pack a partisan punch. This is especially true in the intense political season of a presidential campaign. Publishers have been releasing title after title into the political torrent.

One of the most interesting of these is Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning by Jonah Goldberg. A popular conservative commentator long associated with National Review magazine, Goldberg is a very capable writer. He has a rare ability to inject humor into serious argument — and to get away with it.

In Liberal Fascism he goes after the impulse to combine utopian visions with intellectual arrogance and a willingness to coerce others into compliance. Goldberg rightly traces the modern ideology of fascism back to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and deals forthrightly with the fascist ideology of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement. He then proceeds to argue that contemporary American liberalism embodies a new form of fascism — a fascism with a smiling face, perhaps more therapeutic than terrifying.

Goldberg offers solid insights in this book, and Liberal Fascism is a good introduction to many of the debates now raging with American culture. He also provides historical analysis and a sense of intellectual context. Nonetheless, the book has a major problem — its title.

Given the horrifying experience of the twentieth century, we should be extremely reluctant to use the term fascism without a direct reference to the murderous regimes of fascist Europe — and the Third Reich in particular. Intellectual credibility suffers when words are used carelessly and wrongly. Jonah Goldberg rightly complains that liberals often wrongly accuse conservatism of being latent fascism when engaged in argument. True enough, but turning the word on liberalism scarcely helps. Intellectual discourse and political debate are reduced to name-calling, and understanding is often lost. Liberal Fascism is worth reading, but the book and its argument would have been stronger and more credible without the reference to fascism.

An excerpt:

Again, it is my argument that American liberalism is a totalitarian political religion, but not necessarily an Orwellian one. It is nice, not brutal. Nannying, not bullying. But it is definitely totalitarian — or “holistic,” if you prefer — in that liberalism today sees no realm of human life that is beyond political significance, from what you eat to what you smoke to what you say. Sex is political. Food is political. Sports, entertainment, your inner motives and outer appearance, all have political salience for liberal fascists. Liberals place their faith in priestly experts who know better, who plan, exhort, badger, and scold. They try to use science to discredit traditional notions of religion and faith, but they speak the language of pluralism and spirituality to defend “nontraditional” beliefs.

Washington — How America Made its Capital City

Fergus M. Bordewich has written what is best described as a biography of Washington, D.C. In Washington: The Making of the American Capital (Amistad Books/HarperCollins), Bordewich traces the history of America’s Capital City, telling that story with a compelling narrative and fascinating (and surprising) details.

The story of Washington the city is inseparable from the story of the Founders and their heirs — and the story of the new nation. The very existence of the city is a monumental achievement, and the establishment of a new capital for the nation did not make sense to all. New York and Philadelphia (and Philadelphia even more than New York) offered amenities and cultural institutions that Washington would not have for over a century and beyond. The new District of Columbia was largely a swamp, but the Founders has a bold vision. George Washington was himself determined to see the new capital express the grandeur of the new nation’s vision and commitment to democracy. When constructed, the Capitol was the largest building in the young nation, and the White House was the largest residence. Both basically stood in bare fields.

There is more to this story — much more, in fact. Bordewich’s account takes the reader only up to the early nineteenth century. Nevertheless, by that time Washington the city was a fact, and the outlines of modern Washington were already visible. Washington: The Making of the American Capital is a great story that is well told.

An excerpt:

Today some 550,000 Washingtonians live at the core of a linear megalopolis with millions of inhabitants, extending deep into Maryland and Virginia. The tacit assumption that the capital would always be a white man’s city –no one even remotely imagined otherwise in the 1790s–has also been overthrown by time: today 57 percent of the city’s inhabitants, most of the leading members of its municipal government, and a significant portion of its business establishment are African American. The skeleton of L’Enfant’s grand plan survives, adapted to the exigencies of modern life. His boulevards continue to shape (and confuse) the flow of traffic, nudging the eye toward the magestic symmetries that lie half-buried, like an elegant palimpsest, beneath the modern cityscape. The White House remains where L’Enfant put it, although a more fearful age has hemmed it in with fences, barriers, and rings of invisible security to a degree that would have profoundly dismayed Americans of the 1790s, who expected even their highest officials to be easy of access, and available to them at almost any time. The Capitol, too, remains what the Founders intended, much larger and grander than it was two centuries ago, of course, but still framed by the proportions sketched by William Thornton on the steamy island of Tortola, and more than ever a magnet to the eye, proof to all of the astonishing persistence of American democracy.

1960 — The Rome Olympics and the Modern Games

The modern Olympic Games are barely a century old, but even within that relatively brief span the games have been transformed. Along the way, notions of athletic achievement, nationalism, individual rights, patriotism, gender, and race have been transformed as well.

David Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author, takes us back to the 1960 Olympics where so many of these changes began in Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World (Simon and Schuster). Those games started just one week after the espionage trial of Francis Gary Powers ended with his conviction in Moscow. The Cold War was at its height and the old order of the colonial age was breaking up. New ideals of individualism and new ideas of the role of sports in the culture and the economy were coming to the fore. All of these changes were on stage in Rome as the Olympic Games began.

Maraniss offers here a book that surprised me at many turns, and I found that reading Rome 1960 was a good way to watch the current games in Beijing with greater insight. As Maraniss argues, the shape of the modern games as we know them now was “coming into view” in Rome.

An excerpt:

Television, money, and drugs were bursting onto the scene, altering everything they touched. Old-boy notions of pristine amateurism, created by and for upper-class sportsmen, were crumbling in Rome and could never be taken seriously again. Rome brought the first commercially broadcast Summer Games, the first doping scandal, the first runner paid for wearing a certain brand of track shoes. New nations and constituencies were being heard from, with increasing pressure to provide equal rights for blacks and women as they emerged from generations of discrimination and condescension.

The singular essence of the Olympic Games is that the world takes the same stage at the same time, performing a passion play of nations, races, ideologies, talents, styles, and aspirations that no other venue, not even the United Nations, can match. The 1960 Games came during a notably anxious period in cold war history; almost every action in Rome was viewed through the political lens of those tense times.

In Time for the Olympics — Understanding China

The 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing will put the nation of China on the world stage as never before in modern times. The government of the People’s Republic of China is intent on making these games a great publicity gain for the nation. Beijing itself has undergone a great architectural transformation, even as the entire nation is in a process of great change.

But China, more clearly than most nations, is captive to its history — and there is no way to understand the China we will see on television in coming days without understanding China’s more recent history. The challenge lies in finding an adequate one-volume history.

Just in time for the Olympic Games, Jonathan Fenby has written Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present (Ecco/HarperCollins). Fenby’s work is the best one-volume work on modern China I have yet found, and it is must reading for anyone who wants to understand China at this crucial moment. Fenby, who writes and explains well, traces China’s history from the Qing dynasty, through decades of war and revolution, to Mao and the rise of Communist China, to the great shifts in Chinese life and culture as China enters a global age.

An excerpt:

This book has argued that, for all the manifestations of modernity, China’s history is not another country. Now, the cumulative effects of the process launched by Deng Xiaoping are leading to a phase that could be plucked right out of imperial dynasties or from the republic. If Mao was the strong, willful dynastic founder and Deng the consolidator who saw a way of renewing the mandate, Hu Jintao can be taken as a successor who holds the keys to power but cannot turn them as his predecessors did. True, there is no organized opposition to confront the Communist dynasty, no Red Army lurking in the backwoods, no political movement marshalling resistance in the countryside. But the regime faces a different kind of risk, which again has its roots in China’s early history. Since the First Emperor in AD 221, rulers have feared losing control of major forces in society, whether they take the form of questioning officials and scholars, military commanders, or, in the last decades of empire, the modernizing gentry. Today, those impelled by the rush to the market and material self-improvement march increasingly to their own drum. Interest groups, individuals and competing power centres proliferate within the overall supposedly unified structure. State -owned enterprises join private firms in playing the stock exchange and using their positions to maximize profits. The result is an authoritarian state which increasingly lacks authority, an empire without an emperor.