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Books | New titles survey the Enlightenment, democracy and American history

Issue: "A second chance," Nov. 20, 2010

With Christians fighting a two-front intellectual war against Islam on one side and secularism on the other, Nancy Pearcey's Saving Leonardo (B&H, 2010) illuminates the battle in the arts. Those who teethed on Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker will welcome Pearcey's thoughtful and readable look at how art reflected thinking in the Enlightenment and Romantic eras. Once again we see that in the end the real choices are two-Christ or nihilism-for, as Psalm 73 notes, "Whom have I in heaven but You?"

For those wanting to learn more about the big E from an author who thinks it was enlightened, read Philipp Blom's A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment (Basic, 2010): It features good writing about bad thinking that the author thinks is good. He celebrates the 18th-century Paris salon, which featured regulars like Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with its general dislike for Christianity: "There was suddenly no sin anymore and no reward or punishment in the afterlife; instead, there was only the search for pleasure and the fear of pain." It's no surprise that lurking at the end of this era was the guillotine.

The better 18th-century revolution, filled with respect for Christianity, was the American one, which Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s celebrated in his wonderful Democracy in America-but he warned of egalitarian downsides. Now, almost 180 years later, Kenneth Minogue's The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life (Encounter, 2010) argues that we live in Tocqueville's dystopia: "Our very conception of society itself has changed. It is no longer an association of independent self-moving individuals, but rather an association of vulnerable people whose needs and sufferings must be remedied by the power of the state."

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Minogue's academic and theoretical prose lacks the human interest that would make his intelligent book an enjoyable read, and he doesn't give us much of a game plan for overcoming creeping servility. David Kahane's Rules for Radical Conservatives (Ballantine, 2010) gives us a plan, as his subtitle shows: Beating the Left at Its Own Game to Take Back America. The plan, in essence, is never to pity liberals and always to punch them: "Always strike first. And give no quarter. . . . Attack on all fronts, with every weapon at your disposal." Maybe that would work, but what country would conservatives have left?

As federal spending seemingly expands to infinity and beyond, many authors are offering ways to corral it. In Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century (Regnery, 2010), Thomas E. Woods Jr. advocates using the 10th Amendment to say no to Washington's political expansion. Woods points out that the leading current example of such "nullification" emanates from the cultural left, not the right: After California legalized medical marijuana, the U.S. Supreme Court along with federal law enforcers said NO. California essentially ignored Washington: "There are as many as one thousand functioning dispensaries in Los Angeles County alone, each of which operates in direct defiance of the federal will."

To get a sense of the first stirrings of that federal will to power, Henry Clay: The Essential American, by David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler (Random House, 2010), could be useful-but it is a heavy read about the 19th-century congressional leader, presidential candidate, and womanizer that for some reason skips by basic character questions. Happily, we do have three good, overall American history texts from the past decade: Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen's A Patriot's History of the United States, William Bennett's America: The Last Best Hope, and Paul Johnson's A History of the American People. Schweikart now has out a light read, Seven Events That Made America America (Sentinel, 2010): It tells good stories about incidents such as the Dred Scott decision that led to the Civil War and the Johnstown flood that demonstrated the power of nongovernmental institutions.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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