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Sticking it to the bourgeoisie

Books | Books highlight mankind’s shortsighted ideals and their resulting effects

Issue: "The Battle for Africa," Feb. 8, 2014

Fred Siegel’s The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class (Encounter, 2014) offers fascinating observations on the hostility to bourgeois life that animated atheistic intellectuals who hoped to rule American culture and politics. H.G. Wells a century ago set the tone when he visited the United States and urged writers to “build up an aristocracy of thought and feeling which shall hold its own against the aristocracy of mercantilism … materialism, and Philistinism.” In the mid-20th century, American critics of popular culture like Dwight Macdonald saw his countrymen as “without standards but those of the mob. … The masses are not people. … The masses are, rather, man as non-man.” 

This wasn’t racism but a deadly classism parallel to that of the Soviets, and out of it grew sociobiology and the tendency to treat humans as ants. The cultural critics also had a political thrust: Wells decried American decentralists and astoundingly praised Josef Stalin: “I have never met a man more candid, fair, and honest, and it is to these qualities and to nothing occult and sinister, that he owes his tremendous undisputed ascendency in Russia. … He owes his position to the fact that no one is afraid of him and everyone trusts him.” John Kenneth Galbraith criticized “the conventional wisdom” that poverty had spiritual as well as economic dimensions and applauded 1960s Democratic technocrats.

By 1963 science—learning through careful experimentation—had given way to scientism, with Time that year choosing 15 American scientists as its Men of the Year. The magazine worshipfully reported, “Statesmen and savants, builders and even priests are their servants. Science is at the apogee of its power.” Governance was supposed to be scientific, and when Washington messed up, some Democratic leaders, like Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, were honest about it: “Why can’t liberals start raising hell about government so big, so complex, so expansive, and so unresponsive that it’s dragging down every good program we’ve worked for?” But others gave knee-jerk defenses of big government, and such a response is obligatory now.

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George Marsden’s The Twilight of the American Enlightenment (Basic, 2014) shows how the materialism that grew out of such thinking falls short: He points out that in the 1950s and 1960s secular, liberal elites thought they could guide the nation, but failed. Marsden disapproves of “culture-war stances” but concludes that journalists should “see one of their tasks as providing leadership in cultivating a public domain as fully inclusive of religiously shaped viewpoints as is feasible. Secularist commentators, rather than writing polemics denouncing religion in the name of universal reason, might better wrestle with the issues of how to respect both secular and religious viewpoints and institutions in the public domain.” 

Short stops

The United States was remarkably unprepared for Japan’s 1941-42 assault on American troops in the Philippines, and thousands paid with their lives. Bill Sloan’s Undefeated: America’s Heroic Fight for Bataan and Corregidor (Simon and Schuster, 2012) movingly tells the story of the desperate defense and brutal aftermath. Peter Savodnik’s The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union (Basic, 2013) is a well-written examination of how estrangement from America and a failure to find a home in Minsk sent Oswald toward a rendezvous with assassination.

Daniel Anderson’s Biblical Slave Leadership (Regular Baptist, 2013) is striking in its use of “slave” rather than “servant,” but it truly points out that great leaders give up the right to say “no” to crucial tasks. Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict (Princeton Univ. Press, 2013) argues that people play nice when they believe universal gods are watching, but he doesn’t sufficiently take into account religious differences: Those Muslims who think Allah wants them to kill Christians and Jews act worse than they otherwise would.

Liberal journalists were remarkably unequipped to understand the nature of the Soviet Union, as Paul Kengor exposes in his short and punchy All the Dupes Fit to Print: Journalists Who Have Served as Tools of Communist Propaganda (America’s Survival, 2013). —M.O.

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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