As my grandpa once said, “school never did learn me nothin”.
My education was somewhat similar. I was a B- average student through high school and college but it took a very long time for me to develop any sort of drive or intellectual passion in my adult life. Much of that passion coincided with my late falling in love with books. Once I finally started to love pouring over old tomes and decrepit textbooks, my mind began to flourish in a way my adolescent mind never could.
Suddenly I began to comprehend the text I was reading in a complex way and sense the tension of ideas. Thoughts rolled around in my mind like marbles and the gears in my mind screeched as they started turning for the first time. I wouldn’t be the writer I am now if I hadn’t spent the last eight years digging through every history book, political theory book and occasional thriller novel I could get my hands on.
In many ways though, that’s the purpose of education. Educated minds don’t become educated just from reading the right books in High School. Education comes from developing an intellectual path and a moral worldview and learning how to honestly defend it. That’s not an easy thing to do and requires a deep amount of work learning epistemology and learning to read between the lines of complex ideas. At the end of the day though, what separates great minds from weak minds is the fact that great minds seek out information because they love the grind of learning!
Thus why I’d like to pass along some nuggets of wisdom to my fellow pilgrims early in their intellectual journeys.
Today, November 9th, 2020, marks the beginning of this fall’s National Book Week. As such, I wanted to use the occasion of this week to try and encourage my younger readers to try to embrace the same deep dive I took late in my teenage years. It’s never to late to become a reader and I’ve never regretted the knowledge and experience reading books has taught me!
Reading is a skill though and some books have definitely influenced my thought processes more than others. As a reflexive contrarian on political issues, my ideology tends to take form of deferment of other people’s deeply thought out and reasoned positions. While this isn’t the most pragmatic ideology, it’s certainly given me a great deal of critical distance to examine my compatriots.
As such, I wanted to use the occasion of this week to offer my recommendations for books that have gone a long way to inspiring my complex and convoluted brain on every issue of modern politics from religious liberty to economics and the very means by which political principals are conjured in the first place. Many of these books are contradictory in their assumptions but taken together their highlights form a collage of my unsettlingly deterministic and melancholy worldview!
For this National Book Week, Cultural Revue will also be playing host to daily articles from fellow writers offering their book recommendations on subjects as diverse as theology and medieval history. If none of my book recommendations peak your interest, give their recommendations a shot! Trust me when I say that all of our choices reflect books that have affected us in deep and sublime ways!
Beauty (2011) by Roger Scruton
This was a recent acquisition for me but it’s excellent place to start for readers interested in considering the nature of transcendent meaning and goodness. In that, that late Sir Roger Scruton was one of the most articulate and sensitive living philosophers in regards to the subjects of beauty and meaning. In this short philosophical tract, he lays out his beliefs about the important and uplifting nature of beautiful works of art and architecture and how the grotesque and post-modern diminishes the dignity of man. This might be a slightly more religious text than some of the other ones I’m recommending but it’s essential argument is more powerful than something advocating for mere religiosity.
Believers, Thinkers and Founders (2016) by Kevin Hassen
Again, this is another book that leans a bit more on the religious side of things but it’s a useful text on the history of religion and politics that actually does a solid job cutting to the core of arguments that defined much of the cultural conversion from 2002-2012. In that sense, it’s a bit late to the party. It’s still an excellent second hand history book I could’ve used a great deal in high school at the height of the God debates! It does an excellent job parsing out the nuances of religious freedom, the separation of church and state and what the actual religious views of the founders were. He discusses which founders were Deists and which ones were fundamentalist Christians and what that difference should mean to modern peoples debating these same issues.
Conflict of Visions (1987) by Thomas Sowell
I can’t speak enough to the importance Thomas Sowell means to the conservative movement. His work is among the most important of any living social scientist. While there are plenty of masterpieces I could recommend from his enormous body including Intellectuals and Society or Discrimination and Disparities, his 1987 book is the most essential in regards to understanding the moral foundations of modern political ideologies. The book breaks down the fundamental category errors at the heart of modern liberalism which he describes as the “Unconstrained Vision of Humanity”. It’s a complex notion that explains the ways liberal optimism outpaces the crooked timber of humanity and offers a reasonable explanation for the left’s excesses in their journey to creating a paradise on Earth.
I recommend Economic Decaded’s video breakdown on the book’s thesis for a quick explanation of it’s thesis!
Eat the Rich (1998) by P.J. O’Rourke
I can’t begin to explain just how important the work of PJ O’Rourke has been for the conservative movement. While his name as fallen on the wayside a bit of late as his name has been tied to the unpopular NeverTrumper movement, his classic body of political essays is among the greatest in modern politics. It’s also among the funniest and most respected! Eat the Rich is among one of his best works from the height of his post-National Lampoon career! Though highly anecdotal, the book charts his adventures traveling across the world through numerous countries and continents and exploring how the intersection of economics, cultural and morality interplay with one another to create the results we see on the ground. His descriptions of communist Cuba, ultra-capitalist Hong Kong, terrifyingly ultra-capitalist Wall Street and cozy socialist Sweden do an amazing job parsing out the details of what does and doesn’t work about popular economic systems and what it’s like to live in them.
Economics in One Lesson (1946) by Henry Hazlett
Of course any set of books that mentions economics can’t go long without mentioning Hazlett. Back when I first read the book years ago, I was shocked by how familiar this seventy year old book on economics was. I realized then just how tired and old the arguments for socialism currently in vague truly were. Our great grandparents were arguing about the same ideas in the trenches of World War II that our children are arguing about on Tumblr.
Hillbilly Elegy (2016) by J.D. Vance
J.D. Vance’s memoir might be one of the most heartbreaking and important books of the decade. It was released to critical acclaim in 2016 before being soured upon by progressive activists who dismissed it as a book made to tacitly defend the white identitarianism of the Trump administration. If you ever read the book though, you get something a great deal more emotionally resonant. The book takes it’s reader on a tour of the backwoods of America where people are trapped in cycles of horrific systemic poverty, drug addiction, abuse and generational failure that’s almost impossible to escape. Vance himself says in the introduction that he relates to the experience of inner-city Blacks and Latinos who struggle with very similar issues. Few books have gone as far to elucidate the issues of lower class Americans as well as this book has.
The New Right (2019) by Michael Malice
Michael Malice occasionally drives me insane. He’s a nihilistic anarchist troll who gets his kicks mocking everyone and everything while spending his time parading around with some of the most fringe weirdos on the internet. That said, I respect the work that went into a book like this. I’ve used The New Right for more times than I can count as a source for charting just how the rise of the underground far-right conservative movement has grown and flourished in the age of the internet. Malice does an excellent job parsing out the factions, prejudices and valid points that far right groups and individuals like the Alt Right, the Trump movement, Milo Yiannopolis, Gavin McInnis and Mencius Moldbug have brought into the cultural zeitgeist. As a secular Jew, Malice also has enough critical distance from the worst elements of these groups to know when they go too far and why. As a whole, this is an excellent work of journalism!
The Righteous Mind (2012) by Jonathan Haidt
I owe the YouTuber Adam Friended credit for getting me into the work of Haidt. Haidt is one of the most interesting social scientists working today and has spent the last decade of his career exploring the moral foundations of political and religious ideas in relation to human psychology. In short, he explains just how little the human mind controls it’s moral precept and why people become so invested in their ideas. The Righteous Mind is an excellent work of academic scholarship that is none the less totally readable and captures the essential nature of why human beings fall so easily into bad ideas.
In Search of Anti-Semitism (1992) by William F. Buckley
I’m sure some of my more Paleo-Conservative readers will find their blood boiling at the suggestion of this book. Buckley famously released this polemic as a set of essays in National Review in the leadup to Pat Buchannan’s presidential run in 1991. When Buchannan infamously quipped that the only people implicitly supporting the Gulf War were Jews, the American Right found itself in a massive scandal where in it had to find a way to figure out if his comments truly were anti-semitic and what that should mean for his presidential run.
As the pole bearer for serious intellectual conservatism who built his career on the foundation of separating conservatism from bigotry, Buckley spent his essays parsing out numerous examples of supposed and likely cases of conservatives and liberals making anti-Semitic remarks. While the final part breaks down into a diatribe about his nemesis Gore Vidal, the book does an excellent job tackling the issue of irrational Jew hatred from every possible perspective by bringing in responses to his essays and creating a dialog between Buckley and their criticisms that he ends the book addressing.
In an age when the Republican Party is regularly and cynically accused to be the party of white supremacy and hatred, a book like this is useful in it’s exploration of how hatred can and does manifest within the right. What is our responsibility as conservatives to keep such evils and bigotries out of the party? How do we know when someone has crossed the line? How should they be punished? These aren’t new questions and Buckley’s essays do a good job parsing out the details.
Trade is Not a Four Letter Word (2020) by Fred Hochberg
It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re own. If you’re a Trump fan, a Yang fan or a Bernie fan, protectionism has become the flavor of the discussion. Popular conservatives and progressives alike from Tucker Carlson to Michael Moore discuss the same issues of workers rights, jobs being lost to foreign countries, class divisions and lower class suffering in the face of the changing economy.
As the leader of the Export-Import Bank of the United States during the Obama Administration, Fred Hochberg uses his lifelong knowledge of trade policy minutia to make a clear and concise case for why free trade is actually beneficial to the United States and preferable to the anti-trade policies of modern populists. To do this, he uses a set of examples of popular items from fruits, to car parts to internationally produced television programming like Game of Thrones to discuss how trade policy works to make every day products affordable and stimulate the economy in unexpected ways.
He discusses how protectionist attempts at job creation have largely failed and how the evolving nature of the economy calls for radical new solutions that even protectionists might appreciate.
Tyranny of Cliches (2012) by Jonah Goldberg
Jonah Goldberg has been my favorite conservative political commentator since I was in high school! That’s a weird thing to say out loud but I remember reading Liberal Fascism and Tyranny of Cliches as a student and finding my first stirrings of intellectual conservative thought in these books. While I’ve read and reread his three primary works of non-fiction political analysis multiple times, his 2012 book is the one I’ve listened to the most repeatedly. It’s probably my favorite non-fiction book on politics!
The book discusses the rhetorical abuses of liberals in the culture war by relying on what Jonah calls “cliches”. These clichés are simple aphorisms and bits of unquestioned common knowledge like “violence never solves anything” or “absolute power corrupts absolutely” are actually ways to end conversations without having to consider other people’s opinions. These aphorisms are road blocks that, when put under the microscope, don’t actually offer much actual wisdom or truth but serve as cheap rhetorical devices that need to be called out and questioned.
Of his three books, Tyranny of Cliches is Jonah’s shortest book and easily his most entertaining read. While some of it’s analysis is outdated and written specifically to critique the excesses of Obama-era liberalism, his core philosophical argument remains true to this day. Unexamined aphorisms control the discourse on both sides of the aisle in the age of populism. The ideas he critiques here very much offer wisdom to the modern discerning reader.
Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter (2018) by Scott Adams
Daniel Kahneman once wrote “people don’t chose between things, they choose between descriptions of things”. That’s not to say the moral content of a thing is irrelevant but in politics and business framing is everything.
Maybe no recent book about that has been better than Scott Adam’s deeply cynical and deterministic book Win Bigly. The book captures how Adams believes the art of persuasion was Trump’s biggest tool for creating his 2016 election victory. As a hypnotist and a student of rhetoric, he lays out his case quite well. The book does a good job going rather deep into discussions of psychological reasoning and how persuasion is the most effective tool a politician has in his pocket, regardless of his moral content (ironically Adams identifies as a progressive to the left of Bernie).
Adams of course isn’t a perfect thinker. He’s gotten some major predictions wrong and his daily podcast engages in conspiracy mongering. He also has something of a cult of personality to his fanbase. I always get the sense that Adams is screwing with his readers and viewers by making them chase white rabbits and making his fans feel smart by pandering to them. Still, he did give up half his career to become Trump’s #1 advocate.
If you can get past the smug self regard and his moral nihilism, there’s a lot of useful knowledge here in a Machiavellian sense!