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Washington Post Book Reviews
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Thursday July 15, 2010
NEOCONSERVATISM: The Biography of a Movement
NEOCONSERVATISM: The Biography of a MovementJustin Vaisse. Translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer
ISBN 978-0-674-05051-8
366 pages

RIGHT STAR RISING: A New Politics, 1974-1980 Laura Kalman
ISBN 978-0-393-07638-7
473 pages

Reviewed by Rich Lowry
Is today more like the late 1970's or the early 1980's? The answer is crucial for an understanding of our contemporary politics. If it's 1982 all over again, Barack Obama's recession-weakened Democrats will suffer in the midterm elections before consolidating an era of transformational change. If it's the late 1970s, a faltering Democratic president and a grass-root revolt against liberalism will revive conservative political fortunes -- and these two books on different aspects of the rise of the right during a time of retrenchment abroad and a sputtering economy at home will have even more contemporary significance.
Justin Vaisse, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, has written a book on neoconservatism that is thoughtful and well-informed. Mirabile dictu! Vaisse avoids the crudities of, say, Chris Matthews, who has used "neoconservative" as an all-purpose smear over the years, and eschews the conspiracy-mongering often so attractive to commentators on the subject. His book covers the entire lifespan of neoconservatism, but the '70s, when neoconservatism reached its political maturity and many neocons abandoned the Democrats, are his main focus.
It's impossible to write a history of neoconservatism without re-capitulating twice-told tales. It all started in the 1930s at the City College of New York, where the smart, politically engaged Jewish kids excluded from Columbia by a quota system did intellectual battle with one another -- the Stalinists gathering in alcove 1 in the dining hall, the anti-Stalinists in alcove 2. And before you know it, we're invading Iraq in 2003.
Vaisse dates the beginning of neoconservatism to the reaction of certain liberal intellectuals against the Berkeley Free Speech Movement beginning in 1964 and its threat, in the words of Seymour Martin Lipset, to "the foundations of democratic order." Vaisse writes, "The subsequent history of the movement was an extended variation on the themes sounded at Berkeley."
In the next few years, neoconservatism became an undeniable force, with the founding of Irving Kristol's magazine, the Public Interest, in 1965; the rightward turn of Commentary magazine, under the editorship of Norman Podhoretz, in 1970; and the establishment of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, or CDM, in 1972. The neoconservatives defended America's institutions and values from an assault by what it called a "new class" of intellectuals, bureaucrats and students, and warned against overestimating the ability of government programs to navigate complex reality.
Their political vehicle, CDM, lost its battle for the soul of the Democratic Party so thoroughly over the long run that its project seems bizarre from the perspective of today: major labor leaders uniting with right-leaning intellectuals to fight the left over Democratic party delegate-selection rules and platform planks.
The work of the CDM dovetailed with that of the Committee on the Present Danger, or CPD, a bi-partisan collection of intellectuals and policymakers opposed to detente and convinced that we were underestimating the threat represented by the Soviet Union. Reagan was a member, and the CPD proved a conveyor belt for former Democrats into his fold. Twenty-seven members of the CPD got important positions in his administration.
The founding fathers of neoconservatism were ready to lay it to rest by the mid-1990s, accepting its absorption into mainstream conservatism, when Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan of the Weekly Standard revived the rubric in its current form. This version, with its focus on the spread of democracy abroad, didn't come out of nowhere. Vaisse notes that the main themes were already present in neoconservatism: the need for American international leadership, the warnings about appeasement, the support for human rights and democratic values abroad, the staunch defense of Israel, the suspicion of the United Nations. No less a neoconservative giant than Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a 1974 article for Commentary titled "Was Woodrow Wilson Right?" The answer? Yes: "We stand for liberty," Moynihan wrote, "for the expansion of liberty."
Vaisse argues that how you interpret the end of the Cold War is crucial to how you evaluate the success of neoconservatism. If Reagan won the Cold War by hewing to neoconservative doctrine, then a hard-line foreign policy gains "historical validity"; but if he coaxed the Soviet Union into extinction by treating it with openness and engagement, then the neocon approach was not a factor. This is a false dichotomy, however. The answer, as Vaisse correctly notes, is that Reagan did both. He was a statesman, not a magazine writer, and no one doctrine could possibly set out what wisdom or prudence dictated in any given circumstance.
On George W. Bush's foreign policy, Vaisse maintains his equilibrium -- no small thing. He notes that the neocons "were merely one source of inspiration among others for a complex, multifarious policy that was shaped largely by the course of events." The difficulties of the Iraq War can't necessarily be hung on neocons, because they agitated to send more troops, a move that might have avoided the worst failures of the occupation. But Vaisse, with justice, chastises them for a "democratic dogmatism" that assumed "democracy is the default regime, which emerges spontaneously when a tyrant is overthrown."
Ultimately, Vaisse sees neoconservatism as "a manifestation of patriotism or even nationalism." That's an overly broad category, to be sure, but his rough schema works for the three ages by which he divides the movement: The first age sought to defend the country's values and institutions in the 1960s, the second to revitalize them in the '70s and '80s, and the third to spread them abroad. In a crowded field, Vaisse has written a fine primer, judicious, thorough and sure-footed.
Whatever we think of neoconservatism, it wouldn't have had such an influence without the political gains of the broader conservative movement in the wake of the stumbles of the Ford and Carter administrations. That's the subject of "Right Star Rising," by Laura Kalman, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
She argues that the nation's rightward shift in the 1980s originated during a short run-up from 1975-79. It wasn't just the liberal overreach of the 1960s or Richard Nixon's divisive politics that dissolved the liberal postwar consensus, but the leadership failures of Ford and Carter. This is a perfectly defensible thesis. The problem with it in the context of this book is that it leaves her stuck with two presidents who don't make scintillating copy. A book focusing on Ford and Carter should be written in a whiz-bang style to hold the reader's interest, and Kalman's prose plods rather than sparkles.
Just reviewing these years is enough to make you come down with a bad case of "malaise." Jimmy Carter's desperation in July 1979, when he was at 25 percent approval, is almost beyond belief. He engaged in childish machinations to increase press interest in a national address, what became known as the malaise speech even though he didn't use the word. His description of the country's "crisis of confidence" initially got a positive reception, but he threw away any good will immediately afterward in a panicky-seeming move: He demanded resignation letters from all of his cabinet and accepted some from key officials.
In writing about the rise of the right in roughly this period, Kalman has entered an even more crowded field than Vaisse. Unfortunately, her book can't compete with excellent recent accounts by Rick Perlstein from the left ("Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America") and Steven Hayward from the right ("The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980"). Her conclusion, though, is unassailable. "By assuming command," she writes of Reagan, "he ended the seventies." We don't know yet whether they are upon us again.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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FREEDOM SUMMER: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy
Bruce Watson
ISBN 978-0-670-02170-3
369 pages

Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley
It was known as the "long, hot summer," the place being Mississippi and the time being 1964. That the phrase came from the work of the state's most famous and distinguished native son, William Faulkner, was not without irony since Faulkner, who had died two years earlier, had urged his fellow Mississippians to be calm and decent in the face of the bigotry, discrimination and violence that were tearing them apart. The summer was long and hot not merely because summer in Mississippi is always long and hot but because the leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had chosen to subject the state to what Bruce Watson calls "a racial firestorm."
It came in the form of the Mississippi Summer Project, better known as Freedom Summer. For the most part outrages committed by whites against blacks in Mississippi went unnoticed elsewhere, but SNCC was determined to change that. Watson, whose useful, thorough chronicle of this unjustly forgotten time is marred by an occasional lapse into overheated prose, describes SNCC's strategy as follows:
"What if, instead of Mississippi's black folk struggling in isolation, hundreds of college students from all across the country poured into the state? Wouldn't America pay attention then? And what if, along with (voter) registration drives, these volunteers staffed Freedom Schools, teaching black kids subjects their 'separate but equal' schools would never teach? Black history. Black literature. The root causes of poverty. What if, in the spirit of America's new Peace Corps, this 'domestic Peace Corps' set up Freedom Houses all over Mississippi, with libraries, day cares, and evening classes in literacy and voting rights? And what if, at the culmination of the summer, delegates from a new Freedom Party went to the Democratic National Convention to claim, beneath the spotlight of network news, that they, not Mississippi's all-white delegation, were the rightful representatives from the Magnolia State?"
John Lewis, who then was 24 years old and chairman of SNCC, put it this way: "Before the Negro people get the right to vote, there will have to be a massive confrontation, and it will probably come this summer. ... We are going to Mississippi full force." Actually, the "force" was rather small -- a few hundred college students and other young people -- but so far as white Mississippi was concerned it was an invading army. Mississippi in the 1960s "was a mean and snarling state, run by tight-lipped politicians, bigoted sheriffs, and cops 'not playing with' anyone who crossed them." One notable Mississippian, Walker Percy, wrote: "During the past ten years, Mississippi as a society reached a condition which can only be described, in an analogous but exact sense of the word, as insane."
White-on-black violence was pandemic. The case that caught the world's attention had occurred in 1955, when a black teenager from Chicago named Emmett Till "flirted with a white woman" and was brutally murdered; his killers were let off with an official wink. Faulkner wrote in despair: "If we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don't deserve to survive, and probably won't." But if anything, the violence ramped up, Watson writes: "Within four years, ten more Mississippi blacks were murdered by whites; no guilty verdicts were rendered. The reign of terror also revived lynching. In the tiny town of Poplarville, Mack Parker, accused of rape, was dragged from jail and later found in chains, drifting in a logjam on the Pearl River."
In the year of Freedom Summer, a book called "Mississippi: The Closed Society" was published by an uncommonly forthright and courageous professor of history at the University of Mississippi named James Silver. In it he said, among many other things, that the state was "as near to approximating a police state as anything we have yet seen in America," and the police were both solely and wholly there to uphold the racial status quo. Black Mississippians were vilified, denied the most fundamental rights of American citizens, clubbed and shot, disfigured and murdered. A place of at times heart-breaking natural beauty, Mississippi was in reality a hell hole.
This was what the young people from California and New England and other such places found when they began to arrive in June 1964. Watson focuses on four of them, three of whom are white: Chris Williams from Massachusetts, Fred Winn from California, and Fran O'Brien, also a Californian. The fourth, Muriel Tillinghast, was a bit older, a native of the District of Columbia and a recent graduate of Howard University. All were put to the test in various ways -- O'Brien's was the most violent and debasing -- but all came away with their convictions reinforced and deepened. All also were profoundly and lastingly impressed by the quiet courage and innate decency of even the poorest and most desperate black Mississippians whom they met and with whom they lived. It was a learning experience on both sides: The whites discovered the humanity and individuality of people who previously had been little more than a vague blur, while the blacks for the first time were in the company of whites who treated them with respect and admiration.
Whites -- not just in Mississippi but throughout the South -- referred to those who came from other places to work for civil rights as "outside agitators." Watson has found a lovely comment on this by a confident, outspoken Mississippi African-American named Robert Miles, who welcomed a group of young volunteers as follows: "Y'all gonna hear a lot of different stories from white folks about what these people are and why they're down here. White folks are gonna tell you they're agitators. You know what an agitator is? An agitator is the piece in the center of a washing machine to get dirt out. Well, that's what these people are here for. They're here to get dirt out."
Things never got dirtier than on the night of June 21, when three young men -- two white outsiders and a native black Mississippian -- were arrested in Neshoba County, then released and not seen again until August, when their bodies were found buried under a dam in the same county. Their names were Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney. It took years for the full truth to come out -- they were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, with the complicity and approval of Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and his deputy, Cecil Price -- but the case immediately woke the nation to the brutal facts about the closed society in Mississippi. Like the murders of four schoolgirls in Birmingham the previous year, this case created martyrs whose deaths awakened a complacent nation.
Though Watson's penchant for overripe prose, as in the passage quoted at length in the third paragraph of this review, is matched by his occasional ventures into hagiography -- his portrait of Bob Moses, the SNCC leader, borders on hero worship -- he recreates the texture of that terrible yet rewarding summer with impressive verisimilitude. This means that at times the book is painful reading because Mississippi was a painful place in those days, and Watson does not shrink from even the worst details. As one who at the time was only a few years older than the student volunteers, I watched the summer unfold from afar, in horror and macabre fascination. I have never been able to forget it and am perpetually astonished at how few of my contemporaries remember it and how little younger people seem to know about it. It is a wild exaggeration to say, as Watson's melodramatic subtitle does, that Freedom Summer "Made America a Democracy," but it certainly was important, and it deserves to be honored.
Jonathan Yardley can be reached at yardleyj(at symbol)

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Ellen Bryson
Henry Holt
ISBN 978-0805091922
331 pages

Reviewed by Samantha Hunt, whose most recent novel is "The Invention of Everything Else"
When P.T. Barnum's American Museum in New York burned to the ground on July 13, 1865, the whales, whose sportive plunges had always drawn crowds, suffered a gruesome death, boiling in their basement aquariums. But the fire greeted Barnum's human performers with a choice: Stay and burn up or flee and face the light of day. Gawkers gathered on the sidewalks, watching the freaks escape to the safety and privacy of nearby hotels.
Set in the months between President Lincoln's assassination and the museum's fiery demise, Ellen Bryson's novel "The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno" creates a fantastic mood of claustrophobia. Her characters patrol the hallways of the museum, haunting its arboretums, lecture halls, menageries and aquariums, creeping among its waxworks, scientific-ish dioramas and oddball memorabilia. New York's fireworks and greasy alleys are remotely glimpsed from the museum's rooftops and balconies. Rarely do Bryson's characters sally forth into the city streets, and when they do, they're rank with paranoia, under the cover of both costume and night. They do not belong.
On one nighttime outing, Bartholomew Fortuno, the museum's thin man and our narrator, rests a moment on a park bench. When an old woman tells her companion, "I think the poor thing is dead," Fortuno stands and removes his hat.
"'It moves!' The older woman cried, bowing her head to genuflect. 'In the name of the Father and the Son!'
"'I am alive, woman!' I shouted at her. 'Alive and well! Or at least I would be if it were slightly less hot outside today.'
"Startled, the woman stumbled backward and grabbed her companion's hand, and they scuttled off in the opposite direction, horror-struck that a dead man could have such appalling manners. This was precisely why I never mixed with people outside of the Museum. Normal people needed the context of my show to understand my place in the world. And I needed the distance from normal people. Idiots, every one."
Bryson's novel explores the shifting grounds between performer and audience, interior and exterior, anomaly and normal. What does it mean to be a freak? Where does freakishness begin?
Fortuno, surviving on a daily handful of beans, considers his skeleton-like appearance to be a gift. In red tights, he believes his performances are not the horror shows of a living corpse but educational seminars that stir envy in his audiences. In a game of manipulation not fully grasped by the naive Fortuno, Barnum draws him from the museum into the world outside, and the thin man finds himself vilified and stereotyped as another "freak," an opium-dealing "Chinaman."
Over the course of the novel, Fortuno becomes adrift in the caste system of Barnum's performers. Is he a Prodigy, one of those who comes by his gift naturally, such as Giantess Emma Swan? Is he an Exotic who must perfect his gift, such as Rubber Man Ricardo? Or is he merely a Gaff -- a charlatan actor with no real gift at all?
Creating quirky characters from historical denizens of Barnum's museum is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel (or whales in a basement aquarium). Fortuno himself is based on real-life Thin Man Isaac Sprague with shades of Kafka's Hunger Artist thrown in. At times, the pinheads and fat ladies read a bit flat, but Bryson brings a dimensionality to both Barnum and Iell Adams, the Bearded Lady Extraordinaire, from whose dual nature the central plot mechanism springs. Bryson claims that Iell came to her in a dream, a vision of six sisters: "One after the other, they shouted out their names. ... I can still see her calling out 'Iell,' her beard a stunning burnished red, her face the face of an angel. I couldn't take my eyes off her. How could a woman with a beard be so beautiful?"
In Iell we feel the true weight of being born a spectacle and see people's bottomless appetite for shock. Her cursed blessing provokes questions about selling a body's differences. What is performance, and what is prostitution?
Barnum, as he was wont to do, steals much of the show. His sinister complexity still proves irresistible as he creates the fabrications we desire. A spurious Circassian Beauty is made flesh by a serving girl once called Bridgett. She reminds the reader how often the truth lies in a not-quite-truthful story.
Though the book's final revelation is rather sudden -- a curtain drawn back with great flourish -- "The Transformation" dynamically carries us back to a time before naivete was crippled under industrialism and suckers were born every minute. Borrowing a bit of Barnum's flame, Bryson has made her own hall of curved mirrors.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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