A perceptive look at the cult of personality surrounding Reagan, in light of the collision of the American tendency toward self-mythologization and wi...moreA perceptive look at the cult of personality surrounding Reagan, in light of the collision of the American tendency toward self-mythologization and wish-fullfillment with the emerging mass-media technology that enabled much of it to become a lived reality. Reagan might have been acting a part, whether consciously or unconsciously, but America ate up the act. This book tries to take a balanced look at why and how that happened.(less)
I really enjoyed his “Birth of the Modern” book, about world history 1815-1830, and how that time and the personalities who made it were pivotal in th...moreI really enjoyed his “Birth of the Modern” book, about world history 1815-1830, and how that time and the personalities who made it were pivotal in the the birth of the modern world as we know it, so I thought I would check out his take on US history. I knew from the previous book that he was conservative, and had his biases(pro free-market, pro religion, pro-individual) but that was fine with me… I liked that he was opinionated and I liked getting a good devil’s advocate argument for the other side from what seemed to be a pretty honest broker.
And that held up for most of this book. He made a great case for why those values were integral in making America a great nation, and he told the story up to about FDR with balance and verve.
Post New-Deal though, it just turns into a bitter screed, and loses all sense of balance. FDR and Kennedy were corrupt charlatans(sure, they definitely had their major flaws, but that is all he looked at), Vietnam would have worked if only we had been willing to wage total war(probably would have, but that doesn’t make that a good idea), Nixon got a raw deal and Watergate was nothing but a witch-hunt, as was Iran Contra. Political correctness and affirmative action were creeping authoritarianism as opposed to well-meaning and ultimately pretty insignificant efforts to continue down the road of the civil rights movement that went a bit overboard. Moral equivocation of the anti-abortion movement with the anti-slavery movement. Praise for The Bell Curve, and breezy dismissal of the likes of C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, etc. And so on.
I realize he doesn’t like a lot of the postwar trends in the US and Europe, but he also makes no effort to engage the historical forces that caused and shaped them, or the good that came out of them(he spends very little time on the civil rights movement, for example.) He does things like applauding the US for engaging the world and taking its rightful place as a superpower postwar, and then turning around and criticizing the inevitable expansion of the bureaucracy that resulted from that, without connecting the one to the other. Or like saying that things like the EPA and the Clean Air act were probably necessary and desireable, even though they slowed the economy, but then praising Reagan’s economic genius in rolling them back. Feh. He just fails to engage the complexities and ambiguities and compromises that are a necessary feature of the postmodern, globalized world. He’s very good at writing history about the times when WASPS ruled the earth, before everything got complicated by race, gender, sexual orientation, colonialism, and on down the line. He acts like these are invented abstractions, as opposed to social and political realities and changes that were being grappled with in very nasty and difficult ways throughout the latter 2/3rds of the 20th century.
So, disappointing in the end. But, if you want a good lively, opinionated, sympathetic history of the US up to about 1929, you can’t go wrong with reading the first 3/4 of this. Even better, read it together with A People’s History of the United States, and compare/contrast. You should get most of the story between the two of them.(less)
I couldn't finish this the first time I tried. Just wasn’t in the mood at the time. I thought it would be kind of interesting reading on whacked out s...moreI couldn't finish this the first time I tried. Just wasn’t in the mood at the time. I thought it would be kind of interesting reading on whacked out stuff like the Know-Nothings, the KKK, nativism, the Birchers, and so on, but it turns out it’s mostly about the influence of Evangelicals on our politics and culture throughout American history. And I thought I wanted to know more about that too, but it turned out to be pretty boring in practice, so I dropped it, for now. I’ll finish eventually, because it feels like stuff I ought to know, in the light of current events.
I ended up finishing this up a couple of years later. It was mostly good, but what he groups under anti-intellectualism gets a little too broad for my liking. I mean, that's the thesis and what the book is setting out to do, and most of it probably does count as anti-intellectual under a strict definition of the term, but it sort of rankled to see any form of populism or attempts at democratic participation in institutions getting lumped in with Bircher loons. I'm pretty sure he doesn't mean to make those equivalencies, but it's sort of a problem with the project. When you start to make progressive and non-canon education look like it's somewhere on a continuum with Bircher wingnuttiness, something has gone wrong, category-wise. All that might fall under the rubrik of "anti-intellectual," but that's putting forward an awfully narrow and conservative idea of what "intellectual" is. Plenty of credible intellectuals were for the educational ideas and some of the other demo-populist social trends he covers, whereas you can't find many if any who were for the loonier stuff.
I dunno, maybe I just had the wrong idea about what this book was setting out to do to begin with, as, like I said above, I thought it was going to focus much more on the really nasty nativist, racist, patriarchal, etc strands of American anti-intellectualism than it did.(less)