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Squaring the circle

That’s the title of my review of Daniel Mahoney’s The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order: Defending Democracy Against Its Modern Enemies and Immoderate Friends in the current issue of First Things.

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Reason Defended?

[The following review appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Modern Age.]

The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the West, by Lee Harris (New York: Basic Books, 2007)

What do we make of radical Islam? Of Islam in general? Of the present state of the West? It is easier not to deal with such large questions, but events force them on us. Lee Harris wants us to take them very seriously indeed, since he believes that weaknesses of the liberal West make radical Islam a threat to its very survival. To avoid disaster, he believes, we need to abandon a great deal of fuzziness, insist on the unique value and fragility of liberal society, attend to considerations drawn from sociobiology and social Darwinism, and moderate the liberalism we want to preserve.

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Is Gifted and Talented Education Anti-American?

An old friend asked me to contribute something to an issue of the Mensa Research Journal he was guest-editing on the topic of “Barriers to Educating the Gifted” (vol. 40, No. 2; summer 2009). Here’s the result, plus or minus a few footnotes and editorial fiddles:

“Our children are our future.” 
“A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
“Human ingenuity is our greatest resource.”
“In America we believe in education.”

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More awakening

I expanded the lecture I gave last summer at Gardone into a series of three essays that can be found in the October, November, and December issues of The Angelus. You can also read a Google docs version of the series as a single document.

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Order gets physical II

I have a review of the first volume of Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order in The University Bookman.

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Stalking the Therapeutic State

The following review appeared in the 2006 issue of The Political Science Reviewer:

The Strange Death of Marxism: The European Left in the New Millenium, by Paul Edward Gottfried (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005). (SDM)

Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Toward a Secular Theocracy, by Paul Edward Gottfried (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002). (MPG)

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The Search for a Moderate Liberalism

The following review of Christopher J. Insole, The Politics of Human Frailty: A Theological Defense of Political Liberalism (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005) appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of Telos.

What is liberalism and is it good or bad? Its pervasiveness makes it difficult to gain the perspective needed to decide such issues. Many current writers treat it as relativistic, individualistic and hubristic, and the man who is now Benedict XVI has gone so far as to describe the situation in the liberal West as a “dictatorship of relativism.”1 The author, a lecturer in theology at Cambridge University, disagrees. His academic position has made him quite familiar with the complaints, and he begins his book by observing that recent theological critics have described liberalism as

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Some thoughts on culpability

Here is the short essay I contributed to Nikos Salingaros’ book Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction. They edited it a bit in the final version. The book is a recommended read, although I’m admittedly not neutral, and if you don’t like what I have to say in English you can also buy it in German:

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Liberalism, Tradition and the Church

This four-part essay was published in slightly edited form in the Summer 2004 issue of Telos (number 128). There is also a *.pdf version of the essay as published. Comments are, of course, welcome.

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Understanding Conservatism and Tradition

A slightly edited version of the following essay appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of Telos.

To understand conservatism we must understand how conservatives differ from leftists and libertarians.

Basic oppositions in politics usually have to do with fundamental issues of social organization. Will king or parliament be supreme? Pope or emperor? Local community, nation, or transnational bureaucracy? Such issues are as important for us now as they were for the Cavaliers and Roundheads. So a simple explanation for the big divisions in political thought today is that they have to do with differing ideas of how society should be organized. Each way of running things creates a party that favors it.

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Return to Philosophy

Return to Philosophy, by Thomas Molnar, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1996. 113 pp.95.

IN THIS, HIS MOST RECENT BOOK, Thomas Molnar calls for a “return to philosophy” that would broaden its scope and simplify its discourse. Narrowness and complexity have ruined much of philosophy, he stresses, and a restoration is needed. The issues he raises are therefore quite basic: What is philosophy? What does it deal with and how?

Where have we strayed, that a return is needed? And why does it matter? Such questions call for grandness of perspective. In little more than a hundred pages the author traces the main themes and phases of philosophy since its emergence among the Greeks, its relation to religious, traditional and non-Western strains of thought, the turns that have led to the present situation, and the response to that situation he thinks appropriate. While the perspectives and concerns are continuous with those in Professor Molnar’s previous writings, they are presented here with broader sympathy for a variety of positions, a greater sense of freedom to follow insights and arguments where they lead, and a lesser inclination to marshall materials to prove a thesis. Now more than ever, the author views philosophy as free inquiry, always new and never completed, and the philosopher as the man with his own view of things, who “does not know on awakening to what extent he will have to modify his world-picture before he goes to bed that night.”

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Good Sense, Conservatism and Faith

[The following discussion appeared in the Winter, 2002 issue of Modern Age.]

Is religious faith necessary for conservatism? A more basic question is whether it is necessary for good sense, since it is for the sake of good sense that we are conservative. If it were otherwise, conservatism would be a hobby or ideology, and it is neither; it is simply the appearance good sense takes on in an overly-rationalistic world.

Conservatism begins with acceptance of limits. It tells us that not everything can be said, let alone proved, that we did not make the world and cannot remake it, that we are creatures of habit, and that loyalty to the ways and understandings that order a particular social world is necessary for our lives to be coherent and reasonable. As de Maistre points out, we are not simply men; we are Frenchmen or Italians, Europeans or Americans, Yankees or Southerners, Protestants, Catholics or Jews.

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The Amish, David Koresh, and a Newer World Order

Shortly before dawn on April 19, 1993, FBI tanks equipped to dispense tear gas crashed through the walls of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Over the course of the next six hours the tanks repeatedly rammed the ramshackle frame building inside the compound occupied by members of the sect, pumping in tear gas and causing structural damage that blocked stairways and exits. At about noon, fire broke out and spread in the high winds, quickly swallowing the half-wrecked building in flames. Most of those inside, including dozens of women and children, were trapped in inner rooms on the second floor and died in the fire.

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The Tyranny of Liberalism

A slightly edited version of the preceding essay, originally entitled “Liberalism, the Transcendent, and Restoration,” appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Modern Age. It is also available in German and Czech.

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Liberalism: Ideal and Reality

A slightly edited version of the following essay appeared in the Winter 2002 issue of Telos.

Why does liberalism—the tradition that makes equal freedom the political touchstone—combine such strength with such incoherence? The attempt to make freedom dominant leads to contradiction. Liberalism is triumphant almost everywhere, but its victory reverses the meaning of its principles. It calls for live-and-let-live, and enforces it by supervising everything. For the sake of freedom it empowers bureaucrats to reconstruct human nature. It appeals to “the people,” while reserving the right to make them into whatever it thinks fit.*

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Ibn Khaldun and Our Age

A slightly edited version of the following essay appeared in issue 20 of The Scorpion.
Political thinkers engage our attention by their presentation of the particular features of their own time and place as well as the permanent qualities of man in society. We can read Aristotle and Hobbes for general lessons, or for the politics of the Greek city-state and of European society after the wars of religion.

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The Icelandic Sagas and Social Order

The relation among individual, society and state is a confused one in our time. Is the individual everything and society nothing, or the other way around? Why should one care about the other? Can the state treat the whole social world as the theater for its meddling? If not, what are the limits? Such questions are inescapable and unanswerable in a society like our own, that has no coherent understanding of human life and is dominated by impersonal institutions and abstract relationships that have no hold on our sense of what we are.

The history of the libertarian farmers’ republic that was medieval Iceland, and the vivid picture of that society presented in the Icelandic sagas, gives a fresh view of these issues. The similarities and contrasts to our own society are noteworthy. Like America, the Icelandic Commonwealth was a new country, founded in the light of history by European settlers and governed by common consent rather than king and priest. Icelandic political life, like ours, emphasized both law and personal independence. However, the Icelanders had no state to enforce rights and obligations. Men pursued their ends without direct protection or hindrance from any public agency, and were obliged to act themselves to secure their safety and legal rights.

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No One Left to Lie To

by Christopher Hitchens

122 pp hb Verso London 1999

The disappearance of politics in today’s world reflects the disappearance of resistance to rational hedonism. “Give ‘em what they want” has become the grand principle of what passes for public life. To put it formally, only a few crazies now dispute that the final goal of public life is a rational system for maximizing individual satisfactions as much and equally as possible.

In the absence of politics disputes that once were political take on a purely technical form. How can prosperity be promoted, diffused and secured? How can noneconomic considerations—ethnic and religious ties and so on—be rendered irrelevant? Any substantive issues, for example the conflict between maximizing satisfactions and equalizing them, get turned into just another technical matter, with the “right” arguing that reducing taxes and regulation increases production and helps the poor and the “left” claiming the same for egalitarian initiatives.

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The Dilemma of Managerial Liberalism

The following review of Paul Gottfried’s After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State (Princeton 1999) appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Telos.

The title of this book refers to the practice and ideology of contemporary Western government, which, in Gottfried’s view, bears little resemblance to historical liberalism and in many ways is its opposite. Where, after all, is the division and limitation of power, the protection of private property, and recognition of an inviolate private sphere where the state has no business? How can an order be ‘liberal,’ in which social planners reconstruct the human soul, or ‘democratic,’ in which government feels itself entitled to reconstitute a people it finds lacking? Nevertheless, what Gottfried describes is managerial liberalism, which has become the engine of the managerial state.

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Emerson and Us

A slightly edited version of the following essay appeared in the Winter 2002 issue of Modern Age.

Emerson tells us that truth is “such a flyaway, such a slyboots, so untransportable and unbarrelable a commodity, that it is as bad to catch as light.”[1] However things may be with truth, it is so with Emerson’s thought. What he says is often wise or inspiring, but he has no coherent theory, and his commitment to what he writes is uncertain. He tells us what currently appears true to him, in penetrating, compressed and sometimes shocking language, but his indifference to consistency makes his writings imply everything and nothing. What do we make of him, and why has he been so important to the life of the mind in America?

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