Friday, October 15, 2021

Worthwhile book review of tome from somewhat noteworthy pundit.

A thorough critique of a book by one of the more visible of America's soi disant experts and adjunct intellectuals, Tom Nichols.

A lecturer at several American schools, Nichols came to modest notice for a fairly unobjectionable book about the dangers of spurning expertise. Since then he has acquired more notoriety for fierce political denunciations on social media, managing to harangue himself into occasional national notice. Usually whilst invoking his lecturing credentials.

Alas, as it turns out, bellowing "I'm smarter than you!" over and over again on Twitter doesn't make it so.

It also can't save you from contradicting your thesis--such as it is--from chapter to chapter:

Here is the central subject of his book, as he sees it: “If we believe democracy has failed us, we should first ask ourselves whether we have failed the test of democracy.” It’s a trivial observation that democracy would work well with a perfect populace, since anything would work well in that circumstance. For democracy to fail it must be the case that “we” have failed.

Indeed, Our Own Worst Enemy is peppered with so many internal tensions and contradictions that it’s hard to believe it’s not an attempt to use paradox to convey some sort of secret, true meaning.

* * *

Nichols theorizes that line-crossers [e.g., Obama-Trump voters] are self-interested voters looking for better “deals”—but he doesn’t explain why this would be the case, or why it would be such a moral or systemic problem if it were true. If the political parties are so stable that coherence can only be found in sticking with one or the other, then why would the same person be able to get a better deal on one side than on the other? Why are those who change party affiliation—as Nichols did—necessarily any more self-interested than those who don’t change? Actually, there’s little reason to think a self-interested person would bother voting at all—the so-called “paradox of voting.” And Nichols attributes to these voters both a comfortable, prosperous lifestyle and a desire for “apocalypse”—how could that combination be self-interested? Nichols engages none of these debates.

The third chapter covers more familiar ground: There’s an epidemic of narcissism in America, along with rage, resentment, and nostalgia. Of course Nichols’ formless pomposity on this subject cannot match the keen rhetorical incisions of Christopher Lasch, whom he cites. What’s odd about this chapter, however, is that Nichols, now relaying passages from the famous 2005 book What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank, adopts the view that resentment causes Americans to vote against their self-interest. And no, you are not going crazy: Just a paragraph ago, I was explaining Nichols’ claim that the problem with American democracy is that voters act on pure self-interest.

It sounds like "the secret, true meaning" of the book is to demonstrate that editors are indispensable to book publishing. That, and the more time you spend being contemptuous, the more at risk you are of becoming contemptible. 

But $25 is a bit pricey for an inadvertent cautionary tale, so I will content myself with the review.

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Be reasonably civil. Ire alloyed with reason is fine. But slagging the host gets you the banhammer.

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