Americanism is an interesting concept: one form is a heresy, while the other just refers to the native genius of America. Pope Leo XIII wrote in his encyclical Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae about these two forms: “certain endowments of mind which belong to the American people, just as other characteristics belong to various other nations, and…your political condition and the laws and customs by which you are governed…” or 2) “…the confounding of license and liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject, [and] the assumed right to hold whatever opinion one pleases on any subject and to set them forth in print to the world…” Delighting in the first is not only lawful but necessary for any red-blooded American. The second describes the malaise of our times: nothing is sacred and everything is permitted.
Pope Leo XIII
To the wrongheaded Americanism, I might also add the confounding of America’s will with God’s will. We are right to think that God has especially blessed this country; but, we are only blessed to the extent to which we adhere to God’s will. We can and have erred in our history. Our particular endowments, characteristics, and political conditions do not count as the universal human standard.
I recently finished reading Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror, by Walter R. Newell, and I highly recommend it to the student of history. Newell takes the reader on a curated journey through the history of Western tyranny (with the occasional detour to the East), treating in turn the ancient world, the birth of the modern state, and the revolutionary terror that that has reared its ugly head ever since the French Revolution. Along the way, Newell identifies three primary types of tyrants: the garden variety, the reformer, and (most salient of all) the millenarian.
The garden-variety tyrant is what perhaps springs immediately to mind when most people think of a tyrant: a ruler who wields absolute (or near-absolute) power for his own benefit, caring only about the good of the nation insofar as it contributes to his personal schemes. Examples include tyrants of early Greece (though some of these were perhaps constrained by the knowledge that ambitious fellow chieftains might try to dethrone them should they rule too immoderately), and some of the Roman emperors.
Ian Fleming’s master espionage agent with a license to kill has proven an enduring character, as the dozens of James Bond movies with their rotating cast of leading men would attest. However, Fleming did not simply craft Bond out of thin air; rather, he was, by most accounts, heavily inspired by the WWII British double agent Dusko Popov, a Serbian playboy who narrowly escaped being executed by the Nazis in 1937 and went on to join the Abwehr and British intelligence. Larry Loftis chronicles Popov’s wartime career and explores the influence on Fleming, who shadowed Popov at least once during the war, in Into the Lion’s Mouth.
Loftis’ book is meticulously researched, and includes a lengthy bibliography, an expansive set of end notes, and reproductions of the some of the key source documents he uncovered in the course of his research. He also includes a table comparing the characteristics of Popov, Bond, and others who have been cited as inspirations for Bond. In addition, one of the appendices to the book includes a rather lengthy list of sources supporting the proposition that Popov was the primary inspiration for Bond. Loftis is forthright about the primary source material that chronicles Popov’s activities during the war. Where there are inconsistencies, Loftis explores them and offers his own explanation for both the source of the inconsistency and the probable truth.
Much has been written about U-Boat warfare in the Atlantic during WWII and the convoys of ships that kept Britain supplied, but The Mathews Men is the first book I’ve encountered that tells the story of the U.S. Merchant Mariners who sailed the ships that carried the supplies that kept the Allied war effort in Europe going and weathered the wrath of the German U-Boat force assigned to stop them.
The book focuses not on a seafaring family named Mathews, as the subtitle might be read to imply, but on the residents of Mathews County, Virginia, a small county with a long history of supplying sailors, mates, and captains to U.S. merchant ships. It sets the stage in Mathews County by introducing the reader to the Hodges family, the source of the seven brothers featured in the book’s subtitle, then goes on to tell the tales of the Mathews men who sailed during WWII and the women they left behind.
Recently, my reading has revolved somewhat around the topic of Word War II. All the Gallant Men is one of those books, and I’d recommend it to anybody interested in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Much has been written about Pearl Harbor, but All the Gallant Men stands out as an first-hand account from Donald Stratton, a sailor from the U.S.S. Arizona who survived the attack even though his ship did not.
Stratton seeks to provide some context to Pearl Harbor, to go beyond the statistics and give the reader a glimpse of the lives lost and the men who weathered the storm of Japanese bullets and bombs. He tells of his childhood growing up in small-town Nebraska during the Great Depression. He explains why he joined the Navy, reminisces about boot camp, and describes life aboard the Arizona, both at sea and at anchor. He talks about the ship’s band, well on its way to earning the distinction of being one of the best of all the bands from the ships moored in Pearl Harbor. He describes the night of December 6, 1941. And of course, December 7, 1941. He chronicles the chaos of the attack and memorializes the actions of a sailor on another ship, who disobeyed orders in order to save Stratton and a group of survivors from the Arizona.
One wonders whether there exists a more succinct and lucid summary of Winston Churchill’s political thought than Larry P. Arnn’s Churchill’s Trial. Significant time has passed between my reading this book and writing my thoughts here. One simply cannot do justice to all the ideas contained therein in the space of a short essay. Only Arnn’s long study of Churchill has allowed him to compress so much of his thought into a single volume. It might be compared to Douglass Southall Freeman cutting back Lee’s biography from seven volumes to two or James Thomas Flexner condensing four volumes of Washington into one. Indeed, cutting down Churchill’s thought into a single volume might be an even greater feat, because few modern statesmen have written so much (over forty books, thousands of articles and speeches, and two film scripts) or had so much written about them.
The primary thrust of the book concerns Churchill’s defense of constitutional government and liberty against the forces which tried to undermine it. Socialists, communists, and fascists count as his primary opponents. The last two were the overt foes Churchill fought in World War II and during the Cold War. The first foe Churchill constantly combated within his own country. Socialism stood as the most pernicious, slowly stripping away liberty from the British people in exchange for government aid as appointed bureaucrats gained more power to rule over the British people. The citizens held no control over these bureaucrats, and such officials could reinterpret laws or create regulations free from the check of the ballot box.
Few books are as relevant to the current state of political discourse than Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors: New Attacks on Free Speech. When Rauch wrote this book, he worked as an economic journalist, and as early as 1993 he saw the origins of various attacks of freedom of expression which are now full blown. The philosophies opposing free speech are the following:
- Fundamentalism – one side has all authority behind it
- Egalitarianism – all ideas and opinions have equal merit
- Weighted Egalitarianism – certain groups have more privileges than others in expressing their ideas
- Humanitarianism – people have the right to not be offended by ideas and opinions
The above concepts differ from one or more of the principles of what Rauch calls liberal science:
- Ideas and opinions are fallible.
- No one has special authority.
- Everyone has the right to express their ideas–good or bad/innocent or offensive–publicly.
- People reach the truth through debate and forming a consensus.