Three Up, One Down

I have three improbable book recommendations for weekend reading, and one book I recommend passing on.

The three “ups” I received as gifts, and I must admit I was not hopeful given their rather unpromising titles. I am happy to report I was pleasantly surprised. (A disclaimer: as with every book recommendation I make, I do not claim to agree with everything–or, indeed, with anything–in them, but that is not the point; I recommend them instead because they are provocative, stimulating, and, in my judgment at least, worth the opportunity cost.)

So, here are my three recommendations, in no particular order:

1. John Derbyshire,  We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism (Crown Forum, 2009). A sober, and indeed sobering, analysis of the extent to which our contemporary American politics–including in particular educational policy, immigration policy, foreign policy, and fiscal policy–are informed by a naive, even childish optimism. There is a real world out there, and it is fraught with difficulties and dangers that cannot be overcome by the “vaporous happy talk” that pervades our public discussions. Derbyshire argues that the real world requires the judgment of serious adults who realize that human failings and vices cannot be eradicated but only managed, and he makes the case that this mature seriousness is, or should be, the hallmark of a proper “conservative pessimism.”

2. James Delingpole, Welcome to Obamaland: I Have Seen Your Future and It Doesn’t Work (Regnery, 2009). Delingpole is a British columnist and journalist for the Telegraph of London, and has been one of the leaders exploring the ramifications of “Climategate” (a term I believe he coined). The thesis of this book is that the ascendance of Barack Obama in the United States is an eerily similar replay of the earlier ascendance of Tony Blair in the the U.K. Since, as Delingpole argues, Tony Blair’s effect was baleful, he warns of similar baleful consequences in America under Obama. It is a provocative and intriguing thesis. Delingpole writes, moreover, with an uncommon wit, and with a verve and confidence that somehow manages to avoid being off-putting. (This last is quite surprising for a book with chapter titles like “Barbecue the Polar Bears” and with another chapter arguing on behalf of traditional English fox hunting in seductive, even erotic, terms.)

3. Harry Stein, “I Can’t Believe I’m Sitting Next to a Republican”: A Survival Guide for Conservatives Marooned Among the Angry, Smug, and Terminally Self-Righteous (Encounter, 2009). Stein is a conservative journalist and writer who has lived and worked in and around New York City for decades, and he has suffered his share of lost friends when they discovered his politics. The book recounts story after story, both in his own life and in others’, of discrimination, bigotry, social ostracism, character assassination, and even downright nastiness at the hands of the left-of-center majority in this part of the world. As its title suggests, the book is written with humor and many of the stories told are downright comical. Yet as someone who has experienced his own share of unpleasantness because of his politics–as a non-left-wing humanities academic who lives near and works in New York City, I face a double-whammy–I found myself alternately nodding and shaking my head as I read Stein’s book.

The book I cannot recommend is Cass Sunstein’s recent Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide (Oxford, 2009). This is an eminently silly book, evidence, perhaps, that if you write as much as Sunstein does, some of it is bound to be below the mean. The book’s thesis, which is reasonable enough, is that when people of like minds spend their time talking only to one another, they tend to reinforce each other’s beliefs, hardening them and rendering them less willing to engage in charitable consideration of alternative positions. As I say, reasonable enough; but Sunstein’s book is replete with problems. They include: (1) that thesis is not exactly novel (the notion of groupthink has been around quite a while now); (2) he apparently has a hard time finding much groupthink in politics other than in the Bush Administration (a prime target, I admit; but there are many, many others); and (3) the social science studies he cites, which include some polling and “experiments” he himself helped construct, do not approach any dispositive rigor.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Sunstein’s book, however, is that he somehow, incredibly, fails to discuss one of the most talked-about and studied examples of (alleged) groupthink in America today: academia. Sunstein is himself an academic, after all (even if he is now President Obama’s “regulation czar“), so surely he must be aware of the studies showing the political one-sidedness of the professoriate. It is no secret that Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians constitute in many departments in many top colleges and universities only 10% or less of the faculty. (See Dan Klein’s work, for example.) Given those lopsided numbers, this would seem a capital instance to apply and test Sunstein’s hypothesis. Now, perhaps Sunstein thinks the complaints or worries from right-of-center critics and academics are overblown, exaggerated, inconsequential, etc. Fair enough, but then he needs to show that–or at least bring it up! But a book that is ostensibly on the very topic, written by a person in that profession, that nevertheless pretends that the issue does not even exist simply cannot, in my judgment, be taken seriously. Indeed, one might be inclined to suspect that Sunstein’s blindness is a result of exactly the problem his book proposes to address.

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