If Not Us, Who?

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I got this as a freebie for renewing my subscription to National Review awhile back. (You can only have so many NR t-shirts or coffee mugs.) And it finally percolated to the top of my to-be-read pile. Written by David B. Frisk, it is a hefty tome, 438 pages of text, over 60 pages of endnotes.

And what's it about? It is a biography of William A. Rusher (1923-2011), the publisher of National Review for about thirty of those years, from 1957 until his retirement in 1988. In addition to his work at the magazine, Rusher was also a political activist, heavily involved in an effort to steer the Republican Party to a more consistently conservative direction. Although his early GOP efforts were in support of Dewey and Ike, he came around to a solid conservatism after being disillusioned with the Eisenhower presidency.

Rusher was considerably different from NR's famous editor, William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley was born rich, comfortable moving in sophisticated society, totally charming. Rusher was from a modest background, working his way into Harvard Law, very much the practical politician, obsessed with devising winning strategies. WFB was the golden retriever in the limo, Rusher the pitbull in the street.

It's surprising things worked as well as they did at the magazine. Frisk does a good job of describing the inner wangling factions at NR, often setting Rusher at odds not only with WFB, but also with such eminences as James Burnham. There were disagreements aplenty: what the overall tone of the magazine should be; which political candidates should be supported, which dumped; just how dismissive should the magazine be toward conspiracy theorists, anti-Semites, and other fringe-dwellers. (Shrinking the tent of acceptability is fine in theory, but once you start factoring in the loss of subscribers, contributors, and advertisers, it gets more difficult.)

Rusher was a huge Goldwater fan in the early 1960s, a major force pushing him into his 1964 presidential candidacy. Frisk reminds us that, like any sane person would be, Goldwater was unenthusiastic about running. He seems only to have embraced the process when it was clear he wouldn't win.

But the Goldwater campaign was successful at beating the liberal Republicans, and it hatched the political career of conservatism's most shining success, Ronald Reagan. Rusher was an active participant there too. He never liked Nixon much, and wanted Reagan to be the nominee in 1968.

Outside of politics, well… there wasn't much there to Rusher. Never married, a few close friends. Obviously his choice, but somewhat sad.

I can't recommend this book to anyone who isn't really interested in the history of the US conservative political movement. At times it seems that there's no memo so inconsequential, no squabble so trivial, that Frisk doesn't describe it. Still, it's readable, and will act as a lasting memory to someone who undoubtedly had a major effect on his times.

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While Drowning in the Desert

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The fifth and (so far) final book in Don Winslow's "Neal Carey" series, originally published in 1996. This is significantly more light-hearted than the first four.

My take on the previous entries in the series: here, here, here, and here. Although seemingly out of print, they're available and inexpensive for Kindle.

Neal is enjoying semi-retirement in a remote Nevada town with his fiancée Karen. Two problems: Karen decides she wants a baby. Like, right now. And his "dad", Graham, calls with an assignment: Neal needs to escort the aging vaudeville comic Natty Silver from Las Vegas back to his home in the California desert.

Natty is a motormouthed jokester, delivering his patter and shaggy-dog stories to any willing listener. (And also to Neal, who's unwilling.) But there's more going on than Neal is aware of. Specifically, Natty is the target of a desperate Nazi arsonist who wants him dead.

Things eventually work out.

I don't know if Don Winslow has any plans for writing more about Neal. I, for one, would like to know how his life turned out, here nearly twenty years later. Did he and Karen have those babies? Did he ever get his English Literature doctorate? Is he out there teaching bored undergrads about his beloved Tobias Smollett? C'mon, Mr. Winslow, I bet there's a lot of people who want to know what happened next!

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By the People

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Subtitle: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission.

I am something of a Charles Murray fan. I think his 1988 book In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government remains the best introduction to libertarian philosophy I've seen. He's been a consistent advocate of the values I most appreciate: personal responsibility, humane individualism, mutual respect, and so on. I buy his books automatically.

By the People is a diagnosis and possible remedy of major flaws in modern American society and our government, combining history, sociology, and legal analysis. Murray considers the "Madisonian" vision of the founding fathers, and shows how that vision has been trashed over the past 8 decades or so. (Not that flaws didn't appear earlier with Wilsonian "progressivism".) Our legal system is a thick morass of vague rules that a sufficiently zealous prosecutor can use to make his chosen targets miserable. Ditto for essentially unregulated regulatory agencies. Our politics are systematically corrupt with both parties more than willing to play the "public choice" game, doing big favors for well-connected constituents, spreading the costs out to the unaware masses.

What to do? Murray suggests strategic civil disobedience, fueled by the (so far) imaginary "Madison Fund", designed to defend the flouters of unjust laws and stupid regulations. The theory: make it expensive for Big Government to force its pet policies down the throats of the citizenry. Essentially, he hopes, the most outrageous legal bullying will become totally impractical.

Murray describes why he thinks this might be a winning strategy, in his usual accessible prose. I hope he's correct about that.

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Under Tower Peak

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I was encouraged to pick up this book by a glowing review in the WSJ back in 2013. (Yes, it can take a while to get to items in my TBR pile.) Comparisons to Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, and Jim Harrison were made. And I found it a pretty good read too. It is an auspicious debut novel for author Bart Paul.

The narrator and protagonist is Tommy Smith. He and his longtime buddy Lester work in the California mountain wilderness, wrangling horses and acting as guides for tourists who want to rough it in the outdoors. But on an expedition near a remote pass through the Sierras, Tommy and Lester happen upon a plane crash and the pilot's corpse. They remember news stories from months back about a missing billionaire, and reach the obviously correct conclusion: they found him.

Tommy wants to do the obviously correct thing: report the crash site and the body when they return to civilization. But Lester gets way too clever, grabbing the dead guy's Rolex and some loose cash. Tommy reluctantly refrains from doing the right thing. But things get worse: Lester and his girlfriend launch a crackpot scheme to grab some of the billionaire's family fortune in return for their knowledge.

Unfortunate choice, because (as it turns out) there are people who would just as soon keep the billionaire's death unrevealed. And if the only way to do that is to kill everyone who can say different? Okay, fine!

Tommy, just like Liam Neeson, has "certain skills" that might ensure survival. What ensues is a cat-and-mouse can't-trust-anyone thriller.

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The Shadow University

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Subtitle: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses. This book is © 1998, seventeen years ago as I type. (Yes, it took a very long time to get to the top of the to-be-read pile. Sue me.)

One author, Alan Charles Kors, is a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania; the other, Harvey Silverglate, is a Massachusetts lawyer. After this book came out, they founded FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, still going strong.

The book starts out with a particularly egregious example: 1993's persecution of Eden Jacobowitz, a student who yelled "Shut up, you water buffalo" out of his UPenn dorm window to a group of boisterous students below. Unfortunately for Eden, the targets of this shouted demand were mostly black females, who complained. Penn administrators demanded a disproportionate and unjust punishment. But unlike most students, Eden fought back. (Prof Kors was his advocate, to his good fortune.) Eventually, it became a national cause célèbre and Penn backed down.

Eden's case had a happy conclusion, but the drawn-out battle, wasteful, draining, and contentious as it was, was its own punishment. And, as Kors and Silverlate show, it was hardly an outlier.

One might expect universities, of all places, to be champions of free and unfettered discussion, due process for accused misbehavior, and tolerance for oddball, unpopular views. But, as Kors and Silverglate show with sometimes mind-numbing recitations of case after case, exactly the opposite is true. Mostly drawing from the 1980s and 1990s, they detail arbitrary penalties and unfair procedures, mostly aimed at the unfortunate minorities deemed to be politically incorrect. They are predictably and justifiably outraged.

The roots of this behavior, the book argues, lie in the 1960s, where are generation of deep thinkers learned Herbert Marcuse's Marxist philosophy, with special attention to his theory of repressive tolerance: the notion that fair treatment of all ideas only benefits capitalistic domination of the masses. Hence, some ideas should be "more equal than others", and there's nothing wrong with people holding "correct" views suppressing rival opinions.

Now, to be fair, only a small (but very vocal) fraction of today's university personnel are true Marcusean social justice warriors. But the strident oft find allies with the spineless. In this case, go-along-to-get-along administrators whose primary interest is in keeping controversy and contention (with its attendant bad publicity) to a minimum.

The results, over and over, are episodes that seem like they could spring from a novel co-written by Franz Kafka, George Orwell, and Ayn Rand: secretive and power-drunk villains deploy their full arbitrary powers against (at best) minor infractions and offenses. As in Eden's case, the good guys usually prevail, but only after excruciating legal procedures and publicity.

There are a lot of New Hampshire roots in the book, going back to 1942's Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, based on an incident that happened just up the street in Rochester, which generated the regrettable "fighting words" limitation on First Amendment rights. There was also Wooley v. Maynard, the irony-inspired case of the free thinker who got in trouble for taping over the "Live Free or Die" motto on his license plates.

New Hampshire's university system is also (sadly) well-represented here, going back to the 1950s, the state's efforts to hassle then-professor Paul Sweezy about his (acknowledged) Marxist views and associates is discussed. In more modern times, there was UNH's efforts to discipline Professor J. Donald Silva for allegedly creating a “hostile and offensive environment” in his classroom with his (um) colorful analogies and examples. Up north at Plymouth State, Leroy Young, a graphic design professor was summarily canned after allegations of sexual harassment of his students. (I'm not sure how Young's suit against Plymouth and USNH turned out.)

[Well after the book came out, UNH showed that it hadn't learned much about free expression by evicting a student who posted a satirical flier in his dorm's elevator. UNH continues to have a red light rating from FIRE for its unconsitutionally overbroad policy on "sexual harassment".]

So: while you might expect a 17-year-old book on then-current events to be dated, it turns out (regrettably) not to be at all. The mentalities and procedures it describes are still in vogue in American higher ed, as any look at recent headlines shows. (See, for example: here; here; here, all easily-found stories from the past few weeks.) Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, or as President Eisenhower [never actually] said: things are more like they are today than they've ever been before.

A relatively new wrinkle is the Obama Administration's aggressive (and probably unconstitutional, but what's new) push to force schools and colleges to cut back on due process and free speech via an expansive interpretation of its authority granted by anti-discrimination statutes, like the famous Title IX. This book doesn't cover that, obviously, but it's easy to see how it could be the source for Volume II.

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Wild Horses

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From 1994, this is probably my second-favorite Dick Francis novel (after Proof).

The narrator, Thomas Lyon, is visiting a dying old friend, a blacksmith who he knew long ago during a brief jockey career. Delirious from drugs and pain, the blacksmith mistakes Thomas for a priest, and incoherently seems to confess to a past crime.

Thomas is an up-and-coming movie director, and he just happens to be in the area making a movie. It just happens to be based on a fictionalized version of past events: the young wife of a horse trainer was found hanged in a stable. Was it murder or suicide? To this day, nobody knows.

But someone's apparently worried that the movie might illuminate how that death occurred. People are threatened, nearly killed. Including, since he's the Dick Francis hero, Thomas. The production is also in peril because the screenwriter doesn't like the changes Thomas is making to his version of the story, and badmouths him to the press.

So Thomas faces daunting odds: how to bring in the movie on time and budget, true to his artistic vision, while at the same time unravelling the mystery of what happened decades ago. Also, while staying alive.

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Words and Rules

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I enjoy reading Steven Pinker's popular non-fiction (see here, here, here). This one I've had on my shelf for awhile; published in 1999, I picked up this UK edition on the $3.98 remainder table at Barnes & Noble a few years later. Finally percolated to the top of the cybernetic to-be-read pile.

Pinker's research area is broad: roughly, how language is processed and generated by the brain. (He's written elsewhere on even broader topics.) Here, he concentrates on how that process is illuminated by the study of irregular verbs and nouns. (Consider your average dictionary, packed with verbs; you might be surprised (as I was) to learn that only a couple of hundred of them are irregular. Seems like more.)

Pinker argues, based on his research, that "language comprises a mental dictionary of memorized words and a mental grammar of creative rules." This is contentious, but Pinker does a good job defending it. Still, it's worth remembering that he's not a dispassionate observer.

As usual, Pinker tells his story with verve, clarity, and occasional humor. (He likes to illustrate points with relevant newspaper comic strips.) I laughed out loud at this, after he's described one of his research studies apparently carried out in a University-attached community:

We also wondered whether the effect might be a fussy affectation of pointy-headed, Volvo-driving, endive-nibbling, chablis-sipping young urban professionals.

Pinker does get down into his research weeds occasionally; I don't know how many readers will be interested in exactly how a subset of Hungarian irregular nouns get declined differently when they are used as proper names. But this is proceeded by a pretty good joke ("That fact, combined with the disproportionate number of Hungarian mathematicians and scientists, led one physicist to suggest that Hungarians are a advanced race of space aliens, but that theory is no longer widely believed.") Readers can pick and choose what to delve into and what to skim over.

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Mr. Sammler's Planet

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Back in 2010, Mr. Sammler's Planet was placed on the list of "Ten Great Conservative Novels" by National Review. Given my political leanings I was kind of surprised that I'd only read a couple of them (Advise and Consent—long ago—and Bonfire of the Vanities). So I put them on my (very large) to-be-read cyberpile.

I checked off Walker Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome last November, and now I've finished Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow. Six more to go! But as you can see, I'm taking my sweet time about it.

Mr. Sammler's Planet won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1971. Bellow himself won the Nobel Prize in Literature just a few years later.

The novel is set in late-1960s New York City: crime-ridden, filthy, smelly. But those are only the outward symptoms of general social and moral rot. The protagonist, Artur Sammler, is an old man, and he's been through a lot. A Polish Jew, he spent some time in England in the orbit of the Bloomsbury Group, making the acquaintance of H.G. Wells, among others. From that civilized height, however, he picked a poor time to return to Poland. He and his wife were caught up in the Holocaust. Sammler is half-blinded by a Nazi rifle butt. He eventually crawls out from a mass grave, leaving his dead wife behind.

Sammler has a small network of acquaintances and surviving family, all dealing with the Big Apple in mostly unsatisfactory ways. Sammler himself finds himself dealing with a black pickpocket, who is reliably victimizing fellow riders on the Manhattan bus he and Sammler frequent. Even half-blind, Sammler's the only one noticing the crime. (He tries reporting to the cops, but in John Lindsay's NYC, they are uninterested.)

A lot of other things happen, some slapstick, some ludicrous. Mr. Sammler is bemused by it all, but comes to at least a temporary understanding with God at the end.

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Stephenson: automatic buy. Even though I don't read a lot of science fiction any more.

Here's sentence number one (so it's not really a spoiler): "The Moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason." Whoa.

This happens in the slightly-near future: near enough so that the International Space Station is still in operation, but far enough so that we've figured out how to grab an asteroid, and attach it to the ISS for futher study. That's extremely fortuitous, because the Moon's destruction turns out to be, like war, not healthy for children and other living things. Having a big rock around helps.

The book is neatly divided in three: the first part deals with mankind's realization that the World As We Know It is ending, and most normal pursuits become irrelevant. The entire planet's resources and efforts are devoted to ensuring the survival of at least a fragment of humanity. This is not without controversy and squabble. Warning: Certain people are not to be trusted.

Part two deals with the aftermath of the end of the world. The aforementioned squabbles continue, but they become even more deadly, as the spacefaring survivors can't even agree on their short-term survival strategy. Bickering leads to disaster and tragedy.

And then, part three: set 5,000 years in the future. (Just as a benchmark, 5,000 years ago, humanity was just getting around to building the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge.) Things have changed a lot (although I won't spoil the details). But millennia-old conflicts still have their echoes, and they play out in surprising ways.

I very much enjoyed the book. Stephenson is endlessly imaginative, and (I assume) his science is impeccably hard. Parts of the text could be assigned to advanced undergrad courses in Orbital Mechanics, Aerospace Engineering, or Reproductive Biology. As in his previous books, Stephenson's heroes are competent, resourceful, perhaps a little geeky, and brave. I was simply in awe of his talent, all the way through.

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The title is sometimes rendered as Robert B. Parker's Kickback. And, assuming you don't block ads (and you shouldn't do so here, because they are non-intrusive click-here-to-buy-at-Amazon pictures), you'll see the late Mr. Parker's name is the biggest thing on the cover, followed by the title, "A Spenser Novel" and (finally) the actual author, Ace Atkins, relegated to small type in the lower corner.

Oh, well. I loved Mr. Parker too. And I assume Mr. Atkins is getting paid well enough to shoulder this disrespectful indignity.

Spenser is coming off knee surgery, a side effect of a previous case. A mother arrives at his office with a tale of woe: her son made the grievous mistake of setting up a fake social media account lampooning his high school's principal, hinting at non-standard sexual proclivities. And for that, the kid has been shipped off to a juvenile facility out on a remote island in Boston Harbor.

An obvious injustice, and despite the fact that the kid's mom can't afford his normal rate, Spenser is soon on the case. The problem is the old mill city of "Blackburn", up north of Boston on the Merrimack River. (Sounds like Scenic Lowell.) It turns out to be a nest of corruption, where a couple of judges and the cops conspire to ship kids off to the island at the slightest excuse, ignoring most due-process protections. Why? Well, you probably noticed the title.

As before: I'm pretty sure most people wouldn't be able to detect the differences between a Spenser novel written by Mr. Parker and one by Mr. Atkins in a double-blind test. (I like to think I kind of can, but I wouldn't put a lot of money on it.)

Gripe: much is made of the corrupt interaction between Blackburn's judges, the cops, mobsters, and the owners of the (aieee!) for-profit juvenile facility the kids are being sent to. The usual cheap shots are taken, the profit motive being the root of all evil, etc. It's not as if there weren't sordid stories of misbehavior in Massachusetts government-run hoosegows.

Kind of neat is the appearance of a character unseen since 1973's The Godwulf Manuscript, Iris Milford, playing a critical role. (In a note to the odd things a long-running fiction series does to a timeline: she was "pushing thirty" back then, which would make her somewhere around seventy now. As Spenser says: "Let's not think about it. Math makes my head hurt.")

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