Back in January, I noted a glowing article from Nick Gillespie at Reason about The Art of Being Free by James Poulos. ("If You Want To Find Freedom in Trump's America, Read This Book!") So I eagerly put it on by things-to-read list, and requested it via the Interlibary Loan program of the University Near Here (thanks, Bowdoin College!) and…
Well, rarely have I been so let down. I am frankly puzzled about Poulos's intended audience for the book. At times he seems to be talking to himself. But, given Gillespie's praise, I suppose I'd also guess he's talking to guys like Gillespie. But not me, sorry. This is one of those books where "I read it" means, pretty much, "I looked at every page."
Poulos's thesis, as near as I can tell, is that Tocqueville's Democracy in America, written in the 1830s, has much of value to tell us of the current American situation. We are still in what Poulos calls the "Great Transition" between the ancien régime, the age of aristocracy, and the age of democracy. And it's driving us Americans all crazy (Poulos uses "crazy" a lot). He analyzes how this trend and our mental states, play out in different arenas, each one a chapter title: Change, Faith, Money, Play, Sex, Death, Love. The book bursts with references to serious social philosophers (Nietzsche, Philip Rieff, Robert Bellah, Emerson, …), but also to literary/pop culture icons: Bret Easton Ellis, Marilyn Manson, Batman, Beck, … One gets the feeling that unless your reading and entertainment habits match Poulos's pretty closely, you're going to miss whatever points he's trying to make.
And let me tell you: I'm pretty sure Poulos took the movie Zoolander a lot more seriously than you did.
The prose is… not for the fainthearted. (The reviewer for National Review deemed it "prolix". I wouldn't be that complimentary. Picking a page (137) at random:
We long for unity through the medium of our equality—seeing ourselves in the image of money, not (for instance) the image of God; if only we could be as mutable, commensurable, and passable as that which constantly reinforces and reminds us of our interchangeable insignificance.
Yeah, whatever. I would object that making such a sweeping generalization about what "we long for" would be unwarranted, if only I could figure out what he meant in the first place.
I'll give him a slight thumbs up, when he suggests that while our official motto In God We Trust might capture a popular response to "the craziness of everyday life", a more useful motto might be "Deal With It".
That's pretty good, I'm willing to back whatever legislation needed to make it so, but it also appears on page 2, and the book never gets back to that level of accessibility.
That's me, though. If you're more like Nick Gillespie, you will almost certainly like it better.