As regular readers know, I use this column now and then to jot some notes on a book. These do not constitute a proper book review. But sometimes the notes are worthwhile, I think.
I’d very much like to remark on a book by Bruce Bawer, published last year. This one is The Victims’ Revolution. Bawer, if you don’t know him, is one of our finest literary critics and political analysts. He is also uncommonly brave. He writes about the threat of Islamism to our liberal life here in the West, and he does this writing from Scandinavia, where he lives. (Bawer is an American but has lived in Norway for some years.)
This sort of writing wins him no friends — except among people who value the truth, however upsetting it is.
Bawer has the particular gift of shaming people on the left. He asks them, “Won’t you stick up for your own values? Do you realize what the Islamists intend to do to you, and are doing to you already? Do you not have the courage of your convictions? Do you hate the West more than you hate those who would destroy you?”
This new book, The Victims’ Revolution, has a subtitle: “The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind.” You will hear the echo of Allan Bloom’s classic, The Closing of the American Mind. I remember his telling Bill Buckley what he originally wanted to call it: “Souls without Longing.” Bill said, “Oh, what a marvelous title” (or something like that).
How about “Identity Studies”? Bawer devotes chapters to Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Queer Studies, and Chicano Studies. A later chapter is titled, “Studies, Studies Everywhere.” So true.
A couple of years ago, I interviewed Jeb Bush. And I noted that he had majored in Latin American Studies. I said to him (something like), “That’s a pretty lefty major, isn’t it?” He said (something like), “Yes. Aren’t all ‘studies’ lefty?”
If a person reads only the preface and the first chapter of Bawer’s book, he has more than gotten his money’s worth — more than. This is a vital, sparkling, and truth-telling book.
“. . . while Americans lament the loss of shared national values,” says Bawer, “many of them may not recognize the intimate connection between this loss and the changes that have taken place in American higher education over the last generation or so . . .”
In his preface, Bawer does a lot of quoting of a book by the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. I remember how surprised and glad I was to see this book. It was just about the best thing Schlesinger ever did in his life. One of his last acts — one of his last acts of writing — was to cry against the Balkanization that has been warping our country.
“For two centuries,” writes Bawer, “America accomplished something that would have previously seemed impossible: the creation, as Schlesinger put it, ‘of a brand-new national identity by individuals who, in forsaking old loyalties and joining to make new lives, melted away ethnic differences.’”
Glorious (and quaint).
To point out the “miraculous nature” of the American accomplishment, says Bawer,
is not to deny, among other things, the mistreatment of Native Americans and the blight of slavery and racism. It is simply to note that, in a world where violent intergroup enmity and conflict have been the rule rather than the exception, America found a way for increasingly diverse groups of people to live together not only in peace but with a strong sense of shared identity — an identity founded not on ethnicity but on a commitment to the values of individual liberty, dignity, and equality articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Back to Schlesinger for a moment: Possibly the last book Bill Buckley ever read was Schlesinger’s Journals: 1952-2000. He spoke of this book on my last visit with him. Let me quote from some notes I made about Bill, on his passing:
Bill had also been reading Arthur Schlesinger’s diaries — loved them. Was enthralled by them. Said they were absolutely absorbing and delightful, despite the two references to Bill, both of which were mean.
He spoke of writing a big piece on the diaries — something like 20,000 words. Maybe for the New York Review or The Atlantic.
Such a big man, to bear Schlesinger no animus, and to sing his praises.
More Bawer (plus Schlesinger): “The most disastrous by-product of the civil rights movement was multiculturalism, a philosophy that teaches, as Schlesinger put it, ‘that America is not a nation of individuals at all but a nation of groups.’”
I kept writing in the margins of Bawer’s book, “So true.”
Here is a passage that merits a “So true,” probably in all caps:
The problem, to be sure, is not simply a pathological fixation on group identity, but a preoccupation with the historical grievances of certain groups, combined with a virulent hostility to America, which is consistently cast as the prime villain in the histories of these groups and the world at large. If you or I had set out to invent an ideology capable of utterly destroying the America of the Declaration, the Constitution, and the melting pot, we could scarcely have done better.
Bawer has compassion — probably more than I can muster — for those who peddle multiculti nonsense: “I find my heart going out to them. They’ve been trained to parrot jargon, to regurgitate bullet points about Western imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism — and to think that this is what it means to be educated.”