The Corner

Culture

Democracy in Chains and the Scandal of Tonight’s National Book Awards

A few hours from now in New York City, the National Book Awards will be bestowed on a few fortunate winners. Past recipients of nonfiction awards include such luminaries as George Kennan, Barbara Tuchman, and Robert Caro. Former president Bill Clinton will be presenting an award at this year’s ceremony. And, unfortunately, he’ll be presiding over yet another prestigious American institution that has fallen prey to radical leftism, complete with a farcical judging process, all largely funded and overseen by America’s major publishers, who perhaps need to be reminded that conservatives buy a lot of books. It represents how the definition of merit itself has been twisted by our elite cultural institutions to undermine not only conservatives but anyone who does not share their radical political vision.

I must admit that I knew none of this before I was asked to review Democracy in Chains, by Duke historian Nancy MacLean, which has been listed as one of five finalists for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. It is a book riddled with intentional deception and errors and one that has been criticized by commentators left, right, and libertarian.

In simplest terms, Democracy in Chains contends that Nobel Prize–winning economist James Buchanan, the central figure in public-choice theory, conspired over decades with billionaire Charles Koch to secretly undermine American democracy. As Henry Farrell and Steven Telles write in Vox (Vox!)“Why have so many left-wing readers embraced such a transparently flawed book? The most persuasive explanation is that MacLean confirms and extends their deep preexisting suspicions.” Or as Rick Perlstein, a leftist historian of conservatism who is certainly no friend of the Right, wrote:

It pains me very deeply to say this . . . but . . . MacLean really does, at times, distort quotes from the subject to claim they mean the opposite of what they actually mean. . . . Yet more damningly, in my opinion, the foundation of the entire book is a conspiracy theory that suggests that if you understand THIS ONE SECRET PLAN, you understand the rise of the right in America in its entirety. Which suggests you don’t need to understand any of a score of other important tributaries, some of them not top-down conspiratorial at all but deeply, organically bottom up, which gave us the political order of battle we know now. That you don’t need to read anything else. Which is actively dangerous to historical understanding.

Why has a book with such a wide breadth of critics been selected for such an honor?

The best way to understand the scandal of the National Book Award is to look at those judges who decide it and the judging process they undertake — a group of five people who collectively are supposed to read more than 500 nonfiction nominees over a summer — (one might consider how one could seriously read 100 books in a summer). While the judging panel changes each year, looking back several years I could not identify a single conservative on the panel. This year’s panel, supposedly covering all nonfiction books, has no scientists, engineers, or philosophers, and most damningly nobody with any background in economics or political science, the subjects of Democracy in Chains.

This follows on a 2016 awards season that saw “all four winning books [three by African-American authors] confront[ing] the US’s racist past (and present).” However even that result wasn’t “woke” enough for Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, which runs the awards (she was recently seen retweeting BLM’s Deray Mckesson). She responded on Twitter “Wow. Four Dudes.” I guess for some people we won’t be woke enough until every award winner is a transgender Marxist.

While the history of race and racism in America is certainly an important subject, given the enormous variety of books written about different topics in America one might expect a slightly broader subject matter of books would win the award.

Political radicalism has infected every facet of the National Book Award — for example, last year’s winner in poetry, who wrote about “my hometown of Chicago and how it destroys itself . . . privatizes or shutters its public schools, and militarizes its police that have murdered and tortured with degrees of impunity since the 1970s.”

Of the five judges in nonfiction this year, four are leftists or political radicals and the remaining one is almost certainly a liberal:

Jeff Chang, executive director for the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford, is an expert on hip-hop culture, a major supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, a community laborer, and a student organizer: Sample retweet: “Since Trump cannot get a single policy win, his strategy is to create a culture war, rooted in racism, homophobia, Islamophobia and sexism.”

Ruth Franklin is a former senior editor of the liberal New Republic, whose Twitter feed is filled with the following gems: “No abortion. No birth control. No maternity leave. No health care for your kids. No care for you. This is what a war on women looks like” and “Can we deport him and keep the dreamers.”

Paula Giddings, a professor of Africana studies at Smith College, is at least a social scientist and historian — one whose work focuses on race. She was most recently seen introducing radical Palestinian Activist BLM supporters and women’s march co-chair Linda Sarsour for her speech on “Intersectionality in the Streets: Resistance in a Time of Trump.”

Finally, Valeria Luselli is a Mexican-born New York resident and advocate for illegal immigrants (the subject of her most recent book) who indicated that she would not want to stay in America if Trump were president while adding: “It’s also a writer’s duty to produce a discourse . . . that faces hate.” She states her current goal is to eradicate “illegal” from Americans’ conversation.

Steven Bercu, former head of the American Booksellers Association, is the closest thing to a political moderate — and he is a former “public interest lawyer” most famous for popularizing the phrase “Keep Austin Weird.”

With judges like this — rushing through more than 100 books each, almost completely unqualified to judge the worth of a book like Democracy in Chains — one that focuses on a figure best known for his political theory, libertarian politics, and economics research — it’s no wonder that such a disastrous book could have been shortlisted for such an honor. Democracy in Chains, plays to all of the uninformed left-wing bigotries of those who sit atop the commanding heights of our current politically correct and intolerant culture. Whether or not it “wins” tonight, the American reading public has already lost.

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