Last month Thomas Nelson, Inc. published my twelfth book, After the Hangover: The Conservatives’ Road to Recovery, and I have now spent several weeks on the campaign trail talking about it on radio, television, and at our conservative think tanks. The book tour today is very much different from those I undertook in previous years. So allow me to take a break from my monthly frolic with “The Continuing Crisis,” and reflect on the state of books in American life and of what George Jean Nathan in the 1920s called “the reading mind.” It is fitting that I do so here in The American Spectator, because the conservative movement is a movement of ideas, and those ideas were first advanced in books such as F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and in intellectual reviews, first and famously William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review, and over the years in such intellectual reviews as Commentary, the Weekly Standard, and, as Ben Stein puts it, “this very own American Spectator.”
The reading mind is a very useful faculty for an intelligent person’s collection of knowledge. It absorbs information more rapidly and more deeply than its more primitive complement, the viewing mind. The viewing mind is what we use in watching television and in watching much that glows from our computer monitors. In doing so, the viewing mind is about as engaged and energetic as the mind of our ancestor, Cro-Magnon man, peering at Caveman Art in the dank caves of southern France some 15,000 years ago. Nearby perhaps one of his contemporaries is pounding rhythmically on his hairy thigh or on a primitive drum, entranced by some elementary beat not unlike a contemporary rapper on stage, live! The images glowing from the television screen or the computer monitor often move at a mad pace, but they do not convey meaning any more deeply or more complexly than did the colorful animals painted on the cave walls in the Dordogne region of France thousands of years ago, and I doubt that thousands of years from now these electronically produced images will be considered art, as Caveman Art now is. Frankly, I doubt they will even survive.
An exception to this assertion is when the written word appears on a computer screen. Then the reading mind is roused — yet for how long? An hour? Thirty minutes? A couple of minutes? As long as it takes to grasp a 140-character tweet? The reading mind and the book are in decline today in part because even the sophisticated reader’s attention span is in decline. There are so many distractions: movies, sports events, cable news jeremiads, high-tech gadgets that are a must, say, the GPS you buy, which is the GPS you discard when your new car comes equipped with GPS, maybe two GPSs — one for the driver, one for the passenger. The list of distractions is very long. The consequence is that sophisticated Americans know more about a wider range of matters than previous generations could ever envisage. Unfortunately they know none of it very thoroughly.
When we say America has been dumbed down, we are not talking about the growing be — nightedness of plumbers or carpenters, or most members of the working class. Oftentimes, they know a lot more — certainly within their fields — than their antecedents. The dumbing down that has taken place is among the sophisticates or the elites, as they like to be called, and their dumbing down has occurred usually because they do not read much. What once was referred to as “the habit of reading” is a habit now maintained by a smaller percentage of Americans than in recent generations. The result is a stupider sophisticate and a stupider public debate. In the 1920s Mencken and Nathan’s American Mercury enjoyed many a delightful laugh at the expense of the lower-class and middle-class clod. You, dear Spectator reader, and my colleagues in the editorial department have been provided with an abundance of laughs at the expense of cloddish contemporary sophisticates. A professor today at the Harvard State University Law School is easily as derisible as the mayor of Joliet, Illinois, remonstrating in 1926 against Demon Rum or women smoking cigarettes in public. In Hangover I talk about the decline of intellect in America always with the fear that I may be belaboring the obvious. The evidence of it is the paucity of real intellectual leaders observable at either end of the political spectrum.
Genuine intellectual leaders are unobservable on the left because most of the things believed at that end of the spectrum are ignorant and infantile. For years Liberals have grown ever more ignorant and infantile as a consequence of what we call the Taranto Principle, the inimitable James Taranto’s finding that as the left-wing media never holds the left to account for its stupidity, its stupidity gets worse. Genuine intellectual leaders are unobservable on the right because they have to be perceived through the Kultursmog, which, as I demonstrate in Hangover, misrepresents them or simply obliterates them. Suffice to say they are out there and with the assistance of such political leaders as Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich they have shaped the modern American mainstream where government’s usefulness is doubted, limited government is trusted, personal freedom is relished and federal budgetary extravagance is a source of alarm. This simple fact goes unobserved in the Kultursmog, as do such influential intellects as Art Laffer, Gary Becker, and the minds who create the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.
There is a New Segregation being practiced here. It has nothing to do with race. Rather it has to do with ideas. The segregationists are the soi-disant Liberals, and wherever they hold sway writers who disagree with them are banned and misrepresented. I have seen it personally with Hangover. They will not engage its arguments, though it is the product of an editor and an institution, The American Spectator, that have been around for 43 years, and not without effect. Ask the Clintons. This segregation has become steadily repressive at least culturally since the 1980s, when it became clear that Liberalism is in a moribund condition and unable to learn from experience. The Obama health care monstrosity would be plausible in 1968. In 2010 it is a dinosaur.
Thus we turn to the condition of the book. It is not doing particularly well. Many are published but few are actually read or even readable by a civilized mind. This is in part because of the troubled condition of the reading mind but also because the segregationists quaver from lively intellectual give-and-take. There are intelligent books out there, but they arouse the hostility of the segregationists. Even a lively book by a writer of the left discomfits the segregationists. A new novel, Solar, by the Brit, Ian McEwan, entertains us by satirizing the venal Nobel Prize laureates, the environmental con, and general elite society, and McEwan’s fellow Liberals suspect heresy. The New York Times Book Review actually dismissed the book for being too well written and too clever. This embarrassment was committed on the Review’s front page!
The condition of book reading and book writing is not healthy. Nonetheless, I predict that the book will survive. A book is still the most powerful way to convey serious thought. There are still enough post-Cro-Magnons out here interested in serious thought.
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