If Bushite cheerleading mixed with sort-of-learned allusion is your bag, then this is for you.

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CIVILIZATION AND ITS ENEMIES

THE NEXT STAGE OF HISTORY

A Civics 101 treatise on why we’re good and terrorists and their pals are bad.

Once upon a time, human societies—oh, say, Sparta—found it necessary to declare certain humans enemies, chase them down, and kill them, maybe enslaving their women and keeping their toys in the bargain. But then, over time, certain soft, pampered, and overindulgent societies came to discover that they had forgotten that, in Woody Allen’s resonant phrase, even paranoiacs have enemies. “They forget, in short, that there has ever been a category of human experience called the enemy,” intones independent pundit Harris, whose recent articles in Policy Review prefigure this extended essay. “That, before 9/11, was what had happened to us. The very concept of the enemy had been banished from our moral and political vocabulary.” Well, perhaps, except that recent presidents up to and including the much-despised Bill Clinton identified plenty of enemies for us to worry about, not least of them the Soviet Union. The notion that anyone really imagined that the world was a safe and flower-paved place is arguable enough, but Harris nonetheless likens us dumb, hapless latter-day Americans to the ancient Aztecs, who had no way of explaining what happened to them when old Cortez came along; just so, the awful sight of civilian airliners flying into tall buildings confronted us with a baffling enigma that put our language and thinking all out of whack. It makes your head hurt, after all, to imagine fighting a just war against people who don’t play by the rules. Harris offers, by way of a remedy for our confusion, a tour through the pages of Plato and the “gang ethos” of ancient Greece, a crash course in Roman ideas of patriotism and Hegelian logic, a discourse on al-Qaeda symbology and the virtues of the free market and, to boot, a few asides on the Imperial training in Frank Herbert’s Dune—all apparently meant to reassure readers that we are civilized and they are not, and that the US represents the last best hope of all who would be civilized in the future, “a practical design for the next stage of human history: a utopia that works.”

If Bushite cheerleading mixed with sort-of-learned allusion is your bag, then this is for you.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2004

ISBN: 0-7432-5749-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2003

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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The author’s sincere sermon—at times analytical, at times hortatory—remains a hopeful one.

THE ROAD TO CHARACTER

New York Times columnist Brooks (The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, 2011, etc.) returns with another volume that walks the thin line between self-help and cultural criticism.

Sandwiched between his introduction and conclusion are eight chapters that profile exemplars (Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne are textual roommates) whose lives can, in Brooks’ view, show us the light. Given the author’s conservative bent in his column, readers may be surprised to discover that his cast includes some notable leftists, including Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, and A. Philip Randolph. (Also included are Gens. Eisenhower and Marshall, Augustine, and George Eliot.) Throughout the book, Brooks’ pattern is fairly consistent: he sketches each individual’s life, highlighting struggles won and weaknesses overcome (or not), and extracts lessons for the rest of us. In general, he celebrates hard work, humility, self-effacement, and devotion to a true vocation. Early in his text, he adapts the “Adam I and Adam II” construction from the work of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Adam I being the more external, career-driven human, Adam II the one who “wants to have a serene inner character.” At times, this veers near the Devil Bugs Bunny and Angel Bugs that sit on the cartoon character’s shoulders at critical moments. Brooks liberally seasons the narrative with many allusions to history, philosophy, and literature. Viktor Frankl, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Tillich, William and Henry James, Matthew Arnold, Virginia Woolf—these are but a few who pop up. Although Brooks goes after the selfie generation, he does so in a fairly nuanced way, noting that it was really the World War II Greatest Generation who started the ball rolling. He is careful to emphasize that no one—even those he profiles—is anywhere near flawless.

The author’s sincere sermon—at times analytical, at times hortatory—remains a hopeful one.

Pub Date: April 21, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9325-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Feb. 16, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2015

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