June 2009

The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command.  By James Kalb. ISI Books. 289 pages. $28.

The roots, reach, and results of liberalism are inspected with consummate precision in James Kalb's The Tyranny of Liberalism. This book also offers antidotes to lib­eralism's stranglehold on American culture, a scourge inflicted by a technocracy in which choice rules. Kalb traces liberalism's fortunes from the Middle Ages to the World Wars, specifically noting that, since 1945, Western public life "has been based on the practical supremacy of economics and the principle that social order exists to get men what they want rather than to express an essence or ideal." This concept powers the mantra of choice and propels the liberal doctrine of equal freedom, which requires the "satisfaction of as many desires as possible while giving them all equal weight." Equal freedom demands a legal redistribution of wealth, breeding dependence on a bloated central government while demolishing self-reliance and personal responsibility.

Liberalism pirouettes around a political irrationalism which Kalb believes stems from a "grossly insufficient understanding of the good." (Liberalism's equal-freedom doctrine hustles hedonism as the greatest good.) Shattered families, unwed mothers, rampant abortion, runaway crime, skyrocketing addictions, vile entertainment, weakened religious communities, shrinking benevolent clubs and brotherhoods, and the stunning decline of education are equal freedom's fruits. Irrationalism is fully lampooned through Kalb's analysis of multiculturalism, which denies that "one's acts can be judged by another's standards." Criticism of multiculturalism is labeled "hate speech" by liberal grandees who glorify homosexuality and atheism. Their swooning idealization of Third World peoples and governments oozes with scorn for "repressive" religions and traditions.

Kalb maintains that liberal dogma permits only three human distinctions: "wealth, bureaucratic position, and educational certification." Experts bearing these badges disseminate "politically correct" terminology to limit free speech through "speech codes, quotas, and compulsory training in correct opinions and attitudes." Contempt for dissent coined the expression "zero tolerance," and the idiotic, hackneyed term "homophobia" turned reverence for traditional sexual morality (a worldwide cultural code dating from the beginning of recorded history) into a mental disorder. Liberalism's gains ensure that "what was inconceivable last week is mainstream today and altogether basic tomorrow." And so the "past is increasingly discredited, deviancy is defined up or down, and it becomes incredible that…until 1969 high school gun-club members took their guns to school on New York City subways, and that in 1944 there were only forty-four homicides by gunshot in the entire city."

Those who fight the liberal threat to pluralism are slandered as bigots, and respect for tradition and democracy is often derided as oppressive. The violent uproar against voters' rejection of gay marriage in California is one example of liberal intolerance. ("A government that makes choice the highest principle cannot tolerate people choosing the wrong things.") Affirmative action and uncontrolled immigration have attained eternal life through judicial jungle autocracy, and gay marriage may soon join them, even though Americans consistently oppose all three issues.

Kalb asserts that America remains a conservative nation, "the most anticommunist, the most resistant to the welfare state, the most visibly religious, the most vocally concerned with traditional moral values" in the West. He assails neoconservatism (liberalism-lite?) for furnishing just enough traditional restraint to keep liberalism from fanatical suicide. Libertarianism is deemed too anemic to stand up to liberalism's bully-boy tactics, and populism is pooh-poohed for ineffective leadership.

Kalb's prescription calls for a conservatism that boldly fortifies "federalism, localism and limited government because life and loyalties have less to do with comprehensive legal structures and grand disembodied ideals than with concrete religious and historical communities and the goods attained through them." Kalb recommends pumping more muscle into traditions (defined as functional patterns that work). Traditional sexual morality is traditional "because in the long run it…seems right in actual experience. It depends on a sense that sexual conduct should have a strong connection to its natural reproductive function. Otherwise, it becomes an unconnected dynamo, an agent of disorder rather than a support to basic relationships and obligations." The suffering from the loss of this single tradition is now global.

Kalb declares that the "immediate political goal is not a New Jerusalem but the moderation of technocracy so that concerns other than the equal satisfaction of preferences can once again play a role in public life." Grassroots remedies include participation in private, religious, or homeschool education and traditionalist institutions, along with rejection of mass media and tasteless entertainment.

A compelling history lesson affirms Christianity as the mothership steadily guiding learning, philosophy, and art through the ages, while "Islam…is unbending and tyrannical, Judaism lacks universality, and Eastern religions have too little to say about the things of this world." Furthermore, since the West rose "from Catholic Christendom, it is no surprise that Catholic writers…provide much of the intellectual support for principled conservatism…even though they are rarely well known to the general public, and even though conservatives whose loyalties and interests attach them first of all to the established order often hold them at arm's length."

Kalb suggests that the twilight of American liberalism may be near, but that a Soviet-style implosion (marked by mammoth centralization of power, frighteningly low birthrates, fractured families, and an accelerating degradation of education, culture, and religion) is not farfetched. His clarifying, commanding work warns of the growing darkness emanating from this virulent, barren, and bankrupt Philistinism redux, and presents bottom-up solutions for the restoration of a noble, humane society.

- Mary McWay Seaman



Treasure in Clay: The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen.  By Fulton J. Sheen. Image Books/Doubleday. 384 pages. $15.95.

The TV screen was tiny, the images in black and white, and the show's host was -- gasp! -- a Roman Catholic bishop, in full regalia no less. Yet week after week, my Protestant parents and I sat enthralled as Fulton J. Sheen stood in front of a blackboard, weaving the issues of the day and Christian principles together into the show's theme that Life Is Worth Living. You can still read dozens of books he wrote, or listen to hundreds of hours of his talks on audiotape; but, unless you too saw him in the 1950s, you cannot fully appreciate his impact as the first television evangelist in America, reaching an audience of 30 million viewers.

Born even before the invention of the radio, Sheen became a colossus bestriding both that medium and television. The Catholic Almanac for 2000 described him as "perhaps the most popular and socially influential American Catholic of the 20th century." His story will appeal to all who are interested in the lives of saints. (His cause was forwarded last year for proceedings in Rome.) The 30th anniversary of the publication of his autobiography, Treasure in Clay, has now been marked by the release of a new edition, with a foreword by Raymond Arroyo. The metaphor in the title, about the treasure of Christ being carried about in us as earthen vessels (2 Cor. 4:7), appears throughout the book, reworked in different ways.

Sheen's desire for a vocation was fostered in a strongly Catholic, farm-family setting. His faith was fixed securely for life by a mystical illumination of his soul, which he experienced while in seminary. He earned a post-ordination Ph.D., and a prestigious agrégé degree from the University of Louvain in Belgium, in recognition of his brilliance as a neo-Thomist scholar. He could have taught at Louvain or Oxford or Columbia, but his bishop summoned him back to Peoria, Illinois, to be a lowly curate at a slum parish. Without a word of complaint, he threw himself into the work of a parish priest, and had great success, especially through his preaching. A year later the bishop told him that he had long ago been promised to the Catholic University of America as a faculty member -- his lowly parish assignment was only intended as a test of his obedience.

While Sheen taught at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., for many years, it was clear from the beginning that his true calling was as an evangelist. He was constantly traveling throughout the country and in Europe, sermonizing from the pulpit and in public places, giving retreats, and instructing converts. A favorite topic of his was the benefit of making a daily Holy Hour, a practice he himself adhered to faithfully. He also turned out a constant stream of books, pamphlets, and newspaper columns. After broadcasting a series of sermons over the radio in 1928, he was chosen to appear on the Catholic Hour radio program, becoming a fixture there for two decades.

In 1951, when the Admiral Corporation decided to sponsor a priest on television, he was the overwhelming choice of radio and TV producers throughout the country. But the format of his pioneering TV program was a marked departure from his radio talks. Then he had discussed Catholic spiritual themes for a Catholic audience. Now he was addressing an ecumenical audience about daily life, deftly weaving in patriotism, morals, and Christianity. Despite having to compete with Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan, he quickly drew huge audiences, and was named television's "Man of the Year" in 1952.

His great successes in the media were of importance to the Church financially. In 1950 the Catholic bishops of the United States invited him to become the National Director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. His task was to raise money for the missions worldwide. It is estimated that he raised hundreds of millions of dollars, and donated ten million out of his own earnings -- staggering amounts for the time. He had found favor with the pope as early as 1934, and was granted private papal audiences beginning when he was only a monsignor. With his added exposure and service to the Church, his star rose even higher in Rome: In 1951 Pope Pius XII appointed him a bishop, and he became an associate to Francis Cardinal Spellman in New York City.

While his career and personal anecdotes, including one about a stormy meeting with F.D.R., make for an interesting story, what is of real value in Treasure in Clay is what he has to say about two other subjects. First, the priesthood. For example, in stating the essence of a true vocation, he criticizes those in the post-Vatican II generation who went into the priesthood to bring about social change: "No true vocation starts with ‘what I want' or with ‘a work I would like to do.'" He describes not only his joys as priest and bishop, but also the perils: the requirement of celibacy, and his own vanity and desire to avoid suffering. Second, the eclipse of his career at the very time when he was at the peak of his popularity. His show was taken off the air, and he was sent to Rochester, New York, as its bishop, a position for which he lacked the necessary pastoral experience to succeed. He never told publicly why this came about, so it is fortunate that Arroyo explains that it was engineered by his onetime supporter, Cardinal Spellman, after Sheen refused to divert to the Cardinal's use funds which he had raised for the missions. Sheen does write of the great suffering he had experienced inside the Church -- suffering which later was intensified by physical suffering, until he finally came to accept for himself the role of victim-priest.

Fulton Sheen was a master storyteller and essayist, and his autobiography is to be recommended unreservedly. But if one is looking for a well-told and documented life of Sheen that quotes not only many of the best lines from his autobiography but also portions of his other writings, and adds to these a wealth of facts setting him and his pronouncements in the context of his times, the book to choose is Thomas C. Reeves's biography, America's Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen (Encounter Books, 2001). Both books bear out what Raymond Arroyo writes in his foreword to Sheen's autobiography: "There is indeed a treasure in this clay: the treasure of lasting truth imparted by a true apostle."

- Hurd Baruch



The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart.  By Bill Bishop with Robert G. Cushing. Houghton Mifflin Company. 370 pages. $24.95.

Bill Bishop's background is in the news business. He worked for the Mountain Eagle, a small paper in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky, and later at the Austin American Statesman. He even started a periodical called The Bastrop County News with his wife when they lived in Smithville, Texas. Along the way he's encountered a vast array of people sharing hardly anything in common. His experience of different social groups and how they seem to congregate and self-segregate led him to write The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. Bishop attempts to accurately depict the rapid polarization of the American people, to explain why it is that neighborhoods are averse to political statements, and why people with college educations overwhelmingly vote Democratic. With the help of Robert G. Cushing, a celebrated statistician and sociologist from the University of Texas, Bishop explores the cultural and generational shift in the U.S. and abroad, and the results are undeniably fascinating.

Bishop's premise is fairly simple, that the grouping and regrouping of American communities based on political and religious solidarity and a disdain for those with opposing viewpoints is crippling our ability to work together. To illustrate this he refers to two maps of the United States. In the 1976 presidential election, just over 26 percent of counties could be classified as what Bishop and Cushing call "landslide counties" -- counties where one of the two major political parties won by more than 20 percent of the total votes. In the 2004 presidential election, 48.3 percent of all the counties in the U.S. were landslide counties. Bishop's aim is not to assert that one political party is better or worse than the other. He is simply puzzled at how the overall number of Republicans and Democrats has remained more or less constant over the years, but where they live has changed dramatically -- they've "clustered" and "sorted."

The first and most entertaining example of what Bishop and Cushing are talking about occurs early in the book, when Bishop recounts moving with his wife to the hip, fashionable section of Austin, Texas. Travis Hill, with its gentrified townhouses and lush parks, provides the backdrop for Bishop's first cognizant experience of the sorting of American neighborhoods. It all starts with an argument over what to do with rats. On the neighborhood's Internet message board, which Bishop refers to as often "a parody of liberal precociousness," a concerned vermin-friendly citizen of Travis Hill wonders if it would be safe to relocate the rodents. The sole Republican in the neighborhood suggests his rat terrier "relocate them to rat heaven." What happens after this posting is a microcosm of political segregation. At first, people are surprised that someone in their neighborhood could be so ghastly and intolerant of rodent-rights. But the e-discussion becomes increasingly belligerent and, ultimately, the entire community asks the Republican to leave the neighborhood, citing their discomfort in living close to someone with a conflicting ideology. This small example serves to highlight what Bishop sees going on more and more at both ends of the political spectrum. Politically, religiously, and racially homogenous communities drive out those with whom they disagree, subsequently stifling their ability to grow and effect the kind of changes they want to see nationally.

Far from being a mere statistical analysis, Bishop infuses The Big Sort with a rich history of ideas and community attitudes throughout American history. For instance, he points out that for years senators of opposing political parties would live in the same boarding houses in Washington, D.C., sharing rooms and meals together. Gradually, the senators of a particular party chose to purchase their own houses in the Capitol, and refused to socialize with members of the other parties. Historically, this social segregation has led to more stubborn debates on the Senate floor, as shared ideas and the good of the nation fell by the wayside in favor of an us-vs.-them mentality from all sides of the political process. It is truly breathtaking when statistics of political gridlock are laid alongside statistics of the social segregation of senators in Washington. It's almost a perfect correlation.

While examples like these permeate Bishop's book, his central point is that Americans are increasingly alienating other social groups as our history progresses. Bill Bishop and Robert G. Cushing have written an important book -- perhaps more important than any other work of sociological nonfiction in recent memory. As Catholics, we know that the only way to lead others to a true conversion and relationship with Christ is through love, and you can't truly love someone if you vehemently refuse to let him live in your neighborhood or even communicate with you on the Internet. By isolating themselves from each other, both Christians and secular humanists are setting up an impossible situation. If anything is going to lead us to civil war, it will be this most essential refusal to live and work together.

- Paul Bower





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