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Thomas Pynchon
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Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man - Garry Wills I had to put this book down for several months - because I had to digest certain arguments (especially in Part IV) -- that went against long-standing views of mine, but are so brilliantly argued, that I simply couldn't go on until they had been simmered, stewed, and thoroughly digested.

Wills is one of the most intelligent, brilliant, sheerly logical writers I have read in a long time -- his classical and Jesuitical training evident on every page. As such, this book is utterly compelling. His thesis, as also the structure of the book, is, however, complex - and not presented all at once -- he proceeds inductively (as a good writer should) - and instead of telling you "I think X", now let me rummage around the attic to find some evidence that confirms that -- the method my students are taught to follow (to my constant complaining) - he dives into the swirl of American political life in search of its living currents. It really is a remarkable book.

His grand thesis is that America is built on a type of classical liberalism (small-l) that included two distinct components: the ruthless social darwinism of the survival of the economic fittest; and the puritan view of business and capitalism as morally uplifting -- that is, free market liberalism and an ameliorative view of capitalism (which allows some room for the State). This type of liberalism was found in the views of both parties up until the 1920's - both in Wilson and in Hoover (TR's view was quite distinct). But under the pressure of the Great Depression, these two views split apart, one going to the Republicans, and one going to the Democrats. The half that went to the Republicans (laissez-faire) linked up with the authoritarian troglodytes of the JBS, southern whites, the religious loons (hence, the alliance of Milton Friendman with the loons and racists who rallied behind Barry Goldwater). The ameliorative part that went to the Democrats, did not become socialistic because the Dems retained their liberal (laissez-faire) attitude towards academia (free thought, freedom of dissent) and politics (decentralization).

Nixon is (Wills wrote in 1969) misunderstood -- because he is being viewed through the lens of this Post-Depression "split". In fact, Nixon is a return to the classic liberalism of Woodrow Wilson and Hoover -- (much the the material Wills collects about Wilson, and about Nixon's admiration for Wilson is really persuasive and hard to gainsay).

The problem is.... Wills continues.... that classical liberalism is essentially dead --. He (Wills) offers a skewering of its logical foundations (I've quoted one long passage in the comments section, though that is only a part of it) -- and because the complexity of modern society with its enforced interdependencies have rendered it really an anachronism.

Thus, Nixon is the "last liberal".

The second problem is that Nixon himself is basically a slug -- which reveals the weakness in liberalism -- that this was the best man that the tradition of Adam Smith and Carnegie and Woodrow Willson and Hoover could come up with..., speaks volumes. (Wills).

What we need, instead, according to Wills, is to join the great accomplishments of liberalism (freedom, respect for others), with a more communitarian ethic.

Thus Wills ends on a forward-looking, optimistic note -- that looks quite ridiculous today (July 2011).

Some comments:

First, Wills spends a long section (Part IV) dissecting -- nay, skewering -- Wilson's "liberal" foreign policy -- willing to kill 'darkies' (Mexicans; thinking Vietnamese) in the name of moral improvement -- burning the village, in order to save it -- that is really overwhelming. What gives this passage a special resonance is the memory of how the Neoconservatives used Wilsonianism to justify their adventure in Iraq. To my mind, this was always a sham; the Neoconservatives are Straussians, not Wilsonians - and only an addled Washington Press corp ("silent assassins of the republic", in Mailer's great phrase) could ever have bought that line of crap that was shoveled to them. But if it HAD been true, then even more should the Public have read Wills' scathing critique of it before engaging in what has proved to be a military and geopolitical and economic and national blunder of a proportion which we cannot yet assess with any fullness.

Secondly, his account of the 'synthesis' of the American Right -- as merely a product of liberalism's opportunistic alliance with the religious and authoritarian Right -- doesn't do justice to the unity of that synthesis... as we can see today. As I've posted a LOT on this topic in my reviews of other books, I'll pass over this here.

Finally - his view of Nixon as the 'last liberal' (largely in the classic sense, remember) -- he even compares him to Churchill at one point! -- could not have been written in 1974 -- by which point the whirlwind of events -- Vietnam, dissent, revolution, riots, oil shock, financial crises (two bear markets), impeachment -- simply showed that Nixon, beneath the 'liberal' surface, was (in his domestic politics, at least) merely a thug, a crook, and willing to coddle to reactionaries.... Wills got it wrong. The book, therefore, is a failure. But a stunningly brilliant failure from which I have learned an enormous amount.


What follows is my original review, posted long before I finished this book - and there is some worthwhile material also in the comments sections.



[Original partial review:

(This is only a stump of a review -- but it contains ideas that are, imo, important, and that I wanted to get down in writing. I'll add to the review if anything strikes me as I finish the book. Needless to say, I think this is a spectacular book, and that everyone should have a look at it.)

Why is Obama so weak…? Why was the Liberal, Democratic establishment of the 1960's so fatally intertwined with the Military-Industrial complex that it basically wrecked this country with the debacle of the Vietnam War (from which we have yet fully to recover)….? Why did Friedrich Ebert (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Ebert) call out the proto-fascist Frei Korps to suppress, and brutally, a revolution in 1919 from… the Left -- thereby paving the way for Hitlerism? Why was Giovanni Giolitti and his method of "trasformiso" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trasformismo) so fundamentally corrupt, that it destroyed Liberal Italy and paved the way for the March on Rome…? -- In other words, what's wrong with liberals?

Among other things, Wills takes a scalpel to liberalism, and his dissection leads him to the following conclusion:

Liberals, at bottom, are afraid of systematic thought (says Wills) -- for systematic thought has 'absolutist' tendencies. That is, given a system (if a system be accepted), certain ideas are ipso facto ruled out of court. One must judge certain ideas to be irrefutably true, and others to be irredeemably false. But liberalism is uneasy with any 'absolutist' claims to truth. It prefers to remain 'open' to all possibilities. It is pragmatic (in the Jamesian sense). There are, of course, primarily moral reasons for this -- for even Schlesinger admits that Pragmatism (like *every* philosophy) itself rests on certain metaphysical assumptions, -- that is, on certain irreducibles.

Any philosophy that wishes at bottom (and at whatever cost) to remain 'open' to ALL possibilities ( -- and indeed, this ALL…, in all consistency…, includes not only NEW possibilities, but contrary or contradictory possibilities -- the only ultimate truth being that there is no ultimate truth….) -- cannot ultimately confront an intransigent absolutism. It MUST be accommodative.

And hence, it is doomed….

The students of 1968 understood this -- at some level, anyway. As such, liberalism was confronted both by reactionaries on the Right AND by radicals on the Left, and so didn't have a prayer….

Clearly -- a similar dynamic is starting to play out today in the Democratic Establishment -- the party of Obama, Reid and their ilk (save, of course, for the fact that there is no radical left -- with the result that they are being squeezed simply between the Right and a Wall).

Still, looking at these men, men like Giolitti and Ebert would sympathize and understand….