When I saw the picture of a newly elected President Obama reading Fareed Zacharia’s book “The Post-American World” I knew we were in for a bit of trouble. Not because of Fareed’s religion – as the argument went. But because Zacharia represents that weird, disconnected CNN pundit view of a supra-national world order governed by supra-governmental institutions and shepherded along the path by a global media class, “trying to get the viewers to understand the world around them” as Zacharia is wont to say to a dramatically diminishing viewership. Look how that went… As it turns out the “Post American World” turned into #MAGA. Now who needs to understand the world around them? Ah, but if only folks would do what they’re told, right?! I’m reminded here of D.H. Lawrence, in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, “’No wonder the men hate you,’ she said. ‘They don’t,’ he replied, ‘and don’t fall into errors: in your sense of the word they are not men. They are animals you don’t understand, and never could. Don’t thrust your illusions on other people. The masses are always the same, and will always be the same. (…) An individual may emerge from the masses. But the emergence doesn’t alter the mass. (…) Panem et circenses. (…) What is wrong today is that we’ve made a profound hash of the circuses part of the program, and poisoned our masses with a little education’.”
One of the most profound “liberalizing” (in the correct sense of the word) moments of my life came in college, when I bought a discount student ticket to see “Les Miserables” at the Auditorium Theater off Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. I donned my $40 suit and went out for my splurged night on the town. That story of the fight against tyranny in revolutionary France still sends shivers up my spine. Fast forward ten years, I am myself fighting the creeping totalitarianism of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela when low and behold what does he do – but buy a million copies of “Les Miserables” in Spanish to distribute in the slums.
But, wait. Isn’t Victor Hugo one of the great liberal voices? Isn’t Hugo featured prominently in Jim Powell’s excellent book “The Triumph of Liberty”, that compendium of freedom fighters starting from Cicero and ending in the present? As it turns out, Chavez’s mind was already poisoned – and all he was able to see in Victor Hugo’s tremendous tale of liberty was class struggle: Marxism.
Chavez. I’ve always flirted with a funny little illusion about that epic tyrant. Chavez was not always, well Chavez. Back when his brother was introducing him to communism, he was a poor boy worried about inequality and poverty and angry at injustice and corruption. Sure he became a despot – but I truly believe if 21 year old Hugo saw the hash his future self made of his country, he’d be appalled. People change – power corrupts, and communist power is total and corrupts totally. Anyway my illusion – Chavez was an avid reader, and a fierce intellectual. Had somebody deigned to give him a copy of “Atlas Shrugged” at the same time Adan was handing him “The Communist Manifesto”, I wonder if things wouldn’t have been radically different? If that tyrant’s mind had been taken, like mine was, by the exciting doctrine of individual liberty – would he have been the world’s first anti-dictator? Who knows.
Today Venezuela’s greatest leader – Leopoldo Lopez – is sitting in jail. “In jail I decided to grow as a man,” Lopez said in 2014. What is he reading, to help him in that task – when the guards let him keep his books that is? Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century.” Sigh. His commie overlords should let him continue; preparation of that sort is a recipe for stasis. The brave folks at CEDICE – Venezuela’s liberal think tank – have tried to slip him a copy of “Atlas Shrugged” (called “The Rebellion of Atlas” in Spanish). And I have smuggled him in my novels – the San Porfirio series about a political prisoner in Venezuela who finally learns how to be free, “With this, I am finished,” Pancho said. “If you were looking to me for answers – for authority – you are certainly disappointed. No matter. You will not have replaced one dictator with another, one heavy hand with another, or one arbitrary system with another. All arbitrariness has ended, because now you must think for yourselves, make for yourselves, and vie for a better world for your families.”
I’m guessing the prison guards seized my novels.
Molly Worthen has written an interesting article on the rise of conservative “great books camps” where young conservatives who see themselves as “the guardians of an ancient intellectual tradition,” to go escape the know-nothings. “These programs seek to correct the defects they see in mainstream higher education by stressing principles over pluralism, immersing students in the wisdom of old books and encouraging them to apply that wisdom to contemporary politics.” Perish the thought!!!!!
Yes, books matter. They matter early – because they will shape how you read other books. And they matter often – because only as we constantly internalize the unchanging lessons of history will we be able to understand how to “apply wisdom to contemporary politics”. Wisdom, we don’t hear much about that word these days, do we? Maybe, therein lies the problem.