Peter Smith

Christmas Books: Peter Smith

Amity Shales, The Forgotten Man – A new history of the Great Depression, Harper Perennial, 2008 

I first came across this book on the Glenn Beck show on Fox News. Ms Shlaes, an economic historian and syndicated columnist, had a bit part in the show. Her book is a forensic examination of the Depression years in the United States. Be warned she likes detail and doesn’t leave much out so far as I can tell. I was reminded of Alan McGilvray’s comment that cricket commentating is as much about what you don’t say as about what you do say. Sparing the reader some commonplace happenings would have been kind. For all that, The Forgotten Man is an informative read. It is traces the history of the Great Depression recording the efforts of Roosevelt and before him Hoover to restore the economy to health. The facts that those efforts – intervening to control wages, farm prices and stock market activity, as well as the more familiar boosts to public spending, – patently failed is not surprising. Though Ms Shlaes takes a narrative rather than analytical approach, conservative economists will have their jaundiced view of the New Deal confirmed. A lot turns on the books title. Roosevelt pinched the words but not the sentiment. Candidate Roosevelt used the words in 1932 to refer to the man at the bottom of the heap. According to Shlaes, the term was coined fifty years before by a Yale philosopher. His forgotten man was the taxpayer who footed the bills for schemes designed by ‘well-intentioned social progressives’. Another good reason to read the book is to appreciate the unique style of Coolidge – President during the roaring twenties, prior to the crash. He apparently thought he did most good by doing nothing. If only other leaders would take note. President Obama, for example, among other things, thinks it is down to him to create jobs and make clean water flow throughout the developing world. He has well-heeled taxpayers in his sight to pay the bills. How burdensomely familiar it all is. More Coolidges are needed is the subtext I got from the book.

A C Grayling, Liberty In The Age Of Terror, Bloomsbury, 2009

Professor Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College at the University of London. He is a prolific author and a popular commentator in the UK. I don’t read that much philosophy so he normally wouldn’t get onto my reading list. But I was having trouble with the burka; of the kind which has a veil covering most of the face. Where did I stand? Was it with those wanting to ban it from public places or those who believe, like perhaps John Stuart Mill might have believed, that people should be allowed to wear what they like – provided, I imagine, it didn’t grossly offend public decency? Let me say at the outset that Professor Grayling did not resolve my problem and it remains unresolved in my mind. His book does, however, say some interesting things about liberty and tolerance. He astutely explains why tolerance is so important to liberty while, at the same time, making the point that tolerance does not require putting up with the intolerant. I found myself agreeing with most everything he said about protecting liberty against the intrusive power of the state – overreacting to the terrorist threat. For someone who nailed his colours to the mast on the ‘problems’ of climate change, energy supply, the negative effects of globalisation, and the struggle for social justice it was a surprise (to me) to find him saying: “What the moderate voices are saying about Islam is welcome and promising. But alas the fact remains that Islam is a fertile breeding ground for extremism because it lends itself to hard-line interpretations and fundamentalist commitment.” He would be drummed out of National Public Radio for saying that kind of stuff. That’s one good reason to read the book.

Mark Steyn, America Alone, Regnery Publishing, 2006

I haven’t read this book. I am saving it for Christmas. I like my Christmas – New Year reading to be entertaining, unchallenging and agreeable. By agreeable I mean that I will agree with all of it. I want to add Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter to my list and hope Father Christmas is listening.

I bought the book because it was by Mark Steyn and because the introduction to the 2008 paperback edition was titled “Soon to be banned in Canada”. I admit that the contents page gave me no clue to the contents. E.g., Going … going … gone: demography vs delusion.

The back cover tells you what it is about and it strikes a responsive chord in me. Steyn says the future ‘belongs to the fecund and confident’. In my pessimistic moments I have been thinking that the game is lost and that Western civilisation, enlightenment, family and self-reliant values are being so poorly promoted and defended that we can look to an Islamicised cum socialist future world. My coffee chums think I exaggerate the problem. Steyn obviously doesn’t. He looks to America for hope –as I do. Where else would you get the Tea Party?

Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men, Picador, 2005

I have just reread this novel. For all those McCarthy fans out there, I think he is good but not good enough to be out of the main stack and in the literary section of Dymocks. I have read three of his other novels. The Road is good in my view. All the Pretty Horses is tiring to read. Blood Meridian is indecipherable – which may give it extra allure among the literary cognoscenti. Anyway my rereading of No Country for Old Men was prompted by something festering in my mind about the movie of the book by the Coen Brothers.

One of the highlight of the book for me was Sheriff Bell’s italicised commentaries about life and the state of the modern world. Little of it made it to the silver screen. I don’t know why. It was so good. Maybe some of it wasn’t politically correct enough for Hollywood? Three brief extractions give the flavour.

It takes very little to govern good people Very little. And bad people cant be governed at all. Or if they can I never heard of it.

People complain about the bad things that happen to em that they don’t deserve but they seldom mention the good. About what they done to deserve them things.

Had this questionnaire [in the nineteen thirties] about what was the problem with teachin in the schools … the biggest problem they could name was things like talkin in class and runnin in the hallways. Chewin gum … sent em back out to the same schools. Forty years later. Well here come the answers back. Rape, arson, murder. Drugs. Suicide … when I say anything about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket people will just sort of smile and tell me I’m getting old … my feeling about that is that anyone that cant tell the difference between rapin and murderin people and chewin gum has a whole lot bigger of a problem than what I’ve got. 

Read the book for much more of Sheriff Bell’s comments. The movie won’t do it.

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