MEDIA OCTOBER 4, 2013
George Will, the columnist and longtime staple of ABC's 'This Week' is leaving the network for Fox News, where he debuts today. Here's what The New Republic's legendary Henry Fairlie wrote about him in 1986.
With this new volume, which covers the years (so far) of the Reagan presidency, George Will has given us three collections of his newspaper columns in eight years. He has also published one book whose title, Statecraft and Soulcraft, invites us to a work of political philosophy. Given that he is taken to be a conservative, and announces that he is a Tory, we can look to him for a clear statement of contemporary American conservatism, a definition of what an American conservative today should believe. And since Will's career as a syndicated columnist has coincided with the flamboyant rise to power of a cock-a-hoop conservatism of some stripe, this would seem to be a useful time to look, and Will would seem to be well equipped to point the way.
He is not modest in his claims to be our guide. "My aim," he writes in the preface to Statecraft, "is to recast conservatism in a form compatible with the broad popular imperatives of the day, but also to change somewhat the agenda and even vocabulary of contemporary politics." He should charge more for the tour. Will is "a lapsed professor of political philosophy," with "a continuing, even quickened interest in the state and standing of political philosophy" since his lapsing. As a writer, he tells us in the manner of the Smith Barney commercial, "I write (of course) the old-fashioned way, in longhand, with a fountain pen"; and prominently displayed in the photograph on the cover of this book is a fancy fountain pen that Will is holding. If we are uncertain why this recommends him, he informs us elsewhere of his "firm conviction that the rushing typewriter, with its clackety-clack rhythm, is an enemy of well-crafted sentences, and that congressmen during the first 30 years of the Republic wrote a stately prose because they "dipped quill pens in inkwells."
Armed with the authority of statecraft, soulcraft, and sentencecraft, he tells us he is not like other journalists who are "too proudly 'factual' to pay attention to anything but the nuts and bolts," and so "miss the element of mind"; his subject is "not what is secret but what is latent, the kernel of principle and other significance that exists, recognized or not, inside events, actions, policies and manners." (This last citation is from The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts, which appeared in 1978.) He assures us often that he will reveal "Conservatism properly understood…Real conservatism…The truly conservative critique"—the opening words of three successive paragraphs in a single column (reprinted in The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions, in 1982).
Will's most beguiling credential, however, is his claim to be a Tory, a word (when used with the "t" in the upper case) hard to fix with any meaning n the American scene after 1783 (as Webster's Third International, by the way, would seem to confirm). This vaunt assumes its most outlandish form in the preface to The Pursuit of Virtue. Will begins with a mildly amusing quotation from Stephen Leacock about the writer's craft: "Just get paper and pencil, sit down, and write as it occurs to you. The writing is easy—it's the occurring that's hard." But not for Will. "Actually," he at once says, "the 'occurring' is not hard for someone blessed with a Tory temperament."
The writer glides like a skater, and the reader can too easily glide with him. Will in his bow tie is an elegant Victorian skater on the pond, and the maiden on his arm feels blessed.
"Ah!" she sighs, "a Tory temperament—you do like to sound old-fashioned, Mr. Will." Mr. Will pats her muff and skates on: " . . . and sentenced to live in this stimulating era." The maiden begins to flutter, "Oh, to be sentenced…but realizes too late that they have been skating on not even thin ice, and she goes under, as the reader will many times, with no hand held out to rescue her.
But Will has jumped onto the op-ed bank to assert to the orchestra of his admirers that in his columns there are "continuities, and mine are conservative convictions. I call them 'Tory' because that is what they are. I trace the pedigree of my philosophy to Burke, Newman, Disraeli and others…" Will tracks this lineage of his ideas many times, throwing in an assortment of "others," and still adding "and others."
He even claims that their origin may be found in Aristotle, "a founder of conservatism, properly understood." The question is whether Aristotle has been properly understood. A liberal, after all, may as easily draw on his philosophy; to call Aristotle a "founder of conservatism is an anachronism as facetious as it is perverse.
Still, the most bizarre genealogical claim for his ideas appears in Statecraft, a slim book that we are nonetheless entitled to take—since he so presents it—as his testament. "When a kind reader calls me unpredictable [not the drowning maiden's word for him], I am tempted to respond: to anyone sufficiently familiar with the minds of the Oxford Movement, circa 1842, all my conclusions are predictable." Of course few Americans, even if Will were among them, are "sufficiently familiar" with the Oxford Movement to know what he is talking about. We can only ponder, not to his credit, why the claim is made. There is no explanation. It is thrown in. Nothing follows from it.
Even if the whole sentence were not a giveaway, there is a giveaway at its core. According to the founders of the Oxford Movement in 1833, its purpose was to uphold "the doctrine of the Apostolical Succession and the integrity of the Prayer Book." Which of Will's conclusions is predictable from that? And what does it have to do with America, or with American conservatism, or for that matter with the price of eggs? The Oxford Movement reached a crisis in 1841, when John Henry Newman, one of the ancestors most frequently claimed by Will, published his Tract 90, demonstrating to his own satisfaction that the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England were compatible with Roman Catholicism. In 1843 Newman gave up his living, and shortly thereafter he went over to Rome; but men such as Pusey and Keble held on in the Church of England. Thus, when Will tells us to look to the Oxford Movement, "circa 1842," he is pointing to the exact year in which it was riven in two by Tract 90. Before we can find his conclusions in "the minds of the Oxford Movement," we need to know whose minds Will is talking about. Those who followed Newman to Rome? Or those who stayed with Pusey in the Anglican Church?
His admirers may say this is picky, but it is not. Will's pretensions to a wider and deeper learning than is possessed by his audience, by other journalists, and by American conservatives in general (who he mockingly suggests at one point appeal to Burke without having read the essay on The Sublime and Beautiful; has he?)—these pretensions are not a mere trapping, an adornment to his writing or to his "recasting" of conservatism. They are not playful. They are the pillars and struts of such thought as there is. Moreover, since the ancestors to whom he appeals are rarely Americans, not even the Founding Fathers, but European and especially English thinkers and politicians, it is not unimportant to point out that no Englishman "sufficiently familiar with the minds of the Oxford Movement" could explain how this familiarity makes "all" Will's conclusions predictable. If he had said that some of his ideas were akin to, or drew nourishment from, some of the ideas of some of the minds of the Oxford Movement, we could let it pass. But as it stands, in so prominent a place at the beginning of his testament, it is a conceit (in both senses) and an ill-mannered use of what looks suspiciously like a little learning.
So Will has appealed to Toryism, a peculiarly English political tradition; to the names of three English conservatives, if we overlook the fact that Burke was Irish; and to an English movement that was concerned with the defense of the creed and liturgy of the Anglican Church. But then we are confounded near the end of Statecraft by another grandiose assertion: "The conservatism for which I argue is a 'European' conservatism." And he hastens to inform us that "it is the conservatism of Augustine and Aquinas, Shakespeare and Burke, Newman and T. S. Eliot and Thomas Mann." (What happened to Aristotle?) But hardly anything that matters is held in common between any English and (continental) European conservatism. As for the list of names—why doesn't he throw in Uranus, the first ruler of the universe; or Cato the Elder; or Virgil (arma virumque cano: he was clearly for a strong defense); or Jerome? And if he's going to rope in Shakespeare (what did he do to be card-filed as a European conservative?) why not Cervantes? (Of course, he can't have Rabelais. "Rabelais, the Hugh Hefner of his time," one can almost hear Will begin…)
Weird lists of names recur; perhaps this is why the "occurring" is easy. But the list upon which one must gaze most fondly is in Will's defense of Solzhenitsyn against his critics. Solzhenitsyn's "ideas about the nature of man and the essential political problem are broadly congruent with [watch the skater glide] the ideas of Cicero and other ancients, and those of Augustine, Aquinas, Richard Hooker, Pascal, Thomas More, Burke, Hegel and others." Even if we keep our seats at the mention of Hooker, a mild commonsense skeptical Englishman, and of Pascal, surely we must jump to the ceiling at the inclusion of Hegel. There is nothing about the thought and writing of Solzhenitsyn, absolutely nothing, that can be deduced from such a roster.
With these lists, with the individual names he is always tossing out, in, and over his shoulder, we come to Will's famous use of quotations. His critics are usually satisfied to call it intellectual and cultural name dropping. But Will's practice suggests a far more serious disorder. At times explicitly, but also implicitly in his whole posture, Will puts himself forward as an almost lone defender of our Western cultural heritage (but with support from William J. Bennett). And yet he rummages among its thought and literature like a bag lady. Commonly the quotations or references are introduced with parentheses that are leaden—"Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, a classic of political literature"—but these seem designed to assure the reader of the author's familiarity with all of the culture. Or the parentheses are unforgivably tawdry; "Santayana and Plato, both of them clever fellows"; "Dostoyevsky (who knew something about crime and punishment)"; "Willie Keeler, baseball's Plato"; elsewhere we are told that "baseball people are Pythagoreans."
Or take the beginnings of these consecutive sentences: "Like Moses, Humphrey was discovered early in his career . . . . Like Moses, Humphrey was a bundle of opinions . . . ." What discernible meaning could there possibly be in such an analogy? What discernible respect for either Moses or Humphrey? (Whatever Moses communicated, it was not "opinions.") Flaubert gets the same treatment as Moses; "Jim Wacker, professor of football at Texas Christian University, may have the finest sense of nuance in language since Flaubert." And again: Earl Long "had Flaubert's flair for bons mots." Yeah, that's why we read Flaubert, for his bons mots. (Has Will confused the bon mot with the mot juste?) "The Bill James Baseball Abstract, the most important scientific treatise since Newton's Principia"; and "The Bible, which devout baseball fans consider the Sporting Newsof religion." This is the manner of a talk-show guest, or of an entertainer on the lecture circuit. Or, more to the point, of a new kind of columnist.
What is absent from Will's lists of names, from his entire papier-mâché model of Western culture, is a recognition of struggle—of the struggle of idea against idea in the civilization as a whole, of the strenuous and tormented struggle within the individual thinkers and artists he so lightly robs, like a pickpocket. One would not know from Will's appropriation of Augustine, for example, that the latter's certitudes were a recovery from the anguish of sin; or that Pascal placed faith above reason only after, and because of, tremendous doubt. There is a profound sense, after all, in which Western culture has been built on the admission of sin and doubt. But temptation, error, sin, pleasure—and the struggle with all of them—are absent from Will's smug defense of a placid cultural heritage. There is no evidence in his writing that he has ever fought with temptation or error. Civilization came to him gift-wrapped. It seems to have "occurred" to him, like the names. In this he reflects a persistent shallowness in American conservatism, not least in the alleged "revival" of conservative thought in recent years. There is no quest in it. It is quite remarkable that Will should quote with approval Jowett's question to D. G. Rossetti in Max Beerbohm's famous cartoon; "And what were they going to do with the Grail when they found it, Mr. Rossetti?" It is not any "true conservatism," but only the shallowest liberalism, that could ask that question.
In the new collection there are two essays extravagantly praising the columns of Miss Manners. Watch how he praises her; "Like Plato,. . . Miss Manners knows . . ."; "Not since Edmund Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution has there been a counterrevolutionary trumpet call as ringing as Miss Manners's"; "Miss Manners is like Lincoln. . . . ";"Miss Manners deals like Metternich with ..."; "[Her prose] is compounded of . . . an adamancy never achieved by Pope Pius IX, whose Syllabus of Errors was, compared with Miss Manners's syllabus, halfhearted. . . . Actually, her book is the most formidable political book produced by an American since The Federalist Papers. . . . As Plato understood. . . ." All good clean fun, his admirers may say. But the fun is limp; and more important, it is an aping of any serious allusions to our cultural heritage, and so only belittles it. Will makes culture evaporate. In his hands it becomes a thing of no gravity. This columnist who so manfully shoulders the burden of upholding our culture is an Atlas bowed under a balloon.
There is in Will's attitude toward (and abuse of) culture a philistinism that is profoundly antithetical to any "true conservatism." It is a philistinism that can offer "Oscar Wilde . . . with the stiletto of his cynicism "A stiletto, Wilde's weapon? Wilde's purpose was not to draw blood. And anyone who can speak of Wilde's cynicism, who can think even for a second that Wilde was cynical, must either not have read a page he wrote, or read with such obtuseness that he might as well not have bothered. It is the same philistinism that calls John Buchan "an unsurpassed memoirist" (not surpassed—whom shall we pick?—by Cellini, or by Gibbon, or by the author of The Education of Henry Adams?); the same philistinism that pronounces that "Mallarme should have been a columnist," a comment of colossal ignorance and vulgarity that cannot be based on anything Mallarme wrote, or on anything Will has read, but merely on one of Auden's teasing clerihews, which Will quotes; the same philistinism that echoes a line from "Prufrock" so ineptly as to say that Nixon "measured out his life in forkfuls of chicken à la king"; the same philistinism that declares no less inappositely that Whittaker Chambers's Witness is "comparable in depth and power to the memoir of another American alienated from his times, The Education of Henry Adams"—adding even then that "Adams is less unsettling." Oh?
This philistinism that extends in so many ways through Will's writing is not a peccadillo we may overlook. It undermines his whole claim to speak in defense of our civilization and its cultural heritage, or more specifically in defense of any conservative tradition. But his fitness to be the conservative guardian of our culture, so ready to arm it to its teeth and engage it in rash military adventure, looks quite as questionable if we take our stand in the present, and not on what Will imagines to be our heritage from the past. For example, Will ends his embarrassing paean of praise to Oxford, where he spent a brief but much-advertised time, with: "What I am trying to say is that Henry James was wrong. He said that 'youth' is the loveliest word in the language. For those who favor 'old'—old ideas and institutions—this ancient community is the rainbow's end." ("Favor" is at least an honest word for the depth of his reverence for the past.)
But every "true conservative" knows that it is no service to the traditional culture to stand outside the contemporary culture, to separate himself so ostentatiously from its growing life that there is nothing to defend but a museum, a dictionary of quotations, and a conversation piece. If, as Will puts it, "2,500 years" of our civilization have brought us only to a wasteland, with the pitifully few blooms he finds in it, then there must have been something radically at fault with Western civilization’s past, something so wrong that it is not even worth defending.
There is no need to show with more names and quotations how little Will finds to interest him or to enjoy in modern literature, art, or music. His condemnations of modern art are facile and unilluminating. He fastens his attention on some of the works easiest to ridicule, and most of the time he is not looking at the painting or sculpture, but clipping some of the more unintelligible pronouncements of contemporary criticism. That there is babble in much contemporary criticism does not mean the work of an individual artist, or the whole effort and achievement of modern art, is babble. Again, it is not a quibble, but an essential criticism of Will's attitude toward contemporary culture, to point out that when he roundly condemns Jackson Pollock (in 1978, and again in 1985), he says not a word about any Pollock painting, not to mention the whole body of his work, except the old-hat criticism that they are "canvases covered with drips." On both occasions he bases his criticism on the same silly tribute to Pollock by an unidentified art critic. Blue Poles, to take but one Pollock painting, cannot be described as a canvas "covered with drips," and only an eye uneducated not only in modern painting, but in all painting, could say so. In fact, one doubts whether he knows what paint is, or for that matter what Raphael did with his "revolutionary" use of color.
It is an offense to the past, as well as to the present, to come down so clumsily on the experiment, the trial, the essay. But let us switch from "high" culture to "popular." Popular culture has always energized high culture in our civilization. In fact, that could be claimed as one of high culture's distinguishing merits; it has always kept itself open and receptive to what comes up from below. (This is not least true of our language, which Will's fountain pen affects to use and defend with a recovered stateliness denied to the rest of us.) And it is not rash to say that we live in a time, even a century, in which popular culture has energized high culture more consistently, and to greater benefit, than in any other. To Will, virtually the only emblem of that popular culture is (you guessed it) rock 'n' roll, and (you guessed it again) he condemns, rejects, and ejects it. Except for…
Will’s famous takeover bid for Bruce Springsteen in September 1984, which provoked Reagan's own takeover bid during the election campaign, was written after a friend took him to a Springsteen concert. It was simply very brave of him to go at all, since "I may be the only 43-year-old American so out of the swim that I do not even know what marijuana smoke smells like.. . . Many of his fans regarded me as
exotic fauna . . . (a bow tie and double-breasted blazer is not the dress code)." But he is full of praise for Springsteen. "There is not a smidgen of androgyny in Springsteen, . . . rocketing around the stage in a T-shirt and headband." He is a "wholesome cultural portent," and "affirms the right values." And "if this is the class struggle, its anthem—its 'Internationale'—is the song that provides the title of his 18-month, worldwide tour, 'Born in the USA.' "
What is absent from the whole piece is any interest in or concern for the music, except to say, "This is rock for the United Steelworkers, accompanied by the opening barrage of the battle of the Somme. . . . I made it three beats into the first number before packing my ears" from a "pouch of cotton." Rock is now 30 years old. It has carried round the world, even penetrating the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union, crossed boundaries not only of nations and cultures but of classes and generations. It may be taken as a striking expression of the vitality of American culture. But it is the music that has done this. Will doesn't seem to know that what he is writing about is music, and not merely a "plague of messages about sexual promiscuity, bisexuality, incest, sadomasochism, satanism, drug use, alcohol abuse and, constantly, misogyny"—as if people go to rock for the lyrics and not the music. Will might do well to expose his prudishness to those rock stars of our venerated past, to the Goliard poets, the wandering scholars, the troubadour poets of the late Latin middle ages. He will discover the astonishing extent to which bawdiness gives to culture . . . life.
It was Disraeli, one of the English conservatives claimed by Will as an ancestor, who said in his rectorial address at the University of Glasgow that one must know the spirit of the times in which one lives, even if it is to resist it. One of the weaknesses of Will's conservatism is that he sets himself so vigorously and indiscriminately against the spirit of his times that he gives himself no chance to know it. Will's contempt for our culture, "high" or "popular," is evidence finally of an unexperiencing nature. Little in our culture seems to touch Will deeply, or often. Experience is hard, even the experience of reading; but the "occurring" not only comes easily in his writing, it seems to come as easily in his reading.
Does he read? If one goes back to one's "favorite" poem or painting or music in different moods, whether of exaltation, serenity, or gloom, there is always something more to find. Often such genuine reading leaves scars, marks of pain. Or, if you will, of sin. Before we go to God on proudly bended knee, as Will's writing suggests we should, we might at least acknowledge that he made us—once we were out of Eden, that "animal" place that Eve found as boring as Chevy Chase—the most revolting of his creatures. That is what Augustine, at least, should have taught Will: the strength of an experiencing nature. But it seems correct to say, on the evidence of Will's written work, that he has not experienced a feeling or thought, of guilt or of innocence, in his life.
In his self-appointed role of champion of our culture, Will naturally gives his attention to the parlous condition of American schools and education, not least as "transmitters" of our cultural heritage. Nobody will deny that there is cause for concern. But the slightly faddish alarm that is being voiced today—in Will's new book as well—carries its own danger. For if the American academy is also such a desolation, people may begin to think, when the faddish interest dies down, that it is beyond recovery, except for some enclaves for the privileged that will turn out the elites in whom Will exhorts us from time to time to place our trust.
For one thing, if the "core curriculum" is such a shambles—William Bennett recently made the point again at Harvard—why do American universities continue year after year to turn out such fine scholars, not least in the disciplines of the humanities that the conservative wishes to keep strong? Barely noticed, American classical scholarship has been leading the world for decades; and I know no British historian who does not pay tribute to the work of American historians, and to the generally high standard of historical scholarship in America, even in the fields of English and European history. What is more, it is my observation that every profession in America has an abundance of good and well-educated minds. If all these are the exceptions, the survivors in the wasteland, one must ask how many such exceptions were produced by Oxford at whatever period Will imagines it to have been the noble institution he extols. As for the "transmission" of our cultural heritage, the great universities of Germany, Italy, and France did not produce a generation with enough understanding of, or care for, our culture to resist, for instance, its devastation by Hitler.
When the "brain drain" from Britain began in the 1950s, it included many graduate students. One of them, the writer Andrew Sinclair, later said that "America is today of course what the Grand Tour was to the 19th century." Another, the critic and novelist Malcolm Bradbury, declared that "America is intellectually attractive; not only as a sort of spell in the 'colonies' to get started, but as a real way of tuning in to advanced ideas, modern tendencies, intellectual excitements. So the pattern is likely to continue"—and of course it has. But it is precisely these advanced ideas, modern tendencies, intellectual excitements that Will disdains, and encourages his readers to disdain.
Far too much of Will's conservatism merely adds one more voice to the long whine of 20th-century conservatives against modernity. But the "true conservative" does not wish only to "transmit" the cultural heritage, as Will keeps saying, as if it were finished and could be Wrapped and mailed to the future. He wants to bring it forward and to understand it, so that it will help to energize the present, as it has indeed energized more of modern literature and art than Will appears to know. Will makes our precious heritage lifeless, a corpse, embalmed and carried before the people, with the ultimate and hardly disguised purpose of keeping them quiet, and the society quiet, and above all the culture quiet. It is not only the past he puts in a museum, as if there is nothing more left for the traditional culture to do. He puts the present in a museum, too.
Thus it is not surprising that he traces the "European conservatism" he says he loves to so few Americans, so few contemporaries. But one must ask: Which European conservatism, exactly? The English Toryism he also claims would find it very hard to go along, for example, with De Maistre. But it is the absence of more than an occasional appeal to an American political tradition that is most damaging. There are only scant and usually dismissive references to the Founding Fathers, and even to The Federalist Papers. In all the lists of names and rivers of quotations, there is only one idle mention of Calhoun. Will's is a conservatism with the South left out, which makes no sense. There is no examination, for example, of the group of Southern writers who published a very conservative manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, against the way American society and its economy were going at the end of the 1920s—at the end of the administrations of Harding and of Coolidge (who is praised by Will because the "nation under his stewardship enjoyed a 45 percent increase in the production of ice cream") and of Hoover.
In fact, to an extent astonishing in a journalist, America itself is not very visible in Will's work. In all these volumes there is little sense of any region, city, town, or place in America; little of what its people actually do, feel, think, enjoy, and value, except going to baseball games, driving automobiles, and of course listening to obscene lyrics and reading pornographic magazines. ("[Hugh] Hefner, the tuning fork of American fantasies"!) And there is little of American history, either. We are entitled to ask Will to say, then, precisely on what things American his conservatism stands. "Cars and girls are American values" is not enough.
Still, Will has a difficulty with which one may sympathize. And unlike many American conservatives, he is at least honest enough to mention it, even if not quite to face it. His difficulty is with, well, America; and it is at this point that be most clearly resembles the Tory he claims to be. "Capitalism means the liberation and incessant inflaming of appetites," he acknowledges. "Capitalist dynamism" dissolves "cultural conservatism." Business should rise "above the morals of the marketplace." American conservatism "tends complacently to define the public good as whatever results from the unfettered pursuit of private ends. Hence it tends to treat laissez-faire economic theory as a substitute for political philosophy, and to discount the importance of government." And from all this come "the somewhat barren and negative social prescriptions of American conservatism." These are genuine Tory sentiments, expressed by English Tories 200 years ago in voicing their early horror at the Industrial Revolution, and by Southern Agrarian writers 50 years ago. But it is hard to see where they can lead Will. This is the difficulty an English Tory feels in accommodating himself to American conservatism: the difficulty that there is in America itself so strong an attachment to, and presumption in favor of, "free enterprise" and the market and its values. One may almost say, deliberately leaning on the ambiguity in the word, that this capitalism is constitutionally part of the United States.
One may agree with Will in criticizing excessive individualism (libertarianism in its vulgar, contemporary form) and the opposition to strong government in American conservatism. But then there is another difficulty. Individualism is rooted in the culture, as well as in the political tradition, of the nation, even in its beginnings. Even if one does not question some of the purposes for which Will wishes to strengthen government—to "legislate morality," for example—an English Tory (or anybody else, for that matter) may still say he would not recognize an America in which there was not so strong a flavor of individualism in politics, in culture, in society.
In the end, it is not only American conservatism Will puts into question, dissociating himself from much of what most people understand it to mean. He rejects a great deal of America, too. When he argues not only against Thoreau, not only against Emerson and his transcendentalism, but (in this new collection) against Huckleberry Finn on his 100th birthday, one begins to wonder where his America may be found, now or in the past. One begins to understand why he sets himself on the shoulders of Augustine, Aquinas, the Oxford Movement, Oxford University, "and others," or at least borrows the support of their names. For what he discounts is nothing less than the liberation from political and theological oppression that has been the achievement of the United States and its inspiration to the world.
If I have not spoken of Will's columns on the topical issues of American politics, it is because in these volumes, and not least in his new collection, he republishes relatively few of them, preferring to give his readers his lighter and easier reflections on such matters as baseball (a great deal of that in the new book), child-rearing, and what are today called the "social issues," mainly pornography, obscenity, rampant sexuality, abortion, and the withdrawal of life supports from the retarded and the handicapped. In the political columns that he has chosen to reprint, there is a running, rather awkward, and not terribly damaging criticism of "Reaganite conservatism," as one would expect from Will's own brand of "conservatism"; and surprisingly little, given his concerns about capitalism, on either current economic policies or more long-term developments that are profoundly altering the character of capitalism, and even the claims it has made in the past to encourage such virtues as thrift, hard work, and prudence.
For the rest, there are the columns exhorting the administration to create an armory to which Will seems to set no limits, or even to imagine any; to be ready to use those weapons; and at last to resist and even roll back the advance of the "evil empire"—an advance that always seems, when he lists the countries that have fallen since the division of Europe during the Second World War, to be far less menacing, or rather, far more carefully, quietly, and successfully resisted by America and its allies, than Will's rhetorical flourishes suggest.
What's more, just as Will offers few specific economic prescriptions, it is hard to see what he expects an American government to do when, for example, the Polish government with the Soviet Union behind it crushes an opposition movement—unless it is rashly to take up arms. On the 25th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall, Will asked, "What if the blockade begun in 1947 had been smashed by force? What if the Allies had used force to unseal East Berlin at dawn, August 13, 1961?" But those "what ifs" are too lightly asked and answered. What if war had resulted? The Soviet Union in 1947 was indeed a "shattered nation"; but Western Europe was a shattered half-continent, over which Soviet tanks would have swarmed with little resistance. And if one is going to count the Berlin blockade a terrible defeat for America, when in fact that blockade was broken and West Berlin was saved, why not count the Marshall Plan in 1947 a far greater American victory? Because it was peaceful?