The Embrace of Unreason: France 1914-1940 by Frederick Brown
This book should be considered a sequel to Brown’s 2011 book which I previously reviewed, For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus, an excellent history beginning with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and its aftermath, during which a defeated and humiliated France split into cultural factions that fractured the country and which Brown argues ultimately contributed to its surrender to Hitler in World War II. The current offering brings the story forward from World War I to this defeat by the Nazis with a brilliant survey of the events and the religious, social, and political movements that led to the “unreason” resulting in the embrace of Fascism and rampant anti-Semitism in the interwar years. His survey is seen through the lives and work of three writers who were central figures among French intellectuals whose ideologies turned the country away from humanistic and rational ideals toward extremism and submission to authority. This is great history very well told and I can’t help but reflect on the lessons here as I see current headlines like “Jews Leave France in Record Numbers” and studies that report that 74% of Jews in France avoid openly identifying themselves as Jewish and wonder if history might indeed repeat.
From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution by Brendan Purcell
As the title and subtitle indicate, this is an ambitious attempt to correlate the origins of the universe with the origins of man and Purcell does it with a very comprehensive survey of the scholarship on both. He traces our material origins from the Big Bang through evolution and including, most fascinating to me, the seven million-year hominid sequence through the appearance of the first humans in Africa about 150,000 years ago. And as it unfolds, the big mystery in the story is what the archeologists call “the Big Bang of Human Consciousness” and man’s unique capability to transcend the space and time limitations of the material with faculties that cannot be explained only in biological terms nor exclusively by science. This work is very difficult to adequately summarize in a review and he lost me in a few places I will need to revisit, but it is a brilliant study in what is meant by being human.
Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country by Shelby Steele
Shelby Steele has long been a big favorite and his essays have provided me the most insightful penetration of the issue of race in America, possibly equaled only by Thomas Sowell in his worldwide analyses of race and culture. And the impact of this book, which at 198 pages is really a long essay, has changed my perspective on the race issue, particularly as it has been shaped and portrayed by the activists from all persuasions over the past half century. In fact, I have a long-standing habit of underlining key passages in non-fiction books that I read to which I want to return for a second reading and to internalize the thoughts, but this book is so rich with insight that I found myself wanting to underline almost every sentence!
Essentially, Steele believes that the root of our current political polarization originates in the decade of protest of the 1960s, when in the act of dismantling what he calls our national hypocrisies of racism, sexism, and militarism, liberals adopted the posture that there was something inauthentic and probably evil in the American character that rendered the entire regime essentially illegitimate. This conclusion has sustained the notion of “poetic truth”, a certain license for race-based activism in which facts have no bearing. And this has resulted in a half-century of well-intentioned but ill-advised government social programs fueled by white liberal guilt that in his estimation have not only failed, but have done harm to the very minorities they were designed to help.
As I read this book and explored its insights, it occurred to me that the concepts necessary to understand Barack Obama, what brought him into power, what informs him and the constituency that sustains him, are spelled out in this book. It also helps one to realize how badly he failed the black community during his administration, a fact that I believe most thoughtful blacks understand.
I don’t agree with every point he makes, particularly on our “militarism”, but Shelby Steele has performed groundbreaking work here and this book deserves the attention of all who genuinely want to address American race relations.