The Politics of Heaven
America in Fearful Times
By Earl Shorris
NORTON; 371 PAGES; $25.95
How did George W. Bush happen? That question has preoccupied the American left for more than six years, producing several shelves of books – reasoned, paranoid, polemical, hortatory, despairing, hopeful, rueful, angry, scornful, apologetic and so on through the gamut of attitudes that constitute political discourse in this country.
Few of the books have been as erudite as Earl Shorris’ “The Politics of Heaven.” Shorris created the Clemente Course in the Humanities, a program that provides “great books” courses for people whose economic or educational circumstances might otherwise deprive them of exposure to the classics. And he has no hesitation in mining the classics to construct his theories about how the United States found itself with a widening gap between rich and poor, a politics colored by fringe issues such as abortion and gay rights, a government unable to cope with calamities such as Hurricane Katrina and a war against terrorism that seems only to have encouraged more terrorism.
In the first 30 pages of the book, Shorris invokes Donne, Aeschylus, Wittgenstein, Socrates, Hegel, Marx, Homer, Lincoln, Tacitus, Dylan Thomas, Descartes, Pericles, Thucydides, Leo Strauss, Daniel Defoe, First Corinthians, Dante, Jonathan Edwards, “Gilgamesh” and Freud. So maybe it’s appropriate to invoke another dead white European male, Francis Bacon, and say that “The Politics of Heaven” is a book “to be chewed and digested.” There may be some indigestible bits of gristle in it, but Shorris’ serving up of recent American political and social history is both palatable and provocative.
Shorris has homes in two of the capitals of anti-Bush sentiment, San Francisco and New York, but he’s no flyover pundit, surveying the heartland from a pressurized cabin in the sky. He has talked to people in the red states, especially the evangelical Christians and other middle Americans who get blamed by the left for an administration that Shorris denounces for “its incompetence and […] its killing of innocents and violations of the rules of war, decency, and civil rights.” And he has assimilated their views into a book informed by a lifetime of reading, teaching, writing about and reflecting upon history, literature and philosophy.
“In 1965,” Shorris notes, “the last major liberal legislation was passed. Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Medicare, and then it stopped.” A pessimism about the direction the country was taking, Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise,” set in. Ronald Reagan proclaimed “morning in America,” but it was a chill morning for those dependent on the government to provide a safety net.
Other writers have drawn on economics and demographic changes to explain the great shift in the United States from New Deal liberalism to Reagan-Bush conservatism. Shorris singles out one principal cause: fear. Specifically, the fear of death. The New Deal was a response to the fear of the social misery made manifest by the Great Depression. But the currently dominant politics in America is a response to the fear of death roused by the explosion of the atomic bomb in 1945, by the Cold War that followed it and lately by Islamic terrorism.
As the book’s title suggests, one response to this fear has been an inflation of the role of religion in American politics. Shorris traces the political influence of evangelical Protestantism from Billy Graham’s surprisingly successful “crusade” in New York City in 1957, to the exploitation of the conservative religious base by the current administration. He talks with a young Texas couple, supporters of Bush, who epitomize the beliefs of this base:
“They do not trust government, which they think is hopelessly corrupt. The only government functions they find useful are defense and police work. In that sense they have abandoned the idea of community at the city, state, and national levels. They consider themselves patriots, but people with their views who live in a very large country are not patriots in the fullest sense.”
However, Shorris does not provide many new insights into this much-written-about topic. He’s far better in surveying the secular intellectual underpinnings of neo-conservatism: the philosophy of Leo Strauss, which rejects the “the egalitarian implication of American democracy.” Shorris, who has centered much of his career on educating the disadvantaged, has no use for the elitism of Strauss, whom he quotes: “Liberal education is the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society.” He has even less use for Strauss’ followers, such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and William Kristol, architects of the war in Iraq, which Shorris characterizes as “so far, the political error of the century.”
Sometimes Shorris’ anger leads him to preach to the choir, as when he says, “There are dreadful people in politics – Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Rudy Giuliani, and the president of the United States, among others – in America. […] Most of those we find despicable are educated fools, company men, like Paul Wolfowitz and the pompous Richard Perle; a few are mean-spirited and opinionated, like Lynne Cheney; and some are miserable, mean, mistaken, and arrogant, like Cheney’s husband Dick.”
Occasionally he indulges in the gratuitous cheap shot, as when he notes that “William Kristol worked for Dan Quayle, with whom he may have shared insights into Plato, but not the spelling of ‘potato.’ ” And sometimes he slips into sentimentality, as when he claims that the indigenous Americans “followed a plan of harmony with nature” in contrast to the European settlers who “believed the natural world […] was for conquest.” In fact, many anthropologists now believe the Indians of the Americas were as exploitive of the land and its resources as the Europeans; they simply lacked the numbers and the technology to do as much visible harm.
But there is more profundity than glibness in this thoughtful book. For Shorris, the greatest danger to democracy is the silence of the governed: “September 11, 2001, or August 9, 1945, or October 25, 2001, the day the Congress passed the Patriot Act, or some combination of these, or perhaps some future date, may mark the day or the event that saw the many forces for silence coalesce and bring down the longest-lasting government on earth.” Shorris gives us eloquence as antidote for silence.
Charles Matthews is a writer and editor in Mountain View.