Last week, at a Leadership Program of the Rockies
event, I had the opportunity to listen to (and sit next to) Hugh Hewitt
, talk show host, practicing attorney, and law professor. Hewitt is one of the most well-read and highly intelligent people in media (though he claims it’s Michael Medved who is “scary smart”.) He gave a brief talk which was of particular interest to me because it focused on how to be an effective, persuasive, communicator of political ideas -- something which I aspire to be.
One of Hewitt’s main points was to be an information sponge, reading as many “important” books as you can about major issues. By way of example, he rattled off nearly a dozen books he’s read about the war in Iraq and about the worldwide struggle against radical Islam (not that I believe there’s such a thing as “moderate Islam” even though there are certainly moderate individual Muslims.) If you’re interested, two of the books that he noted most prominently were “The Looming Tower
” by Lawrence Wright and “America Alone
” by Mark Steyn.
Hewitt talked about a reasonably well-known television newscaster (I won’t name him here) whom Hewitt heard offering some of the standard “liberal” opinions about the war in Iraq. Hewitt had a chance to speak with the newscaster and ask him if he’d read “The Looming Tower”. The answer was “no”. Hewitt asked if he’d read another particular book…again no. Hewitt asked the man if he’d read any books about the war in Iraq and the man answered no, apparently with something bordering on smug satisfaction.
Hewitt’s point was there’s no way you can adequately defend your position if you don’t have any foundation for it. And on a broader scale there's no way you can support pro-liberty, pro-Founding Principles ideas (the fundamental purpose of LPR
, which is why I’m such an avid supporter) if you don’t truly understand the history and context of modern capitalism and modern and not-so-modern political structures. That’s why Hewitt suggests studying everything from ancient Greece to the Roman Empire to the British Empire to American history – a rough line of our political inheritance.
And while my understanding of history and politics is above average, I’d have to say that Hewitt’s words made me feel somewhat ignorant and a bit lazy – which I’m taking as motivation to find more time to read.
I still had Hewitt’s guidance banging around my brain when, on Sunday, I caught the last minute of an NPR interview with Jack Murnighan
, an author whose statements I found disturbing, though not exactly shocking given that it was NPR.
While the conversation was primarily about reading “literature”, by which many people including Mr. Murnighan probably mean famous works of fiction, I don’t think it’s taking his words too much out of context to consider the larger implications of acceptance of his view. (And you can listen to the interview at the link above and decide for yourself whether I'm making too much of this.) Here's Murnighan's view:
“I don’t feel like it’s necessary to have read a certain number of books in your life or certain books in particular. I think it’s simply necessary to read the books that you read well. And to get out of them what’s in them. I always say that I would much prefer someone to read one book twice than to read two separate books…”
My first reaction was that while I understood the point Murnighan was trying to make, I strongly disagree, but if he’s just talking about skipping James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, maybe it’s forgivable. But upon further reflection, I don’t think Murnighan’s suggestion is improved by any mitigating factor.
Even if you’re reading literature, the idea that you’ll be a better person from squeezing the last drop of intellectual juice out of a novel (or anything else) by reading it twice versus spending that same reading time delving into something new strikes me as a recipe for ignorance.
It also strikes me far too much like the horrible "new math" sort of education in the 1960's that made students' self-esteem more important than getting the right answer.
Another big mistake the author makes is to suggest just reading “books you read well.” That is very likely to cause people to read books that don’t particularly challenge them, either in terms of a level of intellect or in terms of a political, metaphysical, or ethical philosophy which differs from that which the reader already holds. People tend to read things which reinforce their existing beliefs
but many of those things don’t adequately describe or discuss the alternatives. This is not to say people should read other things with an assumption that their views will be changed. As I like to say, “I always keep an open mind, but not so open that my brain falls out.” But even in situations where one’s views are not changed by learning what the other side or sides think, that knowledge can be extremely valuable in building your own intellectual foundation so you can better explain and defend what you believe to be right.
It will come as no surprise to my readers that I believe the left suffers frequently from Murnighan-think. How many times have been discussing/arguing issues with a liberal and learned that he’s never read any Adam Smith or Milton Friedman or Ayn Rand or anybody to the right of Doris Kearns Goodwin or Paul Samuelson. To be fair, I’ve met plenty of conservatives who haven’t read much either. (It seems to this biased observer that libertarians have usually put a little more time and effort into their political educations.) And I encourage them to read not just conservative or “classical liberal” writings, but also books which are primary or secondary sources of schools of thought with which they disagree.
I, like most people, am not the best at following my own advice. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything by a “liberal” since those things usually give me a headache. It’s hard to get through anything longer than half a Paul Krugman column, for example. But having read Marx and Rousseau, among others, and having spent a lot of time studying Soviet and PRC (Communist China) politics in college, I sometimes feel like I’ve already worn that hair shirt. Still, I think I’ll pick up an “important” book by a liberal soon, and I use the term “liberal” loosely, since Jefferson and Madison certainly wouldn’t recognize today’s Democratic Party leaders as “liberal” except that they waste money liberally.
Even though he wasn’t talking about politics, I’d like to thank Jack Murnighan for the extra clarity he gave to my previously unfocused view that an essentially “liberal” view is tremendously pro-ignorance and anti-intellectual, unless you define “intellectual” as being able to quote from books which most people don’t care about and don’t understand, and which have at most minor relevance to today’s life, in an effort to make yourself look smarter than the next guy – also a trait I find most often in liberals.
This anti-information position is, however, not nearly as damaging for liberals at it is for conservatives and libertarians because our side (conservatives and libertarians, in case that wasn't clear, dear reader) needs to argue based on principle, philosophy, and the lessons of history, none of which can be adequately understood without study, including study of the other side. Leftists, on the other side, believe that the only important yardstick by which to measure their policies and positions is their good intentions. Never mind that extremely "liberal" policies routinely do great damage to the lower strata of a society, from the USSR to the PRC to Cambodia and even within America where a credible argument can be made that the welfare state has contributed to the decimation of the nuclear family within the American black community. And I might add that the public education system is doing more than anything to "keep them down." But for liberals, the outcome doesn't much matter. It's all about that they wanted good things to happen. And with that view, combined with the view that similar liberal policies could only have failed in the past because they weren't properly implemented or implemented by the right people, it's easy to see why liberals only care to read what they "read well."
My advice, not that you asked for it, is to do just the opposite of what Murhighan suggests: Go read books which you don’t read “well” or easily; read books which challenge you, which make you refer to a dictionary, and which, even if they aren’t written by people you disagree with, at least offer a reasonable discussion of what those people believe. Particularly for supporters of liberty and our Founding Principles, the ability to defend your views and to explain why the statist, totalitarian views of modern “liberals” are wrong is incredibly important, including the ability to quote and take apart arguments which form the basis of their views, i.e. Rousseau’s “social contract” or Marx’s theories of history. Freedom and capitalism need competent defenders now more than ever.