His Majesty has joined a book club.

I gather it is composed of gentlemen of leisure like himself, though he has not been entirely forthcoming. He seems to regard the book club meetings as his night out.

The book they’ve been reading the last month is another matter. I can’t get him to shut up about it.

Modern Times. It’s a sweeping history of of the modern world, from around 1920 to the early 1980s, condensed into a mere 817 pages. <cackles> The author, Paul Johnson, is a liberal-journalist-turned-conservative, an iconoclast, and a curmudgeon.

I like him already.

I thought you might. His economic views are strongly laissez-faire and his political views would be, in a better world, describable as pragmatic center-right. Of course, in the world as it stands today, that makes him a reactionary.

Perhaps less so when he wrote this book, which I believe was some time ago.

1987. It’s to his credit that the book still holds up well, even in its final chapters.

Johnson has the expected set of villains: Hitler, Tojo, Stalin, Mao. To whom he adds a few lesser-known villains, namely, almost every prominent Third World leader and U.N. General-Secretary of the postwar era. To which he adds a long list of the merely befuddled or otherwise tragically inadequate: Gandhi, Nehru, Kennedy.

Which Gandhi?

The first one. I shared a delicious quote with you a while back, which you have apparently been sharing further. The second Gandhi qualifies as a minor villain.

And heroes?

Those would include Churchill and Roosevelt, but with qualifications, which are particularly serious in the second case. He is not, perhaps, as hard on Roosevelt as I would be. He is inclined to regard him as more dilettante than demon.

I don’t regard him as a demon, really. I simply think he attempted far too much with far too little intellectual capital.


What is more interesting is the unexpected heroes. Johnson insists that both Harding and Nixon were victims of media smears, albeit with some substance in Nixon’s case. Coolidge comes in for considerable praise, as does Eisenhower — both men whose outward simple appearance belied considerable intellectual depth, which was put to use mostly in not doing things. It takes considerably more character and intelligence, sometimes, to not act than to act.

Someone should tell Sartre.

Who makes a cameo as a minor philosophical villain.

Johnson throughout insists that the Christian concept of absolute values and individual responsibility is the best basis for civilization; that the 20th Century was so bloody and horrific precisely because absolute values were abandoned for relative values. His sharpest criticism of Churchill is for not ending the strategic bombing once it became clear that it was no longer the only way for Britain to strike back at Germany. I think he makes the error of regarding the strategic bombing offensive from 1943 on as optional.

An understandable error, given that this was the conventional wisdom almost from the end of the war, and that Adam Tooze’s study presenting a strong case otherwise was published only in the 1990s.

Yes, one cannot expect an author, even a brilliant one, to reach correct conclusions from incorrect data. But the moral dilemma remains: How do you uphold absolute standards of morality when a relative calculation makes something as awful as strategic bombing look like the least evil option? Johnson doesn’t really answer this, and I’m not sure one can answer this.

The answer is to turn to God for your defense.

Meh. A lot of good that did the Jews.

Another interesting hero, who I am indebted for Johnson introducing me to, is Conrad Adenauer, the former mayor of Cologne dismissed by the Nazis as too liberal and, later, by the British occupation authorities as too conservative. The British dismissal actually worked in Adenauer’s favor, by allowing him to become Prime Minister, reconcile Germany to France as it had not been since the Holy Roman Empire, and stand up to the Left without being branded an Allied shill. Johnson’s admiration for Adenauer is open and deep. And he makes a pretty good case that Adenauer saved central and western Europe from collectivism.

Adenauer was deeply Catholic and founded the political philosophy now known Christian Democracy. All in all, notwithstanding my own disbelief, I’ve concluded I would rather be ruled by a devout Christian than most of the atheists I’ve known. It seems safer. One must not discount the value of myth, whether or not one regards them as actually mythical.

The chapter on the 1960s United States is titled “America’s Suicide Attempt.” The combination of Vietnam, Johnson’s Great Society, and the imperial Presidency and its subsequent collapse was the poison. Johnson insists that Nixon’s Watergate scandal was little more scandalous than the covert activities of Kennedy and Johnson, but was deliberately fired up by a hostile press, angry than Nixon had figuratively given them the finger. He considers it a tragedy, because he believes Nixon was superb in foreign policy.

Carter is dismissed with contempt as the weaker successor of an already weak President. The useless and counterproductive Helsinki accords are discussed at some length, as is the fall of the Shah and subsequent disasters. Here is where Johnson comes close to being prescient.

And I have to skip back a bit. The chapters on the Algerian revolution deserve careful reading as an excellent model for ISIS today. The Algerian revolutionaries were comparable in brutality, and most of the victims were Algerian — not French. The idea was to destroy the moderates and radicalize the population. French brutality in the response to Algerian terrorism simply played into the Algerians’ hands. The “hearts and minds” campaign, which followed the surge in Iraq and was doing quite well until Obama gutted it, strikes me as the appropriate counterstrategy. But we have another weak President at the moment, alas.

Alas. We appear to be in the midst of another suicide attempt, this one rather more determined.

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