Blogs > Liberty and Power > Bleak but Refreshing

Feb 15, 2009 7:12 pm

Bleak but Refreshing

While reading Amity Shlaes’s much-admired book The Forgotten Man, I had trouble figuring out why it has received so much attention. Of course, the parallel is timely as we anxiously await our own Great Depression. But as a non-historian (don’t vote me off the island), I simply saw it as a readable, well-researched, sometimes disjointed story about key individuals involved in the New Deal.

It has a theme, of course--that Roosevelt’s rhetoric about the “forgotten man” was directed at the wrong person; Shlaes’s “forgotten man” is the politically innocent individual who was forced to pay for ad hoc tinkering by intellectuals hankering for socialism. Roosevelt’s amazingly successful rhetoric--fireside chats on the one hand and outrage at big business on the other--allowed the president and his cronies to grab and keep power, even as the depression ground along with no end in sight.

A brief visit at Barnes & Noble resolved my puzzle. The featured books about the Depression tend to be hagiographical, like Jonathan Alter’s and Adam Cohen's, whose titles speak for themselves: The Defining Moment: FDR and the Triumph of Hope and Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America. Against these, Shlaes’s book is a refreshing antidote, if a bleak and skeptical book can ever be called refreshing.

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William Marina - 2/16/2009

Sorry about that! My dictation program interpreted the "de" before Tocqueville as "Dave," who, as everyone knows was a guy on film playing another pseudo Prez of the US! Best to check one's dictation, I guess.

William Marina - 2/16/2009

While I am not a historical determinist, history does appear to follow certain tendencies and cycles.
For several centuries now, Western Civilization has tended to follow a cycle quite evident in China over several dynasties.
The intellectuals in the western Enlightenment were enamored of China because it appeared to be a solution to the Feudalism plaguing the West. Then, Voltaire and others realized the cure, Mandarinism, was worse than the disease. A millennia before, the Chinese had already instituted what we in the West today call "affirmative action."
Within Western civilization, the United States seems well into the third century of such a 300 year cycle.
The only real answer to Imperial centralization is to decentralize, but few Americans are willing to contemplate that solution.
Alexis Dave Tocqueville saw this coming, when he observed of the emerging French bureaucratic centralization, "Aha, the Chinese system."