Today is April Fool’s Day, and I am pleased to mark the occasion by presenting to you an April Fools Issue of our humble magazine. We’re not going to use this holiday to tell you jokes; we’re much too serious for that. Instead, in this installment of the Hipster Conservative, we will review books that are foolish, and whose authors might themselves be considered April Fools: everything from Francis Bacon’s Great Instauration to Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games.
What is wrong with these books? What makes their authors April Fools? Lots of things. For instance, Sordello argues that The Hunger Games deals with ethical dilemmas by pretending they just don’t exist. I argue that Dave Eggers’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius takes the easy way out by abandoning (and perhaps ridiculing) the possibility of communication about grief and tragedy. N. W. Smith argues, quite memorably, that Michael O’Brien’s Catholic end-times novel, Father Elijah, is foolish because it is not really Catholic at all. Foolish works of nonfiction, especially foolish works of theory and history, are even easier to spot: their theories are wrong; and when put into practice, their theories are destructive.
It can be a lot of fun to savagely denounce a bad book. Nothing feels quite like ripping through the work of an unsuspecting, cowardly, narrow-minded author, exposing him for the charlatan he is. Still, as a reader (and is a critic really anything more than a thoughtful reader?), I usually try to follow some idealistic and high-minded rules. I try to avoid passing judgment on a book; I try to let it pass judgment on me. I look for the strengths in the author’s argument, and ignore its weaknesses when they are irrelevant to its strengths. But it becomes more difficult to follow these rules when I deal with books like B. F. Skinner’s inexcusable Walden Two.
Skinner is an easy case: he is a fool, and we should say so loudly and proudly every day of the year. The most difficult books to deal with are the ones that are foolish but are still clearly worth reading. Perhaps Lord Macaulay’s celebrated History of England (reviewed in this issue by our own historian, Bede Adulescens) is a good example. As the young Bede points out, the Whig approach to history is pernicious and ought to be denounced. But Bede will also be the first to admit, I’m sure, that Macaulay is a marvelous prose stylist who can’t help but exude a bit of charity towards the ways of the past, in spite of his rigorously progressive view of the march of history.
The eminent mid-century critic Lionel Trilling wrote, in the preface to his 1950 collection The Liberal Imagination, that his fellow liberals were wrong to think that the then-shoddy “intellectual condition of conservatism and reaction” was “a fortunate thing.” This is a tragedy not just for conservatism but for liberalism, too, because “it is not conducive to the real strength of liberalism that it should occupy the intellectual field alone.” He quotes John Stuart Mill, who said that the prayer of liberalism ought to be “Lord, enlighten thou our enemies; sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perception and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers.”
I think this is my favorite thing about liberalism: maybe it’s blindly rationalistic, but there’s something inspiring about its idealistic faith that arguing will solve our problems and make us all smarter and better people. So I say to Mr. Trilling: We conservatives will do our best to keep up our end of the bargain.And this means that, when called for, we will fight you not just by puncturing your faith in rationalism, but by leveling our best and harshest rational arguments against good but flawed thinkers like Macaulay and Bacon. We shall never abandon the honorable and humble virtues of intellectual charity, but neither shall we pull our punches when we talk about a book that’s sort of right but mostly wrong.
So if this April Fools Issue seems out of balance, uncharitable in its arguments, a bit nasty in its tone, then please forgive us. We have 365 other days this year in which we can build things up; today, we intend to tear things down. Join us, for this special occasion, for this high holy day of criticism, and let’s see what we can do about these bad books.
~ Paul Odradek