Review of Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics

I read a ton–about 100 books both modern and classic at a MINIMUM per year–and I have to say this is among the best of the bunch that I read last year. I will admit up-front that my judgment is colored by what I perceive as idol-worship of Obama, which is prevalent in Los Angeles, and that I am open to almost any critique of his leadership. But I will also be very clear that I demand facts before I accept critiques. I am not affiliated with any party and do not care to be: American politics is at this point a caricature, and I’m unhappy with both groups.

What Woodward does an amazing job of presenting is Obama’s lack of substance, especially when compared with his predecessors as President. Woodward is neither liberal nor conservative so far as I can tell, though I think he inclines towards liberalism rather than conservatism. Obama has no liaisons on Capitol Hill and it appears that he does not care to connect with those who represent the opposite party. Some leading Republicans question whether Obama even knows who they are. But Obama’s communication issues are much more serious than that: he undercuts Congressional leaders from his own party as they attempt to negotiate a debt limit increase on his own behalf, and he seriously alienates them by ruining much of the work they do.

What becomes clear through the course of this book is that Obama hasn’t really done much, other than the Health Care law, but he’s asking for a debt limit increase to continue to fund things he is not doing or not improving. And he is completely unprepared for the role he ran for and assumed. Perhaps my favorite scene epitomizing this is Woodward’s account of a meeting between Boehner and Obama at the White House. Boehner comments to Woodward that it crystallized the differences between the two for him, and that while he was smoking a cigarette and drinking a glass of wine Obama was chewing Nicorette (spelling?) and sipping on iced tea. I understand that the man is taking care of his health and appreciate it. But what Boehner is in essence saying is that Obama acts like a little girl–he presents an effeminate picture–and this is in keeping with the characterization of his leadership by just about every other event reported in this book.

Essays, Volume 3!

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Essays, Volume 3!

The latest volume of Essays on the Classics! is out! This one has something for everyone: the chess player and the military man, the student of history and the sports fanatic, the politician and student of politics, the businessman and the student of business, to name a few. Act quickly, though, because the next one’s coming out soon!

From the Preface to Volume 3 of Essays on the Classics!

Preface

When Jason Goetz graduated from high school, no one—including Jason himself—could have predicted the career path he has since taken.

He matriculated at the University of California’s main campus in Berkeley, expecting to do something in mathematics or business.  But Berkeley proved to be a poor fit for him, both academically and socially, and he left before completing his second year.  He spent a short time at a community college, and then attended Cal State University—Northridge, from which he earned his Bachelor’s degree.

But if Jason’s experience of college at Berkeley was unsatisfactory, neither community college nor Northridge was any better.  He earned his sheepskin, alright, but came away thoroughly disgusted with American education as he had experienced it.  He didn’t just complain to family and friends, however—at the age of 22, he wrote and published his first book—The Bubble Boys.  It is an unabashed indictment of virtually the whole United States educational establishment, from administrators to faculty to students.

In the mean time, his grandfather gave Jason a set of the Great Books of the Western World—and he embarked on the project of reading them all!  From this disciplined reading of the classics grew his second book—The Decline of the Epic?  This is a remarkable, thoughtful, provocative study which should be read by every student of literature—it’s that good, light years better in every way from his earlier work.

However, Jason has not stopped to rest on his laurels.  He began writing, and continues to write, his excellent weekly essays, many of them on the Greek and Roman classics, others on more recent subjects such as the plays of Shakespeare and the essays of Francis Bacon.  And only Jason, of all the authors with whom I am familiar, could have written his recent piece relating the works of Herodotus, the Greek historian, to the words of Vin Scully, the Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster now nearing his 64th season as the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In short, Jason Goetz, the autodidact, has not only indicted American education—he has done something about it.  He has personally enhanced American learning with works such as you will find in this book.

I am quite aware that I am lauding a writer who is as yet little known.  I am doing so because I am confident that in a relatively short time, the name of Jason Goetz will be recognized as that of a critic who did more than criticize—he will have changed people’s thinking, and in so doing will have changed their lives.

 

–Ira Fistell

BA 1962, JD 1964 University of Chicago

MA 1967 (American History) University of Wisconsin Madison

Retired High School Teacher, Concord High School, Santa Monica, CA

Retired Radio Talk Show Host, 38 years on the Air, in Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Madison

Author of America By Train and Ira Fistell’s Mark Twain

Review of Mill’s Autobiography

I’ve been re-reading a lot of Mill’s stuff recently and must admit that I find it less perfect than I found it when I first read him. This was true of Utilitarianism, and it is also true of the Autobiography.

Ultimately Mill comes off as a nice man, and as a reader you want to sympathize with him. But with many of his propositions he claims things are “right” or “wrong” when those aren’t really proper categorizations. And he is VERY liberal, which isn’t necessarily a problem but means that his perceptions are slanted. As far as specifics go, while I agree with him that the educational process (now as then) is not conducted as efficiently as it could be, I also believe that he–much like myself–is an exception to the normal standards of intelligence, so his comments that because he was reading Herodotus and Homer at 8 the school system is inefficient are bizarre. At 12, or 13, yes; at 8, no. And I think that Mill himself was probably too young to fully UNDERSTAND these works. He is right that the Socratic method is the most effective one for teaching. From a political perspective, I think his association with Comte is troubling, and the same goes for his self-categorization as a Socialist-in-waiting–he says the world isn’t prepared for the right kind of socialism, but that’s ALWAYS what Socialists say, which is why they are always “planning” and never quite executing.

As far as the writing is concerned, some of the paragraphs are too long. Several of the classical authors suffer from this problem, but often this is due to translators; in this case we can’t blame a translator.

Review of Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States

Author: John C. Calhoun

Publisher: Dodo Press

I found this work very informative and intriguing, especially in light of Calhoun’s Disquisition. Disquisition is the precursor to this work, and deals with abstract notions of government; this work focuses on specific facets of American government. Calhoun’s great superiority as a writer lies in his aptitude for making smart distinctions, which he does in both works. But I did not find this work as strong as Disquisition, in large part because some of his reasoning in this work seems forced, and is hidden behind language which is very difficult to parse through (a common strategy among many writers who know their logic isn’t smooth).

The book’s major premise is that the Constitution was designed to prevent some interests from taking control of government and running wild with its prerogatives at the expense of other interests. No doubt this is a fantastic idea, one which deserves deep consideration in light of present trends in government. I did not feel, however, that Calhoun’s explanation of the specifics of the matter was as clear or as simple as it could have been. In Disquisition he keeps everything very simple, so this surprised me.

Nevertheless I enjoyed this book, and at fewer than 200 pages it is well worth the read. Could have been better, but still no doubt a great book.

Review of Disquisition on Government

Author: John C. Calhoun

Publisher: St. Augustine’s Press

The consummation of all political theory, Calhoun’s argument for the “concurrent majority”–formed when all the diverse and competing interests in a nation must agree to any policy moves–has lasting value in an age of increasing reliance on pure numerical majorities. Calhoun argued that governments are in place to restrain men and that “organisms” are placed on governments in enlightened nations to restrain the governments themselves, which must be done because they are run by men, who are as imperfect in positions of power as they are otherwise. The “organism,” in our case known as the Constitution, is meant to prevent governments from asserting absolute rule, and, as Calhoun shows, when a pure numerical majority is all that is necessary to implement policies, the government is nothing short of absolute. Calhoun sharply argues that even though many supposed “friends” of good governance will clamor for purer, more simply numerical democracy as a solution to bad outcomes, they hurt society rather than help it by so doing.

Calhoun clearly was heavily influenced by Aristotle and Adam Smith, and his sophistication and perceptiveness stems from them. His argument is deep and nuanced, and shows complete command of the subject matter. What’s unfortunate is that, because many members of Congress at the time from his region were labelled “Calhounites,” Calhoun is best remembered as a Southern hypocrite, favoring plantation chattel-slavery and clamoring for more democracy. This is because Calhoun resisted the majority under Andrew Jackson’s administration and because thirty years later people from the same region resisted the majority under Lincoln. It also stems from the fact that Jefferson Davis, who led the Confederacy in the 1860s, was Secretary of War, just as Calhoun had been, but that’s an extraordinarily weak link. This is not logic at its finest. By imposing modern norms and mores onto him, and by imposing modern logic (which is much worse, since that’s a total oxymoron), we miss the depth and range of insight he provides, and we also draw false historical conclusions; many of those same Southerners were not individuals he had any respect for or intimate connection with. Modern readers tend not to understand Calhoun, but that’s a product of their own educational shortcomings and not of the strength or weakness of Calhoun’s political philosophy.

I would argue that this text trumps all of the great works of political theory–Plato and Aristotle and Machiavelli and Hobbes and Milton and Locke and Montesquieu and Burke and The Federalist and so on–and, in 80 pages, makes the strongest possible case for respecting the Constitution as it was set up. I’ve read all of them. I’ve read Acton and Weber and Marx and Hayek and Spinoza and Descartes and Montaigne and Bacon and Thucydides and Livy and Gibbon as well. Calhoun’s the best and ought to be treated as such, though with the caveat that he is terrible with comma splices.

There is one irreconcilable problem with the text–namely that Calhoun believes in an “organism” to control the behavior of government, but then says that when liberty and protection come into conflict, liberty must always yield to protection.  He does not specify what limits may be placed on this maxim, and many cases of absolute government have started with a government claiming that its citizens need to be protected from ghosts, swiftly expanding the scope of constitutionality and making the prescribed limitations on government meaningless.  I think this is inherent in any work of government, though, and forgive Calhoun the lack of superhuman powers to resolve this conundrum.

Preface and Tentative Release Date for Volume 3

Hello All–

We are looking at a tentative release date of January 19 or 20 for Volume 3 of the Essays on the Classics! series.  This volume includes essays on the application of the Fabian Strategy to chess, a comparison of Vin Scully and Herodotus, an analysis of the role of tyranny and civil disobedience in Antigone, an examination of Aeneas’ leadership through a Six Sigma lens, an examination of the logical process, and a commentary on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in light of logic.

The Preface will be written by longtime talk show host Ira Fistell, whose own works include America by Train and Ira Fistell’s Mark Twain: Three Encounters.

Looking forward to your continuing readership!

–The Essays on the Classics! team