The Worst Book I’ve Read in Years

Democracy and Populism.jpg

The book was recommended by someone I respect. I had enjoyed greatly one of his earlier books. So I was looking forward to John Lukacs’s new book Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred.

The book is rambling, unfocused, incoherent, and deeply offensive to standards of evidence and argumentation. It’s full of glaring historical errors. I hated almost every minute of the experience of reading it. I also know why some others have reviewed it so favorably. There’s something to please just about everybody, from Catholic conservatives, who will like his attacks on the involvement of the laity in the church and his railing against gay marriage (it seems that since the 1980s, “more and more people insisted that the legal [and sacramental] institution of marriage be extended to them”; besides gay people, whom does he mean by “more and more people”? ), to luddite radicals, who will keen to his rants against mechanization and “fields…plowed by monstrous machines and made artificially fertile through sometimes poisonous chemicals,” to libertarians, who will like his fulminations against the decision to go to war with Iraq and his attacks on modern conservatives for claiming to be for smaller government while supporting Pentagon spending with nary a peep of skepticism, to Michael Moore fans, who will like his comparison of George W. Bush to Hitler. The book even contains some sentences that make sense and a few claims that are true, such as that Mussolini and Hitler were not reactionaries, but revolutionary radicals who were trying to sweep away all that had preceded them and to make the world anew.

The problem is that none of that adds up to anything coherent. Ok, one might say, but give the guy a break. It’s a set of meditations on the world. So it’s a bit rambling. Fine, but even rambling meditations should use terms consistently and contain sentences that make sense individually, even if they don’t form parts of a long chain of argumentation. Instead, despite his repeated insistence that they be distinguished, terms such as nationalism, patriotism, populism, and democracy are used inconsistently and sprinkled across the pages like the multi-colored candy bits on a child’s birthday cake. Moreover, terms that ought to mean something are used in ways that do violence to the English language and to mind itself. Consider the following, from pp. 195-6, which follows some complaints about the difficulties of historical documentation in an age when documents are proliferating, many forms of communication are unrecorded, etc., etc.:

However, the problems go beyond and beneath the difficulties of professional historians. Beyond and beneath the problem of the eventual reconstruction of what people wanted we must recognize the constantly increasing influence of mind into matter in the very lives of people. This influence is, probably inevitably, inseparable from inflation, which, in turn, seems to be a fundamentally democratic phenomenon. Consider, if only for a moment, the virtual vanishing of the inflation-deflation “business cycles.” What we, in reality, experience is a constant increase of inflation* (true, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but still)–and, therefore, the dematerialization of money and of possessions, especially in societies where creditability has become more important than actual possessions (which may be legally “owned” but are, in reality, rented). This–often false–spiritualization of matter, this present and ever-increasing intrusion of mind into matter has led to a world where more and more images and abstractions influence more and more people–abstractions and images that are presentations of prearranged “realities” rather than representations of them.

All of this renders what we may call the structure of events more and more complex.

*The inflation of words (and, perhaps, of pictures and images, too) led to the inflation of money and of possessions–and not the other way around.

I cannot imagine a more confused and meaningless assemblage of words.

Yale University Press should be ashamed for publishing such an absurd excuse for a book.

By the way, the book by John Lukacs that I so enjoyed is Budapest 1900, which is an excellent guidebook to that wonderful city.