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What was, is & could be

Alan Wallace
| Saturday, June 22, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

“Edmund Burke: The First Conservative” by Jesse Norman (Basic Books) — Examining both its subject's life and political philosophy, this book comes from an author who has been termed a “rising star” among Conservative members of Great Britain's House of Commons, earned his bachelor's degree at Oxford and has taught philosophy at University College London, where he earned his master's degree and doctorate. He considers Burke “both the greatest and the most underrated political thinker of the past three hundred years” and a man who “was often ahead of his time,” according to the publisher. Amid the 18th-century Enlightenment, Burke — a native of Ireland who long served in the British Parliament — advocated human rights, including slavery's abolition, along with free markets and religious tolerance, including equality for Ireland's Catholics. He criticized the British Empire's excesses in India, urged reconciliation with the rebellious American Colonies, and saw through the utopian rhetoric of the French Revolution to anticipate its Terror's bloodshed, including regicide, and the Napoleonic despotism that would follow. Contending that understanding Burke is necessary to understand politics today, this book is both a reminder of his importance and a refresher course on his outlook, bringing to the fore principles as relevant now as they were when Burke formulated them.

“1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War” by Charles Emmerson (PublicAffairs) — A work of revisionist history unlike most to which that label can apply, this book seeks to show readers how the world seemed to its inhabitants in the year before World War I began without viewing 1913 as a prelude to, or trying to explain the causes of, that conflict. Rather, it portrays a time with striking parallels to our own, a year when the world had been made “smaller” by what we now call globalization — newly, more closely and easily interconnected, with the gold standard underpinning burgeoning international trade and banking, and with intercontinental telegraphy, transcontinental railroads, oil-fired ships and mass production of automobiles making communications and travel quicker and more widely affordable. Such was mankind's apparent peacefulness, progress and prosperity — The Wall Street Journal notes the author's observation that world trade's 1913 share of global output wouldn't be surpassed until the 1970s — that general war was almost unthinkable. The author — a senior research fellow at London's Chatham House, home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs — presents 20 chapters, each focused on a different city, covering not just European capitals but newly post-imperial Beijing, Model T-producing Detroit and others reflective of his approach to 1913.

“The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die” by Niall Ferguson (The Penguin Press) — The author, a senior research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, traces fundamental challenges to the decline of four institutions that for 500 years have been pillars of the West. In his view, the degeneration of representative government, the free market, the rule of law and civil society are to blame for sluggish economic growth, burdensome debt, growing inequality, graying demographics and antisocial behavior. The publisher says he contends that “our democracies have broken the contract between generations by heaping IOUs on our children and grandchildren,” that “overcomplex regulations” hinder our markets, that “the rule of law has become the rule of lawyers,” and that we've “degenerated into uncivil society, where we lazily expect” the state to solve all our problems. In a recent, related Wall Street Journal essay, he notes de Tocqueville's 1833 observations about Americans' self-reliance then and says that were the Frenchman to visit our shores now, he wouldn't recognize America and “would be forced to conclude that ... France must have conquered the United States.” And he warns in his book that reversing what he calls “The Great Degeneration” will require “heroic leadership and radical reform.”

“Native Americans: Patriotism, Exceptionalism, and the New American Identity” by James S. Robbins (Encounter Books, available Tuesday) — The U.S. Census Bureau reports that people of all races, religions, classes and education levels increasingly identify their national ancestry as “American.” The author — deputy editor of the conservative website Rare, a USA Today contributor and former senior editorial writer for foreign affairs at The Washington Times — takes that as his launching point to discuss the roots and significance of Americanism's 21st-century meaning “and the unrelenting assault from multiculturalists who believe that the term ‘American' either signifies nothing or is a badge of shame,” as the publisher puts it. Maintaining that “core beliefs that define American values ... have been undermined and corrupted,” he “makes the case for the benefits of an objective standard of what it means to be an American” and for a return to the core values that made America “the most exceptional country in the world.” At a time when so much more seems to divide Americans than unite them, and when the nation is grappling with questions of American identity in the context of immigration, government overreach and such basics as voter qualifications, “Native Americans” offers a valuable conservative perspective on what Americans do — and should — have in common.

“Development Without Aid: The Decline of Development Aid and the Rise of the Diaspora” by David A. Phillips (Anthem Press) — Born in England, where he returned to earn a doctorate and teach after being raised in central Africa, and having lived in Tanzania, Nepal and Belarus and worked for Unilever, IBM and the World Bank before becoming a director of a U.S./U.K. consulting firm, the author has seen conventional foreign aid firsthand from just about every conceivable perspective — and finds it wanting as “an alien resource unable to provide the dynamism that could propel the poorest countries out of poverty,” the publisher says. Drawing on research evidence, he advocates what seems to him a better idea: impoverished states reasserting sovereignty over their own development by relying more on their own populations' diasporas — international migration by natives who better their lot, enabling them to send home remittances, “an indigenous resource flowing through private initiative, not an alien resource flowing through public bureaucratic organizations.” Such diasporas are sources of strength in terms of both financial and human capital, he says, exploring the extent to which diaspora-derived resources could supersede conventional foreign aid. Informed by personal experience that helps bridge the gaps between rich and poor, developed and developing, this book offers a thought-provoking alternative to foreign aid as we know it.

Alan Wallace is a Trib Total Media editorial page writer (412-320-7983 or

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