BOOK REVIEW:‘The Transformational Decade’

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By Herbert I. London
University Press of America, $40, 178 pages

Even the most sanguine American cannot say that the first decade of the 21st century was one of overall positive developments for the country. The decade’s lasting successes — meager accomplishments such as technological improvements and affordable prescription drugs for seniors — were bookended by terrorist attacks and a financial crisis, with two wars and growing political discordance in between.

In his new book, Herbert London has attempted to explain the first 10 years of the millennium. Mr. London, now in his 70s, established himself in the 1960s as a defender of the Great Books tradition and later served as president of the Hudson Institute. Accordingly, this book is entirely Burkean at its core, addressing an America that now appears “in the throes of a cultural revolution whose emphasis is on the abandonment of traditions.”

Many of his gripes are directed specifically at the relatively rapid, post-‘60s demise of the institutions that the Founders believed were essential to the success of the republic, especially the ruination of the family (“the number one social problem in America”) and the Judeo-Christian tradition (“a foundation stone for the national edifice”). Mr. London also scatters buckshot blasts of invective across other familiar targets, including social media (“frivolous”), George Soros (“a megalomaniacal billionaire”) and President Obama’s politics (“Orwellian logic rules”). Most conservatives will agree with the bulk of his assertions.

Despite his sobering observations about the state of the nation, Mr. London claims to have an optimistic view. He speculates that America is likely to experience a “Great Awakening” level of religious revival, as the secularization of society only increases the country’s hunger for metaphysical truth. The Tea Party strikes Mr. London as an organic expression of concern about the direction of country, “a genuine cri de coeur.” Sarah Palin wins great favor, as Mr. London sees her as part of the vanguard of a political movement that wants to reclaim America from a secular, transnational liberal intelligentsia that doesn’t speak for it.

While his scattered pronouncements of optimism may come off as mere gold dust in an age of longing for the mother lode, they are not enough to undermine the substance of the book, which convincingly reads like an epitaph for America. Chapter 1 features a discussion of the work of the Scottish philosopher Alexander Tyler, who theorized that the natural cycle of civilizations eventually moves “from abundance to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependence; from dependence back into bondage.” The implication is that America is somewhere along in that progression. Upon Mr. Obama’s election, writes Mr. London, “many of us lost a country.” Mr. London wonders “whether a self-indulgent, sex-obsessed popular culture isn’t an enemy of national resolve.”

I should mention here that I have to take issue with the book’s editing. In my copy, I read about Mr. Obama’s regulatory czar “Cass Sunshine” (nee Sunstein), and how the rapper “Snoop Dogg” “will soon be starring” in the film remake of “Starsky and Hutch,” a movie that premiered in 2004. Snoop Dogg now goes by Snoop Lion.

Overall, it might seem that “The Transformational Decade” is nothing more than the reflections of a man clinging to a bygone era, when “cool was the way you drank lemonade and a ‘hottie’ was my mother’s chicken soup,” but there is appreciable value to this book. For one thing, Mr. London’s analysis of America reflects a distinguished career spent poring over the classics and the benefit of viewing things against the continuum of “the best that has been thought and said,” as the poet Matthew Arnold described the Great Books tradition. On the evidence, Mr. London thinks virtually everything of national significance is in terrible shape. It’s hard to argue with him.

David Wilezol is a producer for “Morning in America,” a nationally syndicated radio show hosted by former Education Secretary William J. Bennett.

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