Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Bombshell books – the tomes that shaped what passes for my thinking

How many idiotic left-wingers have we had to put up with since the Credit Crunch droning on about how Roosevelt’s BGBS (Big Government Big Spending) regime dragged America out of the Depression in the 1930s. I must have heard or read that line at least a hundred times. And, of course, it’s all utter balls. 

The person who first opened my eyes to one of the great liberal myths of the 20th Century was Paul Johnson in his stupendous 1984 work, A History of the Modern World; from 1917 to the 1980s, which – for me at least – illuminated the Thatcher Revolution that was just getting into full swing following her pummeling of the unions and victory in the South Atlantic.

Because I had never read a word of economic history, Johnson’s interpretation of FDR’s New Deal came as a real bombshell. Roosevelt, according to Johnson, hadn’t saved the United States by power-hosing vast quantities of cash at public works to soak up the unemployed and stimulate a moribund economy – he was merely extending and tinkering with the policies already put in place by his much-derided presidential predecessor, Herbert Hoover. It’s now generally accepted that what both men did to revive the economy actually impeded the recovery that deflation was already creating. Such were the effects of Roosevelt’s interference that the US economy went into free fall again in 1937 – the most dramatic fall recorded up to that point – and unemployment reached 19% in 1938, when, the myth tells us, the New Deal was supposed to have already worked its magic. In fact, the American economy recovered from the Depression more slowly than that of other Western democracies, and it was only war in Europe that got the whole thing motoring again.

So astonishing was Johnson’s interpretation of history, so pervasive was the myth that the only way to cure a recession or depression is to spend your way out of it by creating artificial jobs, I remember going back to the start of the section and reading it again, very slowly. Shome mishtake, shurely!

It was a relief to discover that one’s right-wingery didn’t have to rely entirely on gut instinct: there were facts to support it. Johnson’s wonderful book was stuffed with them. (Even historian  fans of the New Deal have started admitting it didn’t kick-start the economy - they defend it by talking about the “hope” and “change” it represented for the American people at the time:  in other words, the usual twaddle.)

Every few years, I come across one of those books that either send you off in a different mental direction, or massively confirm one’s long-term suspicions. Here a selection of some of those that have affected me deeply (I’ve confined myself to non-fiction works and have excluded self-help books):

I read this in 1968 when it came out in paperback. Brady and Hindley recorded their child victims’ pleas for mercy as they tortured them. From the moment I read the transcripts, I have never wavered in my belief that a civilised society should never forsake the death penalty. The fact that Ian Brady is still alive is an affront to justice and humanity. 

Memories, Dream, Reflections, Carl Gustav Jung
A powerful antidote to the galloping reductivism of 20th Century thinking, i.e. man is nothing but an animal or a mass of neuro-chemical impulses. In Jung’s view, man is infinitely rich, varied and multi-layered. What stayed with me from the first reading of the Great Man’s autobiography was his belief that, when faced with an unhappy patient who has been brought up in the Christian faith, the psychotherapist’s job was to lead him or her back to it. No wonder he fell out with Freud.

The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenytsin
The unvarnished truth about the most evil, inhuman  political system ever imposed on humanity - and a record of what happens when you try to impose “equality”.

Many powerful messages in this two-volume work, but, essentially, totalitarian societies are doomed to fail because the feedback loop whereby criticism can be absorbed and acted on is disabled.

The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley
A very clever and open-minded chap examines religious writings from around the world looking for common denominators – and finds them. Stimulating, yet tremendously comforting. 

A hugely successful and influential spiritual autobiography by a Catholic monk, published in 1946. I could identify with almost all of Merton’s chapter on his time at Cambridge, and his description of staying with simple, devout Catholic folk in France during holidays, while attending a French boarding school, is very affecting. It helped me understand why so many intellectuals have converted to the Catholic faith.

A 1964 Thames & Hudson book which I’m pretty sure we were given at school. It did more to help me understand the history and character of the country I’d been brought to than anything else.  (Whenever I visit a new city, I head straight for the art gallery which concentrates on that country’s art  - obviously, this doesn’t work in the current era, where taste is defined bygauleiters dispensing our money to talentless charlatans.)

The Seventies, Christopher Booker
A collection of essays by one of the most interesting thinkers of our generation, published as that abysmal decade reached its end. Now an arch- enemy of the European Super-state and the madness of Global Warming, back then Booker was very solid on Solzhenitsyn (right about everything), Pope John Paul II (too much of a real man for the West’s namby-pamby liberal elite to handle), the horrors of modern architecture and the fact that our Trade Unions were behaving like spoilt adolescents to whom no-one has ever said “No!” Also, a big fan of Jung. 

The bombshell message in this supremely entertaining book was that, in the entertainment industry, “Nobody Knows Anything”. Studio and TV employees pretend they have all the answers – but (apart, it seems, from Pixar) it’s one vast guessing game: nobody really knows that a film will be successful, and, afterwards, nobody really knows why it worked. This can be applied to almost any area of human activity – think of anything from the Credit Crunch to the success of Big BrotherNobody knew! 

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