How does one even begin to describe a big book packed with a cornucopia of intellectual and historical riches, one that is from a lively writer, historian, and linguist? Though the title, Dancing on the Edge of the Widening Gyre: A History of Our Times, may have apocalyptic overtones, it is not a futuristic fantasy or science fiction, but an eminently sensible, serious, and important book that no one can read without gaining considerable enlightenment.
As I am neither the book’s extraordinarily well-informed author nor an expert on any subject under the sun, I cannot give you a grand view of a book that is so multifaceted. Let me say, however, that Mark David Ledbetter is passionately humane, antiwar, antiracist (though non-pc), pro-planet, non-nationalist, and globalist in his thinking. His opinions on what needs to be done may in some cases differ from those of pious Tree-Huggers, and he is hardly politically correct: a rare feature in an academic writer whose prose, though elegant, is as entertaining and readable as that of a good novelist. I would even venture to say that Mark David Ledbetter is a Charles Dickens of history, liberally quoting from a wide variety of authors while injecting his own viewpoints to add to the Great Debate on how to save the planet.
He suggests that many idealists try to “to make the world fit theory rather than make theory fit the world.” You don’t have to accept everything that Mark David Ledbetter writes in order to read, enjoy, and gain tremendous insights from his book.
In fact, he probably wouldn’t respect you if you agreed with everything he says. He’s a highly tolerant, open-minded, sensitive, compassionate anti-war and anti-corruption writer, one of whose big bugaboos is the crony-capitalist state, of which the United States and many Western countries are prime examples. Where I differ from him is in my heart-based approach to governments making sure that citizens have a basic safety net, compared to his intellectual argument that such well-intentioned interventions usually fail in the execution. At no point, however, has this affected the respect we have for each other. He is also, he writes in the present book, open to the Swedish Third Way (true free-market capitalism combined with a social safety net).
Much of Widening Gyre’s pleasure comes from its historical narratives, which are highly readable and entertaining, while also informative. One of the shocking revelations, to me (and perhaps to many readers), is the degree to which racism, eugenics, and race theories were a central part of America’s immigration policy right until the late 1930s–at which point, their association with Nazism made them uncomfortable and unpalatable to the American ruling classes.
One of many surprising revelations, for me:
Among politicians at the turn of the twentieth century, Theodore Roosevelt was the most vocal and eloquent in defining racial hierarchies, in advocating Darwinist racial warfare for world domination, in defending the imperial right of the strongest races to rule the others, and in the need for continual warfare – generally racial warfare – to keep the manly qualities of leading races sharp. He was, in fact, America’s preeminent advocate of the White Man’s Burden.
Later, he quotes Madison Grant’s Passing of the Great Race, which for a few decades was very influential in American academia and intellectual circles:
Africans, Grant hypothesized, were not merely a different race but a different species, a distinction which, if widely adopted, might have led to more extreme, even unthinkable solutions to the “problem.” There was talk of waiting areas – concentration camps, actually – in preparation for deportation of blacks to Africa.
But wait … let us stop feeling so smug. Most of us, Ledbetter argues later, are far from free of racism, even those of us who think we are:
The new racism, then, might be ideological and cultural. Since we all agree that racism is bad, and since racism is based on race, the new racism, which lacks racial reference points, is safe. We can indulge our natural tendency to be “racist” without resorting to racism. We can stereotype to our heart’s content. We can deny the humanity of the other. And we can do it all with impunity since our moral guardians, academia and the media, are so busy trying to ferret out every last tiny vestige of traditional racism – and homophobia and misogyny – they don’t even notice this new form of an old instinct.
Anyway, categorizing the totality of individual people according to their cultural blueness or redness is a morally safe kind of “new racism.” That is, it gives us a chance to indulge ingrained human instincts to be both moral and “racist” at the same time, while avoiding the opprobrium of actual racism.
Ledbetter does not refrain from subversive comments about liberalism, that modern sacred cow:
If fascism is a religion of the state, so is progressivism/modern liberalism. For both, fascism and modern liberalism, as well as fundamentalist religions, creed and doctrine infuse everything. He quotes Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, “Again, it is my argument that American liberalism is a totalitarian political religion, but not necessarily an Orwellian one. It is nice, not brutal. Nannying, not bullying. But it is definitely totalitarian – or “holistic,” if you prefer – in that liberalism today sees no realm of human life that is beyond political significance, from what you eat to what you smoke to what you say. Sex is political. Food is political. Sports, entertainment, your inner motives and outer appearance, all have political salience for liberal fascists.”
Goldberg might be a bit too kind in saying American liberalism is not bullying. In academia, your job itself might be in jeopardy if you “come out” as a conservative, and it is certainly wise to be careful about expressing ideas contrary to liberal orthodoxy in the classroom. Speaking of coming out, gay conservative professionals have reported that it is easier and safer to come out as gay in professional circles than to come out as conservative. The iron hand of orthodoxy is a fearsome thing.
But here, to me, may be one of his most radical yet powerful ideas:
Then we need to dethrone democracy and make freedom the sovereign once more. Full democracy is the best idea for choosing the administrators of government, but government must be constrained by custom, constitution, and law. We have to recognize that freedom is the greater god, democracy the lesser god; or freedom the king, democracy the servant. When freedom and democracy are in conflict, it’s okay to deny democracy in favor of freedom. Developed democracies need to expand freedom, restrict democracy’s power to override freedom, restrict crony-capitalism, live within their means, discourage a politics infused with a highly developed consciousness of ethnic identity, and encourage an understanding of the importance of cultural receptivity. And then we need to restrain our natural desire to impose what we do on the Third World. Let it evolve naturally, as we did, even if it doesn’t evolve in exactly the same way as we did.
Wait, there is this powerful idea, which he relentlessly exposes at great length in his three published books on America’s Forgotten History: that history shows that America and England, like Germany and Japan and every other major country in the world, has committed its share of war crimes … or crimes of genocide during times of “peace”–that history shows us that “there are no good guys and no bad guys.” Therefore, he suggests that we stop the endless cycle of blame and decide on what we need to do now to save the planet.
I have not read all of Mark Ledbetter’s many books, but I heartily recommend his America’s Forgotten History series (Parts 1-3 are published, in paperback at Lulu and in e-book form at Amazon, and Books 4-5 are in progress), as well as Language and Globalization: The History of Us All—a short book that should be compulsory reading for all before they pass high school—if not in the original, for high school children, then at least in a form that summarizes and quotes its main theories and arguments.