Ameritopia, a work of pop-political theory by talk radio host Mark Levin, has been riding high atop the New York Times bestseller list for the past several weeks. The book, as Andrew McCarthy recounts in an extended essay/review appearing in this month’s New Criterion, centers around the thesis that all societies (and so, by extension, America today) face a basic choice between “utopianism” and “realism.” McCarthy praises Levin’s thesis, but his enthusiasm is a bit surprising given how inchoate Levin’s argument sounds.
At first glance, Levin’s basic defense of ‘real people’ against intellectual and political abstraction is well taken. This point has been a recurrent theme in the American conservative movement for a long time, from Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ “defense of people” to William F. Buckley’s famous quip that he’d rather be governed by a random selection of Americans from the phone book than the faculty of the Harvard sociology department. And who could forget the introduction to Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, which McCarthy aptly references, and the scene in which the author begins to question communism upon gazing at the ear of his infant child? On top of that, Levin deserves some credit for his book if, for no other reason, than that he’s promoting some great books to an audience which might not otherwise have even heard of them. But his exegesis, unfortunately, doesn’t fail so much as it flails.
What’s initially frustrating to an outsider is Levin’s tendency to cheaply categorize and dismiss texts which rival art for their complexity and depth and form the bedrock of any reasonable definition of the Western canon. His treatment of Plato’s Republic, for instance, is tiresome: like an undergraduate on his first read-through, Levin raises the alarm over the myth of the metals, the guardians, and the passages on child-rearing, breathlessly informing readers that, oh gosh, these ideas not only exist but have been around for a long time. Someone ought to get the word out! More amusing is his assertion that the Republic represents some sort of nefarious left-wing touchstone and collegiate indoctrination manual, as if it even had that much purchase in today’s fragmented curriculum. On other authors, he doesn’t fare too much better, classing, for instance, the great Saint Thomas More as an enemy because he once wrote a book titled Utopia. That’s about the extent of the argument—the irony and humor of that work receives no mention.
As McCarthy’s review notes, Levin is also critical of some liberal theorists who employ the construct of a state of nature, and he slams Hobbes for his Leviathan solution. A bit further along, though, Levin exalts Locke, apparently dropping his prior objection to the state of nature. And near the end of the review, Levin’s warning that democracy can slide into “utopianism” is aired, again creating tension with a prior assertion: that democratic governance arose in response to “utopian” schemes as a way of limiting them. This becomes a little less confusing once you realize that Levin is essentially conflating “utopianism” with any kind of tyranny or even any form of “nondemocratic” government, which leaves one with the question: just what tradition in political theory is Levin writing from or for, anyway?
The answer can be found, partially, in Levin’s love affair with Locke and Montesquieu. His enthusiasm for these thinkers would be understandable if he presented himself as a mainstream American conservative who calls for a recovery of the ‘old’ individualistic liberal tradition. But that argument is now so prolific as to be predictable, so why not attempt to ‘connect all the dots’—every last one—and shove everyone from Greek philosophers to Karl Marx to Barack Obama (you knew he had to come up) into a tenuous category?
“Big think” arguments are not inherently toxic. They can be intellectually stimulating, and, on rare occasions, genuinely illuminating. Used correctly and carefully, they provide powerful ways of approaching texts, ascribing historical significance, and interpreting the nature of thought itself. True, these systems, as Levin argues—whether it’s Hegel’s notion of freedom’s dialectical progress, Leo Strauss’ esoteric/exoteric division of philosophy, or Oswald Spengler’s attempt at demystifying the morphology of history—can also become substitutes for genuine engagement and turn into self-verifying hermeneutics. But that hardly makes them worthless or insuperably “totalitarian.”
On top of that, one wonders if, at the end of the day, Levin hasn’t fallen for the same tendency he decries so passionately. In expounding his own Grand Theory of Everything, namely by dividing the entire corpus of political theory into a Manichean dualism between “Utopianism” and some unspecified alternative (which actually just looks like a heavily dolled-up American founding), hasn’t he manufactured his own idea-centric outlook?
The two most prominent choices in American politics today are not, as Levin might like them to be, either Transformation or Skepticism (despite some worn-out bashing of the 20th century progressive movement as the source of America’s corruption, haven’t some right-wingers proven they can be just as ideological and disconnected from their flesh-and-blood neighbors as the left?). There are intriguing alternatives to this stalemate (including more or less coercive forms of communitarianism), but it’s difficult to get to them by caricaturing the history of political theory or crying ‘utopianism’ every time someone advances a critique of seventeenth-century thought. For while we certainly must remain vigilant about not letting our theories overwhelm our humanity, it is also counterproductive (and, yes, finally ideological) to fall into Levin’s kind of intellectual anti-intellectualism.
Matthew Cantirino is a junior fellow at First Things.
Andrew McCarthy, “Dystopia in America” (New Criterion, March 2012)
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