Thursday, April 9, 2015

Making Points

There is a fairly widespread belief on the part of many conservative thinkers and opinion-givers (as on the left, the two groups do not have complete overlap) that more liberal and progressive politicians can be just as obtuse, insulting and derogatory when dealing with women as the usual suspects on the right can be.

Townhall news editor Katie Pavlich makes that case at some length in her summer 2014 release Assault and Flattery. She argues that the political machinery of the Democratic party is not automatically pro-woman and that in fact some liberal politicians and opinion-givers support legislation that can be harmful to them. Such positions and legislation go unexamined, Pavlich says, because many women's issue groups have supported the Democratic party for so long they have become too invested with it to see the problem.

Pavlich's takeoff point for her book was probably the "War on Women" theme used effectively against many Republican politicians in the 2012 election. She was somewhat overtaken by events, though, when that same strategy fizzled in the 2014 midterm elections and the GOP retook the Senate and strengthened its lead in the House of Representatives. She notes that comedian Bill Cosby, a longtime supporter of President Barack Obama, was frequently "given a pass" on allegations of his assaults on women because of that connection. Obviously, recent events have changed that state of affairs -- Cosby is the target of a platoon of accusations and is having to struggle to repair his image.

Assault and Flattery probably could have been a good long-form magazine piece. As a book, it references many events that aren't all that far in the past and so its central premise will probably not age well. The problem may still exist -- people who want power will probably always be willing to make deals with their respective devils no matter what side of the political divide they are on. Women's issue groups will support some men who do not treat women well because when in office, they support legislation the groups want supported, just the same as Wall Street trading firms will support politicians who blast them with rhetoric as long as their voting records tip in the right direction. But Pavlich's examples will fade out of the public eye and carry much less weight than they do now.

Pavlich's subject matter and pedigree may echo that of more senior conservative women writers such as Michelle Malkin or Ann Coulter, and she speaks from a definite point of view -- she is a Fox News contributor and National Review Washington Fellow, after all. But Assault and Flattery lacks the bombast and high-octane vitriol those authors place on their pages. Her questions about the issues she's discussing read more like genuine inquiry than verbal one-upsmanship, and even if she overwrites her argument more than once, her demonstrably more irenic tone makes exploring her viewpoint a lot easier, whether a reader agrees with it or not.
Rodney Stark is the Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University and has a long career of works investigating various aspects of modern society and Western civilization, including how the latter came to be, He distilled much of that career in his 2014 How the West Won, writing about what the subtitle refers to  as the "neglected history" of the "triumph of modernity."

Stark's thesis is that features of Western civilization such as rule of law, private property rights and the rights of individual citizens helped create the environment for the most effective use and exploitation of scientific, technological and political advances. Even if the nations of Western Civ didn't invent or discover something -- as in the case of gunpowder, for example -- they did a better job of developing it and maximizing its use. The autocratic rulers of Imperial China hamstrung any real work with this game-changing new substance, while the armies of Western nations turned fireworks into artillery.

Although the concepts involved originated in the city-states of Greece, Stark says that Greek slavery slowed their advance. They gained more ground during the Roman Republic, but stagnated during the years of the empire because of its massive size and dominating nature. The breakup of that empire actually started things rolling again, as even the most autocratic rulers faced the reality that they couldn't completely dominate their people and nobles and needed some degree of cooperation in order to rule. He offers ideas on how the Middle Ages, Lutheran Reformation, the age of exploration and other historical conditions either fueled or dampened the progress of these ideals.

It's not likely that Stark's views will persuade everyone. Gandhi was supposed to have been asked once what he though of Western Civilization and is supposed to have said it "would be an excellent idea," and folks who work from that perspective will not find themselves supported by Stark's presentation of history. It's certainly possible that he cheerleads too much, and perhaps the truth is somewhere in between the two ideas. Although my sympathies lead toward Stark's support of Western civilization as a great blessing to humanity, so perhaps my recommendation may not work for everyone.

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