Monday, January 17, 2011

Stanley Fish New York Times Review of America by Heart

Stanley Fish on the central point of America by Heart:
"Palin is thus on firm ground when she links “the understanding that we are an exceptional nation” with the observation, made by de Tocqueville, that in America 'the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom [are] intimately united.' 'The Founders,' she declares, 'deliberately and self-consciously constructed a government based on the belief that religion was at the root of the personal and public virtues necessary to sustain freedom.'

"In her view, we are free and equal because as children of God we have an inherent dignity that is inviolate: 'We are free as a consequence of being made in the image of God.' In statements like this, Palin brings together her argument for a certain form of politics ('to govern ourselves locally without waiting for any central authority to show us the way'), her claim of American exceptionalism ('we have managed to be, for the most part, the moral and upright people that our Founders hoped we would be'), her grounding of democracy in religion (the equality of men and women follows from their status as God’s children) and her admiration for Jefferson Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King and Frank Capra."
[emphasis added]
He notes Governor Palin's humility:
"There is then a unity to the book, but it is not one Palin proclaims or works out discursively. Rather, the unity is conveyed by the quotations that carry the argument, long (sometimes two-page) quotations from an impressive variety of authors, quotations that are strong in isolation and even stronger when they are laid next to one another. The book is really an anthology. The author does not present herself as controlling or magisterial; she gives her authorities space and then she gets out of the way. Her performance mimes the book’s lesson: rather than acting as a central authority, she lets individual voices speak for themselves. Humility is not something Palin is usually credited with, but here she enacts it by yielding the stage as others proclaims the truths she wants us to carry away."
[emphasis added]
Weaknesses in the book.
"Two other strains in the book seem out of place. One is a series of family reminiscences that might more properly be found on Palin’s reality show. The other is an intermittent attack on the Obama administration that might more properly be found in a campaign tract. There is, to be sure, a rationale for this attack: in Palin’s view, Obama gets exceptionalism wrong. 'We have a president,' she complains, who believes 'that America is not the greatest earthly force for good the world has known.' And the references to her family do connect up with the themes of faith and virtue she stresses. But the book would have stronger had she resisted the temptations of sentimentality and partisanship."
Review summary.
"Still, as an account of one woman’s love for her country, it is strong enough, and to read it is to understand the appeal she has for so many, an appeal that may have been clouded, but has not been eclipsed, by what happened in Arizona."
[emphasis added]
Fish underlines the central philosophy of America by Heart, and his is the best review of it I've seen. Nice that it's in the New York Times after their scurrilous calumnies against Palin in the past week which Fish alludes to in his penultimate paragraph.

That paragraph because it only vaguely mentions the sickening media spectacle without comment and the final paragraph in which Fish tries to end upbeat and jocular are the weak links in this review. Stanley Fish is a better man than to ignore abhorrent behavior. But, ignore he does.

H/T Check to the Power


OregonGuy said...

I am enjoying reading this book. It is striking how simple it is to talk about the features of America that makes this country different than other countries. And it's increasingly difficult to see why we would want this country to become like other countries.

I don't know about Mr. Fish's background, but I would suggest that the role of the homily is to take the doctrine and convert it into usable practise. We can argue whether or not Mr. Fish's perceptions on weakness are accurate within this framework. It is one thing to assert that there is a higher truth. It is another to see that truth applied to the activities of day-to-day living. And the challenges of being true to oneself and ones ideals on a day-to-day basis.

But, all in all, a surprisingly positive review, given the source.

T. D. said...


As always, thanks for your thoughtful comment. You enrich understanding.

Fish also gave Gov. Palin a very positive review on Going Rogue. I don't have a real beef with his listing of weaknesses. They are weaknesses if one is giving a standard philosophical presentation. Palin isn't. Her book is more like a wandering Reagan, or Lincoln, speech that has anecdotes and jokes but slips in very serious material. The reader (or listener) gets educated despite himself.

I'm with you that America by Heart is a striking book in its discussion of the underpinnings of American exceptionalism and their importance to American democracy. Especially, the importance of God, the Creator, higher power in supporting and sustaining the American experiment with its reliance on unalienable rights.