The Chronicle Review

'Ameritopia': How Dumb Can Po­lit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy Get?

Chris­tophe Vorlet for The Chronicle Review

April 15, 2012

Take a look at the photo on con­ser­va­tive talk-show host Mark Lev­in's best sell­er, Ameritopia: The Un­mak­ing of America. If it doesn't scream out to you, "I am the Sultan of Smug!," then Rick San­to­rum is a cross-dress­er and Newt Ging­rich an "in­vent­ed" Pal­es­tin­ian. 

 Arms fold­ed, a smirk on his pudgy face, Lev­in peers at us with beady eyes, as if to say, "Been there with all that hotsy-totsy po­lit­i­cal-phi­los­o­phy stuff, done that." A huge Amer­i­can flag bil­lows be­hind him, as though he's perched on the deck of a U.S. Navy de­stroy­er.

As the au­thor of a book that pur­ports to an­a­lyze the de­struc­tive tra­di­tion of "uto­pi­an­ism" in po­lit­i­cal his­tory, Lev­in co­mes with glit­ter­ing in­tel­lec­tu­al cre­den­tials. He's been an ad­vis­er to Rush Lim­baugh—he of the drug ad­dic­tions, pot­ty-mouth li­bels, and mi­sog­y­nist ut­ter­ances—and counts Rush's youn­ger broth­er, columnist Da­vid Lim­baugh, as one of his chief cham­pi­ons in print. (Da­vid Lim­baugh has called Ameritopia a "mas­ter­piece.") Lev­in's most fa­mous sound bite is, "I'd vote for a can of or­ange juice over Oba­ma."

Even bet­ter, Lev­in's been a sub­sti­tute host for that sub-Man­ning, foot­ball-toss­ing po­lit­i­cal sa­vant Sean Hannity, also ap­pear­ing on the con­ser­va­tive would-be quar­ter­back's show many times. Fi­nal­ly, Lev­in, who runs his own le­gal foun­da­tion, boasts a B.A. and J.D. from Tem­ple University, an in­sti­tu­tion nor­mal­ly so left in its ju­ris­pru­den­tial tilt that you have to won­der wheth­er Lev­in, who iden­ti­fies with the Tea Party move­ment, at­tend­ed it in An­drew Breitbart mode, hop­ing to pull off an un­der­cov­er op of some kind.

Yet here's the rub. Lev­in's first book, Liberty and Tyr­an­ny, sold more than a mil­lion copies. Ameritopia is on its way to sim­i­lar suc­cess, hav­ing stayed near the top of non­fic­tion best-sell­er lists since it ap­peared in Jan­u­ary. What gives? How can so bad a book, on so se­ri­ous a top­ic, sell so well? 

 It's not be­cause Lev­in re­ceived a bof­fo main­stream-me­dia lift­off. Here one must con­cede what con­ser­va­tive in­tel­lec­tu­als rit­u­al­ly point out—they're vir­tu­al­ly banned from any main­stream me­dia they don't con­trol. L. Brent Bo­zell, pres­i­dent of the Me­dia Research Cen­ter, voiced the charge in a Jan­u­ary col­umn for Cre­ators Syndicate, us­ing Lev­in as a case study.

 "It's a cry­ing shame," wrote Bo­zell, "that in to­day's net­work 'news' me­dia only books writ­ten by gab­by left-wing ce­leb­ri­ties gen­er­ate in­ter­est. When those left-wing screeds are writ­ten by left-wing, ce­leb­ri­ty clowns such as Mi­chael Moore, Bill Mah­er, or Ed Schultz, then some­how it's A-list book­ing. That's when the Today show and The Tonight Show roll out the red car­pet. It's a sad in­dict­ment of the in­dus­try that se­ri­ous books a­bout ideas are rare­ly dis­cussed, and if the se­ri­ous book is writ­ten by a se­ri­ous con­ser­va­tive, then rare­ly be­comes nev­er. Not even when there is a scream­ing mar­ket de­mand for such a book will the TV book­ers re­lent."

Liberty and Tyr­an­ny, Bo­zell notes, spent months on best-sell­er lists in 2009: "Network TV cov­er­age or in­ter­views? Zero, not even a men­tion of his name or book ti­tle. Lev­in's best sell­er made big mon­ey for the Thresh­old Edi­tions label of Si­mon & Schus­ter—a CBS com­pa­ny. But some­how he could not be grant­ed even five min­utes on CBS News to talk a­bout lib­er­ty."

Bo­zell's com­plaint seems to ap­ply to Lev­in's print-world pres­ence as well. A LexisNexis Ac­a­dem­ic search of "Ameritopia" and "Lev­in" re­turns 122 i­tems, but only one re­view, it­self un­usu­al­ly late: A Kir­kus pan in which that tra­di­tion­al­ly caus­tic pre­pub­li­ca­tion re­view, run­ning a post­publi­cation take in its April 1 is­sue (pre­sum­ably be­cause of the book's suc­cess), calls it "a po­lem­ic for like-mind­ed read­ers." A ful­ler Nexis "Power Search" calls up 302 i­tems, with a hand­ful of ku­dos for Lev­in in the con­ser­va­tive press, but not a sin­gle main­stream book re­view.

What can it be? Black­list­ing? Per­haps. So let's right the wrong and pay some at­ten­tion here to Ameritopia. Read­er, I sug­gest an al­ter­nate ex­pla­na­tion. Ameritopia is real­ly Ameritastrophe. It's dis­as­trous­ly bad from be­gin­ning to end.

This be­ing Pass­over as I write, I shall count some ways in which it is bad. But only af­ter grant­ing Lev­in his due ex­pos­i­tory para­graphs.

Lev­in be­lieves that we cit­i­zens in the Unit­ed States—prob­a­bly the fre­est coun­try on earth in re­gard to ex­pres­sion of ideas, mo­bil­ity, life­style choices, and pro­tec­tion against cor­rupt of­fi­cial­dom—al­ready live in a "soft tyr­an­ny," a "post-con­sti­tu­tion­al coun­try" where we're "at great risk." Un­less we "come to grips" with the "grave re­al­i­ty" we face in 2012, he warns, "we will be de­voured by it." We are the con­tem­po­rary em­bodi­ment of the evil "uto­pi­an­ism" vaunt­ed by Pla­to, Thom­as Hobbes, Sir Thom­as More, and Karl Marx, with their al­leg­ed­ly iden­ti­cal ha­tred of pri­vate prop­er­ty and the fam­ily. We're just bare­ly hold­ing on to the in­di­vid­ual­ist life­lines pro­vid­ed for America by John Locke, Mon­­tesquieu, and Tocque­ville.

Uto­pi­an­ism, the "heart of the prob­lem" in con­tem­po­rary America, is, ac­cord­ing to Lev­in, "tyr­an­ny born of in­tel­lec­tu­al bank­rupt­cy and dis­hon­es­ty." It serves as "the ideo­log­i­cal and doc­trin­al foun­da­tion for stat­ism." It is "re­gres­sive, ir­ra­tion­al, and pre-En­light­en­ment." It "re­lies on de­ceit, propa­ganda, dependence, in­timi­da­tion, and force" and is "im­mor­al per se." It "at­tracts fan­a­tics, not states­men." It seeks to crush in­di­vid­ual rights and re­dis­trib­ute pri­vate prop­er­ty in its surge toward "rad­i­cal egali­tar­i­an­ism." It con­demns self-in­ter­est as "mor­al­ly in­de­fen­si­ble and emp­ty." For Lev­in, uto­pi­an think­ers and pol­i­ti­cians are "mas­ter­minds" only in their own minds, as they seek to de­sign per­fect so­ci­et­ies.

Lev­in's tone through­out is alarm­ist—un­doubt­ed­ly the chief lure of such books to an­gry read­ers bent on de­mon­iz­ing their po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents. And he is noth­ing if not a name-call­er. Ameritopia, like many po­lem­i­cal bad books in po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, teems with mis­used ab­strac­tions and con­tains few em­piri­cal ex­am­ples. In chap­ters de­vot­ed to the Re­pub­lic, Le­vi­a­than, U­top­ia, and The Com­mun­ist Man­i­fes­to, Lev­in of­fers Cliff's Notes-like cap­sules of the works. His for­mu­la is to of­fer a brief phrase like, "as Locke ex­plains," fol­lowed by long quo­ta­tions that some­times go on for a page. (He also adores his own prose, as when he writes, "As I wrote in Liberty and Tyr­an­ny," then quotes him­self for near­ly half a page.) That's one way to pad a book.

Most of the char­ac­ter­is­tics Lev­in at­trib­utes to uto­pi­an­ism amount to ideo­log­i­cal­ly driv­en add-ons—uto­pi­an­ism need not in­clude any of the anti-in­di­vid­ual­ist at­ti­tudes Lev­in as­cribes to it. But that is just the most gen­er­al of Lev­in's prob­lems.

In ex­pli­cat­ing Pla­to, Lev­in op­er­ates as if he's Sir Karl Pop­per's cam­paign man­ag­er, run­ning against an an­cient guy in a toga. Lev­in men­tions ev­ery line that sup­ports Pla­to as pro-tyr­an­ny and ex­cludes ev­ery one that doesn't. While Pop­per cer­tain­ly had some sharp ob­ser­va­tions a­bout Pla­to, Lev­in's de­pic­tion of the au­thor of many di­a­logues be­sides the Re­pub­lic as a con­sum­mate hat­er of in­di­vid­uals is just dis­tor­tion. (One won­ders, too, what Pop­per would have made of Lev­in's claim that "it's not dif­fi­cult to find the germs" of "Islamicism" in the Re­pub­lic.)

In like in­com­pe­tent fash­ion, Lev­in ap­pears obliv­i­ous to More's iro­ny in U­top­ia, a tone that has long been fa­mil­iar to schol­ars. In­stead, we get un­gram­mat­i­cal in­sights like this: "What­ev­er his in­tend­ed ap­proach, More ob­vi­ous­ly meant for his work to have mean­ing, which it has [sic] for cen­tu­ries." Lev­in's as­ser­tion that uto­pi­an­ism seeks to "de­fine sub­ju­ga­tion as the most tran­scend­ent state of man" makes no sense as a de­scrip­tion of the state­less so­ci­ety Marx thought com­mu­nism would pro­duce.

Lev­in la­ments the de­mise of "in­di­vid­ual sov­er­eign­ty," but in po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, "sov­er­eign­ty" makes lit­tle sense ex­cept met­a­phor­i­cal­ly, as a con­cept ap­plied to the in­di­vid­ual. He at­trib­utes ab­surd po­si­tions to all "uto­pi­ans," such as that they think "it's bet­ter that all be poor than some be wealthy." Wood­row Wil­son, FDR, and Barack Oba­ma are all ac­cused of "men­dac­ity." At such dem­a­gog­ic mo­ments, Lev­in sounds more like a du­plic­i­tous robocaller than an au­thor. 

 He's just as bad on con­sti­tu­tion­al his­tory. The Constitution, he writes, "nei­ther pre­served nor pro­mot­ed slav­ery." Well, let's see. Slav­ery op­er­at­ed le­gal­ly be­fore the Constitution. It re­mained op­er­a­tion­al and le­gal af­ter the Constitution. Your con­clu­sion? Also deep­ly un­con­vinc­ing is Lev­in's claim that "had there been no Constitution there would have been no Unit­ed States." A mere in­con­ven­ience, those 12 years be­tween the found­ing of the Unit­ed States and the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Constitution.

Then there's Lev­in's trust­wor­thi­ness a­bout our con­tem­po­rary po­lit­i­cal scene. We "sel­dom ques­tion to­day," he writes, "wheth­er it is ap­pro­pri­ate for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to un­der­take a giv­en task, no mat­ter how in­sig­nifi­cant or min­ute." You want to text the au­thor: "Mark Lev­in—call your Tea Party!" In oth­er pas­sages, he's in step with the move­ment. "Universal health care," he writes, is a practice in which "ev­ery­one plun­ders ev­ery­one." It's a won­der he doesn't call it "Hobbes­care."

Sty­lis­ti­cal­ly, Lev­in dis­plays many marks of the bad­ly edu­cat­ed writ­er, such as mis­use of the word "com­prise," re­pet­i­tive quotes, and un­fa­mil­iar­i­ty with the "that/which" dis­tinc­tion. He's just as care­ful and ac­cu­rate when mo­tor-mouth­ing on the air. When Fox Business News an­chor Neil Cavuto asked him if Oba­ma was a so­cial­ist, Lev­in re­plied that the pres­i­dent is "a Marx­ist." Only a be­night­ed, philo­soph­i­cal­ly il­lit­er­ate ideo­logue could hang the sign of "uto­pi­an" on Oba­ma, whose prag­ma­tist bent, ex­hib­it­ed in end­less com­pro­mise and re­ad­just­ment of hoped-for goals, makes the judg­ment lu­di­crous.

Lev­in as­sures us ear­ly on that he has sort­ed through "an im­mense vol­ume of writ­ings" to bring us his wis­dom of the ages. Per­haps. Ameritopia, none­the­less, is fish in a bar­rel, with its cov­er an in­vi­ta­tion for book crit­ics to load and fire. Most of them, the dearth of re­views sug­gests, po­lite­ly de­clined. But it's a great coun­try, all that uto­pi­an mis­ery aside! You cer­tain­ly don't have to be on the lev­el of Pla­to, Hobbes, or Marx to sell mil­lions of books as a po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­pher.

Car­lin Ro­ma­no, crit­ic-at-large at The Chronicle and a pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy and hu­man­ities at Ursinus College, is the au­thor of America the Philo­soph­i­cal, forth­com­ing from Al­fred A. Knopf in May.