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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A stirring, if flawed, manifesto, February 26, 2008
This review is from: Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America's Ideals (And Why They Deserve to Fail If They Don't) (Hardcover)
Since becoming a columnist for The Washington Post, Michael Gerson (former chief speechwriter for George W. Bush) has become one of the most piquant pundits in the commentariat. This book reiterates much of the substance of those columns, and is thus somewhat disappointing, as it reveals Gerson to be more a talented journalist than a sustained thinker. Nonetheless, Heroic Conservatism deserves serious attention for its efforts to outline a politics based radically on upholding human dignity.

As Gerson notes, this idea is grounded in both American notions of natural rights and Roman Catholic social teaching, with its tandem emphases on subsidiarity (which favors a decentralized polity in which government does only what civil society cannot) and solidarity (which recognizes the responsibilities that all citizens have for one another, but especially for the most vulnerable; it therefore urges a "preferential option for the poor."). Such a notion overcomes the unnatural bifurcation in American politics between a right that attends almost wholly to limiting government and therefore denies its ability to ameliorate human suffering effectively and a left that has been at the forefront of movements for social justice but is often suspicious of, or impatient with, the efforts of non-governmental institutions like traditional religion, the family, and states and localities. Gerson's call for a political vision that recognizes the legitimate role of the state in providing for the common good while respecting the value of "little platoons" in fostering social and cultural renewal will appeal to those like him who wish to be "pro-life and pro-poor...[who] have often felt homeless in the traditional camps of American politics." This hopeful exercise of the moral imagination now requires a more sustained grounding in philosophy and theology to be a convincing countermanifesto to those of the libertarians and paleo-conservatives whom he rightly chides.

Indeed, Gerson's own question--"in what sense is this approach of mine conservative?"--requires further interrogation. Gerson suggests that because his case for the existence and centrality of human dignity depends on a belief in objective truth and value, it is more likely to achieve a hearing among traditionists than among the postmodern left. That may be true enough in the immediate context, but it is not necessarily so. In "Looking Back on the Spanish War," for instance, democractic socialist George Orwell anticipated Gerson's case that without a belief in objective truth and value, the will-to-power is doomed to triumph. Those animated by Gerson's reflections should think more in terms of creating a politics that transcends the liberal-conservative dichotomy rather than attempting to work within it, even to convert a segment of it. His own heroes--such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Paul II--were transformative leaders precisely because they challenged the popular conventions of their day with larger, more consistent worldviews grounded in everlasting ideals.

Gerson is also so animated by belief in "eternal realities," and his insertion of the permanent things into transient political discourse is welcome. If he, or another thinker, could now work out the details of a politics "elevated by a radical concern for human rights and human dignity" to complement the imaginative architecture offered here and in his columns, the result would be embraced eagerly by those dissatified by the chronic deficiences of American politics. And the hard and unhurried work invested in such a project would be truly heroic.
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