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A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government Paperback – February 12, 2002
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Nothing may be more American than distrust of government, but Garry Wills says there is something deeply wrong with this tradition. "It is a tradition that belittles America," he writes, "that asks us to love our country by hating our government, that turns our founding fathers into unfounders, that glamorizes frontier settlers in order to demean what they settled, that obliges us to despise the very people we vote for." Although A Necessary Evil is full of historical references, it is plainly motivated by contemporary politics: "I began this book in 1994, when the fear of government manifested itself in the off-year election of a Republican majority to Congress." Wills writes at length about matters such as the republic's founding, the 19th-century debate over states' rights, and so on. Yet the most passionate and engaging sections focus on antigovernment attitudes today, as embodied by the term-limits movement (the founders, he says, never were opposed to professional politicians), the National Rifle Association (whose defense of gun-ownership rights, Wills believes, is ahistorical), and abortion-clinic bombings (which Wills unpersuasively blames on Ronald Reagan). In his conclusion, Wills argues that government is in fact "a necessary good." It may do things poorly from time to time, and it may even do great harm. "But," to draw a parallel, "when marriages fail, we do not think it is because marriage is an evil in itself." A Necessary Evil is an erudite treatment of an important subject. --John J. Miller --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
In a masterful extended essay, Wills, an accomplished analyst of the American political psyche (and winner of a 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg), explores, in all its guises, the great American distrust of government. Antigovernment sentiment is owned by neither the left nor the right, Wills explains: in the 1960s, for example, radicals adopted anti-government values, and Southern conservatives, though steeped in the tradition of states' rights, switched gears to affirm the authority of the federal government to wiretap, arrest and otherwise harass the radicals. The debate over the proper size and reach of the federal government is a moving target, but Wills hits it bulls-eye in chapter after chapter, whether he's debunking the mythology that has grown up around the militias that fought in the Revolutionary War (he argues that the Continental Army played a much more vital role) or clarifying the principles that undergird the separation of powers. He conceived of this book in reaction to the 1994 congressional election, feeling that the Republican Party's Contract With America embodied not a healthy wariness of power but a calcified, and dangerous, antigovernmentalism. Americans, Wills argues, need to stop "demanding from government qualities that should be sought, primarily, in other aspects of our social life." He asks readers to value the federal government for the things it can provide, from the quotidian (the highway system) to the majestic (equal protection under the law). Ultimately, his book is an eloquent plea for the maturity that would enable Americans, after more than 200 years, to view government as "a necessary good." (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
People who want to change the Constitution have the right in this country to voice their opinions. People who claim to support the Constitution, but then claim our current government is not following it need to read this book.
The most controversial (according to the Amazon gun nut crowd) sections of the book illustrated the actual history of guns and vigilantes from our history, rather than the "lone gunman setting things right" delusion every American gun owner imagines. Having grown up in Dodge City, KS and having spent a good bit of my early teens reading the news from my hometown's papers, that was pretty refreshing insight. Like today's loonies with guns, the most common gunfight stories I remember were when a few drunks pulled their poorly maintained weapons and started firing, mostly randomly, in the general vicinity of each other, usually injuring someone completely unconnected with the argument. The first step in bringing some kind of order to western towns was always disarmament. And some of my favorite stores were of how law enforcement pulled off that tactic.
The constitutional analysis was interesting, complicated, and tough bedtime reading. As a lifelong Hamilton-hater, I came away even more disgusted with that man's "contribution" to a flawed document and the disasters that followed, especially the Civil War.
Nonetheless, a four star review may be a bit strong for this work. I primarily rate it this way rather than the three to three-and-a-half stars that it merits to counterbalance some of the underservedly harsh reviews that have been previously issued.
Although this claims to be a history, this book is actually around 40% history, 40% political science and 20% opinion piece. Where this book deviates from its theme and gets into borderline ranting (even if I may agree with what is being stated), are where the book is mostly flawed. In addition, Willis is a little too dismissive of other points of view; for example, I've read a couple of Akhil Amar's works and - while I don't agree with all of Amar's points - I do feel he presents a strong argument.
Nonetheless, this book is an effective way to disprove some of the anti-government myths which are used as ideological foundations for many organizations on both ends of the political spectrum.