Preaching what we practice

Great Michael Barone piece today in The Washington Examiner about the “two-tier pattern of family structure” that emerged in the 70s & 80s and continues to prevail today.  (Based on Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s just-published Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.)

Starting in the late 1960s, rates of divorce, unmarried births and single parenthood rose sharply among all segments of society. About a decade later they fell and leveled off among the college-educated, who almost entirely raise their kids in Ozzie-and-Harriet style families today (except that mom usually works outside the home).

Among the bottom third of Americans in education and income, however, the negative trend accelerated…

They’re careful to concede that single parents have a hard job and that some do well at it. But the data says those are the exception rather than the rule. On average and by a wide margin, children raised in such households do worse in school, have more trouble with the law and make less money and gain less satisfaction in life than those from the stable families of the upper third…

The nation as a whole has to do something to help them. But what?

Send them money is one answer. But as the Manhattan Institute’s Scott WInship points out, low-level wages and incomes, taking into account proper inflation measures and fringe benefits, have not fallen over the last 40 years. Food and clothing has become less expensive (thanks, Wal-Mart) and most households classified as poor have smartphones, microwaves and big-screen TVs that did not exist in the 1960s

Putnam’s faith that child care centers and mandatory pre-school can make a difference haven’t been supported by research, except for two experiments more than 40 years ago whose results haven’t been replicated.

Putnam doubts the chances of “a reversal of long-established trends in private norms,” though they’re common in history: The gin-soaked mobs of 18th-century London became the orderly Victorian masses. Like most high-education Americans, he doesn’t want to denounce people for breaking old moral rules even when that hurts their kids.

The libertarian Murray doubts that government can do much. But he thinks that high-education elites, with their strong family structures, can. They need to “preach what they practice.” Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle, agreeing, nominates Hollywood for a lead role. Midcentury America’s universal media — radio, movies, television — celebrated the old rules.

There are signs this is happening. Teenage birth and violent crime rates have been falling. Younger millennials may be learning delayed gratification and self-restraint. Maybe, as they grow older, divorce and single parenthood will become less common too. Few kids in broken homes will read Our Kids or Coming Apart. But they already know the story.

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High standards but low expectations

Nice little summary from Yuval Levin of the small-c conservative political philosophy, with a little libertarianism thrown in.

Conservatism inherently points in this direction for reasons that are anthropological, sociological, and epistemological (if you’ll pardon my street slang). We conservatives tend to see the human person as an incorrigible mass of contradictions: a fallen and imperfect being created in a divine image, a creature possessed of fundamental dignity and inalienable rights but always prone to excess and to sin and ever in need of self-restraint and moral formation. This gives us high standards but low expectations of human affairs and makes us wary of utopianisms of all stripes. It also causes us to be more impressed with successful human institutions than we are outraged at failed ones, and so to be protective of our inheritance and eager to build on the longstanding institutions of our society (rather than engineer new ones) to improve things because they are likely to possess more knowledge than we can readily perceive — and more than any collection of technical experts, however capable, is ever likely to have.

This anthropology informs our sociology. The conservative vision of society is moved by a low opinion of the capacity of individuals to address complex problems even as it is informed by a high regard for the rights and freedoms of those individuals. It therefore seeks for social arrangements and institutions that counterbalance human failures and encourage individual moral progress while respecting human liberty and dignity. And it finds these in the mediating institutions of a free society — families, communities, civic and religious groups, markets, and more — that stand between the individual and the state.

And this regard for mediating institutions is reinforced by our sense of the limits of human knowledge and power. Because we think the human person is a fine mess, and because we think societies and their members flourish through the mediating institutions, we are very skeptical of claims to rational control and technocratic management. We think large social problems are too complicated to be amenable to centralized technical solutions and instead require decentralized, bottom-up, local, social solutions. Societies evolve and improve and solve practical problems not by jerks of authority from above but by diffuse, decentralized trial and error from below. Allowing society’s institutions and members the freedom for such efforts is more likely to make society smarter than allowing technical experts to manage large systems.

Libertarians frequently share that latter view, and at times also share the two former ones, while progressives generally stand opposed to all three in practice and (to the limited extent they now articulate their views of things) in theory or principle. This has a lot to do with why conservatives and libertarians often agree, and it also helps explain some of the instances in which they don’t.

I think our agreement about the power and importance of decentralization is particularly significant now, because American society is changing in ways that make our approach to addressing society’s problems especially important. America in the decades after World War II—nostalgia for which now utterly saturates our politics—was populated by two generations of citizens (those who grew up in the Depression and the war and their children, the baby boomers) peculiarly formed to have great trust in big institutions, and it was dominated by just such institutions: big government, big business, big labor, big media, big universities, mass culture. But in every area of our national life—or at least every area except government—we are witnessing the replacement of such large, centralized institutions by smaller, decentralized networks.

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You won’t get fired for pissing off a Republican

You won’t get fired for pissing off a Republican.”  Charles C.W. Cooke quotes an anonymous professor from Purdue worried about modern McCarthyism, which “has jumped from Salem’s lips to Purdue’s ears directly — and Ted Cruz has been nowhere to be seen.”

All is fair in love, war, and politics, and as illiterate as the comparisons to McCarthy may be, I suppose I would almost be disappointed if someone, somewhere, did not choose to advance them. But for the more serious-minded among us, it is truly peculiar to see the specter of McCarthy dragged into quotidian party politics when it is so desperately needed elsewhere. Certainly, Cruz’s style can rub the wrong way. Certainly, his debate-champion mien is occasionally inappropriately deployed. But the truth is that if Arthur Miller were writing The Crucible today he would likely be less interested in effusive senators from Texas and more interested in the more modern pathologies that the Cruzes of the world tend typically to disdain. Presumably, Miller would look at our universities and our media, at our malleable “speech codes,” our self-indulgent “safe spaces,” our preference for “narrative” over truth, and at our pathetic appeasement of what is little more than good old-fashioned illiberalism, and he would despair. Ted Cruz, frankly, wouldn’t enter into his thinking.

At its root, The Crucible is such a terrifying and illuminating piece of work not because it involves witches and because witches do not exist, but because it depicts the gradual victory of delirium over reason and of passion over truth. In the heat of a hysterical moment, a putatively civilized community elects to abandon the vital traditions that have been slowly built up over centuries and to hand over its institutions to the transient anxieties of an unruly and jealous mob. “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned,” warned Increase Mather, a critic of the trials. “Not on your life,” replied the crowd; for we have some evils to spike. Free expression? Damn you to hell. Presumption of innocence? Hie thee to a monastery. All that we have held dear? Abandon it now, for there are monsters at the gate, and they need to be destroyed post haste. There is a McCarthyite panic in America, alright, and it is scouring the land at a frightening pace. But the virus has jumped from Salem’s lips to Purdue’s ears directly — and Ted Cruz has been nowhere to be seen.

Here’s a longer quote from the professor:

Personally, liberal students scare the [heck] out of me. I know how to get conservative students to question their beliefs and confront awful truths, and I know that, should one of these conservative students make a Facebook page calling me a communist or else seek to formally protest my liberal lies, the university would have my back. I would not get fired for pissing off a Republican, so long as I did so respectfully, and so long as it happened in the course of legitimate classroom instruction.

The same cannot be said of liberal students. All it takes is one slip—not even an outright challenging of their beliefs, but even momentarily exposing them to any uncomfortable thought or imagery—and that’s it, your classroom is triggering, you are insensitive, kids are bringing mattresses to your office hours and there’s a twitter petition out demanding you chop off your hand in repentance . . .

UPDATE:  David French writes that the PC Police aren’t fragile, they’re vengeful and malicious.

We are at the cusp of a rare moment in modern American cultural debate — a moment when reasonable, thoughtful members of the Left and Right agree. Political correctness is spiraling out of control. Last week I shared an essay by a former radical describing her own migration out of the movement, but her essay is hardly the only evidence of the Left breaking with the worst of the P.C. police. The floodgates have opened. The SDS’s own Todd Gitlin has attacked “trigger warnings,” calling them “outgrowths of fragility.” Writing at The Nation, Michelle Goldberg condemns the furious on-campus response to Laura Kipnis, a liberal professor who dared challenge what she called “sexual paranoia” on campus. Here’s Goldberg:

Yet the reaction to Kipnis—the demands for official censure, the claims of emotional injury—demonstrated how correct she is about the broader climate. “The new codes sweeping American campuses aren’t just a striking abridgment of everyone’s freedom, they’re also intellectually embarrassing,” she wrote. “Sexual paranoia reigns; students are trauma cases waiting to happen.”

This atmosphere is intellectually stifling. “Every professor’s affected by the current climate, unless they’re oblivious,” Kipnis told me via e-mail. “I got many dozens of emails from professors (and administrators and deans and one ex college president) describing how fearful they are of speaking honestly or dissenting on any of these issues. Someone on my campus—tenured—wrote me about literally lying awake at night worrying about causing trauma to a student, becoming a national story, losing her job, and not being able to support her kid. It seemed completely probable to her that a triggered student could take down a tenured professor with a snowball of social media.”

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Nominate a first-term Senator?

Allahpundit wonders why the GOP would nominate a rookie Senator (Cruz, Rubio, or Paul) as the Dems did in ’08:

Obama’s inexperience wasn’t so much an inexperience problem as it was an Obama problem. Ask yourself this: Would he have been a better president with a full term in the Senate under his belt? More than one term? (Hillary had one and a third.) If Obama had spent four years as governor of Illinois, would he have been a considerably better commander-in-chief? The “inexperience” argument is ultimately one about ineffectiveness — the guy never took the time to learn the ropes, which is why he often seemed not to know what he was doing when he was put in charge. But on the stuff that matters most to conservatives, Obama did “know what he was doing.” He got the stimulus passed and then, with a major, major assist from old pro Nancy Pelosi, he got ObamaCare passed. The parts of Hopenchange that most aggrieve the right were the parts where Obama was effective; the “ineffectiveness” argument is more natural to the left, which whines endlessly about all the goodies they wanted from Hopenchange — cap and trade! amnesty! a public option! — that haven’t been delivered. “If only he’d spent more time on the Hill building relationships,” they say, “maybe he’d have been able to forge grand bargains.” Could be, but that’s certainly not a lament you will, or should, hear on the right. Also, his lack of executive experience hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the most aggressive presidents in modern American history when it comes to executive action. If he had spent four years as a governor, would he have stopped short of rewriting America’s immigration laws last November? I don’t see why. Would he have taken a tougher line with Iran or a less tough line with Qaddafi? Again, I don’t see why. From a conservative perspective, the awfulness of Obama’s presidency arguably shows that you don’t need experience to reorient the country towards your vision of government. …

If [an inexperienced conservative] ends up getting elected president, he’ll have such a mandate from the country to move government right that even centrist Democrats in the Senate who dislike him will be terrified into compromising with him. If you want to see some major shifts towards conservatism, the best thing you can do is nominate a guy with long coattails, who can bring Republicans into the Senate with him and approach the sort of filibuster-proof majority that Obama used to pass the stimulus and ObamaCare.  When you’re as popular as O was in 2008, you don’t need experience to turn your biggest priorities into law.

Imao Rubio is the only one of the three with a (small) chance, and I’d still prefer he wait.  Cruz is too hot for the room and Paul too something for the room.  Let’s go with a reform governor this cycle, eh?  Walker-Martinez, 2016!

Jim Geraghty adds

All really good points. But Obama’s lack of experience in Washington did ensure he didn’t feel all that attached to anyone or anything that was there before him.

Remember the contrast between the way Biden negotiates and Obama does? Biden, the longtime Capitol Hill veteran, takes his three top priorities, your top three priorities, a similar number of concessions for each side, a couple of deal-sweeteners and mashes them together into a giant, messy, sometimes contradictory compromise agreement. By comparison, Chuck Todd describes the Obama approach as, “immediately identify the common ground as a means of showing the other person that they were on the same side, and that therefore that person’s prejudices and preconceptions should be abandoned.” Unsurprisingly, that sounds a lot like insufferable lecturing to the other party.

Pre-Obama Washington wasn’t perfect. Pre-Obama Democrats had plenty of flaws. But it was rare to see pre-Obama Democrats, say, boycott an address from the Israeli prime minister. They didn’t attempt to withhold FEMA funds from governors that didn’t toe the line on the administration’s climate-change rhetoric. They didn’t endorse a secret deal with Iran with no congressional approval or public review. They didn’t put up barricades around open-air monuments during government shutdowns.

Obama’s brought a lot of personal pique and pettiness to Washington politics. Sure, we may roll our eyes at the excessive formalities and phony manners of Capitol Hill — “my good friend, the distinguished gentleman” – but it beats “I won” as a nose-thumbing debate-settler, or calling your opponents “tea-baggers.”

Obama-era Washington is a nasty pit of vipers, as an administration that’s gotten thoroughly clobbered at the ballot box in congressional elections attempts to wall off Congress from any significant role in American governance at home and abroad. You may or may not need experience in Washington to appreciate the Constitution, checks and balances, and the rule of law. That’s what the next Republican president needs to restore, whether he’s a longtime veteran of Washington or an absolute newcomer.

 

 

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How MI&WI became open shop stats

Interesting piece of history, courtesy of Paul Moreno in today’s WSJ, in which he writes that the AFL-CIO’s failure to get Taft-Hartley repealed in the 1960s was a turning point for organized labor.

Last week Wisconsin became the 25th right-to-work state. Under the bill signed into law by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, workers cannot be forced to join a union or pay dues as a condition of keeping their jobs.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Great Society, the wave of liberal legislation enacted by the 89th Congress under the legendary browbeating of PresidentLyndon B. Johnson. There is no small irony here, because organized labor, the most powerful interest group in the mid-20th century Democratic Party—was the wallflower at the Great Society party. Unions hoped to make it impossible for states to adopt right-to-work laws yet failed. Unions were simply left behind amid other liberal priorities, and their failure helped put unions on the defensive—where they still are, at least in the private economy…

Private unions were further weakened by post-Great Society liberalism. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was interpreted in a way that undermined union seniority rights that acted in a discriminatory manner. Environmental and safety legislation pounded American manufacturers and reduced employment. The Immigration Act of 1965 began a wave of immigration that made the American labor market more competitive. The most powerful growth in organized labor was in the public sector, where unionization was legalized in the 1960s. The AFL and CIO became overshadowed by a host of new liberal interest groups.

And that is how what in 1965 would have been considered unimaginable—that Michigan and Wisconsin could be open-shop states—came about.

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“Tornado-bait government-cheese pandemonium”

The author makes a great case why, on average, “the old-fashioned Romney-style square and sober organization of family life—upon which the Left has been waging all-out war for 50 years—is a necessary if not sufficient condition of stability and advancement for a great many people.

Even so, the example of his own life demonstrates that it is possible to succeed when dealt a poor(er) hand.

But if we’re talking about the ideal to be held up, those of us fortunate enough to come from (and build) such homes ought not to shy away from “preaching what we practice,” yet always with gentleness and reverence.

From Kevin D. Williamson’s Speaker for the Poor:

David Brooks of the New York Times says that poor people need to learn to behave themselves, and Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig of What Remains of the New Republic is having none of it. “If the problems plaguing poor communities persist after poverty is drastically reduced,” she writes, “that would seem an appropriate time to pursue the matter of a better ‘moral vocabulary,’ as Brooks calls it.”

I trust that everybody else sees the most obvious problem with that line of argument, too, i.e. that we have experienced a drastic reduction in poverty and that the pathologies of the poor persist.

In 1940, the median man’s income was $956, or about $9,270 in 2015 dollars, well short of today’s poverty level for a single person, and that median man’s income in 1940 was usually supporting a family. By extension, the median family of the time was deep in poverty by modern standards—poverty was the general condition. That is no longer the case. By any meaningful measure, we already have seen poverty “drastically reduced,” and not only does the social dysfunction that worries Brooks endure, it grows worse in many ways. Americans, including the poor, are in material terms radically better off than they were in 1950, 1960, or 1970. In 1950, the typical household had to spend about a third of its income on groceries; today, that number is about 6 percent.

We could talk about the numbers all day, but there is something about this piece that irritates me personally: Who in hell elected Elizabeth Bruenig of Arlington, Brandeis, Brown, Cambridge, etc., a privately educated suburban girl raised by highly educated, married, churchgoing parents, whose life’s lamentations include that she wasn’t asked to the prom, Speaker for the Poor?

The irony here is rich: Bruenig complains that Brooks and others who worry about the habits of the poor are simply engaged in micturition from a great height: “It’s the norms of upper-class America that Brooks would impose upon the lower class.” That’s not quite it, of course—part of the point is that the poor cannot afford such indulgences; Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown and all that—but you see where she’s going: “Who, exactly, is asking these questions and holding people responsible?” she writes.

Who is David Brooks to ask these questions?

Who is Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig to ask?

One of the problems with growing up with the sorts of advantages typical of the class of Americans who make policy and write commentary (“Brandeis was the only school I interviewed or toured at”) is that they become blind to the norms and habits undergirding them, for roughly the same reason that no fish knows what water is. Thus Bruenig scoffs at “paranoia about poor people nursing addictions and indulging themselves before spending money on necessities,” which is more or less exactly how I remember things going down in my own little corner of tornado-bait government-cheese pandemonium. “Ashamed of the incarceration of relatives”? After springing him, my mother made him lie down in the back seat so that the neighbors wouldn’t know he was back. Ashamed, maybe—but not ashamed enough.

Nobody wants to admit that the poor are as likely to be screw-ups as victims, and that the old-fashioned Romney-style square and sober organization of family life—upon which the Left has been waging all-out war for 50 years—is a necessary if not sufficient condition of stability and advancement for a great many people. So you end up with that strange situation in which you have activists on the left who have been raised in such thoroughly conservative circumstances that they either fail to understand them at all or come to hold them in contempt: Talk like Eldridge Cleaver, live like Ward and June Cleaver.

As a social posture, that sort of thing can be effective: Consider, for example, career of Bruce Springsteen, whose workingman shtick was trenchantly described by one critic as a “white minstrel show.” All the romance of poverty with none of the smell. But the condescending well-off suburbanites who, having read a couple of magazine articles on the subject confirming their preexisting biases, are here to explain to us that the poor “don’t seem to lack a moral compass”—golly!—turn out to be every bit as helpful as condescending white liberals such as Harry Reid who presume to speak on behalf of minority groups to which they do not belong and of which they have only the shallowest of experience.

Jason Riley explored that with Please Stop Helping UsHow Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed. I get the feeling that black poverty and urban poverty are different from white poverty and rural-and-small-town poverty. (One obvious difference: Poor, white Appalachia has about half the violent crime rate of the United States at large, even though Eastern Kentucky and the South Bronx have a lot in common.) The David Brooks school of thought has its limitations, to be sure, occasionally devolving into “Why don’t these poor people keep it in their pants and go to law school?” But to discount the role that family and marital dysfunction—and the violence and chaos that ensue—plays in American poverty serves no one well, except perhaps those well-off suburban progressives who don’t want to feel all icky and judgmental about all those lives that are so very messy and so very much in need of judgment.

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Book review: Rise to Greatness

The Epic of Canada
Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present, by Conrad Black (McClelland & Stewart, 1,120 pp., $50)

[This review by Andrew Roberts appears in the March 9, 2015 issue of National Review.]

book_nrd_030915_robertsAll too often Americans have taken Canada for granted — “Our Giant Neighbor to the North” has been voted the magazine headline most likely to make them turn the page — while Britons sometimes also dismiss Canadians as “our colonial cousins” with barely any more respect.

Now here comes a book that proves that, for centuries, Canada has been subtly playing the Americans and the British off against each other, and in doing so has created one of the best countries in the world in which to live. It hasn’t been its sheer size that has saved Canada from the domination of its neighbor or of what it used to call its “Mother Country” (Britain), or even of France, but instead centuries of immensely impressive statesmanship.

“In order even to be conceived,” argues the author, Conrad Black, “Canada had to be, first, French so as not to be easily assimilated by the American colonists and revolutionaries, and then British, to have a protector to avoid being subsumed later into the great American project.” After that, it needed to wrest autonomy from Britain while continuing to be protected from the United States, which it managed by 1867, yet all the while “it had to be resistant, but not offensive, to the inexorably rising power of America.”

An enormous, underpopulated, and thus militarily weak country, Canada needed great diplomacy, especially as one-third of its people were ethnically French and thus culturally alienated from the British Crown. “It has been a protracted and intricate, unheroic, but often almost artistic survival process,” says Black. “Canada was never threatened with a tragic or pitiable fate but has faced a constant threat to its will to nationality for more than two centuries.”

Black, a Canadian citizen who has been a businessman in America and is a British peer of the realm, argues that Canada might well have suffered a tragic fate if she had lost the War of 1812, or if the British had made the cardinal error of entering the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, after which nothing could have saved Canada from being captured by the victorious, million-man veteran Union army.

Black covers the outbreak of the first of these conflicts with admirable fair-mindedness. “The War of 1812 was a response by the Americans to Britain’s high-handed exercise of her control over the world’s oceans,” he writes. “The unsubtle British and Canadian assistance to [the Indian chief] Tecumseh and his coalition in 1811 had naturally rankled with the Americans, and there were incidences of Indian raids from Canada into the United States that the Americans could hardly have been expected to tolerate in silence.”

It was in response to the Union victory in 1865 that, two years later, Canada formed itself into the world’s first transcontinental, bilingual parliamentary confederation.

Starting this history as far back as the Vikings is a slight conceit — over 700 years are covered in 16 pages — and the book really begins with Samuel de Champlain’s extraordinary voyages of exploration and conquest in the early 17th century, but Black is robustly politically incorrect when dealing with the issue of the native Canadians in the late 15th century.

When the Europeans came to settle Canada, he states, there were probably about 200,000 native Indians living there, mostly nomadic. Their tribes tortured one another, including women, in endless wars that make pre-European Canada sound like a Hobbesian nightmare. “It was an interesting sociological divertissement for arriving Europeans,” Black writes, “but not an attractive life, and problems were compounded by an Indian tendency to define a treaty or pledge in temporary and flexible terms, subject to change according to circumstances. This was a legitimate cultural difference, but it led to great animosity, as the Europeans accused the natives of treachery and were accused in return of hypocritical sanctimony. Both charges were often accurate.”

Black had best prepare himself for a howl of outrage from the (admittedly now discredited) school of history that sees white settlers as the Original Sinners who destroyed the Eden-like idyll of the native peoples.

An attractive feature of Black’s writing — and although this book is long, it bowls the reader along like an adventure story — is his ability to sum up the essence of major historical figures in a sentence or two. Thus Andrew Jackson was “a drummer boy in the Revolutionary War and veteran of successful operations against the southern Indians. He was a violent man who had survived much personal combat and many duels, and he was a fierce and Anglophobic nationalist.”

This talent for summation particularly comes in useful for some of the more obscure 19th-century Canadian politicians. This book never bores. Canada was almost half French at the start of the American Revolution, but even by then the English had the whip hand there. French Canadians still refer to General James Wolfe’s seizure of Canada during the Seven Years’ War as “the Conquest,” and it is clear that Black finds tiresome “the fickle mood swings of Quebec” in the modern era. He writes of the way the Quebecois’ “non-French compatriots discreetly pick up the bill while the official Quebec apparat gambols in the trappings of subsidized nationhood.” That said, he rightly lauds the “genius” of Canadian politicians over the centuries who have managed to keep a lid on the Quebec issue and prevented it from tearing the country in two.

For 150 years,” Black writes, “Canada’s lot was the honorable but unglamorous one of tugging at the trouser leg of the British and Americans and even, in its most unpromising circumstances, of the French, trying to navigate between the ambitions and aversions of those countries, aligning now with one and now another, but almost never against any of them, while avoiding the extreme inflammation of Quebec nationalism.” When the achievement is phrased in this way, the word “genius” is clearly valid.

As one might expect from the best biographer of Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and the Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis, the 20th century looms large in Black’s narrative. In the Great War, the Canadian Expeditionary Force numbered 425,000 men in Europe and won the important battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. In World War II, this nation of only 11.5 million saw over 1 million people volunteer for active service, an astonishing proportion of the population. It also produced $4 billion for the U.K. in Lend-Lease and ended the war with the world’s fourth largest navy. In the immediate aftermath of the retreat from Dunkirk in 1940, two Canadian divisions were the only thing standing between the British beaches in southern England — where the Germans were hoping to invade — and London.

Although Black calls Canada’s diplomacy “unheroic,” he makes it clear that its war record was anything but. In a chapter titled “King and the Art of Cunning Caution,” Black tells the story of William Lyon Mackenzie King, for 29 years leader of the Liberal party and Canada’s prime minister during World War II. A spiritualist, King communicated with ghosts in a room adjacent to the one in which he received Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, King George VI, and Presidents Truman and Roosevelt. He also got on well with Charles de Gaulle even though (or perhaps because) neither spoke the other’s language.

Black goes into the whole story of Canada’s wars — two of the most important Allied conferences were held in Quebec in 1943 and 1944 — with the élan of a writer at the top of his game, covering his subject with a staggering degree of erudition while not expecting too much knowledge from his non-Canadian readership. The narrative positively sparkles with ironic witticisms and aperçus that make this book as much a work of literature as of history. Describing Canadian statesmanship as displaying “half feline precision, half the plucky earnestness of the eagle scout,” Black argues that the present decade of American retreat provides Canada with a unique opportunity to shine. “Canada’s hour, not of celebrity, much less of dominance, but of confidence and world significance, has struck,” he argues persuasively, “whether Canadians . . . yet hear the peal of the summons or not.” If, after this splendid book, they don’t, the fault certainly can’t be laid at the door of Conrad Black.

– Mr. Roberts is the author, most recently, of Napoleon: A Life.

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