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Culture Q&A

Amity Shlaes

Delving deeper into liberal failure

Author Amity Shlaes tells what the 2020s can learn from the 1960s

Cooper Neill/WireImage/Getty Images

Great Society by Amity Shlaes received an honorable mention for Accessible History in WORLD’s 2020 Books of the Year issue. We ran an interview with Shlaes in our June 27 issue, but here are some additional questions and answers we didn’t have room for.

What are the main lessons from Great Society for 2020?

First, listen to the locals. They know a lot. Let them build a great neighborhood themselves. There’s no limit to what a community can do for itself if left alone and not disturbed with wrong incentives or perverse incentives imposed from far away.

Lesson No. 2?

Property rights are essential. In the 1960s writer Garrett Hardin talked about the tragedy of the commons, by which he meant private people will take and take until the commons is bare and there’s no grass for anybody’s sheep. But the most common tragedy occurs when there’s no private property. That is, if you really own your sheep you want your sheep to be able to eat grass in the future, so you make a compact with the other shepherds and figure out how to handle the commons: when to be fallow, when to plant, and so on. But in housing projects, without any property rights, kids often ruin everything, including the precious community space. Because nobody owns it, nobody cares enough. Property rights help the economy grow and help us feel we’re going somewhere.

Did urban renewal respect property rights?

To build complexes such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, the government and the towns colluded and bulldozed whole parts of cities—the tenements, yes, but also shops owned by the people who lived in the tenements, shops that employed people who lived in the tenements, and churches they attended. It was a terrible thing, but it was also quasi-involuntarily moving people from one place to another. So, black families were displaced when brought to the United States as slaves, displaced voluntarily but roughly when they came north for jobs, and displaced when they moved from their tenements or even OK homes and were pushed into the projects. That’s a lot of displacement.

One landmark case in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education, was a crucial foundation for civil rights achievement in the 1960s. How did a less-celebrated landmark case from 1954, Berman v. Parker, influence attitudes that underlay the 1960s War on Poverty?

A little guy, Berman, had a variety store. The government came and said, We’re bulldozing this whole area because you’re blighted. Berman said, I’m not blighted. This is a going concern. The Supreme Court sided with the bulldozers. The government taught poor people that instead of aspiring to own property, they should aspire to get more benefits.

You have a hilarious chapter on the way Richard Nixon played leading economists of that era. Why did Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns care so much about getting presidential pats on the back?

Played is the right verb. A president anxious about an election decides to loosen money so people have easy credit before the election. Inflation might come, but that will be after the election. So we abolished the gold standard, our last vestige of fiscal responsibility. We increased tariffs. We said we don’t care much about inflation. Arthur Burns wanted to stay in the game, to be the Nixon ear whisperer, so he went along with anything Nixon thought of. The leading economists went along. We got purgatory, aka the 1970s, when people couldn’t afford the houses they deserved because they had worked hard, when we began to believe that America would run out of energy and everything else, and that our period of expansion was over.

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Parsing the politics of tyranny

Why conservatives and liberals repeatedly underestimate the revolutionaries

Illustration by Alexis Marcou

In one sense, Daniel Chirot learned about international politics as a baby: Born in Vichy France during World War II, he (with his family) evaded German roundups of Jews. Chirot made it to the United States when he was 6. This month he retires from his professorship at the University of Washington after 45 years of teaching and research. 

His books include Modern Tyrants, How Societies Change, and The Origins of Backwardness in Eastern Europe. Two have particularly scintillating titles—Why Not Kill Them All? The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder and (published in March 2020) You Say You Want a Revolution? Radical Idealism and Its Tragic Consequences, which is a runner-up for Book of the Year in our Understanding the World category. 

What did Lafayette in France, Madero in Mexico, Kerensky in Russia, and Bakhtiar in Iran have in common? They were liberals who initially led a revolution and were optimistic about its prospects. They underestimated the rage that strengthened the far left. They didn’t realize the ruthlessness of the extremists, who outmaneuvered and killed or exiled them.

So the Russian experience—liberal reformism, then idealistic but brutal Leninism, then an even more deadly Stalinism, then the slide into corruption and loss of fervor—tends to happen all over? Yes. The liberal first stage is very promising. Then the extremists take power and push solutions the populace doesn’t want. The extremists have the choice of either using greater force or else abandoning their ideals, so they create terrorist states. In Iran that’s still going on. Eventually the societies become more corrupt and everything falls apart, but that can take a very long time. 

How do regimes avoid revolution? They have to be willing to make some concessions. If they resist moderate reform, that leads to the tragedy.

France in the 18th century had big economic problems, including enormous debt. The aristocracy did not budge and “fake news” was everywhere: When people heard all kinds of rumors and believed them, the result was further collapse. Fake news wasn’t invented in the 21st century. France was not a backward country. It had the resources to overcome its problems, but the conservative aristocracy held on to its privileges. Later, in Russia, the czar and those around him rejected reforms. When the crisis came with the world war, their incompetence and their failure to enact reforms destroyed the entire system. The same thing happened with the Shah of Iran. Something similar happened in Nazi Germany, where conservatives afraid of any sort of leftist reform turned to an extreme figure to save them.

Why do both liberals and conservatives repeatedly underestimate the revolutionaries? We like to think that other people think like us. We hear some extremist voices and those who are more in the center say, “We’re all decent people, no one would really do anything like that”—but they’re wrong.

Many revolutions took anti-Christian turns. Was the American Revolution an exception because we didn’t have a powerful nationwide church? We had a political revolution, but no social revolution. The downside, which we’re all experiencing now once more, was that they did nothing about slavery. Partly because so many of the Founders were slave owners, but also because to do something about slavery would have meant the South wouldn’t have joined the Union, they sacrificed that, and the United States has been plagued by it ever since. In a way, you could look at the Civil War as Act 2 of the American Revolution, and it was very bloody.

The liberal first stage is very promising. Then the extremists take power and push solutions the populace doesn’t want.

Jefferson knew we were riding the tiger. Yes, and he knew he was a hypocrite. One reason he could never free his slaves wasn’t so much his personal ideology, but that he was a terrible spendthrift and always in debt.

Personalities are important. Lenin killed his enemies, Stalin murdered his enemies and also his friends, but Trotsky probably wouldn’t have been better. Yes. Probably not as paranoid, so he probably wouldn’t have killed as many millions. Personal paranoia does play a role: Mao became like that as well. Trotsky would have been a pragmatic mass killer. 

In China, Xi Jinping seems to want to repeat aspects of Maoism. China has become a classic fascist state, with very strong state control but no attempt to socialize the entire economy. It’s a militarily aggressive dictatorship that counts on nationalism and is persecuting—close to genocide—the Uighurs. Very dangerous for the world. 

The difference in methods between communism and fascism is not great. But the ambition of creating an egalitarian society is not the same. In a way fascism is more practical. If Mussolini had died in 1938 he would be remembered as a successful modernizer of Italy, but he got into wars that destroyed the country. The fascist regimes were militarily aggressive and alienated everyone around them.

Zipping around the world, does the recent history of the Arab Spring fit with the dismal history of revolution that makes things worse? Yes, and in most cases the Arab Spring was led by liberals who didn’t understand the power of extremist religion. You can see what happened in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood then came to power, the army overthrew it, and Egypt is back to an even more extreme form of Nasserism, which was really just corruption and dictatorial rule—with the exception that the Egyptian military is too smart to go to war with Israel again. The Arab Spring failed. The attempt in Syria led to a terrible civil war that Assad has won with Russian and Iranian help, but the country is ruined. 

The failure of revolution sometimes leads to ethnic tribalism, which seems to be resurging. Yes, and the persecution of minorities: Turkey, India now, and in China of course. It’s a way for political leaders to gain support: It doesn’t really matter who you pick on, as long as it’s an identifiable group that you can blame for all of your problems.

Some polls show socialism popular among our student population. When you explain to students that it’s no panacea, that these historical patterns are repeated, do you see any lightbulbs going on, or do the young tend to be ahistorical? Some are uninterested, but in the School of International Studies our majors are definitely interested. Many young Americans don’t know that during World War II the United States saved the world. People in Europe recognized that Americans saved them, but the United States no longer has the reputation of being willing to do that.

Is our period starting to look like the 1930s? I do make an analogy to the 1930s, when the world was spinning out of control. The Western democracies were wavering. France was deeply divided and had serious political problems that it couldn’t resolve, which contributed to the catastrophe of 1940 and Vichy regime. Even in Britain some conservatives looked at Hitler and said, “He’s not great, but we should accommodate him.” Churchill was unusual in that respect, as an arch conservative who recognized the danger. 

People thought the world would have to choose between fascism and communism? Early in 1941 Great Britain was holding out, but it wouldn’t have been able to if the United States hadn’t come into the war. Switzerland and Sweden were neutral, but the rest of Europe was either fascist-sympathizing, like Spain, or outrightly under German, Italian, or Soviet control. Japan controlled the richest, most populated parts of China, and it was expanding. Many younger Americans don’t realize how much the United States saved the world—and who’s going to save the world now?

You write, “It may seem natural for those on the right to think that the extreme right is a more reliable ally than the moderate left, or for the moderate left to suppose that the very radical left is a better partner than the moderate right, but when that happens, it becomes more probable that the ultimate winner will be one of the extremes.” That’s exactly what’s happened in Russia, and that’s what happened in Iran where right and left don’t mean quite the same thing, because it’s all a matter of religion. It would be hard to categorize the Iranian Revolution in 1979 as either right or left. The shah was so hated by so many, including moderates in the middle, the left, and the religious right, that they all joined forces and somehow thought that that would solve the problem. It solved the problem of getting rid of the shah but not the problem for the moderates who were outmaneuvered by the religious radicals. 

Did the shah have any awareness of his situation? On YouTube you can watch interviews with the shah in the 1970s: It’s shocking because this man was clearly very well educated. Some of the interviews are in English, some are in French: He spoke excellent French, superb English. He’s suave, he’s persuasive, and he was a complete idiot. He had no idea of what was actually going on. He keeps on saying, “My people love me, my system of government. I’m the father of my people. They all love me. You Western democracies don’t understand why we’re so successful. Iran will soon be one of the five leading powers in the world.”

But meanwhile … There was all this ­bubbling anger, which Iranians living in Tehran or other cities at the time saw perfectly well, and he didn’t. This is the kind of blindness that leads to catastrophic outcomes when you have very powerful leaders out of touch with ­reality.

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How to help homeschoolers

Advice for providing practical help and encouragement to families on the homeschooling journey

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The COVID-19 pandemic has produced many first-time homeschool parents, and some feel trepidation at the thought of being responsible for their child’s education. This edited Q&A is the third in a series in which we pose questions about home education to several experts. In this installment, John Kwasny, Sue Jakes, Cathy Duffy, and Kristyn Getty describe how best to help and encourage homeschoolers. (Click here for a short biography of each.)

John, you and your wife have homeschooled eight children for more than 20 years. How do you help?

John: Well, I’m the morning guy. I make sure they’re up in the morning. Traditionally with our kids, after morning devotional time, we do math. Then after dinner at night, I look over what they’ve done, and they can ask questions. I don’t work on Fridays, so I usually teach the kids that day and give my wife the day off.

How can other dads get involved? 

John: The easiest role is homeschool principal. Be the enforcer: “Hey kids, do your work. Pay attention to your mother.” The primary teacher has somebody behind them encouraging, reinforcing, checking on the kids. Then I ask a dad, What’s your favorite subject? If he says math, I encourage him to help with that. Or if he loves history, read aloud one of the history books each week. Some dads are strongly convicted about family worship. If that’s you, then teach Bible class. Just helping with one subject is a big relief. 

Sue, you homeschooled as a single mom for many years. What kind of support helped you the most?

Sue: All I had was Jesus and the church. After my husband left, this deacon came to my house. He said, “You may only be 46 years old, but as far as I’m concerned, you’re a widow. So you tell me what you need.” Everything from grass cutting to building a fence. He was really a true deacon. Also, an older woman in the church kept calling me, asking me, “Are you doing OK?” My kids came to appreciate her counseling in my life. When she called, my son would run around the house yelling, “Leave mom alone. It’s Ms. Carolyn.” Encouragement in the Spirit is a really wonderful thing.

So, they gave you practical help and encouragement?

Sue: Yes. All of life is spiritual warfare, and the church is your military unit. We need to be the shepherds. Shepherds lay down their lives for the sheep. Shepherds get nasty and dirty. Sometimes they carry the sheep a long way. It’s hard. It’s painful. It’s sacrificial.

Maybe find a homeschool family and ask, “Can I teach your kids something?”

Sue: Can I teach your kids? Can I make dinner at your house? It always has been about incarnation. Jesus gave up His comfort and He came down. Coming down is the method of the message. One 80-year-old man in our church told a new family, “I hear you are homeschooling down the street from us.” The mom said, “Yes.” He said, “Every week, one morning a week, bring your kids down. Leave them. You go run some errands, and I’m going to teach them the Bible.” So, it can be a cross-generational thing. 

Cathy, what about grandparents? Do you help your grandkids who homeschool?

Cathy: With distance learning and busy schedules, I have a flexible role. One thing I do—when the kids come over, we often play educational games. 

What do you play?

Cathy: I like some of the SimplyFun language games: Clover Leap has been huge for language arts. Fourmation is another SimplyFun one that works on mental math skills. We also play games like Tripoley where you have to use lots of logic processing.

So you build skills and relationships together?

Cathy: Right. We did it with our kids, and now I’m doing it with my grandkids. For instance, one son really loved the four-part stories we did when my parents visited. Grandparents, all ages, working together. Everybody gets a sheet of paper and starts writing a story. Then you pass it to the next person. Take five minutes and add another part. Then pass it again. The stories get silly, and kids love doing it. And it’s something you can do, COVID or not. In a recent Zoom call with my granddaughter, my sister in Australia jumped in and her cousin in Tennessee jumped in, and we all did a four-part story online. She loved it. 

What about church leaders? How can they help?

John: First, be proactive and recognize that homeschoolers have unique needs. If you don’t know what those are, ask. Commit to pray for homeschoolers and encourage them. I’m always encouraged when our elders purposely pray for parents. Sometimes our church offers space for homeschool support groups and gatherings. Another possibility—do a seminar or Sunday school class on homeschool options. It’s a way to say, We support you

One panelist said recently that homeschooling is normal parenting intensified.

John: Exactly. Like on steroids. If your family struggles with discipline normally, homeschooling will be a challenge. So, that’s a role pastors can play. Be ready to counsel homeschool families who struggle with that. I start them on the basics like Ted Tripp’s Shepherding a Child’s Heart. But there are many good discipline resources out there.

Sue: And you could make resources available digitally. Some publishers, such as CDM, will allow you to email books like our Advent curriculum to your entire congregation. Also, think about opportunities for homeschool children to serve, to teach. I’ve discipled third, fourth, and fifth grade girls for the last decade. I train them to come alongside me in children’s ministry. I tell them my story. We pray for each other. I help grow them into people who really believe God’s Word, and they work beside me as they get older. We tend to think that friends are peer level. But the best thing you can do is make a child your friend. 

Kristyn, we’ll talk more next time about kids’ spiritual needs, including singing. For now, how can churches support homeschool families using good hymns?

Kristyn: One simple thing is to let families know what songs will be sung next Sunday. Parents with younger children can play those songs in their homes throughout the week. And that can prepare kids to sing during worship. It helps create community and connects the days together. It’s a great opportunity to encourage the voice of the church while many are still apart. Just be mindful that many kids won’t go to Sunday school or kids’ church. If you have an online service, maybe record and share some children’s voices. Finding ways to connect kids with the service—that’s helpful.

—Read the previous installment in this Q&A series on homeschooling: “How to meet kids’ social needs while homeschooling


Panelists for this article:

John Kwasny serves as director of Christian education and children’s ministries at Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church in Ridgeland, Miss. He is also the director of One Story Ministries, authoring curriculum for children and youth such as Investigating God’s Word ... at Home. In addition to his five years as a Biblical counselor in private practice, John and his wife have homeschooled eight children over the last 23 years. 

Sue Jakes is the children’s ministry coordinator for the PCA Committee on Discipleship Ministries (CDM). She oversees the effort of CDM to connect and equip children’s ministries, develops and reviews resources for children and youth (including an online bookstore), and trains church leaders, staff, and volunteers. Sue homeschooled three children and lives in Georgia.

Cathy Duffy began reviewing curriculum for her own kids. Her research led to several popular books including 102 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum. See Cathy’s latest top picks as well as thousands of curriculum reviews at her website, Cathy Duffy Reviews. Cathy homeschooled three boys and now resides in California. 

Kristyn Getty is a Christian songwriter, recording artist, and worship leader. She and her husband, Keith, have written many hymns and perform at venues around the world, including their annual Sing! conference in Nashville. They occasionally homeschool several of their four young children in Nashville and Northern Ireland. Find out more about their music at Gettymusic.com

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