What They Saw in America:
Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, G. K. Chesterton, and Sayyid Qutb
by James L. Nolan Jr.
Cambridge, 306 pages, $27.99
In the wake of 9/11, James Nolan was prompted to reflect on America to find a satisfactory answer to a simple question: “Why do they hate us?” He gives his answer by pairing the critical observations of three widely respected European writers, whose feelings toward America were at worst ambivalent, with those of Sayyid Qutb, an early leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose views were downright hostile.
Common threads in all four of his subjects’ criticisms of America lead Nolan to conclude that many traditional hallmarks of American exceptionalism—liberal democracy and individuality, free markets and free speech, pragmatism and pluralism—can be viewed as quintessentially American vices, and sources of perennial conflict with the outside world.
The problem, for Nolan, isn’t so much what these norms and institutions represent in themselves (which is very little, since most are only negations of positive values). Rather, the problem is what they leave behind once pockets of illiberal opposition, such as orthodox Christianity, fade away: little more than commodity fetishism and libido dominandi. Or so Tocqueville feared, and Qutb raged.
—Connor Grubaugh is assistant editor of First Things.
(First Things, January 2018. Paywall will disappear over the next month or so, article by article.)
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