[This review was published in the Summer 2002 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 243-244; and in the St. Croix Review, April 2w002, pp. 62-64.] 


Book Review

Detoxifying the Culture

John A. Howard

America House, 2001


            John Howard represents an all-too-rare breed: the “thinking man’s college president.”  He began his presidency at Rockford College in 1960 with an Opening Convocation that actually discussed ideas, rather than being a laundry list of administrative and budgetary concerns.  No doubt he had to deal with the latter in his role as the chief executive officer of the college, but that side of him never shows in his speeches and essays.

            Detoxifying the Culture is a compilation of selected speeches given by Howard between 1963 and 2000.  A brief preface is written by Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute.  It is perhaps to be regretted that there is nothing after September 11, 2001, to give Howard’s insights into the current situation.  There is value, though, in remaining aware of the issues as they were seen before that catastrophe.

            What the book does do is to provide a running commentary on the cultural and intellectual issues of the final third of the twentieth century.  Howard’s subject is often the decadence of contemporary Western culture; and, in a voice that is interesting and reasoned rather than strident, he sets off against that decadence a memory of the gentility and striving for excellence that moved Americans a century ago.  His model, however, is found not so much in a given point in America’s past as it is in the ideal of a free society founded on Christian religious belief, fixed principles and a virtuous populace.  It should be apparent from this how greatly his mixture of classical liberalism and conservatism differs from the “do your own thing” understanding of freedom held by so many libertarians on both the Right and the Left.

            The Philadelphia Society was established in 1964 as arguably the preeminent intellectual society on the American Right.  It is composed of writers, editors, think tank scholars, academics and other individuals of a scholarly bent, although it must be acknowledged that several highly articulate and thoughtful conservatives remain outside the fold.  John Howard is among the thirteen members (six of them still living) who have been elected to “Distinguished Member” status in the Society.  It is relevant to a review of his compiled speeches that he ranks alongside Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley, F. A. Hayek and Eric Voegelin, say, in the esteem of his peers.

            He began earning that esteem early in life when he participated in D-Day at Normandy as a member of a tank battalion in the First Infantry Division, where he was awarded two silver stars to go with his two purple hearts.

            The twenty-four essays (which is what his speeches are) cover a great many subjects.  One that this reviewer found particularly interesting was Howard’s elaboration on his own belief-system, especially as it pertains to the prerequisites for a free society.  He cites Montesquieu to the effect that a free society requires a virtuous populace.  Oddly, this insight is out of place today, when the prevailing assumption is that the society can get along perfectly well, thank you, if the policy wonks just do their jobs as they should, despite quite an evident lack of virtue from top to bottom.  That assumption underlay William Clinton’s acquittal on the impeachment charges.

            Why is virtue a precondition to freedom?  Howard says that “in a free society, the characteristic means of achieving cooperation is the voluntary observance, not of laws, but of informal codes of conduct.”  It is only when those informal codes break down that people call more and more upon government, hoping to find a solution to the untoward reality that people don’t act and work together as they should.  Today, when “dishonesty, corruption, vandalism, violence, crime, deceit and maliciousness have eaten into all aspects of American reality,” the primary cause is to be found in the fact that “an ethos [has been accepted] that rejects private virtue as a public good.”

            It is arguable that, as a theory of a free society, this insight expresses the classical liberal insight at its best, trumping the unfortunate intellectual tradition of looking almost exclusively to economic and political issues.  Howard reminds us that a philosophy of individual freedom needs to be a complete philosophy that takes into account all aspects of the human experience.  Culture, aesthetics and morals are every bit as important as a cut in the capital gains tax rate.

            Howard’s book isn’t the systematic, almost textbook-like, treatment of the West’s cultural decadence that Patrick Buchanan’s The Death of the West is, but it will take its place as a significant contribution to the literature on that subject. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                Dwight D. Murphey