Thursday, January 15, 2015

Week 5: The Great Debate, by Yuval Levin, Problems with Bad Writing

“The idea is cool, but this book is terrible.” Any serious reader has said that to themselves at some point during their reading career. That’s exactly the feeling you will get reading The Great Debate.
Think of a situation when you had to read a book for a college class. Some of you just hated all books from school, and that’s understandable, but others of you wanted to learn about some of the topics in your classes. You paid attention during lectures, and you even carved out some time to do that reading on the Battle of Gettysburg or the differences between Locke and Hobbes. Yet when you actually sat down to read, you could not get through more than three pages without becoming bleary-eyed and looking for the nearest Starbucks. Then you realize you do not just dislike the book, but you hate this entire class you thought you would love.

You probably felt bad about it and told yourself “don’t be a slacker, just power through it.” But once your friend texted you with “we’re going out tonight, you in?”, you were in, even if it was a Tuesday. Do not feel bad about abandoning a bad book to take part in some Dionysian revelry at your local bar or house party. This action was not your fault. You picked a class that should have been good. It was about the Civil War Era, or Microbiology, or whatever topic turned you on; it should have been fascinating. 

Don’t blame yourself. If the class is supposed to be interesting but ends up being boring, the teacher, not you, is doing something wrong. If the teacher is awesome, the topic should not matter. Your favorite topic will shine with a great teacher, but “20th Century European Intellectuals” or “History Workshop” with that same teacher will still inspire you. But if the topic is great and the professor is only mediocre, you are in for a painful semester.

The Great Debate is just like that bad class. The book covers two great scholars of the late 1700s, Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Burke was a classical conservative who believed government evolves over time to promote the good of a civil society. Paine was a classical liberal who thought government arises only as a contract to protect a citizen’s natural rights. The book tells the biography of both men and then lays out how the two first united to support the American Revolution but later diverged around the bloodier and more controversial French Revolution. Levin hashes out how each scholar viewed government, history, human nature, and human reasoning. He argues these two men not only defined political thought in their era but laid the groundwork for the current political divisions between left (Paine) and right (Burke) in the Western world.

The Burke-Paine debate should be a fascinating subject, but Levin’s writing in TGB comes as a great disappointment. According to his bio, Levin is a journalist by trade who edits National Affairs and contributes to conservative publications National Review and Weekly Standard. He writes more like an economics professor or a lazy college sophomore pulling an all-nighter. His sentences are bloated and filled with unnecessary adverbs. No view is “central” but is instead “utterly central”, and Burke never “disagreed“ but always “disagreed sharply.” Levin also overuses the negative voice throughout the book. One egregious example is on page 20, where he writes, “But (Burke) nowhere contends with the radical views of politics laid out in Common Sense, and it seems unlikely that Burke would have failed to react badly to those views had he encountered them.” Once your head stops spinning and you realize Levin is trying to say, “Burke would have disagree with Paine,” you have completely forgotten what he is writing about in the first place. 

Every writer (the author of this blog post included) has been guilty of these writing crimes at some point, but for a professional writer and editor they are inexcusable. The book takes an otherwise interesting subject and makes it very dry by using clunky sentences and lazy language. The subjects the book covers are not simple, but the more complex a topic, the more care the writer must take. If a writer is not exact with his words and his arguments, then the reader misses his main points, and his book loses its relevance. And, as George Orwell points out in his essay on political writing, “language can corrupt thought.” Levin’s vague language misleads the reader to think the philosophies of Burke and Paine were also vague, but it also keeps the reader from understanding what made Burke and Paine so important.

Don’t read The Great Debate. If you want to learn more about Edmund Burke or Thomas Paine, look them up online and find their original writings. The best of both writers is available on Project Gutenberg. For Paine start with Common Sense, and for Burke start with a collection of his political writings. Decide for yourself what these two men thought, and form your own opinions on the nature of government (those opinions are sure to be more clear than what Levin writes in TGB). Just don’t choose a bad teacher for a great subject.

No comments:

Post a Comment