If you read enough weblog entries, inevitably you will come across entries which praise various books, often involving political or economic theory. Sometimes the blogger posts a review worthy of publication, but more frequently you get something else. While a good book review tests an author's theories and assumptions, far too many weblog book reviews are adulatory - the author is not analyzing the book, but is instead endorsing it as if Moses just delivered it from the peak of Mount Sinai.
Sometimes this is taken to an even more comical extreme, such as where a blogger will insist that nobody can present valid criticism of his ideas until they have read a particular book, as if reading a single book on economics or politics could provide a global and current understanding of anything but that particular subset of the author's beliefs. In fact, anybody who would believe that a single book on economic theory, directed at a lay audience, could be so transformative could only be somebody with a very incomplete understanding of economics. The same applies to law, politics, and history.
The mistake behind these reviews essentially boils down to "I agree with this author, so this author must be right". Sometimes the author has thought about the subject more deeply than the blogger, and perhaps the blogger's thinking has been shifted by the book. But the uncritical blog entries at issue don't even suggest that much thought has occurred. This is not to suggest that the ideas endorsed are necessarily wrong - but such a nicety is of little consequence to the blogger's agreement or endorsement.
If you read professional editorials, perhaps particularly in the U.S., you will find that this phenomenon is not limited to bloggers. For example, in yesterday's Washington Post, George Will gushes over an author's theory of "Hard America, Soft America". Being hard on people - depriving them of such things as a social safety net, job security, unions and workplace regulation - the author (and thus Will) postulates, results in a more efficient, competitive, functional society.
In the Soft America of 1970, the tapestry of welfare benefits had a cash value greater than a minimum-wage job. In the Harder America of 1996, welfare reform repealed Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a lifetime entitlement to welfare. And in the 1990s, welfare dependency -- and crime -- were cut in half. A harder, self-disciplined America is a safer America.I can't speak for the book, as I have not read it, but Will's understanding of the book seems to be an absurdly simplistic confusion of correlation and causation. (He also makes the mistake of looking only at our society, whereas other nations have had markedly different experiences - for example, similar drops in crime while maintaining high welfare benefits.) Were Will as conversant in social research as he is with, say, baseball, he would not have endorsed such a simplistic analysis. But since the book corresponds to his politics, and he had a certain number of column inches to fill, he uncritically endorses some rather weak thinking.
As if to prove my point, after describing how the book's author criticized racial preferences on the basis that they "fence some blacks off from Hard America, insulating them in 'a Soft America where lack of achievement will nonetheless be rewarded'", Will continues,
What institution is consistently rated most trustworthy by Americans? The institution that ended its reliance on conscription, that has no racial preferences and that has rigorous life-and-death rules and standards: the military.An admiration that, in Will's case, has always occurred from a very safe distance. Too far away, it appears, to recognize that the military continues to advance affirmative action programs, and has absolutely no intention of reducing or eliminating those "soft" programs. Positive experience with affirmative action has made such military notables as Colin Powell and Wesley Clark speak firmly in its favor.
Will also doesn't want to think about the other side of his argument - that the absurd wages, lack of oversight, and general "softness" of both the regulatory and law enforcement response to corruption and incompetence has led to the "corporate scandals" of recent years. While Will seemingly endorses the end of welfare and a return to the workhouses for indigent families, all in the name of saving them from themselves, he utters not a single word about the mismanagement and looting of firms like Enron or Tyco, let alone a system that would tolerate Dennis Kozlowski's $2 million birthday bash for his wife.
From what he has written, Will derived no lessons from this book which did not accord with his prior beliefs. If the book actually advanced the notion that the military does not utilize affirmative action, Will didn't even engage in even the most basic fact-checking. Will's column is, unquestionably, worthy of being posted to a mediocre weblog. But I am left wondering why it is in a national newspaper.