Take a look at the photo on conservative talk-show host Mark Levin's best seller, Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America. If it doesn't scream out to you, "I am the Sultan of Smug!," then Rick Santorum is a cross-dresser and Newt Gingrich an "invented" Palestinian.
Arms folded, a smirk on his pudgy face, Levin peers at us with beady eyes, as if to say, "Been there with all that hotsy-totsy political-philosophy stuff, done that." A huge American flag billows behind him, as though he's perched on the deck of a U.S. Navy destroyer.
As the author of a book that purports to analyze the destructive tradition of "utopianism" in political history, Levin comes with glittering intellectual credentials. He's been an adviser to Rush Limbaugh—he of the drug addictions, potty-mouth libels, and misogynist utterances—and counts Rush's younger brother, columnist David Limbaugh, as one of his chief champions in print. (David Limbaugh has called Ameritopia a "masterpiece.") Levin's most famous sound bite is, "I'd vote for a can of orange juice over Obama."
Even better, Levin's been a substitute host for that sub-Manning, football-tossing political savant Sean Hannity, also appearing on the conservative would-be quarterback's show many times. Finally, Levin, who runs his own legal foundation, boasts a B.A. and J.D. from Temple University, an institution normally so left in its jurisprudential tilt that you have to wonder whether Levin, who identifies with the Tea Party movement, attended it in Andrew Breitbart mode, hoping to pull off an undercover op of some kind.
Yet here's the rub. Levin's first book, Liberty and Tyranny, sold more than a million copies. Ameritopia is on its way to similar success, having stayed near the top of nonfiction best-seller lists since it appeared in January. What gives? How can so bad a book, on so serious a topic, sell so well?
It's not because Levin received a boffo mainstream-media liftoff. Here one must concede what conservative intellectuals ritually point out—they're virtually banned from any mainstream media they don't control. L. Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, voiced the charge in a January column for Creators Syndicate, using Levin as a case study.
"It's a crying shame," wrote Bozell, "that in today's network 'news' media only books written by gabby left-wing celebrities generate interest. When those left-wing screeds are written by left-wing, celebrity clowns such as Michael Moore, Bill Maher, or Ed Schultz, then somehow it's A-list booking. That's when the Today show and The Tonight Show roll out the red carpet. It's a sad indictment of the industry that serious books about ideas are rarely discussed, and if the serious book is written by a serious conservative, then rarely becomes never. Not even when there is a screaming market demand for such a book will the TV bookers relent."
Liberty and Tyranny, Bozell notes, spent months on best-seller lists in 2009: "Network TV coverage or interviews? Zero, not even a mention of his name or book title. Levin's best seller made big money for the Threshold Editions label of Simon & Schuster—a CBS company. But somehow he could not be granted even five minutes on CBS News to talk about liberty."
Bozell's complaint seems to apply to Levin's print-world presence as well. A LexisNexis Academic search of "Ameritopia" and "Levin" returns 122 items, but only one review, itself unusually late: A Kirkus pan in which that traditionally caustic prepublication review, running a postpublication take in its April 1 issue (presumably because of the book's success), calls it "a polemic for like-minded readers." A fuller Nexis "Power Search" calls up 302 items, with a handful of kudos for Levin in the conservative press, but not a single mainstream book review.
What can it be? Blacklisting? Perhaps. So let's right the wrong and pay some attention here to Ameritopia. Reader, I suggest an alternate explanation. Ameritopia is really Ameritastrophe. It's disastrously bad from beginning to end.
This being Passover as I write, I shall count some ways in which it is bad. But only after granting Levin his due expository paragraphs.
Levin believes that we citizens in the United States—probably the freest country on earth in regard to expression of ideas, mobility, lifestyle choices, and protection against corrupt officialdom—already live in a "soft tyranny," a "post-constitutional country" where we're "at great risk." Unless we "come to grips" with the "grave reality" we face in 2012, he warns, "we will be devoured by it." We are the contemporary embodiment of the evil "utopianism" vaunted by Plato, Thomas Hobbes, Sir Thomas More, and Karl Marx, with their allegedly identical hatred of private property and the family. We're just barely holding on to the individualist lifelines provided for America by John Locke, Montesquieu, and Tocqueville.
Utopianism, the "heart of the problem" in contemporary America, is, according to Levin, "tyranny born of intellectual bankruptcy and dishonesty." It serves as "the ideological and doctrinal foundation for statism." It is "regressive, irrational, and pre-Enlightenment." It "relies on deceit, propaganda, dependence, intimidation, and force" and is "immoral per se." It "attracts fanatics, not statesmen." It seeks to crush individual rights and redistribute private property in its surge toward "radical egalitarianism." It condemns self-interest as "morally indefensible and empty." For Levin, utopian thinkers and politicians are "masterminds" only in their own minds, as they seek to design perfect societies.
Levin's tone throughout is alarmist—undoubtedly the chief lure of such books to angry readers bent on demonizing their political opponents. And he is nothing if not a name-caller. Ameritopia, like many polemical bad books in political philosophy, teems with misused abstractions and contains few empirical examples. In chapters devoted to the Republic, Leviathan, Utopia, and The Communist Manifesto, Levin offers Cliff's Notes-like capsules of the works. His formula is to offer a brief phrase like, "as Locke explains," followed by long quotations that sometimes go on for a page. (He also adores his own prose, as when he writes, "As I wrote in Liberty and Tyranny," then quotes himself for nearly half a page.) That's one way to pad a book.
Most of the characteristics Levin attributes to utopianism amount to ideologically driven add-ons—utopianism need not include any of the anti-individualist attitudes Levin ascribes to it. But that is just the most general of Levin's problems.
In explicating Plato, Levin operates as if he's Sir Karl Popper's campaign manager, running against an ancient guy in a toga. Levin mentions every line that supports Plato as pro-tyranny and excludes every one that doesn't. While Popper certainly had some sharp observations about Plato, Levin's depiction of the author of many dialogues besides the Republic as a consummate hater of individuals is just distortion. (One wonders, too, what Popper would have made of Levin's claim that "it's not difficult to find the germs" of "Islamicism" in the Republic.)
In like incompetent fashion, Levin appears oblivious to More's irony in Utopia, a tone that has long been familiar to scholars. Instead, we get ungrammatical insights like this: "Whatever his intended approach, More obviously meant for his work to have meaning, which it has [sic] for centuries." Levin's assertion that utopianism seeks to "define subjugation as the most transcendent state of man" makes no sense as a description of the stateless society Marx thought communism would produce.
Levin laments the demise of "individual sovereignty," but in political philosophy, "sovereignty" makes little sense except metaphorically, as a concept applied to the individual. He attributes absurd positions to all "utopians," such as that they think "it's better that all be poor than some be wealthy." Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and Barack Obama are all accused of "mendacity." At such demagogic moments, Levin sounds more like a duplicitous robocaller than an author.
He's just as bad on constitutional history. The Constitution, he writes, "neither preserved nor promoted slavery." Well, let's see. Slavery operated legally before the Constitution. It remained operational and legal after the Constitution. Your conclusion? Also deeply unconvincing is Levin's claim that "had there been no Constitution there would have been no United States." A mere inconvenience, those 12 years between the founding of the United States and the ratification of the Constitution.
Then there's Levin's trustworthiness about our contemporary political scene. We "seldom question today," he writes, "whether it is appropriate for the federal government to undertake a given task, no matter how insignificant or minute." You want to text the author: "Mark Levin—call your Tea Party!" In other passages, he's in step with the movement. "Universal health care," he writes, is a practice in which "everyone plunders everyone." It's a wonder he doesn't call it "Hobbescare."
Stylistically, Levin displays many marks of the badly educated writer, such as misuse of the word "comprise," repetitive quotes, and unfamiliarity with the "that/which" distinction. He's just as careful and accurate when motor-mouthing on the air. When Fox Business News anchor Neil Cavuto asked him if Obama was a socialist, Levin replied that the president is "a Marxist." Only a benighted, philosophically illiterate ideologue could hang the sign of "utopian" on Obama, whose pragmatist bent, exhibited in endless compromise and readjustment of hoped-for goals, makes the judgment ludicrous.
Levin assures us early on that he has sorted through "an immense volume of writings" to bring us his wisdom of the ages. Perhaps. Ameritopia, nonetheless, is fish in a barrel, with its cover an invitation for book critics to load and fire. Most of them, the dearth of reviews suggests, politely declined. But it's a great country, all that utopian misery aside! You certainly don't have to be on the level of Plato, Hobbes, or Marx to sell millions of books as a political philosopher.