Review: Sohrab Ahmari’s New Attack on Laissez-Faire Liberalism
Sohrab Ahmari’s new book The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in An Age of Chaos is so disappointing I don’t know where to begin. This may seem to be a harsh invective, but in reality, it is a confession. My previous attempts to review this book have resulted in little more than hours and hours of frustration and discarded drafts. Such frustration stems in part from the sympathy I have for Ahmari’s general goal and a desire to do his work justice despite my previous criticism of his views. At its most basic level, Ahmari’s book seeks to ask twelve serious life questions and answer them by drawing upon the examples of twelve figures from history to demonstrate the “unbroken thread” that connects us to the past. As a staunch defender of tradition myself, this basic goal appeals to me and I had hoped that despite our differences we would be able to develop some common ground.
Alas, it was not to be. While Ahmari’s book does have some merit, in the end, I am afraid that it falls far short of its potential and is hampered by his inability to resist shoehorning in conclusions that are radical leaps from the case he has made by drawing upon history.
To begin with, Ahmari does the reader a service by prompting him to think about many things on a deeper level than one is likely to do given the cultural zeitgeist of the moment. It is no surprise to see C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas show up, and it is unexpected to see radical feminist Andrea Dworkin appear for the chapter that asks, “Is Sex a Private Matter?” Every question Ahmari asks is worthy of thought and most of the thinkers he draws upon are worthy of further study.
Ahmari does an excellent job of relaying the stories of his subjects and prompting the reader to consider the nature of God, or how we should treat our family, or even the good aspects of death. However, where he falls far short is in his application of these stories to the world today. At many times Ahmari’s analysis amounts to little more than a sophisticated version of college freshmen sitting around smoking pot and complaining that “something must be done!” This failure is, unfortunately, par for the course when it comes to Ahmari’s tendency to do little more than complain (a tendency for which he was widely mocked after his dismal performance in a debate against David French).
At the end of most chapters, Ahmari simply can’t resist tossing in potshots at “liberalism” and sweeping claims that he has done little to support though they are deserving of a great deal of analysis in their own right. To his credit, he generally avoids his most obscene polemics, for which he is well known, but his toned-down rhetoric does no
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