I’ve got butterflies.
In case you missed it at the bottom of my articles where I’ve been promoting it (perhaps over-promoting it) for the past few weeks, I have a book coming out June 14—I Know Best: How Moral Narcissism Is Destroying Our Republic, If It Hasn’t Already. You would think, since it’s my twelfth book, I wouldn’t be so worried about it, but I am more nervous about its reception than I can remember being, even though it’s been excerpted in Commentary and garnered blurbs from such worthies as Dennis Prager, Heather Mac Donald, Larry Elder and David Limbaugh. I should be confident, but I’m not.
Part of the reason is this is a work of political/social theory that attempts to explain where our culture is now and I’ve written primarily detective novels and screenplays. Who would take me seriously and why should they? Also, I’m 72—an age I would deny but it’s already on Wikipedia—and I won’t have that many chances to redeem myself if this one fails. (Okay, there’s a bit of self-pity there that may or may not be merited.)
Finally, and this is the complicating part, I am going to be doing a bit more publicity for this book than I have in the past, appearing on television and radio, and the reason isn’t entirely the book, although I would like it to be. It’s equally, perhaps more, because I have been writing the Diary of a Mad Voter for PJ Media, often in support of (gasp!) Donald Trump. The media people want me on supposedly to talk about the book, but really they want me to argue the case for Trump—no holds barred, with no caveats, although, of course, I have them. I learned long ago that Brit Hume’s prescription for TV and radio appearances applies—”You have to come to play.” Otherwise you don’t get invited back.
My job is to get mentions of my book in between Trump questions—an interesting trick because Trump isn’t brought up in the book except once, in passing, on page 147. (I mention that in case you want to skip to it.) My first adventure of this sort will be Tuesday when I am invited, as a Trump supporter (natch!), on NPR’s Morning Edition, the second most listened to radio show after Rush Limbaugh with approximately 13 million weekly listeners of whom (guessing here) somewhere between 93 and 94% are liberals. Should be a very “welcoming” place for an ambivalent Trump backer on California primary day — and I have to get up at 3AM in L.A. for the privilege. The following week on the WSJ’s Opinion Journal and Newsmax TV should be easier. And maybe less about Trump and more about the book.
But speaking of the book, writing at that length in these Internet times feels significantly different from when I was starting out. What merits asking a reader to pay for something in this era of so much free writing? You better have something good. I hope I do, but you will be the judge of that. What follows is the preface, explaining why I wrote I Know Best. You can also read the Commentary excerpt. But if you want more, you’ll have to buy it. My family and I thank you if you do.
In which the author explains why he’s bothering—
once again—to examine why half of America doesn’t
talk to the other half and why neither side changes its
opinion about anything almost ever.
I was already well into writing this book before I realized why I was writing it. It shouldn’t have taken that long. As the French say, the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing. For the last seven or eight years I have been obsessed with one question above all, Why do so few people permanently change their views about political and social issues even in the face of literally earthshaking world events?
A corollary question is, Why do so many people return to their original views so determinedly, even if they have altered them for a short while? What is this pull that makes people go back to where they were, wrapping themselves in what they always thought as if it were a childhood security blanket?
Immediately after the terror murders in Paris in January 2015 at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the kosher market Hypercacher, historian Jeffrey Herf wrote this to inaugurate his blog for the Times of Israel:
I remember well that in the few months following 9/11, the American intellectual world, especially that of liberals and left-leaning people, was in a state of welcome confusion. The familiar denunciations of American “imperialism” and the habits of sympathy for “national liberation movements” that had emerged in the protest against the war in Vietnam in the 1960s did not fit the realities of September 11,. . . Sadly, the new thinking did not last long, or rather, it lasted but was supplanted by experts who told stories about a “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood and about the need to avoid inflaming Muslims with public discussion of Islamism. Many decades of investment in the cultural capital of the conventional habits of left and right were proving too powerful to overcome.
How does this happen? Is it merely “human nature”? If so, what is it about human nature that makes us behave that way? What is the provenance of these “conventional habits” Herf speaks of, habits that lock us into tired ideologies and world views that preclude progress and change even as many adopt terminology that pretends to the opposite, proclaiming that they are the future, that they are “progressive”?
This is the enigma that has fascinated me for the better part of the last decade, after having undergone a political change of my own that began in the 1990s and accelerated after 9/11. This is not just an academic exercise because—at the tail end of a presidency of a man who is, at best, ambivalent about American Exceptionalism—we are at yet another turning point in Western Civilization and the history of the United States. This is the same politician who, at a fundraiser in 2008, famously accused his adversaries of being “bitter people, clinging to their guns or religion or an antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” But perhaps there was an element of projection in that accusation, because if there was any “clinging” going on, much of it was being done by Barack Obama and his adoring San Francisco audience of the time. And what they were really expressing and reinforcing, that is, clinging to, was not primarily their criticism of their opponents—that was secondary—but their own collective feelings of superiority to them. They were best. What they were expressing is a large part, most likely the dominant part, of the answer to the aforementioned enigma of why so few are able to change their views over a lifetime, and it is the subject of this book: moral narcissism.
But a second enigma occurred to me as I was yet deeper into the book. Why moral narcissism? What was its function, really? This made the experience of writing oddly similar to those I have had before, writing a series of mystery novels. It wasn’t until I came to the final chapters that I figured out why. As it so often did when I wrote detectives stories, the answer surprised me. Possibly it changed my life.
Roger L. Simon is a prize-winning novelist, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and co-founder of PJ Media. His next book—I Know Best: How Moral Narcissism Is Destroying Our Republic, If It Hasn’t Already—will be published by Encounter Books on June 14, 2016. You can read an excerpt here. You can pre-order the book here.