Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Politics and Prose

Byron Borger


By Byron Borger

This is a continuation of a series of articles introducing new books significant to the principled practice of public justice.

The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government  Eric Liu and Nich Hanauer (Sasquatch Books) $12.95 

This is a nearly pocket-sized hardback, with beautiful, colorized, woodcut art, but it is about big ideas, insisting that the nearly bankrupt nature of the tired contemporary discourse needs not a simplistic “split the difference and meet in the middle” compromise but a robust, new set of ideas. The authors are historically progressives, but draw on conservative roots, Jeffersonian ideas, and an array of contemporary thinkers, from Michael Sandel to Francis Fukuyama in producing the sort of heady, idealistic work that Center for Public Justice activists would enjoy discussing.  It starts, as the title suggests, insisting that we need a new metaphor, an organic one (that needs to be nurtured), namely, that democracy is a garden.  They argue that this image is very different than the more prevalent paradigm, that of the machine.  Traditions of both the left and right, they show, seem to agree with the notion that our government is a machine-like organization that needs tweaked, balanced, worked on, and engineered.  They are not the first to reject a mechanistic model, but they bring such a delightful verve and inspiring writing to their evaluations, making this a notable contribution to the search for new ways of envisioning our citizenship and public order.  They are candid about their disappointment in the left, and they are concise in their critique of libertarian and conservative ideologies.  They invite us to think in new ways, to engage the task of being “civic gardeners,” attending to the complexities of markets, economies, and states. Very thoughtful, with a fabulously rich bibliography at the end.

A Walk Across the Sun: A Novel  Corban Addison (Silver Oak) $24.95 

This outstanding new novel deserves special attention for those of us interested in public justice.  I commend it in part for its artfully-told global story, but also because the topic—sex trafficking—is so urgent.  The plot of this new novel is complex, the writing rich as the plot moves from a coastal town in India, to a Mumbai brothel, to a Washington D.C. law firm, where attorney Thomas Clarke signs up to do some pro bono work with an non-governmental organization that works against sexual violence and slavery. The author of legal page-turners, John Grisham—who has not endorsed a book since his first novel was published over 20 years ago—has offered a stellar blurb. New York-based International Artist Movement (IAM) has done a podcast and held a book release event with this author as well, allowing him to read portions of the book to their unique audience.  Highly recommended.

The Human Vision of Wendell Berry edited by Mark T. Mitchell & Nathan Schlueter (ISI Books) $29.95 

Any new collection of pieces about poet-farmer-essayist-activist Wendell Berry is worth knowing about, and when it is as insightful and unique as this one, it deserves to be shouted about.  It is no secret that many on the political and social left have embraced Berry as their favorite environmentalist, populist, localist, sage.  Here, a variety of thinkers—many conservative—offer their valuable take on Mr. Berry’s realism, faith, and humility, including Rod Dreher, Allan Carlson, Richard Gamble, D.G. Hart, Patrick Deneen and others.  Two long-time, Reformed friends of the Center for Public Justice (Matt Bonzo and Michael Stevens) offer their contributions, as do several devout Roman Catholics (Anne Husted Burleigh’s chapter on Berry’s view of marriage is wonderful).  Kansas lawyer Caleb Stegell has a chapter on Berry’s view of technology (“First, they come for the horses...”), and others write about democratic self-governance, thankfulness, education, food, sex, “Wendell Berry’s dogged pacifism” and all manner of thoughtful aspects of his fiction and non-fiction.  Where else will you find a piece on the British distributists and Berry’s sense of “propriety”?  Where else do you read about Berry as a contemporary Saint Benedict?  And what a chapter: “If Dante were a Kentucky Barber.”  There are other volumes that look at Berry and religion, or Berry and his contributions to American letters.  But for a serious look at how the Kentucky writer’s fiction and philosophy might move our public discourse forward about culture, society and politics, this new book simply is the best.

—Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books.  Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”