I am close friends with a neoconservative who is almost constantly promoting the ideals of the Bush administration. My political perspective is a mix of things; I agree with some pieces of the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, and the Democratic Party, so I can't really say I'm bound to one specific ideology. Thus, unsurprisingly, my friend sees me as a "political work in progress," and that it is his job to "convert" me to neoconservativism.
Case in point: as a birthday gift, my dear friend gave me a copy of The Enemy Within, the latest book from ultra-conservative wonk Michael Savage, knowing full well that I would read it, as I will read pretty much any book to try to understand different perspectives. One look at the cover gave me a good idea of what would be inside; it said, in bold print, Saving America from the Liberal Assault on our Schools, Faith, and Military.
The Enemy Within
Published In: 2004
This is a book that is very challenging to review because Savage is so pointed with his arguments; they become the driving force of the book and thus your opinions on the book are somewhat bent around these pointed arguments. There's very little grey area in this book; Savage's central theme is that liberalism is killing the United States, and he sticks to this theme doggedly throughout. Given that, he does touch on some issues that would make for some great debate, and on occasion, he rises up to state a good conservative case for that argument.
Savage does a solid job of setting up his argument and following through with it using the overall theme of liberalism as an octopus, with its eight tentacles strangling the courts, health care, the military, the media, religion, morality, public education, and universities. Most of the book is taken up with a section focusing on each "tentacle."
The Courts: Most of this chapter is spent discussing the liberal beliefs and past activities of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Vader Ginsburg. By highlighting specific passages out of documents written by her early in her career, Savage clearly paints that she is a liberal, but whiffs when trying to explain why the issues she raises are wrong; he seems to be content with "shock value" when mentioning her earlier advocacy of lowering the sexual consent age to as low as 13 without debating the question at all.
He particularly enjoys discussing repeated instances where laws passed as ballot initiatives were later overturned by judges, stating that the judges are ignoring the will of the people by overturning laws created by popular vote. To a degree, I agree with Savage on this particular issue, but the problem is much greater than this. It comes down to an issue of defining ourselves as a representative democracy (in essence, a republic, where we elect representatives to make laws) or a popular democracy (where laws are created by popular vote). Having it one way some of the time and the other way the rest of the time makes for some very sticky legal situations, particularly for judges: do they need to treat popular laws different than those created by the representative structure?
Health Care: This chapter mostly represents a libertarian perspective on health care, stating that it is not the job of the government to provide health care for the citizenry. He doesn't seem as harsh on treatments for involuntary ailments, but he spends most of the chapter discussing how the government should not spend money on medical treatments that are the result of personal choices of the patients (i.e., AIDS, gender reassignment, etc.).
Savage is particularly tough on spending for fighting HIV, as he sees HIV as largely the result of a promiscuous lifestyle and thus preventative measures shouldn't come out of the pocketbooks of the citizenry. His primary complaint is that the spending for HIV research is very out of whack compared to spending per victim of breast cancer. I can't argue too much about that; I feel that research spending should basically match the expected per person rate of lethal cases in the next five years.
Military: This section accuses liberals of hamstringing the military and preventing them from doing their job. He's not in any way saying that there is no support for the troops on the ground; Savage is instead referring to the repeated undermining of the overall war effort by liberal forces in the media.
This is probably the most politically sensitive chapter in the book, as he assumes that the war in Iraq is completely justified because the United States toppled a brutal dictator, and thus those who opposed the war must then have supported Saddam. That's completely bogus; the issue that most liberals are raising is the question of insufficient international support and the general concept of imperialism, which is what it appears in most ways that the United States is doing.
Media: Savage follows his worst-supported section with his most sensible section, in which he criticizes the media. Savage particularly focuses on the fact that ill-informed celebrities are given many pulpits from which to express their views without fear of retribution or open debate. He gives dozens of examples of this throughout the book.
The one part where he somewhat overextends his argument is where he accuses Hollywood of having something of a "red list," in which you must be a liberal or else be blacklisted. He claims that this is due to the power of a number of homosexual left-wingers in charge of major studios in Hollywood, who influence the presented material with a liberal spin. The overall argument is something of a stretch, as it seems to me that production companies will generally do whatever it takes to maximize advertising dollars, liberal spin or not.
Faith: Savage's thesis here is that the vestiges of America's Judeo-Christian heritage are being squeezed out through anti-Christianity, which is unquestionably a trend in the mainstream today. His general argument is that it is not freedom of religion or separation of church and state if religion is used as a litmus test for various things; if the United States truly had freedom of religion, it would be a complete moot point.
A judge is required to interpret laws, for example. This interpretation means that he or she must use his or her personal beliefs in conjunction with already established precedents to decide whether laws are valid. Thus, judges are bound to have different perspectives on the same issue, and are likely to rule differently as well. It is up to the people (or the legislature) to determine if a judge can make sound decisions that reflect the political beliefs of the people, and religion is a poor litmus test for that. Why? Take me for example. I am a Christian. I would describe myself as being quite far away from the neoconservative perspective, however; I'm pretty strongly libertarian with a healthy dose of environmentalism. If religion is used as a litmus test, I would immediately be branded a "conservative," which is completely false.
Morality: Here, Savage argues that modern America is going through a morality crisis. Much like with the section on the military, Savage has something of a hard time making his case because the case is somewhat misdirected. He tries too hard to tie "morality" with "Christianity," which simply isn't a fact. Sure, Christianity provides some sensible moral guidelines, but that does not mean that the concept of morality is interchangeable with Christianity.
Even though the basis of the argument is flawed, he carries the argument forward to criticize Islam. Radical Islam deserves criticism; when your religion encourages you to hurt and debase others, then something has gone wrong. But that's not the criticism here; he criticize Islam as a whole because it produces such radicals, ignoring the fact that there are plenty of Christian radicals that have existed over the years; Savage really needs to read up on Jonestown, for example. Any belief structure is going to create radicalism; should we condemn all belief structures, then? Savage says we should condemn only some according to an arbitrary standard.
Schools: Savage's primary problem with schools is the use of public funding for sex education, which he says promotes incorrect values. Mostly, his concerns are directed about educating schoolchildren about homosexuality and acceptance of it as a normal lifestyle.
Savage here falls into the same trap that both liberals and conservatives fall into, in my eyes. Savage says that promotion of non-heterosexual lifestyles is detrimental to the youth of the United States, whereas the liberal counterbalance is that safe practice of all lifestyles should be promoted. What both sides ignore is that it isn't who you're involved with that is important, but whether or not the relationship is based on positives for both people. Homosexual, heterosexual, it doesn't matter. Does it improve the lives of both people involved? Savage criticizes the provided education, but for the wrong reasons; the educational materials he cites don't focus on what makes a relationship work for both people involved.
Universities: Savage's last "tentacle" is wrapped around universities, which he criticizes for focusing on only the liberal perspective and not actually on presenting a truly free-thinking environment. While I do agree that I have had liberal professors who were not exactly tolerant of a conservative perspective during my college years, I also had more than a few rather conservative professors as well. Savage's criticism here mostly addresses institutions that are known for being rather liberal, such as Berkeley. By doing this, he misses out on the education that many receive in the United States.
Universities are bound to swing towards liberal, as students are encouraged to express themselves freely, many of them for the first time in their lives. They get to try new things and hear new ideas and that naturally is going to cause questioning of many things, which is what progressive attitudes are at their core. Universities should shoot for a balanced perspective, and many achieve this; Savage is concerned that some universities are failing in this regard, and to a degree I agree with him.
The book concludes with a lengthy discussion of his infamous stint on the television airwaves at MSNBC, where he was fired after three months for telling a caller to "get AIDS and die." Obviously, this discussion is from Savage's perspective in which he feels as though he was unfairly fired. The comment was clearly inappropriate, but if you listen to satellite feeds of a lot of shows, worse stuff is said and edited before it makes it to the air on live television; here, someone didn't use the seven second live delay to clean up Savage's speech. I realize it is inappropriate to say such things, but more than just Savage was at fault with his firing.
Overall, the book is pretty entertaining, and Savage does a good job of outlining the conservative perspective in the guise of a critique of liberalism. He brings up a lot of issues that deserve to be discussed in a wider arena.
However, this book has a major problem. The problem is that Michael Savage writes like a juvenile, making petty, pointless, and somewhat bigoted jokes throughout the book. Savage has a lot of good arguments, but continually referring to liberals as "red diaper doper babies" does not help the argument in any way, shape, or form.
This book is recommended for the fact that Savage does a solid job of outlining the overall conservative philosophy while paralleling it with the liberal philosophy in the United States. However, the book is loaded with less-than-stimulating attempts at "humor" or "sarcasm" that drive down the quality of the reading. If you can get past this, Savage does have some things worth reading.