Book Review

Book Review: Scribner on Abate’s Raising Your Kids Right

Review of Michelle Ann Abate’s Raising Your Kids Right: Children’s Literature and American Political Conservatism (Rutgers University Press, 2011). ISBN: 978-0-8135-4798-5 (cloth). 260 pages.

Review by Campbell Scribner
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Last year, Andrew Hartman referenced Michelle Abate’s Raising Your Kids Right in a post about children’s literature as intellectual history. He was mildly critical of the book (and the genre) because of its implicit focus on the political agendas of authors, parents, and other adults rather than on the mentalities of children themselves.

Having since read the book, I would expand that criticism: I am not sure Abate gets the adults right, either.

Despite the kitschy cover illustration, Raising Your Children Right does not reach further back than the 1990s and makes little effort at historical analysis. Rather, Abate’s formula is to take a children’s book marketed to conservative parents (e.g. The Truax, the lumber industry’s response to Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax; or Ann Coulter-style books for kids), point out its underlying political assumptions, and in alarmist tones inveigh against indoctrination.

There are some obvious problems with that approach.

First, despite providing a pretty cogent history of right-wing politics since the 1960s, Abate uses the word “conservative” far too broadly. For her, in fact, it seems interchangeable with the words “histrionic,” “retrograde,” and “racist” (pgs. 35, 37, 180-181). Yet it is unclear what is pejoratively conservative about a book like Tim Russert’s memoir Big Russ and Me, which describes “the indelible bond that links him to his father,” unless the Right has so thoroughly monopolized the language of “family values” that liberals now come out against parenthood (pg. 3).

Past children’s literature has likewise taught values of obedience, piety, and loyalty. Are these traits from which we should now shield our children, or only expose them to in the context of civil rights struggles and “postmodernist thought” (pg. 31)? That seems to be Abate’s primary criticism of The Book of Virtues, a collection of inspirational writing edited by William Bennett, which is guilty of including “overwhelmingly…historical selections from white, middle-class Europeans” (pg. 39). Abate seems unbothered that these writers include Tolstoy, Emerson, Faulkner, and others whose politics hardly align (how could they?) with those of the modern Right. While I am certainly in favor of expanding traditional canons and including as many voices as possible, to niggle about whether a volume contains enough writing by African-Americans (five pieces, in this case) or Native Americans (two, with caveats) seems to fall back on the worst sort of politically correct multiculturalism and to ignore the many areas in which the Right—despite its insistence on colorblindness—has conceded the need for at least token diversity (pg. 40).

Abate’s focus on culture-war fodder leads not only to a weirdly narrow view of conservatism, but of what qualifies as literature at all. More than simply reactionary, the titles that she analyzes are reactive, far too derivative and polemical to be considered art. None have aged well, and basing a book on them seems somewhat like tying a millstone around one’s neck. Perhaps some disgruntled parents buy these titles for their children, but Abate does little to prove that children read or are in any way inspired by them.

Rather than capturing conservative writing at its smallest, Abate could have written a much more meaningful book about what conservatives actually think will interest or ennoble their children. Prefacing her discussion of The Book of Virtues, for example, with selections from C.S. Lewis, Pilgrim’s Progress, McGuffey’s Readers, or other conservative favorites would accrue more historical weight to her argument and preclude the sort of caricature and dismissal that seems to underlie much of her analysis. If she were interested in more recent conservative titles, Alan Levinovitz (University of Chicago) has posted a provocative collection of them that bear serious consideration from parents and librarians.

The sort of treatment I have in mind appears in a recent Religion & Politics article by Molly Worthen (Yale, PhD. in American religious history), who sets out to explain evangelicals’ “special affection for Christian gurus of British extraction,” including Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Stott, and others. Ever since falling victim to the poison pen of H.L. Mencken, Worthen writes, American evangelicals “have been struggling to overcome an intellectual inferiority complex, to convince the wider world that confidence in the Bible’s authority is compatible with scholarly achievement.” British writers, unburdened by the anti-modernism and anti-intellectualism of American fundamentalists, provide a means to do so.

Worthen is not naive about this phenomenon. “Many evangelicals seem to idealize a long lost arcadia where professor-clergymen praise theology as queen of the sciences and manly Livingstonian missionaries conquer Africa in the name of Christendom,” she writes, “rather than Britannia as she truly is, secularist, multi-cultural warts and all. This is Anglophilia’s dark side. When it drives evangelicals to study in a grey Oxford tower because there no professor will force them to read books that challenge their preexisting ideas, or when it fetishizes sherry and tweed jackets as a highbrow varnish on small-minded prejudices, it becomes mere pretense.”

Nonetheless, Worthen applauds Christians’ efforts to wriggle out of their intellectual straightjackets, and welcomes the intellectual and spiritual space that transnational reading affords. It is that space, I suspect—with its mixture of insecurity, aspiration, tradition, and romanticism—that truly informs coming-of-age reading lists on the Right, much as the same values do on the Left.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Are these mainstream children’s stories that are typically found in common bookstores or libraries?
    Is there a discussion about how these books are marketed? In the early sixties the Catholic church would have suggested books to read and those that should not be read, are churches the main distribution centers?

  2. Good review Campbell. I agree with every bit of your assessment except when you say Abate’s overview of conservatism since the 1960s is decent. I wouldn’t even go that far in praise. As I wrote in a review of this book for the JAH:

    Abate positions her book as a contribution to the rapidly growing scholarship dedicated to recent American conservatism. Given the uniqueness of her subject matter relative to most conservatism historiography, she should have been able to achieve this objective. But her knowledge of conservatism is shallow. Abate is far too reliant on popular interpretations—such as Thomas Frank’s reductionist “What’s the Matter with Kansas”—and on dated scholarly paradigms, such as Richard Hofstadter’s “status anxiety” thesis, which she distills through an emblematic Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab quote: “In almost every generation, ‘old American’ groups which saw themselves ‘displaced,’ relatively demoted in status and power by processes rooted in social change, have sought to reverse these processes through the activities of moralistic movements or political action groups” (31). Notions that conservatives are more prone to false consciousness and status anxiety than other Americans were put to rest long ago.

    • “Notions that conservatives are more prone to false consciousness and status anxiety than other Americans were put to rest long ago.” Really? What’s the current dominant theory of conservatism? (I tried to get your JAH article but it’s behind a paywall.)

    • I can’t speak for Andrew, but if there’s a dominant narrative of the history of conservatism among professional historians, its foundation is probably George Nash’s Conservative Intellectual Movement in American Since 1945. The strain of argument that sees U.S. conservatives (in Lionel Trilling’s famous phrase) as not expressing themselves “in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas” really has been abandoned by folks who study the right.

    • Hmmm … I read Nash’s book a long time ago, shortly after it was published, when I was on the Right myself, and I still have the book on my shelves. But Nash appears to me to answer a different question from the one asked here. I certainly agree that it is nonsense to dismiss American conservatism as lacking in intellectual content. But I find it equally implausible to portray conservatism as the outcome of pure and innocent ratiocination. Even the subtlest and most articulately expressed theories can be motivated, at least in part, by irrational, even disreputable, sociological factors. That is, they can be ideologies, in the pejorative Marxist sense. And one does not have to agree entirely with Marx or Adorno to see conservatism, or certain strands within it, that way. Even accepting Nash’s analysis of American conservatism as a synthesis of libertarianism, traditionalism, and anti-Communism, one can ask what *their* sociological roots are. Is there a consensus on that?

  3. From your description, Campbell, it seems that Abate limits herself in two distinct ways that deserve to be distinguished from each other: by looking exclusively (?) at books published in the last half century and by looking at conservatives only in that same time period.

    As you note, actually taking account of what conservatives during this period read, and encouraged parents (and children) to read, points one toward a whole list of older books. In addition, getting a better sense of the longer history of what conservatives urged parents (and their children) to read seems like a good idea. But these are two separate issues, IMO.

  4. Paul: Abate covers a range of books. Some, like “The Book of Virtues,” are quite mainstream. (I think my mother bought me a copy when I was in high school. Perhaps tellingly, I did not read it…) Others, like “The Truax” are much less so. My impression is that most of them are marketed by the same sort of right-wing “info-tainment” media that pushes the adult versions of those books: Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, etc. As for religious distribution of this sort of material, I do know that many Catholic schools in the 1960s were handing out an alternative comic book series called “This Godless Communism.” You can get a sample issue here:

    http://www.authentichistory.com/1946-1960/4-cwhomefront/7-comics/tcgodless/This_Godless_Communism_1961.html

    Andrew: Thanks. One tries to be charitable with these things (especially as a young scholar), and concision was the best compliment I could muster. What was it that Pope wrote about faint praise? Ah, yes…

    Douglas: Yes, the study of conservatism has moved on, but you could be forgiven your confusion. Many books in the popular press (Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”, Mann’s “Welcome to the Homeland,” and others) still rely on condescending notions of false consciousness, racism, and status anxiety to characterize the right. Even some academics seem to implicitly embrace that position. More compelling interpretations have come out in recent years. Some of my favorites include Shane Hamilton’s “Trucking Country” and Bethany Moreton’s “To Serve God and Wal-Mart,” both of which take seriously the nexus between free-market ideology and working-class interests and take dead aim at the “What’s the Matter With Kansas” thesis. For general overviews of the rise of the conservative movement, you might see Kim Philips-Fein’s recent historiographical essay in the JAH.

    Ben: To some degree those older books remain alive and well, so I am not sure that it is simply a question of periodization. (Moreover, while one would think that conservatives by definition draw from an older canon, the longevity of Charlotte’s Web, To Kill a Mockingbird, and similar titles suggest that liberals too seek to preserve a golden age of children’s fiction.) I suggested the Levinovitz essay because there are plenty of recent, high-quality books put out by conservative authors.

    The point of the review overall, I suppose, is that it seems disingenuous to characterize partisan schlock as representative of “children’s literature” on either side of the political spectrum.

    Best regards to all,
    Cam Scribner

  5. Cam, thanks for this post, and for the tips on updated analyses of conservatism. I assume the Phillips-Fein AJH paper you’re referring to is “Conservatism: a state of the field” (December 2011)?

    I’ve read Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, and I didn’t feel it was condescending or misguided so much as incomplete and superficial. I think you’ll find that ex-conservatives (like Frank and me) are especially hard on the Right. The false consciousness, racism, and status anxiety do exist, and we’ve experienced them first-hand (and second-hand from conservatives of our personal acquaintance). Likewise, to someone who was introduced to Jack Chick cartoons in a Christian bookstore at age 14, “partisan schlock” is, if not entirely representative, at least a prominent part of the picture.

    On the other hand, Frank was overreaching by trying to turn these tawdry realities into a comprehensive sociological theory of the Right. If right-wing economic theories had no appeal of their own, I don’t think American social conservatives would have bought into them en masse, either as dupes or in a conscious sacrifice of economics to “values”. It’s good to hear that scholars like Hamilton and Moreton are addressing the independent sociological appeal of free-market economics.

    I would especially like to see more historians, sociologists, and political theorists attempt to engage right-libertarianism seriously, and trace its connections with left-libertarianism and anarchism. The Right and Left versions of libertarianism share a lot of common assumptions and theoretical apparatus, yet they lead to totally different programs of action and policy. Constructing an ideological wormhole between the Right and Left versions of libertarianism may well be the most promising strategy for bringing about mass defections from the Right.

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