Allen West’s new book, Guardian of the Republic covers a lot of ground in 200 pages, establishing not just where West is coming from, but where an American republic with liberty and limited government is coming from. You might not have thought you’d pick up Allen West’s book and find yourself reading about Locke and Rousseau, as well as the framers of the U.S. Constitution. Silly you.
As befits a laconic professional warrior, West doesn’t actually spend that much time on his own biography. He credits his parents, “Buck and Snooks,” with instilling in him the values and character that set him on the road to a meaningful life he clearly relishes. In fact, he gives them credit for the breadth of educational and cultural interests that introduced him to The Seven Samurai, the iconic 1954 film directed by Akiro Kurasawa, which he recounts watching as a boy. The story stirred a lifelong interest in the code of bushido and the knightly figures of samurai and ronin.
West’s characterization of himself as an “American ronin” is interesting in its own right. A ronin, of course, is a samurai who has lost his lord and master in one way or another, whether by death or the master’s fall from grace with an overlord. West counts himself as having become a ronin when both of his parents had passed away (his mother went second, in the mid-1990s).
But I suspect he sees other ways in which he could be considered a ronin: not just his retirement from the Army – under circumstances which, although honorable, closed the door on a future with the Army – but his status as an outsider vis-à-vis the establishment GOP in Washington.
Certainly, his status as a black conservative could be seen in that light. And, in fact, he alludes to that particular qualification, if perhaps a bit obliquely, in an extended discussion of the diverging political visions of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois (Chapter 8, “The Soul of Our Souls”) . It is Du Bois’ radical, restive, divisive vision which has become the ruling narrative of American political discourse on race and society. But West’s samurai-sword is not a servant to that narrative, any more than it is a servant to establishmentarianism in Republican politics.
For those who have eyes to see, West’s personal story and reflections stand as a beacon illuminating a past too many of today’s Americans don’t know we have. West and I are about the same age, and the American childhood he writes about, in the 1960s and ‘70s, resonates with me as deeply familiar.
There were hard-working parents, extended family, neighbors, friends; there was the sense of a family “legacy,” a history of what “we” were about; there was plenty of scrimping and saving, if little money to speak of and few luxuries. There was an emphasis on education, alongside a definable community – of neighborhoods, shopkeepers, professionals, mothers, men of the cloth – in which children ran tame and polite. And there was the church, which one not only attended on Sunday but was in and out of during the week, for activities and service, events and meetings.
I have noted this resonance on many occasions over the years, especially when talking with my fellows in uniform. But how many younger Americans today know how commonplace it actually is, that a black man and a white woman of Allen West’s age and mine have the same memories of childhood and family life? How many understand that the point West makes about it, in Chapter 8, is valid: that Buck and Snooks West’s family was not some anomaly that “acted white,” but that God, faith, marriage, family, honor, respectability, high standards, and striving are authentic in black America, which puts its own distinctively American stamp on them?
Don’t take my word for it. Read West’s book. He calls it being “old school.” It’s something Thomas Sowell has documented as statistically prevalent in the decades before Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” was launched in 1964 – which makes it all the more tragic that too many of the statistics have seen reversals in the wrong direction in the decades since. Sowell’s treatments, in books like Ethnic America (1981) and Black Rednecks and White Liberals (2005), are necessarily somewhat clinical, if no less compelling because of that. But West’s story, personal and engaging, will give many readers a uniquely memorable perspective.
West devotes 100 fast-moving pages to laying out the American philosophy of government, and the policy ideas that flow from it. He does a nice job. A few pages into it, I was concerned that the treatment might be too simplified. But I find that it rings true, and that it’s likely to reach more people than the much longer works of, say, Russell Kirk or Friederich Hayek.
As with his brief biographical sketch, I can see this treatise opening the eyes of younger people who have never had the premises of American government and American values presented to them in this way. Even college graduates who’ve read excerpts from Locke or Montesquieu in political philosophy courses might well benefit from seeing the classical-liberal argument presented so directly. So much of our Western philosophical heritage has been distorted to fit the Marxist, statist-progressive narrative that students now have few touchstones with the reality of our past.
A small vignette described by West on p. 74 is telling:
I recall speaking to a political science class at Florida Atlantic University and expressing in my opening remarks that today’s modern conservatism is most closely aligned with classical liberalism, with its theories of individual sovereignty, limited government, and inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property. Well, the students went apoplectic, shouting their derision, until I turned to the professor and asked the simple question, “Am I correct, sir?” To the students’ dismay, the answer was yes.
Just another way in which Allen West can be seen as a ronin.
There’s a lot that could be made of the ronin metaphor, for any guardian of the republic in today’s troubled America. What things have died in recent decades – or fallen – and from what fealties has the legion of America’s guardian ronin been released? The whole idea has interesting possibilities, the more so as our governments, old media, and political leaders divorce themselves from the “old school” America to which West refers. He closes the circle by defining the philosophy and values of that “old school,” and summing them up as a code, which he, like a samurai-ronin, lives by.
There’s been much attention to his book’s cover, on which he appears – in impeccable suit and tie, with his Army haircut – on a Honda VTX 1800. The simple, direct image is emblematic of West’s approach in composing the book. He doesn’t temporize or pull punches.
In fact, Guardian of the Republic, which is written accessibly and reads quickly, would give a lot of American teenagers things to think about that no one has suggested to them before. I’m thinking it should be on required reading lists. Don’t fail to put it on yours.