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The Central Liberal Truth
How Politics Can Change A Culture and Save It From Itself

by Lawrence E. Harrison

      The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.
-Daniel Patrick Moynihan

The Central Liberal Truth opens with the above quote, before going on to analyze how and why politics can -and sometimes cannot- bring about the necessary changes. A compelling case for the fact that culture matters is made with an opening discussion of how Haiti and the Dominican Republicís different heritages led to very different societies, despite their joint occupation of the island of Hispaniola. The book then analyzes elements of culture, based on worldview, values/virtues, economic behavior, and social behavior, in terms of their being progress-prone or progress-resistant. After discussing how these elements of culture are transmitted, the author goes on to apply all this to deconstruct real world cases where meaningful changes occurred or failed. The book concludes with prescriptions on how to effectively use politics for progressive change, and commentary on what to avoid doing.

Interesting enough as an intellectual exercise, this also has practical applications to such things as the Bush administrationís efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the Moynihan quote places squarely on the liberal side, unlikely as that seems. However, the analyses and examples in the book, even when dealing with other situations, help illuminate why the attempts at change there have so far fallen short of a stable, unqualified success. The book also provides plentiful food for thought about whatís happening and why in other places around the world, from continuing violence and poverty in parts of Africa to the varied statuses of the remnants of the USSR.

Fascinating and thought-provoking as it was, I did have one real frustration. The book is actually the distillation of the authorís three year Culture Matters Research Project at Tufts University, and as such continually references content in other volumes from the same project. That makes this feel almost like a Cliff Notes version where you still have to buy the Ďrealí book to get everything. Thereís plenty of meat here though, so itís more of a frustrating impression than a true problem. Definitely an annoyance, though. Regardless, The Central Liberal Truth has given me an interesting new lens through which to view world events. Recommended.

The Book

Oxford University Press
May 2006
Non-fiction: Sociology/Politics
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The Reviewer

Kim Malo
Reviewed 2006
© 2006