Editor’s note: This book review by Jon Sanders first appeared at the American Institute for Economic Research.
“Jen realized she had never experienced this before — profound cognitive dissonance.”
A moment of crisis strikes the title character of George Leef’s new novel, “The Awakening of Jennifer Van Arsdale”(Bombardier Books, 2022). How will Jen handle it? Does she suppress the feeling and practice what George Orwell called Doublethink: “The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them?”
Or does her mind reject the contradiction and actively seek out the truth?
In his story, Leef offers what his subtitle calls “A Political Fable For Our Time.” Jen is a progressive political journalist for the Washington Post, highly skilled at crafting what real-life practitioners call “the narrative.”
It’s a telling term of today’s journalism, “narrative.” It implies storytelling, which is not a recounting of facts but more the sort of “storytelling” that Southern moms talk about when they warn their little ones about lying. Not long ago, as I can personally attest, the craft of journalism still aimed to give readers the who, what, when, where, why, and how in as expeditious and compelling a fashion as possible, this to keep readers’ attention long enough to be fully informed. Now it’s to withhold from readers as much of the who, what, when, where, why, and how as possible to slop out a graspable “narrative,” signaling what they are supposed to think about something and nothing more. An editorializing “news” headline now usually suffices.
Leef’s protagonist, we learn, is a news storyteller par excellence.
It’s this gift of hers that leads to Jen getting the offer of a lifetime. Her idol, the nation’s first female president, Patricia Farnsworth, has asked her to write her official biography, and she’s agreed. Farnsworth remembered how one of Jen’s deftly delivered fictions helped torpedo her first opponent’s campaign. Jen called it “my own ‘October Surprise,’” and she did it unflinchingly out of a then-unquestioned commitment to her idea of the greater good. As president, “Pat” radically remade America, working outside and around constitutional barriers.
Before her awakening, Jen’s view of the former president was heroic:
Pat Farnsworth had united the country, virtually eliminated unemployment, ensured medical care for all, and ended America’s addiction to fossil fuels, among many other great accomplishments. For any president to have so transformed the country, putting equality, safety, and social justice ahead of the nation’s old obsessions with money and profit and founding principles was amazing. And that it was a woman who had done it was truly something to savor.
Her interviews with Farnsworth take place at Pat’s sumptuous California mansion nestled amid the shocking, crime-ridden squalor of Laguna Beach. Jen registers but dismisses the contradiction. In those interviews, readers pick up how Farnsworth consolidated power. It included finagling a Senate majority, eliminating the filibuster, packing (“revitalizing”) the Supreme Court, and then, far from reaping the usual political rewards of such an imbalance of power, she tore on. Her unchallengeable Court began issuing preemptive “advisory opinions” on matters not even before the Court or worse, on older matters previously decided (chosen for such review on the arbitrary question of “Did the old case obstruct the ability of the government to bring about needed reforms?”). Naturally, speech and gun rights were among the earliest casualties, but more importantly, freedom-minded organizations that usually challenge such illiberal grabs decided not to fight a lost cause.
Next, she federalized elections and “won” a second term walking away. To get rid of “dissidents,” she weaponized federal agencies against them, threatened and incentivized Big Tech to shut them out, and relied on runaway courts to punish them. Her mantra was a chilling ode to autocracy: “The worst abuse of power is not to use it to accomplish something good.”
A reader could be forgiven for failing to remember Leef’s book is fable, not prophecy.
From this perspective, Farnsworth is a tyrant as vicious and unfeeling as any granite-brained Communist premier. But it wasn’t a perspective Jen could share. That started to change, however, when she was attacked in the police-deserted streets of Laguna Beach and saved by a man her preloaded ideology could not have imagined.
The man is a retired electrician, a Navy veteran, who out of concern for his crumbling community has been patrolling the streets with a few like-minded others. He’s black. And he has an illegal gun. For which Jen was very grateful.
Will was there when she needed a hero, and Jen wanted to know more about him. And what she learned brought her to her moment of profound cognitive dissonance. Will lamented the devastation wrought to his state by “power-hungry politicians,” including the former Gov. Farnsworth. He talked about the piles of laws and regulations that made it “harder and harder to run a business, to find good workers, to afford a home.” Education didn’t prepare kids for life and work. Electricity has become a luxury when it used to be an afterthought, and so has water. Misuse of eminent domain has led to tent cities for the homeless. Systemic election fraud ensured voters were stuck with the leaders responsible for it all. As Will talks and Jen probes, she gets surprising answers about many things, including transportation, gun policies, crime, racial reparations, diversity policies, and what Will called “group equality rhetoric.”
Will also tells her of the group formed by his late wife, Veronica, “the Free People of Laguna Beach,” who help each other with various services and also offer the missing sense of community that years of misrule has robbed them of. His wife, we learn, had died of an undiagnosed brain tumor because COVID-19 restrictions forbid her from seeking treatment of her headaches. The same heartlessness wouldn’t allow her a proper funeral.
To Jen’s credit, she wants to meet the Free People, and when she does, she continues to realize things aren’t at all what she has been told to think inside the Beltway. Now a major problem looms: What is Jen going to write in her book?
One of the strengths of Leef’s book is understanding what motivates Jen. Like us, she navigates a forced binary world of viewing all political choices in Marvel comics terms. Every policy question about which people may reasonably differ, which involve trade-offs, is instead seen through an apocalyptic lens of Good vs. Evil, and the fate of the entire world hinges on the choice. With so much at stake, persuasion is abandoned, and victory “by any means necessary” becomes all that matters.
At its core, though, Jen’s concern is to do good, serving the greater good as she sees it. As Leef explains, “Her political philosophy was premised on the need for government to protect ordinary people against the greedy designs of business.” Sincerity of her desire for the protection of ordinary people sets her apart from the tyrant Farnsworth.
In her pre-awakened naivete, Jen lacked three important insights: one, that other people, at least equally well-intentioned, wanting to produce the greater good for society, can differ from her without evil intent; two, their ideas and choices could even be better, so having government preclude them could actually serve a greater bad; and three, greedy, power-hungry politicians like Farnsworth can take advantage of (and even inculcate) this notion of disagreement being rooted in evil in order to destroy their political foes, be they citizen, tradition, or constitution.
Jen’s experience and discussions with Will and the Free People — which form the heart of The Awakening of Jennifer Van Arsdale — help her gain the first two insights. Her conservations with others from Farnsworth’s past drive home the third.
Something else helps Jen along the way: her love for classical music, a truth of art that transcends the progressive reflex to tear greatness down and think it can simply be replaced. From the very beginning, she knows the “narrative” among her fellow progressives is that classical music is “‘problematic’ due to its ‘white male dominance,’” but she also knows that’s bunk. Even so, when she attends a concert she takes an absurd amount of precautions to avoid being recognized.
Despite her professional devotion to political expediency over objective truth, when it came to music, Jen saw clearly:
Why did they have to let ideology get in the way of objectivity and fairness? Yes, the world of classical music was largely white, but all that people really cared about was the music. If you could play well enough, nobody cared about anything else about you. You close your eyes and listen. As for composers, the ones who were most popular had achieved their rank because they connected listeners most deeply with the music, not because of their race or sexual identity.
In America, it was possible to fake many things. You could pretend to be an artist by splashing paint on a canvas. You could pretend to be a writer by producing word salads. But to compose great music took real talent. No one had come along with enough of that to shoulder aside Bach, Beethoven, and Liszt.
If [progressive critics] got their way and forced classical music to be “equitable,” music lovers would suffer. And America wouldn’t be the slightest bit better, either.
Jen was to discover a mutual enjoyment of classical music with her friends among the Free. They shared this universal language even before they shared other ideas in common.
With this perception, Leef’s fable evinces a subtle optimism. The lesson for those of us who hew to the idea of objective truth and are perplexed by the Jens around us is that there are areas where they reject relativism. These areas will be personal and studied and will provide inroads to opening their eyes to the eternal values of freedom for individuals rather than collectivism enforced by greedy, selfish politicians (who are not gods or superheroes, but people with flaws).
For some it will be the impropriety of inculcating the youngest among us with highly controversial, very adult issues rather than teaching them phonics and math. For others it will be overrunning sports with political posturing. For some, art; for some, architecture; and for some, cuisine. I know a fellow lover of Shakespeare who is a progressive but who abandoned longstanding financial support of a regional Shakespeare theater when it suddenly announced alignment with the demands of something called the “We See You White American Theater” manifesto.
With “The Awakening of Jennifer Van Arsdale,” Leef shows that someone who truly wants the best for their neighbors and fellow citizens cannot forever ignore the compounding contradictions of rote progressivism. The seeds of recognition are there, and with them, the hope of a flowering appreciation for truth and individual liberty.
Some may even find this awakening through Leef’s fable itself.
Jon Sanders is senior fellow of regulatory studies and research editor at the John Locke Foundation.