The Magazine

Whose Fault Is It?

Laying the blame for blame.

May 14, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 33 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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Unfortunately, that’s only the beginning of the troubles here. Campbell’s description of the Dreyfus case is somehow both overdetailed and unclear, and the woolly section on psychology wanders through psychic structures, cognitive dissonance, and Carl Jung without ever convincing us that the author understands any of it.

Even the clearer parts of the book have a taint about them. Witch-dunking, Jew-baiting, McCarthyism, the king’s favorite. They all read like potted history: mugged up bits of almost-learning, plundered from standard secondary sources. When How the Irish Saved Civilization moved onto the bestseller list in 1995 it became publishers’ favorite model for how to write popular history: Throw a bunch of swotted-up facts together in a small narrative with a big thesis, and there you go. 

Lightweight as How the Irish Saved Civilization was, its epigoni have slipped further and further down into mediocrity. Not bad, exactly, but not good. How Blame Almost Wrecked Civilization—that’s what Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People is, in essence. Not the all-explanatory key to what’s wrong with books today, but a pretty good symbol.

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.