Books

The Strategy that Dare Not Speak Its Name

AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
A s the past weeks of debate over action in Syria have shown, it’s nearly impossible to discuss U.S. policy toward the Middle East without discussing Iran, and concerns over the possibility that it could obtain a nuclear weapon. Over the past three decades, the U.S. approach to the region has been, if not entirely defined by the tension between Americans and Islamic Republic, then strongly colored by it. For its part, Iran has, to a considerable extent, defined itself in opposition to the United States, the sponsor of the oppressive Shah who was overthrown in the 1979 revolution. A key foreign policy goal of the Islamic Republic is undermining and rolling back the U.S.’s influence in the neighborhood which it considers itself the natural hegemon of. That bid for regional influence was given a generous boost by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which removed Iran’s bitterest foe, Saddam Hussein, whose invasion of Iran in 1980 sparked the massively destructive eight-year war that...

Rise of the “Nones”

America’s rapidly changing religious landscape

AP Photo/The Southern Illinoisan, Thomas Barker
AP Photo/The Southern Illinoisan, Steve Jahnke I n the two years leading up to his death this past February, the legal and political philosopher Ronald Dworkin was completing a slim volume with a weighty title. Religion without God , which began as a series of lectures in 2011, set a lofty goal: to propose a “religious attitude” in the absence of belief. Dworkin’s objective was not just theological. The book, he hoped, would help lower the temperature in the past decade’s battle between a group of scientists and philosophers dubbed the New Atheists and an array of critics who have accused them of everything from Islamophobia to fundamentalism to heresy. Although the New Atheists are part of a long and distinguished tradition, including (but not limited to) philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Bertrand Russell, they are notable because they have made atheism a pop success in the U.S. Since the 2004 publication of Sam Harris’s post–September 11 polemic, The End of...

We Shall Overwhelm

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite
AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite F our years ago, the modern Tea Party seemed to emerge from nowhere, leaving journalists bewildered and the public with few reference points to understand seemingly spontaneous rallies by middle-class people seeking lower tax rates. A search for the phrase “tea party” in connection with “politics” in major newspapers yielded fewer than 100 mentions in 2008—and when the words did appear linked together, they suggested studied formality and decorum. The next year, they appeared more than 1,500 times, often connected to “protest demonstration.” But little was spontaneous about the new party. “Social movements that explicitly defend the interests of the rich and the almost-rich have been a recurring feature of American politics,” Isaac William Martin, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, reminds us in his new book, Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent . “Such movements shook the American polity before the...

Reagan's Court v. the Libertarians'

I n 1983, Chief Justice Warren Burger asked Congress to create a new national appeals court to resolve cases the Supreme Court was too busy to hear. At the Reagan White House, a cheeky 28-year-old Harvard Law graduate named John G. Roberts was horrified. “The President we serve has long campaigned against government bureaucracy and the excessive role of the federal courts,” Roberts wrote to White House Counsel Fred Fielding. Burger’s proposal would create “an additional bureaucratic structure to permit the federal courts to do more than they already do.” Anyway, Roberts continued, the Supreme Court already made too many decisions. “There are practical limits on the capacity of the Justices, and those limits are a significant check preventing the Court from usurping even more of the prerogatives of the other branches. The generally-accepted notion that the Court can only hear roughly 150 cases each term gives the same sense of reassurance as the adjournment of the Court in July, when...

On Seamus Heaney, Who Made Me Love Poetry

The Irish poet and Nobel laureate is dead at the age of 74. 

Seamus Heaney made me love poetry. There you have it, the schmaltz, right up top. But it is true, so I have to say it and today is as good a day as any to do so, because Seamus Heaney died while we were sleeping, at the age of 74. He was a teacher, a Nobel Laureate, and as you will surely read many times over in the coming days, the greatest Irish poet since Yeats and his swans. Heaney was born in Toombridge, Northern Ireland and much of his work was set in and spoke of life in Ulster—the ancient region that encompasses what is now the politically divided northern portion of the Irish island. Before it was revised to read “Derry,” the BBC’s obituary for Heaney called the county of his birth “Londonderry,” the name for the area favored by the British. It was a fitting reminder of the contorted history of the region—“The Troubles,” the euphemistic name for the violence that shaped life in the North, found its epicenter in Derry. Or, “Free Derry,” as the wall would have it. Though his...

Nikki Giovanni Remembers 1963 with a New Poem

AP Photo/Jim Wells
AP Photo/Steve Helber Nikki Giovanni is one of America’s most famous poets. She is a New York Times bestseller, a one-time Woman of the Year winner from Mademoiselle and Ebony magazines, a recipient of the first Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award, and a holder of a Langston Hughes Medal. She wrote that “writing is … what I do to justify the air I breathe.” Below is a poem she penned for the Prospect , reflecting on the March on Washington 50 years later. We, too I was home In Lincoln Heights Named for Abraham As many other small black Communities are Only 20 years old Not cowardly I had picketed Rich’s Department Store in Knoxville I sat in with Fisk University In Nashville But not all that Brave Mommy didn’t want Me to go Neither did my father and I wondered Would it matter 50 years later I know It did We watched We prayed We, too, were inspired I didn’t go I stayed home And reminded myself: We also serve Who sit And Wait Jenny Warburg Nikki Giovanni, currently an English professor...

Near-Death Experiences Getting Slightly Less Mysterious

Flickr/Telstar2000
The nonfiction publishing phenomenon of 2011 and 2012 was, without a doubt, Heaven Is For Real , an account of a three-year-old boy who during surgery visited heaven, where he met Jesus, who rides on a "rainbow horse." Young Colton Burpo's father Todd attested that it just had to be true, since Colton knew details he could never have learned elsewhere, like the fact that Jesus had marks on his hands. Sure, Todd Burpo is a pastor and the family is intensely religious, but still. It couldn't possibly have been a dream, right? Heaven Is For Real has sold an incredible 7.5 million copies, and is now in its 142nd week on The New York Times paperback non-fiction bestseller list . The top spot on that list is held by this year's nonfiction publishing phenomenon, Proof of Heaven , a neurosurgeon's account of how he fell into a coma and went you know where. It's "proof," you see, because the doctor had an extended vacation amongst the clouds, when his brain was, he says, "shut down." Could it...

Take Me Out with the Crowd

AP Images/Ron Frehm
N ative Texans living elsewhere raise their children to be expats, fluent in the motherland’s culture. So, growing up in Virginia, I was well versed in the six flags of Texas and the Battle of the Alamo. I learned from my grandfather to shape my chubby toddler hands into the “Hook ’Em” shape every University of Texas fan knows. I understood that our family cheered for the Dallas Cowboys, and never the Washington Redskins. In baseball, in good, bad, and heart-wrenchingly disappointing times, we pulled for the Houston Astros, the team my father had rooted for since 1962, when (as the Colt .45s) they became the first major league team in Texas. My earliest baseball love was the Astros’ first baseman Glenn Davis, a power hitter called up to the major leagues a month before I was born in 1984. According to family lore, as a baby I would point to Davis as my favorite player, and when I was old enough to write, I sent him a letter asking him to be my best friend. Then disaster struck. In...

All the News that's Fit to Reprint

Todd Williamson/Invision/AP
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP T he opening scene of The Newsroom ’s second season, debuting Sunday on HBO, won’t do a hell of a lot to increase creator Aaron Sorkin’s popularity with women. Marcia Gay Harden guests as a brusque in-house attorney deposing news anchor Will McAvoy about a story the fictitious Atlantic Cable News channel blew badly—erroneously reporting that the Obama administration used nerve gas during a black-ops operation in Pakistan. “Fuck me,” our lady lawyer finally snaps, exasperated by Will’s arch banter. (She’s not alone in that feeling, believe me.) After a pause, Will—ever the gentleman—turns to the other dudes in the room. “Well, would one of you fuck Ms. Halliday, please?” he asks. You have to feel for Harden when her character is obliged to soften, smile, and concede that the joke’s on her. On this show even more than his earlier ones, or maybe just more noticeably, Sorkin tends to divide his female characters among bitches, waifs, annoying ninnies, and...

Coming to Do Good, Staying to Do Well

D.C. is filled with young, dizzying ambition. This Town wishes the old-timers knew better.  

AP Images/Stephen J. Boltano
AP Images/ Stephen J. Boltano For 20 years, since the weekend of Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, I have rented against all financial prudence an apartment in Washington, D.C. even though I really live in Manhattan. So, at least in a real-estate sense, I can rightfully claim to be both part of political Washington and an authentic subway-riding, theater-going, real-bagel-chomping outsider. I have no regrets about moving from D.C. to New York in 1983 at a time when reporter friends were bragging about playing tennis with Paul Laxalt who—as anyone who mattered knew—was Ronald Reagan’s closest friend on Capitol Hill. Washington, then as now, was a city of truncated life possibilities: Everyone was either in government, a lawyer, a lobbyist, a journalist or in transition between two of these exalted states of being. But I still nurture a bemused attachment to Washington—the shining city of my post-college youth, the place where I once walked the corridors of other people’s power. Which...

When It Comes to Kindles, Do You "Like" or Unlink?

Social reading will bring us together while restoring a long tradition in the history of the book. Still … 

flickr/kirainet
flickr/thekellyscope A t night, I find incredible pleasure in my Kindle. I pick up all 7.8 ounces of it, palm it, turn out the lights. Then, the only physical act required is a small swipe of my finger across an index-card-size piece of glass. I can choose to go almost anywhere, as long as I am willing to pay. The Kindle offers the purest form of immersive reading I have ever experienced. There is something narcotic about it. As scholar Alan Jacobs writes, “Once you start reading a book on the Kindle—and this is equally true of the other e-readers I’ve tried—the technology generates an inertia that makes it significantly easier to keep reading than to do anything else.” The compulsion to keep reading stems partially from the lack of distractions: E-books, thin, gray, and under-designed, shear off the blurbs and author bios and test-marketed book-jacket covers. But when I am reading on my Kindle, I am not alone. While swiping my fingers across the pages of Stephen Greenblatt’s The...

All Tomorrow’s Parties

Gay Equality 1, Civil Rights 0 – join us in wondering how to celebrate this Fourth of July. (Hint: not by seeing Johnny Depp’s new movie, that’s for sure.)

AP Photo/The Omaha World-Herald, Brynn Anderson
AP Photo C all it coincidence, but my bedside reading for the past couple of weeks has been the new two-volume boxed set of the Library of America’s Reporting Civil Rights . Awe-inducing and frequently thrilling, this monumental anthology of on-the-scene coverage of the fight for black equality features contributions by scores of writers, some rightly renowned—James Baldwin, Garry Wills, et. al.—and some unjustly obscure. Part One deals with the years 1941-1963; Part Two tackles the pressure-cooker decade that followed King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Each volume also includes a sheaf of photographs, primarily of the writers themselves at the time. They’re often evocative ones, even if the era’s great photojournalism—no less worthy of commemoration—gets short shrift as a result. Anyway, I won’t pretend I’ve made much more than a dent in the set’s almost 2,000 pages. But that’s not the point, since Reporting Civil Rights could easily keep my idle hours occupied until Christmas. (Not...

Putin Loves Me, Putin Loves Me Not

A conversation with the author of a new book about the Russian president, touching on fomenting dissent in the country, Syria, and the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool, File
AP Photo/Alexei Vladykin R ussian President Vladimir Putin has earned Western fascination with his over-the-top motorcycle riding and judo-fighting public persona, aggressive foreign policy, and his seemingly captivating power over the Russian people. However, Putin’s third term has quickly proven that, with a restless Moscow middle class increasingly discontent with his authoritarianism and local activists fed up with the corruption of the capital, the love affair between Russia and Putin may not be one for the ages. In his new book, Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin (Yale University Press) Ben Judah, who grew up the son of a Balkans reporter and whose earliest memories are of the collapse of communism in Bulgaria, explains Putin’s fall from popularity and its context in the greater narrative of modern Russia. Judah, a former reporter and current Russia analyst for the European Stability Initiative, spoke to the Prospect about Syria, dissent...

Mo' Children, Mo' Problems

Are the parents of only children selfish? Maybe, but Lauren Sandler’s new book says that's okay.

Courtesy of Nona Willis Aronowitz
Courtesy of Nona Willis Aronowitz The author with her mother, feminist and author Ellen Willis, and father, professor and labor activist Stanley Aronowitz in 1986 W hen I was around six years old, I begged my parents for a younger sister. When she failed to materialize, I dreamed up Shelly, who showed up in family portraits I drew in art class with a frilly dress and a Pebbles ponytail. When friends came over, I told them she was with the babysitter. At school, I bragged about my bottle-feeding skills. After my teacher made a concerned phone call about my lies, my mother—a journalist and feminist activist who had me at 42—sat me on her lap, and we had a surprisingly candid conversation about why she wasn’t going to have another baby. In her late 40s, she could have copped out and told me that biology wouldn’t let her. Instead, she brushed a curl from my face and said: “We’re happy with just you.” I thought about this moment halfway through Lauren Sandler’s new book, One and Only: The...

Agee, Before He Was Famous

Can a rediscovered first draft of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men speak more directly to our time than the finished masterpiece? 

Library of Congress
B y age 26, James Agee had spent four years at Fortune , the glossy magazine created by Henry Luce to celebrate the American business class, filing un-bylined reportage on topics like orchid cultivation and cockfighting and the occasional skeptical item on how the new Tennessee Valley Authority was playing out. Most writers would consider it a plum job, especially in the early 1930s. But Agee, politically progressive and instinctively adversarial, was uneasy over the magazine’s thrall to the lavish life. He had ambitions worthy of a Blake or a Dostoevsky: highly personal, mythic literature meant to get “as near truth and whole truth as is humanly possible,” as he put it in a letter in early 1936. A few months later, Agee got an assignment that spoke to his ideals. As part of Fortune ’s “Life and Circumstances” series, he was to travel to Southern cotton country and live among poor working families. Agee had grown up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and he descended from Southern Appalachian...

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