Books

Country Noir

Flickr/Matt Carman
Flickr/Matt Carman O ne spring morning two years ago, a woman left her house—a small white one, its porch overrun by toys and exercise equipment—and dropped off her kids at the Sunman Elementary School. Sunman is a tiny town that spreads across the flat farmland of Southern Indiana. State Road 101 is the main drag, and the woman drove down it, past the IGA with its twin gas pumps, past the Family Dollar, past a bar named Louie’s, until she reached home. Stanley Short, her estranged husband, was waiting inside. When she entered, Short hit her on the head with a hammer, then bound her to a bed with zip ties and duct tape. He cut her shirt off with a carpet knife and raped her. After several hours the woman came up with an excuse for why they needed to leave. If she didn’t pay the electricity bill, the utility would shut off her power. With Short in the passenger seat, she headed back out on 101 until she spotted a group of men talking outside the Sunman Auction House. The woman swerved...

The New Deal That Could Have Been

Courtesy W. W. Norton and Company
I nvoking “dysfunction” is now the basic black of punditry about American politics. As the British political theorist David Runciman recently observed in the London Review of Books , “Commentators find it almost impossible to write about American democracy these days without reaching for the word ‘dysfunctional.’” Consider the lowlights of our political culture in just the past 15 years: a puerile impeachment; the subsequent president elected via a Supreme Court filled with political allies; a radicalized Republican Party, convinced that taxation and domestic government spending are a form of socialism; a failure by bipartisan elites even to prioritize, let alone tackle, continued high unemployment and the looming catastrophe of climate change. As Runciman’s editors titled his own essay on America’s lumbering democracy, “How can it work?” Courtesy of W. W. Nortn and Company It is one measure of the power of Ira Katznelson’s important, overstuffed new book, Fear Itself: The New Deal...

Data Comes to the Culture Wars

A sociologist runs the numbers on charges of liberal campus bias.

flickr / World Bank Photo Collection
R emember the good old days of the early culture wars? Oh, how I wistfully long for the late 1980s and early 1990s, when higher education was under sharp attack. It was then that Allan Bloom called out his colleagues for closing the American mind, and E.D. Hirsch surveyed the scene and wondered where all the cultural literacy had gone. Faculty, graduate students, and liberal defenders of American higher education bristled against these charges, to be sure. Yet this was elevated discourse compared to the knuckle-dragging anti-intellectualism of today’s assaults on the academy. Gone are Bloom’s and Hirsch’s pious—if precious—reverence for great ideas and students capable of tussling with them. Now we are left with the spectacle of conservatives trying to outflank each other by trash-talking “liberal intellectuals” and the refuge they find in American universities. Only by understanding how crucial these attacks are to conservative identity can we make sense of the jockeying among the...

Sheryl Sandberg’s Can-Do Feminism

AP Photo/Gregory Bull
AP Photo/Gregory Bull Sheryl Sandberg at a luncheon for the American Society of News Editors in San Diego in 2011 I n 1956, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg entered Harvard Law School, her class of more than 500 students included nine women and one black man. Erwin Griswold, the school’s dean, summoned the nine women and asked each to answer a question: How could she justify taking a place that would otherwise have gone to a man? Griswold would later insist he’d just been playing devil’s advocate. Ginsburg, who still tells this story with a tinge of resentment, emerged from the meeting determined to prove him wrong. A half-century later, Angie Kim, Harvard Law School class of ’93, surveyed 226 women in her class. A decade and a half after graduating, almost one-third of the women described themselves as stay-at-home mothers, which they indicated was a temporary status; nearly another third had arranged “mommy track” part-time or flexible work. With numbers like these among women with...

Fear and the New Deal

FDR ascended to the White House 80 years ago. How has his legacy—and the legacy of his landmark legislation—shifted in the years since?

Flickr/squidpickles
In 1942, Congress passed legislation attempting to facilitate voting by soldiers stationed overseas. Passed too close to the date of the general election (and after the primary election season) and creating a cumbersome process, the bill was ineffective. As the number of American soliders overseas continued to increase, the lack of practical access to the ballot was intolerable to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He sent a bill to Congress in 1944 that would have created a simple federal ballot made it much easier for soldiers to make their voices heard. Despite having the authority of a wartime president, however, the bill failed. Congress instead passed a much weaker version, more similar to the 1942 statute, that did not send out a uniform federal ballot and left administration in the hands of the states. Fewer than 33 percent of eligible soldiers were able to vote in the 1944 elections. How, during the height of wartime, could such a basic democratic right be denied many...

Stalked, Virtually

James Lasdun’s memoir on the terrifying frailty of reputation in the Internet era.

Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
O ur lives rarely turn out the way we plan. Perhaps it’s to counter this pervasive sense of uncertainty that so many people feel compelled to write memoirs of perseverance, reframing the shifts their lives have taken into a sure-footed narrative arc. But confusion is the reigning feeling in James Lasdun’s new memoir Give Me Everything You Have (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A highly regarded, New York-based British novelist, essayist, and poet, Lasdun writes about being stalked for more than six years, unable to do a thing about it. “I’m not so sure of anything anymore,” Lasdun tells us early on in the book. His memoir is a portrait not of growth but of paralyzed shock at the Internet’s capacity to turn one of his best students into an encroaching virtual monster. Give Me Everything You Can is Lasdun’s last-ditch effort to finally stop his stalker, a former student whom he calls Nasreen, after several failed attempts to involve the police. Every day, Nasreen, an aspiring Iranian-...

Riding Downton's Coattails

HBO's adaptation of Parade's End premieres tonight—too bad the show stole its soapy predecessor's formula but none of the fun.

AP Photo/HBO, Nick Briggs
AP Photo/HBO, Nick Briggs F irst published as four separate novels ( Some Do Not. . ., No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up--, and Last Post ) between 1924 and 1928, Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End is one of the earliest and greatest entries in the swan-song-for-old-England genre that became ubiquitous once the 1956 Suez crisis turned Gone With Gunga Din into an ongoing national dirge. The whole cul-de-sac filled with rue is still with us today in, for instance, Alan Bennett's more melancholic plays, not to mention a certain popular soap opera whose glibness I've been known to deprecate while granting I'm still hooked. But there's something to be said for revisiting Stonehenge. I doubt anyone who's read Ford's masterpiece can ever forget his pained, eternally solicitous hero, Christopher Tietjens, the stolid but suffering incarnation of traditional English values under bombardment both figurative and literal by 20th-century situational morality and the ultimate calamity of World War I...

Social Climate Change

Emily Bazelon's look at how bullying—once known as "kids will be kids"—came to be seen as a crisis.

Flickr/Twentyfour Students
Flickr/Twentyfour Students L ike all mammals, human beings can be cruel. As we create hierarchies, we use social or physical power to hurt, manipulate, and get what we want. But unlike other mammals, we periodically reconceptualize our cruelties, declaring behaviors that were once acceptable to be crimes against God and humankind. Campaigners transformed slavery, once seen as biblically endorsed, into the sin of sins. Wife-beating and marital rape, once judicious uses of husbandly authority, are now illegal domestic violence. These behaviors continue, of course—we’re still mammals—but they’ve switched categories, from acceptable to punishable. Consider bullying. Until recently, learning to handle even the nastiest of schoolmate struggles was treated as a normal part of childhood, a kind of social vaccination. If you couldn’t navigate the treacherous waters of a school lunchroom, how would you ever swim through office or factory politics? In her carefully reported Sticks and Stones ,...

Goodbye, Petraeus

The general’s gone, but a new book on his big idea is essential for the coming defense debates.

AP Photo/Christopher Berkey
AP Photo/Christopher Berkey Fred Kaplan’s book is newsworthy, but not in the way you might assume. Kaplan’s years of research and writing for The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War had evidently come to their end shortly before November 9 of last year. On that date, Kaplan’s title character, the retired four-star general and national hero who had been renowned for his advocacy and management of the 2007 troop surge in Iraq and dreamed of by many Republicans as an eventual presidential candidate, resigned as CIA director after the revelation of his affair with a much younger former Army officer, Paula Broadwell. Kaplan alludes to the sudden, shocking collapse of the omni-competent, hyper-disciplined “mystique that had shrouded David Petraeus for nearly a decade” only in a page-long postscript to the book. In it he half-convincingly argues that although the affair took the military and political worlds by surprise, it should be seen as just one...

The Past, Reclaimed from Right-Wing Myth

Now can we get to work saving the future?

Flickr/freshwater2006
Flickr/freshwater2006 The frieze of American History in the rotunda of the United States Capitol T he Tea Party’s name was one of its organizers’ most brilliant choices. Furor at George W. Bush’s bank bailouts and Barack Obama’s electoral victory might have taken any number of forms less charged with history. It could have grown into a movement to Stop Paying Your Neighbor’s Mortgage, as CNBC’s Rick Santelli urged in the on-air rant that galvanized rank-and-file conservatives in early 2009. It could have harked back to the property-tax revolts of the late Carter years or to any of the loosely organized right-wing splinter groups from which so many Tea Party organizers were drawn. Some early organizers proposed to call this the Porkulus movement, with pigs’ heads and free government “pork” as its icons rather than the 1775 “Don’t Tread on Me” flags that soon dotted the protest rallies. But with nostalgic restoration as its theme, the Tea Party made a bid for foundational history as...

The Measure of All Things

How markets beat out citizenship to define our public life

I n the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, liberals were dismayed by the economic carnage but could at least rejoice that the dominant ideology of free markets had been exposed as fiction. The deepest vulnerabilities of unregulated capitalism had been cast into sharp relief; the groundwork was now in place for a return to robust regulation of the financial sector and a broader shift to the left. Yet as subsequent years have made clear, 2008 marked no such inflection point. The downturn helped usher Barack Obama into office, but his presidency has been defined less by liberal realignment than by the emergence of an Ayn Rand–inspired Tea Party movement that voted in a wave of conservative House members. After a moment of uncertainty, libertarian and conservative pundits recovered and blamed government regulation for the crisis. Well-connected Democratic bankers and ex-bankers helped craft a recovery plan that socialized risk, privatized gain, and did little to punish or correct the...

Camelot’s Begetter

Besides being the father of John, Bobby, and Teddy, Joe Kennedy left behind a tattered legacy. 

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo) Former Ambassador to Britain Joseph P. Kennedy has earnest words with granddaughter Mary Courtney Kennedy, 2, who sits on lap of her mother, Ethel Kennedy at Mc Lean, Va. on Nov 29, 1958. The occasion is a reception for Edward Kennedy and Joan Bennett in Bronxville, New York as following their wedding. Sitting on Amb. Kennedy's lap is Bobby Jr. 4; and David, 3, is between grandfather and mother and on right, are Kathleen, 7, and Joe, 6, all are children of the Robert Kennedys. E ven those smitten by the Camelot legend have never mustered much love for Joseph P. Kennedy. Upstart Boston Irish millionaire, early player in the movie industry, then the Securities and Exchange Commission’s founding chair under Franklin D. Roosevelt, he brought his public career to a banana-peel close by serving as our disastrous ambassador to Great Britain back when World War II’s clouds were eyeing their rainmakers. He might be a footnote today if he hadn’t fathered all those damned kids. As...

The Best of David Foster Wallace

When the novelist learned to escape his own mind, he got a little closer to the greatness he sought.

(Flickr/Courtesy of the Lannan Foundation)
M ay 2005, Kenyon College, Ohio. David Foster Wallace steps to the podium and looks out at the graduating seniors before him. He tugs at his academic robe and bends toward the microphone, hair falling onto his face. Sweat beads and drips over his body. “If anybody feels like perspiring,” Wallace says, “I’d invite you to go ahead, ’cause I’m sure goin’ to.” He reaches into his pocket for a handkerchief and begins to relate the first of several parables: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” Laughter ripples through the convocation room. The gathered seniors, those who’d previously heard of David Foster Wallace, author of the scene-smashing, biblically large 1996 novel Infinite Jest , but like so many others hadn’t actually...

Want Less Inequality? Tax It

Revive the big idea of British economist Arthur C. Pigou! And apply it to America's most outrageous problem.

Courtesy of the Ramsey and Muspratt Collection
Courtesy of the Ramsey and Muspratt Collection Arthur Cecil Pigou F or the last two decades of his life, Arthur Cecil Pigou didn’t get much respect. Once considered Britain’s leading economist, he had come under caustic attack from a colleague at Cambridge—his friend and famous protégé John Maynard Keynes—for insisting that the Great Depression would correct itself without strong government intervention. By the mid-1940s, before Keynes died, Pigou had capitulated. But the dispute between the two, and Pigou’s eventual acknowledgment that Keynes might have a point, seemed to consign his own work to the dustbin. His student Harry Johnson remembers him as “a tall, straight figure, eccentrically garbed, glimpsed occasionally walking about the countryside.” In the hall where Pigou lectured on economic principles, one unknown undergraduate had carved into a desk “Pigou mumbles.” After the 2008 crash, it seemed Pigou might make a comeback. Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen, writing in The...

My Favorite Martian

(AP Photo/Katy Winn)
Herman Wouk, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Caine Mutiny way back in 1951 and later gifted heartland America with The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, among other pop-culture landmarks, has just come out with a new novel at the preposterous—not to say preposterously entertaining—age of 97. The Lawgiver, it's called, and I seriously doubt book critics will decide this is their chance to take Wouk to the woodshed. Frankly, none of us wants to learn our withering review was the one clutched in his hand when ... well, you get the picture. Me, I wouldn't dream of making fun of The Lawgiver. Its mere existence leaves me too charmed for sober judgment. Even your instant scorn won't affect my affection for industrious, unfashionable Herman Wouk, who's seen more trampoline-happy hares soar past him in the Jewish-American literary firmament than any Pulitzer-winning tortoise you could name. I was itching to get my hands on a copy as soon as I heard this thingamabob was a novel...

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