Category Archive 'Book Reviews'
17 Oct 2017

The Annotated Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant

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T.J. Stiles reviews Harvard University Press’s new annotated edition of Grant’s Memoirs.

At this distance, it’s hard to see the appeal of McClellan’s self-regard and concocted grandeur, because he sounds like an ass. It’s easier to like Grant. In his memoirs, Grant expresses his “rigorous distaste” for “ceremony, theater and oratory” (in the words of the historian John Keegan) by describing two generals of the war with Mexico, in which he fought bravely as a young West Point graduate. He admires the unaffected Zachary Taylor, who “dressed himself entirely for comfort,” in civilian clothes. But Winfield Scott “always wore all the uniform . . . allowed by law,” Grant observes: “dress uniform, cocked hat, aiguillettes” — loops of braid at the shoulder — “saber, and spurs.” Grant respects Scott’s ability but not his language, noting he was “not averse to speaking of himself, often in the third person, and he could bestow praise upon the person he was talking about without the least embarrassment.”
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That’s funny — almost Calvin Trillin funny — but we hear the bite. As modest and decent as Grant was, he appears to have clutched in his pocket a little squirming snake of resentment. After the Mexican War, he failed in the Army because of his secret shame, alcoholism, at a time when temperance was a major cultural force; he scrabbled hard in the years that followed, trapped in a desert of poverty. He returned to duty in the Civil War and won victory after victory, rising so high that Congress resorted to creating new ranks for him. His enemies retaliated by making his shame public, charging him with drunkenness. He felt the scorn of patricians like Henry Adams, who concluded he was “pre-intellectual . . . and would have seemed so even to the cave-dwellers.” Here and there, Grant shows how much it hurt. In cutting Scott, he goes beyond a mere lack of affectation into positive derision, mocking the pretensions of the refined society that mocked him.

“Perhaps never has a book so objective in form seemed so personal in every line,” Edmund Wilson observed, and I agree. But I disagree that Grant’s voice is “aloof and dispassionate.” Pain flickers behind the stolid pillars of the memoirs. He reflects his internal state off external surfaces, as with Taylor and Scott. Early on, he describes how as a boy he botched a negotiation for a horse — a telling anecdote, as financial failures agonized him — and the ensuing ridicule. “Boys enjoy the misery of their companions, at least village boys in that day did; and in later life I have found that all adults are not free from the peculiarity.”

He armored himself with simplicity. Grant’s style is strikingly modern in its economy. It stood out in that age of clambering, winding prose, with shameless sentences like lines of thieves in a marketplace, grabbing everything in reach and stuffing it all into their sacks. Indeed, Grant adhered to Adams’s own instructions to the staff of the North American Review: “Strike out all superfluous words, and especially all needless adjectives.” Wilson observed, “Every word that Grant writes has its purpose, yet everything seems understated.”

Authenticity is not perfect honesty, of course. Grant cannot always escape the impulse to put things in a favorable light, and he remembers his detractors. “The most confident critics are generally those who know the least about the matter criticized,” he writes. That defensive tone is uncharacteristic, though it’s revealing.

The Civil War rages for most of his book, and Grant proves an exemplary military narrator. He provides context clearly, even after he becomes general in chief, operating on a national scale. He makes his strategy sound like common sense, not genius. We feel his strength of will, from the dreadful first day of Shiloh to the great risk of his Vicksburg operation and beyond. He knew, too, how to shape the reader’s experience. He opens Chapter 50 with these two sentences: “Soon after midnight, May 3d–4th, the Army of the Potomac moved out from its position north of the Rapidan, to start upon that memorable campaign, destined to result in the capture of the Confederate capital and the army defending it. This was not to be accomplished, however, without as desperate fighting as the world has ever witnessed; not to be consummated in a day, a week, a month or a single season.” He delivers so much dread and anticipation with those words, at just the right place.

Grant’s preface alludes to the fact that he wrote as he was dying cruelly of throat cancer, after a swindler had bankrupted and humiliated him. Remarkably, that’s irrelevant to the text, which any writer could count as a triumph.

RTWT

13 Jun 2017

“Dead Men Are Heavier Than Broken Hearts”

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Literary Hub republishes the original New York Times reviews of three Ray Chandler mystery novels.

Isaac Anderson, The New York Times, February 12, 1939:

Most of the characters in this story are tough, many of them are nasty and some of them are both. Philip Marlowe, the private detective who is both the narrator and the chief character, is hard: he has to be hard to cope with the slimy racketeers who are preying on the Sternwood family. Nor do the Sternwoods themselves, particularly the two daughters, respond to gentle treatment. Spoiled is much too mild a term to describe these two young women. Marlowe is working for $25 a day and expenses and he earns every cent of it. Indeed, because of his loyalty to his employer, he passes up golden opportunities to make much more. Before the story is done Marlowe just misses being an eyewitness to two murders and by an even narrower margin misses being a victim. The language used in this book is often vile, at times so filthy that the publishers have been compelled to resort to the dash, a device seldom employed in these unsqueamish days. As a study in depravity, the story is excellent, with Marlowe standing out as almost the only fundamentally decent person in it.”

RTWT

16 Sep 2016

Hillary’s New Book

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strongertogether

Hillary’s new campaign book has unaccountably been unfavorably received by the Amazon reading audience, gathering 83% 1-star unfavorable reviews.

But there was at least one astute reader capable of appreciating it. DB raves:

5.0 out of 5 stars This book is a key that unlocks doors to life!!,

September 15, 2016 By DB

What a fantastic book! I see that Amazon has this for under $20, but I paid slightly more. I bought this directly from the Clinton foundation for $3.5 million. Once I read this book it’s like everything in my life clicked. The state department released funds from an “associate” of mine who for some odd reason was mistakenly put on the terrorist watchlist. He then invested in my “housing development” project in Saudi Arabia. Also 14 of my relatives were able to get permanant resident status and my niece got a job at a US Embassy! I suppose I could’ve saved some money by buying the version from Amazon, but by buying directly from the Clinton foundation I got a special edition that is much thicker and has pages hollowed out for future “uses”. I hope this book has an audio version because I would love to pay for play…ing it.

09 May 2016

New Nietzsche Bio

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NietzschewithSword

Christopher Bray calls Daniel Blue’s forthcoming (in June) biography of the young philosopher The Making of Friedrich Nietzsche: The Quest for Identity, 1844-1869 “lacklustre,” but since he’s wrong about the survival of the photo of military Fred with sword, who knows what else he’s wrong about?

(The current price quoted by Amazon is awfully steep. Let’s hope that a better deal becomes available when the book is actually released.)

Had you been down at Naumburg barracks early in March 1867, you might have seen a figure take a running jump at a horse and thud down front first on the pommel with a yelp. This was Friedrich Nietzsche, midway through his 22nd year and, thanks to a sickly childhood, no stranger to hospitals. The doctors were obliged to operate, and Nietzsche lost several ribs and part of his sternum, leaving him not so much pigeon-chested as angle-grinded. Once recovered, he celebrated by having his picture taken in full uniform, sabre at the ready, glaring at the ‘miserable photographer’ like a warrior set for battle. Alas for comedy, this portrait is lost to history.

Daniel Blue has no such regrets. He is convinced the photo would have been ‘unflattering’ — though nowhere near as unflattering as the picture Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche painted of her brother after his death in 1900. …

22 Jan 2015

Geoffrey Chaucer in 1386

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Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer from the Ellesmere Manuscript.

Stevie Davies reviews Paul Strohn’s microbiography: Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury in The Independent.

Strohm centres on a single year, 1386, at the end of which Chaucer “suddenly found himself without a patron, without a faction, without a dwelling, without a job … without a city.”

Exiled from London and his literary circle, Strohm’s Chaucer lost an audience, in an age before the printing press, when poetry in manuscript was read aloud in performance. The book’s compelling thesis is that Chaucer’s loss generated the invention of a “portable audience” within The Canterbury Tales: the pilgrims themselves. …

One of Chaucer’s overarching themes is the volatility of fortune, whose reversals – if we are wise – teach us “to maken virtu of necessitee”. Strohm’s Chaucer is essentially a small player in a world of venal power politics, “a politician of limited gifts, and not much of a factionalist either”. A loyalist of Richard II, he’d risen by espousing the long-term losing party. Esquire to the king, Chaucer had made an advantageous marriage. But he and his higher-ranking wife, Philippa de Roet, sister to John of Gaunt’s mistress, Katherine Swynford, lived apart and his association with the loathed Gaunt jeopardised him.

Deployed by his political masters to the post of controller of wool custom, Chaucer had the unenviable job of monitoring the activities of “some of the richest and best connected and least scrupulous crooks on the face of his planet”. Strohm’s portrait of the collector of the lucrative wool custom, corrupt magnate Nicholas Brembre, is formidable. When the royalist faction secured Chaucer’s election to the 1386 Parliament, and Brembre’s wheel came thundering down, so did Chaucer’s. His grace and favour apartment was forfeit. Strohm assesses Chaucer’s withdrawal from public life as “a matter of constrained choice”. Chaucer became “a wanderer in Kent, with no fixed job and insufficient income”. …

Losing “that thick and involving texture of London life” meant forfeit not only of discomfort but of stimulation and conviviality. The listening audience Chaucer now lacked he invented as a fellowship of pilgrims: “Chaucer’s varied cast of rogues, pitchmen, scammers … divines, social snobs, humble toilers [is] a miracle of imaginative inclusion.” …

From the misfortune of 1386, Chaucer moved towards a sense of authorial identity, preparing his literary legacy for generations to come. The pilgrims mediated “between Chaucer and the extended public he has begun to imagine”. The poet’s humiliated exile, Strohm compellingly suggests, is part of the deep story of how The Canterbury Tales came into being.

02 Aug 2014

Re-reading “Catcher in the Rye”

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HoldenCaulfield

Tyler Cowen and Bryan Caplan have been re-reading Catcher in the Rye (so we don’t have to).

TC:

Back then, if you didn’t use your prostitute and then tried to underpay her, she would call you a “crumb-bum. …

[W]hat the novel is really about… is impotence and also post-traumatic stress disorder. …

There is a corniness to how people thought and spoke back then which the book captures remarkably well. …

I expected not to like the re-read, but overall I thought it was pretty damn good and almost universally misunderstood.

———————-

BC
:

Other than losing his brother Allie, Holden has no external problems. He is a rich kid living in the most amazing city in the world. Rather than appreciating his good fortune or trying to make the most of his bountiful opportunities, Holden seeks out fruitless conflict. If you still doubt that happiness fundamentally reflects personality, not circumstances, CITR can teach you something. …

Although I was a teen-age misanthrope, anti-hero Holden Caulfield is more dysfunctional than I ever was. My dream was for everyone I disliked to leave me alone. Holden, in contrast, habitually seeks out the company of people he dislikes, then quarrels with them when they act as expected. …

Even if Holden’s enduring antipathy for “phonies” were justified, it’s hard to see why the epithet applies to most of its targets….

For Holden, the main symptom of phoniness is that someone appears to like something Holden doesn’t. But he never wonders, “Is it possible that other people sincerely like stuff I don’t?”

If phonies are your biggest problem, your problems are none too serious. …

I doubt Salinger was being Straussian. Like most of CITR’s fans, he thought Holden has important things to teach us. Yet the book’s deepest and most important lesson is that Holden’s thoughts are profoundly shallow and unimportant. The Holdens of the world should stop talking and start listening, for they have little to teach and much to learn.

Hat tip to Walter Olson.

15 Jul 2014

English Departments Today

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Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz

Critic, and former Yale professor, William Deresiewicz did a really excellent job of savaging Lawrence Buell’s The Dream of the Great American Novel

Buell’s book tells us a great deal about American fiction. What it also tells us, in its every line, is much of what is wrong with academic criticism. We can start with the language…. Here is a fair sample of Buell’s prose:

    Admittedly any such dyadic comparison risks oversimplifying the menu of eligible strategies, but the risk is lessened when one bears in mind that to envisage novels as potential GANs is necessarily to conceive them as belonging to more extensive domains of narrative practice that draw on repertoires of tropes and recipes for encapsulating nationness of the kinds sketched briefly in the Introduction—such that you can’t fully grasp what’s at stake in any one possible GAN without imagining the individual work in multiple conversations with many others, and not just U.S. literature either.

That’s one sentence. There is an idea in there somewhere, but it can’t escape the prose—the Byzantine syntax and Latinate diction, the rhetorical falls and grammatical stumbles. Schmidt’s smooth sentences urge us ever onward. Buell’s, like boulders, say stop, go back.

The truth is that by academic standards, Buell’s writing isn’t especially bad—which makes him, as an instance, even worse. By the same token, he isn’t noxiously ideological in the current style, isn’t an “-ist” with an ax to grind or swing—all the more reason to deplore how thoroughly (it seems, reflexively) his book bespeaks the reigning ideologies. Buell, whose careful terror seems to be the possibility of saying something politically incorrect—the book does so much posturing, you think it’s going to throw its back out—appears to have absorbed every piety in the contemporary critical hymnal. You can see him fairly bowing to them in his introduction, as if by way of ritual preparation. There they are, propitiated one by one—Ethnicity, Globalism, Anti-Canonicity, Anti-Essentialism—like idols in the corners of a temple.

The frame of mind controls the readings. Novels aren’t stories, for Buell, works of invention with their own disparate purposes and idiosyncratic ends. They’re “interventions” into this or that political debate—usually, of course, concerning gender, race, or class, as if everyone in history had the same priorities as the English professors of 2014. Nearly every book is scored against today’s approved enlightened norms. Gone With the Wind loses points for “containing” Scarlett and embodying an “atavistic conception of human rights” but wins a few back for being “even more transnationally attuned than Absalom,” exhibiting “maverick tendencies in some respects as pronounced as Faulkner’s,” and engaging in “an act of feminist exorcism that Absalom can’t imagine.” Go team!

In the case of Uncle Tom’s Cabin—a book that makes this kind of reading sweat, being heroically progressive by the standards of its day but embarrassing by ours—pages are spent parsing its exact degree of virtue. Witnesses are called:

    Here, as critic Lori Merish delicately puts it, Stowe “fails to imagine African Americans as full participant citizens in an American democracy.” George Harris’s grand design to Christianize Africa looks suspiciously imperialistic to boot, veering Stowe’s antislavery critique in the direction of what Amy Kaplan trenchantly calls “manifest domesticity.”

I feel as if we’re back in Salem. Maybe he should have just thrown the book in the water to see if it would float. Buell is a person, one should say, who uses terms like cracker, redneck, and white trash without self-consciousness or irony, which makes his moral teleology all the more repulsive—his assumption (and it’s hardly his alone) that all of history has been leading up to the exalted ethical state of the contemporary liberal class.

The one kind of standard that Buell will not permit himself is an aesthetic one. Like many academics now, he’d rather cut his tongue out than admit in public that he thinks a book is good or bad.

13 Jul 2014

Credulous Atheism

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Nietzsche

Michael Robbins, at Slate, reviews Nick Spencer’s Atheists: The Origin of the Species, which seems to constitute a well-deserved attack on the “New Atheists,” i.e., the smug, self-congratulatory secular materialists of the Richard Dawkins-ilk.

Nietzsche realized that the Enlightenment project to reconstruct morality from rational principles simply retained the character of Christian ethics without providing the foundational authority of the latter. Dispensing with his fantasy of the Übermensch, we are left with his dark diagnosis. To paraphrase the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, our moral vocabulary has lost the contexts from which its significance derived, and no amount of Dawkins-style hand-waving about altruistic genes will make the problem go away. (Indeed, the ridiculous belief that our genes determine everything about human behavior and culture is a symptom of this very problem.)

The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments. A coherent atheism would understand this, because it would be aware of its own history. Instead, trendy atheism of the Dawkins variety has learned as little from its forebears as from Thomas Aquinas, preferring to advance a bland version of secular humanism. Spencer quotes John Gray, a not-New atheist: “Humanism is not an alternative to religious belief, but rather a degenerate and unwitting version of it.” How refreshing would be a popular atheism that did not shy from this insight and its consequences.

It is, I suppose, perversely amusing, and confirming of Chesterton’s prediction that, post Religion, people will not believe in nothing, but will believe in anything, that the typical contemporary enlightened elite position involves both the contemptuous rejection of traditional religion and the uncritical acceptance of an even-more-simplistic catechism composed of sentimental humanitarianism constituting a sort of attenuated Christianity, sexually-emancipated but even more enthusiastic about ressentiment.

08 Jun 2014

The Life, and Politics, of William Burroughs

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WilliamBurroughs
William Burroughs, 1914-1997

Jesse Walker, reviewing Call Me Burroughs, the new biography by Barry Miles, in Reason Magazine, finds the avante-garde author inconsistent about siding with the Left or the Right, but consistently anti-authoritarian.

Burroughs’ worldview was miles from the peace-and-love socialism that our cultural clichés tell us to expect from a hippie hero. In 1949, according Barry Miles’ new biography Call Me Burroughs, he complained to Kerouac that “we are bogged down in this octopus of bureaucratic socialism.” When he was a landlord in New Orleans he sent Ginsberg a rant against rent control, and when he found himself owning a farm in Texas he gave Ginsberg an earful about the evils of the minimum wage. Eventually he departed for Mexico, and there he wrote to Ginsberg again. “I am not able to share your enthusiasm for the deplorable conditions which obtain in the U.S. at this time,” he told his leftist friend. “I think the U.S. is heading in the direction of a Socialistic police state similar to England, and not too different from Russia….At least Mexico is no obscenity ‘Welfare’ State, and the more I see of this country the better I like it. It is really possible to relax here where nobody tries to mind your business for you.” He added that Westbrook Pegler, a hard-right pundit who would soon be a vocal defender of Sen. Joe McCarthy, was “the only columnist, in my opinion, who possesses a grain of integrity.”

Two decades later, covering the Democratic Party’s bloody 1968 convention for Esquire, Burroughs manifested a more left-wing aura. A day after his arrival he donned a McCarthy button—the antiwar insurgent candidate Eugene McCarthy, that is, not Pegler’s pal Joe. When cops started assaulting protesters outside the convention hall, Burroughs immediately aligned himself with the radicals in the streets, declaring in a public statement that the “police acted in the manner of their species” and asking, “Is there not a municipal ordinance that vicious dogs be muzzled and controlled?” He then helped lead an illegal march that ran straight into a contingent of cops and National Guardsmen.

In doing this, he was not merely supporting the protesters’ civil liberties. He was aligning himself with one side of what he saw as a grand conflict. “This is a revolution,” he wrote in a 1970 article for the East Village Other, “and the middle will get the squeeze until there are no neutrals there.” Still later in his life, he would identify “American capitalism” as his foe, specifying: “the American Tycoon…William Randolph Hearst, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, that whole stratum of American acquisitive evil. Monopolistic, acquisitive evil.”

Burroughs’ influences ranged from Pegler to the ultra-left Situationist International, but the most important early source for his worldview was a man not normally thought of as a political writer at all. Jack Black was a former hobo and burglar whose memoir You Can’t Win engrossed the teenaged Burroughs, leaving a lasting impact on both his outlook and his literary voice. (Black’s first publication, a newspaper serial titled “The Big Break at Folsom,” was ghostwritten by a young reporter named Rose Wilder Lane, who would later play a formative role in the American libertarian movement.) It was Black’s description of an underground code—and his scattered references to the beggars and outlaws who embraced that code as an extended “Johnson Family”—that gave Burroughs’ rebellious streak an ideological framework.

A Johnson “just minds his own business of staying alive and thinks that what other people do is other people’s business,” Burroughs wrote in his 1985 book The Adding Machine. “Yes, this world would be a pretty easy and pleasant place to live in if everybody could just mind his own business and let others do the same. But a wise old black faggot said to me years ago: ‘Some people are shits, darling.'” In 1988, penning a preface for a reprint of Black’s book, Burroughs offered this account of the world’s core conflict: “A basic split between shits and Johnsons has emerged.”

Read the whole thing.

23 May 2014

Quis Custodiet?

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GlennGreenwald

One special bane connected with modern liberal society’s regime of excessive tolerance is the ease with which the sexually inverted neurotic can rise from his knees on the public lavatory floor to ascend his own personal pulpit in order to impersonate the post-menopausal female moral authority figure and social reformer.

Glenn Greenwald, for instance, is a particularly resilient example. Greenwald succesfully survived a scandal which resulted from his exposure for having persistently used “sock puppet” false identities to lavish praise on his own blog postings. He more recently attached himself to the cause of “whistle blowers” like Edward Snowden and acted as go-between between the latter and Establishment newspapers. Pimping US Intelligence secrets to the Guardian and the Times is the kind of thing which, in today’s world, makes one a hero in certain circles, and the next thing you knew Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar was writing a check for $250 million to buy Greenwald his own media organization. Who better to manage such a thing than the man renowned as “the left’s most dishonest blogger?”

Even Michael Kinsley cannot abide Greenwald’s abrasive sanctimony, and Kinsley took the occasion of the publication of Green wald’s recent Snowden book, No Place to Hide, to carpet bomb the scoundrel with a scathing review published, amusingly enough, in the same New York Times.

“My position was straightforward,” Glenn Greenwald writes. “By ordering illegal eavesdropping, the president had committed crimes and should be held accountable for them.” You break the law, you pay the price: It’s that simple.

But it’s not that simple, as Greenwald must know. There are laws against government eavesdropping on American citizens, and there are laws against leaking official government documents. You can’t just choose the laws you like and ignore the ones you don’t like. Or perhaps you can, but you can’t then claim that it’s all very straightforward.

Greenwald was the go-between for Edward Snowden and some of the newspapers that reported on Snowden’s collection of classified documents exposing huge eavesdropping by the National Security Agency, among other scandals. His story is full of journalistic derring-do, mostly set in exotic Hong Kong. It’s a great yarn, which might be more entertaining if Greenwald himself didn’t come across as so unpleasant. Maybe he’s charming and generous in real life. But in “No Place to Hide,” Greenwald seems like a self-righteous sourpuss, convinced that every issue is “straightforward,” and if you don’t agree with him, you’re part of something he calls “the authorities,” who control everything for their own nefarious but never explained purposes.

Reformers tend to be difficult people. But they come in different flavors. There are ascetics, like Henry James’s Miss Birdseye (from “The Bostonians”), “who knew less about her fellow creatures, if possible, after 50 years of humanitary zeal, than on the day she had gone into the field to testify against the iniquity of most arrangements.”

There are narcissists like Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks. These are self-canonized men who feel that, as saints, they are entitled to ignore the rules that constrain ordinary mortals. Greenwald notes indignantly that Assange was being criticized along these lines “well before he was accused of sex crimes by two women in Sweden.” (Two decades ago the British writer Michael Frayn wrote a wonderful novel and play called “Now You Know,” about a character similar to Assange.)

Then there are political romantics, played in this evening’s performance by Edward Snowden, almost 31 years old, with the sweet, innocently conspiratorial worldview of a precocious teenager. He appears to yearn for martyrdom and, according to Greenwald, “exuded an extraordinary equanimity” at the prospect of “spending decades, or life, in a supermax prison.”

And Greenwald? In his mind, he is not a reformer but a ruthless revolutionary — Robespierre, or Trotsky. The ancien régime is corrupt through and through, and he is the man who will topple it. Sounding now like Herbert Marcuse with his once fashionable theory of “repressive tolerance,” Greenwald writes about “the implicit bargain that is offered to citizens: Pose no challenge and you have nothing to worry about. Mind your own business, and support or at least tolerate what we do, and you’ll be fine. Put differently, you must refrain from provoking the authority that wields surveillance powers if you wish to be deemed free of wrongdoing. This is a deal that invites passivity, obedience and conformity.”
Continue reading the main story

Throughout “No Place to Hide,” Greenwald quotes any person or publication taking his side in any argument. If an article or editorial in The Washington Post or The New York Times (which he says “takes direction from the U.S. government about what it should and shouldn’t publish”) endorses his view on some issue, he is sure to cite it as evidence that he is right. If Margaret Sullivan, the public editor (ombudsman, or reader representative) of The Times, agrees with him on some controversy, he is in heaven. He cites at length the results of a poll showing that more people are coming around to his notion that the government’s response to terrorism after 9/11 is more dangerous than the threat it is designed to meet.

Greenwald doesn’t seem to realize that every piece of evidence he musters demonstrating that people agree with him undermines his own argument that “the authorities” brook no dissent. No one is stopping people from criticizing the government or supporting Greenwald in any way. Nobody is preventing the nation’s leading newspaper from publishing a regular column in its own pages dissenting from company or government orthodoxy. If a majority of citizens now agree with Greenwald that dissent is being crushed in this country, and will say so openly to a stranger who rings their doorbell or their phone and says she’s a pollster, how can anyone say that dissent is being crushed? What kind of poor excuse for an authoritarian society are we building in which a Glenn Greenwald, proud enemy of conformity and government oppression, can freely promote this book in all media and sell thousands of copies at airport bookstores surrounded by Homeland Security officers?

Read the whole thing.

21 May 2014

Cass Sunstein Reviews Richard Epstein

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Classical liberal constitution

The Progressive statist Sunstein is surprisingly temperate in tone and respectful of Richard Epstein’s new book, The Classical Liberal Constitution: The Uncertain Quest for Limited Government, though he does throw in a number of pejorative references to the Tea Party.

Sunstein, however, does adroitly read Epstein out of what he considers the qualified and legitimate body of Constitutional Law scholarship, identifying him instead as a covert member of an alternate “moral readings” school of constitutional argument, a school of thought pioneered (God help us!) by the egregious sophister Ronald Dworkin.

Epstein’s moral reading is all very nice, Sunstein condescendingly allows, but there are other readings. He moves rapidly to the favorite argument of the legal realist Oliver Wendell Holmes school of Nominalism: there is no consensus. The framers’ truths are not really self-evident, because non-classical-liberals, like Holmes and Sunstein, can simply decline to acknowledge them.

Finally, of course, Sunstein retires complacently to the conservative argument. The Classical Liberal Constitution was overturned once and for all during the New Deal. We now are bound by jurisprudential precedent going all the back to the Spring of 1937. 1787 to 1937 was a period of error which doesn’t count, but one must never presume to meddle with subsequent progressive rulings. The Bill of Rights is ambiguous, completely open to interpretation, and means whatever judges say it means. The decisions of post-New Deal courts are unalterable law.

Epstein did not write [a book steeped in the political thought of the late eighteenth century]. He is much closer to being an Anglo-American political theorist than an American constitutional historian. True, he did not produce his general theory out of thin air. What he calls “classical liberalism” certainly has some connection to the ideas of the great eighteenth-century liberal political theorists, including Locke and Montesquieu, and also to the thinking of America’s founding generation. But we have to be careful here. Epstein’s reading of the theorists and the Founders is not at all obvious or uncontroversial. There are other ways to read them. Many students of the liberal political tradition, such as Stephen Holmes, have raised serious questions about the supposedly libertarian nature of classical liberal theory. It is not at all clear that classical liberal theory, understood in historical terms, is what Epstein thinks it is.

For lawyers and judges, the broader point is that the general theory cannot be found in the Constitution itself. We might doubt, moreover, that as Epstein elaborates it, it would have commanded any kind of eighteenth-century consensus. Without detailed historical support, it remains unclear what it means to say that Epstein’s preferred general theory “animates” the text.

Ronald Dworkin, one of the greatest constitutional thinkers of our time, does not appear in Epstein’s book, but in my view Epstein is playing Dworkin’s game. Dworkin argued in favor of “moral readings” of the Constitution. In his account, the act of interpretation requires judges both to “fit” and to “justify” the Constitution. The requirement of fit imposes a duty of fidelity; judges cannot ignore the text (or other relevant materials). If they do, they are not engaged in interpretation at all. The requirement of justification means that judges should put the Constitution in its most attractive light, by identifying the moral principle or theory that makes the best sense of it. Dworkin urges that judges should be moral readers in the sense that they ought to be generating a morally appealing interpretation of the constitutional text. Inevitably, what counts as a morally appealing interpretation is a product of the active judgments of the interpreter.

Epstein is a moral reader. He objects that progressives ignore the constitutional text, and of course he cares about it, but he acknowledges that on many issues that matter, the text, standing alone, does not mandate his interpretation. Where the rubber hits the road, his real argument is not about Madison and Hamilton, the inevitable meaning of words, or the placement of commas; it is an emphatically moral one. Informed though it is by a certain strand in liberal thought, it reflects what he thinks morality requires. Of course other people think differently. There is an important lesson here about Tea Party constitutionalism as a whole, for the supposed project of “restoring” the original Constitution, or going back to the genius of the Founding generation, is often about twenty-first century political convictions, not about the recovery of history.

Like other moral readings, Epstein’s reading has to be evaluated in terms of both fit and justification. Does it fit with the original document? In some ways it does, but to make a full evaluation we would have to go provision-by-provision, and some of his judgments fit better than others. Most judges want their decisions to fit with precedent as well. Epstein is fully aware that on this count his approach fares poorly, and so he has to answer a genuinely hard question about how to treat precedents with which he disagrees. To his credit, Epstein puts his cards on the table: “In my view, the answer often turns on this simple question: does the original version of the Constitution or its subsequent interpretation do a better job in advancing the ideals of a classical liberal constitution?”

Would our constitutional order be better if judges insisted on moving the nation in the direction of laissez-faire? Would Americans be freer? Would our lives be better? Epstein thinks so. But philosophers and economists have a lot to say on those questions, and there is no consensus, to say the least, that Epstein is right. If we do not accept the libertarian creed (or at least his distinctive version of it), we will emphatically reject his particular moral reading. And even if we did accept that creed, we would have to ask whether federal judges, with their limited place in our constitutional order, should insist on it. Consider in this regard the cautionary words of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: “If my fellow citizens want to go to Hell I will help them. It’s my job.”

Epstein has written a passionate, learned, and committed book. But he is asking his fellow citizens, and the fallible human beings who populate the federal judiciary, to jettison many decades of constitutional law on the basis of a general theory that the Constitution does not explicitly encode and that the nation has long rejected. Epstein is right to say that in some contexts, a movement toward what he calls “classical liberalism” would be in the national interest. But a judicially engineered constitutional revolution is not what America needs now.

14 Mar 2014

Oxford in the 1950s

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Dining Hall, Christ Church College, Oxford

The London Times Education section reviewing Oxford English Professor John Carey’s memoir, The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books looks back admiringly at Oxford in the 1950s.

Oxford in the 1950s was a pretty strange place. The English syllabus stopped at 1832. Carey’s finals happened to take place in very hot weather, so “people quickly abandoned their jackets, ties and gowns. Heaps of them littered the floor, along with other trash brought in by candidates – teddy bears, smelling salts, wilting carnations – so you had to wade through a sort of flea market to get to your place.” His interview to become a graduate student was conducted by “an old-style don who did not really believe in literary ‘research’”, followed by dinner – and then it was out to the bowling green.

And there were also, of course, “toffs” everywhere. When Carey was asked to take over the teaching of English literature at Christ Church, then considered Oxford’s most aristocratic and exclusive college, for the academic year 1958-59, he says now, “it really was like Brideshead Revisited. The snobbery was astonishing.

“One student told me about a night in the year when the idea was to break more windows in Peckwater Quadrangle than your father or grandfather had done. So it created a maelstrom of glass. He was quite innocently walking through and a piece from a tonic-water bottle bounced off a wall and blinded him in one eye. He was absolutely unresentful. He was a public schoolboy and regarded that as the kind of risk you take: young gentlemen will let off steam – and if you were in the way, you were in the way.”

Things have obviously changed since then.

06 Mar 2014

Dave Barry Reads “Fifty Shades of Grey”

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Dave Barry reads Fifty Shades of Grey.

What women want, to judge from Fifty Shades of Grey, is not just people doing It. Many pages go by in this book without any of It getting done, although there is a great deal of thinking and talking about It. The thoughts are provided by the narrator and main character, Anastasia Steele, who is a twenty-one-year-old American woman as well as such a clueless, self-absorbed ninny that you, the reader, find yourself wishing that you still smoked so you would have a cigarette lighter handy and thus could set fire to certain pages, especially the ones where Anastasia is telling you about her “inner goddess.” This is a hyperactive imaginary being—I keep picturing Tinker Bell—who reacts in a variety of ways to the many dramatic developments in Anastasia’s life, as we see in these actual quotes:

    “My inner goddess is swaying and writhing to some primal carnal rhythm.”
    “My very small inner goddess sways in a gentle victorious samba.”
    “My inner goddess is doing the Dance of Seven Veils.”
    “My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves.”
    “My inner goddess has stopped dancing and is staring, too, mouth open and drooling slightly.”
    “My inner goddess jumps up and down, with cheerleading pom-poms, shouting ‘Yes’ at me.”
    “My inner goddess is doing backflips in a routine worthy of a Russian Olympic gymnast.”
    “My inner goddess pole-vaults over the fifteen-foot bar.”
    “My inner goddess fist-pumps the air above her chaise longue.”

That’s right: Her inner goddess, in addition to dancing, cheerleading, pole vaulting, etc., apparently keeps furniture inside Anastasia’s head. Unfortunately, this means there is little room left for Anastasia’s brain, which, to judge from her thought process, is about the size of a walnut.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to the Barrister.

13 Aug 2013

“Hired by a Bitch to Find Scum”

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Josephine Livingstone certainly chose a hard boiled title for her review of Bran Nicol’s new book The Private Eye: Detectives in the Movies.

Often responding to Philip or Sam, the private investigator (PI) may be identified by his coat and hat. His natural habitat: the wet street corner or, unauthorised, another person’s home. He is commonly accused of committing the very crime under his investigation. You will find him lit starkly, from the side. He is good at getting women into bed, but they often turn out to be malevolent villainesses. He is American.

The PI’s bloodlines flow deeply into the tradition of masculine heroes. His characteristics loom so large over Western popular culture that it can be hard to make him out. This is the problem facing any book on the film noir detective: being a chap, in a movie, trying to solve a problem, he is as inscrutably general a cultural trope as the femme fatale. What makes a PI a PI, and not just some other kind of leading man? You can’t even really chalk him up to an era, since he has existed since the early days of film. …
[The] famous five film noir traits—oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel—were neither clear cut nor all strictly necessary in order for a film to be noir. This genre is yoked together by a general ambience—an aura of darkness—rather than any true collective character. If the film noir is about one particular thing, I’d say it was about bad people. It is therefore about crime, and the investigators of those crimes. Enter the PI.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

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