William James

While neither political party has a monopoly on “community,” in recent years Democrats have been more inclined than Republicans to invoke it—none more conspicuously than Barack Obama. In the peroration of the 2012 State of the Union address, he declared that “No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team.” A month earlier, in the city where Theodore Roosevelt delivered his landmark “New Nationalism” speech, Obama argued that “Our success has never just been about the survival of the fittest.

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The Mobility Myth

When Americans express indifference about the problem of unequal incomes, it’s usually because they see the United States as a land of boundless opportunity. Sure, you’ll hear it said, our country has pretty big income disparities compared with Western Europe. And sure, those disparities have been widening in recent decades. But stark economic inequality is the price we pay for living in a dynamic economy with avenues to advancement that the class-bound Old World can only dream about.

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I've seen a lot of attempts to make insane rhetoric sound sensible, but this op-ed in today's Washington Post, justifying Sarah Palin's claim that health care reform will create a "death panel" to decide if her baby should live, is a parody of the form: These activists do not claim that the proposed reforms include policies whose explicit purpose is to ration, nor do the more careful among them claim that the policies will establish panels to help people decide when to die.

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The Hurt Locker opens with an onscreen quote from journalist Chris Hedges declaring war to be a "drug." If so, then Kathryn Bigelow’s film is itself a drug delivery device, a harrowing, exhilarating exercise in tension and release.

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Death Defying

'This election," said John McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, on the second day of the Republican convention, "is not about issues." And he meant it. The convention that Davis helped assemble devoted strikingly little time to policy. Instead, the focus was on McCain's biography. Fred Thompson set the tone early in the convention, using his address to recount McCain's life story, especially his stint as a prisoner of war. In state delegation meetings during the week, the campaign enlisted the candidate's fellow POWs to tell delegates of his experiences in Vietnam.

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Tonight We Re-revise

by Eric RauchwayWhen we put one word in another's place as we edit, it is a bit as if we chose this stone, rather than that, for a dry-stone wall. Which is to say, we plan the course and size of our project, but haven't the liberty to forge our own materials. Instead they necessarily influence us: pick so choosily as we may, we cannot invent the blocks with which we build, and their peculiar shapes inflect the span, reach, and strength of our construction.

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Up From Bullshit

On Truth By Harry Frankfurt (Alfred A. Knopf, 101 pp., $12.50) I. In his prime, and without benefit of a keyboard, Samuel Johnson could write twelve thousand words a day. I doubt that there are many more than half that number in Harry Frankfurt’s diminutive book On Bullshit, which was an unexpected best-seller for Princeton University Press last year, shyly peeking out next to the cash registers in bookshops everywhere.

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Fighting Words

The Language of War: Literature and Culture in the U.S. From the Civil War Through World War II by James Dawes (Harvard University Press, 300 pp., $39.95) "The real war," Walt Whitman wrote soon after Appomattox, "will never get in the books." In "The Wound Dresser" and other poems, Whitman tried to transcribe his Civil War experience in a Washington hospital, where he tended the dismembered and the dying. But he sensed that there was something new about the carnage of modern war, something that resisted literary convention and ultimately language itself. He was not alone.

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God's Pragmatist

Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited by Charles Taylor (Harvard University Press, 127 pp., $19.95) The recent blizzard of pragmatism has produced many discussions about William James, but there is one side of James that has been almost programmatically neglected. It is a side of James that James himself cherished, and it provides the great reason for so much of what he wrote, for so much of his philosophical pluralism, and for his campaign against idealism.

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Jed Perl on Art: Bookings

I. Picture books are the first books that any of us know. Before we can decode words or even letters, we are clutching their covers and awkwardly turning their pages. These books are our introduction to the mysteries of metaphor, to a combination of paper and printer's ink that can take us anywhere, reveal anything, whether fact or fiction or some mix of the two. You might say that picture books, even when we are too young actually to read them, are our primal reading experiences.

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