The whimsy and wit of A Political Bestiary

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The best American political book of all time is a product of bipartisanship. That in itself might seem implausible. The word “bipartisan report” is liable to trigger a panic response among those who associate the “B-word” with long-winded, superannuated statesmen and “thought leaders” who are even longer of wind. A bipartisan book written by authors from different ends of the political spectrum promises a combination of bloviation and blather.

More… “All for the Bestiary

Whatever side of the aisle you're on, H.L. Mencken is as relevant as ever.

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In the face of our nation’s current turmoil, I suggest that we open our Mencken. This gadfly journalist and critic provides an astute analysis of issues relevant to us today.

Henry Louis (H.L.) Mencken was born in 1880 and died in 1957. He was by nature intemperate and irritable. He disliked most politicians, critics, and journalists (though he himself functioned in the two latter roles). He hated hypocrisy and platitude. When others were lauding the American dream, Mencken could write: “it seems to me that the shadows [on America] were never darker than they are today, and that we must linger in their blackness a long while before ever they are penetrated by authentic shafts of light.”
More… “Mencken in the Middle”

Facing our Neon Demons

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Willow Pape is the bane of my existence. When I see her at Lif Club in Miami, I get anxious. There will be conflict. She once told me I should slip into something more comfortable like a coma. She continually works against me as I climb the ladder upward toward A-list stardom. On my best days, I roll my eyes at her. On my worst, my publicists spread rumors about her on social media. Being complicit in this process is the trouble with chasing fame.

More… “The (Cult)ure Industry”

Hip hop and the unchanging now

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It was right there, a bit of boilerplate I had slugged in, due to be cut in the next draft: “In light of recent events . . .” I was hundreds of words into sifting the issues that arise when white rap fans use the N-word, knowing that whatever I came up with would be read during one of the most publicly race-conscious moments of recent history. But after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and killed by cops, many of those words I’d written wanted to twist, or invert entirely. By revising the first sentence, I found a twist.
More… “An N of 0”

Robin Leach on the art of the interview

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For many decades, Robin Leach has been a world-renowned entertainment journalist, producer, writer, and television star. Best know for his longtime show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Leach is that rare person who can do red carpet interviews and walk the red carpet himself as a celebrity with equal comfort. At the forefront of changing media, Leach currently is developing the digital entertainment content for Las Vegas Review-Journal. Questions for this interview were composed by students in Drexel University’s Pennoni Honors College course “The Art of the Interview,” taught by the Smart Set editor Richard Abowitz. This transcript was edited for length and clarity.

More… “Rejoinders of the Rich and Famous”

Insight into Philly’s punk-rock past

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Last Halloween, my husband opened our closet door and reached for the topmost shelf where he keeps his Zipperhead mask.

“Not again,” I said.

He ignored me as he is often wont to do and pulled it on over his face.

My husband had worn this mask all through the 90s and now, in 2015, looked forward to going out in public in it that very evening. The rubbery skin covered my husband’s face. A half-opened zipper to match the one painted on the store’s façade next to the gigantic metal ants, stitched through the mask’s forehead and nested in the mask’s crown of red, kidney-shaped brains. He opened a flap and beneath it found two switches. He flicked them on and the exposed brain particle lit up with tiny dancing lights. My husband also dug out his black Dr. Martens and a Zipperhead T-shirt. Punk is long dead. My husband sold Zipperhead in 2000 to Rob and Steph, his two top employees who were married to each other. They ran it as Zipperhead for several years, then relocated it around the corner in a smaller space, and renamed it with a touch of levity Crash Bang Boom.
More… “Philly’s Flagship Store”

Contemporary portraiture at the Whitney Museum

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For several centuries the pose in a portrait served as a key element, and was often joined chiefly with the sitter’s clothing, and occasionally the background, as crucial supplements. These three elements — the body held, covered, and situated — were enlisted to support the emotional meaning of the work. Moreover, the elements were generally in service to the look on the subject’s face. This look was meant either as an expression of a true identity or as a comment on the world (including the viewer) onto which the subject looked. The resulting overarching emotion might embrace hauteur or graciousness or melancholy, emotions that could possess an ironic cast, but were often presented as pure and unadulterated. This complex of emotions is usually what catches us and holds us, inviting us to return gaze for gaze, to repay alert sensitivity with open absorption.

More… “In Honor of Faces”

Why optimistic groupthink is a threat to humanity

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In his first inaugural address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared, “So first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

FDR was wrong. Far worse than nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror is nameless, unreasoning, unjustified optimism which leads to catastrophic blunders that would not have occurred if potential costs and risks had been properly weighed in advance. The greatest thing we have to fear is … optimism itself.

More… “Our Greatest Enemy: Optimism”

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The handcuffs are too tight and I don’t know the safety word. This is no Fifty Shades of Grey gone wrong (or right). I’m standing on a city street, hands behind my back, surrounded by NYPD undercover officers.

How I became the center of a cop circle is easily told. After a day of imperfectly freelancing, the workday ends with a walk. A friend calls it a “daily constitutional” and teases I should wear a bowler, accompanied with a dog called Mr. Muggles. He insists this imagined pet be a Jack Russell. More… “Brown and Blue”

Contesting text, not context

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“Hey Dad, what do you think of this thing about Captain America being a Nazi?”

Long pause. This was not a question to be taken lightly. Depending on how my daughter felt about the issue, a wrong response could plummet the conversation quickly into an unintended, but nevertheless heated, argument. Such is the power of the modern superhero.

If you haven’t been paying attention (and good for you if you haven’t, you’re making the right life choices), the Internet had a — oh, let’s call it angry — reaction to the first issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers, when it arrived in stores last month. Why? Because that comic — written by Nick Spencer and drawn by Jesus Saiz — ended with the cliffhanger revelation that the one and only Captain America has all this time been a secret agent for the super-evil terrorist organization known as Hydra. More… “Sentinels Strike Back”