In defense of what politics is and is not.

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What is politics? The answer is not obvious. Most Americans on the left and the right either do not know or have forgotten what politics is. Conventional American progressives have pretty much abandoned any distinction between the political realm and society and culture in general, while conventional American conservatives treat politics as an exercise in doctrinal purity. Both sides, in different ways, undermine the idea of a limited public square in which different groups in society can agree on a few big things while agreeing to disagree with others — progressives, by including too much of society in the public square, and conservatives, by blocking compromise with too many ideological tests.

Politics is only possible in a society in which much, if not most, of social life is not politicized. In premodern communities in which every aspect of life was regulated by custom or religious law, there was no politics, in the modern sense. There was no public sphere because there was no private sphere. Tribal custom or divine law, as interpreted by tribal elders or religious authorities, governed every action, leaving no room for individual choice. There were power struggles, to be sure. But there was no political realm separate from the tribe or the religious congregation. And disagreement was heresy. More… “What Politics Is(n’t)”

Whisky Galore! and the cinematic wonders of a spirit.

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If you delight in partaking of a dram of whisky, you likely delight in what I think of as whisky extracurriculars. There are some foods and drinks for which savoring them directly is the height of our experience with them, but any whisky buff will tell you that there’s a bit extra with the water of life.

I’ve been a devotee of Islay whisky for a decent chunk of my life, loving how the essence of sea and coast can be distilled into a glass, with aspects of brine, seaweed, the iron of terra firma, peat, and the smoky fingers of the kiln playing around one’s nose and tickling the back of one’s throat. The island of Islay produces the most intense whisky in Scotland. Many drinkers prefer the more honeyed malts of the Highlands, though if you drink one you tend to drink the other. What’s ironic in my case is that I’ve given up drinking entirely, for a host of reasons — isn’t that always the way in these matters? — and yet my relationship with whisky, post-drink, continues on.

That’s one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by the 1949 film, Whisky Galore!, which is based on the novel of the same name by Compton Mackenzie, an author few people remember today. More… “The Laughing Dram”

The Dangerous Legacy of Henry James

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On July 31, the U.S. Postal Office issued an 89-cent stamp in honor of Henry James. The issuance is part of the Postal Service’s Literary Arts series — James is the 31st figure in American literature to be so honored.

It is ironic that the stamp arrives on the centennial anniversary of James’s death and the year he became a British citizen. This was done as an expression of support for England’s war effort in World War I (Americans would not enter the war until April of 1917). Yet for all his gratitude to England, his loyalties never fully strayed from his native land. James’s novels and stories are full of American characters, often naïve and foolish, but also upright and brave — always morally superior to their more worldly European counterparts. It is therefore fitting that he be honored as an iconic American, worthy of his own postage stamp.

It is also fitting that the end of James’s life be celebrated. This was when he ascended to the “major phase” of his writing career — when he became, as his most important biographer and critic, Leon Edel, put it: “the Master.” More… “Relentlessly Relevant”

Revisiting Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac.

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Trebuchets. Oboes. Manhole covers. Labyrinthian playground equipment. Interactive Christmas sweaters. Grocery carts. Pangolins. Fish-slapping bears.

These are just a few of the items that decorate the off-kilter and thoroughly delightful world of Cul de Sac, the comic strip by Richard Thompson (no relation to the guitarist) that ran in newspapers from 2007 to 2012.

Thompson, who died at age 58 in August due to complications from Parkinson’s Disease, wasn’t a household name like Charles Schulz or Bill Watterson. And while successful, Cul de Sac wasn’t a phenomenon along the lines of Garfield or Dilbert. But for those comic connoisseurs who had the opportunity to discover it, it was nothing short of a work of comedic genius. More… “Comic Connections”

Smell the roses and enjoy the view.

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This is where you get to play. Fool around. Insert a private joke. This is the no-sweat zone. All you have to do is show your reader around the world the two of you have entered.

Though I suppose I should mention here, before I go on, that not all stories have middles, or the middle is so undefined it’s hard to separate it from the beginning and the end. In Irwin Shaw’s compressed “Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” a man and woman — a married couple — discuss fidelity. She is in favor of it. He is uncertain he can be faithful for life.

They are walking together, down Fifth Avenue, on a sunny November day, but as the conversation develops, a gap opens between them. A crevasse. A tectonic plate. Side by side as they are, there is nevertheless between them a gulf like an earthquake. More… “Daydreams in Dresses”

A response to Kevin Mattson

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In my most recent essay for The Smart Set, “What is Education for?” I argued that the tendency to equate education with mere instruction neglects the more fundamental purposes of education: initiation into a cultural or civilizational tradition, indoctrination into a public philosophy — in the United States, democratic republican liberalism — and inculcation of the manners which enable young people to grow into good citizens, good neighbors, and good colleagues.

In the liberal magazine Democracy Journal, Kevin Mattson was quick to respond. Mattson is a professor of history at Ohio University, a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, and a member of the editorial Board of Dissent. As my politics are those of a Rooseveltian social democratic liberal, and presumably similar to those of Mattson, to judge from his affiliations and his publications, I was curious to learn what his objections were. It turns out the divide between us has nothing to do with politics, in the conventional sense, but rather with our differing views of the purpose of education.

More… “What is Education for? Part II”

The world's most indecent fruit

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The past centuries, if not millennia, have been characterized by the unprecedented spread of certain plants to other continents. Crops such as bananas, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and rice are classic examples. Many others did not require human help; their seeds were spread by wind and birds and encountered favorable conditions, as has happened since time immemorial. Some plant types are particularly aggressive, spreading and replacing other plants. They are usually called “invasive” types, and they sometimes succeed with the involuntary help of humans. Now, due to climate change, vegetation zones are changing: Conifer forests, for example, are spreading to tundras, and in the tropics, the rain forest is becoming denser. More… “A Fruit of Many Names”

Lost in adaptation

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How to best come to terms with the fiction of Philip Roth seems an almost idle question. What need do we have of any special terms? Can’t it simply be the old problem of how best to talk about the books we read, and some of those we come to love? And is it hagiography we might be after, or a stern desire to avoid any hint of such? Shouldn’t Roth take his unabashed stance and his licks with the others: Mailer, Bellow, Malamud, who are at once his compeers and his opponents, even in part his creation (think of the character of Lonoff in The Ghost Writer)? But more than a shadowy suspicion colors the problem. Could it be that Roth is the greatest of all his generation of American novelists, even with a nod to others such as Updike and Delillo? Would he himself be willing to play the games of genius and fortune and pace setter and the varied counters by which we measure literary achievement? In his work the (authorial) self is always trying to make the (existential) self answerable to the snares and glitter of ambition, irony, and self-delusion (not to mention self-abasement.) It might be the better part of wisdom to let Roth deal with his own artistic legacy, for after all his recently announced retirement from the life of writing suggests that he has come to terms with his own final self-estimations.

More… “Philip Roth’s Indignation

The thing about Japanese convenience stores is that they're awesome.

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At 10:30 on Monday night, six young office workers sat at a table outside of FamilyMart, eating snacks and drinking chūhai. As a sticker someone slapped on a nearby wall said: “Be Alive in Kyoto.” They certainly were. My wife Rebekah and I had come to Japan on our honeymoon. She’s passed out early in the hotel this night, so I went out alone. I wanted to live, and FamilyMart was just a block away.

The thing about Japanese convenience stores is that they’re awesome. Called conbini, sometimes spelled konbini, Americans won’t believe this, but conbini are respectable social centers that serve high quality packaged and delicious fresh food that you actually want to eat, rather than avoid. Open 24 hours, three main chains dominate 90% of the Japanese marketplace: 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart, with Ministop, Daily Yamazaki, Seico, Poplar, and Circle K Sunkus making up the rest. Around 55,000 conbini operate in Japan. Mostly a get-it-and-go operation, you buy your crisp, cheese-stuffed croquettes, spongy green tea cream roll and egg salad sandwich to take to work or the park or home. Some stores provide a few stools by a counter so customers can eat inside, maybe a few small tables, but space is tight and expensive in urban Japan. Where many rural and suburban convenience stores have enough property to dedicate to outside seating or parking, fewer stores in the centers of large dense cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto do. Somehow this FamilyMart in central Kyoto had enough room to provide five round, white plastic tables out front for customers. It was the space that would be a parking lot in America.

More… “Conbini Life: Kyoto, Japan”

Circumventing dead mom and wife tropes in Louder than Bombs

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There was an older man at a dinner party, relaying the history of his marriages. His first one, he told us, was a disaster. He was too young, she was too young. It lasted only a few years and then it ended angrily. He thought he’d never remarry, but then he decided he wanted to have a child. He married another woman, who turned out not to want children, but, he assured us, he eventually “wore her down.”

There are all sorts of struggles that take place within a marriage. Conflicting desires create situations without the possibility of compromise and so one partner tries to overpower the other’s will. Wives do this as well as husbands. But there was something about the way the story was told that caused the women at the table to immediately exchange worried looks and inhale deeply at the words “wore her down.” He wanted a child, but for that he needed a woman’s body. He procured a woman’s body, and when that body was not compliant, he forced compliance through manipulation and control. The man was a writer, and so I am making the assumption that he told this story with a particular intention and that that intention could be analyzed. I understand that this is probably unfair.

More… “No Giggling Ghost”