Richard Beck

  • They Meant Well

    As we enter what feels like the second or third decade of the 2020 presidential campaign, a question hovers menacingly over American politics: Can liberals get a grip? Three years into the Trump era, it cannot have escaped anyone that the country’s political system is in the throes of a major crisis. Yet the mainstream of the Democratic Party remains bogged down, lurching back and forth between melancholy and hysteria. “The Republic is in danger!” the Rachel Maddows of the world intone, but aside from a Trump impeachment that has no hope of actually removing him from office, the solutions on

  • Now You See It

    Even in a decade not wanting for political weirdness, one of the weirder aspects of the past ten years has been American empire’s guilty conscience with respect to itself. On the campaign trail, both our current and our previous president complained about imperial overreach, about “stupid” wars that cost billions of dollars and weren’t winning the country any new friends. Then, in office, each president kept prosecuting those same wars, editing around the margins without fundamentally changing the scope of the country’s military presence around the world. On both sides of the aisle, our

  • syllabi September 11, 2015

    Sex and Hysteria in the 1980s

    In the 1980s, an idea took hold throughout the US that very young children existed in a near-constant state of sexual danger. A moral panic ensued, in which many day-care workers were wrongly accused of committing awful, elaborate, sometimes satanic crimes against the children in their care. Some version of that fear remains a largely unquestioned feature of contemporary American life—see the persistent myth of a trenchcoat-clad predator stalking the playground—and its sources are extraordinarily varied. While working over the last few years on my book, We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic

  • culture August 13, 2010

    The Fall of Buster Keaton by James L. Neibaur

    In 1928, the brilliant silent-film maker Buster Keaton signed a contract with M-G-M—and gave up almost all creative control in the process. He later called it the worst mistake of his life. One thing's certain: He lost his comic spark for good.

    One day in 1927, Buster Keaton spent forty-two thousand dollars to film a locomotive engine rush across a burning bridge and plunge into a river. The climax of his great Civil War adventure film, The General, it was the most expensive single shot in the medium’s history to date. Like the industrialists who produced the trains and steamships he loved, Buster Keaton knew how to spend money. His greatest achievements—Steamboat Bill, Jr. , The Navigator, Sherlock, Jr. —were almost always his most expensive ones as well.

    But what happens when the studio bosses cut you off? That is the subject of

  • culture March 10, 2010

    Silk Parachute by John McPhee

    John McPhee works from the ground up. He gets interested in things that his readers are likely to know little about––like nuclear physics or the merchant marine––and then writes about them in as much detail as possible. You feel that you come out of a McPhee piece with new vocabularies swimming around in your head. When I was a child, my parents gave me an illustrated book called The Way Things Work; McPhee is that book’s grown-up equivalent.

    This kind of approach—inductive, concrete, observational—doesn’t usually produce what you would think of as “big picture” writing. So the biggest surprise

  • 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About

    It comes as a surprise that Joshua Clover, a poet who teaches critical theory at UC Davis, begins his new book about pop music with a sympathetic meditation on political philosopher Francis Fukuyama. In 1989, Fukuyama responded to the death rattles of Soviet Communism with the now-legendary essay “The End of History?” His question mark was disingenuous; Fukuyama was sure of it. Taking an intellectual victory lap on behalf of the emerging world order, he wrote, “We have trouble imagining a world that is radically better than our own, or a future that is not essentially democratic and capitalist.”