• print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

    WE OF LITTLE FAITH

    For all the wild exertions of fundamentalist and atheist chest beaters the world over, God seems to be on hold for much of the West. As religion threatens to plunge the twenty-first century into a reprisal of the seventeenth century’s Thirty Years’ War, it is tempting to smite the thing altogether, as many intellectuals sought to during the Enlightenment. But where would that leave us, not only culturally but in terms of “truthiness”? That recently coined term reveals much about our uneasiness and the gallows humor that helps conceal it during these unmoored times.

    We could turn to Denmark,

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

    CROSS PURPOSES

    Early in Mark Noll’s brief, smoothly paced exploration of “how religion interacted with race in shaping the nation’s political course,” Noll shares an observational nugget from André Siegfried. Nearly a century after his countryman Alexis de Tocqueville took a note-taking tour of the United States, Siegfried paid a similar visit to these shores. Whereas Tocqueville detected the underpinnings of a cult of individualism and a potential tyranny of the majority, Siegfried saw a nation of Calvinist pulpit pounders. “Every American is at heart an evangelist,” he wrote, “be he a Wilson, a Bryan, or

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

    PREVARICATION NATION

    Jean-Michel Rabaté, Vartan Gregorian Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, bookends The Ethics of the Lie with Jacques Lacan, the French psychiatrist who connected the anxieties of poststructuralism to those of psychoanalysis. At the beginning, we have the proposition, apropos Monica Lewinsky, that Bill Clinton may have been “the world’s first Lacanian president” because, as Lacan saw it, “there is no such thing as a sexual relationship” (and as Clinton tried to explain to a mortified nation, oral sex should be thought of as an aperitif rather than an entrée). At the

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

    AGENT RED

    Liberals tend to view the Patriot Act, which expanded the boundaries of permissible police and domestic intelligence activities, with a degree of hysteria. If they think the Bush era ushered in a police state, they would do well to read Andrew Meier’s The Lost Spy, which, in the course of unearthing one of the unlikelier sagas in the annals of US-Soviet espionage, is a masterful rendering of the government’s repression of left-wing political ferment during World War I. That era’s brutal crackdowns on dissent—combined with the onset of the Great Depression—would prompt thousands of Americans to

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

    POWDER TOUGH

    Crime may not pay, but for Pablo Escobar, the man synonymous with the Colombian cocaine trade in the 1980s, it certainly did. By 1979, two years after Eric Clapton released his hit cover of the song “Cocaine,” twenty-two million Americans were using the drug, a fourfold increase from five years earlier. Clubs in Miami—just a two-hour flight from Bogotá—and New York drove the demand that launched a billion-dollar industry. Although various cartels competed to satiate Americans’ newfound obsession with the glamorous white powder, Escobar emerged as the dominant supplier, controlling 80 percent

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

    WHEN IN ROAM

    Dubravka Ugresic is Walter Benjamin’s Baudelaire, the poetic sojourner who finds himself at the whim of the crowd. She is the flaneur cast into the streets, nowhere at home. And like Baudelaire, Ugresic is a writer in full view of and at odds with the forces of commodity culture, a writer whose mission is to give form to modernity. But if Baudelaire’s poetry is permeated by melancholic doom, Ugresic’s diagnosis of life’s illusory qualities is delightfully judgmental and cheerily pessimistic. Or as she tartly concludes in Nobody’s Home, her new collection of essays, “this book breaks the rules

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

    THE UNWRITTEN LAW

    American legal education holds few horrors greater than the wooze-inducing editorial content that pads casebooks on constitutional law. The notes that follow court opinions are either so deadly simple or so impenetrably dense as to frighten law students into pushing their casebooks somewhere to the back of their computer desks so as to plunge into another game of Cornhole. I was put in mind of that avoidance tactic as I read Laurence Tribe’s The Invisible Constitution and came across this mouthful:

    A much-lamented deployment of geometric construction emerged

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

    HOCKEY PLUCK

    The noses Jeff Lemire draws don’t just sit in the middle of his characters’ faces, they loom so large as to be unavoidable. These landmarks serve as emblems of both personality and family history. Some possess a beaklike sharpness (aligning their characters with the crows that make regular appearances in these books), while others are as blocky as ice cubes—not surprising, given that Lemire’s stories are set in Southern Ontario and feature men and boys who love hockey. Cartooning at its liveliest and most expressive, is rarely about delineating faces with photographic accuracy. The great

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

    GOOD FELLOWS

    Vivian Gornick has always been an impassioned reader, writer, and inhabitant of her own life, holding firmly to the vastly unmodish notion that novels, memoirs, and essays are not just ironic, parsable constructs but have the power to help us locate, define, and even redeem ourselves. Gornick believes, that is, in the transcendent effect of literature, whether it be a novel by Virginia Woolf, a memoir by Edmund Gosse, or an essay by Seymour Krim—an effect made possible by dint of a book’s “clarity of thought” (an oft-repeated phrase of hers) rather than its sheer emotional power. Indeed, to

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

    ALL THE WRITE MOVES

    In 1973, writing in the introduction to her indispensable compendium, Work 1961–73, Yvonne Rainer admits, “I find myself greedy. . . . So here I am, in a sense, trying to ‘replace’ my performances with a book, greedily pushing language to clarify what already was clear in other terms.” In her ambitious drive to dissect the historical conventions of performance over the past four-plus decades, Rainer has utilized a remarkable variety of media. And while dance and film have been her primary concerns, the written word has played a pivotal role, not simply as a means of clarification but as yet

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

    STEERING ZEAL

    I know all about traffic. So do you. So does everyone. We curse it. We try to avoid it. When we’re pedestrians, we try not to be run down by it. Of course, we also cause it. And as we sit stuck in it, we sometimes develop one or two pet theories about it, generally based on nothing more than conjecture and personal prejudice. To that extent, Tom Vanderbilt is one of us. In the prologue to Traffic, he wonders whether those who merge lanes at the last possible moment are arrogant queue jumpers or simply making the best use of available space. It’s a good question, and Vanderbilt doesn’t come up

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

    The Circus, 1870–1950

    Media circus, family circus, circus catch, political circus, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and the Circus Circus casino in Vegas—yet nowhere among these usages is there to be found an actual sawdust and elephant-scat circus. Before its devolution into mere metaphor (when did you last sit ringside?), the circus was indeed the greatest show on an unwired earth. In their glory days from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the last, Barnum & Bailey, Ringling Brothers, and lesser outfits crisscrossed America bringing spectacle to the masses. This suitcase-size compendium, The Circus,

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