Today The Boston Globe published my piece on criticism, as manifested by Lionel Trilling, Adam Kirsch, and George Scialabba.

I’ll be writing more about this topic, and this particular review, soon.  In the meantime, here’s something both amazing and stunningly boring: network television featuring Vladimir Nabokov and Lionel Trilling discussing Lolita.


The Better Angels of Our Nature

Two weeks ago The Boston Globe ran my review of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

A bit from the review:

If reason is humanity’s saving grace, our persistent downfall isn’t madness so much as morality, or what passed as morality for our “morally retarded’’ ancestors. People often feel that violence results from amorality. “On the contrary,’’ Pinker argues, “violence is often caused by a surfeit of morality and justice, at least as they are conceived in the minds of the perpetrators.’’

Progress against aggression occurs when societies “retract’’ morality from privileged, foundational positions. This retraction is “precisely the agenda of classical liberalism: a freedom of individuals from tribal and authoritarian force, and a tolerance of personal choices as long as they do not infringe on the autonomy and well-being of others.’’

This should be fine by everyone: The values of classical liberalism are better than those of theocratic irrationalism or predatory autocracy, two alternatives. Pinker gums up the works a bit, however, when he exhibits some of the chauvinism that often attends the celebration of liberal superiority.

Defund Kentucky?

Overnight quite a few people sent me a link to Paul Begala’s stupid little blog post, “It’s Time to Defund Kentucky.” Begala, never one to break his back for subtlety (or substance, for that matter), argues that we, the government, should give the citizens of Kentucky what they want.  And what do they want? States rights and no government spending – and they’ve voted in the likes of Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul to prove this point.

As Begala writes,

So here’s my two-word response: Defund Kentucky. Cut it off the federal dole. Kentucky is a welfare state to begin with. The conservative Tax Foundation says the Bluegrass State received $1.51 back from Washington for every dollar it paid in federal taxes in 2005 (the most recent data I could find on the Tax Foundation’s website.)  We need to listen to the people of Kentucky. They don’t want any more federal spending in their state—and they certainly must be appalled by the notion that they’re a bunch of welfare queens….Defund Kentucky. Kentuckians are addicted to federal spending—they’re the Lindsay Lohan of states, the Charlie Sheen of commonwealths.  Let’s put them in detox.  By trying this experiment in one state we can honor the conservatives’ belief in states’ rights, allowing Kentucky to truly be a laboratory of democracy.

Begala’s tongue is firmly in cheek, but this is still a dumb, point scoring non-argument pitched only to his choir. What’s the point? Hypocrite politicians? Impossible! State’s that don’t realize that their best interests – and that their current social services and infrastructure levels – rely on federal funds. Say it ain’t so! Red states living off the taxes of blue states? This is well documented and nothing new. One can pick almost any red state and they receive more tax funding that they pay.

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David Brooks: Shut up

David Brooks falls prey to "The Big Shaggy."

Why does David Brooks still have a column at the NYT when he stinks up the place with press releases like this? In this week’s digression, Brooks fawns over Bill Wilson, founder of AA. Brooks evidently found his inspiration in the pages of Wired.  You know, a lot of people find something to write about by reading other things and then making facile comparisons in a few brief, infelicitous sentences — they’re called blogs. That Brooks maintains a recurring place of power on the NYT‘s Op-Ed page….

Even when he has an idea, he can’t render it with any integrity. For instance, look at this piece where he discusses the role of the humanities in shaping civic life and human character. It displays his typical obstuse “aw shucksterism,” but then he puts it all in the garbage with “The Big Shaggy,” his idiotic name for the impulsive, often uncontrollable element in human nature. I should written about this earlier, but I’ve just been so underwhelmed.

The humanities:

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