The Game of Alliances


Much like physics, international relations can be divided into two worlds: a stripped-down, normative world of theory, and a full-fat, often unclear and contradicting “real life.” Like the vacuumed, frictionless world of ideal physics, IR theory streamlines nations into hyper-rational, calculating “State As” and “State Bs” that make decisions predicated upon game theory modeling. These choices always result in the ideal outcome for one or both sides. Meanwhile, IR scholarship of the historical record, analyzing the messiness of the real world, is often content merely to explain how things are, rather than how they should be. Where an IR theory elegantly traces ideal models that vaguely echo real life, pure historical analysis steals bits and pieces of disparate theories to graft a sometimes-contradicting “model” onto the real world.

The Odd Appeal of Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson / AP

Shirley Jackson was a middling writer of the 1950s—and the fact that she was so damn good at what she did must tell us something about writers and their times. Perhaps what it says is that Jackson has been unfairly ignored by the literary establishment, dismissed as a mere horror writer before her death in 1965 at age 48, and nearly forgotten for years after. Or perhaps what it says is that, although she was good, the era of American literature in which she lived was so rich, so thick with talented writers, that being good just wasn’t good enough.

The question won’t be settled by the new biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. Written by Ruth Franklin, a former editor at the New Republic, the book comes resolutely down on the side of Jackson as an unfairly ignored writer.

The Trouble With Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh / Library of Congress

In his notes for a review of Brideshead Revisited that he never completed, George Orwell remarked that Evelyn Waugh “is about as good a novelist as one can be…while holding untenable opinions.” Orwell puts it in the plural but identifies only one such opinion in Waugh’s Brideshead: His belief in God and assent to the doctrines of the Catholic Church. “One cannot really be Catholic and grown-up.”

While not defending Waugh’s Catholicism, Christopher Hitchens took exception with Orwell’s couching of Waugh’s accomplishment in a 2003 piece for The Atlantic. Waugh wrote “brilliantly,” Hitchens argued, “precisely because he loathed the modern world”—a loathing that preceded his conversion to Catholicism (and was used to great effect in Decline and Fall). What Hitchens missed in an otherwise entertaining look at Waugh’s satirical gifts was how Waugh’s Catholicism gave his loathing fuel and complexity.

The Right Kind of Art

The 500th anniversary of Da Vinci's Arrival At Chateau du Clos Luce - France

One does not have to struggle to find a polemic about cultural decline that focuses on the art world. However, Sohrab Ahmari’s The New Philistines stands apart because it examines these questions on serious, philosophic grounds, avoiding the complaining tone of similar works.

Ahmari (who is a London-based editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal) has written a finely argued volume that does not focus so much on the rote messaging inherent in most modern art today. Rather, he shows how the left’s increasingly strict demands for ideological orthodoxy has led to a dearth of creativity and dynamism.

When Art Mattered

'Portrait of french writer and film-maker Jean Cocteau' (detail) by Amedeo Modigliani

You have to admire somebody who just never quits. Such was the playwright/novelist/filmmaker/ballet scenario-maker/artist Jean Cocteau, who was an indispensable part of early twentieth century French culture, and what his biographer Claude Arnaud calls “the sad clown of modernity.” It all comes to a close when the emaciated, former opium addict Cocteau, lover of so many beautiful boys and men, dies in a world so different from the Belle Époque in which he came to flower, but in a world where Bob Dylan sang to the Tambourine Man, the Beats had issued their anti-Establishment howls, and where the virile Jean-Paul Belmondo had starred in Godard’s Breathless. The world of Cocteau’s youth was different. It was a world that now seems merely historic, a more perfumed world, replete with classical allusions (Cocteau wrote an Orpheus and other works on classical themes), a world where making it clear you wanted La Gloire made you already interesting.

Blood, Sweat, and Tears in South Africa

British prisoners of the Second Boer War, with a defiant Winston Churchill at right / Imperial War Museum

Hero of the Empire tells the story of Winston Churchill during the Second Boer War in South Africa. We begin with the author’s introduction to Churchill’s service as a British army officer fighting tribal warriors in the North-West Frontier of British India. Churchill, then in his early 20’s, was determined to earn a reputation for heroism and acted courageously in that pursuit. He was nearly killed on a number of occasions, but felt that fate was on his side. “I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending,” he wrote after one hairy battle. Churchill would eventually be vindicated in that belief, but his exploits in British India were insufficient to vaunt him to public attention. He needed to find another fray to fight in.

After being defeated in an 1899 British parliamentary election, Churchill decided on a different route to purpose and power. When the Second Boer War began in October 1899, Churchill sensed it was his moment to strike.

Why Politicians Matter

Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton

A “doughface” politician, back in the pre-Civil War years, was a Northern Democrat who often sympathized with the South and slaveholders. The term connoted lack of principle and a willingness to say anything to earn political support. Franklin Pierce, the 14th president, was one such Democrat. Campaigning against him in 1852, a Whig politician charged that Pierce, despite his Southern sympathies, was also pretending to be a champion for the antislavery cause. He pointed out that the Pierce had expressed opposition to the pro-South Fugitive Slave Law and had been assiduously courting members of the antislavery Free Soil movement. And then, after quoting from a book with a sailor’s chantey about a mixed-race woman named Sally Brown, this Whig speaker quipped that a President Pierce “will, politically speaking, not only be a mulatto; but he will be a good deal darker one than Sally Brown.”

Before the Presses Stopped

The Baltimore Sun

“What will become of newspapers?” wondered John Carroll, onetime editor of the Baltimore Sun, in 2006.

Carroll witnessed the decline of the Sun in the 2000s, when the paper went from being a family-owned enterprise that gave its reporters immense freedom to a more restrictive corporate publication. Under the tutelage of its profit-minded masters, the Sun learned an Orwellian tongue: “stories” became “content,” “editors” became “heads of content,” and the chief editor, “director of content.”

Conservatism’s Most Effective Champion

William F. Buckley Jr.

In Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line, Heather Hendershot shows her readers how William F. Buckley championed conservatism through intellectual creativity and confidence in his ideas. By debating the left in an intelligent manner and not being afraid to confront conservatives with whom he disagreed, Buckley was able to propel his brand of conservatism to prominence.

The Peculiar Beatrix Potter’s Lost Tale

Beatrix Potter / Wikimedia Commons

Beatrix Potter was something of an odd duck—and her Edwardian animal stories would seem odder still, if we were to encounter them for the first time. But the most curious part of the Beatrix Potter phenomenon may be that it’s nearly impossible to discover her work for the first time. After all the bedtime readings and birthday gifts of her works—all the bookstore displays and innumerable editions since she first appeared in print with The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902—she has wormed her way too deep into the consciousness most readers formed back in childhood. We can’t read Beatrix Potter. We can only re-read her.