There’s a principle for evaluating new technology that receives less attention than it deserves. The principle might be phrased this way: The flagship is not the fleet. Which is to say, the best use of any new technology—the most striking and morally praiseworthy use, and the use for the sake of which we were urged to adopt something new—will rarely prove to be the most common use. Any technology distributed to a large number of people will quickly take on a life of its own, for good and for ill, as users turn the new technology toward the old ambitions, anxieties, and debaucheries of human nature.
Donald Trump may be unable to repeal the Iran Deal, Obamacare, or get tax reform done, but he has accomplished the exposure of the two Americas. There is a real disconnect between Democrats and blue collar voters in the Rust Belt and elsewhere, but the Trump era has exposed a fissure far deeper than that which defined John Edwards’s doomed candidacy. The United States finds itself in the midst a Civil War between those with a sense of humor and the insufferable, the tsk-tskers who would make St. Paul blush with their hyper-literal moralism. Reporters, comedians, and late night hosts have gone all-in with the latter, but luckily two writers had the temerity to break rank and laugh as Washington, D.C., burns. Christopher Bedford’s The Art of the Donald and Rob Long’s Bigly: Donald Trump in Verse are an antidote to the humorlessness afflicting our nation. Both are quick reads and deserve to be the go-to stocking stuffer for liberal and conservative relations alike.
A modest thought, a gentle faith, a quiet cultivation: There is a line of modern thought that seems to slip from view every other generation, only to reappear here and there among the in-between cohorts. The English cleric Sydney Smith (1771–1845) was of this kind, and perhaps his only generally remembered line is the maxim, “Take short views, hope for the best, and trust in God.”
A more dramatic story than that of Israel’s first kings as told in Samuel I and II is hard to imagine. But law professors Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes in The Beginning of Politics take an unusual approach in viewing Samuel as “a profound work of political thought” in which the absorbing narrative is constructed in order to highlight the central structural themes about the nature of political power and its effects on those who wield it. In their reading the hero is neither Saul nor David but the anonymous author who has “produced what is still the best book ever written in the Hebrew language” embodying lessons as relevant today as they were then.
Eight years ago I asked Christopher Kimball point-blank if he had any interest in cooking with yuzu, a small citrus fruit popular in Japan that’s become trendy in this country. Kimball, who at the time hosted America’s Test Kitchen and edited Cook’s Illustrated, did not mince words:
“No. I have no interest, zero interest in talking about things our readers are not going to actually do. What’s the point? Unless we give people stuff they really want to use, we wouldn’t be in business.”
In Hot Springs, South Dakota, there’s a museum—the Pioneer Museum, Where the Past is Present!—occupying the town’s original red-rock schoolhouse high on a hill overlooking the canyon in the southern Black Hills. And it’s a fine little place, with old washing machines, wood cook stoves, and kerosene lamps. Old furniture, hand-crafted carpenter’s tools, and pot-bellied stoves. The glass liniment bottles and steel instruments of a pioneer-era doctor’s office. The paper packets and ribbon spools of an old general store.
I once asked the novelist and Thomistic philosopher Ralph McInerny why the Catholic renaissance of mid-century America collapsed so suddenly. It was almost as though the fiction of John O’Hara and the prose of Thomas Merton had opened a floodgate, and a stream of Catholic works poured across the nation. The early poetry of Robert Lowell, that surprising first novel from Walker Percy, anything by Flannery O’Connor, the stories of J.F. Powers: From the late 1930s through the early 1960s, Catholic writers writing on Catholic themes seemed to occupy a vital place in the literary culture of the United States.
Almost no commentator, no reviewer, has mentioned the most newsworthy fact about Hillary Clinton’s latest memoir—which is the near total lack of anything actually newsworthy in the book. With What Happened, Clinton would at last “let down her hair,” Simon & Schuster’s publicists loudly proclaimed before the book’s publication. And that was the line dutifully repeated by reporter after reporter, as though it were a fact. As though, coming from Clinton’s people, it didn’t need to be checked or reported with even the slight distancing of “Hillary Clinton says she’s let down her hair in her new book.”
For all of Tom Clancy’s obvious labor to ground his Jack Ryan novels in fact, there is something perfectly ideal about them. The Hunt for Red October (1984) and Patriot Games (1987) are products of “Morning in America.” So, for a first-time reader born on the cusp of 1995 and who became politically aware on September 11, 2001, these novels are pictures of a society that seems to have looked at America with complete confidence—works of such patriotism that intellectuals today would greet them as farce (as intellectuals did when they were first published). They are also terrific thrillers.
It’s tempting to mock Richard Florida: the hipster urbanist with the hipster name, the new day’s heir to yesterday’s Jane Jacobs. In 2002, he wrote a book that just everyone with an ounce of hipness bought and read—a book about how hipsters were saving the nation’s cities. And now, 15 years older and not quite as hip anymore, he’s written a follow-up that says, in essence, whoops.