The American Mind
March 18, 2013 7:06 AM   Subscribe

Some Garry Wills, from the New York Review Of Books blog:

Our Moloch
Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains—“besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).
Obama's Finest Hour
The New York Review wanted to publish a booklet printing the Lincoln and Obama speeches together, but the Obama campaign discouraged that idea, perhaps to avoid any suspicion that they were calling Obama a second Lincoln. Well, I am willing to risk such opposition now, when I say that his Tucson speech bears comparison with two Lincoln speeches even greater than the Cooper Union address. In this case, Obama had to rise above the acrimonious debate about what caused the gunman in Tucson to kill and injure so many people. He side-stepped that issue by celebrating the fallen and the wounded and those who rushed to their assistance. He has been criticized by some for holding a “pep rally” rather than a mourning service. But he was speaking to those who knew and loved and had rallied around the people attacked. He was praising them and those who assisted them, and the cheers were deserved. He said that the proper tribute to them was to live up to their own high expectations of our nation. It was in that context, and not one of recrimination, that he called for civility, service—and, yes, heroism—in the country.
Bullying The Nuns
The Vatican has issued a harsh statement claiming that American nuns do not follow their bishops’ thinking. That statement is profoundly true. Thank God, they don’t. Nuns have always had a different set of priorities from that of bishops. The bishops are interested in power. The nuns are interested in the powerless. Nuns have preserved Gospel values while bishops have been perverting them. The priests drive their own new cars, while nuns ride the bus (always in pairs). The priests specialize in arrogance, the nuns in humility.
The Curse Of Political Purity
I freely admit that Unger’s principles are better than Obama’s, that next to him Obama’s credentials as a progressive are muddied and blunted. If I had to choose between them as men of probity, I would prefer Unger as quick as the eye can blink. But in politics we never choose men of much probity. One of the recurring comedies of American politics is the rapture with which people elect a shining prince, and then collapse into self-pitying cries of betrayal when the shine comes off once the candidate is in office. A refrain of dismay runs the fairy tale in reverse: “We elected a prince and he turned into a frog.”
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:03 AM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Wills is an excellent thinker and writer. He's difficult to pigeonhole. He's Catholic, trained as a classicist, a protege of William Buckley Jr. at the National Review. But he moved from the right to the left during the 1960s and 1970s; one of his best-known books is Nixon Agonistes (1970).

Wikipedia includes a list of his books.

Wills' essays in the New York Review of Books, going back to 1973, give an idea of the range of his interests. Reviews of his books.
posted by russilwvong at 8:13 AM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Never heard of him I'm afraid, but he sounds interesting. Any recommendations?
posted by MartinWisse at 8:52 AM on March 18, 2013

I've been meaning to check out his Henry Adams and the Making of America, since I'm a big fan of Henry Adams but have never been up to the challenge of Adams' principal (but seldom read) history, of the administrations of Jefferson and Madison.
posted by seemoreglass at 10:48 AM on March 18, 2013

Never heard of him I'm afraid, but he sounds interesting. Any recommendations?

Reagan's America is one of the two books I consider the essential big-picture-overview reads on the Reagan administration and its times. (The other is Haynes Johnson's Sleepwalking Through History.)

Wills is a fantastic historian. This piece, though? I really, really wish someone could teach writers of profile pieces of great writers to stop doing that fawning, knock-kneed thing off the top where they act like they're afraid even to say hello for fear of saying something banal in the presence of an intellect so towering that even its pleasantries have the weight of divine insight to them. Or whatever the fuck's going on in the first few grafs there with the urinating in the hedges and all other minds tremble and all that.

See also "a writer at the height of his powers," which is just maybe the stupidest fucking thing you can say about a smart book.
posted by gompa at 10:54 AM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

While maybe a bit much of a screed, I enjoyed his book Head and Heart. It's a good review of protestantism in America, though it spends more time with the period around the country's founding than at different periods that I would've found more interesting. Think of it as his anti-Wallbuilders book: he's trying to be completely clear that the founders wanted a separation of church and state to protect religion, so devotes a great deal of time to that point.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:33 AM on March 18, 2013

Just one funny bit from the Tanenhouse piece: " ... Instead he chose a collection by the left-wing Doonesbury cartoonist who remains a hero of American youth culture." !?

Dear Sam, please talk to someone, anyone, under twenty years old.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:54 AM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Any recommendations?

Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State

From the author's introduction:
This book has a basic thesis, that the Bomb altered our subsequent history down to its deepest constitutional roots. It redefined the presidency, as in all respects America’s ‘Commander in Chief’ (a term that took on a new and unconstitutional meaning in this period). It fostered an anxiety of continuing crisis, so that society was pervasively militarized. It redefined the government as a National Security State, with an apparatus of secrecy and executive control. It redefined Congress, as an executor of the executive. And it redefined the Supreme Court, as a follower of the follower of the executive. Only one part of the government had the supreme power, the Bomb, and all else must defer to it, for the good of the nation, for the good of the world, for the custody of the future, in a world of perpetual emergency superseding ordinary constitutional restrictions.
posted by Superfrankenstein at 12:08 PM on March 18, 2013

Thanks for this! History is quickly moving from a passive to active interest for me, and finding the luminaries is a nice bonus. I've been listening to a lot of Dan Carlin recently* and last night he was talking a lot about the work of WIll Durant, calling him the greatest historian in the 20th century, so now I've got two people with massive bodies of work I need to look at.

*Personally, I'm a big fan of Carlin, whose conservative-talk-radio voice is in deep contrast to his civil-libertarian, fiscal-pragmatist, viable-third-parties-should-be-our-first-priority views, and who is humble enough to assume that his audience will have good reasons for disagreeing with him and to quote disagreeing historians as sources greater than he himself.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:22 PM on March 18, 2013

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