Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Across the Great Divide – The United States Congress today.

February 9, 2013

In a chapter 6, entitled The Sources of Polarization, of his book Dangerous Convictions: What’s Really Wrong With the U.S. Congress” , (part of which is reprinted in Salon) Tom_Allen, a former Democratic congressman from Maine and current president and CEO of the American Association of Publishers, describes a dozen years in Congress left him “alarmed and frustrated by the inability of Republicans and Democrats to comprehend each other well enough to work together on our country’s major challenges.”  He makes a case that what’s really wrong with Congress is that Republicans and Democrats now hold worldviews that leave the two parties unable to understand how the other thinks about what people should do on their own and what should be done collectively.

 Whatever the socio-economic factors that feed our discontent, our system of government was designed by James Madison and the founders to foster sustained deliberation by representatives of the people who would be committed to acting in the “permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Too often, the Congress in which I served responded to the short-term interests of particular industries and groups. The Senate, once recognized as the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” hardly warrants that title today.

That’s not how things are viewed nowadays.

Democrats see Republicans as inattentive to evidence and expertise, unconcerned about Americans struggling to get by and reflexively opposed to government action to deal with our collective challenges. On the other hand, Republicans see Democrats as the party of a government that routinely infringes on personal freedom, as creators of a “culture of dependency” among people who should stand on their own and as promoters of change from traditional values that will leave us weaker than before.

These different perspectives drive congressional debates far more than the immediate subject before the House on any given day. Above all, the abiding clash between the view of government as a vehicle for the common good and the view of government as an obstacle to progress and personal freedom sits close to the center of our ideological gridlock. That’s why I believe that Congress is best characterized as a forum for interest-group politics overlaid by worldview politics, and it’s the latter struggle that contributes more to the dysfunctional nature of the institution.

His explanation of how these deeply rooted sources of political polarization came into being, and are being nurtured, is both illuminating and dispiriting. It’s dispiriting because, given that he that “people are increasingly sorting themselves into the party that fits their worldview and less to the party that seeks to protect their economic interests”, he must know that any project designed escape the grip of the forces that bringing this about is almost certainly doomed.


Updike’s poetry.

May 4, 2009

In his recent New York Times review of John Updike’s Endpoint and Other Poems, Clive James concludes, rather interestingly, that while Updike’s reputation rests as it should on his abilities as a prose writer, he had in him, contrary to what others believed and what he himself professed to believe, everything that was necessary to make him a very good poet indeed.

In a single poem, he did enough to prove that he not only had the whole tradition of English-language poetry in his head, he had the means to add to it. “Bird Caught in My Deer Netting” deliberately and justifiably echoes Frost in its title, and in its body we can hear Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Crowe Ransom and — well, everyone, really, Jack Benny included.

How many starved hours of struggle resumed
in fits of life’s irritation did it take
to seal and sew shut the berry-bright eyes
and untie the tiny wild knot of a heart?
I cannot know, discovering this wad
of junco-fluff, weightless and wordless
in its corner of netting deer cannot chew through
nor gravity-defying bird bones break.

It’s a wonderful poem, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves. He wrote very few like it, and usually, even on the comparatively rare occasions when he tried to give it every­thing, he was led toward frivolity by his fatal propensity for reveling in skill. But his very last book, a book of poems, proves that he always had what it took.

Earlier in the review James allows that that most of the poems Updike “ever published in book form counted as light verse, but his light verse was dauntingly accomplished”. That put together with the fact that James has shown that he “always always had what it took” to be a good poet amounts to a stong case for the reader to spend a little time with Updike the poet.

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