Volume 15

Guests on Volume 15: Jean Bethke Elshtain, on Democracy on Trial; Barry Alan Shain, on communalism in early American Protestantism; Christopher Wolfe, on the moral basis for strong local government; A. G. Mojtabai, on how contemporary novelists ignore religion; Robert Pinsky, on the challenges of translating Dante's Inferno; Suzanne Wolfe, on choosing books for children; Amy Waldman, on the ersatz community of TV shopping networks; Mark Crispin Miller, on the dehumanized feeling so common in modern advertising; Ted Prescott, on the Whitney Biennial, Bruce Nauman, and the "Mutant Materials" exhibit; and Edward Rothstein, on the inner meaning of music and mathematics.

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Part 1

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    Jean Bethke Elshtain on Democracy on Trial

    Democracy on Trial (Basic Books, 1995)

    Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of ethics at the University of Chicago, declares that cynicism about public institutions is death to democracy. Democracy, Elshtain argues in her book Democracy on Trial, requires hopefulness, social trust, and civic habits. These habits include an ability to distinguish between public and private, and an ability to pass on civic history. Elshtain notes that America's shameless fascination with talk-show gossip corrodes the nation's political sensibilities by encouraging people to equate private peccadilloes with political positions. If democracy is to survive, Americans must recognize that it is an achievement, not a natural state, and must strive to recover the dispositions necessary to its renewal.

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    Barry Alan Shain on communalism in early American Protestantism

    The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought (Princeton University Press, 1994)

    In The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought, political scientist Barry Alan Shain examines how eighteenth-century ideas about human nature, freedom, and community have shaped America's political order. True freedom, according to the nation's founders, existed only within a community that constrained the individual from pursuing a life of passion. The founders assumed that human beings were inherently sinful and needed the help of family and community members in order to live a worthy and godly life. This view of human nature led the founders to be deeply suspicious of centralized government, where individuals acted apart from a local community. Shain highlights how far current notions about liberty and license have drifted from these original understandings.

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    Christopher Wolfe on the moral basis for strong local government

    The Rise of Modern Judicial Review: From Judicial Interpretation to Judge-Made Law (Basic Books, 1994)

    Political theorist Christopher Wolfe explains the principles of social solidarity and subsidiarity, two concepts from Catholic social thought that expose the dangers of centralized government. Solidarity states that the government's role is to promote the good of each individual by fostering the common good. Subsidiarity states that the common good is best achieved by keeping activities at the lowest possible level of government. Centralization, Wolfe claims, misunderstands the proper role of government because it focuses on efficiency rather than individual development. Wolfe suggests that politicians can combat federalization by resisting the temptation to jump on bandwagons.

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    A. G. Mojtabai on how contemporary novelists ignore religion

    Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1995

    American novelist A.G. Mojtabai reflects on the conspicuous absence of religion in modern fiction. In her recent article, "Religion and the Writer: A Missed Connection" (Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1995), Mojtabai asserts that writers have lost touch with local communities and thus failed to recognize, or take seriously, the reality of religious faith in people's lives. Most writers, Mojtabai explains, fellowship primarily with other writers and academics who are deeply skeptical about religion. Their bleak vision of a fragmented world allows no place for faith, a posture they see as naive and nostalgic. Mojtabai insists that this attitude puts writers in a precarious position as they move further and further away from their readers.

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    Robert Pinsky on the challenges of translating Dante's Inferno

    The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994)

    "Poetry is an even more bodily art than the art of dancing," says Robert Pinsky, who worries that many Americans think poetry is about fitting words together to create a clever phrase. Pinsky insists that poetry is the art of using the organs of speech. In his recent translation of Dante's Inferno, Pinsky paid special attention to the way the sounds fit together in order to create the illusion that the poem was written in English. Pinsky also discusses his interpretation of Dante's moral vision. The Inferno, Pinsky says, is not a poem about punishment. Instead, it speaks of the immense potential of the soul both to wound itself through sin and to arrive in Paradise.

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    Suzanne Wolfe on choosing books for children

    Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values through Stories (Simon & Schuster, 1994)

    Suzanne and Gregory Wolfe, along with co-author William Kilpatrick, compiled a helpful guide for parents who want to encourage good reading habits in their children. Books That Build Character provides summaries of over 300 good children's books as well as essays articulating selection criteria and offering advice to parents who want to choose additional titles themselves. The Wolfes talk about the kind of stories that encourage moral and spiritual growth rather than complacency. They also share their strategy for guarding against the "suck of popular culture" on their children's attitudes and desires. If children take in a steady diet of wholesome, imaginative literature that reaches them deeply, popular culture will not have a great influence in shaping their minds and hearts.

Part 2

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    Amy Waldman on the ersatz community of TV shopping networks

    Journalist Amy Waldman discusses the pseudo-intimacy sold on TV shopping channels. In her article "Lonely Hearts, Classy Dreams, Empty Wallets" (Washington Monthly, June 1995), Waldman contends that home shopping networks play upon loneliness in order to sell products. The "hosts" on QVC (Quality Value Control) create a mock community that offers human contact to lonely, often older people who lack a real community. The networks also slyly insist that the items featured on the programs (mostly costume jewelry and bric-a-brac) will make purchasers look like rich Hollywood celebrities. Waldman points out that the home shopping "universe" is not a real community but a weirdly hypnotic alternate reality where anonymity takes the place of true neighborliness.

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    Mark Crispin Miller on the dehumanized feeling so common in modern advertising

    Boxed in: The Culture of TV (Northwestern University Press, 1988) is an anthology of Mark Crispin Miller's essays on television.

    Media critic Mark Crispin Miller examines the dehumanizing trends in modern advertising. Advertising in the twentieth century was less utopian, less social, and even less human than in previous times. The world depicted in advertisements is increasingly cold, antiseptic, and empty. Miller points out that advertisements for products often have nothing to do with the pleasure that the product will convey. Food ads, for example, emphasize how wonderful the eater will look, rather than the great way the food will taste. Miller deconstructs several ads to demonstrate his observations, including some from Parents magazine which reveal how advertising denigrates family life. Miller suggests that these atomizing trends in advertising are the result of an increasing jadedness among consumers and the apparent triumph of the visual image over the printed word.

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    Ted Prescott on the Whitney Biennial, Bruce Nauman, and the "Mutant Materials" exhibit

    Bruce Nauman's "Clown Torture" video experience

    Art critic Ted Prescott reviews three recent art exhibits: the Whitney Biennial "Art as Metaphor" (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), a retrospective of Bruce Nauman's work (Museum of Modern Art, New York), and an exhibit titled "Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design" (also at MMA). This year, the Whitney Biennial, which is usually organized around a theme which captures the mood of modern art, was eclectic and depressing. Prescott attributed his negative reaction to the "low human quotient" in the exhibit. Prescott's visit to the Nauman exhibit evoked similar feelings of psychological and emotional discomfort. Nauman, Prescott explains, is determined to test the viewer's comfort levels with exhibits such as "Clown Torture," a video experience which assaults the viewer with images of a clown under duress by a hidden interrogator. In contrast to the first two shows, which seemed bent on making the visitor uncomfortable, the Design exhibit was delightful. Prescott explains why he thinks delight is such an underrated value in art and life.

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    Edward Rothstein on the inner meaning of music and mathematics

    Emblems of Mind: The Inner Life of Music and Mathematics (Times Books, 1995)

    What knowledge do we gain from music? This is the question Edward Rothstein, chief music critic for the New York Times, addresses in his new book Emblems of Mind: the Inner Meaning of Music and Mathematics. Rothstein asserts that music and mathematics engage the mind and emotions in very similar ways. Both activities train us to look for and interpret patterns in the world, skills that provide a foundation for many other areas of learning and living. Rothstein thus rejects the notion that mathematics and music are too abstract and impractical for study by the common man and insists that they should be a part of basic education for every individual. He also discusses the infinite metaphors music makes possible in the mind of the listener.