Books

Royal Rumble: Academics vs. Film Critics

AP/Belknap Press
It's not every Sunday morning I find myself engaged in a Twitter quarrel with Richard J. Evans, today's foremost (though Ian Kershaw may disagree) academic historian of the Third Reich. But Sir Richard—yes, he's been knighted—is also the foremost academic defender of Ben Urwand's controversial new book The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler , and I had a bone to pick with him. I can't say I'm not grateful he answered, although my dream of blowing off Cambridge's Regius Professor of Modern History by tweeting, "Gotta go. Saints game's on!" didn't materialize. The nature of my bone—and I suspect I've waited years to commit that phrase to the public's tender mercies, Prospect readers—was fairly simple. I haven't read The Collaboration yet, a disqualifier from passing judgment on it I strongly urge you to keep in mind. Because I'm a movie reviewer and my colleagues are involved, I'd been a fascinated onlooker to the kerfuffle over Urwand's alleged "reckless" misinterpretations...

The Conflicted Gay Pioneer

AP Images/Ron Frehm
W hen it comes to American political thought, who in our nation’s history did the thinking and writing that we ought to care about? The Puritans, for starters. They created a theocracy in a strange land and the idea of American exceptionalism. The Founders invented a new democratic form of government, wrote its charters—the Declaration, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights—and explained the logics of its nascent institutions. The argument about whether and how to remain true to these texts has unfolded ever since, with contributions from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan to today. Because the Founders built a new government on a narrow social base of slave owners and propertied white men, significant political thought must also include the works of abolitionists and champions of blacks’, women’s, immigrants’ rights—everyone who persuaded Americans to update and expand what was meant by “We the People.” In the wake of our country’s enormous gains in gay rights, it’...

You’re Tearing Us Apart, Tommy!

Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s new book, The Disaster Artist, basks in the delightful weirdness of The Room and its chief architect.

Photo by Amanda Edwards/PictureGroup
T he greatest bad movie ever made." That's what the subtitle of The Disaster Artist, by Greg Sestero with co-author Tom Bissell (Simon & Shuster, $25.99), calls crackpot director-writer-star Tommy Wiseau's The Room, on which Sestero labored as costar, line producer, and thunderstruck eyewitness. The object of a worldwide cult that's still going strong a decade after the movie's 2003 "release”—it played for two weeks in a single L.A. theater rented by Wiseau, to mostly empty houses until word began to spread that this was no ordinary train wreck— The Room has definitely displaced the previous bad-movie champ, Ed Wood's legendary 1959 Plan 9 From Outer Space, in both notoriety and audience affection. And what a bitter pill for Wood's ghost, since the only superlative he ever earned has been snatched away by an even crazier usurper. The differences are considerable, though. Beyond his staggering ineptitude, Wood was mainly hampered by a budget barely adequate to running a lemonade...

The Missing Piece in Coverage of Texas Evolution Controversies

Flickr/timuiuc
Once again, there's a dust-up going on over whether students in Texas should be taught about evolution in science class, or whether they should instead be told the lie that there is a scientific "controversy" about whether evolution has taken place, or perhaps be told nothing at all about it, or be told the biblical version of creation. But beyond the obvious, there's something bugging me about this. The current round is about science textbooks, and there's a story you've heard before, which goes like this: Texas is a huge market for textbooks, so big that whatever textbooks get bought by Texas can affect the whole country. The Texas Board of Education appoints reviewers to recommend changes to proposed textbooks, and among these reviewers are a host of young-earth creationists who demand that discussion of evolution portray it as some kind of nutty idea with no empirical support. Then the textbooks get changed in this way, making students across the country just a little dumber. All...

The Conversation: What’s the Best Way to Die?

AP Images/J PAT CARTER
AP Images/J PAT CARTER W hat does it mean to have a good death? Few people long to spend their last hours with their bodies stuck full of tubes, listening to the hum of high-tech equipment under fluorescent lights. Yet every year, hundreds of thousands of Americans die in hospitals, where doctors’ aim is to cure at all costs, using expensive and often invasive treatments to prolong their patients’ lives by days, weeks, or months. For the past two decades, Sherwin Nuland, a surgeon and bioethicist at the Yale School of Medicine, has been advocating for a dramatic change in our attitudes toward death. In his 1994 book, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter , he argued for an approach to death that emphasizes dignity above treatment. How We Die spent months on the best-seller lists and won the National Book Award. But in the ensuing years, Americans’ zeal to stave off the inevitable seems to have grown rather than diminished, leaving too many caregivers and family members to...

The Strategy that Dare Not Speak Its Name

AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
A s the past weeks of debate over action in Syria have shown, it’s nearly impossible to discuss U.S. policy toward the Middle East without discussing Iran, and concerns over the possibility that it could obtain a nuclear weapon. Over the past three decades, the U.S. approach to the region has been, if not entirely defined by the tension between Americans and Islamic Republic, then strongly colored by it. For its part, Iran has, to a considerable extent, defined itself in opposition to the United States, the sponsor of the oppressive Shah who was overthrown in the 1979 revolution. A key foreign policy goal of the Islamic Republic is undermining and rolling back the U.S.’s influence in the neighborhood which it considers itself the natural hegemon of. That bid for regional influence was given a generous boost by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which removed Iran’s bitterest foe, Saddam Hussein, whose invasion of Iran in 1980 sparked the massively destructive eight-year war that...

Rise of the “Nones”

America’s rapidly changing religious landscape

AP Photo/The Southern Illinoisan, Thomas Barker
AP Photo/The Southern Illinoisan, Steve Jahnke I n the two years leading up to his death this past February, the legal and political philosopher Ronald Dworkin was completing a slim volume with a weighty title. Religion without God , which began as a series of lectures in 2011, set a lofty goal: to propose a “religious attitude” in the absence of belief. Dworkin’s objective was not just theological. The book, he hoped, would help lower the temperature in the past decade’s battle between a group of scientists and philosophers dubbed the New Atheists and an array of critics who have accused them of everything from Islamophobia to fundamentalism to heresy. Although the New Atheists are part of a long and distinguished tradition, including (but not limited to) philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Bertrand Russell, they are notable because they have made atheism a pop success in the U.S. Since the 2004 publication of Sam Harris’s post–September 11 polemic, The End of...

We Shall Overwhelm

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite
AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite F our years ago, the modern Tea Party seemed to emerge from nowhere, leaving journalists bewildered and the public with few reference points to understand seemingly spontaneous rallies by middle-class people seeking lower tax rates. A search for the phrase “tea party” in connection with “politics” in major newspapers yielded fewer than 100 mentions in 2008—and when the words did appear linked together, they suggested studied formality and decorum. The next year, they appeared more than 1,500 times, often connected to “protest demonstration.” But little was spontaneous about the new party. “Social movements that explicitly defend the interests of the rich and the almost-rich have been a recurring feature of American politics,” Isaac William Martin, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, reminds us in his new book, Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent . “Such movements shook the American polity before the...

Reagan's Court v. the Libertarians'

I n 1983, Chief Justice Warren Burger asked Congress to create a new national appeals court to resolve cases the Supreme Court was too busy to hear. At the Reagan White House, a cheeky 28-year-old Harvard Law graduate named John G. Roberts was horrified. “The President we serve has long campaigned against government bureaucracy and the excessive role of the federal courts,” Roberts wrote to White House Counsel Fred Fielding. Burger’s proposal would create “an additional bureaucratic structure to permit the federal courts to do more than they already do.” Anyway, Roberts continued, the Supreme Court already made too many decisions. “There are practical limits on the capacity of the Justices, and those limits are a significant check preventing the Court from usurping even more of the prerogatives of the other branches. The generally-accepted notion that the Court can only hear roughly 150 cases each term gives the same sense of reassurance as the adjournment of the Court in July, when...

On Seamus Heaney, Who Made Me Love Poetry

The Irish poet and Nobel laureate is dead at the age of 74. 

Seamus Heaney made me love poetry. There you have it, the schmaltz, right up top. But it is true, so I have to say it and today is as good a day as any to do so, because Seamus Heaney died while we were sleeping, at the age of 74. He was a teacher, a Nobel Laureate, and as you will surely read many times over in the coming days, the greatest Irish poet since Yeats and his swans. Heaney was born in Toombridge, Northern Ireland and much of his work was set in and spoke of life in Ulster—the ancient region that encompasses what is now the politically divided northern portion of the Irish island. Before it was revised to read “Derry,” the BBC’s obituary for Heaney called the county of his birth “Londonderry,” the name for the area favored by the British. It was a fitting reminder of the contorted history of the region—“The Troubles,” the euphemistic name for the violence that shaped life in the North, found its epicenter in Derry. Or, “Free Derry,” as the wall would have it. Though his...

Nikki Giovanni Remembers 1963 with a New Poem

AP Photo/Jim Wells
AP Photo/Steve Helber Nikki Giovanni is one of America’s most famous poets. She is a New York Times bestseller, a one-time Woman of the Year winner from Mademoiselle and Ebony magazines, a recipient of the first Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award, and a holder of a Langston Hughes Medal. She wrote that “writing is … what I do to justify the air I breathe.” Below is a poem she penned for the Prospect , reflecting on the March on Washington 50 years later. We, too I was home In Lincoln Heights Named for Abraham As many other small black Communities are Only 20 years old Not cowardly I had picketed Rich’s Department Store in Knoxville I sat in with Fisk University In Nashville But not all that Brave Mommy didn’t want Me to go Neither did my father and I wondered Would it matter 50 years later I know It did We watched We prayed We, too, were inspired I didn’t go I stayed home And reminded myself: We also serve Who sit And Wait Jenny Warburg Nikki Giovanni, currently an English professor...

Near-Death Experiences Getting Slightly Less Mysterious

Flickr/Telstar2000
The nonfiction publishing phenomenon of 2011 and 2012 was, without a doubt, Heaven Is For Real , an account of a three-year-old boy who during surgery visited heaven, where he met Jesus, who rides on a "rainbow horse." Young Colton Burpo's father Todd attested that it just had to be true, since Colton knew details he could never have learned elsewhere, like the fact that Jesus had marks on his hands. Sure, Todd Burpo is a pastor and the family is intensely religious, but still. It couldn't possibly have been a dream, right? Heaven Is For Real has sold an incredible 7.5 million copies, and is now in its 142nd week on The New York Times paperback non-fiction bestseller list . The top spot on that list is held by this year's nonfiction publishing phenomenon, Proof of Heaven , a neurosurgeon's account of how he fell into a coma and went you know where. It's "proof," you see, because the doctor had an extended vacation amongst the clouds, when his brain was, he says, "shut down." Could it...

Take Me Out with the Crowd

AP Images/Ron Frehm
N ative Texans living elsewhere raise their children to be expats, fluent in the motherland’s culture. So, growing up in Virginia, I was well versed in the six flags of Texas and the Battle of the Alamo. I learned from my grandfather to shape my chubby toddler hands into the “Hook ’Em” shape every University of Texas fan knows. I understood that our family cheered for the Dallas Cowboys, and never the Washington Redskins. In baseball, in good, bad, and heart-wrenchingly disappointing times, we pulled for the Houston Astros, the team my father had rooted for since 1962, when (as the Colt .45s) they became the first major league team in Texas. My earliest baseball love was the Astros’ first baseman Glenn Davis, a power hitter called up to the major leagues a month before I was born in 1984. According to family lore, as a baby I would point to Davis as my favorite player, and when I was old enough to write, I sent him a letter asking him to be my best friend. Then disaster struck. In...

All the News that's Fit to Reprint

Todd Williamson/Invision/AP
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP T he opening scene of The Newsroom ’s second season, debuting Sunday on HBO, won’t do a hell of a lot to increase creator Aaron Sorkin’s popularity with women. Marcia Gay Harden guests as a brusque in-house attorney deposing news anchor Will McAvoy about a story the fictitious Atlantic Cable News channel blew badly—erroneously reporting that the Obama administration used nerve gas during a black-ops operation in Pakistan. “Fuck me,” our lady lawyer finally snaps, exasperated by Will’s arch banter. (She’s not alone in that feeling, believe me.) After a pause, Will—ever the gentleman—turns to the other dudes in the room. “Well, would one of you fuck Ms. Halliday, please?” he asks. You have to feel for Harden when her character is obliged to soften, smile, and concede that the joke’s on her. On this show even more than his earlier ones, or maybe just more noticeably, Sorkin tends to divide his female characters among bitches, waifs, annoying ninnies, and...

Coming to Do Good, Staying to Do Well

D.C. is filled with young, dizzying ambition. This Town wishes the old-timers knew better.  

AP Images/Stephen J. Boltano
AP Images/ Stephen J. Boltano For 20 years, since the weekend of Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, I have rented against all financial prudence an apartment in Washington, D.C. even though I really live in Manhattan. So, at least in a real-estate sense, I can rightfully claim to be both part of political Washington and an authentic subway-riding, theater-going, real-bagel-chomping outsider. I have no regrets about moving from D.C. to New York in 1983 at a time when reporter friends were bragging about playing tennis with Paul Laxalt who—as anyone who mattered knew—was Ronald Reagan’s closest friend on Capitol Hill. Washington, then as now, was a city of truncated life possibilities: Everyone was either in government, a lawyer, a lobbyist, a journalist or in transition between two of these exalted states of being. But I still nurture a bemused attachment to Washington—the shining city of my post-college youth, the place where I once walked the corridors of other people’s power. Which...

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