Saturday, December 25, 2004

The Hookie Awards - I (The Best Essays Of The Year)

David Brooks at the New York Times is instituting a set of awards for the most important essays written in 2004, partly to demonstrate that the age of the public intellectual is not over. The awards are named after Sidney Hook, a twentieth century philosopher and writer who saw his personal political pendulum swing from being a fellow-traveller with the Communist Party to being awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Reagan. His works are largely ignored today, perhaps because the age of intellectualism is indeed over, or at least waning.

The first batch of Hookies, from David Brooks at the Times (subscription/registration) (contrary to the article, I could not find the links on the NYTimes website, and provide them here - Links now also at the NYTimes):

1."When Islam Breaks Down" by Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal: A look at Islam in Afghanistan et al, from a British doctor who visited there as part of the relief efforts post-Taliban.
Certainly such experiences have moderated the historicism I took to Afghanistan—the naive belief that monotheistic religions have but a single, “natural,” path of evolution, which they all eventually follow. By the time Christianity was Islam’s present age, I might once have thought, it had still undergone no Reformation, the absence of which is sometimes offered as an explanation for Islam’s intolerance and rigidity. Give it time, I would have said, and it will evolve, as Christianity has, to a private confession that acknowledges the legal supremacy of the secular state—at which point Islam will become one creed among many.
My historicist optimism has waned. After all, I soon enough learned that the Shah’s revolution from above was reversible—at least in the short term, that is to say the term in which we all live, and certainly long enough to ruin the only lives that contemporary Iranians have.

2. "The Other Sixties," by Bruce Bawer. The Wilson Quarterly:
Two decades, the 1950s (1950–59) and “The Sixties” (ca. 1965–74), continue to be the touchstones by which American liberals and conservatives define themselves. To those on the right, the 1950s were the last good time, an era of sanity and maturity, order and discipline, of adults behaving like adults and children knowing their place. To those on the left, the 1950s were a time of fatuous complacency, mindless materialism, and stultifying conformism—not to mention racism, sexism, and other ugly prejudices
Though new issues occupy the front burner, that polarization endures today, and the concept of civic obligation—so central to the early 1960s—has long since been supplanted by a reflexive cynicism and a tendency to judge all public discourse by its entertainment value. Who, in the early 1960s, would have imagined that 40 years later the best-selling books on public affairs would be not earnest tracts on poverty and the environment but crude partisan rants by the likes of Michael Moore, Ann Coulter, Al Franken, and Michael Savage? Likewise, the respectably middlebrow common culture of the early 1960s is only a memory, as is the pipe dream of an America enchanted by serious literature and classical music; instead we have American mass culture, a worldwide economic powerhouse that transforms almost everything it touches.

3. "Faculty Clubs and Church Pews," by William J. Stuntz. Tech Central Station A Harvard Law Professor's look at the correlations between academia and evangelical churches.
Churches and universities are the two twenty-first century American enterprises that care most about ideas, about language, and about understanding the world we live in, with all its beauty and ugliness. Nearly all older universities were founded as schools of theology: a telling fact. Another one is this: A large part of what goes on in those church buildings that dot the countryside is education -- people reading hard texts, and trying to sort out what they mean.

An explicit bias pervades the views expressed in this essay, as do the selections themselves for the Hookies. Selectiveness is not intellectual, unless one believes that only 'my way is the right way'. I personally also recommend the Seymour Hersh pieces in the New Yorker documenting the Abu Ghraib excesses, The Fractal Blogosphere by Richard McManus and David Sedaris' book "Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim"

Some other articles are cited in the David Brooks piece, and an additional list is promised for Tuesday. Good reading.


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