Montgomery’s indignant black leaders resolved to stage a bus boycott to challenge the segregation rules, and they posted flyers setting the protest for the start of the week. On Monday morning, the buses rolled without their normal crowd of black passengers. But the leaders’ rivalries complicated the choice of a captain to steer the movement forward. Why not try our new Baptist preacher, one suggested—fresh, pleasant, and unaligned? Accordingly, 26-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., with 20 minutes to prepare, was almost literally thrust upon the stage of world history. Continue reading
The old story famously goes that to curb vainglory as their victory parades marched onward, conquering Roman generals stationed a slave behind them to murmur “Memento mori”—remember you are mortal. Going the Romans one better, King George III and his great prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, looked to the caricaturist James Gillray, whose dazzling prints never let them forget that they were not merely mortal but human, all too human.
Even these grandees sensed that the artist who saw through them was an “inimitable genius,” as his first publisher marveled. They certainly took a keen interest in his work. The King and his children were faithful Gillray collectors, and the Whig leader Charles James Fox would invite visitors to leaf through the album of Gillrays in his anteroom. The Tory foreign secretary George Canning beseeched a mutual friend to prod the artist to include him in a cartoon. “Have you heard from Mr. Gillray lately?” he importuned. “And do you know how soon . . . I am likely to come out?” Admiral Nelson, after the Battle of the Nile, asked to be sent all the latest caricatures of himself. As one contemporary remarked, “The notice of a caricaturist is a proof of eminence; his severities a tax on distinction.”
The gaunt, bespectacled figure who was arguably the greatest political cartoonist of all time is the subject of a sumptuous new coffee-table book, James Gillray: A Revolution in Satire, by the historian and curator Tim Clayton.1 Produced by Yale’s Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art to its usual exacting standards, the volume is distinguished for its lavish illustrations, most reproduced from the matchless collection of the late print dealer Andrew Edmunds. Many have marginal notes in Gillray’s own hand, identifying the various characters depicted and thus enhancing their historical value.
Born in a Chelsea cottage in 1756, Gillray was raised in the Moravian Brotherhood and educated in one of that sect’s rigorous schools, kindling in him (I can’t help thinking) that spirit of dissent and liberty that Edmund Burke saw within all Protestantism. Trained as an engraver, he published his first caricatures at twenty-one, before enrolling in the Royal Academy school the following year. He tried his hand at the fine-art engravings then in vogue, but when the French Revolutionary Wars shut down the rich Continental market, he turned almost exclusively to caricature. He attached himself both professionally and personally to the publisher and printseller Hannah Humphrey, moving into her flat above her West End shop around 1790 and reportedly deciding, as the pair walked to church intending to be married, that “we live very comfortably together, and we had better let well alone.” Thus Hannah remained, in Canning’s word, Gillray’s “concubine.” When he became mentally unstable around 1811, she tenderly cared for him, and he left everything to her, his “dearest friend,” at his death at fifty-eight in 1815.
The Antiracist Racket
And its mind-forg’d manacles.
Beyond its falsity, there is no current idea so destructive as the fiction that America is systemically racist. It harms black Americans by shrinking their horizons and stoking their resentment; it has fueled crime and disorder in our cities; and by replacing our national faith in the unique excellence of our self-governing republic with a sense of its pervasive injustice and oppression, it makes us more vulnerable in a dangerous world. Confidence that we have a civilization worth defending is vital to our future.
After all, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s succeeded. In what was the defining political experience of a generation, that movement turned the nation inside out in order to remedy the overt racism that then marred America’s promise of civil equality. Two decades of sit-ins and marches, of sermons and voter registrations, yielded changes that fully opened political, educational, and employment opportunities to blacks, while society grew dramatically more welcoming. Just compare the advertisements or movies—or college alumni magazines—of the 1950s to today’s to get a sense of the revolution in racial attitudes that occurred. Or consider the change in the percentage of Americans who tell pollsters they approve of interracial marriage—4% in 1958 versus 94% in 2021.
But as the number of Americans who remember the civil rights era dwindles, the harangues of Black Lives Matter and the critical race theorists have obscured that era’s accomplishment. The Gallup Poll tracks this trend: in 2014, respondents’ satisfaction with U.S. race relations reached a high of 55%, versus 35% dissatisfied, but it began dropping thereafter, in the wake of Eric Garner’s death in July of that year. Only 28% expressed satisfaction in 2022.
Because what people believe affects their actions as much as their real circumstances do, the imaginary world these propagandists have conjured up—in which racial injustice pervades everything, racist insults wound blacks at every turn, racism closes off advancement and shuts out fellowship—really does constrict black opportunity by denying it exists. Continue reading
In the Introduction, Paoletta rightly calls Thomas an American hero and our greatest Supreme Court Justice, and these pages detail the experience and thinking that formed so remarkable a judge. Remarkable, but also exemplary—both because Thomas believes that the Constitution’s central guarantee of liberty depends on the citizenry’s personal qualities of self-reliance and self-restraint, traits for which he is a poster child, and also because his own rise from poverty in the segregated Deep South to the High Bench illustrates the opportunity for self-development that liberty makes possible for Americans, both black and white. In particular, as he emphasizes in this volume, his story suggests what a different fate black America might have had if bad cultural developments and bad social policy, abetted by the Court, had not proved destructive to so many and led them to self-sabotage. Continue reading
As family sagas go, the tale of the high-flying Morgenthaus is hard to top. How many American clans can boast an ambassador in one generation, a Treasury secretary in the next, and, in the third, a legendary prosecutor of four decades’ tenure? Their story, as Andrew Meier tells it in Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty, offers a rarefied vista of a century’s worth of U.S. history, with family members rubbing shoulders with Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Kennedys. Meier toiled for twelve years to make his thousand-page epic definitive, interviewing all the surviving characters and digesting countless pages of the letters and journals of these compulsive diarists dating back to 1842. At its best, the narrative is fast-paced and utterly absorbing. But too often the focus blurs, the narrative line tangles, punch lines don’t track, and the authorial judgment is merely conventional, its shopworn Democratic Party assumptions unexamined. The tale is great—but greater than the teller.
So let me summarize it for you.
New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation
Wham! Bam!! POW!!! shouts Thomas Dyja’s New Journalism-fueled prose, which, while it can’t touch Tom Wolfe’s torrential inventiveness, nevertheless grips the reader’s interest in this fast-paced history of New York City from near death to rebirth, and from mayors Abe Beame to Mike Bloomberg. Yet the story New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation tells is a con, a high-octane effort to persuade you that what happened in Gotham from 1978 until now was exactly the opposite of what really did happen—and that one of the most breathtaking, instructive, and well-documented social policy success stories in recent history occurred for reasons no one understands, on the watch of a nasty leader who deserves no credit for heroically resuscitating America’s metropolis. Continue reading
America Transformed: The Rise and Legacy of American Progressivism by Ronald J. Pestritto
The 1787 Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin famously said, gave America “a republic—if you can keep it.” We couldn’t. It’s not that the framers’ wonderful structure of self-government slipped away by carelessness. Rather, single-minded men purposely usurped it, and Ronald J. Pestritto’s America Transformed tells the tragic tale of how the Progressives, as they called themselves, deformed and abolished one of the greatest triumphs of the Western Enlightenment, in the name of Hegel, Darwin, modernity, and efficiency, all under the magician’s scarf of hocus-pocus fake democracy. The end result of this sleight-of-hand, though Pestritto’s gripping book is too polite to say so baldly, is that we now live under a regime without legitimacy.
We could not ask for a better debunker of Progressive trickery. The graduate dean and a professor of politics at Hillsdale College, Pestritto has been among the leading pioneers in the revisionist study of this era, notably with his earlier, groundbreaking Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism (2005). Indeed, the chief magus of this drama is Wilson, our first professor-president, who formulated the Progressive creed in his academic works of the 1880s, before he assumed Princeton’s presidency, with embellishments from ivory-tower colleagues Frank Goodnow, president of Johns Hopkins and founding president of the American Political Science Association, and the much younger Harvard law professor (and later dean) James Landis, who as a New Deal bureaucrat helped transform Progressive theory into a gargantuan governmental reality. Earlier in the political arena came pungent, energetic contributions from Theodore Roosevelt, and Progressivism transformed the messages that came from the elite pulpits and schools, as well. Continue reading
Features May 2021
On the erosion of American freedoms.
by Myron Magnet
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs the Social Security Bill, August 14, 1935. Photo: Library of Congress.
To gauge how unbridgeable the gulf is that divides the American Left from the Right, rewind to February 19, 2009, when those who eventually elected Donald Trump first made their voices heard. As Washington jury-rigged fixes for the Great Financial Crisis, the CNBC broadcaster Rick Santelli shouted across the Chicago Mercantile Exchange floor, “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” The Merc traders roared their televised veto across the land.
Their cry was more visceral than a policy disagreement. The traders, self-made men, had worked hard for what they had and scorned having their taxes hiked to save homebuyers with imprudently high mortgages from foreclosure. “This is America!” Santelli urged, and what the new Obama administration was doing was un-American. Didn’t the Founding Fathers establish the federal government to guarantee one’s freedom to better one’s condition, and to protect the property one industriously earns—not to redistribute it?
That’s why Santelli added that he was planning a Chicago Tea Party, an update of Boston’s 1773 event. He and the traders felt the same outrage George Washington had felt about the Stamp Act and the tea tax: it was as lawless as Parliament picking his pocket. To the new-era Tea Partiers, taxation for redistribution, rather than for common purposes, is tyranny, not government by consent.
But, though the traders and Tea Partiers didn’t quite understand it, the federal government long ago had turned from the shield of individual liberty into a vast engine of redistribution. That transformation could occur because the Framers’ Constitution was body-snatched by the doctrine of the “living constitution,” which—as Woodrow Wilson first formulated it—saw the Supreme Court sitting as a permanent Constitutional Convention, making up laws as it went along, heedless of the 1787 scheme’s checks. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal used Wilson’s doctrine as a license to remake America’s economy and society. Once the Supreme Court buckled to FDR’s threat to pack it and started voting his way, the justices allowed an utterly foreign governmental structure to devour the Framers’ republic from within, until it broke out of the shell as something altogether different. Continue reading
“Know thyself” is easy to say; but how, exactly, are we mortals supposed to obey the Delphic command? Surely not through the human “sciences.” Psychology, sociology, and anthropology all seem misapplications of a method of inquiry too abstract to explain messy human reality, depersonalizing what is quintessentially personal. If you want to make sense of human actuality, to ponder what makes our lives meaningful and why we do what we do, think what we think, and hope what we hope, the best guide I know is literature.
A recent rereading of Middlemarch brought that thought home forcefully, and the decades since my last reading have taught me also to appreciate why so many authors consider this the greatest of all English novels, one of the few, Virginia Woolf thought, written for grown-ups. No one can pluck out the heart of our mystery, but in this 1871 novel George Eliot—the pen name of the formidable and unconventional Mary Ann Evans—comes as close as anyone to showing how our inner feelings and wishes interact with our outer circumstances, with the social and cultural climate that surrounds us, and with our personal relationships to shape our identity and fate.
Eliot sums up the complexity of her enterprise in an epigram that heads Chapter 53:
It is but a shallow haste which concludeth insincerity from what outsiders call inconsistency—putting a dead mechanism of “ifs” and “therefores” for the living myriad of hidden suckers whereby the belief and the conduct are brought into mutual sustainment.
Like the root systems of plants, so much that forms and motivates us happens below the surface, hidden not only from outsiders but also from ourselves. Our identities are organic, not mechanical. As Eliot says twice in the novel, “character is not cut in marble—it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living, and changing,” a vital process no simple cause-and-effect equation can explain.
Editors’ note: The following is an edited version of remarks delivered for The New Criterion’s second annual Circle Lecture on September 30, 2020.
However unfashionable to say so at the moment, the American Founding is one of the noblest achievements of the Western Enlightenment. It created something breathtakingly new in history: a self-governing republic that protects the right of individuals—not serfs, not subjects, but equal citizens before the law—to pursue their own happiness in their own way. Who could have imagined that such a triumph would come under the violent attack that now seeks to deny and besmirch it? Whether it flies the banner of The 1619 Project, Black Lives Matter, or Critical Race Theory, the new anti-Americanism condemns the Founding Fathers’ project as conceived in slavery, not liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that we can never be equal citizens with equal rights.
It is a militant anti-Americanism, too. Like the iconoclasm of the most violent English Puritans, who smashed the faces off the carved saints and angels in one sublime medieval church after another, or of the French sans-culottes, who dug up and desecrated nine centuries of royal bodies from their tombs in the Abbey of Saint-Denis, defacing for good measure the statues of the Old Testament kings on the façade of this first great Gothic building, today’s anti-Americanism seeks to pulverize and obliterate our national past as something too offensive and obscene to have existed.
The current upheaval is the latest paroxysm of a cultural revolution that has gained momentum for half a century or more, and its trajectory from the universities to popular culture is too well known to need repeating. What I want to discuss here is the precious value of our inheritance from the Founding Fathers that today’s vandals want to destroy. If they succeed—since history, even our own, doesn’t always go forward and upward, despite the claims of the so-called “progressives”—we will find ourselves in a new Dark Age of constraint and superstition.
At the heart of the Founding was a thirst for liberty. In announcing our national freedom from imperial domination, the Declaration of Independence began by asserting our right to individual liberty. For the Founders, that liberty was not some vague abstraction. They understood it concretely, as people do who’ve suffered its opposite. They grasped it like those Eastern Europeans who once lived under Communist tyranny, for instance, or like Jews who survived the Holocaust.
Reparations for slavery, you say? Well, we tried that experiment, in the $20-plus trillion spent on welfare, Medicaid, housing, and food stamps for the mostly minority poor since Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty in 1964. As Amity Shlaes shows in her cautionary Great Society: A New History, those trillions only made matters worse. As the clamor swells to compound LBJ’s mistake, Shlaes provides a sobering postmortem, dissecting how and why, when government presumes to reshape society, the result is likely to be gory.
It took LBJ a lifetime to learn that lesson, and he learned it the hard way. He began his government career as an ardent New Dealer, first as a tireless functionary charged with pressing Texas farmers to limit their crops, on Franklin Roosevelt’s cockeyed theory that overproduction caused the Great Depression, and then as one of FDR’s most energetic congressional lieutenants, ramming through New Deal programs—many of doubtful constitutionality. He firmly believed that the New Deal had heroically wielded the power of the federal government to defeat the slump, though as Shlaes showed in her earlier best-selling book, The Forgotten Man (2007), it only prolonged it. Continue reading
November 10, 2016
Donald Trump and the Rejection of Progressivism
Americans voted against the Left’s contempt for the Constitution.
One message to take away from Donald Trump’s presidential victory: Americans don’t want to be ruled. They prefer self-government. The election was not about liberals versus conservatives. Rather it was a contest between Progressivism and the anti-Progressivism of which Trump is the democratic—even the crudely demotic—embodiment.
After Barack Obama took Progressivism’s belief in government by hyper-educated experts purportedly guided only by the public interest to its ugly extreme with his supercilious, know-it-all demeanor, as if the views of those who saw the world differently were beneath contempt, the electorate grew fed up with the politics first molded by Woodrow Wilson and perfected in the New Deal. They didn’t want to be bossed around by the Environmental Protection Agency about what they could do on their own private property, as if filling in a hole on land 50 miles from the nearest navigable waterway fell under the EPA’s purview. They lost faith in both the expertise and the disinterestedness of such administrative-state agencies when the EPA set out to shut down America’s coal industry and put miners out of work based on a climate hypothesis that Trump voters did not believe was “settled science,” despite Obama’s haughty claim that their denial could only spring from the knuckle-dragging ignorance of people who, frightened by a changing world they couldn’t understand, clung to their religion and their guns, among other atavisms.
Notebook September 2020
On the life of one of New York City’s great philanthropists.
Alexis de Tocqueville would recognize the late philanthropist Richard Gilder—a valued friend and supporter of this magazine, who died in May at eighty-seven—as exactly the kind of American he so admired when he explored this then-new country in 1831. U.S. citizens, Tocqueville marveled in Democracy in America, don’t wait for government to solve their problems. If a road needs fixing or a school needs building, they organize themselves in their local communities and just do it. To solve any problem of “public security, commerce and industry, morality and religion,” he wrote, “there is nothing the human will despairs of achieving through the free action of the collective power of individuals.” Continue reading
He trusted to the advance of the Enlightenment to end
JULY 27, 2020, ISSUE
Nobody embodies the paradox at the heart of the American
founding more vividly than Thomas Jefferson, the slave
owner who penned the American creed of liberty in the
Declaration of Independence and who, with a slave as his
concubine, would “dream of freedom in his bondsmaid’s arms,”
as Irish poet Tom Moore jeered during Jefferson’s second
presidential term. As young vandals torch our national heritage,
in an infectious delusion that America was conceived in slavery,
not in liberty, take a good look at our third president, warts and
all. You’ll find, despite his undeniable flaws, one of history’s
great men who helped build history’s greatest nation. He is
especially relevant now, when the qualities he placed at the
center of our culture are at once so beleaguered and so
essential. Continue reading
Will the Real Justice Gorsuch Please Stand Up?
Has a great judge been body-snatched?
June 21, 2020
The logic of Justice Neil Gorsuch’s mid-June majority opinion for the Supreme Court in Bostock v. Clayton County, outlawing employment discrimination against homosexuals and transgendered individuals, is so at odds with his previous jurisprudence and his character that the editors of the Wall Street Journal wonder if he’s been body-snatched by aliens. Or perhaps the noxious emanations and penumbras of Warren Court activism have seeped up from the Supreme Court’s crypt and addled what was once the most judicious of judges. Before hazarding a tentative diagnosis, though, let’s recall who the justice was before this seizure occurred. Continue reading
Death tolls don’t capture the scale of the suffering.
April 10, 2020
I have claustrophobia, a trait I share with George Washington. The former president was so afraid of being buried alive, he insisted on lying in state at Mount Vernon for three days before being entombed. A sailing man, I’ve pictured myself tripping overboard unseen and sinking after a fruitless struggle. I am not at all like Melville’s shipwrecked seamen, resolutely facing the inevitable by swimming down to their watery graves.
Nobody wants to die, but I sure don’t want to die of Wuhan coronavirus. I don’t want to drown as fluid builds up in my lungs. I don’t want the air sacs in my lungs to turn to stone, leaving them unable to inflate and me, therefore, unable to breathe.
Looking only at the numbers, weighing various national death rates against “normal” rates and calculating whether the cost of mitigation is worth the benefit, it’s possible to miss this simple human reality: Covid-19 is a horrible disease. That’s true for those who survive it as well as for those it kills. Continue reading
What are we without them?
America’s unique gift to the world is the idea of a democratic republic, in which citizens live under laws that they themselves have made through their elected representatives. We are not ruled. Our 1787 Constitution, perfected by the Bill of Rights, the Reconstruction Amendments, and the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the vote, details the mechanism for such a republic, but it is inert machinery until animated by a culture of independence, a spirit of liberty, that brings it to life. George Washington, who presided over the Constitutional Convention, made this point repeatedly. No constitution, however wisely designed, he warned—prophetically, it now seems—can protect a people against tyranny or conquest if it weakens itself by unchecked “corruption of morals, profligacy of manners, and listlessness for the preservation of the natural and unalienable rights of mankind.”
Manners, morals, and beliefs: you couldn’t find a more succinct definition of “culture” than this. It is our inherited reservoir of assumptions about what is good and bad, right and wrong, proper and improper—our largely unexamined ideas and habits, absorbed from our families and communities, that we so take for granted that they seem to come to us by instinct or intuition. They spring from the accumulated wisdom and experience of the human race, refined in America by the Western tradition and by our own exceptional history. This inherited cluster of beliefs and feelings, this moral imagination, forms the glue of society, the oil that smooths the friction of the social machinery, the rules of the road for self-government at the individual level, essential to a self-governing nation.
Washington, a quirky and unorthodox believer in a Providence that specially protected him, thought religion indispensable to the culture of liberty, if only for the utilitarian reason that people will do such improper things as tell lies in court if they don’t fear divine retribution. As the Revolutionary War loomed, the English philosopher-statesman Edmund Burke, Washington’s contemporary, stressed the deep historical link between the colonists’ religion and the fact that the “fierce spirit of Liberty is stronger in the English Colonies probably than in any other people of the earth.” Americans are mostly Protestants, he said in Parliament, and, especially in the northern colonies, Protestants from sects that broke away from the established Church of England. “All protestantism,” he noted, warning his fellow legislators not to push America into revolt, “is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our Northern Colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance: it is the dissidence of dissent and the protestantism of the protestant religion.” Its various sects agree in “nothing but in the communion of the spirit of liberty,” a spirit “adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion.”
Today, when only half those polled belong to a church or synagogue, nearly half don’t believe in God, a mere 35 percent consider themselves Protestants, and three-quarters think that religion is losing its influence in American life, where do the rest of us get our ideas of right and wrong, good and bad? And what has become of the spirit of liberty? Continue reading
Saul Bellow’s prophetic 1970 novel captured New York’s unraveling and remains a cautionary tale.
Fear was a New Yorker’s constant companion in the 1970s and ’80s. We lived behind doors with triple locks, some like engines of medieval ironmongery. We barred our ground-floor and fire-escape windows with steel grates that made us feel imprisoned. I was thankful for mine, though, when a hatchet turned up on my fire escape, origin unknown. Nearing our building entrances, we held our keys at the ready and looked over our shoulders, as police and street-smart lore advised; our hearts pounded as we tried to shove the heavy doors open and slam them shut before some mugger could push in behind us, standard mugging procedure. Only once was I too slow and lost my money. A neighbor, who worked at a midtown bank, lost his life.
So to read Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet when it came out in 1970 was like a jolt of electricity. Just when New York had begun to spin out of control—steadily worsening for over two decades until murders numbered over 2,200 a year, one every four hours—Bellow’s novel described the unraveling with brilliant precision and explained unflinchingly why it was happening. His account shocked readers: some thought it racist and reactionary; others feared it was true but too offensive for a decent person to say. In those days, I felt I should cover my copy with a plain brown wrapper on the subway to veil the obscenity of its political incorrectness.
The book was true, prophetically so. And now that we live in New York’s second golden age—the age of reborn neighborhoods in every borough, of safe streets bustling with tourists, of $40 million apartments, of filled-to-overflowing private schools and colleges, of urban glamour; the age when the New York Times runs stories that explain how once upon a time there was THE AGE OF THE MUGGER and that ask, IS NEW YORK LOSING ITS STREET SMARTS?—it’s important to recall that today’s peace and prosperity mustn’t be taken for granted. Hip young residents of the revived Lower East Side or Williamsburg need to know that it’s possible to kill a city, that the streets they walk daily were once no-go zones, that within living memory residents and companies were fleeing Gotham, that newsweeklies heralded the rotting of the Big Apple and movies like Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy plausibly depicted New York as a nightmare peopled by freaks. That’s why it’s worth looking back at Mr. Sammler to understand why that decline occurred: we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Continue reading
Drain the Swamp of Ugly Architecture
Trump plans a welcome executive order requiring federal buildings to be built in the classical style.
By Myron Magnet
Feb. 6, 2020
“Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” a new executive order planned by the Trump administration, would thrill lifelong amateur architects George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. These Founders—who designed Mount Vernon, Monticello and the Virginia State Capitol—wanted the new nation’s public buildings to embody its ideals of self-governance, rooted in Greek democracy and Roman republicanism. They would surely applaud President Trump’s proposed order to build new federal buildings in the classical style.
Architectural classicism is a living language, not an antiquarian straitjacket. Its grammar of columns and capitals, pediments and proportions allows a wide range of expression. Just look at the original genius with which Michelangelo marshaled that language in his era or Christopher Wren in his. It’s a language that constantly updated itself in America’s federal city, from the handsome 1790s White House to John Russell Pope’s sublime 1940s Jefferson Memorial and National Gallery of Art. In the language of classicism, buildings relate civilly to each other, forming harmonious cities—Venice or pre-World War II London—in which the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts, however beautiful some may be. A bad classical building may be awkward or uninspired; it is never hideous. And all is based on human proportions and human scale.
Not so for the modernism that the proposed executive order discourages. Though modernism is an odd word for a style that’s now almost a century old, it began with an explicit European rejection of American architecture and a thoroughly 20th-century impulse toward central planning and state control. Modernism brought housing projects so bare and standardized that no worker wanted to live in them.
Even when you look at a supposed masterpiece of that style—Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building on Park Avenue in New York, say—you see one identical office piled on top of another, with the same curtains and furniture arrangement, as if every inmate were an interchangeable cog in some vast machine that utterly dwarfs him. It is an architecture that belittles rather than exalts the individual, exactly the opposite sensation of the exhilaration you feel in the Capitol rotunda or Grand Central Terminal. Modernist buildings, the expression of a mechanical, anonymous vision of a social leviathan that individuals are born to serve, might as well be designed by machines. In this computer age, they largely are.
What’s more, they are ugly. The Pritzker Prize in architecture, like the Nobel Peace Prize, almost guarantees the honoree will be the Yasser Arafat of architecture, the very opposite of what the prize claims to honor. Consider Pritzker winner Thom Mayne’s contribution to America’s national patrimony. His Orwellian San Francisco Federal Building resembles a cyclops mated with a prison. The building is so hideously antisocial that, like Boston’s brutalist concrete City Hall, the homeless camp there permanently.
Of course the modernist establishment has already slammed the proposed executive order, which overturns the General Services Administration’s design excellence program, long a full-employment scheme for modernist architects. The debate now, says an arts critic in the Guardian, is between “those who trust architects and professionals to design whatever they think is best, and those who seek to control what they do.”
That’s precisely right. Most Americans don’t like the buildings that architecture’s mandarins have crammed down their throats. Ordinary people choose traditional values over the wisdom of self-proclaimed experts every time. In fact, that is Trumpism’s hallmark.
Clarence Thomas: the Movie
Don’t miss this new documentary.
January 31, 2020
From a kerosene-lit shanty in a Georgia swamp to the Supreme Court bench is almost as meteoric a rise as from a log cabin to the White House, and if you add in overcoming segregation in the days when the KKK marched openly down Savannah’s main street, it’s closer still. Michael Pack’s riveting documentary on Justice Clarence Thomas, Created Equal—opening in theaters this week and airing on PBS in May—movingly captures the uncompromising ethic that propelled the justice’s career past so many obstacles as it distills 30 hours of interviews with Thomas and his wife, Virginia, into what feels not only like the exemplary life story of an underappreciated hero but also like a laser-focused, two-hour account of our nation’s race relations over the last 70 years. Yes, we overcame, but at a cost—of which Justice Thomas paid more than his fair share.
The film is purely biographical—Thomas’s brilliant jurisprudence plays no role here—and the justice’s somberly eloquent, slightly melancholy recounting of his saga as he faces the camera directly, dark-suited, with starched white shirt and monochromatic necktie, closely follows the style of his bestselling memoir, My Grandfather’s Son. But as Thomas tells his story, Pack shows us haunting images, over a nostalgically evocative American musical score—bluegrass guitars and banjos, jazz, and Louis Armstrong longingly singing “Moon River” (with lyrics by Savannah-born Johnny Mercer, Thomas reminds us)—that bring it all even more vividly to life than the excellent memoir does. The film clips of the mazy creeks around Thomas’s birthplace, the coastal Georgia hamlet of Pin Point—founded by freed slaves just after the Civil War—sometimes seen from above, as in the iconic shot toward the end of The African Queen, and sometimes seen as we travel along them in one of the little “bateaux” that the oystermen and crab fishers of that lush and remote outpost on the very edge of America still use, bring home how “far removed in time and space” it was from modern, urban America, as Thomas puts it.
It was a completely different world—a tiny, poor, all black community of jumbled shacks around the cinderblock workshop where the women picked the crabs and shucked the oysters that the men caught and raked. The still photos Pack found from the 1940s show you a preindustrial world so vanished that it could just as easily be the nineteenth century as the twentieth. Descended from West Africans, Thomas and his neighbors spoke a dialect called Gullah or Geechee, incomprehensible to outsiders; but when Pack shows us a film clip of a woman singing that patois as she feeds her chickens, we grasp viscerally from the creole lilt how this corner of America was a link in Britain’s triangle trade, with ships bringing enslaved Africans to the Caribbean and southern colonies, carrying the sugar north for distillation into rum, and returning to Britain to sell it.
For Thomas and his playfellows, this was a Mark Twain world of improvised games in the woods and swamps, with no such thing as a store-bought toy—until the heartbreakingly tiny, jerrybuilt shack where he lived with his mother, older sister, and little brother burned down. He came home to “just ashes and twisted tin,” he says. “Everything that you ever knew in life is just there—I mean, it’s smoldering.” Continue reading