Introducing the Spring Issue:
The Post-Modern Self

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Untitled by Didier Gaillard; private collection, Bridgeman images.

“The past is a foreign country,” wrote the British author L.P. Hartley in his 1953 novel, The Go-Between. But almost before Hartley’s words acquired the status of proverb, something curious happened. Thanks largely to the dizzying pace of change that technology has made almost routine, the present itself became a foreign country—alien, but in the most deceptive of ways. In this curious present, we discern only with difficulty how things that seem familiar and fixed are actually, upon closer investigation, strange and unsettled. One day, for example, we think the reality of “reality TV” is anything but real; the next day we discover that it most shockingly is—and maybe has been for much longer than we realized. If we have not quite arrived at Orwellian Newspeak, in which war is peace and love is hate, then we are somewhere not far off. In this here and now, where meanings and norms shift shapes right before our eyes, we are strangers in, and to, our own time.

That strangeness is in no respect more unsettling than in relation to the very selves we are becoming. Every individual self is unique, of course, but all selves are also inescapably shaped by beliefs, norms, ideals, and meanings that make up the totality of a specific culture at a specific time. Until now at least, those underlying and defining elements of a culture benefited from a certain stability—or at least the appearance of such amid what might be described, more precisely, as gradually changing continuity. In the increasingly alien present, however, the very character of our culture (some would even say our anti-culture) is the absence of such stability and continuity, both having been displaced by the discontinuous, disruptive, and destabilizing force of change, a force that is now celebrated, and even idolized, for its own sake.

So, then, what sort of selves are we becoming in this age that we call, for lack of a better word, post-modern? That is the question our contributors explore in  The Post-Modern Self, the theme of our spring issue.

We will be releasing a select number of essays and reviews from this issue on a rolling basis during the coming weeks, starting with the following two:

For subscribers, the complete issue is available now, whether in print or ePub form. In our thematic section, the essays include David Bosworth’s “Knowing Together: The Emergence of the Hive Mind,” Wilfred M. McClay’s “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” Mary Townsend’s “The Walking Wounded,” and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s “The New Old Ways of Self-Help.” Our non-thematic essays range from Nadav Samin on jihadist fiction and Regina Mara Schwartz on love and justice to Chad Wellmon on the fate of general education. We also review a series of key recent titles in our book review section.

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Beyond the Legality of Executive Orders

A young Japanese-American waits to be taken to an assembly center. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A young Japanese American waits to be taken to an assembly center. Via Wikimedia Commons.

This Sunday marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Executive Order 9066. Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, the order authorized the secretary of war and military commanders to establish “exclusion zones,” which ultimately led to the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of these actions in a series of decisions culminating in Korematsu v. United States.

We are now in the middle of a heated national debate over another executive order: “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” signed by President Donald J. Trump. The two orders are not the same in scope or consequence. But they do bear some similarities. Neither Executive Order 9066 nor Trump’s immigration order singles out a group of people by name. Yet both orders make possible discriminatory action.

As much as I disagree with its substance and symbolism, many of the constitutional arguments raised against Trump’s executive order strike me as unpersuasive. The order does not flagrantly overstep the bounds of executive power as they are currently understood; nor is the purported Establishment Clause challenge as obvious as some commentators have suggested. (I find Michael McConnell’s analysis of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion closest to the mark.)

But whether or not an executive order is constitutional is not the only question that can be raised about it or even necessarily the most important. The actions of our president—particularly those formalized and ritualized as executive orders—have expressive as well as legal consequences. They tell us something about who we are and who we should be as a people. From this perspective, the historical connection to Executive Order 9066 reminds us of the dangers of fear and the human toll that can too easily result from that fear. Continue reading

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Mom, Apple Pie—and Lady Gaga

YouTube still of Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl LI performance

What was edgy about Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl show? Was it singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” a protest song that as Vanity Fair noted includes verses such as “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, By the relief office I seen my people; / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking Is this land made for you and me?” Or was it, as the New York Times observes, dropping in a line from the Pledge of Allegiance? Not really. What made Gaga’s much-anticipated performance so surprising was its wholesomeness.

Perched on what appeared to be the upper edge of Houston’s NRG Stadium in a two-piece silver body suit and boots, her face adorned by a cat-eye mask of jewels, Lady Gaga gave a show that was unabashed Americana. Her first words were “God bless America” from “America the Beautiful” followed by a few lines from Guthrie’s classic and then this line from the Pledge of Allegiance, “One nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” That last with a winning smile before plunging to a tower on the stage below.

Amid smoke and blasts of fire, she declared to cheers from the crowd “I wanna hold ’em like they do in Texas” from “Poker Face.”  Next up was the massive hit “Born This Way,” a self-esteem anthem that serves as the unofficial theme song for the gay community. Amid the checklist of identity groups is the line, “I’m beautiful in my way / ’cause God makes no mistakes.” After two more songs, she slowed it down with “Million Reasons,” catching her breath and working the crowd with the assurance that “we’re here to make you feel good.” In this country music-tinged ballad, Gaga calls on the Lord in prayer, asking to be shown the way. At one point, she sent a spontaneous shout-out to her parents—“Hey, Dad! Hi, Mom!” The dancers reappeared, now in modified football gear, and parted for Lady Gaga who had exchanged the silver jacket for a white, shoulder-pad-like top. “The Super Bowl is what champions are made of!” she shouted before launching into the show’s finale “Bad Romance,” every good girl’s dream of love with a bad boy. Climbing up a ramp, she threw down the mic—as close as a singer can come perhaps to smashing a perfectly good guitar—caught a football and jumped out of sight.

Sure, there were the usual girls-just-want-to-have-fun sentiments. There were energetic dancers, outlandish costumes, and some spectacular aerial drone footage (a half time show first). Especially noteworthy were the dancers: not all had athletic physiques nor was everyone wearing the same costume and makeup. Gaga’s songs are jejune at best, but she is a diligent singer with real natural gifts. (Her vocal coach, Don Lawrence, described her in a recent Wall Street Journal article as “the most spot-on singer I think I’ve ever worked with.”)

Clocking in at around thirteen minutes, the Super Bowl show was much shorter than a standard concert, but the intensity of the event, the expectations—will she say something political?, and the pressure from the network, the NFL, and viewers made it a demanding performance. How much was Gaga paid? Nothing. The league pays only for expenses and production costs. Of course, the chance to perform before more than 100 million viewers is enough to turn the head of any superstar.

How refreshing that Lady Gaga simply performed. She didn’t use her time in front of the cameras to be more than what we wanted her to be. (To be clear, Gaga has used her fame to make political statements as when she donned the notorious meat dress in 2010 to protest the military’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy.) Her message of positivity and inclusivity—one about which she has been single-minded since the beginning of her career—tempered the Super Bowl hype with a surprising element of humility. For what must be scores of people—dancers, musicians, production crew, personal staff, accountants, seamstresses—Lady Gaga is the reason they have a paycheck. The fact that she can express gratitude and call on something—or someone—greater than herself is not what we’ve come to expect from celebrities. All of this is not to say that Gaga is without ego or foible. No one becomes an entertainer for reasons less than a towering need for adulation and fame.

But her sense of the occasion was exactly right. Her understanding of the influence of a sports event pop music show on the fate of nations—precisely zero—gave everyone a chance to enjoy the spectacle and to appreciate her formidable self-discipline. If Gaga’s Super Bowl performance was in essence one big commercial for herself (and Pepsi), so be it. What can be more American?

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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Illiberalism Rising

Death of Socrates, Daniel Chodowiecki. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Death of Socrates, Daniel Chodowiecki. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“The election of Donald Trump has emboldened the forces of hate and bigotry in America. White nationalists…are celebrating.”—Senator Harry Reid

“Political correctness is the biggest issue facing America today. Even Trump has just barely faced up to it.”—David Gelernter, Weekly Standard.

Both the left and the right warn of a growing illiberalism. Continue reading

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Support Your Local Cat Café

Cat Café MoCHA in Japan, photo HIS Travel Agency

Cat Café MoCHA in Japan, photo HIS Travel Agency.

Before visiting Los Angeles a few months ago, I did what I always do when planning a trip to a major city: I made reservations at a cat café. For the uninitiated, cat cafés are small businesses that offer patrons the opportunity to admire and play with domestic cats. The cats come to the cat café from local shelters, and if a guest and a cat hit it off, the cat can be adopted. All the while, guests sip coffee and munch pastries (which usually have to be brought to the café from separate facilities due to health code restrictions on the preparation of food in the presence of animals). Reservations are necessary because having too many humans in the café at the same time could be stressful for the cats.

Cat cafés started in East Asia and have spread to large cities in Europe and the United States. After having previously visited Meow Parlour in New York City and Crumbs & Whiskers in Washington, D.C., I eagerly went to Crumbs & Whiskers’s new Los Angeles café on my first full day in town. Waiting inside was just what awaited me in New York and Washington: a little slice of heaven for a dyed-in-the-fur cat fanatic like myself. Continue reading

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Scorsese’s Catholic Dilemma

Detail from Fifteen Mysteries of the Virgin Mary, Ibaraki City Museum of Cultural Properties, Ibaraki, Osaka, Japan.

Detail from Fifteen Mysteries of the Virgin Mary, Ibaraki City Museum of Cultural Properties, Ibaraki, Osaka, Japan. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s hard to watch Silence, Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited religious epic. It’s hard, first, because of all the torture: torture by crucifixion amidst crashing waves, by being hung upside down with your head in a pit, by boiling water poured, over and over, upon your flesh. But also hard is grappling with a moral dilemma that no longer seems like much of a dilemma: Which would you choose? To deny your faith or to allow innocents to suffer?

Silence, based on the 1966 Shusako Endo novel of the same name, is about two fifteenth- century Portuguese Jesuits, Rodrigues and Garrpe, who travel to Japan to find their mentor, Ferreria, a priest who is rumored to have apostatized. (Ferreria is an actual historical figure, by the way, and Endo was a Japanese Catholic, whose novel is considered one of the finest of the twentieth century, especially well-loved by Catholic intellectuals.) The movie focuses on Rodrigues, and while Scorsese’s film is about many things, it’s primarily about whether Rodrigues should deny Christ for the good of the world.

For a secular audience, and even the modern world’s secularized Christians, the question is hard to fathom. Our modern era has just as many questions about suffering, but they take on different ethical shapes. Should we put limits on immigration, allowing more distant suffering to maintain a particular lifestyle here in the states? Should we donate all the money we can to those who most need it, or should we give to our own communities, or simply our families, or just enjoy it ourselves? And what does need even mean? These are complicated questions, but what’s striking about them is how they’re all ultimately questions about bodies, about a material world and how humans can best exist within it. Continue reading

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Pericles in Waveland

Cleveland Indians fans bringing goats before 2016 World Series Game 1.  Erik Drost via Flickr.

Cleveland Indians fans bringing goats before 2016 World Series Game 1. Erik Drost via Flickr.

Even as winter finally descends on Chicago, fans of the Cubs are lingering over a November moment frozen in time. As every American was reminded during the World Series, for one hundred and eight years the Chicago Cubs labored under a curse. Then, all of a sudden, the curse broke—with a ball flipped almost casually from a boyishly grinning Kris Bryant to Anthony Rizzo, who deposited it in his back pocket after tallying the final out of those 108 years and winning a World Series.

There’s no such thing as a curse, not even in baseball, and yet we’ve seen three such curses end in the last dozen years: Boston’s curse of the Bambino (1918–2004), the Chicago White Sox’s curse of Shoeless Joe (1917–2005), and finally the Cubs’ curse of the Billy Goat. Each ending was cathartic, the pitcher’s-mound dogpiles amplified by the famous fans, the stories of parents and grandparents who didn’t live to see it, and the accumulated pressure of so many implausible near-misses and narrow escapes. Failure—so grinding and unaccountable that the only way to make sense of it was to borrow the language of witchcraft—undergoes an instantaneous and total reversal. The curse measures the vindication. There may be nothing like it in the world of sports.

Like any dramatic denouement, the ends of these championship droughts are the products of a certain kind of artifice. And it can be an alienating artifice. No American sport inspires the kind of good-bad writing that baseball does, with its hackneyed narratives, its wistfulness that always courts cheapness, its grittiness that skirts kitsch, its philosophy that degrades quickly into mediocre verse–all of it housed within the pure artifice of the game itself. Continue reading

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Will Trump Cure the Great (White) Depression?

Trump speaking in Des Moines, Iowa. Max Golberg/Iowa State Daily via Flickr.

Donald Trump speaking in Des Moines, Iowa. Max Golberg/Iowa State Daily via Flickr.

In a recent offering, “Trump Voters Are Feeling It,” New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall comments sagely on a raft of social science research on the white working- and middle-class voters who embraced Donald J. Trump as the leader who would cure America’s deep malaise—or a least their own. For the moment, according to Edsall, these former sufferers of what might be called the Great White Depression (documented by scholars like Princeton’s Nobel economist Angus Deaton, with depressing data about high rates of depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse) are feeling “elated”:

In a survey conducted by Pew after the election, 96 percent of those who cast votes for Trump said they were hopeful; 74 percent said they were “proud.” They were almost unanimous in their expectation that Trump will have a successful first term.

This is in itself may hardly seem surprising, and of course it is possible that these enthusiasts will feel let down if the greatness Trump promises does not improve their lives. Nevertheless, Edsall notes, evidence suggests that “just by giving voice to those in the white working class who are distrustful, alienated, and isolated from contemporary culture, Trump will provide temporary relief from the stress that these voters experience.” And if past is prologue, this relief alone may have surprisingly positive effects on their mental and physical health, and indeed on their overall morale. A study based on a survey that oversampled Hispanics and blacks after Obama’s election in 2008 found that “among African Americans, the likelihood of reporting excellent health nearly doubled, from 7 to 13 percent, and for Hispanics it nearly quadrupled, from 6 to 22 percent, although the Hispanic sample was small and less reliable.” Continue reading

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