Category Archives: Commentary

Charlottesville Daze

A makeshift memorial to the victims of the car attack at the Unite the Right rally.

A friend in Boston writes to ask if I know of anyone “commenting with particular insight” on what unfolded in Charlottesville last weekend. “No,” is my tersely emailed reply, but it is less a reasoned response to the quality of the commentary I have read so far than a visceral disgust with the evil that resulted in three deaths, many injuries, and a deep disturbance of the peace not only in my hometown but in my nation. Even critical commentary confers dignity—the dignity of reasoned consideration—upon its subject, but the subject in this case is a moral enormity distinguished only by its lack of civility and civilized virtues, and therefore undeserving of any civil consideration.

I claim no vatic powers when I say I saw this coming—clearly, though not for the first time, on the morning when the man who is incapable of clear moral utterance was elected to the highest office of our land. As I wrote to a friend that morning, “I never knew how much I loved my country until now, when I see how vulnerable it is.” I say this without partisan rancor; friends of all partisan stripes have shared similar sentiments with me. And I know, more to the point, that the culture that made possible the election of this supremely hollow man was shaped by forces associated as much with progressivism and liberalism as with conservatism and reaction. Is it any surprise that this man with no real party affiliation, this man without qualities apart from self-aggrandizing, self-dramatizing need, took three days to name the evil forces—above all, the white supremacist racism of Nazis, neo-Confederates, and alt-right thugs—behind the senseless deaths and destruction of last weekend?

The fish rots from the head, runs an old adage. But it does not really describe America’s current condition. The rot is general through the body politic. The current president is a mirror—a funhouse mirror, perhaps—in which we see, and now must recognize, our own disfigured selves.

We can do much better. We must do much better.

Jay Tolson is editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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What Is Innocence Worth?

lorish innocence FLAT

In its recent Nelson v. Colorado decision, the Supreme Court affirmed what might have seemed to require no formal affirmation—namely, that a person whose criminal conviction is overturned on appeal is entitled to the return of any fees, court costs, or restitution paid to the state as a result of the conviction. Previously, the state of Colorado required an exonerated defendant to file a separate civil suit and prove actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence before funds would be repaid. Having a conviction overturned on a mere legal technicality would not suffice for financial recovery. The central question in the case—which was decided six to one in favor of the petitioners, with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting—concerned due process.

While it was notable that the Supreme Court took up such a seemingly self-evident case, the Court did not address the question of compensation for periods of wrongful incarceration. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority, explained that the “[petitioners] seek restoration of funds they paid to the State, not compensation for temporary deprivation of those funds. Petitioners seek only their money back, not interest on those funds for the period the funds were in the State’s custody.” Justice Ginsburg continued: “Just as the restoration of liberty on reversal of a conviction is not compensation, neither is the return of money taken by the State on account of the conviction.” She made it clear what compensation is and what it is not: While compensation may be the return of something wrongfully taken, it is not necessarily compensation to be released from prison in which one was held for no lawful reason in the first place. Compensation is something more—an award for loss, suffering, or an injury. Continue reading

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Princeton Seminary, Presbyterian Pastors, and Purpose

Princeton Theological Seminary library.  Billy via Flickr.

Princeton Theological Seminary library. Billy via Flickr.

Last week, Princeton Theological Seminary announced it was rescinding its decision to bestow an award upon Presbyterian pastor and author Tim Keller. The seminary’s president explained that Keller’s leadership role in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America was at odds with the school’s mission. Keller’s denomination, unlike the seminary’s own Presbyterian Church (USA), “prevents women and LGBTQ+ persons from full participation in the ordained Ministry of Word and Sacrament.” He also emphasized that the school’s reversal in no way undermined its commitment to open dialogue—the award comes with a lecture, which Keller was still invited to to deliver: “We are a school that can welcome a church leader to address one of its centers about his subject, even if we strongly disagree with his theology on ordination to ministry.”

Keller is in some ways an unlikely candidate for headline-generating controversy. He’s more known for writing readable books, ministering to Millennials in New York City, and engaging in dialogues with atheists on college campuses. Last year, he and I coauthored an article that argues, among other things, that we can and must figure out a way to live peaceably in the midst of our deep differences, and that we can treat each other charitably across those differences. Those ideas emerge out of the intersection of Keller’s approach to pluralism as a pastor and my academic framework of confident pluralism.

One of the core commitments of confident pluralism is that the First Amendment should permit private associations—including private institutions of higher education—to follow their own norms absent extraordinarily compelling governmental interests. Since interests of such magnitude are not implicated here, Princeton Seminary can do whatever it wants. It could give or not give the award to Keller. It could—as it did—offer and then rescind the award for just about any reason. It could—as it did not—disinvite Keller to deliver his lecture. Still, this whole episode raises questions, not only about the purpose of Princeton Theological Seminary, but whether or not the school has adequately articulated its sense of purpose. Continue reading

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The Worth of “Useless” Knowledge

Aerial view of Bell Labs Holmdel Complex. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Aerial view of Bell Labs Holmdel Complex. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The history of science shows that curiosity, imaginative tinkering, dead-ends, randomness, and serendipity all play an outsized role in gaining insight into the natural world. The same can be said for the social sciences. Real insight into the human condition or our current predicament often comes in mysterious ways, and may involve as much rediscovery as discovery.

Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has written a companion essay for Princeton University Press’s republication of IAS founder Abraham Flexner’s famous article “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” Following in Flexner’s footsteps, Dijkgraaf makes an important case for the social and scientific value of “unobstructed curiosity” and the need to resist the growing pressure to prioritize “short-term goals” and direct all effort to “more immediate problems.”

While demands for accountability, usefulness, and specific “deliverables” of economic or social relevance differ in the natural and human sciences, they foster the same tendencies. From my experience in the social sciences, three such tendencies stand out, and each now has a life of its own. 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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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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An Academic Haven Under Fire

George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University. Camera Obscura via Flickr.

George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University. Camera Obscura via Flickr.

Growing up in Rio de Janeiro, I was (to my parents’ despair) an undecided teenager. I wanted to be a writer. I loved physics and cosmology.  I wanted to get involved in several forms of activism. But  when it came to college, I had to make a decision. So I decided to study journalism, hoping it would help me develop skills for writing and activism. During my first semester, however, I took a mandatory philosophy course. I had never studied philosophy before, and it changed everything. In philosophy I could pursue all of my interests: literature, science, activism, art. So I transferred to a philosophy program at a different university, the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-RJ).

The philosophy program, however, did not allow me to work with literature. So after graduation, I pursued a master’s degree in literature. Now I could write about any topic related to literature and art—but was forbidden by my advisor to speak or write about science. My job, he said, was to pick an author and write about his work, keeping my own ideas out of the way. So I wrote a small book on Jorge Luis Borges, got my degree, and told myself I would never do graduate work in literature again. Instead, I pursued another master’s—this time at Tufts University, in philosophy, hoping things might be different in America. But there, too, the general atmosphere discouraged students from pursuing their own ideas.

By the time I’d left the PUC-RJ, I had over ten notebooks filled with thoughts about the interrelation between science and literature. By the time I left Tufts, I had lost all desire to pursue an academic career. I found a part-time job at a telemarketing company and decided to do my writing and research on my own time. Around this time, however, a friend told me about the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins. The next year, I arrived in Baltimore for my first semester. Continue reading

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