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A detail from Bartholomeus Breenbergh’s The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist (1634)

And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?
He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.
Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do?
And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you.
And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.
And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not…

– Luke 3:9-15

Updike on Death

The following poem, a remarkably jaunty and sardonic performance and presumably written in the weeks before John Updike’s death, will be included in the posthumous collection Endpoint. Thanks to Reuters for making it available.



by John Updike


It came to me the other day:

Were I to die, no one would say,

‘Oh, what a shame! So young, so full

Of promise – depths unplumbable!


Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes

Will greet my overdue demise;

The wide response will be, I know,

‘I thought he died a while ago.’


For life’s a shabby subterfuge,

And death is real, and dark, and huge.

The shock of it will register

Nowhere but where it will occur.

Updike as a Personal Writer


In his 24 novels and nearly 200 short stories, John Updike, who died earlier today, created countless characters of all stripes and shapes ranging from a randy Toyota salesman to an African dictator to a coven of modern witches to a domestic terrorist. Yet there was one particular character-type who shows up recurringly in Updike’s fiction under various names and guises.

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John Updike, RIP

John Updike, one of the last century’s greatest writers, died earlier today. I’ll have more to say about him shortly in a more formal obituary, but for now I’ll record simply my sense of the largeness of his achievement, something I tried to grapple with in an earlier post: Continue reading

Signing up

With global economic growth having come to a shuddering halt, credit markets on life support, currencies faltering, and unemployment rates forging upwards, the United States Army is finally enjoying some relief. Overworked and stressed out, its recruiters have started to meet their annual goals with appreciably less effort, as unemployed young men, defeated by the recession, walk into their offices to sign up for what they hope will be one or two tours. “I’m doing this for eight years,” 22-year-old Sean O’Neil told the New York Times. “Hopefully, when I get out, I’ll have all my fingers and toes and arms, and the economy will have turned around, and I’ll have a little egg to start up my own guitar line.” After an apprenticeship in St. Louis that didn’t pan out, O’Neil had found himself $30,000 in debt; a stint in the military looked like the next best option.

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Forbes Makes a List

Liberalism, out of fashion in the United States since the victory of Richard Nixon in 1968, is suddenly in vogue again. To keep up with the times, Forbes magazine has compiled a list of the “The 25 Most Influential Liberals in the U.S. Media”. It’s  a very curious document, revealing more about the editors of Forbes and the claustrophobic constraints of mainstream American political discourse than about the nature of American liberalism.

Most of the names on the list are familiar enough but I’ve provided ID’s for the more obscure ones:

1. Paul Krugman. 2. Arianna Huffington 3. Fred Hiatt – editor Washington Post 4. Thomas Friedman 5. Jon Stewart 6. Oprah Winfrey 7. Rachel Maddow 8. Joshua Micah Marshall 9. David Shipley – editor New York Times 10. Markos Moulitsas Zuniga proprietor Daily Kos blog 11. Fareed Zakaria 12. Chris Matthews 13. Bill Moyers 14. Christopher Hitchens 15. Maureen Dowd 16 Matthew Yglesias 17 Hendrik Hertzberg 18. Glenn Greenwald 19. Andrew Sullivan 20. Gerald Seib – editor Wall Street Journal 21 James Fallows 22 Ezra Klein 23. Kevin Drum 24. Kurt Anderson 25. Michael Pollan.

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Chomsky and the Juicebox Mafia

 Much internet attention has been given to the “Juicebox Mafia”, a group of very young, Jewish, liberal bloggers who have been sharply critical of Israel, especially in the wake of the recent Gaza incursion. The terms Juicebox Mafia was coined and popularized by ideological opponents of the group (Noah Pollack in Commentary, Marty Peretz in the New Republic);  but like the terms “Tory” and “queer”, it’s an insult which fast became  a badge of honor.  The core of the Juicebox Mafia would include Matthew Yglesias, Spencer Ackerman, Ezra Klein and Dana Goldstein.

I myself (without using the phrase “Juicebox Mafia”) tried to contextualize the group by arguing that we’re witnessing the emergence of a post-Zionist moment, with Jews all over the Diaspora increasingly alienated from Israeli nationalism.

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The President from Hyde Park


Dan Clowes’ The Death Ray, set in Hyde Park.


Thanks to my friends Tim and Barb, I’ve spent a little bit of time in Hyde Park, the South Side Chicago neighbourhood whose most famous resident will be inaugurated as President of the United States today. Over the last year, I’ve been struck by how much a product of Hyde park both Barack and Michelle Obama are. It’s a racially mixed neighborhood, nestling the University of Chicago and overlapping with the large, longstanding African-American community in the South Side. As with Columbia University in New York, there are some tensions between the Ivory Tower crowd and local community, largely due to some imperious policies on the University’s part. Yet the Obamas show how how these tensions can be transcended: they are a home both in the class room and in the local haunts. Obama’s political coation, which includes both eggheads and the working poor, can be seen as Hyde Park write large.


Although he now lives in Berkeley, the cartoonist Dan Clowes grew up in Hyde Park and he has some incisive analysis of how the neighborhood reflects the Obamas:


I grew up in Obama’s Hyde Park — a progressive Chicago neighborhood not dissimilar to Berkeley or parts of Oakland, attending the same school as Sasha and Malia, and walking the same tiny grid of distinctive streets. When I heard that Barack and Michelle’s first date took place at the beloved Baskin-Robbins of my youth, I felt as though I were having some sort of “Matrix”-like delusion in which my childhood memories had merged with reality. It is not this tenuous “personal connection,” however, that excites me about an Obama presidency, but his grounding in the values of this flawed (Bill Ayers, Milton Friedman) but vital community and a sense that he embodies the best of those values — high-level intellectual rigor, an understanding of true diversity, and a streak of pragmatic Second City individualism — that make him such a timely antidote to his poisonous predecessor.


Clowes’ full article can be found here. Thanks to Eric Reynolds for spotting  spotting this fine little essay.


Obama on Martin Luther King

Today is Martin Luther King day in the United States. Obama has a big speech coming up tomorrow. So it might be appropriate to remember a great speech Obama delivered almost exactly a year ago in honour of Dr. King. Thanks to Mark Kleiman who had the wherewithal to post the text of the speech on his blog. Here it is:

Speech delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, January 20, 2008.

The Scripture tells us that when Joshua and the Israelites arrived at the gates of Jericho, they could not enter. The walls of the city were too steep for any one person to climb; too strong to be taken down with brute force. And so they sat for days, unable to pass on through.

But God had a plan for his people. He told them to stand together and march together around the city, and on the seventh day he told them that when they heard the sound of the ram’s horn, they should speak with one voice. And at the chosen hour, when the horn sounded and a chorus of voices cried out together, the mighty walls of Jericho came tumbling down.

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In the bleak midwinter

"Winter", by Ivan Shishkin
"Winter", by Ivan Shishkin (1890)

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

— Christina Rossetti, 1872

The Christmas season is over, and with it my temporary but rich television diet of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Frosty the Snowman — shows both necessitated and once or twice elevated into rituals of repeated viewings by the involvement of an excited young child. It is all cuddly and positive stuff, of course, with the possible exception of the Grinch, who, despite his alleged role in the “stealing” of Christmas, turns into a benevolent old fellow by the end of the tale, and who is, even at his worst, nothing more dangerous than a grumpy but efficient con-man.

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