Author: James Livingston

Interesting Times

You know you live in interesting times when you can’t tell Left from Right—when “social justice warriors” on campus, students and staff alike, try to limit the scope of free speech by filing Title IX or broader claims against faculty whose extracurricular writing offends their sensibilities, and when avowed conservatives not only lead the fight to protect the 1stAmendment but offer more compelling criticisms of capitalism than their liberal or leftist counterparts. This is our current condition. I have some first-person experience of this political flux. I live in Harlem, a historically black enclave of New York City which...

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On Writing Good Sentences

At Facebook, Brian Connolly, a former Rutgers student, wonders if the music he’s listening to has an effect on the shape and sound of the sentences he’s writing.  Of course, I say.  How could it not? I used to say that the difference between fiction and non-fiction is pretty simple: fiction persuades without argument, by articulating a world that is substantial and believable—that is, inhabitable—and yet not quite real.  I don’t say that anymore because I’ve come to think that non-fiction also persuades without argument, mainly by imposing narrative forms on what was a random, or at least meaningless,...

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David Brooks, Meet Josiah Royce, Part I

David Brooks keeps pulling wabbits out of his hat—he keeps invoking writers, artists, and theorists who seem, at first glance, to stand athwart his conservative political agenda. But, having now combed through the entire Brooks archive, I can see that his that agenda boils down to a form of “personalism” (on which he wrote a previous column). This was the interwar creed conceived by its founders and followers as a “third way” between capitalism and communism, as a path toward social democracy.  Emmanuel Mounier, Jacques Maritain, Gabriel Marcel, and Reinhold Niebuhr were among the figures associated with this “third...

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Mermaids Want Shoes

Speaking once again of “The Little Mermaid,” I took my 3-year old daughter to see it when it came out (she’s now a 31-year old attorney). She didn’t yet have the viewing skills to understand such a complicated story–not to mention the musical discourse, beyond the plot, where you’ll find most of the graceful gestures to ancient myth and modern literature, from Prometheus to Faust–so I wrote her a letter to be opened when she leaned to read. It was my crash course in writing plain speech rather than sticking to my adopted academic tongue, and it was so...

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St. Mawr

I don’t read a lot of fiction. I write a lot of it according to my colleagues among historians, who think my accounts of pragmatism are “fanciful” or “imaginative,” which is to say untethered to the non-fictional texts that are supposed to serve as our common denominator. Ever so politely, they suggest that I make shit up. Maybe they’re right, I always thought I’d be a novelist. But I’m not. Nor am I a literary critic. Still, I’m here to report on a remarkable fiction that came my way by the enthusiasm of friends, who have huddled around it...

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