Author: James Livingston

A Tale of Too Many Cities: The Trial of Black Nationalism in the Debate between Coates and West

How often does something you read change your mind, or unsettle your beliefs? It happens to me every six months or so, when I venture into a field—ancient history, say—where I have no skills, only curiosity and anger, and I find myself in the midst of strangers who dazzle me with their confidence and erudition. This is different. I have been defending Ta-Nehesi Coates against his critics on the grounds I thought were afforded by Harold Cruse, in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967)—a book that was renovating the tradition of black nationalism on grounds, Cruse believed, afforded...

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Scott Frank’s “Godless”

This article contains spoilers. Proceed at your own risk. The title of this series from Netflix might as well have been “Manless.” But I guess it’s all in the translation. Emily Wilson’s new Odyssey sounds as if Walt Whitman learned ancient Greek and had finally decided on a rhyme scheme. Scott Frank’s new Godless, a grimy, even filthy epic set in the metal mining towns of the 1880s, makes Deadwood—a disgusting place by any measure—look like the preferred destination of western civilization. All bets are off, and no rules apply, because the men have disappeared. The western genre, the filmic laboratory...

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Auerbach and Me

I teach Mimesis, Erich Auerbach’s improbable masterpiece—he wrote it in Istanbul in the 1940s, on the run from the Nazis—whenever I get the chance, even when it seems extraneous to the content of the course. To be honest, I drag him into every classroom, saying, “This is the most important book of the 20th century, so you owe it to yourself to read it, sooner or later.” Why would anyone make such a preposterous claim, which might well scare undergraduates into thinking the professor is a lunatic? Good question. More important, than, say, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit...

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Reluctant Heroes

“Now goddess, child of Zeus, tell the old story for our modern times. Find the beginning.” That’s how the first stanza ends in Emily Wilson’s brilliant new translation of The Odyssey. It reads as if Walt Whitman wrote it, with the rhythms of our modern times, so it sounds contemporary—Odysseus comes alive. That first stanza begins by addressing another figure: “Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost When he had wrecked the holy town of Troy, and where he went, and who he met, the pain he suffered in the storms...

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Free Speech in the Marketplace of Ideas

As far as I can tell, the 19th-century liberal notion of a free marketplace of ideas underwrites the absolutist position on free speech: Brendan O’Neill’s for example. The reasoning is that the more competition for our attention, the better the outcome, because we will all have more information. This is at least a problematic notion because there is no such thing as a free marketplace of ideas, and there never has been – until perhaps now with the Internet. But that raises a different question about the consequences of free speech. Does the choice the market makes render speech valid? Or rather, is majority rule the only measure of democracy? That transposition from markets to politics is warranted, I believe, because the arguments about free speech on campus presuppose the political purposes of the First Amendment. As Thomas I. Emerson explained, in an Aristotelian mood, freedom of expression is: (1) a means of self-realization–you can’t become what you want to be when you grow up unless you can freely express yourself. That project of moral development, the possibility of virtue, serves the purposes of (2) attaining the truth through debate and (3) equipping individuals with what they need to participate in political deliberations. And this civic consequence will (4) balance authority and freedom. All right, let’s test Emerson’s distinction between expression and action according to his own criteria, so...

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