Lots of people are writing lots of things about recent events, and it’s hard to navigate them now: ideas and articles fly back and forth and into my inbox. Sometimes, rather than leaning into the hot takes, it’s better to revisit classics that now seems more relevant than ever. So, for this instance in this series, I’ll start with James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region in My Mind.”
Elsewhere, my old professor, Patrick Deneen, reviews Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society. While I generally find Deneen’s application of entropy to human systems one of his weaker critiques of modernity, I found his point on Douthat’s belief in technological progress as the engine of history to be trenchant, and gets at the deeper reason of why I found the book’s conclusion so unsatisfying when I read it myself.
Want someone who’d agree with Deneen, contra Douthat, that we are certifiably in decline instead of decadence? Here’s George Packer at The Atlantic lamenting American institutional rot. The soothing messages from the top, an official quest for understanding, incremental legislation to address the underlying problems: none of this will happen in 2020, he argues, and we’re in for an interesting several months. The American crisis of authority may be complete.
Leaving our protest-filled streets for our still-shuttered academy, the Hannah Arendt Center’s Samantha Hill speaks to the importance of physical campuses for the college experience. The loss of that experience would be a dire consequence of coronavirus: students need spaces that provide a level playing field and allow them to escape the comforts or challenges of where they come from as much as possible. While colleges cannot truly equalize the experiences of their students, they can push in that direction, and in doing so they create opportunities for movement across boundaries and give everyone there some freedom to think. May students continue to have that experience—and as many of them as possible.
Let’s stay in the world of letters before we close out; it’s good for the soul. In the New York Times, A. O. Scott mounts a defense of Wallace Stegner, a great American author whose work, much lauded on this blog (here, here, and here, for starters), doesn’t receive a ton of widespread recognition today. Stegner’s sensibilities are both those of a child of the frontier and a committed communitarian, a founder of a great literary dynasty as a Stanford academic and a man committed to the wilds of the West that formed him. Few writers have as much to say about the American experience as Wallace Stegner.