David Bromwich is Sterling Professor of English at Yale. Moral Imagination, a collection of his essays, will be published in paperback in September. (April 2016)

On the Target

A detail of a still from Laura Poitras’s video installation O’Say Can You See, composed of images filmed at Ground Zero in the days after the September 11 attacks, 2001/2016
Installation art is a mixed genre. It can be contemplative in ways denied to a picture hanging on a wall or a film projected on a screen. At the same time it lends itself to provocation, to “confrontational” ambitions: the spectator may be startled by light or noise, or subjected …

Are We ‘Exceptionally Rapacious Primates’?

Here are two tracts for the times, the first by a political theorist, the second by a historian, which could not differ more substantially in motive, aim, and subject matter; yet the authors tell oddly similar stories. Both ask us to recognize that the commercial democracies of the …

Trapped in the Virtual Classroom

Buster Keaton in a publicity still for College, 1927
Let me start with a proposition: the great social calamity of our time is that people are being replaced by machines. This is happening and it will go on happening. But we may want to stop or slow the process when we have a chance, in order to ask a large question. To what extent are the uniquely human elements of our lives, things not reproducible by mechanical or technical substitutes, the result of spontaneous or unplanned experience?

The Question of Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden in an unidentified location
The undeclared subject of Citizenfour is integrity—the insistence by an individual that his life and the principle he lives by should be all of a piece. Something resembling an aesthetic correlative of that integrity can be found in the documentary style of Laura Poitras.

Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Ambition

From left, John Wilkes Booth as Mark Antony, Edwin Booth as Brutus, and Junius Booth as Cassius in Julius Caesar, New York, 1864

It is clear from Lincoln’s speeches, writings, and actions that he struggled against ambition in order not to let it prevail over his sense of justice. From what familiar political sources might an American of Lincoln’s generation have come to suppose that ambition poses a moral and political danger? A commanding statement was the pair of speeches by Brutus and Mark Antony to the Roman crowd in Act 3 of Julius Caesar.

Happy Birthday, Dr. Strangelove!

Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers in 1963, on the set of Dr. Strangelove
The following was written on the fiftieth anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s film “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Stanley Kubrick began taking pictures for Look magazine in high school. He became a full-time staff photographer while in his teens, and you can …

The Civil War Pictures: True or False?

Alexander Gardner: The President [Abraham Lincoln], Major General John A. McClernand [right], and E.J. Allen [Allan Pinkerton, left], Chief of the Secret Service of the United States, at Secret Service Department, Headquarters Army of the Potomac, Near Antietam, October 4, 1862
Photography began as a craft technology that lent its resources to the imitation of an art—chiefly, at first, portrait and landscape painting—and like other devices of convenience, it easily adopted the name of its inventor. We no more associate the daguerreotype with a particular French painter than we connect the …

Stumbling Into Syria

A Syrian rebel fighter descending from a damaged building, Aleppo, Syria, June 12, 2013

A train of commitments by two administrations has led to the US intervention in Syria, an involvement that started well before the revised intelligence estimate about chemical weapons climbed to “high certainty.” Throughout the peculiar history of preparing the ground in Syria, there are distinct reminders of Iraq. As with Iraq, the US is looking to enter a scene of sectarian hostilities that it hopes to control by the right tactics once regime change has been accomplished. As with Iraq, refusal of inspections by the existing government has been taken to indicate the possession and use of forbidden weapons. As with Iraq, we are being encouraged by Sunni regional partners who are willing to sponsor jihadists from an overwhelming desire to weaken and overthrow the government of Iran.

Wanting More, More, More

Charles Paul Landon: Daedalus and Icarus, 1799
“Ambition” has long been an elusive word for an equivocal trait. It is an insistent vice, and yet its presence assures us that something in society is alive and kicking. It is also a necessary but dangerous virtue. The pejorative sense of the word goes back to the accusations by …

Stay Out of Syria!

Our rehearsals of our own good intentions, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya, and now in Syria, have swollen to the shape of a rationalized addiction. What then should the US do? Nothing, until we can do something good. But the situation could not be less promising. At present, the main support of Syrian opposition forces comes from Saudis and Qataris. The US has offered help at two removes, but lacks the intelligence to perform much more without strengthening al-Qaeda as we did in Libya. And each day adds a new reminder of the futility of allegedly pragmatic solutions.

How Close to Lincoln?

President Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis (third from right), meeting with his cabinet to discuss the planned attack on Fort Fisher, in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward is seated to the president’s left.
Abraham Lincoln’s reelection was in doubt through much of the summer and fall of 1864, but Union victories in Mobile Bay and Atlanta restored the popular faith in his leadership, and he won 55 percent of the vote. By December the end of the Civil War seemed close. As far back as late 1863, total abolition of slavery had been part of Lincoln’s understanding of how the war must end; and he had pressed already in June 1864 for the passage of a Thirteenth Amendment to ban slavery in the United States. He was turned back then by the vote in the House of Representatives, but now, with larger Republican numbers in Congress, he was sure of the two-thirds vote required for passage.

Fantastic, Deadpan & Deadly

James Gillray: The Plumb-Pudding in Danger;—or—State Epicures Taking un Petit Souper, showing William Pitt and Napoleon carving up the globe, 1805.
The title “Infinite Jest” gives only a partial clue to the exhibition of caricatures recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose memorable quality is here recalled in a catalog of great interest. Hamlet said the words “infinite jest,” of course, in praise of Yorick, but Yorick was a jester at the court of Elsinore. That is not the same as a satirist. There may be something expansive about the very idea of jest, because it obeys no rules and draws hints from the humor of the audience. The art of caricature, by contrast, is finite, bounded, and severe.

The Pox Beneath the Powder

Enrique Chagoya: The Headache, A Print after George Cruikshank, 2010

The title “Infinite Jest” gives a very partial impression of the survey of caricatures showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 4. Hamlet said those words about Yorick, but Yorick was a jester at the court of Elsinore. There may be something expansive about the very idea of jest, because it obeys no rules and draws hints from the humor of the audience. The art of caricature, by contrast, is finite, bounded and severe. A bad jest may redeem itself by having a better for its sequel. A flat or vapid or wrong-headed caricature cannot be pardoned. The province of satire is wit, and when wit goes wrong it signifies not a tactical error but a defect of mind.

The Republican Nightmare

Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich during the ABC News Republican presidential debate, Des Moines, Iowa, December 10, 2011
It would be hard to exaggerate how far To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine repeats the plot of Gingrich’s To Renew America (1995), the bumptious manifesto that explained the rationale of the Contract with America of 1994—with Obama now, rather than Clinton, cast in the role of big-government intruder, and the bogey of the “secular-socialist machine” lifted from Fox News without much elaboration or embroidery. Gingrich himself plainly writes these books.

The Disappointed Lover of the West

Niall Ferguson, Edinburgh, August 2011
Civilization was once a popular subject. Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, published between 1935 and 1975, told the history of the arts and sciences and the major events of political history from “Our Oriental Heritage” through “The Age of Napoleon.” Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation was a memorable …

Obama: His Words and His Deeds

Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting in the Oval Office, May 20, 2011
President Obama retains the wish to be seen as a man above party; and a more general distaste for politics is also involved. But what is Barack Obama if not a politician? By his tones of voice and selection of venues he has implied several possibilities: organizer, pastor, school principal, counselor on duties and values. Most prominently, over the past six months he seems to have improvised the role (from materials left behind by Reagan) of a kind of national host or “moderator” of the concerns of Americans.

Obama’s Middle East: Rhetoric and Reality

President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in the Oval Office at the White House, Friday, May 20, 2011.

Being president of the world has sometimes seemed a job more agreeable to Barack Obama than being president of the United States. The Cairo speech of June 2009 was his first performance in that role, and he said many things surprising to hear from an American leader—among them, the statement that “it is time for [Israeli] settlements to stop.” But as is now widely understood, the aftermath of Cairo was not properly planned for. Though Obama had called on Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the expansion of settlements, he never backed his demand with a specific sanction or the threat of a loss of favor.

Obama, Incorporated

Barack Obama touring a plant with General Electric chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt, the new chairman of the president's jobs council, and plant manager Kevin Sharkey, Schenectady, New York, January 21, 2011

Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address was an organized sprawl of good intentions—a mostly fact-free summons to a new era of striving and achievement, and a solemn cheer to raise our spirits as we try to get there. And it did not fail to celebrate the American Dream. In short, it resembled most State of the Union addresses since Ronald Reagan’s first in 1982.

The Historic Election: Four Views

Ronald Dworkin The results of Tuesday’s election are savagely depressing, wholly expected, yet deeply puzzling. Why do so many Americans insist on voting against their own best interests? Why do they shout hatred for a health care plan that gives them better protection against calamity than they have ever had? …

Don’t Look At Me

President Barack Obama leaving after a news conference at the White House, November 3, 2010

The Republicans of 2010 are a party led by a movement. From early 2009, the movement declared that its strategy would be to denounce the growth of the national debt, oppose the bank bailouts, attack health care reform, and undermine the legitimacy of President Obama. On November 2, that effort largely achieved what it had aimed for. Many Democrats are saying it was a typical midterm election, where the majority party is bound to suffer. The rest they put down to the bad state of the economy. But suppose the unemployment rate in October had dropped to 9.0 percent, would the outcome have been much different? This midterm result was a vote of no confidence in President Obama and the Democratic congress.

The Rebel Germ

Hell no?” asked Rush Limbaugh in his August 14 broadcast. “Damn no! We’re the party of Damn no! We’re the party of Hell no! We’re the party that’s going to save the United States of America!”

The Curveball of Karl Rove

“To be successful,” Rove explains, “an attack must be perceived as both fair and relevant, backed with credible evidence, and launched at the right time.” The half-truth here is “credible evidence.” Rove means evidence that only appears credible, evidence that sprays fast enough and drips far enough to resist removal from the popular mind even when the whole truth comes out later on.