Category 1. American Culture

Freedom, Constrained

Laws and culture constrain our freedoms; at the heart of most political issues is the question of just how constraining they should be. Those on the left generally argue for more constraints – higher taxes, tighter laws and punitive social disapproval for violations of “PC” norms and expectations – all in the name of the common good. Those on the right favor fewer such constraints, seeing a freer society as both more creative and more individually just than ones that are less so.


George W. Bush famously said that “The desire for freedom resides in every human heart.” Well, … sorta.

Bush’s statement was undoubtedly true in the narrow sense that everybody wants freedom of action for him or her –self; but not everybody is happy for others to be similarly free...

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An Interesting Comment

A longtime Civil Horizon subscriber named Vivian Wadlin left a comment a few days ago in reaction to Reality Checks that spurred me to further thoughts regarding the deep-seated basis of opposing political tendencies, including my own. She wrote:

“I just read this after lying awake last night pondering the improbability of me. All the past generations of DNA that had to survive and intermix, the fact that my parents met, that I survived childhood, that I was born in the USA, that I have (so far) survived three deadly diseases–my universe may or may not be expanding. I, however, stay small, inconsequential, and entirely grateful.”

My initial response was to write that none of us really knows how consequential or inconsequential our acts might be. In It’s a Wonderful Life, Geo...

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The Best and Worst of Popular Culture

When it’s cold outside but there isn’t any snow to play in, I exercise in my basement, so that’s where I was this morning. As is usual for me on inside mornings, I listened to country music to fight the monotony of working out in place. My old iPod shuffled through the thousands of songs on my playlist and among others alighted on two by John Prine that, in my view, manage to exemplify the best of country music and the worst of contemporary culture respectively.

The first, The Other Side of Town (, is really everything I love about country music...

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Dishonest Times

In a banner headline to what is nominally a news column on the front page of this morning’s New York Times, the paper falsely asserts that “REPORT DEBUNKS ANTI-TRUMP PLOT IN RUSSIA INQUIRY.”

The Horowitz report does no such thing. The Inspector General’s conclusion that he “did not find documentary or testimonial evidence” for such a plot is not even close to being proof that it didn’t happen.

The Inspector General was in no position to disprove the possibility that senior Obama-era officials at the FBI and other ‘intelligence’ agencies conspired to kick-start an investigation into the Trump campaign, then Administration, based on illegal political and/or self-serving motivations – he lacked the authority to conduct a wide-ranging investigation, to subpoena witnesses, to com...

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One of the things that I learned as an undergraduate in the 1970s is that I wasn’t smart enough to major in philosophy.

In those days, philosophy was one of the smaller and more self-consciously exclusive departments at Princeton. They wanted only a few undergraduate majors and, as it turned out, I wasn’t one of them. I learned this by taking a course, Introduction to Metaphysics and Epistemology, in which it quickly became clear to me – and I’m sure my professor – that my thinking was not as well-honed as we might have wished. I slunk off to the English department, where I found a more comfortable kind of beauty.

My most important takeaway from that unsatisfactorily-completed philosophy course in the theory of knowledge, forty-something years later, is that we should all hav...

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The Progressive Pravda

To my frequent sorrow, I still read The New York Times. It’s an old, old habit, and one I have tried to give up – but most mornings, after the Beloved Spouse has finished the crossword puzzle, the paper stares at me from across the breakfast table and I just can’t resist picking it up. Reading The Times, I tell myself, will give me a chance to understand the way the other side looks at the world.

My efforts bear only small amounts of fruit. The paper does provide me with daily doses of progressive invective, occasionally even bolstered by carefully curated facts, but in truth, I always pretty much know what their take will be on whatever happened yesterday before I begin perusing the paper’s printed rehashes...

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Blurred Lines

A few years ago, while the Beloved Spouse and I were visiting friends in southwestern Texas, our host observed that the most fundamental distinction represented by the border is that on one side there are property rights and the rule of law, on the other, not. Other than that, he said, it’s the same land and people.

I found my friend’s comment memorable for its simplicity and for the clarity with which it illuminated two characteristics of American law and culture that are among the most essential building blocks of our society’s successes.

What attracted – and still attracts – millions to our shores? The chance to abandon the stations of their births and build new lives and identities based on their own efforts...

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The Best of Times…

A few weeks ago, the Beloved Spouse and I were guests at a dinner with five friends at a lovely, ocean-side club. Given the liveliness of the chatter at nearby tables, much of the mealtime conversation was necessarily with whoever was sitting to each person’s right or left. The gathering’s hostess, a retired executive who had been a pioneer in her field and is still on the boards of major corporations and philanthropies, was on my right.

During dinner, she offered me the casual and, she thought, uncontroversial observation that today’s world is in a terrible state...

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A Society Out of Balance

Last night, just as the Beloved Spouse and I were settling into sleep, one of our daughters called seeking reinforcements. Her husband was traveling for work and one of their two children was vomiting aggressively and had come down with the kind of red-hot fever that only little ones can bear – and they miserably. We jumped out of bed, got back into our clothes and headed to their apartment. By this morning all was well again, but the long night had reminded me just how hard parenting can be.

And, apart from being exhausting, child-rearing is so punishingly expensive that it’s a wonder that anybody – especially those who are middle class – decides to do it. Let’s consider the context in which these decisions are made:

According to data from the US Department of Agriculture, fo...

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Failing Gatekeepers

I attended Phillips Exeter and Princeton. As an undergraduate, I majored in English and studied three other languages – one living, two dead. I loved most of my courses.

As I recall, in the late 1970s standards were quite high in Princeton’s English Department; I worked very hard at my studies and achieved only the level of being slightly above average in my departmental ranking. I did not graduate with honors. At the time, I excused my undistinguished academic record as having been caused by my participation in – and an excessive focus on – varsity athletics, but as many others have shown, that’s a lame excuse.

My loves of reading and writing, nurtured through my formal education, have followed me through life; I would also like to think that my course of study – which bo...

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