. . . today it must be done. So let's perform our usual Saturday ablutions -- giving to charity, contributing to Romney -- then hear a long-overdue disquisition by Unca D, his own self, on one of America's most-important cultural treasures: . . .
. . . the "Review" section of the weekend Wall Street Journal, published as WSJ.
We haven't given recently to the Star of Hope Mission -- "a Christ-centered community dedicated to meeting the needs of men, women and their children" -- so let's send a check to 6897 Ardmore, Houston, Texas 77054.
As for Romney, if you have ever longed to engage in a politics that offers a cause greater than self, this is the time. The cause is removing the odious and destructive Barack Hussein Obama from the politically sacred precinct of the Oval Office. Speaking and voting are fine, but if you want your words and deeds to matter more, the best way is to support Mr. Obama's opponent with your money. You can give online or send a check to Romney for President, Inc., Post Office Box 149756, Boston, Massachusetts 02114-9756.
Now for "Review."
The American instinct for self-improvement traces back to days of the first European settlers. One way it expresses itself is through periodicals to teach the common man and woman about Western thought, literature, and art -- in short, Western civilization.
My father, a war veteran and dairy farmer with a high-school diploma, hungered to know more. He fed that hunger by purchasing a complete set of The Harvard Classics and participating in the laudable Great Books movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Through the decades, many such periodicals have bloomed and withered. In their day, Harper's and The Atlantic had influence. In my own yoot -- What's a yoot? -- it was The Saturday Review. A kind high school librarian gave me her old copies of all three, and I devoured them.
The great break of the 1960s put an end to the tradition of middlebrow or bourgeois self-improvement. Our academic elites came to regard Western Civilization as something to be abandoned, derided, deconstructed, replaced. Hence, comic books as literature. Hence, gender studies.
Nowadays, sadly, the cultural periodical of record is the Sunday New York Times. It feeds the hunger of the self-anointed elite nationwide -- the Times Nation, as it was recently tagged -- for updates on the state of Naomi Wolf's tender parts and on a thing said to be art: a drinking glass, a cross, and the artist's urine.
In fairness, the Times offers much that is good, but it is buried. There are too many pages and too much nonsense.
Now comes "Review," a product of the Wall Street Journal of Rupert Murdoch. It is so good, in the old ways, that it can cause dizziness. The topics are important, the writing excellent (light and deep by turns, and often funny), and the overall effect transcendant.
If you haven't sampled it, do. Buy a weekend edition of WSJ. "Review" is bundled within.
Here is a sampler of today's 14-page section.
Page 1. "How to Stop Hospitals From Killing Us" by Martin Makary. Each "Review" begins with a big idea, usually excerpted from a new book, in this case Dr. Makary's Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won't Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care. The subhead:
Medical errors kill enough people to fill four jumbo jets a week. A surgeon with five simple ways to make health care safer.
Page 2. "The Grown-Up Pleasures of 'The Hobbit" by Corey Olsen.
"The Hobbit" is a brilliantly constructed story, unfolding themes that remain all too relevant to the modern world: the nature of evil, the significance of human choice, the corrupting power of greed and the ease with which good people can be drawn into destructive conflict.
Page 3. "Are We Really Getting Smarter?" by James R. Flynn. IQ scores have been rising for decades. Why? It's not because we are really smarter than our ancestors, says this expert on IQ tests.
Modern people do well on these tests because we are new and peculiar. We are the first of our species to live in a world dominated by categories, hypotheticals, nonverbal symbols and visual images that paint alternate realities. We have evolved to deal with a world that would have been alien to previous generations.
. . . .
Widespread secondary education has created a mass clientele for books, plays and the arts. Since 1950, there have been large gains on vocabulary and information subtests, at least for adults. . . .
A greater pool of those capable of understanding abstractions, more contact with people who enjoy playing with ideas, the enhancement of leisure -- all of these developments have benefited society. And they have come about without upgrading the human brain genetically or physiologically. Our mental abilities have grown, simply enough, through a wider acquaintance with the world's possibilities.
And a wider acquaintance with the world's possibilities, appropriately enough, is why my father sought and what "Review" serves up each week.
Page 3. A smorgasbord.
Sentiment Tracker: A Married Messiah? A lost gospel? [For the record, no.] Needs cold water thrown on it? Blasphemy? Or a joke?
What would Jesus do? Whatever Mrs. Jesus told him to!
Concerto for Fungus. Scientists can make modern violins sound like a Stradivarius by treating the wood with a fungus.
Mind and Matter: What Artic Foxes Know About Global Warming by Matt Ridley. This year's arctic ice melt is the greatest since records began to be kept in 1979, but far less than melts of the past, some of which have produced an ice-free Arctic Ocean.
Some scientists have noticed that the decline in Arctic sea ice correlates better with the rapid growth of coal consumerism in China than it does with global temperature. . . . Soot falling on white ice darkens it, which results in faster melting in summer sun.
. . . .
There's also the puzzling fact that Antarctic sea ice shows no sign of summer retreat. . . . If warming is supposed to be "global," shouldn't sea ice retreat at both ends of the world?
Page 5. Songs of the Free and the Brave by Meghan Clyne. Ms. Clyne celebrates the new Library of Congress edition of the "Little House" Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Wilder wrote the series, as she noted in 1937, to show children who had grown up in a post-frontier age "what it is that made America as they know it." Her books are a magnificent historical chronicle, offering both a detailed record of how the pioneers lived and a testament to the values that built America. . . .
. . . .
Essential to understanding [the themes of the books] is . . . that Wilder wrote the "Little House" books during the Depression and New Deal . . . when she saw the nation sliding into an unhealthy dependency on government. In addition to educating American children about a crucial period of their history, Wilder wanted to show them a freer way of life. "Self reliance," she explained in a speech in the winter of 1935-36, is one of the "values of life" that "run[s] through all the stories, like a golden thread."
. . . .
America isn't reverting to the pioneer days, nor would most Americans want to. But we would benefit from rekindling some of the pioneer spirit. In "Little House on the Prairie," Pa and Ma fret over borrowing a few building supplies from their neighbor Mr. Edwards, vowing to "pay him back every nail." Today our national debt stands at $16 trillion. What ails us is much broader and deeper than mere policy or law: It is a matter of culture, and it is in the culture that our ailments must be tended to. The stories we tell and honor have enormous value in shaping a culture. At this moment, Wilder's stories deserve a closer reading.
Page 6. "The Irish Machiavelli" by William Anthony Hay. We'll skip this review of a new biography of Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh (1769-1822), said to be "a virtuoso at parliamental maneuvering and a diplomat of skill and integrity."
Page 7. The Economy of Empire" by Brendan Boyle. We'll skip this one too, though the topic is interesting. How, exactly, did "a small Italian market town by a ford on the river Tiber . . . conquer the known world?" The review never quite answers the question nor, it seems, did the book.
Page 8. "A Guide for the Perplexed" by Ian Marcus Corbin, reviewing The Great Partnership by Jonathan Sacks.
"Science," [Sacks] writes, "takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things back together to see what they mean."
Mr. Corbin says Mr. Sacks's book "makes a persuasive case that the bloody rhetorical war between 'science' and 'religion' is not just unnecessary; it is foolish. The book's last line is an invitation to believers and unbelievers alike: 'Let us join hands and build a more hopeful future.'"
Page 9. "Photo-Op: Meadow Larks" by the editors. As if to say, "Enough truth; how about some beauty?" this page offers a remarkable, though badly reproduced, full-page photograph of an English country trail, taken from International Garden Photographs of the Year. The extended cutline ponders the wonder of it all.
Page 10. Five Best: A Personal Choice: Amanda Bennett on tales of stormy couples. Each week, a prominent writer or editor serves up five favorite titles on an eccentric theme. One here is Heartburn by Nora Ephron, from which Ms. Bennett lifts this jewel of an insult.
"Jonathan's not going to be sent to Bangladesh," said Mark. "Why not?" I said. "Because we still care about Bangladesh."
Page 11. Moving Targets: Joe Queenan: "The Scary Secret Lives of Replacement Refs."
It was the replacement refs' idea to inflate the federal deficit to $1.3 trillion. Replacement refs encouraged the Spanish to go on an insane building frenzy that has now crippled that nation. In some circles it's even believed that replacement refs are responsible for Barbra Streisand's ominous decision to go out on tour this fall. They will stop at nothing! And who wrote Mitt Romney's speech about the pathetic, whining 47% of Americans who think of themselves as victims? You guessed it: replacement refs.
Page 12. Marvels: Holly Finn: "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?"
[Jim Owen, the] 71-year-old former businessman and founder of the Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership in Austin, Texas, is convinced that anyone can get ahead -- if they've [read he's] got character. . . . He's helped create a school curriculum to prove it.
Using 10 guiding principles dubbed the Code of the West, the program champions a bundle of behaviors to live by. This goes beyond "Never drink downstream from the herd." In includes: Make a commitment. Expect adversity. Give 110%. Kids are asked to internalize these principles . . . . When the program was tested with at-risk students in Cherry Creek, Colo., 78% raised their GPAs within a semester.
"We create these soft skills, we create the capacity for learning," said Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman in a speech last year about the importance of noncognitive skills such as perseverance. Paul Tough's new book, "How Children Succeed," says the same.
. . . .
This is old-fashioned individualism, sure. But it's surprisingly timely. . . .
However hokey it sounds, now's the time to promote "grit, guts and heart": character such as Mr. Owen describes it. . . .
The companion book to the coming film, "Lincoln: A President for the Ages," asks great historians "What would Lincoln do?" in situations from Hiroshima to "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." I wonder what he would have done with the Ivy Leaguers under investigation [for cheating] or with the young man recently kicked out of an honors class at a Silicon Valley high school for cheating. His lawyer-father sued the school.
Some of the accused at Harvard have also threatened legal action if any serious punishment is imposed -- they fear it will affect their future. Our fear should be that it won't.
Page 13. "A Lament for Lost Children" by Ian Marcus Corbin. This is a longish appreciation of "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" by Polish composer Henryk Gorecki.
[Mr. Gorecki] offers graceful, meandering exploration that, if one is patient, offers the humbler salve of continuity. This sort of grief [for lost children], Mr. Gorecki seems to sense, must be lived through, not rushed past. What consolation does come comes by way of passing time, and, for the Catholic Mr. Gorecki, through prayer. The final stanzas, subtly switched to a major key, read: "Oh, sing for him God's little song-birds, since his mother cannot find him. And you, God's little flowers, may you blossom all around so that my son may sleep happily." There is comfort here, to be sure, but no blissful end to suffering and death. Life simply sustains its steady flow; it moves past, but never fully escapes, the sharp rocks that tear and trouble the surface of human experience. Mercifully, as Nietzsche knew and Mr. Gorecki demonstrates, sorrow shared is sorrow made bearable.
And as one who believes in the promise of heaven, I hold that there is, indeed, a blissful end to suffering and death. But as one who has lost a child, I understand with my heart as well as my head what the reviewer is saying. This review takes a serious topic seriously as it reviews a symphony that takes serious themes seriously. This celebration of our culture, far better than the dry and angry screed of the latest cynical deconstructor or self-righteous debunker of faith and civilization, demonstrates the majesty of our culture and its humane values.
Page 14. "A Rothko Fills a Museum's Breach" by JudithH. Dobrzynski.
THE CRYSTAL BRIDGES Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., opened last November to good reviews -- mostly. But some critics zoomed in on a big failing: the absence of top works by artists of the postwar period, when American art marched to the front of the international stage.
Now Crystal Bridges, lavishly financed by Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton, has filled on major gap with the purchase of a 1960 painting by Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, "No. 210/No. 211 (Orange)." An example of his most prized works, it has been shown publicly only twice and has been in a private Swiss collection since the mid-1960s. "Each orange has a different glowo -- it's very vibrant," says museum director Don Bacigulupi.
He declined to disclose the price tag, but Marc Gimcher, president of Pace Gallery, pegged it at about $25 million.
Mark Rothko illustrates much of what's wrong with our culture, not what's right. His work is suffosed with death and nihilism. But the "Review" rightly treats him as an important figure in the history of American art.
So as we fold the "Review," let's reflect on his last item, a delicious reminder of the excellent philanthropy of Alice Walton of the reviled (by the left) Walmart family, published in an excellent weekly review published by the reviled (by the left) Rupert Murdoch -- both of whom have done far more to better this world of woe than virtually any of their critics. As has Mitt Romney, by the way, with his charitable gifts of $4 million last year. And as have you with your own gifts.
Of Western Civilization, were he to acknowledge it (and I have my doubts), our president might rightly say, "You didn't build that." And we didn't. It was a glorious gift of God and our ancestors.
Our challenge is not only to keep it for our descendants -- which is not going all that well -- but to make it better. We can do that by giving to charity, supporting political candidates who stand with our culture and not against it, and diving again and again into the deep pools of truth and beauty that the shapers of our civilization left for us, so that the wisdom that was theirs might be ours as well.
A good place to start on that last task is to read "Review" each week.