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Book Review: Shakespeare in a Divided America (James Shapiro)

5 days ago

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James Shapiro, Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Our Future (Penguin Press, 2020)

In June 2017, New York City’s Public Theater staged a production in Central Park of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, directed by Oskar Eustis, as part of the series known as Shakespeare in the Park. There was no subtlety in the play’s allusion to contemporary politics: Eustis’ Caesar had strange blond hair, wore overly long red ties, tweeted from a golden bathtub, and had a wife with a Slavic accent.

That Ceasar was knifed to death in Act III disturbed some spectators. A protestor interrupted one of the early productions, jumping on stage after the

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Kathryn Sikkink’s “The Hidden Face of Rights”

August 21, 2021

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Kathryn Sikkink, The Hidden Face of Rights: Toward a Politics of Responsibilities (Yale University Press, 2020)
Kathryn Sikkink, Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is one of the leading academic experts on international human rights law­­—the body of principles arising out of a series of post-World War II human rights treaties, conventions, and other international instruments. Recently, I reviewed her work Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century on my personal blog.

In that work, Sikkink took on a host of critics of the current state of international human rights law who had challenged both its legitimacy and its effectiveness. Before Evidence for Hope, she was

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“The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas”

July 30, 2021

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Robert Zaretsky, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021)
Simone Weil is considered today among the foremost twentieth-century French intellectuals, on par with such luminous contemporaries as Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. And yet she was not widely known when she died at age 34 in 1943. Although she wrote profusely, only small portions of her writings were published during her lifetime. Much of her written work was left in private notebooks and published posthumously. It was only after the Second World War, as Weil’s writings increasingly came to light, that a comprehensive picture of her thinking emerged—comprehensive

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“Scots and Catalans”: Comparing separatisms

July 8, 2021

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Review of J.H. Elliot, Scots and Catalans: Union and Disunion (Yale University Press).

Are the United Kingdom and Scotland barreling toward a crisis over Scottish independence of the magnitude of that which rattled Spain in 2017, when Catalonia, the country’s northeast corner that includes Barcelona, unilaterally declared its independence? That possibility seems less far-fetched after early May’s parliamentary elections in Scotland, in which the Scottish National Party (SNP) fell just one seat shy of an absolute majority. In coalition with the Scottish Green Party, the SNP is now in a position to set the legislative agenda for Scotland. To no one’s surprise, Nicola Surgeon, Scottish First Minister and

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When Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X met

April 26, 2021

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“Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Waiting for Press Conference” March 26, 1964. Library of Congress, via Creative Commons (Public Domain)

Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X met only once, a chance encounter at the US Capitol on March 26, 1964. The two men were at the Capitol to listen to a debate over what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a measure that banned discrimination in employment, mandated equal access to most public facilities, and had the potential to be the most consequential piece of federal legislation on behalf of equality for African Americans since the Reconstruction era nearly a century earlier.

There wasn’t much substance to their meeting. “Well, Malcolm, good to see

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Can democracy work?

March 19, 2021

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André Devambez, Barricade, The Paris Commune, May 1871 via Wikimedia Commons  (Public domain)
Did American democracy survive the presidency of Donald Trump? The question seems sure to occupy historians, commentators and the public during the administration of Joe Biden and beyond. If nothing else, the Trump presidency and its aftermath highlight the need to dig deeply into the very idea of democracy and its history, theory, practice, and limitations. In short: can democracy work?

This is the title of James Miller’s Can Democracy Work: A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World. It could also be the title of William Davies’ Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason. The two works, both written

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