Dear Dean, How to Start?

A murder investigation disguised as a teacher-pleasing ‘oral history project.’

Sam Munson’s “The November Criminals” is either a very short novel or a very long college application essay. “You’ve asked me to explain what my best and worst qualities are,” Addison Schacht, the novel’s narrator and main attraction, writes in its opening sentence. His answer requires telling the full story of how he, a pot-dealing, Virgil-loving, SAT-acing high-school senior, attempted to solve the murder of Kevin Broadus, a fellow student at his Washington, D.C., school.

It all sounds like “Encyclopedia Brown: The Burn-Out Years,” but the plot of “The November Criminals” is never the point. Instead, it’s the vehicle, an obstacle course where Mr. Munson can show off Addison’s sharp and agile voice. That voice entails tons of tangents, italics and words you can’t print in a newspaper, all of which are unified by Addison’s industrial-strength cynicism. He spends a good portion of the novel judging other people, and they spend a good portion of the novel deserving it.

By far the worst offenders— worse than the minor drug players, worse than Addison’s bumbling father—are the teachers and students at Addison’s school. At a student assembly to honor the murdered Kevin, a girl named Alex Faustner starts “complaining about how ‘all this’—she meant singing ‘Mary Don’t You Weep’— violated her First Amendment rights. . . . In addition to being a huge [worse than you think], Alex is—I’m sure you’re astonished to hear this—one hundred percent, rest-of-society-agrees beautiful.”

But Addison criticizes the assembly along these same lines. And when he makes fliers for his murder investigation—disguised to his teachers as “an oral history project,” he says, because “I knew the phrase would turn their gazes glassy with delight”—Addison finds himself staring at a sign hanging over the copying machine that says: “Be Unselfish.” The sign, he muses, is “part of the larger official message hawked by our administration: selfishness is the highest evil. Which means, if you think about it, that all private desires participate in evil.” He adds: “The urge to deface that sign is the strongest feeling I have about my school.”

So which is it? Are selfishness and solipsism generally permissible or should they be restricted to our own frontal lobes? Can we mock the pretension of “exceptionless equality” while still struggling toward some kind of personal evaluative standard? “The November Criminals” comes at these questions from about 50 different angles. Addison never quite formulates a final answer—much less tries to live by it—and that’s one reason he’s so captivating. In his Latin class, Addison rails against a fellow student (Alex, again) for prattling on about how “The Aeneid” “glorified violence”: “No, man, you’re missing the whole point. You can’t apply our virtues here.” But Addison also realizes that nothing in this statement obviates the need to sort out what exactly our virtues are.

As with most first novels, “The November Criminals” contains some repurposing of life experience. Mr. Munson grew up in just the sort of place that his narrator describes as home: “a tree-heavy upper-middle-class neighborhood in Washington, D.C.” They both applied to the University of Chicago in 1999. (Mr. Munson graduated in 2003.) But the most interesting bit of Mr. Munson’s background is that the author worked as a researcher for CNBC host and devoted supply-sider Larry Kudlow and as an editor at Commentary magazine. Every so often, spurred by some kind of creative liberal guilt, someone will ask: Where are the conservative novelists? I can’t speak directly to Mr. Munson’s politics, but it’s pretty clear that “The November Criminals” takes aim at a lot of liberal pieties—everything from Diversity Outreach (“just as horrifyingly inept as its name suggests”) to a history teacher who worships Wilson, Kennedy and FDR (“that’s verbatim; she actually said holy trinity“).

More important than the author’s political leanings, though, is the fact that Mr. Munson does this as a novelist and not as a pundit—he dramatizes his debates, keeps them entertaining and leaves them unresolved.

“The November Criminals” tackles plenty of other important issues, including Jewishness (Addison loves Holocaust jokes) and race (Kevin is black). The book gets a little preachy toward the end—it does start to feel like an essay. But Mr. Munson packs in enough funny moments, enough surprises (notably a short and genuinely affective section on Addison’s mother), and enough satisfying resolutions to more than compensate. And then there’s the humor. After a disquisition on the male teenager’s sexual stamina, Addison explains: “I’m just trying to get everything down, so that you can form a clear picture. My best and worst qualities.”

Mr. Fehrman, a writer in Milford, Conn., is working on a book about presidents and their books.


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What George Washington Heard

As Americans prepare to celebrate the nation’s birth, it’s safe to say that the most familiar figure connected with that birth is George Washington. Although he didn’t actually sign the Declaration of Independence—he had been in New York since March, commanding the Continental troops there—his image is more completely bound up with the revolution and its success than any of America’s other patriarchs.

Whether known as the “Father of his Country,” the “Atlas of America,” the “Sage of Mount Vernon” or just the “Old Fox,” Washington has always been a figure of mythic proportions, and during his lifetime he was venerated practically as a living saint by many citizens of the new republic.

One of the president’s most endearing and least familiar weakness was for music, theater and dancing.

True, at 6-foot-2 he really did stand taller than most men of his time, and his repeated escapes from death in battle contributed to his somewhat divine aura. But despite the sentimental hagiography of Parson Weems, whose best-seller “The Life of Washington” (1800) fairly reduced his subject’s career to a series of Aesop-like fables, Washington was a very human being, however formally he conducted himself in public. As his biographer Joseph Ellis notes, Washington cultivated his exceptional self-control to compensate for his weaknesses, among them a fiery temper and a passionate love for Sally Fairfax, the wife of a friend.

Perhaps Washington’s most endearing and least familiar weakness, however, was for music, theater and dancing. Unlike his secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, a talented amateur violinist, Washington wasn’t a musician himself. But he took great pleasure in musical and theatrical events—both of which were closely intertwined in 18th-century America—and from early adulthood eagerly attended performances at theaters in Fredericksburg and Williamsburg, Va.

Throughout his life, Washington attended concerts wherever he traveled. During the American Revolution, while spending a night in Bethlehem, Pa., he enjoyed a concert of chamber music, and on a subsequent visit there in 1782, we read of his being serenaded, to his great pleasure, by a Moravian trombone choir.

Meanwhile, Washington was always eager to pay ready money for good music. In 1757, Philadelphia enjoyed its first two public concerts. For the second of these, then-Lt. Col. Washington purchased a block of tickets costing 52 shillings and six pence, or £2 12s 6d, a considerable outlay at a time when a teacher might earn an annual salary of £60. On another occasion, in 1787, now-Gen. Washington gave a dinner in Philadelphia for which he engaged a nine-piece orchestra to perform, this time paying £7 10s for the pleasure—no mean sum either.

Among his friends was the Philadelphia lawyer Francis Hopkinson, a talented amateur poet and musician who also designed several issues of Continental currency and did sign the Declaration of Independence. Acknowledged as the first native-born American composer, Hopkinson dedicated a set of “Seven Songs for the Harpischord or Forte Piano” to Washington in 1788.

Not surprisingly, musical performances in the newborn nation were often connected with major current events. Thus shortly after America’s victory, in 1781, we find Washington in the audience at the “hotel of the Minister of France” (i.e., the French Embassy) in Philadelphia to enjoy the celebratory premiere of “The Temple of Minerva, America Independent, an oratorical entertainment,” another Hopkinson opus. Similarly, in May 1787, four days after the opening of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Washington notes in his diary that he “accompanied Mrs. Morris to the benefit concert of a Mr. Juhan.” The program, divided into three “acts,” included overtures by Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny, William Shield and Padre Giovanni Battista Martini (who had given lessons to the young Mozart in Bologna). There was also a “Sonato Piano Forte” [sic] by the English-born Alexander Reinagle, one of America’s leading musicians of the day.

Reinagle, who had been a close friend of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in Europe, had settled in Philadelphia while it was the nation’s capital and was engaged by President Washington as music master to his step-granddaughter, Nelly Custis, providing a noteworthy, if indirect, connection between the Father of his Country and the son of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Apart from attending public performances, Washington also relished listening to music- making at home, and not only Nelly but Washington’s stepchildren and step-grandchildren were offered a musical education befitting the landed gentry. A small household collection of music books is still preserved at Washington’s beloved Mount Vernon, along with Nelly’s harpsichord, which Washington bought for her.

In addition, various eyewitness accounts of Washington on the dance floor reveal a side far removed from the starchy image on currency and canvas. Most notable is the account by his step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis of a ball held a few weeks after the conclusion of the American Revolution: “The minuet was much in vogue at that period,” writes Custis, “and was peculiarly calculated for the display of the splendid figure of the chief, and his natural grace and elegance of air and manners. . . . As the evening advanced, the commander-in-chief, yielding to the general gaiety of the scene, went down some dozen couples in the contre-dance with great spirit and satisfaction.”

Throughout his life, Washington enjoyed the balls and “assemblies” that were a popular entertainment in 18th-century America. One of his final letters in 1799 is a poignant response to an invitation to the managers of the Alexandria Assembly in Virginia: “Mrs. Washington and myself have been honored with your polite invitation to the assemblies of Alexandria this winter, and thank you for this mark of your attention. But, alas! our dancing days are no more.”

Though at age 67 Washington was still relatively vigorous, he caught a cold while riding five hours through a snowstorm on Dec. 12 of that year. Two days later the “American Cincinnatus” died, and to the raft of musical compositions already written saluting his military and presidential accomplishments was added another repertoire of dirges, elegies, odes and marches lamenting his passing. The first, Benjamin Carr’s dignified “Dead March and Monody for General Washington” was ready for performance in Philadelphia a mere 12 days later, with musical offerings continuing to appear up and down the Eastern seaboard throughout the winter of 1800.

The music-loving “Sword of the Revolution” probably would have enjoyed listening to them.

Mr. Scherer writes about music and the fine arts for the Journal.


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Obama and the Fiscal ‘Road to Hell’

G-20 leaders don’t agree with the president that more spending will revive the economy. Nor do most Americans.

At last week’s G-20 meeting, President Barack Obama achieved a two-fer. He suffered a significant international defeat, and he increased the chances his party will suffer a major domestic one this fall.

Mr. Obama’s international defeat was self-inflicted. He went to Toronto to press other major nations to do as he has done: Expand government spending, or suffer, in the president’s words, “renewed economic hardship and recession.”

Canada, Germany, Great Britain and most other countries declined Mr. Obama’s invitation. The German economic minister “urgently” prodded America to cut spending at a press conference on June 21, prior to the G-20 meeting. The president of the European central bank took direct aim at Mr. Obama’s argument, telling the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on June 16 that “the idea that austerity measures could trigger stagnation is incorrect.”

The European Union president, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, tore into Mr. Obama’s stimulus and other spending policies in a stunning address to the European Parliament in March 2009, calling them “the road to hell” and saying “the United States did not take the right path.”

If it sounds strange to have European leaders lecturing the U.S. about fiscal restraint, it should. But that is where America finds itself after Mr. Obama’s 17-month fiscal orgy.

The other flaw in his G-20 appearance is domestic. The president’s statements that more deficit spending was “necessary to keep economic growth strong” and his cautioning against “the consequential mistakes of the past” when stimulus spending “was too quickly withdrawn” puts his administration and party squarely in favor of policies unpopular with most Americans.

Since 2000, the Gallup organization has asked voters what they believe will be the most important problem for the U.S. in 25 years. This year Americans are saying the challenge will be the deficit. And last month, almost eight in 10 voters surveyed by the Associated Press called the federal budget deficit an “extremely” or “very important” issue.

There was more bad news Tuesday for Democrats from recent focus groups conducted in battleground congressional districts in Iowa, Ohio, New Jersey, Arkansas and Florida.

A report on these focus groups issued this week by Resurgent Republic (a group I helped found) showed that both political independents and tea party participants passionately denounced federal spending and deficits, using words like “reckless,” “out of control,” “unnecessary” and “unhelpful.” The evidence suggests that both groups remain deeply skeptical of Mr. Obama’s stimulus package and are unpersuaded by the administration’s arguments in its favor.

The authors of the Resurgent Republic study concluded that both independents and tea party voters believe “nearly unanimously” that reckless government spending, not lack of tax revenues, is responsible for the deficits. This goes to the very heart of the modern Democratic agenda with its guiding philosophy of bigger government and higher taxes.

All of this negative news is wearing on the president. At the G-20’s concluding news conference, Mr. Obama—brittle and petulant—attacked GOP critics “who are hollering about deficits,” saying he would be “calling their bluff” next year by “presenting some very difficult choices.” Then “we’ll see how much of . . . the political arguments they’re making right now are real, and how much of it was just politics.”

The president’s problem is largely a mess of his own making. Deficit spending did not begin when Mr. Obama took office. But he and his Democratic allies have supported, proposed, passed or signed and then spent every dime that’s gone out the door since Jan. 20, 2009.

Voters know it is Mr. Obama and Democratic leaders who approved a $410 billion supplemental (complete with 8,500 earmarks) in the middle of the last fiscal year, and then passed a record-spending budget for this one. Mr. Obama and Democrats approved an $862 billion stimulus and a $1 trillion health-care overhaul, and they now are trying to add $266 billion in “temporary” stimulus spending to permanently raise the budget baseline.

It is the president and Congressional allies who refuse to return the $447 billion unspent stimulus dollars and want to use repayments of TARP loans for more spending rather than reducing the deficit. It is the president who gave Fannie and Freddie carte blanche to draw hundreds of billions from the Treasury. It is the Democrats’ profligacy that raised the share of the GDP taken by the federal government to 24% this fiscal year.

This is indeed the road to fiscal hell, and it’s been paved by the president and his party. Voters will have their chance this November to render their verdict on the Obama years. No wonder Republicans feel confident these days.

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).


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A Plague of Vagueness

How about a void-for-vagueness doctrine for the U.S. Congress?

Just when you’re thinking all hope is lost, along comes the “void-for-vagueness doctrine,” invoked this past week by the Supreme Court to restrict a hopelessly vague law. If our era needs a bumper sticker, this is it: Void for Vagueness. Paste it on the 2,000-plus pages of the new ObamaCare law, paste it on the 2,000 pages of the floundering financial regulation bill. Hand it out in front of Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings. Heck, chisel it on the facade of the U.S. Capitol. But my enthusiasm is racing ahead of the story.

In 2006, the most hated man in America was probably Jeff Skilling, who once sat atop Enron, perhaps the most hated corporate name in all American history. This heap of unpopularity notwithstanding, the Supreme Court said last week the government wrongly prosecuted the abominated Jeff Skilling under something called the “honest services fraud” law. The Court ruled—unanimously—that the law was, in a word, too “vague.”

Here is the classic description of the void-for-vagueness doctrine from Justice George Sutherland in 1926: “a statute which either forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning . . . violates the first essential of due process of law.”

That any such common-sense rule still exists in law, politics or life is a wonder.

Strictly, the vagueness test applies only to penal law, but in a better world would it not also apply to much else in public life? The world was simpler in 1926.

Our Congress, the one with a current approval rating of 22%, is attempting to enact its hapless answer to the financial crisis—now called, with no hint of irony, the Dodd-Frank bill. It spent the previous 12 months concocting the Obama health-care law. The actual language of the several thousand-page financial regulation bill was made available to the American people for the first time one evening this week.

Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, in a comment on the legislation that should go straight into Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, said, “There are probably three unintended consequences on every single page of this bill.”

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a separate concurrence on the Skilling decision. Consider his remarks in the context of Congress’s modern legislative enactments, such as Sarbanes-Oxley, which technically are beyond reach of the void-for-vagueness doctrine.

He referred to the honest-services law, enacted by Congress in 1988, as “this indeterminacy.” He calls the legal duties required of individuals under it “hopelessly undefined,” a “smorgasbord” written in “astoundingly broad language” and “to put it mildly, unclear.” His most stupendous example was a court ruling that one could be found in violation for a scheme “contrary to public policy.”

In too many areas where the daily life of commerce intersects with public policy, people feel they are flying blind, uncertain of what a law or regulation requires, uncertain of how the bureaucracies empowered to enforce this morass will interpret them.

One sensed it was heading this way when landowners were prosecuted under the Endangered Species Act for violating the “habitat” of odd creatures found on their property.

This derangement of the laws’ meaning is among the reasons the public is so out of sorts about politics and Congress. They think compliance with the rules is turning into a crap shoot. They are right. Here is Justice Scalia on what happened to the law’s meaning in the Skilling case: “The duty probably did not have to be rooted in state law, but maybe it did. It might have been more demanding in the case of public officials, but perhaps not.” Truly, we are in Wonder Land.

It is an irony, though, that the Supreme Court that can unanimously find in favor of a Jeff Skilling under the void-for-vagueness doctrine is the same court that shows nearly infinite deference to federal administrative bureaucracies that strain to interpret the sloppy legislative language Congress enacts into law.

We are there again. The Dodd-Frank bill, if enabled into law by several Republican Senators, lets the actual meaning of the “Volcker Rule” on banks’ trading practices and much else pass into the hands of the translators at the Federal Reserve, FDIC, other federal agencies and the lobbyists who swarm around them.

It is not an accident that American public policy and law have fallen so far into a condition of unfathomable murk. As with the prosecutors who abused the honest-services statute, opaqueness of the sort Messrs. Dodd, Frank and the president favor shifts the locus of power away from all citizens and toward an administrative minority that reduces the nation’s civil life to a costly game of Mother-may-I?

If only on principle, someone from the GOP in Congress should start demanding that all federal legislation pass through a void-for-vagueness test. This session, none would survive. If the Supreme Court can demand clarity on behalf of convicted felons, how about adopting it on behalf of everyone else, who until their luck runs out, remain innocent?

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal


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Espionage History and the ‘Russian 10’

The arrest of ‘sleeper agents’ on U.S. soil is the stuff of spy novels, not the Cold War.

The Justice Department’s arrest this week of 10 Russian spies posing as American citizens is not stranger than fiction; it mirrors fiction. Innumerable Cold War novels and films focused on “sleeper agents,” professional Soviet espionage officers superbly trained in language and culture who take on the identity of a native-born American to gain access to U.S. intelligence and policy making.

But in reality the most damaging Cold War spies were native-born Americans—Julius Rosenberg, Alger Hiss, Aldrich Ames, Richard Hansen—who for reasons of ideology, money or psychological perversity chose to betray their country.

Most Soviet espionage was supervised by “legal” KGB officers operating under official cover as diplomats who, when arrested, faced only expulsion, protected by their diplomatic status. Great Britain famously expelled 105 Soviet personnel linked to KGB intelligence in 1971. But none of them had been posing as a British citizen. The KGB also had “illegal” officers who had no diplomatic status, often used false identities and who usually functioned as covert liaisons with native-born traitors. Long-term sleeper agents, as these 10 appear to have been, are rare.

In the late-1950s, the U.S. government arrested, tried and convicted five Soviet illegals in connection with the Soble-Soblen spy ring: Jack Soble, his wife Myra, his brother Robert Soblen (the two brothers had anglicized their Lithuanian name, Sobolevicius, slightly differently), Jacob Albam and Mark Zborowski. None had diplomatic cover, but neither were they “deep penetration” agents. All used their true identities, simply pretending to be innocent immigrants.

Moreover, their espionage work was confined largely to “agent handling,” i.e., acting as liaison with native-born Americans, mostly Communists, who had been recruited as Soviet spies years earlier. Their major accomplishment was to infiltrate the American Trotskyist movement and the Russian emigré community, targets with no direct connection to the U.S. government. Soble and associates had no plans or prospects of entering American think tanks or other institutions with access to high-level American policy makers.

There were two Soviet illegals exposed in the late 1950s whose activities came a bit closer to the recently arrested 10. An illegal officer, KGB Col. Rudolf Abel (real name Vilyam Fisher), entered the U.S. in 1948 and operated under a variety of false identities. He was finally exposed when his assistant and fellow illegal, KGB Lt. Col. Reino Hayhanen, defected in 1957. (Hayhanen, of Finnish background, had been sent to the U.S. using false papers identifying him as an American of Finnish ancestry.) Abel, who never admitted his real name, was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

After only five years he was freed in exchange for Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union on a CIA reconnaissance mission. While Hayhanen and Abel assumed false identities as Americans, their function was to maintain contact and pick up information from native-born Americans who spied for the Soviets. Abel’s initial task, for example, was to re-establish KGB contact with Theodore Hall, an American physicist and secret Communist who had provided U.S. atomic secrets to the USSR while working at Los Alamos. Hayhanen and Abel were illegals but not deep-penetration sleeper agents.

Thus, the FBI’s arrest of 10 Russian sleeper agents on U.S. soil has no precedent in Cold War history, even if fans of Walter Wager’s novel “Telefon” (later a movie staring Charles Bronson) find it familiar. Also unprecedented, and reassuringly so, is that FBI counterintelligence had identified these Russian sleepers early on, had been monitoring them for years, and finally decided that it had gained what it could from such surveillance and rolled up the Russian networks.

Deep-penetration agents are a very, very expensive investment. Not only the training of the professional officers themselves, but covertly supporting them, communicating with them, and supervising their activities is a major bureaucratic expense for any intelligence agency. The loss of 10 such agents and the resulting collateral damage makes this a catastrophe for Russian foreign intelligence. The FBI also identified a number of Russian “legal” officers who made surreptitious contact with the sleepers and, thus exposed, these Russian officers are now useless for intelligence fieldwork.

The SVR—Russian Foreign Intelligence, successor to the KGB—also cannot be sure that the FBI has disclosed all that it knows of the 10 agents’ activities (11 with the arrest of a confederate in Cyprus). Prudence dictates that the SVR must assume that any other Russian officers who had covert contact with the 11 may have been identified by American security. Use of these potentially compromised officers in future espionage field-work would be risky and foolish.

We don’t know what additional shoes will drop in this case. Will any of the 10 talk to avoid a long prison term? Rudolf Abel was defiant and refused any cooperation. Jack Soble, however, dodged the death penalty by fully confessing, telling all he knew of KGB operations in the U.S. and Western Europe, and even testified against his brother. These 10 (or 11, if we count the agent arrested in Cyprus) don’t face the death penalty but do face potentially long terms in prison, and there aren’t any Francis Gary Powers available for exchanges.

Messrs. Klehr and Haynes are co-authors, along with Alexander Vassiliev, of “Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America” (Yale University Press, 2010).


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The Ugly Party vs. the Grown-Up Party

My political friendships and sympathies are increasingly determined not by ideology but by methodology. One of the most significant divisions in American public life is not between the Democrats and the Republicans; it is between the Ugly Party and the Grown-Up Party.

This distinction came to mind in the case of Washington Post blogger David Weigel, who resigned last week after the leak of messages he wrote disparaging figures he covered. Weigel is, by most accounts, a bright, hardworking young man whose private communications should have been kept private. But the tone of the e-mails he posted on a liberal e-mail list is instructive. When Rush Limbaugh went to the hospital with chest pain, Weigel wrote, “I hope he fails.” Matt Drudge is an “amoral shut-in” who should “set himself on fire.” Opponents are referred to as “ratf — -ers” and “[expletive] moronic.”

This type of discourse is an odd combination between the snideness of the cool, mean kids in high school and the pettiness of Richard Nixon rambling on his tapes. Weigel did not intend his words to be public. But they display the defining characteristic of ugly politics — the dehumanization of political opponents.

Unlike Weigel, most members of the Ugly Party — liberal and conservative — have little interest in keeping their views private. “My only regret with Timothy McVeigh,” Ann Coulter once said, “is he did not go to the New York Times building.” Radio host Mike Malloy suggested that Glenn Beck “do the honorable thing and blow his brains out.” Conservatives carry signs at Obama rallies: “We Came Unarmed (This Time).” Liberals carried signs at Bush rallies: “Save Mother Earth, Kill Bush.” Says John Avlon, author of “Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America,” “If you only take offense when the president of your party is compared to Hitler, then you’re part of the problem.”

The rhetoric of the Ugly Party shares some common themes: urging the death or sexual humiliation of opponents or comparing a political enemy to vermin or diseases. It is not merely an adolescent form of political discourse; it encourages a certain political philosophy — a belief that rivals are somehow less than human, which undermines the idea of equality and the possibility of common purposes.

Such sentiments have always existed. But the unfiltered media — particularly the Internet — have provided both stage and spotlight. Now everyone can be Richard Nixon, threatening opponents and composing enemies lists.

But the Internet is also a permanent record, as Weigel found. His reaction to exposure was honest and admirable. He admitted to being “cocky” and “needlessly mean” — the kind of introspection that promises future contribution. But when members of the Ugly Party are exposed, generally they respond differently. Obscenity? The real obscenity is an unjust war, or imposing socialism or devotion to Israel. It is an argument that makes any deep policy disagreement an excuse for verbal violence. Or an offense against taste and judgment is dismissed as humor and satire.

The alternative to the Ugly Party is the Grown-Up Party — less edgy and less hip. It is sometimes depicted on the left and on the right as an all-powerful media establishment, stifling creativity, freedom and dissent. The Grown-Up Party, in my experience, is more like a seminar at the Aspen Institute — presentation by David Broder, responses from E.J. Dionne Jr. and David Brooks — on the electoral implications of the energy debate. I am more comfortable in this party for a few reasons: because it is more responsible, more reliable and less likely to wish its opponents would die.

Many of the entrepreneurs of the new media, on left and right, are talented, vivid and entertaining. Many are also squandering important things they do not value. They are making politics an unpleasant chore, practiced mainly by the vicious and angry, and are feeding dangerous resentments in a volatile time.

Eventually, all edginess becomes old. Obscenity reaches the limits of language. People read yesterday’s hot blogger, watch yesterday’s cable star, roll their eyes and say, “Not again.” And maybe then the Grown-Up Party will prove more enduring and interesting after all.

Michael Gerson, Washington Post


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To Tweet, Or Not to Tweet

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable—at times—seem all the digital distractions of this world.

A catastrophic event unfolds. A seemingly healthy professional embarks on his daily commute, only to come to the frightening realization that his battered and beloved BlackBerry lies vulnerable and unused in a distant corner of his home. An unwholesome panic descends. No matter how far away from home he is, and no matter how needless the device may be in a practical sense, he is impelled to hightail it back to his house and reconnect with the world.

William Powers offers this beleaguered man (me), and everyone else who has faced a similar ordeal, a roadmap to contentment in “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” a rewarding guide to finding a “quiet” and “spacious” place “where the mind can wander free.”

Based on the author’s much-discussed 2006 National Journal essay, “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Why Paper is Eternal” (and how I wish that were true), the former Washington Post staff writer argues that the distractions of manic connectivity often lead to a lack of productivity and, if allowed to permeate too deeply, to an assault on the beauty and meaning of everyday life.

Obviously this is not a unique grievance, or a fresh one: As Mr. Powers acknowledges, concerns about the deleterious effects of a new world supplanting the old go back to Plato. But there has been an awful lot of grousing about digital distraction lately—Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” came out just a few weeks ago—and it is easy to feel skeptical of worrywarts agonizing about Americans “wrestling” with too many choices and “coping” with the effects of too much Internet use.

There is simply too much good that comes of innovation for that sort of Luddite hand-wringing. The farmer a century ago who pulled himself off the straw mattress at 4 a.m. to till the earth so his family wouldn’t starve led a fairly straightforward, undistracted existence, but he was almost certainly miserable most of the time. And he probably regarded the arrival of radio as a sort of miracle. In discussions of this type I tend to rely on the wisdom of P.J. O’Rourke: “Civilization is an enormous improvement on the lack thereof.”

But even a jaded reader is likely to be won over by “Hamlet’s BlackBerry.” It convincingly argues that we’ve ceded too much of our existence to what he calls Digital Maximalism. Less scold and more philosopher, Mr. Powers certainly bemoans the spread of technology in our lives, but he also offers a compelling discussion of our dependence on contraptions and of the ways in which we might free ourselves from them. I buy it. I need quiet time.

To accept “Hamlet’s BlackBerry” is to accept that we are super busy. “It’s staggering,” writes Mr. Powers, “how many balls we keep in the air each day and how few we drop. We’re so busy, sometimes it seems as though busyness itself is the point.” Though I don’t find all that ball-juggling as staggering as the author, and I don’t know anyone who acts as if chaos is the point of it all, it would be foolish not to concede that our lives have become far more complex than ever before.

What can be done? What should be done? Mr. Powers’s answer is, in essence: Just say no. Try to cultivate a quieter or at least more focused life. The most persuasive and entertaining parts of “Hamlet’s BlackBerry” are found in Mr. Powers’s efforts to practice what he preaches. (Most of us, it should be noted, do not have the option of moving from a dense Washington, D.C., suburb to an idyllic Cape Cod town to grapple with the demons of gadgetry addiction.) His skeptical wife and kids agree that if they’re allowed to use their laptops during the week, they will turn the computers off on the weekend. Mr. Powers discovers that friends and relatives quickly adapt to the family’s digital disconnect (they call it the “Internet Sabbath”). The family spends more time face-to-face instead of Facebooking.

Mr. Powers proposes that we take into account the “need to connect outward, as well as the opposite need for time and space apart.” It is a powerful desire, the balanced life. Most of us yearn for it. Neither technology nor connectivity is injurious unless we allow them to consume us. Mr. Powers argues that letting life turn into a blizzard of snapshots—that’s what all those screenviews amount to, after all—isn’t enough. We would be happier freeing ourselves for genuine, unfiltered experience and then reflecting on it, not tweeting about it. The busy person will pause here to nod in sympathy.

I’m not sure that many of us have found that spacious place where our minds can wander free of technological intrusions, of beeps and buttons and emails and tweets, but “Hamlet’s BlackBerry” makes the case that we can—or should—find it. Recently, while watching some hypnotically dreadful movie, I instinctively reached for my BlackBerry to fetch some worthless biographical information about a third-rate actress that would do no more than clog my brain still further.

Then I remembered something in Mr. Powers’s book—which takes its title from a scene in “Hamlet” when the prince refers to an Elizabethan technical advance: specially coated paper or parchment that could be wiped clean. A book that included heavy, blank, erasable pages made from such paper—an almanac, for example—was called a table. “Yea, from the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,” Hamlet says. Or, as Mr. Powers paraphrases: ” ‘Don’t worry,’ Hamlet’s nifty device whispered, ‘you don’t have to know everything. Just the few things that matter.’ ”

Mr. Harsanyi is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Denver Post.


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