Global and ravenous, modern capitalism has turned American citizens into mere consumers, people who are focused principally on their own gratification and essentially indifferent to the needs of the larger society. This, in a nutshell, is Paul Roberts’ thesis in The Impulse Society.
Real life spy Kim Philby had a level of charm that fictional spy James Bond could only aspire to. To meet Philby, it seemed, was to fall under his convivial sway. Thus, when it was disclosed in 1963 that this very proper, well-placed and Cambridge-educated Englishman had been spying for the Soviet Union since 1934, two people were particularly shaken by the revelation: Nicholas Elliott, his longtime drinking buddy and colleague at MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, and James Angleton, the zealous spymaster at America’s Central Intelligence Agency. Both men had regarded Philby as the supreme exemplar of their shadowy trade. Of course, he was.
Although he speaks repeatedly of his “two Italies”—a phrase he borrows from the poet Shelley—Joseph Luzzi is neither fully at home among the coarse elements of Calabrian culture his immigrant parents brought with them to America nor within the borders of Italy itself, what with its infuriating mix of high art and low purpose. But it is this unresolved quality of Luzzi’s musings—the back and forth tugging of a splendid mind—that makes this book so alive and such a pleasure to read.
In his heyday, E. Forbes Smiley III was larger than life, a man who excelled at virtually everything he set his hand to. Although his name smacked of sitcom pretentiousness, he was never the rich buffoon. Raised in a middle-class, well-educated family in New Hampshire, Smiley became a superb college student, an engaging conversationalist, a gifted woodworker and a generous and loyal friend.
It is far easier to be morally outraged by a situation than morally engaged in confronting it. We look back at the horrors of slavery or the Holocaust and exclaim, “How could they have let this happen,” even as we effectively ignore the current waves of human miseries washing around our feet. Gil and Eleanor Kraus were no such antiseptic moralists.
There is a near irresistible urge to believe what we want to believe, even in the face of conflicting evidence. Seldom has that regrettable impulse been demonstrated more starkly than in 2006 when three members of the Duke University lacrosse team were charged with raping a woman they had hired to perform at a party as an “exotic dancer.” The accused were white men from well-to-do Northern families and the accuser a poor local black woman with two young children to support. With its overtones of racism, regionalism, gender advantage and class privilege, the situation couldn’t have been more dramatic—or potentially explosive.
Michael Rockefeller, the 23-year-old son of then New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, disappeared in 1961 while on an art-collecting trip in the Asmat region along the coast of southwest New Guinea. His boat capsized in rough waters, and, after he and a companion had waited overnight for rescue, Rockefeller decided to swim to shore, buoyed by two empty gasoline cans. He was never seen again—at least not by any witnesses who’ve been willing to come forward.
Because he seldom cites specific dates or alludes to what’s happening in the outside world as he’s prowling through the jungle in Peru, Paul Rosolie’s Mother of God: An Extraordinary Journey into the Uncharted Tributaries of the Western Amazon has a breathless, dream-like quality—a tone one might find in the journals of a relentlessly eager and factually retentive Boy Scout.
The “triple package,” as the authors anatomize it, is a cluster of traits that enables groups, individuals and even nations to get ahead materially. Specifically, the three traits are: (1) an innate sense of superiority co-existing simultaneously with (2) feelings of situational insecurity and powered by (3) impulse control so that gains made through concentration, hard work and thrift are not dissipated by transitory urges and appetites.
Most of us believe that our generation (whichever one it was) flourished during a particularly golden moment in history and that the world would profit greatly from knowing more about it—and us. Individually, we’re pretty sure that we—personally—are the best examples of our time-stamped cohort. These notions go a long way toward explaining why P.J. O’Rourke now...