“Respect: An Exploration” by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

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By Ray Sawhill

Despite its title, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s new book, “Respect: An Exploration” (Perseus), isn’t an exploration of the meaning of the word “respect,” and it isn’t a William Bennett-like piece of virtue-advocacy either. Instead, it’s a collection of profiles of people who are trying in their professional lives to do some good in the world.

The book is held together less by the occasional passage about the role respect has played in her subjects’ work than by the social-science earnestness of Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s tone. Johnye Ballenger is a pediatrician who gives an afternoon a week to caring for poor clients. Jennifer Dohrn runs a “birthing center” (when did women stop giving birth and start “birthing” instead?) in the South Bronx. David Wilkins is a Harvard law professor who tries to avoid “Paper Chase”-style authoritarianism while still helping students learn the skill of “thinking like a lawyer.” We also meet a “hospice caregiver,” a photographer, and a teacher at a suburban school.

Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and a MacArthur Prize winner, has developed a distinctive way of writing what she calls a “portrait”—a sensitive, even credulous take on a person, delivered partly through that person’s eyes. It’s a therapist’s view of a client, basically.

The profiles whose subjects have the orneriness to cut through Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s overeager empathy are reasonably compelling. But it’s a mind-foggingly solemn work that seems to live in terror of sharp edges and clear distinctions—and not a book for readers convinced that there ought to be a lifetime cap on the number of times an author can use the words “empower” and “healing.”

©1999 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The New York Times Book Review.

“Fair Play” by Steven Landsburg

By Ray Sawhill

One of the more transfixing ongoing spectacles the Web offers is Steven E. Landsburg’s “Everyday Economics” column in Slate. Economists writing for general audiences are largely a gentlemanly, helpful lot, channeling ego into explaining ideas and concepts. Landsburg is the great exception, a breast-beating showoff as exhibitionistic and domineering as a bad actor. I read him with horror and exasperation. He’s the Gary Oldman of popular-economics writers.

Landsburg has now filled a book — his second volume for the general reader — by expanding some of his Slate columns into essay-length chapters, and framing the package with accounts of conversations he has had with his young daughter, Cayley. Even longtime Landsburg watchers will find a wealth of new delights in “Fair Play: What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics, Values, and the Meaning of Life” (Free Press). He moves back and forth between his trademark outrageous stands on touchy issues — he ridicules concerns about the environment, for instance, as well as worries about the national debt — and the passages about Cayley. We’re supposed to find her child’s sense of fair play a trustworthy guide to economics, specifically Landsburg’s own brand. But, as always with this writer, what’s really on display is Landsburg.

And a puffed-up dynamo he is, running from issue to issue as though every question in the world were demanding a piece of his brilliance, right now. His serious work on economics may be immaculate, for all I know (he’s a professor at the University of Rochester), but as an explicator and provocateur for the interested nonspecialist, he’s uniquely unconvincing. At one loony moment, he compares the progressive income tax (an outrage, in his view) to rape, on this basis: that the fruits of our labor belong to us, much as our bodies do. You don’t have to be the swiftest bird in the flock to find yourself objecting that your body, unlike your paycheck, doesn’t exactly “belong” to you, in many respects it is you.

At another moment, he argues that there is no essential difference between a landlord and a would-be tenant. In his view, they’re equals engaged in potentially profitable trade, so the law shouldn’t distinguish between them. How then does he explain our intuitive sense that there is a difference? Alas, exploring life as it’s lived just isn’t part of this economist’s portfolio. We’re wrong, we’re irrational, he has told us what we need to do and he’s off to make his next dazzling point. Landsburg’s views are generally hard-line free market, and he prides himself on his puckish sense of humor, but he’s as drawn to bossy, arm-twisting language as the most self-righteous Marxist. Occasionally he does slow down, but only to give a dramatic shake of the head over how unreasonable lay people are, and how resistant to conclusive proof (his, of course).

Landsburg appears to be completely unconscious of how eagerly he pushes himself to the fore. His book’s subtitle — “What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics, Values, and the Meaning of Life” — promises an account of what Landsburg has learned from his kid. Yet by the book’s final pages, Landsburg has claimed the camera for himself, spending the entire last chapter giving advice to Cayley. And what sensational points he makes! What a great dad! This know-it-all can’t resist upstaging his own daughter.

The book climaxes in a terrifying dance of triumph where Landsburg demonstrates why the Slate readers who objected to one of his columns are stupid. Make that really, really stupid. One gent’s argument isn’t just wrong, “It’s so fundamentally wrong that it can succeed only when people mouth the words without ever stopping to think about what they mean.” Landsburg tells us that he wrote this reader a letter and — lest you doubted — “my correspondent got the point, and said he never thought of it that way before. Now he saw the issue in a whole new light.” On reading this review, will Landsburg write me, rip my thinking to shreds and leave me cuckoo with awe? I can wait.

©1997 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

 

“In Praise of Commercial Culture” by Tyler Cowen

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By Ray Sawhill

You probably know that Impressionism couldn’t have occurred if it hadn’t been for the invention of metal tubes for paints. You may not, on the other hand, have wondered about the technology needed to quarry and transport the blocks of marble that Michelangelo turned into sculptures, or about the kinds of financial organizations a culture needs before it can fund such efforts.

Tyler Cowen, a young economics professor at George Mason University, writes about many such questions in his refreshing new look at markets and art, managing somehow to steer clear of both esthetic and neo-Marxist high-mindedness. In his new book “In Praise of Commercial Culture” (Harvard), he sets forth two arguments. The first is that, although we like to imagine that artists live and produce in defiance of the market, art has had no better friend than capitalism. Imperfect though they may be, markets have opened up opportunities and promoted diversity; they have sprung artists free from aristocratic patronage, and they have provided artists with ever more, and ever cheaper, materials.

The evidence he marshals is overwhelming. One long chapter concerns wealth, cities and art, and reminds us that the cultural breakthroughs that took place in Florence and Venice in the Renaissance, in Amsterdam in the 17th century and in 18th century London were all partnered by commercial flowerings. He’s good too on the entrepreneurial energies artists have displayed over the ages. The typical Renaissance artist wasn’t hiding in a garret, wrestling with demons in an effort to express himself. He had product to move, assistants to mobilize, contracts to draw up and customers to pursue — and he generally worked on commission. Those ur-rebels, the Impressionists, didn’t just kick out against the esthetics of the Academie, they (and their colleagues) worked hard to develop ways to outwit its stranglehold on sales outlets.

At its best, the book is a convincing and informative paean to the resourcefulness of artists and to the market’s ability to allow ever more niches to be discovered and exploited. Cowen’s second argument — a call for cultural optimism — is weaker. He wants to pose a question to the Allan Blooms on the right and to the Frankfurt School fans on the left. Thanks to capitalism, consumers today have more art more easily available to them than anyone else has ever enjoyed in all history. How, then, can anyone justify being a pessimist about the fate of culture? It’s a point that needs more stressing than it generally gets. But the openness of Cowen’s approach is more eloquent than the way he elaborates his argument; he misses out, for instance, on the sheer fun of being a crank. And though he seems solid as an economist, he’s woefully underequipped as a critic, undermining his case with, for example, lengthy college-paper-level claims for the greatness of pop music. Cowen could use a little more crankiness himself; as it is, he sometimes comes across as an ungainly mixture of Pollyanna and whippersnapper.

But his first 120 pages are the most accessible introduction to the history of the economics of Western art that I know of, and deserve a place on that shelf of writing you wish someone had steered you to as a freshman. It’s surprising how enlightening and pleasurable it can be to see art discussed in terms of “incentives” and “funding models.” The art lore alone makes the book a rewarding browse. Did you know that it took the skin of more than 300 sheep to produce one Gutenberg Bible? If the experience of reading Cowen can sometimes be like watching 3-by-5 cards flip dutifully past — the book is largely a collation of other people’s research — he avoids trendiness and jargon, and he does keep pulling his facts together and then sorting them out. Cowen’s common sense wrestles your thoughts and fantasies down to solid earth — which is where, as most artists will admit when they’re being honest, 90 percent of art-making takes place.

© 1998 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.