Rand Richards Cooper

Rand Richards Cooper, one of Commonweal's film critics, is the author of two works of fiction, The Last To Go and Big as Life.

By this author

Mirth à la Mode

At the risk of philistinism, I’m going to indulge in some casual fun about high fashion, some mirth at la mode.

Did you happen to catch last week’s roundup of the newest from the fashion runways of Paris? Browsing through what presumably represents the best of the world’s best designers, I found myself at a loss for words (well, for a few minutes at any rate), and rushed to show the newspaper to my wife – as if merely being a woman might equip her to decode the formidable hermeneutics of high fashion.

One way to comprehend and justify the lunacy of these outfits might come from science and literature, disciplines in which strange and unfettered actions on the outer boundaries of reality often do, in time, yield results back on earth. Many useful daily technologies trace their lineage to pure scientific research; and in literature, while nobody reads Gertrude Stein – or did even in her lifetime – her eccentrically minimalist prose yielded up a lode of mainstream fiction that ran from Hemingway to Raymond Carver and still informs American prose today. Might some similar trickle-down dynamic be at work with fashion, so that an echo of today’s bizarro breeches will be found in tomorrow’s business attire?

Public Spaces and the Common Weal

Every now and then I find myself recalling a long-ago morning in the midsized German city I once called home. My girlfriend and I lived in the section of town that housed students, artists, pensioners and foreign “guest workers.” On that morning I sat on our tiny balcony and watched repairs being done to the street below. It was a cobblestone street, and a stone mason was replacing a section of it. He was using differently sized stones, placing them at variable angles to create a floral pattern that spread around the sidewalk corner. I watched him kneeling there, painstakingly tapping stones a centimeter this way, a centimeter that way, to get the pattern just right.

I was astonished, even a bit mesmerized. Such attention to detail!  Back in the States you’d only find this level of care, design, and craftsmanship – and expenditure – at a private club, or at the homes of the wealthy. Yet here it was, a public street in the poorer part of town. Tap, tap, tap, tap. Such was the case in Germany generally, with its immaculate parks and train stations, its crowded but tidy town squares and gleaming public conveyances. Here, as elsewhere in Europe, was a country that nurtured the common weal with well-appointed, well-run, and well-maintained places and amenities.

Here We Go Again

Here we go again, with another horrific campus shooting, the predictable postmortem game of blame, grief, evasion and inaction—and the President once again expressing anger and barely concealed despair at how “routine” it has all become. I’m well aware that there’s hardly a patch of American life more trampled on and muddied—and bloodied—than the quagmire of gun laws, the Second Amendment, and our nation’s high level of gun violence. But it may be worth reviewing some facts. 

The U.S. suffers about 30,000 gun-related deaths a year—per capita, around fifteen times the rate of other developed countries. In 2010, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, these deaths broke down roughly into 11,000 homicides, 19,000 suicides, and 600 accidental deaths. Half of all suicides and two-thirds of all homicides are by firearm, with handguns constituting the large majority of weapons used (rifles account for only 300 homicides per year.) Domestic violence statistics reveal that 1000 women per year are murdered by spouses, boyfriends and exes—accounting for 94 percent of all murders of women in this country—and that the presence of a gun in the household drastically increases the risk of homicide.

Kindergarten Redshirting

A front-page article a few weeks ago in my hometown newspaper, the Hartford Courant, investigates a pet peeve of mine: kindergarten redshirting. The state of Connecticut is looking into curtailing the practice.

For those unfamiliar with sports terminology, “redshirting” is the practice, prevalent in college football, of having a freshman repeat a year (the red shirt is a practice jersey, meaning he doesn’t play in games) so that he can grow physically, work out in the weight room, and be a more dominant player when he restarts as a second-year freshman the next season.

From college sports this practice has trickled all the way down... to five-year-olds. In my state, Connecticut, the age cut-off for any grade level is January 1st, meaning that the slightly older kindergartners are five in the fall and six in the spring, while the slightly younger ones are four in the fall and five in the spring. More and more parents whose children fall on the younger end of the spectrum (full disclosure: my fourth-grade daughter has a January birthday, so she’s on the older end) are keeping them out of kindergarten for a year, so that instead of being the youngest in class, they begin as the oldest. Some of these “redshirt kindergartners” are as old as seven by the time they finish kindergarten.

PC in Action

A quick follow-up to my two earlier posts on political correctness and speech codes on campus. Several respondents to those posts expressed uncertainty about what, exactly, those who complain about political correctness are complaining about. An article in this morning’s Hartford Courant, my hometown paper, illuminates an exemplary case.

Ten days ago a politically conservative 30-year-old Wesleyan University student (and Iraq war veteran) named Bryan Stascavage contributed an op-ed piece, titled “Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think,” to the student paper, the Wesleyan Argus. In it he questioned the effectiveness, and to some extent the intentions, of those rallying for justice under the BLM banner, asking: “is the movement itself actually achieving anything positive? Does it have the potential for positive change?”

The op-ed asserted that the protests have impugned the great majority of police who perform their jobs creditably, and argued that BLM may have made their job more difficult and dangerous, citing “a big spike in murders” in Baltimore after the riots; “good officers,” Stascavage wrote, “go to work every day even more worried that they won’t come home.” While he acknowledged that the looters, rioters and police killers he castigates are not Black Lives Matter protestors, he called it “plausible that Black Lives Matter has created the conditions for these individuals to exploit for their own personal gain.”


There can be no poetry after Auschwitz, philosopher and social theorist Theodor Adorno famously asserted. Yet there are movies, and plenty of them.


In 1981, when I was a senior at Amherst College and dreaming of becoming a great American novelist, little did I know that someone else on campus was already well on his way. Did I ever notice a tall, longhaired, granny-glasses-wearing person toting his tennis racquet toward the courts? I didn’t know many first-year students, and David Foster Wallace – high school tennis star and future author of the novel Infinite Jest and other unclassifiable books of genius -- was just one of the many lowly Freshman I paid no attention to. 

But Wallace, who suffered from depression and took his own life in 2008, was even then becoming known as a phenomenon. One legendary professor at Amherst, the late William Kennick, told me years later that in the four-plus decades he taught philosophy at the college, Wallace was far and away the most brilliant student he encountered, with the most powerful mind. At Amherst Wallace wrote not one senior thesis but two – a Pynchonesque novel, The Broom of the System, published soon after his graduation, and a critical inquiry into the work of American philosopher Richard Taylor, later published by Columbia University Press under the title Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will – and graduated with a double-summa degree. Years later he would add to his corpus a philosophical study of the history of the concept of infinity. At the same time, he produced a swath of articles taking up pop-cultural themes, like rap music, or political ones, like John McCain. And, of course, that enormous novel. His mind recognized few boundaries.

Scoring Tonight's Debate

Here is my guide to scoring candidates’ performances in tonight’s Republican presidential debate and how they will likely be judged, using metrics derived from this year’s campaign so far.


Other Candidates:

Did he/she show a detailed command of the issues, both domestic and international?

Did he/she explain those issues articulately and incisively?

The Politics of Pronunciation

Broad interest was piqued by the flap over Vanessa Ruiz, the Arizona news anchor whose on-air Spanish pronunciation sparked controversy. Some listeners objected vehemently to the way Ruiz, who is American-born and bilingual, rolled her r’s while pronouncing Spanish words, and gave a Spanish lilt to Arizona place names, like “Mesa,” derived from that language. The Times reported that Ruiz “defended her pronunciation of Spanish words during English broadcasts, saying she delivers them the way the language is intended to be spoken.”

Well, yes... but by whom, and to whom, and where?

Leaving politics aside, Americans know that pronouncing foreign words in English can be a real mishmash. What are the guidelines? Certainly those people who push for Anglicizing everything have some cogent arguments on their side. When I refer to Paris I don’t say “Paree;” Munich isn’t “Muenchen,” and so on.  Words and phrases borrowed directly from other languages, like “deja vu” or “zeitgeist,” moreover are typically not pronounced as they would be by native speakers; to do so – for example, to pronounce the initial consonant of “zeitgeist” as “tz” -- is to imply that you actually speak the origin language. (An amusing video,  called “The Guy Who Over-Pronounces Foreign Words,” hilariously sends up these pretensions.) On the other hand, most American commentators do manage to pronounce “Angela Merkel” with a hard g, as Germans do; the second word of “noblesse oblige” is not given a long i; and so on.  One is tempted to assert a pragmatic commonsense rule: use English pronunciation, unless and until a more authentic pronunciation becomes standard.

Big Sports

A lengthy article in the Times today solicits the views of Rev. John Jenkins, CSC, president of the University of Notre Dame, regarding the future of big-time college sports. 

Those of you who avoid the sports pages (full disclosure: I watch an unhealthy amount of college basketball) are nevertheless probably aware that the business of college sports, the power of the NCAA, and the status of student-athletes have all sparked vehement debate in recent years. Current legal actions include an effort by college football players for the right to unionize (rejected in August by the NLRB) and to be compensated for branding usages (the O’Bannon case, in which a federal judge ruled in 2014 that players should be paid when their names or images are used commercially). Many commentators have advocated for such compensation, including historian Taylor Branch, whose  2011 essay in The Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports,” argues forcefully for paying college athletes as a matter of justice, and calls for “the smokescreen of amateurism” to be “swept away.”