jimsleeper.com » A Sleeper Sampler

A Sleeper Sampler

Columns and essays I’m willing to be known by, for better or worse.

About the American republic’s dimming prospects, July 4, 2014. When I wrote this Puritanical jeremiad, neither I nor anyone else foresaw Donald Trump’s entry into politics. But I ‘prophesied’ so darkly our country’s susceptibility to demagoguery like Trump’s that The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg sent this piece around with a Tweet, “Jim Sleeper is the Jonathan Edwards of American civic culture– and that’s a compliment.” Little did Hertzberg know that I’d grown up in an old Puritan town 5.3 miles north of the place where, in 1741, Edwards had preached his (in)famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” 

My summa, or apologia pro mia vita, concerning 30 years of writing about racial identity and politics in America, “Scrapping the Color Code,” Commonweal, Fall, 2021.

What I saw on 9/11 and said immediately after. These four columns, each for a different newspaper, took distinctive but related approaches. The New York Daily News column, written on 9/12, when the horror was still raw, was published on 9/14. Two months later, my New York Observer column made some counterintuitive observations about the social bonds and motivations of the city’s first responders. Two months after that, The New York Post published my account of my odd personal connection to the attacks on the World Trade Center. And here’s what I said on NPR in a three-minute “All Things Considered” commentary, four days after the attacks. (I adapted the NPR commentary 10 years later for the Yale Daily News.)

The Columbia Journalism Review’s ‘The Kicker’ commends “Jim Sleeper’s Essay on Ressentiment” (That’s: “Ruh-sohn-tee-monh“) I also reviewed William McGowan’s faux-pious Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means for America for The Washington Monthly.

How both political parties’ establishments seeded Trump’s rise, Salon, March 16, 2016. Written as Trump was soaring through the Republican primaries, this was picked up by several other sites, including AlterNet, and History News Network, and it prompted this interview with me on New York City’s NPR station.

Why free speech is on two slippery slopes, Salon, August 3, 2018. This post summarizes arguments I’ve made in two more substantive essays: “Speech Defects,” in The Baffller, June 2018, and “How Hollow Speech Enables Hate Speech,” in The Los Angeles Review of Books, October, 2018

This isn’t only a constitutional crisis; it’s a civic-republican implosion. Written a few months after Trump’s inauguration, for Moyers & Co., on May 11, 2017. Also posted by AlterNet.                                  Big Donnie Bone Spurs, America’s Demander-in-Chief, compared to some of his age-mates whom I watched defying the Vietnam War openly, and at great risk, while he was dodging it with a bogus medical excuse. Moyers & Co., Sept. 27, 2017

Allan Bloom and the conservative crusade to rescue liberal education from liberals. The New York Times, September 4, 2005.   Mark Shields Had Ivy League Fatigue–and He Had a Point. The Boston Globe, June 28, 2022

My ‘Holocaust’ story — and ours. The Washington Monthly, June 2018.  The evangelical-Christian/ Jewish Zionist alliance endangers American Jews.  Tikkun (New York) August 9 2019. openDemocracy (London).

“Orwell’s ‘Smelly Little Orthodoxies’ and Ours,” in George Orwell: Into the Twenty-First Century, (Thomas Cushman and John Rodden, editors), 2004. This essay, written for a conference on Orwell at Wellesley College in May, 2003, to mark the centenary of his birth, explains how his work and Alexis de Tocqueville’s helped me to understand my own difficult experiences in American journalism. Prepared originally for the Centenary Conference on Orwell at Wellesley College, May, 2003.

Tales of a Teenage Guru”, The Boston Phoenix, 1973. One of my first published essays, this was a lament for progressive “Movement” politics that I saw imploding in a massing of young followers of teen Guru Maharaj-Ji. The allure of his “perfect wisdom” for thousands of young Americans signaled the advanced decay of civic-republican wellsprings.

Transcript of a rambling but instructive interview with me, conducted by Luke Ford, about various twists and turns in my pilgrimage as an American, civic-republican writer.

Video of me “answering” conservative writer Amity Shlaes at a conference on “American Exceptionalism” organized by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, 2014. Shlaes, David Bromwich, Joan Richardson, and I were on a panel discussion, “The Unmaking of Americans.” To see my comments on Shlaes’ remarks, go to 37:57 on this video.

How the evangelical Christian-Jewish Zionist alliance endangers American Jews, whose long-standing security in the United States has relied on a hard-won consensus that’s being undermined by this unholy alliance. This essay, published originally by Tikkun, was re-published by the U.K. website openDemocracy and was picked up by 

How Rudy Giuliani went from being authoritative to being authoritarian, and then just nuts. Foreign Policy, Nov, 2016. And even more so, as I explained in The New Republic in June, 2022. When I first published a version of this column in 2007, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was still popular because of his performance on 9/11, and his campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination was getting underway. That column, reprinted by the Tallahassee News during that year’s Florida primary, dented celebratory perceptions of him among opinion makers. By 2016, when president-elect Trump was reported to be considering making Giuliani his Secretary of State or Attorney General, I updated and expanded my warnings for Foreign Policy Magazine. And in 2022, in The New Republic, I untangled and exposed some of the roots of Giuliani’s perverse leadership in Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election. 

Above the Battle: The Price We Pay, The Harvard Crimson, January 28, 1976. This account of how I brought white working-class military veterans to hear James Baldwin speak at Harvard was written a year before I moved to Brooklyn and began a decade of immersion in black politics and community life. Forty years later, white-ethnic men such as those I described here in 1976 would vote for Donald Trump, for reasons you will see in this column. (If you have trouble reading the pdf linked above, click this digital version.)

“Duty Bound,” The American Prospect, 2006. This is one of my typically counter-cyclical essays, a precursor of sorts to “Looking for America,” the lead essay on this site. In 2006, as Ned Lamont was campaigning to unseat Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman in opposition to Lieberman’s unbending support for the Iraq War, I looked up Lamont’s-family history and found striking accounts of a long-forgotten, would-have-been uncle, Thomas W. Lamont II, who’d given his life at 21 in a submarine off Japan in World War II. I portrayed the young Tommy Lamont as a fata morgana, a fading mirage of American civic-republican strength, “his sacrifice a requiem for the kind of citizen we’re losing not at the terrorists’ hands but our own.” The essay was posted in The American Prospect, and I adapted some of it for a New York Times op-ed column that’s linked in it.

Gip, Gip, Hooray! How Ronald Reagan hijacked many Americans’ dreams. Published originally by The New Haven Review of Books, and picked up by History News Network, August, 2007. Ronald Reagan’s hold on the American imagination reflects but distorts a sobering truth: His “Morning in America” meme was delivering only “a glorious euthanasia to the civic-republican spirit.” It’s one thing to romanticize the republic, as I did in “Duty Bound,” above; it was something else for Ronald Reagan to stage-manage such romances in lieu of welcoming public deliberation about his policies.

“Manufactured Consent,” The Washington Monthly, 2001. Written just after the Supreme Court ruled for George W. Bush in the 2000 election, this remonstrance contemplated civil disobedience against what I regarded as a creeping coup d’etat. It’s one of my most impassioned invocations of American civic republicanism. and criticisms of America’s commentariat.

“Bush and the Bad-Boy Vote,” Los Angeles Times, 2004. This column flagged the “macho” current in Bush’s re-election campaign with an old photo that I’d discovered of him making an illegal play in a rugby game while a student at Yale. The photo was unknown because it had appeared only in the yearbook of my Yale Class of 1969, a year after Bush had graduated. Some wondered if I had doctored the photo and its amusing yearbook caption. To confirm its authenticity, a Japanese television crew taped me holding and opening the yearbook itself to the page with the photo and caption. The column raced around the net, not least on rugby websites, and was re-published in other newspapers. Especially predictable was the reaction of the Boston Herald, a Murdoch paper, which ran it as a winking, faux-populist gesture to the Herald’s own “bad boy,” Reagan-Democrat readers.

“Enough With the F***ing Rich Kids.” The tragedy of The New Republic in 2012-2014, when it was owned by a wunderkind of commodification. Salon, December 9, 2014. Chris Hughes and his kind didn’t misread what journalism, politics and capitalism in America are becoming. They read it only too well. Like so many other young, market-molded Americans, they don’t understand how the perversion of public life by tsunamis of marketing, financing and technological innovation has overwhelmed thoughtful writing, reading and the habits of mind and heart that sustain republican deliberation and institutions.

“What’s Really Wrong With Fred Richmond?” The Village Voice, 1982. An idealistic young weekly newspaper editor recalls his delicate interactions with a wealthy, corrupt Brooklyn congressman in the early 1980s, revealing the journalist’s own political premises at that time. Many twists and turns later, I still find this piece instructive, if painful.

“Boodling, Bigotry, and Cosmopolitanism,” Dissent, 1987. Written first for a special issue of the magazine that I edited, this was re-published in two anthologies: In Search of New York, which I also edited, and Empire City: New York Through the Centuries (Kenneth Jackson and David Dunbar, eds.) an anthology of 400 years of writing about New York City. New York City’s white-ethnic and Jewish “New Deal” political culture was expiring with the administration of Mayor Edward I. Koch in the late 1980s, amid scandals and demographic upheavals that presaged Koch’s defeat by the city’s first non-white mayor, David Dinkins, in 1989. This was my assessment of a city in transition. 

 “Lessons From Lorena Bobbitt” New York Daily News, 1993. About the dangers of vigilantism by the abused and about the superior effectiveness of nonviolent “civil disobedience,” even against abuse that’s violent and, sometimes, even private.

Puritans and Hebrews: American Brethren? (World Affairs Journal, April 2009.) What Americans should draw from these strange wellsprings even now, believe it or not. (Democracy Journal, The Atlantic, 2013) New England’s Puritans Hebraized their Christianity to emphasize a covenant of law and social obligation that has inflected American self-understandings (and self-criticisms) ever since. That mixed covenant certainly “inflected” me and prompted my condemnation of Stacey Schiff’s and others’ abuse of this history.  

Photos of Jim Sleeper, immersed in Brooklyn in 1979-80. Here are a few never-before published photos, one of me in 1980 with the staff of my small weekly newspaper, The North Brooklyn Mercury (I’m wearing the tie). Another, taken by our staffer Joel Gallob, shows me interviewing and orthodox Jewish, a Satmar Hasidic man in 1979. (Actually, he was trying to throw me out of a huge assembly honoring his sect’s grand rabbi in the cavernous Marcy Avenue Armory in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg.) Finally, years before I crossed the bridge into hard journalism, here I was, at 22, fooling around.