One night last fall, eating my dinner somewhat hastily between an afternoon meeting and an evening meeting, I picked up the latest issue of Dissent (Winter 2013), opened it at random, and began reading. Immediately my feeling of being rushed and fragmented by administrative trivia fell away, and I was in a lovely world of real thought. I had happened upon Chelsea Szendi Schieder’s “Baby Bust in Japan,” and in just a short time I learned to appreciate the contours of a problem that I vaguely knew about, but didn’t know how to think about. The writing was vivid, but respectful of the reader rather than assaultive or sensationalistic. The argument was clear, showing where one might dig in further, or disagree. And the empirical information, while lightly worn, was certainly helpful to someone like me, who rarely goes to Japan and lacks a context in which to view its women’s movement. I was so happy I had picked up that issue.
This is what, again and again, Michael Walzer has done for our public culture. Dissent provokes, informs, structures an internal debate. It also comforts, as it comforted me, because it is comforting, in a world where so little argument is either respectful or rational, to find the real article. And yes, it also entertains, by good-quality prose and deftly chosen examples. Although the authors, of course, deserve much of the credit for all of this, I know, as an author edited by Michael, how much of the credit Michael deserves—for finding authors and material, and for editing it splendidly.
Creating and sustaining a journal is hugely demanding work. In Michael’s case, because he is one of this culture’s premier political thinkers, it is a real mitzvah, an act of enormous intellectual generosity. Michael has written some of the most enduring and provocative books in political theory in the past fifty years. I discover new depths in Spheres of Justice every time I teach or reread it. Unlike most “communitarian” works, this subtle book stands the test of time, offering a nuanced account of the nested set of relationships in which real people are embedded in a liberal society. And Walzer has always been extremely attentive to the need to protect equal liberty while at the same time honoring the claims of community.
Just and Unjust Wars is still the best thing on its topic. It has a historical depth and reach that most works on this topic lack, and at the same time an exemplary precision of argument. There is no other place to begin, when teaching this subject, or thinking about it.
From those early works to the recent magisterial work on Jewish ethical and political thought, which astonish for their range, their philosophical clarity, and their depth of engagement, there is an unbroken line of distinguished contributions, still ongoing.
So how did it happen that someone with all this to give has also given us
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