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David Mills’s “While We’re At It”

I have enjoyed David Mills’s “While We’re At It” column in First Things for the past couple of years and was sorry to learn that he is no longer with the magazine. His final column is in this month’s issue.

Richard John Neuhaus, of course, had a style all his own, but Mills’s wry wit kept me turning to the section first, just as I did in Neuhaus’s day. The short divisions of the column lend themselves to news items or brief commentary or commendation, much like blog posts, as I think Hunter Baker once suggested.

The problem with snark is not its negativity but its lack of style. Mills writes all sorts of pieces, but his occasionally sharper “While We’re At It” entries show the restraint, specificity, and instructiveness that distinguishes the run-of-the-mill sarcasm of too many blogs (sometimes even this one!) from criticism that pleases and corrects–no bludgeoning and few wasted words.

There’s this anecdote, for example, from the February 2014 issue:

As a young couple, casually but well dressed, the man in his forties and the woman in her thirties, walked by, the woman said, “Well, at least my breasts are firmer.”

I would be interested to know in what world that’s a plausible sentence.

Or this from the same issue:

There is, you will probably be shocked to find out, a Yippie Museum, but probably not shocked to find out that there being one, it’s in Greenwich Village.

Sometimes you need to know when not to add something. From the June/July 2013 issue:

The reporter asked what kind of pope the next pope should be, and America’s Fr. James Martin, S.J., said, “Well, first he has to be a holy person.” After a pause, which Fr. Martin described as “uncomfortable,” the reporter said, “Father, I can’t just say that he needs to be holy. I was hoping you would talk about something like women’s ordination and birth control.”

And there’s this instructive note from the April 2013 issue:

“Put not your trust in princes,” says the psalmist, advice nearly everyone forgets when he finds a prince he likes.

Of course, taking these selections out of context strips them of their charm, but they are good reminders nevertheless that, as with so much else in this life, less is more.

about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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