I got to be in the company of a lot of amazing people last week. In addition to chatting folks up for a piece in progress on the president and race, I spent some time at the Associated of Writers and Writing Programs conference. I haven't been to AWP in over 15 years. The last time I was there, I heard Yusef Komunyakaa read and had a physical reaction. He was that good.
Anyway I felt a little strange at first, given that many of the people there are either students in writing programs or teaching in them. I've had a foot in that world since my college days when I was aspiring to do an MFA in poetry. But if writers are wizards, poets are that secret order wielding amazing powers that no one really understands. At the time, I felt I had neither the talent, nor the work ethic, to really be good at it. And so I moved over to literary journalism where I still work the rhythm of words, and enjoy license to ask all my deep-felt questions. And so here I am with you.
But I enjoyed myself quite a bit and got to spend some time in the company of some truly amazing writers--Melissa Febos, Josh Wiel, Lily Tuck, Peter Mountford, Skip Horack, and my old friend Thomas Sayers Ellis. One thing I've been thinking on is the limits of technique. I got to hang a bit with Matt Johnson and we were batting around the thing that makes a book come "alive." Like, your research can be perfect, your language beautiful, your characters carefully drawn, and yet when you put it all together, the automaton is still cold on the table.
This is scary. I mentioned this yesterday in comments--writing fails all the time. And writers often can't even see it coming. Some of us were discussing how important it is to have action high in your book and understand plot. And yet I feel like Ragtime doesn't get started until about a third of the way in. But then maybe that's because the architecture is gorgeously executed. Matt says that he thinks of it as "incantation."--that you are trying, through an accumulation of spell components to summon up the world. And either the spell works, or it doesn't.
Common always struck me in that same way. Technique-wise, he's a lot harder for me to nail down then, say, Black Thought, Gza, Raekwon or Rakim. But riffing off yesterday's coffee, and this notion of space, he really has the Chicago incantation down. "Now I roll in a Olds with windows that don't close" or "The world is cold, the block is hot as a stove." What he's doing is a kind of impressionistic take on Chicago.
When something goes wrong, I start with blunder, confusion, and miscalculation as the likely explanations. Planned-out wrongdoing is harder to pull off, more likely to backfire, and thus less probable.
But it is getting more difficult to dismiss the apparent Russian role in the DNC hack as blunder and confusion rather than plan.
“Real-world” authorities, from the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia to FBI sources to international security experts, say that the forensic evidence indicates the Russians. No independent authority strongly suggests otherwise. (Update the veteran reporters Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef cite evidence that the original hacker was “an agent of the Russian government.”)
The timing and precision of the leaks, on the day before the Democratic convention and on a topic intended to maximize divisions at that convention, is unlikely to be pure coincidence. If it were coincidence, why exactly now, with evidence drawn from hacks over previous months? Why mail only from the DNC, among all the organizations that have doubtless been hacked?
The foreign country most enthusiastic about Trump’s rise appears to be Russia, which would also be the foreign country most benefited by his policy changes, from his sowing doubts about NATO and the EU to his weakening of the RNC platform language about Ukraine.
In his convention speech, he suggested that Muslims need to earn the rights that all other Americans enjoy.
I love Bill Clinton. But I didn’t love his speech Tuesday night in Philadelphia. Given the job of humanizing his wife, he came across as genuinely smitten. But he failed to do what he’s done in every convention speech he’s delivered since 1992: tell a story about where America is today and what can be done to move it forward. He called his wife a great “change maker” but didn’t define the change America needs right now.
But the worst moment of the speech came near its end, when Clinton began to riff about the different kinds of people who should join Hillary’s effort. “If you love this country, you’re working hard, you’re paying taxes, you’re obeying the law and you’d like to become a citizen, you should choose immigration reform over someone that wants to send you back,” he said. Fair enough. Under any conceivable immigration overhaul, only those undocumented immigrants who have obeyed the law once in the United States—which includes paying taxes—will qualify for citizenship. Two sentences later, Clinton said that, “If you’re a young African American disillusioned and afraid … help us build a future where no one’s afraid to walk outside, including the people that wear blue to protect our future.” No problem there. Of course African Americans should be safe from abusive police, and of course, police should be safe from the murderers who threaten them.
Since tough questioning has failed to hold the candidate accountable, broadcast outlets need to apply pressure where it counts—to Trump’s ego.
The media is nothing if it can’t hold a presidential candidates accountable—if newsrooms and editorialists can’t force a White House aspirant to keep a promise, uphold precedent, and address suspicions that he’s a tool of Moscow.
Journalism is a joke if we let Donald Trump slide.
And so I have an idea for CNN, MSNBC, FOX News and the three broadcast networks:
Stop interviewing Trump, and stop paying his surrogates, until he releases his tax records
I don’t make this proposal lightly. I understand as well as anybody that interviewing presidential candidates is an important way to inform the public, especially when the questioning is objective, tough, and revealing of the candidate’s character and policies.
The most ardent Bernie Sanders supporters must confront the fact that there is more in their way than corruption and stupidity.
PHILADELPHIA––Tara Kurek describes herself as an orphan. By the time she was a teenager, her parents had descended from prescription drug abuse to heroin addiction. “They didn’t raise me,” she said. “I’ve been emancipated since I was 16 years old.”
His convention speech re-introducing his wife to the country was an uneven, but ultimately effective, performance.
Just before Bill Clinton strode onstage to be his wife’s character witness, his wife’s convention planners played a video tribute to him. “When he said stuff, you believed it,” a man dressed in union gear said of Bill Clinton, “because you lived it.”
This was no accident: An overwhelming number of voters don’t trust Hillary Clinton. That credibility and character gap is the one thing that might stop Americans from electing a second President Clinton. And so the master of persuasion bragged on and on about his wife: career highlights, familiar anecdotes, and enough warm and cheesy sentiments to launch a thousand wedding toasts.
“If you were sitting where I am sitting and you heard what I heard at every dinner conversation and … on every long walk, you would say this woman has never been satisfied with the status quo about anything,” Bill Clinton said. Having been the candidate of change in 1992, Bill Clinton knows his wife faces headwinds against Donald Trump’s promise of radical, unruly change. “She always wants to move the ball forward,” Bill Clinton said. “That just who she is.”
Physicists can’t agree on whether the flow of future to past is real or a mental construct.
Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern. When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso’s family. “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote of his friend’s passing. “That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Einstein’s statement was not merely an attempt at consolation. Many physicists argue that Einstein’s position is implied by the two pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric—that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now”—a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe”—a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion.
The pressures of national academic standards have pushed character education out of the classroom.
A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?
The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.
This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food. We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.
Washington, D.C., has embarked on an aggressive clean-energy plan, but a big challenge will be making sure it doesn't worsen existing inequalities.
WASHINGTON, D.C.—For homeowners and renters, drawing energy from solar panels on their roofs can be very cost-effective: Some estimates put monthly electric-bill savings between 10 and 30 percent, and on top of that, households that install solar systems can get 30 percent of the cost as a tax credit. But for many, installing solar panels is simply not within reach: Setting up such systems can cost tens of thousands of dollars, which means that their use—and subsequent savings—are predominantly enjoyed by wealthy households.
That's why, as Washington, D.C., moves forward with its clean-energy plan—which would have at least half the city's power coming from renewable sources by 2032—it is doing so with an eye on inequality. The city has mandated that a portion of the money set aside for solar initiatives—just under one-third—target low-income neighborhoods.
The Democratic Party’s emphasis on race and gender is compelling to many voters—but it may not accord with the experience of many who are struggling.
After an analysis of polls gauging support for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the New York Times concluded earlier this week that the Democratic nominee struggles most with one demographic group: working-class white men without college degrees. “Mr. Trump has adopted a message all but perfectly devised to attract these voters,” the article states. “He has a populist message on trade and immigration. He has abandoned key elements of the Republican agenda that hurt the party among white working-class Democrats, like support for cutting the social safety net.”
Gender may be a factor, the article adds, before addressing a final possible explanation:
It is also possible that less-educated white men are reacting to rapid changes in cultural and economic status, completely independent of Mrs. Clinton’s gender. No liberal arts college class on “power, privilege and hierarchy” will tell you that white working-class men have become a disadvantaged group. But many white working-class men do not feel privileged — not in a society where power and status are often vested in well-educated elites along the coasts. From their standpoint, the Democratic Party might look like an identity politics patronage system — affirmative action, immigration, “political correctness,” gender or whatever else.
Stock-market crashes, terrorist attacks, and the dark side of “newsworthy” stories
Man bites dog. It is one of the oldest cliches in journalism, an acknowledgement of the idea that ordinary events are not newsworthy, whereas oddities, like a puppy-nibbling adult, deserve disproportionate coverage.
The rule is straightforward, but its implications are subtle. If journalists are encouraged to report extreme events, they guide both elite and public attitudes, leading many people, including experts, to feel like extreme events are more common than they actually are. By reporting on only the radically novel, the press can feed a popular illusion that the world is more terrible than it actually is.
Take finance, for example. Professional investors are fretting about the possibility of a massive stock-market crash, on par with 1987’s Black Monday. The statistical odds that such an event will occur within the next six months are about 1-in-60, according to historical data from 1929 to 1988. But when surveys between 1989 and 2015 asked investors to estimate the odds of such a crash in the coming months, the typical response was 1-in-10.