Last week Alyssa made a point I've been thinking a lot about, in relation to some of the art that really has affected me over the past few months:
If there's one thing that marks our current era of popular culture, it's an obsession with cool of the kind exemplified by Quentin Tarantino's movies, or with transgressive badassery, of the sort that's characterized so many anti-hero dramas. And the way most people achieve that cool or badassness? The deployment of violence.
For me this goes back to Wolverine (who I loved as a kid) and mohawked Storm knocking Scrambler's teeth out during the Mutant Massacre, or Colossus snapping Riptide's neck. For those of who came up in the relentless violence of the Crack Age, there was the sense that all the nonviolent pieties of Martin Luther King, Jr. were totally irrelevant. (Bizzy Bone had it about right "Beg your pardon to Martin / But we ain't marching we shooting.") The point was that we lived in a time of great violence and what was needed was more violence wielded by a noble hand. What I didn't realize then was this idea--a Champion of Noble Violence--is probably as old as humanity.
Hip-hop, if not always premised on nobility, is certainly premised on transgressive violence. I loved the music, but (with some exceptions) that basic premise is why the music always felt a little off to me. I mean this about even my own favorites. I eventually wrote this need to always be badass Superman as simply what the music was, as something that could never really be any other way. As I got older the Champion pose became harder for me to take--not just in my music, but in movies, in comic books, and maybe (not sure) even in video games. Consequently, I moved away from a lot of things I loved as a kid.
A few weeks back, I went on at some length about Joe Haldeman's Forever War, and I think it was largely because I was happy to read a fantastic adventure story where the protagonist survives not because of great brawn, superpower, or even superior intellect. Mandella is smart, but far and away his greatest attribute is his sheer, dumb-ass luck. In that way, There was something refreshing about a hero greatest power amounts to not getting shot in the head. As virtually all of Mandella's comrades are killed off he seems to saying "I am glad it was not me." But behind that is something else--"that very easily could have been me."
That same kind of everyman vibe runs through Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. "The Art of Peer Pressure" has a series of great lines ("I hope the universe love you today.") but my favorite is one of the simplest, "Look at me," raps Lamar before pausing and continuing. "I got the blunt in my mouth."
It's such a simple line but there's something about his phrasing that abandons the superhero pose, that takes off the mask and reveals that dumb, ordinary black boy that so many of us have been. Good Kid is the first album I've heard that drops the Batman pose, and yet remains trapped in Gotham. Much like how Mandella is not some ace star-fighter pilot, Lamar is not Compton's Most Wanted, he is "Compton's Human Sacrifice." And he carries that vulnerability throughout the album. The fact is that most black boy's in Lamar's world are more human sacrifices than badasses. And even if some are truly the latter, all contain a portion of the former.
Perhaps this aesthetic is a bit conservative, but this is the art I love. I understand that there are drug-lords who double as soccer moms. I get that there are serial killers who kill serial killers, and worlds premised on big men with big swords and other worlds where being good at your job but horrible to your wife makes you noble. But then there are the normal people. And they have stories too.
It’s a paradox: Shouldn’t the most accomplished be well equipped to make choices that maximize life satisfaction?
There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for happiness: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.
But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?Raghunathan’s writing does fall under the category of self-help (with all of the pep talks and progress worksheets that that entails), but his commitment to scientific research serves as ballast for the genre’s more glib tendencies.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world.
Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
“A typical person is more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event as in a car crash,” says a new report.
Nuclear war. Climate change. Pandemics that kill tens of millions.
These are the most viable threats to globally organized civilization. They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters—but unlike sea monsters or zombie viruses, they’re real, part of the calculus that political leaders consider everyday. And according to a new report from the U.K.-based Global Challenges Foundation, they’re much more likely than we might think.
In its annual report on “global catastrophic risk,” the nonprofit debuted a startling statistic: Across the span of their lives, the average American is more than five times likelier to die during a human-extinction event than in a car crash.
Partly that’s because the average person will probably not die in an automobile accident. Every year, one in 9,395 people die in a crash; that translates to about a 0.01 percent chance per year. But that chance compounds over the course of a lifetime. At life-long scales, one in 120 Americans die in an accident.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Home,” the second episode of the sixth season.
Every week, for the sixth season of Game of Thrones, Christopher Orr, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners are being made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
How the North Vietnamese remember the conflict 40 years after the fall of Saigon
HANOI, VIETNAM—Forty years ago, on April 30, 1975, Nguyen Dang Phat experienced the happiest day of his life.
That morning, as communist troops swept into the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon and forced the U.S.-backed government to surrender, the North Vietnamese Army soldier marked the end of the war along with a crowd of people in Hanoi. The city was about to become the capital of a unified Vietnam. “All the roads were flooded by people holding flags,” Nguyen, now 65, told me recently. “There were no bombs or airplane sounds or screaming. The happy moment was indescribable.”
The event, known in the United States as the fall of Saigon and conjuring images of panicked Vietnamese trying to crowd onto helicopters to be evacuated, is celebrated as Reunification Day here in Hanoi. The holiday involves little explicit reflection on the country’s 15-year-plus conflict, in which North Vietnam and its supporters in the South fought to unify the country under communism, and the U.S. intervened on behalf of South Vietnam’s anti-communist government. More than 58,000 American soldiers died in the fighting between 1960 and 1975; the estimated number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed on both sides varies widely, from 2.1 million to 3.8 million during the American intervention and in related conflicts before and after.
The president’s unique approach to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner will surely be missed.
No U.S. President has been a better comedian than Barack Obama. It’s really that simple.
Now that doesn’t mean that some modern-day presidents couldn’t tell a joke. John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton excelled at it. But Obama has transformed the way presidents use comedy—not just engaging in self-deprecation or playfully teasing his rivals, but turning his barbed wit on his opponents.
He puts that approach on display every year at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. This annual tradition, which began in 1921 when 50 journalists (all men) gathered in Washington D.C., has become a showcase for each president’s comedy chops. Some presidents have been bad, some have been good. Obama has been the best. He’s truly the killer comedian in chief.
A pastor and a rabbi talk about kids, poop, and tearing down the patriarchy in institutional religion.
The Bible is a man’s book. It was mostly written by men, for men, and about men. The people who then interpreted the text have also been predominately male.
No wonder there’s not much theology preoccupied with weird-colored poop and the best way to weather tantrums. Throughout history, childcare has largely been considered women’s work—and, by extension, not theologically serious.
Danya Ruttenberg—a Conservative rabbi whose book about parenting came out in April—disagrees. So does Bromleigh McCleneghan, a Chicago-area pastor and the author of a 2012 book about parenting and a forthcoming book about Christians and sex. Both women have made their careers in writing and ministry. But they’re also both moms, and they believe the work they do as parents doesn’t have to remain separate from the work they do as theologians.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.