The 15th New York aka "The Harlem Hellfighters." Regiment of black and Puerto-Rican soldiers. Winners of the Croix de Guerre in World War I. (The National Archives)
We are doing a house-swap in order to spend these eight weeks in Paris. House-swapping is the trusted method of travel for those of us with European dreams and a Baltimore budget. I didn't even know house-swapping existed until last summer when I first began plotting my way out. This might be pedestrian for the folks here, but for those who were like me, house-swapping is what it sounds like--you live in someone else's home and they live in yours. I know a family that does this, every summer, sight unseen. Keys are left in appointed places, supers are informed, and whole families from other continents make moves. For others it's like dating--personal ads, vague guarded e-mails, g-chat, then video-skype to see if you like the look of your paramours.
My connection was as old fashion as you can imagine in these times. A sharp, learned journalist on this side was a fan of my blog and a native New Yorker. We exchanged a few e-mails, then dined together in Paris and instantly liked each other. He wanted to get home with his son for the summer. I wanted to get out with mine and my wife. Et voilà. C'est ça.
Before he left, my new found homeboy plugged me into to a number of Parisians--most of them people of color with some kind of immigrant connection. Their job, I suspect, is to get me out of the Sixth and into the underbelly of things. I saw some of it yesterday riding the RER. The further out you go on the train, the more African and Asiatic the world becomes. The kids look like our kids with their headphones and haircuts. They talk loud and boastfully, as I once did, so that you might know that they are alive.
"Here is the thing," my buddy said to me, just before leaving. "I am not trying to get you to hate France. I want you to love France. But I want you to love it for the right reasons."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," I thought. "Pass me a pain au chocolat and let's get this swap-joint popping."
And popping it was. Yesterday, when I went out to get milk, I saw a man outside the store preparing le poulet et pommes de terre. I want to pause here and point out that "Pomme de terre"--"apple of the earth"--is beautiful name for a potato. The man was preparing this in a rotisserie oven. At the bottom the potatoes were roasting in the juices. I came back, told my wife, and I had found dinner.
After we dropped off our son we picked up dinner along with a salad and some chocolate for desert. We drank a bottle of wine together--it's becoming a tradition--and ate an awesome dinner. I got up this morning and hit La Seine for my morning run. I came back, showered, and was immediately felled by food poisoning. So this is loving France, wholly, right reasons and all.
Illness aside, there is always the danger in falling in for a distant lover who seems magically free of all the complications back home. I was raised by a generation that--to varying degrees--found this out. My friend Brendan Koerner just published a book which is getting raves everywhere--The Skies Belong To Us. The most bracing portion, to me, is Brendan's hard look at the New Left. I got my first lessons in skepticism and counter-intuitiveness from a lot of these guys. But it's worth remembering that there was when they sung the praises of Kim il Sung.
I don't want to take this too far. If America has the right to be wrong, then so do its reformers. It mirrors our discussion here where we find people attacking other countries for not being "democratic" without understanding our own long, ugly and sometimes dishonorable path. More, I would say that because of my particular background, my canon was a little different than most, and whatever differences you might find in my voice are attributable to that.
It's also attributable to discovering the Western canon, and the significance of the West, almost as something exotic since my roots seemed elsewhere. That allows me to be fascinated, to be blown away. Nothing is more fascinating than finding your allegedly foreign roots are common. I thought of this recently digging through Rousseau:
This passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a most remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his behaviour and endowing his actions with the morality they previously lacked before. Only then when the voice of duty succeeds physical impulsion and law succeeds appetite, does man, who until now had thought only of himself, find himself forced to act according to other principles, and to consult his reason before heeding his inclinations. Although in this state he denies himself a number of advantages granted him by nature, he gains others so great in return his faculties are exercised and developed, his ideas expanded, his feelings ennobled, his entire soul soars so high that if the abuses of this new condition did not often degrade him below that from which he emerged, he ought continually to bless the happy moment that wrested him thence for ever, and out of a stupid, limited animal made him an intelligent being and human.
Right down to the language around civilization, this is remarkably similar to Malcolm X's parable of transition wherein black people go from being savages "deaf, dumb and blind" and "lost in the wilderness of North America" to civilized black men committed to some higher ideal. In Malcolm's vision it was Islam. Among his nationalist descendants it was black people.
For one such as myself, schooled on the savagery of Cortez and Pizarro, once inculcated with the theories of a natural impulse toward warfare among white people, raised up to seethe after the partition of Africa, it is still odd--a decade and a half after I left that world--to see myself in the image of people I once solely took as conquerors and barbarians.I like to think I've come some ways since then, bearing the skepticism of those days, but free of the prejudice and the utopian romance. I like to think that I know that every home is imperfect, that I don't come to France looking for something better than America, that I know that America is my own imperfect home. I like to think that you need worry about me going too zealous and hard. This is a great great trip. But it's the food poisoning that makes it real.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
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.
As the world frets over Greece, a separate crisis looms in China.
This summer has not been calm for the global economy. In Europe, a Greek referendum this Sunday may determine whether the country will remain in the eurozone. In North America, meanwhile, the governor of Puerto Rico claimed last week that the island would be unable to pay off its debts, raising unsettling questions about the health of American municipal bonds.
But the season’s biggest economic crisis may be occurring in Asia, where shares in China’s two major stock exchanges have nosedived in the past three weeks. Since June 12, the Shanghai stock exchange has lost 24 percent of its value, while the damage in the southern city of Shenzhen has been even greater at 30 percent. The tumble has already wiped out more than $2.4 trillion in wealth—a figure roughly 10 times the size of Greece’s economy.
A new book by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne tackles arguments that the two institutions are compatible.
In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
Former Senator Jim Webb is the fifth Democrat to enter the race—and by far the most conservative one.
In a different era’s Democratic Party, Jim Webb might be a serious contender for the presidential nomination. He’s a war hero and former Navy secretary, but he has been an outspoken opponent of recent military interventions. He’s a former senator from Virginia, a purple state. He has a strong populist streak, could appeal to working-class white voters, and might even have crossover appeal from his days as a member of the Reagan administration.
In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
The Fourth of July—a time we Americans set aside to celebrate our independence and mark the war we waged to achieve it, along with the battles that followed. There was the War of 1812, the War of 1833, the First Ohio-Virginia War, the Three States' War, the First Black Insurrection, the Great War, the Second Black Insurrection, the Atlantic War, the Florida Intervention.
Confused? These are actually conflicts invented for the novel The Disunited States of Americaby Harry Turtledove, a prolific (and sometimes-pseudonymous) author of alternate histories with a Ph.D. in Byzantine history. The book is set in the 2090s in an alternate United States that is far from united. In fact, the states, having failed to ratify a constitution following the American Revolution, are separate countries that oscillate between cooperating and warring with one another, as in Europe.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
Be kind, show understanding, do good—but, some scientists say, don’t try to feel others’ pain.
In 2006, then-senator Barack Obama gave a commencement speech offering what seemed like very sensible advice. “There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit,” he told Northwestern’s graduating class. “But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit—the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”
In the years since then, the country has followed Obama’s counsel, at least when it comes to talking about empathy. It’s become a buzzword, extolled by Arianna Huffington, taught to doctors and cops, and used as a test for politicians. "We are on the cusp of an epic shift,” according to Jeremy Rifkin’s 2010 book The Empathetic Civilization. “The Age of Reason is being eclipsed by the Age of Empathy."
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the far west side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.