Two weeks ago my French professor asked if we'd like to participate in a competition, the object of which I still don't quite understand. It was at the end of class, and after hours of French I sometimes slip into the bad habit of just nodding along. It's a bad habit. But willpower is a resource, and after four hours of battling my insecurities over being the dumbest kid in class I often find that I'm just trying to make it to "Bonjournée." In addition to being a bad habit, "nodding along" is self-defeating because you can often end up agreeing to propositions that probably deserved more thought.
Last Friday I came into class and was greeted with the fruit of my laziness--I'd agreed to forgo class, train over to Cluny-La Sorbonne, hike up a hill, and then circle the Pantheon in search of history. I was in a crabby mood. Peregrin Ta-Nehisi kept hoping my class would leave me so I could find a creperie and stumble home drunk on Nutella. But Gandalf Ta-Nehisi won. Again. Gandalf wins a lot here. I don't know why. I am starting to think that there is something to the theory that New York taxes the neurons.
We split up into groups. We were given a questionnaire with clues and questions that had to be answered. We answered them by reading historical plaques all around the Pantheon. I had not put myself in a mental space to stumble through the city. But for two hours that's what we did. I was carrying a large backpack. I could only halfway read the plaques. My pen kept running over my hands. I was wearing a long-sleeve shirt. I was hot and basically uncomfortable for the entire time.
At the end we met up in the Pantheon, which is one of these places that's, like, four times as old as America. We shared our answers and checked them against one another's. Someone broke out cold-cuts. There were sandwiches and water. I was annoyed but Gandalf kept telling me to be nice.
We were looking down from the stone rows on several groups of men. The men were playing Pètanque. One of the men was black and wasn't wearing a shirt. And that made me really happy, but I didn't know why. I think it was because back home I would have sat there trying to figure out why a black dude with no shirt on was hanging out with a bunch of white people.
I really wanted to go home. But I sat there for another half an hour snapping pictures and watching the men lob steel balls into the sand. I sat there feeling odd. I was aware that I was tired, that I was hot, that I wanted to be home. And yet there was something pleasant about just sitting there, about feeling myself outside of everything. I don't understand the rules of Pètanque. I don't know black people who hang around groups of white people without their shirt. I didn't understand half of what was being said around me. My teacher kept trying to tell me something about Victor Hugo. I smiled and nodded. Who knows what I agreed to.
I felt myself a Stranger, something I've never been in my life. I felt myself falling, disappearing into the stone steps. I felt like people barely saw me, like I was a presence. I barely comb my hair here. I haven't had a haircut in weeks. My body feels like it is my own and no longer performing for my tribe and its enemies. I perform for myself here. Because I have no tribe here (yet) and the blood feuds feel so very distant from me.
You play a lot of roles as a black man in America. But "Stranger" isn't one of them. You feel too marked--not even marked for ill treatment, but just marked. Drunk white people stumble up to you and make confessional or mistake you for some long-lost black friend from sixth grade. They do not hate you. They just want to put their shit on you. That doesn't make them especially evil, sinister, or inhuman. Everyone is putting their shit on someone else. But I think more of us should live free for a moment, should--if only for a moment--feel themselves disconnected from the dynamics that ordinarily define their life.
A friend of mine once said that he enjoyed Israel because it was the first place where being Jewish was not the single most important thing about him when he went outside. That is how I felt at Howard, in Harlem, in every hood where I'd ever lived. I'd throw on my hoodie and then disappear. The days of throwing on your hoodie and disappearing are over. But the virtues of disappearance are not. I feel it oddly here. I am disappeared by my Americaness, by my tenuous handle upon the language. I like myself more refracted through this lens, stumbling through this alien tongue. Somehow it feels more like me.
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 public’s fear and loathing surge, the frontrunner’s durable candidacy has taken a dark turn.
MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina—All politicians, if they are any good at their craft, know the truth about human nature.
Donald Trump is very good, and he knows it better than most.
Trump stands alone on a long platform, surrounded by a rapturous throng. Below and behind him—sitting on bleachers and standing on the floor—they fill this city’s cavernous, yellow-beige convention center by the thousands. As Trump will shortly point out, there are a lot of other Republican presidential candidates, but none of them get crowds anything like this.
Trump raises an orange-pink hand like a waiter holding a tray. “They are not coming in from Syria,” he says. “We’re sending them back!” The crowd surges, whistles, cheers. “So many bad things are happening—they have sections of Paris where the police are afraid to go,” he continues. “Look at Belgium, the whole place is closed down! We can’t let it happen here, folks.”
Retailers are experimenting with a bold new strategy for the commercial high holiday: boycotting themselves.
It starts with a scene of touch football in the yard. Next, a woman and a girl, cooking together in the kitchen. “Imagine a world,” a soothing voice intones, “where the only thing you have to wrestle for on Thanksgiving is the last piece of pumpkin pie, and the only place we camped out was in front of a fire, and not the parking lot of a store.” And, then, more scenes: a man, cuddling with kids on a couch. An older woman, rolling pie dough on the counter. A fire, crackling in the fireplace. Warmth. Wine. Togetherness. Laughter.
It’s an ad, unsurprisingly, but it’s an ad with a strange objective: to tell you not to buy stuff. Or, at least, to spend a day not buying stuff. “At T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, and HomeGoods, we’re closed on Thanksgiving,” the spot’s velvet-voiced narrator informs us, “because family time comes first.” And then: more music. More scenes of familiar/familial delights. More laughter. More pie. The whole thing concludes: “Let’s put more value on what really matters. This season, bring back the holidays—with T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, and HomeGoods.”
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
A yearlong investigation of Greek houses reveals their endemic, lurid, and sometimes tragic problems—and a sophisticated system for shifting the blame.
One warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him—under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself—to be an excellent idea: he would shove a bottle rocket up his ass and blast it into the sweet night air. And perhaps it was an excellent idea. What was not an excellent idea, however, was to misjudge the relative tightness of a 20-year-old sphincter and the propulsive reliability of a 20-cent bottle rocket. What followed ignition was not the bright report of a successful blastoff, but the muffled thud of fire in the hole.
An entire industry has been built on the premise that creating gourmet meals at home is simple and effortless. But it isn’t true.
I write about food for a living. Because of this, I spend more time than the average American surrounded by cooking advice and recipes. I’m also a mother, which means more often than not, when I return from work 15 minutes before bedtime, I end up feeding my 1-year-old son squares of peanut-butter toast because there was nothing in the fridge capable of being transformed into a wholesome, homemade toddler meal in a matter of minutes. Every day, when I head to my office after a nourishing breakfast of smashed blueberries or oatmeal I found stuck to the pan, and open a glossy new cookbook, check my RSS feed, or page through a stack of magazines, I’m confronted by an impenetrable wall of unimaginable cooking projects, just sitting there pretending to be totally reasonable meals. Homemade beef barbacoa tacos. Short-rib potpie. “Weekday” French toast. Make-ahead coconut cake. They might as well be skyscraper blueprints, so improbable is the possibility that I will begin making my own nut butters, baking my own sandwich bread, or turning that fall farmer’s market bounty into jars of homemade applesauce.
America loves its freeways. After the 1956 Federal Highway Bill created the pathway for a41,000 mile interstate highway system, states and cities jockeyed for the funding to build ever-more extensive networks of pavement that could carry Americans quickly between cities. Sometimes, they built these highways right in the middle of cities, displacing communities and razing old buildings and homes.
“This was a program which the twenty-first century will almost certainly judge to have had more influence on the shape and development of American cities, the distribution of population within metropolitan areas and across the nation as a whole, the location of industry and various kinds of employment opportunities,”Daniel Moynihan wrote in 1970 about the federal program that built these thousands of miles of highways.
Mary Beard’s sweeping history is a new read of citizenship in the ancient empire.
A british college student named Megan Beech recently published a poetry collection called When I Grow Up I Want to Be Mary Beard. Beech is not alone in her admiration for Beard, who was for a time the only female classics lecturer at Cambridge University and has since become the most prominent representative of a field once associated with dusty male privilege. In 2013, Beard was appointed to the Order of the British Empire for “services to Classical Scholarship.” A prolific authority on Roman culture, she construes those services broadly. Her academic work ranges from studies of Roman religion and Roman victory practices to reflections on Roman laughter, and she has written lively books about Pompeii and the Colosseum. As the erudite docent on a BBC series three years ago titled Meet the Romans, Beard introduced a bigger audience to a bigger Rome: a citizenry far beyond the handful of Latin-speaking men who populated the Senate, served as emperors, or wrote (often dictating to their slaves) the books that we call “Roman literature.” Whatever the context (she also writes a blog, “A Don’s Life,” for the Times Literary Supplement), Beard does precisely what few popularizers dare to try and plenty of dons can’t pull off: She conveys the thrill of puzzling over texts and events that are bound to be ambiguous, and she complicates received wisdom in the process.