WHEN they had finally gotten clear of King George and set about the business of establishing a new country, America's Founding Fathers wanted to sever their ties to the old order of Europe. So wary were they of the trappings of monarchy -- especially an official aristocracy -- that they declined to establish any kind of national mechanism to recognize greatness. There would be no knighthoods in America; fame could be acknowledged, and revoked, only by popular assent.
Henry Mitchell MacCracken wanted to change that somewhat. MacCracken was a Presbyterian minister, and also the chancellor of New York University. A century ago he decided to expand his college from crowded, commercial Washington Square to the more bucolic Fordham Heights (now University Heights) section of the Bronx. MacCracken bought a parcel of land on one of the highest natural elevations in the city, once the site of Fort Number Eight, a British installation. Then he secured a $2 million gift from the daughter of the railroad baron Jay Gould, and hired Stanford White to design and build the city's most beautiful campus. But MacCracken had something still bigger in mind.
Henry Mitchell MacCracken took great pride in his country's history and heritage. It pained him that America had no pantheon, no shrine to those whose achievements and contributions would forever touch the nation and even the world jurists and statesmen, scientists and inventors, writers and artists. So he decided that he would build an American pantheon on his new campus. He had White design a 630-foot open-air Beaux Arts colonnade with niches for busts and tablets; it would sit prominently on the crest of a hill overlooking Washington Heights and the Palisades. But what to call it? MacCracken came up with the words "hall of fame" -- and called his pantheon the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.
"Fame" is one of those words that have changed some over the years. These days it means "celebrity." But in MacCracken's time "fame" was a more value-laden concept, closer in meaning to "renown." And MacCracken wanted to make sure that the people enshrined in his Hall of Fame were truly famous, not just memorable. So he established a board of electors, composed of men and women who were themselves possessed of some measure of renown, ostensibly people of great character and sound judgment.
Gilbert Stuart, Member
Over the years that body would include the most respected writers, historians, and educators of their day, along with scores of congressmen, a dozen Supreme Court justices, and six Presidents; seven former electors have themselves been elected to the Hall of Fame. To ensure that nominees would be evaluated with adequate sobriety and perspective, it was decided that no one could be elected who had not been dead for at least twenty-five years. Everyone thought that was just fine; after all, as the old maxim holds, "Fame is a food that dead men eat."
Even before the Hall of Fame was formally dedicated, on Memorial Day, 1901, it had become a focal point for national pride. Part of its appeal lay in the fact that it was a truly democratic institution -- anyone could nominate a candidate, admission would be free, and although NYU served as a steward, raising funds and running the elections, the whole thing was technically the property of the American people. But more important, it was the first institution to unite the notions of fame and America. The country was still in its adolescence, still struggling to emerge from the shadows of the great powers of Europe, still trying to heal the rifts of the Civil War that had torn it apart. The Hall of Fame promised, for the first time, to launch Americans into the orbit of universal immortality. In a sense it was the vehicle of our validation, and people took it very, very seriously. Newspaper publishers used their editorial pages to lobby for or against nominees, and groups like the American Bar Association and the United Daughters of the Confederacy waged extensive, expensive campaigns to get "their" candidates elected. Installation ceremonies were elaborate events. For a while the term "Hall of Famer" carried greater cachet than "Nobel laureate," and a hilltop in the Bronx seemed, to many, the highest spot in the country, if not the world.
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It was inevitable that something as popular and prestigious as the Hall of Fame would inspire spinoffs.
One of the first was the Baseball Hall of Fame, which opened in Cooperstown, New York, in 1939. Four decades had passed since the establishment of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, and the country had changed quite a bit. We had conquered the world's greatest military power, only to be ourselves laid low by the world's greatest economic crisis. Radio had emerged and ushered us into the media age. Inventors and scientists and statesmen and thinkers were no longer the heroes of the day. Athletes were. Yet not a single one had made it into the Hall of Fame, and none ever would. The hall's standards of admission -- indeed, its defining mission -- made that impossible.
So the Baseball Hall of Fame filled a void. Its mission was different. It had to be, because this new hall of fame, with its narrow scope and particular focus, could not afford to hold to the standards of the original. The people enshrined in Cooperstown were undoubtedly gifted and even inspirational, their achievements not easily forgotten, but it would be a stretch in most cases to claim that those achievements will forever touch the nation and the world. The Baseball Hall of Fame's founders knew this; they also knew that its inherent limitations liberated them to diverge from the staid, almost ascetic dignity of the original. They weren't restricted to bronze busts and plaques; they could build glass display cases and fill them with jerseys and gloves and balls and banners. Nominees didn't have to be dead, just retired -- so much for the old maxim. Their electors weren't senators and historians and poets; they were sportswriters (who now have their own hall of fame, in Salisbury, North Carolina). And the Baseball Hall of Fame could, and did, charge admission.
That last item could have sunk the new venture, but it didn't. People came and paid to get in a lot of people. So many, in fact, that people decided to open a Football Hall of Fame, in Canton, Ohio; a Basketball Hall of Fame, in Springfield, Massachusetts; a Boxing Hall of Fame, in Canastota, New York; and a Bowling Hall of Fame, in St. Louis. Today there are halls of fame for volleyball, lacrosse, tennis, soccer, swimming, skiing, golf, yachting, polo, fishing, racquetball, gymnastics, field hockey, figure skating, auto racing, horse racing, water skiing, weightlifting, skeet shooting, snowmobiling, surfing, curling, and dozens of other pastimes. Canada opened a Hockey Hall of Fame, in Toronto. Individual states opened their own athletic halls of fame. So did cities. So did teams.
By this time, of course, the definition of "fame" had changed dramatically. It no longer required achievement on a broad scale coupled with some kind of lasting universal contribution. Now achievement alone was enough, even achievement within a narrow context.
This change opened the hall-of-fame door -- opened it wide. If athletes could have their own halls of fame, why couldn't cowboys, policemen, businessmen? Today they do, in Oklahoma City, Miami Beach, and Chicago, respectively. There is a "Hall of Flame" for firemen, in Phoenix. Astronauts have a hall in Titusville, Florida. Daredevils have one in Niagara Falls. Rock-and-roll has one in Cleveland. It is just a short drive from the Checkers Hall of Fame, in Petal, Mississippi, to the Agricultural Aviation Hall of Fame, honoring crop dusters, in Jackson. St. Petersburg seems like a logical place for the Shuffleboard Hall of Fame, but why is the Marbles Hall of Fame in Wildwood, New Jersey? What's the Burlesque Hall of Fame doing in Helendale, California, in the Mojave Desert? Will the Clown Hall of Fame really bring busloads of tourists to Delavan, Wisconsin (population 7,000)? Can the Soap Box Derby Hall of Fame breathe new life into Akron? Should Newport's renaissance be attributed to the fact that it is home to halls of fame for tennis, yachting, and croquet?
There are hundreds of halls of fame in America; no one knows for sure exactly how many. Some celebrate people who didn't actually do much more than exist. Some don't even celebrate people. Palo Alto, California, the home of Stanford University, is also home to the Barbie Hall of Fame, where visitors can pay four dollars to see America's most popular plastic doll in its many incarnations and outfits. Select Sires, a bovine-artificial-insemination cooperative, runs the Bull Hall of Fame, in Plain City, Ohio; its dozen honorees were chosen for the quality and quantity of their output. Michael Bohdan, an exterminator in Plano, Texas, has established a Cockroach Hall of Fame in the back of his shop; according to Bohdan, the museum, which features both gargantuan roaches and roaches dressed up to resemble Elvis, Liberace, and Ross Perot, is the third most popular tourist attraction in the Dallas area (after the Kennedy Memorial and Southfork Ranch). And there are two halls of fame honoring the once important, now irrelevant Route 66.
It would be easy from all this to draw the conclusion that the divorce of fame and achievement is now complete -- that the only achievement most halls of fame celebrate these days is the achievement of fame itself. And it would be easier still to lay the blame at the feet of those who created and own such "lesser" shrines. But with a few exceptions the proprietors of America's halls of fame do not themselves bestow fame; they merely acknowledge it. Only society can bestow fame. And there is no surer measure of the values of a society than those things upon which it chooses to bestow fame -- or from which it revokes it.
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Today the Hall of Fame for Great Americans is forgotten. For twenty years, in fact, it has been too broke to hold new elections, too broke even to commission busts of the people it elected two decades ago, including Louis Brandeis, Clara Barton, Luther Burbank, and Andrew Carnegie. It took nineteen years to raise the $25,000 needed to commission the bust of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In 1973 NYU abruptly abandoned its Bronx campus and the Hall of Fame. Eventually the state bought the whole thing, and it is now in the hands of Bronx Community College. In the late 1970s the state spent $3 million restoring the colonnade's crumbling foundation; a few years ago it spent another $200,000 restoring the ninety-eight bronze busts, many of which had deteriorated badly. But private gifts, which were always the Hall of Fame's primary source of support, stopped coming many years ago. No one is quite sure why the public has abandoned the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, but it most definitely has.
These days hardly anyone even knows it exists. Only 20,000 people visit it each year, most of them local school children on field trips. What they see there is less a shrine than a tomb, the last repository of a seemingly defunct kind of American idealism and dignified self-respect. The state gives what it can for maintenance, but it's not nearly enough; there is evidence everywhere of the insidious presence of pigeons and vandals. Not long ago the latter pushed over the bust of Andrew Jackson, sending it tumbling down the hill toward the Harlem River, leaving nothing in the seventh President's niche but a bronze plaque bearing the quotation "Our federal union -- it must and shall be preserved."
Nearby is the bust of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, arguably the country's greatest sculptor. Saint-Gaudens created the hall's bust of Abraham Lincoln, who was elected the first time around, in 1900; twenty years later the artist himself was elected. The quotation on his plaque "Too much time cannot be spent in a task that is to endure for centuries" -- could in days past have been the Hall of Fame's motto. Today it seems more like an epitaph.
Without the financial support that many white families can provide, minority young people have to continually make sacrifices that set them back.
The year after my father died, I graduated from grad school, got a new job, and looked forward to saving for a down payment on my first home, a dream I had always had, but found lofty. I pulled up a blank spreadsheet and made a line item called “House Fund.”
That same week I got a call from my mom—she was struggling to pay off my dad’s funeral expenses. I looked at my “House Fund” and sighed. Then I deleted it and typed the words “Funeral Fund” instead.
My father’s passing was unexpected. And so was the financial burden that came with it.
For many Millennials of color, these sorts of trade-offs aren’t an anomaly. During key times in their lives when they should be building assets, they’re spending money on basic necessities and often helping out family. Their financial future is a rocky one, and much of it comes down to how much—or how little—assistance they receive.
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.
Places like St. Louis and New York City were once similarly prosperous. Then, 30 years ago, the United States turned its back on the policies that had been encouraging parity.
Despite all the attention focused these days on the fortunes of the “1 percent,” debates over inequality still tend to ignore one of its most politically destabilizing and economically destructive forms. This is the growing, and historically unprecedented, economic divide that has emerged in recent decades among the different regions of the United States.
Until the early 1980s, a long-running feature of American history was the gradual convergence of income across regions. The trend goes back to at least the 1840s, but grew particularly strong during the middle decades of the 20th century. This was, in part, a result of the South catching up with the North in its economic development. As late as 1940, per-capita income in Mississippi, for example, was still less than one-quarter that of Connecticut. Over the next 40 years, Mississippians saw their incomes rise much faster than did residents of Connecticut, until by 1980 the gap in income had shrunk to 58 percent.
Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and other presidential contenders appease Donald Trump at their own peril.
Give Donald Trump this: He has taught Americans something about the candidates he’s running against. He has exposed many of them as political cowards.
In August, after Trump called undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists” and vowed to build a wall along America’s southern border, Jeb Bush traveled to South Texas to respond. Bush’s wife is Mexican American; he has said he’s “immersed in the immigrant experience”; he has even claimed to be Hispanic himself. Yet he didn’t call Trump’s proposals immoral or bigoted, since that might offend Trump’s nativist base. Instead, Bush declared: “Mr. Trump’s plans are not grounded in conservative principles. His proposal is unrealistic. It would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.” In other words, demonizing and rounding up undocumented Mexican immigrants is fine, so long as it’s done cheap.
What I learned from attending a town-hall meeting and listening to students’ concerns
Sometimes it takes a group of young people to set you straight.
For months now, I’ve been reading about college students who’ve been seeking “safe spaces.” They’ve often been met by derision—even the highest ranked Urban Dictionary definition is mired in sarcasm, describing them as having “pillows” and “soothing music” that “allows them to recover from the trauma... of exposure to ideas that conflict with their leftist professors.”
I also had some mid-life skepticism about teenage hyperbole, that is, until I attended a town hall meeting at Duke University (my alma mater) earlier this month. The “community conversation,” as it was called, had been hastily convened to discuss the rash of racist and homophobic incidents on campus. Listening to those students—and watching their expressions—I realized that what’s been happening at Duke is serious, and no amount of sarcasm can disguise the pain and anger on campus, or cover up the real dangers lurking there.
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.”
Alexandria faced its latest threat as the other crew members tried to make it back.
Every week for the sixth season of AMC’s post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead, Lenika Cruz and David Sims will discuss the latest threat—human, zombie, or otherwise—to the show’s increasingly hardened band of survivors.
David Sims: Let me be as straightforward as I can leading off here. The Walking Dead midseason finale was a dud in every sense of the term.
The Republican frontrunner’s abrupt cancellation of a press conference with 100 black pastors is symptomatic of his struggles with African American voters.
“I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.”
So Donald Trump claimed back in 2011. But his bravado induces renewed skepticism this week. Last Wednesday, Trump announced that he’d hold a press conference on Monday to announce his endorsement by a coalition of about 100 black religious leaders. It turns out that wasn’t quite what the black religious leaders had in mind. On Sunday, Trump abruptly canceled the press conference, though the meeting was still on.
Never one to avoid throwing gasoline on a fire when there’s a jerrycan handy, Trump didn’t just chalk the reversal up to a miscommunication, as Darrell Scott, an Ohio pastor who helped arrange the meeting, did. Instead, Trump suggested that the ministers had been subverted. “Probably some of the Black Lives Matter folks called them up, said ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be meeting with Trump because he believes that all lives matter,’” he said.
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.