In every field, there are artists who rise above the rest of us. I look up and marvel at the beauty of the stars. My Uncle Ned, who's a Harvard/University of Michigan-trained PhD astronomer, sees and marvels at astrophysical processes that go far beyond my surface appreciation of a pretty night sky. The same is true of art, music, cooking, botany, architecture, and almost every human endeavor.
William Safire, who died Sunday at the age of 79, was an artist in the field of language. And his voice will be missed.
Artists and experts don't just know more about their subjects; they actually see them differently. Which has its pros and cons. Painters don't just see objects, they see a mix of light and shadow. Ever since becoming a pilot, I no longer see clouds as just pretty puffy things in the sky. I see high Cirrus, which means I may need to depart earlier than planned, because a change in the weather is coming. A breezy day isn't just nice. It means turbulence in the pass.
The ability to appreciate far more layers of detail means that far more details can also irritate. My brother David can appreciate many more fine points of a symphony than I can. But he'll also be bothered by the fact that the horns in the second movement came in just a tad too late. And once you understand the technical elements of a subject, it can be hard to look at it without that magnifying lens. There's a line near the end of the movie Men in Black where the Tommy Lee Jones character, about to have his memories of aliens erased, says that it's going to be nice to be able to look up and see just a beautiful starry sky again.
As they delve further into the details of their art, artists also run the risk of getting lost in their own personal forest of specifics and language, leaving the rest of us too far behind to follow. Which is fine, as long as you don't care about communicating any of your ideas or the wonder of your discoveries to the rest of the world. I interviewed a NASA scientist once who insisted that to say the satellite he'd worked on had a near-equatorial orbit was untrue. It was, he said, a low-to-mid-inclination orbit. I explained that the book was for a lay person audience, and most people didn't inherently know what a low-to-mid-inclination orbit was, unless we explained it further. "Well, any intelligent person knows!" he exclaimed.
The same possibility exists with language. There are purists who, I suspect, are writing more for their own enjoyment than the comprehension of the audience. They're in love with multi-syllabic words, even if only six people in the audience know or can envision what those words mean. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that, any more than with a jazz artist who cares more about reaching the pinnacle of intense self-expression than commercial success. In fact, I think it's important to have some purists out there, if only to remind the rest of us that the world contains magnificent mountains beyond the familiar, local hills we see and use everyday. It's just important to be clear about the goal, and be okay with the consequences of your choices.
William Safire was fascinated almost to the point of obsession with the details of words, leading to many arcane debates with his readers over seeming minutiae of nuanced word origin, usage or meaning. Live by the sword, die by the sword. And there were undoubtedly times when his own love of little-known words kept readers away from the ideas he was expressing. But he also asked and explored thought-provoking questions--including, inthis 2008 blog entry, whether perhaps Pliny the Younger was the world's first real blogger. And in a world where the instant-word-factory-assembly-line crunch of blogging and email, and the word-annihilation of texting and Twitter (LOL if u no wht i mean), the presence of those who still love, explore, and use the full depths and twists of the English Language--or any language--becomes even more important if the art is not to die out.
I'm not a purist of language; I'm as concerned with getting the point across as I am with the beauty of the words I put together to do it. But I am still a practitioner of the art; a member of the symphony, if not its artiste solo perfectionist. And so I truly appreciate those whose passion skill and knowledge act as a beacon for the rest of us, pulling us further along than we otherwise would have gone.
Ammon Shea, a dedicated word-lover, wrote a book last year about the year he spent reading the Oxford English Dictionary, cover to cover. (Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages). His obsession for the task drove those around him nuts, and I can't say as I have the passion required to follow in his footsteps. But I loved his book, and all the discoveries he allowed me to share. To think! There's actually a word for a fear of dinner parties! Who knew?
I also don't have the stamina of a William Manchester, whose biography of Winston Churchill stretched over three volumes--the last of which had to be completed by someone else, because Manchester suffered a series of strokes that left him, in his last years, unable to write. In commenting on the tragedy of a man whose life's work was the loving caress of words having lost his ability to find them, essayist Roger Rosenblatt recited one of Manchester's passages about Churchill's funeral:
"When his flag-draped coffin moved slowly across the old capital, drawn by naval ratings, and bare-headed Londoners stood trembling in the cold, they mourned, not only him and all he had meant, but all they had been and no longer were, and would never be again."
Manchester, Rosenblatt noted, most likely "had only the scantiest idea where that sentence would end when he began it. Only when he caught up with it could he know. But then, there was another sentence running ahead of him. There was always another sentence. And now there isn't." I still look at Manchester's words ... and Rosenblatt's framing of them ... and feel as if I've been blessed with a combination of master performances so beautiful and perfect that if it they'd been played out in a concert hall, I would have shouted aloud, "Bravo!"
Communication doesn't have to be taught. We learn it instinctively as small children. But the art of language; exploring words and crafting them together with rhythm, poetry, and meaning, is a learned and practiced skill that few ever master as well as Manchester, Keats, Shakespeare, or Safire. Like master chefs, musicians, athletes or scientists, they show us what's possible, and add a layer of nuanced beauty to a sometimes overly practical world.
I didn't always agree with Safire's detailed focus or opinions. And sometimes his immersion in his art may have stood in the way of getting his point across to a broader audience. But maybe, the point he really wanted to get across was simply how much richness there was in this language we use everyday, if only we'd take the time to explore and savor the forest with a little more attention and depth. And on that point, his message was inimitably, powerfully, and exceptionally clear.
A new anatomical understanding of how movement controls the body’s stress response system
Elite tennis players have an uncanny ability to clear their heads after making errors. They constantly move on and start fresh for the next point. They can’t afford to dwell on mistakes.
Peter Strick is not a professional tennis player. He’s a distinguished professor and chair of the department of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute. He’s the sort of person to dwell on mistakes, however small.
“My kids would tell me, dad, you ought to take up pilates. Do some yoga,” he said. “But I’d say, as far as I’m concerned, there's no scientific evidence that this is going to help me.”
Still, the meticulous skeptic espoused more of a tennis approach to dealing with stressful situations: Just teach yourself to move on. Of course there is evidence that ties practicing yoga to good health, but not the sort that convinced Strick. Studies show correlations between the two, but he needed a physiological mechanism to explain the relationship. Vague conjecture that yoga “decreases stress” wasn’t sufficient. How? Simply by distracting the mind?
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.
Women engage in indirect aggression and slut-shaming, even in clinical research studies. Why?
One day in Ontario, 86 straight women were paired off into groups of two—either with a friend or a stranger—and taken to a lab at McMaster University. There, a researcher told them they were about to take part in a study about female friendships. But they were soon interrupted by one of two women.
Half the participants were interrupted by a thin, blond, attractive woman with her hair in a bun, dressed in a plain blue t-shirt and khaki pants, whom the researchers called “the conservative confederate."
Every year, hundreds of people attend the Oklahoma Full Auto Shoot, cultivating a love for assault weapons in an era of mass violence.
It was Saturday at the 16th-annual Oklahoma Full Auto Shoot and Trade Show, and I had my thumbs on the trigger of a Browning M1919, prepared to unleash hellacious destruction on an unsuspecting refrigerator.
The Oklahoma Full Auto Shoot is one of several “machine-gun shoots” around the country. For two days in June, hundreds of people traveled to Wyandotte, Oklahoma, for the opportunity to fire nearly every species of automatic weapon from the past century. There were UZIs and M16s, Barrett .50-caliber rifles, WWII-era belt-fed Brownings, and even a Minigun—a giant, chair-mounted cylindrical device powered by a car battery. As of 10 a.m., all 84 firing positions were trained downrange onto a hill stocked with junked cars and dead kitchen appliances, waiting for the starting signal.
One black woman tries to reconcile her faith with the institution’s history of discrimination.
It’s been six years since I became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Each year has been a lesson in faith and doubt, stretching and engaging what it means to be black, a woman, and Mormon. The decision to join on my own was not an easy one. As the child of a Protestant mother and a father who converted to Islam in his teens, I was doing something unheard of in my family by becoming a Mormon. And as a black woman, I had a heightened awareness of what it means to potentially be the only black person in any given congregation in the United States.
As a child, I watched as preachers in my congregation espoused their deepest beliefs about God. They spoke to the horrors faced by black people in the United States in their dealings in life and death. There was intense power in their sermons, one that was complemented by the soft presence of a “Black Jesus,” a savior who understood the plight of African Americans in word and form. He represented the long tradition of resistance within the black church to white-supremacist theology: Racialized violence in the United States was often supported by white Christians who recognized whiteness as good and blackness as evil. Within the walls of my congregation, blackness was not discounted, but embraced in all its various forms from the pulpit to the pews. Islam also informed my faith; I witnessed the immense devotion in my father’s prayers and the care with which he kept his Koran. These two traditions of my childhood shared a reverence for and recognition of a version of God who is not racist.
The choice to leave academia does not have to mean life as a barista.
There is a widespread belief that humanities Ph.D.s have limited job prospects. The story goes that since tenure-track professorships are increasingly being replaced by contingent faculty, the vast majority of English and history Ph.D.s now roam the earth as poorly-paid adjuncts or, if they leave academia, as baristas and bookstore cashiers. As English professor William Pannapacker put it in Slate a few years back, “a humanities Ph.D. will place you at a disadvantage competing against 22-year-olds for entry-level jobs that barely require a high-school diploma.” His advice to would-be graduate students was simple: Recognize that a humanities Ph.D is now a worthless degree and avoid getting one at all cost.
A 160,000-mile quest to visit all 59 of the country's natural treasures
Mark Burns spent five years visiting all 59 of the United States' national parks. Captured in stirring black and white images, his landscape photography project was completed just in time for the National Park Service's centennial celebration. “It's a time to reflect on the rich history of our national parks,” Burns said of his 160,000-mile journey, “but it's also a time to plan wisely for the next 100 years.” Glacier Bay's wild coastline, Death Valley's parched terrain, and Yellowstone's surging geysers are all pictured in searing detail. One image from each park is currently being exhibited at the Houston Museum of Natural Science until September 5th. A selection can be found below.
A man who served the regime recounts his efforts to bring it down.
The theory of Jung Gwang Il’s work is essentially this: Tiny packets of information just might bring an end to decades of tyranny in his homeland. From his base in South Korea, he sends USB drives, SD cards, and other devices—loaded with Hollywood movies, South Korean television shows, and testimonials from North Korean defectors—across North Korea’s borders. His weapons against North Korea’s repressive, nuclear-armed regime are Skyfalland South Korean soaps. His battlefield is a country with no free press, virtually no internet (there’s an intranet), and minimal relations with much of the planet. Jung’s mission, in other words, is to funnel fragments of the outside world into the most information-starved nation on earth—and to thereby undermine a government for which he was once willing to sacrifice his life.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
Recently I sat down with Vice President Joe Biden to explore whether his approach to foreign policy challenges, and his patterns of interaction with global leaders, constituted something distinctive enough to call “The Biden Doctrine,” which I wrote about here in The Atlantic. In a fascinating, wide-ranging discussion that touched on America’s current political contest, the vice president shared some of what he believes are Hillary Clinton’s strengths and weaknesses. And in a powerful ending to our chat, Biden indicted the leadership elites of both parties for looking down on and leaving behind Americans who deserve better. I felt that this material deserved its own space, and wanted to share the larger conversation with readers. The transcript, condensed and edited for clarity, follows.