In the four days of public mourning and recognition devoted to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a few themes emerged. His devotion to the liberal cause. His checkered political and personal life. His devotion to his family, and the families of his brothers. His faith, laughter, and love of life. But also, his consummate skill as a legislator who had a legendary ability to get things done, in no small part because he was respected on both sides of the aisle and had developed friendships with many his political adversaries. He had, as Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah noted, a unique talent for seeking out common ground with an adversary, no matter how small that space was, and then working to get something accomplished through that place of shared priorities or perspective.
One could regard Kennedy's acts as shrewd Machiavellian maneuvering. But politicians are skilled enough in that art to recognize the difference between authentic connection and political expediency, and the friendship and sorrow on the faces of Kennedy's Republican colleagues these past few days resonated as something very authentic.
So it appears that Kennedy was a master at truly seeking and finding common ground; better than many of us seem to be, these days. Why is that? Many reasons. But part of the answer may be that finding common ground first requires a deep and compassionate understanding and acceptance of the idea that humans are complex, multi-dimensional creatures, as multi-faceted as any cut diamond. And beyond that, an understanding of how seemingly irreconcilable characteristics and beliefs can coexist within a single person.
We all learn, without ever being told, that people have many characteristics, some of which we like better than others. Most siblings understand that one that before the age of six. But fewer of us have to wrestle with the far more difficult mix posed by a person who at once exhibits beliefs or characteristics we find admirable, along with others we find abhorrent. In most cases, if we see evidence of a belief or character trait we find that objectionable, we steer clear. And our ability to keep our distance from those we dislike has grown in the past few decades.
In a city apartment, it's hard not to deal with your neighbors. Even front-porch America forced a bit more neighborly interaction. But with the advent of the backyard deck, the automatic garage-door opener and the suburban sprawl of gated communities, we gained a far greater ability to separate ourselves from others unless we expressly chose to socialize with them. And that trend of specialization has grown. We can now not only get 200 narrowly focused cable or satellite channels; we can also choose from thousands and thousands of narrowly-focused blogs and websites for our "news." No matter how arcane our points of view, we can find and immerse ourselves in a like-minded community through chat rooms and forums around the internet world. Many more of us telecommute, reducing our need to learn to cope with co-workers whose views don't mirror ours. We don't even have to cope with listening our way through tracks on an album or CD we don't like in order to get to our favorites. We just download the individual songs we want.
In short, it's increasingly possible to live our lives in a "silo" of like-minded thought, music, entertainment and personalities. The problem with this, of course, is that it isolates us from those who would teach us difficult and uncomfortable truths about human complexity and, through that, the art of finding common ground.
A number of years ago, I found myself living for a time in the middle of a social and professional circle where nobody else shared my worldview, or my opinions on most subjects. If I had had more options for social interaction or friendship, I probably wouldn't have spent much time getting to know the people in the group very well. But because my social options were limited, I had to look for some kind of connection or common ground. And as I got to know some of the individuals better, I saw tremendous acts of kindness and generosity, deep and heartfelt fears and sorrows, and traits of loyalty, honesty, and integrity that were both admirable and authentic.
The tough part was that in those same people, I also saw acts, and heard opinions, that were deeply abhorrent to me. Acts, phrases, insults and opinions that I would willingly spend a lifetime fighting to overcome. How could such diametrically opposed traits coexist in a single person? And how could I reconcile my admiration for parts of a person with my visceral opposition to other pieces of the puzzle?
There was no running from the question. I confronted it daily, in all my interactions. I wrestled through outrage, generalization and judgment. I tried to change their opinions through argument. But in the course of that struggle, I also slowly gained new understanding, not just of how complex humans are, but of how few people are all right, or all wrong, or without merit or fault. And that just as my admiration of a person's strengths did not mean I had to condone other traits or opinions I vehemently opposed, neither did my dismay at those traits negate the person's other strengths.
In the end, I came to some kind of peace with the possibility of agreeing and disagreeing with someone else, all at the same time. Of understanding and respecting a little bit better how they came to see the world the way they did, even as I continued to argue for a different set of attitudes, priorities, or rules. Of getting beyond a global "good guy/bad guy" dichotomy to a more nuanced place and perspective about how we all end up with such different takes on the world. As the philosopher/writer Joseph Campbell said, "One has to go beyond the pairs of opposites to find the real source ... When you have come past the pairs of opposites, you have reached compassion."
There's undoubtedly more to the equation, of course. Senator Kennedy also came from an era in politics and Congressional life without televised hearings and the grandstanding that evolved from that, or a 24/7 media culture that rewards simplistic sound-bites over complex and nuanced positions, negotiations, or approaches. Perhaps if we want more bipartisanship among our politicians, we have to turn off the cameras and grant them a lot more privacy in which to develop more nuanced relationships.
But fundamental to forging those relationships; to finding the small spaces of common ground upon which they can be built, is first gaining an understanding and acceptance of the many and oftentimes disparate facets that can coexist in another person. Of gaining a deep and authentic respect and compassion for the whole of a person that allows genuine friendship, and an open spirit of alliance on the 10 percent of shared purpose despite 90 percent of adamantly held opposition.
Fewer of us these days have to wrestle our way to a deep or intimate understanding of those human complexities. But if Kennedy was a master at the art, perhaps it's in part because he surely wrestled with that question every time he looked in the mirror. In coming to some measure of understanding or compassion about his own behavior and past, perhaps he developed a deeper acceptance of the complexity, differences and imperfections of others, as well. And a sense of compassion beyond simple opposites that not only led to some of his greatest achievements, but is surely one of the qualities his colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, will miss the most.
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.
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.
Maya Arulpragasam is a famous rapper, singer, designer, producer, and refugee. When she was 9, her mother and siblings fled violence in Sri Lanka and came to London, and the experience was formative for her art. As she explained to The Guardian in 2005 after the release of her debut Arular, “I was a refugee because of war and now I have a voice in a time when war is the most invested thing on the planet. What I thought I should do with this record is make every refugee kid that came over after me have something to feel good about. Take everybody’s bad bits and say, ‘Actually, they’re good bits. Now whatcha gonna do?’”
That goal—to glorify people and practices that the developed world marginalizes—has been a constant in her career. Her new music video tackles it in a particularly literal and urgent way, not only by showing solidarity with refugees at a moment when they’re extremely controversial in the West, but also by posing a simple question to listeners: Whose lives do you value?
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.
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.
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.
To solve climate change, we need to reimagine our entire relationship to the nonhuman world.
Humans were once a fairly average species of large mammals, living off the land with little effect on it. But in recent millennia, our relationship with the natural world has changed as dramatically as our perception of it.
There are now more than 7 billion people on this planet, drinking its water, eating its plants and animals, and mining its raw materials to build and power our tools. These everyday activities might seem trivial from the perspective of any one individual, but aggregated together they promise to leave lasting imprints on the Earth. Human power is now geological in scope—and if we are to avoid making a mess of this, our only home, our politics must catch up.
Making this shift will require a radical change in how we think about our relationship to the natural world. That may sound like cause for despair. After all, many people refuse to admit that environmental crises like climate change exist at all. But as Jedediah Purdy reminds us in his dazzling new book, After Nature, our relationship with the nonhuman world has proved flexible over time. People have imagined nature in a great many ways across history.
The generation has been called lazy, entitled, and narcissistic. Their bosses beg to differ.
Yes, many Millennials are still crashing on their parent’s couches. And there’s data to support the claim that they generally want more perks but less face time, and that they hope to rise quickly but don’t stick around for very long. Millennials have also been pretty vocal about their desire to have more flexible jobs and more leave time.
But does all of this mean that all Millennials are actually worse workers?
Laura Olin, a digital campaigner who ran social-media strategy for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, says that’s not been her experience. “You always hear about Millennials supposedly being entitled and needing coddling, but the ones I’ve encountered have been incredibly hard-working and recognize that they need to pay their dues.”
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.
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.