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.
In a dreary European city, a man who goes by the name “Mikro” spends his days and nights targeting Islamic State supporters on Twitter.
In August 2014, a Twitter account affiliated with Anonymous, the hacker-crusader collective, declared “full-scale cyber war” against ISIS: “Welcome to Operation Ice #ISIS, where #Anonymous will do it’s [sic] part in combating #ISIS’s influence in social media and shut them down.”
In July, I traveled to a gloomy European capital city to meet one of the “cyber warriors” behind this operation. Online, he goes by the pseudonym Mikro. He is vigilant, bordering on paranoid, about hiding his actual identity, on account of all the death threats he has received. But a few months after I initiated a relationship with him on Twitter, Mikro allowed me to visit him in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend and two Rottweilers. He works alone from his chaotic living room, using an old, battered computer—not the state-of-the-art setup I had envisaged. On an average day, he told me, he spends up to 16 hours fixed to his sofa. He starts around noon, just after he wakes up, and works late into the night and early morning.
It leaves people bed-bound and drives some to suicide, but there's little research money devoted to the disease. Now, change is coming, thanks to the patients themselves.
This past July, Brian Vastag, a former science reporter, placed an op-ed with his former employer, the Washington Post. It was an open letter to the National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, a man Vastag had formerly used as a source on his beat.
“I’ve been felled by the most forlorn of orphan illnesses,” Vastag wrote. “At 43, my productive life may well be over.”
There was no cure for his disease, known by some as chronic fatigue syndrome, Vastag wrote, and little NIH funding available to search for one. Would Collins step up and change that?
“As the leader of our nation’s medical research enterprise, you have a decision to make,” he wrote. “Do you want the NIH to be part of these solutions, or will the nation’s medical research agency continue to be part of the problem?”
An influential journalist who supports the presidential candidate offers an unusually naked defense of her ends-justify-the-means approach to public life.
An influential progressive writer published a blunt assessment of Hillary Clinton this week, declaring her unusually willing to transgress against civic and legal standards.
“From her adventures in cattle trading to chairing a policymaking committee in her husband's White House to running for Senate in a state she’d never lived in to her effort to use superdelegates to overturn 2008 primary results to her email servers,” Matthew Yglesias declared at Vox.com, “Clinton is clearly more comfortable than the average person with violating norms and operating in legal gray areas.”
He goes on to flesh out those examples and to offer still more:
There was no winnable Senate race for her to enter in Illinois or Arkansas in 2000, so she ran in New York instead. Barack Obama forbade her from employing Sidney Blumenthal at the State Department, so she employed him at her family's foundation instead. Sandy Berger faced criminal penalties for destroying classified documents at the National Archives, but that didn't stop Clinton from informally employing him as an adviser on sensitive Middle East peace negotiations.
She decides what she wants to do, in other words, and then she sets about finding a way to do it...
American politicians are now eager to disown a failed criminal-justice system that’s left the U.S. with the largest incarcerated population in the world. But they've failed to reckon with history. Fifty years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report “The Negro Family” tragically helped create this system, it's time to reclaim his original intent.
By his own lights, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ambassador, senator, sociologist, and itinerant American intellectual, was the product of a broken home and a pathological family. He was born in 1927 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but raised mostly in New York City. When Moynihan was 10 years old, his father, John, left the family, plunging it into poverty. Moynihan’s mother, Margaret, remarried, had another child, divorced, moved to Indiana to stay with relatives, then returned to New York, where she worked as a nurse. Moynihan’s childhood—a tangle of poverty, remarriage, relocation, and single motherhood—contrasted starkly with the idyllic American family life he would later extol.
Many films seek to dramatize the Red Planet’s harsh landscape as a romantic frontier, but The Martian is one that actually succeeds.
In most space movies, the villain is the void. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the supercomputer HAL flushes astronauts out into the airless vacuum; in Gravity, Sandra Bullock fights to navigate her way home before running out of air; in Interstellar, explorers are at the mercy of a gargantuan black hole. The underlying tension of any film set in space is that knife-edge between life and death.
Not so on Mars. While space is an alien landscape, Mars is always a recognizably human one, warped to the harshest extremes: Survival is within reach, but complicated by the elements, or natives, or both. In the subgenre’s newest and best entry, The Martian, the most nerve-wracking moment doesn’t involve any zero-gravity derring-do, but rather the astronaut Mark Watney’s potato farm.
A radical experiment at Zappos may herald the emergence of a new, more democratic kind of organization.
Deeply strange reports have been emerging from the Las Vegas headquarters of Zappos, until recently the world’s happiest shoe store. This spring, by order of the CEO, Tony Hsieh, the company abolished managers, eliminated job titles, denounced its own organizational hierarchy, and vested all authority in a 10,000-word constitution that spells out a radical new system of self-governance. Holacracy, it’s called, and it makes all previous moves toward “employee empowerment” look like the mild concessions of an 18th-century monarch. Freed from direct supervision, employees are expected to join various impermanent democratic assemblies called “circles” (headed, but not run, by a “lead link”), in which they will essentially propose their own job descriptions, ratify the “roles” of others, and decide what projects the group should undertake.
Forget the Common Core, Finland’s youngsters are in charge of determining what happens in the classroom.
“The changes to kindergarten make me sick,” a veteran teacher in Arkansas recently admitted to me. “Think about what you did in first grade—that’s what my 5-year-old babies are expected to do.”
The difference between first grade and kindergarten may not seem like much, but what I remember about my first-grade experience in the mid-90s doesn’t match the kindergarten she described in her email: three and a half hours of daily literacy instruction, an hour and a half of daily math instruction, 20 minutes of daily “physical activity time” (officially banned from being called “recess”) and two 56-question standardized tests in literacy and math—on the fourth week of school.
That American friend—who teaches 20 students without an aide—has fought to integrate 30 minutes of “station time” into the literacy block, which includes “blocks, science, magnetic letters, play dough with letter stamps to practice words, books, and storytelling.” But the most controversial area of her classroom isn’t the blocks nor the stamps: Rather, it’s the “house station with dolls and toy food”—items her district tried to remove last year. The implication was clear: There’s no time for play in kindergarten anymore.
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.
All-day breakfast undermines the true pleasure of the iconic sandwich: anticipating and then missing out on it.
The greatest luxury is the one we cannot have—or at least, the one we cannot have very often. This is the definition of luxury, really, and not just expensive, unreachable luxuries, but also cheaper, smaller ones. Thanksgiving turkey and dressing, a decadence limited to one day a year. And also, breakfast—real breakfast, with grains and eggs and meat and starch. Even at a place like McDonald’s where, as of this week, a selection of the struggling fast food figurehead’s breakfast menu, including the venerable Egg McMuffin, isavailable all day.
Let me say something heretical: The Egg McMuffin is not that great, actually. Warm but slightly wet and gooey, sloppily constructed, oozing with quasi-cheese, the slap of Canadian bacon failing to yield to incisors. But what is great is the idea of an egg McMuffin. It’s an improbable domestication of Eggs Benedict, condensing that civil dish of lazy brunches into the harried hand of the commuter or the road-tripper.
A new report details a black market in nuclear materials.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press published a horrifying report about criminal networks in the former Soviet Union trying to sell “radioactive material to Middle Eastern extremists.” At the center of these cases, of which the AP learned of four in the past five years, was a “thriving black market in nuclear materials” in a “tiny and impoverished Eastern European country”: Moldova.
It’s a new iteration of an old problem with a familiar geography. The breakup of the Soviet Union left a superpower’s worth of nuclear weapons scattered across several countries without a superpower’s capacity to keep track of them. When Harvard’s Graham Allison flagged this problem in 1996, he wrote that the collapse of Russia’s “command-and-control society” left nothing secure. To wit: