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.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
Why the Syrian war—and the future of Europe—may hinge on one city
This week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported militias including Hezbollah, launched a major offensive to encircle rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo, choking off one of the last two secure routes connecting the city to Turkey and closing in on the second. This would cut supplies not only to a core of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also to the city’s 300,000 remaining civilians, who may soon find themselves besieged like hundreds of thousands of others in the country. In response, 50,000 civilians have fled Aleppo for the Turkish border, where the border crossing is currently closed. An unnamed U.S. defense official toldThe Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef that “the war is essentially over” if Assad manages to seize and hold Aleppo.
By announcing the first detection of gravitational waves, scientists have vindicated Einstein and given humans a new way to look at the universe.
More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy that sits more than a billion light-years away, two black holes spiraled together and collided. We can’t see this collision, but we know it happened because, as Albert Einstein predicted a century ago, gravitational waves rippled out from it and traveled across the universe to an ultra-sensitive detector here on Earth.
This discovery, announced today by researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), marks another triumph for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And more importantly, it marks the beginning of a new era in the study of the universe: the advent of gravitational-wave astronomy. The universe has just become a much more interesting place.
When four American women were murdered during El Salvador’s dirty war, a young U.S. official and his unlikely partner risked their lives to solve the case.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen—an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary—sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.
Once it was because they weren’t as well educated. What’s holding them back now?
Though headway has been made in bringing women’s wages more in line with men’s in the past several decades, that convergence seems to have stalled in more recent years. To help determine why, Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, the authors of a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research parse data on wages and occupations from 1980 to 2010. They find that as more women attended and graduated college and headed into the working world, education and professional experience levels stopped playing a significant role in the the difference between men and women’s wages. Whatever remains of the discrepancy can’t be explained by women not having basic skills and credentials. So what does explain it?
The hit new indie release is the opposite of action-packed, yet it’s compelling in its simplicity.
Solitude, it turns out, can be addictive. So I learned playing the new hit indie game Firewatch, where all the action amounts to you, the player, being alone in the woods. You’re a lookout assigned to a summer posting in the Shoshone National Forest of Wyoming in 1989, meaning your job consists of nothing more than wandering around, clearing brush, and calling in any fires you might spot. Most video games equip you with tools and weapons, complex missions, and action sequences. All Firewatch gives you is a map, a compass, and a walkie-talkie—but it’s still one of the most compelling video games I’ve ever played.
It’s the latest in a quiet movement of video games, more psychological products that tap into the atmosphere and wonder of loneliness rather than looking for the simpler thrills the medium usually provides. It’s tempting to trace this trend’s origins back to Minecraft, which launched in 2009 and became a worldwide phenomenon on the back of its extraordinary simplicity. But in Minecraft, you start armed only with your bare hands in a world of monsters, and can eventually upgrade into a city-builder armed with powerful tools. Firewatch is a more intimate affair: a short story, playable over a few hours, that succeeds first and foremost as an emotional experience.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
When two black holes collide, the noises scientists hear are birdlike.
This morning, scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravity Observatory announced that LIGO had detected gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes, an event so cataclysmic that it converted the mass of three solar systems into pure energy in about a tenth of a second.
Scientists have been trying to figure out how to “listen” to gravitational waves—and to prove their existence—ever since Einstein predicted them in 1915. But until September 14, 2015, when the colliding black-hole event was first detected, this was beyond our technical abilities. In the words of Scott Hughes, “Gravity is a weak force. Measuring these things is bloody hard.”
Hughes is a theoretical physicist at MIT who has been contemplating LIGO since its inception in 1992. He has struggled with a question at the heart of the observatory program: Once we do hear gravitational waves, how will we know where they come from? How can we use them to explore the mysteries of the cosmos? To this end, Hughes has modeled the “sounds” of a host of astrophysical events, including colliding black holes. (You can listen to his impressions of these sounds below.)
By mining electronic medical records, scientists show the lasting legacy of prehistoric sex on modern humans’ health.
Modern humans originated in Africa, and started spreading around the world about 60,000 years ago. As they entered Asia and Europe, they encountered other groups of ancient humans that had already settled in these regions, such as Neanderthals. And sometimes, when these groups met, they had sex.
We know about these prehistoric liaisons because they left permanent marks on our genome. Even though Neanderthals are now extinct, every living person outside of Africa can trace between 1 and 5 percent of our DNA back to them. (I am 2.6 percent Neanderthal, if you were wondering, which pales in comparison to my colleague James Fallows at 5 percent.)
This lasting legacy was revealed in 2010 when the complete Neanderthal genome was published. Since then, researchers have been trying to figure out what, if anything, the Neanderthal sequences are doing in our own genome. Are they just passive hitchhikers, or did they bestow important adaptations on early humans? And are they affecting the health of modern ones?