In the extensive coverage surrounding the 40th running of the New York City marathon this past weekend, more than one piece questioned whether marathon races had lost their elite edge. An op-ed piece in the New York Times on Saturday bemoaned the change in coverage from the pure, rarefied competition between the elite runners to human-interest stories about less professional athletes who competed. Cameron Stracher, who wrote the piece, argued that the long lag in U.S. marathon champions was due, at least in significant part, to this shift in coverage and "narrative," which lessened the public's excitement and inspiration to reach for the top levels in the sport.
"As the running boom matured," Stracher wrote, "the story line shifted from the race itself to the race as 'event.' ... The marathon may be an event, but at its heart it is a race--a competition among highly trained athletes."
A similar theme ran through an article that ran a few days earlier, under the title "Plodders Have a Place, But Is It in a Marathon?" A number of elite runners are apparently irritated at the slow runners and runner/walkers who, they believe, have watered down the significance of running, or finishing, a marathon. "It used to be that running a marathon was worth something," the cross-country coach at the college of New Rochelle was quoted as saying. "There used to be a pride in saying you ran a marathon, but not anymore."
On the other hand, marathon organizers argue that the increasing participation levels and appeal of marathons, driven by those amateur runners, is what's kept the sport healthy and alive.
Ah, the dilemma of exclusiveness.
If I'm vaguely amused by the complaints, it's because they mirror so closely a debate that's raged for decades--sometimes unwittingly--in the pilot community. In the very early days, flying an airplane really did take an excessive level of both risk-taking and talent. So to be a pilot was to be part of a very exclusive club. You suffered greatly to get there, but then you got to wear your wings with immense pride.
It's still a hefty effort to get a pilot's license, but the difficulty has decreased significantly over time. First came electrical systems and more reliable engines. Then came the advent of the tricycle gear airplane design, which made takeoffs and landings far easier and safer than they were with the old, skittish tail wheel designs. But the advent of the nose wheel airplane also prompted grumbling among the "old" set about how now anybody could be a pilot.
The club was becoming less exclusive. On the other hand, it was also becoming a booming industry. The explosion of general aviation in the 1950s and 1960s was due in no small part to the fact that so many more people felt capable of becoming part of it. Industry advocates have long dreamed of creating airplanes and systems safe and easy enough that every person in America could become a pilot and have access to a small airplane, because it would transform both the size of the industry, and the size of the support it receives. One would think that pilots, who depend on that support, would echo this sentiment. But even today, there's resistance among a lot of pilots at the thought of flying becoming, well ... pedestrian. After all, if everyone can do something, it's not such a point of pride that I can.
But I would caution marathon elitists to be careful what they wish for. Familiarity is critical to engagement, engagement is critical to audience, and audience is critical to sponsorship and publicity. Stracher argues that stories of great Yankee baseball rivalries, focused only on the playing field, is what inspires people to want to play ball. I disagree. I think the fact that people do play ball, in sandlots and schoolyards and on the streets of New York, is why there is such an audience for watching the best of the best battle it out.
For years, the sponsors of air racing--the fastest sport on earth, where pilots fly almost 500 miles an hour only 40 feet off the ground, in 90-degree bank angles--have struggled to figure out why they can't get more than a tiny audience to watch. Why is it that NASCAR races, which have many of the same elements, but less speed and risk, are so much more popular? Answer: because almost everybody owns a car. Hardly anyone (less than 0.1% of the population) owns an airplane. Millions of people can imagine themselves zooming around a NASCAR track. Very few can identify with a race pilot's world.
By the same token--as more and more people have taken up running and long-distance running, more people can imagine themselves sprinting across that finish line and can identify with the pains, injuries, and disappointments of a marathon champion. That there are now many more wannabes is actually a good thing, in terms of the long-term survival and health of the running and marathon industry.
But there's also something else at play, which Stracher alludes to when he notes how "the running boom matured." Everything is new only once. Back in the days of the barnstormers, when aviation itself was new and few people had been exposed to it, flying had a romantic appeal to the public that it will never have again. Pilots today are not held up as high as the heroes of old, when few people had even experienced flight.
Familiarity may bring engagement, but it also famously breeds contempt. Or at least a tempering of the initial romantic ideas and breathless excitement it once generated. Just like any human romance, if our interaction with something continues on long enough, it matures from a passionate love affair into something more like a marriage. Not that we can't still get weak in the knees from time to time, but movements, like relationships, change and mature. And that's okay, because maturation brings other benefits.
Back in the 1970s, running as a popular sport was a brand-new and exciting wave. Running shoes themselves were a a radical new concept. And those leading the charge inspired an entire nation to get off its duff and hit the streets. That's impressive. So now it's a mature sport, with many more participants. That's known as success. So, OK. Maybe that also means it's not quite as exclusive or exciting as it once was to run a marathon at all.
But running it in 2:09 is still an Olympic feat. Nothing takes away from that. And with six American men finishing in the top ten in Sunday's race, it's hard to argue that the changes in the sport and how we write about it have killed our competitiveness. Whatever the reason for the dearth of U.S. male champions between 1982 and Sunday's victory by American Meb Keflezighi, it's obviously more complex than that.
As for the complaints about the slower participants ... there's clearly some line that has to be drawn at the end, so the timers and volunteers who operate a marathon can go home. But I'd hesitate to make broad statements about what's going on at the back of the pack. The saying about being kind to strangers you meet, because you know not what burdens they carry, comes to mind.
I sat next to a man named Donald Arthur at a Bronx Rotary Club dinner last spring who had completed more than 30 marathons, en route to his goal of completing a marathon in every state. He'd only started participating in marathons recently, after a heart transplant gave him life and the ability to exercise again. He wasn't young, and even with his new heart, he couldn't run the 26 miles. Given his age and health, it was amazing he could finish a 26-mile course at all. But his zeal for the races was electric, even if he experienced them differently than the top competitors. For Donald, a marathon is a competition not against other humans, but against fate, death, and limits; a chance to prove and celebrate, over and over, that he is fully alive again.
I asked him what his favorite marathon was, and his eyes lit up like Rockefeller Center at Christmastime. "Oh, New York!" he exclaimed. "I mean, the one outside of Denver was so beautiful, to be in the midst of those hills and nature all around you like that. But New York has all those people, cheering you on! I wave at them, and they wave back, and it's like nothing else." Donald has time to wave, of course, because he's not trying to break a six-minute mile. Does Donald Arthur's participation diminish the New York Marathon? I don't think so. He's just experiencing and running a different race, against a different opponent, back there at the back of the pack.
A marathon is a race, to be sure. But is it an elite event only for "highly trained athletes?" I don't think that's written in the definition or rules anywhere. The original marathoner, after all, was a Greek soldier simply trying to deliver a message. And I'm not sure there's anything wrong with a marathon meaning different things to different people. It's almost inevitable, with 40,000 participants.
Perhaps the best way to view today's city marathons is as a more efficient version of the multiple levels in other sports: Little League, sandlot and stickball games, NCAA leagues, pick-up Saturday games, semi-pro leagues, farm teams and the Major Leagues all wrapped up into one. No wonder they're such a party. And for those who still yearn for something more rarefied; the excitement of watching only the best of the best compete without anyone else in the backfield, running still offers its own equivalent of the World Series. It's a small, highly exclusive club known as the Olympics.
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.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
The retired general and former CIA director holds forth on the Middle East.
ASPEN, Colo.—Retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus pioneered America’s approach to counterinsurgency, led the surge in Iraq, served as director of the CIA for a year, and was sentenced to two years probation for leaking classified information to his mistress. On Wednesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, he was interviewed by my colleague, Jeffrey Goldberg, about subjects including efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program; the civil war in Syria; ISIS and the threat it poses to the United States; and the Iraq War.
Here are several noteworthy moments from their conversation, slightly condensed:
The Risks of Attacking Iran
Jeffrey Goldberg: So you believe that, under certain circumstances, President Obama would still use military force against Iran?
David Petraeus: I think he would, actually. I know we’ve had red lines that didn’t turn out to be red lines. ... I think this is a different issue, and I clearly recognize how the administration has sought to show that this is very, very different from other sort of off-the-cuff remarks.
Goldberg: How did the Obama administration stop Israel from attacking Iran? And do you think that if this deal does go south, that Israel would be back in the picture?
Petraeus: I don’t, actually. I think Israel is very cognizant of its limitations. ... The Israelis do not have anything that can crack this deeply buried enrichment site ... and if you cannot do that, you’re not going to set the program back very much. So is it truly worth it, then?
So that’s a huge limitation. It’s also publicly known that we have a 30,000-pound projectile that no one else has, that no one else can even carry. The Massive Ordinance Penetrator was under design for almost six years. ... If necessary, we can take out all these facilities and set them back a few years, depending on your assumptions.
But that’s another roll of the iron dice, as Bismarck used to say, and you never know when those dice are rolled what the outcome is going to be. You don’t know what risks could materialize for those who are in harm’s way.
You don’t know what the response could be by Iran.
There’s always the chance that there will be salvos at Israel, but what if they decide to go at the Gulf states, where we have facilities in every single one.
This is not something to be taken lightly, clearly.
Former Senator Jim Webb is the fifth Democrat to enter the race—and by far the most conservative one.
In a different era’s Democratic Party, Jim Webb might be a serious contender for the presidential nomination. He’s a war hero and former Navy secretary, but he has been an outspoken opponent of recent military interventions. He’s a former senator from Virginia, a purple state. He has a strong populist streak, could appeal to working-class white voters, and might even have crossover appeal from his days as a member of the Reagan administration.
In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
How a re-creation of its most famous battle helped erase the meaning of the Civil War.
"No person should die without seeing this cyclorama," declared a Boston man in 1885. "It's a duty they owe to their country." Paul Philippoteaux's lifelike depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg was much more than a painting. It re-created the battlefield with such painstaking fidelity, and created an illusion so enveloping, that many visitors felt as if they were actually there.
For all its verisimilitude, though, the painting failed to capture the deeper truths of the Civil War. It showed the two armies in lavish detail, but not the clash of ideals that impelled them onto the battlefield. Its stunning rendition of a battle utterly divorced from context appealed to a nation as eager to remember the valor of those who fought as it was to forget the purpose of their fight. Its version of the conflict proved so alluring, in fact, that it changed the way America remembered the Civil War.
A European heat wave, lightning over California, a building made of 8,500 beer bottles, shrimp fishing on horseback in Belgium, the first-ever White House Campout, mine detection rats in Cambodia, and much more.
A European heat wave, lightning over California, a building made of 8,500 beer bottles, cosplay in Paris, shrimp fishing on horseback in Belgium, the first-ever White House Campout, mine detection rats in Cambodia, a train wreck in Pakistan, an airshow over St. Petersburg, Russia, and much more.
Be kind, show understanding, do good—but, some scientists say, don’t try to feel others’ pain.
In 2006, then-senator Barack Obama gave a commencement speech offering what seemed like very sensible advice. “There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit,” he told Northwestern’s graduating class. “But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit—the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”
In the years since then, the country has followed Obama’s counsel, at least when it comes to talking about empathy. It’s become a buzzword, extolled by Arianna Huffington, taught to doctors and cops, and used as a test for politicians. "We are on the cusp of an epic shift,” according to Jeremy Rifkin’s 2010 book The Empathetic Civilization. “The Age of Reason is being eclipsed by the Age of Empathy."