Lt. Col. Lee A. Archer died last week at the age of 90. Although his name is hardly a household word, he was notable as a Tuskeegee Airman and the the only black fighter pilot ace (an "ace" being a pilot who shoots down at least five enemy aircraft) to come out of World War II. In his later life, he became a vice president of General Foods and a venture capitalist.
For anyone not familiar with who the Tuskeegee Airmen were: at the beginning of WWII, the military was segregated and blacks were not allowed to be pilots. Indeed, a War Department study in 1925 concluded that "Negroes" didn't have the intelligence, character, or leadership to be in combat units, including pilot roles. The Tuskeegee Airmen were formed to test (and some hoped, to prove) that theory. Their name came from the fact that they were trained in and around Tuskeegee, Alabama.
To the surprise of many, the Tuskeegee Airmen, especially the "Red Tail" P-51 Mustang pilots who escorted bombers in North Africa and Europe, performed exceedingly well. For many years, it was believed that not a single bomber was ever lost on their patrol--an achievement not unrelated to the fact that only one of the Tuskeegee Airmen ever became a combat ace.
Apparently, as numerous Tuskeegee Airmen have related to me, their commanders instilled in them a strict focus on their primary mission. They were to bring the bomber crews home alive. And that meant staying with the bombers, not going chasing after dogfights and combat glory. The group's perfect record has recently been questioned, but nobody argues that very few bombers were lost when escorted by the "Red Tails"--a feat especially notable given that bomber squadrons sometimes lost as many as half their number on missions.
Bomber pilots who objected to integrating the service began to rethink their objections when it became clear that their chances of getting home went up when they saw red-tailed Mustangs pulling up in formation. Skin color becomes secondary when the person in question is keeping you alive in a combat situation. The performance of the Tuskeegee Airmen was also a factor in Harry Truman's decision to desegregate the military in 1948.
Interestingly enough, the same dynamic seems to be playing out now, as President Obama sets his sights on overturning the notorious "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy about gays serving in the military. In a New York Timesarticle on Monday discussing some of factors leading to President Obama's State of the Union declaration to overturn the law this year, an interesting statistic emerged. A 2006 Zogby International poll of military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan found that "three quarters were comfortable serving around gay service members." But a 2008 Military Times poll of "largely older" subscribers showed that 58 percent objected to lifting the ban.
There are undoubtedly numerous factors at play. Personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan are necessarily younger, and may be more comfortable with gay colleagues in general. And they've already experienced the incorporation of women into combat units without seeing effectiveness destroyed. But they are also seeing comrades they suspect (or know) are gay performing with distinction next to them in battle situations. In foxholes, there are not only no atheists, there are apparently a lot fewer bigots.
(For a really good primer on the history of Don't Ask, Don't Tell: an analysis of the arguments, pro and con, of overturning it, the difficulty of overturning it--the policy now requires an act of Congress, thanks to Congressional objection to Clinton's attempt to end the ban on gays by executive order in 1993--and the real costs of continuing the policy, check out this article by Colonel Om Prakash in the fall issue of the Joint Force Quarterly. An award-winning essay.)
The question of how people's minds and attitudes change is a complex one. Intellectual argument itself is clearly not sufficient. But the history of the Tuskeegee Airmen, and the changing attitudes among military personnel currently fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan about gay service personnel, certainly seems to argue for the power of example. Once the members of a group we view as incapable of performing a particular job well, or without negative consequences, show us otherwise by example rather than argument, our biases and objections begin to dissipate. Especially in the high-stakes world of combat, where the consequence for choosing bias over competence can be your life.
But if that's true--if some of the strongest forces of persuasion and change are familiarity, example and experience--then it also presents something of a conundrum. If a group is excluded or hampered--overtly or subtly--from serving in the military or any other profession, how can they ever provide the example and experience that, in the end, is perhaps necessary to change minds enough to allow them in? It's a strong argument for affirmative action--a policy that, while imperfect, provides a means by which minority groups can gain enough numbers in resistant populations to show, by example, that resistance isn't necessary.
That the Tuskeegee Airmen and other black soldiers who served in WWII convinced Truman to integrate the armed services, but still returned home to a country that discriminated against them as much as ever, argues, perhaps, for the power of the foxhole. If every citizen in America had had the experience of the bomber pilots brought home alive by Tuskeegee Airmen, civil rights legislation would probably have passed much sooner.
In that sense, gays in the military have an advantage over the blacks who served in WWII. The majority of Americans are now aligned with the combat troops when it comes to the acceptability of gay service members. Now it's just the law that's out of step.
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the Far West Side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
New data shows that students whose parents make less money pursue more “useful” subjects, such as math or physics.
In 1780, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, in which he laid out his plans for what his children and grandchildren would devote their lives to. Having himself taken the time to master “Politicks and War,” two revolutionary necessities, Adams hoped his children would go into disciplines that promoted nation-building, such as “mathematicks,” “navigation,” and “commerce.” His plan was that in turn, those practical subjects would give his children’s children room “to study painting, poetry, musick, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelaine.”
Two-hundred and thirty-five years later, this progression—“from warriors to dilettantes,” in the words of the literary scholar Geoffrey Galt Harpham—plays out much as Adams hoped it would: Once financial concerns have been covered by their parents, children have more latitude to study less pragmatic things in school. Kim Weeden, a sociologist at Cornell, looked at National Center for Education Statistics data for me after I asked her about this phenomenon, and her analysis revealed that, yes, the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward “useful” majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
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.
Most adults can’t remember much of what happened to them before age 3 or so. What happens to the memories formed in those earliest years?
My first memory is of the day my brother was born: November 14, 1991. I can remember my father driving my grandparents and me over to the hospital in Highland Park, Illinois, that night to see my newborn brother. I can remember being taken to my mother’s hospital room, and going to gaze upon my only sibling in his bedside cot. But mostly, I remember what was on the television. It was the final two minutes of a Thomas the Tank Engine episode. I can even remember the precise story: “Percy Takes the Plunge,” which feels appropriate, given that I too was about to recklessly throw myself into the adventure of being a big brother.
In sentimental moments, I’m tempted to say my brother’s birth is my first memory because it was the first thing in my life worth remembering. There could be a sliver of truth to that: Research into the formation and retention of our earliest memories suggests that people’s memories often begin with significant personal events, and the birth of a sibling is a textbook example. But it was also good timing. Most people’s first memories date to when they were about 3.5 years old, and that was my age, almost to the day, when my brother was born.
Gentrification is pushing long-term residents out of urban neighborhoods. Can collective land ownership keep prices down permanently?
AUSTIN, Tex.—Not long ago, inner cities were riddled with crime and blight and affluent white residents high-tailed it to the suburbs, seeking better schools, safer streets, and, in some cases, fewer minority neighbors.
But today, as affluent white residents return to center cities, people who have lived there for years are finding they can’t afford to stay.
Take the case of the capital city of Texas, where parts of East Austin, right next to downtown, are in the process of becoming whiter, and hip restaurants, coffee shops, and even a barcatering to bicyclists are opening. Much of Austin’s minority population, meanwhile, is priced out, and so they’re moving to far-out suburbs such as Pflugerville and Round Rock, where rents are affordable and commutes are long.
The show reveals what happened to Ray, while Bezzerides and Woodrugh investigate the mayor, and Frank indulges in some amateur dentistry.
Orr: More than a third of the way into this season of True Detective, I’d say that the two best scenes so far were adjacent ones, albeit ones in consecutive episodes: the last scene of episode two—the man in the bird mask appearing out of nowhere, the stunning (apparent) death of a principal character as the radio plays “I Pity the Fool”—and the first scene of tonight’s episode: Ray and his father in the bar, and yet clearly someplace else altogether, someplace otherworldly. “Where is this?” Ray asks. His dad replies, “I don’t know. You were here first.” Is this Ray’s dying vision? Is he a ghost who will watch the season unfold from beyond the grave?
The singer’s violent revenge fantasy was intended to provoke outrage, and to get people to talk about her. It succeeds on both counts.
Of all the scandalized reactions to Rihanna’s music video for “Bitch Better Have My Money,” my favorite comes, as is not surprising for this sort of thing, from the Daily Mail. Labelling herself in the headline as a “concerned parent” (a term to transport one to the days of Tipper Gore’s crusade against lyrics if there ever was one), Sarah Vine opens her column by talking at length about how so very, very reluctant she was to watch Rihanna’s new clip. Then she basically goes frame-by-frame through the video, recounting her horror at what unfolds. “By the time it had finished, I wondered whether I ought not to report [Rihanna] to the police,” Vine writes. “Charges: pornography, incitement to violence, racial hatred.”
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.