I've been quoting quite a bit from Drew Gilpin Faust's Mothers Of Invention, a history of women in slaveholding families during the Civil War. One reason Faust's writing appeals to me is her ear for primary sources--she's a historian, but there's something of the literary critic in her approach. There's a portion of her book, This Republic Of Suffering, where she quotes a letter in which a soldier refers to the death of a comrade as "awful news." But the soldier misspells "awful" as "auwful" (forgive me I don't have my copy of Suffering handy) and Faust uses "the auwful news" as a kind of synonym for a soldier's death throughout the chapter. What is communicated is that the misspelling means something, that there's a kind of earthly beauty in the plain prose of people, an understanding that is more lived than learned.
That same eye for beauty is on display in Mothers. Last night, I was sitting in the local coffee shop reading a section where a slave-holding woman was trying to come to terms with the death of her husband. Convinced that they would meet in eternity, the woman resolved that she would, from that point forward, "wear this world like a loose garment." The phrase is not original to her, but it's invocation at that moment, having buried her beloved, stopped me cold.
For an African-American like me, the upshot of all this gorgeous writing is bracing--one is forced to behold beauty in those who saw no such beauty in us. Worse, the partisans of Confederate history are quite often necromancers who would defile that beauty with denialism, and Lost Cause hokum. The impulse is toward rage, toward justified fury. The impulse is to view any deft use of the English language, as hypocrisy, as devil-worship concealed beneath garland prose.
It's an impulse I've felt, myself. I love this picture (it's from the cover of Mothers) because, all at once, I find it beautiful and rage-inducing. The problem with rage is that it's a conversation-stopper, it forecloses all other questions. I am resolved on the nature of the Confederate cause. I would no sooner now debate the primary cause of the Civil War, then I would debate roundness of the Earth. And still in all, I am filled with questions. Chief among them, how does any human being in the 19th century come to endorse mass slaughter for the cause of raising a republic built on slavery?
To answer such a question, it is not enough to understand cause of the Civil War. A debate over the meaning of the Confederate Flag is almost beside the point. You have to remove the cloak of the partisan, and assume the garb of the thespian. Instead of prosecuting the Confederate perspective, you have to interrogate it, and ultimately assume it. In no small measure, to understand them, you must become them. For me to seriously consider the words of the slave-holder, which is to say the mind of the slave-holder, for me to see them as human beings, as full and as complicated as anyone else I know, a strange transcendence is requested. I am losing my earned, righteous skin. I know that beef is our birthright, that all our grievance is just. But for want of seeing more, I am compelled to let it go.
More than any other book, Mothers has confronted me with the hard work of compassion. It is Du Bois again, like loving Mencken, like saluting the technological genius of Birth Of A Nation, like loving all those black and white movies that did not love you. To understand, to get it, black people must, if only for the moment, get out of ourselves and see the world through the eyes of our tormentors.
Having seen some of that, I have come to see that our tormentors had tormentors, that the slave-holding woman was trapped by hoop-skirts and convention, that the man was trapped by lineage and human folly. The point of it all is not to clean anyone, is not exoneration. The point is a deeper level of knowing. The most powerful piece of art I've ever seen on the slave trade is Robert Hayden's "Middle Passage." The poem is mostly free of didactic condemnation, and almost entirely told in the voice of the slavers. And yet in what it doesn't say, in its willingness to cross over, it says so much.
In this society, we view compassion as a favor, something along the lines of forgiveness extended to the humble and deserving. No. My compassion is utterly selfish, and is rooted in a craving for power. It is compelled by my curiosity, itself, just another name for hunger, for desire, for want of the great power of knowing. It is not enough for me to sit around scoring morality points on dead people, all the while blind to the living morality of this troubled time. There's no power in that. I need to know more.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
When new countries rise to power, the transition can end badly, often in war. Harvard’s Graham Allison has argued in The Atlantic that “judging by the historical record, war is more likely than not” between the United States, the world’s current reigning superpower, and China, a rising military and economic force. There is considerable debate on this point, but American pundits and presidential candidates often talk as if China were already an American adversary; Donald Trump has warned, for example, that China will “take us down.” Yet few in the United States seem worried about Asia’s other rising giant, India.
To the contrary, there’s a temptation to support India, a like-minded democracy, as a counterweight against the growing power of authoritarian China. But if American leaders feel confident India can accumulate power without becoming an antagonist, can they find a way to make the same true for China?
For centuries, philosophers and theologians have almost unanimously held that civilization as we know it depends on a widespread belief in free will—and that losing this belief could be calamitous. Our codes of ethics, for example, assume that we can freely choose between right and wrong. In the Christian tradition, this is known as “moral liberty”—the capacity to discern and pursue the good, instead of merely being compelled by appetites and desires. The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant reaffirmed this link between freedom and goodness. If we are not free to choose, he argued, then it would make no sense to say we ought to choose the path of righteousness.
Today, the assumption of free will runs through every aspect of American politics, from welfare provision to criminal law. It permeates the popular culture and underpins the American dream—the belief that anyone can make something of themselves no matter what their start in life. As Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, American “values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”
The author Moira Weigel argues that the various courtship rituals of the past hundred-odd years have reflected the labor-market conditions of their day.
Love, it turns out, has always been a lot of work.
While every generation will lament anew the fact that finding love is hard, history seems to indicate that this particular social ritual never gets any easier or less exciting. In Labor of Love, a new book documenting the history of dating in America, Moira Weigel, a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at Yale University, confirms this lament: Since dating was “invented,” it has always been an activity that required a lot of effort.
As part of her research, Weigel read dating-advice books from the 1800s and hundreds of articles on dating from teen and women’s magazines over the years, and she found two common themes: First, there is usually an older part of the population that perceives dating to be “dying,” or, at least, as not being done “appropriately.” Second, Weigel found that the way people date has almost always been tied to the market forces of their era.
Recent polls shown increasing support for the former governor, who’s hoping to win the Libertarian Party’s nomination this weekend.
If Gary Johnson wants to make it onto a primetime presidential-debate stage as the Libertarian Party’s nominee, he needs to qualify by polling above 15 percent. If he wants to be the nominee, he needs a strong showing at the party’s convention this weekend. And if he wants a strong showing at the convention, he needs to demonstrate to delegates that he’s their party’s ideal standard-bearer—a candidate who can be even a little competitive in a three-way matchup with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Johnson just got good news: A poll released Tuesday morning shows the candidate with 10 percent of the national vote.
The Morning Consult survey puts Clinton at 38 percent, Trump at 35 percent, and Johnson, the two-term former New Mexico governor who also ran for president in 2012, trailing with 10 percent. For any other candidate, that low number would be a sign that the end is near. But not for Johnson, or other third-party candidates hoping to make it big in an election year when many voters will likely hold their noses as they cast their ballots. The 10-percent figure is close to a personal best for Johnson as a presidential candidate; poll analysts note that it is roughly twice as high as Johnson’s figures from the last cycle.
How a strange face in a random 19th-century newspaper ad became a portal to a forgotten moment in ASCII art history
One of the joys of modern technology is how easy it is to immerse yourself in the past. Every day, more libraries and archives are pushing pieces of their collections online in easily browsable interfaces.
The deadline to enter the National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest is fast approaching—entries will be accepted until May 27, 2016.
The deadline to enter the National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest is fast approaching—entries will be accepted until May 27, 2016. The grand prize winner will receive a seven-day Polar Bear Safari for two in Churchill, Canada. National Geographic was once more kind enough to allow me to share some of this year’s entries with you here, gathered from three categories: Nature, Cities, and People. The photos and captions were written by the photographers.
The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world.
Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
Beginning in July of this year, most everywhere we look, there will be a giant number on our food. The change will affect hundreds of thousands of edible products, and, so, hundreds of millions of people. It will affect the way we think about food for decades. (This update is the first in more than 20 years—so long ago that the FDA earnestly describes its current label design as “iconic.”)
Current nutrition labels, legally required on all packaged foods, are to be be replaced with the explicit purpose of improving people’s health. As Michelle Obama said at the unveiling of the new labels on Friday, “Very soon, you will no longer need a microscope, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition to figure out whether the food you’re buying is actually good for our kids.”
A continuation of Valve’s acclaimed sci-fi series has been promised for 10 years, but seems no closer to fruition.
Ten years ago today, the video-game company Valve announced that Half-Life 2: Episode Three, the newest and much-anticipated chapter in its acclaimed sci-fi shooter series, would be out by the end of 2007. This was hardly surprising news: Valve had already released one episodic sequel to its smash hit Half-Life 2, and the second was due out soon. Still, news of Episode Three as “the last in a trilogy” was exciting to fans. Ten years later, they’re still waiting—and the new edition of Half-Life has gone from a eagerly awaited work to gaming history’s most famous piece of “vaporware”—a product announced to the public that the developer has no plans of actually making or releasing.
Since that announcement, Valve has released a dozen games, including the acclaimed Portal and Portal 2 and multiplayer smash hits like Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2. But Half-Life 2 sequels ended with Episode Two, and over the years, Valve’s party line on a new installment went from a firm commitment to vague promises to tight-lipped refusals to say anything at all. The longer things go on, the more impossible everyone’s expectations become—if a new Half-Life were ever released, the hype would be unimaginably hard to match, and yet Valve’s initial promise hasonly added to the franchise’s mystique.