While we can continue to abhor the system of human bondage that flourished in the Old South, there is much we can learn from a more dispassionate examination of the arguments used to defend it. We have sought to distance the slaveholders and their creed, to define them as very unlike ourselves. Yet their processes of rationalization and self-justification were not so very different from our own, or from those of any civilization of human actors. The persistence of modern racism is but one forceful reminder of the ways that human beings always view the world in terms of inherited systems of belief and explanation that only partially reflect the reality they are meant to describe. By understanding how others have fashioned and maintained their systems of meaning, we shall be better equipped to evaluate, criticize and perhaps even change our own.
This is basically why Faust is my favorite historian of the Civil War, and maybe my favorite period. I don't know if that's an accolade worth repeating; I am, quite flagrantly, an amateur and surely the benefit of this site is to conversate with the actual professionals (Deathbypapers, Cynic, Sara Mayeux, etc.) who populate this space and could probably offer a more informed critique. But, for my taste, Faust rather brilliantly combines the best of history with the best of fiction. This isn't to say fiction, as in making things up, but fiction as in being obsessed with character and story, with the workings of actual humans. She is, to my eye, E.L. Doctorow--but in reverse.
This quote is from her anthology Southern Stories, a collection of some of her essays. They are fascinating. I've spent much of my adult life groping at what it meant to be a slave, and I think I have some understanding. But much more elusive to me is what it meant to be a slave-master. We have come to a point where we stress granting the slave humanity in the story we tell. I think this is, quite possibly, the easier portion of our labor. The slaves are sympathetic; they are almost ennobled by their suffering. The master class, though, can easily be rendered the spawn of Yacub, and granting them humanity can feel like absolution. For if they are human, and we are human, if there is no real difference between us, what right have we to hold them to account?
I have no actual answer for that question, mostly because I am not so much obsessed with holding them to account as I am with understanding how they could it. With that in mind, granting them humanity is not absolution, it is a necessity. It is not the soft-minded relativism of political hacks and trend-spotting journalists. It is the muscular, essential, compassion of ordinary intellectuals, of those who write to live. It must be true that I could have been a slave, or slave-master, for if it is not, how else can I understand?
Recognizing our world is filled with creationists, liars, charlatans and necromancers, we should not live for them. We can not practice history, even at this lay level, with the strict aim of humiliating that racist dude at the barbecue. It must be more than Houdinism, more than corrective, disabusing and debunking. There has to be something beyond evil. Crying evil is not enough. Understand and confront their "systems of meaning," and maybe--just maybe--we can come to understand and confront our own.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle and the forthcoming Between the World and Me.
Orr: “Sometimes a thing happens. Splits your life. There’s a before and after. I got like five of them at this point.”
This was Frank offering a pep talk to the son of his murdered former henchman Stan in tonight’s episode. (More on this in a moment.) But it’s also a line that captures this season of True Detective so perfectly that it almost seems like a form of subliminal self-critique.
Remember when Ray got shot in episode two and appeared to be dead but came back with a renewed sense of purpose and stopped drinking. No? That’s okay. Neither does the show: It was essentially forgotten after the subsequent episode. Remember when half a dozen (or more) Vinci cops were killed in a bloody shootout along with dozen(s?) of civilians? No? Fine: True Detective’s left that behind, too. Unless I missed it, there was not a single mention of this nationally historic bloodbath tonight.
Educators seldom have enough time to do their business. What’s that doing to the state of learning?
It’s common knowledge that teachers today are stressed, that they feel underappreciated and disrespected, and disillusioned. It’s no wonder they’re ditching the classroom at such high rates—to the point where states from Indiana to Arizona to Kansas are dealing with teacher shortages. Meanwhile, the number of American students who go into teaching is steadily dropping.
A recent survey conducted jointly by the American Federation of Teachers and Badass Teachers Association asked educators about the quality of their worklife, and it got some pretty harrowing feedback. Just 15 percent of the 30,000 respondents, for example, strongly agreed that they’re enthusiastic about the profession. Compare that to the roughly 90 percent percent who strongly agreed that they were enthusiastic about it when they started their career, and it’s clear that something has changed about schools that’s pushing them away. Roughly three in four respondents said they “often” feel stressed by their jobs.
How a radical epilepsy treatment in the early 20th century paved the way for modern-day understandings of perception, consciousness, and the self
In 1939, a group of 10 people between the ages of 10 and 43, all with epilepsy, traveled to the University of Rochester Medical Center, where they would become the first people to undergo a radical new surgery.
The patients were there because they all struggled with violent and uncontrollable seizures. The procedure they were about to have was untested on humans, but they were desperate—none of the standard drug therapies for seizures had worked.
Between February and May of 1939, their surgeon William Van Wagenen, Rochester’s chief of neurosurgery, opened up each patient’s skull and cut through the corpus callosum, the part of the brain that connects the left hemisphere to the right and is responsible for the transfer of information between them. It was a dramatic move: By slicing through the bundle of neurons connecting the two hemispheres, Van Wagenen was cutting the left half of the brain away from the right, halting all communication between the two.
Has the Obama administration’s pursuit of new beginnings blinded it to enduring enmities?
“The president said many times he’s willing to step out of the rut of history.” In this way Ben Rhodes of the White House, who over the years has broken new ground in the grandiosity of presidential apologetics, described the courage of Barack Obama in concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Islamic Republic of Iran, otherwise known as the Iran deal. Once again Rhodes has, perhaps inadvertently, exposed the president’s premises more clearly than the president likes to do. The rut of history: It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present. It expresses also a generational view of history, which, like the view of history in terms of decades and centuries, is one of the shallowest views of all.
Companies that overvalue alpha-male behavior need to change—both to retain female talent and for the bottom line.
When it comes to gender equality in the workplace, the research on its economic benefits is clear: Equality can boost profits and enhance reputation. And then there’s also the fact that it’s more fair. But the progress of women in the workplace is so far inadequate: Women are woefully underrepresented in executive positions, the pay gap persists, and the motherhood penalty is very real.
Barbara Annis is the founder of the Gender Intelligence Group, a consultancy that works with executives at major firms (including Deloitte, American Express, BMO Financial Group, and eBay) to create strategies to transform their work cultures into ones that are friendly to both men and women.
I recently spoke with Annis about her work and the challenges to achieving gender parity. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for clarity.
A controversial treatment shows promise, especially for victims of trauma.
It’s straight out of a cartoon about hypnosis: A black-cloaked charlatan swings a pendulum in front of a patient, who dutifully watches and ping-pongs his eyes in turn. (This might be chased with the intonation, “You are getting sleeeeeepy...”)
Unlike most stereotypical images of mind alteration—“Psychiatric help, 5 cents” anyone?—this one is real. An obscure type of therapy known as EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is gaining ground as a potential treatment for people who have experienced severe forms of trauma.
Here’s the idea: The person is told to focus on the troubling image or negative thought while simultaneously moving his or her eyes back and forth. To prompt this, the therapist might move his fingers from side to side, or he might use a tapping or waving of a wand. The patient is told to let her mind go blank and notice whatever sensations might come to mind. These steps are repeated throughout the session.
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.
Millions of workers now go it alone—who will provide them with basic labor protections?
When Sara Horowitz founded the Freelancers Union in 1995, there was already evidence that the structure of people's work lives was changing.
Publishing and media jobs had started to move to more project-based work. Horowitz, a union organizer and labor lawyer by training, assumed that other industries would follow. As an expert in labor unions, she thought “it was really important to start thinking about how people [can] come together” to change laws and public policy, so that freelancers can obtain job-related “benefits—and community.”
Today, the Brooklyn-based Freelancers Union boasts nearly 300,000 members, having quadrupled in numbers in just seven years. Freelancers in the union include technology consultants, copywriters, web designers, visual artists, business-development consultants, journalists, and professional coaches. They live all over the country, with concentrations in New York, New Jersey, and California.
Exceptional nonfiction stories from 2014 that are still worth encountering today
Each year, I keep a running list of exceptional nonfiction that I encounter as I publish The Best ofJournalism, an email newsletter that I send out once or twice a week. This is my annual attempt to bring some of those stories to a wider audience. I could not read or note every worthy article that was published last calendar year and I haven't included any paywalled articles or anything published at The Atlantic. But everything that follows is worthy of wider attention and engagement.
Some experts say the normal effects of severe adversity may be misdiagnosed as ADHD.
Dr. Nicole Brown’s quest to understand her misbehaving pediatric patients began with a hunch.
Brown was completing her residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, when she realized that many of her low-income patients had been diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
These children lived in households and neighborhoods where violence and relentless stress prevailed. Their parents found them hard to manage and teachers described them as disruptive or inattentive. Brown knew these behaviors as classic symptoms of ADHD, a brain disorder characterized by impulsivity, hyperactivity, and an inability to focus.
When Brown looked closely, though, she saw something else: trauma. Hyper-vigilance and dissociation, for example, could be mistaken for inattention. Impulsivity might be brought on by a stress response in overdrive.