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.
Just why was Tom Hanks dancing in a black-and-orange suit on Saturday Night Live so funny?
This weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live offered a mini masterpiece: a gloriously silly Halloween-themed piece revolving around a “Haunted Elevator” ride and its unusual star attraction. Beck Bennett and Kate McKinnon played a couple looking for spooky thrills who instead found something far more bewildering: a pumpkin-suited man who would randomly appear alongside two cheerful skeletons and perform a dance routine. “Who are you?” asked a frustrated Bennett after the man (played by Tom Hanks) appeared for the second time. “I’m David Pumpkins!” came the reply.
McKinnon followed up: “Yeah, and David Pumpkins is … ?”
Tom Hanks’s Doug has a lot in common with “Black Jeopardy” contestants—except, of course, for politics.
SNL’s ongoing “Black Jeopardy” series has been, in part, about divisions. In each edition, black American contestants answer Kenan Thompson’s clues with in-jokes, slang, and their shared opinions while an outsider—say, Elizabeth Banks as the living incarnation of Becky, Louis C.K. as a BYU African American Studies professor, or Drake as a black Canadian—just show their cluelessness.
When Tom Hanks showed up in a “Make America Great Again” hat and bald-eagle shirt to play the contestant “Doug” this weekend, it seemed like the set-up for the ugliest culture clash yet. The 2016 election has been a reminder of the country’s profound racial fault lines, and SNL hasn’t exactly been forgiving toward the Republican nominee on that front: Its version of Trump hasn’t been able to tell black people apart, and it aired a mock ad painting his supporters as white supremacists—which, inarguably, some of them really are.
In the 1970s, a new wave of post-Watergate liberals stopped fighting monopoly power. The result is an increasingly dangerous political system.
It was January 1975, and the Watergate Babies had arrived in Washington looking for blood. The Watergate Babies—as the recently elected Democratic congressmen were known—were young, idealistic liberals who had been swept into office on a promise to clean up government, end the war in Vietnam, and rid the nation’s capital of the kind of corruption and dirty politics the Nixon White House had wrought. Richard Nixon himself had resigned just a few months earlier in August. But the Watergate Babies didn’t just campaign against Nixon; they took on the Democratic establishment, too. Newly elected Representative George Miller of California, then just 29 years old, announced, “We came here to take the Bastille.”
Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.
In 1995, if you had told Toby Spribille that he’d eventually overthrow a scientific idea that’s been the stuff of textbooks for 150 years, he would have laughed at you. Back then, his life seemed constrained to a very different path. He was raised in a Montana trailer park, and home-schooled by what he now describes as a “fundamentalist cult.” At a young age, he fell in love with science, but had no way of feeding that love. He longed to break away from his roots and get a proper education.
At 19, he got a job at a local forestry service. Within a few years, he had earned enough to leave home. His meager savings and non-existent grades meant that no American university would take him, so Spribille looked to Europe.
Trump supporters are convinced Democrats are using “oversampling” to stuff the polls in Hillary Clinton’s favor. But they’re just wrong about statistics.
Late last night, pro-Trump Twitter lit up with excited chatter. Donald Trump is falling fast in the polls, sliding through a month-long decline most statisticians would say is a result of him being, you know, unpopular. (And maybe this. Or this. Or this.) But one blogger had another theory: Polling organizations are deliberately interviewing more Democrats to skew the surveys toward Hillary Clinton.
This afternoon, Trump threw his support behind the idea. “When the polls are even, when they leave them alone and do them properly, I’m leading,” he said at a rally in Florida. “But you see these polls where they’re polling Democrats. How’s Trump doing? Oh, he’s down. They’re polling Democrats. The system is corrupt and it’s rigged and it’s broken.”
What use is there today for one of the oldest virtues?
As many Americans go about their days, I imagine they have two little angels perched on their shoulders, whispering conflicting messages about happiness and material wealth. One angel is embodied by James Altucher, a minimalist self-help guru recently profiled by The New York Times. Altucher claims to have only 15 possessions, after having unburdened himself a few months ago of 40 garbage bags’ worth of stuff and never looking back. As I read about Altucher, I rolled the numbers 15 and 40 over in my mind, thinking about the belongings in my bedroom and the garbage bags under my kitchen sink.
The other angel is Tyler Brûlé, the editor in chief of the fantastically high-end lifestyle magazine Monocle and a columnist for the Financial Times. He is the sort of writer who tosses off such lines as “I zipped along the autostrada through the Val d’Aosta with the ever-trusty Mario (my Italian driver for the past 20 years) at the wheel” with little regard for how privileged and pretentious he sounds (especially in his superfluous parentheticals). Still, there is something, I’m a little ashamed to say, that I envy about Brûlé’s effortless cosmopolitanism—which, it’s hard to miss, is only made possible by unusual wealth.
As I’ve written, one way some men are responding to their slipping place in the social hierarchy is by supporting Donald Trump, whose rhetoric hearkens to a less progressive, more traditional time.
But another way men react to having their masculinity threatened is stealthier. They do fewer chores, according to an analysis by Dan Cassino, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and his wife Yasemin Besen-Cassino, from Montclair State University, which relied on the American Time Use Study. According to their findings, men especially avoid housework just when you’d think they would pick up the slack: When they make less than their wives do.
Answering a common question from a polarizing election cycle
Our major party candidates have historically high disapproval ratings. So I am often asked, usually by people in “blue” enclaves, “How can anyone vote for him?” and by people in “red” enclaves, “How can anyone vote for her?” Since I live in coastal California, and because so many more Americans presently intend to vote for Hillary Clinton, rather than Donald Trump, who is disapproved of by significantly more people, I hear “how can anyone vote Trump” more than the reverse.
And I myself could never vote Trump, so I get the confusion on some level––I might even share it if I hadn’t spent time with so many Trump supporters who are good people, not “deplorables” (though there is a faction of deplorable Trump supporters). Still, the answer I’ve started giving Clinton voters is probably as effective for similarly confounded Trump supporters. Without further ado, here it is:
By ridiculing Kid Cudi’s substance use and depression, he proves how much guts his rival had in fighting stigmas.
When the rapper Kid Cudi announced he’d checked himself into rehab for depression and suicidal thoughts earlier this month, it sparked a social-media conversation about stigmas around mental illness in America generally, and among black men specifically. The hashtag #YouGoodMan went viral, people shared their favorite hip-hop songs about mental health, and many praised Cudi for his courage in going public.
Now, a new track from Drake makes clear how powerful the stigma Cudi defied remains. In “Two Birds, One Stone,” the rapper seems to describe Cudi, saying,
You were the man on the moon
Now you just go through your phases
Life of the angry and famous
Rap like I know I'm the greatest
Then give you the tropical flavors
Still never been on hiatus
You stay xanned and perked up
So when reality set in you don’t gotta face it