How a jog around the National Mall inspired thoughts of national and personal pride
It's become a thing with me to get in at least one run when I'm out of town. I find this habit rather bewildering. In my head, I'm still living in some basement apartment in Brooklyn, cradling a one-year old, wondering at my fatherly qualifications, and scarfing ridiculous amounts of sugar -- in all forms -- like so many Scoobie Snacks. My 20s could be aptly labeled, with two major exceptions, a bad time for the empire. That being the first decade of adulthood, I just assumed that I was being offered a preview of my life. Perhaps I was.
It is a treasured corollary of the American Dream that most people who are successful in midlife were losers in high school. As you enter adult life, values change and the deck is reshuffled. You get another chance, and maybe, if you're lucky, the last laugh. But it isn't the last laugh. The deck is shuffled again as you enter the last chapter. How long you live, how fast you age, whether you win or lose the cancer sweepstakes or the Parkinson's bingo--all these have little to do with the factors that determined your success or failure in the previous round.
And there is justice in that.
...and stand humbled.
Whatever goodness has found me in my 30s -- and I have had a share -- is no more predictive than the evil of my younger years. Disease happens. Addiction tracks you down. Nothing is promised; death is the only contract that binds. Still, there are times when I know, at least for this moment, something has changed and the chaos has briefly broken my way.
Those moments mostly find me in bright shorts, a white shirt, and New Balance, waddling through some strange city -- down Austin's Colorado River, up San Francisco's killer hills, across the pebble path of the Capitol Mall. I am, in no sense of the word, "fast." My technique is to sleep in my gear, rise as early as can be deemed respectable, lumber along for some number of miles, and then return overly pleased in the fact that, at least on that day, I have done something.
This is how I found myself, at the end of last week, breaking through the dark, Union Station in the background, making my way past the Capitol, back (I think) around the Supreme Court, down to the Washington Monument, and then turning to complete an impromptu circuit. For me the benefits of running have always been more mental, than physical. It is the time alone, and the quasi-meditative state, I reach after about 20 minutes. Things that I can't process sitting at a desk assume a sort of clarity in the miles, and questions I had not thought to ask about, everything from the personal to the professional, come into focus.
My cynicism has been dulled by my excursions into history.
Out there, on the Mall, among the monuments, in this state, it all came at me -- the recent readings of American history, my own movements through life -- and it congealed into the oddest thing: an intense pride in country.
I spend much of this blog discussing race and teasing at the problems of American history. I think that it would be easy to see in that a scornful, pessimistic and cynical view of the country. On the contrary, I was much more scornful and pessimistic in my nationalist days. It's easier to attack the alleged fallacies of American democracy in the abstract. I've found it increasingly harder to do when measuring the country against the breadth of human history. My roots are radical and nationalist. I regularly depend on the skepticism gifted to me by the radical/nationalist tradition. Still, my cynicism has been dulled by my excursions into history.
I don't know if "American Exceptionalism" means much in this age, but it did, once. In The Feminist Promise, Christine Stansell notes that in 1850, America was the last standing democracy in the Atlantic world. That claim must be qualified by the broad swath of Americans -- blacks, immigrants, women -- who were disenfranchised. At the end of the 19th century, Stansell notes that Utah and Colorado were two of the only places in the entire world where women could vote. The hackneyed notion that "America is a beacon for democracy" is usually deployed in arrogance. But in the time of Abraham Lincoln, it was a demonstrable fact.
I think of my parents born into a socially engineered poverty, and I think of their children enjoying the fruits (social mobility) garnered by the nonviolent, democratic assault on that social engineering. And then I consider that for centuries, over the entire world, if your parents were peasants, you were a peasant, as were your children.
I think it is proper to be proud of that change. I would not argue for a pride that insists America has worked out all of its problems, and evidences that work by exporting its institutions via tank and bomber. I would argue for a studied pride, a gratitude, that understands all that was sacrificed, that we could have easily tilted the other way, that the experiment is still, even now, fragile, and remains in constant need of the lost 19th century concept of improvement.
I didn't make it to the Lincoln Memorial, which is sad because I think Lincoln, more than any other president, was forced to grapple with the fragility of democracy. But here is what I did see at the end of my circuit--the oft-overlooked memorial to Ulysses Grant.
The sun was coming up. The city had just begun to shine. I took this awful picture. Then I kept running.
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.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
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.
On the desperation behind the migrant tragedy in Austria
On Thursday, as Krishnadev Calamur has been tracking in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, Austrian authorities made a ghastly discovery: a truck abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children. They are thoughtto be the corpses of migrants who suffocated to death, perhaps two days earlier, in the bowels of a vehicle whose back door was locked shut and refrigeration and ventilation systems weren’t functional. Stray identity documents suggest that at least some of the victims were Syrian—refugees from that country’s brutal civil war. The truck featured an image of a chicken and a slogan from the Slovakian poultry company that the lorry once belonged to: “I taste so good because they feed me so well.”
Protofeather fossils discovered entombed in amber from the Late Cretaceous era support theories of dinosaur and avian evolution
Protofeather fossils discovered entombed in amber from the Late Cretaceous era support theories of dinosaur and avian evolution -- and make for one beautiful gallery
Dinosaur and bird feathers preserved in amber from a Late Cretaceous site in Canada reveal new insights into the structure, function, and color of animals that date back to about 78 million years ago.
Researchers led by University of Alberta paleontologist Ryan McKellar say these specimens represent distinct stages of feather evolution, from early-stage, single filament protofeathers to much more complex structures associated with modern diving birds. After analyzing the preserved pigment cells, the authors add that these feathered creatures may have also had a range of transparent, mottled, and diffused colors, similar to birds today. They can't determine which feathers belonged to birds or dinosaurs yet, but they did observe filament structures that are similar to those seen in other non-avian dinosaur fossils. Their findings appear in the current issue of the journal Science.
This is a low-stress way to ease back into the ancient art of blogging. Our leaders, from J.J. Gould to Chris Bodenner, have explained the logic behind this new feature on The Atlantic’s site here. My colleagues, including Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg, have gotten into the swing of things as you will read.
Hikers on a moonlit night in Mexico, a massive ball pit in Washington, D.C., Usain Bolt taken down by a Segway in China, a squirrel monkey riding a capybara in Japan, and much more.
Hikers on a moonlit night in Mexico, Homer Simpson calls for calm at a protest in Chile, Kumbh Mela in India, a massive ball pit in Washington, D.C., Usain Bolt taken down by a Segway in China, a squirrel monkey riding a capybara in Japan, a conference of Furry enthusiasts in Germany, and much more.
A 2003 explosion in Najaf was to the Middle East’s Sunni-Shiite war what Gavrilo Princip’s bullets were to the First World War. I was there.
After the bomb blast, the sky rained dried fruit, nuts, and candy.
It was shortly after noon on August 29, 2003, outside the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, Iraq. I had just entered a long, narrow street leading to the shrine when the massive explosion shook its walls. I ran toward the smoke in what seemed like dead silence: I had been temporarily deafened by the blast. The alley had turned dark, as if in a sudden solar eclipse. And showering down on me from the swirling black plume were dried apricots, almonds, and brightly colored lozenges. I would learn later that they were from the street vendors’ carts lining the walls of the shrine, blown into the air by the explosion.
A new study pinpoints the Facebook status updates that irk us to the point of no return.
In the 1997 movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the two title characters, worried that they haven’t done anything noteworthy to share at said reunion, decide instead to lie and claim they invented Post-it notes.
Their story quickly unravels, of course, but had the movie been made a decade later, even the very concept of the ruse would have been impossible. Everyone would have known about Romy’s daily slog at the Jaguar dealership through Facebook.
Or would they?
The ebb and flow of Facebook friendships has become fruitful territory for social scientists in recent years. At least 63 percent of people report having unfriended someone on Facebook, but what prompts these digital rejections can tell us a lot about both the nature of real-life friendship and about how we manage our online personalities.