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.
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
The June 23 vote represents a huge popular rebellion against a future in which British people feel increasingly crowded within—and even crowded out of—their own country.
I said goodnight to a gloomy party of Leave-minded Londoners a few minutes after midnight. The paper ballots were still being counted by hand. Only the British overseas territory of Gibraltar had reported final results. Yet the assumption of a Remain victory filled the room—and depressed my hosts. One important journalist had received a detailed briefing earlier that evening of the results of the government’s exit polling: 57 percent for Remain.
The polling industry will be one victim of the Brexit vote. A few days before the vote, I met with a pollster who had departed from the cheap and dirty methods of his peers to perform a much more costly survey for a major financial firm. His results showed a comfortable margin for Remain. Ten days later, anyone who heeded his expensive advice suffered the biggest percentage losses since the 2008 financial crisis.
American society increasingly mistakes intelligence for human worth.
As recently as the 1950s, possessing only middling intelligence was not likely to severely limit your life’s trajectory. IQ wasn’t a big factor in whom you married, where you lived, or what others thought of you. The qualifications for a good job, whether on an assembly line or behind a desk, mostly revolved around integrity, work ethic, and a knack for getting along—bosses didn’t routinely expect college degrees, much less ask to see SAT scores. As one account of the era put it, hiring decisions were “based on a candidate having a critical skill or two and on soft factors such as eagerness, appearance, family background, and physical characteristics.”
The 2010s, in contrast, are a terrible time to not be brainy. Those who consider themselves bright openly mock others for being less so. Even in this age of rampant concern over microaggressions and victimization, we maintain open season on the nonsmart. People who’d swerve off a cliff rather than use a pejorative for race, religion, physical appearance, or disability are all too happy to drop the s‑bomb: Indeed, degrading others for being “stupid” has become nearly automatic in all forms of disagreement.
The Internet caused my addiction, but it also helped me find a cure.
About a year ago, I was regularly seeing a therapist. During one session, I mentioned the niche porn I had watched and how I was unsure whether or not I wanted to embrace some of the "kinkier" fantasies, like rape and incest, through role-play in my real sex life. It was the only time I could remember her telling me that certain fantasies--not acted out in real life, just imagined--could be "wrong" or considered a "sickness." In retrospect, understanding my condition as an illness might actually have been empowering if explained differently, but at the time, it shut me right up. I never brought it up to her again.
I'm not alone in feeling silenced. Every day it prevents a lot of people from recovering. From porn.
How the Brexit vote activated some of the most politically destabilizing forces threatening the U.K.
Among the uncertainties unleashed by the Brexit referendum, which early Friday morning heralded the United Kingdom’s coming breakup with the European Union, was what happens to the “union” of the United Kingdom itself. Ahead of the vote, marquee campaign themes included, on the “leave” side, the question of the U.K.’s sovereignty within the European Union—specifically its ability to control migration—and, on the “remain” side, the economic benefits of belonging to the world’s largest trading bloc, as well as the potentially catastrophic consequences of withdrawing from it. Many of the key arguments on either side concerned the contours of the U.K.-EU relationship, and quite sensibly so. “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” was, after all, the precise question people were voting on.
Demographic data shows that a Briton’s education level may be the strongest indication of how he or she voted.
Britain has voted to leave the European Union. The news surprised many people, including the British, who have learned that while brushing off early statistical warnings is tempting, it doesn’t make it any easier when those warnings turn out to be right. Give yourselves a break, I say: Polls are fickle, anecdote is limited, and prevailing wisdom is sometimes impossible to shake. (Though these remorseful Brexit voters don’t have an excuse.)
There’s a silver lining for statistics, however. With the close of Britain’s referendum, political analysts now have a concrete dataset to examine: the actual vote totals in the United Kingdom. This data, when matched with regional demographic information from the U.K. Census, gives insight into who actually voted to leave or remain.
Shedding pounds is usually a losing battle—research suggests it’s better to just focus on building a healthy lifestyle.
“My own history of yo-yo dieting started when I was 15 and lasted about three decades,” said Sandra Aamodt, a neuroscientist and the author of Why Diets Make Us Fat, at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Saturday. “I lost the same 15 pounds pretty much every year during that same period, and gained it back regular as clockwork.”
This is a classic tale—the diet that doesn’t take, the weight loss that comes right back. The most recent, extreme, highly publicized case was that of the study done on contestants from the reality show The Biggest Loser, most of whom, six years after losing 100 to 200 pounds, had gained most of it back, and had significantly slowed metabolisms.
The study provided a dramatic example of how the body fights against weight loss. And sheer force of will is rarely sufficient to fight back.
The U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union betrays a failure of empathy and imagination among its leaders. Will America’s political establishment fare any better?
If there is a regnant consensus among the men and women who steer the Western world, it is this: The globe is flattening. Borders are crumbling. Identities are fluid. Commerce and communications form the warp and woof, weaving nations into the tight fabric of a global economy. People are free to pursue opportunity, enriching their new homes culturally and economically. There may be painful dislocations along the way, but the benefits of globalization heavily outweigh its costs. And those who cannot see this, those who would resist it, those who would undo it—they are ignorant of their own interests, bigoted, xenophobic, and backward.
So entrenched is this consensus that, for decades, in most Western democracies, few mainstream political parties have thought to challenge it. They have left it to the politicians on the margins of the left and the right to give voice to such sentiments—and voicing such sentiments relegated politicians to the margins of political life.
What if columnists wrote about the U.K. the way they do about the Middle East?
London, Britain. June 2016.
You can learn everything you need to know about the EU referendum in the United Kingdom by talking to just two people in London: the taxi driver and the millennial entrepreneur-type person. They’ve never met—the taxi driver doesn’t hang out in trendy places and the millennial entrepreneur-type person uses Uber instead of traditional London cabs—but by talking to each for 10 minutes I gathered enough quotes to allow me to write knowledgeably about this debate that has inflamed passions on this small island. And I’m confident to declare that the hatreds underlying the debate are too deep-rooted for the United Kingdom—an arbitrary amalgamation of tribes that have existed in tension for centuries—to remain united.