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.
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.
As the world frets over Greece, a separate crisis looms in China.
This summer has not been calm for the global economy. In Europe, a Greek referendum this Sunday may determine whether the country will remain in the eurozone. In North America, meanwhile, the governor of Puerto Rico claimed last week that the island would be unable to pay off its debts, raising unsettling questions about the health of American municipal bonds.
But the season’s biggest economic crisis may be occurring in Asia, where shares in China’s two major stock exchanges have nosedived in the past three weeks. Since June 12, the Shanghai stock exchange has lost 24 percent of its value, while the damage in the southern city of Shenzhen has been even greater at 30 percent. The tumble has already wiped out more than $2.4 trillion in wealth—a figure roughly 10 times the size of Greece’s economy.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
A new book by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne tackles arguments that the two institutions are compatible.
In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
Be kind, show understanding, do good—but, some scientists say, don’t try to feel others’ pain.
In 2006, then-senator Barack Obama gave a commencement speech offering what seemed like very sensible advice. “There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit,” he told Northwestern’s graduating class. “But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit—the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”
In the years since then, the country has followed Obama’s counsel, at least when it comes to talking about empathy. It’s become a buzzword, extolled by Arianna Huffington, taught to doctors and cops, and used as a test for politicians. "We are on the cusp of an epic shift,” according to Jeremy Rifkin’s 2010 book The Empathetic Civilization. “The Age of Reason is being eclipsed by the Age of Empathy."
The Fourth of July—a time we Americans set aside to celebrate our independence and mark the war we waged to achieve it, along with the battles that followed. There was the War of 1812, the War of 1833, the First Ohio-Virginia War, the Three States' War, the First Black Insurrection, the Great War, the Second Black Insurrection, the Atlantic War, the Florida Intervention.
Confused? These are actually conflicts invented for the novel The Disunited States of Americaby Harry Turtledove, a prolific (and sometimes-pseudonymous) author of alternate histories with a Ph.D. in Byzantine history. The book is set in the 2090s in an alternate United States that is far from united. In fact, the states, having failed to ratify a constitution following the American Revolution, are separate countries that oscillate between cooperating and warring with one another, as in Europe.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
Highlights from seven days of reading about entertainment
British Cinemas Need to Do Better for Black Audiences
Simran Hans | Buzzfeed
“The myth that black people don’t go to the cinema becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, predicated on the assumption that cinemagoers are only interested in seeing themselves represented on screen. This seems to be at the heart of the problem.”
Hump Day: The Utterly OMG Magic Mike XXL
Wesley Morris | Grantland
“Not since the days of peak Travolta and Dirty Dancing has a film so perfectly nailed something essential about movie lust: Male vulnerability is hot, particularly when the man is dancing with and therefore for a woman. It aligns the entire audience with the complex prerogatives of female desire.”