I've been digging Shelby Foote's Civil War trilogy via Audiobook. In my present realm of study, there's just entirely too much to read. (Next up a book about fashion among slaves. No, seriously.) It sucks that it's so hard to find more obscure books in the audio version, and it sucks more that many of the voice actors are so bad.
That aside, Foote's book is pretty awesome. It's been whispered that he was filled with Southern bias, but I wonder if that has more to do with how he showed up in the film than with what he's actually written.McPherson's book is obviously awesome, but I think the first 200-300 pages--where he demolishes the notion that slavery wasn't the cause of the War--are its strength. (This, of course, like saying "speed" was Barry Sanders' strength.)
Foote isn't much interested in the causes of the War, as much as the personalities. The temptation is to charge him with ducking the issue. But I think in his focus on the people, you learn a lot about the causes. Here's a quote Foote digs up from the diary of a Confederate Louisiana woman (Julia Le Grand) after New Orleans falls to the Union:
This is a most cowardly struggle. these people can do nothing without gunboats. These passive instruments do their fighting for them. Beauregard in Tennessee can get no battle from them where they are protected by these huge block steamers. It is a best a dastardly way to fight. We should have had gunboats if the government had been efficient, wise or earnest. (Emphasis mine.)
The upshot seems to be that means employed by the North win are cowardice, while those same means in the hands of the South are efficiency and wisdom. This reasoning can be extended to hilarious ends--until armies are dismissed as cowards for using canons (These people can do nothing without artillery) charging with horses (These people can do nothing without hiding behind calvary) to firing an Enfield (These people can do nothing without their Springfields. Real men give the bayonet.)
It really is the same logic you see out on the street, ("You only kicked my ass, because I let you swing first.) or in sports ("The Saints only won, because of that lucky onside kick.") The logic proceeds from a deeply held notion, that at the core, somewhere in the bones, the speaker is essentially of better stock. You see this all through Southern propaganda in the Civil War--sometimes they literally speak of a "Southern race." The idea is that there is something about the Southerner, something intrinsic, that makes him a better fighter. Here's Sam Houston addressing that notion, while trying to stop Texas from seceding:
Some of you laugh to scorn the idea of bloodshed as the result of secession, but let me tell you what is coming....Your fathers and husbands, your sons and brothers, will be herded at the point of the bayonet....You may after the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, as a bare possibility, win Southern independence...but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of state rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction...they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.
This, of course, is the 19th century, and theories about race are wild. Modern racism styles black people as physical superior, and mentally inferior. But in the 19th century, white supremacy styled whites (and in the South, Southern whites specifically) as physically and mentally superior. No one claimed to fear meeting a black man in a dark alley--the logic held that he would run and cower before the white man, his superior in all things.
Knowing that, I think, gives us some perspective on the Lost Cause. Think of it: The South didn't have the North's great industrial power or cultural sway. But what they had was a military tradition. Southerners were fighters. They could say to the North, "You may have poetry and machines, but we both know I can kick your ass." I don't want to overstate this, but I suspect going into the war, no small part of Southern secessionist ideology was built on the ability to kick ass, and that ability being decisive.
But it wasn't. Moreover, it was the secessionist who took the ass-kicking, at the hands of a bunch of effete Northerners and cowardly runaway slaves. It was as if the AV club and the weed-heads got together and beat down the football team--in front of the cheerleaders. Or it's Tyson after Douglass. Indeed since the Confederates galloped out of Richmond, some portion of this country has always been Tyson dazed on the mat, groping for the mouth-piece.
There's a way of looking at the ugliness after Reconstruction--the rise of the Lost Cause, the Klan, the lynchings--as a tragic search for Southern white male identity. First the old slave patrols go. Then the Confederate Army is subdued and humiliated. Then blacks began to dominate "manly" athletic pursuits. Then Martin Luther King exposes the immorality of the Southern system. Reeling from each successive volley, the Southern racist--and really any white racist--is left with a question: If the Southern white man is proven inferior physically, mentally, and even morally, than what is he?
It is from this question that you get protests of "losing everything," or "illegals taking over everything," or "jihad in the White House." It's about identity, and the Confederate South not as geography but as an idea. I'd argue that--from the Confederate battle flag, to all-white country clubs, to the Muslim\terrorist Obama-- the search for identity continues to this day. The Civil War commenced an assault on an notion that was, by the War's onset, some 200 years in the making. My sense is that the unholy idea may require some 200 years of unmaking.
Let's talk in 2065. One way or another, I'll be around.
Black poverty is fundamentally distinct from white poverty—and so cannot be addressed without grappling with racism.
There have been a number of useful entries in the weeks since Senator Bernie Sanders declared himself against reparations. Perhaps the most clarifying comes from Cedric Johnson in a piece entitled, “An Open Letter To Ta-Nehisi Coates And The Liberals Who Love Him.” Johnson’s essay offers those of us interested in the problem of white supremacy and the question of economic class the chance to tease out how, and where, these two problems intersect. In Johnson’s rendition, racism, in and of itself, holds limited explanatory power when looking at the socio-economic problems which beset African Americans. “We continue to reach for old modes of analysis in the face of a changed world,” writes Johnson. “One where blackness is still derogated but anti-black racism is not the principal determinant of material conditions and economic mobility for many African Americans.”
Most people in the U.S. believe their country is going to hell. But they’re wrong. What a three-year journey by single-engine plane reveals about reinvention and renewal.
When news broke late last year of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, most people in the rest of the country, and even the state, probably had to search a map to figure out where the city was. I knew exactly, having grown up in the next-door town of Redlands (where the two killers lived) and having, by chance, spent a long period earlier in the year meeting and interviewing people in the unglamorous “Inland Empire” of Southern California as part of an ongoing project of reporting across America.
Some of what my wife, Deb, and I heard in San Bernardino before the shootings closely matched the picture that the nonstop news coverage presented afterward: San Bernardino as a poor, troubled town that sadly managed to combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole. San Bernardino went into bankruptcy in 2012 and was only beginning to emerge at the time of the shootings. Crime is high, household income is low, the downtown is nearly abandoned in the daytime and dangerous at night, and unemployment and welfare rates are persistently the worst in the state.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
As Coldplay blandly strained for the universal, she and Bruno Mars pulled off something more specific and more daring.
What a perfect Beyoncésong name: “Formation.” All great pop involves people acting in formation. So does all great change. And while fans scream that Beyoncé’s a “queen” and “goddess,” her core appeal really is as a drill sergeant. With Beyoncé in command, greatness is scalable, achievable, for the collective. Everyone waves their hands to the same beat. Everyone walks around like they have hot sauce in their bag.
But in pop and in politics, “everyone” is a loaded term. Stars as ubiquitous as Beyoncé have haters, the “albino alligators” who “Formation” informs us she twirls upon. And in a more general historical sense, “everyone” can be a dangerous illusion that elevates one point of view as universal while minimizing others. Beyoncé gets all of this, it seems. As a pop star, she surely wants to have as broad a reach as possible. But as an artist, she has a specific message, born of a specific experience, meaningful to specific people. Rather than pretend otherwise, she’s going to make art about the tension implied by this dynamic. She’s going to show up to Super Bowl with a phalanx of women dressed as Black Panthers.
Many are familiar with the challenges faced by working moms, but the troubles of women with aging parents are unseen and widely ignored.
For America’s working moms, there is pretty much an endless stream of resources to guide and comfort them on how to tell the boss they’re pregnant, how to find a private place to pump at work, how to negotiate flex time, how to split the chores at home, and whether or not to display pictures of their kids at the office. They can read all day and all night about the many stresses of working motherhood including pregnancy discrimination, the wage gap, the mommy wars, leaning in, and opting out. But for America’s working daughters, there is little to help them navigate between their careers and the needs of their aging parents.
There are currently 44 million unpaid eldercare providers in the United States according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the majority are women. And yet there are very few support programs, formal or informal, in place to support these family caregivers, many of whom are struggling at work and at home. Working daughters often find they need to switch to a less demanding job, take time off, or quit work altogether in order to make time for their caregiving duties. As a result, they suffer loss of wages and risk losing job-related benefits such as health insurance, retirement savings, and Social Security benefits. In fact, a study from MetLife and the National Alliance for Caregiving calculated women lose an average $324,044 in compensation due to caregiving.
After getting shut down late last year, a website that allows free access to paywalled academic papers has sprung back up in a shadowy corner of the Internet.
There’s a battle raging over whether academic research should be free, and it’s overflowing into the dark web.
Most modern scholarly work remains locked behind paywalls, and unless your computer is on the network of a university with an expensive subscription, you have to pay a fee, often around 30 dollars, to access each paper.
Many scholars say this system makes publishers rich—Elsevier, a company that controls access to more than 2,000 journals, has a market capitalization about equal to that of Delta Airlines—but does not benefit the academics that conducted the research, or the public at large. Others worry that free academic journals would have a hard time upholding the rigorous standards and peer reviews that the most prestigious paid journals are famous for.
One professor is borrowing a method from Harvard Business School to engage students and inspire better decision-making skills.
In a spacious classroom in Aldrich Hall on the Harvard Business School campus, 100 students are passionately discussing a case called “Battle Over a Bank.” But these aren’t MBA students deliberating over how much the government should regulate the financial sector. This group of mostly undergraduates, guided by the award-winning Harvard Business School professor David Moss, is diving into the fierce 1791 debate over whether the Constitution could be interpreted to allow the fledgling U.S. government the power to form a bank at all.
This class, “History of American Democracy,” is no pedestrian historical survey course. It uses the case method—the business school’s signature teaching technique—to immerse undergraduates (as well as a limited number of HBS students) in critical episodes in the development of American democracy.
For decades the Man of Steel has failed to find his groove, thanks to a continual misunderstanding of his strengths.
Superman should be invincible. Since his car-smashing debut in 1938, he’s starred in at least one regular monthly comic, three blockbuster films, and four television shows. His crest is recognized across the globe, his supporting cast is legendary, and anybody even vaguely familiar with comics can recount the broad strokes of his origin. (The writer Grant Morrison accomplished it in eight words: “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”) He’s the first of the superheroes, a genre that’s grown into a modern mass-media juggernaut.
And yet, for a character who gains his power from the light of the sun, Superman is curiously eclipsed by other heroes. According to numbers provided by Diamond Distributors, the long-running Superman comic sold only 55,000 copies a month in 2015, down from around 70,000 in 2010—a mediocre showing even for the famously anemic comic-book market. That’s significantly less than his colleague Batman, who last year moved issues at a comparatively brisk 150,000 a month. Mass media hasn’t been much kinder: The longest-running Superman television show, 2001’s Smallville, kept him out of his iconic suit for a decade. Superman Returns recouped its budget at the box office, but proved mostly forgettable.2013’s Man of Steel drew sharp criticism from critics and audiences alike for its bleak tone and rampaging finale. Trailers for the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have shifted the focus (and top billing) to the Dark Knight. Worst of all, conventional wisdom puts the blame on Superman himself. He’s boring, people say; he’s unrelatable, nothing like the Marvel characters dominating the sales charts and the box office. More than anything, he seems embarrassing. Look at him. Truth? Justice? He wears his underwear on the outside.
Tracking them down is a globe-trotting adventure that rivals any jungle expedition.
In the darkness of the Akeley Hall of Mammals, swarms of kids gawk at beautifully staged dioramas of Africa’s wildlife. The stuffed safari, nestled in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, includes taxidermied leopards stalking a bush pig, preserved ostriches strutting in front of warthogs, and long-dead baboons cautiously considering a viper. In one corner, in a display marked “Upper Nile Region,” a lone hippo grazes next to a herd of lechwe, roan antelope, and a comically stern shoebill stork.
“This is my favorite one,” says Evon Hekkala, pointing to the display. “There’s a taxidermied crocodile tucked away down there.”
It takes a while to spot it and I have to crane my head to do so, but yes, there it is—a large crocodile, in the back, mouth agape, next to the hippo. It’s mostly hidden from view, and until recently, it was hidden from science, too.