When I first was asked to give a talk at MIT, I knew that I wanted my father to be there. My hosts graciously acceded to that request and both of us were excited for the joint visit. But Pops got sick last weekend and wasn't able to make it. That was depressing. Here are some thoughts on why.
Again, George L Ruffin on Frederick Douglass:
His range of reading has been wide and extensive. He has been a hard student. In every sense of the word, he is a self-made man. By dint of hard study he has educated himself, and to-day it may be said he has a well-trained intellect. He has surmounted the disadvantage of not having a university education, by application and well-directed effort.
He seems to have realized the fact, that to one who is anxious to become educated and is really in earnest, it is not positively necessary to go to college, and that information may be had outside of college walks; books may be obtained and read elsewhere. They are not chained to desks in college libraries, as they were in early times at Oxford.
Professors' lectures may be bought already printed, learned doctors may be listened to in the lyceum, and the printing-press has made it easy and cheap to get information on every subject and topic that is discussed and taught in the university. Douglass never made the mistake (a common one) of considering that his education was finished. He has continued to study, he studies now, and is a growing man, and at this present moment he is a stronger man intellectually than ever before.
It should be understood that Ruffin, at the time of this writing, was an exemplary product of the Academy. He was the first African-American to graduate from Harvard Law and the first African-American judge in the country. So he was not a foe of university education. But he didn't believe that those who found that education out of reach should then just throw up their hands.
Ruffin was writing at a time when very few Americans, much less African-Americans, would have the luxury of college attendance. More to the point he was writing at a time when the very notion of educating African-Americans was under attack. Consider his thoughts on the vindicating intellectual life of Douglass:
The life and work of Douglass has been a complete vindication of the colored people in this respect. It has refuted and overthrown the position taken by some writers, that colored people were deficient in mental qualifications and were incapable of attaining high intellectual position. We may reasonably expect to hear no more of this now, the argument is exploded. Douglass has settled the fact the right way, and it is something to settle a fact.
This is a man obviously possessed by that utterly irrational optimism that has historically afflicted black people beholding the wonder, if unfulfilled, of the American Dream. We shall not be unkind and hold the contagion against Ruffin. Many of us, nationalist inoculations be damned, have of late found ourselves brought low by that same peculiar malaise.
In Ruffin's time, the attacks on black intellect were not (as they are today) matters relegated to letters, journals and tomes. They were matters enforced by white terrorists--the Klan, the White Liners, the Red Shirts etc. Phrenologists asserted the limited potential of the African brain. The White Leagues made those claims into prophecy. So when white terrorists picked their targets, instruments of black intellectual improvement were always high on the list--black schools and black churches were torched, Teachers (many of them white) who'd traveled South to educate the newly emancipated were beaten, lynched and publicly whipped.
I don't say this simply as a matter of moral castigation. The terrorists are the 19th century could be no other way. Their parents had perpetrated the same war, as a matter of law by banning the education of enslaved black people. The essence of white supremacy meant lawfully keeping black people ignorant, and then justifying that ignorance as the work of God, and later the work of Darwin. Thus in the 19th century, the reaction to black education was twofold. In the academy it was laughed at by men employing all the tools of "science" to justify their mockery. Outside the academy it gave us by the greatest instance of home-grown terror in American history.
Against such the horde, people like Ruffin wielded education like an axe. If that education could not always be garnered in white universities, it would have to be garnered by black people themselves through "application and well-directed effort." We would have to be "hard students."
The black tradition is riddled with examples of such people--some of them prominent, some of them tragic. If you talk to old black Southerners it won't take long before someone reflects on black person murdered, or who barely escaped murder, for the crime of knowing too much. The accusation of being "uppity" was always rooted in the idea of black people possessing a knowledge that outstripped their God-assigned place. That outstripping was never too far removed from education--formal or otherwise. When right-wing pundits calls Princeton graduate Michelle Obama "uppity" they are participating in old and unfortunate tradition.
The response to that tradition was manifold, but in my life, it was the example of Malcolm X. By the time I was coming up Malcolm's calls for self-defense, while riveting, had less personal relevance for me. It wasn't like the Klan was going to come marching up North Avenue. But the example of being relatively bright, being derailed by a hostile system, and having to remake yourself in jail really stood out as a light in the dark.
I have no idea if Malcolm actually copied every word in the dictionary. But the example became a kind of myth to many of us. Knowledge (and especially history) was seen as a mystical force, stolen from us by white people and now wielded against us.
My Dad would joke about how brothers would come into his bookstore on Pennsylvania Avenue and ask if he was carrying a certain book. If he wasn't the reply was often, "The white man don't want you to see that book, brother!" That's funny, but it basically outlines our world view at the time. The white man wanted us stupid. There was a century worth of evidence to demonstrate as much.
The results of this approach are varying. The self-educated student can easily slip into a kind of paranoia, in which the only facts that exist are the ones you like. If white people would persecute you for reading a book, what else might they do? Would they give you HIV? Would they conceal the fact that Cleopatra was black? And was it even white people? Wasn't it really the Jews? And did homosexuality ever exist in Africa to begin with?
You see where this goes. The distrust breeds unevidenced claims, and then descends into the very bigotry it claimed to combat. You can become conspiratorial, racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist etc. Or, less obviously, you can end up accepting the frame of the very people you're debating without realizing it. That was how I went down--searching through the text to try to refute Saul Bellow. But Ralph Wiley (Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus) set me free. Still, it took me years to get the basic humanistic power in that statement.
But here is what I know: This week, among many other wonderful thing, I stood in the office of Sam Bowring and held aloft the oldest rock in recorded history. I got there by being a hard student--with all the drawbacks, trap-doors, bad grammar, and B'More accent. And I was raised by hard students, starting with my father.
None of this is what we expected. We thought we were rebelling against the academy, indeed building one of our own. None of us ever expected any kind of recognition. I didn't leave college thinking it would be the ticket to lecturing at colleges. We didn't denigrate education (all my brothers and sisters are college graduates.) But we didn't feel like its highest offices were really open to us. And yet here we are.
Perhaps from that vantage point, you may begin to understand my sympathy for Ruffin's affliction and my peculiar perspective on all the events of the week.
The war is so very long.
*Pictured above: Afroborinqueno (hope I got that right) and legendary hard student, Arturo Schomburg.
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the far west side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
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.
Former Senator Jim Webb is the fifth Democrat to enter the race—and by far the most conservative one.
In a different era’s Democratic Party, Jim Webb might be a serious contender for the presidential nomination. He’s a war hero and former Navy secretary, but he has been an outspoken opponent of recent military interventions. He’s a former senator from Virginia, a purple state. He has a strong populist streak, could appeal to working-class white voters, and might even have crossover appeal from his days as a member of the Reagan administration.
In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
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.
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.”
On Sunday, citizens will vote on how to move forward in the country's financial crisis.
On Sunday, the people of Greece will help decide the financial future of their country. With the nation already in default and capital controls in place to prevent a run on the banks, it’s up to Greece’s citizens to decide what road the country will take from here.
The referendum—which asks Greeks to either vote yes or no to a current proposal from Eurogroup leaders to extend financing to the deeply indebted country— was called for by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras amid meetings of Eurozone leaders as they tried to come up with a deal that would allow the country to avoid default. The call for a vote effectively ended discussions.
Opponents of thecurrent proposal from the Eurogroup feel that the austerity measures put forth by the Eurogroup’s leaders—which would includes things like tax hikes, pension cuts, and reductions in government jobs—are overly harsh and punitive, and could hurt Greeks more than help them.
An attorney who helped players file a gender-discrimination lawsuit over artificial turf in the World Cup proposes a way forward for the sport.
On Sunday, players from the U.S. and Japan’s women’s soccer teams will step onto the field in Vancouver to compete for the sport’s greatest achievement: the World Cup. But perhaps the bigger battle—one that started well before the final match and will continue well after—isn’t about a trophy or national glory. Women’s soccer teams have long fought for recognition and respect not just from the public, but also from the male organizers of the sport, and it’s a struggle symbolized by the very fields they’ve been playing on.
The co-hosts of the World Cup—FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association—failed to stage this year’s tournament to be played on real grass like every other World Cup previously, mandating that it be played on artificial turf instead. This is despite the dangers and inconveniences plastic turf poses. The synthetic pitches bake in the sun, with surface temperatures sometimes reaching 120 degrees. Clouds of rubber pebbles fly into players’ eyes, and the turf makes it difficult for the women to gauge the way the ball will bounce.