I've been meaning to link to this interview I did with The Days of Yore for awhile now. Without harping, it probably explains why I blanch at criticizing children for wanting to play sports or be rappers. Essentially I was that kid:
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Tony Dorsett, the running back for the Dallas Cowboys. That's what I wanted to be.
Did you play a lot of football on your own or was that just sort of a....?
I did, but I didn't play too much on account of not being very good. You know, it was just something we did in the neighborhood, threw the football and ran around a lot, yeah, a lot of fun...
And not only was I that kid, but the roots of my present self are there:
And you listened to a ton of hip-hop.
It was constant, it was the soundtrack of my childhood. It was just everywhere.
So then I wanted to be a rapper, that was next. But much like being a running back, I wasn't very good at it so that was a minor problem with that dream. I wasn't good at that but that led me to poetry and I did poetry for a while. I was a better rapper than I was a running back and I was a better poet than I was a rapper. I wasn't particularly good at any of those things yet.
There was a great degree of failure in my life and I never really... You know, the way I came up, it quickly became clear to me that no person has the right to success. There's no guarantee to success at all; you may get it or you may not. You can like something and you can be bad at it and you can keep doing it or you can be not great at it and you can keep going or you can be mediocre at it and you can keep doing it. You keep doing it because you like it, just because you like it, for you, it's yours, it's private, you own it. Not to please other people, not to impress nobody.
I wasn't really good at school, I wasn't an athlete, I wasn't particularly good with girls, I didn't have any of that. I wasn't a social outcast; I had pretty good social skills and was well-liked among my crowd, so I didn't have the sort of nerd-geek experience. But I did have the experience of not being particularly good at anything measurable as a young child.
And I went through a long period, once I got to writing, of not being very successful but I kept doing it because I liked it.
When I think about my early life I don't really see much difference between myself and other kids--except one thing. I had people around me who. whatever their disappointments in me, really encouraged my interests. My house was pretty tough place. You could get your ass kicked for disrespecting your mother, your teachers or any other adult. Yet there was always hippy-streak to my folks and they tended to be great believers in imagination. So, for instance, I wasn't allowed to have GI Joe's with white faces--this was the era of black Barbie, and black everything. But my Dad never really told me and my brother Malik to put away the Dungeons & Dragons and read some Du Bois. (He was more a Booker T guy, anyway.)
As a child, there is a very narrow range of things from which you can derive enjoyment and build self-esteem. You can get self-esteem from romance, or from athletics or from school--but not much else. I basically failed at all of those things. The things I was good at it tended to be narrow. I was a good reader--but mostly outside of school. I was very good at memorizing Rakim lyrics. That was a good party trick, but it didn't have much broad value.
But my folks were pretty good about building in opportunities for me. I started playing the djembe when I was in tenth or eleventh grade. I loved the djembe. (Dundunba seen here was my favorite) And I loved it even though I sucked at it when I started. The djembe was the first thing I actually took on, and through practice, improved. After that I started shaving goat-skins in my parents basement and putting the heads on drums alone. I had never been good with my hands. But I discovered that with some practice, I could become better. This was a lesson--you didn't actually have to suck at things. An ethic of curiosity married to an ethic of work would be rewarded. My folks had said as much. But what I needed was a field where I could see that to be true.
I got this lesson at a time when I was really doing horribly at school. (I got kicked out of high school right about then.) My parents were about through with me. But here is what they did not do--they did not take my drum. The did not tell me that I would not have a career playing the djembe. In fact my mother actually bought me a second one. (They were not cheap. I think my second one cost around $350.)
I remember one day I wanted to go over to D.C. to drum with some friends. I was trying to get my Dad to give me money to catch the local commuter train over. I think he was annoyed because, as usual, I was screwing up in school. But he gave me the money and said, "I guess there are worst things that you could want to do on a Saturday night." And there really were.
Sometimes the lessons came in more indirect ways. My Dad used to watch football with me. He was from Philly and hated the Cowboys. Then in 1987, Doug Williams took the Redskins on a playoff run and my Dad was like Flavor Flav--"We got a black quarterback, so step back." I remember watching the Super Bowl with him and Williams getting hurt. Jay Schroeder came in. Williams kind of hated Schroeder. And my Dad--again this is the 80s--says, "Doug ain't going let the white boy have it." And Doug didn't. He came back in and bombed the Broncos out the stadium. Even now I can see Williams hitting Ricky Sanders with a bomb and my Pops jumping up yelling, "Go, Dougie go!!"
That was a moment for me. Like a deep moment. My parents came up so hard. My Moms is from the projects. She was raised by my grandmother who cleaned white people's floors and sent three black girls to college. My Dad grew up in abject poverty in Philly. He'd once come home and seen all his belongings sat out on the street. He'd lived on a truck for a week as a child. His father had abused him and his family. He used to cut school to hang out in the libraries in Philadelphia.
I just gave my son a copy of Slaughterhouse Five and watching him go through it, I keep thinking of how our relationship is built on my Dad's time in the library, or my Mom teaching me to read before I went to school. That is wealth. And I think how that social wealth is now compounding with my wife and my son. And then I think of people who didn't have any of that, who were born wan how that debt compounds.
We all aren't going to come into our own in the same way. Everybody isn't going to be ready for college. But one reason I even had the opportunity to reflect on that is because I had great deal of wisdom and social wealth around me. I grew up in West Baltimore. In my heart I wasn't much different than my friends. But I had advantages. I didn't just have a mother and a father, I had two parents who really knew some things, who were, in their own way, wealthy. Because of them I had the opportunity to fail and learn. What I want to say here is everybody won't be so lucky. But what I really want to say is buy my book. (What? Too much??)
The presumptive successor to John Boehner abruptly ended his bid after determining he could not get the support he needed from conservatives.
Behind Kevin McCarthy’s stunning decision Thursday to end his bid for speaker lay a simple calculation: Even if he could scrape together the 218 votes he needed to win the formal House election later this month, he would begin his term a crippled leader unable to unite a party that he said was “deeply divided.”
The majority leader and presumed successor to John Boehner had been widely expected to win the House GOP’s secret-ballot nomination on Thursday. All he needed was a simple majority of the 247-member caucus, and he easily had the votes over long-shot challengers Jason Chaffetz of Utah or Daniel Webster of Florida, who won the endorsement of the renegade House Freedom Caucus. But even if he’d won on Thursday, McCarthy knew he was still short of the threshold he needed on the floor, knowing that Democrats would vote as a bloc against him.
It leaves people bed-bound and drives some to suicide, but there's little research money devoted to the disease. Now, change is coming, thanks to the patients themselves.
This past July, Brian Vastag, a former science reporter, placed an op-ed with his former employer, the Washington Post. It was an open letter to the National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, a man Vastag had formerly used as a source on his beat.
“I’ve been felled by the most forlorn of orphan illnesses,” Vastag wrote. “At 43, my productive life may well be over.”
There was no cure for his disease, known by some as chronic fatigue syndrome, Vastag wrote, and little NIH funding available to search for one. Would Collins step up and change that?
“As the leader of our nation’s medical research enterprise, you have a decision to make,” he wrote. “Do you want the NIH to be part of these solutions, or will the nation’s medical research agency continue to be part of the problem?”
A new report details a black market in nuclear materials.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press published a horrifying report about criminal networks in the former Soviet Union trying to sell “radioactive material to Middle Eastern extremists.” At the center of these cases, of which the AP learned of four in the past five years, was a “thriving black market in nuclear materials” in a “tiny and impoverished Eastern European country”: Moldova.
It’s a new iteration of an old problem with a familiar geography. The breakup of the Soviet Union left a superpower’s worth of nuclear weapons scattered across several countries without a superpower’s capacity to keep track of them. When Harvard’s Graham Allison flagged this problem in 1996, he wrote that the collapse of Russia’s “command-and-control society” left nothing secure. To wit:
American politicians are now eager to disown a failed criminal-justice system that’s left the U.S. with the largest incarcerated population in the world. But they've failed to reckon with history. Fifty years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report “The Negro Family” tragically helped create this system, it's time to reclaim his original intent.
By his own lights, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ambassador, senator, sociologist, and itinerant American intellectual, was the product of a broken home and a pathological family. He was born in 1927 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but raised mostly in New York City. When Moynihan was 10 years old, his father, John, left the family, plunging it into poverty. Moynihan’s mother, Margaret, remarried, had another child, divorced, moved to Indiana to stay with relatives, then returned to New York, where she worked as a nurse. Moynihan’s childhood—a tangle of poverty, remarriage, relocation, and single motherhood—contrasted starkly with the idyllic American family life he would later extol.
Somewhere in Europe, a man who goes by the name “Mikro” spends his days and nights targeting Islamic State supporters on Twitter.
In August 2014, a Twitter account affiliated with Anonymous, the hacker-crusader collective, declared “full-scale cyber war” against ISIS: “Welcome to Operation Ice #ISIS, where #Anonymous will do it’s [sic] part in combating #ISIS’s influence in social media and shut them down.”
In July, I traveled to a gloomy European capital city to meet one of the “cyber warriors” behind this operation. Online, he goes by the pseudonym Mikro. He is vigilant, bordering on paranoid, about hiding his actual identity, on account of all the death threats he has received. But a few months after I initiated a relationship with him on Twitter, Mikro allowed me to visit him in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend and two Rottweilers. He works alone from his chaotic living room, using an old, battered computer—not the state-of-the-art setup I had envisaged. On an average day, he told me, he spends up to 16 hours fixed to his sofa. He starts around noon, just after he wakes up, and works late into the night and early morning.
A radical experiment at Zappos may herald the emergence of a new, more democratic kind of organization.
Deeply strange reports have been emerging from the Las Vegas headquarters of Zappos, until recently the world’s happiest shoe store. This spring, by order of the CEO, Tony Hsieh, the company abolished managers, eliminated job titles, denounced its own organizational hierarchy, and vested all authority in a 10,000-word constitution that spells out a radical new system of self-governance. Holacracy, it’s called, and it makes all previous moves toward “employee empowerment” look like the mild concessions of an 18th-century monarch. Freed from direct supervision, employees are expected to join various impermanent democratic assemblies called “circles” (headed, but not run, by a “lead link”), in which they will essentially propose their own job descriptions, ratify the “roles” of others, and decide what projects the group should undertake.
What will happen to digital collections of books, movies, and music when the tech giants fall?
When you purchase a movie from Amazon Instant Video, you’re not buying it, exactly. It’s more like renting indefinitely.
This distinction matters if your notion of “buying” is that you pay for something once and then you get to keep that thing for as long as you want. Increasingly, in the world of digital goods, a purchasing transaction isn’t that simple.
There are two key differences between buying media in a physical format versus a digital one. First, there’s the technical aspect: Maintaining long-term access to a file requires a hard copy of it—that means, for example, downloading a film, not just streaming from a third party’s server. The second distinction is a bit more complicated, and it has to do with how the law has shaped digital rights in the past 15 years. It helps to think about the experience of a person giving up CDs and using iTunes for music purchases instead.
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.
Meat producers showed dominance over scientists this week, preventing discussion of sustainability.
“My question is related to moderate alcohol intake,” representative Stacey Plaskett said Wednesday morning in a Congressional hearing that was almost momentous. With this question she was, as a congressperson should be, the voice of many.
Plaskett peered over her reading glasses at the de facto arbitrator of such matters, secretary of health and human services Sylvia Burwell. “I noted that the 2015 recommendations confirmed the conclusions from 2010,” Plaskett continued. “Do you think that’s going to remain the same, or will that change? Will the definition of moderation change as well?”
“We’re not going to comment on specifics,” Burwell deflected. “We” referred to secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack, who sat immediately to her right. Before them was a semicircle of congresspeople in elevated chairs who constitute the House committee on agriculture. The ensuing conversation was a polite but charged, deeply consequential battle for influence over what people eat.
What does Rupert Murdoch mean by a “real black”? And how many of them does the 84-year-old Australian-born billionaire denizen of Manhattan’s fanciest districts know? The implication is offensive, sure, but it’s also remarkably banal. “Is Obama black enough?” is a question that’s been raised, debated, deplored, gnawed, and then shallowly buried, only to rise again, for as long as he’s been a national political figure.