Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

  • When Plunder Becomes a System of Governance

    The painting, Jewish Woman Selling Oranges by Aleksander Gierymski, was looted from Poland by the Nazis. (Wikimedia Commons)

    In Postwar, Tony Judt evokes the chaos of living under the thumb of Nazi Germany:

    It is misleading to think of the German occupation of continental Europe as a time of pacification and order under the eye of an omniscient and ubiquitous power. Even in Poland, the most comprehensively policed and repressed of all the occupied territories, society continued to function in defiance of the new rulers: the Poles constituted for themselves a parallel underground world of newspapers, schools, cultural activities, welfare services, economic exchange and even an army—all of them forbidden by the Germans and carried on outside the law and at great personal risk.

    But that was precisely the point. To live normally in occupied Europe meant breaking the law: in the first place the laws of the occupiers (curfews, travel regulations, race laws, etc) but also conventional laws and norms as well. Most common people who did not have access to farm produce were obliged, for example, to resort to the black market or illegal barter just to feed their families. Theft—whether from the state, from a fellow citizen or from a looted Jewish store—was so widespread that in the eyes of many people it ceased to be a crime. Indeed, with gendarmes, policemen and local mayors representing and serving the occupier, and with the occupying forces themselves practicing organized criminality at the expense of selected civilian populations, common felonies were transmuted into acts of resistance (albeit often in post-liberation retrospect).

    Judt describes a descent into rule by the gun—not simply as a monopoly on violence. Legitimacy is rooted in "force alone, deployed without inhibition." No appeal to divine right. No appeal to blood or the vote. Here is Method Man Law #1080—"I got more Glocks and Tecs than you\I make it hot, neighbors won't even stand next to you" 

    Violence bred cynicism. As occupying forces, both Nazis and Soviets precipitated a war of all against all. They discouraged not just allegiance to the defunct authority of the previous regime or state, but any sense of civility or bond between individuals, and on the whole they were successful. If the ruling power behaved brutally and lawlessly to your neighbour—because he was a Jew, or a member of an educated elite or ethnic minority, or had found disfavour in the eyes of the regime or for no obvious reason at all—then why should you show any more respect for him yourself?

    Judt is, I think, in speculative but interesting territory. There's nothing about a  social contract that necessitates equality among shareholders. What happens when some shareholders pay in more, but get out less? What is the message that a Power sends to its subjects when it says to them "Some members of society enjoy the protection of the State, and others are outside of the law?" And what happens when a whole sector of society is effectively branded as the rightful field for plunder?

    For most Europeans in the years 1939-45 rights—civil, legal, political—no longer existed. The state ceased to be the repository of law and justice; on the contrary, under Hitler’s New Order government was itself the leading predator. The Nazis’ attitude to life and limb is justifiably notorious; but their treatment of property may actually have been their most important practical legacy to the shape of the post-war world.

    Under German occupation, the right to property was at best contingent. Europe’s Jews were simply stripped of money, goods, homes, shops and businesses. Their property was divided up among Nazis, collaborators and their friends, with the residue made available for looting and theft by the local community. But sequestration and confiscation went far beyond the Jews. The ‘right’ of possession was shown to be fragile, often meaningless, resting exclusively on the goodwill, interests or whim of those in power.

    There were winners as well as losers in this radical series of involuntary property transactions. With Jews and other ethnic victims gone, their shops and apartments could be occupied by local people; their tools, furniture and clothes were confiscated or stolen by new owners. This process went furthest in the ‘killing zone’ from Odessa to the Baltic, but it happened everywhere—returning concentration camp survivors in Paris or Prague in 1945 often found their home occupied by wartime ‘squatters’ who angrily asserted their own claim and refused to leave. In this way hundreds of thousands of ordinary Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, Dutch, French and others became complicit in the Nazi genocide, if only as its beneficiaries.

    It is important to remember the ordinary beneficiaries who do not always wear the swastika. It is important to remember that atrocity is not simply insanity, that it is often not insanity at all, but hard interest, that even in the Holocaust there were interests, that there were winners and that they saw themselves as such. 

    In our own land, we have long observed this. To better avoid the painful fact that there were "winners" in a slave society, that those winners were not merely great planters, to avoid the fact that ordinary Americans are indicted in all that came from slave society, we discuss the "race problem" as though it were a problem of manners and civility. I am sure the average African-American in 1963 could empathize with the dream of little white boys and little black girls holding hands. But he likely would have settled for a day when white people would no longer see him and his family as a field for plunder. 

    Judt is not wrong to focus on property. Theft is the essence of atrocity—if only the theft of dignity and life. Indeed, where I forced to to offer one word to sum up black people's historical relationship to the American state, "theft" is the first that would come to mind. Theft of labor and theft of family in slavery. Theft of life through lynching and pogrom. Theft of franchise in half the country. Theft through mortgages for some and contract loans for others. Theft through unemployment insurance for some, and debt-peonage for others. Theft of tax dollars which support "public" libraries that do not want you, "public" pools that will not have you, "public" schools that will not teach you, and "public" universities that will riot at the sight of you. 

    Better to move along and go about your own private business. Better to forget this entire ugly everything. Better to focus on civility, your local diversity workshop, and the reduction of harsh and intemperate language. Better to forget that indigestible truth: behind every great atrocity stands some particular winner.

  • The Auschwitz All Around Us

    What happens when a society must prosecute itself?

    Members of the League of German Girls wave Nazi flags in support of the German annexation of Austria in Vienna, Austria, March 1938 (Photo courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

    What follows is the last comment in a long thread on the limits of the state to bring itself to justice. Particular attention was paid to Austria in our conversation. The historians provoking this conversation are Tony Judt and Tom Segev.

    I want to make sure this comment doesn't get ignored:

    One of my grandfathers fought at the Russian front; his wife, my grandmother, still uses expressions like "like der ewige Jud" ("like he eternal Jew") - as an expression for a greedy, malicious person. Some time ago, a then-collegue of mine in highschool found documentation for a history project that Jews where transported through the village I have grown up in, and held captive in barns there. When I asked my grandmother about it, she told me that she'd never heard about it. Given the size of the village (about 1000 inhabitants), that's close to impossible. Apparently, nobody has ever heard about it.

    My other grandfather was member of the NSDAP and (as we put it in Austria) "had to hide" after the war, i.e. he faced prosecution. Still today, one of my aunts shows me his Arierausweis (the document "proving" that he is "Arian") with apparent pride.

    This is not to demonstrate how my family has an antisemitic background (though that's true), but rather to give an example of a really very common (if not near-universal) situation in Austria. It is sometimes said that the reintegration of Nazi officials after the war was inevitable to keep the country running. But this stinks a bit of rationalization. Rather, I think, it's a consequence of the sheer scale of shame. A whole generation of children and grandchildren would have had to admit that their (grand)fathers participated, implicitly or explicitly, in one of the most cruel abominations of mankind. This can perhaps be done if individual families are concerned - but a hole society will rationalize their deeds. And given that Austria could hide in the shadow of Germany, it was that much easier, I guess. Only in the nineties, then-chancelor Vranitzky officially recognized Austria's liability and complicity in the Holocaust (without naming it, he only talked about WW II), as an answer to the rising popularity of Jörg Haider who used antisemitic (and xenophobic, and racist... you get the picture) rhethoric to fish in the pond that are generations ashamed of their (grand)parents'. Eight years later, Haider's party was in a coalition forming the Austrian government. Haider is now dead, but not his political philosophy and party: a couple of weeks ago, the party got 21 percent in the general elections (note that Austria has currently six parties in the parliament, so that's a lot - the leading social democrats got 27 percent).

    2008, Otto von Habsburg (yes, THAT von Habsburg, the old emperors' family, imagine that!) held a speech during a commemoration of Austria's "annexation" in front of representatives of the ÖVP, Austria's peoples party (in government for most of the time after WW II, as it is in the moment). He defended Austria's "role" as "Hitler's first victim" to standing ovations.

    Here in France, when I walk through the city center, I often think how good it is that these old structures get diluted when I see how many "blacks" and "beurs" there are. Apart from my own underlying racism here, I then remember why there are so many "blacks" and "beurs" here compared to Austria (or Germany, for that matter). How France has still not managed to reconsider its past as a colonizer (and who would force them?), how Marine le Pen has phantastic poll numbers, etc. Or, how de Gaulle, THE founding savior/hero of the present République, had to say this:

    "Vous savez, cela suffit comme cela avec vos nègres. Vous me gagnez à la main, alors on ne voit plus qu’eux : il y a des nègres à l’Élysée tous les jours, vous me les faites recevoir, vous me les faites inviter à déjeuner. Je suis entouré de nègres, ici. […] Et puis tout cela n’a aucune espèce d’intérêt ! Foutez-moi la paix avec vos nègres ; je ne veux plus en voir d’ici deux mois, vous entendez ? Plus une audience avant deux mois. Ce n’est pas tellement en raison du temps que cela me prend, bien que ce soit déjà fort ennuyeux, mais cela fait très mauvais effet à l’extérieur : on ne voit que des nègres, tous les jours, à l’Élysée. Et puis je vous assure que c’est sans intérêt."

    Somehow it's all fascinating: that we can look at this history and wonder how we managed to get through it the whole time.

  • The Best Opinion Journalist in the Business

    Next Tuesday  I will be in conversation with Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor at the New Yorker. The event will be at MIT in Building 32 (The Stata center) in room 123. It will begin at 7:00 PM and end at 8:30 PM. You should come. And if you can not come you should spend your weekend wishing you could. Here is why.

    From time to time, I have been lucky enough to pinch-hit over at the opinion page for The Times. This is always a special moment. When I was a young man trying to pursue poetry, an older poet once told me to try writing a sonnet every week, or a haiku every day. His point was the discipline of writing in confined space, makes us better when we are writing in free space. (You see the same principle at work in rap.) I always see opinion columns in a similar light. It is one thing to say something meaningful in the open water of a blog. It is another to say something meaningful within the cell-like confines of 800 words. To do so beautifully--which is to say to make your argument through a marriage of logic, rhythm,  and imagery--is another thing entirely.

    No one makes the case with more beauty--which is to say more effect--than Hendrik Hertzberg. Here is the kind of opening that I dream of writing in a column: 

    It was a chilly winter for Barack Obama, politically speaking. For six months, he and his party shivered under the avalanche that had buried them in November's midterm election while Republicans disported themselves on the partisan ski slopes, pausing only to throw snowballs, some of them dirty, and warm themselves with nice hot cups of tea. Lately, though, there's been a change in the weather.

    The close in this column then comes back around in a beautiful use of symmetry:

    The Abbottabad raid has, for the moment and perhaps for good, subdued any exploitable doubts about Obama's fitness to be Commander-in-Chief. But eighteen months down the road the "bounce" he has got from it will be as dead as bin Laden. Barring some unexpected foreign or terrorist enormity, the election will turn on domestic issues. The Republicans have done the Democrats a favor by proposing to phase out Medicare and Medicaid as we know them while demanding further tax cuts for the wealthy. But much depends on the economic weather. If the snow is any deeper than it is now, the President is going to need an awfully big shovel.

    One reason why I am excited about teaching writing at MIT is that I strongly believe that people with access to knowledge have a moral responsibility to learn how to communicate that knowledge clearly. But in the world of journalism, communicating beautifully has somehow fallen out of favor. I say "beauty" and people think of lavender cardstock with daffodils at the top, perfect penmanship or a stroll through the meadow. In fact beautiful writing is a show of strength and muscle. In the world of opinion, I believe that it is not enough to simply lay out your argument, you want people to feel it in their gut.

    Rick excels at making you "feel it." Come see how next week.

  • The Selective Amnesia of Postwar Europe

    Thoughts on Tony Judt's Postwar

    Klaus Barbie's 1948 mugshot (Gerda Henkel Foundation)

    There's this idea among those of us who are disappointed with America's inability to deal with the repercussions of the Civil War that things were better during World War II. Perhaps they were. But the overwhelming sense one gets from Tony Judt's Postwar is that in the case of great atrocities, the pursuit of justice is often foreclosed by our want of stamina:

    By the time the western Allies abandoned their denazification efforts with the coming of the Cold War, it was clear that these had had a decidedly limited impact. In Bavaria about half the secondary schoolteachers had been fired by 1946, only to be back in their jobs two years later. In 1949 the newly-established Federal Republic ended all investigations of the past behaviour of civil servants and army officers.

    In Bavaria in 1951, 94 percent of judges and prosecutors, 77 percent of finance ministry employees and 60 percent of civil servants in the regional Agriculture Ministry were ex-Nazis. By 1952 one in three of Foreign Ministry officials in Bonn was a former member of the Nazi Party. Of the newly-constituted West German Diplomatic Corps, 43 percent were former SS men and another 17 percent had served in the SD or Gestapo. Hans Globke, Chancellor Adenauer’s chief aide throughout the 1950s, was the man who had been responsible for the official commentary on Hitler’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws. The chief of police in the Rhineland-Palatinate, Wilhelm Hauser, was the Obersturmführer responsible for wartime massacres in Byelorussia.

    The same pattern held true outside the civil service. Universities and the legal profession were the least affected by denazification, despite their notorious sympathy for Hitler’s regime. Businessmen also got off lightly. Friedrich Flick, convicted as a war criminal in 1947, was released three years later by the Bonn authorities and restored to his former eminence as the leading shareholder in Daimler-Benz. Senior figures in the incriminated industrial combines of I.G. Farben and Krupp were all released early and re-entered public life little the worse for wear. By 1952 Fordwerke, the German branch of Ford Motor Company, had reassembled all its senior management from the Nazi years. Even the Nazi judges and concentration camp doctors convicted under American jurisdiction saw their sentences reduced or commuted (by the American administrator, John J McCloy).

    Later, a myth would arise that the Nazis were, somehow, the kidnappers of the German nation, and that Hitler's atrocities said nothing about Germany itself. In Judt's postwar Europe, there's a constant fight for victim status. (Deeply  antisemitic Austria gets off lightly, for instance, by portraying itself as Hitler's "first victim.") But it's fairly clear that the hate that made the Shoah was neither an invention nor the magic of false-consciousness, but a reflection of the people themselves:

    In the same poll of November 1946, one German in three agreed with the proposition that ‘Jews should not have the same rights as those belonging to the Aryan race’. This is not especially surprising, given that respondents had just emerged from twelve years under an authoritarian government committed to this view. What does surprise is a poll taken six years later in which a slightly higher. percentage of West Germans—37 percent—affirmed that it was better for Germany to have no Jews on its territory. But then in that same year (1952) 25 percent of West Germans admitted to having a ‘good opinion’ of Hitler.

    Attendant to all of this was something that any student of white supremacy in America will recognize—a strong propensity toward national amnesia:

     In Italy the daily newspaper of the new Christian Democrat Party put out a similar call to oblivion on the day of Hitler’s death: ‘We have the strength to forget!’, it proclaimed. ‘Forget as soon as possible!’ In the East the Communists’ strongest suit was their promise to make a revolutionary new beginning in countries where everyone had something to forget—things done to them or things they had done themselves. All over Europe there was a strong disposition to put the past away and start afresh, to follow Isocrates’ recommendation to the Athenians at the close of the Peloponnesian Wars: ‘Let us govern collectively as though nothing bad had taken place.’

    It's worth taking a moment to think about this "strength to forget" notion. National forgetting is always a selective endeavor. Italy had no more intention of dismissing its Roman heritage as "the past," than Americans have of dismissing George Washington as "the past." "The past" is whatever contributes to a society's moral debts. "Heritage" is everything else. 

    Judt is making a very disturbing argument—that postwar Europe was built on  a willingness to only push deNazification but so far. There is here something not wholly dissimilar to our own reunion accomplished on an agreement to "forget" what the War was over. So far does the myth advance that Judt finds president Eisenhower lauding the Wermacht—"The German soldier fought bravely and honorably for his homeland."

    We are confronted with a series of awful questions: What are the actual limits of human justice? How much of human justice, ultimately, rests on the accumulation of guns? What is one to do when the people, themselves—not sinister hidden forces—are the engines of persecution? Of useful killing? Of genocide? 

    I think of the villain Klaus Barbie who somehow seemed victorious even in capture:

    Mr. Barbie remarked after his extradition that he had nothing to regret and that he remained proud of his service to Hitler's Third Reich.

    Locked up in Montluc Prison, where the Gestapo had tortured its prey 40 years earlier, he promptly proved an embarrassment not only to the French, but to official Washington. It came to light that United States Army counterintelligence had used him as a paid informer after the war, shielding him from his French pursuers and then helping him escape to South America.

    For the French, Mr. Barbie caused enduring agony. Back in their midst, behind bars at last, his presence weighed heavily on the national conscience. To contemplate Mr. Barbie was to face a chapter of history the French longed to forget: the Vichy France of Marshal Henri Philippe Petain.

    Man. Such hate. What can men do against such reckless hate. Don't study history to boost your self-esteem. Study history to lose your religion. Or maybe in the end, to gain it. I am not religious at all. But seeing the limits of all of us, you start to understand why people might appeal to some higher, more certain, more fierce, invention.

    More soon.

  • 'In a Starving, Bleeding, Captive Land'

    Some thoughts on Tony Judt's opus Postwar

    Wikimedia commons
    Library of Congress

    I'm thoroughly enjoying Tony Judt's Postwar. "Enjoying" is really too small of a word. The art that sticks with me, the art I truly love, is the art in which I find a piece of myself. I think about Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence a lot, because it a courageous work of art created by someone with the mental stamina to mount a conservative defense of the old order, by exploring all of that order's limitations. I hope to do something like that from time to time. I have opinions, and that's all well and good. But more interesting to me is the limits and implications of those opinions. I don't want to spend my time on earth performing, yelling "Look At Me" or "Confirm My Humanity, Please" in various tongues. I have problems of my own.

    As does everyone. There are a great many of these problems in Judt's post-Hitler Europe and almost no satisfying answers. There are human beings taken into Germany, during the War, as slave laborers who do not wish to return, lest they fall behind the Iron Curtain. There are "Germans" who've lived outside of Germany for centuries who are kicked out and forced to return to a home they scarcely regard as such. There is the incomplete attempts to bring justice to Europe after Hitler's death. One is almost tempted to say that the Nazis "got away with it." It puts my own frustration with Reconstruction in perspective. Post-war justice anywhere seems really trying. That it would be more so in a country which shares certain foundational beliefs—like intelligence and morality are directly related to continental descent—makes sense. 

    There are many lines in this book that strike me, but here is a quote from the Yugoslav dissident Milovan Dilas that will live with me for a long time. Dilas is discussing the partisan resistance against the Axis during World War II. Judt makes clear that fighting for, or against, the Nazis or Fascists can't—in and of itself—make one villainous or heroic. In Yugoslavia , the War quickly became fraternal. Dilas observes:

    For hours both armies clambered up rocky ravines to escape annihilation or to destroy a little group of their countrymen, often neighbors on some jutting peak six thousand feet high, in a starving, bleeding, captive land. It came to mind that this was what had become of all our theories and visions of the workers’ and peasants’ struggle against the bourgeoisie.’

    I think of our own Revolution and its hollow exultations toward freedom. I think of my own lineage and Bunchy Carter and Huey Newton. I think of August Wilson's Two Trains Running:

    Niggers killed Malcolm. Niggers killed Malcolm. When you want to talk about Malcolm, remember that first. Niggers killed Malcolm.

    I think we all see our "theories and visions" come to dust in the "starving, bleeding, captive land" which is everywhere, which is politics.

    There is a cutting moment in one of the debates between Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X. Rustin largely avoids sanctimonious defenses of America and moralizing around nonviolence. Instead he compliments Malcolm on his fierce denunciations of American racism, and hails him as an important voice articulating the anger of "the American Negro." But then he begins dissecting the Nation of Islam's nationalism and their desire for a separate black homeland. Who will govern this "homeland?" Will Rustin, Christian (and gay though he doesn't explicitly say it) be welcome there? Will Elijah Muhammad be its president? If you know anything about Elijah Muhammad, the idea of "Elijah, President of the Blacks" is chilling. The thought of any man—including my hero Malcolm X—assuming such a perch chills me. Rustin's critique is cutting because instead of mocking and laughing at the NOI's nationalism, instead of dismissing it as crazy, he follows its reasoning to its logical, disagreeable conclusions.

    It seems that it is one thing to correctly name a ruling order as corrupt. It is all another to overthrow that order in some honorable fashion. And it is another still to replace that order with some honorable government. Only in the past 50 years has this country even begun to consider grappling with that last task. That is not because America is uniquely evil, so much as it is because America is the work of humans. One wishes we would dispense with the entire industry of "shining cities" and admit to this.

    Postwar is a rejection of the kind of moralizing tidiness which marked my own early education about Europe, World War II and its aftermath. Judt has the courage to look dead-eyed at ideology and all its limitations without lapsing into nostalgia or cynicism. The writer Jake Lamar once called this "ice-water vision." If I could cultivate any intellectual quality, outside of curiosity, it would be Judt's "ice-water vision." I am often asked for solutions to many of the problems I raise. Almost as often I demur. That is because I am increasingly convinced that my particular great problems don't actually have solutions, that the ultimate answer is "Game Over: You Lose" or more specifically "Race War: Whites Win. Again.

    This is not an inducement to anarchy. If I am not convinced that there is a "solution," I am even less convinced that the only reason to live one's life honorably is to contribute to a "solution." I will not determine my ultimate worth by the direction of people whom I do not know. Whatever happens to my people, whom I hope rise, prosper and then promptly disappear into America, whatever happens to white supremacy, which I hope falls, perishes and then is ever etched as a warning to the world, these explorations and efforts were worth it because they were mine.  

    I was improved. I hope the world was too. But that was never really up to me.

  • History's Greatest Monsters

     

     

    I did a reading at Wesleyan last week. Some nice folks took me out to lunch and dinner, and then dinner afterward, because I can't eat before a reading or talk. A few of the people there were from Wesleyan's African-American Studies department. At some point, I ended up in a conversation with Sarah Mahurin, who teaches a course on the black South, about the problem of teaching history to young people. A common response, she pointed out, was for a student to say "I couldn't have been a slave" or "I couldn't have been a slave-master" or "I would have been like Garrison" or "I would have been like Douglass." This wasn't new to me. Every conscious kid at Howard came in talking about how he would have been Nat Turner. Howard was there to teach him that he would have picked that cotton like everybody else. The Eddie Murphy skit above gets at this problem well. 

    I closed the thread below because I thought it was going in a direction that I didn't like. Whenever we find ourselves confronted by a great injustice--such as the Holocaust or the slave society of America--we gravitate toward that which we find heroic, and condemn that which we find fiendish. Complications--like David Ben-Gurion endorsing negotiations with Hitler, or the Maroons cutting deals with the British--make us nervous. The instinct is to make our history into a crude utilitarian book of invincible morals.

    We see this outlook employed by smart people all the time. I wince whenever I hear people claim "If  you don't know the past, you can't know where you're going." The fact is that that you should know the past, but, beyond some vague outlines, it can't tell you where you are going. Last week, I saw Benjamin Netanyahu claim that "history is a map" and I just got depressed. I don't know what "history" could have seen Lincoln's assassination or Barack Obama's election. We live in chaos here. History helps a little--but only a little. It does not exist for your services. It can not be your morality, your crystal ball nor your self-esteem.

    I have tried to push this in my writing about the Civil War. It is not enough to know that you are the descendant of slaves--you should also understand how easily you could have been the slave-master. You don't read George Fitzhugh to assure yourself that there is evil in the world. Auschwitz is all around us. Auschwitz is alive and well and living in your noble heart. The existence of evil is the premise. The discussion must proceed from there. 

    I will be talking about the Holocaust and Israel for the next week. I am really digging Segev's book. I hope that we can do something more than keep score on who got history "right" and who got it "wrong." I hope that we can see some of ourselves in the people we discuss, because we are human, because we know how easy it is to overestimate our own ostensibly infallible morality. We can approach history denouncing the craziness of others, or we can approach it trying to understand how we might possibly have done the same thing. 

    This is not false equivalence, it's texture and nuance. The beauty of a book like Battle Cry of Freedom is that McPherson makes an indisputable case that the Civil War was about slavery, and at the same time shows how humans--like you and me--could do nothing to prevent it. That is the gift of history. I understand that it is sometimes rage-inducing. But in the end it should be humbling.

    Perhaps I shouldn't speak this way about other people's history. I don't know what to say. It feels right. And it feels wrong to make absolutist pronouncements about people who are grappling with the opening act of existential evil.

    I'm reopening the thread below.

  • 'Who Are We—Humans, Jews, or Zionists?'

    The other day I mentioned that I'd picked up Tom Segev's The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust. As the subtitle indicates, it's basically a history of how Jews in Palestine (and later Israel) grappled with The Final Solution. But the history begins before that, in the 30s, when Hitler comes to power in Germany. Segev is an excellent historian—One Palestine Complete is top-notch—and really excels at giving you some sense of the nation-builders without lapsing into cheerleading or caricature.

    Segev is at his finest discussing The Havaara Agreement—a deal between Zionist and Nazi Germany to allow Jews to emigrate into what was, then, more a nation than a state. The dilemma is familiar to some of us: Should German Jews continue the fight against antisemitism in Europe or should they separate and give up trying to convince people who have long hated them? Segev quotes a columnist  articulating the conflict as follows:

    The difference between the Exile and Zion is that the Exile. fighting for his life, wishes to overcome the evil Haman in his country...[The Exile] wants the Jews to remain in Germany despite all the troubles and persecutions and victims...Zion wants to uproot them. It washes its hands of a war with Haman, which in its eyes is but a Sisyphean task, its whole interest being only in legal and illegal immigration, despite all the anguish and sacrifice on the way to Zion.

    David Ben-Gurion goes on to say that there is war within the heart of every Jew—to assimilate or to separate. This characterization was rejected by Ben-Gurion's opponents, but the nationalist/integrationist line (for lack of better phrasing) is the essential dynamic in Havaara. Though it's only the 1930s, there are people in the future state of Israel who see the coming darkness. Ben-Gurion reads Mein Kampf and declares that "Hitler's policy put the entire Jewish people in danger." Ze'ev Jabotinsky claims that, "The Third Reich's policy toward the Jews calls for a war of extermination."

    Segev makes it clear that you should just as likely regard these wisdom in the context of Zionist interests. In Germany's blatant anti-Semitism, Israel's founders see a boon to their efforts to populate their nascent state. They obviously don't want to see German Jews exterminated. But they do see German bigotry as useful confirmation of what already believed—cold water to awaken one's brethren from the "assimilationist" dream. Thus in Haavara, interests dovetail: The Nazis get rid of their hated Jews. And the Zionist state gets more hands to cultivate the land

    Statecraft is never pretty. The responses to Haavara ran the gamut. Jabotinsky objects to dealing with Hitler, even as his Revisionists movement looks kindly upon the Italian fascist. (There was a similar phenomena in America which Ira Katznelson details in Fear Itself.) There are even those who admire Nazism, if it could be stripped of its Jew-hatred. "Were it not for Hitler's anti-Semitism, we would not oppose his ideology" claims Zvi Eliahu Cohen. "Hitler saved Germany." So much of this comes down to the cold, chilling calculus of trying to build a nation. From Ben-Gurion:

    If I knew that it was possible to save all the children in Germany by transporting them to England, but only half of them by transporting them to Palestine, I would chose the second—because we face not only the reckoning of those children, but the historical reckoning of the Jewish people.

    I came to this book to watch how one portion of a larger family dealt with the legacy of great crime committed against them. I haven't gotten that far. But what I am getting is something more than I expected. Segev's Israel is not an idea nor a symbol, but a collection of textured, conflicted human beings.*

    *Fixed some of the labeling in this post to avoid historical conflation.

  • The Paranoid Style in American Stenography

    Often you see that things that look modern are really old. So it is with our theories of dark plots, dastardly machinations, and invisible grimoires.

    Apparently a congressional stenographer snatched the mic in the gallery yesterday and went on something of a tear:

    “He [God] will not be mocked,” the stenographer, apparently named Molly, yelled into the microphone as she was dragged off by security. “The greatest deception here is that this is not one nation under God. It never was. It would not have been. The Constitution would not have been written by Freemasons. They go against God. You cannot serve two masters. Praise be to God. Praise be to Jesus.”

    As it just so happens, I've been going over Hofstadter's classic essay on paranoia in American politics. For me the most interesting portions of these kinds of books aren't the present but in the past. So often you see that things that look modern are really old. So it is with our theories of dark plots, dastardly machinations, and invisible grimoires.

    In 1797, the volume Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati and Reading Societies was published in Scotland (and later here in America). Its author, John Robinson, warned that unseen hands were militating toward "the express purpose of ROOTING OUT ALL THE RELIGIOUS ESTABLISHMENTS AND OVERTURNING ALL THE EXISTING GOVERNMENTS OF EUROPE." (His caps. Not mine.)

    There's a strong anti-liberal slant to a lot of this work. Abbé Barruel, in 1798, published Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire du Jacobinisme in which he claimed that he could demonstrate that ...

    ... in the French Revolution, even the most dreadful of crimes, was foreseen, contemplated, contrived, resolved upon, decreed; that everything was the consequence of the most profound villainy, and was prepared and produced by those who alone held the leading threads of conspiracies long before woven in the secret societies, and who know how to choose and to hasten the favorable moments of their schemes....The circumstances may have served as pretext and opportunity, but the grand cause of the Revolution, of its great crimes, its huge atrocities, was always independent and self-contained, and it consisted in plots long hatched and deeply meditated.

    What appeals to me about this writing—history aside—is the extremity of it. Its very similar to the style in Cannibals All, which I talked about a while back. Think about George Fitzhugh declaring, "If slavery be wrong, then the Bible cannot be true." Then dig the extreme rhetoric of  Yale President Timothy Dwight warning of a broad Jacobin conspiracy to undermine the Union:

    All that the malice and atheism of the Dragon, the cruelty and rapacity of the Beast, and the fraud and deceit of the false Prophet can generate, or accomplish, swell the the list. No personal or national interest of man has been uninvaded; no impious sentiment or action has been spared...Shall we, my brethren, become partakers of these sins? Shall we introduce them into our government, our schools, our families? Shall our sons become the disciples of Voltaire, and the dragoons of Marat; or our daughters, the concubines of the Illuminati?

    Wow. The Illuminati. Now that brings back memories. There was always a certain contingent among the "conscious" crowd back at my alma mater (The real HU. Holler at me on the yard this Homecoming, fam.) that believed the end times were upon us. Who would bring about these end-times? An arcane alliance of Masons, Trilaterals, Boulé, and of course the Illuminati. The result would be a New World Order—barcodes stamped on our arms, computer chips implanted in our children, and all mankind reduced to slavery. The warnings were all around us. The Republican revolution of 1994. The scourge of HIV. The hidden meanings in certain English words. The coming of Y2k. 

    I was crazy back then—but not that crazy. Still it's funny how I thought that these guys—and it was always guys—were something special and different, when in reality, they were just another splinter of the same American mind. The bible for them was Behold a Pale Horse. Later I found out it was also the bible for right-wing survivalists.

  • The Auschwitz All Around Us

    Coming to terms with the idea of evil

    I picked up Tony Judt's masterful Postwar this weekend and came across a fairly interesting discussion of how Germans thought about the Holocaust in the aftermath of the War. Judt is discussing Konrad Adenauer's attempt to broker Wiedergutmachung, or reparations, to Israel for the Holocaust. But getting everyday Germans to recognized their complicity in the great crimes proves difficult:

    In making this agreement Adenauer ran some domestic political risk: in December 1951, just 5 percent of West Germans surveyed admitted feeling ‘guilty’ towards Jews. A further 29 percent acknowledged that Germany owed some restitution to the Jewish people. The rest were divided between those (some two-fifths of respondents) who thought that only people ‘who really committed something’ were responsible and should pay, and those (21 percent) who thought ‘that the Jews themselves were partly responsible for what happened to them during the Third Reich.’

    When the restitution agreement was debated in the Bundestag on March 18th 1953, the Communists voted against, the Free Democrats abstained and both the Christian Social Union and Adenauer’s own CDU were divided, with many voting against any Wiedergutmachung (reparations). In order to get the agreement approved Adenauer depended on the votes of his Social Democratic opponents.

    The payment of Wiedergutmachung, which did happen stands in direct contrast to how the German people saw themselves:

    Any suggestion that Germany, and especially the German armed forces, had behaved in ways that precipitated or justified their suffering was angrily dismissed. The preferred self-image of Adenauer’s Germany was that of a victim thrice over: first at Hitler’s hands—the huge success of films like Die Letzte Brücke (The Last Bridge, 1954), about a female doctor resisting the Nazis, or Canaris (1955) helped popularize the notion that most good Germans had spent the war resisting Hitler; then at the hands of their enemies—the bombed-out cityscapes of post-war Germany encouraged the idea that on the home front as in the field, Germans had suffered terribly at the hands of their enemies; and finally thanks to the malicious ‘distortions’ of post-war propaganda, which—it was widely believed—deliberately exaggerated Germany’s ‘crimes’ while downplaying her losses.

    Parcel to that was the idea of a noble, apolitical Wehrmacht which had been corrupted by the Nazis:

    Germans did not so much forget as selectively remember. Throughout the fifties West German officialdom encouraged a comfortable view of the German past in which the Wehrmacht was heroic, while Nazis were in a minority and had been properly punished.

    To those of us who've studied the Civil War, this is a very, very familiar line. I'm not sure how Rommel fits in here, but my intellectual instincts say that he'd be a natural hero for this kind of sentiment. The idea of blaming some crazed, maniacal monster for the evils of actual men is another familiar theme. Here at home, it's very hard to accept white supremacy as a structure erected by actual people, as a choice, as an interest, as opposed to a momentary bout of insanity.

    Early in his book The Seventh Million, Israeli historian Tom Segev visits with the author, and Holocaust survivor, Yehiel De-Nur. Segev quotes De-Nur coming to the realization that ultimately the Holocaust was not the work of God, but the work of man and thus, in some profound way, condemns us all—"Wherever there is humankind, there is Auschwitz...Because it was not Satan that made Auschwitz but you and I."

    Accepting that the structures of evil are not mystical, but are the work of actual humans who parent children is terrifying. It is terrifying to understand that you could be under the chain or you could be holding it, that evil is common and can't be passed off to some amorphous evil in the hazy past, or condemned to the fringes of the present.

  • What This Cruel War Was Over

    It is not so much the behavior of the lone idiot that matters, but the tenor of the crowd around him.

    Joshua Roberts/Reuters

    On Sunday, a group of conservative radicals held a protest in Washington. Eventually they walked to the White House. One of these radicals felt it was a good idea to wave the flag of slavery, treason, and terrorism in front of the home of America's first black president. Lone idiots are often drawn to protest action. The behavior of such idiots, while alarming, should not necessarily be taken as an indicator of the aims and thrust of the protest. On the contrary, it is not so much the behavior of the lone idiot that matters—but the tenor of the crowd around him.

    If, for instance, you witness a march against military action in Syria and see a Nazi flag among the protestors this should disturb you. But you would be heartened to see the protesters snatch the lone idiot in their midst, eject him from their party with great vigor, and give him some blows for good measure. The flag would still disturb you, but perhaps you might be able to see it as a fringe action, and not the heart of the protest itself.

    It is the wisdom of the crowd that matters. The wisdom that marked Sunday's crowd was the idea that the president "bows down to Allah" and needs to "put the Qu'ran down." The wisdom that marked Sunday's crowd was the notion that Obama was not the president of "the people" but the president of "his people." The wisdom of Sunday's crowd held that the police, doing their job, looked "like something out of Kenya." It's not so much that a man would fly a Confederate flag, as Jeff Goldberg notes, in front of the home of a black family. It's that a crowd would allow him the comfort of doing it.

    I was in a crowd once. It's been almost 20 years. But I remember most is how emphatically we were drilled, that day, on the politics of respectability.  Our wisdom was conservative—too conservative for my tastes, frankly. But I obeyed the edict of the day which held that had any black man who came to the Million Man March and so much as stole candy bar would doom us all. That was our wisdom. It's a good memory. But I fear that it is no match for the wisdom of Sunday's crowd. The blue period is upon us.

    MORE: I don't know if I am effectively communicating what is wrong with that picture and why it is deeply infuriating. If a patriot can stand in front of the White House brandishing the Confederate flag, then the word "patriot" has no meaning. The Nazi flag is offensive because it is a marker of centuries of bigotry elevated to industrialized murder.

    But the Confederate flag does not merely carry the stain of slavery, of "useful killing," but the stain of attempting to end the Union itself. You cannot possibly wave that flag and honestly claim any sincere understanding of your country. It is not possible.

  • The Fact of a Dual Society

    A talk at Harvard's Shorenstein Center

    I gave a talk earlier today which will be familiar to most of you. I try not to talk much in public. But I'm doing a lot more lately. I don't know what that means. I have this fear of becoming a dude more known for running his mouth than banging it out. (Which is why I left Twitter.) Anyway give this a listen while you do the dishes or while you're screwing around with the new SimCity. Or whatever else the kids are doing these days. 

    Here's to forever banging it out.

  • 'Immorality' and Obamacare, Cont.

    Why arguing that we should have a health-care expansion for the most vulnerable or no health-care expansion at all is ultimately wrong

    There are many good critiques of my own critiques of Obamacare. Here is one, from David White, that stuck with me over the weekend. He is responding to my question, "Why is the radical approach—a health care expansion for the most vulnerable, or no health care expansion at all—ultimately wrong?"

    White writes:

    I wouldn't say it's "ultimately wrong," but it's not the choice I'd make. The flip side of your morality question is "is it moral to deny a health care expansion for poor black people in NY and IL because poor black people in Mississippi won't benefit?" How much longer would we have to fight, how many poor NYers would die while we're trying to convince some Mississippi segregationist legislator to extend healthcare there? Is it wrong to help those NYers now, and set up the framework by which those Mississippians will be helped in the future when that fight is won?

    My concern is—and remains—the fact that the expansion of the safety net comes at the price of delaying its extension to a segment of the population in which poor black and brown people are overly represented. I am convinced that within the next five to 10 years forces beyond morality will make the Medicaid expansion national. But in the meantime there will be a benefits gap. Again. But with that said, the question isn't, "Should we be horrified?" It's, "Why is arguing that we should have a health-care expansion for the most vulnerable or no health-care expansion at all ultimately wrong?" And I think David pretty much get its right.

    History is instructive here. After the Civil War, the country extended the vote (nominally) to black men. Feminists and lefties (like me) have spilled much ink noting that women did not get the vote. The position of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton—who'd fought for years as radical abolitionists—was basically "the vote for white and black women and black men, or the vote for no one." (An enraged Stanton later took this further and argued "the vote for white women above all." Things got worse from there with the cause being taken up by feminists like the inveterate racist Rebecca Felton and slightly less racist Frances Willard.)

    In her book, When and Where I Enter, the historian Paula Giddings focuses on the debates among black men and women over the prospect of only half the community getting the vote while the other half remained disenfranchised. Giddings argues that black women ultimately supported the vote for black men because there was at least the possibility of influence within the home and family. Extending the vote to white women exclusively—in addition to boosting the power of the white revanchists—would not have offered the same prospect.

    Was it "immoral" to advocate, as Frederick Douglass did, for the extension of the franchise to black men, but not to women? Or was it moral to take what could be gotten, and then continue to argue for the franchise extending to women? (As Douglass also did.) I've said before that I actually have a lot of sympathy for Anthony and Stanton. Still, the answer is clear to me. Douglass was right. Obamacare isn't perfect—but it's what we could get. The question remains whether we shall always have to "get" things in this same manner.

    I should add on a personal note that I can run hot sometimes. I hope to remain that way, but it doesn't always make for the tightest thinking. Sometimes it even makes me dead wrong. I have said before that you should not come here with the expectation that I will be "right." I'm often not—and frankly I believe that this is true of anyone who writes. But I try my best to be honest with you and giving you my thinking as it stands in the moment, though it might well change in the next. I have a lifetime's worth of questions. (Why is the train to Boston as slow as the bus? What really makes planes fly? When will Peter Parker get his body back? Will we be racist to the end? Am I too old to learn French? Why does raw cheese taste so good?) Unfortunately, I have very few definite answers.

  • Notes From the Blue Period

    For no particular reason—or for a reason I can not articulate right now—I want to share something with you. 
     
    At the end of the Civil War, when the United States was considering selling homesteads to black freedmen, some number of white Southerners decided to turn to fraud. Whites would sell them painted sticks that supposedly gave them possession of particular parcels of land. They'd also sell them "deeds" to the land. 
     
    One such deed reads as follows:
    Know all men by these presents, that a naught is a naught, and a figure is a figure; all for the white man and none for the nigure. And whereas Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so also have I lifted this damned old nigger out of four dollars and six bits. Amen. Selah!
     
    Given under my hand and seal at the Corner Grocery in Granby, some time between the birth of Christ and the death of the devil.
    The recipient of this deed was a black man who could not read. His money was taken, and then he was mocked. The mockery is almost a show of cause. His illiteracy is a weakness and that weakness makes him worthy of contempt and suitable for plunder.
     
    When I was a child in West Baltimore it was a hobby to jump people who'd somehow wandered through your neighborhood. But you could not jump them for the hell of it—even if that's what you were actually doing. You had to make up some fraudulent reason for plunder—"Yo, ain't that the dude that was messing with your cousin?" or some other nakedly false show of cause. We could not accept the fact that we were behaving thuggishly, that we had embraced villainy. Even in total cowardice we had to make ourselves heroic.
     
    I learned this. It was not natural to me. I was a tender boy, until I wasn't. And then I learned to despise weakness and to mask that contempt behind narrative and myth. 
     
    If you have ever done this—and I suspect if you think about it, you will find you have—you can see how such cowardice could be practiced across a society. The people I was raised around were humans, and so it is not shocking that the same rituals we practiced there, the same feelings of contempt, are all around us—the Germans inventing reasons to invade Poland, the rapist who claims the short dress made him do it, an entire town organizing to back him up. 
     
    Weakness, misery, does not always elicit sympathy. Perhaps that is because the weakness reminds of what we we fear for ourselves. Or perhaps it reminds us of our own complicity in some broad crime, and more, our presumed helplessness for it to be any other way.
     
    I don't know. There's no good reason to show you this. I think I just want you to know that this happened. 
  • 'Immorality' and Obamacare

    The right and wrong way to discuss the health-care law's failings

    In an earlier post ruminating on Obamacare and the large swath of poor black people who will not be helped by it I used the term "immoral." I should not have done that. I think that's the kind of word that tends to excite, but not much else. I don't want to bring heat to this thing, I want to bring light. 

    I come to this as a card-carrying lefty and Black Panther diaper baby (is that a thing?) who believes the 2008 election to be one of the great events of my life. At the same time I am worried that we are effectively conceding that any expansion/improvement of the social safety net will likely be done on racist terms. Perhaps it was inevitable that Obamacare would exclude a lot of poor black people. I don't think it's a good idea to accept that on face value. If I must accept it, I will do so begrudgingly, greedily demanding more. I will not make the perfect the enemy of the good. And I will not allow the good to masquerade as the perfect.
     
    Again, I want us to think about politics beyond the ballot box, and consider that which shapes the options that come before us. In that sense, this is beyond the man Barack Obama. I have no particular enmity toward him, on the contrary I have a great deal of pride. I think that using the term "immoral" was unhelpful. More later.
  • Obamacare and the Conscience of a Radical

    What if the health-care law's shortcomings aren't just missed opportunities but moral outrages?

    Last week someone alluded to the liberal critiques of radical leftism arguing that the limits of dwelling "too long and too angrily on the systemic racism of America" should not be ignored. This amused me. As I noted, the problem is not that I dwell too long and too angrily on America's systemic racism, but that America's systemic racism has tended to dwell too long and too angrily on me. The commenter replied and expanded, pointing out that he had not expressed himself well. I actually think he addressed the liberal political consensus quite well. And as a point about electoral politics it probably is true. I just reject the idea that "politics" begins with the voting booth, the nominating convention, or the pocket veto.

    I was talking to Eric J. Miller, a law professor at Loyola Law School, for a magazine piece the other day. He made the point that talking about white supremacy as foundational to America is not merely cathartic-- it's citizenship. More, it is providing correct information that helps us understand what ideal policy might look like -- even if we don't get there:
    The political sphere is where you engage with your humanity. You have not merely a right, you have an obligation to participate, to make sure the people, as a whole, are able to make good decisions, and pass good laws and treat you as a human. And if one group subjugates another, if it says 'You can talk about anything you want, except everything that matters to you,' then you are not a full member of the polity. So then voting is not enough because we can't even have the debate.
    Voting is not enough. Defining the terms of the debate is politics too. To a great degree (though not totally) the politics which define the debate around the expansion of our social safety net are the politics of white supremacy. To understand how true this has been across history, it's worth checking out Robert Lieberman's tome Shifting the Color Line. His conclusions are bracing. "Deracialization, the side-stepping of direct confrontation of difficult racial issues," Lieberman writes. "Can have grim consequences." Like leaving the majority of the most vulnerable class of Americans uncovered, while the rest of the country enjoys the expanded safety net. 
     
    What you must understand is that this is actively harmful. Black wealth in America is roughly a tenth of white wealth. Black people are the most segregated people in the country. What this means is that even black people who do personally reap the benefits of Obamacare will reap them less. They will live in communities where there is less coverage. (Remember Patrick Sharkey's work on neighborhoods.) They will have family members and friends who will be uncovered. In this way one can see how an ostensibly, and well-intentioned, progressive and color-blind policy proposal can actually expand a wealth gap. I want to be careful with that last sentence. I don't know that that will actually happen. My sense of this is historical -- selective expansions of the safety net and of wealth-building opportunities have not been helpful to black people.
     
    Lieberman argues for the long-term nationalization of the safety net. In the case of health-care reform this would have meant national single-payer. That was never on the table in 2008, and I have my doubts about the ability of a black president to pass such a program.
     
    More vexing for me is how to think about this as a citizen. The conventional liberal approach says, "Obamacare didn't get all we wanted but it got a lot of it. We took what we could." But what if that logic really does exacerbate the wealth gap? Is it moral to support a program that fails to help those who need it the most? The response might be that -- like Social Security -- eventually all states will adopt the expansion. But this does not address the damage done in the meantime, nor does it address the possibility in increasing if not the wealth gap then the overall gap in life outcomes.
     
    There is a more radical possibility -- Obamacare is ultimately immoral, not because it didn't get "everything" but because it didn't get to those who needed it most. The stated impulse of class-first liberalism is that those who need it most -- measured by wealth and income -- will get the most help. In the case of Obamacare, this may eventually happen, but great damage will be done in the meantime. 
     
    I'm not sure where to go with this. What would Martin Luther King say, faced with the realities of Obamacare? Why is the radical approach -- a health-care expansion for the most vulnerable, or no health-care expansion at all -- ultimately wrong? It certainly isn't a plan for right now. But what do we lose when neglect to even attempt to make the long-term argument?
     
    Lieberman is a supporter of universal programs (as am I) but he argues that we should not fool ourselves into thinking we are implementing those programs in a country where racism is a minor force, easily dismissed: 
    The implication of this analysis for public policy is that broad, universal policies stand a better chance of succeeding if we we pay careful and forthright attention to both institutional structure and racial consequences....
    Lieberman writes this in a critique of William Julius Wilson, who in the '80s argued for the kind of color-blind approach that Obama now touts. But it's worth pointing out that Wilson has changed his mind. He responds to Lieberman in the latest edition of his classic study The Truly Disadvantaged by adding:
    I accept this criticism. Indeed since writing The Truly Disadvantaged my position on framing has changed. In addition to making sure that institutional mechanisms are in place to allow for an equitable distribution of resources, I also feel that in framing public policy we should not shy away from an explicit discussion of the specific issues of race and poverty; on the contrary, we should highlight them in our attempt to convince the nation that these problems should be seriously confronted and that there is an urgent need to address them. 
     
    The issues of race and poverty should be framed in such a way that not only a sense of fairness and justice to combat inequality is generated, but also people are made aware that our country would be better off if these problems were seriously addressed. In other words, I now feel that appeals to America's sense of fairness and justice will be more effective in the long run than attempting to neutralize the effects of racial biases by highlighting initiatives that seem to benefit all groups. 
    That is basically my position. I am fan of universal programs. I am not a fan of lying or self-delusion. I am a fan of Obamacare. I don't know that the president could have gotten more. I am not a fan of defending Obama's record in black America by changing the subject. 
     
    One caveat: This analysis focuses on Obama because he is the titular head of the American state. To some extent, I regret that. What I want people to think about is beyond the president. Obama's "rising tide" thinking did not appear from thin air. It is the result of liberal thinking in sociology and history over the past few decades, as well as the impulses of coalition politics. I want people to expand their thoughts about politics beyond the immediate and the electoral. I am trying to think beyond Obama, as an individual actor, to the inherent biases and predilections of our system. I don't have many answers here.

    UPDATE: I am aware of what happened with the Supreme Court and how the ACA was written. I addressed that critique here.

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