Tis the season to drown in holiday music (check out our “12 Days of Christmas Songs” series), but legends must be paid respect. And the one true and pure Christmas carol is, of course, “Fa La La” by Justin Bieber featuring Boys II Men. This song is sacred and does not need defending, but for the non-believers:
What is more strange and passionate than an adolescent and three grown men singing to their unnamed love? About their soft desire to listen to her chest? Mixing tenderness, the holiday spirit, a bop of a staccato hook, and some very dope arm and upper-body improv in the video? This is the reason for the season.
The music video is also a work of art. Look at young Bieber widen his eyes at the 0:29 mark, right after singing “when you open your eeeeyes.” Symbolism. Brilliance. Then Shawn Stockman’s very extra, very necessary run at the end, with his finger in the air running alongside, like a lifeline for his vocal cords. And shoutout to a legend, the subtle reference to Yung Joc’s glory era at the 2:05 mark.
There is nothing holier than these lyrics: “Baby I hear melodies when your heart beats/Baby it sings to me like/Fa la la la la, fa la la la la/I know that it's Christmas time.” Who has sung of a heart marking the passage of time? What can be more divine? Boys II Men and Jus are (basically) singing: “Your heart is a jingle bell, your love is hallowed ground.”
This morning, to commemorate the 74th anniversary of the Japanese attack, Adrienne quoted two former U.S. senators who witnessed the bombings firsthand. In 1948, the official in charge of the Military Information Division on that fateful day in December 1941, Sherman Miles, wrote his own retrospective in The Atlantic. Miles reflected not on that day, but all that led up to it:
The last twenty-four hours in Washington before the bombs fell have come in for much scrutiny. Why did the President, with most of the Japanese final answer before him, conclude that it meant war and then, after a fitful attempt to reach Admiral Stark by telephone, quietly go to bed? Why was he in seclusion the following morning? Why was no action taken on the Japanese reply by the Secretaries of State, War, and Navy when they met on that Sunday morning? Why did they not consult the President, or he send for them? Where was everybody, including my humble self?
Why, in short, didn’t someone stage a last-minute rescue, in good Western style?
For most of elementary school I learned about Rosa Parks as if she only existed on December 1, 1955. Every February in some Black History Month poster or presentation: Parks sitting on a bus, alongside MLK’s dream and George Washington Carver’s peanuts. Her life cooled into one day. Rather, one moment: the passive and accidental revolution in Parks’s refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man because she was too tired to stand. Pictures of her mugshot and fingerprints from an arrest were mummified with her day-long life, along with that shot of her staring out of bus window. I remember it all collected into her very quiet rebellion.
Jeanne Theoharis contends with this collective misremembering in TheWashington Post today, on the anniversary of Parks’s 1955 arrest. Theoharis, a Parks biographer, describes how that tired refusal on the bus 60 years ago was not an incongruous burst in the life of a meek Parks.
She was an activist for black women, especially victims of sexual violence at the hands of white men. This historical truth is encapsulated in a line from Danielle McGuire’s book on the historic role of black women in the Civil Rights Movement: “The Montgomery bus boycott was the baptism, not the birth, of that struggle.”
You can hear about the day directly from Parks here, in a 1956 interview with Sydney Rogers. And on the boycott her arrest catalyzed—organized by another black female activist, Jo Ann Robinson—read Benjamin E. Hays in the December 1960 issue of TheAtlantic:
For a year Negroes boycotted the buses in Montgomery, Alabama, and finally the buses were desegregated by federal decree, although the atmosphere was tense and there was fear of race riots. The Montgomery boycott resounded around the world; and no one could mistake what the Negroes in Montgomery were saying.
In 1961 Georgia, to have negroes in your neighborhood was cause enough to cuss out your white neighbor who invited them in:
I was ordered from the yard and called a “Communist nigger-lovin’ son of a bitch”
assault him action-movie style,
the man of the house, planting his hands on his porch posts, kicked me in the chest
drive his family out of town,
my wife went with the children to her mother’s for a couple of weeks to escape the turmoil
and threaten to destroy his home, possessions, and even the lives of his wife and three small children,
our landlady was reporting a bomb threat we had received.
Fifty-four years ago in The Atlantic Monthly, Pastor J. McRee Elrod reflected on the violent repercussions of committing the unforgivable sin: inviting a group of black churchgoers to his home for a potluck.
Undeterred by a bomb threat and porch-side beatdown, Elrod remained in the neighborhood, determined to welcome all “brethren” into his home:
be they American Negro, the many Orientals among my students, or those of our white neighbors still willing to come.
I understand the instinct to laugh at this essay—the title is literally “I Invited Negroes to My Home” (pdf). It’s laughing at the ridiculous, cathartic, this would never happen today quality of it. America is past this. There are black families living in predominantly white neighborhoods. One in particular lives in the most powerful home in the world, where there’s a black woman dancing on her back lawn for the world to see.
The idea of progress is eternally alluring, especially in a country with a bloody history in anti-black racism, especially in a moment where racial wounds are so regularly pronounced in media. And then here, from 1961, a suggestion of progress. However desperate and unearned, laughing at this article sounds like a sigh of relief. To be able to name some part of this bleeding as absurd, as past-tense, as history, is to finallybe able to breathe.
Our November issue features a lengthy interview with Bill Gates, who discusses with James Bennet the future of clean energy and his hopes for human innovation. In this portion of the interview we printed as a sidebar, the wealthiest human on the planet discusses his first job:
My first job—other than being a page in Congress, which isn’t a real job—was doing a computer-software project for Bonneville Power Administration, which is a quasi-governmental entity that controls the power grid in the Northwest. We were computerizing the power grid. And the company that BPA had contracted with, TRW, was behind, so the people there scoured the country to see who really knew how to do a certain type of programming, and they found me, because I was sort of infamous as a boy wonder of a certain type of programming.
They said, “Have we hired everybody who’s really good at this stuff?” and somebody said, “Well, we haven’t hired Gates.” “Wait, there’s a guy we haven’t hired? Gates? Go get him!” And they said, “Well, nobody’s ever met him. They say he’s quite young.” And the boss says, “Go get him!”
So I go down for this interview—and I did not look 16 when I was 16; I looked 12 when I was 16. My parents drove me down. I didn’t have my driver’s license. And so they were like, “God, we are really in desperate straits. We are hiring children.”
It was a seminal experience for me, because TRW had brought its very best programmers to program there. So I came in and got assigned this stuff, and people saw that I was willing to work 18 hours a day and do hard stuff. So I would write code and these super-smart guys would look it over and tell me, “Hey, this isn’t very good, this isn’t very good,” so my whole programming skill during the year I was there went a whole notch up.
And they were so nice to me. I mean, they got a kick out of my energy. The only problem was, they got it into my head that I should skip undergraduate and go straight to graduate school, which my parents vetoed.
Fourteen years ago in The Atlantic, and three months after the September 11 attacks, Bruce Hoffman wrote on terrorism and love. He tells the story of a former senior commander of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, tasked with dismantling the Black September terrorist group. The commander’s tactic? Marriage:
They traveled to Palestinian refugee camps, to PLO offices and associated organizations, and to the capitals of all Middle Eastern countries with large Palestinian communities. Systematically identifying the most attractive young Palestinian women they could find, they put before these women what they hoped would be an irresistible proposition: Your fatherland needs you. Will you accept a critical mission of the utmost importance to the Palestinian people? Will you come to Beirut, for a reason to be disclosed upon your arrival, but one decreed by no higher authority than Chairman Arafat himself? How could a true patriot refuse?
So approximately a hundred of these beautiful young women were brought to Beirut.
There, in a sort of PLO version of a college mixer, boy met girl, boy fell in love with girl, boy would, it was hoped, marry girl. There was an additional incentive, designed to facilitate not just amorous connections but long-lasting relationships. The hundred or so Black Septemberists were told that if they married these women, they would be paid $3,000; given an apartment in Beirut with a gas stove, a refrigerator, and a television; and employed by the PLO in some nonviolent capacity. Any of these couples that had a baby within a year would be rewarded with an additional $5,000.
It worked: “As the general recounted, without exception the Black Septemberists fell in love, got married, settled down, and in most cases started a family.”
There are very visible notions of sexism here—marrying off women to quell the violence of men, what it says about perceptions of women, what it meant for those specific women. Still, the power of love as a solution to terrorism is arresting. And echoed 14 years later by Theo Padnos, a journalist kidnapped in Syria and tortured for 22 months by the al-Nusra Front. At the Washington Ideas Forum last week, when Padnos was asked how the U.S. should respond to groups like al-Nusra, he replied:
I think we should send them aid. We should send them chocolates and blankets and—I think we have to be nicer to them. We can keep killing these people, but more will come. I remember Stanley McChrystal’s insurgent math—if you have 10, and you kill two, you don’t get eight, you get 20. This is truer in Syria. The bombs, I think, spread the hatred. The bombs that were dropping now, the bombs that Putin is dropping now, they only spread the hatred and they create more.