I've been thinking about Edith Wharton for the past couple of days, turning over the characters from The Age of Innocence in my head, and listening to this interview with Wharton biographer Hermione Lee. From other sources I've gotten the sense that Wharton was an imperialist and also vaguely racist. I thought about that for a bit, and then decided I didn't much care. It all feels kind of irrelevant. I believe in the right to love people through their work, and I see no reason why meeting you over drinks is any more superior than meeting you through art. I reserve the right to love the dead, regardless of who the dead, in a different time, deemed worthy of love.
With that said, what I love about Wharton--the Wharton who wrote Age of Innocence--is her empathy and ambivalence. I haven't read Wharton's other novels but there was some talk in comments alleging that her earlier work lacks those qualities. I'd hear more about that from the Horde. I think it's interesting that Wharton was almost sixty when she wrote Age of Innocence and could afford some distance from the "Old New York" she was portraying. Maybe that distance allowed for more empathy, for a more complete sketch of that world.
Let me back up some: Some time ago, in one of our conversations, a commenter asked if I could provide a quick "tip sheet" on the Civil War which they could whip out in order to best one of their bigoted uncles who insisted that the War wasn't about slavery. I declined to do so, and went to inveigh against a partisan, debate-team approach to history. (I know there are people who read this blog in order to arm themselves against their racist Facebook friends, but I don't much like it.) That's also what I was getting at in this Stanley Crouch piece, and in my general critique on the need to "demythologize" Malcolm X. I look at askance at any work which bills itself as a "corrective." There's something narrow and profane about the whole business. Paint us a complete picture and the correctives will flow naturally.
This is what I love about Innocence. I don't see Newland Archer as tragic. (The name "New Land" is itself interesting, given the themes of the book.) I don't see him as wrong. Wharton presents to us a deeply flawed world. But whereas a lesser writer would have stopped there, Wharton shows us how an honorable person, totally apprised of those flaws, might die for that world nonetheless. The subtle point beneath all of this is an arresting: Wharton turns the camera toward us and asks "Are you so much the genius that you can say you'd have done anything different?"
When Newland says to Count Oleska that he is searching for a world where "categories" like husband, wife and mistress don't exist, the much more worldly, and wiser, Oleska looks at him and says, "Oh my dear--Where is that country?"
Where is that country.
I fucking love that line. It says so much about how we both underestimate, and overestimate, our imagination. I think some of the the Old Virginians must have thought much the same when faced with the beast of slavery--Where is that country.
What a wonderful book. I started reading it again last night. It's a very conservative (small c) novel. More to come.
As the Trump presidency approaches a troubling tipping point, it’s time to find the right term for what’s happening to democracy.
Here is something that, even on its own, is astonishing: The president of the United States demanded the firing of the former FBI deputy director, a career civil servant, after tormenting him both publicly and privately—and it worked.
The American public still doesn’t know in any detail what Andrew McCabe, who was dismissed late Friday night, is supposed to have done. But citizens can see exactly what Donald Trump did to McCabe. And the president’s actions are corroding the independence that a healthy constitutional democracy needs in its law enforcement and intelligence apparatus.
McCabe’s firing is part of a pattern. It follows the summary removal of the previous FBI director and comes amid Trump’s repeated threats to fire the attorney general, the deputy attorney, and the special counsel who is investigating him and his associates. McCabe’s ouster unfolded against a chaotic political backdrop which includes Trump’s repeated calls for investigations of his political opponents, demands of loyalty from senior law enforcement officials, and declarations that the job of those officials is to protect him from investigation.
Among the more practical advice that can be offered to international travelers is wisdom of the bathroom. So let me say, as someone who recently returned from China, that you should be prepared to one, carry your own toilet paper and two, practice your squat.
I do not mean those goofy chairless sits you see at the gym. No, toned glutes will not save you here. I mean the deep squat, where you plop your butt down as far as it can go while staying aloft and balanced on the heels. This position—in contrast to deep squatting on your toes as most Americans naturally attempt instead—is so stable that people in China can hold it for minutes and perhaps even hours ...
How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory
One of the most extraordinary things about our current politics—really, one of the most extraordinary developments of recent political history—is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump. The president won four-fifths of the votes of white evangelical Christians. This was a higher level of support than either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, an outspoken evangelical himself, ever received.
Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership. Trump’s past political stances (he once supported the right to partial-birth abortion), his character (he has bragged about sexually assaulting women), and even his language (he introduced the words pussy and shithole into presidential discourse) would more naturally lead religious conservatives toward exorcism than alliance. This is a man who has cruelly publicized his infidelities, made disturbing sexual comments about his elder daughter, and boasted about the size of his penis on the debate stage. His lawyer reportedly arranged a $130,000 payment to a porn star to dissuade her from disclosing an alleged affair. Yet religious conservatives who once blanched at PG-13 public standards now yawn at such NC-17 maneuvers. We are a long way from The Book of Virtues.
A new six-part Netflix documentary is a stunning dive into a utopian religious community in Oregon that descended into darkness.
To describe Wild Wild Country as jaw-dropping is to understate the number of times my mouth gaped while watching the series, a six-part Netflix documentary about a religious community in Oregon in the 1980s. It’s ostensibly the story of how a group led by the dynamic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh purchased 64,000 acres of land in central Oregon in a bid to build its own utopian city. But, as the series immediately reveals, the narrative becomes darker and stranger than you might ever imagine. It’s a tale that mines the weirdness of the counterculture in the ’70s and ’80s, the age-old conflict between rural Americans and free love–preaching cityfolk, and the emotional vacuum that compels people to interpret a bearded mystic as something akin to a god.
The first female speaker of the House has become the most effective congressional leader of modern times—and, not coincidentally, the most vilified.
Last May, TheWashington Post’s James Hohmann noted “an uncovered dynamic” that helped explain the GOP’s failure to repeal Obamacare. Three current Democratic House members had opposed the Affordable Care Act when it first passed. Twelve Democratic House members represent districts that Donald Trump won. Yet none voted for repeal. The “uncovered dynamic,” Hohmann suggested, was Nancy Pelosi’s skill at keeping her party in line.
She’s been keeping it in line for more than a decade. In 2005, George W. Bush launched his second presidential term with an aggressive push to partially privatize Social Security. For nine months, Republicans demanded that Democrats admit the retirement system was in crisis and offer their own program to change it. Pelosi refused. Democratic members of Congress hosted more than 1,000 town-hall meetings to rally opposition to privatization. That fall, Republicans backed down, and Bush’s second term never recovered.
In his new book, Steven Pinker is curiously blind to the power and benefits of small-town values.
I’m a scientist at UC Berkeley—a card-carrying true believer in liberal Enlightenment values. Imagine that I meet a bright young woman in a small town in Wisconsin or Alabama, and that I want to persuade her to become a scientist like me. “Listen, science is really great!,” I say. “We scientists care about truth and reason and human flourishing. We include people from every country and culture. And our values have transformed the world. For thousands of years before the Enlightenment, the speed limit was the pace of a fast horse, and children died all the time. Now ideas move at the speed of light, and a child’s death is an unthinkable tragedy. Democracy has eclipsed tyranny, prosperity has outpaced poverty, medicine has routed illness, individual liberation has uprooted social convention. Come join us!”
The MIT economist Peter Temin argues that economic inequality results in two distinct classes. And only one of them has any power.
A lot of factors have contributed to American inequality: slavery, economic policy, technological change, the power of lobbying, globalization, and so on. In their wake, what’s left?
That’s the question at the heart of a new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, by Peter Temin, an economist from MIT. Temin argues that, following decades of growing inequality, America is now left with what is more or less a two-class system: One small, predominantly white upper class that wields a disproportionate share of money, power, and political influence and a much larger, minority-heavy (but still mostly white) lower class that is all too frequently subject to the first group’s whims.
The strange, cosmic reason our evolutionary path will look ever luckier the longer we survive
It was hard times for the bomber pilots that floated over Europe, their planes incinerating cities below, like birds of prey. Even as they turned the once-bustling streets beneath to howling firestorms, death had become a close companion to the crews of the Allied bombers as well. In fact, surviving a tour with the Bomber Command had become a virtual coin flip. While their munitions fell mutely from bomb bays, an upward sleet of fire from smoldering city grids and darkened farmland shot the planes out of the sky like clay pigeons. For recruits encountering the freshly empty bunk beds of dead airmen, morale was sapped before they could even get in the cockpit. Hoping to slow this attrition, Allied officers studied the pattern of bullet holes in returning aircraft for vulnerable parts to reinforce with armor.
For a brief moment, NASA found itself at the center of a digital misinformation campaign.
“After year in space, astronaut Scott Kelly no longer has same DNA as identical twin,” the headline of a story on the Today show’s website, published Thursday, declared. Seven percent of his DNA, the story says, “has not returned to normal since he returned from space.”
Pretty amazing news, right? Too bad it’s not true.
This week, dozens of news organizations published stories with this or similar information. They cited a NASA study on the effects of space travel on the human body, with two subjects: astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly, identical twins. In 2015, Scott flew to the International Space Station and lived there for 340 days—a record for an American astronaut—while Mark stayed on Earth. Scientists examined the twins before, during, and after the mission.
Inside Germany’s high-stakes operation to sort people fleeing death from opportunists and pretenders
Three years ago, overcome by the squalor of my home, I decided to hire a cleaner. I scanned Craigslist, feeling a prick of guilt; few things arouse class angst as reliably as the purchase of domestic help. Then I remembered another option. Near my Connecticut home was a refugee-resettlement center. On weekdays, dozens of recent arrivals loitered there, eager for work. This seemed to offer a solution to both my squalor and my angst. To pay a Craigslist gig worker felt a little icky. To pay a refugee—well, that felt magnanimous, almost patriotic.
I wrote to the resettlement center, which sent me a stack of résumés. Even the ones from Congolese herders were well formatted and in English—the result, surely, of polishing by the center’s staff. The stories, I found, made propulsive reading, despite the outline form. I was tempted to request more résumés for the understated drama alone. Each was the timeline of a life interrupted in a distant, volatile land and now picked up, improbably, in a snowy New England town.