Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

In roughly the center of this view of the Pee Dee River in South Carolina is the Snow's Island National Historic Landmark. These are the swamplands where the American forces led by Frances Marion applied guerrilla tactics against the British. Google Earth

The Ken Burns / Lynn Novick 18-hour series on The Vietnam War began its run on PBS on Sunday night and continues through this week and next. I felt about as familiar with that era as I could imagine—with its tensions at the time, with the journalism and literature that came out of it, with the historical assessments, with the war’s role in music and movies and others parts of pop culture and public imagination. Even so I found this a tremendously revealing series. I recommend it very highly. Please find a way to watch—now, or in the many streaming and download alternatives they are making available.

***

As with any attempt to grapple with a topic this vast and complex, and of such emotional and historical consequence, the Burns/Novick series is bound to be controversial. For one example of an avenue of criticism, see this review by veteran Asia-hand correspondent Jim Laurie, who was on-scene in Vietnam and Cambodia during the war.

Here’s another: When I did an interview with Burns and Novick for the upcoming issue of Amtrak’s The National magazine, I asked them about one of the central themes of their press-tour presentation of the project, as opposed to the video itself. Both Burns and Novick have stressed the idea that the divisions generated by the Vietnam war prefigure the polarization of Trump-era America.

To me, that seems a little too pat. Even though I argued back at the time that the “class war” elements of Vietnam were a central reason the U.S. remained engaged for so many years, so much has happened between then and now that it’s hard to trace a sensible connection from those times to these. Since the height of the fighting in Vietnam, we’ve had: the end of the draft; the disappearance of the Soviet Union; the emergence of China; multiple dramatic shifts in political mood (the arrivals of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, later Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump, were each seen as the dawns of new political eras); the 9/11 attacks; multiple wars; multiple booms and busts; multiple grounds for hope and despair. Donald Trump was on one side of the Vietnam class-war divide, with his student deferments and mysterious physical disqualifications. Figures as politically diverse as John McCain, Al Gore, John Kerry, Jim Mattis, and Jim Webb were on the other. But it’s hard to make a neat match of that cleavage 50 years ago to the multiple axes of disagreement now. To me, it seems easier to trace a line of descent from the Civil War --subject of Ken Burns’s first national-phenomenon film series, back in 1990—to Trump-era divides than from the Vietnam war.

I lay out this disagreement on a specific point as a set-up for emphasizing  how valuable and informative I think the series is overall. It is remarkable in interleaving the accounts of participants from opposite sides of the same battle – the Americans and South Vietnamese, but also the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong – all describing what they were afraid of, what their plans were, how they reckoned victory and defeat in struggles for control of a particular hill or hamlet. It offers abundant evidence of battlefield bravery and sacrifice, on all sides – but precious few examples of political courage or foresight, especially in the United States. It’s hard to say whether Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon comes off worse for the combination of strategic misjudgment and flat-out dishonesty in management of the war. The White House recordings from both men are spell-binding.

Please watch. And since most of today’s Americans had not even been born by the time the last U.S. forces left Vietnam, it’s all the more valuable for generations who know nothing about that era first-hand.

***

Further on the theme of linkages between Vietnam and previous American engagements, a reader makes the evocative connection to the first war that troops of the newly formed United States ever fought.

All notes on "Chickenhawk Nation" >

Last month, we watched you take your Atlantic magazine to school, to the kitchen, and to the back of your truck to view the Great American Eclipse. You enjoyed our issue with loved ones, and with some very photogenic furry friends. And of course, we were impressed with the photo taken by the winner of our inaugural Instagram contest, Chris Morales, who enlisted the help of his younger sister to capture this image in his bedroom at home in California.

In fact, we had such a fun time with last month’s #ReadingMyAtlantic Instagram contest, we’ve decided to do it again.

The October issue features three cover stories that focus on the Trump presidency: Jack Goldsmith on how Trump is testing the institution of the presidency, Eliot Cohen on America's changing role in the world, and Ta-Nehisi Coates on race as a motivating factor for Trump and his supporters. The issue will be on newsstands tomorrow. So grab your copy, grab your phone, and show us (through a photo or a Boomerang) where you’ve been #ReadingMyAtlantic lately.

Here’s how to enter: Snap a picture or Boomerang of you (and your friends! Pets! Babies! Get as creative as you’d like with it) reading your copy of the October 2017 issue, and share it on Instagram using this hashtag: #ReadingMyAtlantic. We’ll select a winner in early October—the prize includes a one-year digital subscription, an Atlantic coffee mug, and a limited-edition poster of the “My President Was Black” cover, highlighting Ta-Nehisi Coates’s story from earlier this year. The winner’s post will also be shared from our Instagram account, so give us a follow. Full contest rules can be found below.

To take your mind off politics, at least politics of the national-election variety, let’s take a look back on some of the oddities of the American college-admissions process, for which millions of families are gearing up right now.

Back in 2001, the Atlantic’s September issue featured a big story I had done, called “The Early-Decision Racket.” It was about the way elite-college admissions had been transformed, and warped, through the Faustian bargain of the “early decision” system. This is the arrangement in which a student’s chance of getting into a selective college goes up, but the student’s ability to choose another college, or bargain and comparison-shop for better financial-aid deals, goes away.

(By the way: that article got a lot of attention during the first ten days of September, 2001. Then on September 11 … )

A note that just arrived is an excuse for re-posting a link to that article, and for a reminder of how distorting the whole admissions process has become. Here’s the letter:

Today, I came across your article " The Early-Decision Racket" from September 2001 and, though it took lot of patience in this twitter crazed short attention span mind to read, it might as well have been written yesterday in September 2017. Amazing that after 16 yrs, an article can still be so fresh as if time stopped.

I wanted to share a story from my family and it fits the pattern perfectly.

My niece is a senior at [a prestigious private school]. Super smart kid with 3.98/4 GPA, SAT score in 1560/1600, loaded with extra-curriculars, Mayor's youth council chairperson, community service, UN youth assembly , etc. etc.... You get the picture.

Her mom is a wealthy [professional].

I have been working with my niece to help with college admission process.   She is super crazy about [some Ivy League and East Coast schools]. Wants to get into Penn but is torn about Georgetown and its Early Action program.  Has done summer courses at Duke but doesn’t want to apply there. Is also interested in Northwestern U. [Also dealing with Tulane.]

Every word of your article was like reading my own current experience in this  " ginned up marketing game played to achieve top ranks through selectivity and yields". The ultimate game is get that spigot running and build endowment wealth….

Colleges and parents are both willing players in the game

Some of the contributing factors

(1) More students realizing that their best shot at Ivy ranked college is EA or ED and taking that chance

(2) More Asian-Americans are coming of age. Ultra-competitive kids born to very educated parents (with both having college degrees) who migrated to US in the 90s and afterwards during the technology boom.

All notes on "The Value of College" >
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

There’s a lot to admire in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new essay. It’s one of those pieces that grabs you with its first paragraph and never lets go. The argument keeps gathering force, building on the striking imagery (“Trump cracked the glowing amulet open”) and the caustic scouring of the polemics (opioids are treated as a sickness, crack was punished as a crime), to the very end. At its heart is the undeniable truth that racism remains fundamental in American politics.

It’s the overwhelming, the single cause that Coates finds for the phenomenon of Donald Trump. It’s a cause no one in America should ever bet against. And it shapes every premise Coates lays down. Because he takes all white American political behavior as undifferentiated and founded on the idea of race, he faults me for writing a pre-election essay in The New Yorker about the white working class. Since a majority of all categories of white people ended up voting for Trump, why single out white voters without college degrees, unless it’s to absolve them of their racism by invoking other factors, like class? Or worse, to extend them sympathy, since they’ve fallen into the lower depths where, unlike black Americans, they don’t “naturally” belong? Or, worse still, to absolve myself?

Kukula Glastris, who died this week at age 59. LifePost

Many people who knew or worked with Kukula Glastris described her as “the kindest” or “the most generous” person they had known. It’s a big world, and titles like that can be contested. But I’ve never met anyone whose combination of personal goodness, plus intellectual and professional abilities, exceeded Kukula’s. The large number of people fortunate to have known her now offer support to her husband Paul, and their children Adam and Hope, at the heartbreaking news of her death. Early this summer she developed respiratory problems, which steadily worsened until she died last Tuesday night, at age 59.

In the professional realm, Kukula became best-known for her work as books editor and very skilled story-magician at The Washington Monthly, the magazine of which her husband Paul became editor-in-chief and impresario, succeeding Charles Peters, more than 15 years ago. The psychology of editing requires a surface of encouragement/love/flattery — the ideal first words from any editor, to any writer, on first seeing any draft on any topic, are “Oh, this is going to be great! So wonderful! Now let’s just do this and this and...” — over a core of resolve. (“We’re not quite there yet, let’s look at this last section one more time...”) Kukula had both of these elements in abundance, along with the intellectual insight to know how a changed phrase, or a cut, or an addition, or an allusion could make the story stronger.

Sankofa gathering in New York in 2011
Sankofa gathering in New York in 2011 Allison Joyce / Reuters

Earlier this month, Jon Emont investigated why it’s so difficult for “baby religions” to get off the ground. That got me wondering: To the extent that modern people are attracted to new religious movements, what are the features that they find most compelling? I asked readers who’ve participated in such movements to share their experiences. Nearly 400 replied. Here are three responses that stood out.

For Kwabena Slaughter, the Sankofa faith (also known as Afrikania religion) offers a way to blend traditional African religions with modern Western life:

This is a religious organization in Ghana that merges elements of the traditional religions of Ghana with prayer practices similar to those in Christianity. The active recruiting arm of the group is the Afrikan Renaissance Mission (A.R.M.). They court people from Ghana and across the African diaspora who live modern lives, and teach them about the values of traditional African religion.

It’s trying to cultivate the moral stricture of traditional African religions without the herbalism and shamanistic practices that are also part of African religions. The primary religious ceremony takes place on Sundays. The service is less raucous than an African-American Baptist church service, but not as tame as a Catholic Mass. The interaction of Africa and the Western world are fundamental parts of the structure. The Sankofa faith has as its target audience those Africans who have moved entirely into a modern life.

I studied with the A.R.M. for a month in 1998, becoming an Osofo (priest) in the faith. One of the things I enjoyed was going through religious training and initiation rituals alongside Africans from other parts of the diaspora. There were Ghanaians, British, and Americans all participating. It had a quality of creating a shared religious pursuit between all diasporans.

Roxana Ross appreciates the universalist vision of the Urantia Book. First published in 1955, it includes a biography of Jesus but deviates from some Christian tenets, and some say it was authored by celestial beings. She writes:

I read the Urantia Book partially when I was in high school and read all 2,097 pages while living in Chicago in my early 20s. It provided answers to so many questions I had about God, the purpose of life, and about Jesus’s life. It confirmed that all people are children of God, not one specific group in preference to another. It does not require you to give up your own church or beliefs, but rather offers a deeper explanation of Jesus’s life so that you can experience his message for yourself.

When I was around 12 years old, I attended a Christian church summer camp for a week. My group leader learned I had never been baptized. She wanted me to accept Christ as my Savior or I risked going to Hell. I asked her about all the people in the world, like Buddhists or Jews or atheists or Muslims, who didn’t believe in Christ—were they all going to go to Hell? I couldn’t believe a loving God would do that to his children. I still don’t believe that. I do believe in the Urantia Book because I find its message logical, cohesive, reassuring, and even scientific. It is beautifully written.

David Drimmel writes about the sense of connection offered by The New Message from God, a movement based on the teachings of Marshall Vian Summers, an American who says he received divine revelations about alien life and other things:

The New Message from God is unique in that it emphasizes the importance of the theology of the greater community of intelligent life. It has broadened my perspective and understanding of what humanity is facing in the world today, the alien phenomenon, and quenches my thirst for knowledge about life in the universe.

When I first learned about the New Message, it was like I had been waiting for it, searching for it all my life. What sticks out for me the most is the emphasis on building the four pillars of my life on relationships, health, work/providership, and spiritual growth. The chapters about the pillars in the book Living the Way of Knowledge helped me see my life from a perspective that engages me in relationship instead of the disconnected, depressive state I was in. Essentially, I was called out of my depression and into the world.

California's Attorney General Xavier Becerra (right) on how, whether, and why his state will "resist" Trump-era national policies. Another Californian on the left. Aspen Ideas Festival

Last month, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I emceed an hour-long discussion with Xavier Becerra, the new Attorney General of California, on how the nation’s most populous state planned to deal with a national administration that was taking a very non-California approach on topics from climate change to immigration. Becerra, a son of immigrant parents and graduate of Stanford and Stanford Law School, had been a long-serving congressman from a predominantly Latino district on the north side of Los Angeles. Michelle Cottle did a very nice profile of him for the Atlantic a few months ago. When Kamala Harris, who had been the state’s Attorney General, resigned to take her seat as a new U.S. Senator this year, Governor Jerry Brown—who (among his many other roles) had been Harris’s predecessor as AG — invited Becerra back from service in Washington to Sacramento, where as it happens Becerra had grown up.

There is no video of the session (that I’m aware of), but a Soundcloud audio file has just gone online. You can listen to it here or here. I found it enlightening—about Becerra himself, about California, about the country.

All notes on "Trump Nation" >
One desk, one big chair, four little chairs.
Carolyn Kaster / Ap

On Friday—a few hours before Donald Trump pardoned ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio, and before Hurricane Harvey made its devastating landfall on the Texas coast—I posted an item about Donald Trump’s newly redecorated Oval Office, which differed from his predecessors’ in one notable way. I asked readers if they could spot the main difference—which, for me, was the proliferation of flags beyond what most of his predecessors had displayed, especially beribboned military battle flags.

A huge amount of mail came in about another aspect of the new office, which I hadn’t noticed or mentioned. Obviously this does not “matter” remotely as much as the genuine emergencies now underway. But there was so much correspondence, and enough of it dealt with patterns of leadership and management, that I am reprinting some of it here.

(Editing note: I have shortened most of these messages, but otherwise I have left them unedited from the form in which they arrived.)

These first few are about the message of the Oval Office photos that I hadn’t mentioned:

Re your post on the Oval flags: Another detail that struck me in the pictures of the Oval was the position of the chairs near the president’s desk. Trump has four facing him, all the others have one or two on the side. I’m certain I’m reading too much into this, but: a president with no real confidents? A president who takes no counsel? A president who speaks “to” people and not “with” people.

It may very well be they aren’t always arranged that way, a striking detail for me nonetheless.

Pop culture apropos: I remember one of the final scenes ever of the West Wing being so powerful precisely because of those chairs. As I recall, the new president’s staff briefs him, they exit the Oval, and then the chief of staff, played by Bradley Whitford, takes his place in the side chair and begins to advise the president. A simple scene, but a powerful demonstration of what it means to be a counselor to a president.

To show what the reader is talking about, here’s a close-up view of the chairs at Ronald Reagan’s desk, where the real-life counterparts of staffers like Whitford’s might have sat.

Ronald Reagan’s office, via White House Historical Association. Other pre-Trump presidents had a similar arrangement of advisors’ chairs at the side of the president’s desk.

From another reader, on the same theme:

Another difference in the pictures of the offices that struck me was the arrangement of the chairs by the President’s desk.  Every other President has chairs for advisors that are adjacent to the sides of the desk, near to the President, suggesting perhaps a closer, more collaborative relationship between the President and his advisors.

President Trump has the only configuration in which these chairs are drawn back from the President and placed such that the desk is positioned fully between the President and his advisors.

The non-Trump arrangement is actually an odd, non-customary configuration to my eyes, but in the pictures you included in your article each and every President other than Trump set up the chairs that way.    

And:

The other significant change is the number of chairs placed in front of the Resolute Desk.

The maximum in the other pictures is three,  for Eisenhower, and recent presidents seem to have had two. Trump has gone to four as a standard.

Of course, presidents had more chairs brought in when meetings got larger, but that is not the point; rather, it is that as a matter of course, Trump is *performing* in front of four chairs, and other presidents needed only two chairs for their standard meetings.

One more way Trump is fouling the presidency—making performance the core, and governance only an occasional side use of the Oval.

And:

The most striking difference between Trump's Oval Office and every single one of the others, aside from his penchant for gold, is this: The arrangement of chairs in all of the other layouts places the president among his guests while Trump's place his guests as spectators or audience members.

No one sits next to Trump. No one sits behind Trump. All chairs are in front of the desk, facing Trump. There is a single chair pictured that, while still in front of his desk, does not point directly at him, but it looks like it’s there in the event that it needs to be pulled in front of the desk.

And:

When you proposed we try spotting the difference in Trump’s office, the first thing I noticed was not the answer you provided. Only in the picture of Trump’s new lay out were the chairs of those with whom he is meeting, on the complete other side of his desk. Others must sit across from him and be separated by a large desk. All the other oval office photos had the meeting chairs set at the sides of the desk, or even behind the desk on the same side as the president.

This is interviewing and meeting 101. In order to convey that you are on the same level  as those with whom you are working or collaborating, you eliminate the large furniture (aka space) that physically blocks the interaction. It could be interpreted that Trump has asked for the desk to continue to separate him from others to preserve his position over them.

And:

The other thing I noticed besides the flags was the placement of the chairs. Previous presidents had chairs surrounding their desk, whereas Trump has them placed in front of him and away from him.  I'm not sure if that's a permanent set up, but it seems like it could be a power move in his mind to put advisors in their place, whereas other presidents were confident enough to work with their advisors and acknowledge that they needed help, and not keep them at a distance.

And:

While I agree with you about the flags, … both the quantity and layout are perhaps telling of how different this president works. With all previous images showing a couple of chairs next to the desk, indicating maybe that previous presidents worked closely with a couple advisors, this shows four chairs in front of the desk. Could that be his penchant for lording over a court? Just found the chair layout as interesting as the flags.

And just about finally for now:

Even more telling than flags is the “body language” position of the chairs near the Resolute Desk.

Notice how all other presidents have the chairs at the sides of the desk, suggesting “conversation, discussion, sharing”; Trump on the other hand has placed the chairs on the OTHER side of the desk, signifying “Who is Boss, Greater/Lesser, Grantor, Grantee, Interviewer, Applicant”—quite the opposite.

And this behavior is directed at HIS CHOSEN staff … Imagine how he treats strangers.

All notes on "Trump Nation" >
Harris & Ewing / Library of Congress

The first jazz recordings were made a century ago, in late February 1917. Just five years later, Carl Engel reported in our August 1922 issue, “Jazz is upon us everywhere.” The music was spreading into venues across the United States and Europe, and Engel, for one, was not a fan. He found the dancing inspired by “this delirious caterwauling” particularly offensive: “silly, lewd gyrations … the release of tension in a witless, neurotic stratum of society” that were “not precisely setting an example of modesty and grace.” Still, he later acknowledged, “jazz—good jazz—is not devoid of musical possibilities, not wanting in musical merit,” even if the “prurient panders of the musical fraternity” and “deplorable dances of our day” were beyond defense.

Theodore Maynard, on the other hand, thought modest and restrained dancing was ill-suited to the new music. In “Jazz,” from our January 1922 issue, he describes a cabaret scene in which wealthy patrons rise to dance to a jazz song. Maynard sees none of the “silly, lewd gyrations” that Engel condemned. Instead, he puzzles over the lack of passion and enthusiasm in the dancers, so out of touch with his own reaction to the music:

                                                           Gay
   They were not. They embraced without dismay,
Lovers who showed an awful lack of awe.

Then, as I sat and drank my wine apart,
   I pondered on this new religion, which
   Lay heavily on the face of the rich,
Who, occupied with ritual, never smiled—
Because I heard, within my quiet heart,
Happiness laughing like a little child.

You can read the full poem here.

All notes on "Atlantic Poems" >
Interior view of a slave pen, showing the doors of cells where the slaves were held before being sold
Slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia Library of Congress

This year I’ve spent my working hours in a distant American past, reading contemporaneous accounts of abolitionism, civil war, and Reconstruction in the deepest reaches of our archives.

Over the last few months this position has sometimes felt disjointed from the constant stream of news coming out of Congress and the White House. But this week the two eras collided violently when efforts to take down Confederate monuments were met with protests by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Confederate generals became the subject of articles, protests, and presidential flim flam, and Frederick Douglass reemerged on our homepage as a powerful political voice.

So, though it was written more than 150 years ago, William Cullen Bryant’s “The Death of Slavery” feels relevant today. In the poem, published in our July 1866 issue, Bryant hails the abolitionist victory at the close of the Civil War by addressing his words to the institution of slavery itself—that “great Wrong,” that “scourge,” finally at the end of its “cruel reign.”

Like The Atlantic’s founders, Bryant was fiercely opposed to slavery. He repeatedly gave voice to his abolitionism in the editorials he penned as the longtime editor of the New York Evening Post, and was an emphatic supporter of the anti-slavery Free-Soil and Republican Parties and particularly of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign. The grand moral language and triumphant tone of “The Death of Slavery” evince the fervent outrage with which he viewed America’s “peculiar institution,” and the equally fervent exultation he felt when it finally ended.

The last stanza of the poem, in which Bryant addresses the physical remnants of slavery, feels particularly resonant at the end of this long and difficult week. It reads:

I see the better years that hasten by
   Carry thee back into that shadowy past,
   Where, in the dusty spaces, void and vast,
The graves of those whom thou hast murdered lie.
          The slave-pen, through whose door
          Thy victims pass no more,
Is there, and there shall the grim block remain
   At which the slave was sold; while at thy feet
Scourges and engines of restraint and pain
   Moulder and rust by thine eternal seat.
There, ’mid the symbols that proclaim thy crimes,
Dwell thou, a warning to the coming times.

You can read the rest of the poem here, and find more verse about the Civil War in our archives.

All notes on "Atlantic Poems" >
Rob Stothard / Getty

On August 21, the Great American Eclipse will sweep the country from coast to coast, covering the land below in darkness for more than two minutes. About 12 million people live within the path of totality, and according to Martin Knopp, an administrator at the Federal Highway Administration, some 2 to 7 million who live within a day’s drive are expected to travel to that narrow zone this coming Monday.

Will you be watching? Whether you’re planning to be in the path of totality, or just tuning in from your home state, we want to see how you’re viewing the eclipse that day. In addition to the special coverage of the eclipse on our site, we’ll be sharing readers’ best photos from eclipse celebrations and viewing parties across the U.S. in our Instagram story. To submit yours, email the photos to atlanticeclipse@gmail.com or send them to @theatlantic via Instagram Direct Message. Please provide the location, the story behind the photo, and the largest file size you have. (Terms and Conditions here.)

Vertical photos that show not only the eclipse, but also where you’re viewing it from and who’s watching with you, are ideal. Have fun with it! And don’t forget to follow us here and tap our icon in the Instagram app on Monday, August 21, to view the story.

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