Late last night I explained why I thought that Nancy Sherman’s Afterwar was an important non-fiction entry in the still-not-large-enough canon of works explaining our modern chickenhawk-era culture of war. I named a few related works, and this morning I find reminders from readers of others that certainly deserve mention too:
Consequence magazine. Consequence describes itself as an “international literary magazine focusing on the culture of war.” I am chagrined to say that I had not known about it, but at least I do now. A few days ago it published a review of God is Not Here, by Bob Shea.
The FX one-season series Over There, which I saw when it originally aired ten years ago and also admired. Its possible that it was too ahead-of-its-time, for a mainstream audience, in its darkish view of the Iraq invasion and the aftereffects.
Restrepo, a powerful documentary film by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington that follows a U.S. unit through a year in Afghanistan. The film came out in 2010; a year later, Hetherington was killed while covering the Libyan civil war.
One Bullet Away, by Nathaniel Fick. Fick was a young Marine Corps officer during the invasion of Iraq and also fought in Afghanistan. His book was one of the earliest notable memoirs of the war.
I know there are more, but that will hold us for now. Thanks for the reminders and tips.
Update The video of the Georgetown session is now online. You can find it here, or in embedded version in my preceding post.
In my “Tragedy of the American Military” article early this year and in many updates since then, I’ve referred to Ben Fountain’s great novella Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk as the emblematic work of fiction for our Chickenhawk age. As a reminder: a chickenhawk nation is one willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously — in particular, thinking seriously about the wars to which it will be committed, and about what will happen to the troops when they return (except for halftime ceremonies at football games, like the one Billy Lynn portrays).
A week ago I attended and had a small part in a session at Georgetown in which veterans of our modern wars talked about something usually missing from our talk about “saluting the heroes” or “boots on the ground.” That something was the effect on the troops of the decisions they had to make in combat and the “moral injuries” they inevitably incurred in even the most successful and “glorious” wars.
For instance, in a terrible real-world case described at the Georgetown session: During the occupation of Iraq a young U.S. officer, commanding a roadblock checkpoint, sees a car barreling toward his soldiers at night. He gives all the established “slow down” and “turn back” warning signals. By this point in the occupation the Iraqis knew how the checkpoints worked and what the rules were. But as the car continues to bear down, the young officer finally orders his men to do what the rules of engagement called for: to riddle the car with machine-gun bullets before it could get close enough to set off a bomb — if that is what it contained. Only when they go to inspect the wreckage do the Americans learn that they have just killed an Iraqi couple, with their young daughters, who had been hustling to the hospital so that the pregnant mother could deliver another child. The soldiers were doing their job; the Iraqi family suffered more than a “moral injury”; but those soldiers would also never be the same. Two of them later killed themselves.
The literature of war has long dealt with impossible choices and moral injuries. Just in semi-modern history we have works from Cold Mountain to the The Red Badge of Courage about the U.S. Civil War; All Quiet on the Western Front from the German side and the great war poets from the British side, about the first World War, and the non-comic parts of Catch-22 about the second; now-largely-forgotten works like The Bridges at Toko-Ri and The Hunters about Korea; Matterhorn and others about Vietnam; and the dozen other titles that will come to mind.
The closest we’ve come for our modern wars would include The Hurt Locker, whose angle was that Jeremy Renner’s anti-IED specialist found meaning mainly in his recklessly dangerous work; or Homeland, whose angle is that Claire Danes’s CIA analyst has been driven crazy by the clues she missed; or maybe American Sniper, whose moral calculus involving Bradley Cooper’s sharpshooter I won’t try to untangle.
I am sure there are more, but for now my point is that Afterwar is a real step forward in assessing what America’s modern wars have done to — and also for — the one percent of America’s people who have fought them, and how the other 99% of the country should respond. For instance, it has an entire chapter on the tangles of that familiar phrase, “Thank you for your service.” One veteran says to a civilian, “Don’t just tell me ‘thank you for your service.’ First say, ‘Please.’” Sherman explains why this means, “Don’t take for granted my service. Don’t be cavalier in a call to arms. Take greater responsibility for the wars that our country wages.”
If a video of last week’s session goes on line, I will mention it, because many of the veterans’ accounts were remarkable. For now I will strongly suggest that you get and read this book.
Let’s continue our saga of the professional sports-world’s embrace of military imagery, costuming, and honoring-our-heroes celebration. A reader points me to this piece by Dan Wetzel, in Yahoo, on why the coach of a team named the Patriots, who himself grew up in Annapolis where his father was a Naval Academy coach, refuses to wear the dress-up camouflage gear other NFL staffs and cheerleaders have displayed during this month’s “Salute to Service.” Wetzel writes:
Belichick's commitment to the cause [of respecting military service] can't be questioned. What can be questioned is the league demanding someone wear a camouflage hat. It is a mostly meaningless gesture and doesn't signify anything. It's a sort of forced, show-pony act that has become pervasive….
Maybe the league's intentions here were 100 percent noble. Considering its publicity-conscious way of doing business and that recent paid patriotism scandal though, it can also feel like this is more about what the military can do for the NFL than what the NFL can do for the military.
The reader adds:
Speaking of Belichick, do you think he's a Stoic i.e. a true follower of the teachings of Epitectus? Given the hysterical bed wetting many Americans are engaging in currently in the wake of the Paris attacks, I think we could all use a dose of stoicism.
Short answer: Yes. I am agnostic in most of the passionate debates about whether Belichick’s Patriots symbolize good or evil. (I like the sheer efficiency with which they win, and their amazing years-long sequence of little-guy receiver and running-back stars. But because I’m not from Boston it would feel phony to make them “my” team.) I will say that I like the Stoic style.
From a reader who grew up in the United States but has lived and worked for many years in Japan:
The chickenhawk / military fetish … illustrates the thin ice we are walking on a la, on the obscure side, J. G. Ballard`s Kingdom Come. Ballard`s book is about an English town that goes fascist gaga over sports and shopping with a store manager staging a coup at the mall. Boundaries blur, candy turns to rocks, rocks turn to candy.
Your label of chickenhawk nation is easy to twist into that we should become hawks, all in. The chickenhawk nation has a certain passive ring to it, we seem to have gone beyond that.
I remember in the 60`s the F-4 flyovers before football games with one jet peeling off representing POW`s and MIA`s (I was about 10 at the time, part of the TV pregame), but I do not think anything special was done for baseball games, I guess too many, would break the budget. On a trip back to the US a few years back I remember being shocked at the overt, over the top patriotism before the start of a baseball game (again, TV), so I think we are a big step up and over what was done during the Vietnam War.
It is this extraordinary report, by Brian Castner, published today in Motherboard. It is called “One Degree of Separation in the Forever War,” and I promise you will find it worth the time, and later reflection.
I would like everyone thinking about, or voting on, American foreign and military policy also to read and absorb this essay. Readers owe thanks to Brian Castner for writing it. The public owes deep respect to the Hines brothers whom it describes.
In response to this past week’s NFL observances of Veterans Day, including camouflage-themed clothing for coaches and sideline staff, a reader sends a comparative note on how pro sports teams elsewhere recognize this occasion:
You mentioned lapel poppies in the UK the other day. Worth noting that how the UK observes Remembrance Day is very different even at sporting events. Here is some fan-shot video from the proceedings at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium in North London this past Saturday:
In addition, every player had a poppy embroidered on their jersey. I find this way of marking the occasion far more meaningful than the overly jingoistic version that seems to predominate on our shores.
Veterans Day respects and gratitude to those who have sacrificed and served.
To spare effort by those getting ready to write in and explain this distinction: I do realize that the connotations of Remembrance Day, in England and elsewhere, are different from those of Veterans Day on the same November 11 date in the United States. Originally all these observances were Armistice Day, recognizing the end of World War I hostilities on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1918. As another world war began, the name was generally shifted to Remembrance Day, which in England serves the purpose Memorial Day does in the United States: that of recognizing those who died in the line of duty. (For more on the Civil War origins of American Memorial Day, see Deb Fallows’s item from Mississippi.) In the United States, Veterans Day is for those who have performed military service, living and dead.
Will Bardenwerper, who joined the Army after the 9/11 attacks and served as an infantry officer in Iraq, has a very strong essay in the Washington Post just now on the hollowness of the “Salute to the Heroes!” rituals that have become part of professional sports, especially the NFL. The title gives you the idea: “How patriotic pageantry at sporting events lost its meaning.” Here is a sample:
I should appreciate these moments at professional sporting events. I did once, but not so much anymore. Neither do a surprising number of the men with whom I served…. These moments, after a decade and a half of continuous war, have become rote and perfunctory, unintentionally trivializing what began with the best of intentions.
And, more pointedly, about the scenes that might accompany the heartwarming videos of a service member being reunited with spouse and children:
When I saw this, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have been like if, instead, the Jumbotron had carried live footage of a military “casualty notification” officer in his dress uniform approaching the door of a comfortable home in middle America, stepping across a carefully manicured lawn, knocking on the door, an American flag blowing lazily in the breeze overhead, and having a mother collapse in tears at the sight of him, before he even has a chance to tell her that her only son had been shot and killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Very much worth reading. Bardenwerper even has a “to do” suggestion at the end of his essay. Conceivably at some point the chickenhawk shamelessness of these spectacles will sink in.
Additionally, from a reader on the East Coast:
Yesterday at noon I posted on Facebook that, as a veteran, I was NOT “honored” when the NFL’s partners sell camo clothing.
I got 25 likes, and I only have 100 – 125 “friends”.
Here’s a strange story out of Annapolis that seems to fit within Fallows’s new thread on Chickenhawk Nation, or the tendency of the American public to express easy gestures of gratitude to the military without at the very least informing themselves about why servicemembers are deployed all over the world, let alone sacrificing anything themselves. (As the son of two retired Army officers, including a Vietnam vet, I’m a bit biased on this.) So here’s the story: Local fans of the Naval Academy’s football team have renewed a seemingly sweet but condescending habit of tossing candy to the brigade of about 4,400 midshipmen that traditionally marches into the stadium at every home game. Things have even gotten ugly:
“[Y]ou get these little cretins who throw [the candy] 150 mph,” then-city police Sgt. Paul Gibbs told The Capital [in October 1998]. Well, the enthusiasts may have returned this season, because complaints resurfaced about the practice — don’t call it a tradition — of throwing Snickers, Starbursts, Tootsie Rolls, even hamburgers at the brigade.
“I saw hamburgers lying in the street,” said Bill O’Leary, who has lived across from the stadium since the 1990s. For years, he has called for an end to the throwing. “They throw plastic water bottles at them, too.”
Beer cans were added to the onslaught during a game against Wake Forest in 2009. Since the late ‘90s, Naval Academy officials have repeatedly urged the public to stop this habit—“It shows a lack of respect for the uniform of our armed services,” according to one statement—but it keeps popping up. Here’s one lame defense from a local fan via Facebook:
“As a kid, I grew up watching the Brigade of Midshipmen marching from the academy to the games at the stadium. My first memories were that we would toss candy to them so they could have some treats during the game. It wasn’t ‘throwing candy at them’ to be disrespectful. Then sometimes they would have candy to thank us and toss it back,”
Short-version background to this post: what I’m calling Chickenhawk Nation is a country whose troops are always at war, but whose people are mainly untouched by war, and that tries to paper over that difference with ritualized “Salute to the Heroes” ceremonies, like today’s throughout the NFL. You can read the long version of the background here, or in other messages on this thread.
Today’s installment: how to think about the popularity of military camo gear among people who have never dreamed of enlisting, and the additional role of flags. First, from a serial entrepreneur who now makes his living as a mariner:
One of the thing I've noticed is that homeless people now festoon their rigs with American flags. This was brought to mind by the fellow who roams our neighborhood in [XXX] with a shopping cart picking up scrap metal, but I've also seen it on shanty boats in the ICW [Intracoastal Waterway] and elsewhere. I'm pretty sure this is a post-9/11 phenomenon, but I think it's lingered because of the thin patriotism that Chickhawkism fosters.
My theory is that by adorning their carts, tents, boats, etc with flags (the guy in our neighborhood has 4 or 5 on his shopping cart) these guys feels they are marginally less likely to get hassled by authorities. As someone who has been a vagrant here and their through my life, I know that being hassled by The Man is an ever-present burden that one is wise to take steps to blunt.
I could easily document this, but can't think of a way or reason to do it that doesn't further trample the dignity of these unfortunate fellow, so I just pass it along as something I've noticed in our current Cult of the Flag/ Chickenhawk times.
Further on the NFL-and-military connection, from a reader in Seattle:
As for our SeaChickenHawks: It’s difficult to reconcile that they’ve taken $453k from the military for such events when you consider this little-known but ugly incident between coach Pete Carroll and Gen. Peter Chiarelli.
The reader goes on to quote from this Deadspin account, unrefuted by Carroll or the Seahawks as far as I can tell, about Carroll trying to convince Chiarelli — who had been inside the Pentagon when the 9/11 airplane hit the building, and whom I first met when he was a young officer at West Point 30 years ago — that the whole attack was a hoax. Sample quotes:
Chiarelli—who grew up in Seattle—is a big Seahawks fan. His post-military work concerns traumatic brain injury research, a cause of some significance to the NFL. And both have plenty of experience leading groups of men on grand American stages.
The sit-down between Chiarelli and Carroll started off normally enough. They talked about the team, and then about head trauma. Chiarelli, who commanded the American forces in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom II, talked about the brain injuries he had seen there. But Chiarelli's mention of Iraq sent Carroll in another direction: He wanted to know if the September 11 attacks had been planned or faked by the United States government.
In particular, Carroll wanted to know whether the attack on the Pentagon had really happened.
You can read more at the Deadspin account. A further fillip on a culture that is symbolically reverent of “the heroes” but in real terms vastly distant from them.
In the context of this past week’s “Paid Patriotism” report by Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, about the way the Pentagon has been paying pro sports teams for patriotic on-field displays, a reader sends a screenshot from one of today’s games:
Sorry for the interruption, but I had to send this from the game on now. All of the coaches are dressed in camouflage!
Yes it's Veterans Day Wednesday, but during the years when I lived in England, where people really know about the horrors of war, no one would even think of dressing up like that. If you wanted to honor vets you wore a red poppy.
And of course red poppies on the lapel are very widespread Remembrance Day tributes in the U.K., Canada, Australia, etc. It’s worth noting that the camo theme in today’s U.S. football games applies not simply to the caps but even to the Bose headsets, as you see here.
The significant point, I think, is that the American public has seen things like this so often that we barely notice any more. The re-themed Bose headsets are another detail that Ben Fountain might have worked into Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, though perhaps he was worried about making the satire a little too broad.
Update Thanks to a reader for pointing out that in a special salute to the troops, the NFL’s online shop is offering a full 15% off list price to veterans and service members.
Pro football looms large in modern America’s consciousness in all ways, but notably so in what we’ve been discussing as ChickenhawkPaid Patriotism. Ben Fountain’s wonderful novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, builds its whole plot around a halftime “Salute to the Heroes!” at a nationally televised Dallas Cowboys game. And NFL teams were prominently featured in the Sen. McCain/Sen. Flake exposé on the Pentagon’s underwriting of pro-veteran and pro-troop displays at sports events.
A reader writes about why he objects in particular to the NFL:
Just wanted to say it has long bothered me that the National Football League foists "tributes to the military" during its games. (Other leagues might bother me just as much, but I pay less attention to them).
I can think of no demographic group in the United States that has a lower rate of service in the US military than the players, owners, and coaches of the National Football League. For members of the NFL, it is virtually always “my career over my country.” I am almost 60 years old, and a lifelong fan of football, but of the thousands of players who have played in the NFL in my lifetime, I can recall only two players—Roger Staubach and Pat Tillman—who have served in the US military. [JF note: I am sure there are more, but like the reader I don’t immediately think of them. I checked the NFL’s site for players/coaches with military connections. The list is here, and it’s mainly “father served in Vietnam,” “brother is in the Reserves” etc.]
Plus, the NFL as an organization does all it can to avoid paying taxes to support those who do serve. And its owners generally have their nose in the trough to gather up as many tax dollars as they can to subsidize their profit-seeking enterprises.
In terms of real military service and support, it would be difficult to find a more concentrated cluster of physical and economic wimpiness than the National Football League.
On the more substantive questions of the real respect and accommodation for troops, veterans, and their families, a reader with a military background writes:
I often find myself dumbfounded at the superficial "support" thrown to veterans and as a veteran, insulted at the jingoism-driven lack of true oversight over military spending. For whatever it is worth, I felt I ought to lend you my humble two cents.
I am veteran of the Canadian Army living in the U.S. I served in Afghanistan prior to settling in Virginia with my U.S. wife. Another aspect of the “chicken-hawk economy” that I think is worth more public scrutiny is how veterans integrate into the workforce.
Many large U.S. firms have veteran hiring targets and specialized veteran recruiters. Businesses typically view "veterans" as a homogeneous group that is stereotyped as "you must be good following orders," or "repetitive tasks don't faze you," and many others. Some are positive, but most I typically find off-putting and indicative of a society that understands little (nor seems to want to understand) of what service entails.
Every veteran is unique. Some 25 year olds negotiated peace settlements between warring tribes. Some 25 year olds fixed armored vehicles. Some 25 year olds ran Pashto-language radio stations. The work performed by former members of the military should be treated equal to work performed by non-former members of the military by potential employers.
I am confident enough in the work done by veterans overseas that it can (or should) easily compete with those with equivalent civilian world experience. I find that US hiring managers seem to want to avoid the details of my service, in favor of a more superficial treatment of me as a "veteran" who can "obey orders." The accomplishments of veterans are not given the opportunity to speak for themselves because of this "chicken-hawk society" in which those not directly engaged with the armed services pay it lip service but do not want to dive into the grittier details.
Post 9/11 veterans engaged in an unprecedented type of conflict. The nature of counterinsurgency in the information age dictated that major decisions, that in prior generations would have been made by Colonels and Generals, were decentralized to some of the lowest levels. A generation of veterans holding some of the strongest leadership credentials of any generation is being undervalued and stereotyped by the society to which it returns. This is wrong from a business perspective, and an unethical way to treat those who served.
A retired Air Force officer, who still does some contracting work with the Pentagon, writes about the news that the Defense Department was underwriting “salute to the heroes!” pageants at pro sports games:
A couple of thoughts:
1. Don’t be so quick to give some recognition to the Washington sports teams for not receiving money from the Pentagon. [JF: I pointed out that the Nationals, Caps, Wizards, and Redskins were not on the pay-for-celebrating-troops list.] I believe that the fawning to veterans at these settings is underwritten by Defense contractors, rather than the Pentagon itself. General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, etc.
I am truly split at what makes me more sick—DoD underwriting it, or the purveyors of weapon system underwriting it, who help to lobby for using their weapons. Particularly sickening for me at Nats games where we often see so many wounded from Walter Reed there.
2. Another item to make you sick: Watching a Marine at formal parade rest while pampered golfers eye up their putts. [See above.]
I am a retired AF officer, and I get the need for recruitment budgets. But for multi-million (billion) dollar for-profit sports enterprises who benefit so greatly from other forms of DoD support (flyovers, security, sports-loving soldiers, etc) to also take money for this stuff ...
We have lost all connection with the military. [The people cooking up these plans] should be pilloried, but the public really won’t care. Hell, leading presidential candidates can insult prisoners-of-war and their numbers go up.
Today’s economic conditions are not just holding Millennials back. They are stratifying them, leading to unequal experiences within the generation as well as between it and other cohorts.
A few weeks ago, I met my first Millennial grandparent. I was interviewing a woman in her late 30s about President Joe Biden’s new child-tax-credit proposal, and she mentioned that it would benefit not just her two young kids but her older son’s kid too.
The incidental meeting was a reminder both that Millennials are getting older and that they are doing so without growing up, at least not in the way that many of them might wish. The woman I interviewed does not own a home, nor is she anywhere close to affording one. She has nothing in the way of savings. Nevertheless, she is a grandmother, catapulting into middle age.
Millennials, as just about everyone knows at this point, are a generation delayed. The pandemic recession has led not-so-young adults to put off having kids, buying a house, getting married, or investing in a car—yet again. But today’s economic conditions are not just holding Millennials back. They are stratifying them, leading to unequal experiences within the generation as well as between it and other cohorts.
It’s time to prepare for a new and better normal than your pre-pandemic life.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Arthur C. Brooks will discuss the science of happiness live at 11 a.m. ET on May 20. Register for In Pursuit of Happiness here.
Many years ago, I met a woman who had had the kind of experience you ordinarily only find in fiction. As a young adult, she was in a serious car accident, resulting in a head injury. She suffered a period of total amnesia, followed by months of convalescence. When she recovered, she was never the same: Her family relationships weakened; she cut out former friends and found new ones; she moved halfway across the world; her interests and tastes changed; she became more outgoing and less self-conscious; she no longer cared much what other people thought about her.
Three years after his polarizing confirmation hearings, the Supreme Court’s 114th justice remains a mystery.
This article was published online on May 13, 2021.
The suburban gentry of Chevy Chase, Maryland, had some difficulty making sense of Brett Kavanaugh’s descent into villainy that fall. He had always seemed so nice and nonthreatening to his neighbors, so normal—the khaki-clad carpool dad who coached the girls’ basketball team and yammered endlessly about the Nats. It was true that his politics were unusual for the neighborhood, the kind of place where No Justice / No Peace signs stand righteously in front of million-dollar homes. But Brett was not a scary Republican, of the kind who had recently invaded Washington. He was well educated and properly socialized, a friend of the Bushes, a stalwart of the country club. When his nomination to the Supreme Court was first announced, the neighborhood had largely welcomed the news. People gave interviews attesting to his niceness; the owner of the Chevy Chase Lounge said that he would add Brett’s photo to the wall of famous patrons.
The CDC’s surprising mask announcement was not just a public-health milestone.
The announcement seemed to catch everyone off guard: Early Thursday afternoon, the government told Americans that if they were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, they did not need to wear a mask—indoors or outside, in groups small or large.
People who have gotten their shots, Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, said at a White House press briefing, “can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.” Coming from an administration that has preached caution to the point of criticism—only six weeks ago a teary-eyed Walensky warned the nation of “impending doom”—the words sounded like a surprisingly abrupt declaration of freedom: Did the CDC just end the pandemic?
It had not, of course. There were, as always, plenty of caveats to the CDC’s guidance. Masks should still be worn on public transportation and in high-risk settings such as doctor’s offices, hospitals, and nursing homes. The majority of Americans remain unvaccinated and should continue to mask up. Tens of thousands are testing positive for the coronavirus every day, and hundreds are still dying from it. Cases are surging in India and other parts of the world.
If where you live isn’t truly your home, and you have the resources to make a change, it could do wonders for your happiness.
“How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Several years ago, I was sitting on a flight to San Francisco, when my seatmate, a man a little older than me, struck up a conversation. Perhaps you hate it when that happens; I love it. In addition to being an extrovert, I’m a social scientist, so I’m always fascinated by what I can learn about people through conversations. Have you ever wanted to know how I come up with column topics? Now you know.
The man told me he was on his way home from seeing his family in Minnesota, where he had grown up. As an adult, he had pulled up stakes, left the bone-chilling winters behind, and moved to Northern California, where he had no connections at all. He raved about the professional opportunities and great weather where he now lived, comparing them favorably to the landlocked, snowy place in which he was raised.
Our culture is pettily vindictive in part because it is unequal. But we cannot punish our way to a more just society.
The purest eruption of spite I have ever witnessed took place at a former friend’s birthday party some years ago. We were all in our early 20s, and alcohol had been flowing freely. I slipped into the kitchen to refill my drink; when I returned, the birthday girl, her cheeks flushed from the wine, had become incensed at her boyfriend for some unaccountable transgression.
On the coffee table was an enormous cake, brought by her now-disgraced beloved. The birthday girl seized the platter and, with a terrific crash, hurled the cake to the floor. “Now none of us can have any,” she seethed, raising an accusatory frosting-covered finger as guests began edging toward the door.
Spite defies logic. We act spitefully—lashing out to harm someone else, even at a cost to ourselves—when the desire to punish overrides other considerations. People in the throes of spite’s poisonous pleasures do not care if they injure themselves, or make the whole world worse off, so long as they satisfy their rancor. Yet because spite involves a self-inflicted cost, this petty and ultimately antisocial emotion bears a family resemblance to altruism. Many spiteful actors believe they are behaving nobly: meting out justice where it is due.
When people share a space, their collective experience can sprout its own vocabulary, known as a familect.
I celebrated my second pandemic birthday recently. Many things were weird about it: opening presents on Zoom, my phone’s insistent photo reminders from “one year ago today” that could be mistaken for last month, my partner brightly wishing me “iki domuz,” a Turkish phrase that literally means “two pigs.”
Well, that last one is actually quite normal in our house. Long ago, I took my first steps into adult language lessons and tried to impress my Turkish American boyfriend on his special day. My younger self nervously bungled through new vocabulary—The numbers! The animals! The months!—to wish him “iki domuz” instead of “happy birthday” (İyi ki doğdun) while we drank like pigs in his tiny apartment outside of UCLA. Now, more than a decade later, that slipup is immortalized as our own peculiar greeting to each other twice a year.
Instead of an all-or-nothing approach to risk prevention, Americans need a manual on how to have a life in a pandemic.
In the earliest years of the HIV epidemic, confusion and fear reigned. AIDS was still known as the “gay plague.” To the extent that gay men received any health advice at all, it was to avoid sex. In 1983, the activists Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen, with guidance from the virologist Joseph Sonnabend, published a foundational document for their community, called “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic.” Recognizing the need for pleasure in people’s lives, the pamphlet rejected abstinence as the sole approach and provided some of the earliest guidance on safer sex for gay men, including recommendations about condoms and which sex acts had a lower or higher risk for disease transmission.
Public-health experts have known for decades that an abstinence-only message doesn’t work for sex. It doesn’t work for substance use, either. Likewise, asking Americans to abstain from nearly all in-person social contact will not hold the coronavirus at bay—at least not forever.
On Monday morning, my partner laid a carry-on suitcase down on the floor, preparing to pack for his first post-vaccination trip to visit his parents. The moment he unzipped the bag, our cat Calvin promptly clambered inside.
A piece of me would like to think that Calvin was attempting to covertly join my partner on his trip, or perhaps thwart his inevitable attempt to spirit away. But I’m pretty sure #OccupyLuggage was less a heart-wrenching bid to tag along on a flight, and more a textbook example of a central scientific tenet: Cats are absolute suckers for boxes. And sinks, and vases, and grocery bags, and shoes, and Pringles cans, and the nooks and crannies between furniture and walls, and just about any other space they deem cozy, confining, and swaddly. (Cats, in case you were wondering, are a non-Newtonian liquid.) It’s the one thing about which our pointy-eared companions are not terribly picky: If it fits, they sits. And when they do, we humans can’t help but obsess over them.
The recent scandal at her talk show suggests that the host’s smiling facade covers up something dark—and hints at why that facade had to be created in the first place.
The Ellen DeGeneres Show features a recurring segment, called “Cash for Kindness,” that spreads good cheer by lying to people. DeGeneres will send a producer or an audience member out into the world to pretend to be some harried worker—a cater-waiter, a delivery person, a birthday-party magician—and then, in spectacular fashion, spill whatever they’re carrying on the sidewalk. As potatoes go rolling or greeting cards flap in the wind, a trap is laid. DeGeneres watches through hidden cameras to see which passersby do, or don’t, stop to help pick up the mess.
The bit is funny because it is mortifying. Speaking into her producer’s wireless earpiece, DeGeneres feeds her staffer ever-more-distressing banter to recite: There’s an engagement ring in the tiramisus! The greeting cards are supposed to be in alphabetical order! The strangers who stop to help are, you may suspect, a bit nervous that they’ve been roped into some scam—or maybe worse, roped into a situation that will expose the limits of their time, means, or generosity. Eventually, the undercover staffer reveals that they work for Ellen. The random Good Samaritan is brought onto the talk show’s set, and DeGeneres hands them cash: a reward for being kind, but also, it feels, payoff for being messed with.
Like any good prank, especially the pranks DeGeneres loves, cash-for-kindness revels in voyeurism, deceit, and discomfort, all of which get forgiven in the name of a laugh. Yet, like so much of DeGeneres’s comedy, this mischief doubles as do-goodery. It is part of DeGeneres’s grand campaign to merchandise kindness—which is also seen when she says “Be kind to one another” at the end of each show, or when she gets taxi drivers to hug Uber drivers on air, or when she hawks kindness-themed subscription boxes for up to $250 a year. Her aesthetic of cream colors, goofy grins, and uplifting tears, along with her amusing displays of light sadism, have earned her a $330 million empire, a raft of Emmys, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.