Even if you don’t post it, I definitely recommend giving it a listen or at least looking through the transcript at the bottom of the page. It starts off on another tangent but ends up settling on a truly amazing story about how a group of Western adults in China during the time of the Japanese invasion kept their kids relatively protected from the worst of the horrors by turning the experience into an extended Girl Guides (Girl Scouts) camp as best they could.
This growing collection of stories makes me think of one we posted for our adulthood series, from a reader who grew up during the Communist dictatorship in Albania. Here’s a reposting of Valbona Bajraktari Schwab’s note:
Adulthood happened very early for me—the change, that is; that moment in time when you stop seeing the world around you as a big playground and you realize that it’s a minefield.
It was April 1985 in communist Albania. Our dictator, Enver Hoxha, had just passed away. I was 11 years old, in 5th grade, and as part of the youth leadership group of my middle school, I was asked to participate in the wake for our leader.
This meant waking up at 6am, lining up in the main boulevard of our capital city, Tirana, and walking slowly the line that snaked through the road all the way to the official building that houses the body of the dead dictator. I was there with a few teachers and a group of students ages 10-18. We knew we had to be serious and sad and cry often, but we didn’t know how long it would take and what a wake involved.
It took us a few hours before we got close to the building, but we didn’t realize that we would walk around the actual body of the dead. I remember in a blur the low lights, the big mound in the center of the room, flowers piled everywhere, but mostly the smell—sharp, chemical, rotting flowers and the faint smell of rotting flesh. I walked quickly in a daze, looking for the escape of the sun and fresh air outside.
As I am leaving a building, a reporter catches my eye and stops me. He said he wants to interview me and ask me questions about my impressions of the wake and my reaction to the death of our leader. I was confused and asked him what he wanted me to say. He said: “Well, say something about how you have met him when he was alive and how you’ll miss him now that he is gone and how he will live forever in our hearts and conclude with ‘farewell comrade Enver.’” Wanting to leave and join my friends, I quickly blurted out the lines in front of the camera and left.
When I arrived home about an hour later, I learned that my interview had been broadcast on the sole national TV channel. My grandmother said, “You spoke nicely but you didn’t look sad.”
I didn’t think much of it. I was anxious to see my mother, as I was tired and hadn’t seen her since early that morning and she was late from work. My mother came home three hours late. I ran to meet her but she stopped me before I had a chance to hug her, held me firmly by my shoulders and said, in the loudest voice I’d ever heard from her, “Never, ever go on national television again and never ever talk about political things with anyone.” She then hugged me tightly and started crying.
I learned that after my interview had been broadcasted on TV, everyone had seen it, since it was obligatory to follow the ceremony, even while at work. The representative of the communist party in my mother’s work place had seen it and had not been impressed by the fact that I didn’t cry. I didn’t show appropriate emotion for our leader’s death.
So, the natural answer was that my mother was a bad parent who hadn’t taught her daughter the appropriate emotional sentiment for the esteemed members of the party. He had called a political meeting right then and there, where the subject was my mother and her adherence to the communist principles as seen via her parenting skills. The meeting lasted three straight hours.
I thought she would be sent to jail or to a work camp and that I’d never see her again. Luckily, she was the first female surgeon of Albania and a very skilled one at that, so they spared her.
Responding to Juleyka’s callout for stories of family members living under authoritarian rule, reader Colleen touches upon the experience of her Dutch stepmother:
She spent four years in a Japanese POW camp in Indonesia—from age 12 to 16, and her brother from age 9 to 13. When they were liberated they went back to Holland as displaced persons.
The experience was NEVER talked about. No counseling. Nothing.
When she reached 18 she joined the Dutch Royal Navy, immigrated to Canada in her mid 20s, then to the U.S about age 28. She met my father and, for some unknown reason, married him. They had two daughters, who are now 53 and 52 (I’m 73).
My step-mom was a lovely, funny, gracious, manipulative control freak. Her mother taught me how to cook. Oma [“grandmother” in German] did not speak English, and I did not speak Dutch or German, but we flowed through the kitchen with smiles, laughter, and words that neither understood. Needless to say my step-mom had a wonderful effect on my life.
The period was one of the most critical in Indonesian history. Under German occupation, the Netherlands had little ability to defend its colony against the Japanese army, and less than three months after the first attacks on Borneo, the Japanese navy and army overran Dutch and allied forces.
Initially, most Indonesians joyfully welcomed the Japanese, as liberators from their Dutch colonial masters. The sentiment changed, as Indonesians were expected to endure more hardship for the war effort. In 1944–1945, Allied troops largely bypassed Indonesia and did not fight their way into the most populous parts such as Java and Sumatra. As such, most of Indonesia was still under Japanese occupation at the time of their surrender, in August 1945.
The Dominican Republic, where I’m from, is among the countries in the Americas that had authoritarian rulers for multiple decades. Almost all of my uncles and aunts, and both my parents, were born during Rafael Trujillo’s reign of terror, which began in 1930 and ended with his assassination in 1961. His influence on the country, and on my own life, is still felt today.
When I was growing up, adults in my family talked politics all the time, almost as much as they talked baseball. But in our family, politics was personal because my father’s father briefly worked for Trujillo, as an assistant of some sort. At our weekend family gatherings, some aunt or uncle could be found surrounded by nieces and nephews like me, breathing in a fresh retelling of a hand-me-down story from my grandfather’s past—in hushed whispers, of course. My grandfather himself never uttered a single word about his work with the dictator, and he took that part of his life to his grave a few years ago.
In some versions of my relatives’ stories, my grandfather was the official food taster, to whom his boss’s meals would be presented for inspection and sampling. (To this singular culinary task my family attributed his strict adherence to mealtimes and table manners.) Other renditions described him as a personal secretary of sorts, handwriting dictated letters to society families whose daughters were “invited” to lavish balls thrown at the executive palace, where many young ladies were summarily deflowered by the head of state in well appointed bedrooms.
(Having studied Dominican history, I am highly suspicious of the circumstances that may have led to my grandfather working for such a man. The autocrat was known for conscripting people into his service or else.)
I am partially a product of the codes and mores established by my grandparents, who raised most of their children during the Trujillato. I was raised to accept and respect strict hierarchies in my own family and in organizations in general. I was expected to prefer and defer to men for decisions, control, and public leadership—all things I slowly unlearned and relinquished as an immigrant in 1980s New York City, where the only valid code was hard work.
Dominican author Junot Díaz has said that all Dominicans are Trujillo’s children. I interviewed him in 2007 just before his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was published. Much of the plot takes place during the Trujillato, which the novel presents as a cosmic curse that befalls the island nation. This is what Díaz told me about Trujillo’s place in his own life:
The evil of the father lasts. The consequences of those kinds of patriarchal traumas last to the point where the person no longer has contact with the origins of that evil. I had no concept that I was Trujillo’s son. I had no concept until I was reading, got older, went traveling, and I was like, OK, my dad was a total copy of Trujillo. I mean he grew up in the military, during the Trujillato. He thought Trujillo was a great f* man, and we had in my family—and this is very common in many Third-World families—a dictatorship in the house. La dictadura de la casa. And everyone has different dictaduras, but the one that I lived under was a dictadura that would’ve made Trujillo very, very comfortable, because he helped design it.
The idea of having a genetic link to Trujillo—an evil force so pure that it warped an entire country—has stayed with me ever since. His legacy sometimes cautions me when I encounter limited thinking, when I consider untapped reasons for choices I’ve made, and as I raise two sons whose worldview I hope to make more capacious and expansive than mine.
Did you grow up under an authoritarian regime? Did your parents or other close family members? Please share your stories with us at email@example.com and describe how you think the dictator’s legacy shaped you.
A common ideology underlies the practices of many ultra-wealthy people: The government can’t be trusted with money.
When ProPublica published its report last week on the tax profiles of 25 of the richest Americans, jaws dropped across the United States. How was it possible that plutocrats such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett could pay nothing in income taxes to the federal government? What sneaky sleights of pen, what subterfuge, what acts of turpitude could have led to this result?
The shock stems, in part, from a disturbing reality: Nowhere does ProPublica assert that these men cheated, lied, or did anything felonious to lower their tax burdens. The naked fact of the matter is that not a single one of the documented methods and practices that allowed these billionaires to so radically minimize their tax obligations was illegal.
The extent of the former president’s corruption may be too great for Americans to fathom.
A torrent of newrevelations is filling in the picture of how Donald Trump used, and abused, his authority as president. But the disclosures may serve only to underscore how little remains known about all the ways in which Trump barreled through traditional limits on the exercise of presidential power—and highlight the urgency of developing a more comprehensive accounting before the 2024 election, when he may seek to regain those powers.
Reducing hours without reducing pay would reignite an essential but long-forgotten moral project: making American life less about work.
The 89 people who work at Buffer, a company that makes social-media management tools, are used to having an unconventional employer. Everyone’s salary, including the CEO’s, is public. All employees work remotely; their only office closed down six years ago. And as a perk, Buffer pays for any books employees want to buy for themselves.
So perhaps it is unsurprising that last year, when the pandemic obliterated countless workers’ work-life balance and mental health, Buffer responded in a way that few other companies did: It gave employees an extra day off each week, without reducing pay—an experiment that’s still running a year later. “It has been such a godsend,” Essence Muhammad, a customer-support agent at Buffer, told me.
Of all the injuries we suffered, mine is the worst. My brain injury has shaken my confidence in my own personality, my own existence.
The worst things can happen on the most beautiful days. My family’s worst day was a perfect one in the summer of 2019. We picked my daughter up from camp and talked about where to go for lunch: the diner or the burger place. I don’t remember which we chose. What I do remember: being woken up, again and again, by doctors who insist on asking me the same questions—my name, where I am, what month it is—and telling me the same story, a story that I am sure is wrong.
“You were in a car accident,” they say. But this cannot be. We’re having lunch and then going on a hike. I had promised the think tank where I work that I’d call in to a 4 p.m. meeting.
“You are in Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital in New Hampshire.” Another ludicrous statement. I started the day in Vermont. Surely if I had crossed the river to New Hampshire I would know it.
The real villain isn’t a faceless Wall Street Goliath; it’s your neighbors and local governments stopping the construction of new units.
The BlackRock saga sounds grotesque. At a time of maximal desperation in the U.S. housing market, giant investment banks, such as BlackRock, are buying up some of the few houses left on the market, boxing families out of the American dream. They’re turning these homes into rental units that they will, in some cases, leave to decay. Such faceless institutional investors are reportedly more likely than ordinary “mom and pop” landlords to aggressively raise rent—and evict people who can’t afford it.
Americans don’t agree about much, but they seem united in believing that this is a despicable state of affairs. In the past few days, institutional housing investors have drawn criticism from Fox News and Republican politicos as well as left-wing commentators.
The Human Genome Project left 8 percent of our DNA unexplored. Now, for the first time, those enigmatic regions have been revealed.
When the human genome was first deemed “complete” in 2000, the news was met with great international fanfare. The two rival groups vying to finish the genome first—one a large government-led consortium, the other an underdog private company—agreed to declare joint success. They shook hands at the White House. Bill Clinton presided. Tony Blair beamed in from London. “We are standing at an extraordinary moment in scientific history,” one prominent scientist declared when those genomes were published. “It’s as though we have climbed to the top of the Himalayas.”
But actually, the human genome was not complete. Neither group had reached the real summit. As even the contemporary coverage acknowledged, that version was more of a rough draft, riddled with long stretches where the DNA sequence was still fuzzy or missing. The private company soon pivoted and ended its human-genome project, though scientists with the public consortium soldiered on. In 2003, with less glitz but still plentyof headlines, the human genome was declared complete once again.
The way the cause is now deployed drives a perception that conservative Christians, who are tightly linked to Republican politics, will be the beneficiaries of its expansion.
In the legal battle between religious rights and gay rights, religious freedom gained a victory today. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the First Amendment’s religious-freedom protections prevent the city of Philadelphia from refusing to contract with a Catholic foster-care agency that, based on its religious beliefs, does not place foster children with same-sex couples. The decision, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, is a victory for conservative Christians who have been arguing that the Constitution’s guarantees of religious freedom protect religious organizations and individuals who wish to deny certain services to LGBTQ people.
The Fulton decision is substantial, but it is not the blockbuster outcome that some had expected. In a narrow ruling, the Court determined that Philadelphia’s policies were not neutral toward religion and thus violated the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause. Fulton is in line with the Court’s shift toward a broader interpretation of First Amendment protections, but the Court was divided about the bigger question, specifically whether to expand religious-liberty rights by replacing a 1990 legal precedent, Employment Division v. Smith.
Politicians around the world are borrowing Trump’s “Stop the Steal” tactics. These false fraud allegations are profoundly dangerous.
Here’s a quiz: Which world leader made the following statements?
“We are witnessing the greatest election fraud in the history of the country, in my opinion in the history of any democracy.”
“This may be the most important speech I’ve ever made. I want to provide an update on our ongoing efforts to expose … tremendous voter fraud and irregularities.”
“The election will be flipped, dear friends.”
If you guessed Donald Trump, you are only one-third right. The first statement was made by Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Israeli prime minister, soon after his opponents formed a parliamentary coalition to oust him. He has since grudgingly made way for a new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, but he hasn’t conceded that his loss was fair. The third statement came from Keiko Fujimori, a daughter of Alberto Fujimori, Peru’s former autocratic leader. She also just lost an election, but has not yet recognized the result. But yes, Trump did make the second statement. It comes from a speech he delivered on December 2, in which he detailed “tremendous voter fraud and irregularities” at great length. Although Trump stepped down, he has also yet to admit that he lost.
The narrative that nonwhite people will soon outnumber white people is not only divisive, but also false.
In recent years, demographers and pundits have latched on to the idea that, within a generation, the United States will inevitably become a majority-minority nation, with nonwhite people outnumbering white people. In the minds of many Americans, this ethno-racial transition betokens political, cultural, and social upheaval, because a white majority has dominated the nation since its founding. But our research on immigration, public opinion, and racial demography reveals something quite different: By softening and blurring racial and ethnic lines, diversity is bringing Americans together more than it is tearing the country apart.
The majority-minority narrative contributes to our national polarization. Its depiction of a society fractured in two, with one side rising while the other subsides, is inherently divisive because it implies winners and losers. It has bolstered white anxiety and resentment of supposedly ascendant minority groups, and has turned people against democratic institutions that many conservative white Americans and politicians consider complicit in illegitimate minority empowerment. At the extreme, it nurtures conspiratorial beliefs in a racist “replacement” theory, which holds that elites are working to replace white people with minority immigrants in a “stolen America.”
Sacrificing for their kids makes fathers happier. Acknowledging that sacrifice will make everyone happier.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
My late father was a generous and kind man, but often morose. He was troubled about matters large and small, be they the fate of the world or the water in the basement.
I remember two times when he seemed genuinely happy. The first was when, unable to meet our family’s needs with his modest teaching salary, he took on a second job driving a bus. The other was a few years later, when he decided to advance his career—once again for the good of our family—by pursuing his Ph.D. During both periods, he was exhausted and overworked. But he smiled and laughed more than usual, and seemed untroubled by the small annoyances and big quandaries that normally brought him down. He looked back on those periods with real fondness.