First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

From a video about community-supported agriculture in Germany. Thomas Rippel, on YouTube

Late last week, I mentioned a historically large conservation gift, worth $165 million and coming from one of America’s successful tech-industry families, that will preserve more than 24,000 acres of historically significant, aesthetically beautiful, and ecologically important coastland around Point Conception, California.

Part of the idea behind this gift, from Jack and Laura Dangermond of the Esri corporation in Redlands, California, was to set an example. The example was aimed both at other rich people like themselves, to encourage them to devote more of philanthropy to natural conservation, and at non-rich people, to encourage smaller-scale efforts at the neighborhood level. As I said near the end of that piece:

Will individuals and families make the connection between this large act of philanthropy and the smaller-scale opportunities immediately around them? It’s a lot to expect.

Thomas Rippel, an Atlantic reader who is an organic farmer in Switzerland, wrote in to say that his colleagues had already begun applying a version of this approach. His report:

I write to you in light of your last article. I have recently started working for a cooperative (Kulturland Genossenschaft—German-language site here) that purchases agricultural land in order to permanently secure it for organic cultivation, leasing it out for a very low fee to, of course, organic, but beyond that socially engaged farms.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

This past Tuesday Dean Winslow, a medical doctor and retired Air Force colonel who had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a flight surgeon, appeared before the Senate Armed Services committee. It was considering his nomination as the Trump administration’s assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

At the hearing, Senator Jean Shaheen, a Democrat of New Hampshire, asked Winslow about mental-health issues in the military—and specifically about the shooter in the Sutherland Springs massacre, who had been courtmartialed and given a bad-conduct discharge by the Air Force for offenses that included threatening people with guns.

Winslow answered that question, and then volunteered a view that would have gotten more attention if not for the avalanche of other news. As a military veteran with first-hand experience treating combat wounds, he said he wanted to underscore “how insane it is that in the United States of America a civilian can go out and buy a semiautomatic assault rifle like an AR-15.” You can see Winslow making these comments starting at about time 1:19:00 in the Armed Services Committee video here, and read about the reaction here, here, here, and from a pro-gun site here.

* * *

The question Dean Winslow raised—whether  a weapon designed for the battlefield should be in wide circulation among civilians—is one I’ve been addressing on this site.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Decades ago I wrote in the Atlantic about the creation of the AR-15, which was the predecessor of the military’s M-16 combat rifle and which now is the weapon most often used in U.S. mass gun murders. After the latest large-scale gun massacre, the one in Texas, I did a follow-up post about the AR-15, and then a range of reader views.

Among the responses I got was from a man who as a young engineer in the Vietnam era had worked, at Colt Firearms, on the M-16. He writes to explain why he is shocked, as he says the AR-15’s famed designer Eugene Stoner would have been, to see this weapon anyplace other than the battlefield.

“I do not believe that there is any place in the civilian world for a family of weapons that were born as an assault rifle,” he writes at the end of his message. You’ll see the reasoning that takes him there. He begins:

During the Vietnam war era, as a newly graduated mechanical engineer, I was hired by Colt's Firearms, the original manufacturer of the M-16, and tasked with M-16 related assignments during my employment.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Back in the early 1980s, I described the origins of the AR-15 rifle, and its military counterpart the M-16, in an Atlantic article called “A Bureaucratic Horror Story” and a book called National Defense. This week I did an item about the AR-15’s role as the main weapon in America’s modern mass shootings. It explained that one reason for the AR-15’s killing power is that its bullets were designed not to pass straight through an object but to “tumble” when they hit, destroying flesh along the way and leaving a large exit wound on departure.

Readers write in, pro and con. Here’s a sample, starting with pro. From a reader in (pro-gun) Vermont:

There are a great many things wrong with the military, both in practice and in concept, but it offers one bit of education that is of use and more people should be aware of.

My father's experience was typical of many people I have heard of. He left his time in the (peace time) military with absolutely no interest in ever owning a gun. The Army had taught him in no uncertain terms that the one and only purpose of a rifle (not a "gun", a "gun" is what civilians call a cannon) it to kill people. And the one and only purpose of a pistol is to kill a human right in front of you. The main purpose of a military pistol is  for officers to shoot their own men with. The lesson being that if you are not interested in killing someone, you shouldn't have a firearm. Period.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

In the run-up to this week’s election results in Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere, I ran a series of items on how to think of “tribal”-style loyalties in American politics, and whether that was the right term for “We’re right, you’re wrong” political intransigence.

As I mentioned in the latest installment, one reason for continuing the discussion was as a sample of the nuance and erudition with which Americans can still discuss contentious issues—contrary to the impression national politics might bring. For reference, the previous sequence began with an opening post about the failure of congressional Republicans to hold Donald Trump accountable to normal standards of behavior, or even to notice what he is doing. It was followed by reader responses  first,  second, third, and fourth.

Now, a reader in the American Midwest leads off with what the Virginia results suggest about the divisions, and our terms for it:

I have been wondering aloud about the tribal — I like the word for this purpose, realizing it might not be PC, coterie doesn't capture the clannish nature of the idea)—reactions to the VA election results, which are all-too-triumphant [on the Democrats’ side]. (Too close to Trump, dontcha think?)

I've been thinking ahead to 2018 and the obvious reaction coming from the GOP and particularly from the Trump WH is that they will double-down, since that's what 45 always does, never give an inch, never apologize, always believe you're right and say you're right regardless of the evidence to the contrary.  A tribal response on steroids, and it could work.

On Spiegelgracht, in Amsterdam, yesterday.

A few days ago I argued that sins-of-omission by Paul Ryan and his fellow Republicans in the House, and Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans in the Senate, amounted to de facto shirking of their “check and balance” duty relative to Donald Trump. Because members of the majority party in the legislative branch  wouldn’t call out or even notice Trump’s excesses—except, as with Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, when they had decided not to run again—they were putting unsustainable pressure on other parts of the formal and informal governing system. The courts, the press, Robert Mueller, and so on.

I called this blind “I could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue” defense of Trump’s actions “tribalism”—and that is when the messages started pouring in. The previous installments are here and here and here.

Why am I quoting more samplings of accumulated mail on this theme? One reason is that this apparently minor linguistic point raises a lot of larger issues: The nature of today’s politics, the nature of group identity, the terms in which we discuss our differences, and so on. But another reason is simply to illustrate the depth and erudition that is still possible in public discussions of sensitive issues.

Noam Chomsky (!) used to argue that an hour of listening to sports-talk radio revealed the astounding sophistication that “ordinary” members of the public could bring to analysis of complex questions. My several bouts of serving on trial juries have had a similar effect. That’s an impression I’m also trying to convey with these selections. People from around the world have taken the time to write and argue their case, from a range of perspectives but with hardly any low-blows or venting. Obviously it’s a skewed sample that writes in to the Atlantic. But while the national discourse rings with simplified slogans, it’s worth noticing this other element in public thought.

Here we go. First, from a reader in Canada:

As you are no doubt aware, Canada is home to a large number of indigenous groups … or tribes.  While I’ve not heard from any of my friends about the use of the word Tribal, I imagine they would share the sentiments of your reader from the West.

Let’s take another whack at whether the right word to describe the tribal divisions now on display in Congress is in fact tribalism, or whether some other term would do better. The first entry in this series was here, with follow-ups here and here. This next set of entries makes the fourth in the series:

Tribalism is ok. From a reader with advanced degrees in linguistics, who grew up in the United States but has lived and worked for decades in Africa and in Europe:

Tribalism sounds just fine to me, having been in Africa and hearing “tribe” all the time. They always ask each other, and even us “Europeans,” what tribe we belong to, as if asking where are you from or what’s your job. I think tribe means “affinity group” for me now, and it certainly would pertain to political parties. Sort of like a club or group.

The lady who wrote about being offended should just come to realize that there is more than one sense to the word now.  It has acquired another broader meaning.  

Wolf-pack. From another reader who was raised in the United States but has lived in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East for many decades:

I vote for “Wolf-Pack.” Having a dog over the years and seeing how sensitive our dog is to always look to our lead and stay near us and do go where we are going, she is clearly a wolf following the Alpha Wolves.

"Tribes" is not only a word associated with Native Americans. I think of "Tribes" more in the African sense.

How about parallels to rabid sports fans, especially soccer crowds?

From the 1990s, and still relevant

Yesterday I argued that certain Republican congressional leaders were behaving in a “tribal” (as opposed to constitutional) manner, in declining to apply normal standards of scrutiny to Donald Trump. Then a reader who had worked with Navajo and Pueblo tribes wrote in to complain about the pejorative use of the term. I mentioned in that dispatch Harold Isaacs’s classic Idols of the Tribe. Another book that has stayed with me and that I meant to mention is Andrew Bard Schmookler’s The Parable of the Tribes.

I woke up this morning to find dozens of messages from readers suggesting other ways to get across the “tribal” idea. An initial sampling:

Faction. A reader recommends the classic Founders-era term:

I believe the word you are looking for is "faction".  James Madison uses it Federalist Paper No. 10, where he defines it succinctly:

“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”

29th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, U.S. Colored Troops in formation near Beaufort, South Carolina, 1864 Library of Congress

On Monday, the retired four-star general and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly asserted that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.” This was an incredibly stupid thing to say. Worse, it built on a long tradition of endorsing stupidity in hopes of making Americans stupid about their own history. Stupid enjoys an unfortunate place in the highest ranks of American government these days. And while one cannot immediately affect this fact, one can choose to not hear stupid things and quietly nod along.

For the past 50 years, some of this country’s most celebrated historians have taken up the task of making Americans less stupid about the Civil War. These historians have been more effective than generally realized. It’s worth remembering that General Kelly’s remarks, which were greeted with mass howls of protests, reflected the way much of this country’s stupid-ass intellectual class once understood the Civil War. I do not contend that this improved history has solved everything. But it is a ray of light cutting through the gloom of stupid. You should run to that light. Embrace it. Bathe in it. Become it.

Okay, maybe that’s too far. Let’s start with just being less stupid.

One quick note: In making this list I’ve tried to think very hard about readability, and to offer books you might actually complete. There are a number of books that I dearly love and have found indispensable that are not on this list. (Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America immediately comes to mind.) I mean no slight to any of those volumes. But this is about being less stupid. We’ll get to those other ones when we talk about how to be smart.

1) Battle Cry Of Freedom: Arguably among the greatest single-volume histories in all of American historiography, James McPherson’s synthesis of the Civil War is a stunning achievement. Brisk in pace. A big-ass book that reads like a much slimmer one. The first few hundred pages offer a catalogue of evidence, making it clear not just that the white South went to war for the right to own people, but that it warred for the right to expand the right to own people. Read this book. You will immediately be less stupid than some of the most powerful people in the West Wing.

2) Grant: Another classic in the Ron Chernow oeuvre. Again, eminently readable but thick with import. It does not shy away from Grant’s personal flaws, but shows him to be a man constantly struggling to live up to his own standard of personal and moral courage. It corrects nearly a half-century of stupidity inflicted upon America by the Dunning school of historians, which preferred a portrait of Grant as a bumbling, corrupt butcher of men. Finally, it reframes the Civil War away from the overrated Virginia campaigns and shows us that when the West was won, so was the war. Grant hits like a Mack truck of knowledge. Stupid doesn’t stand a chance.

3) Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee: Elizabeth Pryor’s biography of Lee, through Lee’s own words, helps part with a lot of stupid out there about Lee—chiefly that he was, somehow, “anti-slavery.” It dispenses with the boatload of stupid out there which hails the military genius of Lee while ignoring the world that all of that genius was actually trying to build.

4.) Out of the House of Bondage: A slim volume that dispenses with the notion that there was a such thing as “good,” “domestic,” or “matronly” slavery. The historian Thavolia Glymph focuses on the relationships between black enslaved women and the white women who took them as property. She picks apart the stupid idea that white mistresses were somehow less violent and less exploitative than their male peers. Glymph has no need of Scarlett O’Haras. “Used the rod” is the quote that still sticks with me. An important point here—stupid ideas about ladyhood and the soft feminine hand meant nothing when measured against the fact of a slave society. Slavery was the monster that made monsters of its masters. Compromising with it was morally bankrupt—and stupid.

5.) The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: The final of three autobiographies written by the famed abolitionist, and my personal favorite. Epic and sweeping in scope. The chapter depicting the bounty of food on which the enslavers feasted while the enslaved nearly starved is just devastating.

So that should get you to unstupid—but don’t stop there. Read Du Bois. Read Grant’s own memoirs. Read Harriet Jacobs. Read Eric Foner. Read Bruce Levine. It’s not that hard, you know. You’ve got nothing to lose, save your own stupid.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters
A classic book on tribalism.

A few hours ago I posted an item arguing that today’s GOP leaders, notably Mitch McConnell in the Senate and Paul Ryan in the House, had essentially abdicated their constitutional responsibilities and were behaving in a “tribal” sense. By that I meant: whatever was good for their group, was Good, and whatever was bad for their group, was Bad—to the exclusion of any abstract standards of the good or bad of the polity as a whole.

“Tribalism” in this sense is a word I use frequently, to mean an in-group loyalty that I distinguish from the E pluribus unum American ideal. Every time I use the term, I at least half-think of  a wonderful book called Idols of the Tribe, by Harold Isaacs, which was about the power of group identity (and its good and bad ramifications).

A reader in the American West writes in to complain about my use of the term:

I wanted to talk to you about the use of ‘tribal’ as a term to mean thoughtlessly following the pack.

I am a newly retired school teacher in [the Southwest], where I have taught for many years primarily Native American students, Pueblo, Navajo etc. The use of tribal in the political white sense does not go over very well among Native folks for obvious reasons. It feels like a putdown of one of the last cultural distinctions that exemplifies tribal sovereignty.

I’m sure this is not your intention nor is it President Obama’s intention but I can tell you the vocabulary while hip is not appreciated among many of the hundreds of thousands Native Americans in New Mexico and Arizona and it does not help the young respect their own culture. If you want to secure those votes I would stop using the word tribal in a negative sense.

I wrote back to the reader thus:

Emily Jan / The Atlantic

We’ve noticed some themes in the submissions to our #ReadingMyAtlantic contest. Pets, for one—including this perfectly-posed pup and CityLab editor Adam Sneed’s sassy cat Saxby. Variations on hygge, which I am extremely here for as the weather turns. And of course, babies—so many sweet, adorable kiddos. Which brings us to the winner of last month’s contest …

Zach Kouwe’s four-month-old Josephine won us over with her alert reading posture.


A post shared by Zach Kouwe (@zkouwe) on

Kouwe, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, says this: “[Josephine] is mesmerized by books and magazines (just like me). We also recently discovered she loves being propped up on the couch as if she’s sitting up herself. I just recently got a subscription and this was my first issue so I decided to see if Jo might be as interested as me. She was!” We hope the two of them enjoy the November issue, too!

Speaking of which, the November issue features two cover stories on the topic of creativity: Walter Isaacson on the science behind Mona Lisa’s smile and Derek Thompson on Google X and radical creativity. The issue hits newsstands today. So what are you waiting for? Get your copy, get your phone, and show us (through a photo or a Boomerang) where you’ll be #ReadingMyAtlantic this month.

Entering is easy: Snap a picture or Boomerang of your November 2017 issue, and share it on Instagram using this hashtag: #ReadingMyAtlantic. This month, we challenge you to include spreads from inside of the magazine, dress it up for Halloween, and show us how you like to foster creativity in your life.

The winner will be notified in early November, and will receive a special prize package that includes a one-year digital subscription (if you’re already a subscriber, you can add on to an existing subscription or gift it to a friend), an Atlantic baseball cap, a notebook featuring the cover of our very first published issue, and a 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.

Last month, we told subscribers about a major project we are, today, launching to the public: The Atlantic’s first-ever membership program.

This morning, as the project—called The Masthead—goes live, I wanted to write you to explain why I think this is so important, and why I hope that you become a founding member of this endeavor.

I have several main goals as The Atlantic’s editor in chief. The first, and of course most urgent, is to argue for the importance of fact-driven journalism at a time when the president of the United States has declared the press to be the enemy of the American people. My next three goals are related to the first: to make sure we publish journalism that honors our history; to guarantee, by extension, that we provide you, our readers, with journalism that helps you become more informed; and finally, to ensure that The Atlantic, which celebrates its 160th birthday this November, will reach its bicentennial year as a thriving, self-sustaining business with global reach and clear purpose.

I come from a print background, but I believe that for our journalism to thrive, it should appear on as many platforms as possible. Our founders—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and other eminences of their day—had only one vehicle for sharing their ideas: the printed journal. Today, The Atlantic manifests itself in print, in digital, in video, in live events, and in podcasts.

And now comes a new platform, one that will provide you with direct access to our best writers and thinkers. Our goal is to build a closer relationship with you, one in which you help inform our coverage; one in which we seek answers to your most pressing questions about the world; one in which we put our newsroom to work delivering you insights and analysis about the issues you care about most.

I am asking you today to become a founding member of The Masthead. You will not only receive some of our best journalism, written exclusively for our members; you will be directly underwriting The Atlantic’s future. I believe this is a worthy project, launching at a moment rife with challenges for independent journalism. Please join us in this next adventure.