When I first was asked to give a talk at MIT, I knew that I wanted my father to be there. My hosts graciously acceded to that request and both of us were excited for the joint visit. But Pops got sick last weekend and wasn't able to make it. That was depressing. Here are some thoughts on why.
Again, George L Ruffin on Frederick Douglass:
His range of reading has been wide and extensive. He has been a hard student. In every sense of the word, he is a self-made man. By dint of hard study he has educated himself, and to-day it may be said he has a well-trained intellect. He has surmounted the disadvantage of not having a university education, by application and well-directed effort.
He seems to have realized the fact, that to one who is anxious to become educated and is really in earnest, it is not positively necessary to go to college, and that information may be had outside of college walks; books may be obtained and read elsewhere. They are not chained to desks in college libraries, as they were in early times at Oxford.
Professors' lectures may be bought already printed, learned doctors may be listened to in the lyceum, and the printing-press has made it easy and cheap to get information on every subject and topic that is discussed and taught in the university. Douglass never made the mistake (a common one) of considering that his education was finished. He has continued to study, he studies now, and is a growing man, and at this present moment he is a stronger man intellectually than ever before.
It should be understood that Ruffin, at the time of this writing, was an exemplary product of the Academy. He was the first African-American to graduate from Harvard Law and the first African-American judge in the country. So he was not a foe of university education. But he didn't believe that those who found that education out of reach should then just throw up their hands.
Ruffin was writing at a time when very few Americans, much less African-Americans, would have the luxury of college attendance. More to the point he was writing at a time when the very notion of educating African-Americans was under attack. Consider his thoughts on the vindicating intellectual life of Douglass:
The life and work of Douglass has been a complete vindication of the colored people in this respect. It has refuted and overthrown the position taken by some writers, that colored people were deficient in mental qualifications and were incapable of attaining high intellectual position. We may reasonably expect to hear no more of this now, the argument is exploded. Douglass has settled the fact the right way, and it is something to settle a fact.
This is a man obviously possessed by that utterly irrational optimism that has historically afflicted black people beholding the wonder, if unfulfilled, of the American Dream. We shall not be unkind and hold the contagion against Ruffin. Many of us, nationalist inoculations be damned, have of late found ourselves brought low by that same peculiar malaise.
In Ruffin's time, the attacks on black intellect were not (as they are today) matters relegated to letters, journals and tomes. They were matters enforced by white terrorists--the Klan, the White Liners, the Red Shirts etc. Phrenologists asserted the limited potential of the African brain. The White Leagues made those claims into prophecy. So when white terrorists picked their targets, instruments of black intellectual improvement were always high on the list--black schools and black churches were torched, Teachers (many of them white) who'd traveled South to educate the newly emancipated were beaten, lynched and publicly whipped.
I don't say this simply as a matter of moral castigation. The terrorists are the 19th century could be no other way. Their parents had perpetrated the same war, as a matter of law by banning the education of enslaved black people. The essence of white supremacy meant lawfully keeping black people ignorant, and then justifying that ignorance as the work of God, and later the work of Darwin. Thus in the 19th century, the reaction to black education was twofold. In the academy it was laughed at by men employing all the tools of "science" to justify their mockery. Outside the academy it gave us by the greatest instance of home-grown terror in American history.
Against such the horde, people like Ruffin wielded education like an axe. If that education could not always be garnered in white universities, it would have to be garnered by black people themselves through "application and well-directed effort." We would have to be "hard students."
The black tradition is riddled with examples of such people--some of them prominent, some of them tragic. If you talk to old black Southerners it won't take long before someone reflects on black person murdered, or who barely escaped murder, for the crime of knowing too much. The accusation of being "uppity" was always rooted in the idea of black people possessing a knowledge that outstripped their God-assigned place. That outstripping was never too far removed from education--formal or otherwise. When right-wing pundits calls Princeton graduate Michelle Obama "uppity" they are participating in old and unfortunate tradition.
The response to that tradition was manifold, but in my life, it was the example of Malcolm X. By the time I was coming up Malcolm's calls for self-defense, while riveting, had less personal relevance for me. It wasn't like the Klan was going to come marching up North Avenue. But the example of being relatively bright, being derailed by a hostile system, and having to remake yourself in jail really stood out as a light in the dark.
I have no idea if Malcolm actually copied every word in the dictionary. But the example became a kind of myth to many of us. Knowledge (and especially history) was seen as a mystical force, stolen from us by white people and now wielded against us.
My Dad would joke about how brothers would come into his bookstore on Pennsylvania Avenue and ask if he was carrying a certain book. If he wasn't the reply was often, "The white man don't want you to see that book, brother!" That's funny, but it basically outlines our world view at the time. The white man wanted us stupid. There was a century worth of evidence to demonstrate as much.
The results of this approach are varying. The self-educated student can easily slip into a kind of paranoia, in which the only facts that exist are the ones you like. If white people would persecute you for reading a book, what else might they do? Would they give you HIV? Would they conceal the fact that Cleopatra was black? And was it even white people? Wasn't it really the Jews? And did homosexuality ever exist in Africa to begin with?
You see where this goes. The distrust breeds unevidenced claims, and then descends into the very bigotry it claimed to combat. You can become conspiratorial, racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist etc. Or, less obviously, you can end up accepting the frame of the very people you're debating without realizing it. That was how I went down--searching through the text to try to refute Saul Bellow. But Ralph Wiley (Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus) set me free. Still, it took me years to get the basic humanistic power in that statement.
But here is what I know: This week, among many other wonderful thing, I stood in the office of Sam Bowring and held aloft the oldest rock in recorded history. I got there by being a hard student--with all the drawbacks, trap-doors, bad grammar, and B'More accent. And I was raised by hard students, starting with my father.
None of this is what we expected. We thought we were rebelling against the academy, indeed building one of our own. None of us ever expected any kind of recognition. I didn't leave college thinking it would be the ticket to lecturing at colleges. We didn't denigrate education (all my brothers and sisters are college graduates.) But we didn't feel like its highest offices were really open to us. And yet here we are.
Perhaps from that vantage point, you may begin to understand my sympathy for Ruffin's affliction and my peculiar perspective on all the events of the week.
The war is so very long.
*Pictured above: Afroborinqueno (hope I got that right) and legendary hard student, Arturo Schomburg.
Many point to unromantic 20-somethings and women’s entry into the workforce, but an overlooked factor is the trouble young men have in finding steady, well-paid jobs.
TOKYO—Japan’s population is shrinking. For the first time since the government started keeping track more than a century ago, there were fewer than 1 million births last year, as the country’s population fell by more than 300,000 people. The blame has long been put on Japan’s young people, who are accused of not having enough sex, and on women, who, the narrative goes, put their careers before thoughts of getting married and having a family.
But there’s another, simpler explanation for the country’s low birth rate, one that has implications for the U.S.: Japan’s birth rate may be falling because there are fewer good opportunities for young people, and especially men, in the country’s economy. In a country where men are still widely expected to be breadwinners and support families, a lack of good jobs may be creating a class of men who don’t marry and have children because they—and their potential partners—know they can’t afford to.
The world has many coming-of-age traditions: sweet sixteens, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras. But in one African country, 'initiation' is endangering the health of girls and boys.
CHIRADZULU, Malawi — A slight frame gives her the appearance of a child, but the hardened look Grace Mwase wears makes her seem older than her 14 years. In many villages across Malawi, a largely agrarian sliver of a country in southern Africa, custom dictates that both boys and girls as young as eight attend a rite of passage known as “initiation,” after which they are no longer seen as children. The practice is most entrenched in the country's south, where Mwase's Golden Village is located.
Mwase was just 10 when she was led, along with about a dozen other girls, to remote huts outside her village during winter vacation from school in August. The girls were accompanied by older women from their village in Chiradzulu district, near the border with Mozambique. The women, known as anamkungwi, or “key leaders,” told them that when they returned to their villages they should cook and clean—and have sex. According to Mwase, most of the two weeks she spent at the initiation camp were dedicated to learning how to engage in sexual acts. She had been excited for this time with friends away from home, but that feeling quickly gave way to dread as she learned the true purpose of initiation.
Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.
In 1995, if you had told Toby Spribille that he’d eventually overthrow a scientific idea that’s been the stuff of textbooks for 150 years, he would have laughed at you. Back then, his life seemed constrained to a very different path. He was raised in a Montana trailer park, and home-schooled by what he now describes as a “fundamentalist cult.” At a young age, he fell in love with science, but had no way of feeding that love. He longed to break away from his roots and get a proper education.
At 19, he got a job at a local forestry service. Within a few years, he had earned enough to leave home. His meager savings and non-existent grades meant that no American university would take him, so Spribille looked to Europe.
Why some progressives are minimizing Russia’s election meddling
When it comes to possible collusion with Russia, Donald Trump’s most interesting defenders don’t reside on the political right. They reside on the political left.
Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich aren’t defending a principle. They’re defending a patron. Until recently they were ultra-hawks. Now, to downplay Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections, they sound like ultra-doves. All that matters is supporting their ally in the White House.
For left-wing defenders like Max Blumenthal and Glenn Greenwald, by contrast, ideology is king. Blumenthal and Greenwald loathe Trump. But they loathe hawkish foreign policy more. So they minimize Russia’s election meddling to oppose what they see as a new Cold War.
Thirty-one year old Ezra Cohen-Watnick holds the intelligence portfolio on the National Security Council—but almost everything about him is a mystery.
Just 24 days into his tenure as Donald Trump’s national-security adviser, Michael Flynn was forced to resign, having reportedly misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian officials. When Flynn departed, the men and women he’d appointed to the National Security Council grew nervous about their own jobs, and with good reason. The new national-security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, promptly began clearing out Flynn’s people, among them Dave Cattler, the deputy assistant to the president for regional affairs, Adam Lovinger, a strategic affairs analyst on loan from the Pentagon, and KT McFarland, Flynn’s deputy, who was eased out with the ambassadorship to Singapore. Even Steve Bannon, among the most powerful people in the White House, was removed from the meetings of the NSC Principal’s Committee, where he had been installed early on in the administration.
I used to adore the Pride and Prejudice author. But over the years I’ve grown more ambivalent toward her and the fervor for her work.
I once confessed to an audience gathered for a pre-show talk about Pride and Prejudice that I felt a bit salty to see so many of them in attendance. A few months earlier, I explained, I’d given an absolutely fascinating lecture on Mary Shelley to maybe five people, one of whom was my Aunt Carmen. The crowd for Jane Austen—and it was a crowd—laughed. A mix of students, folks from the surrounding towns, and my colleagues were there to see a stage adaptation of what is arguably the author’s most popular novel. It was my job to introduce the performance, and I was terrified. It’s no small thing to talk about Austen in public. There’s always a cluster of people who have been reading her since before they could walk, and they not only have strong opinions but also know her and her writing like my mother knew the Bible.
Inside the autopsy lab, pathologists talk about the emotional rewards of medicine's most-maligned specialty—and what it's like to work side-by-side with death.
It takes five hours to disassemble the body.
The dead man—“H: 71 inches,” as scrawled on the autopsy-room whiteboard—is laid out on a metal table, head propped up on a plastic block. The body is naked, marked only by a neon-yellow hospital bracelet and a paper toe tag. The flesh—now grey and exposed—is stretched tautly over bone. The feet are swollen, blackening; all the muscles are tensed, the face thrown back. It’s a wan, triangular face, with few wrinkles for a middle-aged man. The chin is dotted with stubble.
The man had died eight hours earlier at a hospital in the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) hospital system, where the pathologist Jeffrey Nine directs the autopsy service. Nine suspects the man died of a heart attack, but the family wants to be sure, so Nine, his chief pathology resident, and two students training as pathologists’ assistants set to work performing an autopsy. (The man’s family wasn’t told that I would be present at his autopsy, but Nine made sure to shield me from any details that might identify the man.)
In the hierarchy of relationships, friendships are at the bottom. Romantic partners, parents, children—all these come first.
This is true in life, and in science, where relationship research tends to focus on couples and families. When Emily Langan, an associate professor of communication at Wheaton College goes to conferences for the International Association of Relationship Researchers, she says, “friendship is the smallest cluster there. Sometimes it’s a panel, if that.”
Friendships are unique relationships because unlike family relationships, we choose to enter into them. And unlike other voluntary bonds, like marriages and romantic relationships, they lack a formal structure. You wouldn’t go months without speaking to or seeing your significant other (hopefully), but you might go that long without contacting a friend.
A conservative group is resisting congressional efforts to kneecap FOIA.
The health-care clusterfudge continues. Senator John McCain has brain cancer. President Trump throws another public tantrum. Russia, Russia, Russia.
That about covers the Big Political Headlines of the week. Now for something really sexy: the creeping assault on the Freedom of Information Act.
Stop right there! No clicking over to that Tucker Carlson YouTube rant. This is another one of those ticky-tacky, below-the-radar issues that may sound like a nonprescription substitute for Ambien but is, practically speaking, super important—especially in the Age of Trump.
FOIA is what enables regular people to pester powerful federal agencies into handing over information about what they’ve been up to. FOIA’s website calls it “the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.” Though a tad grandiose, that characterization is pretty much accurate. And never has such a tool been quite so vital as with the current White House, which has adopted a policy of unabashedly lying about pretty much everything.
On Flower Boy the rapper suggests he’s not straight—and struggles with a stigma he helped propagate.
Tyler, the Creator became famous, in part, for being hateful. When his rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (“Odd Future” is fine) caught buzz around 2010, it was because of their delirious energy and Eminem-like love of mayhem. But it was their threats against women and “faggots,” delivered in song and on social media, that elevated them from subculture phenomenon to become essay prompt and political flashpoint. The likes of GLAAD and the band Tegan and Sara declared Tyler poisonous and asked the music industry to stop supporting him. Theresa May, back when she was home secretary of the U.K., took the extraordinary step of banning him from her country because his lyrics “encourage violence and intolerance of homosexuality.”