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.
On Tuesday, the late-night host once again devoted his show to the politics of American health care. This time, though, he offered indignation rather than tears.
“By the way, before you post a nasty Facebook message saying I’m politicizing my son’s health problems, I want you to know: I am politicizing my son’s health problems.”
That was Jimmy Kimmel on Tuesday evening, in a monologue reacting to the introduction of Graham-Cassidy, the (latest) bill that seeks to replace the Affordable Care Act. Kimmel had talked about health care on his show before, in May—when, after his newborn son had undergone open-heart surgery to repair the damage of a congenital heart defect, he delivered a tearfully personal monologue sharing the experience of going through that—and acknowledging that he and his family were lucky: They could afford the surgery, whatever it might cost. Kimmel concluded his speech by, yes, politicizing his son’s health problems: He emphasized how important it is for lower- and middle-class families to have comprehensive insurance coverage, with protections for people with preexisting conditions. “No parent,” he said, speaking through tears, “should ever have to decide if they can afford to save their child’s life. It shouldn’t happen.”
Even Iran, with its abysmal human-rights record, feels comfortable criticizing the U.S.
In his sovereignty-centric speech Tuesday to the UN General Assembly, President Donald Trump threatened to “totally destroy North Korea”; called Iran “a corrupt dictatorship” whose “chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos”; and said Venezuela’s government “has inflicted terrible pain and suffering on the good people of that country.”
The remarks have prompted the expected reactions from Iran, whose foreign minister called it an “ignorant hate speech [that] belongs in medieval times,” and Venezuela’s foreign minister, who countered: “Trump is not the president of the world ... he cannot even manage his own government.” North Korea, whose nuclear-weapons and missile programs have raised tensions with its neighbors and the U.S., is yet to respond.
The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.
It is insufficient to statethe obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.
Its faith-based 12-step program dominates treatment in the United States. But researchers have debunked central tenets of AA doctrine and found dozens of other treatments more effective.
J.G. is a lawyer in his early 30s. He’s a fast talker and has the lean, sinewy build of a distance runner. His choice of profession seems preordained, as he speaks in fully formed paragraphs, his thoughts organized by topic sentences. He’s also a worrier—a big one—who for years used alcohol to soothe his anxiety.
J.G. started drinking at 15, when he and a friend experimented in his parents’ liquor cabinet. He favored gin and whiskey but drank whatever he thought his parents would miss the least. He discovered beer, too, and loved the earthy, bitter taste on his tongue when he took his first cold sip.
His drinking increased through college and into law school. He could, and occasionally did, pull back, going cold turkey for weeks at a time. But nothing quieted his anxious mind like booze, and when he didn’t drink, he didn’t sleep. After four or six weeks dry, he’d be back at the liquor store.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
The meaning of Trump’s fire and fury foreign policy.
Above all else, President Donald Trump wants the world to see him as strong. He has repeatedly described himself as “militaristic,” and his cabinet as a group of “killers.” He relishes saying the supposedly unsayable. When he spoke at the UN General Assembly yesterday, he surely wanted his listeners to be awed by his toughness. Better, as Machiavelli said, to be feared than loved.
Trump’s team loaded his speech with harsh words and phrases. He promised to destroy North Korea if attacked. He called the Iran nuclear deal an embarrassment. He rejected globalism and spoke at length about the benefits of sovereignty, nationalism, and patriotism.
But when one moves beyond the image Trump tries to project and looks at the consequences of his words, things look quite different. His UN speech was one of the least effective, weakest, and indecisive ever given by an American president. It’s not that it failed against some arbitrary standard set by the foreign-policy establishment he despises. It failed on its own terms. And how it failed tells us something important about where his foreign policy is headed.
Jeffrey Gerrish’s decision to cast a ballot in Virginia isn’t so much a gotcha on him as it is on the president’s voter-fraud commission.
Jeffrey Gerrish made a mistake. Not a big one, although he did break the law. But it’s a mistake many people make, and for the most part, they aren’t called out by the Senate Finance Committee and in the pages of The New York Times.
Most of the people who make the error, however, are not nominees of a president who has alleged that there were 3 to 5 million fraudulent votes cast in the 2016 election, or who empaneled a commission to consider voter fraud that is on a dubious hunt to try to validate that wild, unsubstantiated claim. Jeffrey Gerrish, however, is President Trump’s nominee to be deputy U.S. trade representative, so it happens that investigators realized he cast his vote in the 2016 election in Virginia, even though he had moved to Maryland—a far less competitive state in national elections.
On September 19, 2017, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake shook Mexico City, rattling skyscrapers and sending millions into the streets.
On September 19, 2017, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake shook Mexico City, rattling skyscrapers and sending millions into the streets. Reuters is reporting at least 200 deaths across several Mexican states. Coincidentally, Tuesday was the 32nd anniversary of the devastating 1985 Mexico City earthquake, an occasion that led to many first responders and volunteers already being gathered outside, taking part in earthquake-preparedness drills. Below, some early images of the still-unfolding disaster in Mexico City. Updated with new 12 new images on September 20.
Donald Trump used his first address at the United Nations to redefine the idea of sovereignty.
Donald Trump’s first speech to the United Nations can best be understood as a response to his predecessor’s final one. On September 20, 2016, Barack Obama told the UN General Assembly that “at this moment we all face a choice. We can choose to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration. Or we can retreat into a world sharply divided, and ultimately in conflict, along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion.”
Three hundred and sixty-four days later, Trump delivered America’s answer: Option number two. His speech on Tuesday turned Obama’s on its head. Obama focused on overcoming the various challenges—poverty, economic dislocation, bigotry, extremism—that impede global “integration,” a term he used nine times. Trump didn’t use the term once. Obama used the word “international” 14 times, always positively (“international norms,” “international cooperation,” “international rules,” “international community”). Trump used it three times, in each case negatively (“unaccountable international tribunals,” “international criminal networks,” “the assassination of the dictator's brother using banned nerve agents in an international airport”) Obama warned of a world “sharply divided… along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion.” Trump replied by praising “sovereignty” or invoking “sovereign” no fewer than 19 times. And while he didn’t explicitly defend divisions of “tribe and race and religion,” he talked about the importance of nations “preserving the cultures,” which is a more polite way of saying the same thing.
“If the world’s major powers can’t agree on what the UN is for, what does that mean for its future?”
Since the Second World War, American presidents have repeatedly gone before the United Nations General Assembly and made a similar argument: The United States has national interests just like any other country, but in the modern era those interests are increasingly international in scope and shared by people around the world, requiring more of the multilateral cooperation that the UN was founded to foster.
John F. Kennedy argued that nuclear weapons necessitated “one world and one human race, with one common destiny” guarded by one “world security system,” since “absolute sovereignty no longer assures us of absolute security.” Richard Nixon spoke of a “world interest” in reducing economic inequality, protecting the environment, and upholding international law, declaring that the “profoundest national interest of our time” is the “preservation of peace” through international structures like the UN. In rejecting tribalism and the walling-off of nations, Barack Obama asserted that “giving up some freedom of action—not giving up our ability to protect ourselves or pursue our core interests, but binding ourselves to international rules over the long term—enhances our security.” These presidents practiced what they preached to varying degrees, and there’s long been a debate in the United States about the extent to which America’s sovereign powers should be ceded to international organizations, but in broad strokes the case for global engagement was consistent.