The escape from bondage of the slave Eliza, infant in tow, is one of the most remarked upon portions of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. I have never read Uncle Tom's Cabin. My first encounter with Eliza came this Friday, while I was on a plane to Nashville.
As it happens Eliza is a historical person, and enslaved woman who escaped, child in tow, from slavery in Kentucky. Her story is brilliantly depicted by Fergus Bordewich in his book Bound For Canaan: The Epic Story of The Underground Railroad, which I have excerpted below. I was in the middle seat as I read about Eliza and it was only with some work that I kept from breaking down on a neighbor's shoulder. All of this to say you should strap yourself in for this one.
On a bitter night in the winter of 1838, a heavy-set black woman picked her way furtively down Tuckahoe Ridge toward the frozen river. She followed the familiar track from the plantation where she was enslaved, careful to keep herself out of sight when she reached the snow-covered flood-plain, moving close to the ground. In her arms, she carried an infant whom she had wrapped in a shawl against the cold air.
She was leaving her other children and a husband behind, hoping that if she was not caught, and if she did not die, she might be able to return for them someday. She had fled abruptly for the same reason as so many other fugitives: a day or two earlier a slave trader had appeared at her master's estate to negotiate her price or that of her child. She knew that she might die crossing the river, but if she did nothing she would die a different kind of death, to be sold away south, and away from her family forever.
In some accounts, the woman begged help from an elderly Scotsman or Englishman who lived near the shore, and who sheltered her until she heard the baying of dogs on her trail. As she ran from his house she grabbed hold of a plank and raced to the river's edge. When the ice was solid, teams of horses could cross it. But there had been a thaw and the ice was rotten, full of air holes and cracks, and the water was running over it, and it was ready to break up.
No one had ventured onto it for the past two days, but she had no choice. Her first step broke though. For a moment she stood paralyzed in freezing water. Then she plunged forward, carrying her baby in one had and the plank in the other. The ice seemed firmer as she ran toward the Ohio shore, but then without warning she broke through again, this time up to her armpits. She pushed the baby of her onto the ice, then levered herself up with the aid of the plank.
Laying the plank across the broken ice, she crept along it until she fell through once more. Again she managed to throw the infant ahead of her before she sank. Crawling back onto the ice, she continued her progress in this fashion until the ice disintegrated beneath her again. This time she sank in only to her knees, and she knew that she was close to the Ohio shore. When she finally touched solid land she collapsed, physically spent.
She was safe for the moment, she thought. But she was not alone. A white man had come up out of the darkness and loomed over her. Had she known who he was she would have recognized him as her worst nightmare. He was a Ripley man named Chancey Shaw, a sometime slave catcher who often prowled the northern bank of the river on the lookout for fugitives. He had watched attentively as the woman made her way across the ice, and he was preparing to seize her when, he later admitted to a local abolitionist, he heard her baby whimper and something unexpectedly moved inside him. Surprising himself, he heard himself tell her, "Woman, you have won your freedom."
Instead of arresting her, he led her, soaked and freezing to the edge of the village. There he pointed to a long flight of steps that ascended a bare hill, at the top of which the rectangle of a farmhouse and a light were visible. He told her to make for the light saying, "No nigger has ever been got back from that house.
The house was famed abolitionist John Rankin, a native Southerner who'd moved to Ohio as the South increasingly became a place where open opposition to slavery became a capitol offense. In Ripley, Ohio, Rankin preached abolition, ran a prolific Underground Railroad station, and waged gunfights with slave-catchers.
This story really wrecked me. And Bordewich has many just like them in his book. The epoch of slavery is, to my mind, the definitive epic poem, the quintessential romance of American history. It may well be the most powerful story of the Enlightenment wars.
I urge you to check out Bordewich's book. it's excellent.
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.
Sooner or later, the company will be forced to take on the responsibilities that come with being the world's dominant news distributor.
Nine months after Donald Trump won the presidency by unexpectedly swinging key states in the upper Midwest by slim margins, Facebook’s role in the 2016 election is still not clear.
Just in the last week, Facebook’s advertising has come under new scrutiny. Friday evening, The Wall Street Journal reported and CNN confirmed that special prosecutor Robert Mueller served the company with a search warrant to gather information on Russia-linked accounts that Facebook said purchased $150,000 worth of ads on the platform.
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 Republican Party laid the groundwork for dysfunction long before Donald Trump was elected president.
President Trump’s approach to governance is unlike that of his recent predecessors, but it is also not without antecedents. The groundwork for some of this dysfunction was laid in the decades before Trump’s emergence as a political figure. Nowhere is that more true than in the disappearance of the norms of American politics.
Norms are defined as “a standard or pattern, especially of social behavior, that is typical or expected of a group.” They are how a person is supposed to behave in a given social setting. We don’t fully appreciate the power of norms until they are violated on a regular basis. And the breaching of norms often produces a cascading effect: As one person breaks with tradition and expectation, behavior previously considered inappropriate is normalized and taken up by others. Donald Trump is the Normless President, and his ascendancy threatens to inspire a new wave of norm-breaking.
The right’s old guard faces an existential threat in populism. But it isn’t yet clear that they understand the stakes or possess the confidence to fight back.
Donald Trump’s rise to power put National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the sorts of journalists who work there in a distressing bind. Neither the president nor the #MAGA loyalists who staff his White House adhere to conservative principles. Yet many donors, subscribers, and readers who sustain their publications prefer Trump’s blustering, bombastic project, massively shifting the center of gravity on the right.
Tribalist populism is ascendant––and conservative publications no longer thereby benefit, in part because newer magazines and web sites are more closely aligned with it.
During the 1950s, when the postwar governing establishment presumed a liberal consensus and the right was as internally divided as it is now, William F. Buckley built a competing coalition in part by winning converts on the right to conservatism, famously declaring himself to be standing athwart history yelling, “Stop!”
What was it like inside the brain of an ancient prophet?
James Kugel has been spent his entire scholarly career studying the Bible, but some very basic questions about it still obsess him. What was it about the minds of ancient Israelites that allowed them to hear and see God directly—or at least, to believe that they did? Were the biblical prophets literally hearing voices and seeing visions, understanding themselves to be transmitting God’s own exact words? If so, why did such direct encounters with God become rarer over time?
In his new and final book, The Great Shift, Kugel investigates these questions through the lens of neuroscientific findings. (The approach is reminiscent of other recent books, like Kabbalah: A Neurocognitive Approach to Mystical Experiences, co-written by a neurologist and a mysticism scholar.) First, Kugel uses biblical research to show that ancient people had a “sense of self” that was fundamentally different from the one modern Westerners have—and that this enabled them to experience and interpret prophecy differently than we do. Then he uses scientific research to show that we shouldn’t assume their view was wrong. If anything, our modern Western notion of the bounded, individual self is the anomaly; most human beings throughout history conceived of the self as a porous entity open to intrusions. In fact, much of the rest of the world today still does.
A good marriage is no guarantee against infidelity.
“Most descriptions of troubled marriages don’t seem to fit my situation,” Priya insists. “Colin and I have a wonderful relationship. Great kids, no financial stresses, careers we love, great friends. He is a phenom at work, fucking handsome, attentive lover, fit, and generous to everyone, including my parents. My life is good.” Yet Priya is having an affair. “Not someone I would ever date—ever, ever, ever. He drives a truck and has tattoos. It’s so clichéd, it pains me to say it out loud. It could ruin everything I’ve built.”
Priya is right. Few events in the life of a couple, except illness and death, carry such devastating force. For years, I have worked as a therapist with hundreds of couples who have been shattered by infidelity. And my conversations about affairs have not been confined within the cloistered walls of my therapy practice; they’ve happened on airplanes, at dinner parties, at conferences, at the nail salon, with colleagues, with the cable guy, and of course, on social media. From Pittsburgh to Buenos Aires, Delhi to Paris, I have been conducting an open-ended survey about infidelity.
How the militant group will fumble into the next Middle Eastern war.
Two weeks ago, James Mattis, the U.S. secretary of defense, attempted to justify the provision of U.S. arms to Ukraine. “Defensive arms,” he said, “are not provocative unless you are the aggressor.” The claim was as banal as it was wrong.
Secretary Mattis’s statement made for good politics, and it also makes a degree of intuitive sense. But three generations of students of conflict who have studied “the security dilemma” know it is not, in fact, the case. All too often, nations act in such a way—building up big armies or navies—that they assume will better protect them from their adversaries. What they fail to realize is that sometimes their adversaries will view these “preventive” or “defensive” actions as quite aggressive, in fact, and will make conflict more, not less, likely.
A historian looks at the legacy of racism in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
So many recent events in American life have been a call for the country to grapple with its legacy of racism and white supremacy, including the violence in Charlottesville and even the 2016 election. These events have created turmoil among some conservative Christian groups, who have tried—in fits and starts—to confront their own racial divisions.
One group, however, has taken a slightly different path: Mormons. While a majority of Mormons voted for Trump in the 2016 election, he fared far worse than previous Republican presidential candidates among the minority religious group. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, many in Mormon-heavy Utah doubted the president’s moral character and strength as a role model.
It’s the rare interesting work by a politician—and it offers an important critique of the press.
Most books by politicians are bad. They’re bad because they are cautious, or pious, or boring, or some even-worse combination of all three.
They’re cautious because over the years politicians learn they have more to lose than gain by taking “interesting” or edgy stands. (Something I learned when working as a campaign and White House speechwriter: In “normal” writing, your goal is to make your meaning as clear as possible, ideally in a memorable way. For a politician, the goal is to make the meaning just clear enough that most people will still agree with you. Clearer than that, and you’re in trouble.)
They’re pious because in one way or another the “revealing” stories about the authors are really campaign ads—for future elections by politicians who have a big race still ahead of them, or for history’s esteem by senior figures looking back. Thus politicians’ biographies fall into the general categories of humble-brag (most of them) or braggy-brag (Trump’s).