In 1936 Joe Louis faced off against Max Schmeling. Louis was young and undefeated. More significantly for our purposes, he was the pride of his people. The shadow of Jack Johnson still loomed -- a man who had lived a sordid life, consorted with white women, and drove the country to riot. Unlike Johnson, Louis was a "credit to his race." He was clean. He didn't trash talk. He handled his business in the ring and humbly returned to his corner. He was distinctly aware of his status as a standard-bearer, an ambassador, for his people, and his people loved him for not embarrassing them.
Schmeling was 30 years old when he met Louis, and was considered to be on the southern slope of his career. This belief was shared by Louis's camp:
Louis took training for the Schmeling fight none too seriously. Louis' training retreat was at Lakewood, New Jersey, where Louis was introduced to the game of golf -- later to become a lifelong passion. Louis spent significant time on the golf course rather than training. Conversely, Schmeling prepared intently for the bout. Schmeling had thoroughly studied Louis's style, and believed he had found a weakness: Louis's habit of dropping his left hand low after a jab.
Indeed Schmeling had found a weakness:
Schmeling spent the first three rounds using his jab, while sneaking his right cross behind his jab. Louis was stunned by his rival's style. In the fourth round, a snapping right landed on Louis' chin, and Louis was sent to the canvas for the first time in his twenty eight professional fights. As the fight progressed, stunned fans and critics alike watched Schmeling continue to use this style effectively, and Louis apparently had no idea how to solve the puzzle.
In the 12th round Schmeling knocked Louis out and great wailing went up through Harlem. From Langston Hughes:
I walked down Seventh Avenue and saw grown men weeping like children, and women sitting in the curbs with their head in their hands. All across the country that night when the news came that Joe was knocked out, people cried.
In Germany, Hitler sent Schmeling's wife flowers. Before moving on, it's important to note Schmeling was not much of a Nazi bogeyman. In later years he became friends with Louis, to the point of actually helping him out financially. But my focus here is upon Louis, and the great weight he carried going into that fight.
I can't really imagine how Joe Louis must have felt after his loss. Losing is always a bitter pill, but the taint doubles when the loss belongs not merely to you, but to that nation you represent. The taint triples when your nation is held as a pariah class, for your advances represent the possibility of their own advance out of degradation, and your regressions are ever held as affirming the logic of their status.
Today, black fighters are taken for granted, but in Joe Louis's era the skin game had yet to switch, and it was still common and respectable to assert that blacks lacked the physical courage and discipline to compete with whites in the manly sport of boxing. In short, the manner of Joe Louis's loss -- to an emissary of Hitler no less -- demoralized his people, and by that same factor emboldened their enemies.
Champions of black people rarely seek the honor. Most of them want to just go about the work of their business. I date back to Warren Moon, the NFL's first great black quarterback:
A lot has been said about me as being the first African American quarterback into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It's a subject that I'm very uncomfortable about sometimes only because I've always wanted to be judged as just a quarterback. But because I am the first and because significance does come with that, I accept that. I accept the fact that I am the first...
I played this game not for just myself, not just for my teammates, but I always had that extra burden when I went on that field that I had a responsibility to play the game for my people. That extra burden I probably didn't need to go out on the field with, because I probably would have been a much better player if I didn't have that burden.
But you know what, I carried that burden proudly.
As I looked at young people all along my route as a professional football player, they always told me, Warren, you got to represent. Warren, you got to represent. Warren, you got to represent.
Like Joe Louis, like Warren Moon, like any black person significant for the fact of being black, I imagine that Barack Obama would love to have only the burden of being great at his craft. All presidential candidates represent something larger than themselves, and in that sense their loss is always broadly shared. But few classes in America have so little to lose as the one Obama represents.
When candidate Obama was asked about his relationship to the black community during the 2008 election, he would often say he was "rooted in the black community, but not limited to it." I was thinking about all of this before last night's debate. I did not know whether Obama would win. But I thought that he would do really, really well. And I thought that, in part, because of the fact that he is, as he said, "rooted in the black community."
These are powerful words for a president. They mean that should Obama fail, the people who will suffer under a triumphant Republican administration will not be abstract to him; they will be down the street. The poor black women who will doubtlessly find their access to contraception troubled will be degrees closer to Obama than to any other presidential aspirant. That 47 percent whom Mitt Romney will surely treat as the loafers he considers them to be will not be a subject of academic study, they will be his fellow parishioners. Barack Obama has spent a life breaking barriers, and should he lose, in any part, because he neglected to prepare -- to work hard -- he will break the seal on a shame which few can fathom.
Joe Louis knew. He stood across from Max Schmeling a second time. It was 1938. World War II was in the air, and now he was not simply the champion of his people, but, most strangely, of a country that reviled them. A loss would not simply be a loss for black people, but for humanity itself:
A few weeks before the rematch, Louis visited President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House. The New York Times quoted Roosevelt as telling the fighter, "Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany." In his 1976 biography, Louis wrote, "I knew I had to get Schmeling good. I had my own personal reasons and the whole damned country was depending on me." This time, Louis took training for the bout seriously, giving up golf and women throughout his training.
Louis won. And some sense of the times can be gleaned from how his win was reported. "Joe Louis, the lethargic, chicken-eating young colored boy," wrote The Washington Post, "reverted to his dreaded role of the 'brown bomber' tonight."
"Joe Louis, the lethargic, chicken-eating young colored boy," wrote The Washington Post, "reverted to his dreaded role of the 'brown bomber' tonight."
When you are deemed a "credit to your race," as Joe Louis so often was, the weight can be crushing. But it also can be the source of great power. In championing the reviled, the battle-weary, the low, you champion something greater than yourself. Wherever you fight, you are always fighting for your hometown. You trade the aspect of the lone wolf, for that of the wounded bear with rearing up in defense of her cubs.
Thus it was with little surprise (though some small thrill) that I watched Barack Obama maul Mitt Romney last night, much as Louis mauled Schmeling in the rematch all those years ago. Unlike Louis, Obama's bout continues on. But should he lose the election it will not be in the shameful manner which, to some, appeared imminent. He will not fall as "the lethargic, chicken-eating, young colored boy." He will not go out confirming the warped logic of those who hate him and the community in which he is rooted. He represents too much.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Beyond the Wall,” the sixth episode of the seventh season.
Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
The cartoonist defended the president in a podcast debate with Sam Harris. The portrait he painted of Trump supporters was not flattering.
Sam Harris, the atheist philosopher and neuroscientist, has recently been using his popular Waking Up podcast to discuss Donald Trump, whom he abhors, with an ideologically diverse series of guests, all of whom believe that the president is a vile huckster.
This began to wear on some of his listeners. Wasn’t Harris always warning against echo chambers? Didn’t he believe in rigorous debate with a position’s strongest proponents? At their urging, he extended an invitation to a person that many of those listeners regard as President Trump’s most formidable defender: Scott Adams, the creator of the cartoon Dilbert, who believes that Trump is “a master persuader.”
Their conversation was posted online late last month. It is one of the most peculiar debates about a president I have ever encountered. And it left me marveling that parts of Trump’s base think well of Adams when his views imply such negative things about them.
“Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.”
Ever since it was first published in 1982, readers—including this one—have thrilled to “Total Eclipse,” Annie Dillard’s masterpiece of literary nonfiction, which describes her personal experience of a solar eclipse in Washington State. It first appeared in Dillard’s landmark collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk, and was recently republished in The Abundance, a new anthology of her work. The Atlantic is pleased to offer the essay in full, here, until the day after the ‘Great American Eclipse’ on August 21.
It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering. We had crossed the mountains that day, and now we were in a strange place—a hotel in central Washington, in a town near Yakima. The eclipse we had traveled here to see would occur early in the next morning.
The scientists are all talking like it’s a sure thing.
On August 21, the “moon” will pass between the Earth and the sun, obscuring the light of the latter. The government agency NASA says this will result in “one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights.” The astronomers there claim to have calculated down to the minute exactly when and where this will happen, and for how long. They have reportedly known about this eclipse for years, just by virtue of some sort of complex math.
This seems extremely unlikely. I can’t even find these eclipse calculations on their website to check them for myself.
Meanwhile the scientists tell us we can’t look at it without special glasses because “looking directly at the sun is unsafe.”
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.”
A tour of the solar eclipse’s path reveals a nation that fought to maintain a different sort of totality.
Totality is everything, say those who chase solar eclipses. When the moon fully obscures the sun and casts its shadow on Earth, the result is like nothing you’ve seen before—not even a partial eclipse. A merely partial eclipse does not flip day to night, because the sun is bright enough to light our fields of vision with only a tiny fraction of its power. But when the sun and moon align just so, a little piece of Earth goes dark in the middle of the day. In this path of totality, night comes suddenly and one can see the shape of the moon as a circle darker than black, marked by the faint backlight of the sun’s corona. Astronomers and eclipse chasers chart carefully to be sure that they can watch from exactly the right place at the right time. They know that you cannot compromise with the sun. For a dark sky, the sun must be banished altogether.
The country’s exceptionally thin safety net prompts residents—especially those with less-steady employment—to view partnership in more economic terms.
Over the last several decades, the proportion of Americans who get married has greatly diminished—a development known as well to those who lament marriage’s decline as those who take issue with it as an institution. But a development that’s much newer is that the demographic now leading the shift away from tradition is Americans without college degrees—who just a few decades ago were much more likely to be married by the age of 30 than college graduates were.
Today, though, just over half of women in their early 40s with a high-school degree or less education are married, compared to three-quarters of women with a bachelor’s degree; in the 1970s, there was barely a difference. The marriage gap for men has changed less over the years, but there the trend lines have flipped too: Twenty-five percent of men with high-school degrees or less education have never married, compared to 23 percent of men with bachelor’s degrees and 14 percent of those with advanced degrees. Meanwhile, divorce rates have continued to rise among the less educated, while staying more or less steady for college graduates in recent decades.
The Republican majorities in Congress gambled they could ignore Trump's misdeeds, and still get him to sign their bills—but it’s not working out as they expected.
Devil’s Bargain is the title of the best-selling book by Joshua Green about the relationship between Donald Trump and Steve Bannon—a relationship, of course, newly altered. But the Trump-Bannon relationship is not the only, or even the most important, devil’s bargain surrounding Trump—that distinction goes to the odd, strained, and curious relationship between Trump and Republicans in Congress.
It is no secret that the overwhelming majority of Republicans in the House and Senate did not want Trump to be their party’s nominee—he had the fewest endorsements from his party’s members of Congress before the race was settled than any nominee in modern memory. And a large number of GOP legislators were privately appalled as the general election campaign went on. When the Access Hollywood tape emerged, private unease became more public—one of the most vivid examples was Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who told a Utah television station, “I can no longer in good conscience endorse this person for president. It is some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine. My wife and I, we have a 15-year-old daughter, and if I can’t look her in the eye and tell her these things, I can’t endorse this person.”
The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history.
When did America become untethered from reality?
I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004, after President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. “Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books.
Jen Hatmaker says the “days of silence are over” in polite evangelical culture.
By her own estimation, Jen Hatmaker is “low-grade Christian famous.” She has written 12 books, starred in an HGTV series with her family, built a large social-media following, and gone on tour with other prominent female Christian writers.
In some circles, Hatmaker is also controversial. Last fall, she told the writer Jonathan Merritt she thinks LGBT relationships can be holy. LifeWay, a large Christian retailer, pulled her books from their stores. Some of her followers were “angry or shocked or confused,” she said, and her interview set off a round of debate on the authority of evangelical women in ministry. This spring, Hatmaker wrote on her blog that she has “[become] painfully aware of the machine, the Christian Machine.”