I don’t know if you knew, but the Hebrews didn’t spend forty years in the Sinai after the Exodus because they’d incurred the wrath of God. And they didn’t leave that desert because the offending generation had died off. The chosen people were forced into the Promised Land because the algae-based-protein-bar machine that dispensed the “manna from heaven” they’d been eating finally broke down.
“Of course, [the machine] needed energy, for cultivating the algae, and this was produced, we postulate, by a small nuclear reactor,” says Rodney Dale, a wild-eyed madman.
This is the History Channel, circa 2009. “But,” asks the narrator, “If the Israelites’ survival depended upon the manna machine, where did they get it? Some believe they had stolen it from the Egyptians prior to their exodus. Other suspect extraterrestrials gave it to them as a humanitarian gesture to prevent their starvation in the desert.” The show is “Ancient Aliens,” and it’s everything that’s wrong in America.
What I mean is that when it debuted in 2009, “Ancient Aliens” put to work certain attitudes and argumentative techniques that have, in the age of Trump, come to dominate our discourse. “Ancient Aliens” is a more popular show than you might think, but I doubt it’s got much influence on the zeitgeist, and I know that it didn’t invent what it’s doing. Richard Hofstadter taught us a half-century ago that things like anti-intellectualism and the ‘paranoid style’ have been with us since at least 1776. “Ancient Aliens” was just the canary in the mine this time around.
Cards on the table, I realize that “Ancient Aliens” isn’t the only show in the History Channel’s lineup that’s gotten away from history as such.
“Ancient Aliens” wasn’t the network’s first show to break away from its formerly staid documentary style—“Ice Road Truckers” and “Ax Men,” which focused more on reality-style personal relationships and on-camera drama rather than exploring the history of northern trucking and lumberjacking, came out in 2007 and 2008. “Conspiracy?” and “Decoding the Past”—looking at universally debunked theories and trying to match history to prophecy, like those of Nostradamus, respectively—realized that Americans were much more interested in Dan Brown than they were in history books as early as 2005. But while those experiments used ancient prognostications and grassy-knoll-theorism to spice up their facts, “Ancient Aliens” put its spurious nonsense front and center.
The show’s bedrock is an inversion of Occam’s tool for sorting hypotheses. Call it Giorgio’s Razor:
Take the show’s investigation of the Saqqara Bird, a small wooden falcon removed from an Egyptian tomb in 1898. To archaeologists, it looks like a toy, maybe a weathervane.
To “ancient alien theorists,” it’s evidence that the Egyptians of the Old Kingdom had airplanes. To prove that hypothesis on the show, an “aviation and aerodynamics expert” builds a scale model of the bird to see if it will fly.
The series narrator Robert Clotworthy1 intones over the footage that “during the [expert’s] tests, it was discovered that the only thing preventing the Saqqara bird from achieving flight was the lack of a rear stabilizing rudder, or elevator.” So they add the rudder, and airfoil wings, and discover that if you angle it upwards in a wind-tunnel, it’ll generate lift. Like literally any piece of wood.
The show asks: Did ancient Egyptians invent powered flight and leave exactly one child’s toy behind to prove it? Or might it be that the Saqqara bird looks aerodynamic and lacks a horizontal tail rudder because it’s, well, a bird? Applying Giorgio’s Razor reveals the answer.
It was aliens.
Aliens were flying around in Egypt.
Even extraterrestrial intervention becomes banal when it’s behind every mysterious thing in history, and that approach wrecks any of the value that could be had from the show’s topics. Neil Postman argued in the 1980s that TV had given us a discourse that “denied interconnectedness, proceeded without context, argued the irrelevance of history, explained nothing, and offered fascination in place of complexity and coherence.” Until the election in 2016, “Ancient Aliens” was the fullest flowering of that trend.The show works to turn matters of expertise into questions of faith. Time after time, statements about belief don’t just contend with but demolish the testimony of actual experts. At the start of season two, the program explores Marcahuasi, a high Peruvian plateau filled with strange rock formations.
The camera pans over the landscape, and Clotworthy narrates:
Most geologists consider the many stone formations on the plateau to be naturally formed. Born of millions of years of erosion and other natural processes. But is there more here than first meets the eye? Some consider Marcahuasi to be a massive sculpture garden, filled with carvings left behind by an ancient civilization…Could this be not just a collection of rocks but a sanctuary of stone monuments made by people tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago?
A parade of breathless ancient alien theorists follows Clothworthy and details Marcahuasi’s special energies and vibrations, extraterrestrial visitations, and potential as a landing site for Noah’s Ark, their every statement backed up by, “I believe,” “I believe,” “I believe.” The show, by way of Clotworthy’s narration, makes sure we know that compared to these luminaries, “most geologists” are a bunch of shit-kicking dirt-lookers.
Hofstadter traced anti-intellectualism to the founding of the republic, but the particular sneering smugness of the show towards science and experts in general is newer than it feels. Climate change is the sine qua non for anti-science “scholarship” in the US today, but even George W. Bush couldn’t write it off or deny it completely, either in 2001 or in 2007.
“Ancient Aliens” deployed its anti-scientism earlier than the G.O.P., and beat out Donald Trump’s beliefs about birth certificates by a full two years. Both they and the show rely on an attitude that Hannah Arendt called “vulgarity,” which, “with its cynical dismissal of respected standards and accepted theories carried with it a frank admission of the worst and a disregard for all pretenses,” something that viewers, whether of Fox News or “Ancient Aliens,” take not as a criminal condescension, but which they “mistake for courage and a new style of life.”
The courage of “Ancient Aliens” lies in telling its truths in the face of the “scientists” and “mainstream historians” that Clotworthy sets up and knocks down. It is brave in the same way that Trump is brave when he spits on the establishment, that Jeffrey Lord and the other conservative hacks are brave when they spit into the wind. And as I slogged through the show’s twelve seasons, that vulgarity became a full-on assault against truth, something as absurd to see on the History Channel as it has been in the White House.From the beginning, the evidence presented in “Ancient Aliens” was weak. The models, the re- and mis- and kind of un-interpretations of scripture, the half-explanations of history, all of it plain bunkum.
At various points, the series turns to the Anasazi, a Native American tribe that abandoned its cliff-carved civilization in Utah centuries ago. In a line of thinking possibly cribbed from the “X-Files,” Clotworthy explains that “some ancient astronaut theorists, like author David Childress, propose that there is in fact more to the disappearance of the Anasazi elders than a simple migration.” Cut to Childress, standing in front of a stone wall covered in Anasazi carvings. He indicates several spirals carved into the cliff.
“Archaeologists believe that they represent the sun. But some of these spirals are very unusual. One even has little spirals coming off of it. So you have to ask yourself, ‘Are these spirals in fact representations of some kind of portal? Some door to another dimension?’”
The show turns by the second season from ancient to recent alien visits, and its fantastical history as quickly becomes conspiracy, a web of plots that ties together Roswell with Hitler, the Cold War with the Mexican Zone of Silence, and implicates what must be most of the world’s governments in extraterrestrial schemes.
Hofstadter noted that the paranoid in America make similar efforts to construct elaborate conspiratorial worldviews, and in the same way that Joe McCarthy and Robert Welch “offered a full-scale interpretation of our recent history in which Communists figure at every turn,” the current crop of right-wing fabulists have done as well as Ancient Aliens in creating an all-encompassing, through-a-glass vision of the world.
With the help of winks and nods from the G.O.P., the raving fantasy of the far right has become acknowledged reality for a huge number of Americans: 9/11 was a government plot; Barack Obama is a Muslim; Agenda 21 is a UN plan to take over the USA; Pizzagate; Seth Rich; FEMA camps. It’s hard to listen to Clothworthy in a 2016 episode ask, “Was the Cold War really an orchestrated event intended to serve as a smokescreen for governments to harvest extraterrestrial technology?” And flip to Alex Jones trying to argue that the Newtown shooting was a false-flag operation on NBC and not realize that these two things are of a piece.
Hannah Arendt wrote that one of the strengths of totalitarian propaganda is not that it twists the truth but that it ignores truth entirely. Its content, for the members of the movement, “is no longer an objective issue about which people may have opinions, but has become as real and untouchable an element in their lives as the rules of arithmetic.” It is the leadership’s ability and willingness to swear, knowingly, to each new lie that allows the true believers that make up the body of the movement to forgo critical thought and mountains of contrary evidence.
As I got further and further into “Ancient Aliens,” I saw a similar dynamic emerge among the regulars, like Childress and Tsoukalos. In the first episode of Season 10, Childress goes out on a boat with two alien enthusiasts who think they’ve found something on the bottom of Lake Michigan. They drop a sonar rig in the water and a random jumble of rocks show up onscreen. Childress looks for a few seconds and says, “Yeah, this does look like an artificial alignment.” Later, one of the enthusiasts takes a camera underwater to show Childress a carving of a mastodon on one of the rocks.
You know, right there. On the rock.
Childress doesn’t miss a beat. “It does look like the stone has been carved. Yeah, you can see the legs and a trunk on it. Wow, that’s amazing. Yeah, I’m convinced!”
Whatever else about him, Dave Childress was in 2009 a serious man. He’d traveled the world and done the research and written books. Within the strange world of extraterrestrialists, he was an authority. But on the show, and on that boat, he became a kind of actor, part of the show’s own cynical hierarchy, performing belief for the two yokels and for us, the viewers.
Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer and even Paul Ryan were in their way serious people. They went to real schools and did real work. Paul Ryan, for all that he built his career on trying to do great evil in the world, was at least up front about it. Spicer had been known around DC as a stand-up guy. But they made it their jobs, not to shill for bad things they believe in—as Childress had pursued for most of his life a weak theory of aliens that he actually believed in—but for an ever-changing raft of lies that they’ve never countenanced, and which they admit in leaks and in private to know to be false.
Postman pretty famously contended that it would be A Brave New World for us and not 1984. But “Ancient Aliens” might be sending us hints that we don’t have to pick and choose. Trump’s neither charismatic enough to be our Hitler nor smart enough to be our Big Brother, but it might be that we’ve indulged our worst tendencies deeply and long enough to let Trump and his band of “crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is the best guarantee of their loyalty” to do us real and lasting harm. We reached a point in 2009 when one of the hoary institutions of respectable television felt it could better entertain us by throwing in with dangerous nonsense, and maybe it shouldn’t be surprising to us that the institutions of the real world—from the EPA now working to eliminate evidence of climate change to the White House’s ethics lawyers justifying out and out corruption—are following suit.
1Clotworthy was, coincidentally, also the voice of Jim Raynor in the Starcraft games
Like everyone else, Jon Coumes is a struggling writer, and he produces his podcast on the failures of American foreign policy, Safe for Democracy, from Mexico.
"The show asks: Did ancient Egyptians invent powered flight and leave exactly one child’s toy behind to prove it? Or might it be that the Saqqara bird looks aerodynamic and lacks a horizontal tail rudder because it’s, well, a bird? Applying Giorgio’s Razor reveals the answer. It was aliens. Aliens were flying around in Egypt."
It occurs to me that it may be worth spelling out more explicitly the logic of why I think the Harvard Kennedy School has gotten itself into trouble. So here goes. The Harvard Kennedy School Dean, Doug Elmendorf’s statement is here. The key sentences, as I read them:
Some visitors to the Kennedy School are invited for just a few hours to give a talk in the School’s Forum or in one of our lecture halls or seminar rooms; other visitors stay for a full day, a few days, a semester, or longer. Among the visitors who stay more than a few hours, some are designated as “Visiting Fellows,” “Resident Fellows,” “Nonresident Fellows,” and the like. At any point in time, the Kennedy School has hundreds of Fellows playing many different roles at the School. In general across the School, we do not view the title of “Fellow” as conveying a special honor; rather, it is a way to describe some people who spend more than a few hours at the School.
… I see more clearly now that many people view a Visiting Fellow title as an honorific, so we should weigh that consideration when offering invitations. In particular, I think we should weigh, for each potential visitor, what members of the Kennedy School community could learn from that person’s visit against the extent to which that person’s conduct fulfills the values of public service to which we aspire. This balance is not always easy to determine, and reasonable people can disagree about where to strike the balance for specific people. Any determination should start with the presumption that more speech is better than less. In retrospect, though, I think my assessment of that balance for Chelsea Manning was wrong. Therefore, we are withdrawing the invitation to her to serve as a Visiting Fellow—and the perceived honor that it implies to some people—while maintaining the invitation for her to spend a day at the Kennedy School and speak in the Forum.
I can see the administrative logic which got Elmendorf to this position, but it seems to me to lead to a place that is unsustainable.
The way that the Kennedy School used to think about fellowships, as Elmendorf describes it – which I think is the only sustainable way for it to think about them – is as no more and no less than a way to facilitate debate and conversation. This is one of the things that universities are supposed to do – bring a diverse group of people into debate, reflecting a broad set of constituencies. That Chelsea Manning is anathema to other fellows like Morell should be neither here or there – the job of the university is to provide opportunities for both people like Manning and people like Morell to participate in public debate, without necessarily feeling the need to pronounce on the merits of either. When someone like Morell grandly announces that he is not going to be a fellow (at a different part of the Kennedy School, reflecting a very different constituency, with a different understanding of public service), then he has flatly misunderstood what a fellowship is supposed to be, and his views ought be disregarded, as should Pompeo’s. Under this logic, the granting of fellowships should be a pretty decentralized process, in order to allow a very broad set of constituencies to each appoint fellows according to their specific notion of the public good. This approach too implies edge cases – but the bias towards allowing faculty to invite whoever in their judgment contributes to debate is built into the system.
Now to Elmendorf’s proposal that the contribution to debate be balanced against some sense of “the extent to which that person’s conduct fulfills the values of public service to which we aspire,” since other people consider fellowships to be an honor. The problem is that this means that the Kennedy School weighing in on a set of heated debates over the role of the US government in a quite pointed way. The Kennedy School is now apparently saying that it is OK if former intelligence people like Morell, who have advocated for torture are fellows. Their “values of public service” pass whatever invisible bar it is that they are supposed to pass. However, it is apparently not OK for a leaker like Chelsea Manning to be considered for this honor.
One could sustain an argument for both Morell and Manning being fellows under the previous broad standard of facilitating public and academic debate. Perhaps one could sustain an argument for giving a fellowship to neither Morell nor Manning, if one wanted to see a Kennedy School fellowship as providing an honor for those who have lived up to a very exacting and specific standard. But to have a standard of public service that discriminates in the way that the new approach does, so that it apparently includes Morell, Corey Lewandowski and others, while retroactively and specifically being defined to exclude Manning? That seems to me to be indefensible except under an entirely cynical reading – the “values of public service” that the Kennedy School aspires to are a euphemism for “you’re good to go if you don’t do anything that you can’t get away with and still remain part of America’s governing class.” I don’t imagine that this is what Elmendorf wants – but it’s hard to see how a standard of values of public service that includes thugs like Lewandowski and leakers like Petraeus can be interpreted differently. I also imagine (without having any direct information whatsoever) that the implications of a “the Dean knows it when he sees it” standard for faculty governance are being hotly debated within the Kennedy School right now.
None of this was a problem under the previous approach – which saw fellows as contributors to debate rather than people being honored. It is a problem now. And that’s why I’m taking the position that I am taking.
I think this is one of the more worrying trends of intellectual life today. We worry far too much that granting somebody a seat at the table of debate is legitimizing their views. And the people who disagree are not just wrong, but crazy, evil, stupid, or all three and so it is immoral to do anything to legitimize them.
Intestilax is a miracle cure for stomach pains. But be careful: it may have side effects.
Written by Casper Kelly, and produced by Jonathan Mitchell. Performed by Adam Wade, Hannah Chase, Mariette Strauss, Elana Fishbein, Dennis Pacheco, Anne Antonucci, Jeremy Bent, Noel Dinneen and Seth Lind.
Each year, I keep a running list of exceptional nonfiction that I encounter as I publish The Best of Journalism, an email newsletter that I curate weekly for its subscribers. This is my annual attempt to bring roughly 100 of those stories that stood the test of time to a wider audience. I could not read or note every worthy article published in the past few years, and I haven't included any paywalled articles or anything published at The Atlantic. But everything that follows is worthy of wider attention and engagement. I hope it provides fodder for reflection and inspiration for future writing. My thanks to all of the publishers, editors and, writers who made these gems possible.
“Sergey Ananov is trapped on a slab of ice in the Arctic Circle. He has no locator beacon, no phone, and barely any water. The fog will hide him from any rescuers. Night will come. Hypothermia will come. And whatever large, powerful creatures that scratch out their existence in this primordial world—maybe they will come too.”
“Wyoming is huge—you could fit all of New England inside it, then throw in Hawaii and Maryland for good measure—but it is the least populous state in the Union; under six hundred thousand people live there, fewer than in Louisville, Kentucky. Its Muslim population is correspondingly tiny—perhaps seven or eight hundred people. Contrary to the claims of Stop Islam in Gillette, however, the Muslims who established the mosque are not new to the region. Together with some twenty per cent of all Muslims in Wyoming, they trace their presence back more than a hundred years, to 1909, when a young man named Zarif Khan immigrated to the American frontier.”
“The plastic bag is stained with blood. He leans down, grasps one of the handles, and realises that there is yet another carrier bag inside the first, its handles knotted together. As he works to untie the knot, muffled whimpers can be heard from within. The knot gives way and the plastic handles slide apart. As Tor glances inside the bag, he beholds what lies within. It is a human being. A living newborn baby, blue and cold.”
“For the gang—and others like it—the rappers are designated as the ticket out of poverty. It becomes the responsibility of the rest of the members to support and protect them. Each rapper has ‘shooters.’ These are members who make good on the threats the rappers dish out in their lyrics. And, yes, that means shooting—and sometimes killing—people. CBE has about a dozen shooters. A.J. may be the one holding an automatic weapon in his Instagram photos, but he has never shot at the opps.”
“When she left her job to work the rocks, she fell instantly in love with almost everything about her new profession: the open air, the ever-changing office space, the sisterly camaraderie. But she didn’t love the way she and her fellow women were treated.”
“There's no telling how many guns we have in America—and when one gets used in a crime, no way for the cops to connect it to its owner. The only place the police can turn for help is a Kafkaesque agency in West Virginia, where, thanks to the gun lobby, computers are illegal and detective work is absurdly antiquated. On purpose. Thing is, the geniuses who work there are quietly inventing ways to do the impossible.”
“When they were young, 230 men and one woman were convicted of terrible crimes—murders, rapes, robberies. They thought they were going to die in prison. They were supposed to. But then, just a few years back, Merle Unger Jr., one of the most notorious escape artists of our time, discovered an ingenious (and legal) way to get them out. It was an unimagined second chance for them—and a nerve-wracking experiment for everyone else.”
“My mind could not stop imagining it. An earthquake hits the center of Florence: The church bells ring out of time, terra cotta tiles rain down from the Renaissance rooftops, priceless paintings rattle off the walls of the Uffizi. Meanwhile, inside the Accademia Gallery, the David’s pedestal begins to tilt. Slightly at first, just enough to shift the statue’s gaze, so that he looks not at his old enemy anymore—the implied Goliath off in the distance—but at a new one: the floor he’s been standing on for 134 years.”
THE LOS ANGELES TIMES / Framed by Christopher Goffard
“She ran down the hall, seized by panic. She thought it must be about her husband, who was now working as a traveling wine salesman. He was on the road all the time, and she thought he’d been in an accident. Officer Charles Shaver tried to calm her down. He was not here about her husband. Did she have anything in her car she shouldn’t have?”
“Only a few months earlier, Joan Rivers had everything she ever wanted: fame and fortune, the job of her dreams, a loyal husband, a loving child, a lavish estate—and a future that beckoned with enticing possibilities. After years of struggle, she had not only succeeded as a comedian, but made history on the newly launched FOX Network as television’s first and only female late-night talk show host. And now she’d lost it all.”
“Fast-food consumption was beginning to tick up. Foreclosures were up. Meth usage up. Heroin up. Death rate up. In Dan Quayle’s Middle America, one of the biggest news stories of the year had been the case of a mother who had let her three-week-old child suck heroin off her finger.”
“As you walked around you got the idea that here, right here, after 200 years of ceaseless propulsion across a vast continent, the American dream had finally come to rest. This is where it had been heading all along. And then you turned a corner and saw that Frank Gehry didn't like it.”
“If sport, in the truest, downright ancient-Olympic sense of the word, is embodied by a lone warrior running to Marathon to tell the troops news of war, then ‘synchro,’ as it’s called by insiders, is its opposite. It’s not a war game. It’s not a show of superior speed and cunning in comparison to a direct opponent. It developed over the last hundred years, and it’s obstensibly, on the surface, showbiz. Yet while showbiz may be in its origins, synchro is a celebration of extraordinary athletes proving that they can perform with skill and beauty in the water. It combines dance, gymnastics, choreography, originality, and artistry in order to tell a story. The competition, as it is, is seeing who can be more perfect in the water.”
“Medicine for Arianna and Dontae alone tops out at $12,200 a month. The family’s medical needs are so massive and complex that Lynn’s Dakotamart Pharmacy in nearby Belle Fourche hired an additional full-time employee just to process their prescriptions. By age 3, it had cost about $3 million to keep Arianna alive.”
“There are more than a dozen—mostly of Southeast Asian descent, dehydrated and dazed groggy by the sun—but this represents only a third of the people who called this field home and flew under the radar of Sacramento County’s lead homeless agency. Or at least they used to.”
“A thousand years ago, huge pyramids and earthen mounds stood where East St. Louis sprawls today in Southern Illinois. This majestic urban architecture towered over the swampy Mississippi River floodplains, blotting out the region's tiny villages. Beginning in the late 900s, word about the city spread throughout the southeast. Thousands of people visited for feasts and rituals, lured by the promise of a new kind of civilization.”
“Like most chains, there’s plenty that’s cheesy about Chili’s Grill and Bar. But there is also something special—something that converts its most devoted employees into enthusiastic, unblinking evangelists. Their devotion to The Sizzle is pure, and these are their secrets.”
“Williamsburg’s creative class has learned the ways of market competition, profits, distribution, business plans, customer satisfaction, and vertical markets, along with sustainability, organic materials, and community responsibility. The marriage between art, millennial politics, and old-fashioned capitalism will strike some as Marx’s worst fear come true. But even the haters would have to admit that it tastes and looks good.”
“These two trapped, poor, broken people somehow met and managed to put all that pain behind and create a new life in what still felt like the fresh, quickly growing frontier of central Massachusetts. Bumpa, following a tip from a minister who had moved to Worcester, seems to have arrived in the city with an office job in hand, at the Heald Machine Company, where he worked until his retirement decades later. A combination of historical luck, a fast-growing economy, and his own hard work enabled him to carve out a good life that must have seemed unattainable when he was younger.”
“She had no job, no high school diploma, no car and no money beyond what her mother gave her for Mountain Dew and cigarettes. A few days earlier, a dentist had pulled all 28 of her teeth, which had decayed from years of neglect. It had been a week since she’d seen her 9-year-old twin sons, who lived in a nearby suburb with their father, and lately the most frequent text messages coming into her phone were from a dealer hoping to lure her back with free samples.”
“Though we all have reason to be annoyed by the resurgence of political correctness, the alt-right remedy is the oratorical inverse of the problem they claim to despise. Social-justice warriors needlessly shut down debate and proscribe words and ideas to assuage the feelings of allegedly vulnerable minority groups; the alt-right flings around racial epithets and Der Stürmer cartoons purely to transgress accepted social codes. And that’s only the most charitable explanation for their behavior, assuming as it does that they don’t ‘really’ mean what they say. But what about that element of the alt-right that actually does have a political agenda beyond annoying its adversaries?”
“Hot chicken was a dish created for the express purpose of bringing a man to his knees. Its origin myth wasn’t the result of a mistake, like chocolate chip cookies, Coca-Cola, or the French dip sandwich. Hot chicken was premeditated; to this day, every bite of Nashville hot chicken is touched by the spectral presence of a betrayed lover.”
“What makes buying food different from other forms of commerce is this: It’s a trust-based system. How do you know the Dover sole on your plate is Dover sole? Only that the restaurateur said so. And how can you be sure the strawberries your toddler is gobbling are free of pesticides? Only because the vendor at the farmers market said so. Your purchases are unverifiable unless you drive to that farm or track back through a restaurant’s distributors and ask for invoices. I did.”
“The children the doctors said you’d never bear came immediately. He didn’t drive, but occasionally he took three trains to White Castle to surprise you with a sack of ten. Sometimes you were so happy you’d cry. Sometimes you’d scream at him for not psychically knowing you were nauseous. You’re amazed that he never once—back then and in all the years that followed—stopped trying to make you happy.”
“David Tran’s exact sriracha recipe may not be available to the public, but with only six core ingredients (red jalapenos, garlic, distilled vinegar, sugar, salt, and xanthan gum), it’s as open source as any name-brand foodstuff. But no matter how good or bad an outside interpretation, the signifiers always lead you back to the source, to the first time you let the rooster into your life.”
“My best memories are experiences of texture more than flavor: crinkly, crumpled, shiny foil keeping a sandwich swaddled in steam-softened white paper piping hot; the kaiser roll crumbly, the fine cornmeal from its underside adding a pleasant grit to the assemblage; the bacon on the border of unbearably crisp but not too far gone; the egg, if eaten while magma-hot, still passably tender; squeezed-out packages of ketchup providing cool, sweet counterpoint.”
“At this point you could, as more than half of all American adults do on a daily basis, drink a cup of coffee to stave off the fog of imminent unconsciousness. After all, you love coffee. And not just because of the caffeine. But have you really thought it all through?”
“Locol’s messaging isn’t geared toward people who will not be its primary customers. Choi and Patterson don’t openly talk about conscious capitalism or triple-bottom lines. They’re mostly just leaning on the premise that serving neighborhoods like Watts, which often have a dearth of food options beyond corner stores and outposts of gigantic chains, is good business both ethically and fiscally, and likely to be profitable.”
“Here, atop a toxic landfill, mired in mud and muck, in a makeshift kitchen lacking running water or refrigeration, was a bird to sing about. A spicy paste clung to pieces of meat, juicy without being greasy. What do you crave when you can’t go home again? Or worse, fear being sent back? Perhaps this drumstick, DayGlo red with spices.”
“We are using antiquated categories that make the most explosive social problems of our time wholly invisible to us. The geographical segregation into globalized and unglobalized areas has created a sort of epistemological trap. From the age of social democracy, when class was measured by one dimension, income, we have inherited the habit of assuming political issues will pit ‘the rich’ against ‘the poor.’ But today's issues don't. The dividing line on most issues is whether people are being helped or hurt by the global economy.”
“At some point I started billing differently. I can’t say when. It could have been when we had a patient die and I had to bill his family. It could have been when I saw the dizzying costs that were itemized for inpatient bills, or the time the woman I evaluated—my patient, our patient—and then billed was saddled with an amount she could never hope to pay. I remember her: how she came in and explained that things were difficult, that she didn’t have insurance, but she needed someone to lance the boil that had erupted at her waistline. It had been causing her incredible pain, to the point where she could no longer dress herself. Please, she said. But she had already been registered, been given an ID bracelet, all the apparatuses of the emergency department and its tracking. Her bill popped up later on my screen; I saw the amount. This, somehow, totaled the cost of living. I thought of my own unpaid medical debt, reduced the amount, told no one, and let the next chart flash across my screen.”
“On YouTube you will find them, locked in many dance-offs, and so you are presented with a stark choice. But it’s not a question of degrees of ability, of who was the greater dancer. The choice is between two completely opposite values: legibility on the one hand, temporality on the other. Between a monument (Jackson) and a kind of mirage (Prince).”
“When students demand the intervention of administrative authority to solve every little conflict, they end reinforce a power structure in which students and faculty alike are stripped of moral agency, in which all of us in the university—including the administrators themselves—become instruments in the hands of a self-perpetuating bureaucratic regime. Few social structures could be more alien to the character of true education.”
“While cooler styles have always been with us, from Greta Garbo and Cary Grant to Steve McQueen and Charlotte Rampling, those actors communicate that they are above or outside of emotion, either aristocratically detached or winningly unflappable. In contrast, the thread of resistance to and evasion of spectacular emotionality among many in today’s new generation of stars doesn’t evoke emotional detachment or indifference but rather a tortured mistrust of expression itself—one that, in its understated way, clearly forms its own kind of emotional appeal to the audience at the same time as it dramatizes why the actor must resist making one.”
“Twitter has colonized my mind. Almost every day for just under a decade, I have checked the site, have tweeted, retweeted, been subtweeted. My mental map is the frontier surrendered, and Twitter is the empire. To become occupied by a social network is to internalize its gaze. It is to forever carry a doubled view of both your own mind and the platform’s.”
“Keanu, of course, isn’t the first star to exist at the crossroads of virile and vulnerable. Actors like James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Paul Newman embody a similar alchemy that have drawn women (and men) to them. But these actors often seem to fight against the lustful gaze of the camera, while Keanu supplants himself to it. Where they seem cynical, disinterested, or too wounded as a romantic lead, Keanu is utterly open.”
“Daily life offers endless opportunities to cultivate character-building behaviors that, once they become habitual, can nurture our weapons of resistance rather than exchange them for the conveniences of the Internet. Four of these habits stand out as essential to the preservation of an anchored identity: spending time alone, engaging in meaningful conversations, forming friendships, and pursuing an activity within a community. Imagine, if you can, an identity that’s permitted to develop with minimal interference from digital culture and you’ll begin to grasp the benefits that these four kinds of stresses can have on a self hoping to develop a healthier relationship with digitized life.”
“A bit past the midpoint of the last century, roughly from early 1967 to late 1969, a sizable number of human beings believed that Paul McCartney was the coolest man who ever lived. Compared with your average world-historical claim, this one was not unreasonable.”
“Never underestimate that cold click of steel as your wrist is cuffed, chaining you to another human being who now has control over you. Most newly convicted prisoners are so shocked at the experience that they become compliant. I know I did.”
“At daybreak, about the moment when ducks move before legal light, I snapped off the couch from a bad dream and looked around. Total silence. I scrambled to the porch door. Saw Gauge Man on his bed, sound asleep. Stared. Looked around again, buzzing with exhaustion and delirium. Looked back at my dog—slick pawed and skinned up around his nose and chin—and realized it was real. He’d run a long way back from somewhere, and he was home, and so I piled onto the old dog bed with him and buried my face in his fur and suddenly recognized all the spaces he filled.”
“We could get into an ambulance and go to Southampton, where I would have a caesarean and Nadia would be put on a machine for some time, ‘to give her heart a rest’. Then she would be treated with drugs, and she would have to stay in hospital. Perhaps for six months, perhaps for a year. She might not survive the birth, or the machine, or the medication, but if she did, there would be some chance of a full recovery. And some chance of a partial recovery, a life with a debilitating heart disease, or disability, or both. The alternative path would be to ‘put her to sleep’ with a needle to the heart, after which her birth would be induced and it would all be over.”
“Right now lots of Republicans feel like they don’t recognize their own party. Like a Minnesota congressman who’s confused when the residents in his district, people he’s known for years, start calling for a ban on Muslims moving to their town.”
A radio producer “goes to Greenville, South Carolina to talk with Tony Beam – host of the radio show Christian Worldview Today. Tony and his listeners are evangelical Christians, and usually, Tony backs a candidate for office and his listeners tend to agree with him. But this election season, things are playing out very differently.”
“The deep story of the right goes like this: You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side.”
“As a child, I learned of certain native tribes and their respective homelands—the Cherokee in the South, the Navajo in the Southwest, the Iroquois in New York State. What I wasn’t taught is that these tribes exist because they were defeated, and in defeat they signed treaties with the U.S. government. As awful as their lot was, these treaty tribes are now recognized by the federal government, meaning at least some money is available for healthcare, housing, and schools. These tribes also have the right to operate casinos. Perhaps most significantly, they have the legal right to exist, a spot in the record. They will be remembered, if only because some bureaucrat has made a mark in a list.”
“His father, Don Black, had created Stormfront, the Internet’s first and largest white nationalist site, with 300,000 users and counting. His mother, Chloe, had once been married to David Duke, one of the country’s most infamous racial zealots, and Duke had become Derek’s godfather. They had raised Derek at the forefront of the movement, and some white nationalists had begun calling him ‘the heir.’”
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel pulled in the way other parents with options feel pulled. I had moments when I couldn’t ignore the nagging fear that in my quest for fairness, I was being unfair to my own daughter. I worried—I worry still—about whether I made the right decision for our little girl. But I knew that I made the just one.”
“I took my son to Paris Fashion Week, and all I got was a profound understanding of who he is, what he wants to do with his life, and how it feels to watch a grown man stride down a runway wearing shaggy yellow Muppet pants.”
“The world’s most famous school aspires to become an agent of social change; but, as old boy Christopher de Bellaigue learns when he goes back, it is also an increasingly effective way for the global elite to give its offspring an expensive leg up in life.”
“Nobody, and certainly no radical feminist, wants to stop anyone from defining themselves in ways that make sense to them. So if you want to call yourself a genderqueer femme presenting demigirl, you go for it. Express that identity however you like. A problem emerges only when you start making political claims on the basis of that label, demanding that others call themselves cisgender, because you require there to be a bunch of conventional binary cis people for you to define yourself against.”
“She is my best friend, but that phrase doesn’t quite do the relationship justice. Our kinship is so binding that there are memories I have of us where I’m not sure if I was actually there or if she was there and I’m just hijacking the recollection. Growing apart, or becoming sisters and not twins, was mostly horrifying, but sometimes it’s a relief. It means my worst fear, her death, can’t devastate me as much as it once could.”
“People think enforcers skate out there for two minutes a night, take a few pops and call it a night. What a life, right? But I’ll be honest. You can never shut it off. It’s a 24/7 job. When you know a fight is coming up, you can never shut off your brain. You can be the toughest guy in the NHL, and there’s still that fear. I’d stay up all night on HockeyFights.com and YouTube, researching the tendencies of the next enforcer on the schedule.”
“Conservatives need to try to understand why black people feel the way we feel about some of these things. Would it hurt for you to show compassion for a mother who has lost her son to a derelict police officer, rather than pointing out the black on black crime statistics in Chicago? Why is the first reaction to the mentioning of the KKK a pivot to the Black Panthers as if the Black Panthers were ever at the top of that figurative mountain? Have you ever tried to understand what most black people feel when they see the Confederate flag? Have you taken the time to ask any?”
This lengthy report is more dry than everything else recommended here, but is noteworthy as the most careful, logical, informative, fact-based approach I’ve seen on this subject. If you want the research brief instead, it’s here. A short, polished essay is here.
“While much remains unknown, there is nothing mysterious in the rise of ISIS. It is baffling only for those who believe—despite everything that occurred in the twentieth century—that modernization and civilization are advancing hand in hand. In fact, now as in the past some of the most modern movements are among the most barbaric. But to admit this would mean surrendering the ruling political faith, a decayed form of liberalism without which Western leaders and opinion formers would be disoriented and lost. To accept that liberal societies may not be ‘on the right side of history’ would leave their lives drained of significance, while a stoical response—which is ready to fight while being doubtful of ultimate victory—seems to be beyond their powers. With mounting bewilderment and desperation, they cling to the faith that the normal course of history has somehow been temporarily derailed.”
“A Jew can’t live where he wants anymore. Bit by bit, everyone is moving from the banlieues. As soon as there are ethnic populations, and as soon as it gets, shall we say, problematic, the Jews move. The visible ones — they get constantly attacked.”
“The most widely accepted definition of a troll is a provocateur—someone who says outrageous, extreme or abusive things to elicit a reaction. For them, the reaction itself is the win. The key distinction is between the attention-hustlers—the pure troll howlers who play this grotesque game for its own sake and their own—and the true believers.”
“Basic, obvious truths that have gone unquestioned for thousands of years now get laughed at and shouted down. … The foundation upon which America was undeniably built—family, faith, and hard work—had been deemed unfashionable and small-minded. Those snooty elites up in their ivory tower laughed as they kicked away that foundation, and then wrote 10,000-word thinkpieces blaming the builders for the ensuing collapse.”
“The Panetta Review saga would spur a furious CIA to take an extraordinary step: it would spy on its own legislative overseers—especially Jones. The episode would spill out publicly the following March, when top committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who had already taken a huge political risk in pushing the torture inquiry, accused the CIA on the Senate floor of triggering what she called a constitutional crisis. Both sides requested the justice department pursue a criminal investigation on the other. The bitterness would nearly overshadow a landmark report, a fraction of which was released to the public in December 2014, that documented in chilling detail the depravations CIA inflicted on terrorism suspects after 9/11.”
“The dog would serve as the centerpiece of a big party attended by former colleagues and war buddies. His wife would spend the better part of a day cooking it up, organs and all; his job was to make sure they got a good one, properly prepared.”
“Inmates are glued up against the TV room window, watching a young white cadet named Miss Stirling pick through their stuff. She’s pretty and petite, with long, jet-black hair. The attention makes her uncomfortable; she thinks the inmates are gross. Earlier this week, she said she would refuse to give an inmate CPR and won’t try the cafeteria food because she doesn’t want to ‘eat AIDS.’ The more she is around prisoners, though, the more I notice her grapple with an inner conflict. ‘I don’t want to treat everyone like a criminal because I’ve done things myself,’ she says.”
“The reality—as evidenced by police reports, court documents, online records, and statements from those involved—is far less lurid and depraved. Instead of a story of stark abuse and exploitation, it's a story of immigration, economics, the pull of companionship and connection, the structures and dynamism that drive black markets, and a criminal-justice system all too eager to declare women victims of the choices they make.”
“When we talk about hoods and bad neighborhoods, crime zones and ghetto areas in NYC and you then compare them to East New York, all those areas that fit those definitions are nothing like East New York. East New York is sicker, sadder, more dysfunctional, more isolated, harsher, frailer, madder, toxic, broken through and through everywhere.”
“The NYPD Is kicking people out of their homes, even if they haven’t committed a crime. The nuisance abatement law was created in the 1970’s to combat the sex industry in Times Square. Since then, its use has been vastly expanded, commonly targeting apartments and mom-and-pop bodegas even as the city’s crime rate has reached historic lows.”
“The day O.J. Simpson was acquitted, I began my career as a federal prosecutor. I was 26—a young 26 at that—on the cusp of extraordinary power over the lives of my fellow citizens. After years of internships with federal and state prosecutors, I knew to expect camaraderie and sense of mission. I didn't expect it to influence how I thought about constitutional rights. But it did.”
“This isn’t a legal problem. It can’t be corrected by frantic invocations of Article 8 of the Human Rights Act. No assertion that ‘Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence’ can magically restore substance to the idea of privacy. That’s because the idea of privacy has not been legally debased; rather, it’s been culturally and politically undermined.”
“If she met certain conditions for the next year, the charge would be dropped. She would need to get mental health counseling for her lying. She would need to go on supervised probation. She would need to keep straight, breaking no more laws. And she would have to pay $500 to cover the court’s costs.Marie wanted this behind her. She took the deal.”
“Physicists hope that within the next fifty years or so, string theory or other new theoretical work will provide a good understanding of quantum gravity, including an explanation of how the universe began.”
“If you look at all the things the world is spending money on, what we are doing is less than a pittance. You go to some random city and you travel from the airport to your hotel. Along the highway you see all these huge buildings for companies you have never heard of. Maybe they are designing a new publicity campaign for a razor blade. You drive past hundreds of these buildings. Any one of those has more resources than the total that humanity is spending on this field. We have half a floor of one building in Oxford, and there are two or three other groups doing what we do. So I think it is OK.”
“We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.”
“Earlier, the photographer sidled next to the writer and asked, as they both turned their faces away from the merciless beating of the oxen, a patch of protected Cuban forest being deforested with the tearing down of ever-larger branches and trees with which to assault them, ‘Do you ever wonder if this is all worth it? For a bird?’ The two of them snickered darkly. Just moments before, a chunk of wood had cracked off an oxen-beating club as it broke over the animal’s hide and shot past the photographer’s head, missing him by maybe an inch. ‘One that almost definitely doesn’t exist?’”
“To keep it all from feeling ephemeral or imaginary, he eventually decided that membership should cost $15 and that members would receive a badge and certificate in the mail. He recognized that joining an online Cloud Appreciation Society that only nominally existed might appear ridiculous, but it was important to him that it not feel meaningless.”
“As notably long as are giraffe necks, these are actually outclassed by their legs, such that those monumental necks are—believe it or not—too short to comfortably reach a puddle; as a result, a drinking giraffe must splay its front feet wide apart. And, by the way, the same fluid sluice-way control mechanism in its lengthy neck works in reverse when a giraffe is done drinking and eventually raises its high head, allowing only a relative trickle of blood to flow back down so that its brain doesn’t suddenly become hypoxic.”
THE TEXAS TRIBUNE and PRO PUBLICA / Hell and High Water by Neena Satija, Kiah Collier, Al Shaw, and Jeff Larson
“Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country. It’s home to the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex, where billions of gallons of oil and dangerous chemicals are stored. And it’s a sitting duck for the next big hurricane. Why isn’t Texas ready?”
“Observe yourself in line for coffee, or driving, or even just going to the bathroom. Visit an airport and see the sea of craned necks and the dead eyes. We have gone from looking up and around to constantly looking down. If an alien had visited just five years ago, then returned today, wouldn’t this be its immediate observation? That this species has developed an extraordinary new habit—and, everywhere you look, lives constantly in its thrall?”
“The whole thing is like one of those Russian fairy tales, where the hero must cross seven seas and seven mountains, slay Koshchei the Deathless, find the giant oak, exhume an iron chest, open it to find a hare, cut the hare open to find a duck, dig through the duck to find an egg, and crack the egg open to reveal an enchanted golden needle, or in this case, Zippo lighter.”
Honorable mention to writer R. Scott Moxley and editor Gustavo Arellano for OC Weekly’s dogged coverage of misconduct in the Orange County, California, law enforcement community; and to National Review for standing on principles its more populist competitors lacked with its Against Trump issue and related commentary by David French, Kevin Williamson, Charles C.W. Cooke, Jonah Goldberg, and others.