• review • October 03, 2019

    Archive Fever

    “Are we going to burn it?” A question about the fate of the future concludes Hazel Carby’s Race Men (1998), a powerful academic book about suffocating representations of black American masculinities based on a lecture the author delivered at Harvard. In her newest book, Carby is already burnt, the result of a smoldered past. “Imperial Intimacies is a very British story,” she writes in the preface. It is also her story: about growing up after World War II, about her childhood in the area now known as South London, about the family histories of her white Welsh mother and black Jamaican father,

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    New World Borders

    In 2009 Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Maldives, the island nation sinking into the sea, put on a wet suit and an air tank and, along with several of his ministers, held a cabinet meeting underwater. Nasheed hoped to give the world a sense of its collective future. At an event at Columbia Law School he later said: “You can drastically reduce your greenhouse gas emissions so that the seas do not rise so much. Or when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can let us in. Or when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can shoot us. You pick.”

    The rest of the world has long warned

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    Irrational Man

    Something is happening out there in the dark fields of “the discourse.” Incoherence is now a virtue. Rather than irony, modesty, discernment, ambivalence, or the mental sprightliness needed to parse conflicting views, a proud refusal to make solid arguments may be the cure for our divided times. Incoherence strikes a blow to partisan bickering and campus groupthink. Incoherence recoils from “tribes.” If an opinion sounds half-baked, or a claim brashly obtuse, it’s simply plowing through your pieties and wrenching open your padlocked mind. Incoherence is courage, incoherence is pluralism,

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    Method to the Madness

    TAKE A MINUTE NOW to write down the first associations that come to your mind regarding Clarence Thomas. You might note that he represents the extreme right wing of the Supreme Court and that, beginning his twenty-ninth term this fall, he is its longest-serving justice, not to mention Donald Trump’s personal favorite. No doubt you’ll think of his alleged sexual harassment of Anita Hill during his tenure at the Department of Education and when he was head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Ronald Reagan, of the ordeal she went through when forced to testify about it during his

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    To Bust You Shall Return

    All four of Nicholas Lemann’s major books examine crucial episodes of American history through the prism of lives that shaped or were shaped by that history. In 1991’s The Promised Land, Mississippians Ruby Lee Daniels and George Hicks embody the Great Migration as they relocate to Chicago. In 1999’s The Big Test, the Educational Testing Service’s Henry Chauncey and Los Angeles attorney Molly Munger carry Lemann’s analysis of an SAT-fueled meritocracy more privileged than it knows. Redemption’s alarming and often brutal 2006 account of racist terrorists destroying Reconstruction makes flawed

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    Merit Schmerit

    When Americans talk about inequality, we prefer to skip over an important foundational question: Are richer people better than poorer people? In general the unspoken assumption is yes. Conservatives tend to believe richer people are better because capitalism is designed to reward goodness: Thrift and hard work make wealth, so wealthy people must be thrifty and hardworking. Liberals tend to believe richer people are better because capitalism provides them with more opportunities and access to experience, while poorer people are on average deprived of good education and international travel.

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    Journals of the Plague

    Ebola “begins as a mystery story,” as the science writer David Quammen puts it in his excellent 2014 primer Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus, which expands on a chapter from Spillover, his enchanting study of zoonotic diseases. Every new infectious disease is a mystery, of course, but the dramatic efficiency with which Ebola kills—it is highly lethal and infective, causes hemorrhagic fever, and has a brief incubation window—lends it an apocalyptic aura. Indeed, science writer and New Yorker contributor Richard Preston introduced The Hot Zone—his best-selling 1994 account

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    Fetal Positions

    As the earth melts, societies age, and economies slow, a narrative of humanity’s inevitable decline has settled in and calcified. It seems as though there’s no story left to tell but that of a slow descent into a gray future beset by any number of catastrophes. To hear pronatalists tell it, many of these will happen because we aren’t having enough babies. Fertility rates have hit an all-time low in the United States. For conservatives, this spells doom for all manner of American traditions: Social Security, masculinity, a robust economy, even democracy itself. New York Times columnist Ross

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  • pubdates • June 20, 2019

    Why Conspiracies Thrive

    In the dark of the night of July 19, AD 64, a fire broke out in the slums of Rome and, swept along by vicious winds, devastated the town, leveling several districts entirely. The fire burned for six days, died down, was reignited, and burned for three more. Hundreds of people were killed; many more were left destitute and homeless.

    In the midst of it all, the famously conniving Emperor Nero—who was away in his holiday home on a cool hillside when the fires began—was reported by the historian Tacitus to have placidly watched the city burn as he nonchalantly played his fiddle or plucked his

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  • print • Summer 2019

    Severe and Pervasive

    The lawyer and philosopher Linda Hirshman is a second-wave, no-BS feminist who thinks like a law professor and writes with journalistic chops. She’s also known for writing as if white women’s middle-class experience were universal. It was little wonder that Hirshman dedicated her 2006 manifesto, Get to Work, to a similarly contentious figure, Betty Friedan. In that book, Hirshman laid out a five-point “strategic plan” for “all women to find and be able to pay for the kinds of satisfying lives that a grown up should want to lead.” In short, she rails against being a stay-at-home mom (as she puts

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  • print • Summer 2019

    A World to Win

    Capitalism isn’t working. We know this deep in our bones even if we live in one of the few cities where life is bustling and busy and we can pretend that this situation can continue. Yet even in those cities, the signs are everywhere. They are in the ubiquitous homeless population sleeping in the door-nooks of closed stores or in tent cities. In New York, where I live, they are in the crumbling subway system, its stations jam-packed with frustrated commuters trying to get to work even as the city begs to give tax breaks to Amazon for the honor of hosting its new campus. The system is broken.

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  • print • Summer 2019

    Speak, Memories

    Last Witnesses was the second book by Svetlana Alexievich, originally published in 1985, the same year as her first, The Unwomanly Face of War. Both of them, like the three major works that followed—Zinky Boys (1990), Voices from Chernobyl (1997), and Secondhand Time (2013)—could be briefly and superficially described as oral histories. They indeed consist of testimony, recorded and transcribed, by witnesses to major events and periods in the history of the former Soviet Union.

    Oral history is an important research tool, but it has not often been treated as literature. Although it obviously

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