Just as Republicans are held to a higher standard on sexual scandals because the GOP claims to be the party of traditional values and such, Democrats should be held to a higher standard when it comes to the corruption, inefficacy, and low performance of the public sector. (Neither party, to be sure, runs on a pro-corruption or pro-anonymous-public-restroom-sexual-encounter platform — yet — so we should not get too carried away with those distinctions.)
Democrats are the party of the public sector, not only in rhetoric but in fact. The Democrats consistently seek to claim for the public sector a larger role in our community life and a larger share of the economy; its defects are their defects. Not that corrupt Republicans should not be run out of town on a rail, but Republican corruption or incompetence does not tell us much that is important about conservative ideas, which assume a relatively high level of dysfunction in the public sector. Progressive ideas largely assume an effective and honest public sector, which, as Ray Nagin — and Barack Obama — and others remind us, we do not have. Every Enron scandal is presented as evidence against capitalism per se; but political scandals are rarely if ever understood in the popular mind, and certainly not in the incurious American media, as evidence against political management of affairs that fall outside the natural jurisdiction of politics (i.e. the provision of public goods). Until Goldman Sachs has a navy, a nuclear weapon, police, or prisons, we probably should consider political corruption and incompetence much more dangerous and consequential than its corporate counterpart.
“The boys,” as the president affectionately called [his private secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay], became Lincoln’s official biographers. Enjoying exclusive access to his papers—which the Lincoln family closed to the public until 1947 (the 21st anniversary of the death of Robert Todd Lincoln)— they undertook a 25-year mission to create a definitive and enduring historical image of their slain leader. The culmination of these efforts—their exhaustive, ten-volume biography, serialized between 1886 and 1890—constituted one of the most successful exercises in revisionism in American history. Writing against the rising currents of Southern apologia, Hay and Nicolay pioneered the “Northern” interpretation of the Civil War—a standard against which every other historian and polemicist had to stake out a position.
Hay and Nicolay helped invent the Lincoln we know today—the sage father figure; the military genius; the greatest American orator; the brilliant political tactician; the master of a fractious cabinet who forged a “team of rivals” out of erstwhile challengers for the throne; the Lincoln Memorial Lincoln .
That Abraham Lincoln was all of these things, in some measure, there can be no doubt. But it is easy to forget how widely underrated Lincoln the president and Lincoln the man were at the time of his death and how successful Hay and Nicolay were in elevating his place in the nation’s collective historical memory.
While Lincoln prided himself on his deep connection to “the people,” he never succeeded in translating his immense popularity with the Northern public into similar regard among the nation’s political and intellectual elites. The profound emotional bond that he shared with Union soldiers and their families, and his stunning electoral success in two presidential elections, never fully inspired an equivalent level of esteem by the influential men who governed the country and guarded its official history. To many of these men, he remained in death what he was in life: the rail-splitter and country lawyer—good, decent and ill-fitted to the immense responsibilities that befell him.
Responding to a CBO report that suggested the law would encourage more than 2 million people either to seek less work or to leave the labor market completely, progressives picked up their tricornered hats and their muskets, and started to shout incoherently about “freedom.” In a lovely illustration of the truism that progressives really haven’t the slightest clue what it is that conservatives believe, the Huffington Post’s Senior Congressional Reporter, Michael McAuliff, spoke for the cabal, suggesting ludicrously that,
There’s an irony in the GOP complaining that ACA lets people quit jobs. I mean, what’s wrong with freedom?
To answer a remarkably misguided rhetorical question, there is nothing at all “wrong with freedom.” As Patrick Henry rightly argued, above all other things “liberty ought to be the direct end” of government, for, after that, everything else is mere indulgence. But there is an awful lot “wrong” with using the word “freedom” where it does not apply. After all, it is one thing for a person to choose not to work and to accept the natural consequences of that decision, but quite another indeed for a person to choose not to work because others are being forced to subsidize his well-being. One can reasonably attest that redistributing wealth to underwrite preferred social outcomes is “necessary” or “virtuous” or “kind” or “practical” — or even, more cynically, that it is the inexorable end product of a democratic system in which one man can vote himself the contents of another’s wallet. But one cannot claim that it makes either man “free” — at least not without twisting the word and the concept that it represents beyond all meaningful recognition.
Does the Obama administration really plan to make the case that negative liberty is but a mirage and that, the state of nature’s “forcing” one to work being akin to actual compulsion, the state must step in everywhere to liberate the citizenry from reality’s harsh claims? One suspects not.
At the very same time as the White House and its friends were taking credit for having emancipated the American people from the indignities of having to keep down a career, others seemed to be insisting that the labor market and the government are wholly discrete entities. This isn’t about Obamacare “killing” jobs, the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler wrote, “it’s about workers — and the choices they make.” “Look at it this way,” he explained. “If someone says they decided to leave their job for personal reasons, most people would not say they ‘lost’ their jobs. They simply decided not to work.” To an extent, this distinction is a fair one, although there is a great deal of truth in The Economist’s observation that “a job is an economic transaction between a seller and a buyer of labour, and can be ‘destroyed’ if either seller or buyer walks away.”
Either way, it fails to address the material question, which is, “Why, in this case, will those people ‘decide not to work’?” The answer, of course, is that the intrusive federal action that one party supports and the other opposes has changed the calculation for them. It really is this simple: Before Obamacare, there was a status quo. With Obamacare, the government changed that status quo. As a result of that change, people are making different decisions. One can claim that the change will help to diminish youth unemployment or allow the elderly to enjoy more leisure time or do wonders for the gardening industry. But one can’t pretend that the state doesn’t have full culpability for those different decisions being made. That is a step too far.
Throughout much of the 20th century, the academic community had little patience with alchemists and their vain efforts to transmute base metals into gold. Any contemporary scholar who even dared to write about alchemy, historian Herbert Butterfield warned, would “become tinctured with the kind of lunacy they set out to describe.”
But, in the 1980s, some revisionist scholars began arguing that alchemists actually made significant contributions to the development of science. Historians of science began deciphering alchemical texts—which wasn’t easy. The alchemists, obsessed with secrecy, deliberately described their experiments in metaphorical terms laden with obscure references to mythology and history. For instance, text that describes a “cold dragon” who “creeps in and out of the caves” was code for saltpeter (potassium nitrate)—a crystalline substance found on cave walls that tastes cool on the tongue.
This painstaking process of decoding allowed researchers, for the first time, to attempt ambitious alchemical experiments. Lawrence Principe, a chemist and science historian at Johns Hopkins University, cobbled together obscure texts and scraps of 17th-century laboratory notebooks to reconstruct a recipe to grow a “Philosophers’ Tree” from a seed of gold. Supposedly this tree was a precursor to the more celebrated and elusive Philosopher’s Stone, which would be able to transmute metals into gold. The use of gold to make more gold would have seemed entirely logical to alchemists, Principe explains, like using germs of wheat to grow an entire field of wheat.
Principe mixed specially prepared mercury and gold into a buttery lump at the bottom of a flask. Then he buried the sealed flask in a heated sand bath in his laboratory.
One morning, Principe came into the lab to discover to his “utter disbelief” that the flask was filled with “a glittering and fully formed tree” of gold. The mixture of metals had grown upward into a structure resembling coral or the branching canopy of a tree minus the leaves.
Eleven Things We No Longer See in Offices: Carbon Paper (mental_floss)
You don’t have to listen very closely to realize we’ve been wrong for all these years. It’s not a difficult phrase to remember, and she repeats it again and again and again, clutching her knee as she rocks back and forth like a child hurt on a playground. It is, in fact, not a phrase at all, but a word—just one—and though we hear it mostly as a keening, inarticulate wail, it’s also impossible to mishear. The word is why.
In the video—which will be shown on the news again and again in the weeks that follow the incident—she says the word three times, stopping only when she is spirited away from the cameras in her father’s arms, her face pressed fearfully against his. She looks, in her lacy white costume, like nothing so much as an anxious young bride being carried over a threshold she isn’t quite sure she’s ready to cross.
For all the hours she has spent in the public eye prior to this moment, and for the many more hours she will spend there yet, she has been stoic, strong, reserved. She was famous before, for her skills as an athlete and as a performer, but this moment of anguish will make her an icon. Newspaper headlines and magazine covers and reporters and talk-show hosts and families joking in the car and around the breakfast table and on the couch as they watch her on TV will quote her, now and for years to come—or at least they will think they are quoting her. But they will say, without fail, the one thing she didn’t say: “Why me?”
Twenty years later, we are still trying to answer this question. And if we have been mishearing something so simple for so long, we have to wonder what else we have been mistaken about.
There are lots of diversions in the Big White Ghetto, the vast moribund matrix of Wonder Bread–hued Appalachian towns and villages stretching from northern Mississippi to southern New York, a slowly dissipating nebula of poverty and misery with its heart in eastern Kentucky, the last redoubt of the Scots-Irish working class that picked up where African slave labor left off, mining and cropping and sawing the raw materials for a modern American economy that would soon run out of profitable uses for the class of people who 500 years ago would have been known, without any derogation, as peasants. Thinking about the future here and its bleak prospects is not much fun at all, so instead of too much black-minded introspection you have the pills and the dope, the morning beers, the endless scratch-off lotto cards, healing meetings up on the hill, the federally funded ritual of trading cases of food-stamp Pepsi for packs of Kentucky’s Best cigarettes and good old hard currency, tall piles of gas-station nachos, the occasional blast of meth, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, petty crime, the draw, the recreational making and surgical unmaking of teenaged mothers, and death: Life expectancies are short — the typical man here dies well over a decade earlier than does a man in Fairfax County, Va. — and they are getting shorter, women’s life expectancy having declined by nearly 1.1 percent from 1987 to 2007….
There is not much novelty in Booneville, Ky., the seat of Owsley County, but it does receive a steady trickle of visitors: Its public figures suffer politely through a perverse brand of tourism from journalists and do-gooders every time the U.S. Census data are recalculated and it defends its dubious title as poorest county in these United States…. There used to be two movie theaters here — a regular cinema and a drive-in. Both are long gone. The nearest Walmart is nearly an hour away. There’s no bookstore, the nearest Barnes & Noble being 55 miles away and the main source of reading matter being the horrifying/hilarious crime blotter in the local weekly newspaper. Within living memory, this town had three grocery stores, a Western Auto and a Napa Auto Parts, a feed store, a lumber store, a clothing shop, a Chrysler dealership, a used-car dealership, a skating rink — even a discotheque, back in the 1970s. Today there is one grocery store, and the rest is as dead as disco. If you want a newsstand or a dinner at Applebee’s, gas up the car. Amazon may help, but delivery can be tricky — the nearest UPS drop-box is 17 miles away, the nearest FedEx office 34 miles away.
If you go looking for the catastrophe that laid this area low, you’ll eventually discover a terrifying story: Nothing happened. It’s not like this was a company town in which the business around which life was organized went toes-up. Booneville and Owsley County were never economic powerhouses. They were sustained for a time in part by a nearby Midsouth plant, which manufactured consumer electronics such as steam irons and toaster ovens, as well as industrial supplies such as refrigerator parts. A former employee estimates that a majority of Owsley County households owed part of their income to Midsouth at one time or another, until a mishap in the sanding room put an end to that: “Those shavings are just like coal dust,” he says. “It will go right up if it gets a spark.” Operations were consolidated in a different facility, a familiar refrain here — a local branch of the health department consolidated operations in a different town, along with the energy company and others. But Owsley County was poor before, during, and after that period. Coal mining was for years a bulwark against utter economic ruination, but regulation, a lengthy permitting process, and other factors both economic and geological pushed what remains of the region’s coal business away toward other communities. After they spend a winter or two driving an hour or two each way over icy twists of unforgiving mountain asphalt, many locals working in the coal business decide it is easier to move to where the work is, leaving Owsley County, where unemployment already is 150 percent of the national average, a little more desperate and collectively jobless than before. It’s possible that a coal worker’s moving from Booneville to Pikeville would lower the median income of both towns….
A few locals drive two hours — on a good day, more on others — to report for work in the Toyota factory at Georgetown, Ky., which means driving all the way through the Daniel Boone National Forest and through the city of Lexington to reach the suburbs on the far side. As with the coal miners traveling past Hazard or even farther, eventually many of those Toyota workers decide that the suburbs of Lexington are about as far as they want to go. The employed and upwardly mobile leave, taking their children, their capital, and their habits with them, clean clear of the Big White Ghetto, while the unemployed, the dependent, and the addicted are once again left behind….
* * *
“Well, you try paying that much for a case of pop,” says the irritated proprietor of a nearby café, who is curt with whoever is on the other end of the telephone but greets customers with the perfect manners that small-town restaurateurs reliably develop. I don’t think much of that overheard remark at the time, but it turns out that the local economy runs on black-market soda the way Baghdad ran on contraband crude during the days of sanctions.
It works like this: Once a month, the debit-card accounts of those receiving what we still call food stamps are credited with a few hundred dollars — about $500 for a family of four, on average — which are immediately converted into a unit of exchange, in this case cases of soda. On the day when accounts are credited, local establishments accepting EBT cards — and all across the Big White Ghetto, “We Accept Food Stamps” is the new E pluribus unum – are swamped with locals using their public benefits to buy cases and cases — reports put the number at 30 to 40 cases for some buyers — of soda. Those cases of soda then either go on to another retailer, who buys them at 50 cents on the dollar, in effect laundering those $500 in monthly benefits into $250 in cash — a considerably worse rate than your typical organized-crime money launderer offers — or else they go into the local black-market economy, where they can be used as currency in such ventures as the dealing of unauthorized prescription painkillers — by “pillbillies,” as they are known at the sympathetic establishments in Florida that do so much business with Kentucky and West Virginia that the relevant interstate bus service is nicknamed the “OxyContin Express.” A woman who is intimately familiar with the local drug economy suggests that the exchange rate between sexual favors and cases of pop — some dealers will accept either — is about 1:1, meaning that the value of a woman in the local prescription-drug economy is about $12.99 at Walmart prices….
He then gives me a half-joking — but only half — list of people not to talk to: Not the shiftless fellows milling about in the hallways on various government-related errands, not the guy circling the block on a moped. Instead, there’s the lifelong banker whose brother is the head of the school board. There’s the mayor, a sharp nonagenarian who has been in office since the Eisenhower administration. And that, too, is part of the problem with adverse selection in the Big White Ghetto: For the smart and enterprising people left behind, life can be very comfortable, with family close, a low cost of living, beautiful scenery, and a very short climb to the top of the social pecking order. The relative ease of life for the well-off and connected here makes it easy to overlook the real unpleasant facts of economic life, which helps explain why Booneville has a lovely new golf course, of all things, but so little in the way of everyday necessities….
“The draw,” the monthly welfare checks that supplement dependents’ earnings in the black-market Pepsi economy, is poison. It’s a potent enough poison to catch the attention even of such people as those who write for the New York Times. Nicholas Kristof, visiting nearby Jackson, Ky., last year, was shocked by parents who were taking their children out of literacy classes because the possibility of improved academic performance would threaten $700-a-month Social Security disability benefits, which increasingly are paid out for nebulous afflictions such as loosely defined learning disorders. “This is painful for a liberal to admit,” Kristof wrote, “but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency.” … In effect, welfare has made Appalachia into a big and sparsely populated housing project — too backward to thrive, but just comfortable enough to keep the underclass in place. There is no cure for poverty, because there is no cause of poverty — poverty is the natural condition of the human animal. It is not as though labor and enterprise are unknown here: Digging coal is hard work, farming is hard work, timbering is hard work — so hard that the best and brightest long ago packed up for Cincinnati or Pittsburgh or Memphis or Houston. There is to this day an Appalachian bar in Detroit and ex-Appalachian enclaves around the country. The lesson of the Big White Ghetto is the same as the lessons we learned about the urban housing projects in the late 20th century: The best public-policy treatment we have for poverty is dilution. But like the old project towers, the Appalachian draw culture produces concentration, a socioeconomic Salton Sea that becomes more toxic every year.
… Speaking in the Rose Garden in March of 1965, Lyndon Johnson had high hopes for his Appalachia Bill. “This legislation marks the end of an era of partisan cynicism towards human want and misery. The dole is dead. The pork barrel is gone. Federal and state, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, Americans of these times are concerned with the outcome of the next generation, not the next election… . The bill that I will now sign will work no miracles overnight. Whether it works at all depends not upon the federal government alone but the states and the local governments as well.” The dole, as it turns out, is deathless, and the pork barrel has merely been reincarnated as a case of Pepsi. President Johnson left out of his calculations the factor that is almost always overlooked by populists: the people.
If you are an American male younger than 66, you should take a moment and give thanks to economist Walter Oi. Walter died on Christmas Eve 2013. Even though you probably haven’t heard of him, he has had a profound effect on your life. He helped end military conscription in the United States.
Between 1948 and 1973, if you were a healthy young male in the United States, here’s what you knew: the government could pluck you out of almost any activity you were pursuing, cut your hair, and send you anywhere in the world. If the United States was at war, you might have to kill people, and you might return home in a body bag.
Walter did not think that was right, and it wasn’t because of his own age or health. He was born in 1929. When he started writing about the draft in the mid-1960s, he was well beyond the draft-eligible age range of 18 to 26. (The draft-eligible age for doctors and dentists was even higher.) Moreover, he was blind, having gradually lost all his eyesight in the 1960s. Nor did he choose his position against the draft because he had sons who were at risk. Walter had two daughters, and when he was writing on the issue, almost no one was advocating the conscription of women.
No. Walter thought the draft was wrong because he thought that people should be able to make such an important choice—whether to join the military or not—for themselves.
His passion for free labor markets was what motivated his work on the draft. His contribution was to point out—and estimate—two costs. First, there was the hidden cost imposed on draftees and “draft-induced” or “reluctant” volunteers. The fact that this cost didn’t show up in the U.S. government budget was irrelevant. Walter pointed out that the correct way to measure the cost to the draftees and the reluctant volunteers was to take the difference between the low wages they were paid and the minimum amount they would need to be paid to get them to volunteer. He estimated this cost at between $826 million and $1.134 billion. While this number might seem low today, Oi was working with mid-1960s dollars. Inflation-adjusted to 2013, the losses would range from $6.1 billion to $8.4 billion. The second cost Oi estimated was the increased annual budget outlay needed to eliminate the draft.
Walter presented his results at the Conference on the Draft, held between December 4 and 7, 1966 at the University of Chicago…. Writing some 30 years later, Friedman noted that the 74 invited participants “included essentially everyone who had written or spoken at all extensively on either side of the controversy about the draft, as well as a number of students.” Friedman’s other comment about the event is worth citing:
I have attended many conferences. I have never attended any other that had so dramatic effect on the participants. A straw poll taken at the outset of the conference recorded two-thirds of the participants in favor of the draft; a similar poll at the end, two-thirds opposed. I believe that this conference was the key event that started the ball rolling decisively toward ending the draft.
For anyone with insomnia in the New York metro area, the ads have become ubiquitous: three middle-aged men dressed in cornflower blue lab coats, holding mysterious technical equipment, and offering the owners of haunted houses (or haunted anything, really) their unique ghost capture and removal services.
I first saw one after falling asleep to the dulcet drawl of Charles Rose on “CBS News Nightwatch.” The spot feels like a parody of those local commercials starring used car salesman and “crazy” warehouse owners. It ends with the team pointing their fingers at the camera, like Uncle Sam in an army recruitment poster, and shouting flatly over the din of passing traffic, “We’re ready to believe you!”
You may know of these men already. They’re the Ghostbusters.
Until the beginning of the current fall semester—when Columbia University abruptly shuttered its psychology department’s program in paranormal studies—Dr. Egon Spengler, Dr. Ray Stantz and Dr. Peter Venkman had been conducting research into extra-sensory perception and recurring manifestations of what they call vaporous apparitions and psychokinetic activity. “Psychics, ghosts, floating stuff, to the lay person. But to us it’s way more technical,” Dr. Venkman explains, half ignoring me as he rifles through the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet, then fixing me with a cold stare. “Stuff floats for a lot of different reasons.”
"Dr. Spengler and Dr. Stantz are the only people I’ve seen who have taken all these parallel dimensions proposed by Bosonic String Theory and Superstring Theory, and are attempting to correlate them to supernatural events," says Freeman Dyson, a theoretical physicist and mathematician at Princeton. "They’re the only ones actually gathering hard data on subatomic behavior during these unexplained occurrences—at the Ivy League-level anyway." Notorious among colleagues for his contrarian streak, Dyson has avidly followed Dr. Stantz and Dr. Spengler’s articles in the journal of London’s Society for Psychical Research. It is outré reading material for a winner of both the prestigious Max Planck medal and the Harvey Prize, but Dyson is effusive in his praise for Stantz and Spengler’s felicitously documented case studies.
"[But] that third name doesn’t sound familiar to me," he says.
It was Dr. Venkman, in fact, who lead the charge to commodify the trio’s academic research into a for-profit enterprise, talking Stantz into mortgaging his family home to purchase a headquarters for their business in lower Manhattan’s TriBeCa neighborhood. In just a few short months, the Ghostbusters have since rocketed to prominence, following a string of alleged successes in what they call the “reclamation of paranormal phenomena.” Clients, judging from press reports, have included a business at Rockefeller Plaza, a restaurant in Chinatown, the fashionable Manhattan night club The Rose, and their first widely publicized case at the five-star Sedgewick hotel.
The Niger River narrows as it nears Lake Debo, an inland sea formed by the seasonal flooding of central Mali’s Niger Delta. With sandy banks covered in reeds and tall grass, this stretch of the river makes an ideal sanctuary for bandits, and on January 20, 2013, the area was particularly violent and lawless. French military helicopters swept through the skies, bound for Timbuktu, to drive out militants who had occupied the city. Skirmishes between French ground troops and jihadists were breaking out just a few dozen miles away.
Into this chaos came a fleet of 20 motorized skiffs, sticking close to the center of the waterway. At the entrance to Lake Debo, dozens of turbaned men brandishing Kalashnikovs appeared on both banks, and ordered the boats ashore. The men eyed the cargo—300 metal footlockers, 15 to a boat—with curiosity. Inside they found stacks of crumbling manuscripts, some bound in leather. Dense Arabic texts and brightly colored geometric patterns covered the brittle pages. It was clear that the books were old, and from the worried looks of the young men guarding them, they seemed valuable. The gunmen told the escorts that they would have to pay a ransom if they ever wanted to see the volumes again.
The young men tried to placate the hijackers. They peeled off their cheap Casio watches and proffered them, along with silver bracelets, rings and necklaces. “All the kids in the north wear jewelry, that’s part of their look,” says Stephanie Diakité, an American lawyer and manuscript restorer in Bamako, Mali’s capital, who helped organize the boatlift. “They gave them all of that, like that was going to suffice, but it didn’t do the job.”
At last the couriers called Abdel Kader Haidara, a Timbuktu native who had amassed Mali’s most valuable private collection of manuscripts, and also oversaw an association of Timbuktu residents holding their own libraries of manuscripts. “Abdel Kader got on the phone, and he said to the hijackers, ‘Trust me on this, we will get you your money,’” says Diakité. After some consideration, the gunmen allowed the boats and their footlockers, containing 75,000 manuscripts, to continue. “And we paid them four days later,” says Diakité. “We knew we had more boats coming.”
Contemporary scholars consider Timbuktu’s Arabic-language manuscripts to be among the glories of the medieval Islamic world. Produced for the most part between the 13th and 17th centuries, when Timbuktu was a vibrant commercial and academic crossroads at the edge of the Sahara, the volumes include Korans, books of poetry, history and scholarly treatises. Fields of inquiry ranged from the religious traditions of Sufi saints to the development of mathematics and surveys of breakthroughs in Graeco-Roman and Islamic astronomy. Merchants traded the literary treasures in Timbuktu’s markets alongside slaves, gold and salt, and local families passed them down from one generation to the next. The works reveal Timbuktu to have been a center of scientific inquiry and religious tolerance, an intellectual hub that drew scholars from across the Islamic world.
At a time when Europe was just emerging from the Middle Ages, Timbuktu’s historians were chronicling the rise and fall of Saharan and Sudanese monarchs. Physicians documented therapeutic properties of desert plants, and ethicists debated the morality of polygamy and smoking tobacco. “These manuscripts show a multiethnic, multilayered community in which science and religion coexisted,” says Deborah Stolk of the Prince Claus Fund in the Netherlands, which has supported manuscript preservation in Timbuktu. The family collections, she adds, “are filled with works laden with gold and beautiful drawings. We’re still discovering what is there.”
The crisis in Timbuktu began in the spring of 2012, when rebels from the Tuareg tribe—who have long aspired to create an independent state in northern Mali—allied with Islamic militants. The joint force, armed with heavy weapons looted from the armories of the late Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, overran the northern parts of the country and seized control of Timbuktu and other towns. The jihadists soon shoved aside the secular Tuaregs, declared sharia law and began attacking anything they perceived as haram—forbidden—according to their strict definitions of Islam. They banned singing and dancing, and forbade the celebration of Sufi Islamic festivals. They demolished 16 mausoleums of Timbuktu’s beloved Sufi saints and scholars, claiming that veneration of such figures was a sacrilege. Eventually the militants set their sights on the city’s ultimate symbols of open-mindedness and reasoned discourse: its manuscripts.
A network of activists was determined to thwart them. For five months, smugglers mounted a huge and secret operation whose full details are only now coming to light. The objective: to carry 350,000 manuscripts to safety in the government-held south. The treasures moved by road and by river, by day and by night, past checkpoints manned by armed Islamic police. Haidara and Diakité raised $1 million to finance the rescue, then arranged for safe storage once the manuscripts arrived in Bamako.
“ At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim. Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed finger is a victim’s logo — the opposite of the V-sign and a synonym for surrender. No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, childhood, toilet training, etc. The menu is vast and tedious, and this vastness and tedium alone should be offensive enough to set one’s intelligence against choosing from it. The moment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything; it could be argued even that that blame-thirsty finger oscillates as wildly as it does because the resolve was never great enough in the first place. After all, a victim status is not without its sweetness. It commands compassion, confers distinction, and whole nations and continents bask in the murk of mental discounts advertised as the victim’s conscience. There is an entire victim-culture, ranging from private counselors to international loans. The professed goal of this network notwithstanding, its net result is that of lowering one’s expectations from the threshold, so that a measly advantage could be perceived or billed as a major breakthrough. Of course, this is therapeutic and, given the scarcity of the world’s resources, perhaps even hygienic, so for want of a better identity, one may embrace it — but try to resist it. However abundant and irrefutable is the evidence that you are on the losing side, negate it as long as you have your wits about you, as long as your lips can utter “No.” On the whole, try to respect life not only for its amenities but for its hardships, too. They are a part of the game, and what’s good about a hardship is that it is not a deception. Whenever you are in trouble, in some scrape, on the verge of despair or in despair, remember: that’s life speaking to you in the only language it knows well. In other words, try to be a little masochistic: without a touch of masochism, the meaning of life is not complete. If this is of any help, try to remember that human dignity is an absolute, not a piecemeal notion, that it is inconsistent with special pleading, that it derives its poise from denying the obvious. Should you find this argument a bit on the heady side, think at least that by considering yourself a victim you but enlarge the vacuum of irresponsibility that demons or demagogues love so much to fill, since a paralyzed will is no dainty for angels. ”
On December 18, 1988, twenty-five years after his writing had been denounced as “anti-Soviet” in his native Russia and mere months after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature “for an all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity,” prolific poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky took the podium at Ann Arbor and addressed the graduating class at the University of Michigan with one of the most beautiful and timeless commencement speeches ever given, offering six invaluable pieces of wisdom on good-personhood and the meaning of life. (via brain pickings)
Almost every picture I’ve ever seen of Cuba’s capital shows the city in ruins. Una Noche, the 2012 gut punch of a film directed by Lucy Mulloy, captures in nearly every shot the savage decay of what was once the Western Hemisphere’s most beautiful city.
So I was stunned when I saw the restored portion of Old Havana for the first time.
It is magnificent. And it covers a rather large area. A person could wander around there all day, and I did. At first glance you could easily mistake it for Europe and could kid yourself into thinking Cuba is doing just fine.
And yet, photographers largely ignore it. Filmmakers, too. It must drive Cuba’s ministers of tourism nuts. Why do you people only photograph the decay? We spent so much time, effort, and money cleaning up before you got here.
Perhaps the wrecked part of the city—which is to say, most of it—strikes more people as photogenic. But I don’t think that’s it. The reason restored Old Havana is ignored by photographers, I believe, is because it looks and feels fake.
It was fixed up just for tourists. Only communist true believers would go to Cuba on holiday if the entire capital were still a vast ruinscape. And since hardly anyone is a communist anymore, something had to be done.
But it doesn’t look fake because it looks nice. Czechoslovakia was gray and dilapidated during the communist era, but no one thinks Prague isn’t authentic now that it’s lovely again. The difference is that the Czechs didn’t erect a Potemkin façade in a single part of their capital just to bait tourists. They repaired the entire city because, after the fall of the communist government, they finally could.
Nothing like that has occurred in Havana. The rotting surfaces of some of the buildings have been restored, but those changes are strictly cosmetic. Look around. There’s still nothing to buy. You’ll find a few nice restaurants and bars here and there, but they’re owned by the state and only foreigners go there. The locals can’t afford to eat or drink out because the state caps their salaries at twenty dollars a month. Restored Old Havana looks and feels no more real than the Las Vegas version of Venice.
Most photographs on the wall in their home were black and white, but I’ll never forget one color photograph in the very last room. The image struck me with great force before I even knew what it was.
It shows a man inside what appears to be a Cuban house. The main room is sparsely furnished. Paint is peeling off the walls. The man is opening his front door just the tiniest crack and carefully peering outside. The image conveyed to me a feeling of fear and hope at the same time.
“Do you know what that is?” Cristina said. “On his television screen?”
I hadn’t really noticed that inside the man’s house in the photograph was a small black and white television set. The image on the screen was grainy and vague.
“No,” I said. “I can’t tell what’s on the screen.”
“It is the fall of the Berlin Wall,” she said, “broadcast on Cuban television.”
I felt a jolt of adrenaline. It was my body’s way of telling me I was seeing and hearing something important, something I’d have to remember and later write down.
“But there’s something wrong with the picture,” Cristina said. “Do you know what it is?”
I looked intently at it again. What was wrong with the photo? All I saw was a Cuban man peering with tremendous caution outside his front door while communism self-destructed in Europe.
“Tell me,” I said.
“The fall of the Berlin Wall was never broadcast on television in Cuba,” she said. “The picture is fake.”
Fifty years ago this week President John Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, a Castro-supporting communist who had learned to shoot straight while in the US Marines. Books such as Gerald Posner’s “Case Closed” have painstakingly debunked the various alternative theories: that he fell victim to multiple gunmen, elaborate plots involving the CIA, the Mafia and who knows what other shadowy groups. The “magic bullet”, modern ballistics show, behaved normally. There was no second gunman. Nothing interesting happened on the grassy knoll. And the idea that Dallas, the “city of hate”, was somehow collectively to blame, is absurd.