Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

“Walker had broken what in his circles were important taboos: Inspire the rich to do more good, but never, ever tell them to do less harm; inspire them to give back, but never, ever tell them to take less; inspire them to join the solution, but never, ever accuse them of being part of the problem.”

Just under one year ago international news was covering a crisis in Thailand involving a boys soccer team and their coach trapped in a cave by rising waters. For eighteen days the boys remained in the cave before rescue divers managed to get them out. One diver died in the operation. At the height of the coverage, Elon Musk stepped in, proposing that a Space-X mini-sub could aid the efforts, with much praise and no small amount of mockery from the workers on the ground. Musk responded by calling one of the rescue divers a “pedo.”

One the one hand, this story of a remarkable rescue ended successfully and Musk’s sideshow did not figure in to the result, but, on the other, it offers a microcosm of the phenomenon examined in Anand Giridharadas’ book Winners Take All. By most accounts, Musk wanted to do a good thing by saving the boys, but he wanted to do it from within his own niche and in a way that brought potential benefit for him in the form of publicity, influence, and potential profit down the line. When challenged to address a fundamental structural issue like the water crisis in Flint, Musk, predictably, fell silent.

Giridharadas argues that Musk and his fellow citizens of MarketWorld, that is, the global business and financial elite, want to effect positive change, but have reshaped the mechanisms for doing so to their own benefit. The result in this time of growing inequality is a pay-to-play circuit of philanthropy where undemocratic decisions are made by the wealthiest strata of society promoting a win-win, venture-capital ethos of making a profit while giving people what they “need,” usually in the form of entrepreneurship. In return for their generosity, these philanthropists sincerely believe that they deserve an outsized voice in public policy debates.

But this win-win mentality perpetuates and in fact exacerbates the problems that the new philanthropic agendas address, whether it is the lack of government funding (avoiding taxes), poverty (not paying workers), or climate change (e.g. unregulated industry). Hence the taboos of MarketWorld, standards of behavior for Thought Leaders that short-circuit any possibility of systemic change.

Winners Take All, as Giridharadas notes in his sources, is a work of reportage that profiles members of this global elite, including prominent speakers on the circuit that includes Ted Talks, leaders of philanthropic organizations, disillusioned financial insiders, and one former US president whose post-White House career has pivoted to canoodling with business elites.

Giridharadas does not question the overarching dedication to social justice in its broadest, most generic sense on the part of anyone he profiles.

(Conspicuously, there are people not named in the book, like the DeVos’ when it comes to education, who throw their money around in much the same way who he would not ascribe such virtuous intentions. For this, and for a better understanding of how charitable giving facilitates generational wealth transfer under the US tax code, I wish I had read Jane Mayer’s Dark Money before this one. Giridharadas does note, however, that this MarketWorld generally plays into Republican goals of limiting government.)

The problem as identified here is the system that exists in a positive-reinforcement echo-chamber. This system facilitates growing income inequality while acting like it doesn’t exist. This system pushes motivational talks by “Thought Leaders” and industries that insist every person should be their own business while ignoring both barriers and consequences of failure. This system updates Andrew Carnegie’s Wealth for a new century while pretending that the problems of the Gilded Age are gone…at the same time that an all-consuming focus on profit replicates many of the same crises.

The result, Giridharadas argues, is global resentment of the financial elite by millions of people left distrustful of a government that doesn’t appear to do anything, but clearly left out of vision of a techno-utopia created by the citizens of MarketWorld. I found this final conclusion that this system is the driving factor behind the rising tide of authoritarian nationalism somewhat overstated. It offers a neat explanation for the somewhat overblown narrative of the white working class propelling Donald Trump to the presidency, but whitewashes racism, dark money (See: Jane Mayer’s book), and the various avenues of attack on democracy.

But neither is he wrong. The developments covered in Winners Take All clearly contribute to the breakdown of social systems designed to protect civil society, though I was ultimately unconvinced that the do-gooders covered here constitute the majority of the global MarketWorld elite. The stronger insight here is that despite the wealth of those who do want to fix the world, MarketWorld thinking prevents them from addressing the underlying problems. This realization is more worrisome than identifying malicious actors, because if the systems designed to help the poorest citizens and organize a response to climate change are under attack even from the people who ostensibly want to help, what chance do they have?

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Next up, I spent most of the weekend reading. I finished James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, being just blown away by the prose, and Archer Mayor’s Three Can Keep A Secret, part of a Vermont-based mystery series that is one of my comfort reads. I then started Jane Mayor’s Dark Money.

The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History

How Europe came to dominate the world since 1500 is one a central question in world history. Typical answers point to the rapid pace of European technological innovation that far outpaced the far east and allowed small numbers of Europeans to conquer much larger kingdoms. The problem, as Andrade aptly demonstrates, is that these traditional narratives suggest a simple teleology that is not backed up by the historical chronology. Rather than innovative Europeans meeting and quickly toppling East Asian foes whose conservative and tradition-bound cultures rendered them unable to adapt, not only were Ming and Qing Chinese forces able to adapt, but they also defeated early European attempts to dominate them. By the middle of the 19th century, though, European forces, and even newly reformed Japanese armies, crushed the Chinese. Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age is a global history that spans a thousand years over two continents looking for a new explanation for this radical divergence.

In Andrade’s analysis, the divergence occurred because Qing China was a victim of its own success. His core model is that conflict drives military innovation; by the mid-eighteenth century, the Qing dynasty had secured such dominance over east Asia that it effectively stopped innovating, while, simultaneously, Europe was going through a period of constant warfare where the countries fought for their very existence. By the time of the Opium Wars (1830s and 1850s), the Qing had fallen so far behind that their attempts to catch up were too little, too late.

Gunpowder weapons first appeared in China in the tenth century, mostly in the form of fire weapons used against wooden structures. Guns took several centuries to develop before they skipped to Europe, probably spread by the Mongol conquests. Europeans made the guns bigger and more powerful, creating cannons used to attack fortifications, an innovation that Andrade chalks up to a difference in construction techniques that made Medieval European fortifications vulnerable to early cannons in a way that Chinese fortifications were not.

(Chinese fortifications were much thicker than contemporary European designs, with packed-earth cores and angled walls that distributed and absorbed the shock of cannonballs. The fortifications of renaissance Europe reached many of the same conclusions, but only after cannons rendered comparatively thin Medieval fortifications, made with straight stone walls and with loose fill, obsolete.)

Andrade’s biggest contribution is what he terms an age of parity from roughly 1525 until roughly 1700, during which time Chinese forces successfully resisted European colonialism by adopting and indeed innovating on European technology. He demonstrates how, for instance, Chinese engineers adopted technology for mounting cannons on their warships and improved casting techniques for cannons, making them lighter, cheaper, and more durable (in large part by allowing them to cool faster), by encasing the central iron bore in bronze. Further, where other military historians have seen a decided European advantage in drilling that allowed for their soldiers to keep up a constant hail of fire through volley techniques, Andrade argues that these had been standard Chinese practice for centuries first for crossbows and later for guns. In fact, Chinese armies used significant numbers of gunners in their armies centuries before Europeans did.

So what changed? Noted above, Andrade’s thesis is that the existential warfare in Europe drove military innovation at a time when complacency born of hegemony allowed Qing power to atrophy. This meant that when European forces arrived with steam powered ships and high-powered weapons, the Qing were unable adapt fast enough. Compounding their problems was that the European innovations were not merely technical, but scientific, meaning that advances in the understanding of trajectories and aerodynamics allowed ordinance to fly further and with greater accuracy than even equivalent Chinese weapons.

The Gunpowder Age is an ambitious and well-argued book. As someone who is not an expert on Chinese history, but has taught European global expansion, his explanations about military power are largely satisfactory, and I will likely use it in future classes, even if I sometimes thought that his solipsistic focus on gunpowder didn’t entirely substantiate the broader claims regarding the global dominance of Europe. Similarly, I was sometimes frustrated with the way that he collapsed the world into China on the one hand and “Europe” on the other, with only slight nods to Korea, Japan, and the Ottoman Empire, but this frame fit his explanation for how European came to dominate China. There are only so many pages in a book, after all.

My biggest frustration with The Gunpowder Age had nothing to do with its content. Rather, despite that the argument is laid out in a clear and cogent manner, the actual writing, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph drove me up the wall. I’ll readily admit that I have numerous flaws as a prose stylist, but this book that received praise for its writing was almost unbearably repetitive at times, with almost every page containing a sentence I wanted to rewrite for elegance, and several word-choice ticks (prevalent, for instance) that struck a dissonant note. Writing is hard and it often takes a village to polish prose to the utmost shine, but this was something that frustrated me all the more because the content was so outstanding. Then again, this may be a sign that I’m ready to return in earnest to my research projects

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I am now reading Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes, a dark comedy in the mode of Catch-22 about the death of Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq in 1988.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Among the many injustices committed against Native Americans in the 1800s was forced removal. By government mandate, tribes from across the eastern United States moved from their homelands to Oklahoma, which was then considered unproductive land. Among these tribes were the Osage, whose land after the relocation and a series of additional thefts was unproductive even by the standards of Indian territory. At least until their land became the center of Oklahoma’s first major oil rush.

Almost overnight the Osage became, per capita, the wealthiest people in the world. But in the eyes of the federal government, the Osage were incapable of managing their money without the approval of white guardians.

In the 1920s, crisis struck Osage county. Members of the tribe began to die under mysterious circumstances. One was shot, others appeared to have been poisoned. Several white citizens of Osage County tried to help the tribe members, even at the risk of their own lives, but white law enforcement officials, under the guidance of William Hale, a white man dubbed King of the Osage Hills, chalked the deaths up to coincidence and closed the case.

But the official story did not sit well with family members of the deceased and the deaths began to make national news.

At a time when law enforcement was intensely local and often deeply corrupt, this case, with its notoriety and Native American connections, came before J. Edgar Hoover and the nascent Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover passed the case to Tom White, an old-style agent, former Texas Ranger, and the antithesis of Hoover’s dream of an agency filled with college-educated bureaucrats. Nevertheless, White was exactly what Hoover needed in Oklahoma.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann reconstructs White’s investigation, showing how he broke through a conspiracy among the local white community members to kill off the Osage and funnel their financial claims toward Mollie Burkhart and her children with Ernest Burkhart––William Hale’s nephew.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a pop-history that reads like detective novel, and with good reason. It is at its heart true crime, sitting at the intersection of unrestrained capitalism, the wild west, and the difficult relationship between the United States and Native American tribes. As befits his status as a New Yorker staff writer, Grann is most successful at bringing both the conspiracy and the investigation to life. The story imbues names and details to a long history of exploitation and violence, here with private citizens using local institutions to exploit the situation.

However chilling the story was, though, it does not substantially change my opinion about either the treatment of Native Americans or the unchecked capitalism of the early twentieth century. Grann only sketches the backdrop of genocide (and attempted genocide) against Native Americans during this period and otherwise allows the specific case to stand in for much more widespread wrongs.

(Contrast this decision with The Real All-Americans, which is equally easy to read, but its focus on the development of Carlisle Indian School football gives Sally Jenkins a platform to talk more about cultural erasure.)

Something similar happens in the final section of the book where Grann pulls back from sketching the future lives of the principal actors, pivoting to a journalistic narrative of his research and the lingering memory of the case in Osage County. It feels like an epilogue, but falls flat in terms of lasting significance. The meaty issues that prompted and enabled the conspiracy disappear back into the scenery, leaving only the sad, but ultimately insubstantial, memory of an explosive event.

Killers of the Flower Moon was the 2018 Columbia (Mo.) One-Read, and for good reason. Grann gives the reader a lot to chew on and the tone and topic both create a perfect entry-point for students, reading groups, or anyone else who wants to learn a little something about the brutal history of the treatment of Native Americans. Just don’t stop here.

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Next up, I finished Tana French’s The Trespasser, an utterly engaging installment of her Dublin Murder Squad series, and have since begun Robin Hobb’s Mad Ship.

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Graduate school changes reading habits. I went through a lull in the middle of my program while preparing for my comprehensive exams and then emerged effectively incapable of reading non-fiction. I could still get lost in a story; reading for the sake of learning just put me to sleep. Emerging from this place has come slowly, but I cleared ten non-fiction books in 2018, and I am on pace this year to easily overtop my mark from last year. One of the reasons for this change is a shift in the genres of non-fiction I read in step with changing career goals. In particular, I find myself increasingly drawn to books, including memoirs, about writing.

Mary Norris, a longtime employee in The New Yorker‘s copy department, and her Between You and Me, fit squarely in these interests.

Between You and Me is a a cross between memoir and discussion of grammar and punctuation. Norris write on topics that range from her short career delivering milk to arriving at The New Yorker to the finer points of dashes to her preference for pencils with number one graphite, deploying a touch so light that it borders on frivolous. On the whole, I found Between You and Me uneven.

As the title implies, the governing principle in Between You and Me is the confession. Here, confessions include both the personal of a traditional memoir and the professional––that is notes on usage. I liked the personal because I am fascinated how people come to work at an institution like The New Yorker, even when those reflections feel like reminiscing about halcyon days. Norris presents her path as serendipitous, but, beneath her bubbly prose, she is also clear about her luck.

My response to the professional was more muted. There are parts I liked: memorable explanations (commas, like nuns, travel in pairs) and a discussion of The New Yorker’s house style in conjunction with the changing currents of American usage (for instance, pronouns and gender). Other parts dragged. The passages discussing where the hyphen in Moby-Dick entered or why Dickens and Melville use so many commas got a bit tedious for my tastes, but were largely okay. But when Norris veers toward discussion of grammar and punctuation for their own sake I found most of the explanations unsatisfactory, with humor seeming to mask this weakness, but the humor landing weakly because it lacked substance.

In part, my problem here was Norris’ philosophical position on the prescriptivist/descriptivist debate––whether there grammar ought to change with usage or adhere to the set rules. Norris’ position is somewhat at odds with itself: although never explicitly stated, she came across as a descriptivist (language changes, for good or for ill)…except when a style guide at, say, The New Yorker, trumps voice. I’ve published articles under style guides that I wouldn’t otherwise follow, so I am sympathetic, but Norris also sets about undercutting that same style guide by locating its genesis in the preferences (i.e. the usage) of legendary editors. These passages were on their own fine, but that presentation, in turn, undermined the importance of the subsequent advice about writing.

In sum, Between You and Me is an easy read written by someone who clearly loves words and a book that has its moments. There are even individual chapters that I could see assigning to students, but for a book I opened really wanting to like, I closed it feeling disappointed.

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I finished reading Black Leopard Red Wolf last weekend and am still trying to decide what I have to say about it. In short: the prose is beautifully and grotesquely hallucinatory, but I’m not totally sure I know what was always happening. Next up, I just started reading Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightengale Floor, a fantastical epic set in a world inspired by Medieval Japan. I am a little wary of cultural appropriation (Hearn is a British woman living in Australia), but I am quite enjoying the story nevertheless.

The Real All Americans

Carlisle simply wasn’t a school like other schools. It was first and last a social experiment.

The Carlisle Indian School, founded in 1879 by Richard Henry Pratt, is a complicated part of US history in the late 19th century. It predated the infamous Dawes Act of 1889, which broke up the collectively held tribal lands, but it was part of the general theory: that the end goal of US policy toward Native Americans was to assimilate them into White Society. Pratt worked tirelessly on behalf of his students within this broad purpose, defending natives against critics who believed them incapable of being civilized.

At the same time, the boarding school in Pennsylvania took children away from their families often for close to a decade, during which time they were subject to harsh discipline and encouraged to forget their traditional ways––much to the chagrin of their parents.

Americanization at Carlisle meant a number of things: a haircut, new clothes, learning to read, write, and speak English and learning a trade. But in the late 19th century it also meant learning the game of football.

In The Real All Americans Sally Jenkins tells the story of this football team, building to its victory on the football field over Army in 1912, symbolically avenging a century’s worth of injustices.

The Carlisle football team is a fascinating subject. In the early years of football there were no set schedules, so while Carlisle was a preparatory academy where students ages six to twenty-five received an education that topped out at high-school level, their opponents were usually the colleges of the North East, including the then-powers Penn, Yale and Harvard. The Indians (as they were called) were younger and lighter, both disadvantages in a sport that, even more than today, rewarded brute size and strength.

(President Teddy Roosevelt famously forced football stakeholders to meet, installing rule changes to a game that routinely killed players. The reforms eliminated the most violent aspects of football, but in a bid to make the game survive rather than out of a concern for player safety.)

Under their most famous coach, Glenn “Pop” Warner, who arrived in 1899, the Indians hit a wave of success, pioneering an array of misdirection plays that gave the fleet-footed Indians open running lanes––plays football watchers today might be familiar with, like the forward pass and end-arounds.

Ultimately, though, it was when Warner’s coaching was matched with the athletic talents of a player like Jim Thorpe, gold medalist in both the Pentathlon and Decathlon at the 1912 Olympics, that the Carlisle team reached its apex.

At times I thought that Jenkins got too cute with her narrative. The book begins before the foundation of the school, with Pratt’s military service fighting against Native American tribes, but ends her main narrative with its victory in 1912 over Army. After that season the team took a downward turn, driven in large part by Thorpe’s impending eligibility issues. (Thorpe, like many other players, had played semi-pro baseball during the summers, but unlike the others he had done so under his real name even though, as an Olympic gold medalist, was among the most famous athletes in the country.) The result is an unbalanced narrative designed to highlight the headlines after the game: that the Indians had finally beaten Army. The final chapter continues from that game through the end of the program, but Jenkins seems to imply that it was over after that game as Thorpe, a complicated figure, turns into almost a tragic hero.

Still, The Real All Americans is demanding of consideration. This story, as Jenkins points out, is part and parcel of the larger arc of US history in this period, both in terms of policy toward Native Americans and in terms of the rapid modernization of the country after the Civil War. The unbalanced narrative allows Jenkins to explore the prejudices of the day, making the point that while Pratt could be brutal to his charges and destructive to native customs, his racism was distinctly progressive compared to his contemporaries.

The most remarkable feature of early football that comes out in The Real All Americans is how its concerns hover over the game still. Without making the connection explicit, Jenkins weaves concerns over safety, amateurism, and the relationship between money and collegiate athletics. Carlisle’s unique position of receiving students from reservations and budget directly from the federal government sets it apart from other schools, but with football it serves as a microcosm for one concern of the modern university.

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I just started reading Marlon James’ new book, Black Leopard Red Wolf, an epic fantasy saga inspired by African mythology. I heard James give an interview about this novel and was intrigued, but it is also part of my plan to diversify my reading this year with more books by authors from Africa and of African descent, as well as more post-colonial books generally. So far the story is equal parts riveting and dizzying.

In the Garden of Beasts

As a historian, [Dodd] had come to see the world as a product of historical forces and the decisions of more or less rational people, and he expected the men around him to behave in a civil and coherent manner. But Hitler’s government was neither civil nor coherent, and the nation lurched from one inexplicable moment to another.

One of my favorite topics to explore with students in US history classes is how the United States engaged––or didn’t––with the rise of Nazi Germany. Simple ignorance is an insufficient explanation, as is the turbulence of the decade between the Depression and the Dustbowl. Rampant racism, as shown by a 1939 “Pro America Rally” at Madison Square Garden that hung swastikas from the rafters, contributed, but all of these factors spun together to create the US response.

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, sits at the heart of this question, tracing experience of William Dodd, the first American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, from his appointment in 1933 through the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 when Hitler consolidated power by purging Ernst Röhm and the leadership of the SA, the Nazi paramilitary organization. Over the course of this year, Dodd and his family become disillusioned both by the American diplomatic establishment whose primary concern lies with recouping debts for American creditors and with the the Nazi party that professes to uphold the rule of law but actually embodies the fickle and capricious mania that propelled it to power.

In the Garden of Beasts follows the arcs of two members of Dodd household, the professor-turned-unlikely-ambassador William and his adult daughter, the flirtatious (and perhaps promiscuous) Martha.

William Dodd was a historian of the American South who received his doctorate in Germany and fancied himself a democrat of the Jeffersonian mold, complete with a Virginia farm. Despite his credentials and connections to the Wilson White House, Dodd remained an outsider to elite society, and so it was only the unlikely confluence of his request to become a diplomat (albeit at a sleepy post where he could work on his magnum opus) and Roosevelt’s failure to find an ambassador to the new German government that landed him the position. Dodd reluctantly agrees and set out for Berlin with his wife and children in tow, but immediately offended the diplomatic establishment with his insistence that they live modestly and without the fanfare expected of an American embassy.

Martha Dodd, as Larson describes her, delights in the attractions of men, but is married, and separated. In Berlin, she becomes swept up in the glamour of the diplomatic world, having romantic liaisons with, among others, Rudolf Diels, the head of the Gestapo, Ernst Hanfstaengl, one of Hitler’s aids, and a Soviet diplomatic attache (and undercover NKVD agent) Boris Vinogradov who dreams of converting her to the communist cause. Once, she is even considered as a potential match for Adolf Hitler.

Larson’s strength in drawing characters serves him well here. He might be overly interested in describing Martha’s promiscuity, but her affairs introduce a wider cast than focusing on the official ambassadorial story and Larson is also led to these descriptions by his sources, which include Martha’s memoirs of her liaisons in Berlin.

However, for all of brightly colored, if often menacing, characters in In the Garden of Beasts, the book didn’t have the same propulsion as Devil in the White City, his other book that I read. There are several explanations for this. One is that where the latter book is the story about the dark underbelly of triumphalism in the late-19th century American city, the former covers the awakening of a naïve family to the horrors going on around them. The result is a downward trajectory to In the Garden of Beasts that bottoms out with Hitler consolidating power––a compelling story, but not necessarily an exciting one.

The second factor limiting In the Garden of Beasts returns to the central question of the US diplomatic engagement with Nazi Germany. Larson tries to create stakes out of the various frictions in the diplomatic establishment: between US citizens being attacked in Germany and the demand to recoup debts owed from World War One; between the establishment’s wealthy aristocratic values and Dodd’s democratic simplicity; and between Dodd and the civil service in place in Berlin who chaffed at this inexperienced outsider’s mandates. This last was particularly notable since Messersmith, the man on station in Berlin, saw the dangers of the Nazi regime before Dodd even arrived. These disputes simultaneously felt like the weaker and the more existentially important thread, a contradiction left unresolved when the book slips into a denouement after July 1934 and Dodd becomes an outcast Cassandra warning about the dangers of Hitler’s regime.

I found In the Garden of Beasts darkly compelling, but, beyond the Dodds’ story, it didn’t reveal anything new about either Nazi Germany or 1930s America.

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I have been on a run of non-fiction reading, recently, finishing All the Pieces Matter, Jonathan Abrams’ oral history of The Wire, and am now reading Sally Jenkins’ The Real All Americans, a history of the Carlisle football team that beat West Point in 1912.

American Prometheus

“There is a dramatic moment and the history of the man, what made him act, what he did, and what sort of person he was. That is what you are really doing here. You are writing a man’s life.” –Isidor Rabi

Like many people my age and younger, I had only a vague sense of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I knew he directed the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, created the Atomic Bomb, and almost immediately regretted his creation. In the aftermath of the war, he quoted the Bhagavad Gita in declaring that he had become death, destroyer of worlds.

I knew he was a physicist associated with UC Berkeley but there my awareness stopped. I stumbled into Oppenheimer again in December at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe where there was an exhibit on the nuclear program. Between reading a couple of pages and the arresting cover image (seen at the top of this post) with Oppie (as his students called him, an Americanization of the Dutch nickname Opje) staring straight ahead, cigarette hanging loosely from his lips, I picked up a copy of Bird and Sherwin’s biography American Prometheus at the gift shop.

I should say up front that Bird and Sherwin imbue American Prometheus with a deep subjectivity and latent moralism that frequently sits in the bones of the genre biography.

Oppenheimer is the subject, so other people come into the story as they intersect with him. For some personalities (e.g. Isidor Rabi, quoted above), this is fine. For others, including his wife Kitty, it ends up flattening and trivializing their experiences that were not easy, to say the least.

Then there is the moralizing. Oppenheimer, in this telling, is a tragic hero, a deeply flawed individual whose contributions went unappreciated. This feature of biography is further heightened in that the book reaches its climax when, in 1953 at the height of the Red Scare, Oppie faces a review of his security clearance against a board conspiring to prove that he passed nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. This hearing nearly destroyed him, making it a natural climax, but as someone unfamiliar with the hearings much of the narrative felt designed to prove that Oppie was innocent to a reader who already knew how this story ended.

With those preliminaries out of the way, what to say about Oppenheimer? Born to a wealthy Jewish family in New York, this slim brilliant boy received an excellent humanistic education at the Ethical Culture School before matriculating to Harvard. A polymath with interests in history, literature, and languages, Oppenheimer wanted to study Theoretical Physics, a field that hardly existed in the US. He tried graduate school at Cambridge (a disaster; he tried to poison a tutor), and then Göttingen, before taking up a joint appointment at UC Berkeley and Cal Tech to establish theoretical physics programs in the US.

But Oppenheimer’s heart was in New Mexico. Visiting there as a frail, sickly teenage he transformed as if by magic into someone who could ride horses hundreds of miles at a stretch without giving it a second thought. Ironically it was the love of this landscape that in part let Oppenheimer to the Los Alamos lab.

Yet, the more profound transformation came in Oppenheimer’s humanism in the Great Depression-era California. Always driven by humanitarian impulses and capable of magnetic charisma, young Oppenheimer could just as easily alienate people he thought beneath him and had little time for anything but his work. Gradually this attitude changed through his work with unions and as he came to recognize the profound threat posed by Nazi Germany. Problems emerged in that the Communist Party of America organized most of the causes Oppie supported and more than one of his friends and students were party members. By the late 1940s, Oppie was a public intellectual and a celebrity weighing in on nuclear politics, but this history made him vulnerable to a cabal of personal, professional, and political enemies who did everything in their considerable power to destroy him. They failed in their ultimate goal, but succeeded in ruining the careers of many people around him, including that of his brother, and in undermining Oppenheimer’s influence.

As an academic, American Prometheus is a fascinating read. On the one hand, it provides a glimpse into higher education of yesteryear, where Oppenheimer nearly didn’t receive his PhD after completing the two year (!!) program because he had failed to register for classes. On the other, though, Oppie presents a mirror on the good and bad of intellectuals. He could be cold, distant, and even cruel if he deemed you beneath his merit, but he was also a warm and supportive mentor who frequently deferred credit for work to his students and junior collaborators. Bird and Sherwin conclude that much of Oppenheimer’s brilliance lay in his ability to see the consequences of other people’s work and push it to the next level rather than doing original work of his own, a trait that made him particularly suited to managing a lab like Los Alamos and later running the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Moreover, his intellectual generosity and ability to synthesize the ideas of others had a magnetic effect drawing into his orbit some of the most remarkable scientists of the twentieth century.

American Prometheus is a long, dense book created from twenty five years of research. I’ll admit to some boredom at times when the material felt repetitive or there was yet another chapter dedicated weighing the evidence on whether Oppie joined the Communist party, chapters that make significantly more sense if you look at the book as funneling toward that climactic hearing. Similarly, my hackles went up at extensive analysis of the psychological states of Oppie and those around him, as well as on the quality of the psychological care he received. And yet, for all of that, Bird and Sherwin open a fascinating window onto a man whose experiences and concerns were equally commonplace and unique in the middle of the 20th century while airing out the story of a man, already suspected of anti-American sentiments, charged with delivering into the world the atomic bomb.

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I finished reading R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, a propulsive and largely delightful fantasy novel driven by the classic trope of wish-fulfillment, albeit this time from a female perspective. I had some issues with the book as a whole, but am very much interested in seeing what else Kuang produces. This morning I started S.A. Chakraborty’s <em>The City of Brass</em>, the first book in the Daevabad Trilogy, and am quite enjoying letting myself be taken away.

One Nation Under God

In their struggle against the New Deal, the business lobbies of the Depression era had allied themselves with conservative religious and cultural leaders and, in so doing, set in motion a new dynamic in American politics.

One of the things I like about teaching American history, and particularly twentieth century US history, is that it is fairly easy for students to see its relevance on contemporary society, which is a reliable way to turn up student engagement. One activity I like to do with students is to establish a broad premise, talk with the students to establish what preconceived ideas are floating around in the zeitgeist, and then work with them to understand how these ideas came from.

For instance, I do this with students when it comes to American religion in the twentieth century. I begin by asking them whether the United States is, broadly speaking, a religious country in general and a Christian country in particular. Some students will bring up the establishment clause in the Constitution, but eventually students say yes. I then ask how we know this, and, among a variety of answers, some student will inevitably point to “In God We Trust” printed on currency. I then work the students through some of the midcentury religious revivals and particularly the emergence of organized religion into the political sphere in the 1950s out of which public declarations of faith in the pledge of allegiance and US currency developed. My point with this activity isn’t to challenge anyone’s faith or even to explicitly reject the idea that most Americans in any given year considered themselves Christian, but rather to encourage students to see how, when and why these symbols came into being and therefore to think critically about what they mean.

I mention this example because I recently had a chance to read prominent #twitterstorian Kevin Kruse’s book One Nation Under God. The elevator pitch for this book is that Kruse goes looking for how the phrase “one nation under god” made its way into the pledge of allegiance of the 1950s. I was aware of the religious revivals in the 1950s and had always interpreted it as the realization of Cold War branding of the United States as distinct from “godless” communism, though, in retrospect, that was a lazy assumption.

Kruse traces the origin of these revivals and the first steps to bring religion from the realm of the personal to public life further back into the 1930s, when, he says, corporate leaders looked to religion to rehabilitate their brands from the stigma of the depression. In turn, and from a combination of personal piety and cynical self-interest, they helped sponsor events that sparked the 1950s revivals. The wave of religion encouraged and manipulated by President Eisenhower changed the nature of public religion in America and created an alliance between capitalism and christianity that dovetailed with American Cold War propaganda. In addition to the changes implemented to the pledge of allegiance and the face of currency, it was in this same period presidents began hosting the National Prayer Breakfast that has since become an annual event.

Where Americans once blanched at bringing the church and the state too close together because of the risk of corrupting the church, Kruse documents how in some of the early controversies over children reciting non-denominational prayers and the pledge of allegiance in schools, the ACLU was hesitant to take up the case on behalf of the parents.

Even though it took me longer to read than I would have liked (a combination of a busy schedule and a lot of detail meant that this was a slow read for me), I really liked On Nation Under God. I knew most of the broad outlines of this story, but the virtue of this book is that Kruse presents a mountain of evidence rather than relying as I was on general impressions. And within that evidence there are unexpected developments.

Two of my takeaways both came from his discussion of issues of religious faith in schools, which was taken to the Supreme Court.

One was the way in which the religion that made its way into public life was light on doctrine as a way to circumvent theological disputes and generate broad support. Nowhere was this more true than in the attempts to establish a non-denominational prayer to be recited daily in schools in New York. Critics thought its “vague theism” was so diluted as to be meaningless, but it strikes me that this pervasively felt, doctrinally ambivalent Christianity remains a legacy in American public life.

The other was an insight into the composition of the court in the 1950s and early 1960s when it passed down rulings on whether students should recite a prayer (no, it is not inherently patriotic) and the pledge of allegiance with the added language of “one nation under god” (yes, it is a declaration of patriotism, not a prayer). Kruse documents how some of the staunchest defenders of these decisions were themselves deeply religious and active in their churches, but that they believed that this was an unconstitutional act of establishing a religion.

As an outsider to both the field of American history and mainstream American Christianity, I am sure that there are facets of this book and its ramifications that I missed, but the broad strokes of this evolution in American political discourse was supremely enlightening for where they came from and thinking about how this relationship between business, religion, and government has developed in the decades since.

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I finished reading Drago Jančar’s I Saw Her Last Night, a fascinating Slovenian novel about the disappearance of a woman in the last years of World War 2, told through the memories of five people who knew her. I’m between books at the moment, but leaning toward next reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

My Own Devices

My usual way of being could probably be summed up as chronically un-hip. I usually read books, list to music and see movies well after that phase has passed. When culture swings back around to where I am, such as with the Song of Ice and Fire (which I started reading in about 2000 when I was in early high school), the hipness doesn’t quite stick. I generally have pretty good taste, in my obviously biased opinion, so this un-hipness doesn’t bother me. It just is.

This is all preamble to talking about a book that, in reading it less than a month after its publication, might possibly be the hippest thing I have ever done in my life. That book, published less than a month before I read it, is My Own Devices, a memoir by the Minneapolis hip-hop artist Dessa.

The essays in this collection consist of stories from and about Dessa’s early career as a touring artist that put friends, family, and challenges front and center. Each essay could stand on its own (and several were previously published), but the through line is her side of an extended, intermittent romantic relationship. Heartbreak became an addiction that defeated “time, distance, and whiskey”—what Dessa calls “over-the-counter remedies” that included moving to New York so that she wouldn’t be in the same town. The collection reaches its climax in the essay “Call off your Ghost,” which recounts her self-crafted experiments with fMRI-scanning and neurofeedback conditioning break this addiction.

Dessa writers beautifully, which is one of the reasons I like her music so much, and in fact there is a passage early on about her ex’ sage advice to rap more like she writes. Pulling back the curtain on these parts of her life put the songs into greater context, particularly for the early releases that aren’t quite as fully developed as in the more recent albums. But that would make this collection only of interest to fans of her music, when this is so much more. What I found particularly effective here is the self-portrait of a bright young woman who is simultaneously curious about the world, wrapped up in her neuroses, and ambitious to the point of grating against her lack of accomplishment.

I can’t do My Own Devices justice here. It is thoughtful meditation family, friends, and art, with a little less science than I was anticipating form the subtitle. (Science shows up in a couple of essays, generally as an adjunct to family or heartbreak.) Dessa is refreshingly blunt, acknowledging her imperfections even while telling her story in a sympathetic light. In short, I loved My Own Devices, going so far as to complain online that I started it at a time when I knew I would have to put it down, and am adding it to my list of Dessa’s work that I recommend to just about everyone I meet.

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I am now reading Kevin Kruse’ One Nation Under God, which argues that the public performance of religious piety in American life was invented in the 1930s by an alliance of corporate executives and religious leaders who opposed the New Deal and came to fruition during a 1950s post-war religious revival.

1491 – Charles Mann

The companion to Mann’s other book named after a year in the late 15th century, 1493, 1491 is a history of the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of Europeans, reporting on the best consensus of recent scholarship. Although he drying states at one point that his thesis is merely that this topic is worthy of more than seven pages, I think his argument is a good deal more sophisticated, namely that despite the popular myth that the Americas consisted of vast stretches of unspoiled nature, these continents were in effect vast gardens that had been shaped by millions of native inhabitants.

As was also true in 1493, Mann should be lauded for his lucid explanation of long-standing academic schisms. One of the problems with a book of this sort, as Mann notes, is that there are times when there is no consensus, in part because there are times when the sources are, shall we say, speculative. For instance, the chapter “Pleistocene Wars” is dedicated to wars between scholars over what happened during the Pleistocene, rather than wars that took place then. This is the chapter Mann gives to populating the Americas, the so-called Clovis Culture, and the possibility of multiple waves of migration. In this example, Mann delves into the controversies over dating the scattered bits of evidence, but in others he acknowledges more sinister problems with the evidence, such as how the European colonists eliminated the knowledge bases of the cultures they encountered.

You will note that I have not mentioned a single specific native group. Mann goes through many, though certainly not all, in some detail, but the themes are the same again and again. Native Americans (the collective term I still reflexively use, though Mann has an appendix dedicated to the problems with it) were technologically, mathematically, and agriculturally sophisticated in ways that are not often appreciated by people accustomed to European land-use patterns and intellectual culture, or who are deceived by giving priority to the empirical evidence of native culture that dates to generations after European contact.

The hemisphere described by Mann was teeming with human life in 1491, so densely populated that the colonists found themselves unable to stay. Within a few decades most of those people were killed by European diseases, which allowed laughably small numbers of men to conquer enormous swathes of territory with the help of native allies, particularly in South America, and allowed previously-controlled species like the bison and carrier pigeons to undergo explosive population growth—ironically shooting past the carrying capacity only to become associated with the natural bounty of the Americas. Mann also offers a welcome correction to the noble savage myth that Native Americans were endowed with a preternatural connection with the land, arguing instead that their ability to steward the environment developed from past failures and a willingness to develop sustainable practices.

In sum, I enjoyed 1491 a hair more than 1493, but they work in tandem to ask and answer some big questions about the history of the world.

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I had never given any thought to reading Philip Roth’s books until hearing people talk about his work after he passed away this summer and thinking that they sounded up my alley. I’m just now starting that process, with his alternate history The Plot Against America.