All posts filed under: Top Stories

Tennessee Williams and Woody Allen: Kindred Spirits to Illuminate our Tragicomic Existence

One of the delights of Woody Allen’s recently released memoir, Apropos of Nothing, is its celebration (all too-brief, alas) of Tennessee Williams. “I always wanted to be Tennessee Williams,” Allen writes. “I grew up idolizing [him]. The movie of Streetcar is for me total artistic perfection… the most perfect confluence of script, performance, and direction I’ve ever seen.” I wanted to be Tennessee Williams, too, when I discovered his works at age 18. And I’ve been a Woody Allen fan since seeing the Jazz-age romantic fantasy A Purple Rose of Cairo when it was released a year later, in 1985. Yet only with Blue Jasmine (2013), his homage to A Streetcar Named Desire, did I realize how deep his love of Williams flowed. And only now, upon reading his memoir, do I discover how much Allen consciously strove to channel Williams’s techniques. “I don’t want realism, I want magic,” is how Blanche put it. Looking back on A Purple Rose of Cairo—in which Mia Farrow’s Cecilia so yearns to escape her dismal reality that she …

The Death of Political Cartooning—And Why It Matters

Six years ago, on January 7th, 2015, two brothers armed with Kalashnikov rifles assaulted a building on Rue Nicolas-Appert in Paris, where they killed a maintenance man named Frédéric Boisseau and forced their way into the second-floor offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. They asked for four cartoonists, by name, and executed each of them. They also killed four other journalists, a bodyguard assigned to protect one of the cartoonists in the event of just such an attack, police officer Ahmed Merabet, and a friend of one of the cartoonists. Following a nihilistic two-day crime spree, the brothers were killed in a hail of police bullets outside a printworks north-east of Paris. The ghastly murders at Charlie Hebdo shocked the world. Yet while the scale and violence of the incident were unprecedented, such attacks against cartoonists are hardly unknown. Throughout history, cartoonists have been jailed, kidnapped, tortured, exiled, and murdered. Ostensibly, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were killed for drawing pictures of the prophet Muhammad. (Two days after the murders, an al-Qaeda cell in Yemen …

A Misremembered Day of Infamy

Nothing illustrates better the extraordinary changes in America’s political culture than the almost furtive way in which the anniversary of Pearl Harbor has been marked. The surprise attack by the Japanese imperial navy on America’s Pacific Fleet 79 years ago—on December 7th, 1941—was barely commemorated this year in a nation convulsed by a deadly pandemic and the unprecedented effort by its president to steal an election. The exception to this general insouciance came in the tally of the honored dead compared with the gruesome numbers still being inflicted daily by the COVID-19 virus. (What’s more, as of this writing, the number of American COVID fatalities almost equals its Second World War combat toll.) In the public imagination, Pearl Harbor has become little more than an occasion to contextualize national grieving, a historical calamity that serves as a measure against our present difficulties. This shallow use of a hinge event in history has become typical of a nation that has begun to lose its sense of itself. This is evident in Americans’ diminished standards of conduct at home …

Return of the Strong Gods: Understanding the New Right

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born? ~W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming” In mid-November, just two weeks after one of the most contentious elections in American history, Democratic National Committee member David Atkins took to Twitter. “No seriously… how *do* you deprogram 75 million people?” he wondered, sounding more like a member of the Politburo than the DNC. “Where do you start? Fox? Facebook? We have to start thinking in terms of post-WWII Germany or Japan.” He continued: “This is not your standard partisan policy disagreement. This is a conspiracy theory fueled belligerent death cult… the only actual policy debates of note are happening within the dem coalition between left and center left.” As the comments flooded in, Atkins doubled down: “You can’t run on a civil war footing hopped up on conspiracy theories… without people trying to figure out how to reverse the brainwashing.” What is most striking about Atkins’s comments is not his evident belief that 75 million Americans are conspiracy theorists, nor his …

The Sexual Politics of Vasectomies

The fate of male reproductive organs is not a traditional concern in debates about the environment. But this is the most significant change Australian surgeon Dr Nick Demediuk, aka “Dr Snip,” has seen in the past decade. “There is the rise of the hardline vegan brigade. They just get it done.” Dr Demediuk says he performs a greater proportion of vasectomies upon younger people in their 20s and 30s who are concerned about overpopulation. They have no desire to ever have children for ideological reasons. Research group Chef’s Pencil found Australia was the second most popular place in the world for vegans in 2020, beaten only by Britain. They also found skyrocketing interest over the last five years, accelerated even further since coronavirus. This trend is compounded by the fact that most forms of contraception such as condoms or hormonal altering pills either contain animal derived products or have been tested on animals. While condoms do exist in a natural latex form lacking the offending dairy derivative, available for delivery from Amazon, the vasectomy is …

An Optimistic Outlook on 2021

The outlook, scientist Peter Turchin tells the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood, is bleak. Turchin thinks we are looking at another five years—or more likely a decade—of misery. And as 2020 draws to a close, modern civilization does appear to resemble a metaphorical dumpster fire. It really has been a terrible year, possibly the worst most people can remember. Every morning seemed to bring a new global damage report—an endlessly spreading pandemic, mounting death tolls, economies cratered by lockdowns, rising unemployment, racial inequality and civil unrest, spiraling political polarization, election turmoil in the United States, and bushfires in Australia. Countless people are ending the year feeling much further behind than they were on New Year’s Eve 2019. “Surely 2021 can’t be worse than 2020?” feels like wishful thinking. 2020 has felt particularly punishing, at least in part because the decade that preceded it was astonishingly hopeful and productive according to almost every metric of human progress. Extreme poverty was dramatically reduced, from 18 percent of the global population to just 8.6 percent. More than 158,000 people climbed …

National Borders are Not Going Away

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from a passage in Mark Moffett’s book, The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall (Basic Books, 2019).   A great songwriter once asked us to imagine a world without countries. Could our societies ever willingly eliminate their borders and come together as one? All evidence indicates the dreamer John Lennon had been imagining the unattainable. Certainly, among other species, fusion of healthy societies is vanishingly rare. Chimpanzee societies, called communities, exemplify this: the only “mergers” strain that word’s meaning. Primatologist Frans de Waal tells me that captive chimps from different sources can be integrated into one community, but such a merger is a nightmare for zookeepers that requires months of careful introductions, with bloody skirmishes along the way. Meanwhile, the bonobo, an easygoing relative of the more xenophobic chimp, has an aptitude for befriending strangers. That allows individuals who have not met before to forge a new community from scratch with comparatively little fuss. Yet in both apes such arrang­ed societies are artifacts of confinement where, …

The Future Is Already Here

There are not many ways to cause a stir in the classroom as an engineering professor, but one of them is surely to stand in front of a room full of bright-eyed, up-and-coming engineering students and inform them that “innovation, as we popularly understood it, is essentially dead.” Nevertheless, that is what I’ve taken to doing each year. Yes, I always put qualifiers on that statement (which you can perhaps catch a whiff of in the statement itself). I have been delivering “the talk” to students for several years now, outlining exactly what I mean by it, and encouraging them to push back and generate rebuttals. I always frame it as a challenge, rather than as a pronouncement from up on the stage. I am usually unmoved by the returns. It begins like this—I will ask students what inventions have been discovered in their 20-odd-year lifetimes that they feel have fundamentally changed how humans live. They get some space to think, but inevitably offer up their smartphones, at which point I nod, having begrudgingly accepted …

Higher Education Risks No Longer Being Worth It – Here’s How to Change Course

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a substantial decline in the demand for traditional four-year degrees, leading to a 16 percent and 43 percent decline in fall enrollment for freshman and international students, respectively. In fact, a recent survey found that over a third of prospective college students are reconsidering higher education with 40 percent of them citing finances as the primary factor. This has led to growing concerns among university administrators about the financial health of their institutions. While some have responded by temporarily lowering their tuition rates in the absence of in-person classes, many have not, leading to dissatisfaction among students and parents alike. The value proposition for a traditional college degree has been shifting for a while. In fact, the added wage benefit that an individual with a bachelor’s degree earns, relative to not having a bachelor’s, has flattened in recent years, reversing a trend that had held for decades. Coupled with the move away from traditional in-person learning, at least temporarily, the pandemic has further undercut the returns to a college …

“I Was Never More Hated Than When I Tried to Be Honest”

Ralph Ellison, author of the timeless American classic Invisible Man, was among the most commanding black literary voices to emerge in the 20th century. It is a designation he would almost certainly have resented. Ellison didn’t see his work through the prism of his racial identity but as a means of transcending it—using the particulars of his experience to explore human universals. His ambition was not to be a great black writer but to be a great writer who happened to be black, competing in his own mind with Dostoevsky, Melville, Twain. He wanted to “do with black life what Homer did with Greek life” as Clyde Taylor, a professor at NYU, put it. Above all, he wanted blacks to recognize their essential place in the unfolding American story as part of a larger effort to dismantle the artificial racial barriers between disparate ethnic groups that has stalled the evolution of our shared national identity and culture. Quite unusually, Ellison’s work has resonated across the political spectrum and even pierced the bubble of pop culture. The …