The Uncontainable Diplomat
A week after the death of Joseph Stalin, in March 1953, the new U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, called in George Frost Kennan, America’s most illustrious diplomat, to inform him that there was “no niche” for him in the Eisenhower administration. Nominally still the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, which had declared him persona non grata the previous year, Kennan (1904–2005) was not simply the leading American expert on the country, but also the author of “containment,” a strategy for resisting Soviet expansion by all measures short of war.
That was the trouble. Although containment had been (and was to remain) the cardinal principle of bipartisan foreign policy since shortly after Kennan had coined the term in 1946, it was deemed by the Republicans, in the age of McCarthyism and loyalty checks, to be too passive an approach. Dulles, with an eye to the ethnic vote in the 1952 presidential election, had replaced it with a clarion call for the liberation of the captive nations of Eastern Europe. Kennan believed this was lunacy. There was no place in foreign policy, he declared in a speech in Pennsylvania the day after Dulles had stressed his commitment to liberation during his confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for “emotionalism, the striking of heroic poses, and demagoguery of all sorts.”
Bizarrely, on the day Dulles fired him and the whole Western world... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Rushing to Judgment
Body and soul, reason and passion, yin and yang—expressions of twoness pervade the world’s cultures, perhaps because duality comes naturally to creatures divided into males and females and destined to live through daily cycles of light and dark.
Dualism is the organizing principle of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, a genial survey of human irrationality that serves as an admirable summa of the author’s extraordinary life’s work. His pioneering research mapping the vast territory of human irrationality, much of it done with the late Stanford psychologist Amos Tversky, helped Kahneman win the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics—even though he’s a psychologist.
Since then, irrationality has become a growth industry, both for scholars such as Duke psychologist Dan Ariely and popular science writers including Jonah Lehrer, but few authors have thought as long or as deeply about the subject as Kahneman. The central message of this accessible book is that most of us simply have no idea how illogical, impressionable, and downright inept we are when it comes to making judgments.
Imagine, for instance, a man described as meek, shy, tidy, and helpful. Is he more likely to be a librarian or a farmer? Most of us will answer librarian, thereby falling for what Kahneman calls the representativeness heuristic. It may be true that librarians tend to fit the description, but there are 20 times as many male farmers as male librarians in this... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Animals Are Us
For humans, nature has never been less threatening. We have conquered many of the diseases that felled our ancestors when they were half as old as the average person lives to be now, and few people die anymore in the jaws of predators. Antibiotics keep bacteria at bay, and the spread of cities and towns has pushed lions and tigers and bears away from our doors. We call this progress. Who would want to go back to, say, a time before penicillin?
But driving other species out of our lives has had some unintended consequences, argues biologist Rob Dunn in his provocative book The Wild Life of Our Bodies. For most of human history, we lived in proximity to countless other species. We evolved in concert with these life forms; everything from the tiniest microbes to the most fearsome predators shaped the bodies and brains we’re walking around with today. “What happens,” Dunn asks, “when humans leave behind the species their bodies evolved to interact with, whether they be cheetahs, diseases, honeybees, or giant sucking worms?”
The answers Dunn provides aren’t pretty. Without these other life forms, he argues, many features of our own bodies have “become anachronistic or worse.” The unlikely Exhibit A: Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammation of the bowel that is on the rise in developed nations. Crohn’s and other autoimmune disorders are most common in exactly those places where public health seems to be most advanced&... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Before I loved the movies, I loved Roger Ebert. As a teenager, I spent hours lying on my bed, engrossed in a fat purple volume of his Home Movie Companion, with its summaries of “grownup” films I had never dared to see: Leaving Las Vegas, Flirting, Natural Born Killers. Later, I would understand how much more grownup Ebert’s reviews were than many of the movies themselves, but at the time, I just knew he was genuine. His informal prose, often suggesting a chat between intimate friends, radiated a nearly aching romance with cinema. He retold other people’s stories, and sometimes I recognized my own.
My reading was a solitary pleasure, though hardly a unique one. Just about everybody loves Roger Ebert. Instantly recognizable from his long-running television shows Sneak Previews and At the Movies, he didn’t so much teach us to take movies seriously—at a time when critics such as Pauline Kael were enshrining films as high art—as make criticism seem like a universal pastime. His naysayers, who are not without their ammunition, charge that he never became much of a student of cinema, and deride his plainspoken, democratic style as artless. But for more than 40 years, he has celebrated the joy of moviegoing and given his readers confidence in their ability to read a film intelligently without being snooty about it.
Since 2006, when thyroid cancer and complications of surgery deprived him of his jaw, his ability to eat and drink, and his... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
The Lunacy to Lead
In September 2001, I was working in Manhattan as an assistant director of a homeless shelter in which lived 200 men. Each had a psychotic illness. For two days after the 9/11 attacks I was unable to get into Manhattan, but I made it to work on Thursday, September 13, taking the bus over the George Washington Bridge. The city felt like a war zone. The acrid smell of smoke suffused the air; sirens and alarms sounded constantly; armed soldiers or police officers stood on every corner. I steeled myself, expecting the shelter to be, well, more insane than usual.
I was astonished to find everything at the shelter as it always was—if anything, a little calmer. When I asked the residents if they had any concerns, someone pointed out that the hot water was not working very well. No one mentioned the fact that a large portion of lower Manhattan was no longer there. At last I felt compelled to bring up the attacks. The men said they felt bad for those who had suffered, but all of that had happened a couple of days ago. At first I was indignant at their seeming apathy, but over time I realized that 9/11 was for many of them the day the level of crisis in the world met their own. Functioning in a crisis mode was something they knew how to do very well.
This phenomenon is more or less what Nassir Ghaemi adroitly explores in A First-Rate Madness. The book, though psychologically nuanced, has a simple thesis: Leaders who have mental illness or have experienced periods of mental... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
A Singular Voice
For years, it has been easy to take Christopher Hitchens for granted, and now we are losing him. The incomparable British polemicist, contrarian, essayist, bon vivant, and bullhorn of the anti-totalitarian left has advanced throat cancer, and may have won his last motion in the debating hall and blown his last smoke cloud into the face of tyranny. Fortunately for his readers, Hitchens’s voice is not yet silenced. Arguably is a massive, engrossing collection of essays produced over the past 10 years. Like his brilliant memoir of 2010, Hitch-22, it reminds us of all we stand to lose.
Hitchens made himself somewhat tedious from about 2003 to 2007 with his relentless defense of the Iraq war and his apparently spiteful flirtation with conservatism. Arguably covers other ground. Those familiar with Hitchens only from his pugnacious television appearances and his Fighting Words column in Slate magazine will benefit from exposure to his literary side, especially his splendid review essays in The Atlantic. For those who like a little splatter, he can be just as brutal panning a book as attacking an apologist for fascism. He writes that, in composing the 2006 novel Terrorist, John Updike gives “the impression of someone who has been keeping up with the ‘Inside Radical Islam’ features in something like Newsweek,” producing “one of the worst pieces of writing from any grownup source since the events” of 9/11.
The essays on literature and... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
The Marriage Gap
Ralph Richard Banks borrows the provocative title of his book from an anecdote relayed by an African-American journalist who taught a class to a roomful of black sixth graders in Washington, D.C., a few years ago. When the journalist offered to invite married couples to speak to the students about raising children, one boy sneered, “Marriage is for white people.”
The black family has long been a topic of public discussion. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in what became known as the Moynihan Report, famously described single-parent (and overwhelmingly female- headed) black families as a “tangle of pathology.” Today, black women are peculiarly unpartnered—as many as three out of 10 may never marry. With movies such as Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005) and Why Did I Get Married? (2007), black filmmaker Tyler Perry has built a fortune on the subject of black female loneliness and the precarious nature of relationships between black women and black men.
The decline in the marriage rate among poor African Americans has gained most of the attention, given that it’s especially pronounced, but the scarcity of married couples is increasingly apparent among affluent blacks as well. In this accessible and comprehensive study, Banks focuses on the plight of middle-class black women, who marry at higher rates than poor black women but are still twice as likely as white women never to wed.
An implicit theme of Banks’s book is the universality... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Water Over the Bridge
Almost 75 years ago, the city fathers of Portsmouth, Ohio, ordered the sewers opened so that high water from the Ohio River would inundate the town gradually rather than violently. As a journalist of the time commented, “The people knew better than to argue with the river.” Triggered by days of torrential rainstorms that astounded even many veterans of earlier floods, the waters in January 1937 would eventually crest 15 feet above flood stage and earn the engineering designation of “thousand- year flood,” one statistically expected to occur once in a millennium.
Farming tracts and urban neighborhoods long classified as safe havens were inundated. Railroad and highway traffic was interrupted and power stations stopped working as waters spread where planners had never imagined they could. (In this respect, the Ohio-Mississippi Flood of 1937 resembles the tsunami in Japan earlier this year as much as it does the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.) All told, financial losses were estimated at a billion dollars (roughly $15 billion today). A million people fled their homes. Hundreds died, mostly from pneumonia and other flood-related illnesses.
Yet today few remember the 1937 flood, though it was more severe than the famous Mississippi River flood of a decade earlier, remarks David Welky, an associate professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas. National media, which were concentrated in the Northeast, Chicago, and California, gave the... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Peace on Earth
I recently visited Caquetá, one of the southernmost regions of Colombia, noted for its beautiful Amazonian landscape and its bitter armed conflict. For almost five decades, it has been the epicenter of violent confrontations between a long list of regular and irregular armed groups, with a frighteningly high murder rate and periodic civilian massacres the result. As a health worker in the region who deals with the consequences of violent conflict, I could not help feeling a touch of irony as I read Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which examines how “the decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.”
Pinker, a psychologist and linguist at Harvard, is best known for his books about cognitive science, but in The Better Angels of Our Nature he has produced an excellent exploration of how and why violence, aggression, and war have declined markedly, to the point where we live in humanity’s most peaceful age. This news is likely to come as a surprise to many, who are perhaps more familiar with the specters of industrial warfare, nuclear Armageddon, and nightly televised atrocities, but Pinker musters an impressive array of evidence—his book contains more than a hundred maps and graphs, including data illustrating the falling homicide rates in Western Europe over the past several centuries and a chart showing the dramatic increase in the number of... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
China’s Great Leader
More than any other individual, Deng Xiaoping made China’s modern rise possible. History is replete with examples of great leaders who made their mark through force and conquest. Far rarer, at least in the public mind, are those leaders who earned their reputations not through feats of arms but through their positive transformative actions while in power. Deng Xiaoping, whose life spanned most of the 20th century, was such a leader.
Deng spent much of his career in the shadow of Mao Zedong, the revolutionary leader who was the driving force in bringing the Chinese Communist Party to power in 1949 but then proved to be a disaster as a national leader, repeatedly plunging his country into chaos through his quixotic policies, his erratic vision, and his cavalier disregard for the welfare of the common people. Purged for the third time in 1976, as Mao approached death, Deng emerged from the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution to become China’s supreme leader in fact if not in name. In the space of less than 15 years, from 1978 to 1992, Deng set China on the course that has regained for it the wealth and power it enjoyed through much of the last two millennia. This course, if sustained, could position China to challenge the economic and military position of the United States as the world’s leading superpower.
Quite a few highly competent biographies of Deng have been written over the years. Many were published during the 1990s, when the full impact of his... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
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