kottke.org posts about usa
This interactive map shows where the 79 million people who have immigrated to the US from 1820 to 2013 came from. In the past, incoming residents from Canada, Italy, Germany, and Ireland were prevalent, but more recently Mexico, China, and the Philippines have led the way.
What I think is particularly interesting about immigration to the U.S. is that each “wave” coming in from a particular country has a story behind it — usually escaping persecution (e.g. Jews escaping Russia after the May Laws were enacted, the Cuban Revolution) or major economic troubles (e.g. the Irish Potato Famine, the collapse of southern Italy after the Italian Unification).
There are plenty of dark spots on United States’ history, but the role it has played as a sanctuary for troubled people across the world is a history I feel very proud to be a part of.
The graph of incoming immigrants as a percentage of the total US population is especially instructive. Though higher than it was in the 60s and 70s, relative immigration rates are still far below what the country saw in the 1920s and before.
Filmmaker Jennifer Crandall has spent the past two years travelling all around Alabama, collecting short video vignettes of people’s lives — “Might we pull out our cameras to capture a few tiny moments from your life?” — and now she’s posting the videos on the Whitman, Alabama site.
I believe in listening and I believe in creating spaces intimate enough for voices to be heard. I believe in Alabama and her people. So I wanted to try to amplify her voices. To do this, a patchwork team of us set out and began to make a 52-part documentary film.
We crisscrossed the state, made acquaintances with strangers and asked: “Might we pull out our cameras to capture a few tiny moments from your life?”
And people said yes! (This still surprises me every time.)
And then we said: “There’s a catch. Can we do it while you read some poetry?”
I have to say, you Alabamians stepped up to the plate. You said, “Yes, I believe that’d still be all right.”
Each of her 52 subjects recites a verse from Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself. Why Whitman and not a poem by a southern poet?
I like the idea of cheekily co-opting the work of a dead white Yankee and re-envisioning it through contemporary Southern voices. I think we’ve found a neat way of mixing DNA here by joining these voices with Whitman’s. We’ve taken Whitman up on his offer to be co-creators, co-authors, of “Song of Myself.”
The Sullivan family read verse 16:
Some people just hit you in the heart. I was at Yen Restaurant in Mobile, looking for a hit of comfort food—Vietnamese food — and Cathy, Samantha and Brandon walked in.
Samantha reminded me of myself — half-Asian, half-white, sort of a tomboy. I approached them. Immediately they were open and warm. I asked Cathy if they might want to read for the project.
She said sure. No hesitation. She appreciated art and music. Samantha did, too. Cathy stenciled boats for a living. Samantha wanted to be an illustrator or graphic designer someday.
Sometimes if people think something isn’t going to look good to other people, they won’t let you see it, let alone film it. But Cathy threw open the doors in full welcome.
Spend some time with the project, meet some of your fellow Americans you might not know that well. (via @alainabrowne)
Update: Jia Tolentino interviewed Crandall about the project for the New Yorker.
The first time Crandall read “Song of Myself,” it was 1990, and she was sixteen, standing in a bookstore in McLean, Virginia, having just moved back to the United States. Because of her father’s job, with U.S.A.I.D., she had spent most of her childhood in Bangladesh, Haiti, and Pakistan. “My mom is Chinese, from Vietnam, and my dad’s a white dude from Denver, and at that moment I just felt that I did not understand America,” she said. She pulled a paperback anthology of poetry off the shelf, and Whitman stuck out right away. “Though I wouldn’t have articulated it then, what I responded to was this idea that everyone embodies diversity, not just the country. That many people are negotiating multiple social contracts, the way I’d been doing since I was born.”
The New Yorker has published an online excerpt of David Grann’s new book about the murders of more than a dozen Osage Indians in the 1920s, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.
Like their parents, Mollie and her sisters had their names inscribed on the Osage Roll, which meant that they were among the registered members of the tribe. It also meant that they possessed a fortune. In the early eighteen-seventies, the Osage had been driven from their lands in Kansas onto a rocky, presumably worthless reservation in northeastern Oklahoma, only to discover, decades later, that this land was sitting above some of the largest oil deposits in the United States. To obtain that oil, prospectors had to pay the Osage in the form of leases and royalties. In the early twentieth century, each person on the tribal roll began receiving a quarterly check. The amount was initially for only a few dollars, but over time, as more oil was tapped, the dividends grew into the hundreds, then the thousands of dollars. And virtually every year the payments increased, like the prairie creeks that joined to form the wide, muddy Cimarron, until the tribe members had collectively accumulated millions and millions of dollars. (In 1923 alone, the tribe took in more than thirty million dollars, the equivalent today of more than four hundred million dollars.) The Osage were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world. “Lo and behold!” the New York weekly Outlook exclaimed. “The Indian, instead of starving to death … enjoys a steady income that turns bankers green with envy.”
Fair warning, this piece is tantalizingly short and serves more as a teaser for the book than a stand-alone excerpt, which I don’t mind because I was planning on reading it anyway.
Among the requirements that all immigrants must meet to become a naturalized US citizen is a civics test covering US history and government. The test contains 100 questions, 10 of which are verbally posed by a Citizenship and Immigration Services officer…no multiple choice. Applicants must answer 6 out of 10 correctly to pass. The questions include:
What is the supreme law of the land?
What is freedom of religion?
What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?
The House of Representatives has how many voting members?
What is the name of the President of the United States now?
Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the states. What is one power of the states?
What are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy?
The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.
When must all men register for the Selective Service?
Name one war fought by the United States in the 1800s.
What was one important thing that Abraham Lincoln did?
Why does the flag have 13 stripes?
Before he was President, Eisenhower was a general. What war was he in?
Name one of the two longest rivers in the United States.
Name two national U.S. holidays.
You can take a 20-question multiple choice test on the USCIS website or if you want to see how many you can answer out of 100 with no multiple choice, I knocked up a Google Sheets version here — access is read-only but you can make a copy and take the test by choosing File / Make a copy… from the menu. Here’s a full list of the questions and suggested answers to check your work. Without studying, some of the questions are more difficult than you’d think, particularly if your last political science and American history classes were 25 years ago in high school.
And like all tests, this one is imperfect.1 In 2001, Dafna Linzer wrote about her test-taking experience.
Then there is Question 12: What is the “rule of law”?
I showed it to lawyers and law professors. They were stumped.
There are four acceptable answers: “Everyone must follow the law”; “Leaders must obey the law”; “Government must obey the law”; “No one is above the law.”
Judge Richard Posner, the constitutional scholar who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, was unhappy. “These are all incorrect,” he wrote me. “The rule of law means that judges decide cases ‘without respect of persons,’ that is, without considering the social status, attractiveness, etc. of the parties or their lawyers.”
The Simpsons lampooned this aspect of the test in 1996 when Apu answered a question about the Civil War2 during his civics test.
Examiner: “Alright, here’s your last question: What was the cause of the Civil War?”
Apu: “Actually there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, economic factors both domestic and international…”
Examiner: “Hey, hey…”
Examiner: “Just… just say ‘slavery’”.
Apu: “Slavery it is, sir.”
This would never happen in a million years, but I would love for someone to sit down with Donald Trump to see how many of these he could answer. Like I said, if you haven’t studied, some of the questions are not that easy. But surely the President of the United States should be able to get almost all of them correct…
The United States Government Manual is the official handbook of the US federal government. Here is the org chart for our government…take notice of what’s right at the top:
I’m no constitutional scholar, but that particular document starts off:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
I realize the current executive administration doesn’t care and the current majority in the legislative branch barely cares, but remembering exactly who our government works for will be helpful over the next few years. (via @monstro)
The Upshot recently conducted a survey about 29 gun control ideas and graphed the results based on the popularity of the ideas with the American public and their potential effectiveness according to experts.
Oh, shit like this makes me SO ANGRY. I didn’t even include the bottom part of the graph because there’s nothing down there. That’s right, the majority of Americans support all sorts of different gun control tactics, especially those likely to be most effective. But a focused and organized minority of gun nuts has somehow made it impossible for any reform to happen, so things like Newtown and Orlando and Charleston and San Bernardino and Aurora and toddlers killing people with guns will just continue to happen all over the nation like it’s completely fucking normal.
In November, shortly after the election, Vann Newkirk wrote an article for The Atlantic called This Is Who We Are, a reflection on racism in America.
At a gas station just outside of Rockingham, serendipity found us. As we pulled up to the pump, just there in front of our car was Mr. Confederate Plate, leaning like all villains do against the side of his car. I’m not sure who recognized whom first, but I remember the shouting match, and Mr. Confederate Flag calling my father the one name he would never answer to, looking at me and saying the same, and then pantomiming that he had a gun in the car. I remember looking around at similar flags on another truck and inside the gas station, and knowing instinctively that we were not in friendly territory. I also remember my father shaking with rage and that same hot shame as my own when he climbed back in the truck.
After another cussing fit, Vann Newkirk Sr. looked at me and said the thing that’s always stuck with me since. “This is who we are,” he told me. “Don’t forget.” And we went back down the road.
The piece was adapted into the short video above. Both are worth your time.
It’s that time of year again. No, not Christmas or Hanukkah. As the year winds down, it’s an opportunity for Americans to investigate how differently they use words in different parts of the country. In December 2013, for example, people lost their damn minds over the NY Times’ dialect quiz. This year, you can play around with The Great American Word Mapper which uses Twitter data from 2014 to plot geographic usage patterns.
For instance, you can see where people use “supper” vs. “dinner” (see above). The map indicates mixed usage where I grew up, which checks out…we mostly said “supper” but “dinner” was not uncommon, particularly as I got older. Other results are less useful…the Twitter-based “soda” vs. “coke” vs. “pop” doesn’t tell you as much as directly asking people what they call soft drinks.
The swearing maps are always fun (see also the United States of Swearing)…I wonder why “shit” is so relatively popular in the South?
Some other interesting searches: “moma” (alternate spelling of “momma” in the South with a small pocket of usage around NYC for MoMA), “city” doesn’t give the result you might expect, the distribution of “nigger” vs “nigga” suggests they are two different words with two different meanings, and in trying to find a search that would isolate just urban areas, the best I could come up with was “kanye” (or maybe “cocktails” or “traffic”). And harsh, map! Geez. (via @fromedome)
This is cool and a little mesmerizing: animated US maps showing the most popular baby name in each state from 1910 to 2014 for boys and girls. There are three separate visualizations. The first just shows the most popular baby name in each state. Watch as one dominant name takes over for another in just a couple of years…the Mary to Lisa to Jennifer transition in the 60s and 70s is like watching an epidemic spread. Celebrity names pop up and disappear, like Betty (after Betty Boop and Betty Grable?) and Shirley (after Shirley Temple) in the 30s. The boy’s names change a lot less until you start getting into the Brandons, Austins, and Tylers of the 90s.
The next visualization shows the most particularly popular name for each state, e.g. Brandy was the most Louisianan name for female newborns in 1975. And the third visualization shows each name plotted in the averaged geographical location of births — so you can see, for example, the northward migration of Amanda during the 80s.
P.S. Guess what the most popular boy’s name in the state of my birth was the year I was born? And the most particularly popular boy’s name in the state I moved to just a year later? Jason. I am basic af.
Update: From Flowing Data, some graphs of the most unisex names in US history. (thx, paul)
Why does the US have only two main political parties? Is it because that’s what people want? Nope! It’s just an artifact of our system of voting. From C.G.P. Grey, a video explaining the problems with first-past-the-post voting systems (like the one used in US elections). Great simple explanation…well worth watching. Check out the rest of Grey’s videos in this series, particularly the one on gerrymandering.
Nothing in politics gets my blood boiling faster than gerrymandering…it is so grossly and obviously unfair. I bet you don’t even need to guess which of the two US political parties has pushed unfair redistricting in recent years.
More than anything for me, this is the story of politics in America right now: a shrinking and increasingly extremist underdog party has punched above its weight over the past few election cycles by methodically exploiting the weaknesses in our current political system. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, the passing of voter ID laws, and spreading propaganda via conservative and social media channels has led to disproportionate Republican representation in many areas of the country which they then use to gerrymander and pass more restrictive voter ID laws. They’ve limited potential conservative third party candidates (like Trump!) by incorporating them and their views into the main party. I would not be surprised if Republican donors strategically support left-of-center third-party candidates as spoilers — it’s a good tactic, underhanded but effective. They increasingly ignore political norms and practices to stymie Democratic efforts, like the general inaction of the Republican-led Congress over the past few years and the Senate’s refusal to consider Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.
None of this is an accident. They are a small but (and this is important) unified team that works for the benefit of the group above all else. In football terms, the Democrats are the stronger team: they gain more yards (look at Clinton’s ever-growing lead in the popular vote), they earn more first downs, and they might even score more points over the course of the season. But the Republicans won the Super Bowl by sticking together and deftly pressing their advantages to change the rules of the game in their favor. It’s a Moneyball strategy, but for politics.1 By almost any measure, the US is more liberal than it was 20 years ago and yet we have an incoming administration which is potentially authoritarian, influenced and advised by extremist white nationalists, and unapologetically corruptible. Somehow, we need to make the game more fair again. Fairness and justice should not be partisan. Americans — all Americans, liberal, centrist, and conservative — deserve a fair political process that reflects as closely as possible the collective needs and desires of the citizenry. Anything less should be unacceptable.
Update: Ross Lincoln makes some similar points about the election and liberal majority in America in a series of tweets about the importance of talking about Clinton’s popular vote totals.
14) Meanwhile, the great lie told by GOPs is that they’re ‘real’ America and that they’re a true majority, not liberals.
15) So when they win, regardless of circumstances, press & even many ostensible liberals fall in line w/demands liberals stop being liberal.
16) That’s happening now bigly. Even the LA Weekly published a horrid little illiterate screed about how liberals suck. LA Weekly!
17) but here’s the thing: Hill’s campaign seriously erred in ignoring key swing states. But she still is getting a historic pop vote margin
18) pushing 3 million more votes than Trump got. Possibly going to have gotten more votes than Obama got in 2012.
19) by any reasonable standard of judgment, clear majority of voters did not want Trump in office and most of those voters wanted Hillary.
20) Trump literally won only thanks to a technicality. And yet everyone is trying to push this idea that liberal votes don’t really count.
21) we’re told *we* live in a bubble. But as other ppl have noted, Los Angeles looks a hell of a lot more like America than Sapulpa, OK.
22) before anyone accuses me of being a snooty coastal elite, I am from Sapulpa, OK.
23) if Dems reacted to winning E.C. but not pop vote by saying OK isn’t a real place and doesn’t count, there’d be riots and impeachment.
24) That’s literally what is happening to liberals. But we didn’t just win the pop vote b/c of a quirk. We won it BIG. There are more of us.
25) if anything, we’re the ignored majority. Not conservatives, who literally cannot win fair and square.
See also Steven Johnson’s piece about how the wealthiest, most liberal, and most urban states pay the most taxes and have the least representation.
For most of the past decade, consumption of meat in the United States remained flat or declined.
For environmental, health, and animal welfare advocates, this was great news. Surely it meant that efforts to raise awareness about the disturbing impacts of meat production were inspiring people to cut back on hamburgers and bacon. As Paul Shapiro, vice president of Farm Animal Protection for the Humane Society of the United States, wrote in 2012, “The pressure is being felt all over, and for the first time in decades, our overconsumption of meat is beginning to get reined in.”
But according to research by a Dutch bank, US meat consumption jumped in 2015.
Not only was last year noteworthy for the near 5% increase in per capita consumption, but also due to the fact that the growth was achieved without the help of beef, consumption of which was flat. We expect US protein production growth of 2.5% per annum through 2018 — down from 3% in 2015 — with beef being the largest contributor relative to pork and poultry.
What drove the decline in the first place? Price. It always comes back to supply and demand.
Ranchers and farmers trimmed their herds because of the recession, historically high feed costs, and drought in the Great Plains. Meanwhile, domestic disease outbreaks like porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, or PEDv, meant that tens of thousands of hogs never made it to market. So Americans cut back on meat.
But by 2015, many of these issues driving higher prices were resolved. The retail price of beef has dropped by 22 percent, pork by 7 percent, and chicken by 5 percent. So Americans are eating more meat again.
“Consumers are responding to falling prices. That’s a big part of the story,” says Sawyer. The chicken industry, in particular, has also gotten more efficient and more capable of raising chickens fast.
I was at the grocery store last night and was shocked by the prices in the meat aisle. Lots of cuts on sale for just a few dollars a pound. (via the latest and particularly excellent issue of Susan MacMillan’s newsletter)
The New York Times took a map of the US and split it in two based on areas that voted for Clinton and Trump in the 2016 election. (Clinton’s map is pictured above.)
Mrs. Clinton’s island nation has large atolls and small island chains with liberal cores, like college towns, Native American reservations and areas with black and Hispanic majorities. While the land area is small, the residents here voted for Mrs. Clinton in large enough numbers to make her the winner of the overall popular vote.
That’s fun, but it’s another reminder of how strictly geographical maps distort election results.
P.S. They missed a real opportunity to call the chain of islands in the southern states The Cretaceous Atoll.
Post-Brexit, people in the UK started wearing safety pins to show their stance against racism and their solidarity with immigrants.
In response to the open environment of hatred, people across the U.K. are now wearing safety pins — and tweeting pictures of themselves wearing them — in an act of solidarity with immigrants.
In the wake of the election and reports of racism incidents across the nation, some are advocating using the safety pin strategy here too.
We need a symbol like that in the United States now. These are vicious days in America. The deplorables are emboldened. The Washington Post reports that there have already been two attacks on Muslim women on college campuses. At San Diego State University, two men ranting about Trump and Muslims robbed a student wearing hijab.
I like this idea, that a subtle marker can denote a social safe space of sorts, a signal to someone who might feel uncomfortable that an ally is nearby. That’s not to say you can put a pin on your coat and *dust off your hands, job well done* but it may help. I’m going to try it.
Update: During the Nazi occupation of Norway in World War II, Norwegians took to wearing paperclips to signal their rejection of Nazi ideology.
The people of Norway also had to deal with German soldiers day in and day out for five years. By 1945, some 400,000 German troops were operating in Norway, controlling the population of about 4 million people.
It was in the autumn of 1940 when students at Oslo University started wearing paperclips on their lapels as a non-violent symbol of resistance, unity, and national pride.
Symbols related to the royal family and state had already been banned, and they wanted a clever way of displaying their rejection of the Nazi ideology. In addition to wearing a single paperclip, paperclip bracelets and other types of jewellery were fashioned as well, symbolically binding Norwegians together in the face of such adversity.
Of course, once the Nazis got wind of this, wearing paperclips became a crime. (via @ckrub)
Update: That co-opting thing I warned against above? Seems like it’s happening.
wear safety pin to fool people into thinking you’re a safe space, trigger them
If I had to guess however, this behavior will be short lived and they’ll move on to some other genius scheme. I’m not taking my pin off. (via @_McFIy & @pattersar)
Update: There’s no safety pin emoji, but some people are adding the paperclip emoji to their Twitter usernames as a virtual world counterpart to the safety pin.
This morning, after scraping a layer of frost from the windshield, I drove to my local polling place, a small elementary school. There was no line in the school’s gymnasium and only a couple of the booths were occupied. I filled out my ballot, turned it in, got my sticker, and left. Three minutes flat. Done. Finally, after more than a year. I have done what I can.
I voted for Hillary Clinton for President, I don’t mind telling you. I’m With Her. The “Her” supposedly refers to Clinton herself, leading some critics to complain of her “all about me” campaign strategy. But I prefer to think the “Her” stands for the women of America, who gained the right to vote less than 100 years ago and have never had the opportunity to elect a woman to the highest office in the land. And not just any woman, but a woman who is among the most qualified candidates for President over the past 25 years. This is long long overdue and I’m proud to have done my tiny bit in making it happen.
In his film Best of Luck With the Wall, director Josh Begley takes us on a journey across the entire US/Mexico border. It’s a simple premise — a continuous display of 200,000 satellite images of the border from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico — but one that delivers a powerful feeling of how large the world is and how meaningless borders are from a certain perspective.
The project started from a really simple place. It was about looking. It was about the pure desire to understand the visual landscape that we are talking about when we are talking about the southern border of the United States. What does the southern border of the United States actually look like? And in that sense it was a very simple gesture to try to see the border in aggregate. If you were to compile all 2000 miles and try to see it in a short space — what would that look like? In another sense it grew out of the discourses as you suggested. The way migration is talked about in our contemporary moment and in particular the way migration is talked about in terms of the southern border of the U.S. So part of this piece is a response to the way migrants and borders are talked about in our politics. And it’s also just a way of looking at landscape as a way to think about some of those things.
The online version of the film is 6 minutes long, but Begley states that longer versions might make their way into galleries and such.
America is no longer a majority white, Christian country.
At 45 percent of the population, white Christians are a shrinking demographic — and the backlash from many members of the group against the increasing diversification of America has been swift and bitter.
The narrator of the video, Robert P. Jones, wrote a book about this new reality called The End of White Christian America.
For most of our nation’s history, White Christian America (WCA) — the cultural and political edifice built primarily by white Protestant Christians — set the tone for our national policy and shaped American ideals. But especially since the 1990s, WCA has steadily lost influence, following declines within both its mainline and evangelical branches. Today, America is no longer demographically or culturally a majority white Christian nation.
From Nylon, Kristin Iversen compiled her list of the best pieces of nonfiction — books, essays, memoirs — from every state in the US (plus DC and NYC). Here’s a sampling:
Alaska: Coming into the Country by John McPhee.
Connecticut: The Story of How, and Why, Martha Stewart Became the Queen of Living Well by Margaret Talbot.
Florida: The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. (Love this choice!)
Illinois: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Strong runner-up here is the amazing The Warmth of Other Suns (which I reviewed here).
Vermont: Where the Roads Have No Name by Geoff Manaugh.
In the 1930s, almost a decade before the nation’s young men would be shipped overseas to combat the foul stench of Hitler wafting across Europe, official and unofficial rallies for the Nazi party were held in Madison Square Garden.
Shortly after Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, the Nazis consolidated control over the country. Looking to cultivate power beyond the borders of Germany, Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess charged German-American immigrant Heinz Spanknobel with forming a strong Nazi organization in the United States.
Combining two small extant groups, Spanknobel formed Friends of New Germany in July 1933. Counting both German nationals and Americans of German descent among its membership, the Friends loudly advocated for the Nazi cause, storming the offices of New York’s largest German-language paper, countering Jewish boycotts of German businesses and holding swastika-strewn rallies in black-and-white uniforms.
A later group, which only disbanded at the end of 1941, were prominently pro-American and featured iconography of George Washington as “the first Fascist”. (I would have gone for “the Founding Fascist”…catchier.)
In a recent episode of his EconTalk podcast, host Russ Roberts talks with Michael Munger about a paper Munger co-authored about how white Southern attitudes toward slavery shifted from around 1815 to 1835. The episode is interesting throughout,1 but I want to highlight this attitude shift Munger writes about in the paper, something I was previously unaware of.
Sifting through documents from the era between the American Revolution and the Civil War, Munger and his co-author Jeffrey Grynaviski found that Southern whites believed, in the first decade or two of the 19th century, that owning slaves was evil but necessary. There was this system in place and it was bad but we’re gonna go with it because, whaddya gonna do? But in a period of about 20 years, due to a variety of factors, mostly economic, the justification for slavery shifted primarily to a racist one: that black people were inferior and needed to be cared for by whites. Southern whites came to believe, like really believe, that they were doing their slaves a favor by enslaving them and that the slaves were better off than they would be in Africa.
The way we defined it in this paper was that racism became a substitute justification for slavery. And the reason was, the original justification for slavery, which was the Roman one of wasn’t good enough. And so Southerners cast about and found basically an alternative, which was the Greek justification for slavery. And let me just say very briefly what those two are. The one justification for slavery, and it was pretty common in Rome, was that if you lost a battle and were captured, then you might either be killed or kept as a slave. And there is a mutually beneficial exchange, if you will, in the sense that you’ve already lost. So, me saying, ‘I tell you what: I won’t kill you if you will agree to act as my slave for the rest of your life. And I may free you; I may not; but that’s up to me.’ And you say, ‘Killed/be a slave: I’m going to go with the slave thing.’ But, it meant that some slaves were very excellent. And in Roman society some slaves occupied very high positions, positions of respect. It’s just that they made this promise. It was an economic institution. And that was the way that slavery had existed in Africa: if you lost a battle, then you would be captured by the other side. It was almost like indentured servitude: you could work it off.
Well, that didn’t work in the American South because they wanted to maintain slaves, to be able to identify slaves and to have a justification that would allow them to enslave the children — which the old Roman justification would never have allowed. You are not going to be a slave if you are born to a slave, because you didn’t lose in battle: you would have been free.
So, the Southerners needed a different way, so they were looking for the Aristotelian notion of slavery, which is that slaves are people who are either morally inferior or lack the judgment to make independent choices. They are like children or like horses. That means that you actually have a positive-good justification for enslaving them: if I have a thoroughbred horse or a fancy dog, it would be cruel of me to set it loose to let it run around, because it’s not capable of taking care of itself. I have obligations to take care of it. My ownership actually gives me obligations. And what’s interesting and what this paper is about is how Southerners worked that out between about 1815 and 1835, and started to understand the implications for how they had to change the economic institutions of slavery to match this new ideology that they were creating.
Yet another example of how powerful economic self-interest is in shifting moral beliefs.
As I remarked last year, the Smoky Mountains website has the best fall foliage map in the business. The map covers the entire US and comes with a slider that lets you check the status weekend by weekend throughout the fall. Looks like the foliage will peak near Sept 30th in VT and Oct 14th in NYC and in the Smoky Mountains.
In 1946, Albert Einstein, who had come to the US in 1933 and stayed to become a citizen due to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, wrote a magazine article titled The Negro Question. In it, he called the prejudice against black Americans a “deeply entrenched evil”.
What soon makes the new arrival devoted to this country is the democratic trait among the people. I am not thinking here so much of the democratic political constitution of this country, however highly it must be praised. I am thinking of the relationship between individual people and of the attitude they maintain toward one another.
In the United States everyone feels assured of his worth as an individual. No one humbles himself before another person or class. Even the great difference in wealth, the superior power of a few, cannot undermine this healthy self-confidence and natural respect for the dignity of one’s fellow-man.
There is, however, a somber point in the social outlook of Americans. Their sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins. Even among these there are prejudices of which I as a Jew am clearly conscious; but they are unimportant in comparison with the attitude of the “Whites” toward their fellow-citizens of darker complexion, particularly toward Negroes. The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.
Recognizing the parallels between the treatment of Jews in Germany in the 1930s with blacks in the US, Einstein put his efforts and his money where his mouth was. He was a member of the NAACP. In 1946, the same year that letter was published, he received an honorary degree from Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University, the historically black school that was the alma mater of Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall. In a speech at the school that was not covered by a mainstream American press that otherwise couldn’t get enough of him, Einstein called racism “a disease of white people”:
My trip to this institution was in behalf of a worthwhile cause. There is a separation of colored people from white people in the United States. That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.
When singer Marian Anderson was denied a hotel room in Princeton for being black, Einstein hosted the singer at his home for this and several subsequent trips. He also came to the aid of W.E.B. Du Bois in his case against the US government:
Einstein continued to support progressive causes through the 1950s, when the pressure of anti-Communist witch hunts made it dangerous to do so. Another example of Einstein using his prestige to help a prominent African American occurred in 1951, when the 83-year-old W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP, was indicted by the federal government for failing to register as a “foreign agent” as a consequence of circulating the pro-Soviet Stockholm Peace Petition. Einstein offered to appear as a character witness for Du Bois, which convinced the judge to drop the case.
These and his other activities in this arena are documented in a 2006 book called Einstein on Race and Racism by Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor.
In today’s installment of terrifying graphics about climate change, the NY Times made a series of three maps showing the potential rise of 100 degree temperatures across the United States if current greenhouse gas emission trends continue through the end of this century. Look at the areas in orange and red on the 1991-2010 map: what sort of landscape do you picture? Keeping that landscape picture in your mind, look at the orange and red areas on the 2060 and 2100 maps. Yep! And Phoenix with 163 days above 100 degrees — that’s every day from March 25th to September 4th over 100 degrees.
P.S. A word about climate change and rising temperatures. The temperature that climate scientists typically reference and care about with regard to climate change is “the average global temperature across land and ocean surface areas”. According to the NOAA, the average temperature of the Earth in the 20th century was 13.9°C (57.0°F). In 2015, the average global temperature was 0.90°C (1.62°F) above that.
In order to avoid dangerous effects of climate change, climate scientists advocate keeping the global average temperature increase below 2 degrees (and more recently, below 1.5 degrees). In late 2015, 195 nations came together in Paris and agreed to:
[Hold] the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change
That’s degrees Celsius, not Fahrenheit. I don’t know about you, but as an American, when I hear 2 degrees, I think, oh, that’s not bad. But 2°C is an increase of 3.6°F, which does seem significant.
Note also that it specifies keeping the temperature “below pre-industrial levels” and not below 20th century levels. It is maddeningly difficult to track down an exact figure for the pre-industrial global temperature, partially because of a lack of precise data, partially because of politics, and partially because of the impenetrability of scientific writing. From a piece Eric Holthaus wrote for FiveThirtyEight earlier this year:
It sounds easy enough to measure global warming: see how hot it was, compare it to how hot it used to be. But climate scientists have several ways of measuring how hot it used to be. NASA’s base period, as I mentioned above, is an average of 1951-80 global temperatures, mostly because that was the most recently available 30-year period when the data set was first created. By chance, it’s also pretty representative of the world’s 20th-century climate and can help us understand how much warmer the world has become while many of us have been alive.
Other organizations go further back. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body of climate scientists that was formed to provide assessments to the United Nations, bases its temperature calculations on an 1850-1900 global average. There was about 0.4 degrees of warming between that time period and the NASA base period.
Climate scientists often refer to that 1850-1900 timespan as “pre-industrial” because we don’t have comprehensive temperature data from the 1700s. But meteorologist Michael Mann, director of Penn State University’s Earth System Science Center, has argued that an additional 0.25 degrees of warming occurred between the start of the Industrial Revolution (around 1750) and 1850. Including Mann’s adjustment would bring February 2016 global temperatures at or very near 2 degrees above the “pre-industrial” average.
I now completely understand why some people deny that anthropogenic climate change is happening. Seriously. I looked for more than 30 minutes for a report or scientific paper that stated the average global temperature for 1850-1900 and I couldn’t find one. I looked at UN reports, NASA reports, reports from the UK: nothing. There were tons of references to temperatures relative to the 1850-1900 baseline, but no absolute temperatures were given. Now, I don’t mean to get all Feynman here, but this is bullshit. When the world got together in Paris and talked about a 1.5 degree increase, was everyone even talking about the same thing? You might begin to wonder what the scientists are hiding with their obfuscation.
Anyway, the important point is that according to climate scientists, we are already flirting with 1.5°C of global warming since pre-industrial times. Which means that without action, the spread of those Phoenician temperatures across the circa-2100 United States is a thing that’s going to happen.
The population of NYC is equal to the combined populations of Vermont, Alaska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and West Virginia. Here’s what that looks like on a map.
Put another way: 16 US Senators represent as many people in those states as a fraction of one of New York States’ Senators represent the population of NYC. A Senator from Wyoming represents 290,000 people while one from New York represents 9.8 million people…and in California, there are 19 million people per Senator. That gives a Wyoming resident 65 times the voting power of a California resident.
The Complacent Class is a forthcoming book by Tyler Cowen.
Since Alexis de Tocqueville, restlessness has been accepted as a signature American trait. Our willingness to move, take risks, and adapt to change have produced a dynamic economy and a tradition of innovation from Ben Franklin to Steve Jobs.
The problem, according to legendary blogger, economist and bestselling author Tyler Cowen, is that Americans today have broken from this tradition — we’re working harder than ever to avoid change. We’re moving residences less, marrying people more like ourselves and choosing our music and our mates based on algorithms that wall us off from anything that might be too new or too different. Match.com matches us in love. Spotify and Pandora match us in music. Facebook matches us to just about everything else.
Of course, this “matching culture” brings tremendous positives: music we like, partners who make us happy, neighbors who want the same things. We’re more comfortable. But, according to Cowen, there are significant collateral downsides attending this comfort, among them heightened inequality and segregation and decreased incentives to innovate and create.
Cowen is also releasing another book called Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.
In that work, I outline a true and objectively valid case for a free and prosperous society, and consider the importance of economic growth for political philosophy, how and why the political spectrum should be reconfigured, how we should think about existential risk, what is right and wrong in Parfit and Nozick and Singer and effective altruism, how to get around the Arrow Impossibility Theorem, to what extent individual rights can be absolute, how much to discount the future, when redistribution is justified, whether we must be agnostic about the distant future, and most of all why we need to “think big.”
It is only available by emailing him that you’ve pre-ordered The Complacent Class. Oh, and a reminder about how I (try to) read books.
For the New Yorker, Heidi Julavits wrote about the easy access to ice being a particularly American trait.
As a kid, I took summer road trips with grandparents, and ice machines proved key to our modern pioneer-style vacations, wagon-bumping from one national park to another. We stored drinks and food in a giant cooler that, each morning, needed to be filled with new ice that would gradually melt during the day, until we reached our final destination.
Yes, this. I drove all over the US with my dad and sister in the summers when I was a kid and we rarely ate out (couldn’t afford it)…a big cooler full of daily replenished ice preserved our stores of food for the whole trip.
Anyway, for more info on refrigeration and how it changed America, see also the chapter on refrigeration in Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now and Nicola Twilley’s posts on the artificial cryosphere.
Jane Elliott asks an audience a very simple question about being black in America. (via @carltonspeight who says “No BS, I wish every white person on Twitter could see this. Maybe it’ll help”)
In 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Rochester, NY which historian James West Davidson calls “the most remarkable Independence Day oration in American history”.
In Rochester, Douglass stalked his largely white audience with exquisite care, taking them by stealth. He began by providing what many listeners might not have expected from a notorious abolitionist: a fulsome paean to the Fourth and the founding generation. The day brought forth “demonstrations of joyous enthusiasm,” he told them, for the signers of the Declaration were “brave men. They were great men too-great enough to give fame to a great age.” Jefferson’s very words echoed in Douglass’s salute: “Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country … “
Your fathers. That pronoun signaled the slightest shift in the breeze. But Douglass continued cordially. “Friends and citizens, I need not enter further into the causes which led to this anniversary. Many of you understand them better than I do.” Then another step back: “That is a branch of knowledge in which you feel, perhaps, a much deeper interest than your speaker.”
The text of the speech itself is well worth reading…that “slightest shift in the breeze” slowly builds to a mighty hurricane.
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
Several years ago, James Earl Jones read a portion of Douglass’ speech:
Update: Baratunde Thurston recently presented Douglass’ speech live at the Brooklyn Public Library. (thx, rick)
Reporter Shane Bauer went undercover as a guard in a Louisiana private prison for four months. Mother Jones devoted their entire recent issue to the story.
In class that day, we learn about the use of force. A middle-aged black instructor I’ll call Mr. Tucker comes into the classroom, his black fatigues tucked into shiny black boots. He’s the head of Winn’s Special Operations Response Team, or SORT, the prison’s SWAT-like tactical unit. “If an inmate was to spit in your face, what would you do?” he asks. Some cadets say they would write him up. One woman, who has worked here for 13 years and is doing her annual retraining, says, “I would want to hit him. Depending on where the camera is, he might would get hit.”
Mr. Tucker pauses to see if anyone else has a response. “If your personality if somebody spit on you is to knock the fuck out of him, you gonna knock the fuck out of him,” he says, pacing slowly. “If a inmate hit me, I’m go’ hit his ass right back. I don’t care if the camera’s rolling. If a inmate spit on me, he’s gonna have a very bad day.” Mr. Tucker says we should call for backup in any confrontation. “If a midget spit on you, guess what? You still supposed to call for backup. You don’t supposed to ever get into a one-on-one encounter with anybody. Period. Whether you can take him or not. Hell, if you got a problem with a midget, call me. I’ll help you. Me and you can whup the hell out of him.”
He asks us what we should do if we see two inmates stabbing each other.
“I’d probably call somebody,” a cadet offers.
“I’d sit there and holler ‘stop,’” says a veteran guard.
Mr. Tucker points at her. “Damn right. That’s it. If they don’t pay attention to you, hey, there ain’t nothing else you can do.”
He cups his hands around his mouth. “Stop fighting,” he says to some invisible prisoners. “I said, ‘Stop fighting.’” His voice is nonchalant. “Y’all ain’t go’ to stop, huh?” He makes like he’s backing out of a door and slams it shut. “Leave your ass in there!”
“Somebody’s go’ win. Somebody’s go’ lose. They both might lose, but hey, did you do your job? Hell yeah!” The classroom erupts in laughter.
Fusion has a summary of Bauer’s reporting, which you really should actually read in its entirety. America’s prison system is shameful; its reform is one of the biggest issues facing our nation in the future.
There’s been a lot of talk in this election cycle about “average Americans” and “real Americans”. In a piece for FiveThirtyEight, Jed Kolko used age, education, and race & ethnicity to find the city most demographically similar the US as a whole. Here’s his top 5:
1. New Haven-Milford, CT
2. Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL
3. Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT
4. Oklahoma City, OK
5. Springfield, MA
Economist Lyman Stone thought Kolko’s methodology was flawed:
See, he used 3 variables: race, education, and age, to proxy for “normalcy.” His method looked at how typical a given “race” group in a given city was on educational/age factors, and a given educational group in a given city on race/age factors, etc. In other words, he didn’t truly ask “What city is most normal?” He asked “In what city is each group of people most typical of that group of people nationally?” That’s a cool question, but it’s totally not “normalcy.” The reason is simple: as best I can tell, Jed doesn’t fully capture the role of aggregate composition. He’s trying to get specific and avoid calling a place “abnormal” just because it has one weird demographic lump; he wants cell-specific abnormality. But nobody cares if Graduate-Degree-Holding Native Americans happen to be much younger in St. Louis than elsewhere. We care if St. Louis has a weirdly large number of Graduate-Degree-Holding-Native-Americans. Composition of the population is the most important measure of normalcy, and one that Kolko’s method will tend to under-emphasize.
Stone ran his own analysis with that in mind, using 20 different demographic variables, and came up with a different list of the most normal places in America:
1. Oklahoma City, OK
2. Tulsa, OK
3. Jacksonville, FL
4. Spokane-Spokane Valley, WA
5. Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ
The above table shows the places with the lowest weirdness-scores. Two of them are in Oklahoma. I’ll talk about them together. Oklahoma City is less than 1 standard deviation from the mean on every single variable. It is exactly the mean for the poverty rate, and almost exactly the mean for educational attainment. It’s biggest oddity is housing costs compared to income, which are a bit high, and the percent of households with a car, which is also just a teentsy bit high. Other than that? If you’re looking for “Normal America” then look to Oklahoma City. Tulsa’s story is the same, except it also has a bit of a low share of civilian government workers.
Among the weirdest places on Stone’s list? San Jose, NYC, and Jacksonville, NC.
New York is up next. Again, a large foreign-born share makes New York weird. But the real weirdness is actually in New York’s transit access. New York’s car-ownership share is a whopping nine standard deviations below the national average. New York’s housing costs also make it weird, as does the percent of people who are renting. In other words, New York is weird because it’s just so darn urban.
From Flowing Data, an animated infographic that shows how the American diet has changed since 1970. We eat less beef, potatoes, margarine, and whole milk than we used to, but more chicken, cooking oil, bananas, and Italian cheese.