All posts filed under: Features

Sickness and Stoicism

In less than three months, COVID-19 has changed from a peripheral concern, barely registering in presidential debates, to the greatest global crisis since World War II. We are living in extraordinary times, and there is scarcely an industry or country that has escaped the impact of the new virus. In the United States, the Federal Reserve estimates that the unemployment rate could briefly skyrocket to 32 percent—higher than anything the country experienced during the Great Depression. People have lost their livelihoods. Many others are scared about what is to come when they develop a fever or cough. Illness, financial hardship, and loneliness are, nevertheless, well-trodden paths. One man who can guide us along the way is Seneca the Younger, a Roman philosopher and statesman and contemporary of Jesus. Seneca suffered from asthma, and his condition sometimes left him bedridden and gasping for air. As he grew older, he even contemplated suicide because his affliction was so severe. Seneca’s lifelong illness, as well as his background in Stoic philosophy, gave him the insight he needed to …

Romance, Race, and Retribution

I “This is a crisis of epic proportions,” wrote an alarmed Romance Writers of America (RWA) board member on Christmas Eve as the scenery started to collapse.1 Longstanding tensions within the trade organization had detonated the previous day when novelist Alyssa Cole revealed that RWA’s board of directors had suspended her friend Courtney Milan. The decision provoked a hurricane of condemnation from the membership, mass resignations from the board, and a spectacularly vicious frenzy of internecine bloodletting online. Milan’s suspension has been widely reported as the latest indignity suffered by a woman of color in an ongoing battle between RWA’s old guard and minority authors struggling against marginalization. In this version of events, Milan had exposed and confronted the scourge of racism within RWA and been crucified for it. For a few days, the 40-year old organization looked like it might tear itself to pieces, until what remained of the board agreed to commission an independent review of the events that led to Milan’s suspension. RWA retained multinational law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP …

Social Distancing During the Black Death

One of the comforts of studying history is that, no matter how bad things get, you can always find a moment in the past when things were much, much worse. Some commentators on our current crisis have been throwing around comparisons to earlier pandemics, and the Black Death of 1347 — 50 inevitably gets mentioned. Please. The Black Death wiped out half the population of Europe in the space of four years. In some places the mortality was far swifter and deadlier than that. The novelist Giovanni Boccaccio, who gave us the most vivid picture of the Black Death in literature, estimated that 100,000 people died in Florence in the four months between March and July 1348. The population of the city in 1338, according to one contemporary chronicler, stood at 120,000. Boccaccio at the time was a city tax official and saw the whole thing at ground level. Every morning bodies of the dead—husbands, wives, children, servants—were pushed out into the street where they were piled on stretchers, later on carts. They were carried …

That Elusive Feeling We Call Love

Every writer worth reading—from the good to the great to the canonical—has, at some point or other, explored the subject of love. Yet, despite some striking insights and equally striking metaphors, none of these writers has been able to answer the question of what love is. I don’t think anyone knows. I certainly don’t. But I know what love isn’t. Getting along is not love. Being married is not love. Being married for 30 years is still not love. Raising three kids together is not love. Having common interests is not love. Warmth, affection, and tenderness are not love (praiseworthy as they are). Duty and loyalty are not love. Sexual desire is not love (although, in this line-up, it is the only essential component). All of the above combined is not love. All of the above combined and raised to the power of 10 is still not love. It’s a relationship. A good relationship, solid relationship, long-term relationship. But still a relationship. And although the difference between love and a relationship is not in degree, …

A Librarian’s Timeless Mission: Supporting Social Justice Through Freedom of Speech 

What follows is an adapted transcript of Vickery Bowles’ speech at the Empire Club in Toronto on March 9, 2020. Ms. Bowles is City Librarian at Toronto Public Library. I recently came across an annual report published by the Toronto Public Library (TPL) entitled “Reading in Toronto, 1942”. In that document, written in the midst of a war being fought to protect our democratic freedoms, then chief librarian of the TPL, Charles R. Sanderson, shared his view with members of the Toronto Library Board on the essential and enduring role of public libraries in supporting a democratic society. He wrote: “In our annual report of a year ago, we presented a statement of our faith in the public library as the pivot of democracy. That faith remains, and it can be restated by saying that if a community is permitted to think—and democracy rests its case on this—it must have books, and books mean libraries, and libraries, for most of us, mean public libraries. We still believe with full sincerity that…making it possible for [citizens] …

The Misleading Racial Achievement Gap Statistic

Montgomery County, Maryland, is one of the most racially diverse counties in the United States. Four different ethnic groups—white, black, Hispanic, and Asian—all comprise at least 15 percent of the population of the county, not to mention a vast mixed-race population as well.  It is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation by average household income. It also has a high “racial achievement gap.” The Stanford Educational Opportunity metric pegs the black/white achievement gap score at 3.09, and the black-Hispanic/white-Asian gap even higher, which means that the average white or Asian eighth-grader in Montgomery County scores more than three grade-levels higher on standardized performance exams than the average black or Hispanic student. Apparently, by the standards of the Montgomery County Public School (MCPS) system, the racial achievement gap is nothing short of an educational crisis or profligate systemic failure. Current MCPS superintendent Jack R. Smith wrote in the Washington Post, “For 50 years, the achievement gap in Montgomery County has grown in the shadows while many of our county’s schools and students garnered well-deserved …

Francis Bacon’s Very, Very Ordered Chaos

At least as recently as 1989, the catalogue for a traveling retrospective on the Anglo-Irish painter Francis Bacon could get away with referring to his lover and frequent model George Dyer as “a close friend.” More recent documentary portrayals, including a 2005 BBC Arena episode and Francis Bacon: A Brush with Violence (2017), have dispensed with such discretion about Dyer and his suicide by barbiturates, which was timed perfectly to spoil the opening of Bacon’s 1971 retrospective at Paris’s Grand Palais—the second given to a living artist (after Bacon’s hero Picasso), and the first to a British one. Viewers learned that Dyer, a young tough from London’s East End whom Bacon met in 1963, turned out to be “rather reticent with the whip, so little by little Francis became disabused,” according to one friend. Bacon “wanted George to rape him, and George wanted to cuddle,” another friend confides. Yet another: “George was suffering from erectile dysfunction. It seems to me that Francis emasculated him.” Or as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston more tactfully puts …

Fabricated Innocence: The Self-Exoneration and Re-Incrimination of Jens Soering

One of the narrative paradigms in Kurt Vonnegut’s typology of stories is called “Man in a Hole”: Someone starts out doing pretty well at the beginning of a story, then plunges into a deep hole of misfortune, then scrambles out of it again. Jens Soering is that man in the hole. Soering’s promising life went off the rails at the age of 18, when the young German student at the University of Virginia began a love affair which culminated in the brutal double murder of Derek and Nancy Haysom, the parents of his girlfriend Elizabeth. That was act one. Act two involved an international flight from the law, hours of confessions, and a judicial decision which has shaped human rights law to this day. Act three begins with Soering’s conviction and sentencing to life in prison at a televised 1990 murder trial. The pace of the drama then slows for act four: Working from his prison cell, Soering patiently constructs, over decades, an alternate history of the love affair and murders, and convinces a dedicated …

I’ve Been Fired. If You Value Academic Freedom, That Should Worry You

Orthodoxy whether of the right or of the left is the graveyard of creativity. ~Chinua Achebe Until a week ago, I was a tenure-track assistant professor at a small college. Then I was fired. And although I am but one professor at one small college in one small town, I want to persuade you that, if you care about free speech and free inquiry in academia, you should be alarmed by my termination. My troubles began in October 2019 when I was invited to address an evolutionary group at the University of Alabama. I had decided that I would discuss human population variation, the hypothesis that human biological differences are at least partially produced by different environments selecting for different physical and psychological traits in their populations over time. I planned to defend this view as most consistent with a Darwinian understanding of the world. My first day in Tuscaloosa was uneventful. On the second day, I visited a class and had an enjoyable discussion with students about various topics, including human evolution and social …

The Decline of the Great American Family Saga

In February, the Atlantic published a much discussed essay by David Brooks entitled “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” Brooks noted that the conditions that once made nuclear families viable—strong unions, plenty of jobs that paid living wages, inexpensive housing and transportation and education costs, stay-at-home mothers, high numbers of churchgoers—were products of a very brief window of time that only lasted from about 1950 until about 1965. For centuries prior to that, Americans tended to divide themselves into extended families, vast networks of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives, all of whom remained connected to one another by some sort of family enterprise. Here’s how Brooks sums up the extended American family: In 1800, three-quarters of American workers were farmers. Most of the other quarter worked in small family businesses, like dry-goods stores. People needed a lot of labor to run these enterprises. It was not uncommon for married couples to have seven or eight children. In addition, there might be stray aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as unrelated servants, apprentices, and farmhands…Extended …