Nonviolence: The Right Answer to the Wrong Question

Photo by Ted Eytan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city’s publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city’s police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.

The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today’s riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution.

Ta-Nehisi Coates reflects on the absurdity of calling for nonviolence in a city whose citizens — conditioned by decades of lethal police mistreatment and abuse of authority — expect violence and disrespect from the very police force that is supposed to serve and protect them.

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Coming June 24: A Special Longreads Live Storytelling Night in San Francisco


Save the date! On June 24, Longreads will be hosting a free night of storytelling at the Booksmith in San Francisco, featuring:

Clara Jeffery (Mother Jones)

Mat Honan (BuzzFeed)

Susie Cagle (journalist & illustrator)

Elizabeth Lopatto (The Verge)

Emily Thelin (writer, Food & Wine)

Dan Stone (Radio Silence)

* * *

Wednesday, June 24, 7:30 p.m.

The Booksmith

1644 Haight Street

San Francisco, CA 94117


The Perils of Writing About Your Own Family: A Conversation with George Hodgman

George Hodgman and his mother Betty.
George Hodgman and his mother Betty.

Sari Botton | Longreads | April 2015 | 15 minutes (3,752 words)


Sometimes life’s most inconvenient surprise detours ultimately yield great rewards we never could have predicted. For writer George Hodgman—who’s been whisked away indefinitely from his tidily self-contained life in New York City to care for his ailing mother—one of those rewards was a chance to better know and appreciate Betty (now 94) before she’s gone. Another benefit: the conditions he hadn’t even known he needed to finally, at 55, write and publish his first book. The New York Times Bestselling memoir, Bettyville, is the result. Read more…

Peggy Lee’s ‘Is That All There Is’ Was Inspired by a Thomas Mann Story

Photo by The Jazz Guy, Flickr

Peggy Lee’s haunting 1969 hit “Is That All There Is”—if you watch Mad Men, you’d recognize it from both the opening and closing of the midseason premiere—was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller during the 1960s, but its roots date back to an 1896 Thomas Mann novella. In a 2011 Los Angeles Times story on Jerry Leiber, Randall Roberts expanded on the song’s history:

As you’re delighting in Stoller’s landmark instrumentation and structural genius, listen to the lyrics, which as Leiber evolved as a songwriter started drawing ideas from other, unexpected sources. Wonderfully transparent about his inspirations, he didn’t hide the fact, for example, that the words to Peggy Lee’s 1969 hit “Is That All There Is?” were taken from a prose meditation by German writer Thomas Mann called “Disillusionment.”

In Mann’s story, after recounting the numbness of his life experiences, the narrator awaits the ultimate disappointment: “So I dream and wait for death. Ah, how well I know it already, death, that last disappointment! At my last moment I shall be saying to myself: ‘So this is the great experience — well, and what of it? What is it after all?'”

Leiber used Mann’s words nearly verbatim, but with one major difference. Mann dwells on futility until the very end. Leiber though gave it an ironic twist that will echo long after his departure. If that’s it, she sings, “Then let’s keep dancing / Let’s break out the booze and have a ball / If that’s all there is.”

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How Halston’s Death Galvanized the Fashion Industry to Take Action Against AIDS

Photo by Sacheverelle, Flickr

But not all AIDS deaths were hushed up; indeed, there was a backlash against the conspiracy of silence. Before Way Bandy—one of the industry’s top makeup artists—died on August 13, 1986, he directed his executors to announce his death as AIDS-related. And Halston acknowledged the cause of his own death on March 26, 1990, in the classiest possible way, leaving instructions for his prized Rolls-Royce to be auctioned off and the proceeds donated to AIDS research.

In Halston, fashion found its Rock Hudson: a superstar who could put a familiar face to the dreaded disease. Both Time and People addressed AIDS and fashion in their next issues; People put a smiling Halston on its cover, flanked by Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor. “He put American fashion on the map,” the cover line read. “He died last week of AIDS, a broken man.” Halston’s death finally galvanized the industry to take real action against the disease; later that year, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) staged its first Seventh on Sale fundraiser, inspiring similar events in Paris and Milan. But no one fooled themselves into thinking that it couldn’t get any worse. As CFDA president Carolyne Roehm told People: “I shudder to think how many more we may lose.”

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writing in The Atlantic about how the fashion industry grappled with the AIDS crisis, and Chester Weinberg, the first fashion designer to succumb to the disease. Weinberg died in April 1985.

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The Almost-Real Science in ‘Orphan Black’

Photo: a olin
Photo: a olin

On television, women don’t usually play grownup human beings; they play slightly oversize children, helpless and pouty, driven by appetites they can’t possibly understand. At the show’s surfeit of interesting, adult females, the mind reels. That they are merely egg containers would seem boringly reductive, in a biology-is-destiny way, except that it’s such an interesting answer to science fiction’s big question: Who creates life? It could be said that “Orphan Black” is a feminist “Frankenstein,” if it weren’t true that “Frankenstein” was a feminist “Frankenstein” … One trick, in “Orphan Black,” is keeping the story ahead of the science; another is keeping the women ahead of the men.

— If you’re not watching “Orphan Black,” a BBC sci-fi drama about six? eight? twelve? clones, each played by the unbelievably talented Tatiana Maslany: start. Today, preferably. (The third season premiered earlier this month—two seasons won’t take long to binge-watch.) At the New Yorker, Jill Lepore draws parallels between the vaguely nefarious scientific undertakings on “Orphan Black” and the very real history of eugenics, germline editing, genome mapping and birth control. “Orphan Black” stands at the crossroads of feminist television—full of brilliant, distinct women who are, to cop another popular TV show’s theme, strong as hell—and controversial science.

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Recalling Life in Liberia

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Yes, I remember: boiling leaves to eat; rubbing leaves on your skin because you have no soap; crushing leaves under your arms so that you don’t smell bad. Leaves and dirt, sticks and rocks: these are the only things a refugee can count on. Even if the exiles go home, the average wage in Liberia is about $1.25 a day. Many people have no clean water or flush toilets. Their lives are hard every day. There is no route to riches. To get money from America is like a blessing from God—bread falling from the sky.

Louise Troh, writing in Vanity Fair about the death of her longtime love Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man who died of Ebola in Dallas. Troh came to America from Liberia in 1998 as a political refugee.

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The Two Purposes of History

Photo by Cornell University Library, Flickr

Underlying the entire conversation was a tension between the two purposes of history, the philosophical or scientific, and the civic. The philosophical or scientific perspective considers the pursuit of historical truth to be of highest value. Like any organized scientific activity, historical research is corrupted when oriented to immediate public ends. Its public value ultimately depends on its autonomy.

The civic purpose of history, on the other hand, is to help a community—a nation, a religious or ethnic group—understand the present in ways that orient that group to the future. The questions asked, and the answers offered, will be ones relevant to the community at large rather than a scholarly community of inquiry.

We need both; in fact the civic depends on the scientific if history is to avoid becoming propaganda or having the preferences of the reading public drive the discipline’s priorities. Before historians can engage the public, they need good knowledge, and thus basic research.

Johann N. Neem, writing for the American Historical Association’s AHA Today blog about a panel discussion on The History Manifesto that was held in D.C. last week.

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