Author Archives

Ben leads the Editorial team at WordPress.com / Automattic, and contributes to Longreads, Discover, and The Daily Post.

The Outdoorsy Type’s Dilemma

At The Guardian, Marisa Meltzer looks at the self-congratulatory corporate philosophies of outerwear giants Patagonia and The North Face. Beyond the often-amusing details (like the time employees at Patagonia’s California headquarters tried to save a butterfly chrysalis they’d spotted on the sidewalk), she unpacks the complex dynamic that allows these companies to tout their ethical sourcing and care for the environment while selling luxury goods to affluent weekend warriors.

Selling professional-grade gear to people with no intention of using it professionally isn’t exactly a new trick in marketing, as the makers of SUVs, digital cameras and headphones can tell you. Most people who buy the Nike trainers advertised by Mo Farah don’t use them to run long distances.

But North Face and Patagonia are both wrestling with a more consequential paradox, one that is central to contemporary consumerism: we want to feel morally good about the things we buy. And both companies have been phenomenally successful because they have crafted an image that is about more than just being ethical and environmentally friendly, but about nature, adventure, exploration — ideas more grandiose than simply selling you a jacket, taking your money and trying not to harm the earth too much along the way. But the paradox is that by presenting themselves this way, they are selling a lot more jackets. In other words, both companies are selling stuff in part by looking like they’re not trying too hard to sell stuff, which helps them sell more stuff — and fills the world with more and more stuff.

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Even Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Pushups Are Inspiring

What can you tell about a Supreme Court Justice by their workout ethic? At Politico Magazine, Ben Schreckinger meets Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s personal trainer and tries to emulate her routine. If you’re a RBG fan, you won’t be surprised to learn that she’s as kickass on a weight bench as she is on that other bench. if you’re not a RBG fan (who are you?), you’ll at least aspire to be as fit as her in your 80s.

From there, we went to the floor. Johnson said Ginsburg takes great pride in progressing from horizontal pushups against a wall when he first began working with her, to pushups with her knees down on the ground, to full pushups.

“Justice Ginsburg does 10 pushups and she does not do the so-called ‘girl pushups,’” explained Georgetown Law Professor Mary Hartnett during an appearance with the justice earlier this month at the Virginia Military Institute. “She does not use her knees. And then she stretches back for a very brief pause and she does 10 more.”

I was able to match Ginsburg’s pushups feat with only a little grunting, though Ginsburg never grunts, as Johnson felt compelled to tell me at one point. He also let me know, as I peppered him with questions, that unlike me, Ginsburg barely rests between sets.

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Rorschach’s Inkblots Are Part of Art History

At The New Republic, Merve Emre looks at the enduring visual power of Hermann Rorschach’s inkblots while reviewing Damion Searls’ new book on the German psychiatrist and his work. Along the way, she highlights a fascinating aspect of this (largely discredited) psychological assessment tool: its place in a centuries-old conversation about the power of art to expose our inner lives.

To achieve their desired responses, the blots themselves had to function like works of art — an unusual ask for a psychological test. Rorschach was not the first or even the second to try his hand at designing inkblots. Klecksography, the study of inkblots or “blotograms” as they were once called, originated with the German poet and physician Justinius Kerner. Unlike Rorschach, Kerner was neither a scientist nor an artist but a mystic. He believed his inkblots to be “incursions of the spirit world,” magical images that spoke to him in the voices of the dead; voices he ventriloquized in the gloomy poetic captions he added to his blots. More popular than Kerner was the French psychologist Alfred Binet, who drew his inspiration for his inkblots from Leonardo da Vinci, who, it was said, had once thrown a bucket of paint at a wall and divined his next painting from the shapes he saw before him. In keeping with this backstory, Binet’s inkblots — messy, asymmetrical things — were used to measure a person’s imaginative capabilities: the greater the number of distinct forms the respondent saw in the inkblots, the greater his creative powers.

By contrast, the power of Rorschach’s inkblots derived in large part from their painstakingly crafted designs, refined through much clinical trial and error to give them the appearance of naturalness — as if the shapes had not been crafted at all, but rather “had made themselves,” Searls writes. The point was neither disordered inspiration (as it was for Binet) nor spiritual connection (as it was for Kerner), but technical perfection. There could be no trace of the artist’s hand in the thickness of the brushstrokes or the shading of the ink; nothing to rouse suspicion among Rorschach’s paranoid patients that the inkblot had been created to elicit a particular response from them. There could be no captions, no border, nothing to distract respondents from the lines, the curves, the colors. Only the aesthetic impersonality of the blot could reveal the personality of its viewer.

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On the Thin Line Separating Honesty from Rudeness

Just like beauty, rudeness is confusingly both in the eye of the beholder and a universal phenomenon, something we’re supposed to recognize in an instant. At The New York Times Magazine, Rachel Cusk explores the complicated question of politeness from various angles — from Brexit and the Trump presidency to airport security checks and in-store shopping etiquette. But she also dives deep into the fundamental difficulty of separating honesty from being plain rude.

Are people rude because they are unhappy? Is rudeness like nakedness, a state deserving the tact and mercy of the clothed? If we are polite to rude people, perhaps we give them back their dignity; yet the obsessiveness of the rude presents certain challenges to the proponents of civilized behavior. It is an act of disinhibition: Like a narcotic, it offers a sensation of glorious release from jailers no one else can see.

In the recollection of events, rudeness often has a role to play in the moral construction of a drama: It is the outward sign of an inward or unseen calamity. Rudeness itself is not the calamity. It is the harbinger, not the manifestation, of evil. In the Bible, Satan is not rude — he is usually rather charming — but the people who act in his service are. Jesus, on the other hand, often comes across as somewhat terse. Indeed, many of the people he encounters find him direct to the point of rudeness. The test, it is clear, is to tell rudeness from truth, and in the Bible that test is often failed. An unambiguous event — violence — is therefore required. The episode of the crucifixion is an orgy of rudeness whose villains are impossible to miss. The uncouth conduct of the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross, for instance, can be seen in no other light: Anyone thinking that Jesus could have done a bit more to avoid his fate is offered this lasting example of humanity’s incurable awfulness. They know not what they do, was Jesus’ comment on his tormentors. Forgive them.

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How the Humanities Became Morally Incoherent

Last week here on Longreads, Josh Roiland shared an unflinching account of his struggle with debt and economic precarity as a tenure-track professor. It was a sobering story — especially since the tenure track, for anyone not on it, appears like a lush, care-free, wood-panneled paradise. At The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard adjunct Kevin Birmingham takes a step back to examine the systemic injustice at the core of today’s humanities: adjunct labor. He does it with a gutsy, powerful move, delivering his critique of academia as the acceptance speech for a prestigious literary-criticism award.

No one, of course, signed up for this. You wanted to teach Milton and Toni Morrison. You wanted to change the way we understand novels and plays. You agree that the current state of affairs is awful. You have written all about the patriarchy and racism and poverty and the subaltern. You call administrators “neoliberals,” and that feels good. You have little job-market chats with incoming grad students. It makes you sad the way local decisions ripple out across the wide surface of a culture, how literary intentions end up serving unforeseen interests, how people may grow rich or suffer, how what was an expression of freedom now becomes a trap, how what was virtuous now becomes immoral.

I sometimes wonder when the ripples widened out beyond what I had imagined. Recently, I sat next to two professors at the plenary session of a graduate-student conference. The students had been presenting their research all weekend, and now they were listening to us. “What is your advice?” a student asked. “Get your hands dirty,” one of the professors said. “Throw yourself into your work. Don’t be afraid.” He is a good person. He is an important scholar and an inspiring teacher. He immigrated to the United States decades ago and threw himself into his love for literature. He worked his way up, as we say, published several books, received tenure, won fellowships and awards, and now, in 2016, he was offering advice about bravery to graduate students surviving on $10,000 a year. This is the carefully dressed underclass of his department, the people who, when he wasn’t looking — because he didn’t go to yesterday’s luncheon — furtively filled their tote bags with leftover fruit and potato chips.

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The Marshmallows that Gave Us the Modern Notion of Self-Control

From “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” to “Just say no,” we live in a culture that focuses on individuals’ choices at the expense of the structural forces that shape them. At Nautilus, psychiatrist Carl Erik Fisher launches a full-on attack on our understanding of willpower — a concept that almost became obsolete before mid-century psychologists breathed new (and often sinister) life into it.

In the 1960s, American psychologist Walter Mischel set out to test the ways that children delayed gratification in the face of a tempting sweet with his now-famous “marshmallow experiment.” His young test subjects were asked to choose between one marshmallow now, or two later on. It wasn’t until many years later, after he heard anecdotes about how some of his former subjects were doing in school and in work, that he decided to track them down and collect broader measures of achievement. He found that the children who had been better able to resist temptation went on to achieve better grades and test scores. This finding set off a resurgence of scholarly interest in the idea of “self-control,” the usual term for willpower in psychological research.

These studies also set the stage for the modern definition of willpower, which is described in both the academic and popular press as the capacity for immediate self-control—the top-down squelching of momentary impulses and urges. Or, as the American Psychological Association defined it in a recent report, “the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” This ability is usually portrayed as a discrete, limited resource, one that can be used up like a literal store of energy. The limited-resource concept likely has its roots in Judeo-Christian ideas about resisting sinful impulses, and it seems like a natural analogy to other physical functions like strength, endurance, or breath. In the 1990s, the psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted a key experiment to describe this capacity, which he labeled “ego depletion”: A few undergraduate students were told to resist the urge to eat some fresh-baked chocolate cookies and instead eat from a bowl of red and white radishes, while others were allowed to snack freely on the cookies. Students who were made to exercise self-control performed worse on subsequent psychological tests, suggesting that they had exhausted some finite cognitive resource.

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How the ‘Girls’ Cast Came to Be

There was always something distinctly Obama Era about Girls — the post-recession angst, the clunky conversations around race and diversity, the ability to worry about money, art, and love, rather than the looming end of constitutional democracy. So it makes sense that the sixth and final season of the show is about to start right as a new administration rolls in. Before it does, though, Lacey Rose at The Hollywood Reporter gives the show’s cast and creators (from Lena Dunham to Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner) the full oral-history treatment.

JENNIFER EUSTON, CASTING DIRECTOR It was 2010, and I’d done one or two network shows and did not have good experiences. Then Kathleen McCaffrey called and said: “I have this script. It’s Lena Dunham, and Judd’s attached.” I’d seen Tiny Furniture, and I’d worked with Judd, but I told her, “I’m not doing TV.” She kept hassling me; she had me sit down with Lena, and eventually she just wore me down.

APATOW We used a few people from Tiny Furniture. I was always a big proponent of Alex Karpovsky [the nebbishy Ray] as my personal way in, and Lena wanted to have [her childhood friend] Jemima Kirke play Jessa.

JEMIMA KIRKE (JESSA) I said no a couple of times. I was working as a painter at the time. Honestly, it was the money [that convinced me]. I was 24 and about to have a baby, so I was vulnerable, and the contract was very long. (Laughs.)

ALLISON WILLIAMS (MARNIE) I had just moved to L.A. from New York very dramatically after I graduated from college. I came in to audition, and we improvised a scene where I braided Lena’s hair, which was … dirty.

DUNHAM I called Allison before we cast her, and I asked her how she felt about nudity. She said, “I don’t want to do nudity.” I was like, “We have to get back to you. I’m gonna be naked, people are gonna be naked — that’s a big part of what this show is.” She told us she wasn’t scared of sex, she just didn’t want to show her vagina, her nipples or her butt — and she never did.

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In Makeover Culture, Authenticity Doesn’t Come Cheap

What is behind the contemporary obsession with makeovers? At Aeon, writer and scholar Michael Lovelock examines the cultural and economic forces that drive millions to Instagram hashtags like #transformationtuesday and shows like How to Look Good Naked.

The idea that we have an authentic self — a set of innate personality traits, desires, emotional and intellectual dispositions unique to us — emerged in the 18th century. Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau tried to move away from religion as a means of making sense of the world. Instead, they claimed that the purpose of life was to be true to an essential nature that defined who we are.

In the 21st century, the notion of the authentic self has solidified into common sense, with the routine demands to “be yourself” or to “be real.” This is partly a response to the perceived breakdown of collective structures that traditionally gave life meaning: religion, local community, extended family ties. The late philosopher Zygmunt Bauman has called this state of affairs “liquid modernity” — a description of how reliable anchors of group identity have given way to fluidity, insecurity, and individualism. The makeover offers an apparent solution to these social and cultural transformations. It encourages us to look inwards, to the very fabric of the self for meaning, purpose, and fulfilment.

Paradoxically, the logic of the makeover positions the external body as the site upon which inner authenticity is to be displayed — right before the market steps in to help us achieve this self-realization. Of course, there’s nothing magnanimous about the self-confidence sold to us in the form of a bottle of shampoo, a new dress, or a subscription to a gym.

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The Cultural Revolution of Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain’s on-screen persona strikes a careful balance between discipline and recklessness. In her Eater essay on Bourdain’s writing career, Maria Bustillos reveals a similar dynamic at play in his early works of fiction, and all the way back to his suburban upbringing in New Jersey:

Bourdain came of age in the mid-1970s, a time of no brakes at all, a moment of pure hedonism in America. “Decadence” meant the dark beauty and excitement of debauchery, rather than anything gnarly. (The gnarly part was coming up fast, but it was a ways off yet.) A keen reader even as a teen growing up in Leonia, New Jersey, he wolfed down Hunter S. Thompson, Orwell, Burroughs, Lester Bangs, and I bet Baudelaire and DeQuincey; listened to the Stooges, the Dolls, Roxy Music, the Velvets, and The Ramones. (He dedicated his 2006 essay collection, The Nasty Bits, “To Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee.”)

The only culture worth knowing then was the counterculture. The Vietnam War began in 1956, the year of his birth, and ended the year he turned nineteen — surely now, in 1975, the reign of the liars and the squares had ended for good. Cocaine was routinely touted as a natural, plant-based high — health food, practically. (“It’s made from leaves!”) There was, as yet, no AIDS. Peak Free Love had arrived. That the young Bourdain literally “wanted to be a junkie” only meant that he was a little more committed than most to the prevailing atmosphere of pleasure and abandon. “I always wanted to be a criminal,” he confesses blithely in the essay, “A Life of Crime.” He once told an interviewer that he was expelled from Vassar as the result of a “depraved incident” involving angry lesbians and firearms.

This rebel son was raised in an ultra-civilized suburban family atmosphere. His mother, Gladys, was a New York Times editor, and her byline, G.S. Bourdain, appears over Times stories about Robbe-Grillet, opera stars, Cinecitta and the opening of Fauchon in Manhattan; her subjects and her writing both are suggestive of high standards, formality, propriety. Sam Sifton once described her as “a legendary editor… with a legendary temper.” She was a good cook, too. Bourdain describes favorite childhood dishes now and then — his mother’s meatloaf, her crème renversée — though his memories of the crisply pressed shorts and matching socks he and his younger brother were made to wear as kids, boarding the Queen Mary for a vacation in France, are not so fond.

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How Mike Pence Came Back from the Dead

The months before Donald Trump picked Pence off the political garbage heap were not easy ones for the governor. While Oesterle and others eventually declined to challenge Pence in a GOP primary, his approval ratings remained under 50 percent, and he was even with a Democratic challenger in head-to-head matchups. He did gain experience in being booed that would serve him well at a performance of Broadway’s Hamilton in November. In the aftermath of the RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] fiasco, Pence was lustily booed at the home opener for the AAA Indianapolis Indians. “This is Indiana, not New York — we don’t boo anyone,” says Michael Leppert, a Democratic lobbyist. “It’s just not done.” Then rumors of Trump’s interest began to spread. At first, Indiana politicos were incredulous and wondered if anyone had actually looked at Pence’s record. But then it began to make a certain kind of sense: Trump was down in the polls, and no one from the GOP elite was interested in joining his train wreck. Pence looked downright statesmanlike when compared to the other possible choices: the Bridgegate-plagued Chris Christie, the thrice-married stegosaurus Newt Gingrich and noted crazy man Rudy Giuliani.

Leppert saw a transformation in Pence beginning with his speech at the Republican National Convention.

“If you watch his State of the State addresses, he seemed disinterested and low-key,” says Leppert. “But once he got on the national stage and could start pontificating on policy issues, it was like a light went back on.”

When he first joined the Republican ticket, media coverage of Mike Pence focused on his ultra-conservative record. In a wide-ranging piece in Rolling Stone, Stephen Rodrick documents an often-forgotten fact: that by the time he was tapped to become Donald Trump’s running mate, Pence’s political career was on the brink of implosion.

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