This week, we’re sharing stories from Ta-Nehisi Coates; Nikole Hannah-Jones; Mark Collette, David Hunn, and Mike Hixenbaugh; Natalie Kitroeff and Victoria Kim; and Robert Minto.
After ten years of selling its slick, globalist vision of sophistication to the world’s elites, Monocle has implemented a redesign, though it’s subtle in voice and vision. At The New Republic, writer Kyle Chayka sizes up a magazine made for the world’s 1%, to see what Monocle represents, how it has shaped or been shaped by the world, and what our era of increasing nationalism holds for heavily sponsored-content that flattens nations into one continuous business and vacation opportunity.
With the recent redesign, some glimmers of political reality are beginning to enter the magazine’s editorial voice. The new page layouts are more text-heavy, with longer articles and fewer glossy photos and twee spot illustrations. The content has a new seriousness, though it remains ever-optimistic. In an interview for the March issue, the CEO of Lufthansa says he is confident that globalization “cannot be stopped or slowed down, even though some people are trying hard.” The president of Portugal, adopting the vocabulary of a start-up founder, pitches his country as “a platform between cultures, civilizations, and seas.” (“We were an empire,” he reassures readers, “but not imperialistic.”)
Monocle views the world as a single, utopian marketplace, linked by digital technology and first-class air travel, bestridden by compelling brands and their executives. Diversity is part of the vision—the magazine’s subjects are from all over the world, and its fashion models come in every skin color—but this diversity is presented, in a vaguely colonialist way, more as a cool look to buy into than a tangible social ideal. Cities and countries are written up as commodities and investment opportunities rather than real places with intractable problems that require more than a subsidy to resolve. If London is too expensive, Brûlé proposes, why not found your next business in Lisbon, or Munich, or Belgrade? If you don’t, someone else will, and you might just get priced out again.
The magazine doesn’t idealize homogeneity of race or gender norms, but rather a global sameness of taste and aspiration. Every Monocle reader, regardless of where they live or work, should want the same things and seek them out wherever they go in the world, forming an identity made up not of places or people but of desirable products: German newspapers, Thai beach festivals, Norwegian television. The end result of this sameness is that a country can pitch itself to the monied Monocle class simply by adopting its chosen signifiers, or hiring Winkreative to do it for them in a rebranding campaign. In this way, the magazine warps the real world in its own editorial image.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Katherina Grace Thomas, James Lasdun, Kyle Chayka, Tay Wiles, and Buzz Bissinger.
Jeff Sharlet reviews Frances FitzGerald’s new book, The Evangelicals for the New Republic, and his analysis is itself an excellent history of Evangelical Christianity’s influence on society and politics. Although a lot about Donald Trump seemed antithetical to conservative Christianity, he got a larger percentage of the Evangelical vote than George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, or then-Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter. Why?
Before its current obsession with the body, as FitzGerald observes, evangelicalism expressed itself politically through extreme and often paranoid anti-communism. My favorite example is the 1958 horror film The Blob, which told of a carnivorous mass of red Jello. Conceived at the Presidential Prayer Breakfast in 1957 by Shorty Yeaworth, an evangelical filmmaker, the movie was widely viewed as either pure kitsch or an anti-communist metaphor free of religious overtones. American evangelicalism before the 1980s was no less political in its theology; its theology just happened to align with the anti-communist beliefs of the secular sphere.
Today, the political expression of evangelicalism seems strongest in its opposition to Islam. In this sense, it may be aligning, once again, with widely held secular anxieties.
The Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale could not have been more timely, and therefore chilling. “In February, the book overtook George Orwell’s 1984 on the Amazon best-seller list. Texas is Gilead and Indiana is Gilead and now that Mike Pence is our vice president, the entire country will look more like Gilead, too.”
In The New Republic, Sara Jones (a former fundamentalist Christian whose education prepared her for a life of tending home and making babies and obeying a husband) writes about The Handmaid’s Tale, how its world could not exist without conservative women — represented in the book by the character Serena Joy — and what it ultimately means for those women’s lives.
America is rich in Serena Joys. One need look no further for her contemporary counterparts than Michelle Duggar and her daughters; or Paula White, the televangelist who allegedly led Donald Trump to Christ; or his aide Kellyanne Conway, who defends him as a “great boss” to women. The character Atwood invented is an amalgam of Phyllis Schlafly and Tammy Faye Bakker with a dash of Aimee Semple McPherson. The spectacle of the female fundamentalist celebrity is not recent, and she is not an anomaly. Her existence is proof of American fundamentalism’s durability, and a reminder that it could not thrive without the enthusiastic backing of women.
The dilemma of Serena Joy feels deceptively easy to resolve. She’s in this for power, and understands that it’s hers if she says the right things to the right audiences. Schlafly achieved international fame, and Conway has the ear of the president. With Gilead, however, Atwood reminds such women that they might not like the results of their labor; that by the time they come to regret it, the culture they helped create will have developed far beyond their control. Serena Joy is a warning, not only to her feminist antagonists, but to conservatives, too.
In an exploration in The New Republic of how American Evangelicals came to embrace the Trump campaign, Sarah Posner introduces some of the main players in “alt-right Christianity,” like Nathanael Strickland.
Strickland recently told me that alt-right Christians see “racial differences” as “real, biological, and positive,” a view he insists is “merely a reaffirmation of traditional historical Christianity.” He argues that many on the alt-right who consider themselves atheists or pagans only lost their faith in Christianity “due to the antiwhite hatred and Marxist dogma held by the modern church.”
Strickland considers himself a “kinist,” part of the new white supremacist movement that, according to the Anti-Defamation League, “uses the Bible as one of the main texts for its beliefs,” offering a powerful validation to white supremacists for their racism and anti-Semitism. Strickland sees kinism as a successor to Christian Reconstructionism, a theocratic movement dating back to the 1960s that played a key role in the rise of Christian homeschooling. The movement’s primary goal was to implement biblical law—including public stonings—in every facet of American life.
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.
Duke University law professor Jedediah Purdy, writing in The New Republic, looks at the rise of the left in American politics, the missteps of the Democratic party, and how we can start to build a popular movement on the best ideas of both liberalism and socialism.
It is perfectly clear that both economic inequality and racism fueled support for Trump. Only the left is equipped to explain how these two factors are entangled, by looking at the experience of life under capitalism. In this economy, most people lack important forms of security and control over their lives. They answer to bosses, who answer to investors, who answer to global flows of goods and capital. As Marx pointed out long ago, the system assigns the roles, and people fill them. An investor need not be a greedy person, nor a boss a bossy one; but if they do not maximize returns in the face of competition, they will be replaced by someone who will try harder, so they had better be prepared to act greedy, or bossy, or—in the case of the line worker—diligent and subservient.
When no one talks about how the system itself produces economic insecurity and a loss of control, scapegoating falls on the groups and individuals closest at hand. Immigrants particularly get scapegoated because often they are willing to take low-paying jobs or lack legal authorization to work. When no one in politics talks about brutal economic realities—including a merciless and de-unionized labor market, the unfettered mobility of capital, and the investor-driven imperative to squeeze every possible “efficiency” out of people—then your competitor for wages on the building site becomes the only economic rival you can actually see. Racism and xenophobia are not merely symptoms of economic anxiety, and are not to be morally or politically excused on account of hard times. But they are likely to be stronger and more politically effective when there appears to be no other way for people to address their sense of helplessness.
Long after winter has ended, hating on Christmas remains popular sport, as much a holiday tradition as eggnog and overspending. In the New Republic in December, 1990, James S. Henry published an essay outlining his yuletide complaints and what he sees as Christmas’ flaws. The magazine republished Henry’s piece online for Christmas this year, so I thought I’d share it here, too. The stats might be dated and popular toys no longer the same, but the case Henry builds is as evergreen as a spruce. Each New Year I hope we live in a world with less hate and more understanding. But complaints? I have a few. Happy Holidays.
Christmas destroys the environment and innocent animals and birds. These have perhaps not been traditional concerns for economists. But when one takes account of all the Christmas trees, letters, packages, increased newspaper advertising, wrapping paper, and catalogs and cards, as well as all the animals slaughtered for feast and fur, this holiday is nothing less than a catastrophe for the entire ecosystem. According to the U.S. Forest Service, 33 million Christmas trees are consumed each year. Growing them imposes an artificially short rotation period on millions of acres of forest land, and the piles of needles they shed shorten the life of most household rugs and pets. All the trees and paper have to be disposed of, which places a heavy burden on landfill sites and recycling facilities, especially in the Northeast.
This year, according to the Humane Society, at least 4 million foxes and minks will be butchered just to provide our Christmas furs. To stock our tables, the Department of Agriculture tells me, we’ll also slaughter 22 million turkeys, 2 million pigs, and 2 million to 3 million cattle, plus a disproportionate fraction of the 6 billion chickens that the United States consumes each year. To anyone who has ever been to a turkey farm, Christmas and Thanksgiving take on a new and somewhat less cheerful meaning. Every single day during the run-up to these holidays, thousands of bewildered, debeaked, growth-hormone-saturated birds are hung upside down on assembly-line racks and given electric shocks. Then their throats are slit and they are dropped into boiling water.
I found my favorite notebook—a red Moleskine, narrow-ruled, hardback—at the Harvard Book Store while on vacation. I liked its bold color. Someone had bent the front cover, giving it a well-worn look and earning me a 10% discount from the kind bookseller. I felt relief. My anxious handwriting and endless to-do lists would not be the first things to mar my new notebook. Someone had already done me that courtesy. Now there was nothing to fret about; I could write in peace.
1. “Why Startups Love Moleskines.” (David Sax, The New Yorker, June 2015)
Distraction-free, tried-and-true: the notebook remains, even in the tech-saturated realm of Silicon Valley.
The notion that non-digital goods and ideas have become more valuable would seem to cut against the narrative of disruption-worshipping techno-utopianism coming out of Silicon Valley and other startup hubs, but, in fact, it simply shows that technological evolution isn’t linear. We may eagerly adopt new solutions, but, in the long run, these endure only if they truly provide us with a better experience—if they can compete with digital technology on a cold, rational level.