The Atlantic Monthly, April 2009


Robert Wright’s “One World, Under God” begins with the assertion that most New Testament scholars now regard the Gospel of Mark as significantly older than the other gosples, perhaps not much newer than the oldest writings in the New Testament, Paul’s letters.  Mark stands out from the other gospels in that the sayings of Jesus recorded there are all quite harsh:

The Jesus in Mark, far from calmly forgiving his killers, seems surprised by the Crucifixion and hardly sanguine about it (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). In Mark, there is no Sermon on the Mount, and so no Beatitudes, and there is no good Samaritan; Jesus’ most salient comment on ethnic relations is to compare a woman to a dog because she isn’t from Israel.

The gentle Jesus meek and mild whom liberal Christians preach and the “great moral teacher” whom moderate secularists and ecumenical-minded non-Christians praise appears in the gospels of Luke and Matthew.  If these accounts took shape as long after Mark’s as Wright says they may have done, then it is possible that they were influenced by Paul:

Of course, since Paul was writing after the time of Jesus, it’s been natural to assume he got these ideas from the teachings of Jesus. But when you realize that Jesus utters the word love only twice in the Gospel of Mark—compared with Paul’s using it more than 10 times in a single letter to the Romans—the reverse scenario suggests itself: maybe the Gospel of Mark, which was written not long after the end of Paul’s ministry, largely escaped Pauline influence, and thus left more of the real Jesus intact than Gospels written later, after Paul’s legacy had spread.

This hypothesis cuts against the grain of New Testament criticism, which at least since the Enlightenment has tended to cast Paul as the main figure in an effort to make Jesus seem less like a sweetheart and more like an apocalyptic crank than he really was.  Perhaps the opposite was the case, and it was Paul who invented the idea of Christianity as a religion of boundless good will. 


The Atlantic Monthly, March 2009

atlantic-march-2009A profile of Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, focuses on this gifted theologian’s attempts to lead the Anglican communion in its effort to make up its mind about homosexuality.  Williams himself has many friends who are gay and took a consistently liberal line on gay issues before 2002, when he became the nominal leader of Christianity’s third most popular tradition.  In 1989 Williams gave a speech to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement called “The Body’s Grace,” in which he argued that a Christian understanding of grace requires us to understand that persons need to be seen in particular ways.  Sexual relationships provide one of these ways of being seen that are key to the development of the human person.  Christians must therefore find value, not only in persons who are inclined to engage in  homosexual acts, but in those acts and the relationships of which they are part.  The essay is, from one point of view, quite conservative- Williams claims that the kind of being seen that deserves this value is a kind that must be developed over time and that only one person may do the seeing.  He thus sets his face against sexual liberationists who would resist the imposition of couplehood as the one appropriate form of human sexuality, and aligns himself with those who would merely extend that imposition to same sex relationships.  Compared to other Christian leaders, of course, Williams does not seem conservative at all.  Even the view that same-sexers should be allowed to imitate opposite-sex couples and to assimilate their behavior to norms that have traditionally been imposed on them is daringly progressive in the world where the Archbishop of Canterbury moves.   

Since most of the Anglican communion’s 80,000,000 members live in African countries where homosexuality is the object of extreme cultural disapproval, it has been quite difficult for Williams to hold to his liberal, assimilationist stand while at the same time meeting the first requirement of his job and keeping the communion united. 

Atlantic editor James Bennet recalls his meeting with recently assassinated Hamas leader Nizar Rayyan.  A theologian of a very different stripe from that of Rowan Williams, Rayyan’s “bigoted worldview, and his rich historical imagination, gave him a kind of serenity.”  This serenity was nothing daunted when Rayyan sent his own son on a suicide mission against an Israeli settlement and planned to send another on a similar mission.

Those of us who call for the abolition of the US presidency (what with today being Presidents’ Day and all) will thank the Atlantic for its note of “Politicians: Be Killed or Survive,” a study finding that the only political figures who face a significant risk of assassination are those who operate in systems where power is so highly centralized that assassinating one person will effect significant change in the policies of the state.

Brian Mockenhaupt reports on an effort to persuade US combat veterans that it’s okay to seek help for psychological injuries by showing them performances of Sophocles’ plays about wounded warriors, Ajax and Philoctetes.

The Atlantic Monthly, January/ February 2009


Garrett Epps declares the creation of the presidency to have been “The Founders’ Great Mistake.”  You’d think the history of the last 85 years would have made that clear to everyone, but evidently it has not.  Epps does not propose abolishing the presidency.  Instead, he outlines a plan that would keep the office in existence, but make the president dependent on the support of a majority in Congress.  In effect, Epps would replicate a parliamentary system.  That would be, if anything, worse than what we have now.  At least now the president and Congress can fight each other to a standstill.  Under Epps’ system, there would never be an opposing force to block the worst ideas that came out of the leadership of the ruling party. 

Mark Ambinder’s piece on the way the Obama campaign handled race as an issue contains an interesting line:

Even during the 2008 primaries, a discomfiting pattern had emerged: Barack Obama did his best overall in the states with the largest or the smallest percentages of African American voters—think of South Carolina, where blacks made up 55 percent of the Democratic-primary vote, and Vermont, where they made up less than 2 percent. Obama won in states where black Democrats had already attained a measure of political power, or where whites had never competed with blacks.

Ambinder seems close here to an idea that has been rattling around on the far right for some time.  Some writers, such as Steve Sailer, have claimed that “white guilt” is in fact a sign of disengagement from African Americans.  Whites who support policies that might put other whites at a disadvantage to African Americans do so in order to show their superiority over other whites.  On this view, “white guilt” is not a sign of belief in the equality of African Americans.  Quite the contrary, it rests on a belief that African Americans will never be able to compete at the highest levels of achievement.  Those who declare themselves racked by white guilt do so in order to show that they themselves are able to do so, and look down on those whites who have to worry about African American competitors.  I don’t know if I believe that idea, but I do think it deserves wider discussion than it has received.  Certainly it shouldn’t be relegated to Sailer’s blog and similarly confined venues.  

Mark Bowden profiles Bob Fishman, who directs CBS’ television broadcasts of NFL games.  The sheer number of decisions Fishman must make in the course of a minute of airtime staggers the mind.  Cognitive psychologists should study the guy.

The Atlantic Monthly, December 2008



In this issue, Virginia Postrel reports on the rising discipline of “experimental economics.”  The experiments are similar to those to which psychologists routinely subject their undergraduate students.  A group of test subjects plays a game that is supposed to simulate a market phenomenon.  The experimenters then analyze the results.  (As it happens, I recently posted a link to a discussion of the theoretical limitations of this sort of attempt to translate one game into another.) 

The studies Postrel discusses deal with the origin and nature of speculative bubbles.  Even games in which players are given perfect information from the outset regularly generate bubbles.  Experience matters; repeat players generate smaller bubbles.  One point particularly arrested my attention.  When teams of players have gone through a trading game often enough that they no longer generate ruinous bubbles, experimenters sometimes rearrange the players into new teams.  These new teams, even though they are composed of experienced players, then proceed to behave just as wildly as the teams had at the beginning of the game.  Postrel quotes one of the founders of experimental economics, Caltech professor Charles Plott,  to the effect that the experience that matters is not at the level of the individual trader, but at the level of the organization through which that trader operates.  So the key thing about experience in particular and information in general may be how the organizational principles of a given group allow that information to be deployed.  

Disgraced stock analyst Henry Blodget gives a first person account of the way the organization of his former employer, Merrill Lynch, guided his deployment of information.


The Atlantic Monthly, November 2008

This month’s issue features Hanna Rosin on the question of whether children should have sex changes.  Not all children, just the ones who seem interested.  As she interviews parents, children, and professionals on all sides of the question, she finds some unexpected attitudes and difficulties. 

Jeffrey Goldberg writes of his attempts to attract the attention of airport security screening personnel by posing as a potential terrorist.  Carrying weapons, using a fake boarding pass, failing to produce identiciation, and wearing a T-Shirt emblazoned with the words “Osama bin Laden Hero of Islam” Goldberg got— on the plane!  No problem whatsoever.  He quotes aviation security expert Bruce Schneier‘s characterization of the TSA screening process as “security theater” and of the long lines it creates as ripe targets for suicide bombers.

The Atlantic Monthly, October 2008

This issue‘s cover features a controversial picture of Senator Crazy John McCain. 

Hail the Leader!

Hail the Leader!

 The controversy mainly has to do with the photographer’s other images of McCain.  The Atlantic defended the image above. 

The legend, “Why War is His Answer,” seemed eerily apt- the magazine arrived in the same mail as a gift from a friend (thanks, cymast!) a Quaker “War is Not the Answer” bumper sticker. 

Interesting points after the jump.


The Atlantic Monthly, September 2008

This issue includes several pieces about the 2008 presidential campaign, but some interesting things as well. 

A note mentions a RAND Corporation study of piracy which reached the reassuring conclusion that, contrary to hype, terrorists and pirates are natural adversaries.  While terrorists “would presumably aim for the destruction of the maritime economy, pirates depend on it for their livelihood.” 

Guy Gugliotta recounts the increased interest in space-based weaponry in the US defense establishment since the current administration took power, then argues that nothing is to be gained and a great deal lost from the development or use of such weapons. 

Lisa Margonelli’s “Gut Reactions” explains how the biochemical reactions that take place in a termite’s stomach could provide a model for efficient biofuel production.  Along the way, she discusses the complexity of the communities of bacteria found in termites’ stomach’s and quotes the idea that “Maybe the termite is just a fancy delivery system for the creatures in the gut.”  And maybe humans are really controlled by their stomach bacteria, too…

The jewelry of Ted Muehling is the topic of a new book; Benjamin Schwarz reviews the book, taking the opportunity to write at length about how obscure the location of Muehling’s New York shop is (“tucked on a short stretch of the four-block, semi-hidden Howard Street- reportedly the last street in Manhattan to get street lights”) and how all the most sophisticated ladies in New York know and wear his work

In 1974, heiress Patty Hearst was abducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army.  During her captivity, she was beaten repeatedly, raped hundreds of times, and brainwashed into joining the SLA’s bank robberies.  Apparently something just like that happened to Caitlin Flanagan.  Well, minus the abduction, captivity, beating, rape, brainwashing, and bank robberies.  Her sister left home and became a hippie for a while back in the early 70’s, much to her mother’s dismay.  So as you can see, she knows exactly what Patty Hearst must have gone through, and is the person most qualified to write a highly judgmental essay about her in the guise of a review of a recent book about her case.  

Corby Kummer takes a cooking class on the Greek island of Kea.  His slideshow about the island and its food can be found here.

The Atlantic Monthly, July/ August 2008

The cover story of this issue asks “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?”  If that article had run in The New Yorker, it would have begun with the sentence that in fact opens its 11th paragraph:  “Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter- A Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise.”  That story closes with Nietzsche observing that “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”  The article draws on recent neurological findings about the malleability of the adult brain to expand on Nietzsche’s insight, suggesting that just as those findings suggest that literacy triggers a large-scale rewiring of brain circuitry, so the web can be expected to give rise, not just to a new kind of research method, but to a new kind of human mind.  Homo Googlieticus, perhaps.  

Hanna Rosin’s “American Murder Mystery” notes the changes in the geographic distribution of crime reports in American cities in recent years and suggests a correlation between these changes and the breaking up of the big housing projects of the Great Society era.  As the poor have spread out through Section 8 housing programs, not only have the criminally-inclined among them come along; the old gangs that terrorized the projects have been dispersed and ambitious young thugs have seen an opportunity to create new gangs.  Creating a new gang tends to be a hyper-violent process, leading to spikes in homicide rates in midsize cities around the USA. 

Benjamin Schwarz goes to Brazil (home of our old friend Benjamin Swartz, but that’s a different story) and looks at the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer.  In his first sentence, Schwarz declares that Brasilia “was a heroic and inhuman scheme.”  Leaning on Styliane Philippou’s book Oscar Niemeyer: Curves of Irreverence, Schwarz defends Niemeyer as a blithe spirit who “offered a jaunty alternative to the geometric severity of the International Style” and whose “highest achievements are profoundly informed by a Brazilian aesthetic, which has long made sinuous forms a basic element of its vocabulary.”  Such buildings as the presidential palace, the Foreign Ministry, and the Supreme Court move Schwarz and Philippou to heights of lyrical rapture.  Even so, Schwarz describes Brasilia as “an awful city,” an “horrendous error,” “a colossally wrong turn in urban planning,” “soullessly set in immense paved fields that offer few places to sit and little refuge from the blinding sun.”

The Atlantic Monthly, June 2008

A lively, pleasant read this month. 

Some articles about Barack Obama.  Joshua Green’s “The Amazing Money Machine” leads to the idea that no two successful presidential candidates use the same fundraising model.  Marc Ambinder’s “HisSPACE”, about Obama’s ideas on using the Internet to make government operations more visible, contains this sentence:

Communication and transparency are virtues only up to a point; as students of bureaucracy know, both eventually become an enemy to efficiency. 

But of course it is precisely at the point where transparency becomes an enemy to efficiency that it becomes a virtue.  The last thing we want is a really efficient bureaucracy.  An inefficient bureaucracy is a nuisance, a waste, a headache.  A truly efficient bureaucracy can make life so easy for its clients that it leaves them no opportunity to achieve or create anything.   

Transparency is like all other institutions of democracy: worth everything in the fighting for, worth nothing once achieved.   Even a moderately efficient bureaucratic system can absorb the formalities of democracy and domesticate them thoroughly.  Nietzsche wrote about this several times.  In Twilight of the Idols, he issues his customary harsh dismissal of the institutions of liberalism (“reduction to the herd animal!”,) but does then qualify his contempt:

As long as they are still being fought for, these same institutions produce quite different effects; they then in fact promote freedom mightily.  Viewed more closely, it is war which produces these effects, war for liberal institutions which as war permits the illiberal instincts to endure.  And war is a training in freedom.  For what is freedom?  That one has the will to self-responsibility.  That one preserves the distance which divides us.  That one has become more indifferent to hardship, toil, privation, even to life.  That one is ready to sacrifice men to one’s cause, oneself not excepted.  Freedom means that the manly instincts that delight in war and victory have gained mastery over the other instincts- for example, over the instinct for “happiness”… How is freedom measured, in individuals as in nations?  By the resistance which has to be overcome, by the effort it costs to stay aloft. (from section 38, as translated by R. J. Hollingdale in the Penguin Classics version)

Needless to say I would not endorse any of this without reservation.  But I do believe that the proper growth of the human person requires freedom; that “the will to self-responsibility” is a major part of freedom; that freedom can exist only where all power has definite limits; and that the only thing capable of limiting power is conflict with an opposing power.  Conflict itself, not documents or other formalized procedures resulting from conflict, is what ensures freedom.   

Gregg Easterbrook’s “The Sky is Falling” looks at the possibility of a disastrous meteor strike, analyzing as an example of inefficient bureaucracy NASA’s failure to live up to Congress’ mandates to map the inner solar system.  Locked into a metric which calculates success as a function of the number of astronauts deployed, the space agency wastes billions pointlessly repeating its Nixon-era triumphs, leaving undone work that might, quite literally, save the world. 

“In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” gives “Professor X” the opportunity to speak the unspeakable- some of the students he teaches in two-year colleges are wasting their time taking classes when they would be better off working.  Not that it’s their fault; jobs which never involve a bit of research or sustained sequential reasoning now routinely require four-year degrees.

The Atlantic Monthly (two issues)

March 2008: Which religion will win, asks the cover?  Eliza Griswold predicts that in Nigeria, the winners will eventually be those Christians and Muslims who can put sectarian animosity aside and live together in peace.  Granted, this prediction comes at the end of a staggering catalogue of extreme violence between the followers of the religions, but such is her prediction.  Alan Wolfe also foresees religious peace.  Walter Russell Mead predicts that the next generation of America’s elite will largely consist of people with evangelical Christian upbringings.  Lori Gottlieb urges her fellow single women to marry the first guy who comes along.  Francis X. Rocca visits the monastery Generalissimo Francisco Franco built to surround his tomb.  Sandra Tsing Loh writes about her experience as a mother of public-school students. 

April 2008: Some showbiz stories- a profile of paparazzi who make their living stalking Britney Spears, a review of a biography of 30’s star Joan Crawford, and a piece about Hollywood’s ongoing attempt to recapture its glory days of the 1970’s.  Lawrence Scott Sheets writes about some cases of attempted Uranium smuggling, one of which eerily recalls Ken Kalfus’ novella Pu-239.  B.R. Myers, assigned to review Ian Robinson’s Untied Kingdom, lavishes praise on the author’s 1973 book The Survival of English before noting that his current book his cranky, ill-informed, and bigoted.  Myers does put in a half-defense of Robinson’s identification as a “conservative Christian,” mentioning something disgusting from a recent Academy Award winning movie and pointing out: “the only people who actually object to this sort of thing are the religious right.  We of the non-faith either applaud the ‘pushing of the envelope’ or look the other way; it’s just culture, after all.”  I think Myers is onto something here; it strikes me that one of the great weaknesses of liberalism in all its varieties is a failure to engage with culture, to take it as seriously as it takes the claims of the marketplace.  Corby Kummer writes about the power of community gardens to create a peaceful space in violent neighborhoods.  Barbara Wallraff explains the origin of the phrase “cut to the chase” and explores popular unwillingness to accept the evidence of its recent appearance, then discusses ways in which dictionaries may differ from one another.