Essay, Headline »

The Role of War and Sacrifice in Russia’s Mythic Identity

By | November 3, 2017

If you want to understand Russia better, think of war. But not the one in eastern Ukraine or the frightening possibility of a conflict with NATO.
Go back instead to Russia’s 1945 victory over Nazi Germany. That triumph is the greatest event in Russia’s thousand-year history. In the largest war ever, Russia led the Soviet Union in crushing absolute evil and thereby saved the world …

Headline, What It Means to Be American »

How New Mexico’s “Peons” Became Enslaved to Debt

By | November 2, 2017

Imagine a time and place where a small debt—even just a few dollars—could translate into a lifetime of servitude not only for the debtor, but also for his or her children. For much of the 19th century, the American Southwest was just such a place. There, a system commonly called debt peonage relegated thousands of men, women, and children to years of bondage to a …

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How Don Quixote’s Battles Predicted Piracy in the Digital Age

By | November 1, 2017

Although Don Quixote wasn’t the first great novel (that honor belongs to the Tale of Genji, written by an 11th-century lady-in-waiting at the Japanese court), it was the first to do something important: capture a new world of print.
That world had begun when Johannes Gutenberg improved upon Chinese printing techniques and combined them with paper, itself an invention that had arrived from China via …

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How the Evolution of the Human Brain Led Us to God

By | October 31, 2017

The human brain is the most intriguing object in the universe, populated with 100 billion neurons connected by nerve fibers, which, if laid end to end, could circle the earth four times. British neurologist Macdonald Critchley spoke of “the divine banquet of the brain … a feast with dishes that remain elusive in their blending, and with sauces whose ingredients are even now a secret.” …

Headline, What It Means to Be American »

How Americans Can Stop Fighting the Civil War

By | October 30, 2017

It began as a loving effort to heal the South’s wounds, to properly mourn the young men who gave their lives for a lost cause, and to extract dignity from the humiliation of defeat.
Immediately after the Civil War ended, the white women of the South went to work. They tended graves, erected modest monuments, and followed former president Jefferson Davis’ plea to “keep …

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The Greatest Story Ever Told About Hyperbole, Humbug, and P.T. Barnum!

By | October 27, 2017

In 1835, Phineas Taylor Barnum was down on his luck and anxious to find an “amusement” that would attract paying customers. One lucky day a stranger came into the shop where Barnum worked and told him that he possessed half-ownership of a “curiosity”: a woman named Joice Heth who, the stranger claimed, was the 161-year-old slave who raised George Washington.
Barnum examined Heth and the …

Headline, What It Means to Be American »

When Halloween Mischief Turned to Mayhem

By | October 26, 2017

Imagine. Pre-electricity, no moon. It’s late October, and the people whisper: This is the season for witchery, the night the spirits of the dead rise from their graves and hover behind the hedges.
The wind kicks up, and branches click like skeletal finger bones. You make it home, run inside, wedge a chair against the door, and strain to listen. There’s a sharp rap at …

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Before Going to War in North Korea, Try Understanding the Place First

By | October 25, 2017

With schoolyard taunts hurtling between Washington and Pyongyang, and fears of nuclear Armageddon escalating from Seoul to Tokyo to Los Angeles, the once-unthinkable idea of a military showdown between North Korea and the United States has become frighteningly plausible.
On an October evening when many Angelenos were pondering the opening game of the World Series rather than end-of-the-world scenarios, a Zócalo/UCLA panel discussion explored the question, …

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Today’s Mass Killings Shouldn’t Distort Our Assessment of Everyday Risk

By | October 24, 2017

In the midst of the Second Intifada, in summer 2001, I was living in the dorms at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Normally bustling streets were nearly empty. Signs in store windows offered discounts for the “brave tourists” who ventured inside despite the growing violence and tension. Being constantly on alert exhausted me, a short-term visitor insulated from many of the complexities of what was unfolding. …

Headline, What It Means to Be American »

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a Positive Symbol of American Power!

By | October 23, 2017

I can’t really remember when I first encountered Superman. It might have been through the 1950s television series The Adventures of Superman, or it might have been in a Superman comic book—not an American comic book, but a black and white reprint, by the Australian publisher K. G. Murray.
Growing up in Australia, I learned the basic stories of American history from the pages of …