I cannot now recall exactly what creatures I saw on that visit to the Antwerp Nocturama, but there were probably bats and jerboas from Egypt and the Gobi Desert, native European hedgehogs and owls, Australian opossums, pine martens, dormice, and lemurs, leaping from branch to branch, darting back and forth over the grayish-yellow sandy ground, or disappearing into a bamboo thicket. The only animal which has remained lingering in my memory is the raccoon. I watched it for a long time as it say beside a little stream with a serious expression on its face, washing the same piece of apple over and over again, as if it hoped that all this washing, which went far beyond any reasonable thoroughness, would help it to escape the unreal world in which it had arrived, so to speak, through no fault of its own. Otherwise, all I remember of the Nocturama is that several of them had strikingly large eyes, and the fixed, inquiring gaze found in certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking.
Sure, we’ve got dozens of astronauts, physicists, and demolitions experts. I’ll be damned if we didn’t try to train our best men for this mission. But just because they can fly a shuttle and understand higher-level astrophysics doesn’t mean they can execute a unique mission like this. Anyone can learn how to land a spacecraft on a rocky asteroid flying through space at twelve miles per second. I don’t need some pencilneck with four Ph.D’s, one-thousand hours of simulator time, and the ability to operate a robot crane in low-Earth orbit. I need someone with four years of broad-but-humanities-focused studies, three subsequent years in temp jobs, and the ability to reason across multiple areas of study.
For the last couple of years he’d been working on what he described as a “disastrous novel” — “La Boda de Eduardo” — but he realized, with the force of epiphany, that the attempts to graft his life experience onto a Hemingway-Carver framework were foolish. There was an experience he was living that hadn’t adequately been represented in fiction yet. Not a Kafkaesque existential deadness, but something else, something that captured “not the endless cycle of meaningless activity but the endless cycle of meaningful activity.”
“I saw the peculiar way America creeps up on you if you don’t have anything,” he told me. “It’s never rude. It’s just, Yes, you do have to work 14 hours. And yes, you do have to ride the bus home. You’re now the father of two and you will work in that cubicle or you will be dishonored. Suddenly the universe was laden with moral import, and I could intensely feel the limits of my own power. We didn’t have the money, and I could see that in order for me to get this much money, I would have to work for this many more years. It was all laid out in front of me, and suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort — and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.”
The United States stands out among the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the world’s club of rich nations, for its low top marginal income tax rate. These low rates are not essential for growth — consider Germany, for instance, which has managed to maintain its status as a center of advanced manufacturing, even though its top income-tax rate exceeds America’s by a considerable margin. And in general, our top tax rate kicks in at much higher incomes. Denmark, for example, has a top tax rate of more than 60 percent, but that applies to anyone making more than $54,900. The top rate in the United States, 39.6 percent, doesn’t kick in until individual income reaches $400,000 (or $450,000 for a couple). Only three O.E.C.D. countries — South Korea, Canada and Spain — have higher thresholds.
Over the years, some of the wealthy have been enormously successful in getting special treatment, shifting an ever greater share of the burden of financing the country’s expenditures — defense, education, social programs — onto others. Ironically, this is especially true of some of our multinational corporations, which call on the federal government to negotiate favorable trade treaties that allow them easy entry into foreign markets and to defend their commercial interests around the world, but then use these foreign bases to avoid paying taxes.
General Electric has become the symbol for multinational corporations that have their headquarters in the United States but pay almost no taxes — its effective corporate-tax rate averaged less than 2 percent from 2002 to 2012 — just as Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee last year, became the symbol for the wealthy who don’t pay their fair share when he admitted that he paid only 14 percent of his income in taxes in 2011, even as he notoriously complained that 47 percent of Americans were freeloaders. Neither G.E. nor Mr. Romney has, to my knowledge, broken any tax laws, but the sparse taxes they’ve paid violate most Americans’ basic sense of fairness.
Last week, one of my college friends, who now manages vast sums at a hedge fund, visited me. He’s the most rational person I know, so I asked him how he would go about deciding whether to go to grad school in a discipline like English or comparative literature. He dealt immediately with the sample bias problem by turning toward statistics. His first step, he said, would be to ignore the stories of individual grad students, both good and bad. Their experiences are too variable and path-dependent, and their stories are too likely to assume an unwarranted weight in our minds. Instead, he said, he would focus on the “base rates”: that is, on the numbers that give you a broad statistical picture of outcomes from graduate school in the humanities. What percentage of graduate students end up with tenure? (About one in four.) How much more unhappy are graduate students than other people? (About fifty-four per cent of graduate students report feeling so depressed they have “a hard time functioning,” as opposed to ten per cent of the general population.) To make a rational decision, he told me, you have to see the big picture, because your experience is likely to be typical, rather than exceptional. “If you take a broader view of the profession,” he told me, “it seems like a terrible idea to go to graduate school.”
Perhaps that’s the rational conclusion, but, if so, it’s beset on all sides by confounding little puzzles; they act like streams that divert and weaken the river of rational thought. Graduate school, for example, is a one-time-only offer. Very few people start doctoral programs later in life. If you pass it up, you pass it up forever. Given that, isn’t walking away actually the rash decision? (This kind of thinking is a subspecies of the habit of mind psychologists call loss aversion: once you have something, it’s very hard to give it up; if you get into grad school, it’s very hard not to go.) And then there’s the fact that graduate school, no matter how bad an idea it might be in the long term, is almost always fulfilling and worthwhile in the short term. As our conversation continued, my friend was struck by this. “How many people get paid to read what they want to read,” he asked, “and study what they want to study?” He paused. ”If I got into a really good program, I would probably go.”
The United States has dealt with American citizens who had commit acts of terrorism before. We Mirandized them, we charged them, we ensured that they had competent legal counsel, and we tried them in civilian courts where they received the typical rights and protections guaranteed to the accused. In none of those cases did this decision endanger more lives, prevent adequate prosecution, or otherwise present any threat to the country or its people.
Timothy McVeigh: killed 168 people. Injured over 800 more. Was motivated by political convictions. He was arrested, Mirandized, charged, appointed with legal counsel, and tried in a civilian court. Ted Kaczynski: killed three people. Injured 23 more. Was motivated by political convictions. He was arrested, Mirandized, charged, appointed with legal counsel, and processed through a civilian court. Eric Rudolph: killed two people. Injured at least 150 more. Was motivated by political convictions. He was arrested, Mirandized, charged, appointed with legal counsel, and processed through a civilian court.
If you recognize that the results of these legal cases were consonant with our system of jurisprudence and with justice, you cannot ask for a separate status for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev without supporting legal discrimination based on ethnicity and religion. To deny Tsarnaev the legal status conferred on prior domestic terrorists, or to support such a denial, is to abandon the most elementary commitment of modern jurisprudence, which is the equality of all people under the law. It’s to stand for legal bigotry.
[I]f the borough of Manhattan were a country, the income gap between the richest twenty per cent and the poorest twenty per cent would be on par with countries like Sierra Leone, Namibia, and Lesotho.
Religious despair is often a defense against boredom and the daily grind of existence. Lacking intensity in our lives, we say that we are distant from God and then seek to make that distance into an intense experience. It is among the most difficult spiritual ailments to heal, because it is usually wholly illusory.
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, 108. (via invisibleforeigner)
The truest thing I’ll read all day.
Algren had, in the seven years separating his first two books, decided that bearing honest witness was a more effective means of challenging authority than protest was.