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The opening of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire begins with a ship waiting in the middle of the night. It is dark, foggy, unsettling. Another boat approaches and they begin shifting boxes of whiskey from one ship to the other. A nameless character asks them to hurry, “I’m a sitting duck out here,” while another refers to the whiskey as “liquid gold.” The show about prohibition begins with the risks taken by rum and whiskey runners to import booze into the United States throughout the 1920s. Like other facets of popular culture that represent this period, the majority of show dwells on the criminality: the gangsters, the corrupt politicians, the members of law enforcement/IRS/Post Office that are attempting to hunt the “bad guys.” Scarface, Some Like it Hot, Robin and the 7 Hoods, The Untouchables, Lawless to Boardwalk Empire focus their efforts on the sordid, seedy, and sexy details of breaking the law. Hugh Ambrose’s posthumously published Liberated Spirits, takes a different tack. More… “Kindred Spirits”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.

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I remember reading Ben Carson’s Gifted Hands back in fourth grade. The follow-up to that was going to see the play at a local theater. Though lost on me at the time, I realize now that there was a reason why we were encouraged, as inner-city youth, to get into Ben Carson. He was someone the adults wanted us to look up to. He had “pulled himself up by his boot straps,” with the assistance of his illiterate mother and food stamps, of course. I was at the age where I was eager to collect role models, and I found most of them in books, so I kept Carson’s story in mind for encouragement, re-reading it on my own once or twice.

There were some parallels between Carson’s life and my own that might have drawn me to him. My mother was fairly strict, and even after she went to prison, my brother and I lived with a Seventh-day Adventist family who also had very conservative guidelines on how everyone should live. I spent most of my life in predominantly white schools, so I was no stranger to the toll racism can take on a student. The dwindling number of black classmates as the years progressed was also an indication. Unlike Carson, violence had never been an issue for me, and though my grades were not always the best, I was a bookworm and was praised heavily for it. Since most people around me didn’t read, it didn’t matter that I was mostly reading fluffy romance novels. Just being a kid that was willing to pick up a book meant something. Stories like Carson’s were comforting to me because I knew people measured my worth by how smart they believed me to be. Being smart meant that you were going places, though no one ever specified where those places were.

More… “The American Dream”

Kesia Alexandra is a freelance writer, teacher, and mother from Washington, DC. You can connect with her on twitter @okaykesia.

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Having lived and worked in Washington, D.C. for most of the last generation, I have been impressed with the growing gap between the political and economic realities that confront policymakers and the fantasy worlds that are home to many political activists, ideologues, and pundits.

In domestic policy and foreign policy alike, things change slowly and it is often very hard to enact even minor changes of policy. Even in foreign policy, dramatic events like the implosion of the Soviet Union and 9/11 and the Arab Spring tend to punctuate less visible, longer-term shifts in relative wealth and power, like the gradual rise of China. In domestic politics, incumbent interests are almost always stronger than insurgents, making even minor changes, of course, difficult to achieve, even in societies with fewer constitutional veto points than the U.S. More… “The Fantasy Worlds of Politics”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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The future isn’t what it used to be. We need new futures.

Science fiction traditionally has had the task of providing us with alternative visions of the future. For the most part, it has done a terrible job. The main reason for its failure is that it assumes global uniformity.

In optimistic visions of the future, there is a liberal and democratic world government, or perhaps an interplanetary federation. In dystopias, there is a single global tyranny. In post-apocalyptic novels and movies set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, nuclear bombs seem to off gone off everywhere in the world, even in places remote from the homelands and allies of the major combatants. More… “The Future of the Future”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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Following the Cold War, the claim that grand historical narratives had become obsolete was frequently made. The “dialectic of history,” which was supposed to replace capitalism first by socialism then by utopian communism, turned out to be a figment of Karl Marx’s imagination.

But it was hard for many people to do without grand historical narratives which attempt to explain the present and predict the future. In the generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, neoconservatives — that is, former leftists or liberals who had found a new home on the political right in the U.S. and Europe — came up with a quasi-Marxist historical determinism of their own, proposing a “global democratic revolution.” Like Marxists, many neocons believed that the future could be helped to arrive by violence, in the form of American wars of regime change or subversion in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. More… “The Wave of the Future”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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Did you ever wonder where the odd term “pundit” comes from? Today it refers to talking heads on TV and opinioneering newspaper columnists. But the word derives from the Hindi “pandit,” which means a learned or wise scholar whose judgments deserved to be treated with respect. You know, like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill Maher.

Given the current moral panic over “cultural appropriation” sweeping trendy U.S. college campuses, I’m surprised that Indian-American students have not demanded that the word “pundit” be banned or at least preceded by trigger warnings. More… “Pundits, Moguls, Sachems, and Czars”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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Should the federal government subsidize the arts? I have pondered the question ever since 1989, when, with many other residents of Washington, D.C., I went to see an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s obscene photographs which had been cancelled by the Corcoran Exhibit for fear of having federal funds cut off by enraged congressional conservatives. At the entrance to the exhibit, which was hosted instead by the Washington Project for the Arts, a group was collecting signatures for a petition saying that all American artists had the right to taxpayer subsidies, with no strings attached. I offered my signature, but only on condition that the petition organizers in turn provide me with another petition, attesting that I was an American artist and thus entitled to taxpayer money. My offer was not taken up. More… “Should Taxpayers Subsidize the Arts?”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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We live in an era of identity wars. On both sides of the Atlantic, old partisan loyalties are being reshuffled as a new national populist right battles over immigration with an open-borders, multicultural left. Beyond the West, the most dynamic leaders are seeking to root their legitimacy in historic national and religious traditions — Russian Orthodoxy and Eurasianism in Putin’s Russia, Hindu nationalism in Modi’s India, Chinese nationalism in Xi’s China, and post-secular Islamic Turkish nationalism in Erdoğan’s Turkey. The most extreme form of identity politics is that of the Islamic State that has risen from the wreckage of Iraq and Syria. Its adherents seek to recreate a version of the early Muslim caliphate.
More… “The Age of Identity Wars”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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It started with a man setting himself on fire in protest. The outpouring of grief created a groundswell of angry demonstration. The movement grew until suddenly a dictator and a system that seemed so immovable toppled so easily. And after one nation fell, citizens of other nations began to rise up and overthrow their leaders…

Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire by Victor Sebestyen. 480 pages. Pantheon. $30.

“The people’s will had triumphed over tyranny in a dizzying few months of almost entirely peaceful revolutions which changed the world… a point of bright hopes, intelligent optimism, sincere thanksgiving…” This may sound like a report from the Middle East, but it is actually Victor Sebestyen writing about Central and Eastern Europe.

The pattern is familiar. It’s shocking how easily revolutions in different places in the world are built… More…

Some dictators don’t know how to talk. They know how to speak, of course. They are able to use language. They utter words, but they don’t say anything. Hosni Mubarak, the current president of Egypt (at least at the time of this writing) recently made a speech in an attempt to quell the street protests and demands for an end to his despotic regime.

 

You might say it was an airy speech, draped in the finery of general principles, wafting lightly on the breeze of abstraction. He uttered sentences such as, “There is a fine line between freedom and chaos and I lean toward freedom for the people in expressing their opinions as much as I hold on to the need to maintain Egypt’s safety and stability.” That’s a truly amazing sentence. My favorite part is when Mubarak… More…