Barack Obama’s presidential memoir reveals how his unique sensibility served as a double-edged sword

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(Jamie McCarthy/Getty)

Do the traits that make somebody a good writer also make for an effective leader?

Exactly halfway through A Promised Land, the lengthy first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoir, Obama encounters the former Czech president Václav Havel, a man he describes as a “distant role model.” Obama writes briefly but reverently about Havel, the playwright and modern saint of liberalism whose relentless organizing toppled Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia and made him the first president of a democratic Czech Republic.

Havel warned Obama about how the moral greys of the post-Cold War era were already in 2009 softening Europe’s dedication to liberal democracy. He left his fellow champion of the cause with a bit of hard-earned wisdom: “You’ve been cursed with people’s high expectations… Because it means they are also easily disappointed. It’s something I’m familiar with. …

We’re returning to the pre-Trump culture wars, ahead of schedule

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(Dave J. Hogan/Getty)

Erstwhile boy band revivalist and Gen Z sex symbol Harry Styles graced the cover of December’s Vogue last week in a stylish Gucci jacket, a constellation of blocky gold rings, and, well, a dress — not an androgynous frock, or tongue-in-cheek kilt, but an honest-to-God, lacy, baby-blue women’s dress, that clung to his slender frame as well as it would any number of other pretty faces to grace the magazine’s cover. (In the attendant profile, Styles recounts a school play where he wore tights for the first time, a “crazy” moment “that was maybe where it all kicked off!”

The media’s refusal to call the race in a timely manner reflects how utterly the Trump Era has broken our brains

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(Lorenzo Bevilaqua/Getty)

“What men want is not knowledge, but certainty” — so goes the aphorism ascribed to Bertrand Russell, tweaking our need for intellectual gratification over the hard work of discernment. Knowledge is just a first step, in a process that may ask more of us than we’re prepared to give. Certainty is the cozy end result that, conveniently, can be handed down with little effort or evaluation of our own. (Case in point: that well-trod, perfectly-clever Russell quote? Totally apocryphal.)

Such a dynamic was on full display at the highest levels of American media and politics last week. When Joe Biden finally pulled into the lead for the presidential race in Pennsylvania Friday morning, the elections website Decision Desk HQ made the obvious call — that the vast remainder of the state’s absentee ballots would continue to extend that lead, handing Biden its electoral votes and therefore the presidency. Vox, DDHQ’s election-calling partner, followed suit, and wasted no time in rolling out their “Biden wins” pre-writes. …

How a self-defeating rush to allyship reflects our disordered relationship with social media

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Waking before dawn Tuesday morning to repeat the joyless habit of immediately checking my Instagram feed, I was intrigued — but not quite surprised — to discover it had been transformed overnight. That day’s attempted social media “blackout,” where users posted a black square to their page and forswore their usual lifestyle fluff, was meant as a mass show of solidarity with the protests regarding the murder of George Floyd. The campaign, soon adopted by everyone from Academy Award-winning actors to, fatefully, the Washington, DC professional football team, reached near-ubiquity by mid-morning.

Conspiracies about the ruling class function as a way to out-sophisticate the elites

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A fan holds up an “Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself” sign at a college football game | Credit: Icon Sportswire (Getty)

Conspiracy theories about Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide preceded its actual occurrence. The extent of his sex crimes was matched only by his connections to an array of world leaders, from the current U.S. president to the British royal family. When he was finally imprisoned in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center this summer, even normally sober-minded voices whispered of his impending demise.

By all appearances, Epstein hanged himself in his cell in mid-August, abandoned by dithering guards in one of the country’s most notoriously dank and inhumane jails. But forget the medical examiner’s report, the MCC’s long history of grisly suicides, and the high statistical likelihood of someone in Epstein’s position committing the act. …

Rockism, poptimism, and critical decadence

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Billie Eilish (Gary Miller/Getty); Van Halen (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty) | Arc Illustration

When the New York Times pop critic Kelefa Sanneh, now of the New Yorker, published his 2004 essay decrying the decades-long regime of “rockism” — that is, the veneration of Boomer-era rock icons and implicit dismissal of pop and rap artists, frequently women and people of color, as disposable fluff — he sparked a debate that’s transformed entertainment criticism over the past 15 years.

Sanneh’s essay is basically The 95 Theses for people who have extremely strong opinions about Carly Rae Jepsen. He definitively characterized the rockist as someone who values “idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.” …


Derek Robertson

Writer for hire.

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