Hey, hope you’re doing well.
Before I tell you about my latest work, a quick question about my future work. I’m researching a story about drivers tests. Do you remember doing your drivers license on-road test? What do you remember about it? Do you think preparing for it made you a better driver? If you’d like to help me out with an article about this, reply to this email and tell me about your drivers license test. I might want to interview a few of you. Thank you!
A little more than a year ago, I wrote an article about why reading history is a form of therapy. Like most of the articles I’ve written that I am most fond of, few people read it. I choose to attribute this to the fact it was published on March 9, 2020 (Mayor de Blasio: “Do not put hand sanitizer in your mouth…Don’t put it in your nose. God forbid, don’t put it in your eyes.”) and not that I wrote a quasi-academic essay with no news peg.
One of the historians I interviewed for the article, Virginia Tech’s Lee Vinsel, told me something that I still think about all the time. He said, “there’s not a lot of innovation in bullshit.”
Vinsel co-wrote a book called The Innovation Delusion. It is mostly an expansion of that idea and I highly recommend it.
What does this have to do with the article I just wrote about the Kerner Report? Not a lot, I suppose. But it’s never a bad time to remember a smart thing someone once said.
The Kerner article is part of a VICE package on the one year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder called Still Here. I recommend checking it out, both my article (duh) and the rest of the excellent work from my colleagues.
Here’s another wise thing someone once said:
“for many people simply to acknowledge evil ends their responsibility.”
Martin Luther King Jr. said that, among other things, after the Kerner Report was published, as part of a larger prediction that the damning report on white racism’s responsibility for Black ghettos in urban America wouldn’t change anything. He was, as several historians told me, spot on.
MLK is more famous for having said something else around that time: “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” This line has been used and abused over the years to imply the presence of a natural progressive force, smoothing out centuries of pain, hardship, and immorality, as if entire lives were not created and destroyed while we waited to see what direction the arc is bending. Maybe the arc to which MLK referred is instead an asymptote, a curve that bends towards a line but never actually reaches it.
In the meantime, we’ve got plenty of stories to tell ourselves about the kind of country we are. Data points on that long arc about how we are a decent country that has made mistakes in the past, but they’re fixed now. Stories that omit important events like the Kerner Report, events that suggest we’re not the decent country we say we are. It’s the same story we’ve been telling ourselves for at least 150 years. There never has been much innovation in bullshit.
I moved between the last newsletter and this one which took up most of my reading time. But I finally got around to reading Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families by J. Anthony Lukas, one of those books that won all of the awards when it came out decades ago but has been largely forgotten. This is too bad, because it is great. If you are even the slightest bit interested in the history of Boston, American cities, midcentury politics, what happened to the 60s liberal consensus, or just want to understand this country a little bit better, this is your book.
There is also a great chapter in there about the history and politics of the Boston Globe. It’s mostly about a cultural rift between the old timers who want to stick to the facts and younger, liberal reporters who argue reporters and editors make subjective decisions every day on what to cover and whose perspective to give voice to. Those younger, liberal reporters believed the entire concept of objectivity in reporting is an artificial construct that has contributed to the social ills of the day and the paper has a moral duty to do better. It’s good to know nothing ever fucking changes.
I am immensely pleased to say that reports of Minerva Gray’s demise were greatly exaggerated. I saw her about two weeks ago, but couldn’t get a good photo. I am now convinced Minerva Gray will never die, just as it should be.
Until next time,