Judith Shulevitz

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PTSD and other disorders that result from historical horrors (wars, slavery, etc.) seem to be intergenerational not just because of nurture but due to nature as well, with the hormone cortisol playing a significant role in perpetuating the pain. So, it’s not just the ghosts making mayhem but also a heritable biological reordering which victims unknowingly pass on to descendants. Can this phenomenon be neutralized? From “The Science of Suffering,” by Judith Shulevitz at The New Republic:

“In the early ’80s, a Lakota professor of social work named Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart coined the phrase ‘historical trauma.’ What she meant was ‘the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations.’ Another phrase she used was ‘soul wound.’ The wounding of the Native American soul, of course, went on for more than 500 years by way of massacres, land theft, displacement, enslavement, thenwell into the twentieth centurythe removal of Native American children from their families to what were known as Indian residential schools. These were grim, Dickensian places where some children died in tuberculosis epidemics and others were shackled to beds, beaten, and raped.

Brave Heart did her most important research near the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the home of Oglala Lakota and the site of some of the most notorious events in Native American martyrology. In 1890, the most famous of the Ghost Dances that swept the Great Plains took place in Pine Ridge. We might call the Ghost Dances a millenarian movement; its prophet claimed that, if the Indians danced, God would sweep away their present woes and unite the living and the dead. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, however, took the dances at Pine Ridge as acts of aggression and brought in troops who killed the chief, Sitting Bull, and chased the fleeing Lakota to the banks of Wounded Knee Creek, where they slaughtered hundreds and threw their bodies in mass graves. (Wounded Knee also gave its name to the protest of 1973 that brought national attention to the American Indian Movement.) Afterward, survivors couldn’t mourn their dead because the federal government had outlawed Indian religious ceremonies. The whites thought they were civilizing the savages.

Today, the Pine Ridge Reservation is one of the poorest spots in the United States. According to census data, annual income per capita in the largest county on the reservation hovers around $9,000. Almost a quarter of all adults there who are classified as being in the labor force are unemployed. (Bureau of Indian Affairs figures are darker; they estimate that only 37 percent of all local Native American adults are employed.) According to a health data research center at the University of Washington, life expectancy for men in the county ranks in the lowest 10 percent of all American counties; for women, it’s in the bottom quartile. In a now classic 1946 study of Lakota children from Pine Ridge, the anthropologist Gordon Macgregor identified some predominant features of their personalities: numbness, sadness, inhibition, anxiety, hypervigilance, a not-unreasonable sense that the outside world was implacably hostile. They ruminated on death and dead relatives. Decades later, Mary Crow Dog, a Lakota woman, wrote a memoir in which she cited nightmares of slaughters past that sound almost like forms of collective memory: ‘In my dream I had been going back into another life,” she wrote. “I saw tipis and Indians camping … and then, suddenly, I saw white soldiers riding into camp, killing women and children, raping, cutting throats. It was so real … sights I did not want to see, but had to see against my will; the screaming of children that I did not want to hear. … And the only thing I could do was cry. … For a long time after that dream, I felt depressed, as if all life had been drained from me.’

Brave Heart’s subjects were mainly Lakota social-service providers and community leaders, all of them high-functioning and employed. The vast majority had lived on the reservation at some point in their lives, and evinced symptoms of what she called unmourned loss. Eighty-one percent had drinking problems. Survivor guilt was widespread. In a study of a similar population, many spoke about early deaths in the family from heart disease and high rates of asthma. Some of her subjects had hypertension. They harbored thoughts of suicide and identified intensely with the dead.”

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Here, in no particular order, are this year’s 20 selections. These pieces, which made me think or reconsider my opinions or just delighted me, are limited to ungated material that’s only a click away. (I included work from publications such as the New York Times which allow a certain amount of free articles per month.)

  • The Reality Show” (Mike Jay, Aeon) Brilliant essay that points out that the manifestations of mental illness are heavily influenced by the prevailing culture. In our case: ubiquitous technology.
  • Invisible Child–Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life (Andrea Elliott, New York Times) A tale of two cities in present-day New York told through the story of a talented grade-school girl trying to make it through the hard knocks of class divisions. What’s expressed tacitly is that if the best and brightest homeless children only have a so-so shot at success, those less gifted have almost none. 
  • The Robots Are Here” (Tyler Cowen, Politico Magazine): The best distillation yet of the economist’s ideas about where the technological disruption will lead us as a society. I’m not completely on board with his forecasting, but this article is smart and provocative.
  • In Conversation: Antonin Scalia(Jennifer Senior, New York) Amazing interview with the Supreme Court Justice which reveals him to a stunning, and frightening, extent.
  • Return of the Oppressed (Peter Turchin, Aeon) The father of Cliodynanics forecasts a dark future for humanity thanks to spiraling wealth inequality.
  • Omens (Ross Andersen, Aeon) With a focus on philosopher Nick Bostrom, the writer wonders whether humans will survive into the deep future.
  • Thanksgiving in Mongolia(Ariel Levy, The New Yorker) Heartrending story of a reporter’s loss in a far-flung place is personal journalism at its finest.
  • Blockbuster Video: 1985-2013 (Alex Pappademas, Grantland): A master of the postmortem lays to rest not a person but a way of life which is disappearing brick by brick and mortar by mortar. 
  • The Corporate Mystique” (Judith Shulevitz, The New Republic) A reminder that a female CEO is not a replacement for a women’s movement.
  • The Global Swarm” (P.W. Singer, Foreign Policy) The author considers privacy as drones get smaller, smarter and seemingly unstoppable.
  • The Master” (Marc Fisher, The New Yorker) A profile of a predatory teacher is most interesting as an extreme psychological portrait of the cult mentality.
  • Why the World Faces Climate Chaos” (Martin Wolf, Financial Times) An attempt to understand why we cling to systems that doom us, that could make us the new dinosaurs.
  • The Hollywood Fast Life of Stalker Sarah” (Molly Knight, New York Times Magazine) Thoughtful article about celebrity in our age of decentralized media, in which fame has entered its long-tail phase, seemingly available to everyone and worth less than ever. 
  • Academy Fight Song(Thomas Frank, The Baffler) The author plays the role of designated mourner for common sense in U.S. higher education, which costs more now and returns less.
  • The Wastefulness of Automation(Frances Coppola, Pieria) A smart consideration of the disconnect of free-market societies that are also highly automated ones.

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The opening of “Margaret Atwood: Our Most Important Prophet of Doom,” Judith Shulevitz’s New Republic meditation about bioengineering, which has the potential to be wonderful and terrible:

“Every generation takes for granted beliefs or practices that strike later generations as unconscionable. Just try explaining to your children public executions, chattel slavery, or eugenics. Your offspring will gape, stunned, until it dawns on them that the society you’re raising them to take part in has an astonishing capacity not to think things through. So, what’s not being thought through right now? The competition is stiff: the continued use of fossil fuels when catastrophic storms batter our shores, feeding our children off toxin-leaching plastic tableware, etc., etc.

You’d think that the professionals most likely to predict our regrets would be statisticians, trained as they are to rank the likelihood of negative outcomes. But prognostication of this sort is more gift than skill, since you need a finely tuned moral sensor as much as, if not more than, advanced numeracy. You can’t say what history will deem barbaric unless you feel a punch in the stomach every time you encounter it. This is why it was a novelist, not a statistician, who first sounded the alarm—for me—about a fast-tumbling cascade of changes I hadn’t thought hard about before.

The novelist is Margaret Atwood. What she made me think about is bioengineering.”

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In my experience, female executives are no better or worse than their male counterparts, though, of course, there should be no glass ceilings. But you can’t expect a scheme to change just because there are some new schemers. Judith Shulevitz, whose excellent work I first encountered when she was editing the late, great Lingua Franca, explains in a New Republic piece why a women’s movement can accomplish things that successful boardroom executives like Sheryl Sandberg can’t, no matter how high they rise:

“Competent female executives run better companies than incompetent male executives, but they’re no more likely to make universal day care the law of the land. If Davos Woman had dominated feminist discourse when the Triangle Shirtwaist fire killed nearly 130 female sweatshop laborers in 1911, would she have pushed for the legislation that came out of that tragedy—the fire codes and occupancy limits that made workplaces safer for women, and men, for generations to come?

America’s women’s movements helped deliver a fairer world for everyone—upper-middle class, middle class, and working class—not because they produced more leaders, but because those leaders, and the rank-and-file who worked with them and even went to jail with them, changed the rules of society. They helped women get the vote, abortion access, domestic-abuse statutes, and the Family and Medical Leave Act, de minimis as that is. No corporate boss, even one as gallantly outspoken as Sandberg, can match that.”

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