January 21, 2019

When Writers Were Dangerous

“American exceptionalism kicked off with a defining statement from John Winthrop, the first governor of the then Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early decades of the 17th century. Surveying the wilderness in front of him – the eastern edge of a continent that was the ultimate terra incognita – Winthrop vaingloriously noted: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”

How ironic that the most platitudinous of recent presidents, Ronald Reagan, chose to cite Winthrop’s commentary in one of his most oft-quoted speeches. Did Reagan’s preferred scribe, Peggy Noonan, realise she was borrowing a statement from the head of a puritanical hierarchy; a group that thought nothing about clapping non-believers in the stocks, hanging heretics for preaching the benign tenets of Quakerism, burning witches, and running its highly theocratic colony in a manner not dissimilar from the Taliban several centuries later? The Grand Guignol grotesqueries of religious fanaticism are indeed timeless.

No wonder that those men of the enlightenment who wrote the American Constitution – Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin – were so insistent on the separation of church and state. Because they knew of the pious monomania (and the tendency toward mob zealotry) that were ingrained from the start within the national body politic. No wonder that the first truly landmark American novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), examined the public shaming of a New England innocent, Hester Prynne, forced to wear the letter A around her neck after being falsely accused of adultery in Puritan-era Massachusetts. No wonder that, 100 years after Hawthorne published his daring riposte to that very American need for communal moral self-righteousness, the absolute evil of the McCarthyite witch hunt commenced. Spearheaded by the deeply dipsomaniac and demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy, it insisted on its victims wearing the metaphoric equivalent of a red C (for Commie) around their neck.”

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JJ Editor's Picks

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"...taking seriously Dr. King’s critique of Northern liberalism means also calling out liberal public officials and residents who profess commitments to equality yet maintain a corrupt criminal justice system and a segregated school system."

"There are now three “states” involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Hamas in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and Israel. Any attempt to move the peace process forward must account for this reality."

"In director Chris Smith's new Netflix documentary, Fyre – about the "elephant of a clusterf--k" that Fyre Festival actually became – we see footage of tech entrepreneur and Fyre founder Billy McFarland telling a bunch of the world's biggest supermo"

"The government shutdown flooded folks with fear. Yet it shouldn’t. The aftermath of shutdowns is also great, with U.S. stocks averaging 12.8 percent in the next 12 months."

"Channel surfing feels futile, if not obsolete. TV is no longer a remote-controlled menu to peruse as much as it’s a Tube Goldberg machine carrying our eyes from one diversion to the next."

"Natalie Wynn, the creator of the comico-philosophical YouTube channel ContraPoints, wanted to make a video that was both more trenchant and entertaining than the others. "

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"...the FDA's newfound sense of urgency regarding teen e-cigarette use is overdue. Beyond the nicotine in e-cigarettes, there are other less well-understood chemical threats like diacetyl..."

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"Homo erectus was in the news over 2018 thanks to new discoveries in the Philippines and China, which have transformed our understanding of this not too distant family member."

"I am Jewish and queer. But neither of these identities managed to make an impact on the co-chairs of the Women’s March as I begged them, again and again, to take my pain seriously."