A Lesser-Known Influence in Obama’s Life
Since taking the helm of The New Yorker in 1998, David Remnick has returned the magazine to its profitable glory days. A graduate of Princeton University, he began his journalistic career as a night police reporter at the Washington Post in 1982, becoming the paper's Moscow correspondent in 1988. His coverage of the Soviet Union's collapse led to his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1993 book "Lenin's Tomb." His latest book "The Bridge," is a biography of President Barack Obama. He lives in New York with his wife, Esther Fein, and their three children.
David Remnick: Remember, Obama \r\npublished his autobiography at a time during a memoir craze in this \r\ncountry. The ‘90’s was wall-to-wall memoirs. There were so many best \r\nselling memoirs and some very fine memoirs, his was just one of them. \r\nAnd it was the theme of his was racial identity and that pursuit. And it\r\n was a young man’s book, and a very accomplished book for a young man, \r\nsometimes a little purple, sometimes a little overwrought, but I think \r\nultimately honest. In other words he tells you: "Here’s where I’m going \r\nto shape things a little bit beyond reality, here’s where I’m going to \r\nplay with dialogue." He doesn’t lie. And we know in recent years from a \r\nlot of controversies about memoir that writers can sometimes go too far \r\nand they are essentially writing fiction. He did not do that. But it is \r\nalso a book that is bereft of politics. There is no political formation \r\nin that book except in the most elemental sense in terms of idealism.
And\r\n\r\n also, the greatest presence in that book is the pursuit of an absence, \r\nthe pursuit of this father, who is really in Obama’s life in infancy, \r\nwhich he can’t remember, and for a 10-day trip when he was a kid. That’s\r\n it. Obama knows his father through stories people tell, through his \r\nmother telling him idealized versions of his father, and then finally \r\nmeeting African relatives who tell him a much tougher version of \r\nreality. In fact, his father was enormously and deeply intelligent, \r\nthought he was going to be in the leadership of post-colonial Kenya, and\r\n in fact he fell out, he failed. He became a big drinker. He was a \r\nmiserable husband and father. Probably beat one of those wives, \r\naccording to one of the kids, who now lives in China, and this was \r\ndevastating to Obama to come up against this reality, and Obama’s father\r\n becomes not an example for him, but a counter-example; something not to\r\n do, a path to not take, an emotionalism not to follow, a level of \r\nerratic behavior to avoid. So, not to get too psychoanalytic about this \r\nbecause Obama talks about it himself, he becomes a much more controlled \r\nfigure; somebody who keeps his cool, somebody who tried to conciliate \r\nrather than to upset groups of people. That becomes very much his \r\npersonality.
And the figure in his own book who was the most \r\npowerfully influential, who’s kind of an absence and I think sketched in\r\n rather lightly, is his mother. His mother is a fascinating figure. An \r\nintellectual, somebody who pursues an anthropological career in, for the\r\n most part, Indonesia, who leaves him in Honolulu all throughout high \r\nschool while she is pursuing her career in Indonesia. He adores her, \r\nhe’s confused by her, he’s bemused by her because she tries to in a very\r\n white, liberal, old-fashioned way help him with his search for a black \r\nidentity by giving him Mahalia Jackson records and tapes of Martin \r\nLuther King’s speeches, and he’s kind of eye-rolling about this. So, \r\nObama’s kind of got a rough time, an unusual time. He can’t just learn \r\nto be himself ethnically speaking, by sitting down at the kitchen table.\r\n He’s got to go out and find his way.
Question: Was \r\nObama’s family narrative part of a broader strategy?
David\r\n\r\n Remnick: A book is a book, and a life is a life, and in the writing\r\n of a memoir inevitably there is going to be some shaping, some \r\nsimplification, some rounding of the edges, some providing of structure \r\nto life. Life is a mess. Books can’t afford to be a mess. And they can \r\nbe messy in spots, they can be complicated and they ought to be \r\ncomplicated, but Obama’s memoir is a highly shaped thing. It’s three big\r\n parts. At the end of each one, Obama is in tears. He’s in tears in the \r\nchurch where he comes to accept Jesus Christ and his place in Jeremiah \r\nWright’s church. He’s in tears at his father’s grave as he comes to \r\nfinally reconcile himself to that search, etc., etc. It is life is not \r\npurely like that obviously. Life is one damned thing after another. \r\nBooks can’t be that.
Question: Whose perspectives on \r\nObama were more salient to you?
David Remnick: I \r\nthink Obama is somebody who has always benefited by his ability to \r\nattract mentors, and mentors were among the best sources for this book. \r\nFor example, in Chicago, his great mentor, and he didn’t always get \r\nalong with him at all moments, is a man named Jerry Kellman. Born Jewish\r\n from New Rochelle, New York, he gets to Chicago, he becomes very \r\ninvolved in Alinski-like community organizing and he converts to \r\nCatholicism, he’s working with a lot of Catholic Churches, black \r\nchurches, he brings Obama to Chicago and this is a guy, older than \r\nObama, who spent countless hours with him eating burgers at McDonald's \r\nand just talking about life. You know sitting in church basements and \r\nwaiting for meetings to begin and talking about race, about politics, \r\nabout Chicago, about people, about stuff. And somebody like that is \r\nenormously valuable because he talks to a Barack Obama and about a \r\nBarack Obama that we will never know again. Somebody that’s completely \r\nunguarded.
Or somebody at law school, like Lawrence Tribe, who \r\nwas his mentor. A great Constitutional lawyer, new Obama in a very \r\nprofound and for me, very striking and interesting way. There are all \r\nkinds of people like that. Obama attracted mentors. That’s a certain \r\nkind of young man or young woman’s talent.
Jerry Kellman spent countless hours with the President eating at McDonald's and talking about life.
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"Nothing but naked people: fat ones, thin ones, old, young…"
"The Yellow Sands", 1888, John Reinhard Weguelin; source: Wikimedia Commons<h3>Naked revolution</h3><p>Yet long before anyone knew about beach fashion, naturism was trendy. Bathing naked in the sea was going on in England as early as 1840. However, during the reign of Queen Victoria, this pleasure was outlawed. But it popped up again among the conservative Germans. In 1898, the first Naturist Club was founded in Essen and in 1900 the Wandering Birds group (<em>Wandervögel</em>) was scouring the country for uninhabited places and naked sunbathing. In the same year, Heinrich Pudor wrote <em>The C</em><em>ult of </em><em>the </em><em>Nud</em><em>e</em>, winning the hearts of contemporary supporters of naturism.</p><p>In the 1920s, on the back of this, members of the Movement for Natural Healing (<em>Naturheilbewegung</em>) organized naked sunbathing for the improvement of health. Persuaded by Pudor's theory of the healing properties of the sun and wind, which could be absorbed through the skin, they launched the naked revolution.</p><p>Pudor's book became the naturists' manifesto and soon after, not far from Hamburg, the Free Body Culture (<em>Freikörperkultur</em>, or FKK) movement was founded. This spread through other German centres and brought together thousands of people. The FKK still operates under the same name today.</p><p>The cult of the naked body even wrote itself into the ideology of fascist Germany, which advocated a pure, Aryan race. But in 1933, Hermann Göring issued an order that defined nudity as "the greatest threat to the German soul" and, with that, criminalized naturist organizations. But this wasn't the end of the movement. The naturists went underground, continuing their activities under the guise of improving physical fitness.</p><p>In 1936, the idea was even floated of having a naturist display to open the Berlin Olympic Games. It was quickly dropped. Despite this, in 1939 the naturists managed to organize their own Games in the Swiss village of Thielle.</p>
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Crows have their own version of the human cerebral cortex.
Action-packed pallia<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0NzkyMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNzk1NzM1OH0.Tjb3zulFW2gwhteR124F9HGbmdnCqNqQFOBQouieTJ8/img.png?width=980" id="2bbc9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2907e4035e553565f4446e968ee73d92" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Fun with Ozzie and Glenn<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0Njk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzY4Njc2MX0.ZgpsPMCK6qOj2o0kErvVPjdua1EnMCIwCuHHGrb3LiY/img.jpg?width=980" id="acbeb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2e286fecbb228a5ca8aa26fcd19f95a2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="two crows in a tree" />
Ozzie and Glenn not pictured
Credit: narubono/Unsplash<p>The kind of higher intelligence crows exhibited in the new research is similar to the way we solve problems. We catalog relevant knowledge and then explore different combinations of what we know to arrive at an action or solution.</p><p>The researchers, led by neurobiologist <a href="https://homepages.uni-tuebingen.de/andreas.nieder/" target="_blank">Andreas Nieder</a> of the University of Tübingen in Germany, trained two carrion crows (<em>Corvus corone</em>), Ozzie and Glenn.</p><p>The crows were trained to watch for a flash — which didn't always appear — and then peck at a red or blue target to register whether or not a flash of light was seen. Ozzie and Glenn were also taught to understand a changing "rule key" that specified whether red or blue signified the presence of a flash with the other color signifying that no flash occurred.</p><p>In each round of a test, after a flash did or didn't appear, the crows were presented a rule key describing the current meaning of the red and blue targets, after which they pecked their response.</p><p>This sequence prevented the crows from simply rehearsing their response on auto-pilot, so to speak. In each test, they had to take the entire process from the top, seeing a flash or no flash, and then figuring out which target to peck.</p><p>As all this occurred, the researchers monitored their neuronal activity. When Ozzie or Glenn saw a flash, sensory neurons fired and then stopped as the bird worked out which target to peck. When there was no flash, no firing of the sensory neurons was observed before the crow paused to figure out the correct target.</p><p>Nieder's interpretation of this sequence is that Ozzie or Glenn had to see or not see a flash, deliberately note that there had or hadn't been a flash — exhibiting self-awareness of what had just been experienced — and then, in a few moments, connect that recollection to their knowledge of the current rule key before pecking the correct target.</p><p>During those few moments after the sensory neuron activity had died down, Nieder reported activity among a large population of neurons as the crows put the pieces together preparing to report what they'd seen. Among the busy areas in the crows' brains during this phase of the sequence was, not surprisingly, the pallium.</p><p>Overall, the study may eliminate the layered cerebral cortex as a requirement for higher intelligence. As we learn more about the intelligence of crows, we can at least say with some certainty that it would be wise to avoid <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/26/science/26crow.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">angering one</a>.</p>