Putin’s People, Skeleton Crews, and National Baseball: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From imagined pasts to American pastimes, we learned a lot over the last seven days
We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.
A mother holds a tiny hand of her preterm baby in the NICU.
My wife and I have three kids, including a brand new arrival who burst into the world on April 26 about a month ahead of schedule. Like both of her older siblings, Baby Maeve had to spend the early days of her life in the Special Care Nursery, a slightly less worrisome version of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) where many preemies end up for specialized help with eating, breathing, growing, and all the other stuff babies have to master before they can go home. “Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that about 10 percent of births in the United States are preterm, defined as occurring before 37 weeks of pregnancy,” writes David McMillin in the Washington Post. “There is no guidebook for dealing with the fear that the acronym NICU can create.” He’s right about that. But there is a remarkable sense of humility and gratitude when you spend weeks watching nurses and doctors tend to the tiniest human lives with patience and skill.
We’ve been relatively lucky, as preemie experiences go, with kids who were born at healthy weights and without debilitating health problems. But we’ve sat side-by-side with parents who spent months tending to newborns who came into the world weighing barely two pounds, who required around-the-clock care before they could digest a thimble of milk or take a steady series of breaths. “You are in for an emotionally exhausting experience,” writes McMillin, recounting the weeks he and his wife spent at the bedside of their son. “Red warning signs flash on monitors, bells sound when a patient’s heart rate dips or oxygen drops, and nurses rush in to address the latest scare.” There’s immense anxiety to all of that. But there’s also a welcome realization that your highest hopes and deepest fears are now in the capable hands of others. “Let the NICU instill a level of compassion you never knew was possible before you found yourself in the gray area of being overjoyed that you are all parents and overwhelmed with worry about your baby’s future,” McMillan advises. Maeve is out in the world now, sitting in the breeze and the sunshine next to me while I write this. But I’m glad for the days we spent together in the hospital, reckoning with just how fragile life can be, and how much care it deserves. —Eric Johnson
The Nats' 2022 roster is looking a little... congressional. (Democratic members of Congress line the field during the playing of the national anthem before the Congressional baseball game at Nationals Park September 29, 2021 in Washington, DC.)
Washington Nationals, New York Nationals, Pittsburgh Nationals…
Baseball is America's pastime—but probably not America's future. A recent New York Times op-ed by Matthew Walther argues that baseball is dying, and the numbers support his claim. Attendance at games has steadily decreased since 2008 and TV viewership numbers on an average night are a measly 1.5 million (on par with a basic cable movie channel). Even World Series games don't reach the viewership of an average Thursday night NFL contest. In 2021, 12 million people tuned in per World Series game, a drastic decline from 1975, when the number was 36 million viewers. Right now, professional baseball is propped up by cable television providers who bundle baseball with other cable channels. But as more and more people "cut the cord," Major League Baseball’s $11 billion revenue is at risk. The sport’s relevance in pop culture and youth sports is also declining. Children are about as likely to know their local congressional representative as they are the top MLB players, while Little League sign ups have decreased by more than 50% in the past 15 years.
I found these stats passingly interesting, but as someone who has never attended a game and couldn't say who won the last World Series I was much more drawn in by Walther's proposed solution: nationalizing baseball. He suggests Congress purchase MLB teams at their current market valuation and convert all players, coaches, and staff members to federal employees. The general manager could become a statewide office that we vote on every six years with no term limits. Walther believes that this would decrease ticket prices and make online streaming simpler—we could all just watch baseball on C-SPAN! While his proposal has clear satirical elements, the idea continues to intrigue me. How much longer can cable continue subsidizing an increasingly unpopular (and very expensive) sport with declining profits? Is there a way to ensure baseball doesn’t lose its place in the American ethos? [It already has. Hi, NFL! — Ed.] Government control doesn't seem like a fast track to relevance to me, but baseball needs more creative thinking to ensure the game doesn't become a relic of the past. —Hannah Van Drie
Sixty years old and the effects still hold up...
I’ve interviewed several screenwriters and filmmakers over the years who rave about the skeletons from the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts—specifically the scene where real actors appear to clash swords with seven stop-motion bags of bones known as “the children of Hydra’s teeth.” This famous sequence (along with the film’s other monster encounters) was created by the legendary Ray Harryhausen, who imbues each boney face with a grinning menace to compliment the undead warrior’s deadly acumen. As testament to his skill, Harryhausen’s skeletons have just enough physical personality to wonder about their corporeal appearances before Greek myth necromancy brought them to their final grotesque form.
Maybe Twitter user Sulkalmakh can take a stab at it—since they had such success on a more recent horde. Almost 60 years after Argonauts, skeleton warriors, when they appear in movies and games, are still mostly-anonymous puppets of some dark magic set against the hero. Such is their lot in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. But Sulkalmakh, a Skyrim player, recently used facial reconstruction technology on one of its skeletons to give it a human face. They worked with Ancestral Whispers, which specializes in cranial reconstructions and cartography of (usually) Earth people, and posted a lifelike image of “an ancient Atmoran from Saarthal, dated to the late Merethic era.” The tweet was posted on April 1 and as a kind of joke—those terms all refer to the Elder Scrolls. But it caught the attention of Jonah Lobe, who designed the original creatures. “I built Skyrim's skeletons with thick, sloping brows & big jaws/teeth,” Love wrote. “I didn't want them looking pale and delicate, I wanted them to look like heavy neanderthals. And now, ten years later, these bones have been reconstructed into a human face. AND HE'S BEAUTIFUL.” What an ingenious use of the technology. May we all look that good when our bones are between 4,450 and 7,000 years old. —Christian Niedan
Vladimir Putin looks on prior to the Victory Day military parade in Red Square marking the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II, on June 24, 2020 in Moscow, Russia.
Putin Us On
There was a brief time in my life when I knew a lot about Eastern Europe and the politics of post-Soviet republics. That’s because one of my best undergraduate classes was with Graeme Robertson, a scholar of Soviet economics and a close observer of Russia’s political evolution under Vladimir Putin. I talked to Robertson again last month while reporting an article, and I finally had the chance to read his 2019 book Putin v. The People: The Perilous Politics of a Divided Russia. From years of on-the-ground research in Russia and a close analysis of public opinion polling, Robertson shows how Putin’s regime isn’t your traditional dictatorship. It actually has a strong base of public support, created through propaganda and the careful weaponizing of divisive political issues. “Vladimir Putin is a popular man. He is also a dictator. That is not a contradiction,” write Robertson and his coauthor Samuel Greene in a bracing introduction to the book. “He is not simply president: he is a rallying point for the nation and a synonym for the Russian state itself.”
That meshing of Putin and patriotism is on display now as many Russians rally to support the invasion of Ukraine. “In the days following the February 24 invasion, Putin’s personal approval rating actually rose to multi-year highs,” reports the Atlantic Council. “The chilling truth is that tens of millions of Russians readily accept the Orwellian lies promoted by Kremlin TV and share the sentiments expressed by the country’s pro-war cheerleaders.” That’s the natural outgrowth of Putin’s two-decade campaign to link Russia’s strength to his own, Robertson told me, and to define Russia’s place in the world as a besieged outpost of traditional values against a decadent West. “Putin has spent much of the last decade restructuring Russian politics around the idea that the nation faces existential threats from outside its borders, aided by traitors within,” Robertson wrote in a February Washington Post op-ed. “That framing tars all domestic opposition as tools of foreign powers and justifies the evisceration of independent media, civil society and political parties besides his own; it calls on ordinary Russians to make seemingly endless sacrifices for the greater good.” Whatever the ultimate endgame in Ukraine, it will come in part from understanding the paradox of an autocrat with popular support. —Eric Johnson
A first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby' at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair in the Olympia exhibition centre on June 13, 2013 in London, England. (But does it have the dedication to Zelda??)
Constant, Turbulent Edits
The Great Gatsby is in my desert island library—not only do I love reading it, but its depths, revealing new facets and depths with each passing read and every passing year, is matched only by its capacity for interpretation. (It’s something we’ve touched on in this space before.) And since the book entered the public domain in 2021, there has been a lot of interpretation: at least 34 new editions, from standard texts to graphic novels, have been published in just the last year. “Three or four are responsibly done, but the others are simply efforts, often haphazard, to capture a small slice of the enormous market for the book,” says James L. W. West III. “The problem seems to be that everyone wants to “improve” The Great Gatsby, to make a few revisions here and there, common-sense revisions that “Fitzgerald surely would have wanted.” West edited one of those new Gatsbys, published by the esteemable Library of America, and talked to the publisher about the process. He has devoted his life to Gatsby (he’s studied it for more than 50 years) and F. Scott Fitzgerald, which makes him imminently qualified for the task. But West is also able to speak about what it’s like to edit Fitzgerald and the author’s masterpiece with the benefit of archival research, deep engagement, and, frankly, a century of distance. It’s work I hadn’t ever thought about—awful, considering I’m an editor—but I loved the LoA conversation with West about the effort. It’s definitely a nerd-read for anyone obsessed with Gatsby and/or edits for a living, but the whole conversation is worth your time. It offers a lot of insight into what we’re reading, how it’s not always what we think, and how a work entering the public domain (unquestionably a good thing) can have lots of downstream consequences. “In these recent editions, errors and other variants that have not appeared in an edition of the book for decades have risen from the grave and made their way into the new texts,” West says. “It’s as if these editions, the old ones and the new ones, have been cross-pollinating in the night. One example: 17 of the 34 new editions omit the dedication to Zelda Sayre, Fitzgerald’s wife and muse. That’s unforgivable.” Indeed it is. Fortunately West is doing yeoman’s work—a literary TJ Eckleburg ensuring a Gatsby faithful to Fitzgerald is on our shelves. —Dante A. Ciampaglia