World Cup Madness, Analyzing Slumberland Anxieties, and Translating Tut: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From what we dream about to what unites us, we learned a lot in 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.
Soccer fans gathered at The Globe Pub to watch World Cup soccer as the USA takes on Iran and England battles Wales react to a score by the USA on November 29, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. USA defeated Iran 1-0 and England defeated Wales 3-0.
United Soccerheads of America
I knew it was serious when my 15-year son woke up at 5 a.m. for six straight days. He needed to watch the World Cup games in real time, to experience the matches as they unfolded, to forgo sleep and revel in the beautiful game.
The World Cup has captured the heart and attention of millions of Americans. With on-demand shows, streaming services and DVRs, we so rarely have a shared experience. Yet on November 29, more than 15 million viewers watched the U.S. National Team defeat Iran, 1-0, to advance to the knockout round of 16; some 16 million watched the U.S. fall to the Netherlands on December 3 and end its impressive run. Stars like Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams wowed fans. When Pulisic sacrificed his body (and perhaps fatherhood?) to score the winning goal against Iran, fans celebrated and then rejoiced when he took the field for the Netherlands game. And for a sport that typically recruits players by the age of 8, it is incredible that the team’s formidable goalie, Matt Turner, only started to play at the advanced age of 16.
While the U.S. and 78 other teams have competed in the World Cup since it began in 1930, only eight teams have taken home the solid gold trophy: Brazil (5), Italy (4), Germany (4), France (2), Uruguay (2), Argentina (2), England (1) and Spain (1). But it’s spectacular moments—not to mention national pride—that keep all fans watching the tournament, even when their home team has departed. Watching the Brazil match against South Korea, their dominance was unquestionable. Richarlison de Andrade’s stupendous goal started with him heading the ball to himself four times, dropping it to his foot, and juggling it twice before passing it deftly to his teammate, making a drive to the goal, and popping the ball into the left side of the net. Pure magic.
Soccer’s popularity has grown exponentially and the World Cup has brought the country together at a time of rampant polarization and pandemic isolation. It is truly a beautiful game. —Karen Lanning
Apologies to Hannah if this dredges up some bad dream memories...
This is Your Subconscious Speaking…
In my recurring dreams, I’m on my way to the airport—and stuck in traffic. Or I’ve forgotten my luggage. Or I actually arrived at the airport but the route through the terminal is long and winding and for an inexplicable reason I've decided I need to stop for a snack so it's impossible to find my gate. Or I'm begging the flight attendant to let me on the plane and then struggling to find my seat as the plane lifts into the air. Now, it's important to note: I've never missed a flight in my life, and I pride myself on my ability to time airport arrival so that I can grab a coffee, fill up my water, and have just enough time to check my messages at the gate before boarding. Airports have also been a source of fun and adventure for me, so I've never understood these kinds of stress dreams.
I gleaned some insight into my slumbering psyche in Kelly Conaboy's The Atlantic article, "Why Adults Still Dream About School." Conaboy focuses on another theme of recurring dreams—running late for finals, showing up to school in the nude, things like that. Fortunately I've never been plagued with nudity nightmares, but the sources she cites ring true and seem applicable to my airport anxieties. While there are still many unknowns, it's possible that dreams are our minds' way to reconcile memories and feelings. So nightmares about finals could be related to our concerns about success and failure, evaluation by authority figures, feeling like we need to respond to others’ expectations, even feeling tested in life. If I psychoanalyze my own dreams, I wonder if my subconscious is trying to help me balance my time and activities in the midst of an incredibly busy period of my life. But if I ever have a dream where I actually successfully make it on the plane—which actually takes off—I only hope it's to somewhere tropical, and that it's a portent of things to come. —Hannah Van Drie
The Crucible of History
Witchcraft is an inherently fascinating subject, and most Americans spend some time in school learning about the Salem Witch Trials and imbibing the appropriate lessons about moral panic. But Malcolm Gaskill’s wonderfully unsettling book about an earlier outbreak of witchery, in the tinier frontier outpost of Springfield, Massachusetts, achieves something even more useful: it makes the townsfolk of that place and time fully sympathetic actors, using an incredible level of historic detail to give context for their beliefs and choices. “The Ruin of All Witches provides a deft example of how a historian can avoid ‘presentism,’ the practice of examining the past through a contemporary perspective, and inhabit a reality different from ours by ‘suspending hindsight,’” writes Caroline Frasier in a review for the New York Times.
There are two things Gaskill does especially well in Ruin. First, he explores the broader context of deeply unsettled times to explain why the settlers of Springfield and other colonial outposts might be on the lookout for supernatural machinations. The English Civil War was raging on and off; spasms of Protestant reform and schism were bitter and raw; the sense of dislocation from packing up and moving across the Atlantic were still fresh in the minds of almost everyone in the New World. Combine that with the intense nature of the American frontier—the storms, the wilderness, the unpredictable extremes of winter and summer—and it all created an undercurrent of unease and foreboding among the men and women trying to scratch out a living. “It was one of the earliest and sharpest winters anyone could remember, with icy storms and sickness that spread from the Bay across the colony,” Gaskill writes of the season before Springfield’s witchcraft outbreak. “Discord between townships and within them was magnified by privation and peril.”
He also does a magnificent job of taking his subjects’ worldview at face value. There’s no attempt to overlay contemporary notions of mental health or superstition on the actions of Springfield’s people, nor an effort to provide modern interpretations for the causes of witchcraft panics. Instead, Gaskill immerses you in the time, place, and mentality of the people he’s writing about, citing Scriptures they would have heard every Sunday, conversations they would have had with neighbors, the vague news of distant world events that would have informed their sense of place in the world. You get a feel for the day-to-day life of the place, the theological commitments that the Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies felt as a deep part of their existence. All of that sets the stage for the tragedy and drama of witchcraft, making it—if not defensible as a response to the times—at least an intelligible reaction to the mix of worldly privations and unsettled religious politics of the era. Making the past legible in that way is the highest task of historians, and one that requires as much restraint as interpretation. Gaskill does it masterfully. —Eric Johnson
An ancient painting found on a wall of King Tut's tomb. (They may or may not be slamming Steve Martin. Academics are torn.)
Found in Translation
After Thanksgiving dinner, some folks traditionally kick back and watch football, others bundle up and take a long walk outside. This year, my own post-dinner activity was visiting National Geographic’s “Beyond King Tut: The Immersive Experience” within the immensity of Manhattan’s Pier 36. Visitors get plenty of space to wander among atmospheric projected light depictions of treasures from the famous young pharaoh’s opulent tomb. The centerpiece is a large room with a four-wall light show animating Tutankhamun's boat journey to the afterlife following his death in 1323 BCE. The story includes voiceover translated from writings found on Tut’s tomb, and a narrative that features the boy king wielding his ornate dagger to battle a monster blocking his path to eternity. That tomb was famously uncovered in 1923 by English archeologist Howard Carter, and the hieroglyphs within were translated thanks to earlier 18th century scholars like Thomas Young and Jean-Francois Champollion utilizing the Rosetta Stone (discovered by Napoleon’s soldiers in 1799). Before them, the words of the ancient pharaohs were poetic conjecture, most famously voiced by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his sonnet about Ramesses II (who died in 1213 BCE), “Ozymandias,” which included the famous line, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Personally, I prefer Steve Martin’s much later thoughts on King Tut: “Dancing by the Nile, the ladies loved his style. Rockin' for a mile, he ate a crocodile. He gave his life for tourism.”
All of this brings me to the discovery of what may be the oldest known written sentence. It’s the inscription on a tiny ancient comb crafted between 1700-1550 BCE and unearthed in 2016 at the site of Canaanite city Lachish. The inscription was recently translated as, “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard,” proving that the ancients also utilized weapons for (tiny) monsters in the land of the living. I would love to have seen a Shelley sonnet about a pharaoh boasting of his proper scalp care regimen—or better yet, a Steve Martin musical take. Still hope for that one (though it’d likely include a banjo). —Christian Niedan
Storm Lake Times editor Art Cullen interviews Iowa farmer John Snyder about environmental impacts to his crops, in a scene from the documentary "Storm Lake."
Reporting for America
I love a good thinkpiece reckoning with our nation’s local news crisis, and I found one the other day on the blog for the PBS documentary Moundsville. Written by co-director John W. Miller, the post uses as its starting point an idea floated by Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon Jr. that the federal government should plow something like $10 billion into rebuilding the cratered local newspaper landscape. “I like Bacon’s vision, but it’s incomplete,” Miller writes. “Any legitimate revival of American journalism needs to pose this question: What’s the kind of professional journalism that people actually want to read every day?” And what do people want to actually read? Miller says—and I agree with him—it’s “stories about their neighbors that aren’t puff or hit pieces, but not investigative stories that take six months to report, either.” In other words, pieces about local people doing things in their local community. “These stories aren’t winning any Pulitzers but they’re also impossible for amateur citizen-journalists to generate,” Miller writes. “They require professionals, and they build an audience, and they build trust.” He even has a name for this kind of work: “mac n’ cheese journalism.” He goes on a bit more about this idea, and it’s an interesting read. It got me thinking, anyway, particularly about this mac-n’-cheese idea. It’s cute and catchy—certainly better than “pink slime journalism.” But it seems to me to be imprecise. Mac n’ cheese is comfort food. It tastes good, but it’s not exactly nourishing. (And its calorie count can be too easily hijacked by an unhealthy slathering of Velveeta.)
Miller’s piece sent me back to Important News, a 1936 short film starring a not-yet-famous Jimmy Stewart. The 10-minute picture centers on Elmer “Scoop” Stevens (“Chic” Sale), the editor of the small-town midwestern paper Cole County Clarion. The drama centers on what Scoop will do when a famous Chicago gangster, “Pretty Face” Wilson, is gunned down by the feds, essentially, in front of the paper’s office. Does he rip-up the front page and run with “the biggest scoop in the country,” or does he stick with his current slate: a banner headline warning of frost, a story about a church bazaar, and a large ad touting a sale at the local department store? Spoiler alert: he sticks with his front page, much to the chagrin of Stewart, Scoop’s copy boy, and the offense of some of the townspeople. As Scoop explains early in the film, “These backcountry farmers all got mortgages, but they ain’t all got radios. Some of them sort of depend on my newspaper yet.” And when the big-city journo in town to cover the gangster story puts Scoop in the next paper, it’s for having the “courage to stick by his own standard of journalism and putting a sensational crime story out of sight, where it belonged.” (Scoop ran it as a 26-word obituary.) An 86-year-old, Depression-era Hollywood studio short film seems like a strange place to find inspiration for solving the 21st century local news implosion, but it points to something important about what made—makes—this country’s journalism so important and necessary. Sure, there’s the misquoted-into-legend aphorism that “the job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” But buried under decades of post-Watergate posing and professionalization is the central concern of our media: community. And that has been almost totally lost as we cede more and more authority to national outlets and clickbait farms (which can often be indistinguishable). So, yes, let’s give local news a boost—a big one. And while we’re at it, we ought to reclaim what makes it—or made it—American in the first place. So let’s call it the right thing. I propose American journalism. —Dante A. Ciampaglia