The Reading File: Excerpts from interesting articles

Published Mar. 30, 2018

Dealing with trolls

In LongReads, Laurie Penny, an award-winning journalist, essayist, public speaker, writer, activist, internet "nanocelebrity," writes about years of dealing with internet trolls and hate speech directed at her. She chronicles how she reacted at different ages: "You're 31 and it didn't get better. But you did. You're working harder than ever. You can now pick the rare jewels of reasonable critique out of the steaming bulls--t of bad-faith trashing. You know now that yes, the problem was you, all along, and the problem was that you were reasonably talented and moderately successful, and that was all." Read "Who Does She Think She is?" in full at Here's an excerpt.

You're being punished for not knowing your place. And the worst of it is that the stigma sticks. Even among those who disown it. You're the girl who gets hassled. The one who attracts too much attention. You must have done something to deserve it. You can't stop checking this thread, although you know you shouldn't. It makes you jumpy and paranoid. A dear friend drifts out of touch, and blanks you when you greet her in the pub. Later you find out that she's a regular on the forum.

Eventually you reply to the thread, thinking that if you could just explain why they're wrong about you, that you're a decent, well-meaning person who is trying her best and is still pretty young, they'd lay off. It doesn't work out that way.

Unless you're on the receiving end, it might seem strange, even offensive, to equate mainstream critique with the outright violence of anonymous far-right and anti-woman extremists. But for those of us who go through it every day, the context collapses into a flat field where people are firing at you from all sides and there's no cover, not for you.

History with heroes

In the Atlantic, Eliot A. Cohen makes "A Modest Plea for Patriotic History." Read his essay in full at Here's an excerpt.

Above all, patriotic history provides us heroes. The president, early in his tenure in office, blithered a bit about Frederick Douglass, clearly clueless about the identity let alone the greatness of a man who escaped slavery and then fought unremittingly against it. Patriotic biography gives us John Quincy Adams in every phase of his life, to include its end, when he took a lonely and principled vote on the Mexican War just before suffering a fatal cerebral hemorrhage on the floor of the House of Representatives. It gives readers Davy Crockett on the frontier and Audie Murphy at Anzio, and it also gives them Harriet Tubman rescuing men and women from bondage, or Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce fighting a hopeless fight for his people. It gives them complicated figures like Andrew Carnegie — strikebreaker and extraordinary philanthropist committed to building libraries across the country to give young people the keys to better futures.

All of us, but young people especially, need heroes, including the really complicated ones, and particularly these days, when character is in such short supply. Knowledge of what real heroes put up with makes it less likely that one will fall for the kind of nonsense purveyed by a stylish hysteric who wrote about the 2016 election as if a vote for Donald Trump were the equivalent of being one of the passengers — again, real heroes — who charged the hijackers of Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001. To know what heroes look like is also to know what craven or spineless or obsequious or merely unserious persons are.

Magical science

At the Medium, David Britland writes about misdirection and what it means for us to be manipulated. Read "I Didn't See a Thing?—?What Magicians Can Teach Us About the Science of Attention" in full at Here's an excerpt.

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Magicians also know that once a spectator's thoughts are focused on some specific task, they will fail to notice almost anything else that is put in front of them. One noted exponent of magic by misdirection was Slydini. He specialised in close-up magic and analysed how the movements of the magician's hand and body could be used to focus the spectator's attention to an incredible degree. One of his most famous tricks is a masterly demonstration of attention control. The premise is simple, the magician makes a number of paper balls vanish from between his hands without the spectator having any idea where they have gone. The rest of the audience is, however, in on the trick as they see the paper palls tossed over the head of the unsuspecting victim. It's a clear case of the closer you watch, the less you see.

Obama's legacy

In the Boston Review, Elaine Kamarck reviews a book that collects the contributions of 17 historians to assess the Obama presidency and herself ponders "The Fragile Legacy of Barack Obama." Read her essay in full at Here's an excerpt.

It becomes clearer every day that Barack Obama, a historic president, presided over a somewhat less than historic presidency. With only one major legislative achievement (Obamacare) — and a fragile one at that — the legacy of Obama's presidency mainly rests on its tremendous symbolic importance and the fate of a patchwork of executive actions.

How much of that was due to fate and how much was due to Obama's own shortcomings as a politician is up for debate.