Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition and nobody expects a sermon from John Cleese of television’s wildly irreverent Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Life of Brian, the latter of which was a film denounced by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Episcopalians, and even the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Yet, it is a sermon by John Cleese that opens the November Readings section and quite a good one at that. The comic genius has recently been moonlighting as a professor at Cornell University and, it would appear, seeking “some kind of divine experience.” Alas, he’s having as much trouble figuring out how to achieve this as the rest of us, what with our nasty egos and all the noise of daily life. Cleese will share his thinking on matters sacred, secular, comic and profane at two events in New York City at the end of November. If you’re in town, we hope you will join us.
World War I broke out six hundred or so years after the Crusades and ended on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, exactly one hundred years ago. In “The Ghosts of Versailles,” Kevin Baker finds a through line from the violence that rang in the last century to the brutality that continues to rage in this one. “We have lived in the century of the man with a gun, always set to avenge whatever wrongs, real or imagined, were done to him,” Baker writes, reflecting on the despots, demagogues, dictators, assassins, terrorists, and random school/mall/stadium/church (the list is endless, really) shooters of our age. “These men weaponize what they can, for the greater or lesser evil—maybe an army, maybe a creed, maybe a whole people. They are the leitmotif of our time.”
When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo, a scientist named Israel Kleiner was in Europe searching for a treatment for diabetes. The outbreak of World War I and a subsequent epidemic of infectious diseases led to a shift in priorities that derailed Kleiner’s work and prolonged the suffering of countless children and their parents. Though Kleiner published a paper in 1919 on a hormone that might treat diabetes, the discovery of insulin, with all the glory and lucrative patents that came with it, went to other scientists while Kleiner all but disappeared from research science. Jeffrey Friedman, a professor at Rockefeller University—the same institution with which Kleiner was affiliated at the time of his contribution to the understanding of diabetes—investigates an intriguing medical mystery that reveals the hidden costs of war, the nature of discovery, and the personal traits required for success in science.
If everyone seems to be outraged by the Republican agenda, it’s not just because you’re living in a bubble, it’s because most people disagree with their party line. Thanks to the Electoral College, the Republican Party, led by a president elected by a minority of voters, is advancing a set of policies (and a set of Supreme Court justices) that fewer and fewer Americans support. Jonathan Taplin, who writes our November cover story, believes that this imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war. To avoid a repetition of history, Taplin urges Democrats to rethink their aversion to the Tenth Amendment and proposes a progressive states’-rights movement. He points to California as an example of a state that has succeeded in pushing back on federal power. “If the Democratic Party embraced a decentralized model it would be able to reflect the regional differences that are one of the most enduring features of America,” Taplin writes. “A new Democratic Party could be built from communities that celebrate their diversity and nurture good citizens willing to abandon the dogma of today’s partisan bickering.”
Soon we will know if Beto O’Rourke can wrest away Ted Cruz’s Senate seat, an outcome that self-proclaimed “bleeding-heart liberal” Ana Marie Cox will have mixed feelings about. “I’ve always had a soft spot for Cruz. I have been lonely in this affection—especially among liberals,” she writes, asking, “Aren’t progressives supposed to be on the side of overly competent nerds?” In “The Tragedy of Ted Cruz,” Cox explores her unlikely affinity with the Texas senator and the problem of likability in politics. After much struggle and a couple of trips to Washington D.C., she finally gets to sit down with her soul mate, hoping to discover that he doesn’t mean everything he says, that there is “daylight between him and Trump.” Spoiler alert: she ends up disappointed.
Also in this issue: poetry by Tongo Eisen-Martin, an oral history of the Holocaust, fiction by Mona Simpson, and Washington editor Andrew Cockburn reveals how taxpayers pick up the tab for police brutality.