Required Reading

This week, a Breonna Taylor mural you can see from space, cancel culture, California’s last Confederate monument, moral clarity and journalism, and more.

Hrag VartanianJuly 11, 2020

A mural of Breonna Taylor is painting on two basketball courts in Annapolis, Maryland. The group responsible for the mural, Future History Now, explained, “It is intended to be visible from space through satellite imagery.” (photo by Brian White, courtesy of Future History Now)
  • That dreaded Harper’s Cancel Culture letter has been trending all week on Twitter and elsewhere, and if you want to take a look, it’s here, but I enjoyed this response by Hamilton Nolan the most:

This entire spectacle of a letter, published in one of America’s most prestigious magazines, signed by dozens and dozens of famous writers and journalists and academics, declaring breathlessly that “We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other,” is almost intolerably exasperating. Its very existence is a devastating counterargument to its central point. Would it be rude to point out to these esteemed thinkers that the fact that they were considered prestigious enough to be invited to sign this letter is proof that they are not, in fact, being silenced? That, rather, this collective wallowing in self-pity over “censoriousness” by a group of people employed by Harvard and Princeton and M.I.T. and the Brookings Institution and The Atlantic and The New York Times and a host of other elite institutions is evidence that perhaps they doth protest too much? If being a billionaire best-selling author like J.K. Rowling or the dean of Columbia Journalism School like Nick Lemann is somehow indicative of being particularly at risk for “public shaming and ostracism,” I would like to humbly volunteer to trade places with them. They may find a position of lesser power, money, and influence more to their liking.

Not only is there no significant evidence of inappropriate censure linking these instances, it’s unclear what examples the authors, some of whom are considered writing icons, are even drawing from to make their point. Exactly as Osita Nwanevu wrote recently in the New Republic: “Viral stories and anecdata that people focused on the major issues of our day might consider marginal are, for [Bari] Weiss and her ideological peers, the central crises of contemporary politics⁠.”

Also related:

The marker’s original location is unknown. But in 1968, when the state expanded Highway 99 to create a modern automotive spine for the Central Valley, it was dug up and moved to the sprawling grounds of the Kern County Museum. For the next half-century it sat in a flower bed in an employee parking lot — a sort of landmine of racist commemoration, undisturbed and without explanatory context, waiting to detonate in the mind of any hapless passerby.

The plaque’s text makes a ludicrous claim — contorting history, as all Lost Cause propaganda does. For example, a prominent UDC essay contest required use of the term “War Between the States,” furthering the false impression that an honorable argument over state’s rights animated secession’s epic bloodshed rather than the shameful brutality of slavery. Any essayist who used “Civil War” was immediately disqualified.

To compare the changing of the ideological tide in the United States to totalitarian ideology is to fail to take account of the power differential. Totalitarian ideology had the power of the state behind it. The enforcers of totalitarian ideology — be they Central Committee members, Writers’ Union leaders, or the distributors of store-window signs — had the power of state institutions behind them. Protesters in the streets of American cities and the journalists who support them are not backed by state or institutional power, but just the opposite: in every instance, they are in confrontation with it. One of the questions they are asking is, How does a vastly powerful institution such as the Times use its power? Does it amplify the state in its most brutal expression, as it did in publishing the Tom Cotton piece? Or does it raise up voices that have been marginalized throughout history? If the paper opts to do both, should it try to compensate for the power imbalance, and give the marginalized voices more room and the state less? In his own Op-Ed for the Times, Lowery talks about black journalists, historically few and powerless, raising their own voices in the newsroom. Here a comparison to the greengrocer may finally be appropriate: black journalists within mainstream publications are finally suggesting that they should have a say in how journalism is practiced.

Since I started researching and documenting the history of art in Iraqi Kurdistan, I realized that many of the works produced by its artists were deeply political, either in secrecy as to not stir up trouble with the authorities or openly as a form of protest and dissent.

I’m a history geek, so this thread on ancient architecture in Mesopotamia and its contemporary legacy in Iraq is totally my jam:

The Merovingians took their name from their semi-mythical founder, King Merovech. If he existed (which is far from certain), he lived in the early fifth century, from around 411 to around 460 AD. We do not know what he looked like, whom he married, or what he accomplished during his reign. Pretty much all we know about Merovech is that his father may or may not have been a “beast of Neptune.”

The seventh-century Chronicle of Fredegar tells us that King Chlodio of the Salian Franks spent a summer at the seashore with his wife in 410 AD. They likely stayed on the coast of what is now Belgium. One day at noon, Chlodio’s wife went to the sea to bathe. The queen probably wanted to cool off in the water of the North Sea to fight the midday heat. But if her goal was to relax, she was sorely disappointed, because while she was bathing, “a beast of Neptune, which looked like a Quinotaur,” attacked her.

Immediately, Chlodio’s wife became pregnant “either by the beast or by her husband.” Nine months later, she gave birth to a son named Merovech, the founder and namesake of the Merovingians.


Required Reading is published every Saturday, and it is comprised of a short list of art-related links to long-form articles, videos, blog posts, or photo essays worth a second look.

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