Last Week, Today: Homo Sapiens, Erdogan, POTUS & American exceptionalism, Skeletons in our closet

1. Why the Homo Sapiens won out: our story-telling capabilities

Michael Gerson incisively reviews Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:  

"There is no agreed description of what made humankind so suddenly creative and dominant… Harari’s account of the cognitive revolution puts particular emphasis on one unique capacity of our species: the ability to tell stories about ourselves. A group of sapiens that exists only because of personal ties — ties of gossip — is limited to about 125 members. It is only “imagined communities” that allow thousands or millions to be part of the same enterprise — a kingdom, an empire, a church or a corporation. 'Much of history,” says Harari, “revolves around this question: How does one persuade millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work toward common goals.'” 

Gerson goes a step further than Harari and asks whether the "myths" that we tell ourselves - religion, human rights, laws, justice, nationhood - are not a random evolutionary feature, but hints to a larger story that "has led sapiens to a justified belief in their own dignity and purpose."

Also check out "Death is Optional," an insightful, filmed conversation between Harari and Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow, and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics. 

2. Obama's new patriotism: How Obama is redefining American exceptionalism.

Greg Jaffe at The Washington Post uses a close-up, behind-the-scene look into the making of President Barack Obama's Selma speech, one of the most personally meaningful speeches to our President, as a way to catalog how Obama is shifting the definition of American exceptionalism from "we are perfect" to "we believe America can be better." It is a rare article in how it zooms in on the details as a way of addressing large, macro themes. 

Excerpt from speech:

"But what greater expression of faith in the American idea; what greater form of patriotism is there than to believe that America is not yet finished; that it’s strong enough to be self critical; that each generation can look upon its imperfections and say we can do better."

3. A homily on Psalm 32: What do we do with the skeletons in our closet?

Wesley Hill, assistant professor of New Testament and author of Spiritual Friendship, delivers a lovely homily entwining Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Anne Lamott, the Psalms and Romans, on the shame we feel about the skeletons we hide:

What we cannot accomplish for ourselves—namely, keeping our sin hidden—God himself undertakes to do on our behalf. God puts away our sin, hides it, buries it, and ensures that it will never be known again. If you give up trying cover your sin on your own, says St. Augustine, then God will cover it for you. But how is this not simply perpetuating the problem of our sin? In covering our sin, how is God not simply complicit in our petty jealousies, our self-destructive addictions, our home-wrecking? How is he not simply leaving us to wallow in our own wretchedness?

4. A stern rebuke: President Erdogan's party loses parliamentary majority in historic election 

The New York Times has a solid analysis of the historic significance of Turkey's recent election results. For the first time, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party lost its majority in Parliament, thwarting "his ambition to rewrite Turkey's Constitution and further bolster his clout." The past few years have witnessed a steady increase in Erdogan's power, as he has cracked down on dissidence and pushed for more control Moreover, the Kurds, liberals and secular Turks came together to form the People's Democratic Party, known as H.D.P., who won 13% of the vote, winning official representation in Parliament for the first time. From a Turkish citizen:

“I voted for H.D.P. because it’s the only party that can break up Erdogan’s bid for absolute power,” said Selen Olcay, 47, a fitness instructor who voted in Istanbul’s Sariyer District. “In this election a lot of Turks abandoned their ideological preferences and voted strategically to derail Erdogan’s one-man rule.”

5. Is it OK for presidential candidates to not "reach across the aisle"?

The New York Times recently published an article that wondered whether Hillary Rodham Clinton's strategy to focus on mobilizing supporters rather than persuading undecided voters would lead to more unhelpful polarization. Paul Waldman argues back in The Washington Post that "Hillary doesn't have an obligation to try to win over Southern white voters."

Convincing someone who hasn’t voted before to get to the polls is no less a service to America than persuading one of the tiny number of truly independent voters to come to your side. And as much as we might lament polarization, it does bring a clarity to campaigns. Back in that 2000 election, lots of people who thought themselves knowledgeable claimed there wasn’t a dime’s bit of difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore. It wasn’t true then, and today nobody with half a brain is going to say the same thing about Clinton and whoever the Republican nominee is. If one of them succeeds in getting their voters to the polls and thereby achieves a majority, then they deserve to win. Let’s not forget that Barack Obama’s “far narrower path” to the White House was paved with the votes of a majority of the American electorate. Twice.

6. Beau Biden's Death Unites a Nation in Mourning

Speaking of polarization, Beau Biden's death has been a demonstration in anything but. David Graham at The Atlantic unpacks why it is that "the death of the former Delaware attorney general has produced an outpouring of grief that is both bipartisan and perhaps surprisingly large for a man who never held national office and always seemed to shy away from the spotlight, even as he pursued a life of public service."

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Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) is a freelance writer and an alumni of Trinity Forum Academy and Columbia University. Based in New York, she blogs on faith and culture, and produces thought leadership for businesses.