The Best Zócalo Essays of 2017

From Treason to Gandhi to Empathetic Robots, Our Contributors Make Sense of a World in Flux

Sweden, Oland, 1991. From the series "Landet Utom Sig." Photo courtesy of Photo by Lars Tunbjörk/Agence VU.

In 2017, Zócalo’s far-flung contributors took us inside the Swedish worldview, recounted Cervantes’ battles with literary pirates, reported on the dangers of being a journalist covering Mexico’s drug wars, and interpreted America’s concept of treason through the moral lens of Dante’s Inferno.

Picking favorites among the hundreds of essay we publish each year is never easy, in part because of their sheer variety. Zócalo essays are grounded in many different ideas and questions, and they zig and zag across time, place, topic, and format.

The essays we selected below represent Zócalo’s mix of the smart and the subtly wacky, and stood out—each in its own way—for feeling as fresh and resonant today as when we first published them.

And although we have numbered the essays 1 through 16, these are not rankings—you can enjoy reading them in any order you like.


Why Wiping out Monuments to the Confederacy May Not Be a Path to a More Inclusive Society
Consider the Costs of Destroying Saddam Hussein’s Mythic Memorials

James C. Cobb, a leading historian of the South, argues that while Confederate monuments should be removed from public places, they have such indelible value as historical artifacts that they deserve to be preserved in museums.

Treason Isn’t Just a Crime—It’s a Sin of the Heart
In Dante’s Inferno, Traitors Are Cast Into Deepest Hell for Breaking the Bonds of Love

Zócalo contributing editor Asha Rangappa, senior lecturer at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a former FBI special agent, compares America’s narrow conception of treason with Dante’s broader ideas for punishing it.

The Dark Void at the Heart of Globalization
Are the Politics of Nihilism a Backlash Against the Enlightenment?

Zócalo founder and editor-in-chief Gregory Rodriguez reads the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra’s brilliant book, The Age of Anger: The History of the Present, as a unified theory of our dysfunctional age that investigates the fear and nostalgia that angry Trumpites, Brexiteers, and radical Islamists all have in common.

The “Crying Indian” Ad That Fooled the Environmental Movement
Behind the ’70s Anti-Pollution Icon Was an Italian-American Actor—and the Beverage Industry

Finis Dunaway, a historian at the University of Trent, reveals the secret history of a landmark 1971 TV ad—and asks questions about the true nature of the environmental movement.

As Machines Wage War, Human Nature Endures
Fear, Honor, and Self-Interest Are Still the Wellsprings of Conflict

General David H. Petraeus (U.S. Army, Retired), chairman of the KKR Global Institute and former CIA director, writes that security in the century ahead will depend more on moral imagination—and our ability to develop concepts of restraint—than on technological breakthroughs.

Can American Jews Be White Nationalists?
White House Adviser Stephen Miller Is a Spokesman for Groups That Wouldn’t Have Him as a Member

James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and columnist for Tablet, offers a first-person essay on how White House policy aide Stephen Miller has caused him to re-examine some of his deepest beliefs about being American, being Jewish, and being a conservative.

A Nation Jolted by Terrorism Redefines Its Sense of Self
The End of Sweden’s “Naïve Slumber” Lays Bare Its Competing Truths

Tove Lifvendahl, political editor-in-chief of Svenska Dagbladet, provides a powerful first-person account of Sweden’s efforts to maintain a sense of itself as it wrestles with terrorism, immigration, and a high cost of living.

How Bullwinkle Helped Us Laugh Off Nuclear Annihilation
The Dim-Witted Moose and His Squirrelly Sidekick Calmed Our Cold War Fears with Subversive Humor

Beth Daniels, who writes a classic movie blog, offers an appreciation for the Cold War-era cartoon show Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, and its loving and still up-to-date critique of the ways that American ideals and American reality are often out of whack.

Why We Should Fear Emotionally Manipulative Robots
Artificial Intelligence Is Learning How to Exploit Human Psychology for Profit

University of Pittsburgh philosopher and cognitive scientist Colin Allen, and Indiana University humanities scholar and cognitive scientist Fritz Breithaupt, delve into the dark side of empathy, and how robots may exploit it.

How This Journalist Is Surviving Mexico’s Drug Wars
Act Like a War Correspondent, Think Like a Detective, and Dream Like a Poet

Diego Enrique Osorno, a reporter and author of several books about Mexico, itemizes the costs of covering the narco wars in his country, and concludes that courage is a must for journalists, despite the violence: “When you are a correspondent of barbarism in your own home, your main duty is to take risks.”

How India’s Nonviolent Resistance Became a Shifting Global Movement
From Gandhi to MLK to the Arab Spring, Nonviolence Is Portable, but Can It Still Persuade?

Karuna Mantena, associate professor of political science at Yale, first details the origins of organized nonviolence campaigns in Gandhi’s satayagraha campaigns and then suggests that the nature of what nonviolent action is, and how it works, has become dangerously ambiguous in our era of economic and political polarization.

The Magic of Speaking Poetry Out Loud
A National Contest Makes Verse More Social Than Solitary

Dana Gioia, the California Poet Laureate and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, tells the harrowing tale of Poetry Out Loud, a national poem recital contest for young people that demonstrates the power of the ancient, if now unfashionable, art of memorization.

What Grandaddy Taught Me About Race in America
From Little Rock to L.A., Learning to See Colors Beyond Black and White

Myah Genung, who works for a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles, shares intimate memories of her grandfather in Little Rock and recounts how she came to appreciate his pessimism about racism, even if she didn’t always share it.

How Don Quixote’s Battles Predicted Piracy in the Digital Age
A Ripped-Off Version of Cervantes’ Masterpiece Showed the Peril and Potential of New Printing Technology

Martin Puchner, a Harvard literary critic and philosopher, looks back to Cervantes’ battles with the literary pirates who sought to make money off Don Quixote—and in the process raises questions about how we are responding to the new technologies reshaping literature and communication today.

When the Idea of Home Was Key to American Identity
From Log Cabins to Gilded Age Mansions, How You Lived Determined Whether You Belonged

Richard White, the Stanford historian, takes us back to the Gilded Age to witness the development of the American concept of “home”—and asks if today’s Americans will ever develop such an all-encompassing narrative for our 21st century Gilded Age.

How the Evolution of the Human Brain Led Us to God
Advances in Neuroscience Link Our Cognitive Development to Our Idea of the Divine

E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., author of 20 books, including Evolving Brains, Emerging Gods: Early Humans and the Origins of Religion, from which this essay was adapted, explains how he combined old research on the brain’s origins with new brain-scanning data to fix the time, 35,000 years ago, when humans developed “an autobiographical memory” that made us aware of our own mortality and led us in search of gods.

Primary Editor: Joe Mathews. Secondary Editor: Reed Johnson.

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