Cocktail Chatter

Thomas the Imperialist Tank Engine, Christian Terrorism, and Debtpocalypse

The week’s most interesting Slate stories.

Thomas the Imperialist Tank Engine: The not-so-hidden subtexts of the popular children’s show,” by Jessica Roake. Parents beware: Your 4-year-old Thomas the Tank Engine fan could actually be a budding British imperialist! Roake’s evaluation of the children’s program reveals disturbing similarities between the characters on the show and imperialists. Read the author’s account of how the ostensibly simple children’s show is actually a conservative manifesto. 

The Top Right in Culture: Slate selects five American cultural leaders who are both wildly inventive and incredibly practical”. Slate profiles the brains and personalities behind a different kind of young-adultliterature, the success of MTV advocacy, 30 Rock, Archeophone Records, and the musical The Book of Mormon. Also read up on business thinkers and stay tuned in the following weeks, when Slate will reveal its picks from rechnology, government and design.

Questions for Ryan Gosling: His definition of manhood, why John Hughes movies make him crave violence, and why his doctor told him to make a comedy after filming Blue Valentine,” by Jessica Grose. On the cusp of the release of Gosling’s new film, Crazy, Stupid Love, the Hollywood hunk reveals the scenes he improvised with co-star Emma Stone, and tells Slatethat John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles would be perfect with a little more violence. Oh, and Grose helps Gosling develop a personal “manliness” definition.

Are We Broke Yet ? Two simple graphs, updated daily, that show exactly how screwed the federal government’s finances really are,” by Chris Wilson. Everyone knows that times are tough right now, but not everyone understands exactly why times are tough. These graphs chart the cash in the treasury’s bank account (by the billions) vs. the total national debt (by the trillions). Not a pretty picture.

Ideas Are Viruses: How Tacitus’ Germania became the bible of German nationalism,” by Adam Kirsch. Caesar was the one who divided the Roman Empire at the Rhine, thereby creating Germania. But it was another Roman, Cornelius Tacitus, who did most to define “that proud German otherness” with his short ethnography Germania, writes the author in reference to a recent book by Harvard classicist Christopher Krebs. In an “intellectual judo-flip,” a Roman treatise on German primitivism, written in 98 A.D., became the guide to German “superiority.”

L Eau Pour Chien: Why do dogs rub up against things that smell bad?” by Jesse Bering. Dog owners rejoice: Your stench-seeking pooch is not a disgusting freak. Research into the behavior of hyenas and wolves reveals the reasons for your caninxe’s desire to roll around in squirrel carcass. “Scent-rubbing” is a form of both social behavior and intellectual behavior—the different smells facilitate learning and even clan cohesion.

Christian Terrorism: If Muslims are responsible for Islamic terrorism, are Muslim-bashers responsible for the massacre in Norway?” by William Saletan. Anti-Islamist blogger Pamela Geller blamed Muslims for the Oslo attacks, until she found out that the killer hated Muslims and admired her. On her blog, Geller does not  differentiate between Muslims and radical Muslims, her evidence is based on “secondhand, thirdhand, and nonexistent connections,” and she inspired Behring Breivik. Yet Saletan decides against blaming Geller for what happened in Oslo, and he hopes that certain bloggers and politicians will do the same—for Muslims.

Overeducated , Underemployed: How to fix humanities grad school,” by William Pannapacker. As a liberal arts professor, the author knows the works of higher education inside out, and he paints a discouraging picture of students getting expensive degrees that don’t translate into good jobs in the real world. Real change can happen, writes the author, if students, parents and professors unite to tell the truth about graduate school and train students for real careers. “Café or Nay ? Some studies say coffee is good for you; others say it’s bad. The scientists are just as confused as we are,” by Christie Aschwanden.  To drink or not to drink, that is the question. With all the conflicting health research on coffee ingestion, it’s difficult to determine a definite answer. Some studies conclude that caffeine consumption may increase one’s risk of developing urinary tract cancer, lung cancer, and lower bone density, while other studies conclude that coffee drinkers are less likely to get liver cancer, endometrial cancer, prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

It s Not Default : The U.S. will not default after Aug. 2. Something much weirder and more chaotic will happen,” by Annie Lawrey. The scenario we will find ourselves in if Congress fails to reach an agreement on the debt crisis will be so messy that it has no name, writes the author, except maybe debtpocalypse. In practical terms, the Treasury would have to pick winners and losers: who would continue to get paid and who would go home empty-handed. The only safe winners: America’s bondholders.