Change country:
The Atlantic
The Atlantic
How to (Maybe) Rescue a Superhero Franchise
The Flash, DC Comics’ speedy superhero, has plenty of costumed villains, but for many years the speedster’s biggest nemeses have been the people trying to make his movie. A solo picture has been in the works since 2014, when Ezra Miller was cast as the character. Originally set for release in 2018, and attached to multiple directors during what became a lengthy production process, the project has evolved from hot ticket to hot potato, bedeviled by rewrites, the changing demands of DC’s cinematic universe, and a mountain of disturbing allegations against its lead actor.But if The Flash nonetheless resonates with audiences, much of that will have to do with Andy and Barbara Muschietti, a brother-and-sister creative team (he directs; she produces) who have some experience with troubled Hollywood productions. A few years ago, they concluded a two-part adaptation of Stephen King’s It—a box-office sensation that somehow found a coherent narrative in the gleeful chaos of King’s 1,100-page, decades-spanning horror novel while also managing to be fun and zippy. After the hectic development of The Flash, they’ve achieved something similar, taking a property that seemed cursed and somehow delivering a breezy and charming film.“It’s not something that I’m looking for—[these] complicated, convoluted projects,” Andy Muschietti told me in an interview. The Flash and It shared the challenge of being developed from beloved works, each with a fan base (comic readers, King fans) known for its hostility to poor adaptations of cherished texts. “You have to really follow your instincts as a storyteller and a director, because you’re telling the story based on your own emotions,” he insisted. “That’s the complication: how to do very genuine truth, and at the same time appease an audience that has their expectations. I don’t know what the answer is.”His sister, who co-wrote the duo’s breakout horror project, Mama (2013), was similarly demure. “We’ve never gone into a project thinking, Well, it’s been tried before and no one could make it,” Barbara told me. “We’re incredibly stubborn. And we will bust a nut getting things done. But, you know, we don’t go into projects to prove how we can and others can’t. It’s impossible to sustain that for four years of filmmaking.” Still, as a hard-working duo, the Muschiettis have moved through every level of the filmmaking system, starting out as assistants on the Argentinean location shoot of Evita in 1996, then creating short films and commercials in the 2000s before launching the low-budget horror debut hit Mama.With It, the Muschiettis came aboard another long-gestating project that had been attached to various writers and directors since a cinematic adaptation was first announced in 2009. King’s much-worshipped novel had previously worked only as fodder for a TV miniseries, but Muschietti oversaw a script rewrite that was clearly enough to reassure a studio panicked about cost overruns. The first It film felt like more than a hasty salvage job: A jumpy rollercoaster ride with genuinely inventive feats of horror—that haunted Modigliani-inspired painting is my favorite—it turned out to be a critical and commercial sensation. And though the much-hyped Chapter Two had a more mixed reception, it was still a huge money-earner, especially for an R-rated movie running nearly three hours.After working back-to-back on those films, the Muschiettis were offered another challenge by Warner Bros.: The Flash, years past its planned release date and mired in rewrites. “We needed a couple months to think about it, because we were exhausted,” Barbara said. Upon reading the screenwriter Christina Hodson’s new draft of the film, they came around. Their first instinct was to create something in the vein of the superheroes they grew up on, like Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) or the Day-Glo joy of the ’60s Batman series starring Adam West. “We would watch on a 12-inch black-and-white TV because it was the ’70s and in Argentina,” Andy said. “We wouldn’t see those colors until years later.” Another early love was Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, enough of a touchstone that the duo green-lighted the return of that hero, as portrayed by Michael Keaton, for The Flash. But Donner’s Superman is The Flash’s most obvious inspiration: It has “the combination of an incredibly heartfelt story and the fear of loss,” Barbara explained, but doesn’t sacrifice a sense of goofy fun.[Read: What’s wrong with the DC Comics movie franchise?]The Flash is, in theory, one of DC’s simplest heroes to understand. After a science-lab accident, plucky youngster Barry Allen gains the ability to run very fast. There are some nuances to his powers—the most important of which is that he learns to travel back in time—but Barry is often presented as a cheerful, down-to-earth crimefighter, unlike the gloomy billionaire Batman or burdened-with-godhood Wonder Woman. Miller’s portrayal of the character in films such as Suicide Squad and Justice League has largely hewed to that, presenting Barry as a gleeful chatterbug.Andy Muschietti’s pitch for The Flash, though, revolved around the death of the character’s mother, Nora (played by Maribel Verdú)—a traumatic event that Barry eventually travels back to try to undo, inadvertently causing countless other changes to his own reality. “I wanted to create an emotional core that was strong enough to validate the rest of this big adventure,” Andy said. “Very often, these big movies don't have a heart big enough to go in for the ride.” To give Nora real weight, the Muschiettis insisted on casting Verdú, a Spanish actress probably best-known for her role in Y Tu Mamá También, even though she’d never worked in Hollywood before. “She exudes a warmth and familiarity and a closeness,” Andy said. “It was like a perfect weapon for a movie that needed that in the center … It’s the chemistry between Maribel and Ezra that made that love story so true.” The pairing does work, and Barry’s motivation for screwing up the timeline is fully understandable.They are full of praise for Miller’s performance; Andy called them “a brilliant actor, but also a brilliant comedian.” The allegations surrounding Miller, however, are so pervasive that it’s tough to shake them even while enjoying the film. First, disturbing videos of a person appearing to be Miller choking a woman were posted on Twitter in 2020. Then, in 2022, Miller was implicated in a series of disconnected, distressing stories alleging erratic or violent behavior and, in one instance, the grooming of a teenager. (In a since-deleted Instagram video, the teenager disagreed with the grooming allegations: “These are my decisions, and I’m disappointed in my parents and the press in every way.”) Last August, Miller released a statement saying they were seeking treatment for “complex mental health issues” and apologized “to everyone that I have alarmed and upset with my past behavior,” after which they essentially vanished from the public eye.Most of the allegations against Miller and reports of their erratic behavior emerged after the movie’s production was complete. Recasting them in this film, given that they appear in almost every frame, was obviously too expensive a proposition, but the result is undeniably bizarre. Miller’s performance is energetic and heartfelt, but the mental compartmentalization required to engage with it may understandably be too much for many viewers.Andy has supported Miller’s return to the role in any hypothetical sequel, and Barbara has dismissed rumors that The Flash’s release was ever in jeopardy because of the manifold legal issues surrounding the actor. When I asked about the controversies, the pair didn’t directly acknowledge the charges but instead pivoted right back to talking about their love for the film they’ve made. More than the multiple script drafts or ongoing questions about the future of the DC film franchise, the unsettling allegations against Miller could impede the chances of The Flash gaining traction. But the Muschiettis seemed filled with confidence that their movie’s propulsive joy will be enough to vault the hero from one dying cinematic universe to whatever saga will follow. “It depends on the acceptance of audiences,” Andy said. But “we’re confident that this movie will be absorbed in the new DC universe.” I might scoff, but they haven’t been proved wrong yet.
4 h
The Golf Merger Looks Like a Textbook Antitrust Violation
The PGA Tour wants to team up with LIV Golf to eliminate competition. Federal enforcers aren’t going to like that.
4 h
Don’t Forget the Other Half of Europe’s Abortion Compromise
Republicans seem to have suddenly alighted on an answer to the unpopularity of abortion bans in the post-Dobbs era: a “compromise,” styled on most European countries’ abortion regimes, which permit abortion only in the first trimester of pregnancy and restrict it thereafter, with a few exceptions. North Carolina recently passed a law in this vein, over its governor’s veto; it will permit abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for rape until 20 weeks, for fetal anomalies until 24 weeks, and to save the life of the mother throughout the pregnancy. As some states have enacted more restrictive abortion laws, banning abortion from the moment of conception or at six weeks, North Carolina lawmakers have been able to mark the contrast, characterizing the 12-week ban as a “mainstream” and “reasonable” approach that should become a model for the rest of the nation. After all, it allows about 90 percent of abortions that American women undergo to remain legal.This “European compromise” approach has gained adherents at the federal level as well. Senator Lindsey Graham proposed a federal 15-week abortion ban after Dobbs, seeking a national consensus that he describes as “in line with other developed nations.” During a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on abortion in America after Dobbs, Graham noted that not one single European country permits abortion “on demand” after 15 weeks, insisting that only the most oppressive regimes, such as China and North Korea, permit the later-term abortions that Roe v. Wade appeared to protect. When it comes to protecting life, Republicans urge the United States to keep pace with its “civilized” European peers, rather than join the “inhumane” company of China and North Korea.[David A. Graham: Has North Carolina found an abortion compromise?]But Republicans are interested in only one part of the European approach to protecting life—the abortion restrictions. They seem to forget that every European country that protects unborn life by restricting abortion after the first trimester protects born life too, through prenatal health care, paid maternity leave, and a public infrastructure for child care and preschool. If Republicans are sincere in invoking Europe as a model, Democrats and other proponents of abortion access should seize this chance to find common ground on policies that would substantially improve the lives of mothers and children in this country. After Dobbs, Democrats should not let the outrage over losing Roe impede a new abortion compromise, one inspired by European countries that protect life not just by restricting abortion, but by ensuring healthy pregnancy and infancy.Pro-life Republicans have long liked to criticize the United States as an outlier for legalizing pre-viability abortion without significant restriction under Roe v. Wade. But the country is an outlier in another sense as well: its abject failure to protect born, living children and the people who birth them. By comparison to similarly wealthy advanced democracies, the United States has higher rates of infant mortality. Maternal mortality rates are substantially higher in the United States as compared with these countries, especially for Black mothers. Studies have linked paid maternity leave to lower rates of infant mortality, but the United States is the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that doesn’t guarantee it. Senate Democrats recently introduced a paid-family-leave bill for the sixth time in 10 years. Thirty years after Congress guaranteed unpaid parental leave in the Family and Medical Leave Act, in 1993, the overwhelming majority of working mothers in America lack access to paid leave to cover the time off work necessary to give birth and care for a newborn. After a decade of legislative dysfunction, Congress finally passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act in December 2022, which guarantees reasonable accommodations to protect the health of pregnant workers and their wanted unborn children. Staying pregnant exacerbates women’s economic insecurity, a primary reason they seek abortions.Beyond its restriction of abortion after 12 weeks, North Carolina’s Care for Women, Children, and Families Act makes modest gestures toward the European model: It expands paid leave for state employees, guaranteeing them eight weeks after giving birth or four weeks to care for a newborn. The law allocates $32 million the first year and $43 million the following year to child care. These measures fall significantly short of the infrastructures for universal health care, paid parental leave, and child care that are well established in nearly all the European countries that restrict abortion after 12 to 15 weeks. In Germany, for instance, the constitutional court has noted that a state can protect life through means other than abortion bans, such as by providing support for pregnant women. Protecting unborn life goes hand in hand with protecting lives when they are already born and in need of care. Therefore, a state that bans abortion without guaranteeing pre- and postnatal health care, paid parental leave, and child-care support is not genuinely protecting life.If the North Carolina law is to be entertained as a reasonable model for national legislation, the provision of universal paid parental leave and child care must be seen as a bare-minimum part of the bargain. North Carolina’s steps in that direction are inadequate; Senator Graham’s proposed 15-week ban contains no such provisions. Furthermore, at the federal level, although Congress expanded child-care funding during the COVID-19 emergency, it was temporary. The Build Back Better package passed by the House in 2021 would have pumped $400 billion into child care, but it was blocked by Republicans, with the help of Joe Manchin, in the Senate. Ultimately, the Senate passed a much-modified Inflation Reduction Act without including a penny for child care.Congressional Democrats’ primary response to Dobbs has been to seek to codify Roe in the Women’s Health Protection Act. But Roe was itself a compromise; it kept pre-viability abortions legal (about 20 to 24 weeks of gestation), but it allowed the Hyde Amendment’s withholding of public funds for abortions that were medically necessary to protect the pregnant person’s health. Roe’s constitutional reasoning was that childbearing is a private matter in which the government should not intervene, making it hard to justify a governmental duty to support childbearing through paid parental leave and child care. The Women’s Health Protection Act—which was passed by the Democratic House but filibustered twice by Republicans in the Senate last session—would reinstate that compromise, as its Democratic supporters have insisted that it would leave the Hyde Amendment intact. Although paid family leave and child care have some bipartisan support, these policies have not been the basis for a new abortion bargain at the federal level.[Read: When a right becomes a privilege]Now, following Dobbs, Democrats should take the European model in its entirety more seriously as an alternative to codifying Roe. Doing so would be more responsive to public opinion on abortion than either the near-total abortion bans adopted by some state legislatures on the one hand—such as South Carolina’s six-week ban passed last month—or Roe v. Wade on the other. A majority of Americans say abortion should be legal in many but not all cases. Even a lot of those who believe abortion should be illegal in most cases support exceptions, and even the most restrictive state abortion bans passed after Dobbs allow abortions when the mother’s life is threatened. A reasonable compromise responsive to Americans’ complex views could package a 12-to-15-week ban—which would protect 90 percent of all abortions and include humane and workable exceptions for the remaining later-term abortions—with universal prenatal and postpartum health care, paid leave, and child care, which should be considered basic protections for born life.Furthermore, European countries that restrict abortion after 12 to 15 weeks include exceptions in their abortion laws for situations in later pregnancy deemed by physicians to pose risks to the pregnant woman’s health—beyond emergency life-threatening situations. Such broader constructions of the exceptions acknowledge that the line between a risk to the pregnant woman’s health and a risk to her life is hard to draw in complicated and rapidly changing actual situations of pregnancy. One woman’s testimony at the April Senate Judiciary Committee hearing told of her experience with an infection that developed during a spontaneous miscarriage, during which doctors could not intervene until the infection nearly killed her. In Ireland, the death of a woman under similar circumstances led the nation to rethink and eventually repeal its constitutional protection of unborn life. Irish law now permits abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and authorizes the procedure after 12 weeks when doctors deem it necessary to protect the health of the pregnant person. Such health exceptions are typical across Europe after 12 to 15 weeks, acknowledging that a real and serious commitment to the lives of pregnant women—the born, living people necessary for the unborn to be born—requires strong protections for their health. Furthermore, many European countries’ abortion laws construe the risk to the mother’s life and health to include mental health and suicide risks.After Dobbs, a national 12- or 15-week abortion ban written to invalidate the state laws that ban abortion at conception or six weeks would allow the majority of the pre-viability abortions protected under Roe. Packaged with paid family leave and child-care expansion, as well as exceptions to save women’s lives and health in later pregnancy, a European-style compromise may be the only way out of the women’s-health crisis triggered by Dobbs. By prioritizing the needs of pregnant women and infants while protecting access to abortion in early pregnancy, many other countries found a more humane compromise on abortion than we had under Roe. After Dobbs, it is a path that Americans need to consider.
5 h
Why Some Kids Use Their Parents’ First Name
On a 1971 episode of The Brady Bunch, the family’s eldest son, Greg, decides that, as a freshly minted high schooler, he ought to be treated like a man. When he asks for his own bedroom, his parents acquiesce. When he asks for money to buy new clothes, they give it to him. When he asks to skip the family camping trip, they say okay.But when he sits down at the breakfast table and calls his parents by their first name—“Morning, Carol! Morning, Mike!”—well, that’s a bridge too far. “Now, look, Greg,” his father answers with a wag of his finger. “Calling your parents by their first names might be the fad these days, but around here, we are still ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ to you!”If calling your parents by their first name was a fad, it never really went away. More than 50 years later, the phenomenon of children calling their parents by their first name still exists—and still is met with finger-wagging disapproval, and still gets called a “growing” trend. Several friends of mine have moms and dads who aren’t “Mom” and “Dad,” and pretty much everyone I spoke with for this story or told about it could call to mind one or two examples of their own. A small minority of kids has always done this, and likely always will. Why does their behavior lead to agitation and even outrage?To be clear, first-naming parents is aberrant on a global scale. Linguists and anthropologists find that children in nearly every culture around the world, and speaking nearly every language, have specific words for “mom” and “dad.” In fact, across a striking number of those languages, even those with no historical or etymological relation to one another, the words sound very much the same. In Chinese, Swahili, and Swedish, for example, the terms for “mother” are, respectively, mama, mama, and mamma. One theory holds that this is because M is one of the few consonant sounds that infants are capable of making, but that alone does not explain the continuing use of mom and dad (or their equivalents) by older kids, which, experts told me, is also nearly universal across cultures.Mom and dad are useful terms, Denise Bodman, a lecturer on social and family dynamics at Arizona State University, told me: Healthy families have well-defined roles, and parental designators can help keep them straight in the same way that titles such as Doctor and Professor do in classrooms. In that sense, kids who call their parents by their first name are altering conventional relationships. Kids might also use their parents’ first name to create emotional distance or lash out.Kids may also pick up the practice from their friends or even learn it from their parents—who may have grown up on a first-name basis with their parents. Some parents insist on using first names in order to establish equality among family members, or to establish “friend” relationships with children, or for some other reason. The young son of Elon Musk and Grimes, for example, refers to his mother by her given first name instead of “Mom,” because, as she puts it, “I don’t identify with that word.” Richard Warshak, a psychologist who writes books on family issues related to divorce, told me he has found that parents sometimes end up weaponizing first names. They might refer to an ex-spouse that way when talking with shared children, in an effort to weaken the corresponding parental ties. (The kids may then imitate this behavior without realizing what they’re doing and why.) Or they’ll try to force a child to call the other parent by their first name and reserve “Mom” or “Dad” for their new partner.[Read: The boys who wear shorts all winter]In general, though, the practice of using first names for parents is not a source of harm, Bodman told me. It may be evidence of the erosion of clear roles within a family, or it may be evidence that a family is so assured in its roles that the reinforcement isn’t necessary, or it may be neither. For many kids, it’s nothing more than a simple way to assert their independence, kind of like Greg Brady tried to. That motivation will never lose its appeal to American teenagers, or its capacity to shock their parents. It’s a fad that never ends or grows.For people who don’t first-name their parents, the behavior thus slots into a special social category: kind of weird and rarely seen, yet immediately recognizable. We all seem to know at least one kid who does it, just like we know at least one guy who insists on wearing shorts even in the winter, or who totes around a hot-sauce bottle and douses all of his food with it. If these practices are jarring, it’s in part because they force us to consider the autopilot practices we take for granted. Why do I call her “Mom”? Why do I call him “Dad”? Why am I wearing pants? It’s easier not to think too hard about these things, and so we don’t—until some kid calls his mother “Carol,” and we cringe.
6 h
Poland’s Potemkin Democracy
A core component of liberal democracy is that the opposition must have the right to field the candidate of its choice, giving it a fair chance to oust the government at the ballot box. In Poland, which has become one of Europe’s most important economic and military powers, that axiom is under attack.At the end of May, the governing Law and Justice party instituted a commission to investigate Russian influence on Polish politics. Given the ways in which the Kremlin has tried to wield power over European political parties, including Germany’s Social Democrats and Italy’s Lega (formerly Northern League), a nonpartisan commission to investigate such links in Poland would certainly make sense. A body with the authority to propose formal charges, to be investigated by independent courts, for people who are suspected of breaking existing laws would be perfectly appropriate.But this new commission is nothing of the sort. It violates the most basic democratic principles; its composition, exclusively of ruling-party members or loyalists, is wholly partisan; it is empowered to punish alleged culprits as it sees fit, turning the commission into prosecutor, judge, and jury, all in one. Perhaps most shockingly, the commission has the right to disbar anyone from public office for up to 10 years.[Yascha Mounk: After Poland, no democracy is safe]This last detail suggests the commission’s true purpose. With parliamentary elections coming up in the fall that are expected to be closely contested, the government appears to be using the commission as a cudgel against the leader of the country’s biggest opposition party, Donald Tusk, who was the prime minister from 2007 to 2014, and the president of the European Council from 2014 to 2019. At a minimum, Law and Justice seems set to use its hold over the commission to tarnish Tusk’s standing in the eyes of voters; many observers fear that it could go so far as to make it illegal for him to run.Poland, in short, may be poised to turn into a Potemkin democracy, an empty simulacrum of genuine self-government. And that once again reveals the alarming brittleness of democracy, with even the most vaunted democratic success stories deeply vulnerable to authoritarian capture.Poland has long been seen as one of the great success stories of the past 30-plus years. During the Cold War, when the country was effectively a satellite state of the Soviet Union, it maintained a crushingly authoritarian system and suffered from very low living standards, especially in rural areas. Today, Poland enjoys full sovereignty, a status that had largely eluded the country for three centuries. After Poland gained independence from the Warsaw Pact, it made great strides toward freedom and political stability, joining the European Union and affording its citizens expansive social and political rights.Even more notable is the country’s economic transformation. One of few countries in the world to have enjoyed continuous economic growth for the past three decades, Poland has seen its GDP increase nearly tenfold since the end of Communist rule. Keir Starmer, the leader of the British Labour Party, recently made headlines by warning that Poland is on track to overtake the U.K. in GDP per capita by the end of the decade.Although Poland has continued to grow richer and more influential, its political development was upended when Law and Justice swept into power in 2015. Under the guidance of Jarosław Kaczyński, the populist party immediately set out to undermine the rule of law.Kaczyński placed loyalists on the constitutional court by legally dubious means and gave political appointees power over the judicial process. His party turned the state broadcaster into a tool of government propaganda, used public funds to purchase privately owned regional newspapers, and tried to force the owners of independent radio and television stations to sell their rightful possessions.In other words, this commission is the culmination of democratic backsliding that has been under way for years. If the new body bars Tusk from running in the fall elections, this highly influential EU member state will no longer be a genuine democracy. That would drag the whole bloc into a crisis of legitimacy.A significant facet of the developments in Poland, one with special resonance for the United States, suggests that the obvious explanations for the rise of authoritarian populism are at best incomplete—with major implications for any hopes of reversing the trend. Standard accounts of the ascendancy of authoritarian populism tend to focus on cultural change and economic stagnation. The debate has usually centered on which of these two factors is more important—but neither fits the Polish case especially well.Take the economy. In a single generation, Poland has grown much more affluent. Admittedly, this newfound wealth has come with greater inequality; some rural areas have been left behind compared with the gleaming metropoles—and Law and Justice has expertly exploited the resulting resentments. But in some ways, the improvement of living standards has been most striking in the country’s poorer regions, where people now take for granted amenities such as indoor toilets, which many lacked some 35 years ago.What’s more, support for Law and Justice is hardly limited to the poor or excluded; the party is also popular with social strata that have enjoyed breathtaking upward mobility. As with Donald Trump in the U.S., Law and Justice in Poland appeals to plenty of people who are doing very well.The notion of a backlash against cultural change does not fit the facts so well either. In 1989, Poland was a deeply conservative and patriarchal country. Today, women enjoy greater equality and autonomy, and, especially in the cities, sexual minorities are a visible part of the country’s social fabric. Law and Justice has played up fear over “LGBT ideology” and used a rejection of secular urban elites as part of its electoral pitch—moves that have made the party popular among those who feel alienated from the country’s new culture, which is much more liberal and cosmopolitan than it once was. Poland’s transformation, however, has been so deep and rapid that such regressive messaging alone would not be enough to keep Law and Justice in power; the party has been able to win a series of elections only because its appeal extends well beyond that reactionary base.Take the Catholic Church, which has long played a big political role in Poland. In the last years of Communist rule, Poland was one of the most Catholic countries in the world—a majority of the population attended Mass at least once a week. Now that number has fallen to about a quarter of the population. With the hold of the Church declining so rapidly, and its reputation in tatters after a string of sexual-abuse scandals, any explanation for the success of Law and Justice that relies simply on the theory of a backlash against cultural change is inadequate. Deeply devout voters now constitute too small a share of the electorate to keep Law and Justice in business. The same sort of change has affected other realms of Polish society. Attitudes toward gays and lesbians have, for example, dramatically improved, which means that homophobia cannot on its own account for the enduring appeal of Law and Justice.The upshot should worry those who think that further cultural change will magically make the problem of populism disappear: Neither a greater secularization of Polish society nor a further liberalization of attitudes toward sexual minorities is sure to erode the party’s popularity.All of these examples should be a warning for other democracies facing authoritarian-populist challenges, including the U.S. Some American pundits argue that populism’s potency derives mainly from the stagnation of living standards. Although that idea has some plausibility, the experience of Poland suggests that rapid economic growth and widespread prosperity do not necessarily reduce support for authoritarian populists.The other main school of thought insists that the roots of populism lie primarily in cultural grievances. Politicians like Trump, the argument runs, are especially popular among voters who are whiter and older, so as the population diversifies, and members of Gen Z gradually replace Baby Boomers, support for such candidates is sure to dwindle. Here, too, the Polish experience is sobering: Even as Poland’s culture has become more liberal and progressive, the arc of its politics has not bent toward democracy. The young have, in virtually all major democracies, been more progressive than the old for decades—yet, in part because voters’ values change as they grow older, the moment when progressives consistently win commanding electoral majorities has failed to materialize.Polish democracy is not dead. Hundreds of thousands of people marched in Warsaw over the weekend to defend democratic institutions and fight for their right to vote for the candidate of their choice. The upcoming elections look likely to be close, even if—or perhaps especially if—Tusk is disqualified from running.[Read: Poland is not ready to accept a new McCarthyism]To understand the developments in Poland—and similar ones in such countries as Turkey, India, and America—the simple binary of democracy and dictatorship will not do. Poland, like so many other countries, is evolving into an embattled system that political scientists have described by such names as “illiberal democracy” and “competitive authoritarian regime.” The Law and Justice government has skewed the odds, giving it a big advantage over its political rivals. And yet, elections remain meaningful for now, because the opposition still has a real shot at gaining power through the ballot box.Poland was already a flawed democracy before the new commission was constituted. The opposition will retain some agency, even if Tusk is barred. But the Law and Justice government has taken yet another fateful step toward turning Poland into a Potemkin democracy.
7 h
Is Gen Z Coming for the GOP?
Gen Z is poised to massively expand its influence in the 2024 election. But its impact may be more complex than typically assumed.As many as 7 to 9 million more members of the racially and culturally diverse Gen Z could cast ballots in 2024 than did in 2020, while the number of the predominantly white Baby Boomers and older generations voting may decline by a corresponding amount, according to nonpartisan forecasts. As a result, for the first time, Gen Z and Millennials combined could account for as many votes next year as the Baby Boomers and their elders—the groups that have made up a majority of voters for decades.That generational transition represents a clear opportunity for Democrats, who have consistently amassed solid, sometimes overwhelming, margins among both Millennials and Gen Z voters. But an analysis of previously unpublished election data from Catalist, a Democratic targeting firm, by Michael Podhorzer, the former political director for the AFL-CIO, shows that even the emergence of these new voters may not break the larger political stalemate that has partitioned the country into seemingly immovable blocks of red and blue states.Podhorzer’s analysis of the Catalist data, shared exclusively with The Atlantic, found that over the past four elections, Gen Z voters have broken heavily for Democrats in blue states, and provided the party solid margins in closely contested swing states. But in red states, with a few prominent exceptions, Podhorzer surprisingly found that even Gen Z voters are mostly supporting Republicans.The generation’s strong Democratic lean in blue and purple states may create growing challenges for Republicans trying to amass the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House. But the Republican tilt of younger voters in red states could frustrate Democrats trying to loosen the GOP’s hold on those places. That seemingly unbreakable Republican grip has made it difficult for Democrats to win majorities in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and has allowed the GOP to impose a sweepingly conservative social agenda across nearly half of the country.Republicans remain dubious that young voters will show up in large numbers anywhere next year for President Joe Biden, the oldest U.S. president, who did not run well among them in the 2020 Democratic primaries and whose approval ratings with them remain anemic. As Kristen Soltis Anderson, a GOP pollster who has extensively studied younger voters, told me, “I don’t think there is a lot of focus in Republican world” about the potential risk to the party of a big surge of new Generation Z voters in 2024, “in part because a lot of Republicans believe that there is just no way young voters will turn out for Joe Biden.”But other analysts point out that despite their equivocal feelings about Biden, young people voted in very large numbers in 2020 and maintained relatively high turnout in 2022. A lack of enthusiasm about Biden personally “didn’t really dissuade the generation from coming out and voting for Democrats” in either of the past two elections, says John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, which conducts a twice-yearly national survey of youth attitudes. “They knew the stakes in the election. They knew what life was like under more Republican control versus more Democratic control.”Whatever they think about Biden, the influence of Gen Z, generally defined as young people born from 1997 to 2012, is certain to rise next year simply because so many of them will age into the electorate. William Frey, a demographer at Brookings Metro, estimates that about 15.4 million eligible young people will have turned 18 between the 2020 election and Election Day next year.In 2016, the first presidential election when any members of the generation were old enough to participate, Gen Z accounted for just 2 percent of voters, according to an analysis of census data by Frey for the nonpartisan States of Change project. In 2020, Gen Z rose to 7.5 percent of all voters, Frey calculates. Frey projects that the generation will increase its share of the electorate to 13 percent in 2024. Depending on turnout, that could mean about 8 million more Gen Z voters next year, increasing the total to about 20 million in all.Millennials, generally described as younger adults born from 1981 to 1996, have also increased their share of the electorate. In Frey’s analysis of census data, they rose from about one in seven voters in 2008 to just under one in four in 2020. Frey predicts that in 2024, the two generations combined will make up about 37 percent of the electorate.That could mark a historic tipping point. Frey projects that in 2024 the Baby Boomers and their elders—the last members of the Greatest and Silent generations still voting—will also constitute 37 percent of voters. If that forecast holds up, it will end decades during which those Republican-leaning older cohorts were the biggest generations in the electorate. Meanwhile, Generation X, defined as those born from 1965 to 1980, will remain stable over this period at about one-fourth of the electorate.Another fundamental shift in American politics over the past half century is magnifying the impact of this generational evolution: Voters now divide between the parties more along lines of cultural identity than class interest. And on every important cultural and demographic dividing line between the two parties, the younger generations exhibit characteristics that predict support for Democrats.More than 70 percent of Baby Boomers are white. But just 55 percent of Millennials are white and only slightly more than half of Gen Z are. Millennials and Gen Z are far less likely than older generations to identify with any organized religion and far more likely (especially in Gen Z) to identify as LGBTQ. Younger generations are also more likely than older ones to hold a college degree.“What sets Gen Z apart is … they are growing up in a much more racially and ethnically diverse cohort which really is driving them to more progressive positions,” Melissa Deckman, the chief executive officer of the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute and the author of a forthcoming book on the generation, told me.Overall, these new voters are behaving almost exactly as those attributes would predict. Before 2004, as I’ve written, exit polls and other sources found little difference between the voting preferences of younger and older voters. But since Millennials and then Gen Z entered the electorate in large numbers, Democrats have established a durable advantage among the young. Catalist’s data, for instance, show that Democrats have carried almost exactly 60 percent of the two-party vote among Millennials and Gen Z in each of the past three presidential elections and in three of the past four congressional elections; the one exception came when the party’s vote among them hit 66 percent in the 2018 congressional races. (One New York Times analyst, citing unpublished polling data, recently claimed that Millennials, though still supporting Democrats, are moving right as they age, a view also held by some Republican pollsters; but skeptics quickly noted that other data sources, such as results from the large-sample Cooperative Election Survey, do not show such a shift.)The key insight that Podhorzer’s analysis adds is that even this strong overall Democratic advantage remains subject to substantial geographic variation that tends to reinforce, rather than reconfigure, the nation’s electoral divisions.Using Catalist data, he found that Democrats in the four elections from 2016 through 2022 have consistently amassed imposing margins of 20 to as much as 40 percentage points among Gen Z voters in the 18 states he identifies as already leaning reliably Democratic, such as California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, and the Eastern Seaboard states from Maryland to Maine.Gen Z voters over those four elections have also provided Democrats solid margins of roughly 15 to 25 percentage points in the eight purple states: Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Nevada across the Sun Belt, and Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire in the Rust Belt.But the story in the remaining two dozen Republican-leaning states is more complex. Podhorzer found that Democrats performed better in the red states among Gen Z than they did among older generations—but not well enough to actually win those youngest voters. Republicans still carried a majority of Gen Z voters in most of the red states. Even in red states where Democrats have won most Gen Z voters in recent elections—including Texas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, and Montana—the party’s margins among them are typically slim. That means Democrats in red states are not generating nearly enough advantage from younger generations to overcome the lopsided GOP edge among older cohorts.Podhorzer told me this regional variation is “only surprising to the extent you believe that age explains almost everything about voters’ partisanship. But if you understand that the neighborhood you grew up in, the parents you have, the schools you went to, and the general politics that you are introduced into is a big factor, it shouldn’t be surprising at all. Because if you grow up in Brooklyn, no matter how old you are, you are swimming in blue water … and the same goes for those growing up in red America.”For Democrats, the most important of the trends Podhorzer cataloged may be their persistent strength among Gen Z voters in the battleground swing states that decide who wins the White House. In all, Podhorzer calculates that Gen Z voters in the swing states who have cast their first ballot in the 2018 election or after have preferred Democrats by nearly 20 percentage points. (Democrats also hold a strong 15-point edge among Millennials in those states who voted for the first time in 2018 or after.) To Podhorzer, the clear lesson of these trends is that Democrats are more likely to win the battleground states by investing in turning out these new voters than by trying to lure back the mostly blue-collar whites who have abandoned the party to support Trump.Podhorzer says the Democratic advantage among younger voters in the purple and blue states has been driven largely by an unusual dynamic. Typically, he points out, young voters gravitate toward a party because of a positive association with the president in office as they entered the electorate: John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama. But in this case, Podhorzer argues, the most powerful force moving Gen Z toward Democrats is not so much excitement about the party (or Biden), but negative views of Trump. “They are coming of age at a time when everybody around them, as well as the popular culture, loathe and ridicule” Trump, he says. “Especially in the blue states, where MAGA candidates have hijacked the nominating process, there is no exemplar of a reasonable Republican anywhere to be seen.”Some GOP strategists aren’t particularly concerned about the party’s poor performance with young voters, Anderson, the GOP pollster, says, because inside the GOP coalition, Trump is strongest among the youngest generations. “So if you are hanging out in Republican land only you can easily convince yourself that Donald Trump is actually very popular with young voters, because he is irreverent and edgy or whatever your rationale would be,” she says. The problem is that too many in the GOP don’t realize “that the young people in the past who might have liked Mitt Romney aren’t in our rooms anymore” and that instead we “have boiled the youth of the party down to this very Trumpist core.”In many red states, Republicans appear to be taking no chances with the unfolding generational transition: Several GOP-controlled states, such as Texas, Georgia, and Arizona, where the ascending younger generations are much more racially diverse than older voters, have imposed the toughest restrictions on voting.In every state, influence in the coming years will flow from those mostly white older generations to more diverse younger ones. By 2028, Frey projects, the Boomers and their elders will fall to slightly below a third of voters nationwide, while Millennials and Gen Z will soar well past two-fifths. By 2032, when all of Gen Z is eligible, Americans born after 1980 will cast almost exactly half of all votes.Deckman said she expects Gen Z to continue to lean left over this period—in part because, more than any previous generation, these young people are consuming media that they themselves create, on TikTok and similar platforms. “Their news is generated by themselves, and because they are more progressive, I think many Gen Zers are consuming information that reinforces those viewpoints,” she told me.As Podhorzer’s analysis shows, this transition isn’t yet threatening Republicans in most red states. And in the swing states, Republicans can probably offset the growing presence of Gen Z and Millennials in 2024 by running better with older voters, many of whom are unhappy with Biden’s performance.But the Democratic advantage with Gen Z is like an investment whose value compounds over time—in this case, as their share of the electorate expands. If Republicans can’t regain at least some ground with younger voters, especially in the battleground states, the party will need to squeeze bigger margins out of shrinking groups. In any given election, as Trump demonstrated in 2016, Republicans might meet that test. But making that math add up will only get tougher for the GOP as the generational transition inexorably rolls on.
7 h
The Happiest Way to Change Jobs
Want to stay current with Arthur’s writing? Sign up to get an email every time a new column comes out.If the job-search firm is right in its survey research, you are probably looking for a new job. According to its data at the end of last year, that’s what an eye-popping 96 percent of Americans workers reported doing. And yet, you probably won’t actually make that change: One Pew Research Center study found that only about 30 percent of workers changed jobs at least once in 2022, which was roughly on par with the level of turnover in 2021.What accounts for the 66-point difference between aspiration and action? Psych Central, a mental-health website, notes that a common reason people stay in jobs they want to leave is fear of the unknown: Will the new job be worse than the old one? This is a powerful emotion, liable to dominate other ones because evolutionarily it was so important to our survival. Our ancestors passed on their genes because they did not say, “I don’t know what kind of mushrooms those are, but I bet they’re delicious!”You may know that you’d like to do something else for work, but your options look like mushrooms of unknown origin. Thus “the devil you know” wins out, and you stay put. This can lead to a lot of frustration and dissatisfaction. But research about changing jobs illuminates trends that can guide your decision making, help lower the uncertainty, and manage your expectations.Research across many industries and countries has established that very distinct patterns occur in people’s happiness when they change employment. The good news is that job satisfaction usually does indeed rise. Writing in a recent edition of the Journal of Organizational Behavior, scholars found that job changers rated their satisfaction with their old job at roughly 4.5 on a scale of 1 to 7; that changed to about 6 when they started their new job, and this rating held at six weeks in.That’s how long the honeymoon lasted. At this point, satisfaction started to fall for about the next five months. At the six-month mark on average, an inflection occurred, depending on the “career orientation” of the job changer. Those with a self-centered orientation—defined as those who see themselves as independently responsible for managing their careers, and mostly think about their own benefit—stayed at this lower level (about 5.5) of satisfaction. This contrasted with those who had an organization-centered orientation—defined as prioritizing loyalty and security, and envisioning their career as part of a greater whole—as they started to see their satisfaction rise again after that six-month point.[Annie Lowrey: Low-wage jobs are becoming middle-class jobs]The researchers did not track what happened after that, but it is reasonable to assume that the self-oriented folks continued to feel less satisfaction, and the organization-oriented to feel more. After all, we know that the first group reported an intention to leave the new job at significantly higher rates than the second. Self-oriented careers have more churn and less job satisfaction than organization-oriented careers.A second pattern in the research from around the world is that those who are happier people in general are more adaptable in their careers. In fact, happiness—more than perceived social support or a positive attitude about the future—is the most significant predictor of being able to cope with, and make the best of, professional changes such as greater responsibilities and skill demands. In other words, people who are happier overall are more satisfied when they change jobs than unhappier people. Researchers also note that thriving in a career can be closely related to maintaining a healthy work-life balance, which is of course a key to personal fulfillment.[Oren Cass: The labor-shortage myth]A third pattern in the data concerns the “push” versus “jump” factors in employment. Scholars writing in 2017 in The International Journal of Aging and Human Development found that people were happier with their career changes if they had made a shift of their own volition, as opposed to being laid off and having to find a new job. This isn’t too surprising, but it underlines that people may have a choice about being proactive in the labor market when their job situation is uncertain.If you are considering a change of job or career but feel paralyzed by fear of the unknown, the research offers a few practical lessons to help assuage your anxiety yet keep you from unrealistic wishes and rash decisions.1. Manage your expectationsWe’ve already seen that a job change usually increases satisfaction, but that much of this can wear off fairly quickly—within months, especially if you are not an especially organization-centered person. So coach yourself to be realistic: The change most likely won’t make you worse off, but don’t romanticize it. If your expectations are too high, you will be disappointed; then you might find yourself on the job market over and over again, stuck in a cycle of unmet hopes.2. Look for happiness outside of work firstRemember that the biggest predictor of work happiness is nonwork happiness. I have witnessed this throughout my own career, in myself and in others: When things are good in the rest of your life, they seem more stable and less bothersome at the job. Conversely, when we look for our overall well-being in what we are doing to earn a living, it places too much emphasis and pressure on the job, making it into a kind of a religion. (And actually practicing a real religion probably brings greater happiness.)3. Jump before you are pushedHumans crave control over their environment. One of the most common correlates of depression is feeling that your life is out of your control—that external forces are determining what happens to you. Getting fired or laid off from work commonly provokes frustration, guilt, embarrassment, and anger—and is likely to coincide with less satisfaction when you find a new job. Sometimes, losing your job comes as a complete surprise, but advance warning can take such forms as a change of management, a hiring freeze, or a switch in product line. If you stay alert, you have a better chance of leaving on your own terms.People generally talk about moving jobs as a dramatic occurrence, a major life upheaval akin to getting married or divorced. And it can be that significant for people who have spent many years with a specific employer, or who prize stability and security. But for most people, such adjustments happen many times. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that for people born in the later years of the baby boom, a man with a higher education will, on average over the course of a lifetime, hold nearly 12 different jobs; a similarly qualified woman will hold more than 13 jobs. That frequency of career change is hardly comparable to how often people marry and divorce—except possibly for a few Hollywood celebrities.In other words, keep it all in proportion: Most people change jobs multiple times in their career. So the best practical advice, if you are sitting year after year in a frustrating gap between aspiration and action, wanting to change but fearing uncertainty, is simply this: It’s really not that big a deal to try something else, so you might as well do it. Just bear in mind that the happier you are outside of work, the happier you are likely to feel in work.
7 h
China and the West Are Coming Apart. Can China’s Economy Continue to Rise?
The idea of a rising China has become so entrenched in the Western imagination that it can seem inevitable. But economics rarely operates in straight lines, and in China, the government of Xi Jinping is right now making decisions about China’s economic relations with the world that are bound to alter its trajectory.Xi, the most dominant political figure in China in half a century, would like his country to overtake the United States as the world’s premier superpower. In that pursuit, he is reorienting his country’s trade and investment away from the West and, in certain respects, looking inward to strengthen China’s economic defenses. China’s leaders argue that such decisions were forced upon them by a hostile Washington intent on maintaining its hegemony. In taking this course, they are also contributing to a larger shift in global affairs, as the post–Cold War moment of globalization has given way to a new era in which geopolitical competition and security concerns drive economic policy.[Read: How China wants to replace the U.S. order]The story of China’s rise (so far) has been all about its relationship with the West, and especially the United States. More than 40 years ago, the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping introduced a free-market reform program that connected China’s destitute and largely agrarian populace to global supply chains through bonds of trade and investment with the U.S. and its partners. In flowed foreign capital and technology; out came manufactured goods for wealthy American and European consumers. Growth roared, and with it, incomes. None of that would have been possible without the West’s cooperation.Beijing and Washington were once willing to set aside their numerous political disagreements in the pursuit of economic benefits that both believed were necessary for the future. But today, the two countries have come to see their ties as a source of risk and vulnerability. Xi fears that Washington can exploit its economic leverage to suppress his country’s rightful rise into a global superpower by withholding crucial technology or imposing punishing sanctions, such as those the U.S. slapped on Russia after its armies invaded Ukraine last year. He has sought to protect China by channeling enormous state support into developing homegrown technologies and by shifting China’s economic energies toward countries, including Russia, that are not perceived as threatening.Washington, for its part, worries that China can use its dominance of certain supply chains, such as the production of rare earth minerals, to stymie U.S. industry, or that Beijing will capitalize on access to advanced American technology to enhance its own military capabilities or undercut U.S. economic competitiveness. Both the Trump and Biden administrations sought to curtail business with China through tariffs, export controls, and other measures, and encouraged investment in manufacturing at home.Mike Gallagher, chair of the U.S. House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, sees these shifts as commonsensical in many ways. “There are some people who want to go back to the halcyon days of economic engagement, in the hope that that might improve the U.S.-China relationship. I just think that represents the triumph of delusion over experience,” Gallagher told me. “We need to take off our golden blindfolds when it comes to the risks associated with doing business” with China, and “we need to reinforce our economic sovereignty in concert with our allies.”And so the economic relationship between the U.S. and China—arguably the most influential of the past half century—is beginning to unravel. U.S. investment into China has been on the decline. In 2017, American companies invested $14.1 billion into China; in 2021, only $8.4 billion, according to the research firm Rhodium Group. In a recent survey of U.S. businesses conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in China, 51 percent of the respondents said that their current plan was either not to increase their investment in the country or to decrease it, while another 26 percent said that the environment was too uncertain to decide.Executives in Europe are hardly more enthusiastic. “While a handful of large firms, many of them German, continue to pour money into their China operations, many other firms with a presence in China are withholding new investment,” Rhodium Group explained in a 2022 report. “Virtually no new European firms have chosen to enter the Chinese market in recent years.”Foreign investment suffered globally during the coronavirus pandemic, but China was hit harder than other countries and regions, according to a study that the International Monetary Fund released in April. The IMF noted that, during the pandemic period (roughly 2020 to 2022), compared with the preceding five years, the United States and the advanced European economies made significantly fewer “greenfield” investments into China—the term for when a company starts a new operation in a foreign country from scratch. Such investments into other regions, including emerging markets in Europe, held up much better. The study also revealed that foreign-investment flows are becoming more concentrated among countries that share similar geopolitical viewpoints. The IMF calls it the “fragmentation” of foreign-investment flows, but what it really means is that the decades-long love affair the West’s CEOs have had with China is coming to an end.[Read: China’s mistakes can be America’s gain]Chinese companies are withholding their money as well. The U.S. had been the most popular destination for China’s capital, with $193 billion invested since 2005, according to the American Enterprise Institute. Now Chinese investment in the U.S. has all but evaporated. Though it ticked upward in 2022 from the year before, to $3.2 billion, that’s a mere fraction of the nearly $54 billion invested in the U.S. in 2016.Instead, Chinese firms are redirecting their investment to the global South. Last year, the two largest recipients of Chinese foreign investment were Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. Countries associated with Xi’s pet infrastructure-building program, the Belt and Road Initiative, accounted for less than a quarter of total outward Chinese investment in 2017, Derek Scissors, an AEI senior fellow, estimates. Last year, their share reached 60 percent (albeit of a smaller total amount). Though this shift reflects Xi’s foreign-policy preferences, it also shows how Chinese money is being scared off by a suspicious reception in the U.S. “Until that changes,” Scissors wrote in a January report, “investment will continue to shift to poorer countries.”Although China’s trade with the United States and Europe remains immense, its exchange with the developing world is also growing. China’s largest trading partner is now not the U.S. or European Union, but the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations—which includes Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand—with $975 billion worth of goods passing among them in 2022. China’s share of sub-Saharan Africa’s merchandise trade rose from a mere 4 percent in 2001 to more than 25 percent in 2020, surpassing that of both the U.S. and EU, according to a 2023 study from the Atlantic Council.The shift in China’s global focus is likely to continue because it serves Beijing’s political interests. The new avenues of trade and finance Xi has opened through his Belt and Road program are designed to become routes of political influence. And a big reason Xi has been deepening relations with Russia is to secure sources of energy and other raw materials safely out of Washington’s reach. Trade between those two countries increased by more than a third last year, to a record $190 billion. Now Russians feeling the sting of U.S. sanctions are turning to the Chinese currency, the yuan, in preference to the dollar—furthering Xi’s goal of weakening the global influence of the greenback.Washington’s position is hardening as well. Former President Donald Trump broke with decades of Washington policy by treating China as a potential adversary rather than partner. President Joe Biden has not only continued that approach, but sharpened it. His administration imposed tough controls on the export of advanced semiconductors and the equipment to manufacture them to China and is mulling new regulations that would curb U.S. investment in China in certain technologies. Gallagher said that “restrictions on capital outflows to China make a lot of sense,” and that he thinks Washington may have to take a “sector-by-sector approach” to prevent American money from flowing into Chinese firms affiliated with the military or involved in developing sensitive technology, such as artificial intelligence.The other advanced democracies appear headed in a similar direction. The hot term in Western capitals with regard to China policy is de-risking: not the extreme “decoupling” of the Trump era, which implied a harsh severing of ties, but a somewhat more moderate effort to counter Chinese threats to security and industry. De-risking could mean diversifying supply chains to make sure that Beijing’s position in them isn’t so strong as to afford it leverage over the West, for example. The language of de-risking was central to the communiqué that emerged from the May summit of the G7, as well as to a speech that Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, gave in March.Detachment from the West would be a major shift in itself, but it is not the only one that China has undertaken. The country’s companies and banks are also, in many respects, scaling back their engagement with the world. A few years ago, Chinese firms were “going global” at a torrid pace. Now that outreach has become much more measured. AEI data show that total Chinese investment abroad has shrunk dramatically, from a high of $174 billion in 2017 to only $42 billion in 2022. The story of Chinese lending to developing countries is similar: From 2008 to 2021, the two Chinese state banks that support government-policy priorities issued $498 billion in development finance for 100 countries, according to Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center. That’s not far off the amount lent by the World Bank. But the loans began to taper off in 2018 and sunk to a mere $10.5 billion for 2020 and 2021 combined. “We’re very much at a crossroads,” Rebecca Ray, a senior researcher at Boston University who tracks Chinese lending, told me. China’s retrenchment could reflect a decision to prioritize its domestic economy, which sagged amid the coronavirus pandemic and a property-market slump, she pointed out. But it is also possible that pragmatic concerns have led Beijing to pause its lending program before rebooting it to focus more on quality than quantity of development projects.Whether these trends fully reflect a deliberate economic program remains unclear. The country’s strict COVID-prevention controls, which made cross-border business extremely difficult, may be skewing the numbers, and perhaps, with those restrictions lifted, China’s economic outreach to the world will rebound. Or Beijing may be at a transition point, with leaders looking to expand the country’s economic influence abroad, but with greater precision and effectiveness. But China is almost certainly amid a crucial strategic shift in its economic relations with the world.The turn could ultimately be an inward one. Xi’s economic philosophy is based not on integrating with the world but on strengthening the homefront and marshaling Chinese resources for national endeavors and competition with the U.S. His mantra is “self-reliance,” by which he means eliminating his country’s vulnerabilities to the outside world, and especially the West. Doing so requires China to substitute imports with homemade alternatives. He may look for China to export its new high-tech products abroad but purchase as little as possible in return. Such a China will be one that doesn’t contribute as much as it could to the economic progress of its trading partners, and one that is less, not more, important to the global economy overall.[Read: Breaking China’s hold]But an insular turn is not the only possibility. Xi is also detaching China from the West in favor of links to the global South. He’s taking a risk in doing so. The United States, Japan, and other advanced economies still account for nearly 60 percent of global output, while the developing world (excluding China) produces less than a quarter. That means that consumers in the global South, though they are becoming richer, cannot afford to buy as much from China as those in the West and other advanced economies. Nor can the global South offer the technology that the West can.Thus, Xi’s fixation on security and power over economic efficiency is leading him to alienate the trading partners that can provide what the Chinese economy needs most for its growth, such as advanced technology, in exchange for ties to countries (like Russia) that cannot replace what is being lost. Whether China can continue its ascent under these conditions remains to be seen. But Xi’s choices are likely hindering, not helping, China in its effort to join the ranks of the world’s richest countries.China’s current trajectory may make it a less formidable competitor to the U.S. economy. But American companies will likely lose out on profitable opportunities too. The costs of a separation between China and the West are potentially huge for the entire world, with all sides paying a price for determining economic policies based on who is friend and foe.
8 h
The Rise and Fall of Chris Licht and CNN
9 h
The Not-COVID Reason to Mask Is Here
Late last night, New Yorkers were served a public-health recommendation with a huge helping of déjà vu: “If you are an older adult or have heart or breathing problems and need to be outside,” city officials said in a statement, “wear a high-quality mask (e.g. N95 or KN95).”It was, in one sense, very familiar advice—and also, very much not. This time, the threat isn’t viral, or infectious at all. Instead, masks are being urged as a precaution against the thick, choking plumes of smoke from Canada, where wildfires have been igniting for weeks. The latest swath of the United States to come into the crosshairs are in the Midwest, Ohio Valley, Northeast, and Mid-Atlantic.The situation is, in a word, bad. Yesterday, New Haven, Connecticut, logged its worst air-quality reading on record; in parts of New York and Pennsylvania, some towns have been shrouded in pollutants at levels the Environmental Protection Agency deems “hazardous”—the more severe designation on its list. It is, to put it lightly, an absolutely terrible time to go outside. And for those who “have to go outdoors,” says Linsey Marr, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech, “I’d strongly recommend wearing a mask.”The masking advice might, understandably, spark some whiplash. For the majority of Americans, face coverings are still most saliently a COVID thing—a protective covering meant to be worn when engaging in risky gatherings indoors. Now, though, we’re having to flip the masking script: Right now, it’s outdoor air that we most want to guard our airways against. In more ways than one, the best masking practices in this moment will require snubbing some of our basest COVID-fighting instincts.The COVID masking mindset can, to be fair, still be helpful to game out the risks at play. Viral outbreaks and wildfires both introduce dangerous particles into the eyes and the airway; both can be blocked with the right barriers. The difference is the source: Pathogens travel primarily aboard people, making crowds and crummy indoor airflow some of the biggest risks; fires and their smoky, ashy by-products, meanwhile, can get stoked and moved about by the very outdoor winds we welcome during viral outbreaks. Conflagrations clog the air with all sorts of pollutants—among them, carbon monoxide, which can poison people by starving them of oxygen, and a class of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that’s been linked to increased cancer risk. But the primary perils are the fine particulate matter components of soot, ash, and dust, fine enough to be borne over great distances, until they reach an unsuspecting face.Once breathed in, these particles, which the EPA tracks by a metric known as PM2.5, can deposit deep in the airway, and possibly even infiltrate the blood. The flecks irritate the moist membranes that line the nose, mouth, lungs, and eyes; they spark bouts of inflammation, triggering itching and irritation. Chronic exposure to them has been linked to heart and lung issues—and the risks are especially high for those with chronic medical conditions, burdens that concentrate among people of color and the poor, as well as for older adults and children.But N95s and many other high-quality masks have their roots in environmental health; they were designed specifically to filter out microscopic particulate matter that travels through the air. And they’re astoundingly good at their job. Jose-Luis Jimenez, an aerosol scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, recently put their performance to the test with an N95, strapped to his own face. Using an industry-standard test, he measured the particulate matter outside the mask, then checked how much made it through the device and into the space around his nose and mouth. Percentage-wise, he told me, “it removes 99.99 … I didn’t measure how many nines, it was working so well.” On broader scales, too, the protective math plays out: Well-fitting masks can curb smoke-related hospitalizations; studies back up their importance as a firefighting mainstay.The key, Jimenez told me, is choosing the right mask, and getting it flush against your face. Experts in the field even get professionally fit-tested to avoid contamination infiltrating through any gaps. Surgical masks, cloth masks, or any other loose accessories that aren’t specifically designed to filter out tiny particles just won’t do the trick, though they’re still better than not covering up at all. (If that sounds familiar, it should; viral or smoky, “masks don’t care what the particle is,” Marr told me. “They care about the size.”)N95 masks aren’t perfect protectives, either. They don’t shield the eyes, and they aren’t great at staving off carbon monoxide and the other gaseous pollutants that wildfires emit. (That’s for a reason: Allowing gas through masks is how we continue to breathe while wearing them.) But gases are volatile, and quickly dissipate; for Americans hundreds or even thousands of miles from the source of the smoke, “it’s going to be the particulate matter that is most concerning to us,” Marr told me. Even in the parts of New York and Pennsylvania where PM2.5 has rocketed up to dangerous levels, the carbon monoxide stats remain low.Considering how dicey the discourse over masking has gotten, masking advice won’t necessarily be embraced by all. Less than a month after the official end of the United States’ COVID public-health emergency, people are fatigued by face coverings and other mitigations. And we’re fast entering the stretch of the year when having synthetic polymer fabrics strapped across your face can get downright miserable, especially in the humidity of northeastern heat. But when it comes to avoiding the harms of wildfire smoke, experts generally consider masks a second-line defense. The first priority is trying to minimize any exposure at all—which, for now, means staying indoors with the doors and windows tightly shut, especially for those at highest risk. Paula Olsiewski, an environmental-health researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, also recommends running whatever air filters might be available; air conditioners, portable air cleaners, and DIY air filters all help.It’s also a good time, experts told me, to be mindful of the differences between filtration and ventilation, or increasing flow to turn over stale air. Both are crucial, sustainable interventions against respiratory viruses. But in the context of wildfires, excellent ventilation could actually increase harm, Jimenez told me, by allowing in excess smoke. For right now, stale indoor air—a classic COVID foe—is a smoke-avoider’s ally. The masks come in for anyone who must go outside in a part of the country where the air quality is bad, say, above an index of 150 or so.The move might feel especially counterintuitive for people who have long since stopped masking against COVID—or even ones who still do, simply because the rules don’t mesh. Through the flipflopping guidance of mask everywhere to mask until you’re vaccinated to actually, mask after you’re vaccinated too to mask only indoors, Americans never hit much of a stable rhythm with the practice. The inertia may be especially powerful on the East Coast, which has largely been spared from the scourge of wildfires that’s constantly plaguing the West. (That puts the U.S. well behind other countries, especially in East Asia, where masking against viruses and pollutants indoors and out has long been commonplace; even in California, N95 and HEPA shortages aren’t anything new.)That said, our COVID-centric view on masking was always going to get a wake-up call. Wildfires—and viral outbreaks, for that matter—are expected to become more common going forward, even in regions that haven’t historically experienced them. And for all their weariness with COVID, Americans now have far more awareness of, and in many cases, access to, masks than they did just a few years ago. The wildfires aren’t good news. But maybe a mask-friendly response to them can be. Smoke does, from a public-health perspective, have one thing going for it, Olsiewski told me. It is visible and ominous in ways that a microscopic virus is not. “People can see that their air is not clean,” she told me. It’ll take more than ash and haze to break through the divisiveness around masks. But a threat this obvious might, at least, forge a tiny crack.This story is part of the Atlantic Planet series supported by the HHMI Department of Science Education.
America’s Long, Strange History of UFO Whistleblowers
If ever a headline has demanded a wide-eyed, scrambling-to-click reaction, it might be this one: “Intelligence Officials Say U.S. Has Retrieved Craft of Non-human Origin.”A website called The Debrief—which says it specializes in “frontier science” and describes itself as self-funded—reported that a former intelligence official named David Grusch said that the U.S. government has spent decades secretly recovering “intact vehicles” and “partial fragments” that weren’t made by humans. (A section of The Debrief is dedicated to coverage of UFOs.) Officials, Grusch said, sought to avoid congressional oversight while reverse-engineering these materials for the government’s own purposes. In a separate interview with NewsNation, which has advertised itself as an alternative to major cable networks, Grusch said the military had even discovered the “dead pilots” of these craft. “Believe it or not, as fantastical as that sounds, it’s true,” he said.Grusch’s account has spread quickly across social media and been repeated by news outlets including The Guardian, Fox News, and New York magazine, as well as plenty of local network affiliates. And why wouldn’t it be? This story has everything: a seemingly authoritative source spilling secrets about a government operation designed to keep the American public in the dark. Oh, and aliens. The only problem is, there’s nothing backing it up.Ever since UFOs—now also known as UAPs, for “unidentified anomalous phenomena”—first became a cultural sensation, in the technology-fueled postwar era, people have latched onto stories like this one. The cycle has usually moved this way: Someone with military or government experience comes forward with a strange experience or encounter. They have no hard evidence but, given their background, are perceived by some to be a reliable observer anyway. Tabloids amplify the story, fanning public interest and demanding that the government reveal whatever it must be hiding. Officials deny that they’ve found evidence of extraterrestrial activity, which only fuels conspiracy thinking. “This is familiar territory,” Greg Eghigian, a historian at Pennsylvania State University who has studied UFO culture, told me. And it never leads anywhere concrete.The UFO playbook dates back to one of the first major sightings, in 1947, when the pilot Kenneth Arnold said that he saw nine flashing objects in the sky over Washington State, maneuvering in strange ways and flying at tremendous speeds. Coverage of Arnold’s account popularized the term flying saucer, and everyone ran with it, including Donald Keyhoe, a Marine Corps major turned writer. Keyhoe claimed that, although he hadn’t seen any of it himself, military officials had studied some flying saucers and concluded that the craft were of alien origin, but they were told to never disclose the facts, Eghigian said. Keyhoe’s writings, which were widely published, cemented two narratives that have become “part and parcel of the UFO world for decades,” Eghigian said. First, that “we have conclusive proof that aliens are visiting Earth,” he said, and second, that “it’s being covered up by the government in some way.”Grusch’s story is already hitting the same beats. Like Keyhoe, Grusch does not appear to have seen the alleged alien craft himself. He says he has seen documents detailing the retrieval of mysterious hardware, but we, the readers, are privy only to his testimony about what they contain. Though the authors of the article say that Grusch’s comments were “cleared for open publication” by the Department of Defense, all that means is that the remarks do not contain classified information, not that they have been verified to be true.Also, as in Keyhoe’s case, the military denied a cover-up. The All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office, or AARO, a Defense Department entity established last year and charged with reviewing UFO reports, said in a statement on Monday that it “has not discovered any verifiable information to substantiate claims that any programs regarding the possession or reverse-engineering of extraterrestrial materials have existed in the past or exist currently.”The problem is, in every instance so far of the UFO-mania cycle, the government, too, is effectively asking Americans to take it at its word. Anything juicier than “We don’t have evidence”—anything that would provide more clarity, even—is classified, and the government has little incentive to share it. Government officials also have a documented history of having lied to the American people. “Even when they’ve tried to come clean in some ways over the years, whether it’s declassified materials about Roswell or the new AARO project—it just doesn’t convince people,” Eghigian said. (He’s referring to an incident from the same year as the Arnold affair, when a mysterious craft crashed in Roswell, New Mexico. Even though the military said it was just a high-altitude balloon, alien wreckage has since become a staple of UFO culture.) Grusch’s miraculous claims are unlikely to be proved or disproved; Eghigian describes either outcome as “virtually impossible.”Before this week, the Keyhoe script played out most recently in 2017, when The New York Times and other outlets revealed the existence of a covert program at the Pentagon dedicated to cataloging UFOs, known as the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, or AATIP. The whistleblower at the center of that story was its former director, Luis Elizondo, who said he quit because of what the Times summarized as “excessive secrecy and internal opposition.” (The authors of the new Debrief story also worked on the 2017 Times piece.) The Times included in its coverage video footage from the Navy that showed unexplained objects moving through the sky. The cycle began to move at warp speed. The public was rapt and suspicious; the government made denials that seemed to only muddy the waters.The Times coverage and the intense public reaction prompted Congress to hold hearings on UFOs, and to direct defense and intelligence agencies to provide reports on UAPs. That’s another part of the playbook. “Faced with citizens who expect their leaders to demystify the potentially dangerous mystery, the government has historically tried to (not always in good faith),” wrote Sarah Scoles, a science journalist, in They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers. The first official government program dealing with UFOs emerged in the late 1940s, soon after Arnold’s account of mysterious flashes. Lawmakers have already begun calling for official meetings about Grusch’s claims of alien wreckage. Any resulting reports and hearings, however, are doomed to be anticlimactic, as lacking in big reveals as other such events have been throughout history. And so we remain stuck.The Grusch cycle reminds me of a story that Scoles recounts in her book, told to her by Chris Rutkowski, a respected figure in the UFO community who has written about the topic since the 1970s. A woman once told Rutkowski all about how extraterrestrials had brought her on board their spaceship and shared their wisdom with her. When Rutkowski asked her if she had any proof, she showed him her arm. The aliens, she said, had operated on her, and their medical technology was so sophisticated that it didn’t leave a mark. The absence of a scar, she said, was proof.Grusch told The Debrief that the government is sure that the alleged recovered debris is not terrestrial because of “the vehicle morphologies and material science testing and the possession of unique atomic arrangements and radiological signatures.” But does he have any proof? So far, the best evidence he’s come up with, besides his own word, is the government’s denial. What Grusch is doing now, along with anyone who takes him at his word, is presenting an outstretched arm and saying, See?
It’s 5 a.m. Somewhere
JFK Terminal 8—It is 9:22 a.m., and I am learning about consumer protections from a food-safety inspector who is on her second Bloody Mary. There is nothing quite like alcohol to facilitate an expansive conversation: I should encourage young people, she tells me, to consider careers in food safety. She’s on her way back from a work trip, and I learn that she always drinks Bloody Marys when she travels, which is often, but never drinks them at home. We move on to other topics: reincarnation, ExxonMobil, karma, the state of labor unions. The only thing that seemed to be off limits was her full name (her job, she said, prevents her from speaking to the media).We’re sitting in the New York Sports Bar across from Gate 10, which is next to Solstice Sunglasses and a vending machine selling ready-to-eat salads in plastic mason jars. In the corner, two blond women drank white wine. A passing traveler pops her head in: Does the bar serve French fries? The bartender says no, they don’t start serving French fries until 10:30. It is too early for French fries. But it is not too early for white wine.By the time security spit me out into JFK Terminal 8 at 7:02 a.m., the bars were already slinging drinks. At least four bars had patrons, including O’Neal’s Restaurant (a “cozy wood-paneled pub,” according to the JFK directory) and Bobby Van’s Grill (“elegant ambiance and upscale menu”). At JFK, alcohol service can begin at 6 a.m., the same time bars open at LAX. That’s hardly early for major airports. At MSP, outside Minneapolis, opening time was once also 6 a.m. but is now 4 a.m.; at Tokyo Narita Airport and London’s Heathrow, there are no restrictions. Early-morning drinking at airports is not just accepted but pervasive, Kenneth Sher, a University of Missouri expert on alcohol habits, told me. The internet has noticed, too. “What’s with all these people drinking pints in the airport at 6am?” wondered a Redditor in one of the many threads devoted to the topic.Outside the airport, this is not how drinking works—or at least, not how it works in public. Morning drinking, with few exceptions (brunch, tailgating), tends to be “a sign of pretty severe alcohol dependence,” Sher said. Legally, it is discouraged: Non-airport bars in New York State are not allowed to start serving alcohol until 8 a.m. (10 a.m. on Sundays), and most hold out until at least the early afternoon, if not happy hour, Andrew Rigie of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, told me. But in the airport, the normal rules of drinking do not apply. “I’m not judging,” the bartender at Bobby Van’s Grill said, pouring vodka into a flute of orange juice. “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.”I’d woken up at 4 a.m. to get to the airport, and by the time I met the food inspector, five hours later, I would have believed it was any time you told me. I was hopped up on adrenaline—feeling glamorous and vaguely ill—even though I had accomplished nothing. Mostly, travel is standing in different types of lines. I waited for people to look at my ticket. I waited for different people to inspect my shoes. None of this especially made me want alcohol, even though the idea of drinking at the airport felt romantic, in a novelistic sort of way.At Bobby Van’s, perhaps the most dignified dining option in Terminal 8, I ate lukewarm potatoes next to a sad-eyed man drinking coffee and red wine. Mostly, the terminal was quiet. How Do I Live played, which seemed like a reasonable question. I watched a man in a zip-up cardigan eat eggs.What are any of us doing here, sipping early-morning drinks at the airport Bobby Van’s? I am here because I am trying to answer that question. Other people have other reasons. You can, by observation and experience, put together a basic taxonomy of airport-drinking types. There is the solo business traveler with time to kill and no particular interest in working. There is the festive couple for whom airport drinks signal the beginning of vacation, and their corollary, the festive group of friends. And then there is the anxious traveler, motivated less by excitement than by ambient terror of being in a pressurized metal tube at 36,000 feet.For a place where everyone is watching clocks, there is no real sense of time at an airport. “If you look out, all you see is the tarmac, a few airplanes,” says Michael Sayette, an alcohol researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. There are very few cues that you shouldn’t drink, and maybe it is actually happy hour for you. “You’ve got people coming in from all over the world who are on different times,” he points out. “It really is 5 p.m. where they woke up.” The airport perhaps is best understood as what French anthropologist Marc Augé has called a “non-place:” a blip in space and time. “A person entering the space of non-place is relieved of his usual determinants,” he wrote in his book on the subject. “He becomes no more than what he does or experiences in the role of passenger.” It is perversely freeing, if lightly dehumanizing, to be alone in the airport.Once you pass security—the transition, in the language of the business, between “landside” and “airside”—you assume another version of yourself. Landside, you are still anchored in your normal life, which is to say that you can come and go and hang out with your family and carry as many ounces of water as you want. Airside, you have assumed a new identity. You have become a traveler. You have no legible context and no obvious history. Are you a person who orders cocktails on a weekday morning? Who’s to say? You belong to the airport now.So does everybody else there. There is a sense of solidarity: As fellow travelers, we are all indefinitely trapped in the same timeless, placeless boat. Why not drink? “It’s exciting for people to take an activity that is normally very, very regulated, time-wise, and then be embedded in a space where everything’s okay,” Edward Slingerland, the author of Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, told me. Alcohol signals the transition from one set of rules to another. “We use this, on a small scale, at the end of the workday, to transition to leisure time at home,” he suggests. “Drinking in airports is just kind of a bigger version of that. It’s a way of transitioning from our normal everyday lives to whatever unusual thing we’re off to.”From the bartender at New York Sports Bar, I learn that women drink white wine and men order whiskey. I learn that back in Terminal 4, where she worked until recently, she’d go through five or six bottles of prosecco every morning shift. Luckily, for the travelers, JFK has no shortage of drinking opportunities, also including but not limited to Tigín Irish Pub, Soy & Sake Asian Eats, Blue Point Brewery, and Buffalo Wild Wings. And that’s not counting the multitude of private lounges, where elite passengers (or those with certain credit cards) are treated to an oasis of snacks and free-flowing booze. The American Express Centurion Lounge in Terminal 4, in fact, has three distinct bars, including a Prohibition-inspired speakeasy with drinks curated by a James Beard Award–winning mixologist.None of this is an accident. The modern airport produces a captive, thirsty audience. Airports were once permeable by design, says Janet Bednarek, a historian of airports at the University of Dayton. Bars and shops and restaurants were open to everyone, and “airports depended upon non-travelers to spend money,” she told me. Then 9/11 happened, airports locked down, security tightened, and once you were airside, you’d passed a point of no return. For airports, Bednarek said, that provedt to be a business opportunity rather than a problem: People were now getting to the airport hours early, and they had to do something to pass the time, whether it was shopping or eating or lounging at the bar. “Airports are looking for any way they can to generate revenue,” Henry Harteveldt, a travel-industry analyst, told me. Airports charge airlines huge fees, and still, pre-pandemic, retail concessions accounted for approximately 30 percent of airports’ total revenue, according to data from the Airports Council International.Here is the thing about the airport, though: Nobody has control. You cannot control the people sitting next to you, or their children, or the security line, or the prepackaged sandwich options at CIBO Express. And most of all, you cannot control when the plane comes, or whether it comes, or how long it is delayed. More than 20 percent of arrival flights in the U.S. in the first three months of this year were delayed, more than the same stretch in any year since 2014. And that’s not even considering the epic meltdowns that can leave travelers stranded for days. “In a way, alcohol may be crucial for air travel, because it allows you to relax into passive helplessness,” said Slingerland, who was in an airport when we spoke. “I’ve been on, like, 10 flights in the last week and a half, and every single one of them was delayed.” Alcohol, he explains, turns down your brain’s ability to focus, suppress distractions, delay gratification, and do all the things you need to do to succeed in your daily life as a functional adult. But you are not a functional adult in the airport. You are a giant suitcase-wielding baby.There is, perhaps, a darker read. “I think 80 percent of what you’re seeing is people who, in their normal lives, would never drink in the morning,” Slingerland said. But that leaves a good number of people whose regular behavior is presumably on display at 7 a.m. No one at JFK seemed all that bothered by the white wine and whiskey passengers were sipping so early in the day, but it’s hard to not see it as yet another sign of what everyone keeps saying: Americans drink too much.“Drinking is acceptable in all sorts of other places it didn’t used to be,” wrote The Atlantic’s Kate Julian in 2021. “Salons and boutiques dole out cheap cava in plastic cups. Movie theaters serve alcohol, Starbucks serves alcohol, zoos serve alcohol.” A study published last year traced one in five deaths of people ages 20 and 49 to booze. Another paper found that one in eight American adults drank in a way that met the criteria for alcohol use disorder, a figure that seems to have worsened during the pandemic. And drunken passengers cause problems. Although all-hours drinking is useful for airports, airlines have been less thrilled. “It’s completely unfair,” a Ryanair executive said in a statement arguing for stricter policies in 2017, “that airports can profit from the unlimited sale of alcohol to passengers and leave the airlines to deal with the safety consequences.”Alcohol in the airport, I had thought, isn’t like alcohol in the world outside. But perhaps airport drinking isn’t different at all. It still facilitates transition from one state to another—only literally. It still provides the illusion of easing the low-grade misery of life. And it still fosters camaraderie. I thought about the food-safety inspector, whom I’d talked with for most of an hour and surely will never see again. Our conversation had been lovely, I thought. Why don’t I talk to people more? This is the weird duality of alcohol: It can simultaneously blunt and enhance the world. In the airport, you desperately need both.
The PGA Tour Couldn’t Resist Saudi Arabia’s Money
When PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan was asked last year about his indefinite suspension of 17 players for joining the rival LIV Golf league, Monahan chastised the golfers for choosing money over morality.Because LIV gets its money from Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy notorious for its human-rights abuses, Monahan implied that players who chose LIV over professional golf’s preeminent league would regret their association with the kingdom. “I would ask any player that has left or any player that would consider leaving, have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?” Monahan said then.But in one of the most stunningly hypocritical reversals in recent sports history, Monahan is now on Team LIV and, by extension, Team Saudi Arabia.[Jemele Hill: American values were never the issue]The PGA Tour and LIV Golf announced yesterday that they will merge their business operations, proving that one of the Wu-Tang Clan’s most famous lyrics remains unerringly true: Cash rules everything.Monahan struggled to explain his flip-flop. “I recognize that people are going to call me a hypocrite. Anytime I said anything, I said it with the information that I had at that moment, and I said it based on someone that’s trying to compete for the PGA Tour and our players. I accept those criticisms,” he said during a conference call. “But circumstances do change. I think that in looking at the big picture and looking at it this way, that’s what got us to this point.”But the circumstances aren’t what changed. The PGA Tour just decided that it wants access to LIV Golf’s enormous financial resources, which come from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. One of the world’s largest sovereign-wealth funds, it has an estimated $600 billion in assets.The fund is controlled by Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—the same man whom the CIA has deemed culpable for the murder of the Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. The prince has admitted that Saudi officials were behind Khashoggi’s death but denied any personal involvement in the journalist’s murder.[From the April 2022 issue: Inside the palace with Mohammed bin Salman]The problem with the golf merger isn’t just that the PGA Tour eagerly prostituted itself, or that it didn’t even have the decency to consult its players before making the deal, or that it didn’t care that some players actually had moral objections to LIV Golf, or that the PGA’s sudden shift was unfair to other golfers who, under the assumption that Monahan would stand firm, had previously turned down the opportunity to make millions of dollars by defecting. By selling out, the PGA Tour has also permanently aligned itself with a country that tortures prisoners, executes dissidents and others for vaguely defined offenses, subjects women to second-class treatment, and criminalizes homosexuality. The PGA’s decision horrified the families of 9/11 victims. Osama Bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, and the country had long supported the spread of extremist religious ideology around the world. When casting aspersions on LIV last year, Monahan noted that he was close to two families that had lost members in the 2001 attacks.“PGA Tour leaders should be ashamed of their hypocrisy and greed,” Terry Strada, the chair of 9/11 Families United, said in a statement yesterday. “Our entire 9/11 community has been betrayed by Commissioner Monahan and the PGA as it appears their concern for our loved ones was merely window-dressing in their quest for money—it was never to honor the great game of golf.”If the PGA thinks that ignoring all the Saudi monarchy’s sins is just the cost of doing business, then the golf league’s reputation and credibility clearly weren’t worth that much to begin with.If you were searching hard for a reason to give the PGA a pass for joining forces with its former enemy, you could make the argument that this merger helped the established league avoid its own demise. LIV Golf is reportedly paying four of its top players a total of nearly $600 million. The organization once offered Tiger Woods a multiyear contract worth $700 million to $800 million. Other PGA players eventually would have a hard time resisting the amount of money and other perks that LIV’s Saudi backers are offering. LIV golfers were playing for bigger prize money, having to compete in fewer tour events than they did on the PGA Tour, and receiving lucrative bonuses beyond their winnings. For example, the two-time majors champion Dustin Johnson competed in 307 events as a PGA golfer and earned almost $75 million. After playing one season on the LIV tour, Johnson earned more than half of his career PGA earnings.Another likely factor in the merger was the draining legal battle taking place between both parties. Last August, 11 of the golfers whom Monahan suspended filed an antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour. The plaintiffs argued that by not allowing them to compete in PGA events, the organization was undermining their livelihoods and blocking competition. The PGA countersued, accusing the golfers who joined LIV Golf of violating their commitment to the older tour.[From the June 1910 issue: The secret of golf]Many observers speculated that if the lawsuits continued, information would come out that would have painted both sides in an unflattering light.Whether antitrust regulators in the United States or Europe will try to block the merger isn’t yet clear. Ultimately the PGA decided that making the abrupt switch from concerned global citizens to opportunists was worth all the risk. In wagering its soul for a chance to cash in big, the PGA is hardly an anomaly in professional sports. So far, the conservative politicians who accused the NBA of bending its knee to China have so far been notably silent about the PGA’s alliance with Saudi Arabia. Once the criticism of the merger dissipates, the combination of the PGA’s prestige and Saudi money will create buzz and excitement. But perhaps Monahan should ask himself a version of the question he once posed to defectors: How will you feel when you have to apologize for being the commissioner of the PGA Tour?
1 d
Photos: Smoke From Canada’s Wildfires Drifts South
Canada’s wildfire season is developing at an alarming rate this year, with blazes burning across the country. Smoke from dozens of wildfires burning in the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and Quebec has drifted south, shrouding much of the Northeastern United States in a haze, and prompting the National Weather Service to issue several air quality alerts. Gathered below, images of the fires in Canada, and the surreal skies caused by the drifting smoke.
1 d
Chris Licht’s Fundamental Mistake
The precipitous fall of Chris Licht is just the sort of story that today’s cable-news environment is best at covering: dramatic, messy, lurid, and ultimately lacking in much substance.Licht was pushed out of CNN today, five days after my colleague Tim Alberta wrote a deeply textured, carefully considered, and entirely damning profile of the CEO. Licht’s clumsiness and tone-deafness in the story—he sniped at his staff, obsessed over his predecessor, and generally seemed feckless—are astonishing for someone in his position, and they’re the immediate context for his firing.[Read: Inside the meltdown at CNN]But the real reason Licht failed was not the way he executed his job but the way he conceived it in the first place. He wanted to turn CNN back into the neutral arbiter of truth that it once was (or seemed to be) without understanding that such a role is impossible in today’s fractured, polarized cable-news environment. “He was dealt a bad hand, and then he played it badly,” as one of his friends told the media reporter Brian Stelter.Licht was not wrong to see serious problems at CNN. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the network unwittingly boosted Donald Trump by providing wall-to-wall coverage. Once Trump was in office, CNN switched gears, becoming fiercely critical of the president. The criticisms were often correct, though sometimes they were also histrionic and self-absorbed, as I noted in 2017. But with many CNN personalities establishing themselves as adversaries of the president—putting on a jersey, as Licht put it—the network looked less like the fearless news-gathering operation of Gulf War fame and more like a milquetoast replica of the liberal MSNBC.[Read: Why the media’s defense against Trump has proven so ineffective]Licht was betting that by neutralizing the most fiercely anti-Trump voices at CNN—firing people such as Stelter and John Harwood, and clamping down on Jim Acosta and Don Lemon—he could return the network to the neutral center. CNN wouldn’t hesitate to call out Trump’s lies, but it wouldn’t pose as the resistance either. This would not only be good for its journalism, he wagered, but would also reclaim a huge, underserved center in the media audience.But Licht’s analysis misconstrued the cable landscape. No such audience appears to exist—or at least, it doesn’t seem to exist among cable-news viewers, night in and night out.[David A. Graham: Chris Cuomo must go]CNN’s viewership still booms whenever there’s a major news event, because viewers maintain a vestigial sense of the network as a place for serious news in a way that Fox News and MSNBC are not. But breaking news simply doesn’t happen that much—even if you slap “BREAKING NEWS” on a chyron all day, every day. (Cutting back on that crutch was one of Licht’s unequivocally correct decisions.) The people who watch cable the rest of the time tend to be news junkies and political junkies. As American politics has become sharply polarized, so have they.America really does have a substantial centrist middle, which explains why Joe Biden is president today, but it’s composed of normal people. Less than 10 million people watch cable news nightly; 155 million voted in the 2020 election. There simply aren’t enough rabid news consumers who are also staunch centrists to sustain a network. Even Fox News is bleeding viewers who find it insufficiently conservative to networks further to the right, like Newsmax.Licht’s attempts to market CNN to this imaginary audience just dragged the network down further, most vividly demonstrated by the disastrous May town hall with Trump, where the former president bullied CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and pumped out nonsense. Licht’s attempts to win over conservatives didn’t work; they were still watching Fox (or Newsmax), but they took the overtures as a sign of weakness and a way to tug CNN further right. Meanwhile, the liberal and centrist viewers whom CNN had retained were appalled by the spectacle and lost allegiance. He made other errors, too, like elevating Lemon, only to fire him when a new morning show flopped and Lemon’s sexist remarks alienated his co-hosts.[David A. Graham: The double bind of Trump’s outrageous statements]Licht fell victim to the same fallacy as many other media figures, from moguls to reporters to critics: They overestimate the power of the press, believing it to be the dominant force shaping American society. TV, magazines, and online outlets all convey the national discourse, but too often arrogantly assume they’re creating it out of thin air. One simple example suffices: The great mass of the press detested Trump, and and if the media had the kingmaking (or -breaking) power that it presumes, he would never have become president.Licht’s catastrophic tenure is a shame, not only because CNN is one of the largest and most important reporting organizations in the country, but also because the role it used to play in the American media was valuable. Having a network that is widely viewed as reliable and basically trustworthy by a broad swath of the public is positive, and the partisan lean—sometimes open, sometimes less so—of much of the press today helps explain declining trust in the media. But Licht could no more rebuild the old CNN in today’s environment than he could turn back the clock to 1993. That time has expired, and now, so has Licht’s.
1 d
Did the Snowden Revelations Change Anything?
Ten years ago, an unorthodox reporting team flew from New York to Hong Kong to meet someone claiming to be a spy who was ready to hand over a trove of top-secret documents. The hastily assembled group of journalists comprised the U.S. documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras; the blogger Glenn Greenwald, then a columnist at The Guardian; and myself, a Guardian reporter based in New York.I did not know the identity of the person we were to meet. He or she had sent a “welcome pack,” a sample of classified documents that appeared genuine—but I was still uncertain, wondering whether the potential story might be an elaborate fraud or the work of a disgruntled crank. The source turned out to be no hoaxer but a contractor with the National Security Agency: Edward Snowden.Then age 29, Snowden had become disillusioned by what he had seen inside the NSA of the scale of intrusion into privacy in the post-9/11 U.S.—some of it illegal—and around the world. He had decided to become a whistleblower. We spent almost a week interviewing him during the day in his cluttered room, in the Mira Hotel in Kowloon, and then writing stories late into the night. At the end of one of the interviews, I asked Snowden for evidence showing the involvement of the NSA’s British surveillance partner, the Government Communications Headquarters. The next morning, he gave me a memory stick. I expected it to contain one or two examples; instead, it stored tens of thousands of documents, covering both the NSA and GCHQ. These were to form the basis for subsequent reporting by The Guardian, The New York Times, and ProPublica, which became partners in investigating and publishing the story. Snowden had given even more material to Poitras and Greenwald. In sheer quantity, this was the biggest leak in intelligence history.What remains a puzzle to me is why the U.S. intelligence agencies seemingly never tried to stop him or us. Greenwald and I stayed in a hotel a taxi ride away, and each morning, as we traveled to see Snowden, I expected to find him gone, spirited away. Conceivably, the U.S. agencies were unaware of how many documents Snowden was sharing with us. I hope one day an answer to this conundrum might emerge in a release of declassified archives or a disclosure by a retired intelligence officer.[Read: Would the U.S. grant asylum to a man who exposed Russia’s spying?]Also reporting the story was the investigative journalist Barton Gellman, then of The Washington Post (and now a staff writer at The Atlantic). For various reasons, including the concerns of Post lawyers, Gellman decided against going to Hong Kong, opting to work on the stories from the United States. Writing in the Post near the end of 2013, Gellman summarized the significance of the Snowden story thus: “Taken together, the revelations have brought to light a system that cast off many of its historical restraints after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Secret legal authorities empowered the NSA to sweep in the telephone, Internet and location records of whole populations.”The Snowden revelations about the collection of citizens’ private communications provoked public outrage in the U.S. and around the world. Ten years on, what has changed? How should we now balance the benefits of greater awareness of surveillance against the damage that intelligence agencies claim was done to their capabilities? And what of the protagonists in the original story, caught up in the political turmoil of the past decade?The disclosures did bring some tangible results. In both the U.S and the U.K., lawmakers introduced important if limited reforms, and courts ruled in favor of enhanced privacy. Less tangible, though real enough, was a growth in public awareness of surveillance. When the first stories emerged from our encounter in Hong Kong, the response of some people was a blasé “We knew that.” No, they did not. They might have suspected large-scale data collection, but few outside the intelligence apparatus had any inkling of its true extent and the agencies’ powers. Knowledge of the ease with which phones can be hacked and the vulnerability of other electronic communications has become mainstream, even commonplace, over the past decade.Another major change resulted specifically from Snowden’s disclosure of the PRISM program, which revealed the extent to which Big Tech firms—including Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Apple—were handing over users’ personal data to the agencies. Initially, Silicon Valley was embarrassed to have its collaboration with the spy agencies exposed—but that turned to anger when Snowden’s further disclosures demonstrated that the spooks were also helping themselves to the companies’ data by exploiting backdoor vulnerabilities. Ignoring opposition from the intelligence community, Big Tech ushered in end-to-end encryption years earlier than originally planned. A wariness that did not exist in the industry before 2013 still persists.Ben Wizner, who works at the American Civil Liberties Union and is Snowden’s lawyer, views the affair’s repercussions as “exponentially more positive” than he’d have predicted at the time—though with important qualifications, both for Snowden and for society.“I thought the most likely outcome of the situation is he will be in prison and the world will shrug,” he told me when we spoke recently. “And he is not in prison, and the world did not shrug. We in fact had an extraordinary, historic global debate about technology, surveillance, and liberty that continues to this day and will frame, in some ways, the debate about AI and new technology that are emerging.”As for Snowden himself, he has continued to live in exile in Moscow, where he ended up after leaving Hong Kong. He remains in contact with the original reporting team that met him in Hong Kong, and I have visited him three times in Moscow. On Friday—which was the anniversary of when Poitras, Greenwald, and I landed in Hong Kong—Snowden and I spoke online. Even with the perspective of a decade, he has no regrets. The widespread use of end-to-end encryption alone was a valuable legacy, he told me: “That was a pipe dream in 2013 when the story broke. An enormous fraction of global internet traffic traveled electronically naked. Now it is a rare sight.”But he is not satisfied with such gains—not least because privacy has only come under further assault from technological advances. “The idea that after the revelations in 2013 there would be rainbows and unicorns the next day is not realistic,” he told me. “It is an ongoing process. And we will have to be working at it for the rest of our lives and our children’s lives and beyond.”Before the Snowden affair, I had mainly covered foreign affairs and politics, including six years I spent as The Guardian’s Washington bureau chief. After Hong Kong, I took up a beat in London covering national security. At first, I found that the intelligence community bore a grudge—conversations I had with officials would begin with their saying, “Let’s put Snowden behind us,” but they’d invariably end up asking, “Do you realize how much damage you did?”That assessment has persisted in some quarters. A former head of GCHQ, Sir David Omand, told me he believes that the public-interest argument is outweighed by damage the leaks caused. “On the downside, I think it is pretty significant that operations had to be halted,” he said. SIS, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6, “had to close human-intelligence operations down for fear of information analyzed by Russians, the Chinese, Iranians.”Ciaran Martin, who was the director-general of cyber security at GCHQ, brought in to deal with fallout from the Snowden revelations, expressed his sense that our stories had an implicit double standard, portraying the intelligence services of Western democracies as “uniquely evil actors” while ignoring what Russia and China were doing. “The charge that we were the principal malignant actors on the internet was pretty shaky at the time and completely unsustainable now,” he told me. “It is not an argument that could be made from within the borders of the Russian Federation.”Snowden disputes the damage narrative and says the agencies never produced any evidence for that. “Disruption? Sure, that is plausible,” he said. “But it is hard to claim ‘damage’ if, despite 10 years of hysterics, the sky never fell in.” GCHQ itself changed after Snowden. Despite some rearguard action, it went from being the most secretive of the British agencies to the most open—from a single press officer who mostly responded with “no comment,” to an in-house team of media professionals who hold regular briefings. More significantly, GCHQ opened a public branch in 2016, the National Cyber Security Centre, with Martin as its first head. The center issues information on potential threats and acts as a resource for companies and individuals looking to improve their cybersecurity.[Tom Nichols: The narcissists who endanger America]As I read through the Snowden documents, many showed the agencies—which eavesdropped on terrorists, the Taliban, hostage takers, human traffickers, and drug cartels—in a good light. Scott Shane, a national-security correspondent at The New York Times with whom I worked at the time, reached the same conclusion. I regret that more of this context was not reflected in our coverage—though this is not a matter of hindsight: Both Shane and I did write stories in 2013 that attempted to provide this balance. If neither of these efforts gained much traction, that may have reflected a lack of public appetite at the time for greater nuance in the prevailing story about surveillance. I regret that some idealistic young officials at GCHQ whom I later encountered felt injured by our reporting, that their work was denigrated. But a far greater regret is that I did not devote much thought to what would happen to Snowden himself next.When he left Hong Kong, he had tickets that would take him to Ecuador via Moscow and Cuba (as a distraction tactic, he also held tickets for other destinations in Latin America). Fidel Narvaez, the consul at the Ecuadorian embassy in London at the time, told me last week of his conviction that Russia, viewing Snowden’s presence as a propaganda coup, used the excuse of the U.S. cancellation of Snowden’s passport to keep him at the airport terminal in Moscow. Narvaez flew there to see Snowden at the time and negotiate with the Russians; he himself had signed an emergency travel document that would have allowed Snowden to continue his journey. Narvaez concludes that Snowden “was basically trapped and kidnapped.”Nevertheless, if he had reached Ecuador, a change in government there in 2017 would probably have resulted in his being handed over to the U.S. authorities—in which case Snowden would likely be sitting in a U.S. prison today. Yet his exile in Russia has led to harsh criticism from some quarters—and the vilification has intensified since the invasion of Ukraine and his taking Russian citizenship (he applied for it before the war but was granted it only last year).He is accused by his detractors of not denouncing Russia’s surveillance as well as its treatment of gay rights, repression of dissidents and journalists, and other antidemocratic measures. In fact, he has spoken out on all of these things. Although he has described the Russian government as corrupt and denounced it for election fraud, any direct attack on President Vladimir Putin would be extremely risky for him, inviting retaliation or even expulsion. Until about two years ago, he maintained a relatively high profile, doing media interviews, making speeches, and tweeting regularly. Today, he is less visible, giving only rare media interviews and cutting down on speeches and social-media activity.And what of the others? Poitras was a crucial player. Snowden had reached out to her after initially failing to get a response from Greenwald. To her credit, she engaged with him, even though she had reason to fear an entrapment plot after becoming persona non grata with the U.S. government over her film work in Iraq. She was on the team honored with a Pulitzer Prize awarded in 2014 for the Snowden reporting. She went on to win an Oscar in 2015 for her film about Snowden, Citizenfour.Gellman, whose work largely earned the Post its share of the Pulitzer with The Guardian, published a detailed account of the Snowden affair, Dark Mirror, in 2020. Greenwald, who also wrote a book version of the story, No Place to Hide, went on to co-found The Intercept but parted ways with the publication in 2020. His contrarianism, criticism of mainstream media, and sniping at the Biden administration have attracted the wrath of liberals—an animus exacerbated by his regular appearances on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show.Other protagonists included the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who sent a colleague, Sarah Harrison, to help Snowden flee Hong Kong, and Greenwald’s husband, David Miranda, who was detained at London’s Heathrow Airport under a counterterrorism law because he had been carrying Snowden material. (Miranda, who went on to become a member of Brazil’s Congress, died in May this year, aged 37.)As for me, I got off lightly—minor hassles in the first year, when I found myself routinely held up at U.K. passport control because my name had been placed on a watch list. While we were in Hong Kong, The Guardian sent its head of legal affairs to provide advice. When I asked about some specific liability, she replied, “You have already broken so many laws; a few more won’t make much difference.”The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, and the U.S. editor, Janine Gibson, resisted considerable pressure not to publish the original reporting. Subsequently, in a bizarre scene that served little practical purpose, Rusbridger agreed to a British-government request to physically destroy the Guardian computers that held our copy of the documents. GCHQ’s argument was that The Guardian did not have the expertise to keep the archive secure. We continued reporting from New York.Rusbridger did inform British officials that he would not publish material more broadly than those stories about privacy—Snowden had asked for this from the start, and Rusbridger had already issued it as an edict to reporters. Later, Rusbridger asked me to go back to The New York Times, which still had the material, to review it all and draw up a list of additional stories that might become reportable if we were freed from the mandate to confine stories to privacy issues. I returned to London with a list of about a dozen, which he rejected—not only because he had not intended to renege on the agreement with Snowden, but also because none of them was as explosive as the original stories. With our colleagues at the Post, the Times, Der Spiegel, and the other media organizations involved, we had already done the best. In the end, we published only about 1 percent of the documents.A copy of the Snowden documents remains locked in an office at the Times, so far as I know. The Guardian looked briefly at finding an alternative without success. At some point, the issue of where to store them permanently will presumably have to be addressed—though the issue may, in an important sense, be moot. “One can reasonably assume that the whole archive is in the hands of the Russians and Chinese states,” Martin, who left GCHQ in 2020 to become a professor at Oxford, told me, “and if you look at what has happened in the last decade, that is not a good thing.” (Snowden disputes the assumption that Russia and China have the archive.)In another sense, it’s moot because the world has moved on. The public awareness of surveillance that was created by the Snowden revelations has curdled into a worldly cynicism about how much data Big Tech collects on us and what powerful new tools of intrusion governments have at their disposal. This is what weighs on Snowden today: developments such as facial-recognition software, AI, and invasive spyware such as Pegasus, which make the NSA’s surveillance powers that he exposed in 2013 look like “child’s play,” he told me.“We trusted the government not to screw us. But they did. We trusted the tech companies not to take advantage of us. But they did,” he said. “That is going to happen again, because that is the nature of power.”
1 d
Ending Affirmative Action Could Make the College Essay Even More Important
The year after I graduated from college, I worked as an admissions officer at a highly selective private university, where about 12 percent of students who apply get in. My colleagues and I evaluated and scrutinized thousands of applications. I ​​searched for the highest-achieving students and the most thoughtful stories to satisfy the university’s goal of creating an academically competitive, personally compelling, and racially diverse class.Before long, I realized that this job had constraints. I got the clear message that I should reward high-achieving students from historically marginalized backgrounds who also described struggle and adversity in their admissions essays. That these students should have to prove their worthiness by putting their trauma on display seemed obviously unfair. A few years later, I pursued a Ph.D. in sociology to study the admissions process. My research showed me that the valorization of trauma narratives is widespread in selective colleges’ admissions departments—and that students from marginalized communities are well aware that their applications have a higher chance of success when they describe the difficulties they’ve faced.[Read: The college-admissions merit myth]This problem could worsen if the Supreme Court disbands affirmative action in its decisions for the cases Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina. Schools will still want racially diverse classes. Twenty-five Harvard student and alumni groups filed an amicus brief detailing the importance of diversity at the school. Stanford University, MIT, Amherst College, and dozens of other selective schools signed briefs expressing commitments to diversity and holistic admissions practices. So if schools are forbidden from formally asking for students’ racial identities, the college essay could become even more important as a way for students to signal their race.Race currently shapes students’ essays and how admissions officers read them. The 20 admissions officers I interviewed at competitive private universities for my dissertation (to be completed in 2024) bear this out. They revealed that wealthier and white students tend to write about sports injuries, mission trips to the global South, and the plight of other marginalized groups they served in their various community-service activities. Students from lower-income backgrounds, especially those mentored by college-preparatory nonprofits, write about their trauma. These students typically tell stories about food insecurity, assuming the role of a parent in their households, working at local grocery stores to buy and prepare food for younger siblings, the threat of gun violence on their route to school, and perpetual homelessness. These findings are consonant with research from Stanford about the interrelatedness of college-essay content and household income.College-admissions officers, 65 percent of whom are white, express deep ambivalence about trauma-focused essays. They told me that they do not encourage applicants to write about trauma, but they admit that these narratives provide helpful context when so many students are applying with so few opportunities to distinguish themselves, and when schools want to ensure adequate racial diversity in their classes.[Read: The absurdity of college admissions]Essays about struggle helped John, a white admissions officer at a small private liberal-arts college in New England, acknowledge the challenges that students endured. (I have changed the names of the people I interviewed to protect participants’ privacy under ethical-research guidelines.) Although he criticized the “trauma porn” he regularly encountered in college-admissions essays, he insisted that some more information about student backgrounds was necessary. “When I’m reading those essays about certain traumas,” John told me, “[I’m] really appreciative of the additional perspectives.” Context about a student’s difficult background or upbringing, John said, better positioned him to advocate for them. With limited spots, even students who have near-perfect academic records needed a little extra “something” to help them stand out. For racially marginalized students, a trauma narrative could fill that gap. Sarah, a white admissions officer at a highly selective southern university, said she found stories of trauma “distressing” but found the additional context about the students’ lives helpful and important to consider.But what about the students who chose not to disclose their trauma or struggle in their college essay? John said he doesn’t “want to penalize students who maybe don’t have an essay that shows grit and resilience.” He was not alone in this belief. Other officers emphasized that Black and low-income students who chose more lighthearted topics would not be disadvantaged in the admissions process.Still, according to Sarah, John, and others I interviewed, some admissions officers perceive stories that highlight a student’s ability to overcome a struggle as an indication of their ability to endure challenges once in college. Awareness of a student’s resilience allowed officers to say, “Look at what this student has overcome, and they managed to maintain a nearly perfect GPA; they deserve a shot.”Still, the officers knew that this expectation for marginalized students to explain themselves to colleges is not entirely fair. Brenda, a white admissions officer for a Texas-based university, told me that reading trauma essays sometimes moves her to tears. “There are essays that made me cry. There have been days when I have sat for 30 minutes under my desk, just bawling, because of that essay that I read and the experience that the student had. There are days when I have to take a break, and I have to shut down my computer and say, ‘I can’t deal with this anymore.’ And there are also days when sometimes I get really angry, right? Like, why do young people have to experience such hard things in their lives? And why do they have to overcome this stuff?”Similarly, John admitted, ​​“I don’t want any of the students to feel as though they have to divulge their personal challenges in a really raw and kind of painful way just to get into college. There’s something that feels very perverse about that.”Despite this perversity, students know the power that a trauma-focused essay has in the admissions process. The 37 Black undergraduate students I interviewed for my dissertation and the nearly 100 students I have encountered at college workshops say they believe that a story of struggle is necessary to show that they are “diverse.” Black students believe that college counselors and admissions officers link their racial identities to trauma.If these types of essays are already so important, imagine how much bigger a role they could play if they become the only way for students to let colleges know about their racial identities. How much more “perverse” could the process become?In oral arguments for the SFFA cases, several Supreme Court justices anticipated this problem, asking questions about how schools should evaluate personal information that students reveal in college essays. The attorney for the anti-affirmative-action side said that in addition to not asking applicants directly for their race, colleges should also not take into account racial information that appears in an essay.But higher education without affirmative action would not mean a future in which race is removed from the admissions process—that would be impossible. Instead, it could create a process in which certain students face even more pressure to put their pain on display.
1 d
All Screens or No Screens?
This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.Apple’s recently unveiled Vision Pro presents an all-screen future, but generative AI’s growth in recent months has also hinted at ways we might move toward the opposite experience. What will our tech look like in 50 years?First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic: Inside baseball’s desperate effort to save itself from irrelevance Why is everyone watching TV with the subtitles on? Phones at schools are a disaster. Beyond Four CornersIf I am lucky, I will still be alive some 40 or 50 years from now—a senior citizen in an easy chair reliving my son’s birthdays, graduations, and wedding through a 3-D video playback on a thin piece of glass hovering just in front of my eyes. Another possibility, depending on how technology develops, is that I’ll speak aloud to a robotic simulacrum that’s loaded with the latest generative-AI software and trained on decades of his audio and text messages. It seems certain, in any case, that I won’t be looking at a smartphone.We may one day remember 2023 as the moment when the world started to bend toward one of these two futures, each of them a divergence from the era of glass-and-metal bricks that the original iPhone ushered in nearly 16 years ago. Yesterday, Apple unveiled a $3,499 headset called the Vision Pro that will engulf your field of view in pure screen. The company pitched the device in part with a marketing video that shows a man wearing the thing alone on a couch, flipping through photos and videos of his children that float a few feet away in his dark living room. (It would be a shattering evocation of divorce if you didn’t briefly see his wedding band.)Although the Vision Pro has a lot in common with virtual-reality products that have existed for years, it features a uniquely Apple twist—one that may prove crucial in normalizing the gadget for the very many people who, until now, have shown zero interest in grafting a personal computer to their brow. If you want to engage with the outside world while you wear the headset, it will display footage of your eyes on an external screen, an effect that makes the Vision Pro look almost like a transparent pair of goggles. As I wrote yesterday, the idea is to minimize the barrier that the technology might present: The look is disquietingly cyborg, but the selling point is clear. We live our lives in digital space but also outside of it. Picture the thin pane of glass between you and this article simply vanishing. This is, it seems, an attempt for Apple to have its cake and eat it too. You’ll wear a computer on your face, sure, but you can still exist in real life, talk to your family, kick a soccer ball. This is the all-screen future: Apple’s promotional video shows the Vision Pro being used in tandem with the Apple Watch and a MacBook, but not the iPhone, suggesting that this is the future of mobile technology. You don’t need the small rectangle: You need your entire universe to be a screen.But recent months have also hinted at ways we might move toward the opposite experience. AI, you might have heard, is getting pretty good: The path forward might involve digital assistants that listen and speak, replacing the old paradigm of punching queries into an on-screen search engine or text-message box.It might also involve stranger outcomes. Last November, OpenAI released ChatGPT, a program that responds to queries with startling coherence. Trained on an unimaginable volume of text, the application clarified unlike anything else how generative AI might disrupt digital life as we’ve known it. These large-language models might augment or replace human work, flood the internet with gray-goo content, or revolutionize the creation and distribution of disinformation. As my colleague Adrienne LaFrance described: We may see whole categories of labor, and in some cases entire industries, wiped away with startling speed. The utopians among us will view this revolution as an opportunity to outsource busywork to machines for the higher purpose of human self-actualization. This new magic could indeed create more time to be spent on matters more deserving of our attention—deeper quests for knowledge, faster routes to scientific discovery, extra time for leisure and with loved ones. It may also lead to widespread unemployment and the loss of professional confidence as a more competent AI looks over our shoulder. With all of this in mind, I’ve wondered if the supposed AI apocalypse wouldn’t mean the destruction of humanity but instead a crisis of trust. Generative AI is known to “hallucinate,” or confidently present false information as true. Combined with the gray goo, the supercharged fake news, and the potential for our personal data to be turned against us in alarming new ways, AI might turn us away from screens—even ones that rest on our face—simply because we cannot fully believe anything they show us. Human-to-human interactions, unmediated by technology, may become the norm once again.Reality is unlikely to map perfectly onto these scenarios. But there’s clearly an urge—from Big Tech and its many subjects—to imagine a world beyond the four corners of a handheld screen. History is long; the smartphone era could, and even likely will, seem to be a blip in retrospect. So much can change. Perhaps it’s starting to now.Related: The age of goggles has arrived. One more screen for your face Today’s News A dam in southern Ukraine has collapsed, flooding villages in both Russian- and Ukrainian-controlled areas. Both sides have blamed the other for the breach. The Atlanta City Council voted to approve $31 million in funding for a major police- and fire-training complex that critics have dubbed “Cop City,” despite two years of protests. Ajike “A. J.” Owens, a Black woman and mother of four, was shot and killed Friday in central Florida. The county sheriff said the alleged shooter, a white neighbor, cannot be arrested until law-enforcement officials determine whether “deadly force was justified” under the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Dispatches Up for Debate: Readers weigh in on the world’s best songwriters. Explore all of our newsletters here.More From The Atlantic Sterilizing cats, no surgery required Chris Christie isn’t here to make friends. Welcome to a world without endings. Culture BreakRead. Rubik, by Elizabeth Tan, is a stunning debut novel about how the dead become digital ghosts—a book that feels like a puzzle.Watch. The A24 film Past Lives (in theaters now) imagines a love that can be both platonic and romantic.Play our daily crossword.P.S.We would be remiss not to point you toward the April 30 edition of the Atlantic Daily, featuring Damon’s excellent and wide-ranging culture and entertainment recommendations. They include, among others, contributing writer Ian Bogost’s 2022 Atlantic story on “web3”—“the smartest, most clear-headed and creative essay on the issues with that particular technological paradigm that I’ve come across,” per Damon—and Holedown, “a simple game that involves aiming balls at numbered barriers that halt your progress through a tunnel.”— The EditorsKatherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.
2 d
The Age of Goggles Has Arrived
“Vision Pro feels familiar, yet it’s entirely new.” That’s how Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, introduced the company’s new computer goggles at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday. The Vision Pro headset, which resembles a glass scuba mask with a fabric head strap, seamlessly blends the real and digital worlds, Cook said. But the product’s name, which could just as easily describe a brand of contact-lens solution, hints at a challenge. Familiar yet entirely new, natural but augmented: If goggles really are the future of computing, they will have to overcome a bevy of conflicting sentiments.As you might expect, Apple’s product is slick. The curved exterior looks 1980s-Bond-villain cool, and can light up to show the wearer’s eyes inside when someone is nearby. The pitch—that it’s a “wearable, spatial computer” with a “majestic viewing experience” in which “your surroundings become an infinite canvas”—is just as polished and seductive: Perhaps this headset represents the future.Silent doubt infected Cook’s presentation, however. “We believe Apple Vision Pro is a revolutionary platform,” he declared, in an explicit appeal that may signal worry that it won’t be. He also said that the device “marks the beginning of a journey,” and then, again, that “this is just the beginning.” The beginning of a journey where, and why?[Read: One more screen for your face]Apple didn’t even march out the $3,500 goggles until the second half of the presentation. Cook and his team began with more than an hour’s worth of hammering on incremental changes to their other product lines—Mac, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch—as if to wear the viewers down, to make them feel exhausted with the nonrevolutionary gadgets of the recent past. But the headset demo also acted as a lens to focus on the status quo. Apple’s presentation made it clear enough that, even with your headset on, Safari, Microsoft Word, and other prerevolutionary software will persist. “Your entire world is a canvas for apps,” a Vision Pro product manager said of the begoggled life, apparently without intent to cause despair.Some of the goggles’ apps looked remarkable but felt essentially familiar: Enlarge a movie so it appears to fill the room; give a slide presentation while seeing your audience’s faces floating in space; project your laptop display above the desk without a monitor. Other software lets you see a three-dimensional, exploded view of the human heart for education, collaborate on the design of an Alfa Romeo F1 race car, approve a plan for assembly-line logistics, spin decks as a DJ. If this is the revolutionary future, it sure feels a lot like the present, but with your face in a computer.Apple’s headset is not the first product of this kind to hit the market, but its entry is significant. Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, Meta’s CTO and the head of its Reality Labs metaverse division, told me that VR is a “transformative” technology that will one day be ubiquitous. The age of goggles has arrived. Meta, Microsoft, HTC, and other firms are pumping tens of billions of dollars into this area and rolling out new products at a steady pace. Yet the nature, let alone the purpose, of their vision is still maddeningly unclear.Back in the ancient times of 2021, the “metaverse” was the hottest trend in tech. Nobody really knew what it was exactly, only that avatars would soon be interacting in 3-D space, and that they might or might not have legs. Mark Zuckerberg, a man best known for starting your uncle’s favorite website, jumped in with both legless feet, even changing Facebook’s name to Meta. A few months later, Disney, one of the world’s biggest media companies, built up its metaverse division, with a mission to explore what its then-CEO called the “next great storytelling frontier.” Microsoft, the software, gaming, and cloud-computing giant, secured a contract to sell “mixed reality” goggles to the U.S. Army that could be worth nearly $22 billion over a decade.All of this raised eyebrows at the time. But then computers started generating eyebrows that raised themselves. By the end of 2022, generative artificial intelligence had sucked all the hype out of the room. ChatGPT, Stable Diffusion, DALL-E 2, and other remarkable AI tools with silly names became hot, and piloting an avatar to virtual Taco Bell seemed even stupider than it did before. A metaverse backlash, already fully rooted, began to bloom. Microsoft’s military contract hit the skids, Disney laid off its entire metaverse team, and even Zuckerberg’s own employees seem not to have much time for the technology. The massive wealth involved in these decisions made the whole thing feel unprecedented, a boondoggle of a scale previously reserved for governments building fighter jets that can’t fly.But backlash, too, can be inflated. It’s far too soon to say the hype has come to nought. Around 1980, Bill Gates imagined “a computer on every desk and in every home”—a preposterous idea at the time. When cellphones and then smartphones first appeared, they seemed like indulgent gadgets of the rich and self-important. Soon enough, everyone had one, or maybe several. Apple’s new goggles, or the ones that Facebook and Microsoft already sell, could one day make this unlikely leap from unthinkable to all we ever think about.Admittedly, the early signs aren’t promising. By the end of 2011, nearly five years after the iPhone appeared, 1.2 billion smartphones had been sold. In the past five years, consumers bought fewer than 50 million sets of virtual-reality goggles, mostly for playing video games. But huge risks can lead to huge rewards. Google, IBM, and Microsoft plan to invest billions into quantum computing, a technology just as hard to understand as the metaverse, but in more of a boring, physics-nerdy way. As my colleague Glenn MacDonald, an economics professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told me when I asked him if all these tech companies had gone bananas, “It all depends on how you think about risk aversion.” If the metaverse eventually takes off, and goggling becomes as popular as Googling or Facebooking, then Cook, Zuckerberg, and other goggle optimists will have the last laugh.During the Vision Pro announcement, Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger, showed up too, as a corporate partner on the product launch. “The thing that struck me the most,” he said, “is how it will allow us to create deeply personal experiences.” But technological life already feels like a deluge of personal experiences. Will the ones that take place in goggles really prove more personal than those created by an iPhone, a television, or a pencil?For the moment, byzantine branding matters and insider jargon cloud the goggle future further. Meta touts its headsets’ immersive VR, referring to a technology that has been around for decades (and which has often been fictionalized, in cyberpunk stories, as an exit from the hellscape of real life). Other companies, including Apple, say they’re working in “augmented reality” (AR), which means superimposing computer images atop a view of the world—a heads-up display for your life. Still more are selling headsets for “extended reality” (XR), a name that seems to indicate nothing more than a desire to avoid choosing between AR and VR. And I suppose one should not forget “mixed reality” (MR), the term applied to Microsoft’s goggles (but which doesn’t seem that different from the others), or “spatial computing” (the term preferred by Apple during its presentation).If you’re bored by all of these buzzwords, I don’t blame you. So let’s simplify: We’re talking about goggles with computers in them. Eyeglasses with smartphones in them. You’ve got a laptop; you’ve got a phone, maybe a tablet, perhaps a watch; maybe you’ve even got a drone. You’ll have goggles too, maybe.But what will you do with them? If the answer amounts to playing video games (but inside goggles) or attending Zoom meetings (but inside goggles), or doing military exercises or industrial training or word processing (but inside goggles), then the whole thing does seem like flimflam. Apple’s pitch, as far as I can tell at this early stage, is more technically refined but still confounding: a very cool computer on your face. But still, to what end?[Read: The metaverse is bad]A couple of weeks ago, I asked Meta’s Boz to tell me, concretely, what this new kind of computing is really for. The answer? It’s for bowling. “Bowling is fucking weird,” Boz said. “We go bowling; we go golfing—why?” He concluded that we do these things as excuses to spend time together, and that “the metaverse will be serving a need like that for a lot of people.” In other words, people will don VR/AR/XR/MR headsets to hang out with their friends’ and colleagues’ avatars in virtual spaces. They’ll goggle so they can commune.For the moment, most goggling experiences are solo, in part because so few people own their own headset. When I first got a Quest headset a couple of years ago, I tried watching movies (it was fine), visiting virtual tourist sites (eh), doing exercise (absolutely not), and playing games (some are good! Some are not). But I’ve found that Boz is right in saying that socializing in VR can feel like something new and different. One of the few headset apps I’ve really enjoyed is Walkabout Mini Golf. It’s, you know, virtual-reality mini golf. But when I play it with my son, who lives in a different city, the banter of the game takes priority over putting. We chat and move around a hole as shots progress, to look at a lie, get out of each other’s way, or just mill about in virtual space. Being there, and being people, is in the foreground; the game is just a way of hanging out.This degree of presence isn’t always necessary, Boz told me, but sometimes it’s essential. “You know that ‘This is not a phone email’ feeling?” he said. And yes, I do: You start to write an important message to a friend or colleague and realize that tapped-out letters on a little smartphone screen simply don’t seem right for the activity. The same is true for hanging out. Email, telephone, and texts have their place, as does Zoom. Goggles provide another option, for when you want or need it.[Read: We’re already living in the metaverse]Surely Boz was making reference to the political scientist Robert Putnam’s famous book Bowling Alone. Putnam argued that institutions such as churches, neighborhoods, and, yes, bowling leagues once provided social glue, but generational and technological change have pulled Americans apart and left us in a constant state of disconnection. Bowling Alone was published in 2000, a couple of years after Google was created and a few before the launch of Facebook. Social media offered a weak solution to the problem that the book identified. New technology certainly made people more social, in the sense that it put them in contact with a greater number of other people much more often, but it also had a way of amplifying loneliness and anxiety, and spawning new associations—such as anime fandoms and QAnon—that functioned less as reality than fantasy.Now, perhaps, goggling could be the total cure. To bowl together, virtually, is to participate in a more intimate, prosocial life online—and one that tends to make the offline world ever less important. “With the exception of food,” Boz said hopefully, the metaverse may end up satisfying “all the reasons we leave our house.” In another vision of the goggle age, headsets are for going places. The internet began with metaphors of travel: You visited a website by traveling the information superhighway. Geocities organized homepages into geographical neighborhoods: Hollywood, Wall Street, Rodeo Drive. You had to go online, explicitly coupling your computer, in your house, with the network of networks that composed the internet. Surfing was slow and laborious, and moving from one site to a different one really felt like a traversal.But whatever distinctiveness there was among many places on the web during the 1990s would soon be flattened out. Eventually, everything online began to feel the same. You have a glass rectangle like everyone else’s, which holds a grid of apps, which hold different chats that all look the same. Now the internet is everywhere and no place in particular.Maybe goggles can recover some of what the internet has lost. One might use them not to foster or exploit connections (as in the old—and failed—mission of social media) but to slow down and go somewhere rather than tapping and scrolling and posting into oblivion.Going somewhere online could, of course, serve many mundane purposes. AR and VR (and XR and MR) are already becoming useful in design, construction, safety training, medicine, and therapy. Goggle to meet with your contractor; goggle because your employer requires it for compliance training. Headsets may also be a way to visit and enjoy simple entertainments: Goggle to the music club or to the Super Bowl.[Read: The iPhone isn’t cool]More high-minded aims and destinations have also been tried out. One of my most memorable goggle encounters, now a decade old, was a VR guillotine simulator. You put the goggles on, stuck your head in the stocks, and waited. Then black. A year later, the journalist Nonny de la Peña created Project Syria, a VR visit to Aleppo. By taking users to places where they would or could not really go, the technology offered empathy or awe via translocation.John Vechey, a co-founder of Pluto VR and a former video-game executive, still believes in this idea. Working with the Indigenous-led nonprofit Se’Si’Le, he told me he is raising money to embody people in the plight of Lolita, an orca. The Miami Seaquarium plans to release the killer whale to the Pacific Northwest waters where she was captured more than 50 years ago. For Vechey, the importance of that ocean habitat cannot be communicated with words or even moving images. With goggles, though, he told me, “we can give people a sense of the vastness of the sea, and then put them in the aquarium that she’s been in since [being captured], like being in an eight-by-eight jail cell by comparison.” At the Apple presentation, Iger presented a similar future of immersive naturescapes created by Disney’s National Geographic division.For goggling to become a superordinate category of technological life—and thereby, real life—we’d need lots of places to go. And yet, the potential power of these journeys might well be sapped by oversaturation. At some point, we could have countless goggle apps shoveled into platforms’ stores. When you’re wearing goggles all day long to do your work, take your calls, and then watch movies, I’m guessing you’ll feel a desperate urge to take them off. You’ll want to go anywhere, literally anywhere, that isn’t still inside of them.Sure, I’d like to see my son for mini golf and take a swim with killer whales—but doing so wouldn’t have to mean the end of all conventional computers. Not everything needs to be a revolution to bear value. Goggles could just be for things you do sometimes and enjoy, like bowling with your friends. In theory, the new technology could end up being useful, modest, and low-key.But if that’s the case, then how will goggles ever justify the tens of billions of dollars that have been bet on their universal adoption? Proponents of the goggle age are unperturbed by this conundrum. When pressed, they raise what I’d call the nerd’s objection. Every new, transformative device, they say, seems like a toy in the beginning, with narrow uses. Headsets are no different.But goggles have been around for decades, in one form or another, and they’ve always seemed like toys. Even if that impression really were about to change, it is not clear what the goggles’ reinvention of computing would mean for contemporary life. The purpose of the goggle age is to make goggles second nature. Once that has been achieved, they may end up giving you less frequent, more meaningful encounters with people and places. Or they could make computing even more consuming, a constant feed to your eyeballs rather than a nearly constant glow in your palm. Or maybe they’ll just offer you a strange new way of doing the same old things.
2 d