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Photos of the Week: Ghost Ship, Greek Spring, Naked Festival
Dog catchers in Cairo, luge championships in Russia, flooding in parts of England, a crash at the Daytona 500, London Fashion Week, heavy rains in Australia, continued fighting in Syria, demining in Colombia, Carnival in Venice, and much more.
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The Great Sphinx of Giza, Through the Years
The monumental statue known to the world as the Great Sphinx of Giza is believed to have been built more than 4,500 years ago. While photography has only been around for about 200 years, photographers have flocked to the Giza pyramid complex to capture images of the enigmatic creature in the Egyptian desert. Gathered below are varied photographs of the Sphinx over the past 170 years, from Maxime du Camp’s image of a still-mostly-buried Sphinx in 1849, to 21st century light shows, and much more.
The U.S. Election Russia Wants
“Please move.” The white woman doesn’t raise her voice; she’s got her shirt on inside out and she’s aiming a cellphone at the taco truck vendors parked on her street. She wants them gone, and they’re telling her to go back inside. “Okay, baby girl,” she says. “Vamonos. I’ll call ICE.” “Stupida bitcha,” comes a reply.A video of the confrontation, filmed outside a house in Dallas last spring, soon went viral, with the title “racist woman talking about shes gonna call ICE ON US FOR SELLING FOOD IN DALLAS WHEN WE HAVE PERMIT.” Within weeks, it had more than 170,000 views.This is the new face of Russian propaganda. In 2016, the Kremlin invested heavily in creating memes and Facebook ads designed to stoke Americans’ distrust of the electoral system and one another. But now, after nearly four years under a president whose divisive rhetoric and policies have inflamed voter anger on issues such as race, inequality, and his own conduct, the Russian government is still interfering, but it doesn’t need to do much creative work anymore. The taco-truck video wasn’t fabricated in some St. Petersburg workshop. It was a real video of a real incident, made in America—and all Russia had to do was help it spread with its Twitter trolls.Luckily for the Russians, then, the two current front-runners for the presidency, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, are both polarizing figures—and they’re both candidates Russian trolls sought to promote in 2016, as Special Counsel Robert Mueller found. This time, the Democratic field is crowded and squabbling, but it includes no hawkish, long-established Hillary Clinton to tear down. If the election does end up being a Trump-Sanders face-off, one of the Kremlin’s favored candidates from 2016 is guaranteed a win. They are far apart ideologically but nearly equally suited to the Kremlin’s interests, both in being divisive at home and in encouraging U.S. restraint abroad. Both Sanders and Trump profess to want to refocus the U.S. inward—a message that clearly appeals to many Americans. But that doesn’t mean that the Russian propaganda machine is slowing down; it’s just aimed at a new target. [Read: The Sanders doctrine]Darren Linvill, a Clemson University professor who has studied Russian information operations, told me, “Systems like this don't tend to stop simply because their reason for being no longer exists. They find new reasons for being.” In this case, building on their 2016 successes and worsening divisions in the United States.Linvill offered me a list of reasons why the Kremlin still wants to interfere in U.S. politics, despite the fact that we’re already doing such a great job of dividing ourselves. Russia’s goals include depressing voter turnout and making it more difficult for the eventual winner to govern by sowing doubts about the electoral process.The Kremlin might also still have a preference for Trump, if only because Russian leaders now know what to expect from him, said Alina Polyakova, the president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis. Sanders, for his part, has declared Russian interference “unacceptable” and expressed support for sanctions on the country, but he has also voted against a bill that would impose them because it included Iran too.No matter what, Polyakova said, “a U.S. that’s mired in its own domestic problems and not engaged in the world benefits Moscow.” That’s where the videos come in.Americans are now the chief suppliers of the material that suspected Russia-linked accounts use to stoke anger ahead of U.S. elections, leaving Russia free to focus on pushing it as far as possible. Linvill has seen Russian trolls shift tactics to become “curators more than creators,” with the same goal of driving Americans apart. “The Russians love those videos,” he said, “because they function to make us more disgusted with one another.” He and a colleague have traced viral tweets about the Dallas incident to Russia-linked accounts that Twitter has since suspended.[Read: The billion-dollar disinformation campaign to reelect the president]America’s largely self-inflicted political condition has provided a stunning return on investment for the Russian government, which began orchestrating—as far back as 2014—what Mueller later called a conspiracy of “fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes,” including the 2016 presidential election. Mueller laid bare the extent of the conspiracy led by a St. Petersburg-based organization called the Internet Research Agency. The IRA was the nerve center of the interference operation, with hundreds of employees and a budget of millions of dollars dedicated to what it internally referred to as “information warfare” against America, with Facebook ads, fake Twitter personas, and even efforts to organize real-world protests.Meanwhile, the irony is that the specter of Russian interference itself has become a tool to discredit political enemies online. “The biggest effect that I think foreign disinformation has had on our conversations is the perception that if someone disagrees with you, they’re a Russian troll,” Linvill said. “When, in fact, they probably just are somebody that disagrees with you.” Twitter, for instance, at one point suspended an account supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement as a suspected Russian troll. Wired later identified the user: an American living in Florida.The IRA was already setting up fake social-media accounts and sending operatives to the United States two years before the 2016 election. It operated English-language Twitter accounts that circulated made-up news stories—about a salmonella outbreak in New York, for instance, or a chemical explosion in Louisiana, neither of which had happened, Linvill said. These days, Russian internet operatives barely deal in outright fabricated news stories, he said, and those early efforts failed because they were easily debunked. When the campaign started, the IRA wasn’t focused on supporting any particular candidate so much as targeting Hillary Clinton. This meant boosting not only Trump (by establishing Facebook accounts such as “Clinton FRAUDation” and “Trumpsters United”) but also, incongruously, Sanders. (A BuzzFeed investigation found one Russian Tumblr account, 4mysquad, that posed as a black activist and celebrated Sanders as “not some old White man who just decided that #BlackLivesMatter yesterday. He’s BEEN fighting.”) Mueller later found that the clear preference for Trump developed over time.[Read: The Russian conspiracy that won’t die]Mueller’s investigation led to indictments of some IRA operatives—which meant little, since they were in Russia, beyond the reach of American law, and turning their attention to the 2018 midterm elections. The organization was still creating memes, and it got an even bigger budget, according to Graham Brookie, the director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council think tank. But it also began using more of what Americans themselves were putting on the internet, seizing on divisive debates about immigration, gun control, and police shootings of unarmed black men, using real news stories to highlight genuine anger and dysfunction in American politics.Now in 2020, the president and his political rivals have spent years locked in battle over things such as the Mueller investigation, impeachment, and America’s very institutions and role in the world. Russian trolls can largely just watch the Americans fight among themselves, and use fictitious Twitter personas to offer vigorous encouragement, as they did with the taco-truck video. They will keep prodding the same bruises in American society, or encouraging cries of electoral fraud if there’s a contested Democratic primary or a tight general election.The U.S. doesn’t need Russians to erode faith in its elections—one buggy app at the Iowa caucus did that just fine, prompting the president’s campaign manager to wonder on Twitter whether the caucus was “rigged.” Trump is both a cause and effect of existing American lack of faith in institutions, which he encourages with frequent reference to the “deep state.” And Sanders gets authentic support for his criticism of political and economic elites, which the Russia-linked accounts also promote.Even as the U.S. by virtue of its political divisions has made Russia’s job easier in some ways, it has made Russian operations more difficult in others. The Mueller investigation and congressional scrutiny have made people more aware of Russia’s activities since 2016, Brookie said. Social-media companies like Twitter and Facebook have grown more active at suspending suspicious accounts—even to the point of accidentally suspending real people spreading polarizing messages.Still, although Brookie didn’t want to understate the threat of Russian interference, he maintained that American domestic disinformation is worse than anything the IRA could do. Of the Russians at this point, he said: “They could spike the football and say, ‘Mission accomplished.’”
After Trump Won, Climate Activists Turned to the States. So Did the Oil Industry.
Some of the most important fights over climate change aren’t being waged in Washington. They’re happening state by state, in a melee of utilities, fossil-fuel companies, state legislators, and persuaded voters.To see one in action, visit Beaver, Pennsylvania, where two Westinghouse nuclear reactors produce roughly a fifth of the Keystone State’s zero-carbon electricity. Three years ago, FirstEnergy Corporation, a private utility worth $28 billion, announced that it would soon have to sell the nuclear plants or shut them down. Even though the reactors were supposed to operate for another few decades, the plunging cost of natural gas had made them noncompetitive. Only direct subsidies could keep the plants alive, the utility warned.State lawmakers had not even proposed a bill floating that option when a new group called Citizens Against Nuclear Bailouts burst onto the scene. Boasting support from local manufacturers and, unexpectedly, the AARP, the group told local reporters that it opposed “any legislative effort” to subsidize the plants. At the same time, a micro-targeted group of Pennsylvanians received a deluge of direct mailers, phone calls, and Facebook ads, exhorting them to call state senators to oppose a “nuke bailout.”“These billion dollar companies don’t need bailouts, they need to compete with other energy companies on a level playing field,” said one postcard-sized mailer.A small disclosure on the mailers revealed that they had, in fact, not come from a group of self-organized Pennsylvanians. The mailers were funded and shipped by the American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying champion for oil and natural-gas companies in national politics. The return address on the mailers was one of the group’s offices in downtown Washington, D.C.Three years ago, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, climate activists and environmental leaders turned their attention to state and local politics. They have stacked up real victories since. In December, a bipartisan group of 24 governors declared that their states were “still in” the Paris Agreement on climate change. And Democrats in New York, New Jersey, and Washington State have passed major bills aimed at eliminating carbon pollution from their local economies.But climate activists have not been alone in switching focus to local politics: The oil industry has also pivoted. In the last few years, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and its allies have activated at the local level, fighting against—and occasionally beating back—climate-friendly policies in at least 16 different states. This surge of local activism has succeeded in slowing the growth of electric-vehicle sales and zero-carbon energy, experts say.Perhaps most surprisingly, the industry has not only focused on the states, but also actually borrowed tactics and ideas from climate activists. The API’s local campaign is designed around a concept—dubbed the social license to operate—that was first invented by risk analysts in the mining industry but that was popularized, more recently, by far-left climate groups such as The idea is a name for American society’s invisible permission slip to the fossil-fuel industry: the unwritten contract that allows companies to frack, drill, build pipelines, run oil refineries, and sell carbon-intensive fuels.Since the mid-2010s, climate activists have focused on yanking that social license away. Now, the oil industry is pouring resources into an effort to retain it. Its activities “are having a tangible impact in preventing zero-carbon electricity and zero-carbon electric vehicles from getting adopted,” Josh Freed, the senior vice president of energy policy at Third Way, a nonpartisan think tank on the center-left, told me. In a statement, Bethany Aronhalt, a spokeswoman for API, said that the oil and gas industry supported “new approaches, policies, and technological innovation to address the risks of climate change.” She listed a few policies— including the USE IT Act, a bipartisan Senate bill—that have won API’s endorsement. The USE IT Act would increase federal support both for capturing carbon from the atmosphere and for using that carbon to make fossil-fuel extraction more efficient.Last month, the API unveiled a huge new public-relations campaign, “Energy for Progress,” that cast its member companies as heroes in the fight against climate change. The campaign, which features images of happy young people in the woods, accompanied a systematic change in how API described itself. Its leaders now say it represents the natural gas and oil industry—with a big emphasis on the natural. But despite this new push, API does not support a carbon tax or any other policy that would reduce fossil-fuel use.And at the state level, there are few climate-friendly efforts have escaped API or the broader oil industry’s attention. In 11 states, the industry has fought new laws that encourage electric-car purchases. In five states, it has campaigned against extending the life of nuclear plants, which generate more zero-carbon electricity in the United States than any other technology. And across the Northeast, it has tried to stop the construction of transmission lines that would import excess hydroelectric power from Quebec.Of course, there are practical reasons for API to oppose such climate policy. Right now, API’s member companies command a massive market share of several sectors of the American economy. Gasoline and other oil-derived products generate 92 percent of the energy used to transport Americans and their goods—whether on the highway, on the water, or in the air, according to the Energy Information Administration. Natural gas generates more than a third of American electricity, and plunging prices mean that its share is rapidly growing.[Read: Investment bankers are now waging a war on coal]Every electric vehicle on the road cuts into oil’s share of the transportation sector. By the same token, every retired nuclear plant necessitates a new surge of natural gas production. “The oil and natural gas that are staying in the market from [API’s actions] are much worse” than the alternatives, Freed said. The industry’s wake-up call may have come in 2018, when it faced two ballot questions in Western states. In Colorado, voters were asked whether new oil and gas equipment, including fracking wells, should be set back 2,500 feet from homes and other occupied buildings. The industry plowed $41 million into defeating the question—and eventually won, convincing 55 percent of voters in the Democratic state to reject the effort. In Washington State, meanwhile, the industry dropped $31 million to fight a carbon-tax referendum, outspending supporters almost two-to-one. That effort—which was led by the Western States Petroleum Association, which works closely with API—also succeeded.In the last several years, the oil industry has also worked with groups funded by the Koch Foundation to engineer a nationwide decline in financial support for electric-vehicle sales. Today, only 15 states offer subsidies or support for electric-car buyers, down from an all-time high of about two dozen states in 2015. (The New York Times and Politico have both previously covered the state-by-state fight over EVs.)In many of its campaigns, the API has designed its approach around the social-license model, which has meant seeking legitimation from a surprising range of allies. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, it worked with the AARP and the United Pastors Network. While lobbying for new fossil-fuel infrastructure, it has allied with the Building Trades Unions and the Farm Bureau. And in its war against importing Canadian hydropower, it has even allied with local chapters of the Sierra Club. “Diversity is paramount,” said Tara Anderson, a former director of mobilization for API, two years ago, at a presentation on API’s strategy at the Public Affairs Council. She emphasized the importance of forming alliances with minority and citizens groups, according to her PowerPoint presentation. “Just because you disagree on one issue, doesn’t mean you will disagree on all—accept that,” the presentation said.API sees those coalitions are core to its social license strategy. It has backed up its push with digital advertising and local engagement. In 2018, Anderson said that API could micro-target 43 million people in every congressional district. API has spent more than $1.9 million on Facebook ads over the last two years, with the vast majority of that centered on “Energy Citizens,” a sophisticated campaign to convert people into highly activated opponents of energy regulation. Since October, the campaign’s targeted Facebook ads have encouraged New Mexicans to support a state highway bill, exhorted Pennsylvanians to reject an infrastructure bill, and endorsed President Trump’s trade deal with Mexico and Canada.Energy Citizens had 1.6 million members in 2018, according to Anderson’s presentation. In a statement, Aronhalt, the API spokeswoman, described Energy Citizens as a “growing grassroots movement of millions of Americans across the country.”[Read: Railroads are a major but little-known supporter of climate denial]But API has not won every fight. Last month, New Jersey passed a new $5,000 tax credit for electric cars, one of the country’s most generous. And it has failed to stop efforts to subsidize nuclear plants in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois. It also lost an effort to subsidize coal and nuclear power plants in Ohio. (“Every local effort is unique since every policy proposal, bill and regulation is,” said Aronhalt. “We work to support, amend, or oppose various local, state, and federal efforts on an ongoing basis.”)“In cooperation with API’s state petroleum councils, allied organizations and partner trade associations, energy advocates sign up through social media [or through its website] to receive customized content to make their voice known by contacting or engaging elected officials. API facilitates the grassroots website and supports events to connect those who might be interested in energy issues in their state,” she said.Yet the extent and intensity API’s work at the local level is a significant break with the past, experts say. “This is a new development,” Leah Stokes, a political scientist at UC Santa Barbara, told me. She studies how state governments have adopted climate policy—or not adopted it—over the past few decades.Historically, it’s been rare for API to fight against nuclear plants or block electricity infrastructure, she said. But it has gotten more involved in electricity policy since 2016, when it absorbed the American Natural Gas Alliance, the gas industry’s main trade group. While oil makes up a small share of the American power mix, natural gas plays a dominant role.But even if that merger had not gone through, oil and gas have unified interests right now, Stokes said. Both oil and natural gas are now extracted by the same companies, using the same fracking techniques, drilling in the same places. “Gas is coming up because of fracking, but oil is too. It’s possible [API] views electricity infrastructure as an important avenue for oil and gas in the future,” she said.That future is nearly a reality in Pennsylvania. State lawmakers and public-utility commissioners both rejected new subsidies for the two nuclear reactors in Beaver. The plants are due to close in 2021. It will join in the dustheap the state’s infamous Three Mile Island plant, which also closed last year. The electricity once generated by both nuclear plants will now likely come from natural gas. And thus the heat-trapping climate pollution emitted by Pennsylvanians will increase.
Why British Reality TV Is Starting to Play Nice
Conflict is drama—and high drama is the essence of reality television. That has been the accepted wisdom in Britain for two decades, since Big Brother cooped people up in a shared house and forbade them access to anything which might stop them getting on each other’s nerves.Audiences have been conditioned to accept that reality television must involve dislikeable people being immiserated. “It’s a shame,” says a TV producer in a comedy sketch on That Mitchell and Webb Look, reviewing the rushes of a show where everyone is tediously competent. “I thought it would be interesting to watch talented business people competing for a prestigious job.” Luckily, his colleague has a brilliant idea: “What if, instead, it was idiots competing for a relatively junior job?” And so The Apprentice is born.When Big Brother first launched in 2000, its cruelty felt unusual, and the program led the way in exploiting Britain’s faultlines of race, sex and class. (One early contestant, Jade Goody, was attacked for being lower-class, called stupid and fat, reviled for being racist, then pitied for developing cervical cancer. She died in 2009, leaving two small boys motherless.) But the show’s very success rendered it obsolete. It popularized a tone that has pervaded public life. Everywhere now feels like Big Brother—what is Twitter, if not angry people trapped together desperate for any distraction? And the TV genre’s endless ability to create fresh hate-figures has an obvious human cost.The ITV program Love Island, a dating show, is one example. Its former presenter Caroline Flack killed herself last weekend, according to an inquest. She was facing trial next month for an alleged assault on her partner (over an incident which she claimed was an accident), and was at the center of both a tabloid storm and a campaign by men’s rights activists. Two former Love Island contestants have also killed themselves in the past three years.The appeal of reality television is that everyone you’re watching is a “real person”, not some Hollywood megastar with a gazillion publicists. But that leaves contestants (and even presenters) terribly exposed if they don’t live happily ever after, or if they come out of an edit looking like an asshole. Feeling the full, scorching heat of public attention—particularly if you are designated as a reality television “heel”—is a brutal experience: little money, poor long-term career prospects, and a vague, indefinable sense among people in the street that they know you, and don’t like you.The strange thing is that the entire premise underlying reality television’s deification and degradation cycle—that every show needs goodies and baddies, and conflict is essential—is clearly not true. Many of the most successful reality television shows of recent years have been “warm bath television,” soothing, even numbing, experiences. Look at NBC’s Making It or ABC’s Family Food Fight in the U.S., or The Great British Bake-Off in Britain. The latter has spawned several replicas, including The Great Pottery Throwdown on Channel 4, and The Great British Sewing Bee and The Big Painting Challenge on the BBC.Read: [The existential comfort of ‘Making It]’Netflix’s new offering, Next in Fashion, continues this trend. Eighteen fashion designers compete to secure funding for their own label, under the direction of the hosts Tan France and Alexa Chung. As with the worldwide phenomenon MasterChef, Next’s contestants are genuinely talented. As with The Great British Bake-Off, the sweetest characters are the most successful. The camaraderie is obvious.At first, the designers are put into pairs, and most work happily together. When there is genuine conflict, the show seems faintly embarrassed by it. The camera doesn’t linger on the one mismatched pair—in this case, the Scottish single mum Hayley and the American former model and soldier Julian—whose personal taste could not be further apart. (Julian loves loud, clashing colors; Hayley firmly does not.) You could almost feel the producers’ relief when attention shifted instead to Angel and Minju, from China and South Korea, respectively, who named their team “Dragon Princess,” and radiated pure, uncomplicated joy from every pore. The show is more interested in genuine virtuosity—some of the clothes are incredible, such as Minju’s wedding dress, which unfurls like a lily—than low-level interpersonal rivalries.In the fourth episode, the contestants are asked to design streetwear. Here, the show’s inclusive atmosphere is so strong that it collides with its status as a competition. The bottom two includes a pair of African American women, one of whom makes the case that in the fashion industry, “it’s mostly one voice that’s heard. The high-end brands and designers are taking ideas from us every single day and it only becomes cool when it’s high end. For a lot of us—minorities, the underprivileged—we want you to see us, but it’s so hard to be seen.” The guest judge, Kerby Jean-Raymond of the brand Pyer Moss, is so affected by this speech that he refuses to send the women home. He walks off set, followed by the rest of the judges. The credits roll.At the start of the next episode, viewers see Tan France return to explain the “tension” between the judges. He starts choking up as he tells them that he is a designer, too. At this point, the contestants rush over to console him. His tears subvert the standard formula of reality television, which normally maintains a strict hierarchy between contestants (supplicants) and judges (overlords). So does the outcome: As a result of the judges’ failure to reach a unanimous decision, no one goes home that week.That rejection of cut-throat competition—the thing audiences have been told is the lifeblood of reality television—is the clearest example of how the genre has bifurcated into two modes: warm bath and trial by fire. Which is winning, though? Personally, I prefer soothing, friendly television to the fightier kind, because, well, look at the news. The novelty of watching talented people behave professionally is appealing. Elsewhere, Big Brother has faded away. Love Island was already in trouble before Flack’s death, having overextended itself by adding an extra wintertime show to its annual schedule. The idea of Gordon Ramsay shouting about people being an “idiot sandwich” now feels tired and dated. The BBC’s biggest reality competition is currently Strictly Come Dancing, which is usually won by likable grafters who bring their families to the live recordings.Reality television is often called a “guilty pleasure”. But there’s a difference between a cupcake and a cigarette. It’s heartening to see that so many TV competitions now reject the Apprentice formula, showcasing real creativity instead of cheap baiting. There’s only one problem: Is this all escapism? If reality television has become nicer, is it only because the rest of the world has become more like the nastiest version of reality television?
The Netflix Show That Makes Gentrification Personal
The three judges survey a competitor as they scribble notes about his performance. The young man before them is sweating, having completed a series of grueling exercises; the anticipation reddens his face as palpably as the tequila shot an onlooker hands him. And then, the ordeal is over. The smirking judges tender their verdict in dramatic, unambiguous Spanish: Fallaste. No eres Mexicano. “You failed. You’re not Mexican.”So ends a particularly amusing and revelatory satirical sequence of the new Netflix series, Gentefied, which premieres tomorrow. One of the show’s main characters, Chris (played by Carlos Santos), has grown weary of his fellow line cooks cracking jokes about his ethnic bona fides, so he offers a solution: They can quite literally put his Mexican-ness to the test. As banda music plays, the Los Angeles native Chris is given an array of tasks. Among other things, he must name five Mexican states, showcase his zapateado in the back alley, and list three soap operas starring the queen of telenovelas, Thalía.Chris navigates his hurdles with varying efficacy, underscoring the ultimate message of these loopy, physical comedy-heavy scenes: For many immigrants in America, and especially for their first-generation children, cultural “authenticity” is an impossible target. The line cooks’ points-driven gauntlet is the most literal way in which Gentefied illustrates this point. Though at times didactic or a little simplistic, the show is rooted in the family at its center and the people they care about; it is most enlightening when it tries to untangle the contradictions that Chris and his two cousins face as their predominantly Latinx neighborhood changes around them—and sometimes because of them.First conceptualized as a web series, Gentefied takes its name and core theme from a term that was birthed in the same neighborhood where the show is set. In 2007, the year after opening Eastside Luv Wine Bar in East Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights, the Mexican American proprietor Guillermo Uribe coined the term “gentefication,” a portmanteau of “gente,” the Spanish word meaning “people” and, of course, “gentrification.” Speaking with Los Angeles Magazine seven years later, Uribe, whose bar still sits adjacent to Mariachi Plaza, said the concept emerged when he “started to see the potential of improving the community from the inside out. If gentrification is happening, it might as well be from people who care about the existing culture.”Boyle Heights has indeed been experiencing rapid gentrification, which some attribute to the influx of upwardly mobile Latinx artists and professionals, including some who grew up there. On Gentefied, Chris is the most obvious avatar of this demographic. Having graduated from college in Idaho, he’s returned to the neighborhood with grandiose culinary ambitions for himself. That dream, and his work as a line cook at a high-end restaurant, shapes Chris’s belief that catering to a wider range of tastes could weaken the threat that gentrification poses to his grandfather’s taco shop, Mama Fina’s.Like Chris, his cousins Ana (Karrie Martin) and Erik (Joseph Julian Soria) don’t want to let a development-hungry landlord evict their Pop (Joaquín Cosio). But while Chris believes the solution to Pop’s troubles is a trendier menu that will attract new customers, Ana and Erik fear that kind of shift would rob the shop of its soul. More importantly, they worry a revamped Mama Fina’s would endear Boyle Heights to outsiders whose arrival would further displace longtime residents. Gentefied homes in on this conflict among the cousins, as well as the rifts that emerge between them and other members of the community. Though the inevitable changes to Mama Fina’s don’t arrive until Episode 7, deflating some of the show’s narrative tension, the cousins’ different outlooks capture the conundrum of gentefication. (In portraying how that process affects Boyle Heights, the Netflix show also joins the riveting Starz drama Vida.)[Read: ‘Vida’ mines the highs and lows of coming home]To be sure, many of Gentefied’s obvious culprits of gentrification are white, and the show sometimes slips into caricature in order to make a point about outsiders’ arrogance. (In one scene, for example, a white landlord yells at the Mexican store owner because she dislikes the mural he commissioned: “This is my building, and I’m making it better for you!”) But the production devotes more attention and care to the moments when Latinx characters challenge one another about the stakes of their neighborhood’s changes and their own roles in it. In one such scene, Ana’s girlfriend, Yessika (Julissa Calderon), confronts Chris with a bright-yellow flyer advertising a food tour clumsily titled “Bite Into Boyle Heights.” The event, organized by L.A. Weekly (perhaps a nod to the once-venerable publication’s recent gutting), targets customers outside the Eastside enclave. Yessika excoriates Chris for having added Mama Fina’s to the list of local restaurants for (primarily white) participants to discover. “Welcoming outsiders en masse with open arms like this is pushing people out of their homes and into the tents around every corner,” she says, later asking if he thinks his “only option is selling out [his] community.”Though they both want to protect their grandfather’s taco shop, Chris and his cousin Ana take starkly different approaches to what “gentefication” can accomplish in their community. (Netflix)These aren’t subtle lines, but Gentefied seeks to convey the sense of betrayal that can accompany decisions like Chris’s; for Yessika, it’s a personal affront. Perhaps fittingly, Chris also serves as a symbol for the Gentefied co-creators themselves, the Mexican and Guatemalan American director, Marvin Lemus, and his Mexican American co-writer, Linda Yvette Chávez. As the America Ferrera–produced show nears its premiere date, some local residents belonging to the activist group Defend Boyle Heights have voiced their displeasure with the attention the show has attracted to their neighborhood. “Gentefied is clearly trying to latch onto the popularity the anti-gentrification struggle has countrywide,” one recent post on the group’s Facebook page reads. “Gentefied is not showing solidarity with the repression activists face, but romanticizing these protests and stripping them of what actually gives them power.”Even (and perhaps especially) as young Latinx artists, Lemus and Chávez have attempted to wrestle with their own roles in Boyle Heights’s ongoing shifts, both as individuals and as Gentefied’s keepers. “We went into it with letting people know like, ‘Hey, first of all we’re not here to speak for you all,’” Chávez recently told the Los Angeles Times, in a piece that also notes the show’s writers and producers established a rapport with community groups through a non-profit organization Ferrera co-founded. “The intention has always been telling a story that illuminates something most of us ignore.”The slipperiness of that “us” is what animates Gentefied, which is at its best when pairing these weighty considerations with community-specific humor instead of leaning too heavily into its stated mission to teach audiences about a complicated social phenomenon. While direct references to the current political climate and scenes of protest against “colonizers” can feel clichéd, quieter reflections resonate because of their emphasis on the connections between characters. As in the case of the obviously absurd Mexican test, Gentefied can hold both warmth and critique in the same scenes.
Why Callout Culture Helps Mike Bloomberg
As New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg subjected many innocent black, Hispanic, and Muslim residents to hyperaggressive policing tactics that flagrantly violated their rights under the Constitution. That authoritarian record ought to disqualify the Manhattan billionaire from consideration for the Democratic nomination, I argued back in November, a judgment shared by writers at publications as different as Jacobin, The American Conservative, Rolling Stone, and CNN.Now Bloomberg’s record is under attack from rivals in the Democratic primary who are also resurfacing accusations that he has demeaned women in the workplace. My colleague Megan Garber chronicled multiple allegations against him in a 2018 article for The Atlantic. In November, The New York Times quoted a campaign spokesman declaring that “Mike has come to see that some of what he has said is disrespectful and wrong.” And while Bloomberg has long denied that he told a female employee to “kill it” when he learned that she was pregnant, as the employee alleged in a sexual-harassment lawsuit, The Washington Post reported this week that it found a former Bloomberg employee, David Zielenziger, who “said he witnessed the conversation.” In multiple other sexual-harassment cases, Bloomberg’s accusers signed nondisclosure agreements when settling lawsuits with him. The candidate says he will keep enforcing them.These are significant matters, as several candidates noted in Wednesday night’s debate. Stop-and-frisk turned New York City into a dystopian police state for many innocent black and brown residents, who were pushed against walls while trying to walk around their communities. The truth about sexual harassment at Bloomberg the company is less certain, but worth investigating given that, if accurate, the allegations show a pattern of selfish, abusive behavior that a CEO persisted in long after being alerted to its ill effects.[John McWhorter: Bloomberg flunks the wokeness test]However, I fear that even the most careful, accurate, damning critiques of Bloomberg on these matters will have trouble breaking through to all but the most informed Democratic voters. Casual media consumers are inundated with hyperbolic, frivolous, and slight accusations related to racism or sexism. As a result, many now reflexively discount all criticism of that sort while others seem unable to distinguish mortal from venial sins.A reflexive discounting of racism charges was on display during a recent Bill Maher monologue. The HBO host said, “Well, Bloomberg must be the front-runner, because liberals are calling him a racist."As for a failure to distinguish serious transgressions against racial equality from trivial distractions, consider a Washington Post op-ed that ran last week. In the op-ed, titled “Pete Buttigieg’s Race Problem,” a professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, Tyler D. Parry, said of white Democratic candidates, “Each of them has been criticized for harboring a superficial understanding of American anti-blackness, if not manifesting outright racism.” Oddly, the op-ed didsn’t mention Bloomberg or his candidacy at all, but noted that “Amy Klobuchar has a questionable prosecutorial record; Joe Biden has drawn criticism for his voting record on civil rights legislation; Elizabeth Warren’s campaign was accused of marginalizing staffers of color, for which she apologized; and Bernie Sanders was criticized for conflating the conditions of poor whites with people of African descent. But it is Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who arguably demonstrates the most consistent racial ignorance among his cohort.”What did Buttigieg do to justify being singled out instead of the guy who championed stop-and-frisk, or rivals accused of racially biased prosecutions or bad votes on civil-rights legislation?Parry explained: Not only does he hold a dismal record in representing the black residents of his municipality, but his past musings on race and the state of black America — from his 2011 discussion of young black kids failing due to the lack of role models, to his invocation of the “All Lives Matter” mantra just five years ago, to the recent accusations that his campaign uses black supporters as political props—expose shallow analysis of systemic racism throughout his political career … his recent remarks invoking the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. should keep concerns about his commitment to addressing racism front and center. While Buttigieg encouraged Americans to “recommit” to King’s work, and asserted that we can realize King’s dream by building a future defined not by exclusion “but by belonging,” he repeated a common error committed by white Americans in King’s time and today. His posts said nothing of the specific plight of African Americans and appeared to invoke a colorblind vision of post-racial unity that many incorrectly ascribe to MLK. Buttigieg’s “race problem,” in Parry’s telling, is that he does not adopt the particular rhetoric or understanding of critical race theorists when trying to highlight his black supporters or call on Americans to be anti-racist. Ostensibly imperfect language and departures from an analytic framework that many anti-racists of goodwill reject are treated as if they are on par with civil-rights abuses and denials.[Read: Everybody vs. Pete]The Black Lives Matters protesters who have plagued Buttigieg’s campaign also seem to lack perspective. Their grievances include a police shooting in South Bend and the disproportionate rate at which black residents there are arrested for marijuana possession. Those are serious matters, but nearly every sizable jurisdiction in America has questionable police shootings and racial disparities in War on Drugs arrest rates, even when they elect mayors who champion racial justice and criminal-justice reform. Buttigieg, unlike many of his rivals, favors the decriminalization of drugs. He has certainly never affirmatively defended policing that targeted people on the basis of race or religion.But you’d never discern the huge difference between Buttigieg and Bloomberg if you merely saw one of the flyers passed out by Black Lives Matter protesters in Iowa that declared, “Mayor Pete Has a Black Problem.” Buttigieg was also heckled as “antiblack” by Black Lives Matter protesters during a campaign visit to Los Angeles. “Racist police or racist Pete?” one sign declared. Kat Redding, a Black Lives Matter activist, said to the Washington Times, “To me, Mayor Pete is the equivalent of [Donald] Trump. I feel like Trump is very aggressive with his racism, and I think Mayor Pete is very passive with his racism. They are just two of the same people.” If that is the tenor of rhetoric against Buttigieg, what language is left to distinguish someone with Bloomberg’s record?Here’s Michael Harriot writing about the former South Bend mayor at The Root: “Pete Buttigieg is standing over a dying man, holding the oxygen machine in his hand and telling everyone: ‘Nah, he doesn’t need CPR. He’s just holding his breath.’ Negligent homicide is still homicide.”Coverage of Bernie Sanders has also been more severe than his record merits. The senator from Vermont was principled, courageous, and anomalous among white people in his early civil-rights activism. But the casual news consumer forming an impressionistic sense of his standing from headlines and snippets of television and radio news during the last election cycle may only remember that Black Lives Matter protesters took over the stage at one of his rallies.In this election cycle, Sanders has been attacked for alleged problems with women. Hillary Clinton accused Sanders of “supporting” a culture of attacking women.“I don’t want another misogynist as president,” Meghan McCain declared last month on The View, adding that Sanders is “a bullying man candidate” and that “women in this country are sick of it … I have always thought he has had a problem with women.” That accusation and many others against Sanders were aired after Elizabeth Warren claimed that Sanders told her in a private conversation that a woman could not win the presidency. Sanders denied having said so––and that denial is consistent with the fact that in 2013, he explicitly urged Elizabeth Warren to run for president, declaring, “I like Elizabeth Warren very much. Her beauty is that she is very smart. She speaks English. She can explain economics in a way that everybody can understand.”[Read: Warren’s new electability argument]Yet Virginia Heffernan argued in the Los Angeles Times that by denying Warren’s account of their private conversation, Sanders “only enacted the sexism he was at pains to deny … Warren won … She didn’t let Sanders get away with denying he’s sexist Tuesday night. Instead, she checkmated him into proving it.”Bloomberg could hardly ask for a better rhetorical environment. As Trump showed, no one benefits from a cultural fixation on microaggressions more than serial macroaggressors, whose bad deeds shrink in seeming significance among endless callouts.The takeaway here is not that racism or sexism can be discussed only in their most egregious incarnations. A healthy public discourse should accommodate constructive criticism directed at venial sins. But too often, criticism touching race or gender is aimed at destroying alleged sinners rather than at improving society, and framed in maximalist terms for political or rhetorical advantage. As a result, the electorate grows less able to distinguish between transgressions as trivial as well-intentioned but poorly chosen words and as serious as civil-rights abrogations.That no one is perfect on issues of race and gender is perhaps true. That anything short of perfection is attacked with the same vitriol and ferocity as malfeasance is a problem for Democrats, because when everything is problematic, nothing is.The politics that result are more dangerous for the least powerful, because as much effort is expended “protecting” them from clumsy words as from proponents of institutionalized state violence.[Derek Thompson: Why men vote for Republicans, and women vote for Democrats]My colleague John McWhorter, with whom I often agree, adroitly captured the awfulness of stop-and-frisk in an article last week, but argued that beating Trump is too important to treat that policy as disqualifying. “What black Americans want by overwhelming margins is for a moral and intelligent candidate to replace Donald Trump,” he wrote, “and fetishizing wokeness above all other concerns may be antithetical to that paramount goal.” In my estimation, “fetishizing wokeness” is when a commentator turns on Buttigieg’s candidacy, as one observer did in the Los Angeles Times, because Buttigieg once attempted political outreach to Tea Partiers, demanded the resignation of a black police chief who broke wiretapping laws, and put out a list of people who endorsed his Douglass Plan for Black America that was roughly 40 percent white.In contrast, Bloomberg’s policies did not merely violate an “up-to-the-minute” woke test predicated on purity politics that no one can satisfy. Stop-and-frisk is the stuff of police states.McWhorter went on: For some, stop-and-frisk is a deal-breaker. Note how modern—up-to-the minute, even—it seems to disqualify Bloomberg for one mistake on race, even if he would govern better than Trump has in all ways. It’s straight from the woke playbook. Freezing out the former mayor would also be a kind of atonement for the left’s having let pass Hillary Clinton’s “superpredator” comment in the 1990s. Atonement is the operative word here. To shout down Bloomberg because of that one policy would constitute a strain of anti-racism that has all the characteristics of religion rather than rationality. To me, considering Bloomberg disqualified in a Democratic primary is a rational response to his record, not a religious one, because he long pursued and defended abhorrent policies. In addition to failing the woke test, he fails the treating people of all races with equal dignity test, the upholding civil rights test, the adhering to the Constitution test, and the authoritarian test. Our era’s woke rhetoric makes it hard for even keen observers to discern how relatively awful his record was and the threat he still poses if elected. And that is a strike against it.
New Orleans Needs a Better Way to Do Mardi Gras
NEW ORLEANS—Standing in line at the hardware store on the edge of the French Quarter one December Monday, I overheard the cashier talking to a regular customer about manhole covers that had exploded just before dawn that morning a couple of blocks away. The metal discs had burst into buildings and crashed into the underside of a car, which in turn caught fire. Power outages and evacuations had ensued. This was just the latest addition to a cluster of troubling events. In the previous few days, a turbine powering the low-lying city’s storm-drainage system had also exploded, unrelated water-main ruptures had flooded neighborhoods on opposite sides of town, and a cyberattack had crippled City Hall. Not to mention the usual spate of shootings that punctuate the daily news in New Orleans.The other customer, a longtime Quarter resident, asked the cashier and me whether we thought that morning’s explosion was terrorism. “This city doesn’t even need terrorists,” the cashier replied. “The city terrorizes itself.” Outside the store’s plate-glass windows, traffic inched along North Rampart Street. Five blocks up, the street was closed. It had been impaled in late October by part of a construction crane, which was being used to build a Hard Rock Hotel on the corner of North Rampart and Canal Street—the city’s main thoroughfare. The crane had remained precariously upright when the unfinished hotel partially collapsed earlier in October, and local authorities intentionally imploded it in an effort to stabilize the 18-story ruin.That part of the crane got stuck deep in the pavement was hardly the worst of it. The original accident on October 12 had killed three workers and injured dozens. One worker claimed that construction had been rushed so the hotel could open by Mardi Gras. Instead, at the time of year when the rest of the United States pays the most attention to New Orleans, two bodies remained trapped in the rubble, turning the ruins in the city’s heart into a massive, slouching tomb.Mardi Gras is next Tuesday. It’s the culmination of the annual Carnival celebration, which is the cornerstone of this city’s cultural identity. As a native New Orleanian, I’ve enjoyed the costuming and the parades and the marching bands for more than four decades. But our city’s vaunted joie de vivre and reputation for throwing the country’s biggest party are also complicated by issues shared by many American cities: neglected infrastructure, a deepening housing crisis, widening inequality, profound racial injustice, and a deadly threat from climate change. The situation is just worse here than in most places, New Orleans being notoriously resistant to change.This recent spate of civic calamities has made the underlying problems harder for citizens to ignore. This Carnival in particular, I find myself wondering whether things here could be different—and by different I mean better. Can we be fabulous while also being responsible toward our environment? Can we acknowledge that we host our epic celebration in a fragile city on the front lines of global warming, at the edge of deteriorating wetlands, and beset by sea-level rise and increasingly fierce storms—and party accordingly?On the short drive home from the hardware store, I contemplated the cashier’s idea of a self-terrorizing city. I’d already recognized that my fellow New Orleanians and I lived in a self-terrorizing state. Louisiana sits at or near the bottom of national rankings related to education, health care, crime, and infrastructure. New Orleans monetizes what it can. The marketing of our culture has led to a crush of tourism and a heavy reliance on low-paying service-industry jobs, reinforcing our legacy of racism and poverty and stressing our already precarious built environment. In 2018, 46 tons of toxic Mardi Gras beads were extracted from the drainage system that’s supposed to keep our streets from filling up like the canals of Venice. Meanwhile, half of our city’s children attend schools whose quality is rated by the state as either D or F.Turns out a bomb did explode those manhole covers—a shit bomb. Methane generated from human waste in the sewerage vault leaked into the underground power lines and sparked an explosion, an occurrence symptomatic of a very distressed system. One unexploded manhole cover lifted by a city worker revealed a mess inches beneath the streets of the Quarter: a perfect circle jammed with plastic to-go cups, Mardi Gras beads, novelty shot glasses shaped like miniature hand grenades, and soggy stolen wallets and purses tossed into gutters. This finding wasn’t merely a metaphor for overtourism and our laissez-faire attitudes toward the obvious problems confronting our city—it was a literal, concrete manifestation.A community that genuinely cares about itself does not just let problems fester. When I returned home that morning from the hardware store to read the paper and finish my coffee, self-terrorizing on the brain, instead of the usual wearying coverage of murders and civic distress and whatever was happening with the Saints, the local newspaper’s front page featured a beaming Lizzo, the exuberant and uncompromising champion of self-esteem and self-empowerment. She was pictured standing in stadium bleachers, surrounded by the famous marching band at Southern University, a historically black college up the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge. The band, called the Human Jukebox, had been featured in her new video for “Good as Hell,” a moving, joyful celebration of community. Through the pain, frustration, and work of individuals supporting one another comes the exultant communal payoff of an excellent band in action. It felt both distinctly local and also universal. Suddenly my thinking was reoriented. How might this city show real love for itself?It would take a reframing as radical as Lizzo herself. Previous attempts to regulate Mardi Gras have been seen as “killing culture”—never mind that Carnival is an ever-evolving, centuries-old tradition, and throwing hundreds of tons of Chinese-manufactured plastic trinkets into the streets is a relatively new addition. Could city officials, parade organizations, and citizens agree that reducing the number of beads in our environment would be a positive change motivated by love for the city? Can the city clean its drains, protect its gutters? What about reimagining our lax open-container laws, especially in the French Quarter, to somehow mitigate the subterranean mass of plastic cups that authorities found while investigating the early-morning shit bomb? If New Orleanians don’t want tourists to openly trash our city, shouldn’t we commit to the same?Which is not to say that the city isn’t trying to make a better environment for citizens and tourists alike: The mayor launched a million-dollar “CleanUp NOLA” anti-trash program. An initiative to redesign city streets is making them safer for people to move around in, without fear of being hit by cars. The city continues its inconclusive experiment with an education system consisting entirely of charter schools—an experiment that has at least gotten the middle class to pay attention to public schools. And lately, the city government, Carnival organizations, and grassroots organizers have taken small steps toward acknowledging the harmful effects of New Orleans’s signature holiday. Carnival is here, and parades have been rerouted around the apocalyptic ruin of the collapsed Hard Rock Hotel. A few weeks ago, the tarp covering a deceased worker’s trapped, decaying remains blew off during high winds, temporarily exposing the body to the street and creating a grotesque social-media furor. Shortly after, protesters marched from the accident site to City Hall, where they demanded accountability for the hazards, injuries, and deaths the developers had created and about which the city has been largely silent. Political spin, civic boosterism, and social pressure often encourage New Orleanians to look away from social ills, lest we sully our “lifestyle” and our city’s national and international reputation. Historically, our troubles have also fed our celebrations, enabling true catharsis for the community. This time, though, I’m struggling to reconcile the citywide extravaganza with that yellow tarp hanging over North Rampart Street. During the next several days, people lining the streets in New Orleans will witness civic release and joy, beauty and music, communal creativity, and the affirming transformation of public space. People will also see spectacular waste and some violence and lots of money generated. But after the masks come off, and the city announces the success of the year’s Carnival, measured in tons of trash, we’ll have to look at one another squarely and ask what we’re willing to do not only to love our city, but to save ourselves.
Bernie Sanders Gets a Pass
LAS VEGAS—Faced with signs that Bernie Sanders is consolidating his position as the clear front-runner in the Democratic race, the presidential candidates last night chose to focus most of their fire instead at the new guy onstage: Michael Bloomberg.The withering criticism, especially that of Elizabeth Warren, left Bloomberg visibly staggered at times and reflected an undeniable imperative for his opponents’ campaigns: His unprecedented TV-advertising blitz across the states voting in March threatens to catapult him past all of them as the principal alternative to the Vermont senator, who has taken a solid lead in the latest national polls. But the consistent focus on Bloomberg, especially during the debate’s highly contentious first hour, meant Sanders was left relatively off the hook.Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine that anything that unfolded on the debate stage will impede his march toward an expected victory in Saturday’s caucuses here—where Bloomberg won’t even be on the ballot. Appearing on MSNBC after the debate, Joe Biden declared that “Bernie’s going to get vetted in a way he never has been before.” That moment may be coming, but it certainly didn’t arrive last night.Compared to earlier debates, Sanders did face more questions about his agenda and record from both his rivals and the moderators. Between them, they introduced arguments against Sanders’s candidacy that may resonate more loudly down the road, in particular when they questioned whether his calls for a “political revolution” can build a winning coalition against President Donald Trump.Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg made that case most persistently, saying at one point that Democrats risk defeat if they offer voters “a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil.” Even Warren, who has been remarkably reluctant to draw contrasts with Sanders even as he has eclipsed her as the favorite of the party’s most liberal voters, asserted that Democrats “are worried about gambling on a revolution that won’t bring along a majority of this country.”But compared to the hazing Bloomberg received, Sanders escaped with many fewer bruises or bumps. He was confident and unyielding, if sometimes hectoring, in defending his agenda and ideology, and the focus never stayed on him for long. One of the night’s most telling moments came when the moderators asked Biden if Americans would elect a candidate who identifies as a socialist, as Sanders does, and the former vice president somehow managed to answer the question without ever mentioning (much less challenging) his opponent. “The other five tore each other apart while Bernie skated,” one Democratic pollster, who is not affiliated with any campaign, texted me after the debate.[Read: Bloomberg’s beating]Bloomberg’s exchanges with Sanders—with Bloomberg insisting that Sanders can’t win and needling him over his ownership of three houses, and Sanders, in turn, denouncing Bloomberg as the embodiment of corruption in the political system—seemed to pulse with the most mutual hostility. But all of the candidates pummeled the billionaire, over everything from his treatment of women to his record as mayor and from his prior history of supporting Republicans to his delay in releasing his income-tax returns. At points, Bloomberg was effective touting his policy plans (especially on climate), but he buckled in defending his record.As my colleague Russell Berman described, Warren was his most potent and relentless interrogator. In a lengthy back and forth over the nondisclosure agreements signed by women who worked for him, Warren delivered so many blows so fast that a boxing referee might have stopped the fight. He was, at one point, left to sputter in defense that he signed the agreements “probably because some women didn’t like some jokes I told.” It’s a safe bet Warren and his other opponents won’t let him forget those words.If Bloomberg’s unsteady performance reverses the gains he’s generated with his spending onslaught—as of last Friday, he’d spent $100 million on TV ads in California, Texas, and Florida alone—the turnabout could help any of the other candidates regain ground in the race. But it still leaves them the challenge of slowing Sanders, who has been buoyed by a wave of positive polls since his narrow victory last week in New Hampshire.Sanders has established himself as the front-runner by posting significant leads among young people and the most liberal voters, a more modest advantage among white voters without a college degree, and a potentially expanding lead with Latinos. (In several polls, Sanders has also reduced, or even eliminated, Biden’s lead with African Americans.) These increases translate to support from, at most, a little over 30 percent of the Democratic Party so far.Meanwhile, the constituencies more resistant to Sanders—particularly moderates, older voters, and college-educated white voters—have splintered among the remaining candidates. In a national NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll this week, for example, Sanders attracted a higher share of progressives than any other candidate won among moderates; he won more non-college-educated white voters than any other candidate; and he attracted far more younger people (under age 45) than anyone else drew among older voters. As last night suggested, Sanders’s competitors still seem to be focused more on emerging as the alternative to him than on challenging him directly.That pressure encouraged a kind of all-against-all quality to the debate. Anyone trying to map the direction of attacks between the candidates would have quickly produced something like a spiral graph. At one point, Warren delivered a rapid-fire denunciation of the health-care plans from Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Sanders. Later, in a tour de force of cutting concision, she encapsulated her differences with Sanders (too revolutionary), Biden and Klobuchar (too clubby with Senate Republicans), and Buttigieg (too cozy with billionaires) in just three sentences.Buttigieg and Klobuchar, meanwhile, lacerated each other in bitterly personal terms. (“I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete,” she insisted at one point.) There’s an electoral logic to the two targeting each other: In the New Hampshire exit poll, Klobuchar finished first and Buttigieg a close second among both college-educated and older voters. But their animosity seems to extend to a personal distaste that transcends any political logic.It took the moderators to remind the candidates of the big picture as Sanders establishes some separation from the field. Chuck Todd asked a question that I believe will become a frequent topic of conversation among Democrats in the weeks ahead: Do you believe the party should nominate the candidate who arrives at the July convention with the most delegates, even if no one has the 1,991 delegates required for a first-ballot victory? All of the contenders effectively said no, except for Sanders—who insisted “the will of the people should prevail.”With those answers, the candidates chasing Sanders pointedly left themselves room to resist his nomination at the convention if he arrives with a plurality, but not a majority, of the delegates. But by and large, they did surprisingly little to reduce the odds that Sanders will, in fact, arrive in Milwaukee with more delegates than anyone else.
Major League Baseball Goes Soft on the Cheating Astros
I’m mad enough to eat a baseball.I want to attend every Houston Astros game this season with a trash-can lid and bang it every time one of their sign-stealing cheatballs comes to bat. I want to find Commissioner Rob Manfred and pelt him with Stay Puft marshmallows for his pillowy-soft punishment of the most crooked team in baseball history. Chicago Black Sox? Please. That scandal was eight players in one series. This was the whole team, and coaches, for two full seasons.Fans know that they cheated. The players who received immunity admitted it. Using a center-field camera, a video monitor near the dugout, and a system of trash-can bangs from a teammate in the dugout, the Houston Asterisks knew what pitch was coming for two years. According to opponents, the Asterisks taped tiny buzzers to hitters’ chests, set off little blinking lights, and even whistled.They used all these tricks to rob the Los Angeles Dodgers of any fair chance in the 2017 World Series, and who knows how many teams on their way to the 2018 American League Championship Series. It’s the skunkiest scandal in baseball history, and yet Manfred didn’t punish a single player. He fined the Asterisks a pathetic $5 million and a few draft picks. Five million? They can make more than that selling Frito pies. The commissioner didn’t even suspend the Asterisks’ owner, Jim Crane.For heaven’s sake, the racist Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott got suspended in the 1990s for owning a Nazi armband. But at least she didn’t destroy the integrity of the game.Crane pooh-poohed the burning wreckage smoldering at his feet. “Our opinion is, this didn’t impact the game,” he sniffed.It didn’t?Let me ask you: If Drew Brees knew when the blitz was coming, do you think that might impact the game? If Steph Curry knew when he was going to get double-teamed, do you think that might impact the game?Now there’s talk that pitchers from other teams will impact Asterisks batters with fastballs to the ribs and—oh, the irony—probably get suspended for it. I can’t blame them. Trying to guess which pitch is coming is the whole art of hitting! Otherwise, it’d be like a blackjack player knowing what card was going to be flipped over next. You guess a curveball is coming, and you get a fastball? You look like a drunk trying to kill a moth. You know a curveball is coming? You look like Ted Williams. “Me, going up to the plate, knowing what’s coming?” the Los Angeles Angels superstar Mike Trout said dreamily the other day. “Be pretty fun up there.”In 40 years of covering sports, I’ve never seen athletes so mad. I’m with them. “Every single guy over there needs a beating,” the Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis said. “If someone cheated me out of winning the title … I would be F*^king irate!” LeBron James tweeted. “[They should] be out of baseball for the rest of their lives,” Hank Aaron said.The Asterisks say they’re sorry. If they mean it, there’s plenty they could do to make this right.First, they could go to Minute Maid Park and take down the 2017 World Series banner. Then burn it.Second, they could give away the $429,000 each of them got just for—cough—“winning” that World Series. (The Baseball Assistance Team would be a nice choice.)Third, they could pawn their World Series rings and give all the money to the former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Mike Bolsinger—who, after getting shelled by the grifting Asterisks during one game in August 2017, never pitched in the bigs again.Fourth, their star José Altuve could give back the 2017 MVP award he robbed from the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge (who says he’s “sick to my stomach”).Fifth, they could ask Major League Baseball to formally vacate the title they won. Why not? It’s been done before by people with actual consciences.When an undefeated Cornell realized it had won a 1940 football game with the help of a fifth down against Dartmouth, the team famously gave back the victory. When the running back Reggie Bush was found to have accepted massive under-the-table gifts to play football at USC, he gave back his Heisman Trophy. When it was revealed that the guys from Milli Vanilli weren’t even singing on their own album, they had decided to give back their Grammy when the Recording Academy beat them to it.Baseball, you’re no Milli Vanilli.Imagine: If a team is allowed to win a World Series using a crappy camera and a trash can, by 2025, teams will be implanting microchips in hitters’ brains. If Altuve can keep his rotten MVP award, then Pete Rose can go in the Hall of Fame tomorrow, followed by Barry Bonds and, I don’t know, Rosie Ruiz? And if Crane can profit from pirating a title—his team’s value has risen an estimated $300 million since the scam began—then maybe Bernie Madoff should get a new trial. Sigh.Like a pilot in a blizzard, America is flying upside down right now. We have a president who lies with every other breath and then demonizes anyone who tells the truth. We have senators who swear on the Bible and then run a trial without a single witness. And now we have a national pastime that knows the Asterisks robbed Fort Knox and let them keep the gold anyway.The World Series trophy is called the Commissioner’s Trophy, and Commissioner Manfred should take it back. Just as every Astros hitter from those two seasons should take a voluntary 30-day suspension. Just as Crane should sell the team and never come back. If Major League Baseball doesn’t do the right thing, this scandal isn’t going away.Come to think of it, if baseball won’t do the right thing, then maybe we should stop doing baseball.
Bloomberg Is a Gift to Sanders
If the Democratic National Committee is trying to rig the presidential race against Bernie Sanders, it’s doing a lousy job.By letting Michael Bloomberg into last night’s debate in Nevada, the DNC did the Vermont senator an enormous favor. Sanders is clearly the Democratic front-runner. He tied for first place in Iowa; he won New Hampshire; he’s ahead in national polls; he’s way ahead in Nevada, and he’s way ahead in California, the biggest Super Tuesday prize. As The Washington Post’s Philip Bump recently noted, Sanders is on route to finish the Super Tuesday primaries—which occur in less than two weeks—with an “uncatchable” lead. FiveThirtyEight gives him a 56 percent chance of winning a plurality of pledged delegates. That’s more than three times as high as Michael Bloomberg’s.Yet in the second-to-last debate before Super Tuesday, the other candidates didn’t gang up on Sanders. They ganged up on Bloomberg—and one another. Even Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar—who between them have a roughly 3 percent chance of winning the most pledged delegates—endured harsher attacks than Sanders did. Elizabeth Warren showcased her extraordinary rhetorical talent. But for the most part she did so not at Sanders’s expense but at Bloomberg’s.In isolation, each candidate’s strategy last night made sense. If Biden can’t stop Bloomberg from cutting into his support among African Americans, the former vice president will lose South Carolina and be out of the race. Buttigieg and Klobuchar occupy the same Midwestern-centrist niche. A billionaire who has bought his way into the top tier of the Democratic presidential race is Warren’s perfect foil.But the result, in the aggregate, was that the attacks on Sanders were glancing, predictable, and largely forgettable. Everyone attacked Bloomberg. The former New York mayor—who would have helped himself by counterpunching against Sanders, who leads him in the polls, instead shrank into the political equivalent of a fetal position.To grasp how much Bloomberg’s participation in the debate helped Sanders, imagine what would have happened had the DNC not let Bloomberg in. In all likelihood, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Biden—and perhaps even Warren—would have focused more of their wrath on Sanders. And it might have worked because Sanders this week made a mistake that left him vulnerable.Last November, after Sanders suffered a heart attack, ABC News and The Washington Post asked Democratic-leaning voters which candidates were healthy enough to be president. Eighty percent answered said Elizabeth Warren was. Seventy-four percent said Joe Biden was. For Bernie Sanders the figure was 48 percent. Since then, Sanders has largely evaded this political liability. But it returned this week when he told a CNN Town Hall that he wouldn’t release his medical records, and a campaign spokesperson likened the issue to birtherism.Sanders’s health is a legitimate issue for voters to consider. And he has no good answer for why he won’t release his medical records. Had his opponents pressed the subject as forcefully as they pressed Bloomberg on stop-and-frisk and mistreatment of women, they could have made that vulnerability the story of the night. They didn’t.So, the result of the Nevada debate is that Bloomberg, who was emerging as Sanders’s strongest rival, got knocked around. Which makes it harder to tell who is in second place. Which is great for the guy in first.The Democratic establishment is both terrified of its front-runner and incapable of taking effective, unified action against him. Sounds a lot like the GOP in 2016.
It’s Jeff Bezos’s Planet Now
On Monday, Jeff Bezos announced the creation of the Bezos Earth Fund, which will disperse $10 billion in the name of combating climate change. The fund is a triumph of philanthropy—and a perfect emblem of a national failing.Or rather, a series of national failings. In a healthy democracy, the world’s richest man wouldn’t be able to painlessly make a $10 billion donation. His fortune would be mitigated by the tax collector; antitrust laws would constrain the growth of his business. Instead of relying on a tycoon to bankroll the national response to an existential crisis, there would be a national response.But in an age of political dysfunction, Bezos has begun to subsume the powers of the state. Where the government once funded the ambitious exploration of space, Bezos is leading that project, spending a billion dollars each year to build rockets and rovers. His company, Amazon, is spearheading an experimental effort to fix American health care; it will also spend $700 million to retrain workers in the shadow of automation and displacement. Meanwhile, swaths of the federal government have contracted with Amazon to keep data on the company's servers. Bezos is providing the vital infrastructure of state. When Amazon locates its second headquarters on the Potomac, staring across the river at the Capital, it will provide a perfect geographic encapsulation of the new balance of power.[Franklin Foer: Jeff Bezos’s master plan]It is possible to watch Jeff Bezos’s public spirited commitments and respond: Well, at least someone is doing something. And isn’t a private government run by Bezos preferable to a public government run by Trump?Trumpism may indeed pose the most immediate danger; the growing concentration of power in one man, however, is hardly a democratic path. And whereas Trump is curbed by Congress, courts, and elections, there is no meaningful public oversight of Bezos’s power. His investments and donations—not to mention the dominance of his sprawling firm and his ownership of one of the nation’s most important newspapers—give him an outsized role in shaping the human future.Thus far, the extent of the public’s knowledge about the new foundation largely derives from an Instagram post by its namesake. There’s no clear sense of the projects it will bankroll, even though a contribution of that scale will inevitably set the agenda of academics and non-governmental organizations. Bezos’s personal biases—his penchant for technological solutions, his skepticism of government regulation—will likely shape how the Bezos Earth Fund disperses cash. And that will, in turn, shape how activists and researchers craft their grant proposals, how they attempt to please a funder who can float their operations.Even as Bezos funds his initiative, Amazon has a strong interest in shaping the climate debate, so that whatever government response eventually emerges doesn’t injure its business. (To cover its right-flank, last year the company co-sponsored the annual gala of a climate-denying think tank.) After all, Amazon’s constellation of servers has a massive carbon footprint, about the same as that of a wealthy European nation; the company is transforming global patterns of consumption, so that cheap goods can almost instantaneously arrive at any doorstep. Even if Amazon aims to slash its own emissions, it’s creating an economy that seems likely to undermine its stated goal of carbon neutrality. A reasonable debate over planetary future would at least question the wisdom of the same-day delivery of plastic tchotchkes made in China. Then there are the policies that permit companies, like Amazon, to pay virtually nothing in taxes--revenue that would ideally fund, say, a Green New Deal. It hardly seems likely that the Bezos Earth Foundation will seek to erode the very basis of the fortune that funds it.[Read: $10 billion? In this climate?]A skeptical response to the Bezos Earth Fund doesn’t preclude the hope that it will do real good. Bloomberg’s climate philanthropy has played an important role in shutting down coal-fired power plants. And unlike Obama era-policy, Bloomberg’s efforts have proven difficult for the Trump administration to roll back. Perhaps, Bezos will find similarly effective vehicles for injecting his money. Given the influence of the Koch Brothers and the rest of the fossil fuel industry, the political fight over climate policy is in desperate need of a bottomless benefactor.Bezos’s emergence as the self-styled protector of the common good is the culmination of a political era. In these years of polarization and dysfunction, the public keep turning to saviors, who present themselves as outsiders and promise transformation. Trump, of course, billed himself as this sort of salvific figure. But instead of curing voters of this yearning, he seems to have exacerbated it. The current temptation comes in the form of billionaires who exude competence, which is why Bloomberg’s advertisements have so quickly propelled him into presidential contention. And it comes in the public’s willingness to cede ever greater responsibilities to the likes of Bezos. That the public seems indifferent to dangers of a growing plutocracy is perhaps the greatest national failing of them all.
A Ton of Giant Viruses Are Living in Your Mouth
Your mouth is currently teeming with giant viruses that, until very recently, no one knew existed.Unlike Ebola or the new coronavirus that’s currently making headlines, these particular viruses don’t cause disease in humans. They’re part of a group known as phages, which infect and kill bacteria. But while many phages are well-studied, these newly discovered giants are largely mysterious. Why are they 10 times bigger than other phages? How do they reproduce? And what are they up to inside our bodies? “They’re in our saliva, and in our gut,” says Jill Banfield of the University of California, Berkeley, who led the team that discovered the new phages. “Who knows what they’re doing?”From what Banfield and her team been able to tell, though, these giants defy some fundamental ideas about how viruses usually work. And, even if it’s not yet clear how, they are likely affecting us.Banfield’s team found the huge phages by accident. She and her colleagues were studying the gut bacteria of Bangladeshi people who live near arsenic-contaminated groundwater, to see if those microbes can detoxify arsenic. They can’t. But among the bacterial DNA, the team also noticed the unexpectedly massive genomes of several new phages. An average phage carries around 52,000 “letters” worth of DNA, but these giants carried over 540,000. And though the team first noticed them in Bangladeshi guts, they also found them in people from Tanzania, pigs from Denmark, and baboons from Kenya.Though common, these big phages would have been completely missed by traditional lab techniques. It used to be that scientists could only discover viruses by first growing them—and they often filtered out anything above a certain size. In science, you tend to find what you look for. The huge phages don’t fit the standard conception of what a virus should be, so no one went looking for them. But Banfield used a different method, which she pioneered in the 1990s: Her team took environmental samples—scoops of soil or drops of water—and simply analyzed all the DNA within to see what popped out. And once Banfield realized that the huge phages existed, it wasn’t hard to find more.[Read: Beware the Medusavirus]Her team, including researchers Basem Al-Shayeb and Rohan Sachdeva, identified huge phages in French lakes, Tibetan springs, and the Japanese seafloor. They found the viruses in geysers in Utah, salt from Chile’s Atacama Desert, stomach samples from Alaskan moose, a neonatal intensive care unit in Pittsburgh, and spit samples from Californian women. The team included researchers from nine countries, and so named the new viruses using words for “huge” in their respective languages. Hence: Mahaphage (Sanskrit), Kaempephage (Danish), Kyodaiphage (Japanese), and Jabbarphage (Arabic), but also Biggiephage (Australian) and Whopperphage (American).These huge phages have other strange characteristics. With so much DNA, the viruses are probably physically bigger than typical phages, which means that they likely reproduce in unusual ways. When phages infect bacteria, they normally make hundreds of copies of themselves before exploding outwards. But Banfield says that an average bacterium doesn’t have enough room to host hundreds of huge phages. The giant viruses can probably only make a few copies of themselves at a time—a strategy more akin to that of humans or elephants, which only raise a few young at a time, than to the reproduction of rodents or most insects, which produce large numbers of offspring.Giant phages also seem to exert more control over their bacterial hosts than a typical virus. All viruses co-opt their hosts’ resources to build more copies of themselves, but the huge phages seem to carry out “a much more thorough and directed takeover,” says Banfield. Their target is the ribosome—a manufacturing plant found in all living cells, which reads the information encoded in genes and uses that to build proteins. The huge phages seem equipped to fully commandeer the ribosome so that it ignores the host’s genes, and instead devotes itself to building viral proteins.This takeover involves an unorthodox use of CRISPR. Long before humans discovered CRISPR and used it to edit DNA, bacteria invented it as a way of defending themselves against viruses. The bacteria store genetic snippets of phages that have previously attacked them, and use these to send destructive scissor-like enzymes after new waves of assailants. But Banfield’s team found that some huge phages have their own versions of CRISPR, which they use in two ways. First, they direct their own scissors at bacterial genes, which partly explains why they can so thoroughly take over the ribosomes of their hosts. Second, they seem to redirect the bacterial scissors into attacking other phages. They actually boost their hosts’ immune system to take out the competition.[Read: Even viruses can get infected with other viruses]All these behaviors are intriguing, because they complicate the already heated debate about whether viruses should count as living things. Viruses share the same genetic material—DNA and RNA—that’s used in living cells, but cannot reproduce on their own and are completely dependent on their hosts. But in the complexity of their genomes, the giant phages clearly dwarf many organisms that are clearly alive—including bacteria that are also completely dependent on hosts for survival. Plus, the phages carry “all these bits of machinery that work with the ribosome and wouldn’t normally be in a non-living thing,” says Banfield.There are several reasons to find out more about these large viruses. For a start, phages have medical uses. In recent years, doctors have repeatedly used phages to treat bacterial infections that resisted all conventional antibiotics, and that seemed incurable. Beyond that, much of what we know about how genes work, and many technologies for altering and cloning said genes, came about through studying a phage called lambda. “Intensive research on phages founded the field of modern molecular biology,” says Bonnie Bassler of Princeton University. “I bet these megaphages house a treasure trove of new biological functions, which can be tinkered with to make applications that are useful for medicine, industry, or the environment.”Future potential aside, the huge phages are almost certainly affecting us already. Phages control the communities of bacteria living in our bodies. They might defend us against dangerous microbes, or they could spread genes for resisting antibiotics among those microbes. Good or bad, parasite or mutualist, animate or inanimate: phages seem to resist any possible classification. And they are clearly capable of more than scientists once expected. Just in the last few years, researchers have found phages that can eavesdrop on their hosts, and phages that protect their genes inside a capsule that looks uncannily like the nucleus of living cells.“Every time we make new discoveries about the virosphere,” says Mya Breitbart, of the University of South Florida, “it changes our perspective on what even constitutes a virus and how blurry the lines can be between viruses and cellular life.”
Democrats Need a Politics of Dignity
In October 2018, during the midterm elections, I paid a visit to Ohio, the midwestern swing state that had moved hardest toward Donald Trump two years earlier. My goal was to learn why Senator Sherrod Brown was running far ahead of his Republican opponent, winning back a lot of voters who had strayed from their traditional party.The staunch pro-labor Democrat offered a compact sermon as we sat in the back seat of a Chevy Suburban riding toward his party’s state convention in Columbus.“I think it’s all about the dignity of work,” he said. “I talk about how we value work. People who get up every day and work hard and do what we expect of them should be able to get ahead. I don’t think they hear that enough from Republicans or national Democrats.”[George Packer: The throwback Democrat]Brown won reelection that November—not by the huge margin he had in the polls when I visited, a margin he said at the time he didn’t believe himself, but solidly, by nearly seven points. The vote in Mahoning County, a union stronghold that includes Youngstown, offers an illustration of just what he accomplished. Barack Obama had won the county in a landslide with 63 percent in 2012. Hillary Clinton nearly lost it, winning just 50 percent. Brown won back most of the lost ground, earning 59 percent.The broad idea of dignity and its specific connection to work has been on my mind ever since. The idea appealed to me because it rang true to the core idea of Catholic social thought—“the equal dignity of every person”—that helped shape my own politics long ago. But to see it used so explicitly in a campaign was instructive. The idea finds its power from a deep intuition that the anger in our public life, across many of our lines of division, arises from a felt denial of dignity.This piece is adapted from Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country by E.J. Dionne, Jr.Blue-collar workers of all races—very much including the white working class, which has loomed so large in political analysis since 2016—have experienced this denial of dignity. But it is also experienced by African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants across classes. In the Trump Era, these workers confront a rise in racism and nativism championed by the president himself. Women who experience sexism, and young Americans who see themselves denied opportunities their parents enjoyed, feel it, too.In my new book, Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country, I argue that dignity should be the central purpose of a new post-Reagan economics and a new post-Trump politics. Dignity binds together progressives and moderates opposed to Trump. It can also bring together constituencies who now find themselves opposed to each other. A focus on dignity may thus have immediate political power, but it also has a deep moral resonance.Dignity is compelling because it is a value, not an ideology or a program. But neither is it an empty slogan. Dignity has strong implications for both policy and our culture. And it answers a moral yearning felt both individually and collectively. Lifting up dignity as a core national purpose is essential to renewing a society that has lost track of the powerful “We” that opens our Constitution. A commitment to equal dignity can play an important role in pulling together a nation that Trump has devoted himself to dividing.The word dignity has two different meanings, both of them enlightening about our political moment. The first, Merriam-Webster tells us, refers to “seriousness of manner, appearance, or language,” which is precisely the opposite of the day-to-day behavior of the current occupant of the White House.In the 2000 election, George W. Bush made a pledge to “restore honor and dignity to the White House” a standard part of his stump speech. It was his way of referencing Bill Clinton’s sex scandal without mentioning it. In 2020, that promise has more relevance than ever.But my focus is primarily on the second meaning of dignity, “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.” Americans in large numbers feel excluded from this state of grace.This is not just about economics. Trump harps regularly on the fears of those who are conservative and religious that their core commitments are under threat from elites who disrespect them. Phrases like flyover country are inherent denials of dignity to those who live far from the coasts. Americans in small towns and rural areas (in blue states as well as red ones) sense disrespect from their more mobile and trendy urban brethren over how they live and their very attachment to the places of their birth.[Yascha Mounk: The Democrats are blowing this election]But this form of distemper is hardly new to our history. The United States has experienced versions of it since the flight from farm to factory and from rural America to the cities began in the latter half of the 19th century. The Scopes trial in the 1920s subjected devout fundamentalists to ridicule from sophisticated city dwellers such as H. L. Mencken. A backlash against immigration gave rise to a new Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and led to the enactment of the highly restrictive (and fundamentally racist) Immigration Act of 1924. We are living through a similar backlash today in the wake of the large new flow of immigrants—and a change in their ethnic and racial composition—since the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.All these antipathies, however, have been aggravated by something new: the collapse of the economic order that arose from the reforms of the New Deal and the economically leveling effects of the wartime economy in the early 1940s. The New Deal political order entailed many things, but one of the most important was the elevation in the status of the American worker, the power workers gained through large-scale union organization, and the relatively equitable distribution of the wealth created by a roaring economy in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.Public policies, including a minimum wage that largely kept pace with inflation and the GI Bill, reinforced not only the incomes but also the social status of Americans without elite pedigrees or high-prestige employment. The worker cut a heroic figure in literature and film. Work itself was valued. It was seen as having … dignity.The new economic consensus of the Reagan era, which sought to overthrow that post–World War II settlement, is typically associated with tax cuts and deregulation, but it had a moral and cultural side as well: the elevation of the entrepreneur—the “job creator”—as the true hero of the American story. One of the most important books of the Reagan Revolution, George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty, announced this new orthodoxy. Gilder endowed the capitalist with “a spirit closely akin to altruism, a regard for the needs of others, a benevolent, outgoing, and courageous temper of mind.” In the new disposition, the wealthy didn’t just have a lot of money; they were practically saints.And as the capitalist rose in public esteem, the worker fell by the wayside. So did his and her power—the “her” here being more than just a requisite nod to gender equality. Women entered the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s not only because of the feminist revolution but also because many families could no longer get by on the stagnating wages of male breadwinners. The average hourly pay of American workers today remains below 1973 levels, and the power of organized workers has ebbed. In the 1950s, more than a third of American workers belonged to unions. Now, just over a tenth do.Again, not all of the distemper in our politics can be explained by the combined effects of the disempowerment of working Americans, challenges to their standard of living, and a decline in respect for the contributions they make through their labor. The deterioration of civil society that includes, but goes beyond, the decline of unions is also part of the story. So is the loss of social capital among those in economically ailing places that the conservative writer Tim Carney has described as the “unattached, disconnected, and dispossessed.”But even here, economics matter. Early on in his campaign, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg spoke of “a kind of disorientation and the loss of community and identity.” A friend of religion, Buttigieg certainly saw religious congregations as part of the solution. But his innovative point was how shifts in the economy aggravated the problem. The “very basic human desire for belonging,” Buttigieg said, had, historically, “often been supplied by the workplace … based on the presumption of a lifelong relationship with a single employer.” The decline of secure and durable employment leads to broken bonds and the sense of dispossession Carney describes.[Yoni Appelbaum: How American ends]No one pretends that the economy can go back to the employment patterns of the 1950s or 1960s—and even then, although many workers found stability, others did not. But simply allowing the social unraveling to continue will only aggravate our stresses and deepen the alienation experienced by so many Americans. This is why we need both a politics and an economics of dignity.Listen carefully, and you will hear the word dignity invoked regularly by progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren; moderates like Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and Buttigieg; and labor liberals like Brown. How can it be advanced through public policy?Gene Sperling, a top economic adviser to both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, has gone further than anyone in the policy world to describe what it would mean to make dignity “the singular end goal for economic policy.In an important article in Democracy that will be expanded into a book this spring, Sperling argued that economic dignity rests on three pillars: “the capacity to care for family and experience its greatest joys”; the “pursuit of potential and purpose”; and “economic participation without domination and humiliation.”The first pillar helps explain why family-friendly policies surrounding work are so important, but it also illuminates the frustrations of many lower-income Americans, including those who have been displaced from good jobs. The inability to provide for one’s family is a source of anger, despondency, and often shame. In many communities, men who were once accustomed to decent incomes found their old provider roles undercut—not by demands for gender equity but because their incomes collapsed. Most families now have a powerful interest in fair and equal pay because they are so dependent on at least two incomes. But in many low- and middle-income households, the lost earning power of men has not been offset by increased earning power of women.A politics of dignity would turn talk of “family values” away from denying rights to LGBTQ people and toward strengthening the ability of Americans across every divide to find satisfaction and fulfillment in their parental responsibilities.Similarly, Sperling argued that for millions of Americans, “the American promise of limitless potential and second chances feels distant.” These losses—including the “deaths of despair” from suicide and addiction that Anne Case and Angus Deaton have described with rigor and eloquence—are often discussed as if they involved “two completely different segments of America,” Sperling wrote. But “what sadly links the laid-off white Rust Belt worker in his 50s to the low-income minority youth from a dysfunctional school and economically disadvantaged community is the dignity hit of feeling denied a real chance to pursue his or her full potential and purpose.” Finally, Sperling noted the costs of the decline of the trade-union movement and the drift away from the New Deal traditions of lifting up workers. The result is a rise in “humiliation, dominance, harassment, and discrimination” in the workplace.A politics of dignity also means fighting against a leadership that has built its power by dividing Americans from each other. And it means fighting the denial of dignity whenever some groups of Americans are encouraged to look down on others—whether the native-born against immigrants, whites against blacks, or elites with college or post-grad degrees against their fellow citizens with less formal education. We need to edit Trump’s signature slogan. We need to make America empathetic again. And we need economic policies with empathy at their heart.[Read: The dark side of empathy]A few years ago, in our book One Nation After Trump, my colleagues Norm Ornstein, Thomas Mann, and I laid out a series of policies that we organized around the themes of a New Economy, a New Patriotism, a New Civil Society, and a New Democracy. Three themes from that account are relevant here.First, a more democratic political structure—meaning one in which the power of money and the influence of the connected are reduced and voting rights are guaranteed—is essential to moving the country toward fairer economic policies that embody the quest for dignity.Second, our nation needs to worry not only about the material costs of economic turmoil but also about the fraying of community and family bonds. Rebuilding community, strengthening the institutions of civil society, and shoring up families should be a priority. And in a post-Trump world, we might begin to chip away at political polarization by seeking concord across the left and the right about the urgency of this task. Progressives and conservatives share an interest in stronger communities and families, even if their concerns may have different philosophical roots. Third, our nation needs to experiment with more ambitious regional and place-based policies. A vibrant nation that is both socially and geographically mobile will always experience unequal development; many places have undergone declines and revivals. But the extreme regional (and, within cities, neighborhood) inequalities we are experiencing are dangerous to our social and political health. We need to address them more forcefully.Dignity as a core concept organizes policies that might otherwise seem a randomly assembled liberal wish list. For example, policies on family leave and child care are about restoring a sense of control and agency for parents. Our current marketplace depends on the work of both parents (or the sole parent in a single-parent family) but offers no compensation for the time market labor takes away from the tasks of keeping a family whole. Restoring family life, a goal regularly touted by conservatives, requires, as progressives insist, adjusting the rules of an economy that no longer operates on the 1950s model. It also means rejecting, once and for all, the use of “family values” as a slogan weaponized to undermine the rights of LGBTQ Americans. In fact, the rapidly growing consensus in support for LGBTQ rights opens the way for a conversation about family life that is free of bigotry. We might then be able to draw on the insights of both sides in this long-running debate: that thriving families matter to the well-being of children and to social justice, but also that a radically unequal economy puts stresses on families that they often cannot bear.While the gig economy provides useful flexibility in certain respects, it also undercuts the dignity of workers by robbing them of any predictability in their hours, not to mention decent and regular compensation. Elizabeth Warren’s bill of rights for workers in the gig economy is thus not an effort to stop economic change in its tracks but instead an attempt to apportion power in the new economy more fairly between capital and labor. Similarly, a push to allow unions and other forms of worker representation to flourish is a direct response to Sperling’s call for “economic participation without domination or humiliation.” Dignity must include exercising power at work, and over the work people do.Regional inequality is an abstract phrase that distances us from actual suffering. The ultimate point of regionally based economic policies—aimed at renewing shared growth in both old industrial towns and inner cities—is to restore the dignity that is nurtured in thriving communities. Decent employment itself matters; so does the support a degree of prosperity affords local institutions that build social capital. And it is hard to sustain a sense of dignity in deteriorating communities where those left behind watch as their cities, towns, or urban neighborhoods are abandoned by their young people, who must leave to search for opportunity.And—it should go without saying—jobs that offer only low wages and few or no benefits are the ultimate form of disrespect. To bring us back to Sherrod Brown: Either we believe in the dignity of work, or we don’t.The focus on dignity underscores a larger point: that progressives and moderates, required to work together because of the emergency the Trump presidency represents, have more in common at this moment than they often want to acknowledge.They may have disagreements over single-payer health care, free college, and whether or how to tax wealth. But they agree, against an increasingly radicalized conservativism, that government has a major role to play in writing new rules for a radically transformed economy and for pushing against economic inequality.Another way to put this is that the left, the center-left, and the center all agree on the need to undo and replace the Reagan economic consensus. This includes not only its policies but also its moral emphasis on the heroism of the entrepreneur over and against the day-to-day dignity of those who work for others. The surest sign that the Reagan consensus is collapsing is the fact that some leading conservatives—notably including Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley—have joined the progressive assault on it, by, for example, questioning the primacy of shareholder value as the measure of corporate success. Even Trump has distanced himself from the old conservative economic dogmas—although more in campaigning than in governing.Our country needs to pull itself back from the social gulfs that Trump has deepened for his own political purposes, and none more so than our divides around race. This will require a politics that stresses confronting problems shared by African Americans, Latinos, and whites alike. The costs of deindustrialization to African Americans in the inner city that William Julius Wilson described in his 1996 classic When Work Disappears have spread to predominantly white factory towns across the Midwest, and in parts of the Northeast and the South as well. The evaporation of so many well-paying blue-collar jobs is part of a crisis of dignity across racial lines.Two moments from our not-so-distant past might remind us that we should not see building multiracial alliances for justice as beyond our reach, even in the era of Trump.The United Auto Workers union was a major force behind the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. defined his dream: Its full name was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Top billing went to jobs because the ability to enjoy liberty and equality depends on having the economic wherewithal to exercise our rights.The architects of our greatest advances toward racial equality never forgot that social justice and economic justice are intertwined. We shouldn’t either. An overtly racist president should remind us of the urgency of the quest for a beloved community and a defense of our common—and equal—citizenship.We should also not forget the too-brief moment in 1968 before he was gunned down in Los Angeles when Robert F. Kennedy built an alliance of African Americans and working-class whites rooted in what the political writer Joel Dodge has called “the promise of meaningful dignity for all Americans.”Kennedy was both forward looking and old-fashioned in his vision. “We need jobs, dignified employment at decent pay,” he said. “The kind of employment that lets a man say to his community, to his family, to his country, and, most important, to himself, ‘I helped build this country. I am a participant in its great public ventures. I am a man.’”His gendered language is jarring now—although it is also a reminder of what many of the older men who have rallied to Trump in our time feel they have lost. But his promise can be recast for both women and men who “work every day,” in Jesse Jackson’s memorable refrain from decades ago. “I helped build this country” is the confident sound of both civic and economic dignity. We must hear it anew.
Trump’s Beautiful Proposal for Federal Architecture
I hope members of the National Civic Art Society are just perverse enough to be rather pleased with themselves right about now. The CAS is the group of activists behind the draft executive order informally called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” The draft, which was leaked earlier this month to an architecture trade publication, strongly encouraged architects to adopt a classical style when they design federal courthouses and buildings in the nation’s capital. The Trumpian title of the order was itself a mischievous provocation, and the name hit the bull’s-eye.The White House declined to say whether President Trump would sign the order or had even seen it. Yet the draft touched off panic attacks and furious denunciations from every corner of what is rightly termed the architecture establishment—a powerful agglutination of critics, urban planners, civil servants, reporters, publicists, corporate consultants, academics, and even some architects.[Amanda Kolson Hurley: Trump’s bizarre plan to make architecture classical again]The denunciations were not a surprise, and neither was their unvarying line of argument and abuse: The critics called the CAS and its leaders extremists, Nazis, white supremacists, and—this one must have really hurt—Republicans.As in so many cultural disputes today, the debate over the draft order cuts deep, all the way down to first premises. The two sides use different languages to talk past each other (though only one side is calling the other Nazis). The classicists behind the draft order hope to address a problem that the architecture establishment does not see as a problem. The nonproblem problem is this: After World War II, the federal government adopted modernism in its many variations as a kind of house architectural style, and as a consequence has managed to build a very large number of unlovely buildings.The J. Edgar Hoover F.B.I Building in Washington, D.C. (Joyce Naltchayan / AFP via Getty)Many of these structures now scar the otherwise classically designed streetscape of Washington, D.C. They include such infamous examples as the J. Edgar Hoover F.B.I. Building, which is even more obnoxious than its namesake, along with the Hubert H. Humphrey Health and Human Services Building and the former Housing and Urban Development headquarters, which one former employee deathlessly described as “ten floors of basement.” The government has extended the reach of its bad taste beyond the capital and into the provinces, with federal courthouses that don’t embody the law’s majesty but instead express contempt for ordinary taste or, just as often, advertise the architect’s cleverness.Why is this a problem? Willful, preventable ugliness is always a problem to one degree or another. Here the ugliness involves the self-conscious repudiation of commonly accepted notions of proportion, accessibility, appropriateness, and coherence. The problem doubles when the ugliness is created by government agencies spending the public’s money while in thrall to a special interest like the architecture establishment—in this case, the architects who design the government’s buildings, the critics who praise them, the academics who try to explain them, the trade associations that drape them in awards, and the wealthy civic boosters who like showing up for the ribbon cutting. Everyone wins except for the people who have to visit, work in, pay for, and look at the result.The Seagram Building in New York. (Independent Picture Service / Getty)To supporters of the draft order, the solution to this problem is simple: The way to get people to stop constructing ugly public buildings with government money is to insist that they use government money to design handsome buildings instead. Great buildings, like great architects, are rare, but certain styles of architecture lend themselves to a higher level of tolerable mediocrity than others. In the now defunct International Style, for instance, there is a vertiginous drop-off in quality between the Seagram Building, which shows the style at its dazzling zenith, and the scores of hurried, ill-proportioned Seagram wannabes that have pockmarked the downtowns of every midsize American city since the early 1970s.Supporters of the proposed executive order believe that classical architecture is closer to being idiot-proof. The style is much more likely to result in pleasing buildings even when designed by less-than-first-rate practitioners. On his worst day—hungover, kids sick, car in the shop, wife not speaking to him—the least talented classical architect is unlikely to produce anything quite as forbidding and hostile to human life as, let’s say, the Hirshhorn Museum on the National Mall.Classicism is also much more likely than the Hirshhorn’s brutalism or other postwar styles to produce a building admired by the public—the people who are, we shouldn’t forget, not merely the consumers but also the financial backers of government buildings. Although no truly definitive measures of the public’s taste in architecture exist, the American Institute of Architects conducted the closest thing to an authoritative poll of laymen in 2007. In the list of “150 favorite pieces of American architecture,” modernist buildings fared poorly; another 70 or so modern buildings that respondents considered didn’t crack the list at all. It’s safe to say public taste runs toward the traditional.The larger purpose of the draft order is to enlist this popular preference in a project of civic renewal. “New Federal building designs,” the text reads, “should … inspire the public for their aesthetics [and] make Americans feel proud of our public buildings … Classical and traditional architectural styles have proven their ability to inspire such respect for our system of self-government.”A couple of ironies are unmistakable here. Few public figures in memory have done more to demean the dignity and encourage the disrespect of government than Trump; signing the order would be at least a small gesture toward remediation. Meanwhile, the architecture establishment, which, like nearly all cultural organs, is squarely on the political left, might be expected to support a project meant to restore the public’s faith in “the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability” of the federal government. (The quote is from the draft order, which in turn is quoting an older, largely ignored set of federal guidelines.) Isn’t an enterprising and vigorous government a progressive ideal? In the Trump era everybody is changing places.[Read: Trump once proposed building a castle on Madison Avenue]One can legitimately argue with the order, beginning with the fact of the order itself. Even some traditionalists see unilateral executive action as a thick-fingered means to achieve the admirable goal of a more humane and welcoming built environment. Trump’s critics, who tend to see him as Il Duce with hair, go much further. The general accusation is that the proposed order is another sign of incipient fascism—“one of the most blatantly authoritarian things the government has yet attempted,” says Wired. The charge has grown ragged from overuse. More than half a century ago, the writer Jean-François Revel wondered why the dark night of fascism was always falling in the U.S. and yet lands only in Europe.Not all the criticism has been supercharged. Many of the craftier critics assume a kind of eye-rolling world weariness: The debate between traditional and contemporary architecture is so … so … 1980s. I mean, Gawd. The CAS and its supporters are living in the past, all right—not the Renaissance, but the Reagan era, when the neoclassical backlash against modernism seemed fresh. “Just to have this argument feels demeaning,” wrote the architecture critic for The New York Times. The order raises "issues most people simply don't argue about anymore," wrote the Washington Post's architecture critic. This debate, wrote a critic for New York magazine, “doesn’t really exist.”Well, the debate looks pretty lively from here, if a bit one-sided. I think what the critics mean is that they thought this debate was over—and that the people who believe as they do had swept the field and sown it with salt so that no dissent could sprout again, ever. Then this little band of Trumpian pip-squeaks piped up with their draft order. The critics react to this brazen insolence much as the father in the Ring Lardner story responds to his talky, precocious child: “Shut up, he explained.”Perhaps the frustration of the draft’s critics accounts for the misrepresentations and overstatements about what the order would actually do. The American Institute of Architects, in its statement, called it “one-size-fits-all”; The Dallas Morning News said, “The state [is] imposing its will on the creative freedom of its citizens.”Anytime the government hires someone to do a job—even an architect—it imposes its will and limits his or her freedom. That’s one advantage to being an employer. Even so, the imposition in this case is limited. The draft reads: “Architectural styles—with special regard for the classical architectural style—that value beauty, respect regional architectural heritage, and command admiration by the public are the preferred styles for applicable Federal buildings.” Other styles, such as the Mediterranean, the Spanish colonial, the Romanesque, and the Gothic, are explicitly encouraged, with latitude left for other styles to be used under “extenuating” circumstances. Only two styles, brutalism and deconstructivism, are excluded for federal buildings.That’s a pretty big tent. Would the AIA and the other critics want the government to hire architects that don’t value beauty, ignore local heritage, and give the public the high hat?Come to think of it, that’s what the government has been doing for more than 70 years.No one knows whether Trump will care enough to read the draft, much less sign it. From the evidence of his buildings, Trump’s taste in architecture runs toward a gaudy modernism, far removed from the restrained and tasteful traditionalism that the order promotes. If he signs it, he will do so for one of two reasons: (1) He truly believes it will elevate the quality of federal architecture and thereby the general level of citizenship. (2) He doesn’t care one way or the other but knows it will send his enemies right around the bend.I’m betting on No. 2. And they don’t have far to go.
More Than Ever, Justin Bieber Feels Like a Cautionary Tale
Justin Bieber’s rollout for new album has made him seem less man than ghost, here to warn us about the moral catastrophe that child stardom in the internet age has turned out to be. He’s currently unfolding a 10-part documentary on YouTube, and rather than dwelling on the glamour of being a young, recently married multimillionaire, it shows a fragile individual pacing a taupe-brown recording studio and sometimes retreating to a hyperbaric chamber to calm down. A small team—handlers, doctors, producers, and Bieber’s wife—dispenses medications and motivation to the blank-eyed 25-year-old, who says he often prefers to stay in bed rather than do anything else.The supposed point of this documentary, Seasons, and of the album it’s promoting, Changes, is that Bieber has come out on the other side of an adolescence that nearly killed him. It’s a story he’s told before, but not in terms as eerie as the ones being used now. Bieber’s strong 2015 album, Purpose, touted a message equally applicable to his exes, the restaurant mop bucket he famously peed in, and the other drivers on the road at the time of his 2014 DUI arrest: “Sorry.” The sonic tone was one of uplift, with the then-trending sounds of “tropical house” sprinkled around like baptismal water. “My life is a movie and everyone’s watching,” he sang in the album’s opening lines. “So let’s get to the good part and past all the nonsense.”The transcendent claims and catchy bops of the Purpose era ring more ambiguously now. After 16 months of concerts to support that album, with reports of his listlessness onstage, Bieber cut short his world tour. Late last year, he posted a long Instagram note sharing what he’d come to understand about the harmful psychological and even biochemical effects of becoming famous at age 13. He wrote about getting into “pretty heavy drugs” at age 19—not long before the release of Purpose—and about the high rate of mortality for child stars. The note had a rambling desperation, but it celebrated his survival thanks to the people around him, God, and his recent marriage to the model Hailey Baldwin.Changes again broadcasts a recovery narrative. But while Purpose found an overlap between the majesty of church music and the catharsis of pop, Changes forgoes dramatic moves for pleasant numbness. Bieber croons with an emphasis on sensitive micro-inflection while his melodies make simple, swaying motions. With puttering rhythms and burbling ringtone-style keyboard lines, most songs give the sense of aJacuzzi lit with therapeutic LEDs. In the best tracks, including “Intentions” and “Come Around Me,” Bieber’s musicalroil works in nifty counterpoint to his voice. Late in the album, he gets out of the sonic bath and turns to guitar and piano, which are treated with the sort of reverb that conjures the image of an arena entirely empty of people.Well, empty of people save one—an omnipresent “you,” some balming presence Bieber serenades. That presence might be mistaken for God or a pharmaceutical product if Bieber’s constant sex talk did not out it as Hailey. The droning single “Yummy” came off as the scribblings of a horny teen scrawling on his desk during detention; other songs describe his wife as a stick-shift driver and anatomy teacher. The more arresting image, however, is painted on “ETA,” in which he frantically texts Hailey to find out when she’ll show up to comfort him. In the outro, he learns that she’s only five minutes away, and you can finally sigh in relief. The impression given, as with so much recent music by emotionally ailing young men in pop, is of women not as individuals but as abjectly worshipped nurses.Perhaps the depiction of marriage as medicinal will be inspirational for listeners considering popping the question to their lover. Otherwise, the uplifting content of the album amounts to hip-hop appropriation and goofiness. In place of confession, Bieber substitutes wealth brags (one “Yummy” line mentions a Lamborghini and Bieber’s own fashion line, Drew House) and T.I.-style vocab (“Let’s get it on … expeditiously”). When rappers and R&B singers (Quavo, Post Malone, Lil Dicky, Summer Walker, Kehlani, Clever) show up for features, many of them bring a level of personality and specificity that highlights Bieber’s blankness. That’s not always a good thing; in fact, the guests tend to break the tranquilizing effect of the music itself.Nitpicking the songs feels tricky, however, because the listener is to believe that it is a triumph for Bieber to have released them at all. Seasons plays up how difficult it can be for the singer to get through any given day, and much of the material is sadly familiar: His struggles with anxiety, depression, and addiction fit with the tales of his peers (Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato) whose childhoods were consumed as entertaining public narratives. Taylor Swift’s recent Netflix documentary can be seen as a companion piece too. But whereas Swift portrays herself trying to deprogram damaging cultural ideas about self-worth that she absorbed as a teenager, Seasonssuggests that society’s demands can be met with the right kind of effort—whether by turning to one’s spouse, one’s manager, or one’s art.Or: one’s doctors. In addition to addressing mental-health issues, the documentary presents Bieber as physically afflicted, with diagnoses of Epstein-Barr and Lyme disease. Viewers meet a variety of doctors and gurus, including Daniel Amen, the celebrity psychologist whose brain-imaging technique has been widely criticized as quackery. (“I have my share of critics, but pressed on because our work changes lives, and that has always been the driving factor,” Amen said in 2016.) At one point, Bieber is hooked up to an IV containing a substance called NAD, an unproven treatment that Hailey says will “repair [the brain’s] pleasure centers.” Throughout the doc, Bieber says he’s on the mend. But as a viewer, judging the efficacy of his many pills, therapies, injections, and contraptions feels impossible.It is clear, though, that he still regards the celebrity machine with a sense of fear. The specters of pressure and expectations recur in Bieber’s speech, and the record producer Poo Bear explains that Bieber feels his task is for the album to be “flawless.” There is a way to hear the lovingly textured and coherent Changes as coming close to succeeding at that mission. But there is also a way to hear it as strapping Bieber in for another round of battery. If he’s built up resilience to the fame game, you can’t tell from the way he’s strenuously begged fans to stream “Yummy” to send it higher on the charts, or from the way he DMed at least one influencer who dissed his new music. He’ll meet his forthcoming 45-date tour with the helpers and the marriage he’s been showing off lately—but also, it’s worth hoping, with a fortitude so far hidden from the cameras.
In Britain, Even Jails Have a Class System
In June 2016, the filmmaker Chris Atkins was convicted of fraud after he submitted false invoices for his documentary about the British media, allowing its investors to dodge taxes. He was sentenced to five years in prison and sent to Wandsworth, in South London, one of the largest prisons in Western Europe.Built in 1851, it holds about 1,600 men and is classed as Category B, one grade below the high-security prisons for violent offenders and terrorists. Thanks to his talent for sweet-talking the guards, Atkins soon got transferred to one of its less violent and rundown wings, Trinity, a Category C unit focused on training and resettlement. Eventually, he was moved from Wandsworth to a Category D—or “open”—prison with minimal security to serve the rest of his sentence. He was released in December 2018.While in Wandsworth, Atkins—deprived of his liberty; regular access to his toddler son, Kit; and a smartphone—began to keep a diary. Because journalists are allowed only limited access to jails, few Britons have any idea what conditions are really like inside them. Atkins consoled himself that although he was locked up, he also had unfettered access to “the story of his life.”[Read: Why extremists need therapy ]With his filmmaker’s eye, he recorded both small details and outsize characters. He discovered a hierarchy within the inmate population—a hidden class system. Some wings were full of white, educated criminals convicted of offenses such as fraud and computer hacking. Others were occupied by men with mental-health problems, low levels of education, poor English, and little family support. The best cells were those on the ground floor, the “Ones,” which were usually occupied by long-term inmates or those with trusted jobs such as working in the canteen. The cells got worse the higher you went. “Moving from the Fours to the Twos was a big improvement, like getting bumped to economy plus,” Atkins writes in the memoir that came out of his diary, A Bit of a Stretch.In Britain, it is now a tabloid-newspaper cliché that jails are like “holiday camps,” but the reality is much bleaker. In the past decade, prison budgets have been cut, guard numbers have fallen, and a cannabis-like drug called “spice,” which can make users either violent or “zombified,” has become ubiquitous. A December 2017 parliamentary report said up to 90 percent of prisoners have mental-health problems, and 12 percent turn to self-harm or attempt suicide multiple times. Atkins joined a group called the “listeners,” which provided peer counseling for men in distress.A Bit of a Stretch shows a system in chaos, as guards struggle to deal with mentally ill, poorly educated men housed in decaying old buildings. It is also, in places, very funny. I spoke with Atkins last week to coincide with the book’s publication. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.Helen Lewis: How did you end up in Wandsworth?Chris Atkins: There was a film called Starsuckers, which I started making 12 or 13 years ago. It was a film criticizing the media, and because of that it was very, very difficult to get funding. So I engaged with tax-investment funds that were quite fashionable at the time. This particular tax fund crossed the line from morally reprehensible tax avoidance into outright tax evasion. No excuses: We shouldn't have done it, and we had to pay the price.Lewis: In your memoir you write that Wandsworth is “a strange mirror of wider society” where “the more educated and affluent prisoners quietly carved out the best jobs and places to live.”Atkins: You basically start at the bottom and work your way up in prison. In a very sharp-elbowed way, I wormed my way up to the best cells and the best wing. Anytime you make a step in that direction, your life gets a little bit better, your neighbours a bit less unhinged, you get a little bit more unlock time, the food gets slightly better. It is a weird mirror of middle-class people finding their way into the houses by the best schools. The white, intelligent, educated, not-mentally-ill people generally end up in the best spots.Lewis: You eventually got transferred to the plushest wing, and the best cell in that wing, surrounded by other white-collar criminals.Atkins: It was comfortable and uncomfortable: comfortable because I was around people who were more like me. I mean, I don't consort with City boys [bankers], but in Wandsworth they became my type. They were closer to me than the mentally ill drug addicts or the Romanian gangsters.But it was uncomfortable because they'd all done things that were wrong as well. Arguably, things that harm society more than the mentally ill drug addicts. Some of them were responsible for dozens of people losing their life savings.Lewis: The short-staffing of prison guards meant that the “White Collar Club” was doing lots of tasks—handing out paperwork, cleaning, counseling, running the library—that kept the place running.Atkins: Completely. And the White Collar Club would hand jobs out to each other. They wanted me there [in the best wing of the prison]. You were attractive to them simply because you weren't a nutter—because everyone had had a nutty cell mate or nutty neighbors.When the jobs would come in, Lance and Scott [two fellow prisoners at the top of the pecking order], they would be like a king handing out patronage. Later, I was being offered jobs and I didn’t want them, so I would hand them out like candy to people below me. At one point, I was doing seven jobs.Lewis: The White Collar Club reacted badly when a violent, loud prisoner named Wayne moved into their section. What happened?Atkins: It was like, ‘This neighborhood has taken a turn for the worse. Who's at number 28? He has music on loud.’ It was uncomfortable because [Wayne] probably had a mental illness and had a terrible hand in life. We had all the advantages in life and squandered them.In prison, though, you stop worrying about the outside world; because it's so closed off, I could have been on the moon. Instead you become fascinated and obsessed with all the stuff that's going on in your immediate environment … We were all interested in, you know, who's going to move into H-12.Lewis: Because you can control so little, you become obsessed with what you can control.Atkins: And you want what your neighbors want. Once, we made a bin [trash can]. It took hours. And then we noticed that the lads in the cell next door, their bin had a lid. So we thought: We've got to get a lid. It is like, ‘Oh, they’ve got a swimming pool next door; we need a pool.’Lewis: You worked doing education tests on incoming prisoners. How many were illiterate?Atkins: I'd say 50 percent were functionally illiterate. They could barely read or write.Lewis: After a few months, you and your ex-partner were “running on completely different clocks” when she came to visit. Tell me about becoming “institutionalized.”Atkins: It's not about becoming more dysfunctional or falling apart; it's about adapting to your environment. When the white-collar types would arrive, they’d ask to move cells. Then again, half an hour later. Then again. They were used to everything happening now—the immediacy of modern society, where if you want something, you go on Amazon Prime and it’s delivered this evening. Prison moves at a glacial pace. As you adapt to the environment, you start moving at a glacial pace.Lewis: You said you were one of the few people in Wandsworth who didn’t have an iPhone. What was that like?Atkins: Someone in the cell above me kept dragging a chair, so there was this vibration. It gave me Pavlovian twitches for my phone.I kept reaching for my pocket to get the phone—and prison clothes don’t have pockets. You think, How can I survive without it? for three weeks, then you stop.Lewis: You studied for a psychology degree with all that extra time.Atkins: I got so much more done than I do now, with Twitter and texting your mates. I still don't recommend it. People kept saying, ‘It sounds like a great writer’s retreat.’Lewis: You did find humor in the situation: You ordered a rock hammer and a poster of Rita Hayworth in the name of a fellow prisoner.Atkins: Prisons are very, very, very funny places, naturally. At Wandsworth, I couldn’t wait sometimes to get back to my cell and tell my cell mate what had happened on E Wing. Some of it was nervous laughter, a reaction to the trauma.Lewis: You worked as a “listener”—something close to a Samaritan, providing support for traumatized people. What issues did they have?Atkins: Some people came into my cell saying they wanted to kill themselves. A lot of the time it was just complaining—but complaining helps, because people get stuff off their chests. Shit cell mates were the top one. Until you worked out the system, you couldn’t choose your cell mate, so you’d get lumped with someone you couldn’t stand for 23 hours a day. Women problems: she won’t visit; she’s leaving. New charges landing on them when they were inside. There were people with severe mental illness, that was the most shocking thing.Lewis: One of the shocks of the book is how nondigital the prison system is. It’s all literal paperwork.Atkins: I’m writing a TV drama about this. I smuggled out a load of paperwork because I thought: People will never believe this. If you want anything at all—if you want to get extra visits, if you want a kosher meal, if you want to go to the Christian service, if you ordered candy from the canteen and it didn’t arrive, if you need phone credit—half of it goes in the bin; it is never, ever responded to.Lewis: You write that you were the only person in Wandsworth getting the left-wing Guardian newspaper delivered. I was surprised that the most popular magazine in prison was GQ.Atkins: People of the prisoner class have really, really bought into the capitalist dream. But they were too unlucky, ill-educated, unfortunate, or born in the wrong place to have all the things that society has told them they should have. They were taught from a very early age: You can have it all, not just the wealth but the stuff. Trainers [sneakers] are a big deal, watches are a big deal, cars are a big deal.Lewis: Tell me about “spice,” which seems to have become the British prisoner’s drug of choice.Atkins: It was so ubiquitous. You could tell straightaway if someone was on it, they’d be zombified, with glazed eyes. They’d just be lying on their bed in a vegetative state.I think [spice users] are used to smoking strong cannabis. And you can't really get away with that, because of the smell. But spice doesn’t smell. The sniffer dogs can’t get it.It’s the law of unintended consequences. An older screw [prisoner officer] said, it used to be that inmates would smoke weed. But then [jails] brought in drug testing, and marijuana stays in the system for a month. So they stopped doing that, and started to do spice, which makes people vegetative and violent.Lewis: How does Wandsworth compare to fictional versions of prisons? You write that the water pressure was a lot better in Shawshank Redemption.Atkins: Nothing captures the chaos and the dysfunctionality and the Catch-22-ness. Nothing works the way it should. There is a whole shadow economy. I never ate tuna, but you had a dozen tins of tuna by the door to exchange for whatever you needed.The entire way the prison was supposed to work had broken down, and everyone knew it.[Read: When mental illness becomes a jail sentence]Lewis: If I gave you a magic wand, what’s the first thing you would fix?Atkins: Mental health. Take people with mental illness out of the system or give them proper mental-health care while they are there. It is the only humane thing to do.Lewis: What else would you change?Atkins: They should embrace technology, which would save money and be more efficient. And although I would say this, because I was one of them, keeping white-collar criminals in Category C prisons [closed ones, like Wandsworth] is ridiculous. Send them to open prison, which is far cheaper, and they can teach other prisoners to read and write.It’s still shit in open prison. You’re still not with your family. It’s the separation that kills you; the conditions, you get used to, wherever you are.
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Bloomberg's Beating
Everyone came to Vegas to fight—everyone, that is, except Michael Bloomberg.Tonight’s debate at the Paris Theater on the Las Vegas strip was the feistiest free-for-all of a marathon campaign that only saw its first votes cast two weeks ago. The candidates went after each other with abandon—frontrunners filleting the underdogs, zingers criss-crossing the stage like lasers. A newly energized and combative Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts tried to reassert herself in the race by taking down just about all of her five competitors—but particularly the former New York mayor.Bloomberg made his debate debut after entering the race 10 weeks ago, and his lack of experience on the national stage was apparent from the evening’s opening moments. Bloomberg, who has muscled his way into the top tier on the back of nearly a quarter billion dollars in advertising, came under withering criticism from his rivals on a broad range of issues. Again and again, he struggled to respond. Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden assailed the “stop and frisk” policing policy Bloomberg presided over as mayor, and which he defended for years despite data that showed it disproportionately affected young men of color. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont knocked him for his Republican past, noting his endorsement of President George W. Bush in 2004 and the financial support he has given to GOP candidates in the many years since.Read: [The debate that progressives have been waiting for]No one, however, attacked Bloomberg harder, or with more gusto, than Warren. She began the debate by reminding voters of the “billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians.”“No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg,” she said. “Look, I’ll support whoever the Democratic nominee is, but understand this. Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”Later in the debate, Warren directly confronted Bloomberg over the allegations of workplace harassment at his eponymous financial company. With help from Biden, she tried to force him to release women from the non-disclosure agreements they had signed. After Bloomberg countered that he had hired and promoted women both at his company and at City Hall, Warren summarized his defense as, “I’ve been nice to some women.”And after Bloomberg repeated the apology he had issued for “stop and frisk,” saying that New York City police officers had “stopped too many people,” Warren replied, “You need a different apology, Mr. Mayor.”The closest thing to a national debate Bloomberg has taken part in happened during the last race he ran for mayor—more than a decade ago. Tonight the 78-year-old that viewers saw on TV was a far cry from the one in the well-produced ads that have flooded the airwaves across the country and catapulted him into second place behind Sanders in some national polls. He seemed irritated at the attacks, asked the moderators for more time to respond, and snapped at Biden, “Let me finish, please.”Viewers also saw a vastly different Warren from the candidate that largely eschewed attacks on her opponents for the campaign’s first year. Fighting both a cold and the irrelevancy of the second tier, she came after not only Bloomberg but Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg as well. “It's not a plan, it's a PowerPoint,” Warren said of Buttigieg’s healthcare proposal, which she said had been handed to him by consultants. “And Amy's plan is even less. It's like a Post-It note: ‘Insert plan here.’” (Warren did later defend Klobuchar, however, after Buttigieg criticized his moderate rival for forgetting the name of the Mexican president.)Indeed, it was hard to keep track of all the attacks the candidates deployed, making this debate nearly unrecognizable from the often snoozy—but substantive—affairs that preceded it. (Even The Onion noticed the change in tone.)It wasn’t difficult, though, to find a reason for the shift. The voting has started, and the next contests in Nevada and South Carolina could turn the primary campaign into a two-man race between a 78-year-old billionaire and a 78-year-old democratic socialist, neither of whom were registered members of the party as of a few years ago. For Warren, Biden, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg, tonight’s debate was perhaps one of their final chances to change the trajectory of the campaign before Super Tuesday.And so, on a February night in Las Vegas, they collectively decided to show up and fight.
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Billionaire Braces for Criticism
Last month, when a late-stage change to the Democratic National Committee’s debate rules provided an opening for former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, his competitors claimed to be irate. “Billionaires shouldn’t be allowed to play by different rules,” Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted. An adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders called it “the definition of a rigged system.”But the Democratic-primary candidates and their allies also recognize that there is potential value in sharing a stage with the self-funding billionaire tonight. For the progressives in the race, Bloomberg’s appearance at the Las Vegas debate means they’ll get to directly confront the person who, in their view, exemplifies the racism, sexism, and elite billionaire class they’ve been railing against since the race began. And tonight’s debate will double as a kind of debut for Bloomberg, whose glossy commercials have saturated the airwaves for months even though millions of Americans have likely never heard him speak before a live audience.“He’s been able to float above the whole situation with his million-dollar media ads,” Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who has endorsed Warren, told me today. “The candidates who’ve been duking it out for many months in the fields of Iowa and the wilds of New Hampshire are certainly eager to bring [him] back down to earth.”Team Bloomberg has been preparing for weeks for tonight’s debate, and the campaign has already previewed a rebuttal to criticisms like the kind that Sanders and Warren might offer: “Promising to spend trillions of dollars of taxpayer money just to get yourself elected is buying an election,” Bradley Tusk, a Bloomberg campaign adviser, told my colleague Edward-Isaac Dovere this week. “Using money you earned to run a campaign that does not need or take money from any outside interest is laudable.” (The Bloomberg campaign did not respond to request for comment for this story.)Tonight’s debate puts Bloomberg in a situation that he hasn’t been in for years, said Rebecca Katz, the founder of New Deal Strategies, a progressive political-consulting group. “That’s why we’re excited.”Since announcing his candidacy in November of last year, the former New York mayor has shelled out about $183 million of his own money in TV advertising, more than all of the other candidates combined, plus nearly $50 million on digital platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. He’s also skipped campaigning in the early-primary states in favor of spending time in Super Tuesday states, and he’s invested deeply in the South, where the other presidential campaigns have less of a presence. Those efforts, at least for now, are paying off: The former mayor has skyrocketed to the near-top of national polls, where he is currently vying for second place with former Vice President Joe Biden, according to FiveThirtyEight.“It’s the first time that the vast majority of Democrats who live outside of New York are going to have any real exposure to Bloomberg’s politics and character and personality,” Raskin said, and candidates will use tonight to expose his vulnerabilities. Senator Amy Klobuchar, in an interview on CNN last weekend, challenged Bloomberg to come on stage, saying she doesn’t think he “should be able to hide behind air waves and huge ad buys.” And Warren tweeted yesterday that, while “it’s a shame Mike Bloomberg can buy his way into the debate,” at least tonight’s viewers will “get a live demonstration of how we each take on an egomaniac billionaire.”Raskin said he expects Warren to place special emphasis on Bloomberg’s defense of the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk program, which has been criticized for unfairly targeting black Americans and Latinos, and to bring up Bloomberg’s past sexist comments and the dozens of sexual-harassment complaints and lawsuits brought against the candidate and his namesake company. Warren can also be counted on to confront Bloomberg about his 2008 remark blaming the financial collapse on the end of redlining, or racial discrimination in mortgage lending, said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a political-action committee that has endorsed Warren. “She is uniquely capable of connecting the dots between Bloomberg being an apologist for Wall Street, and that being synonymous with discrimination against black and brown communities,” Green said.[Read: Mike Bloomberg and the underbelly of #MeToo]Sanders, who has spent two national election cycles thundering about billionaires and inequality, has already accused Bloomberg of attempting to buy the 2020 presidential election, and tonight he will almost certainly charge the former mayor with being an urgent threat to democracy. “Senator Sanders looks forward to drawing a clear contrast in their worldviews,” Representative Ro Khanna of California, a Sanders campaign co-chair, told me. The senator will frame the choice between Bloomberg and himself as rich versus poor; elite versus working-class; plutocrat versus small-D democrat. “Senator Sanders has stood up for a people-powered campaign with working-class people giving him the resources to campaign,” Khanna said. “That’s a direct contrast to someone who believes that they should pool their own resources.”Bloomberg, in other words, could serve as the rich-white-guy foil that both Warren and Sanders need to help them further energize their respective lefty bases tonight. He’s sure to be a frequent target, and has surely been working on his counter-punches. The former mayor will likely focus on making the case that, with his years of experience in elected office and his boundless financial resources, he has the best chance to defeat Donald Trump in November—that the Democratic Party’s main job is to get rid of the Republican president, not support a social movement. “Bloomberg is extraordinarily smart,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic consultant. “He is very disciplined and very difficult to throw off track.”But 78-year-old Bloomberg has not participated in a debate since 2009, while the rest of the Democrats on stage tonight will have had multiple debates and other public forums in which to present themselves to the American people.“This will be his first time on a level playing field,” said Katz, the progressive consultant. The question is to what extent a one-night performance will ultimately matter to a candidate who will never run out of money.
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Homeless in Siberia: Surviving the Winter
Alexey Malgavko / Reuters Alexey Malgavko, a photojournalist working with Reuters, spent time this winter among the homeless population in the Russian city of Omsk. Life is extremely difficult for those living rough in a city where wintertime low temperatures can reach -22 Fahrenheit (-30 Celsius) at night. Many survive the cold by finding or making shelters along industrial heating pipes that run through the city. Malgavko writes about one of the people he followed, Alexei Vergunov: “It's a perilous existence. Too far from the pipe and he could die of exposure to the cold. Too close and he could get severe burns without him noticing at first through the haze of hard alcohol that many drink to keep warm and dull reality.”
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Why Corporate Buzzwords Are So Annoying
If there’s anything corporate America has a knack for, it’s inventing new, positive words that polish up old, negative ones. Silicon Valley has recast the chaotic-sounding “break things” and “disruption” as good things. An anxious cash grab is now a “monetization strategy,” and if you mess up and need to start over, just call it a “pivot” and press on. It’s the Uber for B.S., you might say.Cloying marketing-speak, of course, isn’t limited to the tech world. As a health reporter, much of my work involves wending my way through turgid academic studies, which are full of awkward turns of phrase like “salience” and “overweight” (used as a noun, as in: “the prevalence of overweight”). Even more tedious is reading some of the reports put out by nonprofit organizations, which always seem to want to arm “stakeholders” with tools for their “toolboxes.” I wish journalists were immune, given that we fancy ourselves plainspoken, salt-of-the-earth types, but sadly common in our world is talk of “impactful longform” or “deep dives.”Not quite a cliche, not quite a term of art, a buzzword is a profound-seeming phrase devised by someone important to make something sound better than it is. Typically, the buzzword develops a shibboleth status in a given field—“we’re all about big data”—to the point where everyone is saying it and everyone feels like they must say it. Meanwhile, with each repetition and slide deck, the term grows more hackneyed, and many of its speakers grow more nauseated at its mention. Does anyone actually say “disrupt” with a straight face anymore?When I recently asked on Twitter about everyone’s least-favorite buzzwords, people really mind-shared some good ones. “Capacity” grates, as does “at risk” when describing people, along with the delightfully redundant “root cause.” The “optics” of “growth-hacking” do little to “value-add,” as well. But the strange thing is, these folks are from the fields in which those words are used. Like everyone’s loud tipsy uncle, the buzzwords people know best tend to be the ones that irritate them most. That so many people continue to use these words anyway speaks to one of the most powerful quirks of office life—and the power dynamics that make it so difficult to change.According to Gretchen McCulloch, the author of Because Internet, buzzwords were born from the artifice of the office itself. At work, people are paid to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do in their leisure time. They don’t dress at the office the way they do at home, they don’t act at the office the way they do outside of it, and they don’t talk about drilling down and right-sizing around their friends. Buzzwords mark the boundary of work life, broadcasting, “I’m working!” in much the same way an Ann Taylor getup does. They allow workers to relate to each other—the much decried “synergy” is an important part of a lot of peoples’ jobs, after all.Frankly, buzzwords also help save time. You can command a co-worker to “get their ducks in a row,” and have them basically know what you mean. In this way, speaking in business jargon is a way of showing you fit in to the office, the Copenhagen Business School professor Mary Yoko Brannen tells me. One of the most important elements of culture is language.From a more cynical perspective, buzzwords are useful when office workers need to dress up their otherwise pointless tasks with fancier phrases—you know, for the optics. Coal miners and doctors and tennis instructors have specific jargon they use to get their points across, but “all-purpose business language is the language you use when you aren't really doing anything,” says the anthropologist David Graeber, the author of Bullshit Jobs. Similarly, buzzwords can provide a PR-friendly gloss on whatever “pain points” you’re trying to cover up, as in the case of doctors who say they are “happy to provide you with the paperwork to submit to your insurance company.” (In English, this means they don’t take insurance.)Given their ubiquity, we might expect workers to stop worrying and embrace the buzzword. What’s so wrong with a little thought-leading? The reason buzzwords are so annoying, McCulloch says, is that language is inherently a reflection of the people who speak it and the circumstance under which it’s used. Terms like “circling back” and “touching base” are inseparable from that one annoying work task you’re just trying to get someone to respond to. “If you find corporate buzzwords annoying, it's probably because you find work annoying,” McCulloch says.The fact that buzzwords are a joke even to many of the people who rely on them suggests that work, and its language, is a kind of pretense. And speaking the language of work reminds people that they’re pretending. Graeber remembers the first time he and all his high-school friends shook hands, as kind of a gag. It became a recurring joke, as in, “oh, this is what adults do.” “I think people in these offices are permanently caught at that moment,” he says. We’re forever “closing the loop” on things, because of a vague notion that this is what adults do.Few people enjoy faking it in this way, though. I recently unearthed an email from college in which I told a friend exactly what I needed from her and why her recent actions had been bothering me, and it was like it was written by a different person. These days, I’d be more likely to feign a weekend stomach bug and reschedule drinks until I was feeling less mad. “Sorry to resched!” I might say.Buzzwords are a reminder, in a way, of a time in life when it was acceptable to speak more plainly and say what you really mean. The realization that you’re rarely doing much of either anymore can be depressing. As the sociologist Erving Goffman wrote, in The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, “to the degree that the individual maintains a show before others that he himself does not believe, he can come to experience a special kind of alienation from self.”Blue-sky scenario, you would ditch the wheelhouses and start speaking more straightforwardly. But McCulloch warns that doing so may brand you as an iconoclast—something that’s more fraught for women and people of color, who already face greater barriers to acceptance in the workplace. For many workers, it can be risky to tell your boss you’re going to come up with really random, insane ideas to see if you like any of them, rather than that you plan to think outside the box. So rather than disrupting the status quo, you may just want to leverage your ability to speak Corporate in order to bring more to the table. At least until you become the boss.
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The Couples Who Share the Cost of Birth Control
In 2017, Taylor Kay Phillips was debating two things: whether she wanted to switch from the pill to an IUD, and, if she did, whether she should ask her boyfriend, Felipe Torres, to help pay for it. At the time, Phillips—now a comedy writer in New York City—was unemployed, and her insurance plan wouldn’t cover the $1,100 bill. But she was hesitant to ask Torres to pitch in. Phillips didn’t know anyone else who had split the cost of birth control with a partner, and she had questions. If her boyfriend paid for part of her IUD, would that mean she had less autonomy over her own body? They had been dating for only a few months, and copper IUDs, the type that Phillips wanted, typically last for up to 12 years; if she and Torres broke up, would she need to reimburse him? But when they sat down to talk about the IUD, he offered to pay for half before she could ask. “It just seemed like the fair, right thing to do,since I was also reaping the benefits,” Torres told me.During their conversation, they acknowledged that while both of them would be responsible for an unwanted pregnancy, much of the burden—physical, but also emotional—would fall on Phillips. They wanted to balance out that burden, financially. Although I wasn’t able to find any statistics on the exact number of couples who share the cost of contraception, many of the researchers and individuals I spoke with said that, in their experience, cost-sharing is not the norm among heterosexual couples.[Read: The different stakes of male and female birth control]Under the Affordable Care Act, many women in the United States have gained access to free birth control, but some still have to pay in certain circumstances. Insurance companies don’t need to cover brand-name contraceptives, just generic versions. Short-term, often low-cost insurance plans aren’t required to cover contraception at all. Religious employers can apply for an exemption that allows them to drop contraceptive coverage from their plan. And women without insurance have no choice but to pay for birth control out-of-pocket, or go without.Nearly 65 percent of women ages 15 to 49 currently use some form of contraception, according to the most recent available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The cost of birth control can vary dramatically depending on the type. According to Planned Parenthood, IUDs can cost up to $1,300, and hormonal pills can cost up to $50 a month, or $600 a year. When factoring in the cost of an annual visit to a gynecologist or other doctor, the bill can be even higher.Many common forms of birth control can be obtained only through a doctor, and as a result, many women bear the brunt of the costs, in terms of both time and money, including setting up appointments, getting refills, and paying for contraception. These burdens are even heavier for poor women, especially those living in “contraceptive deserts,” areas with limited access to birth-control clinics. Sharing the cost of contraception with a partner can help alleviate some of that financial strain and symbolically demonstrate that a couple views preventing pregnancy as a joint responsibility. When Torres and Phillips decided that they were going to split the cost of Phillips’s IUD, they devised a payment plan in which Torres would Venmo Phillips $200 each month, for three months. Phillips told me that while she views sex as a “shared endeavor,” the duty to prevent pregnancy is “fundamentally unequal,” in that she “can get pregnant and he cannot.” She added: “I had to go in and have a legitimate medical procedure, cramp up, and bleed extra for a year. And he got to have condomless sex with, basically, abandon.”Katrina Kimport, a medical sociologist at the University of California at San Francisco, told me it’s not surprising that few heterosexual couples share the cost of birth control. She studies women’s experiences with abortion and contraception, and pointed out that the most highly effective, long-acting, and commonly used forms of birth control—for example, IUDs and oral contraceptives—physically operate in women’s bodies. In her research, Kimport has found that even when women visit family-planning clinics, medical professionals frame preventing pregnancy as a female responsibility. As a result, both partners in a relationship may assume by default that women should be in charge of maintaining, and paying for, contraception.[Read: Block that sperm!] Financial costs are just one of the burdens of preventing pregnancy. There are also mental, physical, and emotional tolls to consider. “It takes time to go to the doctor, go through the physicals, and go to the pharmacy,” Julie Fennell, a sociologist at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., told me. “It’s not a huge deal, but it is something that adds up, especially if you’re poor and you have limited access to these things.” Even after acquiring a prescription or getting an IUD insertion, the work isn’t done—a person may have to remember to take a pill at the same time every day or go to the pharmacy once a month. There are common side effects such as depression, weight gain, and irregular bleeding, and rare, debilitating ones such as pelvic inflammatory disease, blood clots, and ovarian cysts. “I don’t think there’s any broad social discourse that encourages empathy for the difficulty that some women face in successfully contracepting,” Kimport said. In fact, she has observed “an overall downplaying of the effects of side effects and how disruptive they can be.”For couples whose contraception is covered by insurance, the issue of cost-sharing may still come up when discussing another common type of birth control: condoms. In a 2016 survey by Trojan and the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University, 65 percent of women said they had never bought condoms, although 68 percent of women didn’t think that providing them should be solely a man’s job.However, some men, such as William, a 23-year-old researcher living in Bethesda, Maryland, view buying and supplying condoms as a male obligation. William says he has never been with a female partner who bought or offered to buy condoms. (William asked to be identified by his first name only so that he could discuss his sex life openly.) He told me that when he and his current partner started having sex, they had a formal discussion about how they would pay for birth control. William’s partner pays for the pill since she takes it for noncontraceptive reasons, while he buys the condoms. He has also offered to pay for Plan B, should they ever need it, because if the condom were to break, “it’d probably be my fault,” he said. If he and his partner shared other costs such as rent or food, William said that dividing their expenses by total cost, and not by item, would make more sense. But William stressed that he wasn’t opposed to doing so in the future. “As a concept, I would be open to helping pay for it if asked. I don’t really have any strong reservations against that,” he said.Samantha McDonough, a 51-year-old living in Virginia, approaches cost-sharing differently. She is polyamorous but currently in a long-term relationship with one partner. Though she has had her tubes tied, she still uses condoms, and typically takes turns buying them with her partner. When she was seeing multiple partners, condom use was even more nonnegotiable, and she made sure that both she and her partners had them.McDonough has two daughters, and she has tried to encourage them to be proactive about using protection. Yet she told me that she “didn’t want to give them the impression that they should carry the cost on their own. I just wanted to let them know that they had to make sure that they thought about protecting themselves first and didn’t rely on someone else to do that.” She believes that while everyone, especially women, should do their part to have safe sex, looking at contraception as a shared expense has many benefits.[Read: Why are young people having so little sex?]Cost-sharing isn’t the only way that couples reallocate responsibilities surrounding pregnancy prevention. In 2007, before the ACA passed, Fennell interviewed several heterosexual couples for a paper she titled,“Men Bring Condoms, Women Take Pills: Men’s and Women’s Roles in Contraceptive Decision Making.” While some men gave their female partners money to help pay for contraception, others set alarms to remind them to take the pill at a specific time, or went with their partners to doctor appointments. Still, Fennell said that although many women wanted their male partners to take a greater interest in contraception, most still “wanted to be the [one] making the final decisions,” because they felt uncomfortable with the idea that their partners had sway over what they did with their body.Even couples who do share the cost of birth control, such as Phillips and Torres, are hesitant to prescribe it as something that every couple should do. For Phillips, splitting the cost for contraception felt natural, as they were already thinking about their finances jointly—she helped Torres, an immigrant from Colombia, pay for his visa and lawyer fees. In late 2019, they got engaged—both the IUD and the relationship have lasted. Kimport noted that cost-sharing “may not work for everyone,” and may not resolve feelings of inequality within a relationship. But, she said, “it is still a creative way of disrupting this idea that because most popular contraceptive methods operate in female bodies, they should be exclusively women’s responsibility.”
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The Unfortunate Persistence of Single-Sex Wedding Parties
Every weekday at 7:40 a.m., the hosts of a program called The Anna & Raven Show give early-rising commuters in Connecticut and New York the opportunity to weigh in on a local couple’s dispute in a recurring segment called “Couple’s Court.” “Couple’s Court” is precisely the kind of thing that’s irresistible to the hopelessly nosy—and a few weeks ago, on a Monday morning, an engaged couple named Adam and Kat phoned into the show with a dilemma that’s become familiar to many in recent years. Adam, who counts a woman he’s known for years among his best friends, had recently asked Kat to invite his female friend to be a bridesmaid in their wedding.Kat, who wasn’t close with this friend of Adam’s and had planned to include only her family members and best friend in her side of the bridal party, was reluctant. She encouraged Adam to invite the friend to join his own half of the wedding party, including her among the groomsmen. The problem was, he was equally reluctant. “Traditionally, people don’t do that,” Adam said on the show, and he noted that adding a woman into the mix on his side would complicate other, traditionally guy-specific activities such as the bachelor party. Still, he said of his female friend, “She’s way too close to me for her to just be sitting [with the other guests] at the wedding.”The two hosts (and many callers) sided with Kat, encouraging Adam to include his friend as a “groomsmaid.” (“I think your answer’s a little outdated,” one of the show’s hosts said to Adam.) But as close platonic friendships between men and women seem to have become more common in the past few decades, so has the dilemma of how exactly to honor a friend or family member of a different gender within the context of a wedding party. Engaged brides and grooms seek advice about whether it’s acceptable for a bride to include her male best friend among her bridesmaids or for a groom to invite close female friends to his bachelor party. Women post on social media about feeling left out because their male best friends have excluded them from their wedding party on the grounds of gender. And yet, according to new data provided by the wedding-planning website The Knot, fewer than four out of every 10 marrying couples in 2019 had mixed-gender wedding parties. That figure exposes an unfortunate incongruity between custom and reality: In a time when mixed-gender friendships are believed to be thriving, many wedding parties remain divided by gender in the name of tradition.Lots of wedding traditions are packaged and sold to brides—and grooms, but, realistically, mostly to brides—as ancient rites of passage, when really they’ve existed for less than 200 years. (See: diamond engagement rings, introduced by an ad campaign in the early 20th century, and white gowns, popularized by Queen Victoria in 1840.) But wedding attendants in single-sex groups actually do seem to date back to antiquity. At least one of the tradition’s competing origin stories dates all the way back to biblical times: At the wedding of Jacob to Leah and Rachel, so the story goes, each bride brought her own maid. Meanwhile, in ancient Rome, marriages needed at least 10 witnesses, which meant the bride and groom would each arrive with a small posse in tow.Most of these origin stories, however, come from times in history when women and men were not usually assumed to have meaningful platonic friendships. Last year, Rebecca Adams, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, told me when I spoke to her for a story about exes who stay friends after breaking up that for much of modern history, men and women simply weren’t assumed to have much in common. Generally speaking, women’s roles were at home tending the house and children and men’s roles were outside the home in civic society, so the social lives of men and women took place in radically different spheres. But when women began to pursue higher education and work alongside men in the mid-20th century, things changed: Men and women had common experiences to bond over or commiserate about, and, in short order, they began to enjoy platonic friendships.Little hard data exist on how many close friendships are between adults of different genders, but Adams and other researchers believe that in the past few generations, men and women have enjoyed more close friendships, with less outside suspicion. In 2014, for instance, the then-director of Stony Brook University’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, Michael Kimmel, said he’d been asking his students for 25 years whether they had a good friend of the opposite sex. At first only about 10 percent said yes, but by the mid-2010s, almost everyone did. Similarly, Judith Kegan Gardiner, a friendship researcher and professor emerita at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote to me in an email that “from what I can see (principally of white, middle-class people), adult cross-sex friendships are growing more common and becoming more casually accepted, [and] attract less suspicion of inevitably sexual behavior.”[Read: The widespread suspicion of opposite-sex friendships]Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist and friendship researcher based in Montreal, often works with young adults, and she told me that their cross-gender friendships come up regularly. Given the life stage young adults are in, their uncertainties about how to honor adult friendships and close family relationships in wedding contexts without excluding anyone or hurting feelings also come up. Kirmayer isn’t surprised to see that the clash between the old tradition of gender-segregated wedding parties and the new ubiquity of mixed-gender friendships is creating stressful situations.Asking someone to stand up with you on the day you get married, Kirmayer says, is one of the few codified ways to publicly commemorate or honor close adult friendships. But because the number of spots in a wedding party is often limited to just a handful, choosing to include one friend often means choosing to exclude another. Single-sex wedding parties can already cause hurt feelings, “and because having mixed-gender bridal parties perhaps isn’t as common, that would create even more room for conflict,” Kirmayer told me. She understands why some couples might hesitate to deviate from the norm. “It could be seen as choosing somebody else over the person that you were, you know, ‘supposed’ to.” (The old, crude adages about where exactly on the loyalty list your “chicks” or your “bros” belong would seem to apply here.)That said, prioritizing the tradition of single-sex wedding parties over just asking your closest friends or family members to be wedding attendants can be equally hurtful, especially to those who find themselves without a role in the wedding because of their gender. Situations like Kat and Adam’s, according to Kirmayer, raise the question of whether the exclusion of a dear friend from a wedding party in the name of tradition comes from a place of anxiety or fear. In those cases, she told me, she would advise the bride or groom to consider what they’re worried about, and what the worst that could happen might be.“Sometimes identifying the worst-case scenario is helpful because when we say it out loud, we realize, ‘Okay, this maybe isn’t as likely as we’re assuming,’” she said. “And it also allows us the opportunity to ask ourselves, if somebody is disappointed, if somebody is upset, or if we feel judged in some way, how we would cope.”Disapproval from onlookers is certainly a realistic possibility; weddings are, after all, often places where several generations and their individual social norms converge. But weddings have also come to be recognized as statements about a couple’s unique personality and value system: For the same reason that some couples have begun to opt for mixed-gender wedding parties, others have opted to, for example, have their wedding festivities in an ever-expanding variety of venues, venturing away from the traditional church ceremony and hotel reception. The selection of the particular friends and relatives who stand up with a couple on their wedding day can provide a way for the couple to express their own distinctive values—and to take a moment on the day that celebrates their relationship to honor the other relationships that complement and support it. The genders of those friends and family members should take a backseat.
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Emma Is a Welcome Addition to the Austen Movie Canon
This might sound like a ludicrous complaint, but moviegoers have been bereft of Jane Austen adaptations of late. Yes, almost all of the celebrated author’s works have been committed to film at one point or another; a boom began in the ’90s and ran into the early 2000s, yielding such memorable efforts as Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, Douglas McGrath’s Emma, Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park, and Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice. But recent years have featured more glancing hits—a half-hearted Austen biopic, a movie about an Austen book club, another about an Austen theme park. In the past 13 years, only Whit Stillman’s terrific Love & Friendship, based on one of Austen’s least known works, has really connected.All of which is to say that it is high time for Austen to return to the big screen, and Autumn de Wilde’s Emma is evidence of the familiar charm that can come with such a project. The opening credits present the title with an ostentatious period—EMMA.—perhaps suggesting that this will be the final cinematic word on the 1815 novel, or maybe just winking at the film’s status as a period piece. Either way, the title card is a neat preview of what follows: a rather routine translation of Austen’s work, told with just enough flair and attention to detail to make it stand out.De Wilde’s background is in photography and music videos; she has built a formidable reputation over the decades for imagery that is stark and indelible. That makes her a smart choice to recreate Austen’s fictional town of Highbury, the bucolic community that Emma Woodhouse (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) presides over like a gossipy, petty dictator. It’s a world where proper dress and good manners are paramount, where characters announce their entire personalities just by walking into a room, and where cutting insults and deeply personal observations can nestle within the most aimless small talk.The setting de Wilde conjures is therefore appropriately delicate and exacting. It looks like a bespoke wedding cake, a series of fine estates in the rolling English countryside, each bursting with manicured rooms painted in different pastel shades. De Wilde doesn’t inject Emma or its atmosphere with the gloomy, windswept passion of later decades, as Wright did for his Pride & Prejudice. This is a place where politeness trumps loud displays of emotion, a bottled society that is easy to scandalize—to the extent that the individualistic Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) is looked at askance when he dares to walk outside rather than travel by carriage.Focus FeaturesIn the thick of this tricky environment is Emma, a 21-year-old social butterfly who spends her days making friends, calming the nerves of her doting but agitated father (Bill Nighy), and trying to sort the people around her into whatever romantic pairings she thinks might catch. Austen’s story chronicles Emma’s growth beyond silliness and selfishness, but it’s also a celebration of froth, anchored by a character whom the author thought “no one but myself will much like.” There’s a reason the book mapped so neatly onto the materialistic Valley girls of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (forever the masterpiece of modernized Austen adaptations)—it manages to wrap sympathy and satire into one delightful narrative.Much of the plot of de Wilde’s film revolves around Emma’s new friend, Harriet Smith (a winningly awkward Mia Goth), who becomes her latest matchmaking prospect. Various fops and fools drift in and out of her social circle, including the preening vicar Mr. Elton (a very funny Josh O’Connor) and the self-satisfied dandy Frank Churchill (Callum Turner). Flynn’s performance as Mr. Knightley is robust and aloof, a great match for Taylor-Joy’s precise and biting charm; like any good Austenian hero, he offers insight and critique from the sidelines before swooping in to save the day.Viewers of any previous Emma (or, indeed, Clueless) will know where the action is heading, but de Wilde and the screenwriter Eleanor Catton do not rush to a conclusion—and even though every frame of the film is as pretty as possible, they don’t spare the emotional wounds along the way. Instead, de Wilde’s immaculate aesthetic means the latter half of Emma can emphasize how the littlest disruption (a moment of rudeness, a dance declined) can send shock waves through Emma’s carefully calibrated existence. The final scenes are powerful in their relative stillness; this is no wild Gothic romance, but a tale where the truest satisfaction comes from everything fitting together perfectly.
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Solving the Housing Crisis Will Require an Unlikely Coalition
The headline on the cover of Time magazine read “Sky High Housing.” Behind it was a graphic of a young couple and their dog looking upwards to the sky as their dream home floated away. The story was about rising home prices locking a generation of buyers out of the market. It was published on September 12, 1977, but might as well have been yesterday.The United States has a housing crisis. By now, the facts of the problem are so familiar—growing homelessness, rents that are rising much faster than incomes are, the four million “supercommuters” who spend at least three hours driving to and from work—that the political conversation has moved toward what can be done to solve it.On the surface, the answers are simple: Build more housing and expand subsidies for people who can’t afford what the private market has to offer.[Annie Lowrey: The great affordability crisis breaking America]But, as the 1977 Time cover shows, the lack of moderately priced housing, while never as severe as it is now, is a decades-old problem—and a problem that has resisted myriad efforts to solve it. And there’s a very simple reason why. Aside from developers—whose financial stake in getting houses and apartments built looks like a conflict of interest—the members of a pro-housing political constituency are difficult to identify. People who lose when new housing is blocked don’t even know who they are. Organizing people who don’t yet live somewhere is a seemingly impossible task. But it’s crucial to solving the housing-affordability crisis gripping much of the country. In many of the country’s most economically vibrant areas, existing homeowners—who have a financial stake of their own—pressure their local governments into blocking any new construction. This article is adapted from Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America by Conor Dougherty.This problem has been vexing policy makers since the very beginning of the housing shortage. The first prominent mention of it came two years after 1977 Time article, when an MIT planning professor named Bernard Frieden published a book called The Environmental Protection Hustle, which was one of the first works to identify not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) sentiment as an obstacle to constructing new homes. “The review process is highly political, and the people with the greatest stake in its outcome—housing consumers—play no part in it,” he wrote about local housing policies. “They are unorganized, and probably unorganizable.”And for decades it was true: unorganized and unorganizable. Frieden’s book inspired economists and the press to study and talk about the nation’s growing housing shortage. In 1981, a New York Times headlined blared: “Changing San Francisco Is Foreseen as a Haven for Wealthy and Childless.” That same year, Lawrence F. Katz, a University of California, Berkeley, senior who is now a labor economist at Harvard, echoed the Times’s sentiment with a commencement speech that bewailed the Bay Area’s growing housing supply problems and drew on research that Katz had done with a Berkeley professor named Kenneth Rosen. In terms of policy, however, very little changed.Katz foresaw this. “I believe, regrettably, that this will require some sort of state or federal action that leaves local governments with wide discretion over land use decisions but still requires each community to accept its fair share of regional housing needs,” he told his fellow economics graduates during his speech.A few months later, Sonja Trauss was born in Philadelphia. Trauss was a natural rabble-rouser who had organized a protest of her science teacher in middle school and was once arrested for protesting a City of Philadelphia plan to renovate a popular park to make it less attractive to skateboarders. She moved to the Bay Area in 2011 after dropping out of the economics Ph.D. program at Washington University in St. Louis, and shortly after adopted housing as her newest cause. She wrote letters to local planning commissions in support of every big project development pipeline. At the encouragement of her roommate, she organized friends as the SF Bay Area Renters’ Federation—better known by its unforgettable acronym, SF BARF.By then “NIMBY” was a well-known epithet, and the idea that a lack of housing was the underlying cause of high rent and home prices in desirable regions like the Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington D.C., was getting regular treatment in the press. The person most responsible for this was Edward Glaeser, a colleague of Katz’s at Harvard. Along with Joseph Gyourko at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Glaeser had published a batch of influential papers that used construction industry data to create a national figure for how much it cost to build a house or apartment, and from that showing that the same harsh zoning and land-use restrictions that had Rosen and Katz had blamed for rising prices in the Bay Area were now conspiring to make housing scarce and expensive in big metro areas around the country.Glaeser was a decorated economist, but he was no organizer. He spent most of his time teaching and lecturing, or holed up in his comically messy office, thinking big thoughts surrounded by disjointed stacks of books and stained teacups with dried out bags still inside them. When Glaeser thought about how problems got solved, he imagined people in imperial columned buildings like the one he worked in on the edge of Harvard Yard.[Read: Why are American homes so big?]And so it fell to people like Trauss to create a constituency for unbuilt housing. She had a gift for getting attention, showing up to planning meetings in leggings and cowboy boots and delivering lectures on supply and demand at the public comment microphone. As her profile rose, thanks to media attention and constant tweeting, Trauss she discovered was far from alone. Around the country, Millennial-aged were organizing yes-in-my-backyard (YIMBY) groups and providing a youthful counterbalance to the usual collection of anti-development crusaders who complained about shadows and neighborhood character at city meetings across America.In 2016, some two hundred of these people, representing cities including San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Minneapolis, Boston, gathered in Boulder, Colo. for the first national YIMBYtown conference. The conference was held in a Hyatt and had sessions with titles such as “Building a Progressive Urbanist Coalition” and “Reforming the Sacredness of Single- Family Zoning.” It was a voice that as new and needed, but its members were also overwhelmingly well-educated and white, limiting its appeal and power.During a breakout session called “Why Is the YIMBY Movement So White?,” a small subset of people had a tortured discussion about how they could forge alliances with tenant organizations who didn’t like them very much and fought new housing on the grounds that it would foment gentrification and displace low-income people. There would be more YIMBYtowns in the years ahead, and each time this topic would rise to the top of attendees’ concerns.The third YIMBYtown was held in Boston in 2018, and Ed Glaeser kicked it off with an hour-long presentation of housing data that he traced with a laser pointer. The real action came later.The very next day, an older tenants-rights organization called City Life/Vida Urban was hosting the “Boston People’s Plan Assembly,” to collect neighborhood-level proposals for how to protect tenants from economic displacement. It was held in a church just a few blocks away from the YIMBYtown gathering. The class and cultural differences were clear: Whereas the YIMBY event drew a young crowd, was conducted in English, and gave way to heavy nighttime drinking, this event was older, multilingual, and had a side room with free childcare.At the end of the Assembly, Lisa Owens, the executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana, went to the altar to explain that the group’s supporters were going to march to the YIMBY conference because they had something to say. After a round of cheers, the 200-or-so people at the assembly left their pews to form a wobbly line behind a marching band, then proceeded out of the churchyard, down a hill, and disjointedly around a street corner toward Roxbury Community College, where the YIMBY event was wrapping up.By then Joey Lindstrom, lead organizer for the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, was giving the plenary talk. Lindstrom had arrived at the YIMBYtown conference hoping to be some sort of bridge between YIMBYs and anti-gentrification groups like Right to the City, a national racial-justice and anti-gentrification group with which City Life was affiliated, and which he worked with closely. His talk was held in a gym, behind a makeshift curtain, and he was discussing a slide that said that read “The Legacy of Reduced Federal Support for Housing,” when, all of a sudden, somewhere down the hall people started to hear the sound a people yelling, “We’re here! Why won’t you listen?” and the faint sound of music.Lindstrom stopped talking, and the collection of YIMBYs in folding chairs turned around in apprehension as the marching band and its procession burst through makeshift curtains. It took a few minutes for the People’s Plan Assembly to assemble at the front of the room, next to Lindstrom and under a basketball hoop.Owens welcomed everyone to Boston. “There are some people that are part of the YIMBY movement that truly care about affordable housing,” she said. “I want to invite those people who are here who care about affordable housing and who care about displacement protection, who care about the people who live in the city of Boston who’ve been living and working and fighting to stay in their homes. I invite you to learn from those of us who are already working on the front lines. I invite you to not put forward housing proposals without talking to us. I invite you to follow our lead.”Whether anyone can forge a cohesive coalition out of the interests represented that room—people of varied ages and ethnic backgrounds, people who support new development, and people with a passion for protecting the most vulnerable tenants—is not yet clear. But if the goal of building more housing is to make shelter more affordable and more plentiful so that more people can enjoy the opportunities of thriving cities, then that’s the coalition that is needed.[Read: From ‘not in my backyard’ to ‘yes in my backyard’]This much is clear from fights like the one California had last year. Senate Bill 50, a controversial piece of legislation that would have stripped away local restrictions on high-density housing near transit, was felled by a coalition of wealthy neighborhoods worried about density and their views along with tenant groups worried about gentrification. There are also omens of success. In Oregon, where a much more diverse coalition helped pass a sweeping set of bills that simultaneously made it the first state to pass statewide rent control and the first state to end single-family zoning in most neighborhoods. With support from a broad range of interests, Minneapolis recently became the first major U.S. city to effectively end single-family zoning.Rising housing prices and new forms of activism have finally put housing atop the agenda. But homeowners—the economist William Fischel called them “homevoters”—still own the politics. The only way to counter that—the only way to truly organize the unorganizable—is to broaden the YIMBY coalition so that gentrifiers and the gentrified are somehow on the same side.The days and months after the confrontation in Boston would feature lots of disagreement and unproductive tweeting. But the people face-to-face in that room saw a healthy tension and heard a lot of clapping. Clapping followed by handshakes and Lindstrom noting the weirdness of being the subject of a protest that included several people he considered friends. Then the band revved back up and the People’s Plan Assembly marched out.“Usually the way it works when I’m doing a speech or talk is I quit halfway through to go join a protest,” Lindstrom said when the gym was finally quiet. People laughed, and Lindstrom resumed his presentation. He had five minutes left and nineteen slides to get through.From Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America by Conor Dougherty. Copyright © Conor Dougherty, 2020. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House LLC.
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The Show That Actually Understands Modern Romance
The final scene of Hulu’s High Fidelity seems poised to play out a classic rom-com moment: The lonely record store owner Robin, a.k.a. “Rob” (played by Zoë Kravitz), shows up at the apartment of her love interest, Clyde (Jake Lacy), who’s been avoiding her calls since a falling out a few episodes back. The inevitable seems to be coming: She’ll confess her feelings, he’ll accept them, and they’ll be together.But none of that happens. She doesn’t propose a relationship—just a friendship. “Look, I’ve been figuring out a lot of stuff. I think,” she says. “Stuff like how to stop living in the past and how to stop taking shit for granted and people for granted and how to stop being such an asshole. I was hoping that we could just, you know, start fresh.” He turns her down, at first, but eventually concedes there’s a slim chance they could be friends again.The original High Fidelity—the 2000 film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel starring John Cusack as Rob—didn’t end ambiguously. After a sweet speech about commitment, Rob wins back his ex, Laura (Iben Hjejle). The final scene shows Rob making a new mixtape for her, a moment that leaves the audience with the warm fuzzies expected from a romantic comedy.When Hulu announced it would be rebooting High Fidelity with a biracial female lead, it seemed the show would follow the original plot. After all, other such rom-com remakes that alter the protagonist’s gender and race—think the 2019 film What Men Want and Hulu’s series Four Weddings and a Funeral—had done so. In favor of capitalizing on nostalgia and achieving sentimental highs, both projects preserve the overall arcs of the original works: The lead has a meet-cute with the love interest, they encounter a major bump or two along the way, but they fix said bumps by the end and pair off anyway. The only subverting they do is cosmetic. Despite their ambitions, each reboot felt beholden to their original versions, depicting dating from the eras when the first films were released.[Read: The new rules of music snobbery]Created by Sarah Kucserka and Veronica West, High Fidelity the series not only expands on its original premise, but it also captures the nuance of millennial dating by upending the tidiness of the original plot. Yes, Robin ends her first season alone, but the last moments—during which she learns to embrace her singleness, her flaws, and herself—feel just as tender and uplifting as any rom-com finale.Recent reboots have updated the optics, but overlooked how present-day circumstances can deeply affect a character. (Phillip Caruso)The series may conclude differently, but it never loses the spirit of the film. Take Robin’s post-breakup habits, for example. Like Cusack’s Rob, she mourns at home after being dumped by Mac (Kingsley Ben-Adir), delivers angry asides to the camera, and gripes about pop music and misery. But while film Rob’s angst led him to imagine Laura having sex with her new partner, Ian (Tim Robbins), TV Rob doesn’t have to depend on her imagination: She can use social media to stalk Mac’s new girlfriend Lily (Dana Drori). One episode follows her scrolling through Lily’s feed, baffled at her posts of sunsets and frosés, in search of a shot of Lily’s face.Social media pops up throughout the series, emphasizing the ways in which a breakup can feel oppressive. When Robin visits her ex-girlfriend, the Instagram influencer Kat (Ivanna Sakhno)—in the film, she was the stylish cool girl Charlie, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones—Robin’s surrounded by people judging her for her clothes, her career, and her love life. When Robin decides last-minute to celebrate her 30th birthday party with two acquaintances, she enviously watches a larger group of partygoers singing the birthday song. Her friend, noticing this, immediately starts singing as well and filming Robin for her reaction. Grieving a breakup, the show understands, feels so much harder in the time of social media.Recent reboots have updated the optics, but overlooked how present-day circumstances can deeply affect a character. Both What Men Want and Four Weddings and a Funeral take into account modern technology’s impact on dating through jokes and, in the case of the latter, texts shown on screen. But the plots follow the same emotional beats as the films on which they’re based. As a result, they feel trapped in an alternate reality where people still show up at doorsteps unannounced and know nothing of each other’s lives unless they’re interacting in person. Meet-cutes and happily-ever-afters are adorable, but such generic rom-com plotting feels out-of-touch.Hulu’s High Fidelity, however, successfully reflects modern dating in terms of the evolution of courtship and commitment. Over the course of the series, Robin isn’t sure how to define any of her romantic relationships beyond her previous one. After she sleeps with the rising rock star Liam (Thomas Doherty), he continues to ask her to see him, even inviting her on a trip, and the two enter into a will-they-won’t-they that ends in… maybe. The film’s Liam equivalent, the singer Marie De Salle (played by Kravitz’s mother Lisa Bonet), disappears after her night with Rob, making her officially a one-night-stand and nothing more. Relationships were black-and-white; now, the show posits, they’re much harder to define. For a rom-com to leave such a relationship unclear could come off frustrating; instead, it rings true.Amid all this, the series examines the way Robin’s gender affects her relationships’ power dynamics—a step forward from previous rebooted rom-coms that make the same change, but often do so in ways that come off facile. (What Men Want featured Taraji P. Henson as a successful sports agent surrounded by male colleagues who discount her abilities, but didn’t inspect how her career-oriented attitude affected the way she considered romantic partners.) High Fidelity, the film, implied Rob felt insecure and emasculated about his stagnant career in relation to Laura’s more impressive work as a lawyer; it’s why he lashed out and seethed after she chose to leave, and later chased Marie as a one-night stand.Robin also felt troubled by her relationship, as she always saw Mac as too good for her. In their breakup scene, she quietly sobs as he takes off, and as happy as she is to have slept with Liam, their night together doesn’t reassure her she’s ready for a relationship. The series’ writers interpreted the character in terms of how a woman in Rob’s position would likely respond. On the outside, Robin doesn’t want to seem like the “clingy” or “crazy” ex, so she tempers her reactions and saves her bitterness for her asides to the camera. It’s a distinction that this remake deftly underlines: how women’s reactions to a breakup can be easily stereotyped.In that sense, High Fidelity doesn’t just focus on the new realities of dating; it also focuses on the ways in which Robin’s gender makes her approach relationships differently than her predecessor did—choices that help the series justify the existence of rebooted and gender-flipped rom-coms. In other words, it’s a worthwhile remix.
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