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theatlantic.com
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theatlantic.com
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The Gig Economy Has Never Been Tested by a Pandemic
The shadow of the new coronavirus finally reached American shores this week, as markets jittered downward and new cases crept up. The scope of any outbreak here is not clear, but experts suspect that the virus will become widespread. While the disease, known as COVID-19, is a global phenomenon, the response to it is necessarily local, and divvied up among more than 2,800 local health departments in the U.S.Municipal governments have prepared plans and local officials are on high alert, but they have little experience dealing with a new infrastructural fact in a major disease outbreak: the gig economy. In Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak originated, delivery drivers have played a major role in keeping the city going during containment efforts. In San Francisco, say, if people begin to shelter in place—or even simply shy away from heading out—it would seem likely that more people would order groceries or dinner rather than put themselves at risk.Gig-economy companies like Uber, Lyft, and Instacart have two distinct features. One, they are particularly popular in large urban centers, where they play a now-crucial role in transportation and the delivery of local goods. Two, California’s recent legislation notwithstanding, the labor platforms don’t have employees as they have traditionally been understood. Uber drivers and Instacart delivery people receive financial incentives to go work, but they are not compelled by a set work schedule.These two factors make for all sorts of possible disruptions to normal life if a large-scale disease outbreak were to strike an American city. What will people who’ve grown used to Doordash delivery and Lyft rides do? How will the gig workers respond? What will the labor platforms do? What will local governments allow or attempt to compel?People’s actions will influence how the outbreak plays out, and these questions have never been answered in practice. There’s no this-worked-last-time playbook to run. The coronavirus is novel not only in its biological configuration, but in how it will be linked to these new technological systems.County health officers do have experience preparing for disease outbreaks, with the closest analogue being the variant of H1N1 that arose in the spring of 2009. But back then, the whole set of technologies that underpin the gig economy was not around, Jennifer Vines, the Health Officer for Multnomah County, Oregon, told me. “We’re having to think differently,” she said. Her county is “just starting to map out a regional summit around these exact questions that would include transportation workers. We’re not going with doomsday, but what are the cascading effects?”For now, Vines and her team have issued basic guidance with fairly standard advice about washing hands, considering future childcare plans, and lightly stocking up on food. They’ve worked with schools, businesses, and some health clinics. Next will come guidance for cities, corrections, long-term care facilities, and homeless shelters. Then, they’ll try to convene other companies, including gig-economy outfits, though precisely what will come out of that meeting is unclear. Another thing that’s not clear: the extent to which the companies themselves have considered the issues of the disease outbreak deeply. I asked America’s most prominent delivery and ride-hailing services—Uber, Lyft, Doordash, Postmates, Instacart, and Amazon—for comment about their disease outbreak preparedness planning. Only Postmates and Instacart responded to me.“Community health and safety is paramount at Postmates, and we have shared precautionary [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance with those carrying out deliveries so that they are aware,” Postmates told me in a statement. “We will continue to encourage employees, merchants, consumers, and everyone to follow preventative measures such as washing hands and staying in if you are sick.”“We’re actively working with local and national authorities to monitor the situation as it unfolds,” Instacart said in a statement. “We’re adhering to recommendations from public-health officials to ensure we’re operating safely with minimal disruption to our service, while also taking the appropriate precautionary measures to keep teams, shoppers, and customers safe.”It’s possible to think through some of the basic scenarios that people will face if an outbreak becomes severe. The dilemmas are, in fact, all too easy to imagine in the absence of clear plans. Consider ride-hailing. If public transit comes to be seen as too risky because it’s so filled with people, Ubers and Lyfts could be considered the least risky option. Demand would surge.In many wealthy urban cores, Uber and Lyft drivers actually come from far outside the center of the metro area. If those drivers decide to quarantine themselves at home as demand goes up, the price of a ride could shoot very high. On the other hand, if drivers flood into metro centers from outlying regions, they could become vectors spreading coronavirus within cities and bringing it to outlying areas.Conflicting situations like this pose hard choices for cities and companies alike. Uber and Lyft could limit price increases, or prevent drivers from entering certain areas. Or local public-health officers could determine that ride-hail drivers are a risk to public safety and tell the companies to stop operation within their jurisdictions. Would Uber and Lyft accept an exclusion zone? Would drivers and riders? Such restrictions could leave drivers with precarious finances unable to pay their bills.One silver lining could be that the tracking the companies do of their drivers and riders can make the work of epidemiologists easier, Vines noted. In recent years, during a measles outbreak, health officials were able to contact drivers who had been exposed by their riders. Still, it’s hard to find this comforting.Imagine another not-far-fetched scenario. If people see there is a public-health crisis unfolding, they might begin to make large orders on Amazon to stock up. But Amazon itself could easily suffer under an outbreak. Given the demanding labor policies of the retail behemoth and its subcontracted delivery companies, workers might be unlikely to want to miss shifts if they’re feeling a little under the weather. It could just be sniffles—but what if it’s COVID-19? An outbreak at one or more key facilities could cause the infrastructure that provides delivery services to falter just as demand surges. Suddenly, the convenience of having all the supplies you need to weather an outbreak arrive at your doorstep would disappear.For every little thing in modern life, a “servant economy” app exists. If schools are out, will demand at Care.com surge? If people don’t want to run out for dog food, will they turn to Chewy and Pet Plate? The dark side of hitting buttons on a phone and having things happen out there in the world is that other people—humans susceptible to viral infection—have to make all those things happen.No one knows how serious a coronavirus outbreak will be yet in America, nor how disruptive it will prove for everyday life in any given place. But even if the virological properties of the disease are less nasty than early reporting implies, some Americans may witness a grim vision of a technological future that few imagined. Crossbreeding this disease with the nation’s platform economy might mean that the rich will shelter in place, safe and sound, while the poor troll through the streets, taking their chances for a necessary payday.
2 h
theatlantic.com
The Costs of Spying
Privacy advocates were right all along: The costs of one of the most controversial spy programs revealed by Edward Snowden far outweighed its benefits. That’s obvious from a 103-page study of recent efforts to log, store, and search phone metadata––e.g., the time a call was made, its duration, and the phone numbers involved––about most calls that Americans made or received.Researchers at the congressionally created Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board found that from 2015 to 2019, the NSA’s call-metadata program cost taxpayers $100 million. “Only twice during that four-year period did the program generate unique information that the F.B.I. did not already possess,” reported Charlie Savage of The New York Times, who read a copy of the findings and went on to quote a passage characterizing those two pieces of unique information: “Based on one report, F.B.I. vetted an individual, but, after vetting, determined that no further action was warranted. The second report provided unique information about a telephone number, previously known to U.S. authorities, which led to the opening of a foreign intelligence investigation.”[Conor Friedersdorf: When will the NSA stop spying on innocent Americans?]The NSA shuttered the program in 2019, due in part to the fact that it repeatedly collected more data than was legally permissible. The law that allows the NSA to search the data trove, moreover, expires next month, on March 15. But the Trump administration wants Congress to reauthorize the metadata program permanently, giving the NSA the discretion to restart it at any time and run it indefinitely.That’s a bad idea for reasons beyond its dismal return on investment. Fundamentally, the program is impossible to responsibly oversee—even after a 2015 reform that required judges to sign off on spy-agency queries.Savage explained that in 2018, “the N.S.A. obtained 14 court orders, but gathered 434 million call detail records involving 19 million phone numbers.” At that scale, the need to get a judge’s okay doesn’t offer much protection to citizens.Had Donald Trump supporters understood this program in 2016, many would not have trusted the Obama administration to refrain from abusing it. Same goes for Bernie Sanders supporters and the Trump administration today.And one needn’t even mistrust American politicians to object.A centralized, searchable database of this sort is in itself a security risk. A foreign state that gains access to that data could map the social networks of high-ranking administration officials and their families, members of Congress, nuclear scientists, business leaders in industries with foreign competition, and more. National security would arguably be better protected if the U.S. government was forcing telecom companies to destroy its troves of data.[Read: No one’s cell phone is really that secure]If ever there were a case for letting authorization of a national-security program expire, this is it: The expense to taxpayers is great, the benefits meager, and the potential for abuses tremendous. But once an authority is given to the executive branch, presidents are loathe to let it lapse.Congress should ignore the Trump administration’s preference and return the country to a place where the private communications of Americans are not stored for the federal government and its spies.
2 h
theatlantic.com
What Happened in Delhi Was a Pogrom
The violence unleashed against Muslims in Delhi by armed Hindu mobs during President Donald Trump’s visit to India is a portent and a lesson. As Trump sat down to dine with India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, on Tuesday, Hindus in the same city were beating and shooting Muslims, and Muslims were fighting back, trying to defend their homes and businesses from looters and arsonists. More than 30 people were killed—including an 85-year-old woman too frail to flee her burning home—and more than 200 people, mostly Muslims were injured.The Delhi police, who report directly to Home Minister Amit Shah, either stood idly by or escorted the mobs. Videos of police breaking CCTV cameras and taunting prone and bleeding Muslim men while filming them with their smart phones circulated on social media. The violence echoed 2002, when Modi was chief minister of Gujarat and authorities there did nothing to stem carnage that killed some 1,000 people, the majority Muslims. It also brought back memories of the revenge killings of at least 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi after the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.In all these cases, mobs targeting a single religious group were allowed to run riot unchecked by police. This is the definition of a pogrom.More than an echo of the past, the recent violence in Delhi is a lesson aimed at Indian citizens who, since December, have dared to resist the transformation of the secular Republic of India into a Hindu state, a transformation accelerated by Modi’s reelection last May.In August, Modi’s government revoked the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir that allowed the state to make its own laws, rounded up elected leaders and thousands of citizens and put them in detention, where they languish still. Kashmir was put under an internet lockdown that was only partially lifted five months later to allow access to a carefully curated set of sites handpicked by the government. Also in August, the conclusion of a National Citizens Registry (NRC) in the northeastern state of Assam resulted in some 2 million people, mostly Muslims, being stripped of Indian citizenship after failing to produce sufficient documents to prove their nationality. What brought these geographically distant developments home to Indians in Delhi was Shah’s promise, in November, to implement the NRC nationwide, followed by the ratification, in December, by both houses of India’s parliament of a Citizenship Amendment Act that fast-tracks Indian citizenship for non-Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. The new law opens the door to legal discrimination against Muslims.These existential threats to the constitutionally guaranteed equality of Indian citizens regardless of religion, and the specter of legions of newly stateless persons stripped of their citizenship prompted many Indians—Muslims, but also students and other alarmed citizens—to engage in peaceful protests. They waved the Indian tricolor flag, sang the national anthem, and recited the preamble to the country’s constitution.For a moment it seemed the Modi government had gone too far. On February 8, after waging a hateful campaign that included a rally where people chanted “Shoot the traitors,” referring to protesters, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, suffered defeat in Delhi’s Legislative Assembly election. Shah admitted that the hateful rhetoric had hurt, rather than helped. But the remedy, it appears, was to take hate to a new level.On Sunday, February 23, the BJP’s Kapil Mishra, who lost his seat in the recent Delhi election, focused his ire on a sit-in by Muslim women in the north of Delhi that was blocking a road. If authorities didn’t clear the road of demonstrators before Trump left India, Mishra warned, his supporters would clear it after the U.S. president’s departure. Loathe to wait, the mob set to work within minutes, quickly moving into the adjacent neighborhoods beating and killing Muslims and looting and burning their property. It little mattered that the American president was still in town: Trump conveyed in his praise of Modi’s defense of “religious freedom” that he either didn’t know or didn’t care what was happening in the country.Arvind Kejriwal, the newly reelected chief minister of Delhi, proved himself powerless to contain the violence in his city. Too weak to put himself physically on the line—as Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru did not hesitate to do when Hindus and Muslims clashed during the fraught years before India’s independence—his appeal to bring in the army to ensure public safety was refused by Modi’s government. On Tuesday, February 25, Justice S. Muralidhar of Delhi’s High Court summoned police to berate them for failing to file a complaint against Kapil Mishra and two other BJP politicians whose hate speech had fired up the mob. The next day, he was transferred out of Delhi to a court in the Indian state of Punjab. That same day, India’s Supreme Court deferred hearing petitions on the violence that rocked India’s capital to the Delhi High Court, now bereft of Muralidhar.The message from the BJP is clear: Elect whomever you like. We are still in power. Call the police. They work for us. Appeal to the courts. We’ll neutralize any judges who don’t tow our line. Continue to dissent, and we will set the mob on you.Modi’s 2014 electoral victory was initially hailed as the triumph of a free-market reformist who may have erred during the riots of 2002 but who had made up for it since with a proven economic track record in Gujarat. That image of Modi remained largely intact during his first term in office despite ominous signs to the contrary, including multiple lynchings of Muslims by emboldened Hindus on the suspicion of eating beef and the hounding, even the assassination, of journalists and free-thinkers by Hindu extremists that went unpunished. Most ominous of all was the appointment by the BJP of the rabidly anti-Muslim Hindu cleric Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh after the party won legislative elections there in 2017. Dressed in saffron robes, Adityanath had peddled the notion that Muslim men were plotting to steal away Hindu women by means of “love jihad,” had mounted a private army of militants called the Hindu Yuva Vahini, and had threatened to drown in the sea anyone who refused to perform a yogic salutation of the sun. Since his appointment as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath has presided over a reign of terror against Muslims in his state. Ambitious BJP politicians such as Kapil Mishra are merely following Adityanath’s example of what it takes to rise within the ranks of their party.Modi’s image as a pragmatic, business-oriented leader who has eschewed Hindu extremism now lies in tatters. India’s economy is expected to grow at a rate of just 5 percent this year, its lowest rate in 11 years. The poverty rate in India is rising again. More than one-third of India’s more than 1.3 billion people are between the ages of 15 and 24. They have little hope of finding a job. The sex ratio in India remains skewed in favor of boys; girls are considered a drag on a family’s resources. A reservoir of frustrated young men in India yearns to feel empowered, to have purpose in their lives, to take revenge for their thwarted dreams. Many Hindu youth have been radicalized. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang—a paramilitary organization affiliated with the BJP that is explicitly modeled on the Nazis and of which Modi has been a member since the age of 8—has indoctrinated and trained thousands.All it takes in Modi’s India to marshal a mob, as Kapil Mishra demonstrated this week in Delhi, is a word. And all it takes to turn the mob’s rampage into a pogrom against a religious minority is the complicity of police and state authorities. Yet, across India, brave citizens continue to occupy public spaces in peaceful protest. They know that all they have left to save their democratic republic is one another. They know that, any day, the mob can come for them too.
3 h
theatlantic.com
Why the Original Meaning of the Second Amendment Is So Hard to Determine
What does the Second Amendment mean? This question is at the center of one of the most divisive debates in modern American constitutional law. The amendment itself contains 27 words: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This provision references both the collective right of a militia and an individual right. Does this two-century-old text, then, mean that Americans today have a right to gun ownership and use?In a landmark 2008 decision on this question, District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court was sharply divided. The majority opinion, by Justice Antonin Scalia, concluded, among other things, that the phrase bear arms against would always refer to service in a militia. But bear arms by itself—the wording used in the Second Amendment—could sometimes refer to an individual right. The dissenting opinion, by Justice John Paul Stevens, intimated that the phrase keep and bear arms was a fixed term of art that always referred to militia service.[Read: The Second Amendment does transcend all others]In the 12 years since that decision, scholars have gained access to a new research tool that some hope can settle this debate: corpus linguistics. This tool allows researchers to search millions of documents to see how words were used during the founding era, and could help courts determine how the Constitution was understood at that time—what is known as “original public meaning.” Corpus linguistics, like any tool, is more useful in some cases than in others. The Second Amendment in particular poses distinct problems for data searches, because it has multiple clauses layered in a complicated grammatical structure.With that in mind, in mid-2018 we searched large collections of language from around the time of the founding, and published our tentative findings on the Harvard Law Review’s blog. We used two databases: the Corpus of Founding Era American English (COFEA), which contains about 140 million words of text from various American documents published from 1760 to 1799, and the Corpus of Early Modern English (COEME), which covers British English from 1475 to 1800 and includes more than 1 billion words of text. We have now expanded that initial research to consider how other aspects of the Second Amendment were understood at the time of the framing. Our findings show that both Scalia and Stevens appear to have been wrong with respect to at least one of their linguistic claims in the Heller decision.In 2008, technology was in a very different place. The iPhone was less than a year old. The format war between Blu-ray and HD DVD drew to a close. And Twitter celebrated its second anniversary. At the time, the justices and their law clerks had fairly rudimentary tools to search how language had been used 200 years earlier. Based on the limited data set Scalia considered, we can’t say his linguistic claim about bear arms against was unsupported then. But this specific conclusion does not stand the test of time.Scalia concluded that the phrase bear arms “unequivocally” carried a military meaning “only when followed by the preposition ‘against.’” The Second Amendment does not use the word against. Therefore, Scalia reasoned, the phrase bear arms, by itself, referred to an individual right. To test this claim, we combed through COFEA for a specific pattern, locating documents in which bear and arms (and their variants) appear within six words of each other. Doing so, we were able to find documents with grammatical constructions such as the arms were borne. In roughly 90 percent of our data set, the phrase bear arms had a militia-related meaning, which strongly implies that bear arms was generally used to refer to collective military activity, not individual use. (Whether these results show that the Second Amendment language precludes an individual right is a more complicated question.)Further, we found that bear arms often took on a military meaning without being followed by against. Thus, the word against was sufficient, but not necessary, to give the phrase bear arms a militia-related meaning. Scalia was wrong on this particular claim.Next, we turn to Justice Stevens’s dissent. He wrote that the Second Amendment protected a right to have and use firearms only in the context of serving in a state militia. Stevens appears to have determined—though his exact conclusion is somewhat unclear—that the phrase keep and bear arms was a unitary term of art. Such single linguistic units, called binomials or multinomials, are common in legal writing. Think of cease and desist or lock, stock, and barrel. As a result, Stevens concluded, there was no need to consider whether keep arms had a different meaning from bear arms. Therefore, he had no reason to determine whether keep arms, by itself, could refer to an individual right.[Joshua Feinzig and Joshua Zoffer: A constitutional case for gun control]Was Stevens’s linguistic intuition correct? No. The phrase keep and bear arms was a novel term. It does not appear anywhere in COEME—more than 1 billion words of British English stretching across three centuries. And prior to 1789, when the Second Amendment was introduced, the phrase was used only twice in COFEA: First in the 1780 Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, and then in a proposal for a constitutional amendment by the Virginia Ratifying Convention. In short, keep and bear arms was not a term of art with a fixed meaning. Indeed, the meaning of this phrase was quite unsettled then, as it had barely been used in other governmental documents. Ultimately, a careful study of the Second Amendment would have to treat keep arms and bear arms as two separate linguistic units, and thus two separate rights.We performed another search in COFEA, about the meaning of keep arms, looking for documents in which keep and arms (and their variants) appear within six words of each other. The results here were somewhat inconclusive. In about 40 percent of the hits, a person would keep arms for a collective, military purpose; these documents support Justice Stevens’s reading. And roughly 30 percent of the hits reference a person who keeps arms for individual uses; these documents support Justice Scalia’s analysis. The remainder of the hits did not support either reading.We could not find a dominant usage for what keep arms meant at the founding. Thus, even if Scalia was wrong about the most common meaning of bear arms, he may still have been right about keep arms. Based on our findings, an average citizen of the founding era would likely have understood the phrase keep arms to refer to possessing arms for both military and personal uses.Finally, it is not enough to consider keep and bear arms in a vacuum. The Second Amendment’s operative clause refers to “the right of the people.” We conducted another search in COFEA for documents that referenced arms in the context of rights. About 40 percent of the results had a militia sense, about 25 percent used an individual sense, and about 30 percent referred to both militia and individual senses. The remainder were ambiguous. With respect to rights, there was not a dominant sense for keeping and bearing arms. Here, too, an “ordinary citizen” at the time of the founding likely would have understood that the phrase arms, in the context of rights, referred to both militia-based and individual rights.Based on these findings, we are more convinced by Scalia’s majority opinion than Stevens’s dissent, even though they both made errors in their analysis. Furthermore, linguistic analysis formed only a small part of Scalia’s originalist opus. And the bulk of that historical analysis, based on the history of the common-law right to own a firearm, is undisturbed by our new findings. (We hope to publish this research, which also looked at other phrases in the Second Amendment, such as the right of the people, in an academic journal.)[Read: Where the gun-control movement goes silent]In the next few months, the Supreme Court will decide a Second Amendment case from New York. More likely than not, the justices will dismiss the case as moot, as the local government has already repealed the law at issue. But should the justices want to settle the questions of the Second Amendment more finally, now or in the future, they’ll find that corpus linguistics, by itself, cannot definitively resolve whether Heller was right. Neither Scalia’s nor Stevens’s error provides the gotcha moment that people on both sides of the Second Amendment debate had hoped for.Yet we remain optimistic about the future of this data tool. For certain originalist cases, corpus linguistics can provide powerful insights into how the founding generation understood a word or phrase in the Constitution. But when corpus linguistics illuminates only part of a text, then originalists should be candid about its limits. And when corpus linguistics provides answers that contradict long-held beliefs, originalists should be willing to reconsider old precedents—yes, even those by Antonin Scalia, originalism’s patron saint
4 h
theatlantic.com
Diane Keaton’s Very Different Kind of Memoir
Memoir is a slippery, intimate craft. To trust the memoirist, a reader must believe in the author’s ability to remember with some degree of clarity. But when writing her new book Brother & Sister, the Oscar-winning actor Diane Keaton rejected the fidelity of her own memory altogether—in part because the story she wanted to tell isn’t solely her own. Keaton’s second memoir examines her strained relationship with her only brother, Randy. Once close, the two grew apart as a young Keaton found success in Hollywood, and as Randy later struggled with mental illness, alcoholism, and social isolation. Because her brother now has dementia, Keaton needed to look elsewhere to reconstruct the past.It helped that her late mother, Dorothy, meticulously documented her four children’s upbringing in 1950s Southern California via photography. “It was always a visually dominated kind of life,” Keaton told me when we spoke last week. “We just followed the path that Mother laid out.” And after Dorothy died in 2008, Keaton—who uses her mother’s maiden name—inherited a trove of mementos, including hundreds of letters, and dozens of journals, photo albums, and scrapbooks. Though Keaton treats her memory as a starting point for Brother & Sister, she uses these family relics in an almost journalistic way: to corroborate her recollections of Randy, to challenge them, and to fill in the gaps where she never quite knew him at all. Apart from telling a poignant story about two siblings, Brother & Sister is a fascinating exercise in writing a personal and methodical tale about someone who has come to feel, in some sense, like a stranger.At first glance, Randy’s life might not seem like an obvious subject for Keaton’s memoir, a slim volume of 176 pages. The siblings’ paths in the world diverged after they outgrew their childhood bunk beds: Keaton has been a celebrated actor for decades; she’s traveled the world to shoot movies and to hone her skills. Randy, meanwhile, never left the county where he and his siblings were raised and found only periodic employment. Though Randy also found comfort in creative pursuits, most of his work as a poet and collage artist remains unpublished. Keaton admits that she often saw him as a burden, and Brother & Sister seeks, on some level, to atone for her absence or inattention. Keaton attempts this in part by deferring to her brother’s accounts, by interspersing her chronological recollections with Randy’s own words. “It's hard to be a better sister or family member because you can't really put yourself in his shoes unless you really investigate it,” Keaton told me. “And I didn't really. I was busy with me.”A young Randy and Diane dressed up for Halloween. (Courtesy of Diane Keaton)Searching and rueful in tone, Brother & Sister departs from many celebrity memoirs in its focus. Keaton’s acting career is rarely invoked, and when it is, it’s to contextualize her family’s life at a given time. Neither is the book a neat fit in the category of addiction memoir as Randy, now 71, can no longer narrate his own experience of alcoholism. While her regret animates many parts of the book, Keaton also writes of Randy’s life with a sense of wonder. After Randy becomes ill, Keaton inherits his belongings, and she marvels at the magnitude and inscrutability of the artistic work he produced. “I became the sole possessor of his two published poetry books, 500 collages, 54 notebooks, and 70 random journals filled with his own brand of cartoons—including my brother’s entire collection of the intimate feelings, fantasies, and disappointments underlying the mystery of his life,” she writes. “I want to understand that mystery. Or at least try to understand the complexity of loving someone so different, so alone, and so hard to place.”[Read: In her memoir, Debbie Harry stares back]Keaton spends much of Brother & Sister appraising Randy’s collages and poems. Here, as in other parts of the book, her prose is meditative but not detached. (Brother & Sister is precise, for example, in its descriptions of the idyllic Southern California bubble that Randy and Diane inhabited as children.) Scrutinizing Randy’s creations, Keaton realized they actually comprised her brother’s rare successes in life: “Randy did accomplish much of what he wanted in the sense of his writing and expressing himself,” she said. “And that fed him.” When we spoke, she read aloud a passage in which Randy reflects on a day from their youth: Father is doing a handstand on the beach. His thin, muscular legs dangle backwards over his head. Once, a long time ago I studied the photograph. His face was not where it should be. Even after turning the picture upside down, something was wrong. ... Father upset nature. At least in my mind he did. The scene captures the unique fear that their father, Jack, inspired in Randy—first as a boy and then as a man who didn’t meet Jack’s rigid expectations of masculinity. But it also gave Keaton insight into the way her brother saw the world around him. Where she experienced family trips to the beach as benign outings, Randy saw a threat. “Think about how he pictured Dad vs. me seeing Dad doing the same thing—completely different,” she told me. “And where was I for Randy? I wasn't really there. I wasn’t there to examine or think of how he pictured the world.”One of Randy’s collages. (Courtesy of Diane Keaton)Keaton tangles with her own guilt throughout Brother & Sister. Still, she doesn’t hesitate to name some of the more unpleasant parts of her family history, especially those which Randy’s journal entries, and their mother’s, have helped her better understand. Some of the book’s most wrenching passages are those in which Keaton grapples with Randy’s destructive, rather than simply eccentric, behavior. She describes a time when their frightened mother wrote to her about Randy having disappeared for weeks. Where this memory might have otherwise been lost in a blur of recollections from periods of Randy’s alcoholism, Keaton quotes an entry from his journal that reveals the intensity of her brother’s resentment toward Dorothy: “I have gone to the land of muted rage, spectral skirts, and disembodied voices. I would have preferred a bitch for a mother, someone solid and distasteful—at least there would be a center, a place I could leave.”Lines like these can be difficult to read, especially because recollections of Dorothy’s warmth—and her fear for her son—recur throughout Brother & Sister. The book sometimes reads as a somber companion to parts of Then Again, Keaton’s first memoir, which focused on her relationship with her mother. Published nearly 10 years ago, Then Again also saw Keaton pulling heavily from her mother’s archives, often quoting lengthy excerpts from the letters that the two wrote to one another. But Then Again was a memoir steeped in familiarity; Brother & Sister is an excavation. “It was also an opportunity to look more at what Mom wrote about Randy,” Keaton said of writing her new book. “I think that Randy was really the love of her life, but also the concern of her life. She was just trying to find a path to somehow save Randy.”[Read: The charming candor of Julie Andrews’s memoir]Keaton, on the other hand, doesn’t try to save her brother. Instead, she affirms the sanctity of his imagination, even its darkest corners. After printing a disturbing confession Randy once sent her in a letter, which she’d never revealed to anyone prior, Keaton resists pathologizing her brother: “I felt he had a right to his fantasies,” she writes. “After all, I was someone who played parts, living out fantasies in the safe realm of movies.” The siblings’ respective dreams were quite different, of course, but such unlikely comparisons make up Brother & Sister’s most moving moments. Sibling relationships can be particularly hard to navigate without reliable social scripts. But Keaton seems to have arrived at these connections, and at the complicated tenderness required to conceive of such closeness, in part because she first looked outside herself—and her own memories of Randy—to better see him.
4 h
theatlantic.com
Why Trump Isn’t Trying to Bring Down Bernie Sanders
Not so long ago, Donald Trump seemed obsessed with just one of the Democrats vying to replace him: Joe Biden. Over the past year, as the former vice president became the front-runner, Trump’s campaign spent about $270,000 on Facebook ads targeting Biden—more than it spent against other top candidates. Then Biden began to collapse and Bernie Sanders started to rise. Trump’s social-media ads demonizing “Sleepy Joe” tailed off. Yet thus far, there’s been no appreciable pickup in anti-Sanders ads. It’s as if Trumpworld might want to go easy on Sanders.It does. Team Trump views Sanders as the weakest candidate left on the Democratic side, and isn’t eager to do anything to impede his rise, several of the president’s past and present political advisers told me. They seem to see Sanders as a no-lose proposition: The president wins whether the senator from Vermont captures the nomination or not.Should Sanders prevail, Trump's strategy will be to spotlight his democratic-socialist identity in an attempt to make voters fear he’ll take away their freedom. (Trump will try to brand any Democratic nominee a socialist—Team Trump just thinks it'll be easier with the guy whose self-description includes the word.) If Sanders falters, Trump will argue that he was unfairly robbed of a nomination he earned. Trump has long stoked suspicions of an anti-Sanders conspiracy within the Democratic Party, for what seems to be two purposes: leaving Sanders’s following so disillusioned that they stay home on Election Day, or perhaps persuading them to switch sides and vote Republican. Sanders may not need Trump, but for the time being, Trump needs Sanders.“Sanders would be every holiday present rolled into one,” Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary and an ex–senior adviser to a pro-Trump super PAC, told me. “With Bernie, there’s a general agreement that he’s a gift.”Mistreating Sanders and alienating his supporters could cost Trump the election, depending on how the Democratic nomination fight ends. An analysis from the political scientist Brian Schaffner shows that in 2016, tens of thousands of Sanders supporters voted for Trump in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—three battleground states that Trump narrowly flipped from blue to red. Had these voters aligned with the Democrats instead, Hillary Clinton would have won all three states and, ultimately, the election.“To the extent that a Democratic primary becomes close and maybe Sanders doesn’t get the nomination, there’s a good chance that a reasonable share of his supporters is likely to buy into the thinking that the party had it in for Sanders,” Schaffner, a Tufts University civics professor, told me. “And if that’s the case, some of those people might find it easy to sit out a general election or cast a protest vote.”[Read: What Bernie Sanders’s 2020 rivals learned from Hillary Clinton]Sanders could also prove a tougher opponent than Trump reckons: He has grassroots backing, plenty of money, and a version of the same populist message that propelled Trump’s 2016 upset victory. Democratic operatives see a deep cynicism, not solicitude, in Trump’s approach. “Trump feels that he can attract the support Bernie has—that’s all,” Tad Devine, a top adviser to Sanders’s 2016 campaign, told me. “I don’t think he likes Bernie.”Every corpuscle of Trumpworld appears dedicated to propping up Sanders. One obvious tip-off that Trump is trying to promote Sanders’s candidacy: He’s relatively sparing in his insults. Master of the raw and indiscriminate putdown, Trump will demean just about anyone: teenage climate activists, Gold Star families, and deceased lawmakers alike. But when it comes to Sanders—who, let us not forget, has called Trump a “pathological liar” and a danger to the republic—the president often sounds like a fanboy, if not a Bernie Bro. Even his nickname for Sanders, “Crazy Bernie,” is mild by Trumpian standards.The counterpuncher isn’t counterpunching much at all—not yet, anyway. “People like his message. He’s got energy,” Trump said about Sanders to reporters in the Oval Office earlier this month.Since the summer, Trump’s campaign has spent only about $25,000 on Facebook ads that mention Sanders, often lumping him in with other Democrats, according to an analysis by Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic communications firm that also examined the Trump campaign’s Facebook ads targeting Biden. (The Trump campaign declined to comment on its advertising strategy.)If anything, Trump and his allies have been amplifying a message that Sanders has been sending for years: that the Democratic establishment wants him to lose.Random events have been portrayed by Team Trump as part of a plot to doom Sanders’s candidacy. The campaign has referenced the Iowa-caucus debacle, which one official said deprived Sanders of a “victory lap”; Clinton’s fresh criticism of Sanders; and even the decision by The Des Moines Register not to release a poll on the eve of the Iowa caucus.During the Nevada-caucus race, which ended Saturday, the state Republican Party sent a truck to Sanders’s rallies displaying a message that the system is “rigged” against him.And in at least one state, Republicans are trying to swing the election to Sanders. Ahead of the South Carolina primary this weekend, some state Republicans have urged party voters to cross over and back Sanders, with the explicit goal of vanquishing Biden, the candidate favored to win. (South Carolina’s open primary system allows registered voters to take part in either party’s contest.) “We will have a clear contrast between capitalism and freedom-loving Americans against Bernie Sanders and his Democratic socialists, so we would welcome that if it turns out that way,” said Stephen Brown, the former chairman of the Greenville County Republican Party.Trump isn’t sentimental when it comes to blood sports like politics. People are useful to him or they’re not. His advisers told me that he may feel some affinity for Sanders because both face antagonism from party-establishment figures. But the Sanders campaign is under no illusion that the president holds any real affection for him. “We understand that he’s insincere,” Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to the Sanders campaign, told me. “Trump’s crocodile tears don’t impress us.” During the 2016 race, Trump privately called Sanders a “lunatic,” Sam Nunberg, a former Trump aide, told me. Appearing on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night talk show that same year, when both Trump and Sanders were vying for their respective party’s nomination, Trump said, “I actually think Bernie would be easier to beat” than Clinton.[Derek Thompson: Bernie Sanders is George McGovern]Polling suggests that he may be right. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey earlier this month showed Sanders beating Trump by four percentage points in a general-election race, a poorer showing than Biden and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. More worrisome for Sanders is how voters tend to look at a candidate espousing socialist ideas. In the same poll, about 67 percent said they would have at least some reservations about a socialist candidate, compared with just 28 percent who said they’d be comfortable with one. “I like the idea of Bernie having to explain democratic socialism versus communism, and explain it in South Florida to people who fled oppression in their countries,” Marty Obst, a senior political adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, told me.Every presidential candidate wants a sure path to victory. In the 2016 race, Clinton’s campaign believed that the weakest candidate was Trump, seeing him as so flawed, Clinton would not only beat him but pick up a few red states, such as Arizona and Georgia, along the way, in a show of force against Trumpism. She lost both states, along with the ultimate prize.In Trump’s orbit, some are warning against a similar overconfidence. “I know there are Republicans who want Sanders to be the nominee. That’s living dangerously,” says John McLaughlin, a Trump pollster. “If he wins the 2020 election, that’s a bad loss. It’s more important that we focus on strengthening ourselves.”As someone whose own campaign prospects were sorely underestimated, Trump should be cautious in dismissing Sanders. Making political predictions in this volatile climate is risky. In time, Trump may not see Sanders as the gift he once relished.
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Photos of the Week: Carnival Colors, Medieval Combat, Avalanche Training
Robert F. Bukaty / AP Recovery on Australia’s Kangaroo Island, coronavirus containment efforts in China, biathlon World Championships in Italy, fashion shows in Paris, fighting in Syria, bobsled competition in Germany, rioting in New Delhi, President Trump’s visit to India, the “Leaning Tower of Dallas” in Texas, and much more.
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The Opioid Epidemic Might Be Much Worse Than We Thought
It can be hard to comprehend the true scope of something as disastrous as the opioid epidemic. Perhaps that’s why it’s been compared to falling 747s and crashing cars. But in fact, knowing exactly how many people have perished is crucial to stopping the deaths.That’s why Elaine Hill and Andrew Boslett, economists at the University of Rochester, were so concerned when they found that many potential opioid deaths aren’t counted as such. In the fall of 2018, Hill and Boslett were studying how deaths from overdoses of opioids, such as heroin or Oxycontin, were influenced by the decline of coal mining and the rise of shale gas fracking. But when they began looking at death records of Americans who had died of drug overdoses, they noticed that in about 20 percent of the cases, the record said the type of drug could not be specified, perhaps because an autopsy was not performed. In other words, the person died of a drug overdose, but the death record didn’t say which drug.Hill and Boslett realized that such a high rate of unknowns wouldn’t work for the phenomenon they were trying to study. “Our lab wants to make as strong of a claim as possible given evidence that maybe an economic shock … had an effect on drug overdose rates,” Boslett says. “We want to know that the estimates we’re using on local drug overdose rates are correct, or as correct as possible.”[Read: The true cause of the opioid epidemic]So the researchers set out to try to determine the real causes behind those unspecified drug overdoses. In the process, they uncovered something unsettling about the way deaths are tracked in the U.S.: The way a given county investigates deaths matters, and it could be dramatically shifting our nationwide estimates of the number of people who die of everything from opioids to childbirth to coronavirus.Hill worked with Boslett and a Ph.D. candidate, Alina Denham, to come up with a model to estimate how many of those unspecified drug overdoses were caused by opioids. To do it, they set aside some of the death records in which the type of drug was known and created a model that would predict that drug, given other things that were known about that person: the county they lived in, their sex, where they died, other health conditions that contributed to the person’s death, and so on. For opioid deaths, that meant factoring in whether the person had other characteristics typically associated with opioid overdose, like being addicted to opioids or having chronic pain. By applying the model to the “unspecified” overdose deaths, they were able to predict that 72 percent were actually from opioids.In fact, they estimate in a new study in the journal Addiction, there were over 99,000 more deaths from opioids between 1999 and 2016 than had been previously documented, raising the national death toll by about 28 percent, to 453,300. What’s more, the discrepancies varied widely by state. In Alabama, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Indiana, Hill and her team estimated that the number of deaths from opioid overdoses was actually double the previous estimates.Addiction“This paper is a very strong one,” said Atheendar Venkataramani, a health-policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who was not involved in the study. It suggests that “if you just follow the vital statistics alone, we’re probably underestimating the true number of opioid deaths,” he said.Hill and her team suspect that’s because of differences in how counties across the U.S. investigate deaths. In essence, whether a given county uses a coroner or a medical examiner to investigate deaths matters. Medical examiners are doctors specially trained in pathology and forensics, but coroners can be general practitioners or even lay people with no medical training. For coroners, “in many places, like the state of Pennsylvania, the only requirements are to be a legal adult with no felony convictions who has lived in the county for one year and to complete a basic training course,” Jordan Kisner wrote this week in The New York Times Magazine. Meanwhile, as Kisner pointed out, there’s a dire shortage of medical examiners in the United States.Because of this lower standard of training, Denham explained, “you would think [coroners] would not be able to identify opioid involvement in a death as well as a medical doctor trained in it would.” That inference seems to be held up by data: The states that had a lot of unclassified drug-overdose deaths, Hill and her colleagues found, tended to use coroners in their death investigations.[Read: The doctors whose patients are already dead]The undercounting of opioid deaths matters because “you need to know the scale of a problem to know how to intervene in the problem,” Venkataramani says. Dealing with a crisis like opioid addiction—or coronavirus, for that matter—requires lawmakers and public-health workers to make choices about where to direct precious funding and resources. If the severity of the opioid epidemic is underestimated, local public health departments could be short-changed, and even more lives could be lost. This is particularly important in the case of infectious diseases like coronavirus, where knowing the total number of deaths can help public-health officials estimate its lethality.Especially in the case of addiction, so much of illness happens outside the public eye that it’s sometimes only when someone dies that her neighbors or the government see exactly what she was going through. The tragedy of epidemics like opioid abuse is that nothing can be done to help the dead. But the dead can help others—if the things that killed them are accurately reported. Having a better grasp of just how many people are dying from various ailments is crucial for policymakers to help those who are still living.
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A Short History of Earth’s New Moon
This is going to sound preposterous, but I promise it’s true: Earth has another moon.It is not the kind that will illuminate the night sky. It’s invisible to the naked eye and too tiny to do any classic moon moves, like tugging on the planet’s oceans. But it’s there, orbiting the Earth, accompanying us on our journey around the sun.A pair of astronomers discovered the miniature moon on the night of February 15, and by chance. It showed up in the nightly observations of the Catalina Sky Survey, a NASA-funded project in Arizona. The survey is designed to study asteroids and comets near Earth, the kind that could potentially menace the planet if they got too close. To Kacper Wierzchos and Teddy Pruyne, the mystery object appeared as a few pixels of light moving quickly across a dusky, fixed background.Researchers at other observatories and amateur astronomers around the world raced to monitor the newcomer in the sky, collecting as much data as they could. When they calculated its orbit, they were baffled. The object wasn’t a newcomer at all. So far, their work suggests that the object has been moving around us, gravitationally bound to the Earth, since 2018, perhaps longer. We’ve had a tiny new moon all this time, and we didn’t know about it.So, what exactly is this thing?Astronomers don’t know everything yet—it’s been less than two weeks!—but they’ve identified some traits. The object is about the size of a compact car and traces a rambling loop around Earth about every four months or so. As the object passed by Earth on its path through space, the planet’s gravity pulled it close. And in that moment, it became a moon.[Read: They went to the moon]At first, astronomers thought the new moon could be a piece of space junk, a rocket part discarded after a successful launch. To say conclusively, astronomers would need to use powerful telescopes to study the sunlight reflected off the object, which can reveal its composition from afar. There's at least a small chance that it could be a chunk of our moon that broke off after an impact, one astronomer told me. But the latest observations suggest that the object is probably an asteroid, one of the many floating around near Earth.“It’s just a chance occurrence,” says Kat Volk, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “They just have to come in at the right speed and the right angle. The vast majority of things that are whizzing by the Earth do not get even temporarily captured into orbit, they just keep whizzing by, with their trajectory just a little bit tweaked by the Earth’s gravity.”Astronomers have named the mini-moon, for now, 2020 CD3. As excited as they were to find it, they weren’t completely shocked. The Catalina Sky Survey has found one before in 2006. Although they’ve now seen only two of them, astronomers suspect more are out there. Some estimate that, considering how many bits of asteroids reside near Earth, there’s at least one tiny moon lassoed around the planet at any given time. Gravity, after all, has shown itself to be a skilled thief; for example, some of the outermost stars in our Milky Way were torn from another galaxy as it passed by. A rock the size of a car is an easy steal for Earth’s gravitational forces.These forces, along with the moon’s own gravity, have put 2020 CD3 on a pretty quirky orbit, unlike the other neat loops of the solar system. Below, the white band represents the orbit of the moon, with the Earth inside. The tiny moon’s orbit is in red, looping around like yarn: (2/3) The object has just been announced by the MPC and its orbit shows that it entered Earth's orbit some three years ago. Here is a diagram of the orbit created with the orbit simulator written by Tony Dunn: pic.twitter.com/2wsJGtexiO — Kacper Wierzchos (@WierzchosKacper) February 26, 2020Like other near-Earth objects, 2020 CD3 probably originated in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. With the help of computer simulations, astronomers can try to trace its path back in time. “If you get enough data, you can conclusively trace these looping spaghetti paths through the Earth-moon system and find out where it entered the system,” says Eric Christensen, a University of Arizona astronomers who works on the Catalina Sky Survey, and who discovered the mini-moon in 2006.[Read: The pros and cons of a lunar pit stop]Mini-moons like 2020 CD3 are, unfortunately, “temporarily captured objects.” The object discovered in 2006 escaped Earth’s orbit and went on its merry way, less than a year after it was found. 2020 CD3 will eventually leave us, too. “This isn’t an object that is stably orbiting the Earth like the moon is,” Christensen says. “This is a fairly tenuous connection to the Earth. It’s getting tugged on by the moon and tugged on by the Earth.”The latest observations suggest that 2020 CD3 is already moving away from Earth for good. “Unfortunately, we are catching this one on its way back out,” says Bill Gray, who provided astronomical software that helped pinpoint the object. “It’s getting fainter. Already, it’s faint enough that if the Catalina Sky Survey looked at it now, it wouldn’t see it.” Gray predicts the mini-moon will escape Earth’s orbit in a matter of weeks. It will most likely return to orbiting the sun, although there’s a chance it could someday head straight to Earth, where it would burn up in the atmosphere in a glittering meteor display.The thought of losing a new moon so soon after uncovering its existence is a little depressing, so I asked Volk whether, someday, Earth’s gravity could ensnare an object to stay, perhaps even one that we could see in the night sky, shining alongside the original moon. “It would be possible, but it would be extremely unlikely,” Volk said. “You would need the [object] to come in and have a gravitational interaction with our existing moon in just the perfect configuration that would tweak its orbit and put it onto a stable orbit around the Earth. You can’t really come in from a heliocentric orbit and get captured into a stable orbit.”Sigh. Back to marveling at our usual moon, then, that reliable glow in the night sky, as enduring as the stars around it. From our vantage point, the skies can seem predictable and immutable. The fleeting miniature moon provides a lovely reminder that our corner of the universe is, in fact, rather lively, sometimes more than we can know.
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This Time, The Invisible Man Is Really About a Woman
The first cinematic adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man came in 1933, when the height of special effects involved props dangling from wires and a special velvet suit. Almost 90 years have passed, and many invisible men (and women) have come and gone, but it’s comforting to see that in Leigh Whannell’s latest take on the horror icon, the simplest bits of camera trickery are still the most effective. This newest iteration of The Invisible Man focuses mostly on a woman being victimized by someone she cannot see. On occasion, a stationary shot of her will pan over to a corner of the room that’s clearly empty—or is it?Whannell’s film is a decidedly contemporary update, a version that owes very little to Wells’s original spooky tale. Though the power of invisibility is usually rendered in these stories as a curse of sorts that drives the men who achieve it to madness, here it’s deployed as an out-and-out weapon: a way for an ex-boyfriend to physically and emotionally torture Cecilia (played by Elisabeth Moss) as she tries to build a new life after leaving him. It’s a supernatural spin on an all-too-realistic scenario—what if the man you feared was stalking you, and yet nobody else could see the evidence? The brutal cleverness of that concept is enough to make The Invisible Man a worthwhile watch.The movie begins with Cecilia fleeing the high-tech home of her boyfriend, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who has trapped her in an abusive relationship for years. Soon after, it’s reported that Adrian has died by suicide, leaving Cecilia the fortune he amassed as a leader in “the field of optics,” whatever that is. But quickly enough, things start to go bump in the night, and Cecilia realizes that her ex-boyfriend has faked his death and is tormenting her from behind a veil of invisibility. First he pulls spooky pranks in her house, then he starts framing her for acts of brutal violence. Through it all, not even her closest friends or family believe her.The emotional weight of The Invisible Man is anchored in Elisabeth Moss's performance. (Universal)Whannell has been steeped in cutting-edge Hollywood horror for two decades, starting with his innovative scripts for the Saw and Insidious franchises. He’s always had a penchant for plotting that is sensational, grisly, and a little glib, epitomized by the Rube Goldberg torture puzzles at the center of the Saw films. As a director, though, he’s demonstrated some genuine flair, beginning with the third Insidious film (a surprisingly thoughtful prequel), in 2015, and continuing with 2018’s fiendishly fun action-horror Upgrade. So it’s perfectly fitting that Universal has handed him the keys to one of its classic monsters, in a smart shift away from the disastrously ill-fated franchise model behind its expensive 2017 blockbuster The Mummy. The small scale of Whannell’s film makes its bloodiest flourishes and nastiest jumps hit harder.Prior Invisible Man editions were mostly about the invisible men, from Claude Rains’s mad scientist to Kevin Bacon’s homicidal rapist. This film is really all about Cecilia, and that emotional weight is enough to balance some of Whannell’s sillier narrative instincts. The fundamental creepiness of Adrian’s campaign of gaslighting—slowly convincing everyone around Cecilia that she’s going mad—is grounded in Moss’s terrific performance. She’s an actor accustomed to portraying mental breakdowns (think of her splendid work in Queen of Earth and Her Smell) who uses facial tics and broad grimaces to communicate much deeper pain than any hackneyed horror-movie dialogue could.Moss’s creativity in depicting fear is assisted by Whannell’s artful flourishes behind the camera. He wrings real terror from the simplest pans across the screen that suggest someone else might be in the room. As Upgrade showed, he also possesses a real gift for action-heavy set pieces. His favorite visual trick keeps the lens tightly focused on a person’s face even as they crumple to the floor, shuddering back and forth under attack. It’s well deployed in The Invisible Man,as Adrian uses his invisibility to take down whole rooms of people.But within those bigger sequences also lies the bigger problem. The first half of The Invisible Man, dedicated to Adrian’s torment of Cecilia, is tight, grim, and effective. Unfortunately, the story drags on a little too long (a hefty two hours and four minutes) and meanders in confusing directions, including an unnecessarily convoluted last-act twist that can’t be justified without some serious timeline gymnastics. Though Whannell started out as a writer, it’s clear that stylish direction is where his strengths truly lie. Luckily, The Invisible Man has more than enough of that to hold the viewer’s attention.
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Scenes From Milan Fashion Week 2020
A collection of photographs from Milan Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2020-2021, with runway shows put on by Versace, Gucci, Moschino, Philipp Plein, Moncler, and much more.
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The Dark, Chaotic, Utterly Mesmerizing Soul of Modern Celebrity
Pretend for a moment that your lifelong dream is to pay $400 for a 16-second video of the Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil mispronouncing the name of your charitable organization while standing in front of a Gulfstream IV. Or to exchange $150 for blurry footage of the disgraced actor Tom Sizemore comparing his innumerable career failures to your close friend’s recent cancer diagnosis. Five years ago, this would have been an impossibility. Today, thanks to Cameo, your dream is finally within reach. Oh, by the way, three more people ordered Cameos from Sizemore while you were reading this, so his price went up to $175.Cameo is a four-year-old videogram service that was started by three friends who wanted a way to connect regular, everyday people (bad!) to famous people (good!). Fans pay anywhere from roughly $1 to $5,000 for a roughly one- to 5,000-second (the two amounts are not correlated) clip of their favorite celebrities offering a personalized message. These can be for the Cameo buyer or, often, a friend or family member, and in honor of any occasion imaginable: Scroll through the site’s offerings and you will see birthday wishes and promposals next to congratulatory messages on strong sales in Q1 and encouragement in the face of chemo.The app uploads the celebrity’s content as soon as it’s made—no matter if there are mistakes, or the celebrity looks awful, or the camera is facing the wrong way, or the video was recorded on a Motorola Razr—and any performer’s six most recent Cameos are default public, unless the requester marks them private. The only thing that demarcates the level of celebrity is the price said celebrity sets for his or her messages. YouTubers, Twitch streamers who joined Cameo strictly as a bit, and Snoop Dogg are all equal on the site, which, like many other businesses before it, appears happy to take anyone’s money for any reason. On Cameo, a “celebrity” is anyone you would potentially pay money to receive a shout-out from, and in the 21st century, that list grows ever longer.[Read: Why celebrities are so susceptible to grifters]The results are digressive, low-touch, strangely intimate, and utterly demented: a parade of distracted, famous strangers offering warmed-over aphorisms about life’s great milestones from parked cars and darkened bedrooms and, weirdly, lots of malls. Cameo is an almost painfully contemporary-feeling invention. It’s fan service taken to its most literal extreme, celebrity mania mediated by a front-facing camera and monetized with gig-economy efficiency, its product accessible to nearly anyone and clearly designed to be shared on social media. The company reported profits in the 8 figures for 2019, and its co-founder was recently named to the Forbes Top 30 Under 30.Of course, it was also only a matter of time before online ne’er-do-wells figured out how to best exploit the service for the purposes of content—as they did with Twitter, and Facebook before that, and email before that, and, well, you get it. So long as celebrity culture thrives, and so long as things like Cameo exist to capitalize on it, Cameo will be twisted and manipulated by people into whatever they want it to be. Last year, the comedians Nick Ciarelli and Brad Evans used it to trick a series of bodybuilders into ordering a nonexistent child to stop stealing fudge, and if there's only one Cameo you’ve ever seen or heard of, it's probably the one where Sugar Ray lead singer Mark McGrath “break[s] up” with someone’s boyfriend for them. Hell, we managed to make the beloved comedy icon Pauly Shore record a rambling anti-circumcision PSA for our comedy podcast. (Cameo did not respond to a request for comment.)But as delightful as all these joke Cameos are, they will never be as insane as the sincere ones. It is surely impossible, for instance, to request a Cameo as mind-bendingly awful as the one in which the NFL legend Terry Bradshaw spends the entire video mistakenly filming his unknowing wife with the wrong phone camera. Or the one in which Tommy Lee both offers his heartfelt condolences on the recent death of someone’s father and wishes them a happy birthday. (Look, Lee’s $300 a pop. You expected this guy to order two?) Or this brief glimpse into the life of the progenitor of the floss dance, Backpack Kid, in which BK feebly attempts the aforementioned floss from bed, barely lifting his fists out from under the covers while wishing someone a happy bat mitzvah. (The video is eight seconds long, and cost only $35 and the dignity of everyone involved.) Or this four-second Cameo that Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi ($300) clearly uploaded by mistake, in which a horrified look passes over her face as she realizes she’s botched basically the only thing she’s been asked to do—say the buyer’s name correctly—and then stops the video immediately.Cameo offers discomfiting authenticity in the era of the professionally managed Twitter account and the 15-person celebrity social-media team. It is incontrovertible video proof that stars are Just Like Us—they have gross apartments and weird facial-hair phases and sometimes poor reading comprehension, and they are willing to humiliate themselves for some quick cash. With the simple click of a button, anyone can pay Richard Karn $80 to congratulate them on finally regaining custody of their son (“I don’t think so, Trimble County Family Court!”). That is not a real Cameo, but it could be. Sure, he would be walking through Glendale Galleria the entire time, but if anything, that would just makes it more authentic. Not only is it a personalized message from your favorite celeb, but it’s video proof that Al Borland shops at Hollister![Read: How disappointment became part of fandom]Before Cameo, if the average person wanted to interact with a celeb, the best they could hope for was an autograph, or perhaps a hastily taken selfie. For a time, Twitter also served this function: Reply to a famous person’s post and there was a nonzero chance they would have to read whatever you wrote to them, no matter how rude. However, thanks to the mute function, mass block lists, and a sharp increase in strict “no longer reading my replies” policies, those days are long gone.Cameo blurs those lines again. The service gives you a 250-character limit in your request to the celebrity. Most people will use that to get the actor Michael Rapaport ($150) to clown on their college buddy for finishing last in fantasy football. But if you were so inclined, you could also use that text box to, say, tell the far-right internet troll Jacob Wohl ($45) that he’s going to prison. As long as you’re fine with the possibility of the celebrity in question just straight up bowling through your message and recording your Cameo regardless, thus charging you for a video you don’t want, you can say literally anything you want to anybody on the site and know with 100 percent certainty that they saw it. Last year, we asked the American Idol Season 1 runner-up, Justin Guarini, to record a Cameo for Mark McGrath, apologizing to him for something we had said to him earlier (long story). Guarini responded personally in less than a minute with a polite but firm “No. Happy Thanksgiving.” It was indeed Thanksgiving, so that was thoughtful of him, but most important, this provided us with proof that he saw, and then immediately rejected, our request. Sure, some of the bigger names on Cameo most likely have somebody else running their online affairs, but the risk is worth it. Cameo has not only given people unfettered access to celebrity inboxes—a perk that was surely unanticipated by both Cameo and the talent alike—but it’s inverted the power differential between stars and the public. Now fans are literally writing the script, and as odd as the results are, it’s a thrill to watch them.You can see it in the reviews of these videos: People want a connection with a celebrity so badly that they’ll do anything to manufacture one, no matter how much distance actually exists between them. Surely Tommy Lee didn’t expect one man to write a dissertation on his lifelong relationship with Mötley Crüe after recording a 27-second Cameo as he’s walking in the desert, but it’s clear by the use of nicknames and the multiple paragraphs of the review that this exchange meant much more to the man than it did to Lee.Unless stalking becomes legal, Cameo is the logical endpoint of celebrity interaction—it’s the perfect storm of convenience, access, and affordability. As a window into the deluded culture of celebrity obsession, Cameo is unparallelled. Its creators’ original intent was to connect regular folks with famous people, and it’s hard to argue that they didn’t succeed—the results are just way weirder than they ever imagined. Oh, and just a heads-up: Tom Sizemore is back down to $150.
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Iran Cannot Handle the Coronavirus
Picture the following sacred but unhygienic scene. Pilgrims from a dozen countries converge on one small city. They stay in cramped hotels, using communal toilets and eating meals together. For their main ritual, they converge on the tomb of a woman, the sister of a holy man, and as they get closer they feel with rising intensity grief over her death and the deaths of her kin. The grief is a commandment: each tear, according to one tradition, will be transformed in the afterlife into a pearl, and an angel will compensate them for their tears with a bucket of pearls that will be signs of their devotion when they arrive at the gate of Paradise. But for now the bodily fluids are flowing, wiped away occasionally by bare hands, and the crowd is getting denser. A metal cage surrounds the tomb itself, and when the weeping pilgrims reach it, they interlace their fingers with its bars, and many press their faces against it, fogging up the shiny metal with their breath. Some linger for minutes, some for seconds. In a single day, many thousands pass through the same cramped space—breathing the same air, touching the same surfaces, trading new and exotic diseases.[Read: You’re likely to get the coronavirus ]The city is Qom, Iran, and two days ago, a local health official declared on Iranian television that coronavirus was burning through the community. The situation, he said, is grim. Iran claims that, countrywide, 26 have died from the coronavirus illness (known as COVID-19), out of 245 total infections. All acknowledge that Qom is the center of infection, but many doubt that the numbers are accurate. Another official, a member of Iran’s parliament from Qom, said last weekend that his city had already lost 50 people to COVID-19. That figure, assuming it’s accurate, suggests that if COVID-19 is as deadly in Iran as it is elsewhere and kills 2.3 percent of its victims, another 2000 people have the disease in Qom alone.It is difficult to overstate what a disaster these numbers express—not just for Iran but for everyone. Qom is a seat of Shiite learning, the spiritual omphalos of Iran, and as a result, it draws the pious from all over the Shiite world. I profiled a Lebanese cleric in Paraguay for The Atlantic in 2009; his previous address had been in a seminary in Qom. On the streets of Qom, you hear Persian spoken in many accents, including Tajik and Afghan. In some restaurants, servers will address you in Arabic, and posters of Muhammad al-Sadr, a revered Iraqi ayatollah, look down at you as eat your kebab. Qom feels like a Shiite Disneyland, filled with religious attractions (with junk food for sale between stations), and that comparison might be the best way for Americans to understand the gravity of this outbreak. What if we found out that thousands of people at Disney World all had a highly contagious, sometimes fatal illness—and that vacationers had been coming and going, returning to their home cities, for weeks?Zeynep Tufekci has written about the advantages and disadvantages of authoritarianism in dealing with a disaster like this. China can lock down a city, quarantining tens of millions at a time, and it can marshal its top experts, allowing them to wage a campaign against the disease with the absolute authority of a caesar. But it can’t avail itself of the benefits of public trust, including transparent and honest accounts of the disease and its toll. In Iran, it appears that the government has all of the disadvantages of an unfree society, and none of the compensating advantages. Watch this incredible video, at once comic and horrifying, of a top Iranian health official, Iraj Harirchi, assuring the public that the situation is being addressed, while sweating and coughing on colleagues and his audience, because he has contracted coronavirus:Nor is he the only top official to have been infected: on Thursday, Massoumeh Ebtekar, Iran’s vice president and a notoriously cruel member of the group of Iranians that held U.S. diplomats hostage in 1979, announced that she too has the disease. According to reports, she met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his cabinet just yesterday, potentially exposing the entire senior leadership of Iran to the disease.Harirchi stated that the government refuses to impose quarantines, because they are premodern and ineffective. Mohammad Saeedi, the head of the Shrine in Qom and local representative of the country’s Supreme Leader, not only opposes a quarantine but begged people to visit the shrine, calling it a “place of healing.”[Ariana A. Berengaut: Democracies are better at fighting outbreaks]At some point incompetence and evil become indistinguishable. I feel like we have passed this point several times in the last few years, and Iran’s leadership in particular keeps passing it over and over, like a Formula-1 car doing laps. Last month’s accidental downing of a civilian airliner exposed one form of fatal incompetence, followed by an abortive effort to cover it up. Iranians are understandably primed to wonder whether this disaster is similar, a tragedy of malign incompetence that is expanding beyond the government’s ability to contain.The quarantine measures that Iran has rejected are imperfect, and they would stigmatize Qom unfairly. But the current situation of what appears to be virtually uncontrolled pathogen spread is accelerating the pandemic, and right now the most valuable commodity is time—time to stockpile medicine, improve diagnosis and treatment, and teach the world how to react to a plague that may kill millions. The quarantine in China seems to be buying us time. The lack of one in Iran is spending it away.“Quarantine” is from the Italian word for 40, because during outbreaks of Black Death, ships entering Venice had to wait 40 days before sailors and goods could come ashore. (The Black Death, curiously enough, seems to have found its first footing in none other than Hubei province of China, also the epicenter of COVID-19. It killed roughly a third of the population of Europe.) Forty days is a long time, longer than any of the quarantines currently being imposed on individuals traveling from outbreak sites.But any amount of waiting can be stressful, even in a place much more competently run than Iran. Earlier this month, I visited Hong Kong. Everyone wore masks. In public, no one crowded into my personal space on buses or in narrow pedestrian alleys. Shopkeepers came outside every quarter hour or so, to wipe down the doorknobs and door-buzzers of their shops, in case the last customer had left a viral particle. The burden of containing the coronavirus felt collective, and heavy. Hong Kong has a strong sense of identity and group responsibility, which has up until now kept it sane. I could take just a few days of it. Only in the middle of the night, when I knew I would encounter no one up-close, did I feel comfortable—and not like some kind of norm-violating monster—walking around with my face exposed to the air.Iranians are under immense stress already, from economic, political, and military pressure. They do not trust their government. The daily stress of worrying, literally every few minutes, whether you will accidentally kill yourself by picking your nose or opening a door may prove, additively, too much for a society to bear. Urging visits to Qom, I fear, is the reaction of a government that has at last recognized its own limitations and has, at some level, embraced the virus. These crazy reactions greatly increase the chances that you will soon embrace it too.
theatlantic.com
Lab-Grown Breast Milk: Why?
The inconvenient truth about breastfeeding is that breasts are, invariably, attached to a person. A person who could get too sick to breastfeed. A person who might have to go back to work within two weeks after birth because U.S. law does not mandate paid leave. A person who might have no place to pump at work, despite a law that does actually mandate such a room. For understandable and frustrating reasons, many mothers who want to breastfeed—who have internalized years of hearing “breast is best”—simply cannot.Enter: a bioreactor of lactating human breast cells.A small start-up called BIOMILQ recently announced it has managed to grow human mammary cells that make at least two of the most common components of breast milk: a protein called casein and a sugar called lactose. This is the first step, the company hopes, to making human milk outside of the human body.Breast milk is of course far, far more complex than just casein and lactose. It is made up of at least hundreds of different components: a multitude of different proteins, fats, and sugars but also antibodies, hormones, and beneficial bacteria. BIOMILQ’s founders, Leila Strickland and Michelle Egger, say that they seek to eventually make milk that is “nutritionally” but not necessarily “immunologically” close to breast milk. Experts I spoke to said mammary cells in a bioreactor simply could not replicate the full complexity and benefits of breast milk. One researcher laughed at the idea.BIOMILQ does seem onto something though, at least culturally. Since the postwar days of doctors pushing formula as the superior “scientific” option, the conventional and medical wisdom has swung in the opposite direction—to the point where women often feel guilty for being unable to breastfeed. “There’s just a feeling of failure: I can’t do this for my child. This is really important,” says Maryanne Perrin, a breast-milk researcher at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who has studied women trying to buy breast milk online for their children. “I heard a lot of anxiety in the voices and comments,” she adds. In other words, there is definitely a demand for human breast milk.The idea for BIOMILQ, in fact, came out of Strickland’s own struggles to breastfeed as a new mom. Her son had trouble latching after he was born, and she wasn’t making enough milk. “During those months of life, my whole world revolved around whether or not my body would produce enough of this food,” she says. She wished for an option that was not formula. Strickland has a background in cell biology, so she naturally wondered: What about breast cells?In 2013, she began growing mammary cells in a tiny lab space in North Carolina, and in 2019, she met Egger, a student at Duke’s business school and former food scientist at General Mills, who had worked on products such as Go-Gurt. They officially launched BIOMILQ late last year to make lab-grown human milk—or as they prefer to call it, “cultured breastmilk.” Another startup based in Singapore, TurtleTree Labs, recently announced it is trying to recreate cow and human milk with cells as well.Human milk is currently available for sale, but it is not easy to buy. Officially, parents can go to a milk bank to buy donated breast milk that has been screened and pasteurized—but this requires a doctor’s prescription and can go for a hefty $4 or $5 per ounce to cover processing costs. (Milk banks also prioritize donor milk for sick or preterm infants in the hospital, for whom cow-based formula is particularly prone to causing a serious gut disease called necrotizing enterocolitis.) Less officially, parents can go on Facebook or Craigslist or another online marketplace where women share or sell extra breast milk. These markets are cheaper and more convenient, but they’re also unregulated. Donors largely follow the honor system for disclosing medications and other health information. Meanwhile, formula is cheap, safe, and widely available in grocery stores. BIOMILQ promises to combine “nutrition of breastmilk” with the “practically of formula.”It’s hard to say, at this nascent stage, exactly how still-hypothetical breast milk made by cells in bioreactor would compare to formula. The cultured human milk proteins could be more suitable in a baby’s gut than dairy proteins and sugars specific to human milk could help feed a baby’s new gut microbes.[Read: The ominous rise of toddler milk]But milk from cells in a bioreactor would still be missing some key components of true breast milk—for the simple reason that the components of breast milk don’t come from the breast alone. Natalie Shenker, a breast-milk researcher at Imperial College London, enumerated some examples: Antibodies, which transfer immunity against pathogens from mother to baby, come from the mother’s own immune cells in her blood. Hormones, which may shape the baby’s brain and behavior, from her endocrine system. Fats, which make up a substantial portion of the calories in milk, from her diet and own stored fatty tissue. (BIOMILQ suggests these fats could be supplemented in cultured cells.) Beneficial bacteria that help populate the baby’s gut come from the mother’s own microbiome. The whole body is responsible for the production of what we call breast milk. The exact cocktail of protein, sugar, fats, antibodies, hormones, and bacteria in breast milk can change from day to day and even hour to hour. It can change in response to the baby’s needs. One hypothesis suggests that a sick baby can communicate via “retrograde milk flow”—more memorably termed “baby spit backwash”—to change the composition of breast milk to help the baby fight off disease. Breast milk is complex and dynamic. Perrin says she applauds any efforts to improve infant nutrition, but “to recreate breast milk in a test tube, I think we’re just so far away from that.”Growing enough mammary cells to make any milk at scale is also a huge technical challenge. These cells require expensive nutrients and are incredibly prone to contamination from bacteria. The recent interest in lab-grown meat has prompted a number of companies to work on these problems, but breast milk is likely to face higher scrutiny, deservedly so, because it is for babies. Shenker, who is familiar with the challenges of growing mammary cells from her own research, wondered if recreating milk was the best use of resources. Why go through the expensive, unproven process of growing cells to make milk in a bioreactor, she asks, when we already know how to get actual milk—nutritionally complete—from a donor? The problem is not a lack of breast milk on Earth, but a lack of access and distribution.[Read: The vindication of cheese, butter, and full-fat milk]When I contacted breast-milk researchers to ask about lab-grown breast milk, they invariably ended up changing the topic to barriers faced by women who want to breastfeed. “A lot of moms aren’t getting the support they need,” says Meghan Azad, a breast-milk researcher at the University of Manitoba. Breastfeeding takes skill, which was lost for a generation in the time formula was dominant. It takes workplaces that give women the time and flexibility to breastfeed or pump. And it takes a culture that doesn’t shame women for breastfeeding in public. At the same time society makes it hard for women to breastfeed, it also tells them that “breast is best.” The result is a nearly impossible set of expectations.The appeal of BIOMILQ is that it’s supposed to close the gap—that frustrating space between what mothers are expected to do and what most can realistically do. “We’re done making trade-offs between our baby’s health, our wellbeing, and the environment,” proclaims the company’s website. But it also puts the company in the position of both touting the benefits of breastfeeding...and telling women it’s okay not to breastfeed. Egger says BIOMILQ is not about replacing breastfeeding, but supplementing it. “If women can breastfeed even part of the time, they should be wholeheartedly supported in doing that,” she says. “We just see this as an opportunity for them to actually continue to enable that process and not having to feel guilt or shame or frustration.” She draws a particular contrast with formula companies, which have used aggressive tactics to get into hospitals and influence breastfeeding recommendations. Over the course of the 20th century, these standardized cans of formula often came to replace the highly personalized breast milk of mothers.The irony is that if human milk from cells, as a concept, really does take off one day, the more successful it is, the more likely it becomes formula 2.0: another practical, standardized, and commercial product. In fact, formula companies are already adding sugars called “human milk oligosaccharides” to their products, in order to sell formula they can say is that closer to breast milk.
theatlantic.com
Trump’s Revenge Campaign
When it comes to the National Security Council, even a deeply divided Washington has generally agreed on two things. The first is that the staff serves at the president’s pleasure. The second is that the NSC has grown far too large over the past 20 years, bloated by the demands of presidents and forever war. Despite this agreement, however, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien’s recent downsizing of the staff has rightly caused unease.Critics worried not just about the timing of the cuts but their targets, which suggest that O’Brien’s reforms had less to do with making government better than with making it purer. The NSC’s downsizing appears to be part of Donald Trump’s wider revenge campaign against what the president has reportedly called “snakes” in Washington, and it reveals not just how much and how long the president has been intent on purifying the government, but also how much Trump has changed the way Washington works.[Read: Trump’s intelligence war is also an election story]Congress created the National Security Council in 1947 to help the democratic government make better integrated, more strategic foreign policy after World War II. But designing a system to meet that broad mandate wasn’t easy, given Americans’ traditional trepidations about engaging with the outside world and distrust of large bureaucracy. Rather than a whole new department or agency, the solution was a bit jerry-rigged: a council that included the president and some Cabinet advisers, as well as a small staff of career officials borrowed from the military, diplomatic corps, and intelligence community.Since then, the NSC, which is divided between those working on policy and those dedicated to administrative and technical matters, has expanded over the course of nearly every presidency. After 9/11, the NSC grew exponentially as presidents tried to manage the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress also created a separate staff known as the Homeland Security Council. The George W. Bush NSC doubled over eight years to about 200, and when Barack Obama merged the staff with the HSC, it doubled again to more than 400, more than half of whom worked on policy.Nearly everyone in Washington—former staffers, the military, the press, Congress—agreed that was too large. In a sign of just how unsalacious the Obama years were, the size of that staff became a scandal, with the NSC accused of micromanaging rather than coordinating government. Amid the uproar, Obama agreed to cuts: Susan Rice, his last national security adviser, launched a “rightsizing” in 2015 that eventually shrank the policy staff to fewer than 180 people in 2017.According to Washington Bureaucracy 101, where someone stands depends on where he or she sits. Following that logic, one would expect O’Brien, who had little Washington experience when named national security adviser in September, to boost his influence with a strong and robust staff. That’s why even for those of us who have advocated shrinking the staff—in a history of the NSC published last year, I argued it was too big to be managed effectively—O’Brien’s quick decision to launch a drastic cut was surprising and seemed contrary to his interests.At one of the first town-hall meetings with the 174-person staff he inherited, O’Brien summarily announced that dozens of positions would be eliminated within months. In an op-ed in The Washington Post and in public remarks, O’Brien explained that he wanted to make the staff “more effective by reaffirming its mission to coordinate policy and ensure policy implementation,” while also reducing redundancies between the NSC and government agencies. He also said, “The president has to have confidence in his NSC staff.”[John Gans: Robert O’Brien should have to face Senate confirmation]The national security adviser’s op-ed did not mention Obama holdovers, but they were clearly the target of that “confidence” line. O’Brien took over a staff that had been beleaguered by a years-long battle between Trump supporters and career officials deemed loyal to Trump’s predecessor. Given that the average length of NSC tenures is just one to two years, few holdovers were left three years after Trump’s inauguration. Still, O’Brien’s purge, which cut more than 60 policy staffers, was not about bringing peace to the staff, but finally winning the war at the NSC.O’Brien’s urgency appears to have been driven as well by the fallout over the president’s scheme to pressure Ukraine for political dirt on a campaign rival. He began trimming staff just as the report by a whistleblower, who reportedly had ties to the NSC, became public and Congress launched its inquiry into the affair. That investigation and testimony by staffers such as Alexander Vindman, an Army lieutenant colonel loaned to the NSC to work on Ukraine, revealed deep resistance to the scheme by several on the staff.The purge’s true purpose was made clear by one of its last victims. Less than 48 hours after the U.S. Senate acquitted Trump in the impeachment hearing, O’Brien had Vindman escorted off the White House grounds. Though O’Brien suggested that the dismissal was part of the broader cuts and that the escort was routine, Trump’s Twitter feed said otherwise. Around the time of the departure, the president retweeted a post that called on Vindman, who had received military commendations and glowing reviews from previous supervisors, to be “removed from the @realdonaldtrump White House ASAP.”A snake hunt at the NSC and around the rest of the U.S. government is cause for concern, but O’Brien’s cuts reveal something even more disturbing about how much Washington has changed under Trump.The size, scope, and speed of O’Brien’s downsizing would be unthinkable for previous national security advisers, who worried about risk for a living and thus wanted as strong and dedicated a staff as could be managed. O’Brien seems more worried about the risk of leaks against the president than the risk of being too shorthanded to meet the myriad security challenges facing the country. With the purge, he’s sent the signal that the staff’s loyalty is more important than its quality (or quantity), which means fealty also trumps national security.With the downsizing, O’Brien has put himself in a terrible position. His clumsy spin on the cuts—he claimed, “We are not a banana republic”— has tarred his public credibility. And if something goes wrong, he’ll be blamed by just about everyone—including Trump—despite his smaller staff. Moreover, if (or when) Trump turns on him O’Brien will have fewer people to lean on for help. After gutting your staff in a snake hunt, it’s much harder to fight back whenever you’re accused of being a snake.Why would anyone so dramatically act against his or her own interests? The answer is that the normal rules of bureaucratic politics no longer apply. In Trump’s Washington, power depends not on where you sit but on what you’re willing to do to please the man sitting at the head of the Situation Room table. The purity test starts at the top. O’Brien is not the first to bend his knee to Trump, but his pledge of allegiance and purge of the staff will ultimately undermine the NSC’s principal mission.After all, demanding loyalty at the NSC or anywhere else in government does far more than cut staffers. As the scholar Francis Fukuyama has argued, America’s nonpolitical, functional bureaucracy has long defended the country against corruption and promoted the rule of law. By purging the NSC bureaucracy to please Trump, O’Brien is risking one of the most important things it was designed to protect: America’s democracy.
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theatlantic.com
Trump’s DOJ Interference Is Actually Not Crazy
After President Donald Trump appeared to exert what military lawyers call “command influence” over yet another Justice Department prosecution—this time that of his ally Roger Stone—Attorney General William Barr politely asked the president to be quiet and let him do his job. Barr got kudos across the political spectrum for standing up to the president and living to tell the tale, and still apparently basks in the president’s favor.Of course, the more fanatical Trumpkins (those who tend to see in every disagreement further evidence of the other side’s depravity) reacted as if to the revelation of a new traitor. Their counterparts among Trump’s opponents were just as quick to slam the attorney general. Writing here in The Atlantic, Donald Ayer, who served as deputy attorney general under George H. W. Bush, called for Barr’s resignation: The fundamental problem is that he does not believe in the central tenet of our system of government—that no person is above the law. In chilling terms, Barr’s own words make clear his long-held belief in the need for a virtually autocratic executive who is not constrained by countervailing powers within our government under the constitutional system of checks and balances. Whatever you think of William Barr or his boss, it should come as no surprise that Barr has never said any of this. Ayer is almost certainly referring to, among other things, Barr’s strong belief in the “unitary executive.” Some critics have described this as a doctrine of autocratic power,. Yet the unitary-executive theory is quite mundane and has a respectable academic pedigree. Leading progressive legal scholars, such as the law professor and former Obama-administration official Cass Sunstein and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, have deemed the theory worth contending with, and have even embraced some of its central tenets.[Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes: Imagine if a Democrat behaved like Bill Barr]The unitary-executive theory holds simply that because Article II of the Constitution vests “the executive Power” in the person of the president, only the president—or those whom the president controls within the executive branch—can constitutionally exercise an “executive” federal function.This theory has two main implications. The first is that the president must be able to control those officials who exercise executive functions at executive-branch agencies, including the rank and file of the Justice Department. This tenet enjoys widespread agreement among legal scholars, including progressive legal scholars, and has been the consistent position of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel for decades, through administrations of both parties.Shortly after leaving the Clinton White House, where she was the deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council, future Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan wrote a magisterial article in the Harvard Law Review. She argued that all congressional delegations of authority to executive-branch officials should be treated as delegations to the president, who should be permitted to control what those officials do with the delegated powers, in part by removing them at will.This part of the theory is almost certainly correct, though it poses nettlesome problems for matters of federal law enforcement (such as Stone’s prosecution), to which I will return presently.The second main implication of the unitary-executive theory is that there should be no such thing as “independent” agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose heads are currently shielded from removal by the president. Any agency that exercises an executive federal function, the theory holds, must be under the president’s control. In September 1985, Edwin Meese III, then the attorney general for President Ronald Reagan, gave a speech roundly condemning all independent agencies as unconstitutional. Most progressive legal scholars nowadays disagree with this—but they didn’t always.The history of how these agencies came to be, and why they are so important now, is highly illuminating. Woodrow Wilson is rightly regarded as the father of the modern administrative state, with its plethora of independent commissions and boards. But the agencies Wilson created were not “independent” when he created them. Wilson fiercely opposed congressional interference in the internal operations of the executive branch, and he assumed, as presidents had all the way back to George Washington, that he had the power to remove the heads of any new agencies, regardless of any conditions Congress might impose.It was a conservative Supreme Court that later made those agencies independent, an act of defiance aimed at another progressive chief executive with decidedly expansive views of executive power: Franklin D. Roosevelt.During most of Roosevelt’s presidency, the Supreme Court was dominated by conservative judges who were adamantly opposed to the New Deal, on the grounds that it greatly exceeded the federal government’s power to regulate commerce “among the several states,” a power that had always been understood to include only those commercial transactions that actually crossed state lines. The “Scorpions,” as FDR called them, struck down virtually every one of his initiatives to impose price controls on farm products and give cartel power to labor unions—the twin pillars of the New Deal.But in 1935, in the case of Humphrey’s Executor, the Scorpions went too far. The issue was whether a member of the Federal Trade Commission could be removed by the president at will, despite the plain language of the FTC’s enabling act, which shielded commission members from removal except for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.”[David Frum: With liberty and justice for some]The Supreme Court decided that because the FTC is not a purely executive agency—it is authorized by Congress to carry out “quasi-legislative” and “quasi-judicial” functions in addition to executive ones—Congress could shield its appointed members from the president’s otherwise plenary removal power. Thus we were to believe that while an agency exercising only executive functions should be controlled by the president, an agency exercising all the functions of government should be controlled by nobody. As Meese later intoned, “Federal agencies performing executive functions are themselves properly agents of the executive. They are not ‘quasi’ this or ‘independent’ that.”After his landslide reelection in 1936, FDR felt emboldened enough by his popular mandate that he threatened to pack the Court with enough additional justices to ensure a pro–New Deal majority if the current justices did not back down. Regrettably, they did. Starting in 1937, the Supreme Court began rubber-stamping all of FDR’s initiatives. A fundamental constitutional change, which left the federal government with virtually limitless power to regulate everything under the sun, was thus secured not by the amendment process it deserved, but by the president’s naked intimidation of the Supreme Court. For many of today’s conservative legal scholars, this was a constitutional catastrophe. The framework of limited and enumerated federal powers had been replaced by a system in which the extent of federal power depended on little more than the will of transient national majorities. The rights of political minorities now likewise depended on the majority’s self-restraint, as Walter Lippmann argued in The Good Society.This history helps illuminate why conservatives feel so strongly about strict limits on federal power, while simultaneously insisting on the unitary nature of the power vested in each of the three federal branches. The system of checks and balances, in this view, depends on a properly functioning separation of powers, and the separation of powers in turn depends on each branch being able to exercise the whole of its constitutionally vested authority. Laws should be passed by Congress, not the executive branch; enforced by the president through agencies he controls, not independent agencies; and all government actions should be subject to review by the federal courts.This, I believe, is a fair representation of William Barr’s view of the Constitution, a mainstream view among conservative constitutional scholars. Critics may laugh and shake their heads, but the simple fact is that these people see themselves as stalwart defenders of the Constitution. Far from being a philosophy of autocratic government, conservative constitutional philosophy’s central preoccupation is precisely the prevention of autocratic government.[Adam Serwer: The dangerous ideas of Bill Barr]Many establishment Republicans who were deeply skeptical of Trump at first support him today, because, among other things, they can see that Trump’s “loose cannon” schtick is more visible on Twitter than in the day-to-day reality of the White House, which is quite humdrum, not to mention effective in achieving GOP policy objectives. And Trump has won over constitutional conservatives by elevating nearly 200 conservative judges to the federal bench, a historic achievement that could single-handedly stabilize what conservatives see as the steady disintegration of the Constitution’s very structure, as the executive branch continues its decades-long absorption of all government powers.Barr gave a speech to the Federalist Society in November—a staunch defense of executive prerogatives—that was red meat for an audience in which the unitary-executive theory is the dominant view. Given that this view helps buttress Trump’s position, it is understandable that Republican lawyers of a Never Trump persuasion, such as Ayer and his colleagues in the Checks and Balances coalition, had a negative reaction. It is also understandable, given Trump’s criticisms of the Justice Department, that many people worry that Barr is merely green-lighting what they see as the president’s willingness to use the powers of his office to go after political opponents.But Barr and the leading conservative jurists of his generation have good reason to be so solicitous of presidential prerogatives. They lived through the presidency of Richard Nixon, who almost destroyed the legitimacy of the office itself. Congress reacted, and perhaps overreacted, by dramatically extending its oversight of—and intrusion into—executive-branch operations. Republicans who came to power after Nixon, led by President Gerald Ford, felt an urgent need to restore the legitimacy of the presidency and its prerogatives. In the midst of the Cold War, a properly functioning executive branch that could count on the public trust was a matter of national survival. And it still is.The idea that this all comes out of a desire for unchecked presidential power couldn’t be more wrong. The entire argument between conservative and progressive jurists going back a century has consisted of conservatives trying to stop progressives from dismantling one counter-majoritarian constitutional limit after another.That still leaves the difficult problem of who exactly should be allowed to run federal law enforcement and how to prevent that process from becoming corrupted by political influence. As is universally accepted among legal scholars the world over, the power to prosecute includes “prosecutorial discretion”—the power to decide whether and when to charge someone with a crime. And anyone familiar with the American legal system understands that the power to enforce federal law is vested in the president.Barack Obama, for example, invented whole new ways of deploying prosecutorial discretion, discovering in it a dubious kind of lawmaking power. The goal of Obama’s executive amnesty for Dreamers may be laudable, but when he bragged, “I changed the law,” he inadvertently revealed a problem. The executive amnesty said, in effect, that the government would not prosecute certain violations of immigration law—prospectively. Leaving aside the president’s obligation to “see that the laws be faithfully executed,” this was tantamount to suspending the operation of federal immigration law with respect to whole categories of people.Students of British history will remember that the king once had a similar power—the royal prerogative of suspension. It was eliminated by Parliament in 1689, after the Glorious Revolution, and the American Framers were careful to prevent anything like it from arising under the Constitution; hence, the power to veto a bill only upon its presentment to the president—not later, after its enactment into law. And Obama’s Dreamer orders are not the only examples. He also suspended the collection of the employer-mandate penalty under the Affordable Care Act—a statutory tax obligation. These were arguably real abuses of power, and set precedents that progressives should be thankful Trump has not availed himself of.Trump clearly chafes at the restraints under which he has to operate, and has at times appeared slow to understand them. He appears to be in more or less constant need of senior figures such as his chief of staff, the White House counsel, and the attorney general warning him off this or that course of action. This is where his inexperience in office is most telling. Nobody who has not held federal office can imagine the minefield of legal and political hazards one has to walk through every day just to get one’s job done. But Trump does not appear to have an interest in altering the nature of the presidency or expanding executive power at the expense of Congress the way Obama did.There is no need to impute corrupt motives to the president to see the problem that Trump’s inexperience poses for the administration of justice—particularly when you combine that inexperience with his perpetual sense of aggrieved justice. He seems to think that he has the right to say whatever he wants in his role as a celebrity as long as he doesn’t do anything inappropriate in his role as president. And Trump does routinely use—and sometimes abuse—the celebrity of his office, particularly to attack his political opponents and even members of his own administration.What Trump may not have appreciated before the Roger Stone incident and Barr’s pushback is that his celebrity pronouncements cannot be separated from his official actions. It is one thing to joke about cancer-causing windmills knowing that it will drive the media crazy and delight the base. It is another to make public pronouncements about the prosecutorial decisions of subordinate officials, when those pronouncements cast doubt on whether the law is being faithfully executed.Hence, Barr’s sharp reaction to Trump’s public comments on the sentencing recommendations for Roger Stone was wholly salutary. But the case is not so easily open and shut. In Trump’s mind, he is not politicizing the law-enforcement activities of the Justice Department—on the contrary, he is trying to fight the politicization of Justice Department prosecutions by his opponents within the department. And indeed some of those officials, such as Andrew McCabe, have only narrowly escaped prosecution themselves. Rank-and-file lawyers at the Justice Department are not immune to political motivations, which is why Cass Sunstein’s recent proposal to make the Justice Department independent is so problematic. Democrats soured on the idea of an independent-counsel statute after Bill Clinton’s unpleasant experience with it, and interred it once and for all. A Democratic president is no more likely to make the Justice Department an independent agency than a Republican one would be.The president is vested with executive power. But his obligation to see that the laws be faithfully executed creates an obligation to ensure that the Justice Department is administering justice impartially. That is why the president should not interfere with ongoing investigations, as he appears to understand. It is also why he should avoid discussing ongoing investigations, as he is hopefully learning.In the meantime, Barr faces the difficult challenge of restoring the legitimacy of the Justice Department after several years in which that legitimacy has been weakened from within and battered from without. On the right and the left, too many people have too many reasons to doubt the department’s legitimacy. In American democracy, disagreements about policy are to be expected, and can make democracy better, as long as Americans can still say they hold certain truths to be self-evident, among them that nobody is above the law, that government power must never go unchecked, and that what the Constitution says really matters.William Barr believes that much at least, and to try to convince people otherwise is to be a bawd in way of good service.
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theatlantic.com
Right Makes Might
On February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln stood before a simple wooden lectern in New York City’s Cooper Union and delivered one of the most consequential speeches of his life. He offered a ringing condemnation of slavery, an unapologetic appeal to the righteous position of the free states, and a clear-eyed assessment of the dark and dangerous years ahead.When the tall, prairie lawyer delivered this speech, he was to many little more than a failed candidate for U.S. Senate. By the end of his 56-minute oration before New York’s GOP grandees, Lincoln was on track to win the 1860 Republican presidential nomination.[Read: The place of Abraham Lincoln in history]For Lincoln, and the Republican Party of his day, there was no moral compromise to be sought or attained on slavery. It was wrong. It was evil. It was un-American. By the acts and deeds of the Founding Fathers, the Federal government had the authority to, at the very least, forbid the spread of involuntary servitude, whether the South liked it or not. Lincoln sought not to mollify the South or to compromise with the culture of slaveholding, but to draw a clear line.Today, the United States faces a different threat, and as in Lincoln’s day, it is threat not from abroad, but from within. The Republican Party which some of us still hope to reform and which others have left, no longer deals in principle, morality, or the pursuit of the common welfare. It is no longer a party driven by a commitment to the rule of law, the preservation of individual liberty, or adherence to the Constitution.The GOP now exists to further the personal desires and wealth of one man. We now see friends and former colleagues celebrate its new form. It is no longer a party of ideas, but a party of idolaters. It is a dark mirror of the authoritarian regimes we once fought.In the last, decades America has experienced a steady dilution of the power, competence, and regard for our institutions and the near collapse of what we once called political discourse. Public trust in government, business, religious institutions, and our faith in the idea of America is strained to the breaking point. As Lincoln understood on the eve of the Civil War, we need a clarion call to hold the line against a tyranny from within.If Donald Trump wins a second term, the consequences will be dark—and it does no one any good to deny them. The month following Donald Trump’s Senate acquittal has given us a preview of what lies ahead. Even his friends and fans now understand what Trump might do with untrammeled power in a second term.Since taking office, this president, despite his radical, reckless, and corrupt actions, constant stream of unpresidential words and deeds, has faced no substantive sanction, official or otherwise. A reelection will embolden him and his allies in ways Americans should fear.[George T. Conway III: Trump is unfit for office]Much of America feels helpless to confront a president who treats the rule of law as a joke, who weaponizes the Federal government against his political and personal opponents, and who engages in corrupt acts for his personal benefit.That is why in December of last year, we founded the Lincoln Project. Like the president whose name we have humbly adopted, we know that to “bind up the wounds” of our Republic, we must first defeat the most clear and present danger to it.However, while defeating Trump at the ballot box in November is our primary stated goal, our mission in the end is not merely about him. Those who claim we are “Never Trumpers” are missing the broader scope of history. Lincoln wasn’t just “Never Slavery,” he was “Always America.” He fought slavery’s horror, risking the end of the Republic in order to save it.Trump is the antithesis of what the Republican Party was founded to defend, and that makes him the tangible and temporal target our current efforts. Defeating him is only the beginning of a national reformation that will be the work of years, perhaps decades.We come to this fight believing that our country is bigger than any one person or faction, and that the roaring tribalism of the right and left is a dead end for what should be a nation of unlimited promise. We love America, and what it stands for, not because of some ideological predisposition, but because it has created a place where liberty and freedom aren’t brand slogans, but sacred truths.We are not pro- or anti- Republican or Democrat. We are pro-liberty, pro-institution, and pro-Constitution. We are small “L” liberals and small “C” conservatives, militant optimists, and believers in the American experiment. We love this nation for all its flaws and all its wonders. We know our collective potential as a nation but are not blind to our collective shortcomings.Donald Trump is not, in our vision, the worst potential outcome. But he has claimed the mantle of “law and order” only for himself and for his allies. For all others who would enjoy the liberties and protections of the United States Constitution, the “rule of law” is no more than a faded and peeling bumper sticker.He has run roughshod over the traditions and institutions that are supposed to allow Americans—all Americans—the freedom to do what they believe is right for themselves, their families, and their communities, without the fear and uncertainty that strongmen and zealots create.He is, for now, the most powerful exponent of a political system in dire need of wresting away from those who would utilize its levers for their own purposes, who would leave America weaker, and who would certainly leave individual citizens worse off for their trouble.Donald Trump’s supporters showed a level of strength and unity that took us by surprise. There are many reasons for that, and many other places to find explanations. Unfortunately, their strength has unleashed forces long constrained by both institutions and traditions. Those bulwarks of liberty lay broken and breached. This may give the president’s supporters momentary joy. Left unchecked, it presages a darker future for our country and our children.Lincoln’s Cooper Union address offered not only a masterclass in research, logic, and rhetoric, but also an example of moral clarity. He refused to be dissuaded by invective, or threats of physical violence. He refused to allow slavery’s supporters to employ “contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong.”He knew the war was coming. He also knew the importance of making the clear moral case, even against terrible odds.Lincoln’s determination would be tested again and again in the campaign that followed, and during his presidency. He would lead this nation in its darkest hours, when the Confederate army was a day’s march to Washington and when the pressures for compromise, settlement, and accommodation rose along with death toll of the Civil War. He never bent, never broke, and never took the easy path. He paid the ultimate price to preserve this Union.As Lincoln said in 1860, there is no middle ground when it comes to right and wrong. We cannot and will not stay on the sidelines as amorality becomes the order of the day in our country and our politics. We take on this president, in this time, because we know that a better and brighter future awaits when he is gone.Trump is symptomatic of our more intractable problems, but he is a symptom that unaddressed and unexcised, may damage the body politic beyond repair. Just as Lincoln recognized the storm clouds massing ahead of the Civil War, we see clearly the gravity of our mission and the enormous tasks before us.Lincoln concluded his Cooper Union speech in words that need no embellishment: “Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”
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theatlantic.com
I Prepared for Everything, but Not Coronavirus on a Cruise Ship
Some bad outcomes, you half expect: This time the mammogram will detect an abnormality; this time the cop will notice you were 10 miles over the speed limit; this time the IRS is serious about a total audit. But you don’t expect that your luxury cruise from Japan will harbor a killer virus resulting in your being returned to the U.S. in a cargo plane that lands at a remote Air Force base where you are ordered into federal quarantine for a minimum of two weeks, leaving you without rights, without agency, and on the wrong side of a heavily guarded fence.At least, I didn’t expect any of this, even though I wrote a thriller set on a cruise ship—or perhaps in part because I wrote a thriller set on a cruise ship, and figured my imagination was more fevered than reality. I had imagined a murder mystery with medical clues, but I had not imagined this. I had prepared for everything, but I had not prepared for this.My husband, Phil, and I had planned the trip meticulously for more than a year as an indulgence, an escape. My sister brags about traveling with only carry-on luggage, but my approach is to pack everything I might ever need—and then some. Phil grumbles about the lugging, but he knows me: It’s against my principles to travel light. Our plan was to spend a week in Tokyo, visiting trendy art installations and sampling the best of Japanese cuisine, from ramen and tofu treats to Wagyu beef and haute sushi.[Read: You’re likely to get the coronavirus]In mid-December, a worrywart friend, who knew that our itinerary included a stop in Hong Kong, started sending me stories about a SARS-like coronavirus disease. “Might you postpone?” he asked.“Not going to China, let alone Wuhan,” I replied.“Hong Kong is China,” he reminded me.“Only going to be there one day!”I watched as the numbers in Wuhan began to rise and as the Chinese government imposed draconian measures to keep residents within the city’s borders—but without a frisson of concern, I finished packing city gear for metros, walking, rain, and moderate winter temperatures, plus layers for cold and snow for our winter excursion after the cruise. I added dressy pantsuits for three formal nights on the ship and showy but inexpensive necklaces to match. The stops in Vietnam and Okinawa called for a few summery outfits. I had stuffed everything into one large suitcase, along with two folding bags for the inevitable treasures we would find.We took our long-anticipated first-class flight, wore the airline’s designer PJs, slept in the cushy bed, and dined on foie gras, abalone, and other delicacies, accompanied by glasses of champagne. Once we arrived, we were wowed by the Prince Gallery hotel’s soaring views of Tokyo, cutting-edge electronics, and plumbing wizardry, and we were impressed by how one of the most populous cities in the world manages to be so clean and easy to navigate. We enjoyed learning to make washi paper from slurry and visiting a whole building dedicated to origami.Then we traveled to Yokohama, boarded the Diamond Princess, and looked forward to spending the lunar new year in Hong Kong and visiting Vietnam, Taiwan, and then several other Japanese ports.By the time we arrived in Hong Kong, on January 25, the combined concerns over the political protesters and the virus had caused the city to cancel all the new-year festivities. Still, we went into town for a dim sum lunch, tram ride to Victoria Peak, market shopping spree, and Peking-duck feast. It was the vacation of a lifetime.On the last night of the cruise, the captain’s voice came over the speaker in our room, announcing that a passenger who had not returned to the ship in Hong Kong had tested positive for the novel coronavirus—so novel it had not yet been named—and that Japanese authorities would not let us off the ship until everyone on board filled out a questionnaire, ominously delivered by the quarantine division, and had our temperatures checked. We slept fitfully, awaiting the knock on the door.That was three weeks ago. It soon became clear that we would be confined to our rooms for at least 14 days. Unlike some others staying in windowless rooms, we had a small suite with a balcony. Meals for the 2,666 people on board were delivered three times a day. There was no butter, no salt, as this post-cruise fare was meant to satisfy only hunger, not the palate. Our decadent vacation was very much over. Out came a mini-salt shaker that I keep with my toothpaste in case I need a saltwater gargle for a sore throat. I dug into my stockpile of Earl Grey and the mountain oolong I had purchased in Taipei. After talking with several doctor friends, we decided to take Tamiflu prophylactically. I always pack it during flu season. I opened my cold-prevention packet of high doses of vitamin C, zinc, and echinacea to boost our immune systems. A friend needed something for a feminine itch, and was surprised I had both the cream and suppository versions of the medication she needed, to her great relief.[Thomas J. Bollyky: Coronavirus is spreading because humans are healthier]I mention these details knowing they’re wildly out of keeping with the situation. What’s unsalted food when you’re stuck on a boat and more than 600 of your fellow passengers have tested positive for a deadly virus, and some of them have died? But the fact that I had a solution for the tasteless food kept me sane; it kept me feeling somewhat in control when I utterly lacked control.Now that we’re in a drafty room during a cold spell in San Antonio, the heating pad with an extension cord that I expected to use while sleeping on tatami mats has made up for the thin Red Cross blanket. The mini shampoo and conditioner bottles from the Tokyo hotel filled in when my calculated one-month supply from home ran out. My emergency snacks—nuts, Kind bars, and cookies—came in handy after 23 hours on buses and the bare-bones cargo plane we flew on during our “extraction process” by the U.S. government.When we were “processed” in an airplane hangar last week, we were handed paperwork that read: “Under Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act based on the scientific evidence collected concerning the outbreak of 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), the disease meets the definition of ‘severe acute respiratory syndromes’ as specified under Executive Order 13295, as amended by Executive Orders 13375 and 13674.” The paperwork ordered us into quarantine—the first in the U.S. in 60 years—with violation penalties of a criminal fine and up to one year in jail.Everyone on the other side of the fence is dressed in uniform. If they have to cross over to interact with us, they must be in full protection regalia and we must be wearing masks. They stand as far back as possible, taking our temperatures with an outstretched arm. We feel dehumanized, like pariahs, scum, outcasts. I use this heightened language because this is a heightened situation.I used to think that if I carried the right accoutrements, I would have something on hand for any emergency or change of plans. I had something for almost every need, even anti-anxiety meds in case of a crisis—which indeed this was.But I had forgotten the ruby slippers. There was nothing to click to send us home. My debit card, which works in any ATM in the world, cannot unlock the fence around the perimeter of this stockade. All the airline points in the world cannot purchase a single ticket home.Technically, we are not allowed out of our rooms. After seeing some other cruisers in their N95 masks walking outside, we asked how we could win the same privilege. “We do not recommend you leave your room for your own safety,” the yellow-suited guard with no name tag said, “but we can’t stop you.”So here I stand, against advice, gulping fresh air through the mask’s fiber, watching soldiers in Army drab and Air Force blue drilling and chanting. I wake to the bugle playing reveille at 5:30 a.m. and hear taps at what must be a soldier’s bedtime. At precisely 5:30 p.m., there’s another bugle alert called “retreat.” We open the door and see members of our “support team” on the better side of the fence. They have stopped in their tracks and placed their right hands over their hearts while the “Star-Spangled Banner” is played. Everyone stares in the same direction, where presumably a flag is being lowered. Every day a few more of us quarantined cruisers put on our face masks and do the same. They brought us home for one reason only: Because we were Americans in harm’s way. Someday—hopefully—we will be on the same side of the fence.
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theatlantic.com
Venezuela Is the Eerie Endgame of Modern Politics
Last month, Juan Guaidó appeared in Washington in the role of political totem. Venezuela’s main opposition leader—the man who is recognized by that country’s National Assembly, millions of his fellow citizens, and several dozen foreign countries as the rightful president of Venezuela—was one of the special guests at the State of the Union address. President Donald Trump welcomed Guaidó as living evidence that his own administration was “standing up for freedom in our hemisphere” and had “reversed the failed policies of the previous administration”; he called Venezuela’s current leader, Nicolás Maduro, an illegitimate ruler whose “grip on tyranny will be smashed and broken.” He gave no details of how that would happen. Trump, who has never been to Venezuela or shown any prior interest in it—or, for that matter, shown any interest in freedom anywhere else —presumably knows that the country matters to some voters in South Florida. To their credit, members of Congress gave a bipartisan standing ovation to Guaidó nevertheless.Trump is not the only world leader to cite Venezuela for self-serving ends. Regardless of what actually happens there, Venezuela—especially when it was run by Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez—has long been a symbolic cause for the Marxist left as well. More than a decade ago, Hans Modrow, one of the last East German Communist Party leaders and now an elder statesman of the far-left Die Linke party, told me that Chávez’s “Bolivarian socialism” represented his greatest hope: that Marxist ideas—which had driven East Germany into bankruptcy—might succeed, finally, in Latin America. Jeremy Corbyn, the far-left leader of the British Labour Party, was photographed with Chávez and has described his regime in Venezuela as an “inspiration to all of us fighting back against austerity and neoliberal economics.” Chávez’s rhetoric also helped inspire the Spanish Marxist Pablo Iglesias to create Podemos, Spain’s far-left party. Iglesias has long been suspected of taking Venezuelan money, though he denies it. Even now, the idea of Venezuela inspires defensiveness and anger wherever dedicated Marxists still gather, whether they are Code Pink activists vowing to “protect” the Venezuelan embassy in Washington from the Venezuelan opposition or French Marxists who refuse to call Maduro a dictator.[Read: In Washington, the Venezuelan opposition has already won]And yet—Venezuela is not an idea. It is a real place, full of real people who are undergoing an unprecedented and in some ways very eerie crisis. If it symbolizes anything at all, it is the distorting power of symbols. In reality, the country offers no comfort for youthful Marxists or self-styled anti-imperialists—or for fans of Donald Trump. I spent a few days there earlier this month, on an academic invitation. During the course of ordinary conversations with me, three people burst into tears while talking about their life and their country.One of the three was Susana Raffalli, a widely recognized Venezuelan expert in nutrition and food security. During her long career, Raffalli has worked all over the world, never imagining that her skills would be necessary in Venezuela, which has large oil reserves and was long a middle-income country. Raffalli and I met in a deceptively chic restaurant in Altamira, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Caracas. Just around the corner stood one of the shiny new hard currency stores, where people with dollars can buy things like Cheerios or large bottles of Heinz ketchup. Imported goods like these had disappeared in recent years as hyperinflation rendered the Venezuelan bolívar almost worthless, and as international sanctions and Venezuela’s own import controls disrupted trade. Now they are again available—but only to those who have access to foreign currency.Emin Ozmen / Magnum PhotosMembers of the Chavista-Madurista elite do indeed have such access, and the new dollarization of the Venezuelan economy has suddenly allowed them to flaunt their money. One academic I met described how shocked he was to see a woman reach into her handbag and pull out $3,000 in cash to buy a designer coat. “What kind of person,” he mused, “could have that kind of money?” By contrast, his elderly neighbors—formerly middle-class people, living on fixed pensions with no access to dollars—look thin and wasted. He himself had left his university to work for a foreign charity, because an academic salary paid in bolívares is no longer sufficient to buy food.The glitzy evidence of dollarization also masks the deep crisis of the rural poor. Upon Chávez’s death in 2013, Corbyn thanked him on Twitter for “showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared.” But neither Chávez nor Maduro has ever shown anything of the sort. Whatever progress the country made against poverty in the past was due to high oil prices, which have since slumped. Now Maduro presides over a disaster that is devastating the poor above all. Raffalli told me that the food-production system began to break down nearly a decade ago, thanks to the expropriation of land and the destruction of small agricultural companies, though a few big ones survive. Widespread malnutrition began a few years later. The Catholic charity Caritas believes that 78 percent of Venezuelans eat less than they used to, and 41 percent go whole days without eating. The side effects of hunger—higher rates of both chronic and infectious diseases—are spreading too. But if you haven’t heard about hunger in Venezuela, that’s not an accident: The government is going to great lengths to hide it.The tactics of deception include the use of outdated nutrition measures, which help conceal the severity of the problem. Government departments have also resorted to euphemistic jargon. “Malnutrition” has become “nutrition vulnerability,” Raffalli said, and a system of health centers for starving children is now the Service for Nutritional Education. The country’s National Assembly, which is controlled by the opposition, passed special measures to address the health crisis; the Supreme Court, which is controlled by Maduro, rejected them. Most ominously, doctors in Venezuelan hospitals have faced pressure not to list malnutrition as either a cause of illness or a cause of death. Though the official media do not mention these policies, people know about them anyway. Raffalli herself witnessed an extraordinary scene in one hospital: The parents of a child who had died from starvation tried to give her the corpse, because they were afraid that state officials would take it away and hide it. She was also in a rural region where children leave school at midday to hunt for birds or iguanas to cook and eat for lunch.To anyone who knows the long history of the relationship between Marxist regimes and famine, this development seems uncannily familiar. More than 80 years ago, in the winter of 1932–33, Stalin confiscated the food of Ukrainian peasants and did nothing while nearly 4 million died. Then he covered up their deaths, even altering Soviet population statistics and murdering census officials to disguise what had happened. To anyone who knows the long history of Communist countries’ use of food as a weapon, the Venezuelan regime’s manipulation of the food supply comes as no surprise, either. Most Venezuelans—80 percent according to a recent survey—now rely on boxes of food, containing staples such as rice, grain, or oil, from the government. Agencies known as Local Committees for Supply and Production hand the packages out to people who register for a Patria (“fatherland”) card or smartphone app, which are also used to monitor participation in elections. Raffalli has called this policy “not a food program, but a program of penetration and social domination.” The hungrier people get, the more control the government exerts, and the easier it is to prevent them from protesting or objecting in any other way. Even people who are not starving now spend most of their time just getting by—standing in lines, trying to fix broken generators, working second or third jobs to earn a little bit more—all activities that keep them from politics.But when Raffalli’s voice broke, she was talking about something else: the indifference that was growing, both at home and abroad. The United Nations, perhaps thanks to some officials who admired Chávez—or who do not admire Trump—has not launched a major humanitarian-aid program in Venezuela. “The trauma here is that it is forgotten by outsiders, and also forgotten by us,” Raffalli said. “We are getting used to it … you have to keep saying, ‘No, it’s not normal!” This, she said, is what Venezuela has become: “a country with some of the world’s biggest rivers, and yet we have water shortages. A country with vast reserves of oil, and yet people are cooking food over wood fires.” In this type of protracted crisis, “people start to lose hope. Hunger co-exists with fatigue and lack of hope. And we are forgetting what we used to be.”And yet, despite the clear historical echoes, the cause of the crisis in Venezuela is not merely the familiar, fanatical application of Marxist theory. If some elements of recent Venezuelan history sound amazingly like a replay of Soviet history, other elements strongly resemble the more recent histories of Russia, Turkey, and other illiberal nationalist regimes whose leaders slowly chipped away at civil rights, rule of law, democratic norms, and independent courts, eventually turning their democracies into kleptocracies. This process also took place in Venezuela. Like the destruction of the economy, the destruction of the political culture took some time, because there were several decades’ worth of democratic institutions to destroy. Writing in The New Yorker in 1965, not long after a round of successful elections, a visitor to the country observed, rather elegantly, that “the high-minded, steadfast enthusiasm for the republican ideal is one of the determining factors in Venezuelan history … the Venezuelan seeks the City of Justice as his forerunners sought the City of Gold, with the same dedication, the same indestructible hope, and the same splendid determination.”[Read: Venezuela is falling apart]But democracy became weaker in the 1990s, thanks to widespread corruption linked to the oil industry. Chávez broke the rule of law completely. His first attempt to take power was via a coup d’état, in 1992. He won a legitimate election in 1998, but once in power he slowly changed the rules, eventually making it almost impossible for anyone to beat him. In 2004, he packed the Supreme Court; in 2009, he altered the electoral system. Just like other illiberal governments, the Venezuelan regime also sought to undermine abstract ideas of justice—which might have protected ordinary people from the authoritarian state—by dismissing them as a Western plot. Rafael Uzcátegui, an activist who runs PROVEA (the Venezuelan Education-Action Program on Human Rights), told me that the country’s rulers had tried to redefine the problem: “They said everything that we understood as human rights was a ‘liberal hegemonic imposition.’” They also created parallel institutions—such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, Chávez’s version of the Organization of American States—to limit the influence of established multinational bodies and global human-rights groups inside Venezuela. Having gained full control of his nation’s legal and judicial institutions, Chávez did not use it to benefit poor Venezuelans, contrary to the mythology spread by far-left admirers. Instead, Chávez began to transfer the wealth of the country to his cronies. This process was extraordinarily well documented, in real time, by many people. A Foreign Affairs article about Chávez in 2006 spoke of “blatant violations of the rule of law and the democratic process.” A 2008 article in the same publication noted that “neither official statistics nor independent estimates show any evidence that Chávez has reoriented state priorities to benefit the poor.” The slide into spectacular corruption grew worse under Maduro. In Caracas, I met at least a dozen academics and journalists who are still charting the regime’s dishonest social-media campaigns, infringements on what remains of the constitutional order, and stunning corruption, as well as its humanitarian disaster. Their ability to observe and describe all of these things has not necessarily helped them to stop them.Some elements of Chávez’s method will seem strangely familiar to anyone who has studied other kleptocracies. The Venezuelan writer Moisés Naím has described his country’s political system as a “loose confederation of foreign and domestic criminal enterprises with the president in the role of mafia boss,” which makes it sound very much like Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In Caracas, I sat in a room full of people who were debating just exactly how much money the regime had stolen—$200 billion? $600 billion?—a parlor game that gets played in Moscow too. Scattered around the Venezuelan capital are several brand-new, completely empty apartment buildings that are reportedly a side effect of money laundering: Their owners are storing stolen money in glass and concrete, hoping that real-estate prices will rise someday. A couple of years ago, a court in Miami charged a network of Venezuelan officials with laundering $1.2 billion into property and assets in Florida and elsewhere. Investigations into that case and others still involve law-enforcement agencies all over the world.How did Chávez get away with this level of theft? How can Maduro sustain it? Among other things, the two strongmen have made it almost impossible for the independent press to function, undermined the credibility of experts, and distracted supporters, both domestic and foreign, with a combination of fairy tales—how wonderful were the lives of the poor!—and conspiracy theories. For Americans, some elements of this story should hit uncomfortably close to home. At the height of his power, Chávez appeared every Sunday on his own surreal, unscripted reality-television program, called Aló Presidente. He would interview supporters, hire and fire ministers, insult people, even declare war while on air, using television much as President Trump uses Twitter, to shock and entertain, sometimes continuing for many hours. Chávez made up names for his enemies—“El Diablo” was one of several for President George W. Bush—and he was vulgar and rude. These traits convinced people that he was “authentic.” Just as Trump used to shout “You’re fired” as a kind of punch line on The Apprentice, Chávez would shout “Exprópiese!” at buildings and property, supposedly owned by rich people, that he intended to expropriate.Over time, Chávez successfully polarized society into groups of fanatical supporters and equally dedicated enemies—warring tribes who felt they had little in common. Some of the differences were based on class or race, but not all. One Venezuelan I met—he owned a bookstore before people could no longer afford to buy books—told me that he fell out with a university friend who’d become a fanatical Chavista. They never made up.Even now, polarization is built into the streetscape of Caracas. In the middle-class Chacao district, which is controlled by the opposition, the names of activists murdered by the regime are painted onto a fence that stands near a square where many anti-Maduro demonstrations have been held. In the working-class neighborhoods, one sees pro-regime murals and billboards, though many of these defy the clichés. Some of them, heavy on Venezuelan flags and “No Trump” slogans, could easily be described as nationalist rather than socialist. Others—the paintings of Chávez’s eyes, for example—belong more strictly to what can only be described as a cult of personality.None of those signs and symbols necessarily means that the regime is popular. Most of the political scientists whom I met reckoned that Maduro has the support of no more than a quarter of the population—some of whom support him only for the food boxes or out of fear. Those who speak out, especially from the slums, are periodically subjected to violence too. In one poor neighborhood, I met a woman whose cousin had recorded a video of himself, draped in a Venezuelan flag, going to an anti-government demonstration, and posted it on Facebook. A neighbor recognized him and told the authorities—another act with Stalinist echoes. A couple of days later, police thugs from the Special Actions Force—a unit known as FAES, which Maduro created in 2017 supposedly to “fight terrorism” —abducted and murdered him.Extrajudicial murders like this one are now common. An initiative called Mi Convive—whose mission is to monitor and reduce violence—registered 1,271 extrajudicial murders in Caracas alone from May 2017 to December 2019, out of more than 3,300 violent deaths in the city. Late last year, the UN high commissioner for human rights concluded that FAES and other police had killed 6,800 Venezuelans from January 2018 to May 2019, a period of sharp political conflict. The commissioner’s report included details of torture, such as electric-shock treatment and waterboarding. Precisely because those who criticize the government can be subjected to harassment or violence, especially if they come from the slums, I am withholding the names of some of the Venezuelans whom I met or interviewed.But cynicism is just as powerful a demotivator as fear. Over and over again, people told me that while they don’t dislike Guaidó, they do not believe he can win. So what if the Trump administration recognizes him as the rightful president? The Venezuelan army does not. Democracy is broken, elections are unfair, the police can enter anyone’s house at any time, so how can the regime be brought down? One of Guaidó’s former teachers, a university professor, told me he had let his former student know that he would not come to any more demonstrations until he knew exactly what he was demonstrating for. What is the realistic path to change?Polarization adds to this cynicism by creating suspicion and mistrust on both sides; people hear politicians shouting diametrically opposing slogans or presenting contradictory facts, and their instinct is to cover their ears. Then they retreat inward—or they leave, in vast numbers. The 4.5 million people who are thought to have left Venezuela in recent years have done so either by walking across the border into neighboring countries or by seeking to study or work abroad. Historically, Venezuela was a magnet for immigrants, not a source of refugees. The current exodus has left enormous gaps in many institutions, broken up families, and destroyed circles of friends.[Read: Venezuela’s struggle for legitimacy comes to New York]The second person I met who started to cry was a translator. At one event, I responded in English to a question about the wave of Venezuelan refugees now spreading across South America, North America, and Europe. As the translator put my answer into Spanish, she broke down. “I suddenly thought of my nieces and nephews,” she told me afterward. “All of those hopeful young people, all gone.”The third time someone cried was in rather different circumstances. I was in La Vega, one of the slums that cling to the hills around Caracas, a little bit like the favelas around Rio de Janeiro. The paved roads in La Vega attest to the money that was once available to spend on infrastructure; the jerry-rigged electricity cables and water pipelines attest to that infrastructure’s decline. We were sitting in a community kitchen created by a group called Alimenta la Solidaridad (a name that translates loosely to “food solidarity”), which serves regular meals to children in poor neighborhoods. This is one of a pair of initiatives originally conceived by Roberto Patiño, a young opposition politician turned humanitarian activist. The first one is Mi Convive, the group that monitors and mitigates violence; its name, also translated loosely, means “live together.” Patiño was a student leader who campaigned on behalf of a previous opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, who ran for president and lost by a tiny and probably fraudulent margin in 2013. As he traveled around the country, Patiño told me, he was shocked by the lack of faith that people had in the whole process. They didn’t hate Capriles; they just thought that “everything related to politics is a lie.”Patiño’s organizations are not political, and they are not intended to affect election campaigns directly. Instead, they seek to undermine the polarization, and dampen the cynicism, that has frozen Venezuelan society. Propaganda divides people. Fear isolates them. By contrast, Alimenta and Mi Convive create projects that bring people together, regardless of their socioeconomic status or political views, building networks of friendship and support. The projects are staffed, in part, by educated, middle-class people in their 20s and 30s who have deliberately decided not to emigrate, though any of them could. Alberto Kabbabe, the co-founder and executive director of Alimenta, has a degree in chemical engineering; he says most of his university friends have left for the U.S. or Colombia. Back when he was in the student movement with Patiño, Kabbabe didn’t imagine himself running community kitchens, but then, none of the group did. “I thought I would be doing politics, but something more … sophisticated,” one told me. But in a society where sophisticated politics feel pointless and impossible, working to create links between wealthy and poor neighborhoods feels positive and creative. “The government made people believe that we are all different and enemies. In fact, we are all different, but we can work together,” Kabbabe told me.A trio of them took me to see a couple of the kitchens in La Vega. We began with a visit to a Jesuit school. Alimenta has worked closely alongside the order, which has a particular interest in refugees and the very poor. The Jesuit fathers in Caracas—I met several—reminded me of the kinds of priests who used to work in Polish working-class neighborhoods in the 1980s, when the Catholic Church was a unifying national institution in Poland and not part, as it is now, of a divisive war over modern culture.From the school we went to one of the community kitchens—in reality, a dining space set up on a dirt floor beneath a corrugated-tin roof. The women who worked there were all volunteers, some of whom had lost their access to the free government food boxes because they work for Alimenta. They said they didn’t care—the food served at the kitchens is healthier anyway—and there are other benefits. “We can do something to make a difference,” one of the volunteers told me, and that creates a kind of psychological satisfaction, even aside from the food. Some of the women have become advocates for their communities, speaking out about school closures, water shortages, and the other hardships that Venezuela’s decline has imposed on them.Conditions were a little better in another section of La Vega, farther down the hillside. There, the community kitchen is inside a real building, connected to a convent. Posted on the walls are lists of daily menus; the space smells slightly of disinfectant and the floors positively shine. The volunteer who runs the kitchen—gray-haired, wearing blue jeans and an Alimenta la Solidaridad T-shirt—showed us around. She started to tell her life story, a tale of bad luck and crises, a son who was shot during local violence, another who died in an accident. But now she has had some success: Her daughters are studying, and she is feeding children—a role that allows her to keep an eye on local families in trouble. This is when she started to cry. One of the women from Alimenta—several decades younger, from a different neighborhood and a luckier family background—stood up and put her hand on her shoulder. The older woman stopped for a moment, and then resumed her story.I am tempted to end here with a warning, because Venezuela does represent the conclusion to a lot of processes we see in the world today. Venezuela is the end game of ideological Marxism; the culmination of the assault on democracy, courts, and the press now unfolding in so many countries; and the outer limit of the politics of polarization. But I don’t want, as so many have done, to treat Venezuela as just a symbol. It’s a real place, and the hardships faced by the people who live there have not ended, culminated, or been limited at all. Whatever the United States and other members of the international community do next in Venezuela, the goal should be to help real Venezuelans, not to further an ideological argument, especially as the humanitarian and political crises deepen and spread.
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Where Bernie Fails the Progressive Purity Test
It was a rare admission of wrongdoing from Bernie Sanders. “I’ve cast thousands of votes, including bad votes. That was a bad vote,” Sanders said at the Democratic-primary debate in South Carolina Tuesday night, describing his support for legislation that gave legal immunity to gun manufacturers.The senator from Vermont’s hallmark has been his consistency as an unbending progressive over four decades in elected office. Yet if Sanders has embodied left-wing purity more than any of the other potential Democratic nominees, gun policy is one area where his record has been far from pristine in the eyes of progressives.For the second straight election, Sanders’s rivals are homing in on his past votes against tighter gun restrictions in a bid to halt his momentum. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York has jumped on the issue in recent days, releasing a video painting Sanders as a toady of the National Rifle Association and launching a bus tour through California—the biggest Super Tuesday prize—highlighting his record. Former Vice President Joe Biden confronted Sanders on guns at the February 7 debate in New Hampshire and again Tuesday night, prompting the current Democratic front-runner to issue what amounted to a mea culpa.Both are taking a page from Hillary Clinton, who criticized Sanders on guns throughout their 2016 primary fight—the one issue where she repeatedly attacked him from the left. In debates and interviews, Clinton accused Sanders of siding “with the gun lobby” by opposing early versions of the 1993 Brady bill and later by voting to shield gun manufacturers from liability if the weapons they sold were used in violent crimes. At one point, she suggested that the lax gun laws in Vermont—which Sanders had defended as “a rural state”—were to blame for gun violence in New York, where firearms are often brought in from other states.“It was effective in 2016,” Corey Ciorciari, a Democratic strategist who served as point person on gun policy for Clinton and who worked for Senator Kamala Harris’s campaign last year, told me. “A big reason it’s effective is because his record on this undercuts his overall message. His message is consistently taking on corporate interests and being a stellar progressive, and that is just not what his history is on guns.”The debate on gun control has shifted rapidly in the Democratic Party as mass shootings continue to devastate communities across the country. No longer are primary candidates merely calling for tighter background checks and a ban on assault weapons; in 2019, contenders like Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas were calling for national licensing requirements and gun-buyback programs.[Read: ‘Do something’: 2020 Democrats are stuck after mass shootings]While attacking Sanders’s gun record might seem like an obvious strategy now, it was not in 2016, former Clintons staffers told me. “There were people even within the campaign who were skeptical of going hard on this issue,” Ciorciari said, “because that had always been the Democratic consensus—that it’s an important issue, but not an issue that you raise in presidential politics.”It was Clinton, Ciorciari recalled, who insisted on raising Sanders’s past votes in the run-up to the Iowa caucus. “To her credit, she said ‘No, I’m doing this,’” he told me. “It really came down to her wanting to do it personally, because she thought it was important.”The campaign saw the gun issue as potent against Sanders, another former official told me, because it resonated most with three constituencies crucial to Democrats: voters of color, suburban women, and young people. Yet because Clinton never truly feared losing the nomination, she stopped short of maximizing the impact of her attack and didn’t run negative television ads on his gun record. “We raised the gun issue in order to put some chum in the water,” the second former campaign official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly. The strategy “was much more about giving something for the elites and the press to talk about than it was about informing actual primary voters.”Sanders was more defensive of his record in 2016, frequently retorting that he was representing the views of a state that had no history of gun restrictions; he also argued that owners of small gun shops should not have their livelihood destroyed if a weapon they sell ends up being used in a crime. Sanders isn’t quick to back off controversial stances, as his recent praise of certain aspects of Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba demonstrates. But it’s telling that on gun control, he has gone further this time around to repudiate his past positions and align himself with the Democratic Party’s mainstream opinion. “The world has changed, and my views have changed,” he said at the February debate in New Hampshire.Gun-control advocates have taken notice. “I am happy to see that Bernie Sanders, by his own admission, has evolved on this issue and is in line with where I think the conversation around guns is in this country,” Igor Volsky, the executive director of the progressive Guns Down America, told me.Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords (the gun-control group started by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona), says that the effectiveness of Clinton’s attacks on Sanders’s record was demonstrated by his decision to integrate gun-control proposals more centrally into his 2020 campaign. “One’s judgment from past votes is certainly fair game, and [immunity for gun manufacturers] has been a pretty damaging law in this country,” Ambler says. “I don’t think his guns record is really an area of strength for Bernie.”Biden, who is fighting for his political life in South Carolina, has been the most aggressive in going after Sanders for his gun-rights votes. Twice Tuesday night, he came close to saying that the senator had blood on his hands. “I’m not saying he’s responsible for the nine deaths ...” Biden began at one point, referring to the 2015 massacre at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel church, across the street from where the candidates were debating.Yet the Democrat best positioned to take advantage of Sanders’s vulnerability on guns is Bloomberg, who made the issue his top national priority during his second and third terms as mayor of New York, and as one of the country’s biggest-spending political donors in the years since. Bloomberg has both the money and the imperative to blanket the airwaves with negative ads about Sanders, but so far he has chosen to spend more than half a billion dollars solely on touting his own record and bashing Donald Trump.Like Clinton’s four years ago, Bloomberg’s critique of Sanders has been limited to digital ads and interviews, and with Super Tuesday less than a week away, that won’t nearly be enough, strategists said.“We’re past the time where you can count on a tweet and a meme about Sanders’s record on guns as doing enough to slow down his march to the nomination,” the former Clinton official told me. “If you want to stop Bernie Sanders from being the nominee, you need to run a significant advertising campaign, and one of Sanders’s biggest vulnerabilities is his longtime record on the wrong side of gun violence.”
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Feminism’s Purity Wars
Erin Pizzey ought to be a feminist hero. In 1971, she founded the first women’s refuge in Britain, with no money and no official support beyond the use of a run-down public-housing block with four rooms, a galley kitchen, and a toilet. At that house in Chiswick, West London, hundreds of women received help to escape abusive partners and rebuild their lives. It was also a community center where women could get help with claiming welfare benefits, starting divorce proceedings, and dealing with alcohol and drug abuse.By 2017, there were 276 such sites in England, with 3,798 beds. Pizzey’s work in Chiswick led to the creation of Refuge, which is now the largest charity of its kind in England. It has an annual income of £13.3 million ($17 million) and employs more than 200 people.This post was excerpted from Lewis’s upcoming book. The refuge movement is one of the greatest achievements of feminism’s second wave, not just providing practical support, but also changing the language we use to describe violence inside the home—and with it, social attitudes toward “domestic violence.” For centuries, it had been assumed that since marriage was a form of ownership, a man could “discipline” or “correct” his wife however he saw fit. If he killed her in the process, perhaps she had provoked him, went the conventional wisdom. Maybe she nagged him, or flirted with other men, or withheld sex. He must have had his reasons.Pizzey wanted to change those attitudes. The first of her many books on domestic violence, Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear, led to a TV documentary. She attracted fans such as Boy George and the author Fay Weldon, and rich backers such as the newspaper editor David Astor. The Chiswick refuge itself became famous: Roger Daltrey and Kenney Jones of The Who paid a visit in 1980.But there’s a reason Pizzey has faded from memory, even as the movement she championed endures. From the start, her relationship to the women’s-liberation movement—a loose collection of groups that held an annual conference starting in 1970—was fractious. It quickly became poisonous: In Sweet Freedom, Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell’s account of the second wave, they noted that four years after the creation of Pizzey’s lone outpost in Chiswick, 28 other groups had set up refuges, and 83 others were working on doing so. But in 1975, they wrote, Pizzey metaphorically “stormed out” of the movement, and has “gone her own way ever since.”“She single-handedly did as much for the cause of women as any other woman alive,” Deborah Ross wrote in The Independent in 1997. But by the time Ross interviewed her, Pizzey was living in a hostel for the homeless in West London, having left behind, in order, a second husband, a career as a writer of bodice-ripping novels, and substantial debts. She was 58.[Read: The hazards of writing while female]Four years later, Dina Rabinovitch of The Guardian found Pizzey poised to release online a book about women’s violence, having failed to find a mainstream publisher. Pizzey was now thoroughly outside the feminist mainstream. Rabinovitch wrote that it came “as a shock to someone of my generation—we grew up hearing about the work she did for other women.” She was left wondering “if a man who’d done so much would be quite so alone.” By 2009, the break was complete. Pizzey wrote for the Daily Mail that she had realized feminism was “a lie” and that “women and men are both capable of extraordinary cruelty … We must stop demonising men and start healing the rift that feminism has created between men and women.”Pizzey is now an advocate for the men’s-rights movement, serving as editor at large of the anti-feminist website A Voice for Men. (The editor of the site, Paul Elam, once vowed that he would never deliver a guilty verdict as a juror in a rape trial, no matter what the evidence was, because the court system has been corrupted by our “false rape culture.”) Her 2011 autobiography, This Way To The Revolution, talks in heartbreaking detail about women who were beaten savagely by their partners. She knew several who went back to an abusive partner—and were killed as a result. So how does a woman go from founding England’s first refuge for domestic-violence victims to hanging out with men’s-rights activists?Pizzey now lives in a top-floor apartment in Twickenham, West London. I thought she might be crabby and guarded, seeing me as an emissary of a political movement that she now views as the enemy. The truth is more complicated. Born in China in 1939, Pizzey says she was deeply shaped by her childhood. Her father’s career as a diplomat took the family around the world, and she attended boarding schools—a relief, she told me, compared with living with her “dysfunctional and violent” parents.This Way to the Revolution depicts Pizzey as a plainspoken housewife who didn’t have any truck with the ideologues she found in the women’s-liberation movement. She wasn’t interested in theory, and felt separated from the feminist movement by class, education, and aspirations. Reading the book, I could feel the familiar grooves of the arguments about feminists versus “ordinary women.” There has long been a tendency to depict feminism as an elite project, and university-educated women are more likely to describe themselves as feminists.I recognized something else, too: Pizzey’s desire to define herself against the most absurd and extreme elements of the movement, the Maoists and lesbian separatists. I recognized it because I’ve felt that urge too. It suits outsiders to define feminism by its extremes—they’re easier to argue against, or to ignore—and so insiders feel continually pressed to reject them. No one “owns” feminism, and no single woman sets its rules. That is both liberating and troublesome. Unlike with a political party, there is no mechanism to kick people out of feminism. That boundlessness is difficult to negotiate.In the 1970s, however, there were formal structures, which Pizzey duly rejected. From the start, she didn’t like the women she met in the wider movement. “They weren’t housewives like us,” she told me. “They were highly politicized.” As she saw it, most feminists who worked in universities, politics, or the media were Trotskyites, Marxists, Stalinists, or Maoists. “But I just kept saying to the Maoists, ‘How can you stand there and tell us that the Chinese Revolution is a huge success when women are being dragged off and [their fetuses] aborted?’ And how can the Russian groups, the Trots and the Leninists and all the rest of them, particularly the Stalinists, deny the fact that Stalin murdered millions and millions and millions of people? And there were no women ever in the Politburo. Oh, jolly good, you’re allowed to drive tractors. But that isn’t anything that we, as ordinary women, believe in.”From the start, she worried that feminism was encouraging women to see themselves as victims, and that political lesbianism—the idea that women should renounce sleeping with men, whatever their personal sexual orientation—was being used as a purity test. “We just all—my little group—just looked at each other and thought, Fuck this.”The purity politics, the petty dictators, the navel-gazing—all this seemed very familiar to me. Except my peers were not the radical feminists of the 1970s but the internet feminists of the 2010s. When Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman was published in June 2011, I was an assistant editor at the New Statesman, a British left-leaning weekly magazine; when the paperback edition came out, I had just been made deputy editor, at the age of 28. It was a big promotion, which surprised both me and the older men in the office, and it involved taking charge of the magazine’s website just as internet traffic was soaring across the British media.Moran’s book ignited huge interest in feminism—and, in turn, something like a civil war. Fair and unfair criticisms blended into one giant screaming mass, fueled by Twitter, and left everyone angry and hurt. Persistent themes emerged: X was too privileged, and her feminism was blinkered; Y had used a “problematic” word or concept and needed to apologize; Z was a transphobe, a “white feminist,” or insufficiently “intersectional,” a word that was rarely heard a few years before, but was suddenly everywhere, with little regard to the original meaning as defined by the American legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. Often, the criticisms were valid: Early on, two black feminists asked me to have coffee with them, and explained that my commissioning blitz was leaving out women of color. Scarred by a million Twitterspats, I became defensive, when I should have done them the courtesy of listening. At other times, though, the criticisms were driven by jealousy, or that heady mix of sadism and self-righteousness that characterizes a moral crusade.[Read: To learn about the far right, start with the ‘manosphere’]With the benefit of hindsight, that period was so fraught because it was a gold rush. After Moran’s book was released, several other feminist writers had books commissioned, but the beneficiaries of the publishing boom were disproportionately white, middle-class, and university-educated. That wasn’t their—our—fault, of course, and no one enjoys being a metaphorical punching bag.All this has happened before. In 1976, a few years after Pizzey founded her refuge, the American feminist Jo Freeman wrote an article in Ms. magazine titled “Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood.” It generated an outpouring of letters from other women who felt that they had also been subject to this practice. Trashing, Freeman explained, was not criticism or disagreement, which were a healthy and normal part of any movement. “Trashing is a particularly vicious form of character assassination which amounts to psychological rape,” she wrote. “It is manipulative, dishonest, and excessive. It is occasionally disguised by the rhetoric of honest conflict, or covered up by denying that any disapproval exists at all. But it is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy.”Freeman’s and Pizzey’s negative experiences took place in real-world collectives. The online feminism of the 2010s added a new dimension because it was possible to be the target of trashing by several hundred people at once, in real time. Anger is a great engine of change, and activists are often dismissed by those who hold power as “too radical” or “too aggressive” in their demands, but outrage became prized for its own sake, and online feminists lost the ability to distinguish between righteous indignation and mere spite. Worse, self-appointed “allies” went full The Crucible by performatively denouncing their peers.Being trashed is a traumatic experience. I was accused of endangering lives, because my rhetoric was so hate-filled that people reading it would surely kill themselves. I was a racist. I was a transphobe. I was accused of keeping a blacklist of writers and using my immense power to keep them out of British journalism. I was out of touch because I was middle-aged. (Funny: I was not yet 30.) I had dropped my double-barreled name to hide my aristocratic roots. (Painful: My divorce was still recent.) A caricature developed, a shadow Helen who stalked me around the internet: Absurdly posh, oblivious, ruthlessly careerist, and concerned only with fripperies.Everything I did just made it worse. My objections were “white-women tears.” Defending myself was bullying. When I left Twitter for a few days, I was mentioned in an article in the Evening Standard about the phenomenon of the “Twitter flounce.” The most panic-inducing experiences were the attempts to isolate me: Any contact with me was deemed to make other feminists unclean. My existence itself, and my success, was a provocation. I was taking up a space that another, more worthy woman could have held.It was, as Freeman wrote, a character assassination. Any good-faith—and deserved—criticism got lost in a sea of jealousy, resentment, and retaliation. I was far from blameless: I began to hate my new enemies. I was not kind to them. I let my personal feelings cloud my professional judgment, and I defended my own and my friends’ writing on partisan grounds rather than on its merits. The vitriol abated only when I blocked everyone involved and stopped replying to criticism.Pizzey didn’t fall out with feminism only because she disliked other feminists. There was also a fundamental political disagreement: She thought that the mainstream women’s movement treated men as the enemy, that women’s own capacity for violence was being understated, and that in dysfunctional relationships, both sides drive a vicious cycle that leads to “addiction to violence.” (It was her way of explaining why women so often return to men who beat and belittle them; research conducted since she founded the Chiswick refuge has explored instead how victims are coerced and controlled by abusers, eroding their friendships, self-esteem, and independence.)[Read: The Twitter electorate isn’t the real electorate]You can see why the rest of the movement—and Pizzey’s successors at Refuge—wanted so urgently to tidy her out of the way. Today, the charity’s website has a page called “Our Story,” which states that it “opened the world’s first safe house for women and children escaping domestic violence in Chiswick, West London, in 1971.” Her name does not appear.Pizzey’s analysis didn’t mean she thought women who were “violence addicts” should be left to die. On the contrary, those were the women she wanted to help most, using her unorthodox methods. Her refuge was run like a commune, but it had rules. Disruptive women and children were not to be indulged because of the trauma they had experienced. They could be voted out by other residents. Tough love: that was Pizzey’s approach.Still, her diagnosis was appealing to the men’s-rights movement. Its activists believe that it is unfair to assume the woman must be the “victim” if a heterosexual couple’s argument turns violent, because that status leads to sympathy (and government funding). If there is no overwhelming dynamic of male violence against women, just a mass of dysfunctional couples, then men are being wronged by the feminist fight against “male violence.” But the statistics are clear: Self-reported data from the 2018 Crime Survey for England and Wales show that nearly twice as many women as men reported being victims of domestic violence that year (7.9 percent of women, compared with 4.2 percent of men), although the gender of perpetrators and their relationship to the victim were not recorded. The police found that 75 percent of victims of domestic violence were female, while for specifically sexual offenses, 96 percent were female.The extent of male violence, and its effect on women’s lives, is now taken for granted by most feminists. Outside the fringes of the “manosphere,” few would disagree that something called “domestic violence” exists, and that women are its primary victims. That is a problem in itself. When an idea hardens into orthodoxy, campaigners lose the muscle memory built up when making their case. That, in turn, opens up space for opponents to contest the facts.My own trashing did not drive me out of feminism—and certainly not into the arms of men’s-rights activists. But I can see how it could have. Perhaps the surprise shouldn’t be that feminism has experienced so many divisions. The surprise should be that we are surprised. When humanity (led by men) has contested the allocation of scarce resources, or seen a clash between strong personalities, or come up with differing interpretations of a sacred truth, it has often resulted in full-scale war. A few mean blog posts suddenly don’t seem so bad.Toward the end of my conversation with Pizzey, I suggested that she was airbrushed out of the history of the refuge movement because she was too difficult, too unorthodox, too contrarian, too inconvenient to the dominant narrative. She agreed. “I don’t think anybody knows who I am any longer; it’s just all gone,” she said, as the weak winter sun flooded her top-floor flat. “That doesn’t matter. I just quietly get on. I still do see anybody who wants to see me, and … that’s okay.”This post was excerpted from Lewis’s upcoming book, Difficult Women: An Imperfect History of Feminism.
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The Atlantic Politics Daily: Bernie’s Big Vulnerability
It’s Thursday, February 27. In today’s newsletter: What Bernie Sanders’s 2020 rivals learned from 2016 Hillary Clinton. Plus: Venezuela is the eerie endgame of modern politics, Anne Applebaum writes.*« TODAY IN POLITICS »(John Locher / AP)Bernie’s rivals have found an opening to attack him from the left.To his detractors, Bernie Sanders can at best sound like a broken record. His core 2020 message is largely consistent with the progressive message he’s been hammering at for decades.But on issues around gun violence, Sanders hasn’t always been stalwartly progressive. He opposed certain gun restrictions in the ‘90s, and though his views have “evolved” (to use the preferred parlance of wishy washy DC politicos), his record on guns may be among his biggest vulnerabilities.Candidates like Michael Bloomberg eager to go after Bernie on guns are borrowing from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 playbook, my colleague Russell Berman points out: The campaign saw the gun issue as potent against Sanders, a former official told me, because it resonated most with three constituencies crucial to Democrats: voters of color, suburban women, and young people. Yet because Clinton never truly feared losing the nomination, she stopped short of maximizing the impact of her attack and didn’t run negative television ads on his gun record. “We raised the gun issue in order to put some chum in the water,” the second former campaign official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly. The strategy “was much more about giving something for the elites and the press to talk about than it was about informing actual primary voters.” All the while, gun violence in America has grimly, devastatingly plodded along. Just yesterday, five people were shot and killed at the Molson Coors brewery in Milwaukee. America in 2019 saw more mass shootings than any other year on record. Two of the three deadliest occurred in the span of a single day.Can Democrats center the 2020 race around guns? Gun violence has become personal for many people in a way that it wasn’t before—a shift the party can try to capitalize on, my colleague Elaine Godfrey writes. Guns have “to be on par with health care and with quality-of-life issues,” Dan Sena, a Democratic strategist who was the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during last year’s midterms, told me in an interview. And the growing intrusion of mass gun violence into daily life could be what upgrades the issue to a top concern for voters—a shift that Democrats could try to capitalize on in the same way they seized on voters’ worries about the fate of Obamacare and their own creeping health-care costs last year. The 2020 election, Sena said, “could be the first time you actually see” gun violence take center stage as the party’s go-to election message. Read the rest.—Saahil Desai*« IDEAS AND ARGUMENTS »(Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)1. “Critics may laugh and shake their heads, but the simple fact is that these people see themselves as stalwart defenders of the Constitution.”While Attorney General Bill Barr’s critics accuse him of bending law enforcement to Trump’s political whims, but what if Barr’s efforts are working toward depoliticizing the Justice Department? That’s the argument of this former associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.2. “The GOP now exists to further the personal desires and wealth of one man … It is no longer a party of ideas, but a party of idolaters.”Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party is a symptom of problem America’s institutions face, three founders of the anti-Trump activist group called the Lincoln Project argue: “Defeating him is only the beginning of a national reformation,” they say.3. “The purity test starts at the top.”National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien’s recent culling of the National Security Council may be cloaked in the language of making a sprawling bureaucracy more efficient. But really the move functions as a purge of disloyal staffers to Trump, this former Pentagon speechwriter argues.*« EVENING READ »(Emin Ozmen / Magnum Photos)What Happened in Venezuela“Venezuela is not an idea,” Anne Applebaum writes. “It is a real place, full of real people.” And the current state of the country represents the eerie endgame of modern politics: Trump is not the only world leader to cite Venezuela for self-serving ends. Regardless of what actually happens there, Venezuela—especially when it was run by Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez—has long been a symbolic cause for the Marxist left as well … Jeremy Corbyn, the far-left leader of the British Labour Party, was photographed with Chávez and has described his regime in Venezuela as an “inspiration to all of us fighting back against austerity and neoliberal economics.” Chávez’s rhetoric also helped inspire the Spanish Marxist Pablo Iglesias to create Podemos, Spain’s far-left party. Iglesias has long been suspected of taking Venezuelan money, though he denies it. Even now, the idea of Venezuela inspires defensiveness and anger wherever dedicated Marxists still gather, whether they are Code Pink activists vowing to “protect” the Venezuelan embassy in Washington from the Venezuelan opposition or French Marxists who refuse to call Maduro a dictator. Read the rest.* Today’s newsletter was written Saahil Desai, an editor on the Politics desk, and Christian Paz, a politics fellow. It was edited by Shan Wang, who oversees newsletters. You can reply directly to this newsletter with questions or comments, or send a note to politicsdaily@theatlantic.com. Your support makes our journalism possible. Subscribe here.
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The Most Unadaptable Book in Fiction
There are a few moments, reading Joan Didion’s 1996 novel The Last Thing He Wanted, when it’s possible to sense why someone saw cinematic potential in this exceptionally interior and evasive story. This is a tale about gun-running in tropical climes, about beachside murders and political corruption. But its author also wants to deconstruct the prototypical elements of storytelling, such as character, description, and plot. This world is so destabilized that language itself has become untrustworthy, and so even the simplest of facts cannot stand. There’s no single truth to rely on. The story is narrated by a magazine writer who may or may not be Didion herself, and who’s parsing how a female reporter got swept up in an arms-dealing scandal in 1984. While the story is fictional, the book is deeply attentive to real government duplicity during the Reagan era, in which “even the most apparently straightforward piece of information could at any time explode.”Dee Rees’s adaptation of The Last Thing He Wanted debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival to baffled reviews, and has inspired similar confusion since it arrived on Netflix last Friday. The movie is, Stephanie Zacharek wrote for Time, “such an ambitious piece of work that it’s hard to know where to start with it.” In The New York Times, Glenn Kenny concluded that “the big problem with the movie isn’t the muddle, but the strain” of Rees’s attempts to make things make sense. “How does a director as stellar as Dee Rees (Mudbound, Pariah) go so thunderously wrong adapting a 1996 novel by the great Joan Didion, with a cast headed by Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, and Willem Dafoe?” Peter Travers asked in his Rolling Stone review, perhaps unwittingly answering his own question. Didion’s prestige as a writer is such that virtually anyone would want to attach themselves to a project with her name on it. But there’s also a good reason only one of her novels has previously been turned into a film or television project: Her work, this movie suggests, is unadaptable.That isn’t a slight on the work itself. Didion’s novels and journalism are defined by a detached lucidity, often a vehicle for her unnerving appraisal of internal turmoil as symptom and statement of an unraveling world. Particularly in her fiction, Didion concerns herself with the dark lie of American identity: a legacy of blood and corruption in Run, River; the perversion of innocence in Play It as It Lays; the fragility of order and peace in Democracy and A Book of Common Prayer. Arms dealers recur in her stories, as do dead and dying parents, sterile society dinners, and heroines paralyzed by anxiety and a nonspecific sense of dread. (My favorite moment in the novel version of The Last Thing He Wanted is when Elena McMahon, in her former life as the wife of a Beverly Hills tycoon, sits glumly “in front of a plate of untouched cassoulet” at an Academy Awards watch party, so disaffected that she can’t even enjoy the show.)But the interiority of Didion’s novels, combined with their experimental structure, tends to defy translation into the framework of film and television. The Last Thing He Wanted, in particular, is a work intended to challenge simple comprehension; even its title contains two possible interpretations. Language, the book suggests, can be distorted until it becomes meaningless. Early on, the unnamed narrator explains her impatience with writing itself, “with the conventions of the craft, with expositions, with transitions, with the development and revelation of ‘character.’” To impose order on a set of circumstances so specifically about evasion—in this case the duplicity and doublespeak of American institutions in the 1980s—seems absurd to her, and so she homes in on the story’s technical elements instead: tactical erdlators, high-capacity deep wells, laterite. Everything else is too uncertain, too changeable, too taxing to try to reckon with.The narrator’s ostensible focus in the book is Elena, a woman who is variously—in the story’s achronological sections—a society wife and mother in California, a reporter covering Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, and an accidental-ish gun runner whose mission takes her from Miami to Costa Rica to an island that’s possibly St. Lucia. Readers are first introduced to Elena in the Caribbean well after she’s been caught up in a shadowy conspiracy involving CIA fixers and a fake passport. Then, the novel dances among fragments of her former lives—her employment at a beach resort, her exit from the campaign trail just before the California primary, and, finally, her decision to help her ailing father complete an illegal million-dollar arms sale in Central America.That Elena’s motivations are hard to unravel is a problem with the story that even Didion acknowledges. “The facts of Elena McMahon’s life did not quite hang together,” she writes early in the novel. “They lacked coherence. Logical connections were missing, cause and effect.” The first section of the book has a dreamlike quality, in which a sleep-deprived Elena drifts through events in a vertiginous haze. On a flight to Miami she experiences “a brief panic, a sense of being stalled, becalmed, like the first few steps off a moving sidewalk.” Her mother has recently died and her world is folding in on itself in indecipherable layers. Elena appears to be mired in a state of ennui that makes imminent peril seem preferable to suffocating sameness. “What no Didion heroine can entirely reconcile herself to,” Hilton Als wrote in The New Yorker last year, “is the split between what she wants and what a woman is supposed to do.”In the novel, confusion is the reigning state that colors the action; it’s meant to communicate how turbulent and untrustworthy American authorities were at the time, shipping arms to Nicaraguan rebels in off-the-books transactions while denying that such transactions were taking place. “This was a business,” Didion writes, “in which truth and delusion appeared equally doubtful.” When Elena reads the papers one morning over breakfast, news stories convey global destabilization: earthquakes, unusual wind patterns, reef erosions, political protests, even infertile pandas. As she takes on her father’s final sale, she meets people with multiple names and varying nationalities in uncertain geographical locations. “You will have noticed that I am not giving you the name of this island,” Didion writes, explaining obtusely that “the name would get in the way.”The only constant amid this intentional obfuscation is discombobulation, conveyed through Elena’s fractured mental state. The book’s atmospheric uncertainty can make for a frustrating reading experience, even as its immersive qualities build into an Orwellian fever dream. It’s an intoxicating work, skillfully crafted, but it also resists at every point the strictures of mainstream storytelling.Rees, to her credit, seems committed to keeping the spirit of Didion’s original work intact, while restructuring it into a more linear narrative (Rees co-wrote the screenplay with Marco Villalobos). The movie opens with Anne Hathway’s Elena on assignment in El Salvador in 1982; she’s documenting war crimes alongside a photographer, Alma (Rosie Perez), and barely escaping assassination attempts. Having discarded the book’s narrator, and without the space to communicate Elena’s interiority and how passively she floats toward danger, Rees and Hathaway instead present Elena as a crisis junkie, simultaneously addicted to conflict and compelled to reveal abuses of power around the globe. In one scene, a very Didionesque Elena strides through the newsroom in a jumpsuit, smoking ferociously. In another, she existentially eats an apple.In its first half, the movie is propulsive in a heady-conspiracy-thriller kind of way, and its disorienting events are easier to accept. But as Rees is forced to reckon with the terminal self-obfuscation of the novel in the second half, each plot point gets harder and harder to justify. Ben Affleck’s character, a State Department fixer named Treat Morrison, gets none of the backstory from the book; he’s just a square-jawed suit who shows up in odd places and may or may not be an ally. The British character actor Toby Jones appears, playing a rum-soaked hotel owner who in his own words once ran the only “first-rate gay bathhouse in all of Port au Prince.” David Arquette pops up, with even less context and even fewer lines. In the final scene, Rees discards the plot of Didion’s book altogether, changing the ending to make it somehow even less plausible.What’s left is a sticky, indecipherable tangle. But The Last Thing He Wanted is at least an interesting mess, and it seems to illuminate some of the landmines that come with turning novels into works of film and television. It’s notable that the only previous adaptation of one of Didion’s novels, the 1972 drama Play It as It Lays, was done by the author herself. Didion’s own screenplays—which she co-wrote with her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, and which she seemed to view as a starkly commercial undertaking—imply how separately she saw the crafts of fiction and movie writing. Making movies, she wrote in the essay “In Hollywood,” is defined by “a spirit not of collaboration but of armed conflict,” a process in which any artist’s work is going to be tweaked and corrupted. Even writing about film, she observed in the same essay, has long been “a traditional diversion for writers whose actual work is somewhere else.” In other words, to try to reconcile her fiction with an art form that she herself disdained is an undertaking that’s doomed even before it begins.
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What’s the Point of Writing Every Possible Melody?
In an era when millions of songwriters upload music to the internet—and just about any song can find itself plucked from obscurity by TikTok teens--it seems inevitable that the same melodies end up in different songs. There have been a number of high-profile music copyright infringement cases, including a multimillion-dollar decision against Katy Perry for her song “Dark Horse.” A jury found that she’d infringed upon the copyright of Flame, a Christian rapper who’d posted a song with the same melody to YouTube, even though Perry insisted she’d never heard of the song or the rapper. For some musicians and musicologists and lawyers, it felt scary; after all, vast numbers of songs now live on Soundcloud and YouTube. It became thinkable to ask: Could the world run out of original melodies?Damien Riehl and Noah Rubin were two of those worried musicians. Riehl is a lawyer who has worked on copyright. Rubin is a coder. They were hanging out after a long day at work when a “a lark, a thought experiment” occurred to Riehl: Maybe they could exhaust all possible melodies—and in so doing, protect musicians from being sued for copying songs they don’t remember hearing.On the one hand, they can’t really. A melody, simply put, is a sequence of notes. If you’re talking about all the notes and all the traditions of music around the world, the combinatorics yield functionally infinite possibilities for the melodies that result. Take just the 88 notes on a piano and, for instance, 12-note sequences. You get 216 sextillion melodies. And of course, that’s only within the Western tradition in which these particular frequency ranges are considered notes.On the other hand, if we’re talking practically about Western popular music in the range in which hit songs are made, that is already a radically restricted domain. And within it, the number of melodies is in a more comprehensible part of finitiude. Popular music tends to use a more limited range of notes than an entire piano. And Riehl and Rubin figured that most pop melodies run less than 12 notes. If you generated every possible melody with just the eight notes of the C scale, that’d be 8^12 melodies, which is 68,719,000,000. That’s a big but thinkable number, considering Soundcloud receives tens of millions of uploads a year.Riehl and Rubin hatched a plot to create software that would write every melody, at least within this popular range. It wouldn’t be unlike dialing every possible telephone number: 111-111-1111, 111-111-1112, 111-111-1113, and so on: Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do, Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Do-Re.As it turns out, there were considerable complications to even writing 68 billion melodies within the team’s existing hardware, which amounted to Rubin’s computer. “It is true that the set of all melodies is finite. But finite is still large,” Rubin told me. “It’s quite large, with the current computing technology that we had access to. We’re not Amazon.”The duo built a simple system working with MIDI, the computer music framework, and started outputting melodies. They’d wanted to generate all possible melodies on the piano, but after some prototyping, settled for 12-note melodies in a popular range that Riehl had seen implicated in copyright litigation: the octave ascending from middle C. Even to complete this set, Rubin had to switch programming languages (from Python to Rust), he said, “and that gave us the speed increase we needed.” Soon, they had a hard drive filled with almost 69 billion melodies. In a conversation with Adam Neely, a YouTuber who helped spread the word about the project, Riehl alluded to previous copyright thought experiments. “This has been a concept that has been discussed,” he said. “But no one has ever brute-forced [it] in this way.”Now, Riehl and Rubin want to release the fruits of that brute-forcing into the public domain. They figure that in a future suit where a musician is hit with copyright infringement, she could point back to the melody on that hard drive as her un-copyrighted inspiration. Their point, ultimately, is that melodies could be seen as math, which is to say facts, and facts cannot be copyrighted. This is not to say that songs cannot be copyrighted, but that each possible series of notes is not a creation so much as a selection from a fairly limited set. (Information theorists might add that selection from a set of possibilities is the very nature of all information—but that’s beyond the theoretical scope of the melody project.)Riehl and Rubin’s work is provocative on several levels. One, it raises some of the same issues about originality that haunt many discussions of creativity. A recent 99 Percent Invisible podcast about the song “Who Let the Dogs Out” provided an especially evocative example of the possibility of unintentional duplication. Ben Sisto, an artist who spent a decade tracing the origins of the woof-woof-woof hook, found variation after variation of that horrible song throughout musical history, some seemingly connected by a chain of transmission, others not at all. “One of the big myths we tell ourselves about art is that it is made by individuals and that myth is what the art market is propped up on,” Sisto told the show’s hosts. He’s come to believe instead that it is impossible to reliably distinguish what people invent from what they borrow. “I think that all these ideas apply to every piece of creative work ever made,” Sisto concluded in the episode. “It’s just about the very nature of art and life.”On another level, the melody project asks some interesting questions about machine creation. Is writing some software to output MIDI melodies to a hard drive the same as if you’d created the song, played it on your xylophone, and uploaded it to Soundcloud? Did Riehl and Rubin free music from restriction, or did they infringe on millions of copyrights?At the very least, the work highlights the longstanding flaws of the current music copyright system. But legal experts were decidedly less enthusiastic about whether it would actually help musicians in a live-fire copyright case.“I just don’t get it,” Lawrence Lessig, an eminent copyright scholar at Harvard Law School, told me in an email. “Whether or not melodies can be represented in math, they are not just math. So that seems like a dead end.”Lessig did agree that it’s unfair that anyone can be dinged for “copying” work, even if they could not be shown to have consciously done so. “The whole doctrine of subconscious copying is absurd. So I get the motivation,” he said.Kristelia García, a law professor at the University of Colorado, saw things in mostly the same way. “It's an interesting thought experiment,” she told me in an email. “And I think it does a good job of exposing the absurd point we've reached in music copyright infringement.” But she didn’t think the project could prevent copyright-infringement suits over melodies. “I am not at all convinced it does what they hope it will do (i.e., give artists a free pass out of infringement suits) since so many of their melodies are almost certainly already ‘owned’ by someone else,” she said.Undaunted by the somewhat chilly responses of copyright lawyers, Riehl and Rubin are expanding their range of notes and starting to account for rhythm. Ultimately, Riehl hopes that legislation, not coding projects, can reform how copyright works in the United States. He would not want to see their melody project adjudicated in court. “A better place to do it is in Congress to modify the copyright law in a way that makes sense,” he said.
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The World Didn’t Need Another Adaptation of Peter Pan
What is it about Peter Pan? The essential themes of J. M. Barrie’s 1904 “fairy play” have been repeated throughout pop culture so many times, in so many forms, that they’ve essentially become modern myth. A magical getaway from a staid reality to a world of adventure, centered around a hero blessed with eternal youth—it’s easy to see the appeal in that elemental mix of excitement and danger. But even though Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy is an aggressively revamped take on Barrie’s work, a freewheeling fable set in rumbling train cars and volcanic oceans, it’s hampered by its reliance on a story that’s been overused on the silver screen.Between Disney’s totemic 1953 film, Steven Spielberg’s sentimental sequel Hook, P. J. Hogan’s familiar, uninspired live-action adaptation, the treacly Barrie biopic Finding Neverland, and Joe Wright’s truly maddening prequel Pan, there are already plenty of Peter Pan angles around. Nonetheless, Zeitlin, who emerged eight years ago with the Sundance smash hit Beasts of the Southern Wild, has spent the intervening time on the ambitious undertaking of Wendy. Like his earlier film, it features a cast of non-professional actors, almost all of them children, and a script that I would generously describe as vague. The effort it must have taken to create this movie is apparent in every frame, but that doesn’t mean it’s watchable.The most interesting thing about Zeitlin’s approach to the Peter Pan story is not the superficial tweaks he’s made, such as setting it on the igneous beaches of Montserrat or rooting the world’s magic in a whale-sized sea beast called “Mother.” It’s in the title—this re-imagining, co-written by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza, really does center Barrie’s heroine, Wendy (played by Devin France), as the lead character. Unlike so many of her counterparts, this Wendy, the brash daughter of a New Orleans diner owner, doesn’t exist simply to follow her idol Peter around. Afraid to grow up and have to grind life out as her mother does, she decides one day to hop on a train with her twin brothers Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin). They end up in an island world where kids, headed up by the extroverted Peter (Yashua Mack), run around, have adventures, and indeed never age.That’s about all the plot the film has to offer. Yes, a version of the villainous Captain Hook eventually enters the scene, and the aquatic goddess Mother fills the fairylike role occupied by Tinker Bell in Barrie’s original work. But mostly, Wendy consists of youngsters running around dramatic landscapes, yelling and laughing while the world around them starts to crumble. The dialogue is largely screamed, often to no one in particular, since the details don’t really matter. It’s invigorating at moments, but exhausting over an almost-two-hour running time.Fox Searchlight PicturesI was not the biggest fan of Beasts of the Southern Wild, which shares a lot of cinematic DNA with Wendy. Its tale of a plucky young girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) was visually arresting, beautifully scored, and enjoyably anarchic from scene to scene, but had a frustrating tendency toward emotional manipulation. Still, Zeitlin’s scattershot approach (a chaotic group filmmaking effort that emphasizes improvisation) clearly came together in the editing room, managing to hammer out a recognizable plot and an emotional arc for Hushpuppy.Wendy, on the other hand, is surprisingly aimless. Every strength the film has seems like an echo of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Dan Romer’s propulsive party of a score, composed in collaboration with Zeitlin, does its best to drive the action. The sense of a lush world spinning out of environmental balance is crucial; in Beasts it was “the Bathtub,” a fictional Louisiana fishing community under threat from rising tides. In Wendy it’s the children’s island home, which perches on the edge of an active volcano and is being besieged by grown-up fishermen who have no respect for the Mother’s magic powers.Visually, the forcefulness of Zeitlin’s worldbuilding is stunning, and Wendy—shot in landscapes no movie crew has ever visited before—is miraculous to look at. But the director can’t back up the aesthetics with any granular detail. In spite or perhaps because of their famous origins, Wendy, Peter, and the rest of the Lost Boys never feel like anything more than childlike archetypes, making their adventures strangely dull. Wendy is one of the oddest Peter Pan adaptations I’ve seen committed to celluloid. If only that made it memorable.
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The Democratic Crusade Against Dictators Runs Into Reality
If there’s one narrative that has united the disparate Democratic candidates when it comes to foreign policy, it’s this: In contrast to the current American president, who makes common cause with autocrats, they will champion democratic forces around the world.But during the party’s debate in South Carolina last night, that narrative fell apart. At a moment when a post-impeachment Donald Trump is acting in more authoritarian ways and celebrating his friendship with foreign leaders who share those tendencies, the Democrats’ attempts at moral clarity got muddled when the conversation turned to the trade-offs inherent in actually conducting American statecraft.Things started on-message: “We need to know the difference between our friends and between dictators who would do us harm, and we need to be nicer to our friends than to dictators,” Elizabeth Warren declared, in remarks aimed squarely at Trump.[Read: The loudest debate yet]Soon enough, however, this clean dichotomy got messy. Asked about his comment last year that China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is “not a dictator,” Michael Bloomberg signaled that he might be just as amorally transactional a president as his fellow businessman Trump. Bloomberg, who has not embraced the democracy-versus-authoritarian worldview that most of the other Democratic candidates have, offered the bizarre justification that while Xi “has an enormous amount of power,” he serves “at the behest of the Politburo.” That Politburo, in fact, has become an enabler of Xi’s bid to amass more power and engage in more repression than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.Bloomberg conceded that China had an “abominable” human-rights record and no freedom of the press, but then suggested that he isn’t particularly concerned about all of that. “We should make a fuss [about these issues], which we have been doing, I suppose,” he said. Yet Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! this was not. Then Bloomberg got to the bottom line: “We have to deal with China” to “solve the climate crisis,” and “because our economies are inextricably linked.”Warren swiftly assailed Bloomberg for allowing his extensive business interests in China, which in the past allegedly resulted in the suppression of Bloomberg News investigations into Chinese government corruption, to cloud his views. “We know that Mayor Bloomberg has been doing business with China for a long time, and he is the only one on this stage who has not released his taxes,” she said. Bernie Sanders pointed out that the 24 men and one woman who make up the Chinese Communist Party’s backroom-dealing, policy-dictating Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee don’t exactly constitute the demos in a country of 1.4 billion people. “Who the hell is the Politburo responsive to?” Sanders asked. “Who elects the Politburo? You have got a real dictatorship there.”Sanders, however, had his own run-in with his record on authoritarian governments. Swatting away criticism over his recent praise of Fidel Castro’s efforts to improve literacy rates in Cuba, the Democratic front-runner recognized that Cuba is a “dictatorship” and stated that “authoritarianism of any stripe is bad.” Still, he argued that this shouldn’t preclude people from acknowledging when dictatorships “do something good.”The senator, who opposed U.S. efforts to remove leftist Latin American governments and as a mayor in Vermont traveled to Castro’s Cuba and Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua to express solidarity with them, has at times muted his critiques of autocrats whom he considers victims of American imperialism. That’s what seemed to be going on during the debate, as he segued from defending his remarks about Castro’s literacy programs to an apparent allusion to U.S. attempts to oust Castro. “Occasionally it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy, and that includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world—in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iran,” he said.Yes, Sanders was encouraging Americans to confront this country’s very spotty track record on supporting democracy abroad and to discuss the records of other governments with more nuance. But he was also echoing arguments often made by apologists for authoritarian regimes.[Read: The Sanders doctrine]Joe Biden was most forceful during the debate in denouncing dictatorships. He called Xi a “thug” who has put a million members of the country’s Uighur minority in “concentration camps” and “doesn't have a democratic ... bone in his body.” He pushed back against Bloomberg’s insinuation that cooperating with China on addressing climate change requires downplaying its human-rights abuses, arguing that China would serve its own interests by combatting climate change, regardless of what U.S. leaders say about how it treats its people. He also called out Sanders for shying away from condemning authoritarianism in Cuba and Nicaragua.Yet the Biden campaign’s biggest idea so far to counter gathering illiberal forces is to convene a summit of the world’s democracies during his first year as president, a rather modest proposal to solve a mammoth problem. His comments during the debate also contained contradictions. Asked if he would engage in direct nuclear negotiations with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, the way Trump has, Biden asserted that “you don't negotiate with a dictator, give him legitimacy without any notion whether he is going to do anything at all.” Kim, he declared, is a “thug.”His solution? To negotiate with another man he’d just called a thug. “I would be speaking with Xi Jinping,” he explained, and urging him to pressure North Korea into curbing its nuclear-weapons program.
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The Price of Bernie Sanders’s Expansive Agenda
Bernie Sanders faced more pointed attacks last night over his potential vulnerabilities than he ever has at a debate. But the blustery and disorderly session once again failed to fully explore what could be the Vermont senator’s greatest general-election weakness: the massive size and scope of his spending and tax proposals, which, depending on the estimate, would cost between $50 and $60 trillion over the next 10 years. That would roughly double the size of the federal government, an unprecedented increase outside of wartime.More so than in any previous session, Sanders at times seemed rattled and tentative as his rivals subjected him to a crossfire of criticism—over his record on gun control; my colleague Isaac Dovere’s report that he seriously considered a primary challenge to Barack Obama in 2012; his praise for aspects of Fidel Castro’s record in Cuba; and his success, or lack thereof, at getting things done in Washington. The evening showed “the first sign of uneasiness” for Sanders on a debate stage in this election cycle, said Lily Adams, the former communications director for Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign. “For the first time, we saw moments where he was not 100 percent sure of what his rebuttal was going to be.”But Sanders benefited from the chaotic nature of the debate, which prevented his rivals from sustaining any individual line of attack against him for very long. And when he wasn’t on the defensive, he confidently delivered his populist promise to deliver an economy that works better for working families.Still, the debate’s most lasting effect may be the seeds it laid down for a deeper discussion to come about the cumulative cost of Sanders’s agenda, an issue that’s received remarkably little attention until recently.[Read: The dissonance between Sanders and his supporters on Medicare for All]Sanders arrived in the debate facing rising criticism over his refusal to explain how much his proposals would cost and what taxes he would raise to pay for them. On Sunday, on 60 Minutes, he brushed aside questions from Anderson Cooper about the full price tag, insisting, “Well, I can’t—you know, I can’t rattle off to you every nickel and every dime.” During a CNN town hall in Charleston on Monday, Sanders tried to preempt further questions by handing the moderator, Chris Cuomo, a document that he said catalogued all of his spending plans, including the taxes—almost entirely on the wealthy and business community—that he’s proposing to pay for them. Yet the document inadvertently may have demonstrated only how difficult it will be for Sanders to produce a politically acceptable plan to fund his spending.“You would need even more revenue than he is proposing to fully offset those costs,” says Jared Bernstein, an economist and senior fellow at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who is generally sympathetic to Sanders’s agenda. “It is not realistic to believe you can get all those revenues from the top 1, 5, or 10 percent [of households]. You would have to go down further than that. The rest of it has to come from a broader base of taxpayers or it has to go on the deficit.”The document Sanders released identified seven major spending proposals from his campaign:$16.3 trillion for a Green New Deal to accelerate the transition to a carbon-free economy 1.5 trillion to provide universal pre-kindergarten and child care 2.2 trillion to provide tuition-free public colleges and universities and to forgive all student debt $2.5 trillion to build affordable housing and reduce homelessness $81 billion to write off all medical debt a proposal to increase Social Security benefits (which Sanders did not provide a cost estimate for, but which other analysts have put at as much as $1.4 trillion) his Medicare for All plan, whose 10-year cost estimate in new federal spending ranges from just under $31 billion (from the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget) to $34 trillion (from the center-left Urban Institute) Sanders has also embraced other expensive spending plans that he did not list, notably: increased funding for K-12 education that has been estimated to cost $800 billion to $ 1 trillion; a federally-funded paid medical-and-family leave program for workers, which the Congressional Budget Office recently scored at around $500 billion over a decade; a $1 trillion infrastructure initiative; and a guaranteed federal jobs program whose cost estimates vary widely but could run into the trillions.These numbers are estimates—subject to inevitable uncertainty and imprecision. But their general direction is clear. I recently calculated that their cumulative price tag would reach around $60 trillion over 10 years. The Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank, put the 10-year cost around $55 trillion. It assumed a slightly lower cost for Medicare for All and projected that Sanders could fulfill his federal jobs guarantee and infrastructure promises through his Green New Deal and universal child-care programs, without any additional expenditure.At either number, the Sanders agenda would roughly double the $52 trillion that the Congressional Budget Office projects the federal government will spend over the next decade on all existing programs, from defense to Social Security. Even at a lower $50 trillion estimate, the Sanders plan would increase federal spending as a share of the economy by about 20 percentage points, according to calculations that Larry Summers, the former Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton and former chief economist at the World Bank, shared with me earlier this winter. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the largest 20th century peacetime spending program, increased federal expenditures as a share of GDP by 8 percentage points, according to Summers’s calculations.Until now, Sanders has responded to questions about his agenda’s cost by focusing only on his vision for Medicare for All, insisting that most Americans would spend less than they do now—even if their taxes are increased—because the plan would eliminate their insurance premiums, copayments, and deductibles. The document Sanders handed Cuomo on Monday represented his most complete attempt to explain how he would cover the bill for his entire agenda. But critics quickly noted that it fell well short of the full price tag for his plans—and almost certainly overstated the funds it would generate.[Read: The loudest debate yet]Sanders identified just over $30 trillion in new taxes that he’d raise over the next decade, almost entirely from businesses and the affluent. He identified roughly another $12 trillion in other revenue and savings, including a $1.2 trillion cut in defense spending and $6.4 trillion he said government would earn under his Green New Deal plan by selling electricity from new renewable-power facilities.If Sanders’s tax plans were to raise as much money as he claims, it would increase federal taxes as a share of GDP by as much as 11 percentage points. “I think it is fair to say that the tax increase—assuming it is as big as Senator Sanders projects—is about as large as the [13-point] tax increases enacted to finance World War II,” as measured as a share of GDP, says Leonard Burman, a former senior Treasury Department tax official under Clinton and an Institute Fellow at the Tax Policy Center, operated by the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution. “It is more than five times as large as any tax increase enacted since. And even if it falls short of the campaign’s projections, it would be the largest peacetime tax increase in American history.”Burman, like other analysts, believes Sanders is overestimating the revenue that several of his tax proposals would produce. A new analysis from Ben Ritz, the director of PPI’s Center for Funding America’s Future, concluded that Sanders’s proposals would generate about $29 trillion in taxes, other revenue, and savings over 10 years, an unprecedented peacetime increase, but nonetheless about $25 trillion or more short of his plan’s total bill. (For comparison, that shortfall is about as much as the CBO projects the federal government will collect from the entire personal income tax over that period.) Because he’s already exhausted almost every conceivable proposal to raise taxes on the rich, Ritz says, Sanders has only two options to cover the difference: “He’s either going to have to borrow the money or take it from the middle class.” In his stump speech and in debates, Sanders never acknowledges those possibilities.Bernstein says it’s a mistake to judge Sanders’s plan against such precise yardsticks. The sheer size of his proposals, which dwarf the spending plans of any modern Democratic presidential nominee, should signal that they are more “aspirational than realistic,” Bernstein says. There is very little chance, he notes, that even if elected, Sanders could implement such a vast increase in government spending. Instead, he says, Sanders is offering a vision of a society where government plays a much larger role in delivering social services, from education to health care—one that looks more like a Scandinavian country than America at any point in its earlier history.“That’s just a very different economy than we’ve ever had or contemplated here,” says Bernstein, who served as the chief economist in Joe Biden’s vice-presidential office. “That’s not a value judgement. If we choose to have an economy with far more government in it, that model exists. … People like Bernie and Elizabeth Warren are actually very explicit about this. They think the current model is broken and they are espousing a different one.”To Bernstein, Sanders’s agenda is valuable less as a specific blueprint for governing than as a signpost for the direction he’d try to take American society in the years ahead. But other Democrats are terrified that voters might react less philosophically if presented with such an expansive—and expensive—program this fall.“I'll tell you exactly what it adds up to,” former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said last night. “It adds to four more years of Donald Trump, Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House, and the inability to get the Senate into Democratic hands.”
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