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Welcome to the January issue of Vox’s The Highlight
Chris Hughes works in his office at the Economic Security Project in New York City. | Annie Tritt for Vox Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has grand plans for wealth distribution. Plus: “Death positivity,” a pernicious comedy trend, and John Lewis’s forgotten words. Chris Hughes is one of the three founders of Facebook, less recognizable than Mark Zuckerberg, but behind the scenes, no less ambitious. In the decade since he left the company, Hughes has been alternately heralded and derided for his post-tech career choices. He joined the Obama campaign, tried being a titan of legacy media, and then, last year, he made waves as he called for the dismantling of the very social media monolith that had made him a multimillionaire. On our cover this month, Vox’s Dylan Matthews examines Hughes’s transformation from Facebook founder to a philanthropist on a mission to end monopolies and create a basic income. But such exercises of power by the ultra-wealthy, often cloaked as philanthropy, don’t always get the desired reception. So what does the moneyed tech founder really want? Also in this issue, we look at the millennials who are confronting the prospect of their own deaths (after being inspired by climate change and boomers’ failures); a writer asks why comedians, television shows, and movies still trade in jokes and about Asian-American stereotypes; and we find inspiration in lines cut from a famous John Lewis speech. Chris Hughes wants another chance The multimillionaire Facebook co-founder is the latest moneyed titan to turn philanthropist, and has even called for Facebook’s dismantling. Can he really make a difference? by Dylan Matthews Amanda Lucier for Vox Why millennials are the “death positive” generation Unlike Boomers, young people are embracing planning their own funerals. It’s fueling changes in the death industry. By Eleanor Cummins Zac Freeland/Vox Why are Asian Americans still the butt of the joke in pop culture? Asian Americans like me are grappling with a culture that’s still okay with making fun of us. By Naveen Kumar Bettmann Archive/Getty Images John Lewis and the beginning of an era The civil rights icon was told to cut a too-radical line from a famous speech. It says a lot about who he was. By Paul Butler
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Chris Hughes wants another chance
Chris Hughes, one of three founders of Facebook, has been alternately heralded and derided for his post-tech career choices. Has he finally found his calling? | Annie Tritt for Vox The multimillionaire Facebook co-founder is the latest moneyed titan to turn philanthropist, and has even called for Facebook’s dismantling. Can he really make a difference? Part of Issue #10 of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world. Chris Hughes was enraged. The Facebook co-founder and I were leaving the Union Square subway station in Manhattan, which last fall was covered in ads for Twitter. The ads inside the station were one thing, but Hughes was seething that the campaign had extended outside, to the sidewalk. “They stenciled it on — as though they haven’t colonized enough of our lives!” he kvetched, leading me out of our way to see the corporate graffiti. By that point, it had been washed away from the pavement so it was barely visible, but Hughes quickly emailed me a photo he had taken a few days earlier. Courtesy of Chris Hughes The stenciled Twitter ad on the sidewalk in Manhattan that riled Hughes. To Hughes, it was more evidence of the insidious power that Big Tech companies such as Twitter and the one he helped found in 2004 have gained in recent years. Twitter isn’t content to take over our minds and our screens, he worried. Now it was taking over the sidewalk, too. Hughes — worth around $400 million, according to Forbes — is aware of his role in building this culture. He also knows that he’s hardly the first rich business leader to turn apostate and critique the capitalist processes that enriched him. But he’s unique in an important sense: He’s the first founder of a major tech firm to call for that firm’s dismantling. Unlike his college roommates and Facebook co-founders Mark Zuckerberg (still at the company’s helm) and Dustin Moskovitz (now CEO of Asana, which makes project management software), Hughes, 36, is out of the tech game entirely, having departed the company more than a decade ago. His earlier years as a megamillionaire were frankly cringe-inducing. He blew more than $4 million on his husband’s congressional campaign, which lost to the Republican incumbent by nearly 30 percentage points in a district President Barack Obama had won two years prior. He bought the New Republic in an attempt to turn around the venerable but ailing magazine, and when he tried to remove his handpicked editor, almost the entire staff resigned in protest. He unloaded the magazine shortly thereafter. Since those debacles, Hughes has settled into a different niche, one that harks back to his long-ago role as Facebook’s house “empath.” He’s now a philanthropist, and a convener of other philanthropists and organizations. His full-time job, he says, is trying to craft a world “after neoliberalism” — one with a heavier hand of government and a smaller role for corporate power, one perhaps without Twitter monopolizing our sidewalks. Hughes founded the Economic Security Project (ESP) with veteran activists Natalie Foster and Dorian Warren in 2016, and has increasingly focused on what they call an “anti-monopoly” agenda, encompassing traditional antitrust enforcement, offering “public options” on everything from banking to health care, and tighter regulation when firms can’t be broken up. The agenda found its most public expression in May when Hughes in the New York Times called for the breakup of Facebook. In October, he and ESP went a step further: They announced a $10 million commitment from a variety of funders (Hughes included) to start an Anti-Monopoly Fund, which will invest in think tanks, researchers, and activists working on these issues. He is funneling money he earned from Facebook to end Facebook as we know it. Hughes has emerged as a committed funder of a left-wing economic agenda, working with allies like Felicia Wong, president of the Roosevelt Institute, and Tom Perriello, the former Congress member who is now running US programs for the George Soros-funded Open Society Foundations. By day, he works on the Economic Security Project and as a senior adviser to Wong at the Roosevelt Institute; at night, he’s studying for his master’s in economics at the New School for Social Research, famous for its heterodox, lefty-ish approach to the discipline. At 35, Hughes has already had several careers, including working on the 2008 Obama campaign, for which he built an online social network for the candidate’s supporters. The charitable interpretation is that Hughes has become a class traitor in the mold of Soros: a beneficiary of neoliberal capitalism who is now committed to breaking down the system that made him rich, bringing money to cash-strapped progressive organizations in the process. The less magnanimous one is that Hughes is yet another plutocrat influencing politics, not unlike the Koch family or his ex-roommate Zuckerberg, who spent $100 million attempting to remake schools in Newark, New Jersey; or Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg in their attempts to buy the presidency. Such exercises of power by the ultra-wealthy, often cloaked as philanthropy, have come under increasing fire in recent years from the likes of writer Anand Giridharadas and Dutch journalist Rutger Bregman. But Hughes and his team have had real successes. The Economic Security Project’s biggest initiative to date has been the “Cost of Living Refund,” an effort to dramatically expand the earned income tax credit and funnel more resources to low-income families. So far, the group and allied organizations have gotten legislation passed in California and Maine and count past and present presidential candidates, including Sen. Cory Booker and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, as supporters. But Hughes’s position is an awkward one to be in. He wields power because of his role as a plutocrat, even as he seeks to destroy that same power. Several anti-poverty advocates allege that Hughes has, at times, made some of the same errors as his conservative counterparts, privileging his pet projects over what experts in the field think should be top priorities, and pursuing incremental reforms at the expense of bolder measures. As he amps up his war on monopolies, a natural question arises: Will Chris Hughes make a difference this time? A rise through Facebook, and a fall Hughes, the son of a paper salesman and a teacher in rural western North Carolina, has not been rich long. He attended both elite boarding school Phillips Academy Andover and Harvard University on scholarship. And despite not being able to code, he joined his college roommates Zuckerberg and Moskovitz when they launched a social networking site out of Kirkland dorm room H-33. He took on customer service, spokesperson, and product advice duties, providing a non-techie’s view of what features users would want. Facebookers reportedly nicknamed him “the empath.” Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images Facebook founders Mark Zuckerberg (left) and Chris Hughes in 2005, three months after launching Facebook from their Harvard dorm room. Unlike Zuckerberg and Moskovitz, he graduated from Harvard on schedule in 2006. He left Facebook a year later, at age 23, to join Barack Obama’s 2008 primary campaign, where he helped launch, an early candidate-focused social networking site and oft-cited example of the technological edge that enabled the Obama campaign to topple Hillary Clinton. Five years later, after a short period launching and running the startup Jumo (which sought to connect donors with charities and volunteering opportunities), he embarked on perhaps his best-known political endeavor: buying the New Republic. It can be hard to remember now, but his purchase of the nearly century-old liberal magazine in 2012 was initially greeted with a burst of enthusiasm. For most of the period from 1974 to Hughes’s purchase, the magazine’s principal owner was Marty Peretz, a New Left activist turned cranky racist who filled the magazine’s pages with a mix of truly great reportage and criticism, and his personal views on the “cultural deficiencies” of black, Latino, and Muslim people (in a particularly notorious post, he opined, “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims”). That the magazine had survived at all under the leadership of one of the most noxious figures in journalism was something of a miracle, and Hughes, with more financial resources and without Peretz’s sundry prejudices, seemed like a fitting savior. “I have acquired a few sources at TNR from my sixteen years there, and they all seem giddy,” Jonathan Chait, by then at New York magazine, wrote. “So cheers to the 98-year-old institution.” Not even three years later, Chait was penningwhat he called a “eulogy” for the magazine, suggesting that Hughes, in his view and that of many TNR old-timers, had destroyed it in a search for profitability and clicks. Hughes’s tenure ended with the mass resignation of his editors and writers indignant at his management — a professional defeat and personal embarrassment to a young businessman with a previously spotless record. George Packer wrote that the magazine suffered “a death by character flaw.” The novelist Cynthia Ozick wrote a poem about the incident concluding, “Thought and Word lay dead and cold.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg canceled her subscription. Hughes unceremoniously sold off the magazine in 2016. Today he agrees with his critics’ indictments, calling his period as owner a “debacle.” “It was by far the biggest mistake in my career thus far,” Hughes says. “I learned that what I would call smart, intellectual policy kind of journalism doesn’t need to have a business model. I was the last one to figure that out. Everybody else knew that. But my experience with Facebook and with Obama was to believe that these impossible things could be true, so I genuinely thought that we could find a sustainable business model for highbrow, erudite — the kind of journalism that the New Republic has historically done.” Hughes’s other multimillion-dollar political investment during this period was more personal, though equally ill-fated. In 2014, his husband, Sean Eldridge, ran for Congress in New York’s 19th District, covering the northernmost suburbs of New York City. Eldridge, a veteran gay rights campaigner and founder of the investment group Hudson River Ventures, lost the race in a landslide, but not before Hughes and Eldridge spent $2 million to buy a house in the district, after forking out another $5 million on a house in the 18th District, where Eldridge first considered running; they then dropped another $4.25 million of their own money on the race, outspending the Republican incumbent 2-1. Today, the two spend most of their time in New York City. Evan Sung/The New York Times/Redux Chris Hughes (second from left) and now-husband Sean Eldridge (third from left) attend the Paris Review gala in New York in 2012, the same year the former Facebook executive attempted to fashion himself into a media mogul. Hughes declined to talk about the campaign, citing his marriage as off-limits. But he was happy to draw personal lessons from his time at the New Republic. “I needed to work more collaboratively with the people around me,” he says. “I felt in the New Republic period that I had to figure out the answer to, ‘How do I find the business model for journalism?’ And I guess I thought I was gonna go up into some ivory tower and read enough books, and then I was gonna come down [with the answer]. And that’s not how the world works.” And yet. More than a decade after leaving Harvard, he’s in school again, getting his master’s in economics at the New School. A major part of the Economic Security Project’s agenda is funding research, and Hughes is serious about his studies. When I joined him for an evening class, the instructor, labor economist David Howell, made it clear that it would not be a traditional economics seminar. “The language of orthodox economics, and actually most economics, is about how the state intervenes,” he told the class of six, most from the New School’s urban studies master’s program. “As if there’s a blank slate and the economy starts out like Hobbes’s notion of mushrooms sprouting from the ground without any moms or dads or families or institutions or anything. It starts with a conception of the individual without any context.” The students in his seminar make weekly presentations on their readings, and I visited during a week Hughes had chosen to present. The readings were on Speenhamland, a food aid program in 18th-century Britain whose track record has become a proxy battle about the effectiveness of welfare and cash assistance. It’s a debate of huge relevance to Hughes’s efforts to fund basic income programs. “There’s a renewed movement today for a guaranteed income, and people continue to cite Speenhamland … as a confirmation of this view that humans are really just slothful and lazy,” he explained to his classmates. After the presentation, a fellow student offered a modest critique of basic income, arguing that, unlike providing food directly, offering cash wouldn’t protect people against an increase in the price of bread. Hughes shot back immediately. “You could peg it to inflation, though, just like a minimum wage,” he replied. That would solve the issue. “You could,” his classmate responded. “I think that’s best practice,” Hughes concluded, and the discussion moved on. Chris Hughes in the Manhattan offices of the Economic Security Project, the pro-”guaranteed income,” anti-monopoly organization he founded with activists Natalie Foster and Dorian Warren. Hughes was right — an inflation peg would prevent a basic income from eroding in value. But it didn’t really seem like a fair matchup, a master’s student not working in her native language debating a multimillionaire financing some of the world’s cutting-edge research on basic income and other programs where governments distribute cash. Hughes’s push for basic income “The time has come to design, develop, and organize for a Basic Income,” Hughes declared in the headline of a 2016 Medium post announcing the formation of a new group to promote the idea. “We aim to convene as broad and robust a conversation about these ideas as possible and to financially support people and organizations thinking through how a basic income might work, how we might pay for it, how to most effectively talk about it, and what a political roadmap might be to put it in place,” he explained. Basic income, in its simplest form, is a straightforward idea: Everyone in a given country or state or city gets a set cash allowance (say, $1,000 a month) with no strings attached. It’s been a popular idea among philosophers and some economists for decades, and a version nearly passed in the US in the early 1970s. But in the 2010s, spurred by panic over job loss due to automation, it has exploded in prominence, fueled in no small part by activism from people like Hughes, former Service Employees International Union chair Andy Stern, and presidential candidate and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. “I haven’t heard from Mark. That’s what everybody asks.” Hughes and the Economic Security Project began with a series of conferences bringing together academics, think-tankers, and journalists to discuss the idea of a basic income and potential pathways to passage; I attended one in 2017. Eventually, ESP’s interest in basic income resulted in the funding of a large-scale pilot program in Stockton, California, championed by the city’s young mayor, Michael Tubbs. But the direct political work of the group has shifted from giving cash, no strings attached. Instead, Hughes wrote in his 2017 memoir, Fair Shot, he and his allies decided to work within the existing American model of giving cash primarily to people who work, to reduce poverty and protect middle-class incomes in case of emergency. Hughes frames this decision as a result of focus groups and other interviews he and co-founders Warren and Foster had across the country in 2017 as they “explored” the idea of a basic income. “People from every income and educational level, with all kinds of political beliefs and backgrounds, struggled to make sense of why anyone would support something like a basic income,” he writes. “The idea of money provided from nowhere and with no strings attached seemed nonsensical.” “A dollar found on the street is different than a dollar loaned from a family member, and that dollar is still different than one earned through work,” he continued. “One working-class woman in Detroit put it plainly: ‘I just don’t understand where this money is coming from and why I would be getting it.’ Talking about money as an abstraction is something that seems to come from a place of privilege.” So what does talking about money less abstractly — and with less privilege — look like? To Hughes, it means working within the existing work-based welfare state. “The optimal way to structure a guaranteed income would be through an expansion and modernization of the Earned Income Tax Credit,” he writes. “It is a complicated-sounding benefit and an awkward acronym, but boring methods can sometimes accomplish big-picture ideals.” The tax credit is a huge program, distributing some $70 billion in benefits per year to Americans, mostly families with kids, and a robust community of activists and experts has sprouted up around it with plans to expand and modernize it. At the top of the agenda, for years, have been efforts to distribute it more regularly (say, monthly or at least biannually) and to expand the program for childless adults, who currently get a paltry benefit. ESP’s campaign for a “Cost of Living Refund” — basically an expanded version of the earned income tax credit — has enthusiastically embraced both those policies, particularly regular, visible payments instead of payouts as part of tax returns. In June, both California and Maine passed proposals that ESP classifies as Cost of Living Refund bills; Maine’s would nearly triple the state EITC and offer the option to receive monthly credits. ESP was deeply involved in the push for both. Hughes, pictured at the Economic Security Project offices, has returned to school for a master’s degree in economics. Dorian Warren left, is one of the founders of the Economic Security Project with Hughes. Natalie Foster, second from left, is another founder of ESP. “As a partner with both us and others, [ESP’s] work is likely to contribute to significant EITC expansions,” Robert Greenstein, the head of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a prominent advocate for anti-poverty programs, says. ESP’s most distinctive policy, which was barely on the EITC policy agenda until Hughes and his group got involved, involves expanding the definition of work to include parental caregivers and students, so those groups get EITC, too. In material terms, this is a rather small part of the picture. Elaine Maag, Donald Marron, and Erin Huffer of the Tax Policy Center analyzed the idea of adding caregivers and students in a recent report and estimated the cost at $70 billion over 10 years; the overall Cost of Living Refund would cost at least $2.5 trillion over 10 years, meaning “redefining work” accounts for less than 3 percent of the price of the proposal. “There aren’t that many caregivers of children under 6 that aren’t working — so they’re mostly already getting the EITC,” Maag explained in an email. But the idea has become a preoccupation, and specialty, of ESP all the same. Adam Ruben, who runs ESP’s Cost of Living Refund campaign, readily concedes that the idea wasn’t on the agenda before ESP started pushing for it. “There’s a lot of people who we work with who are in those spaces who are trying to help caregivers, or trying to help students,” he says. “We will call them up and go, ‘Tell us about what you’re doing. We want to understand what the fight is there.’ And then we say, ‘We have this idea that actually could help family caregivers through the EITC.’ … And they go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. Hadn’t really looked at that before, but that seems really consistent [with what] we’re trying to do.’” Inserting new ideas is a big part of what advocacy and research groups are supposed to do. But ESP’s insistence on this specific idea rubs some other advocates the wrong way. For years, momentum in child poverty circles has been building for a policy called a child allowance, which would offer all or almost all families a set check per child (say, $300 per month for young kids, and $250 per month for older kids), with no strings attached or work requirements. An accomplished group of scholars proposed the idea in a paper for the Russell Sage Foundation, a major National Academies of Sciences report floated the idea this year, and a bill supported by most congressional Democrats would make it a reality. A couple of advocates for that policy expressed frustration to me that Hughes and ESP are putting so much energy and money behind a separate policy to help families with kids, one that Hughes happens to talk up in his book, rather than on the policy where the majority of the coalition for an expanded safety net has focused its energy. Tellingly, they declined to go on the record for fear of alienating a coalition ally. Hughes rejects the idea that this is some idiosyncratic preference of his and his team’s. “People have been talking about [defining caregiving as work] for a long, long time, first off. Let’s be clear,” he said in a meeting with Warren and Foster. “Particularly feminist economists, a long line of them, have been talking about expanding the definition of work. ... In some ways, it’s us trying to amplify those historic lines of argument.” Foster agrees, and argues that focusing on rewarding caregivers doesn’t necessarily distract from the effort to expand the child credit. “We do it in allyship with people trying to expand the child tax credit,” she said. “We think it’s a great tax credit and it should be ‘both/and’ not ‘either/or.’” If some critics think Hughes’s group is insufficiently attuned to political realities, others think it has become far too timid in the face of them. “I have always felt that unconditional cash is promising because it contrasts with the EITC,” says Marshall Steinbaum, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Utah who worked on ESP-funded projects at the Roosevelt Institute during his time as a fellow there. From Steinbaum’s vantage point, Hughes started as a promising figure who could fight to replace the EITC with an unrestricted cash benefit not tied to work, but after some immersion in the think tank world, he lost his nerve. “He should not have given up on UBI [universal basic income] as thoroughly as he did,” Steinbaum says. Hughes against the monopolies “I haven’t heard from Mark. That’s what everybody asks.” Hughes and I were chatting about the reception to his proposal to break up Facebook, which was illustrated in the New York Times by a diptych of Zuckerberg’s and Hughes’s faces. The op-ed began with Hughes recalling the last time he and his college roommate and co-founder hung out. “Mark is a good, kind person. But I’m angry that his focus on growth led him to sacrifice security and civility for clicks,” Hughes wrote. “The government must hold Mark accountable.” He specifically suggested forcing Facebook to undo its purchases of WhatsApp and Instagram in 2014 and 2012, respectively, and allowing those services to exist as independent companies competing with Facebook rather than acting as part of its empire. Hughes knows his arguments for taking monopolistic power seriously aren’t original. In his piece, he cited Barry Lynn, who has been sounding the alarm about corporate power for decades and was eventually forced out of the think tank New America as a consequence, as well as younger anti-monopoly legal scholars Lina Khan and Ganesh Sitaraman. Khan’s 2016 paper “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” helped spark a revitalized conversation about using antitrust law to target major tech companies. A telling game on the shelves of the Economic Security Project offices. It’s a conversation that Hughes and ESP joined relatively late. Hughes’s entry had an “et tu, Brute” quality — one Facebook founder turning on another and threatening his old roommate’s fortune — that gave the critique sharper teeth. But he’s still joining a crowded field. When ESP started exploring basic income, it was still a fringe idea in most political circles; by contrast, as they plan to dip into anti-monopoly work, they do so after the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, had already rolled out a plan to break up big tech companies (Hughes has stayed neutral in the primary to date; he donated tens of thousands to Hillary Clinton and associated PACs in 2015 and 2016). But Hughes sees his work on the matter, including convening his $10 million Anti-Monopoly Fund — backed by the Hewlett Foundation, Omidyar Network, and Soros’s Open Society Foundations — as much broader than antitrust. (Omidyar Network is a partner on Vox’s Open Sourced project.) “I come from the labor movement,” Dorian Warren, the ESP co-chair, says. “This thing had been gnawing at me: What is the other side of the equation in terms of worker power? It’s taking on corporate power in all of its manifestations.” That means not just breaking up big, powerful corporations but also using other regulatory tools to weaken “monopsony,” when a handful of corporations control the labor market and are able to drive down wages (as recently happened to chicken farmers), and creating government-run “public options” in everything from health care to banking (perhaps by running a basic savings and loan out of the post office) as an alternative to corporate power. The Roosevelt Institute’s Felicia Wong, who relies on Hughes as a senior adviser as well as a funder, positions him and ESP as central in a broader effort to repudiate neoliberal economics — rejecting a focus on markets and privatization ahead of building government capacity — and craft an economic agenda that can be bolder and leftier than what the Obama administration achieved. “Roosevelt started to do this work with Hewlett and Omidyar around what an economic paradigm ‘beyond neoliberalism’ would look like,” Wong says. Hughes ate it up. “He got super, super, super interested, and then it really started to deepen.” Now, she and Hughes work “extraordinarily closely,” she says, talking several times a week about cash and the broader anti-neoliberal project alike. “I guess I thought I was gonna go up into some ivory tower and read enough books, and then I was gonna come down [with the answer].” I asked Hughes how he came to terms with the inherent contradiction of trying to wield power he gained through his wealth and entrepreneurship to dismantle the economic system that produced that wealth. “It’s been really important to us from the start that ESP be an organization that’s much bigger than me individually,” he said. “But it’s still true that, you know, the funding comes from wealthy people or, you know, foundations and institutions with power. And so it’s important to name that and accept the responsibility that comes with that.” Foster chimed in that she sent Giridharadas’s book Winners Take All, a critique of how the wealthy use philanthropy as a smokescreen, to ESP’s funding partners. “Those with means should be challenging the system. It’s like, read this and let’s continue to be in dialogue on this,” she said. “Let’s challenge inequality together.” That, in essence, is the dilemma posed by Chris Hughes. He is a very smart multimillionaire philanthropist. He is an unusually self-aware multimillionaire philanthropist. But he still is, and behaves like, a multimillionaire philanthropist. “We’re in a unique time,” he notes, “where those of us who are funding individuals and organizations have a pronounced responsibility to think about what privilege that brings.” Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and lead writer for Future Perfect at Vox. Annie Tritt is an editorial photographer based in New York City. You can find other stories by Annie here.
Why millennials are the “death positive” generation
Simon Sotelo of Portland, Oregon, was just 27 when she began planning what steps should be taken after her death. She represents a larger, pragmatic movement to confront the end of life. | Amanda Lucier for Vox Unlike Boomers, young people are embracing planning their own funerals. It’s fueling changes in the death industry. Part of Issue #10 of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world. Simon Sotelo was 27 when she donated her body to science. The Portland, Oregon-based graphic designer is still very much alive — and presumably will be for decades to come. She doesn’t have any life-threatening afflictions or high-risk hobbies. But, Sotelo says, signing a contract that grants medical students in the distant future the right to study her body gives her a sense of peace in the present. “My goal from the beginning was, how can I just make this as cheap as possible for the people who have to deal with it?” Sotelo, now 31, says. “When I was first planning it, I was like, I have no savings, I have no money.” Oregon Health & Science University seemed to offer the perfect solution: When its research is complete — typically after two years — the college will pay to cremate the remains of its donors and return it to the family. At that point, Sotelo says, she hopes her loved ones will hold a celebration of her life, not a mournful wake. She’d like “The End of the Tour” by They Might Be Giants to play. Amanda Lucier for Vox The National Funeral Directors Association has found that 15.8 percent of Americans age 18 to 39 think people should plan their funerals before they’re 40. Among them is Sotelo, seen in a Portland cemetery. Most Americans don’t plan for their deaths in their 20s — or maybe ever. A 2017 study in the journal Health Affairs found only one in three US adults have an advance directive, including a living will with end-of-life medical instructions, power of attorney naming a person responsible for last affairs, or both. Fewer have planned their actual funeral arrangements: Only 21 percent of Americans have even spoken to their loved ones about their wishes, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. But “the American way of death,” as journalist Jessica Mitford called it in her 1963 classic book on the funeral industry, is changing. When Mitford first penned her investigation, she found anxiety, aversion, and few real options. Most consumers only interacted with the funeral industry on average every 14 years — and then, only under duress — so they weren’t likely to compare prices or make informed choices. As a result, Mitford argued, funeral directors could convince their hapless customers to spend more money than they had, on things they never wanted. Today, the internet grants us instant access to lots of information and seemingly infinite options. “Embalm and bury” used to be the only way Americans processed human remains — funeral directors were resistant to cremation (it was much cheaper than burial), and consumers thought burning a body sounded awful and un-Christian. Now, a YouTube channel called “Ask a Mortician” has almost a million subscribers, and we can turn our dead into diamonds. In many cases, younger people are leading this black-bannered parade of cultural change. Mortician Caitlin Doughty in 2011 founded the Order of the Good Death, an organization that promotes death positivity, when she was 27. Now she runs her own funeral home in Los Angeles. Hansa Bergwall was 35 when he created the app WeCroak, a digital-age memento mori that reminds its 30,000 monthly users that they are going to die five times a day — presumably to help them live in the moment. And Katrina Spade began developing the idea that would become Recompose, a company that plans to turn human remains into soil, when she was 30. Courtesy of Mara Zehler Mortician Caitlin Doughty founded the Order of the Good Death, an organization that promotes death positivity, when she was 27. “We know that not talking about death can lead to a less self-aware life,” she says. This same demographic is also the consumer of certain relevant services: The Dinner Party, a boozier take on the old-fashioned support group, caters to 20- and 30-somethings who have lost a loved one. Some British 25- to 35-year-olds are flocking to Deadhappy, a pay-as-you-go life insurance start-up. And though they don’t necessarily all follow through like Sotelo, the National Funeral Directors Association found that 15.8 percent of Americans age 18 to 39 think people should pre-plan their funerals before they’re 40 — something only 7.9 percent of people over age 60 believed. Why, those older adults must be asking, do people in the prime of their lives seem to be preparing for their demise? The answers vary widely, from eminently practical concerns, such as crushing debt and climate change, to social factors, like wellness culture, diverse spiritual practices, and the desire of some millennials to “curate their afterlives.” “We are a generation that is less willing to be shamed for our interests in difficult topics,” Doughty says. “We know that not talking about money has put us in a very difficult financial position, especially those that graduated around the time of the [September 2008 stock market] crash,” she adds. “And we know that not talking about death can lead to a less self-aware life.” Liz Eddy was 27 when she got the call that her grandmother was dead. “I was met by two police officers, a nurse, and her body, and they said, ‘What do you want to do?’” Eddy recalls. “I did what most people do these days and pulled out my phone and Googled, ‘What do you do when someone dies?’” She found little guidance and spiraled into what she calls “logistical chaos.” Eddy had to move everything out of her grandmother’s assisted living facility within a month, sort through a lifetime of belongings, and close all of her grandmother’s accounts. She spent a year trying to resolve an unpaid Verizon bill with a debt collector. The trauma eventually inspired her to start a new business: Lantern, a digital end-of-life planning tool. The venture capital-backed site (Lantern has so far raised $890,000 in funding) offers checklists for every aspect of death, all delivered in a soothing seafoam green color palette and with dozens of conceptual illustrations. Still in the early planning phase? Sort out your organ donor status. A week has passed since the funeral? Be sure to notify the post office. The New York-based company is still new, but Eddy and her co-founder, Alyssa Ruderman, hope Lantern will work for people of all ages, whether they’re planning their own funeral or grappling with the loss of a loved one. They tested the product on people ages 18 to 92, to ensure accessibility. But, Ruderman says, “We absolutely built it with the millennial in mind.” This strategy, however counterintuitive, could pay off. In 2017, Nathan Gerard, an assistant professor of health care administration at California State University Long Beach, published a study of 84 millennials and their ability to talk about death. “There’s been a long held assumption that the young are somehow uninterested — or worse, ill equipped — to talk about death, let alone work with the dying,” Gerard said in an email. But he found the majority “had already engaged in a conversation about end-of-life care with a family member, and furthermore, a majority perceived themselves just as willing, if not more willing, as their parents to talk about end-of-life care options.” Whether the Grim Reaper is at the door or decades away, consumers will find a growing number of funeral-planning resources at their disposal. Sites like Funeralocity provide comparative pricing for funeral home services by zip code. Memorials can be arranged digitally on GatheringUs. You can even draft important legal documents online. Why do people in the prime of their lives seem to be preparing for their demise? Before the internet, people hoping to get their affairs in order had to find financial planners, lawyers, and local funeral directors in the phone book, then set up in-person consultations. But people have an “aversion to talking to strangers about important things,” says Patrick Schmitt, the co-founder of FreeWill, a site that streamlines the process of generating a will, healthcare directives, and powers of attorney. Technology means they no longer have to. With sites like Schmitt’s, it’s possible to generate a legal will in 20 minutes, no human interaction required. Since these essential forms used to be made on paper and in private, there’s little historical data about who had a will and who didn’t. But for the team at FreeWill, that information is readily available. Among its users, the number of people age 18 to 24 crafting wills is low, but shoots up among 25- to 44-year-olds, Schmitt says. “Younger people are less likely to have assets. People make the joke, ‘I don’t know who to pass my debt onto,’” Schmitt says. But “you’ve got big shifts around religiosity, home ownership, overall wealth at this age, marriage rates, birth rates, and these things are really going to shape views on estate planning and death.” In The American Way of Death,Mitford described a funeral industry that operated like an autocracy. The all-knowing funeral director guided the guileless consumer to the most expensive burial options — the most luxurious casket, the hardiest burial vault. Some things about dying haven’t changed, including the expense: The average cost today is $6,500. But the death industry has diversified since 1963. Approximately 60 percent of students in mortuary science programs today are female, up from 5 percent in 1971. And new trends, like the home funeral movement, are led by “an assemblage of different groups of people, different beliefs, different practices,” says Phil Olson, a technology ethicist at Virginia Tech specializing in death studies. Church membership is declining, and the number of Americans who say they are atheists is on the rise. (Right now, it’s hovering around 10 percent.) Though young people today may diverge from their parents’ or grandparents’ approach to death and the afterlife, many find other philosophies to guide them. Bergwall co-founded WeCroak — the death reminder app — in 2017 as part of his own meditation practice. He quotes a Bhutanese folk saying that states, “To be a truly happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.” The practice, which Buddhists call “maraṇasati,” or death awareness, is supposed to help people embrace uncertainty and feel the spiritual urgency required to change your life for the better. Monks in some parts of Asia meditate over dead bodies to accomplish this. Bergwall thought an app would be easier. “It’s a way of exercising control over death. It’s a way of coming to grips with your own mortality.” Users of WeCroak, which recently surpassed 100,000 downloads, skew male. Sixty-four percent are under the age of 44. Five times a day, the app sends them a push notification that reads, “Don’t forget, you are going to die. Open for a quote…” In the app, they’ll find words of wisdom culled from a range of texts, from the philosophical to the literary. While wills and advance directives are important, Bergwall thinks his app attracts people with a broader definition of “death preparedness.” Instead of who will get what, “the conversation is more about, how can we have our affairs in order — emotionally, spiritually, relationship-wise — so we can enjoy our life now,” he says. If it sounds like we’re in the midst of a wellnessification of death, well, we probably are, Bergwall adds. In lieu of crystals and green drinks, you’ll find memento mori, “grief retreats,” and green funerals. Anna Swenson is the communications manager for Recompose, the Seattle-based company that developed a method for human composting — and got it legalized by the Washington state legislature. She suggests that many of the changes in the death industry, and the speed at which they’re unfolding, could be driven by climate anxiety. As ecosystems collapse and the future no longer feels guaranteed, some people may feel more conscious of their own mortality. They may also feel more conscious about their impact on the planet, alive and dead. In the United States, more than 90 percent of people are buried or cremated. But both methods have their downsides. Along with our dead, Americans also bury 20 million feet of wood, 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluids, and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete each year, according to the New York Times. Cremation, once marketed as an eco-conscious alternative, releases approximately 534 pounds of carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — per person. But newer, greener methods are emerging, from human composting to the “mushroom death suit” — available in human and pet sizes — that uses fungi to aid in decomposition. If conventional burial all but ensured your last act on Earth was a destructive one, these green efforts often capitalize on the belief that your body can become “nutritive,” Olson, the Virginia Tech ethicist, says. People see “having a tree made out of them or turning them into compost [as a way of] giving them new life,” he says. But there’s another, darker way to read this: We want to be productive even when we’re dead. We’re taking our #riseandgrind capitalistic mentality to the grave. Olson sees end-of-life consumerism evolving in other ways, too. “Millennials want their uniqueness or their quirkiness to come out in their final act,” he says. While much has been made about millennials and an assumed preference for “Instagram-worthy funerals,” Olson thinks this emphasis on individualism may reflect more profound social and personal angst: “It’s a way of exercising control over death,” he says. “It’s a way of coming to grips with your own mortality — to think about it and plan for it and try to make it your own.” Marisha Mukerjee began planning her death in 2015. Every month, the 35-year-old TV writer and producer meets with other women in the entertainment industry to talk about the ups and downs of creative projects. At one gathering a few years back, Amy Pickard, founder of the advance planning company Good To Go!, spoke to the group about death preparation. Pickard, who lost her mother, father, and grandmother in three successive years, developed a 50-page “departure file,” which, for $60, “covers everything a will doesn’t cover,” from social media passwords to how you hope to be remembered. Inspired by Pickard’s talk, Mukerjee began filling out the booklet. She organized her passwords, made plans for her pet, and decided who would get what jewelry. “I literally update it monthly with a pencil if something needs to be put on there,” Mukerjee tells me. She also planned her funeral, which ended up being one of the trickier parts of the process. “I grew up in a household with two religions: We were raised Catholic, and my father’s Hindu,” she says. Instead of planning what she called a “cookie cutter” funeral, like what you’d expect for your parents or grandparents, Mukerjee started from scratch. “I do want to be cremated,” she concluded, “and I would want a ceremony that would invite all religions. I know my mother would probably be like, ‘What?’ But that’s what I want to do.” She hopes her loved ones will scatter her ashes in a few of the cities she’s lived in, and in India’s Ganges River. Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP The Ganges River in India is a sacred site for Hindus, who come from around the world to perform last rites in the city of Varanasi, on the banks of the river. The possibility that other people would make the wrong decisions for her is, in part, why Sotelo, the graphic designer in Oregon, turned her interest in death planning into actual end-of-life arrangements. “When I told my mom that I was going to donate my body, she said, ‘That’s weird but okay,’” Sotelo recalls. But Sotelo’s father, who sees burial as a tenet of his Christian faith, objected. “It is important that there are safety nets for myself in place, so that he can’t make my decisions,” Sotelo says. Still, plans change. While Sotelo is certain she wants to eventually become a medical cadaver, she’s no longer sure she wants Oregon Health & Science University to cremate her body when they’re done with their research. She’s looking into human composting, and hopes Recompose will be nationwide by the time she dies. Her own end-of-life plans are “an evolving process,” she says — much like the death industry itself. Eleanor Cummins reports on the intersection of science and popular culture. She’s a former assistant editor at Popular Science and writes a newsletter about death. Amanda Lucier is a photographer based in Portland, Oregon.
Why are Asian Americans still the butt of the joke in pop culture?
Just a few of the caricatures and comedians whose humor has been at the expense of Asian Americans. From left, Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong, comedian Shane Gillis, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Rosie O’Donnell and The Simpsons’ Apu. | Zac Freeland/Vox Asian Americans like me are grappling with a culture that’s still okay with making fun of us. Part of Issue #10 of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world. Rosie O’Donnell apologized if there were any Indian people in the room during a standup set in Provincetown, Massachusetts, this past July. Sitting far to one side of the stage, I felt my stomach lurch. I was the only Indian person in the beachside club, and O’Donnell couldn’t see me as she launched into a story about her 2012 heart attack and recovery. A doctor she described as Indian played a central role, and she proceeded to tell the joke using a caricatured Indian accent. The near-death experience she described wasn’t funny; it was her performance of the doctor’s voice that got the room laughing. The friends I’d come with, who were white, looked at me with uncertainty. I took a big sip of cheap Sauvignon Blanc and felt my forehead beading with sweat. I laughed despite myself. When the bit was over, heat drained from my cheeks and my body flooded with post-adrenaline relief. O’Donnell hadn’t said anything overtly derogatory; in fact, she used the doctor as a foil for self-deprecation. But O’Donnell had made his ethnic difference — and mine — the butt of the joke. Later, I expressed my discomfort on Twitter, pointing out the blind spot that even someone as progressive as O’Donnell can have when it comes to race. I’d imagined myself in an especially liberal and accepting space, given O’Donnell’s politics and Provincetown’s history as a haven for queer travelers, and it was jarring to be proven otherwise. O’Donnell replied on Twitter a few days later, claiming she’d performed many accents that night (if she had, I couldn’t recall the others). “That doctor was from Bombay - if u were offended - my apologies,” she later added. he was not the doctor who saved my life - he was one of many who came in to see how i survived - he brought me a fruit basket - i ate and went into shock - that dr was from bombay - if u were offended - my apologies— ROSIE (@Rosie) July 8, 2019 Fans of O’Donnell came to her defense on Twitter, piling on. “It’s comedy … grow up,” was a common refrain in my replies. “In this new liberal progressive PC world nothing is a joke anymore,” one user wrote. But that’s the thing. Even in the most liberal environments, comedy at the expense of Asian Americans feels socially permissible. When SNL hired then quickly fired Shane Gillis in September over homophobic statements and racist remarks about Asians, a 2016 interview surfaced in which the comedian discussed testing new material in small clubs. “You throw stuff out there and you get to see them react to things, like yea or nay, what’s funny and what’s not,” Gillis said. “You can be racist to Asians. That’s what we’re finding out.” In response to his dismissal, Gillis called himself “a comedian who pushes boundaries,” as though floating racist jokes were groundbreaking instead of outdated. Using an accent as the butt of a joke is nowhere near as egregious as the remarks that led to Gillis’s firing. But it illustrates how Asian Americans still occupy a position as punchlines, which other minorities have more forcefully sought to vacate. Take O’Donnell’s bit: She positioned her doctor as a model minority. Because it didn’t seem as though she were punching down — how could she be, from a hospital bed? — making a joke of his accent felt like fair game. Maybe she was emboldened by the makeup of the club that night, or her perception of it. I was the only non-white person in attendance as far as I could tell, and obviously the only Asian American. She apologized, knowing she’d likely offend someone like me while letting her audience know that it didn’t matter. The casting of Asian Americans as model minorities, along with the impression that we’re insignificant in numbers — disinclined to band together or to speak up — are some of the factors that perpetuate humor at our expense. But in fact, Asian Americans are the most rapidly growing minority group in the US, and income inequality is rising faster among Asian Americans than among other racial or ethnic groups. We are also a vastly diverse population, with critical voting power politicians are increasingly taking into account. Though Asian American representation in Hollywood has grown slightly more varied in recent years, casual and overt racism at our expense has long resisted taboo. Why hasn’t pop culture caught up? Deep roots of racism in pop culture Examples of odd and exaggerated Asian movie and TV characters abound. Mickey Rooney played as Holly Golightly’s Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Peter Sellers painted his face brown and adopted an accent to play an Indian-born actor for The Party (1968), and Alex Bornstein donned less literal yellowface as Ms. Swan on MADtv in the 1990s. Favorite movies and shows for many kids of my generation were peppered with outrageous Asian caricatures, such as Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong and of The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, voiced by Hank Azaria. “American culture has a long history of denigrating and casting Asians, or what people used to call ‘Orientals,’ as entirely different than white Americans,” says Ellen D. Wu, director of Asian American Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. “When these differences weren’t thought to be threatening, another framing was that [Asian Americans] were considered comically strange.” “It has such a big impact,” comedian Hari Kondabolu said of The Simpsons’ three-decade run, speaking to Emily VanDerWerff on the Vox podcast I Think You’re Interesting. Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu brings together a chorus of perspectives from South Asian actors and comedians on the cartoon convenience store owner who speaks with a heavy Indian accent, has eight children, and whose catchphrase is “Thank you, come again.” I remember watching Apu on TV and wondering if that was how other kids imagined my parents. Or if customers considered my uncle, who owned a Subway restaurant and worked hard to support his family, as comic relief. Jason Kempin/Getty Images for truTV Comedian Hari Kondabolu with his parents during a screening of The Problem With Apu in 2017. Kondabolu’s documentary looked at the effects of the Simpsons character in perpetuating stereotypes of South Asians. Apu is just one of The Simpsons’ several ethnically stereotyped characters, including Scottish groundskeeper Willy. But he was one of very few, and certainly among the most prominent, representations of Indian Americans on TV when the show premiered in 1989. That’s why, Kondabolu told Vox, “There’s a little bit of the poison of racism” in Apu. (At a TCA panel this month, Azaria announced that he would no longer voice the character, though it remains unclear whether The Simpsons will retire the Apu character.) Comedy, particularly American comedy, has a long history of mining racial and ethnic differences for laughs. The emancipation of black slaves and successive waves of immigration from around the world have brought minority groups into conflict with a dominant culture whose whiteness came to be defined by differences. Othering humor still lingers today; just last year, a series of scandals surfaced involving old photos of politicians including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wearing blackface, seemingly as a joke. But the general reception toward ugly, racist humor is changing, sure enough. “There’s been a raising of consciousness about what we laugh at,” says Shilpa Davé, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film. “Humor reveals something about institutionalized inequality and prejudice and discrimination — racism, sexism, and classism — that’s ingrained in our culture.” And, as Jeet Heer pointed out in his response to The Problem with Apu for the New Republic, caricatures of other minority groups have historically faced concerted pushback as those groups gained cultural and political power. Amos ‘n’ Andy and Happy Hooligan [popular minstrelsies of black and Irish Americans, respectively] became anachronistic because the communities they caricatured acculturated and found their political voice. Irish immigrants gave way to the American-born Irish, who had less tolerance for ethnic jokes and felt empowered to speak up. Amos ‘n’ Andy, meanwhile, was really a comedy about the first generation of African Americans who left the rural South for a life in the urban North. As those migrants settled in cities and became politically active, they too began to challenge how they were represented in pop culture. Asian Americans have approached a similar turning point only in recent years. “You’ll always have people who are going to objectify” minority groups, Davé says. “But can you drown out that objectification with new visions of what we see as funny, and also who we see as comics? I think we’re there,” she says. “We just don’t have the numbers necessarily yet.” Standing in the way, perhaps, is that “We don’t have a lot of power in American society, and then we can’t even agree among ourselves,” Wu says. “We’re not one cohesive block.” The term “Asian American” was coined in 1968 by activist and historian Yuji Ichioka, who saw the potential of uniting around shared identity in the wake of the Black Power movement. But sustained solidarity has been elusive: With origins in nearly 20 different countries, Asian Americans don’t share a common language, culture, or civic agenda. Even now, I wonder if it’s presumptuous of me to make an argument on behalf of such a broad and disparate group. Though I might more readily identify as desi, or South Asian, I recognize the utility of banding together as Asian Americans in contexts like this, as well as the limitations. In addition to gaining political voice, Irish and African Americans, to use Heer’s examples, also grew in affluence and became consumer markets to which products — including pop culture — could be sold. “When people in power have an idea of their market share, it must be that they don’t really think of Asian Americans,” Wu says. “That calculation of comedy as a business has to be part of the nexus of factors.” Asian Americans currently make up 6 percent of the population, just less than half the number of African Americans, according to US census data. An increase in Asian American visibility in public life is turning the tide Asian American representation in comedy and pop culture, and our power as both consumers and voters, has grown significantly, even in the past few years alone. The commercial success of Crazy Rich Asians in 2018 has proven the box-office appeal of Asian American actors and stories; its romantic lead, Henry Golding, has even moved into headlining mainstream rom-coms like Last Christmas. Riz Ahmed and Kumail Nanjiani have propelled from small-screen roles into two of Hollywood’s biggest fantasy franchises, Star Wars and the Marvel Universe. SNL hired this season’s breakout MVP Bowen Yang in the same round as Gillis. Ali Wong has released two smash Netflix specials and a movie, and comedian Hasan Minhaj has his own show, Patriot Act, and dedicated a recent episode to the rising significance of the Asian American electorate in 2020. Andrew Yang, a Democratic presidential candidate, remains in the race, polling at 3 percent. Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images Fans take selfies with comedian and actor Hasan Minhaj in 2016 in New York City. Minhaj, who now has his own Netflix show, Patriot Act, is one of several faces diversifying pop culture. Yang’s strategy around his identity has included embracing Asian American stereotypes with a knowing wink, by wearing campaign gear that simply reads “Math,” or remarking on the debate stage, “I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors.” On the one hand, Asian American demographics, as they have been shaped by American policy, bear some resemblance to popular assumptions. On the other hand, “Especially for people who might not have a lot of daily contact with Asian Americans, the information they’re getting” — as to who we are or could be — “is mediated through popular culture,” Wu says. In other words, Yang is likely reinforcing the stereotypes he plays into rather than indicating their limitations. While I can understand his wanting to get out in front of them, watching Yang lend credence to stale jokes also makes me cringe — not least because I wish by now they were too cliché to seem funny. But the idea of a model minority suggests its opposite, and stereotypes like those he embraces do ideological work to perpetuate a system of racism that places black people at the bottom. As Brando Simeo Starkey put it at The Undefeated, “the model minority stereotype is a myth that white supremacy devised partly to defend American society from the charges of racism leveled by Black folk. … The notion that one racial minority group was advancing by working hard, minding their own business, and not complaining about the system was a rhetorical tactic for those who sought to justify their inaction on civil rights.” The work of demanding more is on successive generations Being the target of model minority stereotypes is conflicting. When someone assumes I’m good at math, my impulse is to roll my eyes, not punch them in the teeth (then confess that I’m terrible at math). I recognize it’s nowhere near being on the receiving end of a slur or worse. “People tend to say, ‘Oh, what’s wrong with the model minority stereotype? Why wouldn’t you want to be thought of as smart and successful?’” Wu says. “So you can make a joke about something like that because it sounds positive and, oh sure, everybody’s got their Indian doctor.” As I mentioned in my reply to O’Donnell, everyone in my family is a doctor except for me. It would be no great surprise if her doctor really were from Bombay. But oddly enough, when O’Donnell recounted that same story in her 2015 HBO documentary Rosie O’Donnell: A Heartfelt Stand Up, she didn’t give the doctor any particular accent. Maybe her recollection of him has since improved, or maybe she thought the bit might be funnier if he sounded Indian. If it had been one of my parents she were up there imitating, I would have been furious. So when I visited my family over the holidays, I described the moment in her set and asked how it might have made them feel. “Comedy is just comedy,” my dad said. “They’re making fun; it’s all fine.” Patients have actually confessed to him that they were specifically looking for an Indian doctor because of his presumed competence. “I don’t feel like an oppressed minority group, we’ve already proven [ourselves].” He’s right; they have. My parents emigrated to America in the ’70s with very little but their medical degrees, and are both comfortably retired. But doesn’t a room full of people laughing at the way they talk mock or, at the very least, minimize their achievements? “It doesn’t make me feel good,” my mom replied. “But you know what? There are 40 Indian accents in the country,” she pointed out, and people from different regions of India might have a laugh at one another’s. “If that’s all she did, and she didn’t make fun of it,” like with exaggerated facial expressions or body language, “then that’s okay,” she said. One difference between my parents’ mindset as first-generation immigrants and my own is they’ve never expected to see themselves reflected back in their adopted culture. An occasional glimpse of an engineer or taxi driver with a thick accent, played by a brown actor on TV or voiced by a white comedian behind the mic, may have felt like enough, a novel thrill. So, should I just lighten up? Why had O’Donnell doing that accent gotten under my skin? I asked Davé. “Because you were highly aware of the environment she was using it in, when there was no one else around, and why she was using it,” Davé told me. “In the moment that we’re in, especially as Asian Americans and for people who are doing comparative race studies, that laziness of just going back to a particular stereotype is reinforcing the status quo rather than moving things forward.” Continuing to push forward sure feels like the goal for me and millions of Asian Americans and other minorities who were born here but are consistently othered by comedy, whether offensive or lazy, and the first-generation immigrants who will continue to arrive here and be marked as foreign by how they look and talk. “The question is not so much what would make Asians stop [seeming] foreign,” Davé says. “But instead, what’s become the political controversy and dialogue of our time is, what does America look like?” Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images In January, actress Awkwafina became the first Asian American to win the Best Actress award at the Golden Globes, for her turn in The Farewell. The answer has grown increasingly clear: It looks like Awkwafina. It looks like a growing class of South Asian comics coming up online and in standup clubs. It looks like six seasons of Fresh Off the Boat, Netflix rom-com queen Lana Condor, and yes, Keanu Reeves. It looks like a generation of artists and comedians remaking the culture in their image. And viewers seated front and center, not content with crumbs but demanding and expecting more. Naveen Kumar covers entertainment, culture, and lifestyle for outlets including, Vice, the New York Times, and Towleroad, where he serves as theater critic.
John Lewis and the beginning of an era
John Lewis, at 23, was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. | Bettmann Archive/Getty Images The civil rights icon was told to cut a too-radical line from a famous speech. It says a lot about who he was. Part of Issue #10 of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world. In 1963, John Lewis was, at 23, the youngest person set to speak at the March on Washington. The original version of his prepared remarks accused the Kennedy administration of conspiring with white supremacists. He wanted to ask: “Which side is the federal government on?” But the march’s leaders censored the speech he wanted to give, arguing that it was too radical. The event leaders forced Lewis to take out that question, and tone down other provocations, including this call to action: We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy. They made him change that to: “We will march through the South ... with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity we have shown here today.” But the words Lewis didn’t speak are the ones America needs to hear right now. Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images John Lewis was told to tone down the more radical aspects of his speech at the March on Washington in 1963. More than 50 years later, history has clarified some things. The quintessential American battle between racial justice and white supremacy is still unresolved, but we know which side the Trump administration is on. And nobody thinks love and dignity are going to change a damn thing. Well, nobody except Cory Booker, and he just dropped out of the presidential race. Lewis is now the long-serving Democratic Congress member from Atlanta. His recent announcement that he is fighting stage 4 pancreatic cancer has inspired admiring appraisals of his integrity and service to the nation. Known as the “conscience of the Congress,” Lewis has influenced almost every major rights movement of the past century, from voting rights to LGBTQ equality. Lewis’s prognosis also calls for a reckoning, not of his life, which is unquestionably heroic, but of the movement he symbolizes. Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders. He is the only person who spoke at the March on Washington who is still alive. Perhaps the civil rights movement’s central accomplishment was to stigmatize racism. The moral force of Martin Luther King Jr.’s message shamed the nation, especially during the Cold War era, when the United States purported to be a beacon of human rights. Now, virtually no one wants to be called a racist; even white supremacists take pains to explain how they are not biased against black people. Beyond the symbolic, the movement deserves huge credit for the Voting Rights Act, widely considered the most successful civil rights law in US history. Violent protests helped garner support for the legislation, in particular Bloody Sunday, the 1965 protests in which the police used nightsticks, whips, horses and tear gas to terrorize a group of civil rights activists. The group was marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, demonstrating for the right to vote. A cop hit Lewis so hard, it fractured his skull. Bettmann Archive John Lewis (light coat, center), attempts to ward off the blow as an Alabama state trooper swings his club at Lewis’s head during the march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Less than three weeks later, President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act, and Congress passed it the same year. The removal of discriminatory restrictions such as poll taxes and literacy tests allowed black people in the South meaningful access to the vote for the first time since Reconstruction. In just two years, the percentage of African Americans registered to vote in the jurisdictions the act covered increased from less than one-third to more than 50 percent. Black voter participation allowed meaningful access to democracy. The year the law was enacted, there were six African American members of Congress. After the 2018 election, there were 52. The blood of John Lewis, and the blood of other American heroes, helped accomplish this landmark achievement. On the day Barack Obama was inaugurated as the first African American president, he inscribed a photo to Lewis with the words, “Because of you, John.” Here was possibly the most successful African American in US history paying homage to a man who was the son of sharecroppers, but whose activism — and more than 45 arrests — had made that success possible. Yet sometimes I feel like the angry black man the good congressman has refused to be, because of what has not changed. In 2020, a large percentage of black, Latino, and white children attend segregated schools. Black families have a median net worth of $17,061, compared with $171,000 for white families. Getting killed by the police is a leading cause of death for young black men. The Voting Rights Act? In a case decided in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted it, striking down the section that required oversight of all the places that had tried to deny folks the right to vote on account of race. The civil rights movement was far from a failure, but if the goal was to meaningfully remove barriers to anti-black discrimination, it has not been a success. Fifty years later, looking back at his March on Washington speech, Lewis said removing the more radical lines from his speech was “the right thing to do.” He told an interviewer that he had “always tried to be a team player” and that when civil rights icons King, A. Philip Randolph, and Roy Wilkins approached him and asked him to delete some of the most radical content, he couldn’t say no. But as a country, would we be better off if we had heard — and heeded — these words that Lewis wanted to speak in August 1963? The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery. The nonviolent revolution is saying, “We will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting for hundreds of years. We will not wait for the President, the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands and create a source of power, outside of any national structure, that could and would assure us a victory. The question is whether people of color can “free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery” within the existing legal structure of the United States. Or was the poet Audre Lorde correct when she wrote that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”? Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images President Barack Obama walks alongside Amelia Boynton Robinson (right), one of the original marchers, Rev. Al Sharpton (second from right), Michelle Obama (left), and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) (second from left), one of the original marchers, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march in Alabama, March 7, 2015. I don’t know. But I hope President Obama was right. In 2015, on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, he traveled to Selma and marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge arm-in-arm with Lewis. Obama said: What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals? The civil rights movement was a good start, but it wasn’t enough. Well done, Congressman Lewis. Hopefully with your blessing, a new generation will take it from here. Paul Butler is the Albert Brick professor in law at Georgetown University and an MSNBC legal analyst. A former federal prosecutor, he is the author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men.
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Increasingly, the four Big Tech companies have come under antitrust scrutiny in the US. | DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images As antitrust investigations into Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook ramp up, execs from Sonos, PopSockets, and Tile testified before Congress. Big Tech has a target on its back. Right now in the US, there are multiple, simultaneous government investigations focused on the business practices of each of the four Big Tech giants — Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook — that could someday lead to the breakup of these companies or major changes in how they operate. It’s easy to get lost in all the antitrust talk because of the complexity of antitrust laws in this country and the fact that most specific complaints about Big Tech companies happen behind closed doors. But last week, top executives from four smaller, competing companies — the wireless speaker company Sonos, the cellphone grip maker PopSockets, the gadget startup Tile, and the business software company Basecamp — laid out their complaints at a public hearing before the House of Representatives Antitrust Subcommittee. These testimonies could provide guideposts for the ongoing investigations into the Big Four as regulators and lawmakers consider whether the tech giants have broken current laws or if the US’s antitrust laws need a modern makeover. 1) Tech giants use their power in one market to crush competitors in another Sonos CEO Patrick Spence accused companies like Google and Amazon of using their success in one industry (for Google, internet search; for Amazon, online commerce) to dominate another: namely voice-controlled speakers. The CEO’s accusation is that Google and Amazon are able to sell their Home and Echo speakers at artificially low prices — he used the term “predatory pricing” — because they make money in other ways, and so their goal isn’t to profit from the speakers. Instead, it’s to use their speakers to collect consumer data that they make money off of through their other business lines. And once these tech giants drive competitors who can’t match their prices out of business, “prices are sure to go up,” he claimed. Sonos recently filed a lawsuit against Google for allegedly infringing on five of its patents, but its complaints obviously go beyond stealing technology. A Google spokesperson said in a statement, “Sonos has made misleading statements about our history of working together. Our technology and devices were designed independently. We deny their claims vigorously, and will be defending against them.” An Amazon spokesperson did not immediately reply to Sonos’s claim about Amazon’s pricing strategy for its smart speakers. 2) Tech giants have so much power that fair business negotiations are impossible Spence described negotiations with tech giants as increasingly “take it or leave it” interactions. In one case, he referenced Google’s unwillingness to allow Sonos speakers to let customers toggle between voice assistants — whether Google Assistant or Alexa — on a given Sonos speaker even though Sonos had built technology that supported the capability. More than half of all online product searches in the US now happen on Amazon, so Google could be incentivized not to allow the same thing to happen when it comes to out-loud searches. Spence claims that Google said it would cut off Google Assistant integrations with Sonos if Sonos allowed customers to toggle between different assistants. And speaker makers increasingly need to support the voice assistant technologies from Amazon and Google to keep up with consumer expectations. “We can’t offer that, which is, in my opinion, really reducing freedom of choice,” he said. A Google spokesperson referred Recode to its previous statement above about Sonos. Likewise, PopSockets CEO David Barnett cited the “power asymmetry” that allows Amazon to still be successful while allegedly taking part in what he calls corporate “bullying.” He accused the giant of levying threats against his phone accessory company when making business demands that went above and beyond written contracts between the two companies. Recode covered the standoff between the two companies a year ago. An Amazon spokesperson said in a statement, “PopSockets has been a valued retail vendor at Amazon and also supplies its products directly to other major retailers. We sought to continue working with PopSockets as a vendor to ensure that we could provide competitive prices, availability, broad selection and fast delivery for those products to our customers. Like any brand, however, PopSockets is free to choose which retailers it supplies and chose to stop selling directly through Amazon.” 3) Big Tech companies infringe on small competitors’ patents today because they’ll control the market by the time they have to pay up tomorrow Sonos recently sued Google for allegedly violating five Sonos patents, and said it would have sued Amazon over similar issues but could not afford the risk of taking on both companies at once. Spence accused the companies of knowingly violating patents — they do a “cost benefit analysis,” he claimed — because they expect to capture such a large part of the market before they might have to pay up in a lawsuit, that whatever costs they’ll have to pay will be worth it. Google denied the accusations and referred Recode to its statement above. In a statement, Amazon said, “The Echo family of devices and our multi-room music technology were developed independently by Amazon.” 4) Big Tech companies prioritize “monopoly rent” over the best interest of business partners and consumers Monopoly rent, in this instance, is the idea that a company without competition can charge higher-than-market-rate prices or can charge extra fees simply because of its unmatched position. For David Heinemeier Hansson, the co-founder and chief technology officer at the small business software company Basecamp, one complaint is the fact that Google allows Basecamp competitors to pay Google to appear as the first listing in search results when someone searches for “Basecamp.” Google has “replaced that search engine with an ad engine instead,” he said, and consumers “are not being presented with what they’re actually looking for.” “It’s a complete shakedown,” he added. A Google spokesperson provided Recode a statement that read: “For trademarked terms like the name of a business, our policy balances the interest of both users and advertisers. Like other platforms, we allow competitors to bid on trademarked terms because it offers users more choice when they are searching. However, if a trademark owner files a complaint, we will block competitors from using their business name in the actual ad text.” In an episode of Vox Media’s Land of the Giants podcast titled “Is Amazon Too Big? We Ask Its Sellers,” a top executive from the luggage maker Samsonite articulated a similar complaint about Amazon, which allows advertisers to buy top placement in query results on its site when a shopper searches for a competitor’s product. That means if you search “Samsonite luggage” on Amazon, the first results you see could be for another brand’s luggage for sale on the site. Hansson also criticized Apple for the 30 percent cut it levies on app makers who want to charge their customers through the app. “They have a 30 percent market advantage right from the get-go,” he said, insinuating that Apple should charge app makers closer to the 2 percent to 3 percent fees that payment processors do. “It’s completely outrageous.” An Apple spokesperson sent Recode a statement, which read in part, “[W]e created the App Store with two goals in mind: that it be a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps, and a great business opportunity for all developers. We continually work with developers and take their feedback on how to help protect user privacy while also providing the tools developers need to make the best app experiences.” 5) Tech giants are both participants in and owners of their platforms, and so they tilt the playing field in their direction Tile is a startup that makes small Bluetooth trackers that can help users find things like a lost wallet, keys, or phone. To work, the trackers need to be paired with an app on a smartphone or tablet. But Tile’s general counsel, Kirsten Daru, argued at the hearing that Tile’s business has been hurt by Apple giving special treatment to its own “Find My” tracking app. Apple’s app comes preloaded on its gadgets, can’t be deleted, and asks for location-tracking permission during operating system setup, Daru said. On the other hand, Tile customers who use Apple’s latest iOS version have to go into the settings on their phone to grant “always on” location tracking permission to the app. “Apple is acting as a gatekeeper ... in ways that favor its own interests,” Daru alleged. Daru compared Apple to a sports team that owns the ball, field, stadium, and league, and can change the rules at any point. A statement from an Apple spokesperson read, in part: “When setting up a new device users can choose to turn on Location Services to help find a lost or misplaced device with Find My iPhone, an app that users have come to rely on since 2010. Customers have control over their location data, including the location of their device. If a user doesn’t want to enable these features, there’s a clear, easy to understand setting where they can choose exactly which location services they want enabled or disabled. ... We’re currently working with developers interested in enabling the ‘Always Allow’ functionality to enable that feature at the time of set up in a future software update.” Amazon has also come under fire for both being a gatekeeper that makes the rules and that also operates the Amazon Marketplace, where it competes with other merchants selling their products on Amazon competes in two ways: as a traditional retailer, by buying name-brand products wholesale and reselling them alongside those items from these third-party merchants; and, in some cases, Amazon makes and sells its own products under its own brand names, and competes with other brands and sellers. Barnett, of PopSockets, claimed to Congress members at the hearing that Amazon itself has been the seller of counterfeit PopSocket products. He alleged that the problem went away only after PopSockets began spending more money on marketing on Amazon. An Amazon spokesperson said that Amazon “strictly prohibits” the sale of counterfeit goods and denied that Amazon bases IP enforcement on payments of any kind, including spending on marketing. 6) The online dossiers that Facebook and Google have amassed on their users give them too much power According to a 2019 eMarketer report, Facebook and Google account for a combined 60 percent of the US online advertising market, thanks in large part to all the data they collect about how their users browse and search online. Heinemeier Hansson, of Basecamp, argued that “you cannot opt out of this data collection” if you want to use large swaths of the internet today. His big proposal for balancing the playing field and restoring more consumer privacy online: He wants to ban advertising that is targeted to online users based on the dossiers that Facebook and Google build for marketers, which could simultaneously lower the tech giants’ appetite for data collection while potentially improving competition in the advertising industry. A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment. An extraordinary turn of events On one hand, it’s worth keeping in mind that all of the above accusations are still just that — accusations — and ones made from business leaders whose businesses might prosper more easily in a world where these giants were less powerful. On the other hand, these allegations, made under oath and in front of members of Congress, mark an extraordinary turn of events for the tech giants who just a few years ago seemed invincible and unstoppable. And perhaps most importantly, it appears that Congress will continue to take the claims seriously as they decide what recommendations to make to antitrust regulators and whether to attempt to remake antitrust law.
TikTok never wanted to be political. Too late.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox As the world burns — impeachment! natural disaster! World War III? — teens turn to TikTok. As 24 million acres of Australia burned in record bushfires between September and January, Australian teens turned to TikTok. Chloé Hayden, a 22-year-old motivational speaker and YouTuber based in Victoria, had barely used the video-sharing app, but her peers were flooding it with their frustration with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s mishandling of the crisis and footage of the dense smoke as a way of raising awareness among a largely ignorant public. Chloé’s video was a perfect encapsulation of the TikTok sensibility: She used a popular meme format to show the hypocrisy of the lack of media attention by comparing it to the immediate outpouring of financial support after the Notre Dame fire. It was equal parts funny and incisive, and ended up being viewed nearly 300,000 times. “I love that through the use of short comedy sketches, teens are getting a bigger point across than most lengthy, informative articles posted by some old bloke who we can’t relate to in the slightest,” she explains. “It’s both parts a coping mechanism and an incredible way to speak our minds where we’re all equal, and I genuinely don’t think there’s any other platform that you can do that in a similar way.” TikTok has, in its barely year and a half of existing, become the most effective way for a random person to spread a message to the widest possible audience in the shortest amount of time. It takes the best of Twitter (brevity, as videos can be a maximum of 60 seconds but most are much shorter) and YouTube (the ability to see someone’s face as they’re speaking to you) and adds the ability to go viral with virtually zero followers. That the app is populated largely by teens also means that so much of what happens on it participates in a brand of ironic internet comedy that complicates the idea of serious news-sharing. TikTok videos on geopolitical events, from the Australian fires to the vague threat of World War III, can be viewed variously as awareness-spreading of underreported stories, coping mechanisms, exercises in nihilism, or goofy videos that no one should spend too much time analyzing. Though it’s always tried to position itself as a joyful space for creating and viewing silly and inspiring content, TikTok has unintentionally become one of the best means of disseminating ideas on the internet. It’s a power that’s being used for better or for worse, and largely by minors. TikTok was never supposed to be political. The app was expressly designed to discourage news-sharing — its home feed is non-chronological, and there are no visible timestamps for when a video is posted, making it nearly impossible to understand what happened when. Political advertisements are not allowed, and until recently, TikTok had vague content guidelines that reportedly encouraged moderators to censor content sensitive to local governments. Its slogan is “Make your day,” presumably by distracting you from *gestures widely at everything*. TikTok was never supposed to be political, but of course it was always going to be. During 2019’s widespread climate strikes, TikTokers used jokes about e-girls to spread awareness about e-missions. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was revealed to have worn brownface, TikTok had fun brutally roasting him. In November, a New Jersey teen posted a viral TikTok discussing the Chinese mass internment of Muslims (and was subsequently locked out of her account). Another teen used the app to organize a strike in solidarity with her school district’s teachers. When adults on TikTok mocked teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, there was a flood of comments with just one phrase, sparking one of the year’s biggest memes: “ok boomer.” US Democratic presidential candidates are on TikTok. Police officers, soldiers, and the Israel Defense Forces are on TikTok. Nazis and terrorists are, too. Most importantly, millions of regular people are on TikTok, all of whom have at least some awareness of what happens in the world and who probably have opinions about it. In the first week of 2020, just a few days after memes about “new year new me” and leaving negativity in 2019 proliferated on the internet, the world seemed to explode: President Trump ordered the assassination of Quassem Soleimani, pushing the US and Iran to the brink of war. Puerto Rico was hit by a series of massive earthquakes, cutting off power for nearly a million people and access to clean water for hundreds of thousands. Bushfires, worsened by climate change, continued to rage across Australia, killing at least 28 people and an estimated 1 billion animals and destroying 2,000 homes. The most powerful man in the world faced an impeachment trial. World War III seemed imminent, but on TikTok it was already raging. “Me in the trenches doing my 10-step Korean skincare routine,” read the caption on one video by 19-year-old Australian student Isaac Tuazon. “Gays when we get drafted into WW3,” read another in a video of TikToker Sir Carter voguing with Nerf guns. “Me after getting my first kill in WW3,” wrote one TikToker while doing a Fortnite dance. “I just thought the idea of bringing my entire skin care routine with me to the battlefield would be a little extra and would earn a few laughs,” Tuazon tells me about his K-beauty WW3 TikTok. He likes the app because it gives him a chance to see average kids, no matter their country of origin, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, having fun and laughing together. It’s the same for Juana Isabelle Sarenas, an 18-year-old student in Hong Kong who recently posted a video about “Cabin 6,” “the theoretical cabin where all the cool TikTok kids will end up when Trump is impeached and President Mike Pence sends queer teens to conversion-therapy summer camp.” “The LGBT community there is huge,” Sarenas says of TikTok. The jokes “don’t erase the tragic events — if anything, they use the memes to bring light to them in a humorous way. I learned more about concentration camps and other horrifying current events from TikTok than I had any other platform.” Cabin 6 memes, in general, are a pretty joyous way to react to the reality that the US vice president once advocated for allocating federal dollars to conversion therapy groups instead of HIV/AIDS patients. As many of the memes reference, conservative boomers sending a bunch of queer kids to a summer camp together seems like a great way to encourage the very sexuality those people find so repugnant. “We all know that if [Pence] tried to force people to go to camps, it would never be passed as a law,” one 16-year-old told Mel Magazine. “I just find it funny to joke about that — like summer camp with the fellow gays.” Like the rest of the internet, as much as TikTok is a place for blasé nihilism — kids self-deprecating about how ugly they are, or begging for Harry Styles to run them over — it’s also proved to be a great way of getting other people to listen. On TikTok, users don’t have to follow anyone to see videos the app thinks they might like. As on Reddit, information can come from anywhere, as long as enough people favorite it. That’s how Gem Nwanne, a 24-year-old grad student, data analyst, and activist in New York, went viral after posting a video about the city’s crackdown on subway fare evasion using the same meme format as Chloé’s. Nwanne was used to the kind of discourse that takes place in activist and academic circles on Twitter and Instagram, with long threads and jargon-y paragraphs. “It’s a little difficult to engage on Twitter because if you ask the wrong question to the wrong person ... there will be a pile-on. You’ll get kicked the shit kicked out of you,” Nwanne says with a laugh. “But with a platform like TikTok, it’s way more accessible. I’m dancing. It’s a joke. It’s a lot easier to teach or to spread an idea when people are laughing.” The subway fare video helped Nwanne gain 10,000 followers in a month on TikTok, where they continue to post videos about race, queer identity, capitalism, and leftist politics. “I think TikTok as a tool for education can be so revolutionary, and I would really love to see more people on my side of the political spectrum using it, moving away from these academic Twitter threads. Let’s meet the people where they are.” It’s much easier to see the humanity of someone whose ideas you’re hearing when you can actually see them. The dominant TikTok aesthetic is a person in their own home, alone, speaking to the camera without knowing who will end up seeing their face on their screen. It’s like YouTube — one of the most effective platforms for sharing ideas, for better or for worse — but TikToks take even less effort to produce. TikTok is “younger, and so they don’t know to be pretentious douchebags yet” “Conversations are difficult to have on Twitter or Instagram because of how reactive everybody is on those apps,” Nwanne says. “Comments on a video about the Australian fires were like, folks asking questions and people answering them. On Twitter or Instagram they’d be like, ‘How dare you ask the question?’ The community’s a lot chiller, and I do think it’s because they’re younger, and so they don’t know to be pretentious douchebags yet.” “I always compare TikTok to all of the rhymes and hand games that we played in middle school,” says Sophie Dickinson, an associate editor at Know Your Meme who covers TikTok. “The bushfires, other things that are happening now, it’s all the same jokes over and over and over again. It has to do with whatever the popular opinion is. It could be dangerous, but it’s also nice for kids to be coming together over something that might be very difficult and challenging to wrap their heads around.” It would be easy to make TikTok out to be a utopian Gen Z playground, where authenticity sells and love wins and the rest is mostly just dancing, but that’s not the whole story. Nwanne, for instance, doesn’t read their comments because they say the platform is often quite conservative — “like Facebook-lite.” The #impeachment hashtag on TikTok seems to have nearly as many earnest Trump supporters as it does people poking fun at the president using a popular Camila Cabello song. TikTok has some of the same political pitfalls as YouTube — ironic memes and jokes can seduce people into believing harmful ideologies — and its mysterious algorithm makes it such that the TikTok I see, the one with hilarious and well-meaning teens goofing off in their bedrooms, is not the same one that someone else sees. That certain songs and sounds, dances, and memes go hugely viral, and fast, also ends up with many people using those memes to spread false or extremist information. Nurse Holly, a nurse on TikTok with nearly 2 million followers, recently received major backlash when she used a popular song and video format to post a video that said the best way to prevent STDs was by waiting for sex until marriage. Even mostly harmless jokes about getting drafted for WW3 led at least some college kids to briefly panic over the idea of being forced to join the Army, even though the US hasn’t had a draft since 1973. Bad stuff has been happening in the world forever, and the internet has always been full of very funny and very sad people to make jokes out of it. TikTok is now a crucial part of that machine, one that can set the discourse in practically zero time. Whatever comes of it, Nwanne knows one thing is certain: “We’re gonna set some shit on fire on TikTok.” Sign up for The Goods’ newsletter. Twice a week, we’ll send you the best Goods stories exploring what we buy, why we buy it, and why it matters.
A Matter of Facts
With much fanfare, The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue in August to what it called the 1619 Project. The project’s aim, the magazine announced, was to reinterpret the entirety of American history. “Our democracy’s founding ideals,” its lead essay proclaimed, “were false when they were written.” Our history as a nation rests on slavery and white supremacy, whose existence made a mockery of the Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident” truth that all men are created equal. Accordingly, the nation’s birth came not in 1776 but in 1619, the year, the project stated, when slavery arrived in Britain’s North American colonies. From then on, America’s politics, economics, and culture have stemmed from efforts to subjugate African Americans—first under slavery, then under Jim Crow, and then under the abiding racial injustices that mark our own time—as well as from the struggles, undertaken for the most part by black people alone, to end that subjugation and redeem American democracy.The opportunity seized by the 1619 Project is as urgent as it is enormous. For more than two generations, historians have deepened and transformed the study of the centrality of slavery and race to American history and generated a wealth of facts and interpretations. Yet the subject, which connects the past to our current troubled times, remains too little understood by the general public. The 1619 Project proposed to fill that gap with its own interpretation.To sustain its particular take on an immense subject while also informing a wide readership is a remarkably ambitious goal, imposing, among other responsibilities, a scrupulous regard for factual accuracy. Readers expect nothing less from The New York Times, the project’s sponsor, and they deserve nothing less from an effort as profound in its intentions as the 1619 Project. During the weeks and months after the 1619 Project first appeared, however, historians, publicly and privately, began expressing alarm over serious inaccuracies.[Adam Serwer: The fight over the 1619 Project is not about the facts]On December 20, the Times Magazine published a letter that I signed with four other historians—Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood. Our letter applauded the project’s stated aim to raise public awareness and understanding of slavery’s central importance in our history. Although the project is not a conventional work of history and cannot be judged as such, the letter intended to help ensure that its efforts did not come at the expense of basic accuracy. Offering practical support to that end, it pointed out specific statements that, if allowed to stand, would misinform the public and give ammunition to those who might be opposed to the mission of grappling with the legacy of slavery. The letter requested that the Times print corrections of the errors that had already appeared, and that it keep those errors from appearing in any future materials published with the Times’ imprimatur, including the school curricula the newspaper announced it was developing in conjunction with the project.The letter has provoked considerable reaction, some of it from historians affirming our concerns about the 1619 Project’s inaccuracies, some from historians questioning our motives in pointing out those inaccuracies, and some from the Times itself. In the newspaper’s lengthy formal response, the New York Times Magazine editor in chief, Jake Silverstein, flatly denied that the project “contains significant factual errors” and said that our request for corrections was not “warranted.” Silverstein then offered new evidence to support claims that our letter had described as groundless. In the interest of historical accuracy, it is worth examining his denials and new claims in detail.No effort to educate the public in order to advance social justice can afford to dispense with a respect for basic facts. In the long and continuing battle against oppression of every kind, an insistence on plain and accurate facts has been a powerful tool against propaganda that is widely accepted as truth. That tool is far too important to cede now.My colleagues and I focused on the project’s discussion of three crucial subjects: the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the long history of resistance to racism from Jim Crow to the present. No effort to reframe American history can succeed if it fails to provide accurate accounts of these subjects.The project’s lead essay, written by the Times staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, includes early on a discussion of the Revolution. Although that discussion is brief, its conclusions are central to the essay’s overarching contention that slavery and racism are the foundations of American history. The essay argues that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” That is a striking claim built on three false assertions.“By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere,” Hannah-Jones wrote. But apart from the activity of the pioneering abolitionist Granville Sharp, Britain was hardly conflicted at all in 1776 over its involvement in the slave system. Sharp played a key role in securing the 1772 Somerset v. Stewart ruling, which declared that chattel slavery was not recognized in English common law. That ruling did little, however, to reverse Britain’s devotion to human bondage, which lay almost entirely in its colonial slavery and its heavy involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. Nor did it generate a movement inside Britain in opposition to either slavery or the slave trade. As the historian Christopher Leslie Brown writes in his authoritative study of British abolitionism, Moral Capital, Sharp “worked tirelessly against the institution of slavery everywhere within the British Empire after 1772, but for many years in England he would stand nearly alone.” What Hannah-Jones described as a perceptible British threat to American slavery in 1776 in fact did not exist.“In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade,” Hannah-Jones continued. But the movement in London to abolish the slave trade formed only in 1787, largely inspired, as Brown demonstrates in great detail, by American antislavery opinion that had arisen in the 1760s and ’70s. There were no “growing calls” in London to abolish the trade as early as 1776.“This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South,” Hannah-Jones wrote. But the colonists had themselves taken decisive steps to end the Atlantic slave trade from 1769 to 1774. During that time, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island either outlawed the trade or imposed prohibitive duties on it. Measures to abolish the trade also won approval in Massachusetts, Delaware, New York, and Virginia, but were denied by royal officials. The colonials’ motives were not always humanitarian: Virginia, for example, had more enslaved black people than it needed to sustain its economy and saw the further importation of Africans as a threat to social order. But the Americans who attempted to end the trade did not believe that they were committing economic suicide.Assertions that a primary reason the Revolution was fought was to protect slavery are as inaccurate as the assertions, still current, that southern secession and the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. In his reply to our letter, though, Silverstein ignored the errors we had specified and then imputed to the essay a very different claim. In place of Hannah-Jones’s statement that “the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain … because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery,” Silverstein substituted “that uneasiness among slaveholders in the colonies about growing antislavery sentiment in Britain and increasing imperial regulation helped motivate the Revolution.” Silverstein makes a large concession here about the errors in Hannah-Jones’s essay without acknowledging that he has done so. There is a notable gap between the claim that the defense of slavery was a chief reason behind the colonists’ drive for independence and the claim that concerns about slavery among a particular group, the slaveholders, “helped motivate the Revolution.”But even the evidence proffered in support of this more restricted claim—which implicitly cedes the problem with the original assertion—fails to hold up to scrutiny. Silverstein pointed to the Somerset case, in which, as I’ve noted, a British high court ruled that English common law did not support chattel slavery. Even though the decision did not legally threaten slavery in the colonies, Silverstein wrote, it caused a “sensation” when reported in colonial newspapers and “slavery joined other issues in helping to gradually drive apart the patriots and their colonial governments.”In fact, the Somerset ruling caused no such sensation. In the entire slaveholding South, a total of six newspapers—one in Maryland, two in Virginia, and three in South Carolina—published only 15 reports about Somerset, virtually all of them very brief. Coverage was spotty: The two South Carolina newspapers that devoted the most space to the case didn’t even report its outcome. American newspaper readers learned far more about the doings of the queen of Denmark, George III’s sister Caroline, whom Danish rebels had charged with having an affair with the court physician and plotting the death of her husband. A pair of Boston newspapers gave the Somerset decision prominent play; otherwise, most of the coverage appeared in the tiny-font foreign dispatches placed on the second or third page of a four- or six-page issue.Above all, the reportage was almost entirely matter-of-fact, betraying no fear of incipient tyranny. A London correspondent for one New York newspaper did predict, months in advance of the actual ruling, that the case “will occasion a greater ferment in America (particularly in the islands) than the Stamp Act,” but that forecast fell flat. Some recent studies have conjectured that the Somerset ruling must have intensely riled southern slaveholders, and word of the decision may well have encouraged enslaved Virginians about the prospects of their gaining freedom, which could have added to slaveholders’ constant fears of insurrection. Actual evidence, however, that the Somerset decision jolted the slaveholders into fearing an abolitionist Britain—let alone to the extent that it can be considered a leading impetus to declaring independence—is less than scant.Slaveholders and their defenders in the West Indies, to be sure, were more exercised, producing a few proslavery pamphlets that strongly denounced the decision. Even so, as Trevor Burnard’s comprehensive study of Jamaica in the age of the American Revolution observes, “Somerset had less impact in the West Indies than might have been expected.” Which is not to say that the Somerset ruling had no effect at all in the British colonies, including those that would become the United States. In the South, it may have contributed, over time, to amplifying the slaveholders’ mistrust of overweening imperial power, although the mistrust dated back to the Stamp Act crisis in 1765. In the North, meanwhile, where newspaper coverage of Somerset was far more plentiful than in the South, the ruling’s principles became a reference point for antislavery lawyers and lawmakers, an important development in the history of early antislavery politics.In addition to the Somerset ruling, Silverstein referred to a proclamation from 1775 by John Murray, the fourth earl of Dunmore and royal governor of Virginia, as further evidence that fears about British antislavery sentiment pushed the slaveholders to support independence. Unfortunately, his reference was inaccurate: Dunmore’s proclamation pointedly did not offer freedom “to any enslaved person who fled his plantation,” as Silverstein claimed. In declaring martial law in Virginia, the proclamation offered freedom only to those held by rebel slaveholders. Tory slaveholders could keep their enslaved people. This was a cold and calculated political move. The proclamation, far from fomenting an American rebellion, presumed a rebellion had already begun. Dunmore, himself an unapologetic slaveholder—he would end his career as the royal governor of the Bahamas, overseeing an attempt to establish a cotton slavery regime on the islands—aimed to alarm and disrupt the patriots, free their human property to bolster his army, and incite fears of a wider uprising by enslaved people. His proclamation was intended as an act of war, not a blow against the institution of slavery, and everyone understood it as such.[Sanford Levinson: The Constitution is the crisis]Dunmore’s proclamation (unlike the Somerset decision three years earlier) certainly touched off an intense panic among Virginia slaveholders, Tory and patriot alike, who were horror-struck that it might spark a general insurrection, as the groundbreaking historian Benjamin Quarles showed many years ago. To the hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children who escaped to Dunmore’s lines, the governor was unquestionably, as Richard Henry Lee disparagingly remarked, the “African hero.” To the 300 formerly enslaved black men who joined what the governor called Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, outfitted with uniforms emblazoned with the slogan “Liberty to slaves,” he was a redeemer.The spectacle likely stiffened the resolve for independence among the rebel patriots whom Dunmore singled out, but they were already rebels. The proclamation may conceivably have persuaded some Tory slaveholders to switch sides, or some who remained on the fence. It would have done so, however, because Dunmore, exploiting the Achilles’ heel of any slaveholding society, posed a direct and immediate threat to lives and property (which included, under Virginia law, enslaved persons), not because he affirmed slaveholders’ fears of “growing antislavery sentiment in Britain.” The offer of freedom in a single colony to persons enslaved by men who had already joined the patriots’ ranks—after a decade of mounting sentiment for independence, and after the American rebellion had commenced—cannot be held up as evidence that the slaveholder colonists wanted to separate from Britain to protect the institution of slavery.To back up his argument that Dunmore’s proclamation, against the backdrop of a supposed British antislavery outpouring, was a catalyst for the Revolution, Silverstein seized upon a quotation not from a Virginian, but from a South Carolinian, Edward Rutledge, who was observing the events at a distance, from Philadelphia. “A member of South Carolina’s delegation to the Continental Congress wrote that this act did more to sever the ties between Britain and its colonies ‘than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of,’” Silverstein wrote.Although he would become the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rutledge, a hyper-cautious patriot, was torn, late in 1775, about whether the time was yet ripe to move forward with a formal separation from Britain. By early December, while serving his state in the Continental Congress, he had moved toward finally declaring independence, in response to various events that had expanded the Americans’ rebellion, including the American invasion of Canada; news of George III’s refusal to consider the Continental Congress’s petition for reconciliation; the British burning of the town of Falmouth, Maine; and, most recently, Dunmore’s proclamation, full news of which was only just reaching Philadelphia.In a private letter explaining his evolving thoughts, Rutledge described the proclamation as “tending in my judgment, more effectively to work an eternal separation” between Britain and America “than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of.” By quoting only the second half of that statement, Silverstein altered its meaning, turning Rutledge’s personal and speculative observation into conclusive proof of a sweeping claim.This is not the only flaw in Silverstein’s discussion. He seems unaware that, in the end, Rutledge himself was not sufficiently moved by Dunmore’s proclamation to support independence, and he rather notoriously led the opposition inside the Congress before switching at the last minute on July 1, 1776. Moreover, a man whom John Adams had earlier described as “a Swallow—a Sparrow—a Peacock; excessively vain, excessively weak, and excessively variable and unsteady—jejune, inane, & puerile” may not be the most reliable source.To buttress his case, Silverstein also quoted the historian Jill Lepore: “Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston: rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.” But Silverstein’s claim about Dunmore’s proclamation and the coming of independence is no more convincing when it turns up, almost identically, in a book by a distinguished authority; Lepore also relies on a foreshortened version of the Rutledge quote, presenting it as evidence of what the proclamation actually did, rather than as one man’s expectation as to what it would do. As for Silverstein’s main contention, meanwhile, neither Lepore nor Rutledge said anything about the colonists’ fear of growing antislavery sentiment in Britain.Only the Civil War surpasses the Revolution in its importance to American history with respect to slavery and racism. Yet here again, particularly with regard to the ideas and actions of Abraham Lincoln, Hannah-Jones’s argument is built on partial truths and misstatements of the facts, which combine to impart a fundamentally misleading impression.The essay chooses to examine Lincoln within the context of a meeting he called at the White House with five prominent black men from Washington, D.C., in August 1862, during which Lincoln told the visitors of his long-held support for the colonization of free black people, encouraging them voluntarily to participate in a tentative experimental colony. Hannah-Jones wrote that this meeting was “one of the few times that black people had ever been invited to the White House as guests”; in fact, it was the first such occasion. The essay says that Lincoln “was weighing a proclamation that threatened to emancipate all enslaved people in the states that had seceded from the Union,” but that he “worried about what the consequences of this radical step would be,” because he “believed that free black people were a ‘troublesome presence’ incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people.”In fact, Lincoln had already decided a month earlier to issue a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation with no contingency of colonization, and was only awaiting a military victory, which came in September at Antietam. And Lincoln had supported and signed the act that emancipated the slaves in D.C. in June, again with no imperative of colonization—the consummation of his emancipation proposal from 1849, when he was a member of the House of Representatives.Not only was Lincoln’s support for emancipation not contingent on colonization, but his pessimism was echoed by some black abolitionists who enthusiastically endorsed black colonization, including the early pan-Africanist Martin Delany (favorably quoted elsewhere by Hannah-Jones) and the well-known minister Henry Highland Garnet, as well as, for a time, Frederick Douglass’s sons Lewis and Charles Douglass. And Lincoln’s views on colonization were evolving. Soon enough, as his secretary, John Hay, put it, Lincoln “sloughed off” the idea of colonization, which Hay called a “hideous & barbarous humbug.”But this Lincoln is not visible in Hannah-Jones’s essay. “Like many white Americans,” she wrote, Lincoln “opposed slavery as a cruel system at odds with American ideals, but he also opposed black equality.” This elides the crucial difference between Lincoln and the white supremacists who opposed him. Lincoln asserted on many occasions, most notably during his famous debates with the racist Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, that the Declaration of Independence’s famous precept that “all men are created equal” was a human universal that applied to black people as well as white people. Like the majority of white Americans of his time, including many radical abolitionists, Lincoln harbored the belief that white people were socially superior to black people. He insisted, however, that “in the right to eat the bread without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, [the Negro] is my equal, and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every other man.” To state flatly, as Hannah-Jones’s essay does, that Lincoln “opposed black equality” is to deny the very basis of his opposition to slavery.Nor was Lincoln, who had close relations with the free black people of Springfield, Illinois, and represented a number of them as clients, known to treat black people as inferior. After meeting with Lincoln at the White House, Sojourner Truth, the black abolitionist, said that he “showed as much respect and kindness to the coloured persons present as to the white,” and that she “never was treated by any one with more kindness and cordiality” than “by that great and good man.” In his first meeting with Lincoln, Frederick Douglass wrote, the president greeted him “just as you have seen one gentleman receive another, with a hand and voice well-balanced between a kind cordiality and a respectful reserve.” Lincoln addressed him as “Mr. Douglass” as he encouraged his visitor to spread word in the South of the Emancipation Proclamation and to help recruit and organize black troops. Perhaps this is why in his response, instead of repeating the claim that Lincoln “opposed black equality,” Silverstein asserted that Lincoln “was ambivalent about full black citizenship.”[Michael Gerhardt and Jeffrey Rosen: How to revive Madison’s constitution]Did Lincoln believe that free black people were a “troublesome presence”? That phrase comes from an 1852 eulogy he delivered in honor of Henry Clay, describing Clay’s views of colonization and free black people. Lincoln did not use those words in his 1862 meeting or on any occasion other than the eulogy. And Lincoln did not believe that the United States was “a democracy intended only for white people.” On the contrary, in his stern opposition to the Supreme Court’s racist Dred Scott v. Sandford decision in 1857, he made a point of noting that, at the time the Constitution was ratified, five of the 13 states gave free black men the right to vote, a fact that helped explode Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s contention that black people had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”To be sure, on this subject as on many others, one could easily cherry-pick isolated episodes from Lincoln’s long career to portray him very differently. As a first-term Illinois state legislator, in a display of party loyalty, Lincoln voted in favor of a sham, highly partisan Whig resolution against black suffrage in the state, introduced as a campaign gambit before the 1836 election against the Democrats who had enacted a restrictive black code. More than 20 years later, in 1859, fending off racist demagogy about his antislavery politics, he carefully denied a charge that he was proposing to give voting rights to black men, while still upholding black people’s human rights. But Lincoln fully recognized the political inclusion of free black people in several states at the nation’s founding, and he lamented how most of those states had either abridged or rescinded black voting rights in the intervening decades. Far from agreeing with Taney and others that American democracy was intended to be for white people only, Lincoln rejected the claim, citing simple and unimpeachable facts.As president, moreover, Lincoln acted on his beliefs, taking enormous political and, as it turned out, personal risks. In March 1864, as he approached a difficult reelection campaign, Lincoln asked the Union war governor of Louisiana to establish the beginning of black suffrage in a new state constitution, “to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom.” A year later, in his final speech, Lincoln publicly broached the subject of enlarging black enfranchisement, which was the final incitement to a member of the crowd, John Wilkes Booth, to assassinate him.Silverstein acknowledged that Hannah-Jones’s essay presented a partial account of Lincoln’s ideas about abolition and racial equality, but excused the imbalance because the essay covered so much ground. “Admittedly, in an essay that covered several centuries and ranged from the personal to the historical, she did not set out to explore in full his continually shifting ideas about abolition and the rights of black Americans,” he wrote. In fact, throughout the essay’s lengthy discussion of Lincoln and colonization, what Silverstein called Lincoln’s “attitudes” are frozen in time, remote from political difficulties. Still, Silverstein contended, Hannah-Jones’s essay “provides an important historical lesson by simply reminding the public, which tends to view Lincoln as a saint, that for much of his career, he believed that a necessary prerequisite for freedom would be a plan to encourage the four million formerly enslaved people to leave the country.” Whether or not the public still regards Lincoln as a saint, a myth cannot be corrected by a distorted view. As Silverstein himself acknowledged, “At the end of his life, Lincoln’s racial outlook had evolved considerably in the direction of real equality.”Moving beyond the Civil War, the essay briefly examined the history of Reconstruction, the long and bleak period of Jim Crow, and the resistance that led to the rise of the modern civil-rights movement. “For the most part,” Hannah-Jones wrote, “black Americans fought back alone.”This is the third claim that my colleagues and I criticized, and although it covers the longest period of the three, it can be dealt with most directly. Before, during, and after the Civil War, some white people were always an integral part of the fight for racial equality. From lethal assaults on white southern “scalawags” for opposing white supremacy during Reconstruction through resistance to segregation led by the biracial NAACP through the murders of civil-rights workers, white and black, during the Freedom Summer, in 1964, and in Selma, Alabama, a year later, liberal and radical white people have stood up for racial equality. A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the modern civil-rights movement, stated in his speech at the March on Washington, in 1963, “This civil-rights revolution is not confined to the Negro, nor is it confined to civil rights, for our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not.”Silverstein, in his reply, observed that civil-rights advances “have almost always come as a result of political and social struggles in which African-Americans have generally taken the lead.” But when it comes to African Americans’ struggles for their own freedom and civil rights, this is not what Hannah-Jones’s essay asserted.The specific criticisms of the 1619 Project that my colleagues and I raised in our letter, and the dispute that has ensued, are not about historical trajectories or the intractability of racism or anything other than the facts—the errors contained in the 1619 Project as well as, now, the errors in Silverstein’s response to our letter. We wholeheartedly support the stated goal to educate widely on slavery and its long-term consequences. Our letter attempted to advance that goal, one that, no matter how the history is interpreted and related, cannot be forwarded through falsehoods, distortions, and significant omissions. Allowing these shortcomings to stand uncorrected would only make it easier for critics hostile to the overarching mission to malign it for their own ideological and partisan purposes, as some had already begun to do well before we wrote our letter.Taking care of the facts is, I believe, all the more important in light of current political realities. The New York Times has taken a lead in combatting the degradation of truth and assault on a free press propagated by Donald Trump’s White House, aided and abetted by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and spun by the far right on social media. American democracy is in a perilous condition, and the Times can report on that danger only by upholding its standards “without fear or favor.” That is why it is so important that lapses such as those pointed out in our letter receive attention and timely correction. When describing history, more is at stake than the past.No historian better expressed this point, as part of the broader imperative for factual historical accuracy, than W. E. B. Du Bois. In Black Reconstruction in America, published in 1935, Du Bois challenged a reigning school of American historians working under the tutelage and guidance of William Archibald Dunning of Columbia University. The Dunning School, coupled with a broader current of Lost Cause defenders, produced works that characterized Reconstruction as vicious and vindictive, imposing the rule of corrupt and ignorant black people on a stricken postwar South. Those works, Du Bois understood, helped perpetuate racial oppression. Part of the genius of Black Reconstruction in America lay in Du Bois’s ability to mount a commanding counterinterpretation built on basic facts that the Dunning School had ignored or suppressed about the experiment in democratic government during Reconstruction and how it was overthrown and eventually replaced with Jim Crow.In exposing the falsehoods of his racist adversaries, Du Bois became the upholder of plain, provable fact against what he saw as the Dunning School’s propagandistic story line. Du Bois repeatedly pointed out the “deliberate contradiction of plain facts.” Time and again in Black Reconstruction, he appealed to the facts against one or another false interpretation: “the plain, authentic facts of our history … perfectly clear and authenticated facts … the very cogency of my facts … the whole body of facts … certain quite well-known facts that are irreconcilable with this theory of history.” Only by carefully marshaling the facts was Du Bois able to establish the truth about Reconstruction. Indifference to the facts or their sloppy deployment, he argued, could lead and had led even intelligent scholars into “wide error.” Du Bois’s lesson should not be lost.
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