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The Atlantic
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The Atlantic
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The Defense Department Is Leaderless Again
Patrick Shanahan spent an unprecedented five and a half months as acting defense secretary—only to be forced to withdraw from consideration for the post today, leaving the Department of Defense with yet another acting secretary at the helm.During Shanahan’s longest audition he had to manage a massive bureaucracy undergoing epochal change while juggling responses to the world’s hotspots and responding to a mercurial boss.His quest to get the job on a permanent basis was ultimately cut short after reports surfaced of domestic violence within Shanahan’s family.In a statement calling his Defense Department service a “deep honor and privilege,” Shanahan explained why he couldn’t continue. “After having been confirmed for Deputy Secretary less than two years ago, it is unfortunate that a painful and deeply personal family situation from long ago is being dredged up and painted in an incomplete and therefore misleading way in the course of this process,” the statement said. “I believe my continuing in the confirmation process would force my three children to relive a traumatic chapter in our family's life and reopen wounds we have worked years to heal.”[Read: Patrick Shanahan’s endless limbo]Announcing Shanahan’s withdrawal, President Donald Trump said in a pair of tweets that the former Boeing executive had decided to “devote more time to his family,” thanked him for his “outstanding service” and announced that Army Secretary Mark Esper would now serve as acting secretary of defense. The announcement came with no formal nomination of Esper for the post, meaning the Defense Department remains without a permanent head even as the U.S. faces a growing confrontation with Iran and dispatches more troops to the Middle East.Shanahan, who previously served as deputy to then-Defense Secretary James Mattis, took over the department after Mattis abruptly resigned when Trump announced he would pull all U.S. troops out of Syria, over Mattis’s objections. Trump ultimately agreed to leave a residual force of a few hundred troops there, but in the meantime, Shanahan’s efforts to defend the withdrawal earned him early skepticism from lawmakers. Senator Lindsey Graham, for one, told reporters that he had told Shanahan if the plan to completely withdraw were carried out, “I am now your adversary, not your friend.”He faced skepticism or outright trouble, too, for Trump initiatives such as military funding of a border wall and the creation of a “space force,” the latter of which several lawmakers said would create unnecessary and expensive bureaucracy. In contrast to Mattis, who had a reputation as a warrior-intellectual, Shanahan seemed to struggle answering questions in congressional hearings. Also unlike Mattis, he had no background to speak of in foreign policy or defense affairs.It took Trump a full five months to announce he intended to nominate Shanahan to fill the role, much to the relief of Senate lawmakers who were growing impatient to have a permanent defense secretary. Trump’s hesitation reportedly stemmed in part from Shanahan’s three-decade career at Boeing, which was then dominating the headlines over two separate crashes of its model 737 MAX 8 plane. (Shanahan worked on a different program while at Boeing, but his reported reputation in Trump’s eyes as “the Boeing guy” complicated his prospects.)[Read: Trump’s end run around Senate cabinet confirmation]Yet a month after Trump said Shanahan was the pick, he still hadn’t sent his nomination to Congress. Reports surfaced that Trump might be souring on his pick and looking for alternatives—another suggested that paperwork was to blame.In the end, though, it was a harrowing personal story that made his continued service untenable. The Washington Post reported that his wife had punched him and his son had beaten his wife with a baseball bat; his wife had told police that he had punched her in the stomach, though he denied that. Shanahan’s statement said: “I would welcome the opportunity to be Secretary of Defense, but not at the expense of being a good father.”
7 h
World Edition - The Atlantic
When Egypt Needed a Leader, It Got a Functionary
Mohamed Morsi’s life, especially his later life, was the product of a series of accidents. When I first met him, he was a senior but relatively obscure and not particularly important official in the Muslim Brotherhood—and one could easily imagine him staying that way. He was loyalist, a functionary, and an enforcer. Then he became something else: Egypt’s first democratically elected president—and also the last, at least for the foreseeable future. Visionary leaders sometimes emerge during moments of crisis and transition. But just as often, it is ordinary men and women who find themselves in the midst of historical events, both shaping them and being shaped by them. Morsi, who died in a Cairo courtroom Monday, was elected in 2012 and deposed in a military coup a year later. He was many, but not all, of the things his critics derided him for. He wasn’t what you would call charismatic. He was not a strategic thinker. He seemed a man particularly unsuited for the responsibility bestowed upon him. In retrospect, knowing what they know now, many in the Brotherhood—in prison, in exile, in hiding—would wish that the organization’s leadership had never opted to field a presidential candidate. But this had little to do with Morsi. Morsi wasn’t meant to be president.The Brotherhood’s original candidate for president was the businessman Khairat al-Shater, towering in his physical presence, preternaturally confident, and perhaps overwhelmed by ambition. Some called him Egypt’s most powerful man. He was disqualified from running based on a legal technicality. Like so many other things, this, for the group, seemed to confirm that the military sought to block the Brotherhood’s rise by any means necessary. And so Morsi, derided in the Egyptian media as Shater’s “spare tire,” became the accidental candidate and then the accidental president. When I sat down with Morsi back in May 2010, longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak was still in office, and the kind of uprising that could force him out seemed implausible. At that point, Morsi insisted the Brotherhood had no interest in power and even objected to the use of the word “opposition” to describe the group. Repression was intensifying, and political space was closing years after the brief promise of the (first) Arab Spring in 2004 and 2005. The November 2010 parliamentary elections were arguably the most fraudulent in the country’s history, with the Brotherhood being reduced from 88 seats to 0. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood seemed deflated but not necessarily in despair. They were playing the long game, which is what the Brotherhood always preferred to play. To be tempted by power, on the other hand, led them, and ultimately Morsi himself, into a series of missteps and miscalculations.The campaign for president in the spring of 2012 took place in a chaotic, uncertain Egypt. Though burdened by a weak candidate, and with only two months to campaign, Brotherhood activists fanned across the country, promoting Morsi’s so-called “renaissance project” (which, before it, was Shater’s “renaissance project”). In one coordinated show of strength, they held 24 simultaneous mass rallies across the country in a single day. At one rally, I asked a young Brotherhood activist if he was enthusiastic about Morsi. He smiled and then laughed.It was easy to dismiss Morsi then, and it will be easy to dismiss him now, as a footnote in history. Buried without fanfare and under the glare of a near-totalitarian state—the most repressive in Egypt’s history—it will be easy to forget. But the brief 12 months in which he found himself in power was an unusual time for Egypt. Morsi was incompetent, polarizing, and managed to alienate nearly everyone outside the Brotherhood. Ultimately, he and the Muslim Brotherhood failed. But he was not a fascist or a new pharaoh, as his opponents liked to claim. In a previous piece for The Atlantic, a colleague and I scored Morsi’s one year in power using the Polity IV index, one of the most widely used empirical measures of autocracy and democracy, and then compared it to other cases. We concluded that “decades of transitions show that Morsi, while inept and majoritarian, was no more autocratic than a typical transitional leader and was more democratic than other leaders during societal transitions.”But to keep the focus narrowly on Morsi, as a person or as a president, is to miss something important, and that something has become clearer to me in the five years since we wrote that piece. That year may have witnessed unprecedented polarization, fear, and uncertainty, but it was the freest, in relative terms, that Egypt had been since its independence in 1952. Egyptians were shouting, protesting, striking, and hoping, both for and against Morsi. This, of course, is also what made it frightening: the freewheeling intellectual combat, the seemingly endless sparring of ideas and individuals, but also the sheer sense of openness (and the insecurity that came with it). No other period, or even year, comes close. This was not because of Morsi, but because Egypt—with the help of millions of Egyptians—was trying to become a democracy, albeit a flawed one. And Morsi himself, also deeply flawed, was a product of that brief experiment. To remember Morsi, then, is to remember what was lost.
9 h
World Edition - The Atlantic
Trump Can’t Relaunch a Campaign That Never Stopped
How many times can Donald Trump announce his 2020 campaign? At least five, by my count.The president is traveling to Orlando, Florida, on Tuesday for what news outlets are calling a rally to “officially” or “formally” launch his reelection bid. It’s hard to know what those adverbs mean. Not only is this not the first time Trump has said he was starting his campaign, but he never really stopped campaigning in the first place.If anything was official, it came on January 20, 2017, when, within hours of his inauguration, Trump filed documents with the Federal Election Commission to run for reelection. By then, he’d already told The Washington Post about his slogan for the reelection campaign: “Keep America Great.”Just 29 days later, Trump threw the first rally of his reelection campaign. It’s probably not a coincidence that that rally was also in the crucial swing state of Florida—in Melbourne, about an hour from Orlando. There’s nothing all that unusual about a president hosting a rally; what was unusual was that Trump was advertising and paying for the event through his campaign, a decision that perplexed campaign-law experts I spoke to at the time. Some presidents have opted to separate events that are baldly political from those that are more presidential, but Trump doesn’t bother with that. (See, for example, his attacks on Speaker Nancy Pelosi in front of graves at Normandy, or his swipes at Joe Biden while in Japan.)[Read: Trump is kicking off his reelection campaign 29 days into his presidency.]The president continued to host sporadic campaign-style rallies over the next year. Then, in March 2018, while House Republicans were scrambling to hold back a burgeoning Democratic wave, Trump decided to pitch in for the effort by … announcing his new slogan for the 2020 race. Only it was the same slogan he’d previewed to the Post in January 2017. (This did not prevent the media from dutifully reporting he had unveiled a new slogan.)Two months later, in May 2018, Trump once again presented the slogan as a brand new reveal. “By the way, this is the first, for Indiana,” he said. “Our new slogan for 2020. You know what it is? ‘Keep America Great.’ Because we’re doing so well that in another two years when we start the heavy campaign, ‘Make America Great Again’ wouldn’t work out too well.” Reporters once again gave him credit for novelty. Six months later, Trump’s allies were whomped at the polls. Meanwhile, his reelection campaign has rolled on, with Orlando its latest stop.When Trump went to Florida in February 2017, I identified it as an example of the “permanent campaign”—a notion dating to the 1980s and since ensconced, in which officeholders maintain some of the methods and tactics of the campaign while remaining in office, from rallies to poll-testing. It’s a staple for every president now. Bill Clinton, the president most associated with the permanent campaign, had the earliest “official” launch in recent memory, according to NPR—but Trump will edge him by three days.But labeling Trump’s rally a part of the permanent campaign turned out not to be prescient so much as an egregious understatement. The point of a campaign launch used to be to signal that the period of governing—of passing legislation and enacting policy—was largely wrapping up, and that the focus would shift back to electoral politics. In the permanent-campaign paradigm, a president would run a policy track and a politics track in parallel.[Read: ‘Keep America Great’ and the power of the small lie]Trump has fully unified them. He can’t turn backto campaigning from governing, because he never really bothered to start governing in the first place. With the exception of cutting taxes and especially building a wall on the Mexican border, he’s never shown much interest in learning how the levers of power work or in using them. Where Obama held rallies in early 2009 to support the passage of his health-care bill, Trump held rallies in early 2017 for the purpose of being reelected nearly four years later.The problem with skating from crisis to crisis with few accomplishments to show for it is that, eventually, the public becomes fatigued. There are signs of growing public boredom with Trump. A newsy, blockbuster interview with George Stephanopoulos this past weekend drew disappointing ratings. New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger has noted declining reader interest in political news. The president’s outlandish remarks generally make a smaller splash than they once did. He seems to have tried to compensate for that by tweeting more, but the result is something like inflation in a market flooded with currency: Every tweet is less valuable.As the incumbent, Trump enjoys advantages he did not in 2016, but his most important political tool remains his ability to control the discourse. With other methods losing some potency, repeated campaign launches—aided by obligingly credulous coverage—are one way to generate attention. If today’s event draws enough coverage, maybe he’ll officially launch his campaign a few more times. But sooner or later, campaign launches will have to give way to new methods of attracting attention, which are likely to be less decorous than elaborate campaign rallies.
9 h
World Edition - The Atlantic
The End of an American College
Like most other colleges across the country, Newbury College in Brookline, Massachusetts, held classes through the end of this past spring semester and then bid farewell to cap-and-gown-wearing seniors. But unlike almost every other college, those classes, and that farewell, were the school’s last: Newbury officially ceased operations at the end of May.One of the first sources to publicly confirm the long-rumored closure was the president’s blog, where the news was shared last December. “It is with a heavy heart,” the school’s president, Joseph Chillo, wrote, “that I announce our intention to commence the closing of Newbury College, this institution we love so dearly.”After that announcement, which was also blasted out in an email, hundreds of students—about 25 percent, according to Chillo—decided to not even come back to campus for the spring semester. But for the hundreds who did—as well as their professors who stuck around—life on campus had already flatlined by the time they returned in January. As the light-pink blossoms began to sprout from the campus’s weeping cherry trees, Newbury’s nearly eight acres of Georgian-style buildings felt like a shadow of the school it’d been just a few months prior. It was no longer the college that Deborah Mael, an English professor who taught at the institution for most of its existence, remembered; the benches where her now-adult daughters had sat as kids remained empty, as did the dorms where they had relished the opportunity to hang out with older girls.The dining hall, typically so crowded during peak lunch hours that the lines would snake out onto the neatly manicured quad, was too quiet to enjoy. The gym, which used to resonate with the clanks of athletes at weight machines and the thuds of runners on treadmills, felt abandoned, too. Faculty offices were hollowed out. Classroom attendance was abysmal. Enrollment plummeted from a little more than 600 before the closure announcement to almost half that. “It hasn’t been much of a dwindling,” Mallory Stefan, who just finished her junior year at Newbury and plans to complete her degree at nearby Lasell College, in Newton, told me in April at a Dunkin’ Donuts, where she was studying for finals before heading off to her part-time job. Rather, “it’s pretty much just been a drop-off.”Stefan on Newbury’s campus in Brookline, MA. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)Could anything have been done to prevent this ending? “Yes, we should’ve been doing online,” Chillo told me, alluding to the kinds of new-revenue tactics explored by many similar colleges. “Yes, we should’ve been developing a graduate program.“Fundamentally, though,” Chillo continued, “there was no money for that investment.”Many students and faculty described the news of the 57-year-old college’s closure as simultaneously shocking and predictable, a dissonance that few had the words to describe. “I think I sensed it [was coming],” Joshua Humphries, one of the 111 members of Newbury’s graduating class, told me. “But I never connected the dots.” In many ways, a college’s closure plays out like a business liquidation—the employees get their severance packages, the property goes on the market, the customers are told to move on.But students and faculty suggested that a college closure cuts even deeper—that the raw pain and the stakes involved in such a shutdown are compounded by the fact that Newbury was also home. And Newbury welcomed many of its students when few other schools would: Compared with nearby private, liberal-arts institutions, Newbury’s students were more likely to be poor, identify as people of color, and/or have parents who did not attend college themselves. (Seventy percent of Newbury’s undergraduates were, according to Chillo, first-generation college students.) For these reasons, the closure feels personal, more like a breakup than a liquidation. The shuttering is for some “a proxy for [their] sense of self-worth,” Mael told me.Texts between Newbury students after finding out about the school closing.Students I spoke with described a grieving process after hearing the news that went from shock to panic, curiosity to nostalgia, heartbreak to acceptance. Stefan, who’s from the Denver area and had finished her finals early last December, was on a cruise celebrating her 21st birthday when news of the closure broke, oblivious due to her lack of reception. Upon returning to shore, her phone lit up with texts from her friends and bosses. Stefan, who’d held a host of roles on campus during her three years at Newbury—an athlete on three sports teams, an RA, and a work-study employee in admissions, to name a few—started applying to other colleges as soon as she got home. She proceeded to spend her entire winter break obsessing—and often crying—over her next steps. “Every day I was like, Oh my God—what am I going to do?!” Stefan recalled. “Newbury was my home away from home.”As tends to be the case with unanticipated breakups, students and faculty acknowledge that, in retrospect, there were obvious signs that a demise was long in the making. Among the most obvious: the revelation last summer that New England’s college-accrediting agency had put the school on probation for its failure to fulfill certain financial criteria. But many of the students who do recall picking up on the school’s deterioration likely relegated those observations to the back burner as they focused on papers and projects, Pell grant applications and part-time jobs.Plus, during Newbury’s final chapter, the school almost seemed to be in its prime, reminiscent of its heyday in the 1980s, when it was the largest two-year postsecondary institution in the United States. Newbury owed its onetime glory to a relatively obscure entrepreneur named Ed Tassinari, who in the early 1960s had founded Newbury in Boston’s fashionable Back Bay neighborhood, branding it as a business-oriented school. Tassinari over the years rejiggered that model, including converting the school to a four-year institution, and established Newbury—both the main campus and the series of satellite campuses that he subsequently acquired—as a pipeline to jobs throughout the Boston region.In recent years, the school had expanded its NCAA Division III offerings. A brand-new men’s lacrosse program, announced in 2017, had been slated to launch this past spring, with a head coach appointed last year. Many of its existing teams had been getting better and better, some making it to the New England Conference championships. This past school year’s freshman class was one of Newbury’s largest, too; the college had to hire more residence staff and rent land from a nearby college to accommodate the growth. Art exhibits, club posters, and event flyers covered the new student center’s walls. In his blog, Chillo touted Newbury’s new degrees, study-abroad programs, business partnerships, and construction projects.Which is in large part why the closure announcement blindsided students. “When I got the email, I was like, What is happening?” said Humphries, the recent graduate. “When I sent it to my friends, in a group chat, everybody was like, What the heck? Like, how? What is going on? We were all just confused.”Stefan felt similarly. “We were literally having our best year,” she said. “It was just on the up-and-up—and then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.”Looking back, higher-education experts—including Chillo—say the school first started having troubles when it began granting bachelor’s degrees. It couldn’t compete in a market already saturated with four-year colleges—the greater Boston area alone is home to more than 50 such institutions, according to one analysis of the metropolitan’s core and neighboring cities and towns.National trends, too, signaled a coming reckoning. In 2011, just a few years after the economy had tanked, the writer and professor of business administration Clayton Christensen, a Harvard business professor known for his advocacy of “disruptive innovation,” declared in his then-new book that the rise of online education would destroy half of the country’s colleges and universities by about 2030. After a slight uptick, the total did start to decline: At the peak, in 2013–2014, the U.S. was home to 3,122 four-year colleges, according to Education Department data; four years later, the number had dropped by 7 percent, to 2,902.To be sure, the majority of those shuttered schools were for-profit colleges, a model whose underwhelming outcomes and questionable student-recruitment tactics garnered public scrutiny and government regulation. But recently, as people like Barbara Brittingham of the New England Commission of Higher Education note, certain regions have witnessed this trend encroach on nonprofit colleges in noticeable ways. In some places, such as Vermont, it’s felt as if small, private institutions are toppling one after the other. Southern Vermont College, Green Mountain College, and the College of St. Joseph all announced closure plans within a few months of one another earlier this year.Pine Manor, another small liberal arts school in Brookline. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)At the same time, the country’s colleges and universities have experienced a pronounced increase in the number of freshmen applications received over the past 15 or so years, a trend reflected in the U.S. undergraduate population’s dramatic growth, from 16.7 million in 1996 to 20 million in 2016, according to a recent Pew Research Center report. The reason for this makes sense: Personal success in the modern economy, research suggests, is more incumbent than ever on whether one has a college degree (if only because of employers’ growing tendency to treat such a degree as essential).Yet selective colleges and universities—those that accept fewer than half of prospective students—have enjoyed a disproportionate share of that growth, receiving close to two out of every five applications despite accounting for fewer than a fifth of the country’s higher-education institutions. What’s more, the number of applications doesn’t correlate with the number of students. (The number of applications per high schooler has soared in part thanks to the Common App, which makes applying to additional schools much easier.) In fact, a gradual downturn in U.S. birth rates has led to a decrease in the country’s current high-school population (which remains four-year colleges’ primary source of students). A recent report by the National Student Clearinghouse research center underscores just how dramatically this is playing out. In spring 2019, overall postsecondary enrollment decreased by 1.7 percent, or nearly 300,000 students, from the previous spring.This has all but the very top tier of colleges and universities—whose prestige effectively serves as a self-perpetuating revenue engine—on edge. But it’s especially nerve-racking for institutions in parts of the country where the aging is more pronounced, which, according to analyses by the Carleton College economist Nathan Grawe, are concentrated east of the Mississippi River—especially New England. Grawe predicted that the number of high-school graduates in Massachusetts, for example, could drop by as much as 15 percent from 2012 to 2032. This is perhaps most devastating for the colleges in these regions faced with the double whammy of demographic change and proximity to brand-name institutions that eclipse them with their practically unlimited resources and academic accomplishments. The kinds of colleges most at risk in this confluence of bad news? Small, less selective liberal-arts institutions that tend to draw primarily from their local populations. Institutions like Newbury.Against this backdrop, the New England Commission of Higher Education has been especially vigilant in ensuring that federal financial-aid dollars are being used appropriately, says Brittingham, who oversees the body. The commission serves as the region’s college-accrediting agency, describing itself on its website as “the gatekeeper for [students’] access to federal financial aid.” Because this money is all but integral to an institution’s survival—roughly nine in 10 Newbury students received federal student loans—the body plays a significant role in determining whether one of its member institutions thrives or topples.The closures and mergers are nothing new, Brittingham says. During times of a growing youth population and favorable economic conditions, the agency can focus more on objectives such as quality improvement for accredited schools. But when conditions aren’t so fortuitous, the equation flips: Not only are colleges contending with an inopportune financial climate, they’re also under extra scrutiny to perform. “With the public expecting more of higher education and, frankly, more of accreditation,” Brittingham says, “the commission finds itself spending more time on quality assurance,” by which she means who is getting accreditation in the first place.Some of the conditions contributing to this perfect storm are of the institutions’ own making, such as their exorbitant sticker price (close to $37,000 on average nationally, which is about the same as Newbury’s tuition and fees, not including housing and other costs), their lackluster educational outcomes (like low graduation rates and gainful-employment results), and a resistance to change on the part of faculty and administrative officials. But most at-risk colleges do seek to remedy their problems; it’s just that they do so too late. By then, many are already losing students, and the accompanying revenue. Meanwhile, they struggle to compete with bigger institutions on offerings such as low faculty-to-student ratios, high-end facilities, and the provision of mental-health services, because these resources cost a lot more per student at smaller colleges, which don’t enjoy the economies of scale of their larger peers.Trade-offs are inevitable, with many leading to unintended consequences. Colleges focused on equity may have to roll back their financial aid; some, for example, have stopped providing need-blind admissions. Others have created programs—such as online courses or time-consuming course enhancements—that many faculty oppose, arguing that such offerings stray from what they were hired to do. Many tuition-dependent colleges, perhaps counterintuitively, have resorted to steep tuition discounts in an effort to bolster the number and caliber of applicants. This tactic may improve access for much-deserving students, but it takes a major hit on revenue. A recent report found that tuition-discount rates have reached record highs at private colleges, with the average among incoming freshmen exceeding 50 percent during the 2017–2018 school year. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, a former chief financial officer of Bowdoin College described this trend as “a race to the bottom.”(Emily Jan / The Atlantic)Several students told me they decided to attend Newbury because of its financial-aid packages. Caleb MacDonald, a rising junior who plans to attend Suffolk University in the fall, said scholarship money tempted him into taking a “leap of faith” by attending Newbury. But for many students, it was still a lot of money. Terrance Norvin, one of the few class of 2019 members who ended up graduating in May, remembered being shocked at what his family was expected to pay: about $16,000 a year, even after significant discounts. “My mom could buy me a Toyota!” he exclaimed. (The sticker price for attending Newbury, including housing, was $52,570 for the 2016–2017 school year.)Some higher-education experts describe the country’s postsecondary landscape as a sort of Darwinian ecosystem in which the weak institutions’ inevitable failure strengthens the structure that remains. “When you have a market, you have to compete”—and given how competitive the higher-education market has become, entities that “overextend” themselves invariably “go out of business,” says Michael Alexander, the president of Lasell College, another small New England school whose small endowment, low enrollment, and middle-tier status similarly put it at risk of demise. “We [small colleges] didn’t create the problem,” Alexander says, “but we have to adjust to it.” Institutions like Newbury simply struggled, then failed, to adjust—or just didn’t want to adjust in the first place.Chillo said he had an epiphany his first day as Newbury’s fifth and final president, back in 2014. He’d already served in various capacities at the school since 2008, including as its dean of admissions, and at a handful of other small, private colleges (among them Wheelock College, which shut down and merged with Boston University last year). As someone who’d spent his whole career in higher education, Chillo understood—and appreciated—that “every [higher-education] institution has its beauty marks and warts,” he told me.Having already witnessed the recession’s upending of already vulnerable higher-education institutions, and its particularly brutal impact on small colleges such as Newbury, he knew that presiding over the institution wouldn’t be easy. But on meeting with the board of trustees during his first day as president, he realized just how “crazy” and “challenging” it was going to be. The board, he recalls, explained that Newbury could go in one of two directions.One: “We blow the heck out of this,” meaning “we rebuild and retool the institution”—Newbury could leverage existing fundraising vehicles and explore new revenue streams. It could ramp up the strongest programs and overhaul the weakest. It could invest in new facilities to improve its application and retention rates, ultimately reversing the vicious cycle of underwhelming enrollment trends and tuition dependence into a virtuous one of growing demand and a diversified financial portfolio.Two: “If we can’t blow this up and make the institution move, then we have to figure out a way to close it.”Hence what Chillo described as the “Jekyll and Hyde syndrome” that dogged him throughout his five years as president: “Some days you feel like, This institution’s got a future for the next 50 years,” he said. “And then you have those moments when you’re looking at the balance sheet and going, Okay, we’ve got warts here, and the warts are significant.”Those more pessimistic moments grew in frequency over his first few semesters as president. By 2015, Newbury was gasping for air. Then came the probation. By Thanksgiving break 2018, Chillo and his team decided that “the only right thing to do” was to pull the plug. The board of trustees voted on December 7 to close the school—a week before it announced the decision publicly. According to Chillo, the primary reason for the delay was to avoid worrying students when they were already stressed out about finals, which were taking place that same week. It also created a buffer during which administrators could finalize agreements with designated transfer institutions—schools such as Lasell, Curry College, Fisher College, Suffolk, and Framingham State that had agreed to customize an admissions pathway for Newbury students into their own programs.Newbury gave its community notice of the forthcoming closure decision well in advance. Chillo described the December 14 announcement as a financial sacrifice for the sake of morality. He could have disseminated the news once classes resumed in late January and boosted the college’s bottom line by avoiding revenue losses due to dropouts, but he wanted to ensure that faculty members could take advantage of new job opportunities, which for academic positions in the fall tend to be posted in the winter.“The hardest part was when I sat down and wrote the … announcement,” Chillo told me. That was when he realized the closure was real—that it wasn’t just a private thing for him to agonize over with a small group of executives, but something he had to break to students and faculty, whose lives and plans were all about to be dramatically altered.Stefan doesn’t regret giving Newbury a shot, even though the transition to Lasell has caused major headaches (turns out, it’s especially difficult to transfer credits if you’re a media-production major), and she’s losing the housing stipend she got through being an RA at Newbury (she’s working three jobs so she’ll be able to afford rent).In high school back in Colorado, Stefan was shy, socially anxious, unsure of herself. By going to Newbury, she wanted “to become something bigger.” “And that’s what a lot of kids at Newbury are”—or were—“trying to do,” Stefan told me. They probably didn’t have the best GPAs or do many, if any, extracurriculars; some probably didn’t even think they wanted to go to college or had it in them to do so. “They came here for that chance because nobody [else] gave them that chance,” she said. “And that’s what’s going to really suck, because they’re not going to be given the chance that they deserve.”For better or worse, few people at Newbury have had the opportunity to dwell on the closure. Newbury itself proceeded with a slew of ad hoc solutions as soon as the decision became official: Admissions officers became transfer officers; the college created “curriculum maps,” protocols and tweaks to facilitate a more streamlined academic transition from Newbury. The faculty who remained—like Mael, the English professor—did whatever they could to accommodate their students’ needs.(Emily Jan / The Atlantic)All that support did help. “I wasn’t worried” about my next steps, said MacDonald, the rising junior who’s transferring to Suffolk. “I was just sad about the connections that I would be losing.”When we spoke, Mael referenced a message she’d disseminated among students at the beginning of every semester: that they, despite the tough circumstances from which so many of them came, ought to interrogate when and how they could control a given situation. The closure wasn’t a situation they could reverse, she advised the young adults in her final classes; it wasn’t fair. “But what we do have control over is how we live out this semester,” she remembered telling them. “You didn’t cause this; you didn’t do anything wrong … So what are you going to do? And how can we [professors] help you to do that?”Troubled colleges across the country are doing what they can to avoid Newbury’s fate. Hiram College, in Ohio, recently trademarked two new programs—The New Liberal Arts and Tech and Trek—to set itself apart from its peers. Delaware Valley University has included in its strategic plan revenue-driving programs such as summer camps and classes for retired people. Simmons University, a women’s institution, has shifted much of its energy toward online education, its president told me; its graduate programs are now co-ed, too. Lasell has experimented with some version of all the above.Still, in the years ahead, many will fall. Students will have to say goodbye to the places where they went to become adults, and find somewhere else to take them in, somewhere that promises a bright future—for both the students and the institution.
World Edition - The Atlantic
Kyle Kashuv Becomes a Symbol to Conservatives Who Say the Left Can’t Forgive
At 9 o’clock Eastern time yesterday morning, Kyle Kashuv—a gun-rights activist and a survivor of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—announced on Twitter that Harvard University had rescinded its offer of admission to him. One hour and 12 minutes later, Kashuv and his now-uncertain educational future had been officially declared victims of an overzealous progressive agenda that was either unwilling or unable to forgive.“The progressive black balling of Kyle Kashuv is a reminder that there's no concept of grace in the secular religion,” the conservative commentator Erick Erickson tweeted.Erickson’s read on the situation turned out to be a popular one across social media. In the hours since Kashuv tweeted about Harvard’s decision, a number of conservative commentators and publications have weighed in. Many of them have situated Kashuv against the backdrop of what they perceive to be a larger problem on the left: “cancel culture.” When a public figure’s racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive behavior comes to light, widespread condemnation and calls to stop supporting that person tend to follow—especially on social media, where people often say that person is “cancelled.” Some conservatives feel this shows an unwillingness to acknowledge a person’s growth and learning from mistakes.In the 14 months since the shooting at Stoneman Douglas, Kashuv, 18, has become the only prominent Parkland survivor-turned-activist to come down on the gun-rights side of the debate; schoolmates of his like David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, and Cameron Kasky have become high-profile advocates for stricter gun legislation. As a supporter of stricter background checks but also armed teachers, the elimination of gun-free zones, and heightened school security, he stands in contrast to the majority of gun-safety activism that grew out of the shooting at his high school. In doing so, he’s become something of a folk hero for other conservatives and gun-rights advocates.[Read: Harvard’s drastic decision]Last month, a former classmate of Kashuv’s disseminated screenshots of text messages and Google docs in which a 16-year-old Kashuv had allegedly written racist slurs. Kashuv was revealed to have repeatedly written “nigger” in the screenshots. Kashuv tweeted an apology statement at the time. But as he revealed on Twitter yesterday, the admissions team at Harvard University, where Kashuv was planning to matriculate next year, contacted him soon afterward. They had received complaints and wanted an explanation.In a Twitter thread, Kashuv released copies of the letter he sent to Harvard’s dean of admissions. “Let me first state that I apologize unequivocally for my comments, which were made two years ago in private among equally immature high school students,” his multiple-page letter began. He went on to describe how surviving the shooting at Stoneman Douglas forced him to mature quickly into someone who “[does] not recognize the person who wrote those things.” He also tweeted the text of an email he sent to the Harvard Office of Diversity and Inclusion, promising to visit their office upon arriving on campus. Still, after reviewing Kashuv’s explanation, Harvard notified him earlier this month that his offer had been revoked.A number of prominent conservative figures have since argued online that Kashuv deserves forgiveness, not further punishment, from the Harvard admissions office because he took responsibility for his behavior and apologized. Erickson, in a blog post at The Resurgent, wrote that “Kyle apologized and is clearly not the same person he was then.” “Hopefully this terrible decision by @Harvard will be reversed. We all have a past and we all have done and said things we regret. He has apologized and become an extraordinary young person,” tweeted Dave Rubin, host of the right-leaning YouTube show The Rubin Report. “Now the mob wants to make forgiveness a sin, too.”Some have argued that Kashuv’s repeated use of the racist term because it took place in private and not in public, should be considered a juvenile mistake rather than a hostile act. “So if you say something terrible in a private chat room when you're 16, then get outed by political opponents, Harvard tosses you?” tweeted Ben Shapiro, the editor in chief of the conservative website the Daily Wire. In a story for the Daily Wire, Shapiro again emphasized the private nature of Kashuv’s use of the racist slur: “He didn’t commit a crime; he didn’t espouse his gross views publicly; his behavior since has not mimicked any of the content or attitude of the comments.”Other commentators similarly relied heavily on the context in which the comments had been originally made. Guy Benson, the politics editor of Townhall and a Fox News commentator, seemed of two minds about the incident, writing that while Kashuv’s use of racial slurs was inexcusable, the private setting in which he did so should have been taken into consideration. “This does not feel one bit like ‘progress.’ My advice to Kyle before all of this blew up publicly was to tell the truth & to apologize deeply and sincerely (there is no excuse for using that word—even if the context was teenage boys’ private shock Olympics). He did both things,” Benson tweeted. “The use of a disgusting word, in private, by a 16-year-old, should not be an unforgivable event.”It is worth noting that Harvard has rescinded offers of admission to other accepted students in the past on the basis of online activities the students believed were private at the time. In 2017, according to the Harvard Crimson, the university rescinded the admissions of at least 10 accepted students after they were found to have “traded sexually explicit memes and messages that sometimes targeted minority groups in a private Facebook group chat.”Other conservative publications and commentators, meanwhile, took the rescission of Kashuv’s admissions offer as evidence of selective forgiveness on the part of the progressive establishment (of which they seemed to see Harvard as a part). Liberals, and institutions like Harvard that these writers consider to be liberal, extend grace and charitability to the past misdeeds of only those who agree with them politically, some conservatives implied. A few prominent figures, for example, invoked the Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who formerly taught at Harvard Law School. Warren has apologized for identifying as “American Indian” in the past, in contexts such as her registration for the Texas bar association in 1986, a practice that some conservatives see as taking advantage of affirmative-action policies.Dana Loesch, a conservative gun-rights advocate and radio host, gestured at Warren in a tweet. “Wait, does them mean Harvard is going to condemn Warren?” she wrote. “Because her sin by comparison is exponentially worse. I know rules derive strength from consistent enforcement and all.”Matt Walsh, a Daily Wire blogger and podcast host , made a similar comparison, invoking Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of Virginia who was found to have dressed in blackface for a medical school yearbook photo in 1984. “Kyle Kashuv used the n-word when he was 16 and now his Harvard acceptance has been rescinded. Ralph Northam dressed in blackface as an adult and he is still governor,” Walsh tweeted. “That tells you everything you need to know about how the rules are applied in our society.”Still, the prevailing sentiment among those on the right seems to be that the Kashuv decision embodies everything they see as wrong with cancel culture. “The idea of repentance and forgiveness is dead in our society,” Loesch tweeted. “Redemption and forgiveness are politically disadvantageous. Only those confident in their convictions make room for them.” The Daily Wire, meanwhile, tweeted a textual representation of a bunny holding out a stack of books and then whisking them out of reach: “Welcome to Harvard,” it read. And then, “Never mind, ppl cant grow, change or be forgiven.”The libertarian outlet Reason drew a direct line between cancel culture and the rescission of Kashuv’s admission, running a story headlined “Harvard University Cancels Kyle Kashuv.” For one thing, the author Robby Soave wrote, it was a victory for the cancel-happy online “mob.” But perhaps more troublingly, in Soave’s view, a teen being held accountable for his online misdeeds as a slightly younger teen sets a dangerous precedent.“Harvard's decision here is also an endorsement of the position that people should be shamed and punished for their worst mistakes as kids,” Soave wrote. “But moving forward, as technology gives everyone the ability to record every moment of our lives, this will be an untenable position—all embarrassing moments will be preserved forever, available for re-litigation. This is excessively punitive, and counterproductive to the healthy socialization of young people. Kids are not perfect: They must be given the opportunity to fail, and to learn and grow from their errors.”Of course, as the discussion of the topic of forgiveness for teenage misdeeds intensified, the question of which teens’ misdeeds deserved forgiveness rather than punishment arose. Allegations of selective empathy could cut both ways, several other commentators pointed out. When some right-leaning voices discussed the deaths of unarmed black children including Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Laquan McDonald, who were gunned down on the mere suspicion of wrongdoing, they focused on perceived misbehavior on the part of the kids. Loesch, for example, asserted after Rice’s death in 2014 that although the police officer who shot him was “in the wrong,” so was the 12-year-old boy, who was playing with a toy gun at the time.It’s impossible to know what factors might have influenced Harvard in deciding whether Kyle Kashuv’s personal and moral growth since his sophomore year of high school was enough to outweigh his racist comments. But the whole saga leaves open the question of what would have happened if he’d been forthright about his prior misdeeds and later atonement before being prompted—before it might have cost him admission to Harvard, perhaps even as part of his application. That might have meant more, to both the public and to his school of choice.
World Edition - The Atlantic
When Hyenas Roamed the Arctic
Imagine you're a baby mammoth. It’s 1.4 million years before the present day, in the middle of January, and you haven’t seen the sun in weeks. All around you, the Yukon tundra stretches into miles and miles of nothingness. Suddenly, a shape hurtles out of the darkness. And as you turn to meet your killer, you come face to face with ... a hyena?Since the first hyena fossil was identified in the Americas nearly a century ago, scientists have suspected that an extinct species of hyena, Chasmaporthetes ossifragus, must have traveled over the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia. But they never had definitive proof, until Jack Tseng, a paleontologist at the University of Buffalo, examined two mystery fossils that had sat in museum drawers for 40 years. Tseng knows a hyena tooth when he sees one, and he immediately picked up on the triple cusps and pyramidal shape of the third premolar. It only took him half a day to confidently identify the specimens as Chasmaporthetes.Those two fossilized teeth just so happen to be the first to have been found in the Yukon, and in a new paper Tseng and his coauthors, pegged them to be about 1.4 million years old. That means their owner, or owners, likely would have trotted around the same frozen landscapes as giant steppe mammoths and saber-toothed cats.[Read: The lonely, thirsty final days of the doomed Alaskan mammoths]Hyenas are more familiar today as creatures of the savannah, but on some level, they make sense as Arctic inhabitants, living among large, trunked mammals and big cats, just as modern hyenas live among elephants and lions. “It’s really easy for us to sort of fall into a trap of thinking that these habitats were a lot like the African Serengeti,” says Grant Zazula, the Canadian government’s official Yukon paleontologist and a coauthor on the paper. “And in some ways, they were.” After all, the desert and the tundra are both extreme, inhospitable climates, with no forests for big herbivores to hide in. Still, the Yukon during the Pleistocene era was dark four months of the year and very cold. Even though modern-day packs hunt at night, hyenas living in Ice Age Canada would still have depended on some very different adaptations—for a start, some thicker, lighter-colored fur would be in order.Based on other specimens collected in the past century, scientists know that Chasmaporthetes had longer, more evenly proportioned legs than modern-day hyenas, along with a shallower skull, which would have made for faster, more sustained running and a wolflike appearance. According to Julie Meachen, a paleontologist at the University of Des Moines, the hyenas would have hunted and scavenged on animals like musk oxen and caribou in the Arctic tundra. They might also have chowed down on bison and horses in refugia between the glaciers, where things were relatively temperate and “a little more vegetated.”Overall, “it would not have been a very comfortable life,” Tseng says.Paleontologists don’t know yet how long Chasmaporthetes hung around in the Arctic. Meachen says that the journey from Siberia to Florida, where other fossils have been found, would have taken at least several generations. But “it’s unknown whether this individual was just passing through or whether it actually made its home” in the Arctic, she says. Scientists would only know for sure if they found a continuous fossil record in the region.But such continuity would be hard to establish. Chasmaporthetes fossils in general are not as widespread as, say, Pleistocene-era bison, both because the hyenas themselves were not very densely populated and because glaciers can disrupt these records. The icy behemoths can act like bulldozers, churning up the rock and dirt and bones beneath them as they push along, explains Leigha Lynch, a molecular paleontologist at Washington University in St. Louis, who was not involved in the study. When glaciers expand and retreat over centuries, that process can leave the terrain unrecognizable. “That’s the whole Pleistocene,” Lynch says. “It’s just one cycle of that after the other after the other.” (That said, glaciers and permafrost do have the added benefit of preserving flesh and hair, not just bones. As Tseng put it, “I’m hoping maybe one day some of the Siberian permafrost will reveal an Ice Age hyena.”)Scientists think that plenty of other species made their way from Asia to the Americas, and vice versa, through the Arctic, but they still haven’t found—or, perhaps, identified—fossilized proof. “This is one of the few instances where we have unambiguous evidence,” Tseng says. So given that significance, why did the fossils sit around in a museum for four decades before Tseng came along to identify them?The two teeth were first uncovered in 1974 and 1977. Soon after, a paleontologist named Brenda Beebe wrote that she thought the specimens belonged to a different species of hyena. Beebe never published her findings, but she did send a manuscript to another paleontologist, Björn Kurtén. (Both Beebe and Kurtén have since died.) A few years ago, one of Kurtén’s former students, Lars Werdelin (who is also an author on the new paper), dug up the manuscript among Kurtén’s notes. He scanned it and sent it to Tseng, who got in touch with Zazula, who figured out that the teeth were being stored at the Canadian Museum of Nature.After more than 40 years, all it took for Tseng to confirm that the fossils were Chasmaporthetes was a six-hour drive from Buffalo to Ottawa, a few hours of handling and photographing them, and another six-hour drive back. He wrote the paper when he got home.Meachen, who reviewed the new paper, says it’s “pretty basic” in that it doesn’t do much beyond describing the fossil at hand and offering a probable identification. A common problem with paleontology studies is that authors often draw sweeping conclusions from just a handful of bones or teeth, Lynch points out. “I really appreciated that the authors were very conservative in saying, ‘we tentatively assign it to this species, but we recognize that we have two teeth,’” she says.[Read: The nastiest feud in science]The delay between the discovery and description of the Arctic Chasmaporthetes fossils is pretty standard for paleontology, a product of the way paleontological data is collected and how researchers organize their time. Zazula told me that his team can collect almost 10,000 specimens from Yukon sites in any given summer. That’s way too many fossils for them to get through immediately, and not every expedition team includes a hyena specialist, so the team catalogs them on a basic level and stores them until someone comes along to see them. Even the first known fossils of Chasmaporthetes, unearthed between 1901 and 1904, weren’t formally described until nearly 20 years later. “It’s pretty common in paleontology” for specimens to be found and not reported on, Meachen says. “I would love for it to be a systematic experience, where people are like, ‘I’m going to go through this whole collection and describe everything that’s not described,’ but that’s never how it works.”Once the right specialist gets around to looking at the right fossil, identification can often be as immediate as Tseng’s quick assessment of the Chasmaporthetes specimens. Meachen, who is an expert on Plesitocene-era cats and canines, told me, “I can do the same thing and I can do it with teeth or I can do it with postcranial bones ... It just depends on how much experience you have.”If you’re a paleontologist, waiting a few decades to learn from new discoveries might seem trivial. “To think of hyenas being a major part of that system is so fantastic to most of us. But it’s also not that long ago. It’s geologically yesterday!” Zazula told me. “A million years ago is nothing.”
World Edition - The Atlantic
Donald Trump Is Annihilating Truth
Like many writers I know, I’ve had a passion for words for almost as long as I can remember. I’ve admired those who use words well, who have shaped my imagination and given voice to things I wanted to express but didn’t feel like I adequately could. That is why they have to be protected against assault and degradation.At an early age I recognized their power to convey deep emotions and longings, knowledge and understanding, hopes and fears. “Words can be polluted even more dramatically and drastically than rivers and land and sea,” one of my favorite writer, Malcolm Muggeridge, once wrote. “Their misuse is our undoing.”This article was adapted from The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Fractured Republic After Trump, by Peter Wehner.Eventually, we all come to understand words are the means by which we teach and inspire, defend truth, and seek justice. (Those of us of the Christian faith don’t consider it an accident that the first sentence in the Gospel of John is, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”) So words have extraordinary power—in our daily lives most of all, but in politics as well.Democracy requires that we honor the culture of words. The very idea of democracy is based on the hope that fellow citizens can reason together and find a system for adjudicating differences and solving problems—all of which assumes there is a shared commitment to the integrity of our public words. If you believe words can ennoble, you must also believe they can debase. If they can elevate the human spirit, they can also pull it down. And when words are weaponized by our political leaders and used to paint all opponents as inherently evil, stupid, or weak, then democracy’s foundations are put in peril. Which brings us to the dismal, demoralizing Trump era.The debasement of words has reached a zenith with the coming of America’s 45th president, who dominates discourse in this country in ways perhaps no other president ever has. And if we hope to repair the damage that’s been done, we need to understand what it is about Trump’s misuse of words that is pernicious and dangerous.The least problematic part is the sheer banality of Donald Trump’s words. During his presidency, Trump has uttered no beautiful and memorable phrases. His inaugural address, which is a speech normally meant to inspire the citizenry, is remembered, if at all, for the phrase “American carnage” and Trump’s description of a dystopian nation, broken and shattered. More worrisome is that Trump’s utterances are often an incoherent word salad. If you read the transcript of many of his interviews and extemporaneous speeches, you often find that Trump is not only unable to lay out a coherent argument; at times he’s unable to string together sentences that parse.But that’s hardly the worst of Trump’s misuses of words. When it comes to dealing with those who oppose him, he consistently uses words to demean, belittle, bully, or dehumanize. He has mocked former prisoners of war, the disabled, and the appearance of women. He has perpetuated conspiracy theories. He has attacked gold star parents and widows. And he has engaged in racially tinged attacks. The number of his targets is inexhaustible because Trump’s brutishness is inexhaustible.Many other presidents have been viewed as divisive figures, but none have taken as much delight as Trump in provoking acrimony, malice, and bitterness for their own sake; in turning Americans against each other in order to turn them against each other. He seems to find psychic satisfaction in doing so.The banality and weaponization of Trump’s words are bad enough, but the greatest cause for concern is his nonstop, dawn-to-midnight assault on facts, truth, reality. That places Trump in a sinister category all his own. Many politicians are guilty of not telling the full truth of events. A significant number shade the truth from time to time. A few fall into the category of consistent, outright liars. But only very few—and only the most dangerous—are committed to destroying the very idea of truth itself. That is what we have in Donald Trump, along with many of his aides and courtiers. We saw it at the dawn of the Trump presidency, when he insisted—and sent out his press secretary to insist—that the crowd size at his inauguration was larger than that of Barack Obama’s, despite photographic evidence to the contrary. And that behavior has continued virtually every day since.According to The Washington Post, Trump has made more than 10,000 false or misleading claims as president, roughly 12 a day. The Trump presidency is notable for the number and velocity of his falsehoods and misleading statements. They have been made in speeches and tweets, on matters significant and trivia, about others and about himself—and he virtually never apologizes or issues corrections. He says what he wants, when he wants, regardless of the reality of things.In a 2018 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Trump said, “And just remember: What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” In other words, who are you going to believe—me or your lyin’ eyes?“The man lies all the time,” writes Thomas Wells, an attorney once hired. In Bob Woodward’s book Fear, Trump’s former personal lawyer John Dowd describes the president as “a f******” liar,” telling Trump he would end up in an “orange jump suit” if he testified to special counsel Robert Mueller. And the former White House aide Anthony Scaramucci, when asked if he considers Trump a liar, admitted, “Okay, well we both know that he’s telling lies. So if you want me to say he’s a liar, I’m happy to say he’s a liar.” (In a later interview Scaramucci put it this way: “He’s an intentional liar. It’s very different from just being a liar-liar.”)Trump is not simply a serial liar; he is attempting to murder the very idea of truth, which is even worse. “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda,” according to the Russian dissident and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov. “It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”This is an urgent matter, and it makes this a dangerous moment because without truth and a common factual basis for our national life, a free society cannot operate. And right now, for a significant number of Americans—including many people on the right who long defended the concept of objective truth and repeatedly rang the alarm bell about the rise of relativism—truth is viewed as relative rather than objective, malleable rather than solid; as instrumental, as a means to an end, as a weapon in our intense political war. A depressingly large number of Trump supporters—again, many of whom have for years agreed with the conservative political philosopher Allan Bloom that relativism was impoverishing our souls—now seem to relish this “post-truth” political moment.Nietzsche coined a term, perspectivism, to describe the idea that there is no objective truth, everybody gets to make up their own reality, their own script, their own set of facts, and everything is conditioned to what one’s own perspective is. We saw this illustrated in the 2016 campaign, when Newt Gingrich insisted on defending Trump’s claim that crime rates were soaring. When the host, CNN’s Alisyn Camerota, cited FBI data to support her claim that we are safer and crime is down, Gingrich responded, “No. That’s your view.”When Camerota countered that this wasn’t simply a subjective matter and once again cited FBI crime statistics, Gingrich responded, “As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel, and I’ll let you go with the theoreticians.” In other words, facts be damned; my feelings will create my own reality. (By the way, those who assemble crime statistics are not “theoreticians.” They are documenting empirical data.) Destroy the foundation of factual truth, and lies will be normalized. This is what the Czech dissident (and later president) Vaclav Havel described in the late 1970s when he wrote about his fellow citizens making their own inner peace with a regime built on hypocrisy and falsehoods. They were “living within the lie.” In such a situation life becomes farcical, demoralizing, a theater of the absurd. It is soul-destroying.The United States is still quite a long way from the situation Havel found himself in. But to keep it that way—to keep civic vandalism from spreading—we all have a role to play, including calling out lies, including the lies of Trump, in every way we can.The most obvious thing Americans can do is to vote for men and women who prize integrity and are, in the main, truth-tellers. It doesn’t seem too much to ask that we not vote for those who are chronically dishonest and corrupt. Americans can also end their financial support for parties that are aiding and abetting compulsive liars.There are also plenty of ways constituents can exert pressure on their members of Congress to speak out and act against those who are duplicitous and disgracing the profession of politics. Congress has a lot of tools in its kit, from censure to holding hearings to blocking nominations and legislation to impeachment. But those efforts will only happen if public pressure is applied. If it is, politicians will respond. People who are a corrupting influence have been voted into office; they can be voted out of office.The United States government needs to step up our efforts to stop the misinformation and disinformation campaigns by foreign powers who are influencing our elections, including learning from countries like Ukraine, which has experienced this and taken steps to defend itself. We know that social-media platforms like Facebook, Google, Reddit, and Tumblr were weaponized over the last several years; they need to be held accountable and need to be fixed, including regulating these industries if they can’t correct themselves and end this Wild West show.The American press has to redouble its effort to get its facts right and resist jumping to premature conclusion. “Our facts need to be squeaky clean and uncorrupted,” in the words of CNN’s Jake Tapper, who is an exemplary journalist.Each of us can refuse to become complicit in lies. We can refuse to defend them, refuse to believe them, and refuse to spread them, including lies that might help our political causes. We can also venture outside of our ideological silos, listen to other sources of information, and take into account other perspectives. (Think about how often we listen not to understand but in order to refute.) All of us can do better to remind ourselves that the main point of gathering information isn’t to reaffirm the views we already hold; it’s to better ascertain the truth.Beyond that, we can all do better to model truthfulness, temperance, decency and integrity in our daily lives, among our family, friends and colleagues. One person acting alone can’t change much; a lot of people acting together create a civic and political culture.The temptation is to think that if we simply flip the right policy switches, if we implement the right laws, we will put an end to this disorienting “post-truth” era. But there is no set of policies we can pull off the shelf to deal with our present political malady. Ultimately what will be decisive is whether enough Americans commit (or re-commit) themselves to defend truth and fight falsity. That has to happen in our individual lives and in how we manifest that commitment in the political realm. There’s no getting around the fact that much of what needs to be done lies in the realm of attitudes, in shaping our sensibilities in a way that respects truth and aligns with the reality of things. As Havel put it In its most original and broadest sense, living within the truth covers a vast territory whose outer limits are vague and difficult to map, a territory full of modest expressions of human volition, the vast majority of which will remain anonymous and whose political impact will probably never be felt or described any more concretely than simply as part of a social climate or mood. Most of these expressions remain elementary revolts against manipulation: you simply straighten your backbone and live in greater dignity as an individual. We cannot give up on the belief that human beings are rational and reasonable, that evidence and logic matter, and that persuasion is possible. The human condition is such that things are rarely all of one and none of the other, and certainly in this case, the pendulum swings from moments of collective trust and calm reason to collective mistrust, emotivism, and rancor.A lot of different factors—internal and external, domestic and international, economic and social—influence a nation’s political and civic culture. And we all know, deep in our bones, that political leadership and rhetoric do, too. We need to stand with women and men in public life who believe, as Lincoln did, that words can be instruments of reason and justice, repair and reconciliation, enlightenment and truth. Who are willing to challenge not just their adversaries but their allies, not just the other political tribe but their own. And who are willing to make a compelling case for truth, deliberative democracy and persuasion.Ours is a remarkable republic, if we can keep it.
World Edition - The Atlantic
Julian Castro Wants to Hold Police Accountable
Julian Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama and former mayor of San Antonio, has put forth perhaps the most ambitious immigration and police reform plans in the Democratic primary.A second generation immigrant who is widely credited with fostering an economic revival in San Antonio, Castro hopes that his progressive policy record and compelling person story will set him apart from a large (and growing) Democratic presidential primary field. I recently spoke with Castro about his immigration and policing plans, what Democrats should do about the Supreme Court, and whether he thinks Trump has committed impeachable offenses, among other subjects.In our exchange, Castro called for a federal database of police shootings, said that the post-9/11 shift towards treating illegal entry into the U.S. as a crime has “led to so many of the problems we see today,” and argued that Trump should be impeached, despite opinion polls showing a majority of the public has yet to support that move.A transcript of our conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.You’ve put forth an aggressive plan for eliminating racial discrimination in policing that among other things states that it will “establish responsibility and accountability for officers to intervene if they witness a colleague utilizing excessive force or inappropriate conduct.” What does that mean exactly? Are you talking about a federal law or regulation that would penalize local police officers who ignore misconduct by their colleagues?Yeah. I’m talking about using both the carrot and the stick incentives where there are grant programs, and also legislation to ensure that if one officer witnesses another officer engaging in misconduct, that that officer—the witness—is compelled to actually report that. Because too often, those types of things go unreported.Your plan would also require police officers to “identify themselves, issue a verbal warning, and give the suspect a reasonable amount of time before the use of force, and to only use deadly force as a last resort.” Would there be any exceptions to that, and are you concerned that that kind of approach would put the lives of police officers in danger?Yeah, I believe that’s the best approach. I saw research not too long ago that demonstrated that police departments across the country that institute the most restrictive policies in terms of when an officer should use lethal force, both still have good rates of officer safety compared to other departments—but also have lower incidents of innocent civilians being harmed.The Justice Department performs oversight over local police to ensure that they comply with the Constitution. But some of what you’re talking about is addressing local police policy. Is it constitutional for the federal government to dictate policy for law enforcement at that level?The question is whether it’s constitutional for the federal government to do that? Well the way that I approach it is, we will do everything we can under the Constitution to hold police departments and officers accountable. And where we need to use incentives [through] our federal grant process, we can use that.So this is something that I didn’t see in the plan but I might have missed it: Would you establish a federal database to track police-involved shootings?You’re right, what we talked about in the plan is the decertification of officers. But I would like to see a database of officer-involved shootings, because we don’t have a database right now.Do you think that’s important?Of course, sure. And I don’t believe the public should have to rely on the efforts of journalists across the country, although those are noble efforts. There should be a comprehensive federal database of officer-involved shootings, of use of excessive force, and also as I said in that plan, the decertification of police officers.Your immigration plan would make entering the United States illegally a civil infraction. Why?Number one, I believe that’s more effective than what we’re doing now. What we’re doing now is a total disaster, it’s ineffective and it’s inhumane. From 1929 to about 2004, we actually used to treat someone crossing the border as a civil violation, not a criminal one. We started treating it as a criminal violation post-9/11, that’s what’s led to so many of the problems we see today. A huge backlog of immigration cases, incarceration of people, the separation of little children from their mothers. So I would actually treat it as a civil violation and create an independent immigration judiciary, and add more judges and support staff to be able to get people seeking asylum, or who are otherwise in that immigration judicial process, an answer, so people aren’t waiting in limbo for years.When you say that the criminalizing illegal entry hasn’t been effective, what do you mean by effective? Effective in doing what?I think any type of way that you want to analyze that. Let’s take for instance Trump’s standard—his administration told us about a year ago that they’d crack down on these migrants and were cruel enough to separate these kids from their parents, that that would deter more families from coming. And the opposite has happened—more families are coming now than were coming when he instituted that policy of family separation.I believe that treating this as a civil violation still holds people accountable, and it’ll be more effective than what we have now. It clearly hasn’t been effective. We’ve seen more people coming and in the name of the people of the United States, migrant families have been treated very inhumanely. Which is a stain on all of us, as a country.Does the United States need an internal immigration agency like ICE as opposed to one that guards the borders, and if so, what should it look like and what should its priorities be?Yeah, of course we’re always gonna have enforcement. There’s gonna be enforcement not only at the border but also beyond the northern, southern border, and the ports. But I don’t believe it should look like ICE.In my plan I call for breaking up ICE and returning its enforcement functions to the Department of Justice. I’ve also called for specific changes for how enforcement in the interior would be done, for instance right now they have the authority to, within a 100-mile radius of the border, you know 100 miles that stretch from any point on the border, to do interior checks and enforcement, and I believe that power has been abused. And so I’ve called for curtailing that significantly.When you say their power has been abused, what do you mean by that? Do you have examples of what you’d describe as abuses of power by ICE?Sure, getting onto Greyhound buses and profiling people who they think look like immigrants. Harassing folks because they look a certain way. I completely disagree with that.So you’ve been an Obama administration official, you were the mayor of a blue city in a red state, and you’re a second-generation immigrant at a time when that issue is at the center of the American political conversation. So why do you think that you have yet to gain a lot of traction in the early polls?We haven’t had an opportunity yet to reach a larger audience. That’s the purpose of these debates that are coming up during July, the ones beyond that, and what I’ve seen is steadily increasing support in my polling, our fundraising has accelerated in the second quarter versus the first.I was starting this campaign from scratch, I hadn’t run for president before, I hadn’t run for Senate, didn’t have this huge email list which is so crucial to fundraising these days. So I’ve built this up from scratch, and now I’m getting stronger and stronger in this campaign. More people are coming to our events in Iowa and New Hampshire and the early states. We’re starting to get more media attention.We still have about 32 weeks to go until the Iowa caucus and haven’t had a single debate yet. It’s very premature in a 23 candidate field to assess whether someone’s gonna prevail on February 3rd in the Iowa caucus.So speaking of the large field, some people have argued that candidates such as yourself who have a strong background in the state where they’re from should’ve run for Senate rather than running for president first. Did you consider that, and what made you decide to run for president instead?I have a strong, positive vision for the future of our country. That’s where my experience is at, at the federal level as a federal executive, which the president is. So my experience directly matches the office that I’m seeking.Democrats have over the past few years, especially after the 2016 election, been accused of relying too heavily on what is often referred to as “identity politics.” How would you respond to that critique?Well that’s in the eye of the beholder. Identity politics can be sliced and diced in a million different ways. I focus on telling the truth, and painting a vision of what the country can become in the future if we make the right investments together in things like healthcare, and education, and jobs and opportunity.But I don’t shy away from addressing the fact that some people in different contexts are treated differently in this country. All of that goes together as far as I’m concerned. I don’t believe we need to choose between addressing economic issues, and addressing issues of social or racial justice.Speaking of economic issues, what would you say to someone who says, you know I’m not a huge fan of Trump, but the economy’s really strong and he’s doing a really good job with that, so why should I vote for someone else?The economy’s really strong in spite of Donald Trump, not because of him. Donald Trump is like the guy who picked up the ball at the opponent’s two-yard line, because Barack Obama carried it from the two-yard line of the home team to the opponent’s two yard line.When Barack Obama became president the country was losing several hundred thousand jobs a month. And we had the longest stretch of positive economic growth that his country has ever seen. So this president inherited tremendous forward momentum when it comes to the economy, and it’s not due to him that this country is doing well. In many ways it’s in spite of him.So you support Medicare For All, but there’s some confusion among the public about what exactly that entails. So I guess my question is, does that mean you support eliminating private insurance, or do you support allowing people to buy into Medicare?I support everybody who wants Medicare to get Medicare, and if somebody has private insurance that they want to hold onto, I believe that’s fine as well. What I don’t believe that anybody in our country should go without health care just because they’re poor, or don’t have resources. So I agree with those who have called for major reform in our system.Do you support eliminating the filibuster?Yeah. If the choice comes down to universal healthcare or adhering to a Senate rule that is not in the Constitution and has already been violated many times, then I’m going to choose improving the lives of millions of Americans by getting a universal health-care bill.The other great obstacle to any progressive legislation, if Donald Trump is defeated in 2020, is the Supreme Court. Do you support any changes to the court such as expanding the size limit, or instituting term limits, or anything like that? I’m intrigued by the idea of term limits. I don’t agree with expanding the size of it, because you know…we could expect Democrats to increase the size of it to 11 in 2022, and the Republicans will come back and increase the size of it in 2032. You know I think the more thoughtful approach would be to consider whether there should be term limits. I’m open to that.Has Donald Trump committed impeachable offenses, and if so, what are they?He has. As the Mueller report pointed out, there were 10 different instances where he either obstructed justice or tried to obstruct justice. And I’ve called for Congress to begin impeachment proceedings.The question for Congress and for the American people is, will there be any accountability here? Or is the new normal that we want from the United States president? I don’t think this should be the new normal.So you do think the House should impeach Trump despite the fact that, though the public seems to think he’s committed crimes, they are at the moment opposing impeachment?Yeah I don’t believe we should make our decisions based solely on public opinion polls. When somebody has committed these kinds of acts … opinion polls change all the time. Someone asked me recently about the way that public opinion polls changed as the impeachment process unfolded with President Nixon.If the American public has the opportunity in full to digest the actual findings and the content of the Mueller report, and they have testimony on that, I’m confident that more Americans will understand the gravity of the offenses, and why they’re impeachable.The Great Recession annihilated much of the wealth accumulated by middle and working class home owners, particularly black people and Latinos. And in many ways those communities still haven’t recovered—there was an article in USA Today about seniors being taken advantage of by private lenders. What can the next president do to address this problem?Make big investments in housing affordability and reform our laws in regard to our approach in regard to keeping people in their homes. We can invest in the FHA, which has been a tremendous asset for creating home ownership, particularly for African American and Latino families over the last few decades.And, we can learn the lessons in terms of the crisis, the housing crisis a decade or so ago—learn the lessons of the past, and not back off from the kind of regulation that’s gonna help ensure that that kinds of thing never happens again.The Department of Justice under the Obama administration levied some pretty heavy fines on banks that engaged in forms of discrimination—do you think they should have been more aggressive on the criminal side?For which acts are you asking about?Should the Obama Department of Justice pursued more criminal cases against banks that broke the law, or do you think its pursuit of fines on the basis of their conduct was sufficient?I think going forward they could do more—that a future administration could be more stringent, even tougher on them, and Americans understand that nobody should be—just as, organizations shouldn’t be immune to or outside of the law—nobody should be outside of or immune from punishment. So I do think if we had this same incident happen again, there would be executives charged.
World Edition - The Atlantic
China Is Cutting Tariffs—For Everyone Else
Lobster is Maine’s top export. Like many Americans with something to sell, Maine’s trappers benefitted from positive turns in China’s economic development. The movement of tens of millions of people out of poverty and into the middle class increased demand for a source of protein – and a Chinese New Year delicacy – that Maine could happily provide.Yet in the wake of President Trump’s trade war, American lobster sales to China have decreased by 70 percent. China’s 25 percent retaliatory tariff on American lobster was only the start. Beijing has actively helped Chinese grocers and restaurants by also reducing the costs to their finding new, non-American suppliers. It has cut the Chinese tariff on lobster bought from Canada, Maine’s fierce rival in the lobster business. As a result, Canada has seen its lobster exports to China nearly double. Maine may never recover its previously dominant position in this export market.This story is not singular. Trump started the trade war by levying new taxes on $250 billion of Chinese exports. China retaliated both by increasing the duties Americans face and by decreasing the tariffs that confront everyone else: It has cut tariffs on thousands of products from the rest of the world’s fisheries, farmers, and firms.Even as Tariff Man – as Trump likes to refer to himself—focuses only on disruption, Beijing is evidently operating on a higher level. China is outplaying the U.S. on two fronts.First, while Trump is on the verge of slapping tariffs on almost everything the United States imports from China, Beijing is picking and choosing wisely. It went to town on American soybeans, in part because it knew that Brazil and Argentina could provide ample alternative supplies. But it has left untouched other American exports that are more difficult to replace. China could, for instance, force its state-owned airlines to immediately shift from buying Boeing to European-based Airbus, but those companies would run into trouble accessing the parts and services needed to keep their costly existing fleets running. Beijing has therefore mostly spared the aircraft sector from retaliation thus far.Second, Trump has no real mitigation strategy to help the Americans facing the entirely foreseeable costs of his policies. Yes, he’s giving out tens of billions of agricultural subsidies—but that is of course a cost born by Americans, not international rivals. His separate trade restrictions on nearly $50 billion of steel and aluminum imports have only worsened the effects of his fight with China; these restrictions have burdened American farmers by raising the cost of the equipment needed for harvesting or storing the crops they are now unable to sell abroad. And he’s compounding this short-term pain with possible long-term damage to previously healthy international relationships: Those steel and aluminum tariffs have mostly targeted trade from allies like Europe, Canada, and Japan — not China. He also conducted a needlessly contentious renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and has threatened tariffs on tens of billions of dollars’ worth of Japanese and European cars.By contrast, China is helping its citizens by making new friends. One way to offset the rising prices to Chinese consumers otherwise stuck buying American is to lower their costs if they switch. On average, it is now 14 percent cheaper in China to buy something from Canada, Japan, Brazil, or Europe than it is from the United States. Beijing is making it worthwhile for its consumers to develop new commercial relationships. And once those new ties are formed, the Chinese may not bother to switch back.When Trump first began imposing tariffs in early 2018, his key trade strategist, Peter Navarro infamously said, “I don’t believe any country in the world is going to retaliate.” Navarro was wrong, of course, as foes (China, Russia) and friends (European Union, Canada, Mexico) alike all immediately retaliated against American exports.More worrisome than Navarro’s rhetoric was how it revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of how trade works. In each of its provocations, Trump’s team sees trade through the narrow lens of a two-country world: America versus whomever the administration has chosen to antagonize that day.America can easily lose even when there is no retaliation at all. Any time another country lowers its tariff to someone else – but not the United States – the global economy leaves America one step further behind.Trump chose this outcome once when he pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement in January 2017. The result is ranchers in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada now have access to the lucrative Japanese beef market and Americans do not. Beijing’s positive overtures toward America’s former economic allies suggest Trump’s unilateral approach toward China is likely to replay itself.Lobster may be the canary in Trump’s trade war coal mine. Maine’s Congressional delegation – made up of two Democrats, one Independent, and one Republican – has shown a spotlight on the industry’s hard times by requesting the Trump administration provide it with the same sort of federal assistance already doled out to farmers.Trump keeps pushing the rest of the world away and into China’s corner. China is enticing the world to stay.
World Edition - The Atlantic
My Embryos Are Different From My Children
Somewhere inside my fertility clinic’s laboratory, in a tank of liquid nitrogen, there are several vials with my name on them. The vials contain five embryos, frozen at the blastocyst stage since early 2013, when they were created from a single round of in vitro fertilization, or IVF, using my eggs and my husband’s sperm. I have never seen the vials, but my husband and I pay a storage fee—currently $45 a month—to keep them preserved. In the six-plus years we’ve had them in storage, we’ve paid more than $3,000 to the third-party company in charge of billing, administration, and what the company calls “disposition”: that is, what happens to the embryos when they are no longer part of our family-building plan.A human blastocyst is an embryo 0.1 to 0.2 millimeters in diameter, round like a soccer ball. It consists of about 100 cells, divided into an inner mass, which could become a fetus, and an outer shell, which could become a placenta. IVF patients whose cycles produce a number of embryos are often advised to allow them to reach the blastocyst stage, when doctors can determine which embryo has the best chance of implantation and development, before transferring or freezing them. Even at this stage, the chances are not great—about half of blastocyst transfers will fail to implant, or will result in a chemical pregnancy or miscarriage.During my IVF cycle, I kept a small black notebook with me during phone calls and meetings with our doctor and embryologist. I recorded the number, quality, and stage of development of our embryos in my most careful handwriting, and I taped four-leaf clovers, found on my daily river walks, in the pages that followed. Up to that point, those embryos were my most costly and meaningful investment. They were precious to me, because they represented what my husband and I believed was our best chance of building our family. We were extremely lucky—from the initial group of embryos, our two daughters were born: Beatrice in 2013, and Harriet in 2018. They are the great joys of our life.I think of the remaining five embryos often these days because we are at the “disposition” stage—our family is complete—and also because the question of embryonic personhood has made its way again into the courts. The “heartbeat” laws outlawing abortion after six weeks’ gestation in Ohio, Georgia, and other states were intended to provoke litigation. In a recent Supreme Court opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas evoked the eugenics movement and described the fetus as an “unborn child.” As others have noted, Thomas’s opinion signals receptivity to the ultimate test, and potential undoing, of Roe v. Wade, a ruling grounded in a woman’s right to privacy. If fetuses, or even embryos, are given the status of persons, her privacy won’t matter. All abortion and possibly some forms of birth control could then be deemed unconstitutional.Most Americans agree that women should have at least some access to abortion; we also agree that a cryopreserved blastocyst is not the same as a child. These moral judgments are meaningful. As the anti-abortion movement poses the question of fetal personhood, deciding what to do with our embryos has been instructive to me in thinking it through. Leaving those vials in the freezer would be unthinkable if a 0.1-millimeter embryo, or a pea-sized fetus, were truly a child. Instinctively, though, we know otherwise.The choices my husband and I have are as follows: donate our embryos to another couple or individual, donate them to medical research, thaw them and discard them, or continue paying for their storage indefinitely.Because we know, from years of trying, how hard it can be to overcome infertility, it might make sense to donate them; surely this would give someone else the same joy that we experienced. If we donate them to research, perhaps we could contribute, in some small way, to the cure for a debilitating disease. Or we could ask the clinic to thaw the embryos, and dispose of the remains (though we’d be wasting the opportunity for science to benefit from embryonic stem cells). For me, the only option that is completely off the table is what we are doing now—continuing to store them, at $45 a month.While writing this essay, I tried to find the black notebook which had once been so precious to me—the one where I listed our embryos and their stages of development, and where I taped a photo of the blastocyst that developed into my older daughter. I looked on my desk, in my dresser, and on the several bookshelves where I thought it could be. I didn’t find the notebook, but I did find many signs of my actual children: a song written by Beatrice, which I typed up at Christmas; books by Sandra Boynton and Arnold Lobel; some costume jewelry and paper fans; a canister of glitter, which I am always trying to hide from Beatrice; and the many crystals, rocks, and geodes that Beatrice is always trying to hide from Harriet. I realized that, for me, the embryos were not special, or meaningful, or worth protecting or preserving now that they are not part of my family plan.Abortion opponents commonly treat birth as the finish line, the point at which they can stop worrying about the welfare of a child and her mother (in North Carolina, where I live, the same politicians oppose Medicaid expansion, for example). But most parents, especially mothers, know that the finish line does not exist. My children, their friends, and every person walking or crawling on this planet have vast and often unaccounted-for needs that stretch far into the future. They need to breathe clean air and drink uncontaminated water. They need education and health care and healthy food. They need to be kept safe from gun violence. They need protection from the floods and hurricanes and tornadoes and fires that are terrifyingly more common and severe thanks to global warming. One day, they will need reproductive health care.Forty-five dollars a month is not much—I pay more each month to my phone bill, and to drive and park my car at work. But $45 would also buy books for a classroom library, compost bins for a community garden, or supplies for an after-school theater program. It could contribute to someone’s health care, including their reproductive health care. In the end, I would much rather take care of the people who are here now—the needy, beautiful humans who already surround us.
World Edition - The Atlantic
Trump Uses Chaos to Get Stuff Done
Of the many challenges facing anyone trying to understand Donald Trump’s presidency is the fact that it is maddeningly nonlinear, lurching several times each day between policy objectives that may be dictated by a Fox News anchor, a friend from Mar-a-Lago, or the prime minister of Norway. This was especially true in the first six months of his administration, when the chief political strategist Steve Bannon was at the height of his influence, while Reince Priebus wielded the chief of staff’s potentially awesome authority with all the gravitas of a substitute teacher.Then, in the summer of 2017, Priebus was fired and Bannon pushed none-too-gently toward the door. Under Priebus’s replacement, John Kelly, the Trump presidency on some days seemed almost normal. Kelly and his staff put strict controls on the flow of information into the Oval Office while also ending the open-door policy that Priebus had been powerless to curb.When Kelly left in December 2018, chaos, which had been held in abeyance for at least some of the previous months, returned in full force. One of the unending debates of the Trump presidency is whether Trump intentionally creates this chaos or is somehow helpless against it, against the very disorder he causes daily, if not hourly.The question of intentionality is impossible for anyone but Trump to answer, and he would surely answer it by claiming that he has had a plan all along. That would be a typically Trumpian boast. That aside, however, it is undeniable that the exhausting storms that mark political life in Washington obscure the ruthlessly effective work happening across the federal government.This article was adapted from The Best People: Trump’s Cabinet and the Siege on Washington, by Alexander Nazaryan.That should explain why, when I spoke with Bannon for my book on Trump’s Cabinet, he said he thought “Reince did a terrific job,” adding, “People said it was too loosey-goosey. Well, but that’s kind of Trump’s style. You have to let Trump be Trump.” Trump at his Trumpiest was Trump sitting at the Resolute desk, happily signing executive orders: to impose the “Muslim ban,” end the Trans-Pacific Partnership, accelerate work on the Dakota Access Pipeline. It was Trump tweeting about no collusion, trolling the media and the Resistance with every ungrammatical missive.“It was brutal,” Bannon remembered. “Every day was a knife fight.”Maybe it didn’t have to be so brutal, and maybe the knives didn’t have to come out every morning. The mere appearance of battle, whether with congressional Democrats, Wall Street free-marketeers, or most of Europe, has often been enough to distract journalists and the rest of America from what has been fomenting just beneath the surface.The diversionary maneuver has been so effective because Trump remains an object of intense public fascination. If nothing else, Trump is an effective distraction from Trumpism, which is to say a kind of raw modern Republicanism that has shed the last vestiges of its eastern-establishment roots. The more Trump acts like Trump, the more it seems to the rest of us that his administration is about to collapse into a heap of faux-golden shards, the more the Trump administration actually gets done.Just so, the news on February 14, 2017, was largely focused on Trump’s fleeting National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and the improper contacts he’d had with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition, as well as on whether Trump had tried to stop FBI Director James Comey from investigating Flynn.That same day, Trump and the Republican Congress rolled back a Barack Obama–era rule that required energy companies to disclose payments they received from foreign governments. They did so quietly—though hardly in secret—using the Congressional Review Act, the brainchild of Newt Gingrich. Passed in 1996, the law gives Congress 60 days to review any new rules. If it does not like the rule, Congress can vote to nullify it. Congress attempted to use the CRA against Obama on five separate occasions, but he leaned on his presidential veto powers to block each of these efforts. The CRA was not used at all under Bill Clinton, and only once under George W. Bush (to cancel a workplace-ergonomics program that Clinton implemented).Republicans were not reluctant to use the CRA against Obama’s regulatory legacy. Longtime conservative operators who’d joined the administration coordinated with leaders in the House and Senate on which rules to roll back. Trump was thoroughly on board, remembered the White House official involved in the effort. “I love it,” the president said. “Show me which ones we’re talking about.”In Trump’s first several months in office, Republicans used the CRA more than a dozen times. They repealed a rule that prevented internet companies from selling individuals’ data without their explicit consent. They undid the Stream Protection Rule, which was intended to keep surface mines from polluting waterways with the potential toxic products of their activities. They killed a mandate that employers report workplace injuries. And they made it easier to hunt bears in Alaska. Now you can shoot them from helicopters again.The press did cover these developments, but with nothing like the ardor devoted to Trump’s supposed cupidity, his inability to grasp the gravity of his office, his fawning over Russian President Vladimir Putin and other dictators. These reports portrayed an administration without captain and lacking rudder, adrift on seas. This was thrilling stuff. It was also enormously convenient to the Trump administration. News reports of dysfunction “were our greatest advantage,” explained a former White House official. (I granted him and other subjects anonymity in exchange for candor.)He cast the distractions as an actual strategy at work. Bush-era conservative operatives now fill the middle ranks of the executive branch, including deputy Chief of Staff Joe W. Hagin and deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. They seem to collectively understand that if they can keep the craft from crashing, they can steer it where they please, and that far more attention will be devoted to the turbulence than the destination.Law limited Trump’s authority to use the CRA. But nothing limited his administration from continuing to cause a “shit show,” as one West Wing veteran put it. By the summer of 2017, Trump’s Cabinet was in place (his first full Cabinet meeting was almost exactly two years ago). Many of his departmental chiefs exacerbated the appearance of chaos with their predilection for private jets, lavish security arrangements, and other trappings of power.Scott Pruitt, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, was the most baroquely corrupt of Trump’s Cabinet members, with close to 20 investigations into his behavior by the time he left office, in the summer of 2018. Ryan Zinke, former secretary of the interior, was close behind, with nearly as many investigations to his name when he offered his resignation, at the end of that same year. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross allegedly lied about his wealth; Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao allegedly lied about her investments. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo allegedly pressured the State Department to rent him a historic Potomac Hill mansion.These incidents, too, caused outrage, starting in the fall of 2017, when the grotesque travel expenses of former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price came to light. Yet even as Pruitt faced questions about why he wanted a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel—the question remains without an answer—his deputies dismantled protections for American waterways. Industrial chemicals that had been deemed carcinogens were suddenly deemed safe. Coal companies came back into favor. Pollutants were made great again.The story has been repeated across the federal bureaucracy. The Department of Interior practically gave away hundreds of thousands of acres of open land across the West, leasing it to energy companies for pennies on the dollar. But what do we remember about Zinke’s tenure? His crude “konichiwa” comment at a congressional hearing. His challenge coins and department flag. His bizarre tiff with a Capitol Hill neighbor bothered by Zinke’s idling SUV.What kind of person doesn’t want to read about a Cabinet secretary engaging in a parking row with a private citizen? Or about Trump wandering the West Wing in his bathrobe? The most dismaying thing about the “shit show” is how effectively it works, with Trump as the star of an enthralling drama whose most consequential developments are always taking place backstage.
World Edition - The Atlantic
The Moderate Men Waiting for Biden to Fall
Joe Biden’s Democratic rivals are hoping he tumbles. Many are confident that he will.No one needs Biden to fade more than the other white, male, moderate candidates who believe they’d be able to step in and take his place. To anyone who complains how hard it’s become for a white man with middle-of-the-road politics to find space within the Democratic Party, many would recommend the tiniest violin, strings removed. Theoretically, it’s both the most crowded and most dismissed lane, full of people currently competing to be the most memorable also-ran: Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, Representative Eric Swalwell of California, Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, and, to a certain extent, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.They’re getting punchy—in part because they believe they’re starting to sense Biden’s weakness, and in part because they believe there’s an opening for moderates, with so many other candidates largely following the lead of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont on progressive issues such as Medicare for All. For all the ways the 2020 Democratic primary race is like no election before, these candidates are still convinced it will still be like every other modern election, in that a white man from the middle will make it into the final round. And they think that there’s a way to energize voters around calls for compromise—though that’s not how modern American presidential politics works. When announcing that he wasn’t running for president in March, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that he didn’t think he could break through as a moderate—and he was ready to spend millions of dollars on a 2020 campaign. But the moderates who are running insist that this is their moment, despite what you hear on Twitter and in echo chambers on the left.“The Democratic Party is going through the process of deciding if we want Joe Biden to be the nominee or not,” former Representative John Delaney of Maryland told me, waiting to board the plane in Washington, D.C., for what was his 29th trip to Iowa a week and a half ago. “He has 100 percent name ID, he’s very well liked, and he’s polling really well. If the Democratic Party decides for a variety of reasons that he may not be the best nominee, then I think it becomes wide open for other, more moderate-oriented candidates.”[Read: John Delaney is playing the long game]Delaney has already been to all of Iowa’s 99 counties. He’s made another 19 trips to New Hampshire. He’s been going at it for two years, and so far, what he has to show for it is 1 or maybe 2 percent in the polls, and the notoriety among insiders for throwing himself so hard into running a race no one believes he can win. His biggest splash so far came from delivering a speech at the California Democratic Party convention earlier this month in which he opposed Medicare for All, only to be told on Twitter by New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the rising Democratic star, that he should drop out. When her office turned down Delaney’s offer to have a debate, her friend, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, jumped in, tweeting “No means no!”Delaney is a self-made multimillionaire from two companies he founded, and though he’s largely self-funding his campaign, he has nowhere near Bloomberg-level money. What Delaney believes he has, though, is the freedom and guts to say what most of his opponents won’t, such as the idea that most Americans don’t want to give up their private insurance plans, as they’d have to under the current version of Sanders’s Medicare for All bill.“Everyone is afraid to say it in the Democratic Party, but if our nominee runs on Medicare for All, the Republicans won’t be afraid to say it,” Delaney told me. “In fact, they’ll probably spend a billion dollars, sending messages to the American people that one of the most important things in your life, your health insurance, which 100 million people like, according to polling, the Democrats are going to make illegal.” Walking through the farmers’ market in Des Moines, I watched Delaney make this case to Jenny and Joe Newman, a couple who had driven an hour in from Ames to see several of the Democratic candidates speak. “I just don’t know why we’ve got to shock the system,” Delaney told them. “I agree with you,” Jenny Newman responded. Afterward, they told me they hadn’t realized that Medicare for All would get rid of private insurance, and Joe Newman said that working as a podiatrist, he wasn’t sure whether that was the best idea.If the Newmans’ sentiments are representative of a larger population, it’s theoretically good news for Delaney. But that’s a big if. After our conversation, I watched him walk five blocks back to his car through the farmers’ market, with not one person appearing to recognize him.[Peter Beinart: Nobody knows anything about ‘electability’]John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor, was also at the farmers’s market, also not making big waves of his own. At the same California convention at the beginning of the month, Hickenlooper was booed for speaking out against socialism. The former Denver brewpub owner began this particular trip to Iowa touring a new brewpub in Des Moines, where he interviewed the kitchen workers about their knife skills, asked what botanicals were used in the gin, and talked up his “three-legged stool” plan of nonprofits, businesses, and government working together. So what, I asked him, did he make of the argument that Republicans will call the Democrats socialists no matter what, so they might as well have the courage to back big changes, and not chase the supposed center? “They are going to call us that. That’s why it’s important that we say we’re not,” Hickenlooper told me. Maybe now, one of Hickenlooper’s aides had argued to me, was the “insurgency of the moderates.”Hickenlooper wasn’t sure about that phrase. “Sounds like a movie script,” he told me. He picked at an appetizer plate of charcuterie and olives at the restaurant on the top floor of the hotel where he and 18 other Democrats quickly made their cases at an Iowa Democratic Party event in Cedar Rapids. Sanders had just gotten the crowd cheering as he said, “We will not defeat Donald Trump unless we bring excitement and energy in this campaign, unless we greatly expand voter turnout, and unless we give millions of working people and young people a reason to vote, and a reason to believe that participating in politics will improve their lives.”That, Hickenlooper said, could actually be where Sanders will be the one out of sync with where the party is headed. “I thought the path of the discourse had obviously taken a turn—organically, I think that almost always happens. One side pushes an angle, and if there are enough people that have a different perspective, somebody sooner or later speaks up,” he told me. “At a certain point, you step back and you say, ‘Wait a second. I think the majority of people don’t agree with the orthodox view.’ Senator Sanders deserves tremendous credit for actually providing clarity to some of the biggest issues. He really put into focus the problem, and his solution. That captured so many people’s attention that many people adopted it without really putting it within their own framework of what they believe, seriously thinking it through.”So how, I asked Hickenlooper, was he proposing to capture people’s attention? He talked about an apprenticeship program he’d pioneered in Colorado that was now being modeled in other states, even as he lamented that “no one pays attention because my name’s not Bernie Sanders.”“We’ve created a politics of celebrity and of attention. Doesn’t matter why people are paying attention to you, people have to pay attention,” he said.[Read: Who are the moderate Democrats in Congress?]Hickenlooper’s fellow Coloradoan, Michael Bennet, is among those who do not want the “moderate” label at all, though Bennet has a health-care bill called Medicare X, offering Medicare as an option, and is mounting a campaign that rejects the burn-it-down, all-out-war mentality that has set in among many of the loudest voices in the party.“I reject the idea that they’re moderate ideas,” Bennet told me after speaking at the Iowa Democratic Party event in Cedar Rapids. “The more I’m in this race, the less I think it’s about ‘moderate’ versus ‘progressive,’ the more I think it’s about whether you’ve got a vision that is connected to where the American people really are or whether you’ve got one that’s really good at responding to what’s on the cable at night or on social media.”It’s not just on social media and cable news, though. Combine the polling numbers for all the straggler male moderates, and that still wouldn’t add up to Sanders’s share. And for all the predictions about Biden’s numbers collapsing, they haven’t.“You all said I was going to fail from the beginning,” Biden said in Iowa last week. He looked at me. “You, you said, ‘Biden is going to start off and he’s going to plummet.’” (Though he was pointing at me, I noted that it was other people who’d made the prediction to me in my reporting for other stories.)But so far, seven weeks into Biden’s third official run for president, that hasn’t proved true—though the polls don’t reflect the small size of the crowds he’s drawing, the lack of enthusiasm most people in those crowds have been demonstrating, or the loose commitment to vote for him that they walk away with.
World Edition - The Atlantic
They Cheered Russian Rule. Now Some Have Buyer’s Remorse.
Support for this article was provided by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.SIMFEROPOL, Crimea—One morning in February 2014, the 2 million inhabitants of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that was Ukraine’s premier seaside destination, woke to find a new set of flags flying in their streets. Overnight, Russian special forces had taken over checkpoints on the sliver of land that connects this territory to the Ukrainian mainland, and seized government buildings in the cities.The move was neither unexpected nor much decried in Crimea, where a majority of the population are ethnic Russians. Thin straggles of pro-Ukrainian protesters were outnumbered by huge hordes cheering for Vladimir Putin. Less than a month later, a referendum, widely criticized by the international community, polled overwhelming support for joining the Russian Federation, and the annexation was complete.[The strategy behind Russia’s takeover of Crimea]At first, Sergey Akimov, a stout 39-year-old with the kind of blue eyes that suggest sleepless nights, enthusiastically supported the change. In the weeks leading up to the takeover, as Kyiv’s control here crumbled, Akimov mobilized the local Cossacks, a centuries-old militia that has backed Russian separatism and aggressions right across the Caucasus. Under his leadership, they guarded army and police arsenals and patrolled the streets of Simferopol, Crimea’s administrative capital, in their surplus-store camouflage and distinctive boxy fur hats. They were dubbed Putin’s “little green men,” and when Russian troops arrived to complete the takeover, Akimov’s Cossacks were among the crowds welcoming them in Simferopol’s Lenin Square.Five years on, however, Akimov is one of the staunchest opponents of Moscow’s rule. Amid economic stagnation and a mounting crackdown on political dissent, a sense of buyer’s remorse is creeping into Crimea, with Akimov’s about-face only one of the most visible examples. And as Moscow moves to formally absorb Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the territories it annexed from Georgia a decade ago, and to recognize Transnistria, another Kremlin-backed breakaway region wedged between Moldova and Ukraine, as a fully fledged state, the Crimean experience sounds a warning that realities of life under Russia may not be all that Putin promised.[Russia's seizure is making former Soviet states nervous]Akimov, who describes himself as “a businessman,” has turned his efforts to lobbying for a second vote on Crimea’s future. In the original referendum, results showed that 95.5 percent of voters supported rule from Moscow, though at least 10 percent of the population boycotted the poll in protest at the takeover. Akimov told me he believes that should the referendum be run again, and run fairly, the split would now be about 50–50. “There will be a referendum, maybe in one year, or maybe in 100 years. But it will definitely happen,” he said.An imminent rerun, which would depend on Russia’s acquiescence, is unlikely, however—and that delay in a vote could have profound consequences for the results of any future referendum.According to some estimates, Crimea’s population has increased 25 percent since 2014, mostly due to an influx of military and state personnel from Russia who are, by definition, pro-Russian. In the same period, about 140,000 Crimeans, 9 percent of the 2014 population, have left the peninsula for the Ukrainian mainland. Many of them are members of the Muslim Tatar minority, who mostly opposed annexation and have since been targeted in a Russian clampdown. Should these trends continue, demography will decide Crimea’s future.Nonetheless, Akimov is moving turning his hand from a paramilitary organization to political leadership in a last-ditch attempt to turn the tide. He has taken his Cossack militia into an alliance with the Communist Party of Russia for the upcoming Crimean parliamentary elections in September—an unlikely coalition, he conceded, given that the Communists support the annexation. A small lockup that used to house a museum of Cossack history is now the nerve center of his political operation. Pale patches on the smoke-tinted walls mark where the exhibits of Cossack costumes and posters once hung, and on Akimov’s desk are piles of Spark of Truth, the Communist Party’s newspaper, which features a sketch of Joseph Stalin on its masthead.While it is highly improbable that Akimov can lead Crimea back out of Russia, Moscow has noted his change of heart. Akimov said he can no longer walk through the square where he cheered for the Kremlin’s Crimean takeover five years ago without being intercepted by Russian security agents. In 2016, he organized the first protest against Russian rule, for which he said he was detained for three days. He has been taken to court eight times since then, and warned not to meddle in Crimea’s politics. The day after we met, he called to say that he’d had yet another visit from the police.“I have three cell phones and six SIM cards and I swap them all the time, because I know my line is tapped,” Akimov said.The Cossack commander’s opposition to Russian rule over Crimea sometimes appears lonely. Days after grandiose Victory Day events in Moscow’s Red Square, held to mark the Russian victory over the Nazis in World War II, Crimea’s highways were still dotted with billboards for the local celebrations, showing a retro depiction of a Soviet soldier cradling a Kalashnikov and a bunch of flowers.Akimov was unimpressed by the display, which he said summed up all the pitfalls and hypocrisies of Russian rule.“Russia boasts about its missiles, but what does it offer for the normal people?” he asked.Superficially, the peninsula is flourishing under Russian rule. Moscow has built a huge new airport here in Simferopol and tethered Crimea to the Russian mainland with a 1.4-mile suspension bridge over the Kerch Strait. McMansions are popping up everywhere. Crimea’s economy was the fastest-growing in Russia so far this year—at least according to data collated by the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank with close ties to the Kremlin. By 2022, on the institute’s projections, Moscow will have ploughed $13 billion into the territory.But the new wealth is not evenly spread. While Crimea’s construction and manufacturing sectors—the ones that benefit most from Moscow’s huge infrastructure investments—have expanded by 20 percent since last year, agriculture, retail, and services have grown far more modestly, by 3 percent. Outside the often-corrupt elite, private enterprise has collapsed; 90 percent of small businesses have folded since 2014.“On the one hand, there has been enormous Russian investment: Moscow has spent way more in Crimea than the West has spent on Ukraine,” says Andrew Wilson, a Ukrainian-studies professor at University College London. “But there has been a lopsided result, and ordinary Crimeans are squeezed in the middle.”The changeover from the Ukrainian hryvnia to the Russian ruble has sent prices rocketing for Crimean locals. Shops have replaced cheap Ukrainian goods with expensive Russian-made ones. At the same time, Western sanctions imposed on Russia for the annexation have slashed the number of foreign tourists in Crimea, stunting what was a growing sector and major source of income before 2014.Akimov told me that the new businesses selling luxury goods are owned by people close to the authorities.“We don’t make anything ourselves any more, not even our own shoes!” he said.Yet patriotism and perception can still trump everything. Marita Mishina, a tour guide who once showed scores of foreign visitors around Crimea’s battlefields each summer, has seen her business almost wiped out as a result of the sanctions—yet she would not change a thing. Mishina, the wife of a former Soviet naval officer, is a Russian patriot who never even learned Ukrainian in all the years that Crimea belonged to Kyiv. Her hometown of Sevastopol, the most fervently pro-Moscow of any of the Crimean cities, has also seen the biggest Russian investments since annexation; its construction sector has swelled by 71 percent in the past year.“We used to get 50 cruise ships a year docking in Sevastopol, with up to 3,000 people on each ship,” she told me. “We don’t see foreign tourists anymore. But Russian rule has been good for us. There have been lots of investments. It has only brought good things.”Putin has also buoyed his reputation in Crimea with well-timed honed PR stunts, such as flying here in 2015 to switch the lights back on following a blackout caused by a Ukrainian blockade. It was he who cut the ribbon on the Kerch bridge. And in March, he led the celebrations for the fifth anniversary of the annexation by inaugurating two new power stations.[Putin celebrates Russian Victory Day by visiting Crimea for first time]This sanctioned peninsula is more and more cut off from the outside world. Simferopol’s new airport markets itself as international, but can only receive flights from the Russian Federation. International bank cards and cellphones no longer work here. Yet Putin’s publicity still finds a receptive audience.“You have to remember this—Putin is our first Russian president,” Mishina told me, as we wandered between the Soviet-era tanks that have been put on display at a memorial site just outside Sevastopol.Back in his lockup turned office, Akimov watched Putin’s latest TV appearance. The Russian president played an ice hockey match broadcast across all channels. Akimov shook his head sadly.“He plays hockey while the forests are burning,” he said, referring to the blazes that were tearing across several regions of the Russian Federation. “But people believe it. They can’t imagine what they would do without him.”
World Edition - The Atlantic
The Reinvention of a Downtown: Danville’s Story, Part 2
Previously in this series: why the ups and downs of economic history have left the southern Virginia town of Danville with a genuine problem (what to do after its big mills closed), but also a significant advantage (the physical infrastructure that those old tobacco and textile sites left behind, much of it quite beautiful.)Years ago, on the first reporting visit that my wife, Deb, and I made to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I mentioned that the city seemed “over-retailed” for a place of its size. That is, it had a super-abundance of malls, professional offices, restaurants, and other facilities. Why? As we learned, these reflected Sioux Falls’s emergence as the service-and-retail center not just for its own population but for the broad surrounding area.In a similar way, Danville can now seem strangely “over-warehoused,” with more century-old large, stately brick structures than you would expect for a town of some 40,000 people. The buildings sprang up in Danville because it was so prosperous a trading and manufacturing center from the late 1800s onward. And they survived largely because the city became so economically troubled that no one could afford to tear them down.Now many of them are being revived, reoccupied, and put to new use, as previewed here. The center of the activity is the “River District,” on the southern bank of the Dan River near the Main Street bridge. Decades ago, this was a center of tobacco trading and the textile business. One of the enormous factory buildings for Dan River Mills, known as the “White Mill” and abandoned for years, sits not far away.“If you were here ten years ago, it would have been obvious that we were a mill town without a mill,” Rick Barker, a Danville native and entrepreneur who is now a downtown developer of historic properties, told me this month. “Now we’re becoming something else.”What is that something? The purpose of this dispatch is give a few illustrations of a city in the middle of becoming, and some brief background on work that’s been done and work that remains.The Continental, site of a one-time tobacco trading, handling, and drying center. The structure also once housed a tobacco “prizery,” where tobacco leaves were pressed into tight layers for shipment. It is now being developed as downtown lofts. (Courtesy City of Danville.)1) How it started. “I think where things really got going was when we finally tore down the Downtowner,” Karl Stauber told me early this month.For the past dozen years, Stauber has been head of the Danville Regional Foundation, or DRF, which was founded in 2005 with the $200 million proceeds from the sale of a regional hospital to a private health-care firm and has been a major force in educational, cultural, and architectural development in the area ever since. (A year ago, Stauber announced that he would step down as the foundation’s CEO this summer; a DRF official named Clark Casteel will succeed him. For the record, we first learned about Danville, and talked with Stauber and Lori Merricks of the DRF, last year during a book-tour event and regional-development conference that their foundation sponsored. These new accounts are based on our recent return to Danville for a reporting trip. )The Downtowner, a standard “mid-century modern” motel, had long been an eyesore and blight-generator right in the center of Danville. Ever since it went out of business in the 1980s, city renovation plans had started with proposals to knock it down. Yes, this might seem at odds with efforts to preserve the 19th-century shops and warehouses in the vicinity. But to oversimplify: most people believed that the old buildings had timeless-classic potential, and the Downtowner did not. Take a look, below, and judge for yourself.The former Downtowner Motor Inn in the heart of Danville. It had stood vacant for a quarter century by the time it was demolished in 2012. “The Downtowner was a symbol of what was holding us back,” a local official says. A number of other buildings “are symbols of what is possible.” (Courtesy of Danville Regional Foundation.)In 2012, the city government, the regional foundation, and other organizations were finally able to act. “That really was a turning point,” Stauber told me. “The blighted structure symbolized what was holding us back. It represented the idea that nothing we tried would ever work. And we finalluy did away with it.” He went on to list other buildings, including a very popular downtown Y built with a view of the Dan River (described by Deb Fallows here), that, by contrast, “symbolized what was possible.”Around the time demolition crews began taking apart the Downtowner, only about 400 people worked or lived in downtown buildings in the vicinity. This area had been informally known as the tobacco warehouse district; about the time of the demolition, the city started referring to it as the River District. “Within five years [of the renovation effort], that number went to 4,000,” Stauber told me. “It’s right around 6,000 people in the River District now.”Foreground: the site where the Downtowner once stood, with part of a neon sign that once read “Home of Dan River Mills.” Background: the large white structure is the non-abandoned “White Mill” of the Dan River company. (Courtesy of Danville Regional Foundation.)Rick Barker, the entrepreneur and property developer, offered a complementary measurement. “There’s about five million square feet of building inventory in the River District,” he told me. “Back when the River District project began, probably four million square feet was entirely vacant, or under-utilized. There’s less than two million feet left now. So half the work has been done.”Hard economic and demographic indications — occupancy rates, office openings, retail and entertainment sites—obviously are crucial to judging any downtown area’s prospects. “But I keep thinking of the less-scientific measures,” Stauber told me. His foundation’s office is in a restored brick building that once housed tobacco operations, a block from a downtown plaza and fountain. “Ten years ago, you’d hear people say that they would only come downtown to pay parking tickets or get someone out of jail,” he said. But high school proms had happened on the weekend before our visit, and students by the hundreds came to the fountain to have their prom pictures taken. “That tells you something about what people perceive as the cool place to be.”It would be obvious to any visitor that downtown Danville still has a long way to go. But it’s obvious to us how much further it has gone already than many other places we’ve seen.Bridge over the Dan River and river walk, from outdoor dining area of the Cotton restaurant in Danville’s River District. (James Fallows)2) How it is financed. This will be old news to anyone involved in commercial real estate. But for us, visits to recovering (or decaying) downtowns have been an ongoing education in the role of tax policy as a prime mover in starting or changing urban trends. (For instance, see this previous report by our colleague John Tierney on Allentown, Pennsylvania.)Specifically in Danville, the tax policies that matter have been from two states, and the federal government. The states are Virginia, which offers builders a 25% tax credit for construction costs on historic-preservation projects like those in Danville — and neighboring North Carolina, which also had such a program but cut it back substantially five years ago. Both state credits come on top of a 20% federal tax credit for preservation projects, and in effect they dramatically reduced the capital costs for developers interested in restoring warehouses, abandoned factories, old shops, etc. (Do such tax preferences amount to “picking winners”? Of course. But given that just about everything in urban development involves a tax incentive of some sort, the program should be judged on its effects. Overall I’d argue that they have been very beneficial, but that’s for another time.)The Virginia program fostered renewal efforts like those in Danville (and Roanoke and Lynchburg and Charlottesville and elsewhere). The cuts in the North Carolina program (though later partly reversed) enticed developers like those who had transformed tobacco and textile works in Durham and Winston-Salem to look out of state. Virginia was right next door.Restored building, being used for now as indoor parking lot. (James Fallows)Lower construction costs obviously mean that developers can charge tenants lower rent, which in turn lets buildings be occupied more quickly, which in turns add customers and vitality to the downtown.3) A test case: Craghead Street. “Coming to Danville now, it’s probably hard for you to imagine what this street used to look like,” the designer and developer Rick Barker, told me at his office in the 500 block of Craghead Street, in the River District.“I can tell you that just five years ago, there were not two people in this city who wanted this building that we’re sitting in right now, or anything in the block.” The building we were sitting in, which Barker has turned into his office headquarters and is shown in a night shot below, now has a stylish hipness that would seem at home in any major city in North America or Europe. That office is on one end of the 500 block of Craghead Street; the shops and buildings along the entire block are part of a renovation effort, driven significantly by historic-preservation tax credits, that Barker’s company has underway.Craghead Street in Danville, at night. In the center is a former hardware store that is now the headquarters of Rick Barker’s companies. To the left, across the street, is the new Ballad brewery. (Courtesy of Supply Resources.)“This street was named for Doctor Craghead, who was one of Danville’s first city council members,” Barker told me. “Five years ago we said that we wanted to make sure that people stopped calling it Crackhead Street. Our goal was to take the least desirable commercial block in the Dan River District, and make it the most desirable business address in the city. And we are on the way.”At the other end of that block of Craghead, a restaurant called Mucho has opened up. A promotional video from the opening, which you can see below (or here), shows some of the reaction from both black and white patrons, in a city whose population is about 50-50 black and white.How much further will the downtown renewal go? As always, it depends. But the distance traveled already is much greater than we would have guessed before we visited.Main Street Plaza, in the River District. (Courtesy City of Danville)
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World Edition - The Atlantic
The Atlantic Politics & Policy Daily: Kirsten’s Best-Laid Plans
What We’re Following Today It’s Monday, June 17.‣ In what will likely be an advantage for Virginia Democrats, the Supreme Court today dismissed the Republican-controlled state legislature’s appeal of a lower-court ruling striking down parts of the state’s legislative map because of racial gerrymandering.Here’s what else we’re watching:Iran Responds: Today, Iran announced plans to start breaking from the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, unless certain conditions were met. The Donald Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” to force Tehran to back down hasn’t worked, reports Kathy Gilsinan. In fact, it’s done the opposite. “For almost a year, Iran looked set to hunker down and take the Trump administration’s repeated punches,” she writes. “But now Iran is punching back.”Closing the Gates: Harvard rescinded its offer of admission to the Parkland school-shooting survivor and conservative activist Kyle Kashuv, apparently in response to years-old racist messages from Kashuv, which surfaced earlier this year. Withdrawing an admission offer, while uncommon, isn’t unprecedented—especially in cases of bad behavior, reports Adam Harris.Rewind It Back: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been around long enough to remember what happened to the Republican Party when it impeached President Bill Clinton—and that’s informing her approach to the impeachment conversation surrounding Trump, former staffers and colleagues told Todd S. Purdum. “I know Nancy, and I know that she’s thinking to herself and saying, Goal No. 1 here is beating this guy,” said former Representative Tom Downey of New York, who has been close to Pelosi for years.2020 Check-In: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand isn’t where she thought she’d be at this point in the Democratic presidential primary. Usually a vigorous fundraiser, she’s lagging behind the pack in fundraising, she has yet to break 2 percent in the polls, and she reached the donor threshold to participate in the Democratic debates weeks after the self-help guru Marianne Williamson and the Internet sensation Andrew Yang, reports Edward-Isaac Dovere. Her campaign says it’s not worried—but many of her supporters are.— Olivia Paschal and Madeleine CarlisleWhat Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane(Mendelsund & Munday / The Atlantic)Five years ago, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished into the Indian Ocean, and we still don’t know why. The answer lies with officials in Malaysia, who know more than they’re letting on, William Langewiesche reports in The Atlantic’s July cover story: In truth, a lot can now be known with certainty about the fate of MH370. First, the disappearance was an intentional act. It is inconceivable that the known flight path, accompanied by radio and electronic silence, was caused by any combination of system failure and human error. → Read on.SnapshotThe Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at the Poor People’s Moral Action Congress presidential forum. (Susan Walsh / AP)Ideas From The AtlanticDebunking the Court’s Latest Death-Penalty Obsession (Garrett Epps)“There’s no doubt that death sentences usually lead to long delays. Are death-penalty lawyers really the reason for them? From my own reporting about capital punishment, the problem seems more diffuse. At very best, the recent spleen emanating from the Court’s right wing is bad manners.” → Read on.Tyranny of the 70-Somethings (Andrew Ferguson) “Sanders and Biden have made themselves the equivalent of the old dude cruising the pool at Club Med in his sagging Speedo, capped teeth gleaming, knobby shoulders and fallen pecs bronzed and shiny with tanning oil, gold chains twinkling through the chest hair. I’m not saying one of them won’t succeed in his quest—though I have my doubts about both—but in a saner world, it would be obvious that the quest itself is unseemly.” → Read on.An Abandoned Weapon in the Fight Against Hate Speech (James Loeffler)“Today, as American society grapples with a deadly resurgence of anti-Semitism, it is well worth recovering the lost history of Jewish civil rights. For just as the roots of contemporary hatred stretch far back into the American past, so too does the forgotten record of the law’s struggle against it.” → Read on.What Else We’re Reading‣ Elizabeth Warren Is Completely Serious (Emily Bazelon, The New York Times Magazine) (
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World Edition - The Atlantic
Taylor Swift Seems to Think Homophobes Are ‘Throwing Shade’
Since it debuted last Friday, Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” has bounced around in my head for exactly the reason a pop song should: the way it sounds. I like that the beat’s something a great beast might march to, slowly from one side to another, rumbling with each footfall. I like that the “oh-oh” swell of the chorus takes yummy harmonies, typically the key side dish in pop, and makes them the main course. I like the dry, silly way Swift drawls the strongest punchline of the track: “Like, damn … it’s 7 a.m.”But I’ve also been fixated on—uncalmed by, and maybe even losing sleep over!—what the lyrics say. Shout along with this brain bender: “Shade never made anybody less gay!”“You Need to Calm Down” is Swift’s grand LGBTQ-rights statement, released in the middle of Pride month with all the precision of a bank’s new credit-card rollout. The song’s second verse takes on homophobic demonstrators: “Sunshine on the street at the parade / But you would rather be in the dark ages.” The video, released today, has a legion of queer celebs doing famously queer things like sip tea, perform in drag, and get married in matching baby-blue tuxes. It closes with a plug to sign a petition for the passage of the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity.For a star whose greatest political controversy used to be that she had no politics, a single that namechecks GLAADis a real evolution, and it’s already reportedly having the concrete effect of boosting donations for gay rights. Yet fans seem equally fixated on the personal implications. Swift is the great champion of 2010s-eraheterosexual romance: Football players and cheerleaders, princes and princesses, and James Deans and good girls all paired up in her hits. But recent years have given riseto online speculation thatshe’s secretly canoodling with the model Karlie Kloss, leading to buzz that Swift might “come out” on her forthcoming album Lover. Thus far, though, her only coming-out has been as an ally: a straight person who marches for her queer friends.[Read: Taylor Swift’s ‘ME!’ is everything wrong with pop]Fifty years since the Stonewall uprising, allyship has become a tricky subject. LGBTQ folks desiring legal protections, cultural inclusion, social services, and all the other items on the gay agenda rightly welcome the help of straight people. Queer people used to mostly stand alone in advocating for those things, and it wasn’t long ago that a video like the one for “You Need to Calm Down” would have been assumed to be a career-ender for a performer banking on wide popularity. But public sentiment, the marketplace, and the dynamics of online communication have given queerness a trendy mainstream component. Big corporations like Target and Bank of America see anupside in advertising that involves rainbows and same-sex kisses. Big pop stars do, too.The fear for many queer people is less that allies might profit off them than that allies might change and defang what queerness means. The “A” in terms like LGBTQIA+ typically stands for “asexual/aromantic,” but it’s often mistaken for “ally,” which is a sign of the danger here: People with no personal stake, facing no germane struggle of their own, not only join the club but also begin to define it. If heterosexuals become overly important in the gay movement, then it becomes harder to talk, with precision, about what the movement is actually for. The cause becomes more vulnerable to criticisms of faddishness, or of style above substance: of ROYBGIV and sequins as empty aesthetics. Its colors, in a way, grow duller.Swift has shown some awareness of the risk of over-centering herself. She’s consistently linked her recent Pride-themed performances—including at the Stonewall Inn—with real activist efforts: writing her senator, directing people to a petition, driving donations. After the “Calm Down” video premiered, she tweeted out that fans should support the video’s co-stars, many of whom are queer, including Ellen DeGeneres, the actor Laverne Cox, the YouTuber Hannah Hart, RuPaul, and a group of RuPaul’s drag disciples. When rumors emerged that Swift and Katy Perry would kiss in the video, Swift shut them down, writing on Tumblr that “to be an ally is to understand the difference between advocating and baiting.”But the Perry flap hints at why queer folks have a right to feel queasy from the song. Just check out the discourse about the video on Twitter. It’s packed with people marveling, maybe more than anything else, at the climax: Swift and Perry, dressed respectively as french fries and a hamburger, hugging. The two onetime rivals didn’t do the classic stunt lesbian kiss, but they did splashily end one of the most epic celebrity feuds in recent memory. Thought this video was about gay rights? Nope, it’s primarily narrative management for superstars.The entire song, indeed, subsumes queerness into Swift’s narratives. Its breathtaking argument: that famous people are persecuted in a way meaningfully comparable to queer people. The first verse aims at anonymous tweeters sending Swift rude notes, making for yet another catchy gripe about “haters” in the lineage of 2010’s “Mean,” 2014’s “Shake it Off,” and much of 2017’s Reputation. The second verse is the one about homophobic protesters. The bridge addresses sexist pop fans and critics who pit famous women against each other: “We figured you out / We all know now we all got crowns.” (In the video, that portion is accompanied by drag queens playing divas such as Swift, Perry, Cardi B, and Lady Gaga, and they look great.)Online snarkers against superstars and in-person shouters at gay people—why are these two classes of people sharing a song? In Swift’s telling, they’re both, fundamentally, nasty. “I’ve observed a lot of different people in our society who just put so much energy and effort into negativity,” she said in an Apple Music video explaining the song. “This seems like it’s more about you than what you’re going off about. Like, just calm down.” This explains the headline-quotable line that “shade never made anybody less gay.”In the video, an unwashed-looking mob holds signs saying “Adam + Eve Not Adam + Steve.” In real life, Pride counterprotests feature yet-uglier slogans such as “God Hates Fags.” In either case, it’s wild to refer to such speech as “shade.” The modern usage of throwing shade originated with queer folks of color in underground vogueing scenes, went popular through RuPaul’s Drag Race, and now is a ubiquitous term for petty insults. Throwing shade is a social act, a performance, and it can be done out of genuine spite or—as when on Drag Race it’s a reality-show challenge—in good fun. There are many ways to describe a parent who disowns a trans kid, or a lawmaker who tries to nullify same-sex marriages, or a church member who crashes a gay soldier’s funeral. Shady isn’t one.Writing off bigotry as negativity—the word Swift used to describe what her song is attacking—probably isn’t helpful either.Homophobia is a real ideology with a real history. Telling homophobes they’re boring downers probably won’t sway them, and it’s hard to imagine such a message will comfort many of the people they target. Right here is the aforementioned meaning-drift, the dilution. “You Need to Calm Down” has, between its muddled metaphors, only one clear throughline: Swift’s struggles with criticism in the public eye are like that of gay people facing actual hate for being who they are. Huge social conflicts are thus boiled into a bland, unworkable battle between smiley rainbow people and “haters.” And if you’re annoyed at that, you’ll be told you need to calm down.
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World Edition - The Atlantic
The Sperm Donor Who’s Met 17 of His Kids
When Tim Gullicksen began donating to a sperm bank in 1989, he never expected to meet his biological children. He never imagined renting a 15-passenger van to take them to California’s Bass Lake every summer. Or envisioned the kids hiking, playing pranks, and competing viciously over silly games they invented together. But this July, Tim will—as has now become an annual tradition—rent that van, fill it with food from Costco, and take the kids out to Bass Lake for a week.The “kids” are 18 to 25 years old now, adults really. Some have been coming to Bass Lake for a decade.Over the years, they have found Tim in one of two ways: a website called the Donor Sibling Registry, which connects people by donor number, or, more recently, DNA tests from 23andMe or AncestryDNA. These tools have allowed many donor-conceived people to connect with their donors and donor siblings. But Tim, a 52-year-old real estate agent in San Francisco, is unusually involved, and the sibling group unusually tight-knit. When I asked if I could interview any of the siblings, he shot off a message in their Instagram group chat. Eleven of them quickly agreed.“I just feel really lucky. This is a really, really cool situation,” says Emma Walker, who met Tim after taking a DNA test four years ago when she was 16. She went to her first Bass Lake reunion in 2016. “It was overwhelming in the best of ways,” she says. “We pulled up in a car, and people just ran up to us and were hugging us.”As Tim remembers it, he decided to donate sperm after reading about lesbians looking for donors in a San Francisco gay-pride magazine. How great, he thought, to help families have kids. As a young gay man in the ’80s, decades before marriage equality, he didn’t think he would otherwise have children. But he soon learned that he could not donate to a sperm bank—for the same reason he could not donate to a blood bank. Because he had sex with men, he was seen as a risk for HIV.The controversial policy is in place even today, despite the fact that banks have long quarantined and tested sperm for HIV. It didn’t sit well with Tim, so he lied. He passed all the health screenings, began donating regularly, and for years, never thought about it much. His sperm went all over the country. Unlike other donors who do it mostly for cash, he did eventually want to meet his donor kids, but he didn’t expect to—at least not until they were 18 and came looking for him on their own.In the mid-2000s, Tim heard about the Donor Sibling Registry, and for the first time, he realized he might get to know his donor kids as kids. He signed up. He matched with a handful of the moms who had picked him as their sperm donor. Still, he says, “they all seemed really reluctant.” They had their own lives and their own families; they weren’t ready to bring in a stranger. He stopped checking the site regularly because he wasn’t getting regular messages.But Si’Mone Braquet and her 9-year-old son McKay were different. When Tim didn’t respond immediately to her message on the Donor Sibling Registry, she emailed the site’s founder, who, in turn, forwarded the message to Tim. He remembers her saying on their first phone call, “Your son wants to meet you.” Those words stuck him. “That’s the first and only time,” he says, “that someone who has gotten their donor sperm from me has referred to the child as mine.”Read: [The overlooked emotions of sperm donation]McKay had started asking about his dad when he was about 5. At school, he would make cards for Father’s Day, only to have no one to give them to—so he started keeping a “daddy box.” Once Si’Mone got in touch with Tim, father and son started talking for an hour every day. Tim came down to visit during his spring break. “I’m super nervous,” he recalls. “I have no idea what to expect.” McKay remembers waiting by the big window at the front of his house, scanning the street for his dad. For two strangers, even for two genetically related strangers, they hit it off. They rode bikes. They went by McKay’s school. And McKay gave Tim the daddy box.Once the other moms saw photos of Tim with McKay on the Donor Sibling Registry, they got comfortable with the idea of their kids meeting him, too. He started going to see other kids—a boy near L.A., a girl near San Francisco, and so on. He also began coming out one by one to their moms. “I was super nervous about it at first because I had lied,” he says, but none of them made a huge deal about it. Once, before Tim went out to visit McKay in Texas, Si’Mone’s family did bring up a photo that her family had found, of him with “cross-dressers.” He corrected her. “I was like, ‘Honey, they’re drag queens. They’re different because they have a sense of humor,” he recalled, laughing. It didn’t bother Si’Mone after that, and as the kids themselves have gotten older, they have also realized in their own time that Tim is gay. The siblings at Bass Lake in 2016. From left to right and youngest to oldest: Talia, Babu, Grace (the adopted sister of Ryan), Emma, Amelia, Thomas, Zack, Ryan, McKay, Britney (daughter of Tim’s cousin, Taylor, Sam, Sophia, Sarah and Joe (Courtesy of Tim Gullicksen)Tim started taking the boys and girls on separate group trips—Iceland, Paris, London, New York City—but he quickly became overwhelmed. So he hatched the idea for Bass Lake. Years ago, when Tim was young, his father would take the family camping there. The lake is a reservoir operated by PG&E, and the company’s employee association rents out the old workers’ cabins. In his 30s, Tim decided to revive the Bass Lake tradition for his family and friends, and soon started inviting his donor kids along. He has now met 17 of them. He has matched with several more donor offspring on 23andMe and Ancestry, and even more are likely out there.McKay, who has known Tim since he was 9, calls him “Dad.” “For me, it was definitely about having a dad,” he says, though he acknowledged that most of the siblings didn’t feel the same way. “A lot of the siblings weren’t as interested in the dad portion as they were in the siblings.”Amelia Meier, for example, wasn’t particularly curious about her father. But she did desperately want siblings. “I would do sweet but crazy stuff. I would give my mom my spare change—‘I’ll help you adopt a kid.’ I used to write notes to her. I used to write letters to fairies ... I would look at adopting sites and fostering sites,” she says. “I was very motivated.” Amelia’s mother was one of the first who got in touch with Tim on the Donor Sibling Registry, and Amelia began going to Bass Lake with her siblings in 2009. It seemed like her wish came true, I said. “Yeah,” she replied. “Yeah, it did.”As Tim’s donor kids got older, they have started finding him on their own, rather than through their moms. Sam Leicht learned she was donor-conceived when she was 16, when her parents were in the middle of a custody battle. She found Tim by tracking down his donor number. As they began to talk, he told her about all of her half-siblings and invited her to Bass Lake.Sam grew up with a twin sister (also related to Tim) but now she suddenly found herself with eight or nine more half-siblings. And naturally, she started looking up them all up on Facebook. “I actually made an Excel document of every name and face, just so I could get them straight before I met them all,” she says. They started chatting on Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat. She met them all for the first time at Bass Lake in 2015.Read: [The changing norms around donor sibling networks]Sam wasn’t sure exactly how to describe her relationship with Tim, which isn’t quite that of a father and daughter. “He’s kind of my funny gay uncle,” she says. Growing up in the Midwest and going to Catholic school her whole life, Sam hadn’t known a single person who was gay and out. But several of the siblings are also queer, and several had been raised by lesbian moms. Sam came out during her senior year of high school. “I don’t think I would have had as supportive of an environment for getting on that path to self-discovery if I hadn’t known all these lesbian moms or Tim,” she says. She had messaged Tim about coming out to her parents, and the two of them talked about it a lot as they got closer.Sam is 21 now and in college in Portland, which she also credits to Tim’s influence. “I always thought my own life would be on the East Coast or in the Midwest,” she says. But she came out to visit Tim in San Francisco, came to Bass Lake, and fell in love with the landscape. She ended up applying to a few schools on the West Coast, and it all worked out. “I’m outside my house right now and there’s giant pine trees all around. It’s gorgeous,” she says.After Emma found her half-siblings in 2015 through an AncestryDNA test, she remembers seeing a photo of Sam, in which she immediately recognized herself. “She looks so much like me. It was so freaky and cool,” she says. Emma recently graduated from college with a degree in sociology, and she’s gotten interested in studying donor-conceived people. For her, going from a small, quiet family with one sister to a big, loud group of siblings was new and strange and exhilarating.The one word that the siblings kept using to describe themselves is “competitive.” “Anything that is compete-able is competed,” says Amelia. At Bass Lake, they’ve spent hours competing to balance the longest on a floating log or an inner tube being pulled on a boat. And for the rest of the year, they have Snapchat. A couple of the brothers have years-long Snapstreaks with one another, and recently, they’ve been trading high scores for games inside the app. Tim is in the Instagram group chat, but Snapchat is kids only, they told me. After all, says McKay, “It’s pretty weird when any grown man has Snapchat.”Tim, for his part, is a consummate planner, and he is already thinking about how the Bass Lake tradition will continue when the siblings have relationships and families of their own. He has created something bigger than he could have known. “Bass Lake was more out of efficiency,” he says. “And I realized a few years into it, their connection with each other is more important, which is an awesome gift.”
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World Edition - The Atlantic
Introducing The Atlantic’s Daily Idea
June 17, 2019 (Washington, D.C.)—The Atlantic today introduces The Atlantic’s Daily Idea,a new smart-speaker skill for Amazon Echo and Google Home that intends to delight and surprise listeners with something unconventional: a single, illuminating idea. The skill will deliver a different story every weekday, drawn from among The Atlantic’s most memorable and compelling recent reporting.Every weekday, when people ask their smart speakers to play The Atlantic’s Daily Idea, they’ll hear a condensed, one-to two-minute read of an Atlantic story, be it “An Artificial Intelligence Developed Its Own Non-Human Language” or “The Case for Locking Up Your Smartphone.” The skill will include reporting from across The Atlantic’s science, tech, health, family, and education sections, as well as the magazine’s archives, representing the work of dozens of writers.For more info, add The Atlantic to your smart speaker’s news briefing or visit TheAtlantic.com/DailyIdea.The Atlantic’s Daily Idea joins The Atlantic’s growing audio platform, which includes the weekly news and politics podcast Radio Atlantic and the series Crazy/Genius, currently in its third season with host Derek Thompson. The Atlantic is also in production on its first long-form narrative podcast, which will examine Hurricane Katrina and be reported and hosted by staff writer Vann R. Newkirk II. The podcast will be a limited-run series and will launch in the fall.Capgemini, a global consulting, technology-services, and digital-transformation company with 40 offices across North America, is the exclusive sponsor of The Atlantic’s Daily Idea. The company’s commitment to the field of AI makes it a natural fit for the smart-speaker initiative.###Media ContactHelen Tobin / The Atlantic646-539-6706press@theatlantic.com
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World Edition - The Atlantic
Instagrammers Are Exploiting the Sudan Crisis
As the political crisis in Sudan deepens, Instagram users are flocking to accounts that claim to be helping. @SudanMealProject, the largest of these accounts, racked up nearly 400,000 followers in less than a week; it is joined by hundreds of similar accounts with copycat names like @SudanMealProjectOfficial, @SudanMealOfficial, @sudan.meals.project, @mealsforsudan, and @Sudanmealprojec.t, each of which have amassed tens of thousands of followers."We’re committed to donating up to 100,000 meals to Sudanese civilians," @SudanMealProject’s bio read. The account’s only post promised that "For every STORY REPOST this post gets, we will provide one meal to Sudanese children, and you will help spread awareness on what’s happening in Sudan."But according to Joe English, a UNICEF communications specialist, no one can send meals to Sudan in the way the viral Instagram accounts claim. When reached for comment via Instagram direct message, the administrator of @SudanMealProject could not provide any proof that the account was working with any aid organizations, nor could the administrator back up any of the claims made in their posts. “What I am obtaining is followers and exposure,” the administrator for @SudanMealProject told me. “...I love how the left likes to twist these stories.”The administrator later deleted account’s post, updated its bio, and changed its handle to @SudanPlan. After The Atlantic contacted Instagram about the account, the company removed the account for violating its policies. Many copycat accounts are still live.Sudan has been ravaged by violence since its former president, Omar al-Bashir, was ousted in a military coup in April. On June 3, the conflict boiled over when scores of protesters were killed. including 26-year-old Mohammed Hashim Mattar. His Instagram avatar at the time of his death was steel blue and, after he was killed, the color became a symbol of the pro-democractic uprising. Hundreds of thousands of users have made their profile photos blue in a sign of solidarity.In addition to misrepresenting their intentions, these accounts are also sowing misinformation. A since-deleted post on @SudanMealsProject, copied and shared elsewhere, stated that "more than six million people need urgent food assistance”—but that figure refers to South Sudan, not Sudan. It also stated that “near-famine conditions are predicted in four of Sudan’s states." This also is only true of South Sudan, which has been a separate independent nation since 2011. “It's difficult to argue that [these campaigns] are effectively raising awareness when they're using facts and figures relating to an entirely different country,” said English.Even the very premise of the Sudan Instagram accounts is flawed: While many of the initial protests last year in Sudan did focus on fuel shortages and rising food costs, they quickly became about freedom and democracy, not food. According to English, the latest estimates suggest Sudan is home to 5.5 million food insecure people—but, he said,“there has not been a famine declaration in Sudan since the early 2000s." View this post on Instagram A post shared by diego ✨ (@ramenqwerty) on Jun 14, 2019 at 10:07pm PDT When tragedy breaks out, it’s natural turn to social media to find ways to help. But legitimate aid organizations—most of which don't have the social media prowess of top Instagram growth hackers—are no match for the thousands of Instagram scammers, meme account administrators, and influencers who hop on trends and compete for attention on one of the world’s largest social networks.Some Instagrammers change their name, avatar, and bio to a trending term in order to gain followers. For example, earlier this year, when a photo of an egg became the most-liked picture on Instagram, many users capitalized on the moment by changing their display name to World Record Egg and their avatar to the egg. Because users typically click the first accounts they see in the search box, hundreds of thousands followed copycat egg accounts—which then swapped their display name and avatar after the trend died out.One of the Sudan accounts, @sudanese.meal.project, is promoting a streetwear clothing resale group. Another, @SudanMealOfficial, has changed its name several times before.Nico—a 15-year-old whose last name The Atlantic is withholding because of his age—founded an account called @exposinginstascams to shine a light on these practices. He has used his account to report people promoting fake environmental charities, and when he saw posts about Sudan pick up last week, he recognized the scam immediately and began posting about it to his feed. After he saw some Sudan-related accounts asking for money via PayPal, he created a GoFundMe with all money going directly to The International Rescue Committee. He hopes it can provide people with a more legitimate way to donate. As I wrote this, it has raised just $21. View this post on Instagram I’ve spent the past few hours compiling all these accounts. I cannot tag all of them but this is what the situation of scams has come to. It’s disgusting how people can use this crisis for attention. CORRECTION: @sudans.uprising is real. Please share this post so we can raise awareness for all these scams. Thank you for all the support. A post shared by Exposing Instagram Scams (@exposinginstascams) on Jun 15, 2019 at 5:50pm PDT As Nico and others have started to name bad actors, some of them have already begun cannily cashing in in on the backlash, swapping their handles to names like @fakesudanmeal.project and @fakesudanmealprojects_. “Share our account to spread awareness that [@Sudanmealproject] was fake,” a story post by @fakesudanmeal.project reads.According to English, the best way people can help is to amplify the voices of actual Sudanese activists and organizations already working in the country, such as Save the Children, UNICEF, and The International Rescue Committee. And, he added, at the least, users should fact-check posts before they share them.
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World Edition - The Atlantic
Dear Therapist: My Daughter Desperately Wants to Meet the Child She Put Up for Adoption
Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com. Dear Therapist,My daughter gave a child up for adoption about 25 years ago. She already had one child, and although I offered to help her raise both children, she felt it wouldn't be fair to us or to the baby, so she gave her up to a very nice couple, whom we both interviewed and liked. The couple has kept in touch with us both over the years, sending pictures and updates on their daughter.My daughter always felt that in time the child would want to get in touch with her, and in fact, her adoptive parents have encouraged this, but the girl has always said she didn't want to. This is very painful for my daughter. Can you give us an idea as to why the young woman might not want to meet her birth mother, or offer any explanation that would make my daughter feel less rejected? She has even tried contacting her on Facebook, and the response was that Facebook was not an appropriate place to discuss this relationship. But no reciprocal contact has ever been made.LynneOakland, CaliforniaDear Lynne,I’m glad you’re curious about why the woman your daughter put up for adoption 25 years ago might not want to meet her birth mother. I say this because you write about your daughter’s pain and feeling of rejection, but I’m not sure that your daughter has a good sense of how her adopted child might feel—not only about this meeting, but about the circumstances that led to the adoption and her life since then.Something to consider: Adopted children don’t get to choose whether or not they are adopted, or what family they’ll end up in. Adults make these choices for them. Given their lack of choice in what happened, making their own decisions about how to handle their experiences later on matters greatly.Of course, different adoptees will make different decisions, for all kinds of reasons. But too often, adults try to dictate how they should feel and what they should do with regard to their birth parents. Sometimes it goes something like “You shouldn’t try to find your birth parents; after all, your mom and dad will be so hurt.” Other times it might be “Don’t search for your birth parents, because it might disrupt their lives or that of their families. They chose a closed adoption for a reason.” Or: “You should definitely search for them, because you’ll regret it later if you don’t.” Or: “How can you refuse to meet your birth parents? Don’t you realize how lucky you are that they’ve reached out and you have the opportunity to know them?” None of this, of course, respects the feelings of the person who was adopted.Right now, there doesn’t seem to be much regard for your daughter’s biological child’s wants or needs—your perspective seems to be all about your daughter’s desire for this relationship. In fact, there’s so little regard for this young woman’s feelings that your daughter, despite knowing that her biological child has consistently said she’s not interested in meeting, reached out to her on Facebook.As for why someone who was adopted may not want to meet her birth mother, the reasons are as varied as the individuals involved. Some adopted children feel angry or abandoned by the birth parents, especially if there are other siblings who stayed with one or both biological parents, as is the case here. (This may feel like being the “unwanted child.”) Some adoptees don’t have those feelings—they are living a perfectly happy life—but there’s fear of the emotional turmoil such a meeting might bring. It could raise new questions of what might have been; it could reveal information that the adoptee would rather not have known; it could start a relationship that doesn’t work out, resulting in a loss that could be quite painful on top of whatever feelings of loss the adoptee already has.I’ve also heard from some adoptees who have met their biological parents that they found the experience disappointing. Despite imagining that they’d have a lot in common with their biological parents, upon meeting they felt as though these people were aliens with different interests, worldviews, personalities, and values—leaving them with a sense of emptiness. Some have told me that they would have preferred to maintain whatever fantasy they had of their biological parents rather than be faced with the much starker reality.All of this is to say: A lot can go wrong, so it makes sense that some adoptees would choose not to be in contact with their biological parents. But whatever this young woman’s reasons, she doesn’t owe your daughter an explanation. It’s not her job to meet your daughter’s emotional needs.Instead, gaining a better understanding of what those emotional needs are might help your daughter feel less pain about not meeting her biological daughter. I imagine that she has a lot of complicated feelings about the adoption that perhaps she doesn’t fully understand, and talking to a therapist about them might not only lessen the intensity of the longing but also help her consider what she’s asking of her biological daughter and why.Finally, it’s worth mentioning that your daughter’s biological child may feel differently about reaching out at another juncture in her life. She may have some questions about the family’s medical history one day, or decide that she wants the experience of seeing her biological mother face-to-face. If that time does come, it will be important to focus on her needs. There’s a difference between a phone conversation and a meeting, and between a meeting and embarking on a relationship. The less this woman worries that her biological family might want more from her than she’s willing to give—which is likely how she feels now—the more open she might become one day to making contact. But even if she doesn’t, the most loving thing you can do for her is to honor her choice.Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.
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World Edition - The Atlantic
‘Giving You Salt’: The Most Powerful Moment on Big Little Lies So Far
This article contains spoilers through Season 2, Episode 2 of Big Little Lies.In the fall of 2017, in response to the expansion of the #MeToo movement, a series of articles sprang up advising parents how to talk to their children about sexual assault. Start the conversations when the kids are young, the articles commonly advised. Acknowledge that the conversations might make the kids feel uncomfortable, but don’t let the discomfort be an excuse not to have the dialogues. The advice varied, but one thing they shared was an air of resignation about the topic at hand: The only thing worse than parents’ failure to protect their kids from the world, the articles suggested, would be their failure to prepare them adequately for its sad realities.On yesterday’s episode of Big Little Lies, viewers saw that tension in action—in one of the show’s most quietly magisterial moments to date. Single mother Jane Chapman (played by Shailene Woodley) found herself having to talk to her son Ziggy (Iain Armitage), one of the second-graders at Monterey’s Otter Bay elementary school, about sexual assault—because another secret, in a city where coastal fog doubles as a metaphor, had been revealed: Ziggy had learned that Perry Wright, a father at the school who had died at the end of Season 1, is his father. And Ziggy had learned the news not from Jane, who herself had only recently discovered her rapist’s true identity, but rather through gossip. Chloe, the precocious daughter of Jane’s friend Madeline, had overheard her mother talking to Jane about Jane’s assault—and Chloe, being a girl fashioned fully in her mother’s image, had passed the information along to Ziggy.[Read: ‘Big Little Lies’ ponders what makes a man]And so, in Sunday’s episode of Big Little Lies, the revealingly titled “Tell-Tale Heart,” Jane finds herself required to do what she has for so long been desperate not to: Tell Ziggy the full truth about how he came to be.The scene that results is subtle and spare. Jane finds her son in his bed, its pillows decorated with humpback whales, its frame painted with a soccer ball—a setting full of the cheerful iconography of a kid’s refuge. Ziggy tells her that he’s known since August that Perry is his father. He tells her that he heard the news from Chloe.“Did Chloe tell you anything else?” Jane asks.The camera moves shakily, framing mother and son, close-up, in the light of Ziggy’s bedside lamp.“She said something about Mr. Wright giving you salt. That’s how I happened. He salted you.” Jane takes in this bit of heartbreakingly childish confusion. She shakes her head, turning away from her son so he won’t see her cry. Ziggy studies her face intently. The camera halts and hovers. “No,” Jane says, finally, wiping her eyes with the sleeves of her sweatshirt.“Then what’d she mean?”Jane lays down next to Ziggy, cradling his head in her arms. The camera keeps its gaze on Ziggy’s face as his mother gives him a reluctant lesson about the world and its workings. She draws in a breath. “I think what Chloe said was the word assault.”“What does that mean?”We never hear Jane’s answer. Instead, the camera cuts away. The flashbacks that have become so familiar in the show—the hotel room; the assailant slamming the door; Jane lying face-down in a bed, her face streaked with mascara and tears—flash on-screen once more. A wave crashes. Big Little Lies is a show that is deeply concerned with questions of privacy and publicness, about surveillance and its consequences. The show’s decision to allow Jane privacy with her son in this most intimate and difficult of conversations is in one way a gesture of respect for her—she is one of the few characters on the series who doesn’t come in for some kind of subtle mockery. But it also means that the viewer is left to do the work of filling in the chilling blanks. Not ‘give you salt.’ Assault. The mother having the talk with her son not about birds and bees, but about injustices and violence, in the son’s bedroom, surrounded by the familiar trappings of youthful innocence. The humpback whales swimming merrily on Ziggy’s pillow are characters in the scene, as well. They add to its muted pathos.The scene is made all the more powerful because, in the hermetic universe of Big Little Lies, children are often, precisely because of their childishness, privy to an intuitive kind of wisdom. In Sunday’s episode, Skye, the daughter of Bonnie and Nathan, asks her mother whether Bonnie and Nathan are getting divorced; the young girl has sensed that something isn’t right between her parents, as much as both have tried to shield her from their problems. Similarly: “You don’t like to talk about it,” Celeste’s son Josh tells her, as she and the twins, over one of their long and moody car rides, discuss Perry’s death.“That’s not true,” she replies.“You like to pretend everything’s okay,” the second-grader insists.“Well, we’re a family,” Celeste says. “And a family is meant to be open and honest with each other.”Max, Josh’s twin brother, chimes in: “I don’t think we’re that kind of family.”He is, of course, deeply correct. And his precision makes for a telling inversion: children who understand things more clearly than their addled adults do. The kids in the show often serve as reminders that even the most well-meaning parents can shield their children from only so much, and for only so long; that is one of the more latent tragedies lurking underneath the show’s bigger ones. Ziggy, too, is wise (he tells Jane, earlier in the “salt” scene, that he hadn’t told her he’d learned about his true parentage because “I figured you’d just lie”—and he has, of course, good reason to assume that). In his confusion about “salt,” though, Ziggy is tellingly young. He evokes childhood in its most hopeful and fantastical form: brand-new, unbothered, blissful in its ignorance.Big Little Lies is at once a soap opera and a sitcom and a gimlet-gazed commentary on capitalism and its consequences. But the show is also, humming at its lower registers, a work of horror. It talks often about monsters—in the churning seas, in the foggy skies, in the shadowed spaces where people live their lives. It frightens not through jump-scares, but by way of more intimate invitations to anxiety. On Sunday, viewers watched as a child learned that he exists because of “salt.” And on Sunday, as well, we watched as his mother, tearfully, began to disabuse him of his misunderstanding. What could be more horrifying?
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World Edition - The Atlantic
It’s a Winner-Take-All World, Whether You Like It or Not
Not long ago, I reached out to a writer I respect, and posed the uncomfortable question authors find themselves forced to ask: Would she write a blurb—the endorsement you see on the back cover—for my new book about how a person can navigate a career in the winner-take-all economy of the 21st century?She declined. She felt strongly that this winner-take-all dynamic needs to be fought, not embraced. She argued, in essence, that I should have devoted my labors to tearing down a system in which a handful of giant companies and the highly compensated people who work at them dominate the world economy, rather than teaching people how to game it.She has a lot of company.Leading Democratic candidates for president have made attacking big business, and the power it wields, central to their campaigns. Republicans are on board, at least as it pertains to the power of the big tech platforms like Facebook and Google.And among economists, the evidence keeps building that the concentration of major industries among a handful of superstar firms may be connected to deep economic dysfunctions. When there are fewer employers in an industry, for example, they have more power to depress workers’ wages. Big dominant companies may focus more on defending what they have than on generating the kinds of innovations that drive economy-wide productivity growth. And the rise of superstar firms is likely related to the rise of superstar cities and the hollowing out of many local economies.[Read: One reason workers are struggling even when companies are doing well]This is important and persuasive work—much of which I’ve written about in my day job as an economics writer at The New York Times. But in all the piling on, I fear something really important is missing from the conversation. The rise of superstar firms is rooted in fundamental technological and economic shifts that are mostly desirable. And policy changes aimed at limiting the downsides of corporate concentration—an important goal—wouldn’t restore an economy built on local, artisanal companies. They would instead leave us with a slightly larger variety of very big, technologically advanced companies dominating the corporate landscape.The wave of trust-busting and rise of unions in the early 20th century removed some of the industrial economy’s worst downsides, but industrial capitalism boomed over the ensuing decades nonetheless. Similarly, the crucial question facing ordinary Americans, no matter how the debates over corporate power play out in the years ahead, is how to harness this reality to have fulfilling careers.That’s what my book set out to help them do—showing how cultivating adaptability and the ability to connect different type of technical skills in team-based work is crucial to thriving in these organizations. If we want to be successful in the corporate world of the 21st century, we need to make sure we know how to work in the types of large, information-driven organizations that, one way or another, are going to remain central to the American economy.Our careers depend on it, whether we like it or not.Americans tend to take the advantages big companies confer for granted because they are so embedded in our daily lives. That’s because the rise of big, technologically advanced, well-managed companies that dominate their industries isn’t just a story of rapacious capitalists looking to take advantage of their workers and distort government in their favor. It’s also a story of growing abundance.More and more industries are built off of intellectual, rather than physical, capital—in ways that make the goods and services we purchase better in all kinds of ways. And it’s the scalability of these businesses that increases the quality of their offerings and reduces costs for consumers—in the process, producing a winner-takes-all economy. A software company might spend millions of dollars to develop code that can then be endlessly replicated; a moviemaker can invest a fortune to make an action movie that can then be viewed by countless people for minimal additional cost.That pattern also applies in areas that may not seem like information industries. When you choose a bank based on whether it has a good mobile app and a wide network of automatic-teller machines, banking becomes more of a winner-take-all information industry. When Walmart’s global supply chain allows a person with a modest income nearly anywhere in America to buy a greater variety of fresh produce than people a century ago consumed in a lifetime, it entrenches retail as a winner-take-all information industry. When General Electric employs thousands of engineers to create the technology for a jet engine that saves fuel and almost never fails, it is very much part of a winner-take-all information industry.[Read: Why America’s richest cities keep getting richer]The technology that makes those things possible demands immense investment, massive forces of specialized labor, and complex management structures to make it all work. And those markets tend to favor fewer, more dominant players. They all exhibit positive returns to scale, in which greater size makes a business more efficient rather than less. In each of these examples, the sheer scale of the biggest banks, retailers, and jet-engine manufacturers makes their products inherently more desirable than those of most upstart competitors.Or consider the hotel business. It is a prime example of a once-fragmented industry that has become dominated by superstar firms. In 1997, the top five lodging companies in the United States controlled 43 percent of hotel rooms, according to data and analytics company STR. By 2017 that had risen to 52 percent. Just three companies—Marriott International, Hilton Worldwide, and Choice Hotels International—have 2.6 million hotel rooms, 15 percent of the world total, and are all headquartered within a 20-minute drive of each other in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.But when you look at the forces that have driven that consolidation, they aren’t necessarily pernicious. A hotel room is full of physical capital—the building itself, the furniture in the room. But more and more of what you’re buying when you book a hotel room is more ephemeral. You want to be able to book your room on an easy-to-use mobile app, and maybe even use it to check in. You want to have confidence that the room will be clean and the mattress comfortable, even if it is a hotel you’ve never stayed in. You want to accrue loyalty points that can be used across the widest possible network of other hotels.So the terms of competition have shifted in ways that favor a smaller number of large hotel companies and disfavor independent properties or small chains. Big global hotel companies can hire a bunch of talented software developers and product designers to build their mobile apps, then spread the benefits of that labor across thousands of properties. They can enforce quality standards across those hotels so that when you check into, say, a Hilton Garden Inn in a strange city, you know exactly what you’re getting. And their scale allows you to accumulate points on your business trips to Cleveland that help pay for a future vacation to Bali.Tellingly, the ownership, as opposed to management, of hotels remains widely dispersed among different types of institutions. And it is those owners of the hotel real estate who vote with their feet, concluding that the (quite high) fees the big hotel chains charge for management services are worth it compared to going independent.[Anand Giridharadas: The win-win fallacy]It would be foolish not to acknowledge these shifts—and similar ones in nearly every other industry—in strategizing about your career. In studying how things work at many of these superstar firms for my book, I found that there are particular traits a person needs to cultivate in themselves to be successful within them.For example, it’s important for even low- and mid-level workers to understand how their work fits into the broader corporate strategy of their organization—understanding the shifting economics of a business isn’t just for senior executives anymore.And, relatedly, there is particular value in being a “glue person,” someone who understands how their specialty fits together with other types of technical expertise, who can ensure that teams containing people with diverse skills can work together to create something greater than the sum of its parts.People also need to cultivate adaptability—to stretch themselves into areas that are uncomfortable rather than just doing more and more of what comes most naturally. This adaptability, I argue, is a skill that you can develop, just as you can work at becoming better at public speaking or data analysis—it just requires overcoming the natural instinct to keep doing what you’re already good at.Fundamentally, though, you can thrive in this changing world, while also accepting the critique of corporate power that economists and politicians are increasingly making, and working to fix the problems they’ve identified.This shift of the hotel industry toward relying on intellectual capital would have had the same effects even if antitrust regulators had been more skeptical of consolidation-by-merger, such as Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood in 2016. It would be true even if the hotel workers’ union gained greater clout and used it to substantially increase wages for housekeepers and desk clerks. It would be true even if lobbying and campaign-finance reforms limited the ability of the big hotels to get their way in Washington or local city councils.In thinking about the rise of winner-take-all effects in the corporate world, in other words, we need to separate the broad shifts in the economics of an industry from pernicious deployment of corporate power.Think of the historical changes in the auto industry. On the eve of the Great Depression, there were 108 automakers in the United States, most of which are long since forgotten by history. By the 1950s, the Big Three were wildly dominant, fueled by the economies of scale of their assembly lines.Yet we don’t remember the middle of the 20th century as a time when auto workers were exploited; to the contrary, it was a golden era in which workers without advanced education could attain a solid middle-class life.The difference between that consolidation and the consolidation of major industries today was that the automakers had a strong counterweight to their power in the form of an equally powerful union that ensured the economic spoils that resulted from this concentration were shared with workers rather than exclusively retained by shareholders and executives.In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as industrialization proceeded at breakneck speed in the United States and Western Europe, the downsides of the industrial age became glaringly obvious. Union leaders and other reformers strove to change the awful work conditions in many factories, and to prevent plutocrats from warping the political system. Those hard-fought battles reduced the rough edges of capitalism; it will take similar battles to do the same today.But if you wrote a book offering advice to young people embarking on a career in that era, it wouldn’t have been, “Stay on the farm.” It would have been, “Learn how to make your skills well-suited for the industrial age—and work to make the world fairer.” And the same goes for the winner-take-all-world of the 21st century.
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World Edition - The Atlantic
Debunking the Court’s Latest Death-Penalty Obsession
On March 29, 1994, Texas lawyer Mandy Welch rose to argue before the Supreme Court on behalf of a condemned prisoner named Frank McFarland.Justice Antonin Scalia, however, wanted to put Welch’s law firm, the Texas Resource Center, on trial. McFarland’s petition, Scalia said, had been filed late in the process, disrupting court procedure. He was not interested in her explanation: Her firm had originally tried to recruit volunteer counsel for McFarland, and finally had to take him on itself—one of 220 death cases being handled by 18 young lawyers. “I just want you to know that I am not happy with the performance of the Texas Resource Center in the cases that come before me as circuit justice,” Scalia said.“I wasn’t prepared” for Scalia’s wrath, Welch told me in an interview recently. “It was easy for me to respond with the feeling that if you understood what happened, you would know that we had no control over any of [the timing].” (The case concerned McFarland’s right to counsel for a habeas corpus petition; though he won on that issue, he was eventually executed anyway.)Scalia’s ire against the capital defense bar has survived his death. This term, members of the new conservative majority have been in high dudgeon about death appeals. The conservatives’ complaints hone in on a specific claim: Capital punishment in the U.S. would go off smoothly if lawyers would just stop making up claims at the last minute. Having looked at the record in these cases, I wonder whether their ire represents judicial piqure more than sober legal critique.The rumble kicked off on February 7, when the Court, in an unsigned opinion, allowed the state of Alabama to execute a Muslim inmate, Domineque Ray, without permitting his imam to join him in the death chamber. The Court argued that Ray had waited too long to raise the issue.On March 28, the Court did grant a stay of execution to a Texas inmate who wanted a Buddhist priest in the chamber. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented; Justice Brett Kavanaugh suggested Texas just ban all spiritual advisers, which the state did a few days later.In between those two seemingly contradictory decisions, on March 6, the Court, in a case called Bucklew v. Precythe, rejected, 5-4, a challenge by an inmate with an unusual medical condition. Because his oral cavity was full of fragile blood-filled tumors, Russell Bucklew argued that Missouri’s method of lethal injection would be so painful that it would violate the Eighth Amendment—not necessarily in general, but specifically as applied to him. In the majority opinion, Gorsuch suggested that Bucklew’s counsel had deliberately waited to raise the claim until a few weeks before his execution date. He urged lower courts to “protect settled state judgments … by invoking their ‘equitable powers’ to dismiss or curtail suits that are pursued in a ‘dilatory’ fashion.”Justice Stephen Breyer tartly said in dissent, “[i]t might be possible to end delays by limiting constitutional protections for prisoners on death row. But to do so would require us to pay too high a constitutional price.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in another dissent, wrote: “There are higher values than ensuring that executions run on time.”In yet one more death penalty case, Justice Alito angrily returned to the Texas Buddhist-prisoner issue. “This Court receives an application to stay virtually every execution,” he wrote; “in the great majority of cases, no good reason for the late filing is apparent. By countenancing the dilatory litigation in this case, the Court, I fear, will encourage this damaging practice.”The conservative majority has made clear how this issue looks from their perch. But how does it look to the Mandy Welches of the world—those who litigate death-penalty appeals? Let’s start with Bucklew, the case of the inmate with the medical condition.Paul Cassell, a professor at the University of Utah School of Law, argues that Bucklew could have brought this challenge years ago. Cassell is, among other things, a former federal district judge and perhaps the nation’s most prominent advocate of victims’ rights legislation. He co-authored an amicus brief in Bucklew on behalf of a crime victims’ group and the sister of one of the murder victims. The brief alleged Bucklew had engaged in “decades-long abusive litigation, strategic posturing, and dilatory tactics” and that his lawyers had chosen to “keep an as-applied challenge (based on his benign oral tumors) in reserve, ready to use when most strategically advantageous.” Bucklew’s lawyers, Cassell told me in an interview, had been “deploying his condition for tactical advantage” by “holding his ‘as applied’ challenge” until the last minute.But Robert Hochman, who represented Bucklew at the high court, said that if in fact there is a problem with capital defense lawyers, “Mr. Bucklew’s case could not have been a worse occasion to highlight it.” Most of the delay, Hochman argued, was not of Bucklew’s—or his lawyer’s—making.The apparent delay arose in part because the appeals process for state death-penalty cases is so complex. The first step for a condemned prisoner is a “direct appeal” to the state’s highest court (if denied, it may be followed by petition for review to the U.S. Supreme Court). Under the Sixth Amendment, defendants are entitled to state-provided counsel during this stage. But after that, a defendant enters the world of state “post-conviction” proceedings—and there, the Constitution does not require appointed counsel. Some, but not all, states provide counsel at this stage. In states that don’t provide appointed counsel, the inmates must hope for volunteers from advocacy organizations or the private bar. And even states that do provide it do not necessarily offer the funding to pay lawyers, experts, and investigators—without whom a death penalty case is unmanageable.Prisoners who are unsuccessful in state post-conviction proceedings may file a federal habeas corpus petition. If denied, that may go up the ladder again to the Supreme Court. A statute provides funding for counsel at this stage. But Congress has strictly limited the timing and number of habeas petitions. A petition filed too soon, or too late, may be denied, leaving no chance to file another. A last-minute petition, however, may be filed when an issue could not have been raised earlier, and those may go to the high court as well. The process is like a maze where a wrong turn by a lawyer may spell death for a client.So delay is almost built into a sentence of death. But there were specific reasons why Bucklew’s claim about his medical condition took so long to reach the high court.Bucklew’s state appeal and post-conviction proceedings were complete by 2001, and his first federal habeas corpus petition ended in 2006. But only on April 9, 2014—more than eight years later—did Missouri announce an execution date: May 21, barely six weeks away.Earlier, Bucklew had joined a case brought by a group of inmates alleging that the state’s execution protocol was “cruel and unusual punishment” when used against any inmate. That case was dismissed on May 2, three weeks after the execution date was set; only a week later, on May 9, Bucklew brought the “as applied” challenge. Even if the execution protocol was constitutional in most cases, he argued, it would violate the Eighth Amendment in his particular case because of his medical condition.Hochman and Bucklew’s Missouri lawyer, Cheryl Pilate, both cited reasons why the “as applied” challenge wasn’t brought earlier. For one thing, Missouri did not announce its specific execution protocol until 2012—and it revised it in 2013. To win, Bucklew had the burden of showing that this specific protocol would cause him excessive suffering because of his specific condition. Until the protocol was announced, there was nothing to challenge.Second, an “as applied” challenge like Bucklew’s can’t succeed without professional expert testimony on both the specific protocol and the effect it will have on the inmate’s medical condition. To mount an effective challenge, a lawyer will need investigators, experts in evidence, psychology, or “mitigation” factors in sentencing hearings. Many states don’t routinely supply such funds.“You can’t make an argument that has any chance of winning unless you have a medical expert,” Pilate, told me. The state consistently refused to grant her funding for expert testimony. “I had no money,” she said. “I had no experts. I had no resources.” Her four-lawyer law firm could not fund a complete defense; she tried cold-calling other lawyers and firms to recruit help. “These cases take you to the edge of financial catastrophe.” Bucklew’s family managed to put up a small amount of expense money to recruit experts, she said; after Sidley, Hochman’s firm, entered the case, it funded more expert evidence.Bucklew’s disease, meanwhile, is progressive. His tumors had been steadily expanding during his years in prison, meaning that expert testimony in 2007—had there been any—would have been out of date by 2014. Bringing a federal habeas corpus petition based on out-of-date or incomplete medical information would have risked forfeiting Bucklew’s only shot at relief.Because of the long delays and the rules limiting federal habeas corpus, lawyers defending condemned prisoners are shooting at a moving target. Execution protocols change. In many cases, a prisoner’s medical or mental condition is at issue—and that will change, and may worsen, as the years go by. The law changes also. During the eight years Bucklew was waiting for an execution date, the Supreme Court heard two major challenges to lethal injection as a method of execution. Either decision might have altered the landscape for his appeals.There’s another problem faced by inmates like Bucklew. Aaron Katz of Boston-based megafirm Ropes & Gray argues that “on these method of execution claims … the states are pretty routinely playing hide the ball—they change drugs, change the amount of drugs,” and change the methods by which they will be administered.Katz represented Chris Price, an Alabama inmate who wanted the court to forbid his execution by Alabama’s lethal-injection protocol, and instead order the state to use nitrogen gas—which is a state-approved method of execution. Price’s request was denied because of a missed filing deadline, and he was executed on May 30, after yet another round of emergency appeals—appeals that underline Katz’s point about secrecy. At Alabama’s request, the briefs and exhibits were kept “under seal,” meaning no one could read them in their entirety. The purpose of the seal was apparently to keep secret information about the state’s execution protocols. If that information were on the public record, prisoners bringing future challenges could proceed more quickly. This situation isn’t an anomaly: since the beginning of 2011, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, “legislatures in thirteen states have enacted new secrecy statutes that conceal vital information about the execution process.”Katz rejected the idea that inmate appeals should or could be brought well before an execution date is set. “Are we supposed to be filing shotgun litigation at random times and jamming up the federal courts?” he asked. “You’re going to have hundreds of inmates filing at all times. I don’t see why that would be better.”Everyone agrees that a major reason for late-stage appeals is that, in many states, defendants facing a death sentence do not get the best court-appointed counsel at trial. As Brandon Garrett points out in his book End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice, many states over the past 30 years have moved to a statewide system of full-time state-paid capital defenders and away from trial counsel appointed for a small fee by the trial judge. For all its Atticus-Finch romance, that system too often-produced abysmal defense at trial. “By 2013,” he writes, “almost all death penalty states provided state-level capital representation at trial … and only a few holdouts, most notably Alabama, Florida, and Nevada,” do not. Death sentences have dropped dramatically in the states that have these systems. “States with shoddy lawyers for the defense,” Garrett writes, “represents what remains of the American death penalty.” That means fewer new death sentences, which, in time, will mean fewer late nights for the justices.But that reduction will take time. More than 2,700 prisoners remain on death rows across the nation. And many states, particularly in the “death belt” that stretches from Florida in the east to Texas in the West, are determined to keep the gurneys running.Supporters of the death penalty regard the long delays as miscarriages of justice. “We focus a lot on defendants, and defendants have rights that should be safeguarded throughout the process,” Cassell, the former judge turned victim-rights scholar, told me. “But there is another side and that is victims, who have to put their lives on hold each time there’s a motion or a hearing.” He added, “If you look at the national statistics, you can see increasing periods of delay that cannot be explained by lack of counsel.”There’s no doubt that death sentences usually lead to long delays. Are death penalty lawyers really the reason for them? From my own reporting about capital punishment, the problem seems more diffuse. At very best, the recent spleen emanating from the Court’s right wing is bad manners. (The Court’s death caucus is, after all, winning most of the votes that seem to embitter them so.) But the threat goes beyond politesse: The Court’s angry pronouncements could intimidate private lawyers who would usually consider helping with death appeals, and send a message to state and federal judges that death appeals are to be given short shrift.Capital defense lawyers do try to halt what Justice Harry Blackmun once called “the machinery of death.” To me, that seems no different from what other lawyers do, in great cases and small. The Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled more than 10 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989; the company, represented by the best lawyers in America, delayed final judgment in a tort suit for 20 years. Prison-rights groups sued the state of California in 1990 over flaws in its prison mental-health system; five years later, a federal court concluded that system violated the Eighth Amendment. The state missed court-ordered deadlines to improve it for the next 15 years, before the Supreme Court called it to heel. When private and public money inspires such legal solicitude, are we surprised that capital-defense lawyers fight to preserve their clients’ lives?“I say that you want to do everything in your client’s interest,” said Chris Adams, an experienced capital-defense lawyer in Charleston, S.C. “If I’m his lawyer I’m going to litigate every legitimate issue that we have.” Aaron Katz, the lawyer who represented Christopher Price in the Alabama method-of-execution case, put it more simply: “I genuinely don’t want our client to suffer in his last few minutes. That takes priority.”
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World Edition - The Atlantic
Vanished: How Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Disappeared
1. The DisappearanceAt 12:42 a.m. on the quiet, moonlit night of March 8, 2014, a Boeing 777-200ER operated by Malaysia Airlines took off from Kuala Lumpur and turned toward Beijing, climbing to its assigned cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The designator for Malaysia Airlines is MH. The flight number was 370. Fariq Hamid, the first officer, was flying the airplane. He was 27 years old. This was a training flight for him, the last one; he would soon be fully certified. His trainer was the pilot in command, a man named Zaharie Ahmad Shah, who at 53 was one of the most senior captains at Malaysia Airlines. In Malaysian style, he was known by his first name, Zaharie. He was married and had three adult children. He lived in a gated development. He owned two houses. In his first house he had installed an elaborate Microsoft flight simulator. He flew it frequently, and often posted to online forums about his hobby. In the cockpit, Fariq would have been deferential to him, but Zaharie was not known for being overbearing.To hear more feature stories, get the Audm iPhone app. In the cabin were 10 flight attendants, all of them Malaysian. They had 227 passengers to care for, including five children. Most of the passengers were Chinese; of the rest, 38 were Malaysian, and in descending order the others came from Indonesia, Australia, India, France, the United States, Iran, Ukraine, Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Russia, and Taiwan. Up in the cockpit that night, while First Officer Fariq flew the airplane, Captain Zaharie handled the radios. The arrangement was standard. Zaharie’s transmissions were a bit unusual. At 1:01 a.m. he radioed that they had leveled off at 35,000 feet—a superfluous report in radar-surveilled airspace where the norm is to report leaving an altitude, not arriving at one. At 1:08 the flight crossed the Malaysian coastline and set out across the South China Sea in the direction of Vietnam. Zaharie again reported the plane’s level at 35,000 feet.Eleven minutes later, as the airplane closed in on a waypoint near the start of Vietnamese air-traffic jurisdiction, the controller at Kuala Lumpur Center radioed, “Malaysian three-seven-zero, contact Ho Chi Minh one-two-zero-decimal-nine. Good night.” Zaharie answered, “Good night. Malaysian three-seven-zero.” He did not read back the frequency, as he should have, but otherwise the transmission sounded normal. It was the last the world heard from MH370. The pilots never checked in with Ho Chi Minh or answered any of the subsequent attempts to raise them.Primary radar relies on simple, raw pings off objects in the sky. Air-traffic-control systems use what is known as secondary radar. It depends on a transponder signal that is transmitted by each airplane and contains richer information—for instance, the airplane’s identity and altitude—than primary radar does. Five seconds after MH370 crossed into Vietnamese airspace, the symbol representing its transponder dropped from the screens of Malaysian air traffic control, and 37 seconds later the entire airplane disappeared from secondary radar. The time was 1:21 a.m., 39 minutes after takeoff. The controller in Kuala Lumpur was dealing with other traffic elsewhere on his screen and simply didn’t notice. When he finally did, he assumed that the airplane was in the hands of Ho Chi Minh, somewhere out beyond his range.The Vietnamese controllers, meanwhile, saw MH370 cross into their airspace and then disappear from radar. They apparently misunderstood a formal agreement by which Ho Chi Minh was supposed to inform Kuala Lumpur immediately if an airplane that had been handed off was more than five minutes late checking in. They tried repeatedly to contact the aircraft, to no avail. By the time they picked up the phone to inform Kuala Lumpur, 18 minutes had passed since MH370’s disappearance from their radar screens. What ensued was an exercise in confusion and incompetence. Kuala Lumpur’s Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre should have been notified within an hour of the disappearance. By 2:30 a.m., it still had not been. Four more hours elapsed before an emergency response was finally begun, at 6:32 a.m.At that moment, the airplane should have been landing in Beijing. The search for it was initially concentrated in the South China Sea, between Malaysia and Vietnam. It was an international effort by 34 ships and 28 aircraft from seven different countries. But MH370 was nowhere near there. Within a matter of days, primary-radar records salvaged from air-traffic-control computers, and partially corroborated by secret Malaysian air-force data, revealed that as soon as MH370 disappeared from secondary radar, it turned sharply to the southwest, flew back across the Malay Peninsula, and banked around the island of Penang. From there it flew northwest up the Strait of Malacca and out across the Andaman Sea, where it faded beyond radar range into obscurity. That part of the flight took more than an hour to accomplish and suggested that this was not a standard case of a hijacking. Nor was it like an accident or pilot-suicide scenario that anyone had encountered before. From the start, MH370 was leading investigators in unexplored directions.The mystery surrounding MH370 has been a focus of continued investigation and a source of sometimes feverish public speculation. The loss devastated families on four continents. The idea that a sophisticated machine, with its modern instruments and redundant communications, could simply vanish seems beyond the realm of possibility. It is hard to permanently delete an email, and living off the grid is nearly unachievable even when the attempt is deliberate. A Boeing 777 is meant to be electronically accessible at all times. The disappearance of the airplane has provoked a host of theories. Many are preposterous. All are given life by the fact that, in this age, commercial airplanes don’t just vanish.This one did, and more than five years later its precise whereabouts remain unknown. Even so, a great deal about the disappearance of MH370 has come into clearer view, and reconstructing much of what happened that night is possible. The cockpit voice recorder and the flight-data recorder may never be recovered, but what we still need to know is unlikely to come from the black boxes. Instead, it will have to come from Malaysia.2. The BeachcomberOn the evening of the airplane’s disappearance, a middle-aged American man named Blaine Gibson was sitting in his late mother’s house in Carmel, California, sorting through her affairs in preparation for selling the property. He heard the news about MH370 on CNN.Gibson, whom I met recently in Kuala Lumpur, is a lawyer by training. He has lived in Seattle for more than 35 years but spends little time there. His father, who died decades ago, was a World War I veteran who endured a mustard-gas attack in the trenches, received a Silver Star for gallantry, and went on to serve as the chief justice of California for more than 24 years. His mother was a graduate of Stanford Law School and an ardent environmentalist.Gibson was an only child. His mother liked to travel internationally, and she took him with her. At the age of 7 he decided that his life’s goal would be to visit every country in the world at least once. Ultimately this challenged the definitions of visit and country, but he stuck with the mission, forgoing any chance of a sustained career and subsisting on a modest inheritance. By his own account, along the way he dabbled in some famous mysteries—the end of the Mayan civilization in the jungles of Guatemala and Belize, the Tunguska meteor explosion in eastern Siberia, and the location of the Ark of the Covenant in the mountains of Ethiopia. He printed up cards identifying himself: adventurer. explorer. truth seeker. He wore a fedora, like Indiana Jones. When news arrived of MH370’s disappearance, he was predisposed to pay attention.Despite reflexive denials by Malaysian officials, and outright obfuscation by the Malaysian air force, the truth about the airplane’s strange flight path quickly began to emerge. It turned out that MH370 had continued to link up intermittently with a geostationary Indian Ocean satellite operated by Inmarsat, a commercial vendor in London, for six hours after the airplane disappeared from secondary radar. This meant that the airplane had not suddenly suffered some catastrophic event. During those six hours it is presumed to have remained in high-speed, high-altitude cruising flight. The Inmarsat linkups, some of them known as “handshakes,” were electronic blips: routine connections that amounted to the merest whisper of communication, because the intended contents of the system—passenger entertainment, cockpit texts, automated maintenance reports—had been isolated or switched off. All told, there were seven linkups: two initiated automatically by the airplane, and five others initiated automatically by the Inmarsat ground station. There were also two satellite-phone calls; they went unanswered but provided additional data. Associated with most of these connections were two values that Inmarsat had only recently begun to log.The first and more accurate of the values is known as the burst-timing offset, or what I will call the “distance value.” It is a measure of the transmission time to and from the airplane, and therefore of the plane’s distance from the satellite. It does not pinpoint a single location but rather all equidistant locations—a roughly circular set of possibilities. Given the range limits of MH370, the near-circles can be reduced to arcs. The most important arc is the seventh and last one—defined by a final handshake tied in complex ways to fuel exhaustion and the failure of the main engines. The seventh arc stretches from Central Asia in the north to the vicinity of Antarctica in the south. It was crossed by MH370 at 8:19 a.m., Kuala Lumpur time. Calculations of likely flight paths place the airplane’s intersection with the seventh arc—and therefore its end point—in Kazakhstan if the airplane turned north, or in the southern Indian Ocean if it turned south.Technical analysis indicates with near certainty that the airplane turned south. We know this from Inmarsat’s second logged value—the burst-frequency offset. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to this value as the “Doppler value,” because it includes, most crucially, a measure of radio-frequency Doppler shifts associated with high-speed movement in relation to satellite position, and is a natural part of satellite communications for airplanes in flight. Doppler shifts have to be predicted and compensated for by airborne systems in order for satellite communications to function. But the compensation is not quite perfect, because satellites—particularly as they age—do not transmit signals in precisely the way airplanes have been programmed to expect. Their orbits may tilt slightly. They are also affected by temperature. These imperfections leave telltale traces. Although Doppler-shift logs had never been used before to determine the location of an airplane, Inmarsat technicians in London were able to discern a significant distortion suggesting a turn to the south at 2:40 a.m. The turn point was a bit north and west of Sumatra, the northernmost island of Indonesia. It has been assumed, at some analytical risk, that the airplane then flew straight and level for a very long while in the general direction of Antarctica, which lay beyond its range.After six hours, the Doppler data indicated a steep descent—as much as five times greater than a normal descent rate. Within a minute or two of crossing the seventh arc, the plane dived into the ocean, possibly shedding components before impact. Judging from the electronic evidence, this was not a controlled attempt at a water landing. The airplane must have fractured instantly into a million pieces. But no one knew where the impact had occurred, much less why. And no one had the slightest bit of physical evidence to confirm that the satellite interpretations were correct.Less than a week after the disappearance, The Wall Street Journal published the first report about the satellite transmissions, indicating that the airplane had most likely stayed aloft for hours after going silent. Malaysian officials eventually admitted that the account was true. The Malaysian regime was said to be one of the most corrupt in the region. It was also proving itself to be furtive, fearful, and unreliable in its investigation of the flight. Accident investigators dispatched from Europe, Australia, and the United States were shocked by the disarray they encountered. Because the Malaysians withheld what they knew, the initial sea searches were concentrated in the wrong place—the South China Sea—and found no floating debris. Had the Malaysians told the truth right away, such debris might have been found and used to identify the airplane’s approximate location; the black boxes might have been recovered. The underwater search for them ultimately centered on a narrow swath of ocean thousands of miles away. But even a narrow swath of the ocean is a big place. It took two years to find the black boxes from Air France 447, which crashed into the Atlantic on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009—and the searchers had known exactly where to look.[Read: Malaysian officials update last words spoken from MH370]The initial search of surface waters ended in April 2014, after nearly two months of futile efforts, and the focus shifted to the ocean depths, where it remains today. Blaine Gibson followed the frustration at first from a distance. He sold his mother’s house and moved to the Golden Triangle of northern Laos, where he and a business partner set about building a restaurant on the Mekong River. He joined a Facebook discussion group dedicated to the loss of MH370. It was filled with speculation, but also with news that reflected useful thinking about what could have happened to the airplane and where the main wreckage might be found.Although the Malaysians were nominally in charge of the entire investigation, they lacked the means and expertise to mount a subsea search-and-recovery effort; the Australians, as good international citizens, took the lead. The areas of the Indian Ocean that the satellite data pointed to—about 1,200 miles southwest of Perth—were so deep and unexplored that the first challenge was to map the undersea topography sufficiently to allow side-scanning sonar vehicles to be safely towed miles beneath the surface. The ocean floor was lined with ridges in a blackness where light had never penetrated.Gibson began to wonder whether, for all the strenuous underwater searching, debris from the airplane might someday simply wash up on a beach somewhere. While visiting friends on the coast of Cambodia, he asked whether they had stumbled on anything. They had not. Debris couldn’t possibly have drifted to Cambodia from the southern Indian Ocean, but until the airplane’s wreckage was found—proving that the southern Indian Ocean was indeed its grave—Gibson was determined to keep an open mind.In March 2015, a one-year commemoration of MH370’s disappearance was held in Kuala Lumpur by the passengers’ next of kin. Uninvited, and largely unknown to them, Gibson decided to attend. Because he had no special knowledge to offer, his arrival raised eyebrows. People don’t know what to make of a dilettante. The commemoration took place in an outdoor space at a shopping mall, a typical event venue for Kuala Lumpur. The purpose was to grieve collectively, but also to maintain pressure on the government of Malaysia to provide explanations. Hundreds of people attended, many from China. There was a bit of music on a stage. In the background a large poster showed the silhouette of a Boeing 777, along with the words where, who, why, when, whom, how, and also impossible, unprecedented, vanished, and clueless. The principal speaker was a young Malaysian woman named Grace Subathirai Nathan, whose mother had been on the flight. Nathan is a criminal-defense lawyer specializing in death-penalty cases, of which Malaysia has many because of draconian laws. She had emerged as the most effective representative of the next of kin. She took to the stage wearing an oversize T-shirt printed with a cartoon graphic of MH370 and the exhortation search on, and then proceeded to describe her mother, the deep love she felt for her, and the difficulty of enduring her disappearance. On occasion she quietly wept, as did some in the audience, including Gibson. Afterward, he approached Nathan and asked whether she would accept a hug from a stranger. She did, and they became friends.Gibson left the commemoration determined to help by addressing a gap he had perceived—the lack of coastal searches for floating debris. This would be his niche. He would become MH370’s private beachcomber. The official investigators, primarily Australian and Malaysian, were heavily invested in their underwater search. They would have scoffed at Gibson’s ambition, just as they would have scoffed at the prospect that on beaches hundreds of miles apart, Gibson would find pieces of the airplane.Left: The Malaysian lawyer and activist Grace Subathirai Nathan, whose mother was on board MH370. Right: Blaine Gibson, an American who has mounted a search for debris from the airplane. (William Langewiesche)3. The Mother LodeThe Indian Ocean washes against tens of thousands of miles of coastline, depending on how many islands you include in your count. When Blaine Gibson started looking for debris, he did not have a plan. He flew to Myanmar because he had been intending to go there anyway, then went to the coast and asked some villagers where flotsam tended to drift ashore. They directed him to several beaches, and a fisherman took him there by boat. He found some debris, but nothing that came from an airplane. He advised the villagers to be on the lookout, left his contact number, and moved on. Similarly, he visited the Maldives and the islands of Rodrigues and Mauritius without finding debris of interest. Then came July 29, 2015. About 16 months after the airplane went missing, a municipal beach-cleanup crew on the French island of Réunion came upon a torn piece of airfoil about six feet long that seemed to have just washed ashore. The foreman of the crew, a man named Johnny Bègue, realized that it might have come from an airplane, but he had no idea which one. He briefly considered making it into a memorial—setting it on an adjacent lawn and planting some flowers around it—but instead he called a local radio station with the news. A team of gendarmes showed up and took the piece away. It was quickly determined to be a part of a Boeing 777, a control surface called a flaperon that is attached to the trailing edge of the wings. Subsequent examination of serial numbers showed that it had come from MH370.Here was the necessary physical evidence of what had already been electronically surmised—that the flight had ended violently in the Indian Ocean, albeit somewhere still unknown and thousands of miles to the east of Réunion. The families of those aboard the airplane had to surrender any fantasies that their loved ones might still be alive. It came as a shock, no matter how rational and realistic they had been. Grace Nathan was devastated. She told me that she could barely function for weeks after the flaperon was found.Gibson flew to Réunion and found Johnny Bègue on his beach. Bègue was friendly. He showed Gibson where he had found the flaperon. Gibson poked around for other debris but without expectation, because the French government had already mounted a follow-up search to no avail. Flotsam takes a while to drift across the Indian Ocean, moving from east to west at the low southern latitudes, and a flaperon might arrive sooner than other debris because parts of it could rise above the water and act as a sail.A newspaper reporter in Réunion interviewed Gibson for a story about the visit of this independent American investigator. Gibson wore a search on T-shirt for the occasion. He then flew to Australia, where he spoke with two oceanographers—Charitha Pattiaratchi, of the University of Western Australia at Perth, and David Griffin, who worked for a government research center in Hobart and had been assigned to advise the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, the lead agency in the search for MH370. Both men were experts on Indian Ocean currents and winds. Griffin in particular had spent years tracking drift buoys, and had launched an effort to model the complex drift characteristics of the flaperon during its voyage to Réunion—the hope being to backtrack and narrow the geographic scope of the undersea search. Gibson’s needs were easier to handle: He wanted to know the most likely locations for floating debris to come ashore. The answer was the northeast coast of Madagascar and, to a lesser degree, the coast of Mozambique.Gibson opted for Mozambique because he had not been there before and could bag it as his 177th country. He chose a town called Vilanculos, because it seemed safe and had nice beaches. He got there in February 2016. As he recalls, he asked for advice from local fishermen, and was told of a sandbank called Paluma that lay beyond a reef, where fishermen would go to collect nets and buoys that washed in from the Indian Ocean. Gibson paid a boatman named Suleman to take him there. They found all sorts of junk, mostly plastic. Suleman called Gibson over. Holding up a gray triangular scrap about two feet across, he asked, “Is this 370?” The scrap had a honeycomb structure and the stenciled words no step on one surface. Gibson’s first impression was that it could not have come from a large airplane. To me he said, “So my mind was telling me it’s not from the plane, but my heart was telling me it’s from the plane. Then we had to take the boat back. And here we get into the personal thing. Two dolphins appeared and helped lead us off that sandbank—my mother’s spirit animal. When I saw those dolphins, I thought, This is from the plane.”Make of that what you will, but Gibson turned out to be right. The scrap—from a horizontal-stabilizer panel—was determined to almost certainly be from MH370. Gibson flew to the capital, Maputo, and handed the debris to the Australian consul. Then he flew to Kuala Lumpur, just in time for the second-anniversary commemoration. This time he was welcomed as a friend.In June 2016, Gibson turned his attention to the remote northeastern shores of Madagascar. This turned out to be the mother lode. Gibson says he found three pieces on the first day, and another two a few days later. The following week, on a beach eight miles away, three more pieces were delivered to him. And so it has gone ever since. Word has gotten around that he will pay for MH370 debris. He says he once paid so much for a piece—$40—that an entire village went on a day-long bender. Apparently the local rum is cheap.A lot of debris washed up that had nothing to do with the airplane. But of the several dozen pieces that have been identified to date as certain or likely or suspected to have come from MH370, Gibson has been responsible for the discovery of roughly a third. Some pieces are still being investigated. Gibson’s influence has been so large that David Griffin, though grateful to him, has worried that the perceived debris pattern may now be statistically skewed toward Madagascar, perhaps at the expense of points farther north. He has given this worry a name: “The Gibson Effect.”The fact remains that, after five years, no one has yet been able to work backwards from where the debris has washed ashore and trace it to some point of origin in the southern Indian Ocean. In his insistence on maintaining an open mind, Gibson still holds out the hope of finding new debris that will explain the disappearance—charred wiring indicating a fire, for instance, or shrapnel-peppered evidence of a missile strike—although what is known about the flight’s final hours largely precludes such possibilities. What Gibson’s discovery of so many bits of debris has confirmed is that the signals analysis was correct. The airplane flew for six hours until the flight came suddenly to an end. There was no effort by someone at the controls to bring the airplane down gently. It shattered. There is still a chance, Gibson thinks, of finding the equivalent of a message in a bottle—a note of desperation scribbled by someone in his or her last moments on the doomed airplane. On the beaches, Gibson has found a few backpacks and a large number of purses, all of which have been empty. The closest he has come to finding such a note, he says, was a message written in Malay on the underside of a baseball cap. Translated, it read, “To whom it may concern. My dear friend, meet me at the guesthouse later.”Illustrations by La TigreA—1:21 a.m., March 8, 2014: Over the South China Sea, near a navigational waypoint between Malaysia and Vietnam, MH370 drops from air-traffic-control radar and turns southwest, back across the Malay Peninsula.B—Roughly an hour later:After flying northwest above the Strait of Malacca, the airplane makes what investigators call the “final major turn” and heads south. The turn and the new course are later reconstructed from satellite data.C—April 2014: The surface search is abandoned and a deep-ocean search gets under way. Analysis of satellite data had located MH370’s final electronic “handshake” along an arc.D—July 2015: The first piece of debris from MH370—a flaperon—is discovered on the island of Réunion. Other confirmed or likely pieces have been found on widely dispersed beaches in the western Indian Ocean (locations in red).4. The ConspiraciesThree official investigations were launched in the wake of MH370’s disappearance. The first was the largest, most rigorous, and most expensive: the technically advanced Australian underwater-search effort, which was focused on locating the main debris in order to retrieve the airplane’s flight-data and cockpit voice recorders. It involved calculations of aircraft performance, the parsing of radar and satellite records, studies of oceanic drift, doses of statistical analysis, and the physical examination of the East African flotsam—much of which came from Blaine Gibson. It required heavy maritime operations in some of the world’s roughest seas. Assisting the effort was a collection of volunteer engineers and scientists who found one another on the internet, called themselves the Independent Group, and collaborated so effectively that the Australians took their work into account and ended up formally thanking them for their insights. In the annals of accident investigation, this had never happened before. Nonetheless, after more than three years and about $160 million, the Australian investigation closed without success. It was picked up in 2018 by an American company called Ocean Infinity, under contract with the Malaysian government on a “no-find, no-fee” basis. This search used advanced underwater-surveillance vehicles and covered a new section of the seventh arc, a section deemed most likely by the Independent Group to bring results. After a few months, it too ended in failure.The second official investigation belonged to the Malaysian police, and amounted to background checks of everyone on the airplane as well as some of their friends. It is hard to know the true extent of the police discoveries, because the report that resulted from the investigation stopped short of full disclosure. The report was stamped secret and withheld even from other Malaysian investigators, but after it was leaked by someone on the inside, its inadequacies became clear. In particular, it held back on divulging all that was known about the captain, Zaharie. No one was surprised. The prime minister at the time was a nasty man named Najib Razak, who was alleged to be monumentally corrupt. The press in Malaysia was censored. Troublemakers were being picked up and made to disappear. Officials had reason for caution. They had careers to protect, and maybe their lives. It is obvious that decisions were made to not pursue certain avenues that might have reflected poorly on Malaysia Airlines or the government.The third official investigation was the accident inquiry, intended not to adjudicate liability but to find probable cause, and to be conducted according to the highest global standards by an international team. It was led by an ad hoc working group assembled by the Malaysian government, and was a mess from its inception. The police and military disdained it. Government ministers saw it as a risk. Foreign specialists who were sent to assist began retreating almost as soon as they arrived. An American expert, referring to the international aviation protocol that is supposed to govern accident inquiries, told me, “Annex 13 is tailored for accident investigations in confident democracies, but in countries like Malaysia, with insecure and autocratic bureaucracies, and with airlines that are either government-owned or seen as a matter of national prestige, it always makes for a pretty poor fit.”A close observer of the MH370 process said, “It became clear that the primary objective of the Malaysians was to make the subject just go away. From the start there was this instinctive bias against being open and transparent, not because they were hiding some deep, dark secret, but because they did not know where the truth really lay, and they were afraid that something might come out that would be embarrassing. Were they covering up? Yes. They were covering up for the unknown.”In the end the investigation produced a 495-page report in weak imitation of Annex 13 requirements. It was stuffed with boilerplate descriptions of 777 systems that had clearly been lifted from Boeing manuals and were of no technical value. Indeed, nothing in the report was of technical value, since Australian publications had already fully covered the relevant satellite information and ocean-drift analysis. The Malaysian report was seen as hardly more than a whitewash whose only real contribution was a frank description of the air-traffic-control failures—presumably because half of them could be blamed on the Vietnamese, and because the Malaysian controllers constituted the weakest local target, politically. The report was released in July 2018, more than four years after the event. It stated that the investigative team was unable to determine the cause of the airplane’s disappearance.Such a conclusion invites continued speculation, even if it is unwarranted. The satellite data provide the best evidence of the airplane’s flight path, and are hard to argue with, but people have to have trust in numbers to accept the story they tell. All sorts of theorists have made claims, amplified by social media, that ignore the satellite data, and in some cases also the radar tracks, the aircraft systems, the air-traffic-control record, the physics of flight, and the basic contours of planetary geography. For example, a British woman who blogs under the name of Saucy Sailoress and does Tarot readings for hire was vagabonding around southern Asia with her husband and dogs in an oceangoing sailboat. She says that on the night MH370 disappeared they were in the Andaman Sea, and she spotted what looked like a cruise missile coming at her. The missile morphed into a low-flying airplane with a well-lit cockpit, bathed in a strange orange glow and trailing smoke. As it flew by she concluded that it was on a suicide mission against a Chinese naval fleet farther out to sea. She did not yet know about the disappearance of MH370, but when, a few days later, she learned of it she drew what was to her the obvious connection. Implausible, perhaps, but she gained an audience.An Australian has been claiming for several years to have found MH370 by means of Google Earth, in shallow waters and intact; he has refused to disclose the location while he works on crowdfunding an expedition. On the internet you will find claims that the airplane has been found intact in the Cambodian jungle, that it was seen landing in an Indonesian river, that it flew into a time warp, that it was sucked into a black hole. One scenario has the airplane flying off to attack the American military base on Diego Garcia before getting shot down. A recent online report that Captain Zaharie had been discovered alive and was lying in a Taiwanese hospital with amnesia won sufficient acceptance that Malaysia angrily denied it. The news had come from a crudely satirical website that also reported a sexual assault on an American trekker and two Sherpas by a yeti-like creature in Nepal.A New York–based writer named Jeff Wise has hypothesized that one of the electronic systems on board the airplane may have been reprogrammed to provide false data—indicating a turn south into the Indian Ocean when in fact the airplane turned north toward Kazakhstan—in order to lead investigators astray. He calls this the “spoof” scenario, and has elaborated extensively on it, most recently in a 2019 ebook. He proposes that the Russians might have stolen the airplane to create a distraction from the annexation of Crimea, then under way. An obvious weak spot in the argument is the need to explain how, if the airplane was flown to Kazakhstan, all that wreckage ended up in the Indian Ocean. Wise’s answer is that it was planted.Blaine Gibson was new to social media when he started his search, and he was in for a surprise. As he recalls, the trolls emerged as soon as he found his first piece—the one labeled no step—and they multiplied afterward, particularly as the beaches of Madagascar began to bear fruit. The internet provokes emotion even in response to unremarkable events. A catastrophe taps into something toxic. Gibson was accused of exploiting the families and of being a fraud, a publicity hound, a drug addict, a Russian agent, an American agent, and at the very least a dupe. He began receiving death threats—messages on social media and phone calls to friends predicting his demise. One message said that either he would stop looking for debris or he would leave Madagascar in a coffin. Another warned that he would die of polonium poisoning. There were more. He was not prepared for this, and was incapable of shrugging it off. During the days I spent with him in Kuala Lumpur, he kept abreast of the latest attacks with the assistance of a friend in London. He said, “I once made the mistake of going on Twitter. Basically, these people are cyberterrorists. And it works. It’s effective.” He has been traumatized.In 2017, Gibson arranged a formal mechanism for the transfer of debris: He would turn over any new find to authorities in Madagascar, who would hand it to Malaysia’s honorary consul, who would pack it up and ship it to Kuala Lumpur for examination and storage. On August 24 of that year, the honorary consul was gunned down in his car by an assassin who escaped on a motorcycle and has never been found. A French-language news account alleged that the consul had a shady past; his killing may have had no connection to MH370 at all. Gibson, however, has assumed that there is a connection. A police investigation is ongoing.The first scrap of debris found by Blaine Gibson, from a horizontal-stabilizer panel, was recovered on a sandbank off the coast of Mozambique in February 2016. (Blaine Gibson)By now he largely avoids disclosing his location or travel plans, and for similar reasons avoids using email and rarely speaks over the telephone. He likes Skype and WhatsApp for their encryption. He frequently swaps out his SIM cards. He believes he is sometimes followed and photographed. There is no arguing that Gibson is the only person who has gone out looking for pieces of MH370 on his own and found debris. But the idea that the debris is worth killing for is hard to take seriously. It would be easier to believe if the debris held clues to dark secrets and international intrigue. But the evidence—much of it now out in the open—points in a different direction.5. The PossibilitiesIn truth, a lot can now be known with certainty about the fate of MH370. First, the disappearance was an intentional act. It is inconceivable that the known flight path, accompanied by radio and electronic silence, was caused by any combination of system failure and human error. Computer glitch, control-system collapse, squall lines, ice, lightning strike, bird strike, meteorite, volcanic ash, mechanical failure, sensor failure, instrument failure, radio failure, electrical failure, fire, smoke, explosive decompression, cargo explosion, pilot confusion, medical emergency, bomb, war, or act of God—none of these can explain the flight path.Second, despite theories to the contrary, control of the plane was not seized remotely from within the electrical-equipment bay, a space under the forward galley. Pages could be spent explaining why. Control was seized from within the cockpit. This happened in the 20-minute period from 1:01 a.m., when the airplane leveled at 35,000 feet, to 1:21 a.m., when it disappeared from secondary radar. During that same period, the airplane’s automatic condition-reporting system transmitted its regular 30-minute update via satellite to the airline’s maintenance department. It reported fuel level, altitude, speed, and geographic position, and indicated no anomalies. Its transmission meant that the airplane’s satellite-communication system was functioning at that moment.By the time the airplane dropped from the view of secondary—transponder-enhanced—radar, it is likely, given the implausibility of two pilots acting in concert, that one of them was incapacitated or dead, or had been locked out of the cockpit. Primary-radar records—both military and civilian—later indicated that whoever was flying MH370 must have switched off the autopilot, because the turn the airplane then made to the southwest was so tight that it had to have been flown by hand. Circumstances suggest that whoever was at the controls deliberately depressurized the airplane. At about the same time, much if not all of the electrical system was deliberately shut down. The reasons for that shutdown are not known. But one of its effects was to temporarily sever the satellite link.An electrical engineer in Boulder, Colorado, named Mike Exner, who is a prominent member of the Independent Group, has studied the radar data extensively. He believes that during the turn, the airplane climbed up to 40,000 feet, which was close to its limit. During the maneuver the passengers would have experienced some g‑forces—that feeling of being suddenly pressed back into the seat. Exner believes the reason for the climb was to accelerate the effects of depressurizing the airplane, causing the rapid incapacitation and death of everyone in the cabin.An intentional depressurization would have been an obvious way—and probably the only way—to subdue a potentially unruly cabin in an airplane that was going to remain in flight for hours to come. In the cabin, the effect would have gone unnoticed but for the sudden appearance of the drop-down oxygen masks and perhaps the cabin crew’s use of the few portable units of similar design. None of those cabin masks was intended for more than about 15 minutes of use during emergency descents to altitudes below 13,000 feet; they would have been of no value at all cruising at 40,000 feet. The cabin occupants would have become incapacitated within a couple of minutes, lost consciousness, and gently died without any choking or gasping for air. The scene would have been dimly lit by the emergency lights, with the dead belted into their seats, their faces nestled in the worthless oxygen masks dangling on tubes from the ceiling.The cockpit, by contrast, was equipped with four pressurized-oxygen masks linked to hours of supply. Whoever depressurized the airplane would have simply had to slap one on. The airplane was moving fast. On primary radar it appeared as an unidentified blip approaching the island of Penang at nearly 600 miles an hour. The mainland nearby is home to Butterworth Air Base, where a squadron of Malaysian F-18 interceptors is stationed, along with an air-defense radar—not that anyone was paying attention. According to a former official, before the accident report was released last summer, Malaysian air-force officers demanded to review and edit it. In a section called “Malaysian Military Radar,” the report provides a timeline suggesting that the air-defense radar had been actively monitored, that the military was well aware of the identity of the aircraft, and that it purposefully “did not pursue to intercept the aircraft since it was ‘friendly’ and did not pose any threat to national airspace security, integrity and sovereignty.” The question of course is why, if the military knew the airplane had turned around and was flying west, it then allowed the search to continue for days in the wrong body of water, to the east.For all its expensive equipment, the air force had failed at its job and could not bring itself to admit the fact. In an Australian television interview, the former Malaysian defense minister said, “If you’re not going to shoot it down, what’s the point in sending [an interceptor] up?” Well, for one thing, you could positively identify the airplane, which at this point was just a blip on primary radar. You could also look through the windows into the cockpit and see who was at the controls.At 1:37 a.m., MH370’s regularly scheduled 30-minute automatic condition-reporting system failed to transmit. We now know that the system had been isolated from any satellite transmission—something easily done from within the cockpit—and therefore could not send out any of its scheduled reports.At 1:52 a.m., half an hour into the diversion, MH370 passed just south of Penang Island, made a wide right turn, and headed northwest up the Strait of Malacca. As the airplane turned, the first officer’s cellphone registered with a tower below. It was a single brief connection, during which no content was transmitted. Eleven minutes later, on the assumption that MH370 was still over the South China Sea, a Malaysia Airlines dispatcher sent a text message instructing the pilots to contact Ho Chi Minh’s air-traffic-control center. The message went unanswered. All through the Strait of Malacca, the airplane continued to be hand-flown. It is presumed that everyone in the cabin was dead by this point. At 2:22 a.m., the Malaysian air-force radar picked up the last blip. The airplane was 230 miles northwest of Penang, heading northwest into the Andaman Sea and flying fast.Three minutes later, at 2:25, the airplane’s satellite box suddenly returned to life. It is likely that this occurred when the full electrical system was brought back up, and that the airplane was repressurized at the same time. When the satellite box came back on, it sent a log-on request to Inmarsat; the ground station responded, and the first linkup was accomplished. Unbeknownst to anyone in the cockpit, the relevant distance and Doppler values were recorded at the ground station, later allowing the first arc to be established. A few minutes later a dispatcher put in a phone call to the airplane. The satellite box accepted the link, but the call went unanswered. An associated Doppler value showed that the airplane had just made a wide turn to the south. To investigators, the place where this happened became known as the “final major turn.” Its location is crucial to all the efforts that have followed, but it has never quite been pinned down. Indonesian air-defense radar should have shown it, but the radar seems to have been turned off for the night.MH370 was now most likely flying on autopilot, cruising south into the night. Whoever was occupying the cockpit was active and alive. Was this a hijacking? A hijacking is the “third party” solution favored in the official report. It is the least painful explanation for anyone in authority that night. It has immense problems, however. The main one is that the cockpit door was fortified, electrically bolted, and surveilled by a video feed that the pilots could see. Also, less than two minutes passed between Zaharie’s casual “good night” to the Kuala Lumpur controller and the start of the diversion, with the attendant loss of the transponder signal. How would hijackers have known to make their move precisely during the handoff to Vietnamese air traffic control, and then gained access so quickly and smoothly that neither of the pilots had a chance to transmit a distress call? It is possible of course that the hijackers were known to the pilots—that they were invited into the cockpit—but even that does not explain the lack of a radio transmission, particularly during the hand-flown turn away from Beijing. Both of the control yokes had transmitter switches, within the merest finger reach, and some signal could have been sent in the moments before an attempted takeover. Furthermore, every one of the passengers and cabin-crew members has been investigated and cleared of suspicion by teams of Malaysian and Chinese investigators aided by the FBI. The quality of that police work is open to question, but it was thorough enough to have uncovered the identities of two Iranians who were traveling under false names with stolen passports—seeking, however, nothing more nefarious than political asylum in Germany. It is possible that stowaways—by definition unrecorded on the airplane’s manifest—had hidden in the equipment bay. If so, they would have had access to two circuit breakers that, if pulled, would have unbolted the cockpit door. But that scenario has problems, too. The bolts click loudly when they open—an unambiguous sound that would have been familiar to the pilots. The hijackers would then have had to open a galley-floor hatch from below, climb a short ladder, evade notice by the cabin crew, evade the surveillance video, and enter the cockpit before either of the pilots transmitted a distress call. It is unlikely that this could have happened, just as it is unlikely that a flight attendant held hostage could have used the door keypad to allow sudden entry without firing off a warning. Furthermore, what would the purpose be of a hijacking? Money? Politics? Publicity? An act of war? A terrorist attack? The intricate seven-hour profile of MH370’s deviation into oblivion fits none of these scenarios. And no one has claimed responsibility for the act. Anonymity is not consistent with any of these motives.6. The CaptainThis leaves us with a different sort of event, a hijacking from within where no forced entry is required—by a pilot who runs amok. Reasonable people may resist the idea that a pilot would murder hundreds of innocent passengers as the collateral price of killing himself. The definitive response is that this has happened before. In 1997, a captain working for an Indonesian airline called SilkAir is believed to have disabled the black boxes of a Boeing 737 and to have plunged the airplane at supersonic speeds into a river. In 1999, EgyptAir Flight 990 was deliberately crashed into the sea by its co-pilot off the coast of Long Island, resulting in the loss of everyone on board. In 2013, just months before MH370 disappeared, the captain of LAM Mozambique Airlines Flight 470 flew his Embraer E190 twin jet from cruising altitude into the ground, killing all 27 passengers and all six crew members. The most recent case is the Germanwings Airbus that was deliberately crashed into the French Alps on March 24, 2015, also causing the loss of everyone on board. Its co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, had waited for the pilot to use the bathroom and then locked him out. Lubitz had a record of depression and—as investigations later discovered—had made a study of MH370’s disappearance, one year earlier.[From the November 2001 issue: William Langewiesche on EgyptAir 990]In the case of MH370, it is difficult to see the co-pilot as the perpetrator. He was young and optimistic, and reportedly planning to get married. He had no history of any sort of trouble, dissent, or doubts. He was not a German signing on to a life in a declining industry of budget airlines, low salaries, and even lower prestige. He was flying a glorious Boeing 777 in a country where the national airline and its pilots are still considered a pretty big deal.It is the captain, Zaharie, who raises concerns. The first warning is his portrayal in the official reports as someone beyond reproach—a good pilot and placid family man who liked to play with a flight simulator. This is the image promoted by Zaharie’s family, but it is contradicted by multiple indications of trouble that too obviously have been brushed over.The police discovered aspects of Zaharie’s life that should have caused them to dig more deeply. The formal conclusions they drew were inadequate. The official account, referring to Zaharie as the PIC, or pilot in command, had this to say:The PIC’s ability to handle stress at work was reported to be good. There was no known history of apathy, anxiety, or irritability. There were no significant changes in his lifestyle, interpersonal conflict, or family stresses … There were no behavioral signs of social isolation, change of habits or interest … On studying the PIC’s behavioral pattern on the CCTV [at the airport] on the day of the flight and prior 3 flights, there were no significant behavioral changes observed. On all the CCTV recordings the appearance was similar, i.e. well-groomed and attired. The gait, posture, facial expressions and mannerisms were his normal characteristics.This was either irrelevant or at odds with what was knowable about Zaharie. The truth, as I discovered after speaking in Kuala Lumpur with people who knew him or knew about him, is that Zaharie was often lonely and sad. His wife had moved out, and was living in the family’s second house. By his own admission to friends, he spent a lot of time pacing empty rooms waiting for the days between flights to go by. He was also a romantic. He is known to have established a wistful relationship with a married woman and her three children, one of whom was disabled, and to have obsessed over two young internet models, whom he encountered on social media, and for whom he left Facebook comments that apparently did not elicit responses. Some were shyly sexual. He mentioned in one comment, for example, that one of the girls, who was wearing a robe in a posted photo, looked like she had just emerged from a shower. Zaharie seems to have become somewhat disconnected from his earlier, well-established life. He was in touch with his children, but they were grown and gone. The detachment and solitude that can accompany the use of social media—and Zaharie used social media a lot—probably did not help. There is a strong suspicion among investigators in the aviation and intelligence communities that he was clinically depressed.If Malaysia were a country where, in official circles, the truth was welcome, then the police portrait of Zaharie as a healthy and happy man would carry some weight. But Malaysia is not such a country, and the official omission of evidence to the contrary only adds to all the other evidence that Zaharie was a troubled man.Forensic examinations of Zaharie’s simulator by the FBI revealed that he experimented with a flight profile roughly matching that of MH370—a flight north around Indonesia followed by a long run to the south, ending in fuel exhaustion over the Indian Ocean. Malaysian investigators dismissed this flight profile as merely one of several hundred that the simulator had recorded. That is true, as far as it goes, which is not far enough. Victor Iannello, an engineer and entrepreneur in Roanoke, Virginia, who has become another prominent member of the Independent Group and has done extensive analysis of the simulated flight, underscores what the Malaysian investigators ignored. Of all the profiles extracted from the simulator, the one that matched MH370’s path was the only one that Zaharie did not run as a continuous flight—in other words, taking off on the simulator and letting the flight play out, hour after hour, until it reached the destination airport. Instead he advanced the flight manually in multiple stages, repeatedly jumping the flight forward and subtracting the fuel as necessary until it was gone. Iannello believes that Zaharie was responsible for the diversion. Given that there was nothing technical that Zaharie could have learned by rehearsing the act on a gamelike Microsoft consumer product, Iannello suspects that the purpose of the simulator flight may have been to leave a bread-crumb trail to say goodbye. Referring to the flight profile that MH370 would follow, Iannello said of Zaharie, “It’s as if he was simulating a simulation.” Without a note of explanation, Zaharie’s reasoning is impossible to know. But the simulator flight cannot easily be dismissed as a random coincidence.In Kuala Lumpur, I met with one of Zaharie’s lifelong friends, a fellow 777 captain whose name I have omitted because of possible repercussions for him. He too believed that Zaharie was guilty, a conclusion he had come to reluctantly. He described the mystery as a pyramid that is broad at the base and one man wide at the top, meaning that the inquiry might have begun with many possible explanations but ended up with a single one. He said, “It doesn’t make sense. It’s hard to reconcile with the man I knew. But it’s the necessary conclusion.” I asked about the need Zaharie would have had to somehow deal with his cockpit companion, First Officer Fariq Hamid. He replied, “That’s easy. Zaharie was an examiner. All he had to say was ‘Go check something in the cabin,’ and the guy would have been gone.” I asked about a motive. He had no idea. He said, “Zaharie’s marriage was bad. In the past he slept with some of the flight attendants. And so what? We all do. You’re flying all over the world with these beautiful girls in the back. But his wife knew.” He agreed that this was hardly a reason to go berserk, but thought Zaharie’s emotional state might have been a factor.Does the absence of all of this from the official report— Zaharie’s travails; the peculiar nature of the flight profile on the simulator—not to mention the technical inadequacies of the report itself, constitute a cover-up? At this point, we cannot say. We know some of what the investigators knew but chose not to reveal. There is likely more that they discovered and that we do not yet know.Which brings us back to the demise of MH370. It is easy to imagine Zaharie toward the end, strapped into an ultra-comfortable seat in the cockpit, inhabiting his cocoon in the glow of familiar instruments, knowing that there could be no return from what he had done, and feeling no need to hurry. He would long since have repressurized the airplane and warmed it to the right degree. There was the hum of the living machine, the beautiful abstractions on the flatscreen displays, the carefully considered backlighting of all the switches and circuit breakers. There was the gentle whoosh of the air rushing by. The cockpit is the deepest, most protective, most private sort of home. Around 7 a.m., the sun rose over the eastern horizon, to the airplane’s left. A few minutes later it lit the ocean far below. Had Zaharie already died in flight? He could at some point have depressurized the airplane again and brought his life to an end. This is disputed and far from certain. Indeed, there is some suspicion, from fuel-exhaustion simulations that investigators have run, that the airplane, if simply left alone, would not have dived quite as radically as the satellite data suggest that it did—a suspicion, in other words, that someone was at the controls at the end, actively helping to crash the airplane. Either way, somewhere along the seventh arc, after the engines failed from lack of fuel, the airplane entered a vicious spiral dive with descent rates that ultimately may have exceeded 15,000 feet a minute. We know from that descent rate, as well as from Blaine Gibson’s shattered debris, that the airplane disintegrated into confetti when it hit the water.7. The TruthFor now the official investigations have petered out. The Australians have done what they could. The Chinese want to move on and are censoring any news that might inflame the passions of the families. The French are off in France, rehashing the satellite data. The Malaysians just wish the whole subject would go away. I attended an event in the administrative city of Putrajaya last fall, where Grace Nathan and Gibson stood in front of the cameras with the transport minister, Anthony Loke. The minister formally accepted five new pieces of debris collected over the summer. He was miserable to the point of being angry. He barely spoke, and took no questions from the press. Nathan was seething at the minister’s attitude. That night, over dinner, she insisted that the government should not be allowed to walk away so easily. She said, “They didn’t follow protocol. They didn’t follow procedure. I think it’s appalling. More could have been done. As a result of the inaction of the air force—of all of the parties involved in the first hour who didn’t follow protocol—we are stuck like this now. Every one of them breached protocol one time, multiple times. Every single person who had some form of responsibility at the time did not do what he was supposed to do. To varying degrees of severity. Maybe in isolation some might not seem so bad, but when you look at it as a whole, every one of them contributed 100 percent to the fact that the airplane has not been found.”And every one of them was a government employee. Nathan had hopes that Ocean Infinity, which had recently found a missing Argentine submarine, would return to the search, again on a no-find, no-fee basis. The company had suggested the possibility of doing so earlier that week. But the government of Malaysia would have to sign the contract. Because of the political culture, Nathan worried that it might not—as so far has proved true.If the wreckage is ever found, it will lay to rest all the theories that depend on ignoring the satellite data or the fact that the airplane flew an intricate path after its initial turn away from Beijing and then remained aloft for six more hours. No, it did not catch on fire yet stay in the air for all that time. No, it did not become a “ghost flight” able to navigate and switch its systems off and then back on. No, it was not shot down after long consideration by nefarious national powers who lingered on its tail before pulling the trigger. And no, it is not somewhere in the South China Sea, nor is it sitting intact in some camouflaged hangar in Central Asia. The one thing all of these explanations have in common is that they contradict the authentic information investigators do possess.That aside, finding the wreckage and the two black boxes may accomplish little. The cockpit voice recorder is a self-erasing two-hour loop, and is likely to contain only the sounds of the final alarms going off, unless whoever was at the controls was still alive and in a mood to provide explanations for posterity. The other black box, the flight-data recorder, will provide information about the functioning of the airplane throughout the entire flight, but it will not reveal any relevant system failure, because no such failure can explain what occurred. At best it will answer some relatively unimportant questions, such as when exactly the airplane was depressurized and how long it remained so, or how exactly the satellite box was powered down and then powered back up. The denizens of the internet would be obsessed, but that is hardly an event to look forward to.The important answers probably don’t lie in the ocean but on land, in Malaysia. That should be the focus moving forward. Unless they are as incompetent as the air force and air traffic control, the Malaysian police know more than they have dared to say. The riddle may not be deep. That is the frustration here. The answers may well lie close at hand, but they are more difficult to retrieve than any black box. If Blaine Gibson wants a real adventure, he might spend a year poking around Kuala Lumpur.This article appears in the July 2019 print edition with the headline “‘Good Night. Malaysian Three-Seven-Zero.’”
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