- The Eclipse of John Conyers
- Using 'Free Speech' to Trump Civil Rights
- Republican Obstruction of Obamacare Helped Put Trump in the White House
- Young People Will Foot the Bill for the GOP's Tax Plan
- The 'Softer' Side of Jihadists
- Peter Thiel Turns Down a Senior Intelligence Role
- <em>The Atlantic</em> Daily: A Long, Faint Sigh
- North Korea Says It Has 'Completed' Its Nuclear Program
- <i>The Atlantic</i> Politics & Policy Daily: Yikes
- Garrison Keillor, Settler of a Fallen Frontier
- A Conservative Uprising Confronts GOP Deficit Hawks
- Marvel Studios' Biggest Gamble Yet
- The Insistent Cheeriness of <i>The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel</i>
- A GOP Tax-Reform Proposal That Would Help the Working Class, Not the Donor Class
- A Flurry of Newly Discovered Galaxies
- Trump Has Raised an Ultra-Nationalist British Group Out of Obscurity
- Using Elephants as Bulldozers to Preserve Wildlife Sanctuaries
- New York City Has Genetically Distinct ‘Uptown’ and ‘Downtown’ Rats
- America Is Not Going to Denuclearize North Korea
- The 76ers' Great Basketball Experiment Is Paying Off
- Trump’s Anti-Muslim Political Strategy
- It's Not an Act
- Hummingbirds Are Where Intuition Goes to Die
- The Ghost of Matt Lauer
- The Unyielding Paranoia of Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Posted: 30 Nov 2017 03:00 AM PST
Across the media and entertainment universe, powerful men—as of writing, Garrison Keillor is the latest; as of reading, who even knows?—are being felled quickly after allegations of sexual harassment and sexual abuse.
But inside politics, the repercussions have, so far, been softer. Minnesota Democratic Senator Al Franken, accused of groping several women and giving another an unwanted kiss, has offered a strange mix of contrition and defiance in saying he will stay in office. Roy Moore, the GOP Alabama U.S. Senate candidate, has bounced back in polls after multiple allegations against him that range from the creepy to the criminal. Behind them looms President Trump, who was even recorded boasting about sexual assaults. (Behind him looms Bill Clinton, who escaped impeachment and settled into elder-statesman status.)
But the case of Representative John Conyers, the otherwise venerable Michigan Democrat, is a particularly complex one. It demonstrates the way that a man's stature can protect him, and how that stature plays into the backlash against him. It also shows how one generation's pioneers often end up as the next generation's impediments to progress.
While rumors of widespread hush-hush settlements in Congress abound, the only one that has been revealed so far is one that Conyers's office reached with a woman in 2015. Conyers denies any wrongdoing, and has said he did not know about the agreement. This week, a second former staffer came forward with allegations of sexual harassment by Conyers. Another, the ethics expert Melanie Sloan, said she was harassed by Conyers while working for him and was once called into his office while he was wearing only underwear, though she did not characterize her experience as sexual harassment.
This places Conyers in a precarious situation. There are now multiple accusations against him, and they are more serious than those against Franken, who is himself struggling to stay politically alive. Though Conyers stepped down from his post as ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, he has said he has no intention of resigning, which may or may not say anything, since members usually say this right up until the moment they resign. Conyers was spotted on a flight home to Detroit Tuesday, skipping votes in the House.
Conyers presents a challenge to Democrats: In addition to the plain moral imperative to protect women in the workplace, they face political imperatives in dealing with him. Having long accused the Republican Party of a "war on women," it's hard for Democrats to not punish their own wrongdoers. That's especially true as the party tries to bury Roy Moore. But other Democrats are wary of "unilateral disarmament," in which they cast out their violators even as Republicans stick with Moore.
And some see Conyers as a special case. He is the dean of the House of Representatives—its longest serving member—and a civil-rights legend. As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi put it on Meet the Press, "John Conyers is an icon in our country." Were he simply another backbencher, Conyers might been banished by now, but he is a towering figure in the Democratic Party. That's probably one reason that, as my colleague Megan Garber put it, it took Pelosi three tries to come to the right reaction to the Conyers allegation. Several Democrats have now publicly called on Conyers to resign. According to CNN, Pelosi is tacitly supporting a behind-the-scenes effort to get Conyers to resign.
That effort is, per CNN and Politico, driven by members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Just as Conyers's iconic status has insulated him so far, it's reportedly also an impetus among CBC members to try to get him to retire. "There is a feeling among some of our members that we need to protect his legacy," one aide told CNN.
It's remarkable that members of the CBC are pressuring Conyers, even privately. He is a co-founder of the group, going back to 1971. But their effort indicates the ways that the sexual-harassment scandal and changing generations have upended politics as usual. In 2010, New York Democratic Charlie Rangel, another CBC founding member, was found guilty of 11 violations by the House Ethics Committee and censured. The CBC didn't try to push Rangel out—in fact, it threatened to eviscerate the Office of Congressional Ethics. (Long ago, Conyers tried to save the career of Adam Clayton Powell, a black congressman accused of various acts of wrongdoing; Powell eventually lost a primary to Rangel.)
But the CBC's leadership recently shifted to a new generation. The chair at the time of the Rangel censure was Barbara Lee (born in 1946). She was succeeded by Emmanuel Cleaver (1944), Marcia Fudge (1952), and G.K. Butterfield (1947). But the current chair, as of this year, is Cedric Richmond, born in 1973; the first vice chair, Andre Carson, was born in 1974. The other three officers are all somewhat older, but they are also all women.
Neither the CBC nor Richmond has publicly called for Conyers to go, but Richmond released a statement that at the very least does not strongly support Conyers, and could be read to favor his quiet resignation.
"Today, I met with John and we had a very candid conversation about the seriousness of the allegations against him, which he vehemently denies," Richmond said. "I told him that I agreed with his decision to step down as ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee at this time. I also told him that I encourage and expect him to fully cooperate with the ethics investigation. He said he would."
In contrast, the CBC elder statesman James Clyburn (born 1940), a South Carolina Democrat, has defiantly backed Conyers.
Conyers's bona fides as a fighter for black civil rights are not in doubt. But at 88, he is also a relic of an age in which powerful men often got away with mistreating women. (Conyers is showing his age in other ways, too. At a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing, he seemed to have lost a step in his questioning of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.) While he has sometimes supported legislation in defense of women's rights—Pelosi cited his work on the Violence Against Women Act—his public politics cannot excuse his personal failings.
Conyers would not be the first pioneer of equality in one era who stuck around long enough to be seen as part of the problem in another. The issue of gay rights divided veterans of the African American civil-rights movement, with some, such as Representative John Lewis or Julian Bond, taking a strong pro-LGBT stand and others arguing that the struggle for black rights was not analogous to that of LGBT people.
Changing definitions like this are a normal part of politics; the expansion in LGBT rights over the last decade would have seemed unimaginable to all but a few people just 15 or 20 years ago. Few politicians have the longevity of a Conyers, and so they're unlikely to still be in office when their modus operandi becomes unacceptable. Sometimes they do stick around, attaining the status of icon. The problem with becoming an icon is it makes you ripe for iconoclasm.
Posted: 30 Nov 2017 03:00 AM PST
In "Chicken Heart," the most famous episode of Arch Oboler's 1930s radio series, "Lights Out," scientists in Chicago keep a chicken's heart alive indefinitely—but when a careless lab visitor breaks open the heart's container, the heart begins to spread ... and spread ... and spread.
"For some reason I cannot even imagine, this tissue is doubling in size every hour," one savant tells the authorities. "Do you know what that means? In another hour it will be twice the size it is now, and long before that it will break open the building with the force of its pressure. And then it will be free in the streets—do you hear me, free in the streets! And then those tentacles of protoplasm stretching out to feed on anything they can reach ..."
As of this writing, Chicago has not been eaten. But in the last few years, the First Amendment has become a kind of constitutional chicken heart, spreading its tentacles into new areas, growing and growing until it crowds out other areas of the law.
In First Amendment matters, I am not chicken livered—man and boy, as editor and scholar, I have been arguing for free speech, free press, and free exercise for nearly 50 years. But the current Supreme Court has taken to rechristening entire areas of the law as First Amendment territory. The new "First Amendment" is zigzagging through the streets of the law in unpredictable fashion. For example, it protects corporate management's political use of shareholder funds, without regard to the shareholders' wishes—even though it will likely soon forbid unions' use of workers' fees to support actual collective bargaining. It is destroying any limit, no matter how modest, on concentrated wealth in politics. It now empowers drug salespeople to demand practice information on doctors who'd prefer to keep it private; it limits modest state regulations on the posting of correct retail prices.
Not long ago, a panel of the D.C. Circuit held that cigarette companies had a First Amendment right to refuse to print warning labels on their packs (mercifully reversed by the full appeals court). After the city of Seattle raised its minimum wage, a business group sued, claiming that paying higher wages would leave them less money to spend on advertising, and thus supposedly violate their First Amendment rights. That argument has failed—so far, but it makes about as much sense as some that the Supreme Court has accepted.
More and more government regulations are being devoured by the category of "content-based regulation of speech"—and that that designation will trump any doctrine from any other area of law that might heretofore have applied.
These reflections were sparked by an amicus brief in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the case of the gay wedding cake, which will be heard by the Supreme Court on December 5. The cake shop, and the baker who is a major shareholder, assert that his religious beliefs should allow him to refuse service—in violation of a state civil-rights statute—to a same-sex couple seeking a custom wedding cake.
Readers might be forgiven for thinking that this is the same issue that the court decided three years ago in Hobby Lobby Stores v. Burwell, in which a large for-profit corporation asserted, and partially won, a religious right to defy federal regulations and refuse health-care coverage for contraceptive methods.
But there are important differences. First, Hobby Lobby involved a claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, meaning that a future Congress that disagrees with the result could amend the act to reimpose the requirement—while the cake shop wants the court to write an exemption into the Constitution, where it will be untouchable; secondly, Masterpiece Cakeshop involves a claim for exemption not from an employee-benefit regulation but from a civil rights statute aimed at protecting the rights of the general public; and, third and perhaps most ominously, lawyers for the cake shop are aiming at carving a much bigger hole in government protection of individual rights.
Though they frequently speak of baker Jack Phillips' personal religious faith, the claim they are advancing is much broader. The cake shop—and Jeff Sessions' Justice Department—are asking the court to find an exemption from civil rights statutes as a matter of freedom of speech, not "the free exercise" of religion. If their plea succeeds, anyone who objects to a government equality mandate may be able to claim that serving customers to whom they object is "compelled speech." That right of exemption—however broad it may become—would extend not just to conscientious individuals but to for-profit corporations.
It is the latter concern that has spurred a group of 34 corporate-law scholars to file an amicus brief warning the court that a free-speech victory for the cake shop has the potential to create serious problems in the area of corporate law. The signatories are mostly, but not all, centrists or progressives—but all study corporate law and governance for a living.
The brief points out that Jack Phillips and Masterpiece Cakeshop are not one and the same. In fact, the cake shop is a for-profit Colorado corporation; though Phillips is the major stockholder, he is legally an employee of the corporation. Neither his religious beliefs, nor his person free-speech rights, should be attributed to that corporation, they argue. "Even in situations in which a single shareholder is dominant, the separation of shareholder from corporation is fundamental," they write. "Shareholders receive immense benefits in exchange for this separation"—most prominently "limited liability," meaning that corporate debts can't be collected from the shareholders themselves, even if the company goes bankrupt. (The "Ltd." in Masterpiece's corporate name lets creditors know they can't collect from Jack Phillips.)
Remember the cake shop is asserting a free-speech right—meaning that any corporation of any size can claim a similar exemption for any reason at all. If obeying civil-rights laws in the provision of a cake constitutes "compelled speech," then conceptually any corporation can claim similar exemptions from serving any unpopular group they claim to dislike. The only limit on that right is the idea that it covers "expressive activities"—of which baking a cake with a custom inscription is, the cake shop argues, an example. This is supposedly a limited claim; but I can't for the life of me see how it differs from a claim by a hotel that it should not be required to host public events for, let's say, inter-racial or inter-religious marriage, or meetings that permit men and women to mix openly, or almost any other public event that someone might object to. (The Sessions Justice Department assures us that laws against race discrimination—like the Civil Rights Act of 1964—"may survive heightened First Amendment scrutiny." "May." It is strangely silent about discrimination by sex. God help us.)
The scholars urge the court to reserve free-speech/religion claims for situations where "such beliefs [are] organic to the company"—as, for example, a religious publisher or charitable institution—"nor merely projections of dominant shareholders, and not asserted as pretext to gain economic advantage." Not only will a victory for the free-speech claim open the way for such anti-regulatory claims, the scholars argue, it will make them, when advantageous, all but inevitable:
As a general matter, a corporation will enjoy a competitive advantage in the marketplace if it is exempted from otherwise generally applicable laws and regulations. In this case, Masterpiece Cakeshop is asking to be relieved from a state law its competitors are required to obey. Companies that do not assert constitutionally protected beliefs will find themselves competing at a disadvantage on grounds that have nothing to do with efficiency.
In short, the First Amendment may take another huge step away from being a protection of genuine speech rights and toward being a tool against government regulation. The scholars further warn that it may throw the law of corporate governance into chaos, resulting in "years of proxy fights followed by litigation" over shareholder rights and corporate duties. (I reached out to Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative law firm representing Phillips, for a response, but was unable, over a week, to arrange an interview.)
Most people on both sides feel sympathy for Jack Phillips (though reciprocal sympathy for Charlie Craig and David Mullins, the engaged couple who were told that a baker did not recognize their marriage as legitimate, seems not as general on the conservative side). But law is not a congeniality or even sincerity contest; it is a process of framing rules that will be applied both to the conscientious and to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s famous "bad man," who cares nothing for morality or sincerity but seeks only to avoid penalty and expense.
The First Amendment, Holmes said on another occasion, is designed to create a marketplace of ideas; but increasingly, "free speech" is sending tentacles into the actual marketplace, not as an instrument of freedom and self-government but as a corporate privilege. The result will, in the end, dilute and reduce the proper purpose of the Amendment—to preserve Americans' right to genuine free expression and an open society.
Posted: 30 Nov 2017 03:00 AM PST
Give the people less, and make them thank you for it. It's an odd electoral strategy, but a new study suggests it's one way to explain the outcome of the 2016 election.
The paper argues that "intentional efforts by Republicans to sabotage the implementation of the health-care law" caused real dissatisfaction among voters. But according to polls, faced with constant media coverage of rising prices, voters responded by supporting Republican politicians who promised to repeal and replace Obamacare. That dynamic, it suggests, could very well have given Donald Trump the presidency. And the same mechanisms could be at play in 2018 and beyond.
The study, posted to the online repository SSRN by the Ohio State University researchers Vladimir Kogan and Thomas Wood, has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and is unusually provocative and firm in its conclusions. But the paper relies on popular polls like the Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll, and its broad argument aligns with the conclusions of writers like my colleague Olga Khazan that public opinion about Obamacare and premiums had something to do with Trump's victory, even as it makes that case more forcefully. "The implementation of Obamacare," its authors write, "may have indeed cost Hillary Clinton the presidency."
Kogan and Wood's paper provides a mechanism to explain that outcome. The authors found that increased coverage under Obamacare was generally associated with support for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, holding all else equal. But things got more complicated when costs were considered, because as Kogan and Wood write, "premium increases moderated the political impact of exchange enrollment." At both the county level and the individual-voter level, support for Trump was correlated with increases in premiums among people who self-purchased private plans—both on and off the exchanges—and those on Medicaid. There was not a similar correlation between support for Trump and premium increases among people with employer-sponsored plans.
In places where premiums rose for private-exchange plans, even the people who gained heavily subsidized or free coverage under the new law became more likely Trump.
Judging the candidates by their rhetoric, that would seem to make a certain degree of sense. Premiums skyrocketed in many exchange markets over 2015 and 2016, and one of Trump's most frequent campaign promises was to reduce those premiums by repealing Obamacare.
But rising premiums on the exchanges did not mean that most Americans faced correspondingly large drains on their wallets. Those premiums only applied to people buying plans on the exchanges—the smallest piece of the insurance pie—and even then, some 85 percent of them received subsidies, shielding them from some or all of the increase in costs. That makes it hard to credit the notion that price pressures alone drove voters toward Trump.
The hypothesis put forward by Kogan and Wood is that overzealous and inaccurate coverage of premium increases by media outlets was largely responsible for boosting support for Trump. "Our results suggest that consumers were influenced not by the individual premiums they would have seen when logging in to renew their coverage," they wrote, "but rather the coverage of the issue in the local press, which focused largely on the non-discounted rates." The study doesn't cite specific instances of such coverage. But when Aetna announced it would exit exchanges in 11 states in August of 2016, for example, much of the coverage focused on rising costs, often without specifying just whose premiums were increasing and how that actually affected costs for individual consumers.
If this hypothesis holds, it would confirm the fears of Kaiser Family Foundation president Drew Altman, who wrote in a July 2016 column in The Wall Street Journal that poor reporting about pre-discount premium increases led people to believe that their own out-of-pocket costs were increasing. "People may read news stories on premium increases as validating criticisms they have heard about the ACA," Altman wrote. Eighty percent of the people in that month's Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll had seen reports on premium increases, and over two-thirds of those falsely believed that the increases applied to all plans or just to employer-based coverage. Poll respondents also consistently overestimated premium spikes, mistaking the highs reported for average increases, which in major cities hovered around 10 percent.
The second piece of Kogan and Wood's argument is that premium increases would likely have been smaller without what they term Republican "sabotage," and that the sabotage also affected the election independent of information gaps. The first part is almost certainly right. A campaign by Republican legislators to block market-stabilizing provisions and payments to insurers, block all legislation designed to tweak the health-care law, and promise a full repeal of the bill in 2016 almost certainly contributed to market instability in the exchanges and rising premiums.
Additionally, Republican governors have mostly been slow to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income residents of their states or have declined to do so at all, decisions that have both decreased the number of potentially satisfied Clinton voters with new coverage and further destabilized markets and prices. The study finds that had Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and Wisconsin embraced Medicaid expansion or even pursued slightly less-obstructionist policies, it could very well have tipped those states—and the 2016 election—to Clinton.
The usefulness of such counterfactual analysis is limited. But it does suggest a link between health care and voting that experts have long observed. A series of election studies by Harvard researcher Robert Blendon illustrates that while health care isn't always a major factor in elections, in the cycles when it does rise to be a top priority for many voters, dissatisfaction with costs is the main driver of their decisions. Notably, it doesn't really matter if voters' personal costs have really increased; what matters is that they believe prices are rising.
With those elements in place, the Republican strategy to dismantle Obamacare can appear cunning in retrospect. While there was certainly a substantial natural backlash to the Affordable Care Act, GOP policy appears to have amplified that opposition. The refusal of many Republican governors to expand Medicaid—especially in states with major populations of people of color—kept millions of potential Democratic voters from the aegis of coverage. At the same time, a suite of actions that destabilized the marketplaces helped raise the prices. Then—aided by superficial coverage in the press—Republican candidates in 2016 were able to run a coordinated campaign reinforcing the perception that Obamacare had introduced runaway costs. And they won.
The truth is probably less Machiavellian. Health care is complicated, and in this media landscape misinformation and disinformation thrive and can help candidates, whether intentionally or not. And the Obama administration notably failed to inform millions of citizens about their benefits and rights under its signature program, or to persuade them of that program's successes, ceding more ground in turn to misinformation.
Where this leaves politicians in 2018 and beyond is an open question. It seems certain rising premiums and misinformation will continue to be features of the political landscape. Republicans appear intent on blocking reforms to Obamacare, and pushing for full repeal, even though those acts serve to destabilize markets.
The question is, with Republicans now in control of Congress and the White House, will voters still trust them to lower costs, or will they assign them responsibility for rising prices?
Posted: 30 Nov 2017 02:00 AM PST
The baby boom is being evicted from the penthouse of American politics. And on the way out, it has decided to trash the place.
That's probably the best way to understand the generational implications of the tax legislation Republicans are driving through Congress.
The House and Senate measures shower enormous benefits on households at the top of the economic ladder, a group that by all indications is older and whiter than the population overall. Then it hands the bill for those benefits largely to younger generations, who will pay through more federal debt; less spending on programs that could benefit them; and, eventually, higher taxes.
In that way, the bills would intensify the generational inequity in how Washington allocates resources between the country's increasingly diverse youthful generations and its predominantly white older population, groups I've called "the brown and the gray." At a moment when political influence is inexorably shifting to the brown, the tax bill represents an 11th hour raid by the wealthiest of the gray.
Republicans' strength among older whites, particularly those without college degrees and outside major urban areas, has been central to the political gains that gave the GOP unified control of the White House and Congress—and the leverage to advance a tax bill. But the demographic foundation of that political dominance is eroding.
The baby-boom generation, which has voted reliably Republican in recent years, has been the largest generation of eligible voters since 1978. But in 2018, for the first time, slightly more Millennials than baby boomers will be eligible to vote, according to forecasts from the Center for American Progress's States of Change project. Higher turnout rates among baby boomers will preserve their advantage among actual voters for a while. But sometime around 2024, Millennials will likely surpass them. The post-Millennials, Americans born after 2000 who'll enter the electorate starting in 2020, will widen the advantage. This generational shift will trigger a profound racial change: While about 80 percent of the baby boom is white, over two-fifths of Millennials and nearly half of the post-Millennials are not.
This transition looms over the tax debate. To fund its benefits for the wealthiest families and business, the GOP congressional plans raise taxes on so many subgroups of Americans that no generation emerges as an unequivocal winner. But the evidence suggests that those who gain the most—top earners, business owners, corporate shareholders—are concentrated among whites in the baby boom and the older members of Generation X. And from several angles, younger generations loom as the plans' biggest losers. "What's very clear through all of this is that the group that most pays are the younger people," Eugene Steuerle, the co-founder of the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, told me.
People in the top income brackets will gain the most from the bills' cuts in individual tax rates. Data from the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors show that over one-third of households headed by someone age 45 to 59 earn more than $100,000 annually. Steph Curry and Taylor Swift notwithstanding, that's true for less than one in 12 adults under 30. Likewise, the share of whites earning that much is roughly double that of African Americans or Hispanics.
People who own corporate stock and/or their own businesses will gain the most from the plans' cuts in business taxes. Fed data again show that whites are twice as likely as non-whites to own one or the other—and that older adults are more likely to do so than younger people. Overall, the tax bills reward wealth, and wealth accumulates with age: Households headed by people between 55 and 64 years old have an average net worth that's 15 times that of households headed by people younger than 35, the data show.
While the plans' benefits flow mostly to older (and whiter) adults, younger (and non-white) Americans will absorb many of their costs. Young people are targeted by some specific components, particularly the House bill's provisions to tax graduate-student tuition waivers and eliminate the deductibility of student debt. But the bigger risks are structural. Measured as a share of the economy, Washington today is spending nearly the lowest amount ever recorded on the domestic discretionary programs that invest in the productivity of future generations, such as education and advanced scientific research. By adding a projected $1.5 trillion to the federal debt, the tax bills will increase the pressure for further cuts. Compounding the effect, the bills would eliminate the deductibility of state and local income taxes; that will make it more difficult for those jurisdictions to raise revenue at a time when they are already retrenching their investments in education.
One of 21st century America's central dynamics is that an increasingly non-white workforce will be funding Social Security and Medicare for a rapidly growing number of white seniors as the baby boomers retire. These bills strip the public treasury exactly as that burden is intensifying—and they do so primarily by enriching some of those same boomers. That will steadily heighten pressure to cut those benefit programs.
Tellingly, though, the "Better Way" budget blueprint House Republicans released last year proposed delaying changes in Medicare until 2024, when almost all of the baby boom has already retired. That would leave younger generations, starting with Generation X, to bear most of any future cutbacks—even as they shoulder the costs for the boomers' more generous retirement.
Young people will also pay the tax plans' most direct cost: the interest on that $1.5 trillion in additional federal debt. More debt could benefit younger generations if it's spent on investments in their futures. But this tax cut will bury younger generations in debt to fund the current consumption of their elders. As I've described before, the irony is that older, white America needs more of younger, diverse America to ascend into the middle class so it can generate the tax revenue to support the baby boom's retirement. Yet with these tax bills, the old are strapping a boulder onto the backs of the young as they attempt that climb.
Posted: 30 Nov 2017 01:50 AM PST
"Yes," wrote Elie Wiesel, "it is possible to defile life and creation and feel no remorse. To tend one's garden and water one's flowers but two steps away from barbed wire. … To go on vacation, be enthralled by the beauty of a landscape, make children laugh—and still fulfill regularly, day in and day out, the duties of [a] killer."
Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, was referring to the ordinary Germans who willingly participated in the destruction of European Jewry in World War II, riffing on a point that has since become conventional wisdom in genocide studies and the criminology of collective violence: that, by and large, the perpetrators of mass killing are "normal" people, neither monsters nor sadists, whose capacity for evil coexists with their capacity for good.
Thomas Hegghammer's recent book, Jihadi Culture, seems to concur with this: "Yes, it is possible to saw off heads and feel no remorse. To produce third-rate poetry but two steps away from one's sex slave. To sing and pray—and still fulfill regularly, day in and day out, the duties of a jihadi warrior." Actually, this quotation is nowhere to be found in Hegghammer's book, because I made it up. But it does capture the book's central thesis: that jihadi militancy "is about more than bombs and doctrines. It is also about rituals, customs, and dress codes. It is about music, films, and storytelling. It is about sports, jokes, and food."
If jihadists were not so bloodthirsty outside of their downtime, this thesis wouldn't be nearly so jarring or disquieting. But, as Wiesel reminds us, "It is possible to fire your gun at living targets and nonetheless delight in the cadence of a poem, the composition of a painting…" Or, as in the case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS, it is possible to enjoy your work as a proficient beheader of "infidels" and "apostates" and still partake in a good cry: Zarqawi was known in jihadi circles as both "the Slaughterer" and "He Who Weeps a Lot," the latter being a reference to his inclination to emote and cry during prayer.
And weeping, evidently, is quite a thing among jihadists. So, too, are poetry recitation, hymn singing, dream interpretation, and a whole gamut of other things that serve no obvious strategic purpose. This is the "soft" face of jihadism that Jihadi Culture aims to understand, drawing together a range of contributions—on poetry, music, iconography, cinematography, dream interpretation, and martyrology—from some of the world's leading "jihadologists."
As a work of scholarship, Jihadi Culture is original and groundbreaking, blazing the trail for a social anthropology of jihadi culture that doesn't yet really exist. It is also a work of studied scholarly open-mindedness that foregoes the considerable opportunities for making fun of a culture that takes itself very seriously indeed. (Hegghammer, in his own downtime, is not immune to the joys of laughing at jihadists. Check out, for example, his @BoredJihadi Twitter account, in which there is a running joke about jihadi training montages. But there is not a trace of this in his scholarship.)
At the heart of Jihadi Culture is a deep appreciation for the centrality of culture to jihadi groups, and how it serves not only to bind its members together but also to attract new acolytes. For Hegghammer, jihadi groups are far more than just organizations with doctrinal beliefs; they are also living subcultures that provide emotional rewards to those who participate in them. This is no mere academic matter, for, as Hegghammer suggests, understanding what these rewards are and how jihadi groups meet them "can shed new light on why people join extremist groups."
In the concluding chapter, Hegghammer asks, "What do jihadis do when they are not fighting?" This seems like a straightforward and inconsequential question, yet it is anything but, because it has such a strong bearing on the decisive question of what role (if any) religion, and Islam in particular, plays in the decision-making and behavior of jihadists.
According to one school of thought, religion plays very little role in the motivational structure of jihadism, and explains neither why people join nor why they remain in jihadi groups. Often this claim is made by foregrounding secular psychological states or motives, like alienation, the search for identity or meaning and belonging, outrage over political injustices, and a host of sensually charged desires related to excitement, risk-taking, and sadism. Or it is made by portraying jihadists, variously, as opportunists who exploit religion for political ends, closeted libertines who hide behind a veil of piety, or as cretinous neophytes who know little about their religion.
Jihadi Culture offers a sustained and strongly argued corrective to this school of thought by showing that jihadis spend most of their downtime on devotional and recreational practices that are saturated with religious meaning and content. "It may be true that many militants have a non-observant past," writes Hegghammer, "but my investigation suggests that once they are in a militant group, they take ritual observance very seriously."
"We should not assume," Hegghammer adds, "that their belief is less intense just because they know little about theology." In this, Hegghammer is in agreement with The Atlantic's Graeme Wood, who has trenchantly argued against the inclination, common among those who downplay the role of religion in the motivation of jihadists, to "confuse duration of piety for depth of piety; religion for religiosity; and, most tellingly, orthodoxy for belief":
Jihadi Culture is also a vigorous corrective to tabloid-fueled fantasies of jihadists as bloodthirsty monsters. But is it a little too insistent as a corrective to these fantasies, a little too appreciative of the more soulful aspects of jihadi culture?
On the opening page of the book, Hegghammer writes that "jihadis have a rich aesthetic culture that is essential for understanding their mindset and worldview." "Rich," as journalist Andrew Anthony observed in his profile of Hegghammer, is an odd word choice for a culture that is immersed in prohibition, censure, and repression. It is also an unfortunate word choice, because "rich" is a term that morally shades the thing it describes, lending it a positive valence.
This is emblematic of a larger problem with Jihadi Culture: So keen is Hegghammer to correct the tabloid construction of jihadists as one-dimensional brutes that he risks going too far in the opposite direction. This is not to say that he excuses—or, still less, justifies—jihadi culture. But the account he offers is an unmistakably favorable one. It is also consonant with the one that jihadists themselves would like to propagate.
Reading Jihadi Culture, you will find that jihadists "love poetry," "weep a lot," "talk regularly about dreams," "value personal humility, artistic sensitivity, and displays of emotion," and spend an inordinate amount of time listening to hymns and praying. What you will not read about is the secret, subterranean culture of jihadi groups. Hegghammer makes a big point about jihadists weeping, but it's likely that they masturbate with as much frequency and ferocity as they weep. There's probably also a lot of illicit gay sex in jihadi camps. And there's good evidence to suggest that there's a fair amount of drug-taking among jihadists. But you won't read about any of this in Jihadi Culture, because it's so heavily reliant on the idealized jihadi presentation of self in the form of jihadi personal memoirs.
In his classic work Folk Devils and Moral Panics, the sociologist Stanley Cohen warned against the danger of being "too respectful" in decoding the "subcultural detritus" of deviant groups—of being too reverential toward "the musical notes, hair styles, safety pins, zips, and boots." This was a reference to 1980s British skinhead culture, and the "deferential care" and "exaggerated contextualization" with which some Marxist-inspired deviance scholars approached it. Cohen, in elaborating on his point, quoted a passage from Claude Levi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques: "While often inclined to subversion among his own people and in revolt against traditional behavior, the anthropologist appears respectful to the point of conservativism as soon as he is dealing with a society different from his own." For Cohen, the core task of the sociologist of deviance is to "understand without being too respectful." If there is a tension in Jihadi Culture, it is that it leans too far toward the latter.
In his critique of the Howard Becker School of deviancy sociology, which sought to identify with the deviant and take his side, the radical sociologist Alvin Gouldner noted his impression that "their pull to the underdog is sometimes part of a titillated attraction to the underdog's exotic difference and easily takes the form of 'essays on quaintness.'" Gouldner then went on to accuse Becker of romanticism, comparing him to "the zoo curator who preeningly displays his rare specimens."
It would be unfair to level the same accusation against Hegghammer and his fellow jihadologists, but the charge of sentimentalism is not entirely unwarranted. It's also easy to see how research papers on jihadi dream interpretation and blog posts on jihadi embroidery can be derided as "essays on quaintness." The effect is not unlike that of well-meaning efforts to expose the ordinariness of right-wing extremists: The emphasis on the quotidian serves to obscure the grotesqueness.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 05:55 PM PST
The PayPal cofounder and billionaire investor Peter Thiel recently withdrew his name from consideration to lead the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, according to two sources with direct knowledge of what happened.
Thiel informed the White House of his decision earlier this month, said one of the sources. Both spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss private conversations.
Asked about Thiel's withdrawal, his spokesman Jeremiah Hall declined to comment. A White House spokesman did not immediately comment.
Although Thiel told The New York Times in January that he didn't want a job in the administration, Vanity Fair reported in September that Thiel was in discussions to lead the PIAB, a panel which oversees U.S. intelligence agencies and advises the president. Previous chairs include Brent Scowcroft, under George W. Bush, and Chuck Hagel, who co-chaired the body under Barack Obama. It's unclear how far the process went before Thiel backed out, though one of the sources said the process for vetting Thiel for a security clearance had begun.
Thiel has been a key backer of President Trump, spending $1.25 million in support of his campaign during the election. He spoke at the Republican National Convention last year, and gave a speech in Washington at the National Press Club in October 2016 laying out the case for Trump, arguing that "what Trump represents isn't crazy and it's not going away" and that other politicians were merely "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic." Thiel joined the transition after the election and his allies can be found throughout the administration, including on the National Security Council and in the Pentagon. His former investment-fund manager Kevin Harrington occupies a senior role on the NSC, and former Palantir official Justin Mikolay works as a top aide to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Thiel is an ardent libertarian whose support for Trump has made him stand out among the generally Trump-critical crowd of Silicon Valley executives.
Though Thiel has remained publicly supportive of Trump, BuzzFeed News reported in August that he had been much more critical in private, telling friends that "there is a 50% chance this whole thing ends in disaster."
As Vanity Fair noted in its story, Thiel's investments could also pose conflicts of interests if he were to occupy a senior intelligence role. He co-founded the data-mining firm Palantir, which has held contracts with, among others, the Pentagon, the National Security Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 03:45 PM PST
What We're Following
Far-Right Retweets: President Trump retweeted three anti-Muslim videos from the account of Jayda Fransen, a British ultranationalist leader, raising the profile of her group and its extreme anti-Islam and anti-immigration views. The unverified videos purport to show acts of violence committed by Muslims. As Peter Beinart writes, Trump has long played on fear and hatred of Muslims to gain political support. But that doesn't necessarily mean his actions are purely politics; as David A. Graham writes, the tweets add to a growing body of evidence that Trump's apparent bigotry isn't an act.
The Weinstein Effect: NBC announced that it had fired Matt Lauer, a longtime host of the Today show, after a colleague brought an allegation of sexual misconduct against him, prompting shocked reactions on air from his co-hosts. And Minnesota Public Radio cut ties with Garrison Keillor, the creator of A Prairie Home Companion, over a similar allegation, putting an end to the brand of wholesome nostalgia that he had cultivated.
North Korea: The country's latest test of an intercontinental ballistic missile was its longest-ranging yet, but hasn't prompted a change in the Trump administration's strategy: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized that the U.S. will continue to seek full disarmament. Yet it's likely too late to achieve that goal; on Wednesday, Kim Jong Un claimed to have "finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force." So what happens now?
Who We're Talking To
Thomas Hargrove, the founder of the Murder Accountability Project, explains how he created an algorithm that can help catch serial killers.
Joel Fleishman, the director of Duke University's Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society, describes—and critiques—philanthropists' recent shift toward donating their wealth before they die.
Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, discusses what people misunderstand about his city and whether a mayor could win the presidency on the latest episode of The Atlantic Interview. Listen and subscribe here.
James Winnefeld remembers the last photograph taken of his son:
Keep reading here as Winnefeld shares his family's experience with the opioid epidemic, and the painful lessons it taught him.
What Do You Know … About Science, Technology, and Health?
When Dolly the cloned sheep died young, her fate sparked a narrative that clones age faster than their nonclone counterparts—but new evidence suggests that concerns were greatly exaggerated. More uses for genetic technology in the animal world: Mitochondrial DNA proved that a collection of "yeti" specimens had actually come from Himalayan brown bears, while the DNA of New York City's rats can be used to distinguish between uptown and downtown rodents.
Can you remember the other key facts from this week's science, tech, and health coverage? Test your knowledge below:
1. Certain flavors of ____________ may be more toxic than others.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
2. A new survey from the MUSE space telescope found a total of ____________ galaxies that have never been seen before.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
3. ____________ percent of all hummingbird species live in the Andes Mountains of South America.
The author Louisa May Alcott was born on this day in 1832. From our November 1863 issue, here's a story she wrote—about two brothers, one white and one black, narrated by a Civil War nurse:
Dominick Tao wrote about how his military service—and the Veterans Affairs health coverage he acquired as a result—convinced him that universal health care would benefit all Americans. This reader enthusiastically agrees:
Read Tao's essay here.
Time of Your Life
Happy birthday to Roxanne (a year younger than fiber-optic communication); to Max's son (twice the age of Google); to Isser's son Yair (a year younger than hip-hop records); and from Bill to Cassidy, who shares a birthday with Lois's son Matthew (both are twice the age of YouTube).
The newsletter dated November 27, 2017, misstated the location of Lake Tahoe. It is on the border of California and Nevada, not in Utah. Our apologies for the error, and thanks to the readers who pointed it out.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 03:24 PM PST
On Wednesday, after conducting its longest-range missile test yet, North Korea declared itself a globe-spanning nuclear-weapons power and insisted the United States deal with it on those terms. Kim Jong Un's government claimed that it had launched a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)—a "Hwasong-15"—capable of "carrying [a] super-heavy [nuclear] warhead and hitting the whole mainland of the U.S." It quoted the Dear Leader, who announced that his nation had "finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force."
So … do we all go home now? Is that how this ends—with North Korea sprinting across the finish line, the United States panting behind it, and the two countries learning to deter one another just as nuclear-armed states have since Little Boy and Fat Man fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Donald Trump, for his part, isn't conceding defeat. "This situation will be handled!" he tweets, promising tougher international sanctions against the North. Top officials in his administration, including the national-security adviser, the CIA director, and the president himself, have repeatedly stated that North Korea must be prevented—by all means necessary, including military action—from developing the means to place a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile that can reach the United States. They've argued that a world in which Kim Jong Un's rogue regime can hold the U.S. government hostage with the threat of nuclear war—or worse still, actually fire those nukes at Americans—is unacceptable.
But North Korea's message this week boils down to this: It's no use shutting the doors when the horse has already left the barn.
"We're now at a point where they have tested an ICBM that can clearly hit the U.S. … They've tested a nuclear weapon that had a couple hundred kilotons' yield, which they say is a miniaturized thermonuclear weapon, which kind of looks like a miniaturized thermonuclear weapon to me," said Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. "It's done. It's over."
The window for stopping North Korea from acquiring the capacity to threaten the U.S. mainland with nukes slammed shut on July 4, when North Korea tested its first ICBM, the Hwasong-14, Lewis argued. "The whole point of a preventive war is to do it before they get the nuclear weapons. If you do it after, it's just a plain old nuclear war."
When Kim Jong Un speaks of "completing the state nuclear force," Lewis reckons that he is referring to meeting all the milestones—the Hwasong-12, -14, and -15— in a missile-development program that the Kim government committed to some time ago, similar to how China followed a plan called "four missiles in eight years" in the 1960s. Details are still emerging about the latest missile test, but what Lewis finds most significant so far is that North Korea claims to have fired the Hwasong-15 from an 18-wheel truck that it manufactured itself, rather than relying on 16-wheel trucks from China that it had used for its two previous ICBM tests in July. That means depriving North Korea of road-mobile launch pads is no longer as simple as demanding that China stop selling big trucks to its neighbor. And it enables the North Koreans to build more long-range missiles since they're no longer restricted to missiles small enough to fit on imported Chinese vehicles.
"In my conversation with the North Koreans, they've been very clear that their key goal is to demonstrate they're capable of striking the continental U.S. with a nuclear-tipped missile" in order to deter a U.S. attack, said Suzanne DiMaggio of New America, who has participated in a series of unofficial nuclear talks with North Koreans affiliated with the Kim government. "They have told us that their goal is not to amass a giant nuclear arsenal, but to have just enough to safeguard the regime, and then they will turn their attention to economic development of the country. Of course, this is what they told us. We should fully test that."
"This most recent launch tells us they're well on their way to achieving that goal," DiMaggio said.
These advances, however, don't necessarily indicate that North Korea is done with its nuclear and missile tests. "This isn't like, 'We hit our goal. It's good.' It's like, 'We hit our goal. Suck it,'" Lewis told me. "It's triumphal." He expects North Korea to continue experimenting with the Hwasong-15, solid-fuel long-range missiles (the long-rage tests so far have involved liquid fuel), and underground nuclear tests. He can even imagine North Korea test-firing a missile with a nuclear warhead into the ocean, as the Americans, Chinese, and Russians did in the 20th century, if the Kim government feels the need to extinguish doubts about its nuclear capabilities. (While North Korean officials have threatened to detonate a nuclear weapon over the Pacific Ocean, DiMaggio suspects that they won't follow through with it because it would carry too great a risk of retaliation by the United States or other countries.)
"Virtually no one finishes their nuclear-weapons program and [says], 'Well, our work is done here,'" Lewis noted.
Nor does virtually any country negotiate away a nuclear arsenal as advanced as North Korea's is now. "The North Koreans are not giving up their nuclear weapons," said Lewis. They appear willing to talk, but not about the U.S. government's goal of removing nuclear weapons from North Korea. DiMaggio believes Kim Jong Un may make an even grander declaration about the completion of North Korea's nuclear force during his New Year's address or the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February, and then express willingness to "return to the negotiating table to try to extract an array of security and economic concessions" from the United States and its partners.
But if the "completion" of North Korea's nuclear program changes anything, Lewis argued, it's less that it will make North Korean leaders more open to talks than that it should encourage U.S. leaders to "accept that [North Korea] can target the United States with nuclear weapons" and to lower their expectations for what diplomacy can achieve.
"Even though [America's North Korea] policy has failed miserably, and we find ourselves in this really undesirable situation with a nuclear-armed North Korea, we still have interests," Lewis said. "And we have to pursue those interests. The problem right now is we're not pursuing our interests because we don't want to admit we screwed it up."
More modest and realistic U.S. goals for talks with North Korea could include reducing tensions between the countries and clearly communicating what specific North Korean actions would trigger U.S. military responses, Lewis said. DiMaggio sketched out a scenario in which American diplomats enter into direct negotiations with their North Korean counterparts without preconditions, scaling back U.S.-South Korean military exercises in exchange for the North Koreans halting their nuclear and missile tests and offering assurances that they won't transfer weapons of mass destruction or related technology to other countries, or organizations such as terrorist groups. "We're a long way off to anything that would resemble a dismantling of North Korea's nuclear program," she said.
"I get it—that's not denuclearization. That's not the big, exciting agreement," Lewis admitted. "But not dying in a nuclear war is a real interest."
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 02:36 PM PST
Today in 5 Lines
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended President Trump after he retweeted unverified videos purporting to show Muslims committing acts of violence from an account belonging to a far-right British political group. NBC fired Today host Matt Lauer and Minnesota Public Radio fired host Garrison Keillor amid separate accusations of sexual misconduct. The Trump administration threatened North Korea with additional sanctions after it test-launched another ballistic missile on Tuesday. Donald Trump Jr. has reportedly agreed to meet with the House Intelligence Committee as early as next week to discuss his contacts with Russians during the presidential campaign. And the House passed a bipartisan measure requiring lawmakers to undergo annual anti-harassment training.
Today on The Atlantic
Follow stories throughout the day with our Politics & Policy portal.
What We're Reading
Historically Unpopular: Republicans are close to passing a tax plan, but polls show that their proposed tax cuts are even more unpopular than past tax hikes. (Harry Enten, FiveThirtyEight)
Told You So: The recent cascade of sexual-misconduct allegations reveals a broader truth, writes Mark Hemingway: "that conservatives were right about sex all along." (The Weekly Standard)
Changing His Story: Donald Trump apologized after the infamous Access Hollywood tape surfaced last fall. Now, the president is reportedly suggesting that the voice making vulgar comments about women might not be his. (Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin, The New York Times)
'Everybody Hates Jill': Eve Peyser talks with the Green Party's Jill Stein about the alleged health effects of Wi-Fi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and her role in the 2016 presidential election. (Vice)
Getting Past Partisanship: Democrats are guilty of applying a double standard in their reluctance to condemn Representative John Conyers, argues Jonah Goldberg. But there's a simple solution to this kind of tribal politics. (National Review)
North Korea's Progress: On Tuesday, the country test-launched a ballistic missile that flew higher and longer than in previous tests. See comparisons here. (Bonnie Berkowitz, Laris Karklis, and Kevin Schaul, The Washington Post)
Question of the Week
In a recent story in The New York Times, reporter Richard Fausset described the relatively ordinary life of Tony Hovater, a white nationalist living in Ohio, referring to him as "the Nazi sympathizer next door." Critics argued that the piece didn't offer context and left white-nationalist ideas unchecked. (In this vein, The Atlantic's James Hamblin wrote a parody of the story.) Fausset soon followed up with a piece describing his reporting process.
What do you think? Do stories like this normalize people with extreme viewpoints?
Share your response here, and we'll feature a few in Friday's Politics & Policy Daily.
-Written by Elaine Godfrey (@elainejgodfrey)
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 04:07 PM PST
On Wednesday, Minnesota Public Radio announced that it had fired Garrison Keillor, the creator and former host of A Prairie Home Companion, after "recently learning of allegations of his inappropriate behavior with an individual who worked with him." The station, it said, will be cutting ties not only with Keillor, but also with his production company. It will be ending both the distribution and the broadcast of The Writer's Almanac, Keillor's other radio show, as well as the rebroadcasts of The Best of A Prairie Home Companion. MPR will soon be renaming A Prairie Home Companion, which since 2016 has been hosted by the musician Chris Thile.
The extensiveness of the firing—MPR is ending a brand as well as a career—is only one of the ironies of Keillor's dismissal. Another: The man who has also been an occasional columnist for The Washington Post had, just this week, published a typically jokey-toned column titled, "Al Franken should resign? That's absurd." Keillor's piece argued that Franken's USO act—the one that had involved him kissing Leeann Tweeden, she said, against her will—was simply part of a long tradition among history's great humorists, the same kind of "low comedy" that has been performed by Shakespeare and Bob Hope and has now been ported to (and, Keillor suggests, misunderstood by) the present age. Keillor further argued that talk of Franken's resignation—not the resignation itself, but simply the discussion of it—would lead to an "atrocity": in this case, he suggested, without elaborating further on his meaning, "a code of public deadliness." As Keillor summed up his defense of his fellow comedian: "Franken should change his name to Newman and put the USO debacle behind him and then we'll change frankincense to Febreze."
To disabuse readers of the notion that, with all this talk of deadliness and air freshener, he might be joking, Keillor appended another line to his column: "No kidding."
The trouble with the addition is that Keillor is often kidding—or, at any rate, hiding behind a curtain of impish irony—when he talks about harassment. During an appearance at the National Press Club in 1994, Keillor declared that "a world in which there is no sexual harassment at all is a world in which there will not be any flirtation." And on Wednesday, in an email to his hometown paper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Keillor joked about the turn of events that would seem to include the unceremonious termination of his career: "Getting fired is a real distinction in broadcasting," he wrote, "and I've waited fifty years for the honor. All of my heroes got fired. I only wish it could've been for something more heroic." He added: "If I had a dollar for every woman who asked to take a selfie with me and who slipped an arm around me and let it drift down below the beltline, I'd have at least a hundred dollars. So this is poetic irony of a high order."
Folksy. Jokey. At once self-effacing and self-aggrandizing. It's a statement very much in line with the tone of A Prairie Home Companion, which Keillor created in 1974 and which has long been distributed to local stations across the land. (In 2006, the show was made into a feature film directed by Robert Altman and starring, among many others, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, and Keillor himself.) Prairie has been, over the course of decades, alternately beloved and detested, and often for the same reason: The show purported, with its combination of banjo-heavy musical interludes and old-timey radio plays, to represent a particular strain of Americana—hardy, hearty, wholesome, twangy, white. It did all this purporting winkily (this was nostalgia of a distinctly postmodern strain), but there it was nonetheless, yore meeting lore, the Midwest packaged as a metaphor for America itself: ice skates and Jell-o molds, ordered corn fields and sparkling lakes, a social world lubricated by friendly gossip and easy pleasantries.
Keillor's show, in all that, suggested one of the cultural legacies of the American frontier (with the genocides, inequities, and other tragedies, of course, cheerfully cut from the air). Conquest, without the inconvenient ickiness. America as a (charming, uncomplicated) ideal. The show's fictional Lake Wobegon—the pun is indicative of the show's general brand of humor—is a place where, as Keillor's cheeky introduction to it made clear each episode, "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."
On Wednesday, though, Keillor ended up starring in another kind of story of the American frontier. Via an allegation whose details have yet to emerge in full—Keillor told the Associated Press, with typical puckishness, that it involves "a story that I think is more interesting and more complicated than the version MPR heard"—Keillor did come to serve as a representative of an American cultural ideal. He became one of the many men who have fallen to the "Weinstein effect." That effect is its own kind of landscape, its own kind of frontier—a version of manifest destiny in which expansion is not geographical but ideological, and in which justice, rather than justification, is the guiding ethic. The new American landscape is a cultural space that is newly cognizant of power differentials and mutual respect. It is one that strives for equality. And it is one that takes for granted the conviction that belittling those who are less powerful—all the women are strong—will have, finally, meaningful consequences.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 03:27 PM PST
Updated on November 29 at 6:13 p.m. ET
The fate of the Republican tax overhaul is coming down to a confrontation between the Senate's few remaining deficit hawks and the GOP's most ardent tax-slashers.
It's a fight that has been building for months and now centers on a proposal from Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and James Lankford of Oklahoma for the Republican tax bill to include a provision triggering tax increases if the cuts in the rate for corporations don't produce promised economic growth. Corker, who has vowed not to support a bill that he viewed as adding to the deficit, provided a decisive vote to advance the $1.4 trillion tax cut out of the Budget Committee on Tuesday only after securing what he said was a "verbal agreement" from GOP leaders that the final legislation would include a fiscal trigger. On Wednesday, all 52 Senate Republicans voted to begin floor debate on the tax bill, which the party hopes to pass by the end of the week. But important changes, including the expected addition of a trigger provision, are still to come, and the GOP's show of unity in Wednesday's procedural vote does not necessarily mean final passage will go as smoothly.
With the bill gaining steam, conservative lawmakers and outside activists are now mobilizing in opposition to a fiscal trigger. They warn it'll prove counterproductive to the GOP's goal of unleashing business investment and could saddle the nation with an automatic tax hike if the economy takes an unexpected dip. "It's a bad idea," said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers. "The last thing you'd want to do if there were some kind of economic downturn would be to raise taxes. It also leads to uncertainty for businesses, because you don't know what your tax rates are going to be from year to year." In an interview, Andy Roth of the conservative Club for Growth called the proposal "a dumb idea," and Grover Norquist, the veteran anti-tax activist, slammed it as "a self-fulfilling threat to kill jobs."
In a sign of just how sensitive the topic has become for Republicans, neither Corker nor Lankford has publicly detailed how their proposal would work—despite the fact that Senate leaders plan to amend and pass their far-reaching bill as early as Thursday. And while conservatives are trying to ensure a trigger stays out of the measure, they aren't yet threatening to abandon legislation Republicans desperately want to enact. During a meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday morning, according to a senior GOP aide, party leaders urged rank-and-file members not to criticize the emerging Senate bill until after it passes the upper chamber. In exchange, House members were assured they'd have the opportunity to fight for changes in a conference committee to reconcile the two bodies' competing bills.
Conservative lawmakers in both chambers are instead pushing for a mechanism that would trigger automatic spending cuts rather than tax increases, although that might be even harder to pass through the Senate. And the Senate bill would already set off cuts to Medicare that Congress may quickly try to undo.
Trying to head off a conservative revolt, Lankford has been talking for weeks about a possible trigger with his former colleagues in the House, where he served for four years before moving to the Senate. The Senate plan, like a House bill approved earlier this month, would reduce the corporate tax rate to 20 percent from 35 percent. Under one proposal floated by Lankford, that rate would rise to 21 percent after five years if the economy doesn't grow at a fast enough clip.
Some GOP senators are uneasy with even that modest change. "Personally, I don't support triggers," Nevada's Dean Heller said at a Wednesday press conference. Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina argued that the mere threat of a future tax increase would discourage businesses from taking advantage of the lower taxes to begin with. "The perverse consequence of having a trigger in here could potentially be that we won't achieve the economic gains that we would otherwise have if the trigger were not," he said.
For now, the trigger debate isn't a deal breaker for many Republican senators, who don't want to jeopardize the broader tax bill over a provision that might not survive the legislative process. Republicans can't lose more than two of their members and pass the bill. Corker and Lankford have each drawn a hard line on the issue to this point, and Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona have voiced similar concerns about the bill. "I don't want to see this bill destroyed because of a pursuit for perfection," Senator David Perdue of Georgia said.
The trigger mechanism could run afoul of the Senate's budget rules, analysts have said, causing the provision to be stripped out before a final vote. Or it could be watered down in negotiations with the House to a point where conservatives don't see it as an actual threat to their tax cuts. The decision would then swing back to the deficit hawks, who would face tremendous pressure not to topple a landmark Republican bill at the very last moment.
Corker and Lankford have received little support from advocates of fiscal restraint outside of Congress—not to mention Democrats, who already see their proposal as one more "gimmick" in a bill loaded with them. To comply with Senate budget limits, Republicans set most of the tax cuts for individuals to expire even as they promised to extend them later on. "Instead of designing a backstop in case a policy fails, lawmakers should just pass tax legislation that's fiscally responsible and permanent in the first place," said Michael Peterson, president of the Peter Peterson Foundation. "They can do that by using reasonable assumptions for economic growth and being realistic about the effects on the budget."
Given the GOP's slim Senate majority, Corker, Lankford, Flake, and McCain could use their votes as leverage to demand a trigger in the final bill. But unless and until they do, conservatives have the edge.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 12:26 PM PST
When the Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige stood up in front of a crowd in 2014 and announced the company's film plans for the next five years, he was aiming for show of commercial force while reassuring fans there was a strictly plotted path ahead. They would get an Avengers 3 in 2018 and an Avengers 4 in 2019. There'd also be a Black Panther movie and a Captain Marvel movie, and plenty of other sequels. (You can watch the presentation and hear fans screaming at the very notion of more Avengers.) But the unwitting side effect of all these projects was the loss of narrative stakes. With the franchise guaranteed to roll along for years to come, how could any truly surprising stories be told in the interim?
After all, Captain America: Civil War—the 2016 extravaganza that pitted Marvel's biggest heroes (Iron Man and Captain America) against each other in a grand battle—felt oddly weightless. Audiences knew both characters would live to scrap (and, probably, repair their friendship) in future Avengers movies. But on Wednesday, the trailer debuted for Avengers: Infinity War, in theaters next May, promising a more cataclysmic showdown between Marvel's ever-expanding stable of stars and the massive, purple-skinned menace Thanos (Josh Brolin). There will be big set pieces, alliances forged and shattered, alien portals in the sky, all the usual stuff. But the trailer also offered the latest hint of something unheard of until recently: an ending.
This week, Vanity Fair featured an in-depth story on the Marvel universe written by Joanna Robinson. The piece acknowledged that the dozens of stars who had gathered for the studio's huge 10th anniversary photo shoot might not see each other again. "We're all aware that this is going to be the last time we get to hang out like this," Chris Hemsworth (who plays Thor) remarked. "I feel a lot of joy for the next generation," Scarlett Johansson (who plays Black Widow) said. "It's a bittersweet feeling, but a positive one."
Most importantly, Feige himself also promised a genuine conclusion was on the way. Avengers 4, he told Robinson, will "bring things you've never seen in superhero films: a finale." Of course, that doesn't mean the immensely profitable Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to close up shop—future movies will likely revolve around newer heroes like Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson). But the still-untitled Avengers 4, due out one year after Infinity War and presumably concluding its grand Thanos arc, may well do what previous Marvel movies have refused to: Kill off some major characters, and not spend large chunks of story time setting up the next conflict.
So, who will die? The trailer offers only teases rather than actual clues. Feige has described Infinity War as a colossal sort of heist film, as Thanos gathers the "Infinity Gems" he needs to conquer the universe. These glowing gewgaws have served some plot function in many a Marvel movie, but they're more like metaphors for the disparate story strands that Feige and his screenwriters have woven into the larger franchise. In Infinity War, fans will thrill at the sight of all the company's big names meeting, from the spacefaring Guardians of the Galaxy to the teenaged Spider-Man (Tom Holland), whose rights were acquired in a complex power-sharing agreement with Sony.
In releasing a film series (with 20-plus titles) that generates consistent box-office returns, Marvel has pulled off something other studios could only dream of. Now it's preparing to say goodbye to some of the biggest brand-name actors. Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, in particular, have grown prohibitively expensive even by Marvel standards, and both have signaled a desire to retire from their roles. Though the move might sound risky for Marvel, it's just further evidence of the studio's confidence in its future plans. Avengers: Infinity War will have lots of impressive-looking fights between cosmic villains and muscle-bound heroes. But it's what comes next—and what doesn't—that'll be truly interesting.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 11:52 AM PST
Expecting realism from an Amy Sherman-Palladino show is like expecting Elmo to break into an Ibsen monologue in the middle of Sesame Street—it's never going to happen. Sherman-Palladino's universes are bright, zany, sparkly places, as cozy as hot chocolate, and as insulated from darkness as a casino at Christmastime. Her characters are whip-smart, mile-a-minute talkers with unshakable confidence and improbable appetites. If Stars Hollow, the fictional Connecticut locale where her beloved drama Gilmore Girls was set, felt like a simulacrum of small-town America, the New York of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is stranger still, like a 1950s street set that's somehow been conjured into animation. Drunks urinate in public, women throw their trash onto the street, and yet the whole thing shimmers like it's covered in stardust.
This is the allure of shows like Gilmore Girls and Bunheads: Even when really bad things happen, they tend to be possibilities in disguise. In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a new eight-part drama Amazon released on Wednesday, the bad thing happens in the first episode. Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), a blissfully married 1958 housewife with two young children and a classic six on the Upper West Side, is abandoned by her husband, Joel (Michael Zegen) who's having an affair with his moronic secretary. Joel, though, isn't much of a prize. He's a weasel, a square with bohemian pretensions who leaves the tag on his black turtleneck until he's confident he can pull off the beatnik look. He's also an aspiring comedian, although his routine is stolen from Bob Newhart. (Midge, in some ways, seems more disturbed by this lack of originality than by his infidelity.)
Heartbroken, and reasonably hammered on a bottle of kosher wine, Midge wanders onstage at a decrepit comedy club in the Village and begins spilling out her woes. But her tragedy, it turns out, makes great comedy. Midge has a natural gift for making people laugh. And just like that, she's found her calling, trading a nonentity of a spouse for a new career as a performer, and focusing her enviable drive and ambition on herself rather than her family.
It all feels slightly pat, a little effortless. For someone so initially wrapped up in contentment, Midge barely seems to mourn her marriage, or even to grumble when her father-in-law evicts her from the apartment he technically owns, and she's forced to move back in with her parents. Nor do her two kids cramp her lifestyle; they're easily disposed of with grandparents and maids. The point of the show isn't hardship, it's opportunity. It's women realizing their own potential. Midge's father, a mathematics professor at Columbia played by the estimable Tony Shalhoub, tells his students that his classroom is "a sanctuary from the variables of the outside world," and you could say the same for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which is exuberance in episodic form.
Midge is a charming character, a Jewish Pollyanna with irrepressible confidence and a winningly filthy mouth. Sherman-Palladino, who wrote and directed most of the eight episodes, stretches the boundaries of what she can do on a streaming platform, so Midge's first accidental performance includes both profanity and a flash of her breasts to the audience, which gets her promptly arrested for indecency. The creator also peppers her period piece with Holocaust jokes, which somehow land gracefully within the show's shiny firmament. "You're jealous of the rabbi?" an incredulous Midge asks Joel as he's packing up his suitcase and whining. "He was in Buchenwald, throw him a bone."
It shouldn't work, but it does. Brosnahan, who had a memorable arc as a vulnerable sex worker on House of Cards, is enchanting as Midge. She's both a naif in a man's world and consistently underestimated: It's never occurred to her that there are things women shouldn't say in public, nor is she remotely fazed by any new environment, whether it's a police cell with a murderess covered in blood (salt will get the stain out, Midge tells her briskly) or a jazz club where Lenny Bruce is emceeing. Luke Kirby plays Bruce, whom Midge meets in jail, and who becomes her unofficial mentor. She's also guided by Susie (Alex Borstein), a salty booker at a downtown club who instantly appraises Midge's potential.
The show falls into place when Midge performs. She's breaking out of her mold as a 1950s housewife, yes, but she's also testing the edges of comedy itself. Like Bruce, who consistently scandalized America with his willingness to go dark, Midge channels her own anger and frustration into radical material. So why is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel so hesitant to do the same? For all the trademark rapid-fire monologues about subway rides and missed appointments and soup (which, it has to be said, can be uttered by any character interchangeably), there are few real breaks in the show's sunny, funny face. People talk and talk and talk, but they say very little. The closest Midge comes to emotional honesty is when she gazes at her face in the mirror, realizing she doesn't have to apply makeup before bed anymore, and seems to feel a curious mingling of sadness, liberation, and relief. The moment, uncharacteristically, is silent.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 02:21 PM PST
The white working class played a key role in Donald Trump's election and in the election of Republican majorities to the House and Senate, and yet has been all but ignored in the on-going tax-reform debate. With the House bill already passed, and a vote on the Senate bill just around the corner, the window for their voice to be heard is quickly closing.
In 2016, support for Trump surged among whites without college degrees—a constituency that also made up a disproportionate share of the vote for House and Senate Republicans. For many of these voters, their support for Trump was, and continues to be, driven by concerns about the fragility of family life in America. Trump voters, in particular, have registered serious concerns about the number of children being raised in single-parent families and the difficulty of living paycheck to paycheck.
These concerns stem in part from what working-class whites are seeing playing out in their communities. The predominantly working-class counties that went from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 had higher rates of family instability than did the counties that usually trend Republican, due in no small part to economic dislocations associated with the new economy, including increased trade with China and Mexico.
This economy has been particularly disastrous for men with less than a four-year college education, a group whose real wages declined between 5 and 25 percent between 1979 and 2010, according to economists David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, even as spells of unemployment have increased. This matters because men are less likely to get and stay married when they are not stably employed in a decent-paying job.
As a result, fewer than half of white working-class adults aged 25 to 60 are living in a first marriage, compared to more than 50 percent of college-educated whites. Only about one in two 14-year-olds in white working-class families are living in an intact, two-parent home, compared to approximately 80 percent of 14-year-olds in white, college-educated homes. These family trends are paralleled by economic trends: Today, the median family income where the household head has a high school degree is $54,600, compared to $114,640 where the head has at least a college degree. As Wilcox noted in When Marriage Disappears, the United States is in danger of "devolving into a separate-and-unequal family regime, where the highly educated and the affluent enjoy strong and stable households and everyone else is consigned to increasingly unstable, unhappy, and unworkable ones."
It's a cruel irony, then, that as the most important tax legislation in a generation winds its way through the halls of Congress, the priority has been given to the interests of donor-class families that are clearly flourishing, both financially and in terms of family stability.
To take just one example, the Child Tax Credit—long recognized as a tool for promoting stable families—is finally being increased after losing a quarter of its value to inflation since 2003. Yet instead of better targeting it to struggling working-class households, where an extra thousand dollars per child has been shown to reduce household conflict and improve child and parental mental health, the Senate bill expands the credit dramatically for rich households that were never close to being eligible in the past, including those making as much as $500,000 a year.
Republican leaders in Congress will say that there's simply no room in the budget to do more for working-class families, most of whom earn too little to owe federal taxes in the first place. But these same families lose roughly 15 cents of every hard-earned dollar to federal payroll taxes, directly diminishing their incentive to work and their ability to put their families on a firmer financial footing. Indeed, as pundits ferociously debate the incidence of the corporate tax on workers ("Is it 70 percent, 20 percent, or something in between?"), virtually no one disputes that workers bear the full burden of payroll taxes. So why are such taxes left out of the conversation?
The truth is that there are ample resources to cut taxes for working families. Congress could, for instance, extend the $2,000 Child Tax Credit to payroll-tax liability, as Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee have proposed. This would put markedly more money in the pockets of working-class families who play by the rules and are struggling to realize the American Dream. Moreover, an expanded child tax credit could easily be paid for by cutting the corporate tax rate a mere percentage point or so less than the 15-point corporate-rate cut now being proposed by the Senate. In other words, if we cut corporate taxes to 22 percent, not 20 percent, we could ensure a full payroll-tax refund on the first $26,000 in earnings for a family with two children.
To do so will require Republicans to stand up to their wealthy, corporate donors. But in return, the Republican Party would finally give substance to its Trump-era aspiration to be a party of workers, while making a necessary step toward addressing the social and economic crisis facing American families today.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 03:42 PM PST
In astronomy, an observation method called spectroscopy extends humanity's reach into the cosmos. Through spectroscopy, astronomers can study different wavelengths of light coming from very distant objects in the universe, from single stars to massive galaxies, and determine their chemical composition. The technology may, one day, uncover life-giving molecules in the atmosphere of an exoplanet.
It's a very cool thing, so it's unfortunate that spectroscopy's name makes it sound like an uncomfortable medical procedure. Here's another way to think of the method: It's the Leonardo DiCaprio of astronomy instruments, the Inception version, who insists, again and again, that we go deeper into the unknown.
Recently, one international team of astronomers spent two years heeding Leo's call. The team, led by Roland Bacon of the Centre de Recherche Astrophysique de Lyon in France, used a spectroscopy instrument called MUSE, installed on European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile. They pointed the instrument at a small patch of sky known as the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field. The field is our deepest view of the cosmos, a photograph of the universe as it was 13 billion years ago. The Hubble Space Telescope captured the view in 2004 after spending several months absorbing the light from the earliest galaxies.
The survey ended up measuring the properties of 1,600 faint galaxies, which the astronomers say is 10 times as many as have been recorded using other ground-based telescopes over the years. The survey includes 72 galaxies that have never been detected before, not even by Hubble. Altogether, the data have produced the deepest spectroscopic observations ever made, according to the team. Their findings are described in 10 papers published Wednesday in Astronomy & Astrophysics.
"When we started the project, I did not expect that we would be so successful to detect so many galaxies," Bacon said in an email.
The 72 galaxies were hidden from earlier spectroscopy studies because they shine in only one color of light called Lyman-alpha. These galaxies, known as Lyman-alpha emitters, are young, star-producing factories. The dynamics of Lyman-alpha emitters are still poorly understood, and Bacon said studying them "must tell us something about the star formation in the early universe, a key ingredient for galaxy formation."
The survey also found that the presence of halos of hydrogen gas around galaxies is a pretty common phenomenon in the early universe. Observing these halos is key to understanding the fundamentals of galaxy formation, Bacon said.
ESO has produced a visual tour of this deeper view of the cosmos, constructed using MUSE measurements of the distances of the galaxies from Earth. The video captures the data better than a single composite image could. Traveling through the field of view feels like staring up at falling snow:
The new survey demonstrates how spectroscopy can spice up the usual ways astronomers study distant galaxies, said Massimo Stiavelli, an astronomer at the Space-Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Instruments like MUSE have the capacity to provide information about the chemical compositions of every galaxy in their path, whether they can be detected in visible wavelengths of light or not.
"We tend to take an image, identify objects that we think are promising, and then take spectra of these objects," Stiavelli said. "By being prejudiced by images, we would be missing some objects."
The MUSE survey provides a tiny hint of what's to come next year, when NASA launches its next space telescope, the James Webb, in October, kicking off a veritable spectroscopy party. The Webb, an infrared-light observatory, will be capable of measuring the spectra of some of the most distant exoplanets, stars, and galaxies in the universe.
Stiavelli said he has no doubt Webb will find the 72 galaxies the MUSE team discovered, and see them in even greater clarity. When that happens, Webb will unseat MUSE—as well as pretty much every other similar tool on or around the planet—as the Leonardo DiCaprio of astronomy instruments.
"This is a very meaningful appetizer of things we should be able to do with James Webb," Stiavelli said.
Posted: 30 Nov 2017 02:06 AM PST
President Trump tweets most mornings, but Wednesday was different. In addition to doling out the usual kind of fare about CNN, the stock market, and North Korea, the president, or whoever was tweeting on his behalf, also decided to retweet three videos from an account belonging to a leader of a far-right ultranationalist British political group "Britain First." The unverified videos purport to show Muslims committing acts of violence, from beating up a boy on crutches to destroying a statue of the Virgin Mary. One depicts a mob pushing someone off a roof.
While it's unclear where or when these videos were made, or even if they're real, the offensive content wasn't what made the tweets unusual for the president (as my colleague Peter Beinart noted, Trump has associated with anti-Muslim voices, and made many of their same arguments, long before he ascended to the presidency). Neither was the dubious and seemingly obscure nature of the accounts they came from (in fact, just this week the president tweeted his thanks to an account known for promoting conspiracy theories). Yet one thing they did do was lift up a formerly obscure group in another country.
"THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, DONALD TRUMP, HAS RETWEETED THREE OF DEPUTY LEADER JAYDA FRANSEN'S TWITTER VIDEOS," read one of the tweets by Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of Britain First. Another tweet, this time addressing Trump directly, thanked the president for retweeting her posts before noting that she is "facing prison for criticizing Islam," in an apparent reference to her conviction last year after she was found guilty of verbally abusing a Muslim woman wearing a hijab.
Such attention is a major boost for Fransen and her far-right ultranationalist political movement, Britain First—whose official policy platform calls among other things to "reject and deport all 'asylum seekers' who do not originate from countries bordering Britain," and "introduce a comprehensive ban on the religion of 'Islam' within the United Kingdom." Though known for its online activism (through which it advocates anti-immigration and anti-Islam views to its approximately 25,000 and 1.7 million followers on Twitter and Facebook, respectively), the group has a minimal presence in British political life offline. Founded in 2011, it has unsuccessfully contested elections to the European Parliament, the U.K. House of Commons, and even London's 2016 Mayoral race before being deregistered as a party by the country's Electoral Commission earlier this month after it failed to confirm its registration details and pay a standard 25-pound fee. As Buzzfeed political editor Jim Waterson noted, the group had been "increasingly ignored" until the president promoted Fransen's tweets.
Now Britain First is international news. The president's tweets drew comments from British leaders across the political spectrum, from U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May (whose spokesman said it was "wrong for the president to have done this") to opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn (who called the tweets "abhorrent, dangerous and a threat to our society"). London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has verbally sparred with Trump in the past, condemned Britain First as "a vile, hate-fueled organization whose views should be condemned, not amplified." Even traditional Trump allies like British commentator Piers Morgan and the far-right U.K. Independence Party (whose former leader, Nigel Farage, was friendly with the American president) were quick to condemn the tweets.
Meanwhile, though, Britain First and its platform is being introduced to readers and viewers throughout the United States, including in The Atlantic; Fransen's Twitter feed boasts of multiple broadcast interviews in the wake of the American president's retweets, including in "CBS from America."
Brendan Cox—whose late wife, the British lawmaker Jo Cox, was killed by an assailant reportedly shouting "Britain first"—accused the American president on Twitter of legitimizing "the far right in his own country, now he's trying to do it in ours." Brendan Cox went on: "Spreading hatred has consequences & the President should be ashamed of himself." (Britain First has denied having been involved in or inspired Cox's murder.)
Whatever the ultimate real-world consequences of the tweet, the group for now remains on the margins of British politics. "They're a radical-right group with a low profile in the U.K.," Rainbow Murray, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, told me."For all the racism and jingoism in the U.K., we're still a bit wary of very far-right movements—partly due to our electoral system, partly due to a legacy of World War II and our pride in resisting fascism."
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 11:17 AM PST
On Monday, Indian police and forestry officials began carrying out a series of forced evictions of illegally built houses inside the 30-square-mile Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary in northeastern India, a protected habitat for wild elephants. Hundreds of structures were demolished by a few construction vehicles and about a dozen elephants, which were able to navigate some of the steeper and narrower trails. The people being evicted protested, some hurling rocks, but in the end, several hundred families were driven out. Increased encroachment on elephant habitat has been driving growing numbers of human-elephant encounters, which often end badly for the wild animals. Indian authorities have used elephants for demolition duties several times in recent years, including in 2016, when they removed 300 encroaching houses from the Kaziranga National Park rhino sanctuary.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 07:13 PM PST
New York City is a place where rats climb out of toilets, bite babies in their cribs, crawl on sleeping commuters, take over a Taco Bell restaurant, and drag an entire slice of pizza down the subway stairs. So as Matthew Combs puts it, "Rats in New York, where is there a better place to study them?"
Combs is a graduate student at Fordham University and, like many young people, he came to New York to follow his dreams. His dreams just happened to be studying urban rats. For the past two years, Combs and his colleagues have been trapping and sequencing the DNA of brown rats in Manhattan, producing the most comprehensive genetic portrait yet of the city's most dominant rodent population.
As a whole, Manhattan's rats are genetically most similar to those from Western Europe, especially Great Britain and France. They most likely came on ships in the mid-18th century, when New York was still a British colony. Combs was surprised to find Manhattan's rats so homogenous in origin. New York has been the center of so much trade and immigration, yet the descendants of these Western European rats have held on.
When Combs looked closer, distinct rat subpopulations emerged. Manhattan has two genetically distinguishable groups of rats: the uptown rats and the downtown rats, separated by the geographic barrier that is midtown. It's not that midtown is rat-free—such a notion is inconceivable—but the commercial district lacks the household trash (aka food) and backyards (aka shelter) that rats like. Since rats tend to move only a few blocks in their lifetimes, the uptown rats and downtown rats don't mix much.
When the researchers drilled down even deeper, they found that different neighborhoods have their own distinct rats. "If you gave us a rat, we could tell whether it came from the West Village or the East Village," says Combs. "They're actually unique little rat neighborhoods." And the boundaries of rat neighborhoods can fit surprisingly well with human ones.
Combs and a team of undergraduate students spent their summers trapping rats—beginning in Inwood at the north tip of Manhattan and working their way south. They got permission from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, which gave them access to big green spaces like Central Park as well as medians and triangles and little gardens that dot the city. And they asked local residents. "More often than not, they were very, very happy to show us exactly where they had rats." says Combs. A crowdsourced map of rat sightings also proved very helpful.
Rats, although abundant, are not easily fooled into traps. They're wary of new objects. To entice them, the bait was a potent combination of peanut butter, bacon, and oats. And the team placed their traps near places where rats had clearly crawled. They looked for rat holes, droppings, chew marks on trash cans, and sebum marks—aka the grease tracks rats leave when they traverse the same path to the garbage over and over again.
For the DNA analysis, Combs cut off an inch or so of the rats' tails. (Over 200 of these tails are still saved in vials in a lab freezer.) The team also took tissue samples for other researchers interested in studying how rats spread diseases through the urban environment. And some of the rats they skinned and stuffed for the collections of the Yale University Peabody Museum of Natural History, where they will join stuffed rats from 100 years ago.
Combs is now writing his dissertation on the ecology of New York's rats. He's looking at how a number of characteristics—natural features like parks, social factors like poverty, physical infrastructure like the subway system—account for the spatial distributions of rats in Manhattan.
The point of all this, ultimately, is to help New York manage its rat problem, which is annoying as well as a genuine public-health hazard due to rat-borne diseases. In July, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $32 million war plan against the varmints. The New York Times noted wryly that when it came to rats, "There have been 109 mayors of New York and, it seems, nearly as many mayoral plans to snuff out the scourge. Their collective record is approximately 0-108."
After two years of trapping rats, Combs has come to respect the enemy. At the end of our conversation, he launched into an appreciation of rats—their ability to thrive on nearly anything, their prodigious reproduction, and their complex social structure, in which female rats will give birth all at the same time and raise their offspring in one nest. "They are, quote-unquote, vermin, and definitely pests we need to get rid of," he says, "but they are extraordinary in their own ways."
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 10:04 AM PST
On November 28, after a 74-day weapons-testing hiatus, North Korea launched its third intercontinental ballistic missile. From a technical standpoint, the ICBM test was impressive, exceeding the performance of North Korea's two prior long-range missile tests on a number of metrics. Just as importantly, it laid bare a fundamental flaw in the Trump administration's approach to Kim Jong Un's nuclear ambitions: the notion that there remains any window of opportunity in which the United States can keep him from acquiring a mature nuclear capability deliverable by ICBM.
The notion that North Korea has not yet achieved these most advanced capabilities has helped fuel the administration's apparent interest in preventive military strikes against Pyongyang. The reality, however, has long been that Kim intends to retain his most dangerous capabilities—including the ability to strike the United States. It is long past time for Washington to develop a strategy that carefully manages, rather than blithely denies, this state of affairs.
North Korea's latest missile flew for nearly 1,000 km at an altitude of 4,500 km and stayed aloft for over 50 minutes before splashing down east of Japan. By contrast, its previous ICBMs, which were both tested in July, flew for 37 and 47 minutes, respectively. Indeed, North Korea has tested these missiles at lofted trajectories, firing them straight up into the air at steep angles to achieve a long flight time without circling the earth. (If the November 28 missile had been fired on a standard missile trajectory as opposed to a lofted one, it might have flown for 13,000 km or 8,100 miles.) This latest test allows North Korea to claim that it can hit the entire continental United States with a nuclear weapon.
Three additional aspects of this latest test are notable. It took place at night, simulating the operational conditions North Korea would actually use in a wartime scenario; it may have relied on a new ICBM variant that North Korea hasn't tested before; and it may have used a mobile missile launcher, making it basically impossible for the United States to strike or to threaten to strike a test site. In short, North Korea's missiles are increasingly sophisticated, increasingly survivable, and functionally capable of putting the entire U.S. homeland at risk.
From a strategic perspective, this latest test is not a game-changer. Since 2006, North Korea has had a nuclear capability that poses a threat to U.S. allies and bases in the region. Its first two ICBM tests this summer demonstrated that it could very nearly strike the entire United States—it was only a matter of time until the full continent came into range. Moreover, experts have long believed that North Korea was unlikely to surrender its nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. Most observers believe that Kim Jong Un has sought nuclear weapons to deter the United States from toppling his regime. His regime would therefore continue to develop both programs until they were sophisticated enough to threaten the United States—not because it intended to start a nuclear war, but because it wanted to deter the United States. By this logic, an operational North Korean ICBM capability has been long in the making.
What this third test does lay bare, however, is a fundamental flaw in the Trump administration's approach to Pyongyang. Since the early days of his presidency, the president has sought the total and complete disarmament of North Korea. At the very least, he and his advisers have resolved that North Korea should not gain the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon. But because few expect North Korea to denuclearize, Trump's objective strikes many as impossible.
Alongside these maximalist goals, top administration officials have also routinely threatened the first-use of American force, presuming this would stop North Korea from completing its nuclear and missile programs. Trump's "fire and fury" comments, for example, suggested that the United States might strike North Korea in retaliation for mere threats. He and his advisors have also repeated their belief that the North Korean leader is irrational, undeterrable, and suicidal—a logic which, if sincerely believed, would seem to make U.S. military action inevitable. Importantly, this case for preventive action is premised on the idea that the United States and the world are "running out of time" to halt North Korea from acquiring these gravest of capabilities. According to this narrative, it would be better to strike North Korea now rather than face its most sophisticated capabilities later.
Even after this latest ICBM test, the Trump administration's unattainable goals appear unchanged. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized that the U.S. objective remains full disarmament. Despite Defense Secretary James Mattis's comments that North Korea could now apparently strike the entire world, Trump himself insisted "we will take care of it." By clinging to the notion that North Korea can still be denuclearized and denying that it has achieved a long-range strike capability, Trump and his team gave themselves room to develop futile, dangerous military options that guarantee regional devastation. This logic is premised on the notion that there remains a window of opportunity for action, when, in fact, North Korea has now emphatically slammed shut that very window.
By denying North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities and insisting that there remains time and space for military action, the Trump team raises the risk of conflict on the Korean Peninsula. By threatening to start that conflict themselves, they raise the chance that Kim will miscalculate and lash out first. This same policy also dares him to continue testing nuclear weapons and missiles in an ever-more flagrant manner, if only to impress Trump; the North Korean leader has already threatened to conduct an atmospheric nuclear test over the Pacific Ocean.
The time to stop North Korea from acquiring sophisticated nuclear weapons and missiles passed years ago and cannot be recouped. Instead, Trump would do well to adopt a North Korea strategy that acknowledges its ability to deter the United States, and aims to contain its reach and deter its dangerous actions. This will assure America's regional allies, prevent proliferation, and, eventually, open a window for diplomacy to limit Pyongyang's programs.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 02:18 PM PST
It has been a season of precocity in the National Basketball Association. Seemingly everywhere, promising players are blooming into fully fledged, All-NBA-quality dynamos. For those interested in the shape of basketball to come, the 2017–18 campaign offers no shortage of thrilling case studies, such as the Milwaukee Bucks' putty-limbed Giannis Antetokounmpo and the New York Knicks' gigantic and sweet-shooting Kristaps Porzingis. These young intrigues hope to guide their teams to playoff berths, but that goal seems secondary to a larger one: to speed the league along into its next era.
Even in this context, though, the Philadelphia 76ers stand apart. After a five-year stretch of historic (and purposeful) losing, they are suddenly thriving, on the strength of not one but two next-generation phenoms. The center Joel Embiid and the point guard Ben Simmons—who, prior to this season, had only played in a combined 31 professional games (all courtesy of Embiid)—have spurred the team to an 11–8 record, good for fifth place in the Eastern Conference, and toppling the upstart Washington Wizards (11–9) Wednesday at home would create yet more separation in the standings.
This fast-tracked success, marked by victories over solid playoff teams and back-and-forth contests against recent champions, has soothed win-starved Philadelphia fans. But the nascent superstars behind it have become the talk of the entire league. Stylish and full of potential, the Sixers are already the NBA's most interesting team; they may soon be one of its best.
Sam Hinkie, the erstwhile Philadelphia general manager and architect of the controversial "Process"—which entailed fielding subpar rosters in pursuit of higher draft picks—believed that stockpiling those picks offered teams the best chances of acquiring future stars. Players like Embiid and Simmons were exactly what he had in mind. Embiid, a 7-foot-tall Cameroonian drafted in 2014, can do everything a big man is supposed to do, as well as most of the things he isn't. He is a bully and a technician in the post, adept at both drop-steps and power-through jams, but he's also a skilled passer with a polished jump shot and rare ball-handling abilities. Simmons, a 6-foot-10 Australian selected two years later, has, with his tall build and keen vision, already invited comparisons as flattering as Magic Johnson and LeBron James. Simmons lacks a jump shot at the moment, which in other players might be a glaring deficiency, but the limitation only emphasizes his gifts for other facets of the game. He soars in for dunks, flicks precognitive passes, and finishes with either hand anywhere near the rim.
The statistics can set basketball futurists salivating. Embiid and Simmons combine for 40.9 points, 20.3 rebounds, and 10.6 assists per game, but most remarkably, their sum age is only 44 years old. ESPN's Zach Lowe noted recently that Philadelphia's starting lineup, with Simmons handling the ball and Embiid muscling down low on the block, had the highest point differential of any five-man group in the NBA, outscoring opponents by 29 points per 100 possessions.
On certain nights, Philadelphia's core duo can make even these astonishing averages seem paltry. Two weeks ago, the Sixers' game against the Los Angeles Lakers was nationally televised, and their young stars played as if to prove a point to any still-skeptical segments of basketball fandom. Simmons drove past and jumped over fellow rookie Lonzo Ball en route to a near-triple-double, while Embiid scored from every sector of the floor, ending up with a career-high 46 points to go with 15 rebounds. "We're ahead of schedule," the Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown said after the win. Embiid was even more bullish when he concluded that the Sixers "are still learning how to play with each other"—a chilling thought for the rest of the league.
The history of the NBA is built, in large part, on pairs: Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Tim Duncan and David Robinson, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. One star can carry a team to the playoffs, the conventional wisdom dictates, but it takes two to compete for a championship. This requirement feeds nicely into the league's taste for drama; even top-shelf partnerships are as likely to end in power-grabbing and bitterness (see Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant) as in sustained excellence. It is the sport's basic interpersonal riddle: Teammates need one another to win, but in the end there is just one basketball. How players solve that formula can determine whether a franchise reaches the mountaintop or stumbles within view of the summit.
At this admittedly early juncture, Philadelphia's stars seem more likely to flourish, long-term, than to lapse into friction. Their skill sets offer reason for optimism; where Durant and Westbrook both preferred to have the ball in their hands, Simmons and Embiid have a naturally symbiotic on-court relationship. The former initiates the offense but cares little about who in particular scores; the latter can finish open opportunities and, when things bog down, improvise near the rim. They already run pick-and-rolls like they've been teammates for a half-decade. Their admiration, too, is mutual and extensive. In the offseason, Simmons said of Embiid, "Honestly, there's nobody that can compete with him in his position." Embiid, for his part, serves as the team's primary hype man, proclaiming the young core "legendary" even before it had played a single game together.
If Embiid and Simmons stick to their current trajectory and become one of the league's preeminent tandems, then the crucial work in Philadelphia will be done at the margins, where a front-office team now led by Bryan Colangelo will hope to build a roster to complement the stars' talents. In that regard, too, this season has been a show of ahead-of-schedule promise. Hinkie once eschewed veteran role players, but Colangelo brought in the sharp-shooting J.J. Redick and the backup bruiser Amir Johnson, who have helped inoculate the team against the sort of sloppy errors that plague young squads. "The Process," with its understanding of players as far-off speculative assets, has given way to real-time mentorship, to the building of habits the Sixers hope will sustain them for a long-enough period to make the losing worth something.
Such a stretch seems inevitable, now, save for the threat of injury. Simmons missed the entirety of what would have been his rookie year with a broken foot, Embiid has dealt with a series of maladies so extensive that it caused Philadelphia to write special language into his contract extension, and Markelle Fultz, the first overall pick in the 2017 draft, has missed much of this season with a mysterious shoulder ailment. The Sixers may yet become one of the NBA's great what-if stories, with sports-bar hypotheticals replacing true long-term success.
Philadelphia's best-case scenario, though, is brighter than anyone's. Early in a game against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday night, Simmons streaked down the court and whipped a behind-the-back pass to Embiid, who rumbled down the lane, pirouetted, and leaned back for a tough jumper. Cleveland won the game behind a 30-point night from James, but that didn't diminish the symbolism of the sequence. The play—one perhaps no other two players in the NBA could make in quite the same way—seemed to render visible a growing sentiment: When James's generation cedes control of the league, the Sixers' stars are as ready as anyone to inherit it.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 08:50 AM PST
Early on Wednesday morning, Donald Trump retweeted three graphically anti-Muslim videos—one entitled "Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!," the second entitled "Muslim Destroys a Statue of Virgin Mary!" and the third entitled "Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!"—posted by British First leader Jayda Fransen, a woman convicted last year by a British court of harassing a woman wearing a hijab.
None of this should come as a surprise. Trump has been associating with anti-Muslim bigots, and parroting their arguments, since before he launched his presidential campaign. In May 2015, a month before he entered the race, Trump journeyed to Iowa to speak at a forum hosted by Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy (CSP), a think tank that specializes in in arguing that devout Muslims cannot be loyal Americans because Islamic law, or Sharia, violates the Constitution. During his speech, Trump mentioned that he had been chatting backstage with "some experts," one of whom was a woman named Ann who was "so good, she was telling things that you wouldn't even believe." Two months earlier, Ann Corcoran had published a CSP report that urged Americans to "speak up against the opening of more mosques in your neighborhoods," to "say no" to requests for "special Halal food section[s]," and to oppose efforts to require "local government to pay for a Muslim cemetery." Citing Corcoran, Trump fumed that "if you come from Europe, you're European, you've done great in school, you want to come, you want to come to the United States, you can't get in, but if you're Muslim, you can get in." According to the Huffington Post, Trump would go on to cite "research from the Center for Security Policy dozens of times in press releases and speeches during his presidential campaign."
Then, at a rally in New Hampshire in September, a man told Trump that, "We have a problem in this country; it's called Muslims," before asking, "When can we get rid of them?" Trump's answer: "You know, a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We're going to be looking at that and plenty of other things." After a large ISIS terrorist attack in Paris in November, Trump told MSNBC he would "strongly consider" closing certain American mosques. A few days later, at a rally in Alabama, Trump claimed to have seen Muslims in Jersey City celebrating the 9/11 attacks—then kept repeating the charge even after it was debunked.
It went on like this throughout the campaign. In December, after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Trump issued a statement demanding "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on." The statement cited a bogus poll, commissioned by—you guessed it—the Center for Security Policy, which allegedly showed that a majority of American Muslims want the choice to be governed by Sharia law.
The following February, Trump twice suggested that President Obama preferred Islam to Christianity. He urged American troops to emulate General John Pershing, who—Trump falsely claimed—murdered Muslim Filipino prisoners of war with bullets dipped in pigs' blood. Trump rounded out the month by holding a "national-security briefing" at Mar a Lago with Brigitte Gabriel, who has declared that "a practicing Muslim who believes the word of the Koran to be the word of Allah, who abides by Islam, who goes to mosque and prays every Friday, who prays five times a day—this practicing Muslim, who believes in the teachings of the Koran, cannot be a loyal citizen to the United States of America." Gabriel's organization, ACT for America, protests the sale of halal food and scours textbooks in an effort to eliminate references that equate Islam with Judaism and Christianity.
Then, last fall, Trump won the presidency, and groups like ACT and the Center for Security Policy gained access to the White House. As his first national-security adviser, Trump chose Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who sits on ACT for America's board and who, at an ACT event in August 2016, suggested that Islam should not be able to "protect itself behind what we call freedom of religion" because "I don't see Islam as a religion. I see it as a political ideology." As his CIA Director, Trump appointed Mike Pompeo, who in 2016 won ACT's National Security Eagle Award. For his attorney general, he named Jeff Sessions, who in 2015 won the CSP's Keeper of the Flame Award. And Trump named as his chief strategist Steve Bannon, who has said Frank Gaffney is doing "God's work" and in 2015 declared that any mosque that preaches "sedition" should "be shut."
Given this history, there's nothing surprising about Trump disseminating the works of Jayda Fransen. The interesting question is why he did it now. The simplest answer is that fear and hatred of Muslims boosts Trump politically. As Nate Silver has noted, Trump was losing ground to Ben Carson in the two months before November 2015, when the attacks in San Bernardino and Paris boosted fears of terrorism to levels unseen since the aftermath of 9/11. Trump responded to those attacks with a flurry of Islamophobia: musing about closing mosques and creating databases of American Muslims, insisting that New Jersey Muslims cheered 9/11, and proposing a Muslim ban, which was popular among Republican primary voters. By mid-December, Silver observed, Trump's support in 538.com's "high-sensitivity polling average" had risen eight points. Neither Carson nor any other GOP contender seriously threatened his lead in the national polls again.
Now Trump's approval rating is stuck below 40 percent. ISIS is losing ground in Iraq and Syria, and thus receding somewhat as a focus of Washington debate. Fewer Americans cite terrorism and immigration—which for Trump supporters are inextricably linked—as their top concern compared with earlier periods this year. So it makes political sense for Trump to take a few minutes in the early morning to stoke rage against the people who during the campaign he repeatedly called "animals." His decision to retweet Fransen's videos wasn't a gaffe. It's a core part of his strategy for remaining president. And the weaker he grows politically, the more extreme his incitements to anti-Muslim violence will become.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 03:31 PM PST
Over the past 24 hours, President Trump has delivered a concentrated dose of misinformation, self-sabotage, hypocrisy, and bigotry that stands out even by the standards of his short and eventful political career.
The president blew up negotiations to fund the government with a tweet attacking Democratic congressional leaders. He retweeted inflammatory and misleading anti-Islam videos from a bigoted far-right British politician. He joked about presenting a "Fake News Trophy" to media networks. He called attention to Matt Lauer, the NBC host fired on Wednesday for sexual misconduct, despite Trump's own past admissions of sexual assault. He baselessly implied that NBC host Joe Scarborough, a onetime informal adviser, might have been involved in the death of an intern years ago in Florida. And several outlets reported that the president privately continues to claim preposterous things, including that it wasn't him on the Access Hollywood tape and that Barack Obama really wasn't born in the United States.
It's unclear what precipitated the meltdown. Trump was having a decent stretch in office, including relatively smooth progress for the GOP tax bill. Taken individually, none of these examples is all that unusual for Trump. His bigotry toward Muslims has been on display for years. He has blown up budget negotiations before. He frequently passes along unverified and false information. His hypocrisy about sexual-harassment allegations is not new. He has a weakness for conspiracy theories.
Taken together, however, they offer yet another display of poor judgment and divisive leadership from the putative leader of the free world, and they again cast doubt on his fitness for his office. They are also further evidence that Trump's hypocrisy, bigotry, and dishonesty are not an act. He means it all.
On Tuesday, North Korea launched what appears to be its most powerful rocket yet, one it claims is capable of reaching the East Coast of the United States. There's no time when it's safe for a nation to have a leader who cannot grapple with reality, but it is especially dangerous at a moment when a nuclear adversary is brandishing ever more powerful rockets at the United States.
The videos that Trump retweeted were from Jayda Fransen, the leader of the far-right political party Britain First. Fransen was convicted last year of harassing a Muslim woman for wearing a hijab. The three videos that Trump retweeted are a mixed bag. The first, labeled, "Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!" depicts an attack by supporters of the deposed Islamist president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, on a young man; his killer was later hanged. The second is labeled "Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!" According to Dutch media reports, however, none of the people involved are Muslims. The provenance of the third, labeled "Muslim Destroys a Statue of Virgin Mary!" is unclear; it shows a man crushing a ceramic statue, and has no apparent point beyond inflaming anger at Muslims. The office of British Prime Minister Theresa May condemned Trump for retweeting the videos.
Trump has no hesitations about inflaming anger toward Muslims, and in fact he revels in it. But while some supporters wrote off such behavior as politicking during the campaign, Trump's persistence now indicates a more deep-seated bigotry. His continued provocations also hurt his cause. His tweets about the "Muslim ban" on immigration have already caused judges to rule against the order in court, and Neal Katyal, a lawyer arguing against the ban, suggested Wednesday that he'll use the latest tweets against Trump as well.
The president's willingness to pass along the videos without vetting them, knowing what was in them, or considering their source is the latest example of his unwillingness or inability to separate accurate information from dreck. Trump has at least a double standard on this. On the one hand, he refused to quickly condemn violence by neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, saying he needed to first understand what had happened. "I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement," he said. When the alleged villains are Muslims, Trump is not so careful.
Moreover, Trump is spreading misinformation at the same time that he bashes the press for supposedly doing the same. Commenting on the Lauer firing, Trump implicitly accused NBC News Chairman Andy Lack of sexual harassment, without offering any evidence. He also referred to an old, and long-debunked, accusation that Scarborough had been involved in the death of a staffer in his congressional office in Florida in 2001. (That conspiracy theory has been pursued over the years by both the left and the right.)
Fake-news claims aside, hypocrisy also surges through any condemnation Trump offers for sexual harassment, as I've noted previously. Even as many powerful men are punished for unacceptable behavior, ranging from the criminal to the creepy, Trump himself has escaped sanction for his own. Not only are there 16 women who have accused him of various degrees of harassment, but Trump himself admitted to sexually harassing women in the infamous Access Hollywood tape revealed in October 2016.
"I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything," Trump said. "Grab 'em by the pussy. You can do anything."
But the president has a new solution to that problem: He's simply denying that it was him, offering the least plausible defense since Shaggy's 2000 hit song. The New York Times first reported this over the weekend, and Tuesday night both The Times and The Washington Post added more detail.
"We don't think that was my voice," Trump told a senator, according to The Times, which adds, "Since then, Mr. Trump has continued to suggest that the tape that nearly upended his campaign was not actually him, according to three people close to the president."
This is not the only case where Trump is at odds with plain reality. The Times again:
Trump's insistence on debunked arguments about Obama's place of birth and about widespread voter fraud were once viewed as political posturing. For his critics, this kind of behavior was demagoguish, immoral, appalling, and divisive. For his defenders, it was perhaps a little boorish, but then again all is fair in politics; besides, they liked his willingness to throw a punch. Either way, the shared assumption for many (though by no means all) observers was that Trump was being disingenuous.
Since then, however, the president has repeatedly demonstrated that he's not just posturing, and it's not simply a cynical ploy. Trump isn't being hypocritical simply for sport or political gain. His bigotry isn't just an act to win over a certain segment of the population. Of course it wasn't: Trump has been demonstrating that since he arrived in the news, settling a case alleging that he had kept African Americans out of his apartment buildings, up through his demand to execute the Central Park Five. He isn't spreading misinformation just to twist the political discourse—though he may be doing that—but because he can't or won't assess it. It is not an act.
All of this has been clear to anyone willing to see it for a long time, yet some people have convinced themselves it's merely an act. That includes the Republican members of Congress who shake their heads but try to ignore the tweets. It includes the senator who chuckles at Trump's enduring birtherism. And it includes the White House staffers who, according to The Times, are "stunned" to hear their boss denying the Access Hollywood tape. It's stunning that they're still stunned.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 11:39 AM PST
When Margaret Rubega first read about how hummingbirds drink, she thought to herself: That can't possibly be right.
Hummingbirds drink nectar using tongues that are so long that, when retracted, they coil up inside the birds' heads, around their skulls and eyes. At its tip, the tongue divides in two and its outer edges curve inward, creating two tubes running side by side. The tubes don't close up, so the birds can't suck on them as if they were straws. Instead, scientists believed that the tubes are narrow enough to passively draw liquid into themselves. That process is called capillary action. It's why water soaks into a paper towel, why tears emerge from your eyes, and ink runs into the nibs of fountain pens.
This explanation, first proposed in 1833, was treated as fact for more than a century. But it made no sense to Rubega when she heard about it as a graduate student in the 1980s. Capillary action is a slow process, she realized, but a drinking hummingbird can flick its tongue into a flower up to 18 times a second. Capillary action also is aided by gravity, so birds should find it easier to drink from downward-pointing flowers—and they don't. And capillary action is even slower for thicker liquids, so hummingbirds should avoid supersweet nectar that's too syrupy—and they don't.
"I was in this very odd position," says Rubega. "I was only a graduate student and all these really well-known people had done all this math. How could they be wrong?"
Even while she turned her attention to other birds, the hummingbird dilemma continued to gnaw at her. And decades later, as a professor at the University of Connecticut, she hired a student named Alejandro Rico-Guevara who would help her solve the mystery.
Born in Colombia, Rico-Guevara remembers spotting a hermit hummingbird on a fateful field trip in the Amazon. In the jungle, most animals are heard rather than seen, but the hermit flew right up and hovered in front of his face. "It was just there for a split second but it was clear that it had a completely different personality than other birds in the forest." He fell in love, and started studying the birds. And when he read the capillary-action papers, he felt the same pang of disbelief that Rubega did. "We decided to go after it," says Rubega. "Is it capillary action? And if not, what's going on? We just wanted to know."
Rico-Guevara handcrafted artificial flowers with flat glass sides, so he could film the birds' flickering tongues with high-speed cameras. It took months to build the fake blooms, to perfect the lighting, and to train the birds to visit these strange objects. But eventually, he got what he wanted: perfectly focused footage of a hummingbird tongue, dipping into nectar. At 1,200 frames per second, "you can't see what's happening until you check frame by frame," he says. But at that moment, "I knew that on my movie card was the answer. It was this amazing feeling. I had something that could potentially change what we knew, between my fingers."
Here's what they saw when they checked the footage.
As the bird sticks its tongue out, it uses its beak to compress the two tubes at the tip, squeezing them flat. They momentarily stay compressed because the residual nectar inside them glues them in place. But when the tongue hits nectar, the liquid around it overwhelms whatever's already inside. The tubes spring back to their original shape and nectar rushes into them.
The two tubes also separate from each other, giving the tongue a forked, snakelike appearance. And they unfurl, exposing a row of flaps along their long edges. It's as if the entire tongue blooms open, like the very flowers from which it drinks.
When the bird retracts its tongue, all of these changes reverse. The tubes roll back up as their flaps curl inward, trapping nectar in the process. And because the flaps at the very tip are shorter than those further back, they curl into a shape that's similar to an ice-cream cone; this seals the nectar in. The tongue is what Rubega calls a nectar trap. It opens up as it immerses, and closes on its way out, physically grabbing a mouthful in the process.
"This has been going on literally under our noses for the entire history of our association with hummingbirds and there it was," says Rubega. "We were the first to see it."
This same technique is also how the hummingbird swallows. Every time it extends its tongue, it presses down with its beak, squeezing the trapped nectar out. And since there's limited space inside the beak, and the tongue is moving forward, there's nowhere for that liberated nectar to go but backward. In this way, the tongue acts like a piston pump. As it pulls in, it brings nectar into the beak. As it shoots out, it pushes that same nectar toward the throat. The tongue even has flaps at its base, which fold out of the way as it moves forward but expand as it moves backwards, sweeping the nectar even further back.
The thing that really astonishes Rico-Guevara about all of this is that it is passive. The bird isn't forcing its tongue open—that happens automatically when the tip enters liquid, because of the changing surface tension around it. Rico-Guevera proved that by sticking the tongue of a dead hummingbird into nectar—sure enough, it bloomed on its own. Likewise, the tongue closes automatically. It releases nectar automatically. It pushes that nectar backward automatically. The bird flicks its tongue in and out, and all else follows.
In hindsight, the surprising reality of the hummingbird tongue should have been entirely unsurprising. Almost everything about these animals is counterintuitive. Hummingbirds are the bane of easy answers. They're where intuition goes to die.
Consider their origins. Today, hummingbirds are only found in the Americas, but fossils suggest that they originated in Eurasia, splitting off from their closest relatives—the scythe-winged swifts—around 42 million years ago. These ancestral hummingbirds likely flew over the land bridge that connected Russia and North America at the time. They fared well in the north, but they only thrived when they got to South America. In just 22 million years, those southern pioneers had diversified into hundreds of species, at least 338 of which are still alive today. And around 40 percent of those live in the Andes.
As evolutionary biologist Jim McGuire once told me, "the Andes are kind of the worst place to be a hummingbird." Tall mountains mean thin air, which makes it harder to hover, and to get enough oxygen to fuel a gas-guzzling metabolism. And yet, the birds flourished. Their success shows no sign of stopping, either. By comparing the rates at which new species have emerged and old species go extinct, McGuire estimated that the number of hummingbird species will probably double in the next few million years.
As they evolved, they developed one of the most unusual flying styles of any bird—one that's closer to insects. The wings of medium-sized species beat around 80 times a second, but probably not in the way you think. When I ask people to mimic a hummingbird's wingbeats, they typically stick their hands out to the side and flap them up and down as fast as they can. That's not how it works. Try this, instead. Press your elbows into your sides. Keep your forearms parallel to the ground and swing them in and out. Now, rotate your wrists in figure eights as you do it. Congratulations, you look ridiculous, but you're also doing a decent impression of hummingbird flight.
That unusual wingbeat allows them to hover, but it also allows for more acrobatic maneuvers. Hummingbirds use that aerial agility to supplement their nectar diet with insects, which they snatch from the air. While many birds can do that, they typically have short beaks and wide gapes. Hummingbirds, by contrast, have long flower-probing bills and narrow gapes. "It's like flying around with a pair of chopsticks on your face, trying to catch a moving rice grain," says Rubega.
But once again, she has shown that there's more to these birds than meets the eye. Another of her students, Gregor Yanega, found that as the birds open their mouths, they can actively bend the lower half of their beaks, giving it a pronounced kink and getting it out of the way. Then, the hummingbirds essentially ram insects with their open mouths.
High-speed cameras again revealed their trick. "The moment Gregor first saw a bird fly into frame and open its beak, he stopped, and said: Hey, can you look at this?" says Rubega. She walked in and he played the footage. She asked him to play it again, and he did. Just one more time, she said. He played it again.
"That is wild, and you should know that nobody has ever seen that before you," she told him.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 03:44 PM PST
"We just learned this moments ago, just this morning. As I'm sure you can imagine, we are devastated and we are still processing all of this."
That was Savannah Guthrie, co-host of NBC's Today Show, informing viewers on Wednesday morning that Matt Lauer—her co-host, and a mainstay of morning television since 1994—had just been fired for an allegation of sexual misconduct that had been brought against him by a colleague. Guthrie had, seemingly, just heard the news. "I will tell you right now we do not know more than what I just shared with you," she continued, sitting next to Hoda Kotb, who had been rushed in as an emergency co-host for the segment in Lauer's absence. (The two women, at the outset, had briefly grasped each other's hands.) "But we will be covering this story as reporters, as journalists. I'm sure we will be learning more details in the hours and days to come and we promise we will share that with you."
The firing was striking—and also misleading—in its swiftness. NBC, according to a memo sent to staff by Andrew Lack, the chairman of NBC News, learned of an allegation of sexual impropriety against Lauer on Monday evening—one that "represented," Lack wrote, "a clear violation of our company's standards." He added that "this may not have been an isolated incident." (Indeed: The New York Times seems also have been reporting on the story, CNN's Brian Stelter suggested. And Variety, one of its reporters, Elizabeth Wagmeister, noted on Twitter, had been working on a story on Lauer's accusers "for months," a story of which NBC, she said, was aware. "There are multiple women we've spoken to with far-ranging accusations against Lauer.") Lauer had in 2016 signed a reportedly $20 million-a-year contract that would have kept him with the show at least into 2018. That high number was a nod to his reputation as "the franchise" at the Today Show: an institution, essentially, unto himself. In a September interview with Bill O'Reilly, just after the latter was fired from Fox News for harassment, Lauer noted, now ominously: "You were probably the last guy in the world that they wanted to fire, because you were the guy that the ratings and the revenues were built on."
But the speed of the dismissal—the unceremonious nature of it—were also deeply unsurprising: NBC News, after all, has also been accused of knowing about the Access Hollywood tape featuring Donald Trump bragging about assaulting women (the same one whose validity the president is now questioning) long before its existence was revealed by The Washington Post in 2016. And it has more recently been criticized, justifiably, for its failure to do more to support its reporter Ronan Farrow's work revealing the behavior of Harvey Weinstein. (Farrow ultimately took his reporting to The New Yorker, where it has been instrumental in bringing about the very "Weinstein effect" that seems to have felled Lauer.) Earlier this month, Matt Zimmerman—a Today Show producer who had worked with and been championed by Lauer—was dismissed from the show for inappropriate conduct with multiple women.
And, so, while Lauer's absence from the Today Show set on Wednesday morning, as Guthrie and Kotb spoke of their suddenly former colleague, was pragmatic—of course he wasn't there—it was also more broadly symbolic. Lauer's imposed invisibility, and the stunned and sad colleagues that remained in his absence, made a tidy metaphor for a world in which one's public persona—Lauer, friendly and game and happy to be there with all the women—must generally reconcile with the private person. And for, more immediately, the confusion and betrayal, among family members and colleagues and friends, that so often accompany allegations of impropriety. Here were two women, holding hands, publicly processing—processing is a word that Today Show talent used repeatedly Wednesday morning—before their millions of viewers. There was a funereal quality to the segment: morning show meets mourning show.
"This is a sad morning here at Today and at NBC News," Guthrie said. "I'm heartbroken for Matt. He is my dear, dear friend and my partner."
Kotb noted, of Lauer, that she "loved him as a friend and as a colleague." She added: "It's hard to reconcile what we are hearing with the man who we know who walks in this building every single day."
"Dealing with the news of our friend of 30 years, and we're all trying to process it," Al Roker said. He added: "We'll deal with it along with you folks, as well."
It was striking, but also fitting. Morning shows, mixing as they do news segments and craft segments and food segments and fashion segments—and live-music performances, and hard-hitting interviews, and comically large goblets of morningwine—are sometimes criticized as vapid. In their self-conscious mix of content, though, they, more than any other news-show format, try to mimic life in all its dimensions: a little of the serious, a little of the silly. They promise whimsy. They promise sobriety. Mostly, though, they promise family. There are its hosts, together, day after day, starting the day—getting through the day—together. Savannah, Hoda, Al, Matt. Norah, Gayle, Charlie. Robin, Michael, Lara, George. First names. Big personalities. Small intimacies. News, yes, but not just news. Life. Fun. We'll get through this day together, the shows promise. We're in this together. We're a family. And that's what families do.
So while morning shows technically have "casts," it's the idea of the family that defines them in their content and their aesthetic. And the Today Show gang, in particular, emphasized that idea. They drank their morningwine together. They dressed up in whimsical group costumes on Halloween. (Lauer, who has previously dressed as Jennifer Lopez, C. J. Parker from Baywatch, and Lucy Van Pelt from Peanuts, this year went as Dolly Parton. Guthrie, meanwhile—family, after all—was Kenny Rogers, Kotb was Blake Shelton, Roker was Willie Nelson, Kathie Lee Gifford was Miley Cyrus, Carson Daly was Billy Ray Cyrus, and Megyn Kelly—now of Megyn Kelly Today, but still a member of the family—was Shania Twain.) And so, millions of Americans have started their workdays with the Today Show family because the Today Show family purported to be an extension of their own. Together, come what may.
Except. In the space of less than two weeks, America's morning-show landscape has lost not just one but two of its main members. First Charlie Rose—Charlie—on CBS This Morning. And now Matt. It's the right kind of loss; it's also an especially visible one, even, and especially, in its absence. So many of the firings and dismissals that have taken place as a result of the "Weinstein effect," after all, have led to absences that have manifested, for the most part, behind the scenes: producers, directors, journalists. They have been people, as the writer Rebecca Traister pointed out, who have had a powerful effect on Hollywood, on Washington, on the media, on the American public's sense of the world and its workings. But their removal hasn't always been—this is how systems work—so starkly evident.
On Wednesday morning, though, where Matt Lauer would typically be sitting next to Guthrie, all goofy smiles and easy affability and untold secrets—he was gone. The secret was out. The star had fallen. Lauer's co-hosts were left to do, on live TV, the work that so many of their fellow colleagues, in places across America, have been doing, over the past two months: processing, out loud. Grieving, in public. Being shocked at a man who had held himself as paragon and was revealed to be anything but. On Wednesday, then, the Today Show, still true to its brand, was acting as a kind of family. Its members, this time around, were shaking their heads, holding back tears, and telling their viewers that, somehow, today as every other, we'll get through this together.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 07:28 AM PST
A key defendant in an Iranian sanction-busting case has now become its "most important witness." Following weeks of speculation, Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to charges of helping Iranian entities evade U.S. sanctions through his international network of businesses, possibly with the help of Turkish banks and government officials. Today, Zarrab is expected to testify in a Manhattan court. His testimony is likely to implicate prominent figures in both Turkey and the United States. Zarrab played a central role in setting up schemes that enabled Iran to purchase gold with oil and gas revenues at a time when the country was under crippling U.S. sanctions. He was indicted along with Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a Turkish banker in U.S. custody, and seven additional defendants, some of whom held cabinet positions under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey.
Since Zarrab is now cooperating with U.S. prosecutors, his testimony is likely to damage Erdogan's international and domestic standing, ahead of Turkey's 2019 presidential elections. For this reason, Erdogan has bashed the trial, casting it as a U.S. plot to undermine Turkey's economy and unleashing a torrent of anti-American rhetoric on Turkish airwaves. Of course, ties between the Unites States and Turkey, long-time NATO allies, have been strained since Washington threw its support behind Kurdish militants in Syria, and refused to extradite exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan claims fomented last year's failed coup attempt.
Aside from rattling Turkey's most powerful figures, Zarrab's testimony may also expose attempts at cooperation between the Trump administration and the Turkish government. Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, who is currently under investigation for his dealings with Russian officials, and his son were to be paid $15 million to forcibly remove Gulen from his home in Pennsylvania and deliver him to Turkey. These revelations have prompted U.S. officials to investigate whether Flynn was in talks with Turkish officials to extradite Zarrab as well, though no clear links between Flynn and Zarrab been made public.
After being dismissed from his role in the Trump administration, Flynn revealed he had received $530,000 for lobbying work which the U.S. Justice Department said has "principally benefitted the Republic of Turkey." Such lobbying from the Turkish government via Flynn could have severe implications if linked to political decisions in the United States. The most prominent point of contention is Trump's firing of former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who originally filed the Zarrab case and has been cast by Turkish officials as a Gulen supporter working to undermine the Turkish government. Nicholas Danforth, a senior analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said he believed any evidence connecting Bharara's dismissal to pressure from Turkish officials "would be not just explosive for U.S.-Turkish relations, but for U.S. domestic politics as well."
To understand how Zarrab's case spiraled, one need only look back to Turkey, where evidence of his foul play first surfaced in 2013 and was quickly snuffed out. In December of that year, police raided the home of Suleyman Aslan, former chief executive of HalkBank, a state-owned bank, and seized $4.5 million—allegedly bribes from Zarrab—stashed away in shoeboxes. Recordings from a phone-tapped conversation from this same period, in which then-Prime Minister Erdogan allegedly instructed his son to hide large sums of cash, also surfaced. Despite the seemingly damning nature of the revelations, they were quickly dismissed in Turkish courts. Erdogan belittled the apparent graft scandals as Gulenist conspiracy. In response, government officials demoted or reassigned the judges and police officers involved in the investigation. Only three government officials tied to Zarrab's businesses eventually resigned without facing charges. They denied any wrongdoing.
Now, Erdogan fears that the evidence and testimony in the Zarrab case could give credibility to the long-dismissed charges against his government, if they are deemed valid by a U.S. court. He is also likely concerned that the trial could lead to sanctions or fines on Turkish banks, possibly weakening an already unstable Turkish economy, while paving the way for further indictments on Turkish officials.
In a speech before the Turkish parliament on November 21, Erdogan referred to the raid on Aslan's home as "one of the greatest traps in history." He has suggested Gulen and his followers are influencing U.S. prosecutors in a plot against Turkish sovereignty—a message that plays well to supporters of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), who have become increasingly dissatisfied with U.S. policy towards Turkey and the Middle East.
But these accusations don't quite square with recent history. The case against Zarrab has been building since March 2016, when he was arrested shortly after arriving in Miami—reportedly to visit Disney World with his family—though some analysts have suggested he may have negotiated his move out of Turkey with U.S. prosecutors. The coup, and Erdogan's subsequent purge of government officials suspected of Gulenist ties, occurred in July of that year. "The United States did cooperate with Turkish prosecutors, presumably some linked to the Gulen movement, in its efforts to prosecute Zarrab," Danforth told me. "But at the time the United States did this, those prosecutors were employees of good standing of the Turkish legal system who had been appointed by the AKP government." Erdogan, in other words, seems content to ignore chronology in order to suit his reading of history. For those living outside the world of Turkish politics, this might be the most important, most difficult aspect of the case to understand.
Every day, Turkey's politicians and pro-state media push conspiracy theories—stories of foreign actors trying to weaken the Turkish Republic. The intensity of the rhetoric far exceeds what westerners have come to know as "fake news," instead creating an alternate reality propped by half-truths that depict Erdogan and his government as the saviors of the oppressed people of the world, and everyone else as the enemy. When Erdogan fails, he and his coterie blame that failure on foreign actors.
Since the 2016 coup attempt, this "politics of the victimized" seems to be Erdogan's only mode. While the coup posed a very real threat to Turkey's democracy, and many people lost their lives in its chaos, the purges of thousands of people on accusations of dubious links to terrorist organizations—such as downloading a specific phone messaging application known to be used by Gulenists—is testimony to just how far the falsehoods can go.
Furthermore, Turkey's ongoing purges have put his country at odds with NATO allies, some of which have seen their citizens arrested or detained over the last year and a half. Currently, about a dozen American citizens are being held in Turkish prisons on thin allegations of collaborating with the coup plotters. More recently, two staff members of U.S. consular missions in Turkey were arrested on similar charges, prompting some analysts to claim Erdogan's administration has taken a "hostage diplomacy" approach to bilateral negotiations.
The term refers to Erdogan's unsuccessful appeals to have Gulen extradited to Turkey, and he seems to have interpreted the lack of U.S. cooperation on the matter as a personal insult, as well as additional proof that Washington is aiding his adversaries. "Erdogan puts a premium on personal relationships and, at the core, believes that relations between states are reciprocal and transactional," Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor at St. Lawrence University and nonresident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), told me. "If I were to make a critique of U.S. policy, it would be that they over-promise and under-deliver," he added. "All these warm embraces from President Trump to Erdogan have exacerbated the situation by misleading Erdogan as to what the real capabilities of the U.S. [government] were on some of these issues."
The ongoing tensions have sent the Turkish lira tumbling in recent weeks, as few analysts expect positive developments from the Zarrab case. In a worst-case scenario, Erdogan's government could escalate the crisis by refusing to bow to foreign pressure in the form of sanctions or to pay fines imposed on Turkish entities, Eissenstat said. He could escalate, too, by limiting access to Turkey's Incirlik Air Base, which America has used for operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
While some U.S. policymakers believe economic pressure could persuade Erdogan to restore U.S.-Turkey relations, Selim Koru, an analyst at TEPAV, an Ankara-based think-tank, said AKP supporters will likely be emboldened by such moves, and Erdogan's government will get a much-needed domestic boost ahead of elections in 2019.
"The more pressure the outside world puts on the Erdogan government, and the more they threaten or even seem to threaten Turkey's sovereignty, the less likely it is for the country to have a democratic future," Koru said.
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