- The Female Quran Experts Fighting Radical Islam in Morocco
- The Hollowing Out of the State Department Continues
- The Selective Empathy of #MeToo Backlash
- A Dangerous Immigration Crackdown in West Africa
- Finding New Meaning After An Olympic Career
- The Jet Engine is a Futuristic Technology Stuck in the Past
- A Better Way to Look at Most Every Political Issue
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 01:50 AM PST
Morocco is in a region vulnerable to terrorist recruitment, but it hasn't had a significant attack on its own soil since 2011, when terrorists bombed a Marrakesh café. Yet ethnic Moroccans have been at the center of ISIS attacks in Europe. The only alleged survivor of the 2015 Paris rampage is a Frenchman of Moroccan origin; his trial began last week. The men behind the Brussels airport and tram bombings that happened months later were also ethnic Moroccans. The suspected driver of the van that mowed down shoppers in Barcelona was Moroccan-born.
Some 1,600 Moroccans are thought to have joined extremist groups, mainly ISIS, since 2012, with some 300 still fighting with ISIS, according to Moroccan Interior Ministry figures. Although these figures are low compared to, say, Tunisia's—some 7,000 Tunisians joined the group over the same period—the death toll in Europe has brought into focus the need for prevention and Morocco has come to play an outsized role in the debate over how, exactly, young people can be stopped from embracing radical Islam.
It's one of many countries around the world experimenting with various "countering violent extremism" (CVE) or de-radicalization programs. As Maddy Crowell noted in The Atlantic, "Germany, Britain, and Belgium have developed programs that focus on further integrating radicals into their community. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, focuses on finding jobs and wives for recruited jihadists." But programs that reach people once they've already been radicalized might come too late. "The most effective kind of rehabilitation and reintegration is the rehab and reintegration that doesn't have to happen, because the person was afforded an off-ramp before they got to the point of no return," Nathan Sales, the coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department, told me. "What does that look like? It looks like early intervention and not necessarily and maybe not ideally by government officials."
Early intervention spearheaded by local community leaders and groups, as opposed to government officials, was a focus of America's CVE approach under the Obama administration. "Community leaders, neighborhood leaders have a comparative advantage in a number of different dimensions," Sales said. "They will know more than government officials will about problems that might be cropping up and they also have a way to intervene in a way government people wouldn't be able to … to steer somebody who is at risk of taking a wrong path and bringing them back into the fold." President Trump recently stripped funding from several groups aiming to counter extremism through this kind of outreach. Meanwhile, Morocco has continued to invest in it. Through various experimental initiatives, the country is attempting to show how a certain kind of religious education can prevent extremism.
One particular initiative comes with a twist: It places a special emphasis on women. Eleven years ago, Rabat saw the opening of an elite new school called L'Institut Mohammed VI Pour La Formation Des Imams, Morchidines, et Morchidates. It turns young women into religious scholars and then sends them out into pockets of the country where radical Islamists are known to recruit disenfranchised youth—to provide spiritual guidance that contradicts the messages they might receive from violent extremists. Making school visits and home visits, each woman—called a morchidat, or spiritual guide—talks to young Muslims and contests interpretations of the Quran that terrorist groups use for recruitment. For women to be employed by the government to do this kind of work within Morocco's Islamic communities, where spiritual leadership is generally the domain of men, is unusual. Men are also trained at the Rabat school, but it's the hundreds of female graduates who are having the most impact, according to the program director, Abdeslam El-Azaar.
"I'll tell you frankly, the women scholars here are even more important than men," said El-Azaar, a thin grandfatherly man in a cream-colored Moroccan tunic and a burgundy fez. "Women, just by virtue of their role in society, have so much contact with the people—children, young people, other women, even men. ... They are the primary educators of their children. So it is natural for them to provide advice," he said. "We give them an education so they can offer it in a scholarly way."
The morchidat program leverages a woman's familial and social influence to combat radical Islam at the level of the sidewalks—and at individual mosques. "We've found over the years that if we have women organize something at the mosque, 450 people show up. If the men are put in charge, they're lucky if 25 guys make the effort," El-Azaar said.
Zineb Hidra, a morchidat whose cherubic face and tortoiseshell glasses make her look much younger than her 49 years, was in the first graduating class of women 11 years ago. Since then, she has been working as a full-time employee of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in the inner-city neighborhoods of Casablanca. "It was hard at first," Hidra told me. "People didn't trust us. … They'd never seen anything like that before."
One afternoon in 2006, Hidra was rushing down a middle-school corridor when six students and their teacher barreled out of a classroom into the hall. The teenagers wore robes and billowy izaar pants that hit above their ankles—the supposed style of the Prophet Mohammed—and they stood in a circle berating their teacher. His history lesson, they said, was blasphemous, contradicting the words of the Prophet. Hidra felt her heart begin to race. "These were exactly the signs we were told to look for—how they dressed, how they acted at school, and how they talked about religion," she told me later. "It was clear they had picked up ideas about Islam that were taking them down the wrong path." Hidra asked them if she could help. It was, she recalled with a smile, her very first radicalization case.
As Hidra continued her work in Casablanca, she faced resistance. When she went to call on mothers in their homes, knocks went unanswered, even though "we knew people were inside," she said. Local women avoided her at the mosque. Even school administrators wondered what she was doing in the hallways, concerned that if she found radicalized youth among the student body then the schools themselves would suffer.
Hidra said it required quiet patience to earn their trust. "As they saw more and more of us, we became easier to accept," she explained, and people in the community began asking her for advice or suggesting she go talk to this young man or that family where a problem with radical ideas might be developing. "It probably helped that we didn't argue with [the young people we talked to]," she said. "We just answered their questions. We helped their families. We sat with the mothers and taught them how to help their children."
Many of the young Moroccan men and women who turn to groups like ISIS feel isolated, come from violent homes, or have been involved with petty crime. Radical Islamists offer them community and tell them that a full-throated embrace of their religion—an embrace that includes violence against nonbelievers—is the solution. Morchidats like Hidra suggest the solution is less doctrinaire. They walk young people through Quranic passages that emphasize tolerance, and provide gentler interpretations of passages that could be taken to promote violence. The idea is that young people eventually learn that their faith is not at odds with their families or society more broadly, and that this provides a lasting bulwark against terrorist recruiters.
L'Institute Mohamed VI sits in a neighborhood that feels more southern California chic than North African Maghreb. The school is surrounded by white stucco houses and colorful explosions of bougainvillea. The campus itself is hidden behind a succession of wrought iron gates; security is tight, as many Islamists don't approve of their moderate teachings.
Admission is highly competitive. Students apply from all over the Arab world and Africa; only about 10 percent are accepted. To be eligible, students must have already completed an undergraduate degree and be in good standing in their communities—without, for example, a criminal record. Successful women candidates must have committed half the Quran to memory before they arrive; men, many of whom will go on to become imams, must have it memorized in its entirety. This is an important requirement because it typically takes years to memorize the Quran, and if incoming students are already deeply familiar with the texts, the center can focus on interpretation instead of memorization.
Once enrolled, students pay nothing. The Moroccan government picks up the tab for tuition, room and board, books, medical care, flights home, and small monthly stipends.
Of the roughly 250 new students accepted each year, nearly half are women. There is no strict segregation of the sexes, but there is separation. Men and women attend classes together in the same modern lecture hall, and women fill the last 10 rows in the back. Even from their separate perch in the hall, they offer a visual representation of progress. (Often, in devout Muslim-majority countries, men and women are educated in separate classrooms.)
The program has two tracks: One for Moroccan students and another for foreigners. Moroccan candidates study at the center for 12 months, 30 hours a week. The foreign students are placed in a two- or three-year program, depending on their Arabic language proficiency, and then grouped by country so they can receive specific instruction in their nation's laws, rules of civil society, geography, and history. The goal is to create not just an Islamic scholar, but a respected intellectual who can answer a variety of questions, El-Azaar explained.
Morocco may be perfectly positioned to offer this kind of instruction. Its monarch, King Mohammed VI, is believed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. Constitutionally, he is considered the Amir al-Mu'minin, or Commander of the Faithful, which gives him both religious and political authority over the Moroccan people, 98 percent of whom are Sunni Muslim.
"In recent years, we've relied on the military to combat terrorism on its own," El-Azaar told me, referring to the nation's beefed up intelligence and security forces. "Now we're fighting this on two fronts—the military and the ideological," he said. "We've found over the past ten years that women are uniquely placed to spread moderate messages in a way that imams and fathers can't, and we're focusing on that."
How effective the morchidat program is at preventing young people from joining groups like ISIS is difficult to quantify. While the women undoubtedly have helped young people with questions about their religion, it's impossible to know how many of those youth might have become radicalized enough to join a terrorist group or launch an attack if not for the presence of the morchidat. The program is also only 11 years old—not long enough to meaningfully measure the success of such an initiative.
For the women in the program, however, there's a side benefit that they find indisputable: It has elevated their status as women in society. Faitha El-Phammouti, 25, is in the class of scholars graduating later this year. She says the whole experience hasn't just changed the way other people look at her, it has changed the way she sees herself. "I used to think men were superior to women," she told me. "Now I don't just think we're equals, I think women come out ahead. We aren't forced to work; we have a lot of autonomy and as morchidats we can have a profound impact on society, even more than men can, because we can talk to the young people and explain to them about the true Islam and they are willing to learn from us."
El-Phammouti seemed unbothered by the possibility that it does not really change the role of women in society, because women at the institute are not permitted to follow a more rigorous course of study and become imams—that job is still reserved for men. Of the program, she said simply, "It's very exciting."
And what of those six radicalized students Hidra met years ago in a middle school corridor? She ended up meeting with them three times a week for six months. "Our religion tells us to be patient and insistent and that's what I was," she told me. "They asked questions and I gave them answers, guiding them to the right path. It took a long time, but slowly they started changing their clothes and started looking like the rest of the kids. They began engaging in school and stopped challenging their parents. Eventually they got to the right place."
Today, all six of the young men have jobs. Three have graduated from college. One happily announced to Hidra that he'd just passed the officer's exam for the police. He didn't want to talk about what had happened in middle school—he had put those kinds of "foolish ideas," he said, behind him.
Posted: 11 Feb 2018 12:54 PM PST
The State Department's civilian workforce shrank more than 6 percent overall during the initial eight months of the Trump administration, but that figure masks significantly higher departure rates in critical areas of the country's diplomatic apparatus.
In December 2016, the department employed 2,580 people under the foreign affairs occupation series, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management. By September 2017, the most recent data available, that number fell to 2,273, a decrease of roughly 11.9 percent.
Most employees under the series serve as foreign-affairs officers, a broad role that encompasses responsibilities such as advising, administering, and researching foreign policy areas like trade, drug trafficking, arms control, and the environment. Foreign-affairs officers also serve as key figures in international negotiations.
Foreign-affairs employees made up more than 40 percent of the 836 civilians who left the State Department between January 1, 2017, and September 30, 2017—the final month of the Obama administration and the first eight months of the Trump administration.
The drop off in foreign-affairs officers reflects a larger overall trend in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's treatment of his agency's career workforce, said Ron Neumann, a retired 37-year State Department veteran who served as ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain, and Afghanistan. The Trump administration appears to have a unique "contempt" for the career workforce, Neumann said, prompting many top policy experts to leave the government's diplomatic arm, whether they want to or not.
The overall civilian workforce at the State Department shrunk roughly 6.3 percent between September 2016 and September 2017, according to OPM data. Though the plurality of departures came in foreign-affairs positions, the number of employees serving in administrative and legal jobs dropped 5.4 percent.
Though Neumann noted that every White House transition brings shake-ups in Foggy Bottom, it's rare for job openings to stay empty this far into a new administration. In fact, the civilian workforce grew roughly 0.6 percent during the one-year transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama and more than 3.4 percent during the move from Bill Clinton to Bush.
Lawmakers and diplomats have voiced concerns that State will meet significant proposed budget cuts with dramatic personnel reductions, but Tillerson said he will rely on attrition and buyouts rather than layoffs to thin the agency's workforce. "We have not targeted any workforce reduction measures that would affect Civil Service Foreign Affairs Officers any differently than other Civil Service employees," a State Department spokesperson said in an email.
Agency officials told Politico the rhetoric around reorganization has shifted from sweeping personnel cuts to upgraded technology and improved training.
Whether intended or not, Tillerson's strategy has led to a disproportionate number of departures in the agency's most experienced ranks. State saw 16.2 percent of civilian employees with 25 or more years of service leave between December 2016 and September 2017; the number of foreign-affairs series employees with at least 25-year tenures shrunk 13.1 percent during that period.
But while seasoned employees are walking out the door, few fresh faces are coming in. Tillerson has kept the Trump administration's initial hiring freeze in place despite lawmakers' pleas to end it. "You're throwing out the people at the top, so you're losing expertise," Neumann said. "If you don't bring in people at the bottom ... you're setting up a long-term problem."
The agency's foreign-service workforce—which includes American diplomats and support staff—also shrank during the first year under Tillerson. Though its total size decreased only 1.2 percent, the drop was more drastic among those directly involved in policymaking.
The State Department lost 166 Foreign Service officers—roughly 2 percent of the total—from December 2016 to December 2017, according to agency data. Officers are responsible for most of the heavy lifting in political, economic, and diplomatic relations abroad, and while their numbers have declined, their support staff remains roughly the same size. The Foreign Service specialist corps—which performs IT, security, human resources and courier duties—has only experienced a net loss of four employees.
Neumann said the departures of professional diplomats and policy experts within the civilian workforce could potentially leave the country "vulnerable to bad deals," particularly in highly technical areas.
"Other countries are represented by people who have a deep background in the issue … and you're like the high school kid trying to pretend you're in college," he added.
This post appears courtesy of Government Executive.
Posted: 11 Feb 2018 03:37 PM PST
The tweet, as so often happens, was at once shocking and deeply predictable.
That was President Trump, on Saturday, ostensibly reacting to the fact that, this week, allegations of domestic abuse led to the resignations of two high-level staffers at the White House. He was also, obliquely, weighing in on #MeToo. The president's 48-word assessment of the reckoning so many Americans are painfully but productively engaged in made for rich (but thoroughly unsurprising) irony: Trump, of course, has been accused of sexual impropriety by 19 women—and has also been caught on tape bragging about sexual assault, and has also boasted, on national television, about advising friends to "be rougher" toward their wives, and has also been elected president of the United States. His tweet is revealing both in spite and because of those facts: "Peoples[sic]," in the plural; allegation, in the singular. The peoples meaning the "men's"; the allegation—though in its context, the diminishing adjective is redundant—being a "mere" one.
The poet Mourid Barghouti talks about the political power of narrative order, the way sympathies can be shaped by the sequence of things, the cosmology of things, the omissions as well as the inclusions. Start the story with "Secondly," leaving the "Firstly" for later, and the Native Americans can be seen as the aggressors; start the story with "Secondly," and Gandhi becomes the victimizer, King the stubborn threat; "start the story with 'Secondly,'" Barghouti writes, "and the world will be turned upside-down." It is simply a matter of selective vision. Perspective is a powerful thing.
Trump's tweet, though he probably did not have Barghouti in mind while crafting it, did not merely, as a New York Times headline summed it up, appear "to doubt the #MeToo Movement." It also attempted to undermine the #MeToo movement precisely by Secondly-ing its story. The presidential tweet overlooks the obvious Firstly, which is that "allegations"—plural, so profoundly plural—are their own suggestions of lives "shattered and destroyed." It takes the common refrain—the he said/she said nature of such allegations; sexual abuse as epistemic ennui—and doubles down: He is framing the matter such that the he is the only party given words, given space, given moral consideration.
With a remarkable economy of words, then, the president is summarizing a lingering cultural paradigm, one whose stubbornness #MeToo, in its current iteration, is attempting to dismantle: an attitude that treats the male point of view as the default point of view. An attitude that prioritizes the experience of the man (who, anyway, probably had his reasons), over the experience of the woman (who, anyway, probably misunderstood). An epidemic myopia—one that has not been concerned enough with its blurred vision to take the trouble to correct the lens.
It is a widespread affliction. The day before Trump tweeted of "a mere allegation," the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens weighed in on the case of Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen, investigating the state of the claim the auteur's adoptive daughter made against him decades ago: In 1992, she says, when she was 7 years old, Allen molested her. Stephens's column Secondlys that story. The op-ed is titled "The Smearing of Woody Allen." It is framed as a meta-narrative—What We Talk About When We Talk About Woody Allen—and its Secondly sympathies are in this case directed against those who take Farrow's testimony seriously. "It goes without saying that child molestation is a uniquely evil crime that merits the stiffest penalties," Stephens writes. "But accusing someone of being a molester without abundant evidence is also odious, particularly in an era in which social-media whispers can become the ruin of careers and even of lives."
The allegations against Allen are complicated, certainly—and Stephens, cannily, makes that his point. He treats the complication itself as an object lesson not just about Woody Allen, but also about #MeToo: the smearing of Woody Allen, the person. The sanctity of Woody Allen, the idea. The way all of us, according to the transitive properties of American culture, are harmed when #MeToo's angry gaze is aimed at Woody Allen. Accusing someone of being a molester without abundant evidence is also odious: The "someone" here—Woody Allen, and by object-lesson implication, the collective of men accused of sexual impropriety, as #MeToo moves forward—is the premise from which everything else proceeds. What happened in 1992 is not the point; what is happening in 2018 is.
The story starts with "Secondly." That framing allows the tragedy of the allegation—a 7-year-old girl, molested by one of the people charged with keeping her safe; that person, denying the charge—to become a rhetorical device: "If Allen is in fact a pedophile," Stephens writes, "he appears to have acted on his evil fantasies exactly once." The framing, too, allows Stephens to underplay this case's obvious Firstly: how commonly those who come forward about sexual abuse are doubted and ignored and effectively punished for speaking in the first place. How rarely abuse of the kind Farrow has been describing for decades comes with the abundant evidence Stephens demands.
The "Secondly" stance has been on display in many other recent examinations of #MeToo—examinations that, while they generally acknowledge the societal benefits of a reckoning, focus their attentions on the pathos of the accused. The New York magazine columnist Andrew Sullivan has, on multiple occasions, condemned #MeToo as a form of sexual McCarthyism. Bill Maher has warned that efforts to make things "100 percent safe" for women could lead to a kind of "police state" that would attempt to regulate love itself. The journalist Masha Gessen has written of the potential for sex panics. Stephens's New York Times colleague, Bari Weiss, transformed the generalized dictum of "believe women"—a corrective, of course, to centuries' worth of people doing the opposite as a matter of default—into "believe all women"; she then argued that her own more strident version of the phrase risked getting "transmogrified into an ideological orthodoxy." The writer Katie Roiphe lamented the firing of Lorin Stein, the former editor of The Paris Review, not on the grounds that the harassment accusations against him were false, but on the grounds that the harassment itself was not as bad it could have been.
The self-conscious backlash to #MeToo often adopts epic assumptions, framing itself as a sweeping defense—of truth, of freedom, of reasonable, fact-based discourse in response to people who are scrambling to erode the Enlightenment, reaction gif by reaction gif. The defense posture, however, is often its own sweeping "Secondly": Often, the arguments that employ it end up not merely endorsing double standards, but also relying on them to make their point. Bret Stephens's argument that Woody Allen deserves the benefit of the doubt requires a minimizing of that benefit as extended to Dylan Farrow. Roiphe's defense of Lorin Stein—"in fact, he lovingly, carefully, intimately, was this, like, transcendently amazing editor and promoter of [women's] work," she told NPR—requires its own selective vision. Trump's lament that "peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation" demands, as well, a particularly myopic form of empathy.
#MeToo is often portrayed as a movement of sound, of voices, of volume: a collective of people who, enabled by technologies that are premised on the value of telling many stories rather than a single one, are sharing experiences that had for too long been silenced. The sonic paradigm has defined the public discussion of #MeToo, this version of it, from the outset: the whisper networks. The Silence Breakers. But #MeToo, for all that, is also a visual movement. It is arguing against failures not only of justice, but also of vision itself: cultural biases about who will be seen, and who will be left to the shadows. About whose perspective will be valued, as a matter of cultural reflex, and whose, reflexively, will not. About whose allegations are actionable, and whose allegations are "mere."
Women, for so long, have come second in the story: Adam, and then Eve. Mr, and then Mrs. The second sex. History's plus-ones, decorative and nameless and expendable. Now, though, women are coming forward to tell their own stories, to insist on the validity of their own perspectives. They are demanding to be heard, and even more fundamentally to be prioritized. That, too, is part of the broader purpose of #MeToo. On Saturday, on Twitter, Dylan Farrow responded to Bret Stephens. "To presume I invented this story & convinced myself of it is no less insulting than calling me a liar," the subject of the op-ed informed the author. "I've consistently stated the truth for 25 years." Farrow added, seconding herself: "I won't stop now."
Posted: 11 Feb 2018 06:31 AM PST
AGADEZ, Niger—For centuries, the city of Agadez served as a gateway between sub-Saharan and North Africa. While the camel caravans have been replaced by trucks and Toyota 4x4s, the city's local communities still rely on the transport of merchandise and contraband to get by. Agadez is also the largest city in Niger's restive north, the birthplace of ethnic-Tuareg rebellions against the Nigerien state, and a place where jihadist gunmen use the lawless, open desert to move between hotspots in this part of Africa.
Beginning in late 2013, thousands of people from throughout West Africa began arriving in Agadez every week, seeking an escape from poverty and a lack of opportunity back home. From there, it was onto Libya, where many hoped to find work or continue onward to Europe. At the height of the migrant-smuggling boom from 2014 to 2016, dozens of pick-up trucks, packed with anywhere from 22 to 30 people, would set off from the city into the desert every week. Nigerien authorities had little reason to intervene: Migrants headed out of Agadez paid an "exit tax" to government officials that went directly into the municipal treasury. (Many of the migrant convoys were even accompanied by a military escort.)
What did all this add up to? In 2016, the United Nations Migration Agency detected over 333,000 migrants, including Nigeriens themselves, passing through northern Niger and onto Libya and Algeria. With each migrant paying smugglers between $100 and $500 and purchasing food and lodging on their journey through the Sahara, even the most conservative estimates suggested a smuggling economy in the tens of millions of dollars.
All that started to change in August 2016, when Nigerien officials began implementing a controversial anti-smuggling law that effectively criminalized the transport of migrants. The law was passed in 2015, under heavy pressure from the European Union, which offered Niger aid and development assistance in exchange for more robust cooperation on immigration enforcement. In the ensuing crackdown, government officials told me they confiscated over 200 vehicles and detained dozens of drivers, guides, and so-called "ghetto owners," or people who provided migrants with lodging.
By the end of 2017, the flow of detected migrants had fallen by 80 percent from the previous year. It was impossible to know exactly how many people were passing through: Most of the people-smuggling networks had moved underground. As a result, at least 6,000 people—smugglers, along with shop-owners, landlords, restaurateurs, vehicle repairman, and merchants who benefitted from the migrant economy—lost their livelihoods, local authorities in Agadez told me. The EU has pledged to help the newly unemployed find other types of work. So far, the support has yet to arrive.
Adou Ama, a slender, 40-year-old man in Agadez, once earned several thousand dollars a month arranging the transport of West African migrants from Agadez to Libya. Now he spends his days loitering under a hangar nestled within the mud-brick labyrinth of the city center, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes with a dozen other former smugglers. He and the other ex-smugglers said that the Nigerien government and its European patrons had failed to bring the jobs and economic development they'd promised. "Our families—what are they going to eat?" Ama asked.
Northern Niger's economic crisis could destabilize a region that has already suffered through two civil wars over the past 30 years. While the European Union promotes development aid and security assistance as a recipe for stability in Niger, and individual countries like France, Italy, and the United States do the same, locals here insist that EU efforts to curb migration, combined with an increased foreign military presence, threatens to break an already fragile state. "We don't want a rebellion," Ama said. "But suffering creates one."
Agadez emerged as the principal gateway for West African migrants and asylum-seekers bound for Europe after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the former ruler of Libya. Prior to his demise in 2011, Qaddafi blocked those trying to reach Europe, as part of a $5-billion aid package from Italy. Unable to find reliable partners among the competing armed factions in Libya after Qaddafi, Europe turned to Niger to control the movement of migrants, even those who didn't necessarily want to go to Europe. Last year, the European Commission pledged to contribute 1 billion euros in development assistance to Niger by 2020.
On the military front, France has several hundred troops in Niger, including special forces stationed at a revamped colonial fort in Madama, near the border with Libya. In December, Italy announced plans to send up to 470 troops to Madama in order to curb people-smuggling and fight jihadists. The exact amount of military spending by the EU and individual European nations in recent years is unclear, but is likely in the hundreds of millions of euros.
Such a strong emphasis on security, however, seems to misdiagnose the problem. Development economists argue that rates of migration from poor countries increase as their economies grow, and only levels off once they reach a certain level of economic development. Heavy-handed measures, like those called for by Niger's 2015 anti-smuggling law, can exact an economic cost, for both migrants and those who move them.
Adou Ama (middle, back), sits under a hangar in downtown Agadez, where he spends his days with other former smugglers drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. / Peter Tinti
The 2015 law also crippled the economy of northern Niger at a time when jihadist groups were expanding their presence throughout the region. Fears of impending collapse prompted the EU to allocate 687,500 euros in June 2017 for a program to help smugglers find new employment. A spokesperson for the EU delegation in Niger, reached by email, referred to the project as a "reconversion plan" for "former recognized smugglers and other actors of migration," including drivers, recruiters, guides, and local merchants.
As part of the program, former smugglers are required to register with the Nigerien government, and prepare a dossier outlining new business proposals and start-up costs. But smugglers in Agadez who have sent in their plans, including those who said their dossiers have been approved, told me that they have yet to receive any assistance. According to government officials and the EU delegation in Niger, of the 6,500 people that have registered as part of the program, around 287 have been approved to receive any assistance.
Over time, complaints of bureaucratic red tape and accusations that funds have been misappropriated by local authorities have piled up. Government officials are urging patience. "The program was launched with EU funds and we have to follow the EU process. We cannot just dispense funds," Sadou Soloké, the governor of Agadez region, told me. According to Soloké, part of the frustration stemmed from a misunderstanding: Those who registered expected to receive monetary compensation; instead, he said, the program was only ever intended to furnish them with material and supplies purchased and procured by the EU in partnership with the Nigerien government. "We never said we would give them money. They have to start a legal activity and we will provide support. We will deliver what they need."
A spokesperson for the EU delegation to Niger confirmed that assistance to former smugglers has not yet started, in part because of the EU's stringent procurement and compliance procedures. "We might be able to provide the first beneficiaries in one and a half to two months," the spokesperson wrote in an email.
A truck transporting Nigeriens and other West African nationals on the outskirts of Agadez, heading north toward the Libyan border. / Peter Tinti
The longer the EU takes, the greater the likelihood that the simmering frustration will boil over. In Mali, Libya, and Nigeria, which share long, porous borders with Niger, jihadist groups, some with ties to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, have translated abundant disillusionment with ineffectual governments into varying levels of local support.
Until recently, Niger had largely been spared from Islamist violence. This changed in 2013, when Saharan jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar rocked Agadez and Arlit, another city in northern Niger, with a pair of coordinated suicide attacks. Since then, militants in both Niger and Mali have launched multiple attacks against Nigerien security forces.
As jihadist groups make inroads with economically disenfranchised communities south of Agadez, local leaders warn that young people will prove susceptible to jihadist recruitment. "The migrant-smuggling, at least, allowed people to make money. At a minimum it kept people occupied," Issouf Ag Maha, a former rebel who is now mayor of Tchirozerine, a town just north of Agadez, told me. "If there isn't an alternative, people aren't just going to cross their arms," he said. "The jihadists are smart, and they will insert themselves into this situation."
Traditionally, jihadists rally local support by exploiting the presence of foreign military forces, and capitalizing when an operation goes awry. With the expanding U.S. military presence in the region, the odds of such a thing occurring may be rising. Since the early 2000s, the United States has stationed special-forces operatives in Niger, and began flying drones out of the capital city of Niamey in 2013, long before Islamist gunmen killed four American Special Forces servicemen in an ambush in October 2017. The United States is also currently building a new drone base in Agadez. In addition, Washington recently received approval from Nigerien officials to begin flying armed drones to strike jihadist groups in the region—a decision that did not involve Niger's legislature or public debate.
Retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Rudy Atallah, who served as the Africa counterterrorism director for the secretary of defense from 2003 to 2009, told me that part of the challenge for U.S. special forces in the region is that they are limited to working directly with their Nigerien counterparts. The Nigerien military is "not seen favorably in many pockets of the country, and so it taints our guys," Atallah told me. As a result, "our human intelligence is very, very weak in that area," he said, posing a major challenge to executing drone strikes accurately.
Calls for more robust intelligence gathering by U.S. troops on the ground, however, may soon meet resistance in Washington. The New York Times recently reported that a draft military investigation into the ambush in October calls for the Pentagon to scale back its ground operations in the region, rather than expand them.
Mahamane Elhadj Souleymane, who represents over 90 tribes throughout the region as chief of the Kel Eweye Tuareg confederation, said he has yet to receive a straightforward explanation from either his own government or from U.S. officials for why the Americans are building a drone base on the edge of Agadez. "We just have no idea what they are actually doing," he said. "What happens the first time the Americans make a mistake and kill civilians?"
It's a hypothetical question for which he already has an answer. "With the economic crisis and this government, people here are already so fed up," he said. "One mistake and the jihadists will have no problem recruiting 200 people the next day."
Mahaman Elhadj, Souleymane / Peter Tinti
Posted: 11 Feb 2018 11:15 AM PST
Editor’s Note: Read more of The Atlantic's Winter Olympics 2018 coverage.
Shortly before getting on the ice at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, Canada, during the 2010 Winter Olympics, the U.S. national champion figure skater and high-school senior Rachael Flatt was writing a paper on Pride and Prejudice for her AP English Literature class. Though it was her first time competing in the Olympics, Flatt had been training vigorously for years; she knew that every spare moment had to be put toward maintaining good grades. She had a way of overthinking her skating routines anyway, and concentrating on Jane Austen before taking to the ice was a helpful distraction. When the time to perform arrived, Flatt executed her triple toe loops and double axels without error, finishing seventh overall. On her essay, she received an A.
"My parents told me that if my grades suffered, my skating would be postponed," Flatt said. Though she missed three months of classes leading up to and during the Olympics, she graduated from high school on time and was admitted to Stanford. "I didn't have much social life that year," she recalled. Flatt continued to train up to eight hours a day while in college and graduated in four years.
Even with her superior education, Flatt struggled after retiring from skating in 2014. "Leaving a sport feels like a divorce: You're cut wide open and have a gaping hole," she said. But neither U.S. Figure Skating (the national body that governs the sport) nor the U.S. Olympic Committee (the entity that coordinates Olympic activities for U.S. athletes) had much to offer in the way of post-retirement support, Flatt said, emphasizing that the USOC's mission is simply to win as many Olympic medals as possible. "Once they've retired, athletes can feel like they're an afterthought," Flatt explained. "If you don't have an education or training to guide you, you're kind of out of luck."
Despite the razzle-dazzle and romance that surround the Olympic games, elite athletes competing on U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams historically have had few educational and employment opportunities outside of their respective sport. Other nations with robust Olympic teams often provide their athletes with more substantial support: In Canada, for example, top athletes receive an annual income of up to $18,000 as well as a subsidized college education.* By contrast, the U.S. adopts a hands-off approach to its top athletes. "We [Americans] emphasize individualism and individual responsibility more than any other country in the world, so we leave it up to the athletes to figure things out for themselves," said Jay Coakley, a sociologist and the author of Sports In Society.
Internal USOC surveys of former Olympic and elite athletes reveal their concerns about the future: 38 percent said they were mentally unprepared to end their athletic careers, only 16 percent of those still competing reported having done any planning for life once their athletic careers were over, and 43 percent of those who had retired from sports found entering the workforce difficult.
This might be changing. Unlike most of their predecessors, the cadre of U.S. Olympians now competing in Pyeongchang will have access to programs and tools to help them sort through their post-athletic options. The Athlete Career Education program, adopted by the USOC in 2013, aims to rectify some of the oversights that athletes like Flatt endured once their athletic careers ended.
Leslie Klein leads the ACE program. A former Olympic kayaker, Klein said that most athletes competing in the Olympic and Paralympic Games who go on to retire right afterwards are "absolutely not" prepared for what's to come. That's in part because their education experiences are "all over the map," she said. Most of the athletes have at least the equivalent of a high-school diploma, and some have undergraduate and graduate degrees. Many athletes' college options are determined by whether their sport is sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and whether higher education would provide the opportunity to compete at the highest levels (which is not true for all sports). With swimming, volleyball, and track and field, for example, college is the natural route because they can compete as students at the school. "Almost all [athletes in these sports] get a degree and go on to an elite athletic career," Klein said, acknowledging that it may take them more than four years to complete their schooling. (Klein herself graduated from Middlebury College, where she also competed in cross-country skiing and swimming, in six years.)
But for athletes whose sports aren't common on college campuses, or for those whose route to the elite level is outside the NCAA system—like skating, gymnastics, and ski jumping—obtaining an education requires improvisation and hustle. Access to a quality education also varies depending on all kinds of factors. Expense is one. According to Flatt, competitive skating—with all the travel and coaches and costumes and equipment—costs up to $100,000 per year, and athletes without sponsorships often must work part-time to cover expenditures. "The first thing to go is their education," Flatt said. A sport's culture matters, too: The skating world, for example, values academic achievement, Klein said, whereas that for boxing doesn't. In some cases, "athletes have to pick education or sport," she added. The family's emphasis on academics and an athlete's own drive to learn also affect how much education she'll pursue.
Another difficulty for some retiring Olympic and Paralympic athletes is a lack of professional work experience. Given the hundreds of hours spent training, competing, and traveling to competitions, full-time work is impossible for most of the athletes who compete internationally, Klein said. An internal 2012 USOC poll found that almost half of all active Olympians worked, and half of these for 20 hours a week—with half again of these making less than $6,000 per year. A dearth of professional work experience and income, as well as unease about falling behind people their age, prompts some otherwise robust athletes to retire, Klein said. Some then "un-retire," she added, because the sport is all they know.
But what's toughest about retiring from competitive sports, according to Klein, is the emotional adjustment. "The biggest problem is the identity transformation that an athlete has to go through, from being on top of the world in their sport, with media attention, and turning around to face the real world without skills or relationships," she said. The Olympic champion Michael Phelps's tumultuous adjustment to life after elite swimming exemplifies the struggle; he told an audience at a mental-health conference this year that he had collapsed into depression after the Olympics, even considering suicide.
The USOC was pushed to create ACE after an internal working group concluded that athletes needed and deserved more assistance in acquiring an education and finding work. Though the USOC had offered ad hoc career and athletic programs for at least 20 years, the athletes themselves were largely unaware of them. USOC supports were "non-integrated," and provided help only on an "as-available and as-requested basis," the working group reported. Further, just three USOC staff were devoted to helping athletes with their educations and careers, and almost 60 percent of current or retired Olympians did not use even these staffers' support. The report included seven broad recommendations that would establish the USOC as a leader in providing "holistic" support for athletes; the committee's Board of Directors promptly adopted all the suggestions.
Under ACE, the USOC now provides a variety of centralized services to current and former Olympians and Paralympians who apply to and are accepted into the program: career counseling, mentoring, specialized training to help retiring athletes adjust to their new identities, sponsorship for online degree programs at the for-profit DeVry University, a two-week training program at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, tuition grants, and "fellowships" with corporations in which athletes are eased into jobs like interns. Once accepted into ACE, athletes have access to a private online platform where they can connect with other Olympians and potential employers—"kind of [like] Facebook meets LinkedIn," Klein explained. ACE also plans to offer workshops on tax preparation, public speaking, and brand management, and to host a three-day post-Olympic Games welcome-home ceremony in Washington for all current and former athletes.
"We are able to take each individual situation and work to provide an array of programs and opportunities based on need," Klein said. Plus, she added, offering this support sends the signal to athletes that the USOC cares. So far, roughly 1,700 athletes have used ACE services, including more than 50 from this year's Olympic team.
What limits ACE are its size and funding. It's not clear how much money ACE receives from the USOC—a USOC representative said the organization does not release the budget of each department—but its staff is relatively small: Klein runs the program with three career coaches and two administrators. Though athletes applied for $1.6 million in college tuition grants, ACE could only afford to give out $237,000—"a big gap," she said, between what athletes want and what ACE provides.
The athletes themselves question how helpful this new endeavor will be. Han Xiao, who heads the Athletes' Advisory Council—a group made up of elite athletes whose purpose is to represent and safeguard their interests to the USOC—said that the resources devoted to ACE are significant but probably insufficient. And according to Xiao, the opacity surrounding ACE funding makes it impossible to evaluate its actual value to athletes.
Access to these services also is restricted. While all retired Olympians and Paralympians qualify, athletes who are currently competing need approval from their sport's national governing body to use the ACE programs. There are 55 such bodies in all—each representing one or more of the sports played in the Olympic, Paralympic, or Pan American Games—and each body decides which of its athletes qualify for the educational and career programs. Depending on the sport, this can mean that just a fraction of competitive athletes qualify. And again, every athlete needs to apply to be considered at all for services.
Allysa Seely learned about the ACE programs a few months before competing in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. She went on to earn a gold medal in the triathlon, surging past the top woman during the last leg of the event, and winning by more than a minute. It was exhilarating, she said, but a little disorienting afterwards. "It's something you train for every day for years, so when it's over you think, 'what's next?'" she said. Seely attended some ACE workshops and consulted with a career coach there who helped set her up with a flexible part-time job. She's decided to aim for the next Paralympic games, and devotes about 30 hours a week to running, swimming, cycling, lifting, and miscellaneous maintenance. When her athletic career ends, she'll go back to ACE and use their services to go back to school to study medicine, she said: "I make a point to push myself."
* This article initially stated that top athletes in Canada receive a monthly rather than annual income of up to $18,000. We regret the error.
Posted: 11 Feb 2018 05:00 AM PST
"Falcon Heavy, in a Roar of Thunder, Carries SpaceX's Ambition Into Orbit." So reads a New York Times headline on the biggest spectacle of the week. Elon Musk's latest rocket blasted into the atmosphere with David Bowie's iconic "Space Oddity" playing on auto-repeat, listened to by no one. Crowds cheered as the rocket roared upon takeoff—carrying a Tesla Roadster as payload, no less—and roared again as the boosters delivered themselves safely back to Earth.
The sound of jet propulsion can be both mesmerizing and forgettable. On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I became distinctly aware of a succession of rumbles in the sky early each morning: the steady sounds of the first banks of commercial airliners taking off from Reagan National Airport, across the Potomac. This is nothing out of the ordinary: just the groan of turbofans churning the outside air into propellant thrust so an airliner can ascend after takeoff.
It might seem silly to even remark on it. This happens to me more often than I'd like to admit: I'll hear a jet rumbling above, and gaze up and say, "Wow!"—and whoever I'm with stares at me like I'm some sort of Neanderthal. But this dull roar denotes a truly astonishing feat happening each and every day, on regular and tight schedules. These are the workhorses of the sky, transporting people and cargo around the planet for labor and leisure, the grinds of work and duty commingling with the fantasies of vacation and pleasure. Turbofans propel both bodies and boxes around the globe.
Yet here's what's weird: The same technologies that quite literally thrust people and things into space and the future are also the very things that might be holding humans back from truly radical, forward-looking innovations.
* * *
Lately there has been some buzz about new developments in electric turbofan engines. An advancement would result in a quieter, more fuel-efficient mode of jet propulsion—and thereby a cheaper and less polluting form of air travel. Promotional spots for the products often show energy diagrams with bold green arrows and lines, or sleek aircraft soaring above verdant, rolling landscapes. Rolls-Royce, for instance, is collaborating with Siemens and Airbus to develop a hybrid aircraft on which one of the four gas-turbine engines—a turbofan painted green—will be powered solely by electric energy. The plane will have three normal gas turbofans as backup as the companies test the green engine for stress, safety, and reliability. The goal is to fly this test plane by 2020, suggesting that the technology could conceivably be put into use within the next couple decades.
The aircraft model for this particular test plane is a British Aerospace 146, or BAe-146. It's a smallish, short- to mid-range aircraft with 70 to 112 seats, most commonly used for regional routes. It's a distinctive plane, resembling a miniature cargo jet with a high-wing cantilever design and four comparatively small engines. This is a rather old plane, first flown in 1981 and no longer in commercial service in the United States. Only 144 of the 387 aircraft built are still in operation around the world. In other words, the green-engine testing is not being conducted on a wide-body, mainline carrier—the type of aircraft where the real money is for airlines as well as aircraft and turbofan manufacturers. Instead, an obsolescing aircraft is being used to test out new propulsion technology. It's an investment in green energy, then, but perhaps more symbolic than realistic in terms of widespread, cost-effective use.
Of course, larger-scale equipment is also undergoing renewal and innovation. Rolls-Royce is developing a new Power Gearbox that will result in 25 percent greater fuel efficiency in their large turbofans by 2025, relative to the 20-year-old Trent 700 model.
Regarding their newer Trent 7000 turbofans, designed for the wide-body Airbus A330neo (250 to 440 passengers), Rolls-Royce confidently claims that these engines are "future-proofed on noise and emissions, with plenty of margin against both current and future environmental targets/legislation." Rolls-Royce confirmed that this turbofan has been designed to meet guidance for projected regulations of emissions and noise, which have not yet increased in stringency. This both assumes a worsening state of affairs (more air-traffic congestion, greater ecological urgency, etc.) and assures buyers that these things have already been planned for and built into the engine. It amounts to copping to the tragedy of what's coming, and then congratulating oneself for being so ready for it. It is a curious way to think about the future, if you pause to contemplate it.
And certainly, even as turbofan and aircraft manufacturers alike make appeals to cleaner technology, their goal is not to reduce human air travel. Regarding its A330 model, Airbus charts 1,694 orders for these planes, of which only 1,373 are fulfilled. The implicit message: Demand has not been met, which means building more planes, and faster. And this is presented as an ongoing condition. An airline manufacturer would never aim to satisfy the needs of all airlines once and for all, but rather to keep producing new jets ad infinitum. So even if the planes to come are powered by relatively cleaner Trent 7000 turbofans, the assumption—the goal—is to put ever more A330s in the sky. That somewhat complicates the straightforward aim of hitting "environmental targets," as Rolls-Royce puts it. Individually, sure—but collectively, if more planes are in the sky?
Aviation futurists might argue that as old planes are retired, the newer, more efficient aircraft will simply replace these, and that consolidation will reduce overall flights and eliminate unnecessary routes. Yet it is clear that Airbus and Boeing are hardly going to turn away new business, or slow down production. Consider how Airbus boldly claims that their A320 family is the "world's best-selling aircraft of all time"; and then look at how Boeing shows off their cornucopia of customers for their comparable next-generation 737. This is obviously a race for growth, not just efficiency.
Turbofan engines offer an audible reminder of the paradox of progress. As much as people may want to experience new things, they have to use old tools and means to do so. Sometimes those tools and means can function as blinders. People are tied to existing patterns, infrastructure, and systems even as they might want or need to do something different and truly innovative.
Leaving Washington a few days later, I was struck by the beauty of Eero Saarinen's Dulles International Airport at dawn. The way it sweeps up from the ground, how it architecturally announces the grand project of flight. It feels like a paean to the jet age, a living monument of sorts.
As I plodded through the security-checkpoint slog to my gate, however, it occurred to me how stuck travelers are in this bizarre moment of the past, this mid-20th-century endeavor that is jet travel. Innovations in turbofan-engine design and technology may be well-intentioned and forward-thinking, at least in some sense. And the actual work that turbofans do day in and day out, hour after hour of nonstop chugging across the sky—it's nothing less than incredible, from a technical standpoint. But, at the same time, the din of flight really can't help but remind people of something that had its heyday several decades ago.
The bitter truth is that human air travel probably won't get much better in the years to come. It might have reached certain limits in terms of speed, economy, and comfort. There are any number of signs that this is the case: climate change, limited resources, land-use constraints, wealth inequality, and so on. Recently, news broke about problems in the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines that power the Boeing 787, which was first introduced in 2011: The turbine blades on two separate aircraft broke down during flight, resulting in severe vibrations and causing the aircraft to abort their journeys. Concerning these recent incidents, Warren East, the chief executive at Rolls-Royce, admitted an obvious but uncomfortable truth about turbofan parts: "They wear out."
* * *
For all of Elon Musk's bluster, and even granting the incredible engineering brilliance behind SpaceX's accomplishments, an odd detail slipped into one of Musk's presentations on "making life multiplanetary": The pressurized area of the payload section of his planned Mars spaceship is described as being "greater than the cabin of an Airbus A380." The fact is meant to be impressive, but it doesn't quite square with the expected duration of the trip to Mars. Three to six months traveling in a super jumbo jet? No thanks. Sixteen hours in an A380 can already drive one to the point of insanity, no matter how luxurious the accommodations. In a similar rhetorical move, the mass of this week's star rocket, the Falcon Heavy, was explained by comparison to a 737—one of the most recognizable Boeing commercial airliners in service today. To envision a reusable space rocket as little more than a vertically aligned Southwest plane brings the stars down to earth indeed. The ambitions and technological marvels of Musk's rockets are weighed down by the 20th-century baggage of commercial flight.
For now, the goal of human air travel seems to be to keep it going at any cost—as if humanity is still headed somewhere else, somewhere new. Rolls-Royce plans to "power the aircraft of the future," as a company statement boldly puts it. And SpaceX is certainly working hard to produce another aspect of this future. But is the future in play here truly something revolutionary?
Whether encapsulated in the dreams of a billionaire technologist or nestled in the gear teeth of a next-generation turbofan, the roar of the future gets awkwardly dampened. It sounds a lot like the present, or maybe even more like the past. Understood this way, it makes perverse sense why Musk sent a car into outer space, going nowhere, as if to consecrate once and for all the 20th century as a final frontier.
Posted: 11 Feb 2018 08:42 AM PST
We sometimes think of political issues in binary terms. Is someone pro-life or pro-choice? But most individuals hold views that are more complicated than a binary can capture.
An alternative is to describe a given position on a spectrum. On abortion, an outright ban sits at one extreme; at the other is the elimination of all restrictions on the procedure. In between are a staggering array of coherently distinguishable positions.
Politicians seeking to win votes express their stances either in terms of a binary or as a spot on a spectrum, depending on where they see the greatest advantage. Though their beliefs don't change, how they frame them makes a political difference.
* * *
There's a different set of frames, though, that are as relevant as binaries and spectrums, though they are less familiar and less discussed: equilibriums and limits.
Most political stances can be understood in terms of an equilibrium. For instance, some people might believe that access to abortion in a conservative state is too restricted under the status quo, and favor relaxing the rules regulating abortion clinics. That is, they might favor shifting the equilibrium in a "pro-choice" direction.
But ask those same voters, "Should there be any limits on legal abortion?" and they might declare that the procedure should be banned in the last trimester of pregnancy unless the mother's health is threatened. Insofar as the abortion debate is framed around the equilibrium, they will align with the pro-choice movement; but insofar as it is framed around limits, they will align with the pro-life movement.
On abortion and scores of other political issues, there are people who tend to focus on equilibriums, other people who tend to focus on limits, and still others who vary in their focus. A single question put to the public cannot reveal the majority position of the polity on such issues, because there are at least two different majority coalitions: One forms around the position that a majority holds on the best equilibrium; the other forms around the position a majority holds on the appropriate limit. The winning coalition turns in part on what frame is more prominent at any particular moment.
* * *
Now imagine two individuals who appear to be on opposite sides of a different matter. One aligns herself with what she calls the #MeToo movement; the other declares herself a critic of #MeToo. Yet digging deeper into their views on sexual harassment, it turns out that they are identical. They both believe workplaces ought to adopt policies that more effectively protect women from sexual harassment, and that there should be robust due process protections to guard against false accusations. They even agree on the language of their optimal policies.
What might explain their different postures toward #MeToo?
The first is focused on equilibriums. She believes that the status quo in American workplaces doesn't adequately protect female workers, and that #MeToo is likely to improve things by shifting the equilibrium, making it marginally more friendly to working women. In contrast, the second is focused on limits. She frets that #MeToo is ending careers without adequate due process and enabling big injustices at the extremes. She worries that, left unchecked by opposition, it will spiral out of control.
Some Americans would feel less polarized and alienated from their fellow citizens if they recognized that some of the people fighting on "the other side" of a polarizing issue actually hold values and beliefs that are strikingly similar to their own.
* * *
Now think of campus politics.
The campus left wants the free-speech debate to be focused on limits. What if an invited speaker is a neo-Nazi or wants to say the N-word or deny the Holocaust? In contrast, the campus right fares better when the debate is focused around the equilibrium. Across partisan and racial divides, large majorities agree that colleges are not doing enough to teach young Americans about the value of free speech and not doing enough to ensure students are exposed to a variety of viewpoints. In surveys, they express antagonism toward threats of violence and racial slurs even while insisting that, on the whole, campuses should be less politically correct.
So why don't people who want to shift the equilibrium away from political correctness try to broaden their coalition by simultaneously agreeing to ban "hate speech"? In this case, as in others, the "equilibrium majority" is reluctant to make concessions to the "limit majority" because they are concerned about slippery slopes. A refusal to concede limits can be necessary if one means to defend the merits of an absolutist position (like "torture should always be illegal") or when one believes that an absolutist position allows bad behavior, but that anything short of it guarantees a slide to an inferior outcome, like lots of speech being suppressed.
But there are lots of other issues where equilibrium majorities seem foolish if they decline to grow their numbers at the expense of limit majorities, whether by focusing their efforts narrowly or reassuring persuadable voters by granting some limits.
On drug policy, a libertarian could easily narrow his focus and rally a majority behind a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana; but if that libertarian instead backed a ballot initiative calling for the total elimination of all drug prohibitions, voters would likely reject it, because they are more averse to legal heroin than to illegal marijuana—in such cases, the limit is a stronger motivator than the equilibrium.
Or take immigration policy. Democrats prefer to focus on the equilibrium. That's because a majority of voters align with Democrats on the question of whether or not so-called "Dreamers" should get to stay in the United States or be deported; whereas a "limit majority" is more comfortable with Republicans who express the view that open borders would be disastrous than with Democrats who are reluctant to declare themselves against any specific hard limit on future immigration.
The GOP wants the country focused on the limits of immigration policy.
Yet on an issue like immigration, most Democratic politicians don't actually believe that America should have open borders or that limits on immigration would put us on a slippery slope to no immigration at all; and most Republican politicians don't actually believe that America should deport all illegal immigrants or that something like the Dream Act would put us on a slippery slope to open borders. Rather, Democrats are reluctant to articulate limits on immigration that they regard as sensible, because doing so is taboo in their coalition; and Republicans are reluctant to articulate limits on deportation that they regard as sensible, because doing so is presently taboo in their coalition as well. In both cases, there is a pernicious heuristic at work, where the mere act of conceding limits is conflated with lack of principle or with weakness and disloyalty, even though neither open borders nor deporting all illegal immigrants will ever happen. (A governing coalition that tried to blow past either limit would be destroyed.)
* * *
America's two-party system frequently forces binary choices on voters, and locating oneself on a left-right political spectrum can be a useful exercise. But I'd like to see more political analysis that recognizes the difference between equilibriums and limits and examines the coalitions that form around them. Seeing those frameworks more clearly would reveal instances when differences between Americans are not as sharp as they might seem, and enable marginal improvements to policy on issues where slippery slopes are unlikely and the main obstacle holding back reform is the fear of a limit that almost no one wants to cross.
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