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When the Supreme Court Doesn't Care About Facts

Posted: 27 Feb 2018 03:00 AM PST

Midway through Monday's oral argument in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees," Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, [H]ow much is there unionization in the general corporate sector … or private sector?" .

"I don't have that number." Francisco replied.

Francisco cited very few facts, in fact, even though he was asking the court to reverse a 40-year-old precedent that allows public employee unions to collect "agency fees" for the cost of representing non-member employees in collective bargaining. Along with William Messenger, staff attorney for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, he assured the justices that reversing that case—called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education—would cause no real problems for the states, their employees, or the unions those employees chose to represent them.

The record didn't support that assurance, simply because … well, there is no record in this case. There is simply the claim, a longtime staple of conservative legal thinking, that Abood was wrong; there is the unspoken corollary that conservatives now at last have five votes and can get rid of it.

In legal terms, that's a curious assertion. Courts claim to follow a principle called stare decisis, meaning that cases, once decided, are not to be overturned simply because new judges come on the court, or new parties win elections, or newly tenured law professors think they were wrong; the radical step of voiding precedent is saved for cases that have been proven unworkable or unjust in the years since they were decided.

Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 reversed not one but three venerable Supreme Court decisions that spanned more than a decade—Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education (1898), and Berea College v. Kentucky (1908). Those cases had held that state laws requiring racial segregation were constitutional—as long as facilities for the races were "separate, but equal."

The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, founded in 1940, did not rush into court arguing they had always been wrong; instead, the LDF brought case after case demonstrating that facilities made "separate" by race could never, in any meaningful sense, be "equal." By 1954, the facts the LDF cited convinced the justices that that the segregation trilogy rule simply did not work; and thus, the court unanimously overturned it.

Ordinarily, a case testing important constitutional questions would arise out of a trial of some sort, in which the two parties would present factual evidence—at least documents and affidavits, if not expert witness testimony—supporting their side. In Brown, for example, the NAACP plaintiffs called psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark to testify that their work with black children showed negative effects of segregation on their self-esteem (as measured, for example, by their choice of white dolls over dolls with African American features). The Clarks were cross-examined before a judge; the states defending segregation presented their own expert psychologist, Columbia University Professor Henry Garrett, to defend segregation. Brown's record was rich in evidence about the nature of segregated schools and their effects on students. Confronting that evidence, the court had a basis to conclude that the previous cases should be overturned.

There's none of that in Janus.

Until 2010, all sides had regarded Abood as settled law. Then, in a public-employee union case that did not present the issue, Justice Alito, writing the majority opinion, announced that Abood was entirely wrong  and should be overturned.

In 2013, a group of home-health workers brought a case called Harris v. Quinn challenging the agency fees. Defeat for public employee unions was avoided, however, when the majority decided that home-health workers couldn't be covered by union contracts at all. Abood survived.

Then the powerful anti-union advocacy network brought a case called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, challenging "agency fees" in teachers' unions. They filed that case in district court, then immediately asked the court to dismiss their own case, so they could appeal it without a trial and thus get it before the seemingly receptive Supreme Court without delay. The union told the court, "The Unions have not moved for judgment on the pleadings, as they would prefer to ground the judgment in a factual record." But the court decided not to assemble that record; it granted the challengers' motion to lose without a trial.

That case reached the Supreme Court in the fall of 2015. After argument on November 1, the anti-union forces seemed to be on the verge of victory. Then, in February 2016, Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly. Without his deciding vote, the court was tied and affirmed the Ninth Circuit, 4-4. Abood, improbably, still lived.

But while Friedrichs was pending, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner had asked a federal court to decide that he didn't have to follow Illinois's state employee union statutes any more, since they were probably going to be unconstitutional any day now. The federal court responded that  having to follow state laws isn't an "injury" to a governor, so Rauner had no "standing"; in fact, there was no case.

At that point, Mark Janus, an Illinois state social worker who opposes agency fees, asked to join the case. The court allowed him to do so, even though, legally, there was no case for him to join—and then dismissed Janus's claims because of Abood. He appealed; this week his case reached the Supreme Court, encumbered by no more facts than was Friedrichs.

In Monday's argument, Francisco's casual ignorance of labor statistics was not the only gap in the advocates's knowledge. Messenger, the Right-to-Work fund lawyer, assured the justices that unions who represent non-members don't incur any additional expense by doing so; he gave no source for this, simply his assertion that "there's no reason why" it shouldn't be so. Upending the labor law of 23 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico would be no big deal either, he said. "I submit the contracts will survive." When Justice Elena Kagan asked him whether the contracts in those states had "severability" clauses (which would make the disruption slightly less), he admitted, "I couldn't find a number for the public sector," but added that he had "anecdotal" experience that many contracts do have such clauses.

Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out that California, in a brief supporting the union, contended precisely the opposite. Messenger dismissed that claim without really answering it, and pointed out that contracts eventually expire anyway.

David Franklin, who argued for the state of Illinois in defense of its "agency fee" law, told the court that Messenger had been wrong to focus on the cost of contract negotiations. Unions also must represent workers in grievance proceedings, he noted, and that cost money: "we don't know what percentage of the union's activities are wrapped up with grievances." In fact, he said, grievance-representation coats "can be three times, six times, seven times as much … [as] the line for collective bargaining. So to decide this case in an evidentiary vacuum on the basis of assumptions about how that speech breaks down or how those expenses break down would in our view be irresponsible."

When David Frederick, representing the union, rose to argue, Kagan asked him about Messenger's assurance that an anti-union victory wouldn't disrupt labor relations. Frederick responded that, "intangibly, there are plenty of studies that show that when unions are deprived of agency fees, they tend to become more militant, more confrontational, they go out in search of short-term gains that they can bring back to their members and say stick with us."

Chief Justice John Roberts jumped in: "Well, the argument on the other side, of course, is that the need to attract voluntary payments will make the unions more efficient, more effective, more attractive to a broader group of their employees. What's wrong with that?"

What's wrong with that as a factual matter may be nothing; it may be everything. Without a record—without a good look at the studies Frederick referenced, and maybe cross-examination of their authors—we simply have no idea what economic theory and history tell us about union behavior. But what's wrong with this argument as a matter of law is that it's being carried on in the dark, with no more grounding in facts than the average afternoon radio call-in show. A responsible course—as even Solicitor General Francisco seemed to admit—would be to remand the case for the creation of a factual record to supplant some of the airy theorizing the advocates (and the justices) engaged in.

But that would allow public employee unions to carry on for another year or two. And that's what's really wrong with the whole Janus proceeding. The conservative justices don't even try to hide it: the case is really about politics—about their feeling that public-employee unions are too powerful and that the policies they favor are hurting the country and they are all Democrats and they need to be stopped right away.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who rarely hides his true thoughts, summed up what is really going on. When Franklin, for Illinois, suggested that states had an interest in negotiating with a "stable, responsible, independent counterparty," Kennedy all but exploded:

It can be a partner with you in advocating for a greater size workforce, against privatization, against merit promotion, against—for teacher tenure, for higher wages, for massive government, for increasing bonded indebtedness, for increasing taxes? That's—that's the interest the state has?

A few minutes later, Kennedy asked Frederick, representing the union, the question that seems to be foremost on his mind. If the court rules against the union, "the unions will have less political influence, yes or no?"

"Yes," Frederick said, "they will have less influence."

Kennedy replied: "Isn't that the end of this case?"

Why the Russia Investigation Could Be More Like Iran-Contra Than Watergate

Posted: 27 Feb 2018 03:00 AM PST

As Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election heats up with guilty pleas and plea bargains, there is growing speculation about where this will all end. It might be time to start thinking more about Ronald Reagan than Richard Nixon, and that should give Democrats some pause.

Although Watergate culminated with a dramatic "smoking gun" tape that exposed the guilt of the president in obstructing justice, with a bipartisan consensus quickly forming that President Nixon needed to step down, the Iran-Contra scandal, which involved illegally selling arms to Iran to finance right-wing militias in Nicaragua, fizzled despite shocking revelations about the conduct of the Reagan administration.

Complexity, partisanship, and a strong presidential narrative insulated Reagan from the long-term effects that could come with a scandal as large as Iran Contra. Will the same thing happen again?

Iran Contra unfolded shortly after the midterm elections of 1986, when Democrats retook control of the Senate, and news reports started to reveal a secret shadow operation that had been conducted by high-level officials in the administration to free hostages in Lebanon by selling arms to Iran. The investigations that followed were conducted on several fronts. The conservative Republican Senator from Texas, John Tower, headed a presidentially-appointed commission that looked into how the administration handled its national security decisions. Congress set up a joint House and Senate committee, chaired by Hawaii Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye and Indiana Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, that drew massive television ratings in the summer of 1987 when they dragged Reagan officials before the cameras. Hamilton offered a stern warning during a television interview early in the process, predicting that if the committee found evidence that Reagan knew about and approved the diversion of funds: "It is likely if that occurred--and let us emphasize the 'if'—that if it occurred, you would have a demand for impeachment proceedings." CNN enjoyed a 70 percent increase in its audience share against the major shows of the period. Investigative reporters throughout the nation were hot on the trail of the story. Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh undertook a multi-million dollar investigation that wouldn't conclude until 1992.

The collective findings from these investigations were shocking. They showed that top officials in the executive branch had circumvented the will of Congress. Reagan had authorized a plan from National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane to sell arms to Iran despite an embargo, then considered a state sponsor of terrorism that was in the middle of a brutal war with Iraq, in exchange for assistance in releasing American hostages who were being held hostage in Lebanon by Hezbollah. Although several Reagan officials, such as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, had opposed the plan, they were outflanked by McFarlane as well as CIA Director William Casey. The news contradicted the president's insistence that he would never negotiate with terrorists. Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter in 1980 criticizing him for being soft with the Iranians; now he had sold them weapons.

When the exchange was revealed in a Lebanese newspaper in November 1986, Reagan initially denied the report, but later admitted it was true. He justified his about face by claiming that he wanted to appeal to moderates within the Iranian government in order to undercut support for the Ayatollah Khomeini. "My purpose was ... to send a signal that the United States was prepared to replace the animosity between [the U.S. and Iran] with a new relationship." Polls showed that not many people believed the president. The president's advisors avoided using the term impeachment. Chief of Staff Donald Regan recalled: "It was a no-no word ... You never used the word impeachment except to yourself, because that was something no one wanted to even think about, but, as chief of staff, I felt I should at least look that beast in the eye to see, you know, were we going up here to another Watergate."

Then the plot in what was called the "Iranian thing," thickened. Investigators working for Attorney General Ed Meese discovered that much of the money from the sales had been diverted by Lt. Colonel Oliver North, working for the National Security Council with the approval of McFarlane's successor, Admiral John Poindexter, to provide assistance to the Nicaraguan Contras, right-wing rebels who fought to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government under Daniel Ortega. Congress had passed legislation between 1982 and 1984, the Boland Amendments, explicitly prohibiting any kind of assistance to the Contras. As a result of the revelation, Poindexter had to resign and North was fired.

During the investigations that followed, there was never clear evidence that Reagan had known specifically about the diversion of funds to the Contras, but many people around him did. Fourteen people were indicted with different crimes related to the investigation, including North and Poindexter. McFarlane had pled guilty to four misdemeanor charges involving withholding information from Congress. There was pretty strong evidence that Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was going to run to succeed the president, had known as well.

Yet in the end not only did Reagan avoid impeachment and Bush win election against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988—but the president's legacy remained intact. Reagan ended his second term with strong approval ratings and a historic accomplishment, the signing and ratification of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement with the Soviets, that cemented his place in history. His approval ratings, which had declined by 20 percentage points to 43 percent during the five most dramatic months of Iran-Contra, climbed back up to 63 percent by December of 1988. Most of the presidential rankings continually place Reagan in the top ten of Commanders-in-Chief. He remains a model, for both parties, of what a leader can achieve. Part of the reason that Reagan and his reputation survived the scandal was that it broke toward the last part of his second term.

But more was at work that explains the fizzle, all of which remain relevant today. The absence of a "smoking gun" was essential. Since there was no piece of evidence that directly implicated Reagan in the illegal assistance to the Contras, it was impossible to prove that the president knew what had happened. Throughout the proceedings, Reagan liked to remind reporters that "there ain't no smoking gun" to keep the temperature dialed down. Rather, the story that most Americans heard revolved around unscrupulous advisors doing bad things without the president's clear knowledge—not unlike what we know so far about the Russians and the 2016 election. The majority report of the congressional committee investigating the scandal, who said the Reagan's policies revealed "pervasive dishonesty" as well as "deception and disdain for the law," also admitted that "all of the facts may never be known" about the president's direct involvement. The irony, as the sociologist Michael Schudson has argued, is that Watergate probably saved Reagan since the scandal raised the bar so high for what was needed to prove culpability in a presidential investigation.

Although the historian Malcom Byrne found that Reagan's involvement was much more extensive than was thought at the time, it was true that Congress never discovered an impeachable offense. He came to be known as the "Teflon President" to whom nothing would stick. After the smoking gun tape in Watergate, anything short of hearing or seeing the president do wrong does not suffice. With President Trump, the legacy of Watergate might have the same effect.

Partisanship was a powerful force in limiting how much political support the president would lose as a result of what happened. While some Democrats like Speaker of the House Jim Wright had no appetite to launch a full-blown impeachment process, a large number of Republicans stood firmly behind the president. In July, Reagan complained to one Republican senator, writing in a letter that: "Every Republican president was investigated, Ike for the Sherman Adams affair, Dick [Nixon] for Watergate, Jerry [Ford] for CIA and now my own lynching."

The congressional committee's minority report, authored by Wyoming Republican Representative Richard Cheney and seven other Republicans, blasted the Democrats instead of the administration. The minority report said that the bottom line was despite some mistakes in judgment, "there was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for 'the rule of law,' no grand conspiracy and no Administration-wide dishonesty or cover-up. In fact, the evidence will not support any of the more hysterical conclusions the Committees' Report tries to reach."

Cheney and his allies likewise insisted that "Congressional actions to limit the president in this area therefore should be reviewed with a considerable degree of skepticism. If they interfere with the core presidential foreign policy functions, they should be struck down." From their perspective, the entire process had been a partisan witch hunt. The administration had tried to do the right thing to fight communism, despite a stubborn Democratic Congress that was weak on defense.

Iran-Contra also fizzled because President Reagan and his supporters succeeded in shaping the broader narrative about what had happened, framing it as justified aggressive action to check communism. White House Communications Director Patrick Buchanan explained:  "President Reagan drew the line in the dirt and told the Communists they would not be permitted to establish a Soviet beachhead on the mainland of the Americas. Make no mistake. That is what the furor in Washington is all about, not whether technicalities of the law were circumvented." And if North "ripped off" the Ayatollah to help the Contras, Buchanan said—"then God Bless Colonel North."

With Democrats focusing on each piece of evidence that they could gather to prove wrongdoing, Republicans waved the American flag and spoke proudly about what a patriotic deed North and his colleagues had done. Democrats were seeing red about what the administration had done whereas Republicans were seeing red, white and blue. In the middle of the televised hearings, Republicans kept turning their attention toward the issue of congressional interference in Reagan's foreign policies rather than the deal-making. When North testified before Congress in August 1987, he used the weapon of patriotism to his advantage. Decked out in his military garb, North refused to apologize for what he had done. The nation went wild for this soldier—Ollie-Mania they called it—when he defended his actions. On the second day of his "boffo stint," wrote Washington Post television critic Tom Shales, North "was raring to go, and went. After some procedural wrangling between his lawyer and the committee counsel had ended, North looked up eagerly and said, 'Whose turn?' It was a Rambotic gesture, like a hero in a war movie standing with guns akimbo, looking the on-rushing enemy squarely in the kisser and shouting, 'Come on, come on, let's see what you've got!" Time magazine praised the "bravura performance."

When he testified, fifty-five million people turned in—five times more than the popular soap opera General Hospital. North dismissed the coverage of the scandal as "bombastic and outrageous." Reagan, who had shown remorse early in the scandal, would start taking a more defiant stand. After McFarlane plead guilty to withholding information from Congress and the indictments came against several other players including North and Poindexter, in March 1988, Reagan told reporters: "He just pleaded guilty to not telling Congress everything it wanted to know. I've done that myself," he said as he let out a small laugh. "I still think Ollie North is a hero," Reagan said a few days later.

Though the Independent Prosecutor's investigation continued after Reagan finished his term, conservative media outlets like the Washington Times blasted Lawrence Walsh as a runaway, overzealous prosecutor who was not accountable to anyone. "Lawrence Walsh's seven-year, $40 million-plus witch hunt is a case study in prosecutorial abuse and excess," Senate Republican leader Robert Dole said in 1994. Walsh did produce a number of high-level indictments but it took a long time and as politics shifted to other issues, his findings didn't have much of a political impact. Standing on his own, there are limits to what the most effective prosecutor can accomplish against an administration. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush pardoned the six most prominent figures on Christmas, including Weinberger. In a written statement, Bush said that the men had "already paid a price" that was "grossly disproportionate to any misdeeds or errors of judgment they may have committed" and that Weinberger was a "true American patriot." Oliver North ended up doing conservative talk radio and hosting a television show on Fox News.

The evidence that we have thus far from the Russia investigation seems familiar from the perspective of 1987. It is not clear that there is any smoking gun evidence that Trump was behind the multiple contacts that have been exposed between campaign officials and Russians. This might be enough to save him. It is unlikely that such evidence will emerge given the way that Russian operatives seem do their business: indirectly, through third parties, and through shadowy and complicated deals.

Most important, partisanship will probably be an even more powerful force in 2018 than in 1987. Republicans now control Congress, a conservative media propagates a Trumpian point of view, and the red electorate won't budge. All of this will lend support to the president's efforts to discredit the investigation, and prevent Republicans from seeing any "there" there with the findings. Notwithstanding all the enthusiasm about each piece of news coming from Mueller's investigators, it is hard to imagine a Republican Congress doing anything with this information.

The biggest ray of hope for Democrats who believe that President Trump did something wrong, either in the election or obstructing the investigation, is 2020. Unlike with President Reagan, Democrats have one big political decision-making moment ahead of them if Mueller discovers more potential crimes, and that is the ability to mobilize and persuade the electorate that a different person is needed in the White House.

Democracy Promotion Does Not Equal Election Meddling

Posted: 27 Feb 2018 02:00 AM PST

Two muffins are sitting in an oven, baking. One muffin turns to the other and says: "Is it just me, or is it getting really hot in here?"  The second muffin turns to the first and says: "Holy cow, a talking muffin!"

This joke is funny, the blogger Aaron M. Brown explains, because it commits a logical fallacy "and then immediately turns around and calls itself on it." Ascribing qualities to an object that can't possibly possess them is known as a "category error"—in this case the quality of talking belongs to the category of humans, not to the category of food. Conflating things from different categories can lead sometimes to witty wordplay, but also to sloppy analysis and confusion.

So it is when commentators assert that Russian meddling in U.S. elections is ultimately not different from what the U.S. has long been doing abroad. "As for Russian trolling in our election," the right-wing isolationist Pat Buchanan wrote recently, "do we really have clean hands when it comes to meddling in elections and the internal politics of regimes we dislike?" The Carnegie Mellon University researcher Dov Levin has more dispassionately compiled a database of 117 known instances between 1946 and 2000 when either Moscow or Washington intervened overtly or covertly to affect the outcome of elections in other countries—and finds that more often in that period it was the Americans who did the meddling. (Such meddling could take a wide range of forms, from releasing false rumors or fake emails to damage on one side; to public statements of U.S. support for an incumbent or challenger; to the provision of money or technicians to help one side in the campaign.)

Yes, history tells us the CIA manipulated elections in 1940s Italy and 1950s Germany—and beyond electoral shenanigans, it also secretly helped overthrow elected leaders in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s. And American diplomats strive mightily to cajole, persuade, and pressure foreign leaders and sometimes voters to do what seems to those diplomats like the right thing—these days in places ranging from Ukraine and Georgia to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Tunisia. Scott Shane of The New York Times recently also placed in this big basket the multifaceted campaign waged by the U.S. for the electoral ouster in 2000 of Serbian President Slobodon Milosevic, the "Butcher of the Balkans," along with a reported (and unsuccessful) 2009 U.S. scheme to sideline the obdurate Afghan president Hamid Karzai. I would argue that the campaign against Milosevic was justified due to the fact that he was an implacable foe of democracy in Serbia, as well as the author of several rounds of genocidal violence in the former Yugoslavia—and that his departure was a necessary precursor to the democracy-building that flourished in Serbia after he was voted out of office.

Still, in all of these historical cases, the U.S. was engaged in purposeful efforts to secure a very specific political outcome—the ouster or the installation of a particular leader, depending on which one was thought to be conducive to American interests and the country's stability. But where America's domestic and foreign critics alike commit a serious category error is in placing present-day U.S. democracy-promotion efforts in the same basket. Shane, for example, writes that "in recent decades, the most visible American presence in foreign politics has been the taxpayer-funded groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which do not support candidates but teach basic campaign skills and build democratic institutions and train election monitors."

There are two important distinctions to clarify. First, and most important, is the difference between programs to strengthen democratic processes in another country (without regard to specific electoral outcomes), versus efforts to manipulate another country's election in order to sow chaos, undermine public confidence in the political system, and diminish a country's social stability.

Having played several roles in the American democracy bureaucracy, in and out of government—as a diplomat and then aid official during the Obama administration, and earlier on the front lines of non-governmental organizations including NDI and Freedom House—I have seen this play out from diverse perspectives. As a U.S. official, I was called upon to engage foreign governments on their democratic deficits and to persuade them to improve, citing their own national stability, enhanced prosperity, and the ways in which it would improve our bilateral amity. As an NGO implementer, I traveled with less fanfare and mostly engaged with people outside governments, listening and assessing capabilities and opportunities, providing technical information, connecting newly experienced civic activists and politicians from recent transitions to those in the throes of change. In addition to practical advice, my colleagues and I sought to convey to those trying to improve the quality of governance and justice in their own countries that there is a global band of brothers and sisters prepared to help across borders—as part of a broader assistance effort to advance stability, economic development, and modernization.

This approach is embodied in the work of the National Endowment for Democracy and affiliated implementing institutes (of which NDI is one), as set forth by President Ronald Reagan in his speech to the British Parliament in June 1982. There, he highlighted the salience of what Bill Clinton would later describe as "democratic enlargement" as part of long-term U.S. strategy, when he said:

While we must be cautious about forcing the pace of change, we must not hesitate to declare our ultimate objectives and to take concrete actions to move toward them. We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings. So states the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, among other things, guarantees free elections.

The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.

While this is certainly not the only thing the U.S. has done in the world since then, it has been a point of bipartisan consensus that U.S. interests and global order are enhanced to the extent that the world is democratic. There are, to be sure, outliers in both parties who either disagree with the premise or believe the U.S. ought not or cannot do anything to help decision-makers and activists in other countries.

In pursuit of this large strategic vision, over more than a quarter century, a mostly informal division of labor has emerged. Some things only the government can do as official foreign policy (high-level engagement with other countries' leaders and sometimes security agencies), or contract for (deploying specific governing expertise in various realms, such as law enforcement or municipal management).  There are other specific tasks that are better left to non-governmental actors with their very different skill sets (like organizing political parties and election campaigns, or training watchdog organizations to fact-check and mount advocacy campaigns). While some advice or training is discrete and tailored, the overall effort is generally quite visible and transparent.

Yet while the U.S. and like-minded governments implementing democracy support programs have evolved this new kind of international engagement that is benign and neighborly, the Russian government remains, one might say, un-evolved.

Consider, for instance, the multi-year effort by the National Democratic Institute, with funding from the National Endowment of Democracy (an independent enterprise funded directly by Congress) and more recently from the U.S. Agency for International Development (the official foreign aid arm of the executive branch), to support GOLOS ("vote" or "voice" in Russian), the volunteer Russian election-monitoring network. The purpose is to identify problems in the administration of elections so that they may be remedied in subsequent elections. It is also an exercise in participatory citizenship to empower civic-minded Russians who don't want to engage in party politics. That's it. An analogous effort from the Russian government would be if they were supporting the work of the League of Women Voters to educate American voters, or voter registration drives in the U.S. to help increase minority participation in elections to overcome structural impediments in the American system. Spreading disinformation and aggravating discord is not strengthening American democracy.

Vladimir Putin perceives that a Russian citizen effort that documents systematic ballot-box stuffing and the exclusion of rival candidates is an oppositional enterprise intent only on besmirching the legitimacy of his election. Thus, following previous discredited elections—when thousands of volunteer videographers uploaded to YouTube footage of ballot-box stuffing and other fraud—it was the election monitors who were prosecuted, not the election riggers. If Putin can only win a rigged election, then any effort to make Russian elections honest and transparent is, he reasons, ipso facto an anti-Putin effort. But that doesn't make a transparent U.S. effort to improve the quality of elections in Russia something other than what it is. Spreading accurate information about ballot-box stuffing is not the same as spreading disinformation about Hillary Clinton's imaginary involvement in a child-molesting ring at a pizza parlor, or ginning up emotions on both sides of the fatal white nationalist rally at Charlottesville, Virginia last summer, with Russian bots masquerading as concerned Americans.  

It may be worth mentioning another election-related category confusion that arises when we consider the non-profit work of the democracy-support organizations versus paid U.S. political consultants doing offshore work abroad between America's election seasons. While the former's motivations are to strengthen democratic systems abroad in the public interest, the latter are animated mainly by the profit motive—as in Paul Manafort's work in Ukraine for a pro-Russian president. Sometimes this work is done with a bit of idealism thrown in, as portrayed in the 2005 documentary Our Brand is Crisis about U.S. consultants helping elect a pro-American president of Bolivia. Whatever the motive or the relative virtue of the client, these are strictly private services offered for fees, and neither encouraged or discouraged by Uncle Sam.

Avoiding half-baked comparisons and category errors may help clarify the present Russian intervention debate. Malign interference in American elections must be thwarted, and Americans deserve a clear and precise discussion about what to do about it. Meanwhile, supporting genuine democracy in other lands is and will remain an honorable and appropriate part of U.S. engagement in the world.

<em>The Atlantic</em> Daily: Potential to Cause Turmoil

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 03:15 PM PST

What We're Following

Syria's Crisis: President Bashar al-Assad's forces resumed their attack on the rebel-held suburb of eastern Ghouta, just a day after the United Nations called for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria. Russia, which is allied with the Assad regime, was responsible for delaying the ceasefire resolution—but U.S. policy in Syria may be partly to blame for the continued devastation.

Investigation Intrigue: Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee released a memo revealing the language that the FBI used to apply for a warrant to surveil the former Trump-campaign aide Carter Page. The release of the memo, which rebuts Republican allegations of FBI misconduct, followed a week of new developments in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Mueller's findings—in particular, his plea deal with Rick Gates, one of Paul Manafort's former business partners—put serious pressure on Manafort, and make the former Trump campaign chair's downfall seem all but inevitable. Yet the implications of Russian interference extend far beyond the history of the campaign—and concern over the possibility of collusion obscures the scandalous nature of what's already been revealed about the president's team.

The Pyeongchang Olympics: The 2018 Winter Games wrapped up with a closing ceremony that featured a 13-year-old guitarist who performed a rock-and-roll riff on Vivaldi's "Winter" concerto. Norway came first in the medals count, having earned a total of 39. See photos of the competition's highlights. Amid the athletic events and diplomatic steps between Pyongyang and Seoul, North Korea's missile-testing program has faded into the background, but it may not stay there. Here are three signs that the end of the games could also mark the end of the Koreas' truce.

Rosa Inocencio Smith


Today marks six years since the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, who was shot by a neighborhood-watch coordinator in Sanford, Florida. In our special issue KING, a poem by Lauren K. Alleyne imagines how Martin Luther King Jr. would mourn him. Read the poem here. (WG600; Stephen F. Somerstein / Getty; Lukas Maverick Greyson)

Who We're Talking To

Don Christensen, a retired military prosecutor, explains why White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's controversial defense of a staffer accused of domestic abuse is characteristic of the military justice system.

Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an astrobiologist, describes how his team learned that microbes can survive in one of the driest places on Earth.

Jennifer, an autistic woman, discusses the methods she uses to camouflage her condition: "It helps you get through social interaction without there being a spotlight on your behavior or a giant letter A on your chest."

Evening Read

Yasmeen Serhan on Italy's fake-news problem:

Two explosive stories began circulating in Italy in November. The first was about a 9-year-old Muslim girl who was hospitalized after being sexually assaulted by her 35-year-old "husband" in the northeastern city of Padua. The second concerned Maria Elena Boschi, a prominent lawmaker and member of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's ruling Democratic Party, who was photographed at a funeral mourning the recent death of the notorious mafia boss Salvatore Riina.

What the stories had in common was the potential to cause turmoil in an already raucous political debate—one defined in part by anti-immigrant and antiestablishment sentiment—ahead of the country's March 4 general election. Another thing? They were both fabricated, and it's not clear by whom.

Keep reading, as Yasmeen explores how European countries are working to combat disinformation.

What Do You Know … About Education?

In the ongoing debate about guns and mass violence prompted by the recent high-school shooting, in Parkland, Florida, some of the most crucial questions have centered on the roles of teachers and students. School shootings have forced teachers to make life-or-death decisions that many never envisioned when training for the job, prompting educators across the country to reflect on what it's like to teach in a time of fear. And Alia Wong explores the confluence of reasons, including the students' relative affluence and social capital, that the Parkland survivors are capturing the public's attention in a way that other student-activist movements have not.

Can you remember the other key facts from this week's education coverage? Test your knowledge below:

1. Some teachers say they've been instructed to stock their classrooms with ____________ to throw at potential attackers.

Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.

2. Jaclyn Corin, a student activist from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, worked on a 50-page project about gun control for her Advanced Placement class in ___________ .

Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.

3. A survey of men in the United Kingdom revealed that 18- to 29-year-old males see their ___________ as more important than their physical health.

Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.

Isabel Fattal

Answers: canned goods / composition and rhetoric / mental health

Look Back

In 1932, as Americans struggled to respond to the Great Depression, Helen Keller proposed a solution: "Put Your Husband in the Kitchen."

The average woman is not very familiar with the complexities of economics, but it seems to me that she has ordered her household economy upon a more solid basis than that upon which men have arranged the affairs of their larger world. In industry, the amazing increase in the use of labor-saving machinery has brought about overproduction, unemployment, and widespread suffering. Either women are wiser, or they have a sounder instinct for economics. At any rate, they use labor-saving devices for the heretical purpose of saving labor, and in doing so they have, I think, demonstrated in their homes a practical object lesson in economics which their husbands would do well to master. While theorists are still searching for the causes of the depression, and politicians remain at loggerheads in their effort to conjure up remedies, I am tempted to think that the perplexed businessman might discover a possible solution of his troubles if he would just spend a few days in his wife's kitchen.

Let us see what would happen if he did.

Read more, share this story, and find more articles from our archives.

Reader Response

After social-media users objected to a tweet from the New York Times writer Bari Weiss, Shadi Hamid critiqued what he saw as the "infatuation with being offended" fueling the controversy. Karen Chee in Brooklyn pushes back:

The article's subtitle reads: "Outrage mobs are chipping away at democracy, one meaningless debate at a time." It's unfortunate that Hamid fails to recognize that these so-called outrage mobs are not trying to dismantle democracy—they are composed of people who are speaking up in hopes of restructuring our democracy to be a more inclusive one. Let's not forget that democracy is contingent on citizen participation: Its success depends on people relentlessly protesting, advocating, and being heard. If you're looking for angry mobs attempting to dismantle democracy, then look elsewhere. I assure you, the people of color asking to be acknowledged as Americans are not the ones you're seeking.

Read more from Karen and other readers, and share your own thoughts: letters@theatlantic.com.


Salmon engineered, Annihilation deconstructed, dourness dramatized, craft redefined.

Time of Your Life

Happy birthday to Harold (a year younger than the Academy Awards); to Sharon, who shares a birthday with Pat (both are a year younger than scuba gear); to Doug's wife, Mary (half the age of The Atlantic); to another Mary (a year younger than Nineteen Eighty-Four); to Rebecca's sister Nancy (twice the age of the 24-hour news cycle); to Don's sister Judy (a year younger than Nasa); to Rahul (twice the age of the euro); to Carolyn's "dearest and craziest" friend, Liz (a year younger than The Simpsons); to Betty's husband, Victor (twice the age of The Oprah Winfrey Show); to Deirdre's son Christopher (a year younger than The Godfather); to Marian (the same age as the Twenty-Second Amendment); to Susan (a year younger than Keynesian economics); and to our social editor Caroline (one-sixth the age of The Atlantic).

From yesterday, happy birthday to Djinn and her friend Sinead (both are nine years older than the moon landing); to Katie's niece Lauren (a year younger than the Disney Channel); to Jimmy's dad, Jim (the same age as Bruce Willis); to Shirley (a year younger than pop-up toasters); and to Rukiyat (twice the age of Pokémon).

Do you or a loved one have a birthday coming up? Sign up for a birthday shout-out, and explore the Timeline feature for yourself.

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<i>The Atlantic</i> Politics & Policy Daily: 'I Really Believe I'd Run in There'

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 02:55 PM PST

Today in 5 Lines

During a meeting with the nation's governors on gun safety, President Trump discussed reopening mental-health institutions and said that he would have intervened in the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, even if he was unarmed. First Lady Melania Trump said she was "heartened" by student activists following the shooting. In his first public statement, the former sheriff's deputy, criticized for not entering the high school to stop the shooting, defended his actions. The Supreme Court declined to hear the Trump administration's appeal of a federal judge's ruling ordering the government to allow DACA recipients to renew their protected status. The Trump organization said it donated profits from foreign government spending at its hotels to the U.S. Treasury, but declined to say how much.

Today on The Atlantic

  • When Politics and Business Mix: In an increasingly politicized public sphere, nonpartisan companies are forced to take a stand, which is why many corporations have rebuked the National Rifle Association in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting. (Derek Thompson)

  • Seeking an Honest Man: While the world fixates on whether or not the Trump team colluded with Russia in the 2016 election, the administration's other scandals are hiding in plain sight. (David A. Graham)

  • The 'Good Soldier' Defense: Don Christensen, a retired military prosecutor, explains why White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's defense of Rob Porter, a White House aide who was accused of domestic abuse by two ex-wives, shouldn't be surprising.

  • A Poem: Trayvon Martin was killed six years ago today. In this short poem, Lauren K. Alleyne imagines Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to Martin.

Follow stories throughout the day with our Politics & Policy portal.


Union supporters rally outside of the Supreme Court as it hears arguments in the employee-law case Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. Leah Millis / Reuters

What We're Reading

The Source of the NRA's Strength: It's no wonder the National Rifle Association wields so much power in Washington: "Its millions of members are motivated by ideology, not money, and they vote in droves," writes Jay Cost. (National Review)

How Long Can Kelly Hang On?: Last year, Democrats and Republicans alike pinned their hopes on John Kelly, expecting that the retired four-star Marine general would bring order to the White House. But several months into the job, he's losing support. (Matt Flegenheimer, The New York Times)

What's the EPA Hiding?: The Environmental Protection Agency has kept details of Administrator Scott Pruitt's travels, meetings, and policy decisions largely under wraps, prompting a cascade of open-records lawsuits from open government groups and environmentalists, among others. (Emily Holden, Politico)

About MS-13: The Trump administration paints the Salvadoran-American gang as its ultimate enemy, but its policies will likely only strengthen the gang's grip on immigrant communities. (Dara Lind, Vox)


On the Record: Here's what Ivanka Trump thinks of her father's idea to arm teachers in schools. (NBC)

Question of the Week

On Monday, the White House announced that President Trump will host French President Emmanuel Macron in April for the first state visit of his administration. While Trump has hosted many foreign leaders in the past, this is the first visit that will consist of a ceremonial welcome and a state dinner.

This week, we want to know: If you were president, which world leader would you invite to the White House for a formal visit—and why?

Share your response here, and we'll feature a few in Friday's Politics & Policy Daily.

-Written by Lena Felton (@lenakfelton) and Taylor Hosking (@Taylor__Hosking)

The Foiled Plot to Kick Mitt Romney Out of the Republican Party

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 04:13 PM PST

Correction: This article originally stated that the bylaws passed on Saturday by the Utah Republican Party might result in Mitt Romney being stripped of his party membership. In fact, the central committee amended the proposal before passing it in ways that exclude Romney in 2018. We regret the error.

In a Saturday-morning meeting outside of Salt Lake City, a hardline faction of conservative activists and agitators gathered to change the Utah Republican Party's bylaws in a way that could have resulted in Senate candidate Mitt Romney being expelled from the state GOP and ejected from the ballot. They abandoned the effort at the last minute with a hastily written provision that spared the state's most famous Republican, but could further imperil the already-dysfunctional state party.

Reached Monday afternoon for an interview, Rob Anderson, the chairman of the Utah Republican Party who opposed the measure, said he was working to ensure that no candidates are removed from the ballot this election cycle as a result of the bylaws. A representative for Romney's campaign declined to comment.

Utah insiders said the episode is the latest sign of a beleaguered state party consumed by infighting over questions that will likely shape midterm primary races across the country this year: Who does the Republican Party belong to? How much ideological flexibility can be tolerated in its candidates? And must they be loyal to President Trump?

In Utah's case, the dynamics at play are rooted in a fierce and ongoing power struggle over the state party's idiosyncratic nominating process. For years, the Utah Republican Party's nominees were selected not via regular primary elections, but at state conventions. Critics argued that this system gave disproportionate power to the hyper-engaged grassroots activists who voted for the delegates at the conventions, thus incentivizing Republican candidates to cater to a small, far-right element of the party, as opposed to rank-and-file GOP voters. (Tea Party stalwart Mike Lee famously upset veteran U.S. Senator Bob Bennett in 2010 at the convention.)

Then, in 2014, the Utah state legislature passed a new law that enabled Republican candidates to bypass the convention system altogether and get on a primary ballot by collecting signatures from supporters. The Utah Republican Party responded by suing the state, racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and plunging the organization deeper into disarray. The case is still winding its way through federal courts.

In the midst of all this chaos, Romney announced in January that he would run for Senate in Utah. Given his national profile and network of high-powered allies in Washington, many in Utah believed Romney's election would be a boon to their state. What's more, his overwhelming popularity among Utahns suggested he would be a shoo-in for the seat.

Ever the pragmatist, though, Romney opted not to take sides in the intra-party skirmish over the primary process, and announced that he would seek a dual path to the nomination—both gathering signatures, and appearing at the convention. If, somehow, a pro-Trump hardliner or a Lee-type Tea Partier managed to vanquish him at the convention, the thinking went, Romney would still be able to emerge as the nominee. This has happened before: In last year's special election to replace outgoing congressman Jason Chaffetz, Provo Mayor John Curtis lost at the convention but then went on to win the primary; a year earlier, something similar happened in the gubernatorial primary.

But over the weekend, the hard-right activists who control the Utah Republican Party's Central Committee gathered for a closed meeting to consider proposed changes to the bylaws. The original draft of the changes, reviewed by The Atlantic, would effectively have required that any candidate who pursues the signature-gathering path would "immediately" lose their membership in the party. In theory, the changes would have meant that Romney could be booted from the state party and lose his chance to appear on the ballot in November as a Republican.

But according to a Utah Republican official with knowledge of the meeting, who requested anonymity to describe private negotiations, the central committee members decided to scale back the proposed changes after realizing the severity of the backlash they would face. Apart from Romney, the new bylaws reportedly could have affected more than 50 office-seekers across the state. (The Central Committee members also tried to impose a "purity test" that would have required primary candidates to pledge complete support for the state party's platform, but Anderson reportedly blocked its consideration at the meeting.)

"They realized they would get destroyed," said the Republican official.

To soften the changes, they added a clause at the end stating, "in 2018, these provisions shall only apply to candidates for the first and second U.S. Congressional House Districts." But some observers believe the last-minute effort to restrict the provision's scope could invite its own legal challenges.

Utah Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox, who oversees the state's elections, told me the state's attorneys are still looking into the new bylaws and "deciding how to move forward." Some believe the change could imperil the Utah Republicans' status as a Qualified Political Party, possibly making it more difficult for its candidates to obtain ballot access.

Anderson, the state party chairman, told me he has no intention of trying to kick candidates off the ballot, regardless of what Central Committee members may want. "If our bylaws violate the Constitution or state law, then I'm bound to uphold the Constitution or the state law," he said. "It is my responsibility to ensure that no candidate gets removed. I'm holding the line."

As for Romney, two sources close to the candidate who requested anonymity to speak without the his approval, told me the campaign is more annoyed than worried about the tinkering with the bylaws.

Even if Romney had lost his ability to run as a Republican, political observers in Utah say he is popular enough to win the Senate seat as an independent, or even as a write-in candidate. "Mitt Romney's popularity in Utah transcends party politics," said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. "Recent polls show that he wins with Republicans, unaffiliated voters, and even pulls in about one-third of Democratic voters."

Meanwhile, Utah politicos have been left to speculate about the motivations behind the maneuvering. While most acknowledge that the battle over the nominating process is bigger than any single candidate, some Romney allies believe he was the intended target. As evidence, they point to the timing and text of a draft of the amended bylaws—with track changes included in the document—that circulated among the state's Republicans, and left some with the impression that the language was specifically rewritten with him in mind. (That version did not include the final provision sparing Romney, which was added later.)

Suspicious Romney allies have also noted that the Saturday morning meeting where the bylaws were changed was held at the offices of Entrata, a software company helmed by a local conservative super-activist Dave Bateman, who is personally funding the state party's lawsuit against Utah. "He does not like Mitt Romney," said one of the Utah sources close to the candidate. (Bateman did not respond to a request for comment.)

Some in Romney's orbit chalk up the Central Committee's proposal to posturing from overzealous and opportunistic Trump boosters, who, despite the president's endorsement of Romney last week, still believe they can get the White House's attention by going after a longtime Trump foe.

But regardless of the rationale, most in Utah's political circles seem to believe the foiled effort to target Romney with the bylaws would have done more harm to the state party—and its perception among voters and donors—than it would have to Mitt Romney.

"If Romney … is not able to run as a Republican," said Perry, "the issue will not be whether voters are willing to vote for him, it will be how they view the Utah Republican Party."

Brexit Won, But Remainers Keep Campaigning

Posted: 27 Feb 2018 01:54 AM PST

The iconic red bus emblazoned with political messaging is making a comeback in Britain. Unlike the kind made popular by the Leave campaign during the 2016 Brexit referendum, however, this new bus will carry a different message:

"Is it worth it?"

For those who support the U.K. staying in the European Union (or at least prefer an exit that leaves the country's current trade and immigration ties largely intact), it's question still worth asking. Last week, the "Is It Worth It?" bus campaign began an eight-day journey from London to more than two dozen cities across the U.K., where it aims to publicize the British government's leaked estimate that leaving the EU will cost approximately 2,000 million pounds per week—markedly more than the 350 million pounds per week Brexit proponents said the country would save by leaving the bloc. Though some British lawmakers voiced support for the initiative, the tour dubs itself a grassroots effort and claims it gets no financial help from any political party or government.

"Brexit in the form that it was sold to the British people is not being delivered, nor can it be delivered," the Labour party lawmaker Chuka Umunna said at the launch of the bus tour Wednesday in Westminster. "We have to have an open mind about what happens at the end of this process and the British people should be given a vote on the final Brexit deal."

Calls for a second Brexit referendum have grown louder in recent weeks. Last month, the prominent Brexiteer Nigel Farage argued that the country should have a second vote on EU membership to prove that support for Brexit is growing. A poll published weeks later by the Guardian revealed that 47 percent of Britons also support having a another vote (though, as I reported at the time, those expressing interest in another referendum could be interpreting what that means differently, depending on which Brexit outcome they favor). Then this month, the billionaire philanthropist George Soros made a high-profile half-million pound donation to pro-Remain group Best for Britain, which advocates lobbying British lawmakers to vote against whatever deal U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and Brussels negotiate. The ultimate aim is to force a second referendum.

The momentum continued last week with the start of the bus tour, as well as the separate launch of a "Listen to Britain" campaign by Renew, a new political party that also aims to stop the U.K. from exiting the EU. The party takes its inspiration from French President Emmanuel Macron's En Marche movement, which last year fielded hundreds of political newcomers as candidates in the country's parliamentary elections. The Renew party similarly aims to build a political consensus in parliament to oppose Brexit, both by appealing to likeminded lawmakers and fielding candidates of their own.

"We want to deliver social change, we want to drive prosperity for everybody and create opportunity, but we can only do so from a position of strength within the European Union," Sandra Khadhouri, one of Renew's three principal leaders, told me. She noted that while the party hopes to appeal to Britons on both sides of the Brexit debate, its ultimate goal is clear. "We don't want a soft Brexit, we don't want any other kind of Brexit. … We think it's bad for Britain in every sector and for everybody, and it will hurt even the people who voted for it."

The British government's leaked Brexit assessment predicts the country could experience as much as an 8-percent drop in GDP nationwide if it leaves the EU's single market and customs union without a trade deal, in a scenario known as a "hard Brexit." For regions of the U.K. like the North East and the Midlands, which backed Brexit by overwhelming margins, the impact could be twice as bad. But this hasn't necessarily changed people's minds on Brexit. If anything, it's the opposite. "The polling strongly suggests that it's still quite close between people who think it's a good idea and a bad idea," Anand Menon, the director of U.K. in a Changing Europe, told me, noting that while the number of Britons for and against Brexit remain very close, "few people swap sides in that debate."

So what makes groups like Renew think they could make a difference? Khadhouri says that without any viable opposition to Brexit in parliament, voters are seeking new leaders to speak up. "A lot of people don't know who to vote for anymore," she said. "Conservatives have led us to this mess and are completely and hopelessly divided. The Labour party are on the fence, hedging their bets … What kind of choices are those? Not good choices, and that's what people are telling us."

But a party may be only as good as its electoral prospects, and there is no guarantee that the U.K. will have another general election before it is scheduled to leave the EU on March 29, 2019. And unlike in France, where Macron's nascent movement faced two deeply unpopular establishment parties, there is no indication the U.K.'s main parties are losing support. In fact, its two largest political parties—Conservative and Labour—earned the support of more than 80 percent of voters in the last general election combined. Add to that the challenges of starting a new political party from scratch, and the odds against success are even greater. "Structural constraints in the way the political system is designed and the way people vote would make it very difficult for them to enter parliament in the next election," Georgina Wright, a researcher with the European Programme at Chatham House, told me. "They would need to convince voters they're about more than just keeping the U.K. in the EU or advocating a soft Brexit."

Efforts to restart the debate over whether Brexit should happen at all are similarly quixotic. Both U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn have ruled out supporting a second referendum on EU membership. Both leaders are this week outlining each party's respective vision for the country after it leaves the EU, and as Corbyn showed in doing so on Monday, the most pressing question isn't if there will be Brexit, but what kind. It's on this debate that Wright said movements like Renew could stand the have the greatest impact.

"I don't think it would be wise to try and reverse Brexit as this would severely damage levels of trust in our political system, particularly among Leave voters," she said, noting that while Remain advocates may not be able to sway the government abandon Brexit, they can remind voters that Brexit doesn't necessarily mean hard Brexit. "This might help build a Brexit policy that is a genuine compromise between Remain and Leave, all the while respecting the democratic outcome of the vote."

Why Donald Trump Was the 'Perfect Candidate' for Facebook

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 02:10 PM PST

Here is the central tenet of Facebook's business: If lots of people click on, comment on, or share an ad, Facebook charges that advertiser less money to reach people. The platform is a brawl for user attention, and Facebook sees a more engaging ad as a better ad, which should be shown to more users.

This has been true for years. No one inside or outside Facebook has ever hidden this fact. All the dynamics of the News Feed—most classed under the rubric of "clickbait"—also exist in paid advertising, but success (or failure) is denominated in dollars.

And yet, in the context of the 2016 Presidential Election, this way of auctioning advertising—originally developed by Google and normalized in the pre-Trump age—can seem strange, unfair, and possibly even against the rules that govern election advertising.

In a new essay at Wired, the former Facebook advertising staffer Antonio García Martínez lays out what is undoubtedly true: Trump's ads had far higher engagement rates, which meant he paid less to reach a given number of people.

"A canny marketer with really engaging (or outraging) content can goose their effective purchasing power at the ads auction, piggybacking on Facebook's estimation of their clickbaitiness to win many more auctions (for the same or less money) than an unengaging competitor," García Martínez writes.

Trump, of course, was the canny marketer, while Clinton's team was the unengaging competitor. While most everyone covering the digital portion of the election has known this, the logical conclusion that follows can still feel startling.

"During the run-up to the election, the Trump and Clinton campaigns bid ruthlessly for the same online real estate in front of the same swing-state voters. But because Trump used provocative content to stoke social-media buzz, and he was better able to drive likes, comments, and shares than Clinton, his bids received a boost from Facebook's click model, effectively winning him more media for less money," García Martínez continues. "In essence, Clinton was paying Manhattan prices for the square footage on your smartphone's screen, while Trump was paying Detroit prices. Facebook users in swing states who felt Trump had taken over their news feeds may not have been hallucinating."

After the article was published, one of Trump's campaign staffers, Brad Parscale, posted a link to it and tweeted a chest-pounding follow-up. "I bet we were 100x to 200x [Clinton]," he wrote. "We had CPMs [cost per thousand impressions] that were pennies in some cases. This is why @realDonaldTrump was a perfect candidate for Facebook."

No one has the precise numbers for how much more engaging Trump's ads were or how much less money he paid to reach people than Hillary Clinton. But it's clear that Donald Trump—aided by bots and this advertising boost—far outstripped Clinton in overall engagement. Mark Zuckerberg pointed this out back in November of 2016.

For example, during two months in the run-up to the election that the data journalist Kate Stohr looked at overall interactions (likes, comments, shares), Trump had almost three times Clinton's engagement, 36 million to 12 million. Of the two months in the dataset, Clinton's total interactions only topped Trump's on three days.

Trump was a socialgenic candidate with a team that maximized—or exploited—his potential to create engagement: As dozens of stories have attested over the last two years, Trump was the "clickbait candidate." Clinton's posts and advertisements, for whatever basket of reasons, did not generate the same volume of likes, clicks, and shares. And in today's electioneering, that has severe consequences.

While this much has been known, García Martínez's logical conclusion that this means there was an ad-pricing differential seems to have hit a nerve. That's because FCC election regulations require that candidates be charged equal rates. "The rates, if any, charged all such candidates for the same office shall be uniform and shall not be rebated by any means, direct or indirect," the regulation states.

The FCC promulgated this regulation to cover broadcasting, but on its face, it would seem to present questions not just for Facebook, but for any auction-based advertising platform such as Google's, Twitter's, and various ad networks.

The fact that ad-auction platforms all basically work like this has led some people in digital marketing to wave off the FCC argument. "This article is nonsense and more clickbait," tweeted Tim Lim, a digital-ad consultant who works with Democrats. "Advertisers buy inventory on demand and/or based on performance (CPC, etc), so costs set on their terms. Same approach is used by @Google, @nytimes, and slew of other platforms."

From Facebook's perspective, their platform is "neutral," in the sense that it provides all advertisers with an equal opportunity to maximize their reach and minimize their costs. "The auction system works the same for everybody," says Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesperson. "It affords equality of opportunity."

While people in the field understand that this is how the game is played, others outside digital marketing are discomfited by these changes in the world. The social-media consultant Andréa López compared the slow-motion realization to the time after the mortgage meltdown, when the workings of mortgage-backed securities and other banking procedures suddenly seemed suspect in the light of the problems the industry encountered. "It's kind of like [the] 2007-8 finance-meltdown daze phase of processing how banks work," she told me.

Some less hinged responses accused Facebook of wanting Trump to be elected because of the Russian investor Yuri Milner or the right-wing board member Peter Thiel. But most evidence suggests that the vast majority of Facebook employees are just regular slightly left of center technocrats who were rooting for Hillary Clinton.

Their personal politics mattered far less than the politics of the system that they half-wittingly created. While the clickbait candidate this last round was Donald Trump, future elections could just as easily feature a left-wing ideologue with an equally engaging style.

The University of Virginia media-studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, who has a book coming out on Facebook in September—Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy—had a stark response, especially with the midterms six months away. "There is no reform. The problem with Facebook is Facebook," he told me. "When you marry a friction-free social network of 2 billion people to a powerful, precise, cheap ad system that runs on user profiling you get this mess. And no one can switch it off. So we are screwed."

Xi's Road to Indefinite Rule Through Rule-Making

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 12:47 PM PST

China's Communist Party instituted term limits after Mao Zedong's death in 1976, to ensure that a future Chinese leader wouldn't rule for life and cement the kind of cult of personality Mao had. Those term limits—up to two consecutive five-year terms—have endured through the reigns of  Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. But now, in the reign of Xi Jinping, they may be on their way out.

The party proposed Sunday a change to the constitution that would abolish term limits, essentially giving Xi the authority to rule for life. Xi, who completes his first term in office next month, emerged as China's most powerful leader since Deng, who ushered China's economic reforms, at the Communist Party Congress last October. The party enshrined his "thought"  into its constitution, an honor previously accorded only Mao; and it did not, as is custom, reveal a successor to Xi, who under rules in effect at the time of the congress would have to step down in 2022. Xi was widely seen to have consolidated his power at the end of the congress—just how much became apparent Sunday.

If China does indeed remove term limits for Xi, he will not be the first world leader to use constitutional rules for authoritarian purposes. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and Russian President Vladimir Putin have all made similar moves. It's a form of power grab by procedure rather than by coup. In Africa alone, 17 leaders have tried to change the constitution since 2000 in order to prolong their rule—most recently Ugandan President Yoweri Musaveni, 73, who enacted a law ending a presidential age limit of 75.

Thomas Carothers, who directs the democracy and rule-of-law program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me that the use of such tactics doesn't always go smoothly. He noted, for instance, that China's announcement came on Sunday. The country then stifled online dissent about it. "If they proud of doing this, and it was an easy thing to do, or if there was a good rationale for it, why not do it in the full light of the day?" Carothers asked.

Jerome Cohen, a professor at NYU who is an expert in Chinese law, wrote Sunday that the proposed rule change means the Communist Party "has forgotten one of the main lessons of Mao's long despotism." The term limit, Cohen wrote, "reflected a widespread desire to prevent the return of one-man dictatorship." But Xi is now tightening his hold at the peak of his powers and on the eve of his second term. And he's doing it in a way that seems to respect rather than break the rules, with the Communist Party giving the move an official imprimatur—one that might be more palatable for the larger Chinese public, who already are said to broadly support Xi's governing style (though, given China' limits on freedom of expression, it is impossible to measure the true level of dissent).

Carothers said the trend Xi represents is a reversal from the 1990s, when many leaders were taking steps to become more democratic. "They went through a liberalizing phase, a rule-oriented phase, but now ... in the past 10 years, they're pushing back against their own self-imposed limitation," he said in an interview. "It's a re-hardening against constitutional limitations, elections, and things like that were accepted in the 1990s."

Take Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had served three terms as prime minister, moved into what was then the ceremonial role of the presidency in 2014. But from that perch he has wielded power not typically associated with the role, and last April set about to formalize it. Erdogan, who is widely popular and who until relatively recently was lauded as a champion of democracy and the rule of law in Turkey, organized a nationwide referendum to move Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. That would give the winner of next year's presidential election, widely expected to be Erdogan himself, the position of head of state, with few checks on his power. Last April's vote passed narrowly, but the victory all but ensured that Erdogan, 64, will tighten his hold on power for the foreseeable future.

Similarly in Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro has achieved a power grab impressive even by the standards of Latin American strongmen of the past—despite having accelerated the dismantling of what was once one of Latin America's wealthiest and most stable countries. With the legislature dominated by his opposition, he opted to essentially create a new one—calling for elections last July to create a new constituent assembly that would, among other things, have the power to rewrite the constitution. Turnout was poor, but Maduro claimed victory in a vote that was widely seen as flawed.

In Putin's case, the issue isn't quite what the Russian leader has done to stay in power, but what he might do following next month's election. He is virtually certain to be re-elected to another six-year term. Putin was president from 2000 to 2008 before stepping down because of term limits that forbid more than two consecutive terms in office. To get around that, he traded jobs with his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, before returning to the presidency in 2012. Putin is now 65, and by the time his next term ends, he will be in his 70s. And what then? He could, in theory, do what he previously did with Medvedev, a practice the Russians describe as "castling," for the chess move, or he could rework the constitution so he doesn't have to bother. He has said he won't do the latter, but who would hold him accountable?

Carothers pointed out that while to the outside world, and indeed many Russians, Putin might seem like a strong leader, such moves are a sign not of strength, but also insecurity—of Putin's concern about what would happen to him if he's no longer in power.

"Once you personalize the system to such a degree that he has … you have very few protections" against allegations of corruption and other malfeasance, Carothers said. "It's a reflection of the personalization of rule and the concentration of rule in a person so that there's the feeling that if you're not that person anymore, the system will not protect you."

All these leaders have used a combination of populist politics and muscular nationalism to force through political changes that consolidate their personal positions—some are even popular. In times of growth and prosperity, as China is seeing now, the changes could be welcomed.

Carothers said the constitutional limits on authoritarian leaders "were fairly weak checks on their power."  "What we're seeing now is greater self-confidence on the part of many authoritarian leaders," he said. "There's a feeling that 'we can do this. We want to stay in power. We don't give up power. And we have the win of history at our backs.'"

But because every economic upturn is followed by a downturn, any long-term failures will also be tied to them, as they remake their countries in their image. "Xi Jinping is susceptible to making big mistakes because there are now almost no checks or balances," Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told The New York Times. "Essentially, he has become emperor for life."

But even emperors have to face unpleasant realities. As Cohen, the NYU professor put it: Xi's move will "enable him to move more boldly and increases the risk of his acting arbitrarily and perhaps mistakenly in international relations."

"There is big risk for Xi at home since, as it becomes more obvious that China's problems are catching up with its achievements, the government will look less impressive and the masses will begin to lose their enthusiasm and hold the great leader responsible," he wrote. "The elite will be less surprised but less forgiving."

Life Can Survive in the Most Mars-Like Place on Earth

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 12:22 PM PST

As one of the driest places on Earth, Chile's Atacama Desert is one of the last places you'd expect a trip to be ruined by rain.

Dirk Schulze-Makuch happened to be so lucky. In early 2015, he was preparing for field work in the Atacama, which he expressly chose because he was hunting for life in extreme—i.e., dry—conditions. (On Earth, only the Dry Valley in Antarctica is drier than the Atacama.) Then in March, a freak rainstorm hit. "You had to prepare everything months before, and then, heck, it's raining," says Schulze-Makuch, an astrobiologist at the Technical University of Berlin.

But there was an upside. The March shower gave the team a unique opportunity to study what happens when the Atacama's hyperarid regions—the driest of the dry—finally get water. After a rare rainstorm, the more humid parts of the Atacama actually grow a spectacular carpet of flowers, but the hyperarid sections stay barren to the eye. There is nothing to see but soil and rock. "It's difficult to describe. It's nearly a different planet. It's kind of lifeless," says Schulze-Makuch.

Not entirely. His team found that microbial life blooms even in the hyperarid regions after rain. And when Schulze-Makuch's team returned in 2016, then again in 2017, they found microbial life diminished but seemingly still active.

Scientists have found DNA of microbes in the Atacama before. They have even, in some cases, coaxed microbes from the Atacama to multiply on petri dishes. But it's unclear whether these tiny life forms are permanent Atacama dwellers or just transient microorganisms, carried by desert gusts. "The question is, well, are these creatures coming here to die, or are they able to survive waiting for water," says Armando Azua-Bustos, a researcher at the Center of Astrobiology in Madrid who was not involved in the study. This new paper strongly suggests they can survive in the desert soil.

(Schulze-Makuch's team focused on microbes that live in the desert's soil, from the surface to a foot underground. There are, separately, microbes that live several feet lower in salt rocks, which absorb what little water there is in the soil. It's unlikely the microbes Schulze-Makuch's team studied can access this deeper water source.)

Researchers conduct field sampling in the Atacama Desert. (PNAS)

To prove that these microbes are actually alive, Schulze-Makuch's team used a whole suite of methods. "They really threw the book at it," says Julia Neilson, a soil scientist at the University of Arizona. Ordinary DNA sequencing, for example, can pick up dead cells. So the team specifically picked out intact and presumably live cells, sequencing their DNA separately. They also looked for evidence of active life: enzymes, a molecule called ATP known as the "currency of energy" in cells, DNA replication, and other molecules present when a cell is living and breathing. They found all of these when they looked in 2015.

When the team returned in 2016 and 2017, they found much, much less DNA and ATP inside intact cells in the soil. The microbial bloom was only temporary. But not all the microbes were dead or entirely dormant, either. The amount of ATP inside cells at two of the driest sites was very low but not zero. Even in these harsh, dry conditions, a few very hardy microbes could just eke out a living.

It's also possible other microbes are active—but at levels too low to detect. "It raises the question about the limits of detection," says Jackie Goordial, a researcher at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences who studies microbes in extreme environments. "In deep-sea marine sites or in permafrost soils there are estimates that cells replicate every 1,000 to 10,000 years. So how do you measure that?"

Scientists are often interested in extreme environments, like the Atacama or permafrost, because they're interested in understanding the limits of life—not just on Earth, but in the whole universe. Schulze-Makuch's work was funded in part by a grant from the European Research Council to study habitability on Mars. If you take the Atacama as an example, he notes, "there doesn't have to be all the time moisture, just once in a while, and life can make a living. We think on Mars the situations are similar but a bit more extreme."

On Earth, scientists still have many more questions about the microbes in the Atacama. For example, if they are still active in dry periods, how are they able do it? Schulze-Makuch is leaving for another expedition in the Atacama in March. He has no idea if it's going to rain.

Trump’s Real Scandal Is Hiding in Plain Sight

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 05:23 PM PST

There was a time when the White House's frequent denials of collusion with Russia appeared largely defensive. Over time, however, their primary purpose has morphed. These days, the denials serve instead to distract from the ever-clearer picture of a president surrounded by crooks and liars.

"Consistently we have said there was no collusion," Ivanka Trump told NBC News Monday. "There was no collusion.  And we believe that Mueller will do his work and reach that same conclusion." That echoes her father and a White House statement from February 16, after Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted a group of Russians for interfering in the election. "President Donald J. Trump … is glad to see the Special Counsel's investigation further indicates—that there was NO COLLUSION between the Trump campaign and Russia and that the outcome of the election was not changed or affected," the press secretary wrote.

Collusion with Russia may or may not turn out to be a real scandal, depending on what  Mueller finds, but it is not the only scandal. (Indeed, while the question of whether any crime was committed remains open, the contacts with Russia that are already known, from George Papadopoulos to the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, make these denials ring hollow.) The scale of dishonesty and criminality that is now apparent is an enormous scandal in its own right.

On Friday, Rick Gates pleaded guilty to conspiracy against the United States and making false statements. He faced a much longer slate of charges, but agreed to cooperate with Mueller. Gates's troubles with the truth were so severe that he went to the outlandish length of lying to Mueller during a meeting about a plea deal. (It didn't work, and ended up producing one of the charges to which he pleaded guilty.) Gates came into the Trump orbit through his mentor and business partner Paul Manafort, who served for a time as Trump campaign chairman, but that shouldn't cloak his deep involvement in Trump world: He was deputy chairman of the campaign, staying on after Manafort was ousted in August 2016; he served as deputy chair of the Trump inaugural committee; and he helped found America First Policies, an outside support group, remaining there until he was pushed out as his legal troubles increased.

Then there's Manafort, who Trump decided to place atop his campaign in spring 2016, and who led it through the crucial period of the Republican National Convention. Manafort steadfastly denies any wrongdoing, but a pair of documents from Mueller unsealed last week reveal a brutal array of documentary evidence against him, including technological troubles in producing a doctored profit-and-loss statement and what appears to be a note to his son-in-law instructing him to mislead a bank appraiser.

The White House has distanced itself from Manafort and Gates by pointing out that the crimes with which they are charged occurred outside the auspices of the campaign. This might be convincing if Mueller's indictments merely sketched out tax fraud—a not-altogether-uncommon private crime. But Mueller alleges that fraud was a core instrument of Davis Manafort, the men's company. In a new indictment released Friday, Mueller alleges that Manafort worked to create a ring of European leaders who would boost Ukraine's reputation around the world, while making sure their compensation was invisible.

What was Trump seeking when he brought Manafort on? Presumably, he sought the skills that Manafort and Gates had perfected working for leaders in places like Ukraine—the very business that centered on fraud. (It's worth noting, once again, the bizarre reality that Manafort offered to work for Trump for free.) And even after he pushed Manafort out, in part because of renewed scrutiny of his past work, Trump kept Gates in his inner circle.

The dishonor roll doesn't end there. Manafort and Gates seem to have at least been somewhat effective lobbyists, registered or not. Michael Flynn was not so successful. Flynn, having allegedly failed to disclose foreign travel when renewing his security clearance in 2016, entered into a lobbying scheme on behalf of Turkey—though he didn't file documents acknowledging that until 2017. In the course of that work, Flynn suddenly espoused views of the Turkish government diametrically opposed to what he'd previously said, and, according to former CIA Director and Trump adviser James Woolsey, discussed a plan to kidnap the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen from exile in the United States and take him to Turkey, where he is accused of fomenting a 2016 coup.

Flynn appears to have continued this work right up until the moment he was designated as the incoming national-security adviser in November 2016. He didn't disclose the work, even though as the president's right-hand man on security and defense issues, he would have dealt closely with Turkey. Flynn was also involved in a bizarre civilian-nuclear-reactor scheme in the Middle East and reportedly continued to push the scheme even after becoming national-security adviser.

Somehow, none of this—nor Barack Obama's explicit warning to Trump about Flynn—was enough of a red flag to prevent Flynn's hiring. He didn't last long. Flynn was pushed out on February 13, 2017, after The Washington Post revealed he had lied to Vice President Pence about conversations with the Russian ambassador about sanctions. Flynn has since admitted, in a guilty plea, that he also lied to FBI agents about those conversations. He is now cooperating with Mueller.

These top-level positions join other, lower-ranking officials who are also in legal trouble. George Papadopoulos has also admitted he lied to the FBI about conversations with Russians, and is cooperating with Mueller. Though a former Trump aide dismissed Papadopoulos as a "coffee boy," Trump praised him by name, and photos show the two of them in a meeting. Carter Page, a volunteer foreign-policy adviser, offered confusing and contradictory information in testimony to Congress, and a memo from House Intelligence Committee Democrats released on Saturday alleges that intelligence gathered by the Justice Department also contradicts Page's testimony.

Outside the scope of the Russia investigation itself, the Democratic memo once again shows the dangers of believing close Trump ally Devin Nunes, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. The Democratic memo rebuts the most controversial claims made in a memo from Republicans on the committee released earlier in February.

Elsewhere in the Trump orbit, the last month has revealed the foibles of other members of the administration. Rob Porter, former staff secretary, was forced out after accusations of domestic abuse by both of his ex-wives became public. Porter initially tried to sidestep the allegations by telling a clutch of powerful Washington reporters, during an off-the-record meeting, that one of the women had been injured in an accident.

In his attempt to downplay the story, Chief of Staff John Kelly offered a story that other West Wing aides believed was so false they expressed concern to reporters about it. Given his stellar military career, Kelly was granted a presumption of innocence when he joined the White House. That can no longer be justified. In October, he told a pejorative story about Representative Frederica Wilson that turned out not to be true; when video evidence contradicted Kelly, however, he and the White House refused to concede the point. Then on Porter, Kelly said he had acted as soon as he learned of the allegations against him, a claim contradicted by FBI Director Christopher Wray during sworn testimony.

The White House press shop also offered contradictory statements about Porter, though it's hard to tell whether that's simply because other West Wing officials were misleading them. The communications team has hardly distinguished itself, though, beginning in the first days of the presidency, when it went to war with a false claim about inauguration crowds, then introduced "alternative facts" into the lexicon.

Why do so many White House staffers lie? It might come from their boss. As Brian Stelter noted, the president shamelessly changed the meaning of a comment he'd heard on television about the House Intelligence Committee memo, refashioning it into a bludgeon against ranking Democrat Adam Schiff:

Washington is also filled with Trump appointees who have found themselves facing charges that they are unqualified for the offices they hold, unethical in how they have used them, or both at once. Axios reveals that Trump is considering appointing his personal pilot, John Dunkin, to lead the Federal Aviation Administration. The nugget of news produced an immediate tizzy, as yet another case of Trump trying to select someone close to him without obvious qualification for an important job. The immediate reaction is perhaps unfair to Dunkin, who is little known and may very well be suited to the job.

It's not unfair to Trump, though. One of his senior advisers is his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has been given a sweeping portfolio of complex tasks, despite no experience in government; he is working without a permanent security clearance, and reportedly may not receive one until Mueller's probe is complete because of unknown issues the special counsel is investigating. Another senior adviser is Kushner's wife, and Trump's daughter, Ivanka, who enjoys the trappings of White House work but on Monday said it was inappropriate to ask her about the many accusations of sexual misconduct against the president.

To head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Trump chose Ben Carson, who had endorsed Trump for president after ending his own campaign, but had publicly said he was not qualified for the gig. To head HUD's largest regional office, Trump appointed Lynne Patton, who had no experience in housing but worked for years for the Trump family and spoke at the Republican National Convention.

Appointees with more obvious qualifications keep turning out to be flawed in other ways. Trump selected as commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, who retained investments in companies with links to the Kremlin until they were revealed in the document dump known as the Paradise Papers. He appointed another Wall Street billionaire, Carl Icahn, as a senior adviser on regulatory issues, until Icahn precipitously quit after questions from The New Yorker about whether he was using the job to further his own interests.

The secretary of Health and Human Services resigned over spending more than $1 million on private and military jets. A government report said Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin had committed "serious derelictions" in spending on a European trip. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is also under fire for travel spending; the EPA initially said Pruitt had been granted a "blanket waiver" to travel in first class, for safety reasons, only to change its story when pointed to rules that specifically bar such a blanket policy.

At the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, interim chief Mick Mulvaney dropped an investigation into a payday lender who had contributed to his campaign. Mulvaney's spokesman initially said that career staff had recommended dropping the probe, then admitted when pressed by NPR that Mulvaney was involved in the decision.

That's just a sampling. It doesn't require any further evidence of Trump campaign ties to Russia to grasp the scope of the scandal already in plain sight. Every administration ends up producing examples of corruption and lying, but most presidents take years, and often more than one term, to produce a ledger even half so extensive as what Trump has managed in barely a year in office. It's an old trope to imagine how lonely the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who famously walked around with a lamp seeking an honest man, would feel visiting the American capital. In Trump's Washington, even the hard-bitten cynic might despair.

<i>McMafia</i> Is a Glum, Brooding Crime Drama

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 11:20 AM PST

The defining quality of McMafia, which debuts on AMC Monday night, is glumness. A crime lord sits on a luxury yacht off the Arabian peninsula, as brooding and weary as Nietzsche pondering his book sales. A deposed Russian mobster swigs vodka out of plastic bottles and stumbles hysterically around rooftops. An Israeli gangster attends bacchanalian seaside parties with all the enthusiasm of someone filing their taxes. And then there's Alex Godman (James Norton), the show's hero, who proceeds to break bad with a dour detachment that's less Michael Corleone and more Eeyore.

Shouldn't getting embroiled in the tentacular grip of the global underworld be a little more, I don't know, fun? McMafia, an eight-part co-production with the BBC created by Hossein Amini (Drive) and James Watkins (The Woman in Black), stalks its way through an array of dazzling locations and multi-million-dollar real-estate listings, but it's burdened with an oppressive gloominess that's hard to shake. Inspired by the 2008 nonfiction book of the same name by the British journalist Misha Glenny, it spins an extravagant yarn around the thesis that organized crime has adopted the operating tactics and global ambitions of corporations. Make him an offer he can't refuse has morphed into Model your business on Burger King trying to steal market share from McDonalds.

The fictional story Amini and Watkins have crafted borrows heavily from The Godfather, rerouted to contemporary London. Alex (Norton) is the son of an exiled Russian gangster, Dmitri (Aleksey Serebryakov), whose family fled to London for reasons that aren't articulated but can't be great. Alex's mother, Oksana (Maria Shukshina), seeks solace for her homesickness in shopping; his sister, Katya (Faye Marsay), does the same in drink and drugs. They live in the kind of central-London apartments that a glut of oil barons and oligarchs have made unaffordable. Alex has tried to distance himself from the family business by pursuing a legitimate career in finance, while his girlfriend, Rebecca (Juliet Rylance), works for a business leader and self-professed "caring capitalist."

There comes a moment in the first episode when Alex, spurred on by his naughty uncle Boris (David Dencik) makes a Bad Decision. And that catapults him into the world of Semiyon Kleiman (the estimable David Strathairn), a Russian-Israeli politician and gangster whose business encompasses counterfeit handbags in Prague, heroin smuggling in Mumbai, and a whole lot in between. Alex starts spending more and more time on "business" trips in Tel Aviv and Eastern Europe, providing stunning visual fodder for the show (which appears to have made the most of its staggering budget) but awaking Rebecca's suspicions. With each decision he makes, he sinks deeper and deeper into the underworld.

The problem with McMafia is that it never really sells the appeal of the criminal lifestyle for a Harvard-educated banker who's hardly lacking for cash. Norton plays Alex with such committed blankness that his rare outbursts of emotion are almost humorous. He's best during the action set pieces, which create the propulsive tension the series sorely lacks. But he can't convey the motivations of a character who doesn't have any. Walter White and Michael Corleone were drawn to the dark side by a combination of familial obligations and fragile egos; Alex Godman seemingly becomes embroiled with the world's criminal elite because it's a rainy Tuesday and he's got nothing else going on.

McMafia does offer some reasons for his ethical evolution, just not persuasive ones. And the more time it spends with his depressed and overprivileged family members, the less it has to get into the grist of Glenny's book. The subject of corruption in Russia is, unremarkably, a timely one. And the real-life inspiration for one mobster, Vadim (Merab Ninidze), is reportedly a Ukrainian-born criminal with alleged ties to Paul Manafort. But McMafia shirks the subject of how the demise of the Soviet Union led to ferocious, sprawling new crime syndicates, and it ignores the real-world consequences of Alex's decisions altogether. One plotline in the second episode that portrays the horror of sex trafficking shows what the show could have been given a larger scope, but it's swiftly abandoned for more sequences of Dmitri bemoaning his wounded masculinity or Alex lying to Rebecca and staring moodily out of a window.

The producers of McMafia were presumably hoping for a hit in the vein of The Night Manager, the 2016 John le Carré adaptation starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie about a man who gets swept up in the world of an arms dealer. That series similarly swanned its way through billionaire's playgrounds and ethical Catch-22s. But it also allowed you to glimpse the allure of the extra-legal lifestyle. McMafia, by contrast, is a montage of austere mob bosses doing terrible things with minimal enthusiasm, and at great cost to the loved ones they insist they're trying to protect. If nothing else, it all makes the humble 9-to-5 look a lot more appealing.

Why Are Corporations Finally Turning Against the NRA?

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 10:22 AM PST

After the most recent high-school massacre in Parkland, Florida, left 17 students and teachers dead, the National Rifle Association (NRA), the nonprofit gun-rights advocacy group, was rebuked by a surprising group of liberal activists: American corporations. Pressured by Parkland high-school students and others to boycott the NRA, more than 20 companies have cut ties with the pro-gun group.

The NRA exodus includes major airlines like United, six rental-car firms including Hertz and Avis Budget Group, and MetLife, the insurance giant. These companies are not rescinding NRA donations, nor are they refusing service to NRA members. Rather, they're ending discount programs, which companies routinely offer to groups and companies, like the NRA or the AARP. For example, United Airlines offered discounts on flights to the NRA annual meeting, and MetLife auto insurance offered a $50 benefit to members for each year of claim-free driving.

It would be easy to write off this moment by saying these companies are simply reacting to an online mob, or following each other like lemmings. But the fact that companies, rather than Congress or the courts, are shifting in response to political activism in the United States says something profound—about American tribalism, the demise of political cooperation, and the rise of a sort of liberal corporatocracy.

Why have the Parkland shootings forced corporate action in a way that previous school shootings could not? To put it another way: United and Delta both serve more than 100 million domestic passengers each year, while the NRA only has a few million members. So, why has it taken so long for these companies to distance themselves from one of America's most controversial associations, despite 30,000 annual firearms deaths and so many mass shootings?

In this case, there has been a perfect storm of articulate student outrage and savvy online activism, merging with a rising tide of resentment against Trump and Trump-affiliated organizations. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have shown poise and passion before the camera—and laconic brilliance on Twitter—that has galvanized the gun-control movement. On social media, they have joined other activists in naming and shaming companies ("Hey @LifeLock why do you support the NRA? #NeverForget") and even encouraging people to contact NRA-sponsoring firms. One message, with more than 33,000 retweets, sent people to an Amazon webpage where they could submit a prewritten request for the company to stop hosting the NRA's digital-video channel, NRATV. As more companies canceled their NRA affiliations, it put additional pressure on other companies that had initially resisted doing the same. Within a 12-hour period, Delta Airlines went from defending its relationship with the NRA as "routine" to requesting that the association "remove our information from their website."

This avalanche of companies abandoning the NRA is just the latest chapter in the gradual politicization of every square inch of the public sphere, which has compelled traditionally nonpartisan companies to take one partisan stand after another. One year ago, in the fallout over the president's proposed travel ban, Uber's CEO, Travis Kalanick, left the White House advisory council. Four months later, the tech entrepreneur Elon Musk and Disney's CEO, Bob Iger, left the same forum after the president withdrew from the Paris climate agreement. When Trump refused to explicitly condemn the far-right protesters in Charlottesville, more business leaders, including Merck's CEO, Kenneth Frazier, exited en masse from his manufacturing council.

Uber is not an immigration firm. Disney is not a climate-advocacy organization. Merck is not a civil-rights group. But under Trump, they have completed their development into activists on the issues of migration, carbon emissions, and white racism anyway. Trump's language often forces companies to take sides in political debates, and his unpopularity makes it safe—even necessary—to side against him.

Many business leaders are getting political because they have determined that, in this environment, the noisiest position is often to remain silent in the face of national condemnation. But in politics, responding to one group of consumers invariably means angering another. Several conservative writers tweeted that they would boycott United, Hertz, and other companies that eliminated their discount policies with the NRA. "Corporations boycotting NRA should be boycotted," the conservative commentator Mark R. Levin wrote. The choice for companies is simple and stark: Suffer the slings and arrows of liberal activism, or endure the rage and resentment of spurned conservatives. In today's culture wars, for-profits are the new nonprofits.

One important question raised by all this is if there is a deeper force at work. Have America's corporations shifted to the left, even as national government has moved toward the Republican Party? Or are companies just more sensitive to protests than a divided government is?

In many cases, America's corporate community has become a quiet defender of socially liberal causes. Nearly 400 companies filed an amicus brief in 2015 urging the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage, including Amazon, Aetna, Apple, American Airlines, American Express, and AT&T (and those are just the ones starting with the first letter of the alphabet). Hundreds of executives, many from tech companies, signed a 2017 letter urging the president to protect immigrants brought to the U.S. as children by saving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. When North Carolina passed a law against transgender-friendly bathrooms, the NCAA announced in 2016 that it would pull its college-basketball tournament from the state (and other companies withdrew their business, too).

It would be strange to call these corporations "liberal." By and large, they support the GOP's economic policies, which in just the last year have eased regulations and slashed corporate taxes by several trillion dollars. But on social issues, national and multinational companies have moved left of the GOP, even as many Republican figures (particularly the president) have found it useful, or at least tantalizing, to play up cultural flash points, like trans rights and undocumented labor. This has created a bizarre dynamic, where many companies feel public pressure to assert their values by rebuking Republican politics, even as many of them directly benefit from the GOP's economic platform.

But there is something else happening: Corporations are becoming more democratic than democratic governance itself. Or, at least, they have proven to be far more responsive to political outcries and scandals than political parties. In the #MeToo movement, many corporate boards quickly dismissed their credibly accused executives, while Republicans (and some Democrats) wavered over how to punish accused officials and candidates, like Representative Patrick Meehan, the Alabama Senate contender Roy Moore, and, well, the president of the United States. In the gun debate, too, many companies moved to distance themselves from the NRA before the state of Florida or the federal government could propose or act on new legislation to limit gun violence.

National government in an age of Republican control is mostly unresponsive to liberal protests. So, many activists are focusing their ire on the business community. A corporation is a knot of products, services, and policies, and activists have seen that any one string can be grabbed, pulled, and scrutinized, until the company agrees to cut it away.

Businesses have to respond to political crises even faster than political parties do, says William Klepper, a professor of corporate leadership at the Columbia Business School. Politics is competitive, but the competition is constrained—by time (e.g., elections only happen every two, four, or six years), by geography (e.g., the gerrymandering of districts), and by partisanship, in which every issue often boils down to "the other side is worse." Many companies cannot rely on time, geography, or negative advertising to save them. Every week is a primary for a consumer brand; the global nature of business exposes companies to more rivals; and no company can thrive by making nothing and investing exclusively in hostile marketing. "Politicians assume they can wait out the outrage, but national companies have to respond to the immediacy of demand," Klepper told me.

Social media, and its capacity to foment outrage, has helped create this dynamic, contributing to both the virulence of partisanship and the concurrent rise of the activist corporation. Angry tweets and Facebook memes help political groups rally around anger and perceived villainy; but also, they create unavoidable choices for multinational companies that have to respond to political crises by picking a side.

American democracy is not a free market. It is, at best, a two-party duopoly, in which vilification of the opposition often passes for a party platform. As a result, many liberal activists are asking corporations to express the values that they cannot impress upon a Republican-dominated government. Corporations are no longer bystanders in the culture wars. They are on the front lines.

Russia Is Abetting Mass Murder in Syria

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 10:53 AM PST

President Ronald Reagan famously dubbed the Soviet Union "the Evil Empire," and it was apt. The empire is gone now, but we should have kept the word "evil" in reserve for today's Kremlin. For what other term suffices to describe a government that deliberately and relentlessly bombs innocent civilians, their hospitals, and reportedly a UN aid convoy in a premeditated effort to "cleanse" rebel-held Syrian territory of its inhabitants? What other term encompasses the aiding and abetting of a government that repeatedly uses chemical weapons and drops barrel bombs full of chlorine on women and children? This weekend Russia conspired to delay a UN Security Council resolution aimed at stopping the suffering and loss of innocent lives in Syria. Now it claims, cynically, it wants to enforce a humanitarian "pause" in the fighting in the besieged Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, when it should just stop the fighting altogether.

The Russian government has so far gotten away with its bloody air operations in coordination with the despicable Assad regime and Iran. Those operations have killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians across the country, including thousands in Aleppo alone last year, when the historic city and its people were reduced to pulverized rubble and bone. The assault on Aleppo was designed to chase the Syrian opposition forces to other areas, like the province of Idlib, which the Russians and Syrians also ruthlessly bombarded. They are now trying to finish the job in Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel-held area near Damascus, and a place infamously hit in 2013 by chemical weapons. Last week over 500 civilians were killed there and another estimated 2,500 wounded.

And Russia has gotten away with this partly because of the artificial line two American administrations have drawn between the civil war in Syria and the anti-ISIS campaign. But as the battle lines on the ground converge, it is no longer possible to ignore the fact that the fight against ISIS is also the fight for the future of Syria and the Middle East. Moreover, the war appears to be expanding.

As they seek to consolidate territory for the regime, Syrian, Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah forces are coming ever closer to U.S. troops assisting Syrian Democratic Forces fighters combatting ISIS in eastern Syria. On February 7th, Russian mercenaries attacked U.S. special-operations forces near the city of Deir Ezzor. U.S. forces struck back, and body bags numbering in the double digits appear to have been transported back to Russia. This was a test of U.S. resolve by a Kremlin eager to declare victory in Syria on its terms.

The United States is on the ground in Syria with about 2,000 forces. It is part of the now-defunct UN Geneva process that had aimed to bring peace to the country. And as the death toll mounts and U.S. allies—like Israel—get sucked further into the fighting, America's responsibility in Syria is only growing. The United States cannot sit and watch a slow-motion Rwanda unfold. We can no longer ignore the fact that our insufficient political-military action only serves to drag on a conflict that we may well be able to end.

We've been here before. From 1993-1995, the United States and its allies faced a humanitarian catastrophe in Bosnia as a result of deliberate ethnic cleansing operations directed by the government of Serbia (later adopted to a far lesser extent by all parties). For about three years, we worked to beef up the failing UN humanitarian operations and hammered away at multilateral diplomacy as body counts and refugee flows mounted.

Ultimately, only the credible threat of force stopped the suffering and the war. In 1995, the U.S. and its allies finally began bombing Serb forces attacking defenseless Muslim civilians. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and his Bosnian Serb allies would pay a price for attempting to seize more land by killing or forcing inhabitants to leave. Meanwhile, Croat-Bosnian forces armed and trained by the United States were repelling Serb forces from territory they had seized earlier. For Milosevic, it was time to make a deal. The result was the 1995 Dayton Accords, which have held the peace in Bosnia since then.

Military force and deterrence may also be the key to ending the Syrian war.

Russia repeatedly calls various warring parties—but not all of them—to the table and attempts to get the international community to concede that Assad will stay. Meanwhile, it continues its war of attrition in the face of insufficient resolve on the part of the United States and its allies. Without combined economic, military, and diplomatic pressure, Russia, Syria, and Iran won't compromise. Aggressors—whether in Belgrade or in Moscow, Damascus, or Tehran—have no incentive to make concessions unless they face pressure.

In 1995 that meant the United States had to bomb the Serb forces attacking innocent Muslim civilians. Today, it means guaranteeing immediate implementation of the new UN ceasefire in Ghouta by threateningand if necessary usingforce against those attacking the suburb. Humanitarian aid must be permitted into the area within hours, not days. It means ramping up sanctions, and increasing military and diplomatic pressure until the war can be brought to a negotiated end. And in the meantime, it means speaking the truth about Russian, Syrian, and Iranian atrocities, collecting information for the day when there is a war crimes accounting.

The war in Syria will only end when the aggressors know America is serious—about diplomacy, about sanctioning the aggressors, and about using military force not just to fight ISIS, but to protect Syrians. Continued failure to take these steps will only make America an accessory to evil.

A Rock Star Is Born at the Closing Ceremony

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 11:17 AM PST

Editor’s Note: Read more of The Atlantic's Winter Olympics 2018 coverage.

"We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously, / for fear of tripping and falling. / Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground, and, / rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up."

That's from the sonnet that accompanied the "Winter" movement of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, the 1725 baroque composition reinterpreted in the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics. For American viewers in particular, the wintry treacherousness of Vivaldi's poem may ring familiar. Pyeongchang, South Korea, has seen plenty of slips and falls, near misses and disappointed expectations, political tensions and apocalypse fears—plus spectacular Olympic triumphs, of course.

But the sonnet ends like this: "This is winter, which nonetheless / brings its own delights." True, too. One delight: a 13-year-old South Korean boy in a chunky turtleneck and leather jacket and with a curly mane, making Vivaldi sound like Van Halen.

Sunday's closing ceremony offered a wilder, more straightforwardly entertaining time than the understatedly lovely opening ceremony, which fit with it being a blowout farewell rather than a courtly introduction. It featured adorable kids in tiger ears and two attitude-drenched K-pop acts, CL and EXO. It had a ravishingly austere modern-dance routine synchronized with a light-up floor. It called on the director of China's iconic 2008 opening ceremony, previewing Beijing 2022, to busy things up with Tron-like roller skaters and panda people.

Most important, it had a better rock-and-roll showcase than, say, the Grammys has had in years. (You should watch the full segment starting at the ceremony's 53-minute mark, if you're able. There's also a shorter clip that snips out of some of the best parts.)

Discovered on the talent show Star King, Yang Tae-Hwan released his first album at the age of 10. On YouTube, he shreds to Dream Theater. On Sunday, he arrived on the platform below the Olympic torch, holding an electric guitar with a lacquered wood body. While emitting a flurry of notes, he bobbed his head and maintained a lunge posture. His circular wire frames made for at least the second instance of Korean eyeware excellence at this Olympics.

You couldn't design a Rock Star avatar as cool as Yang. But as if to raise the thought of a video game coming to life, the ramp below him transformed into a jumbo guitar fret with acrobats in light-up suits scaling the three "strings."

Then the action moved to the middle of the arena, where a circle of women playing the Korean zither known as the geomungo laid down a riff resembling something you'd hear from the prog-metal act Tool. The music was actually the work of the band who rose up on a platform in the center of the circle: Jambinai, the Seoul postrockers who meld modern styles with traditional instruments. The soloist Kim Bo-mi played the fiddle-like haegeum, threading a delicate melody within the chugging.

Accompanied by a troop of dancers, the Korean beauty queen Lee Ha-nui, a.k.a. Honey Lee, showed off a majestic gown with colorful striped sleeves. "She is the queeeen of the closing ceremony," the commentators Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinksi trilled in unison for NBC's broadcast. Above the performers hovered a glowing, wire-frame pagoda, science fiction and historical at once.

The spectacle's meaning was clear enough, an Olympic (and homework) cliché: Korea is a country of contrasts. But in the glowering riffs and anguished-then-victorious guitar solos, you might have heard something else. Vivaldi's "Winter," the inspiration for Yang's noodling, channels chilling winds and chattering teeth. The ominous Jambinai song performed is called "Time of Extinction," and the band has said it uses traditional instruments to "convey certain very special Korean emotions." One of those emotions is han, which has been described as "ineffable sadness … tempered by a sense of resiliency." What better a use for rock and roll, and what better an occasion than these Olympics?

Deconstructing <em>Annihilation</em>'s Ending

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 09:52 AM PST

This article contains spoilers for the plot of the film and novel Annihilation.

Just days after its release, Alex Garland's sci-fi thriller Annihilation already has all the hallmarks of a polarizing cult classic. Its $11 million opening weekend means the film will likely struggle to make its budget back unless the word-of-mouth is exceptional; its C grade from audiences (awarded by the theater-polling company Cinemascore) suggests it will not be. Reviews from critics were largely strong, with some praising it for simply being a studio film that dares to be weird; others, including The Atlantic's own Christopher Orr, found it visually stimulating but "mundane, largely opaque, and intermittently comical." And crucially, Annihilation has a surreal, open-ended climax that's left to the viewer to puzzle out and discuss.

Though based on Jeff VanderMeer's 2014 novel, Garland's movie takes considerable plot liberties with a story that was written with sequels in mind. The director, who was working from a manuscript that had been acquired by Paramount and the producer Scott Rudin, made it clear that he didn't want to leave the ending of his film open for future installments. As a huge fan of VanderMeer's book (and its subsequent volumes), I was initially discombobulated by Garland's approach and just how radically different his take on Annihilation was. But the more I think about it, and about the ending in particular, the more I'm impressed with how he translated a very internal, psychologically focused novel to the screen and, in doing so, gave form to so many of the story's horrifying concepts.

In VanderMeer's book, a team of (unnamed) scientists journey into "Area X," an inexplicable and expanding ecological phenomenon centered on a lighthouse in the "Southern Reach," an uninhabited part of the country. Teams of researchers have been sent in, and those that return often emerge in a zombie-like state and die of cancer soon afterwards. The book's protagonist is a biologist whose husband was part of the prior mission; she is transfixed by a "tower" (described as a subterranean staircase) that her expedition comes upon, within which she meets an unfathomable creature she calls the "Crawler." The encounter changes her (in mysterious ways expanded on in the sequels) and eventually puts her at odds with the leader of her group, a psychologist, who had been controlling the team through hypnotic suggestion.

None of this material, past the bare plot bones and characters, is in the film. The biologist is named Lena and played by Natalie Portman, the psychologist (now Dr. Ventress) is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. (The biologist is also specified as being half-Asian in the sequel book, Authority, something Garland says he was unaware of when adapting the first novel.) Area X is still an unexplained and growing ecosystem on the Florida coast, but it's mostly referred to as "the Shimmer," after the soapy, hazy glow of its borders. Lena's husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), did go on the last expedition and come back changed, but he's still alive (though in seriously ill health) and the specifics of his relationship with Lena (who at some point had an affair with a colleague) are more crucial to the overall story. There's no Crawler, no hypnotic suggestion, and Lena's final showdown at the lighthouse is not with the psychologist, but with a humanoid being that's more obviously alien than anything in VanderMeer's book.

Garland has said his interpretation of Annihilation is inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979), in which a nameless writer and a scientist journey into a ruined area called "the Zone" with the help of a strange guide. In Stalker, each character's quest for meaning and understanding—be it artistic inspiration or a thirst for knowledge—becomes a literal environment for them to navigate, a frightening industrial wasteland of concrete Soviet-era architecture and desolate forests. In Annihilation, Lena is journeying through a world that reflects her darkest fears of disease, death, and the lonely disillusion of her marriage.

The film begins with Lena explaining the reproductive cycle of a cell, dividing and spreading. When she and her team—Ventress, the paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), the physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), and the anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny)—enter the Shimmer, they encounter strange biological formations that Lena describes as malignant, like a tumor spreading across the planet. These structures echo the nightmare disease besieging her husband, who returned from the Shimmer an emotionally distant sleepwalker of a person who quickly begins to suffer multiple-organ failure. Lena observes as things shift and mutate around her, encountering bizarre, blended forms of plant and animal life. One of these hybrid creatures, a bear, kills Cass and absorbs her in death, tormenting the others with the sounds of her final screams.

As their journey continues, the team realizes that their own bodies are changing into something new, a fate that befell every group before them (including Kane's). This knowledge drives Anya mad, turning her against the rest, while Josie decides to accept it, transforming into a plantlike structure. Early on, Ventress diagnoses Lena as self-destructive, wondering why else she'd walk into a death zone like Area X. Lena does seem to be haunted by her own failures in life—we flash back to better times with Kane, then her affair. By the time Kane returns, he's a hollowed-out shell, and in going into the Shimmer, Lena is essentially exploring the psychological landscape of their ruined relationship.

At the end of the film, Ventress and Lena reach the lighthouse, a sort of Siege Perilous for them to endure. Ventress, who is revealed to be suffering from terminal cancer, transforms into a psychedelic flower-like creature (think Georgia O'Keeffe meets Alex Grey), proclaiming the purpose of the Shimmer to be total Earthly destruction. But then Lena is confronted by a metallic figure that mirrors her every move, a clone of sorts that fights with her in an elaborate physical ballet that was choreographed by Bobbi Jene Smith (playing the humanoid is Sonoya Mizuno, the actress and dancer who appeared in Garland's previous film, Ex Machina).

Lena escapes, but only because the creature copies Lena's own hostility, fighting her until it's destroyed by a grenade; the lighthouse burns up in her wake. Lena has navigated a world that's undoubtedly dangerous but also weirdly beautiful, and she's left it in ruins. So much of Garland's imagery—of the curious plant life, the hybrid creatures, even the thing Ventress becomes—is as beguiling as it is forbidding. On returning, Lena seems physically changed by what's happened (her eyes have a Shimmer-like glow to them), while her husband (an alien clone spawned by Area X) has magically recovered and greets her with a hug. Their relationship has survived, though it's been unmistakably altered.

"It's destroying everything," Ventress says earlier in the film as the team investigates. "It's not destroying, it's making something new," Lena replies. They're both right, in a sense; they're just taking in the Shimmer from their own perspectives. For Ventress, who is being ravaged by disease, it's like she's walked into her own cancer cell. For Lena, she's reliving the death of a relationship, coming across disturbing video evidence of her husband's team (who all died in some mysterious manner) before finding, at the lighthouse, his own skeletal corpse. In going into Area X, Lena thinks she has nothing to lose; in surviving, she's mutated into something she might not entirely recognize but that can live in the world again.

Garland's achievement with Annihilation is in merging sci-fi horror with a more intimate psychodrama. He took VanderMeer's book and, like the Shimmer, made it into something new, something retaining a seed of the original idea that also manages to exist alongside it—a rarity for an adaptation. In refusing to slavishly adapt the novel, Garland swerved away from the imagery and storytelling I loved, but his film is fascinating and dense in its own myriad ways, the kind of cult classic I know I'll love revisiting in the years to come.

Russia Is a Great Power Once Again

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 09:32 AM PST

In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory over the Islamic State in Syria. This, of course, was the objective the Kremlin announced in 2015, when Russia first intervened in the country. Yet from the outset, the Russian air campaign primarily hit non-ISIS targets. It soon became clear that Putin's chief goal was to ensure the future of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator. With Russian military backing, Assad, whose demise was once the ostensible focus of U.S. policy in Syria, has secured his regime's survival and taken back swathes of territory previously held by U.S.-backed rebels.

Earlier this month, Russian mercenaries and pro-regime forces attacked a well-known base housing U.S.-backed forces near the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzour. The United States swiftly launched an airstrike, killing hundreds of Russians, according to independent reports. The initial attack, carried out by Russian-contracted fighters, seemed to be an attempt to either test the United States or intimidate it into pulling out its remaining forces. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis called Russia's move on the base "perplexing."

While the full details of the attack remain unclear, there's nothing perplexing about Putin's desired endgame in Syria. Putin's true geopolitical victory has been the successful undermining of U.S. interests in the Middle East, while establishing Russia as a major power broker across the region.

Fighting ISIS has never been Russia's primary concern in Syria. Moscow made this crystal clear in 2016 with its brutal assault on Aleppo, once Syria's largest city and industrial center. The Russia-led aerial campaign deliberately targeted dense civilian areas, including hospitals, and U.S.-backed opposition forces. (Russian officials predictably denied any wrongdoing.) At the time, Stephen O'Brien, the United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, called Russia's indiscriminate bombing of Aleppo, which killed thousands, "our generation's shame." During the months-long assault, Russia blocked two UN security council resolutions on Syria and broke multiple ceasefires.

With this context in mind, the events of the last few days feel like déjà vu. Once again, Russia stalled and watered down a UN Security Council motion for a humanitarian ceasefire in Syria in response to hundreds of civilian casualties. This time, Russia-backed Syrian government forces are leveling eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus and one of the last areas held by anti-Assad rebels such as the Free Syrian Army. Putin finally removed Russia's veto after personal pleas from French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But a day after the resolution passed on Saturday, the air and ground assault resumed. Putin's most recent call for a "humanitarian pause" may go the same way.

As the onslaught on eastern Ghouta continues, Assad, whose ousting once formed the bedrock of Barack Obama's policy in Syria, has tightened his grip. For Moscow, preserving Assad's rule was always less about Assad, and more about safeguarding what Putin saw as another domino in a series of U.S.-orchestrated revolutions in Russia's backyard. The fall of the Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi disturbed Putin. According to multiple reports, he was obsessed with the gruesome video of Qaddafi's murder and blamed the United States—in particular, then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. For Putin, the U.S.-led intervention in Libya was a "case study in Western interventionism," as The New Yorker put it: a policy of regime change draped in the rhetoric of support for human rights.

In the summer of 2011, Putin watched as the Arab Spring reached Syria, embroiling the country in a civil war. As he was prime minister at the time, his ability to act unilaterally was limited. By 2013, when popular protests broke out in Ukraine—a former Soviet state that many Russians considered to be a little brother—Putin, once again the president, could not sit by and allow what he saw as another U.S.-led coup to topple a regime loyal to the Kremlin.

The underwhelming U.S. response to Russia's subsequent annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine emboldened Russia's intervention in Syria. From Ukraine, Putin learned that the Obama administration would only go so far to support its allies. He saw that hybrid war, which emphasizes the use of asymmetric measures to buttress complementary military operations, was a useful tool for confusing the West while preserving maximum plausible deniability of Russia's actions in Ukraine and elsewhere. This strategy includes the use of proxy fighters, unmarked soldiers (so-called little green men), and disinformation to deflect and distract from the reality on the ground. It should come as no surprise, then, that Moscow has tried to cover up Russian deaths in Syria while Putin purports to act as a mediator in the conflict.

Putin's intervention in Syria, like most of his foreign-policy decisions, was a risky gamble, one that could have pitted Russian and U.S. forces against each other. But the gamble paid off: From the Kremlin's point of view, Russia's relatively low-cost adventure has eliminated the threat of further regime change. More than that, it has placed Russia back in the game of great-power competition. It was Putin, not President Donald Trump, who called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ask him not to escalate after the Israelis bombarded Syrian and Iranian targets in retaliation for an Iranian drone incursion. It was Putin who called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to discuss his offensive against U.S.-backed Kurdish militias in northern Syria in January. And it was Russia, not the United States, that hosted the (unsuccessful) Syrian peace talks that same month.

As the war in Syria continues to rage after seven years, Russia may well stumble into the fog of war, as it seeks to navigate complex regional tensions. Indeed, it is difficult to see a clean Russian exit from Syria that doesn't leave Assad vulnerable. But Putin has been reluctant to commit more Russian aid and military support to Assad, especially as Russia's economy continues to stagnate. If old patterns hold,  and once the remaining rebel enclaves are destroyed, Putin will likely seek an international plan for Syrian reconstruction.

If that happens, the international community should not allow itself to be duped: Responsibility for the destruction of Syria falls squarely on Putin's shoulders. If Russia wants to play the great-powers game, it has to face the consequences that come with it.

Male Violence Is Everywhere

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 12:10 PM PST

In the aftermath of a school shooting, one question always stands out: Why did heit's almost always a he—do it? Such an event, and its male perpetrator, draws attention to an awful truth lurking behind the "crazy" outburst: Male violence isn't a one-off, anomalous occurrence, but one more event in a steady drone of violence in homes, schools, and neighborhoods.

In 2014, the University of Alabama criminologist Adam Lankford examined a database of mass killings that occurred from 2006 to 2012. Of the 308 killers, 94 percent were male. Separately, Mother Jones compiled a list from 1982 to today; they found that of 93 shooters in 2014, 97 percent were male. In other violence categories, boys have a higher rate of assault than girls and a suffer higher rate of injury from assault. They are also more likely to report being in a fight in the past year and far more likely to be a homicide victim. In fact, homicide has become the leading cause of death for young African American males.

Another display of male violence recently received public attention. One week before the massacre in Parkland, Florida, photos of a woman with a black eye—allegedly the result of abuse by her then-husband, a senior White House staffer who's since resigned—were circulated on social media and in news outlets. As with mass shootings, violence directed toward an intimate partner is more commonly perpetrated by males. The bottom line is that interpersonal violence of all kinds is largely a male phenomenon. Whether it is physical bullying, fighting, or more severe forms of violence, boys account for a disproportionate amount of both perpetrators and victims.

Like wallpaper, violence has become an unfortunate backdrop to contemporary life. But its drone cannot be completely ignored. I went to Charleston, South Carolina, to view the eclipse last summer, enjoying my first visit to a lovely town with a rich history, and stayed just around the corner from the Emanuel AME Church. Each time I walked past this historic place of worship, my mind involuntarily conjured images of Dylann Roof climbing its stairs and entering its open doors to sit, smiling wanly at the welcoming congregants, biding his time.

Why are men—young men with their whole life before them—so pulled toward violence? In The New York Times, the comedian Michael Ian Black pondered the connection between such flare-ups of male violence and how boys are being "left behind … trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity." Feeling desperate and frustrated, males have "only two choices: withdrawal or rage," he wrote.

Boys' relationship with violence begins as early as childhood. The Stanford scholar Judy Chu, whose work has focused on males' psychosocial development, conducted a study in which she embedded with a small group of 4-year-old boys from largely affluent families at a co-ed independent school outside Boston, interviewing and observing them for two years. In a 2014 book based on the study, When Boys Become Boys, Chu admits that despite being the mother of a son, "I didn't know what to make of the boys' rowdy, rambunctious, and seemingly aggressive behavior." She tried to build trust and forge a relationship with each boy. But one would mimic a gun with his hand and pretend to shoot her each time she looked at him. She couldn't help herself: Every time that happened, she would turn her eyes away, unsure how to respond.

Chu realized that her involuntary reaction to the boy's aggressive play might create a barrier to his connecting with her, and she tried to relax and "enter" his world. Shortly after the first incident, as she was reading to another child in the corner of the classroom, the boy shooter approached her and again aimed and pulled the trigger on her. This time, in an effort to engage with him, Chu responded "by smiling and shooting back at him." But the boy corrected her: When he shoots her, she is supposed to fall dead.

In the first year of her study, the boys proved to be nimble in their relationships: attentive, authentic, direct, empathic. But by the second year, Chu had witnessed how each had realized in his own way that performing conventional types of masculinity was now the only way to satisfy the "hidden" requirement to fit himself into societal norms. The boys asserted these manly bona fides by favoring toys stereotypically designed for males, carefully distancing themselves from girls in their play and dress, and adopting attitudes of toughness and stoicism. The same boys who would sit in Chu's lap or play with her hair with carefree abandon would also strut around the classroom, try out badass personas, and gang up on others. By age 6, these changes in their public behavior, which Chu regarded as examples of "resistance for survival," had the effect of masking their authentic selves from the world.

According to Michael Kaufman, an author and gender-equality advocate, whose work focuses on boys and men, three strands weave together to form the fabric of male violence: violence toward women, violence toward others, and violence toward oneself. In the sense that many mass shootings end with the assailant turning his gun on himself, these events represent, in the view of the sociologists Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel, "suicide-by-mass murder." Their notion underscores the connection between hurting others and hurting oneself: Hurt people hurt people.

In Chu's study, the top dog in the male hierarchy, the boy willing to go furthest in swagger and tough talk, urged the other boys to form the "Mean Team" and "to bother people"—specifically girls. The boys, despite inner doubts, felt pressured to participate once their leader insisted. His "aggressive behavior and tendency to bully his peers made him a force to be reckoned with," Chu noted. To keep their place in the group, and to avoid being targeted, humiliated, or excluded, the other boys joined the Mean Team and took up its values.

Social scientists have known for decades that trajectories toward violence begin early in a boy's life. The Commission on Violence and Youth of the American Psychological Association confirmed in a 1994 report, titled "Reason to Hope," that patterns of violence, once established in childhood, endure well into adulthood. The Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura wrote, "People are not born with preformed repertoires of aggressive behavior. They must learn them."

Like Chu, parents and others routinely observe young boys being schooled in aggression and violence. Sometimes I stand at the edges of a school playground alongside teachers and other adults and we watch the boys, unleashed from desk duty, going wild. They jump on one another, compete with one another, push one another around. It's mostly always in high-natured exuberance and fun, but often an argument erupts and a boy gets angry for some reason and loses it, and someone gets hurt. High-natured play, even when tempers flare, is not unusual or really a problem.

But unfortunately, neither the boy who lashes out in anger nor the one on the receiving end is likely to have sufficient opportunity to recover fully from the conflict. Social conventions impel boys to move on, be strong, suck it up. And most boys find no one willing or able to listen to their upsets anyway. Instead, they resolve hurt feelings with a default strategy: They distance themselves from their upsets. On the outside, boys put on a mask; on the inside, many lose touch with their emotions and, in the words of George Orwell, "grow to fit" the masks they wear. In this way, boys' experiences of aggression and force develop into interpersonal habits. Over time they become, in Chu's words, "cynical" and "sober," less "exuberant" and more "discontented" as they age.

The good news, however, is that times are changing and boyhood, so tied to what society has thought it requires of males, is likely to change as well. The psychologist Jean Twenge researched members of "iGen," whose cellphones are virtual extensions of their voices and minds, and found that they were headed toward what she described in The Atlantic last year as "the worst mental-health crisis in decades." In a piece in The New York Times Magazine last fall, the Emerson College professor and writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis described a new age of anxiety afflicting teenagers, due in part, it seems, to the use of technology. Under such conditions, it is not surprising that young men are responding with reordered priorities. Reporting on the results of a "masculinity audit" in the United Kingdom, Rachel Moss noted that 18- to 29-year-old males "view their mental health as more important than their physical health."  

When I meet with high-school boys, I notice how different they are from those of my generation, that what they face as males is far from my experience. The boyhood that for generations looked like the one Chu described is receding in the rearview mirror. At a time when researchers such as Stephanie Coontz and David Autor report that fewer Millennial women are interested in traditional forms of marriage, even to have children, younger men are looking forward, not back. The sociologist Michael Kimmel, in his recent book, Angry White Men, suggested that young fathers who spend more time with their children, some even choosing to be stay-at-home dads, represent something more than simply wanting better work-family balance. Their choices suggest that men have new possibilities.

Human nature is like the planet's ecosystem. Each has hard and fast realities that can be ignored only at a significant cost. In children's development, there are undeniable limits to how much their instincts and needs—for connection, emotional expression, safety—can be neglected before there's a reckoning. Male violence is a sign that something is out of whack—not merely with one young man or another, but more generally with the model of boyhood available to our sons. Male violence is not a new problem, but there's a sense today, as students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas challenge inaction on guns, that the public mind has reached its own limit to rationalize and resign itself to boys' bad behavior.

Male violence is rooted in the conditions provided for boys: In compelling them to distance themselves from those they depend on, shut down their necessary emotions, and harden themselves in an effort to feel no pain, male conditioning violates boys' basic natures and sets them up to act out in ways that hurt others. Inadvertently, lessons intended to toughen boys in preparation for manhood make them lonelier, less adaptive, and less resilient. Like a one-trick pony: domination, anger, and aggression all the time. As the psychologist James Garbarino explained in Lost Boys, his book about male violence, even confused young men such as Nikolas Cruz might be kept in check by an anchoring relationship—"someone absolutely committed to the child and to whom the child feels a strong positive attachment."

I am inspired by the young men I meet with in an emotional-literacy program at a school outside Philadelphia. Because they are encouraged to discuss topics relevant to their lives—relationships of all kinds, anxiety, sex, pornography—they readily take off their masks. As they share their authentic selves with one another, they create a brotherhood that is honest and warm—a bond that encourages participants to admit their shortcomings (including times they have hurt others) and discourages them from pretending that they never feel hurt, scared, or weak.

I don't have to do more than give these young men permission to be themselves. Even those who have, like most of us, taken their anger or desperation out on someone else find themselves owning up to their lapses and working their way back to their human family.  

John Kelly and the ‘Good Soldier’ Defense

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 08:53 AM PST

It came as no surprise to me earlier this month when White House Chief of Staff John Kelly offered his full-throated support to Rob Porter, a White House aide, who was accused of domestic abuse by his two ex-wives. "I can't say enough good things about him," Kelly said in his first public statement following the published allegations. "He is a friend, a confidante, and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him."

While those unfamiliar with military justice may be shocked to see Kelly, a retired four-star general, publicly defend Porter as "a man of true integrity and honor," it is sadly and wholly consistent with my experiences as a career Air Force JAG officer. Kelly's defense of Porter is rooted in a military culture that too often values loyalty to cronies more than justice for their victims. During my time as a defense counsel, prosecutor, and judge in the military, I witnessed countless people like John Kelly and their negative impact on the fair administration of justice.

The military's pride in intraservice loyalty is understandable. Faithfulness to "team" and devotion to "team members" allow the institution to thrive under the most challenging of circumstances. In battle every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine must be able to count on his or her brothers and sisters in arms. However, this virtue becomes a vice when it is blindly given outside the battlefield, and in particular when it concerns allegations of criminal misconduct. (It's worth noting that Kelly issued a second statement after photos were published of Colbie Holderness, Porter's first wife,  with a black eye. Expressing his "shock," Kelly said he nevertheless stood by "previous comments of the Rob Porter that I have come to know.")

This kind of blind loyalty is not exclusive to the military—think of relatives who profess that their loved one is incapable of violence even after he or she has committed a crime. But the loyalty that a suspect's defenders show takes on outsize importance in the military context. Backed by the tradition of the "good soldier" defense, positive testimony about a soldier's military character can significantly affect a case's outcome. What's more, a soldier's commander can decide whether a case should be brought in the first place.

The good-soldier defense is baked into the military justice system, and it's based on a breathtakingly shallow line of reasoning: that just because someone is good at the job, he is incapable of committing a crime. Used to suggest that an accused has "good military character," the argument alone can be the basis for reasonable doubt or dropped charges. And when testimony supporting an accused soldier's character comes from a general or a flag officer, it can overwhelm all other evidence of guilt.

The good-soldier defense isn't just deployed during court proceedings—it affects pretrial decision making too. In contrast with the civilian justice system, senior commanders alone determine whether a service member in their own chain of command will or won't face court-martial. If Porter had been one of Kelly's Marines, and under investigation for spousal abuse, Kelly would have decided whether Porter would be prosecuted.

Even if an offender is no longer under a commander's watch, the senior officer still has the ability to put his thumb on the scales of justice. In my experience, generals often go to bat for their favorite service members in an attempt to convince another commander to drop charges. From behind-the-scenes phone calls to glowing letters and emails, senior officers can be persuasive.

And if they're unable to derail a case from going to trial, they often still try to influence the proceedings. Time and again, I witnessed generals and admirals affect case verdicts and sentences thanks to their favorable testimonies at court-martial. I've seen their defense supersede photographic evidence and other testimony—including accounts from additional alleged victims. This is essentially what Kelly offered Rob Porter: the power of his word over the word of Porter's ex-wives.

Kelly has exerted similar influence before. In 2016, he was among four Marine generals who testified during a sentencing hearing for Colonel Todd Shane Tomko. Despite allegations of sexual harassment against a subordinate—as well as convictions for violating a military protective order, illegal steroid use, and driving under the influence, among others—Tomko was, according to Kelly's testimony, a "great Marine" and respected leader. Tomko is now awaiting a civilian trial for the alleged sexual abuse of multiple children dating back more than 15 years.

Congress recently recognized that justice should not be openly thwarted this way, specifically in the context of sexual assault. In 2015, lawmakers passed legislation prohibiting the use of the good-soldier defense in sexual assault, rape, and a few other types of cases. But the defense still used elsewhere. It is still permissible in domestic-abuse cases, for example, and it continues to permeate the culture of the military. The "I trust him to have my back in combat" mentality is still fueling the reflexive support of the offender over the victim.

John Kelly's over-the-top support for Porter was wrong. But Chief of Staff Kelly was only acting as General Kelly would have. His statements highlight the fundamental flaw of the military's commander-controlled justice system. Commanders might genuinely believe a subordinate is incapable of abuse, or they might find the subordinate too valuable to the mission not to support in court. The former is naive, the latter reprehensible—and both are reason to remove commanders from the equation entirely. Just as many members of the public recognized that Kelly's bias disqualified him from impartially judging his aide, the country should recognize that commanders are unqualified to pass judgment on their own Rob Porters.

Pyeongchang 2018: Photos From the Final Week

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 06:53 PM PST

After two weeks of competition, Norway topped the Olympic medals chart with 39 total medals, followed by Germany, Canada, and the United States. Here, a look at some of the events of the last days of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, from ski cross and bobsleigh to hockey, speed skating, the Closing Ceremony, and more.

A Gun-Holdup Victim on Whether He Wishes He Had Been Armed

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 05:00 AM PST

Previously in this series:

Today, Eric Kingsbury, of San Francisco, on what he has thought, and felt, about guns after being robbed at gunpoint a year and a half ago. I should note that all the links in his dispatch are ones he added himself:

I've faced down a loaded gun once in my life. It was 10 PM on the night before the Fourth of July in 2016 and I was walking to the train from a friend's house in Berkeley. Almost as soon as I walked out of my friend's driveway, a kid ran across to the street to ask me if I had a phone. I told him I didn't and asked that he leave me alone. That's when he began to ask more forcefully. Within seconds I felt a hand over my mouth, as two other kids ran out from the shadows. I was completely helpless and, for the first time in my adult life, I wasn't in control of my body or my fate.

The kid to my right showed me his gun. He told me he would, "pop a cap in you if you scream or tell anyone," which would have been darkly funny—the sort of thing someone thinks they should say to sound hard—in almost any other circumstance. He then put the gun back in his sweatshirt pocket and pushed it up against my stomach. Meanwhile, his other two friends went to work grabbing my phone, peeling off my backpack, and checking all my pockets. Once they had everything, they let me go. It didn't last more than 30 seconds, tops.

The aftermath of the whole situation was a bit of a blur. There was talking to the cops, a very restless night, and the conversations with all my friends and family the following morning. All of it was difficult, especially learning the truth that many of my most liberal-minded friends and family actually held quite retrograde views on race—the assailants were black, and I am white—that they felt freed to share now that something that they'd heard about so many times in the media had happened to "one of us." But there was one question I got over and over again, one that really surprised me: Would it have been different if you had a gun?

Read On »