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Posted: 03 Mar 2018 04:00 AM PST
In response to the Parkland school shooting last month, a handful of Florida legislators recently approved two bills that would set aside tens of millions of dollars to train teachers to carry firearms. The legislation echoes calls from President Trump and others for schools to arm teachers as a solution to prevent more campus massacres from happening. "We have to let the bad guy know that they are hardened," Trump said at a White House meeting last week, suggesting that schools give bonuses to teachers who carry guns.
But these efforts to create warriors out of teachers as a means of addressing school shootings are wrongheaded. I used to be in the Marines, and now I'm a classroom teacher. From these experiences, there is one thing I know to be true: Responding effectively to an active-shooter situation is one of the toughest challenges for a marksman out there. To train teachers for this role would be an enormous task—and policymakers who think otherwise aren't being realistic.
By the time I completed boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island—and stood ready to pin the Marine Corps Eagle, Globe, and Anchor to my lapel—I came to realize: There's no such thing as a Rambo. Teamwork was the essence of mission success in the Marine Corps. We were trained from the very beginning to understand that each unit we were in was only as strong as our weakest link. If one recruit failed at a task, we were collectively punished with a brutal circuit of push-ups, jumping jacks, and burpees, incentivizing us to figure out how to work together more efficiently and to hold each other accountable. These games in boot camp were always miserable, but in retrospect, I realize that they formed in us a group mindset that allowed us to react to events instinctively, to operate under stress, and to ultimately function as a well-formed team.
Today, I'm a classroom teacher, which is not only a challenging job, but an isolating one as well. The classroom is what defines the school day—teachers do not work regularly with other teachers, but rather spend our days working with students behind the classroom door. Every day that I come to school I work with students in a solo capacity. The type of teamwork that defined mission success in the Marines is not required by school administration for a teacher to perform the necessary functions of the job, but will be required and necessary if teachers are instructed to take armed action against an active shooter. As a former Marine and current teacher, I know that building within teachers (including military-veteran teachers) the required teamwork to be effective in a Parkland-type situation is an unreachable goal.
Beyond that collective mindset, the Marine Corps has always emphasized marksmanship. Every Marine is a rifleman first, regardless of his or her specialty. Before recruits set foot on a rifle range for live-fire exercises, proper weapons-handling skills and the fundamentals of marksmanship are drilled into them—and these 13 weeks of training represent a minimum level of proficiency needed to simply be functional in a combat environment. The ability to enter a building and effectively clear rooms—a skill needed to stop an active-shooter situation—requires an added layer of training and specialization. Thus, having military training alone does not guarantee a person to be effective in an active-shooting situation; efficacy stems from the advanced training that particular units receive, such as that which infantry battalions and special-operations forces undergo.
These units train hard to ensure they're effective in close-quarter battle, learning to fire weapons effectively under repeated stress. They fire thousands of rounds of ammunition in myriad environments during these courses. The purpose is clear: Through repetition and the introduction of stressors, muscle memory is developed; in an actual combat scenario, reaction is almost instinctual. The training required for effective operational response to a hostage situation, for example, requires a high level of training that builds an almost telepathic level of communication, teamwork, and split-second reaction.
Over the course of my time in the Marines, I trained on various heavy machine guns for the purpose of convoy operations, and consider myself to be proficient with a firearm. But none of the skills I learned would truly transfer into an active-shooter situation. Furthermore, as a teacher, I know that most of my day is spent alone in a classroom with my students. Efficient communication—the type forged in the military and necessary for neutralizing an active shooter—cannot occur when teachers spend the day cut off from other teachers in separate rooms.
Though some Florida legislators believe training teachers to use firearms is an appropriate policy response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy, it is unrealistic to expect teachers to react effectively to a threat, even if those teachers have training. There is a difference between firearms training—which develops proficiency in marksmanship and attached safety protocols—and the ability to engage a threat while under fire; at a shooting range, targets do not fire back. Nobody knows how he or she will react when rounds are flying in their direction, and the confusion that law-enforcement officers may experience when encountering armed teachers at school during an active-shooter situation could be devastating. The danger of students being hit by stray bullets during the crossfire that may result from teachers engaging a shooter is also a very real possibility. Furthermore, a working paper by Sheldon Greenberg, a professor of management in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, illustrates that arming teachers will present an increased risk in schools, rather than mitigate the risks posed by an active-shooter situation. The paper notes evidence that police officers, who are trained specifically for violent encounters, often fail to fire their weapons accurately in a sudden crisis situation.
If nothing else, there are the practical considerations. When are teachers to train with firearms? Every teacher I know (including myself) struggle at points to keep their workloads manageable. Lesson planning, grading papers, coaching, helping students put together résumés, work on SAT prep, and then a weekend at the pistol range?
Had I wanted to continue carrying a firearm at work, I would've stayed in the service or chosen a different profession after my enlistment. Having worked with high-school students for several years now, I understand that my ability to be effective as a teacher is predicated on the existence of an environment conducive to learning and trust building. This environment will not exist in a schoolhouse where teachers double as armed guards.
Posted: 03 Mar 2018 04:00 AM PST
Editor’s Note: This is part of The Atlantic's ongoing series looking back at 1968. All past articles and reader correspondence are collected here. New material will be added to that page through the end of 2018.
In 1968, The Graduate was nominated for seven Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Director. The film would go on to clinch the Best Director Oscar for Mike Nichols, launch the career of Dustin Hoffman, and stir nationwide controversy for its transgressive plot: 21-year-old Benjamin Braddock returns home from college, struggles to find direction, and is seduced by a woman who is twice his age—Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father's business partner, played to critical acclaim by Anne Bancroft. Their lust-based affair is cut short when Ben falls in love with Mrs. Robinson's daughter, Elaine, sparking an intractable conflict between the determined young man and his elders.
Discussing the now-classic motion picture 50 years after its win at the Oscars are Conor Friedersdorf, Adrienne LaFrance, Megan Garber, and Christopher Orr.
Friedersdorf: When I saw The Graduate at 20 or 21 it immediately became one of my favorite movies—I'd soon finish college; I hadn't the foggiest notion of what I'd do next; and I could easily imagine myself like Ben in the opening scene: overwhelmed by a welcome home party; escaping to my childhood bedroom; wracked with anxiety about how to pursue a meaningful life. What did I want? Like Ben, I couldn't have said, save that it wasn't anything among my options, or that I could name… just a feeling. I too wanted my future to be… "different."
All these years later, reading reviews of The Graduate for The Atlantic's year-long retrospective on 1968, I was struck by how many critics emphasized something I was oblivious to on my first, second, and third viewings in college: the theme of 1960s generational conflict. Take Roger Ebert. Back then, he savaged the milieu of Ben's parents as "ferociously stupid," complaining that his family and their friends "demand that he perform in the role of Successful Young Upward-Venturing Clean-Cut All-American College Grad" and pronouncing Ben "so painfully awkward and ethical that we are forced to admit we would act pretty much as he does, even in his most extreme moments."
Thirty years later, when Ebert returned to the film, his allegiances had changed:
Today, I'm closer in age to Mrs. Robinson than to Ben. And I'd be revising my opinion of the movie, too, had I thought, on original viewing, that Ben struck a righteous blow on behalf of the younger generation. (Or, if I'd imagined, as the New Republic's bygone critic did, that "what is truly daring, and therefore refreshing, is the film's moral stance. Its acceptance of the fact that a young man might have an affair with a woman and still marry her daughter—a situation not exactly unheard of in America although not previously seen in American films—is part of the film's fundamental insistence: that life, today, in our world, is not worth living unless one can prove it day-by-day, by values that ring true day-by-day.")
But I wasn't alienated from my parents or the values of their generation circa 2000; I sympathized with the taboo that would prevent someone from having an affair with a mother then dating her daughter; and I never thought Ben's parents were anything worse than mildly annoying and a bit blind to their son's anxieties. (And didn't they keep advising Ben that he should date Elaine from the start?)
The movie remains a masterpiece, to me, because it captures the existential anxieties of both Ben and Mrs. Robinson, even if the youngish viewer may only appreciate the former's perspective, and see the movie anew only after reaching the age when one realizes that one's parents and their friends are people, too.
Orr: It's funny that you cite those Ebert reviews, Conor. I remember them well, having read the latter years ago and then gone back to read the former. I thought his about-face wildly wrongheaded then and, if anything, even more so now.
What made Ebert such a great critic was that at core he was an enthusiast, and this is a case where I think his enthusiasms got the better of him, in both directions. It's obviously not The Graduate that underwent a change in identity between Ebert's early and late opinions of it; it's Ebert who did. If anything, his radical reevaluation of the movie speaks to how well it captured its generational divide: Ebert adored it when he was on the "right" side of the divide and reviled it once he reached the "wrong" one.
Like you, I didn't see the film until college (I was one year old when it was released), and like you, it did not speak to me so personally that I felt any obligation to pick sides. It was not a vibrant, political cry, but already an acknowledged "classic," tamed and domesticated by the passage of years. Nonetheless, rewatching it recently I was struck by the degree to which it is an almost perfect document of its moment—a moment that felt to many like a cultural "hinge" between a dreary present that was merely a monotonous continuation of the past, and an unknown future that, whatever it might contain, had to be better.
Nearly every scene in the film—nearly every line—makes this case in one form or another. In the opening party scene, there's the line you cite about Ben wanting his "future" to be "different," followed almost immediately by Mr. McGuire's recommendation that there's a great "future" in plastics. In the next scene, at the Robinsons', Ben twice more expresses concern about his "future." The older characters, by contrast, don't seem to have any future ahead of them at all. Mr. Robinson laments that he'd like to be Ben's age again, before vicariously recommending that Ben "sow a few wild oats." Mrs. Robinson, of course, goes further, essentially living out her husband's fantasy of youthful indiscretion.
Throughout the film, the adults around Ben have an almost vampiric attachment to him, as if they can regain their own youth by stealing his. Mrs. Robinson takes this to the greatest extreme, but it recurs repeatedly in lesser forms.
Ben's parents use him essentially as a party favor on not one but two occasions (his homecoming and his fish-in-a-bowl 21st birthday party), and they exhibit an unhealthy obsession with getting Ben to date the daughter of his dad's business partner. When Ben arrives at the Taft Hotel for his first assignation with Mrs. Robinson, he is met with an outflux of elderly guests. It's as if by entering the building he is crossing the threshold not merely into adulthood but into middle age.
And I very much doubt that it is a coincidence that the montage set to "The Sound of Silence" and "April Come She Will" ends with the line, "A love once new has now grown old."
As the movie progresses, the theme of generational warfare only becomes more conspicuous. In the middle of their tryst, Mrs. Robinson tells Ben, "I just don't think we have much to say to each other." He in turn calls her "a broken-down alcoholic." Ben, who drives a trim and modern little Alfa Romeo, openly mocks the idea that Elaine was conceived in a Ford—literally, the oldest make of mass-produced car in existence. When Mrs. Robinson forbids Ben from taking out Elaine she is, for all intents and purposes, trying to prevent him from returning to his youthful tribe and keep him trapped in this simulacrum of middle age.
And when Ben does take Elaine out, it's little wonder that he tells her she's "the first person I could stand to be with." She is literally the only person his own age that we have seen up to this point in the entire film. Ben appears to have no friends or contemporaries of any kind. He's like Charlton Heston, but rather than apes he's found himself trapped on the Planet of the Old People.
I think the movie starts to fall apart as soon as Ben follows Elaine to Berkeley. It loses focus and plausibility—can any human being actually be as passive as Elaine?—and plays almost like a wish-fulfillment dream sequence that Ben will eventually wake up from, a la Brazil. (It is, as Ben himself notes, "completely baked.")
But the theme of generational conflict continues. His middle-aged landlord (Norman Fell!) wants him out, because "I don't like you." Mr. Robinson asks if Ben despises him or "just the things I stand for." Even Ben's romantic rival, Carl Smith, though theoretically of the same generation, is presented as prematurely aged. Who brings a pipe to the zoo? I think the proper answer is no one. But if anyone did, they would almost certainly be old. When Elaine tells Ben that Carl proposed to her, he replies, "He didn't get down on his knees, I hope?" as if that would be the squarest, most old-fashioned gesture imaginable.
In the end, of course, Ben rescues Elaine from the premature old age that Carl represents. (Note, again, that apart from bride and groom there appear to be virtually no young folk at the wedding—Elaine is essentially marrying into the Planet of the Old People.) Elaine flees the altar, despite having already married Carl, and she and Ben hop a bus to get out of there. (Whatever else you may think of it, that's certainly not square or old-fashioned.) Which leads to the most crucial scene of the movie, and the one that I think puts the lie to Ebert's latter-day assessment. As the bus pulls away to "The Sound of Silence," it finally dawns on Ben and Elaine that they have absolutely no idea what this future they've been clawing toward might hold for them. (Anyone who remembers the '70s will recall that the decade was on no level paradise.) The new, highly dubious couple is, belatedly if appropriately, terrified. Loathing the present is a far cry from having any idea how to build a better future.
LaFrance: I can't believe I never noticed there are no young people at the wedding! I love The Graduate. It is, to me, a perfect film. No shot is wasted. Every moment is deliberate. The "Sound of Silence/April Come She Will" montage still amazes me—not just the clever cinematography, but also because of how it condenses all of the film's tension into four Oedipal minutes, all without dialogue.
One thing that's always perplexed me about the film, though, has to do with the generational divide that you both mentioned. The film is set in the late 1960s, and the soundtrack is decidedly of that moment, but everything else about it feels stuck in the late 1950s. There is no mention of Vietnam—barely an allusion to it, other than Simon and Garfunkel's lyrics. There is no pot-smoking or protesting. Benjamin Braddock is clean-cut and clean shaven—we actually see him shaving in multiple scenes. He often wears a tie. Even the drive-up hamburger joint where Benjamin and Elaine go after their first date has a decidedly Tab Hunter vibe to it. And when the kids parked in the car next to Benjamin's (forever-dreamy) Alfa Romeo start blasting "The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine," Benjamin leans over and asks them to turn down the volume.
Maybe all this is by design. The moment at the burger stand underscores how Benjamin was already hopeless against any effort to avoid turning out just like his cocktail-generation parents. He's just as phony as they are. Besides, a moviegoer in 1967 wouldn't have needed a reminder of the war, or of the extent to which it fueled resentment among the Baby Boomers being drafted at the time. I don't quite understand how young audiences would have seen Benjamin's stupefaction in the face of a future beyond his control as righteous—or even particularly rebellious. There's really nothing countercultural about running off with the pretty girl next door.
Orr: You've inspired me to offer a super-quick response, Adrienne. In my entry, I'd considered throwing in a few lines about Rebel Without a Cause, another of the defining examples of the American generational-conflict subgenre. (It's even set, like The Graduate, in L.A. County.) But it didn't occur to me that, among their many similarities, the two movies seem to catalogue a similar generational divide, despite the fact that Rebel was released 12 years earlier—and 12 years that, given what was happening in the country at the time, might as well have been 25. (The Charles Webb novel that The Graduate was based on was written in 1963, but still.)
I'd honestly never given much thought to the way that The Graduate is simultaneously of its moment and seemingly from another decade altogether. Even the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, while technically mid-to-late 60s, is really a form of throwback music. One of their principal influences was the Everly Brothers; the two duos even toured together in the early 2000s. As noted, I was (literally) a baby in 1968, but it's hard to think of a less rebellious, more "square" choice of contemporaneous musical accompaniment than old Paul and Art.
Garber: Those are such good points—I'd never considered how out-of-its-time The Graduate is. And I think one generous reading of the '50s/'60s thing—generous to The Graduate itself—is one that sees the decade discrepancy serving the other theme you three were discussing: the generational tensions at play. The way young people and older people can have of talking past each other, of willfully misunderstanding each other, even of battling each other—a dynamic the movie so deftly captures.
One of the things I appreciate about The Graduate is how horribly hermetic Nichols et al. managed to make its universe (that universe being, like you said, Chris, L.A.—traditionally a place of sunniness and breeziness and fantasy and possibility). Here, though, L.A. is stifling. That plane. That pool. That fish tank. That diving suit, with its ridiculous flippers smacking awkwardly on the kitchen floor. There's so much visual emphasis on doors, here, too ... doors open, but, much more often, doors shut. Possibilities foreclosed.
And—here's, maybe, a connection to the film's (lack of) overt political context you were discussing—that sense of thwarted potential nicely emphasizes Ben's (and, really, pretty much all the other characters') extreme myopia: their inability to see, or really to care, beyond themselves. A self-absorption that is so all-encompassing that it never occurs to anyone involved to question or attempt to correct it.
So, in that sense, maybe it's fitting that there's no war in this movie. Or, for that matter, a civil-rights struggle, or a women's movement, or political strife of any kind. Those absences could definitely be an oversight, but they could also be part of the point: In a movie about people who are as thoroughly selfish as these characters are—a movie that is about stifled people as much as it's about stifled dreams—the broader world has no place. This universe is small, and solipsism reigns.
But! That's, like I said, the generous reading of things. And I'm not actually sure that I'm fully convinced by it. Because, overall, I'm with Roger Ebert: I largely disliked The Graduate on rewatching it. Which isn't to say that I didn't appreciate it, still (I completely agree, Adrienne, there is some amazing filmmaking in it), but it is to say that it frustrated me and angered me and left me, in the end, cold.
Chris, you mentioned how the movie falls apart in its second half, and I so deeply agree. As far as I'm concerned that's in large part because its plot hangs so insistently on the motivations of one Elaine Robinson. And those motivations ... make no sense at all. Like, truly, none. She goes on one horrible-and-insulting-but-then-better-because-burgers(?) date with Ben; she thinks (or maybe allows herself to believe) that Ben raped her mother; she realizes the full truth; she comes back to him anyway. He asks her to marry him; she initially says no; he is legitimately surprised that she won't acquiesce to him. I realize this is the era of the feminine mystique, and that Ben might represent to Elaine the very strain of rebelliousness that her mother represented to Ben … but that's another generous reading, because the film treats Elaine, for the most part, as an eyelash-batting plot device. "I know what I'm doing is the best thing for you," Elaine writes to Ben in a note about her future, and: sigh.
I could definitely be missing something. Maybe, sure, all the absurdity is the point. The New York Times review, from late 1967, called The Graduate "one of the best seriocomic social satires we've had from Hollywood since Preston Sturges was making them." Maybe my sense of satire has been so thoroughly calibrated to 2018 standards that I can no longer appreciate the strain of "seriocomedy" Elaine's character arc represents. Maaaaaaaybe The Graduate is a kind of pre–Breaking Bad Breaking Bad: a good guy slowly transformed into an agent of chaos, the transformation propelled not by financial need, but by its opposite. Maybe we're watching Ben's descent into conformity/rebellion/an exciting future in plastics. Maybe we're seeing the makings of the "me decade," festering in the L.A. sun. Maybe Elaine's baffling passivity is a work of sly feminism. Maybe?
Still, though: Team Ebert.
Because, watching The Graduate in 2018, I was not at all convinced that the film is self-aware enough to know what it's mocking, and for that matter what it's endorsing (besides, evidently, the work of Simon and Garfunkel). The movie seems, itself, thoroughly Team Ben—despite his moral descent, and maybe even because of it.
The film that is named for him gives Ben everything he wanted. It asks basically nothing of him in return, save for a lot of car-driving and flop-sweating. And: It turns Elaine into a stooge, robbed of reason and agency. (And that's not even getting to the character of Mrs. Robinson—which, Team Ebert again.) The violin the audience is being asked to play here is so very, very small. And as much as I appreciate The Graduate, still, on a scene-by-scene and frame-by-frame basis—on that level, it is magisterial—overall, I couldn't get over its Poe's Law failings. The movie didn't sell me as satire. But if it's not satire … what is it?
LaFrance: Maybe I'm going too easy on Mike Nichols, the director, but I always figured the Robinson women (not to mention Mrs. Braddock) were so one-dimensional because we're seeing the events of the film totally through Benjamin's eyes and delusions. Consider again the famous "April Come She Will" montage: all of those tight shots on Ben's face; and the fact that we pretty much only see Mrs. Robinson's torso, in various states of undress, to mark the passage of time; and then the view of his mother in the final shot of the sequence, where she's basically indistinguishable from Mrs. Robinson. (Of course you're right that Elaine is absurdly and unreasonably passive, but I have to say Katharine Ross's eyelashes are legit amazing.)
There's a story I once read about a dinner-party exchange between Nichols and his long-time comedic partner Elaine May. She apparently asked, off-handedly, something like, You know what I can't stand about God? And Nichols replied, without pausing, That he hates arrogance but doesn't mind cruelty. I always remembered that line because it's pithy, and also because it's pure Benjamin Braddock: hates arrogance, but doesn't mind cruelty. Resents the establishment, and fights back by conforming. And just like the rest of The Graduate, if it weren't so sad, it'd be hilarious.
Orr: I find myself caught between your two poles of outright Graduate-love and Ebert-y disdain. I find the first two-thirds of the movie genuinely brilliant but, as noted, feel it falls apart badly in the final act—like you, Megan, largely because nothing Elaine Robinson does makes a lick of sense. You're right, Adrienne, that the movie is told almost exclusively from Ben's perspective, but that doesn't prevent Mrs. Robinson from being a complex and fascinating character.
Elaine is just a dud.
Megan went through most of the particulars, though I'd add that Elaine contemporaneously tells not one, but two men—neither of whom seems remotely appealing—that she "might" marry them. Then ultimately she lets her parents make the decision for her (what is she, 9?) before impulsively abandoning her now-husband for a glass-banging lunatic who she knows slept with her mother. She seems devoid of even the slightest hint of agency, literally inclined to do whatever the last male character to speak to her tells her to do. And, no Megan, I think there's zero chance that this was a deliberate bit of sexual satire.
Not to throw stones unnecessarily, but the failures of the character are exacerbated by the fact that Ross is simply not a good actress. She lucked into roles in two classic films (The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid two years later) and two other culturally relevant ones (1975's The Stepford Wives and 1976's Voyage of the Damned), but she's not particularly good in any of them. Ironically, while we're on the subject of marital indecisiveness, Ross had four brief marriages during the period of her semi-stardom. Happily, she seems to have finally gotten it right in 1984 by marrying Sam Elliott, whom she's still with. Perhaps there's hope for Elaine after all.
Garber: Chris, you mentioned that Mrs. Robinson is "a complex and fascinating character," and, YES, I so agree. To me, she redeems this movie in so many ways. Even though, like you said, Adrienne, so much of her character, just like so much of Elaine's character, is filtered through Ben-o-vision ... there's still such richness that comes through. And in some part, I think, precisely because of the psychic distance the movie imposes on her.
Mrs. Robinson has such a feline quality to her: She moves so quickly, so intentionally, so efficiently. She swathes herself in leopard print, and tiger print, as if she were trying to summon the spirit of the creatures in question. (According to Wikipedia, which would totally never lie about such things, the use of the term cougar to suggest an older woman who dates a much-younger man didn't come about until this century; I wonder whether the deeper roots of it, though, aren't in Mrs. Robinson and her jungle-feline-tastic loungewear.) There's something so ... I don't know, precarious about her character. She threatens. She lurks. She seethes, quietly. One of the things I appreciate so much about Bancroft's performance is how deftly she strikes a balance between coolness and ferocity: There's so much simmering beneath that self-controlled surface. So much anger. So much pain. So much sadness that she takes out not just on her husband, and not just on her daughter, but also on "Benjamin."
And, speaking of that! One of the things that struck me in a way it hadn't quite before was how deeply predatory Mrs. Robinson is toward Ben—especially at the beginning of their (romantic) relationship. (And that's doubly striking, of course, and sadly ironic, given that Hoffman himself has been accused of sexual assault.) After Ben drives Mrs. Robinson home from his party, he tries to leave; she will not let him. He resists; she ignores him. She slams the door. She takes her clothes off. He resists again. She insists. It is not necessarily played as an interaction that is deeply uncomfortable; it struck me as deeply uncomfortable nonetheless. We said in the intro to this conversation that Ben and Mrs. Robinson have a "lust-based affair," but this is another question I had about the movie: Were we really witnessing lust? Perhaps that was Nichols's and the other filmmakers' intention, that Ben was successfully seduced; for me, though, I got no sense at all of (sexual) chemistry between Hoffman and Bancroft, and thus between Ben and Mrs. Robinson. Their affair felt to me like an ongoing case of mutual exploitation. Two sad people, using each other. A time bomb, ticking.
And, of course, that could be the point, as well: an affair that is profoundly cynical, but—both despite and because of the cynicism—cinematically interesting.
To return to the generational tensions you guys discussed above, one of the things I find most fascinating about Mrs. Robinson is how aligned she and Ben ultimately are in their anxieties. Ben, here, is being confronted with a kind of death: of youth, of possibility, of freedom. So, too, is Mrs. Robinson—not with a physical death, necessarily, but with the death of her purpose, her value, her identity. She lived during a time when upper-class women were appreciated primarily as wives and mothers, when little more was expected of them than to marry and procreate; as the film plays out, though, her daughter leaves for college, and for a life of her own. Her marriage is stifling. She has, seemingly, no job, no hobbies, no friends, nothing but an empty house that she fills with meaningless symbols of distant wildness. She is rich, and, at the same time, she is robbed—of the stuff that makes a full life and a full person. The film never reveals her first name; she is merely "Mrs. Robinson": a name, but not a self. What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson? The song, gah, never bothers to find out.
Friedersdorf: You're so right, Megan, that the complexity of Mrs. Robinson is among the film's strongest features—and one accomplished so efficiently! Is there any more efficient dialogue-driven scene in any film than Ben's failed attempt at pillow talk, which begins with Mrs. Robinson declaring that she has no interest in talking about art and ends with her admission that she majored in the subject?
To me, the film is impossible to imagine without Bancroft—and as impossible to imagine with Robert Redford cast as Benjamin Braddock, which almost happened. The alternative Elaine Robinson was Candice Bergen. Chris, maybe you'd have liked her better? But I'm going to undertake a brief defense of the film as it was made, granting that Elaine's motivation was obscure enough to be a weakness, but defending the last third of the film nevertheless.
Begin with what I take to be the most charitable reading of Elaine: Nichols is showing us the character through Ben's eyes, as Adrienne suggested—and for that reason, those parts of the story almost require her to be devoid of personality, because Ben isn't ever seeing her for who she is—he sees in this person he barely knows the woman of his dreams because that's what inexperienced, self-centered, insecure 21-year-old men do amid hopeful, anxious, romantic fantasies about being destined for a "different" future.
Had Ben ever seen the real Elaine you wouldn't have that moment on the bus, at the ending, when it suddenly occurs to Ben that he doesn't actually know Elaine at all.
But we do.
That late scene in church is when the audience gets its best glimpse of Elaine, and in it her actions make more sense, I think. We don't really know how long she'd dated Carl or what their relationship was like (though one surmises "the old makeout king" wasn't unlike Mr. Robinson and his Ford). But we do know she was raised by Mrs. Robinson. We know how assertive, acerbic, manipulative, quick to anger, and vindictive Mrs. Robinson could be. And that she was an alcoholic.
Imagine being raised by someone like that—or check out any website for adult children of alcoholics:
Of course Elaine barely stood up for herself on her first date with Ben, quickly forgave him, and aceded when her parents pressured her to marry Carl. She'd spent her whole life avoiding conflict, trying to please, going along to get along—and hatred of having to do so finally erupted in a spectacular at-the-altar rebellion. What strikes me about that scene in the church is that Elaine's decision to run off with Ben has less to do with him than the reaction his appearance evokes in others: the hatred on the faces of her mother and father, and her horror-struck realization that Carl's face is warped by the very same expression.
Elaine didn't run to Ben—she ran away from a relationship with her mother so broken that she disbelieved her claim that she'd been raped, and from a marriage like that of her parents. Ebert was wrong twice. He shouldn't have been rooting for Ben or Mrs. Robinson. We all should've been rooting for poor Elaine all along!
Finally, about that ending: The Graduate has a fantastic ending! Yes, the genius "what have we done?!" moment on the bus—but also the climactic scene in the church that preceded it, with a crucifix wielded to block the door; and the scene before that, with so much information conveyed in the faces of Elaine and her parents; and the moment before that, when Ben seemed to have arrived too late.
All that happened in the final third!
I admit that, more than most people, I am a sucker for sun-kissed footage of semi-suspenseful drives up and down Highway 101, which could be skewing my assessment here. But I submit that many folks remember liking The Graduate more on first viewings, when revisiting it years later, because they've forgotten the suspense and fun of seeing the film without knowing that final sequence.
What do you think, readers? Your thoughts on The Graduate are welcome, especially if you saw the film at different stages of life, or in late 1967 or 1968 and can speak to how it was received by the first generation to see it. Email email@example.com and note if you don't want your name used if I publish an excerpt.
Posted: 03 Mar 2018 03:00 AM PST
I like it when Congress surprises me. I really do. After more than two decades covering Washington, one has a tendency to grow jaded about the dysfunctionality of the legislative branch. Meaningful progress is increasingly the exception rather than the rule, especially on issues that are divisive and complicated—which these days means pretty much all issues.
So when I say that, despite all the hubbub of late, I'm skeptical Congress will do much to reform gun-safety laws, please know that I am very much hoping to be proved wrong.
Plenty of smart folks seem optimistic that this time will be different—that the activism of the Parkland survivors is fueling a public outcry that will compel Congress to get serious about addressing America's gun-violence problem.
Lawmakers across the ideological spectrum clearly have been feeling the heat. Republican leadership has assured the public that it is committed to passing post-Parkland reforms ASAP. Message: We hear your outrage, and we are on it.
About time, right? Except that there's nothing in Congress even approaching agreement, not merely about how best to address the problem of gun violence, but about what the problem even is. Case in point: Never do American politicians express such concern about the nation's mental health as when there's a movement afoot to tighten gun laws.
It is, in fact, notable that Republicans have been touting their commitment to "school safety." "We're gonna do a lot on school safety," Representative Steve Stivers, head of the NRCC, told The Hill on Monday. "Part of that's gun stuff, but part of that's school safety stuff." To reiterate: House Republicans do not consider school-safety issues to be the same as gun issues—and they are way more focused on the former than the latter.
If anything moves on the gun front, expect it to be minor. The measure widely seen as having the best chance at passage aims to improve background checks for gun purchases. But to be clear: Congress is not looking to close the so-called gun-show loophole in a move toward universal background checks. (This is a reform that polls indicate the overwhelming majority of Americans support. ) No. The proposal currently under discussion merely seeks to improve reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Now, finding a way to keep the NICS database more up to date would be a useful step, but a baby step at best.
And even this could prove tricky—despite the fact that even the NRA supports the proposal. Legislation to fix the database, known as the Fix NICS Act, passed the House in December, but Republicans linked it to a controversial provision that would allow concealed-carry permits to hold sway across state lines. From a reform perspective, this wouldn't constitute a baby step forward so much as one baby step forward and three daddy steps back. Post-Parkland, the House Freedom Caucus has indicated it might be willing to separate the two measures—but only if reform advocates satisfy the caucus's concerns about due process. Meanwhile, Senator Mike Lee has, on similar due-process ground, put a hold on a bill containing the measure. Senator Rand Paul has voiced his opposition as well.
Another broadly popular reform being contemplated: outlawing bump stocks, which enable semiautomatic rifles to be fired at close to the rate of fully automatic ones. This restriction gained support in the wake of last year's massacre at a country music festival in Las Vegas that killed 58 people. But then came the squabbling over whether the matter should be dealt with via legislation or regulation—Congress (and the NRA) wanted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to handle things, while the ATF preferred a legislative solution—and things swiftly fell apart.
Post-Parkland, Trump has directed Justice to find a way to outlaw bump stocks. But first, the department will need to figure out whether even has the authority to do so. Previously, the ATF had said that, since the devices do not technically turn a semiautomatic into an automatic (with a bump stock, the trigger still needs to be depressed multiple times), they are not subject to regulation. The bureau has been asked to reconsider this ruling. Such a change, however, is expected to land the government in a prolonged legal battle with gun manufacturers.
Meanwhile, congressional Democrats are arguing that legislation is required to address the bump-stock situation. But Republicans aren't exactly leaping to seize ownership of the matter. And since Trump has now put Attorney General Jeff Sessions theoretically in charge of the issue, don't be surprised if many members are happy to sit back and let the DOJ keep handling this.
Trump has also endorsed raising the age limit for purchasing semiautomatic rifles to 21—a move he assured Americans that the NRA would support. Alas, the NRA apparently did not get that memo and has been pushing back rather aggressively. Also skeptical of such a measure is John Cornyn, the number-two ranking Republican in the Senate. Cornyn has publicly cautioned that raising the age limit wouldn't necessarily save lives, wouldn't "get at the root of the problem"—and probably lacks the votes to pass the Senate anyway.
The prospects are far less promising for stronger reforms—like a ban of semiautomatic rifles (legislation for which a supermajority of House Democrats are supporting) or restrictions on high-capacity magazines. Yes, during the February 21 CNN Town Hall, Florida Senator Marco Rubio was shamed into saying he would consider supporting a ban on such magazines. But as Rubio learned during his past foray into immigration reform, it can be tough to stand up to an outraged party base—which the NRA is exceedingly adept at mobilizing. And lest anyone forget, during that same town hall, Rubio refused to reject future donations from the gun-rights group. So don't look for him to go rogue and start pushing controversial reforms any time soon—especially during a high-stakes midterm election cycle.
There is, of course, an argument to be made that, with control of Congress on the line this year, members are more vulnerable than usual to reform pressure. Except that midterm races are about motivating the parties' base voters. Again, the NRA is a master of this—and of waving fat wads of campaign cash under needy lawmakers' noses. More broadly, legislative fights over new gun laws would be high-profile and bloody. GOP leadership is loath to put its troops in the position of taking awkward votes. Politically speaking, it's best for members of the anxious majority to keep the reform debates as limited as possible.
Some Republican lawmakers have been upfront about their lack of interest in changing gun laws. Senator Ted Cruz's quick-draw response to Parkland was to slam Democrats for politicizing the tragedy. Speaker Paul Ryan promptly warned against any "knee-jerk" response from policymakers. Multiple Republicans have been issuing warnings about how Congress shouldn't rush to pass laws that won't do any good. "These are feel-good measures that aren't going to solve the problem," Montana Senator Steve Daines said this week of efforts to ban bump-stocks, raise age limits, and impose universal background checks. (That last one, of course, is not seriously on the table.)
Republicans have also begun engaging in some political butt covering, noting that, on a topic this touchy, any reforms will need the full and enthusiastic backing of the president to succeed.
But thus far, Trump's incoherence on the issue has served only to throw the debate into chaos. One minute he's talking about arming teachers and touting his love for the "good people" at the NRA. The next, he's holding a televised sit-down with lawmakers, in which he suggests he's open to tighter restrictions on assault weapons, opposes the concealed-carry reciprocity part of the Fix NICS Act, wants a more "comprehensive" background-check measure, and ridiculing a GOP Senator for being "afraid of the NRA." His call to "take the gun first, go through due-process second" played especially poorly with Republicans.
Following House Republicans' closed-door conference Tuesday, Speaker Ryan emerged with this to tell reporters: "We shouldn't be banning guns for law-abiding citizens. We should be focused on making sure that citizens who should not have guns in the first place don't get those guns." He voiced his support for Trump's call to arm teachers—though he feels the decision should be left up to state and local officials. He also said that Parkland had spotlighted the need for better oversight of law enforcement. "There were a lot of breakdowns from local law enforcement to the FBI getting tips that they didn't follow up on to school resource officers who were trained to protect kids in these schools and who didn't do that."
Such remarks provide further clarity for anyone wondering about the difference between school-safety issues and gun issues, and just how little taste the GOP majority has for the latter.
Indeed, post-conference meeting, the House seemed happy to boot the entire sticky issue to the Senate. A senior House Republican aide emailed me to say that "the House has acted and leaders now believe that it's the Senate's turn to act." (Translation: Whatever does or does not happen, blame Mitch McConnell.) As for the actions already taken, the aide bullet-pointed three "House-passed measures in response to previous shootings."
Maybe it's just me, but this doesn't sound like a conference raring to rethink much of anything post-Parkland.
Congressional Democrats apparently felt the same. Representative Bill Pascrell publicly slammed Ryan for having "lost his guts." Steny Hoyer, the number-two Democrat in the House, lashed out at Ryan's refusal to allow a floor debate on universal background checks.
"It is entirely possible that Republicans evade responsibility entirely and do nothing," a senior House Democratic aide emailed me Tuesday afternoon. "Ryan's comments today that he's not going to micromanage [any reform effort] are shocking. Such a weak Speaker. But of course he sides with his master, Trump, on having teachers carry guns."
Then again, maybe the Senate will find a way forward. After all, polls show that even a majority of Republicans now favor tighter gun restrictions. Even so, and with all due respect to the herculean effort of the #NeverAgain movement, if Congress takes more than a baby step forward on this topic, in this midst of this unusually toxic political climate, I won't be surprised. I'll be astonished.
Posted: 03 Mar 2018 01:50 AM PST
ZANZIBAR—Ivory pirates, slave traders, and naturalists alike have long sought out the Zanzibar archipelago, a biodiverse group of islands lying off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. One of these islands, Misali, is surrounded by a six-mile coral reef. It teems with rare life: hawksbill turtles, flying foxes, coconuts crabs—and lots of octopuses.
This island is special to Muslims, who form the vast majority of Zanzibar's population. According to a local Islamic myth, Misali was once visited by a saintly man known as Prophet Hadhara. When he asked fishermen for a prayer mat, they had none to offer, but he said it didn't matter: The teardrop-shaped island, whose northern beach faces Mecca, was like a prayer mat itself. In fact, "Misali," in the local Kiswahili language, means "prayer mat."
Misali sustained generations of Muslims; the octopus catch, in particular, kept them fed for centuries. But overfishing, climate change, and oil exploration began in recent years to threaten the ecosystem. The octopus population dropped dramatically. Government regulations did little to curb the problem. And so, some residents decided to try a different strategy: appealing to the community's Islamic consciousness and using verses from the Quran to promote conservation.
"Whether you catch small-size fish, damage coral reefs, or use drag nets in seagrass areas … [it] is forbidden in the Islamic point of view," said Ali Said Hamad, a field officer at local nonprofit Mwambao Coastal Community Network who began using the religious strategy in a few villages in 2016. "We should use our resources in a wise manner. That's why there is mizan—an Arabic word which means balance, but balance in the sense of sustainability."
Since 2016, Mwambao has been assisting villages' shehia, or fishery committee, with closing 436 hectares of fishing grounds in intervals of three months per year, to allow the octopus population to regenerate. Some closures coincide with Ramadan, when fishermen will feel discouraged from entering the water, "because when water gets into your ears and nose it means that you're breaking your fast," said Ali Thani, the country coordinator at Mwambao. When the area re-opens toward the end of Ramadan, when celebrations require villagers to splurge, "they can sell the [bigger] octopus, get money for Eid, and buy clothes for their kids," he added.
While foreign nonprofits and words like "sustainability" can evoke distrust in the population, the Quran does not: "We say, 'It's not from Europe—it is in your faith; it is in your religion; it has been there for a long time,'" Thani said. "[T]his is making the people to start trusting things."
Although quantitative data is hard to come by, Thani said anecdotal evidence suggests these octopus regeneration efforts "got very good results." The octopuses are heavier now, commonly growing to twice the size they used to attain before the religious strategy went into effect. "We left octopuses of 1kg and now they find ones of 2-2.5kg," he said.
The Mwambao staff's experience using Islamic environmental ethics to reinforce conservationist messages goes back several years. In the 1990s, when illegal fishing methods like poison and dynamite threatened Misali's fish stocks, Hamad and Thani were employees of a nongovernmental organization called CARE International. They worked with clerics and fishermen to promote the Islamic concept of khalifa, or environmental stewardship, making Misali the site of the first documented example of a partnership between a secular NGO and Muslim clerics.
In the past, mixing politics and religion has facilitated the mass exploitation of natural resources in former colonies like Zanzibar, following Pope Nicholas V's 15th-century edict to "capture, vanquish, and subdue." But in recent years, the use of scripture to excite and involve communities in green activism has taken off. Pope Francis's 2015 encyclical, Laudato si', stressed sustainable development, while Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, and Buddhist environmental treatises launched similar commitments. When, in April 2016, 195 countries signed the Paris Agreement, the accord's success was credited in no small part to faith-based organizations lobbying behind the scenes.
In Zanzibar, balancing sustainability and economic survival can feel like "an uphill battle," said Aboud Jumbe, the policy director at Zanzibar's Ministry of Lands, Water, Energy, and the Environment. "People are aware of things changing around them—the fishermen are aware of the drying stocks in the coral reefs; the farmers are aware of the change in rains," he said. In spite of these problems, the government contracted RAK Gas, a UAE-based company, to explore for oil and gas last year. In the face of a population boom, and poverty levels of more than 50 percent, Jumbe questioned the reach of imams. "Even though we do have local community religious elders in the country who are pretty much at the forefront of conservation and [climate change] adaptation, what can they do in the face of that very aggressive development agenda?"
Gulf countries such as the UAE—Muslim states financed by oil and gas profits—have not generously supported nonprofits promoting Islamic environmental ethics, said Fazlun Khalid, the founder of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences, who added that "99.99 percent of what funding that we received over the years has been mainly from secular organizations."
Meanwhile, Wahhabism, a fundamentalist type of Islam that Saudi Arabia is often accused of funding and exporting, is gaining territory in Zanzibar, with possibly dire consequences for the environment.
In Jambiani and Paje, villages in eastern Zanzibar, some villagers worship so-called sacred groves—stretches of rare coral rag forest that serve as medicinal treasure chests, where people make food offerings to conceive a baby, pray for rain, or heal from sickness, and where, legend has it, villagers were cured from a plague. The groves shelter caves, where traces of human occupation dating back 20,000 years have been excavated. The trees are also said to harbor ancestral spirits and are part of the villages' origin stories. (Belief in such spirits stem from Swahili traditions that predate Islam on Zanzibar; Islam was introduced here in the eighth century.) But worshipping trees, or anyone other than God, is deemed blasphemous—and for extremists, such blasphemy demands action. In Syria, for example, an ISIS affiliate reportedly chopped down a tree last year over fears that "polytheistic" locals were worshipping it as a god.
"I think it's a serious issue for [Zanzibari] sacred groves because that could be used as an argument to neglect or not protect them," said Robert Wild of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
But efforts at conservation might yet prevail—thanks in part to monetary incentives. "There are lots of controversies and debates about the use of the environment," said Kessi Ali Pandu, a Muslim who works as a guide of the sacred groves. "[But] it doesn't have to do with religion, or culture, or whatever—trees are a source of life. So let's keep the trees and the caves. They pay for my living."
Reporting for this piece was supported by a grant from the International Women's Media Foundation.
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 03:24 PM PST
What We're Following
Trading Places: The steep tariffs on steel and aluminum that President Trump announced on Thursday have parallels in a 1971 surtax imposed by President Richard Nixon—and could come with serious costs, David Frum writes. The restrictions also conflict with Trump's goal of reducing low-skilled immigration, as U.S. manufacturers may struggle to make up the difference from imports with a limited labor supply. Meanwhile, several of Trump's close advisers—including his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; Attorney General Jeff Sessions; and Chief of Staff John Kelly—are rumored to be thinking about leaving the White House.
Italy's Elections: At the polls on Sunday, voters will confront a choice among a rising far-right wing, a disunited left, and a struggling center—dynamics that have been playing out in other European countries over the past few years, and whose consequences could affect the whole European Union. Those supporting the populist Five-Star Movement include many young Italians, who say they hope candidates outside the political establishment will give them better economic opportunities.
Space Struggles: An audit report from the Government Accountability Office says NASA is falling behind schedule and may exceed its budget on the James Webb Space Telescope, the $8.8 billion device that's intended to succeed Hubble. Spaceport America, billed as "the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport," has been completed for nearly a decade—but the New Mexico site has yet to see its hoped-for profits from the private space industry.
Who We're Talking To
The Atlantic's Vann R. Newkirk II and Adam Serwer describe how Afrofuturism is entering the American mainstream on the latest episode of Radio Atlantic. Listen and subscribe.
Liza Mandelup, a filmmaker, discusses her short documentary on a camp for children whose rare skin disorder makes them allergic to sunlight. Watch here.
Jeremy Richman, a neuroscientist whose 6-year-old daughter was killed in the Sandy Hook elementary-school shooting, explains how he and his family channeled their grief into activism: "We were profoundly committed to preventing others from suffering in the way that we were suffering and continue to [suffer to] this day."
Keep reading as Ward describes how poverty and racism persist in her home state of Mississippi more than 50 years after King fought to stop them.
What Do You Know … About Culture?
Sunday's Oscar ceremony will officially bring a close to the 2017 awards season. Our film critic Christopher Orr offers his predictions for who will go home with a trophy in 10 of the categories. (If you need a refresher on the nominees, this crash course may be helpful.) Elsewhere in film, Black Panther is still going strong, and its music—whose videos draw heavily on African imagery—may be one reason for that. Ta-Nehisi Coates sat down earlier this week with Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong'o, two of the films stars, to learn about their personal relationships with the characters they play.
Can you remember the other key facts from this week's culture coverage? Test your knowledge below:
1. The Scandinavian philosophy of ____________ advocates for the teaching of craft as a way of improving students' character and intellect.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
2. The South Korean metal band ____________, which performed at the Olympics' closing ceremony, combines modern musical styles with the country's traditional instruments, such as the geomungo.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
3. The Bollywood actress Sridevi reportedly turned down Steven Spielberg's offer to be in his film ____________ because she was at the height of her stardom and thought the role was too small.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
Poem of the Week
This Tuesday, February 27, marked the 211th birthday of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of The Atlantic's co-founders. From our July 1864 issue, here's his poem "Palingenesis":
Last month, Eliot A. Cohen described this year's Munich Security Conference as evidence of "the collapse of the global elite." Benedikt Franke, the chief operating officer of the foundation that runs the conference, responds:
Time of Your Life
Happy birthday to Christine's husband, Gabe (a year younger than Microsoft); to Sophia (a year younger than Wikipedia); to Patrick's spouse, Sorian (twice the age of the euro); and to Missy's friend Katie (a year younger than The Lord of the Rings).
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 02:45 PM PST
Today in 5 Lines
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal killed a proposed tax break that would have benefited Delta Airlines after the airline cut ties with the National Rifle Association. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly defended his handling of the domestic-abuse allegations against former Trump staffer Rob Porter and offered his own timeline of the episode. In a series of morning tweets, President Trump exchanged insults with comedian Alec Baldwin and defended his position on trade. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence attended the funeral for the late Reverend Billy Graham in Charlotte, North Carolina. A manhunt is underway after two people were fatally shot by a gunman at Central Michigan University.
Today on The Atlantic
Follow stories throughout the day with our Politics & Policy portal.
What We're Reading
Impeccable Timing?: Trump ally Carl Icahn reportedly sold $31.3 million in stock in a company dependent on steel, just days before Trump announced his plans to impose tariffs on steel imports. (Judd Legum, ThinkProgress)
Why Do Billionaires Love Populism?: Amy Chua explains the alliance between "self-dealing plutocrats" and working-class voters. (Politico)
'Jared Has Faded': After 28 turbulent days, Trump's son-in-law's standing in the administration has fallen. (Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker, and Josh Dawsey, The Washington Post)
Deep Breaths: President Trump's decision to start a trade war was reportedly born out of anger over other issues and caught White House staff by surprise. (Stephanie Ruhle and Peter Alexander, NBC News)
Good Luck: Democratic Representative Beto O'Rourke will likely challenge Senator Ted Cruz for his seat this fall, writes Heather Wilhelm, resurrecting Democrats' foolish desire to turn Texas blue. (National Review)
Study Up: The Department of Health and Human Services might soon start investing in gun-violence research. Here are the questions gun experts want answered. (Quoctrung Bui and Margot Sanger-Katz, The New York Times)
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. This week, we asked you which world leader you'd invite to the White House for a formal visit. A lot of you said you'd welcome German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"She is an honest, strong, practical leader and cares for and believes in the rights of the common man and not so much for the 1%," Libby wrote in. "Our country needs someone like her to help us out of the mess we are in at this time."
A few people said they'd invite the leaders of Canada and Mexico together. Why? Robert K Whelan explained that "the shared border, the long-term peaceful history, and the need for cooperation on trade matters are the most obvious reasons."
A number of readers said they would invite North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin in an attempt to repair America's relationships with those countries. From Donald Dunklee: "Why? Our allies are already our friends and work with us. We need to focus on making our world a safer place."
Finally, Liz wrote in to suggest that she'd invite the leader of Wakanda, the fictional African nation from the comic and movie Black Panther: "I think T'Challa would have a lot to teach us about building bridges, and it would show that Africa isn't full of you-know-what-hole nations."
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for next week's Question of the Week!
-Written by Elaine Godfrey (@elainejgodfrey)
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 01:57 PM PST
"South Africa's Lost Decade," the Economist called it. Before being shoved from power last month, President Jacob Zuma enriched himself and his patrons while presiding over economic disaster for his citizens. The burden of public debt nearly doubled over the Zuma years. More than one in three working-age South Africans is jobless. Unemployed men turn to crime, tainting South Africa as one of the most unsafe countries on earth, worse than El Salvador, Honduras, or Pakistan.
No wonder the elevation of a new president has excited so much hope among international well-wishers. That new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was described thus by a former British Cabinet secretary: "By far the most impressive South African I ever met in a decade of working with the black independent trade unions that grew into the force that effectively destroyed apartheid from within." Ramaphosa is widely reputed to have been Nelson Mandela's preferred successor back when Mandela retired from office in 1999.
Zuma by contrast is a rustic, clownish figure. His polygamy, while permitted under South African law, offends urban sensibilities. For much of the growing urban middle class, polygamy is something to watch on reality TV or to be policed by courts—not to welcome into the office of the presidency of a country constitutionally committed to gender equality. Zuma lavished millions in public funds upon his personal compound near his birth village. Zuma polled poorly among the urban middle class of all races, who inflicted upon his African National Congress a stinging series of defeats in local elections in metropolitan areas. Zuma returned the disdain, most famously in a 2012 speech in which he complained about middle-class blacks who "become too clever." In his words, "They become the most eloquent in criticizing themselves about their own traditions and everything."
Zuma epitomized a tradition of which the new black middle class had become especially critical: graft. One-third of South Africans report having paid a bribe a police officer in 2013, according to a Transparency International survey that year. About a third bribed a judge or magistrate. Even more than that have paid for a permit or license. South Africans are extorted for bribes at schools and hospitals, to obtain electricity and water. In 2017, South Africa ranked 71st on the Transparency International "perceptions of corruption" index, sliding from the 38th position it held as recently as 2001.
Zuma was brought down by the grandest corruption project to date: a proposal to purchase six to eight Russian-made nuclear reactors at a cost of more than $73 billion, opening vast opportunities for fees and kickbacks. South Africa's demand for electricity has stagnated since 2011, and the country does not lack for sunshine to generate solar power. Zuma insisted. Then finance minister Pravin Gordhan resisted—in what became the last of an escalating series of battles over central bank independence and other institutional issues. Zuma fired him in March 2017, tumbling stock markets and the value of the rand.
In his first speech as president, Ramaphosa promised to "turn the tide of corruption." He vowed to end the "plunder of public resources" and to "put behind us the era of diminishing trust in public institutions and weakened confidence in our country's public leaders."
I asked Tony Leon, the former leader of South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance, how the outside world can track whether Ramaphosa is making progress toward his goals. Leon answered that we should monitor four key jobs that, when Zuma resigned, were held by compromised people:
Ramaphosa's first round of appointments sends an ambiguous message. Two business-friendly figures, both previously fired by Zuma, have been added to the administration. Nhlanhla Nene has been restored to the ministry of finance, from which he was fired in December 2015 after his own conflicts with the overbearing Zuma. Nene's successor Pravin Gordhan will oversee the government's troubled and corrupt state-owned enterprise portfolio as Minister of Public Enterprises. Both remain opponents of the nuclear deal.
But Ramaphosa could not bring himself to fire outright Zuma's last finance minister, Malusi Gigaba. Gigaba—notoriously inexperienced in financial affairs—will return to his former job at the Home Office, where he had gained a reputation for assisting Zuma's financial backers with their immigration and naturalization difficulties in South Africa. Meanwhile, Ramaphosa has appointed one of Zuma's ex-wives—Zuma's own preferred successor as head of the ANC and president—to head the planning-and-monitoring section of his own office. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is blamed by many for ultra-cronyism. An angry tweet from her account in spring of 2017 denounced anti-corruption protests as "rubbish and an expression of "privilege." (She later repudiated the tweet as "fake," without any explanation of how it came to be issued from her account.)
The current public protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, has been condemned by one of the country's highest courts as "grossly incompetent" for cooperating with President Zuma to overturn the independence of the South African Central Bank.
Clearing out unworthy officeholders will be challenging. After people are removed, they must be replaced—and that presents two daunting problems of its own. The first is a problem of party management: Much of the whole ruling ANC was complicit in Zuma's authoritarian corruption. The second is a problem of state capacity.
South Africans almost universally despise graft, especially at the top. But corruption has spread through South African society for reasons intimately bound up in the post-apartheid political settlement.
Under apartheid, the civil service and higher education were monopolized by the white elite, fortified by other ethnic minorities. Post-apartheid governments put an end to that monopoly, as they should and must. But the post-apartheid governments did more than open opportunities. The African National Congress aspired to merge party, state, and economy in a synthesis sometimes satirically described as "Market-Leninism." Conventional parties had "members." The ANC had "cadres." Party doctrine called for inserting these "cadres" into top jobs not only atop the civil service, but throughout the government—and the private sector too. The term for this insertion was "cadre deployment," but another satire amended the term to "cadre employment." The parents and grandparents of today's cadres had braved personal risks to support a prohibited revolutionary movement. Today's cadres tend to be careerists whose party loyalty often substitutes for competence and integrity.
Fewer than 10 percent of black South Africans complete university, and many of those degrees frankly do not mean what they should. According to one oft-cited ranking of global universities, the QS survey, South Africa's universities lag far behind their developed-world counterparts. The country's best university, Cape Town, is scored at 191st place. The others trail off from there. Universities are compelled to keep tuition cheap; public funds do not begin to make up the difference.
Nor is the state making compensating investments in primary and secondary education. An OECD survey of the world's 45 more advanced countries found that South Africa ranked 39th in the percentage of its people who complete high school. The problem is getting worse with time: if you look only at people under 35, South Africa ranks 41st. Nor does the near future look more promising, even under better government. South Africa's population has nearly doubled since the end of apartheid, to nearly 60 million people. To add schools and teachers even to keep pace with that surging population exceeds the capacity of the South African state. Raising per-student spending is all but impossible. Improving teacher quality is also all but impossible.
South Africa's most highly educated minorities want out. The white middle class is emigrating in the hundreds of thousands to Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. South Africa's Jewish population has declined especially sharply, its exodus accelerated by increasingly strident and even violent anti-Semitism, especially at South Africa's stressed universities.
The recent vote of the South African parliament to expropriate without compensation white-owned farmland will not help. The vote is non-binding because frankly unconstitutional—but the willingness of the ANC majority to recommend constitutional change to allow uncompensated seizures is not reassuring for the country's future development.
No South African likes to be asked "for a cold drink"—the euphemism for a police bribe. But the police won't stop until and unless South Africa transitions from Market-Leninism to a true rule-of-law society. Such a transition would impinge on persons and interests much more powerful than underpaid cops. And a key exponent and practitioner of Market-Leninism is South Africa's new president himself.
The one-time trade union leader has amassed one of South Africa's largest fortunes—estimated at anything from $400 million to $700 million—not by inventing a product or building a company, but by using his power over union pension funds to get equity for himself in other people's enterprises. When he invested union pension funds, he would be rewarded with a preference share in the investment for himself personally. South African law requires high levels of compliance with what is locally termed "black economic empowerment"—and for many foreign and local companies, Ramaphosa has become the first partner to talk to. He has, for example, held large stakes in Coca Cola's and McDonald's South African investments. He often gained executive roles so that the firm in question could qualify under the BEE scheme for government contracts.
Given South Africa's long, harsh history of racial subordination, Ramaphosa's rise to wealth may be regarded as a form of restitution: the still powerful white elite sharing spoils with a rising black elite. Yet Ramaphosa's way to wealth—the crucial first step of which was his control over retirement funds belonging to others—is different in scale, not in kind, from the principal of the local school granting the snack counter concession to his wife (a much-complained-of abuse in South Africa). International investors have become wary of the politicization of business enterprise in South Africa. Foreign investment is avoiding South Africa: only $2.2 billion of new money in 2016. To put that amount in perspective: It's only slightly more than tiny Estonia and Latvia together received. It hardly begins to offset the $30 billion that flowed overseas out of South African stocks and bonds in 2016 and the first half of 2017.
Jacob Zuma was the unacceptable, unsophisticated face of South African petty corruption. Cyril Ramophosa is the credentialed, Davos-attending face of a blend of state power and private wealth familiar from Putin's Moscow to Trump's Washington. It's perhaps an improvement to replace the one with the other. But South Africa's transition to democracy will not be secure until and unless it recognizes that its future will be as stunted by institutionalized corruption as its past was deformed by institutionalized racism.
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 12:01 PM PST
It's looking like it might be spring-cleaning season at the White House.
Not only did Communications Director Hope Hicks announce her departure on Wednesday, ending her run as President Trump's longest-tenured staffer, but a series of reports have suggested a number of other top-ranking officials might be clearing out their offices and desks soon. Those rumored to be considering exits include Jared Kushner, John Kelly, H.R. McMaster, Gary Cohn, and Jeff Sessions.
One could be forgiven for treating these reports with some skepticism. Every one of them has been the subject of similar speculation in the past—which could indicate just how long the final departure has been coming, or could suggest the reports not be taken seriously. Yet there are also plenty of reasons why officials might be interested in leaving, many of them interwoven. It is common for administrations to see turnover in their second year. But there are also Trump-specific circumstances: It's clear that working for this president is particularly trying; there remain serious disagreements about policy; and special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation haunts the White House.
At the top of the card is Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser. Kushner, who quickly acquired a sprawling portfolio despite having no experience in government and diplomacy nor a permanent security clearance, has clashed with other administration officials at times, but he has appeared to be somewhat insulated by the fact that the president is his father-in-law. It's no longer clear that's enough protection. Last week, Kushner lost his clearance to see top-secret material, a change that Trump could have blocked but did not.
Since then, there's been a remarkable flurry of stories about Kushner. The Washington Post reported that according to intelligence officials, at least four countries had contemplated ways to manipulate the U.S. government using Kushner's business ties, one reason he hadn't gotten a permanent clearance. The New York Times reported that Kushner's family's real-estate business, from which he separated but did not fully divest himself, had received large loans from Citigroup and Apollo, a private-equity firm, following meetings with Kushner at the White House. (All denied any connection between the meetings and the loans.) The Associated Press found that the Securities and Exchange Commission had dropped an inquiry into Apollo shortly after it made a loan to the Kushner Companies. The Intercept reported that the Kushner Companies sought and were denied a loan from the Qatari government, one month before the Trump administration sided against Qatar in a Persian Gulf dispute.
The Times suggested that even Trump would like to see Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump leave the West Wing: "Aides also noted that Mr. Trump has told the couple that they should keep serving in their roles, even as he has privately asked Mr. Kelly for his help in moving them out." Getting rid of one's own son-in-law and daughter is delicate business, though as I wrote in July 2017, Trump has not hesitated to turn on his own family members in the past.
If Kelly pushes Kushner out, it would be a remarkable turn of events. Although Kelly badly botched the White House's handling of domestic-abuse allegations against then-Staff Secretary Rob Porter, he used the episode to tighten rules on clearances, which places Kushner on the ropes. Politico reported he had favored a Hicks departure, too.
Kelly might not stop there. NBC News reported Thursday that Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis are angling to depose National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, with an actual departure as soon as April. McMaster was a widely hailed successor to Michael Flynn, who was fired for lying to Vice President Mike Pence and has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, too, but his personality clashed with Trump's nearly from the start. In mid-February, after McMaster responded to Mueller's indictments of Russians for interfering in the election by saying the evidence was "incontrovertible," Trump dressed him down on Twitter.
Moving McMaster out is a delicate business. He entered the White House as a rising star in the military. (It's intriguing to see two older, retired generals maneuvering to oust him.) The trick is to find a good landing spot for McMaster, rather than effectively end his career because he took a nearly impossible job. Doing so would not only be a bad break for McMaster, but it might make other people far less likely to take White House jobs, if they fear it will kill their own careers.
In any case, Kelly himself could still leave before too long. The chief of staff has been said to be clashing with Trump more or less since he took the job in August 2017, but repeated impending-departure stories have come to naught. He's now lasted about as long in the job as Reince Priebus, and even in more conventional administrations, chiefs of staff have often stayed in the role for only a year or two. On Thursday, Kelly joked about how little fun he was having. "The last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of homeland security, but I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess," he said at an event celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security.
The reasons why Gary Cohn, who leads the National Economic Council, is said to be considering leaving are specific to this week. In a strange meltdown Wednesday night, the White House (or parts of it) announced that Trump would put forth new sanctions Thursday, taking other parts of the White House by surprise. Cohn, a former president of Goldman Sachs and Democrat who practically embodies the globalist free-trade establishment against which Trump ran, fiercely opposes this kind of protectionism, and Politico reported that Cohn was on the verge of leaving.
Yes, you've heard this before. Cohn was going to leave the White House after Trump offered kind words for white-supremacist marchers in Charlottesville in August; after he was passed over for chair of the Federal Reserve; and after the president's tax plan was complete. Each moment passed, and Cohn remains. Perhaps this will really be the breaking point, but it's hard to tell.
Trump also rekindled his feud with Attorney General Jeff Sessions this week, once again attacking him on Twitter. In this case, the president offered a factually challenged demand for Sessions to circumvent the investigative process at the Department of Justice. Faced with these attacks in the past, Sessions has taken a variety of approaches: He reportedly offered to resign, but was denied; he has sometimes simply ignored them. This time, he fired back, sort of. Sessions was seen at dinner with his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, and the solicitor general, Noel Francisco, in what looked like a united DOJ front. He also issued a statement:
That reads almost like a dare to Trump: If you're so unhappy, why don't you fire me? But the president has proven extremely reluctant to actually terminate anyone, catchphrase notwithstanding. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's exit has been foretold so many times that it's easy to forget he's still at Foggy Bottom, though based on his influence in discussions like tariffs, perhaps he might as well not be.
The in-or-out dance for most of these figures is so well-rehearsed that it's easy to just tune them out as more white noise. Even if current rumors don't come to anything immediately, these staffers will leave at some point, and then they'll have to be replaced. As in the case of McMaster, the question of who might fill those roles remains a barrier to the incumbents leaving in the first place. The Trump administration had trouble recruiting for many jobs when it began, and convincing qualified people to work there hasn't gotten any easier. Prospective hires face the challenge of a president who will berate them publicly, the humiliation of colleagues who will leak damaging information about them to the press without a second thought, the danger of having to retain costly attorneys amid Mueller's Russia probe, and the reputational risk of association with this administration. Who wants to come work for a president whose own officials describe his behavior this week as "unglued"?
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 12:20 PM PST
A bit of service journalism ahead: Don't go into Red Sparrow expecting an action-packed Cold War drama like last year's Atomic Blonde, or the kind of humanistic spy thriller so well executed on television in FX's The Americans. Sure, Francis Lawrence's new film, starring Jennifer Lawrence, is a tale of espionage, of false identities, and of competing American and Russian interests. But it's set in the modern day, its main character blows her cover almost immediately upon beginning her mission, and the movie is a 140-minute epic of misery and violence. It begins with a gruesome on-screen leg break and only gets worse from there.
Red Sparrow is like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but only if it were directed by Showgirls-era Paul Verhoeven. That's something of a compliment, but it's also a warning: Do not approach the theater unless you're prepared for a film that swerves towards the lurid and shocking at every chance it gets. This is a secret-agent story in which the secret agent angrily complains that she got sent to "whore school" by her government, one that tries to flesh out the undercurrent of misogynistic coercion inherent in so many of these narratives. On some of those fronts, the film wildly misfires, but for a wide studio release headlined by one of Hollywood's biggest stars, Red Sparrow is an admirably bold effort.
The movie is based on a 2013 novel by Jason Matthews, an ex-CIA operative who reportedly brought much of his expertise to a story of two secret agents, one Russian and one American, navigating intricate surveillance missions around the world in a game of one-upmanship. I'll wager that whatever realism may have been present in Matthews's book has been mostly stripped out by Justin Haythe's script, which focuses less on the gritty details of espionage and more on the various crimes visited upon the body and soul of Dominika Egorova (Lawrence), the film's protagonist.
At the start of Red Sparrow, Dominika is a dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow; after a career-ending injury, she's pressed into governmental service by her creepy uncle, Ivan Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking Russian-intelligence official. She has a sick mother (Joely Richardson) that Ivan offers to protect; in exchange, she'll act as an amateur honeypot, baiting a politician into a compromising position so that he can extract information. That mission quickly devolves into a bloody nightmare, but it's enough of a success that Dominika is sent to spy camp to become a "Sparrow," or a secret agent trained in the act of seduction.
This is the "whore school" to which Dominika later refers; it's an inhuman, months-long training camp seemingly designed to detach budding agents from their own bodies. Run by a stern lady referred to as "Matron" (a deadpan Charlotte Rampling), this is in some ways the most brutal part of the movie, as well as a place where all subtext becomes text. Dominika and her classmates have to strip naked and perform sex acts on strangers, all in front of each other, while Matron looks on with a disapproving glare. Things are only slightly less dreadful outside the classroom, where Dominika beats a male student half to death in the showers for attempting to rape her.
Red Sparrow's director, Francis Lawrence, worked with Jennifer Lawrence (no relation) on the last three Hunger Games movies. There was a bleakness to that young-adult dystopia, of course, but there's a darker strain of anger to this film, which at times rubs the audiences' faces in just what an anonymous sex object Dominika is to the men (and sometimes women) around her. Even as a spy, her job is to seduce; there are no montages of Dominika learning martial arts or firing a gun, no long tracking shots of her taking out enemy soldiers one by one. She dyes her hair blonde later in the movie, but it's not to go atomic; she just knows, through surveillance, that her target sleeps with blonde ladies.
Eventually, Dominika "graduates" and is assigned to ensnare Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a CIA agent who's in league with a high-ranking Russian intelligence source. Ivan and his superior General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) demand she extract a name from Nash, but Dominika has an ulterior motive; she abandons her cover identity, reveals who she really is to Nate, and seems to genuinely fall in love with him. Or does she? Who's gaming who? The cat-and-mouse nature of their relationship is the only thing in Red Sparrow that feels like a genuine throwback to the novel; the rest of it is all wrenching torture scenes.
At one point, Mary-Louise Parker drops by as a U.S. senator's chief of staff who ends up in Dominika's sights, and she lends a little levity as a consistently soused character who seems baffled by all the intrigue around her. For the most part, though, Red Sparrow is a cavalcade of pain and depressing sexual encounters that seems almost actively uninterested in its audience having a good time. And yet, I must admit, I still enjoyed it—not just because it leads to a tidy but satisfying ending of triple-crosses upon triple-crosses, but also because it's so nakedly furious about the plot limits of the James Bond-y genre it's working within. All Dominika is asked to do is seduce and exploit, but she's obviously capable of so much more. By the end of the film, as she finally exacts her revenge, that becomes even clearer.
Jennifer Lawrence is steely but still somewhat charming—i.e. in Hunger Games mode—and she has to endure quite a lot, including a Russian accent that wavers between "mediocre" and "Boris and Natasha." But Red Sparrow is ultimately a tale of Dominika fighting to hold onto a grain of empathy in the pitiless world she's thrust into, and Lawrence dramatizes that well. Dominika still feels like a real person even though each scene she's in becomes a sexual power struggle of sorts; so much of Red Sparrow's action takes place behind Dominika's eyes, as she tries to figure out the desires, and the weaknesses, of the men in front of her.
That's heavy stuff for a Hollywood blockbuster, and credit to Jennifer Lawrence for helping to get an intense, alienating drama made on a grand scale. But I can't predict strong word-of-mouth success for this film. Red Sparrow seems destined for life as a vivid little footnote, a graphic throwback thriller that tried to push the boundaries of contemporary studio filmmaking. It's one of the most fascinating mainstream releases I've seen this year—but much like Dominika's allegiances, that fascination ends up cutting both ways.
Posted: 03 Mar 2018 01:04 AM PST
MILAN—The same day that left-wing groups and parties held an anti-fascist rally in Rome, protesting the apparent rise of the hard-right in Italy, the piazza in front of the Milan cathedral was filled with energized supporters of Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy's League party. The party is best known for its xenophobia and its flirtation with the idea of exiting the euro—and Salvini happens to be campaigning tirelessly to become the leader of the Italian right in Italy's national elections on Sunday.
The anti-fascist demonstration was a rare moment of unity of the left in the face of a consolidating right. The center-left Democratic Party of former prime minister Matteo Renzi, which has governed Italy—and not badly—for the past five years, is expected to draw only around 22 percent of the vote, not enough to form a government, a phenomenon that stems from the party's internal weaknesses but has far greater implications. At Salvini's rally in Milan, people held signs that said "Italians First," the League's motto, and waved separatist flags—from the wealthy Northern Italian regions of Lombardy and the Veneto, from Catalonia and Sardinia. The rise of the right is a pattern that's played out in elections in several European countries, as establishment parties have failed to harness popular sentiments and more extreme groups have stepped in to offer their own strident visions of the future. The League, which has made a play for Italy's neglected working class, is a sovereignist party that wants to send back immigrants and re-write European treaties. The lesson for Italy is that its messy politics are no longer local. They could wind up irrevocably destabilizing the European Union, of which it was a founding member.
The aftermath of the Arab Spring and Syrian Civil War has reshaped politics across Europe, and no party in Italy has played on immigration more than the League. Since 2014, more than 500,000 migrants have arrived in Italy, a country of 60 million people, most of them on boats from North Africa. The system for processing asylum applications is slow and imperfect. The migrants, not all of whom are asylum-seekers, are stuck in Italy, many unable to work legally, often living in squalid encampments. For years now, Italian television has shown an endless loop of migrants disembarking from boats.
Enter Salvini, who is 44 and took over the League five years ago. Now the oldest existing political party in Italy, the Northern League was founded in 1989, advocating the independence of the wealthy Italian north. It used to consider Rome the enemy, although it was a junior partner in several Berlusconi governments. Salvini has been transforming it into a national party, with foreigners, and to a certain extent Europe, as the enemy.
He has done this largely by drawing on fears of supposedly out-of-control immigration. And he is succeeding. On Salvini's watch, the League has grown from a 4 percent showing in the 2013 elections to possibly more than 13 percent today, according to Italy's often unreliable polls. If it outperforms the other party on the right-wing ticket, Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, Salvini could potentially become Italy's next prime minister. Forza Italia is now polling around 16 percent, down from 21 percent in the 2013 elections. The anti-establishment Five Star Movement is expected to place first in Sunday's vote. It has said it won't form coalitions, but there's rampant speculation about whether it might change its mind and form a coalition with the League. That scenario—Brussels' and Renzi's nightmare—would give Italy the first populist government in the heart of Europe.
In his Milan speech, Salvini incongruously quoted Pier Paolo Pasolini, the great intellectual of the left, about anti-fascist demonstrations of the past—Pasolini had speculated in 1973 that such demonstrations "may ultimately be a weapon of distraction aimed at capturing dissent by fighting a non-existent enemy, while modern consumerism is eroding an already moribund society." But Salvini has mostly borrowed a lot of his rhetoric from France's far-right National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, with some exceptions, including the brazen use of religion, which is absent from political discourse in secular France. At the rally in Milan, Salvini also quoted the Gospel of Matthew—"the last shall be first"— several times, in his appeal to the working class, the disabled, people who feel neglected. Then he pulled out a rosary—a rosary!—which he said a woman had given him on the campaign trail. It was an obvious play for votes in the South, where the right has always had strong results, although the formerly Northern League hasn't. And sure enough, Italian television and newspapers all carried images of Salvini, secular separatist, holding up the rosary, as if he were the second coming. His campaign posters say "Salvini Prime Minsiter" with an image of a knight wielding a sword and shield.
Last month, an 18-year-old woman in Macerata, a city of 42,000 in Italy's Marche region, was dismembered and killed; two Nigerian men were charged in her death. Days later, a man who had been a League candidate in a municipal election went on a shooting rampage through the streets of the city, wounding six African immigrants and then doing a fascist salute before police stopped and arrested him. After that gruesome incident, Salvini tweeted a version of the argument that many of those seeking asylum in Europe aren't "real" refugees, writing that the suspect (at the time there was only one), "was not running from war; he brought war to Italy," adding: "The left has blood on its hands. Expulsions, expulsions, controls and more expulsions."
The Macerata incidents have defined the campaign, giving momentum to the right in its fight against illegal immigration, and underscoring the weaknesses of the left in countering it with a clear response. No ministers from the current center-left government went to visit the six people wounded by the right-wing shooter, for instance.
The League also definitely has fascist sympathizers, and Salvini has never disowned them, although he has repeatedly said that the League is non-violent and stands with law enforcement. The neo-fascist Casa Pound group, which is fronting some candidates but is not expected to reach the 3 percent threshold necessary to enter Parliament, recently said it would support a Salvini government. Pressed on this in a television interview, Salvini said only that he didn't think he'd need their support, not that he didn't want it.
At the League rally in Milan, almost everyone I spoke to said the arrival of immigrants had made them concerned about their safety. "Old people are afraid to go out after 8 o'clock at night or before 6 in the morning. They're afraid they'll be killed for their cell phone," Fabrizio Zuccala, from near Bergamo, in the Northern Italian region of Lombardy, told me. His friend, Fabio Mari, chimed in, and identified himself as a "Fascio-leghista," saying he took an even harder line than the League.
Salvini talks often about the idea of the "good immigrant," someone who "respects the law," and says that he just wants a more coherent immigration policy. But he can often be more extreme. He once mocked Laura Boldrini, the speaker of Parliament and a former official at the United Nations refugee agency, comparing her to a sex doll that a supporter held up behind him on stage at a campaign rally. This week, Salvini said on prime-time Italian television that maybe George Soros would be sending waves of immigrants to Italy, in an echo of the anti-Semitic trope that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been using in his country.
In the face of such brazen right-wing fear-mongering, you would think that the Italian left might present a clear democratic vision, one that reflects the current government's respectable efforts. But you would be wrong. "In the electoral debate, the political agenda has been dictated by the right," said the author Marta Fana, who has written on Italian labor reforms. "So where the parties to the left of the Democratic Party centered their programs on questions of work, all this got very little attention in the big national debate. It's easier and more reductive to play on immigration."
The extremists get louder, while the center struggles. "The country is very angry. Incredibly angry. It seems there's an anger that is beyond any possibility of reasoning," Giovanni Orsina, a political scientist at Rome's Luiss Guido Carli University, told me. "People really believe things are terrible and couldn't get any worse. Which is quite crazy. Things could get much worse than they are now." This is the case both politically and economically. Italy's economy has begun to recover, and GDP grew 1.5 percent last year, but massive structural problems remain. It has one of the lowest employment rates in Europe, at 58 percent; businesses—90 percent of which have fewer than 10 full-time employees—are strangled by taxes and bureaucracy; and many young people emigrate to find work. The program of the center-left Democratic Party, Orsina said, has "a lot of things that make sense," but there's "no idea of what Italy should be, no idea of the future." Of the League's "sovereigntist right-wing program," he said, "of course they are totally unrealistic, but they are ideas of the future. The center is unable to convey a vision of the future."
In the years when Berlusconi was in power, opposing him united the left. Now that he's not running the country, they're even more divided. Renzi took over the Democratic Party in 2014, but was seriously compromised and stepped down as prime minister after losing a referendum in 2016. Last year, some of the party's old guard, mainly former communists, broke away and founded a splinter movement. The divisions aren't so much ideological as personality-driven. "The right has a field," Ezio Mauro, a columnist and former editor of La Repubblica, the center-left daily, told me, while the left, he said, is divided into "private gardens."
But why couldn't the Democratic Party capitalize on its relative success governing for the past five years, during which the economy stabilized? I asked Francesco Piccolo, a novelist and screenwriter who has written about the Italian left. "In a reformist country, which believes in taking steps forward, this would count for something," he wrote in an email. "But in a country that believes it's revolutionary but instead is only apocalyptic, people only think about what's missing, what wasn't accomplished. So no government is ever satisfactory, and certainly no government result in relation to upcoming elections." The left, he added, want to preserve the purity of its ideas and not put them into practice. "To do this, you need to lose. The left loses and is prepared to lose with satisfaction, and with disgust for the winners," he added.
All this means that Salvini is on the rise and Renzi on the decline—a dangerous development, since the League, despite having been part of multiple Berlusconi governments, is effectively an extremist party. Salvini has made clear that his sympathies lie with the current governments of Hungary and Poland, which are inward-looking, nationalistic and spit on Europe even as they take European Union funding.
"Italy's a laboratory," said Roberto Saviano, the author of Gomorrah and a public intellectual in Italy, told me. "What happens in Italy can happen in the rest of the world. Don't forget Mussolini-Hitler," he said, referring to the Axis sympathies between the leader of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. "The Red Brigades prefigured terrorism across Europe," he added, about the dark years of the 1970s when leftist terrorists waged war against the state in Italy and Germany and elsewhere, murdering judges and other public figures. "Don't forget Berlusconi-Trump," Saviano said, referring to the media mogul, who, as I wrote recently, provided the template for turning an audience into an electorate. "We're a laboratory that the world should pay attention to see the avant-garde of what will happen in other democracies."
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 10:49 AM PST
Tree weddings in Mexico, an armed church ceremony in Pennsylvania, freezing conditions in Europe, relentless airstrikes in Syria, the colors of Holi in India, the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, bipedal robot fights in Japan, and much more.
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 12:56 PM PST
"That's what this show will be: a joyous celebration of chauvinism!"
That was Jimmy Kimmel, in 1999, announcing the guiding ethic of the new Comedy Central series he and Adam Carolla debuted that year. The Man Show, they declared, would be a show by men, for men, about men. It would be an exploration of Manliness itself, as an aspiration and an archetype: beer-chugging, boob-ogling, a little bit schlubby, a little bit sleepy, a little bit Bundyan. And the show would adopt an extremely narrow definition of Manliness, one element of which was a resentment of feminism's encroachments: "NO MA'AM," for the basic-cable audience. "After all, what do guys want to see on TV?" Kimmel asked The Man Show's studio audience, during its premiere.
Carolla answered for them. "We want girls!" he said. "Girls jumping on trampolines! And monkeys! And midgets!"
The Man Show propelled Kimmel, formerly a radio host of shock-jocky strain, to national fame: an everyman for The End of Men. And since he left the series in 2003—to become the host of ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live!, a role he has occupied ever since—Kimmel has been engaged in a particularly slow-moving project of redemption. The show named for him, though now a traditionally formatted late-night program, began as a loosely sanitized version of its basic-cable forebear: Jimmy Kimmel Live! initially included an open bar, whose offerings Kimmel and his guests eagerly imbibed on-air (Kimmel conducted one early episode visibly drunk). Kimmel had trouble booking women for the show (a joyous celebration of chauvinism). Over time, though, the show's physical bar was removed, and the figurative one was raised; the guest list was expanded; and Kimmel himself, year by year, transformed from an impish man-child into, finally, a man—a televised bildungsroman fit for an age of anxious masculinity.
Over the past year, that story has found a new plot twist: Kimmel has become political, and politicized. He has spoken, tearfully—following the health struggles of his infant son, born with a congenital heart defect—about the failures of the American healthcare system. He has, in the name of making that system more equitable, publicly debated with members of Congress. After a shooter in Las Vegas killed 58 people last year, Kimmel used his show's national platform to advocate for gun safety. He did the same thing this year, after the mass murders in Parkland: "If you don't think we need to do something about it," Kimmel said, of the gun violence, "you're obviously mentally ill."
It's fitting, in that sense, that Kimmel will, for the second time in two years, host the 2018 Oscars telecast on Sunday: The awards show, as a genre, has itself undergone a form of political awakening of late. Americans now take it for granted that, far from the passive activism of colored ribbons that were popular during The Man Show era of American life, the ceremonies themselves—the red-carpet interviews, the monologues and songs and bits, the acceptance speeches—will double as political discourse. Last year's show was thoroughly saturated with fear and loathing of the newly inaugurated President Trump; this year's telecast, of course, is coming in the age of #MeToo. It is capping an awards season that has been, in its own way, infused with that movement's revelations. A report released last week found that 94 percent of the women in the entertainment industry have experienced sexual assault or harassment; many observers have expected that, following the pattern set by the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, the Oscars would find ways to acknowledge the problem this version of #MeToo laid bare.
Such assumptions may or may not be proven correct come Sunday evening: Kimmel himself has varied in his public pronouncements about #MeToo's presence at the Academy Awards. On Thursday, an interviewer asked him whether he has jokes related to #TimesUp planned for the show; Kimmel responded, "I do, yes." In previous interviews, however, Kimmel has—as have Oscar producers and executives at ABC, the network that airs both the Academy Awards and, yes, Jimmy Kimmel Live!—suggested that the role #MeToo will play in the program will be minimal. As Kimmel explained to (ABC News's) Paula Faris on Tuesday, "This show is not about reliving people's sexual assaults. It's an awards show for people who have been dreaming about maybe winning an Oscar for their whole lives. And the last thing I want to do is ruin that for someone … by making it unpleasant."
It's an awkward juxtaposition: Kimmel, after all, has not previously had a problem with introducing pain into public platforms. (As he told Faris during the same interview, "We've matured enough … to the point where we can accept late-night talk show hosts speaking about a serious subject. And I think that it's almost necessary now.") Kimmel's political activism—a coda to the coming-of-age story that was occasioned, specifically, by his status as a father—has burnished his celebrity, not only as an entertainer, but also as a teller of truths and an influencer of public opinion. The late-night host is, Vulture has suggested, the new Walter Cronkite. He is now, as CNN put it, "America's conscience."
If so, though, it's a role he wears, like the oversized shirts he sported on The Man Show, loosely. Kimmel, precisely because of his background—precisely because he once produced a show named Crank Yankers, under the banner of Jackhole Productions; and precisely because he once starred in an elaborate and casually homophobic musical sequence titled "I'm Fucking Ben Affleck"; and precisely because he owes his fame to "a joyous celebration of chauvinism"—makes for a particularly awkward ambassador of the #MeToo message, however it manifests on Sunday. Kimmel may have matured before Americans' eyes; it is an evolution, however, built on his start as an irreverent prankster, ogling and giggling and refusing to take anything—politics, women, himself—seriously.
The first episode of The Man Show was shot in part at the Hoover Dam, just outside of Kimmel's hometown of Las Vegas. Kimmel and Carolla had chosen the setting for the premiere, they explained, because the dam was a work not just of men, but also of manliness itself: strong, hardy, hearty. The structure was also, they insisted, deeply symbolic. The world needed, Carolla explained, "a dam to hold back the tidal wave of feminization that is flooding this country"—a dam, Kimmel added, "to stop the river of estrogen that is drowning us in political correctness." And "a dam to urinate off of when we're really drunk."
As The Man Show's theme song—accompanying visuals for which included a guy using a leafblower to blow off a woman's dress, stripping her down to her lingerie as she struggled to cover herself—went:
Kimmel and Carolla would remain true to their pilot's anti-estrogen stance. Episodes of The Man Show would include a segment in which Kimmel recruited women volunteers on the street to play a game: Guess what's in his pants. "I've stuffed something in my pants," he informed one of the players, "and you're allowed to feel around on the outside of the pants. You'll have 10 seconds to then guess what is in my pants." (He paused: "You should use two hands.") The segment included Kimmel asking another player to "put your mouth on it"; informing another, mid-pants-feel, that "you're gonna make a fine wife"; making sure another was older than 18 ("Uncle Jimmy doesn't need to do time"); and revealing to another that the pants-surprise in question was not a vibrator, as she had guessed, but "a zucchini with a rubber band on it." ("But you can use it as a vibrator if you want!" he assured her, exaggeratedly shaking the produce.)
There was also a parody ad for "Bosom Springs," a bottled water specifically designed for being poured onto "wet T-shirts"—cut to a woman, after a run, pouring the water onto her breasts, covered only by a sports bra—and a visit to Snoop Dogg's house ("I had my bitch bake you some muffins," Kimmel said, handing Snoop a basket of them). And the "Juggy Talent Show" (bikini-clad women demonstrating "talents" like the ability to fit bananas into their mouths), the "Juggy Academy" ("our principal commitment: to provide a comprehensive educational opportunity to young women with exceptional racks"), and "Juggy Auditions" (self-explanatory). And, also: jokes about underwear, about penises, about porn stars.
The Man Show also poked giddy fun at the politics of race. Kimmel, on several occasions, covered himself in head-to-toe brown makeup to play the role of the Utah Jazz player Karl Malone. Kimmel, as Malone—who has a penchant for referring to himself in the third person—mused on, among other topics, the existence of aliens ("Karl Malone read on TV about white people getting deducted by alien, stickin' all kinda hell up their butt—and that's a damn shame") and Mardi Gras ("Now, New Orleans nickname 'Big Easy,' and this here why: New Orleans big, and look at them girls, that's easy") and health ("That's why Karl Malone say, change name 'die-betes' to 'live-betes'"). In the premiere episode of The Man Show, as part of their effort to put the "man" back in manifesto, Kimmel and Carolla, speaking on behalf of Manliness, directed their resentments toward Oprah—and, specifically, toward the power she held over America's women. "She tells them what to read, what to eat, what to think, what to do," Carolla said.
"We're the ones that are supposed to be telling them what to do, right?" Kimmel replied. "Enough is enough. The Oprah-zation of America must be stopped!" As the show's camera panned to one of its Juggy Girls, who whooped appreciatively at the sentiment, Carolla declared, "This Oprah needs to do a little less brainwashing, and a little more sock-washing."
Ooooof. Later, Kimmel would explain the show's content in the way so many comedians have come to explain the less savory elements of their work: as a project of satire. He and Carolla were laughing not with the Juggy-gawkers and the race-baiters, but at them. They were embodying insensitivity in order to poke fun at insensitivity. "We always said The Man Show's audience was divided between people who thought it was funny and understood we were joking," Kimmel said in an October 2017 interview, "and other people who really thought we had some kind of an agenda." It's a strain of revisionism—"JK," insists J.K.—that leaves little room for the show's presumptive audience: people who simply like beer and boobs, people who, perhaps, feel truly put-upon and indignant and victimized. People who resent, without an ounce of irony, "the river of estrogen that is drowning us in political correctness."
The Man Show was, like everything else will be, a product of its time: It could have existed only during the heady years that came as the centuries shifted, lurchingly, beneath Americans' feet. Kimmel's antics, even then, were purposely provocative, and willfully out of step with the culture at large: The entertainer is known as a lover of pranks, both on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and in his personal life, and The Man Show—in the most generous reading of its ethic—was an extended gag played at the expense of a society that, the show insisted, took itself far too seriously. Another reading of things, though, is that Kimmel and Carolla, in the winky guise of guyness itself, did not merely respond to the culture that was complicit in the horrors #MeToo revealed; they also helped to extend that culture's life. Ben Stein, whom Kimmel worked with on Win Ben Stein's Money, made a cameo appearance on the "Juggy Academy" segment of The Man Show. "Now, suppose," Professor Stein instructed his sea of bikini-clad students, "Adam or Jimmy makes a joke you don't understand. What do you do?"
The women raised their hands, eagerly, en masse. Stein called on one of them. "Giggle like an idiot?" she said, cheerfully.
"Very good, Andrea!" Stein replied. Andrea's classmates shook their breasts in giddy approval.
The Man Show's antics, of course, are not strictly the stuff of #MeToo; they are merely in dialogue with the movement's revelations, and with a broader culture in which men look at women and women watch themselves being looked at. Still, it's remarkable that, on Sunday, the person who created Juggy Academy will be hosting the Academy Awards. It's revealing that, on Sunday, the guy who became famous through a joyous celebration of chauvinism will be the person who decides how #MeToo will be discussed within the biggest awards show of them all.
Americans love nothing more, the truism goes, than a good redemption story; Jimmy Kimmel, conscientious and Cronkitian, is currently starring in such a tale. He has, in recent years, run segments on Jimmy Kimmel Live! that one could read as de-facto apologies for the work of his earlier career: respectful interviews with women actors. Substantive conversations with politicians. Segments starring "one of my favorite characters in all of sports," Karl Malone—this time playing himself. Kimmel recently spoke of his embrace of equal rights for the queer community; he spoke, as well, of talking about that embrace with his good friend Ellen DeGeneres. He suggested that, in some sense, his opinion on the matter carries a special weight—precisely because he is still, in addition to everything else he has become, "the guy from The Man Show."
It is a weight, however, that Kimmel distributes unevenly. In October of last year, weeks after the first news about Harvey Weinstein's behavior had broken and just as #MeToo was becoming revitalized among the American public, Kimmel sat for an interview with Vulture. "Do you look back at The Man Show and cringe?" David Marchese asked the entertainer.
"Yes, of course," Kimmel replied, in part—"and not necessarily for the reasons you think. I just think, Oh, we could've done that better. It was a show people loved, and I got to work with Adam [Carolla], which was a dream at the time, and we did a lot of funny stuff. We also did a lot of stupid stuff."
Marchese followed up. "Could you get away with doing that show in 2017?"
Kimmel doubled down. "If we put The Man Show on today in its identical form, it would be an even bigger hit than it was back then," he said. "I believe that very strongly."
"Because there's more back to lash against," Kimmel said. "There's more scrutiny. There's more political correctness. That always offers more opportunity to run counter."
"I don't think people would be particularly kind to that show's idea of humor," Marchese countered.
Jimmy Kimmel—sermonizer, prankster, entertainer, America's conscience—was unfazed. The Man Show 2.0 "would absolutely result in a shitstorm," he insisted, "and there's absolutely nothing better for ratings than a shitstorm."
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 10:24 AM PST
After the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, supporters of more gun control quickly pressured numerous corporations to cut ties with the National Rifle Association: No longer will NRA members receive a pre-negotiated discount when flying United, renting a Hertz car, or patronizing a range of other companies.
What remains to be seen is whether the success of #BoycottNRA merely denies NRA members a few perks or actually helps to advance changes in gun policy.
The answer will depend in large part on the effectiveness of stigma.
Skeptics of #BoycottNRA don't think its success changes any fundamentals. The NRA isn't a business that needs revenue or a club for people who want consumer discounts—it is an issue-driven membership organization that helps gun owners to secure liability insurance, provides training, and lobbies legislators on a range of gun issues. In this telling, depriving its members of consumer discounts won't cause any significant number to quit. In fact, it might spark a backlash that boosts retention.
I started off similarly skeptical.
Policy is made by legislators, who are selected in elections, which are won by voters. Often times, the left pours energy into moments of cultural protest—rallying against globalization, occupying urban centers to protest Wall Street, chanting Black Lives Matter—but has little to show for its efforts when the cultural moment dies down, perhaps because of insufficient focus on concrete goals or mobilizing voters. Meanwhile, the right typically turns out to vote more reliably.
Now, however, I'm undecided about #BoycottNRA's efficacy, in part because it took so little effort—its opportunity cost was low—and in part due to the words of non-skeptics, who argued that there was some wisdom in the approach.
A few invoked marginal utility. "Lots of people who believe in the NRA's mission do not join the NRA," R.J. Lehmann told me. "There is some set of people who would be in the latter category but for the benefits. This is true of every token given away by every charity. If I'm a gun owner I can free ride on the public good of NRA lobbying whether I pay for membership or not. Membership benefits are an excludable good that allow you to internalize the positive externality. At the margin, some who would otherwise be free riders choose to sign up."
Others felt the NRA had an aura of invincibility in politics, and successfully pressuring corporate sponsors to abandon it might influence politicians to follow suit. (Was Donald Trump influenced in that way?)
Both of those factors seem plausibly helpful to the NRA's enemies.
But many more people had a different vision of how #BoycottNRA efforts would bear fruit: They would gradually make the NRA and its members into detested pariahs. Among the explanations I got on Twitter when I asked what they envision:
Whether that approach succeeds is what interests me most. I don't actually have strong feelings about the NRA one way or another. But I continue to be fascinated by the complicated role that social stigma plays in American politics and culture.
Again, my initial inclination is to be skeptical.
Gun-control advocates have tried to stigmatize the NRA my entire adult life. Take their Denver convention in 1999. "Against the wishes of the mayor and thousands of bereaved friends and relatives of the victims of the Columbine High School shootings, the National Rifle Assn. held its annual meeting here Saturday," the Los Angeles Times reported. "The gun-rights group dramatically scaled back the gathering, from three days to a few hours, and eliminated the traditional gun show altogether. But the gesture was not nearly enough for many still reeling from the massacre by two troubled teenagers with four firearms and dozens of homemade bombs. About 1,800 protesters marched quietly from the state Capitol to the hotel where the convention was held." Their signs said "Shame on the NRA" and "NRA, Pusher of Child Killer Machines."
It is counterintuitive to assume stigma will be a more reliable bulwark against right-wing populist political outcomes today in the more gerrymandered, ideologically-sorted country that elected Donald Trump.
Indeed, most times that a left-of-center commentator declares that the press "shouldn't normalize" the latest White House transgression, I think to myself: This stuff is all happening, and the GOP Congress shows no indication of stopping it, so critics had better start focusing on the substance of why it is wrong and the alternatives to it, rather than persisting in the fantasy that it can be stopped if only cultural elites marshal enough solidarity to deem it beyond the pale.
What's more, stigma campaigns rooted in hashtag activism are unusually vulnerable to overreach and backlash: Moderate participants may direct their opprobrium at the NRA itself, which does take various positions that are out of line with public opinion, but it is almost inevitable that any sustained campaign will include voices that cast all gun owners as pariahs and wield stigma in off-putting ways that risk alienating a politically disadvantageous percentage of the electorate.
There is a simultaneous risk that anti-NRA stigma will be fleeting. It already seems to be displacing #MeToo in public consciousness. And what was the movement just prior to that? Hashtag activism has usefully surfaced a lot of important issues in the few years it has been around, but protest efforts that spread virally on social media face the reality that just one thing can trend at once. The NRA will still be focused on its agenda if ICE starts deporting young people who registered under DACA or if Donald Trump fires Robert Mueller.
Will progressives still be focused on the NRA?
Finally, succeed or fail, efforts rooted in stigma further polarize the country, which has costs, regardless of whether they are brought about by the right or the left.
As David French wrote after CNN's townhall on guns:
For all those reasons, my inclination, if gun control were my aim, would be to identify specific, achievable reforms that a majority of voters already support, and to focus on pressuring politicians to adopt that agenda (or else be ousted by a coalition that makes the ballot its tool of change). My posture toward gun owners would be the respectful engagement David Brooks recommends. I'd expect to pass, at minimum, a voluntary no-gun registry and gun-violence restraining orders (two measures I support personally, despite my conflicted feelings on the broader issue).
But optimal policy aside, maybe my instincts about what works are wrong; maybe Democrats can win stigmatizing the NRA and its supporters without overreaching; maybe my beliefs about the costs of stigma to society generally are exaggerated.
Maybe focus on the NRA will endure longer than I imagine or recur after another gun tragedy. Maybe 2 years from now, the NRA will have fewer members and wield less clout; maybe policy will change in a direction proponents of more gun control desire, or the balance of legislatures will tip in their direction, whether because of efforts to stigmatize the NRA or in spite of them; and maybe the country will be no more dangerously polarized as a result of the fight.
The substance of what happens is one reason to watch the gun debate. Yet I'll also be watching how it plays out as a test case in how stigma functions in U.S. politics. As ever, your thoughts on that subject are welcome—write firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 09:54 AM PST
This year's Oscars ceremony may not be able to promise the excitement of last year's iconic envelope mix-up, but it's sure to be an entertaining show nonetheless. With no definitive lead in the Best Picture category, the night could end up being almost anyone's. As Sunday's broadcast approaches, the pressure is mounting for viewers, both casual and die-hard, to be up-to-date on all the nominees, as well as the themes and controversies that might dominate the show.
In case you're worried about drawing a blank when someone asks you, What movies do you think will win?, we've created a crash course of the most important Oscars-related stories Atlantic writers have covered over the past few months. Prepare your ballots.
The most-nominated film this year is Guillermo del Toro's fantastical monster movie The Shape of Water. With 13 nods, including for Best Picture and Best Director, it stands a good chance of coming away with a number of trophies. Although there's no obvious frontrunner in the Big Picture race (perhaps leaving room for a surprise winner), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is also a strong contender after having won big at the Golden Globes. Though the film has drawn criticism for its depiction of race, Martin McDonagh's drama about a grieving mother seeking justice after the murder of her daughter is at least set to do well in the acting categories. Dunkirk, the second-most nominated film, is more typical Oscar fare, a stunningly spare war drama that won over critics and had the highest box-office gross of nominated films, which could help it come out on top. Jordan Peele's breakout directorial debut, Get Out, a social thriller that cleverly used the sense of sight to emphasize its racial horrors, is our critic Christopher Orr's pick to win Best Picture. (See the rest of his Oscars predictions here.)
Elsewhere in the field is the mesmerizing gay love story set in the '80s, Call Me by Your Name, which avoids the AIDS epidemic but hints at an underlying darkness, and the sensational coming-of-age film Lady Bird. Both have been favorites with critics and audiences alike, but neither has gained much traction in the Best Picture race. There's also the Winston Churchill biopic Darkest Hour and Steven Spielberg's newspaper drama The Post, both of which fit into the trend of films using history to comment on the Trump presidency. Rounding out the group of nine nominees is Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson's quiet, stylish movie about a perfectionist dressmaker and his muse.
Unlike Best Picture, almost all of the acting categories appear locked up. Both Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell are expected to win Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, respectively, for their roles in Three Billboards: McDormand as the feisty mother Mildred Hayes, and Rockwell as the racist cop Jason Dixon. Best Supporting Actress will almost certainly go to Allison Janney, who played Tonya Harding's abusive mother in I, Tonya, the biopic about the controversial figure skater. Best Actor is set to go to Gary Oldman for his true-to-life portrayal of Churchill in Darkest Hour. All four performers have already picked up a slew of awards for their roles, and any Oscar upsets are unlikely.
Oldman's nomination has been somewhat haunted by resurfaced reports that the actor's ex-wife accused him of assault in 2001 (Oldman has strongly denied the allegations). The Darkest Hour star is just one of many Hollywood figures facing scrutiny for alleged misconduct in the wake of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, which shook up the industry after widespread claims of assault against the mega-producer Harvey Weinstein came to light last October. Though the Academy might be able to overlook the accusations against Oldman, James Franco may have been taken out of contention for Best Actor due to sexual-misconduct claims and despite his highly praised role in The Disaster Artist (Franco has said some of the allegations were "not accurate" but that he wouldn't "actively refute" his accusers out of respect for the #MeToo movement.)
Perhaps the most talked about milestone in this year's class of honorees was Rachel Morrison becoming the first woman nominated in the Best Cinematography category for her work on Mudbound. But other first-time nods also abound: Dee Rees is the first black woman to be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (also for Mudbound). Logan is the first live-action comic-book film to be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, and Jordan Peele is the first African American to be honored in the Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay categories simultaneously.
Peele's nomination in the directing field fits with the larger pattern of auteurs being recognized for their work; Guillermo del Toro and Christopher Nolan also picked up their first nods in that category after years of snubs. On the performance side, Timothée Chalamet became the youngest Best Actor nominee since 1940 for his star turn in Call Me by Your Name, and Christopher Plummer, nominated for Best Supporting Actor after replacing Kevin Spacey in All the Money in the World, is now the oldest nominee for any acting award, at 88.
Across categories, musicals made a strong showing, echoing the success La La Land saw at the Oscars last year. The Greatest Showman, nominated for Best Original Song, had a quiet start in theaters, but the film and its soundtrack have proven to be major successes. Two music-heavy Disney films, Beauty and the Beast and Coco, received a few nods, and another of the company's properties, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, was recognized for its score by the legendary composer John Williams. Elsewhere, Baby Driver, which deftly explores the pleasures and dangers of music, picked up three technical noms (two in the sound department), while the dance scene in Call Me by Your Name, set to the song "Love My Way" by the Psychedelic Furs, became one of the film's most iconic moments.
Women to Watch
Following the avalanche of stories exposing the gender imbalances across industries last year, many viewers will find it heartening to see the Oscars recognizing talented women and female-centric stories across categories.
Nominations went not only to Frances McDormand and Rachel Morrison, but also to Emily V. Gordon for co-writing the acclaimed rom-com The Big Sick and to Greta Gerwig for her Lady Bird script. Gerwig notably picked up a nod for Best Director, becoming only the fifth woman in Oscars history to do so. In the Best Documentary category, the iconic French New Wave director Agnes Varda was recognized for her film Faces Places, and A Fantastic Woman, which offers a powerful depiction of a transgender woman (played beautifully by Daniela Vega) coping with her partner's death, is a strong contender for Best Foreign Language Film.
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 09:31 AM PST
As high-school students around the country organize in support of stronger gun-control legislation in the wake of the Parkland shooting, many are finding that, at the very least, one thing they don't have to worry about is the possibility of disciplinary action hurting their chances of getting into college some day. Superintendents in some school districts have warned that students who participate will face disciplinary actions such as suspension. But over 250 college-admissions offices around the country have responded to these concerns, most of them with assurances that students' activism will not hurt their chances at admission, even if their high schools do take disciplinary action.
Because college applicants must disclose whether they have ever been suspended from school or faced other disciplinary measures, many students have been concerned that colleges might rescind an acceptance or look unfavorably upon future applications. According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), many member colleges have reported that large numbers of students have been calling admissions offices worried about the effect suspensions could have on their admissions prospects.
Typically, students want to avoid evidence of disciplinary measures on their school records. While getting suspended for, say, drinking beer at a school football game might not automatically disqualify a student from most colleges, admissions officers do take those matters seriously and expect an applicant to express remorse and show growth, explained Diane Anci, a dean of admissions at Kenyon College, a small liberal-arts college in Ohio.
Responding to these concerns from students, many college-admissions offices began issuing statements on social media and on their websites last week promising seniors and future applicants that they would not be penalized for participating in nonviolent protests. The admissions office of Georgetown University, for example, tweeted: "We provide all applicants an opportunity to elaborate on any disciplinary infraction and carefully consider all context they provide. Participation in a peaceful protest will not negatively impact admission to Georgetown."
Teens have been involved in other social movements over the past couple of years, such as Black Lives Matter and the Women's March. But the post-Parkland movement is the first to elicit a widespread response from colleges. Drew Riley, the associate dean of admissions at Colgate, noted that his college has seen an uptick in political activism among their applicants in recent years, but that the coordinated, nation-wide activism around this issue is "unprecedented." Colleges' quick response could also be due to the fact that this movement is focused on high-school students—and includes national school walk-outs as one of its core actions. This makes concerns over school discipline more common than they may have been in previous movements.
But while the #NeverAgain movement stands out for provoking a wave of public support, most of the schools' statements didn't particularly focus on the movement or on gun control—instead, the statements emphasized support for students' free expression and engagement in activism more generally. The official account of UC Berkeley, for example, tweeted: "Dear prospective students: We fully support your right to peacefully protest, and would never refuse your admittance for doing so. Signed, the home of free speech." Most schools emphasized that political participation of any kind fits in with the core mission of their school. A message from Duke read: "Duke has always valued active and responsible engagement in civic life among its students and applicants. We will always consider all applicants fully and individually … An applicant's participation in peaceful protests has never been a reason for us to deny or rescind an offer of admission."
The administrators I spoke with emphasized that their support would extend to peaceful protest of any political leaning. Jon Boeckenstedt, a vice president for enrollment at DePaul University, A Catholic university in Illinois, said that DePaul would support students participating in any form of civic action, including a March for Life. He added, though, that this support does not give students carte blanche; his university was not endorsing "senioritis" or violent protests.
Nathan Furst, the director of admissions at University of Connecticut, said that in discussing their statement on the Parkland activism, his office questioned whether or not it would support a student who attended a white-supremacist rally. Furst said that, in the end, the school decided it would even support that applicant, as long as he or she were protesting in a nonviolent capacity. "We would support their right to free speech," Furst said. He echoed DePaul's Boeckenstedt in drawing the line at violent protest, and advised students to "engage in an appropriate way. Be peaceful, but get your voice heard."
Anci from Kenyon college added that her school doesn't privilege activism over other activities that show student leadership. Being politically active, like being the captain of the track team or the vice president of student government, provides students with deep and real knowledge, she said. "Like any other kind commitment outside of school, participation in politics gives students clarity and enables them to understand their strengths," Anci added.
Some schools pointed out that students' involvement in the protests could become a way of communicating their interests in an interview or an essay. Stefanie Niles, the president-elect for the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), said that Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, where she is the vice president for enrollment management, would be interested in hearing from participants why this issue motivated them.
"It is always exciting for admissions officers to meet 17-year-olds who can say that they have identified a passion in their lives and that they are committing themselves to something," Anci added. Since student activism plays a large role in the campus culture at many colleges, a students' high-school activism can be a good indicator that she will fit in. "We have a very active student body," said Colgate's Drew Riley. "A student that is involved in politics in high school shows that they ready to be part of a student body like ours."
Some admissions officers did seem to express more explicit support for the Parkland movement. DePaul's Boeckenstedt was among the first to come out with a statement on February 21. He tweeted, "Dear Students: If you participate in protests against gun violence and incur school discipline for walking out, you can rest assured you can report it to DePaul and we won't hold it against you. #ParklandStudentsSpeak." And the Yale admissions officer Hannah Mendlowitz wrote in a blog post on Yale's admissions site: "Yale will NOT be rescinding anyone's admission decision for participating in peaceful walkouts for this or other causes, regardless of any high school's disciplinary policy. I, for one, will be cheering these students on from New Haven." It's worth noting that some admissions officers told me they tweeted without explicit approval from top administrators, whereas other schools have written official statements.
While the number of colleges that have made statements of support for student protestors keeps growing, most of the 2,000 colleges nationwide have not yet made statements. It is still too early to look for patterns or omissions among the list of colleges who have released statements. At first, most of the schools that released early statements came from northern states, where public opinion tends to be more supportive of gun-control legislation, but they have since been joined by the University of Texas, Emory in Georgia, Rice in Texas, and University of South Carolina. The list also covers a range of school types, including private schools and public schools as well as both small liberal-arts colleges and larger research universities.
The diversity of schools on the growing list could be indicative of higher education's broader embrace of student activism in recent years. Some have argued that the colleges' statements are attempts at good optics and easy, low-cost ways of marketing themselves to more students, particularly those students who are politically engaged. The move could also be a practical one on the part of colleges who may have to make decisions about promising applicants who have faced disciplinary action due to their participation in the movement. But most of all, college administrators seem to view the upcoming marches as an opportunity for civic engagement that will better prepare young people for college life.
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 09:02 AM PST
As President Trump has hacked his way through Obama-era climate policy over the past year, progressives have spread a comforting story.
"The United States has not gone dark on climate action," goes the tale. The federal government may have left the Paris Agreement, but dozens of U.S. companies and universities are still in. The president may repeal dozens of EPA regulations, but he's just spurring states and cities are to fight climate change themselves.
On Thursday evening, this optimistic narrative ran aground on reality, when an ambitious measure to introduce the country's first carbon tax failed in Washington state. The office of Governor Jay Inslee announced that Senate Democrats, despite forming a majority in the chamber, did not have enough votes to advance the bill.
West Coast climate hawks may soon have another chance for a win. Oregon legislators are considering a "cap and trade" bill that would limit carbon pollution statewide and create a market where companies could bid for the right to emit it. They could vote as soon as Friday.
But even if that measure succeeds, Oregon's bill is neither as ambitious nor as innovative as Washington's. What happened in the Evergreen State is startling: A Democratic governor, presiding over a Democratic legislature in a West Coast state, could not pass a substantial climate policy out of the statehouse.
The fate of the two bills is sure to echo beyond the Pacific Northwest, as activists, governors, and state legislators around the country will take their examples as either inspiration or warning. The bills will also define national climate policy to come: Just as Massachusetts's health-care reform in 2006 shaped the Affordable Care Act, state efforts to rein in climate change today will inform future national Democratic legislation.
The Washington statehouse has failed to affirm climate policies at least twice before. Inslee says he hasn't given up yet, and The New York Times has reported that he may try to put a carbon tax on the state ballot in November. But the bill that failed Thursday differed from any other state-level climate policy pursued in the United States.
"It's a carbon tax. That's unique," said Kristin Eberhard, a senior researcher at the Sightline Institute, a left-leaning think tank based in the Pacific Northwest. "Carbon taxes have not made it very far through any state legislature. There's no state-level carbon tax in the United States."
Most economists consider a carbon tax the most efficient way to address climate change. Instead of forcing every industry to follow a different set of climate-focused regulations, a carbon tax evenly accounts for the costs of climate change across the economy, they argue. Over time, the higher prices of fossil fuels will spur companies and consumers to opt for cleaner technology.
The proposed carbon tax in Washington would have imposed a $12 tax on every ton of carbon pollution. This is pretty cheap, as carbon taxes go: The Obama administration once estimated a U.S. carbon tax should run at about $40 per ton.
"It would not be very stringent globally," Eberhard told me. "But it would be groundbreaking just in being a state-level carbon tax in the United States."
The tax would cover the vast majority of greenhouse-gas emissions from Washington. Gas prices would rise at the pump, as would the cost of home-heating oil and natural gas. Factories would have to track and pay for their carbon-dioxide emissions, and consumers and companies would also see their electricity bills go up. Any power generated with fossil fuels out of state—by a coal-fired power plant in Idaho, for instance—would be affected by the tax.
The tax would not charge residents for the costs of so-called embedded carbon emissions in consumer or commercial goods, such as the crude-oil-derived products in paints and household cleaners.
The millions of dollars in new revenue from the carbon tax would have been invested in clean-energy projects, water and natural-resource preservation, and assistance for workers who were employed in the fossil-fuel industry.
Some climate policies—such as the Republican-friendly "Baker-Shultz" plan—have proposed sending any new revenue back to taxpayers in the form of a monthly check. But some climate hawks on the left believe this policy will have little effect on emissions. In 2016, Washington voters rejected a revenue-neutral carbon tax in a ballot referendum opposed by both the center-right and the left.
The Oregon plan has adopted a more time-tested strategy. The Beaver State proposes to "cap and trade" carbon: The bill would limit the amount of carbon that can be emitted in Oregon, then auction off the right to emit it to companies. Under the bill, the state would join California, Ontario, and Quebec in the North American Cap-and-Trade Program.
That program has historically imposed a price between $12 and $16 per ton of carbon pollution. If Oregon joins the program, some of the revenue would be reinvested in renewable energy and other state projects; the rest would be distributed to utilities, who could rebate it back to consumers in their electricity bill.
Oregon, like California, also has a number of smaller-scale climate laws in place. And nine states in the northeast—including New York, Maryland, and Massachusetts—run a regional cap-and-trade program, though that market only covers carbon pollution from the electricity sector. (Well before the Trump years began, climate change has been a site of especially exuberant liberal federalism.)
Do these programs work? "In the northeastern states, in Quebec, Ontario, even a very modest price can bring emissions down," Eberhard told me. "A modest price plus other policies—like we see in California—is more effective. And a more aggressive price with other policies would be very effective." But there is no state or province in North America with an "aggressive price" right now.
There is also no state with a working carbon tax. The closest model in North America is the Canadian province of British Columbia, just across the border from Washington. B.C. first imposed a carbon tax of $10 per metric ton in 2008, which has since risen to $30 per ton. But in the last decade the province has also seen a profitable fracking boom. "They've had this explosion in shale gas, so their emissions have been going up," said Eberhard.
National politicians have periodically expressed interest in a carbon tax. Earlier this week, 22 College Republican groups and a handful of College Democrat clubs endorsed just such a policy. But right now, there is no working U.S. carbon tax for an eager politician to study, copy, or improve.
Democrats, the party of climate change, will pay for this missed opportunity. Due to the necessity of long-term planning and state financial years, the failure of Washington's bill this week means that there will likely be no state-level carbon tax in the United States until at least July 2020, if Washington voters (or state legislators) approve the measure at their next opportunity. Therefore, there will likely be no American carbon tax on the books during the next Democratic presidential primary. And if a Democratic president takes office in January 2021 promising to pass a carbon tax—which is exactly what Bernie Sanders promised during his 2016 run—he or she will only have, at best, a six-month-old policy, in just one state, to adapt for the nation.
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 09:06 AM PST
There is a contradiction at the heart of Trumpism's embrace of protectionism and restrictionism. President Donald Trump often portrays international trade less as a non-zero-sum form of cooperation and more as a battle to the death, in which wily foreigners have for years been winning at the expense of ordinary Americans, thanks in large part to the treacherousness of U.S. elites. His call for steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports is very much in keeping with his mercantilist instincts. At the same time, the president advocates more stringent limits on low-skill immigration.
You might think these policies complement each other. And as a matter of cultural sensibilities, there's no denying that they tend to go together. The trouble is that offshoring is essential to making limits on low-skill immigration tolerable for large employers, at least for the foreseeable future. Just as you can't have your cake and eat it too, you can't slam the door shut to low-skill labor while also slamming it shut to imports of the goods and services an abundant supply of low-skill labor makes possible.
The president and his allies are thus faced with a decision about the character of their economic nationalism. If their chief objective is to wall the U.S. off from global trade, they'll have little choice but to accept low-skill immigration as part of the bargain. But if they see a more selective, skills-based immigration system as essential to their vision of the American future, they must embrace the global division of labor.
The kind of people who celebrate free trade tend to be the kind of people who have a taste for change, which makes them more favorably disposed towards the free movement of people across borders. Similarly, on the other side of the political fence, immigration skeptics are often motivated by a sense of nostalgia, which inclines them to oppose offshoring, automation, and other forces that threaten to change the look and feel of society.
In practice, though, offshoring enables large U.S. employers to substitute low-skill workers abroad for low-skill workers at home. This is in stark contrast to the first decades of the 20th century, when the rise of American industry was fueled in no small part by low-skill immigrant labor. Now, however, it's possible to contract out the most labor-intensive parts of production to firms and workers based in countries where low-skill labor is cheap and labor standards are lax, or to adopt capital-intensive business models at home that use low-skill labor sparingly if at all. The result is that tradable-sector employment in the U.S. is increasingly skewed towards high-skill workers, who work in tandem with low-skill labor overseas. Meanwhile, low-skill workers in the U.S. typically find themselves employed by smaller, lower-productivity firms that pay lower wages, with business models that likely wouldn't survive years of serious, sustained wage gains.
Inevitably, this changing economic landscape has influenced the politics of low-skill immigration. In Trading Barriers, the UCLA political scientist Margaret Peters finds that as barriers to trade have fallen, barriers to low-skill immigration have risen. While others have argued that restrictionism has gained ground because nativism is rising, or because the expansion of the welfare state has intensified concerns about the fiscal impact of low-skill immigration, Peters offers a novel and compelling explanation: Major corporations have lost their appetite for using their considerable resources to fight the restrictionist tide.
To be sure, in the age of "woke capital," there are plenty of corporations that celebrate immigration-driven cultural change and diversity, and of course corporate America still lobbies aggressively for openness to high-skill immigration. Low-skill immigration, however, is an entirely different story. Though it remains essential to sustaining the low-skill workforce in the U.S., as rising educational attainment and falling birthrates would otherwise cause it to shrink over time, the fact that firms can simply import labor-intensive intermediate inputs rather than produce them in-house has made the availability of low-skill labor a less urgent, if not an entirely superfluous, concern.
And as corporate demand for low-skill labor has fallen, corporate lobbying for low-skill immigration has fallen off. This in turn has changed the character of immigration advocacy, moving it away from the priorities of low-wage employers, such as the creation and expansion of guest-worker programs, towards a greater emphasis on the rights of immigrants to reunite with their family members and, in intellectual circles, certainly, humanitarian calls for low-skill immigration as a vehicle for the uplift of the global poor. (Peters, for instance, concludes her book by offering a moral defense of open borders.) Mind you, economic self-interest still plays a role in the coalition for low-skill immigration: Affluent professionals, for example, greatly benefit from an abundance of low-skill immigrant labor, as it makes it cheaper for them to outsource household production, while they're potentially disadvantaged by the arrival of high-skill immigrants capable of competing with them for high-wage, high-status jobs. But such arguments increasingly play second fiddle to more emotionally resonant appeals centered on the moral worthiness of immigrants themselves.
Protectionism, however, has the potential to change the political equation. Whereas import competition has lessened corporate America's dependence on low-skill immigration, protectionism would almost surely increase it.
High tariffs offer a lifeline to low-skill, labor-intensive business models that couldn't otherwise withstand import competition. Moreover, tariff protection might delay the adoption of labor-saving technologies, for the simple reason that while import competition forces firms to seek productivity gains, its absence gives them breathing room. Under these favorable circumstances, the main threat to profitability would be rising wages for low-skill workers, which can be contained—and here we come full circle—by low-skill immigration. It stands to reason that industries shielded from import competition would be more inclined to lobby in favor of low-skill immigration than those that are exposed to it. We see a hint of this dynamic in the notoriously inefficient construction sector, which has long been heavily reliant on low-skill immigrant labor. Things would undoubtedly be different if U.S. consumers could import buildings from abroad as easily as we import smartphones, but that's still a long way off.
So is this what Trump wants: to embrace protectionism, and to supercharge corporate America's appetite for low-skill labor? There is, I'll admit, a certain logic to this position. If the main objective of economic nationalism is to prevent the loss of existing low-wage jobs, increasing low-skill immigration is a decent way to do it. At high enough levels of it, no one would even bother to work on self-driving cars and delivery drones, as chauffeurs and bicycle messengers could be had at cut-rate prices. Indeed, in the absence of low-skill immigration, many of today's low-wage jobs—in agriculture, garment manufacturing, meatpacking, and retail—would already be done by machines or by workers overseas. Perhaps the pro-tariff wing of the Trump administration dreams of a future in which a dwindling number of low-skill U.S. citizens serve as the superintendents of vast armies of low-skill guest-workers, who'd do work with their hands that is now done by machines, or in the teeming factories of the developing world. It's an intriguingly inegalitarian vision that scratches the same itch as the liberal imperialism of yesteryear.
But I'm skeptical that this vision would have much purchase among America's economic nationalists. I suspect that the real driving force behind economic nationalism isn't a desire to preserve today's low-wage jobs in aspic, but rather to ensure high and rising living standards for all Americans, and to prevent the emergence of a new underclass. And if that's so, economic nationalists have a vested interest in keeping our country open to trade.
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 09:58 AM PST
As she stood in front of hundreds of gun-control advocates at a rally in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, late last month, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior Emma González told the audience that she and her peers should instead be at home grieving. Yet there González was, wiping tears from her eyes and delivering a now-viral speech demanding tougher gun laws in the U.S. A few days later, she would be questioning an NRA spokeswoman on CNN. And that was only her first week as a vanguard of a movement that's spreading across the country with astonishing speed—and showing no signs of stopping.
That the Parkland student activists planted the seeds of their political campaign mere hours (even minutes) after the shooting that killed 17 people at their high school is, in part, what has made the movement so resonant to those watching it unfold. There's something powerful in the fact that the people who will have the deepest scars from the events of February 14—people who would be expected to, say, be resting at home and mourning lost friends—are stepping up to do what, in their view, adults in the political sphere aren't. It's a response one journalist referred to as "courageous grieving." But critics have also weaponized their emotional states to argue against the coherence of their minds and their movement. Bill O'Reilly asked on Twitter last Tuesday: "The big question is: Should the media be promoting opinions by teenagers who are in an emotional state and facing extreme peer pressure in some cases?"
Both O'Reilly's criticism and the reverse—reactions that admire how quickly the students resorted to activism—rely on a sense that grief and political activism are not natural partners. These responses seem to imply that the Parkland students' fervor is either so soon that it's brave, or too soon and therefore unreliable. The students' quick turn to action is neither uncommon in American history nor detrimental to the process of grief. But they are still grieving, and that grief could hit even harder as the buzz of interviews and rallies dies down and they settle back into their lives at school.
While the Parkland movement is for many reasons unique in the history of activism, the immediacy of the students' action isn't one of them. Angus Johnston, a City University of New York professor who studies the history of student activism, pointed out that American civil-rights activists would often turn to political organizing right after a lynching took place. The mother of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955, insisted on a public funeral; Till's mother urged the public to look at his disfigured body, and the photographs and news coverage quickly spurred a national conversation on racism. Recent responses to police shootings of black men have also speedily taken on a political tone, Johnston said. The Parkland students are joining a long tradition of American mourners who channel their grief into political activism.
The Parkland students have been moving from candlelight vigils and friends' funerals to CNN interviews and strategy sessions in each other's living rooms. Sometimes grief and politics overlapped in the same moment, like when a chant of "no more guns!" broke out at a candlelight vigil the day after the shooting. Reading about the teens' hectic and exhausting days, it's hard not to worry: Can this really be healthy? Experts say it can, though they stress there are caveats.
The reasons for turning to political action in moments of grief are fairly intuitive: Humans naturally look to find some meaning in a painful and senseless event. It's a way of continuing a story that has reached a sudden end, said Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist at Duke University Medical Center who specializes in children's trauma. Gurwitch suggested that the question of whether it's "too soon" to undertake activist work glosses over the nuances of grief. "Whenever that individual feels like, 'I need to do something' ... [this action] can be very helpful to the healing process," she said. And it doesn't have to be an either-or choice: "It is not as simple as a binary [of] 'I can either be an advocate or ... be grieving,'" Gurwitch said.
After a traumatic event, a person has no choice but to move forward—where she might have a choice is in where she will move. The word "crisis" comes from the Greek krisis, which means 'fork in the road' or 'decision,' noted Stephen Brock, a professor of psychology at California State University, Sacramento, who has worked on issues of student trauma and grief. "When something like this happens, you can't continue along your same path. You have to choose a new path." And a person has lots of roads—healthy or dangerous or something in between—to choose from.
The healthiest roads entail what Brock called "active or approach-oriented coping": "The person identifies that something bad happened, and they try to deal with it, to do something about it." He sees the activism of the Parkland students as an example of this approach. It's advisable for people of all ages to take some kind of action after a crisis or tragedy, he said, although the actions will look different depending on the age. For children, Brock said, taking action might mean writing condolence cards, or having conversations about caring for one another. But for adolescents, focusing on "broader social issues" is actually a commonly recommended form of crisis intervention. Activism can also be a particularly compelling path for adolescents, who even under normal circumstances are trying to find their place in society, show independence, and play a role in important conversations. According to Brock, the most unhealthy path for grievers is "avoidance coping," when the person "tries to deny or minimize what happened."
Part of what makes active coping so healthy is that it offers the person an opportunity to get some control back in a situation that's otherwise totally out of her hands. And activism has its own particular benefits: People experiencing grief can find it helpful to stay connected to other people, to help others, and to be engaged in activities and routines. As Jaclyn Corin, a Douglas Stoneman student, told The New Yorker several days after the shooting, "My coping mechanism is to distract myself with work and helping people."
Still, experts cautioned that activism isn't a substitute for the grieving process. What the students are doing, Brock said, could facilitate a journey that will last a long time—likely their whole lives. "It might be putting them in a better position to grieve," he said. But they still must grieve. And that's where the adults and peers in their lives come in. The activism is helpful "only to the extent" that family and friends are around to help ensure that the students are doing the work of dealing with the long-term grief that's ahead of them, Brock said. Parents can also help kids avoid any pressure they feel, from their peers or from themselves, to participate in the political movement or to process their grief in one particular way, by reminding them that there's no single "right" way to grieve. Each student will also be dealing with a different set of challenges, from the grief of losing a family member or best friend to the trauma of the shooting itself.
The Parkland student activists clearly aren't plowing past their emotions or avoiding the vulnerability that comes with grief; reporters have noted that some students had panic attacks or collapsed in tears during activism-strategy sessions. "Unfortunately the bad feelings and the reminders of everything that's happened are coming at all the wrong times," the 17-year-old Cameron Kasky told BuzzFeed the weekend after the shooting.
The Parkland students don't seem to ascribe to the notion that it's unnatural to turn to activism in the face of grief. For them, when it comes to gun control, political activism is its own act of mourning. As the Douglas high-school senior González put it, speaking to The New Yorker: "This is how I'm dealing with my grief. The thing that caused me grief, the thing that had no right to cause me grief, the thing that had no right to happen in the first place, I have to do something actively to prevent it from happening to somebody else."
But it will still be important for friends and family to keep an eye on the students when things start to quiet down, said Melissa Reeves, a school psychologist and professor of psychology at Winthrop University who specializes in issues of trauma and crisis. She suggested that those close to the students watch for "delayed grief reactions" once the students are back to their day-to-day lives (which will start to be the case now that classes at Marjory Stoneman Douglas have resumed). Reeves also cautioned that the students might be disappointed if they don't see impacts on the national level anytime soon, which could do them further damage.
The experts I spoke with said that while the Stoneman Douglas activists are of course contending with all the normal emotional and intellectual tolls that grief or trauma inflicts, those who critique them for being too young or too emotional aren't giving them enough credit. "These young people are not that far removed from being adults," Brock said. "With that comes, as appropriate, this kind of activism. This is the kind of thing adults did following Sandy Hook."
Jeremy Richman, whose 6-year-old daughter Avielle Rose Richman was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting, remembers the hours following his daughter's murder clearly. "You feel like you're not just broken but you're missing something that's part of you," he said. "You have to find some meaning or action to move, to get out of bed." Almost immediately after the shooting, Richman and his wife, Jennifer Hensel, started thinking about what would become the Avielle Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing violence through research and community engagement.
"In a blurry 48 hours we created the mission and the vision of the foundation," Richman said. "We knew exactly what we were going to do." For Richman, taking action right away filled two roles: one personal and one public. On the personal level, it "motivate[d] us to get out of bed and move," he said. But "in an outward-facing fashion, we were profoundly committed to preventing others from suffering in the way that we were suffering and continue to [suffer to] this day." For Richman and his family, the inward and the outward were immediately intertwined. "It was right away, and it was really valuable, because we [could] process ... the whole experience with the passion, conviction, and energy that we had," Richman said.
Richman is a neuroscientist, and he stressed the fact that adolescents like the Parkland students make for great activists. "Their brains are literally wired right now at such an exponentially greater extent than ours are in our adulthood," he said. "They're the perfect people to solve problems, take action, and have the passion to do it." Those fluctuations of stress hormones that make cranky teens annoying to their parents, Richman said, can also be "a profoundly powerful motivator" for something a bit more grand—say, a movement they're calling #NeverAgain.
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 08:00 AM PST
Witnessing the Collapse of the Global Elite
This year's security conference in Munich, Eliot Cohen argued, was a stark reminder that this class has nothing of substance to offer a world in turmoil.
Eliot Cohen is one of my heroes. As a professor, he taught me the value of succinctness; as a friend, he taught me a lot more. I admire him for his historical knowledge and moral compass—and for his never-ending readiness to teach, guide, and mentor. So I hope he will forgive me if I join those who take issue with his recent analysis of the Munich Security Conference—an event that I run and that remains much closer to its roots than Eliot seems ready to admit. While it may seem petty to get into a quarrel about something as trivial as a policy conference, I believe six of Eliot's arguments in particular warrant a written response to his piece in The Atlantic last month.
First, Eliot is right that our conference did little to fill the current void in international relations. But he is wrong in suggesting, even if only indirectly, that it ever could have or was ever designed to. Since the days of its founder, Ewald von Kleist, the former Wehrkundetagung has been meant "not as a desk and auditorium conference, but a discussion between equal and active participants on how to tackle common security challenges." Nothing more, nothing less.
As such, what Eliot sees as a failure of the institution is, in reality, representative of something much bigger and more worrisome. The fact that grown statesmen refuse to listen to each other in the plenary, the fact that delegations leave the conference hall when the leaders of neighboring countries speak, or the fact that even the most senior politicians of Europe refuse to sit on a panel together has little to do with our conference. But it has everything to do with the sorry state of international affairs. As Thomas Wright tweeted, "the [MSC] is the messenger, not the message. It reveals the world we are in; it doesn't create it."
For decades, the West presented a relatively consolidated front in Munich. One would come to the conference to discuss the future of the transatlantic alliance with one's likeminded peers and return home reassured in the feeling that all was in order. Those days are over, or so it seems. Whether permanent or temporary, whether reversible or not, the creeping disintegration of the liberal international order was all too palpable that weekend.
Second, Eliot is right that those speaking on the main stage had little of substance or vision to offer in response. Many of the speakers seemed to be addressing their electorates at home rather than their peers in the hall. Few had truly inspirational ideas or policies to present, even fewer concrete policy proposals. But Eliot is wrong to link this political entropy with what he calls "the algae-like bloom of elites and their simultaneous loss of substance." Had Eliot attended any of the roughly 150 side events in Munich, he would have met many intellectual peers. He would have been able to engage in highly substantive discussions on anything from the INF Treaty to nato's Enhanced Forward Presence. He would have heard concrete policy proposals and maybe, just maybe, he would have been reminded of those cherished moments with the likes of Manfred Wörner and Thérèse Delpech. Bringing that feeling back into the main plenary hall is one of the many challenges we face as an institution, but it is certainly not an insurmountable one. It will necessitate new formats, more interaction, and a revised invitation list. We are working on all of them.
Third, Eliot is certainly right that the conference has changed dramatically over the last decades. It has become (much) bigger, covers a much broader spectrum of international security issues, and has become more visible and more high-ranking. In itself that is neither good nor bad, but representative of a changed notion of the term "security community." It is no longer enough to assemble a handful of policy wonks and military officers around a table—even though the MSC continues to do that with many of its other formats such as the off-the-record Munich Strategy Forum every December. Today's multidimensional strategic environment necessitates a much broader and more inclusive approach.
At the end of the day, however, the true value of a conference like ours depends on whether it contributes anything to anything. I would argue that the facts speak for themselves: At this year's conference, we facilitated more than 2,100 bilateral meetings; we offered more than 100 prominent partner institutions, ranging from the Rand Corporation and Chatham House to the World Food Programme, from the Atlantic Council and NATO to the Royal United Services Institute, an opportunity to share their insights; and we served as a platform for dozens of multilateral negotiation formats such as the Normandy talks. As hundreds of senior decision-makers talk with and listen to each other, the spirit of the Wehrkundetagung is there to grasp.
Fourth, Eliot is right that Senator John McCain was missed sorely in Munich. Just like Senator John Tower before him, he has been the heart and soul of the U.S. congressional delegation for decades. He spoke out when no one else did. He reassured allies and warned enemies. And he embodied America's moral leadership of the West. Why Eliot would announce that he (and many others) will not return to Munich without McCain "re-stating American values with ringing clarity" there is beyond me, however.
We need more people like John McCain, not fewer. We need people to step bravely into his shoes, not people who falter once their idol is gone. As John said in his statement accepting the Kleist Award, "Put simply, we come to Munich because sustaining our vision of world order, though it requires wealth and power and realism, is not merely a material struggle. It is a moral struggle. It is about the values that will govern our world. That is why we are allies. That is why we have stood by each other, and sacrificed for each other, and invested in our common defense—and why we must continue to do so."
Staying home just will not do, Eliot. It never does! Remember the saying you were once so fond of, sometimes attributed to Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to sit down and do nothing." Or, to cite John McCain once more, "I am counting on you to be useful. I am counting on you to keep the faith, and never give up." This is all the more important in times where faith in America's leadership is eroding fast and spoilers are queuing up to fill the void. Staying home will only speed up the process. We need a strong U.S. delegation to hold up the flag!
Eliot has also criticized our invitation policy. While there is certainly much to criticize in general—there are still not enough women, and the median age is still too high, and there may even be too many guests overall—the fact that we include people whose policies and opinions a conservative U.S. academic does not agree with should not be seen as a dent in our armor; on the contrary. We strongly believe that talking with people is always better than talking about people. This is why we invite what Eliot calls "dictators' henchmen" just as we have invited the heads of Human Rights Watch, Greenpeace, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to name just a few. While there is certainly a valid argument against offering a stage to every villain, there is an equally valid argument for including all sides of a conflict in its resolution. It is for this reason that we ask our guests to engage with and seek to understand those that they do not agree with. If one wants to preach to the converted or stay in one's comfort zone, Munich is indeed not the place to go.
In Munich you will have to live with other views and, ideally, be ready to defend yours. Most of our participants are. Within the space of two hours on Sunday, the Prime Minister of Israel as well as the Foreign Ministers from Iran and Saudi Arabia sat on the stage and faced difficult questions from the audience, just like Theresa May, Jean-Claude Juncker, Petro Poroschenko, Sebastian Kurz, Mark Rutte, António Guterres and many others did over the days before. Yes, time for questions was often too short and, yes, we sometimes failed to challenge dubious positions with the necessary vigor, but we did our bit to promote good ideas and to hold bad ideas to account.
Lastly, Eliot accuses us, I believe quite unfairly, of a growing sense of self-importance. Yes, the Munich Security Conference has become bigger. Yes, it has become more visible and, yes, by becoming more transparent and inclusive it is no longer the closed shop Wehrkunde was during the days of the Cold War. But its purpose—to build trust and sustain a continuous, curated and informal dialogue within the international security community—has not changed. Neither has its self-conception: We want to remain a platform, not become an agenda-setter. We want to foster networks, not make headlines. We want to be a place for serious work, and not a show.
Dear Eliot, let me assure you: We know our place—and we will stay there. Just as Ewald von Kleist would have wanted us to. We also know our shortcomings and will continue to work on them. We appreciate feedback and criticism and need people like you to keep us on our toes. However much we continue to emulate the ideals of Ewald von Kleist, though, we will not be able to escape the constraints of our times. Don't blame us for them! Help us to change them!
I am writing to thank you for your recent article on the Munich Security Conference. I am a practicing lawyer and also hold a master's degree in international relations from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa.
When I read accounts like yours, I'm left with a feeling of sadness for what's become of the country that once was not afraid to take on the mantle of "leader of the free world." To a foreign (in this case, Canadian) observer, the America that rebuilt democracies and economies after WWII, won the Cold War, and built a system of international alliances and institutions that maintained stability for over 70 years has suddenly gone awol.
Throughout my career as legal counsel at the Bank of Canada (Canada's central bank), I always enjoyed working with U.S. justice and regulatory authorities on strengthening the international financial system. I admired the professionalism and respectfulness of the American representatives and their willingness to take the lead in forging a consensus among the often disparate views of the countries at the table.
These days, not so much. The America of today seems bent on pulling out of trade pacts, destabilizing alliances, and treating international relations as a series of zero-sum business transactions. Although America remains the preeminent military power, its hegemony when it was truly "great" rested not only on that power but on its moral authority as the leader of an international system based on democratic principles, human rights, sustainability, and the rule of law. It is now rapidly losing that moral authority, to become just another "great power" in a multipolar world. It really does feel like we're moving out of the era of Pax Americana into a much more dangerous international environment.
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 08:29 AM PST
GREENFIELD, Mass.—Al Norman has been fighting to keep Walmart and other big-box retailers out of small towns like this one for 25 years. He's been successful in Greenfield, his hometown and the site of his first battle with Walmart, and in dozens of other towns across the country—victories he documents on his website Sprawl-Busters, an "International Clearinghouse on Big Box Anti-Sprawl Information." Partly because of Norman's efforts to keep out such stores, Greenfield still has a Main Street with dozens of businesses, including a bookstore, a record store, and Wilson's, one of the last independently owned department stores in the country.
But Norman and business owners in Greenfield are noticing that the Main Street stores are now struggling in the face of another force that's become more and more powerful in recent years: e-commerce. Many customers who kept shopping in Greenfield's downtown because Walmart was too far away are now turning to Amazon and other websites that offer free and fast shipping for basic needs, sapping business away from local stores that had survived for so long. Facing competition from a company as enormous as Amazon, some local stores are having trouble staying open.
I twice stopped by Wilson's, the department store, to try to meet the manager, and saw no shoppers inside the store the entire time I was there. (Wilson's did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.) And Home Furnishing Co., a 100-year-old store in downtown Greenfield, closed last year, and then Magical Child, a toy store on the brink of closing, partnered with a local bookstore, World Eye Bookshop, to remain open, consolidating into one storefront.
"If you were going to pick a place years ago that would still support small businesses, and shop downtown first, I would have said Greenfield would be that place," Jessica Mullins, the owner of World Eye, told me. But her store's sales were down significantly last year. Several customers who were once reliable shoppers now come in and find out about new books and games, take a picture of them, and then buy the products online, where they're cheaper. It's a practice called "showrooming," and while the executives running big legacy retailers are the ones who most publicly lament it, it can hurt smaller shops too. "People are getting on Amazon and they're not getting off," Mullins said.
Greenfield and other towns across New England are learning that while they might have been able to keep out big-box stores through zoning changes and old-fashioned advocacy, there's not much they can do about consumers' shift to e-commerce. They can't physically keep out e-commerce stores—which don't have a physical presence in towns that residents could push back against—and they certainly can't restrict residents' internet access. "It's one thing for me to try and fight over land use in the town I live in, or in somebody else's town," Norman told me, over lunch in a diner on Greenfield's Main Street. "But e-shopping creates a real problem for activists, because on some level, shopping online is a choice people make, and it's hard to intrude yourself in that."
Shoppers are, as Norman well knows, increasingly turning to Amazon and other e-commerce sites. Online sales represented about 13 percent of American retail sales in 2017, according to Forrester, a research firm, which projects that number will grow to 17 percent by 2022. And about one-third of online purchases are made through Amazon, Forrester says—83 percent of American adults who use the internet (that is to say, nearly all of them) made a purchase from Amazon in 2016. This has translated to a decline in shopping at brick-and-mortar stores. Last year, more chain-store locations closed than in any previous year.
The dominance of e-commerce has affected Main Streets too: Around 90 percent of independent retailers said that Amazon was having a negative impact on their business, according to a 2017 survey of more than 850 such businesses. Between 2006 and 2015, the number of retail firms with fewer than 10 employees fell by 9 percent, according to census data.
Of course, there's a reason Amazon and other e-commerce sites are so difficult for small businesses to compete with: The convenience of online shopping is unmatched. Amazon's rise is proof that as much as some consumers may want to support nearby businesses, in a sense there's nothing more local than shopping from their living-room couch.
And, as the company pointed out when I contacted it about this article, Amazon does create some opportunities for independent businesses as well. More than 140,000 small and medium-sized businesses each sold more than $100,000 in goods on Amazon last year, according to the company. "We are empowering so many retailers—many of them small businesses and main street businesses—to reach customers, not just in the US, but around the world," an Amazon spokesman, Erik Farleigh, wrote to me in an email.
Roundabout Books, a small business a mile from Greenfield's Main Street, is an example of a shop that has been able to grow because of e-commerce. Raymond Neal, a former schoolteacher, opened the store six years ago, and most of his business is used books. Online retail—including selling through Amazon—has helped him keep the doors open. (He bemoans the fees he has to pay Amazon for the privilege, however.) He estimates that half of his revenue comes from online sales; the other half is a mix of in-store transactions and pop-up sales he does in busy locations like downtown Boston. "I go where the customers are," he told me. But his Greenfield location produces only a small part of his revenues—if he makes $50 in a day in his store, it's a good day, he said.
The shift of retail away from brick-and-mortar stores to online ones represents a fundamental change in the American economy, one that has big repercussions for communities like Greenfield. The average American spends nearly $15,000 a year on retail shopping, according to census data. If that money is going to companies based far away, the local economy may suffer, because less money is being kept in the community. Money spent at an independent business generates four times the direct local economic benefit than money spent at a chain store—in terms of employee pay, local charitable giving, and employee spending—according to an analysis done by Civic Economics, a research firm that studies independent businesses. Local business owners will often spend the money they earn from their business nearby, at restaurants, bars, and other retail stores. Also, as I've written before, the decline of local retail also has major implications for cities and towns' ability to raise revenues through sales taxes.
There are other, less tangible, changes that occur when brick-and-mortar businesses disappear. As Main Streets become sparser, there will be fewer of the spontaneous, community-building interactions that take place when residents run into each other on the sidewalk or at a store. People who live in the same town might start to meet less often in person as they shop more from their couches and work more from their dining-room tables. Relatedly, small businesses are often the linchpins of a community—they sponsor softball teams and cookouts, charity auctions and parade floats. Bob Nelson, the owner of Nelson Ace Hardware in Barre, Vermont, another town struggling to revitalize its Main Street, said he gets "at least one request a day" to sponsor a local cause, whether it be the local Rotary Club or Lion's Club or softball team. But who will be left to sponsor softball teams or floats in parades if there is no more small-town retail?
It's possible that as e-commerce companies continue to encroach on brick-and-mortar stores, they will support communities in the same way that other small businesses traditionally have. Amazon pointed out that it has sponsored, among other events, holiday festivals in Jeffersonville, Kentucky, a Pride parade in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and a summer reading program in San Antonio. But going to Amazon for donations is fundamentally different from walking into a store and asking the owner, based on a personal relationship, for support.
For the residents of Greenfield in particular, the decline of small businesses is hard to bear because the town has a history of resisting national companies that have tried to come in and set up shop. The first anti-Walmart battle, in the mid-1990s, was prompted after the town council rezoned a plot of land, thus allowing a developer to build a Walmart. Norman, the Sprawl Buster, led a ballot initiative to reverse that zoning decision, and his narrow win surprised just about everybody in Greenfield, including him. "We really tried to play up the idea that Greenfield had a lot to lose," he told me. "Our slogan was, 'You can buy cheap underwear at Walmart, but you can't buy small-town quality of life anywhere.'"
A decade later, when a developer again tried to put a Walmart outside of town, Norman fought it because the new site was on a wetland. Eventually, the state's Department of Environmental Protection forbade construction. Then, in 2011, when the developer reconfigured the site and won a planning board's permission to build, Norman found plaintiffs to file a lawsuit against the developer that is still winding its way through court. He drove me by both sites when I was in town, and both are still tree-filled fields, rather than the big stores developers had envisioned.
Lisa Cocco, the owner of Opus, a Main Street boutique selling small gifts like jewelry, pottery, and wind chimes that has been around for 28 years, said that when she thought Walmart was coming to Greenfield, she opened a second store in another town because she didn't think her original location could withstand the retailer's presence. The Walmart didn't come, so she stayed open in Greenfield. Now, she's not sure if she can weather the switch to e-commerce. She told me customers come in and browse, find something they like, and compare prices online when she's standing right there. "It's seriously hurting business," she said. "I'm extremely discouraged."
In some ways, Greenfield's lack of big-box stores might have accelerated residents' transition to e-commerce. While there are shops downtown, those don't offer the selection of a Walmart or Target. And since the only big stores are a 30-minute drive away, many in Greenfield have started buying off Amazon instead. "There are only a certain number of things you can get downtown," Danielle Jenczyk, a 37-year-old Greenfield resident told me. Jencyzk told me she shops on Amazon for just about everything, since she gets free shipping through her Prime subscription and because she can look at product reviews before she buys anything.
Small businesses in other towns that successfully kept big-box stores out are also having trouble. In Randolph, for instance, a Vermont town that recently fought off a proposal to build a shopping mall and a hotel on the outskirts of town, Belmain's, a variety store that has been in business since 1934, announced in October that it would close. The store's owners said it was closing because of "the growth and convenience of Amazon and other mail-order companies and the lack of good steady flow of foot traffic in Randolph." And that likely isn't due to any decline in population—Vermont actually gained residents between 2000 and 2016.
The whole state of Vermont has long been a difficult place for big-box stores to locate—the state won't get its first Target until later this year. That's in large part because of Act 250, a state law that gives regional environmental commissions the power to deny building permits for big projects. But despite those successes, Paul Bruhn, the executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, a nonprofit that seeks to protect the state's architectural heritage, is concerned about the future of Vermont's downtowns. "With most small businesses, you don't have to take away all of their business for them to fail," Bruhn told me. "A business that loses 10 percent to 20 percent because of Amazon, that's a big impact."
Some communities are trying to push back against the decline of independent businesses by launching campaigns asking people to shop local, such as Local First Arizona and Portland Buy Local. (Greenfield launched its own currency—Greenfield Dollars—in hopes of getting people to spend money in the area.) City officials can zone downtowns for mixed-use retail, and create affordable commercial space in new housing developments, said Stacy Mitchell, the co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit that's skeptical of big business. Some cities have helped set up community banks that are more likely to give out small-business loans, Mitchell said.
But it will be hard for cities to create a shopping environment more convenient than Amazon's. Julie Keane, a 30-year-old who lives in Greenfield, told me that her family understands the importance of supporting local businesses, going to the Wilson's department store when they can. But she has a 10-month-old son, and often, Amazon has baby products that the department store doesn't. When Amazon was offering a free Prime trial two years ago, her family signed up. They now use it frequently, since it saves them time—it doesn't make sense for Keane to pack her son into the car and drive to the Target 30 minutes away for the same products. And as long as she's buying those sorts of products on Amazon, she's likelier to buy other products, the kind available on Main Street, from the company too—the longer someone is a Prime member, the more money they spend on the site, studies show. "We try to shop locally," she told me. "But sometimes, there are better options online to what we have."
How might local businesses respond? "I think you're seeing that local merchants are thinking seriously about what their advantage is," said Marc Levinson, the author of The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America. Some small retailers are trying to offer services that e-retailers can't offer to draw in customers. Seth Lustig, the owner of Greenfield Games, another Main Street store, says that his business has been able to attract customers by organizing game nights and other events for people to learn about new products they might not naturally come across online. Nelson, the hardware-store owner in Vermont, says helpful customer service helps him draw in shoppers—people who know that he'll assemble products for free will come in rather than buying something online and having to assemble it themselves.
But the challenge posed by online shopping to local businesses is immense. Even Al Norman, who refuses to shop at Walmart, says he doesn't have the same aversion to Amazon, in part because he thinks the internet is the future of shopping. His wife has a Prime account, and he recently ordered tea from the website when he couldn't find it locally, he said, adding that he has no plans to organize protests or zoning meetings about Amazon. He doesn't love the idea that some of his money is going to Jeff Bezos, "the richest human around," as he refers to the Amazon founder, and so still shops locally whenever possible. He doesn't know whether he'll still be doing that in a decade. When he launched the first campaign against Walmart in Greenfield 25 years ago, he led activists with bumper stickers that said, "If you build it, we won't come." He knows the same can't be said for Amazon, because shoppers, including him, are already there.
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 10:33 AM PST
As I noted in my end-of-the-year movie wrap-up (which in addition to my top-10 list included such idiosyncratic awards as "Best Letter Writer" and "Most Successful Mushroom Recipe"), 2017 was an excellent year for film. And, for the most part, I think the Academy did a good job when it came to Oscar nominations. Four of my top five movies of the year were nominated for Best Picture, and of them I think three have a genuine shot.
Now for the bad news: Of the top-10 Oscar categories, eight seem (strong emphasis on the word seem) close to sewn up. As someone who nailed nine out of the 10 categories last year—and appeared destined for a clean sweep until La La Land's ceremony-closing Best Picture win was retroactively redistributed to Moonlight—I'm feeling decent about my odds.
But the good news for Oscar viewers (which is consequently bad news for my predictions) is that one of the two remaining races is for Best Picture, which is a more confusing competition than in any prior year I can recall. Typically, by now there's either a clear frontrunner or the competition has come down to two plausible candidates, generally one more safe/mainstream and one more interesting/edgy. The overall safety-edginess varies, from years in which both films are relatively mainstream (Titanic versus L.A. Confidential) to ones in which they're relatively unusual (La La Land versus Moonlight). But the breakdown customarily holds.
I spent months assuming that at some point, Dunkirk (a tremendous film) or The Post (a solid one that seemed custom-engineered for Hollywood awards season) would capture that mainstream slot. But this year, there is no mainstream slot. Both of the presumed frontrunners feel like challengers: The Shape of Water, with its offbeat fantasy, sudden violence, and, um, interspecies sex; and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which delights in confounding viewer expectations and has endured controversies about an ill-conceived racial subplot. Even the strongest dark-horse alternatives, Get Out and Lady Bird, are decidedly indie. To put it in numbers, of the four most-likely Best Picture winners, only one—Get Out, at No. 15—cracked the top 49 movies in 2017 domestic box office. (The Shape of Water snuck into the No. 50 spot.)
So, in a change from my usual format, I'm saving Best Picture for last: in part because, like the ceremony itself, I want to make you stick around to the end; and in part because, as I write this introduction, I still have almost no idea what to pick. Onward.
Nominees: Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Margot Robbie (I, Tonya), Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), Meryl Streep (The Post)
McDormand has been the favorite ever since her first scene with Woody Harrelson in Three Billboards, and rightly so. Far too many people have tried to pigeonhole her Mildred Hayes as a feminist icon or straightforward heroine, but that gives the role, and her performance, too little credit. She is a woman who has been deeply damaged—by an abusive husband even before her daughter's murder—and who now feels entitled to commit some damage herself, regardless of the culpability of those (men) in her crosshairs. Hers is a cry of revolt against a world in which shitty things happen, all too often against women, every single day. Her performance is both without vanity, and without the aggressive anti-vanity (Charlize Theron's weight gain for Monster, Nicole Kidman's Pinocchio nose for The Hours) that accompanies many bids for this award. She never seems to be pretending to be anyone but who she is.
I feel a little bad for a magically mute Sally Hawkins and a Margot Robbie whose character seemed about one twist of unhappy fate short of McDormand's transcendental ire. Saoirse Ronan was very good in (the to-my-mind somewhat overrated) Lady Bird. And Meryl Streep bears the unfair handicap that she's given us so many marvels over the years that anything short of a masterpiece seems par for the course. If you must bet for an upset, bet for Ronan and a big Lady Bird moment, or perhaps Hawkins and a Shape of Water sweep. But I wouldn't advise betting for an upset.
Who will win: Frances McDormand
Who ought to win: Frances McDormand
Nominees: Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name), Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread), Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour), Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq.)
Another nomination (please get accustomed to reading this) that seems close to a lock. Endless attention has gone to the Churchillian jowls designed for Gary Oldman by makeup maestro Kazuhiro Tsuji. But even without those glorious hams somehow embedded in his cheeks, Oldman gave a remarkable performance—one that I fear has been unfairly discounted by the emphasis on his prostheses. Yes, the bit about Churchill finally finding his backbone after talking to "ordinary" commuters on a train is irritatingly ahistorical rubbish. But Darkest Hour was a solid film held in orbit entirely by Oldman's mandibularly enhanced gravity.
His strongest competition would have been Daniel Day-Lewis, had Phantom Thread received any kind of meaningful rollout. (He rightly remains, when he and his studio try, the Golden State Warriors of any Best Actor race.) Daniel Kaluuya offers the likeliest possibility of an upset, but it's very close to no likelihood at all. Timothée Chalamet's nomination is mostly a marker for the career that may lie ahead of him. And if I were Denzel Washington, I'd be moderately insulted to be nominated for Roman J. Israel, Esq. He's far beyond the point when he needs to add anything this underwhelming to his resume.
Who will win: Gary Oldman
Who ought to win: Maybe Daniel Day-Lewis? But with an all-time record three Best Actors to his name already, he seems in a mood to share. And Oldman is plenty deserving.
Best Supporting Actor
Nominees: Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project), Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Richard Jenkins (The Shape of Water), Christopher Plummer (All the Money in the World), Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
This may be the category in which I find myself most conflicted. I've been stewing for almost 20 years over the Academy's failure to nominate (and award) Christopher Plummer for his magisterial performance as Mike Wallace in Michael Mann's 1999 The Insider. It is, with Spotlight and All the President's Men, one of the few genuinely great movies about journalism. And Plummer is superlative, not opting for mimicry—as actors too often do when playing contemporary figures—but digging down to find the soul of a man, however conflicted. (I could watch this scene, in which Plummer evolves from loyal corporate soldier to—temporarily—outraged revolutionary, for hours.) Alas, his last-minute save of a fired Kevin Spacey in All the Money in the World notwithstanding, it's hard to imagine this being Plummer's year.
For a while, this seemed like a two-man race between Dafoe and Rockwell, but momentum for The Florida Project has been waning for months. (A shame: If you haven't seen it, you should.) The race now seems very much Rockwell's to lose. This mostly makes me happy, as I've waited for years for Rockwell to be recognized. (Would Moon do the trick? Would The Way Way Back?) That said, it's Harrelson's smaller, but stunning role in Three Billboards that ultimately lingers more for me—as strong a performance as I've ever seen from him. He won't win, but maybe, just maybe, he should.
Who will win: Sam Rockwell
Who ought to win: Talk amongst yourselves.
Best Supporting Actress
Nominees: Mary J. Blige (Mudbound), Allison Janney (I, Tonya), Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread), Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird), Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water)
Another race that initially looked close between Janney and Metcalf, but seems to have broken decisively for the former. It's a strong Supporting Actress field overall—which, tellingly and disappointingly, is often not the case—and in a different year Blige or even Spencer might have snuck in. But Janney's Mom From Hell in I, Tonya is the clear favorite at this point, with Metcalf's Mom From Not-Quite-Hell the only probable challenger. If you're looking for an upset, Metcalf's bid is stronger than most this year.
Who will win: Allison Janney
Who ought to win: Allison Janney
Nominees: Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), Jordan Peele (Get Out), Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water)
It's borderline remarkable that Christopher Nolan has never before been nominated for Best Director. I had long assumed that this fact—along with the directorial high-wire act that Dunkirk posed—would make him a frontrunner in this category, especially with Three Billboards' Martin McDonagh having failed to receive a nomination. But the beneficiary of McDonagh's exclusion appears to have been del Toro, who is yet another heavy favorite to walk home with the hardware. If you're looking for a big upset, bet Nolan; if you're looking for a really big upset, bet Gerwig or Peele. If you're firmly committed to getting this category wrong, bet Anderson.
Who will win: Guillermo del Toro
Who ought to win: Christopher Nolan
Nominees: Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049), Bruno Delbonnel (Darkest Hour), Hoyte van Hoytema (Dunkirk), Dan Laustsen (The Shape of Water), Rachel Morrison (Mudbound)
Far stranger even than the fact that Christopher Nolan has never been nominated for Best Director is the fact that Roger Deakins has been nominated for Best Cinematography 14 times—yes, you read that right, 14 times—and has never won. That will change this year. That has to change this year. He is the preeminent cinematographer of our time. (A very, very short list of his notable films includes The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Revolutionary Road, Skyfall, and Sicario.) And whether or not you liked Blade Runner 2049 as much as I did—sadly, most did not—it was a visual marvel. If someone else wins, it will likely be Hoytema. That said, if someone else wins, I firmly expect a righteous but vengeful God to smite the Dolby Theatre into ruins, rendering the entire ceremony largely moot.
Who will win: Roger Deakins
Who ought to win: ROGER DEAKINS
Best Original Screenplay
Nominees: The Big Sick (Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani), Get Out (Jordan Peele), Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig), The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)
At last, a close race! Or at least one can hope so. Get Out and Three Billboards are the consensus frontrunners here, with the former probably a slight favorite. My guess is that it will prevail, in part because it was critically loved and (on its scale) a remarkable financial success. Plus, this is the category in which it has the clearest shot at a win. Still, Three Billboards is in the running, and I wouldn't rule out Lady Bird entirely. As is far too often the case, this is a year in which one of the screenwriting categories—in this case, this one—is vastly stronger than the other. I think any of these five nominees would have had a strong shot to win if it had been in the Adapted Screenplay category.
What ought to win: Get Out
What will win: Get Out
Best Adapted Screenplay
Nominees: Call Me by Your Name (James Ivory), The Disaster Artist (Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber), Logan (Scott Frank, James Mangold, Michael Green), Molly's Game (Aaron Sorkin), Mudbound (Virgil Williams, Dee Rees)
Call Me by Your Name is the runaway favorite here. Who in the world wouldn't want 89-year-old James Ivory (of Merchant Ivory fame) to have one more moment of cinematic glory? Plus, as noted above, the competition is pretty weak. Sorkin was badly off his game with Molly's Game. Logan was an excellent superhero movie but not that excellent. And so on. If anything can challenge Ivory's script, it's that of Mudbound. But I definitely wouldn't bet on it.
What will win: Call Me by Your Name
What ought to win: Call Me by Your Name
Best Animated Feature Film
Nominees: The Boss Baby, The Breadwinner, Coco, Ferdinand, Loving Vincent
This is probably the easiest call of the entire bunch. Ferdinand? The Boss Baby?? C'mon. The Breadwinner or Loving Vincent? The last time an arty foreign film won was in 2003, the second year the category even existed, with Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. But the truly easy lesson here is this: If Pixar makes an average-to-above-average Pixar movie, it will win the Oscar. And while we can argue about which is better between Coco and Inside Out (I take Coco), the two are clearly Pixar's best since Toy Story 3 in 2010. I say this as a very sad Pixar declinist who recognizes how quickly corporate sibling Disney Studios is catching up. (I'm quite confident there's a reason Disney didn't release Coco opposite Moana or Zootopia, and vice versa.) Regardless, Coco wins without looking back.
What will win: Coco
What ought to win: Coco
Nominees: Call Me by Your Name, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Post, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Still here? Sigh. I think at this point I should invoke my right, established publicly and definitively last year by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, to get this award completely wrong and then correct it after the fact. (Hit "refresh" for updates as necessary.)
As I noted at the top, neither of the presumed frontrunners—The Shape of Water and Three Billboards—feels to me like a normal frontrunner. That said, they are definitely the leading candidates of people whose job it is to determine these things. The quants at fivethirtyeight.com have Shape of Water as a slight favorite over Three Billboards; the folks at goldderby.com and the overall betting markets lean slightly the other way. Keep that in mind when you make your picks.
As for me, I just don't see it. The Best Picture race is extremely difficult to quantify because unlike all the other categories, it substitutes a weighted formula for a simple most-votes-wins model. (It's called "instant-runoff" voting.) The upshot is that a movie that is highly ranked by a large number of Academy voters can wind up beating one that gets more first-place votes.
So I'm going with my gut and picking Get Out, which I think will fare well with a large number of voters, including those who don't name it their first choice. It seems apt to the moment: Like Black Panther—another film by a black director featuring powerful racial themes—it dramatically exceeded both critical and box-office expectations. And it was, in my view, the best film of the year by a solid margin.
I should probably note here that the last time I broke hard against the critical consensus was when I picked Avatar to beat The Hurt Locker in 2010. I still think I made a persuasive case. But I was, of course, wrong. (And thank goodness: Avatar, which I loathed at the time, looks even worse in hindsight.) This time around, my pick and my heart are in the same place—but that doesn't mean I'll be any more right than I was then.
What will win: Get Out
What ought to win: Get Out
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 02:30 PM PST
Last weekend, Delta Airlines exercised its constitutional right to speak freely on political issues and to choose with whom it associates by announcing that it would no longer offer a special discount to members of the National Rifle Association.
Soon after, Republicans in Georgia, where the Atlanta-based airline is headquartered, threatened to retaliate against the company unless it reversed its stance.
The threat itself was an abuse of power. State officials should never threaten any Americans for their political viewpoints or attempt to coerce them into associating with a specific lobbying group.
And Thursday, the Georgia GOP compounded its transgression: It moved to carry out its threat, tweaking a tax-cut bill that a majority of its members had supported by stripping out a provision that exempted jet fuel from the state sales tax."The bill granting the tax exemption on jet fuel was easily approved in the House last week, and appeared to have wide support," The Washington Post reported. "Advocates said it would attract flights to Atlanta as opposed to other major airports." Yet the Republican-controlled state Senate passed the altered version. And that new version was tens of millions of dollars worse for Delta.
Was the original bill better on substance? Perhaps it was sound policy that deserved to pass, or perhaps Republicans were mistaken in their initial support. Had they reversed course because they decided that it was corporate welfare, or that it was unlikely to increase the competitiveness of the Atlanta airport, as they first believed, or that the state needed revenue, there would be no problem.
But instead, Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle explicitly announced his motives earlier in the week: "I will kill any tax legislation that benefits @Delta unless the company changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with @NRA," he tweeted. "Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back." (Notice how he defines an attack: no longer offering a special discount.)
As Charles Cooke of National Review wrote, "This is a bad idea. Delta and the NRA are both private organizations; the state should not be taking sides on the basis of elected officials' opinions about their private arrangements. This is viewpoint discrimination."
The Georgia GOP is likely to get away with its abuse of power because of the method that it used to punish Delta: It changed a provision in a bill that had not yet been voted into law, rendering a judicial remedy unwieldy if not impossible, especially because a minority of Republicans did oppose it on substance.
Who can prove why every last vote changed?
But Cagle, who is running for governor, has proved himself willing to abuse his power for political allies.
Imagine that the political actors were reversed, that an airline based in California came under pressure from pro-life activists for offering a discount to NARAL Pro-Choice America—and say that, after considering the matter, it withdrew the discount, declaring that it had customers and employees with diverse views and wanted to stay neutral on abortion.
If California's Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom then declared, "Corporations cannot attack progressives and expect us not to fight back," and subsequently tweaked a tax bill Democrats previously supported in a manner that cost the airline tens of millions of dollars, making good on a specific threat to do so unless the airline continued to associate with NARAL, I suspect conservatives would object—and they'd be right to do so.
Cagle is guilty of equivalent transgressions. By his own admission, he sought to punish a business for declining to associate with a political organization, and he did so by changing his position on a tax bill. He abused his power and decided policy based on factors other than the public interest, in order to help the NRA. It's a disturbing precedent—and if he's rewarded for it politically, others may follow his lead.
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 06:30 AM PST
CASTELFRANCO VENETO, Italy—Eleonora Pettenuzzo, an 18-year-old high school student in this town of 33,000 about an hour's drive outside Venice, doesn't pay much attention to politics. Political headlines in Italy, she said, are "always about some scandals or corruption" and include "no messages to young people."
When I asked Pettenuzzo who she planned to vote for in the March 4 national elections—her first—she said she is leaning towards the nine-year-old Five-Star Movement. "The other parties … have already ruled during the last decades. The results of their government weren't so good, so much so that they have led to a deep crisis," she told me. The Five-Star Movement, by contrast, is a populist party founded as an internet-driven, anti-establishment movement by comedian Beppe Grillo. Even if it has its own share of scandals, Pettenuzzo said, it "tries to be transparent and [its] ideas are explained clear in its online site, which is easily accessible and understandable from everyone."
As Italy's campaign kicks into high gear, young voters like Pettenuzzo are increasingly turning away from traditional centrist parties and toward populist parties like the Five-Star Movement and the right-wing, anti-immigration Lega (or "League," formerly known as the Northern League). Fed up with what they see as a political establishment that ignores their problems, including high unemployment and waning opportunity, young people are helping shift the Italian political landscape in ways that could reshape the country's future.
Lorenzo Pregliasco, a pollster in Italy with Quorum/YouTrend, told me that pre-election polling is "consistent with the view of young people tending to go toward fresher, newer options." A survey conducted by his firm earlier this month found the Five-Star Movement winning the support of 31 percent of those aged 18 to 22 and 35 percent of those aged 23 to 28, both higher than the average support for the party among the total electorate. By contrast, Forza Italia, whose figurehead is the 81-year-old former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, garnered the support of just 15 percent of 18- to 22-year-olds and 19 percent among 23- to 28-year-olds. The center-left Democratic Party, which currently leads the government, was the choice of 20 percent of 18- to 22-year-olds and 17 percent of 23- to 28-year-olds.
"Young Italians are, in general, very frustrated by their condition and disappointed by the current political situation," Alessandro Rosina, a Milan-based professor who helped conduct a study on Italian youth for the Toniolo Institute, told me. "The traditional parties are the main [people] accused by the Italian millennials: because they failed to improve their condition during the past governments, because they are not in tune with their language and their demands."
The Five-Star Movement began life as a series of meet-up groups for the politically disaffected across Italy—including at gatherings called Vaffanculo days (which roughly translates to "F***-Off" Days). Later, it evolved into an online network organized by Grillo and the late Gianroberto Casaleggio, a web strategist, serving as a forum for participants (or "activists," as the party refers to its members) to air grievances against the political system. Eventually looking toward electoral office, the Five-Star Movement stormed onto the political scene and ran its first-ever candidates in Italy's 2009 local elections. In the parliamentary elections just four years later, its candidates received more votes than any other party.
The Five-Star Movement's political ideology is difficult to discern. It rejects the notion that it fits on the traditional left-right political spectrum and refers to itself as an anti-establishment, anti-corruption movement rather than as a political party. The name "Five-Star" refers to five core positions of the party: public water access, sustainable transportation, sustainable development, a right to internet access, and environmentalism. Its politicians have also campaigned on euroskepticism and anti-immigration sentiment. Though immigration is not as singular a focus for the Five-Star Movement as it is for the Lega, opposition to immigration has certainly played a big role in its campaign rhetoric: The party's leaders have at times called for the immediate expulsion of immigrants, and leader Luigi di Maio suggested Italy should focus on improving its own birthrate rather than "resigning" itself to immigration.
This approach and this message appealed to young voters for a reason. Growing up in the shadow of the 2008 global recession, by far the biggest issue for young Italians is finding a job that suits their qualifications, or just finding one at all. Italy's 32 percent youth unemployment rate is nearly twice the European Union average. What's more, a major post-recession spike in the number of short-term or part-time work contracts with correspondingly lower pay—labor statistics show that 537,000 of these jobs were added last year alone—means even those who find positions feel no security. As a result, many young Italians hope to move abroad in search of better job opportunities elsewhere.
"It's a very difficult future for us, especially young people, because there aren't job opportunities," 18-year-old Anna Geron in Castelfranco told me. She explained that her 32-year-old brother had no luck finding a job since finishing college. "I am afraid of not finding the right job, so I think I will go abroad because there are more opportunities," she said. Geron is supporting the center-left Democratic Party, but said she's in the minority among her peers, many of whom support the Lega.
Almost all the young people I spoke with felt that the traditional parties spoke mostly to older voters, and failed to offer concrete plans to help young Italians find employment. There is electoral strategy at work here: Voters aged 18 to 24 make up just 7 percent of the total population of Italy; those aged 25 to 34 make up just 11 percent of the population, Ipsos pollster Mattia Forni told me. "Maybe … for this reason, youth issues are completely, or nearly, missing in the political campaign," he said.
By contrast, the Five-Star Movement's platform speaks directly to them. The party has pledged to introduce a universal basic income for all Italians, cut down on short-term work contracts, and invest an additional 2 billion euros in the labor market. What's more, the party's lead candidate is the 31-year-old Luigi di Maio, who in 2013 became the youngest-ever vice president of Italy's lower house of parliament, the chamber of deputies.
Luca Puricelli, a 33-year-old physicist in Ispra, works as a researcher. But it's a temporary position, which means he doesn't know whether he'll be able to keep it come this summer. In his view, the problems young people face are directly connected to the self-interested old guard of Italian politics and what he believes is rampant political corruption—which is why he's supporting the Five-Star Movement (even if the party has had its own troubles with corruption issues, most notably with Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi). Politics "should be intended like a civil service, but they just think about their benefits … they don't really think about the problems of other people," he told me.
These arguments are very much at the core of how Five-Star Movement politicians see themselves and their central message. Over pasta and wine in Padua, Giulia Sarti, a 31-year-old member of the party elected to parliament in 2013, said the desire to see politicians who focus on their issues and govern in their image that is bringing young people into the fold. "How can you be thinking of what young people want when you've been sitting in the same seat [in parliament] for years?" she asked of parties like the Democratic Party and Forza Italia. "In Italy right now, left and right are blurred, so there's a huge confusion … the way we see it, Italy's problem is that we've lost credibility because our politicians don't really represent us." (It's worth noting that about a week after this conversation, Sarti came under fire for failing to transfer money from her salary that was supposed to go to a party fund; she has since repaid the cash, to the tune of €23,000, and blamed the trouble on her ex-boyfriend.)
If young people are drawn to the Five-Star Movement because of its anti-establishment messages and ability to organize online, the Lega has a different advantage with young people in that it has perhaps the most active youth organization of any party. Luca Toccalini, a 27-year-old leader in the youth wing of the Lega and a candidate for parliament near Milan, credited the Giovani Padani for helping bring in more young voters this year. Even more than that, he said the party's new leader, 44-year-old Matteo Salvini, has appealed to this demographic with his strong anti-immigration rhetoric. "Thanks to Matteo Salvini, a lot of youth wants to join the Lega," he told me. "We believe that it is important to bring young people into politics … our project is to restore the hope of these people."
So what can the traditional parties do to win back young voters? Claudio Bergamin, the head of Forza Italia in Castelfranco (which here governs the city in a coalition with the Lega), said it is certainly difficult to attract vocal young supporters to his party in the face of the "culture of anti-something" of the Five-Star Movement and the Lega. "They have seen that there were failures in the left, there were failures in the right, so [they say], 'I don't care about them, I want to vote Five-Star because they are completely new,'" he explained over espresso. Though it's difficult to be "new" with the 82-year-old Berlusconi as party figurehead, Bergamin said some young people look up to Berlusconi as a kind of national nonno (or grandpa).
And Paolo Calvano, the leader of the Democratic Party in the Italian region of Emilia Romagna, said the traditional parties need to talk more about the future to regain young voters' trust. "They want big changes for their future," he said. "To get their votes and trust, political parties need to be able to build a credible and consistent perspective for their future."
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 10:06 AM PST
On the lower eastern shore of Maryland, the stately Almodington plantation overlooks the Manokin River as it drains into the Chesapeake Bay. First surveyed in 1663, the expansive farm sits a few miles from Princess Anne, a town named for the daughter of King George II.
For 350 years, this region's rich, sandy soils and warm, moist climate have been ideal for growing fruits and vegetable. Tomato production supported 300 canneries in the area at its peak in the early 1900s. Today, however, Somerset County is the country's sixth-largest poultry producer. The county's roughly 60 row-crop farmers now grow corn and soybeans for chicken feed.
While the farms have adapted to meet shifting demand, it is the unseen changes happening underfoot that may have a long-lasting impact. In the fields beyond the picturesque manor, six-foot-tall salt-tolerant weeds thrive. Nearby, a decaying corn cob lies in bare, bleached soil pocked with patches of blue-green algae. Last year's dismal corn yield was this field's last: The leasing farmer abandoned a 30-acre parcel. It's amazing corn plants grew at all. "The soil salt content is six to seven parts per thousand. Corn, typically, won't grow once salt is more than 0.8 parts per thousand," says Keryn Gedan, a wetland ecologist.
On a windy, overcast October day, Gedan, from George Washington University, and her colleague Kate Tully, an agroecologist from the University of Maryland, are checking salinity levels at several of their seven test sites in the region, farmlands only a few feet above sea level. "We knew this was an area where we were likely to see impacts," says Gedan.
Sea-level rise near the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States, is twice as high as the global average. It's not solely the result of atmospheric warming, melting ice, and expanding waters. The ground is also subsiding. This is happening for a variety of reasons, most notably aquifer withdrawals and the continued settling of land that had been pushed up by ice sheets to the north during the last Ice Age. "We are sinking and the water is rising," says Michael Scott, a geographer at Salisbury University in Maryland.
The result of this slow-motion catastrophe is that saltwater is threatening America's first colonial farms.
Salt is a notorious land degrader. On several occasions between 2,400 B.C. and 1,200 A.D., Mesopotamians fled once-productive agricultural regions when salt accumulated in the soil following excessive irrigation. Today, salt may be slithering onto the lower eastern shore's farmlands by any number of routes—chronic flooding from an increasing number of high tides, saltwater intrusion into aquifers, and even wicking upward through the soil from shallow water tables.
We don't know the true extent of the Chesapeake Bay area's salt problem because state and federal agencies have just put resources toward investigations. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources' most recent regional report on chloride levels in lower-eastern-shore aquifers was produced almost 30 years ago. The 1990 report predicted it would take 50 years for groundwater with a perceptibly salty taste to reach a future Princess Anne well—but this was based on projected pumping increases. Thirty years ago, climate change and sea-level rise were not on the radar. The area's chief concern has been preventing agricultural runoff into the bay—a problem that will likely be made worse by salt.
With little existing ability to predict where salt will move, it will be difficult to adapt, much less preserve, farmland and the cultural heritage that goes with it. Gedan and Tully cobbled together funding to document the salt damage in the area. New funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will help them expand their efforts. "The whole region is a window in the future," says Gedan.
"We are not treating this like the crisis that it is," Scott adds. "If we don't start operating as a collective effort soon, suddenly the problems will get much more expensive."
Not far from Almodington, Bob Fitzgerald farms land that has been in his family since 1666. His father, born in 1884, farmed this land with mules. Fitzgerald and his brother tromped through the nearby marsh as boys. Now, at 79, Fitzgerald says the marsh is rotten and the salt is seeping onto their soybean fields. The tide gate he installed helps, but high tides are getting higher and more frequent each year.
"It's not a new phenomenon," says Fitzgerald. "But it's accelerated immensely in the last 15 years." He has studied historical maps of the region extensively. He laments that he could write a book called The Lost Villages of Somerset County. Past the ghost forest of salt-affected trees, unoccupied homes dot the road from his house to nearby Deal Island, a community grappling with how to adapt to sea-level rise.
Fitzgerald's observations match existing data, according to Sarah Wilkins, the former site coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Sentinel Site of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Rates of sea-level rise have accelerated over time, she says, based on tide-gauge data that dates back more than 70 years in some areas of the bay.
Kevin Anderson, a fourth-generation farmer in Princess Anne, estimates he's lost roughly 50 acres to salt damage in the last 20 years. With an operation that spans 4,000 acres and a successful seed-conditioning business, Anderson says he is in the fortunate position to expand his operation by leasing other land. Others aren't so lucky. If he, like other farmers, were dependent solely on acreage he owns, he says salt damage would be one of his top concerns.
Anderson and Fitzgerald, like most residents in this area, are accustomed to dramatic environmental changes. And they are nothing if not resilient. More than 400 islands have disappeared into the Chesapeake Bay since the area was settled 400 years ago. Holland Island had more than 300 residents 150 years ago, says Fitzgerald. Now, it's gone. "When the people moved to nearby Deal Island or Crisfield, they moved the entire houses, bricks and all."
Anderson and Fitzgerald seem resigned to some losses. But those losses may exacerbate nutrient-pollution problems that have long plagued the bay. Many coastal farms are loaded with nitrogen and phosphorus, from a time when the enormous waste produced by chicken farms was often dumped in excess on agricultural fields. While that practice is no longer commonplace—and a new $1.4 million manure-to-energy plant now under construction will help dispose of the waste—saltwater intrusion could send those legacy nutrients into the bay.
"We expect large nutrient losses as coastal farms undergo saltwater intrusion," Tully said at the Ecological Society of America conference in Portland, Oregon, in August. "If you want to extract nitrogen or phosphorus from the soil, you add saltwater." And those legacy nutrients, she explains, will likely have an outsize effect on water quality because of their proximity to the bay.
Coastal farms are found on fingers of land that extend into the Chesapeake Bay. In between the fingers are a vast network of salty tidal rivers and creeks. The bay and its tidal tributaries boast 11,684 miles of shoreline. Yet, only 10 percent of the land drains well. Artificial drainage is widespread. At least two-thirds of the land area has been ditched, but the ditches are a mixed blessing, not only serving their intended purpose but also acting as a conduit for the saltwater to enter the fields.
"When you are only feet above sea level to begin with, it's a fine line between draining freshwater off your land and allowing saltwater on land," says Don Webster, a waterfowl-habitat specialist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in Cambridge. "So much of this farmland that has been influenced by salt is right on the front line of Chesapeake Bay—land that will be important to create buffers between the farm and the bay."
And it's not just the Chesapeake Bay area. "Sea-level rise is happening now and penetrating deep into the coastal interior of North Carolina," Emily Bernhardt, a biogeochemist at Duke University, told the Portland ESA meeting. About 30 percent of her study area is agricultural land. "Much of the land vulnerable to sea-level rise—5,900 square kilometers of North Carolina's coastal plain—is subject to saltwater intrusion." The degree of vulnerability depends to a great extent on whether people continue to maintain or abandon the pumping and water-control structures that were built to allow agriculture.
In Maryland's Somerset county, berms built decades ago to block tides from farmland have now failed in some areas. And landowners are taking steps to protect productive fields. Almodington's owner, Kevin Barr, an avid waterfowl hunter, plans to move many cubic tons of earth to turn a 25-acre salt-damaged parcel into freshwater wetlands. "I'm interested in finding the right balance between agriculture and wildlife," he says. "But I'm not dependent on the farm to pay my bills."
Freshwater wetlands will prevent runoff from the crop fields from reaching the bay, but marshes, which help control floods and are crucial wildlife habitat, need real estate as well, and it's unclear how well they will move upland. "When wetlands have nowhere to migrate, huge chunks of habitat will be lost as sea-level rise continues," says Scott. "We are at one of these threshold times where we still have capability to address this at a price point that isn't going to hurt a lot of people."
In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established a total maximum daily load for all pollution into the Chesapeake Bay. The clean-up regimen has had modest success, yet farmers bristle at the prospect of additional regulations.
Agriculture has survived over three centuries in this area, but the farmable area is being steadily chipped away. Somerset County, home to 211,200 acres, has roughly 28,500 cropped acres. Around 4,000 acres of now-saturated soils have been put into agricultural retirement programs in recent decades.
Facing regulations or loss of land or both, farmers are finding that they must embrace two things: trust and data. The former is key in crafting a plan to adapt to changing conditions, says Michael Paolisso, an anthropologist at the University of Maryland who leads a project to bolster resilience in this inundated coastal community. But it's also the most elusive. "In my experience, farmers aren't as leery of climate change as much as they are the socioeconomic or political changes that come with it," Paolisso says.
Scott Andres, a hydrogeologist at the Delaware Geological Survey, also feels that communication problems between the agricultural community and government agencies have been a hurdle. With property values in mind, many farmers opt not to share their concerns about salt with officials.
In the past couple of years, Michael Scott, of Salisbury University, has received calls from a handful of farmers in the region, asking for information on which land areas are likely to be impacted first by sea-level rise. They want any insights that can help them decide which lands to reasonably hold onto and which they'd be better off letting go. "I don't have a lot of good answers. Most of the ones I have are fairly unpalatable—but we're trying to help," says Scott, who grew up in the area. Still, he laments, "the culture of the region feels under threat."
Scientists might have better answers if they had better data to draw on, although Kevin Anderson, the Princess Anne farmer, cautions that how the data is used is equally important. "My grandfather taught agriculture and he told his students agriculture is as much an art as it is a science," he says.
Models of sea-level rise are quite good, but saltwater intrusion is harder to piece together. It's not just about the elevation of the land, it's about the hydrology of the groundwater. For saltwater intrusion, we can see it on the landscape and test for it if we know where to look, but we're not exactly sure how it all goes together, says Scott. "There's a lot going on down there."
To better understand the links between sea-level rise and the landward migration of saltwater, Andres recently received funding to track salinity shifts in both wells and streams. Kate Tully and Keryn Gedan plan to produce a map of salt levels in soils and hand-dug wells, soil types, hydrogeologic layers, and ditches—and then model where the salt will likely move.
Meanwhile, Jeff Allenby, the director of conservation technology at the Chesapeake Conservancy, a nonprofit based in Annapolis, Maryland, is piecing together one of the largest high-resolution land-cover data sets in the world. Updated as new satellite imagery becomes available, it will provide real-time ability to track sea-level rise, as well as identify areas of declining crop health and opportunities for marsh migration upland.
The key, Allenby stresses, will be to find a balance that keeps farmers farming while minimizing their impact on the environment. "The agricultural economy is critical to almost every county in the Chesapeake Bay watershed," he says. "Counties couldn't survive without it."
This article was produced in collaboration with the Food and Environment Reporting Network.
Posted: 02 Mar 2018 05:00 AM PST
Many a meme has been made about "wine moms"—mothers who joke online about their love for a relaxing glass of cabernet, or three. But a new drug is gaining popularity with the playgroup circuit. As it becomes more socially acceptable, more moms are using marijuana and its various incarnations to deal with everything from the daily aches and stresses of motherhood, to postpartum depression and anxiety, to menstrual cramps. And forget the simple bongs and pipes of the past; as the industry expands, it's creating a whole new world of sprays, drinks, drops, and oils. The needs of this market of marijuana-friendly mothers have inspired a new crop of cannabis products.
In her recent High Times article, Jessica Delfino discusses the changing social attitudes toward motherhood and marijuana: "Mothers and women who use medical marijuana…are often put into a position in which they feel they have to explain themselves and what their condition is, and then steel themselves for the judgment that will inevitably follow," she writes.
But also, Delfino tells me: "I think cannabis use in moms is becoming more widespread because it's becoming more legal, and so people feel more willing and able to discuss it."
Adam Grossman, the CEO of the cannabis company Papa and Barkley, has also noticed a burgeoning interest in marijuana from moms. "In the last month alone, we have seen the emergence of cannabis-and-parenthood workshops, new 'parenting and cannabis' publications like Splimm, and Facebook groups," he says. "More and more parents are starting to have the conversation about cannabis and breastfeeding, cannabis and pregnancy, and cannabis and parenting."
But according to those in the pot industry, one new product in particular is spreading fast in mom circles: sublingual spray, a convenient, THC-infused ingestible liquid.
Once you spritz the liquid under your tongue, it activates quickly (within 60 seconds), it's hard to overdo, and the high doesn't last very long, says Leslie Siu, the CMO and cofounder of cannabis company Mother and Clone. "After a minute you'll start to feel this uplifting euphoric feeling, almost like a gentle rush," Siu says of her sublingual nano-sprays. (Nano-sprays are a form of microdosing—Mother and Clone bottles deliver a metered dose of the drug.) By the five-minute mark, she says, you'll know just how strong the effects will be for the next hour and you can decide to re-up and spray some more—in the industry this is called "stacking."
Siu was moved to start Mother and Clone after she experienced postpartum depression. "Everything felt dark," she recalls of that first "ominous" year after having her daughter Veda. Siu started searching for ways to ease the overwhelming, stressful feelings she was having. "Then a few things happened that got me back on track," Siu says. "Time, therapy, running, and weed."
Siu wanted to create a cannabis product that would be easy and safe for mothers in similar situations to use, and she landed on sublingual sprays. Because it's easier to control the dose with sublingual spray, Siu says that it's ideal for parents (her products also have child-resistant bottles). The sprays can also help with sleep, she says. "A lot of [postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety] sufferers develop terrible insomnia even if the baby starts to sleep through the night."
Although they are ingestible, sublingual sprays are a gentler and more predictable experience than edibles. Edibles are more potent, and factors such as meal size and metabolism can make dosing with them unpredictable. A public-education campaign in Colorado (where Mother and Clone is based, and marijuana is legal) from the Marijuana Policy Project has a slogan for edibles: Start low and go slow.
When someone eats a brownie, candy, or other edible laced with marijuana, the cannabis is metabolized in the liver. Enzymes in the liver turn the active compound in cannabis, delta-9-THC, into the more psychedelic compound 11-hydroxy-THC. With sublingual spray, 11-hydroxy-THC is not a factor; you're only ingesting delta-9-THC because the drug is absorbed into the bloodstream under the tongue and doesn't get processed by the liver. "This is more like a Xanax," explains Siu. "It leaves you very clearheaded, you're able to stay productive, and you don't feel guilty or irresponsible around your kids."
Siu says she doesn't think it's possible to go overboard with her sprays. "I took 30 times the recommended dose as an experiment once," she says, "and it still only lasted just over an hour and I didn't feel paranoid or weirded out." Uma Dhanabalan, a physician and cannabis-therapeutics specialist, agrees that it's difficult to take too much sublingual spray. Since you can feel the effects immediately, it's easy to tell when you've had enough. "The worst thing that can happen is you may feel overwhelmed," she says. "Nausea, vomiting, paranoia, anxiety. These are symptoms of overconsumption. You cannot die."
Dhanabalan says she can see the appeal of sublingual sprays as a delivery system for new moms. "Because it's discreet, and they can use it without anybody knowing."
Other marijuana products gaining popularity in parent circles, sources say, are drops, drinks, and tinctures made with very low levels of THC, or none at all.
Papa and Barkley sells cannabidiol (CBD) tinctures, which, like sublingual sprays, can be a way to get controlled pain relief. CBD is a compound found in cannabis, and when isolated—as it is in Grossman's products—it's more predictable than smoking or edibles. Ingestible tinctures take effect in 15 to 20 minutes and can be mixed into foods like smoothies, or taken under the tongue. Grossman says a number of his clients who are mothers are drawn to cannabis because of its reputation for combating nausea and depression.
Carrie Hoffman, a mother and jewelry designer in Los Angeles, uses CBD products to help with the pain of breast cancer, and the stresses of being a single mom to a toddler. "By using it, I was able to reduce all the other drugs they gave me for nausea and pain," she explains.
Another Los Angeles mom, Lauren Steil, even uses cannabis for breastfeeding-related ailments. "I felt mastitis coming on, so I just nursed a lot and rubbed some CBD pain relief oil onto my breast and it was all clear the next day," she says.
Moms are finding that cannabis products can help with a range of issues that may crop up after having children. "I've been microdosing CBD capsules made from whole-flower cannabis (no hemp) for about two months and it's really helped my osteoarthritis, as well as sleep and anxiety," says Brandi Emma, a singer-songwriter and new mother.
As mom-conducive products have sprung up, so too have education and advocacy initiatives begun to see parents as part of their clientele.
Kristie Amobi is the founder of the cannabis-education company Rebalan, which advocates for the benefits of low dosing (using cannabis products with no more than 5 milligrams of THC per dose). "In my own experience of educating women—and moms—on this topic, I have been surprised by how many people are really having a hard time," she says of the prevalence of stress and anxiety. "There's no magic bullet, but I'm confident there is a place for cannabis in low doses to help people manage stress, especially when compared to the side effects of using alcohol and other prescription medications."
"This industry is changing and growing at such a rapid pace," says Royya Sardari, a Los Angeles mother who cohosted a "cannabis cabaret" last year to celebrate the substance and provide pot education. What happened at the themed event? Live music, a burlesque performance, photography, and cannabis treats, among other things. "[You] partake of course, and leave feeling good about your decision to use cannabis," says Sardari, who opened her studio space to Katie Partlow of the cannabis-friendly events company Little Face. Partlow's legendary parties (Rolling Stone dubbed one the "best pot party in California") will soon get a maternal spin—she's planning a "mommy's marijuana picnic" for May. The event will be geared toward the needs and interests of mothers, both those who already partake, and those who are interested in learning more about cannabis. Says Sardari, "I think there's a lot of misinformation out there and a lot of moms that still aren't super cannabis savvy."
Part of that may be because cannabis research isn't yet super mom savvy. Psychiatrists and physicians are generally hesitant to recommend marijuana products to breastfeeding mothers due to lack of research. The InfantRisk Center—which provides research-based information on medication, pregnancy, and breastfeeding—warns that studies have shown that cannabis exposure via breast milk or in utero may cause long-term changes in the child's mental health and behavior. However, the center also notes on its site: "We do not know much about the transfer of the active ingredient in marijuana into human milk, nor how much gets to a breastfeeding infant." The InfantRiskCenter, which is affiliated with Texas Tech University, is currently working on a study to find out more, according to a post on their site. Marijuana is legal in 29 states for medical purposes (and in nine states and Washington D.C. for recreational use), but whether postpartum depression is recognized as a valid medical reason to use cannabis products depends on different factors: the state laws, your doctor, etc. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also discourages the use of marijuana while pregnant or breastfeeding, due to insufficient data. However, what has traditionally been looked at is the THC in marijuana, which gets you high. New cannabis products often feature CBD, which doesn't have the same effects. (Even still, Grossman says he doesn't encourage nursing mothers to use his tinctures.) Not enough is known about products featuring CBD and how they relate to breastfeeding at this point.
Nehama Dresner, a professor of psychiatry and obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, does not recommend using marijuana products to treat postpartum depression. "It may be calming, but that is the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a problem—like having a cocktail to manage anxiety," she says. Dresner notes that there are no double-blind placebo-controlled studies showing marijuana's efficacy in treating depression. "But there is evidence that regular marijuana use increases the risk of psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia."
Dresner also worries that using marijuana to cope may delay or prevent a pregnant woman or new mother from seeking treatment for anxiety or depression. She notes that though there is a greater sense of safety around marijuana due to recent decriminalization and legalization, she does not recommend it in pregnancy or breastfeeding. "Occasional use in the postpartum period under supervision may be considered on a case-by-case basis," she says—for instance, with a patient who has already been using cannabis for medical reasons.
Though medical professionals don't recommend that pregnant or nursing mothers use marijuana products, cannabis use for everyday stresses and pains is growing. It's little wonder that business is booming for companies creating products designed for gentle highs and relaxation. Or that playgroups are trading their wineglasses for vape pens, sublingual sprays, and CBD tinctures.
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