- How Home-State Pronunciations Can Shape Elections
- Bitcoin's Biggest Winners—or Losers—Are Likely to Be Men
- 'The Ball Is Very Much in the Russian Court'
- The Americanization of an Ancient Faith
- Immigrants Give America a Foreign-Policy Advantage
- <em>The Atlantic</em> Daily: Asking Moral Questions
- <i>The Atlantic</i> Politics & Policy Daily: A Room of His Own
- Facebook's Ideological Imperialism
- What Kim Jong Un's China Trip Means for Trump
- Couples Speak Honestly About Open Relationships
- 'This Is Making a Lot of Christians in China Very Nervous'
- Why Is Trump Turning Against Russia Now?
- A Palestinian March Along Israel's Border Turns Fatal on Day One
- What Happens When a Space Station Falls Out of the Sky
- Photos of the Week: Holy Week Rodeo, Volkswagen Graveyard, Soccer on an Ice Floe
- Listening to M.I.A., Finally
- Donald Trump Doesn't Understand Community Colleges
- What Makes a Serial Bomber Tick?
- In Defense of the 'Ugly' Facebook Memo
- Enough With the Trolley Problem
Posted: 31 Mar 2018 03:00 AM PDT
Woe to the politician who, while campaigning in a particular state, pronounces the state's name differently from the local denizens.
The latest casualty of this phonetic parochialism is Matt Rosendale, currently the frontrunner among Montana Republicans seeking to oppose the incumbent Jon Tester in this year's U.S. Senate race. Democrats have already set their sights on Rosendale by issuing an online ad that plays up the fact that he moved to Montana from Maryland some fifteen years ago. His accent, the ad suggests, is proof that Rosendale—dubbed "Maryland Matt" by the Democrats—is an interloper who doesn't share "Montana values."
While Rosendale's accent is indeed distinctly non-Montanan, the ad focuses on his pronunciation of one word in particular: "Montana." As befits someone of Rosendale's background from Maryland's Eastern Shore, there's something peculiar about how he pronounces the vowel in the second syllable of "Montana." (More on that in a bit.)
Rosendale is hardly the first politician to be ridiculed for his pronunciation of a state name. In October 2016, Donald Trump tried—and failed—to pronounce "Nevada" the Nevadan way at a rally in Reno. Locals prefer pronouncing the second syllable like "add" and bristle at outsiders saying it like "odd." Trump must have been informed of this before the rally but still managed to get it exactly backwards.
"Heroin overdoses are surging and meth overdoses in Nevada," Trump said, making a point to pronounce it as "Ne-VAH-da." He continued, "And you know what I said? I said when I came out here, I said nobody says it the other way, has to be Ne-VAH-da. And if you don't say it correctly, and it didn't happen to me, but it happened to a friend of mine, he was killed."
As University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman observed on Language Log at the time, "it seems to tell us something about Donald Trump's style that he tries to bond with Nevadans over right vs. wrong ways to pronounce the name of their state—and gets it wrong."
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, star of the HBO show Veep, couldn't help noticing how life imitated art, since Veep featured a running joke about politicians' inability to pronounce "Nevada" the Nevadan way. On Twitter, she shared a video intercutting Trump's misstep with scenes from Veep's fifth-season episode appropriately entitled "Nev-AD-a."
If Trump had been more attentive to recent political history, he might have known that in 2004 both George W. Bush and John Kerry were criticized for using the "Ne-VAH-da" pronunciation on the campaign trail. As the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported at the time, Bush and Kerry both eventually corrected themselves. When Bush made a point of using the local "add" pronunciation in a speech in Reno, he joked, "I bet you didn't think I would get that right!"
It's tricky for politicians, especially on the national level, to "get it right" when it comes to state names, since very often variant pronunciations become shibboleths, delineating insiders from outsiders. This is especially the case for state names derived from Native American, Spanish, or French roots, which can be localized in idiosyncratic ways.
An early example of a state making an issue of how to pronounce its name is "Arkansas" —which in the nineteenth century was frequently said as "Ar-KAN-sas" by those from outside of the state. This became such a point of contention that in 1881 the Arkansas General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution declaring that the proper pronunciation is "AR-kan-saw."
Since then, Arkansans have succeeded in propagating their preferred pronunciation. Likewise, Illinoisans insisted that it's "Ill-i-NOY," not "Ill-i-NOISE." In some cases, local variants have simply faded away, such as the pronunciation of "Iowa" as "I-o-way." But other times, as with "Nevada," a variant remains favored within the state's borders but gets ignored by outsiders. Just ask residents of Colorado (they tend to use the "add" pronunciation like "Nevada") or Oregon (they keep the final syllable unstressed instead of saying "gone").
"Missouri" is another prominent example of a pronunciation split, with many Missourians calling their state "Mizzoura." But there is a regional complication: in a poll by Midwest Motorist conducted in 1976, "Mizzoura" was favored in the western part of the state, while those in the east were more likely to pronounce the final syllable as "-ee." A decade later, Missouri-born humorist Calvin Trillin argued, semi-seriously, that Kit Bond's defeat of Harriet Woods in the state's 1986 U.S. Senate race hinged on Bond's use of the more authentic "Mizzoura" pronunciation.
Could Rosendale encounter the same problem running for Senate in Montana? His situation is a bit different, because "Montana" does not actually have the same insider-outsider split as, say, "Nevada" or "Colorado," even though all three state names come from Spanish roots. Most Americans, whether from Montana or elsewhere, would pronounce "Montana" to rhyme with "banana," using what linguists call the TRAP vowel in the second syllable, rather than like "nirvana," which uses the LOT vowel. (Apologies to British speakers and others who rhyme "banana" with "nirvana.")
So what's going on with Rosendale's "Montana"? As a native of the eastern shore of Maryland, he has a dialectal feature known as the "short-a split," common to the Mid-Atlantic region encompassing Philadelphia and Baltimore. For speakers of this dialect, the TRAP vowel becomes "tense" in some words and "lax" in others. You can hear this more clearly by listening to a clip from Rosendale's closing remarks in a recent Republican primary debate.
In words like "bad," Rosendale makes the TRAP vowel tense, something like "bee-ud." But his vowel in the second syllable of "Montana" is very lax, which can sound more like the LOT vowel to those who lack a "short-a split." Christine Mallinson, a sociolinguist at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, tells me that this vowel feature is typical of white, working-class speech in the region where Rosendale grew up.
As you can hear from the clip of Rosendale speaking, he has plenty of other Mid-Atlantic dialect features, such as an "o" diphthong that is "fronted," or pronounced closer to the front of the mouth. (ESPN's Scott Van Pelt can reduce fellow Marylander Tim Kurkjian to tears by pronouncing players' names with a fronted "o" in an exaggerated Baltimore accent.) But despite all that, Montana Democrats are making the case that Rosendale is an East Coast carpetbagger based solely on his pronunciation of "Montana." As an expression of "in-group" identity in American politics, how you say a state's name can be powerfully symbolic.
Posted: 31 Mar 2018 03:00 AM PDT
After a long struggle for equality, it's no longer controversial in the United States that women are owed equal rights, equal dignity, equal protection of the law, and the same economic opportunities as men. Yet disagreements remain about what that means in practice and how far American are from realizing that vision.
Lately, I've been pondering cryptocurrencies as a case study. No one is quite sure if today's investors in Bitcoin or Ethereum or Iota will grow rich or lose everything. And that veil of ignorance is useful for thinking through a fraught question: Will it be unjust if there is a significant gender imbalance in investor losses or gains?
That outcome is almost certain.
"Data on who holds the anonymous currencies are hard to find," Hannah Kuchler explains in the Financial Times, "but Uphold, a virtual currency wallet service that does background checks on its users, says 75 percent are men, while Coin Dance, which tracks statistics on the bitcoin community, found 97 percent of engagement was from men."
Anne Gaviola of CBC News concurs. "Figuring out exactly who is putting money into this kind of asset is difficult because part of the attraction of investing in the crypto realm is the assurance of anonymity," she writes. "But survey after survey backs up what the anecdotal evidence suggests—women are underrepresented. Google Analytics results put the divide at 96.57 per cent men to 3.43 per cent women."
Simply put, many more men are buying crypto than women. The combined market capitalization of all the currencies appears to exceed 300 billion dollars. And due to their greater participation in this extremely volatile and thus highly risky realm, men will likely wind up squandering hundreds of billions of dollars more than women—or else, perhaps, enjoying hundreds of billions in additional wealth.
Our uncertainty about the outcome of this natural experiment presents an opportunity to probe questions of risk-taking, gender, and equity behind a veil of ignorance.
If present trends persist and men in aggregate choose to risk much more than women, will an aggregate difference in gains or losses in this realm be just or unjust? Would it change your answer if cryptocurrencies upended the financial system and the balance of wealth rather than constituting a relatively small portion of it?
Does it matter if risk-taking is driven by nature or nurture or both?
And if you're uncomfortable with the unequal outcomes on the horizon, is there an aspect of policy or socialization you'd change that could alter the future in some way?
I'd love to air varying perspectives sent to firstname.lastname@example.org (specify if I should publish your name or not). And I have three additional thoughts to inform responses:
Whatever happens next to cryptocurrencies, it's hard to see how the outcome will be equitable. Hopefully the exercise of thinking all of this through can help folks on all sides of related questions—and undecided, curious people like me—to clarify their own views, to understand others, and to think through outcomes that are likely in our future.
Posted: 31 Mar 2018 02:00 AM PDT
On Thursday, it was Americans who learned they were being kicked out of Russia. On Friday, it was Europeans. Russia's Foreign Ministry summoned the ambassadors of several European nations and ordered the expulsion of their diplomats; their number precisely mirrored the number of Russian diplomats expelled by Western nations on Monday. In all, 28 nations expelled 153 Russians over the past week in response to Moscow's alleged role in the attempted assassination by nerve agent of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter, Yulia, in the U.K. The U.S. expelled by far the highest number of Russians, 60, and Moscow responded in kind. The U.K. expelled 23 and faced similar retaliation.
But on Friday, Moscow went one step further: It ordered a reduction in the size of the British diplomatic mission in Russia to match the numbers in Russia's mission to the U.K. It did not say what those numbers were.
Relations between Russia and the West are the "worst that we've seen since the Cold War, potentially worse than some periods of the Cold War," Alina Polyakova, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said.
Polyakova said that during the Cold War years, there were avenues of dialogue between the Soviet Union and the U.S., including military-to-military relations and "a certain set of rules that both sides knew to follow."
"Now those kinds of rules aren't so clear anymore. We don't have the same kind of institutional structure for a bipolar world," she said. "And for those reason, it's difficult to see where this downward spiral ends."
Until Friday, Russia's response to the expulsions of its diplomats was a precise tit-for-tat, suggesting that Moscow, which denies it had a role in the assassination attempt against the Skripals, didn't want to make the situation deteriorate further by one-upping other countries' reprisals. But the Russian Foreign Ministry's order of the reduction in the size of the British diplomatic mission suggests there may be more actions ahead—unless the U.K. decides to accept the decision and not respond in a commensurate manner.
Moscow acted similarly last fall when it ordered the U.S. to reduce its diplomatic staff in the country by 755 people to match the number of Russian staff in the U.S. That move was a response to the Obama administration's decision in December 2016 to expel 30 Russian diplomats from the U.S. and seize Russian diplomatic compounds in New York and Maryland—a move that came in response to Moscow's interference in the U.S. presidential election.
"I don't think this is a decision that the United States is taking lightly," Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Wilson Center, told me about the most recent round of expulsions. "I don't think that they want to continue to do this. But Russia leaves us no choice with its behavior."
Tensions between the two sides predate both the assassination attempt against the Skripals and the U.S. presidential election. They began after Russia's annexation in 2013 of Ukraine's Crimea region. Western nations imposed sanctions against Russia for its actions, which continue as it supports a breakaway region in Ukraine. The two sides are also at odds over the future of Syria where Moscow backs Bashar al-Assad; the future of the Iranian nuclear deal, which Russia, a signatory, supports (European countries do, too; the Trump administration has signaled it may withdraw from the deal); and other global conflicts. Indeed it is conflicts such as these that may be major sites of future tensions between the U.S. and Russia. Last month in Syria, for example, U.S. forces killed about 200 Russian mercenaries fighting on Assad's behalf in Syria.
"More of this is going to continue to happen because the avenues of communication are not as good as they may have been during the Cold War period for deconfliction," Polyakova told me.
There is another difference between the Cold War period and today, Jankowicz said: the differing nature of the administrations in Washington.
"In the Reagan administration, it was clear from every single official—from a random official at the State Department on up to President Reagan himself— where the Reagan administration stood on Russia. And to me it's not really clear where the Trump administration stands." She cited President Trump's failure to publicly criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump's assertion last November that Russia "can greatly help" on a host of issues from North Korea to Ukraine, and his reported resistance to selling arms to Ukraine. "There's just such an incongruity in the decisions his administration is making and what the president says or does not say," she said. "His silence to me is deafening—and that's the difference between Reagan-era Cold War policies and what we're seeing today."
Ultimately, though, the tensions are unlikely to wane unless Russia changes course. The alleged use of a nerve agent in the U.K. is only the latest in a series of such alleged actions in the U.K. by Russia—actions that previously have mostly been met with silence from Western capitals.
"What the Russians have been doing is slowly testing the West, playing on the gray zone of the rules, see what the West will do, and now there's been a response," Polyakova said. "I think the ball is very much in the Russian court to decide: Are we going to continue this confrontation strategy of trying to test the West, or are were going to scale it back?"
Posted: 31 Mar 2018 02:00 AM PDT
One day in the fall of 2010, Father Anthony Messeh, then a priest at the St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Fairfax, Virginia, sat down with a list of names. There were 30 individuals—all American converts with no Egyptian heritage—who had been baptized at the church since his arrival in 2001. Of the group, only eight were still active members.
"That just broke my heart," Messeh told me one afternoon last summer. "If one or two people had left, then maybe I could say it was something wrong with them. But if 22 out of 30 had left, that meant it's something wrong with me."
One American couple who'd left the congregation told him that while the church felt like a family, it didn't feel like their family. St. Mark's, like many of the over 250 Coptic churches in the United States, is overwhelmingly comprised of Copts raised in Egypt or born to Egyptian parents. Of the nearly 6,000 members of the church, most still converse comfortably in Arabic, and the services retain Egyptian cultural norms: Men and women tend to sit separately, people move around freely during prayers, and Egyptian food is often served.
Americans, even those baptized into the faith, could feel like outsiders—not only at St. Mark's, but at churches across the country. Recent waves of immigration from Egypt had intensified the influence of Egyptian culture across American congregations.
Messeh would soon become an early advocate for a new kind of Coptic church—one that could appeal to American converts but maintain the core tenets of the nearly 2,000-year-old faith. By 2012, he decided to establish his own congregation. His services, with their chanted prayers, elaborate robes, and cymbal-playing, look traditionally Coptic Orthodox. But the English-language liturgy, crowded rows of ethnically diverse worshippers, and evangelical style of preaching feel rooted in the United States.
Messeh's church, now 300 members strong, isn't the only one of its kind: In the past decade, dozens of Americanized Coptic churches have opened across the United States, concentrated in Texas, California, and along the East Coast. In 2015, Bishop Youssef, one of 10 Coptic bishops in the country, founded the American Orthodox Coptic Church of Alexandria, which currently comprises five congregations from Arizona to Florida, and caters specifically to a U.S.-born audience. Church leadership has embraced the governing philosophy these changes represent: If the church wants to grow, it needs to part with some aspects of Egyptian culture and formally embrace its American identity.
But these moves have provoked some anxiety among the laity, who worry that dropping Egyptian culture will undermine the faith. A new conversation has emerged among the faithful: Can an Americanized church truly count as Coptic?
While the Coptic Church doesn't keep any formal tally on its global presence, many scholars estimate that there are over 500,000 Copts living in the United States, with many tens of thousands others living in other English-speaking countries. There are no formal estimates on converts either. But their growing presence in established churches, as well as their membership in the new "mission churches" in the United States, is a widely acknowledged phenomenon. "There are now more and more non-Egyptian people in church, and I am getting to be less and less unique, which is great," said Rachel Smallwood, a native Texan who was raised a devout Baptist and was baptized into the Coptic Church in Houston in 2012.
American converts often first encounter Coptic Orthodoxy through a friend, colleague, or romantic partner. Marriage is a common motivation for conversion, as both partners have to be baptized in the faith in order to be married in the Church. Many American converts are also drawn to the Church's claims that it's the oldest in the world, founded by St. Mark the Evangelist in the first century. "The Protestant circles I was in would say, 'We are trying to be more like Jesus Christ,'" said Toni Svonavec, an elementary-school teacher in Maryland who was baptized in 2014. "But for me, that is exactly what the Coptic Church already has."
While most ethnic Orthodox churches cling to linguistic fidelity and cultural continuity abroad, the Coptic Church has not resisted acculturation. Its first English liturgy, the prayers and rituals that govern different church services, was introduced in 1980, just a decade after the first Coptic churches were established in North America. By the 1990s, almost all of the 50-plus churches in the United States prayed mostly in English, a development blessed by the Coptic Pope Shenouda III. Some Egyptian customs—like standing throughout the entire service, or kissing the priest's hand as a greeting—also began to fade away, and more converts joined.
If this Americanization in the late 20th century had continued organically, Messeh and others may never have felt the need to establish a new brand of church. But over the past decade, a rise in Coptic immigration from Egypt, spurred by increased persecution by radical Islamist groups and the 2011 Egyptian revolution, has drastically changed Church demographics abroad. Sam Tadros, a fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., who writes widely on modern Coptic identity, estimates that over 18 percent of ethnic Copts now live outside of Egypt.
The immigration wave has been a boon to the Church's population: There are now more Coptic churches in the United States than ever before. But it's also created a cultural split. Church leaders have found themselves caught between the needs of their longtime members and those of the newcomers. Many English-speaking churches have switched back to Arabic liturgies and reincorporated Egyptian customs.
In addition to their popularity among converts, the Americanized churches have been welcomed by second- and third-generation Copts, according to several American-raised Copts I spoke with.
But their purpose isn't solely keeping Church membership intact—they are also the basis for a new evangelization effort.
As religious minorities in Muslim-ruled Egypt, Copts have historically been prohibited from evangelizing. Gaining converts in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia has thus proven particularly exciting. Multiple priests and members emphasized to me that rather than worry about losing their culture in foreign lands, they're eager to finally start spreading it.
Their effort could be eased by the Church's embrace of English-language liturgies; typically, a mix of Arabic and Coptic is used during services. Among advocates for the Americanized churches, the change wasn't seen as a huge leap, as it would be in other Orthodox faiths. (The Armenian Orthodox church forbids English-language services, for example.) The Coptic Church is unique among Orthodox churches in its emphasis on vernacular prayer. It also lacks an emotional connection to Arabic, the most common language of prayer among Egyptian Copts. It's seen primarily as the language of Islam, and therefore dispensable.
There is some concern over losing the Coptic language in the liturgy—perhaps the most controversial move the new churches have made. But many Copts argue the language isn't as central to the faith as others say it is. "It's nostalgia, these people who pray in Coptic. It has nothing to do with the church or spirituality," said Father Athanasius Iskander, whose exacting translations of Coptic liturgies and hymns are used throughout the English-speaking world. "The Bible tells us that worshippers should understand what they say. If the language dies in this land of immigration, then that's only a natural progression."
Messeh agrees. "This is about the Americans finding this faith for the first time, and there being a home for them. That's all. We need all kinds of churches," he said. "But you can have a Coptic Church without the Coptic, and I'll go to my grave saying that."
With the fresh need to look beyond language or ethnicity as the binding agents of Coptic identity, advocates for Americanized churches often emphasize a connection to historical Coptic persecution.
"When I bring visitors to church, I emphasize the bloodshed and the martyrs," said Sandra Mathoslah, an advocate for Americanized churches who lives in the Washington, D.C., area. "That is the bread and butter of the Coptic Church—this perseverance," she said. "It's a church with a lot of suffering."
"You are a Copt if you relate to that history," Tadros, from the Hudson Institute, told me. In his view, there are enough people around the world who can relate that there's potential for a global Church community. He recalled meeting the first ethnic Japanese priest at a church in Cairo a few years ago, and his surprise at hearing Coptic chants recited with a Japanese accent. "For 2,000 years, we were the official Church of Egypt," Tadros said. "Today, we are in Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand, New Zealand, Sweden, Fiji, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Brazil, Ghana—we have invaded the world."
Among some Copts, the Americanized churches are seen as less authentic. There's a fear "that if we lose the culture, we lose the faith," Messeh explained. There have also been charges of elitism, with the Americanized churches attracting wealthier and more highly educated Copts, who are sometimes perceived as looking down on their newly arrived counterparts.
Despite these concerns, or perhaps because of them, some worry the mission churches could break off from Egypt. "They took it very, very hard, out of their love and commitment to the Coptic Orthodox Church," Bishop Youssef told me, referring to some congregants' reactions to his 2015 announcement of an American branch of the Church. (Coptic bishops are known by their title and first name.) Nonetheless, he assured them that while "communication with the mother church is very important, our connection with the holy tradition is not with a geographical place."
For Messeh, such concerns both misunderstand what is essential about the Church's faith and ignore the benefits of embracing American culture. "In Egypt there is a lot of emphasis on emotions, on faith by any means, and on miracle stories," he said. "But this emotional pull is less intriguing to Americans than the rich intellectual history of the Church, stretching back to Origen and St. Athanasius. As American Orthodox Copts, we have a chance to restore the balance and understand our historical roots. We can take the best of both cultures."
By many cultural standards, it's a demanding faith. While priests at Americanized churches might preach in English, post on Twitter, and reference American pop culture, they still oversee a flock with strict obligations: one that prays a three-hour Sunday-morning liturgy, goes to regular confession, fasts completely nine hours before Sunday communion, and keeps to a strict religious calendar that demands a vegan diet for nearly two-thirds of the year.
For many converts, these demands are part of the appeal—offering more concrete ways to express faith—even if they don't guarantee acceptance within the broader Coptic community. Several converts at Messeh's church in Washington told me they worried that they wouldn't be welcomed into a local Coptic church in a new city, as immigrant-dense congregations can appear to view non-Egyptians with suspicion. One student told me that, when traveling, he attends Russian or Greek Orthodox services, as those churches have a longer tradition of interaction with outsiders.
For Bishop Youssef, converts' acceptance of the Orthodox faith and its tenets more than binds them to the Church. "I don't like the phrase 'mission churches,'" he said, "because I think every church should be a mission church."
Still, even those Copts who embrace Americanization harbor some reservations. Baher Iskander, who moved to the United States from Egypt when he was 12, admits that his primary concern with a developing American Coptic tradition is that the values of the Church in Egypt—a binding sense of obligation to attend services and serve the Church—don't give way to American notions of personal choice and individualism, leading to more lax attitudes. As someone raised in both the Egyptian Protestant and Coptic Orthodox churches, he is less moved by the need to spread the Orthodox faith.
"I understand that on a big vision and a macro scale, this is the right thing to do," he said, referencing the rise of Americanized churches. "But the Coptic Church is also part of my ethnicity. I love going to my home church in Houston, eating Egyptian food after the service, and have all the aunts kiss me."
Nearly all of the almost 30 Copts I spoke with—priests, deacons, servants, immigrants, converts—were optimistic that the Church will work out its growing pains, and even flourish as an American tradition, much like global Catholicism remains culturally specific but united under the Pope. While the See of Alexandria will remain the final word in matters of faith, the American Coptic church could become its own force in the Coptic tradition.
For Tadros, the most relevant comparison to what's happening in America might be the Church's presence in Africa and Latin America, where its history as a pre-colonial church that is indigenously African has made it particularly popular. In those parishes, the acceptance of local customs came quickly, and with little fanfare: "If we can accept the dancing in Kenyan services and the drums in Bolivia, then why not the mission churches in D.C.?" Tadros asked.
He has—somewhat controversially—predicted that Copts, facing mounting persecution, will eventually leave Egypt. But this prospect does not overwhelm him.
"What is Egypt? A piece of land. The places of Nicea and Chalcedon have no Christians. Are they less blessed?" Tadros asked. "Maybe God kept the Church alive so that now it can spread across the world."
Posted: 31 Mar 2018 01:50 AM PDT
It has often been thought that the composition of the American public, consisting as it does of immigrants from so many lands, is a vulnerability in foreign policy—that, for example, German immigrants would harbor affinities for their land of origin and become disloyal during the world wars. The argument was taken to a shameful extreme with the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. What has received less attention is the extent to which America's immigrant fabric can be a foreign-policy advantage, even a threat to other countries. That is what British Prime Minister Palmerston feared, and what President Lincoln stoked, to forestall British recognition of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The result was an important inhibition on Great Britain, then the most powerful state of the international order.
The subject has particular resonance now, when the President of the United States overtly considers immigrants a security threat, seeking to ban immigrants from Muslim countries, dramatically restricting the numbers of refugees admitted from war-torn countries, and arguing for money to be diverted from the Pentagon budget to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, claiming "enemy combatants [are] pouring into our country." This pinched view of immigrant communities solely as a risk fails to capitalize on one of our country's signal advantages. At the moment of our country's greatest vulnerability, during the early years of the American Civil War, immigrants in the United States actually held back foreign interference—and thereby helped make America the strongest country in the world.
As America became economically and politically stronger in the 19th century, other countries had opportunities to impede its rise. From 1861 to 1865 the United States was profoundly vulnerable to meddling from outside powers as the Union fought secession by the Southern states. The period from 1861 to 1863 was especially propitious for intervention, since Union armies were losing most engagements, and the North had not yet embraced slavery's abolition or become the industrial juggernaut it would as a consequence of the war effort.
The British government clearly saw the possibilities of working against the United States in its time of crisis. In 1860 Britain was unquestionably the strongest state in the world, holding 68 percent of the wealthiest continent's riches and a dominant military. Britain had not only the means but also the motive to interfere. Prime Minister Palmerston noted that "if the North and South are definitively disunited and … at the same time Mexico could be turned into a prosperous monarchy, I do not know any arrangement that would be more advantageous to us."
In 1861 Britain's rulers had considerable discomfort with America as a revolutionary power. This was not because America was at that time exporting its revolution, but simply because of the ideology America represented: It was the rabble of every other country empowered by the franchise. Americans broadly understood and celebrated themselves in the same terms. As The New York Times crowed in 1862, "our friends—that there could be no grander tribute paid to the genius of the republic—are the dumb masses."
British attitudes toward America cleaved along class lines. As described by the U.S. minister to Britain, Charles Francis Adams, "the great body of the aristocracy and the commercial classes are anxious to see the United States go to pieces. The middle and lower classes sympathize with us."
Palmerston exemplified this disdain for America in all its political, economic, and cultural dimensions. He ruminated with satisfaction in 1855 that "a British force landed in the Southern part of the Union, proclaiming freedom to the blacks would shake many of the stars from their banner."
On the eve of the American Civil War, there was in Britain a general sense of America as an emerging rival and concern about retaining Britain's advantages over it. British reformer Richard Cobden estimated that three-fourths of the British House of Commons would vote in favor of actions by Britain to "dismember" the United States.
The confluence of British interests in favor of recognizing the Confederacy was strong: appreciation by elites of the threat a rising America posed for Britain, politically and economically; economic complementarity of cotton-producing Southern plantations with British industry; direct competition from Northern industries with British manufacturers and traders; a cultural attraction to the South on the part of British aristocrats; virulent anti-Americanism on the part of key political actors, as well as a broad cultural anti-Americanism among elites; and the savory delight of watching the United States rend itself asunder, with the Southern states making the same arguments against the North that Britain's North American colonies used in breaking from the British Empire.
In 1861, Palmerston assured Queen Victoria that "Great Britain is in a better state than at any former time to inflict a severe blow upon and to read a lesson to the United States which will not soon be forgotten."
It would not have taken much in the early years of the American Civil War for Britain to tip the balance toward Confederate victory, either. Several options were available that incurred little risk of pulling Britain into the war or damaging Britain's strategic interests. Extending diplomatic recognition might have by itself been enough to definitively disunite America. The Union even gave the British government several legitimating opportunities in the way it crafted the terms of blockading Southern ports against international commerce or provoked a crisis by boarding the British ship Trent, and taking Southern emissaries prisoner in 1861.
Yet Britain largely stayed out of the Civil War, declining to administer that devastating blow to American power and potential. The British government resisted not because it was intimidated by Union threats of war in retaliation, feared putting Canada at risk, thought the South would lose the war, was concerned with higher-priority foreign-policy problems, or could not—this early in the war—countenance aligning itself with a slaveholding Confederacy given abolitionist sentiment within Britain.
Because of its British immigrants, the U.S. was uniquely able to affect domestic politics within Britain. Historian Ephraim Douglass Adams posits that "the great crisis in America was almost equally a crisis in the domestic history of Great Britain itself." Aligning Britain with the Confederacy risked aggravating two worrisome issues for the British government domestically: disaffection among urban workers still without political representation in Britain, and the deepening hostility of Scots and Irish living under British control. The British government worried that if they intervened, they would have a more difficult time controlling Ireland and Scotland. The majority of immigrants from Britain were to the North, and family ties to their homeland would further embitter Scots and Irish against British rule if Britain sided with the South.
America was unique as a foreign-policy problem because choices about it could resonate back to Britain's own politics. In 1861 democratization in Britain had not much progressed from the 1832 reforms that expanded the franchise to only 20 percent of the men in Britain. The government feared stoking resentment among residents of major urban centers, since property requirements still prevented them voting—only one in 24 Britons were enfranchised. Industrial workers, the newly urbanized and economically productive lower classes, were not among them.
The affinities of this newly urbanized industrial workforce in Britain had a cultural attraction to the dynamic, opportunity, and political enfranchisement of an industrializing American North. Attitudes were mixed early in the war, but they solidified after canny encouragement from the Lincoln administration, which sent ships of food for relief of unemployed British workers. President Lincoln also wrote to workers' organizations encouraging common cause. As a result, even textile workers in Manchester—those most economically affected by the embargo—were staunchly opposed to the Confederacy by 1864. Lincoln's fostering of that sentiment capitalized on Palmerston's fear that his foreign-policy choices regarding intervention would reverberate back inside Britain.
Palmerston considered affiliation of an aristocratic British ruling class with a plantation protoaristocracy in the American South to risk imperiling his ability to prevail in Britain's own domestic debate about political participation—a deligitimization by association. Acting against the Union required weighing foreign-policy advantage against the risk of domestic damage, a calculation that America—because of its more participatory form of government—was uniquely able to impose.
The American government posed the threat of domestic insurrection in a second way, as well: secession by Ireland and Scotland. U.S. Secretary of State William Seward's "spread-eagle nationalism," which brandished American power, was unrestrained in seeking ways to inflate the cost to Britain of intervening. U.S. minister to Britain Adams characterized the American war as an internal insurrection, something Britain itself was concerned with because of the possibility for parallels with British subjugation of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. At the height of tensions between the two nations, an American diplomatic envoy ominously challenged, "Is England so secure in the future against home revolt or foreign ambition as to venture, now in our need, to plant the seeds of revenge?"
Kevin Phillips estimates that by 1860, 90 percent of migration from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales was to the American North. This represented a significant shift from the earlier immigration flow to the culturally more familiar South. While many states harbored political and religious exiles, America's policy of citizenship and broad political representation gave British emigres direct influence in government policies far beyond what was possible in any other country. Palmerston was concerned about the effect of "the exiled Irishmen" making impossible cooperation between Britain and the United States. Immigration patterns created a strong affiliation by family as well as ideology between Britain's working class and the industrial American North.
Irish Catholics were more sympathetic to the Southern cause, but large numbers of them also served in the Union Army, often comprising whole units. (One reason for hostility to the North was the high casualty rate those Irish units suffered.) English, Welsh, and Scottish immigrants were staunch Union backers, like their German counterparts. All of these communities might become conveyor belts of insurrection back to home countries—if the United States were able to "weaponize" them.
Ultimately, the Palmerston government remained neutral throughout the American Civil War because of the way Americans of British origin could affect domestic politics in Britain. Those immigrants had political rights their British relatives envied and were agitating to attain for themselves via the franchise in England, and in hopes for self-determination in Scotland and Ireland. Being an immigrant society could well be credited with saving the nation by forestalling British support to the Confederacy.
During the most dangerous time in American history, its values served to constrain the choices of its international adversaries by using the aspirations of their own citizens against them. The political liberties and economic opportunities afforded European immigrants in the United States turned out to be a powerful and unique foreign-policy advantage: Who the United States was as a domestic political culture effectively limited the foreign-policy choices of the hegemon of the international order.
This article has been adapted from Kori Schake's new book, Safe Passage.
Posted: 30 Mar 2018 02:54 PM PDT
What We're Following
A Protest Turns Violent: The Palestinian health ministry says that at least 15 people were killed and more than 1,000 wounded when Israeli troops opened fire on protesters near the Gaza Strip's border with Israel. The protest was the first day of a massive demonstration that's expected to continue until May 15, and during that time, the clashes could get worse.
Ethics by Boz: BuzzFeed published an internal memo written in 2016 by the Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth, which argues that even the social-media giant's more-questionable data-collection tactics are justified in the name of connecting people. Bosworth says he doesn't agree with the memo, but intended it to provoke discussion—and such frank discussion about the ugly truths of business may be necessary. Yet the ideals expressed in the memo aren't just limited to the business or tech worlds—and the consequences of those ideals' collapse may not be, either.
A Leader's Legacy: As Vann R. Newkirk II and Adrienne Green explain on the latest episode of Radio Atlantic, the uncontroversial ideal of Martin Luther King Jr. that exists in American memory might have surprised the man himself. In this excerpt from his book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? ,he predicted the increasing backlash civil-rights activists would face from white Americans. William J. Barber II discusses the obstacles to equality that America still faces today.
Ian Bogost on the trolley problem, the well-known thought experiment that asks participants to choose between allowing the deaths of five people or causing the death of one:
Keep reading as Ian lays out the moral questions technologists should be asking about autonomous vehicles.
What Do You Know … About Culture?
Entertainment and the news have always shared a symbiotic connection, but this week, the link between the two seemed especially strong. The new season of Silicon Valley examines the morality of tech companies and their CEOs, at a time when Facebook's role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal is still grabbing headlines. While Trump continues to deny that he had an affair with Stormy Daniels, her telling of their alleged encounters on 60 Minutes carries many of the same themes that pop up in stories of the Hollywood "casting couch." And during a time when many claims are being disputed as falsehoods, Megan Garber delves into the history of the lie detector—in real life and in pop culture—as a machine that offers the appearance of objective truth.
Can you remember the other key facts from this week's culture coverage? Test your knowledge below:
1. Spam filters won't let us name the drug that inspired Saturday Night Live skits, plots on Ally McBeal and Law & Order, and even a "love dessert" made with ____________ and the pill's active ingredient.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
2. The comic-book series Saga has won ____________ Eisner Awards, the genre's equivalent of the Oscars.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
3. A new documentary about the rapper M.I.A. explores her relationship to her home country of ____________.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
Poem of the Week
From our February 1997 issue, "The Change," by Stephen Sandy:
Along with our new Family section, we've launched our very first Facebook group: Homebodies, where readers can join in The Atlantic's exploration of family life. Here's how one reader, Tatiana, introduced herself:
Time of Your Life
Happy birthday to Luz's husband (a year younger than MTV); to Brendan (twice the age of CD players); to Susan's twins, Lia and Stefan (a year younger than Amazon); and to Maura's husband, Steve (nine years older than the moon landing).
For tomorrow, happy birthday from Nancy to Rita (a year younger than The Godfather); to Joshua's mom, Bobbie (born the same year Elvis Presley entered U.S. music charts); and to Doran's son (a year younger than the euro).
Posted: 30 Mar 2018 02:28 PM PDT
Today in 5 Lines
Today on The Atlantic
Follow stories throughout the day with our Politics & Policy portal.
What We're Reading
The Secret Lives of Civil Servants: From the Education Department to the Department of Homeland Security, federal employees dish on what it's really like to work in Trump's Washington. (Andrew Restuccia, Politico)
The People Behind the Empty Seats: A Washington Post investigation found that the White House office responsible for appointing thousands of key positions in the Trump administration has very few employees—and even fewer with the adequate professional experience. (Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Shawn Boburg)
Silent Changes: President Trump has called on Congress to overhaul the nation's immigration system, but the administration is already making changes on its own. (Tal Kopan, CNN)
Stephon Clark's Shooting Was 'Deeply Problematic': In the wake of police shootings, people often fixate on whether the action was lawful or not. In doing so, argues David French, they miss the more important questions. (National Review)
More Money, More Problems: Congress awarded the Education Department a $2.6 billion boost in its spending bill—a move that actually derails Secretary Betsy DeVos's plans to reduce the government's role in education. (Michelle Hackman, The Wall Street Journal)
Mapping the Myth: A large-scale study by four universities found that immigration doesn't correlate with increased violent crime—in most cities with heavy immigration, violent-crime rates have gone down. (Anna Flag, The Marshall Project)
Portrait of a Man: While the most famous pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. have come to define the civil-rights movement, these lesser-known photographs better capture the era's complexity. (Maurice Berger, The New York Times)
Hi readers, Elaine here. Starting next week, we'll be testing an additional way for you to receive the Politics & Policy Daily newsletter using Amazon's Alexa. Over the course of four days, we'll air a short news briefing that can be accessed through your Amazon account. We'll highlight the day's news and The Atlantic pieces making sense of it all.
If you're interested in participating in the test, please fill out this survey. We look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Posted: 30 Mar 2018 01:59 PM PDT
It's mostly forgotten now, but for a time, expanding the reach of social networks—making Facebook, Twitter, and others like it as large as possible—was an avowed foreign-policy goal of the United States. That is, at least, what the secretary of state said in the early days of this decade, in a speech at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
"New technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does," Hillary Clinton said. "We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world's information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it."
It was a declaration of purpose for the young Obama administration, and Clinton backed it up with money. The State Department would fund social networks around the world, she said, and it would help develop software that dissidents could use to get around online censorship. But she also framed the goal as part of something larger. On the eve of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt articulated "four essential human freedoms" to which all people are entitled: the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.
Now, Clinton introduced a fifth. "The freedom to connect," she said, "the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other. The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace. It allows individuals to get online, come together, and hopefully cooperate."
"Once you're on the internet," she added, "you don't need to be a tycoon or a rock star to have a huge impact on society."
It is funny that she should mention tycoons: That same morning, the Supreme Court announced its Citizens United decision, which struck down many existing campaign-finance laws. But even without that context, the speech seems poignant. It's not that Clinton comes off as starry-eyed—she describes, frequently and forcefully, how the internet can be used to oppress and weaken civil society—but that she was ignorant of the future. As she spoke, the Arab Spring still lay nearly a year ahead. The Syrian Civil War and Russia's invasion of Ukraine loomed even more distantly. So too did Clinton's loss in the 2016 presidential election—a defeat fueled by the chaos of those same social networks, to a tycoon who (to borrow a phrase) wound up having a huge impact on society.
I thought of Clinton's speech as I read a memo by the Facebook executive Andrew "Boz" Bosworth, published Thursday by BuzzFeed. Bosworth argues that Facebook takes extraordinary steps to fuel its own growth—and that these steps are worth it in the name of connection. The memo was first posted in an internal company forum in June 2016.
"We connect people. Period. That's why all the work we do in growth is justified," Bosworth writes. "All the questionable contact-importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China someday. All of it."
"That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies," he says in another section. "Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools."
In a statement, Bosworth said that he was just trying to get people going. "It was intended to be provocative," he said in a tweet. "I don't agree with the post today and I didn't agree with it even when I wrote it."
My colleague Conor Friedersdorf has argued that Bosworth's frankness is praiseworthy, that more C-suiters should speak honestly about what drives their company's success. Perhaps so. But it also reveals something of the culture of Facebook—and what will become of that culture, and the software it produces, if the company grows increasingly less popular.
The memo contains several striking portions on its own. "All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends": This is the first time I can remember any executive seeming to admit that Facebook sometimes uses weasel words to hide privacy settings. After nearly every Facebook privacy debacle, Mark Zuckerberg promises to make privacy settings easier to find and use. Bosworth's memo suggests there's a reason why Zuckerberg has to keep making this promise.
It is also the first time I can remember Facebook executives admitting that they will use power ruthlessly and that they do not always abide by some sense of goodwill toward "the community" they ceaselessly invoke. The work we will likely have to do in China someday. The most direct interpretation is that Facebook is ready to act as a tool of China's autocrats in order to protect its market share—or at least that Bosworth is talking himself into doing so.
Facebook is sometimes accused of a kind of corporate imperialism, but Bosworth's memo speaks more of an ideological imperialism. We will do these ugly things, because our cause is just—this is the cry of imperial ideologues throughout time. We can cut Bosworth slack and say that that this is part of why he wrote the memo the way he did. He even reportedly titled it "The Ugly."
But what was that idea? It is the same principle that guides Clinton's speech: the importance of connection. In the wake of the Iraq War and the Great Recession, with both the economy and the cause of democracy promotion in tatters, only the technology industry seemed ready with a trustworthy civic rallying cry. Only it produced an acceptable secular goal for the country: connection. The word was blissfully content-free—what does it mean to connect, exactly? No wonder Facebook, Google, and the other tech companies seemed to present an unalloyed good for some years; no wonder "net neutrality" became one of the last bipartisan causes. Facebook, an agile private company, seemed poised to usher in the global village in a way that the United States, a lugubrious republic, never could. If it wasn't Facebook's job to save global liberalism, it sure seemed like it was.
That dream is now dead. Building the global public square was one thing—but maintaining it required far more work than Facebook could commit to. It is an online photo album and news aggregator, powerful enough to destroy whole industries, but so weak that it cannot keep fake news and malicious bots off its platform. And this isn't just Facebook's fault: The first election where one candidate used Twitter like a Twitter user was also one of the most acrimonious in decades.
I have no idea what the death of that ideal means for Facebook, the company. Executives will no doubt keep writing memos and giving interviews that seem more and more out of touch with public vision. But surely the evacuation of Facebook is driving this current news cycle, too. The internet was supposed to bring about the a borderless, liberalized world. Its failure to do so—in fact, its contribution to the most perilously anti-liberal moment in decades—is terrifying. But it is petrifying to consider that liberalism must be at fault. So Facebook takes the heat.
Posted: 30 Mar 2018 01:32 PM PDT
For a couple of weeks in March, after the announcement that Donald Trump had accepted an offer to meet with Kim Jong Un, the outcome of the crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons seemed to depend on whether two leaders who had steered their nations toward war could pump the brakes and broker peace. Then, this week, Kim boarded a train to Beijing and scrambled the whole map.
The North Korean leader's friendly meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping—his first encounter with another head of state—doesn't necessarily place Trump in a weaker position heading into nuclear talks with Kim later this spring, said Yun Sun, the director of the China Program at the Stimson Center. But it does make Trump's position far more complicated. China, which is North Korea's neighbor, treaty ally, and nearly exclusive trading partner, has reasserted itself as a "central player" in the negotiations.
Just as important, Kim played the United States and China off each other, much like Kim's grandfather Kim Il Sung exploited doctrinal disputes between China and the Soviet Union to extract economic assistance and security pacts from both of his communist patrons in the early 1960s. Kim's invitation to Trump stoked Chinese anxiety about being excluded from the summitry (Fear of Missing Out applies as much to international affairs as to human affairs), which will now enable North Korea to take advantage of the "differences, the strategic competition and mistrust between the United States and China," Yun told me.
"Last week the assumption was that North Korea's relationship with China was very bad, so going into the [Trump-Kim] summit we could assume that North Korea would be more desperate to have a deal," Yun said, in reference to the ways in which Kim Jong Un's weapons tests in defiance of Chinese objections and China's retaliation with economic sanctions had poisoned ties between the two countries in recent years. Now North Korea has more leverage: "The more options North Korea has, the less isolated North Korea is, the less able the U.S. will be to coerce North Korea in any direction."
Imagine, for example, that Trump and Kim meet in May and their first conversation—on the shared goal of "denuclearizing" North Korea—goes swimmingly. Then they get to specifics and Kim says he's happy to dismantle his nuclear program if the United States abandons its "hostile policy" toward his nation. When Trump asks what he means by that, Kim explains that an end to hostilities could entail a peace treaty concluding the Korean War and the termination of America's military alliance with South Korea, but would at least have to start with the lifting of some sanctions. Trump says the United States won't ease an iota of pressure on North Korea until Kim takes significant steps toward completely, verifiably, and irreversibly removing his nuclear weapons. Kim protests: "We haven't tested a nuclear bomb or ballistic missile in six months! We're sitting right in front of you at the negotiating table! We deserve a reward." Trump stays tough: "No way, Little Rocket Man," he says.
A week ago, Kim might have felt cornered under such circumstances. Now, the Chinese could step into the stalemate and argue that the Kim government has indeed behaved well, that the North Korean people are suffering from sanctions, and that achieving denuclearization requires not just sticks but carrots. The Trump administration, whose new national-security adviser detests diplomatic carrots, might balk at the proposal. But the Chinese could press ahead with economic relief regardless, threatening to blow a China-sized hole in the international sanctions campaign against North Korea. (The North Korea scholar Go Myong Hyun has speculated that one of Kim's motives for visiting Beijing was to "prepare the ground for the immediate relaxation of sanctions after the U.S.-North Korea talks," even if that only involves China "turning a blind eye to the smuggling activities along the border.")
Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, compared the Chinese and North Korean moves ahead of the Trump-Kim summit to a complex game of cards with the United States. China "wants to use the [North Korea] card to strengthen its position vis-a-vis the U.S., especially in the current 'trade war,'" and prevent North Korea from falling into the "U.S. orbit," he told me by email. North Korea "wants to use the China card to strengthen its position vis-a-vis the U.S., especially in the coming negotiation with the U.S. on denuclearization, and play its newly 'secured' U.S. card to force China to soften [its] position toward Pyongyang." (The United States looks poised to play some hands of its own; on Thursday, Trump threatened to delay renegotiation of a trade agreement with South Korea, which has tended to be more accommodating of North Korea than the U.S. has been, until he has finalized a nuclear deal with North Korea. Trade is "a very strong card," he reasoned.)
Trump could try to avoid getting played by coordinating positions with Xi ahead of his meeting with Kim. The U.S. president might have agreed to talk directly with North Korea's leader, cutting out China as a middleman, for the same reason Trump prefers bilateral trade deals: The mighty United States is more likely to get what it wants when it goes up against one country rather than multiple countries. But in this case, America could benefit from having the middleman closer to its side. "The only way to constrain the small power's ability to manipulate big powers is for the big powers to have communications among themselves," Yun said. "As long as the U.S. and China see each other as a bigger problem, North Korea will be able to manipulate the situation."
But while China and the United States both oppose nuclear weapons in North Korea, their interests in Korea diverge after that. America fears the capabilities of the Kim regime while China fears the collapse of the Kim regime. What the Chinese government ideally wants from the nuclear talks, Yun said, is for the U.S. and North Korea to sign a peace treaty and for North Korea to give up its nuclear program "step by step" in exchange for the United States withdrawing its troops from the Korean peninsula. According to this vision, "North Korea will remain as a pro-China, friendly, nuclear-free force" while "South Korea will also become pro-China or, at a minimum, neutral between the U.S. and China," Yun said. The Trump administration, by contrast, has indicated that it ideally wants to maintain its alliance with South Korea even as North Korea fully relinquishes its nuclear weapons.
John Bolton, Trump's incoming national-security adviser, has gone further, repeatedly suggesting that the United States pursue a diplomatic track of persuading China that it's in Chinese interests to engineer a "controlled collapse" of the Kim regime by severing its economic lifeline to North Korea, supporting a rival political faction, or more forceful means. As Bolton tells it, China would then permit the absorption of North Korea into South Korea with the understanding that the United States would keep its troops in southern Korea rather than moving them up toward China's border as part of reunification.
Shen dismissed Bolton's scheme as "nearly impossible," but Yun wasn't as quick to do so. Last year, as Trump peppered North Korea with military threats and Kim Jong Un persisted with nuclear and missile tests, the "Chinese were genuinely convinced that war was imminent," she noted, and similar ideas about China removing the Kim regime began popping up in Chinese policy circles. Proponents of such ideas, which have not been publicly advocated by Chinese officials, considered the prospect of China getting drawn into a second Korean war and direct conflict with the United States, and "differentiated between the North Korean regime and the North Korean country—determining that North Korea the country remains China's strategic asset, but the North Korean regime is ... hurting China's national interests," Yun said. "So I think John Bolton's proposal is not inconceivable." At the moment, however, China's anxiety about war has subsided and its anxiety about being excluded from nuclear negotiations has swelled. Hence Xi Jinping's reluctant embrace of Kim Jong Un in Beijing.
While the Trump administration is currently calling for the swift gutting of North Korea's nuclear arsenal, the Chinese government favors a lengthier and more piecemeal process. The best way to make a denuclearization deal "sustainable" is for it to be "incremental and implemented in parallel" with international security assurances and sanctions relief, Shen explained. This would give the Chinese many opportunities to insert themselves into the negotiations following the Trump-Kim meeting; Yun noted that China would have a key role in providing North Korea with economic aid and energy supplies and in drawing up a peace treaty to end the Korean War and replace the 1953 armistice, to which China was a signatory. She added that China will be carefully monitoring the nuclear talks to make sure North Korea doesn't "sell China out" like China betrayed the Soviet Union in 1971 by initiating detente with the United States.
The Xi-Kim meeting is a reminder that there is not "a speedy solution to the North Korean nuclear problem," Yun said—that China is no mere appendage of America's "maximum pressure" campaign but rather an influential actor with independent interests that must be taken into account.
But Donald Trump just might be up to the challenge. The president's "belligerent" and "transactional" approach succeeded in swaying China to impose its strictest-ever sanctions on North Korea and in compelling Kim Jong Un to put his almost completed nuclear program up for negotiation, she argued. Trump, Yun told me, "has extracted more cooperation out of China on North Korea than probably all the previous U.S. presidents and administrations combined."
Posted: 30 Mar 2018 12:54 PM PDT
Polyamory. Ethical non-monogamy. Open relationship. There are many ways to describe the consensual choice a couple can make to live a non-monogamous lifestyle—and ever more ways to navigate it. Maria Rosa Badia's new short film Polyedric Love, premiering on The Atlantic today, features honest conversations with couples about the rewards and challenges of their unconventional relationships.
"We've always been told that there's this one way of being with someone, and if you retract from it, it's not right societally," says a woman in the film. "But if it's right instinctually…"
Making the film was an eye-opening experience for Badia, who came to see non-monogamous relationships as an inspiration, particularly with regard to overcoming jealousy. "I was moved by the couples' honest rapport with their partners about their individual needs," she told The Atlantic, "and how they had a very straightforward communication about it. I realized that what's necessary on a non-monogamous relationship to work—mutual respect and communication—is absolutely necessary for a monogamous relationship, too."
Posted: 30 Mar 2018 12:29 PM PDT
The Chinese government detained a beloved Catholic bishop earlier this week in an apparent attempt to keep him out of sight around the Easter holidays, just as an end to a decades-long split between Beijing and the Vatican may be in sight.
The bishop, Guo Xijin, is recognized by the Vatican but not by the official Catholic Church in China, which is under government control. Such underground bishops are at the heart of the split. Since the 1950s, the Chinese government has insisted it must approve the selection of bishops, but the Vatican has continued to ordain clergy in secret, leading to overlapping sets of official and underground bishops in some Chinese parishes.
Guo was detained in the days leading up to the Easter holidays after refusing to hold services alongside a government-approved bishop. The Vatican had asked the 59-year-old bishop to step down as a concession to Beijing. According to the most recent reports, Guo is no longer in detention but has not been allowed to return to his duties.
Negotiations between Beijing and the Holy See to end the dueling bishoprics and unify the Church are now underway, and a deal is expected as early as Easter weekend. But Guo's detention is indicative of exactly what kind of solution the Chinese Communist Party has in mind. Most likely, it will not be a gentle rapprochement with the Vatican so much as a heavy-handed crackdown on the underground church, with the government attempting to neutralize it once and for all.
For decades, the Communist party-state has tolerated the existence of a parallel system of official churches organized under government auspices, and unofficial, or "underground," churches that operate without government oversight. (This is true of both Protestant and Catholic Churches in China. While the Vatican deal will only affect underground Catholic bishops, legal and bureaucratic changes are likely to pressure both Protestant and Catholic underground churches.) A series of recent moves indicates that the party is now rejecting the status quo, and is seeking to extend its control over these formerly independent congregations.
New legislation took effect on February 1, tightening government regulation of religion and placing more explicit restrictions on unofficial religious activity. A leaked directive dated March 16 ordered local government agencies to begin investigating all underground Christian activity in Beijing, which suggests a coming crackdown on that activity, as other sectors of Chinese society have experienced in recent years.
Most telling, however, is the government reorganization announced last week that delegated religious affairs, previously under the auspices of the religious affairs bureau, a government office, to the United Front Work Department, a Communist Party organ under the direct control of the party's Central Committee.
"The party is in some ways distrustful of the religious affairs bureau for fear that some people in that agency may have the kind of training that makes them more open to or sympathetic with different religious groups," said Xi Lian, a professor of world religion at Duke Divinity School. "But now the United Front is going to take over and impose the iron will of the party."
China is governed by a dual, parallel structure of party and government bodies at every level, from the highest echelons of power down to the village committees. Government bodies have tended to have relatively more transparency than party organs; the party is an information black hole. And the United Front Work Department in particular is the primary means by which the party has extended and solidified its influence over every level of Chinese society.
There is little room for speculation about the implications of this move for the Catholic Church in China. It almost certainly means more direct party control and marginalization for anyone who doesn't toe the party line.
"The point of having administrative control over religious groups in China is to 'deconflict' an organization from competing with the party," said Peter Wood, an analyst at the datamining firm TextOre who researches the United Front. "The point isn't to provide services—it is control, redirection, and deconfliction."
None of this bodes well for Chinese Christians, said Lian.
"It's making a lot of Christians in China very nervous," said Chloe Starr, a professor of Asian Christianity and theology at Yale Divinity School. "A lot of rights lawyers had wanted a greater transfer to the judiciary, rather than state oversight, but we've moved in the opposite direction. This is taking it further away from judicial process and more directly under the party influence, which is worrying a lot of Christians."
A move to co-opt or even disband the underground church would be well in line with Chinese President Xi Jinping's sweeping campaigns in the past few years to strangle dissent and consolidate party control over every aspect of Chinese society. Xi has eliminated many of the gray areas that in the past allowed for a limited degree of expression. During his tenure, the party has created a comprehensive internet censorship regime, cracked down on human rights lawyers, implemented ideological controls in universities and private businesses, and constructed a high-tech surveillance state in the far-west region of Xinjiang.
The looming Vatican deal, then, comes at a time when Beijing is moving to exercise more control over religious affairs than it has in decades. One possible arrangement for such a deal, reportedly being discussed, would allow the party to select bishops but give the Vatican veto power over the final selection. But such an admission of foreign control over domestic affairs—and particularly over religion, which the party has always viewed with special suspicion—would likely be anathema to the party given its current direction.
"Not only is the deal a terrible one, the Vatican has chosen the worst time to do it—at a time when Xi Jinping is becoming the new emperor, when the party is cracking down so harshly," said Lian. "I really have a hard time understanding why the Vatican still clings to this completely unrealistic hope of striking a deal that will the benefit the Church, and striking a deal that the Communist Party will honor."
Lian raised the example of Hong Kong. The agreement signed between Britain and China when the city was handed back to the mainland after 150 years of British colonial rule specified that Beijing must allow universal suffrage in Hong Kong by the year 2017. But China has come to refer to that agreement as a historical document rather than a binding agreement, and it has refused to allow elections in Hong Kong without first vetting the candidates. Similarly, it's highly unlikely that the Communist Party will now give true veto power to the Vatican. More likely, even if some kind of ceremonial veto power is given, all the candidates will be completely pre-vetted by Beijing. There is little reason to think that the party would honor any concessions to the Vatican, said Lian.
Still, it may not all be bad news. Even before Pope Francis, several popes had worked toward eventually ending the stand-off, which has harmed the Church's membership and effectiveness in China. The existence of dueling bishops has created confusion and complication among Chinese Catholics and made it difficult for the Church to minister to its flock there.
"The gains of there being one united Church in China would be a positive thing. And having one bishop in each See who is recognized by all, I can't see that that's anything other than positive," said Starr. "The real pain is in these structural readjustments to get to this point."
But the case of Guo Xijin is likely a taste of what any supposed deal will look like on the ground—arrests, detentions, and forced adherence to Beijing's line. Going forward, Chinese Catholics can expect more of this, not less.
Posted: 30 Mar 2018 02:14 PM PDT
No single stand has hobbled Donald Trump's presidency more than his attitude toward Russia.
During the presidential campaign, he conspicuously praised Vladimir Putin, and refused to condemn his seizure of Crimea. Trump also publicly called for Russia to release emails hacked from Hillary Clinton, something his aides said was a joke. Trump's perceived softness on Putin seems to have encouraged advisers like George Papadopoulos and perhaps Michael Flynn to make overtures to the Kremlin, whether Trump intended that or not.
Once in office, Trump's apparent Russophilia has continued to dog him. His refusal to acknowledge Russian meddling in the election, and his eagerness to stifle or shut down any investigation that touched on it, has directly or indirectly produced tremendous legal and political peril for Trump. Polls show support for Special Counel Robert Mueller, concern that Trump obstructed justice, and worries that the president doesn't take Russia seriously enough. Russia is hardly the only problem the president has, but it is the largest and most multifarious. No matter what Trump does for the rest of his term, he will be unable to undo the damage of his strange stance toward Russia so far.
Which is one reason why recent events in the Trump-Russia relationship are so strange: Every indication points to the president coming to a harsher stance toward the Kremlin. The major example of this is the tough line the White House took over the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in London. Not only did the Trump administration join with nearly 30 other countries expelling Russian officials, but the U.S. reaction—60 diplomats or spies kicked out, and a consulate shuttered—dwarfed any other nation's steps. Meanwhile, Russia's new ambassador to the U.S. has seen doors figuratively slammed in his face as he tries to settle in to Washington. Contrast that with his predecessor, Sergey Kislyak, who with the Russian foreign minister managed to obtain an Oval Office meeting, in which Trump called recently fired FBI Director James Comey a "nut job" and divulged classified information.
Last week, when Trump abruptly pushed out National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster in favor of John Bolton, many observers noted that while Bolton fit Trump's rhetorical style, the two men diverged on some key issues—most notably Russia. But what if that wasn't a mistake or a tradeoff, and the hire was another piece of Trump's turn against the Kremlin?
The White House has long protested that it was much tougher on Russia than it receives credit for. That argument has some truth to it, though mostly if you separate the president from the conversation. Other top officials, especially UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, have drawn a tough line on Putin. It's more Trump's own rhetoric, as well as his press secretary's, that has been strangely deferential. Even amid the recent turn, Trump found time to congratulate Putin on his electoral victory, over the express (and all-caps) advice of his aides.
Heightening the peculiarity of the apparent change of heart is the motivation. When Russia interfered in American affairs, Trump tried to ignore the story, refused to blame Russia, sought to finger other culprits, and muddied the waters. Yet when Russia (by all indications) poisoned a Russian national on British soil, the president acknowledged it publicly and took decisive action.
Trump's critics have tended to interpret his soft-pedaling on Russia as self-incriminating evidence of collusion with the Kremlin during the 2016 campaign—or, among the more conspiratorially minded, as evidence that Putin possesses compromising material on the president—but the fact and circumstances of his recent reversal, despite little political upside, complicate the picture. It has long been clear that one reason Trump is so peevish about stories of Russian interference in the election is that he feels such stories delegitimize his victory. His willingness to strike back at Russia now, on an unrelated provocation, shows just how much that sensitivity might explain his actions.
As I have noted previously, the question about collusion is no longer whether Trump officials had untoward contacts with Russians—two have already pleaded guilty to concealing meetings with Russians from the FBI, for reasons that are not entirely clear—but the scale of the collusion, and whether Trump himself was involved. So far, there's no public evidence that the president himself was involved. A new CNN report, saying that Mueller aggressively pursued former Trump aide Rick Gates because he wanted Gates to speak about collusion, seems to suggest that Mueller hasn't found concrete evidence to implicate Trump either. In the absence of evidence Trump colluded, the simplest explanation for the president's actions is that he reacts hysterically mostly to stories that he thinks bring his election into question.
Consider McMaster, who angered Trump not by staking a hardline position against Russia per se (after all, he was replaced by the even harder-line Bolton), but by stating that evidence of Russian meddling in the election in particular was incontrovertible.
NBC News and The Washington Post both have stories Friday that go inside the White House process of deciding on the expulsions. NBC's item has two particularly interesting details. One is that Trump was reportedly particularly upset about Putin claiming to have powerful new nuclear weapons. It's tempting to read this as some sort of phallic showdown, or a clash of two performatively masculine leaders, but Trump has not responded similarly on other occasions when Putin has mocked the U.S. and Trump himself, so it's hard to know why this time has produced different results.
The second is that although Trump has sometimes signed off on measures punishing Russia, he's been reluctant to be seen as doing so. In August, for example, Trump finally acceded to a plan to arm Ukraine:
That reticence is mystifying. On the one hand, it doesn't fit the theory that Trump is a pawn of Putin, since it's a material blow against Russia; on the other hand, refusing to discuss it deprives Trump of a talking point to rebut claims that he's a pawn of Putin.
Trump's fear of delegitimization doesn't explain why Trump was so friendly to Putin before the election, but there are other plausible reasons for that. Trump clearly respects strongmen and was surrounded by campaign advisers like Rudy Giuliani who had publicly venerated Putin. Moreover, all evidence suggests Trump expected not to win the election, but did have a long-running interest in doing business in Russia. The campaign offered Trump a months-long opportunity to cozy up to the Kremlin in preparation for what he expected would be a return to the real-estate business.
Trump isn't wrong to believe that the Russia story partly delegitimizes his election. Quantifying the effect of foreign interference is likely impossible, and it alone does not explain the outcome. Every election is the result of multiple factors, and in the case of 2016, Hillary Clinton's strategic decisions about where to focus her campaign and Comey's decision to publicly reopen the case against her in late October produced more directly quantifiable effects on the final result. Yet there is substantial evidence that Russian efforts were designed to aid Trump.
The president can't erase that by pretending it doesn't exist, but he continues to try. That might explain why Trump is willing to punish Russia for what it does in London, but any mention of the election quickly elicits fevered tweets about Democratic hoaxes.
Posted: 30 Mar 2018 01:38 PM PDT
Updated at 4:05 p.m. ET
Israeli troops opened fire Friday at Palestinians near the Gaza Strip's border with the Jewish state, killing at least 15 people and wounding many more. The numbers came from the Palestinian health ministry, which put the number of those injured at more than 1,000.
The Palestinian demonstration at the border, dubbed the Great March of Return, was billed as peaceful and nonviolent. Protesters pitched tents near the border with Israel and demanded that refugees be allowed to return to homes they left behind in 1948 during the creation of the state of Israel. Israel, which estimates that 17,000 Palestinians have gathered near the border at six locations, said its troops were enforcing "a closed military zone." The Israeli army also said it opened fire toward the "main instigators" of what it called rioters who were "rolling burning tires and hurling stones at the security fence and at" Israeli troops. Israel had warned Gaza residents against protesting, and said Hamas, the militant group that governs Gaza, was "cynically" sending women and children "to the security fence and endangering their lives."
The date the protest began, March 30, is the anniversary of Land Day, a 1976 event in which Israelis killed six Palestinians who were protesting the confiscation of their lands. The protests are expected to last until May 15, the anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel, which the Palestinians view as a "naqba" or "catastrophe" for their people.
The size of the demonstrations Friday shows how attached Palestinians remain to the "right of return"—the notion that Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants should be allowed to return to the homes their families had in what is now Israel. Palestinians say this is a key condition in any negotiations with Israel over a future state. The Israelis view this as a nonstarter, saying it is unrealistic for Palestinians, many of whom have only lived in refugee camps in places like Lebanon, to come to a country their ancestors left—a return that could irreversibly alter the demographic makeup, and by extension the Jewish nature, of the state of Israel. Indeed, a massive Palestinian march along the border with Israel could arguably trigger Israeli fears about Palestinians marching on Israel and overwhelming it demographically.
The protests also coincide with a significant religious period for both Jews and many Christians: Passover, when Jews celebrate their ancestors' liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt, begins Friday. It is also Good Friday, which falls in the middle of the Christian holy week that culminates in Easter. Palestinian protests during this period add to the tensions in a region that isn't a stranger to them.
Relations between Israel and the Palestinians have been fraught for decades. The optimism of the 1990s that followed the signing of the Oslo Accords between the two sides have given way to mutual mistrust and violence. Waves of Palestinian suicide bombings and rocket attacks frayed Israeli nerves; Israeli military retaliation was often swift. Israel's construction of a barrier along its border with the West Bank saw a marked reduction in the number of Palestinians who crossed into Israel to carry out attacks. Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005, but kept control over its airspace and territorial waters. Blockaded by Israel, Gaza became virtually cut off from the rest of the world. Hamas won elections there in 2006. Israel, as well as the United States, regards Hamas as a terrorist organization—and refuses to deal with it directly.
Western attempts at mediation are moribund, much like the peace process between the two sides. Last year, Fatah, the Palestinian faction that governs the West Bank, signed an agreement on a unity government with Hamas, its rival. Past attempts at such a government have been unsuccessful. Israel says it will not deal with any unity government that includes Hamas. Still, the Trump administration is said to be on the verge of releasing its peace plan, formulated by Jared Kushner, the president's son in law, and some advisers. But the fact that Trump broke with decades of U.S. precedent and international diplomacy by announcing his intention to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv means that any Palestinian buy-in for such a plan is dead on arrival.
Since the announcement last December that the U.S. Embassy would move to Jerusalem, Palestinians have been notably absent from U.S.-organized plans for the Palestinian territories. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, went as far as to call David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, a "son of a dog," a particularly incendiary insult in the Arab world. Friedman reportedly said he was working to have Abbas replaced as Palestinian leader, but denied this week he said any such thing. The embassy move is expected to be completed on May 14—one day before the current Palestinian protests are expected to end, and one day before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. These factors add to the volatility of the situation.
Already, at least 15 Palestinians have died—and this is only the first day of the march. If the demonstrations continue, and Israel responds the way it did today, there is a significant risk that the death count will rise, and an already complicated situation will get worse.
Posted: 30 Mar 2018 11:21 AM PDT
Sometime this weekend, an abandoned Chinese space station the size of a school bus will plummet back to Earth and mostly disintegrate in the atmosphere. Whatever chunks survive the intense heat of the journey will probably land in the ocean or a remote part of land, away from populated areas.
It'll be quick, and chances are nobody will witness the reentry from the ground. So what exactly will happen to Tiangong-1 as it comes hurtling down?
"Have you ever seen Gravity?" Ted Muelhaupt says. "The depiction of the reentry in that movie is actually pretty accurate. It was one of the better things about that movie."
Muelhaupt is an associate principal director at the Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit research group that works on space issues. He and his colleagues have spent weeks tracking Tiangong-1's orbit as the space station steadily loses altitude, and they've discussed working in shifts over the weekend to catch the big event. Tiangong-1 is expected to reenter sometime between the night of March 31 and late evening on April 1, according to the European Space Agency's Space Debris Office, which has been tracking the station.
China launched Tiangong-1 into space in September of 2011 as a prototype for a future permanent space station in low-Earth orbit. The station was twice visited by Chinese astronauts, or taikonauts, including the country's first female taikonaut, Liu Yang.
Tiangong-1 station was never intended to remain in orbit forever. China would eventually stop firing the station's engines to keep it in a stable orbit, and it would lose altitude until it neared the top of Earth's atmosphere. China would then carry out what's known as a controlled reentry. Using quick engine bursts, engineers would guide Tiangong-1 toward a trajectory that would see it fall safely over the ocean. Spacefaring nations often carry out such controlled reentries, for satellites and stations alike.
But in March of 2016, Tiangong-1 mysteriously stopped working. China could no longer command the station to do anything.
In one of the final, dramatic scenes in the 2013 film Gravity (warning: spoilers ahead), Sandra Bullock's character is stranded alone in a Soyuz capsule, the International Space Station destroyed behind her. After a brief, oxygen-deprived hallucination featuring George Clooney's character, Bullock maneuvers the Soyuz toward a fictional version of a Tiangong space station and gets in just as the station starts to reenter Earth's atmosphere.
Bullock's descent is quite similar to what will happen to Tiangong-1, Muelhaupt says, minus the Steven Price score. Powerful wind streams will buffet the station, shaking it violently. Solar arrays, antennae, and any other protruding hardware will be among the first to snap off.
Before that, it's possible that Tiangong-1 may hit the top of the atmosphere at such an angle that it could bounce back into space.
"If you put something at a right angle in the air it's moving through, you can generate some lift. So when an object's going to naturally decay and reenter and come down into the denser atmosphere, it might generate lift and then come back out again," Muelhaupt says. "You have to hit the air for reentry at just the right angle."
Once it makes it into the atmosphere, Tiangong-1 will travel at hypersonic speeds, faster than the speed of sound. "As the thing goes deeper into the reentry, the air piles up in front of it faster than it can get away, and you get this shock wave," Muelhaupt says. "The molecules in the air literally start coming apart."
A layer of hot plasma will envelop the space station, and metal will begin to melt from the extreme temperatures. "During that period, where you get this intense heating, if you don't design a vehicle to survive that heating, it's going to come apart," Muelhaupt says. Based on photos China has shared publicly of Tiangong-1, the station does't appear to have any kind of heat shielding, Muelhaupt says.
Tiangong-1 will break apart into pieces, all of them flying together on the way down, like a flock of mismatched birds. Lighter material will slow down faster and thus experience less heat, which means some of it may survive the fall. Heavier material will experience the most severe heat, but some objects may be so dense that they escape melting before they reach Earth's surface, too.
Then, minutes after it begins its final descent, Tiangong-1 will disappear from radar trackers around the world.
If you happen to witness Tiangong-1's reentry, "you'd probably see a bright, burning trail go across the sky, with multiple bright objects all in a tight cluster" for about a minute, Muelhaupt says.
It's difficult to predict which parts of Tiangong-1 will survive the ride down, particularly because the station's composition is not publicly known. There's nothing to worry about, though. The chances of getting struck by falling space debris are extremely low, lower than the chances of getting hit by lightning.
Wherever bits of Tiangong-1 land, they will still be considered the property of China, according to international space law. Any resulting damage will also be China's responsibility. If debris lands in a remote part of a foreign country, China may choose to leave it there, as other nations have done and continue to do.
"I'm not aware of any aggressive recovery efforts," Muelhaupt says. "If something survives an uncontrolled reentry, it's usually in pretty bad shape. Unless you're trying to do something specific with the object you recover, it's much more a curiosity than anything else."
There have been some outliers, like the reentry of a Soviet satellite in 1977 that scattered radioactive debris over northern Canada. In that case, the debris couldn't be abandoned. The Canadians carried out the cleanup and billed the Soviets for the work.
Today, Earth is littered with bits of spacecraft, the burnt remains of once-gleaming pieces of remarkable human engineering. NASA officials have said one to two objects from reentries are found somewhere in the world each year. Some are in museums, like the remains of Skylab, the first American space station, which in 1979 made a controlled reentry over the southern Indian Ocean but deposited some pieces along the coast of western Australia. (Skylab weighed 10 times as much as Tiangong-1, and no one got hurt on the ground.) Australia fined the United States for littering as a joke, then placed the leftovers on display. Others are strewn across grassy fields in rural areas, like bits of China's family of Long March rockets. This weekend, if they don't sink in the sea, scorched parts of Tiangong-1 may join them.
Posted: 30 Mar 2018 01:10 PM PDT
Gigantic rice bowls in Hong Kong, a basketball-playing robot in Tokyo, a chocolate gorilla in Belgium, walled cats in China, considerate drum practice in Japan, the Museum of Selfies in California, the Naked Pig Skiing Carnival in China, and much more.
Posted: 30 Mar 2018 10:54 AM PDT
Black and white polka-dots covering her nine-months-pregnant belly, M.I.A. sauntered onto the Grammys stage in 2009 for a performance that would seem to announce the arrival of a supremely 21st-century sort of icon—artistically daring, unapologetically female, and from a part of the world the West has often ignored. But in retrospect now, the moment stands as the apex of her supposedly finished music career, a summit never reached again. Anyone unfamiliar with M.I.A. but familiar with the scripts of stardom could assume what came next: difficulty following up a barrier-busting hit, mistakes with the press, and personal setbacks.
Stephen Loveridge's documentary, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., appears to start filling in that script, preluding the Grammys performance with footage of the rapper and producer's breezy home life in Los Angeles. Then we see her arrive on stage in those blazing maternal polka dots, with the Clash-borrowed groove of her smash "Paper Planes" twitching to life, and—
Bang. The film smashcuts to news footage about the Sri Lankan Civil War, entering its bloody final phase in early 2009. The country's military had, after decades of battle, beaten back the resistance fighters of the Tamil ethnic minority to a spot on the northern coast. "No-fire zones" for civilians to take refuge in were drawn by the government—and then bombed by that government, killing hundreds on a daily basis. The screen floods with images of the wounded and dead.
This is not a normal pop documentary, because M.I.A. was not a normal pop star. On Tavis Smiley's show earlier in 2009, she'd responded to a question about her artistic success by changing the subject to the "genocide" going on in her home country of Sri Lanka. On the Grammys red carpet, she sparred with a reporter over CNN omitting similar comments about genocide she made during an interview that, when it aired, focused on her music career. "You're the first person that we've interviewed that says, 'The piece was too much about me,'" the reporter shot back. "People mostly want it about them."
Loveridge's movie is a fantastic and kinetic fulfillment of Maya Arulpragasam's desire, back then, to be heard as more than an entertainer. Starting with her 2004 debut, M.I.A. beat an aesthetically game-changing and controversy-strewn path across pop culture, broadcasting her backstory as a Tamil revolutionary's refugee daughter who was trained in London art school and steeped in U.S. hip-hop. Her early aspiration of becoming a documentary filmmaker means Loveridge has a trove of electrifying pre- and post-fame footage to work with, which he uses for a smart, lively investigation of M.I.A.'s own vital themes: the lives of immigrants worldwide, the plight of the Sri Lankan people, and the question of whether pop stars can make effective political activists.
In 1985, the young Arulpragasam came with her mother, brother, and sister, alongside a wave of Sri Lankan refugees, to South London, leaving behind her father, Arular, whom she barely knew. That father, for whom her first album is named, has long held a contested, un-pin-downable place in her mythology. "This is what happened to a kid whose dad went off and became a terrorist," she says into the camera during a mid-'90s confessional she filmed, though later in the press she would emphasize his role as a peacebroker and humanitarian.
Remarkably, the viewer gets to meet the famous Arular, whom Maya films when he comes to visit his estranged family. He describes the conflict in Sri Lanka as a human-rights crisis, he says he was the founder of the Tamil resistance movement, and he tells a story of smuggling bombs by hiding them under toys for his kids. Two of the three Arulpragasam siblings consider him a deadbeat. "His whole life is a dead end," Maya's brother, Sugu, says. "So now he's talking about peace. Because he can't fight now." Maya, though, has a provocatively grateful take: "He's made us damn interesting. He's given us a bloody background!"
Her quest to understand this background—and document it—would send her on a 2001 trip to her childhood home in Sri Lanka. We see her hosts then were welcoming, but reluctant to share war stories, fearful of being caught in crackdowns on dissidents. They also appeared reluctant to take her interest in the Tamil struggle seriously—because she was a young woman, and because she was an expat. In a deeply striking moment, one of her subjects dismisses her credibility because she left the country as a child. "You never had the war zone experience," he says with a smirk and a swat at the camera. Right there is the paradox of the refugee: In Sri Lanka, she's an interloper, but in the West, she's that too, taunted with slurs like "Paki."
That sense of placelessness—which could be conversely channeled as everywhereness—fueled her vibrant, riotous sound. Bookending the movie is the video shoot for her 2015 song "Borders," whose valorization of refugees and migrants underlines M.I.A.'s significance in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world: If some politicians have their way, her story might not have been able to happen. Seen in the doc hopping across continents to record her classic 2007 album, Kala, she bonds with some of her collaborators, like the Nigerian rapper Afrikan Boy, as immigrants. "There's always going to be something different about us that doesn't relate to a white experience or a black experience," she says. "It's always something extra. Something else that you have to go and do, which is connect with your back-homeness."
It's her attempted connection to her home that generated some of the most contested moments of her career, which in turn underscore the difficulties of using the entertainment ecosystem as an advocacy platform. Her 2009 "genocide" comments were meant to bring international attention to Tamil civilian casualties. But they mostly only invited notice from government-sympathetic Sri Lankans who said she was too friendly with the Tamil Tigers, designated as terrorists at the time by many international authorities. "I tried to do it the way they wanted me to do it, which is learn a script, learn the five sentences you wanted to repeat in the news," she says. It didn't work.
But when she turned to more radical methods in her art, she met with even more blowback. At the height of her fame, she released the single "Born Free," a galloping punk-rock track with a big-budget music video in which red-headed white boys are rounded up and executed in graphic fashion. Today, it's obvious it was an allegory for real-life war crimes in Sri Lanka, but at the time, the discussion that ensued was mostly around whether M.I.A. had undertaken provocation for its own sake. Such was the gist of an infamously snarky 2010 New York Times Magazine profile of M.I.A by journalist Lynn Hirschberg, who's seen in the documentary raving about the "Born Free" video to its creator.
Rather than the bubbleheaded poseur that her critics made her out to be, M.I.A. comes across as sharp and articulate throughout the footage Loveridge chose, and there's zero doubt of her serious interest in her causes. But you still see how she could get in her own way. Included is old home footage of Arulpragasam fighting with her musical mentor, Justine Frischmann of Elastica, who gently, with a sense of fatigue, accuses Arulpragasam of being addicted to attention. We also get a fabulously revealing look at Madonna's 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, during which M.I.A. scandalously flipped the middle finger to America, generating a lawsuit from the NFL. Her post-facto rationale changes a few times—was she protesting backstage sexism and racism, or was she just shoring up the image implied in the title of her then-current single, "Bad Girls"? It's not clear whether she herself knows for certain.
The irony of the Super Bowl episode, which Loveridge underlines, is that Madonna's performance ended by spelling out the words "WORLD PEACE." Peace, for the Tamils and for displaced and marginalized people worldwide, is exactly what Arulpragasam's been agitating for all along—though with rude gestures, explosive percussion sounds, and the fictional genocide of gingers. Her post-Kala musical output has been patchy, but there's been enough brilliance that fans might lament how scandal has outdrawn the songs in terms of conversation (2010's Maya and 2013's Matangi: way underrated). Loveridge's documentary makes the music a somewhat secondary concern too, but it's not to fixate on the drama. It's to give M.I.A.'s deeper messages one more shot on stage, and it's, gratifyingly, a memorable one.
Posted: 30 Mar 2018 10:48 AM PDT
During a speech on Thursday, President Trump revealed a striking ignorance of one of the pillars of his country's educational system. In the course of promoting his infrastructure plan, he, a bit perplexingly, dismissed the country's community colleges, suggesting he doesn't know what purpose they serve. "We do not know what a 'community college' means," he told the crowd in an Ohio training facility for construction apprentices, moments after expressing nostalgia for the vocational schools that flourished when he was growing up—schools that offered hands-on training in fields such as welding and cosmetology.
He seemed to have a better grasp on these latter schools, analogizing them to the apprenticeship programs he was promoting in his effort to create 400,000 high-paying infrastructure jobs. The implication, as he brushed aside one form of higher education and lauded another, was that he'd like to resuscitate short-term training opportunities and phase out community colleges in the name of workforce development.
One of Trump's stated goals is to ensure that every American knows "the dignity of work, the pride of a paycheck, and the satisfaction of a job well done"—but he seems to be unaware of the vital role that community colleges play in realizing that vision. As Jeffrey Selingo wrote in The Atlantic earlier this year, the fastest-growing jobs in the United States require candidates to have training and education beyond high school, and community colleges, which typically offer associate's degrees, will be key to filling those openings.
Community colleges are not just a substantial part of the future of American education—they are also a substantial part of its present. More than 40 percent of the country's undergraduates are currently enrolled in community colleges, according to the College Board, the higher-education research firm and test administrator. Preliminary federal data suggest that roughly 9 million undergraduates were enrolled in community colleges in the 2015-2016 school year. And with their low tuition (typically costing less than what federal Pell grants provide) and practice of letting in all applicants, community colleges serve as a pathway to the middle class for low-income and first-generation students. Further, one in three community-college students transfers to a bachelor's-granting institution within six years.
Enrolling in a community college certainly doesn't guarantee a steady, well paid job. As my colleague Ann Hulbert has pointed out, too many community-college students never earn a degree. But that's largely because two-year institutions serve a disproportionate percentage of students whose life circumstances—many have families to support and are working full-time jobs to pay their bills—make completing a degree particularly difficult. (Community colleges are acutely aware of this challenge and have implemented programs to better support such students; many are even evolving from learning and training institutions into holistic support systems, establishing food pantries on campus and offering subsidized daycare.)
On Thursday, Trump said the vocational schools of yore "were not called community colleges, because I don't know what that means." The president was right that there's a difference between vocational schools and community colleges: Historically, the former were offered at the secondary level and seen as an alternative to a college degree, designed to prepare students for careers in industries like manufacturing. The latter took a broader approach, giving students skills that might apply across industries. Indeed, the term community college is unambiguous. As one administrator of a community college in Oregon told my colleague James Fallows back in 2015, "When we say we are a 'community college,' we really mean that we are for and of this community." Replacing community colleges with vocational schools would mean doing away with institutions that have given millions of Americans the practical skills, liberal-arts background, and diploma that are considered prerequisites for a growing number of jobs—and shepherded millions of others to four-year institutions.
What's more, Trump's insinuation that the aims of vocational training and community colleges are mutually exclusive signals a misinterpretation of the latter's role in today's workforce-development initiatives; community colleges also help keep local and regional economic engines running. Community colleges were established after World War II to churn out qualified workers—a duty they've continued to fulfill. As Selingo noted, "Some 34 percent of the roughly $114 billion the federal government spends annually on workforce development and education goes to higher education, with much of it flowing to two-year colleges."
And even though the term vocational education isn't used today as often as it was in the 20th century, that doesn't mean that community colleges have crowded out such training opportunities. In fact, they've seen a resurgence in recent years. The difference is primarily semantic: Nowadays, such training is typically described as "career and technical education"—the result of a rebranding effort aimed in part to counter vocational schools' (somewhat earned) reputation for tracking disadvantaged Americans into low-wage jobs.
The incorrect assumption that Trump made in his speech on Thursday was that community colleges and vocational schools haven't been able to and can't exist alongside each other—a misunderstanding that further underappreciates an already underappreciated component of American education.
Posted: 30 Mar 2018 10:06 AM PDT
Austin, Texas, recently experienced 19 days of terror at the hands of an unknown figure, as hundreds of law-enforcement officers crisscrossed the Texas capital in a race to track down a shadow. We now know the "who": The bombings are suspected to have been perpetrated by a 23-year-old, homegrown, unemployed community-college dropout named Mark Anthony Conditt. Investigators probably know the makeup of the mechanical switches he used to detonate his seven explosive devices, ones filled with smokeless powder along with nails to enhance their shrapnel effect. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and the FBI likely rebuilt each device to study it. What we don't know is the composition of the switch in the bomber's head that, once flipped, allowed him to move forward with his assault on the sense of safety and security of the city of Austin. It's the "why" we don't understand.
Conditt, who would say in regard to these bombings, "I wish I were sorry, but I am not," did not seem markedly different from other men and women his age in his community. Conditt once identified himself as politically conservative, with some making much of his six-year-old statements against abortion and gay marriage. Others countered that he was against sex offenders being labeled for life, a position perhaps associated with a more liberal base. So what drove him to murder? These were not spontaneous acts. These bombings were a planned, methodical series of decisions that he could have stopped at any point before his eventual death at his own hands.
According to law enforcement, Conditt left a graphic, 25-minute video on his cellphone before he killed himself, in which he described his bombs and bombings in great detail, but chose not to reveal his ultimate motive or the reason for his target selection. In addition to this video, police say he also left bomb-making components in his house, items that he could have used to construct even more explosive devices. It's likely they were things such as iron pipes and caps, smokeless powder, nails, wires, and batteries. He also left behind something else that may help in determining his motive for murder: a list of addresses, possibly his "hit list" of individuals he hadn't yet targeted.
Technically, Conditt was not a serial bomber, but a spree bomber. By definition, a serial offender has emotional cooling-off periods between offenses, during which they retreat back into their seemingly normal life. Conditt had no such pauses. But never mind the precise label—he was a killer with the full potential to continue killing had he not been stopped.
I was an early member of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit, where we specialized in extrapolating possible insights into criminals' psyches from limited information. Conditt is dead, and he did not say why he did what he allegedly did, which means we can never really know his exact motive or motives. But by examining his actions, and looking at those who have committed similar crimes, we can begin to guess at what might have been going on in his mind.
Conditt's actions included research, planning, design, buying components, building his devices, and victim/target acquisition, as well as the development of his surreptitious methods of delivery. These actions could have taken him weeks, even months before he was ready to strike. His crimes seem more indicative of planning and design than simply raw passion.
Conditt made pipe bombs, which are one of the more common devices used by bombers, according to the ATF. They can be built relatively easily with simple materials. The Austin bomber probably studied the actions of the spree or serial bombers that came before him to devise his method.
He ultimately detonated a bomb in his car when a SWAT team attempted to arrest him, electing to commit suicide before allowing himself to be captured and exposed to society. But if the motives of those previous bombers are any indication, what we would have found had he been exposed was unlikely to be an evil genius. Bombers have tended to be emotionally and socially challenged individuals who appear to want to punish society for perceived injustices against them. Examples of such are:
The original "Mad Bomber," George Metesky, terrorized New York for almost two decades, planting at least 33 bombs (many times concealed in a distinctive red sock) across that city, injuring 15 people. His motive: anger with his former employer concerning a workplace injury he had sustained years before.
Ted Kaczynski, a Harvard-educated former professor was the notorious "Unabomber," built pipe bombs in the privacy of his remote Montana cabin, sending 16 bombs that killed three and injured 23 over an 18-year period. When he was captured, he had a completed bomb under his bed, bomb-making components, and his own "hit list" of potential future victims in his cabin. His motive: a hatred of modern society—especially its reliance on technology—and, possibly, revenge. He expressed no remorse.
Eric Rudolph, the so-called Olympic Park Bomber, used at least four different bombs to kill two and injure 120 people. Motive: Rudolph, a loner like Metesky and Kaczynski before him, was anti-government, anti-gay, anti-abortion, and had a general dislike for those around him. He, too, failed to express any remorse or regret for his actions.
Mark Conditt, the suspected "Austin Bomber," who used the alias Kelly Killmore as the sender of his FedEx package bombs, like those bombers before him, also failed to express guilt or remorse. His parents said they were unaware of the "darkness" their son was in. A friend of his described him to the Los Angeles Times as smart, "intense," "straitlaced," lonely, and angry, and suggested: "It's in the dark that people start getting angry and sad and eventually go off the deep end."
Some of Conditt's early victims were black or Hispanic, which led to speculation that his bombings were hate crimes—but later victims were white, and police said his confession video didn't indicate he was motivated by racism. He also did not call himself a terrorist, a definition with which many struggle today. He hasn't yet been proven to have a clear religious or political motive.
My knowledge of such offenders suggested that the Austin bomber was someone more youthful than those that came before him. The hurried frequency between events suggested he would soon make a mistake that would help identify him, while the lack of any known political or religious motive, as well as the identities of his victims, suggested this was more of a personal crime, likely committed by someone with mental-health challenges and long-held anger against society in general, as represented by the general makeup of his victims.
Did he have some unique insight into his own psyche? He labeled himself in his left-behind video as a "psychopath." He said he had been disturbed since childhood. He can't be diagnosed now, of course, but his "video confession," said the Austin police chief, was "the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his personal life that led him to this point."
Should the Austin bomber's self-analysis as a psychopath (traditionally defined as a personality disorder) be correct, an investigation may find that he exhibited associated traits, like lack of empathy, impaired remorse, antisocial behavior, and perhaps other egotistical traits as well as his now-on-the-record violent social behavior.
Fortunately, spree or serial bombers are rare in this country. Unfortunately, we continue in our struggle to understand the "why" in cases like this. As we attempt our psychological autopsy of the recent bomber, we look for simple answers to explain otherwise complicated behavior. History tells us that many of these acts are committed by challenged individuals who see violence as their own form of conflict resolution. Unfortunately, the more of these types of crimes that are committed, the more examples (and the more inspiration) there are for similarly challenged individuals who end up choosing violence as their ultimate means of expression.
Posted: 30 Mar 2018 08:39 AM PDT
On Thursday, Buzzfeed published a controversial internal Facebook memo titled "The Ugly." It features Facebook Vice President Andrew Bosworth's 2016 reflections on the company's aggressive efforts to connect people—and their fraught implications.
So far, Facebook is standing by its VP, who said this about his intentions on Twitter: "I don't agree with the post today and I didn't agree with it even when I wrote it. The purpose of this post, like many others I have written internally, was to bring to the surface issues I felt deserved more discussion with the broader company."
That seems consistent with the intentionally provocative way that the memo was phrased.
He adds, "That's why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it."
Many insiders will view this as a PR disaster. After all, it's inspiring headlines like this:
A prominent leader in the company admits that its growth team used "questionable" tactics to increase the number of users, and expresses the belief that the platform's work is justified even if it leads to a suicide or even a terrorist attack.
What's more, he reasons that the incentives of their industry itself inescapably push Facebook and its competitors to aggressively "push the envelope" on user growth:
If there are Facebook users who've never pondered the matters raised in this memo, its contents should cause them to take a dimmer view of the company than before. Facebook deserves criticism for its dubious growth tactics. And the incentives of its industry will lead to future abuses, absent consumer backlash or regulation.
Still, I think Facebook insiders and outside critics alike should be celebrating Andrew Bosworth, and that everyone with longstanding concerns about the matters that he addressed ought to feel marginally better about Facebook than before.
New technologies are inescapably fraught. The invention of the printing press helped to touch off decades of brutal sectarian war among Christians. Early innovators of flight were appalled when their inventions were used to drop bombs on civilians. Radio broadcasts were integral to Nazi success in taking over pre-World War II Europe. The Drudge Report needlessly raises the blood pressure of aging Boomers daily.
It would be terrifying if Facebook's leadership was so ensconced in naive bromides about the goodness of connecting people as to be blind to its obvious dark sides. And it would be much to their discredit if they understood all that could go wrong and their potential complicity in it, but allowed employees of the company to evade grappling with tough questions by avoiding circulating their doubts internally.
A bracing memo that forced employees to grapple with the reality of Facebook's growth strategy, its business model, and their implications was beneficial. Writing it so provocatively as to guarantee introspective debate made it more beneficial. I suspect the United States would benefit mightily if a senior leader at every major corporation attempted to lay bare the most powerful incentives shaping their enterprise and the most damaging possible consequences of their behavior—and that reactions like that of The Drudge Report disincentivizes such introspection.
Much better is the writeup by Casey Newman at The Verge:
Hopefully that reckoning will continue.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Buzzfeed: "Boz is a talented leader who says many provocative things. This was one that most people at Facebook including myself disagreed with strongly. We've never believed the ends justify the means … We recognize that connecting people isn't enough by itself. We also need to work to bring people closer together. We changed our whole mission and company focus to reflect this last year."
It is reassuring to see the memo's author described as a talented leader even now, though disappointing if understandable that Zuckerberg reverts to naive Facebook booster mode, as if its success in bringing people closer together would erase the platform's downsides. The problems that new communication technologies pose to societies that encounter them are more complicated than that.
For instance, Martin Luther's theses might have led to less warring had printing press owners tried harder to "bring people closer together." But new communications technologies can bring majority groups closer together in a manner that harms minority groups. Nazi Germany's propaganda succeeded in building more internal support for its regime than the Weimar Republic had enjoyed. But radio brought its ethnic majority closer together precisely by rallying them against German Jews and occupants of neighboring countries.
And global platforms like Facebook have varied effects in different societies. How will tweaks to the platform designed to "bring people together" in the U.S. play out in nations presently riven by internal strife or ethnic tensions, such as Haiti, or the Balkans, or Rwanda, or Poland, or Lebanon?
The only realistic answer is unpredictably.
There is no better alternative but for Facebook to do its best to do no harm. The social-media genie can't be put back in the bottle any more than can any previous means of mass communication, even if the company were to pull the plug on its platform.
Still, the fact is that Facebook could be used somewhere to help facilitate something as serious as a genocide, even if its leaders are working earnestly to bring people together.
That risk is Mark Zuckerberg's ongoing, inescapable burden.
Insofar as he understands the risk of fundamentally changing the way that billions of people in scores of different countries communicate, he is likelier to take all prudent, available precautions against worst-case scenarios. So while Bosworth may be distancing himself from his own memo, I hope he writes a lot more like it. Pondering "the ugly" isn't sufficient to avoid doing harm. But it is necessary.
Posted: 30 Mar 2018 06:49 AM PDT
You know the drill by now: A runaway trolley is careening down a track. There are five workers ahead, sure to be killed if the trolley reaches them. You can throw a lever to switch the trolley to a neighboring track, but there's a worker on that one as well who would likewise be doomed. Do you hit the switch and kill one person, or do nothing and kill five?
That's the most famous version of the trolley problem, a philosophical thought experiment popularized in the 1970s. There are other variants; the next most famous asks if you'd push a fat man off a bridge to stop the trolley rather than killing even one of the supposedly slim workers. In addition to its primary role as a philosophical exercise, the trolley problem has been used a tool in psychology—and more recently, it has become the standard for asking moral questions about self-driving cars.
Should an autonomous car endanger a driver over a pedestrian? What about an elderly person over a child? If the car can access information about nearby drivers it might collide with, should it use that data to make a decision? The trolley problem has become so popular in autonomous-vehicle circles, in fact, that MIT engineers have built a crowdsourced version of it, called Moral Machine, which purports to catalog human opinion on how future robotic apparatuses should respond in various conditions.
But there's a problem with the trolley problem. It does a remarkably bad job addressing the moral conditions of robot cars, ships, or workers, the domains to which it is most popularly applied today. Deploying it for those ends, especially as a source of answers or guidance for engineering or policy, leads to incomplete and dangerous conclusions about the ethics of machines.
The philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson coined "trolley problem" in 1976, but another philosopher, Philippa Foot, first posed the scenario in a 1967 paper about the difference between what people intend and what they can foresee. Foot considers abortion as an example. A surgeon who performs a hysterectomy on a pregnant woman intends to extract the uterus, but foresees the baby's resulting death. Meanwhile, a doctor who terminates a fetus to save a mother's life directly intends the infant's end. Similar cases suggest different moral conclusions.
Foot poses many related scenarios, one of which is the now-famous tram operator. Another imagines a mob that threatens revenge if a judge doesn't execute an innocent person. The second seems like the trolley problem at first—a choice between more or fewer deaths. But most people who would urge the trolley operator to imperil just one worker would also be appalled at framing the innocent man, Foot writes.
She concludes that there is a difference between what one does and what one allows. In particular, writes Foot, "the distinction between avoiding injury and bringing aid is very important indeed."
Foot's short paper offers the contemporary reader a more nuanced approach to thinking about the moral scenarios involving autonomous vehicles than does the singular tram example, which became known as the trolley problem. In part, that's because Foot follows a tradition known as virtue ethics, after Aristotle. For virtue ethicists, the quality of an individual's moral character and life is most important.
But the exercise of virtue does not drive most autonomous-car debates. Instead, a concern for the eventual outcome of a whole robocar society is of greatest concern. In moral philosophy, this approach, distinct from virtue ethics, is called consequentialism. Consequentialists—including utilitarians, the most famous kind—are concerned with the outcomes and consequences of actions first and foremost.
The utilitarian mindset is very deeply ingrained into the rhetoric of self-driving cars, even before its advocates start making decisions about whom to run down in the event of a calamity. One common rationale for autonomous vehicles is the massive increase in safety they could provide. More than 37,000 people were killed in car crashes in America in 2016. Since more than 94 percent of crashes are caused by driver error, replacing fallible humans with reliable machines seems like an obvious net benefit for society.
The problem is, focusing on outcomes risks blinding people to the virtues and vices of the robocar rollout. Just as Foot's trolley-and-workers scenario is morally different from her judge-and-rioters example, so it is that autonomous outcomes with the same human costs might entail quite different moral, legal, and civic consequences.
Recently, an autonomous Uber in Tempe, Arizona, struck and killed 49-year-old Elaine Hertzberg, a pedestrian walking a bicycle across a road. After I wrote about the possible legal implications of the collision, some readers responded with utilitarian sneers. After all, 5,376 pedestrians were killed by cars in the United States in 2015, and news outlets don't tend to cover each of those as if they are special cases. Soon enough, autonomous cars could reduce or eliminate pedestrian deaths. If you put this idea in trolley-problem terms, the tracks would represent time rather than space. One death is still a tragedy, but if it means making progress toward the prevention of thousands, then perhaps it is justified.
The problem is, that position assumes that Hertzberg's death is identical to any of the unfortunate thousands killed by conventional vehicles. Statistically that might be true, but morally, it isn't necessarily so.
In the future, if they operate effectively, autonomous cars (not to mention front-collision warning systems in traditional cars) are likely to prevent accidents like the Tempe collision with far greater success. Sensors and computers, which can respond to their surroundings better than people, are supposed to perform more effectively than human response and reason can. As details of the Uber collision have trickled in, some experts have concluded that the collision should have been avoided. Furthermore, Uber's cars appear to have fallen short of a company goal of 13 miles of autonomous behavior per human intervention as of March, when the crash occurred. Meanwhile, Google's sister company Waymo claims that its cars can go an average of 5,600 miles without needing a human to take the reins.
On Arizona's roads today, then, the difference between a Waymo autonomous vehicle and an Uber one might be more important than the difference between a human-operated and a computer-operated vehicle. But in order to lure self-driving car research, testing, and employment to the state, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey allowed all such vehicles to share the roads without significant regulatory oversight.
None of these conditions are addressed by pondering a trolley-problem scenario. To ask if the Uber should have struck Hertzberg or swerved off the shoulder (putting the operator at risk to avoid the pedestrian collision) presumes that the Uber vehicle can see the pedestrian in the first place and respond accordingly. It assumes that that ability is reliable and guaranteed—the equivalent of a mechanical act like throwing a lever to switch a trolley's tracks. This context, missing from the trolly-problem scenario, turned out to be the most important aspect of the outcome in Tempe, both in terms of consequences and morality.
Foot already anticipates the missing context of her cases, even before the tram example became the trolley problem. "In real life," she writes, "it would hardly ever be certain that the man on the narrow track would be killed. Perhaps he might find a foothold on the side ... and cling on as the vehicle hurtled by." One solution to this infinity of possibilities is just to run an infinity of trolley problems, gleaning patterns from the public response to them. That's the Moral Machine's approach, one that matches the way machine-learning systems work best: with a large data set. But another approach would involve considering specific problems in the most appropriate moral context.
As it happens, Foot offers a different example that shares more in common with what actually transpired in Tempe than the trolley does. Imagine five patients in a hospital. Their lives could be saved by being administered a certain gas, but the use of it releases lethal fumes into the room of another patient, who cannot be moved. In this case, the calculus of effect is identical to the classic trolley problem, and yet, to many the conclusion is not nearly so obvious. That's just because of a difference between intended and foreseeable effect, but also because the moral desire to avoid causing injury operates differently.
In the trolley problem, the driver is faced with a conflict between two similar harms, neither of which he or she chooses. But in the hospital-gas example, the doctor is faced with a conflict between delivering aid and causing harm. In truth, Uber's situation is even more knotted, because none of the parties involved seemed to possess sufficient knowledge of the vehicle's current (not future) capacity for doing harm—not the company that makes the car, the driver who operates it, or the government that regulates it. That makes the moral context for the Uber crash less about the future of vehicular casualty, and more about the present state of governmental regulation, corporate disclosure, and transportation policy. But those topics are far less appealing to think about than a runaway trolley is.
If it's a precedent in moral philosophy that technologists, citizens, and policy makers really want, they might do better to look at Uber's catastrophe as an example of moral luck, an idea proposed by the philosopher Thomas Nagel. Here's a classic example: An intoxicated man gets in his car to drive home at night. Though drunk, he reaches his destination without incident. Now consider a man in the same circumstances, but while driving he strikes and kills a child who crosses the road unexpectedly. It seems natural to hold the latter man more blameworthy than the former, but both took the same voluntary actions. The only difference was the outcome.
Seen in this light, the Uber fatality does not represent the value-neutral, or even the righteous, sacrifice of a single pedestrian in the interest of securing the likely safety of pedestrians in a hypothetical future of effective, universally deployed robocars. Instead, it highlights the fact that positive outcomes—safer cars, safer pedestrians, and so on—might just as easily be functions of robocars' moral luck in not having committed a blameworthy act. Until now, of course.
Moral luck opens other avenues of deliberation for robocars, too. In the case of self-driving cars, voluntary action is harder to pin down. Did the Uber driver know and understand all the consequences of their actions? Is it reasonable to assume that a human driver can intervene in the operation of a machine he or she is watching, and not actively operating? Is Uber blameworthy even though the State of Arizona expressly invited experimental, autonomous-car testing on real roads traversed by its citizenry? All of these questions are being asked now, in Arizona and elsewhere. But that's cold comfort for Elaine Hertzberg.
The point of all this isn't to lay blame or praise on particular actors in the recent Uber pedestrian collision. Nor is it to celebrate or lament the future of autonomous vehicles. Rather, it is to show that much greater moral sophistication is required to address and respond to autonomous vehicles, now and in the future.
Ethics isn't a matter of applying a simple calculus to any situation—nor of applying an aggregate set of human opinions about a model case to apparent instances of that model. Indeed, to take those positions is to assume the utilitarian conclusion from the start. When engineers, critics, journalists, or ordinary people adopt the trolley problem as a satisfactory (or even just a convenient) way to think about autonomous-vehicle scenarios, they are refusing to consider the more complex moral situations in which these apparatuses operate.
For philosophers, thought experiments offer a way to consider unknown outcomes or to reconsider accepted ides. But they are just tools for thought, not recipes for ready-made action. In particular, the seductive popularity of the trolley problem has allowed people to misconstrue autonomous cars as a technology that is already present, reliable, and homogeneous—such that abstract questions about their hypothetical moral behavior can be posed, and even answered. But that scenario is years away, if it ever comes to pass. In the meantime, citizens, governments, automakers, and technology companies must ask harder, more complex questions about the moral consequences of robocars today, and tomorrow. It's time to put the brakes on the trolley before it runs everyone down.
|You are subscribed to email updates from The Atlantic. |
To stop receiving these emails, you may unsubscribe now.
|Email delivery powered by Google|
|Google, 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View, CA 94043, United States|