- Historical Fiction at the Supreme Court
- What Kamala Harris Could Teach Us All About Busing
- The Coming Reset in the U.S.-Saudi Alliance
- The Normalization of Meeting Kim Jong Un
- Suicide Isn't Just a Personal Issue
- Imagining Post-Trump Nationalism
- Teens Are Probably Drinking Too Much Caffeine
Posted: 01 Jul 2019 04:11 AM PDT
A divided Supreme Court last week blocked Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross from adding an untested citizenship question to the 2020 Census. The Court's ruling is a victory for representative democracy over the Trump administration's latest powerplay, which would have led to a dramatic undercount of the country's non-citizen population, with substantial implications for federal funding and political representation. In the process of reaching the right outcome, however, the Court has rewritten history, with justices up and down the bench joining together to create an atmosphere of normalcy around a question that is anything but.
Coming into the Supreme Court after a series of decisive trial-court defeats, the Trump administration really only had two defenses for the citizenship question: first, that it would help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act on behalf of minority communities; and second, that the administration was simply "reinstating" a question that had a deep "pedigree" stretching back "nearly 200 years."
The Court rejected the Voting Rights Act defense as a pretext. That was all the challengers needed legally, since the law governing federal agency decision-making requires the stated reason for the agency's action to be the real reason. But the Court accepted much of the administration's historical argument—which is wrong, as we explained in a law review article based on research into centuries-old census instructions, mid-century statistical texts, and decades of congressional proceedings.
Most significant, Chief Justice Roberts's majority opinion and the partial concurrences are littered with assertions that the Trump administration was trying to "reinstate" the citizenship question. Even justices who were otherwise skeptical of the administration's scheme and seemed to have a better grip on the historical record—Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor—referred repeatedly to "reinstatement." That word obscures the nature of what the administration was trying to do.
Never in the 230-year history of the census has the complete-count questionnaire (or its equivalent) asked for the citizenship status of everyone in the country, as Ross proposed. When citizenship was asked at all, it was directed to small segments of the population, such as foreign-born men 21 or older (1890-1910) or foreign-born people (1930-1950), mainly to figure out how well they were assimilating into the United States. After the 1950 Census, questions about citizenship or naturalization were confined to sample surveys that went to only a small percentage of households.
The Court acknowledged the change in census practice after 1950, but it mangled the details of the practice leading up to that point, incorrectly treating questions about "birthplace" and "citizenship" as equivalent and asserting that "between 1820 and 1950, the question was asked of all households." The fact is that multiple censuses during that period had no citizenship question (1840, 1850, 1860, and 1880), and—as mentioned—those that did include one did not direct it at every person in the household. These various errors allowed the Court to ignore the ultimate conclusion it should have drawn from the history: The Trump administration's gambit was unprecedented, not a return to form.
The majority opinion also soft peddled the Census Bureau's decision to remove all citizenship and naturalization questions from the decennial census following the 1950 count. It is true, as the Court claims, that the Bureau concluded that citizenship information had declined in importance to the government, researchers, and other users of census data by this time. But the Bureau didn't just get rid of questions that were unimportant—it overhauled its whole approach because traditional practices were deficient in accomplishing the one thing the Constitution's Enumeration Clause requires the government to do: count everyone in the country.
Traditionally, the federal government tried to do two things at once with the census: count all heads and collect other useful information. By 1950s, the Census Bureau's social science skills had evolved sufficiently that it could evaluate how well it was doing its job, and it found that the second ambition was impeding the first; the count was missing millions while wasting resources. So the Bureau stripped out extraneous questions from the main survey, including dozens of other "demographic questions," as the Court called them. Census Director Robert W. Burgess explained the benefits of these changes to Congress in the lead up to the 1960 census: "For a long time the Census Bureau has believed that enumerators were being burdened with more instructions and work than they could effectively handle, with the result that both coverage and content suffered."
The majority similarly understated the Census Bureau's resistance to proposals in the 1970s and 1980s that would have required it to assess everyone's citizenship status. According to the Court, the Bureau was concerned that such efforts "would discourage noncitizens from responding to the census," because, in the words of a 1980 court opinion characterizing the Bureau's position, those efforts would "inevitably jeopardize the overall accuracy of the population count." During this period, Census Bureau Director Vincent Barabba warned that the "census is just not designed for" asking for everyone's citizenship status, and that doing so would erode "the credibility of the Bureau, and, more importantly, the credibility and public confidence in—and, indeed, the accuracy of—the figures embodied in the final census results." Similarly, the Bureau warned—in language from the 1980 case omitted by the Court—that "[q]uestions as to citizenship are particularly sensitive in minority communities and would inevitably trigger hostility, resentment, and refusal to cooperate." The concern during this period, then, wasn't some unspecified loss of accuracy due to "discouragement"; it was a full collapse of the census and everything it stands for, driven by widespread fear of, and anger toward, the government.
In his partial concurrence, Breyer supplied some of this crucial context, but a majority made up of Roberts and Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh overlooked it in ruling that the administration's decision didn't violate the Constitution's Enumeration Clause. They asserted that citizenship questions have been "open, widespread, and unchallenged since the early days of the Republic." This is preposterous. If "history matters"—as the conservative majority asserts—it must matter that Ross proposed to do something that has, in fact, never been done before. And it must matter that, for the past 70 years, the Census Bureau—the agency primarily charged with counting everyone—believed that citizenship questions and a whole host of other demographic questions didn't belong on the decennial headcount because they made it impossible to… count everyone. The Court thus sent the message that a citizenship question on the decennial census would be normal. The Court blocked the question because Ross lied about why he wanted it; but if he hadn't lied, it would have been fine.
For more than a year now, the simple prospect of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census has elevated vulnerable communities' fears of the federal government. The Supreme Court's ruling should help mitigate those fears somewhat. But the Court could have and should have taken a far stronger posture than it did, ruling not that the citizenship question was administratively imperfect, but that it was unconstitutional and un-American.
Posted: 01 Jul 2019 04:48 AM PDT
During the second Democratic presidential debate, Senator Kamala Harris of California challenged former Vice President Joe Biden regarding a topic that has received little attention in recent presidential elections: school desegregation. Harris described Biden's recent remarks in which he fondly recalled his "civil" working relationships with segregationist senators such as James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman E. Talmadge of Georgia as "hurtful." "It was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing," Harris continued. "And you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me."
By invoking her own story, Harris highlighted a generational gap between people who lived through school desegregation as students and those, like Biden, for whom the feelings and opinions of white parents and constituents are paramount. As scholars such as Amy Stuart Wells and Rucker Johnson have shown, the generation of students who experienced school desegregation firsthand in the 1970s and 1980s benefited greatly. In public-policy debates and popular memory, though, the perspectives of students have been overshadowed by those of antibusing parents and politicians. As a result, the successes of school desegregation have been drowned out by a chorus of voices insisting busing was an inconvenient, unfair, and failed experiment.
When Harris boarded a school bus in the fall of 1969 to attend Thousand Oaks Elementary School in an affluent part of North Berkeley, busing was already a hot-button political issue. The controversy was driven by white opposition to school desegregation, not by the use of school buses. Students in the United States had long ridden buses to school. Buses made the modern public-school system possible, enabling multigrade elementary schools and comprehensive high schools to replace one-room schools. Buses had long been used in the South—as well as in New York, Boston, and many other northern cities—to maintain segregation. This form of transportation was not controversial for white parents. Put more starkly, school buses were fine for the majority of white families; busing was not.
White parents in New York City organized in the late1950s to oppose plans to bus black and Puerto Rican students from overcrowded schools to white schools with open seats. The parents used euphemisms such as busing and neighborhood schools to maintain segregated schools without explicitly saying they did not want their children to go to school with black or Latinx students. Similar antibusing protests occurred in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and other cities in the 1960s.
Northern congressmen responded to the anger expressed by many of their white constituents by writing antibusing provisions into the 1964 Civil Rights Act. These amendments were designed to keep federal civil-rights enforcement of school desegregation focused on the South and away from the North. While the Civil Rights Act finally pushed to the South to comply with Brown v. Board of Education by enabling the withholding of federal funds, cities in the North, Midwest, and West routinely flouted federal authority.
Antibusing rhetoric spiked in 1972, the year Joe Biden was elected to the U.S. Senate. White protesters such as Irene McCabe of Pontiac, Michigan, received massive amounts of media attention for their defiance of court-ordered school desegregation. President Richard Nixon called for Congress to pass a busing moratorium and used televised presidential addresses to signal that he would limit federal oversight to unconstitutional de jure segregation, most commonly associated with the Southset the terms of the busing debate. Nixon also warned his appointees and the lawyers and officials who worked in the Justice Department and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare that they could either support the administration's evolving school-desegregation policies or lose their jobs. When Biden came to the Senate and began introducing his own antibusing amendments, he was building on more than 15 years of white parents and politicians using busing as a code word to oppose school desegregation.
Berkeley was able to craft a successful school-desegregation plan in this context because of strong local leadership and a sense of civic purpose. Starting in the 1950s, local civil-rights activists pushed the school board to address the overcrowded and unequal schools black students attended. They successfully elected several pro-integration members to the school board, which subsequently established a citizens' committee to study segregation, implemented a plan to desegregate the city's junior high schools, and tested a pilot busing program. As in other cities, these steps were controversial in Berkeley. A citizens' group, the Parents Association for Neighborhood Schools, led an unsuccessful effort to recall the school board in 1964. Public debates and PTA meetings remained heated for the next several years.
Berkeley's school superintendent, Neil Sullivan, was also a vocal supporter of school desegregation. Sullivan took the Berkeley job in 1964, after successfully opening free schools in Prince Edward County, Maryland, which had closed its public schools to avoid court-ordered desegregation, leaving black students without public education for four years.
Sullivan understood the importance of making a strong case for school integration. In his fall 1967 report to the school board, Integration: A Plan for Berkeley, he wrote, "school districts cannot now escape the moral obligation to attack this problem … The solution to the problem of segregation is not simple. But the Berkeley Unified School District does not shy away from difficult problems … In solving this problem, we will set an example for all the cities of America." In January 1968, the school board voted unanimously to desegregate the city's 14 elementary schools, and Sullivan's plan was distributed to parents and community members to foster support for integration. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that, upon learning about Berkeley's bold integration plan, "hope returned to my soul and spirit."
Berkeley's elementary school desegregation plan started in September 1968, with over one-third of the district's 9,000 students riding buses. Unlike many cities that placed the burden of busing on black students, Berkeley implemented a two-way busing plan that involved black, white, Asian American, and Mexican American students. The plan quickly changed the racial demographics of the city's schools. Thousand Oaks Elementary was 95 percent white and 3 percent black in 1963. When Harris started kindergarten in 1969, the Thousand Oaks was 53 percent white and 40 percent black, and in no elementary school in Berkeley did any racial group comprise more than 60 percent of the students.
The Berkeley plan garnered national attention as a model for school desegregation. "Some Berkeley residents thought the roof was going to cave in when the city completely integrated its schools last fall," The Los Angeles Times reported in July 1969. "Such has not been the case. After a full school year of operation, the 'Berkeley Plan' offers reassurance that mixing children racially in schools can work."
The Berkeley school board has adapted its plan over the last five decades to respond to the changing racial demographics of the city. In 2004, the board adopted an approach that divides the city into over 400 micro-neighborhoods and asks all families to submit their school choices. Student placements take both school diversity and family preferences into account, without looking at the race or ethnicity of any individual student. Berkeley's innovative approach received renewed attention after the U.S. Supreme Court, in the 2007 case of Parents Involved v. Seattle, ruled against using race as a factor in voluntary school-desegregation plans in Louisville and Seattle. (Like Berkeley, Louisville has found creative ways to maintain diverse schools despite the court's ruling). The scholars Lisa Chavez and Erica Frankenberg argued in 2009 that "the Berkeley plan is a proven success that has been very well received by the courts."
The lesson of the Berkeley plan is that successful school-desegregation efforts require leaders to articulate clearly why integrated education is a civic good, to navigate the inevitable resistance from some parents, and to adapt plans to changing political and demographic realities. No desegregation plan is ever perfect, but innovative efforts that are given the time, resources, and support they need to succeed can make real and lasting impacts on students.
While antibusing politicians and parents dominated public discourse nationally, school officials and parents in Berkeley focused on how school buses could help enable a comprehensive desegregation plan to improve educational opportunities for students of color and low-income students. If school desegregation remains a topic of debate during the primary season, all of the candidates would benefit from studying the Berkeley plan, rather than rehashing debates over busing.
Posted: 01 Jul 2019 03:00 AM PDT
An effort is under way in Washington to fundamentally overhaul, if not end, a decades-old American alliance—but it didn't come at the direction of the alliance-skeptical Donald Trump. The president, in fact, has paradoxically emerged as the greatest force of resistance to the change.
Fed up with the catastrophic human cost of Saudi Arabia's military intervention in Yemen's civil war and appalled by the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Congress seemingly attempts some sort of measure to censure the kingdom every week. Yet at every turn, the White House has blocked or circumvented those moves, standing staunchly by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS, while escalating its confrontation with his archenemy, Iran.
The real reckoning in the U.S.-Saudi partnership could come if a Democrat is elected president in 2020, though early warning signs are already visible. Virtually all Democratic lawmakers, along with several Republican members of Congress and various lobbyists, analysts, and former officials, are shunning the Saudis to the point where a visit to Washington, D.C., by MbS, the heir apparent who was welcomed in 2017 and 2018, seems inconceivable anytime soon.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz met aboard the USS Murphy in 1945, neither could have foreseen the cracks that would form in a relationship built on mutual benefit: a steady supply of Saudi oil in exchange for U.S. military protection.
But even the fallout from the September 11 attacks—in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi—did not present the kind of existential challenge evident today. U.S. lawmakers are engaged in numerous efforts to restrict arms sales to the kingdom and hold MbS, along with other top officials, accountable for Khashoggi's death.
For now, the Saudis are banking on the Trump administration's allegiance. Yet they acknowledge, or at the very least pay lip service to, their precarious position.
"We in [Saudi Arabia] recognize that the relationship has come under strain recently, but we are working hard on restoring it to what it once was. We realize it's going to take some time, but we see it as a marathon not a sprint," a senior Saudi official wrote to us recently on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue. That's far from the mea culpa U.S. lawmakers are demanding.
In May, the administration invoked emergency powers to bypass Congress and sell billions of dollars worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, a show of support that nevertheless reflected the administration's awareness that it would not have been able to get lawmakers to approve the arms sales. The Senate responded by passing several measures to try to prevent the sales—moves remarkable not just for their bipartisan backing, but also for the fact that they came amid heightened tensions with Iran, which Trump cited as grounds for the emergency transactions.
In April, Trump vetoed a resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military intervention against the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen. He had to take that step because seven Republicans in the Senate and 16 in the House of Representatives had joined nearly every Democrat in both chambers to support the legislation.
Trump, whose first trip abroad as president was to Saudi Arabia, has championed the alliance in part because his administration and the Saudi government are both alarmed by Iran's suspected nuclear-weapons pursuits and support for militant groups in the Middle East. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo focused only on the threats posed by Iran during meetings with the Saudi king and crown prince in Riyadh last week. And while Trump said he raised Khashoggi's killing with MbS at the G20 summit in Japan, he would not be drawn on the CIA's intelligence that reportedly concluded with high confidence that the crown prince ordered the journalist's murder.
But Trump's motivations for dismissing concerns about the war in Yemen and Khashoggi's assassination range from the close personal relationship between MbS and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to Riyadh's plentiful purchases of U.S.-made weapons, which the president argues create American jobs. "You have people wanting to cut off Saudi Arabia. They bought $450 billion" worth of military equipment, Trump declared at a recent campaign rally, greatly inflating the actual figures. "I don't want to lose them!"
Most Americans, of course, have had negative views of Saudi Arabia since the 9/11 attacks; two-thirds of the public currently view the kingdom unfavorably, Gallup's highest reading in its three decades of polling on the question.
The big development now is that there's also serious ferment in the nation's capital, where Saudi Arabia by one estimate poured more than $40 million into lobbying Congress, the executive branch, think tanks, and media outlets in 2017 and 2018 alone—tripling its spending on influence operations from the last year of Barack Obama's administration to the first year of the Trump administration. All the Saudis have to show for that money, though, is a rock-solid friend in the White House and an open revolt on Capitol Hill.
"The Saudis used to have really strong bipartisan support in Washington," Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a Democrat and longtime critic of Riyadh, told us. Now "they are clinging to this alliance simply through the force of the regime's relationship with one person: Donald Trump."
"Maybe we have a hard time forcing a reset while Trump is in office," added Murphy, who has sponsored numerous bills to rein in the security relationship with the Saudis. "But a reset's coming."
Republican and Democratic presidents alike have been forced to mostly give Saudi Arabia a free pass on rights abuses and political repression, given the extent to which Washington relies on Riyadh as a stable geopolitical weight in the Middle East.
But several 2020 candidates have made their displeasure clear. Joe Biden, the current front-runner among Democrats vying for the White House, wants out of the war in Yemen and once likened the U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia to America siding with a "no-good SOB" like Joseph Stalin during World War II. Cory Booker has called for the United States to "reexamine [the] entire relationship" with Riyadh. Elizabeth Warren has slammed Trump for appeasing U.S. defense contractors by not halting the flow of weapons to Saudi Arabia.
Pete Buttigieg, in a national-security speech last month, said that on his watch the United States would "remain open" to working with Riyadh for the American people's benefit. "But," he added, "we can no longer sell out our deepest values for the sake of fossil-fuel access and lucrative business deals."
And Bernie Sanders has referred to MbS as a "murderous despot," included Saudi Arabia in an "axis" of authoritarian powers that he claims Trump is emboldening, and inserted Saudi lobbying in Washington into his signature issue of wealthy special interests corrupting government policy making. Sanders, the sponsor of one of the Senate's Yemen resolutions, questions "whether the basic bargain that was made between FDR and the Saudi king back in 1945," of "security for oil," still holds, says his foreign-policy adviser, Matt Duss.
Nonetheless, it's "not necessarily productive" to "flip over the table on the U.S.-Saudi relationship" at the outset of a new administration, Duss adds, noting that Sanders recognizes that elements of the relationship, such as intelligence sharing, remain important and that the stability of oil markets has an impact on the U.S. economy.
Asked how worried the Saudis are about the future of the alliance should a Democrat be elected in 2020, the senior Saudi official said that the relationship is "institutional," and that Democratic and Republican presidential candidates tend to change their campaign position on Saudi Arabia once they're in office and understand "our economic cooperation, coordination of oil policies, and our partnership in countering terrorism" and Iran.
This time, however, campaign broadsides may not give way to business as usual. United Nations and U.S. assessments have implicated the crown prince himself in the murder of Khashoggi—who was a U.S. permanent resident—constituting a brazen betrayal of the alliance, "the equivalent of a spouse cheating in the marriage," says Representative Ro Khanna of California, a Democrat and leading proponent in the House of ending U.S. military involvement in Yemen. "The marriage may recover and survive, but it will never be the same." The Saudis are "not going to be an enemy" of the United States, he adds, "but I certainly think [they] have lost their status as an ally."
The Khashoggi killing has not just angered members of Congress, but also prompted some lobbying firms and think tanks to reject Saudi funding. Saudi leaders recognize that the damage done to relations with the United States by the incident "is worse than 9/11" in terms of the toll taken on the alliance, says Firas Maksad of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank familiar with Saudi officials' thinking, who met with Saudi officials during a visit to Riyadh in March. (Riyadh denies the crown prince's role in Khashoggi's killing. The senior Saudi official highlighted the government's efforts to bring those behind Khashoggi's murder to justice, but these steps haven't satisfied many U.S. lawmakers.)
While the Treasury and State Departments have sanctioned more than a dozen Saudi officials for their involvement in the Khashoggi killing, these actions also fall far short of the punitive measures against those in the highest ranks of the Saudi government that many in Congress are demanding.
The GOP rebellion is real, if limited. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump's top allies in the Senate, hasn't supported all anti-Saudi efforts in Congress, but he has nevertheless been extremely critical of MbS. Graham and other Republicans, such as Senator Todd Young of Indiana, have backed a sweeping bill that would mandate sanctions on any Saudi official found responsible for Khashoggi's murder and seek to restrain Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Most Republicans, however, are sticking with the kingdom as a bulwark against Iran.
Occasionally, however, the administration has succumbed to pressure from Congress. Last year it halted U.S. refueling of Saudi-coalition aircraft involved in the Yemen conflict. And, as Murphy pointed out to us, earlier this year Trump quietly signed a budget bill that prohibits assistance to Saudi Arabia through a military-training program. That assistance had qualified the Saudis for discounts on purchases of additional U.S. military training.
"There are limits to what Congress can do when it comes to rightsizing a bilateral relationship," especially when only "a handful of Republicans" are willing to vote with Democrats, Murphy said. "We can set boundaries. But we can't do day-to-day management." These limits, though, might disappear if a Democrat succeeds Trump in the White House.
Saudi officials look at the chorus of criticism from American politicians and complain that the kingdom "is guilty by association in Washington because of having cultivated a close relationship with Donald Trump," and that it has become a "political football" between the president and his opponents, Maksad notes.
Duss, the Sanders adviser, acknowledges that the Democrat-led push to rein in the Saudis isn't just a policy dispute. "Trump, just by being Trump, has created a political incentive for questioning the relationship," he says. "But it's an opening to have a really important and long-overdue discussion. We started to have it after 9/11, then it kind of went nowhere."
Trump's approach is to "align with this growing Saudi, Emirati, Israeli, anti-Iran conception of the region, and [Sanders] is very much of a different view," Duss said, speaking with us in March before the spike in hostilities with Iran. "We have serious problems with a lot of what Iran is doing in the region, what they are doing with their own population, but the idea that we're going to achieve our own goals or stability in the region through conflict with Iran is bonkers." That conflict almost erupted last month, after Iran shot down a U.S. drone, but was averted—for now—when Trump called off planned strikes on Iranian targets.
The president's loyalty to Riyadh seems to stem in part from his desire to reverse the foreign policy of Obama, who was criticized for trying to reconcile with Iran at the expense of Saudi Arabia. Obama negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran and was deeply ambivalent about the alliance with Saudi Arabia, but he avoided upending the partnership—suggesting that he wouldn't have broken off relations with the Saudis were he still president under today's circumstances.
"The narrative that Obama was abandoning Saudi Arabia was kind of bullshit to begin with," Murphy observed. "He sold them more weapons than anybody else sold them, and he was willing to support this war in Yemen."
"I think it's really dangerous to be in business with Mohammed bin Salman. I think he's a reckless, destabilizing force in the Middle East," Murphy said, using language that Trump's camp often applies to Iran. "Saudi Arabia will remain an ally," he predicted, in regard to what policy toward the kingdom could look like in a Democratic administration. But "we will be more careful in the nature of the military relationship and less willing to follow them into battle," he added, advocating scaled-back arms sales that exclude offensive weapons.
Asked to respond to lawmakers who say they no longer want to work with MbS, the senior Saudi official said, "Our leadership is a red line, with all due respect to U.S. lawmakers, but the succession in the kingdom is strictly a domestic affair." The official added that "it is unimaginable to go in a different direction" now that King Salman has appointed the crown prince as his successor.
Democrats and other American critics of MbS need to acknowledge that the 33-year-old crown prince is firmly entrenched in power and will be the one dealing with any future U.S. president, Maksad argues. But the Saudis, for their part, have not launched "a concerted, thought-out strategic effort" to reach out to these detractors, particularly since the aftermath of the Khashoggi killing left the Saudi embassy in D.C. without an ambassador. (The new ambassador, Princess Reema bint Bandar, is set to start her post soon.)
There is some concern among Saudi watchers that the kingdom has staked too much on its personal relationship with Trump and that U.S. support for the alliance could crater if he's not reelected, Maksad says.
But the Saudis are reassured by the notion that as a behemoth in the oil markets, a strategic ally in the struggle against Iran, and an arbiter in the war of ideas in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia is too powerful a player to be overlooked, no matter who is in power in the United States. "Ultimately, the relationship is too important (for the world) to fail," the senior Saudi official wrote to us.
Asked what it would take for MbS and other Saudi leaders to be received more favorably in Washington, Murphy said they would need to act as the "instigator" for a peace agreement in Yemen rather than a "roadblock" and curb repression of political dissidents.
"Presidents come and go, but nations that have stable relationships and strong relationships with the United States" need to retain support in Congress, Khanna argues, citing U.S. alliances with Britain, France, India, and Israel as examples: "Why I would be so concerned if I were the Saudis is they've lost that foundational support."
Posted: 30 Jun 2019 08:23 AM PDT
It all started, as it often does these days, with a tweet from President Donald Trump: "I will be leaving Japan for South Korea (with President Moon). While there, if Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!" Thirty-two hours later, Trump shook hands with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, and became the first sitting American president to step into North Korea.
It wasn't always this way.
For decades, American or South Korean officials hoping to speak with North Korean officials have faced a drawn-out, frustrating process. There are telephones, for example, on either side of the Joint Security Area between North and South Korea, but the North Koreans would rarely pick up. So when United States and South Korean officials in the area needed to send a message to North Korea, they would place a call to their counterparts even though they knew it was a lost cause, walk up to the border and kindly request to no one in particular that they answer the phone, call again without success, and then return to the border, where this time they would encounter a few North Korean soldiers with a handheld camera to record the message as it was read aloud. This happened dozens of times a year. Quite recently. "It's very convoluted," one UN official admitted to me as I headed to the demilitarized zone in 2018.
Now the president of the United States simply tweets at Kim (who "follows" him on Twitter, naturally) that, hey, he's swinging through town and would love to meet up! And the next day, with the kind of spontaneity that was surely made possible by intensive staff work, the two men actually do, shaking hands in the Joint Security Area that for the past 66 years has embodied the unresolved hostilities of the Korean War.
The way things are going, Trump probably won't be the president who finally convinces the North Koreans to give up their nuclear weapons. Pyongyang's arsenal remains as formidable today as it was when Trump and Kim held their first summit one year ago, despite North Korea's suspension of nuclear and long-range missile tests. But that doesn't mean Trump has accomplished nothing. What Sunday's meeting in the demilitarized zone highlighted is that the president has shattered the American taboo of meeting with the head of the Kim regime and established a top-level channel of communication between decades-old enemies—to the point where such a dialogue doesn't only have ample precedent but is commonplace, even casual. For better or worse, it's a real legacy.
Crossing the Military Demarcation Line dividing the Koreas, Trump greeted Kim at the iconic row of blue conference buildings. As they huddled at the Freedom House on the southern side of the border, Trump and Kim paid tribute to their "excellent relations" and the "historic moment."
While Trump's diplomatic engagement with Kim has produced many firsts and many moments, it has yet to yield any real progress on the core issue of North Korea's nuclear-weapons program, including long-range missiles that are potentially capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the United States.
The president has conducted nuclear talks with Kim as though they were a reality-TV show, while often ignoring or distorting the grave underlying realities of the negotiations. Standing at Observation Point Ouellette along the DMZ on Sunday, he declared that "all of the danger went away" after his initial summit with Kim in Singapore, when nothing's changed in terms of North Korea's military capabilities. (The military tensions that threatened to devolve into another war on the Korean peninsula in 2017 have undoubtedly subsided, for now at least.)
Trump similarly stated at a press conference before his trip to the DMZ that Barack Obama was "begging for a meeting" with Kim but that the North Korean leader had refused his predecessor's requests. When I asked Ben Rhodes, one of Obama's top foreign-policy advisers, whether this was in fact the case, he responded, "No. Not at all. Never."
The most substantive outcome from the quickie summit appears to be breathing new life into working-level negotiations that had been dormant since February, when Trump and Kim's second summit in Vietnam collapsed over disputes on how to sequence denuclearization and sanctions relief. In seeking to revive the diplomacy, Trump redefined the purpose of presidential visits to the DMZ, which have always been about theatrics and photo ops but were traditionally intended to signal steely determination to a hostile North Korea. In the throes of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan proclaimed that he was standing at the front line between the free world and its antithesis. Bill Clinton threatened to "end" North Korea if it ever used nuclear weapons. George W. Bush came to the border shortly after he included North Korea in his "axis of evil," and Obama arrived as the United States sought to dissuade Pyongyang from launching a long-range rocket. Trump's own vice president, Mike Pence, deliberately walked outside during a visit to the Joint Security Area in 2017 because he wanted the North Koreans to "see our resolve in my face." This was not Trump's message on Sunday. "Stood on the soil of North Korea, an important statement for all, and a great honor!" he tweeted as he departed South Korea.
Earlier, after meeting with Kim, Trump said: "We are going to have teams, they are going to meet over the next weeks, they are going to start a process." Joseph Yun, who served as the North Korea envoy for Obama and Trump from 2016 to 2018, recently told me that he thinks this "process" might ultimately prove to be the "only thing Trump accomplished [on North Korea] in his first term."
The question is whether that process is sustainable, given that Kim has made clear that his preference is to deal only with the president rather than his more hard-line advisers, let alone any future Democratic president bent on repudiating Trump's record on foreign policy.
Trump's Democratic challengers in 2020 have denounced the president for cozying up to North Korea's dictator and getting nothing in return, but not necessarily for his decision to negotiate directly with Kim. Republicans, who once hammered Obama for saying he would meet with the leaders of adversarial governments without preconditions, have largely been rendered mute on the issue now that the leader of their party has taken that tack with such gusto.
If Trump fails to denuclearize North Korea during his time in office, the leader-to-leader channel could provide an avenue for avoiding conflict with a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Even Trump, however, seems to recognize that the most concrete result of all his summitry, displayed to such dazzling effect on Sunday, may not be as durable as it seems. "We have a very good relationship," Trump said of Kim just ahead of their meeting. "I don't know about beyond the two of us, but I can say the two of us."
Posted: 30 Jun 2019 05:00 AM PDT
It wasn't all that long ago that many people wouldn't say "cancer" in polite conversation. Because the disease was so deadly and so poorly understood, mentioning that someone had The Big C could seem to imply that the person had brought the misery of the disease on himself or herself.
Although that stigma persists in some ways—lung cancer, for example, is still culturally tied with tobacco use—things have gotten a lot better. People shave their heads in solidarity with loved ones going through chemo, and breast-cancer pink is the stuff of corporate-marketing legend.
Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, hopes Americans' understanding of suicide is on a similar path. "Cancer was shameful to think about or talk about, which shows you how much things really can change," she told me in an interview at the Aspen Ideal Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. "Mental health is just now undergoing that period of growth and transition that's informed by science, but the average person doesn't really understand all that yet."
Even in psychiatry, Moutier explained, suicide was "kind of an orphan topic, and from a clinician standpoint, it didn't fit into any diagnostic category on its own. Suicide was not looked at from a lens of health at all, but like a behavioral thing that people did for unclear reasons."
The AFSP and other advocates have been pushing to change this public perception at a crucial time. The American suicide rate has crept up year by year since 1999, with a total increase of 33 percent in less than two decades, resulting in more than 47,000 deaths in 2017. More than a million Americans attempt to take their own lives every year, and millions more have suicidal ideation.
Moutier and many other researchers think that the key to decreasing the American suicide rate is approaching suicide not like a series of nebulous personal tragedies, but like a public-health crisis. That means more training for medical professionals on how to treat suicidal patients, more funding for research into suicide's causes and preventions, and more education for the public on how to support loved ones who are struggling.
Moutier says it's unclear exactly why the suicide rate has changed so much, but there are many smaller explanations that add up to paint a larger picture: the economy, harsh cultural expectations, a broken health-care system, and what Moutier referred to as America's culture of stoicism, which can push people to suffer alone. "We really celebrate self-sufficiency in this culture way too much," Moutier said.
Because Americans have long been encouraged to keep their mental-health struggles in the shadows, many people lack basic skills for offering someone support. "If you see someone choking or struggling in some way physically, you probably want to offer a hand," Moultier said. But she pointed out that people often hesitate to do the same when a loved one is struggling with mental illness or suicidal ideation, sometimes out of a simple desire not to embarrass them by asking personal questions.
"It's important to say, okay, I might be the only one who is noticing. So don't ignore it or write it off to the stress of the day or assume someone else will notice," Moultier said. Even among first responders and medical professionals, training on how to help people who are suicidal can be poor, and improving those responses is a chief concern among public-health advocates.
In the meantime, Moutier recommends regularly checking in with friends and family who are having a hard time and asking them about what they're feeling. "If you think about it, that's what we all want—to be heard and to be seen," she said. "To have a conversation like that, it requires a lot of resisting the impulse to jump in with a quick fix or to try and talk them out of what they're experiencing."
Her recommendation might sound simple, but there's significant evidence that it helps those at risk for suicide. In a health-care system with high costs and a dearth of trained mental-care providers, a conversation with a friend could make all the difference.
Posted: 30 Jun 2019 05:35 PM PDT
America is in a period of tug-of-war politics, with cultural elites fighting to determine which views should be excluded from public life. For decades, overt racism has been stigmatized in polite society and penalized by the government; while racial disparities persist everywhere from the prison system to public education, many Americans regard openly racist views with horror, and quickly move to marginalize the people who hold them.
Now, the question is what other views will be similarly classed as intolerable, justifying the loss of a job, inviting a public shaming, or earning the label of "bigotry." Among activists on the left, the spirit of the day tends to favor purity tests and bans: The rare student or professor who openly criticizes same-sex marriage or transgender rights often face backlash or, occasionally, is fired; conservative legal groups that oppose the expansion of LGBTQ rights are included on hate-watch lists alongside white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Some public figures have pushed for similar treatment of those who oppose abortion. Kirsten Gillibrand, the Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. senator from New York, recently compared anti-abortion views to racism: "I think there are some issues that have such moral clarity that we have, as a society, decided that the other side is not acceptable," she told the Des Moines Register. "There is no moral equivalency when you come to racism. And I do not believe there's a moral equivalency when it comes to changing laws that deny women reproductive freedom."
This impulse, according to some conservatives, represents an existential crisis in contemporary American political life—a systematic silencing of any dissent against what they see as the prevailing progressive views on identity. "I'm kind of scheduled for ejection from society," Rusty Reno, the editor of the conservative journal First Things, told me in a recent conversation at the magazine's office in New York. Much of elite conservative culture, especially in the world of essays and journalism, is focused on critiquing, mocking, and warning about identity-focused left-wing views. But Reno has lately been reflecting on the political project he would like to build, beyond what he feels bound to oppose. "We play so much defense that we don't often discipline ourselves to say, 'What are we for? What kind of society do we want?'" he told me. "It's easy to know what you're against, but harder to know what you're for."
First Things is the intellectual home for bookish religious conservatives in search of a counterargument to the consensus of progressive culture. The magazine's readership is moderately sized, with roughly 30,000 subscribers, but its work has resonated in high-profile spaces: Tucker Carlson routinely invites First Things writers onto his show on Fox News and echoes their arguments in his monologues. A recent First Things piece, "Against David Frenchism," inveighing against the supposed over-attention to civility in certain neighborhoods of conservative politics, generated op-eds and conservative reactions for weeks. It won a personal note of appreciation from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who sent a message to the author, Sohrab Ahmari, congratulating him on the article.
First Things is slowly, tentatively laying out one path the conservative movement could follow after the chaos President Donald Trump has visited on the Republican Party. Reno, along with his team of editors and motley band of conservative friends and writers, believe that the tenuous coalition between free-market business types and socially conservative religious types is effectively over. He argues that the massive corporate influence on American politics and culture is pernicious, and wishes to reorganize the economy to promote the well-being of families. He maintains that a society without any belief in a higher power inevitably becomes cynical and consumerist, and he aims to build a collective sense of what he calls a transcendent horizon. Above all, he believes that Americans yearn for civic unity, and that nationalism should be viewed as a fact and an asset, rather than a swear word.
As a whole, the First Things project is an argument against cultural retreat: Religious conservatives should offer an alternative vision of the rightly ordered life, its writers argue, rather than publicly complying with progressive norms while privately seething with rage. In fighting for this vision, however, the magazine sometimes suffers from the moral hazards of opposition politics: writing with derision about its perceived enemies; using conspiratorial terms like "LGBT agenda"; and defending sweeping principles, like limiting immigration for the sake of national unity, while ignoring the particulars of how they have played out under Trump.
One of the great questions posed by the Trump era is how religious conservatives' alignment with the president will affect the Christian witness in America—the faith's reputation, and Christians' ability to reach and persuade people with what they see as the good news of Christ. Among all but Trump's most ardent admirers, the widely held perception is that full-throated support of the president has required moral and civic compromise. The First Things compatriots have made a slightly different bet: Rather than fighting against the current political moment, the magazine has evolved along with the GOP base toward a positive vision of nationalist politics. They hope that Trump's popularity is the sign of an opening—for conservative orthodoxy, and for a nationalist movement to replace today's progressive, globalized world order.
First Things' place in the conservative firmament is immediately clear from its office's interior decorating. Dozens of black-and-white photos featuring the likes of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the conservative commentator George Weigel, and the magazine's influential founder, Father Richard John Neuhaus, sit slightly askew in small wooden frames on an entry-hall wall, as inviting as family portraits. The space is modestly sleek: fancy building in New York City's Flatiron District, sliding glass doors and track lighting. It's also a living experiment in pro-natalist policies: Matthew Schmitz and Julia Yost, two senior editors who met and married during their tenures at First Things, pass their smiley six-month-old, Hugh, back and forth between their offices while they work. It is here, as a neighbor to some of the giants of New York City's literary establishment, that First Things wages its war on America's leadership class of corporate and cultural elites.
Reno, who worked as a theology professor in Omaha before taking up his current post at First Things in 2011, cuts a dapper figure: silver-brown hair neatly trimmed, light-gray wing-tip shoes, a lavender tie to match his purple-spotted socks. He looks uncannily similar to Bill Nye the Science Guy. In conversation, Reno toggles easily between personal stories and grand pronouncements, much like the narrative style of his magazine.
Reno has spent his life as a traveler. Like Neuhaus, the magazine's founder, he converted from a liberal Protestant tradition to Roman Catholicism as an adult. Although he is a devout Christian, he married a Jewish woman, Juliana, whom he met while in graduate school at Yale. The couple raised their children as Jews and discovered the challenges of interfaith marriage: In a 2007 essay, Reno described his daughter's anger and frustration, and his pain, when he was barred from standing beside her as she read from the Torah during her Bat Mitzvah.
Reno has made choices, in other words, that have forced him to linger in the spaces of in-between identity. And yet his personal beliefs and political project are dedicated to the pursuit of settled-ness and unity. "People say, 'Oh, it must be great, children growing up in two different traditions,'" he told me. "No, it's not great. It makes it hard for them. They do strongly identify as Jewish. But one of the things we want is … to have a home in the world. A spiritual home, as well as a home-home."
The magazine has had a consistently socially conservative identity since it was founded in 1990, but it has also adapted to various eras of American conservatism. Neuhaus served as an informal adviser to President George W. Bush on bioethics, and "the whole circle around the magazine were very much in communication with the White House on a fairly regular basis," Damon Linker, a senior correspondent at the Week who was an editor at First Things in the early Bush years, told me.
Since then, First Things has traveled a different road from Bush-administration evangelical leaders, such as Pete Wehner, who worked with Karl Rove in the Office of Strategic Initiatives, and Michael Gerson, the former speechwriter who is now a Washington Post columnist: Wehner, Gerson, and others have pledged opposition to Trump on moral grounds. Conservative writers at mainstream outlets range in their sympathies for the First Things project, but mostly stop short of alignment. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is in some ways a kindred spirit, but has written about his skepticism of the publication's brand of anti-Trumpism; his colleague Bret Stephens, meanwhile, recently wrote a scathing condemnation of what he described as the Trump-style illiberal impulses on display in the "Against David Frenchism" article. As right-wing outlets have formed new post-Trump teams in the Little League of conservative politics, First Things has found itself in bitter feuds with stalwarts such as the National Review and newcomers such as the Bulwark, the webby reincarnation of the Weekly Standard. Even ex-staffers like Linker have been involved in spats: His 2006 book, The Theocons, harshly criticizes Neuhaus's project as essentially theocratic.
Throughout its history, the magazine has fostered a freewheeling, ecumenical debate about God, publishing Lutherans, Jews, Catholics, and occasionally even Muslims on the nature of their religious faith. Collectively, this kind of conversation is important for society, Reno maintains: "If you don't have some sense of a transcendent horizon, young people really will become slaves to the relentless competition for wealth and status."
In keeping with the Trump zeitgeist, the magazine has promoted the idea of civic nationalism, or, to borrow a phrase, the civil religion that has long been at the heart of American identity. Reno argues that the progressive gospel of diversity mistakenly elevates difference as a good unto itself, missing the shared qualities of American identity that actually bring the country together. "Pluralism—it all sounds great on paper," he told me. "But in fact, especially in times of crisis or tension—and I think we live in a time very polarized and divided—the imperative is unity."
"The big question is: 'What is the problem that we face in the 21st-century West?'" he said. "Is the problem one of insufficient solicitude for people on the margins? Or is the problem one of lack of consolidating and unifying forces?" He and his cohort come down firmly in favor of the latter. Reno wants to assure his readers that "they're not crazy, and in fact, this theologically informed, socially conservative view of the world makes sense, and there are other people who share it."
This condensed summary of the First Things project is too simplified—the magazine's writers gamely argue among themselves about the right direction for the country—and perhaps too generous. "You've been pressing me on this, and precisely showing how sketchy this vision is," Reno told me. "It's not altogether clear."
It might also be too sanitized. Alongside calls for unity and transcendence, First Things is prone to harsh barbs about the people its writers perceive to be working against its project. The magazine devotes significant space to bemoaning same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and what its writers refer to as "transgender ideology"; Reno recently wrote that American society has been fragmented by identity politics, including the forces of "LGBT jihadism." This single-minded focus on LGBTQ issues is necessary, Reno says, because men and women and their ability to bear children together is the central story of creation; in a society where gender and sexuality are unsettled, everything else becomes disordered. "We live in a society of inclusion, and the strategy of inclusion is to make people feel better by being celebrated," Reno told me. "In celebrating [transgender people] we wind up disrupting—and, in some cases, dismantling—these inherited mechanisms for young people … to be at peace with who they are."
The magazine has weathered some embarrassing gaffes—most notably a 2018 article defending the Vatican's notorious 1858 kidnapping of a Jewish 6-year-old, Edgardo Mortara, who had been secretly baptized by his nanny. Conservatives and liberals alike expressed shock that First Things had published the piece. Reno later wrote several columns discussing his decision to run the article, admitting that the kidnapping "is a stain on the Catholic Church" and apologizing for bringing "unnecessary anguish" to readers who value the magazine's long commitment to fostering dialogue between Christians and Jews.
More substantively, the magazine has opened a spirited debate about Trump's war on immigration. When I asked Reno about the president's comments referring to Mexicans as rapists and criminals, and the family-separation policy that left dozens of migrant children stranded in government vans for 24 hours or more, Reno replied, "I don't do policy, but if we don't gain control of the border, it's going to be a serious problem for the entire generation." There are "sociological limits" to how many immigrants can be assimilated into the United States, he said. When I asked him whether he would be as concerned if there were a surge of migrants at America's northern border, he admitted that this would be less worrying: "Canadians are so similar," he said. "Part of it has to do with the cultural fit."
Room for dissent exists among First Things' ranks: Shortly after Trump's inauguration, an online columnist, Pete Spiliakos, wrote that the president was "insufficiently nationalist" because his vision of making America great again "leaves out African Americans for whom America was not noticeably greater in the past" and the "huge number of first- and second-generation Americans who are part of the post-1965 immigration wave."
This frank treatment of conservative blind spots on race is an exception to most First Things coverage, which—when it deals with race at all—tends to promote a view of color-blind unity in God over what it sees as racialized identity politics. The magazine's editors have worked to disassociate themselves from the white-identity wing of Trump's nationalist coalition—Schmitz once wrote a trollishly titled piece, "Christianity Is for Cucks," basically as a literary middle finger to the so-called alt-right—but Reno, at least, does not think white-identity politics are much of a threat. "People in America are very anxious that they're going to lose their country," he said. "People want to interpret that as a coming minority status of whites, and it's a nostalgia for white America, and okay, maybe there are people who think that way. I certainly don't, and the people I talk to don't. They're worried that the people who lead this country have no interest in being a country where we're all together."
The writers and editors at First Things are part of a group attempting to create scaffolding for a nationalist movement that will outlast Trump's presidency: Later this summer, Reno will join figures including Tucker Carlson, the libertarian entrepreneur Peter Thiel, and the freshman senator from Missouri, Josh Hawley, in speaking at a summit on nationalism in Washington, D.C. In the event's promotional materials, the organizers explicitly state their desire to develop a conservative, nationalist movement "in stark opposition to political theories grounded in race."
And yet, this remains the greatest challenge to the nascent conservative-nationalist revival. The reality remains that Trump's movement, and the discontent behind it, cannot easily be untangled from racism. "It's very easy for intellectuals in general, and the ones we're talking about in particular, to sort of live in castles in their minds that are very elegant and beautiful, and not fully grasp that the real-world analogue to what you're talking about is actually a kind of white-supremacist political order," Linker said. "You have to bridge that, somehow, and face the consequences."
While some conservative subcultures can become hermetically sealed, purposefully isolated from the liberal enemies they oppose, the compatriots of First Things lean into the tensions of their beliefs, surrounding themselves with friends and family whose lives are open challenges to their first principles. Reno told me he has a gay brother-in-law who adopted a child with his partner, and a sister who supports abortion rights. The day I visited the First Things office, I accompanied Yost, Schmitz, and baby Hugh to a nearby restaurant for lunch. A rainbow sandwich-board sign promoting LGBTQ Pride month sat propped in the entryway.
Everyone I met, from the interns up to the top editors, seemed untroubled by their secular, progressive surroundings. "I've never felt embattled," Yost told me. She spent years at Yale pursuing a doctorate in English; Schmitz got his undergraduate degree at Princeton. The couple has liberal friends, who are essentially good people, Yost said. Their main objection to elite culture, left and right, is what they see as snobbishness.
This has become a major line of contention among conservatives: whether those who oppose Trump on the grounds of his uncouthness are really just looking down at uncivilized America. This was one question raised during the recent First Things fight over "Frenchism" (a truly clunky and unfortunate coinage referring to David French, the National Review writer): whether conservatives should prize civility in discourse and continue playing by gentlemen's rules of politics, or whether they should embrace the kind of no-holds-barred rhetoric that won over Trump voters. "When niceness … is elevated in this way, I don't really like the result," Yost said. "It becomes a way of stigmatizing the contributions of people who don't have elite manners. And those people have been, perhaps, neglected and stigmatized for long enough."
As Schmitz and Yost would have it, elites—from politicians to CEOs—are the truest targets of their ire. "When Hillary says 'basket of deplorables,' that's a very dangerous form of rhetoric," Schmitz said. "People like Romney replicated that on the Republican side with his ' percent.' So you get it from both sides."
These two editors, who are both in their mid-30s, have not joined the Trump train. They are frustrated by the president's penchant for pitting Americans against one another, and don't necessarily see their preferred political agenda being enacted by his administration. They are discontent with the state of American politics generally: "We need leaders who see themselves as leaders of all of America," Schmitz said. "Not everyone in America feels that Trump is their leader, obviously. He's a very polarizing figure. We need someone who at least aspires to lead the country. I don't think our liberal elites aspire to that at all."
What they do see is an opening for new arguments, especially among conservatives. "What Trump has shown is that the people who thought they were leading the conservative intellectual movement … were generals without armies," Schmitz said. The kinds of arguments First Things is interested in line up with the sensibilities of most Americans, he said: family oriented, generally patriotic, at least vaguely religious, and supportive of moderate government social-welfare spending.
Yet for all this talk of unity and sticking up for the trampled underclasses, there are still flashes of fear close to the surface of the First Things project. Reno, in what I hope was a joking moment during our conversation, told me his wife would claw my eyes out if I came after him in this article.
And so the challenge stands, for First Things as for post-Trump America: whether those who decry the politics of grievance can get beyond grievance-churning themselves. First Things fashions itself as a defender of the common good against a vindictive elite that wishes to erase its kind from society. But power, as it happens, often serves as a mirror. "We're not going to get out of our current situation just by being nice to each other," Reno told me as he leaned back in his chair, regarding me with equal parts amusement and skepticism. "Some people are going to have to lose."
Posted: 30 Jun 2019 06:24 AM PDT
Earlier this year, a half-dozen students from City Hill Middle School, in Naugatuck, Connecticut, traveled with their science teacher, Katrina Spina, to the state capital to testify in support of a bill that would ban sales of energy drinks to children under the age of 16. Having devoted three months to a chemistry unit studying the ingredients in and potential health impacts of common energy drinks—with brand names like Red Bull, Monster Energy, and Rockstar—the students came to a sobering conclusion: "Energy drinks can be fatal to everyone, but especially to adolescents," a seventh-grader, Luke Deitelbaum, told state legislators. "Even though this is true, most energy-drink companies continue to market these drinks specifically toward teens."
A 2018 report found that more than 40 percent of American teens surveyed had consumed an energy drink within the past three months. Another survey found that 28 percent of adolescents in the European Union had consumed these sorts of beverages in the past three days.
This popularity is in marked contrast to the recommendations of groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Sports Medicine, who say youth should forgo these products entirely. These recommendations are based on concerns about health problems that, although rare, can occur after consumption, including seizures, delirium, rapid heart rate, stroke, and even sudden death. A U.S. government report found that from 2007 to 2011, the number of emergency-department visits involving energy drinks more than doubled, to nearly 21,000.
Of these, approximately 1,500 were children aged 12 to 17, although the number of visits from this age group increased only slightly over the four years.
For their part, energy-drink manufacturers argue that they are being unfairly targeted. At the Connecticut hearing, the head of public affairs for Red Bull North America, Joseph Luppino, maintained that there is no scientific justification to regulate energy drinks differently than other caffeine-containing beverages such as soda, coffee, and tea—particularly when some coffeehouses serve coffee with a caffeine content exceeding that of a can of Red Bull. "Age-gating is an incredibly powerful tool," Luppino said, and should be reserved for "inherently dangerous products" like nicotine.
The showdown in Connecticut, which pitted the City Hill students against a growing $55-billion-a-year global industry, was the latest in an ongoing debate about the safety and regulation of energy drinks. In recent years, countries such as the United Kingdom and Norway have considered banning sales to young people, while Lithuania and Latvia have active bans in place. In the United States, along with Connecticut, state legislators in Maryland, Illinois, and Indiana have introduced bills, though none have been signed into law. A South Carolina bill to ban sales to kids under 18—and to fine those caught selling the drinks to minors—advanced through the legislature in April, and is now pending before the state's full medical-affairs committee. It is supported by the parents of a 16-year-old who died from a caffeine-induced cardiac event after consuming a coffee, a soda, and an energy drink within a period of two hours.
As the regulatory status of energy drinks continues to be debated, a growing number of consumers and public-health advocates are asking why and how a product loaded with caffeine and other stimulants became so popular among young people. The reasons are a mix of lax regulation, the use of caffeine as a sports-performance enhancer among adults, and a bit of scientific uncertainty.
According to the sports cardiologist John Higgins, a professor at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston, there is also another factor: "very, very intelligent advertising."
Historically, government agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have struggled to regulate beverages with added caffeine. Though it offers some guidance, the FDA allows manufacturers of liquid products to decide on their own whether to market their products as dietary supplements, or as conventional foods and beverages, which carry differing regulatory requirements. All three major energy-drink makers now have most of their products regulated as foods, rather than dietary supplements—though that wasn't always the case.
Researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, in a 2008 review published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, note that that lack of consistency is partly due to our long love affair with drinks in which caffeine is naturally occurring, including coffee and tea. In 1980, citing health concerns, the FDA proposed to eliminate caffeine from soft drinks, which are regulated as foods. The manufacturers, however, claimed the caffeine was a flavor enhancer. The FDA approved caffeine, but limited the maximum content of cola-type soft drinks to .02 percent, or roughly 71 milligrams per 12-ounce serving.
"If caffeine had not been accepted as a flavor enhancer, but had been regarded as a psychoactive ingredient," write the Johns Hopkins researchers, "soft drinks might have been regulated by the FDA as drugs"—which are subject to additional regulations.
When energy drinks first appeared on the American market in the late 1990s and early 2000s, some manufacturers claimed the products were neither drugs nor conventional foods, but dietary supplements. Drugs with caffeine require warning labels, but dietary supplements don't. "It is a striking inconsistency that, in the U.S. an [over-the-counter] stimulant medication containing 100 mg of caffeine per tablet (e.g. NoDoz) must include [a series of] warnings," write the Johns Hopkins researchers, "whereas a 500 mg energy drink can be marketed with no such warnings and no information on caffeine dose amount in the product."
As early as 2009, sports and medical organizations began issuing position statements discouraging energy-drink consumption by young people. In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that energy drinks "are not appropriate for children and adolescents, and should never be consumed." Further, the group warned that adolescents might mistakenly use energy drinks, rather than sports drinks like Gatorade, for rehydration during physical activity. "Advertisements that target young people are contributing to the confusion," wrote the authors.
Two years later, in 2013, questions about safety and marketing came to a head in the halls of Congress. Three Democratic senators launched an investigation into the marketing practices of energy-drink companies. They found that adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17 are frequent targets of energy-drink marketing, and stated in a written report that "this population is also at risk for the detrimental impacts of energy-drink consumption." The report also noted a range of claims not evaluated or substantiated by the FDA. For example, the makers of AMP Energy marketed the drinks as helping to "energize and hydrate the body," while advertisements for Red Bull promised "increased concentration and reaction speed."
(As it happens, a few months before the senate hearing, Monster Beverage Corporation and Rockstar announced their intention to follow in the footsteps of Red Bull by declaring their products to be foods, rather than dietary supplements.)
Among those providing testimony at a committee hearing was Jennifer L. Harris, a researcher at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, currently housed at the University of Connecticut. She and her team had conducted an earlier study of how sugary beverages are marketed to children. "What we learned about energy drinks stunned us," she said at the hearing.
Energy-drink companies had been pioneers in using social media to market their products, said Harris. At the time of her study, Red Bull and Monster Energy were the fifth and 12th most popular brands on Facebook—a platform that was, at the time, particularly popular among college students and adolescents. Further, said Harris, "energy-drink brands often promote teen athletes and musicians and sponsor local events, where they provide free samples, including to minors." The marketing is effective, she noted. Sales of most other beverage categories were declining, but energy-drink sales had increased by 19 percent the previous year, reaching $8 billion in 2012.
The energy-beverage industry vigorously defended its products and marketing practices. In his congressional statement, Rodney Sacks, the CEO of Monster Beverage, noted that a 16-ounce can of Monster Energy contains 160 mg of caffeine. In contrast, the equivalent amount of Starbucks coffee contains 330 mg—more than twice as much. Further, Monster cans include a label recommending against consumption by children. (According to guidelines put forth by the American Beverage Association, a trade group, energy drinks should not be marketed to children under 12, and other leading brands such as Red Bull and Rockstar carry similar labels recommending against consumption by children.)
Further, Sacks and representatives from Rockstar and Red Bull North America denied that their companies advertise to young teenagers. Doing this, said Sacks, "would undermine the credibility of the brand image in the eyes of young adults,"—nominally their target consumer demographic.
Not everyone buys this. A 2017 study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, for example, tested whether young consumers perceived energy-drink advertising as being targeted at people their age and younger. Researchers at the University of Waterloo randomly assigned over 2,000 Canadians aged 12 to 24 to view one of four online ads for Red Bull. Among the youngest subjects—those aged 12 to 14—nearly 72 percent of participants who viewed an advertisement featuring the company's sponsorship of the X Games, an extreme-sports event, perceived the ad to be targeted to people their age and younger.
The University of Waterloo researchers compare energy-drink marketing practices with those of 20th-century cigarette companies. "While tobacco advertising was ostensibly targeted only at adults," they write, "it nevertheless achieved very high levels of reach and appeal among young people."
Further, and perhaps not surprisingly, across all age groups, 71 percent of those who were shown a Red Bull ad with a sports theme—the X Games, for example, or an image of an airborne snowboarder with accompanying text reading "RED BULL GIVES YOU WIIINGS"—thought the ad they viewed promoted the use of energy drinks during sports.
This is a problem, says Matt Fedoruk, the chief science officer at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Though his organization is perhaps best known for its role in testing Olympic athletes for banned substances, it also promotes a positive youth-sports culture. Fedoruk says they field questions about energy drinks from athletes of all ages.
"Caffeine is the most studied ergogenic aid on the planet," says Fedoruk, and its use is widespread among elite athletes. Research has even produced recommended guidelines for ingestion prior to exercise. But these guidelines were developed for adults. Young people who try to follow them could quickly surpass the American Academy of Pediatrics' guidelines for adolescents: no more than 100 mg of caffeine per day, or roughly the amount in a typical cup of coffee. Further, because energy drinks are manufactured in adult serving sizes, says Fedoruk, it's easy for a child to get too much. "Depending on the product you choose, you could definitely be dosing your young child or youth athlete in doses that far exceed what may be safe for their body weight and size."
When it comes to youth athletes, "our experts recommend both water and sports drinks as the best options for hydration," writes Danielle Eurich, a USADA spokesperson. Athletes exercising less than an hour probably don't even need sports drinks, she adds. "Water would be best."
Last year, John Higgins, the sports cardiologist, ran a small study in which healthy medical students downed a 24-ounce can of Monster Energy. Ninety minutes later, the students' arteries were measured to test their ability to bounce back—or dilate—after being compressed by a blood pressure cuff. Dilation helps control blood flow, increasing circulation when necessary, including during exercise. In this study, the medical students' blood flow was "significantly and adversely affected," says Higgins.
Higgins suspects that the combination of ingredients—the caffeine and other stimulants such as guarana, taurine, L-carnitine, along with added vitamins and minerals—interferes with the endothelium, a thin layer of cells that control dilation. But he can't say for certain because there hasn't been enough research. Higgins's own study was preliminary and lacked a control group. Further, a recent review by a group of Harvard researchers noted considerable limitations to the existing energy-drink literature. Most studies, the authors found, used small sample sizes or employed a cross-sectional design, which isn't able to determine causation. Large longitudinal studies, meanwhile, require time and money.
Higgins says the main reason there is no evidence of safety is that energy drinks are not classified by most countries as drugs. "They are classified as supplements, additives, or whatever." Until more data are available, Higgins's opinion is that energy drinks should be avoided before, during, and after exercise. Anyone under 18 should avoid them entirely, he says. This recommendation has been endorsed by the American College of Sports Medicine.
Yet at the Connecticut hearing, Red Bull's Joseph Luppino insisted that there is ample evidence of safety. He referenced the European Food Safety Authority, which conducts food-chain risk assessments for the European Union: "They have unequivocally concluded there are no synergistic effects between the various ingredients that are contained in energy drinks."
When asked for a comment, the European agency pointed to its 2015 report, and a spokesperson explained the findings: In general, the combination of substances typically found in energy drinks "would not affect the safety of single doses of caffeine up to 200 mg." Individuals who might drink a 16-oz can of Rockstar or a 24-oz can of Monster containing 240 mg of caffeine plus other stimulants were not considered by the analysis. The E.U. agency spokesperson also issued a caveat: There wasn't enough data to determine whether other common energy-drink ingredients like guarana and taurine influence the acute effects of caffeine on blood pressure.
Monster and Rockstar did not respond to repeated requests for comment. When asked about the discrepancy between Luppino's characterization of the European report and the agency's own characterization of its findings, Erin Mand, a spokesperson for Red Bull, pointed to particular passages in the report that suggest the safety of particular ingredient combinations up to 200 mg of caffeine. She additionally noted that "its single-serving products fall under 200 mg of caffeine."
The American Beverage Association also did not respond to specific interview questions, but did provide this statement: "Energy drinks have been enjoyed by millions of people around the world for more than 30 years, and are recognized by government health agencies worldwide as safe for consumption. The amount of caffeine in energy drinks is typically half the amount found in a coffeehouse coffee and is no different from the caffeine found in other foods and beverages. Further, America's mainstream energy drink companies have taken voluntary steps to ensure their products are not marketed to children."
In the spring of 2017, Gary Watts, the coroner for South Carolina's Richland County, released the autopsy results for Davis Cripe, the teenager whose death spurred the state's bill to ban sales of energy drinks to minors. The cause of death: a caffeine-induced cardiac event causing a probable arrythmia. "Typically you don't see the results of an arrythmia in an actual autopsy because there's no real damage to the heart," Watts said.
After Cripe collapsed at school, a staff member who had previously worked as a nurse in a cardiac unit diagnosed a cardiac arrhythmia.
"Who's to say that this hasn't happened before?" says Watts, whose office has performed autopsies on other young adults who died of sudden death. "It probably has—it's just that we've not been able to document [the cause] with someone on the scene at the time who says, 'Okay, this is an arrhythmia.'" Watts believes there are too many uncertainties about energy drinks to say that they are safe for adolescents. "I'm not trying to get rid of energy drinks," he said. "I know a lot of people use them. But I do think that the age is a concern that everybody needs to be really serious about."
As for the Connecticut bill, it has not moved out of committee, but in mid-May, the City Hill Middle School students and their teacher returned to the state capital to lobby lawmakers. They shared informational brochures created by the students, as well as informal results from a survey of students and parents, indicating widespread support for their bill among the latter. In the meantime, the students say, their siblings and peers continue to consume energy drinks—on soccer fields, in dugouts, and in front of video-game consoles.
"It's so interesting," a City Hill student, Emily Fine, said of energy-drink makers and their products, "how they still put them on the market."
|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|