#Culture_and_Technology

#Culture_and_Technology


Chigozie Obioma’s Homerian Epic

Posted: 19 Jan 2019 04:00 AM PST

Moments before setting the novel's central journey into motion, the protagonist of An Orchestra of Minorities makes a simple declaration about the woman he loves. "I'm ready to do anything to marry her," the beleaguered Nigerian poultry farmer Chinonso Solomon Olisa tells Jamike, an erstwhile childhood friend. It is an earnest mission statement, at once brave and straightforward. But the lovesick young man has no grasp of the terrors that await him on the path ahead.

The second novel from the Man Booker Prize finalist Chigozie Obioma, An Orchestra of Minorities is a wrenching study of the sacrifices made for love. The arc of the chicken farmer's attachment to the pharmacist-in-training Ndali Obialor begins not with a first date, but with near-tragedy, when Chinonso prevents her from jumping off a bridge. Their chance meeting months later births a desperate romance troubled by Ndali's well-educated family, who won't accept the humble farmer as her future spouse. Chinonso is in despair until the visiting Jamike offers him a slippery pathway to acceptance: traveling to Cyprus to receive more schooling, then returning as a man of stature—the kind of man Ndali deserves to marry.

In rendering his protagonist's journey to Cyprus, and the scene that greets the unknowing Chinonso when he arrives, Obioma recasts Homer's Odyssey. For both tales' heroes, "mere survival is the most amazing feat of all." But where Odysseus thrashed "under Poseidon's blows, gale winds and tons of sea," Chinonso is betrayed by his fellow man. The experience never plunges him into the underworld, but in a letter to Ndali, he writes that he "went to hell" in Cyprus. Obioma conveys Chinonso's trials with an eye toward the quotidian horrors that many African migrant farmers face in real life.

Though Chinonso is driven by love—the most human of pursuits—neither his classed countrymen nor most of the Europeans he encounters are willing to extend him compassion. Obioma emphasizes that many of these obstacles stem from Chinonso's visible Africanness—Europeans mock the man's hair, deny him work, and scoff at his inability to speak Turkish. In Cyprus, he is "a wayfarer in a foreign land": maligned, mistreated, even jailed for a grievous crime he didn't commit.

Obioma depicts the indignities the farmer faces with rich details, at times even appearing to revel in the contours of his protagonist's suffering. Describing Chinonso at one point, he writes: "All the world becomes dead to a man like him in such a time as this, and therefore all the pleasant memories, all the images that would have brought him pleasure, mean nothing in this moment. Even if they had been gathered in his mind in their multitudes, they would merely accumulate in abysmal futility, like a stack of gold in the mouth of a dead man."

The novel exalts the mouth as a site of power, benevolent or otherwise. Obioma homes in on words unsaid, covenants broken, and kisses tendered. For the author, this attention isn't new. His prior work was also preoccupied with the mouth as a locus of communion between spirits and flesh. Obioma's debut, The Fishermen, told the story of four brothers whose lives are forever changed by a prophecy that one of them will kill the eldest among them: An eccentric homeless man, whom some of the town's residents believe to be possessed by spirits, effectively speaks the galling betrayal into existence when he shouts it at the boys.

Though that novel bore the marks of a Greek tragedy, it unfolded entirely via the recollections of the youngest brother. An Orchestra of Minorities, by contrast, has no human narrator. If The Fishermen detailed the downfall of prideful men with earthly gravity, then Obioma's latest meditates on the psychic turmoil of the downtrodden. It begins with a reflection from Chinonso's chi, or guardian spirit, which narrates the story and refers to the farmer as his "host." The being watches over Chinonso as his journey unfolds, and advocates to celestial judges on his behalf when the farmer transgresses.

Drawing from local spiritual traditions, Obioma sketches a topography of Igbo spirits through the chi's incantations, which also serve to structure the novel. The author deftly weaves ancestral knowledge into the contemporary tale of Chinonso even as he gestures toward the country's younger religious conventions. (He's careful to attribute Christianity, and images of "Jisos Kraist," to the white man.) An Orchestra brings to mind the more brazen boundary transgression of another recent novel, the Igbo and Tamil author Akwaeke Emezi's Freshwater, which explored the dissonance of multiple spiritual beings inhabiting one human body. Obioma, though, sticks with Chinonso's chi and hews closely to classical conventions even when invoking the Igbo spirit. Both his tautology and his prose hint at a fascination with Aristotelian philosophy. Consider this reflection from Chinonso's chi, recalling Ndali's first visit to the young man's farm:

Guardian spirits of mankind, have we thought about the powers that passion creates in a human being? Have we considered why a man could run through a field of fire to get to a woman he loves? … Have we contemplated the physiognomy of love—how some relationships are stillborn, some are retarded and do not grow, and some fledge into adults and last through the lifetime of the lovers?

These questions, unanswered and perhaps also unanswerable, function partly to foreshadow the duress Chinonso will endure in pursuit of marriageable status. Even with his chi watching over him, Chinonso is changed by the external hostility he encounters. His journey is not only a physical one, Obioma suggests, but also a spiritual one. Where a less skillful author's descriptions of inner tumult might register as clichés, Obioma manages to elevate his characters' transformations: In one scene, he writes that Chinonso "spoke with great care, as if his tongue was a wet priest in the sanctuary of his mouth." Of the first blossoming of the central pair's love, the farmer's chi marvels:

It seemed that by some mysterious means, she had been able to read the intents of his heart, which had all along cast themselves upon his face like a presence. And she had come to understand, by some alchemy, that the smile he'd carried on his face all along was his body's struggle to manage the solemn intransigence of its volcanic desire.

Because Obioma pays such remarkable attention to the power of language, it's particularly striking how rarely the author brings that focus to bear on Ndali and the other women whose affections have buttressed Chinonso's life. Depictions of Ndali veer between hagiography and dismissal; Obioma mostly portrays Ndali's interior conflicts through her lover's questions about her loyalty. An Orchestra of Minorities, which echoes the name Chinonso's late father gave to singing birds, concerns itself chiefly with the actions and psychic rumblings of men. In this familiar formula, women all too often serve as either motivation or collateral damage. This is also notably, if also regrettably, classical.

Still, Obioma writes with an exigent precision that makes An Orchestra of Minorities feel at once timely and speculative. The novel aches with Chinonso. His triumphs are rare and hard-won. Obioma compels the reader to root for him, to see the poor chicken farmer's story as an epic.

Republicans Used to Care About Obstruction of Justice

Posted: 19 Jan 2019 03:00 AM PST

It's not clear if the story is really true. The previous sentence applies to so many things these days, but in this case refers to BuzzFeed News's Thursday night report that President Donald Trump allegedly directed his attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower project in Moscow.

BuzzFeed News had just two sources, both anonymous law-enforcement officials. Nobody, including Cohen, has corroborated the story. And on Friday night the special counsel's spokesman issued a statement calling parts of the story inaccurate, without specifying what exactly was amiss.

But let's indulge the speculative assumption that the basic premise of the report is true. What does that mean for the investigation of the president? In short, that it just got a lot easier to pin him down.

Obstruction of justice is often a difficult crime to prove, because it requires the prosecutor to show that the defendant had "corrupt" intent. That is, the prosecutor must demonstrate that the defendant not only intentionally committed the crime, but also did so specifically to prevent the criminal-justice system from functioning.

Most crimes (like, say, robbery) don't need that second showing. They only require a defendant to have acted intentionally—and since almost nobody robs a house or a bank by accident, showing that the robber is the person who committed the crime also proves intentionality.

Obstruction is different—especially when a defendant might have acted with mixed motives. If, say, the president fired FBI Director James Comey because he believed he was a bad manager, but with some thought to the collateral benefit of harming the Russia investigation, that mixed purpose on his part would make it very hard to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he had the requisite criminal intent. He could respond that his real motive was good governance, and it would be a challenge to convince the jury that this wasn't at least partially true.

BuzzFeed News's story about Cohen changes the equation. When someone attempts to suborn perjury—which is what lawyers call it when you ask a friend to lie on your behalf—there cannot be any reasonable scenario in which mixed motives might apply. There's only one reason you ask a person to lie—to conceal guilt—and that, by itself, proves a corrupt motive.

Even the president's attorney-general nominee, William Barr, would agree with that statement. As he wrote in a memorandum long before these allegations came to light: "If a President knowingly … suborns perjury, or induces a witness to change testimony, or commits any act deliberately impairing the integrity or availability of evidence, then he, like anyone else, commits the crime of obstruction."

So the Cohen allegations, if true, are a legal game changer. And yet perhaps the story will not make that much of a difference in the legal world, because as I've written before, Justice Department policy prohibits the special counsel from indicting a sitting president, and Robert Mueller is exceedingly unlikely to violate that policy.

Thus, the real question is whether the Cohen blockbuster also has political salience—might it change the equation in the House and Senate regarding impeachment? It seems as though it should. Remember that in 1998–99, during the investigation of President Bill Clinton, the most significant charges against him involved very similar allegations about suborning perjury.

Specifically, in the articles of impeachment adopted by the House of Representatives, Clinton was accused of obstruction for having attempted to persuade Monica Lewinsky and Betty Currie to lie about his conduct. He was charged with asking Lewinsky to lie in the civil suit brought by Paula Jones, and with coaching Currie to give false testimony in the criminal grand-jury investigation being conducted by the independent counsel. Fourteen currently serving Republican senators were in Congress back then, and all thought that obstruction of justice was an impeachable and removable offense—voting for either impeachment in the House or conviction on the obstruction charge in the Senate.

Indeed, as then-Representative, now-Senator Lindsey Graham put it: "If you believe he obstructed justice in a civil rights lawsuit, don't move the bar any more … You don't even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic if this body determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role … Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office."

Those senators must feel deeply politically uncomfortable right now. Many of them (most notably Graham) built their careers on the proposition that Clinton had obstructed justice and was unfit for office; today, they are faced with the possibility that Trump might have done nearly the same thing. How will they react now?

The ‘Bright Spot’ for Trump in the Government Shutdown

Posted: 19 Jan 2019 03:00 AM PST

In a world in which the U.S. government is functioning somewhat normally, the president right now would be preparing for his delegation's trip to the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland, next week. Once there, he would mingle with foreign leaders. He would likely endure a series of speeches on the promises of globalization and the perils of climate change. As he did last year, he might deliver his own remarks extolling the progress of America under his leadership.

But this is not the world in which we live. And in at least one respect, Donald Trump couldn't be happier about it.

Friday marked day 28 of the partial government shutdown. In the past month, many Americans have missed paychecks, navigated long lines at airports, and watched as Republicans and Democrats advance a cold war of sorts over federal funding that shows no signs of ending. Polling indicates that most voters blame the president for the standoff. But according to a half dozen of his associates, Trump is taking comfort in one consequence of the chaos: He doesn't have to go to Davos.

"The shutdown gave him the easiest out ever," said one former senior White House official who, like the other associates I talked to, spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to share their conversations with and impressions of the president. "That's the bright spot for him in all this."

[Read: Waiting for a shutdown to end in disaster]

Perhaps the most relatable thing about Donald Trump is that he revels in canceled plans, and specifically those that require him to leave his home and television set behind. On January 10, the president announced that he would no longer be making the journey overseas. "Because of the Democrats intransigence on Border Security and the great importance of Safety for our Nation, I am respectfully cancelling my very important trip to Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum. My warmest regards and apologies to the @WEF!" he tweeted. On Thursday, the White House announced that the rest of the U.S. delegation, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, wouldn't be attending either.

Despite the conciliatory tone in Trump's statement, those close to him say they weren't fooled. "Getting him ready for overseas trips was always a struggle. He's always like, Why do we have to do this shit?" another former senior White House official told me. "He likes control and being around his own people, and in Davos he didn't feel like he had either of those things."

The president's apparent giddiness about skipping Davos reflects his broader disdain for travel. Trump has lived in a tighter bubble than most American presidents. He prefers to leave the White House for one of two destinations: Mar-a-Lago—his Palm Beach, Florida, resort—or a campaign rally, where he can feed off the energy from his supporters and enjoy playing the part of master of ceremonies.

That's why his decision on Davos, to the officials, was so unsurprising. At rallies and at his homes, surrounded largely by people who support him, Trump can be himself, touting the same lines and arguments from the campaign trail to little criticism. On the world stage, however, Trump is forced to contend with leaders who have ideas and styles drastically different from his own. That's been true for every president, but rather than embrace it, Trump seems to actively look for opportunities to avoid it—a proclivity that likely impedes his ability to champion the country around the globe.

"The president hates traveling, but when he does, he'd much rather travel to a rally where he's surrounded by regular people than something where he has to rub elbows with global elites," a third former White House official said. "It makes him uncomfortable."

Trump's performance at last year's Davos summit illustrated his lack of awareness of, or perhaps indifference to, the protocol for international junkets. In his speech, he omitted any mention of geopolitics or the international issues that thread through most WEF addresses. Instead, he lauded himself as America's first "businessman" to become president, and predicted that his overhaul of the tax code would spur billions of dollars in new jobs and investments in the U.S. In a question-and-answer session following his speech, he decried the press as "nasty, vicious, and fake." (And, ironically in light of the current gridlock, he said he believed that bipartisan immigration reform was just around the corner.)

[Read: Donald disappoints Davos]

Often, the president's gripes are less about the travel itself than they are about the accommodations. Staffers said their first priority in scheduling political trips is to avoid overnight stays, because Trump dislikes hotels that aren't his—he thinks they're "dirty," three of the sources said.

For that reason, in 2016 aides tried to get Trump back to his own bed in Manhattan as regularly as possible. (Trump did, however, grow somewhat fond of Holiday Inn Express hotels, the first former senior official told me, noting that he liked their TV setup. Even now, as president, Trump deeply misses his own television in the White House residence when he's away, another official said—the president refers to it as his "super TiVo.") Whereas most other candidates bookended rallies with stays at motels or in RVs, after his events Trump used one of his private planes or his helicopter to head back to his gilded Trump Tower apartment. At the time, American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp, now one of the president's most outspoken supporters, criticized the habit, arguing that Trump's lack of personal, one-on-one interactions with voters could cost the then-candidate.

Leaving his home, his routine, his super TiVo—the prospect has even caused some trips to be dramatically shortened or scrapped altogether, as the Associated Press reported in November. The outlet pointed to a planned trip to Colombia earlier that month, which the White House canceled after "citing unspecified scheduling concerns." The AP noted that Trump's public schedule at the time didn't "reveal any significant conflicts." Earlier in 2018, the AP added, the White House canceled another South America trip, citing Trump's "need to focus on the crisis in Syria." Now he can add Davos to that list of would-be destinations.

Just because Trump is home and in his element doesn't mean that he's any closer to a shutdown solution, as the impact on federal workers snowballs daily. And there's little sign he'll use his proximity to the Hill to negotiate with his opponents, as his feud with Democratic leaders appears to grow more toxic. But at the very least, the burden of preparing for a taxpayer-funded jaunt to Switzerland to trade ideas with many of the world's most powerful leaders won't weigh heavy on the president's mind.

Women Are Not a Monolith

Posted: 19 Jan 2019 03:00 AM PST

This weekend, women will take to the streets. The third annual Women's March will bring thousands of women to Washington, D.C., and other cities across the country to mark "two years of resistance to the Trump presidency, two years of training new activists, and two years of building power."

From its first year, the march has highlighted the significant divisions among women's political movements. As I reported in January 2017, pro-life feminists were kicked off the list of sponsors. Over the past year, another ugly fight has emerged: The lead organizers of the national march have been accused of condoning anti-Semitism and making disparaging comments about Jews. In recent weeks, major political and religious groups have either denounced or pulled their support for the march, largely because of these accusations.

Women have played a huge role in shaping this moment in American politics. Women voters helped Democrats dominate their congressional races in the 2018 midterm elections, and women candidates broke numerous records in running for office. But the many marches taking place this weekend are a reminder that one narrowly defined women's movement can't describe the fullness of women's influence on American politics.

[Read: These pro-lifers are headed to the Women's March on Washington]

Tamika Mallory, one of the lead organizers, is at the center of the latest controversy over the march. Nearly a year ago, she attended an event sponsored by the Nation of Islam, where the group's leader, Louis Farrakhan, made a number of wildly anti-Semitic claims about Jews, including that they control the government and cause homosexuality in black men. She has also posted about her admiration for Farrakhan on social media, calling him "the GOAT," or "greatest of all time."

Instead of disavowing Farrakhan, Mallory has consistently equivocated. "I don't agree with everything that Minister Farrakhan said about Jews or women or gay people," she told my colleague Adam Serwer in an interview last March. But "the brothers and sisters that I work with in the Nation of Islam are people, too." In an interview on The View this week, Meghan McCain said she thinks the Women's March is "anti-Semitism masked in activism." When the host pressed Mallory to condemn Farrakhan, she refused.

[Read: Why Tamika Mallory won't condemn Farrakhan]

Jewish women involved with the founding of the march have also accused the lead organizers of making explicitly anti-Semitic statements and purposefully pushing Jewish concerns to the side. According to a report in Tablet magazine, Mallory and another organizer, Carmen Perez, claimed that "Jewish people bore a special collective responsibility as exploiters of black and brown people" and were "leaders of the American slave trade." The march organizers have denied making these comments.

While these allegations have created a firestorm, they have also masked deeper divisions within the Women's March movement. Some organizers of local marches have apparently been frustrated by the top-down management style and disorganization of the national Women's March. A competing organization, March On, will also host gatherings across the country this weekend. "Many women in red states, for example, couldn't follow an organizing playbook crafted out of D.C. or New York City," Vanessa Wruble, one of the organizers who split with the original march, told Tablet.

[Read: The year of the woman still leaves women with terrible representation in Congress]

Pro-life women have also been excluded from the national march. Although a number of self-described pro-life feminist groups signed up to be sponsors and march alongside the original Women's March, they were removed from the march's official list of supporters because of their anti-abortion views. "The Women's March's platform is pro-choice and that has been our stance from day one," the organizers said in a statement at the time. Many women, from conservative Republicans to self-described progressive feminists, have found this alienating. As McCain said on The View, "You're talking about all women being invited to that march? I'm pro-life. We were not invited."

On Friday, thousands of pro-lifers from around the country, including many women, gathered for their own march: the March for Life. In many ways, the pro-life movement is a women's movement, too: The March for Life is headed by a woman, Jeanne Mancini, and so are many of Washington's most influential pro-life advocacy groups. While these female marchers likely weren't the women who swept Democrats to power in November, they have significant political influence: President Donald Trump addressed the March for Life via video, promising to veto bills expanding abortion rights, and Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech to the rally.

Now more than ever, the national Women's March cannot claim that it speaks for all women. Its institutional support is waning: The Democratic National Committee pulled its sponsorship of the march, and EMILY's List, the lobbying group that supports female pro-choice candidates for office, is not supporting the march, either. Prominent female politicians, including 2020 presidential hopefuls, are staying away: Axios reported that Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar are all skipping the event. And religious institutions, including Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a prominent New York City Reform synagogue, announced that it would no longer support the Women's March because of the claims about anti-Semitism.

In January of 2017, as Donald Trump was taking office, the Women's March captured the rage and discontent and motivation that many American women seemed to be feeling. But as it has transitioned from a moment to a movement, the messiness of women's diversity has made the power of the Women's March much less clear.

The Shutdown Is Great News for Russia

Posted: 19 Jan 2019 03:00 AM PST

The longest government shutdown in American history is making headlines around the world. It will also have global effects, none of them good. U.S. political leaders, so unable to compromise, should understand how their decisions chip away at national security.

First and most obvious are the practical consequences: the State Department employees who have spent weeks on furlough, unable to advocate for U.S. interests; the active-duty Coast Guard members who continue to perform essential functions without pay. Going into critical talks with China, the U.S. Trade Representative's office lacks 70 percent of its staff.

These effects will end when the government reopens. Not so the increased political polarization that this process engenders, and that provides the kindling on which Russia and others are so keen to throw sparks.

Moscow believes that a divided America is weaker and more inwardly focused, less able to marshal national will or project power—or, to Moscow's mind, threaten Russia. So Moscow continues to disrupt American democracy by empowering the most polarizing voices and amplifying them in cyberspace and beyond. Left wing, right wing—the ideological disposition matters less than the intensity of the fight.

The wisest response would be national solidarity and a demonstration that the United States can't be fractured. The actual response, of course, has been anything but that. America's newly divided government has kicked off 2019 by closing itself, practically doing the Kremlin's work for it. Who needs a foreign adversary when there's an opposing party?

The most consequential foreign-policy downside of the shutdown, however, is in the realm of ideas.

Today, Republicans and Democrats generally agree that the United States has reentered an era of great power competition, in which Beijing and Moscow wish to contest the attractiveness of democratic government and shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model. Many policy makers are newly worried that alternatives to liberal democracy will gain currency, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle concur. Senator Mitt Romney cautions that the alternative offered by China and Russia is "autocratic, corrupt, and brutal," while Bernie Sanders has called for solidarity among democracies in the face of an "authoritarian axis."

This competition of democracy versus dictatorship is to a degree a contest of narratives—and the government shutdown plays into the wrong one. Beijing and others peddle a seemingly attractive story: that fractious, paralyzed democracies simply can't muster the will to deliver the goods their people want. Better, they suggest, to embrace an effective, tech-fueled autocracy that can move nimbly to pursue national interests and spread prosperity. What's a bit of free speech and the right to choose your leaders if those leaders merely squabble while strongmen lead their populations boldly forward? Government derives its just powers, they suggest, from the convenience of the governed.

Even recently, this line of argument would have been seen by the vast majority of people as obviously wrong, and until recently polls showed that majorities in virtually every region of the world favored democracy. But liberal democracies continue to create unfortunate grist for the mill.

A year ago—and remember, the last major shutdown was only last January—China's official news agency published a commentary saying, "What's happening in the United States today will make more people worldwide reflect on the viability and legitimacy of such a chaotic political system." This time around, the Global Times, Beijing's jingoistic, English-language outlet, doubled down. "Americans boldly portray their democracy as a global model and sell its standard worldwide," the newspaper said. But "the government shutdown has been going on for nearly three weeks and involves 800,000 government employees not being able to work normally. This is too much even for the US. Developing countries that are exploring a development path can hardly afford it."

This latest shutdown is, of course, just one episode, and will not on its own puncture the democratic balloon. Nor will populations abroad simply forget all the drawbacks of dictatorship and illiberalism. But combine the shutdown with its previous episodes, add to it fiscal cliffs and battles over raising the debt limit, salt in the effect of sequestration and an inability to pass basic legislation, and you have the makings of a narrative that is bad for America. Brexit chaos, protests on Parisian streets, and the like don't help.

Today's government shutdown is unlike North Korean missiles or Iranian proxies or Russian hacking. It is a problem of America's own making, featuring only Americans against Americans, and is thus amenable to immediate resolution. Indeed, everyone knows that the U.S. government will reopen, if not when and on what terms. Once it does, this latest demonstration of political dysfunction will begin its retreat into memory. Its national-security effects may be longer lasting.

<em>The Atlantic</em> Daily: The Next Few Decades of Climate Policy

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 04:07 PM PST

What We're Following

Newly empowered progressive legislators and activists have set their sights on a Green New Deal to fight climate change and decarbonize the economy. But the devil is in the details, and a plan released late last week by some 600 environmental groups includes opposition to nuclear power and carbon capture—two tools without which it will be virtually impossible to meet any of the mid-century climate goals.

President Trump allegedly directed his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie in front of Congress in order to hide his pursuit of a real-estate project in Moscow, according to a report by BuzzFeed News. Adam Serwer writes that the news, if true, is different from past charges: "The only defense of Trump's conduct is an imperial, Nixonian conception of the presidency—that nothing the president could do is illegal." Democrats in Congress seem to be taking that message to heart, as the report looks to be an inflection point that could lead them to push forward with impeachment proceedings even before the end of the Russia investigation.

Last week, the Broadway blockbuster Hamilton premiered in Puerto Rico, the ancestral home of the show's creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. But the drama surrounding the long-anticipated opening rivaled that of the musical itself. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Hamilton in Puerto Rico became a fundraising venture to help support the island. But Miranda's past support of budget-reducing measures on the island led to threats of a mass protest at the planned theater at the University of Puerto Rico, so the show was moved to another location.

Saahil Desai


Evening Read

Life with a corn allergy

(Illustration: Pete Ryan)

What is life like with a severe corn allergy? It isn't just popcorn or corn tortillas that become forbidden: It's everything from some salts (table salt has dextrose, a sugar derived from corn) to milk (added vitamins processed with corn derivatives) to any of the vast varieties of foods that contain corn derivatives. → Read the story.


Unthinkable

Donald Trump's 50 Most Unthinkable Moments

(Patrick Semansky / AP)

Unthinkable is The Atlantic's catalog of 50 incidents from the first two years of President Trump's first term in office, ranked—highly subjectively!—according to both their outlandishness and their importance.

At No. 1: Children are taken from their parents and incarcerated.

Join the conversation: Which moments from the Trump presidency would you add to this list? Email us at letters@theatlantic.com with the subject line "Unthinkable," and include your full name, city, and state. Or tweet using the hashtag #TrumpUnthinkable.

Dr. Brian P. H. Green of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, writes: "Reading Jeffrey Goldberg's piece, and then the subsequent 50 unthinkable moments, it becomes clear that it is not the bending of norms that should have us alarmed—it is our incremental desensitization to what constitutes a norm at all."

→ Read more reader-suggested moments here.


Poem of the Week

The beloved poet Mary Oliver died this week at age 83. Here is one of our favorite Oliver poems, "The Loon on Oak-Head Pond," from our July 1988 issue, a year in which our magazine—and the U.S.—was focused on a presidential election. Tap here to read the full poem.

See more of the July 1988 issue in which the poem appears, here.


Urban Developments

Our partner site CityLab explores the cities of the future and investigates the biggest ideas and issues facing city dwellers around the world. Gracie McKenzie shares their top stories:

Millions of Americans rely on tax refunds through the Earned Income Tax Credit. Those families are the first to file. And they spend their refunds right away—often on food or overdue bills (like heat). This year, those refunds might be very late.

Like Confederate monuments, President Trump's vision of a massive wall along the Mexican border is about propaganda and racial oppression, designer Brian Lee Jr. writes: not national security.

Cities could get more people walking, biking, and riding transit, according to a new report, if they just know where to look for improvement. Here's what they're currently getting wrong.

For more updates like these from the urban world, subscribe to CityLab's Daily newsletter.


Looking for our daily mini crossword? Try your hand at it here—the puzzle gets more difficult through the week.

Concerns, comments, questions, typos? Email Shan Wang at swang@theatlantic.com.

Did you get this newsletter from a friend? Sign yourself up.

What to Expect From Trump-Kim Take Two

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 06:52 PM PST

For roughly 40 minutes on Friday, a sleepy boutique hotel in Washington, D.C., burst to life as the epicenter of nuclear talks with North Korea.

As reporters and camera crews crowded into the lobby of the Dupont Circle Hotel and spilled outside to the street, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefly met with his North Korean negotiating partner, Kim Yong Chol, before emerging from an elevator, smiling ever so slightly, ignoring shouted questions of "How did it go?" and speeding off in a three-car motorcade to the White House. Kim, who slipped out of the hotel more surreptitiously, wasn't far behind.

The payoff came later. After huddling with Pompeo and Kim for 90 minutes at the White House, President Donald Trump has announced that he will hold a second summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, in late February at a yet-to-be-announced location.

[Read: How to deal with North Korea]

In a sign perhaps of how cautiously the two sides are going into this meeting, however, the news wasn't grandly announced to the press on the White House lawn as it had been ahead of the first summit. Instead, it came via a two-line email from Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Here's a rundown of where the negotiations stand and what the sequel to the June 2018 Trump-Kim Singapore summit could bring:

What has—and has not—been accomplished

The Trump administration says its diplomatic engagement with the Kim regime has already produced significant achievements. The parties have retreated from the brink of war (albeit a brink Kim and Trump steered their countries toward). North Korea has halted tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that could reach the United States. The two countries have established direct dialogue at the very highest levels of government and, along with South Korea, are experimenting with a new model of top-down talks (after decades of ultimately failed bottom-up negotiations) in which meetings between political leaders serve as the catalyst rather than the capstone of the process. There have been some meaningful gestures of goodwill: The United States has suspended major military exercises with South Korea, while North Korea claims to have destroyed a nuclear-test site.

But seven months after Trump became the first American president to meet with a North Korean leader, boasting afterward that "there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea," Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons program remains at least as formidable as it was the day before Trump and Kim shook hands in Singapore. Even as North and South Korea have made remarkable strides in reconciling—demilitarizing parts of their heavily fortified border, for example, and exploring ways to connect their railroads—efforts to achieve the "final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea," as the administration likes to refer to it, have gone nearly nowhere.

[Read: Here's what Trump actually achieved with North Korea]

The Kim government has not taken any steps that U.S. officials once hoped would occur early on in talks, such as providing an inventory of its nuclear-weapons program, dismantling a portion of its nuclear arsenal in a manner that can be independently confirmed, or offering a timeline for fully giving up its nukes. The Trump administration's new envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, has not been able to get any face time with his Pyongyang counterparts.

Trump likes to describe the negotiations as a great success, but the president's own government has at times been more candid. A report on U.S. missile defenses, released this week by the Pentagon, notes that North Korea "continues to pose an extraordinary threat" to the United States.

In other words, no progress has been made so far, and the Trump administration is hopeful that a second summit may jump-start negotiations again. (Critics of course say the meetings give Kim international credibility without any concessions from his side.)

What could be accomplished at the next meeting

U.S. officials appear to be going into the next summit with an understanding that their original approach to the talks—withholding concessions until Kim gives up his nuclear weapons—has so far proved a dead end. Instead, they may follow the more reciprocal formula that North and South Korean officials have long advocated: taking steps to establish peace and new relations with North Korea (the first two commitments made in the statement Trump and Kim signed in Singapore) in exchange for Pyongyang taking corresponding steps toward denuclearization (the third commitment). Skeptics caution that this may amount to falling for North Korea's old tricks, in which it pockets rewards without giving up anything of value.

In a New Year's Day speech, Kim hinted at one possible deal: capping the country's production of nuclear weapons and promising not to use them first in a conflict or transfer them to others in return for relief from international sanctions. "We declared at home and abroad that we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them," the North Korean leader noted, but none of that could happen while the United States persisted in pressuring his country.

When Pompeo was asked about the proposal in a recent interview with Fox News, he didn't rule it out. He said he was exploring ways with the North Koreans to "decrease the risk to the American people"—a more modest goal that wouldn't necessarily require eliminating the nuclear program outright.

[Read: The secretary of state is a North Korea hawk]

The half-measures agreed to at the next summit could come in a variety of forms. The United States and North Korea could, for instance, join with China and South Korea in symbolically declaring an end to the Korean War as a prelude to a peace treaty, or establish liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang. The United States could ease sanctions against North Korea or carve out humanitarian and other exceptions to those sanctions, while Kim dismantles the intercontinental ballistic missiles that directly threaten the U.S. mainland or facilities such as the Yongbyon nuclear complex.

The details of whatever agreement Trump and Kim reach in their next summit—assuming they reach one at all, or even meet in the first place—will represent the clearest indication yet of what exactly the Trump administration is up to with North Korea. Are these talks still really about denuclearization? Have they morphed into arms-control negotiations? Or have U.S. officials come to the realization, as they have in the past with countries such as Pakistan, that the best they can do is learn to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea so long as it isn't overtly threatening?

Wild cards

Then, of course, there's the wild card of Trump himself, who at the last summit decided off the cuff to cease U.S.-South Korea military exercises and could have other surprises in store for when he and Kim meet again. Even if his advisers believe a declaration ending the Korean War is premature, the president could go ahead and promise it anyway. Even if the North Korean leader doesn't request that the United States reduce its military presence in South Korea, Trump might see fit to do it anyhow, since he thinks it's a rip-off for the United States.

Kim is hardly the most predictable leader either—his government has blown off meetings with American officials and he's ominously threatened to go "a new way" if the United States doesn't let up pressure on his country.

Regardless, U.S. officials will spend the next month seeking to line up "deliverables" for the summit. But there's no accounting for what happens when their boss gets in the room with Kim Jong Un.

<em>The Atlantic</em> Politics & Policy Daily: How’s It Cohen?

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 03:59 PM PST

What We're Following Today

It's Friday, January 18. President Donald Trump will reportedly meet with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in February.

How It All Could End: As the government shutdown bleeds into its 28th day, some congressional staffers have privately come to a consensus: A resolution to the dysfunction may require a dramatic government failure, such as an airplane crash or a massive food-safety scare.

Talking Impeachment: On Thursday night, BuzzFeed News reported that Trump allegedly directed Michael Cohen, then his personal lawyer, to lie to Congress about a real-estate deal he was pursuing in Moscow during the 2016 election. Trump denied the story, but it's prompted many Democrats to consider proceeding with impeachment before Special Counsel Robert Mueller finishes his investigation.

Shutdown Time Capsule: Trump on Friday tweeted about a Washington Examiner report that a border rancher found prayer rugs near the southern border. The tweet offers a succinct demonstration of Trump's entire shutdown approach, argues David A. Graham.

In Case of Attack: Trump's blueprint for the U.S.'s missile-defense strategy outlines high-tech systems to detect and shoot down threatening projectiles. But the strategy relies on technology that is unreliable and even experimental.

Historical Shutdowns: In 1879, congressional Democrats, some representing former Confederate states, attached a series of riders to key military-funding bills in order to limit Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes from being able to finance Army protections for black voters from being terrorized at the polls. The standoff that ensued looked very much like a government shutdown. From our archives:

The democratic party, having a majority in Congress, demanded the repeal of certain statutes authorizing the use of the army to keep the peace, and providing for a supervision of elections of members of Congress by special officers appointed by the courts, to guard against fraudulent registration, voting, and counting; and its leaders threatened that unless the president assented to this demand they would leave the government without means of supporting either the army or the executive, legislative, and judicial departments, which was a threat of bringing the government to an end.

The Politics & Policy Daily will be off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday — see you next Tuesday.

—Elaine Godfrey


Ideas From The Atlantic

Trump's Impeachable Offense (Adam Serwer)
"Republicans have tried their best to set expectations so that only the clearest and most shocking of acts would qualify as criminal—and Trump's reported actions not only meet but exceed them." → Read on.

In the L.A. Teachers' Strike, the State Is the Problem (Michael Janofsky)
"Despite being the world's fifth-biggest economy, with Democrats serving in every statewide office and holding supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature, California ranks in the middle among states in per-pupil spending on elementary and secondary education." → Read on.

The Trump Administration's Careless Accounting (Megan Garber)
"That Trump summons more emotion for a notional wall than he does for the suffering of human children is clear enough. What this week's report suggests, though, is how that bias gets bureaucratized." Read on.


Unthinkable

Donald Trump's 50 Most Unthinkable Moments

(Patrick Semansky / AP)

Unthinkable is The Atlantic's catalog of 50 incidents from the first two years of President Trump's first term in office, ranked—highly subjectively!—according to both their outlandishness and their importance.

At No. 1: Children are taken from their parents and incarcerated.

Join the conversation: Which moments from the Trump presidency would you add to this list? Email us at letters@theatlantic.com with the subject line "Unthinkable," and include your full name, city, and state. Or tweet using the hashtag #TrumpUnthinkable.

"Reading Jeffrey Goldberg's piece, and then the subsequent 50 unthinkable moments, it becomes clear that it is not the bending of norms that should have us alarmed—it is our incremental desensitization to what constitutes a norm at all."
—Dr. Brian P. H. Green of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada

→ Read more reader-suggested moments here.


Snapshot

Antiabortion activists protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court during the March for Life in Washington. (Jose Luis Magana / AP)


What Else We're Reading

Rep. Steve King Raising Money off Controversy From White Nationalism, Supremacy Comments (Robin Opsahl, Des Moines Register)

Trump Said He Beat ISIS. Instead, He's Giving It New Life. (Brett McGurk, The Washington Post)

How Jared Kushner Tried to Stop Me From Running the Trump Transition (Chris Christie, Politico)


We're always looking for ways to improve The Politics & Policy Daily, and will be testing some formats throughout the new year. Concerns, comments, questions, typos? Let us know anytime here.

Were you forwarded this newsletter? Sign up for our daily politics email here.

The Family Weekly: What People Actually Say Before They Die

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 02:06 PM PST

This Week in Family

People's last words are often nonsensical and borderline bizarre, yet they've gotten conspicuously little attention from researchers, since it's difficult to study people's final moments without being overly intrusive. Michael Erard writes about the deeper meaning behind people's last words, and why understanding them is important to ensuring good end-of-life care.

Relationships with siblings can be even more influential than those with parents, so conflict among children can shape their whole lives, writes Jennifer Traig. She takes a look at the history of sibling rivalries from biblical times to the present, and how parents' treatment of their children has dramatically shifted away from playing favorites.

When thinking about economic inequality, it's easy to think about the macro forces at work, such as government policies and big corporations. But there are also ways in which individual people can affect the status quo, writes the Atlantic staff writer Joe Pinsker. He talked with a sociologist who has researched inequality for the past 40 years and has recommendations for what people who live in unequal societies can do to help mitigate the problem.


Highlights

Data show that Baby Boomers are moving out of their homes at a steady rate, even as the overall moving rate for Americans is on the decline. Empty nesters who sell the family home often seek cheaper rent and proximity to their children or their own parents. But doing so is still often emotionally fraught, writes Hayley Glatter—especially for fledgling adults who thought their childhood home would remain a source of constant comfort.

Is intensive parenting a symptom of larger social inequalities? Children may benefit from extracurriculars like sports, music camps, and supervised playtime, but not all parents have the funding or time to support those activities, as one researcher tells the staff writer Joe Pinsker. On the flip side, "free range" parenting isn't above classist criticisms, either: Affluent parents are often praised for indulging their kids' creativity, while lower-income parents are called out as neglectful.

Losing a wedding ring or a piece of sentimental jewelry can be emotionally heartbreaking and financially taxing. While finding a lost memento might feel like the ultimate needle-in-a-haystack feat, a network of metal detectorists called the Ring Finders helps reunite people with their rings. The success rate is "close to 90 percent on the ones where the calls are to a specific spot in Central Park, or to the beach, or a yard," one ring finder told Jessica Delfino. While some finders charge a fee, others do it for the fun—and the occasional request for chocolate-chip cookies.


Dear Therapist

Every Monday, the psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb answers readers' questions about life's trials and tribulations, big or small, in The Atlantic's "Dear Therapist" column.

This week, a reader needs advice about a younger sister who has anxiety that causes "craziness" and small crises every time the two spend time together. The reader doesn't know how to help, apart from recommending therapy, which the sister refuses to go to because she believes therapy is "just about assigning blame."

Lori's advice: Start responding differently to your sister's problems, for both of your sakes.

With siblings growing up in difficult households, one often takes on the role of the strong one who seems to manage the turmoil more easily than the other … Sometimes we carry our childhood roles into adulthood without realizing it, even though those roles have become outdated. Your sister may have needed protection growing up, but so did you. The difference now is that you're starting to see this second part—that you, too, need to protect yourself. On some level you know—because you suggested that she seek therapy—that your sister's suffering is hers to fix. And so is yours.

Send Lori your questions at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.


America Scrambles to Catch Up With Chinese and Russian Weapons

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 06:19 PM PST

"We have some very bad players out there," President Donald Trump warned from a Pentagon podium on Thursday. Advanced missile technologies are spreading among great powers and rogue actors alike, and with them new threats to the United States. So Trump threatened back. "We're a good player, but we can be far worse than anybody, if need be."

The blueprint he unveiled for doing that, the Pentagon's long-delayed Missile Defense Review, outlined all kinds of potential high-tech systems to detect and shoot down threatening projectiles, including from outer space. Though Trump didn't mention them by name, it was a message clearly aimed at rivals like Russia and China, which have made a public show of their advances in new weapons like ultrafast missiles. And it also singled out North Korea as a still-potent threat—even as a high-level North Korean official was in Washington, D.C., to plan another summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.

But there's a problem: The strategy relies mostly on tech and hardware solutions that are either unreliable or experimental verging on speculative. It gives no indication of how much any of its recommendations will cost, or where the money will come from. Still, it was a signal of how the military is trying to reorient itself from nearly two decades of the War on Terror—and back toward great-power competition.

Briefing reporters on Thursday, John Rood, the undersecretary of defense for policy, declared that the document marks a "new era in missile defense." So far, that largely amounts to a list of systems to be tested and studied, with little in terms of new technology actually deployed. "I don't see anything in here that fundamentally alters any balance of power," says John Plumb, who previously served as the principal director for nuclear and missile-defense policy at the Pentagon.

[Read: Trump hates international treaties. His latest target: a nuclear-weapons deal with Russia. ]

The document notably omitted a discussion of funding, and Pentagon officials repeatedly declined to answer questions about how much all of this would cost. "There's not enough money to throw at it to do all of these things," Plumb says.

There are also departures from the Obama administration's strategy, and a major one is the focus on space.

Right now, if a missile were hurtling across the sky toward the U.S. from, say, North Korea, stopping it would involve shooting it out from the ground with another missile. There are 44 interceptors buried in Alaska and California for this purpose—with the North Koreans in mind—and more being added. They work like a bullet hitting a bullet, and as such they're not especially reliable: The former Missile Defense Agency director Trey Obering once said that their odds of success were about as good as a coin toss, and they've shown uneven improvement.

[Read: What does Trump mean by 'Space Force'?]

But when it comes to the newer, faster kinds of weapons Russia and China are developing, there is, so far, not much that could stop them even some of the time. As a first step, the Pentagon wants to expand its ability to monitor missiles from space by putting more satellite sensors in the sky.

That still leaves the problem of actually hitting the missile. The idea of putting armed satellites in space to do so, which the new strategy promises to study, is controversial and expensive. "It's not a very popular idea," says Plumb. Some arms-control advocates, scientists, and others have warned about the implications of putting weapons in orbit ever since the Reagan administration first proposed studying the use of space lasers in missile defense back in the 1980s. (The Strategic Defense Initiative, Reagan's missile-defense research initiative, got the derisive nickname "Star Wars" for proposals much like some of those unveiled on Thursday.)

What all this adds up to is an effort to solve a political problem with expensive hardware. For years, defense officials have worried about the rise of China and Russia, even as policy has tended to focus on challengers like Iran, North Korea, and terrorist groups. In the meantime, China and Russia have been developing new ways to confront the United States. On Thursday Trump vowed to stay ahead of America's enemies—but the country is in some ways only just catching up.

A World-Famous Artist With Four Legs and a Bite

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 11:52 AM PST

Stories of people and animals bringing comfort to one another are a dime a dozen on the internet. But every once in a while, an interspecies communion rises above the din. Ron Krajewski and his horse, Metro Meteor, are one such pair. The short documentary My Paintbrush Bites, directed by Joel Pincosy and Joe Egender and premiering today on The Atlantic, tells their remarkable story—one of a reclusive failed artist who finds redemption in the unlikeliest of places.


When Krajewski rescued Metro, the thoroughbred was on the brink of death. He had once been a successful racehorse, with eight winning races at the prestigious Belmont Park and $300,000 in prize money to his name. But severe injuries forced Metro's stable to retire him. Krajewski, looking for an affordable horse for his wife to ride, bought Metro in the nick of time; had he not done so, the horse would surely have been sent to the slaughterhouse.


Shortly after they rescued him, though, the Krajewskis would discover how severe Metro's health problems were. Just one trail ride rendered him unable to walk. The vet gave him a year to live. And to make matters worse, the horse had an attitude; he would often bite or kick those who attempted to touch him.


"Everybody had said that Metro's not going to amount to anything," Krajewski says in the film. "Well, we found a skill for him, and he's pretty good at it."


Krajewski had always dreamed of being an artist, but his abstract paintings never sold. When he noticed that Metro had an interesting tic—he would often bob his head up and down and side to side—Krajewski had what he terms a "crazy" idea. He taught Metro to hold a paintbrush. Using horse treats as a reward, he then taught the horse to touch his nose to the canvas.


"He went to town and just started painting," Krajewski says.


Sure enough, the horse had a penchant for art. Krajewski sold Metro's paintings to a local gallery, attracting international attention and buyers. Over the course of his career, Metro's work would raise more than $80,000—some of the proceeds going to the horse's experimental and very expensive bone-remodeling treatments. (Krajewski also donated a large sum to racehorse-rescue programs.)


"When Metro started taking off, I was kind of living my dream through him," says Krajewski in the film. "Even though Metro's name is on [the paintings], you know, that's my artwork, too. Would I love to be a successful abstract artist? Sure I would. I'm not, but my horse is."


Co-directors Pincosy and Egender told The Atlantic that Krajewski and Metro's story revealed itself to be about more than just a painting horse. "What really drew us in was the fact there were multiple layers to this story," Egender said. "Both [Krajewski and Metro] were hurt by the outside world, becoming isolated and feisty as a result. Yet both yearned for connection, and the fame from the paintings created an avenue."


According to Pincosy, Ron loved Metro passionately, and also "saw him as a vehicle to achieve his dream—like a Little League father and his star athlete son."


"It's one thing reading about or even watching a film of a horse that paints," Egender said. "But to actually be in the barn and watch this massive animal take a paintbrush and make stroke after stroke is quite something to experience." Egender admitted that he will never know if Metro was simply performing for treats. "Regardless, it was quite a feat for Ron to teach his horse to paint while seemingly enjoying it," he said.


While Metro's experimental treatment was able to extend his life far beyond his original prognosis, the horse sadly succumbed to his leg injuries last spring.


"His rambunctious attitude and health issues were a constant challenge, but we never gave up on him and he rewarded us by taking us on his amazing journey," Krajewski wrote in a statement. "He was truly a special horse."

The Invisible Children of the Trump Administration

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 02:21 PM PST

Here is the finding listed as the "key takeaway" in a report compiled by the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services and released to the American public on Thursday:

The total number of children separated from a parent or guardian by immigration authorities is unknown. Pursuant to a June 2018 Federal District Court order, HHS [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] has thus far identified 2,737 children in its care at that time who were separated from their parents. However, thousands of children may have been separated during an influx that began in 2017, before the accounting required by the Court, and HHS has faced challenges in identifying separated children.

It bears repeating: The total number of children separated from a parent or guardian by immigration authorities is unknown. Carelessness can suggest sloppiness, but it can also suggest something more literal: a simple lack of caring. The Office of Inspector General report, an attempt to graft care, after the fact, onto a process that seems to have involved little of it, doubles as a broad accounting of the U.S. government's treatment of the families it separated, as part of its "zero tolerance" policy, at the southern border. And its conclusion presents evidence that Donald Trump's administration has managed to combine both kinds of carelessness at once. Chaos, cruelty, xenophobia, thousands of children more than were previously acknowledged to have been separated from their families: They're made manifest in the numbers in the report, and in the phantom numbers that poor record-keeping has made it impossible to know.

Last year, when the separation policy and its horrific results catapulted to the attention of the American public, members of the Trump administration and their allies in the media attempted to downplay the situation by suggesting that empathy for the families, torn apart and caged like animals, was wrong. "Child actors," Ann Coulter said. "Don't believe the press," Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen warned. It was a particularly pernicious twist on Orwellianism—lies aimed not at the mind, but at the heart—and it is a strategy that has, despite its profound untruths, continued over the past several months. In November, a Reuters photographer captured a picture of a woman and two children running to evade the stinging smoke of tear gas that had been lobbed at a group of migrants by U.S. Border Patrol agents. The image was, in some quarters, dismissed as a hoax: the whole thing staged for the cameras, the argument went, in order to produce sympathy. A deceit in the guise of journalism, allegedly; a conspiracy that turned empathy itself into the liar.

[Read: How to look away]

President Trump has, in the past month, further blended the line between human suffering and political theater. In his national address last week—broadcast, with grotesque spectacle, from the Oval Office—he admitted that the situation at the border was a "humanitarian crisis." He used that basic concession, however, to demand that other branches of the U.S. government give him the border wall he has promised to his constituents. The speech was, in a collision that is ever more common as the Trump administration wears on, simultaneously shocking and unsurprising: the humanitarian crisis, used as a bargaining chip. He seemed unable to discern between the desperation of migrant families and his own petulant wants.

The speech called to mind the callousness of Trump's earlier reaction to the deaths of Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, and Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, 8, under the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection late last year: "Any deaths of children or others at the Border are strictly the fault of the Democrats and their pathetic immigration policies that allow people to make the long trek thinking they can enter our country illegally," the president wrote on Twitter. "They can't. If we had a Wall, they wouldn't even try!"

That Trump summons more emotion for a notional wall than he does for the suffering of human children is clear enough. What this week's report suggests, though, is how that bias gets bureaucratized. The inspector general's office has provided evidence of personal carelessness that becomes systemic. With the report's known unknowns—managerial ineptitude colliding with human lives—it suggests the radiating effects of leadership that, on so many levels, simply cannot be bothered to care. Later in the report: "There is even less visibility for separated children who fall outside the court case." And: "Additionally, efforts to identify and assess more recent separations may be hampered by incomplete information."

This past summer, the administration and its allies defended the zero-tolerance policy by suggesting that the American media had misrepresented its true effects. "This misreporting by Members, press & advocacy groups must stop," Kirstjen Nielsen tweeted last June, as news of the family separations spread. "It is irresponsible and unproductive." She added: "We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period."

It was an outright lie, and it was, in retrospect, clarifying precisely in its dishonesty. The administration seems to have had so little regard for the people it had put in its care that it failed to give them that smallest measure of dignity: being measured in the first place. Being counted, and accounted for. "The unfortunate reality," the federal judge Dana Sabraw wrote in ordering a stop to the child-separation policy this summer, "is that under the present system migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property."

The Office of Inspector General report makes it clear once more that chaos can have its own kind of cruel canniness. The same day the report was released, NBC News published another shocking finding: that the Trump administration had considered, among other things, the legal targeting of migrant parents in order to accelerate the deportation of their children. The same day, as well, the Trump administration appealed a judicial ruling, this one concerning the all-important national census that will be taken in 2020. The White House is fighting to ask American residents specifically about their citizenship, a move that would reverse nearly 70 years of protocol—and a change that, many argue, would lead to the undercounting specifically of immigrants and communities of color.

The White House's legal struggle suggests another way of weaponizing data by enforcing its absence: to take human lives and relegate them to the realm of the known unknown. The tension it is bringing to the fore has lurked in the shadows cast by many of the Trump administration's gaudy spectacles: the question of who belongs, and who does not; who will be counted, and who will not. One thing that is all too well known, within the muddle of the president's own making, is how he has elected to answer those questions.

Trump’s Entire Shutdown Approach, Encapsulated in One Tweet

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 10:32 AM PST

Imagine you were charged with choosing an artifact to put in a time capsule so that future Americans could understand the current government shutdown. This is an unrealistic scenario, of course. No single item can explain the current moment, and moreover, there's no reason to believe that the shutdown is actually going to end.

But playing along with the game, your best bet would be this Donald Trump tweet from Friday morning:

It offers a succinct window into the president's mind and his approach to the shutdown: an obsession with border security. A dubious anonymous source. Assertions that are unproven at best and likely bogus. A reliance on right-wing media. Anti-Muslim sentiments. Xenophobia. It is the total package; it's just that the package is a booby trap.

The story to which Trump refers, but does not link, was published in the Washington Examiner on Wednesday. Even by the standards of what the president is willing to employ for political purposes, the article is shockingly thin. The reporter Anna Giaritelli—who previously served as a spokeswoman for the hard-line immigration-policy group Federation for American Immigration Reform—traveled to Lordsburg, New Mexico, where she spoke to a rancher about illegal immigration.

[Read: What will Trump's fake-news habit mean in a crisis?]

Who knows who the rancher is, though, or whether there's any reason to believe that she is reliable. The Examiner grants her anonymity "for fear of retaliation by cartels who move the individuals." But given how vague and unconvincing the allegations she airs are, one wonders why the cartels would even care.

"There's a lot of people coming in not just from Mexico," the rancher tells Giaritelli. "People, the general public, just don't get the terrorist threats of that. That's what's really scary. You don't know what's coming across. We've found prayer rugs out here. It's unreal. It's not just Mexican nationals that are coming across."

As the rancher admits, she has never seen any Middle Easterners, though she insists that she has seen prayer rugs. She's just heard tell from Border Patrol officials that Middle Easterners have come through—"several agents that I trust. There's not a lot that I do trust, but the ones I do trust, I talk to them."

Her own account is suspect, too. The claim of abandoned prayer rugs, presumably left by nefarious Muslim terrorists sneaking into the United States over the Rio Grande to do dirty deeds, has long floated around conservative circles. In 2014, PolitiFact awarded then–Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst a pants-on-fire rating for claiming that prayer rugs had been found in the Lone Star State. The fact-checking group noted recurrences of the meme at least as far back as 2005, but concluded,"We find his statement incorrect and ridiculous." More recently, video footage has indeed emerged of prayer rugs at the border—but the problem is, it was from the Hollywood action flick Sicario: Day of the Soldado.

The anonymous rancher also told the Examiner, "What Border Patrol classifies as OTMs [other than Mexicans] has really increased in the last couple years, but drastically within the last six months. Chinese, Germans, Russians, a lot of Middle Easterners, those Czechoslovakians they caught over on our neighbor's just last summer."

This is truly a remarkable piece of information because if it's true, the Czechoslovakians are slipping not only over national borders but also through the bounds of the space-time continuum, since Czechoslovakia ceased to exist on January 1, 1993.

To sum up: The Examiner has a single unnamed source, with no obvious qualification beyond proximity to the border, passing along second- and third-hand information, some of which seems recycled from debunked memes.

[Read: Trump isn't even trying to convince voters on the shutdown]

It's doubtful that Trump checked any of this out. The president has demonstrated a long-running inability to sort truth from fiction, and he often shares bogus claims, even though he has the full power of the executive branch available to him to determine what is real. He appears not to read, and certainly not with any kind of rigor, which may make it harder for him to spot the many holes in the Examiner piece.

Then again, it's hard to imagine that it would bother Trump even if he did know how flimsy the story he's passing along is. Perhaps he omitted a link to it accidentally, or perhaps he's just as glad not to make the original source material easily available. His aim is simply to score political points in the shutdown. Throughout the crisis, his actions have been driven by conservative media, which bullied him into shutting down the government when he was on the verge of compromising in late December. The Examiner story buttresses his insistence that the border needs more security, and it preys on xenophobia and on anti-Muslim sentiment in particular.

This is all quite helpful for his political messaging. Trump's attitude toward the shutdown appears to be that it is better to be victorious than to be correct. His problem is that he is neither at this moment.

Parenting Looks Nothing Like What the Experts Say

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 11:35 AM PST

Harvey Karp makes soothing babies look like a cinch. In the video that accompanies his best-selling book The Happiest Baby on the Block, he holds one screaming infant after another, deftly rolls them on their side, and bam!—the crying stops. "Side position" is just one of the techniques to calm a baby in Karp's repertoire. He also uses swaddling, shushing, swinging, and sucking. Bleary-eyed parents ooh and aah over how Karp can instantly activate a baby's calming reflex, or "automatic shut-off switch," using his trademark "five S's."

However, Karp himself has never raised a child. I imagine if he had, he'd be intimately familiar with the sixth S: straight out of luck.

I discovered the sixth S shortly after having my daughter nine years ago. A childbirth injury had left me bedridden with chronic pelvic pain, and for two months I lived on an air mattress in my living room because I couldn't make it upstairs to my bedroom. I couldn't sit in a comfortable position to nurse; I couldn't stand to change my baby's diaper or squat to bathe her; I couldn't bounce her to calm her down. My husband stepped up, handling most things baby-related while I healed.

[Read more: The American obsession with parenting]

But one night, my husband was passed out on the couch with a fever, and I was left to handle the nighttime madness on my own. It was 2 o'clock in the morning and the baby was screaming, clearly hungry. I had struggled with milk production, but the books had been adamant: Breast is best. But my daughter wouldn't latch, so I didn't really have a choice. My baby would have to settle for second-rate food: formula. Well, when I brought it to her, she wouldn't take that either.

As she arched her back and screamed, I thought back to when she was born and how everything might have been different if I'd just gotten one more massage from my midwife instead of opting for drugs. The natural-birth books had all warned against drugs and surgery; why had I been so weak? Why hadn't I just endured the pain and tried to turn the birth experience blissful, like all the women in Ina May's Guide to Childbirth?

In a fit of anger, I nearly threw the baby across the room. It's the scariest feeling I've ever had, and I quickly put her in her bassinet, went back to my air mattress, and let her cry while I sulked. I was only weeks into being a parent, but according to the books, I had managed to fail at the three most important things so far—childbirth, breastfeeding, and soothing.

I'm not alone in my self-blame. Research shows that parenting books can be damaging to new parents, adding to mothers' stress and heightening their chances of developing postpartum depression. The you've-already-failed messaging in these manuals is pervasive. Missed breastfeeding your newborns in the "golden" first hour of their life? Too late, your bond is irreparably harmed. Still using a pacifier after six months? Too late. Allowed your toddler to play with your phone? Not potty-trained by 3? Yelled at your kid? Too late, too late, too late.

Parenting is as high stakes as it gets—another person's life is in your hands. And many of us look to gurus for easy step-by-step instructions on how to do it right. Don't get me wrong, tips and tricks are great. But what the "experts" are telling us doesn't always work. They don't account for the fact that raising other humans is a messy endeavor. That each child and each parent is an individual with unique experiences and needs and quirks.

After almost a decade of raising a kid and talking to parents for my podcast, The Longest Shortest Time, I've realized something: We're all winging it. We are master improvisers, managing our kids' daily curveballs with a mix of random ideas, physical comedy, and whatever tools just happen to be at our fingertips.

[Read more: How to enjoy the exhausting role of parenthood]

Through trial and error, I discovered some techniques that really did make things easier with my daughter. For soothing, blowing on her eyelids and stroking the top of her nose worked. For breastfeeding, I sat her upright and facing me, as if seated in an invisible chair—a position that nobody mentions in breastfeeding books.

I asked the listeners of my podcast to send in their own tricks. It turned out that to get their kids to stop crying, some parents were snorting like pigs in their infant's ear. Others were fake sneezing, sprinting around the house, wagging their butt in the baby's face, or writing with a finger on the kiddo's back: S-L-E-E-P. Yes, this was the stuff. This was what parenting actually looks like. I kept asking for these strategies on my podcast and website, and they poured in by the hundreds. They were hilarious; they were spontaneous; they were weird. And they were nothing like the lofty ideals promoted in parenting bibles.

Take the perennial question of how to get little ones to eat their broccoli. Recipe books such as Feeding the Whole Family, Little Foodie, The Big Book of Organic Baby Food, and Little Bento will have you believe that any child can become a healthy and adventurous eater if you just make food delicious and cute enough. But the 8-year-old son of Jillian St. Charles, who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, wouldn't have it: He had an eagle eye for veggies mixed into his muffins. So Jillian started throwing "fancy dinners"—breaking out the china and the crystal goblets, then shutting off the lights and burning some candles. Her son loved the drama of the low lighting, and had no clue that there was spinach in his marinara.

Screen time is one of the biggest things that parents fret about these days. The Tech-Wise Family, for example, advocates for no screens before 10 a.m. and while kids are in the car; Simplicity Parenting encourages no television or computers at all before the age of 7. But screens aren't always evil and sometimes even come to the rescue—and not just on road trips. After a screaming match with her eighth grader over a book he had to read for school, Kate Kerr in Lyons, Colorado, decided to download an audio version of the book that her son listened to while playing video games. Years later, he is a computer programmer who listens to podcasts while working.

These strategies are born out of desperation—they are a far cry from the aspirational methods you'll find in the books by experts. Often I wonder, Is there even such a thing as an expert in parenting? Anyone advocating a one-size-fits-all solution for raising kids is certainly not doing parents any favors. In reality, we're figuring out what works moment by moment—and what works today might not work tomorrow; what works on one child might not work on her sibling. Often, the best we can do is accept each challenge as a given and go weird. Do something completely unexpected or absurd, kind of like the "Yes, and" principle in improv comedy, where performers build on one another's ideas.

Yes, the toddler twins are tearing each other's hair out and the 6-year-old is whining that she's bored and the preteen is yelling that I'm the worst for taking away her phone … And let's grab hands, turn our faces to the sky, and get it all out with a family scream.

Yes, the teenage stepdaughter wants nothing to do with me and refuses to speak a word in my presence … And I will write her a thoughtful letter, leave it on her bed, and invite her to write back.

The trial-and-error route is realistic and it's custom-made. The experts are trying to squeeze parenting into a rigid plan for the masses, but there's something to be said for just making it up as you go.

Trump’s Prayer-Rug Paranoia

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 09:39 AM PST

The president is tweeting again.

Three weeks into a government shutdown triggered when the president reneged on a deal to fund the government, insisting instead that any deal had to include money for a wall on the southern border, Donald Trump tweeted about a story from the Washington Examiner that cited an anonymous rancher who claimed that Muslim "prayer rugs" were found at the U.S. border. Although the president likely imagines that this strengthens the case for his border wall, it's really just an example of how the president will say anything he thinks backs him up, regardless of whether it's true.

"There's a lot of people coming in not just from Mexico … People, the general public, just don't get the terrorist threats of that," the story quotes the rancher as saying. "That's what's really scary. You don't know what's coming across. We've found prayer rugs out here. It's unreal. It's not just Mexican nationals that are coming across."

[Read: Waiting for a shutdown to end in disaster]

That is the entirety of the evidence provided for the discovery of "prayer rugs" at the border. The Examiner provides no photographs, no press accounts, no confirmation from government documents or sources—just the word of a single anonymous rancher. The same rancher also warns that the Border Patrol has caught migrants of other nationalities, including "Czechoslovakians." Czechoslovakia hasn't existed since George H. W. Bush was president. It's one thing to use anonymous sources; it's another to print whatever they say without a cursory attempt at verification.

As it happens, the claim that prayer rugs prove that terrorists have infiltrated the southern border is something of an urban legend, akin to the stories about a kid who ate Mentos and drank Diet Coke and exploded. In 2014, the right-wing website Breitbart mistook an Adidas T-shirt for a prayer rug; David Dewhurst, a former Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, repeatedly told audiences that prayer rugs were found at the border. As Vox's Matthew Yglesias noted, finding prayer rugs at the border was also a plot point in the action film Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which was released last year.

[Conor Friedersdorf: Why did the Border Patrol union switch its position on the wall?]

Even if the claim were true, it would prove nothing. It can provoke alarm only on the basis of the bigoted assumption that every Muslim is a terrorist, and therefore the presence of a prayer rug somewhere along the U.S.-Mexico border means that terrorists have sneaked into the United States. You can buy prayer rugs to decorate your home with on Etsy; you can also use them in devotions. It is an absurd and prejudiced assumption that they are an indication of terrorism, rooted in nothing more than animus toward Muslims. It is bad enough that some Americans provide an eager audience for this kind of nonsense. It is catastrophic that one of them is president.

Blame Sacramento

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 12:06 PM PST

Undeterred by an afternoon rainstorm, a band of students, teachers, and parents crowded the streets outside Hollywood High School the other day to chant, whistle, and brandish protest signs in support of United Teachers Los Angeles, the city's striking teachers' union.

Stop Cheaping out on the Children read one sign that pretty much summed up the union's bargaining stance.

Similar scenes are playing out across L.A. in the city's first teacher strike since a nine-day walkout in 1989. Rallies and protests on behalf of the 35,000 union members have scrambled the daily schedules of nearly 500,000 students and their parents and sparked a tweetstorm of support from boldfaced names in Hollywood and Congress.

The strike was all but inevitable. From his first day in office as union president in 2014, Alex Caputo-Pearl made clear that his vision of quality public education included more money for teachers, smaller class sizes, and expanded student support in the form of more nurses, counselors, and librarians—demands the district has addressed since then only modestly.

[Read: The unique racial dynamics of the L.A. teachers' strike]

Caputo-Pearl's first contract with the Los Angeles Unified School District expired almost two years ago, and tensions have been building ever since. Teachers simply aren't buying the argument that there isn't enough wiggle room to meet their needs in a $7.5 billion operating budget, plus the district's roughly $2 billion reserve fund. The district's unwillingness to spend the latter is a major point of contention with the union.

The state requires every district to set aside money for periods of economic uncertainty, for large and unanticipated expenditures, and to be eligible for a higher credit rating. While the union argues that the reserve should all go to teachers, the district says that it has already been earmarked for various costs over the next several years.

And that, says Superintendent Austin Beutner, a former investment banker and publisher of the Los Angeles Times with no prior experience in public education, could push the district into insolvency by 2021.

What if he's right? What if the district really can't afford the sort of investment that could make a difference in academic outcomes, now shaped by some class sizes that exceed 40 students and the pedagogical challenges inherent to Los Angeles, where 80 percent of public-school students live in poverty and many are learning English?

The real bogeyman isn't L.A. Unified, and it isn't Los Angeles, either. In Los Angeles, unlike New York, the city plays no role in public education. It's Sacramento, the state's capital, which provides about 90 percent of district revenue.

Despite being the world's fifth-biggest economy, with Democrats serving in every statewide office and holding supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature, California ranks in the middle among states in per-pupil spending on elementary and secondary education—about $12,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures for 2016. That's slightly under the national average and about half as much as the list leader, New York.

[Read: The ripple effect of the West Virginia teachers' victory]

To make matters worse, California's support for L.A.'s public schools has been diluted by the explosive growth of independent charters, which are publicly funded, privately run, and a severe financial drain on a system in which state money follows the student. Most of them are nonunion.

In L.A. Unified, which operates more than 1,300 schools, enrollment has been declining for a decade as the number of charters rises. The city now leads all others with 225 independent charters, serving more than 110,000 kids. Do the math, and it's $1.3 billion of state funds not going into L.A. Unified, a sum the district needs to help cover capital improvements, transportation, teaching material, and other costs—even if it has fewer students to teach.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, conceded that the state needs to provide more money, much more. "Our target is both, the district and the state," she told me.

She focused her ire on Beutner for his unwillingness to release the reserve fund, calling his resistance "a series of excuses that don't meet the needs of students."

But she was hardly effusive about the first budget from California's new governor, Gavin Newsom, who took office this month. Newsom proposed spending a record $80.7 billion on kindergarten through community college, a 3.6 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. He also proposed adding $3 billion to the state's share of pension payments for teachers and administrators, which reduces the level of mandated contributions from districts, enabling them to use money for other things.

That's not enough, Weingarten suggested. L.A. Unified and other districts need "a long-term, sustainable investment plan to fund the future."

Within a day of Newsom's budget announcement, the district made a new offer to the union that included $130 million for 1,200 more teachers, new caps on class size, money for more nurses and librarians, and a 6 percent pay raise.

Just as quickly, however, the union rejected the offer, calling it "basically the same" as the previous one, "just dressed up slightly differently."

[Read: Why school funding will always be imperfect]

The problem isn't the proposed salary increase; it's the proposed cap on class size, which the teachers say is still too high. Education experts generally agree that academic achievement improves with fewer students in the classroom, especially for kids in kindergarten to third grade. The gold standard of evidence is the Tennessee Project STAR study, from the 1980s, and subsequent examinations have produced similar results. In the Tennessee study, the largest class sizes had 22 to 26 students. In the latest L.A. Unified proposal, classes were capped at 35 for grades 4 to 6, 39 for middle- and high-school math and English classes, and 34 at the highest-need middle schools.

But short of releasing the district reserves, there are only three main ways to scare up the funds necessary to dramatically reduce classroom size, and all would require aggressive action by—you guessed it—state lawmakers.

The first is to realign the state budget, robbing another interest group to pay the teachers. That's a tough fight.

The second is to raise taxes, and good luck with that. As the bluest of blue states, California ranks annually among the highest-taxed states in the country, usually in the top five, with high-income earners taking the heaviest hit. State lawmakers are already contemplating universal health care and preschool, and Newsom has talked about "rebalancing" the personal income tax structure, an initiative that would surely whack the middle class.

The third approach is regulatory reform that would stem the growth of independent charter schools and impose new layers of accountability, a goal of California teachers' unions for more than a decade.

Both sides in the strike now seem to acknowledge that the state is the bigger problem for teachers than the district. In separate interviews with The New York Times this week, Beutner and Caputo-Pearl each said the state needs to spend more to sustain the kind of academic achievement that everyone says they want.

That's why Charles Kerchner, a professor emeritus at Claremont Graduate University and an expert in public-school labor relations, suggested this week that the district and the teachers' union should be "holding hands on the place to Sacramento."

"The solution is a statewide one, not L.A.-specific," he said. "The paymaster here is the state."

Taken together, the complexity of issues has made fierce enemies of the district and the union, irrespective of all the nice things they say about teachers and their unyielding respect for them. But talk is cheap, and solutions are expensive. Beutner and Caputo-Pearl don't much care for each other, but combining forces might be their only way out.

Why Democrats Have Suddenly Started Talking About Impeachment

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 07:03 PM PST

Updated at 9:16 p.m. ET on January 18.

Late Thursday night, BuzzFeed News published a report that, if true, could prove historic: President Donald Trump allegedly directed his then–personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about a real-estate deal he was pursuing in Moscow during the 2016 election. Trump immediately denied the story, but for many Democrats, including those who had previously cautioned against impeaching the president before Special Counsel Robert Mueller produces his findings in the Russia investigation, the report was cause to consider proceeding with impeachment before the Russia probe is finished.

After almost two years of near-complete silence, the special counsel's spokesman issued a statement late Friday night calling parts of the story inaccurate. "BuzzFeed's description of specific statements to the special counsel's office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen's congressional testimony are not accurate," said the spokesman, Peter Carr. BuzzFeed News' editor in chief, Ben Smith, stood by the story, saying in a statement: "We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he's disputing."

Earlier on Friday, however, Democrats made it clear that if it were confirmed that the president asked a witness to lie on his behalf, it would be cause for impeachment.

"If the @BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached," Democratic Representative Joaquin Castro, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, wrote on Twitter. Democratic Senator Chris Murphy weighed in, too. "If Mueller does have multiple sources confirming Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress, then we need to know this ASAP," he wrote. "Mueller shouldn't end his inquiry, but it's about time for him to show Congress his cards before it's too late for us to act."

Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley followed up on Friday morning: "If this report of Trump suborning false testimony is confirmed, then Trump committed a felony and must resign or be impeached," he wrote. "This is obstruction of justice," Democratic Representative David Cicilline, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, told CNN. "If the facts are true, this is suborning perjury. It's an impeachable offense." Representative Jamie Raskin, a member of House leadership, told CNN, "This is a completely impeachable offense, if this report is true." He said Congress would need to hear from "everybody who was involved" in the alleged conspiracy before moving forward with impeachment.

The comments marked a noticeable shift in what had been the standard party line on the possibility of impeachment—that Democrats should wait to act until after Mueller issues his final report. But the attorney-general nominee Bill Barr's refusal to commit to providing Mueller's findings to Congress and to the public, combined with BuzzFeed's implication that the president committed a felony while in office, has given Democrats a new sense of urgency—and they won't necessarily wait to hold Trump accountable, I'm told, if they conclude that he knowingly obstructed justice to hide his involvement in business negotiations with the Kremlin during the election.

"The conduct alleged by BuzzFeed is consistent with other, independent evidence of Donald Trump as candidate instructing others to lie and Donald Trump as president obstructing justice," Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell, who sits on both the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, told me. "Evidence is not a conclusion. It must be tested. We should do all we can in Congress with the subpoena power and oversight responsibility to see if Trump acted this way. I don't think anyone will be surprised if it's confirmed."

A White House spokesman, Hogan Gidley, told Fox News on Friday that the allegation was "ridiculous." "I'm not going to give any credence or credibility to Michael Cohen," he said. But Mueller has documentary evidence to support Cohen's claims, according to BuzzFeed, and its reporting is not the first piece of evidence that Trump has sought to obstruct the federal and congressional Russia investigations. The FBI opened an obstruction inquiry after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey—who was leading the investigation into his campaign at the time he was ousted—and told the Russians that dismissing Comey took "great pressure" off him. Trump's decision to draft a misleading statement on his son's behalf about a meeting with the Russians at the height of the election to obtain dirt on his opponent, Hillary Clinton, has factored into the obstruction probe, too, according to The New York Times.

But the allegation that Trump asked Cohen to lie to Congress, which would be a federal crime, is "the most serious to date," says Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. "These allegations may prove unfounded, but, if true, they would constitute both the subornation of perjury as well as obstruction of justice," Schiff said in a statement. "Our committee is already working to secure additional witness testimony and documents related to the Trump Tower Moscow deal and other investigative matters. As a counterintelligence concern of the greatest magnitude, and given that these alleged efforts were intended to interfere with our investigation, our Committee is determined to get to the bottom of this and follow the evidence wherever it may lead."

Representative Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee—the panel with the power to begin impeachment proceedings against the president—also promised to "get to the bottom of it." And even Barr, Trump's attorney-general nominee, who wrote a 19-page memo arguing that Mueller's obstruction inquiry is "fatally misconceived," acknowledged in that same memo that obstruction is an impeachable offense. "If a president knowingly destroys or alters evidence, suborns perjury, or induces a witness to change testimony, or commits any act deliberately impairing the integrity of availability of evidence, then he, like anyone else, commits the crime of obstruction," Barr wrote. "Indeed, the acts of obstruction alleged against Presidents Nixon and Clinton in their respective impeachments were all such 'bad acts' involving the impairment of evidence."

The FBI began investigating whether Trump was a Kremlin agent in the chaotic days following Comey's firing in May 2017, opening a counterintelligence probe into the president to determine whether he was acting in Russia's interests rather than in America's, according to the Times. FBI leaders believed that Trump's attempt to obstruct the Russia investigation—he told NBC's Lester Holt that he fired Comey because of "this Russia thing"—was itself a serious national-security issue.

But the first in-court evidence that Trump might have been compromised by Russia while Russian President Vladimir Putin was waging a direct attack on the election didn't come until last November, when Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the timing of his negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow—and about how often he discussed the deal with Trump during the campaign. Cohen contacted the Kremlin "asking for assistance in connection with the Moscow Project" in January 2016, and was encouraged by Trump to travel to Moscow to clinch a deal during the election, according to BuzzFeed. He is scheduled to testify before the House Oversight Committee on February 7 before he begins a three-year prison sentence in March.

With Democrats in control of the House, Trump could well be impeached. But removing him from office, which would require an affirmative vote from the Republican-controlled Senate, is another question entirely. A spokesman for Republican Senator Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, declined to comment on the BuzzFeed report, but indicated that the committee still wants to hear from Cohen on this and other issues. "Mr. Cohen has had, for months now, a request to return to the committee to provide additional closed-door testimony," the spokesman, Ben Khouri, said. "I will let the House members comment about impeachment or not," Democratic Senator Mark Warner, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Friday. "Our investigation, which is the only remaining bipartisan investigation, is continuing, to try to get all the facts and get them out to the American public."

Indonesia’s Rights Struggle: Deciding Which Candidate Is the ‘Lesser Evil’

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 09:35 AM PST

JAKARTA—Standing on a stage in the Hotel Bidakara's ballroom in downtown Jakarta during a presidential debate, Indonesia's incumbent leader, Joko Widodo, meekly defended what has been, at best, a checkered record on human rights.

Widodo, popularly known simply as Jokowi, denied having overseen any rights violations; he pledged, as he did four years ago when he first ran for the presidency, to reshape the justice system; and he promised, as he had four years ago, to push for land reform. And, in the course of the 73-minute back-and-forth on Thursday evening—the first of five such debates ahead of elections in April—he showed how little has really changed here during his time in office.

When Jokowi came to power in 2014, he did so articulating nine priorities, a program he called the Nawa Cita. Among them was a promise to resolve past human-rights injustices. His pledge held out the prospect of at least acknowledging, if not addressing, decades of army abuse, authoritarian overreach, and suppression of minority rights. In a part of the world often beset by a form of moral relativism—Our country is fine; others are worse—it appeared to be a significant step forward.

Little tangible progress has materialized, though. While Jokowi has not been directly linked with any human-rights infractions, his presidency has been characterized by a lack of improvement on the issue (rights groups would go further, saying he has in fact presided over a worsening of conditions). An inquiry into an attack on an anti-corruption investigator has gone nowhere; Jokowi's administration has walked back suggestions that he would formally apologize for a decades-old government massacre; and it has declined requests from international bodies to visit a restive region that wants independence. Though Jokowi now says he wants to address past injustices, human-rights advocates are downbeat about the prospect that he will follow through. And this election has little chance of yielding change: The incumbent is ahead in the polls, and his lone challenger has an even worse track record.

"Jokowi won't dare to solve human-rights issues," said Rivanlee Anandar, a Jakarta-based researcher at the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, a rights group here known by its acronym in Indonesian, Kontras. "His administration has displayed a regression on human rights."

[Read: What the United States did in Indonesia]

Indonesia has a long history of trampling on individual rights. Its first leader, Sukarno, was initially a forceful advocate for liberty as he led the movement that eventually won the country independence, but over his time in power he made more and more authoritarian moves (at one point, he made himself Indonesia's president for life). Sukarno was eventually ousted in a military coup led by Suharto, a general and someone who, like his predecessor and many other Indonesians, goes by only one name. Suharto's decades-long authoritarian rule began and ended in violence: In a tumultuous period between 1965 and Suharto finally capturing power in 1967, huge numbers—estimates vary from hundreds of thousands to 1 million—of Communists and suspected Communists were killed, and his resignation in 1998 came in the face of mass demonstrations and riots that left hundreds dead.

Since Suharto's departure, some progress has been made: New laws were enacted, treaties were signed, and ad-hoc human-rights trials were held, "albeit unsatisfactorily," said Andreas Harsono, the Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, the international monitoring group. One of Jokowi's predecessors, Abdurrahman Wahid, pushed for greater official acceptance of Indonesians who were ethnically Chinese, a minority group that faced persistent discrimination during Suharto's rule, and apologized for the massacre that brought Suharto to power (he remains the only Indonesian president to do so). Wahid was, however, later impeached over an array of other scandals and following a power struggle with his successor. Since then, progress on the rights front has languished.

Jokowi had promised to change all of that. While campaigning for president in 2014, he promised, for example, to lift restrictions on international human-rights investigators and on the foreign press visiting the Indonesian region of Papua, where an independence movement has agitated for decades.

In office, it has been a different story. His government has declined to allow the United Nation's human-rights chief to visit Papua, where rights groups accuse the military of violently suppressing the independence movement, and has restricted access for foreign media there.

And for years, Jokowi eschewed meeting with demonstrators taking part in the "Kamisan" rally, a weekly peaceful protest held in front of Jakarta's presidential palace calling for the authorities to address past human-rights abuses, before finally relenting this past May (that he attended only in the final year of his term was interpreted as a political move, and drew criticism).

[Read: Report on Indonesia]

Kontras, in a report released in October assessing Jokowi's time in office, said Indonesia had fallen backwards on an array of rights-related issues, from the use of the death penalty and extrajudicial killings to disability rights and the persecution of indigenous peoples and minorities. Defamation lawsuits—often used to suppress critical reporting or criticism of those in power—have spiked in the past four years, while frivolous prosecutions, such as the jailing of an ethnically Chinese Indonesian woman for blasphemy after she complained about the volume of sound from a nearby mosque, have proliferated.

Among the most troubling cases has been that of Novel Baswedan. The senior anti-corruption investigator was in the midst of a wide-ranging inquiry in 2017 when someone threw hydrochloric acid at his face. Baswedan had to be rushed to Singapore for treatment, and after undergoing four operations, he still remains almost entirely blind in his left eye. Yet no one has been arrested or prosecuted for the assault.

Concerns have also been raised about the company the Indonesian leader keeps. Among his ministers is a retired general who was placed on a visa watch list by the United States in 2004 and who has been indicted by the UN over his alleged involvement in a series of abuses, including murders, surrounding Indonesia's withdrawal in 1999 from East Timor, a province it had controlled. Jokowi's current running mate, Ma'ruf Amin, is a leader of Indonesia's top clerical body, an organization that under his leadership issued religious declarations in support of female genital mutilation and condemned religious minorities.

Jokowi's "record on the preservation of human rights, his regard for core democratic principles, his commitment to transparent and accountable government, and his support for a meaningful anti-corruption agenda are all highly dubious," Tom Power, a researcher specializing in Indonesian politics at the Australian National University in Canberra, wrote in a recent analysis.

There is, if anything, a feeling among some Indonesians that these issues are being given short shrift by a leader who had promised to promote them. "Human-rights tragedies," Maria Catarina Sumarsih, whose son died in the 1998 riots and who has since become a prominent activist, told me, "are just a political commodity, used to get more votes."

Jokowi has at least one thing going for him, though: He is not his opponent.

Facing off against the Indonesian president is the same person who challenged him in 2014, the former military commander Prabowo Subianto. Subianto, who was once married to one of Suharto's daughters, was dogged by allegations of human-rights violations during the previous campaign. A recently declassified U.S. diplomatic cable alleges that the one-time head of Indonesia's special forces ordered the kidnapping of dissidents in 1998. He has threatened clamping down on the media, and has warned that if he loses the upcoming poll, Indonesia could "go extinct." (Subianto has, however, appointed former members of Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights to be part of his new campaign team.)

According to Debbie Stothard, the secretary-general of the International Federation for Human Rights, ordinary voters were beginning to realize that in this election, "it's a question of who is the lesser evil."

The Mixed Reception of the <em>Hamilton</em> Premiere in Puerto Rico

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 01:37 PM PST

Heading into the opening night of Hamilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on January 11, I wasn't sure what to expect. The musical was supposed to begin previews three days earlier at the theater of the University of Puerto Rico, the alma mater of Lin-Manuel Miranda's father, Luis, under a new million-dollar roof financed by the show's fundraising campaign to repair hurricane damage. Some students and staff had other ideas, however, leading to a controversy that redefined what it meant to take the show to Puerto Rico.

When Miranda went to the island in 2010 as the star of his Caribbean diaspora hip-hop musical, In the Heights, he received a joyous welcome. One festive number included a Spanish-language call to raise the Puerto Rican flag; the audience members pulled 500 banderas from their pockets, the producer Jeffrey Seller told me over lunch at the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, in San Juan. Although Miranda was born in New York, he spent childhood summers in Puerto Rico in his family's hometown of Vega Alta, where his grandfather ran the local credit union. Lacking fluent Spanish, Miranda passed many days alone making home movies. To be cheered by a Puerto Rican audience, he told Oprah last spring, "closed something in me I didn't even know was open."

Hamilton—another hip-hop story of a man born in the Caribbean who comes to New York to reinvent himself and his nation—opened on Broadway to rave reviews in 2015. Miranda then called Seller and said he wanted to take his second show to Puerto Rico. (Broadway tours seldom visit San Juan because of the time and cost of shipping sets from the mainland, the producer explained.) Then, in 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated the island. "The hurricane changed our mission," Seller recalled. Instead of a simple homecoming, Hamilton in Puerto Rico would become a fundraising venture, a tourism lure, and a declaration of support for the island's recovery. Miranda had already helped to raise $43 million through his father's Hispanic Federation for immediate relief. Revenue from Hamilton in Puerto Rico, which runs until January 27, with Miranda returning to the title role, is expected to bring in $15 million to benefit arts organizations on the island.

[Read: How Lin-Manuel Miranda shapes history]

At the center of the discord over the show was the fact that UPR, like much of the island's education and economic system, is in crisis. Puerto Rico owes a reported $72 billion in municipal bonds, accumulated over the past two decades to pay for social services as businesses and residents left for the mainland. PROMESA, a financial oversight board appointed in 2016 by President Barack Obama, had imposed unpopular austerity measures: hundreds of school closures, along with tuition hikes and budget cuts at UPR.

Miranda initially supported PROMESA, invoking Hamilton's plea for governmental relief after a hurricane hit the Caribbean in 1772, and implored Congress to pass a debt-restructuring bill. ("I write about Puerto Rico today just as Hamilton wrote about St. Croix in his time," he said in a New York Times op-ed.) As the star and creator of a musical that champions America's first Treasury secretary, and that was famously hatched and hallowed in Obama's White House, Miranda appeared closely linked to the federal authority that had taken away Puerto Rico's control over its own economy. When Miranda gave a talk at UPR in 2017 to announce a Hamilton production on the island, a group of students marched onstage with a sign that read, in Spanish, "Lin-Manuel, our lives are not your theater." (According to Carmen Haydée Rivera, a UPR English professor who interviewed Miranda during the talk, he listened thoughtfully to the protest and explained afterward that his views on PROMESA had changed.)

More obstacles arose as hurricane restoration work continued at the UPR theater and Hamilton began rehearsing there in December 2018. A university-employee association, facing slashed benefits, sent Miranda a letter last November stating that demonstrations might occur if Hamilton were performed on campus. Seller worried about security; police routinely patrolled Hamilton events in New York, but they are restricted on the UPR campus (and recently clashed violently with university protesters). Another option emerged: Ricardo Rosselló, the governor of Puerto Rico, offered Hamilton the Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferré, a government theater with more seating and no obstacles to police protection. Only a few weeks before opening night, the producers decided to cancel the UPR engagement and move to Bellas Artes, the same theater where In the Heights had played in 2010.

Instead of quelling controversy, the change of venue fueled it. Now Hamilton was officially associated with a pro-statehood governor whose administration had drawn ire for suppressing Puerto Rican cultural celebrations in the school curriculum. In a post on 80grados, a left-leaning journal, the activist Amárilis Pagán Jiménez asked in Spanish why San Juan should welcome a show that chronicles "the history of the same damn country that has us under an unworthy colonial state and that ended us with PROMESA." The musical that had been celebrated for the revolutionary diversity of its cast was now being aligned with the American political establishment that Hamilton had tried to reimagine.

[Read: The situation in Puerto Rico is untenable]

These criticisms were compounded by disputes over whether a Nuyorican like Miranda had the authority to speak for Puerto Rico, and whether the arts were a luxury amid crippling austerity. Rivera, the UPR professor, wrote to me that "while many people in Puerto Rico appreciate Lin-Manuel's efforts and support, these are, at times, eclipsed by the climate of uncertainty brought about by the current fiscal crisis and politically tense relationships between the island and the U.S.," especially after the hurricane.

During my time in San Juan leading up to the show, my taxi drivers all cheered Miranda. "Everyone loves him here," one man told me. "He's done so much for the island." A UPR student who had performed in In the Heights during high school said she had waited in line overnight to get tickets for two Hamilton shows: "The first one to cry, the second one to watch." She understood the concerns of student protesters—she had gone without power for months after the hurricane and had to drop out of UPR after tuition went up—but didn't think Miranda was at fault. "He didn't have to come here," she said. "It means everything to us that he did."

On the website for the San Juan daily paper, El Nuevo Día, however, Spanish-language comments on a pro-Hamilton article were contentious. One said that Puerto Ricans who enjoyed Hamilton would be "happy colonized subjects applauding like seals at the victory of the independence struggle of the United States." January 11 was Hamilton's birthday; it was also the birthday of a Puerto Rican revolutionary hero, Eugenio María de Hostos. "Why not create a play about the life of Hostos, instead of Hamilton (who nobody in PR knows)?" another commenter asked. When I raised these criticisms with Luis, he replied, "It's easier to criticize than to create," adding that if someone wrote a musical about Hostos, the Mirandas would celebrate it.

Outside Bellas Artes on the night of the premiere, a line of police officers cordoned off the street. A small group of pro-statehood protesters appeared and caused little disturbance. In the lobby, patrons who had flown in from the U.S. mingled with Puerto Rican celebrities and original Hamilton cast members. Shonda Rhimes, Jimmy Fallon, and Questlove were in the audience. Then the show began.

The performance itself brought three indelible moments. The first came when Miranda entered as Hamilton. There's often applause for his entrance, but arguably nothing like this time at Bellas Artes, where the entire audience rose, as one, for an ovation that lasted more than a minute and seemed like an epoch. It was as though all the tension of the preceding months was being released in a collective exhalation; the people in the theater, at least, wanted Miranda to know they wanted him there. ("It was the first time I felt a cheer," Miranda recalled at a press conference after the show. "I felt my hair move.")

The second moment came when Hamilton, enmeshed in a political scandal, thought back to the hurricane that destroyed his childhood island. "In the eye of a hurricane, there is quiet," Miranda sang, with an emotional depth that belied his customary ebullience. The hall was hushed. ("I feel like I'm going back to Maria when I sing it," he later explained.) The show had become about the island's trauma after the disaster. "Hurricane" sounded like an echo of the West Side Story lyric from "Maria" that Miranda had remixed for a benefit single: "Say it soft, and it's almost like praying."

The final moment came at the curtain call, after Miranda had thanked his co-creators and invited his father onstage. "Lin-Manuel always said, and I take that to heart, that it was not only to experience Hamilton in its artistic value, but also to leave Puerto Rico a little better than we found it," Luis said, speaking of their fundraising efforts. Then his son reached into the breast of his Hamilton costume and whipped out a giant Puerto Rican flag. The crowd erupted. Miranda appeared to be in tears. Where 500 flags had greeted In the Heights, what looked like thousands of cellphones came out to capture Miranda waving la bandera puertorriqueña. I showed my cellphone video to my Airbnb host the next day, and she started crying. "We're a colony," she said. "We're treated as American, but we speak Spanish. When Lin-Manuel takes out the flag, it's like, Yes, we exist." Did it matter that Hamilton was a show about America's Founders? "Not at all. It's a great story!"

Hamilton has always been about the slipperiness of political narratives. "You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story," Washington tells Hamilton on the eve of the American Revolution. In San Juan, the musical's strength lay in its complexity, its eagerness to embody conflicting points of view. Was Hamilton a brilliant son of the Caribbean who used his wit and determination to change the world? Or was he an incorrigible motormouth who inserted himself into debates over a colony's independence, argued for a centralized financial system to control local debt, and antagonized so many people that he brought about his own demise? Was the audience rooting for America to rebel against King George III (played with aplomb by Rick Negron, the only Puerto Rican–born actor in the cast)? Or did the drama of a colony trying to unshackle itself from a superpower across the sea, ruled by a narcissistic buffoon, have a different resonance in PROMESA-era San Juan?

Before seeing the show in Puerto Rico, I hadn't noticed that Hamilton's nemesis, Aaron Burr, sings his anthem, "Wait for It," to a reggaeton beat. ("I wanted to change it, but Lin knew his people," the cast album's producer, Questlove, told me at the opening-night party.) When Burr later sings that he wants to be "in the room where it happens" while Hamilton and Jefferson negotiate a debt plan, the applause in Bellas Artes stopped the show. Could the audience hear in Burr's song a longing to participate in decisions about Puerto Rico's economic future?

At the post-show press conference, Miranda was asked about his support for PROMESA (he had seen it as the only bipartisan solution, but doesn't support the austerity it imposed and now sees debt forgiveness as the only way forward); his response to Trump's plan to divert disaster-relief funds to build the border wall ("absolutely monstrous"); his stance on violent crime in San Juan ("It's a virus that is everywhere in the U.S."); and his reasons for moving the show from UPR ("If there's the slightest chance something goes wrong, I cannot have that on my conscience."). He spoke Spanglish, jumping between languages mid-sentence, and returning contritely to Spanish at the request of local reporters. With his desire to please, he seemed no longer the visiting star. About bringing his creation back to his family's island, Miranda said, "I'm like a little kid with it; I just want you to be proud of what I made."

Letters: Even More Unthinkable Moments

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 08:42 AM PST

Unthinkable: 50 Moments That Define an Improbable Presidency

This week marks the halfway point of Donald Trump's presidency. "Like many Americans, we sometimes find the velocity of chaos unmanageable," Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor in chief of The Atlantic, wrote in his introduction to a special project taking stock of Trump's first two years as president. "So we decided to pause for a moment and analyze 50 of the most improbable, norm-bending, and destructive incidents of this presidency to date."

We asked readers: Which moments from the Trump presidency would you add to this list?

Here's how readers responded. (This is the second post featuring readers' responses to "Unthinkable." Read the first one here.)


Some readers were struck by President Trump's insensitivity:
"For me," Douglas S. McGill of Ontario, Canada, wrote, "nothing touches the utterly unbelievable claim by Trump that if present during the Parkland shooting, he would have rushed in unarmed to save students from the shooter." For someone who "knows nothing of bravery or service," McGill continued, the comment amounted to "slimy self-promotion" in the wake of a tragedy.

Christine Lowrie of Clearwater, Florida, cited a moment from before Trump became president. At a 2016 campaign rally in Redding, California, the future president "sought to tout his support among African Americans … by pointing out a black man in the crowd and saying, 'Look at my African American.'"


One reader agreed with Megan Garber's point that it's not just the president who undermines facts—the people he surrounds himself with do, too:
Christopher Lett from Easton, Pennsylvania, wrote: "The entire governing philosophy of the Trump administration is neatly encapsulated" by Rudy Giuliani "emphatically declaring" that "Truth isn't truth!"


Trump has the ability to make fun things less fun, two readers said:
For Irene Maxfield of San Antonio, Texas, Trump questioning a child's belief in Santa Claus was one of the most unthinkable moments of his presidency thus far.

"I know this is trivial," Rachel Teplow of New York, New York, wrote, "but I just cannot get over" the fact that Trump "gets two scoops of ice cream while everyone else gets one. What kind of terrible person does this?! Why does it matter how much everyone else has as long as he gets enough? It just bespeaks a unique level of awfulness."


Finally, one reader commented on the legacy that Trump will leave behind:
Reading Jeffrey Goldberg's piece, and then the subsequent 50 unthinkable moments, it becomes clear that it is not the bending of norms that should have us alarmed—it is our incremental desensitization to what constitutes a norm at all.

Because as I worked my way through this partial list, I realized how many of these extraordinary departures from protocol, precedent, and civility had completely slipped my mind. As individuals like me, the media, and all the talking heads find ourselves distracted by each day's new absurdity—as if we had only so much capacity for outrage—yesterday's despicable act or omission is quickly lost to memory. Each small violation imperceptibly shifts the curve of our tolerance toward apathy and numbness.  

Perhaps Trump's most lasting legacy is how his comportment has demeaned and debased the majesty of the Oval Office. I wonder if the presidency will ever again convey the gravitas and mystique and moral weight, the aura of quiet and competent power, that befits the United States' preeminent role in the world. His pandering vacillation, his lack of a moral compass and consistent philosophy, and his inveterate and pathological lying have robbed his words of all authority. Very few take him seriously; every pronouncement is discounted, even ignored. His juvenile behavior has contaminated Congress as well, where hyper-partisanship, childish name-calling, and a winner-take-all mentality have made the average voter utterly cynical about the entire political class. Politics is the art of compromise, but compromise doesn't happen when only the loudest voices get rewarded.

Of course, Trump's worst legacy will be his contempt for fact-based argument and his ignorance of science. Climate change is the singular existential challenge of our times. Future generations will look back on his four years in office (we can only hope it stops at four!) with deep despair and utter loathing. Time is getting shorter and the stakes higher, yet nothing gets done. We need leadership, not smirking quips. There was a time when the president of the United States had the moral authority and the competence to provide that leadership. Both have been squandered under Trump. His successor will have a hard job restoring them. It will not help that the solutions to climate change will, by then, need to be that much more draconian and politically unpalatable.

Even after Trump leaves office, his hulking, scowling, belligerent shadow will continue to hang over us all.

Dr. Brian P. H. Green
Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada

The Books Briefing: These Books Are Alive With the Sound of Music

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 08:05 AM PST

I'll acknowledge that reading about music seems counterintuitive. But it's one thing to just listen to a piece or song, and another thing entirely to do so while understanding what a particular melody might represent, or what inspired a composer, or what impact a certain work may have had on musical history.

The esteemed pianist Alfred Brendel gives readers a peek inside his mind with Music, Sense, and Nonsense, a collection of his essays and lectures that unpack "sound, silence, sublimity, humor, and the performer's critical role in the experience of music." In an excerpt from The Indispensable Composers, Anthony Tommasini reconsiders the legacy of Giacomo Puccini, the prolific composer of operatic works like La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca.

A biography of Claude Debussy—famed for his impressionistic, atmospheric style of composing that can be heard in pieces like "La Mer" and "Clair de Lune"—considers the "worldly trials" the French composer faced during his lifetime. And here's another famous name to add to the list: Charlie Chaplin, the auteur of the silent-film era of the 1910s and '20s, who was also a musician and composer. But Chaplin couldn't actually read any notes, meaning that his musical achievements—including an Oscar for Best Original Music Score—were the result of often unrecognized collaborations, as Jim Lochner analyzes in The Music of Charlie Chaplin.

Fast forward to this decade, and electronic music—the genre de rigueur—is contextualized as "a radical project" in the British journalist David Stubbs's Future Sounds. But looking at the recent pop charts, Stubbs wonders, is electronic music living up to its potential?

Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas, and ask you for recommendations of what our list left out.

Check out past issues here. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.


What We're Reading

(Per-Anders Pettersson / Getty)

The writer who makes perfect sense of classical music
"It's easy to take for granted that a performance should speak directly to a listener's passions, vulnerabilities, and sense of self. What many listeners might not fully consider is that the experience is almost totally in the hands of the performer, someone tasked with somehow summoning the ethereal without losing the audience in the process."

📚 MUSIC, SENSE, AND NONSENSE: COLLECTED ESSAYS AND LECTURES, by Alfred Brendel


Making a case for opera's most successful, yet condescended toward, composer
"Puccini is not only indispensable, but one of the most dramatically astute and musically expert composers to write for the stage."

📚 THE INDISPENSABLE COMPOSERS,  by Anthony Tommasini


The worldly trials of a fantasist composer
"By his own admission, [Debussy] suffered from 'a sickness of delay … and this curious need never to finish.' It was as though the emotional expression he sought resisted closure, with the ironic effect that daily life closed in."

📚 DEBUSSY: A PAINTER IN SOUND, by Stephen Walsh


The caveat to Charlie Chaplin's musical achievements
"Movies are an inherently collaborative process. Yet the influences of collaborators can often be discounted, contributing to a less-than-complete picture of how a filmmaker such as Chaplin created his films, and thereby supporting a mythologized ideal of auteurs and their processes."

📚 THE MUSIC OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN, by Jim Lochner


The largely forgotten, radical power of electronic music
"Though machines are often blamed for Chainsmokers-style blandness, 'The problem is not the technology itself … It's the conservatism and timidity and pragmatism of those using it.'"

📚 FUTURE SOUNDS: THE STORY OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC FROM STOCKHAUSEN TO SKRILLEX, by David Stubbs


You Recommend

In our last briefing, we dove into The Atlantic's archives and asked you to suggest books that you've changed your mind on after a second (or third or fourth) reading. William Kostura, from California, wrote that the first time he read The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula Le Guin, he found it "terse and bleak." But on a second pass, years later, William reconsidered: "It IS terse and bleak, but it points the way to developing a perspective that will allow us to find acceptance, peace, and an ability to work for a better society no matter how bad things seem to be. I find the spare prose irresistible now; there is nary a wasted word." For Iris Berkel, from Waxhaw, N.C., Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible is no longer the "hilarious" and "unbelievable" work she once thought it was. Now, Iris wrote, "I find the antics of the characters to be abysmally colonial and unaware of the culture and people that they blindly went to convert."

What's a book about music that you'd recommend? Tweet at us with the hashtag #TheAtlanticBooksBriefing, or fill out the form here.

This week's newsletter is written by J. Clara Chan. The book she just started this week is The Free Speech Century, by Lee Bollinger and Geoffrey Stone.


Comments, questions, typos? Email jchan@theatlantic.com.

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Photos of the Week: Ice Disk, Pet Blessings, Presidential Burgers

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 04:08 PM PST

Teachers on strike in Los Angeles, "Kiss a Ginger Day" in Ireland, icy purification in Japan, a terror attack in Nairobi, the Australian Open in Melbourne, heavy snow in Austria, fashion shows in Berlin and Paris, the "No Pants Subway Ride" in New York, and much more

What Life Is Like When Corn Is off the Table

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 10:28 AM PST

When Christine Robinson was first diagnosed with a corn allergy 17 years ago, she remembers thinking, "No more popcorn, no more tacos. I can do this."

Then she tried to put salt on her tomatoes. (Table salt has dextrose, a sugar derived from corn.) She tried drinking bottled iced tea. (It contains citric acid, which often comes from mold grown in corn-derived sugar.) She tried bottled water. (Added minerals in some brands can be processed with a corn derivative.) She ultimately gave up on supermarket meat (sprayed with lactic acid from fermented corn sugars), bagged salads (citric acid, again), fish (dipped in cornstarch or syrup before freezing), grains (cross-contaminated in processing facilities), fruits like apples and citrus (waxed with corn-derived chemicals), tomatoes (ripened with ethylene gas from corn), milk (added vitamins processed with corn derivatives). And that's not even getting to all the processed foods made with high-fructose corn syrup, modified food starch, xanthan gum, artificial flavorings, corn alcohol, maltodextrin—all of which are or contain derivatives of corn.

"It's such a useful plant," Robinson says of corn. "It can be made into so very, very many things that are, from my perspective, trying to kill me."

[ Read: Drowning in corn ]

Corn allergies are relatively rare, and ones as severe as Robinson's are rarer still. (Many people unable to eat whole corn can still tolerate more processed corn derivatives.) But to live with a corn allergy is to understand very intimately how corn is everywhere. Most of the 14.6 billion bushels of corn grown in the U.S. are not destined to be eaten on the cob. Rather, as @SwiftOnSecurity observed in a viral corn thread, the plant is a raw source of useful starches that are ubiquitous in the supply chain.

It's not just food. Robinson told me she is currently hoarding her favorite olive-oil soap, which she had been using for 17 years but recently went out of stock everywhere. (A number of soap ingredients, such as glycerin, can come from corn.) She's been reading up on DIY soapmaking. A year ago, the brand of dish soap she liked was reformulated to include citric acid, so she had to give that up, too. And navigating the hospital with a corn allergy can be particularly harrowing. Corn can lurk in the hand sanitizer (made from corn ethanol), pills (made with corn starch as filler), and IV solutions (made with dextrose). A couple years ago, she went to see a specialist for a migraine, and her doctor insisted she get an IV that contained dextrose.

"And while in the midst of a migraine I had to argue with a doctor about the fact [that] I really could not have a dextrose IV," she said. In the moment, she realized how absurd it was for her to be telling a world-class specialist to change her treatment.

[ Read: The allergens in natural beauty products ]

Because corn allergies are rare, many doctors are not familiar with the potential scope. Robinson said she was the first case her original doctor had ever seen in 38 years of practice, and he didn't know to advise her against corn derivatives. Even official sources of medical information can be confusing, telling corn-allergy patients that they do not need to avoid cornstarch and high-fructose corn syrup. Misinformation abounds in the other direction, too, because corn allergies can be easy to misdiagnose and easy to self-diagnose incorrectly. All this means that corn-allergy sufferers encounter a good deal of skepticism. But Robert Wood, president of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology and a pediatric allergist at Johns Hopkins, told me that derivatives such as corn syrup can indeed cause problems for certain people.

People with corn allergies have naturally been finding one another on the Internet. A Facebook group called Corn Allergy & Intolerance (Maize, Zea Mays) now has nearly 8,500 members. Becca, a tech worker in Washington State, writes a fairly prominent blog called Corn Allergy Girl. (She asked I not use her last name because she doesn't want her health status to affect her professional life.) The blog collates years of Becca's research into corn allergies, as well as resources inherited from other, now-defunct corn-allergy blogs.

Members of the Facebook group have also forged ties with individual farms. Once a year, Robinson said, a farmer in California sends members of the group a big box of avocados that have not been exposed to corn-derived ethylene gas or waxes. "It's a great month when you're trying to get through all of them," she said. For the rest of the time, she gets most of her food from a CSA with a local farm in Pennsylvania.

Becca, who writes Corn Allergy Girl, also gets a lot of her produce from local farms. The rest she grows. She goes to a specific butcher and meat processor who will custom-process whole animals for her without using lactic acid or citric acid. She has two fridges and several freezers to store food for the winter, when fresh vegetables are less abundant. "I go all Little House on the Prairie on the weekend," she said, "pickling things and shredding them and baking them." She counts herself lucky to live in the Pacific Northwest, where there are many organic, local farms. It's harder to find fresh food in many other parts of the country, and it's much harder to do so on a budget. "Your dollars just don't go as far as if you're getting a bunch of Chef Boyardee. It's very cheap to eat canned, preserved food," Becca said. She had to run GoFundMe campaigns, for example, for friends who couldn't afford to buy chicken from a source they can tolerate.

The diet of someone with a severe corn allergy is in some ways the ideal diet for a certain type of foodie: fresh, local, free of preservatives and processed foods, the provenance of every ingredient intensely cataloged. It's just not exactly by choice.


Knowing how to avoid foods with corn is one thing; knowing how to navigate social situations where danger lurks in every corner is another.

Robinson said that she has two rules when eating out with friends now. First, eat beforehand. Second, order a San Pellegrino and an appetizer for the table to share, which deflects the inevitable concern from the waitstaff. "They're nice, but people really feel they can find something, and they try. You have to keep saying, 'No, I can't, I can't,' and everybody feels bad."

Cassandra Wiselka, whose 5-year-old is allergic to corn, has written about the problem of Halloween. Virtually all mass-produced candy contains high-fructose corn syrup. Her son still goes trick-or-treating, but she switches out the candy he collects with corn-free alternatives: lollipops, gummy bears, and "fancy expensive chocolate that we don't even buy for ourselves." She makes and freezes big batches of corn-free cupcakes and pizza to bring to birthday parties. It's hard, she says. "He still gets upset at birthday parties and things where he has to have his own special food." They recently had to turn down a birthday party that was moved to a pizza place at the last minute because they didn't have time to make safe pizza to bring.

Wiselka's family moved from Germany to California when her son was 18 months old. He seemed to get worse after the move. It's hard to say exactly why, but Wiselka noticed that "in Germany, things are a lot less processed, food-wise. At least not processed as much with things like corn."

The one thing Robinson told me she really misses is being able to travel without worry. She did make a trip to Hawaii recently, after much advance planning. She picked Hawaii for the scuba diving. When she dives, she has to watch out for a few specific things—that her wetsuit has not been washed with a corn-containing detergent, that her dive partners have not been eating corn chips. But once she's in the water, she's calm. Sure, scuba diving can kill you if you aren't careful (the most recent data show that 40 to 50 people die while diving in North America every year), but she can be sure there is no corn in water.

"You don't realize you're carrying around this extreme sense of alertness," she said. "That level of hypervigilance that you have for things that you could touch or breathe in is gone. You're breathing air that you know is safe and you know the actual oxygen content of. It's just incredibly freeing."

This Charge Is Different

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 08:39 PM PST

Updated at 11:35 p.m. ET

It's not just the collusion. It's the conspiracy.

On Thursday evening, BuzzFeed News dropped a bombshell, reporting that President Donald Trump told Michael Cohen, his former personal attorney, to lie to Congress about the Trump Organization's pursuit of a real-estate project in Moscow during the 2016 election, a period in which the Russian government was seeking to aid Trump's presidential campaign.

"Assuming all the evidence adds up to the conclusion that the president asked Cohen to lie about the Russia deal, it's evidence of conspiracy, of obstruction of justice, of suborning perjury," said John Q. Barrett, a law professor at St. John's and a former associate counsel in the Iran-Contra investigation. "It's impeachment material."

According to BuzzFeed News, Special Counsel Robert Mueller assembled evidence that Trump directed Cohen to lie, including "interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents." That would represent a significant escalation in the legal and political risks to the president.

[Yoni Appelbaum: Impeach Donald Trump]

"If true, this directly implicates the president in a conspiracy to obstruct justice or to make false statements to Congress, or as an aider and abettor to Cohen committing those crimes," said Randall Eliason, a former U.S. attorney and a law professor at George Washington University. "Whether a sitting president can be indicted is a separate question, but there would be no wiggle room in terms of whether he was guilty of the offenses. The key, of course, is whether you can prove it and whether there is additional evidence beyond just Cohen's word—and from the article, it sounds like there is."

While evidence that the Trump campaign sought to assist the Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 election, and that the president then sought to hamper the federal investigation into that effort, has been in public view for some time, evidence that the president directed Cohen to lie to Congress would be something different entirely, a claim that the president conspired to commit a crime in pursuit of personal financial gain. Republicans have tried their best to set expectations so that only the clearest and most shocking of acts would qualify as criminal—and Trump's reported actions would not only meet but exceed them.

The report, if verified, provides a potentially simple narrative for a story that has often seemed complicated: Trump sought to profit from a real-estate deal in Moscow, and so defended Russia against accusations of interference, and then directed his personal attorney to commit perjury to cover up what he had done.

Obstruction of justice and perjury are crimes that turn on state of mind, but the details in the BuzzFeed News report would leave Trump with few defenses. "If President Trump instructed Michael Cohen to testify to Congress, giving an account of the Russia project that Trump knew to be false, that's obstruction of justice," said Bruce Green, a law professor at Fordham and a former associate counsel in the Iran-Contra investigation. "It's hard to imagine that Trump would have had an innocent 'state of mind.' The only viable legal defense would be 'It didn't happen.'"

Late Friday evening however, the office of the special counsel took the unusual step of issuing a vague but firm denial of BuzzFeed News' reporting. Peter Carr, a spokesperson for the special counsel's office, said that "BuzzFeed's description of specific statements to the special counsel's office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen's congressional testimony are not accurate."

During the 2016 election, U.S. intelligence agencies have said, the Russian government ordered a campaign of disinformation and hacking designed to hamper the candidacy of Trump's Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, and to help put Trump in the White House. The theft and release of emails from the Democratic National Committee and from the Clinton adviser John Podesta were major factors in the election—damaging Clinton's reputation and altering the news cycle during periods in which the Trump campaign was dealing with negative coverage, and ultimately affecting what turned out to be a startlingly close election in which Trump failed to win the popular vote. Throughout the election, and even his presidency, Trump has used his influence to dismiss the conclusion of American intelligence agencies that the Russian government was responsible for the hacking.

[Ken White: Three remarkable things about Michael Cohen's plea deal]

Shortly after becoming president, Trump pressured then–FBI Director James Comey to end an investigation into Trump's former campaign surrogate and national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, who had lied to federal investigators about his contacts with Russian officials. Comey refused and was later fired by Trump. Although the Trump administration initially said Comey was fired for improperly disclosing information about the federal investigation into Clinton's handling of classified emails, he later told Russian officials in the Oval Office and an NBC reporter in a televised interview that he had done so because of the Russia investigation. Trump publicly fumed that his choice for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had recused himself from that investigation after misleading Congress about his contacts with the Russian ambassador, rather than protecting Trump.

Republicans deployed a new line of argument—that Trump's behavior was simply so careless and blatant that he couldn't have intended to commit a crime. They dismissed the growing number of former Trump aides pleading guilty to federal crimes unrelated to the president's conduct with Russia. Republicans scoffed at the president's felony violation of campaign-finance laws as small potatoes. Trump stalwarts also argued that because firing an FBI director is within the president's authority, it could not be considered obstruction of justice, even if Trump was trying to stop the investigation. Indeed, that was the core argument of a memo written by William Barr, Trump's choice to replace Sessions as attorney general.

But Trump's reported conduct would exceed even the high standards for presidential criminality set by Barr in his memo. Barr wrote, "If a President knowingly destroys or alters evidence, suborns perjury, or induces a witness to change testimony, or commits any act deliberately impairing the integrity or availability of evidence, then he, like anyone else, commits the crime of obstruction." During his confirmation hearing earlier this week, Republican and Democratic senators pressed Barr to clarify his argument.

[Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes: The real significance of the FBI's probe into Trump]

When the Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar asked, "A president persuading a person to commit perjury would be obstruction. Is that right?" Barr answered, "Yes." When the South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham asked Barr, "If there was some reason to believe that the president tried to coach somebody not to testify or to testify falsely, that could be obstruction of justice?" Barr again replied in the affirmative. By the sky-high standards set by his own handpicked choice for attorney general, Trump's reported conduct would be a crime.

"If it is true, and can be proven, that Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress, then he has no wiggle room," said Alex Whiting, a law professor at Harvard and a former federal prosecutor. "There has been some debate about whether acts by the president to curtail a criminal investigation can be obstruction, since he is the head of the executive [branch] … but instructing or encouraging another person to lie under oath to Congress falls outside of that debate. There is no question that it was a crime for Cohen to lie to Congress, and Trump's role in soliciting or directing that lie makes him criminally liable as well."

Indeed, assuming the BuzzFeed News story holds up, the only defense of Trump's conduct is an imperial, Nixonian conception of the presidency—that nothing the president could do is illegal.

"Being president does not mean you get to rob a bank. Being a president doesn't mean you get to do drug deals," said Barrett. "Conspiring to provide false evidence to Congress has nothing to do with the exercise of a constitutional power."

[Read: The dueling narratives on Trump and Russia]

Justice Department regulations prevent a sitting president from being indicted. But the Constitution provides a remedy for presidents likely guilty of criminal acts: impeachment. From Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, both parties have considered obstruction of justice to be an impeachable offense.

"Congress should hold the upcoming hearings with Cohen and otherwise try to gather evidence supporting these allegations. If they can be proven, I think Congress has to seriously consider beginning impeachment proceedings," said Eliason. "There's no question that obstructing justice by instructing a subordinate to lie to Congress in order to help yourself get elected is an impeachable offense."

There should be no illusions about the difficulty of impeaching this president. He has built a cult of personality among his supporters, who dwell in an alternative reality where the president's critics are the ones truly guilty of the offenses of which Trump has been accused. He retains the support of conservative media outlets, who provide a steady drumbeat of fawning praise and conspiratorial disinformation. And Republican legislators who once excoriated the president for his politics, his racism, and his personal conduct have bound their fate to his.

But there should also be no illusions about what the weight of evidence against Trump says: The president is a crook.

When It’s Time to Sell the Family Home

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 08:54 AM PST

The house in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, that Denise Portner and her husband raised their two children in was the site of dozens of celebrations—from birthday parties to Passover seders and Rosh Hashanah dinners. It was where she beat cancer. It was where her children were potty trained and where they returned to during their breaks from college.

But after 15 years, it was time to go.

"It was a big house, an old house," Portner, a 56-year-old marketing-communications professional, told me. "The taxes were really high." So, they moved to nearby Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, cutting their tax bill to a third of what it once was. "We are able to save money that we can use for travel and for saving for our kids' needs."

Portner and her husband moved after her youngest child left for college and their large Tudor-style home was no longer the hangout hot spot it was when her kids were younger. Leaving the neighborhood was difficult, but ultimately, as is the case for many parents who have sold their home, as empty-nester syndrome set in, putting up the for-sale sign seemed like the natural next step. Though these moves can signal an important transition in life for both parents and children, selling the family home becomes an emotionally fraught manifestation of that change.

[Read: The psychology of home: Why where you live means so much]

Karen Kennedy, a realtor with the Boston-based Hammond Residential Real Estate, says that a large percentage of her clients are empty nesters. Kennedy works primarily in Newton, an affluent suburb, and says that homeowners there tend to be looking to sell their houses to free themselves from the burden of maintaining large residences.

"It's basically people that have had their last child leave the house and go into college, and they're in a big house," Kennedy says. "They feel that the house is too much for them to keep up—all of it, the property and the house."

According to the Census Bureau, 7.1 percent of Americans between the ages of 55 and 74 moved last year, a rate that has remained virtually unchanged over the past decade, even as domestic migration rates have cratered in other age brackets. These movers, like Kennedy's clients, tend to skew affluent, since wealthier people are more likely to be both homeowners and home sellers. And yet, despite the financial ties that may bind some empty nesters, the underlying reason for their moves isn't always about money.

"The way a lot of people talk about moving in terms of jobs and taxes and things like that, that's really not the immediate cause," says Thomas Cooke, a demographer at the University of Connecticut. "The way demographers … look at it is in terms of a life course. The basic idea is that at different stages in the life course, different places have different values to you."

For empty nesters who are approaching retirement, a leafy suburb with well-regarded public schools may have seemed like the perfect zip code for raising children, but it can be less appealing once a family's youngest child collects a high-school diploma.

According to the Census Bureau, a majority of the 4.8 million 55- to 74-year-old movers in 2017 stayed within the same county, but about a fifth of them left for a different state. Where empty nesters decide to move depends on several factors, such as proximity to their workplace, where their adult children live, and—if they're already retired—the weather and community amenities that can make aging as comfortable as possible. Portner and her husband, for instance, decided to move less than a mile away from their own parents.  

"Our move reflects changing priorities and a shift in caretaking from our kids to our parents," Portner says. "Whereas our lives were focused around our children, and our house in Elkins Park was just a few blocks away from our day school and our synagogue, now we are very close to our parents, who are getting older."

For Patricia Lara Garza—a 63-year-old corporate-relations director who moved from Wilmette, Illinois, to Chicago in 2017—shedding the family home not only saves her roughly $1,000 a month, but it has also improved her quality of life. Since she works in Chicago and both of her children live there, too, she says there was nothing keeping her in the suburbs. She can now "be part of the city and do the cultural things" without the hassle of commuting back and forth. Garza wasn't just looking to save—she was looking to get something fundamentally different from the community in which she lived.

Kennedy, the realtor, says that access to the heart of a city is also important to some of her suburban clients, who are thinking about mobility as they get older.

"Sometimes they want to be in downtown Boston, so they have walkability," she says, "and sometimes they want to be in the same community but have a first-floor master [bedroom]. It's not necessarily that they can't do the stairs now, but they're looking down the road to when they might not be able to."

Regardless of where empty nesters move, selling a family home can be a weighty endeavor. When a family inhabits the same house for decades, its sale can conjure a flood of memories, separation anxiety, and grief; it's not just that people mourn the sale of their home, but that they mourn their former selves who grew and evolved there.

[Read: How a house can shape a child's future]

It can be especially difficult for kids who are in college or just starting off their careers, when a sense of rootlessness is pervasive. The transition from high-school student to working adult can involve a lot of boxes and packing tape, whether it's moving from the parents' house to a dorm or from one apartment to another. Through it all, having the chance to return to a family home can provide a sense of stability, but if their parents move, visits "home" mean traveling to an unfamiliar place.

Alene Bouranova, a 24-year-old resident of Brookline, Massachusetts, who grew up in Kirkland, Washington, was sitting in a dining hall at Boston University during the fall of her junior year when she she found out that her parents had sold her childhood home. Bouranova had not even realized the house was on the market.

"I started crying in the dining hall, just crying all over my plate of pasta," Bouranova says. "I was not pleased at all. That was my home."

But, as Robin Gordon, a 57-year-old who moved from Maple Glen, Pennsylvania, to Pompano Beach, Florida, told me, when you live in a home for several decades, it becomes the backdrop for not just the climaxes of life, but also the mundane. It's where the kids haphazardly tossed their soccer cleats, where the family ate leftovers, and where everyone battled over access to dial-up internet and landline phone service.

"It sounds so dark, but [I remember] all the bad things, the crazy things that happened," Gordon says. "All the injuries that the kids had in the old house … the parties that went wrong when they were teenagers, the birthday parties that we had, and the family dinners."

Although her three children understood why she was moving, Gordon says they were still upset that she was selling the house: They had assumed that it would remain a steady constant in their lives, and had looked forward to bringing their own kids there one day. In this way, not only can the sale of the family home serve as a life marker for empty nesters, but it can also bookend a stage for their adult children who haven't actually lived there for years.

Bouranova told me that even though she was initially upset by the idea of leaving her home and neighborhood in Washington State behind, she was able to put the move in perspective and fly back from college to help pack up her things and give the house a final goodbye.

"It's my parents, and as sad as I was originally, it's their lives and they can do what they want," Bouranova says. "I just want them to be happy."

And that's the rub, of course: At the end of the day, it's not the banisters, cabinets, and backyards that give a house meaning and that make selling it so difficult. It's the lives lived inside the walls.

"I never loved the house," Gordon says. "I loved the home."

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