The Atlantic
Solving a Murder Mystery With Ancestry Websites
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

On August 9, 1977, David Roth drove his mother’s car to Silver Lake. It was a hot day for Washington, the temperature slinking toward the high 80s, so he’d decided to go for a swim. He headed about 20 minutes north of Lynnwood, where he slept on his mom’s couch, and parked at a beach just off the road. But his plans changed when he noticed a girl trying to hitch a ride.

She was about 5’10” and slender, wearing cutoff jeans and a low-cut, sleeveless shirt—not bad-looking, Roth thought. Sliding into the 1963 Chevrolet Nova, she said she was on her way home. She told him she lived with two guys in a trailer just south of the lake. It was late in the afternoon, around 4 or 5 p.m., but when he asked if she wanted a beer, she agreed.

Roth was underage, a 20-year-old with bad skin, but he was also tall, 6’5”, his hairline already in retreat. He bought a case of Bud Light at a nearby store and they drove to a wooded area just north of his old high school. After a few drinks, he wondered if the girl would take off her shirt. She stripped down to her shorts, and he grew excited as she let him touch her. But the feeling darkened when she refused to have sex with him.

Roth pivoted, offering an unusual gift in the face of rejection: peacock feathers. Did she want one? There were some in his trunk, and as he retrieved a handful, he also grabbed a bungee cord. Then he walked around to her side of the car, handed her the feathers, and wrapped the cord around her neck. He pulled until he thought she was dead.

When he dragged the girl into some brush, her body started to jerk. Roth took a rifle from the car and shot her in the head.

Forty years later, authorities still don’t know who she is. A couple out picking blackberries found the girl facedown five days after she was murdered, her body decaying in the heat. Her limbs were black, and her face had decomposed. She was unrecognizable.

Though it took detectives from the Snohomish County sheriff’s office more than a year to apprehend Roth, he was a suspect almost immediately. A friend of his, Robert Hendershott, alerted the police that Roth had said he killed someone. “They deserved it,” Hendershott recalled Roth telling him. Roth had described strangling the girl until the cord broke, at which point he got another bungee from the trunk. He later collected the beer bottles they had been drinking so he didn’t leave any fingerprints.

With a warrant in hand, officers seized pills, paraphernalia, and more than 100 empty bottles from the Roth residence. Peacock feathers, inexplicably, were everywhere—eight in the living room, seven in the garage. “More peacock feathers,” an inventory of the items notes. “Unknown amount at this time.” The officers found the Chevy Roth drove at his brother’s house. On its passenger-side window, someone had scrawled “Ass Gas or Grass. Hardly anyone rides for free.” The officers lifted fingerprints and bagged a long brown hair nestled among feathers and two cords in the trunk. Bullets matched the slugs found in the girl’s body.

In January 1979, police in Port Orchard, a town on the other side of the Puget Sound, arrested Roth on a warrant for possession of a controlled substance and called Snohomish County. He confessed to the murder, but he couldn’t answer all of the detectives’ questions. He told them he didn’t know the girl’s name.

Today, investigators are sure that someone does. They can’t imagine a teenager—probably a minor—went missing and no one ever wondered where she is. Maybe her family reported her disappearance somewhere across the country, or woke up one morning and realized she had run away from home. There was no Facebook back then to search, the way users look up old elementary-school friends now. No one could Google her name. Obituaries appeared in local newspapers, not on Legacy.com.

Detectives had their own limitations. Over the past four decades, they’ve struggled to give Jane Doe a name, sending letters to police departments around the country to inquire about missing-persons cases, piecing together forensic evidence, and searching federal records. They’ve compared her DNA to possible matches. Each lead has taken them to the wrong girls.

But after so many dead ends, investigators might have found a way to finally close the case. Jane Doe’s DNA has so far failed to identify her, but perhaps it can be used to identify a family member instead. As genetic testing has become more accessible and popular, the Snohomish County sheriff’s office is cautiously optimistic that a parent, a sibling, a cousin—some relative of Jane Doe—has explored websites like Ancestry.com to learn more about their family tree. If someone has wondered enough about their heritage to submit a DNA sample to one of these genealogy databases, there could be a genetic crumb trail that leads to Jane Doe’s identity.

This mystery is one of 725 open cases of unidentified deceased children in the United States that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or NCMEC, is helping to investigate. The nonprofit has been a clearinghouse for missing kids under the age of 20 since it was founded in 1984. But it wasn’t until late 2011 that the center started focusing on unidentified victims, says Carol Schweitzer, a supervisor of the forensic-services unit. So far, they’ve been able to help local authorities identify 107 children.

These days, police are required to take missing-persons reports and enter them into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, a database that any law-enforcement agency can access, Schweitzer says. But in the 1970s, there was no national standard. Agencies might have refused to take a report if, for example, the child was a suspected runaway. And even if an agency did file a report, Schweitzer adds, it could have been expunged from the system when the child would have turned 18. People who went missing decades ago could easily not be in any countrywide searchable database.

In 1977, Snohomish County detectives combed through National Crime Information Center records after Jane Doe’s hands were removed and sent to the FBI for fingerprints. The agency also found about 75 prints on Roth’s car and the beer bottles, but none identified the girl. They had enough evidence to get Roth convicted, but the case stayed open as the sheriff’s office ruled out dozens and dozens of missing women through DNA and dental records.

About three decades after the murder, a detective named Jim Scharf joined the cold-case unit and inherited the investigation. He’d been at the sheriff’s office since 1986, tracking major crimes, like rape, and violence against children. By the time he turned his attention to older cases, forensic science had progressed. Scharf began talking to experts at the University of North Texas, which has a unit that helps resolve missing-person and unidentified-body cases around the country using DNA technology. They’d have the best luck extracting DNA from three long bones, they told him.

In 2007, Scharf appealed to his sergeant to exhume the girl’s body. He’d taken to calling her Snohomish County’s precious Jane Doe, and felt a certain responsibility to the lost soul under his jurisdiction. He had moved to the area a year before she was killed, starting his life there as hers ended. “After 30 years of not knowing, we need to put a face and a name to this girl and send her remains home to rest with her family, where she belongs,” he wrote in a memo.

The girl’s bones were unearthed the following year from an unmarked grave at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Everett, Washington. As Scharf had hoped, they offered promising insights into her identity. NCMEC used the newly retrieved DNA to identify three potential matches, and an anthropologist determined that Jane Doe was likely much younger than everyone thought. Officials initially determined she was 25 to 35 years old—into the 1990s, media reported she had been in her late 20s to early 30s—but revised estimates pegged her as 15 to 21, and most likely 16 to 19.

It seemed like a breakthrough. Tips came in from people who had seen news stories about the case. But as Scharf checked out each one, comparing dental records and circumstances, it became clear that while the DNA from the bones had helped him eliminate more possible matches, he was still no closer to sending her remains home.

It would be easy to forget about Jane and John Doe cases in Snohomish County. There are no families pleading with police to solve them. Many detectives who were originally assigned to investigations have retired. At the medical examiner’s office, the remains of 11 Does are stored in boxes in a special room, secondary to the new bodies that arrive each day.

But the people closest to these cases don’t forget. Jane Jorgensen, an investigator at the medical examiner’s office, tries to do one thing on one case each morning as soon as she gets to work, before the living demand her attention. Scharf, who’s now nearing retirement age himself, worries someone once did report his precious Jane Doe missing, but that sometime over the years the case was lost. He’s also discovered that some people still reported missing have been found. Sometimes he’ll spend days and weeks researching the name of a girl someone phoned in, only to learn she’s alive in a different city. He’s always glad to find them safe, but it’s disappointing, too.

A few months ago, I met Scharf at the Snohomish sheriff’s office, on the fourth floor of a county courthouse building in Everett. He led me back to an interview room with a two-way mirror and three dossiers on the table stuffed with documents that spanned the decades detectives have spent trying to solve the mystery of Jane Doe’s identity. I skimmed through piles of reports and tip sheets that officers filled out after fielding calls, like one in 1992 from a woman who saw the case featured on TV. She thought Jane Doe might be her friend, but detectives found the friend alive in California. Another woman from Omaha, Nebraska, called in 2015. Her father-in-law’s aunt had disappeared in August 1977, but Jane Doe wasn’t her.

“I think I am almost positive her name is Carrie,” one man said in an email in 2009. Someone else wrote in 2010: “I can’t be 100 percent sure but this girl really resembles someone I knew a very long time ago. We were both runaways from the midwest.”

After so many false starts, Scharf finally turned to someone he knew had known Jane Doe: her killer. The parole board had granted David Roth his freedom more than 26 years after his sentencing, and he was released from prison in early 2005. When Scharf knocked on Roth’s door, he was bigger than the detective expected—intimidating even. But Roth agreed to try to help identify the girl on the condition they didn’t discuss her death.

“I can no longer help her, but I can help those who are looking for her,” Roth later told a reporter for The Everett Daily Herald. In prison, he had learned to value life, he said. “Some things we have to do.”

Roth offered details to refine a sketch of Jane Doe, correcting the way her hair looked when he saw her. A 2009 description of the girl recalls a teen with short, light- to medium-brown hair. Tank top with white, blue, green, and pink pastel stripes. Two front teeth with dental restoration. Appeared to have suntan. Eyes: unknown.

Officers tasked with identifying older Jane and John Doe cases have to stretch farther to solve them than contemporary homicides, says Carol Schweitzer, the NCMEC forensic specialist. The investigators may not be able to question witnesses or revisit the scene of the crime. The woods where Snohomish County’s Jane Doe was discovered, for instance, has been developed into housing. New technology is critical, because it gives agencies a chance to take these cases “leaps and bounds” beyond what was possible in the 1970s and ’80s, Schweitzer says.

As new DNA-testing techniques have reshaped the criminal-justice landscape, leading to both arrests and exonerations, they may also open up new opportunities to address unidentified bodies. Public genealogy databases are unfamiliar territory, Schweitzer says, but they’re a promising frontier. Genealogical DNA testing became available commercially in 2000, when Family Tree DNA and Oxford Ancestors debuted to help people trace their lineage and find ancestors and living relatives. Today, millions of people have submitted their DNA to such a service by mailing in their saliva or other samples. Five million have used Ancestry.com, for example, and 23andMe has more than 2 million genotyped customers, according to the companies.

Since the Snohomish County sheriff’s office couldn’t find a match for Jane Doe’s DNA in federal databases, investigators wondered if they could find a family member’s DNA in online ones. But they needed help. So Scharf reached out to Colleen Fitzpatrick, a forensic genealogist based in California. She runs Identifinders, a service that uses DNA samples to help clients locate people. That can include adoptive children looking for their birth parents, or police with a DNA sample from a crime but no hits in CODIS, an FBI database that stands for Combined DNA Index System. Using methods the company calls proprietary, Fitzpatrick compares an unidentified DNA sample with records across public genealogy websites.

To replicate the process with Jane Doe, investigators are trying to glean more DNA from her remains by recreating her entire genome—“every little bit of DNA from beginning to end,” Fitzpatrick says.

There are a couple hurdles. Fitzpatrick is concerned Jane Doe’s DNA may be too deteriorated to pull together a complete sequence. At some point authorities cooked down her bones to extract DNA from them, plus the girl’s grave was watery when they exhumed her remains in 2008. Still, Fitzpatrick hopes to have a sequence by the end of the year. “We have the technology to start approaching DNA samples we couldn’t look at in the past because they were so degraded,” she says.

A second barrier might be more daunting. Some popular DNA-testing services like Ancestry.com and 23andMe won’t readily work with law-enforcement agencies. And that’s with good reason, according to Mechthild Prinz, a forensic-science professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Cooperating with law enforcement could put such companies in a tight spot with their customers, she says. “You are doing your genealogy, but all of a sudden you’re putting your family into forensic investigations?”

Adding to privacy concerns, some high-profile cases have stoked fears that authorities will misuse the information collected by genealogy websites. In 2014, police got a warrant to seize genetic information from Ancestry.com after DNA found on a murder victim’s body was a close match to someone in the company’s database. Michael Usry’s father had donated DNA to a nonprofit scientific organization before his and other samples were acquired by Ancestry.com, so officers identified Usry as a suspect and demanded his DNA. Tests later showed it didn’t match the samples taken from the crime scene.

23andMe has said that it “unequivocally chooses to use all practical legal and administrative resources” to resist law-enforcement requests, and that it doesn’t share customer data with public databases. Moreover, Kate Black, the company’s privacy officer, says that Jane Doe’s sample, drawn from decaying bone, wouldn’t even be compatible with those that 23andMe analyzes. According to Black, the company only uses the spit of living people, “and unless we get that sample and can process it through our lab, we really can’t do much with the data.”

Would they assist in Jane and John Doe investigations if they could? Black says the company would have to consider each on a case-by-case basis. But, she adds, “I don’t think this is a type of situation we’d involve ourselves in.”

So far, it’s unclear if there’s any middle ground where authorities can tap this evolving technology without alarming civil-liberties advocates. Fitzpatrick, for her part, contends that Jane Doe’s cold case is different than ones in which the suspect is at large. “These people are victims,” she says. “She had a mother and a father.” She likens Jane and John Does to adopted children in search of their biological parents.

Schweitzer remains optimistic. If investigators can locate Jane Doe’s family, she hopes the success will encourage law-enforcement agencies and major DNA-testing websites to cooperate. In an analogy that echoes Fitzpatrick’s, she notes that the people who send their spit to DNA-testing services aren’t so unlike officers trying to identify a decedent. “The whole purpose is to find people they’re related to and didn’t know about,” she says. “That’s really the exact purpose of what we’re trying to do with these unidentified victims: find the heritage of where they came from, and find their relatives.”

Unlike in murder cases, time is on the investigators’ side. Whereas the first 48 hours are supposedly the most important to tracking down a killer, the odds of identifying Jane Doe with a suitable DNA sample improve the more time passes, Fitzpatrick says. And even a small lead, such as a number of genealogical matches in a particular region, could help detectives narrow in. It would kindle more hope than what officers are sure she left behind: a partial pack of Marlboro cigarettes, 17 cents in her pocket, the pair of men’s sneakers she was wearing when Roth picked her up.

When Scharf met Roth, Roth said that he remembered the girl being anxious to get back home. The detective understood that to mean the trailer where she said she lived, just south of the lake. But where was she from? Roth said the girl mentioned she’d hitchiked all over the place. Maybe she was from the Pacific Northwest, or maybe she stuck out her thumb one day and made her way to Washington from far away.

Recently, Scharf wondered if Roth might be able to recall even more details. But he couldn’t track him down. At some point after the two met, Roth had moved out of his house, and Scharf wasn’t able to find a new address or phone number. It became another, smaller mystery in a case full of so many.

But this one was solved. Earlier this month, Scharf discovered that Roth succumbed to cancer at a medical center in Everett. He died on August 9, 2015, the date he killed Jane Doe.

Trump's Faux Breakup With His Manufacturing Council
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

It was a quick turn for 26 hours’ time. On Tuesday morning, President Trump blasted Kenneth Frazier, the chief executive officer of Merck Pharmaceuticals, for leaving a White House advisory council in protest of Trump’s equivocating statement on the white-nationalist violence in Charlottesville. On Wednesday afternoon, after more than half a dozen CEOs joined Frazier in publicly refusing to work with the White House (and others reportedly quietly indicating they might do the same), Trump abruptly disbanded two advisory panels.

The question of who dumped whom aside, the breaking-up of the two panels did not make for the best optics for an often chaotic White House. That said, the development seems unlikely to change the course of policymaking in Washington. The panels were largely ceremonial, and the Trump administration has shown a remarkable willingness to heed the demands of big business, even if big business has this week shown a remarkable willingness to chide the Trump administration.

Both the manufacturing council and the strategic and policy forum—a group of top executives from a broad range of industries, representing Boeing, General Electric, and JPMorgan Chase, among other firms—were launched with significant fanfare. In a statement, the then-president-elect said that “pioneering CEOs” would help “create new jobs across the United States from Silicon Valley to the heartland.” Soon after, the White House held a few splashy events with the corporate executives who signed on, eager to get the president’s ear.

But it was never clear exactly what the councils were doing other than providing photo opportunities. There has been little to show from their meetings, and from the start, virtually all of the news about the councils involved controversy, with various members quitting in protest: Travis Kalanick of Uber due to the Muslim ban, Robert Iger of Disney and Elon Musk of Tesla over Trump pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, and then Frazier and many others over the Charlottesville incident. With every withdrawal, the remaining CEOs found themselves forced to explain why they continued to work with Trump. In many cases this led executives to repudiate his policies and stress that they were staying on for the good of the economy.

The dance was always an awkward one. “It’s a tough situation for CEOs,” Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, told Fort Worth’s Star-Telegram. “You want to make nice with the president because you’re a public company and you have shareholders, and it’s hard to balance doing the right financial thing versus doing what they think is the right thing, whatever your political beliefs are.” (Trump and Cuban are often at odds. Once, Trump said Cuban “backed me big-time but I wasn’t interested in taking all of his calls. He’s not smart enough to run for president!”) With Trump condemning the violence on “many sides” and saying that there were “fine people” marching with the white nationalists in Charlottesville, that dance became untenable.

Frazier quit. Trump lashed out. “They’re not taking their job seriously as it pertains to this country,” he said at a news conference held in Trump Tower. “Some of the folks that will leave—they’re leaving out of embarrassment because they make their products outside” the country, he added. Brian Krzanich of Intel and Kevin Plank of Under Armour also quit, and were soon joined by Scott Paul of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO, and Inge Thulin of 3M. According to The New York Times, executives on the business panel agreed they should disband it on a conference call on Wednesday morning, and members of the manufacturing council were reportedly planning, before Trump’s announcement, to hold a similar call on Wednesday afternoon.

While the relationship between Trump and these individual executives soured in an extraordinary public fashion, it is clear that much of the substantive romance between Trump and big business remains. The White House has not made any meaningful progress on tax reform or infrastructure, two business-friendly issues he made promises about during the campaign. But after he promised to drain the swamp, he has installed dozens of lobbyists across the government: lobbyists for insurers and the pharmaceutical industry in the Department of Health and Human Services, lobbyists for defense contractors at the Pentagon, lobbyists for the construction industry at the Labor Department, and on and on. A lawyer who built a career helping banks skirt regulations now manages one of the country’s most powerful financial regulators.

Indeed, regulatory policy might be the arena where Trump’s pro-business tilt has been most apparent. His White House has quit enforcing a policy that stopped telecom businesses from charging prisoners and their families exorbitant rates for phone calls. It stopped pursuing loan relief for students defrauded by educational institutions, and made it easier for mining companies to pollute public waterways. It is gearing up to allow drilling on public lands, and trying to make it easier for businesses to stash profits overseas. It has promised to go after Dodd-Frank, the most substantial piece of legislation to be passed in the wake of the financial crisis. Even as Trump bashed Frazier and Merck for high drug prices, a leaked draft order suggests that the administration plans to strip back pharmaceutical regulations—something that would likely boost industry profits, potentially without lowering prices for consumers.

This “systemic”—to use the administration’s own word—war on regulations will in many industries slash the cost of doing business and buoy profits. No wonder business optimism is surging and stock prices continue their upward march. Corporations might be an occasional force for social justice in public, but in private many remain remain a force for the conservative priorities of deregulation and low taxes, after all. Individual executives might repudiate Trump, but many of their shareholders are still cheering.

The Atlantic Politics & Policy Daily: The President's Manufacturing Cancel
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Today in 5 Lines

President Trump announced on Twitter that he was dissolving two of his advisory councils, after business leaders had stepped down from the groups, citing Trump’s handling of last weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. At a memorial service, Susan Bro, the mother of the young woman killed in Charlottesville, urged attendees to “make my daughter’s death worthwhile.” Hope Hicks, one of Trump’s long-time aides, will serve as the interim White House communications director. Former Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore will advance to a runoff election in September to fill the Senate seat left open by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The city of Baltimore removed four Confederate monuments overnight.


Today on The Atlantic

  • Trump’s Priorities: President Trump had two choices this week: work with business leaders and fulfill his pledge to bring back manufacturing jobs, or espouse white identity politics. He chose the latter. (David A. Graham)

  • And Then There Were Two: The results of Alabama's GOP special election primary for the state’s open Senate seat are in—and it’s headed to a September runoff election between two candidates: a Bible-thumper and a tainted establishment figure. (Molly Ball)

  • Charlottesville Could Have Been Worse: To prevent more violent clashes, states should rethink their open-carry gun laws, writes David Frum. After all, “the purpose is always to intimidate—to frighten others away from their lawful rights.”

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


Snapshot

Car attack victim Heather Heyer's mother Susan Bro is embraced by Heyer’s coworker at her memorial service inside the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters


What We’re Reading

Not All Bad: During a news conference on Tuesday, President Trump said there were “fine people” among those who marched to defend the Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. That may be true, argues Peter Beinart, but “fine people can believe monstrous things.” (Forward)

‘Down the Breitbart Hole’: White House chief strategist and former Breitbart News executive Steve Bannon once called the site a platform for the alt-right. But Breitbart’s current editor, Alexander Marlow, says he has a different vision. (Wil S. Hylton, The New York Times Magazine)

Trump’s ‘Ride-or-Die’: A variety of polls, analyzed side by side, show the true size of President Trump’s base: Roughly one in four Americans support the president no matter what he says or does. (Kristen Soltis Anderson, Washington Examiner)

Insult to Injury: A new law in Florida has enabled insurers to deny benefits to injured undocumented workers, and has led to dozens of arrests and deportations of workers. (Michael Grabell and Howard Berkes, NPR and ProPublica)

Made in the USA: While the Trump administration touts the importance of manufacturing jobs in the American economy, factory workers are quitting their jobs at the fastest rate in years. (Danielle Paquette, The Washington Post)


Visualized

Higher Premiums, Higher Deficit: Here’s what the Congressional Budget Office predicts will happen if President Trump eliminates funding for the Affordable Care Act’s cost-sharing subsidies. (Haeyoun Park, The New York Times)


Question of the Week

Often in moments of public crisis, people turn to books or readings to make sense of it. What books or readings do you turn to for comfort or reflection in uncertain times?

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

-Written by Elaine Godfrey (@elainejgodfrey)

Baltimore Takes Down Its Confederate Monuments
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

The city of Baltimore took down four Confederate monuments overnight, less than a week after white nationalists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, in support of a monument to Robert E. Lee. “They needed to come down,” the city’s Democratic mayor, Catherine Pugh, said on Wednesday morning. “We moved as quickly as we could.”

In the wake of Charlottesville, where the weekend’s demonstrations and counter-protests led to deadly violence, a contentious debate over Confederate symbols is once again playing out across the United States. The Democratic mayor of Lexington, Kentucky, said on Saturday that he would work to “relocate” Confederate statues, though the state’s Republican governor argued on Tuesday that removing monuments would amount to a “sanitization of history.” In Durham, North Carolina, on Monday, protesters toppled a statue honoring “the boys who wore the gray,” an act that has already led to one arrest.

The decision to extract Baltimore’s monuments during the night, and with relatively little fanfare, was reportedly motivated by city officials’ desire to avoid public clashes.

“I’m proud that the city moved so quickly,” said Kwame Rose, a local activist who gained national prominence during protests over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody in 2015. “I think it stands to show that Baltimore will come to be one of those cities—even after having had so much negative press in the past—that becomes a guiding light,” he told me. Other cities, he noted, have “dragged their feet.”

The Baltimore monuments’ removal began hours after President Trump questioned the rationale for taking Confederate monuments down. “So this week, it is Robert E. Lee,” he said at a press conference. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” The president’s comments drew criticism from historians who pointed out that Washington and Jefferson played a foundational role in establishing the United States, while Lee was a Confederate general who fought against the Union.

In response to the weekend’s events in Charlottesville, the Baltimore City Council voted on Monday in support of removing the monuments. According to The Baltimore Sun, the process began Tuesday evening just before midnight local time and ended at 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning. Crews dismantled the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors and the Confederate Women’s monuments, as well as statues honoring Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and the Supreme Court justice Roger B. Taney. As the Sun explained, while “the Taney statue makes no overt references to the Confederacy … Taney’s authorship of the Dred Scott decision, which ruled that Congress couldn’t regulate slavery and that blacks weren’t citizens, has caused him to be linked with the Confederate cause.”

Though the Baltimore monuments are now gone, there are others throughout Maryland, which was a slave-holding state until 1864. Political pressure to take them down shows little sign of letting up. In 2015, the shooting of black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, sparked widespread debate over Confederate flag imagery. At the time, Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan pushed back against the idea of widespread removal of rebel symbols. “Where do we draw the line?” he said that July, a message similar to Trump’s remarks on Tuesday.

This week, however, Hogan expressed support for removing a statue of Taney from the grounds of the state house in Annapolis. The governor faces pressure, though, to take further steps. One of his early opponents in the 2018 gubernatorial race, Democratic candidate and former head of the NAACP Ben Jealous, said in a statement Wednesday that Hogan should now work to “pull our state together around removing all Confederate monuments from every part of our state.”

What to Do With Venezuela?
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Until last Friday, much of the conversation in Latin America was aimed at how to remove Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from office. The region is often only unified in its unwillingness to meddle, no matter how radical the politics. So it was historic when 12 countries met last week in Lima, Peru, and together denounced Venezuela’s “rupture of democratic order.” Such a large and unified opposition was a major blow to Maduro’s narrative that the country’s economic woes are the result of political sabotage led by the U.S. Then President Trump mentioned the possibility of a “military option.”

Earlier that week, Trump had threatened “fire and fury” if North Korea provoked the U.S., and Trump’s comments toward Venezuela were taken as another shoot-from-the-hip moment that should not be taken seriously (a problem in itself, as my colleague Kathy Gilsinan wrote).  But even with Trump’s inclination for braggadocio, the thought of U.S. military intervention in Latin America recalled a not-so-distant past—think Panama, and before that, nearly every country in South and Central America. It also struck a nerve because there is a feeling that international pressure might not be enough to convince Maduro to step down, or end his push to rewrite the country’s constitution, and that the U.S. might take the lead with a more drastic approach. The U.S. does have several options for intervening in Venezuela, though they will likely not come in the form of Marines dropping from helicopters. The best possible option, however, might be to do nothing at all.

Part of Trump’s effect has been to alter the conversation on Venezuela from one of what to do, to that of what will not be allowed. Vice President Mike Pence is on a tour of South America, and during his first stop in Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos said “every country in Latin America would not favor any form of military intervention.” But there is also the somewhat counterintuitive line that says Trump may have helped. Alejandro Velasco, an associate professor of modern Latin America at New York University, told me that by saying something fairly outrageous Latin American leaders can easily come out against Trump, who is deeply unpopular in the region.

“They see in Pence as an ally, and the U.S. as an ally,” Velasco told me, “but by being able to beat Trump like  piñata they can have their cake and eat it, too. They can perpetuate this idea of an independence, that we are not subservient to Trump or the U.S.”

Finding a balance in U.S. policy will be difficult because Venezuelans might be hypersensitive to any overly aggressive U.S. actions. The experts I spoke with dismissed the thought of  military intervention, and Geoff Ramsey, an associate for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, told me the idea of an invasion is beyond extreme. “It’s important to separate Trump’s recent remarks from the works the State Department has done,” Ramsey said. Much of the talk at the U.S. State Department so far, Ramsey said, has been focused on sanctions. And, at the most extreme level, a possible oil embargo, because Venezuela is still one of the top suppliers of oil to the U.S.

The Trump administration could also continue sanctioning high-level Maduro supporters, a continuation of the Obama administration’s tactics. These are done under executive order, and are specific to individuals. The sanctions block any property subject to U.S. jurisdiction, and prevents them from doing business with U.S. companies. Sanctions are somewhat limited in their impact, because in many cases top officials have already moved their business and accounts away from the U.S. What could be more effective, is if Latin American countries—like Panama—joined.

A step up from sanctions would be if the U.S. banned exports to Venezuela. Mostly, this has to do with oil, because though Venezuela has some of the largest reserves in the world, it depends on the U.S. for refined oil and light crude—some 120,000 barrels each day. About half that is used by the Venezuelan people, and the other is mixed with heavier oils and often re-exported back to the U.S. This gets at one of the most drastic options (short of boots on ground). What’s left of Venezuela’s economy depends heavily on the 2.1 million barrels of oil it exports each day. The U.S. accounts for one-third of that, and banning all Venezuelan crude imports would likely finish off what remains of the country’s broken economy and kill its moribund oil industry. This is sometimes called the “nuclear option” because it would not only devastate the Maduro government, it would equally ruin the powerful and the poor, supporters and the opposition. A move this drastic would likely strengthen Maduro, because it feeds into the historic narrative set up by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

In 2002, during a failed coup to remove Chavez, much of Latin America remained quiet because leaders didn’t want to intervene against a democratically elected official, whatever his politics. The U.S., however, was far from quiet in its support of the coup. And when Chavez returned to power, he claimed the U.S. had orchestrated it all so it could snatch up the country’s oil reserves.

“I was accused of having organized the coup,” Charles Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela at the time, told me. Shapiro, who is now president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, then jokingly added, “I am not that efficient.”

It didn’t matter that the U.S. wasn’t involved, Shapiro said, because Chavez was able to unify supporters around the narrative that at every moment the U.S. was focused on undermining his socialist movement—as it had done to other countries throughout Latin America during the Cold War. In the same way, Trump’s “military option” has likely helped Maduro. His popular support may be below 20 percent, but that doesn’t mean those people necessarily support the opposition, a coalition of groups who often argue among themselves. There is still the very real the risk that the U.S. will empower Maduro if it takes too aggressive a stance. The best option for the U.S. may be to give Latin American leaders space. Otherwise, any U.S. intervention could backfire.

Indeed, after Trump’s remarks, Maduro gave a speech behind a lectern with the words #FueraTrumpDeAmericaLatina, or “Trump get out of Latin America.” His military also conducted exercises and marched the streets, and among those who joined were Maduro’s remaining supporters, wearing red shirts, and pumping their fists in the air at the thought of Trump’s “military option.”

The White House Is Under Siege
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Updated on August 16 at 3:59 p.m.

While Donald Trump is on vacation, there are major renovations going on in the West Wing. Perhaps they’ll alter plans and include a portcullis and a moat, because the White House is under siege.

The president is once again facing loud denunciation (though so far little else) from members of his own party. Vice President Pence is cutting short an overseas trip and returning home to an administration in crisis. And Wednesday afternoon, the president announced he was pulling the plug on a manufacturing council and a strategy and policy forum, both comprised of business leaders, after a spree of defections in reaction to Trump’s handling of violence in Charlottesville.

Trump’s campaign for president stood on two legs: the politics of racial grievance, and a promise to bring back manufacturing jobs. What became clear this week is that he can either work with industrial titans on jobs or he can place white identity politics center stage, but he cannot do both. With his open embrace of de-facto white nationalism on Tuesday, Trump made his choice.

From his border wall with Mexico to his protectionist trade impulses to his vow to end “American carnage,” Trump promised white Americans that he would get them back on their feet, turn back the tides of immigration and progressive social justice, and bring back their jobs.

In order to take on the jobs question, he assembled two panels of blue-chip business leaders, the President’s Manufacturing Council and the Strategy and Policy Forum. The actual utility of presidential panels like this is often hard to judge, but for Trump, they represented the concrete evidence that unlike previous presidents, he was a businessman who could bring other titans of business together to make the country run better for its people.

The two bodies were already fragile—several members quit over Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord—but it was the white-supremacist and neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville that wrecked them. After Trump issued a bland statement on Saturday blaming “all sides” for violence at the march, Merck CEO Ken Frazier announced he was stepping down from the Manufacturing Council’s board. It did not go unremarked that Trump was faster to denounce Frazier than he was neo-Nazis, but Monday afternoon he tried to correct course, laboriously reading a statement in which he declared, “Racism is evil.”

Questions about Trump’s sincerity quickly surfaced, climaxing in a stunning press conference at Trump Tower on Tuesday, in which he tried to defend the Charlottesville march even as he condemned neo-Nazis and white nationalists. The number of defections from the council climbed over the course of the week, as my colleague Annie Lowrey chronicled. The members were either genuinely appalled by Trump’s remarks, used their acute business sense to realize that being associated with him would be bad for their companies and reputations, or both.

Wednesday afternoon, Reuters and CNBC both reported that Trump’s Strategy and Policy Forum had decided to disband itself amid the controversy. Trump had been defiant over earlier defections—“For every CEO that drops out of the Manufacturing Council, I have many to take their place. Grandstanders should not have gone on. JOBS!” he tweeted Tuesday morning—but he saw the end in sight and tried to get ahead of the story. In a twist on the old “you can’t quit, I’m firing you,” he said he did so for the good of the members:

In practical terms, the end of these groups may not make much difference. After all, Trump has achieved so few of his goals on economic policy that the executives’ absence can’t really hurt. It is, however, a blow to Trump’s self-conception. Having long nursed a grudge over being viewed derisively by many business moguls, he reveled in inviting them to the White House. It is also a blow to his public image, suggesting that rather than being the businessman who could fix government, he can wrangle neither the private nor the public sector effectively.

And it is, as well, a challenge to his approach to race. On Tuesday, a reporter asked him what he’d do to overcome racial divides. “I really think jobs can have a big impact,” Trump said. “I think if we continue to create jobs at levels that I’m creating jobs, I think that’s going to have a tremendous impact, positive impact, on race relations.” If Trump believes, as he told reporters, that racial divides can be healed by the rising wages of a manufacturing revival, the dissolution of the business councils deals his agenda a double blow.

Also on Wednesday, North America’s Building Trades Unions also issued a statement that did not name Trump but called on “men and women of character to demonstrate leadership and unequivocally reject those who perpetrate hate, racism, sexism or any other manner of corrosive public discourse and action that only weaken us as a country.”

But the demise of the two panels is just one element of the latest self-inflicted crisis for the White House. Pundits have for months wondered what would happen when Trump encountered a genuine crisis that was not of his own making, and Charlottesville helps to clarify: As usual, he finds a way to make it harder for himself.

One bright spot for Trump is that despite the horror with which his comments on Charlottesville have been received, he has yet to have a single Cabinet member or high-profile aide resign in protest. While there’s been lots of staff turnover at the White House, those who have left have either been fired or pushed out in internal power battles. Reports pop up from time to time of top aides who are angry, but none of them has actually quit or said publicly that they could not tolerate the president’s words or actions.

Trump’s comments place all of his associates in a difficult position: They have to find some way to defend the president without implicating themselves in his wilder positions. Pence, speaking in Chile, said, “What happened in Charlottesville was a tragedy and the president has been clear on this tragedy and so have I. I spoke at length about this heartbreaking situation on Sunday night in Colombia and I stand with the president and I stand by those words.” But he avoided other parts of a question about whether there were “good people” in the march, or whether Robert E. Lee should be considered an American hero. The vice president said he was cutting short his Latin American trip and coming home on Thursday, ahead of schedule.

Pence faces the same dilemma as newly installed Chief of Staff John Kelly, who looked uncomfortable during Trump’s remarks Tuesday, and as Republican officeholders. Many of them continue to treat Trump’s views on Charlottesville as an error, but as one more akin to a tactical difference—as though they simply disagreed about how to fund a new initiative. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, perhaps Trump’s most prominent GOP critic at the moment, said he wanted his colleagues to stage an intervention with Trump:

Flake’s doubts that Trump would listen are prudent. This is not simply a matter of difference of policy approach. The optimists espouse the view that they can talk Trump out of a central tenet of his political identity. The improbability of that happening is manifest in the case of Trump’s manufacturing and strategy councils, in which he would not sacrifice white identity politics to defend another of his top priorities.

The Road to Radicalism in Charlottesville
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

“Of course, it was terrorism,” said General H.R. McMaster on Sunday morning, the day after James Alex Fields, Jr. allegedly plowed his gray 2010 Dodge Challenger into a crowd of anti-white supremacist protestors, then reversed and, bumper dangling by a thread, hit still more people on the way back. When he was done, one person, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was dead and 19 more were injured. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Monday that the attack was an act of “domestic terrorism” and that the Department of Justice was investigating him. Fields is being held without bail on a second-degree murder charge.

In being an act of violence with an apparent political motive, Fields’s alleged actions clearly “count” as terrorism according to most definitions of the term. But there are also parallels between Fields and other terrorists in aspects of his route to Charlottesville.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about Fields, but there is evidence that he was an adherent of a violent and extremist ideology. Just hours before he allegedly drove his car into that crowd, he was seen marching with and carrying a shield featuring the insignia of Vanguard America, a known white-supremacist group. According to Fields’s former high-school teacher Derek Weimer, Fields was also infatuated with the Nazis. “It was obvious that he had this fascination with Nazism and a big idolatry of Adolf Hitler,” Weimer told The Washington Post. “He had white supremacist views. He really believed in that stuff.” A paper Fields wrote in high school, according to the teacher, was a “big lovefest for the German military and the Waffen-SS.”

In American political discourse, terrorism is a label often reserved for followers of a violent interpretation of Islam, whereas people who commit violence in the name of extremist far-right ideology based on race are sometimes portrayed as troubled young men, or criminals. The actions of the Trump administration have only deepened that gap. As one of its first acts, the administration reoriented the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism program away from combatting white-supremacist groups. Life After Hate, an organization which helps people leave such groups, says it never received a promised $400,000 grant, even as the Southern Poverty Law Center received increased reports of hate crimes and threats in the period immediately after the election. In the months after the election, Life After Hate reported getting a 20-fold uptick in calls from family members, begging for help to pull their loved ones out of violent white supremacist groups.

The policy to shift federal resources away from protecting Americans against far-right extremism is both misguided and dangerous. According to a 2017 study done by the Government Accountability Office, fatal attacks by far-right extremists outnumbered those by jihadists by a factor of two to one in the last 15 years. (They are slightly less effective, however, as the jihadists have killed more per attack.)

Still, the two types of attacks often use similar methods. The attack in Charlotte, after all, used a signature ISIS technique, one that has also been espoused by the American far-right in targeting Black Lives Matter protesters. “Run them over,” they say. Or, “All lives splatter.” But for the differing death tolls, it looked a lot like the acts of Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the man who plowed an 18-wheeler into a crowded boardwalk in Nice.

Similarly, despite the differences in jihadist and neo-Nazi, white-supremacist ideologies, the two movements and how they attract and retain followers are often studied side by side by scholars of extremism. When the problem of mass recruitment by jihadists emerged in the West, researchers turned for guidance to what they had learned studying the psychology, behavior, and structure of neo-Nazi groups. “It’s an obvious comparison, absolutely,” says Jessica Stern, a leading scholar of terrorist groups.

Take, instance, Daniel Koehler, founder of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies (GIRDS). He grew up in a small town in East Germany where, after reunification, neo-Nazi culture was all the rage among young locals. But after spending years helping German neo-Nazis leave those far-right groups, he moved into helping families pull their kids out of jihadist movements. And it worked—precisely because the two movements are so similar in how they seduce individuals.

“The process and structure of radicalization and extremism,” J.M. Berger, a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, wrote via email, “are the same in different kinds of movements, even when the content of the extremist belief is different (such as with neo-Nazis and jihadists).”

Scholars have often observed a radicalization process that goes something like this: After a first contact with the ideology, a person’s curiosity drives them to seek out more information, often through social media. After trying it on for size, they decide that the ideology sufficiently addresses their grievances, usually by framing it as the result of their group—their Muslim brothers and sisters, or their brothers and sisters in the white race—are being victimized by another group, say infidels or non-white immigrants. Then, the new adherent will consider whether he or she is doing enough to advance the cause, and if the answer is no, the person will act. “Extremist groups rely on a crisis-solution construct,” says Berger. “The in-group”—the ideological group, say, neo-Nazis or ISIS members—“is afflicted with a crisis that is blamed on the out-group”—people excluded from that group as enemies and threats, say, non-believers or non-whites—“and the extremist movement is presented as offering a solution to that crisis, which is often violent. The crisis is defined as being intrinsic to the identity groups involved, rather being than situational or temporary.”  

Another parallel is how the recruitment narrative can involve the promise of rewards. With ISIS it was sometimes the promise of wives or sex slaves; the Daily Stormer goaded its followers to head to Charlottesville by saying that “random girls will want to have sex with you. Because you’re the bad boys. ... Every girl on the planet wants [you] now.”

Violence isn’t always the result; few people radicalize in the first place, and still fewer commit attacks after doing so. But what can lead to violence is the many ways in which the process of radicalization is constricting: It alienates you from family and friends, and posits an acute problem to which the ideology demands a solution. After a while, it feels like an emergency every day. “The general psychological process of moving to those movements is very much the same,” says Koehler, who is also a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “It is a process of de-pluralization and isolation. There is a grievance or perceived threat, and it gets more and more intense until you don’t see any other solution but violence.” Both the jihadist and white-supremacist ideologies, Koehler said, “explain what is wrong in your life, and tie your personal frustration into a global struggle—the global conspiracy against Islam, or against white race—and gives you a chance for significance, for living out a positive, heroic life.” Koehler has even worked with several neo-Nazis who became jihadists. (They’re not common, but some have made it into the news.)

There are few identifiable patterns in who is most susceptible to radicalization; it is, scholars agree, a highly individualized process. In my reporting on radicalization, for instance, many of the youth that joined ISIS came from homes where there was no father, or where he was a weak presence. Fields’s father reportedly died before his birth in a car accident, but scholars say this alone doesn’t predispose someone to radicalization and extremism. Plenty of terrorists come from happy or intact families, and plenty of non-terrorists come from broken ones.

Still, what’s known about Fields shows he had some of the known risk factors. There is evidence that people with mental-health problems are more susceptible to being radicalized. Fields, it seems, fit the bill. His mother repeatedly called 911 on her son, then barely a teenager, who was physically violent with her and once threatened her with a 12-inch knife, according to police records described by The Washington Post. The same report says that in 2011, she told police that she wanted him hospitalized for assessment, and that in 2010 she told them that Fields was on medication to control his temper. Weimer, Fields’s high-school teacher, told the Associated Press that Fields had confided having been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The aggression toward family, especially mothers, is also something Koehler says he has observed in his work. “I have seen that in ISIS radicalization where they’ve been aggressive against their mothers,” Koehler says. “It’s part of the process of de-pluralization. These groups will try to draw a line between the group and ideology, and the biological family. They have to do that so that the recruit can join the new spiritual family, to turn the recruit against the family because otherwise they can step in and interfere in the radicalization. And kids, teenagers, don’t know how to cope with that kind of tension.”

Another sign is fascination with a warrior myth. “It’s very common,” says Koehler. “The ISIS fan boys dream of being Muslim warriors. Warrior hero culture is essential to understanding that specifically male aspect of radicalization.” Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist and author of Life After Hate, wrote that, “Since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of being a warrior.” Fields tried to become a warrior, joining the Army in 2015, and then flunking out in a matter of months after failing to meet basic training requirements. He then worked as a security guard.  

There’s one other thing that is the same between jihadi and white-supremacist radicalization: identity. Radicalization is simultaneously an intensely individual and intensely collective process. What draws a person to an extremist ideology, be it jihadism or neo-Nazism, grows out of a unique cocktail of that person’s experiences, frustrations, hopes, and needs. But what keeps them there and propels them toward the final, violent stage comes from a community that first reels them, keeps them engaged, and pushes them toward action. “In my experience, there is no radicalization without a group context,” says Koehler. “It happens within the interaction between individuals. It is impossible to get to the stage of using violence without other people to support you, to push you forward.” There are no true lone wolves, in other words, not in radical Islam, not in white supremacy.

A Play That Tests Ethical Questions in Real-Time
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

The trolley problem, that hoary old mainstay of philosophy syllabi and drunken ethical squabbles, is, to put it bluntly, hot right now. Just this year, it’s popped up in episodes of both Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Orange Is the New Black, as characters wrestled with the principles of utilitarianism and what it means to try to do good in the world. It’s also become a meme, as New York’s Select All explored last year: a framework for people to explore everything from pro-life principles to the death of Harambe.

The problem, in its most basic form, goes like this: A runaway trolley car is heading toward five people, and if it hits them, they will die. You, the problem solver, are standing by a lever that enables you to redirect the trolley to a siding where only one person is standing. By pushing the lever you will save five lives but be directly responsible for the loss of one. Do you pull the lever—seek the greatest good for the greatest number—or do nothing, and let fate take its course?

The issue with this particular conundrum, though, as Sarah Bakewell wrote in 2013, is that while people think they’re creatures of reason, our instincts are actually “fickle and easily manipulated.” And this is also the problem with direct democracy in general—when we’re asked to vote on matters of national importance, we tend to be uninformed, personally biased, or swayed by the strangest of factors. The Majority, a new show at London’s National Theatre by the performer and playwright Rob Drummond, is inspired by a wave of recent electoral upsets, from the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 to the Brexit vote last year. Throughout the show, Drummond asks a series of timely questions to which the audience votes “yes” or “no” on in real time, with the results immediately revealed, as he demonstrates how easily the shape of a question can alter its answer.

The questions range from the personal to the timely. Are we, the audience members, liberal? (90.55 percent yes.) Are we white? (91.18 percent yes.) Do we use social media? (67.29 percent yes.) Do we believe in absolute freedom of speech? (61.68 percent no.) Is violence sometimes the answer? (51.16 percent no.) Would we pull the lever to save five people? (70.94 percent yes.) What if, instead of pulling the lever, we had to push a fat man over a bridge to save five lives? Could we do it? (71.05 percent no, almost exactly the same percentage that would pull the lever the first time.) “It’s different when it’s a person, isn’t it?” Drummond notes, as if pondering our inconsistency.

These votes tend to play out as if the audience is participating in a game of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? While we vote, on small devices that are given out before the show begins, jaunty music plays and a giant clock projected onto the stage ticks down the time remaining. The votes are interspersed with Drummond’s narrative, a strange, meandering story about how he got involved with the anti-fascism movement and ended up being arrested for punching a white supremacist. Drummond seems to want to use his personal experiences to illuminate the questions at hand, but his gonzo style means it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s creative license.

As the show proceeds, the tone of the recurrent trolley questions gets darker, as if to emphasize to the audience the potential consequences of even the most theoretical questions. Would we save one innocent person to kill five nonviolent neo-Nazis? Should we vote for Drummond to dox a Scottish white nationalist—who pops up a handful of times in the story—right then and there? (On the night I attended, the audience voted “yes,” and Drummond dutifully typed the man’s name and address into a comment section on a website that may or may not be real.)

Drummond is an engaging host, although the show’s frequent jumps in style and tone sometimes make him feel like an interrogator rather than an entertainer. The pace often drags in his measured descriptions of his friendship with a mentally ill Scottish beekeeper obsessed with bringing down the “Nazis” who were overtaking his town, and the narrative doesn’t cohere as well as it should with the questions The Majority asks. But the show’s concept is a fascinating one, exposing the foibles and contradictions embedded in the minds of an audience of majority white, liberal, non-male theatergoers—which is exactly the audience Drummond wants to target, although conservatives who attend might find themselves in the majority more than they’d think. When he asks people to vote on whether they believe in absolute freedom of speech, and only 38.82 percent say yes, he pauses. “Liberal,” he says, with ironic emphasis.

By the end of the 90-minute production, after Drummond has shared his disgust with himself for, as he puts it, “punching a man for having an opinion,” the audience seems shaken. When he asks us again whether it’s okay to abuse someone for something they personally believe, 87.64 percent say no. He has, essentially, converted us. But the ease with which he’s done it is yet another unnerving element to bolster his argument—that few of us really know or deeply consider what we’re voting for.

The Eclipse Conspiracy
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

The scientists are all talking like it’s a sure thing.

On August 21, the “moon” will pass between the Earth and the sun, obscuring the light of the latter. The government agency NASA says this will result in “one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights.” The astronomers there claim to have calculated down to the minute exactly when and where this will happen, and for how long. They have reportedly known about this eclipse for years, just by virtue of some sort of complex math.

This seems extremely unlikely. I can’t even find these eclipse calculations on their website to check them for myself.

Meanwhile the scientists tell us we can’t look at it without special glasses because “looking directly at the sun is unsafe.”

That is, of course, unless we wear glasses that are on a list issued by these very same scientists. Meanwhile, corporations like Amazon are profiting from the sale of these eclipse glasses. Is anyone asking how many of these astronomers also, conveniently, belong to Amazon Prime?

Let’s follow the money a little further. Hotels along the “path of totality”—a region drawn up by Obama-era NASA scientists—have been sold out for months. Some of those hotels are owned and operated by large multinational corporations. Where else do these hotels have locations? You guessed it: Washington, D.C.

In fact the entire politico-scientifico-corporate power structure is aligned behind the eclipse. This includes the mainstream media. How many news stories have you read about how the eclipse won’t happen?

Meanwhile the newspaper owner Jeff Bezos is out there buying all of Seattle with the revenue from these “eclipse glasses.”

You’d think there would be a balanced look at even considering the idea that the eclipse isn’t going to happen. It’s like no one is even thinking to question this. Where are their voices? Why does Google give so few results that say the eclipse is fake? I would start by looking at Mark Zuckerberg and Charles “Chuck” Schumer.

I am not saying the eclipse isn’t going to happen. I’m just saying there are two sides to every story.

The 1850s Response to the Racism of 2017
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Last night, Tucker Carlson took on the subject of slavery on his Fox News show. Slavery is evil, he noted. However, slavery permeated the ancient world, he said, as reflected in the on-screen graphics.

Screengrab of Tucker Carlson’s Tuesday-night show

On Twitter, recent University of Toronto English Ph.D. graduate Anthony Oliveira noted, “Here's Tucker Carlson right now on Fox making the *exact* pro-slavery case (bad but status-quo and well-precedented) made 160 years ago.”

It sounds like a particular variety of Twitter gallows humor, not meant to be taken quite seriously. But it is not a joke.

This precise series of ostensible mitigating factors around the institution of American slavery were, in fact, advanced by pro-slavery forces through the 19th century. And it got me wondering: Given that The Atlantic was founded as an abolitionist magazine before the Civil War, might there be an article or two that might address Carlson’s warmed-over proto-Confederate arguments?

And indeed, there are.

Take Carlson’s bullet point, “Until 150 years ago, slavery was rule.”

Well, yes. Slavery was legal in some American states. But how did this happen, especially when other countries began abolishing slavery early in the 19th century? In our second issue, Edmund Quincy put his pen to “Where Will It End?” And he doesn’t mess around. Slavers had power because they went on bloody conquests to open up new territory for slavery.

The baleful influence thus ever shed by Slavery on our national history and our public men has not yet spent its malignant forces. It has, indeed, reached a height which a few years ago it was thought the wildest fanaticism to predict; but its fatal power will not be stayed in the mid-sweep of its career ... Slavery presiding in the Cabinet, seated on the Supreme Bench, absolute in the halls of Congress—no man can say what shape its next aggression may not take to itself. A direct attack on the freedom of the press and the liberty of speech at the North, where alone either exists, were no more incredible than the later insolences of its tyranny ... The rehabilitation of the African slave-trade is seriously proposed and will be furiously urged, and nothing can hinder its accomplishment but its interference with the domestic manufactures of the breeding Slave States ... Mighty events are at hand, even at the door; and the mission of them all will be to fix Slavery firmly and forever on the throne of this nation.

Indeed, in the early days of The Atlantic, the violent battle over whether Kansas would become a slave state raged. In the “Kansas Usurpation,” from Issue 4, our author details the endless skulduggery that slavers perpetrated “to force the evils of slavery upon a people who cannot and will not endure them.”

And how about the idea that ancient peoples also held slaves? The Atlantic didn’t address Greek slaveholding, but takes on their admirers, the Romans. In a piece called “Spartacus,” published in Issue 3 in 1858, the author explicitly differentiates the Roman version of slavery from the American.

“Fowell Buxton has happily translated [the Roman motto], ‘They murdered all who resisted and enslaved the rest.’ But it was as slaveholders that the Romans most clearly exhibited their impartiality,” the piece states. “They were above those miserable subterfuges that are so common with Americans. They made slaves of all, of the high as well as the low—of Thracians, as well as Sardinians, of Greeks and of Syrians as readily as of Scythians and Cappadocians.”

With ever-increasing rigor from colonial times, the American system explicitly made only people with African ancestry subject to chattel slavery, i.e. they were the only people whose children were born enslaved and who would die enslaved, absent an extraordinary circumstance. American slavery was different.

To be clear, this isn’t just about Carlson. My target is the implicit idea that American slavery was not historically, distinctly terrible. It was. There is no parallel. While other countries—and states within the Union—were banning slavery, the South was intensifying slavery in several different ways.

First, the ideological and theological interpretation of slavery in the South began to change. The specific and perpetual enslavement of African people had seemed to Jeffersonian Americans as an evil that was ebbing away. “In the late 18th century, most Americans believed that slavery, as institutionalized dependence, was neither good nor practical, and so would fade before the action of natural forces under the new, free political system,” writes John Patrick Daly in When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War.

But as abolitionists began to succeed in the northern states, chattel slavery of black human beings began to be theologically promoted as something to be proud of, possibly even holy, in the South. “Good slaveholders, they maintained, gave the institution its character—that is, goodness,” Daly writes. “This formulation allowed proslavery spokesmen to denounce the historically evil institution of slavery while defending Southern practices: Slaveholders in the evil form of slavery were bad men; the Southerners were good, and the source of their wealth untainted. Good—and especially evangelical—slaveholders supposedly redeemed the institution of slavery.”

Second, the old colonial state slaveowners were making a business out of selling the people they enslaved south and west. This became a lynchpin of the region’s wealth as agriculture declined there. Black people were chained together in Virginia and the Carolinas and marched to Georgia, to Florida, to Mississippi, to Texas. Whatever networks of family and community they’d been able to build within the oppressive violence of slavery were destroyed (again).

Ed Baptist tells this story in The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. “The massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and hunger as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire,” he writes, “this vanished in the story of a slavery that was supposedly focused primarily not on producing profit but on maintaining its status as a quasi-feudal elite, or producing modern ideas about race in order to maintain white unity and elite power.”

Third, the gin-powered cotton economy relied on huge financial investments to open up new cotton land ever farther south and west. A series of financial bubbles ran in those directions, with literal securities issued to slaveowners secured by the bodies of enslaved people.

“African American bodies and childbearing potential collateralized massive amounts of credit, the use of which made slaveowners the wealthiest people in the country,” write Ned and Constance Sublette in The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry. “When the Southern states seceded to form the Confederacy they partitioned off, and declared independence for, their economic system in which people were money.”

To make their loan payments, these speculator-slavers created the brutal “whipping machine,” which drove massive productivity gains at the expense of the health and well-being of the already oppressed people working in the fields.

The returns from cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization,” Baptist writes. “In fact, slavery’s expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation—not only increasing its power and size, but also, eventually, dividing U.S. politics, differentiating regional identities and interests, and helping to make civil war possible. The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth.”

It was this marriage of new ideological underpinning, the incredible profits the gin-powered cotton industry could produce, and the new modes of capitalization and management that American slaveowners developed that make American slavery different and worse from those that preceded it.

The drive to keep opening up cotton land to feed the slaver-speculator economy also led to genocidal atrocities against Native Americans, as well as the imperial project of snatching the western part of the continent from Mexico, which had abolished slavery in the 1820s.

In April 1861, with the slaveholder’s rebellion beginning, The Atlantic published an essay by Charles Francis Adams Jr., the grandson of John Quincy Adams, called “The Reign of King Cotton.”

“Throughout the South, whether justly or not, it is considered as well settled that cotton can be profitably raised only by a forced system of labor,” Adams wrote. “With this theory, the Southern States are under a direct inducement, in the nature of a bribe, to the amount of the annual profit on their cotton-crop, to see as many perfections and as few imperfections as possible in the system of African slavery.”

But the bribe didn’t stop getting paid at the Mason-Dixon line. Even New England, hotbed of abolitionism and birthplace of this magazine, got rich on textiles spun in the factories along the Merrimack. Where do you think they got the cotton for the City of Spindles? Baptist tells the story of the Collins Axe Works, which sold hundreds of thousands of axes into the western parts of the South, where they were given to enslaved black people to clear the forests. Hundreds of millions of trees fell through black labor performed with these axes. And back on the Farmington River, a white factory owner and his associates got rich.

“All told, more than $600 million, or almost half of the economic activity in the United States in 1836, derived directly or indirectly from cotton produced by the million-odd slaves—6 percent of the total U.S. population—who in that year toiled in labor camps on slavery’s frontier,” Baptist calculates.

There is no escaping the basic facts of our history. Plato, Muhammad, and the Aztec empire did not have the cotton gin or the luxuries that came from the securitization of enslaved people. Native American slaveholders didn’t shape and take advantage of emergent American capitalism to subdue a continent.

Given all this, no wonder the neo-Confederates keep fighting to keep their heroic monuments. Understanding the breadth and depth of the American slavery’s evil would undermine not just their dedication to busts of Robert E. Lee, but the whole moral project of seeing whiteness as a sign of virtue.

This is what Confederate flag wavers mean when they say they are “fighting for their heritage.” They are fighting for the right to declare their ancestors good, despite the evidence of the horrors they perpetrated, which rival anything that happened in the 20th century.

And what they’re counting on is that Americans, no matter when their families arrived across seas or rivers, will excuse the Confederate flag-wavers because they want to believe only the best stories about our country, too.

There is no excuse. That other people at other times owned slaves—Greek, African, or Native American—does not excuse the system of oppression that we erected on this continent to build this country.

“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. So this week, it’s Robert E. Lee, I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down,” President Trump said yesterday at a press conference. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”

What if the answer is that it doesn’t? The evil of slavery and the white supremacy it embedded in the fabric of the country go all the way back to the beginning. And our history needs to honestly tell the story of James Madison dying without freeing a single one of the 100 enslaved people who worked for him right alongside his call, quoted in The Atlantic in 1861, to leave the words slavery out of the Constitution so that it would “be the great charter of Human Liberty to the unborn millions who shall enjoy its protection, and who should never see that such an institution as slavery was ever known in our midst.”

We can excise the words, but we can never scrub the blood from the soil.

Why Suburban Schools Are Inflating Kids' Grades
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

PITTSBURGH—Monet Spencer remembers traveling to affluent suburban high schools when she was a member of the marching band at Brashear High School in this city’s low-income, high-crime Beechview neighborhood.

The suburban band members’ uniforms were brand new, Spencer noticed—not passed down and worn-out like hers. So were their instruments, unlike the scratched and tarnished castoffs her school loaned her and her bandmates, including the secondhand flute she played.

The experience sticks in her mind as a symbol of the gulf between the opportunities she had compared to those enjoyed by students living in the suburbs just a few miles away.

“Everyone knows they’re treated differently,” said the soft-spoken Spencer, 19, who was left homeless when her mother died but continued taking herself to school and is now entering her sophomore year in college.

Here’s the latest, more profound way in which wealthier students have an advantage over lower-income ones: Those enrolled in private and suburban public high schools are being awarded higher grades—critical in the competition for college admission—than their urban public school counterparts with no less talent or potential, new research shows.

It’s not that those students have been getting smarter. Even as their grades were rising, their scores on the SAT college-entrance exam went down, not up. It’s that grade inflation is accelerating in the schools attended by higher-income Americans, who are also much more likely than their lower-income peers to be white, the research, by the College Board, found. This widens their lead in life over students in urban public schools, who are generally racial and ethnic minorities and from families that are far less well-off.

“This is just another systemic disadvantage that we put in front of low-income kids and kids of color,” said Andrew Nichols, the director of higher-education research at The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy organization. Nichols was not involved in the research.

The grade-point average of students at private high schools who took the SAT climbed between 1998 and 2016 from 3.25 to 3.51, or almost 8 percent, the College Board found in research to be published early next year.

In suburban public high schools it went from 3.25 to 3.36.

In city public schools, it hardly budged, moving from 3.26 to 3.28.

“If there were a uniform upward drift, then we would have one problem,” said Michael Hurwitz, the senior director at the College Board, who led the research. “But this drift causes another problem: The variation does seem aligned with wealth in a very troubling way.”

a graph showing how grade inflation compares across different types of schools

These findings are troubling, but not surprising, said Richard Weissbourd, the director of the Human Development and Psychology program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “To be attractive to parents,” private schools in particular, Weissbourd said, “need to be able to tout how many of their students went to selective colleges. So they’re incentivized to give better grades.”

The same concern about college admission drives parents of students in suburban schools to pressure principals and teachers, he said. “It becomes very high maintenance for schools to deal with aggressive parents. So that can also push grades up.”

Then the cycle repeats.

“This is one of those things that works like a contagion,” Weissbourd said. “If you’re an independent school or a suburban school and you’re giving Bs and the school in the next community is giving A-minuses, you start to feel like those kids are going to get a leg up. So you start giving out A-minuses.”

Public schools in urban areas seldom seem to feel the same pressure. When Olivia Hall’s mother calls the public high school in Pittsburgh where she’s entering her sophomore year, the 15-year-old said, “They put her on hold and tell her the principal and guidance counselor are busy.”

All of this throws up yet another barrier in front of urban public high-school students, who already face an obstacle course of challenges to getting into college.

15-year-old Olivia Hall (Max Petrosky / The Hechinger Report)

The problem takes on even greater consequence as growing numbers of admissions offices make ACT and SAT tests optional and rely still more on GPAs. (As to whether the College Board, which administers the SAT, is acting in its own interest by drawing attention to these trends, Hurwitz said the organization simply has the greatest access to test and grade data.)

“People say, all things being equal, that a 3.8 is stronger than a 3.6,” said Philip Ballinger, the associate vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at the University of Washington. “But all things aren’t equal.”

Some institutions adjust for this. Universities and colleges that recruit in limited areas of the country usually enroll enough graduates from particular schools to gauge the relative accuracy of students’ GPAs, said Ballinger.

But many admissions offices don’t have the resources to do that level of analysis.

“This is especially an issue for the big universities and colleges that can’t really dig into the context of a kid’s high-school experience,” Weissbourd said. “And that’s where most people are applying—big state schools that are dealing with 50,000 applications. They can’t make these judgments. They can’t say, ‘There’s grade inflation here but not there.’ They’re just looking at the GPAs.”

Even if they do have the capacity to look more deeply into the records of students whose grades may not reflect their effort or intelligence, universities are rewarded by college rankings for accepting applicants whose GPAs are highest.

That’s only one of many ways in which the cards are stacked against the graduates of urban public schools. “We’ve been giving these students the short end of the stick for a long time,” Nichols said.

Many of those rankings use a formula that also factors in SAT scores, for example, prompting colleges to favor students from private and suburban high schools whose families can afford test-preparation services.

Wealthier schools are more likely to have college-preparation courses, too. Just under 90 percent of the wealthier districts in a study of the nation’s 100 largest school systems by the Center for Law and Social Policy offer calculus, for instance, compared to 41 percent of high-poverty schools.

“Everybody tells us to follow our dreams, but they’re not teaching us what we need,” said Makeiya Bennett, 15. Like Hall and Spencer, Bennett—who is entering her sophomore year in high school—was attending a college-level summer program at Carlow University, run by an organization called the Neighborhood Learning Alliance, for Pittsburgh Public School students to get a head start on their higher educations. (“Being in a city school where I don’t get as much help, I wanted to grab a hold of this opportunity,” Bennett said.)

Urban students are also more likely than their suburban peers to come from low-income homes and have parents who did not themselves go to college and don’t know how to navigate the complexities of the application and financial-aid processes—or the credential-building that precedes them.

That leaves these students more dependent on their college counselors. But according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the typical college counselor in a public high school is responsible for 358 students—more than in private schools (323 students) and far more than the ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association (250-to-1).

The caseload rises to 510 students per counselor in the largest schools, many of them in cities. One in five high schools has no counselors at all, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found. And counselors in public schools report spending less than half as much time on college advising as their counterparts in private schools.

Students in schools that serve low-income populations even get less instruction time than those in schools that serve more-affluent ones, a new study by researchers at UCLA suggests. It found that students in high-poverty high schools in California spend the equivalent of nearly 10 fewer days a year learning than their more affluent counterparts, because of emergency lockdowns, teacher absences, testing, a lack of computers, and noisy or dirty conditions.

“It’s a terribly uneven playing field,” Weissbourd said.

Disadvantages like these and others mean that students from the lowest-income families today are roughly nine times less likely to earn bachelor’s degrees by the time they’re 24 than students from the highest-income ones, according to the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

Nichols, at The Education Trust, suggests that college admissions officers adopt a “socioeconomic index” that gives extra points to applicants who come from certain socioeconomic backgrounds or types of high schools, to offset the effects of grade inflation in the places where the wealthiest and whitest students go.

But he acknowledges that this is hard to do, considering the emotions involved in parents’ aspirations for their children—even when they know that trying to get an edge for their kids may result in inequitable treatment for other people’s.

“A lot of people are going to do what’s best for their own kids,” Nichols said. “They’re trying to set things up to give their kids the best opportunity they can have. And that doesn’t lead to particularly good public policy.”

Back at the Neighborhood Learning Alliance summer program, another student, Josh Faust, said “it’s discouraging” to find that their counterparts in more affluent schools get higher GPAs than he and his classmates at the public Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, from which he graduated in the spring.

“They have the same ability that we do, but get better grades just because of what high school they go to,” said Faust, 17, who is also about to enter college.

But Precious Jackson, 18, an incoming freshman planning to major in bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh, said these hurdles only make her more resolved to overcome them.

“I feel like people have low expectations of us,” Jackson said. “I feel like I have to work harder. But that builds character.”

Precious Jackson, about to start college, says people have low expectations of urban students. (Max Petrosky / The Hechinger Report)

She and many of her friends have another motivation to move on and earn degrees: They want to leave behind their low-income status. “If you look at where a lot of people come from, you don’t want to live there. It’s not just about succeeding; it’s about taking your life in another direction.”

That’s what Shahada Ghaffar intends to do, too. A 16-year-old Pittsburgh high-school junior, Ghaffar said she thinks many of her classmates are discouraged from even trying to get into the best colleges.

To them, “I would just say, reach for the stars,” she said, and apply to the best colleges. “The worst they can do is say no.”


This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.

The Alabama Senate Race Gets Moore Strange
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Roy Moore of Alabama has been twice elected to lead his state’s supreme court and twice thrown out of that position. The first time, in 2003, he refused to obey a federal court’s order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse in Montgomery. The voters of Alabama restored him, and in 2016, he was thrown off the bench again for refusing to implement the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing gay marriage.

On Tuesday, a plurality of Alabama Republican voters picked Moore to be their candidate for U.S. Senate. With 99 percent of precincts reporting early Wednesday morning, Moore had 39 percent of the vote to 33 percent for the incumbent, Luther Strange, and 20 percent for Representative Mo Brooks. Moore and Strange will now advance to a runoff election for the Republican nomination next month. The winner will proceed to a general election against the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary, former federal prosecutor Doug Jones.

The first-place finish for the colorful Moore might not have even been the most remarkable aspect of the Republican primary, which played out as a fascinating allegory of the GOP’s new fault lines in the uncharted territory of the Trump era.

The special election is being held because the Senate seat’s former occupant, Jeff Sessions, was appointed attorney general by President Trump. In February, the Republican governor, Robert Bentley, appointed Strange to fill the vacancy. The fact that Strange was, at the time, the state attorney general overseeing a criminal investigation of the very same same scandal-tarred governor who had given him his ticket to Washington made many Alabamans smell a rat. Despite the specter of a quid pro quo in the style of the former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, nothing was ever proven; Bentley subsequently resigned.

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, made it a major priority to keep Strange—a former Washington lobbyist and reliable Republican vote—in the Senate. But two anti-establishment troublemakers entered the race against him. Moore, a stalwart of the local and national religious right, and a known quantity to Alabama voters, was one; Brooks, an archconservative member of the House Freedom Caucus who had chaired Ted Cruz’s Alabama campaign, was another.

Moore has his own brand in Alabama independent of the politics of the moment, a devoted band of followers who can be counted on to vote in GOP primaries. Local experts like to say he had a “high floor but a low ceiling”: Even in a primary, he would have a hard time broadening his appeal beyond his built-in base.

Brooks had the support of national conservatives like Sean Hannity and Mark Levin, but wasn’t well known outside his North Alabama congressional district. He sought to turn the race into a referendum on the Washington GOP establishment, particularly McConnell—one of his final campaign events was a “Ditch Mitch” rally Monday night. But his ambivalent relationship with the president, whom he had criticized in the past, didn’t play well with Trump-loving Alabama Republican primary voters.

Brooks’s onetime antipathy for Trump was a major theme of the multimillion-dollar barrage of attack ads aired by Strange and his allies. (A source who polled the race told me Trump is viewed favorably by 68 percent of Alabama Republicans.) But the killing blow came a week before the election, when Trump unexpectedly endorsed Strange on Twitter—the first time the president has waded into a contested GOP primary. Trump apparently did it as a favor to McConnell—but then went after McConnell when he learned the majority leader had been patronizing him behind his back. Still, the president stuck with Strange, issuing more tweets and a recorded message in favor of the incumbent.

Trump’s popularity likely helped drag Strange across the finish line in second place. But it’s notable that his endorsement was only good enough for second place, and less than a third of the primary vote, for his favored candidate. Now Strange faces Moore one-on-one for the nomination, with Moore positioned as the outsider and Strange as the Washington candidate tainted by corruption.

McConnell’s allies have indicated that they intend to go hard against Moore, whose Bible-thumping ways do give many Alabamans pause—one Brooks voter I met told me it was hard enough telling out-of-staters you’re from Alabama without Moore underscoring outsiders’ stereotypes. “Here’s the question, what happens when McConnell & Co. train their guns on Moore?” asked David Mowery, a Montgomery-based consultant who ran a Democratic campaign against Moore that nearly succeeded in 2012. “He is very, very hard to attack,” because of his reputation for standing on principle.

The Republican voters I met in Alabama had interesting perspectives on the embattled president. Nearly all supported Trump, but they were frequently vexed by his actions, and they were all offended when he hung Sessions out to dry a few weeks ago. Several said they supported Trump’s agenda but not necessarily his behavior—more than one blamed his boorishness on his being a Yankee.

But the most important thing I learned was that these red-state voters, accurately perceiving the paralysis and dysfunction in Washington, didn’t hold Trump responsible for it. They blamed Republican leaders like McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan; they blamed the “swamp”; they blamed the establishment elements in Trump’s own orbit for getting in his way.

They said they wanted a senator who would exert leadership to get things done. But they saw a president who was already doing all he could.

Inside the Dugway Proving Ground
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

George Frey, Getty images photographer, recently had the opportunity to visit the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground, a sprawling top-secret military facility in the Utah desert that tests and develops methods of working with chemical, biological, radiological, and explosive hazards. Frey: “Workers at this facility handle some of the most deadly and dangerous biological and chemical agents on Earth.”

What Trump Gets Wrong About Antifa
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

In his Tuesday press conference, Donald Trump talked at length about what he called “the alt left.” White supremacists, he claimed, weren’t the only people in Charlottesville last weekend that deserved condemnation. “You had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” he declared. “Nobody wants to say that.”

I can say with great confidence that Trump’s final sentence is untrue. I can do so because the September issue of The Atlantic contains an essay of mine entitled “The Rise of the Violent Left,” which discusses the very phenomenon that Trump claims “nobody wants” to discuss. Trump is right that, in Charlottesville and beyond, the violence of some leftist activists constitutes a real problem. Where he’s wrong is in suggesting that it’s a problem in any way comparable to white supremacism.

What Trump calls “the alt left” (I’ll explain why that’s a bad term later) is actually antifa, which is short for anti-fascist. The movement traces its roots to the militant leftists who in the 1920s and 1930s brawled with fascists on the streets of Germany, Italy, and Spain. It revived in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, when anti-racist punks in Britain and Germany mobilized to defeat neo-Nazi skinheads who were infiltrating the music scene. Via punk, groups calling themselves anti-racist action—and later, anti-fascist action or antifa—sprung up in the United States. They have seen explosive growth in the Trump era for an obvious reason: There’s more open white supremacism to mobilize against.

As members of a largely anarchist movement, antifa activists generally combat white supremacism not by trying to change government policy but through direct action. They try to publicly identify white supremacists and get them fired from their jobs and evicted from their apartments. And they disrupt white-supremacist rallies, including by force.

As I argued in my essay, some of their tactics are genuinely troubling. They’re troubling tactically because conservatives use antifa’s violence to justify—or at least distract from—the violence of white supremacists, as Trump did in his press conference. They’re troubling strategically because they allow white supremacists to depict themselves as victims being denied the right to freely assemble. And they’re troubling morally because antifa activists really do infringe upon that right. By using violence, they reject the moral legacy of the civil-rights movement’s fight against white supremacy. And by seeking to deny racists the ability to assemble, they reject the moral legacy of the ACLU, which in 1977 went to the Supreme Court to defend the right of neo-Nazis to march through Skokie, Illinois.

Antifa activists are sincere. They genuinely believe that their actions protect vulnerable people from harm. Cornel West claims they did so in Charlottesville. But for all of antifa’s supposed anti-authoritarianism, there’s something fundamentally authoritarian about its claim that its activists—who no one elected—can decide whose views are too odious to be publicly expressed. That kind of undemocratic, illegitimate power corrupts. It leads to what happened this April in Portland, Oregon, where antifa activists threatened to disrupt the city’s Rose Festival parade if people wearing “red maga hats” marched alongside the local Republican Party. Because of antifa, Republican officials in Portland claim they can’t even conduct voter registration in the city without being physically threatened or harassed.

So, yes, antifa is not a figment of the conservative imagination. It’s a moral problem that liberals need to confront.

But saying it’s a problem is vastly different than implying, as Trump did, that it’s a problem equal to white supremacism. Using the phrase “alt-left” suggests a moral equivalence that simply doesn’t exist.

For starters, while antifa perpetrates violence, it doesn’t perpetrate it on anything like the scale that white nationalists do. It’s no coincidence that it was a Nazi sympathizer—and not an antifa activist—who committed murder in Charlottesville. According to the Anti-Defamation League, right-wing extremists committed 74 percent of the 372 politically motivated murders recorded in the United States between 2007 and 2016. Left-wing extremists committed less than 2 percent.

Second, antifa activists don’t wield anything like the alt-right’s power. White, Christian supremacy has been government policy in the United States for much of American history. Anarchism has not. That’s why there are no statues of Mikhail Bakunin in America’s parks and government buildings. Antifa boasts no equivalent to Steve Bannon, who called his old publication, Breitbart, “the platform for the alt-right,” and now works in the White House. It boasts no equivalent to Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, who bears the middle name of a Confederate general and the first name of the Confederacy’s president, and who allegedly called the NAACP “un-American.” It boasts no equivalent to Alex Jones, who Donald Trump praised as “amazing.” Even if antifa’s vision of society were as noxious as the “alt-right’s,” it has vastly less power to make that vision a reality.

And antifa’s vision is not as noxious. Antifa activists do not celebrate regimes that committed genocide and enforced slavery. They’re mostly anarchists. Anarchism may not be a particularly practical ideology. But it’s not an ideology that depicts the members of a particular race or religion as subhuman.

If Donald Trump really wants to undermine antifa, he should do his best to stamp out the bigotry that antifa—counterproductively—mobilizes against. Taking down Confederate statues in places like Charlottesville would be a good start.

An Indelible Image From Trump's 'On Both Sides' Press Conference
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

It read like a poem—or, perhaps, an elegy.

“We
strongest
this egregious
bigotry, and
no place in”

And there the words ended. They were snippets of the text of the statement President Trump had delivered on Saturday, reacting to the events that had taken place in Charlottesville. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence,” he said—before adding, apparently as an ad-lib: “On many sides, on many sides.” They were words that the president had repeated on Monday, when he made, under pressure from his colleagues and from American citizens, a more expansive statement on Charlottesville. The bigotry on display in that city, he said, reading directly from a prompter, “has no place in America.”

On Tuesday, however, those words were replaced with new ones—during a press conference, set in the lobby of Trump Tower, that was meant to be about infrastructure. At one point, as President Trump spoke, he removed from his jacket pocket the text of the earlier statement, printed in large and blunt sans serif, to refer to what he had said before: “I brought it, I brought it,” he said, reading the text before putting it down, figuratively and extremely literally. The Associated Press photographer Pablo Martinez Monsivais captured the moment—in which only those few words, the we and the strongest and the egregious bigotry, were visible to viewers—and the reporter Colin Campbell tweeted the results: Here was the president referring to the carefully calibrated words that had been prepared for him. And here he was, replacing them—effectively erasing them—with new ones: words that, as The New York Times summed it up, give white supremacists “an unequivocal boost.” Words that led David Duke to cheer for the new order of things.

And, also, significantly: spoken words. Words that had not been prepared or otherwise vetted, but that seemed to have come directly from the mind of the president. Words, delivered in the presence of cabinet members who had come to talk about roads and bridges, that reportedly left members of the president’s staff “stunned and disheartened” precisely because they were public airings of “opinions that the president had long expressed in private.” Words that regressed to Saturday’s ad-libbed false equivalence: many sides, many sides.

Tuesday’s press conference will very likely be remembered as a moment of extreme moral clarity—the moment in which the emperor, speaking in his golden chamber with the aid of scrolls and servants, revealed himself, once again, for what he is. But there was something else that crystallized in that press conference: that image of the president, taking the words of reconciliation—words that had been selected and edited and set in the permanence of print—and undoing them. The president privileging his own words, the work of a mind in a moment, over those that had been chosen for him. In an instant, the “we” of the statement had been replaced, effectively, with an “I.”

Writing suggests rationality. Writing suggests consideration. Writing suggests external memory—Plato was wary of it, for precisely this reason—but it also suggests memory that is, by default, collective. The law distinguishes between written agreements and verbal ones, between libel and slander, between words that come in the heat of the moment, essentially, and words that take their time to breathe and cool. So do most people: When you really care about something—when you want to make sure you don’t forget about it—you generally write it down.

Those distinctions, however, are considerably less meaningful when it comes to American presidents, whose words are understood to be not merely their own, but the nation’s. Presidential words are traditionally the work of many behind-the-scenes writers; even when those words are spoken and “off the cuff”—even when they’re uttered in impromptu press conferences or on whimsical comedy shows—they have still, traditionally, adopted the deliberately calibrated approaches of text. Let me be clear, President Obama would say. Read my lips, George H. W. Bush put it, ruinously.

This caution, certainly, can be a frustration to people who simply want to know what a president is thinking. There’s a reason that “scripted,” in the political context, is usually something of a slur. In a broader sense, though, the sanctity of presidential words has long been an element of the compact between the presidency and the public. He will speak intentionally, the promise goes. He will speak carefully. He will speak understanding that he is speaking not merely for himself, but for all Americans. He will speak with the knowledge that, though he may be president, his mind—his particular sense of the world—is not the only one that matters.

Donald Trump rejects these norms. He treats his Twitter feed not as President Obama treated his—as a platform through which the White House, with all the institutions embedded in it, might speak to the nation—but as a mainline to the presidential mind. All the insults. All the typos. All the statements that would seem to suggest national policy, coming as they do from the president, but that often amount simply to angry observations. When President Trump speaks, in other words, he speaks for himself—often to the surprise and occasionally to the horror of the people charged with sending messages on behalf of the White House. It’s one reason Trump’s admirers admire him: the honesty of it, the ease of it, the rip-out-the-middleman efficiency of it. President Trump tells it like it is, they note. No political correctness here. No compromise here.

The other way of looking at the president’s attitude, though, is the way that is captured so elegantly in Pablo Martinez Monsivais’s image of those curtailed notes: as a rejection of the communal nature of government. Here were words that had been printed out for the president—words that he had delivered to a wounded and weary nation. Here were words that were written down in every meaningful sense of that phrase: carefully selected by a team of committed people, with an eye toward inclusion and an aim at the sweep of history. Words that were edited, and considered, and reconsidered, and calibrated for a country that is as diverse as it is immense.

And, then: Here were those same words, undone in the span of minutes. Here was all that careful writing, and editing, and fact-checking, nullified by the president’s erroneous equivalencies, by his ad-libbed words about the “alt-left” and George Washington. Here was the American president, choosing the workings of his own mind over the workings of the presidency. On Tuesday, President Trump used printed text to remind reporters, and the country, of what he had said before—what he had read before: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence. It has no place in America.” The president added, shifting in subject from the plural “we” to the singular Donald Trump: “And then I went on from there.”

At Last, a Big, Successful Trial of Probiotics
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

For all the hype that surrounds them, probiotics—products that contain supposedly beneficial bacteria—have rarely proven their worth in large, rigorous studies. There are good reasons for this disappointing performance. The strains in most commercially produced probiotics were chosen for historical reasons, because they were easy to grow and manufacture, and not because they are well-adapted to the human body. When they enter our gut, they fail to colonize. As I wrote in my recent book, they’re like a breeze that blows between two open windows.

But even though probiotic products might be underwhelming, the probiotic concept is sound. Bacteria can beneficially tune our immune systems and protect us from disease. It’s just a matter of finding the right strains, and helping them to establish themselves. Many scientists are now trying to do just that, and one such team, led by Pinaki Panigrahi at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, has just scored a big win.

Since 2008, Panigrahi’s team has been running a large clinical trial in rural India, where they gave a probiotic of their own devising to thousands of randomly selected newborn babies. Their product contained a strain of Lactobacillus plantarum, chosen for its ability to attach to gut cells. The team also added a sugar, chosen to nourish the microbe and give it a foothold when it enters a baby’s gut. Together, this combination is called a synbiotic. And it was strikingly effective.

The team found that babies who took this concoction had a significantly lower risk of developing sepsis—a life-threatening condition where infections trigger body-wide inflammation, restricted blood flow, and organ failure. Sepsis is one of the biggest killers of newborn babies, ending around 600,000 lives every year when they’ve barely begun. Some proportion of these cases begin in the gut, and probiotics might be able to prevent them by ousting harmful microbes, or by stopping benign ones from crossing into the bloodstream and causing infections.

Sure enough, in Panigrahi’s trial, just 5.4 percent of the infants who took the synbiotic developed sepsis in their first two months of life, compared to 9 percent of those who received a placebo. That’s a reduction of 40 percent. Such estimates always come with a margin of error, but the team calculate that the reduction in risk should still be somewhere between 25 and 50 percent.

The effect was twice as large as what the team expected, especially since the infants took daily doses of the synbiotic for just one week. And given the clear evidence of benefits, independent experts who were monitoring the study decided to stop the trial early: It would have been unethical to continue depriving half the newborns of the treatment. Panigrahi originally planned to enroll 8,000 babies into the study. He stopped at 4,557.

Which is still a huge number! Probiotics trials have been criticized in the past for being small and statistically underpowered. Those that looked at sepsis, for example, usually involved just 100 to 200 babies, making it hard to know whether any beneficial effects were the result of random chance. The biggest trial to date included 1,315 infants; Panigrahi’s study is over three times bigger. “[It] exemplifies how intervention research should be done,” writes Daniel Tancredi from the University of California, Davis, in a commentary that accompanies the paper.

“In most studies, people take the probiotics that are available on the shelf without asking why that probiotic should work in the disease they’re interested in. And they think they’ll stumble onto something good,” says Panigrahi. “It’s counter-intuitive, but we did the same thing.”

At first, his team tested Lactobacillus GG and Lactobacillus sporogenes—the most commonly used probiotics in India—in small pilot studies. Both strains are claimed to colonize the gut. “We did the trial and the colonization was almost zero,” says Panigrahi. To find more suitable strains, the team collected stool from healthy volunteers and screened the microbes within for those that could stick to human cells, and could prevent disease-causing bacteria from doing so. They ended up with a strain called Lactobacillus plantarum ATCC strain 202195, which not only colonized infant guts successfully, but stayed there for up to four months. That’s when they launched the big trial.

Aside from preventing sepsis, it also reduced the risk of infections by both the major groups of bacteria: the Gram-positives, by 82 percent; and the Gram-negatives, which are harder to treat with antibiotics, by 75 percent. It even reduced the risk of pneumonia and other infections of the airways by 34 percent. That was “completely unexpected,” says Panigrahi, and it’s the result he’s especially excited about. It suggests that the synbiotic isn’t just acting within the gut, but also giving the infants’ immune systems a body-wide boost.

Probiotics are not without risk. There have been rare cases where the bacteria in these products have caused sepsis in newborn or preterm infants. But Panigrahi saw no signs of that in his study: His synbiotic didn’t seem to cause any harmful side effects.

Beyond protecting infants, Panigrahi says that this approach would also reduce the use of antibiotics, and slow the spread of drug-resistant infections. And perhaps best of all, it can be done cheaply. You’d need to treat 27 infants to prevent one case of sepsis, and each week-long course costs just one U.S. dollar.

“It’s a very important study,” says Marie-Claire Arrieta from the University of Calgary. “It not only shows an effective and low-cost way to prevent a horrible infant disease that kills millions worldwide, but provides important clues on how to improve strategies to change the infant-gut microbiome.”

Two earlier trials tested off-the-shelf probiotics on 1,099 and 1,315 premature infants respectively. Neither found any benefits for sepsis. Nor did an Indian trial involving 668 babies born with a low birth weight. In retrospect, such failures were to be expected. Sepsis is a varied and complicated condition. The microbiome is also incredibly varied in early life, and changes in ways we barely understand. “It’s not surprising that a one-size-fits-all approach hasn’t worked thus far,” says Arrieta. Success probably depends on choosing the right strain, administering it at the right time, and feeding it appropriately.

Then again, Panigrahi’s trial only included healthy newborns of normal weight, whose mothers had begun to breastfeed them. They already had the best odds of fighting off infections, so it’s unclear if his synbiotic would work equally well with weaker or smaller babies, who are more prone to sepsis. It’s also unclear exactly why the synbiotic worked, or what effect it might have on the infants’ microbiomes in the long run.

“We may need to test this in different settings and we’re working with the government to do so,” says Panigrahi. “But this should be the standard of care. The money involved is very small. The synbiotic can be manufactured anywhere without fancy technology. And it can do so much good.”

Trump Knows Exactly What He’s Doing
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

President Trump’s short press conference Tuesday afternoon was remarkable for seeming cogent. In so many of his public statements Trump wanders, free-associates, digresses, and seems either incapable or uninterested in piecing together complete sentences. The fact that he didn’t seem to be improvising made his defense of some of those who participated in a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, more important.

It was the clearest and most precise articulation of a view that Trump has espoused since the start of his political career. The president worked to draw a fine distinction between different elements of the march, and in the process to rescue his own vision of pride in white America from being tarnished from association with neo-Nazis. Trump mounted a defense of a political movement rooted in pride about Confederate symbols and white heritage by seeking to disassociate it from its more extreme elements.

“I am not putting anybody on a moral plane,” he said, but that wasn’t quite right. Trump was passing moral judgment on self-described neo-Nazis and white supremacists, in order to defend those who marched alongside them in defense of a Confederate monument, even if they did not endorse either their means or ultimate ends. The latter group forms a core part of Trump’s support. Although many Republican officeholders rushed to condemn Trump’s comments, there’s little evidence to believe most Trump voters disagree with the president. In June 2017, the left-leaning firm Public Policy Polling found that 70 percent of Trump backers support public monuments to the Confederacy, with only 15 percent approve of their removal. In a June 2015 CNN poll, almost six in 10 whites said they viewed the Confederate battle flag as a sign of Southern heritage, not bigotry.

Having drawn this distinction, Trump could portray what happened in Charlottesville not as a battle over racism but instead as a clash between two equally legitimate political factions. It allowed him to declare that there is an “alt-left” equivalent to the alt-right—fringes that employ violence, and tarnish the “very fine people on both sides”—and to ignore questions about whether there was actually equivalent hatred and malice in the two groups that clashed in Charlottesville.

“You had a group on one side and the other and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and horrible. It was a horrible thing to watch,” he said. “There is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You have just called them the left, that came violently attacking the other group. You can say what you want. That’s the way it is.”

But one can condemn violence in all forms while still acknowledging that, even before anyone threw a punch in Charlottesville, the Unite the Right rally was led by, and composed of, in large part, neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Trump claimed Tuesday that his initial statement on Charlottesville blamed “all sides” because he had not yet gathered the facts, but it doesn’t require any fact-gathering to condemn white supremacy. It does not matter that, as Trump correctly stated, the white nationalists had a permit. The point is not that the president should infringe the right of white nationalists to assemble and speak freely. It is that a system of free speech which relies on good ideas to triumph over bad ones only functions if political leaders, starting with the president, loudly and clearly denounce the content of hateful speech.

The crux of Trump’s statement Tuesday was to draw a distinction between the worst of the extremists who marched in Charlottesville, and the rest who were there. “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists,” Trump said. “They should be condemned totally. You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. The press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”

How, precisely, had the press treated them unfairly? Apparently by lumping them in with the people they chose to march with—a mob that sported swastikas, bore white-supremacist symbols, and shouted anti-Semitic slogans. Trump argues that there were some in the crowd who disagreed with the neo-Nazis but were there to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee that the city of Charlottesville wants to remove, and thus decided to march alongside them.

This is an old canard in the debate over Civil War symbols: “Heritage, not hate.” Defenders of Confederate statues and Confederate flags have long contended that these symbols represent not hatred of black people but simply reverence for ancestors and a bygone way of life. Many people honestly believe that they are upholding heritage rather than hate in their embrace of Confederate symbols. But that can’t alter what the Confederacy actually stood for, why these symbols were erected in public spaces, or what they mean to many other Americans.

The Civil War was fought to maintain black enslavement and defend white supremacy (a point on which the founding fathers of the Confederacy were quite clear, despite latter-day insistence that the fight was over states’ rights). It was a treasonous rebellion against the legitimate government of the United States, and it was defeated. And defining “Southern culture” around the Confederacy erases the fact that African Americans are an important segment of Southern culture that did not support the war, to say nothing of the many Unionists in secessionist states.

Trump raised another common canard on Tuesday: the slippery slope. “Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status?” he asked. “Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? … Are we going to take down his statue? He was a major slave owner.”

This may seem on its face like the most compelling argument against removing Civil War statues, but as I have written before, it falls apart under any scrutiny. Many Civil War symbols were erected not immediately after the war but at times when white supremacy was asserting itself most aggressively in the South—at the end of the 19th century, as states enacted strict race laws and rolled back Reconstruction, and again in the 1950s and 1960s, during the heart of the civil-rights movement. The United States can, and increasingly is, making sure that discussions of figures like Jefferson are more nuanced than they have been. But there is also a clear, bright line between flawed men who founded the country and those who sought to tear it apart.

“We can distinguish between people who wanted to build the United States of America and people who wanted to destroy it,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed said this summer. “It’s possible to recognize people’s contributions at the same time as recognizing their flaws.”

Trump wants to speak to Americans who disdain Nazis and disavow white supremacists, but who share their sense of cultural displacement, angry resentment at a diversifying nation, and conviction that white Americans are the real victims. Just as he converted birtherism from a fringe, racist belief into a mainstream (though no less racist) movement, Trump is trying to draw a line around a group of people who have beliefs that are substantially similar to those of white nationalists (and in some matters, neo-Nazis)—who are literally willing to march alongside them—and to make them acceptable in polite society because they say they are not neo-Nazis or white nationalists, but simply wish to protect their culture.

This is, probably not coincidentally, precisely the project of the so-called alt-right. As my colleague Rosie Gray put it, “The alt-right movement has sought over the past two years to rebrand white nationalism, lifting it out of the obscure corners of the website Stormfront and elevating it into the mainstream political discussion.” No wonder that alt-right leader Richard Spencer deemed Trump’s condemnation of white supremacists and hate groups on Monday insincere—in retrospect, it clearly was—and was delighted by Tuesday’s change of course.

This might be politically successful. Trump has shown an acute sense for how to push the envelope of racist rhetoric and policy, going far beyond what any mainstream observer would have thought politically possible during both his campaign and his presidency so far—though the presidency has been a series of stumbles. Trump and the alt-right help push each other forward into the mainstream of American politics, and now the president is using the bully pulpit to keep helping his allies. Trump is not much for loyalty per se. He is doing so because he sees a political upside in both appealing to and whipping up a sense of grievance among whites who would never explicitly align themselves with neo-Nazis, but might be made to believe that their culture is in danger because of the removal of an old statue.

In the aftermath of the press conference, even Trump’s media allies seemed initially appalled, and the press said the president had veered off the rails once more. But that misses the point. A senior White House official expressed surprise, telling CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, “That was all him—this wasn't our plan.” Yet the White House fired off a set of talking points to members of Congress that didn’t blink. “The President was entirely correct—both sides of the violence in Charlottesville acted inappropriately, and bear some responsibility,” they stated. Though plenty of observers are disgusted by the president’s validation of racist protesters, no one should be surprised or take it as a spontaneous riff: It was one of the most cogent, precise, and enduring cases he has made as a politician.

The Origin Story of Animals Is a Song of Ice and Fire
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Around 717 million years ago, the Earth turned into a snowball. Most of the ocean, if not all of it, was frozen at its surface. The land, which was aggregated into one big supercontinent, was also covered in mile-thick ice. And then, everything changed. Volcanoes released enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to trap the sun’s heat and trigger global warming. The ice melted, and the surface of the sea reached temperatures of 120 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. By 659 million years ago, the world had transformed from snowball to greenhouse. And just 14 million years later, the ice returned and the planet became a snowball for the second time.

This song of ice and fire was a momentous period for life on Earth. According to Jochen Brocks from the Australian National University, it liberated a flood of nutrients that permanently transformed the oceans, from a world that was dominated by bacteria to one where algae were ascendant. The algae, in turn, revolutionized the food webs in the sea, paving the way for the evolution of larger and increasingly complex organisms—like the first animals. If the Age of Algae had never dawned, we wouldn’t be here.

Before algae, the oceans were dominated by bacteria. Some of these microbes, the cyanobacteria, could make their own food by harnessing the power of sunlight—a process called photosynthesis. In doing so, they provided most of the oxygen in the planet’s atmosphere, and the formed the foundations of the ocean’s food webs. It was their world.

Then, in a chance event, an ancient complex cell swallowed one of these cyanobacteria and gained its ability to photosynthesize. That one fused cell then gave rise to all algae and plants—everything from small green plankton that float in the ocean, to the seaweed that wraps our sushi rolls, to the flowers and trees that grace our forests.

The merger that started all of this happened sometime between 900 and 1,900 million years ago, and some scientists are trying to narrow down that range. But Brocks had a different goal: He wanted to know not when algae originated, but when they became important. When did they go from merely existing to truly thriving? When did they supplant cyanobacteria as the world’s top photosynthesizers?

To find out, he turned to cylinders of sediment, which petroleum companies remove when they dig for oil. These cylinders preserve the remains of ancient bacteria and algae that sank to the ocean floor when they died. Their cells have long since vanished, but their constituent chemicals still remain. Other scientists have tried analyzing these chemicals before, but they always got weird results because oil from the drilling machines would contaminate the sediments. That oil came from the Jurassic, 145 to 200 million years ago, so it obscured the presence of chemicals from earlier periods in time.

When Brocks realized this problem, he used industrial machines to abrade the contaminating gunk off the surface of the sediment cores. His team then ground the leftover rock into powder, and put it into what’s essentially a huge coffee machine. It pumps solvents through the powder and extracts the molecules within, producing a brown liquid that looks like (and pretty much is) oil. Brocks and his colleagues searched this goop for two particular groups of chemicals—steranes, which are found in algal cells, and hopanes, which are found in bacterial cells. By comparing the ratio of these substances, they could work out how the relative numbers of these groups changed over time.

They found that during the first snowball period, and in all the millennia before it, bacterial hopanes greatly outnumbered algal steranes. But in the interval when the planet had defrosted, between 645 and 659 million years ago, sterane levels skyrocketed by 100 to 1,000 times, reaching a peak that has persisted to this day. The diversity of steranes also went up, from a single molecule into a whole smorgasbord of them. These results are far starker than Brocks had anticipated. They clearly show that algae rose to power during a narrow 14-million-year window, becoming more abundant and more diverse.

“The causes and consequences of that rise are controversial, and I’m looking forward to people fighting about it,” says Brocks. But the evidence for the rise itself “is very clear. There’s a transition from a bacterial world to an algal one.”

Why? Brocks was puzzling over that mystery when he read a study, published last year, showing that the oceans used to have very low levels of phosphate—a vital nutrient. Phosphate levels only started to rise between 800 and 635 million years ago—exactly before the algae took off. “I thought: Wow, this can’t be a coincidence,” says Brocks.

When phosphate levels are low, bacteria do better than algae because their cells are much smaller. With more surface area for their size, they’re better able to absorb nutrients from their surroundings. “If nutrient concentrations are low, small size wins every time,” says Brocks. “In a low-phosphate world, the larger algae had no chance.”

This competition started tilting in the algae’s favor during the first snowball Earth, when mighty glaciers ground mountainsides into powder, releasing phosphate into the ocean. When the planet warmed, increased rainfall hit the newly exposed ground and washed even more phosphate seaward. It was an overkill of nutrients, the likes of which the planet hadn’t seen before. And, according to Brocks, it broke the bacterial stranglehold in the oceans.

Here’s what he thinks happened. At first, the glut of nutrients would have gone to the dominant cyanobacteria, which would have been eaten by microscopic grazing cells. These grazers capped the bacterial numbers, freeing up nutrients for the larger algae, which could finally flourish. The presence of so much algae would, in turn, have fueled the evolution of predators like rhizarians—single-celled hunters that devour around 50 percent of the ocean’s algae every day.

Entirely new food webs came to be, as did arms races between predators and prey that led to the evolution of larger and larger creatures. By the 635-million-year mark, at the dawn of the Ediacaran period, centimeter-sized organisms showed up. And it was during that period that the first animals appeared. “They all come so close to each other—phosphate came first, algae came second, animals came third,” says Brocks. “The algae provided the food and energy source that allowed organisms to become big. I just don’t think an ecosystem with sharks in it would be possible with just bacteria.”

“It presents a feasible scenario and brings together the best new data,” says Robin Kodner from Western Washington University, who studies algae both modern and ancient. “But like all historical geobiological studies, there are some oversimplifications.” For example, there are many types of algae. Of these, the green algae—and specifically, a group called the prasinophytes—are the only ones of any great ecological importance. It’s unclear if the rise in algae that Brock found is a rise in prasinophytes specifically.

Also, many prasinophytes are tiny, and only slightly bigger than cyanobacteria. There’s no particular reason why their rise should have dramatically reworked food webs in the way that Brocks suggests. The reality is that such webs are complicated. Cyanobacteria and algae coexist, filling different roles. The predators that devour one group will often eat the other too. So working out how exactly the rise of algae led to the rise of animals—or even if they did—will take more work. “And really, I don't think we can do any better than this with the data from the geological record,” Kodner says.

Events that happened hundreds of millions of years ago are necessarily hard to reconstruct, and will always be open to speculation and debate. But Brocks’s study is valuable because it unites a bunch of disparate observations into a cohesive framework, against which future discoveries can be compared, writes Andrew Knoll from Harvard University in an accompanying commentary.

And as Brocks says, “If someone comes to me and says they have a better explanation, I’d be happy to accept that.”

Should You Try to Take a Photo of the Total Eclipse?
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Most full moons, I try in vain to take a photo of our nearest celestial companion, and wind up posting something terribly blurry on Instagram. But even my best shots don’t depict what the scene feels like; I can only hope to preserve a piece of that feeling. So for something as rare and fleeting as a total eclipse, should I even try?

Eclipse chasers are mixed on this, and many say eclipse novices shouldn’t bother; not only will the photo feel insufficient, it’s not worth missing the show just to put something on Insta. But they almost all agree on one thing: Take photos and videos of your surroundings, even if it’s just on your smartphone. You’ll enjoy having a chronicle of what you and your companions did when the moon’s shadow came barreling toward you at more than 1,600 miles an hour, and how you reacted when the sun disappeared. (If you do take photos, send them our way, and we’ll highlight them in our Instagram story!)

If you want photos of the partial eclipse, you need special solar filters on your camera, which block almost all of the sun’s harmful light. NEVER photograph the sun directly without these filters! When the sun is 100 percent eclipsed, in “totality,” you’re fine to take them off, and to remove your eclipse glasses. But for the average viewer with an iPhone, how do you know when to do so? Darren Nilsen of Sterling, Virginia, wonders how he’ll know it’s okay to look at the sun from the path of totality in Carthage, Tennessee:

As we will be in the path of totality we should be able to safely remove our solar eclipse glasses during the two-plus minutes of totality. My question is: How will we know when it is safe to remove our glasses? Having never seen a total eclipse I wanted to make sure we don't remove our glasses too early (or certainly too late). I'm considering purchasing an atomic clock so that I can time it, but I didn't know if there were better/cheaper options or if it will just be apparent at the time of the eclipse that we can remove our glasses.

It’s a good question, and fortunately the answer is simple: You'll know it's safe because it will get so dark. You will see the moon's shadow racing toward you, and when it envelops you, you'll know. Take the glasses off at that point, and look up. When to put them back on is a bit more tricky. For that, you may want to start a timer, assuming you know just how long totality will last at your location. To find that out, you can check this map by a French cartographer and eclipse chaser.

If you don't have a timer, or if you forget to set one in the moment, then don't worry: Just put the glasses back on when the first beads of light start to reappear on the other side of the moon. These are called Baily's beads, and they happen because light is streaming through valleys on the moon.

Along with just watching it, which you really should do, you can take a photo of totality using your iPhone. But some eclipse chasers pack more sophisticated equipment. Evan Zucker is a lawyer, Air Force veteran, and eclipse chaser who has traveled to see seven total eclipses, along with several annular or “ring of fire” eclipses, when the sun is not completely obscured. He’ll be in Casper, Wyoming, with many other eclipse enthusiasts—and a bunch of gear.

I plan to observe the eclipse through 15x50 image-stabilized binoculars and a 3.5-inch Meade ETX telescope. Of course, I have solar filters for both, including 2 different types for the telescope. I plan to photograph and videotape the eclipse with a Nikon P900, Lumix FZ1000, Sony A77, Sony RX100 IV, and two iPhones.

My main advice to first-time eclipse observers is just to observe the event and not worry about photographing it. You can take all the photos you like during the partial phases, but during totality I suggest just observing. Other than a solar filter for the partial phases, the only hardware I would recommend (if you already have a pair) are binoculars for observing totality. If you have access to some sort of tripod, I recommend putting your cell phone on a tripod and have it record video beginning about 5-10 minutes before totality begins and continuing for a few minutes after totality ends. The audio from that recording will do more to convey the wonder and excitement of the eclipse more than any photograph can.

If you do take video, you can send it to Google, which will stitch it together into an eclipse “MegaMovie.” The project is designed to accumulate a massive public archive of eclipse imagery, as well as to do citizen science on the corona, says the project’s cofounder, Hugh Hudson of the University of California, Berkeley.

A major collateral part of this program is the app we are developing, Megamovie Mobile, that will allow smartphone users to participate painlessly while they watch the spectacle. [It’s available on Android and iOS.] The main effort in Megamovie, though, is to engage the large community of well-equipped photographers all along the path, and with their voluntary participation (we’re aiming at more than a thousand volunteers), to produce detailed high-resolution movies over the whole hour and a half.

Personally, I will be in Corvallis, Oregon, with one or two smartphones running our app, possibly with a telephoto lens attached to one of them. But I propose during the actual totality to ignore all instrumentation and just to enjoy the view.

Terry Garbutt, a retired IT worker living in rural Ontario, is headed to Alliance, Nebraska, one of the towns with the best chance of clear weather. He plans to contribute to the Megamovie, and he’ll be in place by 6 a.m. August 21.

I will set up my still camera (Canon APS-C DSLR/300-mm lens) and (BMPCC/420-mm lens) video camera on a single equatorial iOptron SmartEQ tripod mount. Stills from the Canon will go to the Google/Berkeley Eclipse Megamovie project. I may wear a GoPro for self-documentary purposes. All right, maybe a selfie!

Until first contact I will be checking the checklist, and checking it twice. Of course, by then I will have done dozens of practice runs. It will be a piece of cake. I’ll bring a headlamp. Yes, it gets pretty dark; one will see a 360-degree “sunset” effect. Throughout all this, I will be thinking positive weather thoughts.

Just after the “diamond ring” bright flash, the beginning of totality, take off your glasses, sit back in a chair, observe it to the fullest, hoist a glass of bubbly, and join your neighbors in celebration.

Remember the next United States/Canada total eclipse is in April 2024 ... you want to have retained your vision. The next time, you can photograph/video it.

The Chilling Effects of Openly Displayed Firearms
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

It could have been so much worse.

Like ISIS attackers in Europe, the Charlottesville murderer used a car as his assault weapon. But Charlottesville this past weekend was crammed with anti-social personalities carrying sub-military firearms. It could just as easily have been one—or more—of those gun-carriers who made the decision to kill. If so, Americans might this week be mourning not one life lost to an attack, but dozens.

As recently as 2009, the nation retained a capacity to be shocked when individuals carried weapons to political events. Such was the case in Phoenix, Arizona, on August 18, 2009:

A man toting an assault rifle was among a dozen protesters carrying weapons while demonstrating outside President Obama's speech to veterans on Monday, but no laws were broken. It was the second instance in recent days in which weapons have been seen near presidential events.

The man who followed Obama with a rifle in Arizona was sending a wordless message. Not so the man who had showed up a few days before at an Obama event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. With a handgun strapped to his thigh, he carried a placard reading: “It is time to water the tree of liberty!”—a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s famous remark about the periodic need for revolutionary bloodshed.

A decade ago, such incidents still occurred rarely enough that onlookers could be surprised and upset by them. But the presence of a president did at least ensure that the preponderance of firepower lay with the lawful authorities.

Not so a decade later.

In June, a rumor spread via Facebook that protesters planned to rally at a park in Houston, Texas, to demand the removal of a statue of Sam Houston. Hundreds of supporters of the statue rallied; a large number of them carrying rifles, some wearing body armor.

Hermann park, the site of the statue, is one of the city’s most visited parks. The Houston Zoo is located within it; the Houston Children’s Museum stands just a few blocks away. On weekends, the park is typically crowded with young families. Yet some dozens of Texans decided that this would be an appropriate place to plan a gunfight. And of course they were entirely within their rights, as those rights are understood in 21st-century America. Texas law forbids citizens to carry deadly weapons “in a manner calculated to alarm.” Otherwise, long arms may be shouldered by virtually anyone in almost any place. It might be thought that bringing a rifle into a playground is itself “calculated to alarm.” But over the past generation, gun carriers have become much more assertive—and the authorities much more accommodating.

Charlottesville, however, marks a new era of even bolder assertion of the right to threaten violence for political purposes. Gun carriers at the so-called “Unite the Right” rally acted more like a paramilitary force than as individual demonstrators. They wore similar pseudo-military outfits, including body armor. They took tactical formations to surround the site of the expected confrontation. According to Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, “They had better equipment than our state police had.” (The state police have disputed that claim.)

The carrying of firearms by random citizens into public places is typically defended as a contribution to public safety. If criminals must reckon with the possibility of armed resistance, they will hesitate to commit crimes—or so goes the theory. It’s a hard theory to prove or disprove, because the thing to be measured—“defensive gun use”—is so subjective. An altercation erupts after a traffic accident. One motorist raises his voice. The other displays a weapon. Has the weapon carrier prevented a crime? Or has the law empowered a subset of Americans to intimidate their neighbors? The Florida man who shot 17-year-old Jordan Davis dead for playing his music too loud also claimed he was acting in self-defense. If widespread gun carry enhances safety, why are countries that forbid it so much safer than the United States?

Whatever its merits, however, the theory of the crime-reducing effects of citizen carry applies only to concealed carry. Society receives the putative benefit of citizen carry only if the potential criminal does not know which potential victim might be armed.

Open carry has no such justification—and until recently, it has not needed it. Until recently, almost all states forbade the open carry of handguns. Although many Western states ignored the open carry of long guns, they did so not as a matter of policy or right, but as a left-over from their rural origins. A rancher moving about his lands may want to carry a shotgun or rifle in case predators attack his livestock. Is he supposed to put a bag over his gun? Are hunters supposed to carry their rifles in a locked case until they literally see the deer?

Today in Arizona, however, 89.8 percent of the population dwells in urban areas, a higher percentage than in Connecticut; Texas’s population has become 84.7 percent urban, higher than Delaware. Hunting is declining. The most popular rifle in the United States is the AR-15, a look-alike of the military-grade M-16 that can be used for hunting purposes only by the most skilled marksmen. Fewer and fewer American households own long guns at all. Gun sales are up because a few gun enthusiasts are accumulating miniature arsenals: In 1994, the average gun-owning household owned four weapons; by 2015, the average gun-owning household owned eight.

Over that same period, American political culture has become more polarized. Those polarities have become more extreme. And on the political right especially, the rhetoric has become more indulgent of—if not more enthusiastic about—political violence.

Sometimes the indulgence of violence is spoken in tones of regret, as in this column by radio host Dennis Prager in May 2017:

Left-wing thugs engage in violence and threats of violence with utter impunity. They shut down speakers at colleges; block highways, bridges, and airport terminals; take over college buildings and offices; occupy state capitals; and terrorize individuals at their homes.

In order to understand why more violence may be coming, it is essential to understand that left-wing mobs are almost never stopped, arrested, or punished. Colleges do nothing to stop them, and civil authorities do nothing to stop them on campuses or anywhere else. Police are reduced to spectators as they watch left-wing gangs loot stores, smash business and car windows, and even take over state capitals (as in Madison, Wisconsin).

It’s beginning to dawn on many Americans that mayors, police chiefs and college presidents have no interest in stopping this violence. Left-wing officials sympathize with the lawbreakers, and the police, who rarely sympathize with thugs of any ideology, are ordered to do nothing by emasculated police chiefs.

Consequently, given the abdication by all these authorities of their role to protect the public, some members of the public will inevitably decide that they will protect themselves and others.

Sometimes it is gleeful, as in this August monologue by one of Trump’s favorite radio hosts, Michael Savage:

That is what’s going to happen in this country. You have not yet seen mob violence in this country. You’ve seen some mob violence instigated by George Soros’s mobs. … But you haven’t seen the thing I’m telling you is coming in this country. … We’ve had it up to here. We’ve put up with your garbage in the universities. We’ve put up with your filth coming out of your filth factories in Hollywood. We’ve put up with your hatred that comes out of your newspapers. We’ve put up with your filth and your hatred coming out of CNN. But if you do the next step and steal our president, I warn you. You’ve seen nothing yet. You will see the ‘Day of the Locust’ in this country.

Sean Hannity tells his audience of a “soft coup” against  Trump: “sinister forces aligning in a clear and present danger.” Newt Gingrich describes a “clear-cut cultural civil war.”

These talkers only intend to rev people up. It’s shtick—“performance art,” as Alex Jones’s lawyers have argued in defense of that inflammatory radio host. They don’t take themselves seriously, and would surely be horrified if anybody else did. And surely the vast majority of Americans do see through the performance. But not all. A poor fool with a gun fired a shot into a Washington pizza restaurant crowded with children because some cynic saw the chance of a dishonest dollar in sending him there—and so it may be again on a more horrifying scale next time.

What can be done? We can begin by acknowledging that America’s ranching days are behind it. Within metropolitan areas, there is no reason—zero—that a weapon should ever be carried openly. The purpose is always to intimidate—to frighten others away from their lawful rights, not only free speech and lawful assembly, but voting as well. This happened in Loudon County, Virginia, on Election Day 2016:

A man wearing a Donald Trump shirt and carrying a weapon stood outside a voting location in Loudon County, Virginia. ... ‘I had my 9-year-old son with me. I felt intimidated,’ [Erika] Cotti said. ‘And I had to explain to my 9-year-old why a man with a 357 magnum is standing outside the polling station.’

Cotti said the man offered her a Republican sample ballot, which she declined.

‘He’s like, “Who are you going to vote for, crooked Hillary?” And I was like, “That’s really none of your business,”’ Cotti said, adding that the man was standing in the sidewalk outside of the office when they left and blocking their path.

Virginia is an open-carry state. Any adult can show a legally acquired loaded handgun just about anywhere; people with a concealed-carry permit can openly carry rifles with large-capacity magazines. Some Virginia cities have passed laws purporting to bar guns, but the state’s permissive carry laws explicitly preempt local ordinances.

But take care: As David Graham has observed here at The Atlantic, the right to carry arms is America’s most unequally upheld right. Ohio is an open-carry state. Yet Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old, was shot dead in Cleveland within seconds of being observed carrying what proved to be a pellet gun. John Crawford was shot dead for moving around an Ohio Walmart with an air rifle he had picked up from a display shelf. Minnesota allows concealed-carry permit-holders to open carry if they wish—yet Minnesotan Philando Castile was killed after merely telling a police officer he had a legal gun in his car.

On the other hand, every white man who played vigilante in Charlottesville this weekend went home unharmed to his family, having successfully overawed the police—and having sent a chilling message of warning to lawful protesters.

No other democracy on Earth tolerates such antics. When libertarian-minded Americans lament the over-militarization of police, they might give some thought to what it takes to police a society where potential lawbreakers think it their right to accumulate force that would do credit to a Somali warlord. And not only accumulate it, but carry that force into public to brandish against fellow citizens who think differently from their local paramilitaries.

At Charlottesville, blessedly, no gun went off. But at Dallas last year, the guns did.

Police came under fire from an African American who believed himself to be resisting governmental abuse and tyranny—which, according to many a gun-rights advocate, is one of the reasons to have an armed populace.

Attempting to locate the sniper, Dallas law enforcement had to contend with some 20 people who were marching in a larger protest against police brutality while openly carrying rifles and wearing body armor, as was their right under Texas law.

It’s not necessary to live like this. No other advanced democracy does. As Americans critically self-examine the forces in their society that enabled the tragedy in Charlottesville, they might give a thought as well to the permission they allow the even graver tragedy that might have happened—and that sooner or later, surely will.

Sage, Ink: Off Message
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM
Another monument comes down: In a cartoon, the American eagle leaps off Trump's podium in response to his remarks on Charlottesville.

‘We Have 14 Black Deaf Americans With Ph.D.s—14’
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

In many ways, Gallaudet University looks like any other liberal-arts college in America: Brick buildings and leafy walkways are abundant on its campus in Washington, D.C. But at Gallaudet, American Sign Language (ASL) is the lingua franca, and creating space for deaf culture a main priority. Walking to class, students sign in rapid-fire bursts of kinetic language.

Franklin Jones Jr. is one of those students. Though he is thriving now—having gotten his undergraduate degree and now attending graduate school at the university—his path has been a difficult one. In fact, Franklin wasn’t sure college was for him at all. But Dr. Carolyn McCaskill, a professor of deaf studies at Gallaudet who researches the history and structure of black ASL, worked with Franklin to make sure he reached graduation. Not only did he do that, but he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in ASL, linguistics, and deaf studies, and he was selected to deliver remarks at his graduation ceremony.

For The Atlantic’s series on mentorship, “On The Shoulders Of Giants,” I spoke with Jones Jr. and McCaskill about their bond, the experience of being black and deaf in America, and how mentorship can promote inclusion.


B.R.J. O’Donnell: Can you talk about what black ASL is particularly well-suited to capturing and communicating?

Carolyn McCaskill: You know how some people may talk loud? I sign loud. So that's one of the features—a larger signing space. Two-handed signing is also one of the features. In mainstream ASL, someone might just sign with one hand, but in black ASL, two-handed signs are also okay. And then there is repetition. If you sign, “I’m getting out of here,” you will sign it not just once, but twice—you might even sign it three times, for emphasis and also for clarification purposes. So we incorporate our culture from black English in our signing.

O’Donnell: How does black ASL strengthen the bond you two share?

McCaskill: Franklin and I would often have these conversations about black ASL and its unique features. It was really interesting learning about his family dynamic—he’s from a deaf family—in terms of their language use. We have to preserve our history, we have to preserve our language, and we have to disseminate that information, because there is a rich history that we want the wider public to know of. It’s something that we are proud of.

O’Donnell: Franklin, when did you first meet Dr. McCaskill?

Franklin Jones Jr.: In my first year at Gallaudet, I took Dr. McCaskill’s deaf-studies class. And then I took another class with her called “Dynamics of Oppression.” And that really broadened my understanding of everything that I've gone through, and everything that she's gone through, as well as how much she has contributed to our community. Up until that point I'd never had a deaf black teacher in my life. And the fact that we had a black deaf woman, a researcher, studying black ASL, who has a doctorate degree teaching this class—that really motivated me.

O’Donnell: How did you approach being a mentor to Franklin when he was still unsure about whether he wanted to go to college?

McCaskill: I knew I wanted him to finish his education, because I knew what his dreams were. I also knew who he was. I knew his background. He's from South Carolina, he's from a deaf family, and as a man who is black, deaf, and gay, it is all too rare to be successful with those intersectional identities. As a result, I knew it was really important for him to persevere and accomplish his goals. I didn't want him to give up.

O’Donnell: How did you encourage him when it seemed like he might not graduate?

McCaskill: I made sure to make myself available to meet with him—we kept in contact and he would stop by my office. We would talk, and I would really listen to whatever his concerns were, his frustrations. Some of them were financial. He wasn't able to pay for Gallaudet tuition and living expenses out of pocket. So I would have conversations with him along the lines of "Remember that scholarship?,” and I made sure he applied. And he went on to get the scholarship he applied for—the Linwood Smith Scholarship, set up to support black deaf men.

O’Donnell: How critical do you think it is for students to have a mentor like the one you’ve been to Franklin?

McCaskill: I think it's absolutely critical that students have that sense of, “I can approach someone here for help, and that individual will be willing to listen, and be willing to give me counsel and invest in me.” I think that that’s so important for all students to experience, deaf or otherwise.

O’Donnell: How did it feel to see Franklin as the undergraduate speaker at graduation this year?

McCaskill: Wonderful, really wonderful. I have watched him grow. I remember when he first arrived at Gallaudet. He had a few years where he really struggled here. He talked about actually leaving the university, and he did for a time. So when I watched him give that commencement speech, it was hard to watch without crying, actually. I was so proud of him.

O’Donnell: Franklin, what did you want to impart during your speech?

Jones Jr.: I wanted to communicate to everyone that a black deaf man can graduate, and that there is no shame in struggling. Struggling is okay, and you can still be proud. Everyone needs support, and I wanted to share that message, and I wanted to show people that I was able to make it, because often times I've seen many black deaf men that just don't graduate. There is not enough support in place for these students. I was lucky enough to have that support from people like Dr. McCaskill.

O’Donnell: Dr. McCaskill, what are your hopes for Franklin this year, as he approaches his master's degree?

McCaskill: You know, my hopes for Franklin are that he just continues on this trajectory. And also, I want him to go for his Ph.D. Right now in America, we have 14 black, deaf Americans with Ph.D.s—14. That’s a very small number. We do have a few in the pipeline, so that number is shifting, and I'd like Franklin to help.

‘A Treacherous President Stood in the Way’
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

By December of 1866, the Civil War was over, but the conflict that would define the nature of the United States of America was not close to finished. Encouraged by President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat sympathetic to their aims, the former Confederate states had eagerly subjected the newly freed slaves to the Black Codes, laws confining them to inferior status and second-class citizenship, denying them votes, citizenship and even freedom of movement, while armed groups of whites attacked them with impunity. In vetoing the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Johnson insisted that the law protecting the freedmen’s rights was in fact “made to operate in favor of the colored against the white race.”

In a rebuke to Johnson, his party fared poorly in the November 1866 election, and the newly strengthened Republicans vowed to protect the freedmen's rights. Before the new Congress took office, the former slave and abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass urged the Republican Party to defy the president by protecting the fundamental rights of black Americans and shielding them from the violence of the former Confederates.

“Whatever may be tolerated in monarchical and despotic governments,” Douglass wrote in his 1866 essay for The Atlantic, “no republic is safe that tolerates a privileged class, or denies to any of its citizens equal rights and equal means to maintain them.”

The choice before Republicans in that era was between accepting the efforts of a rogue president to allow the subjugation of a group of Americans based on race, or to continue striving for a more perfect union by thwarting him.  — Adam Serwer


Seldom has any legislative body been the subject of a solicitude more intense, or of aspirations more sincere and ardent. There are the best of reasons for this profound interest. Questions of vast moment, left undecided by the last session of Congress, must be manfully grappled with by this. No political skirmishing will avail. The occasion demands statesmanship.

Whether the tremendous war so heroically fought and so victoriously ended shall pass into history a miserable failure, barren of permanent results,—a scandalous and shocking waste of blood and treasure,—a strife for empire, as Earl Russell characterized it, of no value to liberty or civilization,—an attempt to re-establish a Union by force, which must be the merest mockery of a Union,—an effort to bring under Federal authority States into which no loyal man from the North may safely enter, and to bring men into the national councils who deliberate with daggers and vote with revolvers, and who do not even conceal their deadly hate of the country that conquered them; or whether, on the other hand, we shall, as the rightful reward of victory over treason, have a solid nation, entirely delivered from all contradictions and social antagonisms, based upon loyalty, liberty, and equality, must be determined one way or the other by the present session of Congress. The last session really did nothing which can be considered final as to these questions. The Civil Rights Bill and the Freedmen's Bureau Bill and the proposed constitutional amendments, with the amendment already adopted and recognized as the law of the land, do not reach the difficulty, and cannot, unless the whole structure of the government is changed from a government by States to something like a despotic central government, with power to control even the municipal regulations of States, and to make them conform to its own despotic will. While there remains such an idea as the right of each State to control its own local affairs,—an idea, by the way, more deeply rooted in the minds of men of all sections of the country than perhaps any one other political idea,—no general assertion of human rights can be of any practical value. To change the character of the government at this point is neither possible nor desirable. All that is necessary to be done is to make the government consistent with itself, and render the rights of the States compatible with the sacred rights of human nature.

The arm of the Federal government is long, but it is far too short to protect the rights of individuals in the interior of distant States. They must have the power to protect themselves, or they will go unprotected, spite of all the laws the Federal Government can put upon the national statute-book.

Slavery, like all other great systems of wrong, founded in the depths of human selfishness, and existing for ages, has not neglected its own conservation. It has steadily exerted an influence upon all around it favorable to its own continuance. And to-day it is so strong that it could exist, not only without law, but even against law. Custom, manners, morals, religion, are all on its side everywhere in the South; and when you add the ignorance and servility of the ex-slave to the intelligence and accustomed authority of the master, you have the conditions, not out of which slavery will again grow, but under which it is impossible for the Federal government to wholly destroy it, unless the Federal government be armed with despotic power, to blot out State authority, and to station a Federal officer at every cross-road. This, of course, cannot be done, and ought not even if it could. The true way and the easiest way is to make our government entirely consistent with itself, and give to every loyal citizen the elective franchise,—a right and power which will be ever present, and will form a wall of fire for his protection.

One of the invaluable compensations of the late Rebellion is the highly instructive disclosure it made of the true source of danger to republican government. Whatever may be tolerated in monarchical and despotic governments, no republic is safe that tolerates a privileged class, or denies to any of its citizens equal rights and equal means to maintain them. What was theory before the war has been made fact by the war.

There is cause to be thankful even for rebellion. It is an impressive teacher, though a stern and terrible one. In both characters it has come to us, and it was perhaps needed in both. It is an instructor never a day before its time, for it comes only when all other means of progress and enlightenment have failed. Whether the oppressed and despairing bondman, no longer able to repress his deep yearnings for manhood, or the tyrant, in his pride and impatience, takes the initiative, and strikes the blow for a firmer hold and a longer lease of oppression, the result is the same,—society is instructed, or may be.

Such are the limitations of the common mind, and so thoroughly engrossing are the cares of common life, that only the few among men can discern through the glitter and dazzle of present prosperity the dark outlines of approaching disasters, even though they may have come up to our very gates, and are already within striking distance. The yawning seam and corroded bolt conceal their defects from the mariner until the storm calls all hands to the pumps. Prophets, indeed, were abundant before the war; but who cares for prophets while their predictions remain unfulfilled, and the calamities of which they tell are masked behind a blinding blaze of national prosperity?

It is asked, said Henry Clay, on a memorable occasion, will slavery never come to an end? That question, said he, was asked fifty years ago, and it has been answered by fifty years of unprecedented prosperity. Spite of the eloquence of the earnest Abolitionists,—poured out against slavery during thirty years,—even they must confess, that, in all the probabilities of the case, that system of barbarism would have continued its horrors far beyond the limits of the nineteenth century but for the Rebellion, and perhaps only have disappeared at last in a fiery conflict, even more fierce and bloody than that which has now been suppressed.

It is no disparagement to truth, that it can only prevail where reason prevails. War begins where reason ends. The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion. What that thing is, we have been taught to our cost. It remains now to be seen whether we have the needed courage to have that cause entirely removed from the Republic. At any rate, to this grand work of national regeneration and entire purification Congress must now address itself, with full purpose that the work shall this time be thoroughly done. The deadly upas, root and branch, leaf and fibre, body and sap, must be utterly destroyed. The country is evidently not in a condition to listen patiently to pleas for postponement, however, plausible, nor will it permit the responsibility to be shifted to other shoulders. Authority and power are here commensurate with the duty imposed. There are no cloudflung shadows to obscure the way. Truth shines with brighter light and intenser heat at every moment, and a country torn and rent and bleeding implores relief from its distress and agony.

If time was at first needed, Congress has now had time. All the requisite materials from which to form an intelligent judgment are now before it. Whether its members look at the origin, the progress, the termination of the war, or at the mockery of a peace now existing, they will find only one unbroken chain of argument in favor of a radical policy of reconstruction. For the omissions of the last session, some excuses may be allowed. A treacherous President stood in the way; and it can be easily seen how reluctant good men might be to admit an apostasy which involved so much of baseness and ingratitude. It was natural that they should seek to save him by bending to him even when he leaned to the side of error. But all is changed now. Congress knows now that it must go on without his aid, and even against his machinations. The advantage of the present session over the last is immense. Where that investigated, this has the facts. Where that walked by faith, this may walk by sight. Where that halted, this must go forward, and where that failed, this must succeed, giving the country whole measures where that gave us half-measures, merely as a means of saving the elections in a few doubtful districts. That Congress saw what was right, but distrusted the enlightenment of the loyal masses; but what was forborne in distrust of the people must now be done with a full knowledge that the people expect and require it. The members go to Washington fresh from the inspiring presence of the people. In every considerable public meeting, and in almost every conceivable way, whether at court-house, school-house, or cross-roads, in doors and out, the subject has been discussed, and the people have emphatically pronounced in favor of a radical policy. Listening to the doctrines of expediency and compromise with pity, impatience, and disgust, they have everywhere broken into demonstrations of the wildest enthusiasm when a brave word has been spoken in favor of equal rights and impartial suffrage. Radicalism, so far from being odious, is now the popular passport to power. The men most bitterly charged with it go to Congress with the largest majorities, while the timid and doubtful are sent by lean majorities, or else left at home. The strange controversy between the President and Congress, at one time so threatening, is disposed of by the people. The high reconstructive powers which he so confidently, ostentatiously, and haughtily claimed, have been disallowed, denounced, and utterly repudiated; while those claimed by Congress have been confirmed.

Of the spirit and magnitude of the canvass nothing need be said. The appeal was to the people, and the verdict was worthy of the tribunal. Upon an occasion of his own selection, with the advice and approval of his astute Secretary, soon after the members of Congress had returned to their constituents, the President quitted the executive mansion, sandwiched himself between two recognized heroes,—men whom the whole country delighted to honor,—and, with all the advantage which such company could give him, stumped the country from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, advocating everywhere his policy as against that of Congress. It was a strange sight, and perhaps the most disgraceful exhibition ever made by any President; but, as no evil is entirely unmixed, good has come of this, as from many others. Ambitious, unscrupulous, energetic, indefatigable, voluble, and plausible,—a political gladiator, ready for a "set-to" in any crowd,—he is beaten in his own chosen field, and stands to-day before the country as a convicted usurper, a political criminal, guilty of a bold and persistent attempt to possess himself of the legislative powers solemnly secured to Congress by the Constitution. No vindication could be more complete, no condemnation could be more absolute and humiliating. Unless reopened by the sword, as recklessly threatened in some circles, this question is now closed for all time.

Without attempting to settle here the metaphysical and somewhat theological question (about which so much has already been said and written), whether once in the Union means always in the Union,—agreeably to the formula, Once in grace always in grace,—it is obvious to common sense that the rebellious States stand to-day, in point of law, precisely where they stood when, exhausted, beaten, conquered, they fell powerless at the feet of Federal authority. Their State governments were overthrown, and the lives and property of the leaders of the Rebellion were forfeited. In reconstructing the institutions of these shattered and overthrown States, Congress should begin with a clean slate, and make clean work of it. Let there be no hesitation. It would be a cowardly deference to a defeated and treacherous President, if any account were made of the illegitimate, one-sided, sham governments hurried into existence for a malign purpose in the absence of Congress. These pretended governments, which were never submitted to the people, and from participation in which four millions of the loyal people were excluded by Presidential order, should now be treated according to their true character, as shams and impositions, and supplanted by true and legitimate governments, in the formation of which loyal men, black and white, shall participate.

It is not, however, within the scope of this paper to point out the precise steps to be taken, and the means to be employed. The people are less concerned about these than the grand end to be attained. They demand such a reconstruction as shall put an end to the present anarchical state of things in the late rebellious States,—where frightful murders and wholesale massacres are perpetrated in the very presence of Federal soldiers. This horrible business they require shall cease. They want a reconstruction such as will protect loyal men, black and white, in their persons and property; such a one as will cause Northern industry, Northern capital, and Northern civilization to flow into the South, and make a man from New England as much at home in Carolina as elsewhere in the Republic. No Chinese wall can now be tolerated. The South must be opened to the light of law and liberty, and this session of Congress is relied upon to accomplish this important work.

The plain, common-sense way of doing this work, as intimated at the beginning, is simply to establish in the South one law, one government, one administration of justice, one condition to the exercise of the elective franchise, for men of all races and colors alike. This great measure is sought as earnestly by loyal white men as by loyal blacks, and is needed alike by both. Let sound political prescience but take the place of an unreasoning prejudice, and this will be done.

Men denounce the negro for his prominence in this discussion; but it is no fault of his that in peace as in war, that in conquering Rebel armies as in reconstructing the rebellious States, the right of the negro is the true solution of our national troubles. The stern logic of events, which goes directly to the point, disdaining all concern for the color or features of men, has determined the interests of the country as identical with and inseparable from those of the negro.

The policy that emancipated and armed the negro—now seen to have been wise and proper by the dullest—was not certainly more sternly demanded than is now the policy of enfranchisement. If with the negro was success in war, and without him failure, so in peace it will be found that the nation must fall or flourish with the negro.

Fortunately, the Constitution of the United States knows no distinction between citizens on account of color. Neither does it know any difference between a citizen of a State and a citizen of the United States. Citizenship evidently includes all the rights of citizens, whether State or national. If the Constitution knows none, it is clearly no part of the duty of a Republican Congress now to institute one. The mistake of the last session was the attempt to do this very thing, by a renunciation of its power to secure political rights to any class of citizens, with the obvious purpose to allow the rebellious States to disfranchise, if they should see fit, their colored citizens. This unfortunate blunder must now be retrieved, and the emasculated citizenship given to the negro supplanted by that contemplated in the Constitution of the United States, which declares that the citizens of each State shall enjoy all the rights and immunities of citizens of the several States,—so that a legal voter in any State shall be a legal voter in all the States.

The Dark Matter of America's Foremost Musical Satirist
August 16th, 2017, 04:20 PM

To the question, “Do you know the work of Randy Newman,” the answer is too often, “The guy who did the Toy Story soundtrack? ‘You’ve got a friend in me …’ that’s him, right?”

And okay, sure. He composed soundtracks to the whole Toy Story series, among other well-loved films: Ragtime, The Natural, Parenthood, Awakenings, The Paper, Maverick, A Bug’s Life, Meet the Parents, Seabiscuit, Monsters University, and more. But summing him up like that is a bit like saying, “F. Scott Fitzgerald. Wasn’t he a screenwriter?”

Because while Newman is a talented and sought-after soundtrack composer, he is also a solo artist with a catalog as original as any in popular music. It stretches back to 1968. Yet even most folks who can hum his biggest commercial hits, “Short People,” “Mama Told Me Not to Come” (popularized by Three Dog Night), and “I Love L.A.,” fail to grasp how he would be regarded in a more just and discerning world. For Randy Newman is the foremost musical satirist of his generation––and the characters he has created and themes he has explored over his career show as nuanced a grasp of America’s dark currents and humanity’s crooked timber as any songwriter has managed. In fact, there may be no one in the American songbook whose work did more to anticipate the tragicomic place the United States finds itself in today.

His latest solo album, Dark Matter, added to that corpus when it dropped earlier this month. To grasp its worthy continuities and its single disappointment, I must first take you back.

* * *

The eponymous debut album that Randy Newman released in 1968 was a portent of all that followed. Its 11 tracks might be described as rock or pop except that they were backed by a full orchestra. Poignant songs about romantic longing, like “Love Story (You and Me)” and “Living Without You,” were juxtaposed with character-driven vignettes like “So Long Dad,” darkly irreverent commentaries on the human condition like “I Think He’s Hiding” (Newman’s response to Nietzsche’s claim that “God is dead”), and “The Beehive State,” a quirky tune of ambiguous meaning set on the floor of Congress. In time all those modes would be refined, all those subjects explored.

The songwriter’s second album, 12 Songs, established his willingness to create the darkest of unreliable narrators to plumb subjects as fraught as men who prey on women, as in “Suzanne,” and America’s long history of racist minstrelsy and stereotyping. His approach carried risks as surely as Vladimir Nabokov’s decision to channel Humbert Humbert in Lolita and Norman Lear’s creation of Archie Bunker for All in the Family. Newman benefitted from coming up in an era when critics protectively explained nuanced art to mass audiences rather than trying to stoke umbrage. Here is Rolling Stone’s  Bruce Grimes in a five-star review of the album:

Randy's concern with stereotyping led him to include "Underneath the Harlem Moon," the only song on the album he didn't write. Composed in the Twenties, every line contains some of the most blatant racial typing ever set down in song: "They just live for dancin'/They're never blue for long/It's no sin to laugh or grin/That's why darkies were born." Newman follows this cut with his own contemporary parallel, "Yellow Man."

After performing these songs at the Lion's Share, Randy said, "I was afraid I might be misunderstood and someone would jump on stage and beat hell out of me." Randy Newman's songs are not heavy-handed, and his humor is rarely direct.

He comes at you from corners.

This oblique approach bore fruit on his next album. Its title track, an anti-slavery song, might have been ignored as heavy-handed or predictable if the liberal songwriter had taken a straightforward approach. Instead, Newman captured the horrors of enslavement anew with “Sail Away.” The listener only gradually comes to see that the narrator waxing poetic about the wonders of America is actually duplicitously coaxing Africans aboard a slave ship, falsely promising that once they cross the ocean, they’ll just “sing about Jesus and drink wine all day––it’s great to be an American.”  

And the B-side of the album was just as cutting. Its first song is still relevant to anyone pondering the Strangelovian strains of American jingoism. He titled it “Political Science”:

No one likes us, I don't know why
We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try
But all around even our old friends put us down
Let's drop the big one and see what happens

We give them money, but are they grateful?
No, they're spiteful and they're hateful
They don't respect us, so let's surprise them
We'll drop the big one and pulverize them

Asia's crowded, Europe's too old
Africa's far too hot and Canada's too cold
South America stole our name
Let's drop the big one there'll be no one left to blame us

We'll save Australia, don't want to hurt no kangaroo
We'll build an all American amusement park there
They've got surfing, too

Boom goes London, boom Paris
More room for you and more room for me
And every city the whole world round
Will just be another American town

Oh, how peaceful it'll be, we'll set everybody free
You'll have Japanese kimonos, baby
There'll be Italian shoes for me
They all hate us anyhow, so let's drop the big one now

After all that, it felt like a relief to arrive at a song about the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969, when an oil slick on the polluted Cleveland waterway caught fire, inspiring lyrics that deserve immortality: “Well the Lord can make you tumble / And the Lord can make you turn / The Lord can make you overflow / But the Lord can’t make you burn.”

(Not that he lets the Lord off either.)

Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 best albums of all time includes the songwriter’s next effort, Good Old Boys. “This album is no simple character study, but a composite survey of the roots and institutionalization of Southern bigotry in the 20th century,” Winston Cook-Wilson observed in Pitchfork––“in other words, the diciest and most formidable project Randy Newman had (and has) ever attempted.” It opens with “Rednecks,” where a “good old boy” narrator recalls watching a segregationist governor on a late-night program:

Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
With some smart ass New York Jew
And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox
And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too
Well he may be a fool but he's our fool
If they think they're better than him they're wrong
So I went to the park and I took some paper along
And that's where I made this song

What followed might’ve compared to “Southern Man,” Neil Young’s jeremiad against racism south of the Mason Dixon line, with Newman marshaling a character to skewer his own prejudice rather than scolding, “when will you pay him back?”

But unlike Young, Newman wasn’t content to let smug Northern liberals off the hook, even by omission. Thus a turn toward the end of the song when the redneck narrator pivots to an observation laden with that worst epithet: “Down here we're too ignorant to realize / That the North has set the nigger free / Yes he's free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City / And he's free to be put in a cage in the South-Side of Chicago /And the West-Side /And he's free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland / And he's free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis / And he's free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco / And he's free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston.”

If every last listener was uncomfortable, Newman felt he’d done his job. The song may be the most uncompromising instance, among white songwriters, of putting artistic vision before commercial concerns: Here is the first track of an album that risked offending anti-racists who misunderstood its intentions; could hardly have done more to alienate the white South; and closed by taking added shots at a literal list of Northern cities where an upcoming artist with a small following would want to perform.

As if to confound listeners even more, Newman revisited his Southern man on later tracks, showing that he was neither a misanthrope nor a one-note polemicist, for “Birmingham,” “Marie,” and “Mr. President, Have Pity on the Working Man” were as humanizing in their portrayal of their subjects as “Rednecks” was scathing and unsparing. Never has cynicism been packaged with so much sentiment. Says Mike Powell, “Newman can get an orchestra to pull tears from you like a pickpocket. His sleight-of-hand is to bring out a monster and make you see the human underneath.”

Rounding out the concept album, Good Old Boys also included perhaps the most beautiful song that Newman ever wrote, “Louisiana 1927,” and two songs distilling the populist Louisiana governor Huey P. Long, “Every Man a King” and “Kingfish.”

Quoth the latter song, told from Long’s perspective:

I'm a cracker
And you are too
But don't I take good care of you

Who built the highway to Baton Rouge?
Who put up the hospital and built you schools?
Who looks after shit-kickers like you?
The Kingfish do

Who gave a party at the Roosevelt Hotel?
And invited the whole north half of the state down there for free
The people in the city
Had their eyes bugging out
Cause everyone of you
Looked just like me

(Before Twitter, populists actually delivered spoils to their supporters rather than expecting them to stay loyal based on no more than occasional demagogic missives.)

Now let’s skip ahead to 1979. The album is Born Again, the song, “It’s Money That I Love,” a straightforward if exaggerated portrayal of an ethos you’ll no doubt recognize:

I don't love the mountains / I don't love the sea
I don't love Jesus / He never done a thing for me
I ain't pretty like my sister / Or smart like my dad
Or good like my mama

It's money that I love
It's money that I love

They say that's money / Can't buy love in this world
But it'll get you a half-pound of cocaine / And a 19-year-old girl
And a great big long limousine / On a hot September night
Now that may not be love but it is all right

A few years later, he released Trouble in Paradise, an album best known for “I Love L.A.” The song would play at the Great Western Forum during Lakers games when I was a kid, in spite of those inevitable Newman twists that distinguished it from boosterism:

From the South Bay to the Valley
From the West Side to the East Side
Everybody's very happy
'Cause the sun is shining all the time
Looks like another perfect day

I love L.A. (we love it)
I love L.A. (we love it)
We love it

Look at that mountain
Look at those trees
Look at that bum over there, man
He's down on his knees
Look at these women
There ain't nothing like 'em nowhere

While Trouble in Paradise touches on everything from apartheid to the changing demographics of Long Beach as experienced by a white old-timer who doesn’t much like his new neighbors, its best tracks, by my lights, capture the particular entitlement of wealthy Southern Californians so adeptly that I’m still marveling. The self-indicting portrait of the narrator in “Take Me Back” is deliciously subtle. And here’s a bit of “My Life Is Good,” an upbeat song that zeroes in on the essence of a character nearly anyone associated with a private school in a wealthy area has met:

The other afternoon my wife and I
Took a little ride into Beverly Hills
Went to the private school our oldest child attends
Many famous people send their children there
This teacher says to us "We have a problem here
This child just will not do a thing I tell him to.
And he's such a big old thing. He hurts the other children.
All the games they play, he plays so rough..."

Hold it teacher / Wait a minute
Maybe my ears are clogged or somethin'
Maybe I'm not understanding the English language
Dear, you don't seem to realize:

My life is good
My life is good, you old bag

So many Newman characters, for all their different milieus, share an abiding disregard for the effect that their actions and attitudes have on those around them. That theme is exaggerated for effect on a track from the 1988 album Land of Dreams:

I ran out on my children / And I ran out on my wife
Gonna run out on you too baby / I done it all my life
Everybody cried the night I left / Well almost everybody did
My little boy just hung his head / I put my arm put my arm around his little shoulder / And this is what I said:

"Sonny I just want you to hurt like I do
I just want you to hurt like I do
I just want you to hurt like I do
Honest I do honest I do, honest I do"

The same character carried his disregard for his family over to his attitudes toward the public:

If I had one wish / One dream I knew would come true
I'd want to speak to all the people of the world
I'd get up there, I'd get up there on that platform
First I'd sing a song or two (you know I would)
Then I'll tell you what I'd do

I'd talk to the people and I'd say
"It's a rough rough world, it's a tough tough world
And things don't always go the way we plan
But there's one thing we all have in common
And it's something everyone can understand
All over the world sing along

I just want you to hurt like I do ...
Honest I do, honest I do, honest I do”

Then, every so often, amid the awful characters and biting satire on Newman albums, the unreliable narrators are sent off on break, and Newman does deeply earnest with the best of them. In relief, the gut-punch quality of the songs are accentuated.

That last linked song is from Harps and Angels, a 2008 release that was, one senses, supposed to mark the conclusion of a low-point in American politics. “Just a few words in defense of our country,” a circumspect Newman began, “… whose time at the top could be coming to an end. Now, we don't want their love. And respect at this point's pretty much out of the question. But in times like these we sure could use a friend.”

The defense of the country turns out to be a widely ranging history of bygone powers far less defensible. The indictment includes a critique of War on Terror excesses.

Newman leaves us with this observation:

The end of an empire
Is messy at best
And this empire's ending
Like all the rest
Like the Spanish Armada
Adrift on the sea
We're adrift in the land of the brave
And the home of the free

When I listened to that song I started worrying, because it sounded a bit like a culmination. I thought there was a chance that Newman wouldn’t make another album. Almost a decade passed without one. And that brings us up to the present year.

* * *

My hope that there would be a new Randy Newman album was reinvigorated months ago when, without warning, a new single appeared online. Its title: “Putin.” So political events had drawn the master satirist back to the piano! The song is told from the perspectives of a chorus of sycophants and the Russian leader himself, as in this scene, inspired by Putin’s geopolitical incursions into Crimea and its coastline:

He and his ex-wife Lyudmila are riding along the shore of the beautiful new Russian Black Sea

Let's listen in, a great man is speaking:

“We fought a war for this?
I'm almost ashamed
The Mediterranean
Now there's a resort worth fighting for”

“Putin” made me want a new Randy Newman album like I want a new season of The Wire; like I want Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney to collaborate writing songs for an HBO alt-history series about Brian joining Paul, John, and George in a supergroup circa 1969; like I want lost chapters of Don Quixote to be discovered in Salamanca.

And I kept imagining what the song after “Putin” might be.

Here was a songwriter who had excelled at commenting on politics; on Southern white populism; on “America First” jingoism; on nuclear war; on characters who love nothing more than money; on entitled men who prey on women, betray wives, chase women, and narcissistically crave public attention. What would the greatest musical satirist of his generation, who approaches nearly every subject obliquely, say about Donald Trump, a figure more ripe than any other for his dark humor and tragicomedy?

The new album, Dark Matter, is a delight. Its title track is a meditation on the relationship between science and religion in Newman’s inimitable style. And as it turned out, the song after “Putin,” “Lost Without You,” is one of those earnest Newman gut-punches: A widow speaks to his deceased wife, recounting the last time she saw their adult children and the instructions she gave about what to do when she’s gone:

Hush up, children
Let me breathe
I've been listening to you all your life
Are they hungry, are they sick?
What is it they need?
Now it's your turn to listen to me

I was young when we met
And afraid of the world
Now it's he who's afraid
And I'm leaving

Make sure he sleeps in his bed at night
Don't let him sleep in that chair
If he holds out his hand to you, hold it tight
If that makes you uncomfortable
Or if it embarrasses you
I don't care.

A Trump song never did come––and I got over it. Maybe this moment is too new to capture. In fact, I began to think, maybe Randy Newman has already given us everything there is to say about Trump and Trumpism in bits and pieces over the years. But then I listened to his recent interview with Marc Maron. Of course the president came up. And the songwriter mentioned that he might have found a way to write about the man––that a song with an oblique approach was rattling around in his head.

And okay, sure, I know there are concerts to perform to promote his new album; more films to score; Grammys to win; and golden years to enjoy; but I can’t help thinking that Newman could conceivably still have his best album in him. So if a single titled “Ivanka” drops one day, I’ll drop everything to listen. And if that appears on a final concept album? I’d say, “The country turns its lonely eyes to who? Randy Newman.”

'The President Was Entirely Correct'
August 15th, 2017, 04:20 PM

Every day, the White House communications office sends official talking points to Republican members of Congress. These communiqués help the GOP stay on the same page (and, in the Trump era, help the embattled president’s allies come up with arguments in his defense).

On Tuesday evening, a few hours after the president’s inflammatory press conference defending white nationalist protesters in Charlottesville, the office issued an “evening communications briefing,” which was passed along to me by a Republican congressional aide. It encourages members to echo the president’s line, contending that “both sides … acted inappropriately, and bear some responsibility.”

You can read the talking points in their entirety here. The links in the text are the White House’s. The briefing goes on to include a transcript of the president’s question-and-answer session with reporters at Trump Tower, followed by commentary on other issues.

NEWS OF THE DAY

Charlottesville
  • The President was entirely correct -- both sides of the violence in Charlottesville acted inappropriately, and bear some responsibility.
  • Despite the criticism, the President reaffirmed some of our most important Founding principles: We are equal in the eyes of our Creator, equal under the law, and equal under our Constitution.
    • He has been a voice for unity and calm, encouraging the country to “rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that brings us together as Americans.”
    • He called for the end of violence on all sides so that no more innocent lives would be lost.
  • The President condemned - with no ambiguity - the hate groups fueled by bigotry and racism over the weekend, and did so by name yesterday, but for the media that will never be enough.
    • The media reacted with hysteria to the notion that counter-protesters showed up with clubs spoiling for a fight, a fact that reporters on the ground have repeatedly stated.
    • Even a New York Times reporter tweeted that she “saw club-wielding "antifa" beating white nationalists being led out of the park.”
    • The local ACLU chapter also tweeted that
  • We should not overlook the facts just because the media finds them inconvenient:
    • From cop killing and violence at political rallies, to shooting at Congressmen at a practice baseball game, extremists on the left have engaged in terrible acts of violence.
    • The President is taking swift action to hold violent hate groups accountable.
      • The DOJ has opened a civil rights investigation into this weekend’s deadly car attack.
      • Last Thursday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced it had completed the largest prosecution of white supremacists in the nation’s history.
  • Leaders and the media in our country should join the president in trying to unite and heal our country rather than incite more division.

Transcript of President's Q&A:

Q    Mr. President, why do you think these CEOs are leaving your manufacturing council?

THE PRESIDENT:  Because they're not taking their job seriously as it pertains to this country.  And we want jobs, manufacturing in this country.  If you look at some of those people that you're talking about they’re outside of the country, they're having a lot of their product made outsider.  If you look at Merck as an example, take a look where -- excuse me, excuse me -- take a look at where their product is made.  It's made outside of our country.  We want products made in the country.

     Now, I have to tell you, some of the folks that will leave, they're leaving out of embarrassment because they make their products outside.  And I've been lecturing them, including the gentleman that you're referring to, about you have to bring it back to this country.  You can't do it necessarily in Ireland and all of these other places.  You have to bring this work back to this country.  That's what I want.  I want manufacturing to be back into the United States so that American workers can benefit.

Q    Let me ask you, Mr. President, why did you wait so long to blast neo-Nazis?

     THE PRESIDENT:  I didn’t wait long.

Q    You waited two days --

     THE PRESIDENT:  I didn’t wait long.

Q    Forty-eight hours.

     THE PRESIDENT:  I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct -- not make a quick statement.  The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, was a fine statement.  But you don’t make statements that direct unless you know the facts.  It takes a little while to get the facts.  You still don’t know the facts.  And it's a very, very important process to me, and it's a very important statement.

     So I don’t want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement.  I want to know the facts.  If you go back to --

Q    So you had to (inaudible) white supremacists?

     THE PRESIDENT:  I brought it.  I brought it.  I brought it.

Q    Was it terrorism, in your opinion, what happened?

     THE PRESIDENT:  As I said on -- remember, Saturday -- we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence.  It has no place in America.  And then it went on from there.

     Now, here's the thing --

Q    (Inaudible) many sides.

     THE PRESIDENT:  Excuse me.  Excuse me.  Take it nice and easy.  Here's the thing:  When I make a statement, I like to be correct.  I want the facts.  This event just happened.  In fact, a lot of the event didn’t even happen yet, as we were speaking.  This event just happened.

     Before I make a statement, I need the facts.  So I don’t want to rush into a statement.  So making the statement when I made it was excellent.  In fact, the young woman, who I hear was a fantastic young woman, and it was on NBC -- her mother wrote me and said through, I guess, Twitter, social media, the nicest things.  And I very much appreciated that.  I hear she was a fine -- really, actually, an incredible young woman.  But her mother, on Twitter, thanked me for what I said.

     And honestly, if the press were not fake, and if it was honest, the press would have said what I said was very nice.  But unlike you, and unlike -- excuse me, unlike you and unlike the media, before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.

Q    Why do Nazis like you -- (inaudible) -- these statements?

     THE PRESIDENT:  They don’t.  They don’t.

Q    They do.  Look --

     (Cross-talk.)

     THE PRESIDENT:  How about a couple of infrastructure questions.

Q    Was it terrorism, that event?  Was that terrorism?

Q    The CEO of Walmart said you missed a critical opportunity --

     THE PRESIDENT:  Say it.  What?

Q    The CEO of Walmart said you missed a critical opportunity to help bring the country together.  Did you?

     THE PRESIDENT:  Not at all.  I think the country -- look, you take a look.  I've created over a million jobs since I'm President.  The country is booming.  The stock market is setting records.  We have the highest employment numbers we've ever had in the history of our country.  We're doing record business.  We have the highest levels of enthusiasm.  So the head of Walmart, who I know -- who's a very nice guy -- was making a political statement.  I mean --

Q    (Inaudible.)

     THE PRESIDENT:  I'd do it the same way.  And you know why?  Because I want to make sure, when I make a statement, that the statement is correct.  And there was no way -- there was no way of making a correct statement that early.  I had to see the facts, unlike a lot of reporters.  Unlike a lot of reporters --

Q    Nazis were there.

Q    David Duke was there.

     THE PRESIDENT:  I didn’t know David Duke was there.  I wanted to see the facts.  And the facts, as they started coming out, were very well stated.  In fact, everybody said, "His statement was beautiful.  If he would have made it sooner, that would have been good."  I couldn’t have made it sooner because I didn’t know all of the facts.  Frankly, people still don’t know all of the facts.

It was very important -- excuse me, excuse me -- it was very important to me to get the facts out and correctly.  Because if I would have made a fast statement -- and the first statement was made without knowing much, other than what we were seeing.  The second statement was made after, with knowledge, with great knowledge.  There are still things -- excuse me -- there are still things that people don’t know.

     I want to make a statement with knowledge.  I wanted to know the facts.

Q    Two questions.  Was this terrorism?  And can you tell us how you're feeling about your chief strategist, Stephen Bannon?

     THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family, and this country.  And that is -- you can call it terrorism.  You can call it murder.  You can call it whatever you want.  I would just call it as "the fastest one to come up with a good verdict."  That's what I'd call it.  Because there is a question:  Is it murder?  Is it terrorism?  And then you get into legal semantics.  The driver of the car is a murderer.  And what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.

Q    Can you tell us how you're feeling about your chief strategist, Mr. Bannon?  Can you talk about that?

     THE PRESIDENT:  Go ahead.

Q    I would echo Maggie's question.  Steve Bannon has come under --

     THE PRESIDENT:  I never spoke to Mr. Bannon about it.

Q    Can you tell us broadly what your -- do you still have confidence in Steve?

     THE PRESIDENT:  Well, we'll see.  Look, look -- I like Mr. Bannon.  He's a friend of mine.  But Mr. Bannon came on very late.  You know that.  I went through 17 senators, governors, and I won all the primaries.  Mr. Bannon came on very much later than that.  And I like him, he's a good man.  He is not a racist, I can tell you that.  He's a good person.  He actually gets very unfair press in that regard.  But we'll see what happens with Mr. Bannon.  But he's a good person, and I think the press treats him, frankly, very unfairly.

Q    Senator McCain has called on you to defend your National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, against these attacks.

     THE PRESIDENT:  I did it the last time.

Q    And he called on it again, linking --

     THE PRESIDENT:  Senator McCain?

Q    -- to the alt-right, and saying --

     THE PRESIDENT:  Senator McCain?

Q    Yes

THE PRESIDENT:  You mean the one who voted against Obamacare?

Q    And he said --

     THE PRESIDENT:  Who is -- you mean Senator McCain who voted against us getting good healthcare?

Q    Senator McCain said that the alt-right is behind these attacks, and he linked that same group to those who perpetrated the attack in Charlottesville.

     THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I don’t know.  I can't tell you.  I'm sure Senator McCain must know what he's talking about.  But when you say the alt-right, define alt-right to me.  You define it.  Go ahead.

Q    Well, I'm saying, as Senator --

     THE PRESIDENT:  No, define it for me.  Come on, let's go.  Define it for me.

Q    Senator McCain defined them as the same group --

     THE PRESIDENT:  Okay, what about the alt-left that came charging at -- excuse me, what about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right?  Do they have any semblance of guilt?

     Let me ask you this:  What about the fact that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs?  Do they have any problem?  I think they do.  As far as I'm concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day.

Q    You're not putting these --

     THE PRESIDENT:  Wait a minute.  I'm not finished.  I'm not finished, fake news.  That was a horrible day --

Q    Sir, you're not putting these protestors on the same level as neo-Nazis --

Q    Is the alt-left as bad as white supremacy?

     THE PRESIDENT:  I will tell you something.  I watched those very closely -- much more closely than you people watched it.  And you have -- you had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent.  And nobody wants to say that, but I'll say it right now.  You had a group -- you had a group on the other side that came charging in, without a permit, and they were very, very violent.

Q    Is the alt-left as bad as Nazis?  Are they as bad as Nazis?

     THE PRESIDENT:  Go ahead.

Q    Do you think that what you call the alt-left is the same as neo-Nazis?

     THE PRESIDENT:  Those people -- all of those people --excuse me, I've condemned neo-Nazis.  I've condemned many different groups.  But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me.  Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.  Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Q    Should that statue be taken down?

     THE PRESIDENT:  Excuse me.  If you take a look at some of the groups, and you see -- and you'd know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you're not -- but many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.

     So this week it's Robert E. Lee.  I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down.  I wonder, is it George Washington next week?  And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?  You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?

     But they were there to protest -- excuse me, if you take a look, the night before they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.

     Infrastructure question.  Go ahead.

Q    Should the statues of Robert E. Lee stay up?

     THE PRESIDENT:  I would say that's up to a local town, community, or the federal government, depending on where it is located.

Q    How concerned are you about race relations in America?  And do you think things have gotten worse or better since you took office?

     THE PRESIDENT:  I think they've gotten better or the same.  Look, they've been frayed for a long time.  And you can ask President Obama about that, because he'd make speeches about it.  But I believe that the fact that I brought in -- it will be soon -- millions of jobs -- you see where companies are moving back into our country -- I think that's going to have a tremendous, positive impact on race relations.

     We have companies coming back into our country.  We have two car companies that just announced.  We have Foxconn in Wisconsin just announced.  We have many companies, I say, pouring back into the country.  I think that's going to have a huge, positive impact on race relations.  You know why?  It's jobs.  What people want now, they want jobs.  They want great jobs with good pay, and when they have that, you watch how race relations will be.

     And I’ll tell you, we’re spending a lot of money on the inner cities.  We’re fixing the inner cities.  We’re doing far more than anybody has done with respect to the inner cities.  It’s a priority for me, and it’s very important.

Q    Mr. President, are you putting what you’re calling the alt-left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?

     THE PRESIDENT:  I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane.  What I’m saying is this:  You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs -- and it was vicious and it was horrible.  And it was a horrible thing to watch.

But there is another side.  There was a group on this side.  You can call them the left -- you just called them the left -- that came violently attacking the other group.  So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.

Q    (Inaudible) both sides, sir.  You said there was hatred, there was violence on both sides.  Are the --

THE PRESIDENT:  Yes, I think there’s blame on both sides.  If you look at both sides -- I think there’s blame on both sides.  And I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either.

And if you reported it accurately, you would say.

Q    The neo-Nazis started this.  They showed up in Charlottesville to protest --

THE PRESIDENT:  Excuse me, excuse me.  They didn’t put themselves -- and you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.  You had people in that group.

Q    (Inaudible.)

THE PRESIDENT:  Excuse me, excuse me.  I saw the same pictures as you did.

You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.

Q    George Washington and Robert E. Lee are not the same.

THE PRESIDENT:  George Washington was a slave owner.  Was George Washington a slave owner?  So will George Washington now lose his status?  Are we going to take down --

Excuse me, are we going to take down statues to George Washington?  How about Thomas Jefferson?  What do you think of Thomas Jefferson?  You like him?

Q    I do love Thomas Jefferson.

THE PRESIDENT:  Okay, good.  Are we going to take down the statue?  Because he was a major slave owner.  Now, are we going to take down his statue?

So you know what, it’s fine.  You’re changing history.  You’re changing culture.  And you had people -- and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists -- because they should be condemned totally.  But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists.  Okay?  And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.

Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people.  But you also had troublemakers, and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets, and with the baseball bats.  You had a lot of bad people in the other group.

Q    Who are the good people?

Q    Sir, I just didn’t understand what you were saying.  You were saying the press has treated white nationalists unfairly?  I just don’t understand what you were saying.

THE PRESIDENT:  No, no.  There were people in that rally -- and I looked the night before -- if you look, there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.  I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones.  The following day it looked like they had some rough, bad people -- neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them.

But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest, and very legally protest -- because I don’t know if you know, they had a permit.  The other group didn’t have a permit.  So I only tell you this:  There are two sides to a story.  I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country -- a horrible moment.  But there are two sides to the country.

Does anybody have a final --

Q    I have an infrastructure question.

     THE PRESIDENT:  You have an infrastructure --

Q    What makes you think you can get an infrastructure bill?  You didn’t get healthcare --

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, you know, I’ll tell you.  We came very close with healthcare.  Unfortunately, John McCain decided to vote against it at the last minute.  You’ll have to ask John McCain why he did that.  But we came very close to healthcare.  We will end up getting healthcare.  But we’ll get the infrastructure.  And actually, infrastructure is something that I think we’ll have bipartisan support on.  I actually think Democrats will go along with the infrastructure.

Q    Mr. President, have you spoken to the family of the victim of the car attack?

THE PRESIDENT:  No, I’ll be reaching out.  I’ll be reaching out.

Q    When will you be reaching out?

THE PRESIDENT:  I thought that the statement put out -- the mother’s statement I thought was a beautiful statement.  I will tell you, it was something that I really appreciated.  I thought it was terrific.  And, really, under the kind of stress that she’s under and the heartache that she’s under, I thought putting out that statement, to me, was really something.  I won’t forget it.

Thank you, all, very much.  Thank you.  Thank you.

* * * *

Q    Will you go to Charlottesville?  Will you go to check out what happened?

     THE PRESIDENT:  I own a house in Charlottesville.  Does anyone know I own a house in Charlottesville?

Q    Where is it?

     THE PRESIDENT:  Oh boy, it’s going to be --

Q    Where is it?

THE PRESIDENT:  It's in Charlottesville.  You'll see.

Q    Is it a winery or something?

THE PRESIDENT:  It is the winery.

I mean, I know a lot about Charlottesville.  Charlottesville is a great place that's been very badly hurt over the last couple of days.

Q    (Inaudible.)

THE PRESIDENT:  I own, actually, one of the largest wineries in the United States.  It's in Charlottesville.  

Q    Do you believe your words are helping to heal this country right now?

Q    What do you think needs to be done to overcome the racial divides in this country?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I think jobs can have a big impact.  I think if we continue to create jobs -- over a million, substantially more than a million.  And you see just the other day, the car companies coming in with Foxconn.  I think if we continue to create jobs at levels that I’m creating jobs, I think that’s going to have a tremendous impact -- positive impact on race relations.

Q    Your remarks today, how do you think that will impact the racial, sort of conflict, today?

     THE PRESIDENT:  The people are going to be working, they’re going to be making a lot of money -- much more money than they ever thought possible.  But that’s going to happen.

Q    Your remarks today.

     THE PRESIDENT:  And the other thing -- very important -- I believe wages will start going up.  They haven’t gone up for a long time.  I believe wages now -- because the economy is doing so well with respect to employment and unemployment, I believe wages will start to go up.  I think that will have a tremendously positive impact on race relations.

Executive Order Streamlining Infrastructure Permitting

  • On August 15, 2017, President Donald J. Trump signed Executive Order entitled, “Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure Projects,” which is a crucial step in fulfilling his commitment to eliminate the Federal bureaucracy attached to environmental review and permitting for major infrastructure projects.
  • President Trump is a builder. With that builder’s mindset, he recognizes that the current sea of Federal red tape for environmental reviews and permitting unnecessarily hampers the delivery of major infrastructure projects and prevents the American people from enjoying the benefits of upgraded infrastructure.
  • The President has heard the calls from other builders—project sponsors, infrastructure industries, and State and local governments—to break down the countless Federal Government obstacles that impede infrastructure progress. With this action today, help is on the way to build faster the major infrastructure projects that America desperately needs.
  • The Executive Order directs agencies to take important actions that will fundamentally transform the way the Federal Government processes environmental review and permitting decisions for infrastructure projects—
    • One Federal Decision: No longer will sponsors of major infrastructure projects be forced to spend time and money navigating a complex web of permitting and environmental reviews with multiple Federal agencies.  The Executive Order requires the Federal Government to speak with one voice through One Federal Decision.
    • 2-Year Goal: The Executive Order takes aim at the decade it can currently take the Federal Government to process environmental documents for major infrastructure projects and instead establishes a 2-year goal.  Not only will this save time, it will save money and provide projects sponsors much-needed predictability in scheduling and delivering projects.
    • Accountability: Private entities are routinely held accountable for achieving milestones in delivering projects, and with this Presidential action, the Federal Government will be held accountable, too.  The Executive Order requires Federal agencies to track their achievement of milestones, report progress to the White House, and face penalties for poor performance.
  • Importantly, this Executive Order will ensure the Federal Government will conduct environmental reviews more efficiently while still protecting the environment. Environmental laws have important objectives, but the Federal Government’s current inefficiencies needlessly impede delivery of infrastructure projects throughout the country.
  • Accountability and reform of the Federal bureaucracy concerning environmental review and permitting of infrastructure projects is long overdue. The President’s action today will ensure more timely and efficient infrastructure investment that will strengthen the American economy, make our country more competitive, create jobs and increase wages for workers, and reduce the costs of goods and services for our families.

POTUS SCHEDULE

  • Infrastructure Discussion and Executive Order Signing

OTHER TOP POINTS

Presidential Memorandum Addressing Chinese Intellectual Property Practices

Top Line:

  • With this memorandum, President Trump is standing up for American companies and workers against China’s unfair trade practices and industrial policies, including forced technology transfer and intellectual property theft.
    • China’s industrial policies stack the deck against American companies by forcing the transfer of cutting-edge technology and intellectual property.
    • For example, U.S. companies can be required to enter into joint ventures with Chinese companies if they want to do business in China, resulting in Chinese companies forcibly acquiring U.S. intellectual property.
  • Americans are the world’s most prolific innovators, creating the greatest technologies, products, and companies. They should not be forced or coerced to turn over the fruits of their labor.
    • The current trajectory is unsustainable. Innovation in the U.S. economy is put at risk by China continually forcing companies to turn over their proprietary technologies and IP.
  • The President is also standing strong against the theft of American IP, including defense-related technologies.
    • The costs of intellectual property theft alone to the U.S. economy are estimated to be as high as $600 billion a year.
    • Such thefts not only damage American companies, they also threaten our national security.
  • President Trump is committed to protecting American technology and ensuring our national security.

This Presidential Memorandum:

  • Directs the United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to determine, consistent with section 302(b) of the Trade Act of 1974 (19 U.S.C. 2412(b)), whether to investigate any of China’s laws, policies, practices, or actions may be unreasonable or discriminatory and that may be harming American intellectual property, innovation, or technology.
    • Section 302(b) permits the USTR to investigate acts, policies, or practices of a foreign country to determine whether they are unreasonable or discriminatory and burden or restrict U.S. commerce
    • Should the USTR decide to launch such an investigation, he will have, at his discretion, broad powers to use all applicable measures, including, but not limited to, Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, which provides a basis for addressing technology transfer practices that may be harming the U.S. economy, exports, and American jobs.

Additional Background:

  • If Americans continue to have their best technology and intellectual property stolen or forcibly transferred offshore, the United States will find it difficult to maintain its current technology leadership position and to remain one of the world’s most innovative economies.
  • The U.S. government, industry representatives, and other experts have been raising substantial concerns about Chinese government pressure to transfer valuable U.S. technology to China.  Examples of reported pressure include:
    • China uses restrictions such as joint venture requirements, equity ownership limitations, opaque administrative processes, and other practices aimed at the transfer of U.S. technology to Chinese companies;
    • China imposes non-market-based terms on contracts signed by U.S. firms with Chinese entities; and
    • China funds and facilitates the acquisition of U.S. firms that possess advanced technologies.
    • China has gained unauthorized access to the computer networks of U.S. businesses for commercial purpose and, on a number of occasions, has stolen firms’ commercial information.
      • The types of sensitive information obtained included internal communications that would provide a competitor or an adversary in litigation insight into the strategy and vulnerabilities of the American entity.
  • The consequences of China’s reported actions may include: lost or reduced U.S. sales, exports, and jobs in key technology sectors; loss of intellectual property or proprietary technology to Chinese companies; loss of competitive position in the marketplace or in business negotiations; and network security costs, legal fees, and other costs.
  • President Trump is fulfilling yet another promise to the American people on trade. In June 2016, President Trump promised the American people that he would “use every lawful presidential power” to crack down on trade abuses in China, and this announcement is the first step in that process.
  • Given the importance of this issue and widespread concern about Chinese practices, USTR Lighthizer will immediately review these issues to take prompt and appropriate action in response to this memorandum.