The Atlantic
How Republicans Closed the Deal on Tax Cuts
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

Updated on December 15 at 6:14 p.m. ET

It’s all over except the voting.

Republican negotiators representing the House and Senate on Friday morning signed off on a final version of legislation that will, at a cost of up to $1.5 trillion, deliver a steep permanent tax cut to corporations and more modest, temporary reductions for individuals and families. In the last hours of tweaks, the GOP boosted a benefit for working families at the behest of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, likely securing his vote and the support the party needs to pass the bill next week. And they flipped the one Republican senator who had voted no on the chamber’s original bill earlier this month, Bob Corker of Tennessee.

The House and Senate must each hold final votes on the tax plan next week, and given the GOP’s fractious and shaky majority, there’s always the potential for last-minute drama. But the conference-committee report signed on Friday won’t be subject to amendments, and negotiators evinced little worry that the landmark deal—which represents the largest changes to the tax code in more than 30 years—would fall through. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced the House would vote on Tuesday, with the Senate expected to send the plan to President Trump’s desk soon after.

In a testament to the fast-moving, partisan process, however, Republicans withheld the last details of their bill until 5:30 p.m. on Friday—a time usually reserved in Washington for announcing unceremonious departures and delivering other dreary news. Among other provisions, the legislation would reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, slightly cut rates and double the standard deduction for individuals, double the child tax credit, and effectively repeal the Affordable Care Act’s individual insurance mandate beginning in 2019. The final compromise would cap the deduction for state and local taxes at $10,000, but it would preserve popular deductions for medical expenses, student loan interest, and graduate student tuition.

GOP leaders locked down the critical Senate votes one-by-one over the last several weeks through a combination of old-fashioned horse trading and appeals to unity. Earlier in the month, they bowed to Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson’s insistence on more generous treatment of “pass-through” businesses like the one he partially owns. They changed a tax break for capital expensing to assuage Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and gave him a verbal commitment to work together on immigration. They adopted a number of policies demanded by Senator Susan Collins, although the Maine moderate likely will be left to hope that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will keep his promise to enact a pair of bipartisan health-care bills that she extracted for her vote.

That left Rubio as the final apparent holdout, but the Florida Republican settled on a compromise in his bid to extend an expanded child tax credit to millions more families on the lower end of the income scale. The tax bill had already doubled the base credit to $2,000 per kid, but Republicans initially had made only $1,100 of that money refundable. The result was that many working-class families—earning, say, between $20,000 and $50,000 a year—would not have enough taxable income to take full advantage of the credit. Rubio and Senator Mike Lee of Utah campaigned to make the $2,000 fully refundable, but they accepted the GOP’s offer of $1,400.

“For far too long, Washington has ignored and left behind the American working class. Increasing the refundability of the Child Tax Credit from 55% to 70% is a solid step toward broader reforms which are both Pro-Growth and Pro-Worker,” Rubio tweeted on Friday, indicating his support.

Senator John McCain of Arizona remains hospitalized due to side effects of his brain-cancer treatment, but the remaining uncertainty over the outcome dissipated Friday afternoon when both Rubio, and more surprisingly, Corker, hopped on board. The Tennessee Republican opposed the bill initially because it added too much to the deficit, but with the legislation seemingly headed for passage anyway, he changed his mind. “After great thought and consideration,” he said in a statement, “I believe that this once-in-a-generation opportunity to make U.S. businesses domestically more productive and internationally more competitive is one we should not miss.” The GOP has more leeway in the House, where just 13 Republicans voted no on the initial bill in November. There’s been little uprising over potential changes since then.

Still undecided is Collins, who supported the Senate proposal only after winning a series of concessions and promises from GOP leaders that might not bear out. As part of an agreement with McConnell, she had wanted the Senate to vote first on two bills that she believes would mitigate the impact of repealing the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate in the tax legislation. One would restore for two years payments to insurers that President Trump canceled earlier this fall, while the other would fund state reinsurance programs aimed at reducing premiums by offsetting the cost of covering the most expensive patients.

Yet it’s likely the Senate will vote first on the tax bill, forcing Collins to hope that McConnell and other Republican leaders will follow through with the health-care bills afterward. The hope is that once the House sends over a year-end spending bill next week, the Senate will attach the health-care bills and send it back to the House for final passage. But with conservatives opposed to the proposals, that is not guaranteed to occur.

After winning the gratitude of Democrats and liberal activists for helping to vote down the GOP’s efforts to repeal Obamacare, Collins has come under harsh criticism for her support of the tax bill and particularly its repeal of the individual mandate. “Leadership. Consistency. Principles. Objective nonpartisan analysis. What happened to Susan Collins?” asked Topher Spiro, of the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

Collins spokeswoman Annie Clark told me on Friday she remains “very confident” that the health-care bills will ultimately become law. But given the likely process in the Senate next week, it is largely a matter of trust.

Collins’s vote now comes down to the provisions in the final tax bill, and Clark said she would not announce her position until she pored over the 500-page legislation this weekend. She has voiced concerns about lowering the top individual income rate to 37 percent, but she won apparent victories in other areas. The conference report is likely to include a more generous allowance for the deduction of state and local taxes and won’t eliminate a popular deduction for medical expenses—two of Collins’s priorities. Nor will it fully repeal the estate tax, which she had said she was opposed to.

But the reason Collins seems likely to back the tax bill is much simpler: Unlike during the health-care debate, she supports the underlying goal of what Republicans are trying to do.

Ultimately, that also helps to explain how Republicans came to be on the precipice of this first major legislative victory. What the debate over taxes has revealed is not just that the party is desperate to show they can have something to show for their majority, it’s that tax cuts remain a singular unifying force for the modern GOP. That was enough to overcome the many differences over the particulars of tax policy, as well as the polls warning Republican lawmakers that this legislation is not something the public seems to want. And it’s why, despite those many obstacles, Trump is likely to have a bill to sign into law next week.

The Atlantic Daily: Soft but Crushing Social Pressures
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

What We’re Following

In Politics: Republicans appear to have locked down the votes they need to pass their tax bill after negotiators overcame the objections of two Senate holdouts, Marco Rubio of Florida and Bob Corker of Tennessee. Meanwhile, polling data on voters’ attitudes toward gender and women’s rights point to a growing partisan divide regarding feminism: Republican women are much less likely to express support for feminism than Democratic men. And Special Counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly looking closely at the 18 days leading up to the firing of former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Here’s a timeline of that pivotal period.

In Business: Disney and 21st Century Fox are preparing for what will be the largest-ever show-business merger: Disney will acquire most of Fox’s assets and transform the media market in a way that could be dangerous for streaming companies, consumers, and even Disney itself. And the number of Americans who rent their home declined for the first time since 2005, suggesting that the housing market may finally be recovering from the foreclosure crisis—though the market has been permanently changed.

On the Internet: The Federal Communications Commission voted on Thursday to repeal the Obama administration’s net-neutrality rules, which require broadband providers to treat internet traffic equally, prompting outcry from consumer advocates. Yet the internet’s need for reform and regulation runs deeper than the net-neutrality debate, Ian Bogost argues. Perhaps no group knows this better than content moderators, the people who filter out the ugliest uploaded content from sites like Facebook and YouTube—and who sometimes come away with lasting psychological scars.

Rosa Inocencio Smith


Snapshot

Dola Sun created this illustration to show how much more money is spent on treating victims of nonfatal shootings than on researching how to prevent them. Read David S. Bernstein’s feature story about the survivors of gun violence here.

Who We’re Talking To

Jean Quan, a former mayor of Oakland, California, describes the activism and influence of Ed Lee, San Francisco’s first Asian American mayor, who died earlier this week.

Cristina De Stefano, the biographer of the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, discusses the controversial writer’s troubling views and feminist legacy.

Vickie Kloeris, who runs the food-systems lab of the International Space Station, explains the logistics of eating in space. For instance: “Burping in microgravity is probably not something you want to do a lot of.”


Evening Read

Megan Garber on how awkwardness gets weaponized:

As revelations of sexual harassment and assault have come to light in recent months, awkwardness and discomfort and embarrassment and, in general, Americans’ deeply ingrained impulse to avoid involvement in an “awkward moment when”—have also shown its darker sides. Harvey Weinstein, on the tape recorded by the model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez as part of a New York Police Department sting operation, told her, “Don’t embarrass me in the hotel.” And: “Honey, don’t have a fight with me in the hallway.” And: “Please, you’re making a big scene here. Please.” So many of the other men accused of predation, it has now become painfully clear, have in their own ways used those soft but crushing social pressures as weapons, both in moments of abuse and beyond: Don’t be dramatic. Don’t make a scene. Please.

Keep reading here, as Megan explores how social taboos help preserve the status quo—and how those speaking out about sexual assault are breaking them.


What Do You Know … About Culture?

British history and culture had a big impact on American entertainment in 2017. National Treasure, which premiered in the U.K. before coming to Hulu, was one of the year’s most prescient TV shows, foreshadowing the current reckoning with sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. The England musical export Ed Sheeran helped lead the resurgence of “strummer boy” pop on the music charts. And just this month, the second season of The Crown and the Winston Churchill biopic Darkest Hour have brought British political greats back to screens in the U.S. and around the world.

Can you remember the other key facts from this week’s culture coverage? Test your knowledge below:

1. Otis Redding is well known for his rendition of the song ____________, which was first popularized by Bing Crosby in 1933.

Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.

2. Axis Dance Company, which works with dancers who have disabilities, was founded in the year ____________.

Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.

3. The Los Angeles Angels recently signed the star baseball player Shohei Ohtani, a pitcher and hitter known as the ____________ of Japan.

Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.

Tori Latham

Answers: “try a little tenderness” / 1987 / babe ruth


Poem of the Week

From our December 1889 issue, Edith Wharton’s “Euryalus,” inspired by the writer’s visit to the Euryalus fortress in Sicily:

Upward we went by fields of asphodel,
Leaving Ortygia’s moat-bound walls below;
By orchards, where the wind-flowers’ drifted snow
Lay lightly heaped upon the turf’s light swell;
By gardens, whence upon the wayside fell
Jasmine and rose in April’s overflow;
Till, winding up Epipolsi’s wide brow,
We reached at last the lonely citadel.

Read more here, and read about how poets and painters responded to the Roman Colosseum here.


Reader Response

In our September issue, Peter Beinart argued that the Antifa—short for antifascist—movement risks fueling violence among the extreme right. Michaela Brangan, a reader in Ithaca, New York, objects:

It is irresponsible to speculate that antifascist activists are “fueling” a newly empowered far-right movement. Over time, data show, the number of violent incidents caused by right-wing groups dwarfs those caused by leftist groups. (The shooting incident targeting members of Congress in Alexandria, Virginia, perpetrated by a supporter of Bernie Sanders, was upsetting—but also rare.) Patterns of violent action and intimidation are what antifa is prepared to confront, physically if necessary, before patterns grow into policy.

Fascism is designed to destroy large groups of people based on their identities and to control everyone else, with a state apparatus that legitimates and empowers ultraviolent individuals and groups who further the ends of nationalist authoritarianism. Killing is not a side effect of fascism; it is its method. If movement leaders who promote this model, and who gain their power by cozying up to and trying to influence mainstream power structures, get punched on occasion, that might be distasteful to liberals, but it is nothing compared with fascism’s methods.

More reader responses here.


Verbs

Meat taxed, patience tested, country cursed, memory blurred.


Time of Your Life

Happy birthday to Laura’s husband, Rob (a year younger than The Oprah Winfrey Show); to Stephen’s father (11 years older than the moon landing); to Jim’s wife, Becca (a year younger than cellphones); to Jennifer’s spouse, Triston (a year younger than The Simpsons); to Olivia’s dear old friend Nancy (18 years older than Doctors Without Borders); to Douglas (a year younger than Star Trek); from Biff and Linda to Autumn (twice the age of iPhones); and to Meredith’s son, who at 7 is too young for the Timeline, but just the right age to become an art prodigy.

Tomorrow, happy birthday to Rina’s husband, Niteesh (a year younger than the 24-hour news cycle); to Tavia (twice the age of websites); to Jan’s son Clay (who was 19 when the Berlin Wall collapsed); to Kathy (a year younger than The Sound of Music); to Daniel (13 years older than The Partridge Family); and to Shana’s child Constance, who at 12 is too young for the Timeline, but just old enough to go to college.

Do you or a loved one have a birthday coming up? Sign up for a birthday shout-out here, and click here to explore the Timeline feature for yourself.


Meet The Atlantic Daily’s team here, and contact us here.

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

The Lessons of 'American War'
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

Dystopian novels are a difficult genre: They need to be imaginative, edging on the far-fetched, while being just plausible enough to terrify. Omar El Akkad’s American War, which interprets the American South by way of the Middle East, challenges Americans to imagine what it might be like to die for, but also kill, their fellow citizens.

The Second Civil War begins in 2074. Climate change has changed the continent, submerging the banks of Louisiana and the near entirety of Florida, save for an island enclave or two, one of which eventually houses the notorious Sugarloaf Detention Facility for Northern prisoners of war.

In the early 2070s, the federal government, by then based in Columbus, moved to outlaw fossil fuels. Southerners resented this and other impositions from the richer, prosperous Northern states. Fervor for secession began to build. The nature of Southern “culture” was rich, but also somewhat vague and constructed, like all cultural identities are. It was enough, though, to moor a movement that would lead to the deaths of millions. A Southern suicide bomber assassinated the president in 2073, plunging the country into violence.

There are little details that stand out: the stubbornness of symbols; how the simple revving of an engine still running on old fuel, while ultimately meaningless, becomes an act of rebellion, an expression of self-affirmation but a completely futile one in the face of so much killing.

* * *

What is most striking about El Akkad’s story is that it is both distinctly American—he takes care to paint the Southern insurgents with compassion even as he seems to realize they are wrong and sometimes capable of evil—but also otherworldly. The American civil war isn’t mentioned, although the fact that this new conflict is referred to as “the second” suggests that there must have been a first.

The Founding Fathers do not exist, or at least no one seems interested in mentioning them or calling upon their memory. The Constitution isn’t so much a historical curiosity but an abstraction; there’s only reference, during peace negotiations, to a “Constitutional Defense Officer,” which suggests that there’s a constitution he is trying to defend. Interestingly, in a book that elevates Southern culture, or any cultural nationalism, to its logical conclusion, the racial composition of this new America isn’t made clear. The main character, Sarat, is a person of color. That this is never made entirely explicit eerie haziness. In unmooring America from its own racial legacy, El Akkad seems to be saying that war could happen here, but it could also happen anywhere.   

American War, then, doubles as a mystery: What is the point of the killing? In El Akkad’s America, there are no technocrats, and there is no rationality. There is no consensus, but there isn’t really polarization either, at least not in the sense we’ve come to use the word. There is no politics, but only in the sense that there are no ideas. The idea of the United States—of what it means to be American—doesn’t exist in this alternative universe, because, perhaps by the time the narrator tries to remember, no one can quite recall what it must have felt like to be a nation undivided.

What fills the gap isn’t any distinctive ideology or religion but a kind of nothingness. The Bible is cited, but only as a plot device and a scene setter—in other words something incidental to the act of killing. On the radio, bible reciters are “disembodied” voices disconnected from the daily horrors of war.

The book’s most violent character—who is also the closest thing American War has to a heroine—is not a believer; there is no investigation of deeply held beliefs and what they might entail. But the fact that no one seems to believe in any set of ideas particularly strongly does not impede their willingness to kill. It’s hard to know if the author, here, is trying to make an argument about the pointlessness of war—that there will always be a justification, with or without the divine.

* * *

In the actual Civil War, the one that happened, the question of the divine and, more specifically, of theodicy—why God permits evil—was at the forefront, but perhaps more so after the fact. Only one of the two sides, both of which prayed to the same God, could win. At the start of the war, after the first bloodless Southern victory at the Battle of Fort Sumter, many, particularly on the Southern side, assumed it would last weeks or months. When it was finally over, 2 percent of the American population was dead, making it one of the most bloody conflicts in human history. At the same time, it was one of the last conventional wars where death wasn’t quite mechanized. In infantry engagements, you had little choice but to look right at the people you were trying to kill. They generally looked like you, spoke the same language, and were around the same age.  

During the war, dying, as Drew Gilpin Faust writes in her seminal history This Republic of Suffering, became an art, and Christianity was central to dying well. “It is work to die, to know how to approach and endure life’s last moments,” Faust writes. Christianity, already infused in daily life, became even more so as the death toll rose: “Redefined as eternal life, death was celebrated in mid-nineteenth-century America.” After the war, as the realities of defeat settled, there was inevitably the question of “why?” Was the fall of the Confederacy, suffering a significantly higher mortality rate than the north, a punishment from God?

Both sides, with presumably “fine” people on each, prayed to the same God and, therefore, believed they were right, and that God would grant them victory. Presumably, if their cause were indeed just, he would also spare them a long and grinding war. In a war’s early stages, ideas and ideals seem more pure, untainted by political calculation or the atrocities of one’s own side. But once you pick a side—or once you’re already on a side because you happen to be of the South or of the North—there isn’t much you can do. War becomes “tribal.” Sarat, a Southern rebel and American War’s protagonist, asks her mentor Albert Gaines, a Northerner by birth and a veteran of Iraq and Syria, why he chose to side with the South.

I sided with the Red because when a Southerner tells you what they’re fighting for—be it tradition, pride, or just mule-headed stubbornness—you can agree or disagree, but you can’t call it a lie. When a Northerner tells you what they’re fighting for, they’ll use words like democracy and freedom and equality and the whole time both you and they know that the meaning of those words changes by the day.

Gaines goes on: “Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever change your mind.” This seems to worry Sarat, and so he asks her: “If you knew for a fact we were wrong, would it be enough to turn you against your own people?” “No,” she says.

But for those predisposed to fight—perhaps if they witnessed a massacre, as Sarat did—there is a kind of joy to be found from taking up arms for a cause. Writing on the motivations that drew El Salvadorian insurgents to join together during the 1970s and 1980s, Elisabeth Jean Wood captures this feeling, arguing that “they took pride, indeed pleasure, in the successful assertion of their interests and identity.” Wood calls this “the pleasure of agency.”

* * *

Ultimately, the second civil war, even if it doesn’t begin that way, becomes, “tribal.” To fight for your tribe, regardless of anything else, becomes its own cause, and one apparently worth dying for.

The fear and foreignness of tribal divisions might be why some American analysts, including The New Yorker’s Robin Wright, are treating the risk of civil war more seriously (with the caveat that a future American war wouldn’t be a “normal” one, but rather a lower intensity conflict). One common definition of civil war is 1,000 combat deaths in a year, coupled with the existence of at least one organized militia, a standard the United States, due to its large population, could theoretically more easily meet than a smaller country could.

Wright cites former special-operations officer Keith Mines, who puts the risk of civil war in America at 60 percent and lists five conditions that make violence more likely, each of which has by now been met. Basically, at the core of most civil wars is a collection of grievances, whether economic, ideological, or sectarian, that are foundational enough that they can’t—or can no longer be—addressed through politics. But it is not enough for grievances to exist; rebel groups must be sufficiently organized and effective, and the central state sufficiently weak or illegitimate, to be able to mobilize around those grievances.

Although there is some disagreement about how much it matters, ethnic and religious fractionalization—rather than merely ethnic or religious diversity—is a commonly cited factor in civil wars. In one particularly striking study of the causes of conflict, the Oxford economists Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler argue that “most proxies for grievance were insignificant: inequality, political rights, ethnic polarization, and religious fractionalization. Only ‘ethnic dominance’… had adverse effects.” Ethnic dominance occurs when the largest ethnic group is 45 to 90 percent of the population. Perhaps most interestingly, Collier and Hoeffler write that “the incentive to exploit the minority increases the larger the minority, since there is more to extract. Hence, a minority may be most vulnerable if the largest ethnic group constitutes a small majority.

This has major implications for the United States, which presents perhaps the most obvious case of a steadily declining majority population. (By contrast, there are no reliable projections of whites becoming a minority in major European democracies in the foreseeable future.) Since majorities becoming minorities is so unprecedented, at least in Western democracies, it is hard to predict exactly how these demographic changes might play out, particularly considering how disproportionately distributed toward whites economic and political power will still be even after whites become a minority.

* * *

In this sense, ideas, including religious ideas—to the extent that they cut across ethnic, tribal, and partisan divisions—have the potential to be powerful obstacles to the breakdown of society and the violence that often ensues. This is particularly the case in a country where the three major ethnic groups—Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics—are primarily Christian. Yet, just as a common Christianity was not a sufficiently “transtribal” bulwark against social breakdown in the leadup to the Civil War, it’s unlikely to be one anytime soon.

Anything resembling a common religion, or a common religious culture, is no longer something Americans can claim to have. As Ross Douthat writes: “The decline of institutional Christianity means that we have no religious center apart from Oprah and Joel Osteen, [and] the metaphysical gap between the secularist wing of liberalism and religious traditionalists is far wider than the intra-Christian divisions of the past.” Even if one of the two main political parties was always less religiously influenced than the other, there was still enough shared Christianity, however nominal, in the broader culture. Now, religiosity, both in practice as well as in the public imagination, is largely—and more than ever before—the province of one party.

This, obviously, leads to the increasing politicization of religion, something we see daily in the contortions of evangelical leaders in their bid to justify or explain away Trump’s indifference to religion and his disregard for basic morality. It contributes more perniciously, though, to the growing tribalization of observant Christians, thinking as many do that they’re unlikely to be welcome in the Democratic Party, particularly if they’re white and pro-life. By itself, the divide over religion isn’t necessarily dangerous, but considering just how much it overlaps with racial, geographic, and partisan divides, its effects on American political culture shouldn’t be underplayed.

Getting Democrats to rediscover religion, then, isn’t just a matter of winning elections—as important as that may be—but of beginning to close a worsening divide that exacerbates polarization and further undermines any shared sense of national identity. Michael Wear, the former director of religious outreach for the Obama campaign and one of the most prominent Christian voices in the Democratic Party, recently offered a searing indictment of Hillary Clinton’s approach to evangelical and Catholic voters, writing that it “amounted to political malpractice that simply can’t be repeated by the party moving forward. The campaign virtually neglected direct engagement with many religious constituencies, refusing to ask people of faith for their vote while taking policy positions that made it easy for Trump to prey on their sense of embattlement.”

Voters might be irrational, but they aren’t stupid. They can sense disdain from their politicians, particularly when it comes to matters of identity. As the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels write: “It appears that most people make their party choices based on who they are rather than on what they think.” Voters can agree with most of the Democrats’ policy positions, but if they sense that Democrats don’t understand who they are, or at least how they see themselves, they will go elsewhere. (And in any case, policy preferences, as Achen and Bartels also argue, are likely to flow from prior partisan attachments, rather than the other way around.) As Wear notes: “Many religious voters believe they are hated by Democrats, because many Democrats seem disinterested, at best, in engaging them.” While Wear is referring to Christians here, it could one day apply to Muslims. As a conservative Muslim friend who supports Democrats wrote to me recently: “As a religious non-Christian, even I can sense the disdain from the Democratic Party towards my faith, even as they don a cape against Islamophobia. The underlying view Democrats have [about] anyone seriously religious is that they’re, at best, silly and gullible, and at worst, dangerous.”

Religion isn’t just a problem for Democrats, however. The weakness of American Christianity is leaving its mark on the Republican Party, with organized religion in decline among white Republicans, as Peter Beinart has discussed in these pages. Yet even among those who still describe themselves as religiously conservative—think enthusiasts of Vice President Mike Pence—ethnicity and nationalism have come to play a powerful motivating role. As Robert Jones, author of The End of White Christian America, writes, 2016 was perceived as a “last chance” election, with white Christians seeing themselves, and the cultural world of White Christian America, as embattled in both demographic and political terms. White Christians are already a minority, having decreased  from 54 percent of the population at the start of the Obama presidency to 43 percent in 2016.

The ideological drift of recent years might have provided as opportune a moment as any for political Christianity to reassert itself among whites. That didn’t happen. Nationalism subsumed religion rather than the other way around. The premier Christian evangelical gathering, the Values Voter Summit, once suspicious of Trump, now prioritizes “allegiance to the United States, not to God,” as Slate’s William Saletan argues. At the summit, Saletan notes, “the most commonly invoked issue wasn’t prayer or abortion; it was the refusal of football players to stand for the national anthem.”

With a more secular generation coming of age, the percentage of Christian conservatives will continue to decrease. There will still be a Pence wing of the Republican Party, but it is likely to find itself increasingly intertwined with ethno-nationalism, confusing, perhaps permanently, which matters more—the white or the Christian—in White Christian. The assumption, long held by members of minority religious groups like myself, that a secular America would be a more tolerant, pluralistic, and therefore more stable place will be tested. In the meantime, we would do well to remember that demographic conflicts aren’t necessarily better than religious ones.

The Atlantic Politics & Policy Daily: Tax on Deck
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

Today in 5 Lines

President Trump told reporters that he would rebuild the FBI, after he criticized the agency’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. The president also left the door open to pardoning former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Republicans finalized their tax plan, and secured support from Senators Marco Rubio and Bob Corker, keeping them on track for a floor vote next week. Lawmakers are expected to release details of the plan this evening. And the House Ethics Committee said it’s investigating Democratic Representative Ruben Kihuen of Nevada amid allegations of sexual harassment.


Today on The Atlantic

  • The Big Difference: In America’s current moment of cultural and political upheaval, it isn’t gender that divides Democrats and Republicans, argues Peter Beinart. It’s feminism.

  • 18 Days: Take a look at this timeline of events leading up to former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s exit from the White House. (Matt Ford)

  • Where’s the Beef?: A tax on meat has been suggested in a handful of countries—and a new report predicts it could be coming soon to the United States. (James Hamblin)

  • Radio Atlantic: What do Russians see that Americans don't? How does the U.S. look right now from their vantage point? And what does Vladimir Putin ultimately want? In this week’s episode, Julia Ioffe joins our hosts, along with Atlantic global editor Kathy Gilsinan, to discuss.

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


Snapshot

President Trump and FBI Director Christopher Wray participate in a graduation ceremony at the FBI Academy on the grounds of Marine Corps Base Quantico in Quantico, Virginia. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters


What We’re Reading

Good Riddance: On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net neutrality regulations. Matthew Walther thinks that’s a good thing. (The Week)

Lesson Learned: Democrats have taken away one key lesson from Doug Jones’s victory in Tuesday’s special election in Alabama. (John Eligon, The New York Times)

Sin Luz: The Washington Post documents what life is like in Puerto Rico, which is experiencing the longest and largest power outage in modern U.S. history. (Arelis R. Hernandez, Whitney Leaming, and Zoeann Murphy, The Washington Post)

‘Rough Justice’: Kansas Democrat Andrew Ramsey reportedly plans to drop out of the U.S. House race after she was accused of sexually harassing a male subordinate. (Lindsay Wise and Bryan Lowry, McClatchy)

The Pease Cactus: A few members of the Ways and Means Committee have a secret, 25-year-old tradition: passing down the guardianship of a little green cactus. (Alex Gangitano, Roll Call)


Visualized

Rocket Men: Meet the team of men working for Kim Jong Un to build North Korea’s nuclear missile. (The New York Times)


Question of the Week

This week, we asked: If this political moment was a Golden Globe-nominated film, what would be its genre—and what would it be called? Here’s what you said:

Valerie Finney writes that she’d call the movie From Russia With Love: “It would be a criminal-mystery thriller because the election was influenced by Russian tactics and there is a mystery surrounding who was involved that reads like a Cold War spy novel with plenty of intrigue.”

But for David Leeds, a dark comedy is the way to go “because tragic absurdism is the best way to understand how partisanship and ideological echo chambers have encouraged Americans not to think seriously about the effects of policy changes.” His film? Policy Matters.

And finally, Andrea’s documentation of this political moment would be summarized in two words: Tweet Tweet, “because we live in the post sound-bite era when substance matters even less.”

Thanks to everyone who submitted responses, and stay tuned for next week’s Question of the Week.

-Written by Elaine Godfrey (@elainejgodfrey)

The Annotated ‘Nationalist’s Delusion’
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

This article is edited from a story shared exclusively with members of The Masthead, the membership program from The Atlantic. Find out more.

***

“Trumpism,” writes Adam Serwer, “is a profoundly American phenomenon.” In his Atlantic feature story “The Nationalist’s Delusion,” Serwer plumbs the depths of that phenomenon. He explains, “Supporters and opponents alike understand that the president’s policies and rhetoric target religious and ethnic minorities, and behave accordingly. But both supporters and opponents usually stop short of calling these policies racist. It is as if there were a pothole in the middle of the street that every driver studiously avoided, but that most insisted did not exist even as they swerved around it.” Here, Serwer walks us through his thought process. —Matt Peterson, editor, The Masthead

The Genesis of the Piece

During the final few weeks of the campaign, I asked dozens of Trump supporters about their candidate’s remarks regarding Muslims and people of color. I wanted to understand how these average Republicans—those who would never read the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer or go to a Klan rally at a Confederate statue—had nevertheless embraced someone who demonized religious and ethnic minorities. What I found was that Trump embodied his supporters’ most profound beliefs—combining an insistence that discriminatory policies were necessary with vehement denials that his policies would discriminate and absolute outrage that the question would even be asked.

It was not just Trump’s supporters who were in denial about what they were voting for, but Americans across the political spectrum, who, as had been the case with those who had backed [Louisiana politician and former Klan leader David] Duke, searched desperately for any alternative explanation—outsourcing, anti-Washington anger, economic anxiety—to the one staring them in the face. The frequent postelection media expeditions to Trump country to see whether the fever has broken, or whether Trump’s most ardent supporters have changed their minds, are a direct outgrowth of this mistake. These supporters will not change their minds, because this is what they always wanted: a president who embodies the rage they feel toward those they hate and fear, while reassuring them that that rage is nothing to be ashamed of.

I jotted down the first lines of what would eventually become “The Nationalist’s Delusion” in 2016, shortly after seeing the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s remarks about half of Trump supporters being racist. This set of paragraphs, which more or less sums up my argument, wasn’t written until months later. But after attending rallies and speaking to dozens of Trump supporters, I texted my editor Yoni Appelbaum with what would become the core argument of the essay, that Trump supporters didn’t think of themselves as racist but were enthusiastic supporters of the discriminatory policies that Trump was running on. The text, from October 1, 2016, is still on my phone. “Getting a lot of good stuff, it’s fascinating. What I really hadn’t understood is that Trump supporters are engaged in the exact ritual of denial about Trump that the press is.” It took me the better part of a year to excavate another crucial revelation, that the denial isn’t something recent, but rather a phenomenon that runs through all of American history.

How I Stumbled On Trump’s Comments About David Duke

Duke’s strong showing [in his 1990 Senate campaign against Democratic U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston] ... wasn’t powered merely by poor or working-class whites—and the poorest demographic in the state, black voters, backed Johnston. Duke “clobbered Johnston in white working-class districts, ran even with him in predominantly white middle-class suburbs, and lost only because black Louisianans, representing one-quarter of the electorate, voted against him in overwhelming numbers,” The Washington Post reported in 1990. Duke picked up nearly 60 percent of the white vote. Faced with Duke’s popularity among whites of all income levels, the press framed his strong showing largely as the result of the economic suffering of the white working classes. Louisiana had “one of the least-educated electorates in the nation; and a large working class that has suffered through a long recession,” The Post stated.

Months into working on the story, I happened to read a passage from the historian David Roediger that changed my frame of reference. In The Wages of Whiteness, a book about racism and the construction of the white working class in America, Roediger mentions that pundits in 1989 had blamed Duke’s ability to win a seat in the Louisiana legislature on, essentially, economic anxiety. “In a quite meaningless way, the ‘race problem’ is consistently reduced to one of class,” Roediger wrote. “One expert commenter after another came on the morning news shows to announce that unemployment was high in Duke’s nearly all white district and therefore the election turned on economic grievances rather than racism.” That piqued my interest, and when I started looking more closely at the Duke Senate race, which happened a year later, the parallels became clear—even to the point where I found Trump commenting on the race itself in an insightful way that foreshadowed his own campaign. It ended up becoming the intro section to my article, in part because my editors and I felt the parallels were strong enough to hook the reader into what was going to be a long ride.

Immigration and Partisanship

Using data from the American National Election Survey, [political scientists Marisa] Abrajano and [Zoltan] Hajnal conclude that “changes in individual attitudes toward immigrants precede shifts in partisanship,” and that “immigration really is driving individual defections from the Democratic to Republican Party.”

I think many political observers underestimated the salience of the immigration issue in the 2016 campaign, which is ironic because the media bears a significant amount of responsibility for its importance. Abrajano and Hajnal, whose 2015 book White Backlash I drew on for this piece, write that “At the aggregate level, we show that when media coverage of immigration uses the Latino threat narrative, the likelihood of whites identifying with the Democratic Party decreases and the probability of favoring Republicans increases. Whites who are fearful of immigration tend to respond to that anxiety with a measurable shift to the political right.” Using data drawn from immigration coverage in the New York Times, they write that “news coverage is largely negative, largely focused on Latinos, and largely attentive to the negative policy issues associated with immigration.” That’s just the New York Times, to say nothing of the steady diet of immigration horror stories one sees on Fox News and other conservative outlets. This incredible political realignment was happening because of the media, but the media largely (but not completely) missed it.

Clinton’s 2008 Primary Campaign

Clinton’s arrogance in referring to Trump supporters as “irredeemable” is the truly indefensible part of her statement—in the 2008 Democratic primary, Clinton herself ran as the candidate of “hard-working Americans, white Americans” against Obama, earning her the “exceedingly strange new respect” of conservatives who noted that she was running the “classic Republican race against her opponent.” Eight years later, she lost to an opponent whose mastery of those forces was simply greater than hers.

I wanted to invoke the largely forgotten racial tensions of Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign rivalry with Barack Obama, with Clinton taking the role of the tribune of the white working class and caricaturing Obama as a wine-sipping elitist. A Clinton adviser at the time dismissed the Obama coalition as “eggheads and African-Americans.” There was the infamous picture of Obama in Somali garb (a Clinton adviser said Obama shouldn’t be ashamed of being seen in “his native clothing, in the clothing of his country,” even though Obama’s native country is the United States). In hindsight it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise that Clinton had trouble trying to win with Obama’s coalition years later. Even though her point about Trump voters’ tendencies toward racism and sexism was defensible, she had never really publicly accounted for the way her earlier primary against Obama played out. “The Nationalist’s Delusion” helps explain the Trump phenomenon, but it was never just a Trump phenomenon.

Pre-2016 Data

It’s not that Republicans would have been less opposed to Clinton had she become president, or that conservatives are inherently racist. The nature of the partisan opposition to Obama altered white Republicans’ perceptions of themselves and their country, of their social position, and of the religious and ethnic minorities whose growing political power led to Obama’s election.

In addition to White Backlash, I used Post-Racial or Most-Racial by Michael Tesler to explaining how the Republican base had been radicalized over the Obama years. The first book was about how immigration was driving defections of white voters from the Democratic Party, and the second was about how public policy issues became “racialized” in the Obama years, despite Obama’s best efforts. It was important to me that both books had been published prior to Trump’s victory—that is, they weren’t attempting to retroactively explain what happened. Instead, they predicted the salience both of the immigration issue and Trump’s overtly racial appeals, and used social science to explain both phenomena. In other words they pointed to the rise of a Trump-like figure, though not Trump himself. Both books provided ample evidence of the social trends that explained Trumpism, prior to the need to do so, and so I found them more persuasive than any post-hoc explanation.

How did Trump voters react when I asked them about Trump’s racism?

“I don’t feel like he’s racist. I don’t personally feel like anybody would have been able to do what he’s been able to do with his personal business if he were a horrible person,” Michelle, a stay-at-home mom in Virginia, told me.

Most Trump voters I spoke to were quite friendly (the ones who weren’t didn’t want to talk at all). They were also eager to defend Trump’s controversial remarks, and blamed the mainstream media for taking him out of context. The irony I kept running into was that even though some people felt that Trump wasn’t being given a fair shake, or that he had made a mistake due to lack of polish as a politician, those people would still generally repeat or endorse the underlying sentiment. That is, they recognized that Trump’s remarks could be interpreted as racist, and they thought that was unfair, but they also agreed with what he was saying. That contradiction, and ways it has manifested historically, was really the heart of the piece.

The Weaponization of Awkwardness
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

“Young women say yes to sex they don’t actually want to have all of the time. Why? Because we condition young women to feel guilty if they change their mind.”

That was the writer Ella Dawson, in her essay reacting to “Cat Person,” the New Yorker short story that went viral, and indeed that is still going viral, this week. Kristen Roupenian’s work of fiction resonated among denizens of the nonfictional world in part because of its sex scene: one that explores, in rich and wincing detail, the complications of consent. Margot, a 20-year-old college student, goes on a date with Robert, a man several years her senior; alternately enchanted by him and repulsed by him, hopeful about him and disappointed, she ultimately sleeps with him. Not because she fully wants to, in the end, but because, in the dull heat of the moment, acquiescing is easier—less dramatic, less disruptive, less awkward—than saying no.

“After all,” as Dawson notes of the real-world implications of Margot’s decision, “you’ve already made it back to his place, or you’re already on the bed, or you’ve already taken off your clothes, or you’ve already said yes. Do you really want to have an awkward conversation about why you want to stop? What if it hurts his feelings? What if it ruins the relationship? What if you seem like a bitch?”

Consent, concession, the blurred lines between the two: The work of fiction, and the analysis of it, are each in their own ways deeply true. And they struck a cultural nerve this week—Dawson’s essay, titled “Bad Sex, or the Sex We Don’t Want but Have Anyway,” went viral along with Roupenian’s story—because they highlight, together, something that is widely recognized but rarely talked about: the version of sex that is bad not in a criminal sense, but in an emotional one. The kind that can happen, as Dawson suggested, partly as a result of cultural forces that exert themselves on women in particular: the demand that they be accommodating. That they be pleasing. That they capitulate to the feelings of others, and maintain a kind of sunny status quo—both in the immediate moment of a given social situation, and more broadly: Wait for the raise to be offered. Put in that extra minute of effort with the eye makeup. Nod. Smile. Once you’ve consented, don’t make things weird by saying, out loud, that you’ve changed your mind. “Cat Person,” on top of everything else, is an exploration of awkwardness as a form of social coercion; the conversation it sparked, accordingly, in “Bad Sex” and Facebook posts and essays and tweet threads, has been a consideration of that kind of awkwardness as a condition—and a chronic one.

That these conversations would be occasioned by a work of fiction is both ironic and revealing: The world itself, the one that is all too real, has long provided its own stories of perilous awkwardness. As revelations of sexual harassment and assault have come to light in recent months, awkwardness and discomfort and embarrassment and, in general, Americans’ deeply ingrained impulse to avoid involvement in an “awkward moment when”—have also shown its darker sides. Harvey Weinstein, on the tape recorded by the model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez as part of a New York Police Department sting operation, told her, “Don’t embarrass me in the hotel.” And: “Honey, don’t have a fight with me in the hallway.” And: “Please, you’re making a big scene here. Please.” So many of the other men accused of predation, it has now become painfully clear, have in their own ways used those soft but crushing social pressures as weapons, both in moments of abuse and beyond: Don’t be dramatic. Don’t make a scene. Please.

It’s a microcosm, in some ways, of the broader-scale betrayals that have been revealing themselves in this latest #MeToo moment. Awkwardness, after all, is supposed to be cheerful. It’s supposed to be harmless and lighthearted and laughable, a joke made at the expense of society itself. Funny-awkward. Painful-awkward. Relatably awkward. (Even the word, as written—the multiple ws, the jarring angles—is, yep, awkward.) So pervasive has awkwardness become in its collective self-deprecation—the age of irony colliding with the age of social media, all those interactions ripe for comic misunderstandings—that some have dubbed this moment a “golden age of awkwardness.” There it is in our language. There it is in our literature. There it is in our entertainments: Seinfeld and then The Office and then The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and then Insecure. Juno. Junot. All those BuzzFeed gif-ticles. All those delightful/horrifying entries into the Awkward Family Photos database. All those times that Taylor Swift was so very Taylor Swift. No wonder Curb Your Enthusiasm made its return this year: The era practically summoned it.

But “Cat Person” and “Bad Sex” and this #MeToo moment at large—the stories about that moment both fictional and tragically real—are reminders of how easily the stuff of pop-cultural whimsy can be twisted in ways that are malignant to those who navigate that culture. When Harvey Weinstein told Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, “Honey, don’t have a fight with me in the hallway,” he was attempting to turn centuries’ worth of cultural conditioning—gendered conditioning—against her. He was weaponizing the mandate against scene-making, against disruption, against unruliness. He was grossly blatant about it; often, though, the pitfalls of awkwardness, as a negative mandate, reveal themselves more subtly. Last month, Sarah Wildman, formerly of the New Republic, published an essay in which she describes an encounter with the magazine’s literary editor at the time, Leon Wieseltier: He cornered her in a bar during an office outing, she writes, and kissed her without her consent. When she refused him, she recalls, he made a joke of it.

Wildman reported the incident; the report went, she writes, essentially ignored: another instance, as the magazine’s then-editor now describes it, of individual moral compromise made systemic at the publication. But it was not merely management who averted their eyes from the awkwardness. “No one knocked on my door,” Wildman puts it, “though I know now that at least one other editor had some idea of what had happened. I told a couple of my fellow writers, but no one spoke to me much at all. Likely no one knew what to say.”

No one knew what to say. It’s one of the simplest and most widespread mechanisms that helps open secrets to stay secret for so long: the impulse to avoid making scenes, to avoid making things weird. Women bear the brunt of these mandates; men, of course, experience them, too. The people around her, Wildman suggests, felt awkward talking about harassment; as a result, her claims about her own experience—and she herself—got ignored. Awkwardness became a cyclical force, weaponized not through malice, but through the convenient delusions of benign neglect. Here is Franklin Foer, the former editor of the New Republic—and now a national correspondent for The Atlantic—speaking, with admirable candor, about his reaction to hearing some of the comments Wieseltier seems to have made about women at the magazine:

When I heard a comment like that, I think my response was probably shame or extreme discomfort, wanting to hide, changing the subject pretty quickly. To be clear, it wasn’t like I heard these types of comments every day, every month. It was things that would be scattered over the course of many hours, many months of conversation.

Confrontation is hard is part of the grand moral of this story. I wish I shrouded myself in the right thing and being confrontational in those kind of instances, but really I was just profoundly uncomfortable.

It’s an extremely familiar sentiment—a very specific strain, essentially, of the bystander effect. And it’s extremely understandable, in a Relatably Awkward kind of way. No one would want to be in Foer’s position—just as, indeed, no one would want to be in Wildman’s. But here, again, in the case of the New Republic, was That Awkward Moment revealed not as a funny banality, but as a threat: Wieseltier, after Wildman’s report, stayed at the magazine (and then briefly joined The Atlantic as a contributor); Wildman, eventually, left. The awkwardness-aversion helped to insulate Wieseltier; it helped to alienate Wildman. See something, say something. Except.

Last month, New York magazine ran an article headlined, “5 Men on Why They Didn’t Stop Harassment at Work.” One of those men, Steve, a software executive, described a situation in which a woman colleague had told him about feeling uncomfortable because the men she worked with were testing projects by streaming porn, and taking customers to strip clubs. “She had to fit in,” the executive said, “not make waves or get labeled as ‘difficult,’ so she asked me to keep quiet.” As Steve now recalls, “I didn’t say anything. It’s easy to come up with reasons not to get involved, so in some ways she simplified things by telling me not to talk. Plus, I was friendly with the guys and I knew it would be really awkward if I confronted them.”

Again: a twist. A betrayal. One of the ironies of awkwardness exerted in this way—the trusty aide to the open secret—is that awkwardness itself, as a passing circumstance, can be a great equalizer. None of us, oooooof, cringe, 😬 , is immune to it. (“It is civilization that makes us awkward,” Benjamin Disraeli once noted, “for it gives us an uncertain position.”) Awkwardness is a form of “embarrassment,” in the sociologist Erving Goffman’s sense: a deviation between expectation and reality. A disturbance in the force. A misreading of the cue.

And Americans, in particular, have long written easiness and chattiness and pleasantry into our shared scripts. Many other cultures are perfectly content with moments of silence in the midst of a conversation; Americans, on the other hand—we who reflexively append awkward to silence—tend to rush to fill the void with idle, but blessedly voluminous, chit-chat. We have “real talk,” with the qualifier revealing as much as the conversation itself, and, relatedly, a deep and dedicated aversion to conducting what human-resources departments euphemize as “uncomfortable conversations.” Several years ago, The Atlantic coined the term phaking—and also dodge dialing, and also the cell phone side step—to describe the very common act of pretending to be on one’s phone to avoid in-person interaction with others. Urban Dictionary’s top definition of awkward explains the word as the situation in which “no one really knows what to say, or choose not to say anything.” It advises the reader, should she find herself in such a wretched circumstance: “Just back slowly away.”

But these skillful evasions and willful aversions have come at a cost. They have allowed for injustice. They have abetted impunity. They have encouraged people to turn the other cheek, and to do so in the name of that mandate that so many will understand, implicitly: Don’t make it weird. They have helped men like Harvey Weinstein to leverage the pernicious power of Please, you’re making a big scene here. And the dangers stretch far beyond matters of sexual harassment and abuse: Just as embarrassment can negatively affect people’s health outcomes—the physical body is so often a metaphor for the body politic—it can impede the health of the culture at large. So many conversations that are desperately necessary—about sex and gender, yes, but also about racial justice, about inequality, about the politics that affect people in the intimacies of their daily lives—can be thwarted by Americans’ pervasive aversion to awkwardness. In 2015, Claudia Rankine gave an interview to The Guardian. “Why is it so hard,” the paper asked the poet, “to call out racism?” Rankine replied, “Because making other people uncomfortable is thought worse than racism.”

It was a searing indictment. And it will be one of the broadest challenges of this moment—This Awkward Moment—not just to rethink the structures of power that have brought us to this moment in the first place, but also to make Rankine’s insight less terribly true. It is possible. It is happening. Last year, NPR’s Code Switch aired a brilliant podcast episode that offered a deep conversation about dealing with moments of revealed racism. The episode is titled “Hear Something, Say Something: Navigating The World Of Racial Awkwardness,” and it is just one part of Code Switch’s ongoing and much broader discussion about race in America. The latest incarnation of #MeToo, as well, with so many people providing frank and unflinching accounts of harassment and manipulation and assault, has similarly prioritized progress in the end over comfort in the moment. “Cat Person,” even as a work of fiction, took things that would traditionally have been the stuff of classically American eye-aversion and turned it into an opportunity for open discussion—not just by its author, but among its many readers.

The conversations and revelations are uncomfortable, yes. But they are necessary. They are urgent. And they are evidence of one of the ethics of this particular Awkward Moment: There is nothing wrong—and indeed there is so much right—with making things weird. With telling the truth, awkward as it may be. With standing up and speaking up and, finally, making a scene.

Net Neutrality Was Never Enough
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, opens a bag of Cheetos with his teeth, dumps them onto a hipster food-court lunch bowl, and slathers it in Sriracha sauce. He snaps a pic for social media.

It’s a scene from a video, “Seven Things You Can Still Do on the Internet After Net Neutrality,” shot by the conservative outlet The Daily Caller and published Wednesday, the day before the Federal Communications Commission voted to gut rules to treat internet traffic equally. Besides “’gramming your food,” Pai also assures The Daily Caller’s readers they will still be able to take selfies, binge watch Game of Thrones, cosplay as a Jedi, and do the Harlem shake.

Net-neutrality proponents have lambasted the video, and with good reason. A federal appointee charged for stewardship of public communications infrastructure comes off as insolent.

Even so, there’s something undeniably true about the video, which has only been amplified by reactions to the FCC’s vote: The internet that net neutrality might protect is also a petri dish of the pettiness and derision Pai acts out in the video. In addition to being a public good that ought to be regulated, the internet is also an amplifier of panic, malice, and intemperance. Like it or not, those vices helped get the nation into the political moil it currently faces, from internet policy to immigration to taxation to health care—as well as to the validity of elections themselves.

The most important step for the future of the internet, for citizens, politicians, and corporations alike, is to calm down, research, and debate its future. But the internet’s nature might make that impossible.

* * *

As had been expected, the FCC voted yesterday to roll back the Obama-era Open Internet Order, which treated broadband internet service providers—Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner, and their ilk—as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. Those protections required ISPs to treat internet traffic equally, preventing them from blocking or otherwise interfering with access to specific websites, apps, or other resources. Under the new rules, dubbed “Restoring Internet Freedom” by the FCC, ISPs would have to disclose any steps they take to limit or sell special access.

The FCC voted in favor of repeal despite widespread support of net neutrality among the American public—and despite the fact that public comment for the new policy appears to have been compromised by millions of fraudulent entries.

Those factors will likely come up in legal challenges to the repeal, which are already mounting. The new rules won’t take effect for at least several months. State attorneys general have begun filing lawsuits. And Congress could adopt legislation that would codify net neutrality into law, a move that activists are encouraging citizens to appeal for. The Democratic senator Ed Markey announced plans for legislation to reverse the FCC’s repeal, and given the bipartisan support for net neutrality among the electorate, it’s possible that such a bill could find support across the aisle.

Possible, but hardly guaranteed. A letter to the FCC from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce supporting the FCC’s action was signed by 107 Republican members of Congress. Of those, Motherboard reported that 84 have taken telco-industry contributions.

Even though the FCC’s action—a 3–2 vote along party lines—has been anticipated since the proposal’s announcement just before Thanksgiving, public response to yesterday’s rollback was severe. On Twitter, a woman posted a video of her 11-year-old sister’s school lunch table shouting “Ajit Pai is a loser.” A Missouri man created a $500,000 crowd-funding campaign (since taken down) to “deport Ajit Pai”—a dense morsel of consumer rights mixed with xenophobia (Pai is Indian American) that typifies the ethos of the internet.

The media’s response has been similarly drastic. Jimmy Kimmel weighed in, calling Pai a “jackhole” who wants to line the pockets of big telco at the cost of the public. Briefly, CNN ran the headline, “End of the Internet as We Know It.”

One such fear, widely held by net-neutrality proponents, is that ISPs might slice up internet service into tiers, as they have done for cable television. Stoking this fear, @therealbanksy, the Twitter account that ostensibly represents the anonymous British artist Banksy, posted a warning: “If you don't want to pay extra for your favorite sites you need to be supporting #NetNeutrality.” Along with it, some hypothetical fees: Twitter: $14.99/month; Netflix: $9.99/movie; Google: $1.99/search. As I write this, it has been retweeted 162,000 times. @therealbanksy, whose profile reads “fan account,” aptly represents the internet itself: billions of people, who might also be dogs, criminals, children, or senators, all jockeying for a shred of one another’s attention at all costs.

Even the FCC hearing itself was disrupted by the internet’s feral anxiety about itself. While details are still uncertain, the meeting was briefly interrupted due to a security threat. After bomb-sniffing dogs cleared the area, the vote resumed. “The left’s outcry at Mr. Pai ‘killing’ internet freedom,” the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote in response, “has been so overwrought that the FCC meeting room had to be cleared Thursday for a security threat.”

Pai’s Daily Caller video inspired similar indignation. The video appears to feature a cameo by an apologist for Pizzagate, the false conspiracy theory about a Democratic child sex trafficking ring run from a Washington, D.C. pizza joint. The net-neutrality opposition has latched onto this connection, using Pai’s association with the publication as an indictment of his position on common carriage.

The internet has amplified excess, making any one extreme act or idea require an even more extreme response. An arms race for profligacy.

* * *

In truth, nobody yet knows how the net-neutrality rollback will affect anyone—consumers, telcos, big tech, or start-ups. Internet zealots warn of widespread blocking and throttling, not to mention pay-for-play fast lanes that might benefit big companies like Netflix and Google and prevent upstarts from enjoying innovation and growth. ISPs, aware of how hot the issue is, will likely take no immediate action.

When they do, it will probably come in a form invisible to consumers anyway. Pay-for-play deals with big providers might make some services load faster and others slower. Small delays can be fatal for adoption and continued use, and the costs of operating a new business in such an environment might make some start-ups inviable.

As I’ve argued before, progressive advocacy for net neutrality can’t credibly claim to be acting on behalf of consumers and small businesses when venture-backed technology start-ups are the main beneficiary. The dissenting statements of both Democratic FCC commissioners, Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, give special mention to the “innovators” who might be harmed by dismantling net neutrality: big tech companies that might have to pay tariffs to telcos, or small tech companies that might struggle to do so. Bandwidth-heavy services would be most impacted—the “next Netflix,” as advocates often name it—but it’s not clear that the online-video market hasn’t been taken over by incumbents anyway, like search and social networking have.

Pai has justified the rollback on the grounds that the existing guidance overregulated the telecommunications sector, which operated without formal net-neutrality rules until the Open Internet Order was adopted in 2015. Since then, Pai insists, telco investment in broadband infrastructure has declined. Spurring more and better access, the FCC has decided, is more important than regulating broadband as common carriage.

The 2015 adoption of the Open Internet Order offered leverage to big tech companies like Google (now Alphabet), who might have pressed further into the broadband-service space. After all, some 50 million U.S. homes have only one choice for broadband service, driving service costs up. But instead, in 2016, Alphabet curbed expansion of its residential fiber network, which it began building in 2010. Rolling out fiber is expensive, complicated, and breeds dissatisfaction. Unlike search or docs, services that run in the cloud, fiber has to be installed and maintained in the physical world. In Atlanta, where I live, Google fiber installation caused numerous gas-line breaks, along with less-easily trackable disputes with property owners over digging and repair.

Even once installed, the switching cost of moving from a provider like Comcast to Google is high; people hate waiting for service technicians. It’s just more profitable to sell digital ads against searches and videos that other people make. Google’s net profits in Q3 2017 alone totaled $6.7 billion.

This situation in mind, it’s at least possible that terror over the apparent end of net neutrality might spur broadband investment and competition, especially if providers commit to equal treatment. It’s also possible that small-scale, start-up innovation in broadband access is impossible in America absent a threat to the internet. In the wake of the FCC’s vote, Vice announced plans to create a fiber-backed mesh network for the Brooklyn neighborhood where its offices are located. Such experiments are not new, but it’s unusual for a media company to ponder entering the ISP business. Nothing was stopping Vice from taking such a step before net neutrality reached the precipice—except, perhaps, a credible business justification for doing so, even if just as a branding exercise.

Other, better solutions to broadband competition exist. One is local-loop unbundling, a policy that requires telcos to share last-mile connections with competitors. It’s one of the reasons that broadband is so much cheaper in Europe than it is in the United States. The 1996 Telecommunication Act included an unbundling provision, requiring providers to offer access to their networks at “reasonable” cost when “technically feasible.” The policy spurred competition in DSL, but fiber was too hypothetical at the time, and it wasn’t covered in the act. Even so, small competitors had trouble getting central access for service provisioning once they had last-mile access. The big telcos had no trouble finding ways to argue against technical feasibility.

The problem with regulatory apparatuses like local-loop unbundling is that they are boring. Nobody wants to think about the complicated, messy infrastructure that actually makes it possible for irascible tweets to make it from the phones in people’s hands to the servers on which they are stored. It’s much simpler and more comforting to imagine the internet as the “cloud” of its marketers—an ethereal force that surrounds you and me and everyone. One that, like air or water, sates a basic need of human life.

* * *

In her dissent—a “eulogy,” she even calls it—Rosenworcel, the FCC commissioner, writes, “the future of the internet is the future of everything. That is because there is nothing in our commercial, social, and civic lives that has been untouched by its influence or unmoved by its power.”

This sentiment is both true and terrifying. The idea that a global data network would have so much power and influence should give everyone pause. Not only because it implies that so much of public and private life is conducted by means of that infrastructure. But also because it inspires people—and businesses, and government agencies, and elected officials themselves—to press toward the worst extremes of their character. It’s undeniable that modern society relies on the internet. Less often discussed are the impacts of such a dependence. Until they reach a breaking point, like the compromise of democracy or the mass exposure of personal information.

“Internet access became the dial tone of the digital age,” Rosenworcel’s dissent continues. She understates matters. Instead, it has become this era’s heartbeat. Data has become the blood that courses through the veins of ordinary life. This is why everyone in the debate is so passionate. But it’s also worth remembering that this is just a metaphor. The world is still out there, underneath and above all the fiber-optic lines that would take it online.

When it comes to net neutrality, supporting or opposing it is no longer sufficient. Killing net neutrality probably won’t make things better, but keeping it without any other substantive changes will ensure things get worse—instead of civics, only mania will remain. The internet is as much the enemy as it is the hero of contemporary life. It is not the free and open internet that must be eulogized, but the public’s blindness to its consequences.

The 24 Best Television Episodes of 2017
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

The Atlantic’s editors and writers pick their favorite 2017 moments from The Handmaid’s Tale, Master of None, The Leftovers, Better Things, and more. (Just to be clear, spoilers abound.)


American Vandal, “Premature Theories

Netflix

Just as Serial’s listeners at some point started to send in their own theories about Sarah Koenig’s investigation into a Baltimore cold case, the fictional viewers of the American Vandal mockumentary, five episodes in, joined in the hunt to figure out who drew dicks on the cars parked at a California high school. Self-aware hijinks ensued: Teachers faced consequences for their on-camera blabbing, neighbors got so annoyed by the scuttlebutt that they started destroying crucial evidence, and two nerdy student journalists became campus celebrities. But the best gag reinvigorated the tired trope of the teenage rager. When cruddy Snapchat videos of the party at “Nana’s house” was spliced with solemn Steadicam, it made for a hilarious high/low mashup that mocked the true-crime genre’s conventions—and the seriousness with which kids take their gossip.

Spencer Kornhaber


Better Things, “Eulogy

FX

Nothing captures Better Things’ glorious weirdness more efficiently than this episode, featuring a storyline in which Sam (Pamela Adlon) demanded that her unappreciative kids pretend that she was dead and eulogize her, hoping to finally spur some acknowledgment of her gifts not only as a mother, but also as an actress. After her daughters mocked the request, Sam stormed out to a local bar, where she received a message telling her to come home. There, her daughters and best friends had prepared the mock funeral she’d always wanted—a loving, ghoulish, emotional tribute to a mother whose parenting skills are entirely unorthodox but surprisingly inspirational. Coming after an episode that paid tribute to how much work acting can be, it was an acknowledgement that women can have careers, and that those careers can be infuriating, exhausting, and incredibly fulfilling, all at the same time.

Sophie Gilbert


Big Little Lies, “You Get What You Need

HBO

I was not terribly excited about Big Little Lies when HBO first began advertising it (largely via moody images of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley running, in both athleisure and slo-mo, on a gray-hued beach). The show’s premise—soap opera! rich people! ocean!—seemed tone-deaf and, on top of that, generally uninteresting, this despite the muuuuurder that the ads promised would make its way to Monterey. Episode by episode, though, Big Little Lies, for all its flaws, hooked me: as a sensitive and nuanced exploration of domestic violence; as an analysis of privilege; as a new and creepy version of American gothic. And the show’s finale simply sealed the deal. I won’t spoil the ending if you haven’t seen it, but I will say that we indeed find out who the muuuuurderer is, via a satisfying plot twist—and also that, in the end, that revelation doesn’t much matter. This is a show about women, fundamentally and unapologetically (yep, you could even say: The crashing waves that form a backdrop to the show’s dramas are feminism’s)—and “You Get What You Need” is, in the end, a celebration of sisterhood that reads, in the current moment, as urgent, prescient, and necessary.

Megan Garber


Big Mouth, “Girls Are Horny Too

Netflix

The Nick Kroll–fronted animated series Big Mouth would not have worked if it had just concentrated on the boys. The Netflix show stood out for its frankness and its vulgarity, centered on a group of seventh graders going through puberty. But though its pilot episode centered on sex-obsessed teenage boys (voiced by Kroll and John Mulaney) being taunted by a mystical creature called the “Hormone Monster” (also Kroll), the show succeeded in tackling the anxieties of its female characters (voiced by Jessi Klein and Jenny Slate) just as grossly and hilariously. In “Girls Are Horny Too,” the girls get their own Hormone Monstress (voiced by Maya Rudolph), who stirs up trouble by encouraging the girls’ wild imaginations after they begin passing an erotic novel around the playground. Big Mouth could be delightfully crude and hilariously blunt about the ids of its teenage protagonists, but it worked because of its equal-opportunity approach.

David Sims


Black-ish, “Juneteenth: The Musical

ABC

Ambition is not a term typically associated with the sitcom. Instead, the situational comedy, the longstanding and often lowly form, tends to make a virtue of diffidence: It will offer you, the sitcom promises, basically the same thing every week, with characters and settings and stories that change, sure, but only just enough to keep things interesting. Otherwise: consistency, predictability, stability. Not so Black-ish, however, which has been, over the course of several seasons, exploring and expanding the limits of the sitcom as a form. And, fittingly, “Juneteenth: The Musical,” the premiere episode of the show’s fourth season, features not one, but several, musical numbers—and ambitious ones at that. There’s “I’m Just a Slave” (performed by The Roots and set to the tune of Schoolhouse Rock!’s “I’m Just a Bill”), which contains clever-and-cutting lyrics like, “I am a slave, yes I’m only a slave, they’ll place my body in an unmarked grave.” And, later, the show moves to the 1800s, casting the Johnson family in two Hamilton-esque musical numbers that are gospel-inflected and alternately rousing and scathing. These performances are not merely entertaining and illuminating; they are also evidence of something Black-ish long ago embraced: the power a sitcom can have when, recognizing that it is watched by millions of viewers, it dares to be ambitious.

Megan Garber


The Crown, “Vergangenheit

Netflix

The best episode of The Crown’s second season explored Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) sense of duty by juxtaposing it with her Uncle David’s (Alex Jennings) sybaritic exile in Paris, and his self-pitying efforts to find employment after finally getting bored with pug birthday parties and merman costumes. But the unexploded bomb looming over the story was the Marburg Files, a collection of documents discovered by Allied Forces at the end of World War II that uncovered Edward VIII’s possible “arrangement” with Hitler that would restore him to the crown after a Nazi victory. Nor was that even the worst of it, as Tommy Lascelles (Pip Torrens) informed her Majesty, whose features were duly stricken at the depths of her uncle’s betrayal to his nation. The episode ended with real photos of the former king visiting Hitler in Germany—a jarring reminder of the show’s historical accuracy.

Sophie Gilbert


Dear White People, “Chapter V

Netflix

The fifth episode of Justin Simien’s series-length Netflix adaptation of his movie of the same name was directed by Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning director of Moonlight. But that fact wasn’t disclosed till the final credits rolled, immediately after the heartbreaking visual of Reggie (Marque Richardson) sobbing on one side of the door after having a gun pulled on him by a campus police officer. An episode that started with a James Baldwin quote (“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”) ended with a horrifying confrontation at a party. The scene’s instant escalation, its nail-biting tension, came from the camera’s slow tracking from the gun to Reggie’s face, with the cop always in the background, his features unseen. Dear White People is a show replete with thoughtful dialogue, but here was a moment in which images managed to convey infinitely more than language could.

Sophie Gilbert


GLOW, “Money’s in the Chase

Netflix

Netflix’s GLOW skewered the falseness of the drama that drives professional wrestling and soap operas—while also, cleverly, hooking its viewers on the same sort of drama. That meta approach, as well as the show’s other scrappy charms, got a full showcase in the season finale, which included a climactic debut bout for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. The match was a triple-header: paying off the characters’ striving throughout the season, revealing the real prejudices that fake stories can inflame, and dosing viewers with the same glee that actual wrestling fans know well. Off camera, two rivals negotiated a twist ending—which then was upended by another secret scheme, wowing the women in the ring, the folks cheering in the stands, and those of us gawking from our couches.

Spencer Kornhaber


Godless, “Homecoming

Netflix

Godless might have been a subversive Western, but it was still a Western, which meant each of its seven episodes seemed to build toward the final showdown between the citizens of La Belle and Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels). That gripping confrontation finally arrived in “Homecoming.” La Belle having lost most of its menfolk in a mining accident meant the women were charged with protecting their town from Griffin and his band of outlaws, in a gunfight that was as exhilarating as it was brutal. Maggie (Merritt Wever) and Alice (Michelle Dockery) took the lead, directing surgical attacks on Griffin’s men. In a neat twist on Western tradition, Alice even saved the life of Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), who returned to face his mentor Frank. If the inevitable meet between the two felt a little truncated, the episode’s best twist was the long-awaited arrival of the preacher, in a symbolic end to Frank’s reign of terror on the “godless” West.

Sophie Gilbert


The Good Place, “Michael’s Gambit

NBC

To the Villainous Cackling Hall of Fame add Ted Danson’s performance in The Good Place’s first-season finale. Soul-chilling on a visceral level, his sneering laugh ratified that his character had changed before the viewer’s eyes—or rather, that the viewer’s eyes needed to adjust to who the character was all along. The accompanying twist was an all-time great one, and The Good Place deserves credit for not only pulling it off but staging it smartly, as a bridge between flashbacks to Michael’s backstory and a climactic conflict involving the show’s hapless heroes in the afterlife. That the grand epiphany was just that—an epiphany, reached through reasoning—was perfect for a show about how self-improvement only ever happens through self-examination.

Spencer Kornhaber


Halt and Catch Fire, “Who Needs A Guy

AMC

The fourth and final season of the tremendous tech epic Halt and Catch Fire zoomed out and took stock of the unending boom-and-bust cycle of its ensemble's lives. This was a show about the excitement of launching a passion project in the tech world, the wrenching misery that could come with it, and how to balance career success without ruining the lives around you. Rather than wrap things up neatly, the show opted to look ahead, promising joy as well as sadness in its characters’ future. But “Who Needs A Guy,” the seventh (of 10 episodes) in this final season, was a little different. It had a significant plot twist: The surprising death of a major character, which would reverberate throughout the rest of the season. More than other episodes, it had a sense of finality. But it also had its eye on the future, with said character experiencing his death as a series of visions of his wife and children, who then became the centerpiece of following episodes as they forged their lives ahead.

David Sims


The Handmaid’s Tale, “Offred

Hulu

Really, any episode of this lush Hulu series could earn its place on a best-of-2017 list. But “Offred” is remarkable both in its simple elegance and in its audacity. So often, the pilot of a show—especially one like The Handmaid’s Tale, which builds a new world and inhabits it at the same time—will show its seams and reveal its labors: clunky exposition, the dutiful introduction of characters, the craft of the storytelling. “Offred,” however, manages to avoid all that: It plunges you into its story, and into its world, in medias res, in a way that is as jarring and as compelling as its subject deserves. Here is Gilead, in all its cold uncanniness, a world so different—yet so eerily familiar—to our own. There is Offred (Elisabeth Moss), the show’s narrator and its protagonist. There is Margaret Atwood, making a shadowed cameo. And there, in the scene that remains my favorite of all of them in the series’s first season, are the handmaids participating in the ceremony known as the Salvaging: Together, they beat a man who has caused (they have been told) a pregnant woman to lose her baby. It’s a scene that haunts me, many months later: the women, their anger turned into violence. The injustice that has been done to them redirected toward someone else, making them complicit in Gilead’s brute legalities. The flailing. The pounding. The helplessness. The rage that turns in on itself because, in this world, it has nowhere else to go.

Megan Garber


I Love Dick, “A Short History of Weird Girls

Amazon Prime Video

Jill Soloway’s adaptation of Chris Kraus’s 1997 book I Love Dick, a radical testament of the author’s obsession with a male sociologist, was never better than in this 20-minute episode. Written by the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Annie Baker and the Obie Award–winner Heidi Schreck, “A Short History of Weird Girls” explored the oddities and quirks of female desire. Despite its compressed running time, the episode was a surprisingly deft illustration of how intricately lust can be tied up with identity. Devon (Roberta Colindrez) considered how much her own sexual persona was influenced by Dick (Kevin Bacon), and his swaggering, cocksure machismo. Paula (Lily Mojekwu) recalled her childhood obsession with her mother. Toby (India Menuez) articulated the first time she watched pornography, a subject that formed the basis for her academic exploration. And Chris (Kathryn Hahn) considered how her psychosexual fixation on Dick was about her, not him. “I don’t care if you want me,” she said. “It’s better if you don’t. It’s enough I want you.” The narratives formed a whole that was somehow abstract, insightful, and completely compelling.

Sophie Gilbert


Insecure, “Hella Perspective

HBO

Insecure is the master of the artistically productive fake-out: From the beginning, the show has made dramatic use of its twists—not just at the level of the plot, but at the level of the scene itself—to keep audiences on their toes, and to highlight the way people's choices are not merely choices in the moment, but choices about paths and lives and fates. Insecure had one such twist at the beginning of its second season on HBO. But it uses an even more striking one in “Hella Perspective,” the finale to that season that aired in September. That the show makes repeated use of the device—that there’s a rhythmic nature to Insecure’s thwarted expectations—should have prepared me for the twist that comes as Issa (Issa Rae) and Lawrence (Jay Ellis) decide their future together. It did not. Instead, via a scene that pulses with pathos—the possibilities embraced and abandoned, the people loved and lost, all the roads explored and not taken, all the maybes and could-have-beens that hover over a life—it gutted me. Mostly in a good way. Mostly.

Megan Garber


Jeopardy!, “Tournament of Champions 2017

CBS

Jeopardy!, the quiz show that has been around for approximately 812 years and that has been basically unchanged through all of them, is the TV equivalent of a warm cup of tea: calming, consistent, soothing even despite the interruptive commercials urging you to buy life insurance. There the show is, day after day—year after year—decade after decade—taking the hard facts of the world and making a game of them. This season of Jeopardy! deviated from the others, though, just a bit, because this season of Jeopardy! featured Austin Rogers, a hand-talking, rumple-jacketed bartender from New York City. Austin bet big and bold in the Daily Doubles. He mastered the show’s infamously fickle signaling device. Most of all, though, he made Alex—and the rest of us—laugh along with his antics, which ranged from odd pantomimes to even odder personal stories to the accidental invention of a new kind of tree. And when Austin made his triumphant return to the show in the Tournament of Champions this fall—with fellow Jeopardy! masters Buzzy Cohen and Alan Lin—his whimsy proved infectious: As the camera panned down Contestants’ Row during the start of the tournament’s finale, Austin covered his eyes. And then Alan covered his ears. And then Buzzy covered his mouth. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. For no discernible purpose except delight. A: This Jeopardy! contestant made the show, and the world, better just for being on it. Q: Who. Is. Austin.

Megan Garber


The Leftovers, “The Book of Nora

HBO

Chances are if you’ve seen The Leftovers, you don’t need convincing that its series finale was sublime. But since this show was criminally under-watched and it’s far more likely you haven’t seen it, I’ll be vague and hold out the promise of a virtually perfect ending. The Leftovers began with an alluring premise: What if 2 percent of the earth’s population vanished without an explanation? Over three seasons, the series offered a fascinating and intricately plotted meditation on how people—as individuals, as families, as communities, as societies—deal with the unfathomable. Which is why it came as a surprise that the show’s closer offered something akin to an explanation to the central mystery. Sort of. “The Book of Nora” can be described as a love letter in the shape of a puzzle box posing as a biblical text. It’s an episode that at first appears to shelve the show’s most ambitious questions about the human condition, but then illustrates with breathtaking simplicity why answers are so often beside the point.

Lenika Cruz


Legion, “Chapter 5

FX

“It’ll be fun,” said supreme telepath David to his bodysnatching love interest Syd. “Kick some ass, save the girl, get a snack.” This being Legion, Noah Hawley’s 10,000-piece puzzle of a Marvel superhero show, the promise of straightforward asskicking was a feint—though “Chapter 5” did deliver a relatively clean-cut quest amid its unforgettable psychedelic loop-de-loops. David made such quick work of his earthly enemies that the carnage had to be reviewed later, on security-camera footage, by his own allies. But the most stunning action happened in the shadow realm of the tortured protagonist’s head, where for a time all speech was snuffed out in an echo of Buffy’s famous “Hush” episode. And that was before a truly nightmarish confrontation confoundingly delivered the characters right back to where the show began.

Spencer Kornhaber


The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, “Thank You and Good Night

Amazon Prime Video

Amy Sherman-Palladino’s vigorous, blisteringly funny period comedy for Amazon followed two fascinating courses in its first season. The first was the dissolution of its title character’s marriage, with Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) seeing her upper-middle-class Manhattan life fall apart as her husband Joel (Michael Zegen) left her for his secretary. The other was Midge’s fledgling career as a stand-up comedian, where she used the stage to vent her rage and confusion at her lot in life. Set in 1958, Mrs. Maisel used the pioneering idea of a female stand-up as a way to explore the burgeoning women’s liberation movement and how it tied together with the idea of speaking out and being frank about sex, love, and family in ways that no one would have considered in the past. That came together in the show’s spectacular finale, where Joel finally saw his ex-wife perform and was simultaneously enraged by and impressed with her skill, fighting some hecklers outside her club to both defend her talent and work through his own shock at seeing the woman he left air her feelings so publicly.

David Sims


Master of None, “New York, I Love You

Netflix

Empathy is a word that, so deeply resonant as it is with this moment, threatens to be undone by its own utility: Creators and critics talk about it so often that the word—and the ethic behind it—can easily verge into the realm of cliche. But Master of None’s New York, I Love You” is an exploration of empathy that manages to feel singularly fresh and urgent: a fitting companion to the rightly celebrated installment “Thanksgiving.” “New York” eschews the show’s primary characters to focus on the lives of people who so often aren’t the focus of television’s gaze: Samuel (Enock Ntekereze), a cab driver; Eddie (Frank Harts), a doorman; and Maya (Treshelle Edmond), a bodega employee. (Maya’s story is the most striking of the three: She is deaf, and her moments of focus are given over to storytelling that is entirely visual, accompanied by stark silence—a striking way for a sitcom to inhabit, fully and simply, a character’s world.) It’s a narrative approach that threatens, at any moment, to become glibly Love Actually-esque in its execution; it never does, though. Instead, the episode manages to feel joyful and melancholic and, somehow, nostalgic. It’s a love letter not just to New York, but to the people who make a city—and, indeed, who make any place—what it is: all the familiar strangers, all the lives collided and diverged, all the possibilities embraced and foreclosed. All the people you have never met, and will never meet again.

Megan Garber


Rick and Morty, “Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender

Adult Swim

After a head-spinningly meta second season, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s animated cult favorite Rick and Morty returned this year, zeroing back in on its title characters and their relationship. But that didn’t mean the show wasn’t above a bit of hilarious meta-commentary about the entertainment world at large. “Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender” was a parody of every superhero franchise choking the airwaves, as the more happy-go-lucky Morty (a teenager) teamed up with a group of superheroes to save the universe. His mad-scientist grandfather Rick, disdainful of the apparent simplicity of the Vindicators’ heroic narrative, eventually does battle with them and reveals their more cynical underpinnings to Morty. It’s an episode that was simultaneously creative (every Vindicator was hilariously designed, including the aptly named “Million Ants”), wincingly funny, and heart-rending, since Rick’s hatred of these surface-level heroes was so obviously rooted in his own jealousy of them. In short, it was a Rick and Morty episode—a really good one.

David Sims


She’s Gotta Have It, “#LoveDontPayDaRent

Netflix

The first five minutes of “#LoveDontPayDaRent” had virtually no connection to the rest of this episode of She’s Gotta Have It, which saw Nola (DeWanda Wise) engage in a series of side hustles after being threatened with eviction. But the introduction stands apart as one of the best artistic articulations yet of the grief many Americans felt after the election of Donald Trump. Spike Lee intersperses the music video for Stew & The Negro Problem’s “Klown Wit Da Nuclear Code”—which he directed—with footage of characters reacting to Trump’s win, in a slow, emotive montage. Mars (Anthony Ramos) helps his sister with a cleansing ritual. Greer (Cleo Anthony) works out frantically on his elliptical. Jamie (Lyriq Bent) takes a silent walk with his wife and son. Nola’s friends smoke wordlessly on a bed, their faces numb. Raqueletta Moss (De’Adre Aziza) holds up the official portrait of Barack Obama, as if in protest. And Nola paints a portrait of the Obama family, their faces sheathed in smiles. As the song ends, the camera stays on an upside-down American flag, a potent symbol of how for each of the characters the world seems to have been upended overnight.

Sophie Gilbert


Star Trek: Discovery, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad

CBS

Like every single new Star Trek show, Discovery launched with the problem of trying to balance an established fanbase against an attempt to revitalize the franchise’s 50-year-old formula. The storytelling rigors of Gene Roddenberry’s original creation forbid so many classic narrative tropes, including conflict among the crew, and fans are still ready to raise hue and cry if they’re violated. Discovery, nonetheless, has charted a more exciting, serialized course, alienating some fans and delighting others with its freshness. The best episode of its first season so far has been “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” which was a delightful blend of old and new. It featured Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson), an updated version of a character from the original 1960s series, and a plot mechanism (the ship getting stuck in a time loop) that Star Trek has seen before. But it managed to feel fresh and fun without sacrificing the more analytical notes of Discovery’s forbears, setting a promising blueprint for the show’s future.

David Sims


Twin Peaks: The Return, “Part 8

Showtime

It’s not an exaggeration to say the eighth episode of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s revival of their ’90s cult series is like nothing that’s ever appeared on television. A 10-minute opener features the doppelganger of the original show’s Agent Dale Cooper getting executed, his guts scooped out by interdimensional demons, then coming back to life. There’s an abrasive musical interlude performed by Nine Inch Nails (who are introduced as The Nine Inch Nails). And that’s only 5 percent as jaw-dropping as what follows: a mostly black-and-white, dialogue-free nightmare journey into the center of an atomic mushroom cloud set to Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, and what amounts to a kind of origin story for evil itself. (Somehow it also has everything to do with the tale of Laura Palmer) A masterpiece of TV that smashes almost every convention of the medium, “Part 8” is a lot like The Return as a whole: disturbing, audacious, and bewildering, a piece of art you can’t believe exists but are grateful does.

Lenika Cruz


The Young Pope, “Fifth Episode

HBO

There was nothing subtle about The Young Pope using LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” to convey that Pope Pius XIII was sexy and he knew it as he tried on loafers. Nor was it subtle to have him defeat a traitorous underling while literally standing over said underling, bellowing “I am the young pope!” Same went for a suddenly blooming flower that signaled a barren worshipper had been miraculously impregnated. Yet every groan-and-grin moment in the The Young Pope’s fifth episode fit with Lenny Belardo’s belief that God works not in mysterious ways but in grand and freaky ones. His long-awaited address to the congregation of the cardinals was accordingly a masterwork of bombast, marked by fierce hardline rhetoric and fiercer glimmering vestments. Though Belardo ordered clergymen to fit themselves through a tiny doorway and kiss his red-slippered feet, thrillingly, The Young Pope never humbled itself in such a manner.

Spencer Kornhaber

Where BoJack Horseman Season 4 Shone Brightest
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

Many years in the future—at a time when much of Los Angeles is underwater and robots teach schoolchildren—a young cat named Ruthie is giving a class presentation about her ancestors. “My mom told me I come from a long line of strong female cats,” Ruthie explains proudly. “Princess Carolyn was the runt of 12 and it made her one of the toughest. Mom said she could take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’.” A flashback swims into view as Ruthie narrates the tale of a single day in 2017: When Princess Carolyn wakes up, she runs a successful talent agency, she has a loving boyfriend, she’s pregnant, and she’s happy. By the end of the day, none of that is the case.

“This story has gotten really dark,” Ruthie’s teacher interjects at one point in this episode of BoJack Horseman. “It has a happy ending, I promise!” Ruthie replies. The ending comes: Her life broken into a million pieces, Princess Carolyn tells her friend and former boyfriend BoJack over the phone about a trick she uses to get through a “really bad, awful, terrible day”:

I imagine my great-great-great-granddaughter in the future talking to her class about me. She’s poised and funny and tells people about me and how everything worked out in the end. And when I think about that, I think about how everything’s going to work out. Because how else could she tell people?

“But … it’s fake,” a stunned BoJack says. “Yeah, well,” Princess Carolyn answers with a sigh. “It makes me feel better.”

The reveal at the end of “Ruthie,” the ninth episode of BoJack Horseman’s fourth season, hits so hard because it’s one that viewers perhaps should have seen coming. After all, this is a show that has always held contentment and security just outside its characters’ reach. Yet the promise of a happy ending for Princess Carolyn, and the vividness of her fantasy, was too seductive to dismiss. The worse her day got (“You’re a real tough broad. Except for, you know, the uterus area,” the doctor says after informing her about her miscarriage), the more desperately she—and viewers—needed Ruthie to be real.

Princess Carolyn’s tragic tale is a fitting companion to the other standout BoJack episode from this year. The season’s penultimate chapter, “Time’s Arrow,” tells the harrowing life story of BoJack’s mother, Beatrice, as filtered through her dementia. In part because of the show’s brilliant animation and formal experimentation, these two episodes make for glorious TV, taking full advantage of the medium to make their studies of female interiority feel like epics. Both “Ruthie” and “Time’s Arrow” keenly understand the ways in which their protagonists’ struggles are shaped by their experiences as women, and they illustrate in heartrending fashion how hostile realities can force people to seek out the comfort of stories.

* * *

In its fourth season, BoJack Horseman took a notable inward turn, often rendering the psychological turmoil of its characters in strikingly visual fashion. Another excellent episode, “Stupid Piece of Sh*t,” enters the head of the show’s misanthropic star and exposes the depths of BoJack’s self-loathing: His inner voice berates him 24/7 for being stupid and worthless, as grim cartoons of his thoughts play out in his mind. (Later, BoJack’s putative teenage daughter Hollyhock tells him she hears a voice like that, too.) The episode “lovin that cali lifestyle!!” shows Hollyhock’s eating disorder–driven amphetamine overdose from her perspective—distorted voices, flickering lights, hazy colors—before she passes out.

But “Time’s Arrow” is, even by this measure, a formally ambitious feat. Where the narrative trick of “Ruthie” isn’t apparent until the end, “Time’s Arrow” throws viewers off balance a minute in. BoJack, a supporting player in these two episodes, is driving his elderly mother Beatrice to a nursing home. Though Beatrice has a long history of emotionally abusing her son, she’s now suffering from severe Alzheimer’s and keeps calling BoJack “Henrietta” for some reason.

Suddenly, she has a moment of lucidity. “Time’s arrow neither stands still nor reverses,” she proclaims from the passenger seat. “It merely marches forward. Isn’t that right, Henrietta?” The camera pans to BoJack, who’s no longer BoJack but a woman with her face scribbled out. “Yes, Mrs. Horseman,” Henrietta says, and the camera zooms out to show a much younger Beatrice. The background fades to white. Beatrice steps out of the car, now transformed into a small girl. Time’s arrow has, for a moment, reversed.

Netflix

What follows is a difficult-to-watch unspooling of Beatrice’s life—via memories that, because of her disease, melt and morph mid-scene. Characters’ faces are erased or violently scratched out. Words on signs rearrange themselves. The show doesn’t try to excuse Beatrice’s eventual abusiveness, but her painful past does offer context. Her father made his grieving wife get a lobotomy after their son was killed in World War II (silhouettes of Beatrice’s zombie-like mother haunt the episode). As a girl, Beatrice nearly died from scarlet fever. Her cheerily misogynistic father wouldn’t let her eat ice cream (to protect her figure), and would scold her for spending too much time with books. “Reading does nothing for young women but build their brains, taking valuable resources away from their breasts and hips,” he explains.

“Time’s Arrow” suggests that Beatrice, once upon a time, was a lover of stories and the temporary escape they provided. With books to help stave off some of the horrors of her childhood, Beatrice grows up to be smart, poised, and eager to expand her horizons. But after college, she has a one-night stand with an aspiring novelist named Butterscotch Horseman and becomes pregnant—after which he seduces her with a wild idea. “Did you ever hear the story of the couple who moved to California?” he says. They imagine moving west, getting married, having the kid, living happily ever after—another shining fiction for Beatrice to seek refuge in. “And isn’t that how the story goes?” Beatrice asks with a smile.

There’s a brief montage of happy snapshots documenting their attempts to live out this fantasy, which soon collapses. The couple’s marriage sours. Butterscotch’s writing career flounders. Motherhood is a nightmare—something Beatrice suspected all along. Soon enough, stories hold no magic for her; without that sanctuary, her memories again take on a more toxic sheen. “Time’s Arrow” shoots forward. In one scene, an older Beatrice says to her young son, “Mommy’s tired, BoJack. Tell me a story,” but then cuts him off, as if she knows exactly how the tale will end. Decades later, she mocks BoJack’s acting career.“I never understood the appeal. It’s just a bunch of silly stories,” she says of his sitcom. “Some people like silly stories,” he replies. Beatrice isn’t impressed: “Lotta good they ever did me.” To her, stories have now become lies; they’re no longer portals of possibility, but traps that will swallow you whole if you let them.

* * *

Where Beatrice sees herself as a victim of the foolish fiction she and Butterscotch authored together, Princess Carolyn views storytelling as an act of resilience and control. Since Season 1, her character has been defined by a stubborn refusal to accept defeat, and by her attempts to “have it all”: a fulfilling career, a good relationship, a family. By inventing Ruthie, Princess Carolyn seems to profess her faith in the idea that a happy and well-defined future can corset an unruly past into order.

Netflix

So much of Ruthie’s commentary on Princess Carolyn’s day initially sounds like typical romanticizing of one’s family tree; in retrospect, it also feels like self-mythologizing. (“She had a lot of former lovers; she was a fluid sexual being not a machine,” Ruthie says at one point.) Part of the episode focuses on Princess Carolyn’s beloved heirloom necklace. “She never sold that necklace, because that was the one gift she could give her daughter,” says Ruthie, who’s shown wearing the chain. “A treasure from the past and a symbol of the tenacity and stick-to-it-iveness that has for generations led my family to always land on their feet.” After the necklace breaks, Princess Carolyn finds out that it’s actually a piece of cheap costume jewelry. “Somebody just told you a story,” a store clerk says when Princess Carolyn insists the necklace has been in her family for decades.

With the loss of both her necklace and her baby, Princess Carolyn, in a sense, also lost her past and her future.“Time’s Arrow,” too, depicts Beatrice’s world closing in on her, only she’s suffocated by the very things Princess Carolyn longs for: a family inheritance, a partner, a child. As her memories decay, Beatrice’s past slips further away, and she holds only contempt for that piece of her that will continue on into the future: her son. Both women’s struggles, and the narrowing of their lives, stem from the fact that they bear the scars of existing in a world run by men.

Princess Carolyn has long suffered her industry’s sexism and BoJack’s selfishness, while Beatrice internalized her father’s intolerance for what he saw as female weakness. Both characters have been denied the joys of motherhood. When her gynecologist informs Princess Carolyn she lost the baby (her fifth failed pregnancy), he amplifies the very real sense of guilt women often have after a miscarriage: “Maybe you just wanted the baby too much. Maybe you didn’t deserve it because you were unkind once.” As for Beatrice, her mother’s lobotomy and a traumatic memory of her father burning her baby doll reinforced the idea that it’s a mistake to love a child too much. It’s a lesson Beatrice shares with Henrietta, the maid that Butterscotch later sleeps with and impregnates: “Don’t throw away your dreams for this child,” Beatrice says, of the baby who turns out to be Hollyhock, BoJack’s half-sister.

Netflix

As accounts of heartache, “Ruthie” and “Time’s Arrow” end with quietly moving arguments for storytelling, not as a means of connecting with others, but as a more personal shield against the darker tides of life. Near the end of her episode, Princess Carolyn agonizes over whether to share the news of her miscarriage with her boyfriend Ralph. “She wanted to tell him, but she also wanted to let him stay in his beautiful, hopeful reality,” Ruthie says. “A reality she herself had lived in just hours before, and to which she now longed desperately to return.” Overwhelmed, Princess Carolyn doesn’t return to the home she shares with Ralph, but to her old apartment. “She wanted to go some place familiar. Some place that was just hers,” Ruthie says, perhaps also alluding to the private comfort of Princess Carolyn’s futuristic dream.

Crucially, at the end of “Ruthie,” BoJack doesn’t, or perhaps can’t, show sympathy for Princess Carolyn’s thought experimentas if he had absorbed his mother’s disdain for “silly stories.” But two episodes later, in “Time’s Arrow,” it seems Princess Carolyn’s words, in the end, may have resonated with him. BoJack is ready to leave his mother at the nursing home once and for all. “Best of luck. See you never,” BoJack says by way of a goodbye. But then his mother remembers him. “BoJack?” she asks, looking around confusedly at the room. “What is this place? I don’t understand … where am I?” BoJack angrily starts to explain but something seems to stop him. And rather than tell the truth—that they’re in a dingy room with a view of an overflowing dumpster, the room she’ll probably die in—BoJack tells her a story.

“It’s a warm summer night and the fireflies are dancing in the sky. And your whole family is here. And they’re telling you that everything is going to be all right.” He tells her that they’re listening to her brother play the piano and enjoying vanilla ice cream, that dessert Beatrice has never eaten in her life. “Can you taste the ice cream, mom?” BoJack asks, finishing the tale he never got to tell her as a child, in an act of tenderness that’s all the more powerful for how little it has been earned. “Oh, BoJack, it’s so … ” Beatrice pauses, eyes closed, searching for the word, the flavor—

“Delicious.”

It's Really Hard to Know When a Zoo Animal Is Pregnant
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

Sex at the zoo is a highly managed affair.

When zookeepers do not want a species to reproduce, birth control is in order. “Chimps take human birth-control pills, giraffes are served hormones in their feed, and grizzly bears have slow-releasing hormones implanted in their forelegs,” writes The New York Times. When zookeepers do want a species to reproduce—especially an endangered or threatened one—the couplings must be carefully arranged. An animal might travel 1,500 miles to meet a partner.

But after all this meticulous planning, zookeepers can hit a wall of uncertainty: It’s sometimes quite hard to know whether a female is pregnant. In the case of pandas, their keepers might not be entirely certain until the baby pops out.

There are animals where it’s easier, sure. Great apes, for example, are related enough to humans that regular old pregnancy tests can work. The problem is getting individual apes to pee on a stick. To get around this, the St. Louis Zoo built special gutters where the great apes slept, which would route the urine outside. In the morning, someone would go out to collect the urine. “But the female has to be alone to do that,” says Cheryl Asa, a former director of reproductive research at the zoo. The system worked well for great-ape species like orangutans, which are more solitary, but not so well for chimps or gorillas, which prefer to sleep in groups and inevitably pee together.

Poop is easier to differentiate by individual. In some cases, says Asa, you can feed different animals food studded with beads of different colors. Or you can just watch as they go. Since mating animals are intensely surveilled anyway, staff members take note when females poop. “If they see a female defecate, they map it,” Asa says. A keeper later uses the map to retrieve the samples. The feces are tested for levels of the hormone progesterone, which rises with pregnancy.

Animals closely related to domestic pets also benefit from veterinary medicine. Wolf pregnancies, for example, can be tested using commercial dog pregnancy kits that detect a hormone called relaxin. The kits require a little bit of blood, which is easy enough to draw from dogs, and actually isn’t that difficult to get from wolves, either. “We all think of wolves as being really fierce, and they can be,” says Asa, “but most of the time when they’re cornered, they’ll just give up and you can hold them down and pull a leg free to get a quick blood sample.”

Some species, however, go through a strange phase called a pseudopregnancy, which looks just like a real pregnancy except there is no fetus. Pandas do this. After a mating, their progesterone levels may rise, and they may start acting like they’re about to give birth. “They build a nest. They get lethargic. They don’t really eat,” says Laurie Thompson, the assistant curator of giant pandas at Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

The only way to know for sure is to see a fetus on an ultrasound, which zookeepers can coax pandas into doing with honey water or fruit. But baby pandas are so tiny even at birth—only four ounces—that an unborn fetus is easy to miss. Worse, “sometimes the pandas don’t even want to participate and they’re just in their den,” says Thompson. The Smithsonian team has only successfully detected a panda pregnancy via an ultrasound once.

Smithsonian

Then there are cheetahs, another species difficult to breed in captivity. Like pandas, they go through pseudopregnancies. They aren’t terribly cooperative with ultrasounds or blood draws, either. They do, however, poop.

Recently, researchers at the Smithsonian found a protein in cheetah feces called immunoglobulin J chain that rises during a true pregnancy. “The great thing about feces is that it’s noninvasive,” says Adrienne Crosier, a cheetah biologist at Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and an author on the study. “We can get feces any day of the week from a cat. It’s very easy. Any facility can collect it.”

The study looks at 26 female cheetahs living in seven different zoos. Crosier also relied on the Smithsonian’s own archive of freeze-dried cheetah feces, which goes back 12 years. In fact, the zoo stores frozen feces, urine, blood, sperm, oocytes, embryos, ovarian tissue, uterine tissue, and testicular tissue for dozens of species. “We keep absolutely everything so we can use it for research,” says Crosier. “We don’t know what we may be interested in looking at or need to look at in five to 10 years.”

At the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, which famously has its own “frozen zoo,” there is talk of resurrecting species using tissue from long-dead animals. The zoo has sperm, for example, from northern white rhinos, of which only three remain on Earth. So even in death, reproduction can be a highly managed affair.

Photos of the Week: Giant Skulls, Leopards, a Space Capsule Landing
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

The Thomas Fire in southern California, leopards in India and New York, unrest in the West Bank and Argentina, an FCC vote on net neutrality in the U.S., Christmas in a Brazilian prison, an upset victory by Doug Jones in a U.S. Senate election in Alabama, and much more.

Oil Has Cursed Venezuela—But Could Also Save the Country
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

Editor’s Note: What follows is an adapted excerpt from a book co-written by Leopoldo López, a Venezuelan opposition leader, and Gustavo Baquero. López is one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners. His contributions to the book came through handwritten notes on scraps of paper that were delivered by family members to Baquero, an oil professional with extensive international experience. López is currently under house arrest, surrounded by armed guards and prohibited from receiving visitors or speaking publicly.

Most Venezuelans have a love-hate relationship with oil. I personally was never one of the haters—I was one of the lovers. When I was very young, I would go after school to my mother’s office at Meneven, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, where I was fascinated by the processes of production and refinement, as well as the economics of the industry.

When I was 16, I toured the massive oil fields of Zulia State, about a day’s drive from my hometown of Caracas. It was then that I realized that the country’s massive wealth potential was at odds with the widespread poverty that was all around me. I was too young to know anything about resource curses, the all-too-frequent phenomenon in which a country’s natural-resource wealth feeds economic distortions and inequality. But you didn’t have to be an academic to understand something was terribly wrong. I have never stopped thinking about the dichotomy in Venezuela between the wealth underground and the poverty on the surface.

Leopoldo López in Ramo Verde Prison in Venezuela (Courtesy of the López family).  

That was 30 years ago. Today the contrast is more severe. Venezuela has the world’s worst economy, even though it has the world’s largest oil reserves. The paradox is that, even though oil helped lead the country to its present devastation, the same resource is essential to getting it out.

Reconstructing Venezuela will be a massive and arduous task. The country is like an intensive-care patient that has depleted all muscle and organ function in a struggle to stay alive: We have no cash reserves, staggering amounts of debt, no industry to speak of (outside of oil), our shelves are empty, and the people are starving.

When I ask economists for historical parallels, they tell me none exist in modern times. Our current hyperinflation—expected by one estimate to reach 2,300 percent in 2018—has been matched by only a handful of countries in the past 100 years, including post-World War I Germany, and Zimbabwe in 2008.

But even among these examples, Venezuela stands alone. We have no real industry apart from oil, there are few businesses, and we import nearly everything, including—shockingly—oil itself: This year, Venezuela must import up to 30 percent of its oil needs from other countries, because of how badly our refining capability has deteriorated. It is now common to see long queues for gasoline, a development that was unimaginable just a few years ago.

Notes López took in Ramo Verde Prison for his upcoming book, Venezuela Energética (Courtesy of the López family).

And yet, oil is our lifeline to recovery. Venezuela today holds 20 percent of the world’s estimated oil reserves: more than those of Kuwait, Russia, Qatar, Mexico, and the United States combined. Venezuela also has around 200 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves—the largest reserves in Latin America and the 8th largest in the world. Petroleum generates the vast majority of our economic activity, accounting for 95 percent of our exports and half of GDP.

Why, with such riches in the ground, is Venezuela on the brink of collapse? In a word: mismanagement. A succession of governments fell into the classic resource-curse trap of allowing easy proceeds to create economic distortions, displace important industries, and feed whip-sawing boom-bust cycles that destabilized the country.

More insidiously, our way of managing oil proceeds has encouraged an unhealthy rent-seeking relationship between the people and the state. The state maintained a monopoly on distributing the benefits of oil, feeding a relationship of dependency among citizens and private interests, who over time became accustomed to thinking of oil wealth as something the government provides, rather than as something they own.   

This provided fertile ground for the emergence of the populist demagogue Hugo Chavez, who—taking advantage of a massive spike in oil prices beginning in 2002—used the windfall to extend the people’s dependence to unprecedented levels. The oil boom allowed the regime to buy votes and goodwill even as it seized, undermined, and dismantled competing facets of the economy.

By the time the windfall ended, independent institutions and businesses had been so weakened that, perversely, people became yet more dependent on the government, which could no longer afford to provide for them. The population was reduced to relying on the small favors the government could grant, translating to political dominance and oppression. And the further collapse of the economy under Chávez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, has been strategically useful to his regime. An entire population is now in subsistence mode. It is hard to protest when it takes half a day’s search to track down basic staples.

It will fall to a future government to repair not only the industry itself, but also the broken politics and the cycle of dependency it has produced.

It starts with increasing production. Despite holding 20 percent of world’s oil reserves, we account for less than 2 percent of the world’s oil production. Gross mismanagement, rampant corruption, failure to maintain the infrastructure, and the persecution and exodus of vital expertise have crippled the Venezuelan oil industry. Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state-owned oil company, currently produces less than 2 million barrels per day—far below its potential and nearly 50 percent below a high of 3.7 million barrels per day in 1970.

López in his cell at Ramo Verde Prison (Courtesy of the López family).

Fixing this is not something we can afford without outside investments. But who would provide it, now that we are viewed as one of the most unreliable partners in the world? The only way to make the Venezuelan oil industry “investible” again is to reform PDVSA to be more efficient and profitable, and to prove the trustworthiness of our institutions by creating strong oversight. It’s feasible that doing so could more than double production in a little over a decade.   

That’s the easier part. More important is to reverse the people’s dependency by managing the oil proceeds in a radically different fashion. For many Venezuelans, oil is a curse. To most, it is a mystery that has been left to a small subset of elites to manage. The Venezuelan people deserve to have a say in the management of this resource.

It starts by creating a clear link between the financing of the state and the oversight and consent of the citizen. Currently, the state gets most of its funds from the oil industry and then distributes it to the citizens. But the reverse should be happening: The money should go to the citizens first, and then be distributed to the state. In this system, all royalties from Venezuelan oil sales would be divided equally among personal accounts for every Venezuelan. Monthly statements and a detailed website would help citizens track total assets, along with key information about the management and performance of oil production. Like dedicated fans tracking their favorite teams, Venezuelans would become newly invested in the management of their resource; thinking like owners, instead of beneficiaries.

These accounts could be used to pay for health care, housing, education, or other long-term needs. At retirement age, citizens would receive a pension based on the assets in the fund. To promote transparency and independence from the government, the fund’s assets could be managed by an independent board, with tight rules governing their qualifications and independence.   

Whereas today the Venezuelan government funds itself directly from the proceeds of PDVSA, under this scheme it would be funded directly by the people through a 50 percent tax on the assets in the individual funds. This would reverse the current dynamic, making the government the beneficiary of the people.   

Our models show that if such a fund had been in place since 1998, with the right management in place, each Venezuelan would have an account worth as much as $26,000 in U.S. dollars—many times the annual income of most Venezuelans, for whom the current minimum wage is less than $10 per month.

The money is one benefit, but the mindset is more important. Our goal must be nothing less than a fundamental transformation of the relationship between the people and the government.

Oil is not sufficient to build a healthy economy or power a vibrant society. Ideally over time, oil and gas would have a smaller footprint in a much more diverse Venezuelan economy.

Norway is a great example of how this can be done. Today, Norway’s companies in shipping, engineering, drilling, services and technology, and dozens of other sectors—all initially nurtured by the petroleum sector—form the foundation for economic expansion across a range of rising industries, including fish-farming, bio-refining, logging, and mining. Expertise related to the oil and gas industry—not just the oil and gas itself—is now a major Norwegian export.

This is one set of ideas, and of course the only way to know whether the Venezuelan people favor them is to let them vote, in a free and fair referendum that truly empowers the people as directors of their future. But Venezuela is racing against time. Fears of “peak oil” have been replaced by the threat of “peak demand.” The danger is not that Venezuela’s resources will run out; it’s that our energy wealth will stay in the ground, untapped and unrealized—while people starve and the country disintegrates.   

A thriving oil sector does not have to be a trap or a curse for Venezuela’s economy.

And the very thing that helped a succession of governments drive a country into the ground, handled the right way might just save it.


This article has been adapted from Leopoldo López and Gustavo Baquero’s forthcoming book, Venezuela Energética.

Everybody Should Be Very Afraid of the Disney Death Star
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

Disney announced on Thursday that it would acquire most of the entertainment assets of 21st Century Fox for about $60 billion in stock and debt, in what would be the largest-ever merger of two showbiz companies. Already the most storied entertainment empire in the U.S., Disney would become a global colossus through this deal, gaining large stakes in the biggest entertainment companies in both Europe and India. The deal will almost certainly receive regulatory scrutiny, as the Justice Department has been lately dubious of mega media mergers.

The yuletide haul includes some of the most famous properties in television and film. In the transfer of power, Disney would receive the 20th Century Fox film studio, including the independent film maestros at Fox Searchlight (Best Picture Oscar–winners include: Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years a Slave, and Birdman), the X-Men franchise, Fox’s television production company (worldwide hits include: The Simpsons, Modern Family, and Homeland), the FX and National Geographic cable channels, and regional sports networks, including the YES Network that broadcasts New York Yankees games. Disney also acquires a majority stake in the TV product Hulu, which it may use to kickstart its entry into the streaming wars.

These additions would enrich an overflowing treasury at Disney, whose assets includes Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, ABC, ESPN, the world’s most popular amusement parks, and, of course, its classic animated-film division. When Mufasa tells Simba in The Lion King that “everything the light touches is our kingdom,” it isn’t just memorable screenwriting. It is corporate guidance.

The deal allows Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire patriarch behind 21st Century Fox, to consolidate his own kingdom—and his legacy—around the very place where he got his start: news. Murdoch, who built his $100 billion business starting with a single newspaper in Australia, would retain ownership of the Fox broadcast network, the Fox News Channel, and several national sports networks. Like an aging King Lear dividing the spoils in his twilight years, one of the world’s most famous media moguls is selling off his accumulated fortunes.

At the deepest level, this corporate marriage isn’t about Mickey versus Murdoch, or Avengers versus X-Men. It’s all about Netflix—and, to a subtler extent, Google and Facebook, whose dark shadows extend over the entire media landscape.

Streaming video has conquered pay TV and created a generation of cord-cutters; the youngest Millennials (those in their late teens and early 20s) watch 50 percent less traditional television (“cable TV,” as it’s commonly called) than people that age did in 2010. That means every content company now has to be a streaming technology company. As eyeballs shift away from the cable bundle, advertising is following them to mobile devices, where Google and Facebook have built an impregnable duopoly. That means every ad-supported television business has to become a direct-to-consumer business.

For media and entertainment companies, there is one big existential question: Get big and stream, or give up and sell? That is a choice that motivates both this deal and AT&T’s troubled bid for Time Warner. By making huge acquisition offers, AT&T and Disney have chosen Door No. 1. Disney’s future hinges on whether it can build a streaming powerhouse, or “Disneyflix”—a direct-to-consumer television product that, like Netflix, distributes a library of video over the internet to phones, tablets, and TVs. The company plans to launch an internet sports product in 2018 and—most importantly—a filmed entertainment product in 2019. To truly compete with Netflix, Disney’s 2019 service will need both a deep library for viewers ages 1 and higher (some viewers just want old shows and movies) and an excellent television production company (some viewers prefer new stuff). With this deal, it would have arguably the world’s best in both categories.

By agreeing to acquisition offers, Time Warner and 21st Century Fox have chosen Door No. 2. The latter group has seen a vision of their future—permanently falling live-TV ratings, more cinematic flops, quarterly job-cut announcements—and rather than wake up every morning in a hot sweat for the next 10 years, they’d prefer to sell high as fast as possible. Time Warner wants out of the movie business. 21st Century Fox wants out of the regional-sports-network business. It makes sense to sell to skittish behemoths that are both desperate and flush.

If one graph could possibly explain this entire deal, this one does. It shows change in traditional-television viewing time in the last eight years.


Change in Time Spent Watching Traditional TV by Age Group

Matthew Ball

The upshot is pretty simple: Traditional television is a pure gerontocracy. The only age demo watching more TV than in 2010 are eligible for Medicare. By clutching Fox News (average viewer age: nearly 70) and other traditional TV channels, Murdoch is holding fast to the appropriately gray line. Disney is paying $60 billion to build a business that reaches everybody else—every youthful, colorful, nose-diving line segment in the chart. You could say Disney is spending $60 billion for a risky makeover to appeal to a younger demographic, while Murdoch is using the money to install a golden stair lift.

The Justice Department faces its own existential question: Namely, should this merger exist in the first place? The government has sued to block the AT&T deal on the basis that the combination of large distribution and content companies could be anticompetitive. But Disney’s long-term strategy is, like Netflix, to own the means of distributing its content. What’s more, this deal is a “horizontal” merger—i.e., between competitors in the same industry—which has historically attracted more negative attention from government regulators. If the Justice Department permits the Disney merger without a peep, it will feed speculation about why the government is blocking the acquisition of the president’s most-hated television channel.

With this deal, Disney would control as much as 40 percent of the the U.S. movie business (Disney and Fox films earned that share of U.S. box office revenue in 2016) and 40 percent of the U.S. television business (the new Disney would earn 44 percent of U.S. affiliate fees among major networks), according to data from MoffettNathanson, a media-research company. Its control of the sports-television landscape, between the regional sports networks and ESPN, might be even more concentrated, giving Disney’s more leverage to demand higher fees from cable and telco companies in exchange for distributing its content.

If that sounds a little scary for television distributors, or television viewers, then good. Everybody should fear the Disney Death Star. Hollywood studios should be afraid to compete with a corporate Goliath that could earn half of all domestic box-office revenue in a good year. Every tech company should be afraid to get into a content war with a company that combines the top blockbuster movie studio, with a top prestige-film company, with a world-class television production company, with the most valuable franchises—Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, and X-Men—in the world. And consumers should fear too; not just those who are afraid that Disney will water down artsy filmmaking (like Fox Searchlight’s Grand Budapest Hotel) and R-rated superhero films (like X-Men’s Deadpool), but also those who are afraid that too much control of any industry confers monopoly power that restricts choices, raises prices, and hurts workers.

But here’s the truly weird part: Disney should also be afraid of its own Death Star. (After all, the thing keeps getting blown up.) In the last fiscal year ending in October, Disney’s made $55 billion in revenue, with about 60 percent coming from television and film (the rest came from parks, resorts, and merchandise). That 60 percent is endangered: Box-office ticket sales have been flat or declining for years, and television is in obvious structural decline. In many ways, the entire company’s future hinges on its ability to funnel its expansive universe of entertainment into a single direct-to-consumer stream that takes on Netflix, which already has more than 100 million subscribers worldwide. These sort of corporate transformations are treacherous, even when they are necessary.

The future of media is going to a very long, very expensive great-powers war. There’s no question that, as of 2017, the streaming rebels are winning. With this deal, the empire just struck back.

A Week Around the World With The Atlantic
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

What We’re Writing

The United States and Russia: In her new magazine cover story, Julia Ioffe posited a simple thesis about Vladimir Putin: that he is not the manipulative mastermind America thinks he is. In a video, Julia explains how Russia hacked the U.S. presidential election—and why it will happen again. Russian cyber warfare will only get better; the question is how willing Americans are to defend themselves against Russian attacks on their democracy. Julia also joined our podcast, Radio Atlantic, to discuss her cover story and the recent announcement that Putin will run for reelection as president of Russia. Meanwhile, policymakers ranked the possibility of a conflict between Russia and another NATO country as a high-priority threat and one of the global conflicts to watch in 2018.

Trump’s Unpredictability: An administration staffer’s preview of the Trump National Security Strategy (NSS) offered a glimpse into a national-security vision that is divorced from the reality of the president’s first year in office, writes Kate Brannen. National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster also provided an advance overview of the plan this week, outlining a vision of American foreign policy devoid of the traditional emphasis on values, according to David Frum. And Krishnadev Calamur writes that Trump’s criticism of the media has, through his Twitter feed, encouraged dictators and authoritarian leaders around the world to lambast the press.


Snapshot

(Rami Niemi)

Japan’s demographic crisis is forcing the country to adapt to its aging population. Amid this elder boom, a new multi-billion-dollar industry has emerged to cater to this segment of the population. It is known as “the silver market.” Read about it here.


Quoted

“Christian communities are receiving financial assistance from the global faithful and therefore able to rebuild their houses of worship and their communities faster and more opulently than their Muslim neighbors. It is breeding resentment,” writes Kori Schake. Read why she thinks the Trump administration is wrong to favor Middle Eastern Christians over Muslims here.

“You can forge anything these days. We are living in a fake-news era,” said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, one of several leaders around the world who have taken a page from the Trump playbook in criticizing the media. Read about the others here.


Our Long Read of the Week

Uri Friedman interviewed Senator Lindsey Graham this week about his views on the crisis with North Korea, the Iran nuclear deal, and how he thinks the Trump administration will respond to the nuclearization of the Korean peninsula. The senator put the chances of Trump ordering a military operation against North Korea at 30 percent. Read why here.

The South Carolina Republican—a brutal critic of Trump’s during the 2016 presidential campaign who has since become an unlikely ally on issues like countering North Korea and plugging holes in the Iran nuclear deal—expressed greater certainty about a related matter. Graham says Trump “has 100 percent made up his mind that he’s not gonna let Kim Jong Un break out,” which Graham defined as achieving the capacity to “marry up a missile and a nuclear warhead that can hit America effectively.”

Many experts think North Korea has essentially reached this milestone already through its increasingly sophisticated nuclear and missile tests, while others argue that the North is still months or years away from that goal. But Graham bypassed these technical debates to focus on a central tension in the Trump administration’s approach to the issue: The Kim regime is sprinting toward breakout, while the Trump administration’s diplomatic campaign to persuade China and other countries to impose stiffer sanctions and other forms of pressure on North Korea is moving forward, but slowly. It’s a race. And there’s currently a clear frontrunner.


What We’re Reading

Radio Nowhere, by Amandas Ong, is the story of a Syrian radio station and how it conducts its civic activism from Istanbul, Turkey, spreading information about the Syrian civil war. (Via Roads & Kingdoms)

The Secret History of the Russian Consulate in San Francisco, by Zach Dorfman, explores the storied past of a recently-closed consulate, which ran a sophisticated network of espionage in an unlikely location. (Via Foreign Policy Magazine)

Inside China’s Vast New Experiment in Social Ranking, by Mara Hvistendahl, explores the privacy implications of the Chinese online payment platform Alipay and the three-digit credit score it assigns its users—a measure of social ranking that has immense implications for the way we conduct our financial transactions and our lives. (Via Backchannel)

Everything You Never Thought to Ask About Astronaut Food
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

Days before his return to Earth in 2008, NASA astronaut Daniel Tani told reporters he couldn’t wait to do something very ordinary after spending four months in space.

“I’m looking forward to putting food on a plate and eating several things at once, which you can’t do up here,” Tani said.

Plates are pretty useless on the International Space Station, where food—along with everything else—floats. Mealtime in microgravity usually consists of thermo-stabilized or freeze-dried entrees and snacks in disposable packages and pouches. Astronauts heat them up in an oven or add water before chowing down with a fork straight out of the package. The space station doesn’t have refrigerators or freezers to keep food fresh, so there’s no such thing as leftovers.

Despite the almost alien process of eating, astronauts consume many of the foods they would find back home: scrambled eggs, spaghetti, chicken teriyaki, broccoli au gratin, oatmeal with raisins. During the holidays, they have turkey, candied yams, cornbread dressing, and other seasonal foods. The current menu includes about 200 foods and beverages. Some items can be eaten in their natural form, like nuts and cookies. But most of the food has to be prepared in a laboratory and carefully tested over and over, to ensure it’s fit for consumption but can also last for two years before opening. Some of the prep veers into Food Network territory: The lab gets volunteers to judge food items on appearance, color, flavor, texture, and aroma.

The process of developing a microgravity-friendly food item can take months or years, says Vickie Kloeris, the food scientist who runs the ISS food-systems lab. I spoke with Kloeris about eating in space, how to pack food for a mission to Mars, and the myth of astronaut ice cream. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Marina Koren: So you got to Johnson Space Center as a food scientist in 1985. What was the state of astronaut food back then?

Vickie Kloeris: It really wasn’t all that different than it is now. Everything was shelf-stable, just like it is now. We had thermo-stabilized, freeze-dried, natural-form food, irradiated food, powdered beverages—just like we do now. But we didn’t have nearly as much variety during the Space Shuttle program because the missions were short, so we really didn’t need a whole lot of variety. When I came to work here, we were flying entrees from the MREs from the military. We don’t do that anymore because the MRE entrees are way too high in salt and fat for what we want for our long-duration crew members. The military has good reasons to have that salt and fat in there, but they are negatives for our crew members.

Koren: How do you transform a a terrestrial recipe into something that’s fit for consumption in microgravity?

Kloeris: Many terrestrial recipes, especially entrees, are not shelf-stable. The end product requires refrigeration. We don’t have a dedicated refrigerator or freezer for food on the space station, so everything that we send to orbit has to be shelf-stable. So we convert standard recipes into shelf-stable foods through freeze-drying and thermo-stabilization. Thermo-stabilization is basically canning—except we don’t do it in cans, we do it in pouches. Pouches are much lighter in weight and more efficient to stow. The tricky thing is, you can’t just take a traditional recipe and thermo-stabilize it or freeze-dry it and have it work. If only it were that simple. When we go to create a new item, it often takes multiple attempts, multiple adjustments, to end up with something that actually works.

Koren: Does microgravity affect the taste buds? Does food taste the same on the space station?

Kloeris: That depends on who you talk to. There is no scientific evidence that microgravity alters the taste of food. There is anecdotal evidence from crew members that they feel like their taste buds are somewhat dulled in orbit. Other crew members say it’s all in their head and there is no difference. But they are probably getting less aroma from the food when they eat in orbit than when they consume those same items on the ground. They’re eating out of packages rather than off a plate, so that can hinder the amount of aroma they’re getting. Plus, when you heat food on the ground, a lot of the heat rises and the aroma goes with it. When you heat stuff in microgravity, the heat can dissipate in different directions, so that has the potential to spread out the odor and have it be less intense. So that could be it. Just like when you and I are congested down here and we’re not getting as much aroma—the food’s not going to taste exactly the same.

Koren: Which foods are the most difficult to prepare for space?

Kloeris: Anything that creates a lot of crumbs. Crumbs are very difficult to deal with in microgravity because they’re just messy. When they get loose, they can make it into the air filtration system. You have to find a way to clean them up, and that usually involves a vacuum cleaner. Anything that requires refrigeration to remain microbiologically stable is going to be impossible to send up there. We occasionally get to send ice cream because they’ll have a freezer for medical samples that’s empty on the uphill trip. When that happens, we can send some frozen ice-cream treats and they have to eat those pretty much as soon as the vehicle docks, because they’re going to have to fill up that freezer with medical samples.

Koren: Have you tried to develop a microgravity-friendly recipe that just didn’t work?

Kloeris: We’ve had it happen more than once. We tried a thermo-stabilized cheesecake and we were never, never happy with the results. So we gave up on that.

Koren: How about carbonated drinks like soda? Can astronauts drink that?

Kloeris: Not unless they’re packaged under pressure, like in a whipped-cream can. In microgravity, the carbonation will not remain with the beverage. It will separate. Coke and Pepsi flew in pressure vessels back in the ’80s on one flight, and at that time, they didn’t have a way to chill it. So it was like, okay, we had hot Coke and hot Pepsi, so what? You’re probably not going to want a lot of carbonation in your diet when you’re in microgravity anyway, because when you burp down here, it’s dry burp. When you burp in microgravity, it’s probably not going to be a dry burp.

Koren: What ... what kind of burp would it be?

Kloeris: Wet. You’re gonna have food coming with it. When you burp, you’re burping through that sphincter at the top of your stomach. That is not a full closure. So in microgravity, when you eat, the food floats high in your stomach. Burping in microgravity is probably not something you want to do a lot of.

Koren: Have you been thinking about what kind of meals NASA would need to prepare for longer missions, like a trip to Mars or into deep space?

Kloeris: The research team in our lab is trying to figure that out right now. For Mars, the food that they eat on the return trip will be somewhere between five and seven years old, so that is a huge challenge. We can actually make food that is microbiologically safe to eat for that period of time. But there’s very few foods in our current food system that would maintain sufficient quality after that long. Even though we can stop microbial changes in these products by preserving them, we can’t stop the chemical changes. The color, texture, and flavor are going to change, and the nutritional content is going to degrade. We’re looking into which items are most susceptible to degradation. A particular nutrient will be more stable in one food than in another. For instance, vitamin C is not very stable in thermo-stabilized products, but it’s very stable in powdered beverages.

Koren: What recipes are you working on right now?

Kloeris: We aren’t developing any new foods right at this moment. We have some new products that have been developed over the last couple of years that we’re just now introducing into the food supply to see how the acceptability goes. We have a new freeze-dried roasted-brussels-sprouts dish, a couple of thermo-stabilized fish casseroles—to try to get some more omega-3s into the food system—a freeze-dried fruit salad.

Koren: I’m sure people have asked you this a million times, but how did that chalky, Neapolitan astronaut ice cream become a thing?

Kloeris: During [the Apollo program], one of the crew members did request ice cream, but what they flew doesn’t look like anything that they sell at the museums or the visitor centers. I think that just took off because it was something the kids liked and a commercial company made it. What actually flew during Apollo was a synthetic cube that was dairy-based. That’s about as close to ice cream as they got.

Koren: Does your job change the way you look at preparing food at home?

Kloeris: My family thinks I overreact sometimes because I worry about food safety. I’m not one to leave the turkey sitting out on the table for hours after dinner.

Trump's Formidable Judicial-Appointment Machine Starts to Sputter
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

For a presidency beset by problems of policy and politics at home and abroad, judicial appointments have been a rare bright spot for the Donald Trump administration. Any list of the White House’s biggest achievements begins (and arguably ends) with his successful appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, a placement that will likely reshape jurisprudence for decades, and below that come a huge number of appointments to lifetime seats on lower courts.

This week, even that began to look a little shaky. Two picks for district courts withdrew their nominations after Senator Chuck Grassley, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, publicly told the White House to reconsider their nominations, while a third was humiliated by a Republican senator during committee hearings.

On Tuesday, Grassley said he felt the administration should rethink the appointments of Brett Talley and Jeff Mateer. Talley had received the greater share of the attention: He had never tried a case (the fundamental task of district-court judges), received a rare “not qualified” rating from the American Bar Association, and has a passion for ghost-hunting. In 2011, he’d defended the KKK in a comment online. He also failed to disclose as required that his wife works for the White House counsel, who is deeply involved in choosing judicial nominees. Grassley’s call for reconsideration was all the more curious because when he made it, the Judiciary Committee had already sent Talley’s nomination to the full Senate, on a party-line vote. On Wednesday, Talley decided to withdraw.

Mateer had a history of anti-LGBT comments, including speeches in which he said same-sex marriage would lead to bestiality and called transgender children evidence of “Satan’s plan.” His decision not to disclose the speeches drew criticism from Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Mateer’s home state of Texas. Mateer had not yet received a committee vote, and the White House yanked his nomination too.

Then, on Thursday, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, shared a clip from a Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday. In the video, which went viral, Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, dismantled Matthew Petersen, another district-court nominee. In his first year in Washington, Kennedy has established himself as one of the best and quirkiest questioners in the Senate, displaying an unassuming “country lawyer” approach that bears more in common with Sam Ervin than Kennedy’s contemporary namesake.

In the clip, Kennedy questions Petersen on his experience. He has not tried a case in any court. He has never taken a deposition on his own, though he said he’d participated in about five as an entry-level lawyer. He has never argued a motion in state or federal court. He did not claim much literacy in the federal rules of criminal and civil procedure, which would govern the cases he’d hear as a judge. He expressed unfamiliarity with fairly common legal standards for admission of evidence and procedures for handling testimony. The cumulative effect is devastating—no wonder Whitehouse was eager to share questioning by his Republican colleague.

How could the Trump team’s brightest spot suddenly dim? One reason the president has been so successful with judicial nominees so far is that he scarcely has had to rely on his own partially staffed, often-inexperienced, and bumbling staff to get the task done. In effect, the administration has farmed the selection of nominees out to the Federalist Society, the conservative legal group, which has carefully groomed and selected candidates for the bench. So far, that has worked well for Trump. The president has not expressed a coherent legal ideology, but he has long recognized judgeships as a key issue for conservatives and sought to use it to forge an alliance.

Now that seems to be hitting turbulence. In part, the president may be a victim of his own success. In short, the bench for the bench is getting thin. This week, the Trump administration set a record for number of circuit-court confirmations in a president’s first year, and Trump has likely set a record for district-court confirmations as well. Given the pace, the White House may simply be struggling to vet nominees quickly enough to keep up.

What happens when a White House gets rushed or lazy? It starts picking political hacks, or people with more political connections than experience. Hence Talley, who doesn’t have any court experience, but whose wife is a lawyer in White House Counsel Don McGahn’s office. (He was deputy solicitor general of the state of Alabama and is a deputy assistant attorney general in the Trump administration.) Or Mateer, an apparent political zealot. Or Petersen, who as chairman of the Federal Election Commission and a former Republican staffer in Congress is a faithful GOP foot soldier but seems to have little in the way of preparation for the job for which he was nominated. It’s reminiscent of Harriet Miers, the George W. Bush lawyer who was improbably nominated for the Supreme Court and promptly forced to withdraw.

Trump’s record-setting pace of judicial appointments remains his biggest accomplishment, and an essential tool for keeping Republicans who might otherwise abandon him on the team. But the bumbling that the Talley, Mateer, and Petersen cases evince threatens to stall the pace of confirmations—and to raise objections among Republican senators like Grassley and Kennedy, who’d rather send nominees to the showers than the bench.

The Growing Partisan Divide Over Feminism
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

Amidst the exhilaration of Roy Moore’s defeat, and the broader cultural revolution sparked by women’s willingness to expose the sexual misdeeds of powerful men, it’s worth remembering this: Ninety percent of Republican women in Alabama, according to exit polls, cast their ballots for a man credibly accused of pedophilia. That’s a mere two points less than Republican men. By contrast, Democratic men voted for Moore’s opponent, Doug Jones, at the same rate as Democratic women: 98 percent. In early December, The Washington Post and the Schar School at George Mason University asked Alabamians whether they believed the allegations against Moore.

At my request, researchers from the Schar School broke down the answers by party and gender. The results: Party mattered far more. Republican women in Alabama were only four points more likely than Republican men to believe Moore’s accusers. In fact, Republican women were 40 points less likely to believe Moore’s accusers than were Democratic men. All of which points to a truth insufficiently appreciated in this moment of sexual and political upheaval: It’s not gender that increasingly divides the two parties. It is feminism.

This September, Leonie Huddy and Johanna Willmann of Stony Brook University presented a paper at the American Political Science Association. (The paper is not yet published, but Huddy sent me a copy.) In it, they charted the effects of feminism on partisanship over time. Holding other factors constant, they found that between 2004 and 2016, support for feminism—belief in the existence of “societal discrimination against women, and the need for greater female political power”—grew increasingly correlated with support for the Democratic Party. The correlation rose earlier among feminist women, but by 2016, it had also risen among feminist men. A key factor, the authors speculated, was Hillary Clinton. A liberal woman’s emergence as a serious presidential contender in 2008, and then as her party’s nominee eight years later, drove feminists of both genders toward the Democratic Party and anti-feminists of both genders toward the GOP.

In other words, Clinton, along with Donald Trump, has done for gender what Barack Obama did for race. Obama’s election, UCLA political scientist Michael Tesler has argued, pushed whites who exhibited more racial resentment into the Republican Party and whites who exhibited less into the Democratic Party. Something similar is now happening around gender. But what’s driving the polarization is less gender identity—do you identify as a man or a woman—than gender attitudes: Do you believe that women and men should be more equal. Democrats aren’t becoming the party of women. They’re becoming the party of feminists.

Amidst the current crescendo of sexual-harassment allegations, this is easy to miss. That’s because, in actual cases of sexual harassment, gender identity is obviously crucial. Overwhelmingly, the harassers are men and the victims are women. Gender attitudes—political beliefs about women’s place in society at large—often matter less. Men who support a feminist political agenda, like Clinton supporter Harvey Weinstein, still assault women. Women who oppose a feminist agenda still get assaulted.

But when it comes to the political reaction to sexual harassment, gender identity matters less and gender attitudes matter more. “A sizable minority of American women,” note Huddy and Willmann, “do not believe in the existence of gender discrimination, think that women who charge men with gender discrimination are trouble makers, and are inclined to side with a man accused of discriminatory behavior.” And Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy seems to have made these women more staunchly Republican.

Which helps explain why female Republicans express far less support for feminism than even male Democrats. Earlier this month, the research firm PerryUndem found that Democratic men were 25 points more likely than Republican women to say sexism remains a “big” or “somewhat” big problem. According to October polling data sorted for me by the Pew Research Center, Democratic men were 31 points more likely than Republican women to say the “country has not gone far enough on women’s rights.” In both surveys, the gender gap within parties was small: Republican women and Republican men answered roughly the same way as did Democratic women and Democratic men. But the gap between parties—between both Democratic men and women and Republican men and women—was large.

Since Trump’s election and the recent wave of sexual-harassment allegations, this partisan divide appears to have grown. In January, when PerryUndem asked whether “most women interpret innocent remarks as being sexist,” Republican women were 11 points more likely than Democratic men to say yes. When PerryUndem asked the question again this month, the gap had more than doubled to 23 points. A year ago, Democratic men were 30 points more likely than Republican women to strongly agree that “the country would be better off if we had more women in political office.” The gap is now 45 points.

Over the decades, a similar divergence has occurred in Congress. Syracuse University’s Danielle Thompson notes that, in the 1980s, “little difference existed between Republican and Democratic women [members of Congress] in their advocacy of women’s rights.” In the 1990s, Republican women members were still noticeably more moderate than their male GOP colleagues. That created a significant degree of ideological affinity between women politicians across the aisle. Now it’s gone. There are many more Democratic than Republican women in Congress. But, Thompson’s research shows, the Republican women are today just as conservative as their male GOP colleagues.

Why does this matter? First, it clarifies why Democrats forced Al Franken to vacate his Senate seat but Republicans didn’t force Roy Moore from his Senate race. Republicans of both genders are simply far more likely than Democrats of both genders to believe that women cry sexism in response to “innocent remarks or acts” and that America has “gone far enough on women’s rights.” It’s not surprising, therefore, that Democratic women senators took the lead in demanding that Franken go while Republican women senators reacted to Moore pretty much like their male colleagues.

Secondly, this partisan divergence hints at the nature of the backlash that the current sexual-harassment reckoning will spark: Anti-feminist women will help to lead it. In part, that’s because anti-feminist women can’t be labelled sexist as easily as anti-feminist men. But it’s also because, given their conservative attitudes, many Republican women likely find the current disruption of gender relations unnerving.

Feminist theorists have long sought to explain this. In a recent essay, Marcie Bianco of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University cited Simone de Beauvoir’s argument that women are more likely than other oppressed groups to defend the hierarchies that subjugate them. Women, de Beauvoir wrote, have “no religion of their own; and they have no such solidarity of work and interest as that of the proletariat. … They live dispersed among the males, attached through residence, housework, economic condition, and social standing to certain men—fathers or husbands—more firmly than they are to other women.” In her 1983 book, Right-Wing Women, Andrea Dworkin argued that female anti-feminism was an understandable, if tragic, strategy of self-protection. “A woman,” she wrote, “acquiesces to male authority in order to gain some protection from male violence. She conforms in order to be as safe as she can be.”

Anti-feminists, needless to say, explain their views differently. “It’s difficult for me to call myself a feminist in the classic sense because it seems to be very anti-male and it certainly is very pro-abortion,” declared Kellyanne Conway in February. “I look at myself as a product of my choices, not a victim of my circumstances.” Conway’s point about abortion may be particularly significant in explaining female anti-feminism. According to a July Pew study, 38 percent of American women believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, only four points lower than American men.

All of which underscores a key difference between the current upheaval over gender and the ongoing upheaval over race. Many more women than African Americans are invested in maintaining an unequal status quo. In the growing partisan polarization over women’s rights, women will likely play prominent roles on both sides. The last great era of feminist activism helped to produce not only Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, but also Phyllis Schlafly. And the #metoo movement will probably produce Schlafly’s of its own.

How Oriana Fallaci's Writings on Islamism Are Remembered—and Reviled
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

The Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci was born in 1929, before the outbreak of World War II, and died in 2006, after 9/11. These two horrifying events shaped her writing and worldview. Traveling the world, she covered some of its worst conflicts as a war reporter, with a tone fans would call incisive and critics would call caustic. In the process, she developed a deep fear of Islam’s influence in Europe.

She is most remembered—and often reviled—for the views informed by this fear. Fallaci believed that the Western world was in danger of being engulfed by radical Islam and, toward the end of her career, she wrote three books advancing this argument. She claimed that Muslims were colonizing Europe through immigration and high fertility, and that the passivity of the European left to the dangers she saw would soon turn Europe into a “colony of Islam,” a place she called “Eurabia.”

Her views have led her to posthumously develop a reputation as a darling of the far right—a dubious honor that would have troubled the woman who was in life an anti-fascist activist. A new biography, Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend, emphasizes the diversity of Fallaci’s colorful career, and makes the case that her critics are mistaken in judging her based on her writings about Islam.

Fallaci was, for one thing, an interviewer of great men and women. She was wary of power, having grown up under authoritarian rule, and she took pleasure in challenging it. In one of the most famous examples, while she was interviewing Ayatollah Khomeini before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, she so irritated him with questions about women’s rights that Khomeini exclaimed, “If you do not like Islamic dress you are not obliged to follow it. The chador is only for young and respectable women.” Fallaci then tore the chador off her head, saying, “I’m going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now.”

For a public figure and provocateur, she could be a private person, which makes the publication of her first authorized biography especially noteworthy. Her biographer, Cristina De Stefano, drew on unprecedented access to the journalist’s personal records. I spoke with De Stefano about Fallaci’s legacy, the manipulation of her memory, and what she got right—and wrong—about Islam in Europe. Below is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.


Annabelle Timsit: How did Oriana’s views on Islamism in Europe affect her career?

Cristina De Stefano: Oriana’s last trilogy almost destroyed her career, so she took a great risk in publishing it. She went from being a respected left-wing intellectual to being considered an Islamophobic icon of the far-right.

But Oriana Fallaci was not a political commentator—she was a novelist, she was a writer. I think that, in talking about politics, she often asked the right questions, like: What is Europe’s position toward Islamic culture within its borders? Is Europe ready to stand up for its values? How can two such different cultures meet?

But I am not sure she provided the right answers. She made often-simplistic accusations against European Muslims; she was violent in her expressions and negative in her view of the future. She was more a prophetess of catastrophe—a Cassandra, as she used to say—than a provider of concrete suggestions. Let’s keep in mind that we are talking about an artist here, someone who was, first of all, inhabited by her creativity.

Timsit: Can you tell me about her identity as a feminist and her views about Muslim women?

De Stefano: Oriana had a first-hand experience of Islam. She was a war reporter and covered a lot of conflicts in the Middle East. She was one of the first to understand that the Iranian Revolution of 1979 marked the return of political Islam on the world scene.

She [witnessed] the condition of women in Islam very early, in the ’60s, while traveling across the world for her book, The Useless Sex. In it, she wrote that Islamic countries were prisons for women. At the same time, she was never in a position of proselytism, she never tried to bring equality to these countries—she just said she didn’t like it, but if they wanted to live like this, in their own countries, it was fine by her.

The problem she pointed out was the danger of these different values coming to [Europe] through immigration. She stressed that we have to stand up for our values, and we have to say very clearly that immigrants have to accept our rules.

Timsit: But did she really think Islamic values were an existential threat to Europe? Do you?

De Stefano: I don’t believe that [Islamic values] are incompatible [with European values]. There are difficulties with integrating highly-religious immigrants into secular societies, and that can create problems. We need time to find a way to coexist. In the long run, I am optimistic. On this matter, I am in a completely different position than Oriana [who], on the contrary, was very pessimistic. She was particularly worried about the role of religion in society and about the condition of women.

Her declarations and writings after 9/11 were not the fruit of a mature political reasoning, but of a mix of rage, solitude, and illness. She was dying of cancer, alone, struggling with time and writing her last book. She was at the end of her life and she considered the attack on America, and then on Europe, as the end of the world.

Was she Islamophobic? Yes. Do I agree with her? No. But are the last words of a person a good reason to [negate] their whole life? Also no. That’s why I wrote the book and that’s why I hope people will read it: I wanted to show that there was another Oriana before, a person who accomplished great things, and was an inspiration for many women.

Timsit: Can she really be considered feminist, if she excludes Muslim women from her views?

De Stefano: Oriana’s position as a feminist was very interesting, because she was not a part of the movement of feminism, and she was often critical [of it]. She pointed out the contradiction within feminism. For example, after the [2015] New Year’s Eve sexual attacks in Cologne, many feminists in Europe were afraid to encourage xenophobia, so they kept silent. If Oriana was there she would have been furious at this silence. She would have considered it a lack of courage—and she praised courage above all.

She never took a stand for Muslim women, but she never did for Italian women either. She wasn't an activist. I would say she was a feminist in her actions, in her own life.

Timsit: What was it about her actions that was feminist?

De Stefano: Her [feminist] legacy is her story as a woman who was able to become a world-renowned journalist during a time when journalism was a man’s profession; it is her invention of a new and personal way of doing political interviews; and it is the millions of novels she sold all over the world.

Timsit: What can her writings teach us about the resurgence of the far right in Europe?

De Stefano: When we think about Oriana and politics, we tend to think about Islam. But in fact, the center of her political ideas and her obsession was not Islam—it was fascism. For her, the first stage of fascism is to silence people; and for her, political Islam is another form of fascism.

[She] would be very shocked by what is happening in Europe today. She would have said that we have to be vigilant, because the freedom we have can be taken back from us.

Timsit: Doesn’t this fail to take into account the different ways in which political Islam expresses itself across the Muslim world?

De Stefano: She did not explore the whole range of today’s Islam. She underlined the extremes [because] she considered herself in a battle for civilization, and for this reason she was often too extreme herself, [hence] the accusations of Islamophobia. The central focus of her writing wasn’t against a race or a religion, but rather an attitude. She claimed that political Islam is aggressive, while Europe is too shy to react to it. She was worried that Islamic culture isn’t afraid to claim its own cultural and religious superiority, while European culture is uncomfortable about defending its own values and achievements.

I think there are a lot of attacks on Oriana that are hypocritical, in the sense that they focus on the form but they don’t discuss what she said. Of course, you can be opposed to what she said, but you can’t deny that she asked some very important, uncomfortable questions that still need to be answered today. That was the main point of her trilogy, [to ask]: Europe, are you ready to fight for your values? And Europe has no answer to this question.

You can love or hate what she wrote, but she was quite right in pointing out what the future would bring. Today, Europe is facing a real crisis from migrants and she saw this coming.

Timsit: So, for her, immigration was a tool of invasion?

De Stefano: Yes. She wrote the famous, awful phrase, “The sons of Allah breed like rats.” Of course, it’s awful. But she was saying that Muslims don’t need to kill [non-Muslims]—they will just outnumber [non-Muslims].

The problem with Oriana, and the reason why a lot of readers don’t like her, is that she said a lot of uneasy things. [After World War II] the continent decided that war was over and that we would never fight again. Oriana told Europe that, in fact, war was not over; that political Islam is bringing war back to the continent.

Timsit: What is the most striking thing that you learned about Oriana in writing her biography?

De Stefano: Oriana made a feminist out of me. I was born in 1967, and I was convinced that feminists were old and out of fashion. Writing about her life, I realized how much women before me had to fight to work and live like men did, to be accepted and recognized. And through her writings, she convinced me that the rights that women [achieved] in the past can be taken away from them—so we have to be vigilant all the time. I am a different person now.

The Things Kids Carried
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

Not that long ago, carrying school supplies on one’s back seemed like a crazy concept. Until the 1980s, backpacks were used mostly for hiking and outdoor activities. Students used entirely different (and much less convenient) modes of transportation for their school supplies: Until the 1930s, many students used leather straps to hold together the books they carried. Later, students used mini briefcases or one-strap bags. In 1969, the company JanSport created a daypack for skiing and hiking; they happened to be selling them at a store connected to the University of Washington bookstore, and students started using these bags to keep their books dry in rainy Seattle.

Today, backpacks have become a staple of student life. Kids see backpacks as a symbol of identity, and choosing a backpack is often a careful and deliberate process. Backpacks can be indicative of everything from a kid’s favorite cartoon to her country of nationality to her socioeconomic status. They’re tiny windows of insight into what students care about and the kinds of worlds they are inhabiting. These photos peek at what kids around the globe have been carrying on their backs.

Liz de la Caridad Guedez checks out her new backpack in a mirror prior to leaving home for her first day back to school in Havana, Cuba, Monday, Sept. 3, 2012. (AP / Franklin Reyes)
A girls walks with her satchel as she arrives for the first day of school following the summer holidays on September 3, 2013 in Lyon. (Jeff Pachoud / AFP / Getty Images)
A student wears a backpack decorated with an "estelada," or Catalan pro-independence flag, in Barcelona, Spain. (AP Photo / Emilio Morenatti)
A student in southwest China's Chongqing municipality. After school, a group of children strap on lifejackets under their backpacks before embarking on a flat-bottomed boat. Their principal rows them to and from school every day.  (Fred Dufour / AFP / Getty Images)
Alicja Pietrucha prepares for Jozefow primary school on June 14, 2013 in Kuligow, Poland. (Janek Skarzynski / AFP / Getty Images)
An Afghan schoolgirl carries her backpack on the way to school in Old Kabul on August 25, 2010. (Yuri Cortez / AFP / Getty Images)
Prince George on his first day at the Westacre Montessori nursery school near Sandringham in Norfolk. (ALP / MediaPunch / AP)
Students hold hands as they walk with their new book bags in Miami in August 2015. They received the free bags as part of an annual back-to-school event also offering free health screenings, and free food distribution. (Lynne Sladky / AP)
Syrian girls, carrying school bags provided by UNICEF, walk past the rubble of destroyed buildings on their way home from school on March 7, 2015 in al-Shaar neighbourhood, in the rebel-held side of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. (Zein Al-Rifai / AFP / Getty Images)
A student carrying a backpack bearing the image of national independence hero Simon Bolivar walks as they leave the school in Ciudad Caribia outside Caracas on September 19, 2013. (Jorge Silva / Reuters)
A child is accompanied to his elementary school on September 2, 2014 in Marseille at the start of the new school year. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat / AFP / Getty Images)
Girls hug each other outside the European school of Strasbourg in Strasbourg, eastern France, on September 1, 2015, the first day of the new school year. (Patrick Hertzog / AFP / Getty Images)

Even Small Amounts of Alcohol Impair Memory
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

“I can’t even remember what happened that night” is a common joke/cry for help among people who recently drank to the point of blacking out. But there’s also evidence that drinking even a little bit can seriously impair learning and memory.

Sleep, especially the REM phase when dreams occur, is when memories get cemented into our minds. Alcohol blocks REM sleep, and as a result, says University of California, Berkeley, professor Matthew Walker, drinking can make you forget new information—even if the drinking happens days after the learning took place.

The most striking evidence of this phenomenon, which Walker describes in his recent book, Why We Sleep, is from a 2003 study by Carlyle Smith, a professor at Trent University in Canada. He invited 15 students to his lab and got them kind of drunk.

First, the participants were all (soberly) taught a new type of grammar system. They then were put into three groups: One drank a cocktail of orange juice with three ounces of vodka on the same night they learned the task; another group drank the cocktail two days later, but they had only orange juice the night of the learning and the following night; and a control group had no booze at all on any of the nights.

They were retested a few days later, when they were all sober. The group that drank alcohol on the same day of the learning session, perhaps expectedly, performed worse than the booze-free control group. The same-night drinkers forgot 50 percent of what they had learned. But surprisingly, the group that just had alcohol on the third night performed worse than the control group, too. Even though they had two restful, alcohol-free nights of sleep between the day they learned the task and the night they got slightly sloshed, they still forgot 40 percent of what they learned, Walker explains. That means if you’re in college, or in any environment where you’re learning new material, you can’t be angelic all week and get hammered on weekends without suffering the consequences. “The memories remain vulnerable and fragile to the impact of alcohol for days,” Walker told me.

Now, there are many caveats to this study. It only had 13 subjects, which would never fly in today’s trials, and it didn’t account for other things that could be affecting the participants’ memory. And Smith, though he’s still an emeritus professor of psychology, has gone on to study dream telepathy, a pretty fringe topic.

Smith acknowledges that the sample size was small, and that the dream-telepathy stuff is unorthodox. (“I don’t know what my colleagues think about that now,” he told me recently. “Some maybe avoid me in the halls.”)

But he stands by his findings on alcohol’s detrimental effects on memory. Alcohol can reduce the number of eye movements that take place during REM—spelled out, it’s called “rapid eye movement” sleep. “It’s a very sensitive state of sleep,” Smith said.

He also did another experiment that seemed to show that simply drinking right after you learned something didn’t impair memory. But drinking right before bed did. “You can drink alcohol, just be sure it has time to metabolize and get out of your system before you go to sleep,” he said. “Maybe you should drink in the afternoon.”

Phew, at least they’re not coming for our day drinking!

But wait.

Recently, Anya Topiwala, a senior clinical researcher in psychiatry at the University of Oxford, had been seeing some studies showing that light alcohol consumption supposedly protects against cognitive decline. But in the course of her practice, she was also seeing some older people with memory issues who drank moderately—say by sharing a bottle of wine at night.

She wanted to see whether the drinking was helping or hurting their brains. So she and her colleagues looked at 550 people who had been part of the famous Whitehall II study of the health of British civil servants. Most of the participants had been drinking moderately over the course of 30 years. Throughout that time, they had been questioned about how much they drink and given cognitive-functioning tests. Topiwala and her colleagues gave them some additional cognitive tests and scanned their brains.

They found that the more the participants drank, the smaller their hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for memory, and the worse their neural “insulation” in another memory region called the corpus callosum. It didn’t help to drink “lightly,” or just a couple drinks a week. And those who drank the most—more than 21 alcohol units a week, or a pint of beer a day—had a 16 percent decline in their “lexical fluency,” or the number of words they could come up with off the top of their heads. And light drinkers weren't better than abstainers at lexical fluency, the study showed.

Topiwala and her colleagues found these effects even in men who drank a “moderate” amount, or between about five and seven pints of beer a week. That’s considered “14 to 21 units per week.” (Thought a “unit” was a single drink? That might be because wine glasses have gotten several times larger in recent years.)

Those studies that were finding light drinking was a good thing for the brain? They might have neglected to account for the fact that drinkers tend to be richer and better-educated than teetotalers, Topiwala said, or they might have been asking participants to recall how much they drank years ago—a somewhat unreliable measure.

Besides these two, other meta-analyses have found that young people who drink heavily are worse at remembering things like locking the door or mailing a letter than are abstainers or light drinkers. Another paper found that students who had about nine drinks a week, on average, already had a harder time with a word-related memory task. Another study has seemingly affirmed the sleep link, showing that college students who drink more sleep later, are sleepier in the daytime, and do worse on tests.

This is far from the sum total of alcohol’s negative effects—even just on sleep. Because alcohol blocks REM sleep so much, some alcoholics have their REM sleep “bleed over into their waking life,” Walker says. They start to have dreamlike delusions and hallucinations.

The problem is, it’s holiday-party season. It’s stressful, festive, and social—sometimes all at once. Although, of course, you don’t have to drink to socialize, celebrate, or control your stress. I recently put a call out on Twitter for stress-management advice from teetotalers, and they had lots of ideas. I also asked the researchers I interviewed how they’ve adjusted their behavior based on their findings.

Topiwala used to drink a glass of wine a day, but now she only has three or four a week, she said. Walker doesn’t drink in the evenings—but then again, he doesn’t drink at all. He also gives himself a “nonnegotiable sleep opportunity” of eight hours a night, even if it means sacrificing other things.

“Sleep is in a desperate state right now,” he said. But, “sleep is the best health-insurance policy you could imagine.”

Why We Should Be Worried about a War in Space
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

This article is edited from a story shared exclusively with members of The Masthead, the membership program from The Atlantic. Find out more.

One hundred miles above the Earth’s surface, orbiting the planet at thousands of miles per hour, the six people aboard the International Space Station enjoy a perfect isolation from the chaos of earthly conflict. Outer space has never been a military battleground. But that may not last forever. The debate in Congress over whether to create a Space Corps comes at a time when governments around the world are engaged in a bigger international struggle over how militaries should operate in space. Fundamental changes are already underway. No longer confined to the fiction shelf, space warfare is likely on the horizon.

While agreements for how to operate in other international domains, like the open sea, airspace, and even cyberspace, have already been established, the major space powers—the United States, Russia, and China—have not agreed upon a rulebook outlining what constitutes bad behavior in space. It’s presumed that International Humanitarian Law would apply in outer space—protecting the civilian astronauts aboard the International Space Station—but it’s unclear whether damaging civilian satellites or the space environment itself is covered under the agreement. With only a limited history of dangerous behavior to study, and few, outdated guidelines in place, a war in space would be a war with potentially more consequences, but far fewer rules, than one on Earth.

Although there has never been a military conflict in space, the history of human activity above our atmosphere is not entirely benign. In 1962, the United States detonated a 1.4 megaton nuclear weapon 250 miles above the Earth’s surface. The blast destroyed approximately one third of satellites in orbit and poisoned the most used region of space with radiation that lasted for years. Although the United States, Russia, and others soon agreed to a treaty to prevent another nuclear test in space, China and North Korea never signed it. In 2007, China tested an anti-satellite weapon, a conventionally-armed missile designed to target and destroy a satellite in orbit. In the process, it annihilated an old Chinese weather satellite and created high-velocity shrapnel that still threatens other satellites. Even though demonstrations like this have consequences for everyone, countries are free to carry them out as they see fit. No treaties address this kind of test, the creation of space debris, or the endangerment of other satellites.

The U.S. has the most to lose in a space-based conflict

With by far the most satellites in orbit, the U.S. has the most to gain by establishing norms, but also the most to lose. Almost half of all operational satellites are owned and operated by the United States government or American commercial companies. That’s twice as many as Russia and China, combined. Space may seem distant, but what happens there affects our everyday lives on the ground. When we use our phones to plan a trip, we depend on American GPS satellites to guide us. When the U.S. military deploys troops overseas, satellite communications connect forces on the ground to control centers. When North Korea launches an intercontinental ballistic missile, the U.S. and its allies depend on early-warning satellites to detect it.

On one hand, if the global space powers agreed to put limits on space-based weapons and other related technologies, it could make space safer for everyone. But because the U.S. may have spent time and resources developing exactly the type of weapons that a code of conduct would ban, it could also curtail the most advanced space-based developments, erasing years of research and progress.

There are more players in spaceand less consensus

In the first space age, from the launch of the first human-made satellite in 1957 through the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States and the USSR were responsible for over 90 percent of all satellites. Their race to perfect space technology, dominated by both national security interests and scientific discovery, far outpaced everyone else. The second space age, from 1990 to today, looks remarkably different. Now, more satellites are operated by private companies than militaries, and more space launches and new satellites come from countries other than the United States and Russia. More players in space—particularly more unpredictable players—means more opportunities for aggressive behavior, like developing anti-satellite technologies or hacking satellite communications. Countries like Iran or North Korea that are newer to space can choose to operate in a way we’ve never seen before. And if their nuclear programs on Earth are any guide, they could pose serious threats if left unchecked.


Space Launches by Country in the First and Second Space Ages. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 was written to govern a space era far different from the one seen today. Since 2014, a majority of space launches—civil, commercial, and military—have come from outside of the United States and Russia. Adapted from “Escalation and Deterrence in the Second Space Age,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (October 2017).

Efforts have been made to create a modern-day space rulebook, but so far none have gained traction. In 2008, when Russia and China both proposed norms of behavior, the United States refused to sign on. Similarly, when the United States supported a 2014 European Union proposal to govern the use of conventional weapons in orbit, Russia and China didn’t agree with the terms.

Since the congressional debate about a Space Corps, people have been taking the prospect of a war in space seriously, in a way we haven’t seen before. Now we should start talking about how to avoid that war. To prevent conflict in the upper atmosphere, all potential adversaries—the United States, China, North Korea, Iran, Russia, the EU—need to align, and agree on norms of behavior. They need rules.

The 18 Days That Haunt Trump's Presidency
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is authorized to broadly investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, but recent reports suggest he’s focusing on a narrow period in the years-long saga.

NBC News reported on Monday that Mueller and his team are paying close attention to events between January 26, 2017, and February 13, 2017. That timespan stretches from the day Sally Yates, the acting attorney general at the time, notified the White House that then-National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn had made misleading statements to the FBI to Flynn’s resignation 18 days later.

Earlier this month, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the agency. Now, the question turns to who knew what—and when—about his false statements. If, hypothetically speaking, the president knew Flynn had committed a crime when he purportedly urged former FBI Director James Comey to drop the agency’s inquiry into Flynn on February 14, that could be used as evidence of intent when pursuing obstruction-of-justice charges. Below is an updated timeline to help contextualize this potentially crucial sequence of events in Trump’s early presidency.


Before the 18 Days


Tuesday, November 8: Donald Trump is elected president of the United States.

Thursday, November 10: President Obama hosts President-elect Trump for a 90-minute meeting at the White House. During the meeting, Obama personally raises his concerns about Michael Flynn’s job performance during his tenure leading the Defense Intelligence Agency. By then, it was assumed Trump would appoint Flynn, one of his top campaign aides and a former Army lieutenant general, to an administration post.

Thursday, November 17: Trump announces that Flynn will serve as his national-security adviser. The post does not require Senate confirmation.

Thursday, December 29: In retaliation for Russia’s election meddling, the Obama administration expels 35 Russian diplomats, seizes two of Moscow’s U.S. compounds, and sanctions top Russian government officials. According to filings from the special counsel’s office, which were publicly released in December 2017, Flynn calls an unnamed senior official on the Trump transition team at Mar-a-Lago to discuss what he should tell Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about the administration’s stance on the sanctions. (Kislyak had contacted him the day before.) They and other members of the team at the president’s Florida estate agree that they do not want Russia to escalate the diplomatic crisis.

After the initial call, Flynn speaks with Kislyak multiple times by phone and urges him not to exacerbate the situation. U.S. intelligence officials intercept the calls as part of their routine surveillance of foreign dignitaries.

Friday, December 30: Russian President Vladimir Putin announces that his government will not impose its own sanctions as payback against the United States. Trump praises Putin’s move on Twitter shortly thereafter.

Friday, January 6: The U.S. intelligence community releases a 26-page report concluding that Russian intelligence agencies used cyberattacks and stolen documents to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid and the American electoral process. Trump releases a bland statement asserting “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election.”

Thursday, January 12: Citing an unnamed senior government official, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius is the first to report about Flynn’s December 29 calls with Kislyak.

Friday, January 13: Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, tells reporters that Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak centered on logistics for a post-inauguration call between Putin and Trump. “That was it,” he said, “plain and simple.”

Sunday, January 15: Trump transition officials defend Flynn on the Sunday- morning political talk shows. Vice President-elect Mike Pence tells CBS’s Face the Nation that the retired general “did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia” in his talks with Kislyak. Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, tells NBC’s Meet the Press that “the subject matter of sanctions or the actions taken by the Obama [administration] did not come up in the conversation.”

Thursday, January 19: Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, FBI Director James Comey, outgoing CIA Director John Brennan, and outgoing Director of National Intelligence James Clapper debate whether to brief the incoming president about the Flynn-Kislyak calls. Brennan, Clapper, and Yates are in favor of briefing Trump or White House officials; Comey opposes it since it could interfere in the ongoing investigation.

Friday, January 20: Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and other Obama administration Cabinet officials step down as part of the transition. At the Trump team’s request, Yates stays to serve as the acting head of the Justice Department until the Senate can confirm Jeff Sessions, the then-Alabama senator who Trump nominated November 18 to be his attorney general.

Sunday, January 22: The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. counterintelligence officials are scrutinizing Flynn’s December 29 calls with Kislyak as part of the broader federal investigation into Russian electoral interference.

Monday, January 23: At his first full press briefing, Spicer tells reporters that Flynn assured him sanctions weren’t discussed during the December 29 calls with Kislyak, relaying a detailed denial and alternative version of events. Upon learning this, Yates contacts Comey, who drops his opposition to briefing the White House about the calls.

Tuesday, January 24: FBI investigators interview Flynn at the White House about his talks with the ambassador. It’s during this interview that Flynn lied to the FBI. Specifically, he told the bureau that he had not asked Kislyak to refrain from escalating the situation after the Obama administration imposed new sanctions, a point flatly contradicted by what U.S. officials heard during the call.

Wednesday, January 25: Yates receives “a detailed readout specifically from the agents that had conducted the interview” with Flynn, according to her later testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Yates told lawmakers that she and her Justice Department colleagues “felt like it was critical that we get this information to the White House, in part because the vice president was unknowingly making false statements to the public and because we believed that General Flynn was compromised with respect to the Russians.”


The 18 Days Begin


Thursday, January 26: Yates, accompanied by a senior career official from the Justice Department’s National Security Division, meets with White House Counsel Don McGahn to discuss Flynn’s interview. This is the first time that White House officials are made aware of the Justice Department’s concerns.

According to Spicer, McGahn immediately briefs Trump after the meeting with Yates. Trump orders McGahn to review whether anything illegal had been done. “When the president heard the information as presented by White House counsel, he instinctively thought General Flynn did not do anything wrong, and the White House counsel’s review corroborated that,” Spicer later tells reporters.

Friday, January 27: McGahn invites Yates back to the White House for a second meeting, where they once again discussed the Justice Department’s concerns. Yates later tells Congress that McGahn asked why the Justice Department cares when one White House official lies to another.

Later that night, Trump issues the first version of his travel ban, which freezes refugee admission into the United States and suspends visas held by nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries. The executive order takes immediate effect, causing chaos at major U.S. airports as international travelers are stranded mid-flight.

Monday, January 30: After multiple federal judges block the travel ban’s implementation over the weekend, Yates issues a memo to Justice Department staff notifying them the department will no longer defend it in court. “At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the executive order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the executive order is lawful,” she writes.

Hours later, the White House announces that Trump has fired Yates. Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, becomes the top-ranking official at the Justice Department and says he will continue to defend the ban. In an unusually charged statement, the White House says that Yates “betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States” and denounces her as “an Obama administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”

Tuesday, February 7: Flynn tells The Washington Post that he did not discuss sanctions with Kislyak.

Wednesday, February 8: The Senate confirms Sessions to be the attorney general in a 52-47 vote. One day after Flynn’s firm denial to the Post, a spokesman walks it back and tells the newspaper that Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

Thursday, February 9: Pence learns about the Justice Department’s concerns about Flynn for the first time, according to his press secretary, Mike Lotter.

Friday, February 10: En route to Mar-a-Lago, Trump tells journalists aboard Air Force One that he will “look into” news reports that Flynn discussed sanctions with Kislyak. “I don’t know about that, I haven’t seen it,” he tells reporters. Flynn accompanies Trump on the trip and takes part in meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Monday, February 13: The Washington Post first reports that Yates had warned McGahn in January about Flynn.

Later that night, Trump announces Flynn’s departure. In his resignation letter, Flynn says that he “inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador.”

Tuesday, February 14: At the president’s invitation, FBI Director James Comey dines with Trump at the White House. During the dinner, Comey later told Congress, Trump urges him to drop the case against Flynn. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go,” Comey quotes Trump as saying. Three months later, on May 9, Trump fires Comey.

Here Comes the Meat Tax
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

There is a “hospital-themed restaurant” in Las Vegas called the Heart Attack Grill. Inside, customers are invited to tempt death with food. The waitresses dress as provocative nurses and deliver “prescriptions,” which are enormous hamburgers. Depending on the number of beef patties between the buns, they’re known as single-, double-, and triple-bypass burgers. The system goes all the way up to octuple bypass.

Past that point, it would be ridiculous.

While various health experts endorse meat in various amounts, almost none endorse eating it the way Americans today do. The average U.S. citizen consumed more than 200 pounds of meat this year, more than twice the global average and nearly twice as much as Americans did in 1961. The average American man is eating more than his own weight in meat every year—even as that weight has increased to 196 pounds, up from 166 pounds in 1960.

Sitting aghast in a booth at the Heart Attack Grill, Thomas Jefferson would remind us that in the United States, informed consumers have the God-given right to do with their bodies what they choose. Watching people gorge on towers of beef might please him. But while self-harm may be a right of all people, a line is crossed when we step on the ability of others to do the same. In Jefferson’s view, it is sometimes necessary “to lay taxes for the purpose of providing for the general welfare.”

This approach to taxation applies nowhere more reasonably than greenhouse-gas-intensive commodities—also referred to as a meat tax, since animal agriculture is notoriously environmentally costly. A meat tax is not yet among the most pressing political issues of the day, but this week, a preliminary report from the private-equity firm Coller Capital warned investors that a tax on meat is becoming “increasingly probable.”

The firm runs an initiative known as Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return, which looks at the impact of agriculture on the environment and how it will shape markets. The analysts cite the global popularity of “behavioral taxes” to nudge people to achieve social ends and decrease overall taxes—by reducing societal costs of such things as sugar and tobacco and carbon emissions—and argue that meat “is on the same path,” driven by “a global consensus around meat’s negative contributions to climate change and global-health epidemics such as obesity, cancer, and antibiotic resistance.”

Livestock has been estimated to account for around 15 percent of human-related greenhouse gases, and animal agriculture is water-intensive and space-inefficient. Over the next three decades, meat consumption is projected to increase by 75 percent.

The is based in part on research from the University of Oxford, where the food-policy researcher Marco Springmann and colleagues calculated that eliminating animal protein from the global food system would save $1.6 trillion in environmental costs by 2050. Springmann noted in a press statement that taxing meat “would send a strong signal that dietary change toward more healthy and sustainable plant-based diets is urgently needed to preserve both our health and the environment.”

A similar forecast came in 2015 from Chatham House, a London-based policy institute. “Shifting diets will require comprehensive strategies,” the authors wrote, “sending a powerful signal to consumers that reducing meat consumption is beneficial and that government takes the issue seriously.” The institute’s director of energy, environment, and resources, Rob Bailey, told The Guardian this week that he would “expect to see meat taxes accumulate” over the next 10 to 20 years. An author of the new Collier analysis put the timeframe at five to 10 years.

In places, this is already underway. Earlier this year, Germany’s environmental agency expressed interest in increasing taxes on meat, eggs, and cheese from 7 to 19 percent. The Danish Council on Ethics also recently recommended a meat tax to help the country achieve its obligations to the United Nations.

Any such approach would seem extremely unlikely in the United States, which has removed itself from a position of leadership in the global attack on climate change, and which subsidizes meat production rather than taxing it.

The United States has proved deeply divided on taxing even soda—which has neither nutritional value nor such deep-rooted cultural importance.

Of course, soda taxes are usually attacked on grounds of infringement on personal liberty. Meat taxes could be the opposite. The person who eats 400 pounds of animal meat every year is treading on the environment for others, and so a meat tax could be implemented as a matter of protecting personal liberty. Eating that way wouldn’t be illegal, but people who choose to do it would have to pay for the imposition of their choices on others. At this Jefferson would smile over his burger.

There are also concerns of harm to industry, and to people already struggling with food security—who need calories wherever they can get them. With these concerns in mind, the Oxford team outlined a meat-tax strategy that they believe could benefit middle- and low-income countries as well. Published earlier this year in the journal Nature Climate Change, it includes sparing healthy food from taxation, as well as selective compensation for income losses associated with tax-related price increases. Some tax revenues would be allotted for health promotion. Together all of this could “help avert most of the negative health impacts experienced by vulnerable groups, whilst still promoting changes toward diets that are more environmentally sustainable.”

Even for onlookers who care little for the planet—who would sooner sell or eat octuple-bypass burgers than allow their grandchildren to refer to Miami in the present tense—there is also the promise of money. A meat tax is an idea that could be part of not just health and climate debates, but economic conversations in decades to come. Possibly all the way until the end. As Jeremy Coller of Coller Capital put it more reservedly: “Far-sighted investors should plan ahead for this day.”

The Student Whose Cockiness Tested My Patience
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

Teacher Jerome White knew from the first moment he met Donald Meyer that the student was a math whiz—and that Meyer was very aware of his natural abilities. White struggled in his first year teaching Donald pre-calculus at New Orleans’ Lusher High School to convince the student to focus in class, do his homework, or recognize that he might have something to learn.

“It wasn’t a malevolent act on his part,” White says. But he “seemed to think he was above it all.”

Nonetheless, Donald earned good grades, and after several months of teaching the student, White felt like they hit something of a stride. That was a good thing: White taught all of Lusher’s most advanced pre-calculus and calculus classes, and he knew that he would likely have Donald in class for three straight years.

Donald’s junior year went fairly smoothly, and he aced his first Advanced Placement calculus exam. But by the start of the student’s senior year, everything changed dramatically. Donald was wrestling with a lot of problems outside of school, and he struggled to complete much work at all. White faced a challenge that would have seemed unbelievable just a year earlier: Convincing the math whiz that he could pass math. Listen:


Music used in this episode: “Smooth Actor” by Podington Bear; “Blipper” by Podington Bear; “Journeys” by Podington Bear; “Vibe Drive” by Podington Bear; “Encounter” by Podington Bear; “Rumbleseat” by Podington Bear; and “Many Hands” by Podington Bear.

This project was produced in collaboration with the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School dedicated to elevating the voices of students and teachers.

‘The Basic Grossness of Humans’
December 15th, 2017, 04:15 PM

Lurking inside every website or app that relies on “user-generated content”—so, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, among others—there is a hidden kind of labor, without which these sites would not be viable businesses. Content moderation was once generally a volunteer activity, something people took on because they were embedded in communities that they wanted to maintain.

But as social media grew up, so did moderation. It became what the University of California, Los Angeles, scholar Sarah T. Roberts calls, “commercial content moderation,” a form of paid labor that requires people to review posts—pictures, videos, text—very quickly and at scale.

Roberts has been studying the labor of content moderation for most of a decade, ever since she saw a newspaper clipping about a small company in the Midwest that took on outsourced moderation work.

“In 2010, this wasn’t a topic on anybody’s radar at all,” Roberts said. “I started asking all my friends and professors. Have you ever heard of people who do this for pay as a profession? The first thing everyone said was, ‘I never thought about it.’ And the second thing everyone said was, ‘Don’t computers do that?’ Of course, if the answer in 2017 is still no, then the answer in 2010 was no.”

And yet there is no sign of these people on a platform like Facebook or Twitter. One can register complaints, but the facelessness of the bureaucracy is total. That individual people are involved in this work has only recently become more well-known, thanks to scholars like Roberts, journalists like Adrian Chen, and workers in the industry like Rochelle LaPlante.

In recent months, the role that humans play in organizing and filtering the information that flows through the internet has come under increasing scrutiny. Companies are trying to keep child pornography, “extremist” content, disinformation, hoaxes, and a variety of unsavory posts off of their platforms while continuing to keep other kinds of content flowing.

They must keep the content flowing because that is the business model: Content captures attention and generates data. They sell that attention, enriched by that data. But what, then, to do with the pollution that accompanies the human generation of content? How do you deal with the objectionable, disgusting, pornographic, illegal, or otherwise verboten content?

The one thing we know for sure is that you can’t do it all with computing. According to Roberts, “In 2017, the response by firms to incidents and critiques of these platforms is not primarily ‘We’re going to put more computational power on it,’ but ‘We’re going to put more human eyeballs on it.’”

To examine these issues, Roberts pulled together a first-of-its-kind conference on commercial content moderation last week at UCLA, in the midst of the wildfires.

For Roberts, the issues of content moderation don’t merely touch on the cost structure of these internet platforms. Rather, they go to the very heart of how these services work. “What does this say about the nature of the internet?” she said. “What are the costs of vast human engagement in this thing we call the internet?”

One panel directly explored those costs. It paired two people who had been content moderators: Rasalyn Bowden, who became a content-review trainer and supervisor at Myspace, and Rochelle LaPlante, who works on Amazon Mechanical Turk and is the cofounder of an organizing platform for people who work on that platform, MTurkCrowd.com. They were interviewed by Roberts and a fellow academic, the University of Southern California’s Safiya Noble.

Bowden described the early days of Myspace’s popularity when suddenly, the company was overwhelmed with inappropriate images, or at least images they thought might be inappropriate. It was hard to say what should be on the platform because there were no actual rules. Bowden helped create those rules and she held up a notebook to the crowd, which was where those guidelines were stored.

“I went flipping through it yesterday and there was a question of whether dental-floss-sized bikini straps really make you not nude. Is it okay if it is dental-floss-size or spaghetti strap? What exactly made you not nude? And what if it’s clear? We were coming up with these things on the fly in the middle of the night,” Bowden said. “[We were arguing] ‘Well, her butt is really bigger, so she shouldn’t be wearing that. So should we delete her but not the girl with the little butt?’ These were the decisions. It did feel like we were making it up as we were going along.”

Bowden said that her team consisted of the odd conglomeration of people that were drawn to overnight work looking at weird and disturbing stuff. “I had a witch, a vampire, a white supremacist, and some regular day-to-day people. I had all these different categories,” Bowden, who is black, said. “We were saying, ‘Based on your experience in white-supremacist land, is this white-supremacist material?’”

That was in the mid-’00s. But as social media, relying on user-generated content, continued to explode, a variety of companies began to need professional content moderators. Roberts has traced the history of the development of moderation as a corporate practice. In particular, she’s looked at the way labor gets parceled out. There are very few full-time employees working out of corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley doing this kind of stuff. Instead, there are contractors, who may work at the company, but usually work at some sort of off-site facility. In general, most content moderation occurs several steps removed from the core business apparatus. That could be in Iowa or in India (though these days, mostly in the Philippines).

“The workers may be structurally removed from those firms, as well, via outsourcing companies who take on CCM contracts and then hire the workers under their auspices, in call-center (often called BPO, or business-process outsourcing) environments,” Roberts has written. “Such outsourcing firms may also recruit CCM workers using digital piecework sites such as Amazon Mechanical Turk or Upwork, in which the relationships between the social-media firms, the outsourcing company, and the CCM worker can be as ephemeral as one review.”

Each of these distancing steps pushes responsibility away from the technology company and into the minds of individual moderators

LaPlante, for example, works on Mechanical Turk, which serves as a very flexible and cheap labor pool for various social-media companies. When she receives an assignment, she will have a list of rules that she must follow, but she may or may not know the company or how the data she is creating will be used.

Most pressingly, though, LaPlante drew attention to the economic conditions under which workers are laboring. They are paid by the review, and the prices can go as low as $0.02 per image reviewed, though there are jobs that pay better, like $0.15 per piece of content. Furthermore, companies can reject judgments that Turkers make, which means they are not paid for that time, and their overall rating on the platform declines.

This work is a brutal and necessary part of the current internet economy. They’re also providing valuable training data that companies use to train machine-learning systems. And yet the people doing it are lucky to make minimum wage, have no worker protections, and must work at breakneck speed to try to earn a living.

As you might expect, reviewing violent, sexual, and disturbing content for a living takes a serious psychological toll on the people who do it.

“When I left Myspace, I didn’t shake hands for like three years because I figured out that people were disgusting. And I just could not touch people,” Bowden said. “Most normal people in the world are just fucking weirdos. I was disgusted by humanity when I left there. So many of my peers, same thing. We all left with horrible views of humanity.”

When I asked her if she’d recovered any sense of faith in humanity, a decade on, Bowden said no. “But I’m able to pretend that I have faith in humanity. That will have to do,” she told me. “It’s okay. Once you accept the basic grossness of humans, it’s easier to remember to avoid touching anything.”

LaPlante emphasized, too, that it’s not like the people doing these content-moderation jobs can seek counseling for the disturbing things they’ve seen. They’re stuck dealing with the fallout themselves, or, with some sort of support from their peers.

“If you’re being paid two cents an image, you don’t have $100 an hour to pay to a psychiatrist,” LaPlante said.

In a hopeful sign, some tech companies are beginning to pay more attention to these issues. Facebook, for example, sent a team to the content-moderation conference. Others, like Twitter and Snap, did not.

Facebook, too, has committed to hiring 10,000 more people dedicated to these issues. Their executives are all clearly thinking about these issues. This week, Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos tweeted that “there are no magic solutions” to several “fundamental issues” in online speech. “Do you believe that gatekeepers should police the bounds of acceptable online discourse?” he asked. “If so, what bounds?”

This is true. But content moderators already all know that. They’ve been in the room trying to decide what’s decent and what’s dirty. These thousands of people have been acting as the police for the boundaries of “acceptable online discourse.” And as a rule, they have been unsupported, underpaid, and left to deal with the emotional trauma the work causes, while the companies they work for have become the most valuable in the world.

“The questions I have every time I read these statements from big tech companies about hiring people are: Who? And where? And under what conditions?” Roberts told me.