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Vox Sentences: A cactus, some huge cardboard boxes, and lots of money — how cities are wooing Amazon
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

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The Taliban steps up brutal attacks on Afghan troops; Spain prepares to strip Catalonia of its autonomy; numerous US cities and states vie to be the home of Amazon's second headquarters.


The Taliban escalates attacks in Afghanistan

 Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images
  • Afghanistan has seen a spate of deadly violence in recent weeks, as the Taliban has stepped up attacks on the country’s military. [BBC]
  • Today, 43 Afghan soldiers were killed in a car bomb attack in Kandahar province, with more soldiers either missing or wounded. The attack nearly obliterated an entire army base; only two men escaped unharmed. [WSJ / Habib Khan Totakhil and Ehsanullah Amiri]
  • Just a few days ago, the Taliban launched similar attacks in Paktia and Ghazni provinces, killing 46 Afghan police, including a prominent commander. [NYT / Mujib Mashal and Fatima Faizi]
  • Many of the attacks follow a similar, disturbing pattern, where Taliban soldiers capture army vehicles including American Humvees, fill them with bombs, and drive them into Afghan army units. Afghan officials estimate the terror group has captured well over 100 Humvees and trucks around the country that it is now using as weapons. [NYT / Taimoor Shah and Mujib Mashal]
  • US and NATO forces formally ended their mission in Afghanistan in 2014, leaving the Afghan army to pick up much of the fighting. It is struggling to do so in the face of increased Taliban attacks. [Associated Press / Amir Shah]
  • The escalating attacks prove contrary to how a top US general recently characterized the situation in Afghanistan, saying the conflict was at a “stalemate.” However, under President Trump, more US troops will soon be deployed to the country. [NPR / Tom Bowman]
  • The US-led coalition in the country is also dropping more bombs on Taliban and ISIS targets than it has in seven years. [NBC News / Yuliya Talmazan]

Spain is getting ready to take control of Catalonia

 Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images
  • Spain’s central government is starting the process of taking control of Catalonia, after the autonomous region voted to become independent a few weeks ago. [CNN / Hilary Clarke]
  • After not getting a clear answer from the Catalan leader about whether the region actually intends to secede from Spain, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced today that the country’s parliament would meet this weekend to start the process of stripping Catalonia of its autonomy. [LA Times / Laura King and Lauren Frayer]
  • When Catalonia held a controversial independence referendum on October 1, its regional president, Carles Puigdemont, stopped short of fully separating. Rather than declaring independence, Puigdemont said that Catalonia had the right to secede and that he wanted to negotiate further with Spain. [Vox / Sarah Wildman]
  • Rajoy had other ideas. He essentially gave Puigdemont eight days to make up his mind. If at the end of the deadline there was no clear answer from Catalonia, Rajoy said Spain would take control of the region. This is a big deal — it sets up a constitutional crisis unlike anything the country has seen in decades. [Vox / Sarah Wildman]
  • The European Union said it does not plan to get involved in the situation, but European leaders — including Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Emmanuel Macron — said they supported Madrid. [BBC]
  • There have been tense and sometimes violent protests since the vote on October 1, and people in the region are bracing themselves for possible protests this weekend. [The Guardian / Stephen Burgen]
  • It’s not the last independence referendum in Europe; Italians in the regions of Lombardy and Veneto will vote next week on whether they want their regional governments to pursue more autonomy. The Italian vote is nonbinding, but some regional officials want to try to get more leverage with that country’s central government. [NYT / Elisabetta Povoledo]

Desperately seeking Amazon

 David Ryder/Getty Images
  • Amazon is trying to decide where it should build its second headquarters, and more than 40 states and cities across America are vying for its business. [USA Today / Nathan Bomey]
  • Amazon is already headquartered in Seattle, and the online retail giant is promising to bring up to 50,000 new jobs and infuse $5 billion into the local economy of whichever city it decides to choose for the second location. So it makes sense that so many cities are jumping at the chance. [Reuters]
  • Some are getting creative with their pitches: City officials in Tucson, Arizona, sent the company a 21-foot-tall saguaro cactus (which eventually had to be returned), while Birmingham, Alabama, built a bunch of huge Amazon boxes and put them all around the city to show its enthusiasm. [NPR / Rick Pluta]
  • Even small states are getting in on the action; New Hampshire recently caused a spat with Massachusetts when the Granite State’s bid to Amazon included some pointed disses of its southern neighbor (while reminding the company that New Hampshire is also close to Boston). [The Boston Globe]
  • Besides submitting bids outlining why they think Amazon should move to them, cities and states are also trying to sweeten the deal with financial incentives. New Jersey is offering a whopping $7 billion in tax breaks for Amazon to move to Newark, while California is offering around $300 million. [Reuters]
  • There’s a question of what states actually gain from this. Some economists say that when states offer so much money upfront to lure a big company, they actually lose out over time and can only hope to break even in the long run. [NPR / Alina Selyukh]
  • And even though Amazon has created a ton of economic growth in Seattle, it also comes with headaches. Seattle housing prices have skyrocketed, and there’s now a growing homeless population as some people can no longer afford rent in the area. [Washington Post / Jonathan O’Connell]
  • It will be a while before Amazon picks its winning city; economists say the most likely contenders include Austin, Atlanta, Boston, and Pittsburgh. Amazon has been adding fuel to the fire by showing social media love to cities and states including DC, Boston, Dallas, and Colorado. [Recode / Rani Molla]

Miscellaneous

  • New Zealand is taking its Bird of the Year competition a little too seriously this year. There’s been vote rigging and a mysterious Instagram account accusing the white-faced heron of racism and calling the kiwi a "fat flightless fuck." [New Zealand Herald]
  • The latest sports doping scandal involves Iditarod sled dogs in Alaska, after some dogs tested positive for an opioid painkiller called tramadol. [NPR / Scott Neuman]
  • Some colleges across the country use student informants to try to catch on-campus drug dealers. The practice is limited, but very little is known about it, and a small number of informants have died in the process. [The Chronicle of Higher Education / Suhauna Hussain]
  • Scientists recently found that getting children to concentrate might not require Ritalin; all it takes is a Batman costume. [The British Psychological Society Research Digest / Christian Jarrett]
  • For just 14,000 rubles (or $244), you too can pay a Moscow-based company to pretend you flew in a private jet for your Instagram photos. [Business Insider / Rosie Fitzmaurice]

Verbatim


Read this: 4 signs Trump’s quest to save coal is doomed

 Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

Coal is losing in Texas, in the US, in the world. [Vox / David Roberts]


Watch this: How drug companies make you buy more medicine than you need

They make eyedrops too big — and make you pay for the waste. [YouTube / Ranjani Chakraborty and Marshall Allen]


Read more

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Rose McGowan’s relentless fight against the Harvey Weinsteins of Hollywood, explained

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar explained what happens when humongous stars die

The controversy over Bernie Sanders’s speech at the Women’s Convention, explained
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

For some, the senator’s appearance at the convention was a problem. For him, it was a test.

The organizers of the Women’s Convention — an outgrowth of the Women’s March that drew millions of participants around the globe in January — sparked controversy in mid-October when they announced that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) would be the conference’s opening-night speaker.

“This event is literally called the ‘Women’s Convention,’” Lily Herman wrote at Refinery29, “so it’d be nice to see, you know, women in the spotlight.” MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid and many others expressed similar sentiments, as Vox’s Jeff Stein noted.

The organizers of the convention countered that their program included 60 women and only two men, and that they had invited a number of women — including Hillary Clinton, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) — who were unable to attend. And while Sanders was slated to speak on opening night, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) would give the keynote address.

In a statement on Thursday, Sanders announced that he would not attend the convention after all, and would instead travel to Puerto Rico to meet with Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz of San Juan. But the controversy over Sanders has exposed larger rifts on the left, rifts that have to do with the 2016 primary but also with abortion rights, identity, and the interplay between feminism and economic policy.

Sanders’s comments about abortion are a sticking point for some feminists

As anyone who follows left-wing politics knows, conflicts between Sanders supporters and Clinton supporters have persisted long after the 2016 Democratic primary. Divisions in Democratic politics today are more complicated than Sanders versus Clinton, but as Stein notes, relitigation of the primary continues. That campaign included online harassment on both sides, and for many Clinton supporters, the memory of being attacked by Sanders supporters on Twitter doesn’t disappear overnight.

That’s part of the story behind the opposition to Sanders’s appearance. But it’s not the only part. Reproductive rights advocates have also been disturbed by Sanders’s post-election comments on abortion rights, as Rebecca Nelson notes at Cosmopolitan. Sanders endorsed Heath Mello, a mayoral candidate this year in Omaha, who had sponsored or voted for several anti-abortion bills during his time in the Nebraska state legislature. When criticized, Sanders said such choices might be necessary “if we’re going to become a 50-state party.”

“If you have a rally in which you have the labor movement and the environmentalists and Native Americans and the African-American community and the Latino community coming together, saying, we want this guy to become our next mayor, should I reject going there to Omaha?” he asked on Face the Nation.

“We have got to appreciate where people come from, and do our best to fight for the pro-choice agenda,” he told NPR. “But I think you just can't exclude people who disagree with us on one issue."

Sanders also noted that he has always voted in favor of abortion rights in Congress. But many saw his comments about the party as a betrayal of women, as well as of progressive values. “To be anti-choice on a policy level is absolutely indefensible from an economic justice, racial justice, gender justice and human rights standpoint,” Lindy West wrote at the New York Times. “And if the Democratic Party does not stand for any of those things, then what on earth is it?”

To others, Sanders’s willingness to budge on the issue of abortion was at odds with his campaign message of proud, unapologetic democratic socialism. If the left doesn’t need to compromise on a $15 minimum wage or single-payer health care, some wondered, why give ground on abortion rights? Herman wrote that the accusation that the Democratic Party wasn’t pragmatic enough was “rich coming from Sanders.”

Sanders has also come under fire for comments about women candidates

Sanders’s stance on anti-abortion candidates isn’t the only reason some feminists have concerns about the senator. Since the presidential election, he’s pressed the Democratic Party to “go beyond identity politics.” “Identity politics” means different things to different people, and as Graham Vyse of the New Republic points out, it’s not always entirely clear what Sanders means by it. But some of his comments about women candidates have troubled a lot of voters.

At an appearance in Boston in late November, Sanders got a written question from a woman named Rebecca: “I want to be the second Latina senator in U.S. history. Any tips?” Bringing more women of color into politics was important, Sanders said. But, he went on, “it is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘Hey, I’m a Latina. Vote for me.’ That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country and is going to take on big-money interests.”

“It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman. Vote for me,’” he added later. “What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”

As Jeff Stein noted at the time, it was hard not to see this last comment as a criticism of Clinton. She and many of her supporters, however, would argue that her campaign was about more than her gender. And when it comes to Rebecca, it’s not clear why Sanders would assume her entire political message would boil down to “Hey, I’m a Latina. Vote for me.” The moment made him look like he was talking down to a woman eager to enter politics, even if that wasn’t his intent.

It also fed the fear among many feminists and other activists that Sanders might be willing to sacrifice racial and gender equality in favor of economic populism. “Economic policy is not the singular answer to violence, hatred, oppression, and marginalization,” Carmen Rios wrote at Argot in response to Sanders’s November speech. “That doesn't mean it isn't important — it just means we don't have to choose. It means we cannot choose.”

The Women’s Convention speech was an important test for Sanders

As the organizers of the Women’s Convention have noted, Sanders was just one of many speakers scheduled to appear at the event, and perhaps not the most prominent. Tamika Mallory, one of the organizers of the Women’s March, took media outlets to task on Twitter for devoting more attention to the Sanders announcement than to the news that Waters would deliver the keynote.

And ultimately, Sanders’s speech at the convention would probably have said more about him than about the convention itself. As a movement, the Women’s March has weathered controversies before and emerged strong enough to draw millions of people around the world and enrage the president. Whatever happens at the convention, it will be about much more than one man, no matter who he is.

Sanders, however, faced an opportunity — and a challenge. Many on the left, from his critics to his cautious supporters, have been wondering if there is room for feminism in his worldview. As Vyse wrote at the New Republic, “he’s never fully explained how he sees his populism pairing with identity politics. He needs to clarify that he is in fact talking about all Americans, and make it clear that he understands the distinct challenges faced by various groups.”

Sanders’s convention speech would have been a chance for him to do that, in front of a group that’s emerged, in the past 10 months, as a major political force. His choice to visit Puerto Rico instead was, in many ways, a smart one, allowing him to use his considerable star power to draw attention to a humanitarian crisis that President Trump has badly mishandled. But the challenge — whether he can speak convincingly on issues of gender and racial justice that he’s sometimes preferred to sidestep — remains.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar explained what happens when humongous stars die
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

1.4 times the mass of our sun — why “Chandrasekhar’s limit” is essential for understanding why some stars form black holes.

All things die, even stars. When stars run out of hydrogen — the fuel that sustains the nuclear fusion reactors at their cores — they become unstable and collapse in on themselves. But not all stars collapse in the same way. Some of the most massive ones explode into a supernova and then collapse down into neutron stars, or black holes. We know this because of the work of astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who would be 107 Thursday and is honored with a Google Doodle.

Chandrasekhar — an Indian-born scientist who spent 50 years at the University of Chicago — is most famous for coming up with the theory that explains the death of the universe’s most massive stars.

Before Chandrasekhar, scientists assumed that all stars collapsed into white dwarfs when they died. He determined this isn’t so.

On a long sea voyage from India to England in 1930 at the age of 19, he worked it out. According to the science of quantum mechanics, there are forces within the very atoms of the white dwarf star that counteract the force of gravity. Chandrasekhar determined this force would be overwhelmed if the star were massive enough.

He determined that any star remnants 1.4 times more massive than our sun would be too massive to form a stable white dwarf. After the limit, the force of gravity would cause the white dwarf to collapse.

“This discovery is basic to much of modern astrophysics, since it shows that stars much more massive than the Sun must either explode or form black holes,” NASA explains.

(For a more technical description of Chandrasekhar’s methodology, check out this great PBS story.)

This figure — 1.4 times the mass of our sun — is now known as the “Chandrasekhar limit,” and it’s key to understanding the evolution of stars in our universe. Beyond this limit, stars at the end of their lives either explode into a supernova or explode and then collapse into a neutron star or even a black hole.

Neutron stars are some of the weirdest objects in the universe. They’re small — just 15 or so miles across — but contain a mass equal to the sun. A teaspoon of neutron star weighs around 10 million tons. They’re so dense that the only things that can exist inside of them are neutrons, which are protons and electrons fused together. (The LIGO gravitational wave observatory just witnessed two of them crashing into each other. Subsequent observations showed that this collision actually contained the right energy and conditions to create heavy elements like gold and platinum.)

At the time of his discovery in the 1930s, Chandrasekhar didn’t know what, exactly, these massive stars would turn into once they spent all their fuel.

Initially, his idea was met with ridicule.

Sir Arthur Eddington, a physicist whose experimental work was key in proving Einstein’s theory of general relativity, openly mocked Chandrasekhar’s theory at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1935.

"The star has to go on radiating and radiating and contracting and contracting until, I suppose, it gets to a few kilometers' radius, when gravity becomes strong enough to hold the radiation and the star can at last have peace," Eddington said, inadvertently describing the very thing Chandrasekhar’s limit would explain: the creation of black holes. “I think there should be a law of Nature to prevent a star from behaving in this absurd way!” he added. (There isn’t.)

This incident was so embarrassing for the young Chandrasekhar that he almost quit the field, the New York Times explains. (Chandrasekhar and Eddington would eventually make amends.)

Of course, scientists would go on to find more and more evidence of the existence of black holes and neutron stars. And for his work, Chandrasekhar won half of the 1983 Nobel Prize in physics. His theory represents one of the very early, important steps in our understanding of black holes and neutron stars.

And today his name adorns one of NASA’s prized space telescopes: The Chandra X-ray Observatory, whose data has contributed to the most spectacular images we have of dying stars exploding into supernovas.

This is the Crab Nebula, the result of a supernova explosion 4,500 light-years away from Earth.

Chandrasekhar was a prolific writer — he published more than a dozen textbooks on a range of topics in physics — and a devoted teacher (having once regularly driven a 100-mile round trip just to teach a class with two students), the University of Chicago explains. He was also the editor of the prestigious Astrophysical Journal for two decades. He passed away in 1995.

When he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1983, Chandrasekhar chose to read aloud a poem he had memorized from his youth in India. It was by Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1913. Its message: Freedom is knowledge.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

into that haven of freedom, Let me awake.

In the moving Netflix documentary One of Us, 3 ex-Hasidic Jews struggle with secular life
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

The directors of Jesus Camp show how hard it is to leave an insular religious community.

If you haven’t left an oppressive religious community, peeking inside one may seem novel, a curious poking of your nose into a weird upside-down world where everything mainstream culture takes for granted is swapped out for some alternate reality.

If you have left such a community, though, stories of others who’ve also found their way out induce a mix of panic and relief. Critics try to stay neutral, but I can’t pretend One of Us didn’t sock me in the solar plexus; the documentary about three young people trying to make their way outside of Hasidic Judaism is laden with a familiar sadness and longing.

My own background is much closer to an earlier film from One of Us co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady: the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp, which looked inside a charismatic Christian summer camp for young people that trained them in spiritual warfare (and to an extent, conservative political warfare). That film is hard to watch too.

Whereas Jesus Camp focused on the faithful, though, One of Us takes a different tack in its examination of an insular religious community (and one that’s more impenetrable to outsiders). Instead of talking to the true believers, Ewing and Grady follow the questioners. The film’s revelations are two-pronged: They uncover much about the Hasidic community, while also more broadly exposing how insular groups keep people in and everyone else out. It’s hard to leave, even when staying is impossible too.

One of Us follows three young people who leave the Hasidic Jewish community over three years

The three subjects of One of Us are at different points in their journey away from Hasidic Judaism when we first meet them. Luzer left years earlier, and is living in an RV in a parking lot in Los Angeles while trying to make it as an actor. Ari is still a teenager whose serious questions about his community and his religion stem not just from natural curiosity but also from a traumatic experience of sexual abuse at the hands of an older man.

A scene from One of Us Netflix
A scene from One of Us.

Both Luzer and Ari are compelling figures, but the film’s most riveting subject is Etty, a mother of seven who has finally broken free of an abusive marriage — but not of the community that enabled it — when we first meet her. The movie’s three-year arc most closely hews to her journey, from her first tentative steps away from a life over which she has no control to a hard-won, grief-tinged freedom that also results in having to surrender her children. Partway through the film, Ewing and Grady finally show her face for the first time; through Etty we encounter Footsteps, a support group for former Hasidic Jews.

Etty isn’t the only one of the subjects whose movement away from the Hasidic community comes with the steep cost of losing her family. Luzer, too, left a family behind when he left. And Ari’s difficulties adjusting to life outside the community leave him casting about for some kind of safety net.

Ewing and Grady stay with Etty, Luzer, and Ari for three years, chronicling their shifting arcs as they navigate life on the outside. Some things feel freeing — eating a cheeseburger, getting a haircut, getting a job, cruising down the freeway singing to the radio. But not everything is like that. There are costs to pay besides losing one’s family. There’s the anxiety that comes along with learning how to navigate a world to which you’ve never been introduced, with a subpar education and no safety net. There’s the panic that can come from learning to live outside the strictures of the laws set by the rabbis, even if you chafed against those laws. There’s the fear that you may be in physical danger whether you stay or go.

What’s clear — and implicit in the film’s title — is that there are stringent lines drawn around what it is to be “us” and what it is to be other, and that crossing that line has extreme consequences. As the film notes, a straight line can be drawn between many of the community’s actions and the staggering losses they sustained during the Holocaust; children are considered to belong to the community, not the parents, and the extreme ways they choose to protect themselves from the outside extends almost to flouting the law, something toward which, Etty claims, the city of New York turns a blind eye. That can allow abuse, in particular, to flourish, and leaves victims with no recourse if reporting it might threaten the community as a whole.

A scene from One of Us Netflix
A scene from One of Us.

One of Us gives a way of understanding the feeling of leaving, even to the outsider

That Ewing and Grady managed to find their way into this experience with such clarity and compassion is remarkable, and that it’s so relatable for those who aren’t former Hasidic Jews is a testament to their empathy as filmmakers. Etty, Ari, and Luzer get to tell their stories on their own terms; Ewing and Grady silently fill in a few key details via onscreen text, and that’s it. Instead of being on the inside, we’re experiencing what it’s like to leave. And it’s devastating.

Perhaps the most devastating thing we come to feel is how much it hurts to lose the animating sense of purpose that a community like this can offer. Walking away from a world that you’ve come to believe, or even know, is ruled by abusive people also leaves you devoid of a life trajectory you were brought up to see as your own, as a parent and a member of the group. Losing that sense of purpose has vast psychological consequences too: Ari struggles with a cocaine addiction, Luzer speaks of his suicide attempts, and Etty weeps at Footsteps meetings. All of them look for consolation in places that feel even a little familiar — religious services that share some of the trappings of what they’ve left behind. None of them come to a final conclusion about what comes next.

That experience is familiar and devastating to those who’ve had similar experiences of leaving, of no longer being “one of us.” And it’s broadly understandable, too, which makes One of Us a bridge into empathy even for the outsider. It’s hard enough to live when the rug you were used to standing on is pulled out from under you. It’s even harder to deal with when you made the choice to yank it away yourself.

One of Us premieres on Netflix on October 20.

The perilous path for Alexander-Murray to become a law
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

This is the web version of VoxCare, a daily newsletter from Vox on the latest twists and turns in America’s health care debate. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get VoxCare in your inbox here.

Ever since it was announced, the future of the bipartisan deal from Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) to stabilize Obamacare has gotten muddier.

As a matter of policy, the deal (explained in more detail here) provides some clear wins for both sides. Obamacare's cost-sharing reductions are paid, after President Donald Trump pulled them, a win for Democrats who want the law to work. On the Republican side, states will get more flexibility and consumers get some more insurance options.

But this is Obamacare we're talking about. After years of partisan warfare, a sensible compromise isn't going to just sell itself.

The picture got a little clearer, at least in the Senate, on Thursday. Alexander and Murray announced 24 co-sponsors for their bill, 12 from each party.

The 48 Senate Democrats were always likely to support the deal. It's had no bigger cheerleader than Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

The majority is the real question. Right now, 12 of the 52 Republican senators are willing to put their name on Alexander-Murray (Alexander plus these 11):

  • Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD)
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
  • Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)
  • Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA)
  • Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME)
  • Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA)
  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)
  • Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC)
  • Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN)
  • Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA)
  • Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA)

That's a start, made up mostly of the more moderate end of the GOP conference.

But it means Republican supporters still have work to do. While the bill probably has the 60 votes it needs with Democrats united behind it, it's hard to imagine GOP leaders putting a bill on the Senate floor that only 12 of their own members support.

Alexander made his pitch clear in a floor speech today: People will be hurt without action, Republicans already included cost-sharing payments in their repeal-and-replace bills, and Alexander-Murray represents an actual policy win for Republicans after repeal's failure.

"Some say that’s not enough," he said. "Well, that’s more than we’ve gotten in eight years."

Though Alexander will undoubtedly do his best, many — maybe most — Republicans won't willingly vote for a standalone bill that fixes Obamacare after they spent nine painful months trying to repeal it.

Noting that there seemed to be 40 votes in the Senate for any repeal bill, a GOP health care lobbyist told me: "The same herd mentality there puts you at a deep hole in the Senate" on Alexander-Murray.

Instead, Democrats are likely going to have to force the issue.

We should reset our expectations: The deal almost certainly won't pass on its own. So let's look ahead to December, when the federal government needs to be funded.

"That’s your place that Republicans can more comfortably let it move," the lobbyist said.

Government spending bills need 60 votes, so the minority has a lot of leverage. But Alexander-Murray won't be the only thing they want. Democrats are also eager to resolve the DACA issue, after Trump said he would end that protection for certain undocumented immigrants.

Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are going to try to get everything they can in a shutdown deal — and they have a proven record of winning Trump to their side.

But if this should become a tit-for-tat negotiation, the question will be where Alexander-Murray ranks among the Democratic priorities. It will be competing with DACA and, potentially, the Children's Health Insurance Program, which is heading into its third week without being reauthorized. Trump will want something (the "wall"?) in return.

This is going to be messy. And then you have the House, where Speaker Paul Ryan has already tried to pour cold water on the deal. He could end up being squeezed the most if Alexander-Murray gets folded as expected into the end-of-the-year talks.

"It sucks being Paul Ryan," the lobbyist said "What I can’t figure out is how he gets out of December without 150 Republicans against something."

So we know how Alexander-Murray could pass:

  • Democrats make it a must in the shutdown negotiations
  • Alexander gathers enough Republican supporters to make it palatable in the Senate
  • Ryan accepts it as a necessity in the House to keep the government open
  • Trump stays on board, after his waffling over the past few days

But that is a road filled with landmines. It's going to be an interesting two months for the deal.

Chart of the Day

 Vox

How big candy turned chocolate into a health food. You've probably heard those reports about how good for your heart dark chocolate might be. What great news, you thought. Something delicious and healthy.

Vox’s Julia Belluz has some bad news for you: Many of the studies purporting to find health benefits from eating chocolate were brought to you by, you guessed it, the candy industry. Almost every study funded by Mars, as the chart above shows, had conclusions that were favorable to cocoa or chocolate. What a coincidence.

Kliff’s Notes

Your daily top health care reads, with research help from Caitlin Davis

News of the day

  • “Bipartisan Group Of Governors Urge Congress To Stabilize Health Market”: ““We urge Congress to quickly pass legislation to stabilize our private health insurance markets and make quality health insurance more available and affordable,” the governors wrote in the letter.” —Caitlin MacNeal, Talking Points Memo
  • “Trump: 'I'm open' to ObamaCare deal”: “President Trump on Thursday indicated an openness to a bipartisan short-term ObamaCare stabilization deal introduced in the Senate. 'We will probably like a very short-term solution until we hit the block grants,' Trump said. 'If they can do something like that, I'm open to it.'” —Nathaniel Weixel, the Hill
  • “Trump administration appeals abortion ruling”: “The Trump administration is appealing a judge's order requiring that the government allow an undocumented pregnant minor in a federally funded Texas shelter receive an abortion.” —Renuka Rayasam, Politico

Analysis and longer reads

  • “These health programs work. But in the rancor of Congress, they’ve been left in the lurch”: “These so-called “extenders” — named because the policies they describe usually need to be reauthorized, reinstated, or extended at regular intervals — aren’t especially controversial. But in the midst of partisan tension over all things health-related, the programs are facing a more uncertain future than ever before.” —Erin Mershon, STAT
  • “How Illinois hustled to protect Obamacare from Trump”: “Even before President Donald Trump announced plans last week to nix Obamacare subsidies, the Illinois Department of Insurance raced over the summer to get insurers on board with a strategy to minimize the financial pain of such a move.” —Kristen Schorsch, Modern Healthcare
  • “The Next Chapter In Transparency: Maryland’s Wear The Cost”: “Maryland is launching a new initiative to make information on the price and quality of healthcare more accessible to consumers through the website Wear the Cost. With the platform, the state has taken a decidedly different approach to improving transparency—one that engages consumers in a direct and ongoing conversation about health care costs, particularly the wide disparity among providers in terms of price and quality.” —Robert Moffit, Marilyn Moon, François de Brantes, and Suzanne Delbanco, Health Affairs

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YouTube’s messy fight with its most extreme creators
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

The platform has become a haven for the far right. What now?

Search YouTube for topics like “immigration,” “Islam,” or “feminism” and you’ll inevitably come across the work of the YouTube right — a growing network of right-wing vloggers, media operations, and conspiracy theorists who’ve built their audiences primarily on the platform. They’ve earned millions of followers by decrying political correctness, warning about the dangers of Islam and mass migration, and mocking social justice warriors.

And they’ve been able to do it because, unlike Fox News or conservative talk radio, these YouTubers don’t have to worry about answering directly to corporate advertisers. For the most part, advertisers work with YouTube, which then decides which videos to place ads on and how to pay creators for their work.

That’s allowed YouTube to flourish as a kind of radical free speech experiment, but it’s also led to the outgrowth of a tremendous amount of extremism, hate speech, and conspiracy theories on the platform.

And it’s starting to make advertisers uncomfortable.

In March this year, 250 advertisers pulled back from YouTube after reports that ads were appearing on extremist content, including white supremacist videos. As a result, YouTube demonetized a wide range of political content, including videos that didn’t include hate speech but might still be considered controversial by advertisers. Creators called it “the adpocalypse” — they saw their incomes from YouTube evaporate without fully understanding what they’d done wrong or how to avoid demonetization in the future.

This is part of a broader battle between YouTube’s creators — who want the freedom to speak their minds without fear of corporate censorship — and advertisers, who want to know the platform can rein in its worst excesses.

You can find this video and all of Vox's videos on YouTube. Subscribe for more episodes of Strikethrough, our series exploring the media in the age of Trump.

23 tweets from @TEN_GOP, the pro-Trump Twitter account actually run by Russians
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

The account insisted, naturally, that Russia didn’t interfere in the election.

“Tennessee GOP,” or @TEN_GOP, was a popular Twitter account claiming to be run by, well, Republicans in Tennessee. Tweeting out a mix of pro-Trump cheerleading, ordinary partisan content, Islamophobia, racism, and conspiracy theories, the account amassed at least 136,000 followers. Its tweets often racked up thousands of retweets, sometimes even from top Trump campaign staffers.

And it turns out a Russian government-backed organization was running it all along.

Twitter finally shut down the @TEN_GOP account in August of this year, and two excellent new reports from BuzzFeed News and the Daily Beast have more on the details of what happened there.

But it’s worth taking a look back at just what this Russian account was putting out there, both before the election and after it.

A review of many of its past tweets reveal some that appear to be deliberately advancing a pro-Russian propaganda agenda, and others that appear more aimed at staying “in character” in the fake identity of a Tennessee Republican. (It’s hard to see the propaganda purpose in, for instance, a tweet saying the late Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds are “singin the rain in the heavens now.”)

And despite occasional spelling or grammatical flubs (which, in fairness, native-born American accounts sometimes make too), there’s a perhaps surprising amount of sophistication in how @TEN_GOP understood US political dynamics, and how it attempted to make mischief.

So here, courtesy of screencaps from the Wayback Machine, are some of the now-deleted account’s most notable tweets.

The Russian account wants you to know that Russians didn’t interfere with the election

The Russian account supports the firing of James Comey

The Russian account does not want Julian Assange prosecuted

The Russian account likes Marine Le Pen and likes Trump’s position on NATO

The Russian account is often just flat-out racist or Islamophobic

The Russian account often spread anti-Democrat conspiracy theories

The Russian account is also sometimes just totally random

"I was stunned … and broken-hearted": Ret. Gen. John Kelly attacks witness to Trump’s disrespect for troops
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

Tuesday night, a Democratic Congress member who overheard the conversation reported that President Donald Trump told the widow of US Army Sgt. La David Johnson, a Green Beret killed during a mission in Niger on October 4, "He knew what he signed up for ... but when it happens, it hurts anyway.”

The account was confirmed by Johnson’s mother, also present during the phone call. But the Trump administration vociferously denied the story, first through Trump’s Twitter account and then at a briefing by press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

And in their most dramatic attempt to discredit the story yet, on Thursday Sanders relinquished the podium to White House Chief of Staff and retired Army Gen. John Kelly, who lost his son in Afghanistan in 2010, who said the problem was with the member of Congress, not the president.

Kelly did not deny Rep. Frederica Wilson’s (D-FL) story. But he claimed outrage that she would listen in on the phone call, and brought up an unrelated incident two years ago when he claimed she engaged in political grandstanding at the dedication of a new FBI field office in Miami.

“I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted, at what I saw a member of Congress doing, a member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the president of the United States to a young wife,” Kelly said. “In his way [Trump] tried to express that opinion that he's a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted, there's no reason to enlist, he enlisted and was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken. That was the message.”

It wasn’t the first time that the administration has cited Kelly’s late son in this debate — President Trump claimed that then-President Obama never called Kelly, to defend himself for being late in calling the families of four soldiers killed in Niger — but it’s the most notable to date.

A lightly edited transcript of Kelly’s remarks follows.


KELLY: Thanks a lot. It is a more serious note. So I just wanted to perhaps make more of a statement than an — give more of an explanation of what amounts to be a traditional press interaction. Most Americans don't know what happens when we lose one of our soldiers, sailors, and Marines or Coast Guardsmen in combat. Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud. Puts them on a helicopter and sends them home. Their first stop is when they are packed in ice, typically at the air head and flown to usually Europe. Where they're then packed in ice again and flown to Dover Air Force Base, where Dover takes care of the remains. Embalms them. Meticulously dresses them in their uniform with the medals they earned and puts them on another airplane to take them home.

A very, very good movie is Taking Chance. Chance Phelps was killed under my command right next to me. It's worth seeing that if you've never seen it. That's the process. While that's happening, a casualty officer typically goes to the home very early in the morning and waits for the first lights to come on. And then he knocks on the door, typically the mom and dad will answer, the wife. And if there is a wife, this is happening in two different places, if the parents are divorced, three different places, and the casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member. And stays with this family until — well, for a long, long time. That's what happens.

Who are these young men and women, they are the best 1 percent this country produces. Most Americans don't know them. Many don't know any who knows any one of them. But they are the very best this country produces and volunteer to protect our country when there's nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that self-service to the nation is not only appropriate but required. That's all right. Who writes letters to the families? Typically the company commander. In my case the commander, division commander, secretary of defense, typically the service chief and the president. Typically writes the letter. Typically the only phone calls the family receives are the most important phone calls they could imagine, and that is from their buddies. In my case, after my son was killed, his friends were calling us from Afghanistan telling us what a great guy he was. Those are the only phone calls that really matter.

And yeah, the letters count to a degree, but there's not much that really can take the edge off for what the family members are going through. Some presidents have elected to call; all presidents I believe have elected to send letters. If you elect to call a family like this, it is about the most difficult thing you could imagine. There's no perfect way to make that phone call. When I took this job and talked to President Trump about how to do it, my first recommendation was he not do it. Because it's not the phone call that parents, family members are looking forward to. It's nice to do, in my opinion, in any event.

He asked me about previous presidents, and I said I could tell you that President Obama, who was my commander in chief when I was on active duty, did not call my family. That was not a criticism. That was just to simply say I don't believe President Obama called. That's not a negative thing. I don't believe President Bush called in all cases. I don't believe any president particularly when the casualty rates are very, very high that presidents call. I believe they all write.

So when I gave that explanation to our president three days ago, he elected to make phone calls in the case of the four young men who we lost in Niger at the earlier part of this month, but then he said how do you make these calls? If you're not in the family, if you've never worn the uniform, if you've never been in combat, you can't even imagine how to make that call, but I think he very bravely does make those calls.

The call in question that he made yesterday — a day before yesterday now — were to four family members, the four fallen, and remember, there's a next of kin designated by the individual; if he's married, that's typically the spouse. If he's not married, that's typically the parents, unless the parents are divorced and he selects one of them. If he didn't get along with his parents, he'll select a sibling. But the phone call is made to the next of kin only if the next of kin agrees to take the phone call. Sometimes they don't. So a precall is made. The president of the United States, will you accept the call, and typically they all accept the call. So he called four people the other day and expressed his condolences in the best way he could.

And he said to me, what do I say? I said to him, sir, there's nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families. Let me tell you what I tell them, let me tell you what my best friend told me because he was my casualty officer: He said Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were. Because we're at war. And when he died, and the four cases we're talking about Niger and my son's cases in Afghanistan, when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth, his friends. That's what the president tried to say to four families the other day.

I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing, a member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the president of the United States to a young wife. And in his way tried to express that opinion that he's a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted, there's no reason to enlist, he enlisted and was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken. That was the message. That was the message that was transmitted. It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred.

You know, when I was a kid growing up a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred. Looked upon with great honor. That's obviously not the case anymore, as we've seen from recent cases. Life was sacred. That's gone. Religion. That seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer. I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die in the battlefield, I thought that might be sacred.

And when I listened to this woman and what she was saying and what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go and walk among the finest men and women on this Earth. And you can always find them. Because they're in Arlington National Cemetery. Went over there for an hour and a half, walked among the stones, some of whom I put there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed. I'll end with this.

In April of 2015, while still on active duty, I went to the dedication of the new FBI field office in Miami. And it was dedicated to two men who were killed in a firefight in Miami against drug traffickers in 1986. A guy by the name of Grogan and Duke. Grogan almost retired, 53 years old. Duke, I think less than a year on the job. They got in a gunfight and killed. Three FBI agents were there, wounded, now retired. We go down and give a brilliant memorial speech to all of the men and women of the FBI who serve our country so well and law enforcement so well. There were family members there. Some of the children were only 3, 4 years old when their dads were killed on that street in Miami-Dade.

Three of the men that survived the fight were there and gave rendition of how brave those men were and how they gave their lives. And a congresswoman stood up and, in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there in all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building. How she took care of her constituents because she got the money and just called up President Obama and on that phone call he gave the money, the $20 million to build a building, and she sat down. And we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned. But none of us went to the press and criticized. None of us stood up and were appalled. We just said okay, fine.

So I still hope as you write your stories and I appeal to America that let's not let this maybe last thing that's held sacred in our society, a young man, young woman going out and giving his or her life for our country, let's try to somehow keep that sacred. But Rowe did a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior by a member of Congress. I'm willing to take a question or two on this topic. Let me ask you this. Is anyone here a Gold Star parent or sibling? Does anyone here know a Gold Star parent or sibling? Okay. You get the question.

PRESS: Thank you, Gen. Kelly. You have great deal respect for everything you have ever done. If we could take this a bit further, why were they in Niger? We were told they weren't in armored vehicles and no air cover. So what are the specifics about this particular incident, and why were we there and why are we there?

KELLY: I would start by saying there is an investigation. Let me back up and say the fact of the matter is young men and women that wear our uniform are deployed around the world, and there are tens of thousands. Near the DMZ and North Korea. And Okinawa and South Korea. All over the United States training ready to go. They're all over Latin America. They do mostly drug interdiction, working with our great partners. You know, there's thousands. My own son back in the fight for his fifth tour in the fight against ISIS. Thousands in Europe. Acting as a deterrent and Africa. And they're doing the nation's work there.

Not making a lot of money, by the way, doing it. They love what they do. Why were they there? They're there working with partners all across Africa in this case, Niger, working with partners, teaching them how to be better soldiers, how to respect human rights, teaching them how to fight ISIS so that we don't have to send our soldiers and Marines there in the thousands. That's what they were doing there. There is an investigation. Always an investigation. Unless it's a very, very conventional death in a conventional law, there's always an investigation.

Of course, that operation is conducted by AFRICOM, that works for the secretary of defense. I talked to Jim Mattis this morning. Investigation doesn't mean anything was wrong. An investigation doesn't mean people's heads are going to roll. The fact is they need to find out what happened and why it happened. But at the end of the day, ladies and gentlemen, you have to understand that these young people, sometimes old guys, put on the uniform, go to where we send them to protect our country.

Sometimes they go in large numbers to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes they're working in small units working with our partners in Africa, Asia, Latin America, helping them be better. But at the end of the day, they're helping those partners be better at fighting ISIS and North Africa to protect our country so that we don't have to send large numbers of troops. Any other — someone who knows a Gold Star fallen person. John.

PRESS: General, thank you for being here today, and thank you for your service. There has been some talk about the timetable of the release of a statement about — the death point was three soldiers killed in Niger. Can you walk us through the release of that information and what part did the fact that a beacon was pinging during that time have to do with the release of the statement and a concern that divulging information early might jeopardize?

KELLY: We're at the height of the US government; the people that will answer those questions will be the people at the other end of the military pyramid. I'm sure the special forces group is conducting and I know they're conducting an investigation. That investigation of course under the auspices of AFRICOM and ultimately will go to the Pentagon. I know a lot more than I'm letting on, but I'm not going to tell you.

There is an investigation being done, but as I said, the men and women of our country that are serving all around the world, I mean, what the hell is my son doing back in the fight? He's back in the fight because working with Iraqi soldiers who are better than they were a few years ago to take on ISIS directly so we don't have to do it. Small numbers of Marines where he is. Working alongside those guys. That's why they're out there. Whether it's Niger, Iraq. We don't want to send tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines to go fight. I'll take one more but from someone who knows — all right.

PRESS: General, when you talk about Niger, what does your intelligence tell you about the Russian connection with them and the stories coming out now supporting that?

KELLY: The Russian connection, I did not know that. The question’s for — or AFRICOM or DOD. Thanks very much.

As I walk off the stage, understand there's tens of thousands of American kids, mostly, doing the nation's work all around the world. They don't have to be in uniform. When I was a kid, every man in my life was a veteran, World War II, Korea, and there was the draft. These young people today, they don't do it for any other reason than their sense of selfless devotion to this great nation. We don't look down upon those who haven't served. In a way we're a bit sorry because you'll never experience the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kind of things our service men and women do. Not for any other reason than they love this country. I do appreciate your time.

George W. Bush: “Bigotry is emboldened” in today's America
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

Even without naming names, Bush’s latest speech slams President Trump.

Former President George W. Bush gave a speech Thursday that served as a lengthy critique of President Donald Trump, ending with a call for “American institutions to step up and provide cultural and moral leadership for this nation.”

Bush never mentioned Trump by name, but his speech, published in full by Politico, didn’t make it too hard to connect the dots — from condemning the foundation of Trump’s immigration agenda to calling the Russian attempt to interfere in American elections a serious threat to democracy.

Here are four moments from the speech that were particularly pointed:

1) Calling out “bigotry” and “conspiracy theories”

Our governing class has often been paralyzed in the face of obvious and pressing needs. The American dream of upward mobility seems out of reach for some who feel left behind in a changing economy. Discontent deepened and sharpened partisan conflicts. Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.

Trump got his start in politics by promoting the false conspiracy theory that President Obama was born in Kenya. He’s continued to spread baseless stories and rumors, including that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the election.

2) Standing up for “international trade” and against “nativism”

We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism — forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade — forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.

Trump’s administration has supported a reduction of legal immigration and has scorned international trade deals in favor of putting America first.

3) Criticizing a discourse of “casual cruelty”

We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions — forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.

This can be read as a critique of the political culture at large rather than just Trump, but the president has judged all Mexican and Central American immigrants based on the violent gang MS-13, mocked people with disabilities, and, this week, told the widow of a fallen American soldier that her husband “knew what he signed up for.”

4) Calling for action against Russian interference in the election

According to our intelligence services, the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other. This effort is broad, systematic and stealthy, it’s conducted across a range of social media platforms. Ultimately, this assault won’t succeed. But foreign aggressions — including cyber-attacks, disinformation and financial influence — should not be downplayed or tolerated. This is a clear case where the strength of our democracy begins at home. We must secure our electoral infrastructure and protect our electoral system from subversion.

The reference to “downplaying” is a jab at Trump, who has frequently (although not consistently) denied that Russia interfered in the 2017 election at all, certainly not to help him, and, over the summer, announced a plan to cooperate with Russia to stop election hacking.

John McCain wants Google and Facebook to reveal who pays for political ads
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

McCain joins Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar in co-sponsoring a bill to improve online transparency.

Three senators are putting pressure on internet giants like Facebook and Google to be more transparent about who is buying political ads on their sites in the wake of revelations that Russian-linked operatives placed ads on social media networks to sow division in the runup to the 2016 election.

On Thursday, Republican Sen. John McCain announced he is joining Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner to co-sponsor the Honest Ads Act, which would require political ads sold on the internet to follow the same rules as ones sold on television, radio, and satellite networks, all of which have to disclose who is buying political advertising.

“In the wake of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election, it is more important than ever to strengthen our defenses against foreign interference in our elections,” McCain said in a statement. “Unfortunately, US laws requiring transparency in political campaigns have not kept pace with rapid advances in technology, allowing our adversaries to take advantage of these loopholes to deceive millions of American voters with impunity.”

The announcement is a response to Russia’s meddling in the last presidential election, senators said. It’s illegal for foreign entities to buy political ads in the US, but in the runup to the 2016 election, a Russian-backed “troll farm” purchased $100,000 worth of political ads on Facebook. The ads only came to light last month, when Facebook officials testified in front of Congress.

Russian meddling in the election is usually framed as an issue of national security: A foreign power was able to interfere with the election process in the US. But the legislation looks at it another way — through the lens of campaign finance. The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, a campaign finance law sponsored by McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold, banned foreign actors from buying political ads in the United States. The Honest Ads Act would amend the law to include internet ads in those requirements.

“Political ads on the Internet are more popular now than ever,” Klobuchar wrote in an op-ed on the bill in the Washington Post. “But there is little transparency and accountability when it comes to disclosing information about these ads. And without transparency, there is no ability to know if foreign governments are purchasing the ads. This leaves our election system vulnerable to foreign influence.”

Campaign finance laws don’t apply online — so Russia could buy ads on Facebook and Google

The 2002 McCain-Feingold legislation was an attempt to inject transparency into political advertising, and part of a broader effort to cut down on attack ads. The law put limits on so-called “soft money,” how much political parties and interest groups could spend. But one of its most recognizable impacts was that political candidates had to provide a voiceover at the end of their ads, saying, “I am [insert candidate name here], and I approve this message.”

The ultimate goal was to give voters more information about the groups putting political ads on television, radio, and satellite networks.

But by the current law, internet companies don’t have to play by the same rules, because the law was written before the internet became the main way people communicate about politics. In 2006, the Federal Election Commission decided the internet could be exempt from these rules, after pressure from bloggers concerned about free speech.

In its decision, the FEC wrote that the internet was “a unique and evolving mode of mass communication and political speech that is distinct from other media in a manner that warrants a restrained regulatory approach.”

By 2017, a majority of American adults — 67 percent — got their news through social media, according to a study last month from the Pew Research Center. Facebook is a key news source; 45 percent primarily get their news from the social network, making it an important place for candidates, campaigns, and political parties to advertise during national and state elections.

The lack of transparency online made it easy for Russian influence to go undetected during the busy 2016 campaign season. Besides the $100,000 the Russians spent on Facebook ads, Google recently revealed that Russian operatives bought “tens of thousands of dollars” in ads on YouTube, Gmail, and other platforms before the election.

In the past, social media companies have resisted these kinds of rules. The $100,000 in Russian ad spending on Facebook is dwarfed by the more than $1 billion total spent on digital political ads during the 2016 campaign. In 2011, Facebook asked the FEC to apply something known as the “small item” exemption to political ads on their website, arguing that because they had limited ad space, there wasn’t enough room to include a disclosure saying who paid for the ad. Ultimately, the FEC never issued a decision, leaving Facebook free to do what it wanted.

Framing disclosure rules as a way to fight foreign influence might make that resistance more difficult, but tech companies are unlikely to accept it passively — as the New York Times’s Kenneth Vogel and Cecilia Kang reported, they’re assembling their own team of lobbyists and lawyers to try to shape the legislation as much as possible.

Political ads were part of a widespread Russian effort to influence the election

Russian interference in the 2016 election took on many forms, just one of which was political advertising. So far, Facebook seems to be where Russian-linked operatives spent the most money on political ads. The Russians spent about $100,000 on Facebook ads, compared to the “tens of thousands” they spent on ads at Google.

It appears that two different entities linked to the Russian government placed ads on Facebook and Google, meaning that the effort could have been more widespread than previously believed. Some of the ads were for specific candidates, including Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and the Green Party’s Jill Stein, but many highlighted politically divisive issues, including race relations, LGBTQ rights, immigration, and gun control.

For example, some ads took advantage of divisive social issues in America, promoting activist groups like Black Lives Matter, while other Russian ads suggested Black Lives Matter was a threat, according to the Washington Post. Other ads tried to stoke religious fears, saying that Muslim women had voted for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

The Russians deployed many other tactics, including recruiting US activists to stage protests for the civil rights of black Americans, according to an investigation by the Russian news site RBC. They also created thousands of fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter that linked back to their own websites, filled with hacked material on Hillary Clinton and prominent Democrats like businessman and investor George Soros, a New York Times investigation found.

It is unclear how successful the so-called Russian “troll farm” on Facebook was. Many of the accounts were crudely designed and used stilted, awkward language, and many of their posts were not widely shared throughout social media. The majority of the posts ran in 2015, the year before the election, when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were still competing with other candidates in the primaries, the Times investigation found.

Facebook recently announced that it is taking new steps to crack down on fake accounts, saying it wouldn’t allow pages to advertise on its site if they repeatedly posted fake content, and that it has been increasingly monitoring and shutting down the fake accounts.

Trump and conservative media have their own, quite different version of the Russia scandal
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

The president is trying to argue that Democrats, the Clintons, and the FBI are the real villains.

On Thursday morning, President Donald Trump sent a series of tweets about the Russia scandal, attempting to put forth a counternarrative in which Democrats and the FBI are the real villains.

With special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation moving forward and new revelations about Russian propaganda efforts during the 2016 election, the Trump-Russia scandal clearly isn’t going away anytime soon, and ignoring it no longer seems like a viable political strategy.

So many conservative media figures and GOP politicians have increasingly tried to publicize other Russia-related matters that they say implicate Trump’s political enemies — whether the Obama administration, the Clintons, Mueller, fired FBI Director James Comey, or even the FBI as a whole — in misconduct of some kind.

Two of these stories — questions about an Obama-era uranium deal, and questions about the salacious “dossier” on Trump — have been bubbling in conservative media for some time, and have gotten particular attention this week. So it was no surprise that the president himself tried to push them on Twitter Thursday:

The political reason Trump is embracing both of these stories is clear enough: He’s trying to cast Russia-related dirt on both Democrats and the FBI (which he views as part of a “deep state” unfairly persecuting him), to try to discredit the investigation as a whole, and to change the subject from the question of whether any of his associates colluded with the Russian government during the campaign.

And indeed, conservative media figures are arguing that these stories make Democrats and the FBI look at the very least hypocritical on Russia, and at worst like Russian patsies themselves.

The stories Trump is using to try to muddy the waters on Russia

Much as occurred earlier this year with the “unmasking” controversy, the Trump administration, leading Republicans, and conservative reporters and media outlets are trying to publicize — some would say drum up — Russia-related controversies that make Democrats or the FBI look bad.

So as much of the mainstream media continues to drill into the question of whether there was any collusion between Trump’s team and Russia during the election, much of the conservative media is spending a great deal of time on these other Russia-related stories.

The two that Trump tweeted about Thursday morning are:

  • The uranium company deal: This is essentially about whether the Obama administration had approved a 2010 deal in which Russia’s atomic energy agency bought a Canadian company with extensive uranium holdings, including in the United States. The issue was discussed during the campaign, but a report by John Solomon and Alison Spann of the Hill this week questions why the Obama-era FBI and Justice Department didn’t more aggressively pursue or publicize an investigation into misconduct from the Russian nuclear industry at the time. There are also questions about donations to the Clinton Foundation made by people involved with the deal, though no one has demonstrated that Hillary Clinton advocated for it in any sort of unusual way.
  • The Steele dossier: This is the infamous, salacious dossier put together by a former British spy that claimed extensive collusion between Russian officials and top Trump associates. It was written by former British spy Christopher Steele at the behest of the firm Fusion GPS. Republicans have questioned whether the dossier contained disinformation peddled by Russians and asked who paid Fusion to produce the dossier in the first place. There have also been questions about whether the FBI at some point last year paid Steele for the dossier.

Both of these matters have been hot topics on Fox News, and indeed, Trump appeared to be watching Fox & Friends when he tweeted about the uranium story Thursday morning.

The Senate Judiciary Committee under Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has long been investigating the Steele dossier matter, and is now looking into the Russian nuclear matter too. And again, it’s entirely possible that there was some wrongdoing on either front.

Still, the question of why Trump is so enthusiastic about these recent stories is hardly a mystery. The bigger picture is that he’s hoping to change the subject from questions about what he and his associates may have done, and to muddy the waters on the Russia issue by casting aspersions on his biggest critics.

President Trump gives himself a 10 out of 10 on helping Puerto Rico
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

Meanwhile, people on the island are drinking river water.

President Donald Trump remains pleased with the federal response to Puerto Rico: After he met with the island’s governor on Thursday, he told reporters that he rated the federal response to the island's hurricane disaster a "10,” according to Hunter Walker of Yahoo News.

The reports on the ground say otherwise. While federal workers are undoubtedly working hard to help Puerto Rico, the federal government is hardly doing everything possible to rebuild the shattered island, which is home to 3.4 million US citizens.

It's been one month since Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, and a large swath of the US territory remains without power, running water, and cell phone service. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has yet to authorize full reconstruction aid for Puerto Rico to repair its power grid and other infrastructure — assistance given to the US Virgin Islands two weeks after Maria and to Texas 10 days after Hurricane Harvey.

A week ago, there were still towns in the interior of the island that hadn't received food and water supplies from the federal government. Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan said in an interview last week that military helicopters couldn't find a place to land to deliver supplies in some areas.

"We still haven't identified everyone that needs help," he said.

The president has also refused to extend his waiver of the Jones Act, a law that makes it expensive to ship supplies and fuel to Puerto Rico from the US, beyond the initial 10 days.

The conditions are so still so bad in Puerto Rico that people are drinking dirty water from polluted rivers and streams, as my colleague Julia Belluz reports:

In desperation, Puerto Ricans are bathing and washing their clothes in rivers that have raw sewage pouring into them, the Associated Press reported, exposing them to bacteria like Leptospira, which causes leptospirosis. Some Puerto Ricans are even drinking from condemned wells and Superfund hazardous waste sites, which contain potentially dangerous chemicals.

The contaminated water has been linked to at least two deaths from leptospirosis.

Then there is the issue with the USNS Comfort, a military medical ship that the president sent to the island after intense public pressure. As of Tuesday, the ship was still mostly empty, with only 33 of the 250 beds on the ship filled, CNN reports. Doctors at hospitals across the island said they had no idea how to get patients there.

It's not even clear how many people have died because of the storm, as the government's official death count of 48 is at odds with reports from the ground.

Trump did eventually ask Congress to replenish the FEMA disaster relief fund with $13 billion. But it's far from the estimated $95 billion that Puerto Rico will need to return to normal.

Asked for his evaluation of the federal response, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló wasn't as generous. He declined to give a rating and said that the White House has answered "all of our petitions."

A detained 17-year-old immigrant wants an abortion. The government went to court to stop her.
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

The teenager is just one of many unaccompanied immigrant minors affected by a new policy restricting abortion access.

At a shelter in South Texas, a teenager is fighting the federal government to get an abortion.

The 17-year-old, identified in court documents as Jane Doe, came to the US as an undocumented, unaccompanied minor, as BuzzFeed News reported on Wednesday. She was taken into custody at the United States-Mexico border on September 11.

Since President Donald Trump took office, policies toward undocumented young people seeking abortions have changed. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed suit on behalf of Doe, all unaccompanied minors in immigration shelters now need permission from the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement — and he has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent undocumented young people from getting the procedure. In Doe’s case, ORR has prevented her from leaving the Texas shelter where she now lives in order to get an abortion.

On Wednesday, United States District Judge Tanya Chutkan ordered the government to allow Doe to leave for the procedure. But the government is appealing the ruling, and Doe’s future remains uncertain. The clock is ticking — Doe is 15 weeks pregnant, and Texas law bans abortions after 20 weeks. And Doe’s case matters not just for her, but for the thousands of unaccompanied minors who cross the border every year.

Undocumented, unaccompanied minors face new abortion restrictions under the Trump administration

This spring, President Trump appointed E. Scott Lloyd to head the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for caring for unaccompanied, undocumented minors while they wait for decisions in their immigration cases. Around the same time, according to the ACLU, the ORR instituted a new policy: Shelters were to take no action to help minors get abortions without Lloyd’s permission. That included scheduling appointments or transportation or arranging for minors to get counseling that included information about abortion. Previously, minors only needed to seek permission from ORR if they wanted the federal government to pay for their abortions, since federal funding for the procedure is restricted by the Hyde Amendment, said Brigitte Amiri, the lead lawyer for the ACLU on Doe’s case.

Because of the new policy, the ACLU says Jane Doe’s shelter prevented her from getting to a health center for counseling, and made clear she would not be allowed to get the abortion itself. Texas law requires parental consent for a minor to get an abortion, but Doe was able to get permission from a judge to seek the procedure since her parents are not in the country. She was not seeking help paying for the abortion or setting up transportation for the procedure, BuzzFeed News reported.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has said in Roe v. Wade that the government can’t ban abortion, and that’s exactly what happened here,” Amiri said. “The government was blocking Jane Doe from accessing abortion by essentially holding her hostage. Any first-year law student would tell you that is unconstitutional.”

Doe is not the only minor who’s been affected by the policy, the ACLU said. In March, according to court documents filed by the group, another minor at a shelter in Texas chose to have a medication abortion after getting a judge’s permission for the procedure. After she had taken the first dose of the medication, ORR officials forced her to go to an emergency room to see if the abortion could be reversed. Ultimately, she was allowed to proceed with the abortion and take the remaining dose of the medication. In another case, the ACLU said, Lloyd traveled from Washington, DC, to meet personally with a young woman to try to convince her not to have an abortion.

According to the ACLU, ORR requires minors seeking abortions to get counseling at crisis pregnancy centers, which are anti-abortion and sometimes give patients misinformation. Jane Doe was required to go to a crisis pregnancy center, where she was forced to have a medically unnecessary ultrasound.

In a statement to Vox, the Administration for Children and Families, of which the ORR is part, called Judge Chutkan’s order “a troubling ruling that exceeds the U.S. Constitution and sets a dangerous precedent by opening our borders to any illegal children seeking taxpayer-supported, elective abortions.”

“Though the order overrides the policies and procedures of the Office of Refugee Resettlement designed to protect children and their babies who have illegally crossed the border, we will continue to provide them with excellent health care and protect their well-being in all our facilities,” the administration said. “We will consider our next steps to ensure our country does not become an open sanctuary for taxpayer-supported abortions by minors crossing the border illegally.”

In a motion to stay Judge Chutkan’s order pending an appeal, the government argued that allowing Jane Doe to terminate her pregnancy would violate Department of Health and Human Services policy against facilitating abortions, because it would require HHS or shelter staff to “draft and sign approval documents” and “monitor Ms. Doe’s health during and immediately after the abortion,” among other tasks. If Doe wants to get an abortion, the motion says, she can leave the United States or find a qualified sponsor to live with who will let her get one.

Jane Doe’s case matters for other undocumented minors, too

Undocumented immigrants in general face obstacles to reproductive health care, from fear of encountering immigration officials on the way to a clinic to lack of health insurance. But unaccompanied minors living in shelters face unique challenges. Shelters are typically operated by private organizations that contract with the government, and even before the ORR policy change, some of these organizations blocked minors from getting birth control, emergency contraception, or abortions, according to a fact sheet issued by the National Women’s Law Center earlier this year.

This is especially problematic for “young people who have experienced real trauma, and maybe have experienced sexual assault, and are then put in a space where they can’t get access to reproductive health care,” said Kelli Garcia, the director of reproductive justice initiatives at the NWLC, in a September interview. “It’s shameful.”

The ACLU has also filed a motion for class certification, which would help all undocumented minors in Jane Doe’s situation seek abortions without intervention by ORR. But first, Doe has to win her case. On Thursday, a circuit court issued a stay of Judge Chutkan’s order. Doe will be allowed to go to a state-mandated pre-abortion counseling appointment Thursday. On Friday, the court will hear oral arguments in the case.

Jane Doe will have to wait at least that long to find out if she’ll be able to get the abortion she’s been pursuing.

“She is tired of the fight,” Amiri said, “but she is resilient, and she is very, very brave.”

Trump judicial nominee: I discriminate against gay people, and trans kids are part of “Satan’s plan”
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

Jeff Mateer made the remarks during previous speeches.

One of President Donald Trump’s nominees for the federal judiciary previously said in a speech that he discriminates against gay people, according to a new report from Vice.

“Guess what? I attend a conservative Baptist church. We discriminate, all right. On the basis of sexual orientation, we discriminate,” Jeff Mateer said in a 2015 speech at the National Religious Liberties Conference. “Does that mean I can’t be a judge? In some states, I think that’s true, unfortunately.”

Here is audio of several of Mateer’s remarks, which Vice compiled from two speeches:

Mateer is the first assistant attorney general in Texas. Trump nominated him to the US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.

The remark isn’t the only anti-LGBTQ comment Mateer has made over the years. He also argued that same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, that marriage equality is a “challenge” for Christians, and that transgender children are part of “Satan’s plan.” (He did not respond to Vice’s request for comment.)

Dozens of LGBTQ organizations signed on to a letter to senators calling on them to reject Mateer’s nomination. The Senate must approve the nomination before Mateer can serve on the bench.

Mateer’s comments, though, reveal an uncomfortable truth about US law: Texas and most other states don’t ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace, housing, or public accommodations (hotels, restaurants, and other places that serve the public).

But the courts are now hearing challenges as to whether anti-LGBTQ discrimination is, in fact, already illegal under federal law — which is one reason why Mateer’s views here could play a role in his nomination.

Most states don’t explicitly ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination

Under federal and most states’ laws, LGBTQ people aren’t explicitly protected from discrimination in the workplace, housing, or public accommodations. This means that someone can be fired from a job, evicted from a home, or kicked out of a business just because an employer, landlord, or business owner doesn’t approve of the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

But federal and state laws do ban discrimination based on race, religion, nationality, and sex in the workplace and other settings. This is what the Civil Rights Act and other federal and state civil rights laws that followed were about.

Civil rights advocates claim, however, that federal law should already shield LGBTQ people from discrimination, because, they say, bans on sex discrimination also ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

According to advocates, discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity is fundamentally rooted in prohibited sex-based expectations. For example, if someone discriminates against a gay man, that’s largely based on the expectation that a man should only love or have sex with a woman — a belief built on the idea of what a person of a certain sex should be like. Similarly, if someone discriminates against a trans woman, that’s largely based on the expectation that a person designated male at birth should identify as a man — again, a belief built on the idea of what a person of a certain sex assigned at birth should be like.

On the other side, opponents argue that LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections aren’t included in existing federal civil rights laws, because the authors of federal civil rights laws never believed or intended that bans on sex discrimination also ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

LGBTQ advocates, citing legal precedent, say that what the original laws’ authors believe or intended is irrelevant. Joshua Block, an attorney with the ACLU LGBT and HIV Project, cited a 1998 Supreme Court case, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services Inc., in which the Court unanimously agreed that bans on sex discrimination prohibit same-sex sexual harassment. Same-sex sexual harassment was not something the authors of federal civil rights laws considered, but it’s something, the Supreme Court said, that a plain reading of the law protects.

Oncale says that’s irrelevant whether [Congress] contemplated it,” Block previously told me. “This is literal sex discrimination. Whether or not that’s what Congress was focused on doesn’t make it any less a type of discrimination covered by the statute.”

One catch: Even if courts conclude that statutory bans on sex discrimination do prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, under federal law that would only create explicit protections in the workplace, housing, and schools — but not public accommodations. That’s because federal civil rights laws don’t ban sex discrimination in public accommodations, leaving a hole in nondiscrimination laws at the federal level for LGBTQ rights.

As legal challenges continue, courts will decide which interpretation of federal civil rights law is right. So that a judicial nominee like Mateer seems so comfortable with anti-LGBTQ discrimination is very alarming to civil rights advocates.

North Korea threatened an “unimaginable strike” on the US. Here's why you shouldn't panic.
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

North Korea is definitely on edge over a US military exercise. But its language shouldn’t be taken literally.

North Korea is really angry that the US and South Korea are carrying out a major joint military exercise close to the Korean Peninsula. And it has responded in the most North Korea-y way possible: by threatening an “unimaginable strike at an unimaginable time” against the US.

On Thursday, North Korea’s state-run news agency KCNA published the strongly worded warning while arguing that the exercises, which began on Monday, are deliberately creating “tension on the eve of war.”

The American and South Korean militaries routinely carry out joint exercises, much to the chagrin of North Korea. They’re meant to simulate combat operations against the country, which has threatened its neighbors and the US with war for years and shot down American aircraft.

The current 10-day exercise, which began on Monday, involves naval ships, helicopters, fighter jets, submarines, and the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan.

North Korea claimed in its statement that the drill “proves that the US and South Korean puppet authorities are attempting to ignite a war on the Korean peninsula at any cost.”

It warned that “countermeasures have been fully prepared to make the strike end in smoke at a single stroke.”

North Korea is never happy when the US and South Korea carry out these kinds of joint exercises, but the new statement is unusually harsh. That's because the US and North Korea are locked in a nuclear standoff that has raised the genuine prospect of war.

“This kind of language is stronger than usual for these types of exercises, as all threats back and forth between the US and North Korea have escalated,” said Jenny Town, a Korea expert at Johns Hopkins University.

That being said, there’s little reason to think this threat should be taken literally.

North Korea’s bark is louder than its bite

North Korea is famous for making bombastic threats — and not following through on them.

In August, for instance, Pyongyang said it was “carefully examining” plans for a missile strike in August near US territory of Guam, which houses 6,000 American troops. It never followed through.

In September, right after the US pushed punishing new sanctions through the United Nations Security Council, North Korea threatened to destroy the United States, South Korea, and Japan. In its statement, Pyongyang said the US should “be beaten to death as a stick is fit for a rabid dog.”

The North’s bellicose rhetoric used to be a lot less menacing in past years than it is these days because the country didn’t have a missile that could hit the US mainland. But now it likely does.

On July 28, North Korea tested one that could theoretically hit major US cities like Chicago, New York, or even Washington, DC.

Most (though not all) experts say that Kim is rational and that the principle of mutually assured destruction — the idea that he knows if he uses a nuke, the US will destroy his country — should prevent him from acting too rashly.

But President Trump's penchant for using threatening language has moved the decades-old dispute into uncharted territory. Experts say that North Korea finds it hard to read Trump — and that could make the North Koreans more likely to use force.

For now, North Korea is sticking to rhetorical attacks, not real ones. The leaders of pretty much every country hope it remains that way.

The Snowman is a magnificently, transcendently awful movie
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

Michael Fassbender stars as “Inspector Harry Hole” in a strong contender for 2017’s worst film.

All you may need to know about The Snowman is that its main character is an alcoholic police detective named Inspector Harry Hole, and it is not a comedy.

Hole is the protagonist of Jo Nesbø’s series of crime novels, the seventh installment of which forms the basis of The Snowman. Directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), it is the most transcendently awful movie I expect to see in 2017, and this is the year I saw The Emoji Movie.

Set in an eternally snow-blown Norway, but with an entirely English-speaking cast doing an assortment of accents, The Snowman resembles nothing more than a full-length parody of an awards-bait movie produced for yucks by Saturday Night Live. That feels like the only explanation for the profound mystery surrounding The Snowman: how a cast practically toppling over with talent ended up in such a ridiculous movie.

Perhaps more properly titled The Snowmen (there are lots), the movie leans hard on its snowy scenery, shot in a weirdly blue-lit manner, to sell a feeling of bleakness and despair. Which is exactly what viewers will feel upon leaving.

The Snowman is about a serial killer and various detectives tracking him

Prior to its release, The Snowman had already inspired plenty of good clean funnin’ on the internet for its marketing campaign, including a trailer that seemed faintly parodic and a poster that sparked speculation it had sprung fully formed from the mind of someone in the 30 Rock universe:

The poster for The Snowman
Mister Police!

Now, in the fullness of time, the promises have been fulfilled. Or have they? The Snowman is a curious film: The marketing evokes a kind of whodunnit with clues to solve the case — but there are no clues. And at no point does it seems reasonable to assume that Mister Police could have saved anyone.

Our hero is the aforementioned Hole (whose name is uttered, in several different permutations — Harry Hole, Inspector Hole, Mister Hole — entirely free from the leaden bounds of irony), played by Michael Fassbender. Hole is a detective in the classic depressed and messed up mold, a lawman whose soul has plunged into eternal icy blackness from so much staring down the dark human condition. Even though he seems to disappear on long benders, Hole’s reputation precedes him down at the Oslo police department, where his new partner Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) has studied his earlier cases and is working on a new one that leads them to reopen (or at least reexamine) a cold case involving a woman’s body that was found partly dismembered and carefully arranged in, what else, the snow, years earlier.

Michael Fassbender in The Snowman Universal Pictures
It’s Mister Police!

I’d be lying if I said I really understand the plot of this movie, though I assure you it is not for lack of trying. There are at least two layers of backstories, one involving a brutalized woman who willfully plunges in her car to an icy death in front of her young teenage son, and one set nine years earlier in the town of Bergen, where another alcoholic detective (Val Kilmer, in a truly strange performance) is working on another case, dissolute and distressed. (Both stories are connected to the present, of course, but the movie mistakenly holds the information back as long as possible, thinking it furnishes a revelation rather than just character motivation.)

In the present, a bunch of stuff is happening too. People are disappearing while snowmen appear, including a woman (Chloë Sevigny) who is last seen beheading chickens before she is brutally murdered; afterward, her sister (also Chloë Sevigny) tries to help the police solve the case and ends up giving them more clues. A local mogul (J.K. Simmons) is trying to secure Oslo’s bid for the Winter Sports World Cup.

Meanwhile, when he’s not under the influence, Hole is trying to be a kind of father figure to Oleg (Michael Yates), the teenaged son of his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is dating a hormone (?) doctor named Mathias (Jonas Karlsson) but still carrying a bit of a torch for Hole. Oleg’s real dad is out of the picture. Actually, almost everyone’s real dad is out of the picture. There are a tremendous number of pregnancies and children without readily identifiable fathers in The Snowman, a number that almost matches the number of snowmen.

The Snowman might be a secret comedy?

These many snowmen are the calling card of a serial killer who seems intent on killing people, mostly women, preferably through various sorts of dismemberment, though it seems like a gun will work in a pinch. The snowmen come in an array of permutations. Sometimes they’re just little stumpy two-ball snowmen, one fat one with a smaller one on top for a head and the traditional stick arms (no carrots or corncob pipes, though, because this is Serious). Sometimes it’s just the head of the snowman stuck onto the body of a human whose head has been mostly blown off with a shotgun. Sometimes it’s the body of a snowman with a human head on it. Once it’s just the imprint of a snowman on top of a car.

Val Kilmer in The Snowman Universal Pictures
Val Kilmer in The Snowman.

There is at least one consistency: Save for the case of human-head-on-snow-body, coffee beans form the eyes and mouth for reasons that unfortunately become more clear as time wears on. The result is a snowman that is neither cheery nor menacing, but more of a vaguely emoji-inspired figure, and with each successive appearance the cartoonish snowman becomes funnier.

The overall effect means that as the movie soldiers bravely on, the suspicion begins to build — like icy fingers on your neck — that this is not in fact a crime drama, but a vast punking conspiracy, a bit of avant-garde satire without any clear target. That feeling only grows with the dialogue, which is baffling in its badness. “Maybe this will bring your balls back,” Katrine says to Hole, handing him a cup of vodka. A character speaks of a “pregnancy doctor,” as if anyone calls an obstetrician by that name. At one point, a character says that he is infertile, then clarifies helpfully for those in the back that this means he cannot have children. And there is, of course, the immortal line: “Ah, the great Harry Hole!” (There is one good on-purpose joke in this movie, and it is about murder.)

Presumably the high number of children with bad and/or absentee dads is meant to furnish some kind of thematic throughline for The Snowman, but if you held a gun to my head and threatened to replace my head with a snowman’s I couldn’t tell you what it is, or why it is, or whether it’s meant to condemn or valorize a kind of toxic masculinity. Watching The Snowman keeps you so thoroughly occupied with trying to figure out why the movie itself exists that all other questions become irrelevant.

J.K. Simmons and Rebecca Ferguson in The Snowman Universal Pictures
J.K. Simmons and Rebecca Ferguson in The Snowman.

All the clues exist to what went wrong, of course; the most revealing from Alfredson himself, who has said in interviews that they didn’t shoot the whole screenplay, for some reason, and that “when we started cutting we discovered that a lot was missing.” No kidding. Legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker was clearly brought in (possibly by her frequent collaborator and the movie’s executive producer, Martin Scorsese) to save the film, which appears in places to be pasted together out of scraps of other scenes. She probably did her best. It’s still a catastrophe.

The Snowman does have the distinction of being so bad it’s almost worth watching, just to recalibrate your movie-viewing meter. So few movies of this, uh, caliber make it to the big screen that sometimes being reminded of what’s possible can be beneficial. It has a way of putting other, less terrible movies into a kind of perspective.

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you. I gave you all the clues.

The Snowman opens on October 19.

Letters Obama wrote to his college girlfriend are now on display at Emory University
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

Nine letters from a young Barack Obama to his college girlfriend are now on display at Emory University.

The letters, from the 1980s, are to Alexandra McNear, Obama’s girlfriend at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he attended college until his junior year before transferring to Columbia University.

The letters address a variety of topics including his racial identity, his career, and his relationship with McNear. "I think of you often, though I stay confused about my feelings," Obama wrote to her. “It seems we will ever want what we cannot have; that's what binds us; that's what keeps us apart."

In that same letter, from 1983, Obama wrote about a trip to Indonesia to visit his mother and sister.

“I can’t speak the language well anymore,” he wrote. “I’m treated with a mixture of puzzlement, deference and scorn because I’m American, my money and my plane ticket back to the U.S. overriding my blackness. I see old dim roads, rickety homes winding back towards the fields, old routes of mine, routes I no longer have access to.”

Addressing his career in a letter dated November 15, 1983, while he was working as a research assistant for the Business International Corporation, Obama wrote, “Salaries in the community organizations are too low to survive on right now ... so I hope to work in some more conventional capacity for a year, allowing me to store up enough nuts to pursue those interests next.”

In 1985, Obama then followed up on that dream, moving to Chicago to begin work as a community activist on the city's South Side.

The letters were obtained by Emory’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library in Atlanta and will be available to the public.

Hollywood wants to erase Harvey Weinstein’s legacy. But if it wants to evolve, it can’t.
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

Rejecting a culture of sexual harassment will mean more than rejecting any single perpetrator.

At first, Hollywood tried to erase him.

Once 30 years of painful allegations against mega-mogul Harvey Weinstein were dragged out of the shadows and into the pages of the New York Times, the rush to condemn him and his actions was swift and decisive. TV shows that Weinstein produced — ranging from Lifetime’s Project Runway to Amazon’s upcoming Matt Weiner drama The Romanoffs — will no longer include his name in the credits. If the studio Weinstein co-founded with his brother Bob survives this storm, it will soon bear a new name, which Bob promises will “not be familial.” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted overwhelmingly to kick Weinstein out, an exceedingly rare consequence that had only ever befallen one person — whose damning infraction was leaking Oscar movie screeners — before now. (To put this in perspective: The Academy’s membership still includes Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby.)

We will never know for certain who knew or didn’t know what regarding Weinstein’s history prior to the floodgates opening, despite the common wisdom that the “Harvey girls” were one of Hollywood’s most open secrets. What we do know is that if many in the industry supported him before, they sure aren’t anymore, and have no qualms about saying so loudly and repeatedly to whichever outlet asks about their feelings on the former titan. After 30 years of clandestine whispering about his alleged sexual harassment and assault, Hollywood is finally speaking out: Harvey Weinstein has no place here.

As the uproar grew — and it became clear that the initial accusers were about to be joined by many more — Hollywood stalwarts who had worked alongside Weinstein for their entire careers felt the pressure to come out against him. (It’s hard to say if this pressure came from internal outrage or external PR calculations, but the safe bet is on some combination of the two.) George Clooney, who had worked on films with Weinstein for more than 20 years, called it “disturbing on a whole lot of levels” and “indefensible.” Meryl Streep, who owed enough success to Weinstein’s publicity machine that she thanked him as “God” in her 2012 Golden Globe acceptance speech, said she was “appalled.” Bob Weinstein insisted he had effectively “divorced” his brother five years ago and unequivocally called his actions “sick and depraved.” (Bob has since been accused of sexual harassment himself.)

If Weinstein is guilty of even a fraction of the charges levied against him — over 30 years by almost 50 women on the record, which only barely includes the eight settlements Weinstein reportedly paid to stave off complaints — he would absolutely deserve this kind of widespread industry rejection. But as many women — including Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff and even Oprah — have put it: If we make this moment all about Harvey Weinstein, we’ve already lost.

In the wake of these allegations going public, it’s clearer than ever that this horrific series of stories isn’t just about Weinstein, or any single man who perpetrated anything similar — not by a long shot.

Men like Weinstein can’t get away with serial sexual abuse without help

The day my friend got assaulted on our show’s set, I was the only one who noticed something was off. Most everyone else was too busy trying to wrangle the drunk comedian they’d hired as a temporary guest host, coaxing him into his seat after he’d made my friend — a writer he’d taken a shine to — drive him to a liquor store. But it only took one look at her face for me to realize something had gone horribly wrong on that drive.

Later, after the comedian was finally gone and the producers declared the footage unusable, my friend told them what had happened, at my naive encouragement. They expressed their horror; they reached into their desks for emergency whiskey; we all drank to another wild and crazy day on the set of our middling web series. The next day, a producer called my friend into her office and explained that lodging a formal complaint would be way harder than just moving past it.

I was 22, frustrated, and furious in my first real job out of college — and from that moment on, I knew exactly what to expect going forward. I knew that shitty behavior from more powerful people and the ensuing traumatic fallout would be ignored as long as it was convenient to do so. I knew that people would be far less willing to confront something ugly, even if it was right in front of their faces, if they could laugh it off instead.

So, no, I wasn’t at all surprised to hear the dozens of sexual harassment and assault allegations against Weinstein, nor that it reportedly went on for decades with plenty of enabling from subordinates and peers alike. I wasn’t surprised to hear reports that he got away with it for 30 years, only stumbling once his career was already waning. If that one thoughtless comedian could dodge consequences and intimidate people into silence on the set of a web series barely anyone watched, what the hell would have stopped a mammoth figure like Weinstein from doing the same?

For decades, Weinstein reportedly drew upon the long-existing power structures of studio heads over their employees and talent — a system that has existed since the very beginnings of Hollywood itself — by manipulating or outright instructing employees to help him do whatever the hell he wanted. Many agents and managers supposedly working for the women he targeted went along with meetings scheduled to take place in hotel rooms. Enabling Weinstein and powerful men like him is far easier than pushing back against them within a system stacked so much in their favor.

Take, for instance, Bob Weinstein’s claims that “the members of the board, including myself, did not know the extent of my brother's actions.” It would be far more believable if he didn’t give himself away in the very next sentence of that statement: “I know him on a personal level better than anyone,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “I actually was quite aware that Harvey was philandering with every woman he could meet. I was sick and disgusted by his actions,” Bob continued. “But that's the extent of what [I knew] ... I could see it. But I wasn't in the room with him.”

Frankly, the knowledge that Harvey was using his power and position to prey upon vulnerable women at all should have been enough for open condemnation from Bob and others like him. Even if all these people didn’t imagine the extent of what might happen behind closed doors, they still helped open them in the first place. To the women left on the other side, it didn’t matter whether they did so actively or by simply standing aside. Trauma is trauma, even if you stare it in the shaking face, hand it a conciliatory whiskey, and then turn away, because acknowledging it would be way harder than just moving past it.

One of the questions facing Hollywood now: how many “degrees of horrible” is it willing to excuse?

Jeffrey Katzenberg and Harvey Weinstein Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Former Disney Chair Jeffrey Katzenberg and Harvey Weinstein in 2003.

Many who claim not to have known just how bad Weinstein’s behavior reportedly was still knew about the skewed power balance that exists between a production company head and a younger, less influential woman. They still knew of his temper, of his predilection for choosing starlets to “flirt” with like he was combing through a buffet bar. They just didn’t seem to care what he did with them, not really, before knowing the truth became unavoidable. They were constantly weighing what former Disney Chair Jeffrey Katzenberg — who has come out aggressively against Weinstein as he distances himself from the company — has called “degrees of horrible.”

“You yourself, in your quotes, have acknowledged that you have behaved inappropriately,” Katzenberg wrote in his email to Weinstein, which he then sent to the Hollywood Reporter. “So it seems to me we are now down to degrees of horrible.”

This is a phrase I’ve thought about a lot recently. One of the bigger problems with Weinstein’s power abuse — and one Hollywood may finally be reckoning with now on a deeper level than mere acknowledgement — is what behavior like his teaches others still climbing the ladder about how much they can get away with. How many “degrees of horrible” can they inflict upon their surroundings as long as they have enough power to quell pushback? That’s exactly the kind of deep-seated problem excising Weinstein and his name from the industry can’t fix — but one the industry must, if it has any chance of evolving past this incident.

Take, for just one instance out of countless, Molly Ringwald’s experience in an audition when she was in her 20s, which the actress recounts in her New Yorker essay about “All the Other Harvey Weinsteins.” (For what it’s worth: Ringwald also references an on-the-record comment from Katzenberg — the man who so incredulously pondered “degrees of horrible” in his Weinstein email — in which he professes he wouldn’t know Ringwald “if she sat on my face.”) Her piece details some of the horrifying ways in which behavior like Weinstein’s permeates the industry — and how even the people she trusted didn’t know how to react, except to give in:

In my twenties, I was blindsided during an audition when I was asked by the director, in a somewhat rhetorical manner, to let the lead actor put a dog collar around my neck. This was not remotely in the pages I had studied; I could not even fathom how it made sense in the story. The actor was a friend of mine, and I looked in his eyes with panic. He looked back at me with an “I’m really sorry” expression on his face as his hands reached out toward my neck. I don’t know if the collar ever made it on me, because that’s the closest I’ve had to an out-of-body experience. I’d like to think that I just walked out, but, more than likely, there’s an old VHS tape, disintegrating in a drawer somewhere, of me trying to remember lines with a dog collar around my neck in front of a young man I once had a crush on. I sobbed in the parking lot and, when I got home and called my agent to tell him what happened, he laughed and said, “Well, I guess that’s one for the memoirs…”

That director used his power to humiliate an actress for no reason other than the fact that he could. That agent laughed it off because he couldn’t imagine such a thing happening to him. That friend might have been “really sorry,” but he still stretched out his hands to encircle her neck.

This is how sexual harassment and coercion has been baked into so many industries, not just Hollywood, for so long. A recent study found that 75 percent of people who made formal complaints about sexual harassment “experienced retaliation” for doing so; it also found that about 75 percent of all workplace harassment doesn’t even get reported. Why would it, when it’s not taken seriously or is otherwise dismissed by the very people who perpetrated the harassment in the first place? Why would it, when even friends widen their eyes apologetically before enabling abuse instead of standing in its way?

Sexual harassment and abuse is a cancer that many only pay attention to once it becomes impossible to ignore

One thing I couldn’t stop thinking about as the Weinstein allegations kept rolling in is what might have happened if the reports didn’t include widely recognizable names like Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mira Sorvino, and Angelina Jolie. What if all the people Weinstein harassed or abused were those who had faded from the industry, or were never really players to begin with? Would those at the upper echelons of Hollywood be expressing the same degree of horror they are now?

I don’t think so. Just look at the difficulty journalist Jim DeRogatis has had drawing attention to the 20 years of reporting he’s done on singer R. Kelly’s alleged abuse of women, who were young and black and have no name recognition to speak of. Look at the scraps of attention given to young gay men who have been taken advantage of in Hollywood for years without recourse.

Even in just the few years I was in Los Angeles, I never brushed elbows with anyone nearly on Weinstein’s level as I pitched in on web series and comedy shows, but I didn’t have to in order to experience what it meant for men to abuse even the little power they had to harass or abuse their employees. Sometimes these men didn’t realize they were even doing it; other times, they did it just because they could.

And as many know all too well, this is how almost every industry functions. Technology, politics, music, improv, gymnastics, publishing, even science research out in the Antarctic — pick a field, any field, and you’ll find allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Some get traction; most fade into the ether, buried by years of looking the other way.

So what about all the men who took cues from men like Weinstein along their careers, who learned they could get away with terrible cruelty and escape consequences for them? What about the women who climbed to the tops of their professions despite the inherent obstacles, and have felt the need to protect themselves and work within the system in order to succeed? What about the many victims of sexual abuse and harassment who have been forced into silence for years, told their stories can’t matter in the grand scheme of things, chosen to stay in anonymous pain because the alternative could very well be worse? Ejecting single perpetrators can’t erase that history. Scars only fade from view with time; they don’t disappear altogether.

But now, as pressure mounts against abusers and social media allows voices to join together and become louder than ever before, there is a real chance to change that.

There is no easy fix to overthrow the culture of intimidation and silence around sexual abuse. But it can be done.

ELLE's 24th Annual Women in Hollywood Celebration presented by L'Oreal Paris, Real Is Rare, Real Is A Diamond and CALVIN KLEIN - Show Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Elle
Hollywood women are speaking up and out.

If anything has surprised me about the Weinstein story, it’s that the repercussions have, in fact, started to ripple beyond the man himself.

Since the first New York Times report came out, scores of women in Hollywood — both at the heights of their careers and the beginnings — have added their voices to the accusers’, pointing the blame not just at Weinstein but at countless men like him. Some of Hollywood’s most prominent women — including Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Lawrence — have spoken up about assault and abuse they experienced on sets. And far beyond the confines of Hollywood, thousands upon thousands victims are adding “me, too” to the online chorus of people sick of putting up with abusive shit in fearful silence.

Ben Affleck’s show of support for Weinstein’s alleged victims was met with immediate skepticism (“How’s your brother?”) and accusations of his own misconduct. Man in the High Castle producer Isa Hackett went public with her 2015 sexual harassment complaints against Amazon Studios chief Roy Price, who was subsequently put on leave and has since resigned.

The fact of the matter is, Weinstein isn’t the monstrous exception the initial responses to the allegations made him out to be — which makes solving the problem of his behavior much more complicated. Ejecting Weinstein and Price from their companies and denying them subsequent accolades is a start, and an encouraging one at that. But it bears repeating that Price and Weinstein’s falls from grace only happened once those allegations went public, not when their respective companies became aware of the misconduct in the first place. The system is still built to protect the most powerful, and if everyone professing to be horrified by what Weinstein has done is actually going to effect change, there are a couple of things that everyone — most especially the Bob Weinsteins of the world — needs to recognize.

Trying to erase Harvey Weinstein’s legacy will not erase the harm he’s done. Pretending Weinstein was never a part of those TV shows and renaming his company won’t negate what he allegedly did — both to the women he targeted and to the people he enlisted into helping him do it. Weinstein didn’t operate alone when it came to acting out his alleged patterns of intimidation, harassment, and abuse. The fact of the matter is, he couldn’t have. He didn’t just need willing accomplices; he needed a culture that thrived on intimidation and dismissed the vulnerable, and he got it in Hollywood.

We don’t know how many people at all levels have seen behavior like Weinstein’s and modeled their own after it, nor do we know how many people have suffered as a result. We likely never will. But if anything is going to actually change, those with power within their industries have to acknowledge that the entire system is broken, work from within to dismantle it, and put it back together with some actual safeguards in place if — or, more accurately, when — sexual abuse and harassment come up again. They need to include a greater diversity of voices at all levels of the industry. They need to acknowledge when those around them abuse their positions, and call it out in real time, not just once it becomes a liability to stay silent.

None of this is nearly as easy as kicking out one high-profile problematic person and erasing his legacy. Exorcising a single demon would be far easier than what is actually required now that Hollywood’s foundational decay is finally being exposed. But if Hollywood truly gives a damn about combating sexual harassment and assault beyond platitudes, it will have to find a way to change the system and its many willing participants from the rotted inside out.

Why Florida officials are preparing for violence at white nationalist Richard Spencer’s speech
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

It’s Spencer’s first big speech since he helped lead a racist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Richard Spencer, the man known for getting punched in the face and helping lead white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the Ku Klux Klan at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, will give a speech at the University of Florida in Gainesville on Thursday.

It will be Spencer’s first major public event since the Charlottesville protests, in which hundreds donned Nazi, KKK, and other racist symbols and terrorized the Virginia college town for a weekend in August. Those demonstrations ended with a Nazi sympathizer driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was there to stand against hate and bigotry.

Florida officials are treating the event with caution. Gov. Rick Scott on Monday declared a state of emergency for Alachua County to allow different police agencies to coordinate and prepare for the event. The university, meanwhile, put up a Q&A for the speech, explaining that the school and other agencies — but not Spencer — will have to spend more than $500,000 for security at the event.

School officials are concerned that violence will break out, as has happened at other speeches by far-right figures, as protesters try to drown out Spencer’s message.

This is essentially the debate over whether it’s okay to punch Spencer in the face again: From some critics’ view, Spencer and his kin have such extreme, awful views that they should be denied a platform and even First Amendment protections. This has led anti-fascist (“antifa”) protesters in particular to physically attack people like Spencer; one not only punched Spencer in the face but other antifa demonstrators forced far-right activist Milo Yiannopoulos to cancel an event earlier this year at UC Berkeley with violent protests in which they threw Molotov cocktails.

That possibly denying someone First Amendment rights is a conversation at all goes to show how extreme politics have become in recent years. The rise of Donald Trump — in which he shattered American norms, including with explicit calls for violence against protesters at his rallies (“I promise you I will pay for the legal fees”) — has warped what people consider acceptable. And Spencer’s rising prominence as an open racist whom many consider a Nazi is challenging decades of liberal views upholding free speech and peaceful public discourse above all. This is not normal.

To understand how we got to this debate in the first place, it’s crucial to understand who Spencer is. For many people, Spencer’s mere rise into the mainstream — to the point that he’s being interviewed and written about by major media outlets — shows that something has gone awry in American politics, given the nature of his racist views. And that has given way to extreme opinions about how to deal with Spencer and the broader resurgence of white nationalists in the Trump era.

Spencer supports ethnic cleansing

Spencer is a white nationalist who in 2008 coined the name for the alt-right, the far-right, anti-immigrant, white nationalist movement. Although he has been writing about these issues for years, he only recently gained national fame due in large part to Trump. As Spencer put it to Mother Jones in a story published in 2016, Trump’s racist rhetoric on the campaign trail — calling immigrants criminals, saying Muslims should be banned from the US, arguing a judge should recuse himself from a case due to his Mexican heritage — gave legitimacy to much of the alt-right’s racist messaging.

“I think if Trump wins we could really legitimately say that he was associated directly with us, with the ‘R’ word [racist], all sorts of things,” Spencer said. “People will have to recognize us.”

This is at the core of what Spencer has been trying to do for years: legitimize white nationalism, which pushes the idea that the US should be a country for white people. That’s why he’s used vague, bland phrases — like “alt-right,” “identitarian,” and “National Policy Institute,” the name of his think tank — to add credibility to his views. And while Spencer has received a lot of pushback (many media outlets make it a point to note that he and the alt-right are racists), the fact is that he now regularly appears on mainstream media outlets like CNN and the New York Times — suggesting that he has succeeded in giving himself some sort of legitimacy in American politics.

A major point of contention with Spencer is whether he’s a Nazi. In the aftermath of him getting punched in the face on camera, a lot of people have described him as one. But Spencer insists he is not a Nazi, a member of the KKK, or part of another hate group. He has argued that he’s not a white supremacist but merely has a sense of white pride.

It’s hard to square those claims, however, with what Spencer has said in the past. He has argued that black and Latino people have lower average IQs than white people and are genetically predisposed to commit crimes — views that aren’t backed by actual evidence. And at times, Spencer has explicitly argued that he believes white people are superior.

“I think there is something within the European soul that we haven’t been able to measure yet and maybe we never will,” Spencer told Mother Jones, “and that is a Faustian drive or spirit — a drive to explore, a drive to dominate, a drive to live one’s life dangerously … a drive to explore outer space and the universe. I think there is something within us that we possess and that only we possess.”

Still, there are substantial differences between Nazism and white nationalism. Nazism calls for the violent extermination of people that the Nazis deemed inferior. White nationalism calls for the establishment of a country exclusively for white people, even if that means forcing people of other races to move but not necessarily be killed — an act Spencer once called a “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”

“America was, until this last generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation and our inheritance, and it belongs to us,” Spencer said in a previous speech.

Of course, when you propose ethnic cleansing in any form in America, you’re probably going to be called a Nazi — and maybe even attract some actual Nazis.

Video recently surfaced by BuzzFeed, for one, showed Spencer giving a Nazi salute as Yiannopoulos sang “America the Beautiful” at a bar.

At a National Policy Institute conference after the 2016 election, members of the crowd gave a Nazi salute as Spencer shouted, “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” (“Sieg Heil,” the Nazi mantra, translates to “hail victory.”)

And, of course, Spencer was one of the lead organizers and supporters of the march on Charlottesville, which white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the Ku Klux Klan attended, proudly donning white supremacist regalia and symbols.

Why some think violence is justified against dangerous views

Given Spencer’s extreme views and mainstream success, a lot of people have argued that extreme action is necessary to counter his dangerous message. That’s at the crux of why so many people are seemingly okay with politically motivated violence against Spencer, like punching him in the face or, potentially, violently protesting at his speech.

Since much of the debate is on social media and particularly Twitter, much of the discussion has focused on memes and jokes.

But there is a serious element to this: At the very least, a lot of people seem totally unbothered by the thought of politically motivated attacks against people they think of as Nazis — a group that’s so extreme and evil from the perspective of everyday Americans that it merits extreme action to fight. In this way, the fact that an explicitly racist person’s safety is considered a non-concern sends a message about how unacceptable bigoted views like Spencer’s are in America.

There is a political strategy to this. A key part of the antifa movement is that fascists can’t be allowed to have a platform at any cost. Under this view, the punch or violent protest isn’t about simply feeling good for beating up a “Nazi” (even if it does feel good to some) but about robbing people like Spencer of a voice.

Antifa protesters are clear that this is a strategy explicitly to deal with fascism, not just any political view that you disagree with. Neo-Nazi, fascist, and racist views, the argument goes, are so extreme that they justify extreme tactics. The worry: If these views aren’t completely robbed of any kind of platform, they could gain legitimacy — and take advantage of liberal ideals like free speech to, ironically, promote their very illiberal messages. (Spencer has certainly gained some legitimacy among his followers by getting to appear on mainstream media outlets like CNN.)

“You’re talking about a guy who believes that America belongs to white people and white people alone,” Daryle Jenkins, executive director of the One People’s Project, which tracks right-wing groups, previously told me. “What are we going to come to the table with him about?”

Jenkins argued that people like Spencer are not innocent in this. When they describe forcefully relocating minorities to other places so white people can have a country to themselves, they’re calling for violence against minority groups. So it should come as no surprise, Jenkins argued, if people respond with their own violence.

There’s another issue in how we police civil discourse: That the punch is a controversy at all is to many another example of what’s often decried as “respectability politics.” The idea, which has long been a part of black political debates, is that if an oppressed or marginalized group just behaves better, it will get more respect from others — and therefore gain more legitimacy as a movement.

As Damon Young argued for the Root, this is not only ineffective but can also place an unfair burden on the people being oppressed or marginalized:

It shifts responsibility away from perpetrators (which in this context would be America) and places it on the victims (which in this context would be blacks in America). Instead of requiring the people and the institutions committing and propagating racist acts to change, it asks the people harmed by the racism to change in order to stop being harmed by the racism. Which is like getting shot and then getting blamed for standing in front of the bullet.

Respectability politics also asks people to mask some of their genuine, legitimate rage. After literal centuries of white supremacy in the US, a lot of people are angry that white nationalism could be on the rise again. Focusing so much on the actions and styles of the movement against Spencer and the alt-right, instead of the actual cause and message that leftist and liberal movements are pushing for, seems to many to miss the point.

This gets to a broader point about how much of liberalism is concentrated on keeping a specific kind of social order — one that’s focused on peaceful conversation and free speech even if it means talking with people with frankly abhorrent views. As Atlantic writer Vann Newkirk explained, “much of [liberalism] clearly favors law, order, and a suspension of disruption first, and then progress second.”

But fascists and other right-wing extremists can take advantage of this — because the idea that everyone deserves a voice means that fascists deserve a voice too, even if it helps legitimize views in the mainstream that are supposed to be intolerable.

Anthony Oliveira, a left-wing writer and activist, previously put it this way: “At some point, someone will propose a concentration of power and winnowing of the public voice, and the public sphere will let it articulate the means by which the public sphere can itself be dissolved.”

The punch goes against Americans’ longstanding rejection of politically motivated violence

On the other side, a lot of people have argued that politically motivated violence just has no place in America. This has been the standard US norm for decades (at least since the end of widespread lynchings and other anti-black violence) — and, frankly, it is odd that it’s even up for discussion in US politics today.

Several prominent people, including longtime Captain America writer Nick Spencer (no relation to Richard Spencer), spoke out against the attack. Others, like comedian Sarah Silverman, shared more conflicted thoughts.

The argument here is simple: America has strong norms against violence in politics. We are supposed to settle our political issues through civil discussions, peaceful protests, and the vote. That’s one reason we revere people like Martin Luther King Jr. so much: They got a lot done — notably, including fighting racism — through peaceful means, exemplifying the kind of discourse we should strive for in politics. Punching someone or otherwise using violence against him, no matter how detestable his views are, should be out of the question.

“We want a civil society, where ideas are met with other ideas,” Randy Cohen, who formerly wrote the Ethicist column in New York Times magazine, told Vice. “We don’t want a society that encourages thuggish behavior, where if someone has politics different from yours, you get to beat them up. Aside from it just being morally wrong in itself to assault people, there’s the practical consideration that in a society where ideas are met with fists, one is as likely to be the punched as the puncher, and it’s no fun to be punched in the face.”

When I previously called Cohen, he was outraged this is even a question, saying he will talk about it no more beyond what he already told Vice and Newsweek.

Others argue that violence can hurt left-wing causes — and reinforce extreme right-wing views. When I asked about this, Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University and editor of Dissent magazine, previously told me, “Because people on the left want to promote a vision of a nonviolent society governed by the ideals of democracy, equality, and cultural tolerance. And because non-leftists often see [the left] as a disruptive, lawless force. Violence tends to confirm that view.”

Studies do show that political violence can lead to a backlash against the movement carrying out the violence. A recent study by Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow concluded that “[i]n presidential elections, proximity to black-led nonviolent protests [in the 1960s] increased white Democratic vote-share whereas proximity to black-led violent protests caused substantively important declines and likely tipped the 1968 election from [Democrat] Hubert Humphrey to [Republican] Richard Nixon.” (Nixon ran on a “Southern strategy” that played into white fears of black civil rights gains.)

Kazin’s point also gets to an ideological contradiction among liberals who embrace punching Spencer and others classified as fascists: One reason that Nazis and fascists are seen by liberals as so evil is because they have used violence for political purposes.

As political scientist Sheri Berman explained for Vox, “[F]ascists embraced violence as a means and an end. Fascism was revolutionary: It aimed not to reform but to destroy the modern world — and for this, a constant and probably violent struggle would be necessary. Violence was not merely the method through which revolution would be accomplished; it was valuable in and of itself, providing supporters with powerful ‘bonding’ experiences and ‘cleansing’ the nation of its weaknesses and decadence.”

So to condemn Nazism and fascism at least in part because of their use of politically motivated violence and then turn around and punch someone in the face because he’s a Nazi — and bond over it online through memes and jokes — seems hypocritical.

After all, it wasn’t long ago that liberals widely praised the American Civil Liberties Union for defending the free speech rights of everyone, including groups like the KKK and actual neo-Nazis.

And it was just last year that Michelle Obama campaigned for Hillary Clinton arguing, “When they go low, we go high.”

The fact that some liberals are backing away from that stance — one that pushed for free, peaceful public discourse above all — shows how extreme politics has gotten in a short period of time.

America is at a worrying moment in its political history

America’s political climate has hit a point not many saw coming.

Few expected the rise of Trump. From the moment he rode down his escalator to call Mexican immigrants criminals and “rapists” to the point he said Muslims should be banned from the US to that time he was caught on tape saying he can “grab [women] by the pussy” and get away with it because he’s a celebrity, his campaign was largely treated as a nightmarish joke that couldn’t really win the White House.

And Trump himself advocated for violence in his campaign rallies, telling supporters that he would pay for their legal bills if they punched anti-Trump protesters: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell. I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise.”

No one could break this anti-violence norm, it was widely believed, and get away with it. Liberals roundly condemned the possibility of a serious political figure embracing violence against peaceful protesters.

Then Trump won, dispelling many Americans’ views — which were particularly set by Barack Obama’s ascendance as the first black president — that a racist, sexist, and even violent message couldn’t win the presidency in 2016. This was further amplified by the Charlottesville demonstrations, which amounted to open displays of racism in America, and Trump’s comments blaming “both sides” — instead of just the racists — for the violence.

“We’re looking at a lot of tension building rapidly,” Jenkins of the One People’s Project previously said. “Everyone is getting frustrated at the fact that for the most part, white supremacists have more or less taken over the White House. We have fought them for 70 years to keep that from happening. And here it comes again.”

This has led to a sense that we are living in extreme times in American politics. And with people worried, they are trying to justify actions that they may have found abhorrent just a couple of years or even months ago.

Is mindfulness meditation good for kids? Here’s what the science actually says.
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

Meditation is meant to help students deal with stress. But the hype is outpacing the evidence.

The juniors and seniors in the international baccalaureate class at Eastern Senior High School in Washington, DC, are stressed out. I asked Raven Wright, a senior, to list all the things she has deal with in a given day. Be on time. Homework. Applications. Scholarship essays. Two jobs: Chipotle and Macy’s. Mentoring a younger student. Driving lessons. Exhausting.

Once a week for a semester, as part of their IB philosophy class, Wright and her classmates take a break from classwork to meditate.

At 8:45 am, during first period, they sit so quietly that all you can hear is the whirl of computer fans.

Today’s lesson: attention to breathing.

“Just notice your breath,” says the instructor, Satyani McPherson, “where it manifests in the body and the abdomen. ... And whatever is appearing, just allow it to be there.”

A student walks in late, and the door slams. No one moves. Eyes are closed. Fourteen chests rise and fall.

Eastern is one of hundreds of K-12 schools — many of them in urban areas, attended mainly by minority students who qualify for free school lunch — in the US participating in an unconventional, informal experiment in training students to become more focused and less reactive.

It’s mindfulness meditation. And anecdotally, the students at Eastern love it. “Mindfulness is gonna stay with me for the rest of my life,” A’layza Mitchel, a student who struggles with the autoimmune disease lupus, says. “Especially with the fact of me being a lupus patient and always having to hear news about how it is going to affect me.” With mindfulness, she says she “can just take a moment” to process feelings.

Teachers and administrators at schools like Eastern see mindfulness as a powerful new skill to offer students, not just to manage stress but also to keep them from acting out. Its appeal: one simple, centralized intervention with effects that potentially stretch beyond the classroom.

The companies and foundations largely responsible for introducing mindfulness programing into schools tout its psychological benefits — such as reduced anxiety and increased attention. And they say the evidence for mindfulness is based on decades of scientific research.

But research quality is not the same as quantity. And considering that more and more US schools are embracing it, I decided to take a look through the literature: What does the science actually say about mindfulness in kids?

I read more than a dozen studies — including systematic meta-reviews, which account for thousands of other papers — analyzing the best available research on mindfulness in both students and adults (there’s much more research available on adults). I also talked to researchers and advocates involved in the work. I asked these experts what questions and concerns parents should have when they hear mindfulness is coming to their schools. (Scroll down for those questions.)

The short of it: The relatively few studies we have on mindfulness in schools suggest a generally positive effect on decreasing anxiety and increasing cognitive performance. But the hype around mindfulness also seems to be outpacing the science, specially when it comes to teaching these practices to children.

Mindfulness brings awareness to thoughts, sensations, and emotions

Mindfulness is about noticing. Noticing your breathing. Noticing how your emotions manifest in your body. “The essence of mindfulness is just tolerating experiencing sensations that come into your body, other than trying to get [them] to stop immediately,” Jeff Bostic, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Georgetown University, says.

You can think of mindfulness as state of mind, an ability, and a practice. It can be traced all the way back to the early teachings of Buddhism (though it’s not exclusive to Buddhism). There are many different mindfulness exercises to achieve this state: from paying attention to the sound of ringing bells to visualizing foods and smells. Other exercises gently push practitioners to acknowledge what makes them fearful and anxious and accept that these emotions are just a normal part of life.

Mindfulness has an immediate intuitive appeal in a world that’s more distracting and fast-moving than ever before. It’s now taught in hospitals and Silicon Valley corporate seminars, and is popular on the TED circuit. More than 14 million people have downloaded the Headspace app for its simple 10-minute meditation exercises. There’s an entire academic journal, Mindfulness, devoted to its study. And a recent sketch on Seasame Street had the Count teach Cookie Monster how to concentrate on breathing to reduce stress.

There are spiritual, philosophical, and cultural dimensions to this movement, for sure. In the 1970s, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist at University of Massachusetts and practitioner of Zen Buddhist mediation, began developing a mindfulness program for adults in clinical settings. He called it mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), and designed an eight-week course to teach participants how to deal with the pain and stress of chronic illness that’s still very popular today.

 Javier Zarracina /Vox

Researchers from fields ranging from neuroscience to psychiatry have been fascinated by it too. According to Bostic, mindfulness attenuates the more evolutionarily primitive areas of our brains — the amygdala, the brain stem, etc. — the areas that provoke us to fight, be frightened, or flee, and turn up activation in our frontal lobes, the reasoning center. “The one fundamental concept that’s shared by all the branches [of mindfulness practice] is the awareness that you accept sensations ... and that you can make sense of what triggered them,” he says.

Mindfulness is thought to have wide-ranging effects, from lessening depressive symptoms to reducing anxiety and helping to deal with chronic pain and trauma. There are studies that find mindfulness reduces the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Neuroimaging studies have shown increases of brain matter density in regions linked to learning and memory (though we can’t always assume more brain matter equals better). And some behavioral studies find increases in working memory and decreases in mind wandering.

What’s less well understood is how effective it is as an intervention — in other words, if you want to use it to change mental health or behavior.

Video from our trips to Eastern High School in Washington, DC.

Mindfulness in schools is a grassroots movement

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, mindfulness continued to grow as a complement to traditional medicine and pain management. And it started to make its way into schools “in ad hoc, idiosyncratic ways,” says Oren J. Sofer, senior program manager at Mindful Schools, which provides mindfulness training instruction for educators. There’s still no formal, national accreditation for mindfulness instruction in schools. But it's become a bit more centralized.

Today mindfulness enters schools through several routes. There are regional-based nonprofits like Minds Incorporated in the DC area that offer mindfulness instruction (sometimes free of charge) to local schools. There are national organizations such as Mindful Schools, which has trained around 14,000 educators and professionals who work with youth in mindfulness instruction (the starter course costs $125). And it’s being written into textbooks from publishers like Scholastic.

Some schools are even trying it as an alternative approach to discipline.

At Robert Coleman Elementary in Baltimore, students are sent to a “Mindful Moment” room in lieu of traditional detention. When students enter the room — decked out with tie-dye tablecloths and purple beanbags — staff from a nonprofit called the Holistic Life Foundation ask students to explain what happened. Then they practice breathing or yoga with the students — though sometimes they just play a game. School officials have told reporters the mindful moment room has helped reduce the number of suspensions.

The evidence for mindfulness in adults is limited but promising

Mindfulness clearly has attracted a lot of buzz. “We’re almost getting to the point now where the efficacy is taking for granted,” said Timothy Caulfield, who studies health and public policy at the University of Alberta and is skeptical of the research.

So to really know if mindfulness training works — for kids, for adults, for anyone — we need to zoom out a bit and look at the sum of the research we have.

When researchers want to evaluate an intervention like mindfulness, here are the main questions they ask:

1) Does days or weeks of mindfulness instruction lead to any reductions in psychological stress?

2) Is mindfulness any more effective than other stress reduction therapies?

3) Does it work in the school setting?

4) If it does work, why?

5) Is the research high quality, well controlled, and free of bias?

Let’s start with the first question.

In 2014, JAMA Internal Medicine published an exhaustive systematic review on mindfulness studies that looked at measures of psychological stress and well-being. In all, the studies included 3,500 adult participants. The analysis included studies that used mindfulness-based stress reduction, transcendental mediation, or mantra-based techniques, and tracked participants on a variety of outcomes — like anxiety, depression, and stress scores.

The results of the JAMA meta-review were generally positive. These programs seem to slightly move the needle on anxiety and depressive symptoms to a degree “comparable with what would be expected from the use of an antidepressant in a primary care population,” the study concluded.

Here’s a caveat: The analysis found that mindfulness was no more effective than other wellness interventions like exercise, muscle relaxation, or cognitive behavioral therapy.

This is a glass-half-empty or half-full type of finding. On one hand, it could mean mindfulness training is as effective as these other treatments. On the other hand, “it doesn’t show that it’s magical,” said Caulfield.

Overall, at this point in time, the quantity and quality of evidence on mindfulness practices is pretty weak. The JAMA study authors started out with a huge stack of 18,000-plus citations on mindfulness in the literature. But only 47 of those studies had a methodology strong enough to be included in the trial.

“The modest benefit found in the study ... begs the question of why, in the absence of strong scientifically vetted evidence, meditation in particularly and complementary measures in general have become so popular, especially among the influential and well educated,” Allan Goroll, a professor of medicine at Harvard, wrote in a commentary published alongside the JAMA paper.

The mindfulness research on student is scant, but shows some promise for the neediest kids

 Liz Scheltens / Vox
The students of Eastern High School practice mindfulness meditation.

Okay. The JAMA analysis only covered research on adult subjects. What about research on kids? It seemed from my time at Eastern High School that the kids were benefiting from the instruction.

Yarnetta Leonard, 17, an Eastern student, says the mindfulness class is helping her manage sad and angry feelings. After the woman who was raising her in Southern Virginia died, Leonard was forced to move to DC to live with her biological mother. “Coming here, being in a space where I can just think instead of retaliate and be mad and be sad — I can think of my actions and do better for myself,” she says.

High schools like Eastern — where the kids are mostly of color and qualify for free school lunch — are commonly targeted for mindfulness interventions. And increasingly, there’s high-quality research on whether mindfulness programs can help.

Over the past few years, Erica Sibinga, a pediatrician who was one of the co-authors on the JAMA study, and her colleagues at Johns Hopkins, have been conducting well-controlled trials of using mindfulness in some of Baltimore’s poorest public schools. which would have a lot to gain from a program that reliably reduces stress.

The chronic stress of growing up poor puts kids at a disadvantage. It’s thought that chronic stress — from poverty, from violence, from lack of good nutrition — activates cellular pathways that make our bodies more prone to inflammation and less able to fight off infections. Some studies suggest people who grow up poor are even more susceptible to the common cold later in life.

“If we’re able to provide youth with tools that may reduce the negative impact of trauma that may potentially have long lasting effects,” Sibinga says.

She and her colleagues recently conducted a randomized clinical trial with 300 fifth- to eighth-graders in two Baltimore city schools. Half the students got mindfulness instruction for 12 weeks. The other half got 12 weeks of health education, and were the study’s controls. Sibinga and her colleagues tried hard to match the instructors for both the health class and the mindfulness class in terms of engagement and skill level. They tried to make the health class engaging and exciting.

Here, mindfulness seemed to move the needle. “On depression, [students] moved from the borderline concerning levels to the normal level,” Sibinga explains. “Does that mean each kid in the intervention group has moved? No, it doesn’t. But the average has moved.” The study found similar improvements in anxiety levels, self-hostility, coping, and post-traumatic symptoms.

Again, that’s only one study. I only found three recent systematic reviews on the use of mindfulness and meditation practices in schools. Like the JAMA study with adults, they generally find positive results, but note methodological flaws in the literature.

A 2014 review published in Frontiers in Psychology found, across 24 studies (11 which had not been published in peer-reviewed journals), that mindfulness improved measures of cognitive performance but had less of an impact on stress and coping.

And the effect seems to be driven by improvements in the most disadvantaged kids.

“What we see from the data, people who suffer, whether they are kids or whether they are adults, they profit the most,” says Harald Walach, a psychologist who studies complementary medicine in Germany and who was co-author of that review. “They are at a low point, and from the low point it is always going upward. If you have kids with real emotional problems, you would likely see a larger effect than if you have normal kids who are doing well at school and have a good family background.”

So mindfulness might benefit kids in particularly tough situations. But it might not be as useful for luckier students.

A second 2014 meta-analysis — published in Education Psychological Review — looked at 15 studies of school meditation programs (which included transcendental meditation as well as mindfulness), and found “school based meditation is beneficial in the majority of cases,” but “the majority of effects of mediation upon student outcomes are small.”

And a third meta review, published in August 2017, compiled 72 mindfulness studies of youth both in and outside of a classroom setting. (Only 35 were a randomized control design.)

“The first thing that came to me is just the wide variety of things that are called mindfulness-based interventions,” says David Klingbeil, the University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee) school psychologist who led the meta review. “It makes it harder for someone to know what makes this [a particular practice] mindful.” For instance, he found one study that involved kids coloring for 15 minutes, and it was called “mindfulness-based.”

Overall, the study found “universally small, positive therapeutic effects” on areas like attention, introspection, and emotion regulation. But there was inconclusive evidence on whether it could help academic achievement. “I wouldn’t expect teaching someone mindfulness to help their reading, if they are struggling with reading,” Klingbeil says. “But in terms social and emotional skills, maybe it helps there.”

Because mindfulness sessions are composed of a grab bag of activities — concentrating on breathing, concentrating on sounds, group discussions of the mind-body connection — it’s hard to know what, exactly, the mechanism for these positive changes is, and if that mechanism is unique to mindfulness.

“What is not answered is whether the true contribution is the mindfulness practice itself,” Walach says. The effect could be from just taking time out from the normal classroom schedule, or taking part in a group activity, or being taught by an inspired teacher. “Or do you need all of that together — that, we don’t know, because it hasn’t been studied very well,” he says.

And that’s one of the biggest criticism of mindfulness that I kept encountering in reporting: It’s all kind of vague. Mindfulness — a collection of disparate concentration activities — targets broad regions in the brain and broadly helps people on a number of things.

“It may look like it’s all over the place,” Sibinga admits. “But it may be what’s changing is upstream of all of those things.” By upstream, she’s talking about overall systemic changes in the brain or in patterns of thinking. The uncertainties don’t scare her away from the research. “We know our whole body and brain and mind function together,” she says. But we don’t know exactly how. “I’m fascinating by that question. It makes me think we need to explore it further.”

In mindfulness studies, it’s very hard to control for the placebo effect

So if you want to see the effectiveness of mediation, you’d compare people who received instruction for a few weeks with those who did not. Right? The problem is that you can’t have the control group do nothing. What if the benefit of being in a mindfulness program is derived from spending time in a classroom setting? Or just paying attention to an instructor?

These variables are really hard to account for, and even the best controlled studies can’t control for expectations or the placebo effect. It’s not like a clinical drug trial where the control and experimental groups are taking an identical-looking pill. In these studies, people know what group they’ve been sorted into. It could be that people who get sorted into mindfulness groups expect greater improvements and are then likely to tell their evaluators they improved.

But even with controls, it’s still hard to control for people’s expectations — it’s impossible to do double-blind studies on mindfulness. And these studies largely rely on participant self-reports in their data collection.

“There's nothing wrong with placebo effects except that they often aren't enduring,” says James Coyne, emeritus professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania (and a vociferous critic of psychological research methods).

In fact, placebos can help people deal with pain and negative emotions. And that’s not trivial. But if mindfulness is just a placebo, it means there’s nothing special about it compared to other interventions intended to reduce stress.

The mindfulness literature also suffers from other methodological limitations

Mindfulness studies vary greatly in the populations of their subject pools. The JAMA review included studies on alcoholics, asthma sufferers, and people who have a constant ringing in their ears — as well as in the dosage of the treatment (how long and how often participants train), and in the type and quality of the instructions. Which makes it hard to understand if mindfulness gains in one group will generalize to another. There are a lot of variables at play.

A recent PLOS One study found evidence that the whole field of mindfulness studies suffers from publication bias — that is, a tendency for only positive results to be reported, leaving contradictory evidence collecting dust in researchers’ file drawers.

The PLOS authors — McGill University psychologists — did a systematic review of the literature, finding 124 randomized controlled studies on mindfulness. Ninety percent of the studies showed positive results, which is a lot higher than you’d expect given the small sample sizes used in the mindfulness studies. (The percentage of positive results should, according to their calculations, be closer to 65 percent.)

The authors also took a look at mindfulness studies whose methods were registered before the trials began. (Preregistration is now seen as a research best practice, as it limits researchers’ ability to skew conclusions after the data comes in.) They found 21 registered trials, but only eight of these locked-in study designs yielded publishable results. That suggests that many studies that go unregistered and do not find positive results are simply forgotten.

“I’m not against mindfulness,” Brett Thombs, an author of the study, told Nature. “I think that we need to have honestly and completely reported evidence to figure out for whom it works and how much.”

(A note: Mindfulness research is hardly the only field of psychological study that suffers from publication bias. Researchers throughout social and biomedical sciences are amid a revolution to demand more rigorous data collection procedures.)

Mindfulness is basically harmless, but it’s not for all kids

Nothing is for everyone. The same goes for mindfulness.

Though the researchers and studies I consulted agree that it’s basically harmless, I asked Sibinga, the pediatrician, if there are any cases where kids shouldn’t be involved with mindfulness programs. The cases are rare, but she says schizophrenics and people suffering from other thought disorders are not advised to seek out mindfulness training, as it may not be helpful to be “mindful” about thoughts or delusions that don’t have any basis in reality.

The other contraindication is for people who have suffered a severe recent trauma. “Their ability to compartmentalize and wall that [trauma] off is closely related to their ability to cope,” Sibinga says. Mindfulness can be an invitation to tear down those mental walls too soon. And that’s why it’s important, she says, for mindfulness instructors and students to be well trained, and to look out for these vulnerable youth.

Researchers have also been looking into potential negative effects of mindfulness. One 2015 study in Psychological Science found that 15 minutes of mindfulness instruction made study participants (college undergrads) more susceptible to forming false memories. In the case of this study, the participants were shown a list of words like “garbage, waste, can, refuse, and sewage.” Participants who did mindfulness training were more likely to misremember reading the word “trash,” which is similar to those words but didn’t actually appear on the list.

Why? The authors guess when you turn your thoughts inward during meditation, you may be more likely to mix up reality with imaginative assumptions. “Mindfulness meditation appears to reduce reality-monitoring accuracy,” the authors of the paper concluded. (It’s unclear how practically significant misremembering one word on a list is for classroom instruction. Perhaps if students are daydreaming, Brent Wilson, the UC San Diego psychological researcher who led the study, says, they’ll have trouble telling if a thought “came from the daydream or the teacher.”

And then, finally, some people just don’t enjoy introspection, especially when it comes to negative emotions.

“It is not uncommon for participants in mindfulness interventions to report various unpleasant reactions, such as agitation, anxiety, discomfort, or confusion, during formal mindfulness training exercises,” a 2016 review of the state of the field reported. (Though dealing with tough emotions is a core feature of the therapy, not a bug.)

Overall: The state of the evidence here is frustrating

Overall, there’s evidence that suggests mindfulness has a positive effect for kids on anxiety and cognitive measures. But the research isn’t clear on why, whom it’s most beneficial for (a recent small study found mindfulness training may work better in women), or whether the effect is specific to mindfulness instruction.

“There's a lot we still have to learn about what we're doing,” Tish Jennings, a professor of education at the University of Virginia, says. She’s generally in favor of mindfulness, and has used it with teachers to help them cope with the stress of their demanding jobs. But she cautions that there’s still a lot we don’t know. Here’s a big one: What types of meditations are more effective than others?

“Often those of us who are developing these programs, we combine a lot of these [meditation] activities, because we're not exactly sure which one is going to work for what person,” she says. “Because the other thing we don't know is [whether] some people might benefit more from one kind of activity than another.”

Mindfulness is an interesting — and experimental — approach to providing kids with a way to reduce stress. But it’s not a home run. Recently, a group of 15 psychologists wrote a review of the state of the mindfulness literature in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. Overall, they concluded this emerging subfield of study is lacking rigor and specificity. “The various possible meanings of “mindfulness” have to be clarified,” they write. Otherwise, the research become impossible to compare apples-to-apples.

“It’s okay to keep an open mind about this stuff; we just need to be really careful not to hype the potential benefits associate with it,” Caulfield says. “It would be great if something as simple and straightforward as mindfulness really did have all these incredible benefits, but we’re not there yet.” When it comes to programs touting mental health benefits for youth, he says, we should demand a high bar of evidence.

On the other hand: Does mindfulness need to have a scientifically approved psychological benefit for it to be useful for classrooms?

Oren J Sofer, the senior program manager at Mindful Schools, disagrees with skeptics’ thinking that it’s too soon to bring mindfulness meditation into schools.

“You can overstate the research and make claims that haven’t been validated, but saying that it’s ‘experimental’ I believe is understating the research,” he says. “I think it’s important to research this stuff, but at the same time, I think it’s important to have common sense. Do we as adults and educators in society have a responsibility to teach children to be self-aware? You don’t need a research study answer that question.”

Throughout my conversations, I had a lingering question: Does mindfulness need to have a scientifically approved psychological benefit for it to be useful or interesting for students? It’s not just a psychological technique. It’s a philosophy: a way of approaching life. At Eastern High School, teacher Rebecca Milner welcomed it into her classroom because it complemented the curricula — she teaches Eastern philosophy in her course. A little stress reduction is an added benefit.

We don’t demand humanities instruction have double-blind placebo strength evidence before teachers assign students to read Hamlet. Teachers assign Hamlet because it’s a great piece of literature that invites students to think about the characters, history, and the English language. Hamlet is taught because it is interesting to think about Hamlet. Mindfulness could be something similar: a toolset for a new, interesting way of thinking about the body, mind, and our emotions.

“If it is being presented as a worldview, or almost as a philosophy or an approach to relaxing, that’s one thing,” Caulfield says. “But the problem is that it is increasingly being framed as an intervention. If they’re making claims about specific clinical benefits, I do think we need research to support it. Or present it as experimental or possibly beneficial.”

But here’s the thing: Mindfulness instructors also like to avoid telling students about the religious and philosophical roots of these practices. And so they lean on the science in their pitches.

“We deal with [the religious issues] by being transparent and bringing in the science,” says Bruce Gill, executive director of Minds Inc., the DC nonprofit that provided the mindfulness programming for Eastern High School. (To the organization’s credit, the website does caution that “much research is still to be done.” And Gill was sure to point out “the bulk of formal research has been done with adults.”)

Should these open questions prevent further research efforts in schools? No. Not at all. If mindfulness is truly useful in reducing stress in children and adolescents, we should know that. There needs to be more high-quality research like Sibinga’s to better understand how this affects kids. There’s a large randomized controlled study underway in 76 UK schools involving around 6,000 students, which should help.

Questions parents should ask about mindfulness programs at schools

So parents should be mindful and ask some questions when mindfulness training comes to their school district. The experts I talked to suggested a few:

  • Is mindfulness instruction replacing another, potentially more valuable, activity or resource? For instance, we know physical fitness is critical to mental and physical well-being. Are mindfulness programs taking time out of fitness? Or math instruction? Or reading? There’s only so much time in the school day.
  • How much does the program cost? Where is the budget coming from?
  • How much training do the instructors have? Teaching mindfulness to yuppie adults is different than teaching it to urban youth. Are the instructors used to the classroom setting?
  • Do the instructors practice mindfulness in their own lives? (Sofer says this makes a huge difference in instruction quality.)
  • Are the instructors using a mindfulness practice with a strong evidence base like mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)?
  • Have the practices been fully secularized? Will the students learn about Buddhist origins of the techniques? (This might be more of a sticking point for some parents more than others.)
  • Is there a quiet space for the training? Distractions will make it a waste of time
  • Is it being used to control behavior or to reduce anxiety?

At the very least, Sibinga says, this research “is a recognition is that children really need balance in their school day, and the notion of teaching for the test and trying to cram full the day with only academic work is limited.”

If the benefit of mindfulness is simply taking time out of a busy school day, and just remembering to breathe, that’s not such a bad thing.

Byrd Pinkerton and Liz Scheltens contributed reporting.

Further reading:

  • The 2014 JAMA Internal Medicine systematic meta-analysis reviewed more than 18,000 study citations on mindfulness as a method to improve stress and well-being. It found a generally positive effect and concluded that mindfulness mediation was about equally effective as other relaxation therapies such as exercise and massage.
  • This 2016 review of the evidence on mindfulness interventions is pretty easy to read (i.e., free of academic jargon). Like the JAMA review, Carnegie Mellon psychologist J. David Creswell finds an overall beneficial effect for adults dealing with mental health issues. “Some of the strongest and most reliable [randomized control trial] evidence indicates that mindfulness interventions ... improve the management of chronic pain, reduce depression relapse rates in at-risk individuals, and improve substance abuse outcomes,” he writes. But he worries: “Mindfulness interventions are being integrated into schools and the workplace in the absence of a corpus of high-quality well-controlled RCT [randomized control trial] studies.”
  • Dr. Sibinga and a co-author outline the case for using mindfulness meditation to reduce the effects of childhood stress and trauma.
  • The 2014 systematic review of mindfulness-based interventions in schools. It finds that with mindfulness, students make some gains on cognitive measures, but there’s less evidence for improving emotional problems. It called for larger studies and longer follow-up periods in study designs.
Spain is moving to crush Catalonia’s independence movement once and for all
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced he will set in motion the so-called constitutional “nuclear option” on Saturday, which would strip the region of autonomy.

Spain is bent on stopping a secessionist movement by any means necessary, and made moves Thursday to crush a long-simmering independence bid from Catalan separatists.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced in Madrid on Thursday that the parliament would meet Saturday to begin stripping Catalonia — one of Spain’s wealthiest regions, anchored by Barcelona — of autonomous rule. It is an unprecedented moment for Spain, and the worst political and constitutional crisis the country has seen in four decades. It is also sure to set off a fresh wave of protests and anger in a region already on edge.

Rajoy’s move comes after two and a half weeks of standoff between the two sides. It follows a highly controversial independence referendum in Catalonia held on October 1, despite being ruled illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court, and a strange half-promised declaration of independence on the part of Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont.

Just nine days after the referendum, on October 10, Puigdemont announced that the region had won the right to declare independence but stopped short of announcing Catalonia would secede. He said he was temporarily suspending the declaration of independence, and instead asked for negotiations with Madrid.

Rajoy refused to sit down, and asked for a firm decision. “The cabinet has agreed this morning to formally require the Catalan government to confirm whether it has declared independence after the deliberate confusion created over whether it has come into effect,” Rajoy said during a press conference on October 11.

He then set a deadline of October 19 for the Catalans to formally declare independence or ... not. Instead, on Thursday morning, Puigdemont wrote a letter to Rajoy, asking him, once again, for a dialogue and blaming him for escalating the conflict.

“If the government continues to prevent dialogue and maintains the repression,’’ Puigdemont wrote, “the Parliament of Catalonia could go ahead, if it deems it opportune, and vote the formal declaration of independence.”

Rajoy, in turn, announced he would convene a special meeting of ministers on Saturday to trigger the so-called “nuclear option” embedded in the Spanish constitution, Article 155, which gives Spain the right to assume control of a region that tries to dissolve the unity of Spain.

If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is.

Clarity on what Catalonia really wants has been hard to come by

While 90 percent of those who voted in the October 1 Catalan independence referendum checked off yes for independence, only 43 percent of the eligible voters participated in the ballot. The day was marred by police violence — voters were pulled from polling booths by their hair, and rubber bullets were used on crowds.

For days afterward, the streets of Barcelona were clogged with protesters, some insisting on independence, some condemning police brutality, some simply calling for dialogue — and still others demanding to remain in Spain.

Pro-Unity Rally Held In Barcelona Against Catalonian Independence Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The region is deeply divided between fervent secessionists and those, increasingly vocal, citizens who prefer to remain in Spain.

Secessionists hold a slim majority in the Catalan parliament, but those who want to remain a part of Spain feel the decision to hold a referendum, let alone break away from Spain, is itself an undemocratic move that doesn’t represent the will of the people.

Meanwhile, the Spanish central government has held a hard line from the beginning. Rajoy has long threatened to invoke the so-called nuclear option, Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which allows Madrid to step in and suspend the autonomy of a region, temporarily relieving elected officials of their duties, in order to bring the region back in line. It has never been used before. That’s what’s now poised to begin on Saturday.

As of now, European Union leaders are backing Rajoy. Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron signaled on Thursday that they stand with Madrid.

The country is in a state of suspended animation

Puigdemont’s choice of trying to balance on half-measures may cost him his political career. Already hardline separatists in Catalonia are angry.

And the tremendous uncertainty about the future of the region has already had an impact on business. Banks and multinational corporations based in Barcelona have begun the process of relocating their headquarters elsewhere in Spain. Today’s news won’t calm that economic anxiety anytime soon.

Elon Musk and Richard Branson want to bring clean energy to Puerto Rico. It won’t be easy.
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

A decrepit grid and dire finances stand in the way.

Long before Hurricane Maria ripped into Puerto Rico on September 20, it was clear that one of the island’s greatest vulnerabilities was its decrepit, sagging power system almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels. Under the brute force of the Category 4 storm, the aging and poorly maintained power plants and transmission lines sustained such significant damage that nearly a month later, power has only been restored to 21 percent of the island.

While relief staff on the ground are struggling to restore the system as quickly as possible, to some lawmakers, environmental activists, and billionaires, the failure of Puerto Rico’s power infrastructure presents a kind of tabula rasa. They see solar energy as the way out of darkness, with dreams of channeling light into electricity across small, closed-loop transmission systems called microgrids and backing them up with batteries to keep the power on all night. A Puerto Rico transformed into an archipelago of microgrids would also in theory better stand up to storms and provide cheaper energy.

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, who weathered Hurricanes Irma and Maria on his private island in the British Virgin Islands with its own renewable energy-powered microgrid, is launching a green energy fund to rebuild the Caribbean with wind and solar power.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has broached restoring power using solar power and batteries with Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who said he is open to the possibility.

Environmental activists have praised the proposal.

Meanwhile, companies like Tesla, Duracell, and German energy storage firm Sonnen are already sending battery and solar supplies to Puerto Rico, building a toe-hold in what may be a lucrative rebuilding project. Solar power companies like SunRun and Vivint Solar are also joining the relief effort, pledging to bring hardware to the US territory.

And earlier this month, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, suggested microgrids and distributed energy resources could be installed to help protect the island against future outages.

There’s no doubt that the technology to reliably power most of Puerto Rico with distributed renewables exists.

But refashioning Puerto Rico’s grid is not a question of technology. Rather, the dire state of the territory’s finances poses a significant obstacle to new investment in its energy infrastructure. Ultimately, building a greener, more resilient, independent grid rests on whether there is enough money and political will to see the vision through.

Puerto Rico’s energy woes predate Maria and go beyond the grid

The storm’s sweeping blow to the power grid hasn’t just been inconvenient — it’s been deadly. The official death toll from the storm is 48, though the actual number is very likely in the hundreds, as we’ve reported. And some of those deaths occurred because the power outages kept people from getting essential medical treatment like dialysis.

Though this brutal aftermath of the storm has brought Puerto Rico’s power sector’s weaknesses into sharp relief, it was creaking long before Hurricane Maria struck and even before the island’s financial downturn.

As Vox’s Alexia Fernández Campbell explained, as tax breaks faded, businesses left the island, and so did workers and utility customers, eating into the revenue of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the unregulated utility monopoly.

 National Renewable Energy Laboratory
An overview of Puerto Rico’s electricity production in 2015.

The utility spiraled in debt and barely kept up with maintaining the power grid, let alone modernizing Puerto Rico’s energy system, as outlined in a 2016 assessment commissioned by PREPA.

“PREPA’s fundamental infrastructure is in jeopardy due to a lack of funding and significant workforce reductions,” according to the report. “PREPA’s generation, transmission, and distribution systems are falling apart and reliability is suffering.”

Judith Enck, who until January ran EPA’s Region II, which includes Puerto Rico, said the utility also failed to make upgrades when times were good, content with its monopoly status.

“This predated the financial collapse in Puerto Rico. The fundamental problem is PREPA,” Enck said. “I met regularly with the utility in Puerto Rico and encouraged them to invest in energy efficiency and renewables, but there was tremendous resistance.”

Despite ample wind and sun, some of the highest electricity prices in the country, and the steep cost decline in renewable energy technologies, Puerto Rico has fallen far behind other US regions in renewable energy investment, forming barely 2 percent of its generation mix.

Alaska, by contrast, gets close to 4 percent of its electricity from renewables, excluding hydropower.

 National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Potential renewable energy capacity in Puerto Rico.

“Fossil fuel companies are very powerful economic interests,” said Ruth Santiago, an attorney in Puerto Rico working on environmental issues. “They often control public policy in terms of energy generation.”

Puerto Rico gets much of its electricity from large central power plants on the Southern coast of the island and transmits power to load centers on its North side, as you can see on this map of the island’s transmission system.

Imported fossil fuels provide the bulk of power fuel, with 47 percent of the island’s electricity coming from petroleum, 34 percent from natural gas, 17 percent from coal, and just 2 percent from renewable energy in 2016 according to the Energy Information Administration.

In 2015, nearly 72 percent of Puerto Rico’s electricity came from petroleum.

“In terms of power sources, they decided to keep these really old dinosaur power plants operating,” Enck said.

Brandon Hurlbut, former chief of staff at the US Department of Energy who served on President Barack Obama’s Puerto Rico task force, agreed, noting that PREPA had a captive market and faced no regulations until recently, so they had no incentive to try new things.

“There was no oversight,” he said. “The people that were running the utility, they just had no concept of innovation.”

Yet to many people outside the island, the destruction to such a beleaguered power system appears to be an opportunity to rebuild better and cleaner. “The only silver lining, if there is one, is that they have an opportunity to completely change how they generate and distribute electricity on the island,” said Enck.

Solar, batteries, and microgrids do improve resiliency

A radical turn toward renewables in Puerto Rico aligns with Musk’s vision for an American where electric cars, home batteries, and solar panels are all synergized. With electric automaker Tesla’s acquisition of solar installer SolarCity, Musk took a step toward his goal of “productizing a microgrid.”

That is, developing a complete standardized drop-in energy system, from the generator (solar), to the arbitrage (batteries), to the network (microgrid), to the users (electric cars and homes).

Tesla representatives declined to comment further about the company’s plans for Puerto Rico and deferred to Musk’s comments on Twitter.

Puerto Rico provides a chance to test this idea and see whether it would actually bear fruit.

And shifting away from big, centralized power plants and large power grids toward smaller distributed systems does confer some advantages when it comes to standing up to storms and rebuilding after.

“Microgrids definitely do have the ability to weather extreme events,” said Kevin Schneider, a principal engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “Microgrids give you the benefit that the power doesn’t have to come from a remote location. That tends to minimize your exposure to events.”

Keeping your power source close to you, (like on your roof, as is the case with solar), means that the power is less likely to go out when a tree falls on a power line. One Puerto Rican farmer, for example, managed to restore power with the solar panels he installed before the storm.

When the water recedes, a smaller grid, like one spanning a neighborhood or a campus, is easier to resuscitate.

There is less hardware that needs repair and the responsibility for the grid often falls to the people that are on it, creating strong incentive to maintain infrastructure and get it back up quickly compared to a large, central utility which has to weigh the needs of all of its customers.

“Owners of microgrids would have paid better attention to them than the Puerto Rican utility had done,” said James Kirtley, a professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A smaller grid powered by local generators is also quicker to install. Some individual buildings in Puerto Rico like fire stations have already installed new solar arrays with the help of nonprofits.

Other islands, like Richard Branson’s Necker Island, have de facto microgrids and many have deployed renewables. But rebuilding energy infrastructure with distributed power in Puerto Rico, with 3.4 million residents, would require deploying these systems at an unprecedented scale.

Puerto Rico’s power system currently routes electricity over long distances, which creates choke points for power, and the responsibility for these power lines that traverse the sparsely populated parts of the island fall to PREPA.

The fact that energy hungry cities like San Juan are so far away from the generators that power them means that workers will have to rebuild miles and miles of transmission lines through mountains with limited roads before power comes back, even though most generators survived the storm intact.

This is a massive construction effort and will require new hardware shipped to the island, which is part of why power restoration will take months. And many of the utility workers with intimate knowledge of Puerto Rico’s grid have left the island, part of an exodus of more than 300,000 residents between 2000 and 2016.

“I think there is a generalized sense that the system we have now is not working,” said Santiago, speaking from the city of Salinas on the Southern coast of Puerto Rico. “There is no doubt that the impacts of Hurricane Maria have made it very clear that making plants send power to San Juan is not a good system.”

Revamping the grid will cost Puerto Rico dearly. And no one seems to have a plan to pay for it.

Battery-backed microgrids are predicted to attract $22.3 billion in investment over the next 10 years, spurred in part by the outages after recent storms.

But switching to a distributed grid dominated by renewables and energy storage systems won’t make Puerto Rico invincible to storms, and they also introduce their own problems.

The biggest issue is cost.

“We can build power systems that are almost 100 percent reliable but they are not going to be cost-effective,” said Schneider.

Moving power lines underground, for example, can triple the cost of transmission, and it only trades the risk of wind damage for the risk of flood damage, conferring little advantage in coastal areas.

And power grids, like those that span continents, reap the benefits of building and buying in bulk. A large interconnected power grid lets utilities buy and sell power so even when gigawatts of generation go offline, like when a nuclear reactor shuts down for refueling, the lights stay on.

Research has shown that deploying renewable energy over a vast area connected by a transmission system would actually increase reliability and reduce intermittency compared to smaller networks since it would route power from areas where there is sunlight and wind to areas where there isn’t.

Shrinking the grid means that losing smaller generation sources has a larger impact on reliability. A homeowner in Texas could still buy power from the grid if her solar panels blow off in a storm, but on a solar microgrid in Puerto Rico it could mean lights out until the panels are replaced.

Maria, which struck Puerto Rico with 150 mph winds that knocked down trees and power lines, easily ripped many solar panels off their moorings.

 Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images
The remnants of a 40-megawatt solar farm in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on October 2, 2017.

That means massive hurricanes will almost always disable grids for a period of time.

Even if your home’s solar panels survive the storm, you may not be allowed to use them. Florida homeowners found out about this the hard way after Hurricane Irma, where the utility told residents with rooftop solar systems that they couldn’t draw power from their panels while workers were restoring power due to the risks of sending errant electricity on the grid.

And a microgrid still has to perform functions like frequency regulation, voltage stepping, and power routing between generators, storage, and electricity users. The relative costs of these services go up as they are distributed among fewer people.

“The challenge is you have to do everything a larger power system can do,” Schneider said. “It’s an economy of scale thing in the opposite direction.”

Meanwhile, Tesla estimates that providing one day of power during an outage for an 1,100 square-foot home using 24 kilowatt-hours of energy would require two Powerwalls with an equipment cost of $11,700, not including permits, necessary electrical upgrade, and grid interconnection fees.

MIT’s Kirtley noted that remote microgrids that aren’t connected to a larger main grid would also require overbuilt generation and energy storage even during normal operations since they can’t get backup power from another central power plant.

“You are going to be using more electricity at night than daytime, and it has to be sized in such a way to run if you have several cloudy days in a row,” he said.

This is too expensive for many homeowners in Puerto Rico — and for a utility that’s billions in debt and missing bill payments. There are few banks that will lend PREPA the cash they need to start building this kind of system for more than 1.5 million customers.

And Elon Musk is running a business, not a charity, so coming up with a way to generate money from reconstructing Puerto Rico’s energy system will be crucial for private companies to step in, which will be difficult as the island copes with its financial struggles.

“The business case is always a really tough one,” Schneider said.

All the while, Puerto Ricans don’t have the luxury of waiting for the grid of the future, so renewable energy entrepreneurs must compete against fossil fuel generators. Already, new diesel turbines are being installed on the island.

The post-Maria Puerto Rico is hard to plan for

The Puerto Rican government is facing intense pressure to restore power quickly. Gov. Rosselló laid out a timeline for restoring power to 95 percent of the island by Christmas.

Musk hinted at the challenge that lies ahead:

Meanwhile, it’s clear that Hurricane Maria will permanently reshape Puerto Rico’s economy and population.

Many people have fled and upward of 200,000 people may not return, speeding up an ongoing migration trend.

This poses a huge challenge for energy planners. Utility grids in particular cost billions of dollars up front and take decades to pay back, but the situation in Puerto Rico presents a moving target and makes it difficult to plan.

The Trump administration has also shown a questionable commitment to recovery in Puerto Rico, with the president threatening on October 12 to withdraw FEMA and military responders. But Trump also broached forgiving Puerto Rico’s debt.

That means the default solution — rebuilding the island’s electrical grid the way it was — may end up becoming the likeliest scenario.

For now, the US Army Corps of Engineers is concentrating its power restoration work across four fronts: providing emergency power, getting existing power plants up to speed, rebuilding power transmission lines, and repairing distribution systems.

The raging controversy over Trump and the families of fallen soldiers, explained
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

From an ambush in Niger to a multi-front political fiasco.

Monday’s impromptu press conference in the Rose Garden featured a question about why President Trump hadn’t spoken personally about the four American soldiers who died in Niger 12 days earlier. It was the occasion, it seemed, for a public acknowledgement of their service and some mournful remarks about their deaths.

Instead, Trump delivered a peevish and defensive response that’s unleashed a multi-pronged political controversy.

"If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls — a lot of them didn't make calls. I like to make calls when it's appropriate," Trump said when asked why he didn’t call the families of the fallen soldiers.

Then the floodgates opened:

And though the entire controversy has been set off primarily by Trump’s lack of empathy, manners, and common sense rather than anything on the policy front, it’s drawing more attention to the underlying event — a military mission in Africa that few Americans were aware of where something apparently went awry.

It’s a reminder that Trump’s impulsiveness, defensiveness, and habitual dishonesty are a big deal. Even on the most sensitive, most critical matters, he seems constitutionally incapable of keeping himself in check, and his staff — despite high hopes that retired Gen. John Kelly would bring a more professional approach to the White House as chief of staff — can’t do it for him.

It started with an ambush in Africa

The entire chain of events began a bit over two weeks ago with the death of three American soldiers on what the US government described as a “routine” patrol in the landlocked African country of Niger. Two days later, the Pentagon confirmed the death of a fourth member of the 12-man Special Forces detachment. The troops were ambushed, unexpectedly, in a situation where the military appears to have believed they would likely be safe.

Trump did not address the situation in the immediate aftermath of the news, preferring to focus his attention on tweets about the stock market, the NFL, and his various political feuds.

This was noteworthy, though not necessarily a huge political story. It’s never been the case that presidents comment publicly on every military death, and there are understandable reasons why the government might want to avoid calling additional attention to Special Forces operations. At the same time, though, the military deployment in Niger has been ongoing for some time. The United States is assisting the Nigerien government in battles against Islamist groups that claim affiliation with ISIS. It’s not something most Americans are aware of, and it could have been an occasion to educate the public about the mission.

But Trump, when asked 12 days after the ambush why he hadn’t commented, chose to turn it into a major story by smearing his predecessors and claiming they didn’t contact the families of fallen soldiers.

“The traditional way if you look at President Obama and other presidents,” Trump said, “most of them didn’t make calls — a lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it.”

Outrage at Trump’s lie came fast and furious

Alyssa Mastromonaco, a deputy chief of staff in the Obama administration, tweeted that Trump’s accusation was “a fucking lie” and derided the president as “a deranged animal.”

Ben Rhodes, a top NSC official and probably Obama’s closest confidant on national security matters, called Trump’s remarks an “outrageous and disrespectful lie even by Trump standards.” Former Attorney General Eric Holder simply told Trump to “stop the damn lying.”

Retired Gen. Martin Dempsey, who commanded US forces in Iraq for a time during George W. Bush’s presidency and went on to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Obama, also chimed in to denounce Trump’s remarks.

When pressed on the claim later in the same press conference, Trump initially appeared to back down, saying, “President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes, and maybe sometimes he didn’t. I don’t know.” Yet he also seemed to suggest that if he was mistaken, it was the military’s fault, concluding, “All I can do — all I can do is ask my generals.”

But the next day, in an interview with Fox News Radio, Trump was back on the attack, saying, “You could ask Gen. [John] Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?”

Kelly has striven for years to avoid public mention of his son’s combat death in Afghanistan back in 2011, but he was in fact an honored guest at a May 2011 breakfast for Gold Star families at which he and his wife were seated at Michelle Obama’s table. At Wednesday’s briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Kelly was “disgusted and frustrated” by the way his son’s death has been politicized — a curious remark since it was their mutual boss, Donald Trump, who did the politicizing.

Trump is bad at making condolence calls

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the controversy over Obama’s alleged non-communication with grieving families is that Trump himself had not yet spoken to the families of the soldiers who were killed in Niger, though he did find time for multiple weekend golf outings.

But with the controversy in full swing this week, Trump did make calls on Tuesday.

Word then almost immediately filtered out via Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL), who was also present during Trump’s call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of the late Sgt. La David Johnson, that the president told her Johnson “knew what he signed up for.”

Wilson described Trump’s remarks as “so insensitive,” Trump said Wilson “totally fabricated” her version of events, and then Johnson’s mother confirmed Wilson’s version of events.

If this was a hint as to why Trump’s staff may have been reluctant to schedule call time with fallen soldiers’ family members, the full extent of the problem was revealed later Wednesday afternoon in a shocking Washington Post story by Dan Lamothe, Lindsey Never, and Eli Rosenberg. They recounted a story from Chris Baldridge, the father of Army CPl. Dillon Baldridge, who was killed in an insider attack in Afghanistan back on June 10. Trump called Baldridge a few weeks after the attack, and during the call, Baldridge expressed frustration with the fact that under the military’s survivor benefits program, all of the Pentagon’s $100,000 death gratuity would go to his ex-wife. Trump, according to the Post, “offered him $25,000 and said he would direct his staff to establish an online fundraiser for the family, but neither happened.”

Trump has often feuded with the military

Trump’s style of demagogic nationalism naturally leads him to a professed admiration for the military. And unlike the civilian branches of the government, Trump does seem to have some level of respect for military service as a form of experience that’s relative to government work — tapping a succession of generals for senior civilian positions in his administration.

But as my colleague Yochi Dreazen has written, Trump has, in practice, fairly frequently clashed with the military:

Beyond policy and knowledge of international affairs, discipline and protocol are important military values and not exactly important Trump values. So while the content of some of Trump’s conduct around military deaths is fairly shocking, it’s not exactly surprising that he’s struggled with this aspect of his job.

America’s going to have a real problem in a crisis

Phil Carter, a veteran and journalist, writes at Slate that the entire hullaballoo is a valuable reminder that the United States has, over a period of years, seemed to have slipped into a combat mission in Niger with little to no public debate or acknowledgment.

“The worst tribute we could pay to Sgts. Black, Johnson, Johnson, and Wright would be to ignore the cause they fought for,” Carter writes, “without any hard questions for their commander in chief about how or why they died, and what we purchased in national security with their lives.”

The even tougher questions, however, regard what it means for America to have a chief executive who’s capable of turning relatively minor problems into giant multi-day stories. Of all the questions posed by American military engagement in West Africa and an apparently sudden and unexpected shift in the threat environment, surely the absolutely easiest one to resolve is how to properly communicate with grieving family members.

Yet Trump has managed to completely and utterly botch this relatively simple job less than a week after creating a major diplomatic crisis with Iran for no particular reason. The humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico appears to be, if anything, intensifying as citizens cope with a chronic lack of safe water. The president has willfully destabilized individual health insurance markets without any clear plan and is actively scuttling congressional efforts to stabilize the situation.

Other serious challenges are lurking out there in the world, yet the Trump administration seemed incapable of issuing a simple condolence statement or answering a question about it without unleashing a multi-front political fiasco. It’s a sad story and an aggravating story, but, like so much else we read about the basic functioning of the Trump White House, it’s fundamentally a scary story.

Marvel’s The Punisher premieres November 17 on Netflix
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

After weeks in limbo due to its depictions of gun violence, the series finally has a release date.

Marvel’s The Punisher will finally hit Netflix on November 17, 2017, the company announced on Thursday, following weeks of speculation over when — perhaps even if — the series would see the light of day.

The series, about a vigilante antihero who’s adept at firearms, has been shadowed by controversy since the mass shooting in Las Vegas on October 1. Though Marvel hadn’t announced a release date at that point, there were rumors that it was planning to release the show in October, on the heels of a trailer that dropped in mid-September. But then at New York Comic Con in early October, Marvel canceled the show’s panel, recognizing that promotion of the show, which features a lot of gun violence, could be seen as distasteful and disrespectful in light of the real-life gun violence that claimed the lives of more than 50 people in Nevada.

Since then, questions around The Punisher have centered on when it would be appropriate to release the series, and the fundamental appropriateness of a show that features, and perhaps glamorizes, heavy gun violence, in light of the gun violence epidemic in the United States. While the release is now more than a month removed from the Las Vegas shooting, the conversation surrounding The Punisher’s violence and its relationship to our current reality will likely continue once audiences see what the series holds that made executives feel it necessary to pull the Punisher panel.

Trump just publicly accused the FBI of having conspired against him
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

The tweet is not only false, but creepily authoritarian.

As president, Donald Trump is in charge of the FBI. Which makes it incredibly striking that, in a Thursday morning tweet, Trump accused the bureau of having conspired to spread false intelligence about him during the 2016 election:

The reference to “Fake Dossier” is to the infamous Steele dossier, a list of allegations about the Trump campaign’s links to Russia put together last summer by retired British spy Christopher Steele. It’s the source of many of the most extreme claims about Trump, including that he paid prostitutes to pee on a bed in a Moscow hotel room that President Barack Obama had previously slept in during a visit to Russia.

Trump is wrong about the dossier in two different ways. First, we know who paid for it and it wasn’t the FBI: private American political donors, first supporters of Trump’s Republican primary opponents and later Democrats trying to torpedo his general election bid. Second, while he’s right that the dossier is not fully confirmed — particularly some of the most salacious details such as the urine incident — but by no stretch of the imagination is it “fake.” In fact, a number of its claims have been found to be true.

“Well before any public knowledge of these events, the [Steele dossier] identified multiple elements of the Russian operation including a cyber campaign, leaked documents related to Hillary Clinton, and meetings with Paul Manafort and other Trump affiliates to reportedly discuss the receipt of stolen documents,” John Sipher, a 30-year veteran of the CIA, writes in Slate.

But Trump’s public attacks on the FBI are perhaps even more worrying than his lies about the dossier.

The FBI is supposed to be a quasi-independent check on the White House. It’s the agency tasked with investigating wrongdoing by the executive branch. While presidents can fire bureau directors, they are not supposed to do that except under extreme circumstances, and they’re certainly not supposed to do so as punishment for looking too closely at the president’s fishy behavior.

This is what made Trump’s firing of then-FBI Director James Comey back in May, which he admitted was a response to Comey’s refusal to back off the Russia investigation, so troubling. The fact that Trump is continuing to publicly feud with the FBI — which is still investigating his ties to Russia at the direction of special counsel Robert Mueller — suggests the president believes any attempt by the bureau to hold him accountable for his past actions is corrupt and needs to be stopped.

There are heads of state who act this way. But they aren’t usually in charge of democracies — at least, not for very long.

13 spine-tingling horror podcasts to get you in the Halloween spirit
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

Featuring tales of aliens, ghosts, supernatural strangeness, and more.

If you’re a fan of both podcasts and horror, there’s no better time than the Halloween season to sample some of the eeriest audio offerings out there.

But what to do if you’ve already burned through more well-known entries like Welcome to Night Vale, The Black Tapes, Limetown, Lore, and Reddit’s long-running No Sleep? (If you haven’t checked those out, they’re all worth a listen.)

If you’re seeking recommendations that will take your horror podcast game to the next level, here are 13 excellent options — both fiction and nonfiction — that you may have missed.

Knifepoint Horror (fiction)

For sheer chills-around-the-campfire-style storytelling, nothing beats Knifepoint, an intermittent anthology podcast where each episode features a weary-voiced narrator telling a standalone, first-person story that inevitably builds from ominous dread into an all-consuming horror fest. Knifepoint has no frills and no production frippery; its effectiveness derives partly from its minimalism, and the way creator Soren Narnia allows the silence to fill your mind with terror. For sheer eeriness, few things are scarier than the episodes titled “staircase,” “rebirth,” “landmark,” and “sisters” — though every tale in this collection will likely wind up in your nightmares.

Number of episodes: Forty standalone episodes ranging from 40 to 70 minutes in length. A sampling of Knifepoint’s most popular episodes is also available on YouTube. New episodes are released essentially whenever Narnia feels like it; a new quartet of short stories just appeared for Halloween.

Within the Wires (fiction)

“No one is with you. Why would anyone be with you? You are probably alone.”

This podcast from the geniuses behind Welcome to Night Vale wields creepiness in the form of deep relaxation techniques. Initially styled as a guided meditation, Within the Wires quickly turns dark as its calm and soothing narrator becomes more and more aggressive, leads you through tension-relieving exercises that are more than a bit disturbing, and drops clues about the existence of a futuristic dystopian society. As the layers peel away, the narrative becomes something like Stranger Things meets Children of Men, and the gaps left up to your imagination are truly spooky.

Number of episodes: Fourteen episodes and counting — one complete season of 10 episodes, plus a second season currently in progress. Episodes run 20 to 30 minutes each and come out twice a month.

Homecoming (fiction)

Gimlet’s star-studded Homecoming is less a psychological thriller than a veiled Brazil-esque study of institutional politics gone deeply awry. The story of a lone military vet (Oscar Isaac) who goes missing from a mysterious facility, the podcast is spun out through loosely connected scenes that don’t really form a cohesive narrative; ultimately, Homecoming feels more like an abstract form of performance art captured on audio. Still, its intrigue, mind games, and sinister atmosphere will keep you hooked from start to finish — particularly thanks to standout performances from Isaac, Catherine Keener, and David Schwimmer.

Number of episodes: Twelve half-hour episodes, divided into two seasons of six episodes each. No future seasons are planned.

Lake Clarity (fiction)

Lake Clarity combines the audio drama format with the found-footage subgenre of horror movies, with a hefty degree of comedy thrown in. The plot may be a standard-issue tale of a teen camping trip gone wrong, but the podcast is plenty engaging, thanks to the obvious fun its voice actors are having as their characters explore a mysterious cave full of unspeakable Lovecraftian terrors. Lake Clarity also boasts unsettlingly stellar sound design: When a scene turns from funny to ghoulish, it does so with remarkable speed and bone-crunching effectiveness. (I’m not joking — the crunching noises can really get to you.)

Number of episodes: Ten episodes and counting — one complete season of eight episodes, plus a second season currently in progress. Episodes run 15 to 25 minutes each and come out twice a month.

Alice Isn’t Dead (fiction)

Like the aforementioned Within the Wires, the gorgeous and eerie Alice Isn’t Dead is another project from the creators of Welcome to Night Vale. The podcast unfolds its strange road trip through first-person vignettes and narrated letters addressed to the title character; more explicitly built on horror tropes than either Night Vale or Wires, it tells the story of a woman searching for her missing wife in the spookiest liminal spaces of America’s highways and byways — truck stops, dive bars, seedy motels and diners, and the vast expanse of the open road. Through this setting, various forms of evil and surreal supernatural phenomena pursue our protagonist as she keeps on trucking to flee both her own demons and the terrifying creatures that haunt her route.

Number of episodes: Two seasons of 10 episodes, which each run 20 to 30 minutes long. Season three is in development.

Return Home (fiction)

A man named Jonathan returns to his odd hometown, Melancholy Falls, for the first time since he was a teenager, only to be confronted with strange happenings, mysterious alien body snatchers, and voices continuing to demand that he “return home.” With the help of an old friend, he embarks on a journey to figure out where and what “home” really is. Quirky and comedic with plenty of jump scares, Return Home is well-acted and benefits from fantastic audio production, to make the possibility of having your body taken over by weird alien things feel even more immersive.

Number of episodes: So far, there are 42 episodes of five to 20 minutes in length, divided into several short story arcs and interludes within the ongoing serialized story. New episodes are typically released weekly, but the podcast is currently on hiatus.

Rabbits (fiction)

Rabbits falls under the umbrella of Pacific Northwest Stories (PNWS): the podcast production company working in the guise of a fictional news radio outlet that also brought us The Black Tapes and the similarly pseudo-journalistic Tanis. With Rabbits, PNWS has once again pulled out all the metafictional stops, this time to spin the tale of a viral game that takes a dark, dark turn. Like its PNWS cousins, Rabbits involves fictional journalists and a rabbit hole of paranormal puzzle pieces: A young reporter finds herself investigating a series of strange events, which seem to point toward a conspiracy surrounding the disappearance of a friend who may have been playing a mysterious game called “IX.” It’s a well-acted blend of urban legends, weird fiction, and your average creepypasta, and it gradually evolves into a chilling tale of obsession.

Number of episodes: One season of 10 episodes of 40 to 60 minutes each. Season two is in development.

The Message and Life After (fiction)

The Message and its follow-up series Life After are lush sci-fi thrillers that center on the decoding of an intercepted signal of apparent alien origin — and which might just be a curse. In The Message, though the stage is initially set to mimic your average journalistic nonfiction podcast, the completely fictional story rapidly goes off the rails, all while hewing close to real-life searches for extraterrestrial intelligence. The follow-up series, Life After, which deals with AI technology and the terrifying potential of immersion in a fully digital world, can be standalone but works even better as a sequel. (There’s also a post-series roundtable discussion of the show’s scientific plot points with Neil deGrasse Tyson.)

Number of episodes: Both series finish their stories within a single season. The Message runs for eight 10- to 15-minute episodes; Life After runs for 10 half-hour episodes.

The Lost Cat Podcast (fiction)

The Lost Cat Podcast is a modern homage to Edgar Allen Poe’s obsessive, paranoiac narrators and the endlessly disturbing worlds in which they live. It’s surreal, blackly comedic, and often totally bizarre, but the concept is irresistibly simple: In each episode, the narrator continues an ongoing search for his cat. What he finds instead is a host of eminently compelling weirdness.

Number of episodes: Twenty-four episodes split among three seasons. Episodes run between 20 and 30 minutes each. Season three abruptly went on hiatus earlier this year, with two episodes remaining.

Point Mystic (fiction)

Point Mystic is endlessly spine-tingling. It’s Welcome to Night Vale by way of NPR — that is, it sounds like a news program, if the news were covering a town full of deeply surreal and discordant weirdness, from faceless firemen to terrifying wooden shapes in the forest. With its emphasis on surreal horror rendered via naturalistic storytelling, Point Mystic echoes the aforementioned Knifepoint Horror, but its impressive production value places it at the opposite end of the podcast spectrum.

Number of episodes: One season of seven 30- to 40-minute episodes. Season two is in development.

Inside the Exorcist (nonfiction, mostly)

Inside the Exorcist is more accurately a metafiction podcast that’s loosely based on the real-life history — some of it less well-sourced than the rest — surrounding The Exorcist. If you love the 1973 movie or are fascinated by the concept of exorcism, or if you’re just a fan of reenactment journalism, this is a must-listen.

Number of episodes: Season one is only three episodes in so far; new episodes are being released weekly.

You Must Remember This: Bela and Boris (nonfiction)

Posh and utterly engrossing, You Must Remember This has made a name for itself based on host Karina Longworth’s intimate season-long explorations into the lives and legends of Old Hollywood. Just in time for Halloween, she’s started a new season as of this week — and she’s turning her attention to two of the men who made Universal’s monsters a permanent cultural fixture: Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. We can’t wait to hear where this goes.

Number of episodes: There are currently 115 episodes of You Must Remember This, divided into closed-ended story arcs on a range of subjects. The Bela and Boris arc debuted this week, and new 40- to 70-minute episodes are released weekly.

Spooked (nonfiction)

Spooked is a documentary podcast focusing on folklore and supernatural myths throughout the world; think Lore, but with a narrower focus and an even sharper sense of where our universal fears originate.

Number of episodes: Ten episodes of 20 to 40 minutes each, and counting; new episodes will be released every few days through Halloween.

Xi Jinping may be the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao. He might get stronger still.
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China is a pivotal moment for him.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is perhaps the most powerful leader China has seen since Communist leader Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China. Now Xi stands on the brink of becoming even stronger.

The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China kicked off on Wednesday — a hugely important political event in China in which the party meets for roughly a week once every five years to decide on its leadership and set national policy priorities.

By tradition, the party changes its head every 10 years. Xi began his first five-year term during the last congress, and the party will reappoint him for his second five-year term during this one.

The party will also assign people to top leadership positions in the tiers below him, most notably the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. It’s a group, currently composed of seven people, who make up the most senior decision-making body in the Chinese Communist party. Its members have broad portfolios like running the economy or the country’s propaganda operations.

If Xi succeeds in getting his allies into many of those top leadership positions — and experts think there’s a good chance he will — he’ll have more control of the party and an enormous mandate to push his agenda for the country’s future.

Xi’s speech suggests he’s as ambitious as ever

To kick off this year’s congress, Xi delivered a whopping 3.5-hour-long opening speech outlining his accomplishments over the past five years and vision for the country’s future.

He heralded a “new era” in Chinese political life and repeatedly boasted of China’s status as a “great power.”

Xi spoke a great deal about making the economy more nimble and prosperous by doing things like improving state-owned enterprises — but he was clear it wouldn’t be moving toward a conventional market economy.

As the New York Times notes, Xi said the word “market” only 19 times, compared to 24 times by his predecessor Hu at the previous congress in 2012, and 51 times by then-President Jiang Zemin at the 1997 congress.

"He is emphasizing that he is strongly committed to the distinctive Chinese hybrid system in economics and party-led system in politics,” Julian Gewirtz, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School studying Chinese history and politics, told me.

Xi also championed China’s growing influence on the world stage, celebrating the country’s increasing control of the disputed South China Sea under his first term and calling for efforts to make the Chinese military more powerful. He also called for Chinese mainland control of Taiwan, the island nation off the coast of China that Beijing considers a renegade province.

Xi signaled that he would continue to ramp up one of the biggest themes of his first term: domestic repression. Under his rule, Chinese authorities have cracked down hard on free expression and civil society. During his speech, he suggested there was more to come — pledging enhanced internet censorship to “clearly oppose and resist the whole range of erroneous viewpoints.” (The government has blocked the international messaging service WhatsApp during the congress so far.)

Experts say that if Xi manages to secure more control of the party at this congress, he’ll likely feel emboldened when engaging with foreign leaders — and that includes his relationship with President Donald Trump.

Xi will host Trump during his first visit to Asia in November. If Xi meets analysts’ expectations at the party congress, then “Trump is going to meet Xi at the apex of his power,” according to Damien Ma, a fellow at the Paulson Institute, a nonpartisan Chicago think tank.

That means that while discussing issues ranging from trade to how to handle North Korea to cybersecurity, Xi could have a firmer hand at the negotiating table.

Xi will also likely feel more confident about projecting Chinese power across the globe through projects like the “One Belt, One Road” initiative in which China is building a behemoth infrastructure project fanning across Eurasia.

Of course, Xi may not need a boost in the first place. As Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian of China at the University of California Irvine notes, Xi doesn’t have to do anything exceptional to increase China’s standing in a global order led by Trump.

“It has been a godsend to [Xi] to have a US administration in place in recent months that has been erratic in its diplomacy, has sent mixed signals to allies, and has pulled back on various forms of engagement with the world,” Wasserstrom told me.

“In some cases, all Xi needs to do to win points symbolically internationally is show up and say basic things, like appearing at Davos and expressing support for globalization or reaffirming China's commitment to the Paris Climate accords. He can look good even if he is in fact limiting the flow into China of international ideas and making it harder to international NGOs to operate.”

It appears that, for Xi, the world is for the taking.

Rose McGowan’s relentless fight against the Harvey Weinsteins of Hollywood, explained
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

If there is any hero to come out of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it’s Rose McGowan.

McGowan, who is best known for playing the mean girl in 1999’s Jawbreaker and one of the witches in the WB series Charmed, has spent the Weinstein scandal speaking out against both Weinstein and anyone who might be complicit in Weinstein’s actions. She circulated a petition calling to dissolve the board of the Weinstein Company. When reports emerged that Colony Capital was in talks to purchase the Weinstein Company, McGowan called on her supporters to boycott.

And her supporters are manifold and vocal. Last week, when Twitter briefly suspended her, they boycotted the site in solidarity; they’re tweeting with the hashtag #ROSEARMY.

For McGowan, the movement is an extension of the story she’s long been telling about her life, a story of fighting against the world’s desire to reduce her and other women to sexual objects. It’s a story that begins with her childhood growing up in cult that would be plagued by stories of child molestation, and continues into her career as an actress continually cast as sex objects; the 2007 car crash and subsequent plastic surgery that made her a target of public mockery; and her decision to turn her back on the norms of Hollywood and call on women to unite to upend them. That’s the story she’s bringing to its culmination in her upcoming memoir, Brave, the story she’s now preparing the public to accept.

“I’m assembling an army,” she told BuzzFeed in 2015.

Here’s how McGowan came to build that army.

McGowan spent her childhood in a restrictive polygamous cult

Until she was 9 years old, McGowan was raised in the Italian chapter of the Children of God cult, a group that began as a hippie peace-and-free-love religious separatist sect but would quickly become dogged by allegations that sexual abuse ran rampant in the confines of its compounds.

McGowan says it was a controlling place to grow up, describing it as “a bit like the Medici court.” In a 2011 profile for People, she said, “You weren’t allowed to have imperfections. I had a little wart on my thumb, and I remember walking down this hallway — a door opened and some adult grabbed me and just cut it off with a razor blade and stuck me back out in the hallway with it still bleeding.”

While physical imperfections weren’t permitted, neither was makeup or glamour. You were expected to be perfect as God made you: You were to purify your body, but do it naturally. For McGowan, who loved glamour — “I basically just came out of the womb waving red lipstick,” she told People — the rules were disquieting. But they were also liberating. "I don't remember ever seeing any mirrors," she said. "So I grew up without actually registering that I was a girl or a boy. Or registering that I was anything but a mind."

For women among the Children of God, the rules were much stricter than they were for the men. “They were basically there to serve the men sexually,” says McGowan. Men in the Children of God practiced polygamy; the women would serve them and then go out to bars to seduce new recruits in a practice the cult leadership called “Flirty Fishing.” “At a very early age I decided I did not want to be like those women,” says McGowan.

McGowan says she did get an education of sorts while she was in the cult; she’s fond of quipping in interviews that she was reading Edgar Allen Poe by age 4 or 6 but didn’t learn to tie her shoes until age 9. However, she has also recounted feeling physically unsafe. “From about [age] 3, every room I go into,” she told BuzzFeed in 2015, “I immediately look for what I would kill somebody with if I had to defend myself."

Children of God is most infamous today for its doctrine that children are sexual beings and that in order to raise children naturally, adults should have sex with them. (The version of the organization that still exists today has officially disavowed that doctrine.) But McGowan says that she herself was not molested during her time in the cult. Her father was a cartoonist who drew tracts for the movement, she says, and when cult leadership began asking him to draw pamphlets advocating for child molestation, he took his children and one of his wives (who was not McGowan’s mother) and ran.

“I remember running through a cornfield in thunder and lightning, holding my dad’s hand and running as fast as I could to keep up with him,” McGowan recalled to People. “We hid in an old stone house and had to boil pots of hot water to take baths. [The cult] sent people to find us. I remember a man trying to break in with a hammer.” She was 9 years old.

McGowan’s mother eventually escaped from the cult as well, and McGowan went to live with her, but due to what she tersely describes as “a mean stepdad” situation, she ran away at age 13 to live on the streets for a year before reuniting with her father and his other wife. “It was not an easy assimilation,” she says.

The story of McGowan’s childhood as she tells it is a story of living in a system that explicitly treats women as sexual objects, that teaches women that their greatest purpose in life — the best way for them to serve God — is to serve men sexually. It’s a system that demands physical perfection and purity but dictates strict rules about how to obtain that perfection, and harshly punishes any deviations from those rules. McGowan’s childhood, in other words, was fantastic training for existing within and fighting against the great Hollywood machine.

McGowan’s acting career has been marked by her struggles with an industry that wanted to make her into a sex object

McGowan’s acting career began in earnest in 1995, when she was 22 and starred in The Doom Generation. In interviews, McGowan describes the experience with fondness, but she also describes a culture of sexual harassment on set: being told to lie down on top of an actor with an erection during her audition, and an instance after production had begun in which another actor tried to penetrate her with a water bottle. (Director Gregg Araki disputes McGowan’s allegations.)

McGowan would spend much of her film career playing sexy dark bad girls, an experience she describes with ambivalence. "I just don't like being treated as less-than," she told BuzzFeed. "I don't like being treated as basically a couch that talks — and as important. I don't like being humiliated, or somebody trying to make you humiliated."

In an excerpt from her upcoming memoir, Brave (which is set to come out in February), McGowan says she spent much of her film and television career struggling with her self-image as she worked to embody a certain physical ideal. She developed an eating disorder. She grew out her short hair, she says, because “I was literally told I had to have long hair because otherwise the men doing the hiring in Hollywood wouldn't want to fuck me and if they didn't want to fuck me, they wouldn't hire me.”

“I had been turned into the ultimate fantasy fuck toy by the Hollywood machine,” she concludes.

But her career was hobbled in 2007, when McGowan was in a car crash and one of the lenses of her glasses shattered over her eye. She underwent reconstructive surgery as a result — and the gossip press had a field day.

“By the looks of things, it appears as though she kept the doctor on speed dial,” the New York Daily News snarked in 2009, adding that McGowan’s “taut, puffy face” was “barely recognizable.”

“She was once known for her sex appeal, but thanks to the surgeon's knife she looks [sic] now appear nothing more than a memory,” said the Daily Telegraph.

Plastic surgery in Hollywood has long served the same function that makeup served among the Children of God: You are supposed to be physically perfect, but you are supposed to achieve that perfection naturally. If you rely on outside help to achieve the physical ideal you’ve been taught to strive for — help like cosmetics or plastic surgery — you become a figure to be mocked and ridiculed.

McGowan rarely addresses the outcry over her plastic surgery in public, but in 2016, she wrote a blistering open letter to a film critic after he decried Renée Zellweger’s plastic surgery. “I refuse and reject this bullshit on behalf of those who feel they can't speak,” McGowan wrote:

I am someone who was forced by a studio to go on Howard Stern, where he asked me to show him my labia while my grinning male and female publicists stood to the side and did nothing to protect me. I am someone who has withstood death threats from fan boys, had fat sites devoted to me. I've withstood harassment on a level you can’t comprehend, Owen [Gleiberman, the critic in question]. I was so confused by the heaping tons of abuse, I actually forgot what I looked like. Which is awesome because I rose up from some serious ashes to finally have my say.

For McGowan, rising up from the ashes has involved rejecting the ideals she internalized as a young actress about the ideal Hollywood image. That’s why, in 2015, she shaved off her iconic dark hair live on Instagram, calling the act “a battle cry.”

I don't want it anymore #rebelyell #everythingisart starring @hairbyadrian

A post shared by Rose McGowan (@rosemcgowan) on

But for years, McGowan has heavily implied that she’s not only rejecting the insidious internalized misogyny she learned from Hollywood. She’s also rejecting the culture that physically assaulted her.

Because at some point in her career, McGowan has heavily implied, she was raped by Harvey Weinstein.

With the Weinstein scandal, McGowan refuses to stay quiet

According to the New York Times, Weinstein reached a $100,000 settlement with McGowan in 1997, following an “episode” at a hotel room during the Sundance Film Festival.

McGowan has never commented explicitly on this settlement in public, presumably because its terms included a nondisclosure agreement. Supporting that presumption, the Daily Beast has reported that McGowan is the unnamed actress in Ronan Farrow’s recent Weinstein exposé for the New Yorker who, Farrow writes, “initially spoke to me on the record [but] later asked that her allegation be removed” because “‘the legal angle is coming at me and I have no recourse.’”

However, on multiple occasions dating back to at least 2015, McGowan has publicly hinted — often vehemently so — that Weinstein assaulted her. It was in 2015 that she gave an interview to BuzzFeed on the specter of sexual assault in the entertainment industry, saying, “It alters the course of your life; it's altered the course of my life." The interviewer mentions “a rumored serial predator in the entertainment industry, a powerful figure who is often whispered about but never exposed” (who’s been widely interpreted to be Weinstein), and McGowan responds, “There's a lot of people that don't deserve to be alive — put it that way.”

And in 2016, McGowan tweeted that “my ex sold our movie to my rapist for distribution,” alerting anyone who cared to do the math that her alleged rapist was almost certainly Weinstein. (The Weinstein Company distributed the 2007 film Grindhouse; McGowan had a supporting role in Grindhouse, which her then-boyfriend Robert Rodriguez directed.)

As the Weinstein scandal has continued to develop, McGowan has continued to heavily imply that Weinstein assaulted her, often narrowly toeing the line between implication and outright assertion.

“This is the movie I was filming when it happened,” she tweeted on Monday, along with a still from 1998’s Phantoms. (Phantoms was produced by Miramax, the production company Weinstein ran at the time.)

“I told the head of your studio that HW raped me,” she tweeted to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on October 12. (Technically this might not violate a nondisclosure agreement — she’s not saying he raped her, she’s saying she said he raped her — but it’s a pretty fine point.)

And she has continued to speak out sharply against those who she argues helped Weinstein flourish with impunity.

“Bob Weinstein is a POS,” she tweeted after he made a statement saying he had no idea what his brother was up to. “They allllll knew.” (Bob Weinstein has since also been accused of harassment.)

“You helped kill the Roy Price exposé,” she tweeted at the Hollywood Reporter’s editorial director Matthew Belloni. “I know what you did. You and your ‘paper’ are a huge part of cesspool Hollywood.” (Price recently resigned from his role as the head of Amazon Studios after he was suspended in response to sexual harassment allegations published this month in the Hollywood Reporter. However, the first exposé on Price was originally written for the outlet in the spring of 2016. When THR opted not to publish it, it was published by the subscription-based website the Information. Belloni has denied allegations that the Hollywood Reporter passed on the story due to outside pressure.)

“We need to look at who funds the Rape Machine,” McGowan instructed her followers: “#TF1 Group, #WPP, #GoldmanSachs, #Technicolor.”

McGowan is following the money and naming names. She is out to destroy the systemic misogyny of Hollywood, and she is not being nice about it.

Your fave is problematic: Rose McGowan edition

None of this means that McGowan is completely immune to criticism. In particular, her feminist activism sometimes erases women who are not white, straight, and cis.

In 2015, McGowan faced accusations of transphobia after she slammed Caitlyn Jenner for joking that the hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear. “You want to be a woman and stand with us,” McGowan wrote on Facebook, “well learn us.” (McGowan later apologized and said she was not transphobic.)

And just last week, McGowan objected to a questionable set of Weinstein jokes from James Corden by tweeting, “Replace the word ‘women’ w/ the ‘N’ word. How does it feel?”

“She, essentially, went full white feminist,” wrote Clarkisha Kent at the Root. McGowan deleted the tweet and apologized, but Kent argued that her apology was inadequate and poorly considered.

McGowan also scolded Ellen DeGeneres for speaking out for gay and trans people in Mississippi. “Speak for women as well plz,” she tweeted, a sentiment that seemed to ignore the fact that many gay and trans people are women.

McGowan is loud and unapologetic, and is also prone to making straight, white, cis feminism her default, erasing the experiences of other women. She messes up sometimes, and she’s usually loud about it, because she’s loud about everything. That makes her a formidable foe for someone like Harvey Weinstein, but it has its downsides too.

McGowan is no longer very interested in acting. That gives her a lot of freedom to be as outspoken as she likes.

In the current phase of her career, McGowan is not particularly interested in acting any more. (“I kind of always hated acting!” she told BuzzFeed in 2015.) She’s interested in pursuing directing, and in the meantime, most of her income appears to come from her investments. (She holds stakes in a number of businesses, including Drybar.)

That means she can be loud and she can name names and she can refuse to be nice, and she doesn’t have to worry as much about potential consequences. She’s got a book coming out about standing up to systemic oppression, and she doesn’t have to think about whether she’ll ever be offered the opportunity to act again, because she doesn’t really want to act. That position grants her a certain level of freedom.

McGowan is now using that freedom to speak out against the systemic misogyny of Hollywood and against everyone who is complicit in holding it up. And according to the story she tells about her life, that’s what everything she’s experienced has been building up to.

4 signs that Trump’s furious efforts to save coal are futile
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

Coal is losing in Texas, in the US, in the world.

The Trump administration may be internally divided about many things, but it is absolutely united around one goal: supporting the US coal industry.

It is a goal the administration has pursued with uncharacteristic focus and discipline. On this policy — maybe only on this policy — there is a consistent message and a consistent plan of action, across departments and agencies.

At the Department of Energy, Rick Perry is trying to engineer a ham-handed intervention into energy markets to boost coal and nuclear. At the Department of Interior, Ryan Zinke is currently trying to allow coal mines closer to national monuments. At the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt is repealing the Clean Power Plan (Obama’s carbon regulations on power plants) and seeking the weakest possible replacement. The list goes on.

(On this theme, read Mike Grunwald’s great story in Politico Magazine about Trump’s love affair with coal.)

The irony is that this goal — the one goal around which this otherwise feckless administration is actually able to organize — is deeply and irrevocably futile. If you can look past all the venality and mendacity involved, it’s almost poignant.

All the momentum is in the other direction. To wit: A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists finds that “the share of US electricity coming from coal fell from 51 percent in 2008 to 31 percent in 2016 — an unprecedented change.”

coal retirements (UCS)

There are still hundreds of plants in operation in the US, producing roughly a third of US power, but one in four of those plants is slated to retire or shift to natural gas, and another 17 percent beyond that are uneconomic, running only by virtue of being shielded from competition. As Department of Energy data shows, after a brief bump last year, US coal has resumed its inexorable decline.

New symbols of that decline are coming at such a torrid pace these days that they are getting difficult to keep up with — new policies, new milestones, new reports, all pointing in the same direction. Here are four, just from the past month or so.

1) Half the US coal fleet is now gonersville

Last week, the Texas utility Luminant (owned by Vistra Energy) announced the retirement of two coal plants — Sandow Power Plant and Big Brown Power Plant — by early 2018. The reasoning was simple, and familiar: They just can’t compete with cheap natural gas and renewables.

With that announcement, a milestone was reached: More than half of the total 2010 US coal fleet has retired or set a firm retirement date.

2) The most effective anti-coal campaign has been recharged with significant new funding

The 2010 fleet is the baseline used by the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign to track its progress in shutting down coal plants (2010 is when the campaign started).

As of today, it is halfway done: 263 down, 260 to go.

Accomplishing that much crucially involved more than $100 million in donations from famous rich guy Michael Bloomberg. And guess what? The day after Pruitt proposed to repeal the CPP, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced that it would give the campaign another $64 million.

Bloomberg Global Business Forum Held In New York Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
It’s the good rich versus the bad rich. The rest of us are spectators.

Beyond Coal has quietly produced the largest tangible outcomes of any environmental campaign in my lifetime. One key to its success has been that it not only took Bloomberg’s money but also adopted some of his relentless business discipline. It is working methodically, from a comprehensive spreadsheet of plants, each plant with its own description, its own identified weaknesses, and its own timeline for retirement.

It identifies plants that are already uneconomic, or teetering on the edge, held up by patronage from state politicians and misguided regulations, and campaigns against those plants with tactics customized to local circumstances. Sometimes it takes the argument to public utility commissioners. Sometimes it works to generate political resistance from affected communities. Sometimes it sues. Sometimes its arguments are economic, sometimes about public health, sometimes about land and water — or some mixture. All the critiques are true; different ones are appropriate for different times and places. (Grunwald also had a great story on Beyond Coal.)

This discipline and flexibility has made the campaign a coal-closing machine, and with a fresh $64 million in its coffers — and with so many ripe targets — it is not going to slow down.

3) Wind is about to surpass coal in Texas, the freest of free energy markets

If recently announced coal retirements go through and the pace of wind energy construction continues at the expected rate, wind energy capacity could surpass coal capacity in Texas as early as next year.

This is of special significance because Texas is one of America’s biggest self-contained energy markets and also probably the closest thing the country has to a “free market” in electricity. Power is procured entirely through competitive bidding. Texas doesn’t even have capacity markets, which pay power plants to stay open in case of emergency. If capacity gets tight in Texas, the price of power rises — it’s a pure market signal.

So it’s symbolically redolent that, as this excellent piece from a group of UT Austin scholars explains, cheap natural gas and renewables are driving coal steadily out of the “bid stack.”

A report last month from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) examined seven aging coal plants in Texas and concluded that “the coal-fired electricity industry in Texas is in decline and unlikely to recover in the face of rising competition from other energy sources.”

Texas is not exactly run by tree huggers. Its legislature is packed with climate deniers. It fought against the Clean Power Plan just as fiercely as any conservative state. The steady decline of coal in Texas has nothing to do with emissions or climate change and everything to do with relentless market discipline.

4) Companies, cities, states, and countries around the world are swearing off coal

Around the world, coal capacity is being squeezed by two trends: the falling number of new plants being deployed and the accelerating number of retirements. (Here’s a post digging into those trends in China, where hundreds of planned coal plants have been canceled in the past few years.) The sagging fortunes of coal have led a growing number of companies and political entities to give up on it entirely.

A new report from Greenpeace International and Coalswarm (two organizations that have been tireless in tracking global coal plants) examines that growing list of coal exiteers (a new term I just made up). The results are pretty startling.

The report boasts a giant collection of profiles of political entities — cities, states, provinces, and countries — with key statistics on their coal plants and coal plans. Out of that collection, five have completely phased out coal power since 2014 and 18 more have announced a coal phaseout by 2030 or sooner.

That list includes the UK, France, and Canada, along with six other European Union countries, along with the capital cities of both China and India, along with California and Massachusetts. (Germany has said no coal by 2050 but is under pressure to move up that date.)

Meanwhile, out of the 1,675 companies that owned or developed coal plants since 2010, more than a quarter (448) have bailed on the coal power business entirely, canceling coal plant proposals and shutting down old plants. According to the report, that represents an exodus of $432 billion in capital and the capacity equivalent of 370 large coal power plants.

Coal is increasingly seen for what it is: a dirty necessity in some places, but nothing anyone would choose if they could avoid it. To be free of coal is becoming a mark of modernity.

Trump and Pruitt are fighting a doomed rear-guard action

I don’t think another coal plant will ever be built in the US. New coal plants, with modern pollution controls, are simply not competitive with natural gas and renewables (much less efficiency).

Trump and his administration, in this area as in so many others, are engaged in a rear-guard battle. They are scrabbling to keep uncompetitive coal plants open and running, but as we saw with Perry’s bonkers bid to blow up energy markets, there’s just no way to do that without forcefully intervening and subsidizing them (which is not a stable long-term business plan).

Pruitt is starting a long, shady bid to overturn the never-implemented Clean Power Plan, but the US is on the verge of meeting the CPP targets regardless, 10 years early, mainly because (you guessed it) uneconomic coal plants are shutting down.

There’s a shrinking customer base for coal, so no one is going to want the monument-adjacent land Zinke is offering for mining, any more than they want the dirt-cheap leases of public land he’s been offering for mining.

In short, bad policy could mildly slow coal’s decline, good policy could radically accelerate it, but no policy could stop or reverse it, short of nationalizing the energy sector. Coal’s “natural” rate of decline may not be fast enough to meet long-term US carbon goals — for that, it will need a policy boost — but it is fast enough to render Trump’s effort utterly futile.

Trump can make big promises to miners. He can hold photo ops with them. But he can’t save coal. The best he can do is to let it pollute just a little bit more on its way out the door.

Sexism and male voyeurism have been intertwined throughout movie history
October 19th, 2017, 06:00 PM

Harvey Weinstein and the male cinematic gaze.

For more than a week now, we have been spectators to the unwinding truth about Harvey Weinstein, as if we were watching the terrifying liquid spread of fire in Northern California, or the ravages of a hurricane that keeps circling in its fury. As with a tropical storm, the enormity of the event can be conjured with a single name, “Harvey.”

And we keep watching in an infernal mixture of emotions: The damage is dreadful and tragic, but — be honest with ourselves — doesn’t a part of us stay watching and waiting on more disaster? So long as the damage is “elsewhere”; so long as our vantage stays safe — aren’t we endless feeders at the spectacle? What else has “breaking news” taught us except our state of watching and wondering and even wanting more? So the ugliness exposed in Harvey Weinstein is one in which so many men have participated vicariously, under the sheltering guise of our anonymity. Cinema has always been rooted in seeing forbidden things.

First things first: Admit it, “everyone” knew — I mean anyone who lived close to the heart or on the outer reaches of the movie experience — and that includes many of us, the spectators, the faceless egos in the dark, the fantasists who went to the movies to have their dreams realized. I have one correction to that: Meryl Streep had no idea “it” was going on (and she won an Oscar on a Weinstein picture, The Iron Lady). I do not doubt her, and I do not impugn her eminence. But Ms. Streep has always been above us all: That’s why we cherish her while feeling just a touch distant from her.

Second, I think Weinstein’s failings and his sins were more extensive than those being mentioned so far. Yes, he propositioned, intimidated, groped, and did worse to all manner of women who longed to be in pictures. In a New Yorker report, three women accused him of rape. Some of the women who have spoken of Weinstein’s behavior took his attitude for granted because they had encountered it elsewhere in Hollywood. Others were intimidated and bought into a dreadful legal silence. And that process was not simply “Harvey.” It required associates, enablers and lawyers. It was a system of practice.

It went beyond that. Harvey was a physical bully; he attacked and beat on other men. He was commercially abusive to entire projects. He took it as in his power to re-edit other people’s films — sometimes with a legal right, sometimes not. His intrusions were sometimes effective; in other cases they were brutal and stupid. He cheated on deals. Sometimes he simply shelved or silenced worthwhile films.

In all of these situations, he had an ugly repertoire of defensive responses: He kept associates who enabled him; he paid victims off and bought their humiliating silence in the process; he warned that people would not work or succeed without his consent. And he frightened the world around him, by saying and proving, yes, he really was a monster. He had no shame.

I met him a couple of times and I believe he had resolved to be proud of his monstrousness. He was a gambler who thought he would get away with risk. He did this for close to 30 years while carrying so many films and filmmakers to what is often regarded as glory. He was terrible, but he was often good at what he did. And so he had a confidence as ugly as his crimes. That knowing smile was never far from his blunt face.

And we knew it — even we could have nudged Streep and given her the word.

The reason why we knew it is profound and important and it has done so much to lead our culture to its present crisis. It has to do with the essential technology of the movies.

A technology designed for the male gaze

Think of the technology this way: The movies were a medium that said, “Here, let me show you the impossible.” It knew that the public in its poverty, its ignominy, its plainness and its unknown status, was captivated by the screen’s celebration of faces, beauty, narrative splendor, and the strange lack of shyness that pretended it did not know we were watching.

So, the system whispered: Look at this lovely woman, look at her face, her legs, her breasts — look at them and dream your ticket has purchased them. And they don’t know you’re there in the dark, peeping at them. So they will sigh, begin to weep, stay there in the light, and even let a silk shift fall from their body.

Tippi Hedren in The Birds. She later wrote that director Alfred Hitchcock sexually assaulted her. Universal Studioss/Getty Images
Tippi Hedren in The Birds. She later wrote that director Alfred Hitchcock sexually assaulted her.

And we watched. We paid the nickel — or the $15. And we knew. We knew the whole thing was an illicit trick and a guilty pleasure we might deny ourselves. It posited a kind of silent, frictionless possession and it posed a savage contrast between Beauty and our drab Beastliness that has torn our culture apart. We knew it was men acting on the innate superiority of gazing at women who, onscreen, carried themselves like elegant prisoners or slaves.

Slavery has been such a profound force in American culture that it has affected many things beyond the historical practice of whites owning blacks. It has a great deal to do with the claim by men that they do own and control women, because of a supposed superiority in nature — and because so many men fear and loathe the female. So photograph her, grope her, rape her. Call it “locker room” stuff.

Yes, this is truly hideous, and that’s one reason why it was dark at the movies and why theater managers learned to keep the lights off for a while after a very moving film had ended — because we needed time to reassemble ourselves and because we wanted to avoid the shame of being seen watching such rites.

Please note: The “we” here is male, no matter that all kinds of survey report that women went to the movies and often made the choice of what pictures couples saw. Still, the business and the art of the movies have been a function of the male hope for domination and control.

From D.W. Griffith to Hitchcock to Weinstein

The history of the medium can be described as a series of events in which men fell in love with women and made art and money out of that love by putting it on the screen. The adoration did not always involve touching or rape. I’m not sure that D.W. Griffith “had” Lillian Gish, but I believe the films they made together (like Broken Blossoms and Way Down East) hover over that prospect. In just that way, Alfred Hitchcock gazed on Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, and so many others, and made art out of his horrified suppression of his own desire because he felt it was indecent.

At last (as the rules of censorship changed, and he aged), he cast Tippi Hedren in The Birds and Marnie and came out of his furtive, watchful closet. He forced himself on her, and when she refused he said he would finish her career. But in truth, his shame over the episode seems to have finished his own career, too, artistically.

I think Josef von Sternberg “had” Marlene Dietrich on The Blue Angel and Morocco and then saw the bitter, lovely irony of the way she smiled at him on screen as if to say, “But Joe, you can’t really have me, because — you see — I’m just a ghost on the screen — I’m not real, I’m photographed.” That is probably the most comical and mature handling of voyeurism the movies ever managed.

David Selznick, producer of Gone with the Wind, touched a lot of actresses and then became infatuated with Jennifer Jones, who in mysterious and semi-spiritual ways was untouchable. His prior marriage ended, along with hers. He devoted himself to making her a star and his love goddess, and in doing so he became imprisoned in trying to rescue her from vulnerability. It was a tragedy, but it was nearly comic, too. It reduced Selznick to ruin, while Jones hardly noticed.

Marlene Dietrich, in The Blue Angel. ullstein bild/Getty Images
Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel.

Francois Truffaut fell in love with Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve and maybe because all the parties were so fickle or so in love with change, the transaction gave us a few great films, including Jules and Jim and Mississippi Mermaid, without special damage being done. Very few actresses enjoy the looming male gaze. But a lot learn to live with it because they realize their heaven depends on the degrees of lust behind the camera and in that larger movie dark. And the smart fatalists know the movies have a chance of outliving the perishable, knockout bodies that last so short a time.

And deep down, men have known this, and hoped the deal was more magic than manipulation. Howard Hawks, a heartfelt womanizer who knew that having many women averted the awkwardness and the boredom of being with just one of them, saw Betty Jean Perske, a prematurely wise kid. He put her under a personal service contract; he schooled her voice, her clothes, her rhythms, and her hair. He called her Lauren Bacall and he meant to have her — we can’t be certain he didn’t get that far. But then an irony befell that sweet romance, To Have and Have Not, when Bacall instead fell in love with a rattled, rasping alcoholic who had a bad temper and a bold toupee, plus a fear of growing old. We call him Bogey.

And we have known this all along, so that we take not just the pleasure of superiority and revenge in seeing the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, but the rueful knowledge that he is like us. For a century, the movies presented the male-female relationship as a “romance” (happy endings included) in which men were indulged by women who let themselves be seen. But “Harvey” has given us the chance to see how prejudicial the alleged romance was. Can we shrug off the damage? Can we let women be free — which would include being directors of photography, directors of films, and of movie studios. Or will “Hollywood” stand in history as a last, disastrous emblem of lonely male authority?

David Thomson is the author of Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio, and The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, among other books.


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