Sarah Palin is returning to her roots in low-budget television–but this time, she's on the web, the focus is American politics, and she owns the network herself. The Sarah Palin Channel launched Sunday, asking prospective viewers for 9.95 per month–96 cents more than Netflix–or 99.95 a year. (No word on whether subscribers get money back if Palin decides to stick with the project for only half of that term.) The cost is the same as the web TV channel run by Glenn Beck, a model for wealthy media figures who hope to further monetize the cult of personality they've built up by expertly playing to the cultural affinities and anxieties of Red America.
Here's a video announcing the project:
"We'll go beyond the sound bites and the media's politically correct filter to get to the truth," Palin promised new subscribers in a welcome video that blends Beck and Ariana Huffington. "We'll boldly take on any issue–those issues that the powers that be don't want to cover. I'll let you know what's on my mind and you'll be able to do the same in the video chats we'll set up where you can ask me anything. So welcome to our channel. Together let's do this, let's live life vibrantly, purposefully, and boldly."
Behind the paywall, leading the home page, one finds a video monologue of Palin pontificating on events that she can observe from her Alaska home, which is to say, Vladimir Putin's Russia. As she speaks, the video alternates between a shot of her in the same space as the welcome video and still photographs that seem to be from a wire service. At first, it seemed like Palin was trying to provide her own take on a Vox Explainer:
The tragedy of the Malaysian airline jet shot down over Ukraine has really shifted the balance of world opinion against Vladamir Putin. And deservedly so.
There's a lot of evidence pointing to pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists as responsible for this thoughtless massacre. And that's why Putin is now so eager to distance himself from them. Our secretary of state John Kerry is now in a position to prod our European allies into expanding tough sanctions against Russia in order to break Putin's support for pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists. This isn't an easy task, of course, because some of these sanctions will harm the economies perhaps of our allies. Let's not forget that Russia is the third largest oil producer in the world and the second largest producer of natural gas. A quarter of the natural gas that Europe uses comes from Russia. And a third of that ships from Ukraine. So is it any wonder why Europeans are so reluctant to cross Putin?
She then shifted into an expanded defense of "Drill, Baby, Drill":
Putin is able to exert this power and influence because he has very wisely and aggressively developed Russia's vast natural resources. He's been able to finance his military and all those rebuilding efforts with the wealth from resource development. And he's also able to hold oil and gas prices over the heads of those who are dependent on Russia for those resources. He uses these energy resources essentially as a weapon. Now our best long term strategy to curb Russian power is to develop our own vast natural resources, dilute Russia's influence in this vital area, we can do it, we have these God given resources all over this great land. We could be a natural gas exporter if the government got serious about allowing development of our natural resources and by doing so we could make the world a safer place.
Then at the end, she added the obligatory bashing of the Obama administration:
A final thought about Team Obama's handling of this Ukrainian situation: you know, it didn't have to escalate like this. A good leader is able to avoid crises before they escalate. A good leader steers world events instead of merely, you know, just kinda going with the wind and responding to one crisis after another by whipping up strategies on the fly. After the tanks start rolling. After the missiles start exploding and innocent people get killed. President Obama's leading from behind? well, it's not leading. It's reacting. And that's not a safe place to be in a dangerous world full of bullies, and terrorists, and tyrants. America, you deserve better.
I wonder if, deep down, Palin believes that, were she in the White House, she could've prevented Putin's invasion of Crimea by leading from in front, or something; or if she's just cynically pandering; or if she hasn't thought about the matter deeply enough to even have a settled opinion on the question that I've posed. Her fans, on the other hand, believe that she really does have all the answers:
What's so striking is Palin's ability to take content much like what she said as a vice-presidential candidate, then again as a handsomely paid contributor to a gigantic media corporation, and successfully package it as what "the powers that be" don't want you to hear. There are, I'm quite sure, things that "the powers that be," however defined, really don't want us to hear. But I strongly suspect that "let's drill for more oil and gas," whether one agrees or disagrees with the sentiment, is one that is not at all threatening to even one single member of America's governing elite.
"Bold" this ain't.
It should be said that there is much more content on the Sarah Palin Channel: e.g., a blog run by Bristol Palin; "The Case of Obama's Impeachment," which is labeled as "best of" content, but is just a link to her Fox News op-ed; and "An American Icon," where Palin speaks enthusiastically, and seemingly off-the-cuff, about meeting Billy Graham: "He's got this envelopment of God's favor around him that's kept him out of the politics of it all, that'll kind of warp you and set you up for some failure," she said.
The production value is poor, the tell-tale Palin syntax of some of the monologues suggest that lots of content isn't even scripted, and the cultural perspective can be found on Fox, or GBTV, or talk radio. All of which is to say that this site offers just one thing you can't get (in comparable quantity) anywhere else: Sarah Palin herself. If the channel succeeds it will be on the strength of her ability to sustain a fan base alone.
I'll leave you with an image of the home page:
For those joining us late: California's controversial High-Speed Rail project is worth paying attention to, no matter where you live. While everyone moans about America's decaying infrastructure, this is the most ambitious and important infrastructure project anywhere in the country. Its outcome has a bearing on Jerry Brown's current campaign for a fourth term as governor. It also shows something about our governments' ability to undertake big, complicated efforts—and our public ability to discuss and decide on these issues.
But the place where people are already paying closest attention is California's Central Valley, where the first links in the north-south chain would be laid. As everyone in the state knows, the broad valley that runs from near Redding in the north to Bakersfield in the south contains some of the world's most productive agricultural territory. It also contains many of California's most distressed communities. If the recent suggestion to split California into six separate states ever took effect, which it won't, the new state of Central California would likely become the nation's poorest, replacing Mississippi. People in many of these communities also cope with the nation's most polluted air. As a reminder, from a chart I've used before:
Dan Richard, chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority, explained early in this series, that for legal, technical, and financial reasons the construction would begin not in LA or San Francisco but by connecting points within the San Joaquin Valley, which is the part of the Central Valley running from the Sacramento area south toward Bakersfield. Some farmers there are bitterly opposed to the project, saying that it would cost too much precious farmland. Richard and others contend—convincingly, from my point of view—that more farmland will get chewed up by road-building and sprawl if the state does not develop a viable rail option. For now, let's hear from some readers in and around this part of the state.
1) The benefit will be greatest in areas that really could use the help. From a reader who works in Fresno, the largest city on the inland north-south route:
I recently read part 5 of your series on the California High-Speed Rail project and noted a glaring omission - no reader was from the San Joaquin Valley (SJV).
This matters to me because I live in the SJV (reside in Tulare, work in Downtown Fresno) and I believe that one of the most compelling arguments for the project are the huge benefits HSR will have on SJV, one of the state's fastest growing regions. The current population of the SJV is just under 4.1 million, which by itself exceeds the population of 25 other states in the country.
Most of the readers that do not support HSR in your piece, and a popular topic among critics, mention the L.A to S.F commute. Now, while Prop. 1A mentions the non-stop requirement from L.A to S.F, the greatest utilization of HSR, in my opinion, will be the much shorter trips (i.e. Fresno to S.F, Bakersfield/ Palmdale to L.A).
The cost-benefit of this project is much greater for the SJV cities. They will be connected like never before to the state's major metropolitan areas. Tedious drives with a roundtrip travel time of 6-8 hours will be reduced to 3 hours. Neglected city cores will be redeveloped, new businesses will move in, residents will have the opportunity to seek new job opportunities in S.F/L.A, and most importantly all of this will be the game changer the SJV needs to diversify it's agriculture based economy.
The SJV, even during good times and in wet years, suffers from chronic high unemployment, usually double-digits. In order for California to succeed, this region of 4 million people also needs to succeed. HSR provides that opportunity through the new long-term jobs that will be sparked by HSR and the stations located in the city cores. The SJV usually gets neglected in Sacramento and here's a perfect opportunity to get noticed.
For me, this is the main reason why I believe that the California High-Speed Rail is vital and necessary to California's future.
2) Isn't California going to need some big new transport anyway? From a reader in the home city of the University of California's latest branch:
I live in Merced, with strong ties to both the Bay Area and San Diego. A couple of things that I'm curious about, that I think would make a big difference in this debate
1) Airports. How much more growth can Bay Area and Southern California airports support before we need to spend billions of dollars on some type of infrastructure project? Are existing intrastate flights crowding out connections with Asia? It seems like that could have huge ramifications for the California economy.
2) Central Valley demographics. People envision High Speed Rail as a pet project for liberal elites...but between Bakersfield and Modesto, it seems like the greatest demand would be from people who don't take car ownership for granted, and definitely not one car for every adult member of a family. Is that what's already driving Amtrak's California routes to be some of the most heavily used in the country?
And many of the people writing in seem confident that Central Valley jobs are so diffuse that no train station could be conveniently located for commuters...but is that actually the case? I honestly have no idea where most people work in Merced, but a lot of major offices seem to be located downtown.
3) Rail travel time is "good" time. Travel by car or air is not. From a reader in the SF Bay Area:
As a CA resident, [these exchanges are] changing my thinking about the value of HSR. Still concerned about many of the obstacles presented, but the point about leveraging land development near the stations and right-of-way rights along the route was new to me.
One relevant aspect that I don't see being included is an assessment of relative productivity between the travel options. As a former resident of San Luis Obispo I often took AMTRAK to LA and San Diego when its schedule happened to align with mine (not nearly as often as I'd have liked due only one trip a day without getting on/off a bus connector) and now as a resident of NORCAL I often commute into SF via the ferry from Vallejo.
In both cases I found my productivity during the travel to be very high -- comfortable seats, tables available, able to walk/stretch periodically, food service, WIFI (not-so-much on AMTRAK but iPhone hotspot solves that shortcoming), not to mention pleasant scenery going by -- that what appears on paper to be a long commute is transformed into a "What? At my stop already?" highly productive and enjoyable experiences. There's no comparison to the level of productivity when traveling by car or commercial airliner.
As before, I'm mainly quoting readers rather than arguing or annotating along the way. But let me underscore the final point in this reader's note.
Three hours door-to-door for a plane flight, versus three hours on a train, sounds like the same time-cost for getting where you're going. But in reality they're entirely different experiences. Much of your time for air travel is "bad" time. You're in a cab on either end, you're waiting in an infinity of lines in between, you have all the other charm-free elements of today's airline experience. If you're driving, it can be more enjoyable, but you're not supposed to be reading, typing, etc. By contrast, nearly all of your time on a train trip is "good" time, even allowing for the cattle car experience of waiting to board trains at New York's godawful Penn Station.
From another reader on just this point:
I have for years commuted on the Amtrak San Joaquin from the Bay Area to my home near Yosemite.
Got no complaints. WiFi works. People are nice. Serviceable bus connection to Mariposa/Yosemite at Merced. No complaints. The bullet train will not really cover that route, but I don't care.
And still on this point:
I took the Tokyo to Osaka "bullet train" in 2000, and this week, I took the DB ICE train from Frankfurt to Stuttgart. If the LCD display hadn't shown our speed (240 Km/hr), I wouldn't have known it -- the ride was that smooth.
The post-WW II explosion of the suburbs really complicates intra-metro light rail, but we certainly have a case (IMO) for more inter-metro high speed rail to reduce ground and air traffic congestion.
4) "We've effectively paralyzed ourselves." To round things out for now, a reader outside California on the larger political questions the project raises:
I think one thing that stands in HSRs way, not just in California but nationally, is that our system has too many intentional and unintentional choke points, so that we've effectively paralyzed ourselves.
Eminent domain proceedings are expensive (as is the land that the project will sit on) and time consuming, and there are enough ways for community organizers of both the positive and negative sort to kill most projects via NIMBYism or on other grounds.
While we've pulled off several impressive civil engineering feats recently, we haven't, as far as I can remember, done anything really new, in the sense of expanding capacity, in perhaps the past twenty years. Most of the major civil engineering projects have been replacements or augmentations of existing (pre-1980) infrastructure, along with some infill development to expand capacity on pre-existing things.
As I say, I think a large part of this is because we have too many kill points built into our system, so that it's almost impossible to achieve the consensus necessary to build a truly new project. However, there are two other important factors that I think also explain our lack of "new" infrastructure.
First, we already have picked a lot of low hanging fruit. China and the rest of the developing world can absorb a lot of new highways and the like, because they're building from scratch. We already have a well built highway system, with Interstates that extend to even the most remote areas of the Dakotas and Montana, linking all of our major and most of our minor cities. Our rail system is terrible for passenger traffic, but for freight, it's second to none in terms of efficiency, thanks in part to our large loading gauges.
Secondly, disruptive infrastructure is more disruptive when it's disrupting something valuable, and we have a lot of money tied up in existing infrastructure, to the point that it's prohibitively expensive to reroute things.
Consider the Tappan Zee bridge, which was originally located where it was in order to circumvent the Port Authority's jurisdiction on trans-Hudson bridges. The replacement bridge, which is scheduled to open in 2018, stands right next to the original, because trying to use the more efficient southern routing was deemed too expensive and disruptive, so they just repeated the mistakes of 50 years ago.
Indeed, this is a large part of why the CA HSR project is supposed to go to the city limits, rather than the city center. Starting to tear up houses and apartments at $1M and $2M a pop gets very expensive very quickly, especially when you have people who are fighting it in court...
Finally, I think there is some justified skepticism about how the government, especially at the state and federal level, contracts and supervises these projects, especially in terms of cost control, though this problem isn't unique to those levels of government, or to civil infrastructure projects in general... Perhaps the new overachievers in local government that you referenced in one of your prior posts will be able to make headway on this.
Nonetheless, I do think you're right that large infrastructure projects are often criticized more harshly than perhaps they should have been, particularly in terms of their societal merit, since most infrastructure projects don't capture the full value of the benefits that they create (nor should they).
For the record: This post is No. 6 in a series. See also No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5. Also see the interactive map showing different planned construction phases of the project, put together by UC Davis, the HSRA, and the mapping team at Esri.
Imagine a CIA agent who witnessed behavior that violated the Constitution, the law, and core human rights protections, like torturing a prisoner. What would we have her do? Government officials say that there are internal channels in place to protect whistleblowers, and that intelligence employees with security clearances have a moral obligation to refrain from airing complaints publicly, via the modern press. In contrast, whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden–as well as journalistic entities like the Washington Post, The Guardian, and the New York Times–believe that questionable behavior by intelligence agencies should sometimes be exposed, even when classified, partly because internal whistleblower channels are demonstrably inadequate.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether a particular leak advances the public interest. There is always a moral obligation to keep some secrets (e.g. the names of undercover agents in North Korea). But if official channels afford little protection to those who report serious wrongdoing, or fail to remedy egregiously unlawful behavior, the case for working within the system rather than going to the press falls apart*. As Hilzoy wrote in 2008, while defending a Bush-era whistleblower, "It is generally better for all concerned if whistle-blowers operate within the system, and it is dangerous when people freelance. But there's one big exception to this rule: when the system has itself been corrupted. When you're operating within a system in which whistle-blowers' concerns are not addressed–where the likelihood that any complaint you make within the system will be addressed is near zero, while the likelihood that you will be targeted for reprisals is high–then no sane person who is motivated by a desire to have his or her concern addressed will work within that system. That means that if...you want whistleblowers to work within the system, you need to ensure that that system actually works."
Today, there is no credible argument that the system works–that internal channels offer adequate protection to whistleblowers or remedy most serious misdeeds. U.S. officials claim otherwise. They know that no American system of official secrets can be legitimate if it serves to hide behavior that violates the Constitution, the law, or the inalienable rights articulated in the Declaration of Independence.
That they defend the status quo without being laughed out of public life is a testament to public ignorance. Most Americans haven't read the stories of Jesselyn Radack, Thomas Drake, or John Kiriakou; they're unaware of the Espionage Act's sordid history and its unprecedented use by the Obama administration; they don't realize the scale of lawbreaking under President Bush, or that President Obama's failure to prosecute an official torture program actually violates the law; and they're informed by a press that treats officials who get caught lying and misleading (e.g., James Clapper and Keith Alexander) as if they're credible.
Still, every month, more evidence of the national security state's legitimacy problem comes to light. McClatchy Newspapers reports on the latest illustration that whistleblowers have woefully inadequate protection under current policy and practice:
The CIA obtained a confidential email to Congress about alleged whistleblower retaliation related to the Senate’s classified report on the agency’s harsh interrogation program, triggering fears that the CIA has been intercepting the communications of officials who handle whistleblower cases. The CIA got hold of the legally protected email and other unspecified communications between whistleblower officials and lawmakers this spring, people familiar with the matter told McClatchy. It’s unclear how the agency obtained the material.
At the time, the CIA was embroiled in a furious behind-the-scenes battle with the Senate Intelligence Committee over the panel’s investigation of the agency’s interrogation program, including accusations that the CIA illegally monitored computers used in the five-year probe. The CIA has denied the charges. The email controversy points to holes in the intelligence community’s whistleblower protection systems and raises fresh questions about the extent to which intelligence agencies can elude congressional oversight. The email related to allegations that the agency’s inspector general, David Buckley, failed to properly investigate CIA retaliation against an agency official who cooperated in the committee’s probe, said the knowledgeable people, who asked not to be further identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Today's CIA employees have witnessed torturing colleague in the agency get away with their crimes; they've watched Kiriakou go to jail after objecting to torture; and now, in the unlikely event that they weren't previously aware of it, they've been put on notice that if they engage in whistleblowing through internal channels, during the course of a Senate investigation into past illegal behavior by the CIA, even then the protections theoretically owed them are little more than an illusion. Some in Congress have expressed understandable concern. Director of National Intelligence Clapper responded in a letter stating, "the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community... is currently examining the potential for internal controls that would ensure whistleblower-related communications remain confidential."
In other words, adequate safeguards do not presently exist. This is partly because not enough legislators care about or even know enough to understand the problem. And it is partly because the problem starts right at the top, with Obama and his predecessor. As Marcy Wheeler persuasively argues, the CIA gains significant leverage over the executive branch every time they break the law together:
- Torture was authorized by a Presidential Finding — a fact Obama has already gone to extraordinary lengths to hide
- CIA has implied that its actions got sanction from that Finding, not the shoddy OLC memos or even the limits placed in those memos, and so the only measure of legality is President Bush’s (and the Presidency generally) continued approval of them
- CIA helped the (Obama) White House withhold documents implicating the White House from the Senate
Wheeler adds, "This is, I imagine, how Presidential Findings are supposed to work: by implicating both parties in outright crimes, it builds mutual complicity. And Obama’s claimed opposition to torture doesn’t offer him an out, because within days of his inauguration, CIA was killing civilians in Presidentially authorized drone strikes that clearly violate international law." Obama is similarly implicated in spying that violates the 4th Amendment. When illegal behavior is endorsed by the president himself, when there is no penalty for blatantly lying to Congress about that behavior, how can internal channels prompt reform?
The public airing of classified information over national security state objections has been indispensable in bygone instances like the Pentagon Papers, the Church Committee report (back when Congress was doing its job), and the heroic burglary of the COINTELPRO documents. I believe history will judge Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden as wrongly persecuted patriots like Daniel Ellsberg. The notion that they should've raised their concerns internally won't be taken seriously, because a dispassionate look at the evidence points to a single conclusion: the United States neither adequately protects whistleblowers nor keeps lawbreaking national security agencies accountable through internal channels. The next time a leak occurs, the national security state's defenders should blame themselves for failing to bring about a system that can adequately police itself. If their historical and recent track record weren't so dismal they'd have more legitimacy.
*There is, of course, a sense in which going to the press is "working within the system," if by "the system" one means the Constitution, which guarantees a free press precisely so that the public can get information that the government would rather suppress.
Anyone can make a fool of himself. So it’s tempting to dismiss last Thursday’s mega-gaffe by Florida Representative Curt Clawson as indicative of nothing more than the fallibility of the human brain.
But think about the nature of Clawson’s goof. Sitting across a congressional hearing room from Nisha Biswal, an official at the State Department, and Arun Kumar, who works at the Department of Commerce, Clawson addressed the two Indian-Americans as if they were representatives of the government of India. Which is to say: He had trouble recognizing that two Americans who trace their ancestry to the developing world are really American.
In today’s Republican Party, and beyond, a lot of people are having the same trouble. How else to explain the fact that, according to a 2011 New York Times/CBS poll, 45 percent of Republicans think President Obama was born outside the United States? Is it because they’re well versed in the details of which kind of birth certificate he released and when? Of course not. It’s because they see someone with his color skin and his kind of name and think: Doesn’t seem American to me.
In fact, Obama’s opponents, including Democrats, have been raising questions about his Americanness since he began seeking the presidency. In a March 2007 memo, Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton’s chief campaign strategist, argued that she should attack Obama for “not [being] at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and his values.” Had Obama been white and named Joe Smith, Penn’s line of attack would have been inconceivable, since Obama’s thinking and values were typical of a liberal Democrat’s, and similar to Clinton’s own. Penn’s effort to question Obama’s Americanness was entirely a function of the fact that he traced his ancestry to the third world and had spent some of his childhood abroad.
Since Obama defeated Hillary Clinton, it has been the Republicans’ turn. Newt Gingrich has claimed Obama possesses a “Kenyan, anti-colonial worldview.” Dick Cheney has said, “I don’t think that Barack Obama believes in the U.S. as an exceptional nation.” Indeed, a major thrust of the GOP’s attack on Obama is that he doesn’t understand America, doesn’t believe in America and wants to turn it into something fundamentally different from what it has always been. Bill Clinton, by contrast, was attacked relentlessly for his supposed lack of personal integrity and failure to serve in Vietnam. But conservatives rarely questioned his connection to the United States.
It’s not just Obama. In various ways in recent years, conservatives have questioned the Americanness of American Muslims. Michele Bachmann suggested that Huma Abedin and other Muslim-Americans serving in the national-security bureaucracy might be more loyal to foreign Islamist movements than to the United States. Another former Republican presidential candidate, Herman Cain, in 2011 said he would not appoint a Muslim to his cabinet because “Muslims in this country, some of them, try to force their Sharia law onto the rest of us.” A Public Religion Research Institute poll that same year found that 63 percent of Republicans believed Islam contradicts American values.
The link between the GOP’s tendency to question the Americanness of Muslim- Americans and Clawson’s assumption that the Indian-Americans sitting across from him were not American becomes clearer when you realize that in contemporary American discourse, “Muslim” is often seen as a race. Several of the most high-profile hate crimes committed in “retaliation” for 9/11 occurred not against Muslims but against South Asian Hindus or Sikhs. Representative Peter King has called for profiling suspected terrorists based upon their “religious background or ethnicity,” even though Islam is no more an ethnicity than is Christianity. The implication, of course, is that Muslims are brown.
One even sees traces of this tendency to un-Americanize immigrants from the developing world in the way some Americans see Hispanics. When Arizona in 2010 passed a law empowering law enforcement to detain anyone who presented a “reasonable suspicion” of being in the country illegally, critics rightly wondered what criteria the police could possibly use to suspect someone of being undocumented other than the fact that they looked or sounded Hispanic. A 2012 poll by the National Hispanic Media Coalition found that one-third of Americans believed most Hispanics in the United States were undocumented. In other words, many Americans associate being Hispanic with not being legally American. That’s pretty similar to the assumption Congressman Clawson made about Biswal and Kumar.
There’s no point in continuing to ridicule Clawson. Everyone’s entitled to a dumb mistake. But it’s worth noting how unlikely it is that he would have mistaken an Irish-American for a representative of the government of Ireland or a German-American for a representative of the government of Germany. Throughout our nation’s history, whiteness (itself a shifting category) has been used as a proxy for Americanness. And as Clawson reminded us last Thursday, it still is.
When a 36-year-old bibliophile in Daegu, South Korea, sat down at his computer and googled the word “library,” he didn’t expect to find anything particularly noteworthy. But as DooSun You scrolled through the results, an appealingly anti-tech concept popped up.
The Internet led him to Little Free Libraries—hand-built boxes where neighbors can trade novels, memoirs, comics, and cookbooks, and connect with each other in the process.
The little libraries immediately appealed to DooSun. “Reading books is one of the most valuable things in my life. I think a book is equal to a treasure,” he says. “I hoped to share that feeling with my neighbors—that’s the reason I wanted a Little Free Library.” The website showed pictures of the diminutive structures standing in front yards, on city curbs, and alongside country roads all over the world, along with their GPS locations. “The Little Free Library map was a treasure map,” he says.
Soon after his online discovery, DooSun built a Little Free Library—the first one in South Korea—in front of his apartment building. Then he built a second at a different spot. Then a third. Slowly, his “take a book, return a book” libraries began bringing people together, garnering book donations and handwritten notes of thanks from strangers. He now pastes a QR code on the front of each library, so passersby can use their smartphones to learn more about them, and he regularly exchanges emails with others who want to build their own. He recently started a Facebook group where other Little Free Library stewards throughout Asia can swap ideas and experiences—as easily as visitors to their libraries swap physical books.
In 2009, Tod Bol built the first Little Free Library in the Mississippi River town of Hudson, Wisconsin, as a tribute to his mother—a dedicated reader and former schoolteacher. When he saw the people of his community gathering around it like a neighborhood water cooler, exchanging conversation as well as books, he knew he wanted to take his simple idea farther.
“We have a natural sense of wanting to be connected, but there are so many things that push us apart,” Bol says. “I think Little Free Libraries open the door to conversations we want to have with each other.”
Since then, his idea has become a full-fledged movement, spreading from state to state and country to country. There are now 18,000 of the little structures around the world, located in each of the 50 states and in 70 countries—from Ukraine to Uganda, Italy to Japan. They’re multiplying so quickly, in fact, that the understaffed and underfunded nonprofit struggle to keep its world map up to date.
Khalid and Yasmin Ansari, who live in Qatar, say they get a special satisfaction out of seeing their six-year-old son Umayr’s Little Free Library represented on the website. “When looking at the LFL world map,” says Khalid, “you almost feel obliged to have one in the neighborhood to fill the gap. It's like doing your part in your part of the world.”
In some places, Little Free Libraries are filling a role usually served by brick-and-mortar libraries; the organization’s Books Around the Block program, for example, aims to bring LFLs to places where kids and adults don’t have easy access to books. In North Minneapolis, an area more often in the news for shootings than community engagement, the Books Around the Block initiative set up 40 of the little libraries. Two hundred more sprung up shortly thereafter.
Last year, Sarah Maxey of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, discovered Little Free Libraries when browsing the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. She was then inspired to launch her own LFL Kickstarter campaign. The response was enthusiastic: By the time the campaign ended, Maxey had raised more than $10,000 for her cause—enough money to build dozens (and dozens) of little libraries.
“What happens is, you start the momentum, and then the community—the Lions Club, the Rotary, the churches, the neighbors—steps up and builds more. It just keeps going,” Bol says.
Individual stewards are using their Little Free Libraries in altruistic ways, too. Tina Sipula of Clare House, a food pantry in Bloomington, Illinois, does more than distribute groceries; she distributes books via an on-site Little Free Library. As she points out, homeless people don’t have addresses—which means they can’t get public library cards. Linda Prout was instrumental in bringing dozens of Little Free Libraries to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and Lisa Heydlauff of Bihar, India, is working to bring a thousand Little Free Libraries to girls’ schools in her country, filling them with books that teach business and entrepreneurial skills.
“Little Free Libraries create neighborhood heroes,” says Bol. “That’s a big part of why it’s succeeding.”
Though they owe their spread largely to the Internet, Little Free Libraries often serve as an antidote to a world of Kindle downloads and data-driven algorithms. The little wooden boxes are refreshingly physical—and human. When you open the door, serendipity (and your neighbors’ taste) dictates what you’ll find. The selection of 20 or so books could contain a Russian novel, a motorcycle repair manual, a Scandinavian cookbook, or a field guide to birds.
For many people—particularly in more affluent areas where libraries abound—this sense of discovery is an LFL’s main appeal. A girl walking home from school might pick up a graphic novel that gets her excited about reading; a man on his way to the bus stop might find a volume of poetry that changes his outlook on life. Every book is a potential source of inspiration.
Added to that is a kind of literary voyeurism, in which visitors get to contemplate the reading habits of their neighbors. Who left the Brazilian travel guides, and who’s reading Camus? Who added Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, my favorite novel of the last five years? And where will my copy of The Odyssey end up when I leave it in the library for someone else? By peeking into the reading lives of fellow Little Free Library users, you get to know your block better.
“I think it warms peoples' hearts that a stranger would go through the trouble to leave a gift for passersby,” says Suzanne Pettypiece, steward of a Brooklyn Little Free Library—the first one in New York. “And everyone knows books are magical, so when you build a little house for them and say, ‘Hey, take one of these, because we think you'll like it’—well, that's kind of exciting.”
Some people use Little Free Libraries specifically to share something about themselves, says founder Todd Bol:
There was one woman who was excited to put up her Little Free Library quickly, and when I asked why, she said that she wanted to put books in it about Nepal, where her kids are from. She wanted the neighborhood to get to know more about their background.
After all, no matter how closely a computer studies your search habits, its algorithms will never have the charm and mystique of a simple wooden box filled with a neighbor’s literary treasures. It won’t be able to lend you a cup of sugar either.
Dr. Demetre Daskalakis cannot fall asleep. Like they have for many physicians, years of late shifts and early rounds have battered his schedule and etched deep grooves beneath his tired, dark brown eyes. But while his colleagues toss and turn, Daskalakis spends his nights patrolling Paddles—a Manhattan S&M; club where men check both coats and clothing at the door and pay $40 to wade through faux smoke and loud music in search of a tryst.
Behind the club’s cavernous common room, lined with ornamental shackles and blush-worthy murals, Daskalakis operates a cramped clinic out of makeshift office space. As men queue up for free HIV and Hepatitis C screenings throughout the night, Daskalakis (whom the men fondly refer to as “Dr. Demetre”) offers his humorous, down-to-earth counsel during their 30-minute wait for the results.
“Demetre’s level of engagement is outstanding,” Hunteur Vreeland, a promoter and host at Paddles, told me in the relative privacy of the nightclub’s staff-only bathroom. “He is an amazing fit, a friendly face for people who have questions about their health. He is just what the community needs.”
Dr. Demetre, the self-described “gay health warrior” who fought to bring the clinic to the club, caught some media attention last year when he took to the streets to administer vaccines during New York City’s meningitis scare. In only a matter of days, with the help of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a New York City-based non-profit, Daskalakis vaccinated hundreds of high-risk patients and helped stave off the meningitis outbreak.
Now a senior faculty member at Mount Sinai Hospital, and recently named New York City's assistant health commissioner in charge of HIV, Daskalakis, 40, has undeniable gravitas lurking beneath his boyish features. He recently began to collate lessons learned from those odd office hours at Paddles into a research paper published last month in LGBT Health, which shows that men at high risk for HIV may misjudge their vulnerability to the deadly disease.
“HIV risk has been swept under the carpet by medical providers,” Daskalakis says. “This study informs providers that HIV risk assessment needs to be a priority.”
But long before Paddles and published papers, the Harvard-educated infectious disease doctor was a public health advocate, searching for better ways to help the growing number of men who engage in high-risk sexual behaviors.
“Demetre works 24/7,” says Michael Macneal, Daskalakis’s husband of three years. “When I met him, he was already doing outreach in the gay community, passing out condoms and performing HIV tests.”
Macneal, a wiry fitness instructor with no formal medical training, helps out by sorting through piles of paperwork and following Daskalakis into nightclubs, standing guard outside his husband’s private medical consultations.
Daskalakis grew up in Arlington, Virginia, but felt drawn to the big city from a young age, so he enrolled in Columbia University immediately after high school. Daskalakis recalls the day that his parents drove him up to Columbia. “We crossed the George Washington Bridge, there was a car on fire and a dead dog in the gutter. My father said, ‘Are you sure?’ and I said ‘Keep on going!’”
As a student, Daskalakis’s maverick taste for the unknown brought him to Manhattan’s East Village on many a weeknight, where his brushes with LGBT nightlife would ultimately shape his perspective in caring for a diverse patient population. “I learned my bedside manner from East Village drag queens,” he jokes.
Although he followed a pre-medical curriculum while at Columbia, by his senior year Daskalakis was still unsure of what field of medicine he would pursue. But that changed once he became involved in a student-run campaign to bring AIDS awareness to the campus. The centerpiece of the event was the display of a patch from the NAMES Project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt, and the task of flying to San Francisco to pick up the artwork fell to Daskalakis.
Daskalakis says he felt as though he was transporting the legacy of the millions who had succumbed to HIV and AIDS. “It was a surreal experience. Here this quilt was just a rug, but I was carrying it through the airport [as] a shroud,” he says.
Only days later, still jet-lagged from his cross-country flight, Daskalakis attended the memorial ceremony at Columbia. “I remember being very tired, and just saying ‘This shouldn’t happen any more. I have to make sure this doesn’t happen any more.’”
Daskalakis was accepted into New York University’s medical school soon after, and went on to Harvard Medical School for his residency and fellowship in infectious disease. He quickly adapted to the culture of high-powered Harvard research, and began to see results from his laboratory work with acute HIV infections.
But at the same time, Daskalakis was unwittingly drifting away from his goal of helping individual patients. One day, while writing a chapter for a scholarly book, Daskalakis heard about a new strain of HIV on the loose. Although those reports turned out to be false, Daskalakis was jolted out of his research tunnel vision.
“Why am I sitting here in Boston with petri dishes and cell culture, when I got into this field to help people directly?” he asked himself. That very day, Daskalakis packed for New York City, and began making calls to local hospitals to ask if they were looking for an AIDS expert who was ready to get his hands dirty.
Now a familiar face in sex clubs across the city, Daskalakis fondly recalls a few of his early attempts to deliver care in less than ideal settings. “After drawing blood in a dark room lit only by tea lights that kept going out, I bet I could get blood out of a rock,” he says. On another occasion, Daskalakis recalls reaching for a syringe, only to be restrained by fuzzy novelty handcuffs and a smiling naked man.
Daskalakis is generally unfazed by such displays of fetishistic sexuality. But just because he sets up shop in commercial sex venues does not mean that he condones those sexual habits. “Do I love high-risk sexual behavior? No,” Daskalakis says. “But is it important to acknowledge it exists and not be scared of it? Yes.”
But those late nights at bathhouses and S&M; clubs provided Daskalakis with far more than a handful of wild stories. Dr. Demetre has amassed a substantial database of anonymous questionnaires, filled out by patients while they waited for their screening results. In his research paper, Daskalakis analyzed these testimonials to show that 78 percent of his high-risk patients believed that their behavior did not warrant the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis drugs like Truvada.
The sobering lesson is that men who are at high risk for HIV continue to underestimate their chances of exposure. “People don’t recognize that they are at risk,” Daskalakis says.
It’s a slow Wednesday night at Paddles and, between patients, Daskalakis leans back in his folding chair and rattles off facts about state licensure and the nuances of needle sticks. He sifts through biohazard bags, a Chanel beanie propped atop his shaved head, a Harvard lanyard slung around his neck. He fiddles with his clipboard and flattens the wrinkles out of his tight black shirt, which reads: “Witch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”.
It’s hard to imagine Dr. Demetre anywhere else.
Things change, of course—the only constant in the Middle East is sudden and dramatic change—but as I write it seems as if Israel is losing the war in Gaza, even as it wins the battle against Hamas’s rocket arsenal, and even as it destroys the tunnels meant to convey terrorists underground to Israel (and to carry Israeli hostages back to Gaza).
This is not the first time Israel has found itself losing on the battlefield of perception. Why is it happening again? Here are five possible reasons:
1. In a fight between a state actor and a non-state actor, the non-state actor can win merely by surviving. The party with tanks and planes is expected to win; the non-state group merely has to stay alive in order to declare victory. In a completely decontextualized, emotion-driven environment, Hamas can portray itself as the besieged upstart, even when it is the party that rejects ceasefires, and in particular because it is skilled at preventing journalists from documenting the activities of its armed wing. (I am differentiating here between Hamas's leadership and Gaza's civilians, who are genuinely besieged, from all directions.)
2. Hamas’s strategy is to bait Israel into killing Palestinian civilians, and Israel usually takes the bait. This time, because of the cautious nature of its prime minister, Israel waited longer than usual before succumbing to the temptation of bait-taking, but it took it all the same. (As I’ve written, the seemingly miraculous Iron Dome anti-rocket system could have provided Israel with the space to be more patient than it was.) Hamas’s principal goal is killing Jews, and it is very good at this (for those who have forgotten about Hamas's achievements in this area, here is a reminder, and also here and here), but it knows that it advances its own (perverse) narrative even more when it induces Israel to kill Palestinian civilians. This tactic would not work if the world understood this, and rejected it. But in the main, it doesn’t. Why people don’t see the cynicism at the heart of terrorist groups like Hamas is a bit of a mystery. Here is The Washington Post on the subject:
The depravity of Hamas’s strategy seems lost on much of the outside world, which — following the terrorists’ script — blames Israel for the civilian casualties it inflicts while attempting to destroy the tunnels. While children die in strikes against the military infrastructure that Hamas’s leaders deliberately placed in and among homes, those leaders remain safe in their own tunnels. There they continue to reject cease-fire proposals, instead outlining a long list of unacceptable demands.
2. People talk a lot about the Jewish lobby. But the worldwide Muslim lobby is bigger, comprising, among other components, 54 Muslim-majority states in the United Nations. Many Muslims naturally sympathize with the Palestinian cause. They make their voices heard, and they help shape a global anti-Israel narrative, in particular by focusing relentlessly on Gaza to the exclusion of conflicts in which Muslims are being killed in even greater numbers, but by Muslims (I wrote about this phenomenon here).
3. If you've spent any time these past few weeks on Twitter, or in Paris, you know that anti-Semitism is another source of Israel’s international isolation. One of the notable features of this war, brought to light by the ubiquity and accessibility of social media, is the open, unabashed expression of vitriolic Jew-hatred. Anti-Semitism has been with us for more than 2,000 years; it is an ineradicable and shape-shifting virus. The reaction to the Gaza war—from the Turkish prime minister, who compared Israel's behavior unfavorably to that of Hitler's, to the Lebanese journalist who demanded the nuclear eradication of Israel, to, of course, the anti-Jewish riots in France—is a reminder that much of the world is not opposed to Israel because of its settlement policy, but because it is a Jewish country.
4. Israel’s political leadership has done little in recent years to make their cause seem appealing. It is impossible to convince a Judeophobe that Israel can do anything good or useful, short of collective suicide. But there are millions of people of good will across the world who look at the decision-making of Israel’s government and ask themselves if this is a country doing all it can do to bring about peace and tranquility in its region. Hamas is a theocratic fascist cult committed to the obliteration of Israel. But it doesn’t represent all Palestinians. Polls suggest that it may very well not represent all of the Palestinians in Gaza. There is a spectrum of Palestinian opinion, just as there is a spectrum of Jewish opinion.
I don’t know if the majority of Palestinians would ultimately agree to a two-state solution. But I do know that Israel, while combating the extremists, could do a great deal more to buttress the moderates. This would mean, in practical terms, working as hard as possible to build wealth and hope on the West Bank. A moderate-minded Palestinian who watches Israel expand its settlements on lands that most of the world believes should fall within the borders of a future Palestinian state might legitimately come to doubt Israel’s intentions. Reversing the settlement project, and moving the West Bank toward eventual independence, would not only give Palestinians hope, but it would convince Israel’s sometimes-ambivalent friends that it truly seeks peace, and that it treats extremists differently than it treats moderates. And yes, I know that in the chaos of the Middle East, which is currently a vast swamp of extremism, the thought of a West Bank susceptible to the predations of Islamist extremists is a frightening one. But independence—in particular security independence—can be negotiated in stages. The Palestinians must go free, because there is no other way. A few months ago, President Obama told me how he views Israel's future absent some sort of arrangement with moderate Palestinians:
[M]y assessment, which is shared by a number of Israeli observers ... is there comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices. Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?
Obama raised a series of prescient questions. Of course, the Israeli government's primary job at the moment is to keep its citizens from being killed or kidnapped by Hamas. But it should work to find an enduring solution to the problem posed by Muslim extremism. Part of that fix is military, but another part isn't.
5. Speaking of the Obama administration, the cause of a two-state solution would be helped, and Israel's standing would be raised, if the secretary of state, John Kerry, realized that such a solution will be impossible to achieve so long as an aggressive and armed Hamas remains in place in Gaza. Kerry's recent efforts to negotiate a ceasefire have come to nothing in part because his proposals treat Hamas as a legitimate organization with legitimate security needs, as opposed to a group listed by Kerry's State Department as a terror organization devoted to the physical elimination of one of America's closest allies. Here is David Horovitz's understanding of Kerry's proposals:
It seemed inconceivable that the secretary’s initiative would specify the need to address Hamas’s demands for a lifting of the siege of Gaza, as though Hamas were a legitimate injured party acting in the interests of the people of Gaza — rather than the terror group that violently seized control of the Strip in 2007, diverted Gaza’s resources to its war effort against Israel, and could be relied upon to exploit any lifting of the “siege” in order to import yet more devastating weaponry with which to kill Israelis.
I'm not sure why Kerry's proposals for a ceasefire seem to indulge the organization that initiated this current war. Perhaps because Kerry may be listening more to Qatar, which is Hamas's primary funder, than he is listening to the Jordanians, Emiratis, Saudis, and Egyptians, all of whom oppose Hamas to an equivalent or greater degree than does their ostensible Israeli adversary. In any case, more on this later, as more details emerge about Kerry's efforts. For purposes of this discussion, I'll just say that Israel won't have a chance of winning the current struggle against Hamas's tunnel-diggers and rocket squads if its principal ally doesn't appear to fully and publicly understand Hamas's nihilistic war aims, even as it works to shape more constructive Israeli policies in other, related areas.
If you think the human race is a bunch of idiots now, consider what happened a century ago. A Martian might have gazed down upon Europe in 1914 and seen a peaceful, prosperous continent with a shared culture. Pretty much everyone had enough to eat. The English listened to Wagner, Germans savored Shakespeare, Russian aristocrats mimicked the French, Mozart and Italian opera were loved by all. Then, Europe imploded.
Ten days before Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, prompting the descent into the Great War, “people everywhere were working, resting, eating, sleeping, dreaming of nothing less than of war,” a British political scientist wrote in The Atlantic the following year. “War came upon them like a thunderclap.”
Philosophers, pundits, and poets spent the four-plus years of the war flailing around for explanations. They scoffed at the notion that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was much more than a pretext. A web of entangling alliances and the maneuverings of diplomats and generals dragged ambivalent nations into an unnecessary war.
But the deeper causes? It was the greed of rich belligerents trying to get richer. W.E.B. Du Bois, the black writer and activist, said it was the competition over resource-rich colonies in Africa. It was a struggle between liberty and autocracy (although czarist Russia’s alliance with France and England undercut that argument). It was because mankind’s moral instincts—this was philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell’s view—lagged behind its material wealth. It was Germany’s psychological insecurity, triggered by Britain’s naval supremacy and the fear of Russia’s rising might. It was, simply, the insanity of the only carnivorous species that kills its own kind for no good reason.
Or, all of the above.
And for this, more than 16 million men went to their slaughter, many of them in cruel and creative ways. In trenches that stretched an unbroken 475 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss border, the Germans constructed walls using corpses, so that French troops who captured a trench hung canteens from protruding ankles. Along the Somme River, in northern France, more than 1 million men were killed or wounded in 1916 for an Allied advance of seven miles. Poisonous gas filled a quarter of all the artillery shells fired on the western front in 1918. More than a third of German males born between 1892 and 1895 died in the course of the war. The killing spread to civilians in England and France attacked by German zeppelins. War was no longer noble, even as some of the men who fought it were noble beyond compare.
It was a sad, pointless war, for which we’re still paying a price. A hard-hearted peace treaty and a ravaged economy produced a “lost generation” of young Germans and led directly to the rise of Hitler and an even uglier worldwide conflagration. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement reached by Britain and France in 1916 drew arbitrary boundary lines across the postwar Middle East—around Iraq, for instance—that are returning deadly dividends to this day. The toppling of the Russian monarchy and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire created a balkanized Europe that, as recently as the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over strife-torn Ukraine, pains us still. The world was a nastier place after the war than before it.
All wars tell us something about the basest regions of human nature, the First World War (caustically named in 1918 by an English journalist who thought it would not be the last) more than most. About the nature of covetousness, the perils of insecurity, the ease of losing human control over human events.
So, has our species evolved? The counterevidence is distressingly abundant. The Nazis’ ovens in World War II. Stalin’s gulags. The genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda. The return to seventh-century standards of thought and behavior incited by the Iranian revolution of 1979 and practiced by jihadists across the Middle East.
Indeed, evidence is slim that we’ve grown wiser since the war intended to end all wars did nothing of the sort. Still, if it’s any consolation amid the tragedies and disorder of today’s world, Homo sapiens have been way stupider in the past than they are right now.
(Check back tomorrow.)
It all started with a Facebook message from a dead guy.
His name was Ernest Howard Crosby and his profile picture showed an old-time portrait of a man in a dapper vest sporting a bushy Civil War beard. The message came on behalf of New York University’s Eucleian Society, a literary club formed in 1832 around the same time that secret societies began sprouting up at university campuses across the country.
"The Society is interested in your potential membership and would like to invite you to learn more… Time is of the essence."
There was a link to a Facebook group that contained a long list of male undergraduates, mostly white (like me), a few Latinos and Indians, and one black guy. The list also contained the avatars of a few other dead guys, like Crosby, and the identity of the Group itself was similarly concealed beneath another guise: “Vote Arthur Watkins for Second Circuit Judge.”
The page, paired with the campaign-ready photo of an old guy holding an open book, appeared to be a 1930s-era political campaign. The comments field on the Group page was disabled, but a note in the Description section directed us to fill out a questionnaire (via Google Forms) that asked about our backgrounds, our political views, and our religious ideologies.
Before submitting to interrogation, I first searched online for any information I could uncover about the “Eucleian Society.” A Wikipedia page drew on sources from NYU’s Bobst Library and Digital Archives, as well as academic books that covered the broader topic of “secret societies in America.” The society was founded the same year instruction began at NYU, first operating out of the Main University Building, where it held oratory debates and readings. Topics under discussion spanned philosophy (“Whether humanity is naturally depraved,” Decision: Affirmative) to legal theory (“Should the capital of large moneyed corporations be limited by statute?” Decision: Negative) to romantic truths (“Resolved that adultery is the only true way to cohabit”). The names of Eucleian alumni would later grace major buildings around campus (Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, Jerome S. Coles Sports & Recreation Center) and university curricula (Gallatin School of Individualized Study).
Then, in 1942, the society seemed to have disappeared.
NYU archives showed no official record of the society after this date, meaning everything that has turned up since then regarding its members and any ongoing activity is hearsay. Most recently, in 2009, there were student newspaper reports of a “beeper” prank which was attributed to the society: a handful of devices were choreographed to go off at the same time in various classrooms on NYU’s campus. Each device was attached to a signed note:
Truth is something you find outside of the classroom, outside of the walls of this university, and only from the professor in front of you insofar as he can serve as an experienced guide… NYU has its secrets too.
The prank elicited little response from the student body, perhaps a sign of the changing times. Maybe a new generation raised on unprecedented levels of connectivity was less intrigued by antiquated notions of “secrecy” or “privacy.”
My recruitment with the society was doomed from the beginning: Three months after I received the original Facebook message, I was slated to leave the country and study abroad for a year and a half. But I was still curious. I submitted my answers to the online questionnaire and almost forgot about the whole thing—until a week later, when we recruits received our first directive.
* * *
A mass email was sent to recruits’ NYU accounts, which we had provided in the questionnaire. The sender’s alias was “John S. / Odysseus” and he introduced himself as a senior member of the society and head of its recruitment efforts. He told us the process couldn’t begin until we chose a nom de plume for ourselves and created a corresponding Gmail account to be used exclusively for all society-related communication. His email included a list of links to over a dozen Blogspot pages, YouTube videos, and Google Groups, all of which he told us to read through and absorb “ASAP.” He also sent us a Google Calendar invite to join a weekly online group chat, the first of which would focus on discussing this trove of information.
I browsed the webpages, many of which contained abridged histories of the society, largely regurgitated from Wikipedia. One recurring storyline was the society’s relationship with Edgar Allan Poe, a frequent guest lecturer during its early era. After Poe’s death, the group adopted the raven (from his popular poem) as its unofficial mascot. Meme-ified photos captured various society shenanigans around Washington Square Park—a raven perched atop the Giuseppe Garibaldi statue; a faint trail of raven footprints around the fountain. Other blog posts included opinion pieces extolling Society philosophy (“Social Capital as Exclusive and Intergenerational”) and shared YouTube excerpts of films—like a scene from the 1990 comedy-drama Metropolitan about essential Manhattan evening wear—as though it were educational material.
Finally, I reached the page displaying an index of suggested Greek pseudonyms along with their associated mythological histories. I settled on Calchas, a famous soothsayer whose contributions included the Trojan horse scheme during the Battle of Troy. I created my corresponding Gmail address and notified John S. and the other recruits of my new name. I felt like I was wading through a time or reality warp, still doubting whether any of this was real.
The initial emails from John S. had been staid and boilerplate, but the impression he gave off in the online group chats was almost bipolar. He started the conversation by asking who was drunk, or trying to get drunk, or already hungover. Complete sentences collapsed into incoherent fragments, his tone swinging between mildly serious and almost manic. One minute, he sounded like a fraternity president rallying his rushes:
“let’s be clear there are going to be guys who you are doing shit for as apprentices that you don’t really hear from etc. if we ask you to send a get well card to sean sure he may not be around but get him one. if we want mike in Afghanistan to have a piece written for him about how he’s a fucking war hero of the type that has never been seen ditto”
The next minute, he devolved into misogyny:
“let’s run thru this like a girl on x and coke at a fraternity party”
“i hope you hit that lil girls ass so hard it looks like two jap flags”
Many of the recruits took turns responding with a “haha” or “lol.” Later they invented obscene one-liners of their own in a show of one-upmanship, a chorus of fake Greek names shouting obscenities at each other in digital bursts.
The “serious” work accomplished in these online chats involved appointments. Each Google Group represented an “initiative” the Society was pursuing around campus. These were coded in confusing acronyms (PUR, ICR, TT) but included relatively traditional ideas like an academic law review, a political debate club, and a community service organization. Recruits were to volunteer their time to lead as many projects as possible.
The strange thing was that no part of any of these “initiatives” had been established yet. It was apparently our class’s job to build the entire ecosystem from scratch. John S. advised that additional directions would later follow, but the best place to start was with a good-looking website—it was “the quickest way to make any org look legit.”
At this, my suspicion grew deeper. Given the hastily constructed webpages John S. had shared, this offhand piece of advice almost felt like something from his own playbook. He claimed to be an NYU alum, but was there any definitive reason to believe him? He could’ve been someone else entirely. A con artist performing one of his ploys or scams. Some prankster or hacker kid prodigy with an affinity for orchestrating elaborate online pranks in his spare time. Maybe the Eucleian Society really did die in 1942. And this is the problem inherent to secrecy, especially one as hyped-up as this: It leaves open the possibility for endless conspiracies.
About a month after we received the original Facebook message, two online group chats had taken place, dozens of virtual toasts and dirty jokes were shared, and all but one of the Google Group “initiatives” had assigned leaders (my task: a weekly newsletter covering the conservative side of issues affecting millennials). To celebrate such progress, John S. decided it was time we finally met each other in the actual world for our first “social.” Thursday, 7:30pm at La Maison Française, NYU’s French Intellectual House.
Maybe John S. was for real.
* * *
When I arrived 15 minutes late, there were no open seats left. The front of the room was blocked off by two large tables formed into a V. Seated on the near side were the familiar faces from the Facebook profiles of my fellow recruits. Standing before us were three strangers. A man with light-black skin and large freckles smiled and introduced himself as John S., his voice calm and cheerful. Behind him were two white guys introduced by first names only, fellow members of his induction class. All three of them were middle-aged and paunchy, wearing loose-fitting suits. John S. conceded that society activity had dwindled since the early days of their induction, but said a core group of guys, many of whom we’d meet later, were dedicated to reviving it.
He explained that we had been handpicked as potential members due to our academic achievement. (Later, after the third round of drinks, one tipsy recruit revealed with a goofy smirk that his GPA was under 2.0). He also made vague allusions to the society as a stepping stone to higher, more storied organizations. When one excited recruit asked if that meant the Freemasons, John S. just smiled. As he wrapped up his pep talk, two more strangers arrived, also in suits, both white, carrying between them a cooler full of beers and mini-bottles of wine.
Everyone grabbed a drink and broke off into pockets, one stranger per group. They talked generally about their work—commercial law, renewable energy, consulting for political lobbying firms. Many recounted stories of getting into trouble during their undergraduate days, and asked about what bars were popular now with students. Every few minutes we orbited back to the coolers for another drink, re-congregated into little circles and met another stranger.
As I looked around the room, it seemed like most of the recruits were buying into the show, or at least willing to participate in an extended trial period. The unspoken reality remained that we had nothing by which to judge the society’s integrity other than a bunch of shoddy websites and a few guys in suits talking about power and money. The real Twilight Zone moment of the evening arrived when I realized I almost didn’t have any more questions to ask. The older guys had an answer to every society-related inquiry thrown their way. Like a tall tale or fable, the truth they spewed was both outrageous but also undeniable—if only because it was by nature unprovable.
I remained in the recruitment loop through Invitation Week, which arrived just before I left for Europe. My final adventure was to the W hotel in Union Square, where, at my allotted time, I was to search the lobby for a man wearing a raven pin. I found him in the corner by the window. A stranger I'd never seen, he smiled and made a quiet “caw! caw!” sound as I approached. The envelope he handed me had a yellow faux-antiquated look and was sealed with red wax. Inside was a congratulatory note printed in calligraphy, followed by a breakdown of dues (total annual cost: $600).
Weeks later, from my hostel in London, I read urgent emails from John S. asking about these dues, but my mind was busy with plans to see the world. As I backpacked around Europe, I realized fewer group email threads populated my inbox. Society-related pages and groups on Facebook disappeared. I re-visited the old Blogspot pages and Google Groups, but the URLs were now broken. Finally, one night, I returned to the original forum only to find my login disabled.
Just like that, I had been phased out.
* * *
Before the Internet, secret societies often covered their trail with fire. They burned unwanted documents, and if destruction wasn’t an option, they scratched out vulnerable names or references from physical records. For John S. and his mysterious constituents, covering their tracks online may have been easier—as simple as pressing a button to “Delete” or “Block User”—but it was also less complete. Email threads and attached documents remain archived in my inbox. Ernest Howard Crosby’s Facebook profile still exists, as do cached versions of a few of the Blogspot sites.
Given how easy the Internet makes it to create new environments and facades representing all kinds of identities, can we ever be certain about whom we’re speaking with, or who might be listening?
Sometimes now when I find myself in the Village, passing by La Maison Française, I’m haunted by the ghost of the experience. My imagination plays up the conspiracy. Perhaps we were just one of many online threads being run by John S., all of them largely automated, simultaneously opening and closing, roping as many peculiarly ambitious young men as possible into an ancient web of secrecy.
The political world was mildly surprised on Tuesday, when David Perdue—a billionaire former CEO and cousin of a former governor who has never held elected office—won the Republican nomination for Senate in a runoff in Georgia. Perdue was up against Jack Kingston, a longtime congressman from Savannah; Kingston had been ahead in every public poll since the first round of balloting back in May.
But on Election Day, Perdue narrowly prevailed, 51 percent to 49 percent. As upsets go, it was relatively minor—nothing on the order of Eric Cantor's shocking defeat in last month's primary in Virginia. But Kingston's loss may have had something in common with Cantor's: In both cases, a Republican candidate was rejected by primary voters after being accused of being soft on illegal immigration.
Cantor's loss—to a no-name opponent who, backed by talk radio, hammered him for supposedly supporting immigration reform—occasioned days of handwringing about its impact on policymaking. Immigration's role in Kingston's defeat has received less attention. In the final days of the campaign, Perdue ran a television ad attacking Kingston for his support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the business lobby that supports immigration reform and invested heavily in Kingston. "Kingston's largest backer, who has pumped almost $3 million into Kingston TV ads, is 100 percent, openly pro amnesty," the ad said. "Kingston now owes them big. Career politician Jack Kingston: Backed by amnesty supporters. Wrong for Georgia."
The ad was accurate but misleading: Kingston's position is that "there should be no amnesty for any individual who has crossed the border illegally." And while Kingston gladly accepted the support of the pro-reform Chamber, Perdue had also sought the Chamber's endorsement, unsuccessfully, leading the Chamber to proclaim the attack on Kingston mere "sour grapes."
As with Cantor, plenty of other factors played a role in the Georgia runoff. (Most postmortems on the race focused on Perdue's appeal as a political outsider, and Kingston's status as a 22-year member of Congress, in a political climate seen as hostile to Washington.) But given the closeness of the result, the late-breaking amnesty attack may well have pushed Perdue over the top. If so, it would be the second time this year that Republican base voters have risen up against a candidate seen as sympathetic to the business community's desire for immigration reform.
In the past, contrary to popular belief, support for immigration reform has seldom been toxic in Republican primaries. (A notable exception came four years ago in Georgia, when Nathan Deal ran to the right on immigration on the way to winning his gubernatorial primary and the governorship.) But the current crisis on the border has inflamed the perpetual hot-button issue, particularly among the vocal minority of the Republican base for whom the only acceptable "reform" is mass deportation. And candidates like Perdue are exploiting the issue as a wedge.
That's bad for immigration reform, which was already stalled largely because of House Republicans' fear of just this sort of political backlash. And it's probably bad for the long-term prospects of the Republican Party, whose elites are convinced its future national success rests on increasing its share of the Hispanic vote—a process they believe must start with passing immigration reform. Here's a representative take from Tom Donohue, president of the (100 percent, openly pro-amnesty) Chamber of Commerce: "If the Republicans don’t do it, they shouldn’t bother to run a candidate in 2016," he said in May.
I asked Frank Sharry, the longtime immigration-reform advocate who heads America's Voice, if he saw political events like the Georgia runoff as a worrisome development. "Now that the GOP has blown the best chance in a generation to pass landmark immigration reform, I'm glad the GOP is lurching further to the right," he replied. "It will hasten their demise as a national force and lead to Democratic control of the White House and both chambers of Congress sooner. Then, and probably only then, will we get immigration reform."
Let us know what we missed.
Go See Snowpiercer, Will You?
Anne Helen Petersen | Buzzfeed
"It’s alive, much in the same way Jaws and the original Star Wars and Jurassic Park felt alive. And it should be the blockbuster of the summer: the thing that everyone sees, that anchors discussions for weeks, a bookmark in an ever-growing stack of summers past."
The Decline of Harper Lee
Boris Kachka | Vulture
"Silence has not served Nelle Harper Lee. 'In the absence of her being willing to talk, the only versions we’ll ever have are other people’s versions.'"
Kelefa Sanneh | The New Yorker
"Rousey says she isn’t bothered by the evidence, online and in arenas, that many of the people who pay to watch her fight are hoping to see her lose. 'I’m the heel, I’m the antihero,' she says. 'And I like it that way.'"
Alex Pappademas | Grantland
Alexandra Petri | The Washington Post
Mallory Andrews | Sound on Sight
Jon Gugala | Deadspin
"Desperately wanting approval, it has circled the wagons and worked actively against the very means to its validation. The biggest problem CrossFit has is itself."
The Distraction Debate
Aaron Gordon | Sports on Earth
"We could also talk about Ben Roethlisberger's motorcycle accident, Jameis Winston's sexual assault allegations, Jim Irsay's DWI, Josh Gordon's DWI -- any DWI, really -- or Aldon Smith's drunk driving and weapons charges, or any other arrest. It seems many world-class athletes are capable of compartmentalizing off-field issues without it affecting on-field performance."
A Serious Attempt to Understand Blake Lively's Goop-Like Website
Darren Franich | EW
"So at least there’s, like, some clarity that the whole Preserve experiment is basically an exercise in bourgeois indulgence in the guise of populist traditionalism, all of it constructed within the modern vogue for 'authenticity' among a class of people whose lives are defined by inauthenticity at the existential level."
The Place Makes Everyone a Gambler
Alice Bolin | The Believer
"This idea of Los Angeles’ massive communal roll of the dice is essential to Didion’s understanding of the city, that cloud on the land, and especially the entertainment industry."
The Jenny Lewis Experience
Jeff Himmelman | The New York Times Magazine
"Whatever demons stole her sleep for these last few years, they’ve surely been with her forever, in one form or another. But they are also what gives such depth and soul to what she does."
Yesterday, our Twitter Book Club held a live Q&A; with Rachel Cantor, author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario, our July book. We discussed the novel's characters, including Leonard, a time-traveling pizza customer support representative who saves the world, and Abulafia, the 13th century Jewish mystic, who does awesome karate kicks and attempts to convert the Pope.
Our conversation included reflections on the power of words, the importance of listening, and Roger Bacon's Brazen Head, a performing machine that gives answers and does surveillance. The full conversation is below.
For more in-depth conversations, read Rachel's other interviews in Publisher's Weekly, the Quietus, and Paste Magazine. Follow our ongoing conversation on the hashtag #1book140. Our August nomination process begins on Monday.
Those visiting New York for the first time wouldn’t be completely incorrect if they figured that at its core, the city is just one long line. When I spent a summer there a couple years ago, I waited outside Lincoln Center to see some of Christian Marclay’s mesmerizing video The Clock. I tried to minimize my wait by scheduling my queueing for the off-peak time of 3 a.m., and even then, I stood by for two or three hours. Had I been there for later summers, I’m sure I would’ve found myself biding my time in anticipation of other things, like the MoMA’s “Rain Room" or, more shamefully, a cronut.
Now there’s a company to ease the impatience of New Yorkers and urbanites around the world. SOLD Inc., whose name is an acronym for “Same Ole Line Dudes,” will, at a cost of $25 for the first hour and $10 for each subsequent 30-minute period, wait in line for you. The New York company’s services are aimed at buzzed-about lines, like those for the Cronut, as well as more mundanely numbing queues, like the DMV's.
Business Insider profiled the company’s founder, Robert Samuel, earlier this week. Samuel, who can bring in up to $1,000 per week, started the firm after someone on Craigslist took up his offer to wait in line for the iPhone 5 in exchange for $100. The company has since expanded to include about a dozen of Samuel's friends—including one who was subjected to a grueling 43-hour wait for an audition on the TV show Shark Tank. Samuel says his employees are doing “a great job,” though it remains unclear exactly how one could do poorly at standing in line.
It didn’t used to be the case that there was appreciable demand for professional line-waiters, but Samuel’s company competes with people from the likes of Task Rabbit, a website for hiring strangers to do odd jobs, and Craigslist, a website for hiring strangers to do odder jobs. His response, then, has been to turn to branding. He’ll show up at long lines just to hand out business cards, and he’ll write his company’s name in chalk on the city’s sidewalks.
Executive assistants used to be the province of the wealthy, and the fixed cost of taking the time to seek out someone to do your laundry or buy your groceries every once in a while was too high for most people. But sites like Task Rabbit have streamlined this process to the point where anyone willing to pay $20 an hour can have an executive assistant whenever they'd like.
Of course, unsavory things can happen when people pay others to exempt themselves from mundane tribulations, and maybe not all lines are in need of professional waiters, but companies like SOLD have brought to the middle class banal services previously available only to the wealthy. Samuel’s experience with SOLD attests to this; when Business Insider asked him about his clientele, he described them as “everyday people.”
Task Rabbit and Craigslist have presented middle-class people with their very own errand-runners, and their success in doing so has suggested there's untapped demand for services that do trivial but pesky tasks. As a result, there are now a number of new companies that have formed to accommodate this demand: They'll do your laundry or assemble your Ikea furniture. But whereas Craigslist is a peer-to-peer platform—which is a relatively new concept—these companies market their services in a traditional, business-to-consumer manner. In this way, companies like Samuel's, which trade the risk that comes with hiring a stranger for the trust that can be built by a brand (a risk that still lingers even considering the user reviews that Task Rabbit compiles), represent a decidedly old-school response to Craigslist and Task Rabbit, two uniquely modern developments.
Reports yesterday that ISIS had mandated female circumcision in the Iraqi city of Mosul quickly went viral and were almost as quickly debunked. The claim that the group now calling itself the Islamic State had issued a fatwa requiring female genital mutilation for all women between the ages of 11 and 46 came from a senior U.N. official in Iraq and appears to have been based on an edict ISIS calls a hoax.
But if ISIS’s relationship with women is not as eye-catchingly gruesome as many thought yesterday, it is exceedingly complicated, and shifting. In Raqqa, Syria, which serves as the Islamic State’s de facto capital, women who go out without a male chaperone or aren’t fully covered in public are subject to arrests and beatings.
And often it’s other women who do the arresting and beating.
The al-Khansaa Brigade is ISIS’s all-female moral police, established in Raqqa soon after ISIS took over the city a few months ago. "We have established the brigade to raise awareness of our religion among women, and to punish women who do not abide by the law," Abu Ahmad, an ISIS official in Raqqa, told Syria Deeply’s Ahmad al-Bahri. Ahmad emphasized that the brigade has its own facilities to avoid mingling among men and women. “Jihad,” he told al-Bahri, “is not a man-only duty. Women must do their part as well.”
The institution of female enforcers for female morality makes a certain kind of sense if you take the prohibition against sexes mingling to its logical extreme. Still, ISIS in Raqqa may be the only jihadi group employing this kind of logic. In other jihadi groups, “it is men who enforce modesty in public,” explains Thomas Hegghammer, an expert on Islamist militancy affiliated with the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, via email. Nor has the practice spread elsewhere in the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate. The al-Khansaa Brigade may be what Hegghammer calls a “short-lived stunt in a single city.”
Indeed, regional news sources suggest the brigade was designed to solve a specific problem: male anti-ISIS fighters disguising themselves in all-concealing feminine garb to pass through checkpoints. With male ISIS members reluctant to inspect under garments to verify the womanhood of the wearers, they got some women to do it.
But it appears that either their mandate has expanded, or they have simply taken more authority for themselves. One female teenager in Raqqa told Syria Deeply that she had been snatched from the street by a group of armed women for walking without an escort and wearing her headscarf incorrectly. “Nobody talked to me or told me the reason for my detention,” she told al-Bahri. “One of the women in the brigade came over, pointing her firearm at me. She then tested my knowledge of prayer, fasting, and hijab."
In other words, whatever job the group was formed for, the women of the al-Khansaa Brigade aren’t just staffing checkpoints anymore. Hegghammer says whether or not female morality enforcement brigades spread more widely, their presence in Raqaa is indicative of a bigger, slow-moving shift toward allowing women “more operative” roles in the jihadi movement. “There is a process of female emancipation taking place in the jihadi movement, albeit a very limited (and morbid) one,” Hegghammer says.
And the women of ISIS may find an enthusiastic fan base among ISIS’s many female supporters internationally. Hegghammer points to the hundreds of Islamist women in Europe who express support for ISIS on social media. “Many of them are eager to portray themselves as strong women and often make fun of the Western stereotype of ‘the oppressed Muslim woman,’” he says. “On social media at least, I think we can speak of a nascent ‘jihadi girl power’ subculture.”
The Western narrative of the oppressed Muslim woman may be misguided, but as Raqaa's experience shows, "jihadi girl power" often comes at other women's expense.
Scientists call the frozen parts of the Earth the cryosphere: the arctic, the Antarctic, tundra permafrost, glaciers high on mountains. Global warming means the ice is slowly melting, but there's a lot of it.
At the same, humans are freezing more and more space. The same energy-intensive, fossil-fuel burning industrial technologies that contribute to climate change also allow humans to refrigerate an ever-greater volume of the Earth.
Writer Nicola Twilley calls this "network of artificially chilled warehouses, cabinets, and reefer fleets" the artificial cryosphere, and her work has detailed many of its fascinating intricacies, and its importance in "reshaping both markets and cities with the promise of a more rational supply and an end to decay, waste, and disease."
In a new piece for the New York Times Magazine, Twilley goes to the new center of the artificial cryosphere: Zhengzhou, the home of Sanquan, a sprawling empire of frozen food built by Chen Zemin, "the world’s first and only frozen-dumpling billionaire." (Sanquan, Twilley notes, "is short for ''Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China' — the 1978 gathering that marked the country’s first steps toward the open market.")
In one of Sanquan's factories, 5,000 workers pump out 100,000 dumplings an hour. That's 400 tons of dumplings every day. Sanquan and its chief rival Synear, also headquartered in Zhengzhou, control two-thirds of the country's frozen food market. The size of the industry has boomed, Twilley tells us, as the number of urban Chinese households with a refrigerator went from the single digits in the mid-1990s to 95 percent now.
And like everything else multiplied by the size of the Chinese population and the growth of its economy, the numbers get staggering quickly. "China had 250 million cubic feet of refrigerated storage capacity in 2007; by 2017, the country is on track to have 20 times that," she writes. "At five billion cubic feet, China will surpass even the United States, which has led the world in cold storage ever since artificial refrigeration was invented." Per capita, that would still only be one-third of the refrigerated space that we have available in the United States.
Why does that matter? Cooling uses 15 percent of the world's electricity. And electricity, especially in China, runs on coal, which is the dirtiest fossil fuel. And when the gases used in refrigerators leak, they are a more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.
A larger Chinese "cold chain," as refrigerated systems are known in the industry, will change what China eats, and the profile of its energy usage. "Of all the shifts in lifestyle that threaten the planet right now," Twilley concludes, "perhaps not one is as important as the changing way that Chinese people eat."
The epicenter for that change might just be Zhengzhou, which I've marked on a map here. It's a city that a vanishingly small number of Americans could spot on a map in a region of China far from Beijing, Shanghai, and the coastal images of urban china we know. (The map software itself declined to label the city at any zoom scale.)
And what looks like industrial change happening in this place will have lasting repercussions that extend far beyond the technical domain to the cultural one. When refrigeration comes to a place, the definition of freshness changes. The biological reality of seasonality can be suspended at will.
"I met with plant scientists at the Beijing Vegetable Research Center who are selecting and optimizing the varieties of popular Chinese greens that stand up best to cold storage," she writes. "If they are successful, the incredible regional variety and specificity of Chinese fruits and vegetables may soon resemble the homogeneous American produce aisle, which is often limited to three tomato varieties and five types of apple for sale, all hardy (and flavorless) enough to endure lengthy journeys and storage under refrigeration."
What's fascinating about freezing things is that refrigerators are time machines: They allow organisms from our present to be travel into the future without changing in natural ways. Cold slows biological time. That's why bacteria can't grow as well in a fridge. That's why women freeze their eggs. Cold is our weapon against life's inexorable clock.
And yet the more stuff we freeze, the more time we control, the faster we push the planet's biosphere into disarray through climate change. What we can arrest now, at the cellular level, generates problems at scales unimaginably larger than microbes or embryos.
Over the past two decades, since the 1992 presidential election, Republican politics has followed a cycle. It goes like this:
Stage One: A Democrat wins the presidency and expands the size of government.
Stage Two: Republicans mobilize to prevent big government from destroying the American way of life.
Stage Three: Republicans take Congress.
Stage Four: Congressional Republicans battle the Democratic president over the size of government. They cut spending and reduce the deficit, but in the process become wildly unpopular.
Stage Five: The Democratic president uses the unpopularity of the Republican Congress to help win reelection.
Stage Six: Republican presidential candidates ditch their assault on big government and become compassionate conservatives.
We’re now back at Stage Six.
In the late 1990s, after Bill Clinton campaigned for reelection against the Gingrich Congress’s assault on government spending, George W. Bush decided that he too would make congressional Republicans his foil. In September 1999, when GOP budget hawks tried to cut the earned-income tax credit, the Texas governor declared, “I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor.”
Now the same pattern is repeating itself. In 2012, Mitt Romney boasted that he was “severely conservative.” He chose Paul Ryan as his running mate in large measure to mobilize Republicans who loved Ryan’s assault on the welfare state. But Romney and Ryan lost in part because Barack Obama, like Clinton before him, scared Americans about the GOP’s assault on government. Moreover, as in the late 1990s, the budget deficit is going down.
As a result, potential GOP presidential candidates are falling over one another to run as Bush did in 2000: as compassionate conservatives. Rand Paul is arguing for shorter prison sentences. Republican Governors John Kasich and Mike Pence are expanding Medicaid. Marco Rubio recently said it was time for Republicans to stop trying to balance “the budget by saving money on safety-net programs.” Even budget cutter extraordinaire, Paul Ryan, wants to “remove it [the fight against poverty] from the old-fashioned budget fight.”
It's easy to see why compassionate conservatism is back. It’s harder to see it helping Republicans all that much.
First, it didn’t even help Bush all that much. Let’s remember, he won less than 48 percent of the vote in 2000. Between them, Al Gore and Ralph Nader won more than 51 percent. Exit polls that year found that of the 10 qualities Bush voters cited as reasons for voting for him, “cares about people like me” was number seven. In 2004, pollsters asked the question differently. As Ben Domenech has noted, Bush won only 24 percent of voters who said their top priority was a candidate who “cares about people.” He won only 23 percent of voters who said their biggest concern was health care. That’s better than Mitt Romney, who won only 18 percent of voters who prioritized “car[ing] about people.” But it’s exactly the same as John McCain’s percentage in 2008. And on health care—a key domestic-policy issue on which Republicans want to show they’re not hard-hearted—Bush in 2004 did slightly worse than McCain and Romney.
The big reason Bush won in 2004 isn’t because he wowed voters with his compassion. It’s because he won 86 percent of those who said their number one concern was “terrorism” and 80 percent of those who prioritized “moral values.” Since then, national security has faded as a political issue and the GOP’s historic advantage on it has disappeared. Something similar has happened on the culture war, which has shifted in the Democrats’ direction because gay marriage—which Bush won votes for opposing in 2004—is now far more popular.
If the first problem with running as a compassionate conservative is that it didn’t work so effectively for George W. Bush, the second is that being seen as compassionate is probably harder for a Republican today. Suspicion of the GOP among key demographic groups is greater, and the Republican base is less tolerant of reaching out to them. When Bush was president, the leaders of both parties opposed gay marriage. Now it’s a partisan issue, which makes it harder for a Republican candidate to win LGBT votes, at least without provoking a rebellion among the GOP’s Christian conservative base.
It’s the same with Hispanics. Bush won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, but since then Hispanic have become more alienated from the GOP. The activist right’s fury over illegal immigration has deepened, which means that compared to the Bush years, a Republican presidential candidate will have more suspicion to overcome and less political flexibility with which to overcome it.
Finally, the ranks of the demographic groups Republicans are targeting with their compassion crusade are more numerous. By 2016, Hispanics will represent more than double the share of the American electorate they represented in 2000. That means even if a Republican won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote, as Bush did, the consequences would be more dire, since his Democratic opponent would have won 65 percent of a higher number.
Then again, if history is any guide, stage seven of the Republican cycle is that a presidential candidate professing compassionate conservatism loses the popular vote by a half-million votes but is handed the presidency by the Supreme Court. The way the Roberts Court has been acting, I wouldn’t rule it out.
There’s a certain type of parental pride that grows from just the right combination of willful ignorance, unflagging optimism, and impressive mental gymnastics. Junior’s latest report card was less than stellar? Well, yes—he’s so smart that school just bores him. Little League game spent on the bench? The coach probably doesn’t realize the talent he has on his hands.
But that usually harmless denial can also manifest itself in a more significant—and more damaging—way, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Specifically, the study lent more support to the notion that parents of obese children often fail to see their kids’ weight as unhealthy, even after a doctor’s diagnosis.
Researchers from the University of California San Diego and Brown University surveyed parents of first-time patients at a pediatric obesity clinic, assessing the families’ willingness to help their children lose weight. The patients, who ranged in age from 5 to 20, had all been classified as overweight or clinically obese, and most had been referred to the clinic for treatment by their regular pediatricians.
The majority of parents, 93.5 percent, correctly recognized that their children were, in fact, overweight or obese—but nearly 30 percent said they didn’t see their children’s weight as a problem, and roughly the same number rated their children’s health as “very good” or “excellent.”
This dissonance, according to pediatrician and lead study author Kyung Rhee, may have to do with what she calls “the normalization of obesity.”
“There are so many kids who are overweight—and so many adults who are overweight—that a lot of parents just don’t recognize it” as a problem, she says (around one-fifth of U.S. children and one-third of adults are currently obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
In the same survey, parents were also asked about what changes they had made or planned to make to their children’s eating and exercise habits. Researchers then divided the parents into stages ranging from “precontemplation/contemplation” (those who were not yet thinking about making changes, or had only just begun) to “action/maintenance” (those who had already made lifestyle changes and kept them up for some time). Despite the fact that they filled out their surveys inside an obesity clinic, 40 percent of parents hadn’t yet made it to the action/maintenance stage in changing their children’s diets, while 60 percent hadn’t gotten around to encouraging more physical activity.
Though the study was based on only a small participant pool, past research has also pointed out this glaring parental blind spot: An analysis of 69 separate studies conducted between 1990 and 2012, published earlier this year in Pediatrics, concluded that more than half of all parents underestimate their children’s weight.
In the U.S., where the obesity rate has doubled among children (and quadrupled among teens) over the last 40 years, this lack of awareness has made its way down to the kids themselves. More than 40 percent of obese American kids are unaware they have a weight problem, the CDC recently announced.
The first step to getting overweight children on a healthier track, Rhee says, is getting their parents to take a healthier view of reality.
“Without parents’ involvement in this, it’s pretty difficult for kids to change,” she says. “In general, parents are the ones buying the food, parents are the ones setting the example.”
Giving up after-school Cheetos for celery stalks can be tough. Trading screen time for time outdoors can be even tougher. But this study is one more reminder than the most Herculean task may be getting parents to recognize a problem at all.
It’s an iconic image: the white dress, the church bells, the priest, the traditional vows repeated by an earnest, fresh-faced couple. Many elements of the archetypical American wedding echo the formality and traditions of the country’s largest single religious tradition, Roman Catholicism. But Catholic weddings themselves are becoming rarer and rarer.
In 1970, there were roughly 426,000 Catholic weddings, accounting for 20 percent of all marriages in the United States that year. Beginning in 1970, however, Catholic marriages went into decades of steady decline, until the turn of the new century—when that decline started to become precipitous: Between 2000 and 2012, Church weddings dropped by 40 percent, according to new data from the Official Catholic Directory. Given other demographic trends in the denomination, this pattern is question-raising: As of 2012, there were an estimated 76.7 million Catholics in the United States, a number that has been growing for at least four decades.
According to Catholic doctrine, marriage is a sacrament, or holy rite of passage, that can only be received if both husband and wife are baptized in the Church. In many cases, bishops can grant a special dispensation for interfaith couples, which allows them to be married in a church by a priest. But for faithful Catholics who want their marriage to be fully recognized by the Church, the options are either marrying a good Catholic girl or boy, or convincing their partner to convert.
If there are so many American Catholics, why aren't they getting married?
In fact, this is a major reason why people have historically converted to the Church as adults. According to a 2009 Pew study on religious conversion, 72 percent of adult Catholic converts said that marriage was an important factor in their decision to change their faith. For those who convert to other Christian denominations, the reasons tend to be more connected to doctrine and belief: People who convert to Christian denominations other than Catholicism are more likely to say, for example, that they "drifted away from [their former] religion" or they "stopped believing [their former religion's] teachings." According to Mark Gray, the director of polling at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, however, Catholic converts tend to cite expectations placed on Catholics when they get married.
"The rule is, if you're marrying someone who isn't Catholic, the Catholic spouse has to be open to having children and commit to raising their children Catholic," Gray said. "The non-Catholic spouse very often is Protestant, and they often choose to be a member of the same faith as everyone else in their family."
But even though marriage has been a major reason why adults have joined the Church in the past, it’s becoming less so. Between 2000 and 2012, adult baptisms declined by nearly 50 percent, which, Gray said, probably has something to do with the declining rates of marriage.
So why are couples choosing to get married outside of the Church? For one thing, there might be a lack of awareness about the specific doctrinal importance the Church places on marriage. "More people are choosing to get married in country clubs and at the beach," said Gray. "A lot of people are unaware of the importance of marriage and the place it has in Church sacramental life …Younger Catholics are probably not going to have a deep awareness about the sacrament of marriage, even if they self-identify as Catholic and [have] religious beliefs."
Meanwhile, fewer Americans are getting married generally. From 2000 to 2011, the number of marriages in the United States fell from 2.3 million to 2.1 million, or roughly 0.82 percent of the population getting married each year to roughly 0.68 percent.
But while that's a factor in declining Catholic marriage rates, the deeper cause is the changing relationship between people and traditional institutions, Gray says. "It's not just churches, but all kinds of institutions have experienced detachments from the 'brick and mortar,'" he said. By “brick and mortar,” Gray means in-person religious communities: people physically coming together in churches to worship together. In general, Americans are becoming less affiliated with traditional religious institutions, not just the Catholic Church: From 2007 to 2012, the percentage of the religiously unaffiliated grew from 15 percent to 20 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
"Millennials are seeing their social networks across the Internet rather than across geography.""
It is true that today's average marrying age in America happens to coincide with a time of life when people have historically been less religiously active: the transition period between moving out of your parents' house and starting a household of your own. Since that transition period between moving out and getting married is getting longer, it makes sense that young people are spending more time away from church. And in the past, a lot of people who stopped attending church during this time eventually went back. "Even my parents—they eloped to a place called the 'Hitching Post' in Las Vegas, but they eventually came back," Gray said. "There's definitely hope among the Church that what we've seen in previous generation will happen again."
Still, Gray said, "I do think what we're seeing is different among Millennials. They are seeing their social networks across the Internet rather than across geography. So much of parish life takes place in brick and mortar, and for Millennials, so much of their social life is not in brick and mortar.” Among Millennials, defined here as 18- to 33-year-olds, religious disaffiliation is higher than it has been for any generation in at least the past 25 years—as long as Pew has been polling on religious belief.
So while it's simplistic to say that American Millennials are totally abandoning their churches, at least in Catholicism, the trend away church weddings might be an indication of how young people tend to see their religious institutions. As Gray said, it’s entirely possible that today’s young non-church-goers might return to the pews in a few years, just as their hippy parents did before them. But it’s also possible that beach weddings are an early sign of a generational shift among religious Americans, with more and more people finding meaning beyond the walls and words of a church.
I am a fan of Vibram Five Fingers running shoes, as I have made clear every so often. I was wearing my trusty Vibrams when I passed the "Haynesworth Test" four years ago. I've worn them as I evolved past an uncomfortable era of Achilles tendon problems into a time of happily injury-free running. Two months ago I was among those saying that a highly publicized court settlement, in which Vibram set aside $3.75 million to compensate people who felt they'd been misled about health benefits of the shoes, showed more about our legal system than it did about this footwear.
The point about these shoes has always been: they're exactly right for some people, and wrong for others. It all depends on running style. If you naturally run with a "forefoot strike"—that is, landing on the front part of your foot, as nearly everyone does when running barefoot—or if you can adjust to run that way, the shoes are great. If you run with a "heel strike," landing on the back of your foot, which is the style that heavily padded modern running shoes encourage and which some people cannot change away from, then finger shoes don't make sense. You'll feel like you're breaking your heels.
But how can you know for sure, without trying? That has been Vibram's challenge all along—or so I know after an out-of-the-blue conversation with the company's U.S. CEO, Mike Gionfriddo, and his associates. (Vibram is based in Italy; its overall CEO is Antonio Dus. Readers with experience in the U.S. military will know the Vibram name in another context, since it produces outersoles for U.S. combat boots.)
Gionfriddo and his Vibram team pointed out that the company dominates its category, that of minimalist shoes, but the category itself is perhaps 1% of all sports-shoes sales. Their aim is to get more people to give finger shoes a try.
So they said they had a new plan. For the rest of this year, all shoe sales via their web site will come with an unconditional full-refund offer, if for any reason you turn out not to like running in them. To quote a message I got from the company:
We believe in our product and think that those who try the minimalist approach will become believers as well. To show our commitment, we’re making a guarantee: for anyone who purchases a pair of FiveFingers from July 22 until the end of the year through the website (VibramFiveFingers.com) and aren’t satisfied after six weeks with the experience – for any reason – we’ll take the shoe back and return a full refund.
I asked what they'd do with returned shoes. They said they would clean them up and donate them to organizations that might use them. Then I asked how and when they planned to publicize the offer. They said, "Well, we are making the announcement to you now."
And I, in turn, am making the announcement to any interested readers: If you'd been tempted by the idea of these odd-looking finger shoes, you now have a way to try them at no economic risk. Over to the Vibram web site for more.
For the record: I have no connection with the company whatsoever except as a satisfied repeat customer. I'm passing on the information not as an advertisement, though obviously I like my shoes, but because it's a significant development in controversies about this type of shoe. Also, no matter the subject, reporters always enjoy having a little scoop.
Update Broader perspective on the whole "minimalist shoe" question at Runner's World.