First, for fair-and-balanced purposes, if you'd like to start with some depressing trends out of the US, be sure to read “The punditry vs. the presidency,” by Michael Cohen in the NY Daily News. It is about the destructive, non-accountable pundit pressure on Barack Obama to prove his strength by “doing something” about the crises underway around the world. Ah, it brings the "why we hate the media" days back so vividly.
On to China.
1. Politics. Last night my wife and I heard the cheering news on (state controlled) China Central TV that universal suffrage was coming to Hong Kong. Great! And, yes, we actually watch this channel a lot of the time.
Unfortunately, as everyone except the state-controlled Chinese media pointed out, the announcement was part of a deal that ensures that the right to vote won't really matter. The Hong Kong electorate will be able to cast its vote only for one of several Party-approved candidates. As an illustration of the contrast in coverage, reader Rick Jones sent this screen shot:
On the overall situation, here is a useful assessment by Richard Bush of Brookings. For instance:
China's 2012 promise [of universal suffrage by 2017 for Hong Kong] created hopes among the public that the chief executive would be picked through a truly democratic election. Those hopes have now been dashed, and it is likely that China has bought itself more instability, not less.
After the jump, an email from a long-time foreign resident in Hong Kong about some local reaction to the decision.
2. Economics. If you want the big picture on why the challenge now facing China’s economic leaders is different from, and even harder than, ones they have dealt with in the past three decades of rapid growth, you could start with Minxin Pei’s China’s Trapped Transition. It came out six years ago, and it foresaw a structural crisis for China's economy within six or seven years. Or, you could even read China Airborne, which is on this exact them. For now I suggest that you start with two online postings by Michael Pettis, in Beijing.
One is a guide to the four stages of development the political-economic system has gone through, from the poverty of the 1970s to the mixed success-and-crisis situation of the country today. Here is what Pettis thinks a not-yet-realized fourth step would mean:
What China needs now is another set of liberalizing reforms that cause a surge in social capital such that Chinese individuals and businesses have incentives to change their behavior in ways that generate greater productive activity from the same set of assets.
These must include changing the legal structure, predictably enforcing business law, changing the way capital is priced and allocated, and other factors that determined the incentives, so that Chinese are more heavily rewarded for activity that increases productivity and penalized, or at least less heavily rewarded, for rent seeking.
But because this means almost by definition undermining the very policies that allow elite rent capturing (preferential access to cheap credit, most importantly), it was always likely to be strongly resisted until debt levels got high enough to create a sense of urgency. This resistance to reform over the past 7-10 years was the origin of the “vested interests” debate.
The other Pettis article is this new item on the very bad, and less bad, options for a Chinese fiscal/financial transition.
3) Sociology. My friend Eric Liu points out in a WSJ essay (drawn from his very good new book A Chinaman's Chance) that China has practically no naturalized citizens: some 941, as of the 2000 census. No doubt there are more no, but by comparison the U.S. has somewhere in the vicinity of 18 million. Like Eric Liu, I view this as reason #1 that the long-term strategic assets of the United States vastly exceed those of China. Also, see the report from Frank Langfitt of NPR on a much-discussed recent episode in which a foreigner keeled over, unconscious, on a Shanghai subway and everyone on the train ran away rather than offering help.
4) Politics again. Our friend Minxin Pei is back to explain how outside-world hopes for “reform” in the Xi Jinping era should be assessed now.
Sobering, all. Nonetheless, happy Labor Day.
A note from a foreign resident of Hong Kong:
As a [Westerner] based in Hong Kong for 20+ years, I think the Standing Committee has really misread its audience this time around.
The Chief Executive position is relatively powerless - certainly less so than any mayor or party chief of a comparable city inside China. There was very little to be lost, even if one of the super democrats had somehow been chosen. And the chances of that were nil in the first place, as Hong Kongers know better than to mess with success.
Which "foreign elements" are Beijing so worried about these days? Western governments have far less real economic influence than the large multinationals. Those companies (of which my employer is one) have an enormous vested interest in quiet and calm access to the China market and protection of the many strands of their global supply chain that flow through Shenzhen and Guangzhou. It is impossible to imagine [most US- or European-based companies] advocating for anyone remotely unacceptable to the Party. Former success stories like Cisco have taken such a beating from the NSA scandal that they would have played along quietly with any scenario that kept things on an even keel.
Now Beijing has issued what sounds from this end like a ham-fisted, poorly-thought-out edict. How many tech company execs will now choose to live in Singapore? How many banks will have another look at Tokyo as a regional center now that the hot money pouring into Hong Kong and Singapore property has put them nearly on par for cost-of-living?
Nothing about the Central Government's current rhetoric or recent action indicates it will have sufficient subtlety to manage the situation that helps Hong Kong's position in the short term or the long term. It won't take many days of traffic disruption or occasions of hammerhead pronouncements demanding "love of country" before that begins snowballing.
Here was a risk-free for China to soothe Taiwan and the West and they blew it. At a time when the economy looks wobbly at best why would you want your professional class dusting off those pre-1997 Canadian passports?
To mix cultural metaphors, China could have put on a kabuki show with an elected figurehead but a cowed or bought-off civil service and business class without a basis for complaint (hey, it works in Singapore). Instead multinationals will now put on the puppet show - maintaining paper headquarters in Hong Kong while seeking stability and predictability elsewhere.
As noted many times over the years (eg this and this), successive Chinese governments have shown very little interest in Western concepts of "soft power." The Chinese government would only gain rather than lose by being lenient with its imprisoned Nobel Peace winner Liu Xiaobo (and his wife). It would gain rather than lose by making it easier for international journalists to move around the country. It would even—according to me—gain rather than lose by easing up on Internet and press and academic censorship, allowing its universities to attract first-rate talent from around the world.
But all that is according to me, not according to them.
It is not difficult to look at naked women on the Internet. There are, after all, a lot of men and women who post nude photos of themselves online hoping for pageviews, extra income, or just exhibitionist titillation. So with the news over the weekend of “leaked” nude photos of various celebrities, can we please all agree not to search these pictures out? If we want to look at nude people, let’s restrict ourselves to photos of people who actually want us to see them nude. It’s not like there’s a lack of them to choose from.
Because, look: When people seek out stolen images like the ones just released of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and other celebrities, those people are violating these women in much the same way that the person who stole the pictures did.
There’s a reason why the public tends to revel in hacked or stolen nude pictures. It’s because they were taken without consent. Because the women in them (and it’s almost always women who are humiliated this way) did not want those shots to be shared.
If Jennifer Lawrence was to pose naked on the cover of Playboy, for example, I’m sure it would be a best-selling issue. But it wouldn’t have the same scandalous, viral appeal as private images stolen from her phone. Because if she shared nude images consensually, then people wouldn’t get to revel in her humiliation. And that’s really the point, isn’t it? To take a female celebrity down a notch? (We have a term for when this is done to non-celebrity women: “revenge porn.”)
There is an obsessive tendency in American culture with elevating women—young, beautiful women, especially—to celebrity status just to bask in their eventual fall. There’s also a tendency in American culture, meanwhile, to shame women for their sexuality. So I would not be surprised in the days ahead to see arguments as to why this is somehow the fault of the celebrities whose phones were hacked—that these women took the pictures, that they were posing, that generating publicity is part of their job.
But victim-blaming is just that, no matter how famous the victim is. We live in a culture with a peculiar relationship to female celebrity. In much the same way that misogyny tells men that women are there for male consumption, the public and media tell us that famous women are public property. It’s why models and pageant queens are expected to smile graciously and respond to horny teen boys asking them to prom, or why they’re called uptight bitches if they don’t smile for every camera shoved in their face. The underlying premise is that these women have consented to being there for public entertainment—whether they like it or not.
The fact that photos have been shared already is beside the point and a weak justification for violating someone’s privacy and sense of safety. Even if we’re not the people who stole the pictures, and even if we’re not publishing them on blogs or tweeting them out, looking at naked photos of someone who doesn’t want us to goes beyond voyeurism; it’s abuse.
From the Dept. of Insane and Dangerous Overreactions to Fictional Threats:
A 23-year-old teacher at a Cambridge, Md. middle school has been placed on leave and—in the words of a local news report—"taken in for an emergency medical evaluation" for publishing, under a pseudonym, a novel about a school shooting. The novelist, Patrick McLaw, an eighth-grade language-arts teacher at the Mace's Lane Middle School, was placed on leave by the Dorchester County Board of Education, and is being investigated by the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office, according to news reports from Maryland's Eastern Shore. The novel, by the way, is set 900 years in the future.
Here is part of a breathless, law enforcement-friendly report from WBOC, which describes itself as "Delmarva's News Leader":
I have my concerns about President Obama’s foreign policy. But nothing eases them like listening to his Republican critics. There’s an onion-like quality to the arguments GOP politicians often deploy against Obama’s policies in the Middle East. Peel away the layers of grave-sounding but vacuous rhetoric, and you’re left with almost nothing intellectually nourishing at all.
Take Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham’s op-ed on Saturday in The New York Times. It starts with a lie: that Obama said “we don’t have a strategy yet” to deal with ISIS. In fact, Obama was speaking solely about ISIS in Syria. (“Do you need Congress’s approval to go into Syria?” asked a reporter last Thursday. “We don’t have a strategy yet. … We need to make sure that we’ve got clear plans, that we’re developing them. At that point, I will consult with Congress,” Obama replied.)
When it comes to Iraq, by contrast, the Obama administration does have something of a strategy: It is launching air strikes to protect imperiled religious groups, bolstering the Kurdish Peshmerga even though that may embolden Kurdish leaders to seek independence, and using the prospect of further air strikes to encourage Iraq to form a government that includes Sunnis in the hope this will convince them to abandon ISIS. Later in their op-ed, McCain and Graham call for Obama to “strengthen partners who are already resisting ISIS: the Kurdish pesh merga, Sunni tribes” and push for “an inclusive government in Baghdad that shares power and wealth with Iraqi Sunnis.” In other words, they call on Obama to pursue the same strategy in Iraq that he’s already pursuing, while simultaneously twisting his words to claim that he’s admitted to having no strategy at all.
What Obama was really saying in response to the reporter was that he doesn’t want to intervene militarily in Syria—where, as opposed to Iraq, the government is hostile and our allies are weaker—without a well-thought-out plan deserving of public support. McCain and Graham endorse that caution: “The president clearly wants to move deliberately and consult with allies and Congress as he considers what to do about ISIS. No one disputes that goal.” Then, two sentences later, they dispute that goal, slamming Obama for not displaying a “far greater sense of urgency.”
It’s a wonderful illustration of the emptiness of much Beltway foreign-policy-speak. McCain and Graham want Obama to act both “deliberately” and “urgently” because they’re both happy words. (As opposed to “lethargically” and “rashly,” which are nastier synonyms for the same thing.) But when you translate these uplifting abstractions into plain English, you see how contradictory McCain and Graham’s demands actually are. You can either demand that Obama not bomb Syria until he’s ensured he has a plan likely to win international and congressional support, or you can demand that he bomb as soon as possible. You can’t demand both.
One reason Obama isn’t bombing in Syria yet is that he’s not clear on what the goal would be. McCain and Graham are. “ISIS,” they write, “cannot be contained.” Why not? Hasn’t the U.S. been containing al-Qaeda—ISIS’s estranged older brother—for more than a decade now? But the two senators don’t pause to explain. “It must be confronted,” they declare. What does that mean? If the U.S. is bombing ISIS in Iraq, aren’t we confronting the group already?
McCain and Graham later clarify: The goal is to “defeat ISIS.” Excellent—how do we do that? 1) “It requires an inclusive government in Baghdad that shares power and wealth with Iraqi Sunnis.” OK, Obama just toppled a prime minister in service of that goal. But there are those decades of dictatorship, brutality, and sectarian slaughter to overcome. 2) “Mobilize America’s partners in a coordinated, multilateral effort.” OK, but those “partners”—which include pro-Muslim Brotherhood regimes like Turkey and Qatar and anti-Muslim Brotherhood ones like Egypt and Saudi Arabia—are jockeying fiercely with one another for influence across the Middle East. Not to mention the fact that they don’t listen to us all that much anymore. 3) Bring “an end to the conflict in Syria.”
Let’s pause on number three for a moment. Last year, when George Washington University’s Marc Lynch surveyed scholars of civil wars, he found that “most contributors are … deeply pessimistic about the prospect for ending Syria’s civil war any time soon” because “Syria has among the worst possible configurations [of any civil war]: a highly fragmented opposition, many potential spoilers, and foreign actors intervening enough to keep the conflict raging but not enough to decisively end the war.” McCain and Graham don’t explain how to overcome all this. They simply note, in passing, that defeating ISIS will require ending Syria’s civil war. It’s like writing an op-ed that demands the United States “defeat” climate change and mentioning that, by the way, one of the prerequisites is the elimination of fossil fuels.
Any serious proposal for expanding American military involvement in Iraq into Syria must do one of two things. 1) Explain, in some detail, how bombing ISIS will strengthen the moderate Syrian opposition rather than other Sunni jihadist groups (for instance, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate) and/or Bashar al-Assad. Or 2) explain why it’s worth bombing ISIS even if we strengthen other Sunni jihadist groups and/or Bashar al-Assad.
McCain and Graham don’t even try. Instead, they end their op-ed by suggesting that Obama take courage from past presidents who have changed foreign-policy direction. They cite Jimmy Carter’s decision to abandon détente with the Soviet Union after Moscow invaded Afghanistan, Bill Clinton’s decision to intervene in the Balkans, and George W. Bush’s decision to implement the “surge” in Iraq. What do these cases have in common? They’re the best examples McCain and Graham could find of when a president chose military escalation and it worked (sort of).
Notice the historical examples the senators didn’t choose: Harry Truman’s decision to fire Douglas MacArthur rather than expand the Korean War into China, Dwight Eisenhower’s decision not to intervene to save the French at Dien Bien Phu, John F. Kennedy’s decision not to launch a preventive military strike against Soviet missiles in Cuba, Ronald Reagan’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Beirut after they were blown up by Hezbollah, George H.W. Bush’s decision not to march to Baghdad at the end of the Gulf War.
Sometimes history vindicates presidents who choose war. At least as often, it vindicates presidents who don’t. That’s part of the reason Obama’s decision in Syria is hard. Of course, if you ignore the times when war has brought disaster—and you ignore the most difficult questions about war in Syria—then Obama’s decision doesn’t seem that hard at all.
Last week, The Atlantic published a 24-point plan for ending the conflict between Russia and Ukraine—the product of a meeting between Russian and American experts and former officials on the Finnish island of Boistö. Now, a group of American and European experts and former officials, coordinated by David Kramer of Freedom House, has written a response, rejecting the Boistö agenda and urging Russia to end its aggression against Ukraine.
The letter—which comes as Ukrainian and Russian officials are holding talks in Belarus with Ukrainian separatists and international mediators, amid escalating hostilities in the region—argues that the exclusion of Ukrainians from the summit in Finland "disqualifies this initiative from any serious consideration." The days when Russia and the U.S. could decide "the fate of other independent countries" are over, the authors write.
We the undersigned firmly reject the “24-step plan to resolve the Ukraine crisis” published on August 26 by The Atlantic in the United States and Kommersant in Russia. This ill-conceived plan emerged from a Track II initiative involving Russian and American participants who met recently on the Finnish island of Boistö, and was supported by the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow.
We reject the decision to exclude Ukrainians from this initiative. Such a decision reinforces the worst instincts that prevail in Russia—and possibly even among some Americans—that Ukraine is not a truly independent country and that Russia can, with U.S. endorsement, determine its fate. That nobody from Ukraine was invited to participate disqualifies this initiative from any serious consideration.
Beyond that most fundamental problem and without addressing every objectionable “step,” four additional points are worth raising.
First, the initiative treats the Russian and Ukrainian sides as equals and fails to recognize Russia as the aggressor, having invaded Ukraine. This equivalence is particularly glaring in the plan’s call for the “withdrawal of regular Russian and Ukrainian army units to an agreed distance from conflict zones.” Ukraine has neither attacked Russia nor sought to limit its sovereignty. Ukrainian authorities have every right, indeed responsibility, to confront hostile, foreign forces on their territory. Russia must remove all of its forces from Ukraine and stop attacking and invading its neighbor.
Second, the initiative raises a number of “humanitarian and legal issues” as well as “social and cultural issues” that are the business of Ukrainians first and foremost, not Russians or Americans. Again, the exclusion of Ukrainians from this process is unacceptable.
Third, the signers of this initiative seem to have accepted the absorption of Crimea into Russia, despite the fact that Moscow has broken international law, contravened border treaties, and taken the peninsula by force. We find unacceptable recommendations that in practice would create another frozen conflict in Europe, with all that this implies for the internal and external security of Russia’s neighbors. We similarly reject the initiative’s call for “discussion of the settlement of legal issues pertaining to the status of Crimea,” for this is not merely the height of injustice but a dangerous precedent.
Fourth, the initiative calls for permanent guarantees of Ukraine’s “non-bloc status.” Such constraints on Ukraine’s security relationships—including those established under NATO’s Partnership for Peace and the 1997 NATO-Ukraine Distinctive Partnership—are a serious infringement of national sovereignty. They would also give the impression of rewarding the Putin regime for its outrageous actions, and this, too, is wholly unacceptable.
There are many more problems with this initiative, but we have restricted ourselves to the most blatant ones. The bottom line is that Russia must end its invasion of and aggression toward Ukraine, withdraw its forces and fighters, rescind its annexation of Crimea, and end its use of energy and economic measures to punish Ukraine and its other neighbors. Russia will never become the civilized state its citizens deserve without such a transformation.
Until Russia does so, the West must ratchet up serious sanctions against the Putin regime and immediately provide Ukraine with the full support, including military equipment and intelligence cooperation, it needs and has requested to defend itself.
Ukraine is not simply a problem in the West’s relations with Russia. It is a country in its own right that is entitled to the prerogatives afforded to all sovereign states under the UN Charter and the 1990 Charter of Paris. Its borders and territorial integrity were solemnly recognized by the Russian Federation in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the 1997 Russia-Ukraine State Treaty. These are the pillars of security in Europe, and there will be serious consequences for other European states if they are disregarded or traduced.
We should consign to the dustbin of history the days of “condominium” between Russia and the U.S. in deciding the fate of other independent countries.
* * *
Hannes Adomeit: College of Europe
Anders Aslund: Senior fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics
Iryna Bekeshkina: Director, Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiative Foundation; senior research fellow, the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences
Stephen Blank: Senior fellow, American Foreign Policy Council
Falk Bomsdorf: Director, Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation, Moscow office, 1993-2009
Ellen Bork: Senior fellow, Foreign Policy Initiative
Anna Borshchevskaya: European Foundation for Democracy
Robert Brinkley: Former U.K. Ambassador to Ukraine
Vyacheslav Bryukhovetskyy: Chancellor, the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy
Matthew Bryza: Former ambassador; director, International Centre for Defence Studies, Tallinn, Estonia
Ian Brzezinski: Former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO policy
George Chopivsky, Jr.: President, Chopivsky Family Foundation
Susan Corke: Eurasia program director, Freedom House
Lorne Craner: Former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor
Charles Davidson: Publisher, The American Interest
Jim Denton: World Affairs Journal
Nadia Diuk: Vice president, National Endowment for Democracy
Ambassador Paula J. Dobriansky
Wolfgang Eichwede: Vice president, German Society for East European Studies
Marta Farion: President, Kyiv Mohyla Foundation of America
Ambassador Julie Finley: Former U.S. permanent representative to the OSCE
Oleksandr Fisun: Professor of political science, Kharkiv National University
Jeff Gedmin: Georgetown University
Carl Gershman: President, National Endowment for Democracy
Alyona Getmanchuk: Director, Institute of World Policy, Kiev
James Greene: Former head of NATO Liaison Office, Ukraine
Janet Gunn: Former research analyst, U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Michael Haltzel: Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins University SAIS
Olexiy Haran: Professor of comparative politics, Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Ukraine
John Herbst: Former ambassador; director of the Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council
William Hill: Public policy fellow, Kennan Institute; former OSCE head of mission in Moldova
Volodymyr Horbach: Political analyst, Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, Kiev
Yaroslav Hrytsak: Professor, Ukrainian Catholic University, Lviv
Don Jensen: Senior fellow, Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins University SAIS
Adrian Karatnycky: Senior fellow and co-director, Ukraine in Europe Program, Atlantic Council
Richard Kauzlarich: Former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and Bosnia and Herzegovina
Jamie Kirchick: Fellow, Foreign Policy Initiative
Evgeni Kiselev: Journalist
Igor Klyamkin: Vice president, Liberal Mission Foundation
Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: Executive director, Yalta European Strategy; board member, Ukraine Crisis Media Center
Jim Kolbe: Senior transatlantic fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States
A.F. Kolodii: Professor, dr., chair of political science and philosophy, Lviv Regional Institute of Public Administration; National Academy of Public Administration under the president of Ukraine
David J. Kramer: President, Freedom House
Robert McConnell: McConnell & Associates
Michael McFaul: Stanford University
Oleksiy Melnyk: Director, Foreign Relations and International Security Programmes, Razumkov Centre
Marie Mendras: Sciences Po
Leigh Merrick: British DA Kyiv; director, NATO Liaison Office in Ukraine, 1995-2003
Wess Mitchell: President, CEPA
Alberto Mora: 2014 advanced leadership fellow, Harvard University
Julia Mostovaya: Editor in chief, Zerkalo Nedeli
Alex Motyl: Rutgers University-Newark
Josh Muravcik: Fellow at Johns Hopkins University SAIS
James Nixey: Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House
Craig Oliphant: Foreign Policy Centre
Lesya Orobets: Member of parliament of Ukraine; secretary to Foreign Affairs Committee
Inna Pidluska: Deputy executive director, International Renaissance Foundation
Arch Puddington: Vice president for research, Freedom House
Anatoly Rachok: Director general, Razumkov Centre
Roy Reeve: Former British ambassador to Ukraine
Georgii Satarov: President of INDEM
Oleh Shamshur: Former Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
James Sherr: Associate fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House
Andriy Shevchenko: MP; first deputy chairman, Human Rights Committee, Kiev
Lilia Shevtsova: Senior associate, Carnegie Moscow Center
Yuriy Shveda: Associate professor, Lviv Ivan Franko National University
Roland Smith: Former British ambassador to Ukraine
Maria Snegovaya: Columnist, Vedomosti
Oleksandr Sushko: Research director, Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, Kiev
William B. Taylor: Former ambassador to Ukraine; vice president, Middle East and Africa, United States Institute of Peace
Ed Verona: Senior advisor, McLarty Associates; former president, U.S.-Russia Business Council
Melanne Verveer: Former U.S. ambassador for global women’s issues
Kurt Volker: Executive director, McCain Institute
Christopher Walker: Executive director, International Forum for Democratic Studies, National Endowment for Democracy
Morgan Williams: U.S.-Ukraine Business Council
Michael Weiss: Editor in chief, The Interpreter; fellow, Institute of Modern Russia
Sir Andrew Wood: Associate fellow, Chatham House; former British ambassador to Russia
Yuriy Yakymenko: Deputy director general - director of political and legal programs, Razumkov Centre, Kiev
Walter Zaryckyj: Center for U.S.-Ukrainian Relations
Josef Zissels: Chairman, Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine; head, Congress of Ethnic Communities of Ukraine
Note: Organizations, where listed, are for identification purposes only.
"Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall," Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby.
It's true: Fall is a time of renewal. Labor Day comes and goes, and things suddenly feel, even in the lagging heat of late summer, fresh.
School starts again. TV shows, dormant for the summer months, start again. Football games, professional and less so, start again. Tans fade; hair gets cut; doctors get visited; jackets and scarves come out of winter hiding. September issues, of magazines both fashion and non-, ask us to get serious about things again. Summer ends, and life takes on its familiar rhythms and routines. While spring is the season of physical rebirth—flowers blooming, snow clearing, mates mating—fall is the season of cultural rebirth.
What better time, then, to make resolutions for self-improvement? Autumn resolutions, let's call them.
The main reason these are better than the traditional, January 1 variety is that they're more natural, more organic. New Year's resolutions are notoriously hard to keep, in part because we can be overly ambitious about them, but also because a new calendar year is fairly arbitrary as a start date for new-habit-formation. Nothing much distinguishes January 1 from December 31, except maybe a morning headache. Calendars have a brute logic. They have boxes rather than rhythms.
Fall, on the other hand, is a natural time of year—to get healthier, to get smarter, to get better. You could have autumn resolutions in place of, or in addition to, the New Year's versions. (One advantage of the latter? As mental health expert Brooke Randolph told Shape: “While you are likely to let some habits slide a bit during the holidays, it will be much easier to get things back on track in January if you have already established the habit throughout the autumn months.")
We may no longer attend school; still, its cycles stick with us. We're all, on some level, going back to school now. Why not take full advantage of that?
Labor Day online specials at Walmart this year “celebrate hard work with big savings.” For brick-and-mortar shoppers near my home in Chicago, several Walmart stores are open all 24 hours of Labor Day. Remember, this is a company so famously anti-union that it shut down a Canadian store rather than countenance the union its workers had just voted in. The fact that Walmart “celebrates” Labor Day should draw laughter, derision, or at least a few eye-rolls.
But it doesn’t—or at least not many. Somewhere along the line, Labor Day lost its meaning. Today the holiday stands for little more than the end of summer and the start of school, weekend-long sales, and maybe a barbecue or parade. It is no longer political. Many politicians and commentators do their best to avoid any mention of organized labor when observing the holiday, maybe giving an obligatory nod to that abstract entity, “the American Worker.”
Labor Day, though, was meant to honor not just the individual worker, but what workers accomplish together through activism and organizing. Indeed, Labor Day in the 1880s, its first decade, was in many cities more like a general strike—often with the waving red flag of socialism and radical speakers critiquing capitalism—than a leisurely day off. So to really talk about this holiday, we have to talk about those-which-must-not-be-named: unions and the labor movement.
The labor movement fought for fair wages and to improve working conditions, as is well known, but it was its political efforts that did nothing less than transform American society. Organized labor was critical in the fight against child labor and for the eight-hour workday and the New Deal, which gave us Social Security and unemployment insurance. Union workers sacrificed in America’s historic production effort in World War II and pushed for Great Society legislation in the 1960s. Michael Patrick, a former local Machinists president from Galesburg, Illinois, where I’ve done research, cites his union’s support for Medicare and the Civil Rights Act, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, as among his local’s proudest moments.
These were victories that went well beyond the bread-and-butter issues of union members. They were shared achievements worthy of a national holiday for all. As Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor, wrote in the New York Times in 1910, Labor Day “glorifies no armed conflicts or battles of man’s prowess over man… no martial glory or warlike pomp signals Labor Day.” Rather, “Of all the days celebrated for one cause or another, there is not one which stands so conspicuously for social advancement of the common people as the first Monday in September.”
Those shared victories came at a cost. Agitation for anti-trust legislation, shorter workdays and workweeks, and the right to organize was often portrayed as un-American and violently repressed. In 1914, John Kirby, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, called the trade union movement, “an un-American, illegal, and infamous conspiracy.” Anti-labor employers fought against what they saw as incipient communism with strikebreaking, blacklisting, vigilante violence, and by enlisting government force to their side. During the Red Scare of 1919-1921, many states passed blanket sedition laws against radical speech and banned the flying of the red flag. The fiery but pragmatic president of the United Mine Workers, John L. Lewis, spoke to the overwhelming patriotism of union men and women when he said to a Senate Committee in 1933, “American labor stand[s] between the rapacity of the robber barons of industry of America and the lustful rage of the communists, who would lay waste to our traditions and our institutions with fire and sword.”
Labor Day began not as a national holiday but in the streets, when, on September 5, 1882, thousands of bricklayers, printers, blacksmiths, railroad men, cigar makers, and others took a day off and marched in New York City. “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will” read one sign. “Labor creates all wealth,” read another. A placard in the following year’s parade read, “We must Crush the Monopolies Lest they Crush Us.” The movement for the holiday grew city by city and eventually the state and federal authorities made it official.
The national holiday emerged 12 years later in the face of a federal crackdown on labor. In 1894, at the behest of railroad companies and industrialists, President Grover Cleveland deployed more than 10,000 U.S. Army troops to break the Pullman strike in Chicago—the first truly nationwide strike, which involved more than 150,000 workers from coast to coast. Protesters were jailed, injured, and killed. Amid the turmoil that summer, and as an olive branch, Cleveland signed legislation to make Labor Day a national holiday.
Eugene Debs, the leader of the Pullman strike, dismissed the corporate paternalism of industrialist George Pullman, who sought to take care of “our poor workingmen.” The real issue, Debs said, was “What can we do for ourselves?” This—the labor movement's foundational values of self-determination and self-reliance—is what makes Labor Day a quintessentially American celebration.
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Perhaps the main reason Labor Day’s meaning has been lost amid picnics and holiday sales is the decline of unions. Union membership across the country has shrunk to less than one in eight (35.3 percent among public-sector workers and just 6.7 percent among private-sector workers in 2013) from nearly one in four throughout the 1970s. As membership declined, so did public support. According to a just-released Gallup tracking poll, a slim majority of Americans approve of labor unions—down from as high as three out of four in the booming postwar years.
In the global, post-industrial era, industrial unions have less clout, and public-sector unions face well-resourced attacks from the right. In some cases, unions have left themselves open to criticism by retreating to the bread-and-butter concerns of its membership like wages and benefits, and by not embracing change, continuous reform and accountability, and an expansive vision of shared progress. Important new campaigns, though, are underway in retail stores like Walmart, in the tobacco fields and slaughterhouses where immigrants toil, and in charter schools where idealistic young teachers soon enough realize that they need a collective voice in the workplace to be treated and paid like professionals.
Shoppers this weekend could hardly be blamed for going to Walmart for the latest feather-light flatscreen television from China or Mexico—I’ll admit I’m dazzled by the low prices and pixel counts too. Or, better, people could go to Costco, where workers make about twice the Walmart wage, and don’t have to rely on federal benefits like food stamps and Medicaid (which, according to Americans for Tax Fairness, cost taxpayers $6.2 billion a year). In addition, Costco lets its workers unionize while Walmart instructs managers to report union activity or grumblings about wages to the company’s “Labor Relations Hotline.”
Holiday shoppers will have to wait until Tuesday, though, because Costco is closed on Labor Day. Its workers are where they should be—at the family barbecue or the parade, celebrating our national holiday.
Most of us in the West are liberals, whether we admit it or not. We want equal rights for all, reject racial differences, cherish the freedom of worship while preserving the freedom to disagree, and seek an economic order that suits the ambitions of the individual. But there’s a growing sense that liberalism isn’t delivering at home and that it’s not as popular as we think it ought to be in the developing world. The problem is that hubris has blinded its defenders to the crisis consuming liberalism’s identity, leaving them unable or unwilling, to respond to pressing challenges around the world.
Twenty-five years ago this summer, Francis Fukuyama announced the “end of history” and the inevitable triumph of liberal capitalist democracy. His argument was simple: Democracy would win out over all other forms of government because the natural desire for peace and well-being set nations on a path to progress from which it was impossible to divert. If a state—even a Communist state—wished to enjoy the greatest prosperity possible, it would have to embrace some measure of capitalism. Since wealth-creation depends on the protection of private property, the “capitalist creep” would invariably demand greater legal protection for individual rights.
As many critics pointed out, Fukuyama’s logic was a bit too reminiscent of the pseudo-Hegelian historical determinism that Marxists and Fascists deployed to disastrous effect earlier in the 20th century, but when his article appeared in The National Interest, it was hard to disagree with him. The Berlin Wall was about to fall, the Soviet Union was collapsing, and the world was clamoring for the consumerist boom in an orgy of free-market excitement. Everything seemed to suggest that only liberal capitalist democracy allowed people to thrive in an increasingly globalized world, and that only the steady advance of laissez-faire economics would guarantee a future of free, democratic states, untroubled by want and oppression and living in peace and contentment.
Today, it’s hard to imagine Fukuyama being more wrong. History isn’t over and neither liberalism nor democracy is ascendant. The comfy Western consensus he inspired is under threat in ways he never predicted. A new Cold War has broken out. China’s “Marxist capitalism” suggests you can have wealth without freedom. And the advance of ISIS may herald a new, state-oriented Islamic fundamentalism.
But most disturbingly, the connection between capitalism, democracy, and liberalism upon which Fukuyama’s argument depended has itself been broken. In the wake of the credit crunch and the global economic downturn, it has become increasingly clear that prosperity is not, in fact, best served either by the pursuit of laissez-faire economics or by the inexorable extension of economic freedoms. Indeed, quite the opposite. As Thomas Piketty argues in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, free markets have not only enlarged the gap between rich and poor, but have also reduced average incomes across the developed and developing worlds. In the countries hardest hit by the recession—such as Greece and Hungary—voters have turned away from precisely that conception of liberalism that Fukuyama believed they would embrace with open arms. Across Europe, economic interventionism, nationalism, and even open racism have exerted a greater attraction for those casting their democratic votes than the causes of freedom, deregulation, and equality before the law. Liberal capitalist democracy hasn’t triumphed. Instead, the failures of capitalism have turned democracy against liberalism. In turn, liberalism’s intellectual self-identity has been left in tatters.
Sensing that Fukuyama’s titanic argument has hit something of an iceberg, liberal theorists have desperately been trying to keep the ship afloat. A raft of books have hit the shelves trying to breathe new life into liberalism, amongst which Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual and Edmund Fawcett’s Liberalism: The Life of an Idea stand out. Both accept that Fukuyama’s hubris has been exposed by recent events, and are under no illusions about the challenges that liberalism faces. But instead of addressing those challenges head-on they have turned to the past for solace and validation. By labeling an arbitrary set of ideals “liberal” and trying to demonstrate how they have supposedly triumphed over all challengers down the centuries, they seek to craft a new historical narrative capable of “proving” the inherent righteousness of liberalism. Since “liberal” ideas have always triumphed, Siedentop and Fawcett argue, they are manifestly right, and while things might not be working out so well now, the logic of history shows that they will prevail in the end.
Leaders across the political spectrum have been quick to adopt this form of historical determinism. In Britain, David Cameron’s center-right government is proudly liberal, and has not been afraid to use history to mold the next generation of voters into an appropriately liberal form. Earlier this year, his former education minister, Michael Gove, tried to recast the First World War as an example of liberal values triumphing over Germany’s proto-fascism, and as “proof” of the undoubted righteousness of the sort of militant liberalism that neoconservatives adore. Closer to home, Hillary Clinton—now in the first stages of a barely denied run for the White House—has adapted a similar outlook in the realm of foreign policy. Looking back at the great ideal of America as established by the Founding Fathers through rose-tinted spectacles, she has subtly distanced herself from Barack Obama’s cautious realism abroad and instead used discrete references to the past to justify aggressively exporting liberal values across the globe as often as possible. Given that history has “proved” how great liberalism was in previous battles against tyranny, the argument goes, liberalism will inevitably win out if we pick enough fights and put enough muscle behind it.
But while this new liberal historicism may have a certain rhetorical appeal, it fails to convince. Instead of recognizing the weakness of Fukuyama’s original approach, Siedentop, Fawcett, Cameron, and Clinton have simply dusted down the same old historical determinism, just without the economics. It isn’t any more convincing than when Fukuyama tried it.
It was the great liberal philosopher Karl Popper who first exposed the weaknesses of historicism as a mode of political justification in his devastating critique of Marxist and fascist determinism. It is ironic that his arguments now apply to the liberalism he sought to defend. Following Popper’s argument, it’s easy to see at least two fundamental logical problems with the historicist approach to liberalism. First is the claim that anyone in the past who expressed any degree of egalitarianism or concern for individual conscience is a liberal. The idea that there is a straight line of human progress that leads from Saint Paul through Luther, the Philosophes, and Lloyd George to Jack Kennedy is patently absurd: They all had different definitions of freedom and what it ought to accomplish. Second, the idea that there is a “historical law” guiding the development of societies is fanciful. Even if there were some weird sort of pattern which suggested that “liberal” ideas did indeed “win out” in the past, it wouldn’t be anything more than a mere curiosity. It wouldn’t prove anything about liberalism in itself, nor would it say anything about the future. It would just tell us what happened before. To read meaning or predictive power into any pattern in the past is, in fact, about as intellectually respectable as reading tea leaves.
As the weaknesses of the new liberal historicists’ arguments show, liberalism is struggling to recover from its post-Fukuyama malaise because its defenders are just being too lazy. Siedentop, Fawcett, Cameron, and Clinton seem to assume that everyone with an ounce of sanity must be a liberal, and that there is hence no need to defend liberalism against its shortcomings. But no amount of retrospective back-patting will convince those who simply don’t think the same way. It’s no wonder, given their intellectual arrogance, that so many liberals are surprised when large parts of the world rejects them—or that people spurn their wise counsel when markets collapse and life savings are threatened by the accidents of free-market capitalism.
If liberalism is to survive and flourish, it has to be rescued from Fukuyama’s grasp and from the perils of historical determinism. It has to be defined and defended all over again. This of course raises the question of what liberalism actually is—and it’s notable that so many liberals skip this step in debate as though it was unimportant. In a recent issue of Foreign Policy dedicated exclusively to reevaluating Fukuyama’s legacy, the unresolved problem of “the liberal identity” was conspicuous by its absence. Article after article foundered in their attempts to defend liberal alternatives to populism or socialism precisely because they offered no satisfactory post-Fukuyama understanding of liberalism. But it is impossible to defend liberalism against its critics without making it clear precisely what it stands for. Skeptics can hardly be won over if liberals can’t tell them what they are being won over to or how it differs from the uninspiring mess created by Fukuyama and his continuators.
Surrounded by the confused, jargon-ridden babble of political commentators today, it is perhaps easy to forget that liberalism is defined by a commitment to liberty. At root, liberty is a concept grounded in the individual. It is the freedom to be all that one is, to actualize the fullness of one’s potential as a human being endowed with the capacity for creativity and the ability to make autonomous value judgments for ourselves.
It is, of course, true that liberty can be read many ways. As Isaiah Berlin observed, there is positive liberty, the freedom to do something; and there is negative liberty, the freedom from something; and depending on circumstances, one or the other can appear to be of greater importance. But while this distinction has tended to dominate debates in political philosophy since the Second World War, it is perhaps more useful to think back to the writings of Voltaire and the earliest Encyclopédistes and to remind ourselves that liberty in its purest form—both positive and negative—can be thought of as the realization of man’s inherent dignity as a human being.
This is more than just a matter of high-flown words. The concept of human dignity has two important implications, both of which were recognized by Cicero as far back as the first century B.C. but seem to have been forgotten today. The first is that we all share the same degree of dignity: No one has any less potential than any other, and no one’s humanity is any less pronounced than anyone else’s. The second is that our humanity imposes upon us the same basic needs. By virtue of our nature, we all require food, shelter, clothing, security, and a range of other basic goods necessary for sufficiency and survival. Though deceptively simple, these implications have profound meaning when we consider how individual liberty is to be translated into a social and political construct. If the liberty of each person is to be maintained and maximized, the principles of equity and the common good must be embedded in the structure of society. And since society is structured above all by law, the law must reflect these precepts. To have liberty is hence to live according to laws grounded on equity and the common good; and where law deviates to even the smallest degree from either, it necessarily becomes the instrument of private or factional interests, and liberty is lost.
Such liberty is, however, dependent upon the morality of the citizenry, especially those in office. While law may structure society, it is only the will of governors and people that gives it its character and force. It is only if everyone recognizes the dignity of the human person that they will recognize the inherent value of equity and the common good, and strive to defend and preserve not only their own liberty, but also that of all others in their society using law. As soon as the commitment to human dignity breaks down, society becomes a jungle in which it is everyone for himself; self-interest dominates, law becomes partial, and tyranny supplants liberty.
In short, a liberal politics must be a moral politics. Liberalism will not work if too much emphasis is placed on total human autonomy at the expense of all others, nor if it is obsessed with materialism and consumerism. In contrast to the Fukuyama model of yoking liberal values to economic self-interest—a combination that, when given free rein, has often damaged society at large in recent years—a model that emphasizes human dignity allows for a more positive, relevant kind of politics that constantly struggles to assert itself. Instead of encouraging us to rest easy in the assurance that liberalism will certainly triumph, a conception of liberty based on human dignity recognizes that there is nothing inevitable about its success. While each of us may wish to be free as an individual, it shows that individual freedom is dependent on us all being free; and that means that we all have to cling to our shared humanity, our shared dignity.
If liberalism has a future, therefore, it lies not in Fukuyama’s shattered determinism or the more recent liberal historicism of Siedentop, Fawcett, and Clinton, but in each of us. It lies not in economics, or the tides of history. It lies in the recognition of the worthiness of humanity itself.
As a reminder, this is No. 10 in a series on the proposed north-south California High-Speed Rail system, which deserves national attention as the highest-stakes infrastructure project underway anywhere in America now. (Although someone from Philadelphia just wrote to say: Uncle! What we really need is HSR from the East Coast through to the Midwest. I know what he's talking about, but I'll leave that to someone else.) For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, and No. 9.
The previous entry was very long and detailed—it was a reply by Dan Richard, the chairman of California's High-Speed Rail Authority, to an extensive set of criticisms. This one is short and thematic. It comes from a veteran of a Federal agency, and it concerns the larger question of how to think about projects that will take decades to unfold, and whose implications are by definition unknowable when the choice about whether to proceed, or not, is made. Let's turn it over to the former Federal administrator:
I am spurred to write by [a previous] post devoted to critics of HSR. I don’t know whether it’s a good idea or not, but I do have a long memory and an interest in technological innovation.
- Remember the super-sonic transport. In the 1960’s we knew all long flights would take place at supersonic speed. It was obvious, until it wasn’t.
- Remember the ship the United States. In the 50’s we were very proud that the US had taken the trans-Atlantic speed record back from the Brits. The granddaughter of the designer is desperately trying to preserve the ship.
- There’s always cost-overruns on big projects, always.
- The HSR is building for the future, and the transportation and economic environment in which it will be tested will be quite different than today’s. For example, one disadvantage of rail and air is the hassle of renting a car on the other end. True enough today, but 20 years from now things like Uber and the driverless car may have made owning a car a rarity and renting a car the rule, which would impact the economics and convenience of HSR.
- Simply acquiring the right of way may become significant in unexpected ways. The railroad magnates of the past didn’t realize that some of their rights of way would be used for fiber optic cable. And they didn’t realize they needed a bigger rail tunnel in Baltimore and a double-tracked tunnel in DC.
Bottomline: The decision on HSR is going to shape the future in ways we can’t predict, and a touch of modesty in the arguments would be welcome.
I agree. What makes decisions like this important is that people will be living with their consequences a century from now. An overstatement? Everything about today's California life is conditioned by decisions about its freeway network made 60-plus years ago, and by the decision to tear up the Southern California light-rail network in the decades before that. Along the Eastern seaboard, in parts of the Midwest, and in the Plains, the U.S. rail network of the early 20th century has an obvious effect on where and how people live, work, and travel in the early 21st.
The long shadow of major infrastructure choices is also what makes such decisions difficult. We must choose among options whose consequences we can't fully anticipate. More on how we make such choices, still ahead.
What does the notion that “cat videos will save journalism” have in common with the claim that “women are sexual predators?”
According to the organizers of this weekend's Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) at the Sydney Opera House in Australia, these ideas are both dangerous. The festival, which just wrapped up its sixth installment, offers a roster of speakers on topics that could alternately be described as gently counterintuitive or, in the words of co-curator Simon Longstaff, “offensive, obnoxious, fearsome, [or] dangerously stupid.”
And while even journalists don't tend to seek shelter at the sight of a cat video, what makes all of these ideas “dangerous” to the festival’s organizers is their potential to challenge. “The original intention was to look at things that are difficult to discuss and are not discussed, that go against mainstream thought and opinion,” co-curator Ann Mossop tells me from Sydney. These can include big ideas about freedom, life, and death, or ideas that challenge everyday behavior by arguing, for example, that recycling is basically a waste of time. An idea could pose danger to any number of targets, be they a set of beliefs, an industry, or the very structure of society. But the organizers have stressed that they aren’t seeking to generate physical danger: “There has not been one incident in which the entanglement with dangerous ideas has got out of control or threatened the welfare of the audience or our wider society,” Longstaff wrote this summer. “This is despite speakers at FODI offering a range of ideas with the capacity to appall and revolt.”
But what’s the point of curating ideas with such a capacity? Why go to an appalling lecture and why buy tickets to a festival offering a variety of different ways to feel revolted? Longstaff explained: “Our objective in presenting dangerous ideas is not that these ideas be promoted or adopted, but simply that they be encountered and, thus, assessed on their merits. … We believe that ideas of all kinds are best exposed to the light of reason and discernment.”
In other words: The ideas will exist without the festival, so we might as well have an orderly process for looking into them.
Still, one man’s dangerous idea is another man’s conventional orthodoxy, as Longstaff acknowledged. “We knew that, for some people, some of the ideas would be innocuous—there is, after all, no danger in ideas with which you agree,” he wrote. The talk that kicked off the first festival five years ago was a case in point. Christopher Hitchens’s keynote address, “Religion Poisons Everything,” was provocatively packaged, but the content likely didn’t shock most of the young urban liberals who, according to Mossop, buy many of the tickets to the festival in the first place. Hitchens’s 2009 FODI talk took place five years after the publication of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, one of the founding works of the so-called New Atheist movement that Hitchens came to represent. The book was unthreatening enough to spend 33 weeks on the New York Times paperback best-seller list.
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This year’s program featured Kajsa Ekis Ekman, a Swedish activist and journalist with the dangerous idea that, as her Saturday talk was titled, “Surrogacy is Child Trafficking.” She has her own perspective on what makes an idea dangerous, for good or ill. “Fascism is, of course, a dangerous idea,” she tells me. “And I think not all dangerous ideas are good or should be let loose in that sense. … But then again I would say that there are also ideas that are dangerous in the good way, because they stimulate you to question everything that you’ve taken for granted, and especially ideas that question the existing economic and social order.”
Australians have had occasion to question the practice of child surrogacy in recent weeks as the story of “Baby Gammy” has unfolded in the national and international media. A 21-year-old surrogate in Thailand gave birth to Gammy and his twin sister Pipah on behalf of an Australian couple early this year. But when Gammy was born with Down syndrome, his parents reportedly took his healthy twin sister to Australia and left Gammy behind with the surrogate. The case has brought new attention to the trade of paid surrogacy, which is illegal in many countries, including Australia. But couples from all over the world hire surrogates in countries where doing so is legal or loosely regulated, as it is in the U.S., India, Thailand, Mexico, and Ukraine. “All of a sudden, this is a huge issue here,” Mossop says.
And Ekman’s critique of the practice is certainly provocative. The title of her talk emphasizes “trafficking” in children, but her main argument against commercial surrogacy is that it resembles prostitution; they are two industries, she says, “that sell the female body in different ways.” Whereas prostitution promotes sex without reproduction, surrogacy promotes reproduction without sex, Ekman argues. Both employ large numbers of poor women. “How come in prostitution and surrogacy you need to actually go to all these poor countries and fool people into it? I mean that tells you something also about the nature of the job,” Ekman says. “In one way [surrogacy is] worse, because it doesn’t take 15 minutes and you can forget about it.”
“If you’re somebody who has had a child through some kind of surrogacy and somebody’s saying to you, you’re the equivalent of a human trafficker, it’s very confronting,” Mossop says. “Because it goes to these primal … very strong feelings that people have about having children, people find it quite threatening.”
Which is part of the point. The Festival of Dangerous Ideas is “not really designed to offend,” Mossop says. But offense is practically baked into the conceit of systematically challenging deeply held beliefs specifically because they are deeply held. Mossop notes that last year’s program included a speaker who was a twice-convicted killer speaking about the effects of incarceration. “This was obviously something people thought was absolutely outrageous,” she says. Speakers in previous years have articulated moral justifications for torturing terrorists and flogging prisoners.
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Talks like these have inspired boycotts of the festival; still, ticket sales have risen steadily, more than tripling from 8,000 in 2009 to around 25,000 this year, according to Mossop. But this year marked the first time that an event had to be canceled because of controversy. The original schedule included a talk by the Muslim activist Uthman Badar titled “Honor Killings Are Morally Justified.” A public backlash ensued within hours of the agenda's release in June. “It is a truly dangerous idea,” Australia’s Minister for Women Pru Goward told Australian radio at the time. “We have millions and millions of women in the world who fear honor killings.” A statement from the Sydney Opera House blamed the talk’s title for the backlash, saying it did not represent Badar’s views—he had intended to discuss how the notion of “honor” is used to justify killing in any number of circumstances, including war. But the curators canceled the talk the same day, citing the level of public outrage. More specifically, Mossop tells me: “You cannot put a speaker in a situation where they’re going to confront that. And the whole thing had become such a distraction from what he really wanted to talk about.”
So is it packaging that makes an idea dangerous? Absent provocative lecture titles, would the event have to be rebranded the Sydney Festival of Unusual Perspectives? And what would that do to ticket sales? “There is an imperative to make a festival have an impact … and project a sense of excitement," Mossop says. "But certainly we know that we have to think that the titles may travel on their own with no context.”
The Badar episode, Ekman notes, indicates the risks of trying to get attention for ideas in an era of Twitter outrage. “You’re always at this fine line, because if you’re just, you know, not provoking anyone, nobody’s going to hear about you,” she says. “But if you go too far, you are called … homophobic, racist, sexist, transphobic … and all of a sudden you’ve crossed a line, apparently."
With unprecedented ease in spreading ideas comes an imperative to watch what you say, at a time when retweets have career-destroying power, Ekman says. "I think that in itself is dangerous.”
Scientifically speaking, eyes are not the windows to the soul; they’re the windows to the brain. When you gaze into your lover’s peepers, what you’re actually seeing is the retina, an extension of brain tissue that lines the back of the eyes like wallpaper. This paper-thin strip of cells is what makes the miracle of sight possible. At this very moment, your retina is performing a kind of sensory alchemy, taking in rays of light and seamlessly transforming them into the language of the brain. And voila: vision.
What happens when this key conversion doesn’t take place? Lisa Kulik found out the answer in 1981, when she went in for a routine eye exam. Kulik had been having a little trouble seeing at night—nothing she was too concerned about. Then her eye doctor found dark spots on her retina.
Kulik had retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that affects 1 in every 4,000 Americans, according to the National Eye Institute. In retinitis pigmentosa, almost all of the eye’s circuitry remains intact—all but the crucial, light-absorbing cells of the retina. These slowly begin dying off, like stars winking out into the night. Without them, visual signals never make it to the brain.
Over the next 15 years, Kulik’s vision gradually deteriorated. She had to give up her job as a veterinarian’s assistant, forfeit her driver’s license, and finally, retire completely. Yet even after her world went fully dark, Kulik, now 54, remained hopeful. “When they diagnosed me, they told me there was no cure for it,” she says now. “That didn’t stop me. I knew someday, something was going to come along.”
In 2012, something did. Kulik’s husband was scanning news on his smartphone and came across something that sounded too good to be true: a report describing a medical device that promised to restore sight to those with Kulik’s disease. It was called the Argus II. He found the phone number for the company that was developing the device, called Second Sight.
Kulik called the number the next day, and was told that she would receive a call back when the Argus II gained FDA approval. “It was the first light of hope that something could help,” she says.
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For centuries, scientists have marveled at the eye’s seemingly inexplicable complexity. Charles Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species: “To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.” (Still, he went on to postulate just such an explanation: that a very simple eye first evolved and, through natural selection, progressed in gradations.)
The Argus II works not by seeking to replicate that complexity, but by tapping into the eye’s natural abilities. It bridges the gap between visual signal and brain—or, as Mark Humayun, the Argus’ creator and an opthamologist at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, puts it: “The software speaks in the biological language.” The device relies on a small video camera affixed to a pair of sunglasses, which sends visual data to an electrode-covered microchip implanted at the back of the eye. The electrodes stand in for the damaged retinal cells, transmitting electrical signals straight to the optic nerve. The user receives the information in the form of a 60-pixel, black-and-white image.
Humayun likes to compare the Argus II to VISOR, a fictional device in Star Trek: Next Generation worn by Geordi La Forge that similarly scans the electromagnetic spectrum and sends signals to the optic nerve. In fact, Humayun had come up with the idea for the Argus 10 years before the show aired, motivated by watching his grandmother lose her vision due to complications related to diabetes. “There wasn’t anything that could be done,” he says. “It made me reconsider my path in medicine.”
At the time, his design sounded far-fetched. The closest analog was the cochlear implant, which similarly converts sound into electrical impulses that the brain can understand. But Humayun’s undertaking had its own challenges. First, complexity: the ear has 30,000 hair cells, whereas the eye has 1 million ganglion cells, which translate light into pixels. Secondly, it would require implanting an electronic device into the most delicate part of the eye, the retina, where it would be subject to dislodging during the rapid eye movement part of sleep.
Twenty years and $200 million from private and public investors later, the Argus II became the first FDA-approved visual prosthesis available for commercial implant in February of last year. Nearly 80 people have had it implanted worldwide.
In early 2013, Kulik got a call back from Second Sight. She would be the third commercial patient in the U.S., and the first on the West Coast.
* * *
Last July, Kulik flew from Arizona down to USC for a series of eye tests. In the end, Kulik was chosen not only because she fit the requirements—her blindness had to be severe enough that she could benefit from the device—but also because of her optimism and dedication to learning how to use the Argus II, said Lisa Olmos de Koo, the eye surgeon at USC who performed the procedure.
It took nearly a year for Kulik’s private insurance to agree to cover the $150,000 device. Finally, in June of this year, Kulik went under the knife.
First, Olmos de Koo peeled back the outermost layer of the eye, the conjunctiva. Next she wrapped a silicon belt around the eye’s circumference, behind the eye muscles. To reach the back of the eye, she broke up the vitreous, the jelly-like substance that fills the eye, suctioned it out and replaced it with a saline solution. Then came the hard part: she had to place the electrode chip so that it fell squarely into the center of the retina. “You don’t get another chance,” Olmos de Koo says. She tacked the chip in place and hoped for the best.
A few days later, Kulik turned on the device. At first she could only see dramatic contrast: the edges of sidewalks, the steak on her plate at dinner (she still can’t make out rice). “A lot of people think I’m going to put it on and ‘Wow, you’re going to see again.’ It’s nothing like that,” she says. “The contrast is easy, but trying to figure out shapes and letters—I need to work on that more. It’s definitely a whole new way of learning how to see.”
* * *
Humayun dreams of more than just 60 pixels. He wants to fine-tune the resolution of the device so that it can be used for those with macular degeneration, a far more common cause of blindness that affects more than 2 million Americans, according to Prevent Blindness America. That challenge will be “more than just going from two to eight megapixels,” he says. “It’s like going from a train to a plane.”
Yet no matter how much Humayun improves it, there are some things the Argus II will never achieve. For instance, color. That would require wiring each electrode to one of the eye’s matching colored cones—an impossible feat. And the device still requires a user to have an intact optic nerve and other structures of the eye to convey its messages to the brain, a caveat that rules out many other forms of blindness.
In other words, the very brilliance that makes the Argus II possible is also its limitation. The device is a “good stop-gap,” Robert Greenberg, founder and CEO of Second Sight, said in a 2013 interview. But “with these implants, we’re not fixing the disease, we’re bypassing the damaged part.”
Some put it more bluntly. “Right now, we’re just poking the retina,” says Dr. Theodore Leng, an eye surgeon at Stanford University who specializes in retinal surgery. To truly restore a natural sense of sight, Leng says, we will have to break the neural code, the way light is processed to become an image in the brain. If scientists could do that, they could skip the eye entirely and stimulate the brain directly to produce sight. “We’re only scratching the surface as far as trying to replicate visual function,” Leng says.
But between increasing the resolution and breaking neural code, it may be possible for those who were once blind to see faces, landscapes, animals and other objects in “the realm of normal image representation,” Sheila Nirenberg, a neuroscientist at Cornell University, wrote in a 2012 paper.
“Understanding the code is really, really important,” Nirenberg said in a 2011 TED Talk. “If we can understand the code, the language of the brain, things become possible that didn’t seem obviously possible before.”
Still, for some, 60 pixels is enough. This July 4, Kulik saw fireworks for the first time in more than a decade. Of course, they weren’t the same for her as they were for you or I; all she saw was thick and thin flashes of light against a black sky, “like dash-dash-dash,” as she puts it. “I knew what it was because it was flashing like crazy when I looked up.” But she wouldn’t soon forget the experience. “It was very, very exciting,” she says.
Kulik says that what she looks forward to most is regaining her sense of independence. “I know I’ll never drive again, but [I’ll] at least to get around to take a walk by myself, to get around by myself,” she says. And now, she can see her grandchildren.
On Friday, the United Nations reported that nearly half of Syria's population has been displaced since the start of the civil war in 2011. Half. It's the equivalent of 135 million Americans being forced to move.
Three million Syrians have become refugees abroad and 6.5 million more have fled their homes for other locations within the country (a group known as "internally displaced people," or IDPs)—all told, roughly 43 percent of Syria's pre-war population of 22 million. The study comes a week after the UN announced that almost 200,000 people have died in the conflict. It's the "biggest humanitarian emergency of our era," according to the UN's refugee agency.
Relative to the advance of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the war between Israel and Hamas, and the collapse of the Libyan government, the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria has received scant attention in recent months. But it's no less consequential a development in the region. What does it mean for a country's future when half its people are uprooted? What does it mean for Syria's neighbors, including Lebanon, which now has the highest proportion of refugees of any country in the world, and Jordan, which has taken in a comparable number of Syrian refugees to all of Canada moving to the U.S.?
In June, the UN reported that the Syrian war was largely responsible for the number of displaced people worldwide—defined as refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people—surpassing 50 million for the first time since World War II.
At the time, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty charted the number of forcibly displaced people around the world by their present location and country of origin (the figures include internally displaced people, which is why the map below doesn't change much when you toggle between "current location" and "place of origin").
Syria is easy to spot. It's the big, red dot at the center of the map.
Let us know what we missed.
Jon Stewart on Directorial Debut Rosewater, His Daily Show Future, and Those Israel-Gaza Comments
Marisa Guthrie | The Hollywood Reporter
"'Look, there's a lot of reasons why I hate myself — being Jewish isn't one of them,' Stewart says. 'So when someone starts throwing that around, or throwing around you're pro-terrorist, it's more just disappointing than anything else.'"
The Emmys as a Flat Circle: Why Last Night's Ceremony Felt Familiar
Andy Greenwald | Grantland
"What was lacking was any evidence of the nimbleness, speed, and gleeful chance-taking that led the majority of those tuxedoed orange people into that theater to begin with."
Christine Friar | The Hairpin
"One morning on my Sad Corporate Commute, 'Does He Love You?' came on shuffle and I either decided to give it another shot or didn’t realize it was from an album I’d decided not to like, and those opening lines. Hoo, baby."
"Are you a black woman? You might find this offensive. Are you a white woman? You might find this offensive. Are you neither? You might be thinking at this point that you're lucky to be left out of the entire thing."
I Was the Worst High School Quarterback Ever
Josh Keefe | Slate
"A quarterback who never wins a game is an inversion of everything the position represents. He is an illiterate valedictorian, a superhero who lets the bad guys destroy the universe."
Don't Be Silly, Hello Kitty Is a Cat
Brian Ashcraft | Kotaku
"Hello Kitty is not a house cat like Tom from Tom and Jerry. Well, Mickey Mouse isn't a mouse like Jerry, either. He can drive a car. Over the years, he's had various jobs. He even has a pet—a dog named Pluto. But, Mickey Mouse is indeed a mouse, just like Hello Kitty is a cat."
Tropes vs Anita Sarkeesian: On Passing Off Anti-Feminist Nonsense as Critique
Ian Steadman | The New Statesman
"It's easy to miss that, sometimes, the sum effect of those decisions can be that Assassin's Creed 2 ends up with a sequence where sex workers get their throats slit as a way of marking checkpoints. Pointing out how fucked up this is isn't tangential to experiencing games as art, it's necessary."
How to Reclaim the F-Word? Just Call Beyoncé
Jessica Bennett | Time
"No, you don’t have to like the way Beyoncé writhes around in that leotard—or the slickness with which her image is controlled—but whether you like it or not, she’s accomplished what feminists have long struggled to do: She’s reached the masses."
The Dissatisfied: To Leave or Not to Leave?
William Grimes | The New York Times
"The arts season now getting underway will, inevitably, include some less than stellar moments. Most audience members will suffer in silence. But a hardy few, invoking the implicit escape clause that comes with the price of admission, will walk out, for reasons as varied as the performances themselves."
Inside Dr. Seuss Inc.
Anna Russell | The Wall Street Journal
"While most children's publishing franchises fade after their heydays—remember Carolyn Haywood's Betsy and Eddie series?—Seuss keeps gaining in popularity."
A Great TV Experience in Person
Will Leitch | Sports on Earth
"Fans in the stands at football games, in this age of football basically propping up an otherwise staggered cable television industry, are there as ambiance, extras who actually pay the networks to serve as background."
The Troll Slayer
Rebecca Mead | The New Yorker
"In her quieter, private, remedial interactions with her critics—the late-night e-mails exchanged and the awkward conversations conducted over improbable lunches—[Mary] Beard has also demonstrated the potency of descending, inquiringly, from the podium."
It’s easy to assume that queer Americans are thriving today. A year out from the Supreme Court decision striking down DOMA, 55 percent of Americans favor legalizing same-sex marriage legalization—an all-time high. State bans continue to knock around the lower courts, Wisconsin’s and Indiana’s being the ones most recently scrutinized in federal appeals courts. Queer people, research shows, are happier in their marriages than heterosexuals; in the June 2013 Atlantic cover story, Liza Mundy explored the possibility that queer unions lend themselves more readily to relationship-sustaining egalitarianism by avoiding the potential marital pitfalls of sticking too strictly with traditional gender roles.
Yet a new Gallup poll investigating LGBT well-being shows that queers aren’t doing so well—especially women. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans report significantly lower well-being than non-LGBT Americans, averaging a well-being index score of 58 against straight citizens’ 62. Queer women widen the well-being divide more so than our gay male compatriots; with an index score of 57, lesbians and bi women notably lag behind straight women, who average a score of 63.
What’s getting us down?
It’s not that there’s no good news. In terms of sexual and romantic partnerships themselves, queer women seem to be doing just fine. In addition to fostering some successful marriages and being great parents, queer women have sex less frequently but for much longer durations than straight couples do. And a recent study from the Journal of Sexual Medicine reports that lesbians have more orgasms than literally everybody else, be they man or woman, straight or queer. (Take that, lesbian bed death!)
The biggest struggles for queer well-being appear, for the most part, to begin where our lived experiences play out in the wider world around us. That’s to say—most everything else we’ve got going on besides each other.
Financial woes loom particularly large. Queers are 10 percentage points less likely to consider themselves thriving financially than non-LGBT folks, queer women sporting a slightly higher average and queer men, slightly less. Same-sex couples’ vulnerability to poverty remains one of the most ubiquitous menaces to queer well-being, especially for queer women of color, trans women, and trans women of color. Impoverishment—fueled by factors from employment discrimination to inequitable health-care coverage to familial rejection resulting in homelessness—threatens to permanently entrench the community’s most marginalized members. One of many alarming statistics: Single LGBT adults raising children are three times more likely to live at or near the poverty line than their heterosexual counterparts.
While queer women and men alike take hard hits for financial well-being, across many other categories of the Gallup poll, queer women lag behind straight women where queer men do not lag behind straight men as much—or even at all.
Differences in physical well-being between straight and queer men, for example, are too small to be statistically significant; the overall deficit in physical well-being for the LGBTQ community at large is driven entirely by the low scores of queer women (24 percent to straight women’s 36 percent). Gallup indicates that reportedly high levels of smoking and drinking among lesbians and bi women could be a potential contributor to the discrepancy. I’ve seen from accompanying girlfriends on many a smoke break outside of bars how cigarettes and alcohol remain an obstinate fixture of queer girl culture.
Further, where queer men assess their communities with close to as much contentedness as straight men, queer women feel less connected to where they live than their straight female counterparts. Just 31 percent of queer women feel they are thriving in terms of community involvement, safety, and security, a full 9 percent less than straight women.
A recent national survey from Stop Street Harassment helps explain why queer women feel unsafe. The major finding—that two-thirds of American women have experienced street harassment at some point in their lives—is bolstered by two smaller key findings: Seven in 10 LGBT people have experienced street harassment by age 17, compared to 49 percent of straight people, and 41 percent of people of color say they experience street harassment regularly, compared to just a quarter of white people. Queer and trans people of color are the subsection at highest risk. Queer men report 9 percent more street harassment than heterosexual men, largely due to homophobic and transphobic slurs.
American women across the sexuality spectrum, however, are united in the frequency of their harassment in public spaces—86 percent have experienced an incident more than once—but they are not necessarily harassed equally in method, even as they are in measure. Walking around my city in short shorts in the August heat this summer, I identify with my straight female friends, since the unsolicited comments I receive are about my body, and what strange men on the street would like to do with it; straight women, especially femme-presenting ones, receive a slew of the same. But if I’m walking arm-in-arm with my girlfriend, I am conscious of being sexualized and even vilified by leering onlookers in a way my straight friends simply aren’t. “I have a boyfriend” is not a stratagem queer women can employ to dissuade aggressive strangers—quite the opposite; two women holding hands is often interpreted as an invitation.
The most depressing category of well-being is also perhaps too abstract to address directly: the substantial gap between queer and straight women who report a strong sense of purpose in life. When it comes to having an inspiring leader, daily activities, goals, and strengths, queer men and straight men are on the same page of satisfaction: 33 percent across both groups feel a thriving sense of purpose. Queer women, however, fare eight percentage points lower, at 32 percent, than straight women, at 40 percent. There’s no obvious supporting statistic to explain this; one hopes we will soon experience social shifts that will legitimize and celebrate queer womanhood—in politics, in media, in streets, and schools, and homes—so that more queer women can start feeling like they lead lives of value and beauty.
The Gallup poll shows that even in today’s cultural climate—which so often pumps out the narrative of same-sex marriage as the pot of gold at the end of the quest-for-queer-rights rainbow—queer Americans continue to battle a diverse array of demons. Sometimes, where queer men have found their footing, queer women remain set back. As bell hooks wrote, “There was never and is no simple homogenous gendered identity that we could call ‘women’.” By extension, there was never and still is no simple homogenous queered identity that we could call LGBTQ America.
How is it different to be poor—very poor—in a developing country than in the richest country in the world? That's the question asked in a new paper from Brookings researchers Laurence Chandy and Cory Smith.
To answer it, Chandy and Smith needed to know more about that very bottom of America's wealth distribution—those living below the global poverty line of $2 per day. Not so easy: In contrast with how well-documented, how legible, the lives of the richest Americans are, those of the poorest are opaque, having fallen between the cracks in researchers' databases. The poorest are "the least explored and understood part of the distribution."
But that's only true for rich countries. In the developing world, precisely the opposite is the case: In such places, they write, "tax systems are insufficiently developed to provide an accurate portrayal of the rich so the upper tail remains largely unknown; by contrast the concentration of incomes near zero means
that surveys capture the lower tail relatively well."
The result of this is that "we know least about the top of the distribution in poor countries and least about the bottom of the distribution in rich countries." Unfortunately, in America, that means we have the worst understanding of "those whose lives are most precarious."
I spoke with Chandy about their paper and why it's so important that we improve our understanding of the dynamics of poverty in America. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Rebecca Rosen: To start with, I know that your research typically looks at global poverty, particularly poverty in the developing world. What brought you to look at U.S. poverty? How does poverty here look to someone who spends his time thinking about poverty in much poorer countries?
Laurence Chandy: My co-author Cory Smith and I were drawn to this topic last summer after reading an excellent paper on U.S. poverty by Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin. Their report was the first to apply the $2 a day poverty line, a definition of poverty traditionally used in the developing world, to the U.S., and therefore to draw an analogy between the levels of destitution that prevail in these very different settings.
When Cory and I first heard about this paper, we were frankly quite dismissive. Our priors were that the depth of poverty was of an altogether different magnitude in developing countries, and that people who drew this kind of comparison were probably motivated by parochial ideas such as a desire to cut off foreign aid to poor countries. But after reading Luke and Kathryn’s paper, it was clear that this was a serious and careful piece of research by informed U.S. poverty scholars. Their paper motivated us to examine the topic ourselves, but to approach it from our perspective as analysts of global poverty.
R.R.: Can you tell readers a bit about their findings, and then how those findings look in a global context? How poor are the poorest Americans? Where do they fit in with the global picture?
L.C.: Well, the first and most striking finding of theirs was simply that $2-a-day poverty exists in the U.S. (Note that the official U.S. poverty line works out at around $16 per person per day, so we’re talking about people living at a tiny fraction of this threshold.) Luke and Kathryn focused their attention on families with children, and estimated that between one and five percent of these families lived under the $2 threshold, depending on whether a narrow or broad (i.e., including various benefits and tax credits) definition of income is used.
If we crudely compare this one-to-five-percent range with estimates of $2 poverty in the developing world, it ranks the U.S. among various middle-income countries: countries like Russia, West Bank and Gaza, Albania, Argentina. I would stress that such a comparison is indeed crude. To make a fair comparison, you would want to use a similar methodology for measuring poverty across these different settings.
One of the things we wanted to do in our paper was to attempt a more rigorous comparison. So we took the approach used by the World Bank to estimate poverty in developing countries and tried to replicate this as faithfully as possible using data from the U.S. Most importantly, this meant using a different data source than Luke and Kathryn—a survey of reported consumption as opposed to a survey of reported income. (Luke and Kathryn’s estimates drew from the Survey of Income and Program Participation, or SIPP; to replicate the Bank’s approach, we drew from the Consumer Expenditure Survey.)
When we did this, the estimate of $2-a-day poverty dropped all the way to zero. But this still left us with lots of questions: What did the range of estimates of $2 poverty in the U.S. tell us about how poverty is manifested differently in the U.S. and the developing world? And is the methodology used by the World Bank for estimating poverty in the developing world the best way to analyze the condition of America’s poorest people?
Different Estimates of a $2-a-Day Poverty Rate
R.R.: We see a lot of articles and research on what the top one percent looks like, the top .1 percent, even the top .01 percent, but our understanding of the very bottom of the income distribution is much less differentiated. Why is that? What can we know about America’s very poorest?
L.C.: Our main tool for assessing people’s welfare is representative surveys, where we take a sample of the population, ask them lots of questions, and extrapolate their answers to estimate the condition of the population as a whole. The trouble with this approach is that it does a much better job of telling us about people nearer the middle of the distribution than about those at the extremes or “tails.”
In the last decade, pioneering work by a group of economists including Thomas Piketty, Tony Atkinson, and others has enabled us to obtain a much clearer understanding of the top of the distribution, by combining traditional survey data with tax data (i.e., individuals’ tax returns). But we have no equivalent solution for revealing what is going on at the bottom of the distribution.
There are plenty of reasons for being skeptical about what surveys tell us about the bottom of the distribution. Two concerns loom large: Are surveys interviewing the right people, and are respondents giving the right (truthful) answers? Some of the poorest people in the U.S. (unregistered migrants, institutionalized populations, people living in informal housing, people on the move, etc.) are missed by surveys, resulting in sampling bias. And there are several reasons why people at the bottom of the distribution may provide inaccurate responses to survey questions, especially those regarding their income. For instance, respondents may be reluctant to declare earnings from informal work out of fear that this would prompt a visit from the IRS.
What we try to do in our paper is to discern what different estimates of $2-a-day poverty in the U.S. can tell us about the characteristics of the country’s poor. For instance, we obtain lower estimates of poverty when we extend the reporting period over which income is assessed. This suggests that a significant amount of $2 poverty appears to be temporary. Like Luke and Kathryn, we obtain lower estimates when we include various government benefits and tax credits in our definition of income. This tells us that these programs are making a critical difference for millions of individuals—at the very least, the difference between living above or below the $2 threshold.
R.R.: What might we gain from further research into such extreme poverty? Why is it important to improve our understanding of what this poverty looks like?
L.C.: First and foremost, I think there’s a moral obligation to get a better handle on the condition of the poorest people in the country. If we accept a shared responsibility for the poor in our society, then surely that responsibility is greatest for the poorest of the poor.
There’s a lively political discussion underway, sparked in part by the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s declaration of a War on Poverty, as to whether the government’s approach to tackling poverty is working and how it might be strengthened. There is some suggestive evidence that welfare reforms over the past two decades did most to assist those living just above and below the poverty line, while doing little for those furthest below the line; and that the deepest poverty in the U.S. is becoming more prevalent. If there is to be another round of welfare reforms, it is imperative that these are informed by good empirics and a thorough understanding of the condition of America’s poorest people.
One of the points we make in our paper is that even if these people have their most basic material needs met, they may be deprived in other important ways. A reliance on in-kind transfers can leave people virtually excluded from the cash economy and with little agency to address unexpected needs. We describe this in our paper as a state of purgatory. These are the sorts of challenges that need to be understood and addressed if poverty is to be overcome.
On Thursday, Instagram released Hyperlapse, a new app for creating time-lapse videos.
Many users responded by making ho-hum videos of their offices—understandable, given how much time we spend at work. But another daily routine proved a far better test for the new app: the daily commute.
Here are a handful of Hyperlapse videos we chose for their sense of movement and place: a drizzly drive to Mount Fuji (complete with dashboard ornaments), a dazzling day on the Bosphorus, a bike ride in the Netherlands, and more.
We look forward to seeing more, but please be careful out there: Don’t Hyperlapse and drive.
Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
Monument Valley, U.S.A.
Olaya, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Alameda County, California, U.S.A.
Marco de Canaveses, Portugal
Mount Fuji, Japan
The gradual radicalization of Douglas McAuthur McCain, we're told, is reflected in his social-media timelines. This week, NBC News reported that McCain, a 33-year-old from Minneapolis and San Diego, had become the first American to die in Syria while fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in clashes with other rebel fighters. (On Thursday, Fox News reported that a second American from Minneapolis may have been killed while fighting for ISIS in the same battle.)
"Until early last year, a Twitter account linked to McCain included mostly mundane messages to friends about basketball—how the Lakers suck, comments about the Chicago Bulls—with only a few messages about Allah or Islam," NBC noted. "Then the account went silent for more than a year." McCain, who converted to Islam in 2004 and also appears to have used networks like Facebook and MySpace, fired up his feed again in mid-May—around the time that ISIS was publicizing its control over the Syrian city of Raqqa with public executions, and just weeks before the group launched its military offensive in northern Iraq.
This time, his tweets revolved around religion, and he "appeared to strike up online friendships with several self-proclaimed jihadis." He retweeted messages encouraging others to "pray for ISIS" and check out a speech by an ISIS spokesman. On Twitter, he reportedly went by the name Duale Khalid, or @iamthetooth.
The insights you can derive from a person's online presence are limited and imperfect at best. We know little, for instance, about the life McCain led and the people he met between social-media postings.
Still, McCain's activity on Twitter does reveal a key recruiting channel for ISIS. U.S. officials estimate that dozens of Americans and thousands of foreigners have joined militant groups in Syria. But those statistics don't include the untold number of sympathizers who help spread the messages of groups like ISIS online—the "nodes in a sophisticated Islamic State public affairs operation that amplifies execution videos along with water restoration projects aimed at winning hearts and minds," as Alex Horton recently put it after engaging in a bizarre Twitter discussion about Robin Williams's death with an ISIS supporter in Europe.
On Twitter, McCain had just over 200 followers. He was following fewer than 200 people. He was hardly at the center of ISIS propaganda efforts. But he seems to have been a node.
One of the paradoxes of ISIS is that it occasionally relies on modern means to achieve antiquated ends: the re-establishment of a caliphate that disappeared centuries ago. The group's slick and sophisticated social-media strategy has received renewed attention following the beheading of the American journalist James Foley, which near-instantaneously made headlines after a video of the killing was posted to YouTube and buoyed by an orchestrated pro-ISIS hashtag campaign. Twitter and YouTube have been scrambling to remove accounts linked to the group, forcing members to decamp, at least temporarily, to obscure open-source or decentralized networks like Friendica, Diaspora, and JustPaste.it.
Broadly speaking, ISIS is trying to reach three distinct audiences online. The first is local populations in Syria and Iraq (albeit a small portion of them, given limited Internet access), whom it either seeks to intimidate with horror stories or charm with tales of good works. The second is enemies in the West and elsewhere, whom it hopes to inform of its might, goals, and grievances. And the third is potential sympathizers around the world, whom it aims to consult, inspire, and recruit.
ISIS accomplishes some of these goals by gaming social networks. On Twitter and Instagram, it hijacks trending hashtags on topics ranging from British soccer to California earthquakes to disseminate its messages. Writing in The Atlantic in June, J.M. Berger exposed how one app essentially turned users into Twitter spambots in the service of the social-media strategists at ISIS headquarters.
But the group has also nurtured genuine, hyperactive communities of supporters online. These are sometimes nested within larger social networks and yet largely walled off from them.
In a June study on foreign fighters in Syria, Richard Barrett of the Soufan Group, a security consultancy, explored the role social media plays in helping jihadist groups in Syria fundraise and recruit members, noting that "potential foreign fighters are interconnected within self-selected bubbles, and are isolated from anything outside"—just as social media has facilitated the rise of ideological echo chambers elsewhere on the web.
To quantify the phenomenon, the Soufan Group chose a day in May 2014 and compared discussion of the Syrian war on Twitter among Syria experts on the one hand, and followers of accounts and hashtags popular with foreign fighters on the other. It's a measure that is more impressionistic than scientific, but the results are still compelling. The Syria experts generated 10,700 posts, with 3,407 reposts and 173 replies. The Syria 'fighters,' by contrast, produced 308 posts, with 9,398 reposts and 11,609 replies.
"This shows two things: first, the huge divergence in the number of replies, and second the vast discrepancy in interest generated by the posts," Barrett wrote. "Fighters comment extensively on posts and send them on to many others, while experts produce far more material but very rarely comment on or disseminate other people’s work. This shows the way in which the war has created a close-knit community of supporters of extremist rebel groups that is self-reinforcing and deaf to alternative influences."
At some point this spring or summer, Douglas McCain appears to have left that close-knit online community for the real thing, traveling from the States to Syria, perhaps via Turkey.
The Soufan Group's report estimated that more than 12,000 people from 81 countries—the majority from the Arab world but also 2,500 from the West—have taken up arms in Syria since 2011, with most joining extremist factions that, relative to 'moderate' rebels, are stronger, more welcoming of foreigners who want to join a global struggle rather than a strictly Syrian one, and more likely to be at the border when new recruits enter the country. They are typically men between the ages of 18 and 29 with little to no fighting experience or connection with Syria, and some arrive via networks in various countries that assist with their travel. They are drawn to the conflict for a number of reasons. Some believe they have a religious obligation to fight and, if need be, die in defense of fellow Muslims. Others have troubled pasts and are searching for a sense of purpose and belonging. Still others are attracted to the notion of living fully in accordance with Islamic law, at least as defined by ISIS.
Whatever the motivation, ISIS uses social media to convey a romantic image of its jihad. Unlike its rival, the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, which sticks to Arabic, ISIS uses multiple languages in its online outreach. (According to The New York Times, the head of ISIS’s media department is a Saudi, in part to make ISIS appear "globalized.") On sites like Twitter and Facebook, where the young people it's targeting tend to get their news about the Syrian civil war, ISIS doesn't exclusively dwell on death and destruction. It adopts an approach sometimes referred to as "jihadi cool." Here's Barrett again:
[T]here are plenty of people like the Dutch ‘jihadist’, Yilmaz, who post updates about their activities and respond to questions about what it is like to fight in Syria via Kik, Tumblr and ask.fm. The image portrayed is welcoming and reassuring and addresses the fear of the unfamiliar, for example there are many postings of fighters with pet kittens. And although there are plenty of clips available that show fighters with extremist groups, some of them foreigners, committing appalling acts of murder and repression, the general picture provided by foreign fighters of their lives in Syria suggests camaraderie, good morale and purposeful activity, all mixed in with a sense of understated heroism, designed to attract their friends as well as to boost their own self-esteem.
Jihadists have for decades taken advantage of the latest media technologies to distribute their messages, quickly embracing the Internet as a means of communicating directly for the first time with the wider Muslim world. In 2006, in the early days of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, the terrorist expert Jarret Brachman chronicled al-Qaeda's "use of email, chat rooms, online magazines, cell phone videos, CD-ROMs, and even video games" to "radicalize and empower armies of new recruits by shaping their general worldview." He even wrote about a jihadist-approved web browser, akin to Internet Explorer, that was designed to achieve the "intellectual separation of jihadi visitors from the chaos of cyberspace" and alternate ideologies.
Terrorists, Bloomberg's Leonid Bershidsky recently wrote, have long used popular online platforms to "draw young people into their ideological orbit, later pulling the most dedicated recruits down into the encrypted, unindexed 'Dark Web' and then bringing them over to fight for the cause."
But ISIS has exploited the power of today's social web more effectively and enthusiastically than al-Qaeda has, and it's done so seemingly without concern about propagating a strain of extremism that alienates mainstream Muslims (this disregard is what prompted al-Qaeda and ISIS to part ways). ISIS has also demonstrated a preference for primarily spreading its message through social media rather than news outlets (with the exception of Vice)—an approach al-Qaeda hasn't always shared.
In 2011, for instance, Adam Gadahn, an American al-Qaeda propagandist, sent Osama bin Laden a letter on his proposed media strategy for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Gadahn wasn't necessarily focusing on recruitment, but his comments are still instructive when it comes to understanding the differences between ISIS and al-Qaeda. "As for the Jihadi forums," Gadahn wrote, "it is repulsive to most of the Muslims, or closed to them. It also distorts the face of al-Qa'ida, due to what you know of bigotry, the sharp tone that characterizes most of the participants in these forums. It is also biased towards (Salafists) and not any Salafist, but the Jihadi Salafist, which is just one trend of the Muslims trends. The Jihad Salafist is a small trend within a small trend." That small trend has since morphed into ISIS.
The success that jihadist movements have had on the web raises a policy question: Should governments and tech companies focus on removing and restricting access to users linked to these groups, or should they instead try to monitor those users? Or both? More concisely: Is the use of social media by jihadists and their sympathizers more of a security threat or an intelligence coup?
The U.S. government, perhaps aware of how difficult and legally complex it is to fully crack down on extremist groups online, appears to be mining these networks for intel. (The Soufan Group goes one step further, suggesting that governments, with the help of disillusioned former foreign fighters in Syria, try to access jihadist social networks, sow divisions between extremist groups, and undermine their narratives.) On Friday, The New York Times reported that U.S. officials have identified almost a dozen Americans who have traveled to Syria to fight for ISIS, in part based on social-media postings.
"The F.B.I.’s psychological analysts at Quantico, Va., armed with court-approved powers, are increasingly monitoring the activities of Americans who have expressed extremist views in jihadist chat rooms and on websites," the paper reported. "It is an effort to chart their radicalization."
McCain's last tweet came on Tuesday, August 19. His account, which remained online for days after news of McCain's death broke, has since been deleted, along with many other accounts in his orbit. A number of those accounts have regenerated under new names. Online, for now at least, ISIS remains as formidable a force as ever.
The Center for Photography in Woodstock, New York, launched a new exhibit this week. It's called "The Space Between: Redefining Public and Personal in Smartphone Photography," and it considers the cultural impact of photography's new ubiquity. The core idea of the exhibit, as explained by the show's curator, the photographer and filmmaker Henry Jacobson, is that smartphones have brought a shift in the purpose—and, actually, the nature—of photography itself. "Photography has always depended on technology," Jacobson told TIME, "and every change in technology has affected the history of photography, but the smartphone, in its nature, is a device that is not for photography. It’s a device that is for communication."
Documentation to communication. If you want to see that shift in action—literally—then look no further than Hyperlapse, the Instagram-created video app that was, like "The Space Between," unveiled this week. The app uses algorithmic processing to create both tracking shots and time-lapse videos—on an iPhone. (An Android version of the app, Instagram says, could come if Android phones adapt their camera and gyroscope APIs.)
Hyperlapse is notable not just as another photography-and-video app. It's also, potentially, a leap forward in the evolution of amateur videography. Just as Instagram's filters brought sophisticated photo-processing capabilities to the average smartphone user, Hyperlapse brings sophisticated video-editing capabilities. In the past—meaning, you know, Tuesday—creating a viewer-friendly time-lapse video required expensive equipment: a Steadicam, say. Only a small handful of people had the means—or the inclination—to invest in that gear.
Hyperlapse, on the other hand, makes use of the gyroscopes that are built into iPhones. Traditional image stabilization—the kind you'd find on Final Cut and other video-editing software—requires desktop-level amounts of processing power; Instagram's engineers, however, made use of the phone's hardware to stabilize images shot on the phone. The app's algorithm is able to map from frame to frame, creating videos that, overall, appear steady to the viewer.
And that saves users time as well as money. Getting the kind of footage Hyperlapse creates used to involve a complex process of downloading footage to a computer, processing it (ideally via a pricey-and-not-always-reliable stabilizing program), and then re-exporting it. Hyperlapse has that editing—the correcting, the processing, the stuff that makes for viewable video—built in. Download the app, and all that work is done in your phone. The result of all that? Videos that won't make you dizzy or ill, but that will do what time-lapses do so well: conveying movement through time itself. Videos that document, yes, but that also communicate.
For a sample of the kind of art Hyperlapse allows you to create, check out the video above—shot by The Atlantic's video producer, Sam Price-Waldman. Sam captured the video while moving around Washington, D.C. on his feet and on his bike. And, most importantly, on his phone.
California passed a law this week that, depending on who you believe, will bring about either a drastic drop in violent crime or an increased risk of terrorism—apparently with the possibility of little in between. The law mandates that all California-sold smartphones include a “kill switch,” an anti-theft measure that allows someone to deactivate his or her phone, rendering it useless to a thief who hopes to sell it. Why is such a straightforward technology producing such extreme statements?
“It’s the phrase ‘kill switch’ that everyone has gotten excited about,” says Marc Rogers, a researcher at the mobile security company Lookout. “It’s not a technology that allows you to make magic smoke come out of your phone so it stops working.”
Even though the California law only requires a "kill switch"—which from now on I'll refer to, less threateningly, as "remote lock"—for phones sold in-state, California is a big enough market that manufacturers will probably start including it in all phones sold nationwide.
3.1 million phones were stolen in the U.S. in 2013 (many of them violently), and remote lock works in fighting this: After Apple introduced it last fall, iPhone robberies in New York dropped 19 percent, and during the same period thefts of Samsung products went up 51 percent. Larger declines in iPhone thefts have been reported in other cities.
Despite this, many telecoms opposed the mandate of remote lock until earlier this year. There was a theory as to why—wouldn’t a phone company want your phone to get stolen so that you have to buy a new one?—but it doesn't hold up to close inspection. A carrier gets a lot more money from you through a contract than when you buy a device. And the explanation that telecoms are loath to cede any of their mobile-insurance revenues might not tell the full story either.
The industry’s resistance was probably more due to a preference for the status quo. “The cellphone industry has always been pretty lightly regulated, and tends to resist almost all new forms of regulation almost as reflex,” says Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research. Once companies saw that the law wasn’t too demanding, most of them embraced it, even if building an effective remote-lock system can be resource-intensive.
Though most carriers and manufacturers are onboard, CTIA, the industry group that represents just about all of them, curiously is not. CTIA has, for its part, taken steps to decrease theft, educating consumers about mobile-security apps and the use of PIN codes. In a statement distributed to the press, it called the California law “unnecessary given the breadth of action the industry has taken.” But in a less measured bit of criticism, the CTIA has suggested that remote lock might be giving hackers a way to shut down the cellphones of Defense Department officials.
Another vocal opponent of remote lock, the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation, has at times taken a similar tack. In an open letter to a California legislator, the EFF cited concerns that people other than a phone’s owner would remotely lock it. Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney at EFF, told Wired, “You can imagine a domestic violence situation...where someone kills [a victim’s] phone and prevents them from calling the police…It will not be a surprise when you see it being used this way.” The article was headlined “How Cops and Hackers Could Abuse California’s New Phone Kill-Switch Law,” and when it’s put like that—"hackers," "abuse," "kill"—it indeed sounds scary.
To make their point, the EFF and other critics have brought up an incident in 2011 when San Francisco’s transit system, BART, shut down cell service in its tunnels to prevent a protest. The anecdote stands as an example of how the government could shut down the communications of its own citizens, and the EFF points to the fact that the government could use remote lock if a court found it had probable cause.
The EFF is right that this is worrisome, but they might be exaggerating its applicability to the remote-lock debate. “If government wanted to do something as invasive as switching off cell coverage for an area, they’re not going to do it through handsets,” says Lookout’s Marc Rogers. It’s already been demonstrated that the government can shut down communications—that’s exactly what they did in 2011—and remote-lock isn’t going to change that.
Lee Tien, a staff attorney at the EFF, told me that the danger posed by the remote-lock law is actually that it allows the government to selectively shut down individuals' phones. "If you only look at the mass [shutdown] model, this would not seem like a technology that is likely to be abused…If, on the other hand, there are other threat models that are more surgical, more targeted, then you can start to see how it might be much more relevant," he says.
A remote-lock system isn't perfect, of course. Rogers, who has been working on anti-theft cellphone technologies for over a decade, does think it’s possible that remote lock could be hacked. “However, we live in an age when there are a lot of white-hat hackers who’ll be trying this technology for good,” he says. Of course, he advocates for the sort of caution that should accompany the rollout of any new technology.But, more generally, it’s problematic that the arguments against remote lock have widened the scope of the conversation to the extremes, invoking horror stories about the Defense Department and domestic violence. Sure, these are possibilities, but it’s already the case that millions of people are having their phones stolen, and many of these encounters are violent. If legislation hadn’t been introduced, the industry likely would’ve continued dragging its heels in solving a well-documented problem. That solution shouldn’t be resisted in the face of far more speculative concerns.