>It seemed it couldn't. I flew out of the Russian capital two weeks ago for Paris, where I had a speaking engagement, and was grateful to be spared what I assumed would be the peak of the then already month-old heat wave (with temperatures in the high nineties). I fully expected it to end in my absence. After all, Russians have a saying, which is most often accurate: "Summer was short but at least not very snowy." The mercury only mounted, however. Flying back to Moscow the other day, the plane descended into what resembled a fog -- actually smoke from 520 wildfires burning across 465,656 acres of land, mostly south of the capital. (On August 2, as a result of the fires, President Dmitry Medvedev declared a state of emergency in seven regions.) The temperature below, the pilot informed us in an unsympathetic monotone, was now just under 100 degrees, which drew groans up and down the air-conditioned aisles.
It doesn't get worse than that. Or so I thought as we landed: up north in Saint Petersburg, it was in the seventies -- traditionally a sure sign that the heat would end in the capital within a couple of days. That air-conditioners, fans, and, in places, even soft drinks had sold out across Moscow would soon hardly matter.
Then my wife Tatyana and I awoke yesterday to discover that a shift in wind had sunk Moscow in smoke so thick that our apartment smelled like an ashtray (we don't smoke), and the trees in the park outside stood peering through our windows like spectral villains in a horror flick. We don't have air-conditioning (nor do most Muscovites), so we sleep with the windows open. Luckily, our apartment faces north, but the temperature inside has nevertheless hovered around 94 degrees for weeks now. A government monitoring agency reported that, overnight, pollution -- smoke from the fires, that is -- had risen to ten times above safety levels. The authorities urged Muscovites to don gauze masks, which quickly went on sale across the city for the ruble equivalent of twenty-seven cents apiece.
Vladimir Mayakovsky monument, Triumfalnaya Square
Smoke even filtered down into the metro system. The wind rose and fell and rose again. By evening, when I made my usual trip to the nearby grocery store, the smoke had thickened so much that it burned my eyes and scratched my throat. Rain would have done a lot to alleviate this situation, but the worst drought in possibly 130 years has accompanied the heat, drying up nearly half Russia's wheat crops, and presaging a disastrous year for its struggling farmers.
Really, what could be worse? Why, the latest weather forecast, which predicts temperatures of 104 this weekend, with, over the next ten days, a "cooling down" to around ninety. I told Tatyana the "good news" and she responded as most Russians would: "Our weather station is wrong only once. Every day. In its only forecast."
"That's being too pessimistic," I responded.
"You know the difference between a pessimist and an optimist?" she asked. "A pessimist says, 'Everything is rotten. Nothing can get worse.' The optimist answers, 'Oh, yes it can!'"
I'm beginning to think she's right. In the first five days of August, four record high temperatures have been registered in Moscow; in July, ten. This, in a city where entire summers slip by unnoticed as such, with interludes of eighty-degree days followed by cool showery weeks, if without much snow. Come to think of it, I've seen it snow here in June. Russians take justifiable pride in how they face the rigors of their extreme climate -- but every extreme they know relates to cold, not heat. A Siberian adage has it that, "Forty degrees below zero is not a frost, and forty-proof vodka is not real vodka." But is forty-degree-centigrade (104 Fahrenheit) heat not real heat? No one has bothered to devise a proverb for it, because in northern or central Russia it almost never happens. Heat waves and even smoke from wildfires (often from burning peat bogs) have engulfed the city before, but never like this.
Smog fills Tverskaya Street
Another Russian saying has it that, "Heat isn't vodka, but we feel drunk from it all the same." Which hasn't stopped a good number of metaphorically heat-wasted Muscovites from turning literal and tippling their way through this interminable zharishcha. I walked outside this morning to find a gang of bare-chested fellows, with shaved heads, sweaty snouts, and stretchmarked potbellies, sitting on the guardrail near our doorway, guzzling beer and smoking, and for good measure, belching and swearing about the heat. Any walk around town reveals similar scenes: men have at times dispensed with much of their clothing, and carrying a beer (plus lit cigarette) is now de rigueur. This is legal: there's no law banning open containers of alcohol in Russia. Except that in Russia, beer hardly qualifies as alcohol. (Unless possibly it's that 12-proof brew marked krepkoye.) Beer is more like a training beverage. But vodka is considered alcohol, and thus possesses, many would point out, curative properties for whatever ails you. So fighting noxious heat with medicinal doses of vodka makes perfect sense. And I don't mean some dainty cocktail, like, say, a vodka collins. The idea of mixing vodka with anything except more vodka is an abomination. Why dilute the healing fun?
The problem is, drinking vodka and, say, simultaneously swimming or boating to cool off, greatly adds to the heat wave's lethality. In the first three weeks of July alone, 1,244 people had drowned in Russia, most of them drunk, and often swimming in the country's multitudinous rivers and lakes where no lifeguards were to be had. Children of parents too smashed to see straight were also among the victims, going under as their seniors obliviously imbibed ashore. But perhaps the most horrific event occurred at Pirogovskoye Reservoir, north of Moscow, where intoxicated yachters apparently decided to scare up a few waves for bathers, and in the process ran over a twenty-five-year old woman, shredding her with their vessel's propellers.
Yet for most people, the zharishcha has not proved so tragic. In our building's courtyard, neighbors who would never socialize under other circumstance have been gathering during the long waning evenings to play chess, down vodka, eat refreshing bowls of okroshka (a cold, hangover-curing soup made with, among other ingredients, cucumbers, sour cream, kvas, radishes, and dill), and chat and play chess. A sort of pleasant lethargy has invaded many Moscow workplaces (or so I hear), with employees taking it easy, having a beer or two on the job, and commiserating about, what else, the heat.
This morning, the wind changed, and cleared away some of the smoke. After perhaps the hottest weekend yet, when it finally cools down, things will go back to normal. When exactly will that be? I don't know. But I'm an optimist. In the Russian sense.
George Will is denouncing a GOP that has been ailing for years, but quitting won’t help—an American political party can only be reformed from within.
This past weekend, George Will revealed that he had formally disaffiliated himself from the Republican Party, switching his Maryland voter registration to independent. On Fox News Sunday, the conservative pundit explained his decision: "After Trump went after the 'Mexican' judge from northern Indiana then [House Speaker] Paul Ryan endorsed him, I decided that in fact this was not my party anymore.” For 40 years, George Will defined and personified what it meant to be a thoughtful conservative. His intellect and authority inspired a generation of readers and viewers, myself very much among them.
His departure represents a powerful image of divorce between intellectual conservatism and the new Trump-led GOP. Above all, it raises a haunting question for the many other Republicans and conservatives repelled by the looming nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for president of the United States: What will you do?
For centuries, philosophers and theologians have almost unanimously held that civilization as we know it depends on a widespread belief in free will—and that losing this belief could be calamitous. Our codes of ethics, for example, assume that we can freely choose between right and wrong. In the Christian tradition, this is known as “moral liberty”—the capacity to discern and pursue the good, instead of merely being compelled by appetites and desires. The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant reaffirmed this link between freedom and goodness. If we are not free to choose, he argued, then it would make no sense to say we ought to choose the path of righteousness.
Today, the assumption of free will runs through every aspect of American politics, from welfare provision to criminal law. It permeates the popular culture and underpins the American dream—the belief that anyone can make something of themselves no matter what their start in life. As Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, American “values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”
Hillary Clinton wrote something for The Toast today. Are you sobbing yet?
Either you’ll immediately get why this is crazy, or you won’t: Hillary Clinton wrote a thing for The Toast today.
Are you weeping? Did your heart skip a beat? Maybe your reaction was, “What. Whaaaat. WHAT,” or “Aaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!” or “OH MY GOD,” or simply “this is too much goodbye I'm dead now.”
Perhaps your feelings can only be captured in GIF form, as was the case for someone commenting on Clinton’s post under the name Old_Girl:
Reader comments like the ones above are arguably the best part of Clinton’s post, because they highlight just how meaningful hearing directly from Clinton is to The Toast’s community of readers. The Toast is a small but beloved feminist website known for its quirky literary humor. It announced last month it couldn’t afford to continue operating. Friday is its last day of publication.
“This western-front business couldn’t be done again.”
On this first day of July, exactly 100 years ago, the peoples of the British Empire suffered the greatest military disaster in their history. A century later, “the Somme” remains the most harrowing place-name in the annals not only of Great Britain, but of the many former dependencies that shed their blood on that scenic river. The single regiment contributed to the First World War by the island of Newfoundland, not yet joined to Canada, suffered nearly 100 percent casualties that day: Of 801 engaged, only 68 came out alive and unwounded. Altogether, the British forces suffered more than 19,000 killed and more than 38,000 wounded: almost as many casualties in one day as Britain suffered in the entire disastrous battle for France in May and June 1940, including prisoners. The French army on the British right flank absorbed some 1,600 casualties more.
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
There needs to be more nuanced language to describe the expanding demographic of unmarried Americans.
In 1957, a team of psychology professors at the University of Michigan released the results of a survey they had conducted—an attempt to reflect Americans’ attitudes about unmarried people. When it came to the group of adults who remained single by choice, 80 percent of the survey’s respondents—reflecting the language used by the survey’s authors—said they believed that the singletons remained so because they must be “immoral,” “sick,” or “neurotic.”
It’s amazing, and reassuring, how much has changed in such a relatively narrow slice of time. Today, certainly, marriage remains a default economic and social arrangement, particularly after having been won as a right for same-sex couples; today, certainly, those who do not marry still face some latent social stigmas (or, at the very least, requests to explain themselves). But the regressive language of failed morality and psychological pathology when it comes to singledom? That has, fortunately, been replaced by more permissive attitudes.
In a 60-page ruling, a U.S. district-court judge stopped enforcement of a law providing religious exemptions for LGBT discrimination.
Why doesn’t anyone care about Mississippi?
This spring, the state’s legislature passed H.B. 1523, an extensive law written to protect people who believe any of the following: that marriage is between a man and a woman; that sex should only happen in the context of marriage; and that the words “male” and “female” refer to “an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.” The law claim these protections are a form of religious freedom.
It provides that religious organizations can refuse to rent out their social halls for a same-sex wedding, for example, and that clergy can refuse to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony. These groups can also fire a single mother who gets pregnant, or, in the case of religious adoption agencies, decline to place a child with a same-sex couple. Doctors and psychologists can refuse to get involved with gender-reassignment procedures or take cases that would violate their religious beliefs. Schools and other public agencies can create “sex-specific standards” for dress code, bathrooms, and more. State employees can also refuse to sign same-sex-marriage licenses, and they can’t be fired for saying they believe homosexuality is wrong, for example.
What percentage graduated from high school and enrolled within a year at a four year institution where they live on campus?
Who are today’s college students?
The answer surprises most people who attended four year universities, according to Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of Lumina Foundation. Addressing audiences, like the one he spoke to Friday at The Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, he frequently poses this question: “What percentage of students in American higher education today graduated from high school and enrolled in college within a year to attend a four year institution and live on campus?”
Most people guess “between forty and sixty percent,” he said, whereas “the correct answer is five percent.” There is, he argued, “a real disconnect in our understanding of who today’s students are. The influencers––the policy makers, the business leaders, the media––have a very skewed view of who today’s students are.”
The trend helps explain Trump and Brexit. What’s next?
On Wednesday, Facebook made an announcement that you’d think would only matter to Facebook users and publishers: It will modify its News Feed algorithm to favor content posted by a user’s friends and family over content posted by media outlets. The company said the move was not about privileging certain sources over others, but about better “connecting people and ideas.”
But Richard Edelman, the head of the communications marketing firm Edelman, sees something more significant in the change: proof of a new “world of self-reference” that, once you notice it, helps explain everything from Donald Trump’s appeal to Britain’s vote to exit the European Union. Elites used to possess outsized influence and authority, Edelman notes, but now they only have a monopoly on authority. Influence largely rests with the broader population. People trust their peers much more than they trust their political leaders or news organizations.
More than a thousand volunteer actors gave tribute to the fallen soldiers of the Somme
One hundred years ago today, the Battle of the Somme began.
The battle lasted five months, and it would kill nearly 1 million men. As my colleague David Frum writes, it is the battle that gave us some of the most enduring, horrifying images of the Great War: “the whistle summoning men ‘over the top’ of their trenches to be instantly slain by machine-gun fire; mass slaughter for pitiful gains of ground; indifferent and incompetent officers refusing to acknowledge that their plans had gone desperately wrong.”
It is all the more frightening because, just a half decade prior, many of those men were not soldiers at all, but workers, tradesmen or children. They inhabited what they understood to be a bustling, cosmopolitan modern world, made global by trade, finance, and imperialism. For them, it was also a peaceful one: A major European war had not occurred in decades.