The Conversation

Responses and reverberations

Hard experience shows that if you have a large number of citizens who do not yet fully grasp even the concept of the state, who are largely very poor and un­educated, who struggle daily to survive and [are] susceptible to a $5 bribe, democracy sometimes seems like a sham. And we have to think about if there are other ways. In a society, some will be more ready than others. I cannot think of an example of a reasonably successful democracy that started out with universal franchise. What I haven’t figured out yet is what should be the criteria for the franchise.

Walter Isaacson, the president of the Aspen Institute, discussed the country’s founding principle of balance and its continued importance today.

It’s not simply that you have to find compromise or middle values. You have to figure out a way to weave them together. [Alexis de Tocque­ville] says that America has two different strands—a strand of individualism and a strand of working together as communities—and that these two strands are in conflict. Actually, these two strands aren’t. There’s something magical about the American system, that those strands become the warp and woof of the fabric of what we do in America … [Balance] was the great original idea of the United States—that people of different faiths and different backgrounds, ethnicities, and tribes could all work together in a cohesive fashion. The opposite of balance, of course, is the great scourge of the world today, which is fanaticism and fundamentalism. That will be the great struggle of this coming century … The question is whether we as a nation, we as a world, can remain the types of societies that look for balance rather than those who seek to win arguments.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, elucidated the problem of mis­information in a non-fact-checked era.

All of us grew up with an assumption that what we were seeing on television, especially in legitimate news, was edited and properly vetted. That’s no longer the case. Furthermore, you can anticipate [that] very powerful forces will attempt to do misinformation campaigns to you, for one business objective or another. That it will be worth it to them to spend millions of dollars to create fake Web sites and so forth, to convince you that something that is really bad for you is really good for you. Because they have a business interest to do so, and the Internet allows that. We have to rank against [false information]. But you all have to be aware that searching for something doesn’t mean you have to believe it.

In an impromptu panel discussion after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, parsed John Roberts’s actions.

Clearly, he didn’t want to provoke an institutional crisis. He’s the chief justice. He didn’t want to go to war … This is entirely consistent with his record. This Court has been generally very modest. The Rehnquist Court and the Warren Court overturned, on average, eight laws a year; this Court has overturned, on average, three laws a year … It’s much, much less likely to assert itself to overturn precedent. It’s also been a relatively non–ideologically divided Court, at least not more than previous Courts … There’s been a lot of overwrought coverage of this Court, as if it’s some really aggressive, activist Court. It’s just not.

Alexis Madrigal, an Atlantic senior editor, expanded upon the idea of the “quantified self,” explained by David H. Freedman in his June cover story.

Thanks to the glories of science, we now know many strange things about how human beings work … And yet, all this knowledge about how to improve our bank accounts and bodies is locked away in scientific journals or deployed by marketers and advertisers. I contend that a change is sneaking up on us that’s going to allow us to take control of how we prime ourselves to live better lives … what I call “the programmable self” … New sensors that constantly measure your heart rate and skin conductance within your environment will be able to tell you that your sense of well-being is correlated with your living room but not your dining room, your kitchen but not your den. All the thoughts we’ve had about ourselves, all our intuitions, will be subject to the rigors of data-driven decision-making … Self-improvement meets cybernetics; behavioral psychology meets machine learning; the soft, warm body meets cold, hard data. If the 20th century was spent looking for the soul in the machine, the 21st might be [spent] discovering the machine in the soul.

Robert Putnam, a Harvard public-policy professor, urged people to shift their focus when discussing demographics.

Relatively speaking, racial differences, controlling for class, are decreasing, while class differences, controlling for race, are increasing in America. Nonwhite folks with a college education are looking more and more like white folks with a college education, and white folks who haven’t gotten beyond high school are looking more and more like nonwhite folks who haven’t finished high school.

Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the stresses endured by soldiers and their families since 9/11.

If I’m a 5-year-old boy or girl in the family of one of these deploying units for the Army whose average deployment was 12 months at a time, and my dad or mom … has deployed at this pace, I’m now 15 or 16 years old, and my dad has been gone three, four, or five times … My whole conscious life has been at war. The United States has never, never experienced that before. And we see incredible stresses on families … Now we are coming home. By no means are we home. We still have 90,000 troops in Afghanistan. And I believe we’re going to see a couple decades of challenges associated with the stresses we’ve not been dealing with and the issues we’ve been packing away. Indicative of that is the incredible suicide rate we have on the active side, which—even despite all the efforts of leadership to contain it—is, in the Army this year, higher now than it was a year ago. And … we’ve got 18 vets a day who are killing themselves in the United States.


July/August’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” cited a study by Michelle Arthur of the University of Mexico. Arthur is affiliated with the University of New Mexico.

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