As our journeys go on, my wife (Deborah Fallows) and I will be reporting what we've seen, learned, wondered about, and been corrected on. Meanwhile John Tierney, from his base in Boston, will be adding historical and cultural perspectives from time to time, starting with this one.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
Atlantic readers know John Tierney from his popular and trenchant posts as an Atlantic correspondent, many of them about education. For example: one about AP courses, and another on the dramatic changes in store for public schooling. He taught American government for many years as a professor at Boston College, and then became an independent-school teacher in the Boston area. For clarification, I should point out that he is not the John Tierney who has been a Congressman from Massachusetts for many years, nor the other John Tierney who has been a columnist for the NYT. Similarly, I should proudly clarify that his wife, the energy-policy expert Susan Tierney, also is my little sister.
In this installment John begins with a discussion of how transportation systems, and their changes, have affected the location and prospects of cities, in this case "Rapid," as it is locally known.
The photo above is one I took yesterday in town. It illustrates nothing like heartland Orientalism but instead a fascinating, emerging theme in the places we are visiting.
That theme is the amount, and the diversity, of the efforts people are putting into reviving their downtowns. As a citizen I've become used to this depressing iron law of small town life: The big-box malls move in, and the downtown dies out. But we've been hearing about places where downtowns have fought back. Rapid City has a significant tourist economy, for visitors to nearby Mount Rushmore, and over the past decade it has pushed a tourist-oriented downtown revival with its Rushmore-related identity as "City of Presidents." Thus there are life-sized statues of presidents #1 through #43 on corners through the downtown, many in surprising or whimsical poses. Some of them are hard to identify until you peer at the plaque. The one above is easy; the one below might be a test.
While South Dakota bears witness to the glory of American aviation, it also bears witness to the mixed record of its railroads: nationwide, freight rail is vigorous, while passenger rail is moribund in all but a select few metropolitan corridors. As anyone who travels in the great middle of the United States knows, there is an enormous amount of freight-rail traffic out there. One of the most common sights on a long road trip is of incredibly long freight trains snaking across the landscape. [JF note: And, yes, they roll through downtown Rapid City these days too. As visitors, we found the bells and loud horns interesting. The local people I asked about them said they no longer noticed, much as I barely hear the planes that pass over our house in Washington every 60 seconds on their way into National Airport.]
When it comes to passenger rail, Rapid City is less fortunate. South Dakota is one of the few states that is not served by Amtrak’s passenger railroad service. The early development of the railroads in the state was complicated by the presence of American Indian reservations and the difficult terrain of the Black Hills region. Long served by the Sioux line of the Milwaukee Road, Rapid City eventually lost that resource as railroad passenger service declined nationwide in the 1950s. The former train station of the Milwaukee Road at 603 Omaha Street in Rapid now houses Ixtapa, a Mexican restaurant.
That ending belies the railroad’s long role as an important contributor to Rapid’s settlement and development, and as a key part of the growing city’s transportation mix. People who were around on July 4, 1886, when the first passenger train rolled into Rapid City, might well have been amused if they had known that 125 years later, the station of a later competing railroad would be home to enchiladas and chile rellenos. That railroad was the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri River. (The photo below is of one of their trains, circa 1900, stopped at Nevada Gulch, not far from Rapid City.)
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
John Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a former professor of American government at Boston College. He is the author of Organized Interests and American Democracy (with Kay L. Schlozman) and The U.S. Postal Service: Status and Prospects of a Government Enterprise.
Most people in the U.S. believe their country is going to hell. But they’re wrong. What a three-year journey by single-engine plane reveals about reinvention and renewal.
When news broke late last year of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, most people in the rest of the country, and even the state, probably had to search a map to figure out where the city was. I knew exactly, having grown up in the next-door town of Redlands (where the two killers lived) and having, by chance, spent a long period earlier in the year meeting and interviewing people in the unglamorous “Inland Empire” of Southern California as part of an ongoing project of reporting across America.
Some of what my wife, Deb, and I heard in San Bernardino before the shootings closely matched the picture that the nonstop news coverage presented afterward: San Bernardino as a poor, troubled town that sadly managed to combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole. San Bernardino went into bankruptcy in 2012 and was only beginning to emerge at the time of the shootings. Crime is high, household income is low, the downtown is nearly abandoned in the daytime and dangerous at night, and unemployment and welfare rates are persistently the worst in the state.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
Black poverty is fundamentally distinct from white poverty—and so cannot be addressed without grappling with racism.
There have been a number of useful entries in the weeks since Senator Bernie Sanders declared himself against reparations. Perhaps the most clarifying comes from Cedric Johnson in a piece entitled, “An Open Letter To Ta-Nehisi Coates And The Liberals Who Love Him.” Johnson’s essay offers those of us interested in the problem of white supremacy and the question of economic class the chance to tease out how, and where, these two problems intersect. In Johnson’s rendition, racism, in and of itself, holds limited explanatory power when looking at the socio-economic problems which beset African Americans. “We continue to reach for old modes of analysis in the face of a changed world,” writes Johnson. “One where blackness is still derogated but anti-black racism is not the principal determinant of material conditions and economic mobility for many African Americans.”
Sanders’s youth movement is powered by the energy of the new campus left. What does it believe?
RINDGE, New Hampshire—Twenty-three minutes into his typically rambling, hourlong stump speech in the arena here, at a private liberal-arts college on the Massachusetts border—after he had decried the Koch brothers and the prescription-drug companies, after he had accused Wall Street of bribing its way to deregulation, after he had called out the corporate media and the political establishment—Bernie Sanders turned to the bleachers behind him, which were filled with college students waving blue signs and chanting his name.
A sly, unusual smile crossed his face. “I feel like a rock-n-roll star!” he exclaimed, taking off his jacket and tossing it to a startled youth behind him. He pantomimed tearing off his sweater, too, prompting a fresh chant of “Ber-nie! Ber-nie!” Then he grinned sheepishly. “All right, nothing else is coming off,” he said, and continued to the next topic—the sins of Wal-Mart.
Many are familiar with the challenges faced by working moms, but the troubles of women with aging parents are unseen and widely ignored.
For America’s working moms, there is pretty much an endless stream of resources to guide and comfort them on how to tell the boss they’re pregnant, how to find a private place to pump at work, how to negotiate flex time, how to split the chores at home, and whether or not to display pictures of their kids at the office. They can read all day and all night about the many stresses of working motherhood including pregnancy discrimination, the wage gap, the mommy wars, leaning in, and opting out. But for America’s working daughters, there is little to help them navigate between their careers and the needs of their aging parents.
There are currently 44 million unpaid eldercare providers in the United States according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the majority are women. And yet there are very few support programs, formal or informal, in place to support these family caregivers, many of whom are struggling at work and at home. Working daughters often find they need to switch to a less demanding job, take time off, or quit work altogether in order to make time for their caregiving duties. As a result, they suffer loss of wages and risk losing job-related benefits such as health insurance, retirement savings, and Social Security benefits. In fact, a study from MetLife and the National Alliance for Caregiving calculated women lose an average $324,044 in compensation due to caregiving.
For decades the Man of Steel has failed to find his groove, thanks to a continual misunderstanding of his strengths.
Superman should be invincible. Since his car-smashing debut in 1938, he’s starred in at least one regular monthly comic, three blockbuster films, and four television shows. His crest is recognized across the globe, his supporting cast is legendary, and anybody even vaguely familiar with comics can recount the broad strokes of his origin. (The writer Grant Morrison accomplished it in eight words: “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”) He’s the first of the superheroes, a genre that’s grown into a modern mass-media juggernaut.
And yet, for a character who gains his power from the light of the sun, Superman is curiously eclipsed by other heroes. According to numbers provided by Diamond Distributors, the long-running Superman comic sold only 55,000 copies a month in 2015, down from around 70,000 in 2010—a mediocre showing even for the famously anemic comic-book market. That’s significantly less than his colleague Batman, who last year moved issues at a comparatively brisk 150,000 a month. Mass media hasn’t been much kinder: The longest-running Superman television show, 2001’s Smallville, kept him out of his iconic suit for a decade. Superman Returns recouped its budget at the box office, but proved mostly forgettable.2013’s Man of Steel drew sharp criticism from critics and audiences alike for its bleak tone and rampaging finale. Trailers for the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have shifted the focus (and top billing) to the Dark Knight. Worst of all, conventional wisdom puts the blame on Superman himself. He’s boring, people say; he’s unrelatable, nothing like the Marvel characters dominating the sales charts and the box office. More than anything, he seems embarrassing. Look at him. Truth? Justice? He wears his underwear on the outside.
Facebook suffers a blow from regulators in India, proving that the fight for an open web is more than an abstraction.
The web may be lovely, dark, and deep, but most of us don’t actually venture very far into it.
Back in 2013, Nielsen reported Americans visited an average of 90 different domains per person each month. That’s a startlingly low number—equivalent to about three domains each day—and one that crept down over the years, even as people spend more and more time online overall. I suspect the average person visits even fewer domains today, as tech giants like Facebook, Amazon, and Google increasingly design interfaces—walled gardens of engagement and advertising—aimed at discouraging their users from visiting other sites.
That’s part of what’s so interesting about the recent decision by officials in India to block what’s called “zero-rating” or “sponsored data”—the practice of exempting certain kinds of Internet use from counting toward a person’s data plan. The move effectively bans a Facebook program called Free Basics, a suite of lightweight versions of popular sites—including, of course, Facebook—that don’t eat up data the way visiting other mobile sites does. The idea is to give people an affordable way to get online, but it has long been criticized by advocates for net neutrality as a way of giving an unfair advantage to certain websites.
After getting shut down late last year, a website that allows free access to paywalled academic papers has sprung back up in a shadowy corner of the Internet.
There’s a battle raging over whether academic research should be free, and it’s overflowing into the dark web.
Most modern scholarly work remains locked behind paywalls, and unless your computer is on the network of a university with an expensive subscription, you have to pay a fee, often around 30 dollars, to access each paper.
Many scholars say this system makes publishers rich—Elsevier, a company that controls access to more than 2,000 journals, has a market capitalization about equal to that of Delta Airlines—but does not benefit the academics that conducted the research, or the public at large. Others worry that free academic journals would have a hard time upholding the rigorous standards and peer reviews that the most prestigious paid journals are famous for.