James Fallows is a staff writer at 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 Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the 2018 book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which was a national best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.
James Fallows is based in Washington, D.C., as a staff writer at The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for more than 40 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Shanghai, Beijing, and London. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and as a Fellow of the American Geographical Society. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of U.S. News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot.
Fallows won the National Magazine Award for his 2002 story “Iraq: The Fifty-First State?” warning about the consequences of invading Iraq; he has been a finalist four other times. He has also won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his book National Defense and an N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America foundation. His books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. Before Our Towns, his most recent book was China Airborne (2012). He is married to Deborah Fallows, the author of the book Dreaming in Chinese. Together from 2013 to 2017 they traveled across the United States for their American Futures project, which led to Our Towns. They have two married sons and five grandchildren.
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This summer, Deb Fallows and I visited the southern-Virginia town of Danville, and the surrounding rural areas of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, and the adjoining Caswell County, North Carolina. In its heyday, Danville was a thriving textile and tobacco community. The famed Dan River Mills operated along (you guessed it) the Dan River, which flows through the center of town and from which the town draws its name.
After the textile mills closed and much of the tobacco business collapsed, Danville went through a long decline—like many other communities in this part of the Piedmont region.
Over the past few years, a fascinating recovery has been under way: in the downtown, through reuse of abandoned mill and warehouse structures as new residential and office spaces; in areas that had lost mill jobs, through agricultural, chemical, and advanced-manufacturing start-ups; through creative use of money provided through the “tobacco settlement”; through advanced broadband capacities; and in other ways. You can read the set of articles that Deb and I did on Danville and its region here.
Because so much of the reason for Deb’s and my ongoing reporting is the hope that ideas and solutions that have been tried out in one place—like Muncie or Fort Wayne, Indiana; or Brownsville, Texas; or Eastport, Maine—might apply elsewhere, we’re gratified by efforts, like TheRoanoke Times’, to consider the experiences of other communities.
Danville still has plenty of troubles, of course—the Ikea plant there recently announced its closing. But economic development everywhere has always been several steps forward and several backwards at the same time. The big picture is that Danville is undergoing a remarkable transformation, from a Southern mill town without any active mills to a poster child for how to build a new economy out of the ruins.
Whatever Danville has done, it’s mostly done on its own, which ought to be a pretty powerful message but also perhaps a scary one to some communities. National politicians can be glib about assigning blame—be it foreign competition or rapacious corporations—but local leaders need to ignore all that and get to work fixing their own communities.
The lesson for voters: If your local elected officials aren’t doing that, replace them with ones who will. Danville provides a pretty good “up-by-the-bootstraps” example of what can be done.
Worth reading and considering, beyond Virginia and North Carolina. Thanks to the editor of The Roanoke Times.
Everyone knows that local newspapers are in trouble. That’s why Deb Fallows and I have been chronicling examples of smaller papers that have bucked the economic trend—in Mississippi, in coastal Maine, in rural communities across the country.
But what “everyone knows” about the main source of the problem may be wrong—or misleading enough to divert attention away from a possible solution.
The conventional view of the local-journalism crisis is that running a small-town newspaper just isn’t a viable business anymore—now that internet advertising has drained off revenue, and now that virtual communities and social media have displaced real-world connections and communities.
Those pressures are all too real. (Sobering details on the collapse of ad revenue are here.) But some of the remaining success stories in this troubled field suggest that the ownership structure of local news organizations may matter as much as internet-era advertising shifts, in determining which organizations survive and which perish.
In short: Increasing evidence suggests that the local newspaper business may still be viable, simply as a business. What it can no longer do is provide the super-profit levels that private equity groups expect from their holdings, and that they demand as a condition of even letting the papers exist. But the same papers that are doomed under private-equity ownership might have a chance in some different economic structure.
This proposition—that newspaper ownership is as important as internet-era advertising trends, in deciding local journalism’s future—was examined at length in a 2017 article in The American Prospectby Robert Kuttner and Hildy Zenger (the latter a pen name). It has been a theme connecting our previous newspaper-survivor reports, from Maine to Mississippi. And it is the idea behind a new weekly print newspaper whose first edition came off the presses this month, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the tip of Cape Cod.
The long-established paper for “Outer Cape Cod,” the communities from Provincetown southward, was the Provincetown Advocate, founded in 1869. In 2000, it was bought by the Provincetown Banner, and in 2008, the Banner was sold to GateHouse Media Inc., a private-equity-run chain of mainly smaller papers across the country. Long-established newspaper chains like Gannett, Knight Ridder, and McClatchy have their problems and detractors. But their goal, as Kuttner and Zenger pointed out in their Prospect piece, was fundamentally to operate newspapers. Their operations paid at least lip service to the idea that newspapers had a civic and community role, beyond their sheer economic existence.
The modern trend in small-paper ownership is their takeover by private-equity firms, of which Alden Global Capital, its subsidiary MediaNews Group (formerly known as Digital First Media), and GateHouse are the best-known examples. For these institutions, newspapers are a financial asset like any other—like a tract of commercial real estate, like a steel mill or a suburban mall. The profit-maximizing model they have applied to countless small papers has been: slashing costs, mainly by laying off reporters and editors, so as to boost short-term profit rates; continuing the cutbacks, so as to maintain profit margins, even as a thinner paper attracted fewer readers and ads; and when there was nothing left to cut, declaring bankruptcy or closing the paper, which had in strictly financial terms reached the end of its useful life.
The Banner, in its GateHouse years, has gone through a version of this cycle. (For the record: I have called and sent messages to relevant GateHouse officials, and will report back if I hear from them.) At the time of its sale, it had a staff of about 20. By early this year, the staff was down to four.
“When people think about corporate ownership of newspapers, they think the problem is that the company is telling you what to write—like Sinclair, with its broadcast stations,” says Ed Miller, a longtime newspaper entrepreneur who worked as an editor at the Banner starting in 2015.
“The fact is, they couldn’t care less what you write,” he says. “Their only interest is how much profit you can squeeze out of the operation, so the way they actually undermine the reporting of news is simply by laying off staff. The cuts make the job so overwhelmingly difficult to do that there’s just no possibility that you will get into serious news coverage, or investigating the stories that need to be dug out.”
In July of this year, Miller resigned from the Banner. This month he and his wife, Teresa Parker, published the first print edition of a new weekly print newspaper, The Provincetown Independent, aimed at readers, advertisers, and citizens in the towns of outer Cape Cod. This month’s paper was a preview, and regular weekly print publication will begin in early October. In the meantime, new stories are being posted online.
The territory the Independent is covering is more diverse than the vacation-time imagery of Cape Cod might suggest. The communities in its market—Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, and Eastham—have median incomes at about the national-average level (or in the case of Provincetown, significantly below it). Some of the residents have vacation homes there; some are service workers, small merchants, and businesspeople, or part of the working fisheries. Provincetown has long been an LGBTQ haven; the outer Cape has well-established arts, scientific, marine-science, and tourism-oriented institutions.
“This is an interesting community,” Miller told me. “There are a lot of engaged people here, there is money here, this is a place that ought to be able to support a perfectly successful, profitable newspaper.” As they observed the shrinkage at the Banner, which recently laid off its last local reporter, Miller and his colleagues began thinking about a new venture they might launch.
The business plan is based on a four-year hoped-for course to profitability, at which point the paper would have total paid circulation of 6,000 per week, and 19 full-time staffers. So far Miller and Parker have raised a little more than half of the business capital they are looking for. The nonprofit operation has raised three times as much as its original target. This money will be used for special projects—training young journalists, supporting investigative efforts, long-term projects on “themes that are important to the community, like how young families will manage to live here,” Miller told me.
For all the ceaseless technological and business change in the news business, Miller said, “the basics of the business are that people love local newspapers. If you can provide something they want, especially information they can’t get anyplace else, they will be loyal to you.”
The weekly publication schedule of the Independent, like the every-other-week schedule of The Quoddy Tides in Maine, helps the paper resist any temptation to cover breaking national or world news, for which readers have a million faster, better sources. Instead it can cover local developments—taxes, schools, zoning, real estate, religion, business ups and downs—that simply won’t be covered anywhere else.
“People are saying we need to come up with a new business model” for small newspapers, Miller told me. “Actually, the old business model for a local newspaper that really does its job can actually work pretty well.” He said that he canvassed owners of similar-scale papers around the country, and found that a normal profit rate was about 8 percent of revenue. For a private-equity fund, that’s nothing. “But if you’re running a normal local business, 8 percent is pretty good.” Miller said that one local-paper owner told him, “If I’m making more than 8 percent, I know it’s time to reinvest in the business—hire more people, give them raises, upgrade our equipment.”
One of the Independent’s advisers and business backers is Louis Black, who in the 1980s in Austin co-founded and edited the successful and influential alt-weekly The Austin Chronicle and then was a co-founder of the mega-successful SXSW. I spoke with him by phone today to ask why he’d become involved.
“When we started the Chronicle, we didn’t know what we were doing,” he said. “It took a decade to get up to speed. Eventually we realized a paper like that creates the community. It pulls it together, then sends it out.” Black said that despite the travails of print media, this was the role that he hoped papers like the Independent could fulfill.
“It’s not just about conveying information,” he said. “People have new ways to do that quickly. It’s about providing a cultural and intellectual center—and not only for like-minded people. It’s for people who want to engage in debate, and have principled debate. A strong local paper can do that. It’s not just about the words or information. It’s the spirit.”
Black met Ed Miller and Teresa Parker because Black had a neighboring house in Cape Cod. He learned that he and Miller were both from Teaneck, New Jersey, and both had spent their careers starting publications—Black’s with more financial success. Eventually Black decided to put time and money into the new Independent venture.
Did he think that it realistically had a chance? Black laughed, chuckled out some version of “Who knows?,” and then said: “Because Cape Cod is what it is, and because Ed is who he is, I think they have a shot.”
Like Miller, and like me, Black is from the dreaded and aging Baby Boom generation. “We’re too old to do this,” Black told Miller, as they considered the years-long, dicey effort of starting a new publication. “But the young people don’t know how, and we have to show them. People need to see that it can be done.”
“I want to hang the sword up,” Louis Black told me. “But we can’t. We’re living in a world where if we believe, we have to engage. And it matters.”
Here is one more dip into the waters of ancient Rome. For those joining us late:
In a “thought experiment” article in the new issue of the print magazine, I ask: What can troubled citizens of today’s America learn from the history of Rome? But the question concerned not the much-publicized lead up to “Decline and Fall.” Rather it was about the “After the Fall” era, known to the scholars at “Late Antiquity.”
In a first round of responses, academic historians and others pushed back (mainly) against the headline of the article. The headline said, “The Fall of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.” The academics replied, “Oh yes it was!”
Next, a governance expert drew parallels between the “Late Antiquity” era and the tension between centralized efforts, and dispersed local innovations, that have been part of the American saga from the very start.
Then, other readers suggested other ways of making connections, contrasts, and implications.
That brings us to what will probably be the wrap-up—but who knows. Here are several more messages, starting with a long one, about further extracting Rome-and-America comparisons and contrasts:
1) “The empire made the emperors.” In my article, I said that since World War II the United States has run an “empire without the name.” A historically minded reader draws out the implications:
First, it’s entirely appropriate, as you do, to compare the Roman and American empires—even though the US rules its empire as Romans of the republican (not imperial) era did.
In other words, the US empire is an “empire of obedience.” It uses all manner of tools to persuade semi-independent states and other groups to do its bidding, rather than directly governing territories within formal borders. Direct governance and a formalization of borders occurred under the Roman princeps (emperors).
Second, while it’s convenient to date the “fall” of the western Roman empire, it’s not especially useful from an analytic perspective. The western empire had been decentralizing for quite some time, while “barbarians” had been effectively ruling parts of it, directly and indirectly.
It’s critical to note these groups did not conceive of themselves as “invading” or seeking to “overthrow” Roman rule. By and large, they were forced to enter Roman territory by other attackers. Their rulers were also, by and large, Romanized. They largely ruled in cooperation with local Roman elites and using Roman techniques. Odoacer positioned himself as a local Roman ruler formally subservient to the emperor in Constantinople.
What happened in the West was very different from what happened in the East, when the truly “foreign” armies of Islam invaded and conquered territory ….
Third, it’s a bit of a stretch to say decentralization that happened in the 4th and 5th centuries was necessary for developments that came into their own 1,000 years later. There were guild-like groups in 1st century Rome. The Romans appear to have developed fairly sophisticated credit systems and engaged in long-range trade. Monasteries flourished in the eastern empire, which remained quite centralized and even more heavily militarized. And so on.
Could all of this had developed in something like the direction it took if the Roman state had not succumbed, over many years, to internal and external pressures? It’s impossible to say. But I also think it’s impossible to say it wouldn’t have.
In my mind, here’s the most relevant lesson from Rome for current US developments: The emperors didn’t make the empire. The empire made the emperors.
The US has had an emperor for decades, both through the taking of power and, more importantly (and in Roman fashion), through Congress delegating its powers to him. Trump’s willingness to use those powers has revealed what has been the case for some time.
2) “Last Bastion of Democracy.” The message below represents many I’ve received to similar effect, about what America’s fate might mean for China’s influence.
I’ll bet that the majority of people who lived under Roman rule and were not rich by their historic standards would argue that after Rome’s fall most of everything went to the crapper. Although the Romans were brutal at times, those under their rule were largely protected by Rome’s legions at the request of the local governor ….
Suggesting that America’s fall might not be so bad based on Rome’s fall and what occurred afterwards ignores the presence of Russia and China in the world today ………..
imagine a world without one of the last bastions of democracy, the one that feeds innovation and who has fed a large part of the world for decades. A world run by Putin and Xi, yea right, that would be pretty.
3) “Goths were very popular.” A reader who is conducting historical research, and who prefaces his note with an (unnecessary) apology for errors in English he might make as a non-native speaker, writes about why “barbarian” cultures spread so rapidly in Rome’s absence:
I just read Ammianus Marcellinus’ account (among many others) of the accelerated decline of the Empire in the second half of the 4th century and how it lead to its fall a century later.
One fact seldom mentioned about Romanity and Greco-Roman culture is how the people that lived under it seemed to deeply hate it.
A reoccurring fact of the era is how local populations defected to the barbarian tribes massively. People joined the Goths, the Lombards, the Franks and even the Huns in their wars against their own country! Goths were very popular among the population, even when then besieged Rome, we hear about the Roman plebs joining forces with their attackers.
Whole provinces that had been deeply Romanised, even colonized by Romans adopted Barbarian customs so quickly it looks like they were not conquered but liberated. Gaul, Italy, Moesia (in today’s Bulgaria) went over the Barbarians in some cases as fast as a generation. By the 6th century, Italians—Italians!—were proud to call themselves Lombards. …
There are many reasons for that; the institution of slavery, the degradation and corruption of civic institutions and services, the turbulent switch from a multireligious Empire to a monotheist and rigidly orthodox quasi-Theocracy.
From reading A. Marcellinus, I was surprised to learn that in fact, Roman civilisation at that point was only working were the emperor was currently residing. As soon as the emperor moved, law, order and good administration collapsed. This is probably why the Emperors in the 4th century were constantly on the move ….
4) Wrapping it up. From a reader in the Midwest:
1) My takeaway from decades-ago reading was that European technology, commerce, wealth surpassed Roman levels around 1100 or so. If that’s right, there was a dark age in concrete senses. The trend among historians I read in graduate school was to push the Renaissance back earlier and earlier, but not to deny that there were losses requiring a renaissance.
Then again, who knows, maybe they were wrong, and/or current revisionism has shrunk the dark age (rightly or questionably) to nothing.
2. If the U.S. federal government continues its descent it will probably take malign forms that will suffocate or actively crush effective local government and other cultural capital. …
5. The question of whether our federal government is on a permanent downward trajectory raises the question of risk/reward in the most radical proposed norm-breaking for a narrow Democratic majority: filibuster end, new state creation [JF note: eg, Puerto Rico, D.C., court packing]. Maybe we’re at the point where risk-taking is the most prudent course—a grab to activate the emerging demographic majority before Republicans manage to suppress democracy altogether.
6. The Pax Romana was also real (or was it?), and the end of Pax Americana may prove very dangerous.
7. Environmental pressure—rising seas, desertification, natural disasters—is probably already driving and will continue driving government dysfunction, while government dysfunction accelerates environmental degradation.
I am not entirely despairing. It’s always hard to tell what ills are cyclical and which ones are one-way streets. No one in the 1980s would have dreamed that crime in the U.S. would go into major remission; maybe mysterious forces will dissipate extreme polarization—and we’ll build new defenses against fake news/brainwashing in free societies. Maybe major technological breakthrough (or an ice age) will save us from global warming.
But it’s hard to get too cheery about compensations for [the end of] a functioning federal government.
The new print issue of the magazine has a short thought-experiment article, by me, on what happened after the fall of the Roman empire. (As I point out, this concerned the Western empire only—the one based in Italy, and the one Edward Gibbon described in The Decline and Fall. The Eastern empire, based in Constantinople, had many more centuries to run.)
In a first round of reader responses, historians and others reacted (mainly) to the article’s (intentionally overstated) headline, “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.” And in a second round, a veteran of governance issues named Eric Schnurer argued that a renewed focus on local-level renewal and innovation was proper, since localities were the only places where innovation had ever occurred.
Here is another round, on the point I mainly hoped the article would raise: how Americans, ever optimistic about the rebound capacity of their perpetually self-reinventing system, should think about the possibility that “it’s different this time,” and that national-level governance might finally be strained beyond its rebound abilities. Over to the readers:
1) Civil servants still want to serve. In my article I quoted Philip Zelikow, of the University of Virginia, on the difference between national-level and local officials. At the state, local, and regional level, Zelikow said, elected and career officials have no choice but to work together and actually solve problems. Whereas at the national level, politics is more and more about culture war—“who you like, who you hate, which side you’re on,” as Zelikow put it.
A career official at a national-level agency replies:
In November, I will mark 32 years of federal service.
My grandparents came here with nothing. I’m an age of rising tides; my parents had the grit and good fortune to grant me and my brothers and sisters every reasonable opportunity, and then some.
That’s fundamentally why I entered public service, and that’s fundamentally why I remain in public service. I am grateful, and feel a responsibility to give back.
Your essay, comparing our federal state to Rome in its age of decline, strikes a chord, and in doing so fills me with an undeniable melancholy.
I push back against Zelikow’s “which side are you on” fatalism about national governance, even as I admit I see evidence of it all around me.
I’m not tossing in the towel yet.
2) “Optimates” vs. “Populares”: The battle goes on. From a history professor of my own Boomer generation:
I have been thinking about that [Roman] period quite a bit lately, as we see the collapse of societal norms and the failure of many central governments to actually govern.
I see the present as actually more in parallel to the fall of the republic in the first century B.C.E.
At that time, the empire had begun to take form, with vast amounts of wealth pouring into the center, but mainly enriching the senatorial oligarchs. The men who had fought the wars were forced off their land, which came to be farmed on vast plantations by slaves. The new global order failed the yeomen, mainly because the rich, who controlled the government, refused to relinquish any of their wealth to help the impoverished citizens.
The society broke into two warring parties: Optimates and Populares (the “Best” and the “People”). They engaged in wars with each other, mobilizing personal armies, and violence came to be used as a means of government with leaders of each side being killed by mobs, culminating in the death of Julius Caesar. The society had become so divided that in the end, the only way to govern was by autocratic rule: Augustus.
I fear that we are near that point, and that a demagogue will arise who has more shrewdness than our current demagogue-wannabe. Trump has blazed the pathway that others can well follow.
Trump’s party represents the Optimates—the wealthy—but we could just as well see a leader representing the Populares come to power. Think if Huey Long had been successful in the 1930s. Populism can cut both ways; call them national populism and social populism …
We are seeing the breakdown of liberal democracy across the world, as happened in the 1930s. It was finally restored after a decade of slaughter. It may not be restored again. At the least, something new has to take form, and that will not come from our generation.
One interesting parallel to the period that you do discuss in your piece is that the “barbarians” were not invading the empire to loot and pillage. Mainly, they wanted to share in the wealthy and stable Roman society, get a bit of land for their people, and be secure from tribes like the Huns on the other side of the border. They knew Rome very well; many of their leaders had been leaders in the Roman armies, and many were Roman citizens. The Vandals were not really that vandalous …
In the same way, people are now migrating en masse into Europe and the U.S. in pursuit of better lives, to participate in the wealthy and stable Western societies, to escape poverty and brutality.
Climate change plays a significant role in driving people out of their homelands, and that will only become worse over time. Another factor, of course, is Western as well as internecine wars (think Iraq and Syria), and Western support of brutal governments (Central America).
But the influx of a mass of outsiders into the Roman empire (especially the western part) did ultimately lead to the breakdown of the wealth and stability they had come for.
There were many reasons for this, including intertribal battling among the newcomers and the disappearance of the Roman legions as a controlling force, but there was a continuing social disintegration and insecurity. The stable Roman civitas crumbled, quickly in some places (Britain) and more slowly in others (Gaul). I am not bringing this up to agree with Trump’s mantra to “build the wall” (which is folly—the Romans tried in some places), but rather to stress that we must have a rational immigration policy and consensus that prevents destabilization. Mass immigration creates nationalist anger, which is fuel for nationalist demagogues.
As the Roman society disintegrated, government did become ever more localized. That worked for a while in some places (like France), but in time trade shrank, education declined, government services passed away, and instability increased.
One could imagine some parts of the U.S. doing quite well for a time without a federal government, but other parts might do very poorly. Infrastructure would fall apart, as it did in post-Roman Europe. More people would flow across unpoliced borders, adding to the disruption and to the reactions. This would not play well in a society as well armed as the U.S.
No one knew that “Rome had fallen” when Odoacer brushed aside the grandly named Romulus Augustulus in 476, only that the Germans now ruled Italy in name as they had in fact for the past decades. Even in our own long lives, can we know what history might see as having passed in our lifetimes, perhaps that we are now at the transition from the 500-year Modern Age into what-we-do-not-know (as John Lukacs has written)? Life went on, as for the frog in boiling water whom you have analyzed …
Several hundred years after the fall of Rome, new forms and new states began to take shape amid the ruins, and by the 12th century, western Europe was again thriving. But it was a long and difficult time between the fall of the empire and the rise of Europe. I would not wish that on my children and grandchildren, or on theirs.
The long-term results of the failure of governance we are living through will be regrettable, though perhaps as necessary as the Dark Ages.
3) The new corporate “nationality.” A Westerner who has lived for years in Japan writes about the local-versus-national tensions within the United States:
One idea is to reorganize the 50 states into seven regions that match the baby bells created when AT&T was broken up … The merits to such a reorganization are to unify many basic services: Do we really need 50 DMVs and 50 Medicaid programs and who knows how many other layers of bureaucracy that get repeated state by state? This could enhance basic services at the subnational level … On the other hand, it may create the equivalent of seven proconsuls competing among themselves to follow Rome’s decline into empire …
What seems more likely to me to occur over the next 50 years, and something that I oppose, is a rift, with sovereign-individual stance married to the corporatization of society …
Instead of citizenship being based on contiguous borders, our lives are bounded by what membership card(s) we carry. I can go to an Amazon condominium after buying dinner at Whole Foods paid for by my Amazon coins via my Kindle and travel in my Amazon car ad infinitum. And if I am a Sapphire member, better deals as I jump from location to location but stay in the Amazon or Apple or Goggle or Facebook or whatever bubble. When a person uses an “out of service” provider, of course rates go up, and pity the people who cannot afford/are rejected in their membership bids. Blade Runner marries Brave New World.
Finally, on the question of if this time is different compared with other times due to change! change! change! Yes and no. I believe that in past periods, starting around 1870, in these early periods, the degree of change was much greater than now. No electricity versus Wi-Fi and rechargeable batteries; no telephones/movies/radios versus watching reality TV on your cellphone, etc., etc.
But the pace of change does seem to be much faster and disconcerting for all generations. This deserves further explanation, but who has the time to read, let alone write … ?
4) Let’s talk about ideology, and class. Another academic writes (in a message I am substantially boiling down):
1) I have spent the past seven years studying the Eastern Roman empire, which is usually called “Byzantium,” and which Gibbon himself dismissed as basically the 1,000-year decline of the Roman empire.
His is a monstrous oversimplification, and it has degraded our understanding of ancient/medieval history ever since Gibbon’s own day (1776), just as Adam Smith’s dismissal of the timelessness of mercantilism has degraded our English-speaking understanding of ancient/medieval economics ever since the same time (1776). [JF note: On the Adam Smith point, check out this article, by me, from 25-plus years ago.]
Given what is already well known about how the U.S. so-called Founding Fathers (itself an egregious simplification of the revolutionary generation) understood the transition of republican Rome into the empire, before we sink our teeth into late-antique history, it might be worth remembering that our understanding of the past, especially the more distant past, is ALWAYS (and has always been) subject to the political machinations of the present, and even historians’ own careers aren’t guided so much by how well they interpret the past, but by how well their interpretations suit the sensibilities of the times in which they happen to be writing …
[JF note: Leaving out point No. 2, a long discourse on the difficulty of understanding the real life of peasants in different eras of history.]
3) Generations are important for understanding deep history. For the past 70 years, young generations of Americans have been told that they ought to be living better than their parents. That was fine for the Boomers and for Gen Xers, but this is clearly not the case for Millennials.
So we were lied to. Big surprise. So were the generations who fought for and against Prohibition, slavery, and Unionization (and for Odoacer as well, arguably). Why else would (according to the 1860 U.S. census) a majority of non-slave-owning Southern whites sign up to fight for the cause of Confederate slavery at the outbreak of the American Civil War? …
4) Let’s not forget the power of ideology in the present. In the fifth-century present, Christianity (and Judaism and the various forms of Paganism) was as much part and parcel of social cornerstones as the ideology of the “American dream,” “intersectionality,” and “MAGA” is today …
The point is that we should never underestimate the power of ideology to bind people to a common cause, whether in the fifth century, the 11th century, or the 21st century. Ultimately, we as historians dismiss the significance of religion (and collective conviction) at our own peril.
5) Finally, class. With the rapid adoption of Christian laws and social structures throughout the Roman empire during and after the fourth century, the rigid laws fossilized a system of landowners (fief holders) and land workers (peasants).
The road to serfdom is something that ever since Hayek has been capitalized by the likes of Ayn Rand and her disciples, but it truly begins with the rules that one class lives by and another class lives above.
This may sound quite Marxist, but that’s because it is. Without centralized regulations, we automatically return to a system of landowners and toilers, whether we call them ancient/medieval sharecroppers or modern bartenders. When ideology is co-opted by the elites to perpetuate their children to inherit their elite status (whether we call it aristocracy or meritocracy), we return to the so-called Dark Ages.
This is not simply “Marxism”; it is historical materialism. And it is the only actually reliable guide to studying the past that we have ever truly innovated since the time of Marcus Aurelius.
5) “I believe in America.” And, finally, quite a different view of the ever present, ever reinterpreted past:
As the famous first line in the movie The Godfather reads, “I believe in America.”
While many of us continue to do so, an alarming number of Americans have fallen victim to the in-vogue critique that “woe is me” and things are awful.
For some, this is a reality. I read stories about the homeless problem in major U.S. cities, how drug addiction and tolerance of theft are literally robbing thriving communities of their once-proud fortitude of citizenship. I read daily how Big Tech companies are continuing to mislead the American public about how they monitor and police speech and content their employees regard as offensive, and God knows what with our personal information …
But what I mostly don’t see now is pride—pride in how fortunate we are to live in this country. It’s called gratitude …
Talk to someone middle-aged who grew up in Soviet Eastern Europe, and you’ll find out quickly why they left for America. We now live in a world where we can get anything we want, at any time of the day. Nearly all buildings and houses have central air-conditioning. Transportation is readily available for everyone. The economy is currently booming with employment we haven’t seen in three generations. Murder rates are at all-time lows. There hasn’t been a serious threat to the homeland in 19 years. There’s a new superhero movie out every three months in theaters. Netflix programming has people indulging on their couches more than ever.
Most people who are angry and disheartened have never known a world like the Dark Ages, the Black Plague, serfdom, smallpox, the Great Depression, WWII, or even the height of the Cold War. And we have room to complain that America sucks?
One of the reasons the Roman empire fell was not because of physical overextension by the state (which is true), but by its people taking for granted what the Roman empire had done for the modern world …
Is it any coincidence many of the founding era sought to emulate Roman law and antiquity as they established the republican virtues and culture of the 1780s to the 1820s? And what’s more, many of the Founders warned, much like the scholars of latter-day Rome, what would likely be the downfall of the continent and our country: indifference and ingratitude from within for what America meant as an idea …
The truth, in my opinion, is that 9/11 sapped us of our confidence. And the ensuing years of lies, mismanaged wars, and bank bailouts; an incoherent foreign policy over multiple administrations; and now the rise of brash and offensive populism in both ideological camps have Americans feeling more anxious than ever …
Perhaps we should be devoting much more to teaching civics again, and appreciating the separation of powers, appreciating why men like James Madison, George Mason, John Adams, Gouverneur Morris, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington matter so much that it is in our individual interest to be informed of who they were and what they did to establish the freedoms we often take for granted.
More so, it’s about time we recognize African American contributions during the founding era, too. In spite of their plight, we should be recognizing Peter Salem, Phillis Wheatley, James Armistead Lafayette, and James Forten. We should be embracing the fact that the Continental Army of 1781 was color-blind; that it stood about one-fifth African American at the Siege of Yorktown is extraordinary. Or that women and some African Americans were voting in New Jersey prior to 1807…
When we stop paying attention to all of the noise, and when we regain our focus, the fog will begin to clear, and King’s pronouncement of seeking to reach “the promised land” will once again ring loudly for those of us who are yearning for a more perfect union: one of freedom and liberty for all.
Thanks to all for responding to the thought experiment with thoughts, evidence, and opinions.
What’s the point of writing a “thought experiment” article, like mine in the current issue about the bright side of the Dark Ages?
It’s to generate some thoughts! On top of the first round of responses—which were variations on “Actually, the Dark Ages were pretty dark”—here is a stand-alone. It is from my longtime friend Eric Schnurer, who has worked in and written extensively (including for The Atlantic) about governance at all levels, from the local to the global.
He writes now about the proper lessons to be drawn from comparing modern America’s prospects to those of Rome, after the fall. What follows is a long but highly condensed version of his note. I would direct your attention to the place where he ends his argument: Local innovation is important now, and always has been. The difference now is the potential and scale of global/local connections.
Over to Schnurer. I have added some subheads in bold to highlight the stages of his argument—which, again, I hope you’ll think through to the end:
I read with interest your piece on the fall of the Roman empire … in part because of the fact that you were really discussing a number of contemporary issues of obvious interest to me.
I think of these being less the local aspect, and more the large-scale global future …
It’s not the fall of the Roman empire we should worry about. It’s the fall of the Roman republic. One could argue that the fall of Rome wasn’t so “awful” [JF note: This is Edward Gibbons’s term], because, by that time, Rome was pretty “awful” itself. The empire’s peak— particularly the heights of both power and intellectual advance of the Five Good Emperors—was long behind it.
However much as I may like Trajan and Marcus Aurelius (and I always found it interesting that Gladiator set its story in this period, and has Russell Crowe restore democracy at the end, as if to fantasize how great Rome would be if the history we know had simply ended after Trajan and we then got to go back to the republic … ), Rome’s true greatness begins and ends for me (and I suspect for you and most of your readers) with the Roman republic. In fact, I don’t think the problem with the U.S. today is that it resembles Rome at the end of the empire, but rather that it resembles Rome at the end of the republic.
Or, rather, not long before, with the rise of the Gracchi—the increasing economic inequality, the increasing political polarization, the total eclipse of “the greater good” by what we’d call “special interests,” the turn toward political violence, all of which led eventually to the spiral of destructive civil war, the collapse of democracy (such as it was), and the wholesale replacement of the system with the imperial dictatorship: Looks a lot like the present moment to me …
The real question: Where is America headed? Sure, you can talk about the growth of monasteries and universities in the Dark Ages as a wonderful thing, but (a) what we really mean by that is how wonderful it is that there were islands of light in what was otherwise a sea of darkness, (b) that darkness went on a long time, (c) what came out of it, which you/we now celebrate as the result, was essentially:
the rediscovery of the lost knowledge of Greece and Rome (not to mention the Islamic world) that kindled the Renaissance and Enlightenment;
the reemergence of something resembling “globalization”; and
the end of the horrific destructiveness of the Middle Ages—due largely to the institution of local fiefdoms that your piece celebrates as a sort of Brandeisian laboratory—thanks to their replacement by the modern nation-state and the European state system, which represented a recentralization of authority and stability, not a devolution.
What I actually find more interesting is what your piece says about where we’re headed, which is what I’ve been focusing on, lo! these many years.
Seeing the world through a distorted 20th-century lens. I think there’s a tendency—especially among people of your/my generation [JF note: For me, the dreaded Baby Boomers]—to see major change and progress coming in large-scale, centralized, and particularly federal efforts.
This is a warping effect that the civil-rights and Vietnam eras, with a dose of coming-right-after-the-FDR-era, has had on our understanding of U.S. history.
I’ve seen it in myself and like-minded peers who went into law to change the world and discovered, by the time we got out of law school, that the court system is reactionary and basically always has been that way, except for about six years; the idea that the Supreme Court is the great instrument for social advance that gets us around the parochial-ness of our politics has it exactly backwards.
This is symptomatic of a larger misperception: Yes, great changes come suddenly and on a grand scale—but to say that that’s “the change” is to misunderstand the chaotic nature of all systems.
Sand piles collapse all at once, scientific revolutions occur due to sudden “paradigm shifts,” civil-rights and Reagan revolutions and the rise of Trump/Brexitism burst on the scene—but these are long-term dynamics that may have large-scale effects but play out on the level of individual grains of sand.
There’s a great George Bernard Shaw line about the moment of success occurring long before the moment that it is apparent to the crowd; this is true of just about everything. Brown v. Board took 40 years of small litigation steps—not to mention dramatic changes throughout society, including the integration of the armed forces during and after WWII, just as the massive mobilizations of the peasantry in the Napoleonic Wars led eventually to the democratization of Europe. The big events are the capstones—they are always driven and made possible by small-scale, localized innovations that eventually flow together into what is by then an inevitable deluge.
Brown’s and Scheidel’s celebration of the breakup of the empire as allowing local innovations strikes me as wrong in the same sort of way: These local innovations are always occurring, because that’s where innovation occurs.
This is like the discussion I’m having these days with my 26-year-old niece, who wants to go overturn the entire capitalist and food-production systems to bring about the millennium; having once been 26, I get it, but I have to keep telling her that, with rare exceptions like the Russian Revolution, French Revolution, Taiping Kingdom, etc., you rarely get to upheave the entire system all at once—and when you do, it usually doesn’t turn out too well … In any event, my argument would really be that all of those were not sudden upheavals, any more than Trump’s election was; they were simply culminations of longer trends that started from smaller scale “innovations.”
The enlightening place to look is always local. If you want to know where the world is headed, you need to find the unknown lunatics toiling away in a lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, or a patent office in Basel, or a garage in Menlo Park, California, or the mayor’s office in South Bend—not what the world leaders and experts are saying … I don’t know if finding what people are up to should be encouraging of optimism—I mean, some local innovation includes some bizarre people meeting in Munich beer halls who a decade later launch WWII—but it’s instructive …
Local is where most people always choose to get involved: It’s not just the current dysfunctionality that channels most people into school-board meetings instead of seeking to draft new national legislation. Some small number of crazy people like you and me are drawn to the latter, but that’s a distinct minority, always has been, and always will be.
My work has brought me into contact with people all around the country who were thinking about productive little ideas about how to improve their neighborhoods, their kid’s school, their small business and how it affected their workers, etc. … My contribution has been largely in recognizing them and thinking, Hey, that would make a great basis for a “program” that my candidate could propose, scale up, and fund as governor!
I eventually concluded—as has anyone I know who has thought about government systems from the standpoint of achieving results instead of promoting one’s career—that what state and (ESPECIALLY) national governments do is simply to fund to-scale solutions someone else has discovered, tested, and proved at an “atomic” level …
The way to make a contribution is to go start a school that works, or a neighborhood organization that solves a problem …
Coming to a “point of rupture,” which sounds bad, but … And that takes us to where we’re actually headed as a result. You quote Morley Winograd talking about “networked localities” taking control of global policy. I think that’s sorta correct: In the Aztec language, there’s a phenomenon of two words being placed together to mean something both synergistic and different from the words separately; e.g., “the flower the song” meant “poetry,” and “the water the fire” meant “conquest” or “destruction.”
I think you need to look at your/Winograd’s phrase networked localities in the same way: It’s not just, or even, about the devolution to localities—the “networked” part is essential, and changes the meaning.
Your own work focuses very much on local action and innovation; I’ve been arguing that the virtual world fundamentally changes all of this: It undermines territorial structures like nation-states and the new world order—in that way, Brexit, Scottish devolution, California and even cities going their own way on the Paris accords, cities globally becoming the players rather than nation-states, etc., are all foreseeable developments …
I think we will start developing worldwide “communities” that are not physically connected, but rather are “localized” in the sense of being nodes of innovation or communication or consumption or whatever in a non-physically-contiguous/nonphysical network …
And that’s ultimately what the post-empire question is about. The entire system of civilization as we know it—not simply “the American empire”—is coming to a point of rupture. There may very well be a largely recognizable U.S. at the end of it (although I doubt it), but that will be irrelevant, because the world in which that U.S. is embedded—its political structures, its economic structures, its entire intellectual framework, and its physical manifestations—will all have changed as radically as the 13th century is from today.
And all that massive change will happen massively more quickly than in the 13th century … I write and talk about stuff like this, and people think it sounds “awful” and scary. Where I perhaps share a bit of your optimism is that I don’t.
Sure, the entire world as we know it being wiped away sounds scary, but it’s not necessarily “awful.” If you told people in the 13th century about the world today—family, church, village, political overlord, entire basis of the economy, entire intellectual framework (“Evolution?” “Relativity?” “Quantum mechanics?”), all as you knew them completely gone—they’d think that 100 percent awful. But do you know a single person who would rather be living in the 13th century than today?
The title (which, like most titles, I didn’t write) represented (like many titles) intentional overstatement-for-effect. But the point of the piece was to suggest that maybe Americans should shift the way they talked and thought about the Roman Empire as a metaphor for this country.
For as long as there has been an American republic, some Americans have worried about its impending Roman-style decline and fall. I said: What about the time after Rome fell? What could we learn by imagining ourselves in our version of the Dark Ages—with a failed system of central governance, and life going on at the duchy-by-duchy, monastery-by-monastery level, which for us would mean cities, states, and regions?
In this first roundup, I’ll highlight only critical ones. You’ll see some common themes here, expressed with clarity and erudition that make it a privilege to reach this kind of readership—even when, as now, they’re giving me a hard time writing in to disagree. I’ll have a brief response at the end.
Not “transition” but “collapse.” From a reader in an academic post:
Oh my, you dove into a nasty controversy here. While scholars like Peter Brown and Walter Goffart make an interesting case about “transition,” people like Bryan Ward-Perkins have made what I think is a more compelling case about “collapse of civilization.”
A few things to keep in mind—and on these no one debates:
Population fell. That is a vaguely neutral sounding term, but that is shorthand for murder, rape, starvation, and disease.
Literacy diminished dramatically or was largely lost.
Material possessions diminished in quality and quantity. People were poorer.
I know you are on a pitch about the renewal of our country at the local level. I think that is wishful thinking, but whatever. But the Roman example is a doleful one. Yes, some institutions thrived, but people didn’t. They became poorer, less secure, and less literate.
Seeing the Fall/Transition of the Roman empire as anything other than a human catastrophe is an interesting academic exercise, but let’s keep it at that.
“The roofs have rushed to earth, towers in ruins.” From another reader, who in his day job is a successful software designer. (This is Mark Bernstein, of Eastgate, designer of the program Tinderbox and long-ago guest blogger on this site, when “guest blogging” was a thing.)
One key observation: in the 4th century, an impoverished Italian shepherd ate his dinner on imported tableware, drank imported wine and seasoned his salad with imported oil. He covered his roof (and maybe his manger’s roof as well) in mass-produced roof tiles. In the 6th century, the proudest possessions of kings were fancy safety pins, and their palaces were wooden halls with thatched roofs. In the years of the Empire, Rome imported so much olive oil that the 53 million decommissioned amphorae now form the hill of Monte Testaccio. In the eighth, kings made do with whatever the local brewers could manage, and poured for their guests from decorated beakers made next door.
In the fourth century, Romans built the Old St. Peters and repurposed the Lateran; it’s been through lots of rebuilding but the Roman building was about the modern size. It’s big. In the sixth century, they built Santa Maria In Aracoeli—a small building, constructed on some of Rome’s prime real estate out of mismatched scraps and bits of junk. The junk was nicer than anything money could buy. And they built S. Agnese fuori-le-mura, which is the size of a nice house.
A Pompeiian perfume-seller left us long brothel graffiti as a tribute to a lovely evening. Lots of poor people left us graffiti. Charlemagne never quite managed to learn to write.
To the best of my knowledge, we know too little about what happened to North Africa in this era. It wasn’t pretty. In the second century, North Africa was a real economic powerhouse and a huge food exporter. The irrigation system was wrecked in battles over tax cuts for wealthy estate-owners, and that was that. It was an ecological disaster that made the Western Empire unsupportable.
I’m not sure that the delocalization of governance in the West is an encouraging lesson, either. Yes, there were bright spots—Lindesfarne, Kells, Aachen, Kyev—but they were bright in contrast to the prevailing misery. Look at the opening of The Ruin (trans. Aaron Hostetter https://anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/the-ruin/):
These wall-stones are wondrous—
calamities crumpled them, these city-sites crashed, the work of giants corrupted.
The roofs have rushed to earth, towers in ruins.
Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,
Whoever wrote this knew more than we about what living in the 8th century was like, and he seems pretty certain that things had once been better than they were.
“More like Mad Max than Renaissance Italy.” From another reader:
I enjoyed reading your recent article “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad”, but if I may suggest, I think you are seriously conflating the outcome (modern society) with the experience of the people actually living through that time.
The relative paucity of written history and literature from the time shortly after the end of the Roman Empire or the general loss of Roman control in the outlying territories such as Britain and North Africa doesn’t leave us a lot of descriptions of what life was like in the 400s, 500s, or 600s, but what we do know is that populations dropped sharply, the quality of building and art decreased substantially, and there was the aforementioned almost complete absence of writing, excepting perhaps a few monasteries.
Since presumably people don’t actually vanish, this suggests strongly that there was a period of starvation, disease, and generalized violence that caused the decline in population and the local populaces to simply focus on staying alive, rather than having a relatively rich society able to indulge in luxuries like the theater, writing, and grand monument construction.
Consider that Rome, a city of probably around a million people at its height, had declined to around 5,000 people by the time of Justinian’s attempt to reconquer Italy in the 500s and at one point in these conflicts may have been completely deserted. The territories of the former Roman empire had transformed from a sophisticated trading network where massive (for the time) cities could be supported by farms hundreds of miles away, to one where people were literally farming and grazing cattle in the ruins of the Roman Forum. You don’t get to this kind of population reduction without a lot suffering along the way.
I’d suggest that rather than being “not that bad”, the conditions for the average Roman citizen and their immediate descendants in the centuries after the collapse of Roman rule were apocalyptic; more like Mad Max than Renaissance Italy. Consider that people were literally living in the ruins of a civilization far more sophisticated than their own, with no idea or knowledge of how these structures could have been built, with lives that were likely shorter and more subject to disease and starvation.
It may be true that viewed a thousand years from now, the breakup of America might be viewed as a positive thing by historians of the time. When we look back at Rome, it’s relatively easy to leap from 476 AD to Michelangelo and Leonardo, buzzing by the intervening hundreds of years. But I’d suggest, that the immediate aftermath of a collapse of American government would be a period of starvation, of poverty, and of violence as the successor states fought over who got to control the remnants of the American military machine.
Imagine a number of chaotic, starving, impoverished nuclear armed states, not necessarily friendly to each other, with the remnants of the world’s most powerful military, and its hard to conceive that it would end well for the people living through that time.
Pax Romana vs Pax Americana. Another reader, with a list:
I enjoyed your seeds-sprout-in-the-ruins piece about the possible upsides of declining federal capacity. A few thoughts/caveats:
1. My takeaway from decades-ago reading was that European technology, commerce, wealth surpassed Roman levels around 1100 or so. If that’s right, there was a dark age in concrete senses …
2. If the U.S. federal government continues its descent it will probably take malign forms that will suffocate or actively crush effective local government and other cultural capital …
4. Someone in the last couple of years wrote up a vision of a kind of soft U.S. breakup via extended regional pacts. Ah, Google … it was Sasha Issenberg, more recently than I guessed.
5. The question of whether our federal government is on a permanent downward trajectory raises the question of risk/reward in the most radical proposed norm-breaking for a narrow Democratic majority: filibuster end, new state creation, court packing. Maybe we’re at the point where risk-taking is the most prudent course—a grab to activate the emerging demographic majority before Republicans manage to suppress democracy altogether.
6. The Pax Romana was also real (or was it?), and the end of Pax Americana may prove very dangerous.
7. Environmental pressure—rising seas, desertification, natural disasters—is probably already driving and will continue driving government dysfunction, while government dysfunction accelerates environmental degradation.
I am not entirely despairing. It’s always hard to tell what ills are cyclical and which ones are one-way streets. No one in the 1980s would have dreamed that crime in the U.S. would go into major remission; maybe mysterious forces will dissipate extreme polarization—and we’ll build new defenses against fake news/brainwashing in free societies. Maybe major technological breakthrough (or an ice age) will save us from global warming.
But it’s hard to get too cheery about compensations for a functioning federal government.
Filling the vacuum. Finally for today, from a reader who, it’s relevant to point out, has a Chinese family name:
The end of the Roman Empire might have created a vacuum in which new ideas could grow, leading to the development of modern western civilization. But who’s to say the next vacuum won’t lead to the proliferation of Chinese-style authoritarianism?
More mail ahead, with a different range of views. To respond very briefly:
Thanks again for the erudition and tone of these letters;
A lot of the reaction is to the headline itself—“Wasn’t That Bad.” A minor point about headlines is that article-writers, including me, usually don’t write them and often have no idea what they’re going to be. (I think my idea for a headline was the one you see at the top of this item: “After the Fall.”)
The major point is that the editors who do write them are trying to present the main idea in way true enough to the subtleties of the piece—a few words, representing a few thousand words—to pass muster, but crisp and clever enough to entice the reader to spend time with the extended version of the case.
Often titles are intentionally overstated, with the idea that the reader will be in on the joke. (E.g. “Why I Hope to Die at Age 75.”) And these are often “thought-experiment” pieces, designed to explore a possibility rather than to make a definitive case.
As with this piece: Everyone has heard the Decline and Fall version of the Roman saga. Not as many are familiar with another line from historians, saying “Now, wait a minute ….” And if we talk about this other perspective, where might it lead?
On the details of exactly how bad The Fall was, for which people, and where, and for how long, I promise to read the Ward-Perkins book. I encourage these correspondents (and others) to read Walter Scheidel’s new book, which goes into very great detail on the economic and cultural indicators of “decline” and “recovery.”
On the American side, as stated in this article and over the decades, I would prefer a functioning national government! But that is not in prospect right now. The purpose of this piece (like some others I’ve written over the years—like “Countdown to a Meltdown” or “Declaring Victory” [a headline I actually did write] or “Bush’s Lost Year”) was to ask, What if??? More ahead on the ramifications of “What if,” in future installments.
Thanks to these readers to engaging, and to them and others for considering, what if? More to come.
After the riveting debate in Parliament yesterday about the terms and timing for Brexit, 21 Tory “rebel” MPs defected from the Conservative party on a major vote. They joined members of other parties in dealing a crushing defeat to Boris Johnson’s plans and probably his governing prospects.
After the vote, I opined on Twitter that the 21 Tories, who included several revered party elders, set an example in political courage for U.S. politicians. The 21 knew very well that they would pay a price. Johnson’s party-leadership team made clear before the vote that it would “remove the whip” from MPs who defied them, which meant that dissidents would be kicked out of the party, and in the next election they would be “delisted” as candidates to retain their seats. For most, this would seriously dampen their political prospects.
By contrast, American politicians can seem paralyzed by the mere threat of being “primaried,” or of losing a funding source, or of becoming the object of Donald Trump’s angry tweets. Therefore I wondered, in my short item, why can’t we be more like the Brits? More specifically, why can’t members of our governing party, the 53 Republicans who control the Senate, stand up to their party’s leader the way these Tories stood up to Boris Johnson?
A reader in the U.S. writes in to say, Wait a minute. Here is his case:
While I admire the courage of the 21 Tory Members of Parliament who
voted against Boris Johnson’s government, and I wish that Republican
Members of Congress, would stand up to President Trump, I don’t think the comparison is necessarily a good one.
The actions of Boris Johnson’s government have forced a clear and
immediate choice on the Tory Members in a way that we haven’t seen in the US under the Trump administration.
Since the referendum in the UK, Parliament has been unable to move one way or the other on Brexit. This isn’t so different from what is
happening in our Congress.
Boris Johnson’s latest move forces a decision with immediate
consequences: (1) a no-deal Brexit could have a severe impact on the
lives of the majority of the people in Britain, including supporters
of the Tory party and (2) prorogation of Parliament at this critical
time is a direct threat to the power of the legislature in British
politics. We can’t read the minds of the rebel Torys, but avoiding
being tied to a no-deal Brexit and being a member of a Parliament with
diminished powers could be seen as self interest.
As much as I am horrified by almost everything the Trump
administration is doing, nothing yet has come close to this in
bringing an immediate and visible threat to a significant majority of
Americans (or Republicans) and directly challenging the power of
Many things Trump has done will have severe consequences, but it seems that much of this is still invisible to most Americans. If
Trump’s administration has been talented at anything, perhaps it’s
been in avoiding anything with the immediate and widespread impact of a no-deal Brexit.
Republican legislators have not faced anything like prorogation or a
no-deal Brexit. I have no confidence that they would show similar
courage, but we can’t say for sure.
Perhaps the closest thing to prorogation of Parliament that happened
is the refusal to vote on Merrick Garland’s nomination. That wasn’t
Trump, and unfortunately, John Bercow wasn’t there to help us.
John Bercow is, of course, the gloriously histrionic speaker of the House of Commons, a role that—especially as played by him—has vastly more minute-by-minute influence over the conduct of parliamentary debates than its U.S. legislative counterparts. If you haven’t seen Bercow in action, you will quickly get an idea with this YouTube sample from yesterday’s proceedings, when Boris Johnson’s allies challenged Bercow’s judgment on an important ruling.
As for the reader’s comment that changes of the Trump era remain “invisible,” clearly he is not minimizing what they have meant. Detention camps along the border; farmers and manufacturers coping with tariffs; wilderness land opened for drilling; a president touting his own resort as a site for the next G7 conference—a lot of what has happened is all too grossly visible.
Instead, I think the reader’s point worth noting is that, for a variety of reasons, many people in the U.S. have managed to overlook or excuse away the daily toll. (To give just one example, the former “deficit hawk” Republicans, such as White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who have gone mute as the tax-cut-driven deficit soars.) By contrast, politicians in Britain believed they faced a right-now, up-or-down, do-or-die choice about the nation’s future, which called for people to line up and be counted that day.
The U.S., too, will face such a choice, no later than November 3, 2020.
This is another road report on the state of local journalism, which is more and more important, and more and more imperiled.
It is important because so much of the future of American economic, cultural, and civic life is now being devised and determined at the local or state level. Educational innovation, promotion of new industries and creation of fairer opportunities, absorption of new arrivals (in growing communities) and retaining existing talent (in shrinking ones), reform of policing and prison practices, equitable housing and transportation policies, offsets to addiction and homelessness and other widespread problems, environmental sustainability—these and just about every other issue you can think of are the subjects of countless simultaneous experiments going on across the country. Voters, residents, and taxpayers need to know what is happening (or not), and what is working (or not), in their school systems, and their city councils, and their state capitals.
It is imperiled for obvious reasons. What has happened to media revenues in general has happened worst, fastest, and hardest to local publications, newspapers most of all.
No one of these models or examples will necessarily apply in other places or circumstances. But any illustration of success is worth noticing, for tips.
This brings us to The Quoddy Tides, the twice-monthly, family-owned and -run newspaper that has a print circulation several times larger than the population of the city where it is based.
The home city is Eastport, Maine, whose library Deb wrote about recently, and which we described in our book, Our Towns. In its heyday as a sardine-canning capital, Eastport had a population of more than 5,000. Now the canneries are gone, and the year-round population is about 1,300, and nearly everyone in town holds a combination of jobs—lobster fishing, seasonal tourist businesses, work at the commercial port or in forestry, small crafts or art studios—to make ends meet. But in this setting, The Quoddy Tides has a paid print circulation of just less than 5,000, and now has more than 50 years of continuous operation. Its editorial and business office is in a white clapboard structure that at various times was a fishing-company office and then a Christian Science church, along the bay front in Eastport’s small but architecturally distinguished downtown. It is run on a shoestring, but it has some 20 contributors and correspondents in the region, and it is full of both articles and ads, and it matters in its community.
Part of The QT’s circulation secret is similar to that of Seven Days, in Vermont: It is aimed at an audience, and market, beyond its immediate hometown base. In addition to news of Eastport, The QT covers that of other down-east Maine towns such as Lubec, Machias, and Calais (pronounced like callous), and adjoining maritime islands and towns in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. It also has a substantial mail circulation, reaching subscribers in 49 states who are originally from the area, or have visited, or feel some interest or connection to it. (South Dakota is the outlier. People of Sioux Falls and Rapid City, c’mon!)
Also, like The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi, the paper’s family ownership means that it can spend its modest resources as it chooses. It is not under external-ownership pressure to meet regular profitability targets, which has sent so many small papers into cycles of cutback and decline.
But when I spoke with the husband-and-wife couple who run the paper, Edward French and Lora Whelan, they emphasized that it was the kind of journalism they provide that has allowed them to survive.
The Quoddy Tides—named for the Passamaquoddy Bay on which Eastport sits, which feeds into the Bay of Fundy—was founded by Edward’s mother, Winifred, in 1968. She and her husband, Rowland, a doctor, had moved to Eastport from Arizona in the early 1950s, and stayed there to raise their family. (“My mother was looking for someplace not quite as hot,” Edward told me in The QT’s office earlier this month. “Coastal Maine qualified.”) Rowland became a leading local doctor, with a clinic now named in his honor. One of Edward’s brothers, Hugh, also lives now in Eastport, where with his wife, Kristin McKinlay, he runs a museum and arts organization called the Tides Institute.
In the late 1960s, as the family’s children were growing, Winifred decided that the community needed a newspaper. A previous one, from the town’s sardine-canning days, had gone out of business in the 1950s. “She had no newspaper experience,” Lora said of her mother-in-law. “But she thought these communities really needed a voice. So she talked to other small newspapers and had correspondence with people all around the country about how she should set this up.” After a year of research, she launched the paper in 1968.
Edward, then elementary-school age, grew up helping address papers for mail subscribers, and with the page layout. In those days, a fishing boat took article text across the water to a layout shop in Deer Island, Canada, and then another boat would carry the pasted-up pages back to the U.S. for printing.
Then and now, the striking characteristic of the paper is its density of local news. The most recent issue, when we visited, was 40 pages long, with many dozens of purely local, information-packed news stories.
For instance, the front page (at right) had five local stories: about the Passamaquoddy Tribal Council’s effort to defend water rights; about limits on sea-urchin fishing (a quickly growing market, mainly for export to Asia); about the impact of new tax preferences, for land conservation, on local tax revenues; a crime story; and one about an academic-freedom dispute at the local Maritime College of Forest Technology. Plus, a picture of a kayaker viewing a Minke whale—of which we saw large numbers in the bay.
In the rest of the paper you have: high-school sports. Commercial shipping schedules and tide tables. Gardening and cooking tips. Religious news. Birth and death notices. Puzzles. Local city-council roundups. A long editorial and letters-to-editors section. Everything.
“I think it’s important for newspapers not to keep cutting,” Edward told me at The QT’s office. “If you keep cutting, there’s less and less reason for people to buy the paper. If you want to keep a healthy circulation, you have to make the investment in reporters and providing the news that people can’t find anywhere else.” If there is a “secret” of the paper’s success, he said, it is “that you’re providing information that people can’t find any other place.”
Both Lora and Edward emphasized that the paper’s twice-a-month publishing schedule—the second and fourth Friday of each month, with a built-in cushion for them in the months that have five Fridays—gives them an advantage, in forcing them away from the daily or breaking-news stories that their readers would already have learned about elsewhere.
“I believe that daily newspapers struggle because they’re so often repeating what’s already been presented, either in social media or on the television news,” Edward said. “But when you have a local newspaper that is presenting news people aren’t going to find anywhere else, I think there will always be a need for that. I think that will allow local newspapers to survive very well.”
Unlike her husband, Lora is not originally from Eastport. She grew up in New York; some of her relatives ran a small newspaper in Santa Barbara, California; and she originally came to Maine, before she met Edward, to work on an economic-development project. They met, and married, and she became involved with the newspaper. Now she is the assistant editor and publisher, and does much of the local-news coverage.
“I don’t know what journalism schools are doing these days, but I really wish they would focus more on local news,” she told me. “It can be boring, I mean really boring, to go to city-council meetings every month, and county-commissioner meetings every month. But at the same time, it’s incredibly important. And at least once a year, something will come out that’s incredibly important, and that you would not know if you hadn’t been there.”
“Those are the kinds of stories that local people need to know, and want to know, and that are getting lost with some of the papers that don’t have the resources, or don’t understand how important it is to cover those boring meetings month after month.”
“It’s not exciting most of the time,” she said—and Deb and I knew what she was talking about, since we’d been to an Eastport City Council meeting that she was covering. “But it’s critical. It’s like how most of us live our lives. Not terribly exciting most of the time—but, you know, we have these moments!”
Edward had an aw-shucks, self-deprecating manner when talking about his newspaper’s influence and record. Maybe this is The Maine Way; maybe it’s just him. But he wasn’t afraid to seem earnest when talking about why he believed that local journalism mattered.
“I think we provide quite a bit of investigative reporting, and try to get into the meat of what’s happening so that people can make informed decisions. We really try to provide a voice for people in our communities that might otherwise not have a voice, so that people in power have to address their concerns and be held accountable.”
“I think that’s really the basis for a healthy democracy,” he said. “I think without community newspapers, democracy will really suffer.” It’s worth noting at this point that we’ve been following the Eastport and Quoddy Tides saga for more than six years now, and what Edward and Lora said about their paper matches what other people in the community have told us as well. It’s not unusual to overhear people saying, “Well, I saw in the Tides …”
Lora said that in a town as small as Eastport, she and her husband and their contributors knew that every day they would encounter people they were writing about, and people who read their paper. “It’s a delicate balance in a community this small,” she said. “We’d walk into the IGA”—the local grocery store—“and people would come up to us waving a story we’d written.” For a long time, she said, she and Edward didn’t have a phone-answering machine, because they didn’t want to deal with some messages.
But overall, she said, “actually it’s a blessing to feel that trust that people have in you. They come up to you and say, ‘This is what I’m worried about. Is there any way you can look into it?’ Sometimes we can. Sometimes we cannot. But it is a beautiful feeling to have someone trust you like that.”
The Quoddy Tides model may not work in other communities, and it may not work forever even in this one. But for now it’s a useful illustration of the way journalism, community, public discourse, and civic engagement can interact in a positive cycle, rather than in the destructive ways we’re all so familiar with.
Whatever is wrong with Donald Trump is getting worse. A week ago, it seemed noteworthy that he was canceling a long-planned state visit because an allied government didn’t want to let him “buy Greenland.”
Last week I argued (in “If Trump Were an Airline Pilot”) that if Trump occupied any other important position in public life, responsible figures would already have removed him from the controls. In this case the “responsible figures” are the Vichy Republicans who control the U.S. Senate, which is why nothing has happened to rein Trump in. Not one of these senators will stand up to Trump, even as he is melting down.
A few days ago, readers with military, corporate, and other backgrounds responded to the proposition that a person like Trump would already have been screened out by corporate, military, medical, or other professional systems. Here’s another round in response to that.
CEOs are worse than you think: In the previous post I quoted a reader who said that a man like Trump was par for the course in big public corporations. (“Many American CEOs are as incompetent as Trump.”) I said, in response, that it would be good to have a few more examples—apart, say, from Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, who was able to con much of the financial and scientific world for a long time.
This reader wrote back to say: You want examples? I’ve got examples! Here is an abridged version of his reply:
I read your challenge regarding examples of CEOs who have destroyed the company and were not fired by the board for whatever reason in the face of incompetence. First, of course, scholarship:
1. Book that discusses this very same phenomenon, as CEOs are chosen for their 'charisma' vs. experience and competence. Searching for a Corporate Savior, The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs (Rakesh Khurana, Princeton, 2002). In this book there is a discussion about the parameters that boards tend to use for choosing CEOs in the US. I think you'll find some of your examples there.
2. Examples of incompetent CEOs who destroyed or helped destroy their companies after being put on the job. Don't take my word for it, try this list of “15 Worst CEOs in American History.” The criteria of the list:
“Those selected for the list fall into one of two simple categories - those who ruined the companies completely while they served as sitting CEOs and those who did severe damage from which their firms could never possibly recover.”...
We can talk about incompetence in another sense: Are they building a company that works for the world at large, or are they building a company to feed their egos?
You may say, it doesn't matter if they do, what matters is the result. However, I think you'll find that, if we begin to discuss the ethics of owning and managing a business, you quickly get to the 'responsibility' moment, where your responsibility is to your employees, your environment, your country, and your shareholders. In that order.
The idea that shareholders must always come first has always been ridiculous and only a small mind and small heart could accept that (cue the usual Republican assessments - take your examples from people like Mitch McConnell, a man who does not understand what made the US great and only cares about getting what he wants or what he thinks he wanted when he was 30 years younger.) Take your example as Bezos. Once you have made more money than God, what's the point of not paying your employees a living wage?...
Hope you are not counting on the genius of American Business leadership to save the country from its own present course.
To reassure the reader on the final point, I’m not looking for a CEO savior. (The main theme of the recent work that I’ve been doing with my wife, Deb Fallows, is that communities need to be their own saviors.) My point was simply: Corporate oversight, however flawed, has seemed to be more effective than what we’re getting at the moment out of the U.S. Senate.
Which leads me to …
Actually, CEOs are way better than you think! A reader whom I’ve known for a long time, and whose work involves corporate governance and CEO-search processes, agrees with the original point, and disagrees with the reader above.
My friend writes:
I’d like to offer a response to the response you received [from the reader quoted above] regarding CEO’s of public companies and the Board’s judgement on their fitness to serve (“The board at a public company would have replaced him outright or arranged a discreet shift out of power.”)...
The responder’s comments are contrary to my personal experience. For more two decades I was a Senior Partner and the Co-Leader of the [particular business area] Practice at one of the top four international retained executive search firms. My search practice was exclusively focused on C-level executive positions, not infrequently searches for CEO replacement. In a majority of my executive searches, my client was the Board of Directors.
While the typical CEO search engagement was initiated to replace the planned retirement, often a year or more in advance, I can think of at least half a dozen searches to replace CEOs whose behavior was not only harmful to the business interests of the enterprise, but also offensive to the values of the company.
These were cases of Trump-like behavior. This could be a painful process for the Board, particularly when the CEO was also a Founder who had overseen the selection of Board Directors over the course of many years.
I can think of four examples of CEO behavior so egregious that the Board recognized its fiduciary duty to shareholders to dismiss and the replace the CEO. While I won’t name the companies involved, I will say that all were Fortune 100 corporations, two investor-owned systems, a specialty manufacturer, and one of the largest [insurance-related firms]. These executive searches were conducted in strictest confidence, and only the Board was aware that the CEO was to be replaced. In contrast to your respondent’s characterization of “the medieval level at which corporate management is done,” it was clear to me and my Search Firm that in these instances the Boards acted firmly, ethically, and in the interest not only of shareholders but also of the corporation’s management and employees.
I will acknowledge that there has been a growing tendency for CEOs to recruit compliant Board Directors and undermine their independence, but I will also observe that based on many years’ experience working very closely with many of the most senior healthcare executives that the best CEOs seek strong and independent Directors on their corporate Boards. The best CEOs of the most successful large public companies use their Directors as an extension and enhancement of management talent, and they defer to their Directors when making certain critical decisions regarding the values of the enterprise and its strategic direction.
Again, in my experience, an effective Board would not long tolerate capricious leadership, and certainly would not hesitate to act to dismiss a CEO whose personal behavior violated ethical standards, even if the enterprise was doing well.
One final note: your respondent asserts, “Many American CEOs are as incompetent as Trump.” I demur. With the exception of the occasional Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos), Ken Lay (Enron), or Rick Scott (Columbia HCA) – essentially Founders as well as CEOs – my personal experience and close acquaintance with a fair number of top tier executives and Board Directors is that it takes exceptional intelligence, leadership talent, and steady judgement to lead an organization as complex as a Fortune 100 corporation.
While we’re at it, let’s think more carefully about airline pilots: In the first post I used the commercial-pilot world as an example of highly consequential occupations, with checks and safeguards to thin out incompetents. And, yes, I say this in full awareness of the “Right Stuff”/“Top Gun” macho-egotist mentality among a number of pilots, which I’ve seen plenty of examples of during my own humble-private-pilot exploits over the years.
This reader writes:
You might want to stop using airline pilots as the standards of professional purity. It was a very good article, but as a 36-year airline pilot and 20-year Naval pilot, I can say that the presumption of purity isn’t warranted.
There are copilots who have had to sign letters agreeing to never bid for an open captain position, pilots transferred to non-flying positions due to the Dilbert Principle, and others on special tracking or who are well known among their constituents.
Like doctors, lawyers, and even clergy, they are the fringe performers from whom the other professionals learn second-hand about proper conduct. After a recent crash, the FAA is now tracking repeated poor performers with previous employers.
The real question about Trump is -
why isn’t he a registered sex offender,
why hasn’t he had any professional accreditation removed,
why hasn’t he been held financially responsible for his financial failures [and on through a long list of similar Trump-related questions, which I am abbreviating.]
I thank the reader for this note, but also think that his pilot-world examples strengthen my original point. The moral from aviation is not that pilots are standards of purity—although as a group, airline pilots (like air traffic controllers) maintain a very high level of professional competence. Rather the point is that the system is designed to shield the flying public from the slackers, rogues, and outliers. That systematic accountability is what we’re missing with Trump.
Let’s get back to the mental issues: In my original piece I explained why I resisted “medicalizing” Trump’s aberrant behavior—that is, trying to name some biological cause, rather than noting the effects. A mental-health professional writes:
I thought your characterization of Trump was dead-on. A retired [senior military officer] and PhD psychologist, I do have the professional background to validate everything you said….
The last 12 years of my worklife were at [a major public research institution] as a science officer, program official, and faculty member. Administering research programs you get to know literally hundreds of fellow psychologists and psychiatrists. These are aside from my colleagues while in the military and all across the government including at ... VA, FAA, GAO, and OPM - even the White House.
Not one colleague, when the subject of Trump arose, has ever expressed disagreement with the assertion that Trump is unfit for duty as POTUS. Not one.
Something to keep in mind is that professional ethics do not apply in diagnosing somebody like Trump because, thanks to his moth-like attraction to celebrity, he has provided more hours to observe him across numerous settings than is remotely the case when diagnosing a typical patient.
More on medicalization from another mental-health professional:
Back when you were first weighing the advantages and disadvantages of seeing Trump through a medical lens I think I called your attention to an unfortunate problem with the modern “DSM” diagnostic system.
Though the psychiatrists who put the system together relied heavily on the work of psychologist Theodore Millon when they assembled the section on personality disorders, they overruled Millon’s strenuous objection to their insistence that you can’t assign a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy) unless the person is literally a criminal.
Three years ago that led to the emergence of a consensus, especially among nonprofessionals, that Trump suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder.
While that at least puts us in the right ballpark, it fails to capture why Trump is so dangerously different from most politicians. Most of them are probably not significantly less narcissistic than most Hollywood celebrities. But, like most Hollywood celebrities, they lack Trump’s signature gratuitous meanness and cruelty - to use one of his favorite words, his nastiness.
A final word on Queeg and ‘Caine’: In the preceding round, a reader disagreed with my suggestion that White House aides closely study Herman Wouk’s famous-in-its-time novel The Caine Mutiny. The reader agreed that the paranoid central figure of the book, Captain Queeg, had important similarities with Donald Trump. But he thought that Wouk’s larger point was different from that of another military-mariner drama, the 1995 movie Crimson Tide.
One more dip into the Captain Queeg well:
I was in 7th or 8th grade when we visited family friends a few states distant; a Captain who made the Navy his career after WW2 unlike my dad, and his wife, who both always kindly engaged with me, having no children of their own.
I looked over their bookshelves after dinner and saw The Caine Mutiny, opening it with interest maybe expecting cutlasses and buried treasure. The Captain said "that's a good book!". I was up late that night, and re-read the book a few times since, making new comparisons with age, and seeing aspects become quite dated.
Queeg seems to be a military example of the Peter Principle, perhaps well competent in peacetime (and convoy duty in early years of war?). Also, how much of his incompetence by the time of the Caine stems from failings exaggerated by fatigue from serving first… Trump embodies the Peter Principle but if he is fatigued it is from dissipation not service.
Keefer's pose as an expert who thinks he knows better and acts almost sneeringly smarter than most around him, but caves in when confronted, also resembles Trump more than Queeg. Keefer is summed up by an old editorial quote about instigators vs. participants: "let's you and him fight!" I always took the greatest lesson from Caine as "don't be a Keefer", with a corollary lesson along the lines of WAIT advice: "why am I talking?" meaning you don't know everything, let others teach or help you.
Keefer is an obvious caution about remote diagnosis, so we should judge Trump's actions or words (and there are plenty to judge) more than his inferred thoughts.
Maryk was the hero, without pretense or Keith's initial condescension. Whatever pretense Queeg had came from obvious desperation so he ends up a more sympathetic character than Keefer.
A tidbit I want to re-read for: when Keith is handed Keefer's piles of un-filed communications, I recall that an NCO (I forget the character's name) shows him "the Navy way" to clean up Keefer's mess. Keith gets his head around that and does OK after his initial screw-up of radio messages for the first Caine captain. Since my last reading more than 10 years ago I want to see if I remember this accurately this as a lesson about "Standard Work" (a Lean approach) from an era before lean manufacturing became an everyday concept.
Three days ago I argued that if Donald Trump were in any consequential job other than the one he now occupies—surgeon, military commander, head of a private organization or public company, airline pilot—he would already have been removed. A sampling of reader response:
The military would have responded. One reader writes:
I am retired military officer and there IS a significant part of his behavior that should generate a change of command without a parade.
The UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] is very clear about anyone in the chain of command influencing ongoing military law procedures. If ANY military officer would have done what this man did concerning Eddie Gallagher they would have been removed from their position without hesitation. [JF note: Gallagher was the Navy SEAL who was tried for murder, on allegations he stabbed a captive prisoner to death. After he was acquitted, Trump publicly took credit for helping get him off. More here.]
My God, what have we done.
Also, school systems. Another reader adds:
He would be unemployable in every school district in America.
We elected a president who couldn’t even be a substitute teacher.
But maybe not in corporations? From another reader:
In your piece from 22 August, you mentioned:
“The board at a public company would have replaced him outright or arranged a discreet shift out of power. (Of course, he would never have gotten this far in a large public corporation.)”
I respectfully disagree. One thing that is almost never discussed in the US is the medieval level at which corporate management is done. It is a fiefdom where the CEO is the chosen one to do as he wishes for as long as he can.
Trump would have risen to the top of many a corporation looking for a 'savior' (isn't that what we call the CEOs who will fix a company in trouble?)
Many American CEOs are as incompetent as Trump. They do a better job of hiding it, and they make sure that their successors get blamed for their messes.
I’ll accept the reader’s argument that some corporate CEOs may be no more knowledgeable or competent than Trump—though I’d like to hear a specific example. (Maybe Elizabeth Holmes, of Theranos? On the other hand, even today’s flawed corporate-governance system eventually caught up with her.)
I disagree that the board of a public corporation would have indefinitely put up with what the world has recently seen from such a leader, in the way that the GOP majority in the Senate—the functional equivalent of a corporation’s board—puts up with Trump.
The new ‘Flight 93’ A reader refers to the popular right-wing concept that the 2016 presidential election was a civic version of United Flight 93, from September 11, 2001. On that flight, passengers recognized that the plane had been taken over by terrorists, and they stormed the cockpit to bring the plane crashing to the ground rather than allowing it to become a flying bomb detonated in Washington.
The idea that 2016 was the “Flight 93 Election” became shorthand for a “by any means necessary!” approach to Donald Trump: Yeah, he has his problems (just like crashing a plane into the ground has its problems), but the alternative is even worse.
The reader writes:
Whether purposely or not, your piece echoes and counterweights the pernicious metaphor of The Flight 93 Election by Micheal Anton.
It was helpful to be reminded that most institutions have procedures in place for removal of a presiding officer who is unfit for duty.
Speaking of the military, maybe ‘The Caine Mutiny’is not the right model. In my post I likened Donald Trump’s current bearing to that of Philip Queeg, in Herman Wouk’s famed 1950s novel The Caine Mutiny and the subsequent movie.
Several readers wrote to note a complication with that comparison. In specific, while many people agreed with the similarities between Trump’s behavior and Queeg’s, several pointed out that the moral Herman Wouk seemed to draw from his story worked against the point I was trying to make.
Here’s a sample letter. For those not familiar with the book or all the characters mentioned, the central point is that Wouk ended the book being more sympathetic to his manifestly deranged main character, Captain Queeg, and critical of those who removed him from command. The reader says:
I have a quibble with your literary analysis.
My Dad gave me a tattered copy of The Caine Mutiny when I was in eight grade. It’s a great coming of age story. As I have become a graying and nondescript adult, as Willie Keith [one of the complicated protagonists] is described in the final pages, I appreciate Keith’s story more and more.
But it seems to me that at the end of the book, the narrative itself and important characters within it (not just Keith but Greenwald and even Keggs) conclude that Queeg should NOT have been relieved.
Greenwald, from a position of moral authority, credits Queeg with doing what was necessary to protect the country from fascism while the rest of them trained up for war, and regrets what he sees as his own (necessary) role in Queeg’s humiliation. Keith accepts and agrees with the official Navy reprimand he receives for his role in the relief.
Keggs, now a captain himself, wonders how they got off the hook. The consensus opinion at the end of the book is that Keefer (and of course the fascists) were the true villains, and that the Navy that put Queeg in command of a DMS [destroyer mine sweeper] generally knows what it’s doing.
I loved everything else about the article. But let’s not let Trump off the hook the way Herman Wouk let Queeg off the hook.
Several other readers suggested a better (if less famous) comparison: the 1995 movie Crimson Tide, set aboard a nuclear-missile submarine, in which an executive officer played by Denzel Washington stands up to a captain played by Gene Hackman and finally (and correctly) relieves him of command.
Does naming a problem matter? I explained in my original post why I had long resisted “medicalizing” Trump’s aberrant behavior — that is, linking his excesses to some possible underlying disorder, rather than just noting them on their own. A mental-health professional writes to disagree:
I have to disagree on your belief that it wouldn't matter to anyone what his diagnosis is.
We have a unique situation here in which his most likely diagnosis would distress many if they truly understood what the term actually means and how we can draw a reasonable conclusion that we know his provisional diagnosis without ever seeing him.
As a Psychiatric Social Worker who has worked in forensic mental health, I know that it is well established that at least 1% of the population does not develop a conscience. They don't get angry, or stop caring, they simply lack to capacity to feel guilt, empathy, or grief. In many cases, this appears tied to brain abnormalities….
There are different terms and models for assessing such a person. Malignant Narcissism has been openly mentioned. Narcissistic Sociopath is common in pop culture. I prefer the term Psychopathy which is the model I am most familiar.
By definition, such a person is unfit for office (even if they lack the traits of the small subsection who become serial killers). I have to believe that the majority of the Republicans in Congress would care if they understood they are enabling a psychopath and the danger that represents to our country.
As a Social Worker, I am aware there are times when community safety and our duty to humankind outweigh the so-called
"Goldwater Rule" [JF note: this is the informal bar on commenting on people a mental-health professional has not examined personally]. This is spelled out in our NASW Code of Ethics and are reasons for the Tarasoff ruling and the laws on reporting suspected child abuse. [JF note: the Tarasoff case involved professionals’ responsibility to warn people who might be victims of a mentally ill patient’s behavior].
Imagine a professional who has the special training and has spent the time familiarizing themselves with the data on Trump trying to defend their decision to stay silent ten years from now. "Well, I knew that Trump might be a Psychopath, but you know, professional ethics."…
FBI agents are trained in the many ways such a person gives themselves away, but even a well-educated lay person can recognize that we have a profoundly mental disturbed man in the White House.
More on why a diagnosis matters. From another reader:
One of the characteristics of NPD [narcissistic personality disorder, whose list of symptoms closely resembles daily reports from the Trump White House] is that when meeting obstructions to the patient's narcissism, there is a progression from attempting to charm, to bullying, to outright paranoia; as you note, we re seeing that progression.
I agree the medicalizing our observations has no particular effect. Sufficient to say that our President is decompensating, getting crazier and crazier.
We thought democracy would spare us. From another reader:
Toward the end of today's piece you write:
"There are two exceptions. One is a purely family-run business, like the firm in which Trump spent his entire previous career. And the other is the U.S. presidency, where he will remain, despite more and more-manifest Queeg-like unfitness, as long as the GOP Senate stands with him."
I can't help but think of the long history of hereditary monarchs and Popes who were not only utterly unfit to rule, but were unfit in ways that were clearly visible to everybody around them. Some of them were mere toddlers when they acceded to the throne.
I think that in the US, after tossing out one of those monarchs, we've convinced ourselves that our system just wouldn't allow this to happen. We love democracy so much that we can't conceive of the idea that a quarter of our country would willingly make the effort to walk into a polling booth and sign over power to someone like this, and that enough of the rest of us would not see it as such a dire emergency that they wouldn't bother to vote against him.
It feels like a step backwards not just for the Presidency (which has seen its fair share of xenophobic, incompetent, and corrupt occupants), but for a world in general that seemed like it had moved on from an obviously flawed method of entrusting people with power.
Thanks to the readers, and a final point I can’t make often enough.
If a renegade CEO were jeopardizing a public corporation’s future, the board of directors would finally act.
If a renegade pilot threatened the safety of passengers, an airline’s management — or the regulators from the FAA — would feel legally obliged to act.
Same for a renegade doctor, or teacher, or most other officials. The scandal of some police agencies, and of some Catholic (and other) hierarchies, is their failure to act as the evidence mounted up.
The body that could act in the public interest in this case is the U.S. Senate. As explained in the original piece, any effort to rein in Trump, or to remove him from command, finally rests on support from the 45 men and 8 women who make up the current Republican majority in the Senate. Unlike the other 330 million or so Americans, those 53 individuals — the people whose names are listed here — could do something directly. And they won’t.
Through the 2016 campaign, I posted a series called “Trump Time Capsule” in this space. The idea was to record, in real time, what was known about Donald Trump’s fitness for office—and to do so not when people were looking back on our era but while the Republican Party was deciding whether to line up behind him and voters were preparing to make their choice.
The series reached 152 installments by election day. I argued that even then there was no doubt of Trump’s mental, emotional, civic, and ethical unfitness for national leadership. If you’re hazy on the details, the series is (once again) here.
That background has equipped me to view Trump’s performance in office as consistently shocking but rarely surprising. He lied on the campaign trail, and he lies in office. He insulted women, minorities, “the other” as a candidate, and he does it as a president. He led “lock her up!” cheers at the Republican National Convention and he smiles at “send them back!” cheers now. He did not know how the “nuclear triad” worked then, and he does not know how tariffs work now. He flared at perceived personal slights when they came from Senator John McCain, and he does so when they come from the Prime Minister of Denmark. He is who he was.
The Atlantic editorial staff, in a project I played no part in, reached a similar conclusion. Its editorial urging a vote against Trump was obviously written before the election but stands up well three years later:
He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar. He is spectacularly unfit for office, and voters—the statesmen and thinkers of the ballot box—should act in defense of American democracy and elect his opponent
The one thing I avoided in that Time Capsule series was “medicalizing” Trump’s personality and behavior. That is, moving from description of his behavior to speculation about its cause. Was Trump’s abysmal ignorance—“Most people don’t know President Lincoln was a Republican!”—a sign of dementia, or of some other cognitive decline? Or was it just more evidence that he had never read a book? Was his braggadocio and self-centeredness a textbook case of narcissistic personality disorder? (Whose symptoms include “an exaggerated sense of self-importance” and “a sense of entitlement and require[s] constant, excessive admiration.”) Or just that he is an entitled jerk? On these and other points I didn’t, and don’t, know.
Like many people in the journalistic world, I received a steady stream of mail from mental-health professionals arguing for the “medicalized” approach. Several times I mentioned the parallel between Trump’s behavior and the check-list symptoms of narcissism. But I steered away from “this man is sick”—naming the cause rather than listing the signs—for two reasons.
The minor reason was the medical-world taboo against public speculation about people a doctor had not examined personally. There is a Catch-22 circularity to this stricture (which dates to the Goldwater-LBJ race in 1964). Doctors who have not treated a patient can’t say anything about the patient’s condition, because that would be “irresponsible”—but neither can doctors who have, because they’d be violating confidences.
Also, a flat ban on at-a-distance diagnosis doesn’t really meet the common-sense test. Medical professionals have spent decades observing symptoms, syndromes, and more-or-less probable explanations for behavior. We take it for granted that an ex-quarterback like Tony Romo can look at an offensive lineup just before the snap and say, “This is going to be a screen pass.” But it’s considered a wild overstep for a doctor or therapist to reach conclusions based on hundreds of hours of exposure to Trump on TV.
My dad was a small-town internist and diagnostician. Back in the 1990s he saw someone I knew, on a TV interview show, and he called me to say: “I think your friend has [a neurological disease]. He should have it checked out, if he hasn’t already.” It was because my dad had seen a certain pattern—of expression, and movement, and facial detail—so many times in the past, that he saw familiar signs, and knew from experience what the cause usually was. (He was right in this case.) Similarly, he could walk down the street, or through an airline terminal, and tell by people’s gait or breathing patterns who needed to have knee or hip surgery, who had just had that surgery, who was starting to have heart problems, et cetera. (I avoided asking him what he was observing about me.)
Recognizing patterns is the heart of most professional skills, and mental health professionals usually know less about an individual patient than all of us now know about Donald Trump. And on that basis, Dr. Bandy Lee of Yale and others associated with the World Mental Health Coalition have been sounding the alarm about Trump’s mental state (including with a special analysis of the Mueller report). Another organization of mental health professionals is the “Duty to Warn” movement.
But the diagnosis-at-a-distance issue wasn’t the real reason I avoided “medicalization.” The main reason I didn’t go down this road was my assessment that it wouldn’t make a difference. People who opposed Donald Trump already opposed him, and didn’t need some medical hypothesis to dislike his behavior. And people who supported him had already shown that they would continue to swallow anything, from “Grab ‘em by … ” to “I like people who weren’t captured.” The Vichy Republicans of the campaign dutifully lined up behind the man they had denounced during the primaries, and the Republicans of the Senate have followed in that tradition.
But now we’ve had something we didn’t see so clearly during the campaign. These are episodes of what would be called outright lunacy, if they occurred in any other setting: An actually consequential rift with a small but important NATO ally, arising from the idea that the U.S. would “buy Greenland.” Trump’s self-description as “the Chosen One,” and his embrace of a supporter’s description of him as the “second coming of God” and the “King of Israel.” His logorrhea, drift, and fantastical claims in public rallies, and his flashes of belligerence at the slightest challenge in question sessions on the White House lawn. His utter lack of affect or empathy when personally meeting the most recent shooting victims, in Dayton and El Paso. His reduction of any event, whatsoever, into what people are saying about him.
Obviously I have no standing to say what medical pattern we are seeing, and where exactly it might lead. But just from life I know this:
If an airline learned that a pilot was talking publicly about being “the Chosen One” or “the King of Israel” (or Scotland or whatever), the airline would be looking carefully into whether this person should be in the cockpit.
If a hospital had a senior surgeon behaving as Trump now does, other doctors and nurses would be talking with administrators and lawyers before giving that surgeon the scalpel again.
If a public company knew that a CEO was making costly strategic decisions on personal impulse or from personal vanity or slight, and was doing so more and more frequently, the board would be starting to act. (See: Uber, management history of.)
If a university, museum, or other public institution had a leader who routinely insulted large parts of its constituency—racial or religious minorities, immigrants or international allies, women—the board would be starting to act.
If the U.S. Navy knew that one of its commanders was routinely lying about important operational details, plus lashing out under criticism, plus talking in “Chosen One” terms, the Navy would not want that person in charge of, say, a nuclear-missile submarine. (See: The Queeg saga in The Caine Mutiny, which would make ideal late-summer reading or viewing for members of the White House staff.)
Yet now such a person is in charge not of one nuclear-missile submarine but all of them—and the bombers and ICBMs, and diplomatic military agreements, and the countless other ramifications of executive power.
If Donald Trump were in virtually any other position of responsibility, action would already be under way to remove him from that role. The board at a public company would have replaced him outright or arranged a discreet shift out of power. (Of course, he would never have gotten this far in a large public corporation.) The chain-of-command in the Navy or at an airline or in the hospital would at least call a time-out, and check his fitness, before putting him back on the bridge, or in the cockpit, or in the operating room. (Of course, he would never have gotten this far as a military officer, or a pilot, or a doctor.)
There are two exceptions. One is a purely family-run business, like the firm in which Trump spent his entire previous career. And the other is the U.S. presidency, where he will remain, despite more and more-manifest Queeg-like unfitness, as long as the GOP Senate stands with him.
(Why the Senate? Because the two constitutional means for removing a president, impeachment and the 25th Amendment, both ultimately require two thirds support from the Senate. Under the 25th Amendment, a majority of the Cabinet can remove a president—but if the president disagrees, he can retain the office unless two thirds of both the House and Senate vote against him, an even tougher standard than with impeachment. Once again it all comes back to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.)
Donald Trump is who we knew him to be. But now he’s worse. The GOP Senate continues to show us what it is.
Last week I reported on a conference of community-college leaders that Deb Fallows and I attended in Michigan, and about some of the reasons we’ve come to believe that community colleges are so important to America’s economic and civic future.
Readers weighed in with their experiences and views. First, from a reader in Texas:
Unless I missed it, I think you missed one of the additional key assets of community college, at least here in my state. It is a potential GATEWAY.
Neither of our kids were well positioned for college I am ashamed to admit. Our son thankfully went onto [a local community college] from high school graduation. His sister went onto a state college in Texas from high school.
Our son struggled for a few years to gain his academic footing and direction. Our daughter outgrew her original college and moved onto [a state university in Texas], and then to graduation at [another well-known university].
Our son eventually went from community college to graduate from a state university, Cum Laude. None of this would have happened were it not for Texas’s policy on easy transition between community college and state college/university educational institutions once you are in the system and meeting academic standards. And, I would add, automatic acceptance of the top 10% of high school graduating classes.
I have no idea how commonplace this arrangement is across the country, but I have to applaud Texas for this educational feature. Not everybody is ready at HS graduation for a university environment. That should not limit their life’s potential. I hope other states do the same.
I agree with the reader that “portability” of credits through different levels of a public higher-ed system is an important opportunity-enhancing feature. Here’s a detailed example of how one state, California, has tried to ease the process: It has a site called assist.org, which lets students see which credits are transferable from one California public higher-ed institution to another, under which set of rules. (For instance: The site would let you specify that you’d attended San Bernardino Valley College and were interested in the California State University at San Bernardino or the University of California at Riverside. It would then list which credits for which specific courses could be transferred.)
The reader in Texas adds:
Failure at a 4 year university is indelible in GPA/class rank. I still remember the introductory meeting and the “look to the left, look to the right” speech when I started in the 1960s at [a technology university in the Northeast]. Seemed like we had slipped down to Quantico when I walked between meetings. It also appeared to be a badge of honor of sorts for the school.
Today many of these schools still fail about half the entering freshmen. That is not a positive performance metric. As I stated, our son initially floundered some at community college. That was erased when he transferred to the state university.
I think there is in many places a perception that this is a lower economic class issue. Not true in our family. Worth highlighting.
I agree completely with your take on community colleges and their importance to individuals and to the country. I plan to leave a chunk of whatever I might have left after I die to two area schools instead of to the four year college from which I graduated.
I want to suggest an additional question to add to your list of questions facing community colleges: To what extent do community colleges see themselves as the providers of training, and to what extent do they see themselves as providers of education?
Of course, schools provide both, but do their cultures convey non–skills based courses as annoying requirements or as important elements of what it takes to be a good citizen?
In your article, you consistently use the word training. A skilled welder or nurse who knows little history and is unused to thinking critically is an economic asset but not so much a civic asset.
I agree with the reader’s point—and I know that many of the community-college leaders we’ve met would, too. Most of them recognize that specific “skills” are important but limited, and that what matters in the long run is equipping students for adaptability and success in the broadest terms.
(And, to be fair, I used the word training only a couple of times—see for yourself!)
One more for now, from a reader in California:
I attended a community college in Orange County [California] in the early 1960s before transferring to a four year college. In later years I often attended evening classes in “non-work” areas of interest. I have also enjoyed performing arts and fine arts events by students and local artists at community colleges.
So my experience with community colleges in this large suburban area of Southern California has been very positive …
I think about the word community. The “experts” say that the loss of a sense of community over the past half decade or so is responsible for much of the polarized politics of today.
And then we have the urban-rural cultural divide in America—very different communities …
So maybe the community colleges can help to bridge the urban-rural divide.
How about a community college exchange program between, for instance, L.A. community college and Muncie community college. Mix the rural and urban young people together at a young age. You can get your plumbing education in Muncie (or wherever) and go back to L.A. to get a great job. Or, you might find that Muncie, Indiana, is a great place and decide to stay there.
Yes, the details of this are a little off. Muncie, Indiana, is a sizable industrial city, the home of a major public university (Ball State) and with a population of some 100,000 in the metro area. And interstate transfer programs would be out of the question financially for many community-college students. But these are details: The reader’s concept, as a concept about broadening Americans’ experience in their own country, is very positive. Thanks to him and others who have written in.
For completeness, one further personal note. One of my grandmothers, who grew up in the Philadelphia area, had an objectively very difficult life. She was widowed, with three young children (including my mother), while in her 20s. She suffered many subsequent losses and hardships. She worked as a department-store salesperson through most of her adulthood.
When she was in her 60s and had come to live with our family in California, she began taking courses in the adult-education night school offered by our high school, and then at the local community college. Among other things, she studied English and creative writing, and she spent her later years earning a modest income as a writer. She endlessly mailed out short stories to magazines, and had some published. She wrote greeting-card verses on a piece-rate basis for all the major card makers. She composed, and sold, double-crostics and similar word puzzles. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was a different kind of life than had been available to her before.
I hadn’t thought consciously about this community-college connection until recently. But no doubt this is part of why I value the power of these institutions to give people another chance.
America is in the middle of another news emergency, about crises that are genuinely important. But meanwhile, other aspects of public and private life grind on, and because they will matter so much in the long run, they deserve more attention than the permanent-emergency news culture usually allows for. Like many other entries in this series, today’s is an intentionally off-news item about some of these developments that will help determine the news of the future.
At the moment I have in mind two institutions that are rarely in the headlines but deserve to be featured in American discussions of prospects for a better economic and civic future.
Not every city can have a research university. Any ambitious one can have a community college.
Just about every world-historical trend is pushing the United States (and other countries) toward a less equal, more polarized existence: labor-replacing technology, globalized trade, self-segregated residential-housing patterns, the American practice of unequal district-based funding for public schools.
Community colleges are the main exception, potentially offering a connection to high-wage technical jobs for people who might otherwise be left with no job or one at minimum wage …
In travels since then, Deb and I have seen more examples of community colleges acting as anchors for a city or region—for instance, with the “Communiversity” that has made such a difference in eastern Mississippi, or the innovative Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville, Virginia. (This IALR in Danville is neither a normal research university nor a community college but approximates some functions of each, and works with nearby two- and four-year institutions.) Based on what we’ve seen, I would argue that while every branch of American education is always “important,” from preschool and K–12 to the most intense research universities, community colleges really are the crucial institutions of this economic and political moment. That is because:
They’re local- or state-based, and thus far freer to experiment, adapt, and innovate than most federally run institutions are at this moment of paralyzed national politics.
They’re more and more the institutions that feel responsible for matching people who need opportunities with the fastest-growing opportunities of this era. (For instance, in much of the country there have been more openings than candidates for relatively high-wage “skilled trade” jobs: from welding and construction, to engine and robotics maintenance, to many aspects of the ever-expanding health-care industry. Many community colleges emphasize preparing graduates for jobs that are in demand right now, while also developing skills and adaptable-learning techniques that will apply for whatever jobs emerge a decade from now.)
Because they’re often dispersed across a state, with branches in smaller cities and rural areas, many of them have taken a lead in devising regionwide and rurally focused development plans. Most everyone knows that America outside the big cities faces its own set of challenges, from attracting new residents to creating new economic strongholds to dealing with physical and mental-health problems. The people working hardest toward solutions, at least among those I’ve met, are disproportionately at community colleges.
Last month Deb Fallows and I had a chance to meet with the presidents and board members of Michigan’s network of community colleges, at their Michigan Community College Association convention in Traverse City.
Organizationally, the nearly 30 public community colleges in Michigan are very different from those I’ve had most exposure to, in my home state of California. The public higher-ed system in California has a three-tier structure. At the top—in terms of selectivity and research ambition—is the University of California system, with its 10 campuses ranging from the oldest (Berkeley) to the newest (Merced). Then California offers the California State University system, with 23 four-year campuses, from Humboldt State in the north to San Diego State in the south. Finally, there are the 114 campuses of the California Community College network. When you finish high school in California, you know what it would take to get into one of the UC campuses, which CalState branch is in your area, and which community college might work best for you. Like every big organization, and like everything in California, each level of the system has its problems. And all the constituent elements, from UC campuses to community colleges, have significant local autonomy and independence. The point is, it was conceived as a statewide whole.
By contrast, each of the Michigan community colleges—from Wayne County and Henry Ford Community Colleges in the Detroit area, to Gogebic and Bay Mills Community Colleges on the northern Upper Peninsula—is an fully independent operation. They have their own specialities, their own local leadership structure, their own distinct identities. Bay Mills, for instance, is a tribally run college, whose mission is “to provide quality educational opportunities, promote research, and facilitate individual development in an accessible, community-based, and culturally diverse environment that supports and maintains the Anishinaabek culture and language.” The ones near Detroit have long been closely connected to the car industry and related manufacturers.
The coordination among Michigan’s community colleges, then, is bottom-up and informal (including via the MCCA), rather than statewide and systematized, as in California’s case—or as with Indiana’s network of community colleges across the state, all called Ivy Tech. And in turn, coordination among community colleges in all 50 states—all facing generally similar problems, but with widely varying local assets and challenges from Montana to Maine to West Virginia—is also informal.
What Deb and I learned when talking with community-college leaders in Traverse City was about the choices that they are facing—as are other members of the loose confederation of educators who are doing so much to shape the economic and civic future of the country. Based on what we heard, I think this is the list of next big choices:
In this era of increasing nationwide interest in “placemaking,” are community colleges positioned to take the lead as stewards of a community’s development? Or do they need to follow other local institutions? (Here is an example of a four-year university that has taken the local lead. We’ve seen examples elsewhere of community colleges playing that role—for instance, in central Oregon. )
How does a successful college set the balance between training people in hopes that they’ll stay in the area and training them for success, wherever they might end up? Should the prospect of graduates moving away affect an institution’s investment in them?
How does a successful college think about the balance between training for specific skills, and general adaptability? How does it balance between the jobs of today, and those of a decade or two from now? (The Communiversity, in Mississippi, is wrestling with just these questions, plus the one about graduates who might move away.)
What’s the proper way to work with private companies in the area? Is it all positive? What are the pitfalls and guidelines?
When does it make sense to take a regional, or even statewide, approach, as opposed to programs aimed at each college’s local area?
When does it make sense to seek out collaborations with research universities or four-year colleges?
How should the “culture” of community colleges evolve to reflect their newly central role in American opportunity? Is there an even bigger place for ceremonies, “pomp and circumstance,” and other ways to add external signs of prestige to this experience?
Inevitably, we’re all drawn back to the news of the moment, because it matters. But please think about how much community colleges also matter, and the upcoming choices they face.
Here is another look at the far-southern-Virginia town of Danville: once a thriving tobacco-and-textile center, now trying to figure out what to do after all the mills have shut down.
In keeping with the previously announced intention to keep drawing connections, parallel themes, and lessons from the communities we visit, here are three aspects of Danville’s story worth noticing elsewhere, as boiled down as I can make them. A summary:
First, Danville’s civic renewal shows the importance of a relatively new form of philanthropy.
Second, it shows the importance of creative use of a onetime historical event—in this case, the “tobacco settlement,” which directed billions of dollars from the tobacco industry to local institutions. (This naturally leads to questions about whether a comparable “opioid settlement” might have similar transformative effects.)
Third, it shows the importance of public investment in infrastructure, specifically in broadband capacity.
1) The role of foundations—and foundations of a particular sort: Institutions called “community foundations” are well known, active, long-established, and important across the country. Each year, they give a total of more than $5 billion to civic and charitable efforts in their areas.
The evolution of Danville and its surroundings has been very heavily influenced over the past 15 years by a similar-sounding but structurally different sort of charitable organization, the “health conversion foundation.”
In Danville, the relevant organization is called the Danville Regional Foundation, or DRF. The DRF’s effects in this part of Virginia and North Carolina are too broad and deep to cover in any detail here. For more of the specifics, I direct you to the DRF’s informative site, or articles like this in The State of the South or this in Perspectives on History. Almost everything under way in the vicinity—from the revival of Danville’s downtown to the launching of regional initiatives connecting smaller towns that have lost tobacco, textile, or furniture industries—bears the mark of the DRF. Its area of responsibility includes the city of Danville itself, neighboring Pittsylvania County in Virginia, and the larger Dan River area extending into Caswell County in rural North Carolina.
Why is this worth mentioning? Because of the foundation’s origin story. It’s one of a group of health conversion foundations across the country that have played a surprisingly large civic role over the past generation. Or at least surprising to me, since I hadn’t know about this specific form of modern philanthropy until our first trip to Danville last fall.
You can read extensive details about health conversion foundations from Health Affairs, but in brief: These are charities set up when a nonprofit hospital or similar facility is sold to a private company. Hundreds of them operate around the country, with total assets in the tens of billions. Some examples are the Rapides Foundation, of Louisiana, founded with $140 million in hospital-sale proceeds in 1994; the Cameron Foundation, of Petersburg, Virginia, founded in 2003 with hospital-sale proceeds valued at about $90 million in 2008; and the Harvest Foundation, of Martinsville, Virginia, which was also founded with the proceeds from the sale of a hospital, in 2002, with assets valued at about $200 million in 2008. Many more examples are listed in the Rural Health Initiative newsletter, here.
In Danville’s case, the foundation was formed after the sale of the local Danville Regional Hospital Center to a private company, LifePoint Hospitals, in 2005 for about $200 million. The DRF has given out some $116 million in grants since then; and through the magic of investments and the market, its endowment is now larger than when it began.
Could the sale of a nonprofit health center to a for-profit firm conceivably be a net benefit for a community? As opposed to one more step toward an over-marketized, winner-take-all society?
I started out skeptical, and I still assume that the outcomes must vary case by case, depending on how the new foundation’s money is put to use, and how the new for-profit system runs. But an initial look at think-tank and academic papers suggests that many of the foundations have tried to address public-health and community-improvement goals in their areas.
“I won’t say that every one of these foundations has fulfilled its potential,” Karl Stauber, who is stepping down this summer after a dozen years as the head of the Danville Regional Foundation, told me. “But my estimation is that two in 10 have had an oversized impact on the revitalization of the areas that they serve.”
Maybe everyone else reporting on rural and smaller-town development already knew about health conversion foundations. I hadn’t understood the importance of this recent part of the philanthropic landscape until we were introduced to it in Danville. (Now, of course, I see signs of it everywhere.)
2) The role of the tobacco settlement: One of our favorite places is Danville is a complex known as the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research. It’s a set of modern buildings on a hill near the Danville airport, east of downtown. The title of the institute may seem overly ambitious, but the existence of this research center represents a serious effort to correct a regional weakness, and to apply unusual resources to that end.
The weakness is Danville’s distance from established, big research universities. Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, is two-plus hours away by car, and so is the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. Those in North Carolina are far enough away not to have Danville within their force field for attracting students and faculty, or fostering spin-off research companies. We heard time and again that the lack of higher-ed centers reflected the wishes of mill leadership during Danville’s long run as a textile-and-tobacco town. In those days, it was more convenient for the mills if the locals lacked choices in schooling and occupation.
The institute (as I’ll call it from here on) represents a conscious attempt to bring to the region much of what a university would provide—apart, of course, from the thousands of on-scene students. It has evolved to offer many of the spin-off functions you’d associate with a serious state university: research projects, start-up spaces, training partnerships with companies, alliances with local schools and NGOs, development centers for advanced manufacturing, and a general sense of involvement with the economic future of the community. You can read in detail about its five main divisions here. It is an impressive operation.
When I talked with the institute’s director, Mark Gignac, at the headquarters, he described projects similar to those we’d seen be successful elsewhere—and also one that was unique, the Industrial Hemp Summit. Industrial hemp uses have almost nothing to do with the liberalized marijuana laws in many states and a lot to do with potential commercial and scientific uses of hemp and its components. This is a subject that companies, universities, and governments around the world are taking very seriously because of its industrial- and health-care-related possibilities. And it is one in which some of the same areas of the country that have been economically battered by tobacco’s collapse enjoy natural advantages.
“Two hundred years ago, Virginia was the leading exporter of hemp in the world,” Gignac told me. The same sort of soil that favors tobacco is also good for hemp, which was traditionally used for rope and similar applications, especially in the sailing industry. “People get it confused with marijuana, but we’re talking about something different,” he said—the different versions involving fiber, CBD oil, and other hemp products. “It is important for people to understand that hemp is not just another agricultural product. Hemp is about improving human health.”
“It’s an agricultural crop that is super profitable, I mean super,” he said. “In the good old days, people used to say you could make $4,000 per acre growing tobacco. You can’t do that any more. But in hemp—we’re just getting started, but today you can make between $10,000 and $20,000 per acre, depending on the grade. So you don’t need a lot of acres. And the region here is perfect for this kind of crop.” For more details, you can join the queue to attend the next summit.
Now the larger point about why the institute exists in the first place. This organization that is helping figure out Virginia’s post-tobacco future was set up partly through proceeds from the tobacco industry, through the historic “tobacco settlement.”
Starting with Mississippi’s lawsuit in the mid-1990s, one state government after another began suing Big Tobacco companies because of smoking’s toll on public health. In 1998, as part of a sweeping “master settlement,” the major tobacco companies agreed to pay out a total of more than $200 billion (yes, billion) to more than 40 state governments over the following 25 years.
In most states that never had cigarette or tobacco industries, the money has mainly gone toward public-health efforts or anti-smoking campaigns. But in states like Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia, some of the money went toward compensating communities where tobacco growing or cigarette making had been pillars of the economy.
Danville originally grew on the tobacco business. Thus, it received extra payments—some of which went toward creating the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research.
In short: The Danville region’s transition to a new economy got a significant boost from shrewd reuse of after-effects of the old economy.
It makes you wonder what a “master opioid settlement” might do for the parts of the country that have suffered most grievously from this scourge.
3) Investment in broadband: To a degree that is hard to imagine from New York or San Francisco, smaller-town and inland-America communities suffer from too-slow, too-costly internet connections. Here’s a snooty coastal way to make the point: Running a web-based business in many parts of the U.S. is like trying to do the same thing via an airline’s in-flight Wi-Fi.
Danville is an exception. A dozen years ago, it began building a municipally owned high-speed fiber-optic network, which now offers lower-cost, higher-speed connections to existing and start-up businesses than in most communities of its location and size. That network is called nDanville, and you can read about its history and effects here.
A feature in Broadband Communities, called “Danville Transforms Its Economy With Fiber,” gives the overview, including the importance of Danville’s long history with city-owned (rather than privately run) utilities. That article, by Andrew Michael Cohill, said:
Danville’s ownership of its electric utility (it has been in the electric service business since 1876) gave it a significant advantage in deploying fiber. It is the largest of 15 municipalities in Virginia that own electric power distribution services … As in other fiber communities that own electric utilities, city ownership of utility poles eliminates negotiation of pole attachment fees and minimizes the impact of make-ready costs …
As with conventional transportation roadways, the city builds and maintains Danville’s digital roads, but private businesses use the system to deliver broadband services …
The nDanville high-performance fiber network has brought other jobs and businesses to Danville and has helped drive down the cost of Internet access, telephone service and TV service in the city.
“What’s unique is that we don’t sell services direct to the customer,” Jason Gray, the director of Danville Utilities, told me. “We provide the infrastructure, and private companies can compete.” The result, he said (and outsiders confirmed), was that households, start-ups, and established businesses in the community had faster, cheaper internet connections than in most other rural towns.
“It’s an attraction [for] economic development,” Gray told the Community Broadbandpodcast in 2015. “It’s one less thing we can check off our list—that we do have broadband, and we have scalable broadband that we can offer many different tiers of services, and whatever, basically, the company needs.” This is obviously not in itself the full answer to rural development, but it’s one more step.
Health conversion foundations offer one more tool for community development.
The “master settlement” for tobacco was the basis for one community’s equivalent of many of the advantages of a local university.
Investment in high-speed internet gives smaller, distant towns a better chance to compete for modern, high-value jobs.
A year ago, America’s Favorite Actor™, Tom Hanks, triggered a series of reports on TV and in the Argus Leader newspaper in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He did so with one little tweet saying that he’d read about the town in a new book—as it happens, the book wasOur Towns, by Deb Fallows and me—and that he was eager to see the city himself, and might even move there.
The most optimistic stories, about America! Non-fiction, personal May move to Sioux Falls, at least visit. Rapid City, too. Others! Hanx pic.twitter.com/TgHS18UwK2
Now Deb and I are back in Sioux Falls, working with our colleagues from HBO on our upcoming film.
The town still has the exceptionally low unemployment rate we talked about early on.
It still has its agricultural economy that we discussed, though buffeted by trade tensions and extreme weather, plus the region’s rapidly growing health-care and high-tech sectors.
It now has a dramatically spiffed-up and revitalized downtown, compared with our last visit several years ago—offsetting the malls and sprawl-growth around its periphery that we discussed here. The downtown has new hotels and restaurants and stores and pubs; many more residential condos and lofts; a much richer array of outdoor public art in its ambitious SculptureWalk; and generally a sense of more active street life.
In its “Washington Pavilion,” a mammoth former public high school whose rescue and conversion into an arts-and-museum space starting 20 years ago was the turning point toward the city’s downtown recovery, we saw two signs that the city is seriously ready for Tom Hanks’s visit.
One was backstage at the elegant 1,800-seat main performance hall, with a wall of signatures from guest artists. These ranged from Yo-Yo Ma to B. B. King, Joan Baez to Blue Man Group, Garth Brooks to the Paul Taylor Dance Company, with countless others in between. I saw a space that looked as if it were waiting for Tom Hanks’s name.
The other sign—could this be a coincidence?!—was in the wonderful, interactive children’s-science museum within the same Washington Pavilion. On the upper floor there is an oversize piano keyboard, playable with your feet and labeled “Big,” that could have been taken straight from a memorable scene from Tom Hanks’s early filmography.
Yes, I am talking about his famous piano-dancing duet with Robert Loggia more than 30 years ago, in Big. This was a Hanks from long before Forrest Gump or ALeague of Their Own, before Cast Away or Saving Private Ryan, before Philadelphia or Sleepless in Seattle or Apollo 13—and it is worth watching now, with awareness of all those other films to come.
And it’s another reason for him to make his visit. The town’s all ready for you, Mr. Hanks!
As a reminder: The main point of the previous piece was that trying to analyze why Donald Trump does the things he does is like trying to analyze the motives of a cat. Each of them acts. Now, more comments.
1) What you’re overlooking. A reader at a tech company writes:
I completely agree with this piece, except for one thing.
You and the reader you quote describe the part we see and the part that gets reported. Absolutely a reality show.
All of the journalistic analysis is far beyond ridiculous.
The other half (below the surface) that is so grossly under-reported is the very Republican direction of decisions made in every agency in the government and by every cabinet member. These are not made for TV because they are boring to read about. But they are consistent in how they continue the transfer of wealth to the one percent and the one percent of the one percent.
Several other readers return to this theme: that too much of the press is too wrapped up in the impossible mission of “understanding” Trump, and too few are spending too little time unveiling the what of this era’s policies.
2) What if this theory is correct? Also on the predicament of the press, from another reader:
Just read the piece about the reader who says, "the people most accustomed to “analyzing” political actions and decisions...are the ones least able to recognize what the world is experiencing with Donald Trump."
I believe he’s right and wrong—right in the sense that we have “a structural failure of analysis in the Trump years,” but wrong, or not quite right, in his explanation of this.
Specifically, in my view, the problem isn't a lack of understanding about Trump. Rather it’s what they [analysts and the press] actually do understand, or at least strongly suspect on some deeper or sub-conscious level, but struggle to accept, because of the problematic implications of accepting this.
For example, suppose the reader is right that Trump is actually governing as if he were doing a reality TV show. How would journalists convey this, without creating the impression that they're irrational and biased against Trump?
I believe the reader's theory is credible, but the idea also makes me very uncomfortable. Were I to tell someone else that I took this notion seriously I would be hyper-aware of how irrational this sounds. Indeed, I hold my tongue with friends and family at times for this reason. I would guess most journalists would experience a similar level of discomfort.
And suppose some of them could overcome this—how do they convey this without discrediting themselves in the process? I think there might be ways to do this, but there's no certainty it would work. Because of that I have some sympathy for journalists and political analysts. At the same time, I'm also extremely frustrated. In my view, alarm bells should be ringing, or at least ringing much louder and clearer. I think we need an equivalent to shouting “the Emperor has no clothes!,” but in a way that doesn't make the messenger seem like he lost his marbles.
3) Actually, there is a strategy. From another reader:
He does want to get reelected. His strategy with Kim Jong Un is to serve that purpose and that one alone.
He's gonna say "Vote for me or Kim is gonna nuke us if the Democrats win the White House" and he alone has cultivated a relationship with the deranged dictator and he and he alone can prevent war. That's why he walked into N. Korea without asking for anything from Kim. He plans on scaring the voters by nuclear holocaust if he isn't reelected.
I'm as obsessed with this surreal nightmare of a presidency as anyone else and am surprised to not have seen this take anywhere.
4) Looking deeper. This last note of the day begins with a point that members of the press have discussed at great length, ever since Donald Trump got in the race. That is whether there is any point in “medicalizing” a discussion of his traits. The reader’s message:
Your reader in “There is No Understanding Donald Trump” is right. It’s a show for shows sake. But there’s more. And it runs deeper.
When our president was elected, I contacted the smartest person I know (novelist) to explain the man. Easy, he said: go to the DSM (the volume that describes mental illnesses) and look up narcissist.
I did. And everything since has made absolute sense - a sense that runs deeper than the reality show metaphor, which could be construed as simply self-aggrandizing. We're in a lot worse shape than that.
The thing that puzzles and infuriates me is how the press continues to cover things in their commonsensical way (as your reader suggests). It drives me crazy to see dozens and dozens of reporters covering this administration. Why? What on earth for? As your reader has suggested, that just plays to The Show.
Given that the record is, in fact, important, I've suggested to friends in the media that one pool camera should follow this man around, and everyone just share the feed. Those who are thus liberated from covering The Show can now investigate his taxes, finances, relationships with Russia, etc. much better use of resources.
But please, stop asking intelligent questions. They have no relevance to someone who is so deeply mentally ill.
On the opening theme of this note, about mental status, let me give the two-point summary of the very long discussion nearly every member of the press has gone through in the Trump era.
Point one: It’s perilous, and in any case pointless, to attempt “diagnosis at a distance,” and attempt to give medical names and conditions to traits the public can observe. It’s perilous for obvious reasons, and it’s pointless because it wouldn’t change anyone’s mind. Supporter or critic, everyone knows what Donald Trump is like.
And point two: As a description of widely observed behaviors, it’s fair to note how closely what Trump does matches the standard checklists of narcissist traits. (One such list, from the Mayo Clinic, is here. Its first marker is that narcissists “Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance; Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration.”) But, again, observing this pattern gets us only so far, since nothing Trump does should surprise anyone any more.
The action-point, in the end of this reader’s note, is worth serious consideration by the press—and is related to note Number One. That is, the press should spend less time on the daily spectacle of Trump himself, and more on the actions and effects of the administration as a whole.
5) Update: In Trump’s Defense. Yesterday’s item has apparently circulated among Trump-supporting groups, as I have received a large number of messages like the one I am quoting below.
I explicitly don’t intend to host an online equivalent of a cable-TV panel show, with one person saying “Trump is terrible!” and then someone else snapping back, “No, he’s great! You’re the one who’s terrible.”
But as a one-time-for-now sample of the opposing line of reasoning, I quote parts of the message below. The sender identifies herself as a PhD. I assume she is sending this from a phone, and I’m quoting it as-is (rather than going through to spell out what she obviously meant as abbreviations) not to undermine its credibility but just for labor-saving on my end, and because the sender’s intentions are clear.
Here are selections from what she sent in, representing views I am hearing from many others:
It is so true tht persons do not ‘get’ T
Even psychologists, the greatly left leaning bastion these days, has its collective hair standg straight up as it gasps w exasperatn
Then there is the pathetic psychiatrist who pursues the idea tht T’s mentl hlth is an issue
Poor souls to hav nevr known a person to b so bold, pragmatic, & steadfast in wht he wants to do
T is a very modern character, a person for the times: totally atuned to digital media, totally comfortable & brazen, CANDID, in the limelight, speakg extemporaneously to any of the persons who besiege him to talk – AND – greatly abl to tolerate the humongous slop & ill treatmt he receivs as is proven in his non-stop pursuit of gettg thgs done in his job – a job tht he sees as the ultimate test for a ‘stabl genius’
He uses his mktg & TV experience, speakg hx, etc to totally great effect & he has truly remarkabl energy
Wait: T is breakg all the rules of how thing shud b done! Stop it, stop it
T is clear, concise, & keeps his eye on the ball.
How lame r ‘reportrs’ when they cry tht T has not made Kim giv up nukes, eg, –
Oh yeah, - magic – he meets Kim, K givs up nukes & the NK prob is ‘solvd’
But T is playg the long(er) game & his events w Kim happn to b huge steps in somethg requirg ever so many many steps, tests, time & ea step helps
As T himself has statd, he has common sense.
T is flexibl to the extent tht he will not hold a doctrinaire point of view & will change course as events, info, perceptn, dictate
T knows his mind & wht he wants to achiev & he keeps his eye on the ball, many balls, which we wud all c if the press wud report all the thgs he is doing every day
He wants ppl to lov, respect & admire him precisely thru showg them wht he can do for them & the country
The press is so-o-o mean in its grievous underreportg, misreportg, & UNreportg of the many things he is doing everyday & it is reponsibl for fomentg & magnifyg citizen animosity…
Hey, tht’s wht T is: remarkabl
Contrary to the writr whose words u relay, T IS a thinkg person - & a deep person (he prefers to no ‘go there’ in all likelihd as he does not wear his private sentimt (abt thgs like livg, dyig, meang, etc) on his sleeve
It’s been barely two weeks since Donald Trump became the first American president to step onto North Korean soil, with all attendant theorizing about what the move meant, or didn’t. Was it the “biggest moment of the Trump presidency so far” and “already a political win,” as some media figures claimed? Was it, on the contrary, another sign of Trump’s “dictator envy” and “authoritarian buffoonery”? Was it a move toward peace—or war, or both, or neither, or simply more uncertainty? Who was outwitting whom?
Although it was just two weeks in the past, that moment feels like two centuries ago, given the nonstop series of crises and “Breaking news!” emergencies since then. For instance: the census showdown; the Jeffrey Epstein/Alexander Acosta disasters; the leaked British ambassador cables; more rumblings about Iran and China; the horrors of migrant-detention-camp conditions; and the long-threatened kickoff this weekend of ICE roundup raids.
Today I got a reminder note from a reader who had written in just after that “historic” encounter at the Korean DMZ. He argues that the uninterrupted torrent of (usually Trump-generated) emergencies since then reinforces the point he originally made.
His point involved a structural failure of analysis in the Trump years. That is: The people most accustomed to “analyzing” political actions and decisions—journalists, historians, political veterans, people who pride themselves on figuring out what is “really” going on—are the ones least able to recognize what the world is experiencing with Donald Trump.
This is obviously not a brand-new insight. But the reader states the case trenchantly enough that I think it’s worth sharing. Two weeks ago, after the Korean episode, the reader wrote:
I had an epiphany sometime around the midterms, after about 2 years of watching and reading heavy duty analysis by so many serious folks who, because it’s their job I suppose, tend to *project* seriousness, intent, thought, strategy, forethought, planning, and other such things, each time Trump does something. No matter how loose the cannon gets, most serious journalists default to a polite interpretation that suggests, say, Trump had something in mind when he just did that ridiculous thing.
Put another way, they’re suggesting he’s crazy like a Fox, not just an idiot.
At some point I found myself trying to explain to a friend why Trump did something kooky. As I considered everything I concluded what he was doing was strictly for the attention. It was for one news cycle. No strategy, no planning, no idea about implications. And no intention of following up even a day later.
That’s when it hit me: he’s running a reality tv show out of the Whitehouse. Every day is a new episode, and every single move is designed to get better Nielsen ratings, improve the brand, or whatever it is that drives that peculiar form of celebrity. Mostly he’s feeding the monster that is 24/7 cable news.
Think about it this way: you’ve spent your life as a journalist, traveling, flying, writing, running, thinking about how sausages and laws are made. You view the world, your daily routine, even your own self … through that lens. If by some glitch in the matrix you found yourself Commander in Chief then that is the lens by which you’d view your new job. Everything you’ve done before would impact your schedule, your routine, and how you view the world.
More importantly, your serious effort over many years to think long and hard, to write out your thoughts, to bring wisdom and facts to the observations you share, even the reasons you share, how you pick what is a priority for the next issue … all those things would have an impact on the way in which you’d present your public face, your presidential face. In turn, people covering your administration would figure out the above almost immediately and do what they do accordingly.
Trump is a guy who has known only a very narrow slice of the world (NY real estate), has never been curious, or thoughtful, and certainly never cared about the ideals of good government, nor the welfare of others. For decades he has mixed his person with his public persona to the point of reaching some warped public media brand that eventually landed him on a fake tv show about how he runs the fake parts of his mostly fake company. And then one day, through a glitch in the matrix, he woke up the President of these United States.
So he put on a show. Some people liked it. He’s worked every day to get those ratings up. He blows his top when they have a bad day—not because a little kid dies in a camp, not because something doesn’t get out of a committee, not because of anything substantive being analyzed by reporters—no, he’s mad because of the bad optics, because someone upstaged him in an interview, because someone coughed while he was talking.
America has elected a carnival barker with absolutely no clue about history, government, the machinations of global finance, nor even GOP politics. There is no plan, there is no strategy, there is no underlying wisdom or thought with each step. There’s today’s show, a manic struggle to find new content, cliff hangers, figuring out who gets killed off next. Our economy, foreign policy, place on the world stage, is based on tv production values, or some formula.
Once you see it you can’t unsee it and suddenly everything makes sense.
PS have you ever seen the riff by John Mulaney making the case that Trump is like a horse loose in a hospital? This is so good (jump to 7:20).
Today the reader followed up:
Since I sent my email it feels as though this theme has really taken off. Maybe it’s like shopping for a car and *suddenly* you see the same make and model everywhere you look!
This may be political journalism’s version of quantum uncertainty: The greatest challenge in understanding “What’s going on?” may be recognizing that no understanding is possible. And that’s a cue for me to end with a mention of George W. S. Trow’s memorable and prescient “Within the Context of No-Context,” published when Ronald Reagan was elected president. Thanks to the reader for weighing in.
This dispatch is in the form of a newsletter update, on reactions from readers and significant developments around the country on the local-renewal fronts. It follows this Fourth of July post, about Eric Liu’s argument for a revival of “civic religion,” and this post by Deb Fallows, on our increasing effort to connect, compare, combine, and in other ways “biggify” the multiple, dispersed examples of local renewal around the country.
Four entries in that direction:
1) “Does America need a ‘civic religion’?”: Eric Liu has long argued yes. Mike Lofgren, a longtime veteran of congressional operations, writes in to say that he begs to differ:
Does America need a civic religion?
This subject, like the thesis that “Democrats need to talk about their faith” (I thought the Constitution banned religious tests for office), is a favorite chew-toy of centrist and left-of-center public intellectuals who fear the Republicans have stolen their clothes with all the flag-worship and similar ritualized razzmatazz. Apart from the tactical issue that the subject plays on the Right’s turf, there are fundamental objections.
Religion and modern democratic civil government do vastly different things. It is true that governing entities arose amid all manner of ritual, but they were hierarchical, and religion and state were the same thing.
Enforced ritual is essential to maintaining monarchies, class-based societies, and militaries. The Founders tried to dispense with a lot of the typical ritual of European monarchies for the new republic, such as addressing the president as Your Excellency; and Washington conspicuously wore no medals on his uniform coat.
There are more reasons, but I wanted to keep this brief.
Although this has nothing to do with the central merits of Foster’s stance, it is worth mentioning that Campbell is openly gay and is married to a woman named Courtenay. Together they are raising two young children in Jackson.
Their home in Jackson is the reason I mention this development. Last year, for Architectural Digest, Larrison Campbell wrote a very nice essay on her decision to move from Los Angeles, where she had spent nearly two decades developing a successful media career, to Mississippi, where she grew up.
Her story is, of course, unique in its particulars, but familiar in its general themes to what Deb and I have heard in many places. Campbell’s whole article is here. Some samples:
Sometimes you can be blinded by love or infatuation; friends probably thought we were [to go back to Mississippi]. But in L.A., no one’s direct enough to tell you you’re acting like a fool. Instead, half a dozen friends showed up at our going-away party with large bottles of vodka and bourbon “to help with the move.” Subtext: Adventures aren’t often easy …
Of course, Jackson has its faults. As I write this, we’re entering week two of a boil-water alert. But that doesn’t keep Jackson from being an intoxicatingly charming town. While other southern cities race to Brooklynize their downtowns with artisanal cheese shops and bespoke kitchenware stores, Jackson has remained resolutely Jackson. Yes, new places pop up, but Jackson’s best restaurants have been its best restaurants for decades …
There are signs that Jackson is recognizing its complex history. In December, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opened downtown. As the first state-sponsored civil rights museum in the country, the museum is unflinching in its presentation of history. It’s an immersive, often unsettling, experience, and one that alone is worth the trip to Jackson.
Mississippi is … the seat of Christian conservatism but also the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll. It’s a state with a low graduation rate that continues to produce a record-breaking number of writers …
It’s also a place that in 2016 passed “one of the most restrictive antigay laws in the country”—the same month it welcomed my family with more warmth and generosity than any city has ever offered …
And … in 2017 the city elected—with 92 percent of the vote—a 34-year-old mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, on a platform of making Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.”
To spell out what I found so resonant here (apart from the essay’s connection to the news of the day): One of the themes Deb and I continually rediscover is the powerful, enduring sense of from-ness in today’s America—the clear imprint of place, even in a country as mobile and homogeneous-seeming as modern America. People retain an awareness of where they grew up, as Larrison Campbell clearly did during her decades in L.A.— and as I have long done, as a person “from” small-town Inland Empire-California, despite decades based elsewhere. Some people actually return to those remembered places; many others at least think about it. This sensibility affects the way the country works, and how talent deploys itself city by city and state by state.
Another of those central themes, which this article clearly brings out: how much more varied and locally vivid “interior America” is than you would ever guess from the latest predictable political dispatch from “red-state America.”
3) Local journalism watch: Nothing matters more for the civic future of America than discovering a viable economic model for local journalism. Recently I mentioned one step in that direction, the new, fast-growing Report for America program.
Here is another small step: the announcement, reported by Sara Fischer in Axios, of support for a local news operation in Virginia, called The Dogwood. The $1 million investment is coming from Acronym, a nonpartisan but politically progressive nonprofit group. In a statement about the investment, the CEO of Acronym, Tara McGowan, said:
The steady decline of local news around the country, paired with the rise of misinformation being spread online has been alarming. It is our hope that digital newspapers like The Dogwood that deliver factual information and stories to people where they get their news can help fill that void and counter misinformation reaching them online.
A $1 million investment obviously won’t fill the multibillion-dollar hole left by the collapse of local print- and broadcast-advertising budgets. Similarly: One more tree that is planted, or habitat area that is preserved, won’t address the full range of global sustainability crises. But you have to start somewhere, and it’s worth paying attention to those who are starting.
4) Local arts watch: Another $1 million investment, another start. A group called Souls Grown Deep, which is based in Atlanta and whose mission is “promoting the work of African American artists from the South,” is committing the bulk of its $1 million endowment to local arts-related development and opportunity efforts in communities where those artists lived and worked. The project is in partnership with Upstart Co-Lab, a network of artists and social entrepreneurs. You can read the details of the project in this report by David Bank in Impact Alpha.
Next up, another report from the road. For now, congrats to all involved in these place-by-place efforts across the country.
Our two great American holidays are, of course, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.
They’re particularly American: Independence Day, for obvious reasons. Thanksgiving, because no one else observes it (other than Canadians, who have their own version on their own timetable), or can keep track of when it is. For Americans overseas it’s a particularly wonderful gathering day, on what the Brits or Koreans or French people around you assume is just another Thursday.
They have their rituals: In November, when it’s cold, we have the family gatherings, the pie and turkey, the stuporous sessions watching football or parades on TV. In July, when it’s hot, we have the picnics, the parades, the hot dogs, and the fireworks.
And they’re hard to screw up: For Thanksgiving, the perils are the slog of jammed travel, and the likelihood of cranky relatives, or a turkey or pie that doesn’t turn out right. For the Fourth of July, it’s mainly the chance of rain, or mishaps with firecrackers (which, yes, genuinely scare dogs and cats), or children who become cranky by the time it’s dark enough for fireworks.
It’s hard to screw up the Fourth of July—but it’s not impossible, as residents of Washington, D.C., are witnessing today. Over the decades, this holiday has been one of the least politicized, most intentionally inclusive points on the city’s calendar. I lived in Washington for a year as a toddler, when my dad, then a Navy doctor, was stationed at the Bethesda Naval Hospital during the Korean War. Long ago I saw the old, now-lost home-movie clip from the 1950s, of me and my little sister running around on the National Mall on the Fourth of July, waiting for the fireworks. When we raised our own children in D.C., we loved every summer going to the Palisades neighborhood parade along MacArthur Boulevard, which grew longer every year with groups that reflect ever-broadening aspects of D.C. life.
Local politicians would march in the parade—candidates for mayor or City Council or Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Every Scout troop and local band or hobbyist group would send in a contingent. But national politicians kept far away, the president furthest of all. The Fourth of July was for celebrating America in its flawed-but-aspirational idealism, and in its campy, jokey, small-d democratic inclusiveness. The silly neighborhood parades are parts of the rituals that let us celebrate why we love the country, for all its failures, and what it can become.
This year that ritual, at least in Washington, is disrupted, in what we hope is an aberrational display. Apart from going to neighborhood events today, and the evening celebrations, what is another way for Americans to reclaim, and renew, the rituals that reflect what Independence Day has long stood for?
I have a reading suggestion for today, or the long weekend. It’s a short book, Become America, by my longtime friend Eric Liu, who is a co-founder of Citizen University in Seattle.
Liu, who was born to immigrant Chinese parents in Poughkeepsie, New York, was trained as a lawyer and worked as a White House policy analyst and speechwriter. Through programs, events, and writings at Citizen University, he has over the past decade-plus advanced a theory and practice of modern citizenship, which is directly addressed against the despair and cynicism that are such natural reactions to today’s cruelties and crises.
The conceptually most important part of Liu’s new book is its forthright argument that active citizenship should be a civic religion. The book consists of 19 “sermons” that Liu has delivered at the institutions he calls “Civic Saturdays.” The big idea behind the sermons, and the religious-format gathering, is Liu’s call to a level of belief and commitment similar to that of a great religion—but where the underlying faith is in the process of democracy itself.
A section from his preface lays out the concept clearly:
Throughout 2016, Jená Cane and I kicked around ideas for a new civic ritual that would have the moral pull and communal feel of a faith gathering. We’re the cofounders of a nonprofit called Citizen University, whose mission is to foster a culture of powerful citizenship in the United States. (We’re also spouses!)
[After the 2016 election] we put together the first ever Civic Saturday … Civic Saturday has the arc of a faith gathering: we sing together, we turn to the strangers next to us and talk about a common question, we hear poetry and readings, there is a sermon that ties those texts to the issues and ethical choices of the times, and then we sing together again and reflect on what actions we commit to taking.
But this gathering is not about church or temple or mosque religion. It is about American civic religion: the creed of ideals stated at our nation’s founding and restated at junctures of crisis (like today), and the deeds by which we and those before us live up to the creed.
Why the analogy to faith gatherings? In part because over the millennia the major faiths have figured out something about how to help people find meaning and belonging, how to interpret texts and to reckon with the gap between our ideals and our reality, how to sustain hope and heart in a sea of cynicism and hate. And in part because we truly believe that democracy in America is an act of faith. Not faith in the divine but in the people with whom we hold the fate of this fragile experiment …
The idea that a religion is only as good as its effects can apply to American civic religion as well … [William] James at one point observes that war can summon in a people common purpose and self-sacrifice and ingenuity and he says a society needs the “moral equivalent of war.”
I say we need the moral equivalent of religion, and that is what civic religion is.
The other significant theme connecting Liu’s essays is their emphasis on practicalities, rituals, doing rather than wishing. As he says in one of his sermons:
Democracy, when it’s working, is a game of infinite repeat play. It never ends! We believe that it’s necessary in the face of such unending uncertainty to provide a ritual structure for belief in the possibility of democracy.
Why do we deliberately echo the elements of a faith gathering? Because that language, those forms, these rituals and habits all resonate on a deep level …
In these darkest of days, in a time when politics is so fiercely polarized, when traditional religion fuels so much fundamentalist fanaticism, we want to appreciate anew the simple miracle of democratic citizenship …
This stuff matters not simply because it answers a universal and timeless yearning for shared purpose. It matters here because it locates us atomized, amnesiac Americans in the broad scheme of history and in a larger weave of morality. It matters because the norms and institutions of democracy are being corroded from within and without.
Many of the sermons address specifics of how to convert a hazy concern about civic engagement to feasible to-do goals for the next day or week or year.
Go to your local parades. Have some hot dogs, or your food of choice. If of age, enjoy a beer. Be careful with the fireworks.
And as you reflect on whether a country observing its 243rd birthday can become a better, freer, fairer, finer version of itself, consider Eric Liu’s arguments in Become America.
“We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.”
In April 1963, King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, after he defied a state court’s injunction and led a march of black protesters without a permit, urging an Easter boycott of white-owned stores. A statement published in The Birmingham News, written by eight moderate white clergymen, criticized the march and other demonstrations.
This prompted King to write a lengthy response, begun in the margins of the newspaper. He smuggled it out with the help of his lawyer, and the nearly 7,000 words were transcribed. The eloquent call for “constructive, nonviolent tension” to force an end to unjust laws became a landmark document of the civil-rights movement. The letter was printed in part or in full by several publications, including the New York Post, Liberation magazine, The New Leader, and The Christian Century. The Atlantic published it in the August 1963 issue.
Political hobbyism is to public affairs what watching SportsCenter is to playing football.
Many college-educated people think they are deeply engaged in politics. They follow the news—reading articles like this one—and debate the latest developments on social media. They might sign an online petition or throw a $5 online donation at a presidential candidate. Mostly, they consume political information as a way of satisfying their own emotional and intellectual needs. These people are political hobbyists. What they are doing is no closer to engaging in politics than watching SportsCenter is to playing football.
For Querys Matias, politics isn’t just a hobby. Matias is a 63-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic. She lives in Haverhill, Massachusetts, a small city on the New Hampshire border. In her day job, Matias is a bus monitor for a special-needs school. In her evenings, she amasses power.
Approximately half of the luxury-condo units that have come onto the market in the past five years are still unsold.
In Manhattan, the homeless shelters are full, and the luxury skyscrapers are vacant.
Such is the tale of two cities within America’s largest metro. Even as 80,000 people sleep in New York City’s shelters or on its streets, Manhattan residents have watched skinny condominium skyscrapers rise across the island. These colossal stalagmites initially transformed not only the city’s skyline but also the real-estate market for new homes. From 2011 to 2019, the average price of a newly listed condo in New York soared from $1.15 million to $3.77 million.
But the bust is upon us. Today, nearly half of the Manhattan luxury-condo units that have come onto the market in the past five years are still unsold, according to The New York Times.
My husband feels disrespected and unloved, and I don’t know how to bring harmony back to our family.
I have two adult sons, both of whom live far away from me. Their dad died unexpectedly 15 years ago, and I have since remarried someone who is a good fit for me but who really has no experience being a father. We have been a couple for seven years and married for two.
From time to time, we visit with each of my sons, either at their house or ours. We have no problem with my younger son—my husband gets along great with him and his wife. It’s my older son and his family who are the issue.
My older son and his wife have two young toddlers, whom we both adore, but despite the fact that my second husband is the only maternal grandfather the grandkids will ever know, my son and daughter-in-law encourage the kids to call him by his first name, rather than “Grandpa.” I have asked them many times to have the grandkids call him Grandpa to show him respect, but it’s like I’m talking to my hand.
The document released by the president’s lawyers reads more like the scream of a wounded animal than a traditional legal filing.
Over the weekend, as the Senate prepared for the impeachment trial of Donald Trump, the newly appointed House impeachment managers and the president’s newly appointed legal team both filed their initial legal briefs.
At least, one of them was a legal brief. The other read more like the scream of a wounded animal.
The House managers’ brief is an organized legal document. It starts with the law, the nature and purposes of Congress’s impeachment power, then walks through the evidence regarding the first article of impeachment, which alleges abuse of power, and seeks to show how the evidence establishes the House’s claim that President Trump is guilty of this offense. It then proceeds to argue that the offense requires his removal from office.
Ottawa’s ability to balance its interests and partners offers lessons for London.
In the scramble to find a model for its post-Brexit relationship with the European Union, Britain has considered a series of options: the Norway model, the closest of all trading relationships available absent actual membership of the bloc; the Swiss model, more complicated but with more sovereignty; and the Canada model, the loosest of all.
But perhaps this has been the entirely wrong way of looking at the challenge. For too long, Brexit has been viewed as an end in itself, not a beginning. At the root of much of the back-and-forth between Brexiteers and Remainers has been the fallacy that whichever model is chosen, that will be the end of the matter—that the politics of Britain’s relationship with its continental neighbors will come to an end, the new state of affairs locked in from then on.
Once upon a time, in the notorious start-up cradle, small was beautiful.
For decades, whole regions, nations even, have tried to model themselves on a particular ideal of innovation, the lifeblood of the modern economy. From Apple to Facebook, Silicon Valley’s freewheeling ecosystem of new, nimble corporations created massive wealth and retilted the world’s economic axis. Silicon Valley meant young companies scrambling to create the next great thing, and that scramble delivered new products to the world, so innovation became linked to start-ups.
AnnaLee Saxenian, a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information, literally wrote the book on what differentiated the Valley from other centers of technology (particularly New England’s Route 128). The key words were decentralized and fluid. You worked for Silicon Valley, and working for Silicon Valley often meant striking out on your own, not only to make your name, but because innovation itself required small firms with new visions. That’s how disruption happened, no?
As a black American woman married to a member of Britain’s upper class, I have caught just a glimpse of Meghan Markle’s world.
The world Meghan Markle entered when she married Prince Harry is unlike any other. But, as a black American woman married to a member of Britain’s upper class, I have caught just a glimpse of it, from a roughly similar perspective.
For a while I lived in London and, through the man who would become my husband, I was introduced to some of the ancient class dynamics that permeate British society. He went to Eton, the elite boys’ boarding school attended by Prince William, Prince Harry, and many prime ministers.
Once, I went with him to the christening of an old classmate’s child. At the event, I sat across from David Cameron, an Old Etonian—or OE, as Eton’s former students are called—who was then the Tory party leader. His wife and my partner were both godparents to the new baby. If I were British, the christening and subsequent lunch with a gaggle of OEs and their equally posh wives would likely have made me nervous, angry, and uncomfortable. But I was somewhat insulated by the fact that, as an outsider, I didn’t have negative associations—or really any associations—with their traditions and ways of expressing themselves.
Policing correct female behavior keeps all women in their place.
Are you Team Kate or Team Meghan? If you’re anything like me, you don’t want to pick a side—and you don’t think there should be “sides” at all. Yet ever since Meghan Markle married Prince Harry, parts of the media have pitted the former actor against her sister-in-law.
Where Kate Middleton was once depicted as a dull social climber, she is now presented as the epitome of female virtue: a respectable, silent, discreet, and selfless mother. Meghan must therefore be her opposite—a political, manipulative, “woke” careerist.
Essentially, the two duchesses have been assigned to opposite sides of the culture war. All kinds of seemingly unrelated items have become symbols of one side or the other—quinoa, avocados, the English flag, attitudes toward the death penalty—and now Kate and Meghan have been conscripted too.