You often tell us that the deluge of news you receive each week can be overwhelming. Today’s issue is part of an ongoing Masthead experiment to help members navigate The Atlantic’s myriad of stories. This time, we’re sharing the stories that had the most impact this week. Our selection is guided by the wisdom of both Atlantic editors and readers. Here is a synthesis of the stories they enjoyed most.
Before we dive in, I want to remind you about the upcoming Masthead call with David Frum. Caroline Kitchener will be talking to him about his book Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. A sequel of sorts to his January 2017 cover story, Trumpocracy analyzes President Trump’s first year in the White House, and what it means for American institutions. The call is Monday, February 12 at 1:00 p.m. EST. Register to join the call.
What Editors Loved: “The Real Lessons From Bill Clinton's Welfare Reform”
Congressional Republicans are planning safety-net reforms that would transform programs like Medicaid and food stamps, writes Vann Newkirk II. Their template is the 1996 welfare-reform program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. That law shrunk welfare costs and decreased welfare caseloads, but it also made cash assistance much harder for needy Americans to access. Vann writes:
If TANF is a useful model for the kind of entitlement reform that the country might embark upon over the next few years, many Americans can expect the federal safety net to functionally cease to exist within their lifetimes … “Welfare reform” didn’t fix welfare so much as destroy it, and if similar changes were applied to Medicaid and food stamps, they would likely do the same.
What Readers Loved: “Trump’s Saturday Night Massacre Is Already Happening”
President Trump’s criticisms of the FBI has reminded pundits of the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre, when Richard Nixon’s attempt to fire the special prosecutor led his attorney general and deputy attorney general to resign. But David Graham writes that those comparisons are misguided. Trump’s goals are already more expansive than Nixon’s.
First, people are already being fired. And second, even when they’re not, Trump is accomplishing many of the same things that would otherwise be accomplished with firings via other means … If the goal is to purge officials who Trump thinks represent some sort of threat to him, that’s already under way. But Trump also doesn’t have to purge them to achieve what he wants. He just has to create an environment that stifles things he believes represent a threat to him.
What Editors Loved: “Why Public Media Has a Sexual-Harassment Problem”
The problem of sexual harassment in public media is especially unsettling given the field’s principled and high-minded reputation. Gillian B. White explains how, despite those perceptions, the systems to counter sexual harassment came to be so inadequate.
Often smaller stations find themselves strapped for cash, which can inhibit the ability to build up human-resources departments, or train staff and leadership about how to create an inclusive and safe work environment … If stations aren’t effectively managing these problems when they’re still tiny, they can wind up with big problems as they grow.
What Readers Loved: “The Banana Trick and Other Acts of Self-Checkout Thievery”
When you ring up an expensive item at the self-checkout counter with a code for a cheap item, you’re using the “banana trick.” Self-checkout theft has become more prevalent in grocery stores, writes Rene Chun. For some would-be thieves, stealing during self-checkout may just seem easier, because interacting with machines instead of humans gives the false impression of anonymity. Others may have a “type-T” thrill-seeking personality. Chun writes, “According to this theory, some Type Ts become base jumpers or Mafia hit men, while others settle for swiping Brie and organic tomatoes from Safeway.”
What Editors Loved: “A Trip to a Museum for Convincing Americans About Climate Change”
America’s first climate museum has opened at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Laura Raskin spoke to founding director Miranda Massie, who wants the museum to help make climate change part of everyday conversations. And that means designing more museums with climate in mind.
Massie has retained the architecture consultant Reed Kroloff to organize a kind of ideas competition in the fall—one that won’t result in a chosen architect or design, but will draw out possible forms for a climate museum from architects on all seven continents. A climate museum in Louisiana may look very different from one in Manhattan, for example. The former may be on stilts.
What Readers Loved: “How Humans Sank New Orleans”
Before engineers accidentally sank half of New Orleans, the entire city was once above sea level. Richard Campanella explains how, centuries ago, when Europeans arrived in lower Louisiana, they engineered the landscape using levees, canals, and pumps.
What was beginning to happen was anthropogenic soil subsidence—the sinking of the land by human action. When runoff is removed and artificial levees prevent the river from overtopping, the groundwater lowers, the soils dry out, and the organic matter decays. All this creates air pockets in the soil body, into which those sand, silt, and clay particles settle, consolidate—and drop below sea level.
What Editors Loved: “How Should Atheism Be Taught?”
For the first time, an American faculty chair has been endowed specifically for the study of atheism. Louis Appignani, the businessman who endowed the chair, describes atheism like a movement or an ideology, but, as Isabel Fattal writes, the scholar who holds the chair describes it as a largely uncontroversial academic subject.
The distinctions between their descriptions of the chair—one that emphasizes a philosophical approach and one with far more emphasis on atheists as an identity group—is telling … It shows how nonbelief itself has, throughout history, meant many different things—whether a mere indifference to questions of God’s existence, a staunch objection to the idea of a god in the sky, or something in between. This diversity of notions has long made atheism a difficult phenomenon to conceive of academically.
What Readers Loved: “What Kids Are Really Learning About Slavery”
A recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project finds slavery mistaught and misunderstood in schools. Melinda Anderson describes the study’s main findings:
The study exposes a number of unsettling facts about slavery education in U.S. classrooms: Slavery is taught without context, prioritizing “feel good” stories over harsh realities; slavery is taught as an exclusively southern institution, masking the complicity of northern institutions and citizens in America’s slave-based economy; slavery is rarely connected to white supremacy—the ideology that justified its perpetuation.
What Editors Loved: “When Donald Rumsfeld Asks You to 'Solve Pakistan'”
As a top policy adviser to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during George W. Bush’s administration, Douglas Feith often received intimidating mini-memos, called “snowflakes,” from the secretary. In just a few words, they assigned ambitious tasks like “[solving] the Pakistan problem.” Uri Friedman asked Feith how he dealt with it.
“Every once in a while the secretary would do a snowflake review,” Feith [said]. “He would call somebody into his office and go through his own stock of snowflakes and say, ‘How did you respond to this one? How did you respond to this one?’ That was pretty unpleasant. That was worse than the dentist.”
What Readers Loved: “China’s Surveillance State Should Scare Everyone”
China is on track to become the first country with a nationwide algorithmic surveillance system. Using artificial intelligence and data mining, the Chinese government plans to create a “citizen score” to encourage model behavior, and using a network of surveillance cameras, it plans to closely monitor citizens. Anna Mitchell and Larry Diamond write on the dangers these developments pose to civil liberty:
Increasingly, citizens will refrain from any kind of independent or critical expression for fear that their data will be read or their movements recorded—and penalized—by the government. And that is exactly the point of the program. Moreover, what emerges in China will not stay in China. Its repressive technologies have a pattern of diffusing to other authoritarian regimes around the world.
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