First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Michael Doolittle

A week ago I quoted an unnamed “reader in New Haven,” who offered thoughts about “The Future of Elite Schools in the Trump Era.” That occasioned a lot of response, which is still coming in. I quoted some of it in “Trump vs. Harvard and Yale” and “The Future of Elite Schools, Continued.”

This next installment comes from the author of the original message, who is now willing to be identified. He is Michael Doolittle. As he explains, he is a Harvard College alumnus, and he works as a photographer in New Haven. In the message below he talks about the under-publicized but important role of sports in elite-college admissions. As he says an introductory note:

I have set up a website, where readers can go and click on a black button titled "Introduction: Sports in Admissions" if they want more detail about a lot of these themes. You could just say that I am trying a writing project exploring why the US is the only major country in the world that has tied sports so tightly into their colleges and universities and what that says about admission policies.

Now, Doolittle’s response to those who have read and reacted to his original message. By the way, the photos in this post are by him, of scenes at Yale:

I’ve amazed that my ruminations on elite schools in the Trump era have garnered so much interest. I want to start by saying that my comments were broadly about the institutions. In no way am I saying that all students at elite school are entitled jerks. I believe you can be critical of systems, even those you admire, without criticizing every individual in those systems.

My thoughts are grounded by my personal experience and a research project that I’ve been working on for some years.

My name is Michael Doolittle and I have been involved, one way or another, with the Ivy League since 1979, when my parents bought a new school bus yellow Suburban to take my oldest brother Tim to Harvard. I have four brothers and four of us graduated from Harvard.

JF note: By chance I know Michael Doolittle’s parents and once worked closely with his father. Back to his message:

Peter Claeys, on the left, back in 2006, on the tarmac in Zhuhai after a perilous trip through Chinese skies. James Fallows photo

I was very sorry to learn this week that Peter Claeys, whom you see in action above and in the family photo below, had died recently in Lille, at age 62. With his  family’s permission, here is their announcement, followed by my appreciation:

A notice from the family of Peter Claeys, in Belgium.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

As mentioned last week, I’m nostalgically trying to piece together some elements of the olden-days blogging culture in the current, very different online environment.

Today’s installment: A long note from a reader working through why he has changed his mind about Comey’s Choice™—former FBI Director James Comey’s decision to ignore the practice of his predecessors and comment openly about the investigative status of candidates during an election.

The reader begins about the overall process of collaborative thinking-out-loud:

I confess to using [emails to me and other writers] as a foil against which to flesh out my thoughts and ideas. I hope it hasn't been an irritating distraction. It's certainly helped me. I'm at least hoping that the elaboration of my own denseness has helped you to understand how much (or little) of the media's message is being absorbed and understood by people in the general population who think about it.

In that spirit, I just listened to the Colbert-Comey interview; I'd listened to the Maddow interview, and read summaries of a couple of others. [Update: I recommend listening to Michael Barbaro’s 42-minute interview with Comey on the NYT podcast The Daily, which goes into many of the questions the reader raises.] And I was about to sit down and ask you an honest question: Why was Comey's decisions to make public pronouncements about Clinton's e-mails wrong? The case he states makes sense, especially given the impossible consequences of going in either direction.

I've seen your many tweets challenging both the decision and the media handling of it. But his case still is highly persuasive. He was facing, in his statement, a Hobson's choice between tainting an election, or tainting a presidency, depending upon the outcome, given his perception that the independence of Justice (Loretta Lynch) being questioned.

And then, amidst my shower this morning, I got it. And I want to share it with you because, honestly, I haven't seen, or perhaps more accurately, been able to pull out of the mishmash of facts and events, a clear explication of why what he did was wrong.

Elise Amendola / AP

Last week I quoted a long dispatch from a Harvard graduate now living in New Haven, on why he thought the Trump era held more perils for elite-level schools like Harvard and Yale than they might be anticipating. Readers chimed in to agree, disagree, and share parallel experiences here.

I’ve received a flood of mail since then—supportive, angry, provocative in various ways—which I’ll work through and quote as circumstances allow. But for real-time reasons, I want to quote one of them today. It’s from Justin Kaplan, a current graduate student at Harvard, who is originally from southern Virginia and went to college at the University of Virginia. (He points out that he is one of a set of triplets, which has affected his parents’ ability to support his higher-education costs.)

Kaplan, whose name I am using with his permission, writes about a vote for graduate-school unionization at Harvard that is winding up today. As he points out, his experience should obviously not be taken as representative of elite universities in general, or Harvard in particular, or even his own graduate department. But accumulations of individual  experience have their weight, and this is his account:

Regarding your piece on “The Future of Elite Schools in the Trump Era,” I would love to share my thoughts and experiences of the “Present” at an elite school: namely, Harvard.

I will preface my comments with a disclaimer: I do not claim to speak for all students at Harvard, nor all students at the School of Public Health, where I currently pursue a master’s degree. I am just relaying the observations I have been banking since my acceptance and subsequent arrival here… It would be fallacious to generalize widely from my experience.

That being said, my best friend at Harvard is my therapist. Or maybe my psychiatrist, whom I see monthly at student health, and who recently comforted me with an age-old adage: “it’s better to be from Harvard than at Harvard.”

Windmills in Texas LM Otero / AP

In a few days, the May issue of the magazine will arrive for subscribers ( ! ) and appear on newsstands. It includes an article I’ve done as a more analytically explicit companion to Our Towns, the mainly narrative book that I’ve written with my wife, Deb, and that will come out next month.

In the Atlantic article I elaborate on a claim that I’ve been exploring in this space over the past five years of traveling through and reporting about “interior America.” It boils down to this, from the article:

Dysfunction at the national level genuinely is a problem, as the world is reminded every time the federal government shuts down. Some of that pathology has spread to the state level. But for us the American story was of a country that is still capable of functioning far more effectively than national-level paralysis would indicate or than most people unaware of the national patterns we are reporting would assume about the parts of America they’re not in.

The words I most want to emphasize from that passage are the final ones. People generally develop a more-or-less realistic assessment of the communities and institutions they experience first-hand. But more and more, they have come to believe that the world “outside” is full of dystopian horrors they are fighting off at home. The simplest illustration, which I mention and document in the piece: Polls show that by huge majorities, Americans think things are getting worse for the country as a whole. By similarly huge majorities, they believe that conditions in their own communities are getting better, not worse.

What explains this split awareness? It’s complicated. No doubt a significant factor is that politics at the national level have genuinely reached a point of crisis — and it’s tempting for people to base their judgments of local conditions on first-hand knowledge, and assume that the (abysmal) level of national politics is the default assumption about everywhere else. The decades-long fear-and-disaster emphasis of local news and cable news also has an effect. (“We’re not having many car hijackings / tornados / terrorist threats here locally, but they must be widespread because I see them all the time on the news!”)

In the article I also propose a way to test the proposition that America is, at a local level, positive minded. I offer this for the (no doubt substantial) number of readers who might start out skeptical. Further details when the magazine comes out. For the moment, here is a way to sample what it has been like to go city-by-city and ask about the most significant local developments.

While on a long drive yesterday, I listened on the radio to Joshua Johnson’s radio interview, on his 1A program, with Dale Ross, the mayor of Georgetown, Texas. Ross’s story, told last month in this Smithsonian article, is of a conservative-Republican mayor in a Republican-voting town, who has made Georgetown the largest town in America to run entirely on renewable power. Something similar is true of the also-Republican mayor of the also-conservative city of Lancaster, California, which has gone all-out in its transition to solar power.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Recently I posted a dispatch from a reader based in New Haven, himself a Harvard graduate, who said that America’s elite-level universities were ill-prepared for what the Trump administration had in store for  them.

Here is a sampling of the response that has come in. First, the flippant:

Your blog post detailing a reader’s concern about the insularity and elitism of Ivy League universities made me think of a personal anecdote about the last time I visited Cornell.

It was my 24th birthday, and I was at an apartment party with a few friends. I was offered the chance to pick the music, and I decided to put on one of the greatest pop songs of all time, Mariah Carey’s “Emotions.”

Not only did no one besides me dance, but someone had the gall to change the track during the iconic vamp where Mariah hits the highest falsetto note of the song. Maybe it’s just me being petty, but that moment demonstrated the aloofness and entitlement of Ivy League students; if they wouldn’t let me finish listening to one of my favorite songs on my birthday, and an objectively fantastic one at that, how much awareness do they really have about their fellow American’s lives, and will they realize that their instincts and decision-making skills aren’t always right?

Yeah, I’m probably just being petty.


Much more substantively, from another reader, a young woman named Erica Yurvati :

I just read your post about the future of elite schools in the Trump era. I think I might have a unique perspective to add.

I grew up in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, which is a small town in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. It's definitely Trump territory. Most of my ancestors were farmers and my mom's generation was the first to go to college. I was an overachiever who made the most of the opportunities at my school and was lucky enough to have parents who supported me in activities outside of school.

When I got into Yale, I knew it would change my life and it absolutely did.

The opening of a new "story map" on the life of Coachella that goes on before and after the festival Douglas McCulloh / Esri story map

I recall the first time I heard someone in New York talk excitedly about plans to “go to Coachella.” What? I thought.

The Coachella I had known while growing up in the vicinity was a small desert town where irrigation made farming possible, and where the crops ranged from rows of vegetables to groves of citrus and date-palm trees. Under the blasting desert sun, its motto—“The City of Eternal Sunshine”—seemed a literally accurate description, except maybe for the nighttime hours. Every year the next-door town of Indio would hold the National Date Festival, where events included naming a Queen Scheherazade and her court. (That tradition continues: here’s the current queen, Keanna Garcia.) During Cesar Chavez’s heyday as an organizer, his United Farm Workers led a number of strikes and other actions among the mainly Latino work force in the area.

So to me, the name Coachella had always meant “date palms” and “farm-workers’ efforts.” But over the past 20 years, it has come to mean “Music Festival” to much of the world. In fact, the web address takes you directly to festival information, rather than to a municipal site.

This tension—Coachella the real place, where struggles for economic and environmental progress have been waged for decades, versus Coachella the stylish venue toward which festival-goers are flocking right now—is the theme of an intriguing new “story map” produced by the novelist Susan Straight, the photographer Douglas McCulloh, and our friends* at the Esri corporation, of Redlands, California. The map is here, and a few details about it are after the jump.

A student and parent pass Widener Library's banners before Harvard University's Class Day Exercises in Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 27, 2015. Dominick Reuter / Reuters

A few days ago, for no intended reason, I came across this remarkable off-the-cuff essay from back in 2011 by my then-and-now colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates. In those days—before “The Case for Reparations,” before Between the World and Me, before the new, wonderful Apollo Theater rendition of Between—Ta-Nehisi was a closely followed writer but not yet the internationally influential figure he has deservedly become. And, like many of us writing online for The Atlantic in those days (I was doing so from Beijing), he used the then-flourishing model of the blog to carry out an extended thinking-out-loud relationship with his readers. That’s what you’ll see in the post mentioned above, which is about Ta-Nehisi’s encounter with some works of Herman Melville’s.

The world has moved on from that era of online discourse, principally because of a shift in the dynamics of readership and traffic. Then, you could assume that readers of today’s post would have some background awareness of what you wrote yesterday, or maybe last month as well. They’d know the kind of sensibility a comment came from, and of the parts of the argument you weren’t spelling out.

Now, any given post bears a greater expectation of being a stand-alone, completed thought—one that can “travel” via social-media sharing (through Facebook or Twitter) and will be comprehensible to people who have no idea of the preceding flow. With no assumption that posts will be read in context, there’s a correspondingly greater risk that any comment or sentence can be taken on its own, taken the wrong way, and instantly circulated to damaging effect. There’s less leeway for the “error” part of the trial-and-error aspect of thinking in public. The writing naturally becomes more formal and less playful.

To exist in journalism is to be comfortable with accelerating change—back in 2011, I quaintly resisted the term “blog” for my part of the site, little imagining that a few years later that word would have the lost-era resonance of “first quarto edition” or “hand-written letter.” And this shift in discourse, by which something is lost, is also part of a process by which a lot is gained: namely, a much broader potential audience for material on a site like ours. But it is a shift.

This is a build-up for saying that I’m going to try once more, within the confines of this space, to revive a little of the retro blogging spirit. As an example for today, here is a message that came in from a reader in an elite-university college town. (OK: It’s New Haven.) He says that an under-appreciated aspect of Donald Trump’s war on expertise deserves further attention. The reader writes:

I believe that you, like me, are the product of some of the most elite schools in the US.* I've been involved in the Ivy League, indirectly or directly, almost every year since [the 1980s] when we all drove my oldest brother to Harvard.  It's striking to see how Trump has turned his anti-elitist fire onto Harvard and its peers.  First their endowments were targeted in the tax reform.  And now we are learning that the Justice Department is going after their admissions practices.

Stephen Lam / Reuters

On Tuesday, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook finally appears before Congress. Franklin Foer, who has extensively chronicled the relationship between social-media companies and democracy, had a report yesterday on the phase-change in national power that his appearance might indicate. (And you can take an advance look at Zuckerberg’s prepared testimony, highly underwhelming in my view.)

Last week I ran a long dispatch by my friend Michael Jones, one of the inventors of Google Earth and former “Chief Technology Advocate” at Google, arguing the difference (as he had seen it) between the Google and the Facebook approach to customer data. In short: Both companies based their business on achieving a more and more precise understanding of who their users were. But, Jones said, there was a big difference in how they protected the information, Google being more intent on making sure the “Personally Identifiable Information,” PII, never left its own control.

His argument attracted a lot of discussion on Twitter, from some past and present employees of Facebook and some other figures. I’ve also heard many dissenting (and supporting) views.

The purpose of this post is to quote a few of the dissents, and a reply from Michael Jones.

First, from someone within the Facebook world:

[A relative who works for Facebook] told me: "The article is mostly false in regards to what advertisers get. It makes it seem like the advertiser knows your every move—as well as your kids. Obviously FB and Google have tons of PII, but it really only gets shared with advertisers in aggregate, not one by one. Unless the user volunteers it [i.e. fills out a form to provide their information to the advertiser]".

I agree with this. There are two cases to consider here: Facebook Advertisers and Facebook Applications.

Facebook Advertisers: When an advertiser uses FB (or Google) to post ads, very granular micro-targeting can be done in order to deliver the ads/content to a very specific audience. The advertiser doesn't know who the ads are getting delivered to; all of that information is held by FB (or Google). In this area, Google and FB are identical.

Facebook Applications: Facebook provides a mechanism to allow Facebook users to use their FB identify (i.e. username/pwd) to access other applications. This way, the user just has to remember their one identity. When the user first sets this up for a specific application, they are told that when doing this, their FB information is going to be provided to the application (and it lists the type of information that is going to be accessible by the app). Several years ago, the application could receive not just the user's information, but the information for the user's FB Friends as well. This type of access (friends) was discontinued.

Stephen Lam / Reuters

Over the years I’ve often turned to my friend Michael Jones for guidance about the cultural and social effects of technology.

For instance, five years ago I did an Atlantic interview with him about how the dawn of omnipresent mapping-on-your-phone was about to change personal and collective life. (He had been one of the inventors of Google Earth.) A few years before that, when Jones was the “chief technology advocate” at Google, he guided my wife, Deb, and me through the implications of having Deb’s Gmail account get taken over by a hacker in West Africa. My article about the episode was called “Hacked,” and it was an early klaxon about the importance of using two-stage sign-on systems. (If you’re still a holdout, install them now!) You can read more about Michael Jones’s background at the bottom of this piece. It’s relevant to note that he and I disagree on many issues of national politics, he taking a much more pure-libertarian approach than I do.

Earlier today I noted an op-ed in the New York Times by the law professor and technology-policy writer Tim Wu, saying that Facebook’s problems with privacy-protection were too fundamental to be repaired. (Instead, Wu argued for creation of nonprofit alternatives.) Michael Jones responded with the proposition below, which I’m quoting with his permission.

Here is what someone who has made his living in the details (and innovations) of the “big data” world thinks about the Facebook predicament. He begins by mentioning Wu’s article:

WRT the article you mention and the subject in general, I am your doctor. Let me explain the patient's disease and treatment.

The superficial (though global and important) issue is that FB allowed its partners/customers to access/copy/appropriate the personally identifiable information (PII) of 70+ million people.

The secondary issue is that one of the thousands of these PII recipients [that is, Cambridge Analytica] passed the data to those who could weaponize it and use to against America, FB's homeland. This is the drama of the moment, the ideas of "rogue application of data", "improper handoff of data", and "unintended usage against FB policy which therefore need to be strengthened." You'll hear noise about this when Mark Zuckerberg is questioned by Congress.

This is news and drama. But it is historical. Like a tragic accident with deaths and maiming, however terrible, it is done. There may be grave penalties, but no matter what they are, they cannot undo what has already happened—the harm, the threats, the future uses of that PII.

More meaningful is what happens going forward.

The idea of "as before, but better," which is MZ's road show theme, could only work in a world where nobody who decides understands the core issues. Sheryl Sandberg's sudden disappearance makes me wonder if perhaps this very issue is why—she well-understands the difference [between Facebook’s policies and Google’s, from her experience as a former VP at Google] and would not be able to pretend otherwise to the congresspersons and regulators.

This is where I'd like to share perspective with you about the real problem and the only known cure. A topic hopefully made clear by comparison with Google, analogy with you, and a review of the nature of targeted advertising.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Last week, as part of The Atlantic’s discussion of the 15th anniversary of the disastrous invasion of Iraq, I wrote a post called “The Inevitability of Ignorance.” Its main point was about the necessity, and the impossibility, of trying to “learn” from successes and failures in the past.

Everyone has heard the Santayana chestnut/homily/warning about “those who cannot remember the past….” But even the most earnest efforts to apply yesterday’s lessons can cause missteps across tomorrow’s terrain, with its inevitable surprises and differences.

Is this frustrating and contradictory? Yes, but in that it is like most other important challenges in statecraft and in life. (For instance: Should the United States be “idealistic” in its approach to the world? Yes. Must it also be self-interested and practical-minded? Also yes. The goal is to manage the tradeoffs, with the needle pushed as far as possible in the idealistic direction. As one of our presidents said about this contradiction more than 40 years ago*:

We live in a world that is imperfect and which will always be imperfect—a world that is complex and confused and which will always be complex and confused.

I understand fully the limits of moral suasion…. But I also believe that it is a mistake to undervalue the power of words and of the ideas that words embody. In our own history, that power has ranged from Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream."

As a tool in managing this contradiction, I also mentioned the insightful book by Ernest May and Richard Neustadt, Thinking in Time, which is about the difficulty and utility of looking for historic patterns and clues.

Now, several readers weigh in—on the specific failures born of amnesia I mentioned, Lyndon Johnson’s escalation in Vietnam and George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, and on the larger struggle to “learn” from the past only to the right degree.

George Frey / Reuters

For an index of the two-dozen previous items in the post-Parkland gun-safety series, please see the bottom of this post. In this installment, I offer reader messages on two main themes. One is whether it matters to talk about the specific “killing power” of the AR-15 and the ammunition it uses. The other is about the specific historical background of the “well regulated militia” phrase in the Second Amendment.

Ammo and velocity. Reader J.E., in Kentucky, writes to object to another reader I quoted here, concerning the lethality of the AR-15’s high-velocity bullets. J.E. writes:

Our laws have capably recognized distinctions within the Second Amendment’s category of “arms."  This series of articles have helped convince me that a further distinction needs to be made delineating a class of semiautomatic rifles which includes the AR-15 and variants.

For the purpose of regulation, it is possible to define this type of firearm objectively without falling prey to the kind of loopholes found in the ’94 “Assault Weapons” ban. Such a definition is crucial to avoid the slippery-slope fallacies which have been levied by regulation opponents in the past (or recently by Marco Rubio).  This possibility is evidenced by the 1934 National Firearms Act which has successfully regulated certain categories of firearms without spill over.

Since these definitions are inherently technical, the argument is not aided by gun-control proponents who make factual errors.  When at a gun range or store, I regularly hear such mistakes being ridiculed. They go viral on social media depicting supporters of gun control as clueless (an example here).

I fear the previous comment [here] about the kinetic energy of .223/5.56 round being greater than that of a 30-06 unfortunately provides just one more example.