On this page you’ll find notes arising from American Futures project that Deborah and James Fallows have had underway, with some appearances on Marketplace radio, since 2013. Their full archive is here.
In the presidential primary on Tuesday, Texas Republicans seem set to throw themselves behind the two candidates [Trump and Cruz] who are doing all they can to stress the seams, pop the rivets, blow apart whatever counts as unity in 21st-century Texas...One way or another, it looks as if white grievance will finish first and second with the Texas G.O.P.
But on a trip across southeast Texas on the eve of the primary, I met voters who — with an exception or two — did not seem to think they were near any abyss, as Mr. Cruz has warned. At a nostalgically 19th-century event — a rodeo parade on Saturday in Houston — Texans seemed perfectly at ease with the times.
Political rhetoric suggesting that the country is on the verge of collapse, and meanwhile a city-by-city, person-by-person sense that the apocalypse is still quite some distance away — yes indeed! That sounds very much like the country my wife Deb and I have been reporting on and trying to describe in our pages.
This passage by Lawrence Downes resembled many other moments across the country through the past few years:
I watched [the parade] for a while with Kemal Anbarci, a 52-year-old petroleum engineer, born in Turkey, who loves Houston. “I really feel American,” he said. “I feel like I belong here.” He said he voted Republican when he lived in California, but was waiting until after the primary to see who is the most unifying candidate. He called Houston “a wonderful place to be if you are not native-born.” He observed that the riders in the parade were ethnically diverse, but rode in segregated groups. “It’s wonderful,” he said, “but they are in chunks.” He laughed.
Many people are discouraged about America. But the closer they are to the action at home, the better they like what they see.
This sounds like the old political saw that people hate the Congress but feel better about their own Representative. But it’s different in a significant way.
The hate-the-Congress / like-the- Congressman paradox is based on the tension between locally connected politicians, who by definition know how to make themselves likable to their own constituency, and the Congress as a whole, which everyone can see is polarized and hamstrung. You don’t have to wait to be told that national government is stalemated. You know that it is, because of the nonstop news of shutdowns and faceoffs.
But the NPR / Robert Wood Johnson / Harvard study that is the basis of today’s report parallels what my wife Deb and I have reported about economic, educational, cultural, and social trends across the country. Namely, that people feel more positive about the part of America they directly experience than the other part they hear referred to in political discourse in the news.
“Feel more positive” doesn’t mean “think there are no problems.” The health system, the school system, and every other system is under severe strain. But more people feel more positively about more aspects of the current U.S. scene that you would infer from most coverage, or from virtually any political discourse. Recognizing this point matters not for generating complacency but rather for grasping the possibility of progress. As my current piece says in its conclusion:
When the national mood after the first Gilded Age favored reform, possibilities that had been tested, refined, and made to work in various “laboratories of democracy” were at hand. After our current Gilded Age, the national mood will change again. When it does, a new set of ideas and plans will be at hand. We’ve seen them being tested in places we never would have suspected, by people who would never join forces in the national capital. But their projects, the progress they have made, and their goals are more congruent than even they would ever imagine. Until the country’s mood does change, the people who have been reweaving the national fabric will be more effective if they realize how many other people are working toward the same end.
A very interesting graph from the NPR report, showing how views of each person’s own health-care experience vary with income:
When I was living in and reporting from China, I spent a lot of time trying to hammer this point home: whatever you might say about China — good or bad, friendly or hostile — there was some place in the country where it was true, and also some place where its opposite was true. Thus embracing China’s contradictory realities was not some minor fine-tuning detail but a starting-point necessity in thinking about the place. In case you haven’t read China Airborne, a further riff on this theme comes after the jump.*
Today’s America is not quite as contradictory as China. Yes, the U.S. has extreme poverty and growing inequality; but no, we don’t have a peasant population in the hundreds of millions. But America is complex and contradictory enough. Thus the message of my current cover story involves this superficially contradictory sequence:
The United States is suffering the ills of the Second Gilded Age, as it is distorted by the same pressures toward inequality and dislocation that affect virtually every society today.
Despite point #1, America’s overall prospects remain better than any other major country’s. That’s because of scale, resources, adaptability, geographic advantage, education (yes), research-and-entrepreneurship culture, “soft power,” openness to immigration, and lots more.
Despite point #2, the main American weakness, in both relative and absolute terms, is that our system of national government is at a historic ebb in effectiveness. That’s particularly troublesome now, because adapting to the turbulence of this era would be so much easier and less destructive with some national policies, like those that accompanied the adjustment to the previous Gilded Age. Then it was: worker-safety and child-labor laws, the minimum wage, unionization. Now: portability of health care, pensions, lifelong training, and other benefits as the “gig economy” replaces the long-term one-company career.
Despite point #3, lots of American families, organizations, and communities are figuring out their own responses to this era’s opportunities and problems. These are worth noticing in their own right; and as they accumulate, they can provide a guide for national action — if such a thing should become possible again.
With that, bring on Warren Buffett! Today’s NYT has a story about Buffett’s annual shareholder letter for Berkshire Hathaway. The Times headline conveys the contrast with today’s political rhetoric.
The whole thing is worth reading (in PDF here), but let highlight these two resonant parts. You’ll see why I noticed them.
First, on the overall U.S. prospect:
It’s an election year, and candidates can’t stop speaking about our country’s problems (which, of course, only they can solve). As a result of this negative drumbeat, many Americans now believe that their children will not live as well as they themselves do.
That view is dead wrong: The babies being born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.
And he goes on to explain why he thinks so.
Then, the complication:
The productivity gains that I’ve just spelled out – and countless others that have been achieved in America – have delivered awesome benefits to society….
To this thought there are offsets. First, the productivity gains achieved in recent years have largely benefitted the wealthy.
Second, productivity gains frequently cause upheaval: Both capital and labor can pay a terrible price when innovation or new efficiencies upend their worlds. We need shed no tears for the capitalists (whether they be private owners or an army of public shareholders). It’s their job to take care of themselves….
A long-employed worker faces a different equation. When innovation and the market system interact to produce efficiencies, many workers may be rendered unnecessary, their talents obsolete. Some can find decent employment elsewhere; for others, that is not an option….
The answer in such disruptions is not the restraining or outlawing of actions that increase productivity. Americans would not be living nearly as well as we do if we had mandated that 11 million people should forever be employed in farming. The solution, rather, is a variety of safety nets aimed at providing a decent life for those who are willing to work but find their specific talents judged of small value because of market forces. (I personally favor a reformed and expanded Earned Income Tax Credit that would try to make sure America works for those willing to work.) The price of achieving ever-increasing prosperity for the great majority of Americans should not be penury for the unfortunate.
So: the U.S. prospects are better than most people think, and unrecognizably better than “we are doomed!” campaign rhetoric insists. Check! And even a growing economy leaves too many people out—who for moral, political, social, and economic reasons must be brought back in. Check again!
The Buffett-Fallows mind meld is complete. Well, apart from the picking-shrewd-investments part.
And if you don’t trust Warren Buffett on U.S. economic fundamentals? Here’s the 2015 year-end economic outlook from Vanguard (emphasis in original):
At full employment, the U.S. economy is unlikely to accelerate this year, yet is on course to experience its longest expansion in nearly a century, underscoring our long-held view of its resiliency.
As in past outlooks, we maintain that U.S. long-term (potential) GDP growth is near 2%, versus its historical average of 3.25% since 1950. This lowered projection is based on demographic headwinds and, to a lesser extent, on a more subdued expectation for labor productivity growth. However, we see our 2% U.S. trend growth estimation as neither “new” nor “subpar” relative to pre-crisis levels, if one both accounts for structurally lower population growth and removes the consumer debt-fueled boost to growth between 1980 and the global financial crisis that began in 2007.
*As promised, here is how I introduced the contradictions theme in the introduction to China Airborne:
The main surprise of living in China, as opposed to reading or hearing about it, is how much it is a loose assemblage of organizations and aspects and subcultures, an infinity of self- enclosed activities, rather than a “country” in the normal sense. The plainest fact about modern China for most people on the scene often seems the hardest to grasp from afar. That is simply how varied, diverse, contradictory, and quickly changing conditions within the country are.
Any large country is diverse and contradictory, but China’s variations are of a scale demanding special note. What is true in one province is false in the next. What was the exception last week is the rule today. A policy that is applied strictly in Beijing may be ignored or completely unknown in Kunming or Changsha. Millions of Chinese people are now very rich, and hundreds of millions are still very poor. Their country is a success and a failure, an opportunity and a threat, an inspiring model to the world and a nightmarish cautionary example. It is tightly controlled and it is out of control; it is futuristic and it is backward; its system is both robust and shaky. Its leaders are skillful and clumsy, supple and stubborn, visionary and foolishly shortsighted….
Such observations may sound banal—China, land of contrasts!—but I have come to think that really absorbing them is one of the greatest challenges for the outside world in reckon- ing with China and its rise.
1) On Point. I spoke today with Tom Ashbrook of WBUR and his On Point audience, about my contention (in the current cover story) that even in this time of wage stagnation, political paralysis, and growing inequality, more is happening at the local level than most Americans realize. You can find the whole show here or listen below.
I valued this conversation because for the first half-hour Ashbrook (whom I’ve known since we were correspondents in Japan in the 1980s) asked me in six different ways: Really, how can what you’re saying be true? Then in the second half callers asked their versions of the same question.
All this gave me a chance to try six+ different presentations of points that seem contradictory but, according to me, are simultaneously true.
One is that the United States is suffering the strains of a Second Gilded age, in ways ranging from increasing inequality to decreasing faith in national institutions of any sort (except the military).
Another is that at the same time, many organizations, institutions, localities, and other groups are finding ways to adapt more successfully to these circumstances — and that the news of their record is under-represented in our sense-of-America in these times.
And precisely because national-level responses to these strains are logjammed for the foreseeable future, it’s worth recognizing what alternatives we have.
In the article I quote Philip Zelikow, of the University of Virginia, to similar effect:
“In scores of ways, Americans are figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities of this era, often through bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation,” Phillip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia and a director of a recent Markle Foundation initiative called “Rework America,” told me. “There are a lot of more positive narratives out there—but they’re lonely, and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody.”
2) Berdoo. Over the past year-plus Deb Fallows and I have written frequently about San Bernardino — recently the focus of international attention, but long before that a community with as challenging a combination of economic and political obstacles as any in the country.
Here are two positive recent stories about the city. One, in the NYT, covers the group Generation Now (which we’ve frequently written about), plus others active in public arts as part of San Bernardino’s civic revival.
The other is the opening of a craft brewery in San Bernardino: Brew Rebellion, which three days ago had its grand opening in what was once the commissary of the former Norton Air Force Base, now San Bernardino International Airport. The San Bernardino Sun wrote all about it here. As the Sun story said:
The “Berdoo” location is small compared to most breweries, but the dedication to quality is an obsession to owner/head brewer, Andy Sutfin.
“We are happy to be here in San Bernardino and other brewers who questioned whether our town is a craft beer town, have found out they were wrong,” Sutfin said.
Congrats San Bernardino! (For why Brew Rebellion’s move is a good sign, see #11 on this list.)
Over the past few years we’ve mentioned many of the positive developments underway in the three counties of northern Mississippi (Lowndes, Clay, and Oktibbeha) collectively known as the “Golden Triangle.” They’re featured in my current cover story; in the video that the Atlantic’s team has produced; in the discussion I had yesterday on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS; and in the remarkable student essays that my wife Deb has collected from high school students at the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science (MSMS) in Columbus. The two latest offerings from MSMS students are here and here. Earlier ones are here. I promise you won’t regret the few minutes it takes to look at them.
All of the places we’ve reported on, like the country they’re part of, have a mixture of good and bad trends. Columbus is now coping with its local version of the racial police-violence problems being brought to light nationwide.
Last October, a white Columbus police officer named Canyon Boykin shot and killed a black Columbus resident named Ricky Ball. The shooting was on a Friday night, after a traffic stop (for broken tail light). You can read the background in this story soon after the shooting from the Columbus Dispatch, and this follow-up.
Since then the situation has grown more complicated and much more bitter. In two recent stories for the Guardian, here and here, Matt Kessler of the University of Mississippi has written about the police department’s contradictory reports about the case, and about the lawsuit that Boykin, the police officer who was fired after the shooting, has filed alleging that his treatment reflects anti-white racial bias.
Even so [despite the increased nationwide focus on white-on-black police violence], Ball's shooting death likely would never have hit the national radar were it not for a lethargic, tight-lipped response by city leaders compounded by sloppy handling of the evidence, including the presence of two, seemingly contradictory incident reports that were distributed to separate media.
As a result, what might have been regarded as a tragic incident has become fodder for those who see something sinister in how the case has been handled, casting doubt on the credibility of local officials, and by extension, reflecting poorly on the entire community.
Suddenly, the local/regional story has found a national audience.
I offer this not to provide any original information or authoritative insight on the case but rather to note an important development in a community we have highlighted. Also I suggest another look at the final few minutes of this video from Mississippi, in which an influential NAACP and labor-union leader in the region, Lewis O’Dneal, talks about what has changed in the region, and not, during his lifetime from the segregation era onward. He appears starting around time 7:35 of the video below.
This morning I was on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS program on CNN, talking about the project behind my current Atlanticcover story. A YouTube version of the full show is here; a one-minute out-take, in which I talk about why some people decide to make Duluth (above) or Redlands the center of internationally successful enterprises is here. A podcast is here.
If you go to the full-version video on YouTube (don’t yet see official CNN version), “Fareed’s Take” on the Sanders-budget controversy is for the first five minutes, then Thomas Friedman until time 10:15.
I talked with Fareed Zakaria from about 10:30 until about 21:00. The discussion is about vocational training, manufacturing startups, immigration, and whether a second age of reform is in view. In the final 90 seconds I make my best “here is what it all means” case. After that, you have the actually famous people on the show! They are the Indian magnate Mukesh Ambani and actor Shah Rukh Khan.
Before closing with another shot of Duluth, here is a note from reader Ron Davison that captures some of the impression we are trying to convey:
When I began business travel about 20 years ago, I would often come back home to San Diego so thankful that I didn't live in the place that I'd just visited. Now, as often as not, I leave a place feeling a little wistful about not getting to live there, or at least to spend more time.
So glad to see something that seems to describe the country I work in rather than the one that shows up on TV.
More of the Loll office in Duluth. The point in the article and the interview is that this resembles something you’d expect to see in San Francisco or Seattle, but it’s in northern Minnesota.
While I’m at it, here is another look at a great short documentary that the Atlantic’s video team shot in Mississippi:
The end of my current story in the magazine, on “How America Is Putting Itself Back Together,” explores the contrast between what I’m describing as healthy civic society at the city-by-city level, and the bitter dysfunction of modern national politics. We’ve been reminded of the latter once more by the reaction to Antonin Scalia’s death, and the tone of the GOP debate last night.
How can that gap possibly be bridged? Well, I tried in the article. One theme: because people know that national politics is hamstrung, they have found ways to ignore or work around it. And soon I’ll be writing more about some of the presentations at a very useful “Mayor’s Conference” in Redlands, California, that I mentioned here.
For now, I offer another explanation — a long note from a reader that I’m quoting in near-entirety, because I think it touches on some interesting themes.
This reader grew up in what was then an Eastern Bloc country, came with his parents to Brooklyn as a child, and now lives and works in California. He ties the civic “we’re in this together” themes we’re talking with to the ups and downs of some of the presidential campaigns. Over to him:
I wanted to let you know how much I believe [that what we have been describing] is a truth about the country. Because as I was reading the article, I was thinking about my friends and family and I couldn't stop thinking of people who were doing the kind of work you're highlighting.
From my friend who left a major city to go to the southwest and has become heavily involved in all manner of theatre arts, community building, tutoring children and adults with speech disorders. To my mother-in law who grew up in a town in Illinois and worked to organize its sister city events, food festivals, girl scout troops and more while being a public administrator despite her national politics being different to my own. Thank you for writing about a country doing its civic work together.
I know one focus of your article so far is how people operate outside of national politics, what life looks like for ordinary people who have to live in places instead of speculate about them. However, in the context of national politics, I've actually been thinking about the framing of campaigns and speeches.
I think one thing that is lost now in discussions of the 2008 campaign is how much of the then Senator from Illinois' focus, in speeches, was on the audience. That is, 'this is the moment we've been waiting for', 'yes, we can' and 'I can't do it alone.' The prominent theme of sustained civic responsibility appeared also again in 2012 in 'you didn't build that' which was a fractured point but meant to address community bonds, that we do not all fail or succeed all on our own. That we have the capacity to foster each other's success, that we can be culprits in each other's failure and especially in the material conditions of the vulnerable, that our individual success does not automatically translate to a success in our moral obligation to others in a society.
Looking at 2016, I've read more than a few speeches. I think as people search for why, for example, a Jewish Socialist from Vermont is successful, I don't think it boils down to a message of hope or a promise of material returns.
I think it boils down to being a campaign that as it has developed, is in its structure not framed around a candidate, but around civic engagement. That is, from the "#votetogether", the use of "we" in place of "I" or "me", the "not me, us" or "not him, us" and the calls for "political revolution."
When you look at the populism of the Republican side as currently represented by Trump, it is very much "I", in the sense of 'our country needs a truly great leader.' Beyond that, it's populism is framed much more like that of an army than a civic society.
The 2010 and 2012 campaigns had a lot of "we're going to take this country back" which is not the same thing as working "together." It's very much 'be a member of my army.' Whereas, with the Sanders campaign, when the candidate describes material conditions, it is very much almost like it doesn't have to be him there saying it. What he asks, what he emphasizes, where power is centered in the language of the campaign, is with supporters. So they're not asked to find a solution in "Bernie Sanders" they're asked to find a solution in themselves.
To the extent people are being asked to hope, they are being asked to hope for themselves. I think that appeals to people and lends also to a personal nature of a primary in terms of insults or hurt, because people then are not defending candidates, but themselves.
This is framed differently in the Clinton campaign. The sense of civic responsibility and duty, the societal frame, is still there. The sense of obligation to each other. But the weight of power in the language of the campaign is in a different place. During the concession speech in New Hampshire, Senator Clinton had the following exchange:
“What is the best way to change people’s lives so we can all grow together?” she said. “Who is the best change-maker?”
“You are!” people in the audience shouted.
I think, more than anything, the current divide in the framing of the Democratic campaigns and something people do not appreciate in the nature of the pitch. The Clinton campaign, in its core framing, is about the competence of Secretary Clinton, about the record of Secretary Clinton, about the political capacity of Secretary Clinton as being the best possible person, the strongest candidate, to deliver outcomes in the current political climate.
In the Obama 2008 campaign and in the Sanders campaign, the "you are" would be said by the candidate to the audience. That's the piece of the message they share. That's how they address the core of power, responsibility and leadership, by leaving it not with the candidate, but with the people supporting them, letting them just not the candidate's fitness, but their own. I have many, many friends who are supporters of Secretary Clinton and the friends that are supporters of Senator Sanders would still vote happily for Secretary Clinton.
What I've found though is in my friends that support Secretary Clinton, they often are disappointed by the metrics of competence given to the Sanders campaign, and they focus on Sanders the candidate, the ways in which they are lacking and they wonder why other people can't see it, why people assume he'll be able to maneuver around an obstructionist congress. And I think a big thing they miss is the extent to which the Sanders campaign is not framed the same way as the Clinton campaign, not framed as Senator Sanders achieving these things or giving these things to people, but people delivering these results for themselves. It's framed so the question is not 'do you believe in Bernie' but much like the Obama campaign, 'do you believe in us?'
So it's not the candidate, not how they measure up, but how the individuals, these members of the public that share the same concern, how they square up and whether they believe they can participate in the civic experiment of collective action, of democracy, of these changes that are happening in the lives of people all around the country who are building something for themselves and for each other.
I think the biggest thing the Democratic Party will have to reconcile, as it pursues not only the general election, but frankly, the idea of sustained engagement, regardless of the nominee, is these two messages and whether they can be made to co-exist. Everyone in the party ostensibly agrees about our obligation to one another, our desire to build a civic society together. What's happening in this primary is that two things that are not in opposition to each other, leadership and the power and capacity of the public, are artificially placed against each other because of the framing of two respective campaigns in competition. But the Democratic Party cannot do without either, without either the frame of leadership or the frame of public action and engagement….
I also read the wonderful poems and prose Deborah Fallows shared from the high schoolers in Mississippi. Those kids are wonderful and reminded me of my own great experiences and that of my friends in public school programs with teachers who cared deeply for us and had more ambitions for us than we knew to have for ourselves.
Thinking back on the note I sent and the work you're doing, it did make me consider the extent to which President Carter had work to reconcile the two elements of leadership and broad civic engagement. The stories in the malaise speech feel in some ways like before pictures to the stories of recoveries you're writing about now. This is the sort of work it feels like President Carter was speaking to and envisioning, the sort of engine operating outside of and beyond the nightmares that tend to be conjured up in our national politic.
Even more than usual, the non-football aspects of The Big Game, from Lady Gaga’s great national anthem through the choice of ads, were more interesting than the defense-and-turnover-dominated struggle on the field. Still, great defense, Broncos!
I have to mention in this space an ad that caught my eye. It was one of the Doritos series, and I’ll bet anything that it was shot in a grocery store I mentioned last fall. That store would be Gerrard’s Market, at the corner of Center Street and Cypress Avenue in Redlands, a small town in inland Southern California and one of our American Futures stops.
Gerrard’s is notable for having the most overwhelming (ie, “best”) selection of craft beer I have seen in any grocery store anywhere. Take that, Whole Foods! Take that, any upscale place! The beers are housed in a large new section of the store called The Cave, which you can read about here. I got a glimpse of The Cave in the background a few seconds into this ad.
I feel pretty sure about this guess, on 30 seconds’ evidence, because Gerrard’s was the neighborhood grocery when I was growing up (alas, before The Cave). Thus I recognize the placement of the palm trees you briefly glimpse, from having walked past them a million times. In local life in D.C. you frequently run into politicians. In local life in SoCal, you have a higher-than-average chance of seeing neighborhood buildings in B-roll for TV shows or ads. An episode of Perry Mason was shot at the University of Redlands when I was a kid. Talk about glamor!
Last week I mentioned that one theme of our ongoing American Futures travel had been the distinctive view of America available via low-altitude flight.
Andrew Sprung, of the Xpostfactoid blog, writes in response:
Serendipity: Yesterday evening I read your little ode to seeing the country from small-plane altitude, which for sure stirred some longing. Then a few hours later I read this fictional account in Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge of a 72 year-old woman, "who'd never been alone on a plan before," on a flight from Maine to NYC in a plane "half the size of a greyhound bus":
“The pilots, as well— both looking twelve years old with their unworried brows— had been kind, in the easy way they’d asked Olive if she’d mind sitting toward the back for weight distribution, before they climbed into the cockpit, closing the steel door. A thought unfolded before her— their mothers should be proud.
“And then as the little plane climbed higher and Olive saw spread out below them fields of bright and tender green in this morning sun, farther out the coastline, the ocean shiny and almost flat, tiny white wakes behind a few lobster boats— then Olive felt something she had not expected to feel again: a sudden surging greediness for life. She leaned forward, peering out the window: sweet pale clouds, the sky as blue as your hat, the new green of the fields, the broad expanse of water— seen from up here it all appeared wondrous, amazing. She remembered what hope was, and this was it. That inner churning that moves you forward, plows you through life the way the boats below plowed the shiny water, the way the plane was plowing forward to a place new, and where she was needed. She had been asked to be part of her son’s life.”
Seems like you could relate.
Indeed. Had not read this book but have now ordered it.
Next week a cover story whose writing and editing has tied me up for quite a while, and whose reporting has engaged my wife Deb and me over the past few years, will come out in print and on line. (Subscribe!)
Just now Darhil Crooks, creative director of the newly crowned Magazine of the Year, described the process by which he came up with a very nice cover image — plus the interior layout of the story. You can read it here. One of the great satisfactions of magazine journalism is the coming-together of many different kinds of imaginative talents and sensibilities. Part of Darhil Crooks’s genius is being able to move from an editor-level grasp of the argument and tone and ambition of a written story, to the right photographic, layout, illustration, cover-design, and other graphical means through which the message can be conveyed and enhanced. It’s like a good words-and-music combo, in that the pairing seems “natural” or even “inevitable” once you’ve heard or seen it, but (in my case) I could never have imagined it before knowing what the design team has figured out.
As a preview to the piece, here is the “dek,” the summary on the opening page:
Most Americans believe the country is going to hell. They’re wrong. What a three-years journey by single-engine plane reveals about reinvention and renewal—and about how the Second Gilded Age might end.
And here is an intermediate passage on the rationale behind this venture:
There is a high-toned tradition of road trips as a means of “discovering” America, from Lewis and Clark and Tocqueville through John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, and William Least Heat Moon (whose Blue Highways made its debut in these pages). Apart from other obvious points of contrast, our project was different in that rather than going by car (or wagon, or pirogue), we’ve gone from city to city in our family’s small single-engine propeller airplane, a Cirrus SR22. This was a decision made for convenience, for beauty, and for edification….
The beauty comes from the privilege and unending fascination of watching the American landscape unfurl below as you travel at low altitude. At the dawn of powered flight, a century ago, it was assumed that writers and painters would want to become aviators, and vice versa…
A coast-to-coast drive across America has its tedious stretches, and the teeming interstate corridors, from I-95 in the east to I-5 in the west, can lead to the despairing conclusion that the country is made of gas stations, burger stands, and big-box malls. From only 2,500 feet higher up, the interstates look like ribbons that trace narrow paths across landscape that is mostly far beyond the reach of any road. From ground level, America is mainly road—after all, that’s where cars can take you. From the sky, America is mainly forest in the eastern third, farmland in the middle, then mountain and desert in the west, before the strip of intense development along the California coast.
It’s also full of features obvious from the sky that are much harder to notice from the ground (and difficult to pick out from six miles up in an airliner): quarries at the edge of most towns, to provide gravel for roads and construction sites; prisons, instantly identifiable by their fencing (though some mega high schools can look similar), usually miles from the nearest town or tucked in locations where normal traffic won’t pass by. I never tire of the view from this height, as different from the normal, grim airliner perspective as scuba diving is from traveling on a container ship.
More to come about the magazine piece, and some new online accompaniments, next week. That is what will keep me busy over the weekend.
Update: Please read on for a new photo contest concept.
Loyal readers of Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, for many years part of our Atlantic online family, know and miss its “The View From Your Window” feature. Here’s a wonderful post by Andrew from ten years ago, when the first few photos were trickling in. During Andrew’s time with the Atlantic, TVFYW became the basis of a very popular contest, which lasted through the remaining years of The Dish.
Chris Bodenner, now the impresario of our Notes section, was one of the stalwarts of the Dish team during its Atlantic era and afterward. He has proposed an updated “The View From Your Airplane Window” feature, in keeping with the emphasis on “the aerial view” you see quoted above.
Shots from airplane windows were an occasional part of the prior TVFYW feature. We’d like to concentrate on collecting aerial shots only — from small planes and airliners, from helicopters and airplanes, from altitudes high enough to reveal large-scale geographic patterns and low enough to display surprising neighborhood or city-planning details.
Chris will be back next week to explain more about the concept and structure of the feature and the contests. (For instance: do drone shots count? Argument for: they can be very interesting aerial views. Argument against: no window. Which naturally raises the question: are windows really necessary? What about views from wing-suits, or hang-gliders, or balloons? Chris will figure all this out.)
In the meantime, please begin sending him any relevant photos, with identifying info— when, where, how, and what’s interesting about what we’re looking at. You can find Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Furthermore on the aerial-view theme, here’s another look at our upcoming cover, this time in motion, courtesy of the Atlantic’s photo whiz Alan Taylor:
… please come to the first American Futures conference at the University of Redlands, on Friday evening, January 29, and Saturday during the day. You can find agenda and sign-up information here.
At the conference, my wife Deb and I will be discussing what we have found in our past two-plus years of traveling around the country for our American Futures project — which will also be the subject of a cover-story package, with articles by both of us, in the forthcoming March issue of the magazine. (Subscribe!) One of the themes of that presentation is how much more functional American governance and civil-society seem at the city-by-city level than they do, at the moment, on the national scale.
At the conference, mayors whose strategies and records we’ve chronicled in this project will speak about what they’ve done, how they did it, and what lessons can be gleaned from, and applied more broadly, from the stories of their towns. They will include Rusty Bailey, mayor of Riverside, California; Don Ness, who recently completed two terms as mayor of Duluth, Minnesota; Ashley Swearengin, in her second term as mayor of Fresno, California; Nan Whaley, beginning her third year as mayor of Dayton, Ohio; and Knox White, who as mayor of Greenville, South Carolina, since 1995 is the longest-serving mayor in that city’s history.
Plus at least one and maybe more Bonus Mayors! And a session on GeoDesign at the Redlands-based software company Esri, one of our partners in this project.
I can tell you first-hand that these mayors all have very interesting personal and civic stories to tell. You’re likely to keep hearing about them (and not just from me) over the years. If you’ll be in the vicinity, please check out the site for more info and come by.
During our visits to Fresno, in California’s Central Valley, over the past two years, my wife Deb and I have made regular stops at Peeve’s Public House, on the downtown Fulton Mall.
Initially this was because the proprietor, Fresno patriot and publican Craig Scharton, was the first person to argue to us (at a chance meeting elsewhere in California) that tattered-looking Fresno was worth serious attention as a city turning itself around. After heavy initial skepticism, we became convinced. You can read the summary version of why we changed our minds here, or the full chronicles here. On return trips to Fresno we kept going back to Peeve’s because we liked the beer, food, and atmosphere there. And increasingly we came to respect its role as a civic center, in a part of town very much in need of such a thing. Here was the event board on our first visit:
The Fulton Mall area where Peeve’s has been an anchor and outpost (it’s one of the few businesses now open at night) is in the middle of a mammoth construction project, whose details you can read about here. In the long run, the overhaul is meant to spur downtown Fresno’s revival. In the short run, it’s yet another challenge for the businesses already there.
Last night Craig Scharton put up a long post on Peeve’s Facebook page, saying that conditions had darkened and he flat-out needed more customers if he was to stay open. Here’s the “action” section of his post:
This is an unusual plea to our community of customers. Transparency has been a core value of mine (and therefore Peeve’s Pub). I don’t know if this will work or not, but I know that we don’t have any chance unless we try.
We need about 2,500 extra customer visits in the next month or two. That means people who haven’t tried us yet, come on down. We need occasional customers to make one extra visit, or maybe people who had a bad experience to give us another try. Or it means bringing a friend or two with you or ordering boxed lunches for your next office meeting.
If one-fifth of the people who like us on Facebook do this, I think we’ll survive.
I have no connection to Scharton except as a recent friend, nor to Peeve’s except as a customer. But if I were in Fresno, I’d be voting with my dollars to help it survive. People of Fresno, over to you!
Update Here’s an informative account of menu and beer changes at Peeve’s, by Bethany Clough in the Fresno Bee.
A new, highly contagious variant could have terrible consequences. But if it ends up causing milder symptoms than Delta, there’s a real upside.
World, meet Omicron; Omicron, meet a lot of people who are very, very anxious to know more about you.
The arrival of the newest coronavirus variant, first identified in Botswana and South Africa and now present in the United States, might be bad news, or it might be terrible news—or maybe it’s just a temporary distraction from Delta. Ultimately, Omicron’s effect on the course of the pandemic will be determined by three factors: its transmissibility; the degree to which it evades our existing immune defenses; and its virulence, or the severity of the disease that it causes. If Omicron turns out to jump between hosts with ease, blow past our neutralizing antibodies, and cause unusually dangerous complications, we’ll all be in deep trouble. But it could also turn out to do a lot of other things, with more subtle implications. If Omicron ends up being super contagious, for example, but mild in its symptoms, that might even be a good thing—a perfect variant, just in time for Christmas.
The Humans turns a difficult Thanksgiving dinner into something grotesque.
The Humans features no ghosts, monsters, or poltergeists. It’s not set inside a haunted house, an abandoned building, or a tract of shadowy woods. And yet, it might be the scariest movie of the year.
Based on Stephen Karam’s Tony-winning play, and adapted and directed by Karam himself, The Humans centers on the Blake family as they gather in lower Manhattan for a Thanksgiving dinner. The mood is about as warm as a broken oven. Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, brilliantly reprising her role from the play) and Erik (Richard Jenkins) have driven hours to visit their younger daughter, Brigid (Beanie Feldstein), at her new apartment, where she lives with her boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun)—but all they’ve gotten for their journey are terse thank-yous and cheap champagne in plastic cups. Aimee (Amy Schumer), their older daughter, is still reeling from a recent breakup and career setbacks, while Momo (June Squibb), Erik’s mother, has dementia and must be cared for at all times. The setting doesn’t help: Brigid and Richard’s home is a thin-walled, claustrophobia-inducing space that lets in barely any natural light. Each family member has something to get off his or her chest, and it’s as if their collective dread has permeated the foreboding premises. Or is it the reverse?
Amelia Whelan used social media as an accelerant for her sales community. Then things blew up.
So you’ve been scrolling through Facebook for a while—dull, dull, dull—when you hear the sound of tropical bird chatter. You glimpse a 20-something woman floating in a natural pool of water with her eyes closed, and then she starts to talk to you about her passion for “manifesting money” and how every little thing she’s ever wanted is now hers. What’s this? She’s looking out the window of an airplane, through the clouds at a mossy mountaintop; she’s scooping up sand and blowing it at the camera as if the grains were dandelion seeds; she’s biking in a white dress on a secluded path, no handlebars. She has more time and wealth than she knows what to do with—and so now she will pause to bathe an elephant. Wait a minute, you say to yourself. Could this be my life too?
Let’s start with a simple mystery: What happened to original blockbuster movies?
Throughout the 20th century, Hollywood produced a healthy number of entirely new stories. The top movies of 1998—including Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, and There’s Something About Mary—were almost all based on original screenplays. But since then, the U.S. box office has been steadily overrun by numbers and superheroes: Iron Man 2, Jurassic Park 3, Toy Story 4, etc. Of the 10 top-grossing movies of 2019, nine were sequels or live-action remakes of animated Disney movies, with the one exception, Joker, being a gritty prequel of another superhero franchise.
Some people think this is awful. Some think it’s fine. I’m more interested in the fact that it’s happening. Americans used to go to movie theaters to watch new characters in new stories. Now they go to movie theaters to re-submerge themselves in familiar story lines.
Everything has to go right for the James Webb Space Telescope.
You know that feeling when you’re playing Jenga, and the blocks are stacked remarkably high, and then someone bumps the table? And as the tower wobbles, everyone just watches in wide-eyed panic, willing it to stabilize with a desperate, silent prayer: Please don’t fall, please don’t fall.
I can only assume that’s how it felt last month, when technicians were working on NASA’s new space telescope and a very important clamp suddenly unclamped, sending vibrations coursing through the entire instrument. Officials didn’t provide details about the mood in the room at that moment, but it must have been something along the lines of Oh no, oh no, oh no. This particular Jenga tower is a $10 billion telescope, and NASA has been playing the game for 25 years, carefully arranging piece after piece to produce one of the most sophisticated scientific instruments in human history.
An emerging culture idolizes a twisted version of “toughness” as the highest ideal and despises a false version of “weakness” as the lowest vice.
Last month, at the National Conservatism conference, a gathering of hundreds of leaders and members of a movement that hopes to represent a new, less libertarian American right, one of the speakers, a lawyer named Josh Hammer, delivered a strange denunciation of “fusionism.” For those not steeped in the language of conservatism, fusionism refers to the alliance among economic conservatives, social conservatives, and defense hawks forged during the Reagan administration. It was designed to confront government overreach at home and the threat of Soviet tyranny abroad.
Fusionism, Hammer said, is “inherently effete, limp, and, as Hillsdale College’s David Azerrad might say, unmasculine.” It “makes for a cowardly way to approach politics” in part because it “ensures never having to face pushback from one’s political opponents on the most contested issues.”
Today’s oral argument signaled that the Court is poised to reverse Roe v. Wade outright.
Anyone listening to today’s oral argument on abortion could not miss that something historic was happening. The case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, involves a Mississippi law that bans abortion at 15 weeks. Such a ban is clearly unconstitutional under current law—Roe v. Wade and its successor case, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, recognize a right to choose abortion until fetal viability, which is at roughly 24 weeks. To uphold Mississippi’s law, the Supreme Court’s conservative justices have two options: They can ditch the viability line or get rid of Roe altogether.
Today’s oral argument signaled that the Court is poised to reverse Roe outright when it decides Dobbs, probably sometime in June or early July. That would be one of the most significant reversals of Supreme Court precedent in American history. Roe v. Wade has been the law for 50 years. Even Brett Kavanaugh spent much of his confirmation hearing proclaiming his fidelity to precedent. Today, the attorney for Whole Woman’s Health, the abortion provider challenging the Mississippi law, leaned hard on the idea that the Court must respect its own precedents—a strategic choice given that the Court’s conservative majority was never going to be sympathetic to the idea of abortion rights.
Both pandemic-origin arguments depend on coincidence.
The evolutionary virologist Michael Worobey is trying to bring the pandemic-origins debate back to where it started: with the notion that the coronavirus made the jump to humans at the Huanan seafood market, in Wuhan, China. Last week, he argued in Science that, contrary to official timelines of infection, the “first known” patient was a market vendor selling shrimp. For Worobey, it’s telling—to say the least—that this confirmed case, and most of the other very early ones, was linked to Huanan. In an interview with Jane Qiu, whose excellent rundown of the new analysis appeared on Friday in the MIT Technology Review, he calls a natural spillover in this spot “vastly more likely than any other scenarios based on what we now know.”
The disappearance of the Chinese tennis star is an embarrassment to Beijing—and undercuts its campaign to present the Chinese system as a model for the world.
Every now and then, China’s Communist insiders, in their frantic attempts to shield themselves against international criticism, inadvertently let slip what truly scares them. So it was recently in the tragic case of Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star who disappeared after accusing one of China’s most senior leaders of sexual assault. The scandal has embarrassed the Communist Party and posed a new threat to Beijing’s already beleaguered Olympic Winter Games.
Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of the Global Times, a Communist Party–run news outlet, tweeted that “as a person who is familiar with Chinese system, I don’t believe Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression.” Later, in response to a Peng supporter, he added, “You should understand China, including understanding how the system you dislike has promoted the actual rights of the 1.4 billion Chinese.” And again: “Some Western forces are coercing Peng Shuai and an institution, forcing them to help demonize China’s system.”