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 one way or another, all Clinton-era “scandals” trace back to Whitewater. That was the late-1970s Arkansas real estate deal that prompted an investigative crusade by the NYT during Bill Clinton’s presidential run in 1992 and well into his first term. Congressional and special-prosecutor investigations followed. Whitewater was one of the matters Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster was dealing with at the time of his suicide. It was how special prosecutor Kenneth Starr first got onto the Clintons’ trail. The strongest case that it was all a misbegotten and cynical anti-Clinton effort was made by Gene Lyons and Joe Conason in their 2001 book The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton. I find their argument convincing; judge for yourself.
But if you were ever wondering, where did this all happen?, I am here to help. The scene above is of a serpentine portion of the White River in central Arkansas, namesake of Whitewater, as it appeared yesterday on a steamy June afternoon, looking southward out the left window from an altitude of 4,500 feet. This part of the river, in the vicinity of Searcy, is about 100 miles south of the hillier and more wooded area where the actual Whitewater development was located. Still: White(River)water!
Similarly on the rivers-from-above theme, here is the mighty Mississippi, looking toward to the north yesterday out the right window. This bend is near the corner where Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri come together, with Arkansas not far to the south and the southern tip of Illinois at Cairo just to the north:
And looking south toward the Red River. The area on the near side of the river is Oklahoma; on the other side, Texas.
While I’m at it, a non-riverine view of Arkansas farm land, south of Jonesboro.
That is all. This is in preparation for upcoming reports from Texas and Kansas.
(America by Air archive here. Submission guidelines here.)
One of my favorite features of our American Futures project is the occasional serendipity of crossing the path of some surprising, remarkable person. Like Jerrie Mock, the Columbus, Ohio, housewife who was the first woman to fly solo around the world in 1964, in her Cessna 180. Or abolitionist and suffragist Eliza Tibbets, who started the navel orange industry in Riverside, California, from two small seedlings that she nurtured from her dishpan water. Or Joe Max Higgins, the tougher-than-nails sheriff’s son from Arkansas, who brought $5 billion of new heavy industry to the Golden Triangle of Northeast Mississippi.
Now there is Bobby Q. Narcho, a Tohono O’odham tribal member, who grew up on the reservation, colloquially called “the res,” in Sells, Arizona, in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Bobby took naturally to taking pictures and making music and spent a lot of his youth doing that. In what he calls his “breakout project” at the Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), a group dedicated to the sustainability of the health and culture of the Tohono O’odham Nation, Bobby caught the eye of his teacher, a professional photographer. He was able to earn a few paychecks through his talent, and invested it in an iPhone.
With that iPhone, still his only tool, Bobby started making videos for Facebook and Instagram. “Back in the day,” this 24-year-old says, straight-faced, he would share his 15-second videos on Instagram.
Bobby moved to Ajo, about 70 miles from Sells, to be near his cousin, Victor Garcia, who is also an artist. Now, Bobby has five different jobs and seems to be connected with almost everything going on in Ajo, which isn’t that hard in a town of only 2,300 folks. One connection, Lily Williams at the Desert Senita Health Center, who oversees Bobby’s work at the Edible Ajo Schoolyard project (EASY), encouraged Bobby to join a digital storytelling workshop sponsored by the Center’s Plan4Health grant. The theme was biking, a popular new focus in Ajo, and health. Before I tell you the rest of the story, please—please!—watch Bobby’s three-minute video:
Bobby’s idea was to make a one-shoot short film about his personal story of health and biking, and one that is grounded in his Tohono O’odham traditions. The story of health, as he describes in the video, comes from the “signs of sickness in his people,” meaning diabetes, and from seeing signs of sickness in himself. (The 28,000 member Tohono O’odham tribe has the highest rate of adult-onset diabetes in the world: about 50 percent.)
The story of biking is Bobby’s decision to take his health into his own hands and start exercising. It’s grounded in the Tohono tradition of starting the day in a healthy and meaningful way, as his forefathers did, by “running east, toward the sunrise” (or in Bobby’s case, biking) and by burning sage as an offering of thanks to his creator.
Bobby used only his iPhone, as his wifi connections were too unstable to support the workshop’s video software. Bobby and his cousin Victor set out on their bikes; Victor shot the middle scenes of Bobby biking, and Bobby shot the slow scenes. Bobby also composed and produced all the music with GarageBand for the iPhone.
And how is Bobby’s healthy new focus for his life going so far? Fine, he said, until he got a flat tire. Now Bobby needs a new tube and tire. Until then, he told me, he’s getting by with walking, and healthy eating, and doing some home exercises.
Bobby managed to produce this video and music, from self-taught beginnings, with only an iPhone and a cousin. I am confident he can manage to get a new bike tire and get back on track to his health. Watch for this name: Bobby Q. Narcho.
Over the years my wife Deb and I have frequently mentioned the remarkable Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. You can read about some of its successes in posts collected here, and about its recent funding challenges here.
A reader who grew up in Columbus, Mississippi, where the school is based, and graduated from MSMS writes about why its survival matters:
I cannot pass up the opportunity to thank you for the coverage you have granted my little hometown, and particularly my alma mater, the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science -- or as I like to describe it, the last, best hope for public STEM education in Mississippi.
The faculty, staff, alumni, and students know how desperately the services of such a center of educational excellence is needed statewide, but with the resources available, it's hard to even keep the core of the school operational.
One comment with an eye to the future: I'm glad you find the "one-donor-at-a-time, handful-of-students-at-a-time nature of the school's private fundraising" touching. However, one of my dreams is that someday the Foundation can move to a large-budget, literally industrial-scale donation model. Only with a larger budget can the true needs be met for the deserving students hailing from some of the most underperforming districts in the nation.
Despite the negative press frequently generated by the state government, I live in hope that such coverage as you provide accelerates the process of acquiring the attention of those with the means to make a difference. Under the day-to-day inanities, there is struggle and value and hope amongst the sleepy towns, like flowers struggling to grow through the cracks; and I hope they get their chance -- as I did.
Over the past two years my wife Deb and I have reported frequently on the remarkable Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, in the eastern Mississippi town of Columbus. You can read two of Deb’s original posts here and here; one by me here; and a collection of all reports from the region here.
MSMS, as it’s known, is a two-year, public, residential high school for talented students from across the state, based on the campus of the Mississippi University for Women, known as “the W.” The students are drawn from Mississippi’s full racial, economic, and geographic range.
As Deb said in an early report, “The 228 students at MSMS this year, all juniors and seniors, come from all over the state to spend their last two years of high school studying accelerated sciences, math, and computer courses, as well as a rich selection of arts and humanities.” Nearly all of them go off to college. During last fall’s selection of Rhodes Scholars, Ericka Wheeler became the first-ever African-American woman to be chosen from Mississippi. She is an MSMS alum.
This week Bracey Harris of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson reported that MSMS has been steadily cutting its enrollment. The reason is not a lack of applicants — on the contrary — but rather cutbacks in funding from the state Department of Education. Sample:
The last time MSMS was near its full capacity of 275-300 students was five years ago.
Wade Leonard, a spokesman for MSMS, said enrollment has been scaled back by 12 percent from 271 students during the 2011-12 school year to 238 students for the 2016-17 school year.
If more funding is not received, the school’s class size is expected to drop to 220 by the 2017-18 year, an all-time low….
As a statewide special school, MSMS can’t draw on normal local school-tax revenues and depends on grants from the Department of Education and private donors. I found one other part of the Clarion-Ledger story impressive, and touching, in explaining the one-donor-at-a-time, handful-of-students-at-a-time nature of the school’s private fund-raising:
The upcoming class of 2017 would have been trimmed by four students if not for donations from Chad Edmonson, a 1999 graduate, and the MSMS Foundation. [More about him here.]
Edmonson’s gift of roughly $60,000 allowed MSMS to accept three more students, while an additional $36,000 raised by the foundation made it possible for a fourth student to attend the school….
Active in the MSMS Foundation, Edmonson recalled how his jaw dropped when he learned of the decrease in enrollment.
“It was shocking because it was more on the side of 280-290 students when I was in school. That’s such a dramatic drop in that it was a directional change. (I started thinking) about the school not being open anymore. After the board meeting, I agreed to make a donation.”
Here’s another statement about what the school means, from India Yarborough, a recent alum (and daughter of an MSMS teacher, Chuck Yarborough), writing in the Commercial Dispatch in Columbus:
By offering advanced courses in all subjects, this beacon of excellence attracts Mississippi's best students and provides them an environment where they can flourish. This in a state where academic excellence is often not expected and too seldom found.
Without essential support, MSMS will flounder in its efforts to elevate the student from the Delta who dreams of pursuing medicine, or lift the poverty-stricken student from the Pine Belt who hopes for a brighter future through education.
We’ve reported on positive developments around the country, and also on setbacks and challenges. This is another challenge, for a state and students with a lot of them.
A few weeks ago I mentioned a new collaboration between the filmmaker Ken Burns and the creators of the American Prairie Reserve in Montana. They’re working together on a prize in Burns’s name, to recognize artists, historians, or other cultural and civic leaders who have advanced modern awareness of the American idea. “The American Idea” is the Atlantic’s favorite term for this concept, that being part of our magazine’s founding charter; the Prairie Reserve people use the term “American spirit,” but we’re talking about the same thing.
In that item and other reports on the APR, I’ve mentioned their non-traditional, market-minded approach to protecting plant and animal life and recreating, across millions of acres, something like the pre-Lewis & Clark plains bioscape. In response, reader W.B. sent in a lead to a Library of Economic Liberty podcast last fall, in which Peter Geddes of the APR talks with economist Russ Roberts about the economic logic of the undertaking. The podcast is an hour long, and a transcription accompanies it. I found it interesting and recommend it to anyone interested in the long-term economics of sustainability. (Which was also the theme of my Al Gore piece last fall.)
Two samples. One, about the proper scale of the Reserve:
Roberts: Is it enough? I mean, it's big, but is it big enough?
Geddes: It is. What the conservation biologists have told us we need is a minimum size, and then all this of course is overlaid with what you can actually do practically. There are places in the country where conservation at this kind of scale is just frankly impossible. So, you've been out to the Bozeman area and know how popular and how fast-growing it is. The cost of getting the land is just too great.
So, again, Northeastern Montana is a place that has had fewer people today than when Frederick Jackson Turner wrote “The Closing of the American Frontier” back in 1876. Way fewer than, less than 1 person per square mile. So you've got to pick places for conservation where: a). you have the right habitat conditions; b). you have the right sociology, the right demographics, I guess, so that it's not a place that is getting an influx of people but rather an outflux of people; and c). where you can actually afford to buy the land.
Next, they talk about not just coexisting but cooperating with the cattle ranchers who are now are the major economic and cultural figures in the area. Geddes explains the “Wild Sky” branding program, which offers a higher price-per-pound to ranchers who abide by certain wildlife-friendly practices:
Geddes: The key thing to growing wildlife numbers, and this is not unique to our project, in fact happens all around the world, is to minimize human conflict. And in most places, people view wildlife as a cost rather than an economic benefit.
Six or seven years ago members of our team were over in Africa and they were travelling around to various camps, and they came to one in Namibia where the wildlife park, their parks over there, game parks, had figured out a way to live with cheetahs, and make the local communities, the beneficiaries of having cheetahs on their land rather than the enemies of that. There are all sorts of work that's been done in Africa for the last 20 years to try to flip this dynamic.
So, we imported those ideas back to the American Prairie Reserve; and we bought a beef company. Some of our critics think we are anti-cows, but we actually own a cattle company. And the idea is: Neighboring ranchers who want to participate in our Wild Sky Beef program, in exchange for operating their livestock in a more wildlife-friendly way.. we've paid them a premium for their cattle when we buy them in fall or in the spring.
And it's kind of like a frequent flier program at Delta or United. You can be silver, gold, diamond, platinum, medallion, whatever it is. And as you move up that frequent-flier status, that means you are more tolerant of wildlife. So that the top of the food chain is you agree to have grizzly bears on your property. And the amount of money that you get for going ever higher in your frequent flier status increases over time.
And again, this is an attempt to--first, it recognizes that we are going to have holdouts in the American Prairie Reserve, for a very long time. We are going to have people on the periphery who are going to be cattle ranchers. Indeed, we are going to be surrounded by about a half million head of cows when we are completely finished.
We've got to make things go well for those people. So we need to figure out a way where we don't compromise on the biodiversity values that we want; and again, so that people see our wildlife, our wildlife that's spilling over from the reserve onto their land, as a benefit rather than a cost….
Instead of selling soap or shampoo or coffee, we've tried to--we've picked a business that fits with the local culture, that recognizes that these are people who love being cowboys and cowgirls, and they will for a very, very long time. So, trying to figure out a way to make, saying, 'Stick with the local culture.' And for these ranchers to see economic benefit.
There’s a lot more in the discussion, which explains many of the ambitions and challenges of the project — and offers a specimen of how usually-opposing interests might be reconciled.
My wife Deb Fallows has a new post up to kick off the next season of our American Futures series, on a surprising implication of a quasi-familiar urban development.
That development is the “locavore” / local-food movement. If your first thought is Portlandia, Deb offers a second thought, which is the public-health, economic, and cultural importance of the movement in a remote desert community with very serious nutrition-related health problems.
That community is Ajo, Arizona, which we’ve written about before. The regional population includes large numbers of Mexican-Americans and other Latinos, plus members of the Tohono O’odham nation — groups with disproportionate rates of diabetes and related problems. As the story points out:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a report about Ajo, a grant recipient of its “Local Foods, Local Places” effort, describes in sobering terms: “The health of Ajo residents is a major concern for the community: high rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity are present, and food insecurity—especially among children and the elderly—is prevalent.”
More details in Deb’s story, and more reports about to begin.
Reader Monte Peterson, a seminarian in Ohio with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, writes to ask whether I am familiar with the theological resonances of this phrase. (Answer: No. I spent my youth hearing the cadences of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer repeated roughly one zillion times and still feel they are my main guide to the proper shape and pacing of a sentence. But this particular phrase was not part of my mental or moral formation.)
Ms. Peterson writes:
“America already becoming great again.’ Are you familiar with the theological idea of ‘already and not yet’? [As above: No.]
Over and over, ‘articles in this series’ have reminded me of that idea--the “already but not yet” of the Kingdom of God. Now, this idea get interpreted in lots of ways, some troubling. But still, I find it a helpful description of the world as I understand it.
“The Kingdom” so often gets reduced to some cultural fantasy of heaven, with cherubs and clouds or “pie in the sky after we die”--when really it's something already here, among us, around us, in this life. And yet clearly it's not here yet--there is still so much pain and death and war and anxiety. So in the meantime, we wait with hope and we actively join in the work of bringing the kingdom to fruition--making the world a place where all God's children are fed, are cared for, are known.
We are called to become what we already are, as the Rev. Kevin Strickland recently said. The reports you have shared of small cities, businesses and schools that work well are part of this--and maybe even the citrus IPA's, of which I am a fan!
I realize this is more “God” talk than I've ever read in your columns, and could well be more than you're comfortable with. Nevertheless, I still think that theological ideas have something to contribute to our civic conversation, so I'm offering this up.
To which I say, Thanks, and I will reflect upon this.
This afternoon at the annual conference of New America, in Washington, I heard Sen. Elizabeth Warren give a speech about how to deal with the economic dislocations of the “gig economy.”
The text is here (in PDF), and it’s actually worth reading. “Actually” in that it was neither just a bleat/complaint about the injustices of the new tech economy nor a simple assurance that technology and innovation will solve all the problems they create. (Ie, that the long-term arc of creative destruction will always bend toward greater creativity.)
Instead Warren addressed the question I said was on my mind, at the end of my March issue article. That was the Second Gilded Age question: if the dislocations, the inequalities, the injustices, but also the possibilities of this era of high-speed technical change parallel those of 125 years ago, is there any hope or guidance to be drawn from the responses of the Progressive era through the New Deal?
Lots of scholars and writers have taken their cracks as the topic — one obvious example is Paul Starr’s “How Gilded Ages End” — always with proper cautions that history never quite repeats itself. Without belaboring the historiography, Elizabeth Warren made the main, simple point: technology creates new wealth and opportunities, and vibrant economies have always embraced it. But policy shapes how the wealth is shared, and how the inevitable pain and damage of rapid change can be minimized. As she put it:
It’s exciting—and very hip—to talk about Uber and Lyft and Taskrabbit, but the promise and risks of these companies isn’t new. For centuries, technological advances have helped create new wealth and have increased GDP. But it is policy – rules and regulations – that will determine whether workers have a meaningful opportunity to share in that new wealth.
A century ago, the industrial revolution radically altered the American economy. Millions moved from farms to factories. These sweeping changes in our economy generated enormous wealth.
They also wreaked havoc on workers and their families. Workplaces were monstrously unsafe. Wages were paltry and hours were grueling.
America’s response wasn’t to abandon the technological innovations and improvements of the industrial revolution. We didn’t send everyone back to their farms. No. Instead, we came together, and through our government we changed public policies to adapt to a changing economy – to keep the good and get rid of much of the bad.
The list of new laws and regulations was long: A minimum wage. Workplace safety. Workers compensation. Child labor laws. The 40-hour workweek. Social Security. The right to unionize.
But each of these changes made a profound difference. They put guardrails around the ability of giant corporations to exploit workers to generate additional profits at any cost. They helped make sure that part of the increased wealth generated by innovation would be used to build a strong middle class.
Warren’s speech doesn’t answer all these questions, but at least it’s a beginning. It’s worth reading and using as a benchmark for what the U.S. might do, if it wanted to do something to maximize the creativity and minimize the destruction of this era.
Bonus, on why national-level policy would be useful:
Wherever possible, [we should] streamline laws at the federal level so that employers operating across state lines don’t have to jump through a crazy number of hoops when they employ workers from more than one state. A small business owner with workers in several states shouldn’t have to spend her valuable time struggling to master different state regulations.
After Warren, Senator Jeff Flake, of Arizona, also spoke at the conference. I don’t see any version of his speech online any place right now, but if you come across it sometime: please compare his version of a “response” to today’s challenges with Warren’s.
For the record: #1, I’m involved with New America, having been the chairman of its board for its first eight years of existence (and still being on the board). #2, one of my sons is a director at Uber.
Americans … are strikingly pessimistic about the national economy yet comparatively upbeat about their own financial circumstances.
Just 42 percent of adults describe the U.S. economy as good, according to a survey released Wednesday by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. But two-thirds say their own households are faring well.
Ongoing theme in this space: the United States faces serious economic, political, and social challenges in this, its Second Gilded Age. But surprisingly large numbers of individuals, families, communities, and institutions feel as if the parts of the country they experience directly are figuring out ways to deal with the challenges, rather than just being crushed. Meanwhile the media and political temper of the times leads many people to assume that their local successes must be fortunate anomalies in a landscape that overall is bleak.
Serious challenges, yes; bleakness, no — this is something people recognize about their own communities, and I think should about the country.
On the value-of-upbeatness front, I’ll take this opportunity to note that today would have been the 91st birthday of my father, Dr. James A. Fallows, known in his boyhood, for good reason, as Sunny Jim.
Short version of his analysis: most Americans think that they themselves are doing better, but the country as a whole is going to hell:
What is equally striking about this election year is how little this growing economic optimism has affected broader assessments of the direction of the country.
Matthew Yglesias in Vox says more about John Sides’s findings too. Including this point on how there can be a politically salient expression of rage by some part of the electorate, when on the whole Americans are not feeling betrayed or left behind:
Obviously an average is an average (it is worth noting that the positive trend is evident for all income groups), and in a big country you can still have enormous pockets of anger and discontent alongside an overall atmosphere of placidity.
In most domains that aren't politics, attracting a passionate minority following is a perfectly good business strategy. It's a great way to secure ratings for a television show, for example, whether it's The Apprentice or The Sean Hannity Show. But in politics you need a majority, and it doesn't seem to be the case that the majority is feeling some historically anomalous level of economic discontent.
More explanation another time (I’m on the road overseas) — or, you can check out my March issue article, or the other items in this thread. Sketched-out hypothesis: having been caught by surprise (as I was too) by Trump’s popularity, many reporters over-interpreted it to believe that most Americans (as opposed to an important minority) were as convinced as he was that the country was in ashes and that nothing went right any more.
I’ve mentioned several times how interested I’ve been in the American Prairie Reserve, in northern Montana. (And, yes, this is what I’d prefer to talk about on this latest primary-election night.) The beauty of the place is obvious, though still surprising to see in person. For me the fascination involves the match between what its creators are trying to do, and the era in which they’re trying to do it.
Their goal is to create what would be the largest natural reserve in the lower 48 states, of more than three million acres (or more than 5,000 square miles), and restore it to something like its pre-Lewis and Clark wildlife and vegetation, complete with large herds of free-roaming bison and other animals. Such grand efforts would be challenging at any time, but they are harder now than 130+ years ago, when Yellowstone Park was being created and human settlement had not yet left such a mark.
The APR’s route toward this end is a thoroughly modern “all of the above” approach. In part it relies on already protected public lands, with the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge along the banks of the Missouri at the heart of the envisioned reserve. In part it means gathering raising money to buy land for permanent protection. In part it is collaboration with the tribes from the large, adjoining reservations: Fort Belknap to the west and Fort Peck to the east. And in very large part it means using market incentives to enlist neighboring ranchers in the effort. An organization called Wild Sky pays ranchers a premium for cattle raised with wildlife-friendly practices, from special kinds of fencing to a tolerance for wildlife and predators. In turn it sells Wild Sky beef as a premium brand at stores and restaurants around the country.
Last week the APR announced a new “Ken Burns Prize” program, named for the documentary filmmaker and designed to honor people whose work has “advanced our collective understanding of the indomitable American spirit.” I talked with Burns this morning by phone, to ask him how he got connected with the APR, and what this prize was about. A lightly edited version of our talk is below.
JF: How did you get involved with the American Prairie Reserve? What’s the connection between you, them, and this prize?
Ken Burns: “They’re in an area I know pretty well. For my Lewis and Clark project I felt compelled to retrace their steps in both directions, and more than once.
“I fell in love with the area. But I was also conscious of how difficult it was [when filming] to achieve the pristine perspective of Lewis and Clark. There was a fenceline of an old homestead here, a crumbling shack there, the cattle who were tagged and lowing contentedly in the field. There were highways and hydro dams and even the black cars of the servicemen who serviced the nuclear missile sites.
“So we were straining to find a sense of what Lewis and Clark saw. And we were amazed at how we spend so much time in our ADD existing flying over or avoiding the ‘boredom’ of what is our magnificent prairie.
“My National Parks film was being rebroadcast, and the Park Service essentially represents the federal government saying: Manifest Destiny is terrific, but let’s save a few of these places! Not every river needs to be dammed. Not every forest needs to be measured in board feet. Not every canyon needs to be mined for its mineral wealth.
“That impulse, of preserving the land, attracts me to it, and of course it’s a tremendous honor that they would create the prize in my name.”
JF: What about the approach the American Prairie Reserve is taking, with its mixture of market incentives and other tools?
Ken Burns: “I think you’ve got to develop a lot of strategies to accomplish anything in this area today. We’ve essentially run out of real estate. So we’re not talking any more about opening land to settlers, and saving this little piece of it. It’s a much more complex and sophisticated — and civilized operation that is going on.
“I don’t mean civilized as opposed to ‘uncivilized.’ I mean what happens when you get a complex society. These negotiations have to proceed with strategies that don’t at first blush seem clear-cut. This sort of re-ceding of the land [he spells it out to distinguish it from seeding] — this re-ceding of the prairie — is going to require creativity. And I am drawn to their approach.
“Not all of the attempts will be successful, not all will be without pushback and controversy. But we have the sense that committed individuals can carve out an area in one of our least populated regions and turn it to something like what it once was.
“At the time of Lewis and Clark it was said that a squirrel could climb a tree near the Atlantic coastline, and not touch ground before the Mississippi. The glory of the prairies is different from that. But we have the opportunity once again to have that shared glory.”
JF: Tell me more about “shared glory.”
Ken Burns: “In one way or another, every film I have worked on has been trying to work on this tension, between individual freedom and collective freedom—between what we need individually and what we need together. We can perceive that we live in a narcissistic age when it’s All About Me. But you can just look at a little girl seeing the falls in Yosemite and understand what our common wealth means.
“And not in any socialist way, but in the idea that we share things in common. We got out of the depression together, we’ve done many things together. We’d like to use this prize as a kind of megaphone to herald the good news of this project, and to celebrate a kind of American spirit that we think is concurrent with the values of the American Prairie Reserve.”
For the record, my wife Deb and I have no connection with the APR other than as interested observers, nor any with Ken Burns other than as long-time viewers. And right at the moment I’d prefer to think about this aspect of America rather than more immediate news.
During our West Coast travels for American Futures reports in the winter of 2014-2015, my wife Deb and I were based at the University of Redlands, in southern California. From there we did reports on neighboring San Bernardino, Riverside, Fresno, and Winters in California; Ajo, Arizona; central Oregon; and other locales.
This weekend Deb was back at the university as one of their honorees at the College of Arts and Sciences commencement ceremony. In the clip above you see the U of R’s president Ralph Kuncl and dean Fred Rabinowitz introducing Deb and describing her writing about China, America, and other topics. Then she speaks for three minutes about lessons for life, working in a reference to the importance of microbreweries. She ends with a message all young grads need to hear (“Call your parents! They miss you”), and then turns the stage over to Jane Goodall, with a powerfully understated commencement speech about environmental responsibility.
The video above covers the whole three-hour span. It should be cued to start at around time 1:05:00 with Deb’s part in the ceremony; Jane Goodall is introduced starting around time 1:15:00, and she gets a big laugh out of the entire crowd for a riff that begins at around 1:21:30.
The minute we make any decision—I think COVID-19 is serious; no, I’m sure it is a hoax—we begin to justify the wisdom of our choice and find reasons to dismiss the alternative.
Members of Heaven’s Gate, a religious cult, believed that as the Hale-Bopp comet passed by Earth in 1997, a spaceship would be traveling in its wake—ready to take true believers aboard. Several members of the group bought an expensive, high-powered telescope so that they might get a clearer view of the comet. They quickly brought it back and asked for a refund. When the manager asked why, they complained that the telescope was defective, that it didn’t show the spaceship following the comet. A short time later, believing that they would be rescued once they had shed their “earthly containers” (their bodies), all 39 members killed themselves.
Heaven’s Gate followers had a tragically misguided conviction, but it is an example, albeit extreme, of cognitive dissonance, the motivational mechanism that underlies the reluctance to admit mistakes or accept scientific findings—even when those findings can save our lives. This dynamic is playing out during the pandemic among the many people who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing. Human beings are deeply unwilling to change their minds. And when the facts clash with their preexisting convictions, some people would sooner jeopardize their health and everyone else’s than accept new information or admit to being wrong.
The gap between soaring cases and falling deaths is being weaponized by the right to claim a hollow victory in the face of shameless failure. What’s really going on?
Updated at 1:40 p.m. ET on July 9, 2020.
For the past few weeks, I have been obsessed with a mystery emerging in the national COVID-19 data.
Cases have soared to terrifying levels since June. Yesterday, the U.S. had 62,000 confirmed cases, an all-time high—and about five times more than the entire continent of Europe. Several U.S. states, including Arizona and Florida, currently have more confirmed cases per capita than any other country in the world.
But average daily deaths are down 75 percent from their April peak. Despite higher death counts on Tuesday and Wednesday, the weekly average has largely plateaued in the past two weeks.
The gap between spiking cases and falling-then-flatlining deaths has become the latest partisan flashpoint. President Donald Trump has brushed off the coronavirus surge by emphasizing the lower death rate, saying that “99 percent of [COVID-19 cases] are totally harmless.” On Tuesday, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned Americans against “[taking] comfort in the lower rate of death” just hours before Trump tweeted triumphantly: “Death Rate from Coronavirus is down tenfold!”
American presidents customarily leave office when voters reject them. Czars, emperors, and would-be prime ministers for life do whatever they can to hold on to power. To extend his rule until 2036, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently held a referendum to amend his country’s constitution. While some Russians publicly opposed the proposal, few had any doubt about the outcome. Two years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping succeeded in eliminating term limits that had been established after Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution—a period of ideological madness that killed tens of millions of people, including family members of the country’s ruling class. In his grand presidential address of 2017, Xi stated specific objectives for his nation to achieve by 2025, 2035, and 2049, the centennial of the People’s Republic of China—suggesting that he intended to lead China until at least 2035 (when he would be 82).
White, conservative Christians who set aside the tenets of their faith to support Donald Trump are now left with little to show for it.
The closest thing social conservatives and evangelical supporters of President Donald Trump had to a conversation stopper, when pressed about their support for a president who is so manifestly corrupt, cruel, mendacious, and psychologically unwell, was a simple phrase: “But Gorsuch.”
Those two words were shorthand for their belief that their reverential devotion to Trump would result in great advances for their priorities and their policy agenda, and no priority was more important than the Supreme Court.
Donald Trump may be a flawed character, they argued, but at least he appointed Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
That is the case decided in mid-June in which the majority opinion, written by Justice Gorsuch, protected gay and transgender individuals from workplace discrimination, handing the LGBTQ movement a historic victory.
The amazing thing about the saga is how much of it happened in the full light of day.
Roger Stone’s best trick was always his upper-class-twit wardrobe. He seemed such a farcical character, such a Klaxon-alarm-from-a-mile-away goofball—who could take him seriously?
Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen: They had tradecraft. They didn’t troll people on Instagram or blab to reporters. They behaved in the way you would expect of people betraying their country: conscious of the magnitude of their acts, determined to avoid the limelight.
Stone could not have been more different. He clowned, he cavorted, he demanded limelight—which made it in some ways impossible to imagine that he could have done anything seriously amiss. Bank robbers don’t go on Twitter to announce, “Hey, I’m going to rob a bank, sorry, not sorry.” Or so you’d expect.
The miniseries Expecting Amy captures the comedian’s complicated pregnancy with extreme honesty.
This is, hopefully, the last thing I’ll write before going on parental leave. At this point late in twin pregnancy, I’m less a functioning professional person than a bad Ron Burgundy impression, chugging smoothies and bellowing “I am COMPLETELY MISERABLE” at anyone caring and unwise enough to check in. First, walking turned into waddling, then waddling turned into hobbling, and now I’m in a place where anything approaching a gentle incline requires the services of someone who’ll push me from behind, like I’m an obstinate grocery-store cart. My feet and ankles look like popovers. Did I mention that there’s a pandemic and it’s high summer and masks are mandatory? The past month has been most notable for a series of sharp pelvic pains called “lightning crotch,” or, if you’re in the U.K., “fanny daggers.” (The names don’t make the pain less objectionable, but they did give me an idea for a fabulous transatlantic superhero series.)
For most of the past three years, the only thing more futile than looking for Donald Trump to pivot was expecting the American people to do so. No matter how successful the president was, or, more often, how chaotic and disorderly his administration was, nothing seemed to be able to shake up people’s views of Trump.
Popular approval of Trump hovered in the same narrow range, roughly from 39 to 45 percent, through Charlottesville and tax reform, supposed border caravans and mass shootings, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report and impeachment.
As the election approaches, the president’s approval rating becomes less important than how he’s polling against his challenger. And in the past few weeks, something has shifted. After months of Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, leading by single digits, a series of polls has recently shown him building a sizable lead. Surveys from The New York Times/Siena College and Harvard/Harris have Trump trailing by 14 and 12 points, respectively. A series of swing-state polls shows Biden tied or leading in states that Trump won comfortably in 2016.
The disappearance of local news is a slow-moving disaster.
In the summer of 1945, for 17 days, the newspaper deliverers of New York City went on strike. As hundreds of thousands of city residents found themselves temporarily deprived of their daily papers, the behavioral scientist Bernard Berelson saw an opportunity: He wanted to understand what it felt like for people to suddenly lose their primary sources of news. So he set about interviewing them. Asked what the absent papers had meant to them, the interviewees often responded with bromides about news’s crucial role in a government of the people. With more pressing, though, their responses deepened. What they really missed, Berelson came to realize, wasn’t the news as a noun so much as the news as a verb: the daily rituals of the reading, and the connection that reading made them feel to their communities and to the wider world. News is a product and a service and a foundation of any functioning democracy; what it is also, though, is an anchor—a tether to other people, woven of words and arguments and daily discoveries. Without it, people felt adrift.
Coming home from Tulsa, the intensely image-conscious president no longer looked like a winner.
Five years ago this month, on June 16, 2015, Donald Trump delivered one of the indelible images of 21st-century politics when he slowly descended a gold escalator to a rally announcing his candidacy for the presidency.
On Saturday, he delivered another iconic image, but not the sort he wanted to produce. Returning to the White House after a flop of a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Trump stepped off Marine One with his collar unbuttoned, his signature red tie undone and hanging loosely around his neck, and his MAGA hat crumpled in his hand. He waved listlessly to the cameras and gave a perfunctory thumbs-up.
The New York Times saw a “defeated expression on his face,” and reported that he was furious about the meager crowd at his rally, as well as about a leak that six of his advance-team members had tested positive for the coronavirus. Who really knows what Trump was thinking in that moment? The president’s own feelings are largely beside the point. As Trump, a consummate marketer, has always known, appearances matter—and right now Trump looks like a loser.
For federal Indian law, this might be the Gorsuch Court.
Mari Hulbutta, my friend and suitemate from college—we were both members of the Native American student group—couldn’t sleep Wednesday, the night before the Supreme Court issued its decision in the landmark Native-treaty-rights case,McGirt v. Oklahoma. Hulbutta is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and a descendant of the Muscogee Creek and Seminole Nations, all in present-day Oklahoma. The McGirt case centered on whether Jimcy McGirt, a Seminole man found guilty of sex crimes, could be tried by the state of Oklahoma. McGirt contended that because his offenses occurred on lands guaranteed to the Muscogee Creek Nation in an 1866 treaty—one never legally extinguished by Congress—only federal authorities could prosecute his case. The state of Oklahoma has no jurisdiction on Indian land. Tribes can prosecute most crimes involving Native Americans in their own courts. Major crimes, such as murder, manslaughter, and kidnapping, rise to the federal government. The Muscogee Creek became involved with McGirt’s litigation because it had broad implications for their treaty rights, sovereignty, and jurisdiction. Tangentially, the case also involved the Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw tribes, all relocated on the Trail of Tears from what is now the American South to eastern Oklahoma. “I wasn’t sure which way it was going to go,” Hulbutta told me by phone Thursday. “I was thinking about the decision and wondering what it was going to mean for my family and Muscogee relatives.”