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.
Mainly we were talking about the election, immigration, the cycles of class friction through American history, the strategic and economic implications of TPP, and so on. But near the end, Chuck (whom I know from his days as editor of Hotline, part of the Atlantic combine) asked me where I’d like to live next.
The premise was: over the years my wife Deb and I, plus our kids when they were little, had lived in a sequence of foreign spots, reporting on what seemed interesting. What and where would be interesting next?
I hadn’t been expecting the question and just said, without thinking, “the interior of the United States.”
By “interior” I meant a shorthand for the places other than the handful of big coastal cities that dominate media awareness and the sense of chic: Boston to DC on the East Coast, Seattle to LA in the west, a courtesy extension to Miami and San Diego, and a smattering of others. Basically this media-mind-map creates a picture of the United States as if it were Australia, with the action all happening along the rim.
Of course a sense of excitement about the rest of the country reflects what Deb and I have been reporting in our travels these past few years, but it actually is something I believe more strongly the more I see. If you were traveling the country wide-eyed and mainly tuned out from the national political news, you would think this is a big, interesting, diverse civilization, in the process of dealing with and beginning to solve the many ills of the era.
Much as I wasn’t expecting the question, Chuck wasn’t expecting the answer, but we agreed and went on to some of the political and economic ramifications thereof.
Applications and nominations for the 2017 grants are open for one more week. You have until noon Eastern Time next Thursday, November 3, to apply on behalf of your neighborhood, civic organization, or community. Details here. It’s a good program and worth checking out.
Deb Fallows has a new post up, about what’s actually involved in settling immigrants from Syria—or Somalia or Congo or Bhutan—in the American cities that have taken the lead in doing so. It’s based on our reporting in Sioux Falls, Burlington, Erie, Fresno, Dodge City, and elsewhere. I encourage you to read it on general principles, and for these additional reasons:
1. More and more an axis in this campaign, and in the ongoing struggles to define what comes next for America, is a disagreement over whether America is better as a more racially and culturally diverse society, or as one that is more “traditional” homogeneous society.
Compared with most other developed societies, Americans are more pro-diversity. That is what a major Pew global survey found this year:
But within the United States, Democrats/Clinton supporters are dramatically more comfortable with this kind of change than Republicans and Trump supporters. From another Pew survey:
If you’d like to see those differences playing themselves out, I invite you to check out (warily) the comments section of Deb’s latest post, in which some people lambaste the menace of outsiders and others welcome them.
2. Our experience around the country has been that the more people are exposed to immigrants and refugees, the less panicked they are about them. I won’t try to give you a referenced-and-linked proof of that right now, though I will give a link to this video. I will say that it’s a powerful, consistent impression—and that, for instance, you’ll hear Donald Trump get lustier cheers for “Build that wall!” in New Hampshire or Iowa than you will in Texas or California.
I will also recommend this recent piece in the NYT from Garden City, Kansas, where we have also spent time. It’s about the recent white-nationalist plot to attack Somali refugees and immigrants there. Its theme, similar to what we have seen, was that the community itself was incorporating its new members, but people from elsewhere decided to deal with this alien “threat.”
(For the record, and for later discussion: Somalis and Sudanese are more obvious outsiders in western Kansas than the Mexican and other Latino immigrants who have been there for generations. The Somalis and Sudanese are more likely to arrive as unattached young men, rather than in families. They have much less of an established community to join. They are mainly Muslim, and thus more religiously foreign than the mainly Catholic Latino immigrants. The linguistic and cultural gap is wider. Still: it wasn’t people in Garden City itself who decided to plot against them.)
3. The former Wall Street figure, now photographer and writer (including for The Atlantic)Chris Arnade has been doing a series of travels across the country that are a kind of sine-wave complement to what Deb and I have been doing. He has been dramatizing the people harmed and left out by economic polarization; we’ve been aware of them but also talking about the people trying to find a way forward. These are two parts of a complex modern whole. Our views on the immigration front are more directly congruent than on some other topics. You can read about it in a tweet series by him, starting here.
Short version: we’re all saying that if you want to feel more encouraged about the possibilities in this country, do what has been true in most eras of our history: talk with people who have fought to make this the arena for their family’s futures.
4. Deb and I will be discussing these issues and others tomorrow morning, October 30, live from 8:30am ET to 9:15 on C-Span’s Washington Journal, with Steve Scully (who himself is from Erie). We’ll be on at the same time as the Marine Corps Marathon, which I used to run in back in its early days, and just before the Redskins-Bengals game from London.
Ann Coulter, whose views of America’s future and of immigration are … somewhat different, will also be on tomorrow, but not at the same time.
The Boston Globehad a story over the weekend about the never-say-die small city of Eastport, Maine. As we’ve been chronicling online for the past few years, and in this magazine story in early 2014, Eastport balances the difficulties and the opportunities of its unusual location, at the northeastern extreme of Down East Maine across a strait from Campobello Island in Canada.
Difficulty: it is so far from anyplace else. It’s two-plus hours by car from Bangor, four-plus from Portland. Opportunity: its distant setting is so pristine and beautiful, and so close to both the tidal-power potential of the Bay of Fundy and the touristic and marine-economy potential of the sea.
Difficulty: it has so few people, roughly 1,300, who are poorer-and-older than average even for a state that is overall poor and that has the highest median age of all states. Opportunity: so many of these few people have been so inventive in exploring arts-related, advanced-tech, recreational, environmental, and other possible futures for their town.
The Globe follows up on a twist in the Eastport economy I reported in early September: the way the ramifications of the warfare in Syria had reached even this seemingly insulated locale, plus how the bad luck of a collapsing breakfront has complicated the city’s efforts. Worth reading, for the combination of hardship and hope, and also for the very good photos and graphic illustration of the pregnant-cow trade.
As part of the Eastport story, it’s also worth checking out this piece by Deb in early September, about the surprisingly ambitious and large-scale arts scene in a little town. Among other characters you’ll meet Jenie Smith, the nephrologist who doubles as a coffee-bar owner (and whom we first saw as stage manager at the local playhouse, at a production of The Glass Menagerie). She provides a nice closing quote in the Globe piece. Also Richelle Gribelle, shown below, part of the artist-in-residence program in town.
Continued good luck and better fortune to the local patriots of Eastport, especially now as another winter comes on.
At its peak, nearly one century ago in 1920, the coal-mining industry employed nearly 800,000 people in the United States. Decade by decade, as America’s population has swelled and its economy has grown, and as total coal output as also increased, employment in coal mines has steadily fallen. (The one exception was in the late 1970s, immediately after the first “oil shocks,” when the number of miners rose from about 195,000 to about 230,000. By 1985, it was back down to 170,000.)
Presidential administrations come and go; energy and environmental policies change; but the one-way pressure of technology is such that the barely 80,000 people who now work in U.S. mines produce vastly more coal than 800,000 did a century ago. It’s no “war on coal.” It’s what has happened in the world since the dawn of the industrial age.
But of course the plight of the coal industry, which is all too real for the people affected, comes up frequently in political and economic discussions—compared with, say, the situation of dental hygienists, of whom there are more than twice as many as coal miners. Or of bus drivers, of whom there are nearly ten times as many.
Or, crucially, of those employed in the energy industries that come after coal: solar, wind, tidal and geothermal, and other renewable sources. Employment there is growing much faster than it’s shrinking in coal, yet somehow this is barely part of our political or state-of-America awareness. Employment in solar alone nearly doubled in just three years, from around 120,000 in 2012 to around 240,000 in 2015. That’s three times as many solar-industry employees as coal miners, but they have at best one-third the mind-share in media and politics.
This is understandable: what’s familiar, and fading, is easier to recognize than what’s new and just taking form. But it does distort the way Americans think (and feel) about so many things, starting with the overall balance between decline and renewal in the country.
This is the set-up for the next video in TheAtlantic’s election-season American Futures coverage. This one is from our familiar and favored stomping grounds of Erie, Pennsylvania; Fresno and environs in California; and Dodge City and neighboring Spearville in western Kansas.
In a different way in each of these different parts of the country, renewable energy is serving as the source for new companies and increased jobs. I think you will find this interesting:
For convenient one-stop shopping, here are previous videos in the series. This one is about the way immigrants and refugees are becoming part of existing communities, even in today’s direct political atmosphere.
And here is one about the generational divide in the hope/despair balance in many of the communities that have suffered from large-scale, long-term economic dislocations.
And while I’m at it, a related one from the “Golden Triangle” of Mississippi:
Thanks to Nic Pollock and the entire intrepid video team for telling this part of the modern American story.
I mentioned yesterday that several local initiatives could mean as much to their communities or states as the outcome of most national races. The two historical examples I naturally think of are from California, Propositions 13 and 187. Prop 13, which was passed nearly 40 years ago, strictly capped property taxes—and in so doing helped shift California’s public schools from among the best-funded in the country, as they were in my school days, to among the worst.
Proposition 187, which was passed in 1994, limited public services for illegal/undocumented immigrants. It was a Republican-backed measure, championed by then-governor Pete Wilson, and was very unpopular with Latinos. You can’t prove exact cause and effect, but there’s no denying this change: In the decades leading up to Prop 187, the California of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan was a reliably Republican state in presidential elections. Since then, coincident with its growing Latino population, California has been the Democrats’ most important bulwark. (In the 11 presidential elections from 1948 to 1992, Harry Truman through Bill Clinton, California went Democratic only twice. In every election since then the Democrat has won, with margins that keep going up.)
Two of the measures I mentioned yesterday were city-wide. One is San Bernardino’s long-overdue reform of its dysfunctional city charter, via Measure L on today’s ballot. The other is Stockton’s attempt, through its Measure M, to approve a very small (quarter-cent) sales tax increase to fund libraries and recreation centers for young people and families who now badly lack them.
Stockton, once a site of commercial and industrial wealth, has become one of California’s poorer cities. Many of its people are immigrants; the population mix is roughly “40/30/20/10,” or roughly 40% Latino, 30% white, 20% Asian, and 10% black. “We’re the most diverse medium-sized city in America,” Mas’ood Cajee, a Stockton dentist who is one of the leaders of the Yes on M movement, told me yesterday.
Many of these children start out with varied disadvantages: of family income, language, unsafe neighborhoods, underfunded schools. Through the past decade, as Stockton was hit like other inland-California cities by the sub-prime real-estate crisis and then by its municipal bankruptcy, funding for almost everything has been cut. That’s why I find it impressive that the city council voted unanimously to fund libraries and rec centers again, and that most local civic groups have supported it. I hope the voters agree today.
Why do I care about this? Partly because civic governance is at the moment more encouraging than national politics. And partly because Deb and I have seen other cities go through a similar process, with positive results.
Consider the example of Dodge City, Kansas. Dodge City and its environs in western Kansas are politically and culturally much more conservative than even inland parts of California. But their ethnic situation is similar—as we’ve discussed before, the meatpacking centers of Dodge City, Garden City, and Liberal have become majority-Latino—and they also have faced civic challenges.
Dodge City’s answer, nearly twenty years ago, was something called the “Why Not Dodge” initiative. In 1997 the city’s voters approved a permanent sales-tax increase totaling one percent, with the proceeds to be used for long-term civic improvements. Now nearly everywhere you look in town, there’s another project funded by the ongoing flow of Why Not Dodge revenues. They include: a large public soccer complex; the Cavalier and Legends Park baseball and softball fields; an auto raceway; a new civic center; a large expo site; a brand new aquatics park, the Long Branch Lagoon, which was in very heavy use during our visits last summer; repairs on a historic railroad depot; and more.
In effect, a very conservative community voted itself an open-ended tax to pay for long-term infrastructure improvement. Why was this possible there, when its counterparts at the national level are gridlocked out of consideration?
“We may be ‘conservative.’ but we’re progressive,” Melissa McCoy, who grew up not far from Dodge City and is now the city’s Project Development Coordinator, told me. “There was a time when we had a really negative self-image as a town. But people thought, If we won’t invest in ourselves, how can we expect anybody else to? It was a matter of getting the community behind it and realizing that we needed to back ourselves up to get outside investment and support. Now we’re starting to see it pay off.”
I asked Joyce Warshaw, an elementary school principal who is Dodge City’s mayor, whether there was any mystery or contradiction in a politically conservative community enacting a permanent infrastructure-improvement tax. Warshaw is herself a Republican, who ran (but lost) in the GOP primary for the Kansas state senate this year.
“Not at all,” she said. “It’s been so beneficial for the city. This community is incredible in embracing things that need to happen for the city. I think many people saw how important it was to raise taxes just a minute little bit to raise our quality of life here in Dodge.” And to anticipate a question from those who haven’t been there: cities in this part of Kansas cannot define themselves in narrow ethnic-enclave terms. The railroad and cattle businesses have historically brought a range of people to western Kansas, and Dodge City is now majority Latino. (As Deb and I have discussed here, here, and here.)
We’re nearing poll-closing time here on the East Coast, and I won’t pause now to untangle the ways in which local-area communitarian impulses do and do not convey to the national level. That’s for later, at greater length.
The point for now, on election day, is to note that the work of investment and civic improvement still happens in the country; it just doesn’t seem that way, since national politics have been so discouraging. In this spirit, I hope that San Bernardino’s voters approve Measure L, to put their city on a better course; that the necessary super-majority of two-thirds of Stockton’s voters approve Measure M; that statewide voters defeat Proposition 53, which would hamstring big statewide investments; and that Dodge City’s investments continue to pay off.
As I head back to vote-watching, here is one more photo from Robert Dawson’s extraordinary series “Raising Literacy: A Photographic Survey of Libraries and Literacy in Stockton and San Joaquin County.” Dawson and Ellen Manchester have documented the role of libraries around the country and the world, including in his book The Public Library: An American Commons.
When you are an American living overseas, Thanksgiving is an even more powerful nationally unifying holiday than the Fourth of July. All the Americans know something special is going on; for everyone else, it’s just another Thursday. Even for non-Americans who are aware of the concept, the shifting date means they can’t quite keep it in mind, as they can with July 4. So the overseas bands of Yanks figure out where they can scrounge up our national-cuisine oddities like actual turkeys (usually we made do with great big chickens in Malaysia, and once a duck in China), cranberries, filling for pumpkin and pecan pies, etc. Even the tiny marshmallows to go with sweet potatoes. Then the American expats gather at someone’s home in the evening. Back in the days of VCRs, we would play a tape of some old football game for atmosphere.
This is on my mind because this is the first Thanksgiving that I will technically miss, for dateline reasons. I’ll get on a plane when it’s still Wednesday night in the U.S., and get off on the other side of the Pacific when Thursday is almost done. It’s a brief out-and-back trip and a long story, but “2016: The Year Without Thanksgiving” is an uncomfortably close match for my mood.
Nonetheless! As time allows in the coming days and weeks, I’ll put up some brief Thanksgiving-toned items about regrowth, recovery, resistance, reform, renovation, renaissance, and overall re-themed efforts at the local level. Let me start with this one now, which involves one of the towns that epitomized the mainly white, economically beset, distressed-manufacturing zones that were Donald Trump’s mainstay. This is our frequent haunt of Erie, Pennsylvania, long a Democratic stronghold that this time went narrowly for Trump. But even as the votes were being counted, the city had some good news.
The Erie area’s most important employer is no longer GE, which for years has been shedding jobs from its huge locomotive factory. Instead, it is Erie Insurance, a Fortune 500 company that was founded in the city in the 1920s and is still run with a very strong local-patriot sense. During election week it announced a $135 million new building project in the heart of Erie’s downtown, where its main campus is already located. This complements other downtown efforts, like the one I described earlier this fall.
In October, before this news came out, I asked Erie Insurance’s longtime chairman, Thomas Hagen, and its current CEO, Timothy NeCastro, why they had kept their growing business in this relatively remote location. “Our goal has been to do good things for our customers, and also for this community,” NeCastro said. Yes, sure, anyone could and would say that. But both Hagen and NeCastro went on to argue, as NeCastro put it, “we make plenty of money doing things according to our values. By setting out to do what we think is right for the customers, and this community, we find that we generate enough profits.”
I’ll have more to say about this very interesting company, which is run on the “reciprocal exchange” model that also applies to USAA and Farmers; Erie is No. 3 in size after those two. (In crude terms, you could think of this as an insurance-world counterpart to the Vanguard model of brokerage.) For me, what’s interesting about the company involves the way it has managed to run its national-scale operations and international talent-searches from its northwest Pennsylvania outpost, and how it imagines its long-term fortunes being connected to the town’s. That’s later; for our pre-Thanksgiving purposes, here is news of the expansion and background on the company’s evolution.
Also in local good news, I’ve mentioned the stark axis of generational differences in outlook in Erie. People in their 50s and 60s and above expected to work at the big factories, and bitterly feel the loss of those jobs. People in their 20s and 30s came of age when the factories were already on the way out, and they’re very prominent in the startup, advanced-manufacturing, and civic-engagement scene in Erie.
Last week one of the people we talked with several times in Erie announced his candidacy for mayor: That is Jay Breneman, a 34-year-old combat veteran of Iraq who is now on the county council. Obviously the choice about future leadership is one for Erie’s own people to make. My point is that the generational shift already evident in educational, technological, and non-profit parts of the community is extending to public life too. (And as Breneman and others are well aware, perhaps the most urgent task the city faces doesn’t involve crumbling factories at all. Instead it is the unjust state funding system that penalizes Erie’s schools. Pat Howard, opinion editor of the Erie Times-News, made the case very bluntly this past weekend. We’ll have more on this too, “soon.” )
Want a few more teaser items on a pre-Thanksgiving list? Well, here is the latest report from the Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, on the dispersal of startups around the country, and an accompanying video. And here’s Steve Case to similar effect. And here’s something related from AutoDesk. And this from our friends in Fresno.
But that’s enough for now. I’ll squeeze my thankfulness into the few hours of Thursday remaining when I get off the plane.
This is the first of three posts on this New Year’s Day, building toward a change in (my part of) this space for the next few months.
First installment: quick updates on a few places and projects that my wife Deb and I have learned about in our American Futures travels these past few years.
Pittsburgh, Pa. The wonderful City of Asylum community, which Deb wrote about online here and which I described briefly in my cover story in March, has just won a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Congratulations! It’s an important and much-deserved recognition.
San Bernardino, Ca. Long before it was featured in global news because of the terror-related mass shooting a year ago, San Bernardino had struggled with one economic and political blow after another, as we reported here and here. The most dramatic downward step happened in the 1990s, when the enormous Norton Air Force Base, dominant employer when I was growing up in the area and long a bulwark of the regional economy, was closed for good.
This past month the San Bernardino Sunreported on a study showing that all the job loss from that closure has finally been recovered, and that the shift — largely to logistics operations for the likes of Amazon, the Stater Brothers grocery chain, and Kohl’s — has on a spending-power basis offset the loss of the base. The former Norton property is now San Bernardino International airport, SBD, which has itself become a major employer. I wrote about SBD several times, for instance here, when our propeller airplane was based at its Luxivair facility during our 2015 California travels; we’re headed there again soon. Through this past shopping-and-shipping season the San Bernardino airport won a major new UPS contract. The city of San Bernardino is now looking toward its post-civic-bankruptcy future, as Ryan Hagen of the Sun describes here. Good luck to a town that deserves much more of it.
Fresno and Clovis, Ca. I’ve talked about Fresno’s economic, cultural, technological, and downtown renovations in an endless series of posts; Deb has described schools there and in neighboring Clovis. Here’s a report on a big new environmental victory for Clovis; here’s a time-lapse video cam of the ambitious reconstruction work underway on Fresno’s downtown Fulton Street Mall; here are a few of the ever-expanding civic and tech activities of the training and incubator company Bitwise (including, topically for now, a seminar on how to avoid conflict and actually persuade in an era of polarized views); and here is the latest brewpub to announce its opening in Fresno’s reviving downtown. Happy New Year to all.
Eastport, Me. This fall the Boston Globehad a report on some of the plans, achievements, and frustrations we’ve been describing over the years in the little Down East city of Eastport, Maine. Now the Christian Science Monitoradds to the discussion of how climate shifts are affecting life in this part of the world.
Louisville, Ky. Back in June I reported on the exciting FirstBuild maker / prototyping / incubator facility in Louisville. Had the campaign (and China) not consumed so much of my life in the following months, I would have already said more about the stream of new products continuing to come onto the market from FirstBuild. During my visit I was intrigued by its Prisma cold-brew coffee maker, then still in early prototyping. The whole idea of the FirstBuild operation is to enable more Americans to make (and then sell) technically innovative, commercially viable, manufactured products. You can read about a range of the offerings, most based on crowdsourced pre-orders and funding, on FirstBuild’s blog and their Facebook page.
I’ve got a dozen more items on the update list, but these will have to do for now. There’s a lot happening inside the country. Happy New Year to everyone busily making America greater.
For me this is the thirdpost of the day, and probably the last in this space for quite a while.
Effective today, I’m beginning a five-month book-writing leave from online and print activities for TheAtlantic. At the start of June I plan to be back, recharged for the fray, and by then my wife Deb and I should—will!—have finished a book on the America we’ve seen in our travels across the country these past four years, and what that means for the years ahead.
Some practical notes:
A major satisfaction in writing in this space and its precursors since the mid-1990s has been engagement with readers. But by the final few chaotic months of this year’s campaign, I had given up even pretending to answer reader emails (or any emails), or sorting them for reader-comment posts. There are still hundreds I would like to have quoted but have not managed to use. I will soon forward some of those, and anything that arrives in coming weeks, to the impresario of our Notes section, Chris Bodenner, who has skillfully curated reader discussions. And not for the first time I’ll be considering the “email bankruptcy” option.
The last time I took a blogging leave was five years ago, when Deb and I moved back to China for me to finish my book China Airborne. (Her wonderful Dreaming in Chinese had just come out.) Back then, the concept of “blogging” still existed—that is, of frequent, incremental, voicey dispatches on a range of personalized topics—and I had the joy of assembling a stellar cast of guest bloggers to fill in. Really, it was an incredible group: check them out here. Times have changed, and there is no longer a set personal-blog space here for guests to fill. Our site keeps evolving, and I’m not sure what it will offer by the middle of this year. But for now you will just have to make do with the dozens of other items TheAtlantic serves up each day.
Why a cold-turkey break? For an external reason, and an internal one.
The external reason involves the new reality of the Donald Trump era. During the final six months of his campaign, I tried to keep up with the “norm-breaking,” unprecedented things the candidate kept doing and saying. That became a nearly full-time activity, and the number of entries ultimately reached 152. Since the election, the pace of Trump’s transgressions and aberrations has only increased. As a reporter you can keep up with this, in the full intensity it deserves, or you can do anything else. I am 100% on board in supporting the reporters, editors, and analysts at TheAtlantic and elsewhere who are girding for daily engagement with the implications of Trump. But I think that the greatest journalistic value I can add is not by spending all my time as one more voice in the fact-check/ norm-defense patrol but instead in reporting on how the rest of the country can and should respond. And I know that the latter is the story I am more excited to tell.
This leads to the other, internal reason, which involves my personal journalistic metronome. Through my long career with TheAtlantic I’ve had a sequence of shifts in topic and location. Through the early 1980s, I was heavily involved in debates about the military and budgetary policies of the incoming Ronald Reagan administration, including with my book National Defense. After five years of this, my family moved to Asia, to spend the late Reagan and early GHW Bush years viewing the U.S. from outside (and for me to do my books More Like Us and Looking at the Sun). I’ll skip ahead several topics and moves to the early 2000s, when I was back in Washington and heavily involved in debates about responding to the 9/11 attacks and invading Iraq (don’t do it!). After four-plus years of that, and reporting on the aftermath, in 2006 my wife and I moved to China, to spend the late GW Bush and early Obama eras seeing that country and viewing the U.S. from its perspective.
This time, I’ve done what I can through the past year to lay out the consequences of this year’s presidential choice. Those consequences are now upon us. As with every other major shift in national direction, the resulting story needs to be told at many levels. The version of the story I’m most passionate about telling, and that I believe is least likely to tell itself otherwise, involves the implications of what we’ve seen in dozens of places like San Bernardino and Sioux Falls and Erie and Allentown and Ajo and Greenville and Columbus and Charleston and Dodge City and Duluth.
The good and the bad of being in Washington is that what happens in national politics is right in front of you, unavoidably in your face all day long. The good part is why we’ve lived here for half of the past 40 years. The bad part is why we’ve lived elsewhere during the other half, in several-year installments.
These next few months will be an “other half” period. We’ll be based in inland Southern California, in Redlands, for the writing-camp period. And I’m undertaking a variety of additional “mind in the right place”/attention-protective moves, from reading more things on paper to being less exposed to cable TV. Related: The more time passes, the more I find myself agreeing with Andrew Sullivan’s famed essay on this topic. The public’s attention really has been treated as a free good in the tech-distraction era. We need to fight to protect it. Or at least I do.
Might there be an exception to the online sabbatical? Anything is possible. Suppose Xi Jinping were to announce that he’s personally taking up small-plane aviation, in a speech that begins “I often think of the example of the boiling frog” and ends “may God Bless the United States of America!” (which would be quite a speech), all while holding a leafblower in one hand and a craft beer in the other. I’d probably have to say something.
Online life changes and moves on, even more quickly than life in general. There are inevitable costs to stepping away. But in this case I believe there are greater benefits. See you in June.
Montgomery County traffic, Cirrus Four-Three-Five Sierra Romeo taking Runway One-Four, VFR (visual flight rules) departure to the west, Montgomery.
And with that, we were off in our small Cirrus airplane for the last official journey of our American Futures series for The Atlantic, flying away from frigid Washington D.C. and its political turmoil, on a southerly route to California.
We have flown over 60,000 miles during the past three-and-a-half years, from the upper Midwest to Maine, south through New England and the Mid Atlantic states to Georgia and Florida, sweeping through the deep south, to Texas and the southwest, up the central valley of California to Oregon and Washington, and closing the loop to Montana, all the while snaking in and out of the so-called flyover country, the middle of everywhere through Wyoming, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia, and much of the rest.
“Flyover” to us has meant landing in dozens of towns for jam-packed visits of a week or two, often returning for unfinished business, reporting, or nostalgia. The purpose of this last journey is a little different. Our destination is sunny, warm, mind-clearing and political soul-cleansing inland southern California, to Jim’s hometown of Redlands. We plan to ponder all we’ve seen and try to make some sense of it on a more composed canvas than the pointillist collection of hundreds of blog posts that we have written along the way.
From experience, we anticipated that the journey would be unpredictable and exciting. Flight in a small plane is always that way: you don’t know which surprising event will occur, but you can always be sure that one or more will—sometimes good, sometimes bad. We are never disappointed, and always surprised anew by the dramas airborne, by the perspectives on the unfolding country below, and by the snapshots of life on the ground in places we land, many of which we’d never been to or even sometime heard of before being steered there for one reason or another.
Our leave-taking was not auspicious. Our planned departure for Sunday, and then for Monday came and went: the weather was too bad. We were heeding our only cardinal rule, which is that weather comes first, and there is no place we really have to be, ever. Cold, wind, snow, and icy conditions gave us a few more days to organize at home and winnow the next 6 months’ belongings—clothes, flight gear, portable technology, emergency supplies—into the 140 pounds the plane could carry, besides us and a reasonable amount of gas.
Finally, Tuesday looked like the day. It was still a blustery 29 degrees in Washington D.C., up from the teens two days before. But the clouds were high, so we could fly below them without having to file an “instrument rules” flight plan or worry about icing on the wings. (If you’re in the clouds in wintertime, you’re probably going to be in icing conditions, which are dangerous and have to be avoided.) We bundled into clothing layers so thick that I had to loosen my seat belt, a complex system of straps not unlike in toddlers’ carseats. I stretched my headset to fit over a heavy knit cap. Jim unplugged the plane’s engine from its overnight warming station. After all that, the sound of the motor turning over quickly, and I would add proudly, was our signal.
The air traffic controllers, (ATC), my heroes of the sky, guided us through the busy Dulles airspace, on a shortcut south. We expected headwinds, but not the strong 40 to 50 knots direct headwind blasts that slowed our ground speed from our accustomed 170 knots (about 200 mph) down to measly 109 at times. I was grateful for my natural sea legs, dating back to a childhood of pounding over waves in small sailboats, which translated well to the bumps and blips from gusty winds aloft. This part of the journey wasn’t for the faint of heart or stomach.
Inching over Virginia, we began to wean ourselves off the frenetic breathlessness of political news that saturated our hometown by listening to the slow-paced Senate committee hearings for some administration nominees on our Sirius XM radio.
We stopped for cheap gas in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Just beyond that, the snow had melted and given way to long stretches of brown earth. We tried out a few different altitudes before settling as low as we could, around 2500 feet, where headwinds were a bit lighter. (Usually the lower the altitude, the weaker the wind.) Outside, the temperatures began rising. We flew over the catfish farms and the erratic geometry of forest-clearing.
We were chasing the 5:06 PM sunset in Demopolis, Alabama, our hoped-for destination, to get in before dark and before the 5:00 PM scheduled closing time for the small airport office, called the FBO, or Fixed Base Operator in general aviation terms. We chose Demopolis for nostalgia this time, as Jim had spent a good part of the summer of 1968 around Selma, Montgomery, and Demopolis, as a teenaged very cub-reporter for a civil rights newspaper called the Southern Courier, writing about voter registration and other civil rights efforts. We wanted to give the town a look nearly 50 years later.
About ten minutes out, at just before 5 o’clock, Jim made radio contact with the FBO. Jason, the manager there, told us no rush to beat the 5:00 PM deadline, that he would stick around. That was welcome news to me; as part of my self-designated ground support, I usually arranged a motel and transportation before we arrived, a lesson learned over the years after some unhappy after-hours arrivals at rural airports, with no way into town and no place to stay. This time, our plans had been too unsure to make any bookings.
But we were lucky. At the end of a long departure and a very long day, it all worked out. With generosity exceeding even Southern hospitality, Jason lent us his own car for the night, saying his wife could come collect him later. We got the last room at the Best Western, which was booked with a team of workers who had come into town to service the planned outage of the cement factory. We were well on our way.
Since our first visit in the fall of 2013, Deb and I have reported frequently on the grit, vision, resilience, and apparently indomitable drive of the roughly 1300 people who live in the little city of Eastport, Maine. For reference, I did a 2014 magazine story on Eastport called “The Little Town That Might”; we did a visit and report with Marketplace radio around the same time; Deb and I, with John Tierney, did a long series of web posts, all collected here; and this past fall Deb and I returned for an update on some of the buffets Eastport had suffered from shifts in the political and economic landscape many thousands of miles away from their Down East locale. For instance: warfare in Syria had disrupted the port business in Maine, through a causal chain explained here. And the collapse of a breakwater badly affected the cruise ship and tourism industries on which the town was placing many hopes.
This past week Eastport got a much-needed dose of very good news. The Arnold Development group of Kansas City specializes in the kind of walkable, environmentally sustainable, mixed-use and downtown-residential developments that make a huge difference in making cities feel “livable.” And this month Arnold has announced an $18 million undertaking, with partners in Eastport, to renovate the most imposing structure in the city’s downtown.
This is the now-derelict works of what was once the Seacoast Canning Company, a factory that produced tin cans during Eastport’s early 20th-century heyday as a world capital of the sardine industry. Ever seen old pictures of roll-top sardine tins? This building is where millions of them came from.
Back in 2005, three of the Eastport leaders we’ve written about frequently—Nancy Asante, Linda Godfrey, and Meg McGarvey, working together as Dirigamus LLC—bought the old factory, which had fallen into disuse, and began developing plans for its redevelopment as a downtown center for retail, entertainment, office-space, and other purposes. [Dirigamus is of course Latin for “we lead.” Maine’s state motto is Dirigo, “I lead.”] Nearly four years ago the Bangor Daily Newsran a story about their ambitions, obstacles, and progress. Deb and I have heard off and on about the project since about that time. Thus this past week we were delighted to hear through the Maine media that the deal had come through.
Eastport’s own Quoddy Tides was first with the news. Today the Bangor Daily News has a story on details of the deal. Another account is in Mainebiz. The redeveloped site will be called 15 Sea Street; a fuller description of the ambitions behind it is here.
And the future plans:
From Arnold Development’s site:
Of course plans aren’t realities; there’s a long road ahead; and [whatever other cautionary note you’d like to add]. But completing this deal is a major achievement, and we’ve learned never to underestimate any of the people who have committed themselves to Eastport’s rebirth.
We woke up in Demopolis, Alabama, on day two of the final journey of our American Futures series for The Atlantic. We were one day out of Washington D.C. (first installment here) and already decades away in so many ways. The weather was balmy. In the Best Western breakfast room, Ms. Nettie was making grits and biscuits for us and the out-of-town workers who had come in to oversee the “planned outage” at the cement factory.
Jim was troubleshooting one of the weather apps in the plane; the software wasn’t communicating to bring in the current weather updates, including radar depictions of areas we needed to avoid. Before this technology existed, we had flown many years without such real-time information, but given the forecast for the next few days along our route to Southern California, we preferred to have everything working before we headed up again into the skies.
Now, only two small things stood between us and progress west. One was the needed update part for our onboard-weather system. That would take a day to reach the nearest Cirrus-proficient service shop, which was in the Addison airport just north of Dallas. The other was the real-time weather. The forecast crosswinds that afternoon for Dallas were gusting above 30 and even 40 knots, far exceeded the safe landing guidelines for the plane.
We decided to spend another day in Demopolis, and depart when the winds would be less fearsome and the weather-software part would have arrived. I loved this kind of on-the-go pivot in plans, which had led us to unexpected stays in places like Red Oak, Iowa and Cheyenne, Wyoming and Toccoa, Georgia along our American Futures journey.
The night before, at a cozy, delicious Demopolis bistro, called of course Le Bistro, we ended up in conversation about the town with owner Mike Grayson, who it turns out had been the Mayor of Demopolis for the previous eight years. In small towns like this, we often found that the energetic folks wore multiple hats. In Eastport, Maine, the local theater stage manager by night was the morning barista at the coffee shop, as well as the nephrologist at the town’s clinic and new owner of the dog kennel.
At the top of my list of Grayson’s suggestions was the Demopolis Public Library. Over the last three years, I often found that the local public library showed the heart and soul of a community. I wrote about many of them here.
In Demopolis we strolled down Washington Street, past as many boarded up storefronts as there were ones in business, thinking that the bones of those buildings offered great potential for future success stories. The public library was indeed the showpiece of the town. In a move showing great foresight, the city engineered an effort to purchase and renovate the former Ulmer Furniture Company store and warehouse. It is a truly beautiful building, as elegant and graceful as any Carnegie library I’ve seen. The second story mezzanine has a wraparound balcony overlooking the main reading room, with wooden Mission style worktables and lamps. Oversized photos of some of the town’s historic moments lined the walls. There was Woodrow Wilson visiting nearly a century ago for the then-legal cockfighting at a fundraising auction to build a bridge over the Tombigbee River.
Connie Lawson, the circulation manager and a librarian there for over 20 years, recounted detail for detail a more recent visit in 1998 by Bill and Melinda Gates, who came by to see how one of their first computer donations from the Gates Library Foundation was doing. Connie said that she and her colleagues, intent on making a good impression, had spent days cleaning the library “down to the baseboards.” They were all so nervous, she told us, stressing that Bill Gates was the richest man in the world then, and it’s not every day you get to meet the richest man in the world.
Famous visiting dignitaries could take a lesson from the Gateses, who impressed Demopolis with moments that people would remember and retell for decades. Connie said that the Gateses were as nice as could be; she didn’t wear a touch of make-up; he held his tie in place against the wind with a piece of tape. “The world’s richest man had no tie clip,” she marveled. And his hand was “as soft as a baby’s bottom” when you shook it. The Gateses traveled by bookmobile that day, heading off from Demopolis over to Selma and then on to Montgomery to catch a plane.
The top floor of the Demopolis Public Library was the piece de resistance – the children’s floor. The space was as bright and comfy and engaging as any library’s children’s room I’ve seen in any town around America. It served many purposes from the toddlers’ story time to the opportunities for the town’s sizable home-schooled population.
We walked around the town’s Kingfisher Bay Marina, which is a popular stopover for the snowbirds on their southern migration from the north down to the Gulf. Loopers, as we heard the boaters called in Demopolis, follow a 6000 mile system of natural and also manmade paths that include the Great Lakes, the Intracoastal Waterways, and in Demopolis, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. (Tombigbee is probably a Choctaw word that means “box maker,” according to a local historian from another of our most favorite nearby towns, Columbus Mississippi.)
One hardy woman we met on the dock, who lived on their houseboat year round, said that last week, it had been so cold that her husband had to chop up the ice that formed on the docks. Other boats gamely decorated in tropical Christmas lights, and others boasted questionable-sounding home ports of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Occoquan, Virginia, both of which are landlocked, as far as I know.
The loud marina dredging was running about eight hours a day now, making sure the riverbed didn’t silt up and prevent the big boats from docking there along their Loop passage. The dredging process spewed out and sifted the sludge into fine sand, an ingredient for the cement, and gravel, which was sold elsewhere.
Before we left the next morning, Mike Grayson toured us around the location of the recently announced Two Rivers Lumber Company, at the site of a former barge-manufacturing plant. The site was located between the river, where they had floated the new barges away, and the airport. Parades of big rigs were lining up to dump their loads of timber to the paper mill, at the far end of the runway. Between the paper mill, which handled the smaller circumference timber and the new saw mill, which would take the bigger timber, they had Alabama’s forest clearing covered.
Mike Grayson, with the spirit of town visionaries we had seen across the country, pointed to the forests as we were crossing the highway at the end of the airport road. “This may sound crazy, but when I look across the road here at that forest, what I see is more industry.” We recognized that these were the words of the dreamers and visionaries who are building and rebuilding American towns.
We took off west from Demopolis, Alabama, prepared for a lot of flying ahead on this last journey for The Atlantic’sAmerican Futures project. (First two installments in the series, taking us from D.C. to Alabama, here and here. ) We passed over Meridian and Jackson, in Mississippi, just a ways south of Columbus, Starkville, and West Point, where we spent several reporting trips to the booming manufacturing center of the so-called Golden Triangle.
I have always looked forward to crossing the Mississippi River. We’ve done that in just about every state through which the mighty river flows, especially in the upper Midwest: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois. There it would be today in the state of Mississippi, below us just around Vicksburg. I was worried about even getting a glimpse because of the low-overcast clouds, which we were flying above (on an “instrument flight plan” because we were expecting to have to land in cloudy conditions). We watched the navigation maps on the cockpit monitors, and just as we were about to cross, the clouds parted. Jim banked the plane so as to dip the wing on my right seat side, and I stole enough of a look to recognize the unmistakably mighty Mississippi.
We stopped for fuel in Minden, just shy of Shreveport, aiming for Dallas to install the software patch that we needed for weather readings. There’s always something, even in this little plane; it amazes me that the big boys fly around with as few mechanical and technological delays as they do.
By the time we were ready to take off from Dallas the next day, a cool drizzle had moved in, reminding us why we avoided winter during most of our flying in the last three years. For the next three hours after departure (again on an instrument plan), we were either in the thick cloud layer or just above it, barely seeing the vast stretches of west Texas below us or the sun above.
I think Jim enjoys the challenge of this kind of flying. He is always on top of the instruments, pushing buttons of one sort or another, checking gauges, and testing the redundant systems. For me, this opaque flying is unpleasant, sometimes even boring. I don’t like the absence of orientation. Most pilots, I’ve learned, have a zealous passion for flying. It’s something they can’t not do, and they don’t seem to mind the conditions. For the rest of us, well, I for one consider flights like these functional. The plane is getting me west.
The air traffic controllers were busy over west Texas. There is a lot of military airspace, and we could hear the calls from “Fighter 25” and “Fighter 26,” working with the air traffic controller (ATC). There were at least five medevac flights calling in that day, which seemed like a lot until you considered the long desolate stretches of road lying between sick or injured people and medical attention. In rural Ajo, Arizona, we knew that rural medical care meant that pregnant women often took precautions to drive the 200 miles to Phoenix or Tucson some weeks in advance of their delivery dates. The medevac flights always took priority, no questions asked.
Pilots requested vectoring to get to Amarillo, San Angelo, Dalhart, Alpine, El Paso. The names were exotic and evocative to me. When the ATC chatter died out, we switched to Sirius/XM radio, toggling among some of our favorites. Road Dog Trucking warned about winter road conditions over Omaha and St. Louis and impending ice storms. Rural Radio would offer local crop prices or advice on pest control, depending on when and where we were flying. There are entire stations dedicated to Willie Nelson, or Bruce Springsteen, or music of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. There is Coffee House music, jazz, and the often-irreverent Catholic guys on the Catholic Channel.
We ascended to 10,000 feet to cross the very southern remnants of the Rockies, the Guadalupe Mountains, on our way to Las Cruces. This reminded me of the tail end of the Great Wall that we climbed in Gansu province in China, where the crumbling remains became little but an obstacle for the farmers to work around in their fields. Finally, the cloud cover was dissipating.
Our little cabin isn’t pressurized; it’s legal to fly without oxygen up to 14,000 feet (after 30 minutes at 12,500 feet, the pilot has to use oxygen, of which we have small emergency-use bottles on board). But I felt myself involuntarily taking longer, deeper breaths. And I also checked the color of my fingernail beds for any tinge of blue, which signals oxygen deprivation. We were fine, of course.
We refueled in Las Cruces, looking for late afternoon lunch and settling on the beef jerky I always packed for such lean times. We decided to press on another hour or so to Tucson. The mountains deflated into undulating brown hills. There were flatlands with some volcanic outcroppings or long stretches of almost-surreal desert landscapes.
Sightings of such geology—volcanic or the colored striations of angular mountainsides—always make us feel very small and our moments on this earth fleeting. Not to wax too dramatic, but flying does that to your perspective.
Finally, Tucson. Approaches for landing follow a U-shaped pattern. The goal is to land flying into the wind, which offers more control. Basically, you fly “downwind” along the side of the airfield, in the opposite of the direction in which you intend to land. (In this case, we were on a “right downwind” because we would be making a series of right-hand turns toward the airfield on our right.) Then you turn 90 degrees, called turning “base”, for a short hop perpendicular to the runway. Then you turn another 90 degrees for “final” and you’re home free.
As we were about to turn base, the winds suddenly shifted. Really suddenly. The Tucson Approach controller told Jim to loop around in exactly the opposite direction from what he was planning, and prepare to land on the same runway in the opposite direction. (For airplane buffs: we had been planning to land on with “right traffic” for Runway 11 Right. Suddenly the winds favored landing in the opposite direction, with left traffic for Runway 29 Left, which is the same strip of asphalt headed the opposite way.) Surprise!
It’s moments like these that I’m grateful for the professionalism of the ATCs, grateful for constant upkeep and training that Jim does as a pilot, and grateful that all the other pilots from those in the big commercial regional jets or the fancy little Citations or the humble single engine propeller planes like ours, are nearly always reliable, too.
Why targets of deliberate deception often hesitate to admit they’ve been deceived.
Something very strange has been happening in Missouri: A hospital in the state, Ozarks Healthcare, had to create a “private setting” for patients afraid of being seen getting vaccinated against COVID-19. In a video produced by the hospital, the physician Priscilla Frase says, “Several people come in to get vaccinated who have tried to sort of disguise their appearance and even went so far as to say, ‘Please, please, please don’t let anybody know that I got this vaccine.’” Although they want to protect themselves from the coronavirus and its variants, these patients are desperate to ensure that their vaccine-skeptical friends and family never find out what they have done.
Missouri is suffering one of the worst COVID-19 surges in the country. Some hospitals are rapidly running out of ICU beds. To Americans who rushed to get vaccinated at the earliest opportunity, some Missourians’ desire for secrecy is difficult to understand. It’s also difficult to square with the common narrative that vaccine refusal, at least in conservative areas of the country, is driven by a lack of respect or empathy from liberals along the coasts. “Proponents of the vaccine are unwilling or unable to understand the thinking of vaccine skeptics—or even admit that skeptics may be thinking at all,” lamented a recent article in the conservative National Review. Writers across the political spectrum have urged deference and sympathy toward holdouts’ concerns about vaccine side effects and the botched CDC messaging about masking and airborne transmission early in the pandemic. But these takes can’t explain why holdouts who receive respect, empathy, and information directly from reliable sources remain unmoved—or why some people are afraid to tell their loved ones about being vaccinated.
I knew the president had clear and straightforward talking points—I’d written them.
One phone call changed my life.
On Thursday, July 25, 2019, I was seated at the table in one of the two Situation Rooms in the basement of the West Wing. The bigger room is famous from movies and TV shows, but this room is smaller, more typically businesslike: a long wooden table with 10 chairs, maybe a dozen more chairs against wood-paneled walls, and a massive TV screen. This was the room where President Barack Obama and his team watched a feed of the Osama bin Laden raid. This morning, the screen was off. We were all focused intently on the triangular conference-call speaker in the middle of the table. President Donald Trump’s communications team was placing a call to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, and we were there to listen.
A recent arrival at the International Space Station created a little too much excitement.
Mission control in Houston first noticed it Thursday morning.
The International Space Station was drifting. The station is always moving, of course, in a looping trajectory around Earth. But this, what mission control was seeing in the latest data, was unexpected, and unnerving. On Thursday morning, the space station was suddenly and mysteriously deviating from its course.
The massive pieces of NASA-built hardware that hold the space station in place couldn’t keep up with the motion, and within minutes, the station had been thrown out of its usual orientation.
NASA quickly turned to Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency. To counter the shift, Moscow’s mission control commanded one of its modules on the space station to ignite its engines, then instructed a cargo ship to fire its thrusters too. Inside the station, astronauts reconfigured important systems. Twice, ground control lost communications with the crew for several minutes. The longer the space station remained off track, the more scrambled its operations, including the communication system and solar panels, could become.
If you can shrug it off as just another incident of Trump talking too much, then you have already signed up for the next incident—and the one after that.
While he was president of the United States, Donald Trump tried to overthrow the election of 2020, first by fraud, then by violence. His efforts were defeated in great part because of the integrity and courage of state-level Republican officials.
Half a year has now passed since supporters of the president stormed Congress in an effort to coerce Vice President Mike Pence to declare Trump the winner of the 2020 election. In that time, honest and brave state Republican officials have been reviled, condemned, and punished by their own party.
The president was impeached, but most Republicans in the House voted against the impeachment, and most in the Senate voted to acquit. Trump has otherwise to date escaped all consequences for his attempted destruction of the Constitution. He remains the Republican Party’s best fundraiser, and the clear front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
In the time I spent with Mike Lindell, I came to learn that he is affable, devout, philanthropic—and a clear threat to the nation.
When you contemplate the end of democracy in America, what kind of person do you think will bring it about? Maybe you picture a sinister billionaire in a bespoke suit, slipping brown envelopes to politicians. Maybe your nightmare is a rogue general, hijacking the nuclear football. Maybe you think of a jackbooted thug leading a horde of men in white sheets, all carrying burning crosses.
Here is what you probably don’t imagine: an affable, self-made midwesterner, one of those goofy businessmen who makes his own infomercials. A recovered crack addict, no less, who laughs good-naturedly when jokes are made at his expense. A man who will talk to anyone willing to listen (and to many who aren’t). A philanthropist. A good boss. A patriot—or so he says—who may well be doing more damage to American democracy than anyone since Jefferson Davis.
I carried on for more than a year of the coronavirus pandemic, but I didn’t see the next plague coming.
After the end of the world, there will be birdsong. I used to imagine this when everything was going awry. I would lie in bed in my college dorm room and listen to the lone mockingbird who sang all night outside my window in the spring months. I was worried about something or other; he was getting on with things. It’s what birds do. They have a knack for it. In the Book of Genesis, after the devastation of the Earth by God’s cataclysmic flood, Noah releases from his ark a dove; he knows that the trial has ended when the bird does not return, having alighted somewhere out in the damp and dreary world, the first land-dwelling creature to begin the work of carrying on.
What else is there to do? When COVID-19 began to spread in the United States, late in the winter of 2020, I told myself as much. In plagues, as in life, there is a morally arbitrary hierarchy of luck, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that my family and I were among the lucky ones. I was in my late 20s, hale and hearty, my husband the same plus a couple of years. Our children were young—our baby was, in fact, under a year old, something I eventually mentioned in a meekly anxious aside to a doctor I was interviewing for a story on the emerging pandemic. He acknowledged certain risks in the way that doctors do, and then said: “Don’t worry. Kids are kicking ass with this thing.” I was both comforted and chastened; this wasn’t mine to panic about. The best I could do for those in peril was to carry on.
Instead of propelling students into the middle class, many public institutions such as the University of Alabama are leaving them saddled with large loans.
Weeks into his freshman year at the Marion Military Institute, a public two-year college in Alabama, Thomas was bored. The campus, in the sleepy, hard-luck town of Marion, lacked the glitzy amenities of modern-day universities. To escape the institute’s starchy military uniforms and rigid schedule, Thomas would jump in his truck on weekends and head to Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama.
The University of Alabama had a meticulously groomed campus and stately redbrick buildings whose white colonnades conveyed scholastic gravitas. It had the championship-caliber Crimson Tide football team and legendary game-day tailgating with students swilling beer on fraternity-house rooftops. It featured amenities such as a state-of-the-art recreation center with a climbing wall and a “lazy river” pool complex with a 30-foot water slide. Fraternities hosted world-class rock concerts. A campus dining hall served steak cooked to order.
Two students went to Amy Chua for advice. That sin would cost them dearly.
Every striver who ever slipped the rank of their birth to ascend to a higher order has shared the capacity to ingratiate themselves with their betters. What the truly exceptional ones have in common is the ability to connect not only with their superiors but also with their peers and inferiors. And only the rarest talents among them can bond authentically—not just transactionally—with the people who will help them be who they want to be in the world. It’s a preternatural, almost Promethean gift if you have it, and Amy Chua does.
Thus begins the scandal dubbed “dinner-party-gate,” the latest in the annals of Amy Chua, Yale Law’s very own Tiger Mom, whose infamous defense of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was the “dinner-party-gate” of its day approximately three years ago. Then, as now, Chua’s differences with some denizens of her milieu played out in the press, vituperations, allegations, insinuations, and all.
The director Tom McCarthy is known for subtle, well-acted character films that take surprising narrative turns. His latest work is no exception.
Stillwater’s premise is simple: What if you were Amanda Knox’s father? This Matt Damon–starring project from the director Tom McCarthy is only loosely based on reality, but the dilemma facing roughneck Oklahoma dad Bill Baker (played by Damon) has the same sensational hook: His daughter is imprisoned in Europe after being found guilty of murdering her roommate in a splashy trial. Most viewers will remember that Knox was ultimately exonerated, and might expect Stillwater to be about a similar quest for justice. And it is … until it isn’t.
This is McCarthy’s theatrical follow-up to the Oscar Best Picture–winningSpotlight (he did, in between, make a children’s film for Disney+), and while it has some of the sober fact-finding of that great film, it is more reminiscent of earlier McCarthy works such as Win Win and The Visitor—subtle, well-acted character dramas that take surprising narrative turns. Much of Stillwater’s opening actfollows Bill’s amateurish efforts to revive his daughter’s closed case in Marseille, despite not speaking French and having no background in criminal justice. But McCarthy’s excellent, if sprawling, script is more interested in the humans behind the headlines and the messy ways people try to reconcile their grief and guilt after indescribable trauma.
Fourteen years ago I was wrongfully convicted of murdering my roommate. Ever since, the world has believed it can tell me who I really am.
Does my name belong to me? Does my face? What about my life? My story? Why is my name used to refer to events I had no hand in? I return to these questions again and again because others continue to profit off my identity, and my trauma, without my consent. Most recently, there is the film Stillwater, directed by Tom McCarthy and starring Matt Damon and Abigail Breslin, which was, in McCarthy’s words, “directly inspired by the Amanda Knox saga.” How did we get here?
In the fall of 2007, a British student named Meredith Kercher was studying abroad in Perugia, Italy. She moved into a little cottage with three roommates—two Italian law interns, and an American girl. Less than two months into her stay, a young man named Rudy Guede, an immigrant from the Ivory Coast, broke into the apartment and found Meredith alone. Guede had a history of breaking and entering. A week prior, he had been arrested in Milan while burglarizing a nursery school, and was found carrying a 16-inch knife. He was released. A week later, he raped Meredith and stabbed her in the throat, killing her. In the process, he left his DNA in Meredith’s body and throughout the crime scene. He left his fingerprints and footprints in her blood. He fled to Germany immediately afterward, and later admitted to being at the scene.