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.
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.
Arriving in Tucson, we felt the inklings of coming full circle with our American Futures project. Only one more leg of our journey, about 400 miles, before we reached our destination of the San Bernardino airport, and on to a writing base at the University of Redlands in Southern California. For the record, here, here, and here are the three previous road reports since we departed from Washington D.C.
I was very excited about finally getting to Tucson. During our several visits to Ajo, Arizona, about 130 miles to the west of Tucson, I first learned about one of the fearless, indomitable and I daresay under-appreciated women who left a mark on America. Isabella Greenway was Arizona’s first Congresswoman, as part of FDR’s New Deal Democratic majority. But before that she helped build and bring the beautiful copper-mining town of Ajo, Arizona to its heyday. We visited Ajo several times over the past three years, and have chronicled some of its creative rebirth.
In 1930, after her time in Ajo and before her time in Congress, Isabella Greenway also founded and opened the Arizona Inn in Tucson, which was, I had heard, still thriving today under the family eye.
Over our three years of landing in the towns of America, we could never be too choosy about hotels. We considered ourselves lucky if we found a place with “suites” in the name, as in “Homewood Suites” or “Best Western Suites” or “Hampton Inn & Suites.” This was mostly because “suites” suggested an on-site place to do laundry and a little extra elbow room, which were both welcome attributes when two people were working in the same space and also generating a lot of dirty clothes.
So, a visit to the Arizona Inn was very special, and it turned out to be exactly what I imagined. Isabella Greenway herself described it as “a simple, home-like, cottage hotel” but it is much more than that, with high-ceilinged-oversized rooms, quiet green spaces, a big pool (almost 20 meters by my stroke count), wonderful food, and a hospitality still imbued with the family’s sensibility.
On a whim, I emailed the current proprietor, Patty Doar, who is the granddaughter of Isabella Greenway. To my surprise, she emailed right back. We met the next morning with her and her son and co-proprietor, the writer Will Conroy, swapping stories and photos about the different pieces of the story that we each knew.
We all had stories: Our updates on Ajo; their recollections of Isabella Greenway; connecting the dots between Ajo and Eastport Maine, where we also spent several American Futures visits; Isabella’s lifelong friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt; and her visit to the Roosevelt’s summer camp at Campobello Island, right across the water from Eastport. Such serendipity was a special feature of American Futures that we had come to relish and appreciate.
We left Tucson reluctantly, but with the auspicious sign of strong tailwinds, the first we’d enjoy on this cross-continent trip. Just north of Gila Bend, Jim and I were chatting about our introduction to the area’s Barry Goldwater Bombing Range back when we were first visiting Ajo (as described here), and the impressive aerial training of the Air Force A-10 attack planes and other military aircraft in the vicinity.
About then, the air traffic controller (ATC) told us they had lost radar contact with our plane. This wasn’t so surprising—it often happened with a relatively low altitude flight, or in remote areas far from controllers, or with natural impediments like mountains. Jim recycled the transponder, which often cleared up the connection between our plane and the controllers. This time, nothing.
Then the dials and gauges on the cockpit monitors—showing ground speed, wind direction and speed, location, just about everything—began to go haywire. They spun around randomly, showing a 150 knot headwind, then a tailwind, then no wind. The moving map showing our location, waypoints, position relative to obstacles and restricted airspace and other airplanes, suddenly blanked out as if it had no idea where our plane actually was. Red warning signs popped up on the dual GPS guidance systems (almost everything in the plane’s critical instrumentation has a backup) saying that they had lost their signal—the sort of thing you see in a car if you’re in a long tunnel.
I could tell that this was getting Jim’s attention. Then we both were alarmed by an urgent automated voice yelling “TERRAIN! TERRAIN!” This was from the system designed to give a last-minute warning if the plane was headed to dangerously high terrain (like a mountain, or anything with a higher elevation than the plane’s). We were getting this warning even though the closest mountains were dozens of miles away, and the desert floor was in clear view many thousands of feet below us. Jim switched to his old-school, pre-GPS “VOR”-based navigation systems to figure out where we were supposed to go, and how we could keep clear of the abundant nearby military-restricted zones. (It was easy enough to keep clear of the mountains, just by using our eyes.) Once Jim determined that we had lost all GPS guidance, he felt safe disabling the incessant TERRAIN! TERRAIN! warning, which was triggered because the plane’s instruments had no idea where the plane was and were being hyper-cautious because of surrounding mountains. I studied the dials, thinking— overdramatically—that this is how the world as we know it would look during some kind of nefarious global technological takeover.
It was dark comfort to hear a call from United 404, reporting to ATC that their GPS had also just conked out. At least it wasn’t just our plane. But, hey, what did it mean that others planes’ GPS were going out? And, an airliner’s?
The ATC said calmly, there must be GPS jamming going on, as part of a military test exercise. As we crossed the border into California, after about half an hour of no GPS, the guidance signal flickered back on. Later, on the ground, Jim learned that the Air Force was running a month-long trial in that area, testing the effects of intentional GPS outages. Thanks for letting us know, I thought.
As we flew over Palm Springs, the aerial roadsigns were becoming familiar: the mountains, the towns below, the windfarms, the Banning Pass that would let us through to the Southern California basin.
We opted for the route straight through the pass, although a controller told us about a pilot report from half an hour earlier of moderate to severe turbulence. In windy conditions, the Banning Pass can be dicey, because it’s the very narrow outlet through which air from the Mojave Desert to the east spills into the Los Angeles basin. Bumps are never fun, but they’re not actually dangerous to the plane, and the pass was by far the most direct way to our destination in San Bernardino. We tightened our seat belts, put away all loose items, and got ready for the dozen or so miles of potentially rough air between Palm Springs and the pass’s outlet near the city of Banning.
As it happened, we needn’t have worried. The turbulence didn’t materialize; the air was smooth. We spotted the San Bernardino Airport (SBD), and Jim set up the route for landing to the east. The pilot in front of us reported a “go around,” or missed landing, because the crosswinds were so gusty as he neared touchdown. He said he would circle around for a second try. Jim guided our Cirrus in, hovering near touchdown in the gusts for a few hundred feet and remarking to the controller that he was happy for the very long and wide runway at SBD, which had once accommodated B-52s when this site was the now-closed Norton Air Force Base.
Arrived. And feeling a world away from Washington D.C., some 3000 miles and four days later.
We could use a little positive news at the moment, right? Here you go:
Over the past three years we’re written a lot about Fresno in general, one of the unglamorous cities of California’s Central Valley that is fighting its way back as a tech and cultural center, and about Bitwise Industries in particular. Bitwise, which we wrote about here, here, and here, is one of several organizations around the country (like the Iron Yard in Greenville, S.C., and Radius and Epic and others in Erie, Pa.) that are pioneering the ideas of creating opportunities in left-behind areas; of expanding those opportunities to left-behind people; and meanwhile helping redevelop downtowns and bring a sense of pizzazz and possibility to their cities.
Yesterday in Fresno, Bitwise made another big announcement, of a physical expansion combined with a social and civic goal. The physical expansion was the steady growth of its business to several more historic downtown structures, including the Hotel Virginia and old warehouses.
Tim Sheehan’s story in the Fresno Bee about the announcement said:
Bitwise, the self-proclaimed “mothership of technological education, collaboration and innovation” in Fresno, announced Wednesday that it will grow … into three additional sites....
And for the first time, Bitwise is including a residential component in its plans – a four-story, 28-unit apartment building next to the State Center building.
“It’s great. I like the fact that they are getting into real estate – the residential side of things,” Aaron Blair, president of Downtown Fresno Partnership, said at a news conference where the project was announced. .. The expansion will make a dent in, but not completely satisfy, a Bitwise waiting list of software and technology companies for as much as 500,000 square feet of office space.
As for the social and civic aspirations behind the expansion, it’s worth reading the open-letter manifesto by Bitwise’s founders, Irma Olguin and Jake Soberal. They don’t directly address the national politics of the moment, but they don’t need to:
By any objective standard, Bitwise is working. But Bitwise isn’t nearly enough. Though it may lift our region’s economy to new heights, it won’t mean anything unless we also choose to be good. Should we build an economic engine that prolifically creates jobs and opportunity? Absolutely. Bitwise can be that. But to really heal our city we--all of us--must also rise to be a people that lives out a different sort of virtue.
It won’t be enough if Bitwise does just what technology has done in other cities… To us, if all of the hubbub we create isn’t coupled with a culture of acceptance, inclusiveness, and heart, then we haven’t created the best version of ourselves.
But the story doesn’t have to end that way. Fresno, and Bitwise, can be different. We’ve been different before….
That’s America. That’s our identity. And lest the world forget, we etched it there, at the foot of the Statute of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, temptest-tost to me…
Translation: “Dear World, We are the humans that you’ve cast out as junk, and from us we’re creating a great nation. Please send more of your ‘junk.'"
These ideals are ours. We can live out these ideals. We can swell a courage big enough to create something different and better in Fresno. Bitwise can help us to be economically prosperous, and the history we share can help us to be radically good.
Let’s show up to someone else’s thing.
Let’s care about someone who does not belong to our tribe.
Let’s care about someone who does not belong to our tribe. A useful thought for this moment, from successful tech entrepreneurs building the next Fresno, and the next America.
If you’ve read or heard about Erie, Pennsylvania, since the election, it’s likely to be with framing as “declining Rust Belt city that illustrates the fears and dislocations that led to Trump.”
Over the past six months, my wife Deb and I have presented a different take on the city, as briefly mentioned in this magazine piece and laid out in more detail in this web post and others collected here. We’ve been struck by the difference between older Erie—the people of our own generation, who had grown up expecting to work at the giant GE plant and are still devastated by its slow-motion shutdown—and younger Erie, people who never expected to work in big factories and are starting new businesses. This is an illustration of an old/young split we’ve seen across the country.
What initially drew our attention to the city was its purposeful role as a welcoming point for immigrants and refugees. If people from the area were moving away, why not attract those who historically and actuarially have a higher-than-average rate of entrepreneurship and business formation? Today the weekly Erie Reader published a magnificent feature: a large-format photo display of refugees who have made Erie their home.
I’ll let you go to the feature, on “Rust Belt New Americans: A Showcase of Erie’s Refugee Population,” to see the several dozen portraits, by Iraqi-American photographer Maitham Basha-Agha (with accompanying narration). I’ll say that this conveys part of what we saw in Erie—and Sioux Falls and Burlington and Fresno and other places with significant refugee populations—and is so much at odds with the fearful national policies of the moment.
Here’s one portrait, of Afrim Latifi, originally of Kosovo, now an insurance agent and soccer coach:
Another of our friends in Erie who is featured in the story—Ferki Ferati, now executive director of the civically important Jefferson Educational Society in Erie—also arrived as a young refugee from Kosovo.
And here are two Muslim sisters now in Erie schools:
While I’m at it, here is a story from GoErie.com, with videos of people coming out on a frigid-cold Lake Erie day to rally in support of their refugees and immigrants, and against the new ban.
The psephologists and other polling experts have confirmed it: the areas with the greatest anti-refugee or -immigrant fear and fury are the ones with the least first-hand exposure to newcomers. Congratulations and respect to our friends in Erie for the spirit they are showing.
As we’ve been working away on our book based on our “American Futures” travels over the past four years, my wife Deb and I have increasingly come to think of Erie, Pennsylvania, as the representative American city of this moment.
OK, there are a lot of other candidates: Fresno and San Bernardino, in California; Columbus and its neighbors in Mississippi; Greenville and Greer in South Caroline; Eastport in Maine; Duluth in Minnesota plus its neighbor Superior, Wisconsin; Sioux Falls in South Dakota; Dodge City and Garden City in Kansas; several cities around Bend in central Oregon; and …
But in all of these, with particular sharpness in Erie, you see the shoulder-to-shoulder juxtaposition of two crucial realities in modern American life. One is the human pain, dislocation, and disruption caused by the overlapping forces of technological change and global competition. The other is the human ingenuity, passion, practicality, and optimism involved in figuring out responses.
Deb and I have written extensively about the way this drama has played out in Erie, for instance: here, here, here, here, here, and here, with more coming in our book. For now I want to highlight a video that some of our friends in Erie put together and released today. You can see it below, or go its Facebook page here.
This video, powerfully narrated by hip hop artistCharles Brown, was in response to a long series of pre- and post-election broadcast reports about Erie that covered only one side of its saga: the mainly older people who had mainly held big-factory jobs, and having lost those jobs were mainly angry and downcast about the prospects for themselves, their city, and the country as a whole. Shorter version: Erie as background for pieces on “the making of Trump voters,” although the city of Erie itself stayed Democratic last fall. (The surrounding suburban and rural counties went for Trump, as of course did Pennsylvania.)
The video touches on many aspects of a renascent Erie, as covered in dispatches about and others: the Jefferson Educational Society, an unusually ambitious and vibrant civic organization; the Behrend campus of Penn State, with many advanced-manufacturing projects; Hero biofuels, covered in our Atlantic video about Erie; the Erie Reader, part of the diaspora of revived alt-papers we’ve seen around the country; the Radius CoWork space, also covered in our Atlantic video; the county Gaming Authority, with an unusual civic-investment strategy; Erie Insurance, which is making huge new investments downtown; the many local universities; a wonderland of breweries; the MenajErie design studio, which helped create this video; and Epic Web Studios, which does international-standard web-design work from downtown Erie—and which, in fact, I and a group of colleagues in Washington hired to design a site for a local civic project. (More about Epic and others, to come.) And many more. After the video itself, which was produced by John Lyons of Lyons Den Productions in Erie, I encourage you to stay for the credits list, which starts at time 4:20 and shows how many local organizations were involved in creating this project. You don’t get that scale of involvement without the sort of civic fabric that holds communities (or countries) together and allows them to thrive.
Congratulations to our friends in Erie—who face lots of challenges, and are fully aware of it, but who have prepared themselves for the struggle. Please check this out.
Does the panache and tone of this video remind me of any other statement from the Great Lakes / Rust Belt region? Yes it does—and in a good way. I am thinking of course of the famous 2011 “Imported from Detroit” Chrysler ad featuring Eminem. I was living in Beijing when I saw this and thought: That’s my America. So too with this new brief film.
This morning I had the privilege of giving the commencement address at the University of Vermont—UVM, home of the Catamounts, in Burlington. My wife Deb and I, and our colleague John Tierney, visited UVM several years ago and wrote about it in our American Futures series, notably with John’s piece about the school’s emergence as a “public Ivy.”
Seven Days, the financially-and-journalistically successful weekly based in Burlington (which I’ve also written about), has a story about today’s commencement, here. The University’s story is here. Since the talk drew on various themes that recur in this “American Futures” thread, I’m attaching the text, below.
* * *
University of Vermont
May 21, 2017
President Sullivan, Governor Scott, honorary degree recipients, faculty and staff, friends and family, people of Vermont and beyond, and above all members of the class of 2017 — greetings, and congratulations!
On behalf of your parents and grandparents, your brothers and sisters, and all the known and unknown supporters who have cheered and aided your journey to this glorious day, I salute you on your achievement. And I am glad as well to use the words I heard at my own college commencement many years ago, and officially “welcome you to the company of educated men and women.”
Every one of you realizes that not a one of you made this journey entirely on your own. Thus I’d like you to take a moment to stand and turn around, and look for a face of one of those crucial supporters in the crowd —or to envision an absent one in your mind—and express with cheers and applause your gratitude for what they have done.
I’ve just completed the first part of my job, which is to celebrate this moment. I turn now to the second part, which is to be brief.
In these next few minutes I’m going to try to convince you to feel good—energized, confident, important—about this very uncertain-seeming world onto which you’re about to make your mark. I’m going to argue that the generations ahead of you, including people like your parents and grandparents, and me, and those that will follow you, like the children and grandchildren you will someday have, need you to feel as if you can change the world, and to get busy doing so by putting your UVM training to maximum use.
Let’s go into that case. What’s most worth noticing about the circumstances in which we meet — right here, right now, as you begin your post-college life?
One answer would obviously be the splendor of the environment, natural and cultural alike, in which you have spent these years of study — and where, if past evidence is any guide, many of you will do your best to stay, as you start your families and build your lives. Vermonters think theirs is an exceptional place, and they are right.
Another might be the nature of this institution — supportive and adaptive, both innovative and traditional, strong in the liberal arts and the sciences — to which you should always feel indebted in more than the obvious ways, and that you, and I, should always feel proud to call alma mater.
But what I hope you’ll focus on are the times in which we meet. The times of our 45th president. Of challenges to liberal democracies and open societies all around the world. Of contested news, and siloed news, “fake news,” and ever-emergent real news. Times of imperiled science—when science matters more than ever. Of social and economic divisions, as technology unites us and drives us apart. Of increasingly urgent global threats, starting with sustainability in all forms and extending to disease and disorder and terrorism and forced migration, at a time of increasingly frayed global ability to focus on what matters and cooperate.
And the message I have about this era, your era, is that it is a terrible time—and a wonderful time, and that only by keeping that dual reality constantly in mind will you be prepared to contain what’s worst and foster what’s best. I even have specific suggestions of steps you can take toward that end.
* * *
The idea of good and bad coexisting — of triumph and tragedy, of hope and despair — is as old as American history, as old as the Bible, as old as human beings grappling with our own fallibility.
The most famous opening lines in English literature may be “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” which as all UVM grads know is from A Tale of Two Cities. When I was attending my own commencement ceremony, a young historian named Michael Kammen was about to win the Pulitzer Prize for a book called People of Paradox. It was about the coexistence at every moment of U.S. history of the very best and the near-worst of the human enterprise: America as arena for unprecedented opportunity, but also of slavery and attacks on a native population and centuries of excess and strife. What I consider the most important essay about American self-governance, “The Moral Equivalent of War” by William James in 1910, explores why the greatest American disaster, the Civil War, brought forth its greatest presidential leadership and countless acts of selfless behavior.
Because we know that the United States has survived its past eras of turmoil and failure, we are naturally tempted to think it was destined to do so, and that the previous eras’ challenges could not have been, or felt, as serious as our own.
But I think back to my own graduation, in 1970, in what we now consider a stylistically embarrassing era but a time of middle class prosperity. Yet I remember that in those times hundreds of Americans and thousands of Vietnamese were dying each week in combat; and that the world environmental crisis was dawning; and that discrimination of kinds you would find incredible was still enshrined by custom and law; and that many American cities were literally in flames.
It was a terrible time, which felt more on-the-edge even than the world does to you now; yet because of the social and environmental reforms, and the scientific and technical breakthroughs, that flowed from it, was a wonderful time as well.
I could think back to my father’s graduation from college, in the era we now revere for the “Greatest Generation” coherence of American society. Except, he never had a graduation, since he was rushed through college in two years for training as a Navy doctor as part of the all-out effort to save the world from Nazism and fascism. A terrible time, which brought out wonderful traits in people.
Or I could go back a generation more to my grandfather’s graduation, during the early-1900s flowering of American innovation and expansion that laid down much of the physical look of the country today. Except that he, like 99 per cent of the American population at the time, never went to college — and was unusual even for finishing high school, which barely a tenth of Americans did.
My point is not that things used to be tougher – this is not a “kids today!”
speech -- but that they have always been challenging, even in this overall most favored of lands. And that in the moment our forebears felt as troubled and uncertain about national prospects as many of you do now.
More fundamentally I am suggesting that remembering the travails of the past helps us be precise about what is distinctively challenging in this time, which will be your time. To me the precise statement of America’s problem in your times involves national level politics, which are in stark contrast to most of the rest of American life.
* * *
Let me explain. National policy and politics matters, obviously — this is how the United States won its wars, expanded its frontiers, invested in technologies, supported universities and advanced social equality. But national politics and policy — the ability to address collective problems in a reasonable, compromise-minded, fact-based, and future-oriented way — are the major failure of national life right now. It’s not as bad as during the Civil War, but by any other standard we’re at a low ebb.
Each of you has an illustration of what you like, and don’t, in the national politics of the moment. For me, personally, the main point of pain is the rejection of the thing I most love about my country. My wife Deb – who one year ago was an honorary-degree recipient (at the University of Redlands) -- and I have spent many years of our life outside the United States. And the experience of living elsewhere has reinforced the idea that what is noblest and more powerful about this country is precisely its openness to talent from around the world. My America is a place that gives immigrants and “the wretched refuse” of the world — the words on the Statue of Liberty — a chance to make this arena for their dreams and ambitions, despite all the difficulties of adjustment. My America is not the one that builds a wall. Many of you have seen that process of absorption underway here in Burlington; some of you have lived it in your own lives.
I’m sure some of you see this differently from me. Some may be pleased with the national direction; some are more concerned about other questions, from climate to health care to criminal justice or drug abuse to a dozen others within the United States and worldwide. But whatever your views, whatever your loyalties, I am here to say that this is as promising a time as it is challenging, and we need you to stay engaged where the promise exists — which for the foreseeable future is not at the national but the local level of American life.
How can I say this about local possibilities? I’ll try with a test. How many of you think of UVM and Burlington and Vermont as special places? As places that are exceptions to the national trend? That are moving forward?
I bet many of you do. And you have better grounds than most. But having spent several years traveling around parts of the country less obviously special than this, I can tell you that in much of the country people feel just the same way about where they are from. They feel that they are doing better, in the part of the country within their own experience, than what they hear about the country as a whole. They say that in Mississippi, with all its burdens. They say it in South Dakota. They say it in Arizona and Oregon and South Carolina and rustbelt Michigan and Pennsylvania. Everyone in this country is aware of the nation’s problems. But most places, most people feel that the greatest possibilities are through local involvement, and that they are moving ahead rather than falling behind.
They’re local in their emphasis on new manufacturing models. New models of conservation and sustainability. New ways of matching underemployed talent with decently paying opportunities. New accommodation for refugees and immigrants. New practicality in politics and health care and education and law enforcement— which is what Deb and I have been chronicling in our travels around today’s United States.
Local solutions can never fully substitute for national or global approaches. But for now they are what’s possible, and for the long run they are the fabric from which larger solutions are woven.
At the time of my graduation, the saying was: think global, act local. That’s one of the few 1970s mottos that has held up well. Local economics, local politics, local schools, local communities — that’s what the world, and the country, needs from you. Historians tell the story of America’s great post-Gilded Age reform through the tale of presidents, from Teddy Roosevelt at the beginning to his distant cousin Franklin at the end. But what those presidents did would never have been possible without labor activists in the midwest and far west, women’s rights activists, environmental activists, black activists, muckrakers and civic reformers and community organizers and a thousand illustrations more. Theirs is the example we need you to follow.
Which means, in particular, what? Here are some illustrations.
* * *
First and always, vote. It sounds simple and stupid and pointless, but you have to do it every time, and crucially for every office. School boards have a tremendous say over our nation’s future. Vote for them. Mayors have more control over local environment and livability than most US Senators. Vote for them. After the next census state legislatures will determine whether our politics continue in a dysfunctionally gerrymandered system. Vote for ones who will fix that. Control of the House and Senate next year will have ramifications for decades. Vote.
Second, run for office. No joke—as soon as you’re old enough, of course. We need you. In the late 1800s, the aristocratic Theodore Roosevelt shocked his social set by deciding to join the squalid hurly-burly of asking the public’s support. You may not all be aristocrats. But you can make a difference as he did then. Someone will hold these offices. Let it be you — at the city and county and state and congressional level. If you don’t run, work for and give money to people who do.
Third, subscribe — to a newspaper, a magazine (like the Atlantic!), to the sources of news that will keep us free. Independent information has never been more important, and it’s rarely been under more serious economic challenge. Even if you don’t think you have time for a given publication, even if you disagree with parts of its outlook, even if you can get it for free, vote with your dollars, for your future, and subscribe.
Fourth, engage — in anything. Join. Participate. Meet. Go out of your way not to cocoon but to build and maintain face-to-face connections wherever you end up. Join the library board, a dance group, sports leagues, the YMCA, a church or synagogue or mosque. To put it differently, serve. The United States will not again have mandatory conscription, and today’s military is so small that barely one percent of the population has served during all of our current long wars. But consider joining the reserves or going on active duty; make a point of knowing people who have served.
When public life is going well, we have the luxury of not thinking about it. It’s like going to a restaurant, rather than having to shop and make dinner yourself. We’re all needed in the kitchen now— starting with the freshest and brightest and most idealistic among us, by which I mean you.
* * *
There are other lessons-of-life I would love to give you, but for which there is no time. I will say that when in doubt, please call your parents to say hi, especially your mom. In your own role as mothers or fathers, spend more time with your children than you think reasonable. You will never regret it, and you will regret doing anything else.
Your habits become your life, so pay attention to them. Get in the habit of sports and exercise Get in the habit of being happy. Get in the habit of being excited. It’s a big world, with no excuse for being bored.
And get in the habit of engagement. We are counting on you, and on this day we celebrate what the University of Vermont has done to prepare you, for the service we need from you, starting right now.#
Aduhelm, the first new Alzheimer’s drug in 18 years, may not work. But states and Medicare might pay billions of dollars for it anyway.
Earlier this week, the Food and Drug Administration overruled—to much criticism—its own scientific advisory committee and approved the Alzheimer’s treatment Aduhelm. The agency made this decision despite thin evidence of the drug’s clinical efficacy and despite its serious side effects, including brain swelling and bleeding. As a result, a serious risk now exists that millions of people will be prescribed a drug that does more harm than good.
Less appreciated is how the drug’s approval could trigger hundreds of billions of dollars of new government spending, all without a vote in Congress or indeed any public debate over the drug’s value. Aduhelm’s manufacturer, Biogen, announced on Monday that it would price the drug at an average of $56,000 a year per patient, a figure that doesn’t include the additional imaging and scans needed to diagnose patients or to monitor them for serious side effects.
Among the more practical advice that can be offered to international travelers is wisdom of the bathroom. So let me say, as someone who recently returned from China, that you should be prepared to (1) carry your own toilet paper and (2) practice your squat.
I do not mean those goofy chair-less sits you see at the gym. No, toned glutes will not save you here. I mean the deep squat, where you plop your butt down as far as it can go while staying aloft and balanced on the heels. This position—in contrast to deep squatting on your toes as most Americans naturally attempt instead—is so stable that people in China can hold it for minutes and perhaps even hours …
The Human Genome Project left 8 percent of our DNA unexplored. Now, for the first time, those enigmatic regions have been revealed.
When the human genome was first deemed “complete” in 2000, the news was met with great international fanfare. The two rival groups vying to finish the genome first—one a large government-led consortium, the other an underdog private company—agreed to declare joint success. They shook hands at the White House. Bill Clinton presided. Tony Blair beamed in from London. “We are standing at an extraordinary moment in scientific history,” one prominent scientist declared when those genomes were published. “It’s as though we have climbed to the top of the Himalayas.”
But actually, the human genome was not complete. Neither group had reached the real summit. As even the contemporary coverage acknowledged, that version was more of a rough draft, riddled with long stretches where the DNA sequence was still fuzzy or missing. The private company soon pivoted and ended its human-genome project, though scientists with the public consortium soldiered on. In 2003, with less glitz but still plentyof headlines, the human genome was declared complete once again.
“Scientists are meant to know what’s going on, but in this particular case, we are deeply confused.”
Carl Schoonover and Andrew Fink are confused. As neuroscientists, they know that the brain must be flexible but not too flexible. It must rewire itself in the face of new experiences, but must also consistently represent the features of the external world. How? The relatively simple explanation found in neuroscience textbooks is that specific groups of neurons reliably fire when their owner smells a rose, sees a sunset, or hears a bell. These representations—these patterns of neural firing—presumably stay the same from one moment to the next. But as Schoonover, Fink, and others have found, they sometimes don’t. They change—and to a confusing and unexpected extent.
Schoonover, Fink, and their colleagues from Columbia University allowed mice to sniff the same odors over several days and weeks, and recorded the activity of neurons in the rodents’ piriform cortex—a brain region involved in identifying smells. At a given moment, each odor caused a distinctive group of neurons in this region to fire. But as time went on, the makeup of these groups slowly changed. Some neurons stopped responding to the smells; others started. After a month, each group was almost completely different. Put it this way: The neurons that represented the smell of an apple in May and those that represented the same smell in June were as different from each other as those that represent the smells of apples and grass at any one time.
We understand how this will end. But who bears the risk that remains?
During a pandemic, no one’s health is fully in their own hands. No field should understand that more deeply than public health, a discipline distinct from medicine. Whereas doctors and nurses treat sick individuals in front of them, public-health practitioners work to prevent sickness in entire populations. They are expected to think big. They know that infectious diseases are always collective problems becausethey are infectious. An individual’s choices can ripple outward to affect cities, countries, and continents; one sick person can seed a hemisphere’s worth of cases. In turn, each person’s odds of falling ill depend on the choices of everyone around them—and on societal factors, such as poverty and discrimination, that lie beyond their control.
Simone Biles is the greatest athlete in the world today.
For me, this isn’t a debate. It’s a statement of fact. On Sunday, she won a record seventh United States gymnastics championship, continuing her jaw-dropping winning streak in every all-around competition she’s entered since 2013. The 24-year-old hasn’t lost in eight years. Typical gymnasts her age aren’t beating all their rivals by the big margins that, for Biles, have become routine.
Although Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl at age 43, he is no longer in his prime, and other Super Bowl–winning quarterbacks, including Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, are arguably more physically talented. Unlike the current greats in other sports, Biles has no peer. Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all time and among the greatest athletes of all time, but her career is winding down, and Naomi Osaka is in position to unseat her as the face of women’s tennis. LeBron James won’t get a chance to defend the NBA title he won with the Los Angeles Lakers last season, because the Phoenix Suns eliminated his team in the first round of this year’s playoffs.
People in the United States no longer agree on the nation’s purpose, values, history, or meaning. Is reconciliation possible?
Nations, like individuals, tell stories in order to understand what they are, where they come from, and what they want to be. National narratives, like personal ones, are prone to sentimentality, grievance, pride, shame, self-blindness. There is never just one—they compete and constantly change. The most durable narratives are not the ones that stand up best to fact-checking. They’re the ones that address our deepest needs and desires. Americans know by now that democracy depends on a baseline of shared reality—when facts become fungible, we’re lost. But just as no one can live a happy and productive life in nonstop self-criticism, nations require more than facts—they need stories that convey a moral identity. The long gaze in the mirror has to end in self-respect or it will swallow us up.
Republicans around the country are proving Joe Manchin wrong.
While Senator Joe Manchin is demanding that both parties agree on any further federal voting-rights legislation, a new study quantifies how completely Republicans have excluded Democrats from the passage of the restrictive voting laws proliferating in red states.
And that might be the right way to save classics from oblivion.
My Atlantic colleague John McWhorter and I must have received the same high-frequency language-nerd alert, audible only to the types of people whose idea of fun is Esperanto grammar. We both recently learned that Princeton’s classics department had ceased requiring its students to study Latin and Greek, and we reacted in predictable horror. A classics department without Latin and Greek is like a math department without multiplication and division, or an art department without paint. More than a thousand years ago, the monk Ælfric prefaced his Latin Grammar by saying it was “the key that unlocks the understanding of books.” I had a vision of a new generation of Princeton classicists, sniffing and thwacking at padlocked volumes of Thucydides or Cicero with looks of total incomprehension, like Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson trying to get the files “in the computer” in Zoolander.
“He loved authority and business. He had a high sense of his own personal dignity,” one commentator observed. “He was not altogether destitute of a sentiment which bore some affinity to patriotism … His second wish was to be feared and respected abroad. But his first wish was to be absolute master at home.”
He came to power, succeeding a popular head of state who had tried to restore normalcy, and even enjoyed a certain amount of popular backing at the start. But a series of self-inflicted blunders over the ensuing four years gradually sapped his support. He “was bent on ruining himself; and every attempt to stop him only made him rush more eagerly to his doom.” As the end closed in, he raged against officials for following the law rather than his orders. “You believe everybody,” he fumed, “rather than me.” In the end, he was removed from office, and his best attempts to return came up short.