They had a common theme: how surprising it was simply to show up in these towns and hear about what was happening there, since so little (or none) of this news had ever made its way to the national press.
A reader in Indianapolis challenges one part of my argument:
Interesting and informative to hear about Muncie and Ball State. My only quibble is with your first sentence: “This post is about a development that few people outside the state of Indiana have ever heard or read about …. ”
I live in Indianapolis, and consider myself well-informed, and I hadn’t heard or read about what’s going on in Muncie. This is a direct result of the death of local journalism ….
Our “local” paper, the Indianapolis Star … has very little coverage of what is going on even in Indianapolis, other than the occasional sensational crime, much less elsewhere in the state (as you know from your recent visit, Muncie is not that far away).
To be fair, the Star is doing a reasonably good job on some environmental issues, but it is telling that the environmental coverage is essentially funded by a grant from a charitable trust—without that grant, that coverage would not exist either. But coverage of local and state “meat and potatoes” issues is cursory at best.
I’m putting down a marker for ongoing coverage in this space: the crucial importance of local journalism, the economic pressures pushing it down, and the rapidly increasing experimentation in a search to buoy it back up.
Also: If you’re looking for an extremely skeptical local view of recent developments, which presents the Ball State University/Muncie Community Schools interaction as a “coup” and as the latest manifestation of “Muncie’s Oligarchy,” you can check out the Muncie Voice.
In my first Muncie post, I mentioned both Robert and Helen Lynd’s famed sociological study of the city, Middletown, from 1929, and a 2004 book about Muncie’s African American citizens who were largely left out of the Lynds’ work. That later book is The Other Side of Middletown, edited by Luke Eric Lassiter, Hurley Goodall, Elizabeth Campbell, and Michelle Natasya Johnson.
A reader whom I’ve known for years, and who has family ties in Muncie’s African American community, writes to recommend the Other Side book, and to add:
The problem with those famous Middletown studies is that they did what Whi’ Peepo so often do: they erased/ignored us. They wished us away.
Po’ White Folk have found themselves in the same box of late. But instead of forming common cause with Black Folk, or asking us: “Hey, how’d y’all survive a couple of centuries of this treatment?” they lost their shit. (Sorry, it’s coarse language, but it’s the most precise way to convey the point, really.) They’ve become meaner. They’ve retreated further into those old, tired myths about “The True America.” Blech.
Anyway, Black Folk lived and worked in Muncie. Maybe y’all can wander over to “the other side of (middle)town” and see for yourselves.
I last went there decades ago … My father left for many good reasons. I’m glad he acted on them.
More to come on this front. Thanks to these and other readers.
This post is about a development that few people outside the state of Indiana have ever heard or read about, but that has implications for the country as a whole. It’s about a highly unusual approach to a highly familiar problem: the economic challenges of public schools. This news comes from America’s original “Middletown,” the midsize Indiana city of Muncie.
In the preceding installment about Muncie, I mentioned three aspects that surprised Deb and me—and that would have surprised most visitors, given their absence from the national press. One, discussed in the preceding report, was the ambitious geothermal-energy program designed to reduce nearly half the carbon footprint of the city’s dominant institution, the 22,000-student Ball State University.
The other two also involve Ball State’s interaction with Muncie—in a general way, and with a specific and highly unusual new step. This post is about those two moves.
The general step that Ball State has taken is to see itself as centrally involved in the economic and civic development of the city where it is based—rather than viewing Muncie from across the traditional town-gown divide. This is a trend that Deb and I have seen (as discussed here) in other places around the country. Last fall The New York Times had a related story in its business section titled “Universities Look to Strengthen the Places They Call Home.” That story featured East Coast illustrations: the University of Maryland’s role in College Park, outside Washington, D.C.; Drexel University’s role in Philadelphia; and Yale’s in New Haven.
At Ball State, this kind of “civic stewardship” in Muncie has been a central emphasis of the university president who took office two years ago, Geoffrey Mearns, who before arriving had been the president of Northern Kentucky University.
“When they interviewed me for this position, I said, ‘If you’re looking for someone to run a university, I am honored, but I already had a great job,’ ” Mearns told me when I first spoke with him last fall. Mearns grew up mainly in Ohio, studied English at Yale (where he was a track and cross-country star, eventually running a 2:16 marathon and qualifying for the 1984 Olympic trials), and practiced law for more than 15 years, including nine years as a federal prosecutor. He then shifted into university administration with a role at Cleveland State University.
“But I said that if they were interested in involving the university much more directly with the community, that would be very interesting to me, as well.” As a sign of sincerity: Soon after their arrival, Mearns and his wife, Jennifer, donated $100,000 for an endowment to sponsor Muncie Community Schools graduates who would become first-generation students at Ball State.
This kind of interaction would be a change for Muncie, where the university and the city had been for decades co-located but not deeply cooperative. As mentioned earlier, the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd selected Muncie as the site for their famed Middletown study precisely because it was so clearly a midwestern “factory town” rather than a “college town.” But the shift toward involvement with Muncie is a basic part of Ball State’s current strategy.
“Our University’s future is affected by the vitality and vibrancy of Muncie,” Mearns said in a statement to the Indiana legislature early last year, a few months after he started at Ball State. “In short, our fortunes are linked.” The title of the current Ball State initiative is “Better Together.”
The idea of such a town-gown inevitably linkage is becoming more widespread. The specific implementation in Muncie is practically unique.
The axis of the linkage is the local public-school system, known as MCS, for Muncie Community Schools.
For decades, the schools had been a classic example of a distressed industrial area’s vicious cycle of decline. Over 35 years, the MCS enrollment fell by more than half. This chart, from a Ball State presentation on the future of the schools, shows the pattern.
Part of the change was from deindustrialization and a shrinking number of households with children in the area. But as the chart shows, about a third of students eligible to attend the community schools have chosen to go elsewhere: to private schools, religious schools, charter schools, or other options.
Since state funding for schools in Indiana depends heavily on enrolled-student head counts, the cycle of decline became self-accelerating. (Years ago, I wrote about the effects of the same pattern in Michigan, with the Holland schools.) Fewer students means less money; less money means cutbacks, school closures, and fewer programs; cutbacks (etc.) drive students away from the schools; even fewer students means even less money.
My story about Holland involved a public-school system whose leaders were then navigating the way out of the cycle. The MCS leaders seemed to be navigating their way right over the cliff. Starting with the financial-crash year of 2008, the schools operated with heavy deficits, totaling more than $35 million in 11 years.
In early 2017, the system’s CFO resigned after news broke that some proceeds from a big school-bond issue had been used to cover operating deficits, rather than for repairs and investments (as reported by StateImpact Indiana here).
Schools were closed; teachers were laid off; academic-quality ratings fell. Finally, in December 2017, the state of Indiana declared the Muncie schools (like those in Gary) to be a “distressed political subdivision,” and put them under direct state-government control, through an emergency manager.
The following month, in January 2018, Geoffrey Mearns, then less than a year into his Ball State tenure, made a surprising proposal on Ball State’s behalf. He said that the university would assume responsibility for the city’s schools, transferring them from the state’s emergency manager, if the structure of the school board could be reconstituted. The announcement was enough of a surprise that, in initial news accounts, many officials said they couldn’t comment, because they hadn’t yet seen the plan. (For instance, from the first-day news in the Ball State Daily: “‘I was caught off guard because I had no idea the amendment [authorizing the switch] was in the works,’ said Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie. ‘I think [Ball State is] making a very nice offer. But it has been sprung on us.’”)
A plan like this—for a university to run the whole local school system—had never been tried in Indiana, or nearly anywhere else in the country. The closest and best-known parallel would be Boston University’s management of the Chelsea Public Schools in Boston, from the late 1980s to 2008. (An Indiana Public Radio show examined the lessons, plus similarities and differences). According to the chairman of the Board of Trustees at Ball State, the Muncie project was the first time a public university had assumed responsibility for local schools. (Boston University is private.)
The plan’s acceptance in Indiana was the result of extensive deliberations through the first half of 2018. These were deliberations by the state legislature, which agreed to turn over responsibility to Ball State; by the Ball State trustees, who agreed to accept responsibility; and by a wide variety of groups within the community that would be affected. The legislative and budgetary details are more complex than I can begin to present here. (If you’re interested, I commend to you: Indiana Public Radio in January 2018; Inside Higher Ed in March; and then the Muncie Star Press; Indiana Public Media; and the Muncie Journal in May. Links in these stories will lead you to more.)
“I was talking with a state senator about the plan,” Mearns told me in Muncie. “After listening for 15 minutes, he said, ‘Don’t do this; run away; stay as far away from that school system as you can.’ After another 15 minutes, he said, ‘You’re still crazy. But you have to do this.’”
How is it all working? In the spirit of “showing our homework,” I’ll say that Deb and I haven’t yet been inside the schools, and we will return to learn more. I am sure there are complaints and contradictions, as well as progress.
But from the outside, here are two aspects of the project so far that seem worth broader notice.
One is the systematic process of civic engagement that led to the selection of the new school board, whose seven members you see below:
The legislation authorizing the switch-over said that two of the appointments would be made by the Ball State president—but one from a list of three candidates proposed by the mayor, and the other from a three-candidate list proposed by the city council. The other five would be appointed by the Ball State trustees, from nominees proposed by the university president.
The university put out a public call for these nominations. It said it would be looking for diversity in race, gender, age, and working experience, and that priority would go to people actually living in town. It received 88 applications, the great majority from people living in Muncie. The university winnowed them down to a panel of 20 finalists, who answered questions at a two-hour public forum last June.
The seven members eventually chosen are: a special-ed teacher with school-age children, the YWCA’s executive director, a lawyer and former head of the Ball State University Foundation, a local banker, a Ball State official (who directed the geothermal-energy project mentioned before), a pastor, and a former state-court judge. Five men, two women; five white, two black; six of the seven attended Muncie Community Schools.
I met with board members for an hour last month in Muncie, and asked each of them why they’d decided to apply for this post. “I couldn’t not throw my hat into the ring, because the challenge is so important,” the lawyer, Mark Ervin, said. “If you have a chance to make a difference, you take it. You don’t have that many chances.” Brittany Bales, the special-ed teacher, had taken her young children out of the Muncie schools but brought them back. “It’s a mirage that it’s better somewhere else,” she said. “It’s more diverse and interesting within MCS.”
The other striking initial aspect of the project is the tangible local support it has generated. The new university-led school structure has raised more than $3 million in local donations to the schools, starting with $1 million each from two different Ball-family foundations and around $250,000 each from three local banks.
To emphasize the obvious for now: I don’t know how this project will pan out, and neither do the people pouring their effort and money into it. The former judge on the school board, James Williams, told me, “We have a long way to go, but we’re all pulling in the same direction. We’re still in crisis, but we’re making progress.”
But even while the outcome cannot be known, the inventiveness and effort seem worth notice outside Indiana. (As a local-media point: Every stage of this transition has been covered by the Indiana press, but as far as I can tell, the Ball State/MCS project has never appeared in national papers like The New York Times or TheWashington Post.)
I thought of what I heard from Susana Rivera-Mills, who came to Ball State last year as its new provost. She and her husband, a concert musician, had been in Oregon when recruited to Muncie. She is originally from El Savaldaor; her husband, from the northern California coast—in both cases, very far from central Indiana. But “we felt the sense of life, the energy, the anticipation for something new,” she told me. “We couldn’t imagine not being part of what was going on.” With all normal allowances for boosterism I can still say: discussions like this gave me a different view of life in Middletown than I had before going there.
This is the fourth installment from the “vein of gold” road trip that Deb and I took along Indiana’s I-69 corridor last month, in the company of friends from New America–Indianapolis and Indiana Humanities. The previous installments are here: about Angola, about Fort Wayne, Part One about Muncie, and about the new Our Towns journey as a whole.
(“Road trip,” for a journey by small airplane? We’ll be back to airborne travel soon.)
Here is why I think this report from central Indiana matters, for people who don’t happen to live there themselves.
What Deb Fallows and I saw in Muncie, Indiana, is as stark an illustration as we’ve recently come across of a gap with huge implications for America’s civic and political prospects.
On one side of this gap (whose existence has been a running theme in this space) is the growing reality of experimentation, freshness, practicality, and often progress in many American communities and regions.
On the other side of the gap is the extremely faint national-level awareness of such developments, or what they might collectively amount to in the years ahead.
For now, in two installments, I’ll mention some developments that we learned about on a recent trip to Muncie, Indiana, and that we had no idea of before we visited the town. I will bet that the 98 percent of Americans who don’t live in Indiana have not heard of these efforts either, since as far as I can tell, they’ve rarely if ever been mentioned in the national press.
Ninety-eight percent? Yes: The state’s population is about 6.5 million, and the country’s population is more than 325 million, or about 50 times as great. By the way, this makes Indiana that rare state with a mathematically “fair” representation in the U.S. Senate. One out of every 50 Americans is a Hoosier, and the two senators from Indiana cast one-fiftieth of the Senate’s total votes.
(To illustrate the range among other states: About one American in every 600 lives in Wyoming, and about one in eight lives in California. Each state of course has the same two Senate votes. About one American in 450 lives in the District of Columbia, and they have no Senate votes at all. I offer these numbers not as a veiled complaint: the Washington, D.C., license plate on my car, which bears the District’s official slogan, “Taxation without representation”—now that is a complaint. Rather, these are reminders of the way centuries of migration and changed settlement patterns among the states have affected the fundamentals of constitutional architecture. )
My goal in this first piece is to introduce the idea of activities worth national notice, which usually escape notice because they are happening “out there.” The developments I have in mind from Muncie, in this report and the next, are:
a specific local response to a global challenge;
a conceptual shift that parallels trends we’ve seen elsewhere;
a major institutional and civic rearrangement that is unique in Indiana and has very few precedents anywhere else in the country.
Deb and I will return to Muncie for further reporting trips. But here is Part One of what we’ve learned for now.
Muncie is another longtime manufacturing center in this most manufacturing-centric of all states. It has about 70,000 residents and is the subject of one of the most famous works in American sociology: Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, by Robert and Helen Lynd, which began in the 1920s. Middletown was Muncie; Ball State University, in Muncie, now has a Center for Middletown Studies, which among other projects runs a civic blogging site called Everyday Life in Middletown. (A book called The Other Side of Middletown, about the Muncie story from the perspective of its African American residents, came out in 2004.)
In the world of commerce, Muncie is associated with the Ball family, of glass-jar fame. If you’ve ever seen a classic American glass jar of jam or preserves, you’ve seen the swirly script Ball logo. What became the Ball Glass Manufacturing Company started in Buffalo, New York, in the 1880s. It looked for new premises after a fire destroyed its Buffalo factory in 1886.
In those days, natural gas was being discovered in Indiana, so the Ball brothers moved to Muncie for its cheap gas supplies (for their energy-intensive glassmaking business), and over most of the next century were the dominant business force.
The Ball Corporation moved its headquarters to Colorado more than 20 years ago, but the mark of the family remains all over town, from the name of Ball State University (which started out as a teachers’ college in the late 1800s and was recapitalized by the Balls around 1920) to a number of charitable foundations to historic structures, museums, statuary, and public arts. This brings us to the world of pop culture, where Ball State enjoys the glow of one of its prominent alumni and benefactors: David Letterman.
Here is the summary of what we learned in Muncie and at Ball State.
Specific local action toward a global goal: Ball State University is the biggest single enterprise in town, and also the biggest energy consumer. Starting 10 years ago, a Ball State official named Jim Lowe began exploring possibilities of geothermal energy as a power source for the campus. In the years since, the university has drilled thousands of “boreholes” on campus, and installed more than 1,000 miles of piping, for geothermal-energy transfers. (Earth’s baseline temperature heats water pumped through the system in the winter, and cools it in the summer.) The system is said to be the largest of its kind in the United States; Lowe told us that it would reduce Ball State’s carbon footprint by half.
“We find history repeating itself,” a Ball State publication wrote recently. “The Ball brothers came to Muncie to reduce costs for their glass business by using ‘free’ energy in the form of natural gas pulled from the ground. Now, the university they founded will save $2 million annually in operating costs by using a different form of ‘free’ energy pulled from the same ground in thermal energy.”
Universities as civic actors: Everyone knows about “town-gown” separations, where a college or university has a prickly arm’s-length relationship with the community where it happens to be placed.
Everyone also knows about the classic “college town,” a settlement that hangs on mainly thanks to the business a university brings in.
Deb and I have become more and more interested in the “university hall as city hall” model—that is, a relationship in which a university’s leadership decides that it shares responsibility for the surrounding community’s economic and civic development (as opposed to simply wanting to exercise control over local affairs).
We’ve seen examples of this, as we’ll describe, in places like Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire has become a major civic-convening force; in nearby Kenosha, Wisconsin, through the emerging convening work of Carthage College; in Wichita, Kansas, where Wichita State University is playing a central economic and technological role; in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, with the involvement of the University of Southern Mississippi; in the much larger city of Phoenix, where the efforts of Arizona State University have had an effect statewide and around the country; and in a number of other locales.
In Muncie, the town-gown relationship was historically separate enough that when the Lynds set out their criteria for a typical American Middletown, they said it should not be a university town—and they thought that Muncie qualified.
Now that is changing, in a dramatic way. The change involves the seven people you see below. In Muncie Part Two, coming tomorrow, more about the next big point: how a university has decided to involve itself centrally in civic affairs, and the surprising project it has undertaken within the town.
A new study in mice points to how cell biology, not willpower, might be the root of yo-yo dieting.
The American conventional wisdom about weight loss is simple: A calorie deficit is all that’s required to drop excess pounds, and moderating future calorie consumption is all that’s required to maintain it. To the idea’s adherents, the infinite complexity of human biology acts as one big nutritional piggy bank. Anyone who gains too much weight or loses weight and gains it back has simply failed to balance the caloric checkbook, which can be corrected by forswearing fatty food or carbs.
Endocrinologists have known for decades that the science of weight is far more complicated than calorie deficits and energy expenditures. And in 2016, the fickle complexity of weight came to broad national attention. In a study of former contestants on a season of the weight-loss reality show The Biggest Loser, scientists found that years later, the contestants not only had gained back much or all of the weight they’d lost on the show, but also had far weaker metabolisms than most people their size. The contestants’ bodies had fought for years to regain the weight, contrary to the contestants’ efforts and wishes. No one was sure why.
What new research reveals about sexual predators, and why police fail to catch them
Robert Spada walked into the decrepit warehouse in Detroit and surveyed the chaos: Thousands of cardboard boxes and large plastic bags were piled haphazardly throughout the cavernous space. The air inside was hot and musty. Spada, an assistant prosecutor, saw that some of the windows were open, others broken, exposing the room to the summer heat. Above the boxes, birds glided in slow, swooping circles.
It was August 17, 2009, and this brick fortress of a building housed evidence that had been collected by the Detroit Police Department. Spada’s visit had been prompted by a question: Why were police sometimes unable to locate crucial evidence? The answer lay in the disarray before him.
Despite what everyone says about the power of modern devices, they’re nowhere near as capable as the landmark early NASA system.
Editor's Note: This article is part of a series reflecting on the Apollo 11 mission, 50 years later.
Without the computers on board the Apollo spacecraft, there would have been no moon landing, no triumphant first step, no high-water mark for human space travel. A pilot could never have navigated the way to the moon, as if a spaceship were simply a more powerful airplane. The calculations required to make in-flight adjustments and the complexity of the thrust controls outstripped human capacities.
The Apollo Guidance Computer, in both its guises—one on board the core spacecraft, and the other on the lunar module—was a triumph of engineering. Computers had been the size of rooms and filled with vacuum tubes, and if the Apollo computer, at 70 pounds, was not exactly miniature yet, it began “the transition between people bragging about how big their computers are … and bragging about how small their computers are,” the MIT aerospace and computing historian David Mindell once joked in a lecture.
President Trump’s tirade against four minority congresswomen prompts the question: Whom does he consider to be American?
I live in envy. I envy the people who know their nationality. All the people whose nationality has never been a question in their mind.
I can imagine the woman staring at her reflection in the Volta River who knows she’s Ghanaian, like her ancestors who liberated their people in 1957 and chose the mighty pre-colonial Ghana as the name of their new nation. I can imagine the woman flying into Frankfurt who knows she’s German, who knows she’s arriving back home. I can imagine the man working on his antique car outside his home in Biloxi, forehead covered by the prized blood-red baseball cap he purchased at a rally back in November, a man who has never been told, “Go back to your country!” If somehow someone did tell him, it would confuse him as much as it would the Ghanaian or German woman. It would be like someone driving by his house and shouting at him, “Go back to your home!”
Trump erred by bringing Israel into his Twitter attack against the “squad.”
President Donald Trump obviously has no boundaries, let alone any understanding of historical tropes, but he really should not have roped the Jewish state into his latest Twitter tirade against four Democratic congresswomen (or, as he put it in his Joe McCarthy–inflected English, “Democrat Congresswomen”). “When will the Radical Left Congresswomen apologize to our Country, the people of Israel and even to the Office of the President, for the foul language they have used, and the terrible things they have said,” wrote the leader of the free world. “I can tell you that they have made Israel feel abandoned by the U.S.”
Trump’s ire was directed at the “squad,” the quartet of outspoken female Democratic legislators whose ranks include Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. For the past two weeks, the women have been embroiled in a very public spat with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom they consider insufficiently left-wing and overly solicitous toward the president. Trump, unable to let an intra–Democratic Party tussle play out to his own electoral advantage, chose to intervene, with what can only be described as a racist attack on four ethnic-minority women. The lawmakers, “who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe,” he wrote, ought to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
His racism and intolerance have always been in evidence; only slowly did he begin to understand how to use them to his advantage.
The first quotation from Donald Trump ever to appear in The New York Times came on October 16, 1973. Trump was responding to charges filed by the Justice Department alleging racial bias at his family’s real-estate company. “They are absolutely ridiculous,” Trump said of the charges. “We have never discriminated, and we never would.”
In the years since then, Trump has assembled a long record of comment on issues involving African Americans as well as Mexicans, Hispanics more broadly, Native Americans, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, women, and people with disabilities.
Those Tweets were NOT Racist. I don’t have a Racist bone in my body! The so-called vote to be taken is a Democrat con game. Republicans should not show “weakness” and fall into their trap. This should be a vote on the filthy language, statements and lies told by the Democrat.....
As Christopher Petrella and Justin Gomer wrote in an April Washington Post essay on the history of “racist bones,” the phrase gained currency during the Ronald Reagan administration. When confronted about the racial impacts of its policies, the White House would simply insist it didn’t see color; the policies were intended to affect everyone the same. It took to citing Martin Luther King Jr.’s exhortation to judge people on their character rather than skin color: “This embrace of colorblindness—a selective and distorted reading of what King actually advocated—enabled Reagan to frame his relentless attacks on civil rights as motivated by a morally righteous and apolitical commitment to equality.”
In the early grades, U.S. schools value reading-comprehension skills over knowledge. The results are devastating, especially for poor kids.
At first glance, the classroom I was visiting at a high-poverty school in Washington, D.C., seemed like a model of industriousness. The teacher sat at a desk in the corner, going over student work, while the first graders quietly filled out a worksheet intended to develop their reading skills.
As I looked around, I noticed a small girl drawing on a piece of paper. Ten minutes later, she had sketched a string of human figures, and was busy coloring them yellow.
I knelt next to her and asked, “What are you drawing?”
“Clowns,” she answered confidently.
“Why are you drawing clowns?”
“Because it says right here, ‘Draw clowns,’ ” she explained.
Running down the left side of the worksheet was a list of reading-comprehension skills: finding the main idea, making inferences, making predictions. The girl was pointing to the phrase draw conclusions. She was supposed to be making inferences and drawing conclusions about a dense article describing Brazil, which was lying facedown on her desk. But she was unaware that the text was there until I turned it over. More to the point, she had never heard of Brazil and was unable to read the word.
On Sunday morning, the president told four members of Congress to “go back” to the countries “from which they came.” The remark, a racist taunt with a historic pedigree, inspired a flurry of fact-checking from mainstream journalists who were quick to note that Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar are American citizens, and that only Omar was born abroad, in Somalia. It was a rather remarkable exercise in missing the point.
When Trump told these women to “go back,” he was not making a factual claim about where they were born. He was stating his ideological belief that American citizenship is fundamentally racial, that only white people can truly be citizens, and that people of color, immigrants in particular, are only conditionally American. This is a cornerstone of white nationalism, and one of the president’s few closely held ideological beliefs. It is a moral conviction, not a statement of fact. If these women could all trace their family line back to 1776, it would not make them more American than Trump, a descendant of German immigrants whose ancestors arrived relatively recently, because he is white and they are not.
In his old life, Matthew Cox told stories to scam his way into millions of dollars. Now he’s trying to make it by selling tales that are true.
Last April, I received an odd email from a man named Matthew Cox. “I am an inmate at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida,” he wrote. “I’m also a true crime writer.” He had one year left on his sentence and was “attempting to develop a body of work that will allow me to exit prison with a new career.” He included a story about a fellow inmate who’d been ensnared in a complicated currency-trading scam, hoping that I’d write about it for The Atlantic.
“This is fascinating,” I replied. I didn’t mean the currency-trading scam, which was too procedural for my tastes, but Cox’s own trajectory. He described himself as “an infamous con man writing his fellow inmates’ true crime stories while immersed in federal prison.” I’d never had a possible subject pitch his own tale so aptly. I wasn’t entirely sure that was a good thing.