A year ago, I published a piece in the print magazine about that long-standing object of American fascination, the Roman Empire. Usually, and usefully, Americans have over the centuries looked to Rome for guidance on how their nation could avoid the predictable slide from republic to empire to conquest and dissolution. My favorite in this genre is the wonderful 2007 book Are We Rome?, by my friend (and Atlantic colleague) Cullen Murphy.
But for last year’s piece I discussed some other books, arguing that what happened to Rome after the fall of the Western empire is what Americans should be studying. Especially in this era when central government—leadership on the imperial scale, you might say—was faltering, and when our counterparts to the Roman provinces (that is, our cities and states and regions) were by comparison so much more practical-minded and functional.
My friend Eric Schnurer, who has worked in and written extensively (including for The Atlantic) about governance at all levels, wrote a response that highlighted some additional areas of useful comparison between the America of our time and the Rome of yesteryear. Now he is back with an extension of his argument. He calls this dispatch “From Sulla to Sullen: What the Fall of the Roman Republic Tells Us About Where Trump Is Taking Us.” I think it is instructive and worth reading, and with his permission I quote it below.
Schnurer began by directing attention away from the end of the empire, and instead to:
… the approaching decline of the Roman Republic, a half-millennium earlier. As I wrote last year, “the increasing economic inequality, the increasing political polarization, the total eclipse of ‘the greater good’ by what we’d call ‘special interests,’ the turn toward political violence” all looked “a lot like the present moment to me.” I was thinking of the period dominated by the attempted reforms of the Gracchi brothers—a tag-team somewhat analogous to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren —roughly a century before the Republic’s ultimate fall into dictatorship.
I hardly expected then that within about half a year, Donald Trump would manage to fast-forward the country through half acentury of Roman history, to the doorstep of the Civil Wars that destroyed what little was left of Republican Rome.
Of course, no historical analogy is exact. The collapse of the Republic was brought on by a combination of structural flaws in its politics and governance, and the self-serving ambitions of ruthless individuals that exploited them. While the causes were many, inter-related, and complex, at their root was a system that defied any notion of the common good and was devoid of political means to resolve rather than exacerbate division.
The Republic was the creation of a tight-knit oligarchy that had overthrown the preceding monarchy and, as a result, held a deep-seated determination never again to allow any one individual to accumulate so much power as to overawe all others.
The solution was not so much a separation of powers, as we conceive of it—officials simultaneously played executive, legislative and even judicial roles—as a vast multiplicity of individuals who could hold their posts only once, and for only a year. But this was no “citizen’s republic”: A small coterie of privileged families held almost all these offices and voting was severely limited.
Moreover, the term republic—from the Latin for “a thing of the public”—was meant to distinguish it from a monarchy, which was essentially the personal property of the ruler in which other people simply happened to live. But the Roman Republic was more like what we might think of as a “publicly held corporation” and, essentially, treated as private property. Officials used public office to profit personally and directly (and openly).
Of course, it takes money to make money, so only the very wealthy could afford to pursue these rewards because, along the way, they were expected personally to pay for the lavish spectacles, such as the famous gladiatorial games, that sated the public, as well as major public works and public building projects. The Roman state, in short, while ostensibly “public,” had long since been thoroughly privatized.
This state was essentially an increasingly imperial business enterprise, in the guise of a government. The expanding conquests, which were basically run as profit centers, undercut the working populations in the city through a growing influx of slave labor, and drove rural residents off their land through collapsing agricultural prices due to burgeoning grain imports—the automation and offshoring of their day.
These developments nonetheless personally benefited the wealthy Senatorial and governing elite that wielded government power increasingly for the sole private benefit of its members. This led to spiraling social tensions that, when they flared into violence, were resolved through grudging concessions rather than fundamental—and democratizing—changes.
The “radical” Warren-esque reforms of the Gracchis, who themselves were highly patrician, arguably aimed to save their own class from themselves as much as saving the Republic, by creating economic safety valves not unlike the patrician Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal at the depths of the Great Depression. The elites were too selfish, or shortsighted, or both, to see the wisdom—resulting in a violent uprising of the dispossessed known as “the Social War.” Conceptions of a greater good shared broadly amongst a frontier people who had thrown off their king, and came together especially in times of external threat, had long since melted away before the pursuit of personal wealth and power. Politics could no longer bridge the divides, because the threat did not come from without: The enemy was the other within.
In this res public largely eviscerated of any sense of the “public,” politics and government increasingly degenerated further into the personal. Wealthy politicians vied for, and alternated in power, with the support of their own personal parties, armed factions, and the communications media of the day (Julius Caesar, with his Commentaries on his subjugation of Gaul, was a master of this). By a half-century after the Gracchis’ reforms were beaten back, extremely different visions of governing structure, social issues, and economics eventually confronted each other for power in the form of essentially personalized states built largely around either Gaius Marius or Lucius Cornelius Sulla.
And that might be where we find ourselves today. While the political parallels are far from perfect, Marius, hardly a blameless figure, personified the cause of the populares—what we might think of as more-or-less progressive, advocating for an expanded democracy and economic redistribution. Sulla, a patrician who indulged a fairly libertine, sometimes vulgar, lifestyle even throughout his several marriages, was nonetheless the champion of the economic, social and political conservatives, prevailed and eventually became dictator.
While Roman politics had long been a nasty affair, Sulla was the first to institutionalize “proscription”—the practice of declaring your opponents “enemies of the state” and thereby licensing open-hunting season on them. He also became the first ever to violate perhaps the most deeply held norm of the Republic’s unwritten constitution—that no general was ever to lead armed forces across the sacred boundary, the pomerium, of Rome itself—which set the precedent for Julius Caesar’s later, and more famous, crossing of the Rubicon that all but marked the end of the Republic, and Rome’s imperfect democracy, for good.
Now, within the last month, President Trump has sent armed forces into American cities—but not the regular armed forces, as he has mooted in the past. He didn’t call up the National Guard, as presidents normally do when responding to emergencies or civil unrest: With military leaders and some troops themselves publicly expressing discomfort after their use against peaceful protests in Washington, DC, Trump needed to find forces more personally loyal to himself—and he did so in the Customs and Border Patrol—outside any existing branch of the military, responding directly to his agenda, arguably beyond his constitutional authority, and targeting dissent ...
But, as is often the case with Trump, creation of this new praetorian guard can alternatively be understood as essentially a business, rather than an ideological, development—simply a further, if more disturbing, extension of his privatization and personalization of the federal government. The fact that this new model army displays no government agency’s insignia on its personnel or vehicles—relying instead on widely available camouflage rather than government uniforms—means that private militias and vigilantes can easily join forces with it, or even take actions on their own, indistinguishable from these new-fangled government irregulars. As I predicted when Trump first took office, the distinction between public and private sectors is melting away before our very eyes even as to the deployment of legitimate force that, ever since the great sociologist Max Weber, has been seen as the defining element of the state.
Many have expressed concerns for some time that Trump would attempt to remain in office if he were defeated, and might rally armed militias to his cause (I’ve raised this concern myself since the night Trump was elected) … But even if he does leave, the likely Trump post-presidency that fits best with his personality and history—not to mention that of the Romans—may be even more troubling and dangerous.
Trump, if he were to lose, might well leave the White House—he never liked the building to begin with, and doesn’t like the actual work of the presidency—but never concede that he lost. He might not be the real President anymore … but he could play one on TV. If he continued to insist that he were the actual, legitimate President of the United States, there can be little doubt that tens of millions of Americans would believe him. And unlike your average crank, Trump has the resources and ability to turn this into a 24/7 TV reality program through his own television network, even further to the right and more reliably sycophantic than Fox—which he reportedly was considering launching had he not, unexpectedly, won the 2016 election.
Imagine an alternative President, with at least as much media reach as the one actually in the White House, with an unshakably devoted following of perhaps as much as one-third of the country, and perhaps even his own private armed forces—Sulla with a TV station funded by his fellow reactionary patricians, with his own camo-clad stormtroopers picking up and disappearing populare protestors in unmarked vans—and the present looks even more like the late Republic than when I wrote about this less than a year ago. If this occurs, the country would descend into dueling polities, dueling realities, and dueling war zones.
Of course, there are always alternatives: As dysfunctional as the Republic had become, Rome didn’t necessarily need a Caesar. But it did need a modernization of its pre-imperial governance technology—a standing bureaucracy and a streamlined executive to carry out the legislative will would have improved on the existing multi-headed oligarchy at least as well as the succession of terrible emperors did. And a peaceful mechanism for resolving the increasingly disparate interests of Rome’s increasingly disparate and unwieldy empire—broadened and meaningful democracy, for instance, along with progressive economic policies and perhaps a Plebeian Lives Matter movement—might have averted a half-millennium of dictatorship dominated not by orderly succession but factional assassinations and coups until even the Empire eventually conceded it couldn’t manage the job and simply partitioned itself.
We face similar choices today. History isn’t destiny. But it is a warning.
This note is to kick off a resumed set of chronicles in the “Our Towns” series, after time away for a long Atlantic project on the origins of this era’s public-health and economic disaster.
The results of that project are here: “Three Weeks That Changed Everything.” If you’re wondering, the three weeks I have in mind are: January 1, 2020—when first mentions of an outbreak of a new “pneumonia type disease” in central China would have appeared in the CIA-produced “President’s Daily Brief,” at the White House, which in normal governing circumstances would have triggered the beginnings of a coordinated federal response—through January 22, when the first diagnosed case of COVID-19 turned up in the United States. I argue that at the start of that time, it might have been possible to contain the disease near its point of origin, before it became a global disaster. By the end of that time, the U.S. had made fateful decisions that put us on our current catastrophic path.
In a bleak way, the past few months have underscored a message Deb Fallows and I have been discussing for years: At a time of federal-government paralysis and worse, the functionality and cohesion at many points in local- and regional-level America have been the main source of resilience.
I am careful to say “at many points” rather than “everywhere,” because some governors, and a handful of mayors, have followed the disastrous federal example of treating the pandemic as another front in the national-politics war, rather than as public-health emergency. But most governors (of both parties), plus an overwhelming majority of mayors (whose offices are usually not strongly partisan), and a larger and larger share of corporate, private, and non-profit organizations have offered such traction, practical-mindedness, and civic spirit as the nation can display at the moment.
Of course, these dispersed efforts are not enough, in coping with a disaster of this scale. If national governance fails, the whole nation suffers—as does the world, which in previous disease crises had relied on the U.S. to take the lead (again, as my Atlantic piece argued). But local, statewide, regional, and private/NGOs are what we have work with—and learn from, and expand—right now.
To kick things off today, three developments that shed light on how the parts of America that still work can be applied to the parts now so badly failing.
I know, I know: Another commission report, with another lofty title, from another worthy institution, grappling with another of our biggest public challenges. But this one is different and is worth paying attention to. (For the record: I saw an early version of the report but had nothing to do with its preparation or contents. The web version of the report is on the Academy’s site here, and a free downloadable PDF is here.)
The report’s diagnosis of America’s civic, cultural, and governing problems will be recognizable to most readers. The real payoff is the recommendations. There are 31 of them, in six categories, and they’re both impressively ambitious and surprisingly practical-minded, which means that—in theory—they are achievable.
For instance, the sweep of the ideas involves proposals as consequential (and logical) as changing the Supreme Court to fixed 18-year terms for justices, with one nomination every two years; or switching to ranked-choice voting in presidential, congressional, and state elections, to avoid third-party “spoiler” results; or adopting the Australian model in which voting in federal elections is an expectation-of-citizenship, like showing up for jury duty. Significant as such changes might be, only one of the 31 proposals would require amending the Constitution—all the rest could be done by Congress or state legislatures, or would require no legal changes at all. The one exception is this—essentially, correcting the Supreme Court’s ruinous Citizens United ruling from 2010:
RECOMMENDATION 1.5 Amend the Constitution to authorize the regulation of election contributions and spending to eliminate undue influence of money in our political system, and to protect the rights of all Americans to free speech, political participation, and meaningful representation in government.
There’s a lot more in the report, not all of which I agree with, but the vast majority of which would make America more workable at all levels of governance. Another example: stronger incentives to encourage a year of national service. And allowing states to create multi-member congressional districts, if in so doing they could reduce gerrymandering and ideologically “safe” seats.
Congratulations to the three directors of the project, Danielle Allen, Stephen Heintz, and Eric Liu, and to their colleagues who held meetings and citizen-hearings all around the country in coming up with their recommendations. This should be one of the roadmaps for digging out of the current rubble. For more on the fixed-term Supreme Court proposal, see a note* at the end of this item.
Also: If you’re looking for a wry, quickly readable, yet informed and edgy discussion of the same topic, I highly recommend Democracy In One Book or Less, by David Litt. Readers of Litt’s previous book, Thanks, Obama, will need little prodding to get his new work. Litt was a young White House speechwriter for Barack Obama, and that previous book, published in 2017, was one of the funnier and more self-aware entries in the special niche-literary category of speechwriters’ memoirs. His new book is not exactly like Schoolhouse Rock, the corny-but-informative ’70s-era video series on how democracy works, including such classics as “I’m Just a Bill.” But it’s in the same spirit: whimsy and pop culture, enlisted toward the end of knowledge. Here’s the Washington Post review of Litt’s book. Read it!
And in the same “bonus reading tips” spirit, please check out Joe Mathews, of Zócalo Public Square, on the useful thought experiment of California declaring independence (it won’t happen, but it’s clarifying to think about); and Quint Studer, a successful businessman who has become a civic leader in Pensacola, Florida, on how to broaden understanding of what it takes for democracies to survive.
2) Right to Start, from the Right to Start Fund and Victor Hwang:
Victor Hwang, originally trained as a lawyer, is a longtime tech entrepreneur and startup evangelist. I came to know him in his years with the entrepreneur-minded Kauffman Foundation, based in Kansas City. While there he emphasized the foundation’s findings that a huge share of America’s net job growth comes from brand-new, startup firms. Bigger firms obviously employ more people, but as time goes on they have little net job creation.
The graph below, produced by the Kauffman Foundation, illustrates the pattern: In most recent years, long-established firms (gray line) either shed more jobs than they create, or add only modest numbers overall. By contrast, new firms (blue line) have added one to two million jobs nearly every year. The point is obvious once you think about it: Since startup firms, by definition, have no existing jobs to lose, every job they create is a net plus. But Hwang and his Kauffman colleagues have long emphasized a less obvious implication: that if an economy wants new jobs, it needs to foster the creation of new firms.
Now Hwang has devoted himself full-time to policies at the national, state, and local level that will make it easier rather than harder to start a small business, a small factory, even (someday) a small restaurant. Obviously this is all the more important now, as the small businesses that have been so crucial in city-by-city revival (as I described here) have come under new, intense pressure.
At Kauffman, Hwang helped write the “America’s New Business Plan” policy guideline, which begins this way:
America’s future depends on entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs not only embody the American spirit, they also power our economy. The new businesses they start account for nearly all net new job creation… [Yet] starting and building a business has become harder and rarer in most of America….
America remains a nation with vivid entrepreneurial dreams. More than 60% of Americans have a dream business in mind they would love to create, and more than 40% would quit their job and start a business in the next six months if they had the tools and resources they needed...
There is a hole at the center of our economic discussion where hope should be.
Victor Hwang and his colleagues wrote that, and the rest of the manifesto, before the pandemic upended everything. But I think their recommendations for state legislators and regulators (here), for local officials and policy makers (here), and for federal candidates and office-holders (here) are worth your time and attention.
Update: Victor Hwang’s organization has just released a video from Tulsa, about “The Legacy of Black Wall Street” there. The reference is of course to the “Tulsa Race Massacre” of 1921, whose centennial the city is planning to observe in appropriate ways next year.
3) The Career Certificates Program, from Grow with Google:
Back at the dawn of time, I wrote an Atlantic cover story called “The Case Against Credentialism.” It argued that the American higher-education system and associated “meritocracy” had less and less to do with the abilities that should enable people of different backgrounds to get ahead, or with the professional competence that society needed.
That is: Parents understood that getting children into the right preschool helped them get into the right prep school, which helped them get the right test scores, which helped them get into the right college, which helped them … in some general way. (Mainly by getting to the top rather than the bottom of an unequal economy.) But as a society looked at the twin goals of maximizing opportunity and rewarding real performance, it made less and less sense to enable a system that gives such an edge to those who start out with advantages.
This is a point many people recognize in principle, though it is hard to implement in practice. It’s a reason Deb and I have given such emphasis to community colleges over the years, for instance here (about Kansas and Michigan) and here (about Ohio). Community colleges matter because they are the part of the U.S. educational system most committed to matching people who need opportunities with the opportunities this era has opened up.
The high-tech industry is not often seen as a vehicle of rapid class mobility within the United States. For people from around the world, yes! Less so for people without financial or educational advantages inside the U.S.
In the past few years, Deb and I have often referred to initiatives by Grow With Google, a non-profit arm of Google started in 2017 and devoted to applying advanced tech tools to job-search, civic resilience, and local-startup ends. (For the record: Grow With Google was an underwriter for some of our travel and reporting last year. Deb and I had known, liked, and collaborated with members of this organization in the time well before their business relationship with the Atlantic—and have stayed in touch with them thereafter.)
This past week Grow With Google announced a new program to offer transferrable certificates, in a variety of tech-related fields. The crucial aspect here is the standardization and nationwide (or international) transferability of these credentials. The training may be under Google’s auspices, but the goal is a credential that people can use to show their proficiency when applying for jobs elsewhere.
“Everyone says ‘Bachelor’s degree or equivalent’ in job listings,” Lisa Gevelber, VP of Global Marketing and a leading figure in Grow With Google, told me last week. “But there was no standard definition of what that ‘equivalent’ is.” Five years ago I wrote about an effort in San Bernardino, California, to provide a standardized, transferrable credential in machine-tool and similar skills. Grow With Google is trying to do that on a much broader scale, in an array of skills that have much faster-than-average growth in job availability, and much higher-than-average wages. In addition to tech-related fields like IT support, the certificates cover project-management and data-analytics skills that can be applied in a range of industries.
“A college degree is just out of reach for lots of folks, but a great job doesn’t have to be,” Gevelber told me. “People want to get started, but they don’t know what would be a specific, realistic pathway.” The new certification program, operated in partnership with 100 community colleges around the country (and eventually with “career technical” programs at many high schools), intends to offer the same kind of specific “here’s the next step” certification that people intending to be lawyers have with the LSAT and law degrees, or that aspiring pilots have with FAA certifications. The program also offers its students extensive free “soft skill” training—practice in writing resumes, preparing for job interviews, and generally filling in the background that people from more advantaged backgrounds would already have. Students in these programs pay $49 per month to Coursera, which hosts them. Lisa Gevelber said that students typically finish in three to six months, at a total cost of $150 to $300—and that Google is funding 100,000 scholarships, in addition to other reduced-cost options.
Standardized degrees for professional-class America—the BA, the PhD, the law and medical and related credentials—have been indispensable tools of mobility and opportunity for many people. Standardized and portable credentials for the rest of America are also important, which is why I think this initiative deserves notice.
The main theme of my pandemic article was that people have thought hard about “gray rhino” challenges—problems that, unlike “black swans,” are foreseeable and inevitable, but whose timing is unknown. In earlier administrations, they had come up with plans that could have saved us incalculable suffering, cost, and woe.
Something similar is true of these civic and economic plans. People have thought about this! We should listen to them.
* Let me make an additional news-sensitive point about the Supreme Court reform proposal, from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
There was a time when selecting nominees as Justices was not a tontine-style longevity-guessing contest. In 1965, while still in his mid-50s, Arthur Goldberg stepped down from the Court to become Lyndon Johnson’s ambassador to the United Nations. For Goldberg it turned out to be a very poor career choice, but it illustrated an era when Justices didn’t think they had to hold onto a seat as long as they breathed. Similarly, David Souter stepped down in 2009, before he turned age 70. And he is still going strong.
Now nominees are sought as young as possible, to hang on as long as plausible—adding a random hand-of-fate factor to what is supposed to be democratic governance. Fixed 18-year-terms, with each president expecting a nomination every two years, would reduce the gruesome medical-report aspect of today’s jurisprudence.
Here is the news angle: If a Supreme Court vacancy should occur between now and next January 20, Mitch McConnell has said that he might attempt to ram through a new appointment and confirmation in that time, even after stonewalling Merrick Garland’s nomination during Barack Obama’s final year. If this happens, and he does so, under current rules the Democrats would not be able to stop him. But they should make their planned response clear: Do this, and when we’re next in control, we’ll expand the size of the Court and confirm several new appointees—which might not have been justified when FDR attempted it, but would be now. More on this as news dictates.
Most artists were working at the edge. They seemed somehow different from the rest of us who color inside the lines. That is part of why I wanted to return during the pandemic to artists I have met and known, to see how they are taking in this terrible new life and how they are responding through their craft and work. What were they saying and what were they doing?
I talked first by phone with Richelle Gribble, whom I had first met during her artist-in-residency in Eastport, Maine. Richelle is a serial artist-in-residence, having traveled for weeks or months at a time to places from the Arctic Circle to Wyoming to Berkeley. She is at home near LA now, working out of her kitchen. Her workspace, the counter and a pullout table next to it, competes with normal kitchen activities, and the result, Richelle described, is a mixture of paint tubes and tomatoes.
Richelle works on both big pieces and little pieces, which is convenient now. In Eastport, she had a two-room storefront studio, where she could lay out collections of local flora and fauna, and compose really big pieces. Townspeople strolling the sidewalks would regularly stop by the studio to see what she was up to, which was a feature of her residency. Now the only person who drops into her workspace is her partner, who, she says, spends his days on calls and zooms.
When I first met Richelle, her muse was everything around Eastport: the shoreline, the wildlife, and the nature around her. Now, she says, she is attuned to life closer in. In a project she calls Quarantine Life, she posts online a daily drawing of something she has just noticed, or experienced, or heard about, or felt. You’ll see shopping receipts, a discarded face mask on the sidewalk, sweet potatoes that are growing sprouts, a coronavirus rendering, and the well-organized, color-coded inside of her closet. Her goal is to track the days, she said, and her stack of drawings is growing taller and taller.
She is also participating in a global crowd-sourced project that includes not only artists, but others who are journalists, physicians, ecologists, songwriters, CEOs, astronauts, and more. It’s called Great Pause Project.
The plan is ambitious: Anyone in the world is invited to share written responses and photos on an online platform, to document and archive the pandemic experience. The hope is to learn lessons and gain insights that might otherwise be lost, and to create a tangible, collaborative record to craft the story of this time.
Richelle describes one of the crowd-sourced initiatives, the Window Effect, where people contribute photographs taken from their windows. The impressions evoke everything from weather checks to glimpses through prison bars to effective shields against the virus to daydreaming. And another, the COVID-19 Photo Diary, is a photograph collection a bit farther beyond the glass windows, out into the neighborhoods.
Great Pause Project also includes a crowd-sourced written survey, called the echo-location survey, which will build a record about life during the pandemic: People answer questions about how they are feeling, how they have changed, what they notice about their environment, how they see the future, and what lessons they take from living this experience.
Richelle has long explored the idea of interconnectedness in the world through her art. She sees the pandemic era as a chance to have a broader reach by working very collaboratively with others. “If I share art just within my own circle” she says, “my art reaches a few people.” But if it becomes part of something bigger, she explains, “Others will say: Oh yeah, that’s what a global pause felt like or that’s what the COVID experience was.”
I talked with Barbara Liotta, who is an artist in Washington, DC and for the record, a longtime friend. For decades now, she and I have talked about everything: children, husbands, families, her art, my writing, travel, swimming, books, and lots of other things. I’ve traipsed around rock quarries with her to source stones for her sculptures, watched her suspend a 57-foot net panel over the side of an 11-story building, and celebrated her openings. She has visited us on our faraway journeys, flown in our little plane, gone to my author events and had parties for them. We prop each other up. So naturally, I turned to Barbara to help me see her artist’s sense of life during this time.
Barbara has a studio behind her house; it used to be a garage, with a concrete floor and high enough ceiling to hang her work. At the beginning, she told me, the lockdown made her feel like a character in a 1940s British movie. We should “buck up and take care of each other and confront this thing by being good community members,” she said. While most of us were cleaning out attics or basements, she was sorting and arranging her enormous collection of formidable, heavy shards, chunks, and slabs. Serendipitously, she came across what she described as “beautiful, gold, sun-drenched granites” and she created a series of warm sun pieces to will in a different mood.
Weeks passed, and as the pandemic with its tragic and awful state came to dominate everything, her work reflected the change. She told me. “As an artist, I can’t not address it, but the immensity of the shift requires that I let it sink in and allow my vision to mature.” The result? “I’ve been drawing and proposing a very dark, dark piece of exploded columns and shattered rock.”
Like for the rest of us, who seek some lightness or humor anywhere these days, one bright moment came on a video call with her son, an emergency room doctor in San Diego, and his new wife, as she was directing them how to install a small hanging sculpture she had shipped them. “A little farther back, off to the right, now left a bit,” she narrated the smartphone-enabled installation process. I saw this as a simple, lighthearted moment. Barbara saw an interpretation: “Art means civilization means hope,” she wrote me, “like an equation.”
Like many other artists and many of the rest of us, her work has been sidelined from the public. An exhibit at the Gallery at MASS MoCA hangs inside for no one to see it. A symposium was canceled. Future events are falling by the wayside. While many artists have shifted online—musicians, singers, actors, performing artists—Barbara says that option doesn’t work for her. Her art is three-dimensional, and being present helps experience it. “The trouble with my work now is that it needs a venue,” she concluded, with the pain of the sculptor’s version of If a tree falls in the forest …. “It is my work, but my work is not going anywhere. It doesn’t count if no one sees it.”
I also talked with Andrew Simonet, who cofounded and directed Headlong Dance Theater in Philadelphia for 20 years. He left that role seven years ago and pivoted to write young adult novels. He also founded an incubator called Artists U to help artists take practical steps to create a sustainable life as an artist. When I talked to him, Andrew was in Vermont, where he decamped from Philadelphia with his family.
We talked about the work ethic of artists and how it syncs with this moment of pandemic. He explained something I hadn’t thought about before, but it made perfect sense when I heard him say it. Artists, he said, are “very comfortable with uncertainty. We push away from what we know.” And this way of living and working, Andrew Simonet argued, should be encouraging to artists who may need encouragement right now for how to meet the pandemic and push on to make their art.
As artists, he declared, “This is what we train for.”
Even before librarians closed their doors against the pandemic, they started moving fast to keep their work going. They began shifting regular programming online; distributing stockpiles of mobile technology to the digitally needy; strengthening partnerships with schools and food donation sites; activating their maker-technology to produce PPE; helping prepare the homeless population with alternatives for shelter; and more. I wrote about libraries’ novel response to the novel coronavirus here.
The ideas keep coming. Pick-up and drop-off services are emerging. The Alexandria, Ohio, public library offers curbside pick-ups. The Hillsborough County library in Florida opened a drive-through pickup for reemployment-assistance applications. People can also drop them off when completed, and the library will mail them.
In Arlington, Virginia, the public library has already published several online issues of Quaranzine, a community-sourced collection of artwork, poetry, photos, and stories about life during the pandemic.
The Hartford Public Library in Connecticut has moved their immigrant services online, including providing legal help to complete citizenship applications and prepare for citizenship interviews.
Serendipitous moments spur other ideas. When researching the Raymond M. Blasco Memorial Library’s history for the upcoming annual report, Blane Dessy, the new director of the Erie, Pennsylvania, library, came across the annual report from 1918, documenting that the library had shuttered before—during the influenza pandemic. It inspired Dessy to begin working on an Erie County COVID-19 print and digital archive for future reference. “Here we are again,” he wrote me in an email, “and it strikes me that this pandemic will be an interesting story in the history of libraries in the United States.”
Looking back to the present and future: The old-school telephone is back. Realizing that many seniors who showed up in person at the libraries aren’t comfortable moving online, Anythink Libraries, a district of seven libraries in Adams County, Colorado, have staffed up their midday hours to man a telephone call center. Users can call to “just say hi” or talk about what’s on their minds. The message the library wants to convey even during the pandemic, according to the director Pam Smith: “We are here for you.”
Many school systems and the libraries that work with them have identified the gaps in how schools deliver their distance learning to their students. Many families lack the hardware or internet access or familiarity with technology to help their children do their schoolwork. Marcellus Turner, the executive director and chief librarian of the public library in the tech mecca of Seattle, talked about starting to fill in all those pieces to put more hardware in the hands of more students, offer more connectivity through Wi-Fi hotspots, and more tech help to guide newbie households through the processes. And in the meantime—there is always a meantime—they are filling the space with actual telephone calls to students who used to show up at the library for homework help to ask how they can help over the phone.
And remember scrapbooks? The Anythink Libraries are moving their summer reading program, called mySummer, out of the libraries and into the houses, treehouses, tents, homemade forts and backyards of its readers. “It is all about inventing your summer which includes reading, thinking and doing,” Director Pam Smith wrote me in an email. The library is distributing notebooks and kits of crayons, chalk, and other items to anyone—young or old—who signs up for the program. They’re encouraging the “authors” to list the books they are reading and describe their summer adventures, to make artwork, take an imaginary trip, write about critters they find in nature, and lots of other ideas to spark creativity and imagination.
Ramping up the virtual: Despite everything horrible about it, the pandemic presents a crisis-driven opportunity for libraries to push their online capabilities farther and faster than ever before. Libraries turned quickly to familiarizing their users with their vast holdings of online content, purchasing and sharing even more content, assembling collections of COVID-19 related links and information, shifting regular events like real-life concerts and group picnics to virtual performances with backyard family-only events.
Kelvin Watson, the director of the Broward County, Florida, libraries, commented in the PLA’s webinar that use of social media on their website has skyrocketed. “Instagram,” he said, “logged 1,000 extra engagements.” The lesson? Watson said they are already purchasing more film equipment. so they’ll have a more professional-looking presence online.
The Anythink Libraries offer online tech help, poetry readings, print-and-mail services, and cooking classes. As Pam Smith put it, they are presenting themselves as “Anythink Everywhere.”
The online explosion is heady, but it comes with cautions. As Dessy of the Blasco Library emailed me: There is “a little backstory,” which is cost. “Each time a library user accesses our streaming services at no cost (to the user), there is actually a charge to the library. Nothing is free. Our streaming services usage has gone up dramatically, which impacts our materials budget, which impacts how much we spend on actual books.” He’s currently conducting a survey about how the users feel about the trade-off.
Librarians are wondering what kind of expectations their users will have once they are up and running again. Will people want all the virtual offerings and the extra help, hardware, and services to continue? Will they want more? How will libraries support all expansions?
Shoring up and expanding collaborations: Libraries have always been great collaborators. For example, the community librarians at the Deschutes County libraries in Bend, Oregon, who are master collaborators, work with dozens of organizations around town to augment each others’ work, from resume writing to tax counseling to small-business advice.
Libraries are shoring up some of their traditional partnerships, like with schools. They are also expanding into some new and surprising partnerships.
In Erie, a number of Dessy’s staff have been reassigned to the county Health Department as part of the COVID-19 response team for public communications, public-health research, and health equity.
In Colorado, the Poudre River business librarians have been helping the State Office of Economic Development and International Trade answer calls from small-business owners about a myriad of issues around the pandemic.
In San Francisco, some public librarians have become part of the city’s response team for contact tracing.
The American Libraries magazine documents an extensive list of where and how librarians are being deployed to other tasks within the library and in collaborations with outside organizations.
Reopening: In Pennsylvania, the Department of Education is working on a framework to help local libraries plan their re-openings. There will be mandatory health and safety guidelines, recommendations on how to secure COVID-19-related supplies, and lists of resources for federal and state guidelines from the CDC for community organizations and businesses. In Erie, Dessy is already working on a 60-day reopening plan. “COVID-19 is not an existential question for libraries,” he wrote me, “ but it will cause us to look at our vision, mission, and plans. That, in turn, will cause us to alter our methods.”
Anticipating what the public will expect, Marcellus Turner, of the Seattle library, described how his pandemic-era trips to Target and grocery stores have become research trips. He notes the plexiglass, and he observes the processes and standards for health and safety for what that means for the future of the Seattle libraries. What can they model?
And all librarians have to worry through other logistics: How will they clean the books? How will they open—phasing in with shorter hours, fewer locations, more contact-free drive-throughs?
Kelvin Watson of Broward County expects that they’ll include a virtual aspect to every program they do in the future. And he thinks about the future needs of his community in a cascade of considerations that involves: More people will be looking for jobs, meaning there’s a need for more computers and workstations where people can conduct those searches. And how to rearrange the seating?
For high-altitude planning, the Urban Libraries Council executive council announced that it is launching members’ working groups to address pandemic-related crises, and among those is one to look ahead and redefine the library’s role with the public, schools, businesses, and government.
Pam Smith—director of Anythink Libraries—summed it up, and I bet she speaks for many: “I’ve never been prouder to be a librarian.”
America’s public libraries have led the ranks of “second responders,” stepping up for their communities in times of natural or manmade disasters, like hurricanes, floods, shootings, fires, and big downturns in individual lives.
Throughout all these events, libraries have stayed open, filling in for the kids when their schools closed; offering therapeutic sessions in art or conversation or writing after losses of life; bringing in nurses or social workers when services were unavailable to people; and hiring life-counselors for the homeless, whom they offer shelter and safety during the day.
Today, interventions like those have a ring of simpler days. But libraries have learned from their experience and attention to these previous, pre-pandemic efforts. They are pivoting quickly to new ways of offering services to the public—the core of their mission. When libraries closed their doors abruptly, they immediately opened their digital communications, collaborations, and creative activity to reach their public in ways as novel as the virus that forced them into it.
You can be sure that this is just the beginning. Today libraries are already acting and improvising. Later, they’ll be figuring out what the experience means to their future operations and their role in American communities.
Here are some of the things libraries are doing now. These are a few examples of many:
Feeding the hungry: While schools have traditionally supplied lunches and breakfasts for American schoolchildren who economically qualify for them, libraries have always stepped in for after-school snacks and summertime food programs.
With schools now closed, more libraries have become drive-through or pick-up locations for grab-and-go meals. This is happening in St. Louis County, for example, which is collaborating with Operation Food Search, a nonprofit that distributes free drive-through food pickups in nine of their libraries.
In Columbus, Ohio, the Columbus Metropolitan Library closed so quickly that they were left with nearly 3,000 prepared meals on hand. They collaborated with the Children’s Hunger Alliance, which had supplied the meals, to recover, repurpose, and distribute the packets at three library locations.
In Ohio, the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, together with the United Methodist Church food ministry are offering ready-to-eat meals to all children 18 years old and under.
3-D printing of PPEs and PPE collections: Many libraries are putting the 3-D printers from their makerspaces into use.
In Maryland, the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System has sent two of its 3-D printers home with a staff person to soon begin printing shields for health workers’ masks. The library is donating labor and materials for this effort, and like other organizations around the state, is working with Open Works, Baltimore’s biggest makerspace community, to make sure everyone is compliant with specs for the production of the shields.
Internationally, the Milton Public Library in Ontario, Canada, has partnered with Inksmith, an education technology company, to print face shield headbands for PPE masks.
Providing round-the-clock Wi-Fi access and hotspots: Aware that many of their customers rely on the library as their only point of Wi-Fi access, libraries in many communities leave their Wi-Fi open after closing hours. Those numbers are increasing. Also, many libraries have loaned out the entire supply of their portable hotspots to school children who need internet connection to do at-home school work. Others have purchased more hotspots to begin filling the gaps.
The Brightwood Branch of the Indianapolis Public Library made sure all the hotspots they possessed through a Grow with Google partnership were checked out before their closed their doors.
The Richland County Library system in South Carolina, working with the United Way, collected and delivered their 40 standing hand-sanitizing stations to local homeless shelters. They also bought and placed porta-potties outside their downtown libraries.
Keeping people productive, safe, healthy, informed, and connected to each other: Many libraries have ramped up their online presence. There are lists and lists of resources for children’s activities; plans for improving adult job skills and dealing with job loss; hobby ideas; reading lists; ways to sleep better, meditate, and stay calm; ways to exercise; and ideas for virtual, social interaction.
Also, libraries have always been trusted sources of information. Many are revising their websites and scaling up their social media for multiple purposes: bringing in more users and broadcasting the message of their diverse, digitally-available holdings; posting timely, accurate, curated information; and offering up-to-date public-service information on local efforts and issues like city services, public advisories, health directives and requests, tax and unemployment issues, and of course, COVID-19 resources.
From the Anythink libraries in Colorado, Erica Grossman wrote to me in an email: “We’re working swiftly to become a virtual town square—a place of information and connection.”
Here is a grab-bag of examples of the trend she is discussing:
The Birmingham Public Library in Alabama has a list of valuable links, including one that shows exactly where to get tested and includes details of hours, location, and necessity for call-ahead appointments.
The Columbus, Ohio, library informs the community about blood drives by one of their partners, the American Red Cross.
Before they closed, the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System had placed a dedicated computer in each branch to help people complete their 2020 census forms online. Now, the library’s Nick Brown described to me how they have pivoted to virtual programming to keep the interest strong and the completion rates high—this in a county that was determined to be undercounted by 30 percent in the 2010 census.
The theme in this “Our Towns” space has been, and remains, the sources of vitality, practicality, generosity, and renewal in local-level America, despite bitter polarization in national-level politics.
The series began almost seven years ago, when smaller communities across the United States were still trying to rebuild their economies after the financial collapse of 2008 and beyond.
Now, with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the very people and groups that led the way in local recovery—small businesses, innovative start-up organizations, locally oriented restaurants and bookshops and bars and civic spaces—are exposed to a sharper, more sudden, and potentially more devastating shock than the one they endured a dozen years ago.
National-level and international responses obviously will determine much of our collective public-health and economic future. But in the past two weeks, Americans have already seen governors and mayors, schools and hospitals, religious organizations and foundations and nonprofit groups taking the lead while the national government has faltered.
The upcoming theme in this space will be on-the-ground reports on the way the economic, civic, and medical dramas are playing out. Part of America’s future is being determined right now in the U.S. Senate, at the Centers for Disease Control, and in the White House. But what is happening in the rest of the country matters at least as much, and probably more.
Let me start with a reader’s note that directly addresses this point, and then a few resources from people who have been thinking about equalizing opportunity around the country, before the current cataclysm. The reader’s note is below.
An Atlantic reader who has moved from a major East Coast city to a medium-sized city in Greater Appalachia writes:
My apologies if this seems irrelevant given the size and scope of the current world situation. Given your past works, I thought this might provide some fodder for your overarching work regarding Our Towns.
I am a lifelong politics and government person in my mid-40s. I spent the better part of 15 years engaged in either civic associations, county-level citizen advisory groups, and local government advocacy. I experienced first hand how listening to a community's concerns, and working directly with local officials, could make a material difference in a neighborhood’s quality of life.
Against this backdrop, I avidly followed your dispatches from around the country during the research for Our Towns. As I was still an active private pilot at the time, it was a perfect mix of topics for me.
It also planted in me the idea that there were different ways of achieving a quality of life outside of the major metropolitan areas. It was a major reason my wife and I started to look outside of [an East Coast metropolis] for where our next chapter could take place.
We settled on [the medium-sized city], moving here in December of 2019. It was like your main thesis come to life. Besides the unlimited outdoor options, the easier pace of life, the strong local brewery scene, there is a palpable sense of local patriotism. Of locals seeing their success being tied to one another.
And so it is heartbreaking to see and feel the very hard limitations of this optimistic world view run headlong into the current [coronavirus] situation.
I am saddened for lives that will be lost and economic hardship that we will endure. This is mixed with a nearly overwhelming anger … Even admitting that a President isn’t responsible for creating the underlying crisis of a pandemic(or oil market crash), they are responsible for having systems and institutions that have been nourished and prepared to react to them.
I know that over a long enough time period, we'll recover and we will rebuild. But there will always be scar tissue. And part of that is a honest reckoning of how fragile the system is, and a dimming of optimism for what it can build. A small price compared to loss of a loved one, or the economic pain that will sure to be revisited upon our most vulnerable population.
Many groups and individuals we’ve reported on, over these past half-dozen years, are gearing up now to deal with the economic crises that are affecting everyone, in places large and small, but that could intensify existing regional differences.
Some of the reports and insights we have been following, and will report on, in coming days:
1) “A Vital Midwest: The Path to a New Prosperity,” from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Information about the report, by John Austin and Alexander Hitch, is here. The full report, in PDF, is here.
As the introduction by Richard C. Longworth of the Council, previously a long-time economics writer for the Chicago Tribune, puts it, the stereotype of the industrial Midwest that dominates political discussion is out of touch with real developments there:
Much of the world’s attention to the Midwest is an almost indecent fascination, born of the 2016 presidential election, with the postindustrial rust and ruin of the region’s old factory towns and rural hinterlands. With the nation’s gaze thus averted, the rest of the Midwest has been reinventing itself. The result, half completed, looks nothing like the silos and smokestacks of yore ….
Already we see a new Midwest, powered by different places, people, and industries … Most of the economic capitals of this new Midwest are not the old industrial cities. The new economic centers are places like Columbus, Ohio; Des Moines, Iowa; Indianapolis, Indiana; Madison, Wisconsin; and Minneapolis, Minnesota…. All have leaders who understand that the world has changed and their cities must change with it. And all know where they stand on the global supply chain. They are global cities now, earning their living from the global economy.
The report is worth reading in full, for midwesterners and anyone else considering the next stage in American economic recovery.
2) “Countering America’s regional economic disparities is going to take more than hope,” from Mark Muro and Robert Atkinson, via AEI. Information about the report is here, and the full PDF is here. This follows a longer and more detailed report, “The case for growth centers: How to spread tech innovation across America,” by the same two authors and Jacob Whiton, which came out late last year as a joint project by Brookings and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. (Summary of Brookings-ITIF paper here; PDF here.)
The reports’ main argument is that despite the mounting costs and frictions of operating in super-star cities like San Francisco and Seattle, and despite the growth of “Rise of the Rest” centers across the country (a trend they dispute), the highest-value parts of the tech economy are still concentrating themselves in a handful of places. Left to its own incentives, the authors argue, the tech economy will not naturally spread itself more broadly across the country.
But, they say, it can be nudged, encouraged, and steered in that direction. To me the fascinating part of these analyses is their specificity about exactly where innovation-promoting policies might be effective—and their reminder that today’s richest regional economies themselves are success stories of place-conscious policies of the past.
As for past examples, the Brookings-ITIF report says:
From the 1920s to the 1940s, many believed that Boston would go the way of the rest of New England, with the city’s traditional manufacturing of textiles, shoes, and machines migrating to the low-cost South and stagnation setting in. But Boston took a different path toward becoming one the strongest innovation hubs in the world, in no small part due to federal support. World War II brought an influx of federal funding to the city, especially for the development of military electronics. As the Cold War began, that support was formalized and dramatically expanded ...
The federal government was even more instrumental in the development of Silicon Valley …. In 1992, Santa Clara County (the heart of Silicon Valley) received more defense prime contract funding per capita than any county in the nation. As historian Leslie Berlin writes: “It’s not a stretch at all to say that Silicon Valley exists because of the federal government.”
The federal government also had a major hand in the development of North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park ….
None of this is to say that these federal investments created these places on their own or that they were designed to create these places … But they did help enable emerging growth centers to become self-sustaining.
As for current candidates, the report gives this map. The report gives details about these localities:
This past week, Muro, Whiton, and Robert Maxim, of Brookings, did a report on the metro areas where the pandemic shutdown was likely to be most destructive. For instance, this is part of their list of places where economies are most dependent on “high risk” industries like energy and tourism, and so where job losses could be worst:
For now the main point is: In the long, slow, uneven recovery from the past Great Recession, people around the country have thought and learned a lot about the process of recovery, and how it can be hastened and more broadly shared. We’ll try to share some of those findings in this space, and report on local responses to this new global crisis.
3) “How to Rescue Main Street From Coronavirus Before It’s Too Late,” by Adam Ozimek and John Lettieri for the Economic Innovation Group. (Report is here; PDF version is here.)
The title is self-explanatory, and the meat of this report is a detailed list of proposals for sustaining the small businesses that have been so crucial in community renewal around the country, and now are at unprecedented risk.
Thanks to these authors, innovators, and other civic patriots. More reports on their work in the days to come.
From an author’s point of view, the most important quality of any book is its done-ness. Once you accept that a book is as good as it is going to be, and as finished as you can stand to make it, the miasma lifts and you can move on—to the next writing project!
From a reader’s point of view, the most important qualities of a certain kind of non-fiction book are brevity, specificity, and humor. I’m talking about “theme”or “argument” books that address a current issue—as opposed to, say, biographies, which can be at their best when long and meandering, or narratives or histories, which are designed to immerse you in the details of another time and place.
When the purpose of a book is to advance a new or different way of thinking about a topic, it should be: as short as possible (so the reader gets the point efficiently); as specific as possible (so the reader can test the argument, and perhaps change future ideas or behavior); and as droll as possible (because, obviously).
Garfield is known to most of the world as co-host, with Brooke Gladstone, of the public radio show On the Media, from WNYC in New York. I’ve known him in that way, from listening to the show regularly and being an occasional guest on it. But I’ve also followed Garfield’s work through the years on the topic of this book—actual programs and systems to improve the media, both financially and substantively. In American Manifesto he pulls together many of the themes he has developed. The result is something that’s neither, on one extreme, a detailed, step-by-step “white paper”-style report on media improvement—nor, on the other, just an op-ed-scale lament.
Instead it’s part diagnosis, part prescription. As he puts it in the early pages, in a passage that gives an idea of his writing tone:
This book is a cry for help in three parts. The dry way of describing it: “An examination of the tragic confluence of the American preoccupation with identity and the catastrophic disintegration of mass media, yielding a society that may be irretrievably fractured, unless we act now.” A less dry way of putting it: “Run for your life. We’re being Dumptied.” As in Humpty, the self-satisfied jumbo egg that once sat atop a big, beautiful wall and wound up in countless irreparable pieces.
Take note: I am not speaking of Trumpty Dumpty. The greatest threat we face is not from a rogue president, but from ourselves.
The three parts that follow are about, first, social and political division; and second, the collapsing economics of traditional media. (“Media have been ‘disrupted’ like the Hindenburg was ‘disrupted.’ A three-century-old mass-media model has been blown to smithereens, and the surviving journalistic fragments are not only too poor to adequately watchdog the government, but also algorithmically segregated from huge swaths of the electorate. O, the humanity.”) The concluding third section is a six-point action plan for individual, corporate, and political remedies.
For most people who have followed the future-of-media debate, the book’s greatest value will be in part three, the recommendations. I won’t give away all of Bob Garfield’s action plan. But I will say that one of its main public-policy proposals involves modernizing antitrust laws and enforcement, to catch up with the technological, financial, and social realities of this age.
The title of that chapter is “No, Really, Trust Busting.” The term “trust-busting” comes of course from the original Gilded Age era, when new and maturing technologies (railroads, automobiles, mass production, mass communication, industrialized agriculture) created new fortunes and new inequalities. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the Teddy Roosevelt trust-busting efforts of the early 1900s, the rise of the labor movement, the state-by-state spread of reform laws—these were all responses. For democracy and civil society to survive after our Second Gilded Age, something comparable is necessary now. So Bob Garfield argues, and so I agree.
(By the way, one of the best political speeches I’ve heard on this topic was by a U.S. senator, back in 2016. You can read about the event where the senator spoke, which I happen to have attended, here, and get a PDF of the speech text here. Spoiler: The senator was Elizabeth Warren, and the speech was given long before she launched her presidential run. The event was titled “America’s Monopoly Problem: What Should the Next President Do About It?” It took place when most of the political world assumed that the “Next President” in question would be Hillary Clinton, because of her then-enormous lead over Donald Trump in the polls.)
I was glad to have read American Manifesto, and I think most media- or politics-minded people will be too. Congratulations to Bob Garfield on its done-ness, and good news for the rest of us in its brevity, specificity, and wit.
Continuing the photo essay about public libraries, which showed many examples of children’s rooms and adult spaces, this collection shows some of the multitude of activities happening at public libraries. It also includes some of the kinds of collections besides books, and some of the public places where books are available to borrow besides at traditional libraries.
Makerspaces are becoming popular in libraries around the country. Some are sophisticated, others modest. Makerspaces harken back to Benjamin Franklin’s early days in the Philadelphia subscription library, where he conducted some of his early experiments in electricity. Ben Franklin was the founder, in a way, of modern makerspaces in libraries.
The southmost public library near the Rio Grande in Brownsville, Texas, has an observatory that is used occasionally. The library also hosts movie-and-popcorn events for children who are incarcerated in detention centers alone after having crossed the border from Mexico to Texas.
The modest makerspace inside the Dodge City, Kansas, library. It was put together by a young librarian who grew up across the street from the library. He has gathered mostly people’s cast off items, like sewing machines and audio recording equipment.
Learning the ropes in the maker space at the Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The library is currently under renovation.
Kids’ activities are held after a summer science program in the Dodge City, Kansas, library. The library invited a traveling program from Wichita. Middle schoolers helped herd the littler kids around the “challenges” after the program. There were hundreds of people participating.
Here’s an entry from an art competition at the Greenville, South Carolina, public library. This was sponsored by the local Michelin company, and the requirement was to use old tires in the creation.
Attention Walmart shoppers: This building is now home to the McAllen, Texas, public library. The internal space is vast, enough for exhibitions and receptions. The external space boasts plenty of parking and room for concerts, catered by local food trucks.
Libraries catalog much more than books. When some people are looking for somewhere to donate their treasures, or others can’t bear to simply trash their memorabilia, they think of the library. At the A.K. Smiley Public Library in Redlands, California, archivist Nathan Gonzalez addresses some of the vast holdings donated by residents of Redlands. The town is in the process of building the first Museum of Redlands, populated largely from the outgrown archives of the library, and which the library will oversee. The library already oversees the Lincoln Shrine, an entire building of a nationally-renowned collection of Lincolniana, just across the lawn from the Smiley library.
The archives in the Birmingham, Alabama, public library basement will send a chill up your spine. If you are fortunate, you can see the historic collection of references to MLK Jr., whose Letter from the Birmingham Jail was written just blocks away and first appeared in The Atlantic. The librarian showed me among other holdings, the registry of the jail that recorded when MLK was booked into the jail.
The Winston-Salem public library is renowned for its art collection and its South Carolina room. Here is a glimpse of it.
Signs for early voting at the Brownsville, Texas, public library:
Everyone loves to eat, even at the library. More and more libraries are including coffee shops and dining areas inside the library. Here’s one in the main Brownsville, Texas, library.
Libraries for the public come in many shapes and forms, from traditional bookmobiles, to pop-up park libraries, where librarians in Wichita told me many people stop by during their lunch hours. During the summer months in Minnesota, floating libraries lend books in watertight bags to boaters who boat by.
There are now over 90,000 Little Free Libraries around the world. We have spotted hundreds around the U.S. This one is in Volta Park in Georgetown, Washington D.C.
Here’s a Little Free Library outside Janney Elementary School in the Tenleytown area of Washington D.C., and just next door to the Tenleytown branch of the Washington, D.C., public library system.
A Little Free Library in Garden City, Kansas:
Libraries of a sort—take a book, leave a book—are convenient for travelers looking for a last-minute plane read. This one is at the entrance to the old concourse leading to United Airlines flights in Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National Airport.
In Redmond, Oregon, the Deschutes Public Library sponsors this airport library:
Since Jim Fallows and I began traveling the country for American Futures and Our Towns nearly seven years ago, there has been one beat that began as a surprise to me and grew into the most heartening story I’ve witnessed of American resilience. That is the story of public libraries and how they have responded to the challenges facing American towns.
If you haven’t been in a public library lately, you probably wouldn’t recognize where you were if you entered one tomorrow. This is no longer, as I wrote early on, your mother’s library. The books are still there; the readers are still there; the librarians are still there. But sharing the same space are children busy with all kinds of active—and sometimes noisy—programs, inventors in maker-spaces, historians and amateurs researching genealogy, job-seekers scouring the internet, homeless people settling in quietly for the day, women and a few men heading to the yoga space, others watching movies, young entrepreneurs grabbing lattes, people considering the art exhibits, librarians helping others research a medical issue or housing issue or how to earn a GED, tutors helping school kids with math, people checking out hiking backpacks, fishing poles, wireless hotspots, snow shovels, and seeds for vegetable gardens.
And in their offices are the librarians and staff figuring out how to fill all these wants and needs of their communities and to anticipate what can possibly be coming to their town next, like a hurricane or, God forbid, a shooting. I saw many backroom views of libraries, from the depths of their groaning archives to their automated transport and delivery systems of books among libraries. I also ran into many pop-up versions of libraries in odd places from front yards to public parks to the middle of a lake.
After telling so many of their stories one by one, I wanted to show you what some of the libraries look like. These are my amateur photos of some of the libraries I’ve seen around the U.S., and even a few others I’ve visited around the world.
The libraries were in cities as small as Eastport, Maine, population 1,300, and as big as Columbus, Ohio, population 890,000. Most cities were in between in size, largely ranging from 10,000 to 65,000. I also visited public libraries in Shanghai, population 24 million, and across Australia.
Here are some images that stay in my mind about libraries. This first of two collections features the children’s areas and the adult spaces. Coming up next will be what’s in the library beyond books, and alternative public libraries.
Children’s rooms: Whenever I asked directors or librarians about the most important efforts in their libraries, or their top dreams and aspirations yet to come, they invariably answered some version of: “It’s the children; it’s all about the children.” And they homed in on reading readiness or school readiness or child development, particularly for the kids who need it most. Attracting children, and their parents, into libraries is a prime mission.
Brownsville, Texas, built a wonderland of a children’s room and have newly gone all out into the ultra-modern space for teenagers.
A former Walmart has been transformed into the new and spacious McAllen Texas public library:
In my hometown of Vermilion, Ohio, on the shore of Lake Erie, the children’s area is built on the nautical themes familiar to the kids who grow up there. (I spent many a summer day in this library, but it didn’t look like this.)
The San Bernardino Public Library’s central location has poured precious resources into the children’s room, hoping to attract many parents as well through their children and the offerings there. The collaborative mural featured world-renowned artist Phil Yeh.
Adult Spaces: The adult spaces in public libraries show an entirely different and often contrasting side of a public library. They range from extraordinarily elegant to cozy and welcoming, to dramatic, to waiting for that upgrade. Here is a sampling:
The mezzanine level of the public library in Demopolis, Alabama, in the former furniture store and warehouse, overlooks the California-craftsman style main reading room. Bill and Melinda Gates visited some 20 years ago as a kick-off to their philanthropic donations of computers to public libraries.
Inside the Linn-Henley Research Library of the Birmingham Alabama’s Central Library, the walls are painted with murals by Ezra Winter. They are some of the historic showpieces of the Birmingham library.
The State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia:
The reading room in the New South Wales public library in Sydney, Australia:
Here are news items and developments related to trends we’ve been covering in the recent “Our Towns” series, and elsewhere:
The furniture business returns, and is looking for furniture-makers. In a series of dispatches from Danville, Virginia, and its environs, Deb Fallows and I talked about this region’s reaction after the three previous pillars of its manufacturing economy collapsed more or less at the same time, over the past generation.
Those pillars were tobacco-growing and related activities, which for obvious public-health reasons have been in long-term decline; textile mills and clothing-makers, also shrinking over the past generation due to competition from the Caribbean, Mexico, China, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere (we wrote about effects of this shift in South Carolina, southwestern Virginia, and Mississippi); and furniture-making, again mainly due to lower-cost competition from China.
This week TheWall Street Journal reports on the return of furniture-making jobs in North Carolina—not to the levels of the late 1990s, but steadily increasing through the past decade. What’s the main limit on the expansion? For now it is the supply of skilled trades workers for these jobs. This is connected to two other trends we’ve seen and written about across the country in the past few years: the continued growth in relatively well-paying skilled trade jobs across the country—in construction, advanced-manufacturing, health services, repair-and-maintenance, wind- and solar-power projects, and so on. See a report from NPR here, and from a trades group here.
The other trend is the crucial role of community colleges, and “career technical” programs in K-12 schools, in equipping students who need opportunities for the opportunities that now exist. I keep arguing (for instance, here) that community colleges are the institutions-of-the-moment, in increasing the chances for really inclusive economic growth. Soon I’ll give another example, from Dayton, Ohio. It’s one more reason to reading this WSJ piece by Ruth Simon.
People who leave small-town America, and people who return. This week, the PBS News Hourhad a report by Jeffrey Brown on Millennial-generation Americans who have a choice of where to work and live—and are choosing to live in small towns or rural areas. Obviously this is just in sync with what Deb Fallows and I have been observing from coast to coast.
Of course this development does not mean that the pressure on very small areas has abated—the steady disappearance of rural-health facilities is one of the biggest challenges for small and rural areas trying to remain viable. And of course it does not mean that New York, Seattle, and San Francisco will lose their roles. But it’s an important complicating reality: the re-peopling of some parts of “left-behind” America, with people who are looking for ways to bring new life to these areas.
A “revenue lab” for local journalism. The 10-year-old nonprofit TheTexas Tribune has been one of the most important state-scale models of how journalism can re-establish itself, with a new financial model (as discussed here and here). This week it announced a new “revenue and training lab,” to systematize, improve, and share models for sustainable local journalism.
As Evan Smith, CEO and co-founder of the TheTexas Tribune, wrote in an announcement: “We’re creating our first-ever revenue and training lab—a freestanding entity, housed in our Austin newsroom, where we’ll experiment with innovative ways to fund local news, model best practices that we hope will benefit the entire ecosystem, and mentor and coach dozens of our would-be peers …. The RevLab, as we’ve already started to shorthand it … [will be devoted to] this noble pursuit of sustainability strategies for our industry.”
Examples of smaller-town functionality. As part of CNN’s “Fractured States of America” series, kicked off by Ken Burns, Deb Fallows has a piece today on cases she’s seen of communities trying to heal rather than intensify national divides. It starts in our favorite southern-Arizona community of Ajo and moves to Sioux Falls and elsewhere. It also includes a photo of a very powerful piece of civically important public art: the monument erected in Duluth, Minnesota, site of the northernmost lynching in U.S. history, to the three men unjustly killed there.
Here is one more dip into the waters of ancient Rome. For those joining us late:
In a “thought experiment” article in the new issue of the print magazine, I ask: What can troubled citizens of today’s America learn from the history of Rome? But the question concerned not the much-publicized lead up to “Decline and Fall.” Rather it was about the “After the Fall” era, known to the scholars at “Late Antiquity.”
In a first round of responses, academic historians and others pushed back (mainly) against the headline of the article. The headline said, “The Fall of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.” The academics replied, “Oh yes it was!”
Next, a governance expert drew parallels between the “Late Antiquity” era and the tension between centralized efforts, and dispersed local innovations, that have been part of the American saga from the very start.
Then, other readers suggested other ways of making connections, contrasts, and implications.
That brings us to what will probably be the wrap-up—but who knows. Here are several more messages, starting with a long one, about further extracting Rome-and-America comparisons and contrasts:
1) “The empire made the emperors.” In my article, I said that since World War II the United States has run an “empire without the name.” A historically minded reader draws out the implications:
First, it’s entirely appropriate, as you do, to compare the Roman and American empires—even though the US rules its empire as Romans of the republican (not imperial) era did.
In other words, the US empire is an “empire of obedience.” It uses all manner of tools to persuade semi-independent states and other groups to do its bidding, rather than directly governing territories within formal borders. Direct governance and a formalization of borders occurred under the Roman princeps (emperors).
Second, while it’s convenient to date the “fall” of the western Roman empire, it’s not especially useful from an analytic perspective. The western empire had been decentralizing for quite some time, while “barbarians” had been effectively ruling parts of it, directly and indirectly.
It’s critical to note these groups did not conceive of themselves as “invading” or seeking to “overthrow” Roman rule. By and large, they were forced to enter Roman territory by other attackers. Their rulers were also, by and large, Romanized. They largely ruled in cooperation with local Roman elites and using Roman techniques. Odoacer positioned himself as a local Roman ruler formally subservient to the emperor in Constantinople.
What happened in the West was very different from what happened in the East, when the truly “foreign” armies of Islam invaded and conquered territory ….
Third, it’s a bit of a stretch to say decentralization that happened in the 4th and 5th centuries was necessary for developments that came into their own 1,000 years later. There were guild-like groups in 1st century Rome. The Romans appear to have developed fairly sophisticated credit systems and engaged in long-range trade. Monasteries flourished in the eastern empire, which remained quite centralized and even more heavily militarized. And so on.
Could all of this had developed in something like the direction it took if the Roman state had not succumbed, over many years, to internal and external pressures? It’s impossible to say. But I also think it’s impossible to say it wouldn’t have.
In my mind, here’s the most relevant lesson from Rome for current US developments: The emperors didn’t make the empire. The empire made the emperors.
The US has had an emperor for decades, both through the taking of power and, more importantly (and in Roman fashion), through Congress delegating its powers to him. Trump’s willingness to use those powers has revealed what has been the case for some time.
2) “Last Bastion of Democracy.” The message below represents many I’ve received to similar effect, about what America’s fate might mean for China’s influence.
I’ll bet that the majority of people who lived under Roman rule and were not rich by their historic standards would argue that after Rome’s fall most of everything went to the crapper. Although the Romans were brutal at times, those under their rule were largely protected by Rome’s legions at the request of the local governor ….
Suggesting that America’s fall might not be so bad based on Rome’s fall and what occurred afterwards ignores the presence of Russia and China in the world today ………..
imagine a world without one of the last bastions of democracy, the one that feeds innovation and who has fed a large part of the world for decades. A world run by Putin and Xi, yea right, that would be pretty.
3) “Goths were very popular.” A reader who is conducting historical research, and who prefaces his note with an (unnecessary) apology for errors in English he might make as a non-native speaker, writes about why “barbarian” cultures spread so rapidly in Rome’s absence:
I just read Ammianus Marcellinus’ account (among many others) of the accelerated decline of the Empire in the second half of the 4th century and how it lead to its fall a century later.
One fact seldom mentioned about Romanity and Greco-Roman culture is how the people that lived under it seemed to deeply hate it.
A reoccurring fact of the era is how local populations defected to the barbarian tribes massively. People joined the Goths, the Lombards, the Franks and even the Huns in their wars against their own country! Goths were very popular among the population, even when then besieged Rome, we hear about the Roman plebs joining forces with their attackers.
Whole provinces that had been deeply Romanised, even colonized by Romans adopted Barbarian customs so quickly it looks like they were not conquered but liberated. Gaul, Italy, Moesia (in today’s Bulgaria) went over the Barbarians in some cases as fast as a generation. By the 6th century, Italians—Italians!—were proud to call themselves Lombards. …
There are many reasons for that; the institution of slavery, the degradation and corruption of civic institutions and services, the turbulent switch from a multireligious Empire to a monotheist and rigidly orthodox quasi-Theocracy.
From reading A. Marcellinus, I was surprised to learn that in fact, Roman civilisation at that point was only working were the emperor was currently residing. As soon as the emperor moved, law, order and good administration collapsed. This is probably why the Emperors in the 4th century were constantly on the move ….
4) Wrapping it up. From a reader in the Midwest:
1) My takeaway from decades-ago reading was that European technology, commerce, wealth surpassed Roman levels around 1100 or so. If that’s right, there was a dark age in concrete senses. The trend among historians I read in graduate school was to push the Renaissance back earlier and earlier, but not to deny that there were losses requiring a renaissance.
Then again, who knows, maybe they were wrong, and/or current revisionism has shrunk the dark age (rightly or questionably) to nothing.
2. If the U.S. federal government continues its descent it will probably take malign forms that will suffocate or actively crush effective local government and other cultural capital. …
5. The question of whether our federal government is on a permanent downward trajectory raises the question of risk/reward in the most radical proposed norm-breaking for a narrow Democratic majority: filibuster end, new state creation [JF note: eg, Puerto Rico, D.C., court packing]. Maybe we’re at the point where risk-taking is the most prudent course—a grab to activate the emerging demographic majority before Republicans manage to suppress democracy altogether.
6. The Pax Romana was also real (or was it?), and the end of Pax Americana may prove very dangerous.
7. Environmental pressure—rising seas, desertification, natural disasters—is probably already driving and will continue driving government dysfunction, while government dysfunction accelerates environmental degradation.
I am not entirely despairing. It’s always hard to tell what ills are cyclical and which ones are one-way streets. No one in the 1980s would have dreamed that crime in the U.S. would go into major remission; maybe mysterious forces will dissipate extreme polarization—and we’ll build new defenses against fake news/brainwashing in free societies. Maybe major technological breakthrough (or an ice age) will save us from global warming.
But it’s hard to get too cheery about compensations for [the end of] a functioning federal government.
The new print issue of the magazine has a short thought-experiment article, by me, on what happened after the fall of the Roman empire. (As I point out, this concerned the Western empire only—the one based in Italy, and the one Edward Gibbon described in The Decline and Fall. The Eastern empire, based in Constantinople, had many more centuries to run.)
In a first round of reader responses, historians and others reacted (mainly) to the article’s (intentionally overstated) headline, “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.” And in a second round, a veteran of governance issues named Eric Schnurer argued that a renewed focus on local-level renewal and innovation was proper, since localities were the only places where innovation had ever occurred.
Here is another round, on the point I mainly hoped the article would raise: how Americans, ever optimistic about the rebound capacity of their perpetually self-reinventing system, should think about the possibility that “it’s different this time,” and that national-level governance might finally be strained beyond its rebound abilities. Over to the readers:
1) Civil servants still want to serve. In my article I quoted Philip Zelikow, of the University of Virginia, on the difference between national-level and local officials. At the state, local, and regional level, Zelikow said, elected and career officials have no choice but to work together and actually solve problems. Whereas at the national level, politics is more and more about culture war—“who you like, who you hate, which side you’re on,” as Zelikow put it.
A career official at a national-level agency replies:
In November, I will mark 32 years of federal service.
My grandparents came here with nothing. I’m an age of rising tides; my parents had the grit and good fortune to grant me and my brothers and sisters every reasonable opportunity, and then some.
That’s fundamentally why I entered public service, and that’s fundamentally why I remain in public service. I am grateful, and feel a responsibility to give back.
Your essay, comparing our federal state to Rome in its age of decline, strikes a chord, and in doing so fills me with an undeniable melancholy.
I push back against Zelikow’s “which side are you on” fatalism about national governance, even as I admit I see evidence of it all around me.
I’m not tossing in the towel yet.
2) “Optimates” vs. “Populares”: The battle goes on. From a history professor of my own Boomer generation:
I have been thinking about that [Roman] period quite a bit lately, as we see the collapse of societal norms and the failure of many central governments to actually govern.
I see the present as actually more in parallel to the fall of the republic in the first century B.C.E.
At that time, the empire had begun to take form, with vast amounts of wealth pouring into the center, but mainly enriching the senatorial oligarchs. The men who had fought the wars were forced off their land, which came to be farmed on vast plantations by slaves. The new global order failed the yeomen, mainly because the rich, who controlled the government, refused to relinquish any of their wealth to help the impoverished citizens.
The society broke into two warring parties: Optimates and Populares (the “Best” and the “People”). They engaged in wars with each other, mobilizing personal armies, and violence came to be used as a means of government with leaders of each side being killed by mobs, culminating in the death of Julius Caesar. The society had become so divided that in the end, the only way to govern was by autocratic rule: Augustus.
I fear that we are near that point, and that a demagogue will arise who has more shrewdness than our current demagogue-wannabe. Trump has blazed the pathway that others can well follow.
Trump’s party represents the Optimates—the wealthy—but we could just as well see a leader representing the Populares come to power. Think if Huey Long had been successful in the 1930s. Populism can cut both ways; call them national populism and social populism …
We are seeing the breakdown of liberal democracy across the world, as happened in the 1930s. It was finally restored after a decade of slaughter. It may not be restored again. At the least, something new has to take form, and that will not come from our generation.
One interesting parallel to the period that you do discuss in your piece is that the “barbarians” were not invading the empire to loot and pillage. Mainly, they wanted to share in the wealthy and stable Roman society, get a bit of land for their people, and be secure from tribes like the Huns on the other side of the border. They knew Rome very well; many of their leaders had been leaders in the Roman armies, and many were Roman citizens. The Vandals were not really that vandalous …
In the same way, people are now migrating en masse into Europe and the U.S. in pursuit of better lives, to participate in the wealthy and stable Western societies, to escape poverty and brutality.
Climate change plays a significant role in driving people out of their homelands, and that will only become worse over time. Another factor, of course, is Western as well as internecine wars (think Iraq and Syria), and Western support of brutal governments (Central America).
But the influx of a mass of outsiders into the Roman empire (especially the western part) did ultimately lead to the breakdown of the wealth and stability they had come for.
There were many reasons for this, including intertribal battling among the newcomers and the disappearance of the Roman legions as a controlling force, but there was a continuing social disintegration and insecurity. The stable Roman civitas crumbled, quickly in some places (Britain) and more slowly in others (Gaul). I am not bringing this up to agree with Trump’s mantra to “build the wall” (which is folly—the Romans tried in some places), but rather to stress that we must have a rational immigration policy and consensus that prevents destabilization. Mass immigration creates nationalist anger, which is fuel for nationalist demagogues.
As the Roman society disintegrated, government did become ever more localized. That worked for a while in some places (like France), but in time trade shrank, education declined, government services passed away, and instability increased.
One could imagine some parts of the U.S. doing quite well for a time without a federal government, but other parts might do very poorly. Infrastructure would fall apart, as it did in post-Roman Europe. More people would flow across unpoliced borders, adding to the disruption and to the reactions. This would not play well in a society as well armed as the U.S.
No one knew that “Rome had fallen” when Odoacer brushed aside the grandly named Romulus Augustulus in 476, only that the Germans now ruled Italy in name as they had in fact for the past decades. Even in our own long lives, can we know what history might see as having passed in our lifetimes, perhaps that we are now at the transition from the 500-year Modern Age into what-we-do-not-know (as John Lukacs has written)? Life went on, as for the frog in boiling water whom you have analyzed …
Several hundred years after the fall of Rome, new forms and new states began to take shape amid the ruins, and by the 12th century, western Europe was again thriving. But it was a long and difficult time between the fall of the empire and the rise of Europe. I would not wish that on my children and grandchildren, or on theirs.
The long-term results of the failure of governance we are living through will be regrettable, though perhaps as necessary as the Dark Ages.
3) The new corporate “nationality.” A Westerner who has lived for years in Japan writes about the local-versus-national tensions within the United States:
One idea is to reorganize the 50 states into seven regions that match the baby bells created when AT&T was broken up … The merits to such a reorganization are to unify many basic services: Do we really need 50 DMVs and 50 Medicaid programs and who knows how many other layers of bureaucracy that get repeated state by state? This could enhance basic services at the subnational level … On the other hand, it may create the equivalent of seven proconsuls competing among themselves to follow Rome’s decline into empire …
What seems more likely to me to occur over the next 50 years, and something that I oppose, is a rift, with sovereign-individual stance married to the corporatization of society …
Instead of citizenship being based on contiguous borders, our lives are bounded by what membership card(s) we carry. I can go to an Amazon condominium after buying dinner at Whole Foods paid for by my Amazon coins via my Kindle and travel in my Amazon car ad infinitum. And if I am a Sapphire member, better deals as I jump from location to location but stay in the Amazon or Apple or Goggle or Facebook or whatever bubble. When a person uses an “out of service” provider, of course rates go up, and pity the people who cannot afford/are rejected in their membership bids. Blade Runner marries Brave New World.
Finally, on the question of if this time is different compared with other times due to change! change! change! Yes and no. I believe that in past periods, starting around 1870, in these early periods, the degree of change was much greater than now. No electricity versus Wi-Fi and rechargeable batteries; no telephones/movies/radios versus watching reality TV on your cellphone, etc., etc.
But the pace of change does seem to be much faster and disconcerting for all generations. This deserves further explanation, but who has the time to read, let alone write … ?
4) Let’s talk about ideology, and class. Another academic writes (in a message I am substantially boiling down):
1) I have spent the past seven years studying the Eastern Roman empire, which is usually called “Byzantium,” and which Gibbon himself dismissed as basically the 1,000-year decline of the Roman empire.
His is a monstrous oversimplification, and it has degraded our understanding of ancient/medieval history ever since Gibbon’s own day (1776), just as Adam Smith’s dismissal of the timelessness of mercantilism has degraded our English-speaking understanding of ancient/medieval economics ever since the same time (1776). [JF note: On the Adam Smith point, check out this article, by me, from 25-plus years ago.]
Given what is already well known about how the U.S. so-called Founding Fathers (itself an egregious simplification of the revolutionary generation) understood the transition of republican Rome into the empire, before we sink our teeth into late-antique history, it might be worth remembering that our understanding of the past, especially the more distant past, is ALWAYS (and has always been) subject to the political machinations of the present, and even historians’ own careers aren’t guided so much by how well they interpret the past, but by how well their interpretations suit the sensibilities of the times in which they happen to be writing …
[JF note: Leaving out point No. 2, a long discourse on the difficulty of understanding the real life of peasants in different eras of history.]
3) Generations are important for understanding deep history. For the past 70 years, young generations of Americans have been told that they ought to be living better than their parents. That was fine for the Boomers and for Gen Xers, but this is clearly not the case for Millennials.
So we were lied to. Big surprise. So were the generations who fought for and against Prohibition, slavery, and Unionization (and for Odoacer as well, arguably). Why else would (according to the 1860 U.S. census) a majority of non-slave-owning Southern whites sign up to fight for the cause of Confederate slavery at the outbreak of the American Civil War? …
4) Let’s not forget the power of ideology in the present. In the fifth-century present, Christianity (and Judaism and the various forms of Paganism) was as much part and parcel of social cornerstones as the ideology of the “American dream,” “intersectionality,” and “MAGA” is today …
The point is that we should never underestimate the power of ideology to bind people to a common cause, whether in the fifth century, the 11th century, or the 21st century. Ultimately, we as historians dismiss the significance of religion (and collective conviction) at our own peril.
5) Finally, class. With the rapid adoption of Christian laws and social structures throughout the Roman empire during and after the fourth century, the rigid laws fossilized a system of landowners (fief holders) and land workers (peasants).
The road to serfdom is something that ever since Hayek has been capitalized by the likes of Ayn Rand and her disciples, but it truly begins with the rules that one class lives by and another class lives above.
This may sound quite Marxist, but that’s because it is. Without centralized regulations, we automatically return to a system of landowners and toilers, whether we call them ancient/medieval sharecroppers or modern bartenders. When ideology is co-opted by the elites to perpetuate their children to inherit their elite status (whether we call it aristocracy or meritocracy), we return to the so-called Dark Ages.
This is not simply “Marxism”; it is historical materialism. And it is the only actually reliable guide to studying the past that we have ever truly innovated since the time of Marcus Aurelius.
5) “I believe in America.” And, finally, quite a different view of the ever present, ever reinterpreted past:
As the famous first line in the movie The Godfather reads, “I believe in America.”
While many of us continue to do so, an alarming number of Americans have fallen victim to the in-vogue critique that “woe is me” and things are awful.
For some, this is a reality. I read stories about the homeless problem in major U.S. cities, how drug addiction and tolerance of theft are literally robbing thriving communities of their once-proud fortitude of citizenship. I read daily how Big Tech companies are continuing to mislead the American public about how they monitor and police speech and content their employees regard as offensive, and God knows what with our personal information …
But what I mostly don’t see now is pride—pride in how fortunate we are to live in this country. It’s called gratitude …
Talk to someone middle-aged who grew up in Soviet Eastern Europe, and you’ll find out quickly why they left for America. We now live in a world where we can get anything we want, at any time of the day. Nearly all buildings and houses have central air-conditioning. Transportation is readily available for everyone. The economy is currently booming with employment we haven’t seen in three generations. Murder rates are at all-time lows. There hasn’t been a serious threat to the homeland in 19 years. There’s a new superhero movie out every three months in theaters. Netflix programming has people indulging on their couches more than ever.
Most people who are angry and disheartened have never known a world like the Dark Ages, the Black Plague, serfdom, smallpox, the Great Depression, WWII, or even the height of the Cold War. And we have room to complain that America sucks?
One of the reasons the Roman empire fell was not because of physical overextension by the state (which is true), but by its people taking for granted what the Roman empire had done for the modern world …
Is it any coincidence many of the founding era sought to emulate Roman law and antiquity as they established the republican virtues and culture of the 1780s to the 1820s? And what’s more, many of the Founders warned, much like the scholars of latter-day Rome, what would likely be the downfall of the continent and our country: indifference and ingratitude from within for what America meant as an idea …
The truth, in my opinion, is that 9/11 sapped us of our confidence. And the ensuing years of lies, mismanaged wars, and bank bailouts; an incoherent foreign policy over multiple administrations; and now the rise of brash and offensive populism in both ideological camps have Americans feeling more anxious than ever …
Perhaps we should be devoting much more to teaching civics again, and appreciating the separation of powers, appreciating why men like James Madison, George Mason, John Adams, Gouverneur Morris, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington matter so much that it is in our individual interest to be informed of who they were and what they did to establish the freedoms we often take for granted.
More so, it’s about time we recognize African American contributions during the founding era, too. In spite of their plight, we should be recognizing Peter Salem, Phillis Wheatley, James Armistead Lafayette, and James Forten. We should be embracing the fact that the Continental Army of 1781 was color-blind; that it stood about one-fifth African American at the Siege of Yorktown is extraordinary. Or that women and some African Americans were voting in New Jersey prior to 1807…
When we stop paying attention to all of the noise, and when we regain our focus, the fog will begin to clear, and King’s pronouncement of seeking to reach “the promised land” will once again ring loudly for those of us who are yearning for a more perfect union: one of freedom and liberty for all.
Thanks to all for responding to the thought experiment with thoughts, evidence, and opinions.
If the vote is close, Donald Trump could easily throw the election into chaos and subvert the result. Who will stop him?
Illustrations by Guillem Casasús / Renderings by Borja Alegre
There is a cohort of close observers of our presidential elections, scholars and lawyers and political strategists, who find themselves in the uneasy position of intelligence analysts in the months before 9/11. As November 3 approaches, their screens are blinking red, alight with warnings that the political system does not know how to absorb. They see the obvious signs that we all see, but they also know subtle things that most of us do not. Something dangerous has hove into view, and the nation is lurching into its path.
The danger is not merely that the 2020 election will bring discord. Those who fear something worse take turbulence and controversy for granted. The coronavirus pandemic, a reckless incumbent, a deluge of mail-in ballots, a vandalized Postal Service, a resurgent effort to suppress votes, and a trainload of lawsuits are bearing down on the nation’s creaky electoral machinery.
By moving forward with the Supreme Court confirmation, the president is giving lawmakers little space to carve out an independent identity that could help them win reelection.
President Donald Trump demands loyalty, but isn’t so quick to return it. Republican members of Congress have passed his bills, rationalized his behavior, kept him in power. Now, with a new Supreme Court vacancy, some of the GOP senators who risked the most in tethering themselves to Trump sorely need his help keeping them in power. He isn't guaranteed to deliver.
Trump tweeted today that he’ll announce his nominee at the White House on Saturday, and he’s said that he wants a vote to take place before the November 3 election. That could spell trouble for swing-state Republican senators in tough reelection fights, such as Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado. They have one obvious lifeline: Voters could split their tickets, backing Joe Biden for president and supporting Republicans down-ballot. But Trump is making that prospect a lot less likely. A fierce confirmation fight over the conservative replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsburg may only reinforce purely partisan voting patterns.
The nation’s top public-health expert addresses political interference in the COVID-19 response, but urges Americans to focus on the winter ahead.
Yesterday, after weeks of reports about political interference in the efforts of government scientists and public-health experts to inform Americans about the pandemic, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, directly addressed the two Trump-administration officials at the center of the recent controversy: Michael Caputo, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, and Caputo’s former science adviser, Paul Alexander, who attempted to censor what scientists, including Fauci, said about the coronavirus.
“Caputo enabled Alexander,” Fauci told me over email. “Alexander is the one who directly tried to influence the CDC (he may have succeeded, I cannot really say) and even me (I told him to go take a hike).”
Two years ago, Reddit had the internet’s biggest QAnon problem. Today, that problem is gone—but the company can’t really explain why.
Two years ago, most Americans knew nothing about QAnon, the ever-growing, diffuse, and violent movement devoted to a loosely connected set of conspiracy theories, most of which tie back to the idea that Donald Trump is leading a holy war against a high-powered cabal of child traffickers, some of whom drink blood. But at the time, it was a massive problem on Reddit, where conspiracy-minded members of the Trump-themed subreddit r/The_Donald had long stoked theories such as Pizzagate, and where a QAnon subreddit called r/TheGreatAwakening had racked up 70,000 subscribers, some of whom posted hundreds of times.
Last week, new polling showed that nearly half of Americans have now heard of QAnon. But on Reddit, the movement no longer has any meaningful presence.
This election could be the one that breaks America, Barton Gellman warns in our November cover story. Given its magnitude, we published the piece early online; read it now.
Bart and I caught up over email to discuss the ways America’s election mechanisms might break down entirely.
The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed.
Caroline Mimbs Nyce: So what happens if President Trump refuses to concede the election?
Barton Gellman: I don’t think it’s a question of “if.” Unless Trump scores a legitimate win in the Electoral College, everything we know about him says he will refuse to accept defeat and use every tool at his disposal to undo the result.
“If you only look at COVID deaths, you’re actually missing the scale of the setback,” he said.
In April 2018, I spoke with Bill Gates about two near certainties—that the world would eventually face a serious pandemic and that it was not prepared for one. Even then, Gates acknowledged that this was the rare scenario that punctured his trademark optimism about global progress. “My general narrative is: Hey, we’re making great progress and we just need to accelerate it,” he told me. “Here, I’m bringing more of: Hey, you thought this was bad? [You should] really feel bad.”
Two years on, COVID-19 has infected at least 31 million people around the world. The confirmed death toll is nearing 1 million. Both numbers are likely underestimates. The annual “Goalkeepers Report” from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is usually a hopeful account of an improving world, is instead a litany of loss. The global economy will decline by at least $12 trillion by the end of 2021. About 37 million people have already been pushed into extreme poverty. Twenty-five years of progress in vaccine coverage have disappeared in 25 weeks.
The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg concludes an era of faith in courts as partners in the fight for progress and equality.
The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ends an incredible legal career, one that advanced gender equality and inspired millions. RBG, as she became popularly known, was, like Thurgood Marshall before her, one of the handful of justices who, through their work as lawyers fighting for justice, can truly be said to have earned their spot on the judicial throne. But the outpouring of grief that has followed her death is not just for the passing of a revered figure in American law but also for the end of an important force in American society: the liberal faith in the Supreme Court.
This faith is more recent than many people recognize. A century ago, the biggest critics of the federal judiciary were on the left, and for good reason. For most of its history, the Supreme Court was the most conservative of the three branches of government, consistently blocking, or at least delaying, efforts at social, political, and economic reform. From Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the Court upheld the subordination of racial minorities, to Lochner, which denied the government the ability to regulate much of economic life, the Court epitomized what William F. Buckley would later identify as the conservative credo: the impulse to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.” By the Progressive Era and the Great Depression, it was widely held that the Supreme Court could only hinder, not help, the cause of reform.
One giant psychology experiment explains why many people seem like they don’t care about the deaths of the elderly.
Sometime this week, alone on a hospital bed, an American died. The coronavirus had invaded her lungs, soaking them in fluid and blocking the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that makes up our every breath. Her immune system’s struggle to fight back might have sparked an overreaction called a cytokine storm, which shreds even healthy tissue. The doctors tried everything, but they couldn’t save her, and she became the 200,000th American taken by COVID-19—at least according to official counts.
In reality, the COVID-19 death toll probably passed 200,000 some time ago. And yet “the photos of body bags have not had the same effect in the pandemic” as after other mass-casualty events such as Hurricane Katrina, says Lori Peek, a sociologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies disasters. “Is our national empathy—our care and love and concern for one another—at such a low level that we are not truly feeling, in our bones, in our hearts, and in our souls, the magnitude of the loss?”
The coming months of the pandemic could be catastrophic. The U.S. still has ways to prepare.
On April 13, Robert Redfield, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, appeared on the Today show and assured viewers that the worst was nearly behind us. It had been a month since the last gathering of fans in an NBA arena; a month since the fateful week when Americans began panic-buying bottled water and canned beans. The segment’s host, Savannah Guthrie, was broadcasting from home in upstate New York. With the light of a makeshift camera reflecting in her glasses, she asked Redfield to address reports that we could be facing another three weeks of social distancing. “We are nearing the peak right now,” Redfield told her. “Clearly we are stabilizing in terms of the state of this outbreak.”
Anne Helen Petersen, the author of the new book Can’t Even, traces some of a generation’s malaise back to its upbringing.
The writer Anne Helen Petersen’s new book is primarily about “burnout,” a condition endemic to the Millennial generation that she describes as a persistent “sensation of dull exhaustion” and “the feeling that you’ve optimized yourself into a work robot.” Expanding on a widely read BuzzFeedNews article from two years ago, Petersen follows lines of cultural and economic inquiry in an effort to identify the root causes of this generational malaise.
But her book, titled Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, is also about parenting. It is about how many Baby Boomers’ hands-on, sometimes overbearing approach to parenting was the product of the anxious economic milieu that they came of age in and how many Millennials’ overbooked upbringings set them up for burnout later in life. This hardly describes the experience of every child of the 1980s and ’90s, but this “intensive” parenting style was practiced widely, and not just by the middle-class parents who pioneered it. (It has since become a nationwide ideal across race and class.)