First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

A student and parent pass Widener Library's banners before Harvard University's Class Day Exercises in Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 27, 2015. Dominick Reuter / Reuters

A few days ago, for no intended reason, I came across this remarkable off-the-cuff essay from back in 2011 by my then-and-now colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates. In those days—before “The Case for Reparations,” before Between the World and Me, before the new, wonderful Apollo Theater rendition of Between—Ta-Nehisi was a closely followed writer but not yet the internationally influential figure he has deservedly become. And, like many of us writing online for The Atlantic in those days (I was doing so from Beijing), he used the then-flourishing model of the blog to carry out an extended thinking-out-loud relationship with his readers. That’s what you’ll see in the post mentioned above, which is about Ta-Nehisi’s encounter with some works of Herman Melville’s.

The world has moved on from that era of online discourse, principally because of a shift in the dynamics of readership and traffic. Then, you could assume that readers of today’s post would have some background awareness of what you wrote yesterday, or maybe last month as well. They’d know the kind of sensibility a comment came from, and of the parts of the argument you weren’t spelling out.

Now, any given post bears a greater expectation of being a stand-alone, completed thought—one that can “travel” via social-media sharing (through Facebook or Twitter) and will be comprehensible to people who have no idea of the preceding flow. With no assumption that posts will be read in context, there’s a correspondingly greater risk that any comment or sentence can be taken on its own, taken the wrong way, and instantly circulated to damaging effect. There’s less leeway for the “error” part of the trial-and-error aspect of thinking in public. The writing naturally becomes more formal and less playful.

To exist in journalism is to be comfortable with accelerating change—back in 2011, I quaintly resisted the term “blog” for my part of the site, little imagining that a few years later that word would have the lost-era resonance of “first quarto edition” or “hand-written letter.” And this shift in discourse, by which something is lost, is also part of a process by which a lot is gained: namely, a much broader potential audience for material on a site like ours. But it is a shift.

This is a build-up for saying that I’m going to try once more, within the confines of this space, to revive a little of the retro blogging spirit. As an example for today, here is a message that came in from a reader in an elite-university college town. (OK: It’s New Haven.) He says that an under-appreciated aspect of Donald Trump’s war on expertise deserves further attention. The reader writes:

I believe that you, like me, are the product of some of the most elite schools in the US.* I've been involved in the Ivy League, indirectly or directly, almost every year since [the 1980s] when we all drove my oldest brother to Harvard.  It's striking to see how Trump has turned his anti-elitist fire onto Harvard and its peers.  First their endowments were targeted in the tax reform.  And now we are learning that the Justice Department is going after their admissions practices.

Stephen Lam / Reuters

On Tuesday, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook finally appears before Congress. Franklin Foer, who has extensively chronicled the relationship between social-media companies and democracy, had a report yesterday on the phase-change in national power that his appearance might indicate. (And you can take an advance look at Zuckerberg’s prepared testimony, highly underwhelming in my view.)

Last week I ran a long dispatch by my friend Michael Jones, one of the inventors of Google Earth and former “Chief Technology Advocate” at Google, arguing the difference (as he had seen it) between the Google and the Facebook approach to customer data. In short: Both companies based their business on achieving a more and more precise understanding of who their users were. But, Jones said, there was a big difference in how they protected the information, Google being more intent on making sure the “Personally Identifiable Information,” PII, never left its own control.

His argument attracted a lot of discussion on Twitter, from some past and present employees of Facebook and some other figures. I’ve also heard many dissenting (and supporting) views.

The purpose of this post is to quote a few of the dissents, and a reply from Michael Jones.

First, from someone within the Facebook world:

[A relative who works for Facebook] told me: "The article is mostly false in regards to what advertisers get. It makes it seem like the advertiser knows your every move—as well as your kids. Obviously FB and Google have tons of PII, but it really only gets shared with advertisers in aggregate, not one by one. Unless the user volunteers it [i.e. fills out a form to provide their information to the advertiser]".

I agree with this. There are two cases to consider here: Facebook Advertisers and Facebook Applications.

Facebook Advertisers: When an advertiser uses FB (or Google) to post ads, very granular micro-targeting can be done in order to deliver the ads/content to a very specific audience. The advertiser doesn't know who the ads are getting delivered to; all of that information is held by FB (or Google). In this area, Google and FB are identical.

Facebook Applications: Facebook provides a mechanism to allow Facebook users to use their FB identify (i.e. username/pwd) to access other applications. This way, the user just has to remember their one identity. When the user first sets this up for a specific application, they are told that when doing this, their FB information is going to be provided to the application (and it lists the type of information that is going to be accessible by the app). Several years ago, the application could receive not just the user's information, but the information for the user's FB Friends as well. This type of access (friends) was discontinued.

Stephen Lam / Reuters

Over the years I’ve often turned to my friend Michael Jones for guidance about the cultural and social effects of technology.

For instance, five years ago I did an Atlantic interview with him about how the dawn of omnipresent mapping-on-your-phone was about to change personal and collective life. (He had been one of the inventors of Google Earth.) A few years before that, when Jones was the “chief technology advocate” at Google, he guided my wife, Deb, and me through the implications of having Deb’s Gmail account get taken over by a hacker in West Africa. My article about the episode was called “Hacked,” and it was an early klaxon about the importance of using two-stage sign-on systems. (If you’re still a holdout, install them now!) You can read more about Michael Jones’s background at the bottom of this piece. It’s relevant to note that he and I disagree on many issues of national politics, he taking a much more pure-libertarian approach than I do.

Earlier today I noted an op-ed in the New York Times by the law professor and technology-policy writer Tim Wu, saying that Facebook’s problems with privacy-protection were too fundamental to be repaired. (Instead, Wu argued for creation of nonprofit alternatives.) Michael Jones responded with the proposition below, which I’m quoting with his permission.

Here is what someone who has made his living in the details (and innovations) of the “big data” world thinks about the Facebook predicament. He begins by mentioning Wu’s article:

WRT the article you mention and the subject in general, I am your doctor. Let me explain the patient's disease and treatment.

The superficial (though global and important) issue is that FB allowed its partners/customers to access/copy/appropriate the personally identifiable information (PII) of 70+ million people.

The secondary issue is that one of the thousands of these PII recipients [that is, Cambridge Analytica] passed the data to those who could weaponize it and use to against America, FB's homeland. This is the drama of the moment, the ideas of "rogue application of data", "improper handoff of data", and "unintended usage against FB policy which therefore need to be strengthened." You'll hear noise about this when Mark Zuckerberg is questioned by Congress.

This is news and drama. But it is historical. Like a tragic accident with deaths and maiming, however terrible, it is done. There may be grave penalties, but no matter what they are, they cannot undo what has already happened—the harm, the threats, the future uses of that PII.

More meaningful is what happens going forward.

The idea of "as before, but better," which is MZ's road show theme, could only work in a world where nobody who decides understands the core issues. Sheryl Sandberg's sudden disappearance makes me wonder if perhaps this very issue is why—she well-understands the difference [between Facebook’s policies and Google’s, from her experience as a former VP at Google] and would not be able to pretend otherwise to the congresspersons and regulators.

This is where I'd like to share perspective with you about the real problem and the only known cure. A topic hopefully made clear by comparison with Google, analogy with you, and a review of the nature of targeted advertising.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Last week, as part of The Atlantic’s discussion of the 15th anniversary of the disastrous invasion of Iraq, I wrote a post called “The Inevitability of Ignorance.” Its main point was about the necessity, and the impossibility, of trying to “learn” from successes and failures in the past.

Everyone has heard the Santayana chestnut/homily/warning about “those who cannot remember the past….” But even the most earnest efforts to apply yesterday’s lessons can cause missteps across tomorrow’s terrain, with its inevitable surprises and differences.

Is this frustrating and contradictory? Yes, but in that it is like most other important challenges in statecraft and in life. (For instance: Should the United States be “idealistic” in its approach to the world? Yes. Must it also be self-interested and practical-minded? Also yes. The goal is to manage the tradeoffs, with the needle pushed as far as possible in the idealistic direction. As one of our presidents said about this contradiction more than 40 years ago*:

We live in a world that is imperfect and which will always be imperfect—a world that is complex and confused and which will always be complex and confused.

I understand fully the limits of moral suasion…. But I also believe that it is a mistake to undervalue the power of words and of the ideas that words embody. In our own history, that power has ranged from Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream."

As a tool in managing this contradiction, I also mentioned the insightful book by Ernest May and Richard Neustadt, Thinking in Time, which is about the difficulty and utility of looking for historic patterns and clues.

Now, several readers weigh in—on the specific failures born of amnesia I mentioned, Lyndon Johnson’s escalation in Vietnam and George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, and on the larger struggle to “learn” from the past only to the right degree.

George Frey / Reuters

For an index of the two-dozen previous items in the post-Parkland gun-safety series, please see the bottom of this post. In this installment, I offer reader messages on two main themes. One is whether it matters to talk about the specific “killing power” of the AR-15 and the ammunition it uses. The other is about the specific historical background of the “well regulated militia” phrase in the Second Amendment.

Ammo and velocity. Reader J.E., in Kentucky, writes to object to another reader I quoted here, concerning the lethality of the AR-15’s high-velocity bullets. J.E. writes:

Our laws have capably recognized distinctions within the Second Amendment’s category of “arms."  This series of articles have helped convince me that a further distinction needs to be made delineating a class of semiautomatic rifles which includes the AR-15 and variants.

For the purpose of regulation, it is possible to define this type of firearm objectively without falling prey to the kind of loopholes found in the ’94 “Assault Weapons” ban. Such a definition is crucial to avoid the slippery-slope fallacies which have been levied by regulation opponents in the past (or recently by Marco Rubio).  This possibility is evidenced by the 1934 National Firearms Act which has successfully regulated certain categories of firearms without spill over.

Since these definitions are inherently technical, the argument is not aided by gun-control proponents who make factual errors.  When at a gun range or store, I regularly hear such mistakes being ridiculed. They go viral on social media depicting supporters of gun control as clueless (an example here).

I fear the previous comment [here] about the kinetic energy of .223/5.56 round being greater than that of a 30-06 unfortunately provides just one more example.

Bob Strong / Reuters

The gun massacre in Parkland, Florida, was nearly six weeks ago. In those weeks, thousands more Americans have died from gun violence. (The average rate is around 90 per day, more than half of them suicides and the rest homicides or accidents.) Today hundreds of thousands of students and others have joined the “March for Our Lives” to demand a solution to what seems America’s most insoluble problem.

As I return to the country (and the online realm) after several weeks away from both, I’d like to resume the discussion that ran in this space in the three weeks after the Parkland killings. Starting with the most recent, the previous entries in the series are:

and before that:

Now, a sampling of messages that have come in, responding to arguments in the preceding rounds.

Seriously, why stop with the AR-15? A previous installment was from a reader who said it was unfair to single out the AR-15 for attention, even though it is a weapon originally intended for military use, now present by the millions in civilian households in America, and very commonly used in recent massacres. After all, that reader said, many other kinds of guns can have roughly the same effect. Another reader takes similar reasoning in a different direction:

A well-regulated militia USA Today Sports

Here are two pro-gun arguments, from people who are not bots and who don’t go in for the “you libtard cuck!” style of discourse. Obviously I disagree with their perspectives. But because they’re making sustained versions of two main arguments against current gun-control measures, I quote them at length.

The first argument is that it’s meaningless to concentrate on one weapon, the AR-15, even though it has been used in the most notorious recent gun massacres. A reader writes:

I am an avid firearms enthusiast, and I own an AR-15 rifle.

One of your articles begins as follows: "I’ve argued over the years that the AR-15 is a weapon designed for the military, which was never meant to be in civilian hands. Dissenting arguments fall into three main categories: slippery slope (any step toward gun regulation is really a step toward confiscation and prohibition); pointlessness (disturbed people will always find a way to kill); and hypocrisy (how can you complain about gun killings, when abortion goes on?).”

I would provide you with a fourth dissenting argument: functional non-uniqueness. The AR-15 style rifle was introduced into the civilian market in the early to mid 1960’s, not long after its fully automatic variants were introduced to the military. While the rifle was indeed originally designed for the military, there is nothing notable about that fact.

Such is the case for all semi-automatic rifles, both “assault"-style and wood/steel traditional style, bolt-action rifles, lever action rifles, etc. I would encourage you to research the M1 carbine, M1A, and M1 Garand. These rifles have all been used in the US military, but none are ever mentioned in the context of an “assault weapons” ban. Indeed, they would not even be affected by any such legislation. [JF note: as non-peevishly as I can, I’ll point out again that I researched and wrote in detail about the engineering and wound-ballistics history of these Army weapons, back in the 1980s, in my book National Defense and in this Atlantic article.]

AR-15 and AK-47 rifles are not functionally different from other semi-automatic rifles. You cannot provide any evidence to the contrary of that fact.

Are they fully automatic? No. All firearms available to civilians in this country are semi-automatic, which is a very different mechanism.

Do they have a particularly high rate of fire? No. The rate of fire of an AR-15 or AK-47 style rifle is no different than that of a handgun. [JF note: Without getting into all the details, I’ll note that this is a hotly contested claim.]

Do they fire particularly powerful rifle ammunition? No. In fact the AR-15 is illegal for deer hunting in many places because it tends to use very low-powered ammunition. I’ve recently read articles that compare AR-15 ammunition to handgun ammunition and arrive at the conclusion that the AR-15 is so powerful that it must be banned. What’s missing is a comparison to other rifles. Virtually all rifles are more powerful than the average handgun. Such does not render the AR-15 different.

Joshua Lott / Reuters

For the list of previous entries in this series, please see the index at the end of the post. But: if you’re revving up to send me a note explaining what kind of ammunition the AR-15 uses, and how it is similar to (and different from) the military’s M-16 (and so on), please first at least look at this 8,000 word Atlantic article I did on that exact topic more than 35 years ago.

For today’s installment, letters from readers who are familiar with weapons and with the military application of firepower, and the lessons it has for civilian use.

First, from an Army officer:

I’m a Regular Army officer and have served in frontline positions in Iraq (this only to mean that I’ve got a very small slice of experience with the practical application of what military grade weapons were designed to do).

I’m a southerner who grew up shooting .22s in the field behind the house from the time I could hold the rifle.

I own several “classic” firearms like the M-1 Garand and a Martini-Henry, though not an AR-platform, which I shoot enough at work, to be honest (something half-submerged in my mind makes me think that in my house I don’t need a weapon designed exclusively for combat, either for sport or home defense—my German Shepherd is a much better platform for both).

All that to say that for the first time ever, I find myself more strongly on the side of gun control than of unrestricted gun circulation. (Addendum: I am not one who “vet-splains” and expects that my service makes my point of view infallible, but I hope this might tease out some further lines in the discussion.)

My niche perspective is this: in the Army, firearms are much more heavily regulated than in civil society. How can so many enthusiastic gun owners say that they hold the military as a model, and yet not accept the strict regulations that go with the military’s use of firearms?

A memorial to victims of gun violence in 2013 Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Previously in this series:

Two readers with suggestions on talking and thinking about guns.

First, how we talk:

I’m struck by the central role language might be playing in impeding agreement on gun measures. In large part, this revolves around the manner in which words fall upon the ears of gun owners and the effect that has on gaining their (disclosure: our) cooperation (assuming this is truly sought).

Often the way gun control people call for regulation immediately discredits them in the eyes of the gun community or allows for far too-easy caricature.

Some examples are well-worn—for instance, the continued misuse of the term “automatic” instead of “semiautomatic.” Failing to make that distinction unfortunately provides an immediate off-ramp when it comes to engaging skeptical gun owners (assuming this is truly sought). Other examples (trivial as they may seem) include “clip” for “magazine”, “silencer” for “suppressor”, or “AK” vs “AR.”

We normally expect those seeking to regulate practices or products to have at least a passing knowledge of the same. If legislative debate confused wheels with tires (in the case of automotive regulation), ailerons with flaps (in the case of aviation), Oxycontin with Oxycodone (in the case of opioids), it would invite unnecessary obstacles to progress.

In more reasonable times or topics, we could get past inexact language either through faith in one another and/or the education that comes through civil exchange. That’s not where we are. Rather, what we have is a predominant viewpoint (additional reasonable gun regulations) confronting an intense, single-issue-voting, gun-identitarian minority saturated for decades with the doomsday fear and loathing of the NRA.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Previously in this series:

This installment  is  a sample of the range of recent response. Note: many people have written about David French’s post explaining why he feels “safer” owning an AR-15. Since I didn’t publish that item myself, I don’t feel that I should post dissents here. Instead I have forwarded those messages to the editors of the Atlantic’s new Letters section.

Moral equivalence and hypocrisy. I’ve argued over the years that the AR-15 is a weapon designed for the military, which was never meant to be in civilian hands. Dissenting arguments fall into three main categories: slippery slope (any step toward gun regulation is really a step toward confiscation and prohibition); pointlessness (disturbed people will always find a way to kill); and hypocrisy (how can you complain about gun killings, when abortion goes on?). Here’s a representative sample from the last category:

Funny how you write about gun violence in America

Iike so many others without a hint of care about the 700,000 (yearly average) deaths of kids in this country caused by abortion. Death is final no matter how it's done, legal or not.

All arguments about gun violence are hypocritical without addressing this sad, yet legal, genocide being accomplished by those liberal progressives who cry the loudest.

No I don't own any automatic or semi-automatic gun and I am not a Republican or Conserative party member. Just a middle of the road American Citizen who thinks the pot should stop calling the kettel black!

Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

Previously in this series:

Today, Eric Kingsbury, of San Francisco, on what he has thought, and felt, about guns after being robbed at gunpoint a year and a half ago. I should note that all the links in his dispatch are ones he added himself:

I’ve faced down a loaded gun once in my life. It was 10 PM on the night before the Fourth of July in 2016 and I was walking to the train from a friend’s house in Berkeley. Almost as soon as I walked out of my friend’s driveway, a kid ran across to the street to ask me if I had a phone. I told him I didn’t and asked that he leave me alone. That’s when he began to ask more forcefully. Within seconds I felt a hand over my mouth, as two other kids ran out from the shadows. I was completely helpless and, for the first time in my adult life, I wasn’t in control of my body or my fate.

The kid to my right showed me his gun. He told me he would, “pop a cap in you if you scream or tell anyone,” which would have been darkly funny—the sort of thing someone thinks they should say to sound hard—in almost any other circumstance. He then put the gun back in his sweatshirt pocket and pushed it up against my stomach. Meanwhile, his other two friends went to work grabbing my phone, peeling off my backpack, and checking all my pockets. Once they had everything, they let me go. It didn’t last more than 30 seconds, tops.

The aftermath of the whole situation was a bit of a blur. There was talking to the cops, a very restless night, and the conversations with all my friends and family the following morning. All of it was difficult, especially learning the truth that many of my most liberal-minded friends and family actually held quite retrograde views on race—the assailants were black, and I am white—that they felt freed to share now that something that they’d heard about so many times in the media had happened to “one of us.” But there was one question I got over and over again, one that really surprised me: Would it have been different if you had a gun?

George Frey / Reuters

Previously in this series:

Today, readers on the culture, psychology, and politics of regulating guns.

Really, pay attention to Australia—white-male privilege and all. Several previous messages have referred to Australia’s modern experience with guns. In short: After the mass-casualty “Port Arthur massacre” of 1996, a conservative government (technically, the Liberal party) changed gun policy, and since then Australia has had its share of gun violence but no remotely comparable massacres. By contrast, the five deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, and 7 of the 10 worst, have all happened since 1996.

Earlier a reader in Melbourne described the experience of living with the normal range of urban concerns but not the fear of being shot. Another reader who emigrated to Australia writes:

I read your Melbourne reader's comment with intense empathy, because it exactly describes my experience.

I lived in the USA for almost five decades. From the age of 14 to 49, I owned my own guns. There was never a period in which I did not own a gun. I even put one to good use at the age of 15, throwing my mother's boyfriend out of the house after they argued. The gun in my hands made him leave. At various times in my adult life I would carry a pistol, when I deemed it appropriate.

When I immigrated to Australia of course I had to sell off my arsenal. By that point it was down to two pistols (my assault rifle had been stolen years ago).

After my first year here, I noticed there was something different. I felt odd, as if something were missing. It took a road-rage incident to realize it was the absence of fear. No matter how mad someone got at me, no one was going to shoot me. My three decades of martial-arts training would not be trumped by a drunk with three minutes of target practice. My choice to be engaged with the people around me, even when they seemed angry, would not put my life at undue risk.

The irony is that I know almost as many people here (2) that own guns as I did in the USA (3). Hunters and sport shooters can and do have guns. It does involve a fair amount of paperwork and some expense, but not materially worse than owning a car. But the guns are different: single-shot, small caliber rifles or shotguns, not assault rifles and automatic pistols.