First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

Back in the fall of 2015, in the midst of travels around the country in which my wife, Deb, and I saw countless examples of citizens taking responsibility for changing their own communities, I mentioned a specific way Deb and I intended to apply the lessons of what we’d seen. As the first item in this series explained:

Over the past two years, Deb and I have been increasingly impressed by the importance, vitality, difficulty, and effectiveness of local-level activism in the cities we’ve visited across the United States. We’ve interviewed and written about the people who are committed to changing the texture of life—and have!—in Sioux Falls, or in Fresno or San Bernardino, or in Greenville, or in Eastport or Duluth or Columbus or Allentown or Burlington or Redlands or Pittsburgh.

They have done it. What about us?

What about the place where our children were born and where they finished high school, where we own a house and have lived for more years than anyplace else: Washington D.C.? Don’t we have an obligation to keep pitching in too? The District is the site of national / international struggles but also of intense local involvement. Over the years, our local involvement has been mainly with our immediate neighborhood and with youth sports leagues and the public schools, when our children were there.

One way in which we got involved was to join a group of neighbors trying to bring the nation’s capital up to speed with a growing number of other cities, in phasing out use of the (obviously) noisy, but also surprisingly dangerous, polluting, environmentally destructive, and technologically outdated piece of machinery known as the gas-powered leaf blower. Dozens of cities have already done this, and the pace is increasing. A recent example is Key Biscayne, Florida, which mandated a shift to cleaner, quieter battery-powered equipment—and gave lawn-maintenance companies a whole 180 days to comply.

So over the past two years, or the parts of it when we’ve been in D.C., we have met with our neighbors and friends for the unglamorous but weirdly satisfying slog of trying to change minds and organize support for local legislative action. Specifically, we’ve been urging the District Council to consider and pass a bill proposed by Council Member Mary Cheh, which would phase out gas-powered leaf blowers over the next few years. (You can read its text here.)

The enjoyable part has been regular meetings of our little group of allies, over muffins and coffee at one or another of our houses. It has also meant talking with experts on air pollution, noise pollution, lawn maintenance, engine-design, regulation-enforcement, and other issues, from all around the country. Plus preparing testimony for City Council appearances. Calling council members one by one, and going downtown to for discussions with them (or first, usually, their staffers). Arranging and attending demos of new clean-tech lawn equipment. Raising money to support a website and informational videos. Going to local citizen forums to explain the issue. Learning about the regulatory thickets that apply in most U.S. states but are different in California (which has more leeway, under federal clean-air regulations, to set its own standards) and Washington D.C. (which has less leeway on almost everything than “real” states do, as attested by our “Taxation Without Representation” D.C. license plates.)

The most important work of all, done mainly by one of our colleagues and described more fully below, has been going from one Advisory Neighborhood Commission to the next, explaining the arguments, and getting commissioners to vote in favor of changing the District’s policy.

This item, which will be the last in the series in this space, is an account of what has happened since then, what comes next, and where further online updates can be found.

All notes on "Civic Engagement in Washington DC" >
The NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch has been speaking out against gun reform in the wake of the deadliest school shooting in American history. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Previously in this series:

What’s the mail like from those who reject the need for new gun laws? Here are two samples. The first is — unfortunately, but realistically—representative in its tone and argumentative style of most of the dissenting messages that have arrived:

No mass shootings else where? China...Mao...unarmed public....millions killed

Russia....gulag....KGB...unknown number killed....unarmed public

Balkans....Serb nationalism....thousands killed....unarmed public

You can argue both sides until you are blue in the face, but the way this country's government acts I want to be able to protect those I love and my property.

I also believe that this country has turned away from the concepts that made it great. The media has been complicit in this by promoting "headline" horror stories to increase market share or to scoop others.

The latest shooting has just as much or more to do with the mental health crisis in this country than guns, but let's blame an inanimate item and not the user. It's part of the failure to make people take responsibility for their actions that is condoned by politicians and media both.

To truly fix societies problems is our greatest challenge, using a type of firearm to blame ALL societies ills is not going to solve anything. If you are not promoting a broad fix to a social problem then you are promoting a narrow "headline" grabbing stance, then on to the next"headline".

Americans are letting others think for them i.e. jump on any bandwagon. People need to think for themselves, the most underused human organ these days is the brain

To the reader’s last point I say: Amen.


A different kind of argument comes from a reader who contrasts my enthusiasm, as a small-plane pilot, for the “right to fly,” with my skepticism of AR-15 owners’ right to enjoy, use, or even possess their weapons. The reader says:

In response to your notes on the AR-15’s I think the pro-AR or at least neutral AR position comes down to that despite the high profile shooting, the actual deaths from AR’s are a small portion of total deaths and the lawful owners of AR’s don’t see why they should be deprived of their rights due to the illegal actions of others.

Kevork Djansezian / Reuters

Previously in this series:

Here are some readers with extra elements on this discussion—political, cultural, international. First, an American reader on the interaction of current concepts of masculinity and the nearly all-male population of mass gun murderers:

There are obviously many components to the gun and mental illness issues but one thread that never seems to be acknowledged: America is going through a crisis of masculinity brought on by structural changes in our economy.

Jobs, if men possess them, no longer provide routes to self-esteem for working class men and so, with the help of the NRA, guns have become a talisman for a potency and meaning that has evaporated in the marketplace.

Take a moment to look at the gun magazines at your local WalMart and register the themes that are hammered home. Constant references not to hunting but to warfare, and the trappings of masculinity, the humorless insistence on the tacticality of every day objects, including, I kid you not, a spork with a hidden knife. These industries are preying on the needs of men to feel like they have a job, bigger than themselves, a protector of the fatherland, the constitution.

When I look at [the Las Vegas mass murderer] I see a man who gave himself a job. He worked out all the details as though he were a character in his own mission impossible. He moved from stage to stage with the precision of an engineer. He embraced this culture of death that is fed to men as a surrogate for that which was available for all too short a time in this culture: the ability to take care of a family on one salary.

George Frey / Reuters

For recent items about gun massacres, and the public response, please see (starting with most recent):

An ongoing theme in many of these items is the responsibility—practical, political, moral—of the responsible gun-owning community in the face of ongoing massacres.

A veteran who owns AR-15s writes in on this point, with emphasis in original:

I read your suggestion that current assault-rifle owners (particularly of AR15 rifles or derivatives) might begin to recognize that the they don't actually need to own such a weapon and possibly even turn them in.

I happen to own two similar weapons myself, and I readily admit that I do not need them.  They are pleasurable to shoot, which I do not do all that often.  Other than that, they lay in the top of my closet.  My Revolutionary War reproduction Brown Bess musket gets far more use.

It also happens that I am a school teacher.   I spent yesterday afternoon in  class assuring 14 -year-old students it was okay to text their parents that all was well, after I observed several students earlier in the day replying to anxious missives from parents.

I told them their parents were a little freaked out.  I told them I was a little freaked out also.

I did not tell them that I was livid with anger.  I did not tell them I had not been able to sleep the last two nights because I was alternating between depression and rage.  I did not tell them that otherwise rational adults were now insisting that I and other teachers should now bring handguns into our classrooms and pretend to be infantrymen on a potential battlefield in school every day, because it was even more unthinkable to simply not sell any more weapons of war to civilians!

Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

For recent items about gun massacres, and the public response, please see (starting with most recent):

In this installment, readers respond to the proposal in a previous item that the news media should become much less “restrained” and considerate, much more blunt and shocking, and instead “show us the carnage”: Run pictures of the corpses of children and other civilians after gun attacks.  

From a reader in Kentucky:

What prompts me to write was the "show us the carnage” headline of your recent column. That headline likely resonated with anyone who lived in Louisville in 1989, when Joseph Wesbecker killed eight coworkers and wounded many more with an AK-47 at the Standard Gravure printing plant.

The plant was owned by the Bingham family, which had also owned the Courier-Journal until a few years prior. The next day, the Courier ran the attached photo on the front page, along with other photos of injured (and possibly dead) victims. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Archive screen shot, via Atlantic reader.

Jonathan Drake / Reuters

What does the dissenting mail look like, when I publish an item like this one, arguing that Mitch McConnell illustrates the pious hypocrisy of those who are “deeply saddened” by gun massacres but obstruct efforts to prevent them, or round-ups of reader responses like this?

Here is a representative sample.

Draconian controls. I said in my McConnell item that the NRA had successfully equated any proposed control on gun use and ownership with total control. (We recognize that DUI laws and liability-insurance requirements don’t amount to confiscation of your car, but that distinction disappears when we’re talking about guns.) One dissenting note illustrates this outlook:

Sorry, but I'm guessing you'll favor draconian gun laws no matter what the crime rate or frequecy of mass killings. I also suspect that you'll carry water for the anti-gun Left no matter what, and that you'll keep ginning up facts to supoport that cultural/ideological project.

I'm sure that you and your fellow East Coast journalist colleagues will cover for Feinstein, Schumer, Pelosi, and company when federal  agents kill some innocent people in the course of enforcing the gun laws you favor the way you did back in the early '90s.  Will you have "blood on your hands" then?

Frankly, I'm sorry I ever got into the habit of looking at Atlantic Online. I suppose I assumed it was the same publication that Michael Kelley edited years ago. I won't do it again, though.


Could you provide an example of where the proposed controls have worked? I believe this is a fair and reasonable question to ask.

We have background checks last I looked.

And if you ban a weapon like the demonized AR15...who pays for the rifles as they are turned in? Do you really believe they will all be turned in even if you could get it passed?

This knee-jerk reaction every time this happens, pretending that gun control is the answer without any evidence is not helpful.

Would you favor the death penalty for anyone possessing an unlawful firearm?

Again, I think these are fair questions you left unanswered in your article.

For an example of where proposed controls have made a difference, I would offer: the entire rest of the world. All developed countries contain mentally ill people. Only in the United States do these people repeatedly engage in large-scale slaughter with guns. Only in the United States do significant numbers of people argue that policies or controls could not possibly make a difference.  


After a previous horrific massacre via AR-15, the one in Las Vegas last winter in which a single murderer killed or injured more than 600 people, readers wrote about that weapon and its history. For reference, those items were:

Now we have another massacre; more “thoughts and prayers” and other pious but empty rituals by legislators who will not do a single thing to reduce the chances of the next one; and more reaction from readers.

Can anything be done, by anyone or any organization, to stop the onslaught of gun violence? Readers suggest three approaches, involving: the media, the responsible gun-owning community, and the political opposition to the NRA.

Different media coverage. I mentioned yesterday the familiar cycles of news coverage: 24/7 updates, panels, and interviews by cable programs; explanatory pieces by big newspapers; snapshot photos showing victims when they were alive and happy, then respectful portraits of their families wracked by grief. What could be a different approach?

“Show Us the Carnage.” A reader, writing in after a different massacre, says that coverage is too respectful and tasteful:

The media needs to show Americans the truth.  Watching tonight's news coverage of the massacre, it was bizarrely possible to think of a mass shooting as a random event like a tornado that causes a community to rally together.  Thoughts and prayers for all.  Yet entirely missing from the coverage was the truth of what had happened.  No pictures of pools of blood.  No video of blown out brains.  No images of dead children in pews.

Just as the tide of public opinion against the war in Vietnam did not turn until images of the war reached into American living rooms, today's epidemic of mass shootings will not end until Americans see and share in the bloody experience.  Scalia's Heller decision will not join Taney's Dred Scott opinion in the ash heap of history until Americans are moved to action by indelible images from mass shootings of suffering and death.

So here is a plea to the media. Do not let decency standards shield us from this indecency.  Show us the carnage and do not let Americans look away from what the NRA's lobbying has wrought.

This reader is right, that photos made a difference in the Vietnam era. The recent Ken Burns / Lynn Novick Vietnam documentary series went into the detailed background of the two photos that ran on the front pages of most newspapers, and that anyone alive in that era can recall. One was of a nine-year-old girl running naked, and in terror, away from a napalm strike. The other was of a South Vietnamese general blowing out the brains (literally) of a North Vietnamese agent / spy. A decade earlier, the photo of the battered body of the lynched Emmett Till also revealed what had happened to him in a way mere words could not have done. And lest we forget: the black-eye photo of one of Rob Porter’s ex-wives,  Colbie Holderness.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Following this article, and this reader-response note, more responses on the most accurate way to name the political challenge of these times.

Pale’ocracy. A reader recommends this term, “because of its varied and versatile potential definitions:”

--First, the Greek word pale’ is defined as “to wrestle,” broadened to mean “to struggle, fight, conflict, contest.” That’s deep Trumpism, especially because of his participation in, admiration for and understanding of professional wrestling. (It is one of the few things he really does understand.)

--Second, broadening the prefix to paleo, you get something old or ancient, and in modern contexts, referring to cavemen. I do not have to flesh this out.

--Third, pale (with no accent mark) is an accurate representation of Trump’s favored skin tone (besides orange, of course), favored peoples, and favored nations.

* * *


I've been using another term to describe this time: Trumpistan.  There is something of the Central Asian despot to Trump: corrupt and megalomaniacal like Saparmurat Niyazov building a statue of himself that rotates with the sun.  

* * *

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Yesterday I posted an item about the challenge of calling the Trump era by its proper name—and explaining why the Dutch writer Rob Riemen, in his new book To Fight Against This Age, argues that it’s destructive and misleading not to use the plain term “fascism.”

Readers have written to endorse (or oppose) the wisdom of using the “fascist” label, and to suggest other terms. Despite the Atlantic’s new policy of featuring most reader-interaction in a new online Letters section, which will identify reader-writers by their real names, for now I’ll quote some of the incoming traffic the way I have in the past, without using people’s names. Here we go:

Kleptofascism. From a reader on the East Coast:

I propose “Kleptofascism.” This is very much a kleptocracy that demonstrates fascist tendencies. I even suspect they would relax some degree of their authoritarianism if it meant they could steal more from the land and the people, up to a point, after which the authoritarian tendencies they so obviously revel in would kick back in. In the end, they are trying to strike an unholy balance between the two destructive tendencies, and I am lost as to which is more destructive, in the long term.

Perhaps I should add that authoritarianism can be (theoretically) a net positive, given the right dictator, but there is no idealized mathematical model in which kleptocracy can, by definition. Not that this distinction matters to this country in this day. But it’s an inherent tension that may be worth exploring for weaknesses. Maybe that way liberty lies.

* * *

Letters for the March of Dimes arrive at the White House in 1938 Library of Congress

This past week The Atlantic announced a sensible new policy for engaging readers in our ongoing conversations. The news is explained here, and it amounts to a shift away from an open Comments section, and to a managed online Letters section.

To me this is welcome news, in that it finally brings my own personal practices into compliance with Official Magazine Policy. Over the decades of online writing for the magazine—yes, decades, since the debut of what was called Atlantic Unbound back during Bill Clinton’s first term—I’ve quoted reader mail as often and amply as I could manage, but never had open comments on my own articles or posts. (Every couple of years I explained the rationale, for instance here and here.)

I’ve greatly enjoyed, and continually learned from, the flow of mail from readers around the country and the world. When I went on a several-month book leave for a previous book, back in 2011, some of the writers who graciously appeared as guest bloggers in this space were ones I’d first gotten to know via reader mail.

The main challenge of moderating this kind of conversation has simply been volume. Since I do this strictly on my own, if I’m the middle of something else—like writing another book, or even writing a long article, or some organizational project that is a diversion from online life for a long period—the mail piles up and I don’t parse through it or share excerpts here. This has been true in spades over the past year, when for writing, organizational, and other reasons I’ve been away from online life for weeks at a time.

* * *

So the new reader-mail era begins today, with these two practical implications:

  1. Please feel free to send mail directly to me, through any of the links this site has always made available. But by default I’ll ship most or all of it on to our skillful Letters editors, who can handle it more consistently than I’ve been able to. I may still do opportunistic Reader Mail items as circumstances dictate.
  2. Please note a change in real-name policy. My practice has been to assume that any incoming mail is eligible for quotation, unless stated otherwise—but that I would never use the sender’s real name, unless the sender specifically requests that I do. Our new letters policy emphasizes real-name use. You can see the details in the announcement and in this sample of what we’ve already published.

As a sayonara offering, and as a sample of the valuable mail that has piled up in the past month when I haven’t been able to quote it, after the jump you’ll see a letter from someone who has thought seriously about different sorts of “talent” and “genius,” and takes issue with my item last month, “How Actual Smart People Talk About Themselves.”

Darren Staples / Reuters

This article is edited from a story shared exclusively with members of The Masthead, the membership program from The Atlantic (find out more). Atlantic fact-checking editor Yvonne Rolzhausen walks us through her fact-checking routine, a process that continues, sometimes for months, until she and her team have confirmed every last line.

In a world where misinformation thrives and basic editorial standards are often jettisoned as unnecessary expenses, fact-checkers can sometimes feel like an endangered species. But The Atlantic is dedicated to accuracy and truth—and therefore to rigorous fact-checking. Our pieces seek to be thought-provoking and interesting—but to be truly insightful, they must be right.

Checkers verify every fact published in our magazine, from specific details and quotes to larger generalities. We think about a piece on a variety of levels: Are the basic facts correct? Are the facts underlying various opinions correct? And, finally, do they all fit together into a comprehensive and solid argument? We go word by word, line by line. For an intensively-reported piece, I might have dozens of sources to contact and hundreds of questions for an author. The process can take anywhere from a few hours (for a very short article) to weeks or even months (for a complex, legally-fraught one).

Jim Bourg / Reuters

After this piece, on the “open secret” about Donald Trump (and the Congressional Republicans) that Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury revealed; and then this one, on the way people whom the world views as “like, very smart” tend to describe themselves; and then this one, on whether Trump’s history-agnostic “shake things up!” approach might bring rewards, I’ve received scores of interesting messages. For extraneous deadline and editing reasons, I’m not likely to be able to do anything with them until the end of next week, around January 20.

This is a placeholder note of thanks until then, and an announcement of an intention to choose at that point from them a sampling of ones whose insights have survived the news cycle.

And for the moment, two brief samples of material that has arrived.

First a “party girls” hypothesis on why Trump might be going out of his way to say “I’m actually smart”:

I agree with you in general that geniuses, or people who are skilled in some way, or even people who have certain personality traits, never really need to go around saying they are XYZ.

However, I do think there might be an exception for when outsiders or "enemies," or what have you, challenge those traits.

For example, there's a girl who I often tease as a "party girl" even though she insists she doesn't party a lot or isn't wild like some of her friends think she is. She constantly tells me that she is well-behaved and that she is good, when I tease her. My response is always that "good girls or well-behaved girls don't need to tell people that they are well-behaved. People just know." Of course, I am joking with her about being a party girl, but I can see why if someone has an inaccurate perception of you, you might strongly protest.

So, I suppose if someone is constantly ragging on your intelligence or your curiosity, you might protest. Or challenge people to an IQ showdown. I personally think that's childish, but then again, I don't have people challenging my intelligence left and right. (This is not me saying that I am a genius, just that nobody calls me the opposite.)

So yea, I guess my bottom line is that if someone is challenged on character trait XYZ, then maybe that someone might feel compelled to defend themselves constantly.