Since last time, there are winners in the Republican and Democratic primaries for President, Senate Democrats wrapped up a 15-hour long filibuster on gun control, and the election is somehow crazier. For our new July/August cover story, Jonathan Rauch examines how American politics got to this point in the first place and how/if we can fix it.
Politics are inherently complicated and it’s tough to visualize the political system without resorting to symbols. Unfortunately for me, this is our second politics cover in less than a year, so I couldn’t use the trusty Elephant and Donkey symbols again.
I decided this time to use another symbol of America and democracy: Uncle Sam.
Uncle Sam has shown up several times in The Atlantic’s cover history. The cover below on the left, illustrated by the legend Seymour Chwast, is for a 1995 piece about economic barometers. And in the 1997 cover on the right, also by Chwast, we see Uncle Sam in some sort of historical Conga line:
This next cover is from 2001. Uncle Sam is pulling double duty as a symbol of the might of “The Greatest Generation” as well as commemorating the Doonesbury comic strip at 40:
For our new July/August cover, the idea for the image started with the cover-line: “How American Politics Went Insane.” Then I started thinking about Jodeci … that’s right, Jodeci. They had a song called “Feenin’” in 1993, and the images of the band members in a padded cell are seared into my memory:
So, how about Uncle Sam in a padded room wearing a straight-jacket?!
Idea approved, I reached out to the brilliant photographer Phil Toledano to do the shoot. We did a quick casting for our Uncle Sam and the prop stylists went to work on building a partial padded cell, which would be expanded later in post-production. The make-up artist gave our model James Stephens (who is British) a goatee and bushy eyebrows. Once the outfit was on, he was transformed into Uncle Sam:
From there it was simply a matter of getting the right position (fetal) and expression (defeated and angry):
Once we finished the cover, we worked on the interior photo, which was inspired by the crying Native American from the famous “Keep America Beautiful” ad from the 1970s:
I came up with this idea on the spot, so we had to improvise. Luckily the make-up artist had some Visine. We filled our model’s eyes up with the wet stuff and got our shot. Now if someone asks you what you think about the 2016 election and the state of politics in general, you can send them this picture:
Here at The Atlantic, we like to do things … differently. The latest example is our Money issue, also known as “The Money Report.” We decided, of course, to do a cover story about not having money—more specifically, the shame that comes with financial stress in middle-class society.
A combination of poor decisions, as well as rising education and health care costs, have put the author, Neal Gabler, in a position where he would have trouble coming up with $400 cash in an emergency. “Financial impotence,” he calls it, “has many of the characteristics of sexual impotence, not least of which is the desperate need to mask it.” In other words, nobody wants to talk about their financial struggles.
When it came time to come up with the cover image, I started with ideas about financial struggle. One image I really liked was a guy in the hole. Literally. I wanted to stick a guy in a hole, holding his empty wallet:
Or what about using Gabler’s term “financial impotence”? Maybe a hand holding a tiny dollar?
While these would’ve been cool images, they didn’t convey the idea of “shame.” So I went back to the drawing board. I focused on the idea of shame and the “need to mask” oneself and then I thought about sports.
Let’s say you’re a fan of the New York Knicks … like me. And let’s say the Knicks are trash. You may decide as a fan to attend a game. You may also decide that rather than show your face, you would cover it up because you are too ashamed to be shown cheering for such a bad team. (C’mon Phil Jackson, get it together!)
I wanted to apply that idea to our cover. I came up with a new sketch:
Idea approved, I reached out to L.A.-based photographer Hugh Kretschmer. We came up with more middle-class situations for who we were now referring to as “Baghead.”
Baghead mowing the lawn …
Baghead getting the bill at a restaurant …
Baghead paying for organic groceries …
Baghead and the rest of his Baghead family at home …
When I got to the set, the first thing I did was put my art school education to some good use and draw sad smiley faces on paper bags:
For the interior shots we used painted backdrops, the kind that movie directors used before the invention of CGI. Our theme: The perfect middle-class life that Americans envision—nice house, two cars, white picket fence—isn’t always what it seems. It’s not real:
There is nothing like welcoming a model to the set and saying “… oh, that’s nice … now put this bag on your head.”
For the photos accompanying Gabler’s piece, we worked in some details for our more eagle-eyed readers, like Mr. Baghead’s driver’s license:
… and the name of the grocery store where he shops for his kale and organic yogurt:
… and, of course, the family dog*, who is equally ashamed:
As for the cover, we went with the old “pockets-like-rabbit-ears” (RIP B.I.G.), making this sad character even sadder. I really hope he gets it together …
Till next time, true believers!
*No animals were harmed in the making of this cover. It was fake.
11:45am: I’m on my way to the White House. We’re scheduled to photograph President Obama at 2:45. We have five minutes. FIVE minutes.
We’re not allowed in until 1:00pm but the photographer and crew want to get there early so we can get all of the equipment through security. Better to be early than late ...
I was told POTUS hates photo shoots. This needs to go smoothly.
Washington D.C. has been hit with a massive snowstorm that changed the shoot date and shut down the government … it also gave me major anxiety.
The photographer is coming from NY; thankfully the roads are clear.
11:55am: There they are. The photographer Ruven Afanador and his crew. They’re all wearing the same outfit. Black suit, black tie, white shirt. They look like the Reservoir Dogs of photographers.
We make it through security pretty quickly. I guess the snowstorm was a good thing. It’s a slow day at the White House.
12:20pm: We’re early, so we hang out in the Briefing Room. It looks a lot bigger on TV. There’s some chatter amongst the camera operators that Nancy Pelosi might come out to make a statement. Maybe Joe Biden!
Guess not. Nothing happening today, folks. The camera men and women pack up and go home.
I get a granola bar from the vending machine.
1:00pm: Clock is officially ticking. I text the press assistant to see if we can start setting up. She comes to get us and we follow her to the Diplomatic Reception Room where we’ll be doing the shoot.
1:18pm: It’s a short walk to the Diplomatic Reception room. Apparently this is where they take the White House Christmas photos. Cool.
I put my coat down on a chair that’s probably worth three times my salary. Someone quickly asks me to take my coat off of said chair. No problem.
Ruven and crew begin setting up. It’s kind of like that show “Chopped” when the clock starts and everyone runs to get ingredients. One guy is unrolling cords, one guy is setting up the backdrop, another guy is setting up lights. They’ve clearly discussed a plan of action beforehand.
1:45pm: Lights and background are set up. I’ve been talking to Ruven over the past couple of weeks about what we need to get from the shoot: a cover, interior opener, and secondary black and white options.
We don’t have a lot of time, so the plan is to smoothly transition to three different set ups.
First set-up: white backdrop with POTUS’s foot on a small wooden box
Second set-up: POTUS sitting on a stool in front of a warm gray backdrop while the white backdrop gets moved off-set
Third set-up: POTUS stands in front of the gray backdrop with his hands resting on a makeshift table top.
We practice the choreography of the shoot.
WH grounds folks yell at us for hitting the chandelier with the white foamboard backdrop. Oops.
We go over the plan with the press assistant and show her some test shots. They look awesome.
2:00pm: I’m hungry. Good thing I got that granola bar earlier …
2:05pm: Goldberg’s here. He’s scheduled to interview POTUS after we wrap. Says he could’ve done this whole photo shoot with his iPhone.
Now we wait …
A few people from the White House come to check in. We go over the plan. Make some small talk.
Suddenly there’s was a loud “POP” from one of the battery packs that power the giant lights. A power surge. Everyone looks around, like “what the hell was that?” Ruven didn’t flinch and assures Obama’s people that it happens, not to worry.
I think to myself if that happens while POTUS is in the room, we’re all dead.
2:25pm: We’re told POTUS could be here any minute. There’s a Secret Service agent! He sees me looking at him and then he gives me a look that says “I see you looking at me.” I look away.
2:30pm: Damn, I’m thirsty. They couldn’t give us water?
2:45pm: POTUS glides into the room. Right on time.
I was expecting that bald guy from the State of the Union to come in and say “ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States!” or ring a bell or something, but he just walks in and says “Hey everybody!”
I quickly introduce myself. “Hi Mr. President, I’m Darhil Crooks, Creative Director of The Atlanticjksnalsdfvoanvanfvbiporefnv”
“Nice to meet you Darhil!”
We head over to the set. POTUS shakes everybody’s hand and gives a “nice to meet you!”
2:46pm: Ruven is a pro. He quietly instructs POTUS what to do. He shows him where to stand for the first set of shots on the white backdrop and starts shooting.
Ruven: “Excellent … wonderful … no smile, Mr. President … perfect … excellent”
2:47pm: POTUS moves about two feet to his right and sits on a stool with one leg up, one on the ground. At the same time the white backdrop is moved out. The tabletop is moved in. Just as planned, it’s a beauty to watch.
54,000 miles. Three years. That’s how long Jim Fallows and his wife Deb had been working on this month’s cover story (coming soon). Their goal was to fly to every corner of this country and find out, first hand, what is “going right” with America so that maybe we can fix what was wrong.
As you can imagine, the results were … complicated. America’s a big place with different problems, different people, different resources. Kind of like … kind of like … a puzzle. Yeah! A puzzle!
America is like a puzzle that’s been pulled apart (or broken apart). The question is: Can America put the pieces back together? That’s the concept for our cover image. For the photo I reached out to the brilliant team of Adam Voorhes and Robin Finlay.
I told them the basic idea and sent over the piece. After reading a draft they sent over some sketches. First the sketches of the original concept:
Then, a few more iterations:
We settled on the puzzle with the hands. From there, some refined sketches:
“Hey, can we add a plane??”
“Ok. No plane. Let’s start shooting.”
“Nice. Let’s move some hands.”
“Hey. What’s the cover line? ‘Can America Put Itself Back Together?’ or ‘The Good News About America’”?
Every month, the editors and I have a meeting where we refine what we’re trying to say with the cover. What’s the idea? The term that kept coming up for this cover was “political seismic shift.” In other words, the political ground has shifted underneath each party’s feet, shaken by these outside forces. The establishment on both sides is losing its footing. After we figure out what the idea is, we then try to figure out how to illustrate it.
For starters, we wanted to use an elephant and a donkey. It’s a cliché, but sometimes clichés work. We talked about maybe having a split in the ground making its way towards the elephant and donkey, but that could be interpreted as a split between the parties, which is already, obviously, the case.
Then I started thinking about cartoons. More specifically, Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote. Take this classic scene, for example:
You know something terrible is going to happen, but the real beauty is in between bad things happening. The anticipation of the other shoe—or in this case, boulder—dropping is what makes this scene so funny. The goal was to capture some of that for the cover.
I wanted the image to show what it looks like after the “earthquake.” The damage was already done, the ground around the poor animals completely destroyed, their footing less secure. They’re about to fall. Maybe they’ll both get stuck on a branch and be OK. Or they’ll bounce off of said branch, go flying into the air, hit their heads on one of the falling rocks and so on and so forth. Who knows?
I sketched out the idea during the meeting:
The elephant and the donkey are trapped on this tiny, crumbling mountain … together. Instead of Wile E. Coyote’s “Help” sign, the elephant is holding an American flag.
Once everyone got on board with the concept, it became time to put it together. We obviously couldn’t wrangle an elephant and a donkey to sit on top of each other, then place them on a crumbling land mass. So, I reached out to Justin Metz, CGI genius. We found some perfect photo reference for the animals and he put together the rest.
After a bit of back-and-forth on the facial expressions (“not too cartoon-y,” more worried) and scenery (blue skies, more crumbling rocks), we had a finished illo. Add some words, and we have …
The U.S. is more dangerously divided than any other wealthy democracy. Is there a way back from the brink?
Until a few decades ago, most Democrats did not hate Republicans, and most Republicans did not hate Democrats. Very few Americans thought the policies of the other side were a threat to the country or worried about their child marrying a spouse who belonged to a different political party.
All of that has changed. A 2016 survey found that 60 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans would now balk at their child’s marrying a supporter of a different political party. In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, the Pew Research Center reported that roughly nine out of 10 supporters of Joe Biden and of Donald Trump alike were convinced that a victory by their opponent would cause “lasting harm” to the United States.
Hundreds of thousands of deaths, from either tobacco or the pandemic, could be prevented with a single behavioral change.
It’s suddenly become acceptable to say that COVID is—or will soon be—like the flu. Such analogies have long been the preserve of pandemic minimizers, but lately they’ve been creeping into more enlightened circles. Last month the dean of a medical school wrote an open letter to his students suggesting that for a vaccinated person, the risk of death from COVID-19 is “in the same realm, or even lower, as the average American’s risk from flu.” A few days later, David Leonhardt said as much to his millions of readers in the The New York Times’ morning newsletter. And three prominent public-health experts have called for the government to recognize a “new normal” in which the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus “is but one of several circulating respiratory viruses that include influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and more.”
When a currency’s value is based on belief alone, it’s liable to evaporate.
Carnage in the cryptocurrency market is nothing new. Over the past decade, even as the value of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ether has risen sharply, crashes have been a regular feature of the market. (There’s a reason HODL—“Hold on for dear life”—is a mantra among crypto believers.) But even by crypto standards, the destruction of value over the past six months—and in particular, over the past few weeks—has been staggering.
Since November, something like $1.5 trillion in cryptocurrency value has been erased. Bitcoin and Ethereum, the market’s bellwethers, are both down about 60 percent from their peaks. And most strikingly, the so-called stablecoin Terra and its sister token, Luna, which together were valued at about $60 billion six weeks ago, imploded in a matter of days and are now essentially worthless.
A conservative justice’s draft treats pregnancy as a simple matter: Either a uterus is occupied by a fetus or it is not.
When I train medical students, I emphasize that almost nobody is more acutely aware of time than an obstetrician is. Whenever doctors in my field are briefed about a new patient, the first question we ask is: “How many weeks?” The answer affects everything. A pregnant patient diagnosed with high blood pressure at 12 weeks is usually suffering from chronic hypertension, a condition not immediately dangerous to her. At 37 weeks, a similar blood-pressure reading signals preeclampsia, a direct risk to the patient and her fetus. A patient whose water breaks the week before her due date, at 39 weeks, is probably going to have a healthy baby; someone in the same situation at 20 weeks faces a terrifying ordeal that will probably end in infection and pregnancy loss. The dangers that a patient faces, the treatment options we can consider, the risks she may be willing to take—all of these evolve over the nine months of a pregnancy. The only people who understand this better than obstetricians do are our pregnant patients themselves, who count every passing moment in their bodies.
If you’ve tried to buy a home in the past two years, you have my most profound sympathies. Your experience has probably gone something like this: You found your dream home online; sent photos around to your family; visited the premises (or decided to buy, sight unseen); got your financial statements in order; smartly offered 10 percent over asking; and learned, several hours later, that no fewer than 831 other people had bid for the same house, which sold to a couple who paid 50 percent over asking, all cash, and cinched the deal with a contract amendment promising to name their firstborn child after the seller.
Yes, the American real-estate market really has been historically hellish, or historically hot, depending on whether you were trying to buy a home or sell one. Within the past year, just about every housing statistic you could imagine set some kind of berserk record. Home prices hit a record high, the share of homes that sold above asking hit a record high, and the number of available homes for sale hit a record low.
This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.
A shadow box above Rebecca’s dining-room table, hanging there since 2006, displays an autographed copy of the Pirates of the Caribbean script—signed by Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, and Johnny Depp. Though Rebecca, at age 36, is emphatically no longer a Depp fan, she says she keeps the script on her wall as a conversation starter. If someone asks about it, maybe she’ll go into the full story, rather than pretending she never liked Depp. “Also it’s not like it’s his smug little face,” she told me.
That face is everywhere right now, on account of Depp’s ongoing and highly public lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard. The case is complicated, and the testimony is rife with sordid, disturbing details. In short, Depp has taken Heard to court for defamation over a 2018 essay she published in The Washington Post that identified her as a victim of domestic abuse and sexual violence. Heard also made abuse allegations when she filed for divorce from Depp in early 2016, and was granted a restraining order against him.
Facing the painful parts of life head-on is the only way to feel at home with yourself.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
Some years ago, a friend told me that his marriage was suffering because he was on the road so much for work. I started counseling him on how to fix things—to move more meetings online, to make do with less money. But no matter what I suggested, he always had a counterargument for why it was impossible. Finally, it dawned on me: His issue wasn’t a logistics or work-management problem. It was a home problem. As he ultimately acknowledged, he didn’t like being there, but he was unwilling to confront the real source of his troubles.
A new viral outbreak is testing whether the world has learned anything from COVID.
Updated at 9:51 a.m. on May 20, 2022
Yesterday afternoon, I called the UCLA epidemiologist Anne Rimoin to ask about the European outbreak of monkeypox—a rare but potentially severe viral illness with dozens of confirmed or suspected cases in the United Kingdom, Spain, and Portugal. “If we see those clusters, given the amount of travel between the United States and Europe, I wouldn’t be surprised to see cases here,” Rimoin, who studies the disease, told me. Ten minutes later, she stopped mid-sentence to say that a colleague had just texted her a press release: “Massachusetts Public Health Officials Confirm Case of Monkeypox.”
The virus behind monkeypox is a close relative of the one that caused smallpox but is less deadly and less transmissible, causing symptoms that include fever and a rash. Endemic to western and central Africa, it was first discovered in laboratory monkeys in 1958—hence the name—but the wild animals that harbor the virus are probably rodents. The virus occasionally spills over into humans, and such infections have become more common in recent decades. Rarely, monkeypox makes it to other continents, and when it does, outbreaks “are so small, they’re measured in single digits,” Thomas Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me. The only significant American outbreak occurred in 2003, when a shipment of Ghanaian rodents spread the virus to prairie dogs in Illinois, which were sold as pets and infected up to 47 people, none fatally. Just last year, two travelers independently carried the virus to the U.S. from Nigeria but infected no one else.
In Australia, one cat seems to have destroyed an entire bird sanctuary.
After the victims were found dead—“decapitated” and “breasts opened”—the residents of a beachside community in Mandurah, Australia, took matters into their own hands. Five locals, along with Claire Greenwell, a biologist at Murdoch University, arranged an overnight stakeout. Another neighbor lent them a mobile home, so they could take turns sleeping at the scene. The target of all this drama? A cat.
Specifically, a cat who had taken to killing in Mandurah’s bird sanctuary. Mandurah had recently fenced off nesting grounds to attract a vulnerable and cartoonishly adorable native seabird called the fairy tern. Fairy terns don’t usually nest near people, but to the city’s great pride and joy, they did start having chicks in Mandurah. It was a success story—until it wasn’t.
Don’t be fooled by the pastel tones and gentle sounds of Harry’s House.
So much music exists to provoke bold emotions—ecstasy, amazement, deep blues. Other music conjures pastel feelings, soft and in-between. For example, much of Harry Styles’s third album, Harry’s House, imparts the mild joy that one might get from completing a list of chores. Some songs spark the regret of failing to book the ideal dinner reservation. Over multiple listens, another sensation, like faint indigestion, may occur: concern.
The 28-year-old Styles is one of our era’s most dependable stars, the kind who can book 10 nights at Madison Square Garden. Charisma and preexisting fame explain some of this success, but he has far outrun his charming former bandmates in One Direction. Threealbums into a solo career, Styles has shown a knack for groovy, rock-inflected sing-alongs that could have come out anytime in the past 50 years. Yet Harry’s House also hints at something modern—a vague cheerfulness that isn’t escapist so much as it is dissociative.