Americans don’t realize how fast the country is moving toward becoming a better version of itself.
I have seen the future, and it is in the United States.
After a several-year immersion in parts of the country that make the news mainly after a natural disaster or a shooting, or for follow-up stories on how the Donald Trump voters of 2016 now feel about Trump, I have a journalistic impulse similar to the one that dominated my years of living in China. That is the desire to tell people how much more is going on, in places they had barely thought about or even heard of, than they might have imagined.
In the case of China, that impulse matched the mood of the times. In the years before and after the world financial crisis of 2008, everyone knew that China was on the way up; reporters like me were just filling in the details. In the case of the modern United States, I am well aware that this message runs so counter to prevailing emotions and ideas as to seem preposterous. Everyone knows how genuinely troubled the United States is at the level of national politics and governance. It is natural to assume that these disorders must reflect a deeper rot across the country. And indeed, you can’t travel extensively through today’s America, as my wife, Deb, and I have been doing in recent years, without being exposed to signs of rot, from opioid addiction to calcifying class barriers.
What if the problem isn’t the president—it’s the presidency?
I. A Broken Office
Donald Trump often appears to be a president in rebellion against his office. A president, we have come to expect, hastens to the scene of a natural disaster to comfort the afflicted. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, President Trump arrived tardily and behaved unseriously, tossing rolls of paper towels at storm-battered residents as if he were trying to drain three-point shots.
We have come to expect that when the national fabric rends, the president will administer needle and thread, or at least reach for the sewing box of unity. After white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, shouting “Jews will not replace us,” President Trump’s instinct was to emphasize that there were good people among the neo-Nazis.
The New York governor recently repeated a common, but dubious, explanation for the epithet.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently attracted criticism from immigration advocacy groups for describing himself as “undocumented” during a bill-signing ceremony in Albany. “You want to deport an undocumented person, start with me, because I’m an undocumented person,” he said.
What drew less attention was how he explained that provocative conclusion. “I came from poor Italian Americans who came here,” Cuomo said. “You know what they called Italian Americans back in the day? They called them ‘wops.’ You know what ‘wop’ stood for? ‘Without papers.’”
Cuomo’s attempt to express solidarity was a bit overheated, to say the least: He isn’t really undocumented, of course, and as the son of a former governor, he wasn’t exactly marginalized growing up. But his historical justification for the parallel is similarly dubious. While his Italian immigrant forebears may indeed have had the epithet wop slung at them, there is no evidence that the word originated as an acronym for “without papers.”
“Alexa, play Jeopardy!” my son will bark. And she follows his command.
When I was a kid, in the early 1980s, I programmed a little in a language called BASIC. Recalling that long-ago era, I see myself, bowl cut and braces, tapping at the keyboard of some ancient computer:
10 PRINT “[Whatever]”
20 GOTO 10
And when I hit “return,” up jumps a digital column of whatever I’d entered between the quotation marks to fill the screen:
And so on. Later in my life, there were more advanced computing experiences—my parents eventually got me a TI-99/4A with Extended BASIC—but 20 GOTO 10 lingers. Those early days at the computer enabled me, for the first time, to issue commands. I was—suddenly, shockingly—a person to be obeyed. My commands didn’t carry any grand force, as do commands in, say, a military context, but issuing them did make me happy. The Nobel laureate Elias Canetti described the dynamic well some 60 years ago in Crowds and Power:
The peppy mixed messaging of I Feel Pretty is only the latest reminder: American culture doesn’t fully know what it’s talking about when it talks about attractiveness.
Every once in a while I’ll rewatch an old episode of Friends, because it’s familiar and soothing and there. The other day, Netflix served up one of those flashbacks the show would sometimes air to poke light fun at the friends and at the visual absurdities involved with being alive in the ’80s: Rachel in chintz, Ross and Chandler in tragicomic Flock of Seagulls bouffants, etc. Watching the meta-nostalgia, I was reminded of the existence of a minor character who nonetheless plays a major role in the show’s universe: Fat Monica.
Fat Monica is technically just a younger—and slightly larger—version of Standard Issue Monica; what becomes wincingly clear, though, as the Friends flashbacks play out, is that Fat Monica differs from the other Monica not just in scale, but in kind. Padded by her former girth, Monica Geller—the person who categorizes her hand towels and designates committees for the planning of birthday parties and is, in general, in thorough control of her life and her Type A-tastic self—undergoes a transformation: Her voice gets higher. Her movements become jerking and awkward. She giggles a lot, uncomfortably. Remember when, in those late-series episodes of Family Matters, Steve Urkel would go into that flashing box and emerge as the suave Stefan Urquelle? Fat Monica’s metamorphosis is a little like that, but in reverse: The transformation depletes her dignity rather than compounding it. She becomes bashful. Childish. Foolish. Watching the proceedings, you start to wonder whether Monica Geller, for the purposes of the flashback scenes, was given a fat suit or a lobotomy.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Journey Into Night,” the Season 2 premiere.
Every week for the second season of Westworld, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of HBO’s cerebral sci-fi drama.
The company is offering free kits to researchers studying populations in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere—but the ethics are tricky.
23andMe is best known for selling DNA test kits, but the company’s real value lies in the data of its 5 million customers. The bigger its genetic database, the more insights 23andMe can glean from DNA. That, in turn, means the more it can tell customers about their ancestry and health and the more valuable the data it shares with academic scientists and sells to pharmaceutical companies for research. About 80 percent of 23andMe customers choose to participate in such research.
As impressive as 23andMe’s genetic database is, it still has noticeable gaps—especially among Africans, Middle Easterners, Central Asians, Southeast Asians, and indigenous Americans. Almost any group that is not European, basically. In the scientific literature, in fact, nearly 80 percent of the people who have participated in studies of associations between genes and diseases are of European descent.
A new study finds that Trump voters weren’t losing income or jobs. Instead, they were concerned about their place in the world.
For the past 18 months, many political scientists have been seized by one question: Less-educated whites were President Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters. But why, exactly?
Was their vote some sort of cri de coeur about a changing economy that had left them behind? Or was the motivating sentiment something more complex and, frankly, something harder for policy makers to address?
After analyzing in-depth survey data from 2012 and 2016, the University of Pennsylvania political scientist Diana C. Mutz argues that it’s the latter. In a new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, she added her conclusion to the growing body of evidence that the 2016 election was not about economic hardship.
An upcoming case could show how the justices would react to the special counsel being dismissed.
An upcoming Supreme Court decision in a case most Americans have never heard of, and even lawyers will find obscure, could offer a clue about how the justices would react to President Trump firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Technically, the case of Raymond J. Lucia v. Securities and Exchange Commission, being argued Monday, involves only the arcane question of whether SEC Administrative Law Judges are “officers” or “employees” of the United States. The Trump Administration’s handling of the case reveals it, however, to be the latest chapter in a right-wing campaign to weaken independent administrators and to enlarge the power of presidents to bend the bureaucracy to their will. It may be one of the Court’s most important decisions for the future of the rule of law.
A look at the available evidence
It only took five minutes for Gavin Schmidt to out-speculate me.
Schmidt is the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (a.k.a. GISS) a world-class climate-science facility. One day last year, I came to GISS with a far-out proposal. In my work as an astrophysicist, I’d begun researching global warming from an “astrobiological perspective.” That meant asking whether any industrial civilization that rises on any planet will, through their own activity, trigger their own version of a climate shift. I was visiting GISS that day hoping to gain some climate science insights and, perhaps, collaborators. That’s how I ended up in Gavin’s office.
Just as I was revving up my pitch, Gavin stopped me in my tracks.
In 2012, Kansas passed one of the largest income tax cuts in the state’s history. Today, it serves as a cautionary tale.
“We will have among us a young adult population that doesn't know how to ‘hashtag adult.’”
Seventy years ago, Albert Einstein presaged atomic war.