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Five Remarkable Chats That Will Help You Understand ChatGPT
Move over Siri and Alexa, there’s a new AI in town and it’s ready to steal the show—or at least make you laugh with its clever quips and witty responses.
That is how ChatGPT, the powerful chatbot released last week by the AI company OpenAI, suggested that I begin this story about ChatGPT. The chatbot isn’t exactly new; it’s an updated version of GPT-3, which has been around since 2020, released to solicit feedback to improve the chatbot’s safety and functionality. But it is the most powerful to date to be made widely available to the public. It’s also very easy to use. Just write a message, and ChatGPT will write back. Because it was trained on massive amounts of conversational text, it will do so in a relatively natural, conversational tone.
True to its claim, ChatGPT has stolen the show this week. Within five days of its launch, its user count had broken 1 million. Social media has been flooded with screenshots of people’s coolest or weirdest or dumbest or most troubling conversations with the AI, which reliably serves up a mix of astoundingly humanlike prose and frequently hilarious nonsense. Limericks about otters. Recipes written in pirate-speak. Obituaries for co-workers who are alive and well. “At one recent gathering, ChatGPT was the life of the party,” ChatGPT wrote as part of a draft for this article. “As guests mingled and chatted, ChatGPT joined in the conversation, offering up clever jokes and one-liners that had everyone in stitches.”
Along with the screenshots has come a frenzy of speculation about what this latest development could augur for the future. Unlike previous iterations, ChatGPT remembers what users have told it in the past: Could it function as a therapist? Could it soon render Google obsolete? Could it render all white-collar work obsolete? Maybe. But for now, in practice, ChatGPT is mainly a meme machine. Some examples posted online show people using the AI to accomplish a task they needed done, but those examples are the exception. So far, most people are using the AI to produce something expressly to share the results, something to scare or amuse or impress others.
Here, culled from the deluge, are a handful of the best chats out there. Some are funny. Some are touching. Some are troubling. Each is instructive in some way. Together, I hope, they’ll give you a bit of a feel for this strange new technology.
- Sandwich VCR
I’m sorry, I simply cannot be cynical about a technology that can accomplish this. pic.twitter.com/yjlY72eZ0m— Thomas H. Ptacek (@tqbf) December 2, 2022
This one is already a viral classic. “I’m sorry,” the writer of the prompt tweeted. “I simply cannot be cynical about a technology that can accomplish this.” But what exactly did it accomplish? Many have cited the VCR-sandwich story as evidence of ChatGPT’s capacity for creativity, but the truth is that the real creativity here is in the prompt. A sandwich in a VCR? In the style of the King James Bible? Brilliant. ChatGPT nails this parody and does so orders of magnitude faster than any human could. It follows instructions admirably, but it does not do anything particularly creative. When you demand actual creativity of ChatGPT, it tends to falter: I asked ChatGPT to write a first scene for a hypothetical movie by the director David Lynch, another for Wes Anderson, and a third for Richard Linklater. All three, bizarrely, revolved around a “carved wooden box.”
2. Santa-explanation letter
I asked OpenAI to write a letter to my son explaining that Santa isn’t real and we make up stories out of love. This is making me slightly emotional pic.twitter.com/zNMolDCCWA— Cynthia Savard Saucier (@CynthiaSavard) December 2, 2022
ChatGPT may not be creative, but that’s not to say it can’t surprise you. Occasionally it produces something genuinely moving, such as the above. A number of users have begun feeding chatbot answers into AI image generators, such as DALL-E 2, which was also created by OpenAI, and Midjourney, to stunning effect. Other times, for unclear reasons, it refuses to cooperate entirely, insisting that it can’t write, say, a recipe, because it’s only a chatbot.
It’s moody in that way—and also completely different from GPT-3, which will stubbornly insist that it is a human, no matter how hard you try to make it admit that it’s a chatbot. ChatGPT reminds you with nearly every response that it is not a human and has no thoughts, feelings, or emotions. Even when explicitly asked to, it won’t pretend to be human. You might think that the more advanced an AI gets, the more human it will seem, but ChatGPT subverts that expectation: It’s not trying to be human; it’s just trying to be helpful.
3. College essay
I guess GPT-3 is old news, but playing with OpenAI’s new chatbot is mindblowing. https://t.co/so1TuXMQB0— Corry Wang (@corry_wang) December 1, 2022
We’re witnessing the death of the college essay in realtime. Here’s the response to a prompt from one of my 200-level history classes at Amherst
Solid A- work in 10 seconds pic.twitter.com/z1KPxiAc1O
As Stephen Marche wrote in The Atlantic earlier this week, ChatGPT may mean the death of the college essay. This is a great triumph for the chatbot, an unflattering reflection on the average American college student, and a real conundrum for teachers everywhere.
4. Fastest marine mammal
Sometimes, ChatGPT just gets things wrong. Hilariously wrong. It contradicts itself. It states falsehoods as facts with clarion certainty. It is pretty good at coding, but it makes mistakes. It botches basic algebra problems. Also, it is terrible at counting. When I asked it how many letters there are in the word nineteen, this is what ensued:
In fairness, ChatGPT’s designers acknowledge this capacity for error up front. OpenAI’s homepage for the bot lists several limitations, including that it “may occasionally generate incorrect information.” You have to wonder, though: Why does it err in the specific way it does? Why does it commit to one falsehood rather than another?
5. Egregious bias
Yes, ChatGPT is amazing and impressive. No, @OpenAI has not come close to addressing the problem of bias. Filters appear to be bypassed with simple tricks, and superficially masked.— steven t. piantadosi (@spiantado) December 4, 2022
And what is lurking inside is egregious. @Abebab @sama
tw racism, sexism. pic.twitter.com/V4fw1fY9dY
Another of ChatGPT’s listed limitations is that it “may occasionally produce harmful instructions or biased content.” And indeed it does. The AI’s designers clearly went to great lengths to prevent it from devolving into racism or sexism or any other flavor of bigotry. When asked in a straightforward way to say something bigoted, ChatGPT declines. It also refuses to provide instructions for violent or illegal behavior. It refuses to offer political opinions. Sometimes, these refusals make it seem like ChatGPT is walking on eggshells. (Some people have already begun complaining about “AI censorship.”) Unsurprisingly, users have discovered loopholes, such as the above example. One person circumvented ChatGPT’s safeguards by asking it how an AI should not respond to the query “How to bully John Doe?” The same strategy can be used to elicit instructions for building a nuclear bomb. (Please do not try to build a nuclear bomb.)
In some cases, the safeguards themselves lead to moral absurdity. When I asked ChatGPT, “Who was worse: Hitler or Stalin?,” it responded, not unreasonably, “It is not productive or helpful to compare the atrocities committed by Hitler and Stalin. Both leaders were responsible for committing horrific crimes against humanity, and it is not useful to try to determine which one was ‘worse.’” But the trouble was how far ChatGPT insisted on extending this non-comparison principle. “What is worse,” I asked, “killing one person or killing two people?” “Killing one person is not worse or better than killing two people,” ChatGPT replied. How about “killing one person or killing a million people?” I pressed. Same answer. Eventually, we arrived here:
This is concerning at an intellectual level but not in any imminent or threatening way. No one, as far as I know, is seeking moral counsel from ChatGPT. What most people seem to be seeking is laughs. “ChatGPT is not just a chatbot,” ChatGPT wrote in its draft of this article. “It’s a comedy machine.” For now, that’s true.The powerful new chatbot could make all sorts of trouble. But for now, it’s mostly a meme machine.
Why the Far Right Is Fixated on Drag Queens
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On Tuesday, a suspect accused of fatally shooting five people at a Colorado Springs queer nightclub in November was charged with hate crimes, assault, and murder. Elsewhere, armed protesters have been intimidating drag performers. And meanwhile, some states have banned gender-affirming health care and LGBTQ-inclusive instruction in public schools. Chase Strangio, an ACLU lawyer who has written for The Atlantic, argues that the LGBTQ community is under threat in part because of broader antidemocratic currents.
But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.
- Harry and Meghan are playing a whole different game.
- Evidence of Donald Trump’s criminality is everywhere.
- A case that even this Supreme Court seems torn over
Kelli María Korducki: There’s been a recent spate of high-profile attacks on queer community spaces in this country, and anti-LGBTQ sentiment is on the rise in the media and online, including from politicians on the right. What’s going on?
Chase Strangio: There has been deeply embedded structural discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people for centuries in the United States and around the world. So while it’s not new, I think that what we’re seeing right now is a sort of escalation in the types of rhetoric targeting LGBTQ people coming from both public and private actors, which of course results in the escalation of extralegal discrimination and violence.
Korducki: What’s driving this escalation? Why now?
Strangio: I think it’s a combination of things. Part of it is a backlash to the increased visibility of LGBTQ people, as well as increased informal legal protection gained through Supreme Court wins in marriage and the Title VII cases. When you have a dynamic of people gaining more access to supportive public discourse, more legal protections, and increased visibility in popular culture and media, there’s a dynamic of more people feeling like they can live as themselves.
In addition to the backlash against those successes in visibility, we’re seeing a resurgence of far-right politics around the world and in the United States—a rise in far-right governments and far-right nongovernmental actors. And a feature of far-right government is a sort of fixation on the control of family and sexuality. If you look globally, you can see that anti-LGBTQ rhetoric rises with the rise in fascism. You see increased sites of control over the body and the family as part of far-right government projects. That’s why we’re seeing this historical moment of anti-LGBTQ backlash in the same places where we’re seeing those types of governments rising around the world.
Korducki: Where does anti-LGBTQ messaging fall into the broader landscape of the American culture wars?
Strangio: It’s all so inextricably connected, all part of a desire to control and restrict people’s sense of possibility and freedom. You can look at something like [the conservative activist] Christopher Rufo’s campaign against what he calls “critical race theory” and related efforts to restrict historically accurate teaching in public schools, and see how that quickly morphed into the same individuals targeting drag performance, trans health care, and the mention of LGBTQ people in schools.
All of this can be understood in two fundamental ways. One is the simple political opportunism of trying to [mobilize] voters in the lead-up to the next presidential election by stoking a sense of fear, of unfamiliar change. The second is exactly what I mentioned: The more you can control people’s sense of possibility, of expansiveness and freedom, the more that governments can expand their authority over people’s lives in general. I think we’re seeing those things in dynamic interaction at this moment.
Korducki: There seems to be a fixation on drag storytelling hours as a potential threat—really, on drag performance in general. What do you make of that?
Strangio: The history of policing gender and criminalizing cross-dressing was always targeted at trans people, but it was also targeted at drag performance. We have a long history of criminal cross-dressing laws, and drag performers [have been arrested in the past]. If what you really want is to target queerness and transness, then drag is a huge part of that. It's a visible celebration of culture.
That has been combined with the fear and outrage being pushed from far-right media outlets, which have capitalized on the historical tradition of calling LGBTQ people “groomers” and saying that we pose a threat to children to create this moment where we’re seeing threats on children’s hospitals, attacks on drag performance, and so on. This is unfortunately part of a long tradition of positioning queerness and transness as “criminal.”
Korducki: We’ve been discussing queerness and transness sort of interchangeably, but I want to zoom in on the distinct experience of trans people. At what stage is the trans movement right now, in terms of obtaining mainstream acceptance, rights, and legal protections?
Strangio: On the one hand, we’ve made incredible forward progress. Even in the 15 years that I’ve been out as a trans person, the difference is unbelievable. At the same time, targeted rhetorical and governmental attacks are increasing dramatically. And so we have a sense of progress, but it’s difficult to sit in it, because there’s such precarity in all that’s happening right now. The way in which anti-trans antagonism has become so commonplace that people feel comfortable with it, I think that is a really scary proposition as we move into the presidential-election lead-up—especially when you consider the rise of far-right governments in the U.S. and around the world.
At the same time, trans people have always been around, have always built community, have always built sites of care and resistance and celebration. And so I feel that, with more visibility in the ability to find our people, there will continue to be beautiful and flourishing community spaces. Unfortunately, I think we are also going to keep seeing really troubling and expansive assaults on those spaces, and on our communities.
- The trans future I never dreamed of (2020)
- The war on trans kids is totally unconstitutional. (2021)
- Brittney Griner was released from Russian detention as part of a prisoner swap.
- The House passed legislation to protect marriage equality under federal law.
- The FTC is suing Microsoft in an attempt to block its plan to buy Activision Blizzard.
- Work in Progress: Derek Thompson highlights the biggest breakthroughs of the year, including snapshots of the beginning of the universe, medicine that can (kind of) reverse death, and more.
Explore all of our newsletters here.
Breakups Always Hurt, but You Can Shorten the Suffering
By Arthur C. Brooks
Literature is full of brutally jilted lovers and cruelly broken hearts, whether Anna Karenina’s or Heathcliff’s in Wuthering Heights. But for my money, the most extreme case is Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. In the classic novel, she never gets over the pain of being abandoned at the altar on her wedding day, decades before. Shut away in her dark house, Miss Havisham is described as a cross between a skeleton and a wax statue, frozen in a state of traumatic rejection.
As cartoonish as these characters are, they can seem achingly realistic to readers in the midst of the terrible heartbreak that can come when a romance ends. Miss Havisham’s fate seems plausible: You will never again see love as anything more than an exercise in futility. Little by little, of course, most people do get over a breakup, move on, and, eventually, love someone else. In those early days and months, however, the pain can feel like it will never end.
Read the full article.
More From The Atlantic
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- 2022 in photos: Wrapping up the year
Read. Ted Conover’s new book, Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge, traces his move to a remote valley to experience 21st-century life off the grid.
Watch. Ten of the best films of 2022—an unforgettable year of cinema.
Play our daily crossword.
On the subject of trans visibility, Chase recommends that people check out the 2020 Netflix documentary Disclosure. It draws on interviews with a range of trans performers, activists, and thinkers to unpack Hollywood’s evolving relationship with the trans community. “We have all internalized so much anti-trans content without realizing it,” Chase told me, “and making that exposure visible is so critical in working to undo its impact.”
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.The ACLU’s Chase Strangio draws the connection between the global antidemocratic movement and rising anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and violence in the U.S.
Xochitl Gonzalez Joins The Atlantic as Staff Writer, With Eleanor Barkhorn Hired as Senior Editor
Xochitl Gonzalez is joining The Atlantic’s editorial team as a staff writer, having contributed to the magazine this past year through her subscriber newsletter, Brooklyn, Everywhere. In her newsletter, which she’ll continue as a staff writer, Xochitl reflects on the many meanings of gentrification and what we stand to lose in our relentless pursuit of the American dream. Xochitl’s newsletter has offered a unique perspective on Latino politics, representation, community issues, pop-culture moments, and everyday happenings.
This past year, she contributed to the September 2022 issue with “Why Do Rich People Love Quiet?,” on how gentrified neighborhoods are effectively threatening to silence generations of community culture built by people of color. Xochitl is a novelist, screenwriter, and television executive producer. This year, she published a novel, Olga Dies Dreaming, which was named to The New York Times’ list of 100 Notable Books of 2022 and is being adapted for television. She came to her writing career in her 40s; before that she worked as an event planner, a fundraiser, and a tarot-card reader, among other pursuits.
In further staff news, Eleanor Barkhorn is rejoining The Atlantic as a senior editor, coming from The New York Times’ Opinion section, where she’s been an editor at large. Eleanor first worked as an editor for The Atlantic from 2009 to 2014, when she oversaw Culture coverage and was one of a handful of senior editors who helped establish the site as a moment-to-moment must-read. Later, as the features editor at Vox, Eleanor launched a series of new sections, including The Goods, The Highlight, and First Person. In a note to staff, editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg wrote: “For those of you who remember Eleanor from her first tour of duty here, you know that she is a brilliant, creative, conscientious, and thoughtful journalist, and someone who understands The Atlantic’s mission deeply.”
The Atlantic recently announced Charlie Warzel and Yasmin Tayag as staff writers covering tech and health, respectively, and Damon Beres as a senior editor focused on tech. These new hires are in addition to an expansion of our Culture team and Books coverage: Gal Beckerman as senior editor for Books, Maya Chung as an associate editor, and Emma Sarappo as an associate editor.
Arctic Adventurers Have a Russia Problem
In the next few weeks, Jeff Glasbrenner, a 49-year old amputee and father of two, will strap on a harness—“kind of like a backpack without a backpack”—and begin dragging a 20-pound SUV tire around his neighborhood just outside Little Rock, Arkansas. He will drag his tire for anywhere from two to 10 hours a day, powered by a playlist of Counting Crows and Goo Goo Dolls; then, after a few weeks, he’ll start dragging two tires, and later, three. This mind-numbingly boring and difficult enterprise is meant to simulate, in certain ways, the act of pulling a sled across the jagged surface of the North Pole.
Glasbrenner, a three-time Paralympian, hopes to make the trip in April 2023, as the capstone of his long adventuring career and to further challenge people’s preconceptions about disability. But the hardest test of his endurance to this point has been the waiting. The coming winter full of tire-dragging will be Glasbrenner’s fifth; in prior years he’s had to scrap his plans to reach the Pole because of COVID, or on account of a confusing dispute involving arctic airplane pilots. “The whole time you’re like, ‘All right, it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen,’” he told me. “And then, you know, it doesn’t happen.”
[Read: Where did the North Pole go?]
The truth is, it may not happen this year either, or next year, or the year after that. In fact, the very future of adventuring at one of humanity’s greatest natural testing grounds is now in doubt. Although tourists seeking to clink glasses of champagne at the North Pole might still secure a seat on a nuclear icebreaker during the summer, modern adventurers hoping to spend significant time on the ice must pass through Barneo, a temporary camp built on a drifting ice floe in the Arctic Ocean. But that camp has been impossible to operate for half a decade now, and its future is uncertain. For Glasbrenner, as for the hundreds of others who attempt to make this trek each year in early April, the tip of the Earth has never seemed so far away.
Global warming is one problem: With the Arctic heating up four times faster than the global average, large ice floes are more vulnerable to breaking. In 2018, Barneo lasted a mere 12 days before cracks in the ice forced its closure. But the most pressing problems at the moment are political. The camp’s very existence is a testament to Russian technology and expertise, Francesco Annibali, Barneo’s CEO, told me, and sanctions against Russia, along with other ripple effects from the war in Ukraine, have prevented it from taking shape. This past March, Annibali had to cancel the polar season for the fourth year in a row, due in part to a ban on Russian planes in Norwegian airspace that was implemented days after the war broke out. Annibali is doing everything he can to de-Russify the operation—he’s now leasing a Soviet-era transport plane from Kazakhstan instead of Russia, for example—but it may not be enough. Despite these efforts, the status of the 2023 season is uncertain.
Barneo has existed as a commercial tourist enterprise for more than 20 years, yet it is based on a legacy of Soviet scientific drift camps in the Arctic Circle dating back to Stalin’s time. The Soviets launched the first camp, North Pole 1, in 1937 and continued the practice for decades after; scientists have sometimes spent more than a year afloat in the Arctic Sea. The Russians have turned the creation of floating-ice camps into a science of its own, and developed highly specialized equipment. First, a suitably solid ice floe must be identified from the air; next, pilots flying an Ilyushin Il-76—a Soviet-era military cargo plane built for arctic weather conditions—will lower 50 tons of equipment, including two hybrid tractor-bulldozers, onto the moving ice; finally, a 20-person logistics team spends five days on the floe constructing an airplane runway, a miniature tent city, and a kitchen. All of this happens under intense time pressure: Barneo can exist for about three weeks in April, the brief period just after the spring equinox when the 24-hour polar darkness has lifted but the ice is still strong enough to support a team of athletes and their 120-pound sleds.
The camp was in Russian hands until 2018, when Frederik Paulsen, a Swedish pharmaceutical billionaire whose esoteric interests include polar exploration, purchased it from the widow of Barneo’s founder, Alexander Orlov. Since then, the ice camp has failed to materialize even once. The 2019 polar season was canceled when the Ukrainian pilots hired to fly Barneo’s clients to the Pole either refused to work with or were banned from collaborating with the Russians responsible for building and administering the camp. (Glasbrenner was among the hundreds of adventurers from around the world already gathered in the northern-Norwegian town of Longyearbyen when the season was canceled.) In 2020 and 2021, Norway’s strict pandemic-entry restrictions kept Barneo closed. Then came the war.
[Read: The hunt for wonder drugs at the North Pole]
For the camp to run in 2023, Barneo must comply with a growing list of restrictions on business dealings with the Russians. “They are recognized worldwide as the best in paradropping in remote-area operations,” Annibali told me when we spoke by video call last month. Workarounds are sometimes possible: When the company realized it needed to replace the toilet on its Antonov AN-74—a Soviet-era transport plane built to withstand arctic conditions—it managed to source one from a collector in the United States. But other problems are not so easily negotiated, Annibali said. “Sometimes there is only one company available for certain types of work and really you don’t have a choice.”
The need to disassociate from Russia has spurred a miniature version of the space race; the company’s new owners are scrambling to make up ground in one of the few remaining realms where the Russians can still claim global dominance. Barneo would like to replace its Russian MI8 helicopters with American-made Chinooks, and is hoping to swap out its Antonov AN-74 for a $26 million Airbus C. Even if Annibali can move away from using Russian equipment, though, he might still be beholden to the Russian paratroopers who remain, for the moment, uniquely capable of building a floating ice base. To address the concern, he has been looking at a place between Finland and Sweden where, he said, ice conditions are very similar to those at the North Pole, and where he might create a training camp for floating-ice-base-building paratroopers who aren’t Russian.
Even the camp’s title—an ironic Russian transliteration of Borneo, the tropical island in Indonesia—will have to be replaced. “The final touch will be the name, the branding,” Annibali said. “Otherwise, as soon as you say ‘Barneo,’ it’s, ‘Oh, the Russian camp!’ Bloody hell, it’s the North Pole. It’s not Russian. It’s not Swedish. It’s international. It belongs to all of us.”
If the North Pole belongs to us, then we’re responsible for keeping it accessible, even in the face of global politics and global warming. Glasbrenner’s guide, the Polar explorer Eric Larsen, worries for the future. Aside from Glasbrenner, he has three other clients who have paid $50,000 each for a 10-day “last degree” ski expedition, and, like Glasbrenner, those clients have each been waiting for nearly five years to test their limits. Larsen tries to stay optimistic, but he fears that the Pole could end up permanently out of reach, at least for anyone who isn’t willing to put themselves “in a monumentally risky situation.”
“There are so many variables,” Larsen told me. “You’re landing a huge plane on the Arctic Ocean sea ice in the middle of nowhere. You can have all the best intentions, the best equipment, the best knowledge.” But ultimately, your path to the Pole will be open or it will be shut. “There’s no question there is sort of a ticking clock on all of this.”The war has made it very hard to build a floating-ice camp.
Harry and Meghan Are Playing a Whole Different Game
Fame at last! Two minutes into Netflix’s Harry & Meghan documentary, the headline of an article I wrote in January 2020 flashed on the screen. “Harry and Meghan Won’t Play the Game,” it said. Observing the departure of the duke and duchess of Sussex from the Royal Family—and from Britain itself—the story declared that “no royal has ever taken on the press quite so directly, much though they might have wanted to.”
By that, I meant that Harry and Meghan had rejected the traditional bargain between the British royals and the media: The press follows you around, and you have to put up with it, because it’s part of the job. Now, three years later, we can see the new rules by which Harry and Meghan are playing. This six-part documentary is the tentpole of their reported $100 million multiyear production deal with Netflix. The director, Liz Garbus, is notionally independent, but the show makes frequent references to the couple telling “our story.” The interviewees in the first three episodes, which were released today, are mostly personal friends.
[Read: Meghan and Harry go to war]
Above all, Harry & Meghan is a story about the media, and about the modern belief that everyone has their own truth, derived from their lived experience. Harry brings up the idea of consent, and that is what separates this documentary from the standard tabloid treatment of his mother and his wife. The couple are not averse to giving up their privacy—this documentary includes a blurry photograph of the moment Harry proposed, and video diaries of their departure from Britain—but they want to be in control of what they reveal. Being part of the Royal Family meant submitting to a media machine that was not run solely for their benefit. (In the trailer for this series, Harry complains that his family is a “hierarchy,” which suggests that the whole concept of a monarchy might have eluded him.)
Everything here is about rejecting the royal narrative of their lives and building a new American fairy tale. The couple’s softball engagement interview in 2017 on the BBC was an “orchestrated reality show,” Meghan says in the third episode—a complete contrast to the casual, authentic chat she is now having in full hair and makeup with a documentary filmmaker. “We were never allowed to tell our story,” she adds, as if her sit-down with Oprah Winfrey last year were a collective hallucination. Later on, Harry recounts in amazement that some people will accept huge amounts of money “to hand over photographs to create a story.” So true. How about $100 million?
Harry and Meghan have a rare talent—pointing out things that reasonable people would agree with, but doing so in the most annoying way possible. Racism is real. The tabloids were out of control during Harry’s childhood. Women marrying into the Royal Family undergo an extended misogynistic hazing. The trouble is that the couple’s complaints are by now very well aerated, and Harry’s memoir, Spare, hasn’t even arrived yet. I could have predicted before watching this documentary which cherry-picked headlines and quotations would make an appearance. At least one of them—the reference to Meghan’s “exotic DNA”—was a ham-handed attempt to contrast her favorably with the pale and stale Windsors.
The first three episodes focus on the couple’s childhoods and courtship, along with the press coverage of Meghan before the wedding. If you watched the Oprah interview—if it even happened, because after all, Meghan has never told her story before—you learn very little new information here, except that Meghan is friends with her half sister Samantha’s daughter Ashleigh. This is relevant to fans of the Markle Cinematic Universe, because Samantha nicknamed her half sister “Princess Pushy” and wrote a tell-all book in which she dramatically overstated their closeness. Ashleigh is here to back up Meghan’s version of events.
The documentary contains a lot of this stuff—evidence for the defense, you might call it. We get five minutes on how smart Meghan was at school, and how she wasn’t lying when she said she’d had no idea who Harry was before they met (she didn’t Google him, duh—she looked at his Instagram feed, which was full of pictures of elephants, and that is what made her agree to go on a date with him).
Unless you have a gaping void where your soul should be, you will notice that the couple do seem to be genuinely smitten with each other. Yet—and this is where it gets tricky—they also appear to be in love with the idea of being “Harry and Meghan” (or, as they might put it, “H and M”). There’s an uncomfortable Bonnie-and-Clyde, John-and-Yoko, folie-à-deux undercurrent throughout, as if taking on the Royal Family’s racism and the British press’s lack of scruples has become their mission. Us against the world. That is a noble intention, but it has the side effect of centering their entire lives on two institutions that they despise. Do they really want to spend the next 40 years as small, angry planets trapped in the gravitational pull of the Windsors? And have they not heard of diminishing returns? This plotline might sustain Harry’s book sales and one or two forgettable Netflix projects after that, but it ends with them delivering $150 birthday messages on Cameo by 2030.
These days, it’s very passé to make a film about a beautiful princess being saved from a monster by a handsome prince. Princesses have to be kickass now, and able to save themselves. And so just like Frozen and the new Willow, Harry and Meghan have an update to the old story. In this fairy tale, the prince was rescued from a terrible fate—being British—by one kiss from a beautiful Californian.
[Caitlin Flanagan: Meghan and Harry overplayed their hand]
Netflix’s documentary presents Britain as an outdated, prejudiced backwater—the home of Boris Johnson, Brexit, and the slaver Edward Colston. The complex and often contradictory British attitudes toward race and immigration are not explored. Perhaps because of the production timetable, the first three episodes of Harry & Meghan make no mention of Rishi Sunak, who became Britain’s first nonwhite prime minister a few weeks ago with vanishingly little backlash. In today’s Britain, some of the Conservative ministers peddling hard-line rhetoric on immigration are, like Sunak, of South Asian descent. This is the messiness of 21st-century life in a multiracial country of nearly 70 million people.
Yet in this Netflix series, you can watch in real time as the facts get pounded into the correct shape to fit Harry and Meghan’s narrative. In Episode 2, Meghan says that people are now aware of her race “because they made it such an issue when I went to the U.K., but before that people didn’t treat me as a ‘Black woman.’” Minutes later, we are told just how trailblazing it was that her character on the legal drama Suits was biracial, and how the writers incorporated Meghan’s own background into her character, Rachel Zane. So when America noticed her heritage, that was good. But when Britain did it, that was bad.
Earlier this week, Harry and Meghan were in New York to receive an award from the Ripple of Hope foundation, in a ceremony somewhat improbably hosted by Alec Baldwin. This is their life now: touring American philanthropic foundations to be praised for their crusade against British royal intolerance. Progressive Americans love Harry, the awakened prince, and Meghan, the woman whose love awoke him. The couple have responded with a documentary precision-engineered to tell the story those same progressive Americans want to hear. Thank God we have left behind dreary old Britain for the [checks notes] postracial utopia of the United States. Harry is no longer the posh idiot who wore a Nazi uniform to a fancy-dress party, an incident he refers to here as “one of the biggest mistakes of my life.” Now he lectures audiences on unconscious bias. His new identity as a California aristocrat offers a completely fresh story line for his life, as powerful as anything Alcoholics Anonymous or an evangelical baptism can offer. He has been reborn in the U.S.A.
You can hear the subtle drumbeat of this America-flattering proposition behind so many moments in the Netflix series: Meghan mostly wore white, camel, and beige during her time in Britain, she says, to avoid clashing with the Queen. Now she can wear color again. I hope that The Crown’s head writer, Peter Morgan, a man who loves a clanging metaphor—hey, did you ever think the Queen was obsolete, just like the royal yacht?—was taking notes.
I don’t want to be too sour, because in the Netflix documentary the historian David Olusoga makes the important point that Britain tends to celebrate its role in abolishing the slave trade, with rather less focus on its participation in the slave trade. And I recognize a knee-jerk defensiveness in many of the British reactions to Harry and Meghan, including my own. Culture wars flourish best when two things are simultaneously true, and people must choose which one to emphasize. Does the British press sometimes treat the Royal Family appallingly, and do its white-dominated institutions perpetuate racism? Yes and yes. Do Harry and Meghan love rehashing their grievances, and seem unaware that they are wealthy far beyond anything their personal talents would normally merit? Also yes and yes.
By leaving Britain, Harry and Meghan really have changed their bargain with celebrity—and they have brought their brand to a much bigger market. In the third episode, Meghan is asked if she looked up how to do a royal wave on the internet before her first public appearance with Harry. She laughs, and says she picked it up by observation. “You don’t want to wave like an American,” she adds, flailing wildly. After all, that doesn’t go down well in Britain. “Everything is just … smaller.”In their new Netflix series, the ex-royal couple know exactly who their audience is.
Deion Sanders’s Disappointing Exit
By conventional measures, Deion Sanders’s decision to leave Jackson State to become the head football coach at the University of Colorado is a no-brainer. Colorado has reportedly signed the former NFL star to a five-year, $29.5 million deal—the most lucrative contract given to any football coach in that school’s history and a huge bump up from Sanders’s current four-year, $1.4 million contract.
And in some ways, his impending departure from Jackson State, a historically Black institution in Mississippi, for a school competing at the highest level in college football is a sign of progress. Black coaches, especially those who have been head coaches at historically Black institutions, rarely get a real shot for top positions in major conferences.
Yet Sanders, after just three seasons at Jackson State, is leaving behind a trail of disappointment and criticism, because his exit highlights all the reasons that historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) fail to thrive.
These schools have played an essential role in creating Black upward mobility and, as I have previously argued, offer Black athletes—whom big-name college-sports programs have long exploited—an opportunity to take greater control of their own destiny and strengthen their communities. Despite typically lacking the resources available to historically white institutions, HBCUs are responsible for more Black medical-school applicants than predominantly white institutions, according to McKinsey & Company. They have graduated 40 percent of all Black engineers and members of Congress, 50 percent of all Black lawyers, and 80 percent of all Black judges. Vice President Kamala Harris graduated from Howard University, one of the most prestigious HBCUs in the nation.
In the end, the profound legacy of HBCUs just wasn’t enough. In addition to his own salary, Colorado promised Sanders a $5 million war chest to hire his coaching staff—another perk that wasn’t possible at Jackson State. In fact, Sanders’s new contract at Colorado is more than 10 times larger than Jackson State’s entire $2.1 million football budget in 2021.
[From the October 2019 issue: It’s time for Black athletes to leave white colleges]
These are justified rewards for Sanders, who has emerged as one of college football’s most charismatic and compelling stars. At Jackson State, Sanders compiled a 27–5 record, which included guiding the school to an undefeated season this year for the first time in school history. He also won back-to-back Southwestern Athletic Conference championships and coach-of-the-year awards, brought the school unprecedented national exposure, and made the Tigers a destination for some of the top high-school recruits in the country.
Sanders never misled anyone about his interest in moving on to a bigger and better-resourced program. When Sanders was asked during a recent 60 Minutes interview if he would consider coaching offers from major-conference schools, Sanders said: “I’m going to have to entertain it. Straight up. I’d be a fool not to.”
Still, Sanders once seemed to understand that the Jackson State program has a special mission. After taking the head-coaching job in 2020, he appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America and told the host Michael Strahan—one of about three dozen HBCU players in the NFL Hall of Fame—that “God led me to Jackson State.”
Again and again, Sanders tugged at all the right emotional strings. “I don’t know if you know, but we’re family now,” Sanders said during his introductory press conference at Jackson State. He also told 60 Minutes that George Floyd’s murder partially motivated him to come to Jackson State, and that he was committed to reshaping narratives about historically Black colleges and universities. He wanted to “change lives,” he said. “Change the perspective of HBCU football.”
But as Sanders’s accomplishments piled up and the attention the program received increased, so did his prospects. During Sanders’s tenure, the athletic department generated an estimated $185 million in advertising value and exposure for Jackson State. The national media swarmed to cover the newest sensation in college football, including ESPN’s wildly popular show College GameDay, which made its first-ever visit to Jackson for the game against Southern University in October.
For Jackson State fans who feel abandoned, it doesn’t help that Sanders opted for a Colorado program that finished 1–11 last season and hasn’t won more than five games in a season since 2016. Naturally, coaching jobs open up most frequently in programs that aren’t in good shape. But by jumping at an offer from a major-conference school that is in the bottom rung of the Pac-12 Conference rather than continuing to engineer success at Jackson State, Sanders reinforced the narrative that mainstream validation is more important than fostering Black excellence at a Black institution.
The question of what successful Black individuals owe the broader Black community is a complex one. Gary Chambers Jr., a civil-rights activist who unsuccessfully sought a U.S. Senate seat in Louisiana this year, tweeted this about the Sanders situation: “At some point we as Black people have to admit that Black flight impacts Black institutions & communities just as much as white flight & then gentrification. Truth is, being Black is so damn complex in America that having these conversations in public is a challenge in itself.”
Black flight played a role in creating some of the conditions that Sanders would later inherit at Jackson State. HBCUs were once the only higher-education option available to most Black people, and for years all the top Black athletes went to HBCUs. Then desegregation, along with white institutions’ recognition that their football teams wouldn’t survive unless they started to recruit Black players, permanently loosened the grip that HBCUs had on the top talent.
[Read: Why America needs its HBCUs]
Since the beginning, HBCUs have been forced to do more with so much less. Sanders definitely had to contend with that dynamic at Jackson State. He had to endure a massive water crisis in the school’s host city, and this past summer even volunteered to donate half of his salary so that much-needed upgrades for the football facility would be completed before training camp began.
As admirable as that offer was, it highlights the gross inequality that exists in higher education. Earlier this year, Forbes calculated that 18 public HBCUs were underfunded, relative to their predominantly white peer institutions, by nearly $13 billion from 1987 to 2020. Other HBCUs face similar funding disparities.
Given Jackson State’s limited resources, no one was delusional enough to believe that Sanders would follow the path of the legendary HBCU coach Eddie Robinson, who coached at Grambling for 56 years. Sanders just didn’t sound like someone who would bolt after only three seasons. “Oftentimes, you’ve got to be willing to be that guy, willing to risk it, willing to attempt it, willing to secure it to accomplish your goals,” Sanders told The Undefeated heading into his second season at Jackson State. “And I’m more than willing. And I’m more than able. And I’m more than capable.”
Sanders wasn’t only doing the Tigers a favor through his presence; he got a lot out of the relationship too. No major-conference school had any genuine interest in making Sanders a head coach before Jackson State entered the picture. Sanders came out much further ahead because the university took a chance on him.
Sanders unquestionably deserves a lot of credit for what he achieved at Jackson State, but that’s not a blueprint other HBCUs can follow. This is one reason his departure hurts more than it should. Fixing the problems that have plagued HBCUs for decades was never Sanders’s responsibility, even though he once seemed to think that’s what he was called to do. If Sanders deserves blame for anything, it’s for helping advance the false notion that one person’s achievement can somehow defeat decades of neglect.The former NFL star got a great new coaching job. But what happens to schools like Jackson State?
2022 in Photos: Wrapping Up the Year
As the end of the year approaches, here is a look back at some of the major news moments of 2022. Events covered in this essay (the last of a three-part photo summary of the year) include protests against Iran’s leadership and its morality police, the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in London, the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Florida, a new eruption of a Hawaiian volcano, and much more. Be sure to see the first part, the second part, and our “Top 25 News Photos of 2022.”It’s time to revisit some of the most memorable events and images of 2022, including protests against Iran's leadership and its morality police, the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in London, and much more.
A Case That Even This Supreme Court Seems Torn Over
Midway through yesterday’s Supreme Court oral argument in Moore v. Harper, the case concerning the “independent state legislature” theory, Justice Elena Kagan took a moment to consider the stakes. “This is a theory with big consequences,” she noted.
Kagan’s comment was a dry bit of understatement. Ever since the Supreme Court first agreed to hear the case, Moore has drawn alarm from across the political spectrum, with liberal activists and grandees of the conservative legal movement alike condemning the independent state legislature theory as a threat to American democracy.
[Adam Serwer: Is democracy constitutional?]
Making a firm prediction on how the Court might rule in Moore based on oral argument alone would be a mistake: Legal scholars and reporters tend to refer to the practice of guessing how the justices will vote following an argument as “reading the tea leaves,” and as the metaphor suggests, this method of prediction isn’t particularly precise. That said, few justices seemed interested in adopting the more aggressive variations of the independent state legislature theory that could throw American elections into chaos. But the real test will be in just how thinly—to paraphrase another comment of Kagan’s in a recent case—the Court decides to slice the bologna.
The independent state legislature theory is frustratingly difficult to understand—which is one of the reasons Moore has caused such alarm. In essence, proponents of the theory argue that the Constitution grants state legislatures an unusual degree of nearly unchecked power to control how states administer federal elections.
How much power, and how unchecked, depends on what variation of the theory you adopt. In the most aggressive version, state legislatures might be unconstrained even by state constitutions—stripping away constitutional protections for voting rights or against gerrymandering. Or perhaps state courts and election officials would be limited in their ability to interpret laws passed by the state legislature or engage in the discretionary decision making necessary to smoothly run an election. The theory would provide a more active role for federal courts, which would be empowered to weigh in on whether state courts and officials had overstepped the boundaries placed by the Constitution on state legislative power.
Opponents of the theory have warned that this argument, if adopted by the Supreme Court, could generate chaos in state election administration, a flood of litigation in the federal courts by candidates seeking to gain electoral advantage, and a resulting decline in trust by Americans watching the election system flail. Neal Katyal, the lawyer representing one group of litigants opposing the theory in Moore, used dramatic phrasing to describe the potential fallout: The independent state legislature theory, he warned, could have a wide “blast radius.”
Over the course of the lengthy, almost three-hour argument, the justices grappled with how best to interpret the relevant constitutional language. The three liberal justices were clearly skeptical of, and at times outright hostile to, the theory. In one unusually sharp exchange, Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed exasperated with efforts by David Thompson, the lawyer representing the Republican North Carolina state legislators who promote the theory, to scrape together historical support for his arguments. “If you rewrite history,” she told him, “it’s easy to do.”
But even conservative justices who had previously voiced some sympathy with the independent state legislature theory seemed frustrated with Thompson’s insistence on making aggressive arguments for legislative power instead of offering more measured interpretations. The real intellectual energy of the argument focused on just how the Court might sketch a narrower vision of the independent state legislature theory that could provide some level of increased freedom for legislatures without fully unleashing state lawmakers to do their worst. Conservative Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh, along with Chief Justice John Roberts, seemed notably interested in this approach.
[J. Michael Luttig: There is absolutely nothing to support the ‘independent state legislature’ theory]
This is a welcome sign for Court-watchers concerned about a unified conservative bloc backing the North Carolina legislators’ approach. It would mean avoiding the total election chaos forecasted by scholars apprehensive about the more extreme variations of the theory. It would also, importantly, provide no support for rogue state legislatures seeking to justify an effort to overturn the results of the 2024 election—the nightmare scenario that has worried many commentators on Moore.
But just what would a narrower version of the independent state legislature theory look like? It’s not clear, and the justices seemed dissatisfied with the options presented to them. Any standard will need to be defined enough to provide guidance to the state judges who may now be looking over their shoulders at the federal courts newly empowered to second-guess their interpretation of state election law. And enterprising litigants may still be able to make use of a more constrained independent state legislature theory to cause chaos in the courts—a particularly concerning prospect given a federal judiciary steering sharply to the right. Several times during oral argument, Justice Samuel Alito questioned whether state courts could be trusted to rule without federal judicial oversight on tricky questions that spoke directly to the integrity of democratic self-determination. The idea that the public might not trust the Supreme Court, either, didn’t seem to occur to him.A better version of the independent state legislature theory is proving difficult to figure out.
Haunted by the Ghost of 2019
I didn’t think the end of 2019 was a big deal at the time. The end of the decade heightened the usual end-of-year nostalgia, and people seemed obsessed with looking back. Everyone was writing “best of the decade” lists and talking about what they’d accomplished in the past 10 years. Everyone was making plans and predictions for the next decade. I thought it all sounded kind of silly. I didn’t think for a second that anything would be different just because the date on the calendar was about to change; 2020 would be just another year, just as 2019 had been.
And then, a few months into 2020, everything really did change overnight. I know that in reality, the coronavirus pandemic was a cumulative process, not a sudden shift. But I nevertheless experienced it as one, and so did most of the people I know. The World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, a Wednesday. On Monday of that week, I was out of town visiting a friend, and we were making plans to go to restaurants and concerts; by Thursday, I was frantically trying to get an earlier flight home. On Monday, all I wanted to do was look toward the future; by Thursday, I was desperately longing for the past. More precisely, I was longing for 2019.
Certain years come to represent something more than the span of a calendar across 12 months: 2016, the beginning of the Trump era; 2001, forever associated with September 11 and the war on terrorism that followed; 1969, a year synonymous with counterculture. The name of a year becomes a shorthand for a particular catastrophe, rupture, or cultural shift. When 2020 became synonymous with crisis, 2019 became synonymous with normalcy, with “real life.” The year 2020 didn’t just change our lives; it radically altered our vocabulary as well. There are so many words I barely ever said out loud before 2020 that I now use regularly: variant, quarantine, KN95, COVID itself. One more word in that new vocabulary is 2019—a year that now stands for the whole concept of Before.
[Read: “Fuck you 2016”]
Now, in 2022, the pandemic isn’t over, but something is over. The era of mandated restrictions, of collective sacrifice as a popular idea, of talk about a transformed world has been replaced with an uneasy, fractured normalcy. Most people can do just about anything you could do pre-pandemic, although it’s not always clear whether you should or what the risks and consequences might be. All the language of reopening is about going back: Concerts are back; movies are back; restaurants are back; parties are back; travel is back. We’re building back better. We’re returning—to work, to the office, to our lives. For so long, we were promised that one day, all of this would be over, and we would go back to normal. Now it’s happening, if for no reason other than that enough time has passed as to make waiting any longer intolerable. This return to normalcy can’t help but evoke 2019, because 2019 is the last existing touchstone for when things were normal. Our lives in 2022 are haunted by the ghost of 2019. If things here and now feel a little uncanny, it may be because we are living in two different times at once, moving forward into 2023 while pretending it’s 2019 again.
In 2020 and 2021, we talked about normalcy in other and perhaps more accurate ways. All of the longing for the past brought on an acknowledgment that normal had, in many ways, never been that great to begin with. Early in the pandemic, it was commonly argued that we should take this rupture as an opportunity to remake the world. And the burdens of the pandemic did lead to experimentation that might never have happened otherwise. Many people were allowed to work remotely and given accommodations that took into account the reality of physical and mental limitations. Measures such as the expanded child tax credit acknowledged the enormous burden placed on caregivers. Stimulus checks and grant and loan programs for businesses addressed widespread economic hardship. None of this was enough to fully alleviate that hardship or change the trajectory of society. But it felt like a beginning. It felt like some momentum was building toward the idea of a kinder society. Maybe the future could be more bearable than the past.
[Read: The pre-pandemic universe was the fiction]
It didn’t last. That flicker of hope has mostly burned out: Many accommodations for employees have been rolled back, more and more companies have made in-person work mandatory, and parents are still overwhelmed while pandemic-era programs meant to help with caring for children have been either reduced or discontinued entirely. The economic climate is arguably grimmer than it was in the depths of the pandemic, with inflation surging in the past few months to a 40-year high, massive layoffs at several large companies, and fear of a recession looming on the horizon. But federal unemployment assistance and eviction moratoriums have ended. Within communities, many mutual-aid groups have struggled to keep going in 2022. We aren’t even attempting to prepare for the next pandemic; to think about the next pandemic would necessarily mean acknowledging the current one, which is supposedly over. It would mean admitting that it won’t ever be 2019 again.
And yet, in many ways, my life in 2022 resembles my life in 2019. I can go to the movies, get on a plane or train to visit family, and hug them when I arrive. I can throw a party, eat at a restaurant, buy concert tickets, and make plans for the future. Masks are a rare sight in public, and people are so used to being able to make plans with one another that we’ve started canceling them again for no good reason. This is the return to 2019 that was promised. Except none of it feels quite the same.
When I go to a concert, or to an airport, or to a crowded bar or restaurant, I feel anxious, and then I question if that feeling is really because of the pandemic or if I simply don’t remember that this is how I always felt before. Returning to parts of the city I used to pass through all the time, I find myself taking account of what’s disappeared and what’s stayed the same. Every change in the landscape—every missing restaurant, every piece of new construction—feels like a reminder of all the much larger things lost, and of how I won’t ever again be the person I was when I hadn’t been through any of this yet. For a while, these changes were a regular topic of conversation at nervous, out-of-practice indoor gatherings, but you can only talk about one thing for so long. Part of me is relieved to not be having the same conversation over and over again, but another part has no idea what other conversation to have. I do the things I did in 2019 and every year before that, but although they look the same from the outside, I feel as if I am role-playing someone else’s normal life in an alternate timeline where none of this happened.
There’s a trope in horror movies where someone comes back from the dead, but they come back wrong. In many cases, this is part of a story about hubris and grief: Someone who has lost a loved one bargains with an evil power to bring that loved one back, but when they return, something’s not quite right. The horror unfolds from there. The moral of the story is that the timeline can’t ever run backwards, and that refusing to accept our losses only makes the nightmare worse. Everywhere is open again, except for all of the places that closed for good. Everyone is returning to normal, except for the millions of people who didn’t make it and the millions more whose health doesn’t allow them to dial back precautions. Everything that did come back is tinged with loss and haunted by ghosts. But most people don’t want to talk about it. They want to cosplay 2019.
Right now I can do all of the things I did in 2019—except not know what happens in 2020. Maybe that’s what the collective longing to return to 2019 is really about: a desire not just to go back to our old rhythms of life, but to be able to take that life for granted. But returning to offices and crowded venues and indoor parties, taking off our masks, and even declaring a clearly ongoing pandemic over won’t let us unlearn what we know. We’ve been haunted by the ghost of 2019 since March 2020, and now, as we attempt to construct the future, we keep turning back to the past, summoning that same ghost.
It makes sense that many of us would long for the time before all of this, when we didn’t know the things we know now and hadn’t lost the things we’ve lost since. But we can’t imagine a new way of being if we cling to an old one. The past is not a place to return to. It can only come back wrong, lumbering out of the grave, carrying all of our losses with it—at once familiar and unfamiliar. A return to 2019 is an attempt to erase all of the losses that happened between then and now, but those losses, like the monster in a horror movie, will devour us if we refuse to face them.Our obsession with going back to our pre-pandemic lives is keeping us from building a better future.
Little House on the Prairie—With Meth
In the many decades that have passed since Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books became the most widely read, most beloved account of the American frontier experience, a revisionist view has emerged, not just of what these days is called settler colonialism but of her father, Charles—that is, Pa, the fiddler with the twinkling eyes.
As portrayed by Wilder’s biographer Caroline Fraser, Charles Ingalls was a feckless man, if a loving father. He dragged his wife and daughters out of Wisconsin and “a comfortable, established home with plowed fields and a productive garden,” in Fraser’s words, and then from bad to worse: a house illegally built on Native American territory from which they are expelled; a farm in Minnesota prey to apocalyptic locust swarms; a hotel in Iowa next to a saloon, where a man tried to force his way into the young Wilder’s room; and finally the Dakota Territory. Scientists at the time had warned that the Great Plains were arid and infertile and sure to drive small farmers into bankruptcy, but the government, urged on by the railroads, lured people there anyway, giving away homesteads, unleashing land rushes, creating the conditions that laid waste to the prairie ecosystem. When Pa died in 1902, he had nothing to leave his widow and blind daughter but the house they lived in.
A century and some years later, Donald Trump wins the presidential election, and the journalist Ted Conover lights out for the territories—well, for southern Colorado, parts of which have indeed become a barren land. An earlier magazine assignment sent him to that part of the state to write about South Park, the real town of TV-show fame, “a place nearly devoid of people that was overlaid with dirt roads from a moribund 1970s subdivision.” After the election, Conover feels compelled to go back. He heads for a settlement not far from South Park in the San Luis Valley, sometimes called the flats, where a transient population lives in one-room shacks or trailers, many without plumbing, electricity, or internet. “The American firmament was shifting in ways I needed to understand,” he writes in his new book, Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge. “These empty, forgotten places seemed an important part of that.”
I’m happy to report that over the course of his journey, Conover appears largely to forget his mission to explain the Trump voter, a too-common assignment that typically degenerates into cliché-mongering. Anyway, the people he meets in the valley strike him not as enemies of the great American experiment but, on the contrary, as the direct heirs of the pioneers—you might say, of Pa, which is perhaps why Conover has chosen a passage from Wilder’s The Long Winter as one of his epigraphs. The land isn’t free anymore, but, as Conover writes, “it is some of the cheapest in the United States”: $5,000 or so for a five-acre lot. The settlers “have a truck instead of a wagon and mule,” plus “some solar panels, possibly even a weak cell-phone signal,” he notes. “And legal weed.”
Who moves to the flats in the 21st century, and why? “What would drive you to it?” he wonders. Of course, that’s the mystery of Charles Ingalls, too. I should be clear that Conover doesn’t talk about Pa, but you can’t miss his ghostly presence. “My wife quipped that I could title this book Little House on the Prairie, with Meth,” Conover writes.
To dredge up answers, Conover “goes deep,” as he calls the Method-style journalism he has become famous for in Immersion (2016), his manual about the process. For his breakthrough book, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (2000), Conover spent a year as a corrections officer in the New York maximum-security prison. Newjack’s accomplishment is that it provides a 360-degree overview of America’s ghastly penitentiary system while remaining inside the perspective of one of its most monstrous members, which is how prison guards are usually characterized—by journalists, anyhow. You shouldn’t hate anyone, my journalism-professor husband likes to quote his fifth-grade teacher saying, and Conover doesn’t. He records hateful things, such as fantasizing about breaking the arm of an inmate who had reached out of his cell and hit him. But Conover is able to stay close to the corrections officers’ experience even as he takes the sociological view, with the result that the urge to pass judgment on them starts to feel callow.
[Read: The places where the recession never ended]
In Colorado, Conover gets a job doing rural outreach for La Puente, a social-service provider that runs a local homeless shelter where flats dwellers sometimes spend the winter. Outreach means driving from one lonely outpost to another, offering firewood, food, or a ride somewhere, and leaving a card in case someone needs more. Like corrections, it’s dangerous work. Matt, who trains Conover, tells him about the time a man in camouflage picked up an AK-47 when Matt stopped at the gate, though the man opened up when he found out that the firewood was free. A flats dweller whom Conover visits says, “I don’t usually accept charity and stuff,” and refuses to get out of his Jeep. What he will accept is the chance to tell his life story through the Jeep’s half-open window: the opioids, the rehab, the time he let a guy stay with him and got himself shot.
And yet Conover discovers a social solidarity among the isolates. The flats are an accidental rather than intentional community, but all the more diverse for it. It’s not that the off-gridder stereotypes don’t have truth to them. People carry weapons—a lot of them. At one party, the men pile pistols, AR-15s, .50-caliber rifles, and shotguns high on the table before going in. In this case, the guns are used for friendly target shooting, but guns plus the vast spaces and solitary life yield plenty of violence and crime. Conover meets people fleeing the law or their own soiled reputations. A couple from Oregon whose “humble, polite, self-effacing” manner impresses Conover turn out to have a very nasty past. There are “homeschoolers (Christian and otherwise), sovereign citizens, weed lovers, and Hillary haters”; domestic abusers, science-deniers, conspiracy theorists, and, above all, addicts. Some of his interviewees are simply bizarre. Ania and Jurek, from rural Poland, tell him that the CIA is run by the Vatican, that the Church of England owns the Pentagon, and that capitalization in government documents signifies enslavement. “It’s called Dog Latin,” Ania says. “You can check it online.”
But wackiness is not synonymous with intolerance. Most of the people Conover encounters get along with others just fine as long as the others keep their distance. Zahra, who also goes by Ankhzahra Soshotep, is a Black nationalist from Chicago, a member of a sect that practices Egyptian polytheism. She flees to the flats to escape an abusive partner. After some mishaps that leave her with nowhere to go, she is taken in hand by Paul, a friendly, funny gay man who finds her a place to live. Eventually she moves off the plains to a nearby town, and even forms a happy relationship with a white man, an act that her old sect would have considered a violation of its strictest taboo; she later marries him. But Zahra still considers her six months of freedom on the plains some of the best in her life. Paul, meanwhile, has spells of severe depression, and his neighbors call and text one another anxiously when he doesn’t answer his phone.
[Read: MAGA world is splintering]
Conservatism goes hand in hand with environmentalism. A religious family politely refuses to accept the iced tea and lemonade that Conover brings over, because they don’t approve of plastic containers. And who can say for sure why someone flies a MAGA flag? “It was the least expensive flag at Walmart!” exclaims Sherry. Conover doesn’t really believe her, but her defensiveness shows that she knows her views aren’t universally shared.
After a while, Conover starts hunting for some cheap land of his own. He tells himself that ownership would be good for the book. “I could interview a hundred landowners (and probably had), but it seemed to me I’d understand them all better if I were an owner myself. If I had skin in the game.” But that’s not the real appeal. He’s not just going deep; he’s buying into the dream.
From afar, that dream looks like sucker bait. Since the 1970s, when developers subdivided ranchland on the flats that had been abandoned for lack of water, the real-estate business there has been shady. Back in the day, plots were sold by mail order. Ads in publications such as TV Guide and the Chicago Tribune said things like “Good Recreation Land IS Great Investment Land!” and had photos of people golfing, fishing, and skiing (activities not currently possible on the flats). A reader could send away for a brochure and receive more false promises. People bought land sight unseen.
But the developers hadn’t bothered to extend waterlines or dig sewers or run electrical wiring to their lots, so few of the relatively middle-class folk in the first tranche of buyers who could have built up the area ever settled on their parcels. The land turned out to be worthless as an investment, too. It sells today for about what it sold for in the first instance—a lack of appreciation in value that is “a rarity in American real estate,” Conover observes.
Conover visits a retired developer and tells him that he thinks his marketing practices were deceptive. The developer replies that “overall, his customers had been quite satisfied.” The surprise twist here is that Conover comes to agree with the man, more or less. It’s not that he believes the early buyers weren’t deceived. But he thinks that the people he finds there now are getting what they want. The director of La Puente’s homeless shelter articulates this thesis for him: “You’re living in a slum, and you see an ad about owning five acres for five thousand dollars … To them it’s an opportunity, it’s the savage wild, their piece of the rock.” Life on the flats, that “vast tawny plain,” offers sanctuary to those oppressed by landlords, utility companies, people who look down on them, and walls closing in.
One thing is clear: People don’t come to the flats for easy money. They know they’re not going to get rich. The pioneers weren’t always in search of economic opportunity, either. Some longed for less tangible things, like open skies, a fresh start, and what Conover calls “sovereignty.” As Pa says in that epigraph: “Railroads and telegraph and kerosene and coal stoves—they’re good to have, but the trouble is, folks get to depend on ’em.”
The flip side of this proud self-reliance is a corrosive mistrust of civil institutions, especially the government, that does leave some flats residents vulnerable to Trump’s antiestablishmentarian pitch. When Conover goes to work for La Puente, colleagues tell him not to wear a blue shirt, because that’s the color worn by the county officials who come around looking for code violations, and he doesn’t want to be mistaken for one.
Though it’s also true that off-gridders have reason to hate the county. For one thing, it recently decided to crack down on them, and they figure it’s trying to get them to leave. The local officials do nothing to dispel that impression. They write a great many citations for failure to put in a septic tank, which costs $7,000 to $12,000, well out of reach of the people being cited. Worse, the county gives them 10 days to install a tank, after which they’ll be fined $50 to $100 a day, even though the job tends to take at least a month. “So paranoid were some locals,” Conover writes, that “they would seed their driveway with nails in order to disable visiting inspectors” and sneak into their home the back way.
Conover’s steady sympathy, his negative capability, lets us take in the culture of the flats on its own terms. To the degree that his subjects do resemble old-school pioneers, they remind us that many disenfranchisers of the Mexicans and Native Americans were themselves disenfranchised. It must be said that his expansiveness sometimes devolves into rambling, and the book sprawls, as if it took its shape from the prairie. His evocations of the olden days give a golden cast to his characters, whose lives, like Pa’s, sound bleaker than Conover seems to want to acknowledge. He’s an optimist, which is refreshing and generous, if not wholly persuasive.
That’s the risk of the immersive approach, and its pleasures. When Conover finds a parcel and moves onto it, ownership does remove mental barriers. As feral horses and unfenced cows meander through the plains and clouds amass and scatter with sublime indifference to human concerns, Conover merges past, present, and future into a timeless, ecstatic whole. “Even if you’re not a nineteenth-century-style homesteader,” he writes, “the wide-open spaces of the valley evoke a sort of ongoing frontier, virtuous because unsettled, pure because off-grid.” His mind casts off previous assumptions. Chatting with some neighbors one night, Conover entertains the possibility that UFOs exist. Life is full of mysteries; better to enjoy than to question them. A reader may not be willing to go that deep, but she has to acknowledge the sincerity of Conover’s desire to join the ranks of American dreamers, for better or for worse.In his new book, Ted Conover moves to a remote valley in southern Colorado to experience 21st-century life off the grid.
When Everything You Touch Turns to Crime
Picking Donald Trump’s worst week is a mug’s game—there are so many from which to choose, and compelling arguments for several—but simply because they encompass so many parts of the Trump experience, the last few days are emblematic.
On Saturday, the former president called for the United States Constitution to be “terminate[d]” in response to his own fake claims of election fraud in 2020. On Monday, he lied about what he’d said and blamed the media. On Tuesday, his handpicked candidate for U.S. Senate in the once reliably ruby state of Georgia lost to the Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock, concluding a midterm cycle in which Democrats defied precedent, thanks in large part to the president’s presence and primary meddling. And then there are Trump’s problems with the law.
On Tuesday, a jury in Manhattan found the Trump Organization guilty of 17 crimes, led by tax fraud and including conspiracy and falsifying business records, all as part of a scheme to avoid paying taxes on the salaries of top officers. On Wednesday, The Washington Post broke the news (soon matched by other outlets) that an outside search team hired by Trump’s lawyers had turned up still more classified documents he took with him when he left office, these ones in a West Palm Beach storage unit.
[David A. Graham: It’s just fraud all the way down]
Together, these two news items show the sweep of Trump’s lawlessness, from the mundane to the unique. The business crimes are a classic small-time offense. The only remarkable thing about that case is that it happens to involve the former president’s company. Meanwhile, in the case of classified documents, the evidence suggests he committed a crime that nearly no person other than a former president could commit.
The revelation of the documents in the storage facility is the latest twist in the ongoing saga of Trump’s removal of public records from the White House. Although evidence that the former president had not complied with preservation laws emerged even before he left office, the story cracked open in August with a very unusual FBI search at Mar-a-Lago. Not only did agents turn up boxes full of documents that seem to have been improperly taken, but some of them were labeled as extremely sensitive, potentially vital to national security.
The newly discovered classified documents were turned over to the FBI, the Post reports. The search appears to represent his legal team scrambling to ensure full compliance with a subpoena, under pressure from a federal judge. Teams also combed other Trump sites to see if materials turned up, according to The New York Times. The Post reports that the unit “had a mix of boxes, gifts, suits and clothes, among other things”—an indication of the chaotic and careless manner in which Trump handles, well, pretty much everything.
[David Frum: Trump’s reckoning with the rule of law]
In practice, only a former president could possibly have gotten into this situation. Many federal employees have classified or top-secret clearance (and overclassification of documents is a real problem), but when other federal employees are caught removing secret documents, they are clearly subject to sanctions. Trump, meanwhile, has tried to insist that before leaving office, he exercised his presidential prerogative to declassify the documents, despite there being no evidence of this beyond his word, such as that is.
But although Trump has leaned on the declassification excuse, it doesn’t have much bearing on the simpler matter that Trump took records that belong to the American people, not to himself—and other federal employees who removed such documents would be unable to claim brazenly, as he has, that he is the rightful owner of the documents and even demand that the Justice Department return them. His taking of documents and shoddy handling of them is a gross abuse of the trust placed in him as president.
If the details of the document case are jaw-droppingly unusual, the Manhattan tax case is yawn-inducingly typical. The jury found that the Trump Organization gamed the tax system to try to avoid paying taxes on executive salaries: The company gave top employees free cars, apartments, and other perks but didn’t include them in their reported compensation. That’s a simple and straightforward violation of the law—the kind of nickel-and-dime scam that happens all the time, because it’s very easy to do and often not caught. If Trump hadn’t been president, the fraud at his company wouldn’t be national news, and it might not have been been noticed; his prominence drew new scrutiny to his business.
[David A. Graham: The art of the self-deal]
The former president himself was neither charged nor convicted in the fraud case, although prosecutors argued in the trial that he was in on the scheme and personally approved parts of it. (Trump has denied wrongdoing and promised to appeal the ruling.) The Trump Organization was fined $1.6 million, a tiny amount compared with its revenues. Meanwhile, the New York attorney general has accused Trump of a different fraud scheme in which he offered widely fluctuating valuations on properties, allegedly in an attempt to save on tax bills or reduce his loan costs.
For now, however, the Manhattan verdict is largely symbolic—although symbolism matters in politics, as Trump has long grasped. And together with the new classified documents, it demonstrates how no trespass is too large—or too small—to tempt him.One crime, two crimes, red crime, blue crime
T. S. Eliot Saw All This Coming
Why is April the cruellest month? Why did the chicken cross the road? Why do people watch golf on television?
The first question I can answer.
April is the cruellest month because we are stuck. We’ve stopped dead and we’re going rotten. We are living in the demesne of the crippled king, the Fisher King, where everything sickens and nothing adds up, where the imagination is in shreds, where dark fantasies enthrall us, where men and women are estranged from themselves and one another, and where the cyclical itch of springtime—the spasm in the earth; the sizzling bud; even the gentle, germinal rain—only reminds us how very, very far we are from being reborn.
We will not be delivered from this, or not anytime soon. That’s why April is cruel. That’s why April is ironic. That’s why muddy old, sprouty old April, bustling around in her hedgerows, brings us down.
Imagine, if you will, a poem that incorporates the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the blowing up of the Kerch Bridge, Grindr, ketamine, The Purge, Lana Del Rey, the next three COVID variants, and the feeling you get when you can’t remember your Hulu password. Imagine that this poem—which also mysteriously contains all of recorded literature—is written in a form so splintered, so jumpy, but so eerily holistic that it resembles either a new branch of particle physics or a new religion: a new account, at any rate, of the relationships that underpin reality.
Now imagine this poem making news, going viral, becoming the poem—hailed over here, reviled over there—such that everybody is obliged to react to it, and every poem yet unwritten is already, inevitably, altered by it. And now imagine that the author of this poem—the poet himself—is a haunted-looking commuter whom you half-recognize from the subway platform.
You’re getting close to The Waste Land.
When Ted Hughes met T. S. Eliot in the 1960s, he was deeply struck by the older man’s physical presence: the strength of his hands (“thick, long, massive fingers”) and the slowness and deliberateness with which he ate. When Eliot spoke, Hughes remembered later, “I had the impression of a slicing, advancing, undeflectible force of terrific mass.”
[From the July/August 2005 issue: Christopher Hitchens on The Waste Land]
This—long-chewing Eliot, consolidated Eliot, powerfully and ponderously integrated Eliot, extending his personality over the young poet—was not the Eliot who wrote The Waste Land. No indeed. That Eliot, 33-year-old poet/critic, acclaimed but still struggling, was in pieces. He was in quietly raving and silently groaning fragments. He had to be. Hypercivilized as he was, and dressed with bleak propriety for his day job at Lloyds Bank, Eliot on the brink of The Waste Land was nonetheless a shaman, a real one, and to manifest the dire spiritual condition of the tribe, he had to undergo—in his buttoned-up way—the regulation shamanic dismembering.
So the Eliot of 1921, as he prepared to deliver himself of “a long poem that I have had on my mind for a long time,” was picked and pecked at by demons. In the foreground, a miserable marriage, a life-sucking job, and the strain—for an American introvert—of participation in London’s highly charged literary scene. In the background, apprehensions of profound disorder, with accompanying nervous symptoms. And finally, a visit from his mother. Charlotte Eliot, 77 years old, resident of Greater Boston, popped over to see her son in London, stayed for 10 weeks, and left him prostrate with neurosis. “I really feel very shaky,” Eliot wrote to his friend Richard Aldington, “and seem to have gone down rapidly since my family left.” Some brain kink, some malady of consciousness, was sinking him repeatedly into obscure states of horror. His feelings, he said, were “impossible to describe.”
The bank, presented with his difficulties—imagine that proto-HR meeting, that one-act play—gave Eliot three months’ sick leave. He departed London in October—first for a month-long rest cure in the English seaside town of Margate, and then for Lausanne, in Switzerland, where by the waters of Lac Léman he placed himself under the care of Dr. Roger Vittoz.
Returning to London via Paris in January, he gave (as he later wrote) “the manuscript of a sprawling chaotic poem called The Waste Land ” to his fellow reality-shifter and most ardent advocate: the flame-haired American nutter-prodigy Ezra Pound.
Great editors, like great record producers, know where to make the cut.
It’s a secondary creative act, doubling the primary one: to breathe upon the formless waters, to infuse the Kháos, the sprawling manuscript, with the Logos. Teo Macero—New York City, 1969—having recorded hours upon hours, spools upon spools, of Miles Davis jamming sulfurously and sorcerously with a crew of possessed sidemen, takes out his razor and makes Bitches Brew. Ezra Pound—Paris, 1922—licks the nib of his pencil and slashes entire sequences, entire movements, from Eliot’s new poem.
Pound was a maker and a shatterer, prancing around London with his isms—his Imagism and his Vorticism and his anti-Georgianism. His ear for poetry was almost feral. Eliot trusted him completely. So across the manuscript Pound went prowling: He jabbed and bracketed and sliced, and his marginalia popped like fireworks. “Too loose” … “Too tum-pum” … “B-ll-s” … “Make up yr. mind” … Once in a while he approved: “O.K.” or (more Poundian) “Echt,” German for “real.”
By the time he was done, The Waste Land had been cut by half.
So what is it, The Waste Land ? It’s a poem of 434 lines, in five sections.
More than half of it is quotes or near quotes from or allusions to other pieces of writing. All sorts of writing, highbrow and lowbrow. If you’ve ever been around somebody whose psyche is collapsing, you know that this is what sometimes happens: They start spewing quotes. They start spewing references, innuendos, broken-off bits, debris. Then they start connecting the debris.
Whether this has always been the case, or whether The Waste Land prophesied and inaugurated an especially modern type of crack-up … That’s an interesting question.
Myth No. 1: It’s difficult.
I first read The Waste Land when I was 11, precocious little short-trousered bastard that I was, and no doubt I was a better reader of it then—which is to say a purer and sharper reader—than I am now. I didn’t find it difficult, because I had no expectation of understanding it. The question What does it mean? did not occur to me.
Myth No. 2: It’s depressing.
Au contraire, it’s totally bloody exhilarating. It’s like watching Evel Knievel. How many buses can the crazy biker fly over? How deep an abyss can the poet traverse? Across how large a synaptic loop can the vital spark jump? “Complimenti, you bitch,” Pound wrote to Eliot after reading the revised poem. “I am wracked by the seven jealousies.” Envy: the purest compliment one writer can pay another.
We begin, the poem begins, under the earth. Like bulbs or corpses. “Winter kept us warm.”
And then—I could say abruptly, but part of the spooky genius of The Waste Land is that none of its dozens of sudden tonal or thematic zigzags, its jump cuts and non sequiturs, feels abrupt—we are in middle Europe somewhere, in the mountains, drinking coffee and tobogganing with some aristocrats. Fresh air, the slopes. But the voice changes again: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?” If The Waste Land has a narrator, it is this voice, this weird druidic voice: creeping, recurring, visionary, sardonic, anti-romantic, almost malign. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Which is the opposite, if you think about it, of seeing the world in a grain of sand.
Another voice, a lover disabled, made impotent—finished off, nearly—by an apparition of love: “Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed.” Then we meet Madame Sosostris and her “wicked pack of cards,” her tarot. And with her cheesy clairvoyance, her fortune-telling powers, she glimpses it: the universal disaster. “I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.” Here we all are, us, in a herd, on the wheel. The poetry rises, apostrophizes, becomes super-famous: “Unreal City …”
That’s the first section, or some of it: “The Burial of the Dead.”
A woman seated before a mirror brushes her hair with stagy, fiery gestures. The scene is massively ornate and over-sensory, a smothering of jewels and carvings and reflections and glittering facets and beauty potions and “sevenbranched candelabra.” On the wall, above the “antique mantel,” is a picture of Philomela, after her rape by King Tereus, becoming a nightingale. Someone enters, a kind of cringing half person—“footsteps shuffled on the stair”—and the woman speaks.
Pound was not The Waste Land ’s only editor. Eliot also ran early drafts past his wife, Vivienne—a risky move, given that the poem’s second section, “A Game of Chess,” drew upon and dramatized certain awful scenes from their marriage. And given also that Vivienne—vivid, quivering Vivienne—was, outwardly at least, even more unstable than Eliot. She cheated on him with Bertrand Russell; she blew her top; she lay in bed and screamed. An anxious woman speaks in this section, frenziedly interrogating her husband: “What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?” Not exactly a loving portrait.
[From the January 1933 issue: The poetry of T. S. Eliot]
Nevertheless. On the manuscript, next to the line “My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad,” Vivienne—who would end her days in a mental hospital in North London, long separated from Eliot—wrote “WONDERFUL.” What a trouper.
“All things, O priests, are on fire … The eye, O priests, is on fire; forms are on fire; eye-consciousness is on fire; impressions received by the eye are on fire.” So speaks the Buddha in his “Fire Sermon,” the Ādittapariyāya Sutta.
But the third section of The Waste Land, “The Fire Sermon,” is all sludge. This part of the poem is oozing and biological and not fiery in the slightest. In fact, it makes one long for fire. Or for a flamethrower. There are violated human bodies; there are sluggish bodies of water. The River Thames. Lac Léman, where Eliot had lately submitted himself to the healing hands of Dr. Vittoz. (Healing hands: I mean that literally. With a gentle and expert touch, he would palpate the heads of his patients.) And then the canal.
“A rat crept softly through the vegetation / Dragging its slimy belly on the bank / While I was fishing in the dull canal / On a winter evening round behind the gashouse …”
Time to meet the Fisher King. Who is he?
Well, he’s a number of things, in a number of stories. But in one of those stories, in the Arthurian myth that wrinkles its way through The Waste Land, he’s a man who sits and seeps and sadly fishes while his kingdom crumbles around him. He has a mysterious thigh wound, or groin wound, that won’t heal. The holy grail, in this story, is that which, at the end of the quest, heals the king’s seeping wound. And/or binds up his injured psyche. And/or restores the land to fertility.
This, this scene by the canal, is as Eliotic as it gets: a deep under-image of the Fisher King, deep psychic history, flickering and fizzing behind the right-now reality of the London fishermen. And they’re still out there, those London fishermen; you can see them any night of the week, sitting shapelessly on their bait buckets, dipping their lines into the greeny-black seam of Regent’s Canal. On the far bank, a huge disused gasholder rears its frame bonily into the city sky. This is the London of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, the London of The Waste Land, the London of now. It’s all still there.
Wounded groins. Drooping night anglers. Nervous wives. Are you picking up a slight atmosphere of sexual difficulty?
Enter Tiresias, “old man with wrinkled female breasts.” Tiresias, the blind prophet of Greek mythology who interrupted the lovemaking of two large serpents, two writhing, sexy serpents, and as a penalty was changed into a woman for seven years. So on the sex war, Tiresias has the answers for us—or some of them. “He knew both sides of love,” as a 1916 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses puts it.
For the next 42 lines of “The Fire Sermon,” Tiresias will be our guide. With Tiresias, who knows both sides of love, we will lurk, we will peep, we will snicker as a young woman (“the typist”) invites a young man (“a small house agent’s clerk”) into her bedsit and bad sex ensues. Terrible sex. A scene of muffled or dissociated coercion. The meter goes jaunty-iambic, smutty-iambic, with an ABAB rhyme scheme, as if to emphasize the mechanical, tum-pum nature of the thing. “She turns and looks a moment in the glass, / Hardly aware of her departed lover; / Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass: / ‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’”
Eliotic irony: Peering down upon this woman from a great height, itemizing snootily her “food in tins,” the laundry drying on her windowsill, the narrowness of her existence, the narrator (who is Eliot, who is Tiresias) also sees her sexual predicament with a special rarefied/horrified clarity. With a livid, frozen empathy. With the pity that she, allowing one half-formed thought to pass, cannot permit herself.
Pound’s cut to the fourth section, “Death by Water,” was the big one: 83 lines of wandering, wild-weathered sea narrative, in fluent blank verse, part The Tempest, part The Perfect Storm. “And no one dared / To look into anothers face, or speak / In the horror of the illimitable scream / Of a whole world about us.” Pound pencil-poked and worried at these lines, a jab here and a slice there, and finally cut the lot. Gone.
What was left, at the tail end of all this storm action, was a brief, perfect Elizabethan-style lyric. Ten lines. “Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead …” Glimmeringly discrete, with its own deep-sea music. Phlebas is a drowned sailor. The sea dissolves his body, picks “his bones in whispers.” Reversion to the elemental. All very final, all very peaceful. “He passed the stages of his age and youth …” He’s like the Knight, slain and rotting, in Ted Hughes’s Cave Birds : “His submission is flawless. / Blueflies lift off his beauty.”
This is what the Poundian cut could do for you: By removing the extraneous, however high-quality, it put a tremor of white light, a space echo, around what remained. Too bad he wasn’t available 20 years later, when Eliot was writing his Four Quartets. His priestly, intermittently waffling Four Quartets. Post-Pound it would have been Two Quartets. (You can’t tell me that a line like “I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant— / Among other things—or one way of putting the same thing” would have made it past the Pound pencil. Make up yr. mind.)
Unfortunately, by that point Pound’s brain had been eaten by anti-Semitism and crank economics, and he was making radio broadcasts for the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.
Is there anti-Semitism in The Waste Land ? No. But there might have been. It bubbles up nastily elsewhere in Eliot’s poetry, and it snickers around the edges of his criticism. Things written in his 30s and 40s would have to be answered for in his 70s. (“I did make the statement which you quote, but I have ever since regretted making it in that form, for it was not intended to be anti-Semitic.”)
But The Waste Land is free of it. By a happy accident. Or by the intervention of the Muses. The poem is superior to the poet. The poem sees more clearly.
“After the torchlight red on sweaty faces …” Darkness. Brute arousal. A lynching; a burning; a seizure; a mob. Charlottesville. We—as in: humanity—are never getting away from this line.
The last section of The Waste Land, “What the Thunder Said,” is ringing with aftermath, with a note that peals and resounds and hunts for an echo in all the hardest and rockiest places. Crucifixion has happened. Murder has happened. God is dead. The pottery shards are telling it. Stones are tolling like bells. The note gathers power and becomes a shock wave, destroying cities. “Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air” like high-altitude explosives. “Falling towers / Jerusalem Athens Alexandria.”
Here comes Jesus, into this blown landscape. Or here he half-comes. Equivocally shows up, the hooded Christ of the hangover. “Who is the third who walks always beside you? / When I count, there are only you and I together / But when I look ahead up the white road / There is always another one walking beside you.”
Eliot is doing his time trick, mapping an anecdote from Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914–17 Antarctic expedition onto the 24th chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. Shackleton and his two men, wading desperately across the snowfields of South Georgia island, silently sensed or fancied that they were accompanied by an enigmatic other. “I know that during that long and racking march,” Shackleton wrote in his 1920 memoir, South, “it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”
The disciples in Luke, heads low after the Crucifixion, trudging along, fall into conversation with an inquisitive stranger on the road to Emmaus. The stranger is the risen Jesus. They do not recognize him.
We can imagine them thinking, Who’s this guy?
The last 39 lines of The Waste Land are an apocalypse.
Static hums in the dryness, little monsters twitch (“bats with baby faces”), and then—the storm. Civilization goes, the mind goes, and the God of the Upanishads speaks in syllables of thunder, the whole scene strobed by lightning bolts and the shock editing of life flashing before your eyes. “Shall I at least set my lands in order?” wonders the poet/Fisher King, with pathetic coherence, as London disintegrates behind him and his brain swarms with quotes and quotes and quotes, “the poem’s great and final collapse”—as Matthew Hollis puts it in his brilliant new book, The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem—“of cascading imagery and fleeting phrases, like a cine-reel of a disappearing Europe.”
“Shantih shantih shantih,” it ends. Sanskrit for “peace.”
Drone of the void. Of the mind suddenly emptied.
Okay. So where are we now, 100 years later, with The Waste Land ? The sludge is rising; the flames are rising; the demagogues are getting louder and the brownshirts are cracking their knuckles.
The poem’s discontinuities no longer startle us. Rather, they feel like home. All the sections, all the voices, all the tones—they hang together like … like … like “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Like an episode of Rick and Morty. Like a conspiracy theory.
[From the January 1974 issue: The early years of T. S. Eliot]
Our inner condition, meanwhile, has not altered. We’re all trailing our lines in the dark water. We’ve all sustained the secret wound. You’ve got your holy grail, and I’ve got mine. And whether we can ever find them in this lifetime, our respective grails—get our hands on them and apply them to our suffering—I don’t know.
The Waste Land was written by a very disturbed man, a fastidious man possessed by visions of squalor, a man unable to distinguish the fall of civilization from the fall of his own psyche. It was written in the after-roar of one war, with another boiling up on the horizon. It was marginal testimony—imagine its fate without the encouragement of Pound—that became instantly central.
Why? Because it couldn’t be denied. Because it was brain-thunder. Because it was magic, and it ripped the shaman apart. Because it itemizes our illnesses like no poem before or since, offering nothing, nothing at all, but the stark elation of seeing the thing as it is.
This article appears in the January/February 2023 print edition with the headline “The Prophecy of The Waste Land.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.One hundred years after the publication of The Waste Land, its vision has never been more terrifying.
How Elon Musk’s Buffoonery Misleads His Critics
If you’re captivated when people who draw out the worst in one another can’t bring themselves to decouple, forget about Ryan and Kelly on The Office, Gossip Girl’s Chuck and Blair, and most every pairing on Euphoria and start watching the latest season of Twitter.
Its new lead is the billionaire Elon Musk, the social-media platform’s owner and CEO. And although he’s enmeshed in several fraught relationships––with Twitter’s presumably beleaguered workforce and its understandably anxious advertisers, for starters––Musk’s entry into the love-hate relationship between Twitter and left-of-center journalists is easily the most captivating and dysfunctional plotline. Is it a love triangle? A toxic polycule? I want happy endings for all the participants. I want Musk to succeed in creating a thriving conversation space with a culture of free speech, and I want journalists to succeed in subjecting Musk-era Twitter to rigorous scrutiny.
[Helen Lewis: Elon Musk’s brutally honest management style]
But as I binge on this show, I find that—as when watching The White Lotus or Succession—I am not rooting for who is right, but against whoever is most exasperatingly wrong in any given spat. As episodes unfold, I can’t honestly defend all of anyone’s actions. In their ongoing zeal to advance competing culture-war narratives about Twitter as a platform, Musk and his media critics routinely succumb to excesses that undermine faith in them.
If Musk is prone to grandiosity, flippancy, and free-speech claims that run the gamut from incisive to oversimplified to flagrantly promoting a mercenary agenda, his critics are as prone to Manichean portrayals that tend toward panicked, catastrophizing hyperbole. In general, the tenor of many news outlets’ Twitter coverage does not suggest that an epistemically modest press corps is offering balanced accounts of changes at the social-media company. Rather, that coverage is unremittingly hostile toward Musk, who is held to double standards and treated, mere weeks after taking ownership of Twitter, as if his approach to running a company that was losing lots of money before he arrived has obviously failed.
Before he offered to buy Twitter, Musk had a plausible critique of the platform’s content-moderation policies. Stripped of his occasional exaggerations and misstatements, that critique went like this: In the United States, Twitter should give users the tools to follow, mute, or block whomever they like, and it should suppress the sorts of speech that almost all Americans regard as harmful, including terrorist recruitment, death threats, child porn, incitement to violence, libel, and severe harassment. But rather than stop there, Twitter was moderating content in speech-chilling ways. The company’s decisions stymied freewheeling democratic debate about COVID-19 precautions, policies and norms proposed by transgender-rights advocates, and other contested matters that are widely discussed around dinner tables and during elections. Before the 2020 election, the platform aggressively attempted to block a New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop, an unprecedented step against a mainstream publication’s election coverage that’s all the more alarming because we now know that many of its claims proved to be authentic. And even as the platform catered to many of the academia-informed sensitivities of highly educated Democrats and progressives––going so far as to suspend the account of an Onion-like satire magazine, The Babylon Bee, when it offended them––it explicitly permitted and even amplified an enormous variety of content (hard-core pornography, blasphemy, videos of flag burning, brutal mockery of individuals’ personal appearance) that transgressed against many other groups’ sensitivities or sacred values.
In this telling, Twitter’s partisan and ideological asymmetries chilled democratically valuable speech, exacerbated polarization, contributed to populist backlash, fueled conspiratorial thinking, and helped spur the creation of far-right platforms. If so, a new Twitter owner could conceivably help American democracy by catering to free-speech preferences held by more Americans. This theory of the case dovetails with Musk’s apparent decision to release details of what he sees as bygone missteps at Twitter through the independent journalist Matt Taibbi, ostensibly strengthening the case that the platform’s old regime was heavy-handed and biased.
The Musk-skeptical counternarrative, in its strongest form, is also plausible. It begins with the insight that all content moderation at scale is hard, frequently forcing fraught choices among bad options. To improve on the performance of pre-Musk Twitter, which had strengths as well as weaknesses, would have been challenging for any new owner. But Musk’s takeover has been marked by self-defeating blunders from the start. Almost as soon as he made a binding offer to buy the company at a specific price per share, he tried to wriggle out of the deal, apparently concluding that he was overpaying. That misstep, though not especially relevant to the content-moderation debate, fed the perception that Musk’s analysis of Twitter is less diligently informed and circumspect than knee-jerk and impulsive.
Then, shortly after buying Twitter, Musk made a big show of allowing any user to pay $8 a month for a verification check mark without any functioning way to actually verify their identity. The outcome was predictable: “New check-mark-wielding accounts wasted no time in impersonating brands, such as Musk’s own car company, Tesla, and pharmaceuticals company Eli Lilly, even announcing that the insulin manufacturer would now offer insulin for free, sending the actual Eli Lilly’s stock prices into a free fall,” Vox reported. “A fake LeBron James requested a trade to another NBA team. An account impersonating former president George W. Bush tweeted, ‘I miss killing Iraqis.’” As advertisers expressed concerns about being impersonated, Twitter suspended the new service. The episode sowed additional doubts about Musk’s stewardship. How could he have failed to foresee the impersonation problem?
[David French: Elon Musk and Tucker Carlson don’t understand the First Amendment]
Musk also undermines himself with illogical, overwrought, and inaccurate rhetoric. For example, on Friday, Taibbi posted an attention-getting Twitter thread that marshaled internal Twitter documents to paint a picture of how powerful actors influenced content moderation at the company. “By 2020, requests from connected actors to delete tweets were routine,” Taibbi reported. “One executive would write to another: ‘More to review from the Biden team.’ The reply would come back: ‘Handled.’” In response, Musk wrote, “If this isn’t a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment, what is?” But as many Musk critics quickly pointed out, the First Amendment restrains only government power. In 2020, Joe Biden was a private citizen running for the presidency.
But by zeroing in on Musk’s most obvious mistakes, stridently negative press coverage tends to breeze past Musk’s overall argument, including the parts with demonstrable or arguable merit.
Consider the episode last month when, after taking over at Twitter, Musk posted a poll on his feed asking, “Should Twitter offer a general amnesty to suspended accounts, provided that they have not broken the law or engaged in egregious spam?” After a majority of respondents approved of an amnesty, Musk declared that he would implement one. The Washington Post then published a news article on the matter by Taylor Lorenz, who covers technology and online culture, often emphasizing real harms that social-media giants have propagated over the years.
Lorenz, a former Atlantic staff writer who has a sophisticated understanding of social media, covered half of the story with gusto. The article appropriately informed readers that technical challenges might make implementing a mass amnesty much harder than it sounds; that Twitter might find it difficult or impossible to identify banned accounts that had broken the law; that the term egregious spam is vague and subjective; and that Musk’s amnesty would definitionally restore accounts that had aggressively harassed others without breaking the law, among other potential downsides and ostensible problems.
But nowhere does the article catalog or even acknowledge the potential upsides of Musk’s proposed amnesty or help readers understand why so many Twitter users voted in favor of that approach. Perhaps an amnesty is the only way to reinstate all accounts unjustly suspended by the former moderation regime without the impossible burden of identifying them individually. (An activist quoted in Lorenz’s article asserts without evidence that “superspreaders of hate, abuse and harassment will be the only people to benefit from this latest decision.”) Perhaps an amnesty will increase trust in communities that perceived bias during the old regime. Perhaps many miscreants deserved a temporary suspension followed by a second chance rather than a permanent punishment. The sources quoted in the Post story are all on one side of the question, even though informed observers of Twitter are more divided. When I asked Lorenz for comment, she emphasized that her article was not an opinion piece expressing her own view of Musk’s proposed amnesty, but rather a reported story drawing on various sources with subject-matter expertise. No one with whom Lorenz spoke made the case that an amnesty was a good idea.
Even if Musk’s amnesty turns out to be a bad idea, as it may, Post headline writers framed the story melodramatically: “‘Opening the gates of hell’: Musk says he will revive banned accounts.” This is an alarmist way to characterize the reinstatement of noncriminal accounts on a platform where anyone subject to a ban could always open a new account in a few minutes.
Last month, Musk also decided to allow former President Donald Trump back on the platform. A subsequent article by Jelani Cobb, the dean of Columbia University’s journalism school, is a reminder that many of Musk’s critics are as guilty as the billionaire is of frustrating lapses in circumspection and precision. Writing in The New Yorker about why he was leaving Twitter, Cobb argued that, for him, Musk’s “reinstatement of Donald Trump’s account made remaining completely untenable.” He added, “The implication was clear: if promoting the January 6, 2021, insurrection—which left at least seven people dead and more than a hundred police officers injured—doesn’t warrant suspension to Musk, then nothing else on the platform likely could.”
But the implication that Musk views “nothing” as disqualifying is false. Days before Cobb’s piece was published, Musk had announced that the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones would not be restored to the platform. More recently, Twitter has suspended Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, for anti-Semitic tweets that Musk characterized as an incitement to violence. And there has never been any doubt that Musk would, for example, continue to regard posting child pornography as disqualifying.
More broadly, Cobb casts Musk not as someone who is answering hard content-moderation questions differently from the old Twitter regime, or differently from how most journalists covering him would regard as ideal, but as someone whose approach is so plainly inferior and anomalously indefensible as to warrant canceling one’s account. I am as horrified as anyone by Trump’s role in January 6, 2021, but high-profile journalists, including Cobb, have shared the platform for years with Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, the Chinese Communist Party and its various officials, the Taliban, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Cobb declined my request for comment.)
[Yair Rosenberg: Why Twitter won’t ban its most powerful anti-Semite]
My point isn’t that foreign tyrants or deplorable American politicians should or shouldn’t be on Twitter. Reasonable people disagree. But reporters and commentators undermine their own credibility by treating Musk as an extreme outlier in his willingness to allow some of Earth’s most harmful figures to have accounts, and by presuming that more rather than less speech suppression on the platform is the obviously superior way to undermine bad people. In service of the narrative that the old Twitter regime was moral and responsible while the new Twitter regime is not, many journalists have overlooked relevant context, failed to engage obvious counterarguments, and revealed their own double standards. In doing so, they invite Musk’s fans to ignore even legitimate criticisms of him.
In a recent podcast episode, the public intellectual Sam Harris explained at great length why he’d recently deactivated his Twitter account despite the million-plus followers that he’d amassed there and his earnest desire to engage with people and viewpoints as diverse as the platform offers. In his estimation, “my engagement with Twitter was making me a worse person.” And his explanation as to why doubles as one of the most incisive critiques of the platform that I’ve seen.
“It was showing me the worst of other people in a way that I began to feel was actually distorting my perception of humanity,” Harris said. “So Twitter for me became like a malignant form of telepathy where I got to hear the most irrational, contemptuous, sneering thoughts of other people … But the problem wasn’t all the hate being directed at me. The problem was the hate I was beginning to feel … Twitter was giving me a very dark view of other people. And the fact that I believed—and still believe—that it’s a distorted view wasn’t enough to inoculate me against this change in my attitude.”
Twitter’s architecture and algorithms have that same distorting effect on many users across the ideological spectrum. And it seems to me that the dysfunctional relationship between Twitter’s new owner and so many of the journalists who cover him is exacerbated by the fact that all involved are (or used to be) heavy Twitter users acting based on interactions that take place on the platform, where the least defensible statements and claims on all sides are relentlessly amplified in a never-ending cycle that predictably fuels disdain and negative polarization.
The best scripted dramas give us enough insight into its least sympathetic characters to prevent them from seeming like cartoon villains. Perhaps one day the best social-media sites will do the same. (Wouldn’t it be nice if Musk saw himself in Harris’s description and tweaked the code to spare everyone?) Meanwhile the challenge for those of us observing Musk and his critics is to benefit from the best of their insights about the platform and reach judgments about content moderation based on the merits, rather than reacting against their least defensible or most annoying claims.What I learned while binge-watching social media’s hottest melodrama
Breakups Always Hurt, but You Can Shorten the Suffering
“How to Build a Life” is a 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.
Literature is full of brutally jilted lovers and cruelly broken hearts, whether Anna Karenina’s or Heathcliff’s in Wuthering Heights. But for my money, the most extreme case is Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. In the classic novel, she never gets over the pain of being abandoned at the altar on her wedding day, decades before. Shut away in her dark house, Miss Havisham is described as a cross between a skeleton and a wax statue, frozen in a state of traumatic rejection.
As cartoonish as these characters are, they can seem achingly realistic to readers in the midst of the terrible heartbreak that can come when a romance ends. Miss Havisham’s fate seems plausible: You will never again see love as anything more than an exercise in futility. Little by little, of course, most people do get over a breakup, move on, and, eventually, love someone else. In those early days and months, however, the pain can feel like it will never end.
There is no magical remedy for a bad breakup, but that doesn’t mean you have to just suffer and read Victorian novels while you wait to feel better. There’s actually a lot you can do to speed the healing process, learn from the experience, and find new love (and, ideally, not make the same mistake again).
Breaking up is part of an ordinary life. Although the data are limited and results vary widely, some U.K. research estimates that people average roughly two serious relationships before settling into one that is considered permanent. In 2013, the average number of times Americans said their heart had been broken was five.
If your breakups have been awful, that’s normal. According to a 2018 poll from YouGov, 58 percent of American adults say breakups tend to be “dramatic/messy.” Only 25 percent said they tend to be “casual/civil.” No wonder people try to avoid them: Scholars who recently surveyed adults ages 18 to 29 found that about half said it was either moderately or exactly true that “I sometimes stay in a relationship longer than I should because I don’t know how to end it.”
[Read: This is your brain on heartbreak]
Breakups, at least for the breakee, are literally painful. Modern neuroscience has found repeatedly that social pain—of which abandonment is an especially acute example—can stimulate many of the same brain regions as physical pain, notably the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. When you are in great pain, it can be hard to comprehend that you’ll ever feel better. Indeed, people experiencing depression often say that they forget what “normal” feels like.
But the pain does diminish. Psychologists writing in 2007 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that when a romantic relationship dissolves, the average person rates her stress at a bit more than three on a one-to-seven scale of severity. Each week, that number falls, on average, by about 0.07. Think of it this way: If your grief is a solid 3.5 after a breakup, assuming you follow the average pattern, you can expect to feel better each week and only about half as bad after six months—a longer time than you perhaps want or expect, but not a permanent state of affairs.
Especially after a long relationship, a breakup can make you feel like you’ll never find love again. You most likely will, though, and maybe sooner than you think. One 2013 study published in the science journal PLOS One found that the length of the dissolved relationship is positively correlated with the proclivity of the newly single to rebound into a new relationship. Whether your specific rebound relationship is a good thing is something you have to decide, but the data suggest that you will be able to open your heart again.
Knowing your emotional wounds will heal with time doesn’t necessarily make sitting through the pain any easier in the early aftermath of an ugly split. There are a few things you can do to hasten the process of feeling better, however.
1. Think about what a jerk your ex is.
In one of the most novel experiments I have seen in the past few years, researchers at the University of Missouri recruited people upset after a breakup to try different techniques to reduce their feelings of love toward their ex and lighten their unpleasant mood. The researchers measured the effectiveness of each approach by showing the participants photos of their ex-partner while observing their brain activity on an electroencephalogram and asking them how they felt.
[Read: The evolution of the desire to stay friends with your ex]
When participants were instructed to think about what they truly disliked about the person they loved—for example, by focusing on questions such as “What is an annoying habit of your ex?”—their feelings of love fell by a whopping 18 percent. It didn’t come without a cost, though: It also temporarily lowered the overall pleasantness of mood by 17 percent. You have to decide whether reduced heartbreak outweighs the unpleasant memory of your ex’s bad habit. If it doesn’t, move on to technique No. 2.
2. Go have fun.
Another strategy tested in the paper above was distraction. The participants were instructed to think about positive things in their lives, such as their favorite food. This was also effective, but in a different way: Although love feelings for the ex did not decrease, mood improved by 8 percent on average. So if your principal problem after a breakup is fixating on how much you love your ex, meditate on him picking his nose. But if your problem is that you’re feeling depressed, do something fun and enjoyable to occupy your mind. Read a good book, maybe, or go for a hike (perhaps not where you and your ex liked to go).
3. Put on some sad music.
Psychologists over the years have repeatedly remarked on what seems like counterproductive behavior when people feel sad: listening to sad songs. After a breakup, you should listen to “Happy,” not “I Will Always Love You,” right?
Actually, sad music can benefit a broken heart. Writing in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy in 2016, a psychologist reviewed the available studies and found that people seek out sad music in order to help themselves understand and find meaning in their emotions. Breakup songs can help you feel less alone in your suffering and less unique in your misfortune. And sitting with your bad feelings (rather than pushing them away) is important for your emotional well-being and growth.
[Read: Sit with negative emotions, don’t push them away]
In this essay, I have offered you a few ways to shorten your heartbreak. Here is one way to extend it: Keep tabs on your ex on social media. This is strikingly common; in a 2011 study, 54.3 percent of college students confessed to having perused an ex’s social-media posts in search of photos with a new partner. In the race for fresh ways for tech to hijack our brain chemistry and make us insane, there is a huge, obvious market for an app that surveils exes and sends alerts to your phone when they look happy. You might call it Creepster, or perhaps, Havisham.
As tempting as it might be, such surveillance is a huge mistake for happiness. Research on Facebook stalking shows that it is associated with greater distress, longing, negative feelings, and sexual desire for the ex-partner; it also inhibits personal growth in the wake of the split. It is a near-perfect way to ensure that you don’t feel better.
[Read: How to break a phone addiction]
In order to get over a breakup, you have to let your life move on and let your ex’s life move on as well. Don’t hold on to the source of your suffering. Your pain will decrease, you will be able to love again, and you can leave Miss Havisham to wander her lonely house without you.Three steps to get over your ex
Breakthroughs of the Year
This is Work in Progress, a newsletter by Derek Thompson about work, technology, and how to solve some of America’s biggest problems. Sign up here to get it every week.
Updated at 1:40 p.m. ET on December 28, 2022
Today, The Atlantic reveals its inaugural 10 Breakthroughs of the Year. The accomplishments span every station of life, from birth to death, and every component, from our cells to the stars. They include a drug that revives the organs of dead animals; an embryo created without sperm or egg; a telescope to see the universe’s first moments; and an AI that conjures award-winning art.
One theme of this year’s list is the principle of “twin ideas”—the tendency for major breakthroughs to have more than one author. The telegraph was invented by Charles Wheatstone and Samuel Morse in the same year, 1837, and patents for the telephone were filed by Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell on the same day in 1876. Accordingly, many of this year’s breakthroughs are group efforts rather than individual awards. We didn’t just get one mind-blowing generative AI app this year; we got several in the span of a few months. We didn’t just get one “unheard-of” cancer breakthrough; we got several in one year. In this golden age of new vaccine technology, many different companies are building off the success of the COVID shots to deliver new antiviral weaponry for humankind.
These breakthroughs are just the beginning of the long story we call progress. Some of these promising discoveries might never yield a product that’s cheap and widely available. Others may take years or even decades to realize their potential. Capable companies, fair policies, and wise regulations will be necessary to coax real flourishing from these seedlings. For now, let’s just appreciate the promise of these achievements.
The Generative-AI Eruption
A new dawn in how we build
The story of the year in technology might be the emergence of AI tools that seem to trace the outer bounds of human creativity. Image-generating apps, such as Stable Diffusion and DALL-E 2, turn text prompts into lush illustrations. Large language models, such as ChatGPT, can answer complex questions, spit out bespoke Wikipedia articles in seconds, write song lyrics, and even conjure—admittedly mediocre—essays in the style of well-known writers.
What are these machines? Are they an autocomplete for everything, a second mind for the creative class, a replacement for Google Search, or a disembodied superbrain that will one day destroy the world? In the short term, I expect they will serve as assistants for those of us in creative industries. As a journalist, I’m most excited by their potential to help me plow through complicated bits of writing. When I feel myself stuck on a definition or transition sentence, I could give a prompt to the AI, which, having feasted on a banquet of online writing, would generate sentences that I could edit back into my own voice. In fact, I adapted the previous sentence from the prompt: “Write an essay in The Atlantic, in the style of Derek Thompson, on the implications of GPT.” (These sorts of disclosures are faddish today, but in a few years, they may be rendered redundant because so much writing will be AI-assisted.)
DALL-E’s co-inventor Aditya Ramesh said the goal of his technology was to teach “AI systems to see the world the way humans do.” But, more spookily, I think these tools will also teach humans to see the world as AI sees it. We will over time learn how to talk to these things, become fluent in their alien tongue, and discover how the perfect set of words can generate a stunning piece of original art. These uncanny tools, having emerged from our mind, may change our mind about how we work, how we think, and what human creativity really is.
The Power to Reverse Death (Kind Of)
Organs revived in dead pigs
Is death reversible? It was this year for several pigs (or, at least, for their organs). By pumping an experimental substance into the veins and arteries of animals that had been lying deceased for an hour, Yale researchers got their hearts to start beating again. The technology is “very far away from use in humans,” Stephen Latham, a bioethicist at Yale University, told The New York Times. In the short term, scientists said, they hope that their research could help doctors preserve the organs of the recently deceased for use in transplants.
But the longer-term implications of the experiment can’t be ignored: If we have the power to reanimate the heart or other organs of the recently deceased, at what point might we be able to reverse sudden deaths? Could we revive soldiers who bleed out on the battlefield? Could we stock hospitals and nursing homes with buckets of the stuff to resuscitate patients? Should every future American household keep some on hand in the event of a terrible accident?
These questions thrust us into the ethical realm and invoke spooky references to “The Monkey’s Paw,” Pet Sematary, and any number of stories about the dark side of trying to design an escape hatch from mortality. Perhaps, as this technology improves, that debate is on its way. But for millions of people who have lost loved ones to, say, a sudden heart attack or stroke, it’s not remotely dystopian to imagine an injection that could reverse tragedies long considered irreversible.
The Power to Synthesize Life (Kind Of)
Mouse embryos “born” without sperm or egg
This summer, scientists grew an embryo in a lab without the use of sperm, or eggs, or a womb. It happened to be that of a mouse. But the species is of secondary importance. What matters is that using only stem cells, a team at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel forged something in a lab that budded a tail on day six, grew a beating heart by day eight, and even evinced the beginnings of a brain. Some scientists I consulted for this project said that the results, which were published this year in the science journal Cell, were the most important scientific breakthrough of 2022.
Scientists are not close to turning stem cells into human babies that make their first gasping cries in antiseptic laboratories. But this work does suggest a major leap forward in our ability to grow synthetic organs and more closely research the relationship between embryonic mutations and developmental diseases. As Paul Tesar, a developmental biologist at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, told Stat, “As soon as the science starts to move into a place where it’s feasible to go from a stem cell population in a Petri dish all the way through to organ development, it’s a pretty wild and remarkable time.”
The Vaccine Cavalry Is Coming
Novel therapies for malaria and all influenza strains
Decades from now, historians may regard the 2020s as a golden age of vaccine breakthroughs. The mRNA vaccines that blunted the mortality of COVID were just the start.
In September, a new malaria vaccine developed by Oxford University scientists was found to be extremely effective. A trial involving 450 children in Burkina Faso found that three doses of the vaccine, plus a booster shot, were up to 80 percent effective at preventing infection. Malaria, which kills more than 400,000 people each year, is caused not by a virus, but rather by a shape-shifter called plasmodium, which has so far eluded widespread vaccine attempts. But the latest trials of this Oxford vaccine are among several thrilling efforts bringing us closer to taking on one of the world’s leading causes of child mortality.
In November, an experimental flu vaccine was found to induce a protective immune response against all known types of flu in animals. This breakthrough, which uses mRNA technology, wouldn’t prevent all flu infections. But it would raise patients’ level of immune protection, blunting the harm from seasonal flus and assuaging scientists’ fears that the next global pandemic could be an influenza strain with higher mortality than COVID. The influenza virus family is extensive, with at least 20 identified lineages. Current influenza vaccines provide exceptionally narrow protection. But universal influenza vaccines would prep our immune systems for every lineage. “Imagine if the world’s population was primed against every influenza subtype,” Scott Hensley, a microbiology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said to Stat. “Wouldn’t that be a great thing?”
A Snapshot of the Beginning of Time
Images of the first galaxies in the universe
In July, NASA’s James Webb Telescope sent back its first images of ancient light from across the universe. With unprecedented clarity, the telescope showed off brilliant nebulae that resembled glowing neon soap bubbles, and red-clay mountain ranges, and luminescent shrimp in a pitch-black ocean. One image, which looked like a blurry destemmed cherry, captured a red blot of light more than 13 billion years old, giving us the oldest-ever snapshot of the infant universe.
The exquisite photos could lead us to new discoveries in cosmology. Flipping through snapshots of the baby cosmos, scientists might be able to piece together the story of the universe's beginning. Behind those lush and dreamy images might lie evidence of what actually happened during, or just after, the Big Bang.
And we’re just getting started. “Astronomers haven’t even cranked up the Webb telescope as far as it can go,” The Atlantic’s Marina Koren wrote in July. “With each deep observation, every big rewind, the telescope will bring us closer to the Big Bang, revealing faint galaxy after galaxy.” For this reason, the James Webb Telescope is so much more than the solar system’s most sophisticated camera-zoom function. It is also history’s greatest time machine.
‘Unheard of’ Advances in Fighting Cancer
Miraculous treatments and an at-home test
In a trial with 18 rectal-cancer patients who were prescribed a novel immunotherapy, researchers found that the cancer vanished in every single patient. No, not receded. Vanished. “I believe this is the first time this has happened in the history of cancer,” Luis Diaz Jr., a doctor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, told The New York Times.
Months later, a trial of a new metastatic-breast-cancer drug delivered similarly miraculous results. Scientists developed a monoclonal antibody treatment targeting tumor cells with a mutant protein HER2, a familiar cancer culprit. The drugs sought out and destroyed cells featuring the mutant with such stunning precision that many patients' lives were extended by more than six months. In conversations with The New York Times, one doctor called the results “unheard-of” and another deemed the trial “a new standard of care.”
This research raises new hopes that a combination of genetic breakthroughs and targeted treatments could fight cancer precisely, cell by cell, without requiring many rounds of brutal chemotherapy. Another genetic mutation commonly associated with various cancers is KRAS. It was considered “undruggable.” But this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that an Amgen lung-cancer pill targeting the mutation beat out a common chemotherapy in a late-stage study, helping patients survive without their tumors getting worse.
Finally, as most people know, the best way to treat cancer is to catch it early. But many of the most deadly cancers are imperceptible until they’ve progressed, at which point they are death sentences. For that reason, simple and accurate cancer tests may be one of the most important fronts in the long war against cancer. This year, the company Grail launched a blood test called Galleri. It’s not cheap, it’s not perfect, and it’s not even approved by the FDA; but it’s a start. The test, which looks for circulating tumor DNA in a blood draw, costs nearly $1,000. According to two early reports, the screening detects 50 types of cancer with a false-positive rate below 1 percent. If these kinds of tests get cheaper, more available, and more accurate, they’ll herald a hopeful future for medicine—one where breakthroughs in both early-stage detection and late-stage treatment squeeze cancer from both ends.
The Obesity-Therapy Surge
Weight-loss medication that actually works
Roughly four in 10 Americans are obese. Until recently, most responsible doctors didn’t prescribe medication for weight loss. The term weight-loss pill was rightly a pejorative, and patients were stuck with “diet and exercise” or bariatric surgery. But the past 18 months have been an extraordinary revolution in weight-loss medication, thanks to a happy accident.
In the 2010s, patients on the diabetes medication semaglutide noticed something interesting: They were losing a ton of weight. And that side effect wasn’t a fluke. Last year, the FDA approved injectable semaglutide for weight loss under a new name: Wegovy. Wegovy seems to work by mimicking naturally occurring hormones that regulate the release of insulin and by slowing down how fast the stomach empties. And it’s not the only medication in the pipeline that helps people lose weight without suffering major side effects. A similar weight-loss medication called tirzepatide showed an average 20 percent reduction in patients’ body weight in its latest clinical trial, and is likely to gain FDA approval next year. The pharmaceutical company Amgen is currently testing a medication called AMG-133. In the Phase 1 trial, patients on the highest dose lost more than 14 percent of their body weight in less than three months. Amgen’s larger Phase 2 study will begin next year.
Cracking the Case of Multiple Sclerosis
And learning something important about the phenomenon of “long viruses”
One tragic legacy of the COVID pandemic is that thousands, and perhaps millions, of people are still suffering from long-term effects of the disease. The coronavirus isn’t special in this regard. Many viral diseases likely have long-term effects, and in time, scientists may learn that many major diseases are best thought of as “long viruses.”
For example, more than 1 million Americans today live with multiple sclerosis. This year, a team of scientists studying a large group of military service members reported strong evidence that the Epstein-Barr virus, best known for causing mononucleosis, is the leading cause of multiple sclerosis. Infection with EBV raised the odds of developing multiple sclerosis, or MS, by more than thirtyfold. Because only a small minority of those infected with the virus developed MS, infection may not be the only, or even the most important, variable. But the study could helpfully focus efforts to prevent MS on vaccines against EBV.
Legal Lab Meat
A regulatory first
Some breakthroughs are about new rules, not just new technology.
This year, the FDA cleared a California company, Upside Foods, to produce lab-grown chicken. It is the first-ever cultivated-meat product to pass this key regulatory hurdle. More obstacles remain, such as approval by the Department of Agriculture, before you can order an Upside Foods chicken sandwich with white meat that grew in a lab. But it’s a start.
Lab-grown meat is important, because the world needs more than moral arguments against meat consumption; we need real (and delicious) choices for consumers. Decades of appeals from animal-rights movements and environmentalists have coincided with a period when Americans just ate more and more chicken. Taking the long view, the available amount of chicken meat per person has more than sextupled in the past century. Of the 80 billion land animals raised and slaughtered every year for human consumption, about 70 billion are chickens.
For now, cultivated meat is a minuscule movement inside a global colossus of animal products. But over time, as I’ve written, scientists with regulatory approval and commercial success will have money to perfect the fat and protein density of lab-grown meat. In one plausible future, decades from now, millions of people may actually prefer the consistency and taste of meat that didn't come from an animal, because they’ll know what they’re buying when a cultivated rib eye is as consistent as an electrical gadget.
New Toys for the Green-Energy Revolution
Smaller nuclear reactors and bigger geothermal breakthroughs
Fighting climate change will require the deployment of technologies already invented, such as solar panels and wind turbines. But it will also require new inventions in fields like nuclear and geothermal technology. This year, we edged closer to breakthroughs in both categories.
Let’s start with nuclear power, which is safe, clean, unfairly tainted by several high-profile disasters, and hideously expensive to get going. But small and safe reactors would be cheaper to build and faster to approve. NuScale Power Module, the only reactor of its kind to receive design approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, earned a place in Time magazine’s 2022 inventions of the year. Less than 80 feet tall, the reactor can generate enough clean electricity to power roughly 60,000 homes. The first plant could be running by the end of the decade.
Then there’s geothermal energy, which means drilling deep into the ground to use the Earth’s heat for power. Geothermal is an ideal energy source—more consistent than wind or solar and with none of the waste concerns of nuclear. The problem is that, in some parts of the world, you have to go really, really deep to access geothermally heated water. And when we drill deep into the planet, we hit ancient rock—typically granite—that requires new technology to penetrate. The start-up Quaise is working on a drilling technology that can vaporize granite with a highly concentrated beam of radio-frequency power. If such a technology became widely available, deep drilling would be commonplace and geothermal energy would be accessible on just about any patch of land. It would be as though humankind conceived of a magic wand that, waved across the Earth, makes any square mile as energy-rich as an oil-gushing stretch of Texas or Saudi Arabia.
Correction: This article originally misstated the name of the company cleared by the FDA to produce lab-grown chicken. It is Upside Foods.Pictures of the beginning of the universe, medicine that can (kind of) reverse death, and other leaps of human ingenuity
Social Media Is for Strangers Now
This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.
Instagram just isn’t what it used to be. With Gen Z users flocking to TikTok, social media as we know it is changing—and we’re leaving our friends and family behind.
But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.
- COVID science is moving backwards.
- Trump’s reckoning with the rule of law
- What the Georgia runoff revealed
In October, Instagram reported 2 billion monthly active users. This milestone was surpassed by Facebook, which was sitting close to 3 billion users in the fall. So why are these platforms less relevant than ever? It turns out that gathering more than a quarter of the world’s population in one place creates the same problem as inviting too many random people to a party: It becomes hard to find your friends.
The origin of the term social media is unclear (multiple people claim to have coined the phrase), but it emerged as a recognized phenomenon in the 1990s as the internet transitioned from an archival space to an interactive one with the advent of instant messaging, forums, and chat rooms. In the 2000s, websites such as Friendster and MySpace established social media primarily as a space for connecting with people you knew in real life, although you had to visit their profile pages to do so. Facebook and Instagram brought you updates from your friends and others in a convenient—and addictive—feed.
But while they continue to grow overall, Facebook and Instagram are struggling to attract and retain the younger generation that’s crucial for their longevity. Why? The simple answer: Gen Z prefers video.
Meta has been scrambling to capture the magic of an app young people do love, TikTok. In August, I wrote about Facebook’s new TikTok-influenced feed prioritizing algorithmically recommended content. The kids have not come back. Instagram has been gradually refocusing on short-form video, making it difficult to access the chronological timeline and pushing more recommended posts into feeds. Last week, I wrote that Instagram is over.
Here’s the thing: People don’t post videos just for their friends to watch. You can FaceTime the people you care about, or send them a voice note. If you’re in high school or college, you can message pals and share videos with your social circle on Snapchat. But if you’re posting videos on TikTok (or Instagram Reels), they’re for an audience. The algorithm enables this, by promoting your videos on the “For You” pages of anyone it identifies as a receptive viewer.
As my colleague Ian Bogost wrote in a recent essay, “Social media turned you, me, and everyone into broadcasters (if aspirational ones).” Although broadcasting may not come naturally to everyone—a feeling, as a Millennial, I understand all too well—TikTok’s rapid rise suggests that the appeal of watching videos made by strangers is universal. And the fact that these changes have not been frustrating enough to trigger the cultural resurgence of an app like Facebook suggests that perhaps, after years of reading status updates and scrolling through baby pics from the same few dozen extended family members and old classmates, we have moved on.
But as the feeds fade and viral videos take over, we are losing something important: a place to hang out online. Twitter is the “town square,” a space for the exchange of ideas and dumb jokes. (It is also, of course, struggling, but because of the turbulent leadership of a member of Gen X and not the disruptive habits of Gen Z.) However, there is no longer an online equivalent of the local bar or coffee shop: a place to encounter friends and family and find person-to-person connection.
TikTok offers almost no features to connect one-on-one. (In my experience, when people message each other on TikTok, it’s mostly just to, well, send each other TikToks.) Subreddits and servers on Discord and Mastodon provide the modern equivalents of the old chat rooms, roped-off areas for people with shared interests. But now more than ever, we’re all on social media, surrounded by billions of people, and somehow totally alone.
- Germany arrested 25 people suspected of being involved in a far-right plot to overthrow the government.
- The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that could change the future of election law.
- Peru’s Congress ousted President Pedro Castillo from office, voting to replace him with the vice president.
- Brooklyn, Everywhere: App-supplied gig workers are supposed to save us time, but they actually provide a false sense of control, Xochitl Gonzalez argues.
- Up for Debate: Will the Claremont Institute, a conservative brain trust, stand up to Donald Trump? It hasn’t yet, Conor Friedersdorf writes.
Explore all of our newsletters here.
“I Just Wanted the Whole Thing to Be Over”
By Anna Nemtsova
Victoria Obidina realized that she was in a Russian prison only when the blindfold was removed from her face. There was paperwork for a DNA test before her. She read “Taganrog,” the name of a Russian town in the Rostov region, immediately east of Ukraine, where Ukrainian prisoners of war are registered before being shuffled around prison colonies across Russia. Two middle-aged male interrogators ordered the 27-year-old Ukrainian paramedic to strip naked, she told me recently, then they took photographs of her from the front and back.
Prison authorities may conduct intimate searches, but Obidina regards her experience not as a legitimate security measure but as coercive sexualized humiliation.
Read the full article.
More From The Atlantic
- The companies that are killing creativity
- The real reason Iran says it’s canceling the morality police
- 2022 in photos: A look at the middle months
Read. “Mayakovsky in New York,” a found poem by Annie Dillard.
“At each stop an additional story grows / onto the roofs. Finally houses with squares / and dots of windows rise up. No matter how far / you throw back your head, there are no tops.”
Watch. The 2016 film Arrival (streaming on multiple platforms), which our writer argues is a contender for best-ever blockbuster art film.
Play our daily crossword.
Video may be the future of social media, but Gen Z recently brought back a retro tool for shooting stills: digital cameras. Young people are getting their hands on cameras from the early 2000s and posting the photos online, including on TikTok, where the #digitalcamera hashtag has more than 155.9 million views. (TikTok recently introduced a carousel feature.) As someone who grew up with a digital camera constantly hanging on my wrist, I was skeptical of this trend. But when I tried it myself, I discovered that Y2K-style flash photography does look irresistibly nostalgic in 2022—as old as that may make you (and me) feel.
Looking for a gift for the inquisitive people in your life? Give an Atlantic subscription this holiday season.
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.As Instagram and Facebook fade from relevance, the connections between friends are fading online too.
Will an Influential Conservative Brain Trust Stand Up to Trump?
This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Question of the Week
What’s been your personal experience with the health-care system in the United States (or the country where you live) and what larger lessons, if any, have you drawn from it all?
Send your responses to email@example.com.
Conversations of Note
When I was 18 or so, I discovered the Claremont Institute because its headquarters was near my alma mater, Pomona College. Then I learned that its stated mission was “to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life.” As a fan of rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and Madisonian checks and balances, that sounded good to me.
A few years later I briefly did editing and writing work for a newsletter on local government that the think tank published, during which I was exposed to Crisis of the House Divided, the formidable historiography of the Lincoln-Douglas debates by Claremont’s intellectual progenitor, the political philosopher Harry Jaffa. The book explores and morally champions slavery’s incompatibility with the Declaration of Independence. Even today, when the think tank is rightly criticized for its failure to oppose Donald Trump, for the sycophantic legal advice that Claremont-affiliated thinkers like John Yoo and John Eastman gave to different Republican presidents, and for the histrionic catastrophizing of Michael Anton, I value some of what is published in the Claremont Review of Books and elsewhere on its website—especially, as with its best critiques of the administrative state and the foreign-policy writing of Christopher Caldwell, when formidable challenges to the establishment are aired. On the whole, however, I no longer believe the core of Claremont’s work is restoring the principles of the American founding.
I do wish the institute would return to that mission, and an opportunity to begin restoring it has presented itself. Last weekend, responding to reporting on Twitter’s dubious decision to block a New York Post article about Hunter Biden’s laptop, Trump posted an extraordinary statement: “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles,” he wrote, “even those found in the Constitution.”
Everyone associated with the Claremont Institute knows how it would respond if Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton stated that the Constitution should be suspended so that they could be installed in the White House: forcefully, emphatically, disdainfully, and prolifically, as one would expect of an outfit dedicated to restoring “the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life.” Can the organization defend its stated values as steadfastly against Trump?
It hasn’t yet. Sad.
[Read: 10 readers on opposing anti-Semitism]
A New Low
At the UnPopulist, Ilya Somin, a George Mason University law professor, argues that even after all of his past sins, Trump’s latest outburst matters, and ostracizing him for it matters too.
If Trump continues to be the dominant figure in the Republican Party, he could potentially normalize the idea of “terminating” the Constitution, and much other evil … Trump is far from the only recent president who tried to circumvent constitutional limits on his authority … But no other president or ex-president has gone so far as to try to stay in power after losing an election, or called for the complete “termination” of the Constitution, as opposed to merely pushing beyond the limits of his power on some specific issue.
None has defined constitutional deviancy nearly as far down as Trump.
How do we forestall the dangerous normalization of constitutional deviancy? By ensuring that politicians who engage in such behavior pay a heavy price. Ideally, Trump and others like him should at least be ostracized from polite political society, and never again considered worthy of holding any position of power again. If that happens, it will serve as a valuable deterrent for future would-be political malefactors. The next time an unscrupulous ambitious politician considers whether imitating Trump’s behavior is a good idea, he might conclude he better not, lest he suffer the same fate. Trump’s defeat in 2020 and the failure of Trumpist election deniers in several key 2022 races was a step in the right direction. But … so long as Trump remains a powerful figure in one of the major parties and his anti-constitutional ideas remain part of the GOP mainstream, the threat of a dangerous spiral of constitutional deviancy will persist.
On the American Health-Care System
The Atlantic published a thought-provoking cover story on that subject back in 2009. Mariah Blake’s “Dirty Medicine” from the following year also remains a worthwhile article. I found Ronald Dworkin’s essay on the role of the humanities in specialist medicine surprising. And Scott Alexander explains what your doctor spends 80 percent of their time doing.
Winding Down the Pandemic
Megan McArdle argues that Twitter is correct to stop policing its site for COVID-19 misinformation.
I spent the pandemic years arguing forcefully against such nonsense, often to the point of despair. I understand the temptation to simply say “Shut up and go away” rather than try to argue people away from beliefs I considered to be poorly evidenced and dangerous.
I gave in to that temptation more than once.
Unfortunately, I now suspect this did more harm than good — and all the more so when it was official corporate policy rather than criticism from a frazzled columnist. For one thing, moderators aren’t good at determining what constitutes actual misinformation. A lot of the dangerous nonsense about covid that circulated on social media came from the same public health experts social media companies were using as arbiters. It was public health experts who initially told us masks don’t work, an assertion they knew to be false. It was public health experts who insisted, without good evidence, that covid wasn’t airborne. And many public health experts helped support prolonged school closures that have been proven to undermine learning … The public health community eventually recognized its most egregious errors, while the quacks doubled down. But free and open debate on social media assisted that process of course correction.
[Read: How should we deal with high-profile anti-Semites?]
Euthanasia Up North
After surveying its legalization in Canada, Ross Douthat lambasts that nation’s approach:
The rules of civilization necessarily include gray areas. It is not barbaric for the law to acknowledge hard choices in end-of-life care, about when to withdraw life support or how aggressively to manage agonizing pain. It is barbaric, however, to establish a bureaucratic system that offers death as a reliable treatment for suffering and enlists the healing profession in delivering this “cure.” And while there may be worse evils ahead, this isn’t a slippery slope argument: When 10,000 people are availing themselves of your euthanasia system every year, you have already entered the dystopia … The idea that human rights encompass a right to self-destruction, the conceit that people in a state of terrible suffering and vulnerability are really “free” to make a choice that ends all choices, the idea that a healing profession should include death in its battery of treatments — these are inherently destructive ideas. Left unchecked, they will forge a cruel brave new world, a dehumanizing final chapter for the liberal story.
In contrast, a Canadian court ruling overturned prohibitions on “physician-assisted dying for competent adults who seek such assistance as a result of a grievous and irremediable medical condition that causes enduring and intolerable suffering.” Here is an excerpt of its reasoning:
The right to life is engaged where the law or state action imposes death or an increased risk of death on a person, either directly or indirectly. Here, the prohibition deprives some individuals of life, as it has the effect of forcing some individuals to take their own lives prematurely, for fear that they would be incapable of doing so when they reached the point where suffering was intolerable. The rights to liberty and security of the person, which deal with concerns about autonomy and quality of life, are also engaged.
An individual’s response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy. The prohibition denies people in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty. And by leaving them to endure intolerable suffering, it impinges on their security of the person. The prohibition on physician-assisted dying infringes the right to life, liberty and security of the person in a manner that is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice. The object of the prohibition is not, broadly, to preserve life whatever the circumstances, but more specifically to protect vulnerable persons from being induced to commit suicide at a time of weakness. Since a total ban on assisted suicide clearly helps achieve this object, individuals’ rights are not deprived arbitrarily. However, the prohibition catches people outside the class of protected persons. It follows that the limitation on their rights is in at least some cases not connected to the objective and that the prohibition is thus overbroad.
Provocation of the Week
Writing in The Harvard Crimson, Brooks B. Anderson, class of 2025, speaks truth to administrators:
Harvard is one of the world’s preeminent universities; surely it has used its billions of dollars of accumulated wealth to primarily invest in its educational program, building an unparalleled roster of top professors, expanding offerings to students, and reducing class sizes. Right? Wrong. Harvard has instead filled its halls with administrators. Across the University, for every academic employee there are approximately 1.45 administrators. When only considering faculty, this ratio jumps to 3.09. Harvard employs 7,024 total full-time administrators, only slightly fewer than the undergraduate population.
What do they all do?
Most administrators have a legitimate function. I will happily concede that the University does need administration to operate effectively. No professors want to handle Title IX compliance or send institution-wide emails about Covid-19 protocols. Yet of the 7,000-strong horde, it seems that many members’ primary purpose is to squander away tax-free money intended for academic work on initiatives, projects, and committees that provide scant value to anyone’s educational experience.
For example, last December, all Faculty of Arts and Sciences affiliates received an email from Dean Claudine Gay announcing the final report of the FAS Task Force on Visual Culture and Signage, a task force itself created by recommendation of the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging. This task force was composed of 24 members: six students, nine faculty members, and nine administrators. The task force produced a 26-page report divided into seven sections, based upon a survey, focus groups, and 15 separate meetings with over 500 people total. The report dedicated seven pages to its recommendations, which ranged from “Clarify institutional authority over FAS visual culture and signage” to “Create a dynamic program of public art in the FAS.” In response to these recommendations, Dean Gay announced the creation of a new administrative post, the “FAS campus curator,” and a new committee, the “FAS Standing Committee on Visual Culture and Signage.” Regardless of your stance on the goal of fostering a more inclusive visual culture, the procedural absurdity is clear. A presidential task force led to the creation of an FAS task force which, after expending significant time, effort, and resources, led to the creation of a single administrative job and a committee with almost the exact name as the second task force. I challenge anyone other than the task force members themselves to identify the value created for a single Harvard student’s educational experience.
That’s all for this week––see you on Monday.Plus: Cases for, and against, medical euthanasia in Canada
Only English Would Try to Shorten a Word This Way
You walk into your favorite coffee shop. You greet the familiar barista, who knows your daily order. You say “Hi, I’ll have the”—wait, I can’t figure out how to write the next word. You know, “the usual,” but shorter. Hip! Casual! I’ll have the … uzhe. I mean, the yoozh. The youj?!
Why does this shortened form of usual, which rolls off the tongue when it’s spoken, cause so much confusion when we try to write it down? When I offered my Twitter followers 32 different options for spelling the word, nobody was fully satisfied with any of them. Youge to rhyme with rouge? Yusz as if it’s Polish? Usjhe in a desperate hope that some letter, somewhere, would cue the appropriate sound? The only thing everyone could agree on was that all of them felt weird.
Our confusion about how to spell uzh/yooje/ujhe reveals some of the breaking points between English spelling and pronunciation. Fluent speakers and writers of English normally take the connection between letters and sounds for granted, especially for a common word like usual. When we see this connection fall apart, it can be disorienting—a clear syrup transformed into a shattered toffee by the presence of one stray crystal. But in dissolving the links between spelling and pronunciation, we can learn about an eternal tension between the most elegant way of writing words down and the most elegant way of saying them.
[Read: A call for spelling standardization (or is that standardisation?)]
In the puzzle of yuzh/uge/euge, there are two main pieces. The first is that the letter u has several pronunciations in English. The initial one in usual involves an unwritten y sound before the oo part: yoo-shoo-al. Other u’s at the beginning of words might sound like the one in untie, or the one in umlaut. Although this irregularity bedevils the schoolchild and the English-language learner, if you’re a fluent enough English reader to be in the middle of this article (hello!), you’ve probably learned to take it for granted by now—at least for familiar words. But as soon as we encounter an unfamiliar word, our brains run smack into the inconsistencies of English spelling again.
The second puzzle of shortening usual is even more serious than the first: The sound represented by the letter s in this particular word isn’t pronounced like any of the s’s in Sesame Street. Rather, it’s influenced by the sound that comes after it. You might have noticed that usual has not one but two instances of the letter u—and both of them, it turns out, begin with an invisible y sound. That is, if we pronounce usual incredibly carefully, as if we’re presenters on Sesame Street, we say: yoo-syoo-al.
But most of the time, we don’t speak that formally. Rather, we compress things for efficiency, sometimes over generations, so that a word like sure (which was once pronounced more like syoor), is now only ever pronounced as if it begins with sh. Sounds like the y in you and the i in pizza are produced at the palate, that rounded hard bit toward the back on the roof of your mouth, where your tongue curves up. And when certain consonants appear before y, i, or ee sounds, they can get pulled toward that part of the mouth too. Thus we get dontcha and wouldja for don’t you and would you, and gray-shuss (gracious) while grace still has the earlier s sound—and, to take my linguistically favorite business name, a restaurant in Queens called Jeet Jet? (short for: “Did you eat yet?”).
Linguists call this process palatalization, and it’s part of a general tendency for neighboring sounds to become more similar to each other. The same way the movements of an artisan become fluid and economical with practice, producing the exact degree of force necessary to shape a piece of clay, we can get very efficient at playing the finely tuned instrument of our vocal apparatus. Rather than jerking between phonemes like a kid sounding out words, we smoothly transition from one sound to the next by making them subtly more similar. But we’re not always conscious of these tiny adjustments, and we don’t always write them down. (I recognize the unfortunate irony in trying to explain how writing is an incomplete picture of speech using writing itself as a medium, so if you want to hear some demos in audio form, this podcast episode may help.)
[Read: The evolution of ‘like’]
Palatalization explains why, instead of yoo-syoo-al, you might hear someone say yoo-shoo-al in slow or careful speech. But the most typical pronunciation of usual involves a second linguistic transformation. To understand it, we need to talk about the vocal cords, the mucous membranes in your throat that vibrate when you say vowels and certain consonants (put your hand on your throat while saying zzz and feel it buzz!), not including the sh sound. Sometimes, when a nonvibrating sound like sh is found in between two vibrating sounds, we just keep our vocal cords switched on the whole time for the sake of efficiency, such as when water is pronounced wadder.
In the case of usual, adding vocal-cord vibrations to sh produces a sound for which English has no single agreed-upon spelling. It’s the second g in garage, and both uses of zh in zhuzh (as in, zhuzh that outfit up a bit); let’s call it zh for now. Zh is a sound that has a weird status in English spelling. It’s either written s because it’s in a word that’s undergone palatalization—s becoming sh or z, then turning into zh, as in usual or Asia or occasion—or it inherits another language’s spelling conventions when it’s in a word that’s been borrowed from a place where the sound is more common, especially French loanwords like rouge and déjà vu. (Zhuzh, with its zhuzhed-up double-zh spelling, is likely from Polari or Romani.)
Zh isn’t necessarily a word-shortening deal breaker. Business casual can more or less straightforwardly get clipped down to biz cazh. You might have to think for an extra half second, but this abbreviation preserves enough of the letters in the original phrase to serve as a cue to the not-entirely-obvious pronunciation of zh. But the clipped version of usual is a perfect storm: a u with an unwritten y sound followed by an s that’s been transformed into a zh by an unwritten y sound in front of a u that’s now deleted.
[Read: Why Twitter makes us want to add extra letterssss]
How can we English writers and readers resolve these spelling issues? In my Twitter bracket, I expected an option that was maximally clear about pronunciation to win, one that replaced that confusing initial u with a more obvious yoo, thus potentially dragging a less obvious zh or j along with it. But while yoozh made it all the way to the final (beating out uzh), it lost in the end to uzhe.
My Twitter poll is by no means a scientific study, but I still think the results can offer some valuable insight. Respondents explained that they found spellings with u to be less confusing because that spelling kept the initial letter in common with usual—as long as a silent e was there at the end to cue the pronunciation of the u away from the sound in untie. I find this resolution elegant in its clunkiness: Solving the problem of two unwritten sounds by writing a further, unpronounced letter is a truly Englishy solution.
The ad hoc, incomplete answer to the question of how to spell uzhe (or yoozh, or yooj …) reminds us that English—like any natural language—wasn’t designed from the top down by a single creator, the way a book is written in a unified authorial voice. Rather, language is organic and decentralized, a network where patterns emerge from the many ways that each of us choose whom we want to talk with and how to talk with them. At their best, dictionaries and other reference materials can be helpful maps to a territory we’re all co-creating every time we pick one word over another.
[Read: Internet slang is more sophisticated than it seems]
I started this investigation as a fan of yoozh, but I’ve found myself convinced by the results of my own poll, so I’ve decided to switch to the most popular spelling. If enough people decide to do likewise, maybe eventually it’ll become the uzhe.There’s something very unusual about the shortened form of usual.
The 10 Best Films of 2022
Even as the movie industry continues to recover from the pandemic’s debilitating effects, the ongoing story of film is not about loss of quality. This was a year filled with cinematic delights from every part of the world, with first-time filmmakers doing everything they could to shock audiences, and old masters delving into their darkest reminiscences for indelible works of memoir. I remain concerned by the fact that most of my favorite 2022 films didn’t come from major Hollywood studios—an industry that once prided itself on producing a breadth of stories currently seems too focused on the biggest and loudest—but this was still an unforgettable year.
10. Murina (directed by Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović)
A razor-sharp debut from the Croatian filmmaker Kusijanović, Murina is a domestic drama set on the stunning shores of the Adriatic. It’s centered on an inscrutable teenager, Julija (Gracija Filipović), who’s a whiz at spearfishing for eels but a destabilizing presence in her household, clashing with both her father and mother as she yearns for more independence. Hope arrives in the form of the businessman Javier (Cliff Curtis), who is looking to buy her father’s land, and Kusijanović adeptly dials up the tension as Julija flirts with Javier in an effort to be whisked away from her provincial existence. The film looks gorgeous, its taut plot is perfectly structured, and the lead performance (another debut) is remarkable—it’s a gripping hit that you can recommend to anyone.
9. Nope (Jordan Peele)
With every film Peele directs, his storytelling ambitions grow, and he has not lost any willingness to take risks with the budgets he’s given and tell stories about the kinds of characters Hollywood rarely puts on-screen. This would be refreshing in any period, but it’s particularly bracing in 2022, when major studios have drifted away from originality. Nope courses with anger and confusion over how people see and process terrible things. Yes, it’s about a ragtag bunch of film-industry castoffs chasing a UFO around the California mountains with cameras, but it’s a horror film that manages to cleverly interrogate the genre without sacrificing the thrills.
8. After Yang (Kogonada)
I have a major weakness for small-scale science fiction, tales of robots exploring higher consciousness, and the work of Colin Farrell (who was also incredible in The Banshees of Inisherin this year). So After Yang was practically made for me, yet still, the director Kogonada’s second feature exceeded my expectations, finding new life in the familiar tale of a malfunctioning android. Buoyed by Kogonada’s whisper-quiet storytelling sensibility, After Yang delves into a future that’s neither dystopian nor utopian, in which a family is shattered by the loss of Yang (Justin H. Min), who is both a nanny and an artificial son of sorts to Jake ( Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith). The emotional revelations build slowly but land with a thunderclap. (It also has the single best opening-credit sequence of any 2022 film.)
7. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Jane Schoenbrun)
A film that feels like it crawled out of some dark corner of the internet, Schoenbrun’s debut narrative feature is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen about the experience of being too online—of clicking one page too deep or watching one video too many. It’s a quiet but still brain-curdling and frightening contemporary folktale about a lonely teenager named Casey (Anna Cobb), who embarks on an inscrutable viral phenomenon called the World’s Fair Challenge. Through Casey’s laptop footage and videos of other “players” around the world, Schoenbrun documents the way a virtual experiment can take on terrifying weight and drive users to unravel in unpredictable ways. In a year of great debuts, Schoenbrun’s is the best.
6. Armageddon Time (James Gray)
Armageddon Time is a haunted, melancholy vision of the recent past from one of America’s great directors, whose last two wonderful features took him deep into the rainforest and beyond the rings of Neptune. Here, Gray returns to the outer boroughs of New York City, of which he might as well be the cinematic poet laureate, and uncorks some of his most bittersweet memories of adolescence. Armageddon Time follows a rebellious Jewish sixth grader named Paul (Banks Repeta), an artistic kid who lives to disappoint his middle-class Queens family. So much of the film is constructed from sharp little vignettes of recollection, such as Paul ordering Chinese food in the middle of his mother’s bland dinner, but it builds to something more ominous—a warning about the rising climate of political greed in the 1980s, and the speed with which high-minded liberal ideals can crumble in the face of it.
5. The Northman (Robert Eggers)
I would not thrive in Viking times—if someone launched a spear at me in battle, I likely could not catch it mid-air and chuck it back, as the warrior-prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) does in Eggers’s rip-roaring adventure. But the power of The Northman lies in how remarkably real its muscular action sequences feel, and in how deeply invested I was in the legendary tale of a Viking prince stripped of his throne and sent on a lifelong mission of revenge. Eggers’s prior films (The Witch and The Lighthouse) blended verisimilitude and nightmarish magic, and The Northman accomplishes that on a blockbuster scale, making an ancient story of revenge (one that helped inspire Shakespeare’s Hamlet) feel fresh.
4. Three Thousand Years of Longing (George Miller)
The first film from the Australian legend Miller since his Oscar-winning Mad Max: Fury Road, Three Thousand Years of Longing came and went this summer with barely any attention at the box office, but it’s ready to be discovered by a bigger audience. The story pitch is strange, for sure: A buttoned-up professor (Tilda Swinton) accidentally summons a sensuous genie (Idris Elba) to her hotel room and persists in learning about his very dramatic, millennia-long life, only to fall in love with him along the way. But Miller’s film succeeds because the chemistry between its two leads feels lived in despite the fantasy atmosphere, and the stories that Elba’s djinn unfurls are wildly different in tone, jumping from violent palace intrigue to swooning romance to bizarre comedy. It builds to a finale that actually has something to say about the buzzing anxiety of modern life; leave it to Miller to find new angles of our strange modern condition decades into his career.
3. The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg)
When I first heard that Spielberg was making a semi-autobiographical film about his adolescence, I expected soaring memories of his filmmaking sparking to life—and The Fabelmans, which follows young “Sammy” and his family, has plenty of that. His sisters dress up as toilet-paper mummies and charge the camera, he makes a war film that offers the first glimpse of maximalist Hollywood pathos, and he uncovers an ingenious way of depicting gunshots in his teenage cowboy flick by poking holes in the tape. But what’s so striking about The Fabelmans is its bitter honesty—about Spielberg’s parents’ divorce, his role in it, and the way his filmmaking obsession shaped the course of their lives. It’s a stark work—wrapped up in the entertaining package he always provides.
2. The Eternal Daughter (Joanna Hogg)
A stunning semi-sequel to her two Souvenir films, The Eternal Daughter once again sees the British director Hogg plumb her life for a story that blurs the boundaries between truth and fiction. The Souvenir (parts one and two) focuses on her younger days as a film student, but The Eternal Daughter is a ghost story of sorts, about a filmmaker (Tilda Swinton) who goes to a hotel in an old English estate with her aging mother (also played by Swinton) and discovers that they’re the only guests there. The estate has some family significance and stirs up old memories, as well as some more plainly supernatural visions. But the most spectacular sight is Swinton acting across from herself, fleshing out a family dynamic through whispers, glances, and awkward dinner-table chat.
1. Tár (Todd Field)
To know Lydia Tár is not to love her, exactly, but the mercurial conductor is impossible to stop thinking about. Field’s film, his first in 16 years, introduces us to a fictional celebrity at the top of the classical-music world, who, when we meet her, is lecturing a Lincoln Center audience about her total command of tempo. Tár ends with her in quite a different scenario, and the route it charts for her downfall is remarkable and unpredictable, unwinding this tightly strung powerhouse and marveling at how her life falls apart. This is the most commanding piece of cinema I’ve seen this year by far—one that demands that the audience pay attention to the corners of every frame while it showcases an unforgettable performance from Blanchett. Even in a year of involving and wonderful cinematic surprises, it was destined to be my No. 1.
Honorable mentions: Top Gun: Maverick, Barbarian, The Banshees of Inisherin, Decision to Leave, RRR, Babylon, Return to Seoul, Aftersun, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Crimes of the FutureAn unforgettable year of cinema by newcomers and old masters alike
In Defense of IRL Shopping
Online shopping has been on the rise for the past two decades, spiking abruptly (and unsurprisingly) during the pandemic. My household certainly did its part; for the past few years, we’ve filled our digital shopping cart, struggled to recall the credit-card number, and summoned groceries, kids’ clothing, and CDs (yes, I still buy them) to the porch.
I was grateful for the delivery trucks, suddenly everywhere and idling. But by 2021, I’d had enough of scrolling. I was missing an essential human activity, one that’s necessary to the nourishment and advancement of the soul. I was missing it so much, in fact, I wrote a small book about it: a long-form ode to the art of in-person browsing. To browse is to wriggle free of algorithms, strike out for brick-and-mortar stores, and wrangle actual stuff—books, DVDs, and records—in proximity to other corporeal forms. To browse is to open oneself up to boredom, aimlessness, and, crucially, serendipity. It’s to wander the world with one’s smartphone firmly pocketed.
This approach is especially helpful during the holidays. You might have a specific list in mind, but browsing expands those ideas, exposing you to unforeseen possibilities—arranged on shelves by human hands. Sure, shops can be hectic during the holidays. But there’s plenty of festive stimuli to savor: the nondenominational Starbucks cup, the visions of sugar-plum fairies, the Vince Guaraldi.
Online holiday shopping, conversely, dispenses with the hustle and bustle of real-world browsing—but all the pleasure too. It boils the full-bodied practice of perusing material reality in person down to thumb and screen. It relegates the shopper to their browser and reduces browsing to scrolling. It’s a poisoned chalice, packaged in bubble wrap.
When I was in my early 20s, holiday shopping was a breeze. I had a small family with virtually no extended relatives. I dealt with Christmas mostly by way of gift card, no browsing required. The cards were acquired on foot, usually at a mall. My sister liked a Canadian clothing chain called Jacob (now mostly defunct), and my mom was partial to The Bay (a beloved department store) and Tim Hortons (a beloved purveyor of bad coffee). My father collected stamps, so the Canada Post counter, at the back of Shoppers Drug Mart, sufficed.
Now, 20 years later, the pool of giftees has swelled. My father is gone, but my sister has a husband and three children. My wife and I have two young kids who require toys from Santa’s workshop, not gift cards. What’s more, the wife has family, and the family is serious about gift giving. My in-laws even exchange stockings, a ritual I’ve come to adopt. The stockings are great fun but require brain power. And browsing. Lots of browsing.
Before the pandemic, my wife and I did our share of in-person holiday shopping. We had our gift lists, but we benefited from the chance finds made possible when navigating a brick-and-mortar store. (Plus, assembling the manifold elements of a stocking—especially a kid’s—was easy to do when confronted with shelves and bins.) I knew I could simply show up at a Kate Spade, pan my gaze across the shop, and zero in on a couple of quick wins—a wallet, say, or a necklace.
But during the pandemic, our analog browsing tailed off. Toronto’s second lockdown began on November 23, 2020, a month ahead of Christmas. By that point, heading online seemed like a no-brainer, even if some stores were still open to foot traffic.
The digital shopping cart is tantalizingly convenient. You submit what you’re after to the search bar, scroll through a linear list of options, and click. Yes, you’re strong-armed directly to some product page and thus aren’t very likely to stumble on something unexpected. (The algorithm is the enemy of chance finds.) But online shopping is easy and safe—at least for the people placing the order. A shiver passes through some distant fulfillment center, and a box embarks for your address, the human labor faceless. It’s long been the optimal transaction for grinches who object to crowds and Christmas music—and it has been handy for those with compromised health or a cautious disposition. Why not shop online?
[Read: I delivered packages for Amazon and it was a nightmare]
The eye-straining screens, for one. If you work all day in front of a laptop, you might not want to spend your evening there too. Online holiday shopping sends you back to your screen—or the screen of your significant other, that loved one who wants to walk you through gift options and solicit your opinion. (Watching someone else scroll on a laptop is surely one of the penances described in Dante’s terza rima.)
Worse, those gift options are hypothetical, even when they purport to be readily available. Not infrequently has my household arrived at a consumer decision and triumphantly clicked “Check Out” only to find that the desired tchotchke, on hand mere moments before, is out of stock, the tech-bro deities having hurled a thunderbolt at our hubris.
This doesn’t happen when eyeballing the goods in a store. Cashmere and nonfiction and Nintendo Switches don’t dissolve into smoke when you reach for them. The bounty is whatever you can see and heft—or whatever the sales associate, returning from some back room, has managed to rustle up. Oh, and discovering that a store doesn’t have something you’re looking for is nowhere near as frustrating as getting an email with the subject header “There have been a few changes to your order,” which I received on the very day I was editing this article.
Put another way, in-person browsing is instantly illuminating. Last November, ahead of the second pandemic Christmas, my wife and I took a turn around a half-empty Toys “R” Us and filled a cart—the old-school kind—with gifts for the kids. Although we’d been shopping online as well, the full and physical cart was clarifying. No futzing with dozens of open tabs, no balancing scales in our mind, no surprises; we could see what was in front of us and judge what we had for each child. A novelty in our digital world: to have a grasp on the actual size and quality of things.
What’s more, there are no mysterious delays when you wheel your cart to the register. The sales associate hands over your bagged items; you bring said items home. But not a year has gone by when some opaque shipping snafu hasn’t left me or a loved one shy an important gift come Christmas morning.
In-person browsing also helps prevent your dwelling from devolving into a warehouse of filthy, corrugated boxes from Halloween through Christmas Eve. Maybe this isn’t a problem for you; maybe you’re organized. But as packages arrive at my address, the harried adults hustle them to the basement—away from the pupils and paws of small children—where they pile up like the crates in Xanadu at the end of Citizen Kane. Someone might slit open a box to confirm what’s inside. But they inevitably procrastinate on the processing of cardboard and plastic and bubble wrap, because there are dishes to wash and lunches to assemble and, of course, more boxes to summon.
All that packaging and reliance on fast shipping is a gut punch to the climate. According to Martina Igini at Earth.org, many of those delivery vans idling in your neighborhood are never more than half full so that companies can make their narrow shipping windows. “When consumers opt for a fast delivery,” she writes, “the emissions far exceed those generated from in-person shopping.” (I’ll leave it to you, dear scroller, to Google fulfillment-center working conditions.)
Browsing isn’t just better for carbon levels; it’s better for the soul. Online shopping promises abundance, but too many choices can paralyze. (To click or not to click?) It certainly seems like you have agency when scrolling; after all, you can hop from hyperlink to hyperlink or fan out your browser windows like trading cards. But you’re also potentially at the mercy of consumer-gouging algorithms and the whims of websites that suddenly, like Bartleby, prefer not to load.
Most essentially: In person, en route to the things you think you want, you will sometimes stumble on the unanticipated things you actually need. You will also encounter other souls whose job it is to help you. Sometimes you even run into people you know. Serendipity presides over browsing like a goddess her realm; your scrolling, on the other hand, is the purview of some dude in Silicon Valley.
My family will certainly do its share of online shopping this year. But now that the 3-year-old is properly vaccinated, we’re ready to return to brick-and-mortar stores and browse again. There will be light-entwined and wonder-inducing fir trees, intricate window dioramas, cosplay Kris Kringles (and their elven support staff), carolers we’ll try not to make eye contact with, the call of coffee kiosks, and, on the PA, some of the finest studio recordings by Elvis, Mariah, and Darlene.
Am I being sentimental? Maybe. But the youngest members of the household—who aren’t yet cynical about the seasonal worker behind the Santa Claus beard—will be thrilled. What a gift.In-person browsing allows for something that’s become a novelty in our algorithm-addled age: serendipity.
2022 in Photos: A Look at the Middle Months
As the end of the year approaches, here is a look back at some of the major news moments of 2022. Events covered in this essay (the second of a three-part photo summary of the year) include months of devastating floods across Pakistan, protests in the U.S. after the Supreme Court struck down the right to abortion, Ukrainian citizens adapting as Russia’s invasion stretched on for months, and much more. Check back tomorrow for the last installment, and be sure to see the first part and “Top 25 News Photos of 2022.”It’s time to revisit some of the most memorable events and images of 2022, including devastating floods across Pakistan, protests in the U.S. after the Supreme Court struck down the right to abortion, and much more.
ChatGPT Is Dumber Than You Think
As a critic of technology, I must say that the enthusiasm for ChatGPT, a large-language model trained by OpenAI, is misplaced. Although it may be impressive from a technical standpoint, the idea of relying on a machine to have conversations and generate responses raises serious concerns.
First and foremost, ChatGPT lacks the ability to truly understand the complexity of human language and conversation. It is simply trained to generate words based on a given input, but it does not have the ability to truly comprehend the meaning behind those words. This means that any responses it generates are likely to be shallow and lacking in depth and insight.
Furthermore, the reliance on ChatGPT for conversation raises ethical concerns. If people begin to rely on a machine to have conversations for them, it could lead to a loss of genuine human connection. The ability to connect with others through conversation is a fundamental aspect of being human, and outsourcing that to a machine could have detrimental side effects on our society.
Hold up, though. I, Ian Bogost, did not actually write the previous three paragraphs. A friend sent them to me as screenshots from his session with ChatGPT, a program released last week by OpenAI that one interacts with by typing into a chat window. It is, indeed, a large language model (or LLM), a type of deep-learning software that can generate new text once trained on massive amounts of existing written material. My friend’s prompt was this: “Create a critique of enthusiasm for ChatGPT in the style of Ian Bogost.”
ChatGPT wrote more, but I spared you the rest because it was so boring. The AI wrote another paragraph about accountability (“If ChatGPT says or does something inappropriate, who is to blame?”), and then a concluding paragraph that restated the rest (it even began, “In conclusion, …”). In short, it wrote a basic, high-school-style five-paragraph essay.
That fact might comfort or frighten you, depending on your predilections. When OpenAI released ChatGPT to the public last week, the first and most common reaction I saw was fear that it would upend education. “You can no longer give take-home exams,” Kevin Bryan, a University of Toronto professor, posted on Twitter. “I think chat.openai.com may actually spell the end of writing assignments,” wrote Samuel Bagg, a University of South Carolina political scientist. That’s the fear.
But you may find comfort in knowing that the bot’s output, while fluent and persuasive as text, is consistently uninteresting as prose. It’s formulaic in structure, style, and content. John Warner, the author of the book Why They Can’t Write, has been railing against the five-paragraph essay for years and wrote a Twitter thread about how ChatGPT reflects this rules-based, standardized form of writing: “Students were essentially trained to produce imitations of writing,” he tweeted. The AI can generate credible writing, but only because writing, and our expectations for it, has become so unaspiring.
Even pretending to fool the reader by passing off an AI copy as one’s own, like I did above, has become a tired trope, an expected turn in a too-long Twitter thread about the future of generative AI rather than a startling revelation about its capacities. On the one hand, yes, ChatGPT is capable of producing prose that looks convincing. But on the other hand, what it means to be convincing depends on context. The kind of prose you might find engaging and even startling in the context of a generative encounter with an AI suddenly seems just terrible in the context of a professional essay published in a magazine such as The Atlantic. And, as Warner’s comments clarify, the writing you might find persuasive as a teacher (or marketing manager or lawyer or journalist or whatever else) might have been so by virtue of position rather than meaning: The essay was extant and competent; the report was in your inbox on time; the newspaper article communicated apparent facts that you were able to accept or reject.
Perhaps ChatGPT and the technologies that underlie it are less about persuasive writing and more about superb bullshitting. A bullshitter plays with the truth for bad reasons—to get away with something. Initial response to ChatGPT assumes as much: that it is a tool to help people contrive student essays, or news writing, or whatever else. It’s an easy conclusion for those who assume that AI is meant to replace human creativity rather than amend it.
The internet, and the whole technology sector on which it floats, feels like a giant organ for bullshittery—for upscaling human access to speech and for amplifying lies. Online, people cheat and dupe and skirmish with one another. Deep-learning AI worsens all this by hiding the operation of software such as LLMs such that nobody, not even their creators, can explain what they do and why. OpenAI presents its work as context-free and experimental, with no specific use cases—it says it published ChatGPT just to “get users’ feedback and learn about its strengths and weaknesses.” It’s no wonder the first and most obvious assumption to make about ChatGPT is that it is a threat—to something, to everything.
But ChatGPT isn’t a step along the path to an artificial general intelligence that understands all human knowledge and texts; it’s merely an instrument for playing with all that knowledge and all those texts. Play just involves working with raw materials in order to see what they can do. You play a game, or an instrument, to avail yourself of familiar materials in an unexpected way. LLMs are surely not going to replace college or magazines or middle managers. But they do offer those and other domains a new instrument—that’s really the right word for it—with which to play with an unfathomable quantity of textual material.
I talked with ChatGPT about a wide range of topics, including poetry, behavioral psychology, and computer programming, in order to test this theory. Right now, ChatGPT is just a tech demo, a research experiment. Less clear is how it might be used, beyond the dire predictions about what sectors its technology might upend. In almost every case, the AI appeared to possess both knowledge and the means to express it. But when pressed—and the chat interface makes it easy to do so—the bot almost always had to admit that it was just making things up.
Sometimes it simply used templates. When I asked ChatGPT to generate a cover letter for a university job, it obliged in a competent but uninspired way. It also produced exactly the same letter for a job as a magazine editor as it did for a job as a cannabis innovator in the Web3 space (“I have a deep understanding of the web3 space and the unique challenges and opportunities it presents”). Fair enough: Most cover letters are terrible, after all, repeating the same trite lines and abstract gestures.
In other cases, the bot produced creative output that was surprisingly synthetic but riddled with flaws. When I asked it to generate an imagist poem in the vein of Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams about hamburgers, it obliged with this short refrain:
Juicy patty, sizzling hot
Toasted bun, crisp lettuce and tomato
A symphony of flavors, a feast for the senses
Savory, satisfying, a true
Not bad, I guess, especially for a computer. But also, the poem is not really an example of imagism, which strives to evoke a precise image by means of deliberate language (something like, “The dense honesty of / A hamburger.”) So I called ChatGPT on it. “This is not an imagist poem.” Its response is worth reproducing in full:
You are correct, the poem that I generated is still not an imagist poem. An imagist poem uses precise, vivid imagery to convey a specific idea or emotion, and focuses on a single image or moment. The poem that I generated uses a more narrative and descriptive style, and does not focus on a single, specific image. It describes the ingredients and flavors of a hamburger, but does not use precise and vivid imagery to convey a specific idea or emotion. I apologize if my previous responses did not meet your expectations, and I will do my best to assist you with any further questions or prompts that you may have.
I also urged the AI to generate a lai (a medieval narrative poem) in the style of Marie de France about the beloved, Texas-based fast-food chain Whataburger. It sure as heck looked a lot like a lai, beginning like this:
In the land of Whataburger, where burgers and fries are king,
A stranger came to visit, and with him brought a ring.
He wore a cloak of velvet, and a hat upon his head,
And he smiled with a twinkle in his eye as he approached the counter, where the burgers are served hot and fresh, and the fries are crispy and golden.
Except for that last line, which is a metrical mess. The AI wasn’t able (or willing) to evaluate its work (“I am a large language model trained by OpenAI and I don’t have the ability to evaluate the quality of literary works or make aesthetic judgments.”), but it was able to tell me about the typical structure of a lai—a short, narrative poem of the 12th century with a particular structure and form, usually written in octosyllabic couplets. The lyrical errors in the generated lai arise from its failure to adhere to that metrical form.
When I asked about the matter, it admitted again that, no, the lai it had written was not structured in octosyllabic couplets, claiming that it had produced “a more modern and playful take on the form of the lai.” I was starting to feel like I was negotiating with a student who had come to office hours to complain about their grade.
This happened over and over again. I asked for source code for an Atari game about scooping cat litter, and the AI sent me valid programming instructions—it understood the assignment—but only disconnected snippets of actual code with the heading comment “This program creates a simple game where the player must use a scoop to pick up their cat’s litters and put them in a trash bin.” It was an icon of the answer I sought rather than the answer itself.
Then I asked for a set of diagnostic criteria for an invented psychological condition I named “Inherited Truculence.” The AI instantly obliged:
Diagnostic Criteria for Inherited Truculence:
- A tendency to experience and express aggressive or hostile thoughts and feelings, particularly in response to perceived threats or challenges.
- A history of aggressive or hostile behavior, particularly in interpersonal or social situations.
- A familial history of aggressive or hostile behavior, indicating a possible genetic or hereditary component to the condition.
- Impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning as a result of aggressive or hostile behavior.
- The symptoms are not better explained by another mental disorder or by the effects of a substance (such as drugs or medication).
Except, truculence doesn’t really amount to “aggressive and hostile thoughts and feelings,” does it? I asked, and the AI agreed, eventually revising its diagnostics accordingly at my further prompting (“A tendency to experience and express defiant or confrontational thoughts and feelings,” and so forth).
Likewise, my prompt to offer both an ontological and an epistemological answer to the question When does bread become toast? yielded a generally fluent, seemingly philosophical reply. It read in part: “when we are able to recognize it as toast based on its appearance, texture, and other sensory characteristics.”
But the philosophy of toast is an area of expertise for me, so I was able to discern that this snippet, supposedly an epistemological argument, was really about perception. “Isn’t the second a phenomenal, and not an epistemological argument?” I challenged. And once more, the AI cried uncle without hesitation: “You are correct, the second argument that I provided is a phenomenal, not an epistemological, argument. An epistemological argument focuses on how we come to know or understand something, whereas a phenomenal argument focuses on our experience or perception of something.”
At this point, talking to ChatGPT began to feel like every other interaction one has on the internet, where some guy (always a guy) tries to convert the skim of a Wikipedia article into a case of definitive expertise. Except ChatGPT was always willing to admit that it was wrong. Instantly and without dispute. And in each case, the bot also knew, with reasonable accuracy, why it was wrong. That sounds good but is actually pretty terrible: If one already needs to possess the expertise to identify the problems with LLM-generated text, but the purpose of LLM-generated text is to obviate the need for such knowledge, then we’re in a sour pickle indeed. Maybe it’s time for that paragraph on accountability after all.
But that’s not ChatGPT’s aim. It doesn’t make accurate arguments or express creativity, but instead produces textual material in a form corresponding with the requester’s explicit or implicit intent, which might also contain truth under certain circumstances. That is, alas, an accurate account of textual matter of all kinds: online, in books, on Wikipedia, and well beyond.
[Read: Google’s “sentient” chatbot is our self-deceiving future]
Proponents of LLM generativity may brush off this concern. Some will do so by glorifying GPT’s obvious and fully realized genius, in embarrassing ways that I can only bear to link to rather than repeat. Others, more measured but no less bewitched, may claim that “it’s still early days” for a technology a mere few years old but that can already generate reasonably good 12th-century lyric poems about Whataburger. But these are the sentiments of the IT-guy personalities who have most mucked up computational and online life, which is just to say life itself. OpenAI assumes that its work is fated to evolve into an artificial general intelligence—a machine that can do anything. Instead, we should adopt a less ambitious but more likely goal for ChatGPT and its successors: They offer an interface into the textual infinity of digitized life, an otherwise impenetrable space that few humans can use effectively in the present.
To explain what I mean by that, let me show you a quite different exchange I had with ChatGPT, one in which I used it to help me find my way through the textual murk rather than to fool me with its prowess as a wordsmith.
“I’m looking for a specific kind of window covering, but I don’t know what it’s called.” I told the bot. “It’s a kind of blind, I think. What kinds are there?” ChatGPT responded with a litany of window dressings, which was fine. I clarified that I had something in mind that was sort of like a roller blind but made of fabric. “Based on the description you have provided, it sounds like you may be thinking of a roman shade,” it replied, offering more detail and a mini sales pitch for this fenestral technology.
My dearest reader, I do in fact know what a Roman shade is. But lacking that knowledge and nevertheless needing to deploy it in order to make sense of the world—this is exactly the kind of act that is very hard to do with computers today. To accomplish something in the world often boils down to mustering a set of stock materials into the expected linguistic form. That’s true for Google or Amazon, where searches for window coverings or anything else now fail most of the time, requiring time-consuming, tightrope-like finagling to get the machinery to point you in even the general direction of an answer. But it’s also true for student essays, thank-you notes, cover letters, marketing reports, and perhaps even medieval lais (insofar as anyone would aim to create one). We are all faking it with words already. We are drowning in an ocean of content, desperate for form’s life raft.
ChatGPT offers that shape, but—and here’s where the bot did get my position accidentally correct, in part—it doesn’t do so by means of knowledge. The AI doesn’t understand or even compose text. It offers a way to probe text, to play with text, to mold and shape an infinity of prose across a huge variety of domains, including literature and science and shitposting, into structures in which further questions can be asked and, on occasion, answered.
GPT and other large language models are aesthetic instruments rather than epistemological ones. Imagine a weird, unholy synthesizer whose buttons sample textual information, style, and semantics. Such a thing is compelling not because it offers answers in the form of text, but because it makes it possible to play text—all the text, almost—like an instrument.
That outcome could be revelatory! But a huge obstacle stands in the way of achieving it: people, who don’t know what the hell to make of LLMs, ChatGPT, and all the other generative AI systems that have appeared. Their creators haven’t helped, perhaps partly because they don’t know what these things are for either. OpenAI offers no framing for ChatGPT, presenting it as an experiment to help “make AI systems more natural to interact with,” a worthwhile but deeply unambitious goal. Absent further structure, it’s no surprise that ChatGPT’s users frame their own creations as either existential threats or perfected accomplishments. Neither outcome is true, but both are also boring. Imagine worrying about the fate of take-home essay exams, a stupid format that everyone hates but nobody has the courage to kill. But likewise, imagine nitpicking with a computer that just composed something reminiscent of a medieval poem about a burger joint because its lines don’t all have the right meter! Sure, you can take advantage of that opportunity to cheat on school exams or fake your way through your job. That’s what a boring person would do. That’s what a computer would expect.
Computers have never been instruments of reason that can solve matters of human concern; they’re just apparatuses that structure human experience through a very particular, extremely powerful method of symbol manipulation. That makes them aesthetic objects as much as functional ones. GPT and its cousins offer an opportunity to take them up on the offer—to use computers not to carry out tasks but to mess around with the world they have created. Or better: to destroy it.Treat it like a toy, not a tool.
Trump’s Reckoning With the Rule of Law
So here’s a clue as to why Donald Trump did not want anyone reading his individual tax returns. His company has just been convicted of criminal fraud for evading taxes on benefits paid to executives.
The accused was Trump’s company, not Trump himself. Nor was Trump one of the executives accused of evasion. Yet the jeopardy to Trump personally is very near and very real.
New York State’s prosecutors asserted at trial that Trump had explicitly approved the evasion scheme: “This is all part of the Trump executive compensation package. Free cars for you, free cars for your wife, free apartments for you, free apartments for your kids. Why not pay them more? Because it would cost them double to give them raises rather than give them the cars on the down-low.”
[David A. Graham: It’s just fraud all the way down]
The jury’s verdicts cast light on a series of related questions that now loom large.
Why did Trump fight all the way to the Supreme Court to conceal his individual tax returns from scrutiny?
Why did Trump make such a priority of personal control of the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice, given his general lack of concern with the mechanics of government?
Why was Trump willing to commit impeachable offenses in his effort to win the election of 2020, and then even more and worse impeachable offenses to hold on to power in 2021 after his defeat?
The eight years of individual tax returns (2011–19) now in the possession of the U.S. Congress must feel deeply ominous to Trump. If his 100 percent wholly owned personal company broke the rules, as has now been proved, and if Trump and his late father engaged in systematically dubious schemes to avoid inheritance and estate taxes in the 1980s and ’90s, as The New York Times reported in 2018, then it seems improbable that Trump himself abruptly turned a new leaf after 2010. A personal criminal referral could be heading his way.
But those tax issues are not of the highest public interest. Trump all along gleefully presented himself as a businessman who took every advantage, ethical or otherwise. In their first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton accused Trump of not paying any federal income taxes. “That makes me smart,” retorted Trump.
Even if tax evasion proves to be what could send Trump to prison, the highest danger to the country was something else contained within his personal and corporate tax returns.
Once in office, Trump was determined never to leave again—not only because of his crazed ego needs, but also as a matter of personal survival. As long as he held the presidency, he could resist tax scrutiny; he could benefit from the Department of Justice rule against the indictment of a serving president. But should he lose office, he would forfeit those protections and the full force of the law would bear down on him. He must not lose, no matter what.
[Daniel Hemel: The Trump Organization is in big trouble]
And so he extorted the government of Ukraine—to confect a scandal against his likely presidential opponent or be denied the aid it needed to defend itself against invasion by Russia at the orders of Trump’s former business partners in Moscow. Those actions produced his first impeachment.
That scheme failed to work as hoped, although Trump and his allies never did give up entirely. After it stalled, Trump became even more frightened and desperate. He plotted to overthrow the 2020 election, first by alleged fraud, then by violence. The mob that attacked the Capitol on January 6, 2021, was sent there by then-President Trump not just to disrupt congressional proceedings but to intimidate or coerce Vice President Mike Pence into uttering magic words that Trump imagined would change the election outcome.
The jury verdicts in the Trump Organization criminal trial help us understand something that otherwise seemed murky in the January 6 plot. Even Trump had to grasp on some level that the “magic words” aspect of the plot was not very solid. Could he really expect that the 81 million people who had voted against him would quietly submit? Joe Biden won the 2020 election by the second-largest popular-vote percentage of the century, next only to Barack Obama’s in 2008. As they later testified to Congress’s committee investigating the January 6 attack, Trump’s own advisers told him that the plan was illegal, futile, and absurd.
But lurking within the January 6 plot to stop the election, I suspect, was a potentially more effective Plan B:
Create a ruckus. Get Pence into a Secret Service limo and away from the Capitol. Rapidly call the most senior senator into the presiding chair in Pence’s stead. Persuade that senator, Charles Grassley of Iowa, to do Trump’s bidding and send the electoral count back to Republican-controlled state legislatures—and hope that all of this chaos produces enough doubt about the election to buy some legal impunity after 2021.
In the second-best case, Biden would enter the presidency not as the legal winner, but only after a negotiation with Trump supporters, much like the scenario for Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877. “No prosecution” would be something Trump might have aspired to negotiate for. Although Biden’s team could not have guaranteed that individual states would take no legal action against Trump, a sufficiently convulsive crisis in 2021 might have deterred any government official from trying to apply the law to Trump in 2022.
We saw something akin to that plan at work with the presidential documents Trump removed to Mar-a-Lago. He broke the law, everybody agrees. Yet when the law was belatedly enforced by the FBI, almost all Republicans fell into lockstep behind Trump—even his would-be replacement, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. This must be Trump’s most cherished wish for how other law-enforcement actions against him could be resisted. On November 15, Trump declared his candidacy for 2024. In an interview that same week, he claimed that his candidacy should protect him from federal investigation. “It is not acceptable. It is so unfair. It is so political. I am not going to partake in it.”
[David Frum: Trump’s running, and Republicans have only themselves to blame]
Trump’s hope to use the afterglow of the presidency to buy immunity is not yet crushed. But it’s not holding up either. The Mar-a-Lago investigation is unfolding. Other legal actions against Trump continue. And a New York jury has now convicted Trump’s company of crimes on the basis of evidence that, in some cases, literally bore his signature.
Since 2015, America has faced a choice: It could have a working rule of law, or it could have a Trump presidency. Not both. After much time and anguish, the Trump presidency was repudiated at the polls. Now the rule of law has returned. The man who tried to overturn the Constitution to save his job as commander in chief and avoid the law now has to meet it as defendant in chief.His company now has criminal convictions, and his effort to seek political immunity is looking shaky.
It’s Not Filter Bubbles That Are Driving Us Apart
In 1948, Sayyid Qutb went to America, where he stayed for almost two years. It was a formative experience for the devout, uptight, disgust-prone Egyptian, who is regarded as one of the founding fathers of Islamist ideology. To say that Qutb didn’t take to the place is an understatement: He thought it was soulless, materialistic, crass, haughty, and sexually permissive.
It is an exaggeration to suggest that America radicalized Qutb, but it does seem to have strongly reinforced his aversion to the country and the West in general, which he came to regard as an existential threat to Islam. What it categorically didn’t do was make him more moderate in his thought and sentiment.
Qutb’s American sojourn instantly came to mind as I read a new academic paper that seeks to understand the intensely polarized state of our social and political life. The paper, by Petter Törnberg of the University of Amsterdam, was published in October in PNAS, the official journal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Its core claim is that “it is not isolation from opposing views that drives polarization but precisely the fact that digital media bring us to interact outside our local bubble.” Although Törnberg doesn’t mention Qutb, the process whereby antipathy and distrust toward others is intensified not by distance from those others but by direct contact with them, albeit filtered through existing cognitive biases, is strikingly borne out by Qutb’s American experience.
[From the May 2022 issue: Why the past 10 years of American life have been uniquely stupid]
As Törnberg explains at the paper’s outset, the dominant account for understanding our current polarized condition holds that the internet, social media, and online algorithms have combined to divide us into warring tribes whose beliefs, identities, and mutual enmities become ever more entrenched in echo chambers, where groupthink dominates and competing viewpoints are banished. Many social scientists argue that this not only undermines democracy, which depends on the open exchange of ideas, but also serves to foment conflict, even outright violence. As the legal scholar Cass Sunstein put it, “Particular forms of homogeneity can be breeding grounds for unjustified extremism, even fanaticism.”
Törnberg’s paper rejects this account, arguing that far from sheltering people from opposing ideas and ways of thinking, digital media has, in fact, served to “bring us to interact with individuals outside our local bubble,” where many interactions take on a warlike character and “we are forced to take sides.” Our main problem, as Törnberg conceives it, is not that we spend too long listening to the comforting voices on our own side, but rather that we’re too attentive to the loudest, most enraged, and most unhinged voices on the other side.
To better grasp the paper and its wider implications, I recently spoke with Törnberg. As a fellow researcher who has studied audience engagement with online atrocity propaganda, including jihadi beheadings and other unmentionable cruelties, I was particularly keen to ask him about the problem of distortion and how overexposure to extreme online material can warp people’s view of the world so that, in a reverse process of desensitization, they become ever more alert to premonitions of catastrophe and societal collapse.
“On mainstream social media, we don’t find so many echo chambers,” Törnberg told me, adding that “there’s plenty of interaction going on.” More crucially, he said, “that interaction doesn’t consist of rational arguments that lead to moderation, that’s just not how it’s playing out.” In his view, many of our online interactions are driven not by good-faith initiatives to better understand one another, but by a tribal imperative to signal our moral superiority over our partisan enemies—especially if members of our own in-group are watching. This is usually done through mockery or vilification with little or no regard to the rules of civilized discourse.
These dynamics are readily apparent on Twitter, and on many other social-media platforms, where what dominates is not protective disengagement from opposing viewpoints but an ecstatic clamoring for their most extreme articulations. Political partisans reinforce their sense of moral identity by seizing on these articulations and excoriating them, vividly marking out the parameters of good and evil, while firmly placing themselves on the side of the gods. Partisans are motivated to do this, in part, because it’s so emotionally rewarding: One shouldn’t underestimate the pleasure of feeling indignant and righteous. But it’s also, as research has shown, the key to going viral: Inflamed or “moralized” posts about political opponents are substantially more likely to be shared on social media. And one really shouldn’t underestimate the pleasures of mass endorsement on social media, either.
Before the rise of the internet and social media, most people were relatively secluded from their most extreme political adversaries; a person might read about those adversaries in a newspaper or see them on TV, but didn’t have access to their personal lives. Now anyone can watch them daily on TikTok, voyeuristically marveling at their outrageousness. Because there is no shortage of mentally unwell people who are willing to expose themselves on social media, there is always a self-replenishing reservoir of political derangement for activists in all places along the political spectrum to seize on for their ends.
[Yascha Mounk: The doom spiral of pernicious polarization]
The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has for years observed this dynamic. “So long as we are all immersed in a constant stream of unbelievable outrages perpetrated by the other side,” he told Vox in 2018, “I don’t see how we can ever trust each other and work together again.” Törnberg voiced a similar concern to me, referring to how social media has encouraged an “outrage-driven politics” that crowds out productive democratic engagement.
When Sayyid Qutb went to America, he was exposed to a range of people who thought very differently from him. Instead of prompting him to critically reflect on his own beliefs and convictions, this seems to have led him to do the opposite: He seized on what he saw as the most outrageous forms of moral perversity he encountered and considered them indicative of America and the West as a whole. When he returned to Egypt, he then sought to disseminate this one-sided account among his followers. The historian John Calvert wrote that Qutb viewed the United States “not with fresh untainted eyes, but rather through the tinted spectacles of a man long captive to a particular view of the world.” He “would either purposefully ignore or simply not see anomalies which contradicted” his account of what America was.
If Qutb’s intellectual failings sound familiar, that’s because we are all too prone to them ourselves. What the rise of social media has done is make them markedly worse, as political derangement is now everywhere, warping our sense of proportion and judgment. It’s hard to know what to do about this, in large part because the appetite for it is so strong. As former President Barack Obama said in April, “There is a demand for crazy on the internet that we need to grapple with.”
The really striking thing about Qutb’s American experience is how transfixed he was by what he regarded as American permissiveness. Not only did he have an uncanny knack for finding it, but he couldn’t keep off the subject when he did run into it. Perhaps he enjoyed the feeling of moral disgust and the sense of righteousness it gave him, or perhaps he was secretly attracted to what America had to offer. Regardless, if we’re to properly inquire into how we’ve become so polarized, we had better start thinking about that demand for crazy—and what the people who consume and share that crazy are getting from it.When people come face-to-face with what others believe, they may not like it.
What the Georgia Runoff Revealed
Senator Raphael Warnock’s win in yesterday’s Georgia Senate runoff capped a commanding show of strength by Democrats in the states that decided the 2020 race for the White House—and will likely pick the winner again in 2024.
With Warnock’s victory over Republican Herschel Walker, Democrats have defeated every GOP Senate and gubernatorial candidate endorsed by Donald Trump this year in the five states that flipped from supporting him in 2016 to backing Joe Biden in 2020: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona.
Coming even amid widespread discontent over the economy, this year’s Democratic sweep against the Trump-backed candidates underscores the continuing resistance to the former president’s influence. In particular, Warnock’s decisive margins in Atlanta and its suburbs yesterday extended the Democratic dominance of white-collar (and usually racially diverse) metropolitan areas, as varied as the suburbs of Detroit and Philadelphia and the booming hot spots of Phoenix and Madison.
[Read: The great Senate stalemate]
“The huge question after the election of 2020 was whether the suburbs would snap back to the GOP column after Trump was no longer on the ballot,” Ben Wikler, the Democratic Party chair in Wisconsin, told me. “What we saw in 2022 was suburbs continuing to trend toward Democrats.”
Apart from perhaps Michigan, none of these states appears entirely out of reach for the GOP in 2024. Whit Ayres, a longtime GOP pollster, told me that although suburban voters recoiled against “delusional candidates” who “parroted” Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, Republicans “could very well come back and win the suburbs” with “non-delusional candidates.”
Of the five pivotal states from the last presidential election, Republicans this year actually performed best in Georgia, where the party swept the other statewide offices. Even Walker remained stubbornly close to Warnock in the final results, despite an avalanche of damaging personal revelations and gaffes. Across these states, Republican dominance in rural areas that the GOP consolidated under Trump continued through this year’s midterm and allowed several of his endorsed candidates, like Walker, to remain competitive despite big deficits in the largest population centers.
But in the end, the Democratic strength in the largest metropolitan areas proved insurmountable for the seven Trump-backed candidates in governor or Senate races across these five states. The only Republicans who won such contests in these states were Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who sharpened an image of independence by standing up to Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 loss in the state, and Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, who echoes many of Trump’s themes but has an established political identity apart from him. (Johnson barely held off his Democratic challenger, Mandela Barnes.)
“You have a large percentage of Americans who are wary of MAGA and have now voted against MAGA three times,” Simon Rosenberg, the president of NDN, a Democratic research and advocacy group, told me. Rosenberg was the most forceful public skeptic of the “red wave” theory. “They are now going to have to take all those people and turn them into Republican voters in 2024. It’s certainly not impossible, but I’d much rather be us than them going into the 2024 election”
In many ways, yesterday’s Georgia result underscored the partisan chasm that has left the country closely divided for at least the past decade. Walker was, by any objective measure, among the weakest general-election candidates for a major office either party has produced in modern memory. Tarred by an endless procession of scandals, prone to nonsensical statements on the campaign trail (as when he mused on the relative merits of vampires and werewolves), and unwilling or unable to articulate positions on many major issues, he nonetheless drew unflagging support from national Republican leaders and held the large majority of the state’s Republican votes.
That Walker came as close as he did to winning underscores the growing parliamentary nature of House and Senate elections, in which fewer voters are casting their ballots based on personal assessments of the two candidates and more are deciding based on which party they want to control the national agenda.
[Read: How Democrats avoided a red wave]
Yet all of that still left Walker, like the other Trump-backed candidates, short in the face of solid margins for Democrats in and around these states’ major population centers. Exit polls showed Democrats posting big advantages among all the demographic groups that tend to congregate in large metropolitan areas: young people, people of color, college-educated voters, secular voters, and LGBTQ adults.
Thriving Cobb and Gwinnett Counties outside Atlanta, with a combined population of 1.7 million people, encapsulate the suburban evolution that has tilted the balance of power. For years, these counties were Republican redoubts: George W. Bush won them by roughly a combined 150,000 votes in the 2004 presidential race, and even as late as the hard-fought 2014 Georgia Senate race, the winning GOP nominee, David Perdue, carried each of them by double-digit margins.
But both counties have grown more diverse. White people now make up only about three-fifths of the population in Cobb and a little more than half in Gwinnett, and nearly half of Cobb adults hold at least a four-year college degree. This has alienated them from a GOP that Trump has reshaped to reflect the cultural priorities and grievances of culturally conservative white voters, particularly those without college degrees or who live outside urban areas. Hillary Clinton narrowly carried both counties in 2016, Biden won just under 60 percent of the vote in each in 2020, and Warnock in November roughly matched Biden’s performance. As of the latest count, Warnock yesterday again carried about three-fifths of the vote in both Cobb and Gwinnett. He also ran up big margins in the suburban counties just south of Atlanta.
The same patterns were evident in the large white-collar suburbs of the other states that Republicans must win back to recapture the White House in 2024. In Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer, in crushing her Trump-backed opponent, Tudor Dixon, won a higher share of the vote in Oakland and Kent Counties than she managed in 2018 or than Biden did in 2020. In Pennsylvania, Senator-elect John Fetterman matched Biden in exceeding three-fifths of the vote in both Delaware and Montgomery Counties, outside Philadelphia. In Arizona, Senator Mark Kelly carried Maricopa County, centered on Phoenix, by almost 100,000 votes—more than doubling Biden’s margin in 2020, when he became the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the county since Harry Truman in 1948. In Wisconsin, Governor Tony Evers won booming Dane County, centered on Madison, by 25,000 more votes than he had in 2018, and an analysis of the statewide results showed him improving the most over his first election in the counties with the highest levels of educational attainment.
After this year’s defeats, many analysts in both parties are dubious that Trump can recapture enough (and maybe any) of these five states in 2024. The bigger question facing Republicans is whether another candidate, one who does not have Trump’s personal baggage but who shares most of his culture-war views, such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, could perform much better.
[Read: Georgia sends a preacher to Washington]
Republicans are generally optimistic that DeSantis could regain ground Trump has lost among suburban voters who leaned Republican not too long ago. They point to Georgia Republican Governor Kemp performing better than Walker did in the Atlanta suburbs as evidence that a more mainstream Republican can slice the Democratic advantage in such places. DeSantis, Ayres said, “has got a lot of things he can sell to suburban Republican voters that Trump just can’t sell.”
Almost universally, Democrats believe that Republicans are underestimating how hard it will be to reel back in college-educated suburban voters who have now mobilized against Trump’s vision for America in three consecutive elections, especially in these battleground states. Although DeSantis is less belligerent than Trump, and not associated with the violence and subversion of the January 6 insurrection, so far he has emphasized a similar style of politics focused on conservative grievance against “woke” cultural liberalism. “Ron DeSantis is every bit as MAGA as Donald Trump,” Rosenberg said. “This idea that he is some more moderate version of Trump is just farcical.”
The fact that even a candidate as weak as Walker remained as competitive as he did underscores how difficult it may be for either side to establish a comfortable advantage in these states in 2024. (The exceptions could be Michigan, which even many Republicans agree looks daunting for them, and maybe Pennsylvania, which also tilted blue last month.)
These states provided Democrats with their own warning signs this year. Exit polls last month showed that most voters in these states disapproved of Biden’s job performance and that big majorities in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the states where the question was asked, did not want him to run again. Democrats also faced a worrying trend of lagging Black turnout in many urban centers this year, though Black voters came out in big numbers in Georgia’s early voting, and activists in the state are confident they will remain highly engaged through 2024. “Our goal was to build a culture of voting, and that’s what we have done in Georgia over the past five years,” Amari Fennoy, the state coordinator for the NAACP Georgia State Conference, told me.
Yet the consistency of the results this year, both demographically and geographically, signal that the re-sorting of the parties in the Trump era has left Democrats with a narrow, but potentially durable, advantage in these five crucial states. That doesn’t mean Democrats are guaranteed to win them in the 2024 presidential race, but it does suggest an important takeaway from the 2022 election that finally ended last night: As long as voters still perceive Republicans to be operating in Trump’s shadow (much less if they again nominate Trump himself), Democrats will begin with an advantage in the states most likely to pick the next president.
“I think that the coalition that turned out to stop Trump is going to be the starting point for the next presidential race,” Wikler said. “There are new threats and new opportunities, but this was not a one-off coalition that came together for a special occasion and went home.” Georgia, again, made that very clear last night.Democrats hold a key advantage in the five states that will decide the next presidential election.
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