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External forces can have a clarifying effect.
Let’s assume for a moment that you’re so weary of stories about infighting in Washington and street fighting in pockets of the United States – a surfacing of racial rancor so disruptive that a United Nations committee has called it out as a “failure at the highest political level” – that your desperate eyes are drawn to decidedly “alternative” news, like the discovery this week that it rains diamonds on ice planet Neptune.
We have much closer storms to be concerned about. One, Harvey, is brewing off the coast of Texas and Louisiana. It has already affected refineries. It will, in some form, make landfall on a coastline that’s already imperiled, bringing perhaps 35 inches of rainfall in isolated spots. Preparedness – both in thought and action – offers protection, even at Category 3. Authorities are urging evacuation.
If Harvey does land a punch, perhaps it will shift the national focus to collective fortitude, to constructive exchanges – to helping, to leadership, and to healing.
Now, to our five stories for today.
Among the challenges for rights-protectors: how to simultaneously defend the exercising of the First and Second Amendments.
Free-speech guardians have a new quandary: what to do when people want to exercise their right to protest at the same time as their right to openly carry guns in public? After the white supremacist rally the American Civil Liberties Union defended in Charlottesville, Va., turned violent, the group announced it would no longer defend the free-speech rights of armed protesters. The shifting legal landscape around gun rights is what makes today’s free-speech debate so much tougher for groups like the ACLU, experts say. Today, 46 states have some form of open-carry laws on the books. “The simple dedication to the principles of free speech become a little more murky when people are carrying guns,” says William Marshall, the Kenan Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina. “You can be a strong believer in Second Amendment rights and a strong believer in First Amendment rights, but even if you are you might want to think about how those two work together in highly volatile demonstrations,” he adds. An early consensus among free-speech scholars is beginning to emerge that a protest with guns cannot be treated, for First Amendment purposes, the same as a rally without guns.
The year was 1977, and a group of neo-Nazis wanted to march through Skokie, Ill. – a Chicago suburb where, at the time, one out of every six Jewish residents was either a Holocaust survivor or directly related to one.
The American Civil Liberties Union successfully argued that the march should be allowed, despite the town’s vehement objections. (The rally was ultimately moved to Chicago.) Its defense of free speech, even when it qualifies as hate speech, cost the ACLU about 30,000 members – but the organization stayed consistent with a policy it held since the late 1930s.
Last week, though, the ACLU decided to change that policy in response to a violent white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Va. Dozens of protesters marched through the town with guns – some armed better than police, according to state officials – illustrating a troubling new challenge for First Amendment guardians: what to do now when people want to exercise their right to protest at the same time as their right to openly carry guns in public?
“The Charlottesville events have triggered a classic American debate that has been part of our constitutional conversation for well over 100 years,” says Rodney Smolla, dean of Widener University Delaware Law School.
“You have the right to engage in racist speech, and there may be a state legal right to carry a gun, but when you put the two together in a mass demonstration you create a dangerous combination,” he adds.
The intertwining of the First and Second Amendments is not unheard of in the US (perhaps most famously with the Black Panthers in the 1970s, which led to gun control laws being enacted in states such as California). Today, though, 46 states have some form of open-carry laws on the books – complicating the debate, according to legal scholars. For its part, the ACLU says it is trying to adapt to the times.
Prior to the Charlottesville rally, the ACLU of Virginia successfully defended rally organizers when the town went to court to have it moved to a location outside the town center. The rally turned violent – with 35 people reported injured and a woman killed, police say, after a neo-Nazi sympathizer drove his car into a crowd – and was declared an unlawful assembly. Days later – after widespread public condemnation, including among its own members – the national organization announced that it will now not defend groups seeking to march with firearms.
They will also “screen clients more closely for violence at their rallies,” executive director Anthony Romero told The Wall Street Journal.
“It’s neither a blanket no or a blanket yes,” Mr. Romero added, saying the ACLU will continue to deal with requests on a case-by-case basis. But the events of Charlottesville, he said, require “any legal group to look at the facts of any white supremacy protests with a much finer comb.”
The shifting legal landscape around gun rights is what makes today’s free speech debate so much tougher for groups like the ACLU, experts say.
“The simple dedication to the principles of free speech become a little more murky when people are carrying guns,” says William Marshall, the Kenan Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina (UNC).
“You can be a strong believer in Second Amendment rights and a strong believer in First Amendment rights, but even if you are you might want to think about how those two work together in highly volatile demonstrations,” he adds.
Ahead of two protests by the self-described "alt-right" this weekend in California, ACLU affiliates in California released their own separate statement headlined, “White Supremacist Violence Is Not Free Speech.”
“If white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution,” the statement concluded.
In Charlottesville, dozens of civilians carried semi-automatic weapons during the protest. Some “had better equipment than our state police,” Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said, while critics suggested the heavily armed protesters made police too afraid to intervene.
But an early consensus among free speech scholars is beginning to emerge that a protest with guns cannot be treated, for First Amendment purposes, the same as a rally without guns.
“A march or rally by people who are heavily armed is not an exercise of what the First Amendment calls ‘the right of the people peaceably to assemble,’” writes Michael Dorf, a professor at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, N.Y., in the Take Care blog.
Aspiring protesters can “as individuals, exercise their putative Second Amendment right to carry arms in public or they can, as a group, exercise their First Amendment right to peaceable assemble … in which they are not armed,” he adds. “The attempt to combine those two rights will, in the typical case, be unprotected.”
Exactly how rallies with guns should be treated by courts remains to be seen. This legal terrain is complicated even further by the fact that there isn’t yet a definitive Supreme Court ruling regarding the right to carry guns in public.
Both the Heller (2008) and the McDonald (2010) decisions – the most recent Second Amendment cases heard by the high court – avoided answering whether Americans are allowed to openly carry guns in public. Last term, the justices declined to take up a case out of California that would have directly addressed it.
Samuel Walker, an emeritus professor at the University of Nebraska and a former ACLU board member, says the ACLU needs to keep protecting free speech for even the most extreme groups because “social progress has advanced in part because our law protects strong and often offensive language.” But he also agrees with the new change in policy.
“It’s a new aspect of this whole ongoing controversy,” says Professor Walker, author of “In Defense of American Liberties,” a history of the ACLU. “I do not think the ACLU should defend any demonstration or march where protesters plan to carry guns.”
The boundaries of free speech have been evolving in the United States for more than 100 years.
Prior to World War II, the country was much tougher on offensive speech. In 1919, the US Supreme Court ruled that speaking out against the draft was not protected by the First Amendment, and in 1942 the justices ruled that “fighting words” (words that “inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace”) are not protected either.
Since then, the views of Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis have prevailed. (At least in the public square. In areas such as schools and government buildings there are more restrictions on free speech.) Those justices believed “that the good speech will drown out the bad speech” in the “marketplace of ideas,” says Professor Smolla, author of “Free Speech in an Open Society.”
So as it stands, as far as the First Amendment is concerned, free speech includes hate speech. Unlike in Europe, “hate speech” has no legal definition in America.
The ACLU’s commitment to defending free speech rights is driven by the concern that carving out exceptions, even for the most repulsive language, could later be used to censor other, more acceptable, forms of speech.
Yet it’s that position that has provoked ire – even among some members – time and again. There's also a shift among younger Americans regarding the importance of protecting offensive speech: 40 percent of Millennials believe the federal government should be able to limit speech offensive to minorities, according to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center.
Even prior to Charlottesville, the ACLU had been under fire internally over its decision to defend Milo Yiannopoulos, a high-profile figure in the self-proclaimed “alt right” – a coalition that combines white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and populism – in a dispute with the Washington, D.C., public transportation authority. The authority had refused to display his ads on public transit. (Mr. Yiannopoulos is one of several plaintiffs in the case, including Carafem, a group that helps women access birth control and medication abortions; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; and the ACLU itself.)
But Charlottesville triggered a much larger backlash.
Many have called on supporters to stop donating to the organization. A board member of the ACLU of Virginia, Waldo Jaquith, resigned after the Charlottesville protests, tweeting that he “won’t be a fig leaf for the Nazis.”
The ACLU’s new tack leaves untouched the principle that hate speech is constitutionally protected – a principle some on the left are again calling into question – but the new dynamic introduced by shifting and still unsettled gun rights laws may introduce another boundary to America’s unique free speech protections in the future.
“The way the Second Amendment and First Amendment intertwine is really a new area of law,” says Professor Marshall, from UNC. “I think anyone approaching this area is sitting back and trying to think about what the ramifications are.”
After Madrid reached out to Barcelona – capital of separatist-minded Catalonia – in the wake of the Aug. 17 terrorist attack, one might have expected a unifying moment, a "we are all Spanish." Why aren’t restive Catalans, or many other Spaniards, hearing it that way?
Terrorist attacks often have a unifying effect in the country they injure: See the US response to 9/11, or the French reaction after the Charlie Hebdo or Bataclan attacks. But that has largely not been the case in the aftermath of last week's attacks in the independence-minded Spanish region of Catalonia, which left 15 dead. Instead of shifting views on whether Catalonia should be its own country and whether the time is right for the imminent secession vote, scheduled for Oct. 1, the incidents in Barcelona have served to harden positions on both sides – making an already tense situation more fraught. Pro-independence and pro-Spain advocates alike have used the days following the tragedy to jockey for position on the referendum, with neither side looking willing to give ground. “Even at this sad time, it is clear that the appearance of unity doesn’t have much depth to it,” says Caroline Gray, an expert on Spanish independence movements at Aston University in Britain. “Such politicization of the tragedy on both sides merely stokes anger.”
Terrorism has a way of uniting, at least in its immediate aftermath, the country targeted by an attack.
But that does not appear to be holding true for the attack in and around Barcelona that killed 15 people. Instead, it seems to be laying bare the deteriorating relationship between Spain and the region of Catalonia as the latter moves forward with an Oct. 1 referendum to vote on secession.
Catalan authorities have been broadly commended, both within Spain and internationally, for their response to Spain’s first terrorist attack in the new era of the Islamic State. But the region’s pro-independence leaders have been accused of politicizing the tragedy, jostling to take center stage, as if to show the world Catalonia can deal with a state emergency. Pro-Spanish voices have been accused of the same. The Madrid-based El País newspaper penned an editorial – just a day after a man drove through the heart of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas – urging Catalans to give up “their independence fantasy” in favor of addressing the “real problems” of the country.
Far from shifting views on whether Catalonia should be its own country and whether the time is right or not for a secession vote, the terrorist attack in Barcelona has served to harden positions on both sides – making an already tense situation more fraught.
“Even at this sad time, it is clear that the appearance of unity doesn’t have much depth to it,” says Caroline Gray, an expert on Spanish independence movements at Aston University in Britain. “Such politicization of the tragedy on both sides merely stokes anger.”
All are aware of the political stakes at a complex moment for the nation. Last time Spain was the victim of a terrorist attack, in the 2004 Atocha train bombings in Madrid, electoral predictions for the general election days later were turned on their head. The ruling, conservative Popular Party (PP) – which initially blamed the Basque terror group ETA instead of the actual perpetrators, Islamic terrorists retaliating against Spain’s unpopular decision to send troops to Iraq alongside US forces – lost handily to the Socialists.
This time the tragedy has become so entangled in the current dispute between Catalonia and the central government that a massive anti-terrorism march for Saturday is being led by police, emergency forces, and local retailers. Analysts say the intention is to “hide” politicians from the front lines, from Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau and Catalan Regional President Carles Puigdemont on one side to representatives of Madrid on the other, after some radical pro-independence politicians said they would boycott the march if the Spanish king attended it. It will be a far cry from the march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attack in early 2015, where leaders from more than 40 nations joined hands as they led an historic crowd past the site of the attack.
Las Ramblas today is a sea of candles, flowers, and teddy bears. One tourist promoter, María De Chirico, says she has also witnessed something more surprising: the laying down of the Spanish flag, a symbol that is hardly visible in a city that proudly hangs the Estelada, the Catalan flag.
For many residents, this makes perfect sense. “This wasn’t an attack on Catalans, but on all Spain,” says Pedro Escolano, a Barcelona native who works at a publishing company.
King Felipe VI and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy arrived in Barcelona to stand alongside the leading figures pushing for Catalan independence in a central plaza near Las Ramblas the day after the attack. But it didn’t take long for signs of strain to show. El País issued a damning editorial, particularly slamming Catalonia’s separatist politicians. “It’s time to ditch the democratic nonsense, the flagrant lawbreaking, the games, the tactics and political opportunism. It’s time that those governing us start working for our real interests,” the paper opined. “The fight against terrorism requires complete coordination and a concerted effort among the various authorities and security forces.”
And at the same time, when the regional government announced those killed and injured during the terrorist attack, it came under harsh criticism for distinguishing between “Catalan” and “Spanish” victims.
The referendum scheduled for Oct. 1, on whether Catalans want to be part of an independent country in the form of a republic, is considered illegal by the central government, which is attempting to use the courts to prevent it from happening. But failure to allow a vote has only emboldened Catalan secessionists historically.
In an opinion poll taken before the terrorist attack, 41 percent of respondents said they want Catalonia to be independent, while 49 percent said they do not. And 62 percent want more autonomy, which Madrid has refused to give them.
Catalonia generates a fifth of Spain’s GDP and already has wide sovereignty, managing its own education system and police forces. But it does not enjoy as many powers as the Basque Country, which runs its own taxes. “Two years ago, I would never have voted to break from Spain. But now I feel closer to doing that,” says Dario Soto, who works in the hotel industry in Barcelona. “If they don’t let us express our will in a vote, well, I don’t agree with those ways.”
He says the terrorist attack has done nothing to influence his views – only a softening from Madrid would change his position.
Kristina Kausch, a senior resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US in Brussels, says that while terrorism tends to shore up central governments, here the same logic doesn’t apply. “Terrorism has a decades-old history in Spain,” she says, first with ETA bombings and then after Spain was was hit in 2004. Spain has a strong reputation in counter-terrorism because of it. But one of the protagonists of the effort has been the Catalan police, the Mossos d’Esquadra.
In a piece entitled “7 Hours of Independence” in the Catalan daily El Nacional, Bernat Dedéu criticized Madrid for their initial absence from the tragedy while praising Mr. Puigdemont and Ms. Colau for behaving “like two authentic leaders of the nation.”
Jordi Matas, professor of political science at the University of Barcelona, says Catalonia has been slowly building an apparatus to deal with the crises of a state. “The Catalan government has been working for years in crafting the needed state structures for an eventual self-government,” he says. “Some people will now say that the attacks have shown that the country is ready for self-government.”
Doubts about the investigation linger, however, with many unanswered questions.
Anthony Glees, director of the Center for Security and Intelligence at the University of Buckingham, says several elements so far point to a security lapse. One criticism is the city’s decision not to put up bollards around Las Ramblas, as recommended after a truck plowed into a Christmas market in Berlin in December. The growth of the large-scale terrorist cell in the region also raises questions about why it went undetected. An explosion the day prior to the attack in a house full of gas canisters was initially not investigated as terror-related.
On the other hand, many like Mr. Dedéu have criticized the Spanish government for obstructing access of Catalan police to European security databases, weakening their own investigations.
Tensions show no signs of abating. Professor Matas says a majority of Catalans want a referendum, and the attack has not changed this. “What is clear is the confrontation between the Catalan and the Spanish governments, with both sides working on opposite ends towards making a referendum on Oct. 1 a reality,” he says. “We are headed towards a very severe conflict in the month of September. Both sides will fight this hard.”
Sara Miller Llana reported from Bilbao, Spain.
Here’s a story about boy bands and border disputes. For two months, India and China have been stuck in a renewed standoff over 35 square miles of rocky land in the Himalayan highlands. A telling wrinkle in this round: a state media video that shows how Beijing is adapting propaganda for a new generation of patriots.
Old-school propaganda still exists in China. Communist slogans, censored newspapers, and oversized portraits of President Xi Jinping can be found all over the country. But increasingly, it has a new face: the TFBoys, one of the country’s most popular boy bands. “Love the country and the people,” the group sang in 2015, appearing in a video released by the Communist Youth League. “Fear neither hardship nor the enemy.” It’s the anthem of the Young Pioneers, the party’s nationwide children’s organization. But the participation of the TFBoys highlights a push from Beijing to package the party line in ways that appeal to young, 21st-century patriots – from pop idols appearing in historical war epics, to viral videos and TED Talks. Chinese moviemakers compete with Hollywood, but leaders are also worried that Western culture can influence young people’s values. “The Chinese Communist Party definitely recognizes that the main target for its patriotic education is the youth,” says Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury. “It recognizes that it’s pretty hard to change the minds of people who lived through the Cultural Revolution and who have already made up their minds.”
The Chinese teen idol Lu Han appears for only a few seconds in “The Founding of an Army,” China’s latest propaganda film, but even a little screen time is enough to rev up his biggest fans.
At a showing earlier this month, the crowd chanted Mr. Lu’s name when he appeared on screen. “The shouting was even longer than the time he appeared in the movie,” wrote one moviegoer on Weibo, a microblogging site.
Lu is one of at least three xiao xian rou – “little fresh meat,” as young stars are called – in “The Founding of an Army,” advertised as a war epic with “youthful revolutionary elements.” The Chinese government commissioned the film to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army. It opened in late July, and has since become one of the summer’s biggest hits.
It may have had help. In a sign of the film’s importance to the ruling Communist Party, a state ministry reportedly ordered that it be be shown on at least 45 percent of all Chinese screens. The promoters of the film have rebutted such reports.
Still, that heavy-handedness is what many have come to expect from China’s state-run propaganda apparatus – perhaps the largest in the world – as it works to promote President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party, a mission with added significance ahead of a key party congress this fall.
But if the intensity of propaganda efforts is nothing news – nor the messages – some of the messengers are. Beijing’s propaganda has become more sophisticated, researchers say, as it tries to speak to young people in their own language: one of viral videos and swooned-over boy bands. The decision to cast teenage idols in “The Founding of an Army” highlights that growing push to package state values for a younger, 21st-century audience.
“The Chinese Communist Party definitely recognizes that the main target for its patriotic education is the youth,” says Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on Chinese propaganda at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “It recognizes that it’s pretty hard to change the minds of people who lived through the Cultural Revolution and who have already made up their minds.”
While some older Chinese viewers criticized the filmmakers for what they called superficial casting decisions, Dr. Brady says those people aren’t its target audience. Moreover, she says the decision to cast Lu and other xiao xian rou reflects the filmmakers’ desire to strike a balance between propaganda and profit. Chinese producers regularly cast teenage idols as a way to attract young moviegoers, a much sought-after demographic in the film industry.
It’s also a demographic that some in the Communist Party worry it may be losing. For years, China’s leaders have feared Western culture – from Hollywood blockbusters to pop music – could influence the thinking and values of the country’s young people. They’re not alone: 77 percent of Chinese believe their way of life needs to be protected from influences abroad, according to a 2016 Pew Survey.
“If you ask young Chinese what term they most closely associate with the US, the majority of them will say ‘Hollywood,’” says Stanley Rosen, a political science professor at the University of Southern California who studies Chinese film and media. “The Communist Party is trying to compete with what American is selling in terms of popular culture.”
What’s likely more concerning to the party, Dr. Rosen says, is that many Chinese college students have shown a preference for aspects of liberal democracy to China’s one-party system. Sixty percent of Chinese between 18 and 34 years old have a favorable view of the US, according to the Pew survey, compared to 35 percent of those over 50.
Old-school propaganda still exists in China. Communist slogans, censored newspapers, and oversized portraits of President Xi can be found all over the country. But in an attempt to modernize their methods, propaganda officials have developed new ones that include TED-style talks, animated videos, and rap songs.
This youth-oriented approach to propaganda has started to show signs of success in mainstream Chinese culture. TFBoys, one of China’s most popular boy bands, presents a wholesome schoolboy image that has won it praise from the government. Many of their songs promote traditional values such as social harmony and filial piety. They have even sung a modern rendition of “We Are the Heirs of Communism,” the anthem of the Young Pioneers, the party’s nationwide children’s organization.
“Love the country and the people,” they sing in a music video released by the Communist Youth League on International Children’s Day in 2015. “Fear neither hardship nor the enemy.”
Although bands like TFBoys and films like “The Founding of an Army” have found an enthusiastic domestic audience, one of China’s most recent global propaganda efforts undoubtedly missed the mark. Entitled “7 Sins of India,” the English-language video attempts to use humor to criticize India amid a simmering border standoff in the Himalayas.
The three-minute clip, which was produced by China’s state-run news media, features a man in a turban and fake beard speaking in a crude Indian accent. The video was quickly denounced as racist in India, China, and beyond.
“If the goal was to draw attention to the video, then I guess they succeeded in doing that,” says Mareike Ohlberg, a research associate at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin who studies Chinese propaganda. “But overall I wouldn’t consider it very successful.”
As for China’s domestic propaganda campaign in the run-up to the party congress, at which Xi is expected to cement his status as the country's most powerful leader in decades, Dr. Ohlberg expects to see a sustained effort aimed at young people.
“They are the future of China,” she says, “so the party wants to win them over.”
It has taken weeks for that controversial Google memo to leave the headlines. Central to the conversation was its "reasoned tone." Why do such re-castings of biological superiority recur – despite their having been widely discredited?
For more than a century, many American thinkers have argued that something fundamental is reflected in the realities of biology. Pseudosciences such as phrenology and eugenics have attempted to ascribe a biological rationalization for the oppression of certain groups. Although such ideas have been resoundingly refuted by the scientific community for decades, belief in the inherent inferiority of women and ethnic minorities has persisted along the fringes of society. In recent weeks and months, however, these fringe ideas have increasingly bubbled to the surface. White nationalists marched with Nazi flags in Charlottesville, Va. Online commenters rallied in defense of a Google employee who was fired after circulating a “manifesto” that attributed the gender gap in the tech industry to biological differences between men and women. The apparent emboldening of divisive – and long debunked – ideas caught many scholars, and Americans, off guard. To many observers, the resurfacing of these ideas of innate superiority feels like a step backward in time, and in America’s social journey.
For many Americans, the principle of nondiscrimination is rooted in a deep moral commitment to the ideals of an American meritocracy.
And many agree that, in theory, it shouldn’t matter what a man or woman’s race, ethnicity, or nationality might be: it’s merit that counts, and success should be a matter of hard work, good character, and natural talent.
It’s an ideal, but many believe that equality is fundamentally an equality of opportunity, not of outcome. Liberty, too, is fundamentally the freedom to find success in what could be called a "natural" way. Given its limitations and fallibilities, a pluralistic, democratic government should stay out of the way. Attempts to engineer more egalitarian outcomes might breed only bitterness and conflict, many say.
But when it comes to questions of gender and race, this simple ideal has had a long and stormy history. Embedded within it, many scholars say, is the fraught problem of how to explain the unequal distributions of wealth and power in the country. The gaps between men and women – and various racial groups – are either somehow embedded in our “natural” makeup, or they might reflect those subtle and not-so-subtle acts of discrimination that are rooted in age-old prejudices.
“If you think that the beautiful thing about this country is that we actually live in that meritocracy, already, then of course when you see huge disparities in class or race, they must reflect something fundamental about the groups that are in different positions,” says Rebecca Jordan-Young, a scientist at Barnard College in New York and the author of “Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences.”
For more than a century, many American thinkers have argued that something fundamental is reflected in the realities of biology. Pseudosciences such as phrenology and eugenics have attempted to ascribe a biological rationalization for the oppression of certain groups. Although such ideas have been resoundingly refuted by the scientific community for decades, belief in inherent inferiority of women and of ethnic minorities has persisted along the fringes of society.
In recent weeks and months, however, these fringe ideas have increasingly bubbled to the surface. White nationalists marched with Nazi flags in Charlottesville, Va. Online commenters rallied in defense of a Google employee who was fired after circulating a “manifesto” that attributed the gender gap in the tech industry to biological differences between men and women. The apparent emboldening of divisive – and long debunked – ideas caught many scholars, and Americans, off guard.
“I was sort of naively hoping and expecting that we were making considerable progress on all these gender and racial equality issues,” says Garland Allen, professor emeritus of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, a leading expert who has studied the history of genetics for nearly 50 years. “And I think we have, but what has astounded me was the degree to which this is coming out of the woodwork in this current climate.”
To many observers, the resurfacing of these ideas of innate superiority feels like a step backward in time, and in America’s social journey.
Most scientists have long since abandoned notions of biological superiority based on gender or race, says Professor Jordan-Young.
“There is of course a vast and methodologically solid scientific literature that undermines the claim that women are, as a group, less fit for high-prestige, high-rewarding jobs whether at Google or in general,” she says. “And you could say the same for African-Americans, who are also vastly underrepresented.”
After all, as the recent film “Hidden Figures” reminds, it was African-American women whose mathematical talents and expertise propelled one of the United States’ greatest technological achievements: the moon landing. Historians point out, too, that in the early history of coding, it was considered a menial, clerical task, relegated to women who dominated computer programming until the 1980s.
In the first few decades of the 20th century, however, many scientists in the United States and Europe espoused that mental abilities and character traits were somehow embedded into the differing biologies of men, women, and racial groups, a result of evolution over time.
“And that’s a very, very dangerous place with a long history,” Jordan-Young continues. “Going back, people have tried to use scientific authority to defend existing social hierarchies – and also to challenge them.”
This history has hovered over the country for the past few weeks, especially after Google engineer James Damore, who wrote an internal memo about “Google’s ideological echo chamber” that claimed that biology helped explain why, in part, there were fewer women working in tech and the upper rungs of American corporate leadership.
Earlier last month, Mr. Damore, wrote a calm, carefully reasoned memo to his coworkers, suggesting what many Americans simply see as common sense: “I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”
The memo, passed onto the press, piqued a wide-ranging sense of aggrievement among many on the right, and the tech worker quickly became a conservative cause célèbre after Google fired him for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”
Damore, in fact, had already described a "psychologically unsafe environment” and “shaming culture” directed at conservatives like him at Google. "You have to stay in the closet and mask who you really are," he told CNN.
On the one hand, Damore’s appeal to biological differences had a very specific political ideal in mind: the integrity of the American meritocracy. “We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism,” he wrote, also briefly including similar social gaps in IQ differences.
“Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business,” he proclaimed.
It’s been a common refrain for years among many conservatives, many of whom feel that, as a matter of principle, any actions to give underrepresented minorities any special attention in the competition for high-profile jobs is the very definition of discrimination.
The Trump administration, too, is discussing possible plans to investigate the admissions policies of many American universities, according to reports. If their diversity practices are found to illegally use race to discriminate against white and Asian applicants, the Justice Department could charge them with violations of the nation’s civil rights laws. (The US Supreme Court has ruled as recently as 2016 that university officials may consider race as one factor of many as they continue to strive for a more diverse student body.)
But for many observing the troubling emergence of neo-Nazi groups in the nation’s political discourse, the history of biological arguments to justify the existing social disparities has become even more urgent. Violence erupted after groups of mostly men marched recently in Charlottesville, Va., many carrying Tiki torches and some chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
“We realize that equality does not exist in nature, and a government based in the natural law must not cater to the false notions of equality,” proclaims the neo-Nazi group Vanguard Nation in its manifesto. Damore, in fact, felt compelled to publicly reject the outspoken support expressed by many white nationalists and others on the so-called “alt-right” after they began to laud the former Google engineer and his ideas.
“Unfortunately, this administration has given license to neo-Nazis and other fringe ideas,” says Debra Katz, a civil rights attorney and founding partner at Katz, Marshall & Banks in Washington. “These kinds of views about the gender inferiority of women and racial inferiority of African-Americans have been discredited forever, but now they’re being used to decry the discriminatory treatment that white men feel they’re experiencing.”
Earlier in the century, the claim that biology explained the disparities between men and women was hardly a fringe idea, historians say.
Science had just begun its quest to discern the mysteries of heredity. Researchers hoped to find those biological structures that passed down human traits, including the sources of differing aptitudes and behaviors. These might explain, in part, the “natural” differences between males and females – as well as the various immigrants and races now trying to make a home in the United States.
Many were optimistic, too, that new discoveries in biology could offer policymakers insights, as the United States was in the midst of widespread fear and political unrest.
Waves of immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe were entering the country, including Roman Catholics and Jews. Workers and farmers were bristling at the influx. There were yawning gaps between most Americans and wealthy urban elites – “robber barons,” the aggressive, more progressive press began to call them.
All the while, women were demanding to be included in America’s democracy – and starting to win.
In reaction, coalitions of American nativists began to lobby for changes in the nation’s immigration laws. These included an uneasy alliance between “blueblood” New England elites, who worried about the Catholics and Jews, and the union-member working class, who were worried about cheap labor.
Science became a political weapon. Psychologists, too, warned that for biological reasons, giving women the vote might dilute the quality of the country's collective decision-making, historians note.
“Whenever you start measuring people’s bodies, every time you start doing something like that, you end up disparaging women,” however misguidedly, says Ladelle McWhorter, a philosopher at the University of Richmond in Virginia, and the chair of its department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. “It’s almost inevitable whenever you start using those kinds of biological measurements to explain what counts as a superior human body or a superior human mind. Those are always entangled.”
The politics surrounding science was by no means uniform. For many, the biological disparities simply meant that, rationally, the country should only allow in “superior races.” Sometimes labeled “social Darwinism,” many also held to the idea that government interventions to assist the needy might interfere with nature’s self-selecting order.
These included early 20th-century eugenicists, pioneers in gathering the histories of family traits. Its leaders testified before Congress and explained how biology was showing how non-northern European immigrants might weaken the American bloodline.
Eugenic arguments underlay the rationale behind the Immigration Act of 1924, scholars note. One of the most restrictive in US history, the 1924 immigration law put heavy restrictions on southern and eastern Europeans, including Italians and Jews. It also pretty much barred the entry of all Arabs and Asians.
For a while, eugenics had a heyday. Funded by institutions such as the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, eugenic research was hailed by British and American leaders, including Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt.
But the effort to locate the reasons for the disparities in society soon gave way to a progressive political notion: a policy of active better breeding.
In a 1913 letter to Charles Davenport, head of the eugenics research station in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. – which to this day is a leading center for the study of genetics – former President Roosevelt wrote:
“[Society] has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind. Some day we will realize that the prime duty the inescapable duty of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.
In 1927, the Supreme Court also declared eugenical forced sterilization to be a constitutionally valid tool to enhance the nation’s social fabric – a decision that sanctioned many eugenicists’ biological claims and better breeding effort.
“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind,” wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in an 8-to-1 decision.
That case centered a young woman named Carrie Buck, whom the state of Virginia had deemed unworthy of procreation because she was “mentally deficient.” As a result of that decision, Ms. Buck and some 70,000 US citizens were forcibly sterilized. Many of those targeted were the poor, especially white "promiscuous women.”
“Scientists during this time specifically used the disparities between men and women and between racial groups as evidence of inherited character and mental abilities – and the superiority of northern European males,” says Professor McWhorter, also an expert on the eugenics movement.
When he tried to explain why there were fewer women in tech jobs and leadership positions, Damore – the former Google employee – said women generally “have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men,” which make them empathize rather than systematize, he wrote.
Women also generally express more “neuroticism,” he added, using a technical term a personality trait associated with higher anxiety and a lower tolerance for stress.
For many women, these arguments were not new.
“This argument that women are too emotional, this goes way back to when women began to move into the workplace more in the '60s and '70s,” says Rosalind Barnett, senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. “Not only are they not suitable for the workplace, but this will mess up their families, emasculate their husbands, and they’re totally going to end up as wrecks.”
It’s an idea many confront to this day, many say.
“This is a common theme in politics, too, because female politicians are considered to be better in some areas – for example, ‘compassion issues’ like education and health care,” says Lauren Wright, lecturer in politics and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey and author of a book on the political roles first ladies have played in US history. But they are also considered worse in other areas, she says, including those “hard issues” like foreign policy and the economy.
In many ways, scientists continue to try to measure the impact of biology in human behaviors.
But the simple dichotomy of “nurture versus nature” has become a cliche, most biologists say. The phrase, too, was coined by the 19th-century English adventurer Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin who coined the term “eugenics” and described his nascent science as an effort to promote the reproduction of the most biologically and racially gifted – namely, the British upper class.
“People have always tried to show it, but so much of the so-called ‘geneticization’ of various social and behavioral traits – you can never really tease out the difference between what is genetic and what is cultural,” says Washington University’s Allen.
“It’s like saying all the ingredients in a cake interact to make a cake,” continues Allen. “That doesn’t tell you very much that’s useful.”
Other researchers agree. “Human beings everywhere, male and female, not only differ from one another but continually differentiate themselves during their lifetimes,” Timothy Ingold, professor of anthropology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, told Quartz. People, Professor Ingold says, “are not ‘products’ of nature and/or nurture, let alone of ‘evolution,’ but the producers of their own lives, in the company of others.”
For many conservatives, however, individuals must produce their own lives without collective efforts to ensure that there is a basic measure of equality within a free society.
“Like all utopian visions, this quest for gender sameness lies on faulty assumptions and infringes upon individual liberty,” wrote conservative thinker Aaron Neil in a blog post cited by Damore in his memo. “Because of innate differences, the sexes make dissimilar vocational choices. Government mandated hiring practices are antithetical to individual choice. Recognising and respecting differences is exactly what a good, tolerant society does.”
He added a quote from Margaret Thatcher, too: “We are all unequal. No one, thank heavens, is like anyone else.”
Ms. Thatcher’s idea that no one is like anyone else resonates with many Americans’ views of individuality. But over past decades, an increasing number of Americans have come to embrace the idea that people’s differences should be seen as strengths. What’s more, they rebel against the idea that differences should be sources of limitation or cause for hate.
Those sentiments were reflected in the volume of response to both the Google memo and white nationalist rallies, Washington University’s Allen suggests.
“The response has been heartening,” he says. “The opposition to racism and the neo-Nazis is as strong as I’ve ever seen – and that was something you didn’t see to such an extent in the early 20th century.”
At its best, cinema provokes new thinking. Peter Rainer reviews a poignant and ethereal film written and directed by Michael Almereyda.
“Marjorie Prime” is a haunting and allusive sci-fi film set in the near future, but its emotional resonance is bracingly immediate. Based on the 2014 play by Jordan Harrison, it is a movie about memory. We first meet Marjorie (played by Lois Smith), an 86-year old widow diagnosed with dementia, as she speaks with Walter (Jon Hamm). She welcomes his presence but seems slightly uneasy, and it soon becomes clear that Walter is a highly realistic hologram of her late husband, provided to Marjorie by her skeptical daughter Tess (Geena Davis), who thinks the whole idea is creepy, and her much more enthusiastic son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins), who recognizes Marjorie’s need for comforting companionship, however abstract. After a while, Walter, in his hesitancies and proclivity to please, seems as complexly human as anybody else in the movie. Which is saying something, because all the principals in this extraordinarily well-acted film are intensely compelling. Human or hologram, the film puts forth, we all face the same abiding question: How do we want to be remembered?
The haunting and allusive “Marjorie Prime” is a sci-fi film set in the near future but its emotional resonance is bracingly immediate. Based on the 2014 play of the same name by Jordan Harrison, and written and directed by Michael Almereyda, it is, in the largest sense, a movie about memory.
We first meet Marjorie (Lois Smith), an 86-year old widow touched by dementia, as she speaks with Walter (Jon Hamm) in the comfort of her cozy beige beach house living room. She welcomes his presence but seems slightly uneasy. “I feel like I have to entertain,” she says to him, and it soon becomes clear that Walter is, in fact, a highly realistic hologram of her husband, who died 15 years earlier.
He has been selected to look like Walter at his best mid-40s handsomeness and was provided to Marjorie by her skeptical daughter Tess (Geena Davis), who thinks the whole idea is creepy, and her much more enthusiastic son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins), who recognizes Marjorie’s need for comforting companionship, however abstract.
Walter is a Prime, which means, as a hologram, he receives information about Marjorie from the bits of information filtered through their conversations, or from his background sessions with Jon, who attempts to fill in much of her past. The poignancy of the Marjorie-Walter interactions is that Marjorie both believes and disbelieves that this man, whose soothingness is slightly robotic, is her husband. Gestures or responses from him that don’t exactly evoke Walter are met by Marjorie with a befuddled agitation.
She is reminded by Walter of a romantic date watching “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” and she sweetens the memory by asking, “What if we went to see ‘Casablanca’ instead?” And so this becomes their new reminiscence, their new reality. What transpires between them in these sessions is like a fantasia of how we alter our memories to fit our desires. After a while, Walter, in his hesitancies and proclivity to please, seems as complexly human as anybody else in the movie.
Which is saying something, because all the principals in this extraordinarily well-acted film are intensely compelling. Jon, for example, who at first seems almost as unflappable as Walter, is eventually revealed to be a man whose woe is the better part of him. In discussing Marjorie’s past with Walter, Jon is careful to steer him clear of certain family tragedies he knows will only cause her pain, and we can see how he, too, is pained.
Tess, in a deep-down performance by Davis that is very likely her best, resents her mother’s relationship with Walter not only because she is dubious of its benefits, but also because she never enjoyed the closeness, even if it is a fabricated closeness, that they share.
With the Marjorie-Tess connection, Almereyda is perhaps drawing on the large backlog of fraught mother-daughter relationships that informed so many Ingmar Bergman films. (I’m thinking particularly of “Autumn Sonata,” in which the mother, played by Ingrid Bergman, was a pianist. Marjorie in this movie is a violinist.) In another scene in “Marjorie Prime,” this one involving a panoramic museum mural of Versailles, Almereyda invokes Alain Resnais’s mood-memory classic “Last Year at Marienbad.”
All of this has the potential to devolve into film-school artiness, but Almereyda, whose film work in the past includes an ingenious, avant-garde modernization of “Hamlet” starring Ethan Hawke, employs old movie references with such a resonant sense of inquiry that they create their own distinct disposition. He refashions old movie memories in the same troubling way that his characters do, and for the same reason: They provide a balm for our fears.
“Marjorie Prime,” which has a soulful score by Mica Levi, is essentially a chamber drama, and yet it rarely feels stifled or stagey. Almereyda doesn’t make the mistake of opening up the play. He realizes that the drama is all in the acting, in the interactions, not in windswept vistas or fancy camera moves. Smith, who is about the same age as Marjorie, played the role to great acclaim on the stage, but she doesn’t go the dull, tour de force route. We are drawn to her in the same way that Walter is. We want to know more about her.
Ultimately everyone in “Marjorie Prime” moves into an ethereal zone where mood and memory coalesce. Human or hologram, we all face the same abiding question: How do we want to be remembered? Grade: A- (This movie is not rated.)
August is typically a month in which democracies take a breath. But this summer, it seems, the shouting has never stopped. And that is significant. Whether the topic is Civil War statues or health care, much of the upheaval reflects a distrust of the political system’s capacity or will to act fairly. It’s that distrust, more than any policy agenda, that is driving politics. Citizens want to feel heard and understood, and they have more tools at their disposal than ever to check in on Congress. What they see is a Washington that puts its own political interests over theirs. That’s what many political scientists see, too. The earliest American patriots demanded representation in government in return for their taxes. Tellingly, the upheaval of today on all sides makes the same demand.
August is typically a month when democracies take a breath. Lawmakers head home to see families and engage voters. Presidents gear up for spending battles for a new fiscal year.
Sometimes, as in the tea party summer of 2009, politicians get an earful that they did not expect. The shouts in town hall meetings that summer targeted President Barack Obama’s health-care reforms but, over time, they settled into a deep resentment of politics as usual.
This summer, it seems, the shouting has never stopped. And that is significant. Whether the topic is civil war statues or health care, much of the upheaval reflects a distrust of the political system’s capacity or will to act fairly.
It’s that distrust, more than any policy agenda, that is driving politics. And it has been expressed worldwide.
“Brexit” bespoke a distrust in Britain’s relationship with the European Union. Britain is still dealing with the fallout from that vote.
In France, meanwhile, President Emmanuel Macron campaigned on a pledge to reform ethics in public life.
France has a long history of corruption scandals, no-show jobs with kickbacks to a political party, embezzling public funds, and nepotism. Former President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Alain Juppé were both convicted of misuse of public funds after they left office.
Yet even after Mr. Macron succeeded in winning a ban on political nepotism and tighter laws to ensure that lawmakers and officials pay taxes on all their income, his popularity rating has still dropped to 36 percent.
In Washington, President Trump has moved in the opposite direction. Though he vowed to “drain the swamp,” he has promised to roll back corruption legislation, such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and elements of the Dodd-Frank Act.
“President Trump’s statements are not helpful at all,” says Peter Eigen, founder of Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization that combats corruption. “We have to have an international movement on corruption that is very active.”
Mr. Trump’s approval rating has also fallen to about 38 percent, according to polls.
So what’s happening? What politicians do does matter, especially when they appear to use public office for private gain. Trump and Hillary Clinton have blurred lines on conflict of interest and nepotism on one hand and questionable fundraising on the other.
But there's a deeper problem, too. More generally, politicians just need to be honest with themselves.
In the United States, for example, the deeper distrust is not based on actual corruption. It’s not something any legislation can fix. It goes to the nature of politics today. Citizens today want to feel heard and understood, and with the web and cable news they have more tools at their disposal than ever to check in on their politicians. And what they see are politicians that put their own political interests first.
That’s what many political scientists see, too.
The rich and well-connected most often get what they want, notes Stephen Medvic, a professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College, in an opinion article for The Washington Post. “There is evidence that economic elites and business organizations have a greater impact on policy outcomes than do groups representing average citizens,” he writes.
That leaves a country feeling disenfranchised. The earliest American patriots demanded representation in government in return for their taxes. Tellingly, the upheaval of today on all sides is largely making the same demand.
Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.
New Englander Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) was a gumshoe – not a detective in the sense of solving a crime, but in the sense of solving a mystery that had beset Christianity almost since its beginning: Given the goodness of God, as demonstrated by Christ Jesus, how do you explain evil? Through inspiration and a heartfelt desire to truly understand God, Mrs. Eddy came to see that an infinitely good God could never create evil. God’s spiritual creation, which includes all of us, logically reflects God’s own perfection. As we think and live in ways that are consistent with this true nature, we realize divine Love’s authority to harmonize and heal. We can all bear witness to the supremacy of God, good.
Editors’ note: The audio version of this story was mistakenly posted with yesterday’s edition. So yesterday’s audio will accompany today’s package. Expect synchronicity to resume Monday! We apologize for the mix-up.
New Englander Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) was a gumshoe – not a detective in the sense of solving a crime, but in the sense of solving a mystery that had beset Christianity almost since its beginning: Given the goodness of God, as demonstrated by Christ Jesus, how do you explain the existence of evil?
Mrs. Eddy didn’t start out to solve the problem of evil, but she was led to deeply search the Bible for answers in her often heartbreaking life experiences – including family loss; her child’s forced removal from her care; sickness and poverty; the US Civil War, in which her family was directly involved; and the killing of three US presidents (she visited one of the assassins in prison, to wake him up to the fact that his action was a crime). Though Eddy had a fundamental conviction of God’s infinite goodness from her earliest age, how, she wondered, could she square that infinite goodness with the evil and suffering she saw?
Eddy solved this question only gradually, through inspiration and a heartfelt desire to truly understand God. Though evil certainly seems present, an infinitely good God could never create evil, either to play a counterpart to good or as a requirement to develop good. God’s spiritual creation, which includes all of us, logically reflects God’s own perfection. The Bible says God is “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness” (Habakkuk 1:13, New King James Version).
Eventually, following a life-changing healing that led to a deeper understanding of Jesus’ teachings, Eddy came to a simple but profound conclusion: God is infinite, spiritual light that cannot know darkness. This is consistent with what the Bible says: “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5).
But what then to do when faced with the darkness that appears so real to the human mind, but is unknown to the one true divine Mind that is God? Leave it alone? Ignore it? How can we confront and heal evil, as Christ Jesus did – and with the same compassion?
Eddy concluded that the moral person must devote herself wholeheartedly to destroying evil as a tragic illusion in human experience, tragic until the infinite goodness of God helps us strip off the falsity of evil’s claim to power. The main instrument for doing this reforming and healing work is one’s own innate holiness and purity of thought, motive, and action, all of which can only be shown forth by spiritual growth and selflessness and by turning to this infinite light of God. As we think and live in ways that are consistent with our true, spiritual nature, we realize the authority of God, divine Love, to harmonize and heal. Following in the path Jesus pointed out, step by step we can master selfishness, sin, fear, and sickness.
Over some four decades, Eddy shared with the world the divine Science underlying these ideas, explaining it in her book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” demonstrating it by overcoming and teaching others to overcome evil and disease, and founding the Church of Christ, Scientist.
Though putting these truths into practice is not always easy, we can all bear witness to the supremacy of God, good, and prove Love’s power to reform and heal.
Thanks for reading (or listening) again today. Please come back next week. Among the stories that we’re reporting: Some US policymakers are calling for developing space-based military assets, and some analysts caution that the absence of updated agreements between spacefaring nations could lead to rapid militarization of that realm.