All week I’ve been haunted by a brief few seconds of video posted on Twitter late Sunday night by a student journalist in Eugene, Oregon. Two men face off at a protest — the one standing on the left is demonstrating for Black Lives Matter; the one on the right, sitting in a pickup truck, is a counter-protester. Each is pointing a handgun at the other’s face at point blank range.
That’s us. That’s America during the long, hot summer of 2020.
I often catch myself pondering exactly what it is that keeps our country together. What do we hold in common? What do we share? The word “republic” comes from the Latin res publica — literally “public thing.” What is the single “thing” that is our public, political self? What binds us? Our national motto is E pluribus unum — out of many, one. What is this “one”? Is it just the totality of the clashing, conflicted individuals and groups? Or is the collectivity something substantial in its own right that orders the parts and unites them?
I see so much anger around me — at the grocery store, while driving, on television, online. I feel so much of it myself: Rage that a congressman from Texas caught COVID-19 after discouraging his staff on Capitol Hill from wearing masks during the worst pandemic in a century. Rage that our reality-show-conman president would rather publicize absurd conspiracy theories, spread civic poison throughout the nation, and undermine confidence in our capacity to hold free and fair elections than fulfill the most elemental duties of his office. Rage that, although this president is down in the polls, two out of every five Americans continue to approve of how he’s doing his job.
Who are these people? What do I share with them? Aristotle suggests that at its best, citizenship can be a form of friendship. But America is nowhere near its best right now. These people may be my fellow citizens, but they aren’t my friends. Sometimes they feel like my enemies.
How has it come to this? The right feels like it’s fighting for its very life against a left that’s waging a scorched-earth campaign against it. As far as the right is concerned, progressives don’t just want to win. They want to grind conservatives into the dust, humiliate them, force them to jump through public hoops, and confess their sins before the world. And the list of sins grows ever longer — on race, on religion, on sex, on gender. The goalposts always shift further. Each triumph for the left is followed by the opening of another front in a rolling cultural revolution. The right feels desperate — and understands every one of its own moves as an equal and opposite reaction to a prior offensive on the part of its political and cultural antagonists.
The left, meanwhile, views things exactly in reverse. The story of the country is one characterized by unjust domination by a narrow class of white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered oppressors, and then a slow, grinding fight toward greater liberty and equality for every identity. Yet instead of giving up its exclusive privileges and conceding the justice of continuing with progress toward ever-greater democracy, the right has mounted a counter-assault that aims to reverse the progress America has made, with the ultimate goal of propping up its remaining power and then actively narrowing the circle of citizenship in the hopes of turning back the clock to a time when white, heterosexual, cisgendered men were in charge of everything. That poses an existential threat to all that’s worthwhile about the country and fully justifies uncompromising acts to thwart its realization.
There is more to each side of the story — with social, economic, regional, and class-based concerns intertwining with and amplifying each faction’s list of grievances and providing ample material for endless rounds of self-justification and excuse-making. But the culture war is the motor driving it all, with high-octane fuel supplied by legions of cheerleading rabble-rousers and activists who enrich themselves, advance their careers, and derive spiritual satisfaction from revving up the outrage.
So what’s the answer? Can a culture war be won decisively enough that the vanquished slink away, humbled and contrite in their defeat?
Or is the fight the point?
And if the fight is the point — as it increasingly seems to be — can the conflict remain contained indefinitely?
Six months ago, I was largely persuaded by Ross Douthat’s argument in his recent book The Decadent Society, according to which most of the animus and rancor of our political moment is a kind of pantomime enacted virtually. On Twitter and other social media platforms, on cable news, and on talk radio, Americans do battle with one another, fighting a digital civil war, like participants in a civic shooter-game. But in the real world, nothing much happens or changes, with most people too lethargic to rouse themselves from their couches and risk picking up a weapon. Instead, they blow off steam online, with our furious battles ending up as “sound and fury signifying relatively little.”
As I said, this seemed right to me last winter. But now, with a pandemic raging, the economy in freefall, schools poised to remain closed into the fall, the worlds of business and media undergoing cultural convulsions, civil unrest roiling cities suddenly wracked by spikes of violent crime, and a president lobbing rhetorical incendiary bombs onto the pile of kindling every day of the week — well, now I’m not so sure.
So how does it play out? What if the next time opposing protesters point guns at each other’s faces, one of them pulls the trigger? What if militias of the right and left step into the vacuum left by police officers no longer willing to keep the peace? What if our hapless president decides to repeat his Portland provocations elsewhere, sparking much greater violence? What if the election in November ends up being close enough that Trump can raise uncertainty about the results in half a dozen states, prompting 40 percent of the country to reject any outcome other than a Republican victory?
What then? Part of me gravitates to a fantasy of divorce. Maybe both sides would be happier if we just separated and went our separate ways, like unhappy spouses who call it quits after a few-too-many wounding arguments and rounds of couples therapy.
“Every day’s a good day when you paint.” —Bob Ross (1942–1995)
Staring at the empty canvas on the easel in front of me, I couldn’t understand how this—nothing—might somehow transform into even a rough approximation of the Bob Ross painting we were using as a model. That painting was classic Bob Ross: a snowy landscape bursting with color, a world of glimmering trees and vibrant shrubs around a slick icy pond. Gazing at it evoked that feeling you get sitting by a fire on a crisp, cold night. No way I could make anything like that.
I was in a room on the side of a big-box craft store in the suburbs north of Dallas, about to start a class taught by John Fowler, a Bob Ross–certified instructor—which means that he spent three weeks in Florida learning the wet-on-wet painting technique Ross employed on television. A tall, bespectacled man in his 60s, with a light beard and a deep voice and soothing cadence reminiscent of Ross himself, John explained that he has a few things in common with the puffy-haired painter. They both spent many years in the Air Force, for example, and both retired with the rank of master sergeant. I’d learn he also uses some Bob Ross vernacular, sprinkling instructions with expressions like “We don’t make mistakes, we just have happy accidents.”
John watched Bob Ross on The Joy of Painting for years, both during the show’s original run in the 1980s and ’90s, then later by streaming it. Four years ago, John decided to get some paint and a canvas and try painting along with the host. He liked it so much that he took some lessons. Then he liked those so much he paid about $400, not including supplies or lodging, and signed up for the official “Certified Ross Instructor” class, taught by Bob Ross Inc. trainers. When we met, John was wearing a black T-shirt with the painter’s face on it.
AMSTERDAM — One hundred and thirty years ago, Vincent van Gogh awoke in his room at an inn in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, and went out, as he usually did, with a canvas to paint. That night, he returned to the inn with a fatal gunshot wound. He died two days later, on July 29, 1890.
Scholars have long speculated about the sequence of events on the day of the shooting, and now Wouter van der Veen, a researcher in France, says he has discovered a large piece of the puzzle: the precise location where van Gogh created his final painting, “Tree Roots.” The finding could help to better understand how the artist spent his final day of work.
“We now know what he was doing during his last day” before he was shot, said Mr. van der Veen, the scientific director of the Van Gogh Institute, a nonprofit established to preserve the artist’s tiny room at the Auberge Ravoux, the inn in Auvers-sur-Oise. “We know that he spent all day painting this painting,” Mr. van der Veen noted.
“Tree Roots” was painted on the Rue Daubigny, a main road through Auvers-sur-Oise, which is about 20 miles north of Paris, Mr. van der Veen found. The tangled, gnarled tree roots and stumps can still be seen in the slope of a hill there today, just 500 feet from the Auberge Ravoux, where van Gogh spent the last 70 days of his life.
Researchers at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam have endorsed the finding. The director of the museum, Emilie Gordenker, will attend an unveiling of the spot on Tuesday.
Louis van Tilborgh, a senior researcher at the Van Gogh Museum, said in an interview that the finding was “an interpretation, but it looks like indeed it is true.”
Mr. van der Veen said that he was pointed toward the discovery while looking at images of Auvers from about 1905, which he had borrowed from Janine Demuriez, a 94-year-old Frenchwoman who has collected hundreds of historical postcards. One shows a cyclist on the Rue Daubigny, stopping next to a steep embankment, where tree roots are clearly visible.
Mr. van der Veen said that he just happened to have the postcard on his screen at home in Strasbourg, France, during lockdown when something clicked in his mind: The postcard was reminiscent of “Tree Roots.” He pulled up a digital version of the painting, and compared them side by side.
The postcard is “not a secret hidden document that nobody can find,” Mr. van der Veen said. “A lot of people have already seen it, and recognize the subject, the motif of tree roots. It was hidden in plain sight.”
Because he was unable to travel from Strasbourg himself, Mr. van der Veen called Dominique-Charles Janssens, the owner of the Van Gogh Institute who was in Auvers, and asked him to take a look at the area.
“I’d say 45 to 50 percent is still there,” Mr. Janssens said in a telephone interview, referring to the entanglement of roots. “They cut some of the trees down, and it was covered with ivy, but we took some of that down.”
Van Gogh would have walked along the Rue Daubigny to get to the town’s church, which he painted for “The Church at Auvers” in June 1890, and to make his way to the sprawling wheat fields just outside of town, where he painted “Wheatfield With Crows” in July, Mr. van der Veen said.
There has long been debate about which painting was van Gogh’s last work, because he tended not to date his paintings. Many people believe it was “Wheatfield With Crows,” because Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 biopic “Lust for Life” depicts van Gogh, played by Kirk Douglas, painting that work as he goes mad, just before killing himself.
Andries Bonger, Theo van Gogh’s brother-in-law, who wrote down some of the events surrounding Vincent’s death, noted in a letter, “The morning before his death, he had painted a forest scene, full of sun and life.”
In 2012, the Van Gogh Museum published a paper by Mr. van Tilborgh and Bert Maes arguing that the letter referred to “Tree Roots,” an unfinished painting in the museum’s collection. That claim has now largely been accepted by scholars.
Because of the way light is depicted on the roots, Mr. van der Veen says he believes that van Gogh was looking at his subject matter at the end of the afternoon, about 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. He says he thinks this means that van Gogh probably spent the entire day painting.
Mr. van der Veen added that the new evidence challenged a theory put forward in 2011 by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith in their biography, “Van Gogh: The Life.” They argued that van Gogh did not commit suicide, but may have gotten drunk and argued with two young boys, who then accidentally killed him, not far from the Auberge Ravoux. Mr. van der Veen’s research on “Tree Roots” will be published in a book in France on Tuesday, and will also be available in English in digital form.
“Now that we know he was painting all day, there was even less time for that to happen,” Mr. van der Veen said.
Mr. Naifeh responded that it would be impossible to time-stamp a painting based on the angle of the light. “It’s not a photograph; it’s a painting,” he said in a telephone interview. “Van Gogh painted somewhat abstractly, and he was always introducing a lot of painterly inventions,” he added, so it would be hard to tell if he was painting light he saw with his own eyes or just creating it on the canvas.
Mr. Naifeh said the discovery could even support his murder theory. “The fact that he went out and painted all day, not just an average painting but a very important painting, indicates that he may not have been depressed,” he said. “It was otherwise a productive normal day, and that runs counterintuitive to the idea that he might then go and kill himself.”
Mr. van der Veen agreed on one point. “It confirms everything that most witnesses at this time say, that his behavior was perfectly normal in the last days,” he said. “There was no sign that he was having a crisis.”
However, Mr. van der Veen maintains that van Gogh killed himself, which is also the official position of the Van Gogh Museum.
Van Gogh had also made a drawing of tree roots when he lived in The Hague in 1882. He described the artwork to his brother, Theo, in a letter.
He wrote that he wanted the tree to “express something of life’s struggle,” seeing it as “Frantically and fervently rooting itself, as it were, in the earth, and yet being half torn up by the storm.”
Mr. van der Veen said that “Tree Roots” expressed something similar.
“Ending his life with this painting makes so much sense,” he said. “The painting illustrates the struggle of life, and a struggle with death. That’s what he leaves behind. It is a farewell note in colors.”
Today’s computers use bits—a stream of electrical or optical pulses representing 1s or 0s. Everything from your tweets and e-mails to your iTunes songs and YouTube videos are essentially long strings of these binary digits.
Quantum computers, on the other hand, use qubits, which are typically subatomic particles such as electrons or photons. Generating and managing qubits is a scientific and engineering challenge. Some companies, such as IBM, Google, and Rigetti Computing, use superconducting circuits cooled to temperatures colder than deep space. Others, like IonQ, trap individual atoms in electromagnetic fields on a silicon chip in ultra-high-vacuum chambers. In both cases, the goal is to isolate the qubits in a controlled quantum state.
The processing power possible through these controlled qubits will make today’s fastest computers look positively archaic. – cPaul
1982: Flashback to Dr. Henrich Bauer’s Animal Psychology class at Concordia (Loyola Campus). We are lectured that anthropomorphizing dogs is wrong under any circumstance and that true empathy is not possible in animals other than humans. Blah, blah, blah. He was, in my opinion, an idiot.
A dog’s intelligence is another thing altogether. – cPaul
How Stupid Are Dogs, Really?
George Dvorsky | Gizmodo
We tend to marvel at the abilities of our canine companions, but let’s face it: Dogs are basic beasts who depend on humans for pretty much everything. So instead of uncritically celebrating these good boys and girls during Gizmodo’s Dog Week, let’s explore all the things they suck at.
I’m actually a huge dog person, so it brings me no joy to do this—to expose dogs for the dimwitted creatures that they really are. Anyone who’s been around dogs knows they can be brilliant at one moment and completely boneheaded the next.
Of course, as I disparage the intelligence of dogs, what I’m really doing is comparing dogs to humans in terms of their cognitive abilities, which is obviously a very apples-to-oranges thing to do. Scientists tend to avoid this mistake and instead compare domesticated dogs to similar creatures, such as wolves or dingos. If comparisons to humans must be made, scientists will limit this to infants and toddlers, which serves as a kind of measuring stick for assessing human development, as Stephen Lea, a professor of psychology at the University of Exeter and an expert on dogs, explained to Gizmodo.
“The process of domestication has radically altered the intelligence of dogs, what we call the ‘domestication hypothesis,’” Lea told Gizmodo. Comparisons of different types of dogs—such as working, companion, street, and shelter dogs—to wolves and similar creatures tends to be more helpful for scientists, he said.
Indeed, considerable variation exists among dogs, as their behavior can be influenced by breed, socialization, life experiences, and so on. Importantly, however, dogs are really good at being dogs, including stuff like playing fetch, barking at the neighbors, herding sheep, mooching for snacks, and, very importantly, providing companionship. There’s literally no reason for them to be more human-like when it comes to their intelligence, even if we sometimes mistakenly project more smarts onto them than they deserve.
According to the New York Times’s Kathleen Kingsbury, we are living in a period of political division. In June, the newspaper published an op-ed by Tom Cotton, sparking weeks of debate over the politics and practices of mainstream media. Looking for a silver lining in the fallout over Cotton’s racist screed, Kingsbury, recently appointed the acting opinion editor at the Times, wrote that it “generated a necessary dialogue” and “elevated a conversation worth having and will help inform what discourse looks like in a polarized world.”
Kingsbury’s proposed solution to the polarization she identified—namely, conversation—is telling. The claim felt pointed, particularly now as establishment media and political personalities are concerned about the consequences of radical demands for systemic reinvention, restructuring, and abolition in the wake of the covid-19 crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement. This is neither accidental nor benign. It is the deliberate project of what I call the Having Conversations Industrial Complex: a loose assemblage of professional speakers, non-profit organizations, astroturfed activists, diversity consultants, academic advisory boards, panelists, and politicians who are paid to generate a “conversation” that doesn’t need to show tangible results. Rather, the only role of the conversation is to generate more conversations. And while they profit off of the Having Conversations Industrial Complex (professionally, socially, financially, and ideologically), those at the frontline are injured, arrested, and labeled “terrorists.” The Having Conversations Industrial Complex exists to enrich the powerful and defuse radical demands.
From Google to Target, to Tim Hortons, to L’Oréal Paris, to Coca-Cola, to Spotify, even corporations are having conversations. In the lingo of the Having Conversations Industrial Complex, companies are “listening,” “learning,” and striving to “do better,” without doing much beyond posting a black square or a vague statement about racial justice on social media. But brands are not the only ones “having conversations” right now. Educational institutions that spent the last several decadesharming and policing students and faculty of color are suddenly recommitting to “diversity” and “dialogue,” absent any material, structural changes. School boards are ostensibly ready to learn about the dangers of racism, even as they’ve been ignoring evidence of racism for years. Even police departments are “listening” as well. Politicians are excited to have conversations, too, so long as those conversations don’t require them to take a stance. The conversation is continuing, with no end in sight.
Protesters have been very clear in calling for police defunding; prison abolition; direct investment in an autonomous Black community; and justice for the victims of police murder. By all measures (and with few, token exceptions), none of these demands have been met, or even taken seriously by those in power. Campaign Zero’s much-lauded “8 Can’t Wait,” a favorite among political glad-handers, has been roundly debunked and rejected as ineffective and unscientific. Though activists countered with a more progressive plan in “8 to Abolition,” it was Campaign Zero’s that was boosted by recognizable names like Ariana Grande and Oprah. In many cases, successful changes came as the result of one week of uprisings after organizers spent long, fruitless years working within the system. In a familiar song and dance, city councils like those in Toronto proposed yet another round of reforms, reviews, and audits, rather than listening to Black and Indigenous activists or following through on policy changes. Having conversations doesn’t seem to be doing much other than generating contracts, draining energy, and stalling significant action.
The Having Conversations Industrial Complex is essential to the workings of liberal political culture. It occupies the nebulous middle-ground between good intentions, institutional inertia, and wholesale repression. Its members are generally salaried, well-connected, appointed, or closely affiliated with a wealthy institution. It includes celebrities like JK Rowling and Killer Mike,who pose as community leaders; university administrations and their machiavellian asset management corporations; bourgeois editors and pundits; diversity and equity professionals like Robin DiAngelo; politicians and lobbyists; nonprofit corporations like the Anti-Defamation League who have used their authority to attack numerous vulnerable groups; and public relations teams, who help manage reputations employing the rhetoric of social justice. They push people and projects through a revolving door of empty promises, acting as agents of reformism, the political belief in incremental change rather than abolition or the development of alternative systems.
Any social issue—from racism, sexual harassment, state surveillance, apartheid, inflated police budgets, the militarization of the public sphere, or the invasion of indigenous land—is greeted with a call for necessary conversation. And if it seems like these conversations are unending and fruitless, that is because they are; so long as conversations continue, those who facilitate them benefit, and the status quo remains functionally intact. The motivation is painfully banal: Having conversations is just the ordinary outcome of doing politics under liberal capitalism. Put simply, the employees, investors, stakeholders, and leaders of various businesses, bureaus, and nonprofits have a vested interest in staying paid, relevant, and close to power. In the end, they’re all just doing their jobs, and that means preserving an oppressive status quo.ADVERTISEMENT
Think of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for example, or the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Both of these efforts were celebrated as important first steps, but they were quickly diluted and dismissed by the media, government, and the nonprofit sector the moment they challenged the colonial-commercial interests of the Canadian state. A similar process of having conversations defined the lead-up to the construction of the undeniably colonial Dakota Access Pipeline in the form of staged, constrained consultations with various stakeholders as part of a rubber stamp-style consultation process. Then there are the many official and unofficial reports and book deals spawned in the wake of the disastrous American invasion of Iraq, itself the product of misinformation disguised as consultation and investigation. Though several think tanks and security consultants have supposedly learned the “lessons” of the Iraq war, its key American perpetrators remain unpunished, troops remain on the ground, and the United States has yet to offer reparations to the Iraqi people.
In this way, the machinery of knowledge production, public speaking, and officially-defined accountability works to allow the systems that reproduce and profit from exploitation to appear magnanimous (perhaps even non-discriminatory) while still maintaining the familiar order. It enables those in power to feign accountability and transparency, without motivating action or material change.
The popular fixation on having conversations works precisely by playing on a facade of good-natured neutrality that simply does not match up with the material actions of powerful institutions. The Having Conversations Industrial Complex makes simple demands look difficult, obvious solutions appear impossible, and conflates business interests with community needs. It encourages tokenism and essentialism in the form of caucuses, vetoes, and running mates, rather than material social, economic, or political change. Politicians can have conversations about LGBTQ issues, for example, while continuing to criminalize and endanger sex workers. This toxic logic of representation is how we end up with Pride parades that include LGBTQ police officers; it allows institutions to escape criticism through gestures of representation or “visibility.”Returning Pride to Its Stonewall Roots: ‘Our Battle With the Police Is Not Over’
Having conversations obscures the insidious creep of what the Palestine movement terms normalization, the practice by which an intolerable state of affairs becomes business as usual, by treating structures of violence as partners in search of solutions. For those of us who do not have the luxury of being non-representative, participating in these conversations allows institutions to redirect dissent into advantageous, disposable, ineffectual, or legally toothless channels. At best, it’s a mechanism of “manufactured endorsement,” a sleight-of-hand using the appearance of community consultations to claim consent; at worst, it is a form of surveillance.
It’s hard to escape the Having Conversations Industrial Complex, but some have tried. In Palestine, decades of normalization and empty words compelled a popular demand for a boycott; Palestinian activists refused to continue participating in fruitless negotiations and opted to boycott Israeli products, calling on international allies to do the same. In Canada, Indigenous activists used a similar tactic earlier this year by refusing to accept Canadian state pacification and deflection; they blockaded key rail lines across the country, proclaiming the death of “Reconciliation” and demanding an end to “negotiation at the barrel of a gun.” And over the last month, Black people in both the United States and abroad rose up against state violence and liberal reformism, demanding abolition through coordinated riots and mass demonstrations.
Still, the Having Conversations Industrial Complex has continued to try and offset the impact of these actions, but the lesson is clear: we can, and should, recognize that having conversations cannot provide solutions. In nearly every case, the response from the state has been to label BLM and similarly radical movements as “terrorists,” to criminalize them, and subject them to repression and violence, akin to what Cotton called for in the Times. Even now,countless police departments are doing the same to Black people across the continent.
It is no longer sustainable to play softball with a state that wants to see large swathes of its population dead, whether that death comes quickly at the hands of the police, or over a matter of months or years through exploitation and deprivation. The same institutions that demand compromise and collaboration have been profiting off of persecution and repression for generations, buoyed by a threat of violence and incarceration. Refusing to participate may earn us the label of “terrorists” in the eyes of the state, and it may see participants chastised by those who work within the Having Conversations Industrial Complex. But it produces real results, and it frees us from being trapped in a cycle of fear and loss. It allows us to conserve our energy, allocate our resources, and uplift true community leaders rather than those who would sell out to the first corporation or politician to come by. As long as we cede to having conversations, genuine material redress can never be possible.
Alex V Green is a writer based in Tkaronto. Their work has been published in Buzzfeed, Jewish Currents, Outline, Xtra, and Slate, among others. You can follow Alex on Twitter @degendering, or at their website alexverman.com.
As we cross into the second half of 2020, there is little hope left that our misfortunes will end when this annus horribilis goes out. We may be entering one of the most cataclysmic and fateful periods in the history of humankind.
There is the growing realization that humanity is in for an extremely rough ride that could last at least a decade.
This sense of uncertainty has been building up for years. It probably began with the global financial crisis of 2008-09. Yet, until 2020, there was hope that the world would somehow return to the right track and regain stability. Covid-19 ended this hope, devastating the global economy and exacerbating the pre-existing tensions between the incumbent hegemon (the United States) and a new super-power contender (China).
The state of angst has descended upon many. In most countries, including Russia, the plague continues to circulate, killing people with terrifying randomness. Even if we win the battle against the latest coronavirus, the mega-trends in global politics that point to more trouble and disorder are not going to dissipate and will likely only intensify. When trying to rationally break down my personal angst, as a political scientist, I perceive at least four such mega-trends.
I remember a chat with a Russian colleague in Vladivostok a few years ago. She lamented that she felt as if she was living in a country which contains several parallel societies rather than a single one, with members of those ‘societies’ speaking completely different languages and espousing divergent values. Of course, there have always been divisions within nations. But, as a rule, one set of values and beliefs was dominant, with dissenting groups more or less marginalized. Today the societal consensus increasingly seems an exception rather than the rule. Across much of the world one can see quasi civil wars raging, with societies often split into halves. The main divide runs between the camp of social conservatism and nativism and the supporters of progressive-liberal values. The latest manifestation of this antagonism came in Poland, where the incumbent right-wing conservative won elections over his liberal opponent with a wafer-thin margin.
The revolt of the masses
On May 25, 2020, a black American George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis by a white police officer. His death triggered mass protests that quickly spread across the United States. On July 9, in the Russian Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, the regional governor, Sergey Furgal, was arrested on charges of having organized the assassination of business rivals back in 2004 and 2005. Furgal was immediately flown to Moscow and placed in a jail there. His arrest sparked unprecedented massive rallies in Khabarovsk, a sleepy provincial place on the border with China, that have now continued for two weeks. The tens of thousands of people who’ve joined the rallies in support of Furgal believe the actual reason behind his arrest was his landslide win over the Kremlin-backed incumbent in gubernatorial elections in 2018, and his subsequent refusals to bow to diktats from Moscow.
Granted, the protests in Khabarovsk over the fate of a popular local leader are nowhere near the scale of the American race protests. And, unlike in the United States, the marches and rallies in the Russian Far East are, so far, entirely peaceful. They do have one common thread: people in America, Russia, and other countries who defy the covid risks and take to the streets are demanding dignity. Most of them are protesting against what they see as structural injustice and the arrogance of power. Their protest is ultimately about the alienation between the ruling class and the ordinary people, the institutions of power and the governed. This protest is part of the global wave of popular uprisings that has been swelling over the past decade, starting with the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements. Trump’s victory in 2016, as well as Brexit, can also be seen as part of the global revolt against incumbent elites.
The end of hegemony and a rudderless world
Simultaneously with upheavals in the domestic politics of many countries, the international system, too, is undergoing tectonic shifts. Pax Americana, a.k.a. the ‘international liberal order,’ is unraveling. Just a few years ago, it appeared the decline of US global hegemony could still be reversible. Today not many people outside the Beltway believe it can be salvaged. Even if Joe Biden replaces the wrecking ball Trump in the White House, the days of American pre-eminence seem numbered. There is a classic “revolutionary situation” in the present-day international system. To paraphrase Vladimir Lenin, Washington is “unable to rule and govern in the old way” while much of the rest of the world does “not want to live in the old way.”
The Pax Americana might have been flawed and unfair to many, but there is no denying it did provide a significant degree of international stability. With the end of US hegemony, who will maintain international law and order? There is no answer thus far. Existing collective institutions, such as G20 or the UN P5, are not even remotely capable of performing effective global governance. And, despite Washington’s suspicions, there is no credible evidence as yet that the emerging superpower China is keen to police the world. One thing is clear, though. The vacuum of governance will lead to more chaos in global politics.
Premonitions of war
In 2014, I wrote an essay about the possibility of World War III around 2030, arising out of a clash between the U.S. and China. Six years later I would make two corrections to that article. First, a Sino-American war now looks not just possible, but almost inevitable. Second, the situation preceding the US-China clash will not resemble the world of the early twentieth century, pre-WWI, with its rapidly growing prosperity due to what is now considered the first era of globalization. Rather, the atmosphere of the 2020s will be more akin to that of the 1930s, with the global economy in the doldrums and the rise of authoritarian and neo-totalitarian regimes. The most important question, though, is whether the US-China war will be a relatively limited one. If not, could it lead to a global conflagration, drawing in other players such as Russia, India, Japan and Europe?
The history of mankind has never lacked in conflicts over values and power, both within societies and among them. Yet the present moment is rather unique because of the convergence at one point in time of several profound and explosive societal contradictions, with the threat of pandemics and climate change as the background. China is perhaps the only major island of relative stability in the global tempest, which, incidentally, amplifies the fears that Beijing would try to reach for the scepter of global power.
In due time, the current contradictions and conflicts will run their course and be resolved. A new equilibrium will set in. Until it does, however, we will be living in very interesting times. Perhaps, not angst but, rather, excitement should be the main mood of our era.
Astrophysicists on Monday published the largest-ever 3D map of the Universe, the result of an analysis of more than four million galaxies and ultra-bright, energy-packed quasars.
The efforts of hundreds of scientists from around 30 institutions worldwide have yielded a “complete story of the expansion of the universe”, said Will Percival of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.
In the project launched more than two decades ago, the researchers made “the most accurate expansion history measurements over the widest-ever range of cosmic time”, he said in a statement.
The map relies on the latest observations of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), titled the “extended Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey” (eBOSS), with data collected from an optical telescope in New Mexico over six years.
The infant Universe following the Big Bang is relatively well known through extensive theoretical models and observation of cosmic microwave background — the electromagnetic radiation of the nascent cosmos.
Studies of galaxies and distance measurements also contributed to a better understanding of the Universe’s expansion over billions of years.
But Kyle Dawson of the University of Utah, who unveiled the map on Monday, said the researchers tackled a “troublesome gap in the middle 11 billion years”.Through “five years of continuous observations, we have worked to fill in that gap, and we are using that information to provide some of the most substantial advances in cosmology in the last decade,” he said.
Astrophysicist Jean-Paul Kneib of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, who initiated eBOSS in 2012, said the goal was to produce “the most complete 3D map of the Universe throughout the lifetime of the Universe”.
For the first time, the researchers drew on “celestial objects that indicate the distribution of matter in the distant Universe, galaxies that actively form stars and quasars”.
The map shows filaments of matter and voids that more precisely define the structure of the Universe since its beginnings, when it was only 380,000 years old. For the part of the map relating to the Universe six billion years ago, researchers observed the oldest and reddest galaxies.
For more distant eras, they concentrated on the youngest galaxies — the blue ones. To go back even further, they used quasars, galaxies whose supermassive black hole is extremely luminous.
The map reveals that the expansion of the Universe began to accelerate at some point and has since continued to do so. The researchers said this seems to be due to the presence of dark energy, an invisible element that fits into Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity but whose origin is not yet understood.
Astrophysicists have known for years that the Universe is expanding, but have been unable to measure the rate of expansion with precision. Comparisons of the eBOSS observations with previous studies of the early universe have revealed discrepancies in estimates of the rate of expansion.
The currently accepted rate called the “Hubble constant”, is 10 percent slower than the value calculated from the distances between the galaxies closest to us.
The result of that attitude was a society poor in a gruesome and strange way — poor in public health itself. What I mean by that is that American life expectancy is the lowest in the rich world, and plummeting, that Americans have the highest rates of all kinds of preventable chronic diseases, from diabetes to obesity to heart disease. You can see it on American faces, in fact: a society poor in health is a society of unhealthy people.
We expect much, much poorer societies to be impoverished in public health. It’s a strange concept to have to think about precisely because we don’t expect it of a rich country. Perhaps one of a poor one, that’s never really developed at all. This is a syndrome unique to America — a form of poverty that Europeans and Canadians struggle to understand, because, well, they’ve mostly eliminated it. But in America, health poverty is endemic.
So endemic that you can see America’s gotten shockingly poorer and poorer in health — right down to the resurgence of old, conquered diseases, from measles to mumps. Again, that’s the work of the American Idiot — the kind of person who won’t vaccinate their kids, which is an idea that in the end takes society right back to the medieval days of endemic smallpox and polio.
So what was going to happen when a society impoverished in terms of health met a pandemic? Utter catastrophe. America’s mortality rate and infection rate are so high precisely because America was a time bomb of failing public health waiting to go off.
What then are the results of creating a society impoverished in public health? Well, Americans face a gruesome choice that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the rich world, even in much of the poor one: your money or your life. “Medical bankruptcy” is the result — I put in quotes because it’s a notion that scarcely exists elsewhere.
A new book advances a robust defense of the U.S. system of alliances. A post-pandemic world requires adaptation and renewed coordination against common threats.
In Sept. 19, 1796, George Washington’s Farewell Address appeared in the American Daily Advertiser, the first successful daily newspaper in the United States. Much of the text concerned the new country’s domestic affairs, with the outgoing president warning Americans against the dangers of political parties and sectionalism. But he did not refrain from airing his views on foreign policy, stating in no uncertain terms that the country should “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”
“The nation which indulges toward another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave,” Washington wrote. “It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.” In his inaugural address, President Thomas Jefferson sounded a similar note, pledging “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
Shields of the Republic: The Triumph and Peril of America’s Alliances, Mira Rapp-Hooper, Harvard University Press, 272 pp., $27.95, June 2020
It should come as little surprise, then, that for its first 165 years, the United States had only one alliance: its 1778 pact with France, under which France provided badly needed military supplies to the new nation as it fought for its independence. It was not until after World War II that the United States came to see alliances as critical to its national security: Between 1948 and 1955, Washington formed security guarantees with nearly two dozen countries in Europe and Asia. Today, the United States has defense pacts with more than 60 countries, accounting for one-quarter of the world’s population and nearly three-quarters of global GDP.
Despite enduring support among the U.S. public for the alliance system, President Donald Trump seems determined to upend it, as Mira Rapp-Hooper observes in her astute new book defending U.S. alliances, Shields of the Republic: The Triumph and Peril of America’s Alliances. Like much else in Trump’s America, alliances are now partisan: The president and his supporters denounce them, while his critics struggle to defend them. Rapp-Hooper aims to come to the aid of these embattled defenders—to explain, convincingly, “why America has alliances, what they have accomplished, and why they remain valuable.”
Throughout the 19th century, the United States had little need for alliances, thanks to its favorable geography and its lack of overseas colonies. But in the aftermath of two world wars, technological breakthroughs such as long-range air power, missiles, and nuclear weapons left the United States newly exposed. U.S. policymakers embraced a new approach. “Never again can we count on the luxury of time with which to arm ourselves,” President Harry Truman told Congress in October 1945. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it in 1950, the United States could no longer “pull down the blinds and sit in the parlor with a loaded shotgun, waiting.” The United States had an enduring interest in deterring a hostile adversary from dominating Europe and Asia.
Alliances offered U.S. policymakers a solution to these challenges. They would allow Washington to confront threats—such as those posed by Moscow, Beijing, or Pyongyang—far from U.S. shores. In exchange for security guarantees, the United States would gain access to bases ideal for deterrence and forward defense in Europe and along the first island chain, the string of islands that includes Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Alliances would increase U.S. leverage over weaker allies, restraining them from provoking their neighbors. And extended deterrence—the ability of the United States to deter attacks on its allies as well as itself—would help prevent the outbreak of wars in the first place. By 1953, the National Security Council had concluded that alliances were “essential,” since the United States could not “meet its defense needs, even at exorbitant cost, without the support of allies.”
The strategy paid off, Rapp-Hooper argues. Throughout the Cold War, no U.S. treaty allies were ever attacked. U.S. alliances helped rehabilitate Germany and Japan as consolidated democracies with dynamic economies while reassuring other European and Asian allies that their former adversaries would be restored as benign actors. The alliance system also helped Washington keep its allies in check: For example, it restrained anti-communist allies in Asia from starting wars to shore up their domestic legitimacy. As Victor Cha, a political scientist and former National Security Council director for Asia, writes, each of America’s East Asian alliances was a “‘powerplay’ … designed to exert maximum control over the smaller ally’s actions.” U.S. security guarantees also helped to convince South Korea, Taiwan, and West Germany to abandon nascent nuclear weapons programs.
But isolating the role of alliances in preserving peace is not easy. If alliances work properly, their success should manifest in crises that never materialize and wars that never come to pass.
If alliances work properly, their success should manifest in crises that never materialize and wars that never come to pass.
Without access to the counterfactual—a world in which the United States pursued no alliances after World War II—it is difficult to prove that the country would be better off with alliances than without them. Realizing this, Rapp-Hooper offers several thought experiments, imagining, for example, how the Berlin crisis of 1961 might have unfolded without NATO. “The United States would have had a far more difficult time defending its position in West Berlin,” she writes, “if not for its alliance commitments.” That may not be enough to mollify the alliance system’s critics.
In recent years, those critics have been emboldened by Trump, whose criticisms of the alliance system are different in both kind and degree from his predecessors. From the beginning, he has questioned the value of NATO, cozied up to dictators, and berated long-standing U.S. allies such as Australia, Canada, and Germany. He rejects the United States’ postwar internationalist strategy of forward defense and deterrence through prepositioned forces. And his hostility is not just rhetorical: In June, Trump blindsided the German government by approving a plan to cut 9,500 troops stationed in Germany, a reduction of more than one-quarter.
Rapp-Hooper writes, correctly, that Trump’s tactics are unlikely to coerce U.S. allies to spend significantly more on defense. And the costs of Trump’s antipathy could be significant: reduced U.S. control over the actions of its allies, undermined military effectiveness, and the erosion of deterrence. She also dismisses the argument that alliances risk dragging the United States into costly wars it would otherwise avoid. As she points out, the United States mitigated this risk in the past by being selective and rejecting requests for overly risky security pacts. The United States has never extended formal security guarantees to Israel or Saudi Arabia, for example. Few, if any, of the United States’ ill-advised wars in recent years can be blamed on its allies.
There’s something unusual lurking out in the depths of space: Astronomers have discovered four faint objects that at radio wavelengths are highly circular and brighter along their edges. And they’re unlike any class of astronomical object ever seen before.
The objects, which look like distant ring-shaped islands, have been dubbed odd radio circles, or ORCs, for their shape and overall peculiarity. Astronomers don’t yet know exactly how far away these ORCs are, but they could be linked to distant galaxies. All objects were found away from the Milky Way’s galactic plane and are around 1 arcminute across (for comparison, the moon’s diameter is 31 arcminutes).
In a new paper detailing the discovery, the astronomers offer several possible explanations, but none quite fits the bill for all four new ORCs. After ruling out objects like supernovas, star-forming galaxies, planetary nebulas and gravitational lensing — a magnifying effect due to the bending of space-time by nearby massive objects — among other things, the astronomers speculate that the objects could be shockwaves leftover from some extragalactic event or possibly activity from a radio galaxy.
“[The objects] may well point to a new phenomenon that we haven’t really probed yet,” said Kristine Spekkens, astronomer at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University, who was not involved with the new study. “It may also be that these are an extension of a previously known class of objects that we haven’t been able to explore.”
Spekkens added that the objects could also be caused by different phenomena. All four ORCs are bright at radio wavelengths but invisible in visible, infrared and X-ray light. But two of the ORCs have galaxies at their center that can be seen at visible wavelengths, which suggests that these objects might have been formed by those galaxies . Two ORCs also appear to be very close together, meaning their origins could be linked.
With only four of these peculiar objects discovered so far, the astronomers can’t yet tease out the true nature of these structures. But the EMU survey is just beginning, and astronomers expect it to reveal more unusual objects.
By combining an ability to see faint radio objects with a wide gaze, the survey is uniquely positioned to find new objects. EMU scientists have predicted the project will find about 70 million new radio objects —– expanding the current catalog of some 2.5 million.
“This is a really nice indication of the shape of things to come in radio astronomy in the next couple of years,” Spekkens told Live Science. “History shows us that when we open up a new [avenue of looking at] space to explore … we always find new and exciting things.”
The paper, which is available on the preprint site arXiv, has been submitted for publication to the journal Nature Astronomy, where it is still under review.
Members of Heaven’s Gate, a religious cult, believed that as the Hale-Bopp comet passed by Earth in 1997, a spaceship would be traveling in its wake—ready to take true believers aboard. Several members of the group bought an expensive, high-powered telescope so that they might get a clearer view of the comet. They quickly brought it back and asked for a refund. When the manager asked why, they complained that the telescope was defective, that it didn’t show the spaceship following the comet. A short time later, believing that they would be rescued once they had shed their “earthly containers” (their bodies), all 39 members killed themselves.
Heaven’s Gate followers had a tragically misguided conviction, but it is an example, albeit extreme, of cognitive dissonance, the motivational mechanism that underlies the reluctance to admit mistakes or accept scientific findings—even when those findings can save our lives. This dynamic is playing out during the pandemic among the many people who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing. Human beings are deeply unwilling to change their minds. And when the facts clash with their preexisting convictions, some people would sooner jeopardize their health and everyone else’s than accept new information or admit to being wrong.
Cognitive dissonance, coined by Leon Festinger in the 1950s, describes the discomfort people feel when two cognitions, or a cognition and a behavior, contradict each other. I smoke is dissonant with the knowledge that Smoking can kill me. To reduce that dissonance, the smoker must either quit—or justify smoking (“It keeps me thin, and being overweight is a health risk too, you know”). At its core, Festinger’s theory is about how people strive to make sense out of contradictory ideas and lead lives that are, at least in their own minds, consistent and meaningful.
One of us (Aronson), who was a protégé of Festinger in the mid-’50s, advanced cognitive-dissonance theory by demonstrating the powerful, yet nonobvious, role it plays when the concept of self is involved. Dissonance is most painful when evidence strikes at the heart of how we see ourselves—when it threatens our belief that we are kind, ethical, competent, or smart. The minute we make any decision—I’ll buy this car; I will vote for this candidate; I think COVID-19 is serious; no, I’m sure it is a hoax—we will begin to justify the wisdom of our choice and find reasons to dismiss the alternative. Before long, any ambivalence we might have felt at the time of the original decision will have morphed into certainty. As people justify each step taken after the original decision, they will find it harder to admit they were wrong at the outset. Especially when the end result proves self-defeating, wrongheaded, or harmful.
The theory inspired more than 3,000 experiments that have transformed psychologists’ understanding of how the human mind works. One of Aronson’s most famous experiments showed that people who had to go through an unpleasant, embarrassing process in order to be admitted to a discussion group (designed to consist of boring, pompous participants) later reported liking that group far better than those who were allowed to join after putting in little or no effort. Going through hell and high water to attain something that turns out to be boring, vexatious, or a waste of time creates dissonance: I’m smart, so how did I end up in this stupid group? To reduce that dissonance, participants unconsciously focused on whatever might be good or interesting about the group and blinded themselves to its prominent negatives. The people who did not work hard to get into the group could more easily see the truth—how boring it was. Because they had very little investment in joining, they had very little dissonance to reduce.
The term cognitive dissonance has since escaped the laboratory and is found everywhere—from op-eds and movie reviews to humor columns (as in The New Yorker’s “Cognitive Dissonances I’m Comfortable With”). But few people fully appreciate the mechanism’s enormous motivational power—and the lengths people go to in order to reduce its discomfort.
For example, when people feel a strong connection to a political party, leader, ideology, or belief, they are more likely to let that allegiance do their thinking for them and distort or ignore the evidence that challenges those loyalties. The social psychologist Lee Ross, in laboratory experiments designed to find ways to reduce the bitter conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, took peace proposals created by Israeli negotiators, labeled them as Palestinian proposals, and asked Israeli citizens to judge them. “The Israelis liked the Palestinian proposal attributed to Israel more than they liked the Israeli proposal attributed to the Palestinians,” he told us. “If your own proposal isn’t going to be attractive to you when it comes from the other side, what chance is there that the other side’s proposal is going to be attractive when it actually comes from the other side?”
Because of the intense polarization in our country, a great many Americans now see the life-and-death decisions of the coronavirus as political choices rather than medical ones. In the absence of a unifying narrative and competent national leadership, Americans have to choose whom to believe as they make decisions about how to live: the scientists and the public-health experts, whose advice will necessarily change as they learn more about the virus, treatment, and risks? Or President Donald Trump and his acolytes, who suggest that masks and social distancing are unnecessary or “optional”?
The cognition I want to go back to work or I want to go to my favorite bar to hang out with my friends is dissonant with any information that suggests these actions might be dangerous—if not to individuals themselves, then to others with whom they interact.
How to resolve this dissonance? People could avoid the crowds, parties, and bars and wear a mask. Or they could jump back into their former ways. But to preserve their belief that they are smart and competent and would never do anything foolish to risk their lives, they will need some self-justifications: Claim that masks impair their breathing, deny that the pandemic is serious, or protest that their “freedom” to do what they want is paramount. “You’re removing our freedoms and stomping on our constitutional rights by these Communist-dictatorship orders,” a woman at a Palm Beach County commissioners’ hearing said. “Masks are literally killing people,” said another. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, referring to masks and any other government interventions, said, “More freedom, not more government, is the answer.” Vice President Mike Pence added his own justification for encouraging people to gather in unsafe crowds for a Trump rally: “The right to peacefully assemble is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution.”
Today, as we confront the many unknowns of the coronavirus pandemic, all of us are facing desperately difficult decisions. When is it safe to get back to work? When can I reopen my business? When can I see friends and co-workers, start a new love affair, travel? What level of risk am I prepared to tolerate? The way we answer these questions has momentous implications for our health as individuals and for the health of our communities. Even more important, and far less obvious, is that because of the unconscious motivation to reduce dissonance, the way we answer these questions has repercussions for how we behave after making our initial decision. Will we be flexible, or will we keep reducing dissonance by insisting that our earliest decisions were right?
Although it’s difficult, changing our minds is not impossible. The challenge is to find a way to live with uncertainty, make the most informed decisions we can, and modify them when the scientific evidence dictates—as our leading researchers are already doing. Admitting we were wrong requires some self-reflection—which involves living with the dissonance for a while rather than jumping immediately to a self-justification.
Understanding how dissonance operates reveals a few practical lessons for overcoming it, starting by examining the two dissonant cognitions and keeping them separate. We call this the “Shimon Peres solution.” Peres, Israel’s former prime minister, was angered by his friend Ronald Reagan’s disastrous official visit to a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where members of the Waffen SS were buried. When asked how he felt about Reagan’s decision to go there, Peres could have reduced dissonance in one of the two most common ways: thrown out the friendship or minimized the seriousness of the friend’s action. He did neither. “When a friend makes a mistake,” he said, “the friend remains a friend, and the mistake remains a mistake.” Peres’s message conveys the importance of staying with the dissonance, avoiding easy knee-jerk responses, and asking ourselves, Why am I believing this? Why am I behaving this way? Have I thought it through or am I simply taking a short cut, following the party line, or justifying the effort I put in to join the group?
Dissonance theory also teaches us why changing your brother-in-law’s political opinions is so hard, if not impossible—especially if he has thrown time, money, effort, and his vote at them. (He can’t change yours either, can he?) But if you want to try, don’t say the equivalent of “What are you thinking by not wearing a mask?” That message implies “How could you be so stupid?” and will immediately create dissonance (I’m smart versus You say I’m doing something stupid), making him almost certainly respond with defensiveness and a hardening of the belief (I was thinking how smart I am, that’s what, and masks are useless anyway). However, your brother-in-law may be more amenable to messages from others who share his party loyalty but who have changed their mind, such as the growing number of prominent Republicans now wearing masks. Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee said, “Unfortunately, this simple, lifesaving practice has become part of a political debate that says: If you’re for Trump, you don’t wear a mask; if you’re against Trump, you do… The stakes are much too high for that.”
This nasty, mysterious virus will require us all to change our minds as scientists learn more, and we may have to give up some practices and beliefs about it that we now feel sure of. The alternative will be to double down, ignore the error, and wait, as Trump is waiting, for the “miracle” of the virus disappearing.
ELLIOT ARONSON AND CAROL TAVRIS are social psychologists. Their book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, has just been released by Mariner in an updated edition.