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Voyager Wires

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Also, they're getting increasingly worried that someone will accidentally hit the 'retract' button, and that the end of the cable thrashing around as it winds up could devastate the Earth's surface.
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3 days ago
Should have used fiber!
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2 days ago
I think that is about 4 trillon dollars and about 100 billion metric tonnes of #24 wire.
3 days ago
17776 - The Sequel.
Louisville, Kentucky

Why Our Paradise of Guilt-Free Sex Has Yet to Arrive

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Silhouette of female torso in pink over profile of face in green and shape of a hand with photo of woman's nose and lips
Illustration by Vartika Sharma; source: Alberto Rizzo / Getty

Tracy Clark-Flory’s memoir, Want Me, is subtitled A Sex Writer’s Journey Into the Heart of Desire, and it begins with an arresting anecdote: Two male porn actors on a set in Los Angeles are complaining to her about “girls these days.” One actor is called Tommy Gunn, because where would pornography be without puns? The other uses his birth name, Charles Dera. Both agree that their love lives have suffered because too many women watch their films and demand a live-action replay, expecting to be choked, gagged, and slapped around. But who wants to take their work home with them? “It’s, like, not even my cup of tea,” Dera tells Clark-Flory, who covered the sex beat for Salon and is now a senior writer at Jezebel. “I want to go to dinner and have a fucking nice meal and take it from there. Where the ladies at anymore?”

The scene is irresistibly bathetic, in the vein of Tarantino hit men bitching about junk food, but it’s also revealing. For many people under 40, the tropes of internet porn have saturated our lives and colored our expectations of sex. For “YouPorn natives”—the 20-somethings for whom abundant free porn has always existed, on smartphones as well as computers—the effect is even more extreme. Their first glimpse of sexual activity was probably not the descriptions in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the hippie illustrations in The Joy of Sex, or (as it was for Clark-Flory) the glamorous Jenna Jameson adult movies of the ’90s, but the rough, dirty, extreme porn of the free internet. Some of them no doubt saw a digital gang bang before having their first real-life kiss.

Porn consumption is now such a fixture of modern life—there is no chance the American government will take your smut away—that space has opened up to question its effects without being dismissed as a wannabe censor. Which isn’t to say that admitting to reservations about current sexual trends is easy. For Clark-Flory’s 30-something generation (which is also my generation), being Cool About Sex is a mark of our impeccable social liberalism. If two or more adults consent to it, whatever it is, no one else is entitled to an opinion.

Yet here is the conundrum facing feminist writers: Our enlightened values—less stigma regarding unwed mothers, the acceptance of homosexuality, greater economic freedom for women, the availability of contraception, and the embrace of consent culture—haven’t translated into anything like a paradise of guilt-free fun. The sexual double standard still exists, and girls who say no are still “frigid” while those who say yes are still “sluts.” Some men still act with entitlement, while others feel that, no matter what they do, they are inescapably positioned as the “bad guys” by the new sexual rules. Half a century after the sexual revolution and the start of second-wave feminism, why are the politics of sex still so messy, fraught, and contested?

Relitigating the sex wars of the 1970s and ’80s is hardly where young feminists expected, or want, to be. In The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, Amia Srinivasan confesses her reluctance to cover second-wave criticisms of porn in the feminist-theory course she teaches at Oxford. She is Cool About Sex, after all, and assumed that her students would be bored by the question of whether porn oppresses women. She also assumed that the reputation of “anti-porn feminists,” such as Catharine A. MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, had been fatally damaged by their alliance with the religious right to pass laws restricting access to pornography. What self-respecting member of Generation Z would want to line up alongside Jerry Falwell Sr. and Phyllis Schlafly, particularly when the other side is selling a fantasy of libertine pleasure?

[Listen: The Crazy/Genius podcast on what pornography is doing to our sex lives]

Yet her class was “riveted,” she observes in “Talking to My Students About Porn,” the longest essay in her collection. Their enthusiasm was so great that it made her reconsider her own diffidence. The exchange is worth quoting at length:

Could it be that pornography doesn’t merely depict the subordination of women, but actually makes it real, I asked? Yes, they said. Does porn silence women, making it harder for them to protest against unwanted sex, and harder for men to hear those protests? Yes, they said. Does porn bear responsibility for the objectification of women, for the marginalization of women, for sexual violence against women? Yes, they said, yes to all of it.

It wasn’t just the women students talking; the men were saying yes as well, in some cases even more emphatically … My male students complained about the routines they were expected to perform in sex; one of them asked whether it was too utopian to imagine sex was loving and mutual and not about domination and submission.

Srinivasan’s students echo the porn actors: poor old Tommy Gunn and friends, desperate to enjoy a romantic evening of pizza and small talk, and instead feeling obligated to try fisting. Having grown up with the all-you-can-eat buffet of internet porn, these young people pine for romance and intimacy—experiences that require the full and enthusiastic participation of another human being. That theme is taken up by another contemporary feminist author, Katherine Angel, in her book Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent. The “rubric of consent,” Angel writes, is not “sufficient for thinking about sex.” We also need to consider the cultural scripts we have all absorbed, she argues—including the ubiquitous images of porn, the choreographed moves and expectations, the power relations. A narrow focus on consent assumes too much of us, because “we don’t always know and can’t always say what we want.”

[From the December 2018 issue: Why are young people having so little sex?]

Clark-Flory also voices disappointment when she realizes how thoroughly the tropes of porn sex have wormed their way into her head. Even when she is fulfilling her greatest fantasy—real-life sex with her favorite porn star, whom she meets in a bar—she feels like a spectator of her own experiences, which clouds her ability to get lost in the moment. Susan Sontag once wrote that photography had become a way of “refusing experience”; porn has become a way of refusing intimacy. Its keenest consumers are so steeped in performative sex that they can’t just look at their partner. The imaginary audience won’t leave the bedroom.

The chasm between what we say and what we do has always made sex an irresistible topic. These books have been written in the shadow of #MeToo, and their authors dwell on the contradictions surfaced by that movement: Being available for sex is the mark of a liberated woman, but so is the ability to refuse it. Srinivasan observes that, for all our permissiveness, our language still lacks the words to describe the many varieties of bad sex that do not rise to the criminal standard of rape or assault. “A woman going on with a sex act she no longer wants to perform, knowing she can get up and walk away but knowing at the same time that this will make her a blue-balling tease, an object of male contempt: there is more going on here than mere ambivalence, unpleasantness and regret,” she writes. “There is also a kind of coercion … the informal regulatory system of gendered sexual expectations.”

Those expectations inflect a woman’s “yes” as well as her “no.” Like Clark-Flory, Angel begins her narrative with a vignette from the world of porn. A young woman—Girl X—arrives at the home of the porn actor James Deen to participate in “Do a Scene With James Deen,” a reality-television-style stunt in which the porn actor solicits applications from his fans to have sex with him on camera. “It is mostly a long, flirtatious, fraught conversation, which circles repeatedly back to whether or not they are going to do this: have sex, film it, and put it online,” Angel writes. The young woman’s reluctance is only partly feigned. She is deciding, right then and there, if she wants to be seen naked on the internet, forever, an object of desire as well as derision. Some men will masturbate to her; others will despise her. Some will do both. In a sense, as Angel notes, the scene dramatizes “the double bind in which women exist: that saying no may be difficult, but so too is saying yes.”

What’s more, desire makes hypocrites of us all. Srinivasan reports that some of the feminists who watched the hard-core slideshows prepared by Women Against Pornography as part of its tours of Times Square in the 1970s were turned on, rather than repulsed, by the abhorrent filth they were there to condemn. Clark-Flory recounts taking refuge from the horror of her mother’s terminal cancer in rough, degrading sex, uncomfortably aware that she was enacting everything those dried-up old second-wavers claimed was true about BDSM—that only people who hate themselves hurt themselves. In a similar vein, Srinivasan quotes the transgender theorist Andrea Long Chu, who has confessed that she transitioned in part to wear tight little Daisy Duke shorts and experience the “benevolent chauvinism” of being bought dinner. “Now you begin to see the problem with desire,” Chu has written. “We rarely want the things we should.”

But how much do culture and politics shape those wants? Porn-aggregator sites, to take one example, use algorithms, just like the rest of the internet. Pornhub pushes featured videos and recommendations, optimized to build user loyalty and increase revenue, which carry the implicit message that this is what everyone else finds arousing—that this is the norm. Compare porn with polarized journalism, or even fast food: How can we untangle what people “really want” from what they are offered, over and over, and from what everyone else is being offered too? No one’s sexual desires exist in a vacuum, immune to outside pressures driven by capitalism. (Call it the invisible hand job of the market.)

Little wonder, then, that these writers are all interested in how malleable sexual desire might be, and that they veer away from tidy prescriptions to fix “problematic” sex. Even as the cerebral Srinivasan subtly unpacks the public meaning of private acts, she sees “no laws to draft, no easy curriculums to roll out.” In a raw, gonzo style, Clark-Flory asks how she can pursue “the right to be sexual” in a world where “women’s desire is narrowed to being desired.” Meanwhile, Angel borrows her ironic title from the great theorist of power Michel Foucault, joining him in mocking the idea that political liberation will usher in a world of angst-free sex. United by a refusal to offer sweeping answers, these writers are honest about the clash between our political pronouncements and our revealed preferences.

We are well used to the idea that today’s sexual scripts aren’t working for women, who feel under pressure to be as waxed and compliant as the MILFs of Pornhub. But what about men? “Surely we have to say something about the political formation of male desire,” Srinivasan writes. In different ways, these books explore the idea that, while the traditional model of heterosexual-sex-as-domination might work for the alphas—the Silvio Berlusconis and Donald Trumps and Hugh Hefners (although even that is arguable)—it has caused widespread discontent among other men. Most people are not sociopathic slaves to their libido, and most men, when having sex with a woman, would like her to enjoy it too.

Yet sex involves physical and psychological exposure, which brings with it the possibility of rejection, or ridicule, or failure to perform. Masculinity is associated in our culture with strength and invulnerability, so if sex makes some men afraid, it shouldn’t be surprising that they also struggle to recognize and deal with that fear, and that such emotions are sublimated into the tropes of pornography. “Heterosexual men get to work out, here, the aggression they feel towards their own weakness, towards their own vulnerability to desire,” Angel writes.

And this may be why desire, a troubling symbol of the loss of control, gets refigured so insistently as triumph over the woman; as denigration of her; as humiliation of her. These are the ideals of mastery and power with which men punish women, but also themselves.

The most misogynistic porn is a displacement of anxiety into a fantasy of control: Guys who choke bitches don’t secretly worry that they can’t get it up.

That fantasy of control raises a question addressed by Srinivasan in the title essay of her book. Do we have a right to sex—a question implicitly understood to mean Do men have a right to sex? (Few women pay for sex, and even fewer carry out mass murders because they feel they are denied it.) She discusses the case of Elliot Rodger, who went on a shooting spree in Isla Vista, California, in 2014. Rodger was a mixed-race nerd, and his violence was driven by his internet-fueled belief that he was, in the words of his manifesto, “cast out and rejected, forced to endure an existence of loneliness and insignificance, all because the females of the human species were incapable of seeing the value in me.”

Srinivasan believes “that no one is obliged to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired,” but she tries to feel empathy for Rodger, or at least for “the kind of diagnosis Rodger offered, in which racism and the norms of heteromasculinity placed him beyond desirability.” She is right to observe that our beauty standards reflect other inequalities. The dating site OkCupid reported in 2014, for example, that Black women received far fewer matches than white women did from white, Asian, and Latino men, a disparity driven presumably by what Srinivasan calls “sexual racists.”

Yet the difficulty of reconciling her two positions—sexual boundaries are sacrosanct at an individual level, but racist (or transphobic, or ableist) at a population level—is one of the reasons Srinivasan appends a 30-page “coda” to her 19-page original essay. At times, you sense her utopian yearning to dissolve these contradictions: If only good liberals found everybody equally attractive. “Must the transformation of desire be a disciplinary project (willfully altering our desires in line with our politics)—or can it be an emancipatory one (setting our desires free from politics)?” she asks. A more fundamental question might be: To what extent is that transformation even possible? Sexual desire has an evolutionary purpose; we don’t know how susceptible it is to conscious rewiring.

[Read: The limits of sex positivity]

All three writers focus largely on sex between men and women, because analyzing the power differences and historical baggage involved strikes them as important. And they write unashamedly from a female perspective: Aside from its biological and cultural meanings, woman now often stands in for “person who talks openly about sex.” On social media, women cheerfully objectify the hot duke from Bridgerton and members of the Korean boy band BTS, while a man talking about female tennis players in similar terms would get pilloried as sexist. The Updike/Roth era is truly dead: We are primed to dismiss discussion of male desire as either locker-room vulgarity or pathetic neediness.

Yet sex is something we need to talk about honestly, and seriously, without shame or awkwardness, because it is tied up with fundamental questions about the relationship between the individual and society. What should another person, or society as a whole, tolerate to make us feel good? Can we shape our sexualities to match our politics, or are we condemned to perpetual hypocrisy once the bedroom door is closed? Is sex most usefully thought of as a physical need, like breathing; as a human right, like freedom of speech; as a spiritual connection that takes on full meaning only if it’s part of a relationship; or even, as Clark-Flory describes her night with the porn star, as simply like “bungee jumping, an adrenalizing physical feat”? Can rules made by believers in one of these frameworks be applied to those operating under another?

No, tomorrow sex will not be good again. As long as some people have more money, options, and power than others do; as long as reproductive labor falls more heavily on one half of the population; as long as cruelty, shame, and guilt are part of the human experience; as long as other people remain mysterious to us—and as long as our own desires remain mysterious too—sex will not be good, not all the time. We will never simply want the things we should.

This article appears in the October 2021 print edition with the headline “Where Is Our Paradise of Guilt-Free Sex?”

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265 days ago
Maybe chastity isn’t such an old-fashioned value.
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Little Flaws


Not realizing that inarticulate, uneducated, obnoxious, unqualified, and crazy people sometimes have the right answers.

Comparing reality with an idealized alternative.

Overestimating the extent to which your insights are different from your peers.

Assuming other people think about you as much as you do.

Emphasizing technical expertise while discounting softer topics like communication and empathy.

Assuming experience in one era prepares you for the next.

An insatiable appetite for the hand that feeds you, or discounting how much you rely on other people.

Overlooking that some of your opinions would change if your incentives were different.

Being persuaded by the advice of those who need or want something you don’t.

Having a hard time distinguishing between what happened and what you think should have happened.

An illusion that other people’s bad circumstances couldn’t also happen to you.

Not realizing that surly people are probably going through something terrible in their life.

The inability to communicate your ideas because you wrongly assume others have the necessary background to understand what you’re talking about.

Assuming history is a guide to the future, when in reality, “things that have never happened before happen all the time,” as Scott Sagan says.

Conflating “I’m good at this” with “Others are bad at this” in a way that makes you overestimate how valuable your skills are.

Mistaking a temporary trend for a competitive advantage, when serendipity masquerades as skill.

Extreme adherence to a specific worldview in a world that changes all the time.

Underestimating the odds of disaster because it’s comforting to assume things will keep functioning the way they’ve always functioned.

Being so emotionally invested in what you do that can’t delegate tasks.

Exaggerating the importance and influence of your social group.

Incorrectly assuming the views of one person reflect those of a broader group that person associates with.

No preemptive check on your risk tolerance and ambition, causing you to learn the limits only when you’ve gone too far when it may be too late to recover.

An attraction to odds that may be in your favor but whose downside could cause ruin.

Ignoring the role of luck because it’s too painful to consider, causing an overestimation of how repeatable your skills are.

Remembering happy events more vividly than bad ones in a way that leaves you with an unrealistic view of how good the past used to be.

So obsessed with data that you discount how influential squishy things like narratives and feelings can be.

Assuming competency in one field leads to skill in other fields.

Expectations rise equal or faster than results, leading to constant disappointment no matter how much you’ve accomplished.

Avoiding negative information that might challenge views that you desperately want or need to be right.

Ignoring the power of tail events because you’d be bored if you admitted that 99% of news events won’t matter at all in the long run.

Assuming that what you know and have measured is more important than what you don’t know and haven’t measured.

Exploiting all opportunities to the fullest extent possible with no room for error in a way that leaves you vulnerable during the slightest change in future circumstances.

Excessively rosy views about the decisions you’ve made to maintain self-esteem in a world where everyone makes bad decisions all the time.

Having zero tolerance for hassle, inefficiency, and nonsense in a way that leaves you frustrated and in search of a perfect world that will never exist.

Excessive ego in a world where humility is the impressive trait that catches people’s attention.

Being blind to the stress, struggle, doubt, and failure your role models deal with.

Taking your cues and insights from people playing a different game than you are.

Thinking that saying “I don’t know” when you don’t know is a character flaw.

Assuming statistics alone can persuade other people when what really changes minds are stories.

Ignorance of the fact that different phases of your career require different skill sets.

Success leading to overconfidence and complacency which erodes the traits that originally made you successful.

A failure to identify the true costs of something you’re pursuing, with too much emphasis on financial costs while ignoring the emotional price that must be paid to win a reward.

Underestimating the power of compounding, in both good and bad things, because linear thinking is more intuitive.

An attachment to social proof in a field that requires contrarian thinking to achieve above-average results.

Ignoring the important fundamentals of a topic that happen to be boring or repetitive.

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268 days ago
Pure wisdom!
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268 days ago
"Expectations rise equal or faster than results, leading to constant disappointment no matter how much you’ve accomplished."

Capitalism for the 21st century

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We live in a time when criticizing capitalism has become a national pastime. If you believe some journalists and activists we are living through “late-stage capitalism” when inequality has become so large that it will eventually lead to the decline and fall of capitalism as an organising principle of the economy. That this is complete nonsense can be seen by comparing current levels of inequality with past levels.

And let’s not forget that capitalism has lifted billions of people out of poverty over the last century. Activists may not like that but the reason why global extreme poverty rates have fallen as much as they have is rising globalisation and the ability of countries like China and India to participate in global markets to turn their economies into capitalist ones. In the history of mankind, nothing has created more wealth, health, and wellbeing than capitalism.

But capitalism isn’t perfect. And over the last few decades, rising inequality has been the result of an economic system (at least in the United States and to a lesser extent in Europe) that has gradually become less inclusive. Countries like Germany have long tried to reduce the negative effects of free market capitalism with the introduction of social safety nets and a form of cooperation and co-ownership of capital between entrepreneurs, managers, and workers. In Germany, by law, workers have to have representation on the board of every company above a certain size. And that doesn’t lead to these worker representatives constantly blocking progress or painful cost-cutting measures. It leads to a better understanding and increased cooperation amongst different stakeholders. Did you know that Germany has one of the lowest strike rates in the world?

Capitalism isn’t broken, but it can be improved and I am proud to announce that in my spare time, I was able to sit together with my friend Michael Falk of Focus Consulting Group and write a paper on how we think, capitalism can be improved and how it can be made to work for everyone. I won’t give away the content here because the paper, published with the CFA Institute Research Foundation and available for free here, is a short read. It will take you a mere 20 minutes to go through it and hopefully, it will give you some food for thought and some ideas about how capitalism can be improved and made even better. In particular, I like Michael’s ideas for Sovereign Wealth Funds and the role they can play to make capitalism more inclusive. 

We hope you will enjoy it.

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367 days ago
Fundamentally good way to view capitalism going forward
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She Believed the Worst of Me

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In the winter of 2018, I drove out to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to finish writing my White House memoir. The town is built on a hill that descends to the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, ringed by mountains. A railroad bridge over the rivers, the brick buildings, and the church steeples give the place the feel of 19th-century America, a landscape that you might glimpse in a painting hung in the American wing of an art museum. This is also, of course, the place where the Civil War began; where the radical abolitionist John Brown seized the local arsenal in the hopes of sparking a mass uprising of enslaved people; and where Brown was detained by forces led by Colonel Robert E. Lee—he would later be hanged for his crimes under the watchful eyes of a young spectator named John Wilkes Booth. A quiet American place filled with American ghosts.

The town was cold and empty, and that’s precisely what I wanted. I stayed in a drafty bed-and-breakfast on the main road, an old house with antique furniture and a deep quiet other than the creaky stairs. I was the only guest, so for the bulk of my day and through the night I was alone in this house, reviewing pages that told the story of the past decade of my life. I spent my first night there giving careful attention to the chapter that dealt with the Benghazi attacks, aware that it would be combed over by right-wing trolls who’d used my every utterance about Benghazi over the years to advance the projection that I was a villainous liar spreading disinformation.

In the morning, a cheerful middle-aged woman who cooked breakfast and looked after the place for the owners was intent on making conversation. I stood in the kitchen drinking coffee as she cleaned up after breakfast and peppered me with questions. What did I do? I was a writer. What was I writing? A memoir. What was the memoir about? My time serving in government. What did I do in government? I worked on international issues. When was I in the government? I was in the Obama administration.

Book cover of After the Fall.
This post is excerpted from Rhodes’s recent book.

Once the subject was broached, the woman was quick to volunteer, in the friendliest possible way, that she was a Trump supporter. She talked about how she’d moved to West Virginia from Florida, where her grown daughter was in law enforcement. She had become upset by illegal immigration, she said. She had no problem with immigrants, and she had long been okay with the influx of Latinos. But it had just gotten to be too much in their Florida community, and it was contributing to the crime that her daughter had to deal with professionally. She took out her phone and showed me a picture of her daughter, smiling with Trump during a recent trip to Mar-a-Lago.

I was, I realized, having the proverbial “conversation with a West Virginia Trump voter”—one of the white working-class voters who had abandoned the Democratic Party and elevated a New York reality-television star to the presidency on a promise of keeping immigrants out. It felt like a useful conversation, two citizens with earnestly different opinions about how to fix our immigration system, but it obscured the more insidious aspects of the president. I inquired gently about how she felt about Trump’s character. She laughed. “Of course I know he lies,” she said, “but that’s just what he did as a businessman. It’s how he does business.”

I could see her perspective. Her concern about immigration wasn’t without legitimacy, even if I didn’t share it. Her world-weary acceptance of Trump’s lying indicated a belief that she was in on the joke and I wasn’t; that Trump’s crass politics was simply the natural way to get things done, particularly when the task was upending the failed political establishment to which I belonged. She even volunteered that she’d voted twice for Barack Obama. “Barack,” she said, claiming a first-name basis, “was cool.” But in her view, Obama’s time was simply done and Trump was what the moment required. So she was also one of those prized “Obama-Trump” voters.

[Read: How could Obama voters go for Trump]

I recalled Obama telling me about focus groups that were done with these voters by the Democratic Party after the 2016 election. Nearly all of the voters could enumerate Trump’s personal failings—his dishonesty, his treatment of women, his rude and vulgar manner. But they reserved deeper scorn for the Clintons and the corruption they seemed to represent—the profiting from power, the condescension, the membership in an elite that didn’t care about them. I could see this woman fitting easily into those groups.

Then she started to tell me about the research she’d been doing. This entailed looking further into the “true story” of what was going on—deep reading online and watching documentary films. I could sense her moving into precisely the kind of space that I’d come to Harpers Ferry to avoid. Did I know, she asked, that “George Soros is the devil”? She said it more as an assertion than a question, with an intensity that made me wonder whether the assertion was meant literally or metaphorically. Then she asked me if I knew about Benghazi.

I felt as if time had suddenly stopped, the universe conspiring to place me there, in West Virginia, standing in an old kitchen clutching the handle of a coffee mug on a winter’s morning. This was, I realized, the first time I’d met one of the tens of millions of people who had likely consumed some volume of content about my role in a terrible conspiracy without knowing my identity. My name was written in the bed-and-breakfast’s register, all of that information one Google search away. This was a transitory moment. I could retreat from the room or explore where this might lead.

I’d be curious, I told her, if you could tell me what you think happened in Benghazi.

She said she’d be happy to, and we moved into the adjacent room, which—given the age of the house—felt as if it should be called a parlor. She started right in with the “talking points,” the idea that former National Security Adviser Susan Rice had knowingly lied on the Sunday talk shows by spinning a fake story about the attacks in Benghazi being caused by a video. I was tempted to share what I’d been reliving the previous night. How there was an offensive movie about the Prophet Muhammad that had prompted violent attacks at U.S. embassies and facilities across the Muslim world. People killed and black flags raised over our embassy in Tunis. Masses of people rushing our embassy in Khartoum. Flames rising up from the ruins of less conventional targets like a Hardee’s in Lebanon. But that, I felt, would be a bridge too far, starting an impossible argument in which we could never agree on even basic facts.

What if, I said to her, the people working in government were not lying, but just trying their best; what if they were people, just like us, conveying what they believed to be true? That had, in fact, been the essential finding of the many investigations that had taken place.

[Read: Benghazi, explained]

She considered the possibility, before moving on to other aspects of the conspiracy. The lack of security at the facility in Benghazi. The so-called stand-down order that denied military support to the heroic Americans stranded under attack. Darker insinuations about the Obama administration’s shady reluctance to confront “radical Islam.” The implicit accusation that, for some terrible reason, we’d let those Americans die there and then lied to cover it up.

I tried to counter pieces of this, pointing out that the facility in Benghazi had not been an embassy, with all the security measures that embassies come with. That there had been no stand-down order, but instead an effort to mobilize the appropriate military resources to get to the scene. That the whole thing was just a tragic attack that sometimes happens in this world, a situation in which people did their best and it wasn’t good enough. More than once, I felt compelled to tell her that I was actually a character in this story. “If you knew who I was,” I said, “you wouldn’t like me.” The thought seemed inconceivable to her.

“But you’re so nice,” she said, waving my concerns away.

Soon we reached the end of the conversation. It was time for me to go back upstairs to work on my own history of these events. As if playing her final card, she asked me why—if nothing had gone wrong—all of these former military and Special Forces officers on Fox News said otherwise. I couldn’t help but think of Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, the man who’d gone from serving alongside Hillary Clinton in the Obama administration to chanting “Lock her up!”

Sitting there, I considered the gulf that existed between me and this woman, the different worlds we inhabited. We’d both lived with the same presidents, experienced the same cultural moments, and likely made the same watercooler small talk about Super Bowls and celebrity breakups. We shared the trappings of a national identity that could stitch together disparate states, people of different backgrounds and religions. The national anthem. The Pledge of Allegiance. Memorial Days and Veterans Days to pay homage to the military. Knowledge of the Civil War, which had started right there in Harpers Ferry. Pride in winning world wars and the Cold War. Familiarity with the phrases inscribed on parchment: “We the People.” And yet her understanding of the course of recent events was entirely different from mine. It wasn’t simply the question of immigration policy. Basic facts—objective reality itself—were different, whether the subject was what happened on a chaotic night in Benghazi, Libya, or the motivations of people like me.

As she got up to leave for the day, she returned to her affinity for Trump. “What I like about him,” she said, “is that he just brushes away these narratives.” She held her hand in the air, waving it back and forth as if she were batting away flies.

I woke later than usual the next morning, having stayed up late working and finishing off a bottle of wine. I could hear the woman arranging breakfast on the table downstairs. I took my time getting dressed, nervous about the reception that I’d get, hoping that perhaps she’d just leave the breakfast and go on with her day. Maybe I was embarrassed about who I was and what I would look like through her eyes.

When I came down the stairs, she greeted me with a mixture of flushed embarrassment and generous enthusiasm. “I had no idea who you were,” she exclaimed. She went on about how she never would have said those things had she known. I told her not to worry, that it was interesting to hear her perspective. We did the earnest work of trying to reassure each other, that our conversation had been positive, that we’d listened to and learned from each other. She told me that her sister followed me on Twitter because she’s a big liberal. We took a selfie together using her phone. She kept repeating a version of what she’d said the day before, as if needing to repeat it to underscore a surprising discovery: “But you’re so nice.” I assured her, genuinely, that she was as well.

[Read: What a liberal and a conservative learned from their friendship]

I left the conversation with a mixture of relief and despair. Relief over this happy ending to the interaction, the human connection that people can forge even when they’ve been living in different realities. Despair over the certainty that the same woman I’d just embraced had believed that I was someone entirely different before she met me. It wasn’t her fault. This was the conspiracy theory I believed: that the infrastructure responsible for creating the alternative Ben Rhodes was fueled by unseen forces shaping the politics of people like this woman—the cocktail of outrage and suspicion that was served up on Fox; the algorithms that filled news feeds with increasingly dire content and conspiracies in order to generate clicks; the wealthy interests that lubricated the machine to achieve more predictable ends, such as lower taxes and less regulation; the toxins of white supremacy that sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly infected the whole project.

I had no doubt that she had a long list of legitimate grievances about the variety of disappointments that accompanied American life over the past several decades, just as she felt a sense of pride and likely believed her American identity to be a blessing. In our own ways, we all felt that. But we no longer had a common set of facts that could be agreed on other than fleeting interactions that were becoming rare in our individual lives and national experience.

I walked through the chill of empty Harpers Ferry streets, where unseen ghosts reminded me that the story of what is happening in America has always been contested, always connected to larger questions about who gets to be fully American, who profits from those determinations, and how the rest of us understand those realities and live within them.

In the years since I went to work on the 2008 Obama campaign, conspiracy theories have mushroomed in parallel to the spread of social media and the flood of disinformation, depositing us into different realities. When I was in the White House, I felt us losing control of some intangible connection between actual events and an established set of facts, as a huge chunk of the population on the right was intentionally conditioned to disbelieve whatever someone like me said. Both in America and around the world, conspiracy theories ran like rivers beneath the surface of politics, preparing the ground for authoritarian leaders with bizarre justifications for their rule.

Sometimes conspiracy theories are the darker musings of those kept out of power in a society. Sometimes they are fueled by those in power to keep a society distracted. But the Trump years went beyond even that—conspiracy theories were a driving force behind the government itself, connecting to the most potent grievances of those who felt excluded even though their guy had won, shaping the subject matter of the national discourse, and radicalizing individuals inclined to prejudice. Once people choose to exist in an entirely separate reality, bringing them back is no easy task, especially when every turn of national events can be framed as a validation of their grievances. We will be living with the residue of that radicalization for a long time.

[Tim Harford: What conspiracy theorists don’t believe]

America had helped shape the world we lived in before descending into the cesspool of the Trump years. We now had a government that was busy radicalizing a huge swath of American society, with pockets of the country turning to violent white supremacy or a QAnon conspiracy theory positing that America was secretly run by a cabal of child sex traffickers. At precisely the time that progressive forces around the world were under siege, America absented itself from the defense of the most basic propositions that had once defined it in the eyes of the world: the idea that individuals are entitled to a basic set of freedoms that should be applied equally to all people. The idea that democratic governance will compel a society to organize itself around a common set of facts. The idea that people of different races, religions, and ethnicities can peacefully coexist by forging a common sense of identity. The lifelines offered to those who struggled for these things in their own spaces, validated by the results that America itself could produce. We did big things.

Over the past 30 years, we had lost our grip on those lifelines.

Obama and Trump perfectly encapsulate two separate Americas, two different stories about where we need to go. In their own ways, these two opposing stories reach back into the recesses of American history—back to Harpers Ferry, where John Brown insisted that slavery was irreconcilable with union; back to the nation’s founding, when the author of the Declaration of Independence that stated that all men are equal owned slaves.

To have any capacity to help fix what has gone wrong in the world, we have to begin fixing what has gone wrong with ourselves. The end of the Cold War removed the demon that needed to be faced down abroad, the competing empire that compelled a certain sense of national unity and purpose. But we never did settle on a new national purpose after the Cold War, a sense of what it meant to be American in the world. Instead, after 9/11 we made the mistake of going abroad to look for new demons to confront.

The cold war that needs to be won now is at home, a battle between people who live in the reality of the world as it is and people who are choosing to live in a false reality made up of base white-supremacist grievances and irrational conspiracy theories—and seeking to impose it on the rest of us.

This post is excerpted from Rhodes’s recent book, After the Fall: Being American in the World We Made.

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367 days ago
This, by far, is a cogent, humble, and far-reaching insight into our current body politic.
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Nomadland Is a Popcorn Picture for the Damned

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Nomadland dares you to watch it. Even pressing the Play button on Hulu is a test of strength; do you have the stones to watch this plotless, dreary semi-documentary about elderly people forced to live in vans—and, yes, perform unspeakable bodily functions within them—and search for seasonal work? Or are you going to be a little baby and watch The Bourne Identity for the kabillionth time?

The much-reviled four-quadrant theory of moviemaking holds that a blockbuster appeals to all four sectors of the audience: young men, young women, somewhat older men, and somewhat older women. Nomadland is a movie that appeals to the four quadrants of the show-business apocalypse: menopausal women, people with life-threatening illnesses, people interested in poverty, and anyone with time on her hands who can’t find the remote.

It’s a popcorn picture for the damned—and so it spoke to me. I live my life on the fading dot where these four demographics converge, and I found the movie powerful, informational, boring, generous, and hopeful. I hate message movies, and speechy movies, and movies in which complex and seemingly intractable problems are solved through movie magic. I never want to see people getting out their guitars and inspiring sing-alongs, and like the Miller in The Canterbury Tales, I am a bit squeamish about farts. I can’t believe I’m watching this, I thought, but when the movie ended, I let my money ride and watched it again.

The simple premise of the movie is that Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman deeply grieving the death of her husband, has decided to leave her home and join up with the ragged fraternity of workers—mostly old people—who live in their vans or cars, and who follow seasonal work the way migrant farmworkers follow a harvest. The make-or-break moment for the viewer is right at the top; if you’re the kind of brute who doesn’t enjoy watching a woman in late middle age poke around her storage unit, you should take your leave. Personally, I could have watched an entire movie on that subject alone. You spend your whole life accumulating things, and then they end up in a storage unit, slowly losing their charge of sentiment and memory and transforming into a bunch of junk. Fern is there to pick out what she will bring with her on the journey. In the end, she chooses the least practical thing of all: a box of china, white with a pattern of red leaves on the rim. That’s not the last of that china I’ll be seeing, I thought to myself, and I was spot-on. The conventional movie moments in the film were kind of a drag. But what I admired very much about the movie was that we didn’t have to sit through a first act of how she made the decision to live on the road, and how she learned the practicalities of managing that kind of life. She’s already in the life, and it’s our job to keep up. In the next scene, she’s crouching down on a wide, cold piece of ground in the endless expanse of the great American flyover, the only sound the trickle of water from some nearby stream. The camera pulls back and we see that it’s not a stream we’re hearing; she’s peeing— displaying all the vulnerability and indignity of a woman peeing outdoors. Afterward, she all but runs back to the van, something a man probably wouldn’t understand, but every woman can. Everything is more dangerous when you’re female.

Believe it or not, Nomadland has been criticized for romanticizing Fern’s life and that of the other nomads. It’s adapted from a deeply reported book by the journalist Jessica Bruder, which expanded on her scorching 2014 Harper’s cover story, “The End of Retirement,” documenting the subculture of older, broke Americans who live in their vehicles. It also introduced readers to the Amazon program that capitalizes on their misfortune and is named, in the fun, up-with-people style of corporate branding, CamperForce. They have come to the end of the line financially, any promises made or implied have been broken, and most of them have some other kind of precipitating issue that has put them on the road. These jobs—whether at Amazon or another employer needing a cheap, disposable workforce not seeking benefits or commitments besides an hourly wage—are things that young bodies are built to perform, not old ones. Repetitive-stress injuries, falls, and endless shifts take a deep toll on these workers, and there’s a hot Lay-Z-Boy in hell for the person who decided to demand 12-hour shifts from people in their 70s. But these are matters that the director, Chloé Zhao, is uninterested in documenting. She stalwartly refuses to see these nomads as tragic figures. They are captains of their fate, driving America’s never-ending highways, working their bodies raw, tuning their radios for scratchy reception of Christmas carols and classical music, and heating up canned soup on hot plates. They live at once alone and communally. Each has a vehicle, a tiny world unto itself, and most have learned how to live within ever-shifting groups of other nomads for safety, companionship, and advice.

[Read: ‘Nomadland’ is a gorgeous journey through the wreckage of American promise]

The movie’s two missteps are introducing a conventional love story and having Fern’s well-off sister swoop in with the $2,300 she needs when her van breaks down. The scene in which Fern learns from a mechanic that the van won’t drive without that repair was the film’s one exciting moment. All along you’ve understood that these people are poor, and like all poor people (and many nonpoor people) in America, they are always one bad diagnosis, one necessary car repair, one rotting tooth away from catastrophe. I wondered if this was when Fern would fall below the line that separated the nomads from people living in shelters. But the next thing you know, she’s quarreling with her sister on the phone, sitting sullenly on a bus—and being welcomed into her sister’s comfortable world, where a lovely bedroom is waiting for her and which her sister asks her to move into. All Fern wants is the money and a chance to get back on the road, an artistic choice more than a believable one.

Fern is especially fond of one of the nomads, Linda May, who is a central character in Bruder’s book and who plays herself in the movie. Together, Fern and Linda May work in Amazon warehouses as part of the CamperForce program and then as hosts at a campsite in Badlands National Park. In their free time, they work on a jigsaw puzzle, show each other the useful modifications they have made to their campers, and tell each other stories. While Fern makes tea—opening a special little cabinet she has rigged inside the van—she shows Linda May the china she brought from her storage unit and explains that her father had carefully collected the dinnerware, piece by piece, from yard sales and presented her with a full set when she graduated from high school. “Oh, they’re beautiful!” Linda May says and Fern laughs: “Isn’t that great? It’s called Autumn Leaf.” At the campsite, the women are in charge of cleaning and of checking campers in and out of their spots. Side by side, they scrub the walls of a bathroom and ride around on a golf cart, collecting litter and grossing each other out with the things they find. Fern sets up a little beauty parlor next to her van; “Welcome to Badlands spa!” she tells Linda May, and soon they are sitting in folding chairs, their faces covered in beauty masks, cucumber slices on their closed eyes. On cleaning duty, they take a moment to sit together in the golf cart and admire the view. “Where do you go and find scenery like this?” Fern asks in a wondering way, and Linda May nods and says, “Right here.” And then Fern decides to say something daring: “We be the bitches of the Badlands!” and they both start giggling, sitting there all alone in their private world. At this moment, I realized who they are: girls.

A still from "Nomadland" of two women sitting in lawn chairs in field wearing face masks and with cucumbers on their eyes.
Searchlight Pictures

There’s an old tradition in girls’ literature that focuses on the details of creating a home, often within some kind of restraint. Everything from the Laura Ingalls Wilder books to Anne Frank’s diary is filled with lengthy descriptions of creating a home from scratch. I haven’t read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in decades, but I remember perfectly Francie’s summertime habit of bringing ice water, peppermints, and a library book out to the fire escape of her tenement apartment, creating her own little world among the treetops. It used to be—and for some, it still is—that when girls played and read about making a home, they assumed they were preparing for the excitement of really having a home. The reality, of course, is nothing like playing house. There is hard work to be done in a house, and most of it still falls to women. But Fern and Linda May are past the point of having to cook or clean for other people: Fern’s husband is dead, and Linda May’s children are grown. They have their small bits of money, their frugal ways, and the freedom to do the things that little girls love to do. They have been freed from the sexual energies that define so much of a younger woman’s life, long past the age when male sexual energy is a force demanding constant negotiation. They are also free, it seems, from their own sexual desires, that potent force that takes women away from one another. Now their homes are like the playhouses of girlhood: places that resemble an actual home, and yet are never complicated by the realities of being a woman and not a girl. They do their own laundry and no one else’s, and they sit together happily folding it and chatting. Some spirit of childhood gets lost as girls become women. In old age, it makes its welcome return.

These women are the giants of menopause: mobile, self-sufficient, in search of no particular thing. “I’m going to be 75 this year,” a nomad named Swankie tells Fern when she explains why she isn’t afraid of the cancer that will soon kill her; “I think I’ve lived a pretty good life.” She’s headed to Alaska, a place she loves, and when the time comes, she will end her life. (Which is exactly what I would do if I had to shit in a bucket in my minivan, but also what I will do when my own cancer someday runs its course.) “I’m not gonna spend any more time indoors in a hospital,” Swankie says. “No, thanks.”

Something rose in me when Swankie calmly announced her plan, some old inclination. The American Way of Death wouldn’t seem like ideal reading for a 12-year-old, but it was sitting around the house when I was that age, and it was interesting as hell. The American Way of Dying From Cancer could be a companion volume, and for Swankie to take hold of her experience and wrest it from the cancer industrial complex—Big Pharma swooping down to darken the final months of someone who will never make it—was stirring. A few scenes later, we see Swankie cheerfully giving away her possessions. “My grandmother made that for me, and gave it to me,” she says convivially to a woman who picks up an object off-screen. “So, enjoy. Take good care of it.” Fern still has the dishes her father gave her, but Swankie is happily divesting herself from what must surely be her oldest possession, something she has kept with her for her whole life, even into her days living in a cramped van. She is near the end of her journey, and she needs almost nothing.

The nomad movement has many unofficial guides, people who make YouTube videos and websites providing endless information about how to live this kind of life—how to cook and shower and keep from getting harassed by people if you’ve parked too long in a certain place. By far the most well known and charismatic of them is Bob Wells, who also appears in the movie. A 65-year-old man with a Santa Claus beard, he lived a life of regrets—divorce, a family tragedy, serious financial problems—before he understood that he could address a lot of them by getting rid of his rent payment and living in a truck. The first night, he cried himself to sleep, but then he began to realize that for the first time in his life, he was free—from all of it. He had fallen prey to the values and expectations of society, and become too absorbed in earning and spending to grasp that he was robbing himself of a meaningful life. With this move to the outdoors, he had liberated himself. His videos are upbeat and radical. He explains, in a confident and encouraging way, what to do when you’re evicted, and how to make the preparations you need to live on the road.

[Read: The western rides again]

“We not only accept the tyranny of the dollar, the tyranny of the marketplace, we embrace it,” he says in the film to a gathering of the workers. “We gladly throw the yoke of the tyranny of the dollar on and live by it our whole lives.” He rails against a consumer culture that traps people in endless cycles of work, debt, greed, and dissatisfaction.

This kind of language was familiar to me, but I couldn’t place it.

The nomads, he says, had made a decision: “If society was throwing us away and sending us, the workhorse, out to the pasture, we workhorses had to gather together and take care of each other.” He speaks about the American economy in a way that is at once fatalistic and inspiring. “The Titanic is sinking,” he says. “So my goal is to get the lifeboats out and get as many people into the lifeboats as I can.”

I realized who these anti-consumption weirdos are, and why so much of what they have to say contains a powerful music: They are the 1960s generation, not just grown up, but in their old age. Theirs was the generation ahead of me by a decade or so—the cool kids, the ones to watch. We know what became of many of the kids from that generation: They retreated from the barricades, socked away their money, and channeled their raw, urgent politics into the doctrinaire, neoliberal positions that made the Doonesbury crowd some of Hillary Clinton’s biggest supporters. (From Sproul Plaza to Hillary “Goldman Sachs” Clinton? Age is a terrible thing.) Where did the rest of that legendary generation end up? In the deserts and the Great Plains, it turns out, in Amazon fulfillment centers as large as several football fields. They have the resourcefulness of people who have been poor and the vision to understand that they need to stick together. They have ended up serfs in an America darker than they had imagined. They have given up even on Martin Luther King Jr.’s conception of the Poor People’s Campaign: “People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way … and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.” In the new century, there’s no point in going to Washington anymore; there’s nothing left.

There is no way this movie is going to win an Academy Award, I thought as I watched the ceremony. But of course it did win: a picture that made $6 million and that lifted a middle finger to the imperatives of a sustainable movie business. When Frances McDormand walked to a stage built in a train station that has considerable homeless problems, holding Linda May’s hand, wearing a shapeless black dress, and howling like a wolf once she got there, I thought, There it is: the ’60s. Loony, brave, unconventional, and—half of them, anyway—menopausal. They don’t care what “society” thinks about them; they never did. They tried to warn us half a century ago. They saw what would come from endless consumerism, from a decades-long assault on the environment, from endless war, and they’re doing what they have always done: helping out the less fortunate, teaching people how to survive, giving lessons on how to eat cheaply, and haranguing the rest of us any chance they get—and God knows we need it. They’re old, and their bodies are wearing down. But they were always unafraid, always larger than the situation, and they’re dying with their boots on.

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386 days ago
Oh wow - this sentence is great on its own: “You spend your whole life accumulating things, and then they end up in a storage unit, slowly losing their charge of sentiment and memory and transforming into a bunch of junk.”
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