homeabout kottke.orgarchives + tagsmembership!
aboutarchives + tagsmembership!
aboutarchivesmembers!

kottke.org posts about USA

Political Moneyball: America’s unfair elections and the Republicans’ art of winning them

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2016

Why does the US have only two main political parties? Is it because that’s what people want? Nope! It’s just an artifact of our system of voting. From C.G.P. Grey, a video explaining the problems with first-past-the-post voting systems (like the one used in US elections). Great simple explanation…well worth watching. Check out the rest of Grey’s videos in this series, particularly the one on gerrymandering.

Nothing in politics gets my blood boiling faster than gerrymandering…it is so grossly and obviously unfair. I bet you don’t even need to guess which of the two US political parties has pushed unfair redistricting in recent years.

More than anything for me, this is the story of politics in America right now: a shrinking and increasingly extremist underdog party has punched above its weight over the past few election cycles by methodically exploiting the weaknesses in our current political system. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, the passing of voter ID laws, and spreading propaganda via conservative and social media channels has led to disproportionate Republican representation in many areas of the country which they then use to gerrymander and pass more restrictive voter ID laws. They’ve limited potential conservative third party candidates (like Trump!) by incorporating them and their views into the main party. I would not be surprised if Republican donors strategically support left-of-center third-party candidates as spoilers — it’s a good tactic, underhanded but effective. They increasingly ignore political norms and practices to stymie Democratic efforts, like the general inaction of the Republican-led Congress over the past few years and the Senate’s refusal to consider Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

None of this is an accident. They are a small but (and this is important) unified team that works for the benefit of the group above all else. In football terms, the Democrats are the stronger team: they gain more yards (look at Clinton’s ever-growing lead in the popular vote), they earn more first downs, and they might even score more points over the course of the season. But the Republicans won the Super Bowl by sticking together and deftly pressing their advantages to change the rules of the game in their favor. It’s a Moneyball strategy, but for politics.1 By almost any measure, the US is more liberal than it was 20 years ago and yet we have an incoming administration which is potentially authoritarian, influenced and advised by extremist white nationalists, and unapologetically corruptible. Somehow, we need to make the game more fair again. Fairness and justice should not be partisan. Americans — all Americans, liberal, centrist, and conservative — deserve a fair political process that reflects as closely as possible the collective needs and desires of the citizenry. Anything less should be unacceptable.

  1. I mean, the fake news on Facebook…that is a genius Moneyball tactic. Instead of blowing a lot of cash on expensive national TV ads, they bought a ton of cheap propaganda that Facebook and conservative voters spread around for free (or very cheap).

    And do you recall the subtitle of Michael Lewis’s book? I didn’t until I just looked it up. It’s “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”. I can’t think of a better description of our political system and what the Republicans have achieved over the past decade.

We Work Remotely

Urged to eat less meat, Americans are actually eating more

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 17, 2016

For most of the past decade, consumption of meat in the United States remained flat or declined.

For environmental, health, and animal welfare advocates, this was great news. Surely it meant that efforts to raise awareness about the disturbing impacts of meat production were inspiring people to cut back on hamburgers and bacon. As Paul Shapiro, vice president of Farm Animal Protection for the Humane Society of the United States, wrote in 2012, “The pressure is being felt all over, and for the first time in decades, our overconsumption of meat is beginning to get reined in.”

But according to research by a Dutch bank, US meat consumption jumped in 2015.

Not only was last year noteworthy for the near 5% increase in per capita consumption, but also due to the fact that the growth was achieved without the help of beef, consumption of which was flat. We expect US protein production growth of 2.5% per annum through 2018 — down from 3% in 2015 — with beef being the largest contributor relative to pork and poultry.

What drove the decline in the first place? Price. It always comes back to supply and demand.

Ranchers and farmers trimmed their herds because of the recession, historically high feed costs, and drought in the Great Plains. Meanwhile, domestic disease outbreaks like porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, or PEDv, meant that tens of thousands of hogs never made it to market. So Americans cut back on meat.

But by 2015, many of these issues driving higher prices were resolved. The retail price of beef has dropped by 22 percent, pork by 7 percent, and chicken by 5 percent. So Americans are eating more meat again.

“Consumers are responding to falling prices. That’s a big part of the story,” says Sawyer. The chicken industry, in particular, has also gotten more efficient and more capable of raising chickens fast.

I was at the grocery store last night and was shocked by the prices in the meat aisle. Lots of cuts on sale for just a few dollars a pound. (via the latest and particularly excellent issue of Susan MacMillan’s newsletter)

The United Red and Blue States of America

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 17, 2016

United Blue States

The New York Times took a map of the US and split it in two based on areas that voted for Clinton and Trump in the 2016 election. (Clinton’s map is pictured above.)

Mrs. Clinton’s island nation has large atolls and small island chains with liberal cores, like college towns, Native American reservations and areas with black and Hispanic majorities. While the land area is small, the residents here voted for Mrs. Clinton in large enough numbers to make her the winner of the overall popular vote.

That’s fun, but it’s another reminder of how strictly geographical maps distort election results.

P.S. They missed a real opportunity to call the chain of islands in the southern states The Cretaceous Atoll.

Safety pins as a symbol of solidarity against racism

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2016

Safety Pin

Post-Brexit, people in the UK started wearing safety pins to show their stance against racism and their solidarity with immigrants.

In response to the open environment of hatred, people across the U.K. are now wearing safety pins — and tweeting pictures of themselves wearing them — in an act of solidarity with immigrants.

In the wake of the election and reports of racism incidents across the nation, some are advocating using the safety pin strategy here too.

We need a symbol like that in the United States now. These are vicious days in America. The deplorables are emboldened. The Washington Post reports that there have already been two attacks on Muslim women on college campuses. At San Diego State University, two men ranting about Trump and Muslims robbed a student wearing hijab.

I like this idea, that a subtle marker can denote a social safe space of sorts, a signal to someone who might feel uncomfortable that an ally is nearby. That’s not to say you can put a pin on your coat and *dust off your hands, job well done* but it may help. I’m going to try it.

Update: During the Nazi occupation of Norway in World War II, Norwegians took to wearing paperclips to signal their rejection of Nazi ideology.

The people of Norway also had to deal with German soldiers day in and day out for five years. By 1945, some 400,000 German troops were operating in Norway, controlling the population of about 4 million people.

It was in the autumn of 1940 when students at Oslo University started wearing paperclips on their lapels as a non-violent symbol of resistance, unity, and national pride.

Symbols related to the royal family and state had already been banned, and they wanted a clever way of displaying their rejection of the Nazi ideology. In addition to wearing a single paperclip, paperclip bracelets and other types of jewellery were fashioned as well, symbolically binding Norwegians together in the face of such adversity.

Of course, once the Nazis got wind of this, wearing paperclips became a crime. (via @ckrub)

Update: That co-opting thing I warned against above? Seems like it’s happening.

wear safety pin to fool people into thinking you’re a safe space, trigger them

If I had to guess however, this behavior will be short lived and they’ll move on to some other genius scheme. I’m not taking my pin off. (via @_McFIy & @pattersar)

Update: There’s no safety pin emoji, but some people are adding the paperclip emoji to their Twitter usernames as a virtual world counterpart to the safety pin.

Voted.

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 08, 2016

Suffrage

This morning, after scraping a layer of frost from the windshield, I drove to my local polling place, a small elementary school. There was no line in the school’s gymnasium and only a couple of the booths were occupied. I filled out my ballot, turned it in, got my sticker, and left. Three minutes flat. Done. Finally, after more than a year. I have done what I can.

I voted for Hillary Clinton for President, I don’t mind telling you. I’m With Her. The “Her” supposedly refers to Clinton herself, leading some critics to complain of her “all about me” campaign strategy. But I prefer to think the “Her” stands for the women of America, who gained the right to vote less than 100 years ago and have never had the opportunity to elect a woman to the highest office in the land. And not just any woman, but a woman who is among the most qualified candidates for President over the past 25 years. This is long long overdue and I’m proud to have done my tiny bit in making it happen.

Best of Luck With the Wall

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 28, 2016

In his film Best of Luck With the Wall, director Josh Begley takes us on a journey across the entire US/Mexico border. It’s a simple premise — a continuous display of 200,000 satellite images of the border from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico — but one that delivers a powerful feeling of how large the world is and how meaningless borders are from a certain perspective.

The project started from a really simple place. It was about looking. It was about the pure desire to understand the visual landscape that we are talking about when we are talking about the southern border of the United States. What does the southern border of the United States actually look like? And in that sense it was a very simple gesture to try to see the border in aggregate. If you were to compile all 2000 miles and try to see it in a short space — what would that look like? In another sense it grew out of the discourses as you suggested. The way migration is talked about in our contemporary moment and in particular the way migration is talked about in terms of the southern border of the U.S. So part of this piece is a response to the way migrants and borders are talked about in our politics. And it’s also just a way of looking at landscape as a way to think about some of those things.

The online version of the film is 6 minutes long, but Begley states that longer versions might make their way into galleries and such.

We’ve reached the end of white Christian America

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 25, 2016

America is no longer a majority white, Christian country.

At 45 percent of the population, white Christians are a shrinking demographic — and the backlash from many members of the group against the increasing diversification of America has been swift and bitter.

The narrator of the video, Robert P. Jones, wrote a book about this new reality called The End of White Christian America.

For most of our nation’s history, White Christian America (WCA) — the cultural and political edifice built primarily by white Protestant Christians — set the tone for our national policy and shaped American ideals. But especially since the 1990s, WCA has steadily lost influence, following declines within both its mainline and evangelical branches. Today, America is no longer demographically or culturally a majority white Christian nation.

A nonfiction literary map of the United States

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 22, 2016

From Nylon, Kristin Iversen compiled her list of the best pieces of nonfiction — books, essays, memoirs — from every state in the US (plus DC and NYC). Here’s a sampling:

Alaska: Coming into the Country by John McPhee.

Connecticut: The Story of How, and Why, Martha Stewart Became the Queen of Living Well by Margaret Talbot.

Florida: The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. (Love this choice!)

Illinois: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Strong runner-up here is the amazing The Warmth of Other Suns (which I reviewed here).

Vermont: Where the Roads Have No Name by Geoff Manaugh.

Nazi rallies in Madison Square Garden in the 1930s

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 21, 2016

Nazi NYC

In the 1930s, almost a decade before the nation’s young men would be shipped overseas to combat the foul stench of Hitler wafting across Europe, official and unofficial rallies for the Nazi party were held in Madison Square Garden.

Shortly after Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, the Nazis consolidated control over the country. Looking to cultivate power beyond the borders of Germany, Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess charged German-American immigrant Heinz Spanknobel with forming a strong Nazi organization in the United States.

Combining two small extant groups, Spanknobel formed Friends of New Germany in July 1933. Counting both German nationals and Americans of German descent among its membership, the Friends loudly advocated for the Nazi cause, storming the offices of New York’s largest German-language paper, countering Jewish boycotts of German businesses and holding swastika-strewn rallies in black-and-white uniforms.

A later group, which only disbanded at the end of 1941, were prominently pro-American and featured iconography of George Washington as “the first Fascist”. (I would have gone for “the Founding Fascist”…catchier.)

On the shifting role of racism in American slavery

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 20, 2016

In a recent episode of his EconTalk podcast, host Russ Roberts talks with Michael Munger about a paper Munger co-authored about how white Southern attitudes toward slavery shifted from around 1815 to 1835. The episode is interesting throughout,1 but I want to highlight this attitude shift Munger writes about in the paper, something I was previously unaware of.

Sifting through documents from the era between the American Revolution and the Civil War, Munger and his co-author Jeffrey Grynaviski found that Southern whites believed, in the first decade or two of the 19th century, that owning slaves was evil but necessary. There was this system in place and it was bad but we’re gonna go with it because, whaddya gonna do? But in a period of about 20 years, due to a variety of factors, mostly economic, the justification for slavery shifted primarily to a racist one: that black people were inferior and needed to be cared for by whites. Southern whites came to believe, like really believe, that they were doing their slaves a favor by enslaving them and that the slaves were better off than they would be in Africa.

The way we defined it in this paper was that racism became a substitute justification for slavery. And the reason was, the original justification for slavery, which was the Roman one of wasn’t good enough. And so Southerners cast about and found basically an alternative, which was the Greek justification for slavery. And let me just say very briefly what those two are. The one justification for slavery, and it was pretty common in Rome, was that if you lost a battle and were captured, then you might either be killed or kept as a slave. And there is a mutually beneficial exchange, if you will, in the sense that you’ve already lost. So, me saying, ‘I tell you what: I won’t kill you if you will agree to act as my slave for the rest of your life. And I may free you; I may not; but that’s up to me.’ And you say, ‘Killed/be a slave: I’m going to go with the slave thing.’ But, it meant that some slaves were very excellent. And in Roman society some slaves occupied very high positions, positions of respect. It’s just that they made this promise. It was an economic institution. And that was the way that slavery had existed in Africa: if you lost a battle, then you would be captured by the other side. It was almost like indentured servitude: you could work it off.

Well, that didn’t work in the American South because they wanted to maintain slaves, to be able to identify slaves and to have a justification that would allow them to enslave the children — which the old Roman justification would never have allowed. You are not going to be a slave if you are born to a slave, because you didn’t lose in battle: you would have been free.

So, the Southerners needed a different way, so they were looking for the Aristotelian notion of slavery, which is that slaves are people who are either morally inferior or lack the judgment to make independent choices. They are like children or like horses. That means that you actually have a positive-good justification for enslaving them: if I have a thoroughbred horse or a fancy dog, it would be cruel of me to set it loose to let it run around, because it’s not capable of taking care of itself. I have obligations to take care of it. My ownership actually gives me obligations. And what’s interesting and what this paper is about is how Southerners worked that out between about 1815 and 1835, and started to understand the implications for how they had to change the economic institutions of slavery to match this new ideology that they were creating.

Yet another example of how powerful economic self-interest is in shifting moral beliefs.

  1. Although it was uncomfortable at times listening to two privileged pro-market white guys talking about slavery, particularly in the moments where they discuss matters from the slaves’ perspectives. But in fairness, they do a good job in admitting their privilege and the awareness that their economic beliefs may not square with things like human rights and justice forms the basis of a fascinating conversation.

2016 fall foliage map

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 14, 2016

Foliage Map 2016

As I remarked last year, the Smoky Mountains website has the best fall foliage map in the business. The map covers the entire US and comes with a slider that lets you check the status weekend by weekend throughout the fall. Looks like the foliage will peak near Sept 30th in VT and Oct 14th in NYC and in the Smoky Mountains.

Albert Einstein, civil rights advocate

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 22, 2016

Einstein Lincoln University

In 1946, Albert Einstein, who had come to the US in 1933 and stayed to become a citizen due to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, wrote a magazine article titled The Negro Question. In it, he called the prejudice against black Americans a “deeply entrenched evil”.

What soon makes the new arrival devoted to this country is the democratic trait among the people. I am not thinking here so much of the democratic political constitution of this country, however highly it must be praised. I am thinking of the relationship between individual people and of the attitude they maintain toward one another.

In the United States everyone feels assured of his worth as an individual. No one humbles himself before another person or class. Even the great difference in wealth, the superior power of a few, cannot undermine this healthy self-confidence and natural respect for the dignity of one’s fellow-man.

There is, however, a somber point in the social outlook of Americans. Their sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins. Even among these there are prejudices of which I as a Jew am clearly conscious; but they are unimportant in comparison with the attitude of the “Whites” toward their fellow-citizens of darker complexion, particularly toward Negroes. The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.

Recognizing the parallels between the treatment of Jews in Germany in the 1930s with blacks in the US, Einstein put his efforts and his money where his mouth was. He was a member of the NAACP. In 1946, the same year that letter was published, he received an honorary degree from Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University, the historically black school that was the alma mater of Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall. In a speech at the school that was not covered by a mainstream American press that otherwise couldn’t get enough of him, Einstein called racism “a disease of white people”:

My trip to this institution was in behalf of a worthwhile cause. There is a separation of colored people from white people in the United States. That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.

When singer Marian Anderson was denied a hotel room in Princeton for being black, Einstein hosted the singer at his home for this and several subsequent trips. He also came to the aid of W.E.B. Du Bois in his case against the US government:

Einstein continued to support progressive causes through the 1950s, when the pressure of anti-Communist witch hunts made it dangerous to do so. Another example of Einstein using his prestige to help a prominent African American occurred in 1951, when the 83-year-old W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP, was indicted by the federal government for failing to register as a “foreign agent” as a consequence of circulating the pro-Soviet Stockholm Peace Petition. Einstein offered to appear as a character witness for Du Bois, which convinced the judge to drop the case.

These and his other activities in this arena are documented in a 2006 book called Einstein on Race and Racism by Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor.

Our potential neverending hot American summer

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 22, 2016

The frying of America

In today’s installment of terrifying graphics about climate change, the NY Times made a series of three maps showing the potential rise of 100 degree temperatures across the United States if current greenhouse gas emission trends continue through the end of this century. Look at the areas in orange and red on the 1991-2010 map: what sort of landscape do you picture? Keeping that landscape picture in your mind, look at the orange and red areas on the 2060 and 2100 maps. Yep! And Phoenix with 163 days above 100 degrees — that’s every day from March 25th to September 4th over 100 degrees.

P.S. A word about climate change and rising temperatures. The temperature that climate scientists typically reference and care about with regard to climate change is “the average global temperature across land and ocean surface areas”. According to the NOAA, the average temperature of the Earth in the 20th century was 13.9°C (57.0°F). In 2015, the average global temperature was 0.90°C (1.62°F) above that.

In order to avoid dangerous effects of climate change, climate scientists advocate keeping the global average temperature increase below 2 degrees (and more recently, below 1.5 degrees). In late 2015, 195 nations came together in Paris and agreed to:

[Hold] the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change

That’s degrees Celsius, not Fahrenheit. I don’t know about you, but as an American, when I hear 2 degrees, I think, oh, that’s not bad. But 2°C is an increase of 3.6°F, which does seem significant.

Note also that it specifies keeping the temperature “below pre-industrial levels” and not below 20th century levels. It is maddeningly difficult to track down an exact figure for the pre-industrial global temperature, partially because of a lack of precise data, partially because of politics, and partially because of the impenetrability of scientific writing. From a piece Eric Holthaus wrote for FiveThirtyEight earlier this year:

It sounds easy enough to measure global warming: see how hot it was, compare it to how hot it used to be. But climate scientists have several ways of measuring how hot it used to be. NASA’s base period, as I mentioned above, is an average of 1951-80 global temperatures, mostly because that was the most recently available 30-year period when the data set was first created. By chance, it’s also pretty representative of the world’s 20th-century climate and can help us understand how much warmer the world has become while many of us have been alive.

Other organizations go further back. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body of climate scientists that was formed to provide assessments to the United Nations, bases its temperature calculations on an 1850-1900 global average. There was about 0.4 degrees of warming between that time period and the NASA base period.

Climate scientists often refer to that 1850-1900 timespan as “pre-industrial” because we don’t have comprehensive temperature data from the 1700s. But meteorologist Michael Mann, director of Penn State University’s Earth System Science Center, has argued that an additional 0.25 degrees of warming occurred between the start of the Industrial Revolution (around 1750) and 1850. Including Mann’s adjustment would bring February 2016 global temperatures at or very near 2 degrees above the “pre-industrial” average.

I now completely understand why some people deny that anthropogenic climate change is happening. Seriously. I looked for more than 30 minutes for a report or scientific paper that stated the average global temperature for 1850-1900 and I couldn’t find one. I looked at UN reports, NASA reports, reports from the UK: nothing. There were tons of references to temperatures relative to the 1850-1900 baseline, but no absolute temperatures were given. Now, I don’t mean to get all Feynman here, but this is bullshit. When the world got together in Paris and talked about a 1.5 degree increase, was everyone even talking about the same thing? You might begin to wonder what the scientists are hiding with their obfuscation.

Anyway, the important point is that according to climate scientists, we are already flirting with 1.5°C of global warming since pre-industrial times. Which means that without action, the spread of those Phoenician temperatures across the circa-2100 United States is a thing that’s going to happen.

How populous is NYC? Big enough to fit 8 states into it.

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 11, 2016

NYC Population

The population of NYC is equal to the combined populations of Vermont, Alaska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and West Virginia. Here’s what that looks like on a map.

Put another way: 16 US Senators represent as many people in those states as a fraction of one of New York States’ Senators represent the population of NYC. A Senator from Wyoming represents 290,000 people while one from New York represents 9.8 million people…and in California, there are 19 million people per Senator. That gives a Wyoming resident 65 times the voting power of a California resident.

The Complacent Class

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 25, 2016

Complacent Class

The Complacent Class is a forthcoming book by Tyler Cowen.

Since Alexis de Tocqueville, restlessness has been accepted as a signature American trait. Our willingness to move, take risks, and adapt to change have produced a dynamic economy and a tradition of innovation from Ben Franklin to Steve Jobs.

The problem, according to legendary blogger, economist and bestselling author Tyler Cowen, is that Americans today have broken from this tradition — we’re working harder than ever to avoid change. We’re moving residences less, marrying people more like ourselves and choosing our music and our mates based on algorithms that wall us off from anything that might be too new or too different. Match.com matches us in love. Spotify and Pandora match us in music. Facebook matches us to just about everything else.

Of course, this “matching culture” brings tremendous positives: music we like, partners who make us happy, neighbors who want the same things. We’re more comfortable. But, according to Cowen, there are significant collateral downsides attending this comfort, among them heightened inequality and segregation and decreased incentives to innovate and create.

Cowen is also releasing another book called Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.

In that work, I outline a true and objectively valid case for a free and prosperous society, and consider the importance of economic growth for political philosophy, how and why the political spectrum should be reconfigured, how we should think about existential risk, what is right and wrong in Parfit and Nozick and Singer and effective altruism, how to get around the Arrow Impossibility Theorem, to what extent individual rights can be absolute, how much to discount the future, when redistribution is justified, whether we must be agnostic about the distant future, and most of all why we need to “think big.”

It is only available by emailing him that you’ve pre-ordered The Complacent Class. Oh, and a reminder about how I (try to) read books.

As American as free hotel ice

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 14, 2016

For the New Yorker, Heidi Julavits wrote about the easy access to ice being a particularly American trait.

As a kid, I took summer road trips with grandparents, and ice machines proved key to our modern pioneer-style vacations, wagon-bumping from one national park to another. We stored drinks and food in a giant cooler that, each morning, needed to be filled with new ice that would gradually melt during the day, until we reached our final destination.

Yes, this. I drove all over the US with my dad and sister in the summers when I was a kid and we rarely ate out (couldn’t afford it)…a big cooler full of daily replenished ice preserved our stores of food for the whole trip.

Anyway, for more info on refrigeration and how it changed America, see also the chapter on refrigeration in Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now and Nicola Twilley’s posts on the artificial cryosphere.

Freedom for some is not freedom

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2016

Jane Elliott asks an audience a very simple question about being black in America. (via @carltonspeight who says “No BS, I wish every white person on Twitter could see this. Maybe it’ll help”)

What to the slave is the 4th of July?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 05, 2016

In 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Rochester, NY which historian James West Davidson calls “the most remarkable Independence Day oration in American history”.

In Rochester, Douglass stalked his largely white audience with exquisite care, taking them by stealth. He began by providing what many listeners might not have expected from a notorious abolitionist: a fulsome paean to the Fourth and the founding generation. The day brought forth “demonstrations of joyous enthusiasm,” he told them, for the signers of the Declaration were “brave men. They were great men too-great enough to give fame to a great age.” Jefferson’s very words echoed in Douglass’s salute: “Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country … “

Your fathers. That pronoun signaled the slightest shift in the breeze. But Douglass continued cordially. “Friends and citizens, I need not enter further into the causes which led to this anniversary. Many of you understand them better than I do.” Then another step back: “That is a branch of knowledge in which you feel, perhaps, a much deeper interest than your speaker.”

The text of the speech itself is well worth reading…that “slightest shift in the breeze” slowly builds to a mighty hurricane.

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Several years ago, James Earl Jones read a portion of Douglass’ speech:

Update: Baratunde Thurston recently presented Douglass’ speech live at the Brooklyn Public Library. (thx, rick)

A look inside America’s assembly line prison system

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 27, 2016

Reporter Shane Bauer went undercover as a guard in a Louisiana private prison for four months. Mother Jones devoted their entire recent issue to the story.

In class that day, we learn about the use of force. A middle-aged black instructor I’ll call Mr. Tucker comes into the classroom, his black fatigues tucked into shiny black boots. He’s the head of Winn’s Special Operations Response Team, or SORT, the prison’s SWAT-like tactical unit. “If an inmate was to spit in your face, what would you do?” he asks. Some cadets say they would write him up. One woman, who has worked here for 13 years and is doing her annual retraining, says, “I would want to hit him. Depending on where the camera is, he might would get hit.”

Mr. Tucker pauses to see if anyone else has a response. “If your personality if somebody spit on you is to knock the fuck out of him, you gonna knock the fuck out of him,” he says, pacing slowly. “If a inmate hit me, I’m go’ hit his ass right back. I don’t care if the camera’s rolling. If a inmate spit on me, he’s gonna have a very bad day.” Mr. Tucker says we should call for backup in any confrontation. “If a midget spit on you, guess what? You still supposed to call for backup. You don’t supposed to ever get into a one-on-one encounter with anybody. Period. Whether you can take him or not. Hell, if you got a problem with a midget, call me. I’ll help you. Me and you can whup the hell out of him.”

He asks us what we should do if we see two inmates stabbing each other.

“I’d probably call somebody,” a cadet offers.

“I’d sit there and holler ‘stop,’” says a veteran guard.

Mr. Tucker points at her. “Damn right. That’s it. If they don’t pay attention to you, hey, there ain’t nothing else you can do.”

He cups his hands around his mouth. “Stop fighting,” he says to some invisible prisoners. “I said, ‘Stop fighting.’” His voice is nonchalant. “Y’all ain’t go’ to stop, huh?” He makes like he’s backing out of a door and slams it shut. “Leave your ass in there!”

“Somebody’s go’ win. Somebody’s go’ lose. They both might lose, but hey, did you do your job? Hell yeah!” The classroom erupts in laughter.

Fusion has a summary of Bauer’s reporting, which you really should actually read in its entirety. America’s prison system is shameful; its reform is one of the biggest issues facing our nation in the future.

What’s the most “normal” place in the US?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 10, 2016

There’s been a lot of talk in this election cycle about “average Americans” and “real Americans”. In a piece for FiveThirtyEight, Jed Kolko used age, education, and race & ethnicity to find the city most demographically similar the US as a whole. Here’s his top 5:

1. New Haven-Milford, CT
2. Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL
3. Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT
4. Oklahoma City, OK
5. Springfield, MA

Economist Lyman Stone thought Kolko’s methodology was flawed:

See, he used 3 variables: race, education, and age, to proxy for “normalcy.” His method looked at how typical a given “race” group in a given city was on educational/age factors, and a given educational group in a given city on race/age factors, etc. In other words, he didn’t truly ask “What city is most normal?” He asked “In what city is each group of people most typical of that group of people nationally?” That’s a cool question, but it’s totally not “normalcy.” The reason is simple: as best I can tell, Jed doesn’t fully capture the role of aggregate composition. He’s trying to get specific and avoid calling a place “abnormal” just because it has one weird demographic lump; he wants cell-specific abnormality. But nobody cares if Graduate-Degree-Holding Native Americans happen to be much younger in St. Louis than elsewhere. We care if St. Louis has a weirdly large number of Graduate-Degree-Holding-Native-Americans. Composition of the population is the most important measure of normalcy, and one that Kolko’s method will tend to under-emphasize.

Stone ran his own analysis with that in mind, using 20 different demographic variables, and came up with a different list of the most normal places in America:

1. Oklahoma City, OK
2. Tulsa, OK
3. Jacksonville, FL
4. Spokane-Spokane Valley, WA
5. Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ

The above table shows the places with the lowest weirdness-scores. Two of them are in Oklahoma. I’ll talk about them together. Oklahoma City is less than 1 standard deviation from the mean on every single variable. It is exactly the mean for the poverty rate, and almost exactly the mean for educational attainment. It’s biggest oddity is housing costs compared to income, which are a bit high, and the percent of households with a car, which is also just a teentsy bit high. Other than that? If you’re looking for “Normal America” then look to Oklahoma City. Tulsa’s story is the same, except it also has a bit of a low share of civilian government workers.

Among the weirdest places on Stone’s list? San Jose, NYC, and Jacksonville, NC.

New York is up next. Again, a large foreign-born share makes New York weird. But the real weirdness is actually in New York’s transit access. New York’s car-ownership share is a whopping nine standard deviations below the national average. New York’s housing costs also make it weird, as does the percent of people who are renting. In other words, New York is weird because it’s just so darn urban.

The changing American diet

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 08, 2016

American Eating Habits Infoviz

From Flowing Data, an animated infographic that shows how the American diet has changed since 1970. We eat less beef, potatoes, margarine, and whole milk than we used to, but more chicken, cooking oil, bananas, and Italian cheese.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

posted by Jason Kottke   May 26, 2016

Osage Dancers

David Grann has been relatively quiet lately on Twitter and at the New Yorker, where he is a staff writer; he hasn’t written anything for them in more than four years. I figured he was busy writing a book and so he was. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI is about the murders of the members of the Osage Indian Nation in the 1920s.

In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.

Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.

Sounds fantastic. Grann’s previous books are The Devil and Sherlock Holmes and The Lost City of Z, which should be out in movie form sometime soon.

How highways wrecked American cities

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2016

As part of the Interstate Highway System project, expressways were run right through the heart of many American cities, disrupting neighborhoods and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

The 48,000 miles of interstate highway that would be paved across the country during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s were a godsend for many rural communities. But those highways also gutted many cities, with whole neighborhoods torn down or isolated by huge interchanges and wide ribbons of asphalt. Wealthier residents fled to the suburbs, using the highways to commute back in by car. That drained the cities’ tax bases and hastened their decline.

So why did cities help build the expressways that would so profoundly decimate them? The answer involves a mix of self-interested industry groups, design choices made by people far away, a lack of municipal foresight, and outright institutional racism.

Here’s some homework: think about Uber/Lyft and the coming self-driving cars (Tesla, Apple, Google, Ford, etc.) in the context of the highways’ effect on the American city. Who benefits most from these services? (The wealthy? Huge companies?) How will they affect the funding and use of public transportation? What will happen to cities? To urban sprawl? To the economically disadvantaged?

Dorothea Lange’s photos of Japanese Americans’ imprisonment during WWII

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2016

Lange Japanese Internment

Lange Japanese Internment

In 1942, the US government hired Dorothea Lange (of Migrant Mother fame) to take photos of the removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Although Lange quit after a few months because government censors wouldn’t let her shoot images of barbed wire and the bayonets on guards’ guns, she took hundreds of photos documenting this shameful moment in American history.

Famous for her forlorn images of Dust Bowl America, this pioneering female photographer was hired by the War Relocation Authority in 1942 to document the removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans. Although her skill at candid portraiture was unparalleled, “Lange was an odd choice, given her leftist politics and strong sympathy for victims of racial discrimination,” writes scholar Megan Asaka. The position was a challenging one for Lange as well. “Appalled by the forced exile, she confided to a Quaker protestor that she was guilt stricken to be working for a federal government that could treat its citizens so unjustly.”

The WRA initially gave Lange little instruction about where and what to shoot, but controlled and censored her while she was at work. When documenting life inside the assembly centers and concentration camps, she was prohibited from taking shots of barbed wire and bayonets. Unable to tolerate this censorship and her own conflicted feelings about the work, Lange quit after just a few months of employment with the WRA.

Less ashamed at what they’d done and more worried about PR backlash, the government embargoed Lange’s photos until 1972.

If this all makes you think of some recent comments about Muslims from a certain Republican presidential candidate, history may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.

Update: Ansel Adams also took dozens of photos of the Japanese American interment camp at Manzanar.

Adams Japanese Internment Camp

So did photographer Toyo Miyatake, who was among the prisoners at Manzanar.

Miyatake Japanese Internment

The exclusion order forced Miyatake, his wife and four children, to the concentration camp at Manzanar. He was able to store his photographic equipment but managed to smuggle a camera lens and film plate holder into the camp against government orders. Miyatake told his son Archie that he felt it was his duty to document camp life. An Issei carpenter in camp constructed a box to house the lens, and Miyatake was able to get film into camp by way of a hardware salesman and former client. The photographer eventually asked camp director Ralph Merritt if he could set up a photo studio, and Merritt, who learned about Miyatake from Edward Weston, consented with the provision that Miyatake only load and set the camera, and a Caucasian assistant snap the shutter. Eventually, that restriction was lifted, and Miyatake was designated official camp photographer, and granted the freedom to take photos of everyday life at Manzanar.

Miyatake and Adams met at the camp and began a collaboration. Lange and Adams were friends — he printed Migrant Mother for her — and she was instrumental in convincing Adams to document Manzanar. But she was also critical of his detached approach:

In 1961, Lange said about Adams’s taking landscape pictures at the Manzanar Relocation Center: “It was shameful. That’s Ansel. He doesn’t have much sense about these things.”

(thx, @gen and samuel)

Immigrants share their biggest surprises about US culture

posted by Jason Kottke   May 11, 2016

Serena Solomon grew up in Australia and when she moved to the US, she was shocked at the number of products sold at American grocery stores. Solomon recently asked other immigrants to share their biggest surprises about American culture. From a French welder:

It is so frustrating here. Nothing is easy. Nothing is efficient. To pay rent, you have to use a check? I have never written a check. The last time I got a check was maybe 20 years ago, from my granddad. Getting an apartment takes so long as opposed to other countries I have lived in where it’s just a handshake. That’s it. I went to the post office yesterday, and I was waiting in line for maybe an hour — and there were only five people in front of me. I felt like I went from a Western country to a third-world country. People here with money have access to things. The rest of the people are just trying to survive.

Food is a big difference for some:

Food-wise, I noticed us all getting these round faces from the bad food we ate. We did not realize it, because it was the standard and you think because it’s advertised and readily available it can’t be bad for you. We were so ignorant coming from South Africa, eating home cooked food every night over there. Then, once we got here, we ate those corn dogs almost every day for lunch, little pizzas for snacks, and sugary cereals for breakfast.

Reminds me of Cup of Jo’s excellent series about how parenthood differs around the world.

The Concentric States of America

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 20, 2016

Concentric States

From Neil Freeman, proprietor of the excellent Fake is the New Real, a map of the continental United States with the 50 states reorganized into concentric circles of equal population.

See also the map accompanying Parag Khanna’s recent piece, A New Map for America, which calls for the creation of seven mega-regions centered around metropolitan clusters in place of the lower 48 states: the Pacific Coast, the Inland West, the Great Plains, the Gulf Coast, the Great Lakes, the Southeast Manufacturing Belt, and the Great Northeast.

7 States Of America

These days, in the thick of the American presidential primaries, it’s easy to see how the 50 states continue to drive the political system. But increasingly, that’s all they drive — socially and economically, America is reorganizing itself around regional infrastructure lines and metropolitan clusters that ignore state and even national borders. The problem is, the political system hasn’t caught up.

America faces a two-part problem. It’s no secret that the country has fallen behind on infrastructure spending. But it’s not just a matter of how much is spent on catching up, but how and where it is spent. Advanced economies in Western Europe and Asia are reorienting themselves around robust urban clusters of advanced industry. Unfortunately, American policy making remains wedded to an antiquated political structure of 50 distinct states.

To an extent, America is already headed toward a metropolis-first arrangement. The states aren’t about to go away, but economically and socially, the country is drifting toward looser metropolitan and regional formations, anchored by the great cities and urban archipelagos that already lead global economic circuits.

Holy shit, could you imagine? Most of America would have a fit over this.

Speaking is Difficult

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 15, 2016

From The Intercept and director A.J. Schnack, a simple and powerful short film about more than a dozen mass shootings that have occurred in the US since 2011.

A scene of tragedy unfolds, accompanied by fear, chaos and disbelief. As Speaking is Difficult rewinds into the past, retracing our memories, it tells a story about a cumulative history that is both unbearable and inevitable.

Fuck, that was difficult to watch. When Sandy Hook came up, I just lost it. We should be deeply deeply ashamed that that happened and we did nothing about it.

A brief history of America and Cuba

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 12, 2016

As the US and Cuba move toward becoming BFFs again (or at least members of the same #squad), it’s a good time to review the history between the two countries, which includes slavery, the Spanish-American War, and the Cold War-era series of fiascos.

Map of the United Repositioned States

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 10, 2016

US Scrambled Map

Randall Munroe has made a map of the United States with all of the states in different places but still retaining the same general shape. Particularly clever is the Michigan/Maryland combo to recreate the Bay Area.

The sad state of US gun violence, explained in 7 minutes

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 02, 2016

One of the video’s main points:

It’s not that America has much more crime. It’s that crime in the US is much more lethal.

Similar to a sentiment I tweeted out a few months ago:

Easy access to guns turns bad moods, bad politics, bad religion, bad brain chemistry, and bad ideas into murder.

(via @atul_gawande)