That brings us to what will probably be the wrap-up—but who knows. Here are several more messages, starting with a long one, about further extracting Rome-and-America comparisons and contrasts:

1) “The empire made the emperors.” In my article, I said that since World War II the United States has run an “empire without the name.” A historically minded reader draws out the implications:

First, it’s entirely appropriate, as you do, to compare the Roman and American empires—even though the US rules its empire as Romans of the republican (not imperial) era did.  

In other words, the US empire is an “empire of obedience.” It uses all manner of tools to persuade semi-independent states and other groups to do its bidding, rather than directly governing territories within formal borders. Direct governance and a formalization of borders occurred under the Roman princeps (emperors).

Second, while it’s convenient to date the “fall” of the western Roman empire, it’s not especially useful from an analytic perspective. The western empire had been decentralizing for quite some time, while “barbarians” had been effectively ruling parts of it, directly and indirectly.   



It’s critical to note these groups did not conceive of themselves as “invading” or seeking to “overthrow” Roman rule. By and large, they were forced to enter Roman territory by other attackers. Their rulers were also, by and large, Romanized. They largely ruled in cooperation with local Roman elites and using Roman techniques. Odoacer positioned himself as a local Roman ruler formally subservient to the emperor in Constantinople.

What happened in the West was very different from what happened in the East, when the truly “foreign” armies of Islam invaded and conquered territory ….

Third, it’s a bit of a stretch to say decentralization that happened in the 4th and 5th centuries was necessary for developments that came into their own 1,000 years later. There were guild-like groups in 1st century Rome. The Romans appear to have developed fairly sophisticated credit systems and engaged in long-range trade. Monasteries flourished in the eastern empire, which remained quite centralized and even more heavily militarized. And so on.   

Could all of this had developed in something like the direction it took if the Roman state had not succumbed, over many years, to internal and external pressures? It’s impossible to say. But I also think it’s impossible to say it wouldn’t have.

In my mind, here’s the most relevant lesson from Rome for current US developments: The emperors didn’t make the empire. The empire made the emperors.   

The US has had an emperor for decades, both through the taking of power and, more importantly (and in Roman fashion), through Congress delegating its powers to him. Trump’s willingness to use those powers has revealed what has been the case for some time.

2) “Last Bastion of Democracy.” The message below represents many I’ve received  to similar effect, about what America’s fate might mean for China’s influence.

I’ll bet that the majority of people who lived under Roman rule and were not rich by their historic standards would argue that after Rome’s fall most of everything went to the crapper. Although the Romans were brutal at times, those under their rule were largely protected by Rome’s legions at the request of the local governor ….

Suggesting that America’s fall might not be so bad based on Rome’s fall and what occurred afterwards ignores the presence of Russia and China in the world today ………..

imagine a world without one of the last bastions of democracy, the one that feeds innovation and who has fed a large part of the world for decades. A world run by Putin and Xi, yea right, that would be pretty.

3)  “Goths were very popular.” A reader who is conducting historical research, and who prefaces his note with an (unnecessary) apology for errors in English he might make as a non-native speaker, writes about why “barbarian” cultures spread so rapidly in Rome’s absence:

I just read Ammianus Marcellinus’ account (among many others) of the accelerated decline of the Empire in the second half of the 4th century and how it lead to its fall a century later.

One fact seldom mentioned about Romanity and Greco-Roman culture is how the people that lived under it seemed to deeply hate it.

A reoccurring fact of the era is how local populations defected to the barbarian tribes massively. People joined the Goths, the Lombards, the Franks and even the Huns in their wars against their own country! Goths were very popular among the population, even when then besieged Rome, we hear about the Roman plebs joining forces with their attackers. Whole provinces that had been deeply Romanised, even colonized by Romans adopted Barbarian customs so quickly it looks like they were not conquered but liberated. Gaul, Italy, Moesia (in today’s Bulgaria) went over the Barbarians in some cases as fast as a generation. By the 6th century, Italians—Italians!—were proud to call themselves Lombards. …

There are many reasons for that; the institution of slavery, the degradation and corruption of civic institutions and services, the turbulent switch from a multireligious Empire to a monotheist and rigidly orthodox quasi-Theocracy.

From reading A. Marcellinus, I was surprised to learn that in fact, Roman civilisation at that point was only working were the emperor was currently residing. As soon as the emperor moved, law, order and good administration collapsed. This is probably why the Emperors in the 4th century were constantly on the move ….

1) My takeaway from decades-ago reading was that European technology, commerce, wealth surpassed Roman levels around 1100 or so. If that’s right, there was a dark age in concrete senses. The trend among historians I read in graduate school was to push the Renaissance back earlier and earlier, but not to deny that there were losses requiring a renaissance.

Then again, who knows, maybe they were wrong, and/or current revisionism has shrunk the dark age (rightly or questionably)  to nothing.

2. If the U.S. federal government continues its descent it will probably take malign forms that will suffocate or actively crush effective local government and other cultural capital. …

5. The question of whether our federal government is on a permanent downward trajectory raises the question of risk/reward in the most radical proposed norm-breaking for a narrow Democratic majority: filibuster end, new state creation [JF note: eg, Puerto Rico, D.C., court packing]. Maybe we’re at the point where risk-taking is the most prudent course—a grab to activate the emerging demographic majority before Republicans manage to suppress democracy altogether.

7. Environmental pressure—rising seas, desertification, natural disasters—is probably already driving and will continue driving government dysfunction, while government dysfunction accelerates environmental degradation.

I am not entirely despairing. It’s always hard to tell what ills are cyclical and which ones are one-way streets. No one in the 1980s would have dreamed that crime in the U.S. would go into major remission; maybe mysterious forces will dissipate extreme polarization—and we’ll build new defenses against fake news/brainwashing in free societies. Maybe major technological breakthrough (or an ice age) will save us from global warming.

But it’s hard to get too cheery about compensations for [the end of] a functioning federal government.

The new print issue of the magazine has a short thought-experiment article, by me, on what happened after the fall of the Roman empire. (As I point out, this concerned the Western empire only—the one based in Italy, and the one Edward Gibbon described in The Decline and Fall. The Eastern empire, based in Constantinople, had many more centuries to run.)

In a first round of reader responses, historians and others reacted (mainly) to the article’s (intentionally overstated) headline, “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.” And in a second round, a veteran of governance issues named Eric Schnurer argued that a renewed focus on local-level renewal and innovation was proper, since localities were the only places where innovation had ever occurred.

Here is another round, on the point I mainly hoped the article would raise: how Americans, ever optimistic about the rebound capacity of their perpetually self-reinventing system, should think about the possibility that “it’s different this time,” and that national-level governance might finally be strained beyond its rebound abilities. Over to the readers:

1) Civil servants still want to serve. In my article I quoted Philip Zelikow, of the University of Virginia, on the difference between national-level and local officials. At the state, local, and regional level, Zelikow said, elected and career officials have no choice but to work together and actually solve problems. Whereas at the national level, politics is more and more about culture war—“who you like, who you hate, which side you’re on,” as Zelikow put it.

My grandparents came here with nothing. I’m an age of rising tides; my parents had the grit and good fortune to grant me and my brothers and sisters every reasonable opportunity, and then some.

That’s fundamentally why I entered public service, and that’s fundamentally why I remain in public service. I am grateful, and feel a responsibility to give back.

Your essay, comparing our federal state to Rome in its age of decline, strikes a chord, and in doing so fills me with an undeniable melancholy.

I push back against Zelikow’s “which side are you on” fatalism about national governance, even as I admit I see evidence of it all around me.

2) “Optimates” vs. “Populares”: The battle goes on. From a history professor of my own Boomer generation:

I have been thinking about that [Roman] period quite a bit lately, as we see the collapse of societal norms and the failure of many central governments to actually govern.

I see the present as actually more in parallel to the fall of the republic in the first century B.C.E.

At that time, the empire had begun to take form, with vast amounts of wealth pouring into the center, but mainly enriching the senatorial oligarchs. The men who had fought the wars were forced off their land, which came to be farmed on vast plantations by slaves. The new global order failed the yeomen, mainly because the rich, who controlled the government, refused to relinquish any of their wealth to help the impoverished citizens.

The society broke into two warring parties: Optimates and Populares (the “Best” and the “People”). They engaged in wars with each other, mobilizing personal armies, and violence came to be used as a means of government with leaders of each side being killed by mobs, culminating in the death of Julius Caesar. The society had become so divided that in the end, the only way to govern was by autocratic rule: Augustus.

I fear that we are near that point, and that a demagogue will arise who has more shrewdness than our current demagogue-wannabe. Trump has blazed the pathway that others can well follow.

Trump’s party represents the Optimates—the wealthy—but we could just as well see a leader representing the Populares come to power. Think if Huey Long had been successful in the 1930s. Populism can cut both ways; call them national populism and social populism …

We are seeing the breakdown of liberal democracy across the world, as happened in the 1930s. It was finally restored after a decade of slaughter. It may not be restored again. At the least, something new has to take form, and that will not come from our generation.

One interesting parallel to the period that you do discuss in your piece is that the “barbarians” were not invading the empire to loot and pillage. Mainly, they wanted to share in the wealthy and stable Roman society, get a bit of land for their people, and be secure from tribes like the Huns on the other side of the border. They knew Rome very well; many of their leaders had been leaders in the Roman armies, and many were Roman citizens. The Vandals were not really that vandalous …

In the same way, people are now migrating en masse into Europe and the U.S. in pursuit of better lives, to participate in the wealthy and stable Western societies, to escape poverty and brutality.

Climate change plays a significant role in driving people out of their homelands, and that will only become worse over time. Another factor, of course, is Western as well as internecine wars (think Iraq and Syria), and Western support of brutal governments (Central America).

But the influx of a mass of outsiders into the Roman empire (especially the western part) did ultimately lead to the breakdown of the wealth and stability they had come for.

There were many reasons for this, including intertribal battling among the newcomers and the disappearance of the Roman legions as a controlling force, but there was a continuing social disintegration and insecurity. The stable Roman civitas crumbled, quickly in some places (Britain) and more slowly in others (Gaul). I am not bringing this up to agree with Trump’s mantra to “build the wall” (which is folly—the Romans tried in some places), but rather to stress that we must have a rational immigration policy and consensus that prevents destabilization. Mass immigration creates nationalist anger, which is fuel for nationalist demagogues.

As the Roman society disintegrated, government did become ever more localized. That worked for a while in some places (like France), but in time trade shrank, education declined, government services passed away, and instability increased.

One could imagine some parts of the U.S. doing quite well for a time without a federal government, but other parts might do very poorly. Infrastructure would fall apart, as it did in post-Roman Europe. More people would flow across unpoliced borders, adding to the disruption and to the reactions. This would not play well in a society as well armed as the U.S.

No one knew that “Rome had fallen” when Odoacer brushed aside the grandly named Romulus Augustulus in 476, only that the Germans now ruled Italy in name as they had in fact for the past decades. Even in our own long lives, can we know what history might see as having passed in our lifetimes, perhaps that we are now at the transition from the 500-year Modern Age into what-we-do-not-know (as John Lukacs has written)? Life went on, as for the frog in boiling water whom you have analyzed …

Several hundred years after the fall of Rome, new forms and new states began to take shape amid the ruins, and by the 12th century, western Europe was again thriving. But it was a long and difficult time between the fall of the empire and the rise of Europe. I would not wish that on my children and grandchildren, or on theirs.

The long-term results of the failure of governance we are living through will be regrettable, though perhaps as necessary as the Dark Ages.

3) The new corporate “nationality.” A Westerner who has lived for years in Japan writes about the local-versus-national tensions within the United States:

One idea is to reorganize the 50 states into seven regions that match the baby bells created when AT&T was broken up … The merits to such a reorganization are to unify many basic services: Do we really need 50 DMVs and 50 Medicaid programs and who knows how many other layers of bureaucracy that get repeated state by state? This could enhance basic services at the subnational level … On the other hand, it may create the equivalent of seven proconsuls competing among themselves to follow Rome’s decline into empire …

What seems more likely to me to occur over the next 50 years, and something that I oppose, is a rift, with sovereign-individual stance married to the corporatization of society …

Instead of citizenship being based on contiguous borders, our lives are bounded by what membership card(s) we carry. I can go to an Amazon condominium after buying dinner at Whole Foods paid for by my Amazon coins via my Kindle and travel in my Amazon car ad infinitum. And if I am a Sapphire member, better deals as I jump from location to location but stay in the Amazon or Apple or Goggle or Facebook or whatever bubble. When a person uses an “out of service” provider, of course rates go up, and pity the people who cannot afford/are rejected in their membership bids. Blade Runner marries Brave New World.

Finally, on the question of if this time is different compared with other times due to change! change! change! Yes and no. I believe that in past periods, starting around 1870, in these early periods, the degree of change was much greater than now. No electricity versus Wi-Fi and rechargeable batteries; no telephones/movies/radios versus watching reality TV on your cellphone, etc., etc.

But the pace of change does seem to be much faster and disconcerting for all generations. This deserves further explanation, but who has the time to read, let alone write … ?

4) Let’s talk about ideology, and class. Another academic writes (in a message I am substantially boiling down):

1) I have spent the past seven years studying the Eastern Roman empire, which is usually called “Byzantium,” and which Gibbon himself dismissed as basically the 1,000-year decline of the Roman empire.

His is a monstrous oversimplification, and it has degraded our understanding of ancient/medieval history ever since Gibbon’s own day (1776), just as Adam Smith’s dismissal of the timelessness of mercantilism has degraded our English-speaking understanding of ancient/medieval economics ever since the same time (1776). [JF note: On the Adam Smith point, check out this article, by me, from 25-plus years ago.]

Given what is already well known about how the U.S. so-called Founding Fathers (itself an egregious simplification of the revolutionary generation) understood the transition of republican Rome into the empire, before we sink our teeth into late-antique history, it might be worth remembering that our understanding of the past, especially the more distant past, is ALWAYS (and has always been) subject to the political machinations of the present, and even historians’ own careers aren’t guided so much by how well they interpret the past, but by how well their interpretations suit the sensibilities of the times in which they happen to be writing …

[JF note: Leaving out point No. 2, a long discourse on the difficulty of understanding the real life of peasants in different eras of history.]

3) Generations are important for understanding deep history. For the past 70 years, young generations of Americans have been told that they ought to be living better than their parents. That was fine for the Boomers and for Gen Xers, but this is clearly not the case for Millennials.

So we were lied to. Big surprise. So were the generations who fought for and against Prohibition, slavery, and Unionization (and for Odoacer as well, arguably). Why else would (according to the 1860 U.S. census) a majority of non-slave-owning Southern whites sign up to fight for the cause of Confederate slavery at the outbreak of the American Civil War? …

4) Let’s not forget the power of ideology in the present. In the fifth-century present, Christianity (and Judaism and the various forms of Paganism) was as much part and parcel of social cornerstones as the ideology of the “American dream,” “intersectionality,” and “MAGA” is today …

The point is that we should never underestimate the power of ideology to bind people to a common cause, whether in the fifth century, the 11th century, or the 21st century. Ultimately, we as historians dismiss the significance of religion (and collective conviction) at our own peril.

5) Finally, class. With the rapid adoption of Christian laws and social structures throughout the Roman empire during and after the fourth century, the rigid laws fossilized a system of landowners (fief holders) and land workers (peasants).

The road to serfdom is something that ever since Hayek has been capitalized by the likes of Ayn Rand and her disciples, but it truly begins with the rules that one class lives by and another class lives above.

This may sound quite Marxist, but that’s because it is. Without centralized regulations, we automatically return to a system of landowners and toilers, whether we call them ancient/medieval sharecroppers or modern bartenders. When ideology is co-opted by the elites to perpetuate their children to inherit their elite status (whether we call it aristocracy or meritocracy), we return to the so-called Dark Ages.

This is not simply “Marxism”; it is historical materialism. And it is the only actually reliable guide to studying the past that we have ever truly innovated since the time of Marcus Aurelius.

5) “I believe in America.” And, finally, quite a different view of the ever present, ever reinterpreted past:

While many of us continue to do so, an alarming number of Americans have fallen victim to the in-vogue critique that “woe is me” and things are awful.

For some, this is a reality. I read stories about the homeless problem in major U.S. cities, how drug addiction and tolerance of theft are literally robbing thriving communities of their once-proud fortitude of citizenship. I read daily how Big Tech companies are continuing to mislead the American public about how they monitor and police speech and content their employees regard as offensive, and God knows what with our personal information …

But what I mostly don’t see now is pride—pride in how fortunate we are to live in this country. It’s called gratitude …

Talk to someone middle-aged who grew up in Soviet Eastern Europe, and you’ll find out quickly why they left for America. We now live in a world where we can get anything we want, at any time of the day. Nearly all buildings and houses have central air-conditioning. Transportation is readily available for everyone. The economy is currently booming with employment we haven’t seen in three generations. Murder rates are at all-time lows. There hasn’t been a serious threat to the homeland in 19 years. There’s a new superhero movie out every three months in theaters. Netflix programming has people indulging on their couches more than ever.

Most people who are angry and disheartened have never known a world like the Dark Ages, the Black Plague, serfdom, smallpox, the Great Depression, WWII, or even the height of the Cold War. And we have room to complain that America sucks?

One of the reasons the Roman empire fell was not because of physical overextension by the state (which is true), but by its people taking for granted what the Roman empire had done for the modern world …

Is it any coincidence many of the founding era sought to emulate Roman law and antiquity as they established the republican virtues and culture of the 1780s to the 1820s? And what’s more, many of the Founders warned, much like the scholars of latter-day Rome, what would likely be the downfall of the continent and our country: indifference and ingratitude from within for what America meant as an idea …

The truth, in my opinion, is that 9/11 sapped us of our confidence. And the ensuing years of lies, mismanaged wars, and bank bailouts; an incoherent foreign policy over multiple administrations; and now the rise of brash and offensive populism in both ideological camps have Americans feeling more anxious than ever …

Perhaps we should be devoting much more to teaching civics again, and appreciating the separation of powers, appreciating why men like James Madison, George Mason, John Adams, Gouverneur Morris, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington matter so much that it is in our individual interest to be informed of who they were and what they did to establish the freedoms we often take for granted.

More so, it’s about time we recognize African American contributions during the founding era, too. In spite of their plight, we should be recognizing Peter Salem, Phillis Wheatley, James Armistead Lafayette, and James Forten. We should be embracing the fact that the Continental Army of 1781 was color-blind; that it stood about one-fifth African American at the Siege of Yorktown is extraordinary. Or that women and some African Americans were voting in New Jersey prior to 1807…

When we stop paying attention to all of the noise, and when we regain our focus, the fog will begin to clear, and King’s pronouncement of seeking to reach “the promised land” will once again ring loudly for those of us who are yearning for a more perfect union: one of freedom and liberty for all.

What’s the point of writing a “thought experiment” article, like mine in the current issue about the bright side of the Dark Ages?

It’s to generate some thoughts! On top of the first round of responses—which were variations on “Actually, the Dark Ages were pretty dark”—here is a stand-alone. It is from my longtime friend Eric Schnurer, who has worked in and written extensively (including for The Atlantic) about governance at all levels, from the local to the global.

He writes now about the proper lessons to be drawn from comparing modern America’s prospects to those of Rome, after the fall. What follows is a long but highly condensed version of his note. I would direct your attention to the place where he ends his argument: Local innovation is important now, and always has been. The difference now is the potential and scale of global/local connections.

Over to Schnurer. I have added some subheads in bold to highlight the stages of his argument—which, again, I hope you’ll think through to the end:

I read with interest your piece on the fall of the Roman empire … in part because of the fact that you were really discussing a number of contemporary issues of obvious interest to me.

It’s not the fall of the Roman empire we should worry about. It’s the fall of the Roman republic. One could argue that the fall of Rome wasn’t so “awful” [JF note: This is Edward Gibbons’s term], because, by that time, Rome was pretty “awful” itself. The empire’s peak— particularly the heights of both power and intellectual advance of the Five Good Emperors—was long behind it.

However much as I may like Trajan and Marcus Aurelius (and I always found it interesting that Gladiator set its story in this period, and has Russell Crowe restore democracy at the end, as if to fantasize how great Rome would be if the history we know had simply ended after Trajan and we then got to go back to the republic … ), Rome’s true greatness begins and ends for me (and I suspect for you and most of your readers) with the Roman republic. In fact, I don’t think the problem with the U.S. today is that it resembles Rome at the end of the empire, but rather that it resembles Rome at the end of the republic.

Or, rather, not long before, with the rise of the Gracchi—the increasing economic inequality, the increasing political polarization, the total eclipse of “the greater good” by what we’d call “special interests,” the turn toward political violence, all of which led eventually to the spiral of destructive civil war, the collapse of democracy (such as it was), and the wholesale replacement of the system with the imperial dictatorship: Looks a lot like the present moment to me …

The real question: Where is America headed? Sure, you can talk about the growth of monasteries and universities in the Dark Ages as a wonderful thing, but (a) what we really mean by that is how wonderful it is that there were islands of light in what was otherwise a sea of darkness, (b) that darkness went on a long time, (c) what came out of it, which you/we now celebrate as the result, was essentially:

What I actually find more interesting is what your piece says about where we’re headed, which is what I’ve been focusing on, lo! these many years.

Seeing the world through a distorted 20th-century lens. I think there’s a tendency—especially among people of your/my generation [JF note: For me, the dreaded Baby Boomers]—to see major change and progress coming in large-scale, centralized, and particularly federal efforts.

This is a warping effect that the civil-rights and Vietnam eras, with a dose of coming-right-after-the-FDR-era, has had on our understanding of U.S. history.

I’ve seen it in myself and like-minded peers who went into law to change the world and discovered, by the time we got out of law school, that the court system is reactionary and basically always has been that way, except for about six years; the idea that the Supreme Court is the great instrument for social advance that gets us around the parochial-ness of our politics has it exactly backwards.

This is symptomatic of a larger misperception: Yes, great changes come suddenly and on a grand scale—but to say that that’s “the change” is to misunderstand the chaotic nature of all systems.

Sand piles collapse all at once, scientific revolutions occur due to sudden “paradigm shifts,” civil-rights and Reagan revolutions and the rise of Trump/Brexitism burst on the scene—but these are long-term dynamics that may have large-scale effects but play out on the level of individual grains of sand.

There’s a great George Bernard Shaw line about the moment of success occurring long before the moment that it is apparent to the crowd; this is true of just about everything. Brown v. Board took 40 years of small litigation steps—not to mention dramatic changes throughout society, including the integration of the armed forces during and after WWII, just as the massive mobilizations of the peasantry in the Napoleonic Wars led eventually to the democratization of Europe. The big events are the capstones—they are always driven and made possible by small-scale, localized innovations that eventually flow together into what is by then an inevitable deluge.

Brown’s and Scheidel’s celebration of the breakup of the empire as allowing local innovations strikes me as wrong in the same sort of way: These local innovations are always occurring, because that’s where innovation occurs.

This is like the discussion I’m having these days with my 26-year-old niece, who wants to go overturn the entire capitalist and food-production systems to bring about the millennium; having once been 26, I get it, but I have to keep telling her that, with rare exceptions like the Russian Revolution, French Revolution, Taiping Kingdom, etc., you rarely get to upheave the entire system all at once—and when you do, it usually doesn’t turn out too well … In any event, my argument would really be that all of those were not sudden upheavals, any more than Trump’s election was; they were simply culminations of longer trends that started from smaller scale “innovations.”

The enlightening place to look is always local. If you want to know where the world is headed, you need to find the unknown lunatics toiling away in a lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, or a patent office in Basel, or a garage in Menlo Park, California, or the mayor’s office in South Bend—not what the world leaders and experts are saying … I don’t know if finding what people are up to should be encouraging of optimism—I mean, some local innovation includes some bizarre people meeting in Munich beer halls who a decade later launch WWII—but it’s instructive …

Local is where most people always choose to get involved: It’s not just the current dysfunctionality that channels most people into school-board meetings instead of seeking to draft new national legislation. Some small number of crazy people like you and me are drawn to the latter, but that’s a distinct minority, always has been, and always will be.

My work has brought me into contact with people all around the country who were thinking about productive little ideas about how to improve their neighborhoods, their kid’s school, their small business and how it affected their workers, etc. … My contribution has been largely in recognizing them and thinking, Hey, that would make a great basis for a “program” that my candidate could propose, scale up, and fund as governor!

I eventually concluded—as has anyone I know who has thought about government systems from the standpoint of achieving results instead of promoting one’s career—that what state and (ESPECIALLY) national governments do is simply to fund to-scale solutions someone else has discovered, tested, and proved at an “atomic” level …

The way to make a contribution is to go start a school that works, or a neighborhood organization that solves a problem …

Coming to a “point of rupture,” which sounds bad, but … And that takes us to where we’re actually headed as a result. You quote Morley Winograd talking about “networked localities” taking control of global policy. I think that’s sorta correct: In the Aztec language, there’s a phenomenon of two words being placed together to mean something both synergistic and different from the words separately; e.g., “the flower the song” meant “poetry,” and “the water the fire” meant “conquest” or “destruction.”

I think you need to look at your/Winograd’s phrase networked localities in the same way: It’s not just, or even, about the devolution to localities—the “networked” part is essential, and changes the meaning.

Your own work focuses very much on local action and innovation; I’ve been arguing that the virtual world fundamentally changes all of this: It undermines territorial structures like nation-states and the new world order—in that way, Brexit, Scottish devolution, California and even cities going their own way on the Paris accords, cities globally becoming the players rather than nation-states, etc., are all foreseeable developments …

I think we will start developing worldwide “communities” that are not physically connected, but rather are “localized” in the sense of being nodes of innovation or communication or consumption or whatever in a non-physically-contiguous/nonphysical network …

And that’s ultimately what the post-empire question is about. The entire system of civilization as we know it—not simply “the American empire”—is coming to a point of rupture. There may very well be a largely recognizable U.S. at the end of it (although I doubt it), but that will be irrelevant, because the world in which that U.S. is embedded—its political structures, its economic structures, its entire intellectual framework, and its physical manifestations—will all have changed as radically as the 13th century is from today.

And all that massive change will happen massively more quickly than in the 13th century … I write and talk about stuff like this, and people think it sounds “awful” and scary. Where I perhaps share a bit of your optimism is that I don’t.

Sure, the entire world as we know it being wiped away sounds scary, but it’s not necessarily “awful.” If you told people in the 13th century about the world today—family, church, village, political overlord, entire basis of the economy, entire intellectual framework (“Evolution?” “Relativity?” “Quantum mechanics?”), all as you knew them completely gone—they’d think that 100 percent awful. But do you know a single person who would rather be living in the 13th century than today?

The new issue of the print magazine contains a story by me called “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.”

The title (which, like most titles, I didn’t write) represented (like many titles) intentional overstatement-for-effect. But the point of the piece was to suggest that maybe Americans should shift the way they talked and thought about the Roman Empire as a metaphor for this country.

For as long as there has been an American republic, some Americans have worried about its impending Roman-style decline and fall. I said: What about the time after Rome fell? What could we learn by imagining ourselves in our version of the Dark Ages—with a failed system of central governance, and life going on at the duchy-by-duchy, monastery-by-monastery level, which for us would mean cities, states, and regions?

You can read the whole thing yourself—and it isn’t even very long. Readers have weighed in with a range of views.

In this first roundup, I’ll highlight only critical ones. You’ll see some common themes here, expressed with clarity and erudition that make it a privilege to reach this kind of readership—even when, as now, they’re giving me a hard time writing in to disagree. I’ll have a brief response at the end.

Oh my, you dove into a nasty controversy here. While scholars like Peter Brown and Walter Goffart make an  interesting case about “transition,” people like Bryan Ward-Perkins have made what I think is a more compelling case about “collapse of civilization.”

I know you are on a pitch about the renewal of our country at the local level. I think that is wishful thinking, but whatever. But the Roman example is a doleful one. Yes, some institutions thrived, but people didn’t. They became poorer, less secure, and less literate.

Seeing the Fall/Transition of the Roman empire as anything other than a human catastrophe is an interesting academic exercise, but let’s keep it at that.

The indispensable book on the end of Rome in the West is Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall Of Rome and the End of Civilization.  It’s a very short book, it’s important, and it’s fun to read.

One key observation: in the 4th century, an impoverished Italian shepherd ate his dinner on imported tableware, drank imported wine and seasoned his salad with imported oil. He covered his roof (and maybe his manger’s roof as well) in mass-produced roof tiles. In the 6th century, the proudest possessions of kings were fancy safety pins, and their palaces were wooden halls with thatched roofs. In the years of the Empire, Rome imported so much olive oil that the 53 million decommissioned amphorae now form the hill of Monte Testaccio. In the eighth, kings made do with whatever the local brewers could manage, and poured for their guests from decorated beakers made next door.

In the fourth century, Romans built the Old St. Peters and repurposed the Lateran; it’s been through lots of rebuilding but the Roman building was about the modern size.  It’s big. In the sixth century, they built Santa Maria In Aracoeli—a small building, constructed on some of Rome’s prime real estate out of mismatched scraps and bits of junk. The junk was nicer than anything money could buy.  And they built S. Agnese fuori-le-mura, which is the size of a nice house.

A Pompeiian perfume-seller left us long brothel graffiti as a tribute to a lovely evening. Lots of poor people left us graffiti. Charlemagne never quite managed to learn to write.

To the best of my knowledge, we know too little about what happened to North Africa in this era. It wasn’t pretty. In the second century, North Africa was a real economic powerhouse and a huge food exporter. The irrigation system was wrecked in battles over tax cuts for wealthy estate-owners, and that was that. It was an ecological disaster that made the Western Empire unsupportable.

I’m not sure that the delocalization of governance in the West is an encouraging lesson, either. Yes, there were bright spots—Lindesfarne, Kells, Aachen, Kyev—but they were bright in contrast to the prevailing misery. Look at the opening of The Ruin (trans. Aaron Hostetter https://anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/the-ruin/):

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon; burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc. Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,

Whoever wrote this knew more than we about what living in the 8th century was like, and he seems pretty certain that things had once been better than they were.

I enjoyed reading your recent article “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad”, but if I may suggest, I think you are seriously conflating the outcome (modern society) with the experience of the people actually living through that time.

The relative paucity of written history and literature from the time shortly after the end of the Roman Empire or the general loss of Roman control in the outlying territories such as Britain and North Africa doesn’t leave us a lot of descriptions of what life was like in the 400s, 500s, or 600s, but what we do know is that populations dropped sharply, the quality of building and art decreased substantially, and there was the aforementioned almost complete absence of writing, excepting perhaps a few monasteries.

Since presumably people don’t actually vanish, this suggests strongly that there was a period of starvation, disease, and generalized violence that caused the decline in population and the local populaces to simply focus on staying alive, rather than having a relatively rich society able to indulge in luxuries like the theater, writing, and grand monument construction.

Consider that Rome, a city of probably around a million people at its height, had declined to around 5,000 people by the time of Justinian’s attempt to reconquer Italy in the 500s and at one point in these conflicts may have been completely deserted. The territories of the former Roman empire had transformed from a sophisticated trading network where massive (for the time) cities could be supported by farms hundreds of miles away, to one where people were literally farming and grazing cattle in the ruins of the Roman Forum. You don’t get to this kind of population reduction without a lot suffering along the way.

I’d suggest that rather than being “not that bad”, the conditions for the average Roman citizen and their immediate descendants in the centuries after the collapse of Roman rule were apocalyptic; more like Mad Max than Renaissance Italy. Consider that people were literally living in the ruins of a civilization far more sophisticated than their own, with no idea or knowledge of how these structures could have been built, with lives that were likely shorter and more subject to disease and starvation.

It may be true that viewed a thousand years from now, the breakup of America might be viewed as a positive thing by historians of the time.  When we look back at Rome, it’s relatively easy to leap from 476 AD to Michelangelo and Leonardo, buzzing by the intervening hundreds of years. But I’d suggest, that the immediate aftermath of a collapse of American government would be a period of starvation, of poverty, and of violence as the successor states fought over who got to control the remnants of the American military machine.

Imagine a number of chaotic, starving, impoverished nuclear armed states, not necessarily friendly to each other, with the remnants of the world’s most powerful military, and its hard to conceive that it would end well for the people living through that time.

I enjoyed your seeds-sprout-in-the-ruins piece about the possible upsides of declining federal capacity. A few thoughts/caveats:

1. My takeaway from decades-ago reading was that European technology, commerce, wealth surpassed Roman levels around 1100 or so.  If that’s right, there was a dark age in concrete senses …

2. If the U.S. federal government continues its descent it will probably take malign forms that will suffocate or actively crush effective local government and other cultural capital …

4. Someone in the last couple of years wrote up a vision of a kind of soft U.S. breakup via extended regional pacts. Ah, Google … it was Sasha Issenberg, more recently than I guessed.

5. The question of whether our federal government is on a permanent downward trajectory raises the question of risk/reward in the most radical proposed norm-breaking for a narrow Democratic majority: filibuster end, new state creation, court packing. Maybe we’re at the point where risk-taking is the most prudent course—a grab to activate the emerging demographic majority before Republicans manage to suppress democracy altogether.

7. Environmental pressure—rising seas, desertification, natural disasters—is probably already driving and will continue driving government dysfunction, while government dysfunction accelerates environmental degradation.

I am not entirely despairing. It’s always hard to tell what ills are cyclical and which ones are one-way streets. No one in the 1980s would have dreamed that crime in the U.S. would go into major remission; maybe mysterious forces will dissipate extreme polarization—and we’ll build new defenses against fake news/brainwashing in free societies. Maybe major technological breakthrough (or an ice age) will save us from global warming.

The end of the Roman Empire might have created a vacuum in which new ideas could grow, leading to the development of modern western civilization. But who’s to say the next vacuum won’t lead to the proliferation of Chinese-style authoritarianism?

Often titles are intentionally overstated, with the idea that the reader will be in on the joke. (E.g. “Why I Hope to Die at Age 75.”) And these are often “thought-experiment” pieces, designed to explore a possibility rather than to make a definitive case.

As with this piece: Everyone has heard the Decline and Fall version of the Roman saga. Not as many are familiar with another line from historians, saying “Now, wait a minute ….”  And if we talk about this other perspective, where might it lead?

This dispatch is in the form of a newsletter update, on reactions from readers and significant developments around the country on the local-renewal fronts. It follows this Fourth of July post, about Eric Liu’s argument for a revival of “civic religion,” and this post by Deb Fallows, on our increasing effort to connect, compare, combine, and in other ways “biggify” the multiple, dispersed examples of local renewal around the country.

1) “Does America need a ‘civic religion’?”: Eric Liu has long argued yes. Mike Lofgren, a longtime veteran of congressional operations, writes in to say that he begs to differ:

This subject, like the thesis that “Democrats need to talk about their faith” (I thought the Constitution banned religious tests for office), is a favorite chew-toy of centrist and left-of-center public intellectuals who fear the Republicans have stolen their clothes with all the flag-worship and similar ritualized razzmatazz. Apart from the tactical issue that the subject plays on the Right’s turf, there are fundamental objections.

Religion and modern democratic civil government do vastly different things. It is true that governing entities arose amid all manner of ritual, but they were hierarchical, and religion and state were the same thing.

Enforced ritual is essential to maintaining monarchies, class-based societies, and militaries. The Founders tried to dispense with a lot of the typical ritual of European monarchies for the new republic, such as addressing the president as Your Excellency; and Washington conspicuously wore no medals on his uniform coat.

2) Going home, to Jackson. A reporter for Mississippi Today named Larrison Campbell has been in the national news this week. She has been covering a gubernatorial candidate named Robert Foster, who has now refused to let her ride with him (unaccompanied) on a campaign swing, “out of precaution.” Precaution against—oh, it’s not worth even dignifying the claim by spelling it out.

Although this has nothing to do with the central merits of Foster’s stance, it is worth mentioning that Campbell is openly gay and is married to a woman named Courtenay. Together they are raising two young children in Jackson.

Their home in Jackson is the reason I mention this development. Last year, for Architectural Digest, Larrison Campbell wrote a very nice essay on her decision to move from Los Angeles, where she had spent nearly two decades developing a successful media career, to Mississippi, where she grew up.

Her story is, of course, unique in its particulars, but familiar in its general themes to what Deb and I have heard in many places. Campbell’s whole article is here. Some samples:

Sometimes you can be blinded by love or infatuation; friends probably thought we were [to go back to Mississippi]. But in L.A., no one’s direct enough to tell you you’re acting like a fool. Instead, half a dozen friends showed up at our going-away party with large bottles of vodka and bourbon “to help with the move.” Subtext: Adventures aren’t often easy …

Of course, Jackson has its faults. As I write this, we’re entering week two of a boil-water alert. But that doesn’t keep Jackson from being an intoxicatingly charming town. While other southern cities race to Brooklynize their downtowns with artisanal cheese shops and bespoke kitchenware stores, Jackson has remained resolutely Jackson. Yes, new places pop up, but Jackson’s best restaurants have been its best restaurants for decades …

There are signs that Jackson is recognizing its complex history. In December, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opened downtown. As the first state-sponsored civil rights museum in the country, the museum is unflinching in its presentation of history. It’s an immersive, often unsettling, experience, and one that alone is worth the trip to Jackson.

Mississippi is … the seat of Christian conservatism but also the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll. It’s a state with a low graduation rate that continues to produce a record-breaking number of writers … It’s also a place that in 2016 passed “one of the most restrictive antigay laws in the country”—the same month it welcomed my family with more warmth and generosity than any city has ever offered … And … in 2017 the city elected—with 92 percent of the vote—a 34-year-old mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, on a platform of making Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.”

To spell out what I found so resonant here (apart from the essay’s connection to the news of the day): One of the themes Deb and I continually rediscover is the powerful, enduring sense of from-ness in today’s America—the clear imprint of place, even in a country as mobile and homogeneous-seeming as modern America. People retain an awareness of where they grew up, as Larrison Campbell clearly did during her decades in L.A.— and as I have long done, as a person “from” small-town Inland Empire-California, despite decades based elsewhere. Some people actually return to those remembered places; many others at least think about it. This sensibility affects the way the country works, and how talent deploys itself city by city and state by state.

Another of those central themes, which this article clearly brings out: how much more varied and locally vivid “interior America” is than you would ever guess from the latest predictable political dispatch from “red-state America.”

3) Local journalism watch: Nothing matters more for the civic future of America than discovering a viable economic model for local journalism. Recently I mentioned one step in that direction, the new, fast-growing Report for America program.

Here is another small step: the announcement, reported by Sara Fischer in Axios, of support for a local news operation in Virginia, called The Dogwood. The $1 million investment is coming from Acronym, a nonpartisan but politically progressive nonprofit group. In a statement about the investment, the CEO of Acronym, Tara McGowan, said:

The steady decline of local news around the country, paired with the rise of misinformation being spread online has been alarming. It is our hope that digital newspapers like The Dogwood that deliver factual information and stories to people where they get their news can help fill that void and counter misinformation reaching them online.

A $1 million investment obviously won’t fill the multibillion-dollar hole left by the collapse of local print- and broadcast-advertising budgets. Similarly: One more tree that is planted, or habitat area that is preserved, won’t address the full range of global sustainability crises. But you have to start somewhere, and it’s worth paying attention to those who are starting.

4) Local arts watch: Another $1 million investment, another start. A group called Souls Grown Deep, which is based in Atlanta and whose mission is “promoting the work of African American artists from the South,” is committing the bulk of its $1 million endowment to local arts-related development and opportunity efforts in communities where those artists lived and worked. The project is in partnership with Upstart Co-Lab, a network of artists and social entrepreneurs. You can read the details of the project in this report by David Bank in Impact Alpha.

Next up, another report from the road. For now, congrats to all involved in these place-by-place efforts across the country.

They’re particularly American: Independence Day, for obvious reasons. Thanksgiving, because no one else observes it (other than Canadians, who have their own version on their own timetable), or can keep track of when it is. For Americans overseas it’s a particularly wonderful gathering day, on what the Brits or Koreans or French people around you assume is just another Thursday.

They have their rituals: In November, when it’s cold, we have the family gatherings, the pie and turkey, the stuporous sessions watching football or parades on TV. In July, when it’s hot, we have the picnics, the parades, the hot dogs, and the fireworks.

And they’re hard to screw up: For Thanksgiving, the perils are the slog of jammed travel, and the likelihood of cranky relatives, or a turkey or pie that doesn’t turn out right. For the Fourth of July, it’s mainly the chance of rain, or mishaps with firecrackers (which, yes, genuinely scare dogs and cats), or children who become cranky by the time it’s dark enough for fireworks.

It’s hard to screw up the Fourth of July—but it’s not impossible, as residents of Washington, D.C., are witnessing today. Over the decades, this holiday has been one of the least politicized, most intentionally inclusive points on the city’s calendar. I lived in Washington for a year as a toddler, when my dad, then a Navy doctor, was stationed at the Bethesda Naval Hospital during the Korean War. Long ago I saw the old, now-lost home-movie clip from the 1950s, of me and my little sister running around on the National Mall on the Fourth of July, waiting for the fireworks. When we raised our own children in D.C., we loved every summer going to the Palisades neighborhood parade along MacArthur Boulevard, which grew longer every year with groups that reflect ever-broadening aspects of D.C. life.

Local politicians would march in the parade—candidates for mayor or City Council or Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Every Scout troop and local band or hobbyist group would send in a contingent. But national politicians kept far away, the president furthest of all. The Fourth of July was for celebrating America in its flawed-but-aspirational idealism, and in its campy, jokey, small-d democratic inclusiveness. The silly neighborhood parades are parts of the rituals that let us celebrate why we love the country, for all its failures, and what it can become.

This year that ritual, at least in Washington, is disrupted, in what we hope is an aberrational display. Apart from going to  neighborhood events today, and the evening celebrations, what is another way for Americans to reclaim, and renew, the rituals that reflect what Independence Day has long stood for?

I have a reading suggestion for today, or the long weekend. It’s a short book, Become America, by my longtime friend Eric Liu, who is a co-founder of Citizen University in Seattle.

Liu, who was born to immigrant Chinese parents in Poughkeepsie, New York, was trained as a lawyer and worked as a White House policy analyst and speechwriter. Through programs, events, and writings at Citizen University, he has over the past decade-plus advanced a theory and practice of modern citizenship, which is directly addressed against the despair and cynicism that are such natural reactions to today’s cruelties and crises.

The conceptually most important part of Liu’s new book is its forthright argument that active citizenship should be a civic religion. The book consists of 19 “sermons” that Liu has delivered at the institutions he calls “Civic Saturdays.” The big idea behind the sermons, and the religious-format gathering, is Liu’s call to a level of belief and commitment similar to that of a great religion—but where the underlying faith is in the process of democracy itself.

Throughout 2016, Jená Cane and I kicked around ideas for a new civic ritual that would have the moral pull and communal feel of a faith gathering. We’re the cofounders of a nonprofit called Citizen University, whose mission is to foster a culture of powerful citizenship in the United States. (We’re also spouses!)

[After the 2016 election] we put together the first ever Civic Saturday … Civic Saturday has the arc of a faith gathering: we sing together, we turn to the strangers next to us and talk about a common question, we hear poetry and readings, there is a sermon that ties those texts to the issues and ethical choices of the times, and then we sing together again and reflect on what actions we commit to taking.

But this gathering is not about church or temple or mosque religion. It is about American civic religion: the creed of ideals stated at our nation’s founding and restated at junctures of crisis (like today), and the deeds by which we and those before us live up to the creed.

Why the analogy to faith gatherings? In part because over the millennia the major faiths have figured out something about how to help people find meaning and belonging, how to interpret texts and to reckon with the gap between our ideals and our reality, how to sustain hope and heart in a sea of cynicism and hate. And in part because we truly believe that democracy in America is an act of faith. Not faith in the divine but in the people with whom we hold the fate of this fragile experiment …

The idea that a religion is only as good as its effects can apply to American civic religion as well … [William] James at one point observes that war can summon in a people common purpose and self-sacrifice and ingenuity and he says a society needs the “moral equivalent of war.”

The other significant theme connecting Liu’s essays is their emphasis on practicalities, rituals, doing rather than wishing. As he says in one of his sermons:

Democracy, when it’s working, is a game of infinite repeat play. It never ends! We believe that it’s necessary in the face of such unending uncertainty to provide a ritual structure for belief in the possibility of democracy.

Why do we deliberately echo the elements of a faith gathering? Because that language, those forms, these rituals and habits all resonate on a deep level …

In these darkest of days, in a time when politics is so fiercely polarized, when traditional religion fuels so much fundamentalist fanaticism, we want to appreciate anew the simple miracle of democratic citizenship …

This stuff matters not simply because it answers a universal and timeless yearning for shared purpose. It matters here because it locates us atomized, amnesiac Americans in the broad scheme of history and in a larger weave of morality. It matters because the norms and institutions of democracy are being corroded from within and without.

Many of the sermons address specifics of how to convert a hazy concern about civic engagement to feasible to-do goals for the next day or week or year.

Go to your local parades. Have some hot dogs, or your food of choice. If of age, enjoy a beer. Be careful with the fireworks.

And as you reflect on whether a country observing its 243rd birthday can become a better, freer, fairer, finer version of itself, consider Eric Liu’s arguments in Become America.

On this date 11 years ago, which was Father’s Day in 2008, I posted a tribute to my own father, who was then in the final months of his extraordinary life.

I’m mentioning it again this weekend, after Deb’s and my own sons have shown themselves to be wonderful fathers, both as a holiday-themed observance and because a document I linked to in the original post has vanished from its online home.

That document was a brief commencement speech I gave in 2008 at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. Ursinus is the small private college my dad had attended briefly during World War II, before heading off to medical school and service as a Navy doctor. With the passing years, the  link I posted from the Ursinus site has gone the way of a great many links and become a 404.

I recently found a copy of the speech, and for cloud-archive purposes I post it again here. I still believe what I said those many years ago.

This was what I told graduates from the Ursinus class of 2008, and pretty much what I would still say now. (I would change that era’s noun “IMs” to the current “texts,” but otherwise could leave most of the language intact.) The “President Strassburger” I mention in the opening line was John Strassburger, a wonderful man and the illustrious president of Ursinus, who sadly died two years later, of cancer, at age 68.

President Strassburger; honored guests; deans and faculty members; family and supporters; and above all members of the Ursinus College class of 2008 – congratulations. You’ve all worked, waited, and -- in your different ways -- sacrificed to make this day a reality. Speaking as the parent of two recent college graduates, I ask members of the Class please to turn and wave your recognition, and love, and thanks to the parents and other supporters who have stood behind you and are feeling boundless pride, and bittersweetness at seeing the adults you’ve become, and relief of several kinds at the step you’re taking now.

I’m about to do the second part, which is to be brief. Two days ago, I was in China, where I’ve lived for two years and was involved in news of the disastrous earthquake. Two days from now, I’ll be on my way back to Beijing. The reason I’m here today is a connection between your college and my family that stretches back 65 years. I’d like to tell that story and then say why I think it matters for you who are graduating today.

In the summer of 1943, 65 years ago, James A. Fallows, my father, had just graduated from Jenkintown High School, not far from here. He was 18 years old – in fact, tomorrow will be his 83rd birthday, and I’ll join him in California to tell him about this event – and his country was at war. His older brother Bob was already in the Army. My dad’s main choices were to become a military pilot or a military doctor. The placement tests said Doctor, and so he came to Collegeville as an Ursinus pre-med student and Navy cadet, under the V-12 program.

His time here was rich, as yours probably has been. He was on the football and wrestling teams. He acted in plays. He sang in the Messiah chorus – impressive, since he can’t sing – and went to crack-of-dawn military drills when the bugle played Reveille on the campus. It was a different time.

The football team was successful, though they cheated, in a low-tech, pre-video way. He was a lineman, both offense and defense. He would wear a blue stocking on his right leg, and red on his left – and the man on either side of him on the line would do the reverse. The result was that linemen on the other team would look down and be puzzled, seeing a pair of blue or red legs that seemed to belong to two different people. When the ball was hiked, torsos and legs seemed to move in confusing directions. It helped Ursinus win, especially against academically less gifted teams. He liked it here.

But my dad’s time here, if rich, was brief. After two years at Ursinus, he had finished enough pre-med courses to qualify, by competitive exam, for Harvard Medical School, where he enrolled at age 20. He went from there to be a Navy doctor, then a small-town doctor, husband for more than 55 years to his childhood sweetheart from Jenkintown, father to four children, pillar of the small community in California where he raised his family. The finest man I know.

But because of the rushed wartime schedule, unlike today’s members of the class of ’08, my father never graduated from Ursinus. Until three years ago when the college, in a gesture that meant a tremendous amount to people now in their 80s, awarded its V-12 students their diplomas. I had hoped my dad could join us today, which he can’t – but I know that as you get your diplomas, he’ll be looking at his, mounted on his living room wall.

I tell you this because I’m a proud son, as sons and daughters should be – but also because his time in Collegeville, compared with yours, helps me introduce three ideas I’d like to mention briefly. They have to do with the times you’ll live in and the traits you’ll show, and I think of them as: challenge; curiosity; and character.

We hear almost too often about the challenges that shaped my father’s generation – the grandparents of today’s graduates. They grew up during the Depression, the then they fought a long world war and cold war. As if that weren’t enough, then they had to raise the Baby Boomers, my own unpopular generation. Their times were tough – for instance, the life expectancy for an American man born in 1925, like my father, was only into his mid 50s—twenty years less than for someone born in 1986, like most of you.

Because of the way this “greatest generation” – your grandparents, my parents – met it challenges, we honor them, but I think we sometimes misunderstand what challenge can mean. We’re tempted to think that it takes extreme challenge to bring out the greatness in people – Pearl Harbor, 9/11 - and, correspondingly, that when times do really get tough people will automatically rise to their best.

I’m not sure about either assumption. Sometimes people and societies don’t in fact rise to meet their biggest tests – I fear our nation’s overall response to the challenges of 9/11 will be seen, in history, as falling into this category– and sometimes the real test of greatness in people and generations is coping with challenges that don’t take the obvious Pearl Harbor form.

This, I think is your generation’s chance for greatness. You already know some of the huge array of problem which, if they’re going to be solved at all, will require your minds and commitment and talent and self-sacrifice. Perhaps number one is preserving the global environment, and its range of species, and its climate system – every day in China I see reasons why that’s crucial and difficult. Every day in China I also see a billion-plus people struggling to condense a century of economic development into a few years. I don’t think they’re struggling to “take American jobs” or "threaten America’s place in the world” – they have too many problems of their own, as we’re reminded by the devastation there just this week. But they are changing your world.

I’m actually optimistic about your America’s prospects in dealing with China– and with India, and with the Middle East, and with questions of global harmony and domestic equality –as long as we newly embrace rather than stifle the traditional American virtues of openness, equality, innovation, and opportunity. And as long as you recognize the challenge to serve – not in the V-12 but in your era’s ways. Perhaps in the military, as a teacher, as a parent, as an entrepreneur, as volunteer. Sixty-five years from now, many of you will be back here, and you’ll want to hear that you were a greatest generation too.

Second, curiosity. My dad always knew that he had been pulled out of Ursinus too soon. And that was a huge advantage. Having missed half of his normal college education, he gave himself ten educations in the ensuing years. He taught himself Greek, and then Hebrew, and polished up his Latin – and there were more. He became a painter, and sculptor, with his work in shows. He taught himself to sail, and play the piano, and to become a cowboy and head of local mounted police. He took up computers in his 50s and became a local webmaster. Now, at 83, he’s wondering whether to switch to the Mac.

He went overboard, because that’s who he is – but his is an extreme example of what a great college education should do for everyone. You’ve had a vastly better education than he had here, because you’ve had it in full and because Ursinus itself has is now so justly celebrated for the excellence of its life-changing undergraduate approach. You’ve shared an intellectual bond from Gilgamesh onward. But these years will have been wasted, Gilgamesh and all, if they’re not the beginning of a process of curiosity-driven self education that lasts the rest of your lives.

You can use your upcoming reunions as a handy benchmark. At each five-year interval – your 5th reunion, your 50th –be prepared to tell your classmates about the new thing you’ve recently learned. Guitar; Arabic; the tango; whatever. Here’s another benchmark: by the time of your 10th reunion, please spend at least one year overseas. There is no better way to learn about your own country than to see it from afar.

Third, character: Your parents know what I have learned from seeing my own children grow: that a lot of what we are as people, we are from the start. But we’re pushed to be the best versions of our inborn possibilities by parents in the beginning, then by teachers and mentors, and in the long run by ourselves.

Probably because he was so busy rushing through Ursinus, my dad – like another practical-minded Philadelphian, Benjamin Franklin – always emphasized that our character is the accumulation of things we actually do each day. In the end, we are our habits, so it’s worth developing good ones.

Some are obvious. Seriously, don’t smoke! Or, type IMs while you drive. Get in the habit of sports and exercise – by your tenth reunion, you’ll know who has and hasn’t. Get in the habit of being happy. We all have problems, which we can’t control; what we can control is how we look at them. Get in the habit of being excited. It’s a big world, with no excuse for being bored. It’s fun to have feuds and enemies – I’ve had my share– but break the habit of nursing grudges. Here’s a tip: always write angry letters to your enemies. Never mail them. Remember that anything hostile you say about people will get back to them. Especially if it’s in email.

Money: you’re going to have enough of it. Use the privilege of this education to know that you’re not going to starve, so you might as well spend your life doing something you love and are proud of. By your 20th reunion, and even more your 50th, you’ll see that satisfaction in work and family is scarcer – and far more rewarding – than the money race can ever be. Some people will always be better off than you, so don’t waste time envying them. Instead think of those you admire – and construct your own personal Mt. Rushmore, seeing what traits you can emulate.

Take every chance to tell your spouse, when you have one, and your children that you love them. When in doubt, phone your mom.

One final habit: Whenever you have the chance to deliver a sincere compliment, be sure to do it. My father is proud to be from Ursinus; I am proud of you; and we all are proud of you new graduates. These are sincere compliments, every one. Make the most of this wonderful day. #

Yesterday, Deb Fallows and I sent an email to various loyal readers of The Atlantic. You can see what was in that message in the “Continue Reading” section of this post.

I would like to see someone “package” or “productize,” both recipes for solutions, and recipes for non-solutions, which you and Deborah Fallows uncover. I would like to see actionable social entrepreneurship kits and trainings made available.

I don’t expect you and Ms. Fallows have the personal capacity to add such an initiative to your own plans and activities. But I suspect there are people and organizations that can do so. I would like to see you task one or more people to identify, contact and encourage such people and organizations to “package” or “productize” such social entrepreneurship solutions.

Personally, I don’t have the stomach to read, listen to, or watch “what might have been,” or what can or even is happening, but only under optimum conditions. We are not living in a time of optimum conditions. We cannot simply plant and grow in any type of soil. The soil must support what we hope to harvest.

This is a fair, and important, observation. And it is in line with our intentions, and the themes we intend to explore.

Deb and I realize that we don’t personally have the background, capacity, or skill to be the “productizers” ourselves. But one of our ambitions is to connect people who do have those abilities.

Starting six years ago, in the summer of 2013, my wife—Deborah Fallows—and I began visiting smaller-town America, traveling in our single-engine four-seat propeller plane, for a series of web posts, videos, magazine articles, and radio reports in what was called the “American Futures” series. Last year we published a nationally best-selling book from the project, called Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, and now we’re working with HBO on a documentary of the same name. It will appear about a year from now, around the time of the national political conventions, toward the goal of offering a different conception of America’s political possibilities than those likely to dominate cable news.

Now we are beginning a new round of extended on-scene reporting, following up on the successes and challenges of some of the places we’ve already visited, and expanding our coverage to new regions and towns. In an introductory post for this series, I set out some of the places we’ll be visiting and themes we will be exploring this year. These will range broadly, over: economics and business questions; urban architecture and the arts; the reinvention of schools and libraries; the expansion of broadband and technological opportunities to rural America; ways to help local journalism survive as a business, and to encourage national journalism to take small-town America more seriously; and whether solutions being devised at the local level could percolate up to improve national-level politics.

We have already done some initial reports. For instance: from Indiana, about a radical new approach to public school not previously mentioned in the national press; and also from Indiana, about the second (and third, and 10th) lives of factory buildings and shopping malls that outlive their original economic function; and from Mississippi, about a small-town daily that has retained its economic and civic role (and an even smaller daily that was crucially influential in the outlook of the famed journalist David Halberstam); and from all around the country, about the emerging role of public libraries as America’s “second responders,” filling social and economic gaps in a quietly heroic way.

Soon we will be traveling again, by small airplane, to Appalachian North Carolina and Kentucky; and to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas; and to industrial areas of Wisconsin, from Racine to Eau Claire; and to inland areas from Oklahoma to Nebraska to Nevada; and beyond.

Here are a few stories I found intriguing from the past week’s newspapers, on the unfolding complexities of the much-discussed “rural-urban divide.”

1) The first is by Andrew Van Dam, in The Washington Post, on the fundamental reasons for rural decline. Here’s the way his story was presented in the print version of the Post, in the Sunday business section:

Just about every discussion of the political, economic, opportunity, and other gaps between rural and urban America starts from the premise that life outside the big cities really is doomed. On the basis of the headline, this story would seem to be offering yet more reasons rural prospects are so dark.

But if you read the story, you’re in for a surprise. A “spoiler alert” clue about the contents is suggested by the headline on the same story online. This headline contains two additional words, in parentheses. Here is the twist those words add:

(To be 100 percent clear, I’m using the contrast in headlines to underscore the complexities in the piece, not to give the Post grief of any sort.)

As Van Dam clearly lays out in the story, among the many burdens on rural America is a bureaucratic and definitional one. To oversimplify: Whenever a non–major-metro area starts developing or prospering, for that very reason it stops being classified as rural.

That is: On top of the many real challenges rural communities face, their situation looks even bleaker than it is, because of the steady reclassification of successful smaller towns and rural areas as being no longer rural.

The contest between rural and urban America is rigged. Official definitions are regularly updated in such a way that rural counties are continually losing their most successful places to urbanization [as officially classified]. When a rural county grows, it transmutes into an urban one …

Imagine how unfair a sport would seem if one team automatically drafted the other’s best players the moment they showed any promise. That’s essentially what happens when we measure rural areas as whatever’s left over after anywhere that hits a certain population level is considered metropolitan. It distorts how we see rural America. It skews our view of everything from presidential politics to suicide to deaths caused by alcohol …

It makes rural areas look poorer, whiter, older and more prone to alcohol-related death or suicide than under broader definitions. Statistics such as these affect everything from Medicare reimbursement to the larger perception that the nation’s breadbasket is also a basket case.

The story and the reports it refers to are all worth your attention. Another of the important implications: that most people who think they are living in small-town or rural settings are officially classified as being in “metro” regions. As Van Dam says:

About 6 in 10 U.S. adults who consider themselves “rural” live in an area classified as metropolitan by standards similar to those used above, according to a Washington Post–Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in 2017. And 3 in 4 of the adults who say they live in a “small town”? They’re also in a metro area.

2) The second story is by Eduardo Porter and Guilbert Gates, from The New York Times, about a shift in migration patterns. In the same “show the evidence” spirit, here is the headline for their story (which was the same in print and online versions, as far as I can tell):

The reinforcement is the idea that for certain very top-level, sought-after, professional-and-technical talents, the economic rewards in white-hot centers from New York to San Francisco exceed what they could find anyplace else.

The complication is that for most other people, the rewards across the country have evened out—so that the “Let’s move to the big city and get a new start” impulse is weaker than at many other times in U.S. history.

This is partly because automation has removed so many accountant-and-clerk-type jobs from the biggest cities. It is partly because real-estate prices have jacked up the price of simply existing in Seattle, New York, the SF Bay ArEA, etc. It’s partly because of a dispersal of activities elsewhere—which is one of the big themes that Deb and I have chronicled.

Whatever the balance of forces, the evidence Porter and Gates present is interesting, nuanced, and different from what you’ve heard in most political speeches and segments on the news.

3) The third is an American Enterprise Institute report, which finds that the “amenities” of local life—parks, restaurants, walkable shopping, libraries—make a major difference in how happy, trusting, and engaged people are. As the report, by Ryan Streeter and Daniel Cox, found (and as they elaborated in a post for The Atlantic last week), people who live near parks, libraries, etc.:

are more content with their neighborhood, more trusting of others, and less lonely regardless of whether they live in large cities, suburbs, or small cities or towns.

Everyone knows about first responders. I’ve come to think of libraries as playing a crucial role as “second responders.”

In Ferguson, Missouri, the public library stayed open when the schools were closed after the riots, to offer the kids a safe place and even classes taught by volunteers. After the hurricanes in Houston, some library websites were immediately up and running, announcing that they were open for business. After Hurricane Sandy, some libraries in New Jersey became places of refuge. And in the Queens Library’s Far Rockaway branch, which didn’t have heat or light, the librarians set up shop in the parking lot to continue children’s story hours “to give them a sense of normalcy,” says Christian Zabriskie, who was a Queens librarian then. “Story time at the end of the world” he called it. In Orlando, after the nightclub shootings, the library hosted an art gallery for those who made art as a way to express and share their reactions. After the Thomas Fire, the Santa Barbara Public Library invited the public to share their stories and lessons, to help heal and prepare for the future.

Libraries step in to fill gaps and offer help when normal channels are inaccessible. Pima County, Arizona, pays for a team of nurses to come to the library to help with medical questions for those who can’t or won’t go to a hospital, clinic, or doctor. In Charleston, West Virginia, librarians told me that they have launched searches for people to research health issues or concerns. In some libraries, librarians have Narcan training. In Bend, Oregon, a social worker has helped prepare the librarians to work with people who came in with sensitive, personal questions, such as how to meet their rent and mortgage payments.

Others report that they have helped people figure out how to have a dignified funeral when they have no money for one. In Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County, among the hardest-hit areas of the entire country during the 2008–2009 financial collapse, the leaders of the public-library system found ways to stretch and reprogram their budget to ensure that their system would stay open seven days a week during the crisis, because they knew their citizens would need its resources to cope with job loss, house foreclosures, and more.

Carved in the granite above the doorway of the imposing flagship Carnegie Library in Columbus, Ohio, are the words Open to All.  I have seen homeless people line up waiting for the doors to open so they can spend the day inside comfortably and safely.

In my hometown of Washington, D.C., I trudged to our local library during an extreme cold-weather episode a year or two ago and read a handwritten sign saying that the library was closed because of the cold, and pointing to the emergency shelters that were open instead. Librarians have told me that they’ve heard from homeless people about one of the important reasons they go to libraries: These are the only places where they are treated with respect. Librarians also told me about the various rules and regulations they impose about noise, sleeping, eating, “bathing” in restrooms, disruptive behavior, and storage of belongings. They say that occasionally people are placed on “sabbatical” from the libraries for infringements and are sometimes referred to public places where they can take showers. None have reported serious incidents to me, which suggests that respect is mutual.

The most serious of these examples are testament to the trust that citizens place in their libraries and librarians. The Pew Research Center reports that 78 percent of people say libraries help them to find information they can trust. Librarians are nothing if not discreet. I have asked librarians about their users looking at pornography on the public computers. They demur, kind of, and say that they don’t look at what people are doing on the computers, and others say that they only step in when someone complains.

Zabriskie, who now works in Yonkers, points to the complexity of being a librarian these days. “Amidst glory days of librarianship,” he says, “there can be trauma. If every day’s work were just reading to toddlers, great. But sometimes those kids are homeless.”

“Sometimes librarians are Batman,” Zabriskie says. “Sometimes they are ghosts in the machine. We have to resist hardening the space.”

If these are the libraries acting as second responders, there are also plenty of cases where they respond as providers of second chances.

The Los Angeles Public Library offers a chance to earn a high-school degree for those who missed out the first time around. Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Librarian John Szabo hand out diplomas. The most popular volunteer opportunity at the Smiley Library in Redlands, California, is for adults to teach other adults how to read and write. Public libraries across the country offer a variety of paths to help people find new economic opportunity, with job and interview support and digital skills training.

And listen for how often you hear adults credit the public library as the place that spirited them away in their youth from anger or sadness or boredom at home. Many libraries make themselves appealing to schoolchildren of any age as a safe, warm place to do homework or just hang out when they can’t or won’t go home. I have seen and heard variations on this theme that range from the library being the only place the kids could go, to the library being the cool place where teenagers would hang out. I heard these comments from the desert communities of Arizona to the small towns of California to the urban centers of the Midwest and East Coast.

There are libraries in prisons, for those who can’t go out, and books delivered to prisons when inmates request them. Library books are delivered to remote schools in Kanawha County, West Virginia, for teachers who don’t have access to materials. Extending that metaphor of the library coming to the people, I have seen pop-up libraries in parks in Wichita, Kansas. There is a summer program around Minneapolis lakes to lend books in watertight containers from a library raft to boaters. And there is a library in the big shopping mall in Ontario, California, opportunistically placed for presumably reluctant shoppers who accompany enthusiastic shoppers.

This was a fascinating session—I say, as the person who got to ask the questions, rather than having to give the answers. The hour-long YouTube video is here.

The topic was “Small Towns, Big Ideas: Innovations From Rural America.” It was a discussion in Washington, D.C., on the evening of May 13, sponsored by the renowned social-entrepreneur organization Ashoka, with four of its Ashoka fellows working in rural or small-town locations. They were:

Brandon Dennison, of Coalfield Development in West Virginia; Stacey Epperson, of Next Step in Kentucky; Regi Haslett-Marroquín, of the Main Street regenerative agriculture project in Minnesota; and Denisa Livingston, of the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance of the Navajo Nation.

I promise that if you listen to this session, you’ll learn about innovations you hadn’t been aware of before.

It may also give you a sense of the breadth of the renewal efforts under way in American settlements large and small. There’s also an extended discussion of why, exactly, the majority of Americans who live in bigger cities should care about rural folk—and about the difference between saying that many rural areas have problems, versus saying that rural America is a problem.

Congratulations to Ashoka and its four rural innovators for putting this session together, and for the ambitious projects they discuss.

In the summer of 2013, nearly six years ago, my wife—Deb Fallows—and I announced in this space the beginning of a project to visit smaller towns around the country. These were places that usually show up in the news only as backdrops for national-politics coverage, or when some human or natural disaster has struck. Our goal was to report on how schools, businesses, families, and civic life were faring “out there.”

Our means of travel, from one small airport to the next, would be our little four-seat, single-engine, Cirrus SR22 propeller airplane—a model that has become the best-selling small plane of its type around the world, because of its built-in parachute for the entire plane.

Early in 2017, after spending most of four years on the road, Deb and I announced in this space that this first stage of the journey was over. We would be flying from our home in Washington, D.C.; down along the Atlantic coast to Georgia; and then across the south and west of the country to my original home in inland California, the small city of Redlands, to write a book about what we had seen. We did so; that book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, was published in 2018. It drew on what we had found, learned, and described in hundreds of web posts and several articles for The Atlantic through the preceding years.

Now we’re beginning the next stage of the journey. In this space over the coming months, we’ll be posting a new set of reports, from an additional set of towns, about a new set of developments and a new range of possibilities for locally based renewal efforts around the country.

The guiding principle of this reporting will be the one we developed—city by city, story by story, question by question, surprise by surprise—through our preceding years of travel. The central premise is that the most positive and practical developments in this stage of American life are happening at the local and regional level—but that most Americans have barely heard of those developments except in the communities where they themselves live.

This past February, an extensive nationwide survey from the American Enterprise Institute provided data that matched what we’d heard in interviews. By nearly a 2-to-1 ratio, the survey’s directors (Sam Abrams, Karlyn Bowman, and Ryan Streeter) found, Americans were very pessimistic when asked about the prospects for the country as a whole. But by nearly a 3-to-1 ratio, people in different parts of the country, and of different races and economic groups, said they felt that their own communities were moving in the right direction. It was like the radio host Garrison Keillor’s ancient joke about Lake Wobegon, where “the children were all above average,” but with a real-world edge. People recognized the possibility of progress, despite obstacles and injustices, in their own part of America, but assumed the rest of the country must be doing much worse.

Of course the paralysis and division of national politics matter. Of course every community has its entrenched problems, of which the opioid and addiction crisis is the most acute, economic dislocation is the most widespread, and racial injustice is the most intractable. My view of American history is: From the start, it’s been a struggle, between society’s worse impulses and the better ones. Any clear-eyed view of this nation, at any point, will include the tragic and the inspiring.

But the underappreciated and potentially inspiring news of this moment, as Deb and I have come to believe through travel in every corner of the country, is the extent of locally based renewal and experimentation, and the evolution of formal and informal networks connecting those far-flung efforts, all directed at many of the same challenges that seem hopeless from a national perspective.

Over the past year, we’ve been visiting communities that we’ll soon write about in this space—from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to Kenosha and Eau Claire, Wisconsin; from Bellingham, Washington, to Pensacola, Florida, and Danville, Virginia; and points in between and beyond.

Starting with the next few installments in this space, the focus will be on the state that has long had the most manufacturing-intensive economy in the entire country: Indiana. (At a public forum last month in Fort Wayne, we talked with the podcaster Ashley C. Ford, who is now based in Brooklyn but grew up in and considers herself a proud citizen-in-exile of Fort Wayne. “When people hear Indiana, they think it’s all a bunch of cornfields,” she said at that session. “They can hardly imagine how many factories we have.”)  

The nature of Indiana’s economy has long exposed its citizens and communities to both the good and the bad of rapid shifts in technology, business structure, and world trading trends. We’ll explain how this looks on the ground in places up and down the state. We’ll follow with reports from other parts of the Midwest, the South, and inland California. This summer we’ll begin a new round of travel, to additional cities, by small propeller plane.

Our plan is deliberately slow-building, incremental, learning as we go. I believe in “showing your homework” as a reporter: laying out what you’ve seen, what you might have missed, what you’ve changed your mind about, where you need to learn more.

Our approach is also deliberately inclusive and “big tent.” Part of our goal is to connect people in disparate groups around the country who are working toward similar ends, but may not be aware of one another’s efforts. Our allies include New America, where Deb is now based; HBO, with whom we are making a documentary for airing next year; and many other groups we’ll link to and publicize as the year goes on.

We’ll lead off this week with reports from our recent trip through Indiana, and then through the months ahead we’ll cover as much of the country as we possibly can.

We’re excited to begin this process, to share stories we’ve heard in recent months, and to learn in the months ahead. Deb and I look forward to hearing from you with tips, stories, and even dissents. Please join us here as the journey unfolds.

The commander in chief is impulsive, disdains expertise, and gets his intelligence briefings from Fox News. What does this mean for those on the front lines?

For most of the past two decades, American troops have been deployed all over the world—to about 150 countries. During that time, hundreds of thousands of young men and women have experienced combat, and a generation of officers have come of age dealing with the practical realities of war. They possess a deep well of knowledge and experience. For the past three years, these highly trained professionals have been commanded by Donald Trump.

To get a sense of what serving Trump has been like, I interviewed officers up and down the ranks, as well as several present and former civilian Pentagon employees. Among the officers I spoke with were four of the highest ranks—three or four stars—all recently retired. All but one served Trump directly; the other left the service shortly before Trump was inaugurated.

Last Thursday, Donald Trump said something that, on its face, seemed inexplicably self-defeating. Already under attack for having asked Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, he publicly asked China to do the same. This time there was no whistle-blower forcing Trump’s hand. Having already transgressed the once-sacrosanct principle that foreign powers shouldn’t meddle in American elections, Trump—for no apparent reason—brazenly violated it again.

And yet, Trump’s China remarks don’t appear to have hurt him much. The majority of Republican voters and politicians still oppose his impeachment. His China comments may even prove politically shrewd. Research into the psychology of secrecy and confidence helps explain why.

It’s impossible to deny the cleverness of the legal arguments put together by the Trump administration and President Donald Trump’s personal lawyers as they fight investigations against him.

In defending Trump, his attorneys have contended that Congress cannot obtain documents related to Trump’s financial dealings, because that’s a power reserved for prosecutors. Elsewhere, they have argued that prosecutors can’t investigate Trump, because that’s a power delegated to Congress under the Constitution. And when Congress has attempted to flex that impeachment power, Trump has said it’s a coup, and that the only proper venue for presidential accountability is elections.

The arguments build a steel hull around the president, attempting to keep the rising tide of probes from getting him wet by closing off every angle for investigation. But like the similarly unsinkable Titanic, this legal edifice hit an iceberg on a trip to Manhattan.

On the latest episode, the show departed from its dependence on guest stars to deliver a fresh, hilarious take on stereotypes.

Newscasters should never riff on race while reading the day’s headlines, let alone play games on the subject. But during Saturday Night Live’s latest episode, a group of anchors did exactly that in a memorable sketch from an otherwise uneven night.

“Mid-Day News” began with a classic SNL setup: the local news program, set somewhere in Florida, with four anchors (played by the host Phoebe Waller-Bridge and the cast members Kenan Thompson, Ego Nwodim, and Alex Moffat) reading the top stories. When the perpetrator of a gas-station robbery turned out to be white, the black anchors cheered. “We’re just glad we know what the criminal looks like, and he ain’t one of us,” Thompson’s character explained to his baffled colleague. The newscast then swiftly turned into a ferocious competition: With every crime, the foursome anticipated the race of the culprit. And with every reveal, the group found their expectations subverted.

Donald Trump’s narcissism makes it impossible for him to carry out the duties of the presidency in the way the Constitution requires.

On a third-down play last season, the Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith stood in shotgun formation, five yards behind the line of scrimmage. As he called his signals, a Houston Texans cornerback, Kareem Jackson, suddenly sprinted forward from a position four yards behind the defensive line.

Alan Moore’s classic 1988 story, Batman: The Killing Joke, was an inspiration for Todd Phillips’s grim new film—but not in the one way that really mattered.

For the first few decades of his existence in the world of comic books, the Joker wasn’t a particularly tragic character. Starting with his debut in Batman No. 1 (1940), the villainy of Batman’s archnemesis fluctuated between chillingly ruthless and harmlessly goofy. While always sporting his signature clown makeup, he functioned first as a gangland spree killer in the 1940s, and was then softened to more of a gimmicky nuisance in the 1950s. By then, DC Comics’ editors had decided that Batman’s recurring villains shouldn’t be allowed to kill with impunity, since that reflected poorly on the Caped Crusader’s ability to fight crime.

In the 1960s, when the Adam West–starring Batman TV series aired on ABC, the Joker was a goofy sideshow, a cackling trickster played by Cesar Romero (who famously refused to shave his mustache for the role, instead painting white makeup right over it). But even at the character’s softest, there was rarely any effort to inject any sympathy into the Joker, whose mysterious background was part of his mythos. His film counterparts, played by Oscar winners such as Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Jared Leto, have been similarly enigmatic. That might be why Todd Phillips’s new film, Joker, which presents the title character (played by Joaquin Phoenix) as more of a human being, feels like such an outlier—and why it’s drawn such controversy.

Geopolitics is a contest of bad ideas. Letting Turkey take control of Kurdish territory falls somewhere between “very bad” and “extremely bad.”

The great virtue of Twitter is that it forces users to be concise. One downside is that when an extremely powerful crazy person—the president of the United States, say—uses it, he can sound a bit like the Abrahamic God in one of his more wrathful moments. “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!),” Trump thundered today, as House Republicans scrambled to burn offerings in the Rotunda.

The subject of this tweet, Turkey, had just hours before been the unconditional beneficiary of a sickening desertion by the United States. Late last night, the White House issued a statement confirming that the United States would stand by while Turkey asserted control over northern Syria—including territory controlled by the Kurds, who have been integral to the anti–Islamic State coalition. The Kurds were an American ally, but not a natural one: The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which runs Kurdish affairs in Syria, fought against Turkey in the 1980s and ’90s and remains cultish in its Maoism. (Whatever Fox News viewers think Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar believe, the PKK actually believes.) Turkey has consistently promised to strangle any Kurdish state before it becomes permanent. Apparently Trump assented to the Turkish position, and in a hurry to extricate America from northern Syria, abandoned the Kurds to the mercies of their most powerful enemy.

Tired and frustrated, trust in each other all but gone, Britain and the European Union are on the brink of throwing away three years of painstaking work setting out the terms of their separation over a fundamental—and important—point of principle that both sides refuse to abandon: sovereignty.

The United Kingdom and the EU now have barely a week to agree on a compromise that would determine the rules of Britain’s departure from the bloc before a complex and unpredictable series of events is set in motion, almost certainly ending with a British general election. Should a divorce deal not be reached, Prime Minister Boris Johnson would likely have to ask the EU for a further delay to Brexit, meaning the election would almost certainly take place before the split has happened. Such a vote would pit Johnson’s pro-Brexit Conservatives against a coalition of anti-Brexit parties pushing for a second referendum with the ultimate aim of overturning Brexit.

Nineteen new names were added last week to the Forbes 400, a ranking of America’s richest of the rich, a list including entrepreneurs, executives, financiers, and inheritors. The two richest people, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, are now both worth more than $100 billion.

This is the exaggerated edge of an exaggerated trend. Even with today’s promising wage trends, the gap between the rich and the poor is now the biggest it has been in half a century, and the 400 richest Americans have tripled their share of overall wealth in the past 40 years. Given those dynamics, some Democrats argue that the United States should start taxing wealth, among them Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Middle school. The very memory of it prompts disgust. Here’s a thing no one’s thinking: Geez, I wish I still looked the way I did when I was 12. Middle school is the worst.

Tweenhood, which starts around age 9, is horrifying for a few reasons. For one, the body morphs in weird and scary ways. Certain parts expand faster than others, sometimes so fast that they cause literal growing pains; hair grows in awkward locations, often accompanied by awkward smells. And many kids face new schools and a new set of rules for how to act, both socially and academically.

But middle school doesn’t have to be like this. It could be okay. It could be good, even. After all, middle schoolers are “kind of the best people on Earth,” says Mayra Cruz, the principal of Oyster-Adams Bilingual School, a public middle school in Washington, D.C.

The commander in chief is impulsive, disdains expertise, and gets his intelligence briefings from Fox News. What does this mean for those on the front lines?

For most of the past two decades, American troops have been deployed all over the world—to about 150 countries. During that time, hundreds of thousands of young men and women have experienced combat, and a generation of officers have come of age dealing with the practical realities of war. They possess a deep well of knowledge and experience. For the past three years, these highly trained professionals have been commanded by Donald Trump.

To get a sense of what serving Trump has been like, I interviewed officers up and down the ranks, as well as several present and former civilian Pentagon employees. Among the officers I spoke with were four of the highest ranks—three or four stars—all recently retired. All but one served Trump directly; the other left the service shortly before Trump was inaugurated.

Last Thursday, Donald Trump said something that, on its face, seemed inexplicably self-defeating. Already under attack for having asked Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, he publicly asked China to do the same. This time there was no whistle-blower forcing Trump’s hand. Having already transgressed the once-sacrosanct principle that foreign powers shouldn’t meddle in American elections, Trump—for no apparent reason—brazenly violated it again.

And yet, Trump’s China remarks don’t appear to have hurt him much. The majority of Republican voters and politicians still oppose his impeachment. His China comments may even prove politically shrewd. Research into the psychology of secrecy and confidence helps explain why.

It’s impossible to deny the cleverness of the legal arguments put together by the Trump administration and President Donald Trump’s personal lawyers as they fight investigations against him.

In defending Trump, his attorneys have contended that Congress cannot obtain documents related to Trump’s financial dealings, because that’s a power reserved for prosecutors. Elsewhere, they have argued that prosecutors can’t investigate Trump, because that’s a power delegated to Congress under the Constitution. And when Congress has attempted to flex that impeachment power, Trump has said it’s a coup, and that the only proper venue for presidential accountability is elections.

The arguments build a steel hull around the president, attempting to keep the rising tide of probes from getting him wet by closing off every angle for investigation. But like the similarly unsinkable Titanic, this legal edifice hit an iceberg on a trip to Manhattan.

On the latest episode, the show departed from its dependence on guest stars to deliver a fresh, hilarious take on stereotypes.

Newscasters should never riff on race while reading the day’s headlines, let alone play games on the subject. But during Saturday Night Live’s latest episode, a group of anchors did exactly that in a memorable sketch from an otherwise uneven night.

“Mid-Day News” began with a classic SNL setup: the local news program, set somewhere in Florida, with four anchors (played by the host Phoebe Waller-Bridge and the cast members Kenan Thompson, Ego Nwodim, and Alex Moffat) reading the top stories. When the perpetrator of a gas-station robbery turned out to be white, the black anchors cheered. “We’re just glad we know what the criminal looks like, and he ain’t one of us,” Thompson’s character explained to his baffled colleague. The newscast then swiftly turned into a ferocious competition: With every crime, the foursome anticipated the race of the culprit. And with every reveal, the group found their expectations subverted.

Donald Trump’s narcissism makes it impossible for him to carry out the duties of the presidency in the way the Constitution requires.

On a third-down play last season, the Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith stood in shotgun formation, five yards behind the line of scrimmage. As he called his signals, a Houston Texans cornerback, Kareem Jackson, suddenly sprinted forward from a position four yards behind the defensive line.

Alan Moore’s classic 1988 story, Batman: The Killing Joke, was an inspiration for Todd Phillips’s grim new film—but not in the one way that really mattered.

For the first few decades of his existence in the world of comic books, the Joker wasn’t a particularly tragic character. Starting with his debut in Batman No. 1 (1940), the villainy of Batman’s archnemesis fluctuated between chillingly ruthless and harmlessly goofy. While always sporting his signature clown makeup, he functioned first as a gangland spree killer in the 1940s, and was then softened to more of a gimmicky nuisance in the 1950s. By then, DC Comics’ editors had decided that Batman’s recurring villains shouldn’t be allowed to kill with impunity, since that reflected poorly on the Caped Crusader’s ability to fight crime.

In the 1960s, when the Adam West–starring Batman TV series aired on ABC, the Joker was a goofy sideshow, a cackling trickster played by Cesar Romero (who famously refused to shave his mustache for the role, instead painting white makeup right over it). But even at the character’s softest, there was rarely any effort to inject any sympathy into the Joker, whose mysterious background was part of his mythos. His film counterparts, played by Oscar winners such as Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Jared Leto, have been similarly enigmatic. That might be why Todd Phillips’s new film, Joker, which presents the title character (played by Joaquin Phoenix) as more of a human being, feels like such an outlier—and why it’s drawn such controversy.

Geopolitics is a contest of bad ideas. Letting Turkey take control of Kurdish territory falls somewhere between “very bad” and “extremely bad.”

The great virtue of Twitter is that it forces users to be concise. One downside is that when an extremely powerful crazy person—the president of the United States, say—uses it, he can sound a bit like the Abrahamic God in one of his more wrathful moments. “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!),” Trump thundered today, as House Republicans scrambled to burn offerings in the Rotunda.

The subject of this tweet, Turkey, had just hours before been the unconditional beneficiary of a sickening desertion by the United States. Late last night, the White House issued a statement confirming that the United States would stand by while Turkey asserted control over northern Syria—including territory controlled by the Kurds, who have been integral to the anti–Islamic State coalition. The Kurds were an American ally, but not a natural one: The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which runs Kurdish affairs in Syria, fought against Turkey in the 1980s and ’90s and remains cultish in its Maoism. (Whatever Fox News viewers think Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar believe, the PKK actually believes.) Turkey has consistently promised to strangle any Kurdish state before it becomes permanent. Apparently Trump assented to the Turkish position, and in a hurry to extricate America from northern Syria, abandoned the Kurds to the mercies of their most powerful enemy.

Tired and frustrated, trust in each other all but gone, Britain and the European Union are on the brink of throwing away three years of painstaking work setting out the terms of their separation over a fundamental—and important—point of principle that both sides refuse to abandon: sovereignty.

The United Kingdom and the EU now have barely a week to agree on a compromise that would determine the rules of Britain’s departure from the bloc before a complex and unpredictable series of events is set in motion, almost certainly ending with a British general election. Should a divorce deal not be reached, Prime Minister Boris Johnson would likely have to ask the EU for a further delay to Brexit, meaning the election would almost certainly take place before the split has happened. Such a vote would pit Johnson’s pro-Brexit Conservatives against a coalition of anti-Brexit parties pushing for a second referendum with the ultimate aim of overturning Brexit.

Nineteen new names were added last week to the Forbes 400, a ranking of America’s richest of the rich, a list including entrepreneurs, executives, financiers, and inheritors. The two richest people, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, are now both worth more than $100 billion.

This is the exaggerated edge of an exaggerated trend. Even with today’s promising wage trends, the gap between the rich and the poor is now the biggest it has been in half a century, and the 400 richest Americans have tripled their share of overall wealth in the past 40 years. Given those dynamics, some Democrats argue that the United States should start taxing wealth, among them Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Middle school. The very memory of it prompts disgust. Here’s a thing no one’s thinking: Geez, I wish I still looked the way I did when I was 12. Middle school is the worst.

Tweenhood, which starts around age 9, is horrifying for a few reasons. For one, the body morphs in weird and scary ways. Certain parts expand faster than others, sometimes so fast that they cause literal growing pains; hair grows in awkward locations, often accompanied by awkward smells. And many kids face new schools and a new set of rules for how to act, both socially and academically.

But middle school doesn’t have to be like this. It could be okay. It could be good, even. After all, middle schoolers are “kind of the best people on Earth,” says Mayra Cruz, the principal of Oyster-Adams Bilingual School, a public middle school in Washington, D.C.

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