The Jonestown Massacre

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Special guest Rachel Monroe tells Mike and Sarah what’s really behind the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid.” Digressions include David Koresh, East Germany and how flower children were the first millennials. Mike inadvertently reveals his prejudice against extroverts. 

For more of Rachel’s work, check out her website. Recently she’s written about #vanlife, a romance scammer, essential oils and the kidnapping of a Navajo girl. Her book on women, true crime and obsession comes out next year.

Links!

 

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The Clinton Impeachment

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Part two of our epic dissection of the Clinton impeachment scandal. This week: The story breaks, the House indicts, the Senate demurs and Mike rants more than usual about the media. Digressions include Mark Fuhrman, “Broadcast News” and gay porn. 

Links!

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Monica Lewinsky

Barbara+interviews+Monica+vTz5reGwvdoxSarah and Mike talk about what America forgot — and never learned — about history’s most famous intern. Digressions include generational resentments, 1990s fashion and off-brand colleges. Also, Mike’s microphone breaks about 25 minutes in, so he sounds like he’s recording in a submarine. Sorry!

Links:

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Anita Hill

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Mike tells Sarah about the complicated legacy of Anita Hill and the not-particularly-complicated facts of her case. Digressions include “Tootsie,” Garrison Keillor and the Donner party. For reasons unknown, Mike seems to believe that one flies “down” from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Washington, D.C. 

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Stockholm Syndrome

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Some links!

The 1974 New Yorker story on the Stockholm bank robbery: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1974/11/25/the-bank-drama

“The Hearst Nightmare,” also from 1974:  http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,911211-1,00.html

A well-argued academic paper from 1993, “Understanding Women’s Responses to Domestic Violence: A Redefinition of Battered Woman Syndrome”:  https://scholarlycommons.law.hofstra.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1873&context=hlr

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Matthew Shepard

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Links!

The gross 20/20 “debunking”: https://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=277685&page=1

Two debunkings of the debunking: https://www.mediamatters.org/blog/2013/10/02/debunking-stephen-jimenezs-effort-to-de-gay-mat/196229

https://thinkprogress.org/the-book-of-matt-doesn-t-prove-anything-other-than-the-size-of-stephen-jimenez-s-ego-c7ba5d0becee/

We can’t find Andrew Sullivan’s posts about Shepard from 2004, but here’s one from 2013: http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2013/09/16/challenging-the-myth-of-matthew-shepard/

 

 

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Afterschool Specials

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Crack Babies

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Going Postal

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The Satanic Panic

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Millennials are Screwed

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I’ve got another big long article in Highline!

Like everything I write, it began as a nitpick. For years it seemed like every time I opened a browser window, all I saw was the story of how millennials like me refused to grow up. We’re entitled, we’re hipsters, we’re living in basements, we MFA’d when we should have STEM’d. If we could just tear ourselves off of Tumblr for 10 minutes, maybe we’d find a job and quit complaining already.

I always knew this was a caricature, but it was only once I started working on this article that I learned the vast, incredible, profound wrongness of the stereotype we’ve been sold about millennials. Young people are not failing in the U.S. economy. The U.S. economy is failing them.

The hardest part of writing a story like this is knowing where to start. One of the first people I interviewed was Emma*, who I met at a homeless shelter in Seattle last spring. She’s 22 years old, trying to get onto the ladder in tech and sleeping in a church annex while she does an unpaid internship. She’s been bouncing in and out of homelessness for two years now—getting a job, starting to climb the ladder and then falling off. It turns out this is a whole Thing, a sub-field of economics called “poverty dynamics.” More than 60 percent of the U.S. population will spend at least one year in the bottom quintile of the income distribution—a percentage that’s been growing since the 1980s.

It was like this for months: Every time I met someone, they led me to a novel way that young people have it harder than their parents. Katie, a midwife who only gets paid when one of her clients goes into labor and is still paying off her occupational license, put me on the trail of domestic outsourcing. Steve, who moved to Detroit to buy a cheap house and now earns $10 an hour “making smoothies for better-off millennials,” opened up the wonderful world of zoning regulations and falling labor mobility.

Last April, when I started on this story, I had no idea I would be looking up 1970s building codes or federal regulations on pension funds or the arcane details of Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform. But here we are! What I found was, first, that the challenges faced by millennials are larger than I ever expected. Second, these challenges are the result of three huge and deliberate and terrifying paradigm shifts in the way our economy works and how we think about it. They all happened slowly and imperceptibly. But, like the melting of an ice cap (ahem), they are now undeniable.

So this is it, my attempt at understanding and describing and freaking out about all the ways millennials are getting screwed and what we can do about it. It’s long, it’s dark and it’s full of statistics—luckily, there are gorgeous designs to distract you!

UPDATE:
I’ve done a bunch of interviews about the article!

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Stuff we got wrong in the ’90s: Ebonics

One thing that has always baffled me, as a journalist and as a person, is how America decides what to freak out about.

It’s a big country: Weird and wild and ridiculous things happen all the time. But every year we choose 10 or 15 of them, we put them on our front pages and we lose our minds debating them. Sometimes it’s a dead gorilla, sometimes it’s missing white ladies, sometimes it’s a dress code on airplanes. By the time we circle back to the facts behind them, we’re surprised to find that they no longer match the opinions we’ve formed.

The first of these flare-ups I can remember is the “Ebonics” controversy of 1996. I was 14 at the time, just starting to notice things like late-night monologues and the op-ed page of my local paper. Suddenly both of them were filled with the story of this school district that had decided to teach African-American Vernacular English—”Ebonics” is what the linguists called it; “black slang” is what the columnists called it—as a foreign language. Teachers in Oakland, heads in little boxes on CNN told me, would be teaching “we be happy” as a perfectly acceptable alternative to “we are happy.”

The Oakland School Board’s decision was almost perfectly designed to transcend its circumstances and become a metaphor for How We Race Now. Within days, editorial boards across the country denounced the decision. Within weeks it was condemned by the Clinton administration. Within months it was investigated by Congress.

As usual, the first thing to disappear underneath all the outrage was the event that precipitated it. Nearly everything we heard about the Oakland School Board’s decision in 1996 was wrong. And even worse than how we talked about it then is how we remember it now.

Here, finally, is what really happened:

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Keep the Change

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At the height of its power, the Roman Empire stretched from Libya to London, Istanbul to Iberia.

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It was remarkably modern. The Romans collected taxes, they built roads, they negotiated trade deals with the (literal) Slavic hordes.

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The empire’s most critical nervous system was its infrastructure. Mail and goods and information traveled from one end to the other in just two weeks. A network of B&Bs let travelers change horses, rest for the night, eat a hot meal.

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It was a legitimate miracle, a feat of bureaucratic innovation that wouldn’t be matched for a millennium.

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Until, of course, it fell apart.

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The vandals invaded, the military lost, the bureaucracy shattered. Cue dark ages.

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We think of the fall of Rome as an event, a discrete, seeable Thing that happened on a Thursday a thousand years ago.

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In reality, though, it was more like a big long exhale. Yes the barbarians invaded and yes it sucked. But the empire had been faltering for decades beforehand and coasted on its built-up power for decades afterward.

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What happened, slowly and steadily, was that the central authorities lost their ability to project power. Their tentacles of influence—infrastructure, taxes, law enforcement—retracted over decades, leaving power vacuums that filled up with made-up royalty and ad-hoc warlords.

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Province after province, as the shadow of the central authorities lightened, local aristocrats and landowners rose up to replace it. Borders appeared. Mail took longer to deliver. Regions cut themselves off. Trade routes withered. Cities languished.

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It some places it took decades. In others, centuries. To the people living through it, the fall of Rome did not particularly feel like one. It was simply an escalating series of scandals, little mistakes and decisions that rendered centralized power weak, then invisible, then history.

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These are random pictures of Zimbabwe I took over the years.

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It was once the great hope of Africa, a bright spot of prosperity and peace in the (literal) middle of a troubled continent.

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The best universities, the most educated workers, the best infrastructure.

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And then Robert Mugabe, piece by piece, took it apart.

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He confiscated land from industrial farms and gave them to random war generals. He hyper-inflated the economy. He killed rivals and chased off investors and taught his own people to fear him.

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None of this was unexpected or surprising. We did not learn anything new about this man each time he stole an election, disappeared a political rival, inflicted his worst instincts upon his people.

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But each of them mattered.

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There is a human tendency to think that the most important events, the most seismic changes, are differences in kind. Narratives new and unprecedented, developments that erase the past. An earthquake. A fire.

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They make the best stories. Transformations, turns, reversals. Peace to war, prosperity to squalor, progress to backsliding.

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But history does not happen in category changes, lines being drawn and then crossed. History is shifts in emphasis, swapped priorities, the future echoing the past a little louder or slight softer.

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Events from which we learn nothing. Decisions about which we are not surprised, only saddened.

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There’s this thought experiment for human evolution.

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Put yourself on an index card. Then make one for your mother, then her mother, then her mother, and so on.

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Index cards stretching back in time forever. A hundred thousand generations ago you were an ape. A million ago, you were a rat. Ten million ago you were a fish.

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These changes are profound. But pull any two cards out of the stack and you will see no difference between them.

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You’re not so different from your parents and they’re not different from theirs. The ape looks just like his parents, and so does the fish.

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Maybe we’re conditioned to look for differences in kind because we seek stories. Twists, turnarounds, surprises. Differences in degree are less noticeable, harder to find, less tellable in the moment.

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Britain was one of the first outposts of the Roman Empire to go. The farthest corner, a mossy island, a tiny garrison of troops, warring tribes already competing to usurp them.

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For 80 years, Roman currency inflated and dwindled. Without money, the elites couldn’t buy leather or food or pottery. Without income, the peasants making them had no choice but to move back to the countryside.

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As the cities emptied, as tradesmen became backyard farmers, they stole stones from the roman architecture they left behind. Brick by brick, they carried them home along the roads, stacked them in squares around their families. Then they waited for the world to reach them again.

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The most gratifying journalism experience of my life

AfterlifeI know I talk about this all the time here, but I still don’t really feel like a journalist. I have no beat, I’m terrible at pitching, my articles start out half-baked and get published only slightly more so.

A few years ago I wrote to my old high school and asked if I could spend two weeks there. I had no idea, no pitch, no characters, no themes, no anything. “I’m interested in how teens are different now than when I was one,” I told them. And I meant it! That was the complete extent to which I had thought it through.

It’s remarkable they invited me to come anyway. Public institutions are notoriously media-averse—if I was a Real Journalist I would have known this, of course—and schools more than most. For administrators and PR staff, the idea of a random writer roaming the halls, pulling aside students, asking them about bullying and studying and sexting, is some sort of nosebleed, a huge gamble with no reward.

But they let me! And it was great! For two weeks I was there all day every day: Sitting in classes, attending after-school clubs, sharing vending-machine lunches with students, debating the merits of standardized tests with teachers.

And, slowly, an idea formed. I went there to write about the kids, but almost all of my conversations ended up being about the adults. The ways the school was changing, what it used to do, how it couldn’t anymore. Things that seemed small to an outsider—shrinking teacher collaboration, tightening budget rules, evolving evaluation criteria—were decisive for the people charged with implementing them.

So that’s what I wrote about. Or tried to anyway. Here’s the story and three things I learned writing it and a video about how my district tried to desegregate itself and failed:

The most un-journalistic thing about this story, the all-caps flashing disclaimer above all of these links, is that this is my old high school. My institution, my hometown, my former teachers. As a journalist I am supposed to be dispassionate and objective. About this place and these people, I am not.

I don’t know if I will start to feel like a journalist anytime soon. But when it requires me to stop rooting for the people I write about, I’ll stop trying.

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What we talk about when we talk about sexual harassment

One of the most pernicious ideas in American life is that sexual harassment lawsuits are an example of political correctness gone mad.

For the last few months I’ve been working on a video series for Highline, a re-examination of all the things we got wrong in the 1990s. The first episode is about the sexual harassment freakouts that cropped up in the wake of the Anita Hill hearing and what was really behind them.

Here’s a sequence that didn’t make it into the final cut, four women testifying at a 1992 Congressional hearing:

This is why we have sexual harassment laws.

Before 1986, none of these stories would have been illegal. Until Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the only workplace discrimination that fell under the law was quid pro quo harassment, the kind where your boss explicitly tells you that if you want this promotion, you’ll have to sleep with him. Skeezy comments about your looks, getting groped at the water cooler, being told you had to meet a higher standard because of your gender, all that was just the cost of being a woman at work.

The most incredible thing about these cases, though, isn’t just the shittiness of the people perpetrating them. It’s the narrow-mindedness of the people in charge of punishing them.

Reading old sexual harassment cases, what you see over and over again is judges who simply couldn’t accept that women were blameless in their own abuse. One victim testified that she been assaulted by her boss for three straight years, that he touched her under the table during work meetings, that he bought her dinner her first week on the job and invited her to a motel afterward. The judges were skeptical. What was she wearing? Why did she go to dinner in the first place? Didn’t she eventually give in and have sex with him? Surely his advances weren’t that unwelcome.

This is how members of Congress treated Anita Hill too. If Clarence Thomas had been such a terrible boss, they asked her in 50 different ways, why did she later ask him for a reference? Despite all the alleged harassment, Arlen Specter pointed out, she never once complained to Thomas’s superiors. She even—gasp—picked him up at the airport once, years after they stopped working together.

It’s fascinating to me all the ways in which societal power is invisible to the people wielding it. For old, white, affluent judges, it simply didn’t make sense that a woman would have sex with her manager unless she really wanted to. Congress members couldn’t comprehend why a woman would maintain a relationship with her dickhead former boss, why she would wait years before publicly complaining about his behavior, why she would read aggression into his flirting and his backrubs and his ribald anecdotes.

I don’t think every judge and every Senator back then was a big old sleazebag. What I do think is that they suffered from a specific form of blindness, one that is human and understandable and utterly pernicious. We are all, in ways major and minor, incapable of seeing the world through anything but our own example. If you have never feared unemployment, the moral compromises others make to avoid it seem foreign. If you have never been hurt by jokes about your gender or your race or your sexuality, those who complain about them seem oversensitive.

Somehow, in the 25 years since the Anita Hill hearing (and, as I argue in the video, the passage of the 1991 Civil Rights Act), sexual harassment has become a synonym for a country that can no longer take a joke. Colleagues can’t even ask each other out for a drink nowadays. Managers can’t pat their employees on the shoulder.

But in fact, sexual harassment cases have been dwindling for years, and the mechanisms behind them have been steadily eroded. Since 1991, punitive damages have been capped at $500,000. Those eight-digit settlements you’re always reading about? Companies only have to pay a fraction of them. A study in 2002 found that more than half of large punitive damages awards got overturned on appeal. And that’s for the cases that make it to court. The vast majority of them don’t.

The real problem, in other words, is not that we have all become oversensitive. It is that we are not sensitive enough.

I am sure that, in this big and crowded country, someone somewhere has filed a frivolous lawsuit claiming to be sexual harassed when they weren’t. But becoming the country where that happens is not what we should fear. It is becoming the country that we used to be—one where  no one is allowed to file them at all.

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‘We live our lives through the eyes of others’

1987-5I have a big fat article in Highline today:

Still, even as we celebrate the scale and speed of this change, the rates of depression, loneliness and substance abuse in the gay community remain stuck in the same place they’ve been for decades. Gay people are now, depending on the study, between 2 and 10 times more likely than straight people to commit suicide. We’re twice as likely to have a major depressive episode. In a survey of gay men who recently arrived in New York City, three-quarters suffered from anxiety or depression, abused drugs or alcohol or were having risky sex—or some combination of the three.

I’m not going to pretend to be objective about any of this. I’m a perpetually single gay guy who was raised in a bright blue city by PFLAG parents. I’ve never known anyone who died of AIDS, I’ve never experienced direct discrimination and I came out of the closet into a world where marriage, a picket fence and a golden retriever were not just feasible, but expected. I’ve also been in and out of therapy more times than I’ve downloaded and deleted Grindr.

I get nervous writing these stories, ones that examine a trend that I personify. I tried to include people who have it harder than me, to be skeptical of my own example. I have no idea if my own life, my own problems, are instructive to anyone else in understanding their own. But I feel lucky that so many experts let me borrow their insight to explain it.

The phenomenon I’m exploring—the epidemic of loneliness among gay menbegan as a question: Is this really a thing? After the first few interviews, it became how did this happen? Then, after about 40, it was, why don’t we talk about this more?

The best I can hope for is that this article gives us a reason to.

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I Live My Life One Professional Conference At A Time

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When I was a kid I broke a big ceramic elephant at my best friend’s house. We were roughhousing, hopping from couch to couch, and I landed on one side of the coffee table and launched the elephant upward from the other. It hit the ground so hard the little shards skidded all the way to the kitchen.

As soon as it happened, my friend knew he was in trouble. The statue was priceless. His parents bought it in Thailand on their honeymoon, had kept it with them through college, careers, new cities, two kids. They had told him, over and over, to be careful around it, to move slowly, to touch it only to keep it clean.

When they got home, they were furious. They pointed out how stupid we had been, how reckless. They grounded him on the spot.

Then they called my parents. They told them everything—Thailand, priceless, reckless—but they couldn’t punish me themselves. After all, I wasn’t their kid.

My own parents, when I got home, were irritated and embarrassed. But they didn’t punish me either. After all, it wasn’t their elephant.

 

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This week I have an article in Foreign Policy about what I used to do for a living. It takes place, mostly, at the UN Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights, the great big NGO jamboree I attended every year from 2010 to 2015.

The characters in it are my colleagues and friends, people who got into human rights for the same reasons I did. They have given their youth and their weekends and their anger to solving the problems of the world. They have lost sleep over the suffering of people they’ve never met. I was lucky to spend a decade knowing them, and my disagreements about the way that they—we—work are about the systems we’re part of, not the individuals who populate them.

In other words, I hope that my article is good. But more so, I hope that it is fair.

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One of my clearest memories of the Forum is from 2010, the first year I attended, the first time it took place. It was a panel discussion, something about the extractive industry in South America. When it was over a human rights activist, wearing a wool parka in a room full of suits, stood up and started speaking in Spanish.

He named people he knew, friends, who were killed and imprisoned for protesting mining companies in Bolivia. He talked and talked—Allende, banana republics, NAFTA—his passion galloping faster than his voice. The interpreter, struggling to keep up, kept coming back to the word “irreconcilable.” Businesses exist to make money. Communities exist to take care of their members. Irreconcilable. The room squirmed. When he stopped, there was a rustle as we all removed our headsets.

“OK,” the panel chair said. “Anyone else have a comment?”

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If there is one thing I took away from the Forum, one lesson I learned over and over, it is that this shit is complicated.

Take Syngenta. Thirty years ago, the company had a problem. It was the world’s leading pesticide manufacturer, and poor farmers in Asia and Africa were using Paraquat, one of its best-selling products, to kill themselves. In 1980, a study found that in Malaysia alone, more than 1,000 people had killed themselves by drinking pesticides in just four years. International NGOs and, more relevantly, regulators were starting to get interested.

As the trickle of bad publicity became a flood, Syngenta decided to update its recipe for Paraquat. It made the pesticide bright blue so no one would drink it accidentally. It added an “evacuation agent” to make them vomit if they swallowed more than a few drops. The company even added an enzyme to make the pesticide break down in the stomach, so less of it would be absorbed by any humans it got inside.

Every company, in every country, has complicities like this. In India, people use GE ultrasound machines to abort female babies. In China, where most of the donated organs come from executed prisoners, activists are asking pharmaceutical companies to stop distributing anti-rejection drugs. In 2013, UK chemical companies found out their products were being used for lethal injections in Arkansas.

I don’t know what comes after this lesson, what each company’s equivalent of dying its product bright blue will be. I only know that once you start looking, start asking companies how thy improve or degrade the countries where they operate, you will find horrors you did not expect.

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After the Bolivian guy in the parka sat down and the panel finished and we all filed out, I asked the head of government relations for a mining company what he thought of the speech.

“I actually agree with him,” he said. “Somebody’s got to give up something.”

“So compromise doesn’t mean everybody wins, but everybody loses?” I said.

“This is the world we’ve got,” he says. “People aren’t going to stop buying oil, or diamonds, or sneakers. If my company pulls out of Bolivia on Monday, the Chinese will be there on Tuesday, taking rocks out of the ground same as us. Only they won’t even be talking to that guy, they’ll just be telling the government to move him aside.”

I heard this argument a lot at the Forum over the years. If western multinationals weren’t operating in Bolivia and Burma, Somalia and Sudan, that just leaves those countries open to the Russians and the Chinese and the Taiwanese (“who are way worse than the Chinese,” I remember an an apparel guy telling me).

Philosophically speaking, this is incoherent. As the head of a labor NGO put it to me, “It’s like saying, ‘I have to beat my wife because if I stop, the guy next door will come and beat her harder.'”

But philosophy is not reality. Poor countries do not choose between selling their land to an oil company and keeping it untouched. They choose between Exxon and Petrobras, Shell and Gazprom. They can have western companies, which have shareholders to please and reputations to uphold, or they can have government-backed companies from the developing world, which do not.

I told the mining dude this reminded me of an old Richard Pryor routine. When he misbehaved, his grandmother would make him go outside and choose the branch that she would beat him with. Pick one that’s too thick, and it’ll hurt more. Pick one too thin, and she would beat him, then make him go outside for a thicker one and beat him again.

“I used to work at Amnesty,” he said. “I took this job because I think I can do more good inside the system than out of it.”

“So have you?” I asked.

“My company isn’t perfect,” he said. “But we pay our workers on time, we talk to communities before we start mining and we refuse to pay bribes. If that guy really wants his country to get better, he shouldn’t be asking Western multinationals to leave. He should be asking us to stay.”

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I’ve been telling that elephant story at conferences for years. It is, with surprisingly few modifications, exactly how the world regulates international companies.

Let’s say a German company sets up a shoe factory in Lesotho. It forces its employees to work seven days a week, dumps waste into the river out back, sends security guards to harass the neighbors who complain. If it did these things in Germany, its own government would take it to court. In Lesotho, though, the government doesn’t have labor inspectors, its courts are corrupt and its politicians worry that punishing this one company will chase others like it to the poorer, more desperate one a few clicks north.

Germany, for its part, can’t really punish the company either. It regulates what happens in Germany, not what happens in Lesotho. Its own laws do not apply there and so neither, in the end, do its values. The workers, the river, the neighbors, they are not Germany’s.

And so: This company, between one government that can’t levy a punishment and another that won’t, gets away with actions it could never carry out at home.

The UN jargon for this is “the governance gap.” It’s the reason the UN Forum, and my former field, was invented. It is why I went to Geneva every year for five, and why I stayed in Copenhagen and Berlin for eleven.

I don’t know if anything I did in my career was effective at closing it. Last time I told the elephant story I was giving a training in Zambia and one of the participants asked, “Wait, so who are your parents in that metaphor? Who truly has the power to punish these companies?”

I didn’t have an answer. I hope someday I will.

 

 

 

 

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America already has extreme vetting

I made a video:

I sort of couldn’t help myself. When I lived in Denmark I volunteered at an asylum center. I mentored a 17-year-old Afghan refugee. Since then, I’ve had friends and colleagues get jobs in international refugee policy. Seen them, one by one, become frustrated at the stinginess, the injustice, the cruelty masquerading as bureaucracy. It’s impossible for me to talk or write about this in my own voice without getting worked up, so I tried using someone else’s.

I grew up in a super religious family. Church on Sundays, hands clasped before dinner, Bible camp every summer. I remember talking to one of my parents’ friends when I was maybe 13 or 14. She worked at a homeless shelter, she provided food and clothes and beds all winter, a big brick building in the middle of a neighborhood I had lived my whole life avoiding.

I was in my Ayn Rand phase at the time, and I asked her, wasn’t she worried about dependency, fraud, the homeless people going to her shelter, getting food, then going to another and getting more?

“They need our help,” she said. And that was it. End of sentence, end of conversation. I remember being struck by that, the simplicity of it, the clarity of genuine, actual, real-world grace being defined in four words right in front of me.

This is why I get so upset about refugee policy. It is one of the few areas where our institutions are explicitly guided by morality. Developed countries started taking in refugees from the ashes of World War II. The economic and political benefits of doing so—and there are many—were unknown at the time, irrelevant. We took them because they needed us to. It really was that simple.

Since then, of course, it has become complicated. There’s nothing surprising about this. Institutions need vetting processes, evaluation criteria, annual audits, fine, whatever. I get that. Just because a policy was founded in generosity does not mean that it has no limits.

But the debate about those limits and the steady strengthening of them makes me—I don’t know how else to put it—very sad. As a person, I know that genuine grace is an aspiration I will never reach. As a citizen, I find it difficult to accept that my institutions have stopped trying.

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Half of the time we’re gone

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I used to watch this show, My 600 Pound Life

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It was about morbidly obese people, how they had bariatric surgery to lose weight, what happened to them afterward.

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There was a woman who was so overweight she couldn’t walk. She had to ride around in one of those scooters. The show followed her around the grocery store as random people told her she was disgusting.

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Finally she had a gastric bypass. The weight fell off. After a few years, she was down to 150 pounds.

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She had a whole new life. She was coaching little league, making friends, joining book clubs, catching up on all the socializing she had missed out on for decades.

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Before, she was housebound. After, she could barely stay indoors for a few hours.

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Her husband had been with her through everything: The weight, then its disappearance. He could tell she still carried around the old person she was.

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“She still turns sideways when she walks through doors,” he said.

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In November I moved to Seattle. My hometown, my home country, my first time living there since 2005.

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There were no logical reasons for me to do this, only personal ones. Friends. Family. A general restlessness I can never find a noun for.

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I always agonize over these Big Life Decisions, always get regretful and nostalgic immediately after making them.

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Then, slowly, I acclimate. Like getting over a breakup or leaving a job, eventually I get used to the new normal I have chosen. I stop weighing it against the one I have left.

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Everyone knows Christian Doppler was the guy who discovered the Doppler Effect, that thing where soundwaves bunch up when they come from a moving object, the eeeeEEEEEoooo you hear when an ambulance goes by.

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What I didn’t know until recently was that Doppler discovered his effect before anyone had ever heard it. It was 1842, nothing had ever gone 50 miles an hour, no one could stand there to notice the change in pitch.

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Doppler, through sheer intelligence, described something that the world eventually proved real.

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In my head, this is how smart people, real live adults, make decisions. You think and you study and you make blueprints for the future and then when it happens you’ve already explained it.

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In 1781, after they discovered Uranus, astronomers got more accurate predictions for the rest of the solar system. The new planet’s gravity pulled everything in its direction. Astronomers could stare up into the sky and know, months in advance, where they would find Mars and Mercury and Venus.

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Or at least, they should have. Once they started looking, they realized that all the planets were just a tiny bit off where they should be.

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The only thing that could explain it was yet another planet, even farther out.

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For years, scientists back-calculated where, and how big, the new planet should be. When they were finished, they pointed their telescopes where the calculations told them and there it was. They called it Neptune.

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I think I find these stories so appealing because they imply that there’s something objective about the world, discoverable, that all I have to do is think hard enough, crunch all the numbers, and the answer will be obvious.

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But of course that’s not true. No matter how hard you look into the future, you still bring yourself into it with you.

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These are all random photos of Berlin I took over the years.

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Out a bus window, on a morning jog, biking home. Dismount, snap, continue.

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I miss it already. It is big and empty and strange and sad, full now with my own history and even fuller with its own.

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My new life, the new normal I’ve chosen, isn’t waiting to be discovered, it’s something I’ll have to invent.

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I can already feel myself adjusting, old memories getting taped over with new habits, concerns, people.

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Everything I left here becoming, eventually, just one of the ways I still turn sideways.

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Filed under Berlin, Personal, Serious

While the truth comes limping after

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I have this friend who works for the Red Cross.

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She just came back from West Africa, she was there during the Ebola outbreak.

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One of her jobs was disposing of dead bodies.

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Which, in an Ebola outbreak, is about the most dangerous thing you can do.

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She would arrive in a village in a two-layer hazmat suit, dragging a tank full of chlorine.

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People stopped shaking hands with each other in the first weeks of the outbreak. She would greet families whose relative just died by waving, standing two feet away.

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Then she would go into their house, wrap the body of their mother or son or uncle in black plastic and take it away. Then come back to spray down the room with chlorine.

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In most cases, it was already too late for the people living there. The virus was in their bloodstream, there was nothing she could do.

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The chlorine was for the people who came after. She had to disinfect the furniture, the sheets, anything else the dead body might have touched.

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Everyone in the village saw her arrive in her suit, saw her spray the home of the person who died. Noticed the strange smell, the clear liquid, the huge tub she kept in the back of her Land Rover.

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They saw when, three days later, the people who lived in the home that got sprayed fell ill. When they died, someone else from the Red Cross would come, spray again, and more people would get sick.

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After a few weeks, it started to look like causation. Someone dies, then foreigners come and spray this liquid, then someone else gets sick. Feeling became rumor, rumor became news, news became truth.

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She saw a mob kill aid workers, pull them out of their trucks. She saw them throw rocks at politicians and doctors and NGO workers.

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People there thought international pharmaceutical companies were deliberately infecting locals so they could test treatments on them. Given the history of West Africa, this is incredibly unfortunate, but also incredibly understandable.

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When the outbreak was finally over, the president stood at a podium and repeated the rumors. He told crowds that international charities had brought the disease. That they were to blame for the thousands of deaths, the 18 months of chaos.

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“There was so much anger after the outbreak,” my friend told me. “Sooner or later, it would point to him. He had to get in front of it.”

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I know I’ve said this before, but I think growing up in America has left me unprepared to understand the world in a lot of ways. I’ve never lived under an autocrat, never experienced genuine fear of authority, never had to be fearful about what I say or to whom I say it.

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I took these pictures last week in Tajikistan, a real life dictatorship.

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You see pictures of the president everywhere. Criticizing him carries a five-year prison sentence.

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He’s amended the constitution to stay in power forever, he’s changed the election rules so his son can take over when he’s gone.

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About one-quarter of the national museum is dedicated to him. It runs through the country’s decades-long Soviet occupation in just a few pictures, skips its brutal civil war entirely, then spends room after room presenting the president as its salvation

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It’s easy for me to forget that power does not only rest on force, but also on lies.

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When the president took perpetual power, he didn’t say, of course, that that’s what he was doing. He hid behind a title—’Founder of Peace and Harmony: Leader of the Nation’—and a story about leading the nation to glory against big and greedy world powers.

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He gave his people a way to explain away what he was doing. To excuse the power grab as essential, as justified, as normal.

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I heard an interview years ago with the head of Cargill, a huge agricultural conglomerate.

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One thing he said that stuck with me was that when you become a CEO, the first thing you lose is the ability to think out loud.

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As the head of a multi-billion dollar company, your words have consequences. Loose ideas—”Maybe we should look into banning GMOs”; “bringing jobs back from Mexico is an interesting idea”—will spike your stock price, destroy your workers’ morale, remake your suppliers’ operations overnight.

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The CEO said this aspect of the job felt like nakedness, like every thought and word was scrutinized. And he’s right, I guess.

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As someone who’s always lived in the developed world, this is what power looks like to me. It is careful, restrained. It is those long pauses between words and before answers in Obama press conferences.

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When I think about dictatorships, I usually focus on its victims. NGOs ransacked, opposition tortured, citizens running from footsteps in the middle of the night.

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But even the worst dictators only make victims of a fraction of their people. They don’t just need fear, they need stories. They need reasons for everyone else, all the people between the boot and the crown, to shrug away what they see around them.

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When Hitler wiped Czechoslovakia off the map, he made it a story of a German minority in need of his protection.

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When Robert Mugabe liquidated his country’s economy, he told a story of turning back colonialism.

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When Enhver Hoxha sent a third of Albania to the Gulag, the story was the need to prevent political dissent, to continue the country’s unilateral focus on development.

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The scariest thing about these stories is not that they are lies, but that there is a tiny bit of truth to each of them. Dictatorships do not do away with veracity. They do away with proportionality.

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As someone who has never seen this up close, I find it hard sometimes to see the big lie surrounding the small truth. I’ve never been trained in this, never had stakes in knowing how.

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I asked my friend how she stayed the whole 18 months in West Africa. How she survived.

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“We removed all of our emblems,” she said. They stopped wearing uniforms. Took the stickers off the trucks. “And then,” she said, “we got back to work.”

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Filed under Personal, Travel