Many Americans think of Roe v. Wade as the defining Supreme Court decision on the issue of abortion. But a 1992 high-court decision actually governs abortion law. That ruling rested on fateful assumptions about the relationship between abortion and women’s equality. But in so doing, it has served to enshrine social and professional inequalities, which mothers must fight against every day.
In that case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a mere plurality of justices on the Court affirmed Roe, not because they thought it was good law but because of its “precedential force.” Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, and David Souter wrote that the “certain cost” of overruling Roe was just too extensive 19 years later—“even on the assumption that the central holding of Roe was in error.”
What were the costs that persuaded these justices to affirm a prior—potentially erroneous—constitutional decision? Judicial conservatives point to the joint opinion’s concern with the threat to the high court’s integrity and legitimacy in overturning long-established precedent. But another concern was just as operative: The plurality writes that the country so “relied” upon the right bestowed in Roe for women’s economic and social progress that the Court could not now stand in the way.
Behind this logic is a kind of nontraditional, sociological rationale undergirding stare decisis—the legal principle of deferring to precedent. But the Casey plurality is also paying tribute to a long-popular argument among pro-abortion-rights legal thinkers: Abortion rights are necessary for women’s equality. Indeed, for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the cadre of other like-minded legal thinkers, the right to abortion, currently based in substantive due process, would be better secured by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment—or, better still, the long-proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Justice Ginsburg, who defended abortion rights as equality rights in scholarship in the 1980s, more recently argued in her dissent in Gonzales v. Carhart that a constitutionally protected right to abortion is even necessary for women’s “equal citizenship stature.”
Equality arguments for abortion rights have become so pervasive in law and politics that it’s easy to overlook just what is being claimed, and how very different this idea of equality is from that of those who first advocated for women’s full legal, political, and social equality in this country.
[Caitlin Flanagan: The dishonesty of the abortion debate]
Consider, as one striking example, Victoria Woodhull, a leading suffragist and radical, and the first woman to run for president of the United States, nominated by the Equal Rights Party in 1872. With her peers in the 19th-century women’s movement, she asserted, among a host of other rights, the right to be free of the common-law sexual prerogative that husbands then enjoyed over their wives. Understanding the asymmetrical consequences of sexual intercourse for women, Woodhull anticipated a time “when woman rises from sexual slavery to sexual freedom into the ownership and control of her sexual organs, and man is obliged to respect this freedom.”
But owning and controlling one’s body did not extend, for Woodhull and other advocates of “voluntary motherhood,” to doing what one willed with the body of another. Rather, these women sought sovereignty over their own bodies in part because they could claim no legitimate authority to engage, in Woodhull’s words, in “antenatal murder of undesired children.” An outspoken advocate of constitutional equality for women, Woodhull also championed the rights of children—rights that “begin while yet they remain the fetus.” In 1870, she wrote:
Many women who would be shocked at the very thought of killing their children after birth, deliberately destroy them previously. If there is any difference in the actual crime we should be glad to have those who practice the latter, point it out. The truth of the matter is that it is just as much a murder to destroy life in its embryonic condition, as it is to destroy it after the fully developed form is attained, for it is the self-same life that is taken.
Nearly 100 years later the arguments shifted, and women’s-equality advocates began making arguments in favor of abortion rights. In 1969, in a first-of-its-kind legal brief, attorneys for 300 women challenged New York State’s then–relatively restrictive abortion law. The attorneys in Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz rightly brought attention to the same stubborn reproductive asymmetries to which advocates of voluntary motherhood had sought to respond. But rather than call men to join women at a high standard of mutual responsibility and care, as prior generations of women’s-rights advocates had done, the attorneys argued for a different kind of sexual equality. Because “the man who shares responsibility for her pregnancy can and often does just walk away,” the plaintiff’s brief maintained that the woman ought to enjoy that same freedom—through abortion. As the Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe would articulate the concept two decades later, “While men retain the right to sexual and reproductive autonomy, restrictions on abortion deny that autonomy to women.”
But abortion restrictions do not deny sexual and reproductive autonomy to women; reality does. While pregnant, a woman is carrying a new and vulnerable human being within her. Unlike a biological father, a pregnant woman cannot just walk away; to approach the desired autonomy of the child-abandoning man, a pregnant woman must engage in a life-destroying act.
[Chavi Eve Karkowsky: I found the outer limits of my pro-choice beliefs]
So in a twisted imitation of the common-law dominion husbands once wielded over their wives, women would now seek sexual equality through the ultimate dominion over their unborn children. To make matters worse, this dominion is now thought necessary for women to achieve, in Justice Ginsburg’s view, “equal citizenship stature.”
Yet this view of “equal citizenship” seems to be in some tension with Ginsburg’s definition of “full citizenship” in the opinion for the Court in United States v. Virginia, the much-heralded 1996 sex-discrimination case. Ginsburg defined a person’s full citizenship as the “equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities.”
But those capacities are not the same for men and women, at least when it comes to sex and reproduction. If citizenship is understood along the traditional, male model—the capacity to remain physically autonomous from the reproductive consequences of sexual intercourse and unencumbered by the demands of caregiving—the affirmative attachment and nurturing required of young children and those who care for them become symbols of dependence, and anathema. To celebrate autonomy as the defining feature of citizenship undervalues both men and women who have caregiving responsibilities, especially when those responsibilities impede one’s capacity to live and work unencumbered.
The market economy, ever seeking efficiency and profits, already carries a bias against time-consuming and often-unpredictable parental duties. Given feminism’s tendency today to associate equality with autonomy, it is no wonder that work-family balance remains a foremost issue, and that women’s status as mothers still results in the most acute social and professional inequalities, even as women have made tremendous gains overall.
Perhaps the strongest illustration of the brokenness of these ideas comes in the form of a counterfactual: Imagine a world without Roe and Casey, but with Ginsburg’s rightfully celebrated anti-discrimination successes in the 1970s. In this world, workplaces and other institutions better acknowledge encumbered women, duly encumbered men, and the child-rearing family’s demands generally. Rather than being “free to assume Roe’s concept of liberty in defining the capacity of women to act in society,” as the Casey plurality contemplated, employers are burdened instead by the reality—now too easily cast aside—that most working persons are, and wish to be, deeply encumbered by their obligations to their families and the important work they do in their homes. In such a world, authentically transformed by women’s legal, political, and social equality, today’s overburdened mothers and fathers just might receive the respect they deserve.
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Almost the minute after the White House released its 110-page brief for the Senate impeachment trial, careful observers noticed a contradiction between the White House counsel’s view and Attorney General William Barr’s. The White House brief argues that there can be no impeachable “abuse of power” without a violation of established law. Meanwhile, in a memorandum to senior Justice Department lawyers written while he was still a private citizen in 2018, Barr argued that abuse of power can indeed be impeachable even if there is no crime.
As a purely legal matter, the position of the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, is incorrect. But that doesn’t help the Democrats in this case, and should perhaps worry them in the long run.
First, let’s take a look at Cipollone’s unforced error. (I worked at the White House from 2017 to 2019 as the Council on Environmental Quality’s associate director for regulatory reform.) The memorandum claims that “by limiting impeachment to cases of ‘Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,’ the Framers restricted impeachment to specific offenses against ‘already known and established law.’” The memo goes on to note that at the Constitutional Convention, James Madison opposed “maladministration” as grounds for impeachment because that would be equivalent to tenure at the pleasure of the Senate, subjecting the president to something akin to a parliamentary vote of no-confidence. That, the memo insists, “would cripple the independent Executive the Framers had crafted and recreate the Parliamentary system they had expressly rejected.”
In fact, the Senate trial is not meaningfully different from a parliamentary vote of no-confidence. That inheres in the very procedure the Constitution lays down for impeachment. Ultimately, “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” means whatever the Senate thinks it means in a particular case, and its judgment is final and cannot be appealed to any court of law. Because it is not justiciable, the standard for impeachment is simply not a legal standard. Impeachment is by nature political.
[Paul Savoy: An impeachment trial without witnesses would be unconstitutional]
And yet this has not crippled the presidency in the least. That is because the requirement of a two-thirds majority in the Senate means that the president can be removed only if opinion has turned overwhelmingly against him, which in most situations would mean that his own party has largely abandoned him. Indeed, it was through the requirement of a supermajority, rather than a refined legal standard, that Madison’s concern about impeachment turning on policy disagreements was effectively addressed.
Barr has the better view. In his 2018 memo, he wrote:
Thus, under the Framers’ plan, the determination whether the President is making decisions based on “improper” motives or whether he is “faithfully” discharging his responsibilities is left to the People, through the election process, and the Congress, through the Impeachment process … The fact that [the] President is answerable for any abuses of discretion and is ultimately subject to the judgment of Congress through the impeachment process means that the President is not the judge in his own cause.
The purpose of Barr’s memo was to warn the senior leadership of the Justice Department that Special Counsel Robert Mueller might be pursuing an “obstruction of justice” theory that would criminalize facially lawful acts of the president just because of Mueller’s suspicion that the president may have had improper motives. (Mueller ultimately backed away from that theory). The place to deal with abuses of power that depend on public judgment, Barr wrote, is the impeachment process—not internal Justice Department investigations.
This is eminently sensible. It could be that a president commits no crime, but his abuse of constitutional obligations proves so appalling that his own party as well as the opposition turns against him. Impeachment is the right resort in such a case.
Democrats seized on Barr’s 2018 memo to dispute the White House’s contention that abuse of power doesn’t require a legal violation. But even if they are correct on the legal point, it doesn’t help them. That’s because from the start, the Democrats based their entire case for impeachment on the claim that the president had engaged in corrupt acts and they could prove it. Impeachment may not require a crime, but they decided to focus on one anyway: bribery in Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
But then the Democrats apparently gave up on bribery, and fell back on a vague abuse-of-power charge based on the same facts that they were implicitly admitting were not sufficient to prove the crime originally alleged. That’s why it doesn’t help the impeachers to establish that abuse of power doesn’t a priori require evidence of an actual crime. They have arrived in the Senate with an abuse-of-power theory that in this particular case does require evidence of a crime to be at all convincing, simply because that’s how they set it up from the start.
[David Graham: No, Democrats aren’t trying to overturn the 2016 election]
There are those who will say, “Well, Republicans are just as corrupt as the president and wouldn’t convict him for any reason.” Perhaps. But Richard Nixon commanded more loyalty among Republican senators than Trump does, and they abandoned him in the end. Are today’s Republicans simply weaker than those of Nixon’s time—or is it the case against Trump that is weaker? The answer should be obvious: Nixon would have traded his impeachment for Trump’s in a heartbeat.
The impeachers must know by now that their chances of removing Trump are exactly zero, but some good may yet come out of these proceedings. The elevation of abuse of power to an impeachable offense puts this and future presidents on notice that if they fail to live up to standards that Americans broadly expect of their leaders, they may be impeached even if they commit no crime—indeed, even if they believe they did nothing wrong.
Suppose a president suspends some statutory tax obligation, such as the capital-gains tax, by ordering executive-branch employees to stop collecting it. Or suppose a president rewrites some law by refusing to enforce large parts of it, and then brags, “I changed the law.” Suppose a president discovers that by the prospective use of prosecutorial discretion, laws already in effect can be summarily suspended or altered at will.
Many Republicans may wish they had known years ago that such conduct could be an impeachable “abuse of power.” At least they know it now.
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When he emerged as a filmmaker in the late 1990s, Guy Ritchie fashioned himself as a kind of British Quentin Tarantino. His early movies (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch) were set in criminal underworlds, crackled with witty and shockingly profane dialogue, and gleefully chopped up their timelines. Ritchie has occasionally sojourned back to that territory (in 2008’s RocknRolla, for instance). But of late he’s been languishing in franchise-land, sneaking Cockney accents and bare-knuckle boxing into such blockbusters as Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and Aladdin.
Now he’s back to his old stomping grounds with the new gangster comedy The Gentlemen, a ridiculously complex yarn about a marijuana kingpin, a conniving private investigator, and a gangland war in the streets of London. The film is vintage Ritchie, complete with unreliable narrators, big stars dropping in for over-the-top supporting roles, and a disregard for decency. It’s a real throwback, but I can’t say that as a compliment. For all its energy and vulgarity, The Gentlemen is a slog, a tedious and unnecessarily unpleasant tour of ground that Ritchie’s already covered.
Though it pains me to write this, at least some of the blame for this failure falls on Matthew McConaughey. The actor is saddled with the lead role of Mickey Pearson, a languid American who has risen to become Britain’s premier weed baron. The Gentlemen revolves around Mickey’s efforts to sell his booming drug business and retire with his wife, Rosalind (played by Michelle Dockery); the rivals looking to acquire his empire include the effete American billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong) and the ambitious Chinese mobster Dry Eye (Henry Golding). The supporting members of the ensemble are at least engaged, but McConaughey seems completely checked out, delivering his dialogue with less flair than he shows in his Lincoln commercials.
The Gentlemen thus completes the second boom-and-bust cycle of McConaughey’s career. As an exciting young actor in the ’90s, he gave his all in films such as Dazed and Confused and Lone Star, but eventually settled into a rut of middling rom-coms and dramas. When he reemerged with Magic Mike, gave an Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club, and followed up with locked-in work in True Detective and Interstellar, it seemed his magic was fully back: Here was an actor who hummed with vitality when simply sitting still, who could make a single word of dialogue sound like a florid sentence. In The Gentlemen, however, none of that dynamism is present.
It doesn’t help that Ritchie’s screenplay is framed as a convoluted series of recollections that hop around in time and lean heavily on voice-overs instead of snappy conversation. The movie is narrated by Fletcher (Hugh Grant), a dirtbag private investigator hired by a sleazy newspaper editor (Eddie Marsan) to dig into Mickey’s criminal dealings. Fletcher is describing his findings—which may or may not be accurate—to Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), Mickey’s right-hand man. A lot of the action plays out repetitively, as the two of them sort out the seedy reality within Fletcher’s tabloid-ready fictions.
Given that Grant has publicly crusaded against the British media’s intrusion on private lives, the script carries a hint of topical anger: The most contemporary thing about The Gentlemen is that its biggest villains are merciless editors rather than violent criminals. Yet the satire isn’t coherent enough to stick, and Mickey and Raymond are so anonymous that it’s difficult to root for them. Some of the side characters who pop in—including Colin Farrell as an avuncular boxing coach—are more compelling but have little bearing on the plot.
Even if you can grab hold of The Gentlemen’s plot amid the tangle of macho power dynamics, the film is obsessed with cheap racist jokes at the expense of Dry Eye and his Chinese associates, along with digs at Berger’s implied homosexuality. Ritchie may be telling a story about unpleasant people who don’t deserve the audience’s sympathy. But he’s presented it as a pulpy comedy rather than as an indictment of an ugly underworld, and the venom underlying much of The Gentlemen’s dialogue doesn’t match its easygoing comic vibe. This is the clearest sign that Ritchie’s brand of crime movie should’ve been left in the past where it belonged. Though he still has plenty of visual panache as a director, his approach to screenwriting is miserably out-of-date.
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The day the 45th president of the United States was impeached, I was alerted to the situation by a text message full of emoji tongues.
“🚨🚨🚨HAPPY IMPEACHMENT DAY to all my freedom🗽loving hoes💦👅👅👅,” began the missive, forwarded to me without comment by my former roommate. It thanked its recipients for “putting the 🍑in IM🍑MENT” and made passing reference to “hoe biden” and “daddy ukraine,” as well as a sexual act that was deemed “the only ethical form of consumption under late capitalism.” before demanding that the note be forwarded to 10 “woke” contacts, “☭”.
It wasn’t the first text message I’d received in this style, nor the first one I had copy-pasted and forwarded on to my siblings and friends. At this point in my life, I’m well aware of the unpleasant things that can happen to a person if she doesn’t forward a chain message: She can die, or she can miss out on a chance to make a fortune, or she can disappoint her Father in heaven, or she can have a totally sexless year. These consequences have been threatened for centuries in paper letters, emails—and, recently, smutty, emoji-studded text messages, typically timed to a holiday or major event.
They are gross, they are phonetically challenging, and they are extremely compelling. On December 19, the Atlantic editor Ellen Cushing sent me the same impeachment-themed text message, followed by a plea and a question: “sorry please don’t report me to HR. where do they come from??????”
Where do they come from? That’s the million [money-bag emoji] question [smiley face with a dollar sign on its tongue]. They come from a friend who got it from a friend who got it from a friend, which is to say they come from no one. You can find them on Tumblr and Reddit and Twitter, but the person posting them is rarely the person writing them.
I learned this the hard way, after messaging a Reddit user who goes by “Anthologay,” who shared the impeachment-day text in a forum. When I asked him for the origins of the text, he admitted, “I was sent it by some other gay guy lol,” then did not respond to several emails begging him to help me find the source.
As it turned out, the text was originally posted in September of 2019 (very proactive!) to the subreddit r/copypasta, which archives all kinds of copypasta: chunks of text that are meant to be copy-pasted and spread across the web. Then it was reposted to Twitter, then to Tumblr. Once again, I used Reddit’s chat feature to ask a stranger about the origins of a message, and once again, the person confessed, “I’m so sorry, I got it from a friend.”
If it is nearly impossible to say where chain texts come from individually, it is much less difficult to say where they came from generally. The most complete accounting of the history of chain letters was written by an 82-year-old self-described independent researcher from California named Daniel W. VanArsdale, whose archive is a treasure trove of what he calls “amoral chaos” and contains more than 900 letters, dating back to the late 1880s.
“I just thought that it would be interesting to try to figure out what was going on and how [chain letters] worked,” he told me, of a research project that has taken almost half a century and much of his life.
The first chain letters, in VanArsdale’s analysis, were what folklorists sometimes call “heavenly letters,” or, more commonly, Himmelsbrief, a German term. These letters claimed to be authored by God, typically offering divine protection in exchange for proper religious observance. It’s an enduring format: VanArsdale’s archive cites a letter, discovered in Greece, dating back to the third century.
Early letters from heaven urged the reader to “ ‘publish’ the letter,” according to VanArsdale’s reasearch, and until at least the 1960s, many local newspapers did. But by the 20th century, the most popular chain letters “gained more circulation by relying on individual copying.” These letters—paper, sent by mail—were not all that different from the modern chain text. They were short. They were secular. They stated a minimum number of copies that the recipient should distribute. And they included a deadline. Often, they listed consequences for not forwarding them on.
“DO NOT BREAK THE CHAIN, for whoever does will have BAD LUCK,” reads a letter from 1922. “Do it within twenty-hour hours and count nine days and you will have some great good fortune.” Others promised that those who forwarded the letter would often win the lottery shortly after. People who didn’t follow the instructions supposedly “lost everything [they] possessed,” or died mysteriously.
By the second half of the 20th century, chain letters were ubiquitous enough to become a vector for scams, hoaxes, and viral lies. Chain pyramid schemes ran rampant through the U.S. mail system before they were made illegal in 1948. Emails demanding multiple forwardings to avoid the wrath of some teenage ghost were so prevalent that they warranted attention from the federal government in the late ’90s. Chain letters also served as absurd and ingenious misinformation campaigns, nearly impossible to trace back to their source. In 1999, the Better Business Bureau released an advisory about two email-chain hoaxes. The first promised that readers could win a free case of M&Ms (“the candy of the Millennium”) if they helped the message go sufficiently viral before Y2K. (According to a company operations manager, there was, in fact, no email-related way to win any Mars Candy products.) The second claimed that Procter & Gamble’s moon-and-stars corporate trademark was a symbol of Satanism. (It is not.)
In the 2000s, chain letters jumped to text, and in the following decade they began to adopt the emoji-heavy format we see today. Some still have the same anti-capitalist tinge: May Day, for example, has its own crude tributes, in which the proletariat becomes the “HOEletariat.” Most retain the vague threat of missing out on something good if you don’t push the message through your entire social network: At Christmas, your stocking only gets stuffed if you text enough “naughty elves.”
Others are smarmier, taking sweet issue with the perceived meanness of your average chain message. One, in honor of “Palentine’s Day,” asks the reader to forward it to 10 people. If you get 10 back you’re “ONE HECK OF A PAL.” If you get five back, you’re “LOVED 💓💗❣️BY SOME 🌞GOOD 🌸FOLKS.” But if you get zero back, “YOURE FRIENDS👫👭👬WITH PEOPLE WHO DON’T ❌PARTICIPATE❌ IN HOLIDAY 🎉🎊🎄🐰❤️CHAIN ⛓TEXTS ⛓🔕AND THAT’S NOT❌ A REFLECTION 🔮ON YOU 💁♀️OR YOUR VALUE ⚖️AS A HUMAN BEING👽.” Others keep the format and extract the sexiness: “Are you DTF?!” starts an Easter text. “Down 2 Forgive? Jesus forgave you for your sins.”
By 2015, these types of messages were so popular that r/copypasta cordoned them off into their own subreddit: r/emojipasta. One of its moderators, a 24-year-old from Tel Aviv named Yitzchok Trachtenberg, told me it was founded to highlight the “creativity and innovation of youth creating new and powerful ideas through technological advancement transforming simple emoticons into works of textual art.”A little rhetorically dense, maybe, but fair. Chain texts do transform anodyne emoji and bad puns into strange and elaborate poems about current events—as charming as they are crass, like young people themselves, and way more fun than sanctimonious tweets or mass-manufactured greeting cards.
However, in r/emojipasta, the particular character of Reddit really asserts itself over the form. On New Year’s Eve, one member of the subreddit shared an inspirational text he told me he came up with on the spot: “🗣Fuck 🖕🏻your New Years 💥kiss💋. Who’s trying🤔 to go 🚶♂️to the gym 💪and get a New Years💥 lift🏋️♂️❓,” it says, in part. That poster’s favorite emojipasta, he said, is the one that takes a chunk of dialogue from Todd Phillips’s Joker and fills it in with clowns and squirt guns. (Trachtenberg told me that since 2015, r/emojipasta has “devolved into a place where people are allowed to say what they think and we all know what that turns into online, a bunch of racist antigay homophobes.” He no longer spends much time there, he said.)
[Read: Emoji don’t mean what they used to]
As it turns out, r/emojipasta wasn’t even the first chain-text archive. In April 2015, a few months before the subreddit was founded, a “Chain Texts” Tumblr started accepting and publishing submissions.
Tumblr’s foremost chain-text archive ran hundreds of new submissions before it stopped publishing in December 2017. The texts provide a neat time capsule of very recent history, like that day in June 2015 when “Macklemore legalized macklemarriage,” or that day two months later when Lana Del Rey announced that all she wanted to do was get high by the beach, or that day Britain voted to leave the European Union. A very Millennial text refashioned the Fairly OddParents theme song to include the phrase “Bush did 9/11.” At the end of 2016, a New Year’s Eve message recapped the year with characteristically uncouth references to Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, the death of Harambe the gorilla, the return of the Zodiac Killer mystery, and the election of “Donald TRUMPET,” who had grabbed the country by its taco emoji.
In 2008, researchers at UC San Diego proposed using a chain email as a model for the way that information spreads online. In the resulting paper, they analyzed the circulation of a 2002 petition that asked recipients to sign their names in opposition to the war in Iraq. In the end, they found 637 copies with “distinct chains of recipients,” resulting in around 20,000 signatures.
Though the researchers expected each letter to radiate quickly out into broader and broader networks, they actually moved through pretty narrow channels. The average letter traveled 300 steps from beginning to end, and more than 90 percent of the email recipients succeeded in getting no more than one other person to sign on. Basically, it was a very long game of telephone.
We’ve been primed to worry about information spreading too quickly and widely, so it’s tempting to see this as preferable. But the model is disconcerting in its own way: “The large number of steps [give] the diffusion a certain fragility,” the study’s authors wrote, “and [present] greater opportunities for the information to be altered or lost as it spreads.”
Though this study was about emails, not texts, I think I can extrapolate slightly. What this means, for my purposes, is that hunting down the origin of any one chain text in particular could likely require the participation of 300 people.
So I wrote to almost everyone who had shared a chain text in r/emojipasta in the past three months, hoping I would eventually get lucky. After a dozen tries, I found someone who had posted work that was original, but only in the internet’s generous, remix-culture sense of the word: The author of a New Year’s emojipasta posted to Reddit (too evocative to excerpt here) told me he typically just takes things off Twitter and adds emoji to them. “I’m mainly doing these to increase karma [points that Reddit users receive when their posts are upvoted by others], so I can post on other subreddits that have a requirement,” he explained. Some might call this joke stealing, and it is, but it’s more like joke repurposing: The joke is taken out of its original context and turned into something that is meant to be copied and edited and made blurry around the edges.
[Read: Meme thievery goes corporate]
Operating in the same sort of intellectual-property gray zone, Jorge Galat, a 27-year-old software developer who lives in Buenos Aires, is likely responsible for some of the chain texts that have been widely shared. Three years ago, he and a friend built an emojipasta generator and posted the code on the open-source-software platform GitHub for anyone to use. To make it, they used the full text of r/emojipasta to train a simple probabilistic model, with the goal of creating “an unlimited source of emojipastas.” It works pretty well, Galat told me, though sometimes it can spit back out verbatim posts from the source text, or “things that don’t make any sense.”
Nobody has ever sent Galat a chain text—he said they aren’t popular in Argentina and he only found out about them online. This was a few years ago, when he knew less English, and he was confused by some of them. (“I remember reading the word penis followed by a cucumber or something like that.”) Now, he said, he thinks emojipasta are funny because you can’t tell whether the message you’re reading is the original or if someone has changed it to be about something new. “Trying to track the source of it is quite difficult.”
Before I tried the generator out myself, he reminded me that he wasn’t responsible for anything I might read. “They’re not all sexual but they’re pretty dark.”
The first text I got started “🤗🤗hey what up y’all 🤗🤗 this your👸🏼👸🏼 girl 👸🏼👸🏼little j and this is my best friend 🍴🍴’knife’ to meet you 🔪🔪 i really do love knives!🔪🔪🔪knife is love, and also life👎👎👎.” The second: “Good 📰 everyone👍👍i am a 🅿roud registered☑☑☑socialist🗽 who wants❤only 🆓🆒🆕🆓healthcare🏥🏨 🏥for everyone👶👪👵👴👧💯!!!!”
They were pretty much exactly what you would expect—a computer-generated rendering close enough to the real thing to be copy-pasted into an iMessage window with little effort and few tweaks.
After days of frustrating conversations with people who were simply copy-pasting, never dreaming up their own elaborate threats and innuendos, I chatted with one last Reddit user—B, an 18-year-old from California who asked to be anonymous for privacy reasons—who had mostly posted in various tech-support subreddits. He had shared one original copypasta, on New Year’s Eve, with the post title “a quickie I wrote tonight—.” The message heralds the end of the year in an absurdly explicit manner, then continues for a while in a manner you can probably imagine, before concluding, “SEND this to 6️⃣9️⃣ NEW YEAR HOESSS💥🧨👨❤️👨😜 or daddy won’t be given u any 🎉🎊Party P0️⃣ppers🎉 ALL YEAR 😱😰🥵📅📆😭😿🔮.”
[Read: The Fat Jew: internet celebrity and joke thief]
“It’s kind of just a holiday tradition from me to my close friends,” he told me via Reddit’s chat feature. “The ones I send are just super goofy and supposed to be taken as big fat jokes hehe.” Then he explained his writing process. He uses the Notes app on his Mac laptop, side by side with the Character Viewer tool (which allows users to easily browse and select emoji). “As for the content … they usually follow a pretty similar pattern,” he said. “Greeting with a play on the name of the holiday; context for holiday, usually an obviously wrong recount of the history; some excuse to do [explicit thing]; send this to [outrageous number] of people or else [silly thing] will happen; analysis of what the number of them you get back means.” Hilarity is formulaic; all you have to do is swap out some nouns.
And any note that is meant to be passed along plays on the same set of human paranoias, about death or loneliness or poverty. A common trope in VanArnsdale’s archive is “romance games,” like the paper note intercepted by a California middle-school teacher in 1995, which reads, in part, “Copy this letter word by word within 4 days. Give it to 8 people (no guys) … On the fourth day drink a glass of milk and say his name (the boy you like) 5 times. Within the 6th day he will ask you out. If you break the chain you will have bad luck.”
Drinking a glass of milk and getting a date is much more chaste than whatever an internet-age chain text might ask you to do, or promise you as a reward, but the sequence of events is structurally similar. If you don’t play the romance game, whatever happens next is all your fault. If you do play, you put yourself in the hands of the universe. The choice is obvious.
To some degree, the internet has ruined this: Chain emails petered out once email services got much more aggressive about preventing spam, and a chain text is slightly less exhilarating after you Google it. But you can still opt out of demystification. Chain texts, like the emails and postcards before them, are not actually sent from heaven above, but they do have a sort of divinity: They arrive knowing their generation’s hopes and fears, and they leave well on their way to omnipresence.
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In 1958, U.S. leaders stood at the threshold of an American era in the Middle East, conflicted about whether it was worth the trouble to usher in.
A year earlier, in the context of the emergent Cold War and fading British and French power in the region, Dwight Eisenhower had articulated and received congressional approval for what became known as the Eisenhower doctrine. The United States had for the first time staked out national interests in the Middle East—oil, U.S. bases and allies, Soviet containment—and declared that it was prepared to defend them with military force.
Sixty-two years before President Donald Trump dispatched a drone to Baghdad to kill Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, this is how American combat missions in the post–World War II Middle East began.
[Read: The coming Middle East conflagration]
Eisenhower felt compelled to issue his doctrine following a showdown over the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, an Arab nationalist whom U.S. officials perceived as allied with the Soviet Union. The U.S. president had pledged to honor requests for American military assistance by countries facing aggression from proponents of “international communism.”
That U.S. commitment was tested when insurrectionist Iraqi army officers executed their country’s last king, the Western-friendly Faisal II, in Baghdad in the summer of 1958. Camille Chamoun, the Christian leader of Lebanon and an opponent of Nasser, asked for American aid against the backdrop of the coup in Iraq and looming civil war in his own country. (The revolution in Iraq had little connection to Nasser, but the U.S. didn’t initially grasp that.) In keeping with the grand domino theorizing of that period, U.S. officials worried that if they didn’t act decisively, U.S. partners such as Lebanon and Jordan would be next to fall to Nasserite nationalism and, by extension, Soviet communism.
Eisenhower hastily convened a meeting with his top national-security advisers on the day of the Iraqi king’s downfall. John Foster Dulles, a consummate Cold Warrior and the U.S. secretary of state at the time, argued that a failure to heed Chamoun’s call would signal to the Soviets that the United States wasn’t ready to take risks for its allies, and would thus mean “the decline and indeed the elimination of our influence—from Indonesia to Morocco.” In a calculation that has been turned on its head today, the president maintained that “to lose this area by inaction would be far worse than the loss in China, because of the strategic position and resources of the Middle East.” His team insisted that the U.S. was on sound footing to intercede militarily in another country’s civil war, because Lebanon’s president had invited them in, a poignant point to read today as Iraqi officials seek to kick the U.S. military out of the country in retaliation for Soleimani’s killing. As for intervening in Iraq as well, Eisenhower, a celebrated World War II general who was typically cautious about taking military action, dismissed the notion as unworkable. In an illustration of just how new all this was to Americans, Eisenhower’s speech announcing the operation included a geography lesson, noting that Lebanon was “a small country, a little less than the size of Connecticut” and that Iraq was “nearby.” He was also mindful of the risks. “I realize we are opening a Pandora’s Box here,” a jumpy Eisenhower told Britain’s equally nervous prime minister on the eve of deploying the Marines to Lebanon.
The episode and its aftermath are essential to understanding how the United States went from being deeply apprehensive about getting involved militarily in the Middle East to conducting more military interventions there than in any other region in the world. The trajectory of U.S. involvement is one of American leaders gradually putting stock in their ability to achieve their objectives through discrete military action and then investing everything in costly military misadventures, to the point that we’ve come full circle: The American public and its leaders are profoundly ambivalent about even limited and critical missions, such as the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Even in 1958, now-familiar patterns of military intervention in the Middle East were evident. Though he advocated for a troop deployment to Lebanon, for example, Dulles warned that the United States was entering a situation in which “it will be easy to get ourselves involved, and very hard to get out.” Then, as now, military inaction was equated with the United States renouncing its interests in the region. “We must act [in Lebanon], or get out of the Middle East entirely,” Eisenhower told his aides, presenting a stark choice that Trump is surely acquainted with. Then, as now, the White House debated whether it needed congressional authorization for its combat operations. Then, as now, U.S. leaders offered the public misleading justifications for their use of force; Eisenhower greatly inflated the situation in Lebanon to be about avoiding another world war by refusing to appease the Soviet Union, when it mostly had to do with internal Lebanese politics.
Despite Eisenhower’s soaring rhetoric, the actual U.S. objective was narrow in scope: to prop up a friendly government. And that goal was achieved with surprising ease. Dulles had predicted that the military intervention would generate blowback, such as an oil crisis as Egypt and its ally Syria retaliated against commercial infrastructure, or “a wave of anti-Western feeling in the Arab world.” Yet when hundreds of U.S. marines came ashore in Beirut on July 15, 1958—backed up by three aircraft carriers and dozens of warships in the Mediterranean Sea, plus the threat of the U.S. deploying nuclear weapons from Germany—they were greeted merely by sunbathers and vendors on the beach. U.S. diplomats soon negotiated a political settlement that eased Chamoun out of power. American forces, eventually numbering in the thousands, left the country in October after suffering only one fatality, from sniper fire, during the three-month deployment. They got in easily, they stabilized the situation, and they got out easily.
More than half a century later, the future of the United States’ military presence in the Middle East is once again up for discussion, as Iraq calls on the U.S. to end its roughly 5,000-strong troop presence in the country and Trump struggles to remove American forces from Syria and Afghanistan as well. U.S. politicians are now grappling with the possibility of a post-American period in the region.
Though Eisenhower and his advisers couldn’t have known it at the time, their swift, successful operation would prove the exception rather than the rule. “Subsequent American combat missions in the Middle East would not be so lucky or so cost-free,” Bruce Riedel, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, has written. “The wars in Iraq have now seemingly become endless.”
In the years following the campaign in Lebanon, Iran underwent an Islamic revolution, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and violent Sunni Islamist movements rose up—all seismic developments that encouraged the United States to double down on its investments in the Middle East. By the ’80s, Washington had created a combatant command for the greater region and unveiled the Carter doctrine to defend Persian Gulf partners. The U.S. came to view Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq as its top threat after the Soviet Union collapsed, and George H. W. Bush’s carefully calibrated multinational military operations to reverse Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait arguably represented the height of U.S. military competence in the Middle East.
In the space of a decade and two Bush presidencies, however, the United States veered into a major debacle in Iraq. James Jeffrey, now Trump’s special representative for Syria, noted in a 2016 study that after the September 11 attacks, George W. Bush decided not to manage the challenges to U.S. interests in the region, as his predecessors had done for the past three decades, but to try to eliminate those challenges altogether. Through its post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq, the Bush administration attempted not only to root out hostile regimes but also to fundamentally remake the region in a manner consistent with U.S. interests and values.
[Read: The consequences of Donald Trump washing his hands of the Middle East]
Bush, of course, failed in spectacular fashion to achieve that transformation. Barack Obama, who ran for president in part to remedy those failures, mostly maintained America’s security architecture in the region and sought (largely unsuccessfully) to overhaul America’s role in the Middle East without resorting to military force. Trump, by contrast, has been willing to use limited military force, but has also demonstrated little interest in effecting any change in the region beyond retiring the United States as a security guarantor. Ultimately, he wants out.
And even if Trump doesn’t get his way entirely, he will undoubtedly seize on additional opportunities to reduce the American military presence in the Middle East, as fed-up Americans and progressive presidential candidates push in the same direction. When Eisenhower elected to open that “Pandora’s Box” back in 1958, his justification was that it would be “disastrous” if “we don’t.” Perhaps nothing signals the coming post-American era in the Middle East more than the fact that so many U.S. leaders these days fear the disastrous consequences of leaving the box open.
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When CNN’s Manu Raju asked Senator Martha McSally of Arizona whether she’d vote to “consider new evidence as part of the impeachment trial,” the Republican, flanked by two staffers, barely looked up as she called Raju a “liberal hack.” She then repeated the insult theatrically. About an hour later, McSally registered the domain name LiberalHack.com and began the sale of “liberal hack” T-shirts. A short time after that, she was rewarded with an appearance on Laura Ingraham’s show, where she said: “You know, these CNN reporters, many of them around the capital, they are so biased. They are so in cahoots with the Democrats, they so can’t stand the president, and they run around trying to chase Republicans and ask trapping questions. I’m a fighter pilot. I called it like it is.”
McSally was trying her best to show that she’s a stalwart defender of President Donald Trump and, more than that, a true Trumpist. In so doing, she was making the implicit case that Trumpism is a big tent, after all.
On the face of it, women fit oddly into Trumpism—a movement headed by a man who has responded to accusations of sexual assault with the deeply misogynistic statement, “She’s not my type.” More substantively, The Atlantic noted in 2018, “by some measures the White House has assembled the most preponderantly male team since the Reagan administration.” More ethereally, the “Make America great again” slogan suggests nostalgia for a time when men were men and women stayed at home.
[Neil J. Young: Here’s why white women are abandoning the GOP]
Some women in the GOP have dealt with this problem by keeping their distance from the president. They avoid commenting on Trump’s gaffes, foibles, and crimes. They act almost as though he did not exist. Here I’m thinking of Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski.
But McSally is one of several woman Republicans wagering that she can go Full Trump, and that the movement will adapt.
Trumpism isn’t really ideological, or is at best ideologically incoherent. Just for example: The administration purports to hate socialism and love free markets, but bails out farmers and restricts free trade. The policy is beside the point, which is to “own the libs” and stand by President Trump, no matter what.
So maybe all a woman has to do to prove her Trumpist bona fides is swagger. Nor was McSally the first woman to try her hand at this trick. Representative Elise Stefanik was among the louder, brasher Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee during the impeachment hearing. At one press conference, she said, “So this was day two of an abject failure of Adam Schiff and his regime of secrecy.” The performance earned Stefanik a coveted Trump tweet: “A new Republican Star is born. Great going @EliseStefanik.” The following night she was a guest on one of the president’s favorite television shows: Hannity.
Stefanik isn’t Trumpy on paper. She is the co-chair of the moderate GOP policy caucus. She co-sponsored a bill with Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell and supported a bill that would push the Environmental Protection Agency to better regulate certain industrial contaminants. Stefanik seems to have made the calculation that the GOP base won’t notice or perhaps won’t care about her record so long as she does a convincing impersonation of the man in the White House.
Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and another policy moderate in the Republican Party, has also embraced Trumpism rhetorically. After the U.S. killed Iran’s Qassem Soleimani, she declared on Hannity, “The only ones that are mourning the loss of Soleimani are our Democrat leadership and our Democrat presidential candidates.”
[David Graham: The Republican Party is losing its future]
Whether Republican voters want Trumpy women is another matter. Upstate New York’s Claudia Tenney, who went MAGA with the claim that the “deep state” was responsible for Ben Carson’s dining-set controversy, lost her seat to a Democrat in a district Trump carried by 15 points. In Southern California, Diane Harkey lost Darrell Issa’s seat after defending Trump’s “substance.” McSally lost her Arizona Senate race before she was appointed to the seat vacated by Senator Jon Kyl, despite (or perhaps in part due to) Trump traveling to Arizona to stump for her and tweeting, “Martha McSally is a great warrior, her opponent a Nancy Pelosi Wacko!” And Katie Arrington, a Trump favorite who defeated Representative Mark Sanford in South Carolina’s Republican primary, lost to a Democrat in the general.
All Republicans must choose between embracing Trumpism and holding on to the party of old. But women Republicans are in a particularly difficult position, in part because they are such a small minority—House Republicans are 89 percent male and white—and in part because women are often the targets of Trump’s anger. Stefanik and McSally may be right that MAGA voters will carry them to reelection, but whether they’ll ever be full and equal citizens of the party Trump remade is another matter.
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As they press their impeachment case against President Donald Trump, the Democrats need help from Chief Justice John Roberts. And they’re not going to get it unless they ask for it.
Far from securing the 67-vote majority needed to remove Trump from office, Democrats are desperate to flip a paltry four Republican senators just to be able to call witnesses. The conventional wisdom is that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who pledged an acquittal before the trial even began, can use his party’s numerical advantage in the Senate to keep Americans from seeing any further evidence showing that Trump solicited foreign interference in the 2020 election. The Democratic impeachment managers seeking to remove the president have all but accepted their own helplessness, as if there were no one but McConnell to whom they can appeal for basic fairness.
Missing from this discussion is Chief Justice John Roberts, whose job it is, under the Constitution, to preside over any presidential impeachment trial. Here again, the widespread assumption has been that his role is ceremonial and substantively meaningless—that, in this case, he must be a passive witness as Trump’s Senate allies put on a sham trial, even though most Americans want to see actual evidence admitted before their elected senators decide Trump’s fate. But the Constitution would not have specifically instructed the chief justice to preside if his only role were to sit quietly and do nothing. As the lawyer Martin London credibly argued in Time earlier this week, Roberts has the power and duty to make judgments about the conduct of the trial.
In early proceedings, Roberts made it clear that he will not exercise that power unbidden. Nothing, however, prevents the House managers from making motions—either orally or in writing—to force the chief justice to take a stronger hand in the proceedings. And the Democrats have nothing to lose by trying.
[Jane Chong: ]John Roberts’s Surprisingly Straightforward Task Ahead
With Roberts looking on, the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, lied on the Senate floor by claiming, among other things, that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff hadn’t allowed his Republican colleagues into a secure meeting room during the proceedings that led up to Trump’s impeachment. This was untrue but went unchallenged in the moment. When things got heated between Cipollone and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler—who bemoaned a Republican cover-up—Roberts merely stated, “I think it is appropriate at this point for me to admonish both the House managers and the president’s counsel in equal terms to remember that they are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body.”
In a courtroom, a comment as demonstrably false as Cipollone’s would likely be met with a motion to strike the misstatement from the record. Roberts—who cares deeply about the legitimacy of the Supreme Court and of the entire judicial branch, which he leads—would be hard-pressed to rule outright that lies are acceptable in any trial over which he is the presiding officer.
Similarly, nothing prevents the House impeachment managers, whom Schiff leads, from filing motions and legal briefs laying out their positions on the admission of evidence and other matters. The chief justice would have to do something with them. Any decision by Roberts to punt a disputed matter without a ruling—to a full Senate run by a declared Trump partisan, no less—would be hard for him to portray as merely staying above the political fray.
The notion of the chief justice as a purely ceremonial participant in impeachment trials is difficult to square with the Constitution, Senate rules, or the historical record. In other impeachment trials, for federal judges and administration officials, the Constitution dictates that the vice president serves as the presiding officer of the Senate. The Framers were plainly concerned about the conflicts of interest that would result if the person who would ascend to the presidency upon the removal of a president also presided over the trial. If the job exercised no substantive power, the Framers wouldn’t have taken care to keep the vice president out of it.
Legal scholars have rightly argued that a Senate impeachment trial is different from a judicial one. But when the Framers set up the impeachment process in Article I of the Constitution, they nevertheless had a specific idea of what a trial was: a proceeding involving evidence and disputed questions of fact. The Sixth and Seventh Amendments to the Constitution, ratified a few years after the original Constitution, protect the rights of those involved in criminal and civil cases. Taken together, these amendments describe trials with witnesses, acknowledge the possibility of compelling testimony from witnesses, and recognize the role of juries as settling factual disputes.
Meanwhile, the Senate’s standing rules for impeachment give the chief justice the initial authority to rule on the submission of evidence. They authorize the chief justice to issue “orders, mandates, writs, and precepts”; to “direct all the forms of proceedings while the Senate is sitting for the purpose of trying and impeachment”; and to “rule on all questions of evidence.” Senate rules allow a simple majority to overrule the presiding officer’s rulings on “relevancy, materiality, and redundancy of evidence”—a stipulation that makes sense only if the chief justice has the power to make meaningful rulings in the first place.
[Paul Savoy: ]An Impeachment Trial Without Witnesses Would Be Unconstitutional
During Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial in 1868, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase insisted that the constitutional word preside has real meaning. According to his biographer John P. Niven, Chase took it upon himself to ensure that the trial “be organized in some particulars as a court,” and “insisted he should rule on the competency of witnesses and on evidence.” The constitutional scholar Michael J. Gerhardt—who testified during the House impeachment proceedings in December—similarly writes:
From the start, Chase believed that the Senate sat as a court to try President Johnson, and thus he pushed the Senate to follow legal procedures. As a result, Chase provided the senators with the opportunity to test the rules, which allowed the rulings of the presiding officer to be appealed to the body as a whole, which could overrule him by a majority vote.
For President Bill Clinton’s trial, Chief Justice William Rehnquist chose a different approach. As Gerhardt writes, Rehnquist, “no doubt informed by the research he had done for his recently published book on the Chase and Johnson impeachment trials … gave the House managers and senators considerable leeway in arguing the case for and against the president’s conviction and removal.”
Yet the difference between Chase’s handling of an impeachment trial and Rehnquist’s show that the chief justice has a choice about how much independent discretion to exercise. Moreover, the differences between the two parties on what constitutes fair process are far starker in the Trump trial than in the Clinton trial, during which witnesses were called. During the independent-counsel investigation that led to Clinton’s impeachment after four years of fact-gathering by teams of prosecutors and FBI agents, the president had gone so far as to testify, albeit reluctantly, before a grand jury; Trump, in contrast, tried (with startling success) to prevent the entire executive branch from cooperating in any way with House investigators, and his administration has ignored congressional oversight committees’ legitimate subpoenas for witnesses and documents.
Despite the differences between the Trump and Clinton cases, Roberts—a Republican appointee and a former Rehnquist clerk—has taken a page from his mentor’s book. In doing so, he is allowing the Republican caucus to block what Americans want and the Constitution arguably contemplates: a real trial with thorough, substantive evidence. By doing nothing to ensure that the process is fairly constructed to get at the truth, Roberts is in fact taking a side. And the Democrats are just watching him do it.
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In The Two Popes, a recent feature film produced by Netflix, Father Jorge Bergoglio is sent into the wilderness, where he wanders alone in the Argentine mountains for two years. During an intense process of spiritual rebirth—crucial to his transformation into Pope Francis—he turns to radical books of the very kind he had cleared out of the Jesuit order in the late 1970s, during the military dictatorship in Argentina. In one scene, the camera pauses briefly on the cover of one volume: 1968’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire, the educator whose legacy the current Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, spent the past year attacking. The shot is just one of many that might hold special significance with Latin Americans now living through the return of authoritarian politics, especially in the director Fernando Meirelles’s native Brazil.
On its face, The Two Popes is a buddy comedy, propelled by impressive performances from Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI (né Joseph Ratzinger) and Jonathan Pryce as Bergoglio (later, Pope Francis). Meirelles (who co-directed City of God) works with a screenplay by Anthony McCarten to deliver warm, engaging scenes. But the film is also a story of forgiveness and redemption from sin—and that great sin is collaboration with the murderous dictatorships of the 20th century.
In the film’s depiction of the era during which most of South America was governed by U.S.-backed, anti-communist military regimes, Bergoglio watches as priests are murdered and dissidents are hauled away. As the leader of the Jesuit order, he hides books that might appear too Marxist or too Freudian. One of those texts is by Hélder Câmara, the Brazilian archbishop who stood up to the dictatorship in his own country, railing publicly against human-rights abuses until the country transitioned back to democracy. Bergoglio instead cooperates with the Argentine junta in order to protect his priests. It doesn’t work—at least, it doesn’t work well enough. Under the rule of dictatorial men, he learns, even those who do everything right still have their loved ones thrown into the sea. Two Jesuits are imprisoned and tortured. Esther Ballestrino, a close friend of Bergoglio’s, is disappeared. Bergoglio is wracked with guilt for decades, and believes that as a result of his past failures, he can never be pope.
[Read: The new authoritarians are waging war on women ]
The scenes depicting Bergoglio’s experiences during this period are central to the story, providing a subtle but powerful rebuke of violent authoritarianism—Bolsonarismo in particular. Brazil’s Bolsonaro is probably the most extreme of the world’s new crop of elected right-wing authoritarians: His political life is best understood as the reincarnation of the ideology that powered Cold War dictatorships like Argentina’s. As a young congressman, he said that Brazil “will only change, unfortunately, after starting a civil war here, and doing the work the dictatorship didn’t do: killing some 30,000 people.” He added, “If some innocents die, that’s just fine.” In 2016, he thrust himself into the center of South American politics by dedicating his vote to impeach the left-leaning President Dilma Rousseff to the colonel who oversaw her torture. Meirelles has called Bolsonaro “a moron.” By featuring texts by progressive, Catholic, anti-dictatorship authors, and building a story around overcoming the legacy that Bolsonaro’s government celebrates, The Two Popes makes a much more serious point: that rejecting Bolsonarismo, in whatever form it takes around the world, is morally liberating.
The Two Popes is really about one pope: It’s an emphatic endorsement of Francis, his simple manner, his concern for the poor, and the journey that made his papacy possible. The main function of Pope Benedict in the film is to meet Bergoglio, and finally grant him absolution for his collaboration with the authoritarian regime. In the pivotal scene, a pained Bergoglio confesses that his judgment badly failed when the generals took over. He says that his daily works since have been “some kind of a penance,” but still he suffers. There’s no evidence that guilt for what happened in this era dominated the rest of Bergoglio’s life, as the film implies. But the film’s clear message is that he can learn from those experiences, and use them to act differently than he did in the ’70s. The books that Meirelles plants throughout are used at crucial junctures in Bergoglio’s transformation. The bishop packs away the text by Câmara in the same scene that Ballestrino looks at him, for the first time, as if he is a traitor. And he pulls out the Freire title on radical education while studying to be a new type of shepherd. Now, the film says, he can return from the desert reborn and start his ministry. He can become Pope Francis.
For the contemporary viewer, especially in Latin America, the lesson of forgiveness is relevant. Though Brazil’s election was fraught—Bolsonaro’s main opponent was jailed by the man who is now the country’s justice minister—the fact remains that Bolsonaro did get a lot of votes. More and more Latin Americans are leaving the Catholic Church for evangelical faiths, whose members are far more conservative. The film shows that everyone makes mistakes, and for those who stray, it is always possible to come back from the dark side.
Another book that Bergoglio reads in the film’s exile flashback is by Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian liberation theologian who left the priesthood after sparring with Rome over his left-wing interpretation of the faith. Boff praised The Two Popes, writing, “The film is a beautiful metaphor for the human condition—it presents two different ways of being human, which are not contradictory but complementary … And the forgiveness [Benedict and Bergoglio] grant each other before their final, long and caring embrace demonstrates that there is humanity and spirituality in each of us.”
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COLUMBIA, S.C.—Pretty much everyone hates what the Democratic primary race has become. It’s gone on too long, cost too much money, and tended to reward people who’ve been repeating the same lines for years. Pretty much everyone also hates the debates. (How many people watched last week’s debate and saw a future president? How many people saw someone who they’re confident can beat Donald Trump?) And pretty much everyone hates what the process has churned out: A Des Moines Register poll three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, and 14 months after the campaign started, showed that 60 percent of people still hadn’t made up their minds. The New York Times endorsed two candidates. “People like the field, but I don’t think they feel that great about the front-runners,” John Delaney, who is still winding down the final days of his own candidacy, told me a few weeks ago. New York magazine’s latest cover headline nailed the Democratic panic: “Well, Here We Are.”
And here I am, in the lobby restaurant of a Marriott, with a candidate who’s telling me it’s not too late to do something about all this. Deval Patrick says voters have been telling him directly that they like him, that they’re ready to go with him, or at least consider him. “I meet donors who say, ‘I am so there; I just want to see this in the polls, and then I want to bundle for you.’ What are you waiting for? If you already think I contribute something that the rest of the field doesn’t, why are you waiting for permission from pundits, pollsters, the party, somebody else?” Patrick said. I’ve heard the same thing from people who’ve been thinking about writing checks. More often, I’ve heard people tell me that they can’t bring themselves to be a part of this.
When the lights in the lobby keep swelling high and low, and the manager comes over to apologize, he doesn’t recognize the former Massachusetts governor. Neither does the waiter.
That’s the problem for Patrick. He got in a year later than he was planning to, because his wife was diagnosed with cancer in late 2018. Then he spent this past fall stressing about how far off course the primary race seemed to be spinning, before deciding in November to go for it. That’s a whole year he didn’t spend getting better known, or building any kind of organization. By the time he did jump in, he had to argue with campaign staff he’d never met before about whether to spend days chasing the media exposure they said he needed or follow his gut and campaign more deliberately, one on one, the way he had in his first race, when he’d pulled off his out-of-nowhere win for the governorship of Massachusetts. He’s annoyed about old friends and supporters who’ve been smiling to his face—and then telling reporters like me that they’re heartbroken to see what a flop his campaign seems to be so far.
[Read: John Delaney is still running. Why?]
On the November day Patrick formally entered the race in New Hampshire, he said he didn’t “aspire” to being part of the debates, but since then he’s been calling Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, complaining about the polling and fundraising thresholds, which have kept him out. He says he still doesn’t love the idea of participating, but wants his campaign to be taken seriously, and have reason to be taken seriously. He’s still more interested in writing policy proposals than doing the kind of attention-grabbing being pushed by his younger aides. And he’s tired of talking about his “path to the nomination,” or how much trouble he brought himself by waiting until November to launch.
Patrick and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg jumped in within days of each other, sensing the same weakness in and dissatisfaction with the field. Patrick is running a campaign that would seem to represent what so many Democrats say they want politics to be: a thoughtful candidate with a history of winning white and nonwhite voters, resisting the theatrics of the process, spending his time talking with people instead of fitting their problems into a preset worldview or cribbing talking points from aides. Bloomberg is running the opposite kind of campaign, one in which what counts more than anything else is how much money and how much time a candidate spends on TV. Bloomberg’s the one actually registering in the polls.
If you want idealized politics, go watch Dave or The West Wing. Donald Trump’s been building a billion-dollar campaign machine for three years—that’s what Bloomberg is spending piles of money to combat. And while voters might not exactly be swooning for him or for the candidates who have weathered a year of scrutiny and pressure, the other remaining candidates Patrick is up against have at least semi-functional organizations, and, like Bloomberg, support that’s larger than a polling margin of error.
Montana Governor Steve Bullock and Senator Cory Booker both tried versions of Patrick’s campaign, emphasizing getting results as executives and bridging divides. Both are back at their day jobs.
Because Patrick got into the race so late, there haven’t been many chances to see directly how he compares with the rest of the field. But Martin Luther King Day found him in South Carolina with many of the other candidates in the race, including the front-runners. They started the morning at Zion Baptist Church in Columbia, then linked arms to march to the state capitol for a program of short speeches. Bernie Sanders spent his four minutes all but declaring that King would have been voting for him, repeatedly stressing the word revolutionary. Biden, going with remarks not subtly geared to African American voters, mangled many of his lines—sounding like he was reading them for the first time, even though he’d read most of them verbatim at an event a few miles away the night before. Tom Steyer, who’d been doing goofy fist bumps during the the musical interludes, came up to the mic surrounded by African American members of his staff and made sure to mention that he’s for reparations. Tulsi Gabbard managed to jam her usual campaign spiel about ending military spending into an appeal to build social programs. Elizabeth Warren gave a warm speech linking herself to the parable of the persistent widow. Amy Klobuchar spoke at length about voting rights and carrying King’s spirit of justice into the impeachment trial. Buttigieg didn’t speak, having ducked out to get on his charter plane back to Iowa before the program began.
[Read: Andrew Yang’s campaign is not a joke]
Patrick spoke last, talking about how he’d gone from his childhood sharing a bed in a Chicago tenement on the South Side to a business career and two terms as Massachusetts governor. Standing a few feet away from where the Confederate flag had flown until it was taken down in the aftermath of the 2015 Mother Emanuel shooting in Charleston, Patrick talked about Strom Thurmond, who’d stood in the way of civil rights as a senator from the state—and then voted for Patrick’s confirmation as head of the Justice Department’s civil-rights division under Bill Clinton, where he’d led a task force that tracked down Klansmen who’d burned a church in Greeleyville.
The event had been going on for well over an hour. It was chilly, and past lunchtime. But the crowd remained focused, listening and reacting, as he spoke off a few note cards, delivering the kind of audience-grabbing oratory that, in this election cycle, only Cory Booker had come close to pulling off.
“We cannot go from hope and change to fear and ‘settle for that.’ Not a nation with a conscience. Dr. King and his allies didn’t fight for the right to vote for us to sit idly by and wait for someone else to save us,” Patrick said. “No one’s coming to save us, but us.”
Patrick was the only candidate who stayed after the program to greet voters, though not many rushed to him. Deborah Breedlove, a retired business owner from Columbia, told me she liked his honesty, and respected that he’d taken a pause for his wife’s health, but acknowledged the downsides. “I think his only problem is that enough people haven’t met him yet,” she said. Ahmuld Thomas, who works at a local supermarket, told me he’d logged on to Patrick’s website during the speech, and wanted to read more. To that point, he’d been leaning toward Tom Steyer, distrustful of anyone who’s been in D.C. for years. But “he’s fresh,” Thomas said of Patrick. “I’m definitely going to look him up.” Neither was committed.
After the speech, Patrick ducked into the capitol building to regroup, but when I asked after him, the security guards misheard and told me there was no “Governor Kirkpatrick” inside. I elaborated. “Oh, the black guy?” one of them said, and then let me in. Patrick had been leaning on the back of a chair in an auditorium on the first floor, texting someone, but he almost leapt at me when I asked if he’d read the New York Times endorsement. He was bemused by both the wishy-washy double pick, and by the inclusion of his name in a throwaway line from the editorial board about how readers should “stop and consider the talents who did throw their hat into the ring and never got more than a passing glance from voters”—this written by a group of people who had called him in for an interview and, he felt, clearly not given him more than a passing glance themselves.
A day earlier, after a different church service he’d quietly sat through for an hour, I’d told him I’d met a voter with whom he seemed to be making a connection but who’d told me he thought Patrick would make a good vice president. Convinced I was just trying to elicit a fitting quote from him to end a precooked story about his no-chance presidential bid, he issued a terse “Thank you?” and walked away. After the speeches the next day, he was still hot about this. Growing up in poverty and fighting his way to success in school, government, business, and politics, he told me, he’d spent his whole life getting the “back of the hand” from people who told him to sit down, and it had never stopped him.
“We revere competition, until the competitor comes forward and says, ‘Well, I’d like to compete.’ And particularly in a field that has been working this hard and hasn’t settled the question” of who should be the nominee, he continued, “there are all these people saying, ‘Well, we’—we: pundits, pollsters—‘can’t handle any more candidates.’ But the people can. They can. And the wise guys and wise gals consistently underestimate people.”
Patrick wasn’t done: “At the end of the day, functionally—I’m not talking about the material impact, but functionally—what is the difference between ‘He’s too late’ and, a dozen years ago or more, ‘We’re not ready for a black president’? I would expect that commentators who are really sophisticated would be self-aware enough to examine those kinds of assumptions, instead of just accepting them.”
It’s true that the themes of the 2020 election on the Democratic side have been powerlessness, resignation, and bitterness. If you’re looking at candidate events for the kind of passion that supporters showed for Obama in 2008, or for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders in 2016, it’s hard to find—I’ve tried. “I’m going to work real hard for the nominee,” Patrick said, “but like most voters, I want to be excited about it. I don’t want to be running from a position of, you know, ‘elect or doom.’”
“I’m as angry as anybody, but in some ways, I listen to the anger and I think to myself, My gracious, I’ve been angry for generations about the same things—generations,” he said. He’s heartened that more people feel the anger now. He won’t say their names explicitly, but he’s worried about what happens if that anger is compounded by Sanders or Warren going to war with Republicans, or if Biden or Buttigieg tries to jam the anger back beneath the surface. He’s worried about any of them failing to connect with enough voters to beat Trump, or to actually deal with what Trump has exposed about how close to the edge the country is. “Our determination to beat him is expressing itself the way people who are bullied sometimes express themselves: as fearful and overthought, instead of standing up for what we believe in.”
“I’m not sure we will, but we might win the election,” Patrick said. “But we won’t win the one after that.”
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DES MOINES, Iowa—The contrast was unmistakable: Most people in the crowd at the venerable Brown & Black Forum on minority issues here were African American, Latino, or Asian American. But all of the Democratic candidates onstage, apart from Andrew Yang, were white.
“It is disappointing,” said Bridgette Andrews, an African American executive assistant from the nearby suburb of Johnston, as she walked into the event, which took place on a frigid afternoon earlier this week. “It would have been nice to have another candidate from a minority group up there. It does make you go hmm that they are not there.”
Many Democratic activists, especially but not exclusively those from minority communities, are perplexed and frustrated that the candidates of color who were considered most viable when the presidential contest began—Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, former Cabinet Secretary Julían Castro—have been forced from the race before the first votes are cast. While Yang has built a spirited following, it remains limited. And all this when Democrats began the primary with the most diverse field they’ve ever had.
This jarring reality could prompt the most serious revolt in decades against the decisive role that Iowa and New Hampshire, two preponderantly white states, play in winnowing the field and shaping the race. Already Castro and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg—another 2020 contender, who is white—have argued that the lack of diversity should disqualify both states from their favored roles. At the forum itself, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado argued that their status “probably should evolve.”
“It is painfully obvious and problematic that after the historic candidacy of the first black president, we have basically an all-white field, and that really needs to occasion some soul-searching on the Democratic side,” says Steve Phillips, the founder of the advocacy group Democracy in Color, who is African American. “The most workable and straightforward approach would be to reconfigure the order of the states.”
[Read: Iowans vote first, if they can vote at all]
Dislodging either state from its privileged position won’t be easy. Both Iowa and New Hampshire fervently guard their leadoff roles. And many Democratic Party leaders around the country reject the charge that the states’ prominence contributed to the fall of so many minority contenders. Instead, most Democratic operatives I’ve spoken with point to many factors—from fundraising patterns to assumptions about so-called electability—that may have contributed to their failure. “If you didn’t have Iowa [first] this year, I don’t think any of this would have changed,” said the longtime strategist Robert Shrum, who is white.
But after Barack Obama’s success in 2008, many party activists “feel like we’re going backwards” in terms of minority candidates’ ability to win the presidential nomination, as Bakari Sellers, an African-American Democratic official in South Carolina put it. That disappointment could ignite a debate within the party over all aspects of the nominating process, including the reliance on Iowa and New Hampshire.
Iowa and New Hampshire are vulnerable in any such discussion because the gap between their demography and that of the party overall is widening. While voters of color will likely cast more than 40 percent of the ballots in the party’s primaries and caucuses this year—a new record—whites still account for about 85 percent of the population in Iowa and exactly 90 percent in New Hampshire, according to census figures.
Though Iowa is slightly more diverse, its position could come under greater threat than New Hampshire’s after 2020. One reason is that New Hampshire law commits the state to always holding its primary before any other; the other is that Democrats may be more reluctant to ruffle feathers in New Hampshire, a swing state that has inclined toward them in recent years, than in Iowa, which has been tilting more Republican.
The two states’ assumed their one-two position in 1972. But by the late ’70s, and intensifying through the mid-’80s, the Iowa–New Hampshire duopoly faced growing opposition in the party, says Elaine Kamarck, who is a Brookings Institution senior fellow and a longtime member of the Democratic National Committee’s rules committee. The core grievance at the time, she told me, was that the states were elevating weak candidates (including George McGovern and Walter Mondale). But they also faced the “same complaints as they [do] now: small, unrepresentative … too white,” Kamarck, who is white herself, told me.
The controversy began to recede in the 1990s. But it never entirely abated. The DNC’s most dramatic response to the enduring concerns came after the 2004 election, when it authorized Nevada, which has a large Latino population, and South Carolina, which has a large African American population, to hold the next two contests after New Hampshire.
That shift has unquestionably provided those states more influence: South Carolina in particular proved crucial to the nomination of both Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Strategists working on campaigns this year likewise believe they’ll again have a major effect on the race’s outcome, especially South Carolina.
But the departures from the race of Booker, Harris, and Castro vividly capture the limits of Nevada’s and South Carolina’s power. Voters in those states will still be choosing only from the candidates who are viable after Iowa and New Hampshire cut down the field. The Iowa winner has ultimately captured the Democratic nomination in each of the past four contested races.
Activists I’ve spoken with almost all agree that Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t solely to blame for minority candidates’ fall. Both Phillips and Sellers, for instance, believe the principal cause was a pervasive belief among financial donors, the media, and voters that a white candidate represents the party’s best hope of beating Trump. “What I know has happened since Donald Trump and this emergence of his white identity politics is that voters, particularly Democratic voters of color, are now of this weird belief that it takes a white man who can talk to ‘Middle America’” to best Trump, said Sellers, who backed Harris before she exited the race late last year. “Our electorate has been groomed to believe something which I believe is a total falsehood.”
And few Democrats seem to believe candidates of color can’t receive a fair hearing in Iowa or New Hampshire. Obama won the former and only narrowly lost the latter in 2008. Exactly two decades earlier, Jesse Jackson won a double-digit share of the Iowa vote. Wayne Ford, an African American former Iowa state representative who co-founded the Brown & Black Forum, defended Iowa’s role by citing Obama’s first win there, as well as the strong support this year for former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is gay. “Why not Iowa?” Ford said. “Iowa gave you a black president,” and “for a while” Buttigieg “was leading the polls in the state of Iowa.”
[Read: The opportunity that Warren and Sanders passed up]
Troy Price, the state Democratic Party chair, who is white, said that the caucus process requires the candidates to reach out to all communities, even small ones. “I can’t change the demographic makeup of Iowa,” Price told me, “but I can say our process elevates voices by making the candidates go into different communities and build organization in different communities.”
But for the critics of Iowa and New Hampshire, the issue isn’t overt or even implicit bias among Democratic voters there. The question is whether voters in such overwhelmingly white states place as much priority on issues affecting minority communities, or value picking a nominee of color as highly as many members of those minority communities do. Both Phillips and Sellers argue that the race might have unfolded very differently if one highly diverse state had been among the first two contests. “If we started with South Carolina, then a Cory and a Kamala would have had a much better chance to get some traction,” Phillips said.
Others in the party dispute that, noting, for instance, that both of the African American senators in the race failed to earn significant polling support from black voters in South Carolina, just as Castro struggled with Latinos in Nevada. And as Sellers noted, even many minority voters have prioritized electability in this race—and defined it mostly as the ability to win back working-class whites.
Yet the issues most concerning minority communities simply aren’t top of mind for many of the white voters who crowd the candidates’ town halls in small Iowa and New Hampshire communities. For many in the audience at the Brown & Black Forum this week, it was striking to hear the candidates peppered with questions about how they would address racial disparities in maternal health, the elevated suicide rate among African American teenagers, the effect of climate change on minority communities, whether English should be the nation’s official language, how to unwind mass incarceration, and the gap between whites and minorities in wealth and access to investment capital.
Hearing the candidates confront those issues was “very, very, very refreshing,” Cynthia Hunafa, an African American retired teacher from West Des Moines, told me. She was especially pleased that the candidates faced tough questions about criminal-justice reform: “I’m glad to hear that brought up today because I haven’t been hearing it much of late.”
Concerns about diversity alone may not be enough to dislodge the dominance of Iowa and New Hampshire after 2020. But the states could face a more unpredictable future if they elevate a candidate next month who wins the nomination but then fails to defeat Donald Trump in the general election. If Democrats lose again, almost every accepted belief in the party about how to contest elections could be rattled—including about relying on a primary calendar that gives primacy to two mostly white states on behalf of a party that is becoming only more diverse.
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