Gossiping about celebrities is fun because you don’t know them personally and therefore you can’t hurt their feelings or directly ruin their lives. The idea that celebrity gossip could ever be dangerous is silly. For example, let’s say I told the woman who cuts my hair (whom I am always trying to entertain) that Jay-Z supposedly threatened to have Chris Brown murdered because Chris Brown keeps claiming to be part of the Illuminati, and Jay-Z is often associated with the Illuminati, and also Jay-Z doesn’t want anyone to think that he would ever hang out with Chris Brown even if they were both in the same, centuries-old secret society, which they’re not. No one on the planet could possibly be harmed by this hypothetical exchange with the woman who cuts my hair. It’s just very funny!
Or maybe that’s no longer true. Maybe celebrity gossip has a different character now, amid ceaseless worries over disinformation and conspiracist thinking. We’re experiencing an epistemological crisis, smart people keep telling me, so you have to wonder whether the habit of passing around possibly made-up information about famous people and their secret lives is contributing to whatever that precisely is. Reading and sharing gossip used to be a mindless escape. Now it seems to come with responsibility.
Earlier this month, BuzzFeed News’s Katie Notopoulos reported on concerns among longtime fans of the anonymous, omniscient-seeming blogger Enty, who runs a popular blind-item blog called Crazy Days and Nights. Some have apparently been disturbed by the site’s recent, gossipy posts about Bill Gates, and by others alleging that Hollywood stars are participating in a “rape club.” “It’s really disturbing to see this right-wing conspiracy-theory bullshit show up in gossip,” one former fan told Notopoulos. But according to the story, “gossip fans and QAnoners share a core belief: that behind closed doors, celebrities are doing unspeakable things.”
The idea that Enty has been pulled into the QAnon conspiracy theory had been floating around for a while. (Pajiba’s Kayleigh Donaldson referred to his site as “QAnon Central” back in May.) Enty started writing in 2006, and many of his blind items have been lurid and impossible to -prove; there is plenty of murder and Satanism, and he once had a three-part story about an A-list actor who would purchase huge pieces of fresh fish, then wrap them up and throw them out in public bathrooms. Enty has also shown an interest in some of the same famous people who fascinateas QAnon devotees—for instance, the Swedish DJ Avicii, believed by conspiracy theorists to have been murdered because of his knowledge of a child-trafficking ring.
But this represents just a sliver of Enty’s offerings. He far more often writes up standard gossip, about cheating and drug use and embarrassing mishaps, and he has never endorsed the view that Democratic politicians and Hollywood celebrities are blood-drinking pedophiles who deserve to be executed. When I spoke with Enty recently, he suggested that readers may now simply see his style of celebrity gossip in a different light, given their cultural immersion in right-wing conspiracy theories. “I had been writing the same kind of stuff long before QAnon existed,” he said, “but now that QAnon exists, it seems like QAnon.” For example, he published blind items about the NXIVM cult, in which women were branded and referred to as slaves, long before its leaders were indicted for sex trafficking in 2018. “If I was to write that now, I think people would say, ‘Wow, he’s gone Q.’”
Enty described most of what he publishes as “stuff that tabloids wouldn’t do now but they would have done 10 years ago.” He noted an industry-wide shift that occurred when celebrities started using Instagram and other social platforms to snatch back power from paparazzi and reporters, leaving outlets such as Us Weekly and People to play nice and beg for crumbs of access. The tastes of younger audiences who grew up in the celebrity-gossip environment that followed can be manic and unpredictable. The beloved, crowd-sourced Instagram account DeuxMoi, which started posting early in the pandemic and now has more than 1 million followers, often flags “sightings” of celebs with no interesting context, or else posts items so bland that they must have come from publicists. Meanwhile, on TikTok, the red yarn is out of control: There was a whole season of combing Justin Bieber’s Instagram posts and music videos for clues as to his possible long-ago victimhood at the hands of a child-sex-trafficking ring; the platform is also home to the second coming of an old Tumblr conspiracy theory about a former member of the boy band One Direction, who is supposedly secretly married to another former member of that band, and also not the real father of his son, who could be a child actor but was once believed to be a plastic doll.
These things don’t feel so benign and silly as they might have at another time. For a while, I was following an Instagram account that was fixated on proving that Zayn Malik—yet another former member of One Direction—was not really the father of the model Gigi Hadid’s baby. During her pregnancy, commenters on that account said they hoped she would miscarry. I have also spent a lot of time on Tumblr reading about which actors’ wives are high priestesses in Satanic cults and whether a beloved actor owns a secret apartment on the Isle of Wight, which may or may not be overrun by Freemasons. It’s all absurd, but again, the comments hint at what it’s doing to some people’s worldview. When the indie musician Mitski was accused, without evidence, of keeping a child slave in her college dorm room, Tumblr users accused one another of being too cowardly to admit that Mitski deserved to be “canceled.” The whole thing circled around Tumblr for weeks as drama and entertainment, and Mitski was eventually pushed to make a statement denying the story.
Light-hearted celebrity gossip is still out there to be found. Personally, I look for it in email newsletters: Hunter Harris’s Hung Up, for example, indulges in obsessive questioning about topics such as the location of Martin Scorsese’s glasses, while Allie Jones’s Gossip Time elegantly catches famous people in obvious lies. Gossip can be productive, too, in that it Kaitlyprovides a way of talking about the cultural significance of celebrities, questioning public-relations narratives, and passing along information that could be confirmed with a little reporting work. Tinfoil-hat gossipers are also sometimes correct. Britney Spears’s father once denounced the #FreeBritney crowd as conspiracy theorists, but when that drama came to its climax last winter, their vigilant note taking appeared prescient and compassionatekind-hearted—as opposed to the vicious and judgmental dishing about the same woman from years earlier, when so many people relished in her public disintegration.
Gossip isn’t ruined, exactly, but it is in a moment of moral panic: If a rumor mentions blood, then it must be QAnon! Certainly there’s too much gossipy speculation around—both the boring kind and the wild, scary kind—and too many people sharing it, many of whom have unclear motives. But readers of celebrity gossip have always had to differentiate between merely entertaining rumors and those that could spiral into harm (while sifting out the ones that are simply dull). Before QAnon, they had to do the mental work of drawing these distinctions for themselves, and they had to set their own standards for the information they passed along. Now it’s easier just to sort that information into buckets—bad or good, Q or not. That can lead to another form of paranoia, though: When you’re that afraid of seeing dangerous disinformation, you start to see it everywhere.
After hours of searching conversation about America and the human soul, the former president of the United States reiterated his brand identity. “Here’s what makes me optimistic … because, you know, I’m the hope guy,” Barack Obama told Bruce Springsteen in a chat recorded last year for their podcast, Renegades: Born in the USA. Transcripts of that conversation have now been adapted into a book with the same title that also features reproductions of Obama’s speeches, snatches of Springsteen’s lyrics, and hundreds of photographs.
In 2008, Obama became the “hope guy” by promising national unity after the turbulent George W. Bush years. Marketed by street-art posters and celebrity sing-alongs, deploying a dynamic oratorical style and an inspiring personal story, the would-be first Black president pitched himself as a transformational figure—and pitched America on the story of progress it could tell itself if it elected him.
Today, American optimism is tougher to rouse. Obama’s presidency was followed by the election of an open racist—and an open cynic—whose supporters seem ever more hostile to democracy with each passing week. In the Renegades conversation, Obama acknowledges that the country has entered a perilous state since Donald Trump took office. But what gives him hope now are today’s young people. Americans under 35 “overwhelmingly … do not believe in discriminating” or a “grossly unequal” economic system, he says. As he tells Springsteen, “Your songs and my speeches or books, or this conversation … I think their purpose is to let that next generation know, ‘You’re on the right track.’”
That explanation is both helpful and worrying for anyone who’s wondering why perhaps the most popular politician in America is spending his time creating coffee-table books with rock stars. Since leaving office, Obama has repositioned himself as a cultural influencer—because he shares the national misapprehension that content will save us.
If Obama is hoping to encourage young voters, Renegades is certainly a roundabout way to do it. The generation that invented cheugy doesn’t seem like the target audience for a heavy book whose cover features the words DREAMS—MYTHS—MUSIC on a black-and-white photo of two chortling Baby Boomers. No doubt the $40-a-piece Renegades is really aimed at the dads and granddads of America, just in time for the holiday gift-giving season.
The effort is part of Obama’s broader bid to build an infotainment empire. In 2018, he and Michelle Obama formed Higher Ground, a production company that has signed deals with Netflix and Spotify. Thus far, its offerings include The Michelle Obama Podcast and the Oscar-winning documentary American Factory; its pipeline contains filmed adaptations of books by Michael Lewis and Mohsin Hamid. “We hope to cultivate and curate the talented, inspiring, creative voices who are able to promote greater empathy and understanding between peoples,” read a statement from Barack Obama in 2018.
The two voices curated by Renegades—Obama’s and Springsteen’s—hardly need elevation, and the project might seem like just a lark, a retirement perk for the president. Dig into the conversation as it is presented in the book, though, and it comes to feel anything but incidental: Here, essentially, is the blueprint for post–White House Obama-ism. That’s not just because it involves two über-Americans discussing America—money, music, race, gender, and John Wayne. The project’s deeper subject is influence: What shapes us? How do we shape others?
Everywhere, Obama emphasizes narrative, conversations, and art. He seeks, he says in the book’s introduction, to create “a more unifying story that starts to close the gap between America’s ideals and its reality.” Springsteen admits that he tries to change people’s lives every time he goes onstage. The two men banter about the impact that John Ford, Woody Guthrie, and news coverage of the moon landing had on even their most personal life decisions. When he chose to go into community organizing in the ’80s, Obama says, “I was swimming backward to a different idea of America,” compared with his profit-seeking peers, who were aligned with the movie Wall Street.
Obama’s public interest in the arts is committed and long-running, spanning at least from his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, to his recent habit of releasing playlists. Renegades reminds readers how, as president, he turned the White House into a cultural center: A multipage spread lists musicians he had play concerts there. At one point, Springsteen shares the story of how the seeds of his Broadway show were planted during a presidential performance (making for the second Tony-winning sensation, after Hamilton, that Obama can take some credit for).
Anyone who cares deeply about art should be heartened to see a man who has wielded hard power giving significant consideration to softer forms of influence. He is correct that culture often maps to the values that inform political decisions, and he is smart to pull illustrations from his own life. After all, his rhetoric and his presidency may well have contributed to the beliefs of the younger generation that he now says will rebuild America.
Still, the question of whether our entertainment shows us who we are or makes us who we are should be treated with humility: We will never know the answer, and it varies from person to person, and from work to work. Obama seems almost tragically fixated on the idea that poetry, podcasting, or TV programming can heal our national wounds—even though the tales that he himself keeps telling demonstrate that it is not so simple.
Take, for example, the way Obama and Springsteen want to rewrite the story of American masculinity. Springsteen and Obama both grew up with fathers who were distant from their sons for different reasons—and they note how that distance seemed to amplify the strong-and-silent stereotypes set by Hollywood’s male heroes. “The message American culture sends to boys about what it means to be a man … hasn’t really changed all that much since we were kids,” Obama writes in one chapter introduction, adding that “narrow, distorted ideas of masculinity contributed to so many damaging trends we continue to see in the country.”
How exactly to reform the American man? Springsteen recalls feeling alienated from the possibility of love and commitment until, in his 30s, he started seeing a therapist. He and Obama also bond over the way that their wives helped them evolve. This is fascinating material, but with its personal specificity, it’s not exactly a how-to guide for American guys. Rather, you get the sense that their conversation itself—the spectacle of two strong men sharing in their vulnerability and introspection—is meant to be a model that encourages the reader’s own soul-searching.
Perhaps some of the Springsteen fans who receive this book as a gift will find themselves moved to greater sensitivity and self-awareness. But Obama expresses special concern about the messages young men receive from the media (he doesn’t need to say the name of his Spotify-podcasting colleague Joe Rogan for readers to get the gist), and the question of how to shift those particular messages remains unaddressed. When I was listening to the Renegades podcast, I texted a young father I know to ask whether he’d be interested in listening. He shot back that he couldn’t imagine inviting yet more advice from Boomers about how to live his life.
Indeed, many of the people Obama wants to reach are the ones who systematically avoid him for reasons of culture, politics, or both. In Renegades, Obama demonstrates the toxic effects of Fox News by recalling an anecdote from late in his White House tenure. He had gone to visit a community college in a red state, and the locals tuning in to his speech from a nearby bar asked, “Is this how Obama usually sounds?” to a reporter who was there with them. Clearly they had been getting their news from sources that rarely broadcast the commander in chief speaking uninterrupted. (This appears to be Obama’s recollection of a 2015 Washington Post story.)
“Now, keep in mind, at that point I had probably been president for the last five or six years,” Obama says to Springsteen. “The filter was so thick that I, as president of the United States, could not reach those guys unless I actually went to their town.” Obama then starts to muse about how to pierce such bubbles, but doesn’t get much further than mourning the monoculture once exemplified by The Ed Sullivan Show, which went off the air 50 years ago.
If we do have any monoculture left, it perhaps lies in the widespread consensus around the idea first articulated by the conservative pundit Andrew Breitbart: “Politics is downstream from culture.” The notion that what entertains us shapes how we vote has gone from a hazy supposition to a strategic maxim across the ideological spectrum, giving rise to a complementary truism: When everyone agrees that politics is downstream from culture, culture becomes downstream from politics. To assume that any given HBO series or pop album in 2021 isn’t trying to get across some social message is to be naive.
The eerie thing is how clear it has become that politics works as entertainment. Viewers really do enjoy dogma-driven diversion. Watching Fox News is an addictive pastime for millions, and so is digesting thoughtful conversations between progressive celebrities. But these products rarely exist to challenge their consumers—they exist to reinforce what they already think. The paradox is that the arts-and-politics nexus dilutes its own power at a certain point. People become primed to steer away from works that they suspect to be the other side’s propaganda.
Obama is contributing to this tailspin, quite plainly, with Renegades, though perhaps for good reason. The revenue it brings in may well fund more cunning efforts by Higher Ground to cut through our cultural feedback loops. Thinking that the target audience for this product has already internalized all of its ideas is probably too cynical. Certainly no one is harmed by, say, revisiting the bracing rhetoric that Obama used in his eulogy for John Lewis or that Springsteen used in his lyrics for “American Skin (41 Shots)” (both of which are among the works reprinted in the book, featuring their creator’s handwriting). It is also worth noting that Obama continues to do the more traditional work of a politician—speechifying, fundraising.
Yet the irony of Renegades, which is likely destined to bounce around the same echo chambers that its authors bemoan, is that it only emphasizes the limits of politics-as-culture. The Biden era has already provided a clinic in the seriousness of those limits: Here is a president, like Obama before him, backed by Hollywood and enjoying a popular-vote majority—yet still unable to pass his agenda due to intractable political obstacles. Would any amount of conscientious conversation nix the filibuster or sway Joe Manchin? Money, demographics, institutions, and pure power still rule, and many of the stories we tell lately in hopes of shifting that reality just end up distracting from it.
This story contains spoilers for the second episode of Succession Season 3.
Before he joined Succession, the actor James Cromwell insisted that his character have some scruples. In a recent interview, Cromwell said that the show’s original scripts portrayed the stone-faced Ewan Roy as holding a personal grudge against his brother, the right-wing-media baron Logan Roy. Cromwell lobbied for Ewan’s rage to instead be rooted in a sense of social justice, and his character ended up delivering a John Oliver–style rant about how the “morally bankrupt” Logan “may well be more personally responsible for the death of this planet than any other single human being.”
In Season 3, the revolution that Ewan would seem to want has arrived. Logan’s son Kendall has turned whistleblower, threatening to expose the wrongdoings of the family’s conglomerate, Waystar Royco. As the ever-articulate Greg tells Ewan, Kendall wants to “be, like, good? Make the company nice, and so on, which, I guess, that’s kind of your thing?” But Ewan is not enthused. He dismisses Kendall as a “self-regarding popinjay” and other multisyllabic bad things. Questions of right and wrong, and principles and politics, are finally in play in Succession—and yet Ewan defaults to pettiness.
As always, Succession is a show about selfish people. But Season 3 has thus far specifically probed how selfishness survives, and disguises itself, in a society that likes to believe it is ruled by nobler forces. After a season in which Waystar Royco’s rulers faced outside challenges to their control, family squabbles have erupted into a new kind of proxy war: a PR battle waged in terms of moral virtue. In the most riveting moments of this season’s second episode, tonight’s “Mass in Time of War,” Succession showed how even the most venal people lie to themselves about why they do the things they do.
Often such people tell themselves, as Kendall tells Greg early in the episode, “You did the right thing, man.” He’s referring to Greg’s leaking incriminating documents about the company, but he’s also teeing up the episode’s big preoccupation with morality. Near the end of the hour, Kendall—who has affected unflappability since turning on his dad—will be angrily accusing his sister, Shiv, of helping destroy the planet. In between these two bookending scenes, Succession demonstrates how ethics can become a shell game while doing what the show does best: stage a deliciously screwed-up family reunion.
Each of the Roy kids comes to visit their wayward brother, and each invokes flimsy pretenses about protecting their dad when really they’re considering joining in the campaign to defeat him. Glorious vignettes of sibling intimacy and antipathy unfold in the cluttered bedroom of Kendall’s young daughter, where the Roys stall, deflect, and bicker. Kendall cycles through the rationale for them joining him, and his first pitch is all about reinvigorating the business. But as he gives a buzzword-laden sermon about generational change, he’s met with smirks and a great quip from Roman: “Oh, you mean us, this multi-fucking-ethnic transgender alliance of 20-something dreamers we’ve got right here?”
So Kendall moves on to a seemingly more clear-cut rationale for siding with him: It is, yes, the right thing to do. He wants to take on a man whose dealings have “basically eaten the heart out of American democracy,” and he wants to expose terrible crimes and cover-ups. Viewers get the most explicit description yet of the wrongdoings committed in the company’s cruise division (“Dancers were fucking for their jobs and … we threw fucking migrants off boats and covered it up as a matter of secret company policy,” Shiv says). We also get new clues about the Roy children’s complicity. The male siblings, at least, seem to have known what was going on at the time.
But corporate strategy and personal ethics aren’t really the point of the conversation. When Kendall invokes death camps and asks, “Do you think human beings matter?” the chat devolves into insults, and Kendall snaps that the cruise issue is just “a sidebar.” What they’re really there to discuss, it becomes clear, is power. The kids could beat their dad if they team up, everyone (except the skittish Roman) seems to agree. But if they win, who then becomes head of Waystar Royco? Kendall says he’ll lead because Shiv, who yearns to rule, is publicly seen as a “snowflake.” Roman calls up the interim CEO, Gerri, and gets the harsh truth: None of the kids will likely end up in charge if they turn on Logan.
Once the siblings have gamed out what’s to come and considered their self-interest, the question of what to do becomes easy: Stick with Dad. But neither Shiv nor Roman nor Connor spells out that succession anxieties are why they refuse Kendall’s offer—and their unwillingness to explain themselves sets him off. After all, he’s made a careful, rational, ethically grounded case, but they’ve decided to act out of “cowardice or avarice,” he says. As Kendall spews vicious insults, his new persona (termed “plastic Jesus” by Shiv) melts before the viewer’s eyes. No one acting out of a sense of decency and concern for women would shout “It’s only your teats that give you any value!” at his sister.
Few viewers, of course, will have ever bought into Kendall’s righteousness routine. He knew about the company’s crimes but did something about them only when his head was on the chopping block. What’s fascinating to ponder is whether Kendall himself believes he’s acting out of altruism—or whether he simply believes that speaking altruistically is an effective manipulation tactic. As he and his siblings swing back and forth between grandstanding and making cynical quips, the inconsistency comes to feel like the point. These characters don’t know who they are deep down. Or if they do know, they don’t often admit it to themselves.
So it goes on Succession. When Cromwell told the showrunner Jesse Armstrong that he wanted Ewan to be a do-gooder, Armstrong apparently told him that “all these people are culpable; they are all the same.” How does a show with this bleak an outlook stay entertaining? It does so with an attention to the ambiguity, the mind games, and the nonsense that people use to dress up the sort of amorality that, when combined with great wealth and power, is the source of so much evil.
After fielding back-to-back complaints about masks in church—one regarding a fellow parishioner who had shirked a mask during a recent service and the other wondering whether our congregation had changed its policy from “strongly recommended” to “required,” because “everyone” was wearing them—I realized something surprising: Leading a church is harder now, in 2021, than it was in 2020, during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. Last year, state and diocesan mandates meant I could throw up my hands and respond, “Sorry, not up to me.” And anyway, the answer was, for the most part, a straightforward “no”—no, we can’t gather for services, and no, we can’t sing. Now it is up to me, the rector of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, and I am struggling to find a way forward.
Like so many other communities, we first closed to in-person worship in mid-March 2020. We reopened in a limited way that July: Singing wasn’t allowed, every other pew as well as prayer books and hymnals had been removed, masks and reservations were required, seating charts enforced social distancing, no plate was passed, and people in Ghostbuster-like getups sanitized between services. We were compelled to close again in December 2020 because of rising case numbers in our county, and we reopened on Palm Sunday this year. During the closures, I told everyone we were still open, just in a different way. We live-streamed on Sundays. We set up times when people could come pick up factory-sealed sacraments, without ever having to get out of their car. We put on drive-through events for kids. We provided Sunday-school videos. Kids created virtual stations of the cross—they drew, made Lego scenes of, or enacted the 14 stations—photos of which we collected and posted in a Facebook album during Holy Week.
Funerals and weddings were canceled, postponed, or held with limited numbers of attendees and without receptions. I could not perform last rites—praying and anointing with blessed oil—for a dear man who died from COVID-19. Instead, I texted with his family at the end. “He loved you,” his wife said.
Eventually the bishop who oversees the diocese of southern Virginia lifted all mandates except the prohibition on the common chalice, empowering parish clergy to make the decisions that others had dictated to us for more than a year. By that time, most of the adults in our congregation had been vaccinated, but kids under 12 still couldn’t be. We put all the chairs back in the nave, opened the windows, and made masks mandatory for unvaccinated people and encouraged for everyone else.
We started to allow a little singing, with masks, but we shortened the songs to keep services brief. I trimmed my sermons to 1,000 words. For those who were uncomfortable with this, we created a separate seating area in the parish hall where masks were required, singing was prohibited, and people could watch the live-stream projected on a wall. A few families with young kids, as well as some who had other health concerns, tried that. It worked for a couple of weeks. Then they asked, “Why don’t you make the people who don’t want to wear masks sit in here instead?” If they were watching the live-stream projected on a wall, they reasoned, they might as well watch from home.
I don’t know how to make this work. After a year of trying to assure people that we were still the church even when we weren’t in the same room, I don’t know how to convince them now of the importance of gathering in person. I know that if they are watching from home, fancier churches all over the country offer much slicker streamed services than our suburban church with its secondhand camera and duct-taped tripod. And no matter what we do, it isn’t going to work for someone. A few families have started attending larger churches with more—or less—restrictive masking policies. I also know that kids’ sports, held outdoors, have fewer restrictions, and that returning to a church habit after 20 months away gets harder with each passing Sunday.
In 2020, no one could come to church. Now some of my parishioners are choosing not to. I can see on social media that many are at restaurants or parties, but I don’t see them in person on Sunday mornings. The pandemic has accelerated trends I’ve heard about at church conferences since I was first ordained: Sunday attendance will shrink, so churches need to focus on the people outside our walls. Just before the pandemic began, a study published by Faith Communities Today, a multifaith research organization, found a 7 percent median decline in religious attendance across the country. Although membership in our church rose until 2020, attendance had declined since 2014. Our annual reports didn’t ask for last year’s attendance figures, but this year, we’re averaging 66 people on the Sundays we’ve been open. Before we shut down in 2020, our average Sunday attendance was 139.
No one has yet complained about short sermons, but some wish we had cut more music instead of two Bible readings. When people complain, they sometimes add, “But we know you have to.” But I don’t have to in 2021. I am trying to follow guidance, but the only actual mandate now is about the chalice. I can’t imagine the drama that will unfold when a common chalice is permissible again. Some want it already, while others want us to keep the pre-packaged sacrament forever. Does this mean 2022 will be even harder than 2020 and 2021? Our donation pledges were down last year. I’m wincing in anticipation of this year’s fundraising campaign. In 2020, we had a Paycheck Protection Program loan that helped us with payroll. But after last year’s campaign, I had to cut my hours. We don’t have an endowment.
Of course, this is about more than the finances of our parish: These people who are not coming to church aren’t clients or subscribers or colleagues. They are my parishioners. I have held their hands as they cried after telling me secrets or while grieving—but not lately, because we cannot touch. I have pressed home-baked bread into their hands—but not lately, because we use factory-sealed sacraments. I have hugged their children and drenched adults and kids with waters of baptism—but the last time I baptized someone was in January 2020.
Colleagues tell me to put my faith in Jesus. That makes me feel horrible as I struggle to find solutions to help us thrive both now and when things are “back to normal.” I am sick of innovating and pivoting and wondering if St. David’s is struggling because my faith isn’t strong enough. When others tell me that 47 people have joined their church since the beginning of the pandemic, expletives dance in my head.
Historically, the Episcopal Church has embraced middle ground. Queen Elizabeth I tempered the controversy surrounding Roman Catholics and Protestants in the Church of England during the Reformation by encouraging worshipping the same way, via a common prayer book, while allowing for a diversity of beliefs. St. David’s, the church I have served for 10 years, is a genuinely diverse congregation in terms of belief, socioeconomic class, and political views. We’ve weathered the controversy over gay marriage and the political divisions wrought by the 2016 election, but I worry that we won’t be able to make it through the rest of pandemic with our differing risk tolerances and approaches to masks. I can’t find a middle way in these times.
Many Americans fervently believe that the Second Amendment protects their right to bear arms everywhere, including at public protests. Many Americans also believe that the First Amendment protects their right to speak freely and participate in political protest. What most people do not realize is that the Second Amendment has become, in recent years, a threat to the First Amendment. People cannot freely exercise their speech rights when they fear for their lives.
This is not hyperbole. Since January 2020, millions of Americans have assembled in public places to protest police brutality, systemic racism, and coronavirus protocols, among other things. A significant number of those protesters were confronted by counterprotesters visibly bearing firearms. In some of these cases, violence erupted. According to a new study by Everytown for Gun Safety and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), one in six armed protests that took place from January 2020 through June 2021 turned violent or destructive, and one in 62 turned deadly.
These kind of data fill a void in ongoing debates about the compatibility of free speech and firearms at protest events. For example, is the phenomenon of armed protests new? Is it frequent? The open display of firearms at public protests, including long rifles and what are sometimes called “assault-style rifles,” is a relatively new phenomenon. Although many states allow firearms in public places, until recently few Americans have openly toted firearms to political demonstrations. The Everytown/ACLED study examined thousands of protests, showing a marked uptick in protests at which people were visibly armed following the police murder of George Floyd. It found that at least 560 events involved an armed protester or counterprotester. Loose state firearms laws are part of the explanation for this phenomenon. The incidence of armed protests was three times higher in states with expansive open-carry laws, the study noted.
Such research makes much clearer the implications of open carry for public safety, public protest, and constitutional democracy. Some have argued that open carry will make protests safer. In fact, tragedies were far less frequent at protests that did not involve firearms, the Everytown/ACLED research revealed: One in 37 turned violent or destructive, and only one in 2,963 unarmed gatherings turned fatal.
In short, the visible presence of firearms increases the risk of violence and death when exercising one’s First Amendment rights. The increased risk of violence from open carry is enough to have a meaningful “chilling effect” on citizens’ willingness to participate in political protests. Research thus far has focused on open display of firearms, but further study is needed to evaluate the public safety concerns that may still be present when protesters or counterprotesters bring concealed firearms to demonstrations. In addition, concealed carry may not have the same chilling effect; it’s possible that without weapons visible, protesters will not be deterred. But at the same time, merely knowing that people might be armed could keep people away from public protests.
Diana Palmer, one of the authors of this article, conducted a study on the impact of open carry of firearms on the exercise of protest rights, and confirmed what common intuition suggests but included some surprises. The study found that participants were far less likely to attend a protest, carry a sign, vocalize their views, or bring children to protests if they knew firearms would be present.
Participants were asked about their willingness to participate in protests in two groups. In the control group, firearms were not mentioned in the questions. In the experimental group, they were. The questions did not specify whether the participants were visibly carrying firearms or not. The participants in the experimental group were much less willing to participate in expressive activities than participants in the control group to whom firearms were not mentioned.
That hesitation was present regardless of respondents’ political ideology. It was experienced by gun owners and nonowners alike. Survey respondents’ explanations as to why they would refrain from participating in protests where arms are present revealed the significant chilling effects of guns at protests. Among other things, respondents indicated:
I feel like I would be antagonizing [firearms carriers] and that could lead to me being injured.
If they started shooting, I would be concerned they would target me for what I said.
I’ll let the people with the guns do the talking.
Nothing is important enough to be shot over.
Some open-carry proponents insist that they bring firearms to protests to defend themselves against potential violence or to ensure that the First Amendment rights of all participants are respected. However, the Everytown/ACLED study concluded that 77 percent of armed protests during the observedperiod were “driven by far-right mobilization and reactions to left-wing activism.” The study also found that 84 percent of armed protesters at Black Lives Matter protests were counterprotesters from extremist groups such as the “boogaloo boys,” the Proud Boys, and other right-wing groups. Rather than being motivated by self-defense or civil-rights concerns, the decision to carry a gun tends to follow far-right political ideology.
Whatever the motives of firearms carriers might be, the clear social perception of would-be participants is that armed protests are unsafe. That finding is crucial to understanding the potentially devastating effect that bringing guns to protests can have on the exercise of First Amendment rights.
The Supreme Court will soon decide whether there is a Second Amendment right to carry firearms and other weapons in public places, a question it has yet to weigh in on. A pending case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, involves restrictions on concealed-carry permits. To decide it, the Court will need to determine whether the Second Amendment applies outside the home. As the studies show, the answer has profound implications not just for public safety but also for constitutional democracy. As courts and legislatures considergun regulations, they ought to bear in mind not just the physical dangers of armed protests but also the social harms associated with them. For many—perhaps an increasing number of—Americans, participation in armed public protests may simply not be worth the risk. Even if public protest survives, only those willing to risk their life, or who are inclined and able to carry weapons in defense of their own right to protest, may want to participate. Rather than serving as a democratizing means of expression, protest may become an armed contest and the exclusive preserve of the non-peaceable. Most concerning is that public protest as we know it may cease to exist at all. That would deprive Americans of participating in one of the greatest traditions of this country: expressing their views, engaging in public life, and advocating for democratic change.
“According to the documents, Facebook is aware that its products are being used to facilitate hate speech in the Middle East, violent cartels in Mexico, ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia, extremist anti-Muslim rhetoric in India, and sex trafficking in Dubai,” Ellen writes.
Or as Adrienne puts it: “What the world is seeing now, through the window provided by reams of internal documents, is that Facebook catalogs and studies the harm it inflicts on people. And then it keeps harming people anyway.”
3. Facebook’s issues are even worse in other countries.
Expect this story to evolve in the coming days, both Adrienne and Ellen warned me. We may be entering a whistleblower era for the social network, Ellen posited. “Congress got the same documents that all these journalists got, so it may lead to regulation.”
“Because [the size of the leak is] unprecedented, it’s hard to know this early what it means,” Adrienne told me. “But it’s big.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A television star eyes a presidential run as an outsider ready to take on the political establishment. Unlike his competitors, he doesn’t shy away from religious or racial provocation, nor does he hide his penchant for conspiracies. He is a vocal opponent of immigration, political correctness, and feminism. To his supporters, he is a familiar face who isn’t afraid to “tell it like it is.” To detractors, he’s an inflammatory populist set on dividing the country. The media’s wall-to-wall coverage makes him an inescapable presence.
This isn’t Donald Trump, though it might be France’s version of him. Éric Zemmour, a far-right pundit who has gained ground in recent polls ahead of the country’s presidential election next year, has yet to descend from his proverbial golden elevator to announce his candidacy. But the overwhelming coverage of him in the French media, as well as his increasing presence in the international press, suggests that it’s only a matter of time before he does.
That Zemmour has managed to attract outsize attention relative to the rest of France’s presidential hopefuls is a testament to his ability to remain provocative—a skill that he has honed over the course of his career. Like Trump, he has vexed his way onto front pages and prime-time news broadcasts simply by being the most outrageous voice in the room. The goal, it would appear, is to drum up enough momentum to bolster his anticipated candidacy. And so far, the French press has proved happy to oblige.
The media have been here before. Although the American media did not create Trump (like Zemmour, he was a household name long before he was ever a candidate), they did grant him a disproportionate level of coverage, bestowing upon him more attention and legitimacy than they’ve given any of his competitors. With six months left until election day (still a long way away, by French standards), France’s contest has scarcely begun. Yet by over-indexing on a single candidate—or, in Zemmour’s case, a potential candidate—French journalists look doomed to repeat the mistakes of their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic.
Much of the media’s fascination with Zemmour seems to be excited by his similarities with Trump, a comparison that the 63-year-old Frenchman appears all too happy to embrace. In an interview with The New York Times, he claimed that the cover of his latest book, France Has Not Yet Said Its Last Word, was modeled after the former American president’s book Great Again, which, like Zemmour’s, was published in the run-up to a presidential election. He also played up some of their other apparent commonalities: their status as political outsiders, as well as their shared concerns over immigration and trade.
Zemmour isn’t quite the outsider he claims to be, though. Born in the suburbs of Paris to a Berber Jewish family from Algeria, he studied at Sciences Po, a training ground for the French political class, before becoming a journalist. During his decades-long career, he worked for Le Figaro, France’s center-right newspaper of record, and CNews, the country’s equivalent of Fox News.
What separates him from much of the rest of the French elite is his radical worldview. In addition to his incendiary comments about immigrants and Muslims (he has twice been convicted of inciting racial hatred), he also peddles in historical revisionism (falsely claiming that France’s wartime Vichy government, which openly collaborated with Nazi Germany, saved French Jews) and conspiracy theories (he is a proponent of “the great replacement,” an ethno-nationalist theory popularized by the French writer Renaud Camus that claims that indigenous white Europeans are being replaced by non-white immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa).
Having witnessed the rise of Trump, the French press knows the perils of turning Zemmour into some kind of political spectacle or, worse yet, normalizing his extreme views. “Should we start asking ourselves some questions, or do we continue to be manipulated?” the French journalist Salhia Brakhlia quizzed her colleagues in response to a tweet by Zemmour, which included a photo of him being swarmed by reporters that he captioned, “My friends, the journalists.”
“We’ve been having big debates within the newspaper about how we should cover him,” a senior editor at one of France’s center-left dailies, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, told me. Part of the calculus comes down to the fact that Zemmour isn’t technically a candidate (he still needs to secure the support of at least 500 mayors across the country in order to be eligible). The other factor is the growing buzz around his campaign. According to the French media watchdog Acrimed, there were 4,167 mentions of Zemmour in the French press in September alone—the equivalent of 139 mentions a day. During the same period, Zemmour received more than 11 hours of airtime, Robin Andraca, a journalist based in Paris who tracks Zemmour’s television appearances relative to those of rivals, told me. By comparison, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo received two hours of airtime. Marine Le Pen, Zemmour’s main competitor for far-right votes, got even less, at a little more than an hour.
The way Andraca sees it, the media “cannot resist” divisive figures such as Zemmour, because they make for compelling television and good stories. “You are pretty sure that he’s going to say something very racist, very problematic, but then it’s okay because you can talk about that thing for two days,” Andraca surmised. “That’s magical for journalists.”
In this way, French journalists are falling into the same trap as their American counterparts. By rewarding Zemmour’s extremism with more airtime, as the U.S. press did with Trump ahead of the 2016 election, they send the implicit, if unintentional, message that only the most radical rhetoric is worthy of being reported on. The consequences of this when Trump ran were twofold: Not only did it overrepresent more extreme views in the public debate, but it also encouraged politicians to be more outlandish. Even today, “people like Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Ted Cruz of Texas get much more attention in the media than more moderate senators who actually make up the majority of the Republican Party in the Senate,” Tom Rosenstiel, a press critic who teaches journalism at the University of Maryland, told me. “It’s a lesson we know but haven’t learned.”
Zemmour isn’t simply attracting the lion’s share of media attention. He is effectively setting the terms of France’s presidential debate, much like Trump did. By overwhelming journalists with a seemingly endless stream of news (or, as the former president’s one-time chief strategist Steve Bannon crudely put it, by endeavoring to “flood the zone with shit”) and by exhausting public attention, Trump succeeded in turning the press into a kind of pulpit. “The agenda of Zemmour is what we’re talking about in France today: immigration, security, Islam,” Thomas Snégaroff, a Paris-based journalist and historian, told me, noting that even in many interviews that don’t include Zemmour, his opponents are asked to react to things he’s said.
Not all coverage of Zemmour is complimentary, of course. In fact, much of what is written about him is critical, especially as it relates to his more incendiary views. But if there’s one lesson that the press ought to have taken from the Trump era, it’s that whether coverage is critical hardly matters. “We’re accustomed to the idea that bad coverage is bad for the president, but in the way that Trump operated, it reversed itself, and negative coverage became for him proof with his base that ‘these people are critical of me because they hate you,’” Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of the PressThink blog, told me. “What I would say to the French is, as soon as you see that happening, where the very criticism that you try to level against this candidate gets incorporated into his pitch, you are in the danger zone and you’ve got to reconsider your practices.”
Here lies the fundamental tension facing the French press right now. To dedicate too much time and space to Zemmour would be to give him the clout that he no doubt craves, and signal to audiences that he is more deserving of their attention than other potential candidates. To ignore him, however, would be to risk falling short of its journalistic duty to report on and scrutinize a viable contender for the French presidency: Two recent polls showed Zemmour winning anywhere from 16 to 17 percent of the national vote, second only to President Emmanuel Macron and, crucially, outflanking Le Pen. (One of the surveys also found that more than six in 10 French voters think the media spend too much time on Zemmour.)
Other factors drive the French media’s editorial decision making. For one thing, someone who is seemingly everywhere is difficult to ignore. As the country’s minister of justice bemoaned last week, Zemmour is like a weather forecast—“every day there is something new.” What’s more, coverage of him is lucrative: A recent issue of Paris Match, which featured a photo of Zemmour embracing his 28-year-old political adviser and alleged mistress on its cover, reportedly became one of the weekly magazine’s recent best sellers.
But perhaps the main reason that the French media are so saturated with Zemmour coverage is because, out of the dozen or so candidates vying for the presidency (including notable figures such as Hidalgo and the former Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier), he is the most contentious. “He knows how to control the media agenda,” Benjamin Haddad, the senior director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council think tank, in Washington, D.C., and, like Zemmour, a graduate of Sciences Po, told me. “He says something horrible and then everyone talks about it … It’s this vicious cycle that is very difficult to break.”
Zemmour’s latest stunt, which drew widespread coverage and condemnation, was to point a sniper rifle at journalists while attending an arms fair in Paris, laughing and telling reporters to “back off.” More instructive is another controversy: Zemmour recently pledged that, if elected, he would seek to reimpose a 19th-century ban on foreign names such as Mohammed (no such restrictions currently exist, barring a few exceptions). It was reaction-inducing, perhaps by design. But it wasn’t new. In fact, the topic of French names has long been a pet issue of his. In 2016, he publicly criticized a government minister for naming her child Zohra, after her mother, rather than choosing a traditionally French Christian name. He leveled a similar diatribe two years later against a fellow journalist, purportedly telling her that her Senegelese name was “an insult” to France.
Some news outlets, inFrance and aroundtheworld, published stories on Zemmour’s name comments. Others, however, made the decision not to. “That is something we didn’t cover,” the editor at the center-left newspaper told me, on the grounds that it was not new and was, instead, “ridiculous.”
How the French media cover Zemmour will ultimately come down to these kinds of editorial choices, whether he declares his candidacy, and how long he retains his position in the polls. But these factors are related. The more incendiary Zemmour is, the more likely he is to draw media attention, and the more likely he is to remain in the public debate.
The way some journalists see it, Zemmour might already be too big to ignore. “If we don’t talk about Zemmour today, we will be accused of not talking about something we don’t like,” Snégaroff said, and likened the French media’s relationship with Zemmour to that of Frankenstein and his monster. “He was made in large part by us, and now he’s here. So what do we do?”
In a Season 4 episode of Friends, Ross is about to get married (again). At his bachelor party, Joey and Chandler argue over who will serve as his best man. Their bickering devolves into pettiness, until a fed-up Chandler makes an announcement about one of their guests, the barista at their favorite coffee shop: When he gets married, Chandler says, he’ll just ask Gunther to be his best man.
Gunther, who is accustomed to being the object of the friends’ varied condescensions, considers this alleged honor. “What’s my last name?” he asks Chandler. Chandler is stymied. “… Central Perk?” he replies.
Through Friends’ 10 seasons, Gunther serves as the consummate supporting character. He is often simply there: working behind the counter at Central Perk, standing around at parties the friends throw, backgrounded even in the moments when he is brought to the fore. But the actor James Michael Tyler, who died yesterday of prostate cancer at the age of 59, didn’t play Gunther as a side character. He played Gunther, instead, as a character who was sidelined. That made all the difference. Tyler invested Gunther, who was otherwise the stuff of sitcom cliché, with a biting awareness of his own exclusion from the show’s hermetic main group. Gunther is always in their orbit, but never in their world—and he is keenly aware of that disconnect. In the friends’ lives, though no one told you life was gonna be this way, things work out all the same. Not so for Gunther. Through him, reality pierces Friends’ chipper fantasies.
Gunther is like the friends, until he isn’t. He has been, like Joey, a struggling actor. (He played Bryce on All My Children … until the character was buried in an avalanche.) He is, like Ross, in love with Rachel. His job’s a joke; he’s broke; his love life’s DOA. He is a reminder of how life actually works, for people who are not on sitcoms. Midway through the series, Joey finds the keys to a Porsche left in Central Perk. He asks Gunther whether the keys belong to him. “Yes, that’s what I drive,” Gunther replies, tersely. “I make four bucks an hour. I saved up for 350 years.”
Sitcoms need both stars and background characters to tell their stories, and most supporting characters do not question their sidelining. But Gunther? Gunther is bitter about it. He is an avatar of the casual arbitrariness of the show, and of the friends’ insularity: These six people are deeply incurious about the people who are not part of their little world. On paper, Gunther is often a sap, a tangle of desire and disappointment. In practice, the way Tyler played him, he is the most human character on the show—and arguably its moral rudder. When Chandler reveals that he doesn’t know the full name of the guy he has seen almost every day for years, the joke doesn’t come at Gunther’s expense. It comes at Chandler’s.
Tyler didn’t simply communicate Gunther’s frustrations; he deployed them. His performances convey the simmering indignation of being rendered invisible. In a scene in Friends’ third season, Gunther watches as a guy at Central Perk asks Rachel out on a date. He heads back to a storage room, out of view; soon, viewers hear the thunderous sound of shattering glass. Gunther emerges, as the coffeehouse patrons stare at him in shock. “I dropped a cup,” he says, wanly.
That interplay—what viewers see of Gunther, and what they are prevented from seeing—brings a remarkable poignancy to his character. Much about Gunther, whether his bleach-bright hair or his fluorescent outfits, suggests a deep desire to be the center of attention. And yet the show, on the whole, keeps him relegated to the spaces behind the scenes. Gunther functions, in Friends, as a consequential stranger: a person you might often encounter as you live your life, but whom you don’t, in any meaningful sense, know. Viewers are exposed to him in roughly the same way they might be exposed to the people they casually interact with in everyday life. Chandler may not be bothered to be curious about him; for viewers, though, he is a tantalizing mix of half-revealed facts. We learn, off-handedly, that he speaks fluent Dutch. And that he’s sharply witty. (“Hey buddy, this is a family place,” he tartly informs a customer who wears shorts without underwear. “Put the mouse back in the house.”) And that he is in love with Rachel. And that he will have to find a way to accept that his love will go unrequited.
Gunther is a background character who knows that, in another show, he would have been the star. And although Tyler did not have many lines, he used the ones he did have to give Gunther a fourth-wall kind of eloquence. Particularly as Friends moved into its later seasons, Tyler imbued the character with a sense of ironized self-awareness. To watch Gunther is to suspect that he is watching the proceedings—these blandly telegenic young people, with their blend of cheerful entitlements—at the same time that we are. He’s a viewer, too. He exists in a liminal space, seemingly hovering between the world of the show and the world its audiences inhabit. Tyler gave Gunther the feel of a Greek chorus, or of a narrator: He sees the hijinks onstage for what they are. He knows that Friends is selling a fantasy. But he also knows that he can have his moments inside the illusion. In Season 4, Joey comes to Central Perk looking for Chandler. Gunther gazes at him, coolly. “I thought you were Chandler?” he says. “But, um, one of you is over there.”
As relatives looked on, some sobbing, some applauding, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam granted posthumous pardons in August to the Martinsville Seven, young Black men electrocuted 70 years ago for the rape of a white woman. Northam took no position on their guilt or innocence; he merely cited ample evidence that the state had not accorded the men justice.
“Race played an undeniable role during the identification, investigation, conviction, and the sentencing” of the men, Northam said. None had attorneys or parents present during his interrogation and several were unable to read the confessions they had signed. What is more, all 45 men who received capital sentences in Virginia rape cases from 1908 to 1951 were Black; not a single white rapist was condemned to death. In hindsight, the state appears to have reserved the death penalty in such cases exclusively for Black men.
“We all deserve a criminal-justice system that is fair, equal, and gets it right—no matter who you are or what you look like,” the governor said. “We have 402 years of history and a lot of wrongs that we need to right.”
But what can pardons right when the recipients are dead and the wrongs are irreversible? America’s governors clearly believe that posthumous pardons have value, because they are issuing them at a rate never seen before, particularly in cases in which racial prejudice is thought to have subverted procedures, denied rights, or perverted verdicts. Fifty such pardons have been granted in just the past three years, among them former Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner’s 2019 posthumous pardon—his state’s first—of Grover Thompson, a Black man with a history of mental illness who was convicted 23 years earlier of stabbing a 72-year-old woman. DNA evidence and another man’s confession exonerated him after his death. In another first, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and the rest of the state’s pardon board extended a posthumous pardon to Max Mason, a Black man convicted of rape in 1920 on flimsy evidence by a racist judicial system.
These are symbolic acts, but that doesn’t make them meaningless. Two momentous events—the violent 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer—galvanized the search for symbolic acts to repudiate historical, structural racism. Most of the attention has focused on pulling down Confederate statues and stripping public buildings of the names of slaveholders.
Posthumous pardons are part of that same effort. Just as the debate over Confederate statues is less about those depicted by them than the values of the people who must walk past them every day, pardons are about the present and the future, not the past. They are most beneficial when they redeem the living, of course, and few would argue that current prisoners should not be ushered to the front of the line. But when applied to the dead, they can also be worthwhile when they heal, or when they send an affirmative message that the discredited values of the past are no longer the values of the present, nor should they be those of the future.
Posthumous pardons are rarities in American history. Nearly all have been granted at the state level. Although most governors have always had this power, they have issued only an estimated 175 such pardons in the nation’s entire history. Of that number, 85 percent have been awarded in the 21st century, and of those, nearly 40 percent have gone to minorities, almost all to Black Americans.
When pardons, postmortem or otherwise, are extended, it is usually in one of several types of cases. The easiest are those in which a defendant is proved innocent. An example is that of the Army veteran Timothy Cole, a Black man convicted of rape in Texas in 1985. He died in prison 14 years into a 25-year sentence, after refusing to confess in exchange for parole. Both a DNA mismatch and a subsequent confession by the real rapist established Cole’s innocence. The governor pardoned him in 2009, and a court reversed his conviction.
Sometimes pardons are warranted because social mores or the legal climate has changed. Bayard Rustin, a confidant of Martin Luther King Jr. and an organizer of the storied 1963 March on Washington, was convicted in California in 1953 of vagrancy and lewd conduct under laws routinely used to target LGBTQ people. He was jailed for 60 days and compelled to register as a sex offender. Nearly 70 years later, in 2020, heeding calls from state legislators, Governor Gavin Newsom extended Rustin a posthumous pardon.
Pardons are also occasionally granted when an individual’s accomplishments are thought to compensate society in some way for the crimes committed against it. In 1990, for example, Arizona Governor Rose Mofford pardoned four deceased prisoners convicted of offenses including armed robbery and manslaughter who lost their lives while serving as “inmate labor” on a detail battling a major forest fire.
And then there are the cases in which justice was denied. Although most people think of pardons as exonerations, they are, in fact, generally silent on the question of guilt. Proof of innocence has never been a requirement. If a convicted person can be shown to have been abused to elicit a confession or deprived of a fair trial, for example, a pardon is justifiable.
The story of the Black ice-delivery man John Snowden, set in Annapolis, Maryland, during the Jim Crow era and chronicled in my most recent book, A Second Reckoning: Race, Injustice, and the Last Hanging in Annapolis, is a case in point. In 1918, Snowden was convicted of the murder of a pregnant white woman after questionable treatment by the police and the courts. He lost on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review his case, and the governor at the time refused him clemency. He was hanged in what many in Annapolis—Black and white—considered a “legal lynching.”
A reexamination decades later, prompted by local activists, raised troubling issues. Snowden testified that he had been threatened and physically abused by the police, but everything he said during his interrogation was admitted into evidence nonetheless. The legal gymnastics that the prosecution seems to have employed to ensure an all-white jury would be prohibited today. The judge did not permit the defense to impeach the credibility of the two principal witnesses for the prosecution, although they came forward only after a cash reward was offered. And the judge allowed prejudicial testimony about possible rape, even though Snowden was not charged with that crime.
Eighty-three years later, in 2001, Maryland Governor Parris Glendening declined to pronounce Snowden innocent. But, in asserting that “the search for justice has no statute of limitations,” he pardoned him because he believed that Snowden’s hanging was a miscarriage of justice.
Although the bulk of posthumous pardons are not controversial, governors do occasionally take heat for extending them. More than eight decades had passed since Snowden’s execution, but Glendening was nonetheless excoriated by the murdered woman’s great-niece. Insisting that a “pardon has an interpretation of innocence”—even though it technically does not—she said that absent new, exonerating evidence, the governor had no legitimate basis on which to grant the pardon, and that his action was “tainted with political motives.”
When pardons are divisive, “politics” is often cited. In May, when Maryland Governor Larry Hogan issued a sweeping, first-of-its-kind pardon of 34 Black men and boys who were lynched while in state custody, he came in for criticism. Willie Flowers, the head of the state’s NAACP, lambasted Hogan for “political posturing,” insisting that “celebrating himself by reminding people that lynchings happened is not the best thing you can do; it’s actually the least that he could do.”
A letter writer to The Baltimore Sun also objected. He accused the governor of “using flowery language to make some people feel better about the past and themselves, while not solving one real problem facing Black Americans today.”
And that just may get at the nub of the value, and the limitations, of posthumous pardons, especially the recent spate of them extended to Black Americans. They are not really about problem-solving, nor are they a substitution for it; they are about remembering, and about acknowledging error. They do no demonstrable good to the dead, but are all about the living: principally relatives and friends of the deceased, but also their spiritual or political heirs, or simply those interested in or moved by their cases.
How effective are these symbolic acts? Descendants and family members of pardon recipients certainly think they matter. Many have been quite vocal about how meaningful and inspirational they have found the revisiting of such cases. Pamela Hairston Chisholm, who worked for the pardon of the Martinsville Seven, told the press:
This is a day that we will be able to go back to our family members, young and old, and tell them the story of injustice, but also to tell them that you will never give up the fight for justice. If we band together and work together and fight together, we can acquire the end that we seek, because the Martinsville Seven is just one story … of many that have occurred day in and day out.
The day John Snowden’s pardon was finally secured was one of the happiest and proudest days in the life of his niece Hazel, who was born too late to have met her uncle but who believed in his innocence and worked tirelessly for his case’s reexamination. “I could feel his peace,” she told newspapers. And every year since that day in 2001, she has held a gathering in her uncle’s honor to which friends, relatives, and others who helped secure the pardon are invited to celebrate his life. It is a happy occasion, but one with its somber moments. Someone is asked to read the text of the pardon aloud, and someone else recites the soaring rhetoric of Snowden’s last statement, in which, reasserting his innocence, he declared, “I could not leave this world with a lie in my mouth.”
What value do such pardons offer society at large? In 2013, Alabama State Senator Arthur Orr sponsored a state-law amendment to allow for posthumous pardons. Its passage enabled pardons of the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black Alabama teenagers who were accused of raping two white women in 1931 and sentenced to death in rushed, unfair trials. He put it this way: “It’s an important step to show that the Alabama of the 21st century is a different place than it was 80-plus years ago.”
Like downed statues, posthumous pardons do not change public policy. They do not repeal bad laws. They certainly do not have any discernible effect on their recipients. But they have the potential to do much more than simply make people feel a little better about the past. In fact, they may be most valuable precisely for what they promise. In repudiating miscarriages of justice, especially those with racial overtones, such pardons make a statement that what was done in the past was wrong, and they serve as markers that make it more difficult for such wrongs to be repeated. At their best, they have the potential to restore faith in a judicial system in which many people have lost confidence, and to further the work of building a more just, more tolerant, and more equitable society.
If there’s one thing we might regret at the end of life, it’s that we missed out on moments that mattered—not because we weren’t physically there, but because our mind wandered off to some unknown place.
In this episode of How to Build a Happy Life, we explore why it’s uniquely challenging to “live in the moment,” how we limit our own curiosity by assuming that we know best, and why the illusion of stability pulls us from living every day fully, and in the moment. A conversation with the Harvard University psychology professor Dr. Ellen Langer helps us think through a daily struggle: How do I stay present?
This episode was produced by Rebecca Rashid and hosted by Arthur Brooks. Editing by A. C. Valdez. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Sound design by Michael Raphael.
Music by Trevor Kowalski (“Lion’s Drift,” “This Valley of Ours,” “Una Noche de Luces”), Stationary Sign (“Loose in the Park”), and Spectacles Wallet and Watch (“Last Pieces”).
This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Arthur C. Brooks: A big part of happiness is learning to live in the moment. What does that actually mean? And more importantly, how do we do it? It turns out that living in the moment, or at least being fully alive right now has two components: mindfulness and curiosity.
You need to figure out a way to focus on the present, to be really experiencing your current time frame, as opposed to thinking about the past or thinking about the future. Now, there’s a reason that that’s hard to do. The human brain makes it possible for us to be in other time periods than in the current moment. I can imagine that I’m in the future, practicing future scenarios in my life. That’s called prospection. That’s about living in the future.
Other people tend to think about the past a lot, and one of the things that we know from research on the elderly is they tend to be kind of retrospective, thinking about the past. The problem is, if you’re excessively prospective and/or retrospective, it can crowd out your ability to be alive right now.
Dr. Ellen Langer: Lots of people confuse what I do with meditation, but meditation is a practice; mindfulness is the result of that practice. The mindfulness that we study is immediate. It’s simply noticing new things. And in the process of noticing new things, that puts you in the moment. You have all these people who say “be in the present,” and that’s great, but it’s an empty suggestion. And even simpler than this, if one deeply appreciates uncertainty—recognizing everything is always changing, everything looks different from different perspectives, so you can’t know. And when you recognize that you can’t know or you don’t know, you tune in. When you think you do know, you don’t pay any attention.
Brooks: The big theme that I really want to talk about here is how to enjoy our lives more. One of the things that you emphasize in your work a lot is that we don’t enjoy our lives enough, because we’re not actually there. What does that mean?
Dr. Langer: Over these 40-some-odd years, we find that mindlessness is pervasive. Most of us are not there, and they are not there to know they’re not there. You know, the only way some people realize they experience this is imagine you’re driving and you want to get off at exit 28, and all of a sudden, you see you’re at exit 36. So then you say, Wow, where was I? What I mean by “you’re not there” is that you are more or less behaving like a robot. Everybody has had that experience.
You know, you are miserable, and somebody says, “Hi, how are you?” And you say, “Fine, thank you.” And you’re not aware of it, and you’re not trying to hide it. Most of what we do is done on, as it’s called, automatic pilot, but the mindlessness goes far beyond that.
I wanted to write a book a long time ago, Arthur—I never wrote this one—that was called Is There Life Before Death?, because I found, you know, all these people worrying about life after death. Many people come alive, sadly, after they get some terrible diagnosis or they have a stroke or they find out they have cancer. When I speak to people who are miserable or whatever, I simply tell them that all you need to do is take care of the moment, just right this second. And if you keep doing that, then over the course of the day, you know, you’ve had a fine time.
Brooks: Why is it that we’re so distracted from the present? What is distracting us from actually noticing things around us?
Dr. Langer: Well, we have an illusion of stability. We think things are staying still. So if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it; you don’t need to keep paying attention to it. But there’s something I think that needs to be added, which will explain why people keep doing this. Many people pretend because they think they should know. They think, You know, so therefore, I don’t want you to know that I don’t know. And here’s the big secret for everybody: Nobody knows. You change from making a personal attribution for not knowing—I don’t know, but it’s knowable. Therefore, I’ll pretend; I’ll feel stupid, insecure—to a universal attribution: I don’t know. You don’t know. Nobody knows. Okay, so now let’s find out together and explore together. If you think you know something, there’s no reason to pay attention.
Anything can be made exciting; anything can be made boring. I picked up these kids—this is back years ago, when it was okay to pick up hitchhikers. And I was in Italy, and they were wearing NYC T-shirts, so you knew they weren’t from New York.
And so I picked them up, and I asked them, “How did you like New York?”And one of them answered right away and said, you know, he didn’t like it at all. It was boring. There was nothing to do. There are few places, to my mind, that are more exciting. And if you took me and you put me in the middle of a wheat field, I probably would look at it like, Well, it’s all the same, but not to a farmer.
Brooks: Let’s go to the future. So, you know, one of the things that I talk an awful lot about with Marty Seligman is prospection, and Marty believes that we shouldn’t be called Homo sapiens. We should be called Homo prospectus.
One point, he had this dispute with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, where the Dalai Lama was talking about mindfulness, and he said, No, Your Holiness, it’s natural that we live in the future, especially people who are ambitious and go-getters. And it’s actually important because we have to practice future scenarios, et cetera. How can we live enough in the future to be successful but, at the same time, enjoy our lives? How do we get that balance right?
Dr. Langer: I think that everything that you’re doing because of the future is based on a mistaken notion about predictability. Prediction is an illusion. Now, I know Marty doesn’t believe that. Let me convince your audience just quickly. I do this with my advanced decision-making class, and I say to them, “I’ve been teaching a version of this class for the last 40 years. I’ve never missed a class. What is the likelihood I’m going to be here next week?”
It’s a small class; we go around the room. These are Harvard kids, so they don’t say 100 percent. They say ridiculous things like 97 percent, as if there’s some calculation, but essentially they’re all saying I’ll be there. Now I say, “Okay, I want each of you to give me a good reason why I won’t be there.” The first one always says, “Well, you’ve been doing it for 40 years; you’ve been there. You deserve the time off.” The next one says, “Your dog has to go to the vet.” The next one says, “You’ve got a flat tire.” And they easily come up with things.
Then I say to them, “Okay, what is the likelihood I’m going to be here next week?” And it drops to 50 percent. And when you fully realize that we don’t know, that you can plan all you want for some future event and then something else will happen that pulls you away. But if the planning for the future is giving you a happy present, that’s fine; there’s nothing lost by it. When you stick to your predictions, you’re limiting yourself rather than expanding your universe of possibilities.
Brooks: From your perspective, goal setting is valuable to the extent that it enhances the quality of your life right now.
Dr. Langer: At the moment, yes. And I think that what we want to do, and the way I describe being mindful, is to be rule, routine, and goal guided. Most of us are mindless, so we’re rule, routine, and goal governed. You don’t want to have a rule that says you do something at time one—that’s when you’re committing to that rule—when at time two, it’s totally irrelevant. Recognize that outcomes are in our heads. They’re not in events.
A simple example, you know, if you and I go to lunch and the food is good, that’s great. You and I go to lunch and the food is awful. That’s great. Presumably, I’ll eat less, and that’ll be better for my waistline. If I take the view that the event is good or bad, then I’m in this position where I do everything I can to get the good, and I run away as fast as I can from anything bad. And once I recognize that the good/bad is in my head, I can be still and just enjoy whatever happens.
Brooks: So you and I are going back to the classroom in person for the first time in a super long time, and let’s say that your fall class, weirdly unexpectedly, goes really, really poorly. What’s your strategy then, because you’re not going to get stressed?
Dr. Langer: I have a one-liner that friends of mine put on their refrigerators, which is “Ask yourself, is it a tragedy or an inconvenience?” Too often we respond to things. You know, if the class didn’t go well, Oh my God, my life’s going to be—no, of course not. Let’s say you and I are going out and we have a bad conversation and it’s Oh my God, that’s going to destroy the relationship! No. No relationship is going to be made or fall apart based on one situation. No life is going to depend on failing one test or giving one bad class.
Brooks: Ellen Langer. What a joy. What a gift that you’ve given to our audience today, and what a gift that you’ve given me. So thank you very much.
Dr. Langer: It’s my pleasure, Arthur. Stay well.
Brooks: Each week on the show, we like to pay homage to our listeners and their unique insights on happiness. We put out a call to action for listeners to answer this question: When is the last time you remember being truly happy?
Listener submission: Hey there! My name is Ben; I live in Washington, D.C. Well, what is happiness? I’ve found bliss and peace while doing kind of really engrossing sports like skiing or kiteboarding. I’ve found joy and elation on the peaks of mountains after hiking them, and the kind of runner’s high that comes after exercise and accomplishment. Happiness is a longer struggle, though. Happiness is a couple good days with friends, appreciation from people who it matters to be appreciated by. It’s things going right when you weren’t sure if they would or not. It’s a clean apartment. It’s balance in your life, both physically and mentally, and in terms of your expectations. I don’t know if there is any one time when I would say that I’m truly happy. Happiness is when I am where I need to be and balanced and lifted up by the foundations that facilitate that happiness.
Brooks: Today’s exercise is called intention without attachment. Now, you’ve been hearing from Dr. Langer that mindfulness is critically important for living a good and balanced life, and it’s also incredibly important for happiness, in no small part because when you’re not mindful, you’re missing your life.
Mindfulness, according to Dr. Ellen Langer, is not an exotic thing. She defined it as simply noticing new things—being fully present and noticing things that are happening around us. You want to be mindful on the train, put down your phone. Stop thinking about the future. Put your hands in your lap. Look out the window and say, Huh, trees. Now, you can get into much more sort of transcendental or meditative understandings of mindfulness, but that’s a good way to remember it.
There’s a problem, however, if mindfulness is your only goal. Happiness also relies on prospection. It is the living in the future that’s connected to a lot of other psychologists’ research, and when you’re optimistic about the future, that prospection is really important to happiness as well. These two ideas, they seem kind of in tension, don’t they? You want to be mindful, but you want to be prospective at the same time. So I ask myself, Can I be both a goal-oriented person and a mindful person? Or do I have to choose? Or is there some way that I can get both? Well, the answer is that you can get both.
No. 1, use learned optimism to dream up and set long-term goals. So say to yourself, for example, “Ten years from today, here’s what I want my life to look like.” What does it look like? Make it really clear in your mind; write them down. Learned optimism to set long-term goals.
Here’s step two: Now break those goals into sub-steps to get to that 10-year goal. Or maybe it’s a five-year goal. You decide what your time frame is, but to get to it, Where do I need to be one year from now? Where do I need to be in one month to get to one year? Where do I need to be in one week to get to one month? Break your big goal into a bunch of little goals with respect to time.
Now here’s step three. Here’s where the mindfulness comes back: Live in day-tight compartments—that sets a goal for being fully alive over the next 24 hours. By the way, I didn’t make up this term “day-tight compartments.” That was made up by a self-improvement author from the ’30s named Dale Carnegie. And this was one of his pieces of advice, to live in day-tight compartments. If you want to be happy, you have to be alive. If you’re going to be alive, you have to notice what’s going on. And to do that, you can’t always be living in the future.