North America Government


Margaret Atwood, the Prophet of Dystopia

The New Yorker

When Margaret Atwood was in her twenties, an aunt shared with her a family legend about a possible seventeenth-century forebear: Mary Webster, whose neighbors, in the Puritan town of Hadley, Massachusetts, had accused her of witchcraft. "The townspeople didn't like her, so they strung her up," Atwood said recently. "But it was before the age of drop hanging, and she didn't die. She dangled there all night, and in the morning, when they came to cut the body down, she was still alive." Webster became known as Half-Hanged Mary.


Are Liberals on the Wrong Side of History?

The New Yorker

If, by a margin so small that in a voice vote you would have no idea who won, Brexit happens; or if, by a trick of an antique electoral system designed to give country people more power than city people, a Donald Trump is elected, then pluralist constitutional democracy is finished. Everything in modern history, his book suggests, has been inexorably leading up to the conditions of 2017. Mishra's thesis is that our contemporary misery and revanchist nationalism can be traced to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's romantic reaction to Voltaire's Enlightenment--with the Enlightenment itself entirely to blame in letting high-minded disdain for actual human experience leave it open to a romantic reaction. Casting Voltaire as the apostle of fatuous utopian progressivism, Mishra curiously fails to note that he also wrote what remains the most famous of all attacks on fatuous utopian progressivism, "Candide."


Why Trump Needs an Enemy

The New Yorker

Last week, a senior White House official shared a candid theory with me about why President Donald Trump and his team have been adrift since November: they've yet to adjust to the post-election reality, and they haven't yet learned how to operate without a single, common enemy--Hillary Clinton--to focus on. Incoming Presidents usually trade in some of their political tacticians for experienced Washington hands when they take office, but Trump installed his entire senior campaign leadership into top positions in the White House, a place where few of them have ever worked before. In fact, one of the only senior Trump staffers with previous White House experience is Omarosa Manigault, the reality-star villain from "The Apprentice," who briefly worked in the Clinton White House when she was twenty-three years old. But none of this should come as a surprise," John Feehery, a longtime Republican operative, told me of Trump's press conference.


The Cost of Defying the President

The New Yorker

A group of air-traffic controllers, their wives, and kids, we carry signs emblazoned with the logo of PATCO, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, and chant a medley of protest slogans most of us are learning for the first time. "United," we cry, "we will never be defeated." I'm the one with the Phillies cap and the sky-blue Keds, Little Greg, walking the picket line beside his father, Big Greg. We are the only two black people in the group, but this isn't why we stand out. "I take it you're not in this for the sport!" he shouts.


At Volkswagen, a Scandal Where Executives Could Pay the Price

The New Yorker

At the Detroit Auto Show last week, Volkswagen hoped to escape the present with a nod to the past, introducing a revamped version of its iconic flat-faced, boxy Microbus, the vehicle that shepherded the counterculture across the interstates some five decades ago. The bus's reincarnation is a battery-propelled, self-driving vehicle called ID Buzz. But nostalgic wing-vent windows and chrome trim could not distract from the company's current predicament. Barely had the auto show kicked off when the Justice Department announced that VW had pleaded guilty to criminal and civil charges related to its efforts to cheat on U.S. emissions standards. The company agreed to pay $4.3 billion in penalties, the largest fine ever levied by the U.S. government on an auto company, dwarfing both Toyota's $1.2-billion settlement for vehicle-safety problems involving unintended acceleration and GM's nine-hundred-million-dollar settlement for ignition-switch defects.


Rewriting the Code of Life

The New Yorker

Esvelt, an assistant professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was on his way to present to local health officials a plan for ridding the island of one of its most persistent problems: Lyme disease. Esvelt has spoken about Lyme dozens of times in the past year, not just on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard but at forums around the world, from a synthetic-biology symposium in Chile to President Obama's White House Frontiers Conference, in Pittsburgh. Esvelt plans to release enough genetically modified mice, tens of thousands of them, to overwhelm the wild population. But I would submit that the single most important application of gene drive is not to eradicate malaria or schistosomiasis or Lyme or any other specific project.


Our Automated Future

The New Yorker

There are many accounts of the genesis of Watson. The most popular, which is not necessarily the most accurate--and this is the sort of problem that Watson himself often stumbled on--begins in 2004, at a steakhouse near Poughkeepsie. One evening, an I.B.M. executive named Charles Lickel was having dinner there when he noticed that the tables around him had suddenly emptied out. Instead of finishing their sirloins, his fellow-diners had rushed to the bar to watch "Jeopardy!" This was deep into Ken Jennings's seventy-four-game winning streak, and the crowd around the TV was rapt.


Briefly Noted

The New Yorker

Unfolding across four decades via dozens of characters, this satirical novel takes aim at several targets. When, in 2012, Faye Andreson-Anderson pelts a right-wing Wyoming governor with rocks, in the lead-up to his Presidential bid, she achieves "meme status." She also becomes newly present for her son, Samuel, who tries to leverage the assault into a best-selling memoir. His research leads him deep into his mother's childhood and his own. Hill astutely skewers the media for the way it packages experience--Samuel's publisher claims to be an "interest maker" specializing in "multimodal cross-platform synergy."


The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin

The New Yorker

Politics has been obsessing a lot of people lately, and Ursula K. Le Guin is far from immune to bouts of political anger. In an e-mail to me last winter, she wrote that she felt "eaten up" with frustration at the ongoing occupation of an eastern Oregon wildlife refuge by an armed band of antigovernment agitators led by the brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy. She was distressed by the damage they had done to scientific programs and to historical artifacts belonging to the local Paiute tribe, and critical of the F.B.I. for being so slow to remove these "hairy gunslinging fake cowboys" from public property. She had been mildly cheered up, she added, by following a Twitter feed with the hashtag #BundyEroticFanFic. The high desert of eastern Oregon is one of Le Guin's places.


Sam Altman's Manifest Destiny

The New Yorker

One balmy May evening, thirty of Silicon Valley's top entrepreneurs gathered in a private room at the Berlinetta Lounge, in San Francisco. Paul Graham considered the founders of Instacart, DoorDash, Docker, and Stripe, in their hoodies and black jeans, and said, "This is Silicon Valley, right here." All the founders were graduates of Y Combinator, the startup "accelerator" that Graham co-founded: a three-month boot camp, run twice a year, in how to become a "unicorn"--Valleyspeak for a billion-dollar company. Thirteen thousand fledgling software companies applied to Y Combinator this year, and two hundred and forty were accepted, making it more than twice as hard to get into as Stanford University. After graduating thirteen hundred startups, YC now boasts the power--and the peculiarities--of an island nation.