What Colleges Want in an Applicant (Everything)

Whatever happens, age-old questions about fairness in admissions will surely endure. For one thing, the nation can’t come to terms with a tricky five-letter word: merit. Michael Young, a British sociologist, coined the pejorative term “meritocracy” over a half-century ago to describe a future in which standardized intelligence tests would crown a new elite. Yet as Rebecca Zwick explains in her new book “Who Gets In?” the meaning has shifted. The word “merit,” she writes, has come to mean “academic excellence, narrowly defined” as grades and test scores.

But that’s just one way to think of an applicant’s worthiness. Dr. Zwick, professor emeritus at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has long been a researcher at the Educational Testing Service, which develops and administers the SAT. She disputes the notion that testing prowess — or any other attribute, for that matter — entitles a student to a spot at his chosen college. “There is, in fact, no absolute definition of merit,” she writes.

That brings us to you, the anxious applicant, the frazzled parent, the confused citizen, all wondering what colleges want. It’s worth taking a deep breath and noting that only 13 percent of four-year colleges accept fewer than half of their applicants. That said, colleges where seats are scarce stir up the nation’s emotions. Each year, the world-famous institutions reject thousands and thousands of students who could thrive there.

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Yes, rejection stings. But say these words aloud: The admissions process isn’t fair. Like it or not, colleges aren’t looking to reel in the greatest number of straight-A students who’ve taken seven or more Advanced Placement courses. A rejection isn’t really about you; it’s about a maddening mishmash of competing objectives.

Just as parents give teenagers a set of chores, colleges hand their admissions leaders a list of things to accomplish. When they fail, they often get fired.

“We don’t live in a cloud — the reality is, there’s a bottom line,” said Angel B. Pérez, vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College, in Hartford. “We’re an institution, but we’re also a business.”

On many campuses, financial concerns affect decisions about whom to admit. A recent report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that about half of institutions said an applicant’s “ability to pay” was of at least “some importance” in admissions decisions. Among other targets is geographic diversity, which is now seen as an indicator of institutional strength and popularity. (Some presidents have been known to gripe if the freshman class doesn’t represent all 50 states.) A campus might also need a particular number of engineering majors or goalies.

Indeed, a college could accept 33 percent of all applicants, but that doesn’t mean each applicant has a one-in-three chance. Success depends on what a student brings to the table.

Generally, nothing carries more weight in admissions than grades (plus strength of the high school curriculum) and ACT/SAT scores. With limited time and resources, those metrics offer a relatively quick way to predict who will succeed. But the measures have drawbacks. Grade inflation has complicated the task of evaluating achievements, and so has the variance in high school grading policies. Standardized test scores correlate with family income; white and Asian-American students fare better than black and Hispanic students do. Also, when colleges talk about predicting “success,” they usually mean first-year grades — a limited definition.

And so, many colleges rely on “holistic” evaluations, allowing colleges to contextualize applicants’ academic records and to identify disadvantaged students who might lack the sparkling credentials of their affluent peers. Did they attend low-performing high schools or well-resourced ones? Did they participate in extracurricular activities? Do they have leadership experience?

What colleges look for sends a powerful message about what matters, not just to admissions officers but in life, and students often respond accordingly.


Applicants to Olin College of Engineering finish a design challenge — to create a space vehicle — before being admitted.

Olin College of Engineering

Dr. Pérez, a first-generation college student who grew up in a low-income family, recently revamped Trinity’s process to better identify promising students, particularly the disadvantaged. While reading applications, its admissions officers now look for evidence of 13 characteristics — including curiosity, empathy, openness to change and ability to overcome adversity — that researchers associate with successful students. These are also qualities that the liberal-arts college values, inside and outside the classroom.

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Trinity’s officers can check as many qualities as apply using a drop-down box labeled “Predictors of Success.” They must note where they saw evidence of each quality in the application. “It can’t be just a hint,” Dr. Pérez said. He recalls a teacher recommendation describing how an applicant had taken a stand on a controversial social issue in class, even though other students vocally disagreed with him. Impressed, Dr. Pérez checked the box for “Comfort in Minority of 1,” a sign, perhaps, that the student would contribute to campus dialogues. Also on the drop-down: “Delayed Gratification” and “Risk Taking.”

While Trinity still values conventional measures, the new model has expanded the staff’s understanding of merit. “We’re trying to give students more credit for these characteristics, especially those who’ve had some challenges,” Dr. Pérez said. The new approach, along with the college’s recent decision to stop requiring ACT/SAT scores, has helped it diversify its classes. Low-income and first-generation students represent 15 percent of this fall’s freshman class, up from 8 percent three years ago.

“I’m trying to increase the tools we have, and get beyond a system that is absolutely antiquated,” Dr. Pérez said. “As the country becomes more diverse, as we learn more about the correlation between standardized test scores and wealth, we have to be a lot more creative in predicting for success in college.”

What most colleges ask for from applicants doesn’t reveal much about the many skills and talents a student might possess. But what if colleges asked for more?

The admissions process at Olin College of Engineering includes a live audition. After completing a traditional application, selected students visit the campus, in Needham, Mass., for an intense two-day tryout. In addition to sitting for interviews, they work in small groups to complete a tabletop design challenge, such as building a tower that can hold a specific weight. On the second day, they are given another task, like designing a campus building. This time, evaluators observe each student, noting how well they communicate with others and adapt on the fly.

The experience is meant to help prospective students understand Olin’s collaborative culture, while giving the college a better glimpse of each applicant before finalizing acceptance. “It’s hard to nail down a student’s mind-set from the traditional elements of the application,” said Emily Roper-Doten, the dean of admission and financial aid. “This allows us to see them in motion, in an educational moment.”

A desire to see what students can do with their hands inspired a recent change at one of the world’s most renowned campuses. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (motto: “Mens et manus,” Latin for “Mind and hand”) now gives applicants the option of submitting a Maker Portfolio to show their “technical creativity.”

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Applicants can send images, a short video and a PDF that shed light on a project they’ve undertaken — clothing they’ve made, apps they’ve designed, cakes they’ve baked, furniture they’ve built, chain mail they’ve woven. M.I.T. also asks students to explain what the project meant to them, as well as how much help they got. A panel of faculty members and alumni reviews the portfolios.

Last year, about 5 percent of applicants submitted a Makers Portfolio. “It gives us a fuller picture of the student,” said Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions and student financial services. “Without this, some applicants might not be able to fully get across how good a fit they are for us.”

M.I.T.’s experiment has sparked discussions among admissions deans, some of whom say they plan to offer similar opportunities for applicants to send evidence of project-based learning. They describe the Makers Portfolio as an intriguing glimpse of how a college might better align its process with its culture and values. The catch: Reviewing all those portfolios takes time, something admissions offices lack. Even a small college like Olin, which welcomed fewer than 100 new students this fall, must scramble to pull off its elaborate evaluations. Larger campuses couldn’t even consider such an approach.

Thorough review has become more challenging over the last decade, with waves of applicants overwhelming big-name colleges, victims of their own popularity. The University of California at Los Angeles received more than 100,000 applications for about 6,000 spots this fall. Stanford got 44,000 for just over 1,700 spots, and M.I.T. juggled more than 20,000 for 1,450 seats.

Most colleges are considering more incremental ways to enhance evaluations. The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, with more than 130 prominent campuses as members, recently established an application platform with a feature called a virtual college locker, a private space where students can upload materials, such as videos and written work, that they could later add to their applications. Among its stated goals: to make admissions more personal.

So far, most of its members aren’t asking applicants to send anything different than before. But that could change. A handful of colleges are planning experiments using alternative ways to measure student potential. One hopes to enable applicants to demonstrate their “emotional intelligence,” or E.Q., to showcase their ability to work with others, according to Annie Reznik, the coalition’s executive director. Another seeks a way for prospective students to display their “fire” for learning.

“We want better inputs,” said Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at Yale. “The inputs we have predict success academically. Now, we have the ability to get to know a student better, from a different type of submission.”

Like many deans, Mr. Quinlan has grown wary of polished personal essays in which applicants describe their achievements. “They feel like they have to show off, because we’re so selective,” he said, “and it’s completely understandable.” Technology, he believes, can help colleges get to know the student beneath the surface of a résumé, to gain a better sense of their passions, the kind of community member the applicant might be.

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Last year, Yale allowed students using the coalition’s application to submit a document, image, audio file or video in response to a prompt (they also had to reflect, in 250 words or less, on their submission). When Justin Aubin heard about that option last fall, he thought, “Cool!”

Justin Aubin Eagle Scout Project – Documentary Video by Marcus Aubin

Mr. Aubin, from Oak Lawn, Ill., was then a high school senior hoping to attend Yale. The following prompt caught his eye: “A community to which you belong and the footprint you have left.” He submitted a short video documenting his Eagle Scout project, for which he oversaw the construction of a monument honoring veterans. Even a well-written essay, he figured, couldn’t capture his experience as well as four minutes of footage, shot by his older brother.

The content of the video impressed Yale’s admissions committee. “People sat up in their chairs,” Mr. Quinlan said. “You could see how he handled his leadership role, and we felt like we got a good sense of him in a way that we didn’t get from recommendations.”

Mr. Aubin is now a freshman at Yale.

Did the video tip the scales? “That was a difference-maker,” Mr. Quinlan said.

Even as colleges consider innovation, it’s worth asking which fixtures of the admissions process, if any, they are willing to discard. Some prevalent practices seem to stand in the way of meaningful change.

Giving an advantage to the sons and daughters of alumni is one such practice. Some colleges admit legacies (and the children of potential donors) at a much greater rate than non-legacies. Legacies make up nearly a third of Harvard’s current freshman class, The Harvard Crimson has reported. Princeton’s class of 2021 is 13 percent legacy, according to the university’s website.

While a handful of prominent institutions, including the University of Georgia and Texas A&M University, stopped considering legacy status more than a decade ago, most colleges seem unlikely to remove that variable from the admissions equation anytime soon. “I don’t think an applicant’s legacy status is a crazy thing to look at, especially in the financial climate some colleges are in,” said Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech, where nearly a fifth of freshmen are legacies. “Colleges have to think about their longevity.”

The benefits of legacies go beyond maintaining good will with alumni who might open their wallets, Mr. Clark said. In his experience, they tend to be enthusiastic students who help foster community on campus, the kind of relationships that help other students feel at home and succeed. “Multigenerational ties to a place add value, creating this passionate, magnetic source of energy,” he said.

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The key, Mr. Clark believes, is not to lower standards, or to enroll so many legacies that other priorities, such as increasing racial and socioeconomic diversity, suffer as a result. “Those two goals aren’t mutually exclusive,” he said.

Other measurements used by selective colleges have nothing to do with a student’s accomplishments or attributes — and everything to do with a college’s agenda.

About one in five institutions allot “considerable importance” to “demonstrated interest,” the degree to which applicants convey their desire to enroll if accepted, according to a survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The strongest expression of demonstrated interest is applying for binding early decision, a policy that favors affluent students who don’t need to compare financial aid offers and one that some colleges use to fill half their seats.

Beyond that, technology has made it easier to track the number of times an applicant engages with a college (by visiting the campus, contacting an admissions officer, responding to an email). This valuable information helps officers gauge who’s most likely to enroll, which can influence who gets admitted in the first place. A higher “yield,” the percentage of accepted students who actually enroll, is widely seen as a measure of status.

The problem is that savvy students who know colleges are watching them can tilt the odds in their favor, said Nancy Leopold, executive director of CollegeTracks, a Maryland nonprofit group that helps low-income and first-generation students get into college: “Demonstrated interest is biased against kids who don’t know the game exists, or who don’t have the time or money to play it.”

What do colleges really cherish? The answer is influenced greatly by the entities they seek to impress. U.S. News & World Report and other college guides, not to mention bond-rating agencies, rely heavily on conventional admissions metrics like ACT/SAT scores and acceptance rates to evaluate institutions. A college president might wish to attract more creative thinkers, but accomplishing that goal won’t help his college’s ranking.

Generally, colleges are risk-averse. Rocking the boat with a newfangled admissions process could hurt their reputations. “The challenge for many admissions offices is to make a change, but not so much change or innovation that you’re risking the position you’re in,” said Ms. Roper-Doten of Olin. Asking students to do more could scare off would-be applicants.

“Colleges seek validation,” said Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit group that has sought to reform college admissions. “Without a real external incentive for colleges to care about broadening their understanding of what makes an applicant promising, they don’t seem likely to change the definition on their own.”

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A recent campaign called “Turning the Tide,” a project of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, is urging admissions deans to rethink the qualities they consider in applicants. In a report signed by representatives of about 200 campuses, colleges are asked to promote ethical character and service to others through the admissions process.

Although some deans say they have no business assessing the character of still-maturing teenagers, the push has prompted a handful of institutions to tweak their applications. The University of North Carolina now emphasizes contributions to others when asking about extracurricular activities. M.I.T. added an essay question asking students to describe how they’ve helped people.

Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at Harvard, who leads the initiative, recommends that colleges define service in ways that might resonate with disadvantaged students. “Many students don’t have opportunities to do community service,” he said. “They’re taking care of their siblings, or they’re working part-time jobs to help their families. Colleges need to say, ‘That matters to us.’ ”

In the end, increasing racial and socioeconomic diversity in higher education is a matter of will. A college can prioritize it or not, said Shaun R. Harper, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education who studies race and student success.

In September, Dr. Harper gave a keynote speech at the annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, in Boston. He urged his audience to think hard about racial inequality and “things you perhaps inadvertently and unknowingly do to support it.”

He cited as examples high school counselors who discourage promising minority students from applying to highly selective colleges; college leaders who say they “just can’t find enough” qualified black applicants even as their athletics coaches comb the nation for black students who excel at sports; admissions officers who recruit at the same high schools year after year, overlooking those full of underrepresented minorities.

As Dr. Harper spoke, many listeners applauded; a few scowled. He concluded his remarks by criticizing the lack of racial diversity among admissions deans themselves. He received a standing ovation.

In a subsequent interview, Dr. Harper elaborated on his concerns. “When the demographics of the profession have not changed, particularly at the senior level,” he said, “I don’t know that we can expect a major change, especially in terms of diversifying the class.”

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Although Dr. Harper believes colleges rely too heavily on ACT/SAT scores, he says that the major barriers arise well before the application process even begins. Colleges, he said, must do more in terms of outreach to encourage underrepresented students to apply.

Dr. Pérez, at Trinity, has similar concerns. Although he is convinced that the selection process can be successfully revamped, he doesn’t think that will solve the No. 1 problem he sees in admissions. “The problem is money,” he said. “If I had more funding, my class would be more diverse. The conversation we’re not having in this country is: How do we fund colleges and universities?”

However the admissions process might evolve, it surely will continue to serve the interests of colleges first and foremost. Even if someone invents a better, more equitable way to gauge applicants’ potential, a college’s many wants and needs wouldn’t change. Deans would still seek to balance their classes by enrolling a diverse mix of majors from many states and countries. Colleges would still need enough oboe players and theater-arts majors.

“What compels institutions to change is deep discontent,” said Marie Bigham, director of college counseling at Isidore Newman School, in New Orleans. “If they’re only making changes on the margins, it indicates that they’re mostly content with the way things are.”

That leads to a big question in an age of widening social inequality. How unhappy are the wealthiest colleges, really, with the status quo? Some of the nation’s most selective institutions enroll more students from the top 1 percent of the income ladder than from the bottom 60 percent. Is that simply because of lack of preparation in the K-12 system? Flaws within the selection process? Or is it evidence, as Dr. Harper suggests, of a systemic lack of will to change those numbers?

Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University, says that it is the high-profile colleges that have the power to redefine the admissions process.

“Unless and until something changes at the top, nothing else is going to change,” he said. “That’s because, at a lot of colleges, people will go to their graves trying to imitate the Ivy League.”

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/01/education/edlife/what-college-admissions-wants.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

This Is How You Pick Up a Phone

She has no idea that she has repeated the things she is about to say a million times today and a million times yesterday. She has no idea that I had surgery, nor can she recall her own granddaughter’s name. She is unaware of most of the past and she drifts in the present. She is lonely. I grow suddenly savage in the face of this horror — a life sentence handed down by a brain bleed. I hurl my anger at the easiest target: my mother, the very victim of this chance horror.

“MOM!” I yell. “YOU ARE NOT BEING REMOVED FROM YOUR HOME! AND WE VISITED TWO DAYS AGO!” (Maybe it was four days, but she won’t remember anyway.) “Mom, you have to believe me and if you don’t I cannot talk anymore! Everything is fine!”

Silence. Then:

“I was only calling to say ‘hi.’”

I feel the dagger of passive aggression, which is the only working weapon in her mental arsenal. My mother continues, having already forgotten that I yelled. (Sometimes she does remember; tonight I luck out.)

“But I’m also frantic about something, do you have a minute?”

“No, Mom, I don’t. I can’t again with this!”

“Why are you yelling?”

I’m yelling because you aren’t my mother, you are a poorly rendered stand-in who cannot help me care for my child, or be a grandmother, or even remember to ask me about my day. I’m yelling because I have talked you off this ledge five times tonight, and I’m yelling because you remind me of everything I fear: aging, sickness, fragility, bad luck, loss, impermanence, you-name-it, if it’s scary, you remind me of it!

I flop on the couch, aware of all my daughter is witnessing. She hears me reprimand my mother, lose my patience, announce that someone I love is an imposition. I have not only failed at Being a Good Person, I have failed at Being a Good Example to My Daughter.

I stew on the couch, defeated.

“Can I talk to Grandma Ellie?”

My 5-year-old reaches for the phone.

Wordlessly, I hand it over.

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“Hi Grandma!”

I hear my mother exclaim through the receiver.

“Sweetheart! How are you? Did you go to school today?”

What witchcraft is this? All she said was “Hi Grandma” and my mother sounds like a person fully alert to the heartbeat of a normal day.

“Yes Grandma, and today was share day and I brought my Wonder Woman bracelets.”

“Can you put it on speaker?” I whisper to my daughter.

She obliges, and out of the phone comes a waterfall of good cheer. My mother tells her how much she loves her and how lovely her voice sounds.


“I hope I’ll see you soon?” My mother makes her plea for a promise of companionship. I hear her voice differently now. I am not tired or angry; I am soft inside, watching my kindergartner handle her fragile grandmother with such deftness.

“Grandma, we are taking you to the carousel this weekend. I’m going on the frog and you can go on the horse next to me.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful darling!” I’m mesmerized by their exchange.

“Tell me, did you go to school today?” She already asked that.

“Yes Grandma, I went to school and we had share day. I brought my Wonder Woman bracelets.”

“You did? How wonderful!”

“Do you want me to sing you a song? I know three songs from ‘Annie.’”

And then my daughter sings.

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The sharp evening breeze sails through the window, and the mess in our apartment settles around me like an old soft quilt. I listen to my daughter crooning to her grandmother, caring for her with exquisite patience. I spend so much time wishing she had a “real” grandmother, wishing she knew my “real” mother. In this moment, I see that she does have a real grandmother, and she does have a real relationship with her. It isn’t the one I had hoped for — the inside of my mother’s brain is as topsy-turvy as our apartment — but my daughter is tidying the surface of her grandmother’s addled mind. To her, this is normal — to care for a loved one is a part of life.

When they hang up, after many kissing noises, I tell my daughter it is bath time. She wildly protests, but I draw the bath anyway. I am still Mommy after all, and she is still 5.

And yet tonight, she taught me how to answer the phone like a grown-up.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/03/well/family/this-is-how-you-pick-up-a-phone.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English

When I first read these lines early this summer in The Paris Review, which published an excerpt, I was floored. I’d never read an “Odyssey” that sounded like this. It had such directness, the lines feeling not as if they were being fed into iambic pentameter because of some strategic decision but because the meter was a natural mode for its speaker. The subtle sewing through of the fittingly wavelike W-words in the first half (“wandered … wrecked … where … worked”) and the stormy S-words that knit together the second half, marrying the waves to the storm in which this man will suffer, made the terse injunctions to the muse that frame this prologue to the poem (“Tell me about …” and “Find the beginning”) seem as if they might actually answer the puzzle posed by Homer’s polytropos and Odysseus’s complicated nature.

Complicated: the brilliance of Wilson’s choice is, in part, its seeming straightforwardness. But no less than that of polytropos, the etymology of “complicated” is revealing. From the Latin verb complicare, it means “to fold together.” No, we don’t think of that root when we call someone complicated, but it’s what we mean: that they’re compound, several things folded into one, difficult to unravel, pull apart, understand.

“It feels,” I told Wilson, “with your choice of ‘complicated,’ that you planted a flag.”

“It is a flag,” she said.

“It says, ‘Guess what?’ — ”

“ ‘ — this is different.’ ”

Although translation might seem a natural step for a scholar preoccupied by the connections between antiquity and later texts, Wilson was dissuaded from pursuing it. “My colleagues told me: ‘You really shouldn’t be doing that kind of thing before tenure. Before tenure you have to write, you know, the right kind of book’ ” — the right kind being one on a subject that your discipline has yet to exhaust. Wilson did write a range of books before tenure, most on canonical texts: her study of suffering and death in literature; a monograph on Socrates. But, not heeding her colleagues’ advice, she began to translate Greek and Roman tragedies. A selection of Seneca’s plays appeared in 2010; four plays by Euripides in 2016. Both projects were outgrowths of her old desire to “spend a little bit longer” with these authors.

I asked Wilson why translation isn’t valued in the academy.

“Because there is no perception that it’s serious intellectually. It’s imagined as a subset of outreach. That you’re going to be communicating with the masses, which is less important than being innovative within your field. And even though I think translation is a way of being innovative within your field, my colleagues don’t see it that way.”


One of Wilson’s copies of the “Odyssey.”

Geordie Wood for The New York Times

One way of talking about Wilson’s translation of the “Odyssey” is to say that it makes a sustained campaign against that species of scholarly shortsightedness: finding equivalents in English that allow the terms she is choosing to do the same work as the original words, even if the English words are not, according to a Greek lexicon, “correct.”

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“What gets us to ‘complicated,’ ” Wilson said, returning to her translation of polytropos, “is both that I think it has some hint of the original ambivalence and ambiguity, such that it’s both ‘Why is he complicated?’ ‘What experiences have formed him?’ which is a very modern kind of question — and hints at ‘There might be a problem with him.’ I wanted to make it a markedly modern term in a way that ‘much turning’ obviously doesn’t feel modern or like English. I wanted it to feel like an idiomatic thing that you might say about somebody: that he is complicated.”

I asked: “What about the commentator who says, ‘It does something that more than modernizes — it subverts the fundamental strangeness of the way Odysseus is characterized.’ I’m sure some classicists are going to say it’s flat out wrong, ‘Interesting, but wrong.’ ”

“You’re quite right,” she replied. “Reviewers will say that.”

How, I asked, would she address such a complaint from someone in her field?

“I struggle with this all the time,” Wilson said. “I struggled with this because there are those classicists. I partly just want to shake them and make them see that all translations are interpretations.” Most of the criticism Wilson expects, she says, will come from “a digging in of the heels: ‘That’s not what it says in the dictionary, and therefore it can’t be right!’ And if you put down anything other than what’s said in the dictionary, then, of course, you have to add a footnote explaining why, which means that pretty much every line has to have a footnote. …” Wilson paused. “That goes to what this translation is aiming to do in terms of an immersive reading experience and conveying a whole narrative. I don’t know what to say to those people, honestly.” Wilson laughed her buoyant laugh. “I need to have a better answer to them, because they will certainly review it, and they will certainly have a loud voice. They just seem to be coming from such a simple and fundamental misunderstanding.”

“Of what?”

“Of what any translation is doing.”

What a translation is doing — and what it should do — has been a source of vigorous debate since there were texts to translate. “I’m not a believer,” Wilson told me, “but I find that there is a sort of religious practice that goes along with translation. I’m trying to serve something.”


Emily Wilson in her Philadelphia home.

Geordie Wood for The New York Times.

Early arguments about translation were over the Old Testament. One tale has it that an Egyptian king of the third-century B.C. wanted a Greek copy of the Pentateuch — the five books of Moses — for the Library of Alexandria. Some 70 Jewish elders said to be “skilled in the Scriptures and in both languages” were sent from Jerusalem. Each worked in a separate room to translate in isolation. When finished, they compared their work. The 70 translations? Identical, “in the very same words and the very same names, from beginning to end,” according to one account. The translation was, literally, faithful: God himself had moved their hands in unison, only one possible translation for his Word. Called “Septuagint” after its 70 translators, this Greek version became a foundational text, both for the early Christian church and for the impossible standard to which all subsequent translations are held: faithfulness. Later Bible translators failed to meet that mystical standard. The Catholic Church took 1,200 years to accept Jerome’s Latin version (“tainted with Judaism,” was the charge, as it relied on Hebrew sources). The first English Bible’s translator, John Wycliffe, was disinterred and his bones were burned for the heresy of translating into English, and his successor, William York Tyndale, was excommunicated, sentenced to death by strangulation and burned at the stake.

Although you can understand, if not condone, how murderous rage at a translator might arise if a believer supposed a sacred text to have been desecrated by a translator’s hand, it is somewhat surprising that similar vehemence can greet translations of secular canonical texts. Perhaps the most famous such expression is in Matthew Arnold’s “On Translating Homer,” his series of lectures in 1860 when he was Oxford professor of poetry. In them, he offered a takedown of existing translations of Homer and then asked “in what faithfulness exists”: “The translator of Homer should above all be penetrated by a sense of four qualities … that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and, finally, that he is eminently noble.”

Most every Homeric translation since has been scrutinized against his quartet of qualities. Wilson is not persuaded.

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“These are not good criteria,” Wilson told me. “I think he was a terrible reader of poetry. It’s not like he ever translated Homer. I think he had a good ‘classics major’ undergraduate kind of Greek, but I think it’s all to do with a particular notion of aesthetics and class, the whole ‘plainness and nobility.’ It’s about noblesse oblige and you’re going to be the kind of gentleman who’s going to have gone to Rugby and that will be the kind of language that we speak: the classy kind of language. And projecting all of that back on to the classics. This is what ‘sweetness and light’ is. It’s describing a boys’ club. I think it’s very interesting that’s still with us. Those are the four? It’s just the boys’ club.”

“I do think that gender matters,” Wilson said later, “and I’m not going to not say it’s something I’m grappling with. I’m trying to take this task and this process of responding to this text and creating this text extremely seriously, with whatever I have, linguistically, sonically, emotionally.”

At the center of each of Homer’s epics is a warrior. In the “Iliad,” it is Achilles, the greatest of the Greeks, a demigod almost invulnerable to death. Although the war is begun over a woman, Helen, stolen from her Greek husband by a Trojan, the “Iliad” is a poem about and presided over by men. Zeus is the poem’s prevailing god, and what men do, or are willing to do, in love and war and in the friendships that arise in war and its losses, are the poem’s preoccupations.

In the “Odyssey,” preoccupations shift, radically. Zeus is replaced by Athena as the dominant god of the tale; the poem begins not with Odysseus but with his wife, Penelope, who has been without him for 20 years, in a kingdom overrun by suitors for her hand, whom the conventions of hospitality ensure she cannot simply expel. The reader doesn’t even see Odysseus until the fifth of the poem’s 24 books, where we learn that he has been living on an island with Calypso, a goddess, for seven years; that, earlier, he was detained by another goddess, Circe, with whom he also shared a bed; that the Sirens, as he navigates, call to him, desiring him; that a young princess falls in love with him; that, on all sides, women are temptresses, and whereas he submits, we are to understand that Penelope, alone, assailed, remains faithful.

“In the second-wave feminist scholarship in classics,” Wilson told me, “people were very keen to try to read Penelope as, ‘Let’s find Penelope’s voice in the “Odyssey,” and let’s celebrate her, because look, here she is being the hero in an epic in ways we can somehow unpack.’ I find that’s a little simplistic. What happens to all the unelite women?”

In the episode that Wilson calls “one of the most horrible and haunting of the whole poem,” Odysseus returns home to find that his palace has been overrun by suitors for his wife’s hand. Though she has resisted them, the women in her palace have not. Odysseus, after slaying the suitors, tells his son, Telemachus, to kill the women. It is an interesting injunction from Odysseus, who himself, during his 10 years of wandering, was serially unfaithful. In Robert Fagles’s much-praised translation of the poem, Telemachus says, before he executes the palace women on his father’s command: “No clean death for the likes of them, by god!/Not from me — they showered abuse on my head, my mother’s too!/You sluts — the suitors’ whores!”

But Wilson, in her introduction, reminds us that these palace women — “maidservants” has often been put forward as a “correct” translation of the Greek δμωαι, dmoai, which Wilson calls “an entirely misleading and also not at all literal translation,” the root of the Greek meaning “to overpower, to tame, to subdue” — weren’t free. Rather, they were slaves, and if women, only barely. Young female slaves in a palace would have had little agency to resist the demands of powerful men. Where Fagles wrote “whores” and “the likes of them” — and Lattimore “the creatures” — the original Greek, Wilson explained, is just a feminine definite article meaning “female ones.” To call them “whores” and “creatures” reflects, for Wilson, “a misogynistic agenda”: their translators’ interpretation of how these females would be defined. Here is how Wilson renders their undoing:

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/magazine/the-first-woman-to-translate-the-odyssey-into-english.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Buckle Up a Helmet to Save a Life

But a few weeks ago I learned firsthand how foolish it was to worry more about my hair than my head. Luckily, my helmet was securely in place when, for reasons unknown, I fell forward over the handlebars while riding slowly uphill a few houses from home. Although I suffered a mild concussion and have no memory of the accident (I also sustained a nasty cut on my chin, badly bruised ribs and a scraped knee), my helmet prevented a serious brain or facial injury.

I will never again mount a bicycle without the helmet on my head where it belongs, not in my backpack, bike basket or, worse, at home.

There are laws requiring young cyclists to wear helmets in 21 states and Washington, D.C., and at least 200 localities, but very few cover adult riders. A common sight in my neighborhood: Fathers riding helmetless with their helmeted child on a bike seat behind them.

There are many reasons besides helmet hair that keep people from wearing helmets. One of the most frequent excuses: “I’m only going to the store (or the gym).” Yet, as with car accidents, the majority of bike accidents happen close to home, as mine did, and not necessarily in traffic or at high speeds. Even low-speed falls on a bike trail can scramble brains.

“A very low-speed fall can be just as dangerous as a fall at higher speeds,” said Randy Swart, director of the consumer-funded Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. “All it takes is gravity – the distance to the ground – to cause a head injury.”

Teenagers seem especially resistant to wearing helmets, yet with their still-developing brains they probably incur the greatest risks and have the most to lose from a head injury. “There’s often a rebellion aspect among teens,” Mr. Swart said. “They say, ‘All through childhood, my parents forced me to be safe. Now I want to make my own decisions about risk.’” College students and young adults often also think similarly, he said.

I worry too about younger children, even those whose parents insist that they wear a helmet when riding a scooter, tricycle or bicycle. I see many such riders with parents in tow in my Brooklyn neighborhood, and in at least half the cases I’ve observed, the helmet is too big or is not on correctly and likely to provide little protection in a serious fall or crash.

The most common error is positioning: If the helmet sits too far back on the child’s (or adult’s) head, it will not protect the most vulnerable part of the brain in a hard fall, especially if the skull fractures. When the straps are too loose (or, as I’ve often seen even among adults, the chin strap is not clasped), the helmet will fly off in a fall and offer no protection whatsoever.

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The helmet should sit on the head straight, front to back, and not move when you shake your head. The straps extending from the helmet to the chin strap should each form a V right under the ears.

“A bike helmet is a like a seatbelt – it should feel snug, not tight, when you first put it on, but when you start riding, you should be able to forget all about it,” Mr. Swart said.

Another excuse I’ve heard, perhaps from those familiar with concussions among football players, is that helmets do not prevent concussions. And that is true. You don’t even have to actually hit your head to get a concussion. A concussion results when the gel-like brain sloshes violently or slams into the unyielding bony skull, and this can happen with almost any significant impact to the head. What the helmet can do is reduce the energy of the impact and the likelihood of a skull fracture or brain bleed.

If cost is a deterrent, Mr. Swart gleefully noted that many inexpensive helmets perform just as well as expensive ones. His organization had three “extremely cheap” helmets ($15 to $20 range) tested along with three “very expensive” ones ($150 and above) and, he said, “their performance level was almost identical.”

So if you’re not overly concerned about fashion or brand names, you can feel confident purchasing inexpensive helmets for every rider in the family at a chain or big-box store, he said. They all must meet the standards set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

After determining a proper fit for head size and comfort within your price range, my advice is to select a helmet that is brightly colored; one of mine is red-orange and the other lime-yellow, the same as the colors of the jackets and backpacks I wear with them.

Now, don that helmet, enjoy the ride and come home safe and sound.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/23/well/buckle-up-a-helmet-to-save-a-life.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Outsmarting Our Primitive Responses to Fear

Dr. Hariri studies the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure that has been called the seat of fear (there’s one in each hemisphere of the brain). But it’s really the seat of anticipation. The amygdala primes you to react — your pulse quickens, your muscles tense and your pupils dilate — even before other parts of your brain can figure out if you need to be scared or not. We are particularly sensitive to anything new, other people’s fearful facial expressions, or anything that resembles something that harmed us in the past.

It’s why you jump when you sense rustling in the bushes before realizing it’s just your neighbor’s cat. That reflex can save your life in certain circumstances such as leaping out of the way of an oncoming car. Trouble starts when you can’t tamp down your amygdala’s response, which makes you obsess and perhaps do counterproductive things when faced with concerning but not life-threatening events like the Equifax hack or a vulnerable social situation like asking someone out on a date.

Consciously activating the more measured, analytical part of your brain is the key to controlling runaway fear and anxiety.

But it’s not so easy in an era when social media and cable news make us aware of every actual or potential disaster occurring anywhere in the world (and in a repeating loop). It’s even more difficult if you have lots of stress or instability at home or work.

To your primitive mind, it’s as if there are lions and tigers lurking around every corner.

The result is often a juiced-up amygdala more apt to flip you into fight, flight or freeze mode in response to even the slightest concern, and keep you there, rather than return you to a state of calm in the absence of clear and present danger.

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Remaining in this state of wary hypervigilance can contribute to issues like social anxiety, hypochondria, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia and all manner of phobias. It also plays a role in racial and religious intolerance because fearful people are more inclined to cling to the familiar and denigrate the unfamiliar. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, roughly 18 percent of the United States population is afflicted with persistent, outsized fear responses to seemingly ordinary stimuli.

Arresting an overactive amygdala requires first realizing and then admitting you’re feeling uneasy and scared.

“Our culture valorizes strength and power and showing fear is considered weakness,” said Leon Hoffman, co-director of the Pacella Research Center at the New York Psychoanalytic Society & Institute in Manhattan. “But you are actually stronger if you can acknowledge fear.”

That’s how it was for Sean Tucker, a pilot who for 40 years has performed heart-stopping aerobatic stunts at air shows despite an almost paralyzing fear of crashing.

2014 Planes of Fame Air Show Video by spencerhughes2255

“I never told anyone how scared I was when I started flying,” Mr. Tucker said. “But what I learned was that fear turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy and if you have the courage to admit it, you’ll be able to focus and prepare and rise above it.”

If you can sense and appreciate your fear — be it of flying, illness or social rejection — as merely your amygdala’s request for more information rather than a signal of impending doom, then you are on your way to calming down and engaging more conscious, logic-dominated parts of your brain. At that point, you can assess the rationality of your fear and take steps to deal with it.

“The more you try to suppress fear, either by ignoring it or doing something else to displace it, the more you will actually experience it,” said Kristy Dalrymple, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

Dr. Dalrymple is a proponent of acceptance and commitment therapy for managing fear, which has recently been gaining clinical validation. It encourages people not only to accept that they are feeling fearful and examine the causes but also to think about their values and how committing to overcoming their fears would be consistent with who they want to be. The approach forces higher-order thinking, which theoretically disables or diminishes the amygdala response.

The classical pianist Emanuel Ax, whose career demands that he perform in front of thousands of people, has long struggled with stage fright. He didn’t go to a psychotherapist, but it seems that the strategies of acceptance and commitment are how he manages his fear.

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“I’m still scared, but I’ve learned to accept that I’m going to be nervous,” Mr. Ax said. “Aside from being what I love to do, playing the piano is my employment and gives people pleasure. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I gave in.”

Psychologists and neuroscientists are also finding that the amygdala is less apt to freak out if you are reminded that you are loved or could be loved. For example, seeing images of people with frightened expressions is usually a huge trigger for the amygdala, but that response is greatly diminished when subjects are first shown pictures of people being cared for or hugged.

Just as fear can be contagious, so can courage, caring and calm.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/26/well/live/fear-anxiety-therapy.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Control and Fear: What Mass Killings and Domestic Violence Have in Common


Ex-Wife of Orlando Suspect Describes Marriage

Sitora Yusufiy, the ex-wife of Orlando shooting suspect Omar Mateen, spoke on Sunday outside of her home in Boulder, Colo.

By KMGH on Publish Date June 14, 2016.

Photo by Autumn Parry/Daily Camera , via Associated Press.

Watch in Times Video »

One of the first things we learned about Omar Mateen, the gunman in the nightclub massacre in Orlando, Fla., was that his ex-wife said he had beaten her severely until she left him in 2009.

If it sounds familiar that a gunman in a mass shooting would have a history of domestic violence, it should.

In February, Cedric Ford shot 17 people at his Kansas workplace, killing three, only 90 minutes after being served with a restraining order sought by his ex-girlfriend, who said he had abused her. And Man Haron Monis, who holed up with hostages for 17 hours in a cafe in Sydney, Australia, in 2014, an episode that left two people dead and four wounded, had terrorized his ex-wife. He had threatened to harm her if she left him, and was eventually charged with organizing her murder.

When Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group, analyzed F.B.I. data on mass shootings from 2009 to 2015, it found that 57 percent of the cases included a spouse, former spouse or other family member among the victims — and that 16 percent of the attackers had previously been charged with domestic violence.

Social scientists have not settled on an explanation for this correlation, but their research reveals striking parallels between the factors that drive the two phenomena.

There are, of course, a tangle of factors behind every murder, especially terrorism inspired by foreign groups. But research on domestic violence hints at a question that often arises from seemingly inexplicable events like Mr. Mateen’s massacre of 49 people at an Orlando nightclub — what drives individuals to commit such mass attacks? — and sheds light on the psychology of violence.

‘Intimate Terrorism’

Domestic violence often follows a pattern in which an abuser seeks to control every aspect of a victim’s life. The scope and intent of this are hinted at in one name experts use for it: “intimate terrorism.”

“The perpetrator is engaging in a general pattern of control over the victim — her finances, her social contacts, the clothes she wears,” said Deborah Epstein, who runs Georgetown University Law Center’s domestic violence clinic. Violence is the perpetrator’s means of enforcing that control — and of punishing any attempts to break it.

Mr. Mateen’s brief marriage to Sitora Yusufiy seems to fit this model. She has said that he forced her to hand over her paychecks to him, forbade her to leave the house except to go to work, and prevented her from contacting her parents. Even small perceived infractions were met with a violent response.

“He would just come home and start beating me up because the laundry wasn’t finished or something like that,” Ms. Yusufiy told The Washington Post.


Sitora Yusufiy, the ex-wife of the gunman in the nightclub massacre in Orlando, Fla., and her fiancé, Marcio Dias, at their home outside Boulder, Colo., on Sunday.

Autumn Parry/Daily Camera, via Associated Press

Take this dynamic of coercive violence to its most horrible extreme, and it looks an awful lot like how the Islamic State treats women in its self-proclaimed caliphate. As my Times colleague Rukmini Callimachi has reported, the group has created a vast infrastructure of rape and slavery in which women are held captive and bought and sold by its fighters. It is intimate violence on an industrial scale.

Domestic violence, experts say, is also often a way for male abusers to impose their view of “traditional” gender roles. Ms. Epstein said such “traditions” in the United States were rooted in the idea of men having control over women.

“That’s our culture: It’s all about men controlling women in their lives,” she said. “Intimate terrorism stems from that desire to control.”

This bears striking similarities to how the Islamic State presents its treatment of women as a recruiting tool, promising young men abroad — particularly in Europe — that its caliphate will allow them to restore “traditional” gender norms of male dominance. This dominance is exercised in part through violence including systematic rape and the threat of rape. The group often presents this violence as a means to measure and protect men’s honor.

It seems natural, then, that the Islamic State might appeal to men who desire that sort of control over the women in their lives, separate from any ideological draw — the kind of men who might have domestic violence in their past.

Nimmi Gowrinathan, a visiting professor at the City College of New York who studies women’s roles in insurgent and terrorist conflicts, said that restrictive norms about gender and sexuality could be a “pull” factor for terrorist organizations — but that people who are drawn to them are also often “pushed” by their own pre-existing attitudes or desires.

Personal and Global Grievances

Terrorist attacks and mass shootings garner attention and frighten the public much more than episodes of domestic violence. But domestic violence has a much higher death toll in the United States.

According to the Violence Policy Center, 895 women in the United States were murdered by their current or former intimate partners in 2013 (and this does not include those killed amid mass shootings). That single-year tally is more than nine times the 92 people the New American Foundation has counted as killed in jihadist attacks on American soil in the past decade.

But there are striking parallels between the intimate terrorism of domestic violence and the mass terrorism perpetrated by lone-wolf attackers like Mr. Mateen seems to have been. Both, at their most basic level, are attempts to provoke fear and assert control.

Domestic violence, experts say, often occurs when an abuser concludes that violence is the best tool to solve his or her grievances. That might mean a husband who perceives his wife’s failure to do the laundry as a challenge to his rightful authority, leading him to try to reimpose his will through violence.

Clark McCauley, a professor at Bryn Mawr College who studies the psychology of mass violence and terrorism, said he was not aware of research finding a causal relationship between domestic violence and terrorism. But he has found that a characteristic common to mass killers is a sense of grievance: a belief that someone, somewhere, had wronged them in a way that merited a violent response.


Omar Mateen, who fatally shot dozens of people at an Orlando nightclub early Sunday.

via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

That grievance could be personal, or it could be political — a sense that the perpetrator needed to act in the name of a larger group.

Paul Gill, a senior lecturer at University College London who studies the behavior of lone-actor terrorists, said that violence was, in a sense, a learned psychological skill: “Having a history of violence might help neutralize the natural barriers to committing violence.”

From that perspective, domestic violence can be seen as a psychological training ground for someone like Mr. Mateen to commit a mass attack.

Gender Norms, Gender Panic

A domestic abuser’s desire to impose, by force, supposed traditional gender roles also sometimes includes sexuality. Such abusers, experts say, may see homosexuality as a threat to their masculinity.

“There is an idea that what it means to be masculine is to be vigilant of your sexuality, and hypervigilant towards keeping anyone from perceiving you as gay,” said Gillian Chadwick, a fellow at Georgetown University Law Center.

Intimate terrorism, in that sense, rests on a broader spectrum of violence meant to preserve the traditional dominance of heterosexual men, and coerce those who are perceived as threatening that order. That spectrum, at the extreme end, includes mass shootings.

This connection makes it somewhat easier to understand an apparent contradiction: that Mr. Mateen targeted a gay nightclub and that his father and ex-wife have said he had a history of homophobic remarks, but that he also had been seen visiting Pulse, the gay nightclub he targeted, and, according to some news reports, used a gay dating app.

Could Mr. Mateen have been trying to use violence to reimpose rules about gender and sexuality that he himself was troubled about violating? If so, he would not be the first.

Ms. Chadwick said there was an entire category of legal argument, called “gay panic” and “trans panic” claims, in which defendants say that they turned to violence because they were so upset about being perceived as gay, or about discovering they were attracted to a transgender person.

Ms. Gowrinathan, who studies gender and terrorism, warned against making assumptions based on Mr. Mateen’s having been a Muslim raised by Afghan immigrants to the United States, saying that domestic violence and homophobia are prevalent across cultures.

“He is the outcome of the United States’ political culture, not the Islamic State’s,” she said.

Ms. Epstein of Georgetown agreed. “People in the U.S. throw acid in the faces of their wives who have betrayed them,” she said. “Anything you could find overseas happens here, too.”

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/16/world/americas/control-and-fear-what-mass-killings-and-domestic-violence-have-in-common.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Bars Are Putting On the Ritz With an Old Drink: The Tuxedo

One, generally believed to be the original Tuxedo, is made with gin, sherry and orange bitters. It’s elegant and bone dry. (You can find it at the Bar at the Grill, Somerset and Vol. 39.)

The other, typically referred to as Tuxedo No. 2, contains gin, vermouth, maraschino liqueur and absinthe. It is also elegant, but lightly luscious. (You can find that one at Flora Bar, the Bar Room in the Beekman and the Douglas Room.)

Jessica Lambert, the head bartender at Vol. 39, is a fan of sherry and the original Tuxedo, but does not bear a grudge against the competing drink. “I think there’s room for both to exist,” she said.

One thing all the new Tuxedos seem to have in common is their luxe surroundings. “The hotel bar seems to be suitable to the old classics,” said Mo Hodges, the head bartender and an owner of the Douglas Room, where the Tuxedo is treated as the house martini. “There’s something about being in older rooms that matches up with the Tuxedo. You want to be drinking a drink that people drank there before you.”

Lee Zaremba, the beverage director at Somerset, offers an even simpler reason the Tuxedo often gets a fancy home. “It sounds like a classy cocktail,” he said.

It’s only fitting, then, that when Clover Club, the Brooklyn cocktail bar, recently decided to put a Tuxedo on its menu, the drink was listed in a section titled “The Reserve,” classic drinks rendered with rarefied spirits. The drink in question, a sherry-based Tuxedo, is made with Monkey 47, a complex, pricey German gin that Tom Macy, the head bartender and an owner, had been wanting to use.

“To do a martini seemed a little pedestrian, a little obvious,” Mr. Macy said. The natural solution: Pull that Tux out of the closet.

Recipes: Tuxedo | Tuxedo No. 2

Follow NYT Food on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. Get regular updates from NYT Cooking, with recipe suggestions, cooking tips and shopping advice.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/30/dining/drinks/tuxedo-cocktail-recipes.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Did the World Get Aung San Suu Kyi Wrong?

Some of that is simply politics. But Ms. Lupton believes that those simplistic judgments are rooted in a quirk of psychology that makes them hard to avoid, and harder still to alter once they take hold.

“In political psychology there’s this notion of confirmation bias: that you have a predetermined belief about either an outcome or in this case whether a person is good or bad,” she said. That bias leads people to subconsciously select information that reinforces those beliefs — and to ignore facts that are inconsistent with it.

That helps explain how Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s champions in the West seemed to overlook signs that she might not be a paragon of liberal democratic values after all.

In a 2013 interview with the BBC, for instance, she brusquely dismissed questions about rising violence against the Rohingya, saying that Buddhists had also been displaced from their homes and that there was fear “on both sides.” Asked why the violence had overwhelmingly affected Muslims, she deflected, saying that Buddhists lived in fear of “global Muslim power.”

Though such episodes mounted during her rise, they conflicted with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s saintly image, and so went largely unnoticed. Western leaders continued to embrace her, building her legitimacy as they pressured the transitional government to hold elections that were widely expected to elevate her to power.

“Confirmation bias is so powerful that we can ignore information that conflicts, and don’t even notice we’re doing it,” Ms. Lupton said.

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That can feed a much more significant political bias, experts say, toward believing that a political system will take on the characteristics of its leader. In fact, the truth is often the opposite.

Together, those biases make it easy to conclude that if heroic individuals could just win power, that would be enough to bring democracy and freedom.

“We’re always in search of the leader that we can rely on to be our partner so that we can just kind of sign off on that person and go back to worrying about other things,” said Elizabeth Saunders, a George Washington University political scientist who studies American foreign policy.


Former President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan in Kabul in 2016. The United States once championed him as the democratic successor to the Taliban’s oppressive regime.

Adam Ferguson for The New York Times
A Long Line of Would-Be Saviors

The simple story of a crusading leader who will transform a nation rarely works out that way.

The United States once championed the Afghan leader Hamid Karzai as the democratic successor to the Taliban’s oppressive regime. But Washington was disappointed to find that Mr. Karzai, rather than rising above the problems of corruption and cronyism that had beset Afghanistan, established an inner circle that embodied them.

“If you hold up a leader as a paragon of virtue, you may aid in consolidating their power, which can have all kinds of unintended consequences,” Ms. Saunders said.

In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame was hailed as his country’s savior when he took office, with Western support, after the 1994 genocide. But despite successes in reducing poverty, he has proved to be an authoritarian leader. Opposition politicians often end up in prison, in exile or dead. Human Rights Watch has documented widespread military detention and torture.

And it was easy to support the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement when it was a rebel group fighting Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the Sudanese leader currently under indictment for genocide in Darfur. But after the group’s officers and allies took power in the newly independent South Sudan, they helped plunge the country into civil war.

It is not only Western leaders who make such misjudgments. In the 1960s and ’70s, activists worldwide cheered the rise of African independence leaders like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, many of whom later hardened into dictators.

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There are exceptions, such as Nelson Mandela, the first post-apartheid president of South Africa. But the Mandelas are so uncommon, and their successes rely on so many factors clicking into place, that they are still marveled over as wondrous mysteries, including among frustrated activists in Myanmar.


Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi at the White House in 2016.

Al Drago/The New York Times
‘Features of a Dictator’

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is not Mr. Kagame or Mr. Mugabe, but after less than 20 months in office she is showing hints of the traits that define such leaders.

Upon winning power, she quickly sidelined many of the activists and civil society groups that had aided her rise. “She is only listening to those close to her,” said U Yan Myo Thein, an activist with the pro-democracy 88 Generation group and a former political prisoner, characterizing her inner circle as a “personality cult.”

“This is one of the features of a dictator,” he said.

As international plaudits for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi continued to mount, some in Myanmar saw growing signs that she was consolidating power and suppressing critics.

“Though they claim themselves as an icon of democracy, they want to centralize and control everything,” Kyaw Thu, who leads the prominent civil society group Paung-Ku, said of the elected government. He added, “Anyone not supporting their agenda is the enemy.”

Dozens have been charged under a law that restricts criticism of the government, an echo of the imprisonment of dissidents under military rule.

Aaron Connelly, an analyst at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia, said such measures “have characterized N.L.D. rule in Myanmar,” referring to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party.

Even beyond her stance on the Rohingya, he said, “Aung San Suu Kyi has not been a particularly liberal leader.”


A demonstration this month in Yangon in support of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s handling of the Rohingya crisis.

Adam Dean for The New York Times
A Lesson to Learn?

Though senior policymakers seem confident in their habits, younger voices are beginning to question whether the international community, after so many such disappointments, might have something to learn.

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“This pattern is far too frequent to be ignored,” Tim Hirschel-Burns, a Peace Corps officer in Benin, wrote on his personal blog.

Perhaps the underlying model, of reforming a troubled country by installing a promising leader, might have the problem backward, he argued. Perhaps change needs to come bottom-up, even if this is harder and messier and takes longer.

“People in these countries, just as we are, are largely products of their environments,” he wrote.

Treating Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi as somehow above Myanmar’s problems allowed the world to see only her “moral righteousness and bravery rather than the political force she represented,” he added.

Even leaders who say all the right things and show good intentions tend to reflect the systems through which they rise. If those systems remain broken, it is fair to blame leaders for their mistakes, but unrealistic to expect a different outcome.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, after all, may be enacting a version of democratic rule that is in line with what many of Myanmar’s citizens demand.

A 2015 survey by Asia Barometer found that most respondents in the country opposed checks on executive power, believed religious authorities should have a role in lawmaking and said citizenship should be tied to religion. Support for a strong-handed ruler was high and support for full rights for minorities was low.

“People want democracy in the sense of being rid of dictatorship and having a leader that’s popularly elected,” said Thant Myint-U, a historian and former United Nations official. “But that’s very different from accepting the whole panoply of liberal values, especially when it comes to issues of race, ethnicity or gender equality.”

It is worth asking how much of the Western anger now directed at Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, including calls to revoke her Nobel Peace Prize, is partly buyers’ remorse from supporters who regret their own role in transforming her into such a powerful symbol.

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Andrew Selth, a professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, wrote in a recent article, “If Suu Kyi had so far to fall, it is because the international community raised her so high.”

Correction: November 1, 2017

Earlier versions of this article incorrectly listed the year of the Rwandan genocide. It was in 1994, not 2004.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/31/world/asia/aung-san-suu-kyi-myanmar.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

A Post-Obama Democratic Party in Search of Itself

Pelosi eventually acquiesced and rescheduled the election for Nov. 30. In the end, her only opponent was Tim Ryan, a young congressman and former high school quarterback star from Ohio’s 13th District, the ailing industrial region surrounding Youngstown and Akron. Ryan offered a splash-of-cold-water speech just before the vote: “We got wiped out,” he said, according to a recording of his remarks. “We’re toxic in the Midwest, and we’re toxic in the South.”

Pelosi won easily, but fully a third of the Democratic caucus voted against their leader, and Ryan’s insurrection seemed to have left a mark: After the election, three well-liked and nonrebellious members — Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Hakeem Jeffries of New York and David Cicilline of Rhode Island — were chosen by the caucus to help manage the rebranding of the party. The three of them spent the first half of 2017 dutifully interviewing nearly every member of the caucus and conducting more than a dozen listening sessions with authors, pollsters and former Obama cabinet secretaries. They hosted a dinner at which the party’s various factions — the Progressive Caucus, the Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, the conservative Blue Dogs and the New Democrats, among others — mingled as if meeting for the first time.

In late July, Pelosi, Bustos, Jeffries and Cicilline stood on a stage with six other Democrats under a wiltingly hot summer sky in the city park of Berryville, Va. — a town of 4,306 residents in a purple district within easy driving distance of Washington — and unveiled their new agenda, titled “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future.” The phrase, which had been poll-tested by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was an intentional echo of F.D.R.’s New Deal — and, less intentionally, of a Papa John’s pizza slogan. But its biggest debt was to the author of “The Art of the Deal,” and to his crimson-jowled populism.

“A Better Deal” called for retraining in America’s fading manufacturing sector, renegotiating trade deals, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and fighting the corporate consolidation that had affected the prices of everything from eyeglasses to beer. None of the 10 speakers invoked President Barack Obama. In fact, one of the key provisions in “A Better Deal” — renegotiating drug prices for Medicare recipients — was an implicit rebuke of the former president, who had agreed with the pharmaceutical industry to freeze Medicare drug prices in exchange for its support of the Affordable Care Act.

But even before the rollout, Pelosi diminished the substance of “A Better Deal” in an interview with The Washington Post, clarifying that it was not “a course correction, but it’s a presentation correction.” A Quinnipiac poll in August found that only 33 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of independents had a favorable opinion of the new Democratic agenda. The self-consciousness of the rebranding, one congressman mused to me at the time, “seems like what you would do in a different era.”

There was a stiff-jointedness to the whole spectacle, a sense of the Democrats’ trying to regain the use of muscles they had let atrophy over the previous eight years. Obama, after all, used to make this sort of thing look easy. Conflating the American story with his own — “This is who we are” — the president conveyed, even in policy irresolution, an unshakable sense of his and America’s place in the world. “I love the guy, I miss him,” Scott Peters said of Obama. “But organizationally, the party is in disarray. We’re at the lowest level of elected officeholders since Hoover. We got a bit lazy and found ourselves relying on Barack Obama’s charisma, and it left us in bad shape.”

Barring seismic developments, the G.O.P. is still likely to control both the White House and the Senate until at least January 2021. But nine months into Trump’s presidency, the chances of the Democrats’ retaking the House are much better. Multiple polls in recent months have shown generic Democratic candidates beating generic Republicans by as many as 15 points — a spread that, in past elections, correlated with winning more than enough seats for the Democrats to gain a House majority next year. And if they do, the consequences will be enormous. A Democrat-controlled House in 2019 would very likely derail the Republican legislative agenda. It could also conceivably set the stage for impeachment proceedings against the president — a move that many Democrats have openly proposed for months now.

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But the Democrats’ path back from the wilderness is not a short one. No president since Ronald Reagan has won the presidency as convincingly, twice over, as Obama did — but those victories papered over an extraordinary decline in his party that became suddenly unignorable on Nov. 9, 2016. The Democratic National Committee today is an understaffed, demoralized bureaucracy. It has raised less than half of what its Republican counterpart has taken in so far this year. (Other party organizations — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — are faring better.)

Democratic presidents have generally been less than attentive to the financial and electoral health of their party, during and after their presidencies. The Northwestern political-science professor Daniel J. Galvin writes in his 2010 book, “Presidential Party Building,” that since John F. Kennedy, each of them “neglected, exploited or undercut his party’s organizational capacities.” Galvin found that this maltreatment was because such presidents had operated with “deep and durable majorities” in Congress. After the Democrats lost theirs in 1994, President Bill Clinton awakened to the virtues of party-building. Galvin predicted that Obama would most likely have sufficient reason to do the same.

Instead, Obama was every bit as indifferent as his predecessors. After he took office, his campaign’s formidable grass-roots organization, rechristened Organizing for America, became what some party leaders complained was a “shadow organization” that drained resources from the D.N.C. while championing the president rather than the Democratic Party as a whole. The president did not have anywhere near the kind of close relationship with the last D.N.C. chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, that George W. Bush had with the Republican National Committee chairmen Ed Gillespie and Ken Mehlman.

In 2012, Obama’s campaign chose not to contribute any money to the D.S.C.C. during that cycle — and then, emerging from its victory that year with a $20 million debt, the campaign promptly offloaded it onto the D.N.C. In early 2014, Obama assured Senate Democrats that keeping the Senate majority was his “No. 1 priority.” Months passed without any further action. Finally, two months before the midterms, Obama informed Harry Reid by phone that he was authorizing a $5 million transfer of D.N.C. funds to Senate election efforts. Reid tersely replied, “It shouldn’t have been this hard.”

Few of the Obama campaigns’ innovations have meaningfully outlasted his presidency. Their once-pioneering digital-organizing operation, for example, went largely to ground in 2016, while the party failed to fully grasp even the basics, like the usefulness of digital advertising. “What I can tell you,” says Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, who oversaw an analysis of the party’s shortcomings in the last election cycle, “is that our candidates and their staff told us that the Republicans did much better digitally than we did. And they spent more than us on digital.” (Teddy Goff, Obama’s former digital director, says: “I sincerely wish the technology built in the two Obama campaigns had been put to better use for 2016 and races down the ballot.”)

State Democratic Party leaders complain about O.F.A. — rebranded again recently as Organizing for Action — hoarding campaign resources to little end. And Priorities USA, the extravagantly funded super PAC that was started to support Obama’s 2012 campaign, never built the kind of entrenched ground-level presence maintained by its analogues on the right. In contrast, Americans for Prosperity, the conservative network financed by David and Charles Koch, spent the Obama years establishing a network of more than three million activists in 36 states and mobilizing them to protest against Obamacare, environmental regulations and tax increases — becoming what the group’s president, Tim Phillips, described to me as “a state-based long-game organization that would always be there.” The current chairman of Priorities USA, Guy Cecil, acknowledges the disparity: “Most of our activities, most of our structures, are built around individual fights, or individual candidates, or individual organizations, and I think that’s put us at a disadvantage.”

Organizational and technological lapses do not fully account for the Democratic Party’s travails. “All that stuff is like the field-goal team,” the Obama strategist David Axelrod told me. “None of it will help you if you haven’t already moved 80 yards down the field. Being technologically proficient wouldn’t have saved Obama if he didn’t also have a consistent, compelling message.”

But that message had grown threadbare by 2016. No longer was it sufficient to campaign on hope and change, or even on the president’s successful efforts in 2009 to stave off a deep recession. The uneven economic recovery raised questions about the party’s obliviousness to the impunity of Wall Street and the gap between the megawealthy and everyone else. Hakeem Jeffries, the New York congressman who was an author of “A Better Deal,” admits, “We developed a blind spot for the economic challenges that still remained unmet.”

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By the end of Obama’s presidency, the Democratic Party had lost nearly a thousand seats in state legislatures across America. It had forfeited its majority in both the House and the Senate. A mere 16 of the nation’s 50 governors were Democrats — and that number dwindled to 15 in August, when Jim Justice of West Virginia announced with a grinning Donald Trump at his side that he, too, had decided to become a Republican.


Clockwise from top left: The congressional candidates Randy Bryce, Kelly Mazeski, Jared Golden, Dave Min, Boyd Melson and Matt Longjohn.

Illustration by Matt Dorfman. All photographs from candidates’ campaigns.

A few days after the election, Ian Russell quit his job as the deputy executive director of the D.C.C.C. and cashed in his frequent-flier miles on a trip to Ireland. He watched Trump’s swearing-in on his phone in a Dublin pub over a pint of Guinness, and then a few more. The following morning, he threw his bags in a rental car and began a sort of weeklong post-traumatic odyssey, rambling westward to the coast.

Russell, now 33, had spent the past six years at the D.C.C.C. trying to help the Democrats regain the House majority that they lost to the Republicans in the 2010 midterm election. During every election cycle, political journalists and donors would file into one of the drab conference rooms inside the D.N.C. headquarters near the Capitol and watch as D.C.C.C. officials like Russell unveiled maps and polling data in support of the claim that this election cycle — unlike the last one — was going to break for the Democrats. Each time, Russell maybe half-believed it.

But election night left him reeling. It wasn’t just that Trump had upset Clinton — including in Russell’s home state, Michigan — or that the Democrats emerged 24 seats short of a House majority. What gnawed at him was a fear that Trump might actually win over Democratic voters more lastingly. Benton Harbor, a few miles down the road from Russell’s hometown in the western part of the state, lost its last Whirlpool manufacturing facility years ago. The childhood friends of his who remained in the area had renounced the Democrats and were now Trump voters. “Trump could transform American politics,” he remembers thinking at the time. “He could truly scramble things.”

But Russell’s fears of a unifying, postpartisan pragmatist in chief swiftly proved unjustified. Rather than focusing on jobs and infrastructure projects, Trump immediately set in motion an attempt to repeal Obamacare and ordered a travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, which was met with demonstrations at airports across the country. On Jan. 30, the nonpartisan Hill analyst Stuart Rothenberg published a column headlined “Trump’s Fast Start Likely Puts the House in Play in 2018.” Rothenberg reasoned that overly aggressive new presidents tended to be judged harshly by the electorate in the middle of their first term. “The House map favors Republicans, but the midterm dynamic could well prove more powerful,” he wrote, listing 20 Republican seats — out of 24 the Democrats would need to flip the House — that, if typical midterm election patterns held, would most likely be imperiled. “Nothing is yet guaranteed, but don’t be surprised if the House is up for grabs in the fall of 2018.”

Late on his last evening in Ireland, Russell was drinking a final Guinness and listening to a passable folk band at the Palace Bar in Dublin while halfheartedly scrolling through the news back home on his phone when he came across Rothenberg’s column. He read through to the end with an accelerating heartbeat. It seemed big news to him that Rothenberg, a dispassionate prognosticator, had confidently issued such a prediction just 10 days into Trump’s presidency.

Back in Washington, Russell joined a relatively new political media consulting firm, Beacon Media, and started hunting for prospective 2018 House candidates. In early March, he traveled to California’s Orange County — historically a G.O.P. stronghold, though its wealthy population included growing numbers of Asian-Americans who tended to vote Democratic. In Irvine he met with Dave Min, a wry 41-year-old law professor who had worked on the Hill as a senior policy adviser to Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate minority leader, and at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.

Min, the father of three young children, had never considered running for political office before. But he was also a son of Korean immigrants and was appalled by the Trump administration’s attempts to ban Muslims from entering the United States. The incumbent congresswoman of California’s 45th District, Mimi Walters, was a little-known two-term Republican who had never faced serious opposition. She had won by nearly 18 points in 2016, but Clinton beat Trump in the district by more than five points. A strong anti-Trump sentiment in 2018 could work to Min’s benefit. In April, he told Russell that he was in.

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Russell then traveled to the Illinois suburbs just west of Chicago. Like California’s 45th District, the Sixth District of Illinois had been reliably Republican for decades. But Clinton beat Trump there by seven points, and already its six-term congressman, Peter Roskam, was avoiding public appearances lest he be called upon to answer for the president. The progressive women’s group Emily’s List had referred Russell to Kelly Mazeski, a longtime public servant on local boards and commissions who had already decided to challenge Roskam. Mazeski was a breast-cancer survivor whose platform, she told me recently, was “health care, health care, health care.” Russell helped Mazeski time her announcement for May 4, the day Roskam and his fellow House Republicans voted for a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Scores of candidates were announcing their intentions in terrain recently considered inhospitable to Democrats: West Virginia, Texas, Kansas. Some aspirants Russell met lacked the talent to match their enthusiasm. Others were hot property and elected to go with one of Beacon Media’s competitors. But by Labor Day, Russell and his firm had picked up 10 Democratic challengers. Among them were a few beguiling dark horses, like a 46-year-old physician and former Y.M.C.A. national health officer from Portage, Mich., named Matt Longjohn. Undeterred by his lack of political experience, Longjohn was challenging Fred Upton, a Republican who had represented Michigan’s Sixth District for three decades.

Russell himself grew up in the Sixth District and cast his first ballot as a registered voter against Upton in 2002. Back then, the incumbent seemed invincible. But now, after leading the committee that wrote the legislation seeking to eviscerate Obamacare, Upton was avoiding town halls and any other public events.

Still, when I met Russell recently, his optimism was tempered by previous electoral disappointments. The Democratic Party now has more candidates than it can support, and next spring is likely to be a season of what national Democratic officials tactfully refer to as “messy primaries.” And even with Trump as a foil, Russell’s candidates were struggling to make a case for themselves. “Right now it’s such a target-rich environment for us,” he told me. But “we’re having trouble explaining why we’re the heroes and the Republicans are the villains. At some point, our narrative will have to become more coherent than it is now.”

In pursuit of the 24 seats Democrats need to win the House, the D.C.C.C. intends to target 80 Republican-held districts — a dozen more than the party went after in its 2006 bonanza year, when it captured a majority after gaining 31 seats. Many of next year’s seem to be fanciful propositions, or strategic plays designed to force the G.O.P. to spend resources where it would rather not. In other cases, the D.C.C.C. is counting districts held by controversial Republicans — Chris Collins of New York, with his aggressive advocacy of a biotech firm in which he held substantial investments; Duncan D. Hunter of California, with the possibility of a federal indictment for supposed campaign fund malfeasances hanging over his head — who nonetheless appear safe, at least for the moment. But four Republican representatives in potential swing districts — Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Dave Reichert, Charlie Dent and Pat Tiberi — have already announced their retirement in advance of 2018, and more are expected to follow before the end of the year.

Only two times in the last century (during the Great Depression and after the Sept. 11 attacks) has a president’s party not suffered electoral losses midway into his first term. Those losses — an average of 32 House seats in each such midterm since 1862 — increase to 36 when the president’s approval rating is under 50. President Trump’s polling average has never once exceeded a favorability rating of 48 percent, and it now hovers at about 37 percent.

“I think the best thing the Democrats can do,” Zac Petkanas, formerly the director of rapid response for the Clinton campaign, told me, “is find as many people with a pulse, with a D next to their names, in as many districts as possible, and run on Obamacare and standing up to Trump.” But so much of the politics, and political mood, of Trump’s presidency is off the map of previous experience that other Democrats have seemed at times at a loss for how to respond. What to make of the late August NBC poll, for instance, that showed Democrats being viewed unfavorably by 54 percent of those surveyed, which was better than Republicans (61) and Trump (61), but also Pelosi (64)? Was that good news or bad news? And what about the D.C.C.C. focus groups and polls yielding the conclusion that voters broadly dislike Trump but are also put off by candidates who profess to be “standing up to Trump,” on the grounds that such resistance will only guarantee more dysfunction in Washington?

Republicans are hopeful that, Trump being the exception to almost every political rule, the historical trends of wave elections will also not apply to him. “Clinton came up against a wave in 1994 because he had campaigned as a centrist but then led with gays in the military and Hillarycare,” Karl Rove, the former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, told me. “The 2006 election was a wave because Republicans were defending the Iraq war and crippled by a late-breaking ethics scandal. Democrats faced a wave in 2010 because of Obamacare. So it’s been issues that have driven wave elections. This time around, I think it’s more a personal antagonism to Trump. And the question is, how critical will that be in shaping the attitudes of swing voters?”

But by Rove’s own analysis, two of the last three wave elections were triggered by health care policies that did not approach the deep unpopularity of the G.O.P.’s attempts this year to repeal or otherwise roll back Obamacare. And Trump’s base cannot be counted on to prevent a wave in 2018, because a key constituency — less-educated white voters — is a group that tends not to show up during midterms. They may have even less motivation to do so next year, considering Trump’s periodic denunciations of the Republican lawmakers who will need their votes.

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But in four special elections to fill seats vacated by House Republican incumbents this year, the Democrats fell short — and in the case of Georgia’s Jon Ossoff, lost by four points even after raising an unheard-of $23 million. His was the most expensive House race ever, and the fact that Democratic donors spent so heavily on a loss may help explain why the party’s fund-raising has diminished since then. The Democrats’ base — young and nonwhite voters — is no better than Trump’s at showing up for midterm elections and is unhelpfully clustered in urban districts. Many suburban and rural districts were artfully gerrymandered by Republican state legislators after the 2010 census and have proved impenetrable since then; they aren’t likely to change hands without a healthy number of recent Republican voters being persuaded to vote Democratic.

There is also a less quantifiable problem, the one that vexed Pelosi’s team in the months after the election: the Democratic Party’s chronic difficulty explaining just what it stands for. “There’s a deep worldview among conservative intellectuals that moved its way through a fear of fascism in the 1940s, through think tanks and campaigns and the California tax revolt of the 1970s,” Felicia Wong, president of the progressive Roosevelt Institute, says. “And basically the Democrats don’t have that. The New Deal was one thing, and the Great Society was another thing. The party never fully recognized that Jim Crow and segregation were economic decisions. That left Democrats with an incoherent economic argument. The result is that they lack a historical vocabulary.”

Questions about the interplay of race and economics, of course, aren’t just historical after the 2016 election — as much as politicians and operatives might want them to be. Plenty of progressives hold the view, as the MSNBC host Joy Ann Reid has argued on Twitter, that white working-class voters “resent the changes that racial and religious multiculturalism have brought to societies where people like them have been the majority.” But a former colleague of Reid’s at MSNBC, Krystal Ball, now president of the People’s House Project — which seeks to elect Democratic congressional candidates in G.O.P. districts — insists that the primary motivation of these voters is economic. “People who are holding onto their livelihoods by their fingernails thought that at least Trump gave a crap,” she says. “Maybe it was a pack of lies he was selling them, but at least he didn’t hold them in contempt. And frankly there’s a lot of contempt from certain corners of our party. And a billion dollars’ worth of ads saying we’re not elitists won’t change that.”

Early on the morning of July 27, a group of House Democrats held a private gathering in the Capitol basement with a special guest: Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff, who over a decade ago, when he was an Illinois congressman, served as chairman of the D.C.C.C. Looking ahead to 2018, Emanuel offered a broad-brushstroke plan of attack: “Find the specific issues that resonate in your district,” he said, according to one meeting participant’s notes. “We want to appeal to Trump voters who are already pulling away from him.” In particular, “Suburbs are our best opportunities.” On the matter of ideological purity, he was blunt: “It’s not a question of left versus center — it’s forward versus backward.”

If this advice sounded familiar, it was because Emanuel advocated the same strategy a dozen years earlier, when he was trying to lift his party out of the trough it had occupied since the Newt Gingrich-led takeover of the House by the Republicans in 1994. Emanuel focused on recruiting more centrist candidates who were well liked in their districts rather than on ideological darlings of the national party. “The people who criticized me back in 2006 were from my own party,” he told me recently. “When I was recruiting candidates, I’d get yelled at: ‘Why is he getting all these sheriffs and military guys?’ It’s because they were running in red districts!”


Photo illustration by Jamie Chung. Obama photo: F Scott Schafer.

The election cemented Emanuel’s legend as a tactician — none of the Democrats attending the July 27 meeting expressed skepticism about his advice — but his strategy has never sat well with the party’s progressive activists. “I would just point to the fact that Rahm Emanuel’s Democrats who won in 2006 couldn’t hold those seats,” Stephanie Taylor, a founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (P.C.C.C.), which supports, trains and funds candidates, told me.

She was referring to the nearly a dozen Democrats who rode the 2006 wave into Congress, only to wash back out of it with the Tea Party wave four years later. (Three more had lost in 2008.) “I would suggest a counterfactual,” she went on: “If we had true economic populist champions who made the case to the American people about fighting for a strong economic agenda, we might have had more lasting success.” Or as the P.C.C.C.’s other founder, Adam Green, put it to me: “If there’s a Democratic wave in 2018, progressives won’t just ride that wave — we will cause that wave.”

Of course, activists like Green and Taylor also vowed to be the tip of the party’s spear in the previous cycle, with not much to show for it. Indeed, the Breitbart chairman and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon scornfully likens the Democrats’ ideological tussles to a “pillow fight,” further charging that progressives will never accomplish their goals “until they have a Breitbart on the left,” he told me. “Our stock in trade is going after the Republican establishment. There’s no one like that on the other side.”

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Most if not all Democrats are more than happy to watch Bannon’s kamikaze antics wreak havoc on the opposition. Still, some in the party rue the lack of pugnacity on their own side. “There are two types of Democrats,” David Krone, Harry Reid’s former chief of staff, told me one afternoon this summer in the Midtown Manhattan office where he now works as a consultant for an investment firm. “There are killers, and there are whiners. Unfortunately, we have too many of the latter and not enough of the former.”

Krone considers piety an obstacle to progressive policies. “Democrats are not that pure,” he told me, with a biting smile. “All those guys have a transactional component to them.” Under Reid’s leadership, the Democrats managed to pass important legislation like the Affordable Care Act and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act while also thwarting a stream of conservative bills generated by the Republican-controlled House. But it was also Reid who held his colleagues to the deal that garnered the pharmaceutical industry’s support for Obamacare by agreeing to take Medicare drug prices off the table. When the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 opened the floodgates for outside-group contributions, Reid did not join the chorus of bemoaners. Instead, he ordered up a super PAC, called the Senate Majority PAC, to help keep the Senate in Democratic hands during the 2010 and 2012 cycles. “Reid just never pretended to be something he wasn’t,” Krone said. “You don’t want to pass health care? Fine. Don’t make deals. Keep losing.”

In the Democratic Killers Hall of Fame, Krone places Emanuel and Pelosi. But lately, Krone observed, the party seemed to be tilting toward the whiners — beginning with the excuses offered for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. “It’s insane,” he said. “They freaking lost! They can blame anyone they want to, but they fail to look in the mirror.”

The 2018 cycle, Krone argued, was no time for squeamishness. Again he cited the example of his former boss Reid, who, like many Democrats in 2010, was a heavy underdog going into his final Senate race. Rather than be cowed by a Republican field that, at the peak of the Tea Party movement, had been infiltrated by the party’s fringe, Reid turned that to his advantage. His campaign waded into the Republican primary, targeting the most formidable G.O.P. opponents one by one until the only one left standing was Sharron Angle: a Tea Party favorite who once crusaded against water fluoridation and claimed multiple American cities were under the rule of Shariah law. Reid beat her easily.

By way of contrast, Krone pointed to Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin senator who, with John McCain, was a standard-bearer for campaign-finance reform, as well as a crusader for civil liberties during the Bush years. Feingold lacked Reid’s appetite for the jugular, losing to Ron Johnson in 2010 and then again in 2016. “He had his foot on Johnson’s neck, and then he let up, because he was up in the polls,” Krone lamented. “They don’t hand out participation trophies in politics.” If the party limited itself to high-minded campaigning and legislating, “We’ll lose again, and Kennedy” — the Supreme Court justice — “will retire, and Trump will get to appoint another conservative crazy, and the Democrats will wonder how things got to be so horrible.”

Still, the party faces a conundrum in its pursuit of Trump voters whose anxieties aren’t just economic but cultural as well. Prevailing in some red districts may require, at minimum, tempering the party’s progressivism on social issues. “When anybody talks about a so-called litmus test for candidates, that upsets me,” Representative Cheri Bustos told me. “I’m from Illinois, where I’m the only downstate Democrat in our entire delegation. I’ve been a Democrat my whole life, and my core values are very much in line with what hard-core Democrats believe. I don’t ever lie about my views. However, I also don’t talk about issues that are by their very nature divisive. If asked, I’ll answer I’m pro-choice. But then I’ll get back to the economy.”

But a week after Bustos and I spoke, the D.C.C.C.’s chairman, Ben Ray Luján, enraged liberal groups by saying that his organization would not oppose House candidates in favor of restricting abortion. Seeking to douse the fire, Meredith Kelly, the D.C.C.C. communications director, released a statement clarifying that the D.C.C.C. listed abortion rights as among the “fundamental tenets of the Democratic Party” and that the recruits it was backing “represent the values of the party.”

Adam Green of the P.C.C.C. was adamant on the prospect of anti-abortion recruits: “We wouldn’t welcome candidates who are pushing anti-choice policies into the big tent any more than we would welcome racists and people who want to deregulate Wall Street.” Green wasn’t buying the implication by Bustos and other moderates that the Democratic Party will regain a majority only if it backs away from progressive ideals. He urged me to talk to Rick Nolan, a progressive rural Minnesota congressman who, he said, “wins the right way.”

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Nolan is a folksy 73-year-old journeyman politician and businessman who has long advocated a single-payer health system. He also hunts, fishes, makes his own maple syrup and in other ways stays attuned to the culture of Minnesota’s Eighth District. Taking Green’s advice, I asked Nolan whether he would welcome an anti-abortion candidate into the Democratic caucus. “Wholeheartedly,” he said. “If there’s a fault today among Democrats, it’s that they’ve got the worst litmus test known to humankind. If we want to achieve the goals progressives want, we’ve got to get back into the majority. Democrats are damned fools if they don’t see that.”

There was one thing on which the Democrats I interviewed, across the spectrum — Adam Green, David Krone, Krystal Ball, Meredith Kelly — agreed: that I should watch a YouTube ad that was posted in June on behalf of a 52-year-old Wisconsin ironworker named Randy Bryce. Bryce, whose prodigious mustache has earned him the nickname Ironstache, is aiming to unseat the current officeholder of Wisconsin’s First District, Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House. The emotionally charged ad announcing his campaign culminates in a challenge: “Let’s trade places. Paul Ryan, you can come work the iron, and I’ll go to D.C.”

One rainy late summer afternoon, I met up with the ad’s creator, a 42-year-old Army veteran named Bill Hyers, in a Washington hotel bar overcrowded with well-dressed young professionals. Hyers was sipping an old-fashioned when I arrived. He was dressed in a T-shirt and khaki shorts, his preferred business attire. Hyers has successfully managed the campaigns of well-established Democratic politicians like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, and his own politics are straightforwardly liberal. At the same time, he harbors a Holden Caulfield-esque disdain of insincerity and believes that this quality, more than whining or ideological perfectionism, explains his party’s state of decline.

“What’s terrible about Democrats like Rahm Emanuel,” Hyers said, “is that it matters more to them if you’re a candidate who can raise money from very wealthy people than if you have an argument to make. They look at everything through the old Clinton triangulation strategy. Put out very carefully prepared statements. Don’t let anyone get to your right. Deny and ignore. Never have an honest dialogue. It was a bad strategy back in the ’90s. But it’s even worse today, because we can now have 24-7 access to candidates, and people can see when they’re not being authentic. Everything Hillary Clinton did was carefully scripted — they could see that.”

Hyers’s client Bryce has been the undisputed breakout star of the 2018 cycle so far; the announcement ad has attracted millions of views. (Such enthusiasm, it should be said, does not yet make Bryce any less of a long shot: The D.C.C.C. does not currently include Wisconsin’s First District among its 80 targeted seats.) The afternoon we met, Hyers showed me a rough cut of an ad for his newest client, a former Army champion boxer and ex-opioid addict from Staten Island named Boyd Melson — known in the ring as the Rainmaker — who is running for New York’s 11th District. Melson’s YouTube rollout, like Bryce’s, is replete with stirring proletarian imagery: neighborhoods festooned with American flags, an aloof Republican incumbent dodging town halls, Melson alone in the ring pummeling the air with slow-motion jabs. It suggests a trailer for “Rocky Goes to Washington.”

“I can only take a little credit for them,” Hyers admitted after the two-and-a-half-minute ad came to an end. Bryce’s and Melson’s ads, he told me, had a co-producer: Matt McLaughlin, a veteran of TV advertising who “didn’t know campaigns and politics, but he knows art.” Hyers did not think the party’s need for “authentic candidates” and a little theatrical verve were incompatible. If anything, the role the confluence of those two perceived assets played in Trump’s victory is one of the few inarguable lessons of the 2016 election.

This lesson, however unacknowledged, is playing out across the 2018 electoral landscape. In Kentucky, a former Marine fighter pilot named Amy McGrath appears in a bomber jacket, declaring that her “new mission” is to “take on a Congress full of career politicians.” Assessing her candidacy’s apparent long odds, she says, with a cockeyed grin, “We’ll see about that.” Another web ad shows a dashing scientist in a white lab coat: Hans Keirstead, a pioneering stem-cell researcher now running to represent California’s 48th District and billing himself as the very definition of a “problem solver.”

In mid-August, I spoke to Ian Russell’s latest client, a telegenic Marine veteran and two-term state representative from Lewiston, Me., named Jared Golden. Lewiston today is a hollowed-out exoskeleton of a textile mill town. “Our way of life is under attack here,” Golden said. “We’re a classic case of the America that’s being left behind. The social-identity issues that have been emphasized in Portland don’t resonate in rural Maine. It’s damaged the Democratic brand here, to be honest. We’re a community of hard-working people who may not be highly educated, but that doesn’t mean we’re not intelligent. The majority of the folks here voted for Donald Trump, and I can tell you that the description of them as a basket of deplorables is just dead wrong.”

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Golden told me that his neighbors had until recently thought of themselves as Democrats. Golden himself still is. When we spoke, he had just decided to run in Maine’s Second District against the Republican incumbent, Bruce Poliquin. Golden would be the fifth Democrat to enter the race. He seemed to have little use for the national party’s “A Better Deal” pitch, telling me, “It’s going to take more than a glossy new policy document to take back the U.S. House.”

What, then, would it take? A few days after I spoke with Golden, Ian Russell traveled to Lewiston and shot his candidate’s announcement ad. It mixes twilit images of small-town Maine with footage of the candidate in combat fatigues; later, he jogs down a country road wearing a T-shirt that says, “Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body.” The ad excoriates the Republican incumbent but also bipartisan trade deals and unnamed political leaders who push “issues that don’t impact your life.”

The word “Trump” is not mentioned in the two-minute ad. Nor is the word “Democrat.”

Correction: November 1, 2017

An earlier version of this article included an erroneous figure for the number of times a president’s party suffered no electoral losses midway into the president’s first term. It is two times, not three.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/01/magazine/a-post-obama-democratic-party-in-search-of-itself.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

A Stranger From the Past Confronts Roddy Doyle’s Latest Hero

Victor’s efforts to place Fitzpatrick in memory may be futile, but they lead him to recall the central milieu of his boyhood: the Christian Brothers school, one of many in Ireland, where he was educated by a faculty of stern Catholic priests. At first, we get memories of the bullying inflicted by Victor’s fellow students: beatings from the older kids, homophobic slurs. It wasn’t all bad, though: “We suffered together,” Victor tells us, “and it was great.” But the looming enigma of Fitzpatrick drives Victor to darker places in memory: The priests, it seems, were disciplinarians, often abusive ones. Sometimes, we soon learn, they even touched the boys inappropriately. In fact, Victor was one of them, and in fact it was the headmaster groping him sexually under the pretense of teaching him self-defense.


Victor remembers not only this abuse, but the moment of its original excavation from memory, during the happy days with Rachel. He wakes violently from sleep beside her — “I exploded. I’ve nothing to describe it. No picture or sound. I burst apart” — and tells her everything. The abuse, we realize, is partially responsible for many of his life’s failures: his writer’s block, his ineptness as a husband and father. Eventually he confesses the abuse, impulsively, on the radio, earning both public sympathy and derision.

“Smile” sags a little bit in the middle, as Doyle chronicles Victor’s somewhat idealized relationship with Rachel. Though we know it’s destined to end, their romance is a shapely, familiar tale about a poor boy, an underdog, managing to land a beautiful, ambitious and moneyed girl; Doyle gives it a poignant, honeyed glow. And the story of sexual abuse, while harrowing, appears not to have ruined its victim; Victor has come to terms with it at last.

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But has he? There are signs, even during the more sentimental sections of the book, of some deeper darkness we haven’t been shown, one that Victor hasn’t allowed himself to look directly at. He contradicts himself, doubling back and changing his story. He suddenly admits, out of nowhere, that he and Rachel were never really married; Victor just calls her his wife to avoid having to explain their unconventional union. And what about Victor’s son? We know he has one, but we never hear about him. Are they estranged? Did something happen to drive them apart? And why, specifically, did the marriage — the non-marriage — end?

More ominously, Fitzpatrick disappears for a spell, and Victor worries — both for the old tosser’s well-being and for his own safety, as though the man might jump out of the shadows and strike him down at any second. As the book nears its conclusion, this paranoia comes to seem justified: Fitzpatrick follows Victor into the supermarket, threatens and harasses him, says, “I know where you live.” An encounter at the pub shakes things up further: Fitzpatrick brings up the Christian Brothers school, makes a sexually suggestive comment about a woman Victor’s trying to date. We fear that some final confrontation is in the offing.

In Fitzpatrick, Doyle has created an extraordinarily creepy antagonist: a bully who plays dumb but always gets under the hero’s skin, a clumsy oaf who nevertheless can disappear like a cat into the darkness. Fitzpatrick’s physical presence is palpable and unsettling, uncanny even. He forces Victor into corners, breathes into his face, and stands between him and his friends; drink doesn’t seem to make him drunk. He positions himself on the barstool so that Victor has to look up the leg of his shorts.

“Smile” is something of a departure for Doyle — it’s the closest thing he’s written to a psychological thriller — but it nevertheless showcases his well-loved facility for character and dialogue. His ear and eye are peerless. On Rachel’s father: “Everything about him said rugby player who had not been good enough.” On a woman Victor likes: “She was different. She wasn’t Rachel. She was fattish and human. And curious.” The ordinary, seen through Victor’s eyes, has a special gleam; after a skillfully described but prosaic urban scene, we get: “What I’d just seen and heard had been great — the gulls, the cats, the girl, her knees, the shout. It had been wonderful.”

The book’s ending, though, is anything but prosaic. It is shocking and disorienting, and literally made me gasp in horror. It does serve to justify and explain some of the roteness of the middle section; nevertheless it’s likely to divide readers.

Nothing wrong with that, though — what’s the point of a book everybody agrees on? If you manage to break up a book group or two, as “Smile” is likely to do, you know you’re onto something.

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[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/31/books/review/roddy-doyle-smile.html?partner=rss&emc=rss