Keith Devlin: Fibonacci introduced modern arithmetic —then disappeared

More than a decade ago, Keith Devlin, a math expositor, set out to research the life and legacy of the medieval mathematician Leonardo of Pisa, popularly known as Fibonacci, whose book Liber abbaci has quite literally affected the lives of everyone alive today. Although he is most famous for the Fibonacci numbers—which, it so happens, he didn’t invent—Fibonacci’s greatest contribution was as an expositor of mathematical ideas at a level ordinary people could understand. In 1202, Liber abbaci—the “Book of Calculation”—introduced modern arithmetic to the Western world. Yet Fibonacci was long forgotten after his death. Finding Fibonacci is a compelling firsthand account of his ten-year quest to tell Fibonacci’s story. Devlin recently answered some questions about his new book for the PUP blog:

You’ve written 33 math books, including many for general readers. What is different about this one?

KD: This is my third book about the history of mathematics, which already makes it different from most of my books where the focus was on abstract concepts and ideas, not how they were discovered. What makes it truly unique is that it’s the first book I have written that I have been in! It is a first-person account, based on a diary I kept during a research project spread over a decade.

If you had to convey the book’s flavor in a few sentences, what would you say?

KD: Finding Fibonacci is a first-person account of a ten-year quest to uncover and tell the story of one of the most influential figures in human history. It started out as a diary, a simple record of events. It turned into a story when it became clear that it was far more than a record of dates, sources consulted, places visited, and facts checked. Like any good story, it has false starts and disappointments, tragedies and unexpected turns, more than a few hilarious episodes, and several lucky breaks. Along the way, I encountered some amazing individuals who, each for their own reasons, became fascinated by Fibonacci: a Yale professor who traced modern finance back to Fibonacci, an Italian historian who made the crucial archival discovery that brought together all the threads of Fibonacci’s astonishing story, an American math professor who fought against cancer to complete the world’s first (and only) modern language translation of Liber abbaci, and the widow who took over and brought his efforts to fruition after he lost that battle. And behind it all, the man who was the focus of my quest. Fibonacci played a major role in creating the modern commercial world. Yet he vanished from the pages of history for five hundred years, made “obsolete,” and in consequence all but forgotten forever, by a new technology.

What made you decide to write this book?

KD: There were really two key decisions that led to this book. One was deciding, back in the year 2000, to keep a diary of my experiences writing The Man of Numbers.

My first history book was The Unfinished Game. For that, all I had to do was consult a number of reference works. It was not intended to be original research. Basic Books asked me to write a short, readable account of a single mathematical document that changed the course of human history, to form part of a series they were bringing out. I chose the letter Pierre De Fermat wrote to his colleague Blaise Pascal in 1654, which most experts agree established modern probability theory, in particular how it can be used to predict the future.

In The Man of Numbers, in contrast, I set out to tell a story that no one had told before; indeed, the consensus among the historians was that it could not be told—there simply was not enough information available. So writing that book would require engaging in a lot of original historical research. I had never done that. I would be stepping well outside my comfort zone. That was in part why I decided to keep a diary. The other reason for keeping a record was to ensure I had enough anecdotes to use when the time came to promote the book—assuming I was able to complete it, that is. (I had written enough popular mathematics books to appreciate the need for author promotional activities!)
The second decision, to turn my diary into a book (which only at the end found the title, Finding Fibonacci), came after The Man of Numbers was published in 2011. The ten-year process of researching and writing that book had turned out to be so rich, and so full of unexpected twists and turns, including several strokes of immense luck, that it was clear there was a good story to be told. What was not clear was whether I would be able to write such a book. All my other books are third-person accounts, where I am simply the messenger. In Finding Fibonacci, I would of necessity be a central character. Once again, I would be stepping outside my comfort zone. In particular, I would be laying out on the printed page, part of my inner self. It took five years and a lot of help from my agent Ted Weinstein and then my Princeton University Press editor Vickie Kearn to find the right voice and make it work.

Who do you expect will enjoy reading this book?

KD: I have a solid readership around the world. I am sure they will all read it. In particular, everyone who read The Man of Numbers will likely end up taking a look. Not least because, in addition to providing a window into the process of writing that earlier book, I also put in some details of that story that I did not fully appreciate until after the book had been published. But I hope, and in fact expect, that Finding Fibonacci will appeal to a whole new group of readers. Whereas the star of all my previous books was a discipline, mathematics, this is a book about people, for the most part people alive today. It’s a human story. It has a number of stars, all people, connected by having embarked on a quest to try to tell parts of the story of one of the most influential figures in human history: Leonardo of Pisa, popularly known as Fibonacci.

Now that the book is out, in one sentence if you can, how would you summarize writing it?

KD: Leaving my author’s comfort zone. Without a doubt. I’ve never been less certain how a book would be received.

DevlinKeith Devlin is a mathematician at Stanford University and cofounder and president of BrainQuake, an educational technology company that creates mathematics learning video games. His many books include The Unfinished Game: Pascal, Fermat, and the Seventeenth-Century Letter That Made the World Modern and The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution. He is the author of Finding Fibonacci: The Quest to Rediscover the Forgotten Mathematical Genius Who Changed the World.

Evgeny Finkel on his new book, Ordinary Jews

Focusing on the choices and actions of Jews during the Holocaust, Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival During the Holocaust examines the different patterns of behavior of civilians targeted by mass violence. Relying on rich archival material and hundreds of survivors’ testimonies, Evgeny Finkel presents a new framework for understanding the survival strategies in which Jews engaged: cooperation and collaboration, coping and compliance, evasion, and resistance. Rather than looking at the Holocaust as a whole, Ordinary Jews focuses on three Jewish communities—those of Minsk, Kraków, and Białystok—to try to understand why Jews in these communities had very different responses when faced with similar Nazi policies. Recently, Finkel took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

The Holocaust is one of the most researched episodes of human history. What new angle does your book contribute?

EF: It is true that the Holocaust had been extensively researched, but we still know very little about why European Jews chose different responses to the genocide—why some rebelled against the Nazis while others collaborated with them; why some escaped while others did nothing. This book is different from the existing research in that it focuses exclusively on the Holocaust’s Jewish victims and on what made individual Jews choose different survival strategies in response to the Nazi genocide. Instead of looking at the Holocaust as a whole or focusing on one place, as historians usually do, I compare three Jewish communities—those of Minsk, Kraków, and Białystok—and try to understand why, when faced with similar Nazi policies, the Jews in these communities reacted in dramatically different ways.

So what could the Jews do during the Holocaust and why did they behave in different ways?

EF: I identify four main strategies used by the Jews: cooperation and collaboration with the Germans; coping with the danger and attempting to survive while staying put; evasion via escape and hiding among the non-Jews; and armed resistance to the Nazis. What I discovered is that the choice of a particular survival strategy was shaped more by the Jews’ pre-WWII lives and the regimes under which they lived—decades before the Holocaust—than by what the Nazis did. People who were politically active before the Holocaust were more likely to choose cooperation with or resistance to the Nazis. Jews who were more integrated into the non-Jewish society were much more likely to escape and hide, and the stronger the pre-WWII local Jewish community was, the higher was the number of people who chose coping.

But eventually, no matter what the Jews did they almost all died?

EF: True, in those parts of Eastern Europe that were occupied by the Nazis most Jews did not survive the Holocaust, but this general observation obscures important local dynamics: for instance, those who chose evasion were more likely to survive than those who stayed put. Even more so, buying fake documents and going to Germany proper (and often to Berlin!) as a Polish or Russian laborer was likely the most successful survival strategy. The tragedy was that the evasion strategy was not available to everyone because it heavily depended on the Jews’ pre-WWII lives and interactions with non-Jewish people. Even very basic contacts such as having non-Jewish janitors in one’s workplace or apartment building could sometimes be the difference between death and survival. Speaking Polish or Russian without a Yiddish accent was much more important than having “non-Jewish looks” or being rich. For minorities, integration into the majority’s culture takes decades. In places where pre-WWII government encouraged such policies, Jews were more likely to have the tools to successfully escape and hide than in places where segregation between the Jews and the Christians was almost complete. In Kraków, the Austro-Hungarian Empire allowed and encouraged the Jews’ integration before Hitler was even born. The Empire itself collapsed twenty years before the WWII, but the legacy of its policies allowed quite a few Jews to successfully hide and eventually survive. In Białystok, neither the Russian Empire nor the interwar Polish state encouraged Jews to integrate into the broader society. When the Nazis came, for the local Jews, evasion was simply not an option because very few spoke Polish or had non-Jewish acquaintances to ask for help.

What about resistance?

EF: Actually, Jewish armed resistance was not as rare as people think. We tend to equate Jewish resistance with open uprisings like that of the Warsaw ghetto. But there were several ways to fight the Nazis and not all of them involved rebellions. The three communities I study all had Jewish armed resistance groups, but only the Białystok ghetto rebelled. In Kraków, the Jewish resistance bombed a coffee shop packed with German servicemen and engaged in anti-Nazi sabotage. In Minsk, the Jewish underground helped to establish and supply communist guerilla units in the forests around the city and smuggled numerous Jews out of the ghetto. Yet, because the Białystok ghetto uprising was a highly visible, symbolic act of resistance, it tends to be widely remembered, while the Kraków and Minsk Jewish undergrounds are largely overlooked and forgotten, in spite of the fact that they likely killed more Nazis than the Białystok uprising did.

Is it true that only a minority of the Jews resisted? Why wasn’t there unified resistance as the Nazi agenda became clear?

EF: Overall, only a minority of Jews chose resistance, but the expectation that all, or even the majority of Jews should or could have resisted is naive. Resistance, especially organized resistance, is not a matter of spontaneous decision taken on the spot. It required time, money, and resources that most Jews, especially those with families to provide for, simply did not have. It also required cooperation with likeminded and equally committed comrades, which is why this strategy attracted mostly Jews who were politically active before the Holocaust. Most importantly, skills to outfox the Nazi security services were essential. Without these skills, a resistance group was doomed to fail. As with other strategies, pre-Holocaust realities influenced who could become skillful resisters to the Nazis. In pre-WWII Poland, communism was repressed by the government and Jewish communists had to go underground. In the Soviet Union, the communists were the ruling party and therefore no young Jewish communist had underground resistance skills. On the other hand, the Zionists were persecuted in the USSR, but not in Poland. As a result, organized Jewish resistance to the Nazis was most widespread in Eastern Poland – an area that was briefly occupied by the Soviets in 1939-1941 prior to the Nazi takeover, and in which both the Zionists and the Jewish communists had the skills to fight back.

Can your argument explain the behavior of victims of mass violence beyond the Holocaust?

EF: Obviously, there are differences between the Holocaust and other instances of mass murder and genocide, but I think the overall list of possible behaviors is the same everywhere, be it during the Holocaust or in areas currently under the control of ISIS. That the behavior of victims of mass violence is heavily influenced by their pre-war lives is, I believe, also true beyond the specific case of the Holocaust. And if we know which potential victims of mass violence are more likely to try to escape, and who is more likely to fight back, then the hope is we would be better equipped to assist these people as the violence unfolds.

FinkelEvgeny Finkel is assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He is the author of Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust.

J. Richard Gott: What’s the Value of Pi in Your Universe?

Carl Sagan’s sci-fi novel Contact famously introduced wormholes for rapid transit between the stars. Carl had asked his friend Kip Thorne to tell him if the physics of wormholes was tenable and this led Thorne and his colleagues to investigate their properties. They found that traversable wormholes required exotic matter to prop them open and that, by moving the wormhole mouths one could find general relativity solutions allowing time travel to the past. A quantum state called the Casimir vacuum whose effects have been observed experimentally, could provide the exotic matter. To learn whether such time machines could be constructible in principle, we may have to master the laws of quantum gravity, which govern how gravity behaves on microscopic scales. It’s one of the reasons physicists find these solutions so interesting.

But in Contact there is lurking yet another fantastic sci-fi idea, which gets less publicity because it was not included in the movie version. In the book, the protagonist finds out from the extraterrestrials that the system of wormholes throughout the galaxy was not built by them, but by the long gone “old ones” who could manipulate not only the laws of physics but also the laws of mathematics! And they left a secret message in the digits of pi. In his movie Pi, Darren Aronofsky showed a man driven crazy by his search for hidden meanings in the digits of pi.

This opens the question: could pi have been something else? And if so, does pi depend on the laws of physics? Galileo said: “Philosophy is written in this grand book…. I mean the universe … which stands continually open to our gaze…. It is written in the language of mathematics.” The universe is written in the language of mathematics. Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner famously spoke of the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” in explaining physics. Many philosophers take the Platonic view that mathematics would exist even the universe did not. And cosmologist Max Tegmark goes so far as to say that the universe actually is mathematics.

Yet maybe it is the other way around. The laws of physics are just the laws by which matter behaves. They determine the nature of our universe. Maybe humans have simply developed the mathematics appropriate for describing our universe, and so of course it fits with what we see. The mathematician Leopold Kronecker said, “God created the integers, all the rest is the work of man.” Are the laws of mathematics discovered by us in the same way as we discover the laws of physics? And are the laws of mathematics we discover just those which would have occurred to creatures living in a universe with physics like ours? In our universe, physics produces individual identical particles: all electrons are the same for example. We know about integers because there are things that look the same (like apples) for us to count. If you were some strange creature in a fractal universe containing only one object—yourself—and you thought only recursively, you might not ever think of counting anything and would never discover integers.

What about π = 3.14159265.…? Might it have a different value in a different universe? In our universe we have a fundamental physical dimensionless constant, the fine structure constant α which is related to the square of the value of the electric charge of the proton in natural geometrical Planck units (where the speed of light is 1 and the reduced Planck constant is 1 and Newton’s gravitational constant is 1). Now 1/α = 137.035999… Some physicists hope that one day we may have a mathematical formula for 1/α using mathematical constants such as π and e. If a theory for the fine structure constant could be developed giving a value in agreement with observations but allowing it to be calculated uniquely from pure mathematics, and if more and more digits of the constant were discovered experimentally fulfilling its prediction, it would certainly merit a Nobel Prize. But many physicists feel that no such magic formula will ever be discovered. Inflation may produce an infinite number of bubble universes, each with different laws of physics. Different universes bubbling out of an original inflating sea could have different values of 1/α. As Martin Rees has said, the laws of physics we know may be just local bylaws in an infinite multiverse of universes. String theory, if correct, may eventually give us a probability distribution for 1/α and we may find that our universe is just somewhere in the predicted middle 95% of the distribution, for example. Maybe there could be different universes with different values of π.

Let’s consider one possible example: taxicab geometry. This was invented by Hermann Minkowski. Now this brilliant mathematician also invented the geometrical interpretation of time as a fourth dimension based on Einstein’s theory of special relativity, so his taxicab geometry merits a serious look. Imagine a city with a checkerboard pattern of equal-sized square blocks. Suppose you wanted to take a taxicab to a location 3 blocks east, and 1 block north of your location, the shortest total distance you would have to travel to get there is 4 blocks. Your taxi has to travel along the streets, it does not get to travel as the crow flies. You could go 1 block east, then 1 block north then 2 blocks east, and still get to your destination, but the total distance you traveled would also be 4 blocks. The distance to your destination would be ds = |dx| + |dy|, where |dx| is the absolute value of the difference in x coordinates and |dy| is the absolute value of the difference in y coordinates. This is not the Euclidean formula. We are not in Kansas anymore! The set of points equidistant from the origin is a set of dots in a diamond shape. See diagram.

Gott

Image showing an intuitive explanation of why circles in taxicab geometry look like diamonds. Wikipedia.

Now if the blocks were smaller, there would be more dots, still in a diamond shape. In the limit where the size of the blocks had shrunk to zero, one would have a smooth diamond shape as shown in the bottom section of the diagram. The set of points equidistant from the origin has a name—a “circle!” If the circle has a radius of 1 unit, the distance along one side of its diamond shape is 2 units: going from the East vertex of the diamond to the North vertex of the diamond along the diagonal requires you to change the x coordinate by 1 unit and the y coordinate by 1 unit, making the distance along one side of the diagonal equal to 2 units (ds = |dx| + |dy| = 1 + 1 units = 2 units). The diamond shape has 4 sides so the circumference of the diamond is 8 units. The diameter of the circle is twice the radius, and therefore 2 units. In the taxicab universe π = C/d = C/2r = 8/2 = 4. If different laws of physics dictate different laws of geometry, you can change the value of π.

This taxicab geometry applies in the classic etch-a-sketch toy (Look it up on google, if you have never seen one). It has a white screen, and an internal stylus that draws a black line, directed by horizontal and vertical control knobs. If you want to draw a vertical line, you turn the vertical knob. If you want to draw a horizontal line you turn the horizontal knob. If you want to draw a diagonal line, you must simultaneously turn both knobs smoothly. If the distance between two points is defined by the minimal amount of total turning of the two knobs required to get from one point to the other, then that is the “taxicab” distance between the two points. In Euclidean geometry there is one shortest line between two points: a straight line between them. In taxicab geometry there can be many different, equally short, broken lines (taxicab routes) connecting two points. Taxicab geometry does not obey the axioms of Euclidean geometry and therefore does not have the same theorems as Euclidean geometry. And π is 4.

Mathematician and computer scientist John von Neumann invented a cellular automaton universe that obeys taxicab geometry. It starts with an infinite checkerboard of pixels. Pixels can be either black or white. The state of a pixel at time step t = n + 1 depends only on the state of its 4 neighbors (with which it shares a side: north, south, east, west of it) on the previous time step t = n. Causal, physical effects move like a taxicab. If the pixels are microscopic, we get a taxicab geometry. Here is a simple law of physics for this universe: a pixel stays in the same state, unless it is surrounded by an odd number of black pixels, in which case it switches to the opposite state on the next time step. Start with a white universe with only 1 black pixel at the origin. In the next time step it remains black while its 4 neighbors also become black. There is now a black cross of 5 pixels at the center. It has given birth to 4 black pixels like itself. Come back later and there will be 25 black pixels in a cross-shaped pattern of 5 cross-shaped patterns.

Come back still later and you can find 125 black pixels in 5 cross-shaped patterns (of 5 cross-shaped patterns). All these new black pixels lie inside a diamond-shaped region whose radius grows larger by one pixel per time step. In our universe, drop a rock in a pond, and a circular ripple spreads out. In the von Neumann universe, causal effects spread out in a diamond-shaped pattern.

If by “life” you mean a pattern able to reproduce itself, then this universe is luxuriant with life. Draw any pattern (say a drawing of a bicycle) in black pixels and at a later time you will find 5 bicycles, and then 25 bicycles, and 125 bicycles, etc. The laws of physics in this universe cause any object to copy itself. If you object that this is just a video game, I must tell you that some physicists seriously entertain the idea that we are living in an elaborate video game right now with quantum fuzziness at small scales providing the proof of microscopic “pixelization” at small scales.

Mathematicians in the von Neumann universe would know π = 4 (Or, if we had a taxicab universe with triangular pixels filling the plane, causal effects could spread out along three axes instead of two and a circle would look like a hexagon, giving π = 3.). In 1932, Stanislaw Golab showed that if we were clever enough in the way distances were measured in different directions, we could design laws of physics so that π might be anything we wanted from a low of 3 to a high of 4.

Back to the inhabitants of the von Neumann universe who think π = 4. Might they be familiar with number we know and love, 3.14159265…? They might:

3.14159265… = 4 {(1/1) – (1/3) + (1/5) – (1/7) + (1/9) + …} (Leibnitz)

If they were familiar with integers, they might be able to discover 3.14159265… But maybe the only integers they know are 1, 5, 25, 125, … and 4 of course. They would know that 5 = SQRT(25), so they would know what a square root was. In this case they could still find a formula for

3.14159265. . . =
SQRT(4) {SQRT(4)/SQRT(SQRT(4))}{SQRT(4)/SQRT(SQRT(4) + SQRT(SQRT(4)))}{SQRT(4)/ SQRT(SQRT(4) + SQRT(SQRT(4) + SQRT(SQRT(4))))} …

This infinite product involving only the integer 4 derives from one found by Vieta in 1594.

There are indeed many formulas equal to our old friend 3.14159265… including a spectacular one found by the renowned mathematician Ramanujan. Though every real number can be represented by such infinite series, products and continued fractions, these are particularly simple. So 3.14159265… does seem to have a special intimate relationship with integers, independent of geometry. If physics creates individual objects that can be counted, it seems difficult to avoid learning about 3.14159265… eventually—“If God made the integers,” as Kronecker suggested. So 3.14159265… appears not to be a random real number and we are still left with the mystery of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in explaining the physics we see in our universe. We are also left with the mystery of why the universe is as comprehensible as it is. Why should we lowly carbon life forms be capable of finding out as much about how the universe works as we have done? Having the ability as intelligent observers to ask questions about the universe seems to come with the ability to actually answer some of them. That’s remarkable.

UniverseGottJ. Richard Gott is professor of astrophysics at Princeton University. His books include The Cosmic Web: Mysterious Architecture of the Universe. He is the coauthor of Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Michael A. Strauss.

Marc Chamberland: Why π is important

On March 14, groups across the country will gather for Pi Day, a nerdy celebration of the number Pi, replete with fun facts about this mathematical constant, copious amounts pie, and of course, recitations of the digits of Pi. But why do we care about so many digits of Pi? How big is the room you want to wallpaper anyway? In 1706, 100 digits of Pi were known, and by 2013 over 12 trillion digits had been computed. I’ll give you five reasons why someone may claim that many digits of Pi is important, but they’re not all good.

Reason 1
It provides accuracy for scientific measurements

Pi1

This argument had merit when only a few digits were known, but today this reason is as empty as space. The radius of the universe is 93 billion light years, and the radius of a hydrogen atom is about 0.1 nanometers. So knowing Pi to 38 places is enough to tell you precisely how many hydrogen atoms you need to encircle the universe. For any mechanical calculations, probably 3.1415 is more than enough precision.

Reason 2
It’s neat to see how far we can go

Pi2

It’s true that great feats and discoveries have been done in the name of exploration. Ingenious techniques have been designed to crank out many digits of Pi and some of these ideas have led to remarkable discoveries in computing. But while this “because it is there” approach is beguiling, just because we can explore some phenomenon doesn’t mean we’ll find something valuable. Curiosity is great, but harnessing that energy with insight will take you farther.

Reason 3
Computer Integrity

Pi3

The digits of Pi help with testing and developing new algorithms. The Japanese mathematician Yasumasa Kanada used two different formulas to generate and check over one trillion digits of Pi. To get agreement after all those arithmetic operations and data transfers is strong evidence that the computers are functioning error-free. A spin-off of the expansive Pi calculations has been the development of the Fast Fourier Transform, a ground-breaking tool used in digital signal processing.

Reason 4
It provides evidence that Pi is normal

Pi4

A number is “normal” if any string of digits appears with the expected frequency. For example, you expect the number 4 to appear 1/10 of the time, or the string 28 to appear 1/100 of the time. It is suspected that Pi is normal, and this was evidenced from the first trillion digits when it was seen that each digit appears about 100 billion times. But proving that Pi is normal has been elusive. Why is the normality of numbers important? A normal number could be used to simulate a random number generator. Computer simulations are a vital tool in modeling any dynamic phenomena that involves randomness. Applications abound, including to climate science, physiological drug testing, computational fluid dynamics, and financial forecasting. If easily calculated numbers such as Pi can be proven to be normal, these precisely defined numbers could be used, paradoxically, in the service of generating randomness.

Reason 5
It helps us understand the prime numbers

Pi5

Pi is intimately connected to the prime numbers. There are formulas involving the product of infinitely numbers that connect the primes and Pi. The knowledge flows both ways: knowing many primes helps one calculate Pi and knowing many digits of Pi allows one to generate many primes. The Riemann Hypothesis—an unsolved 150-year-old mathematical problem whose solution would earn the solver one million dollars—is intimately connected to both the primes and the number Pi.

And you thought that Pi was only good for circles.

SingleMarc Chamberland is the Myra Steele Professor of Mathematics and Natural Science at Grinnell College. His research in several areas of mathematics, including studying Pi, has led to many publications and speaking engagements in various countries. His interest in popularizing mathematics resulted in the recent book Single Digits: In Praise of Small Numbers with Princeton University Press. He also maintains his YouTube channel Tipping Point Math that tries to make mathematics accessible to a general audience. He is currently working on a book about the number Pi.

James Gibson: Voters Beware! TV ads may damage Supreme Court legitimacy

The right-wing Judicial Crisis Network has launched a $10 million advertising campaign to put public pressure on Democratic politicians who oppose President Trump’s nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.

While ideological fights over who controls the courts are nothing new, my research suggests that this use of political advertising to sway public opinion of a nominee may do real damage to the the institutional legitimacy of the U.S. Supreme Court in the eyes of the American people.

In Citizens, Courts, and Confirmations, Gregory Caldeira and I focused on the 2006 nomination of Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court. During that confirmation battle, proponents and opponents of Alito’s confirmation ran intensely politicized television ads trying to shape public opinion on the nomination.

Using surveys of public opinion, we demonstrated that the ads spilled over to infect support for the Court as an institution, subtracting from its legitimacy. In order to understand how and why this happened, it’s important to consider what political scientists (including Caldeira and I) have discovered is the main source of the Court’s legitimacy.

Despite the arguments of some judges to the contrary, the American people do not believe that judges somehow mystically “find” the law. They realize, instead, that judges’ ideologies matter, that liberal and conservative judges make different decisions, and that they do so on the basis of honest intellectual differences. This philosophy is called “legal realism,” and it is widely embraced by the American people.

But there is a difference between honest ideological differences and the politicization of the courts. When people believe that a judge “is just another politician,” or that courts are filled with such judges, legitimacy suffers. The American people do not think highly of politicians. Politicians are seen as self-interested and insincere. That means one can rarely believe what politicians say because they so rarely say what they believe. It is not ideology that Americans oppose, but rather the insincere and strategic way that contemporary politics is fought.

Our analysis discovered that it is not damaging to the Court when Americans recognize that judges hold different ideologies and that those ideologies strongly influence their decisions. But when judges cross the line, when they engage in overly politicized behavior—either on the bench or off—then the Court’s legitimacy is threatened. Scalia’s intemperate language in his opinions is one such example of judges venturing into partisanship; so, too, is Ginsburg’s attempt to influence last year’s presidential election. Still, events like these do not widely penetrate the consciousness of the American people, and so in the end, they likely have small effects on institutional legitimacy.

The same cannot be said of televised advertisements. Millions of Americans are exposed to these churlish and politicized ads, and so they take their toll. The lesson of these ads is too often the same: The “Supreme Court is just another political institution,” worthy of no more esteem than the other institutions of government. As this belief becomes widespread, the institution of the Court is harmed.

Our analysis demonstrates that while Alito got his seat on the Supreme Court, the court he joined had a diminished supply of goodwill among the Court’s constituents, the American people. It also makes clear that the upcoming nomination fights have implications beyond who does and doesn’t get a seat on the bench. At stake is the very legitimacy of the U.S. Supreme Court.

GibsonJames L. Gibson is the Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government at Washington University. He is the coauthor of Citizens, Courts, and Confirmations: Positivity Theory and the Judgments of the American People.

Michael Strauss: Our universe is too vast for even the most imaginative sci-fi

As an astrophysicist, I am always struck by the fact that even the wildest science-fiction stories tend to be distinctly human in character. No matter how exotic the locale or how unusual the scientific concepts, most science fiction ends up being about quintessentially human (or human-like) interactions, problems, foibles and challenges. This is what we respond to; it is what we can best understand. In practice, this means that most science fiction takes place in relatively relatable settings, on a planet or spacecraft. The real challenge is to tie the story to human emotions, and human sizes and timescales, while still capturing the enormous scales of the Universe itself.

Just how large the Universe actually is never fails to boggle the mind. We say that the observable Universe extends for tens of billions of light years, but the only way to really comprehend this, as humans, is to break matters down into a series of steps, starting with our visceral understanding of the size of the Earth. A non-stop flight from Dubai to San Francisco covers a distance of about 8,000 miles – roughly equal to the diameter of the Earth. The Sun is much bigger; its diameter is just over 100 times Earth’s. And the distance between the Earth and the Sun is about 100 times larger than that, close to 100 million miles. This distance, the radius of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, is a fundamental measure in astronomy; the Astronomical Unit, or AU. The spacecraft Voyager 1, for example, launched in 1977 and, travelling at 11 miles per second, is now 137 AU from the Sun.

But the stars are far more distant than this. The nearest, Proxima Centauri, is about 270,000 AU, or 4.25 light years away. You would have to line up 30 million Suns to span the gap between the Sun and Proxima Centauri. The Vogons in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) are shocked that humans have not travelled to the Proxima Centauri system to see the Earth’s demolition notice; the joke is just how impossibly large the distance is.

Four light years turns out to be about the average distance between stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, of which the Sun is a member. That is a lot of empty space! The Milky Way contains about 300 billion stars, in a vast structure roughly 100,000 light years in diameter. One of the truly exciting discoveries of the past two decades is that our Sun is far from unique in hosting a retinue of planets: evidence shows that the majority of Sun-like stars in the Milky Way have planets orbiting them, many with a size and distance from their parent star allowing them to host life as we know it.

Yet getting to these planets is another matter entirely: Voyager 1 would arrive at Proxima Centauri in 75,000 years if it were travelling in the right direction – which it isn’t. Science-fiction writers use a variety of tricks to span these interstellar distances: putting their passengers into states of suspended animation during the long voyages, or travelling close to the speed of light (to take advantage of the time dilation predicted in Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity). Or they invoke warp drives, wormholes or other as-yet undiscovered phenomena.

When astronomers made the first definitive measurements of the scale of our Galaxy a century ago, they were overwhelmed by the size of the Universe they had mapped. Initially, there was great skepticism that the so-called ‘spiral nebulae’ seen in deep photographs of the sky were in fact ‘island universes’ – structures as large as the Milky Way, but at much larger distances still. While the vast majority of science-fiction stories stay within our Milky Way, much of the story of the past 100 years of astronomy has been the discovery of just how much larger than that the Universe is. Our nearest galactic neighbour is about 2 million light years away, while the light from the most distant galaxies our telescopes can see has been travelling to us for most of the age of the Universe, about 13 billion years.

We discovered in the 1920s that the Universe has been expanding since the Big Bang. But about 20 years ago, astronomers found that this expansion was speeding up, driven by a force whose physical nature we do not understand, but to which we give the stop-gap name of ‘dark energy’. Dark energy operates on length- and time-scales of the Universe as a whole: how could we capture such a concept in a piece of fiction?

The story doesn’t stop there. We can’t see galaxies from those parts of the Universe for which there hasn’t been enough time since the Big Bang for the light to reach us. What lies beyond the observable bounds of the Universe? Our simplest cosmological models suggest that the Universe is uniform in its properties on the largest scales, and extends forever. A variant idea says that the Big Bang that birthed our Universe is only one of a (possibly infinite) number of such explosions, and that the resulting ‘multiverse’ has an extent utterly beyond our comprehension.

The US astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson once said: ‘The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.’ Similarly, the wonders of the Universe are under no obligation to make it easy for science-fiction writers to tell stories about them. The Universe is mostly empty space, and the distances between stars in galaxies, and between galaxies in the Universe, are incomprehensibly vast on human scales. Capturing the true scale of the Universe, while somehow tying it to human endeavours and emotions, is a daunting challenge for any science-fiction writer. Olaf Stapledon took up that challenge in his novel Star Maker (1937), in which the stars and nebulae, and cosmos as a whole, are conscious. While we are humbled by our tiny size relative to the cosmos, our brains can none the less comprehend, to some extent, just how large the Universe we inhabit is. This is hopeful, since, as the astrobiologist Caleb Scharf of Columbia University has said: ‘In a finite world, a cosmic perspective isn’t a luxury, it is a necessity.’ Conveying this to the public is the real challenge faced by astronomers and science-fiction writers alike. Aeon counter – do not remove

UniverseMichael A. Strauss is professor of astrophysics at Princeton University and coauthor with Richard Gott and Neil DeGrasse Tyson of Welcome to The Universe: An Astrophysical Tour.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Rahul Sagar: Are There “Good” Leaks and “Bad” Leaks?

Washington is awash in leaks. Should these leaks be praised or should they be condemned, as the president argues? President Trump’s supporters may argue that his critics—Democrats in particular—praise or condemn leaks as it suits them. Consider the hypocrisy, they will say:

First, since Democrats criticized Wikileaks’ publication of John Podesta’s emails, shouldn’t they also criticize NSA and FBI employees who have disclosed information about contacts between Trump Administration officials and Russian officials? Second, if it was wrong for Edward Snowden to have disclosed communications intelligence, as many Democrats argued at the time, then shouldn’t they also think it is wrong for NSA and FBI employees to disclose communications intelligence about Russian contacts with the Trump Administration?

These questions aren’t trivial. So how to respond?

The answer to the first question hinges on what kind of leaks are in question—those that expose wrongful or unlawful activities as opposed to those that reveal private behavior or information. The former variety further the public interest because they bring to light information that citizens and overseers require in order to hold representatives to account. Leaks about contacts between Trump Administration officials and Russian officials clearly fall into this category. The latter variety may have only a faint connection to the public interest. It may be of some interest to have an unvarnished account of the private conduct of public officials, but this interest hardly seems weighty enough to justify the violation of a person’s privacy (especially when the violation is wholesale). Leaks about Podesta’s pizza orders and office politicking fall into the latter category.

The answer to the second question hinges on knowing when unauthorized disclosures are justified. The president’s supporters may argue that intelligence leaks are never justified because they are illegal. To this the press and First Amendment aficionados may respond that leaks are never unlawful. In their view, the Espionage Act, often used to prosecute leakers, was never meant to be used in this fashion. This response is untenable, but even supposing it were true, it is irrelevant. The Communications Intelligence Act (18 USC §798) plainly makes it unlawful—without exception—for persons to communicate or publish classified information “concerning” or “obtained by” the “processes of communication intelligence.”

So the president is right to say that government employees who have disclosed intercepts pertaining to Russian actions, and even the reporters and newspapers that have published these leaks, have broken the law. But must the law always be followed? Suppose you witness a hit-and-run. There are clear signs saying that you are not to stop or park along the road. You would of course nonetheless stop on the reasonable calculation that disobedience is justified since a weighty interest is involved, and when there aren’t other means of aiding the victim. This is the position that intelligence officers sometimes find themselves in—only they can assist the victim, because only they are aware of the harm that has been done. Indeed when the harm they are witnessing is sufficiently acute, government employees may not only be justified in breaking the law, they may even be obliged to do so.

This is not the end of the story, however. Much depends on how a government employee breaks the law. Let us return to the analogy. As you rush the victim to the hospital are you morally obliged to stop at every red light along the way? It depends, surely, on how crowded the roads are, and how badly the victim is injured. If the roads are busy, jumping a light will likely endanger more lives than it will save. But if the roads are clear, and the victim is hemorrhaging, then it is ethical to run a red light. This is the standard that government employees and the press ought to hold themselves to. If they act rashly they will end up doing more harm than good. Arguably, this is why Snowden does not deserve a pardon—he disclosed classified information without much regard for consequences, seemingly driven by his own pet peeves. Did we really need to learn precisely how the United States spies on foreign powers, for instance. Far better then to act temperately—disclosing only as much information as is necessary to kick start the processes of oversight and accountability. This may be where we are today. But it is not easy to be certain. Since ordinary citizens are not privy to the contents of the intercepts, we must hope that the government employees responsible have faithfully calculated that the cost of disclosing such intelligence is worth bearing because the danger confronting the nation is so great.

There are costs, to be clear. The recent disclosures are likely to have exposed sources and methods since Russian agents have presumably learnt that their communication channels are not secure. There are also political costs for the intelligence community, since the leaks can be—indeed are being—portrayed as an effort to subvert the president.

It now remains for Congress to credibly investigate the worrying claims that have been aired. Should the claims prove true, then we will be indebted to the individuals that have made these disclosures at great risk to themselves. Should the disclosures prove unfounded, however, then President Trump’s supporters will have reason to think that politically motivated insiders have engaged in sabotage, and recriminations may well follow. It is also worth pointing out that should Congress fail to conduct a credible investigation, then further disclosures may be justified. This would be not unlike how the driver in our analogy may drive the victim to a different hospital should the first one prove unwilling to attend to the emergency.

It cannot be said enough that with great power comes great responsibility. This aphorism applies as much to presidents as it does to the press. There are “good” and “bad” leaks. To make the distinction, officials, reporters, and citizens must think carefully about the what, when, and how of unauthorized disclosures.

LeaksRahul Sagar is Global Network Associate Professor of Political Science at New York University in Abu Dhabi and Washington Square Fellow at New York University in New York. He is the author of Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy.

Joel Brockner: Why Bosses Can Be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

It is unnerving when people in authority positions behave inconsistently, especially when it comes to matters of morality. We call such people “Jekyll and Hyde characters,” based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella in which the same person behaved very morally in some situations and very immorally in others. Whereas the actual title of Stevenson’s work was the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, recent research suggests that Jekyll and Hyde bosses may not be so unusual. In fact, behaving morally like Dr. Jekyll may cause bosses to subsequently behave immorally like Mr. Hyde.

Researchers at Michigan State University (Szu Han Lin, Jingjing Ma, and Russell Johnson) asked employees to describe the behavior of their bosses from one day to the next. Bosses who behaved more ethically on the first day were more likely to behave abusively towards their subordinates the next day. For instance, the more that bosses on the first day did things like: 1) define success not just by results but also by the way that they are obtained, 2) set an example of how to do things the right way in terms of ethics, or 3) listen to what their employees had to say, the more likely they were on the next day to ridicule employees, to give employees the silent treatment, or to talk badly about employees behind their back. Does being in a position of authority predispose people to be hypocrites?

Not necessarily. Lin, Ma, and Johnson found two reasons why ethical leader behavior can, as they put it, “break bad.” One is moral licensing, which is based on the idea that people want to think of themselves and their behavior as ethical or moral. Having behaved ethically, people are somewhat paradoxically free to behave less ethically, either because their prior behavior gave them moral credits in their psychological ledgers or because it proved them to be fine, upstanding citizens.

A second explanation is based on Roy Baumeister’s notion of ego depletion, which assumes that people have a limited amount of self-control resources. Ego depletion refers to how people exerting self-control in one situation are less able to do so in a subsequent situation. Ego depletion helps to explain, for instance, why employees tend to make more ethical decisions earlier rather than later in the day. Throughout the day we are called upon to behave in ways that require self-control, such as not yelling at the driver who cut us off on the way to work, not having that second helping of delicious dessert at lunch, and not expressing negative emotions we may be feeling about bosses or co-workers who don’t seem to be behaving appropriately, in our view. Because we have fewer self-control resources later in the day, we are more susceptible to succumb to the temptation to behave unethically. In like fashion, bosses who behave ethically on one day (like Dr. Jekyll) may feel ego depleted from having exerted self-control, making them more prone to behave abusively towards their subordinates the next day (like Mr. Hyde).

Distinguishing between moral licensing and ego depletion is important, both conceptually and practically. At the conceptual level, a key difference between the two is whether the self is playing the role of object or subject. When people take themselves as the object of attention they want to see themselves and their behavior positively, for example, as ethical. As object (which William James called the me-self), self-processes consist of reflecting and evaluating. When operating as subject, the self engages in regulatory activity, in which people align their behavior with meaningful standards coming from within or from external sources; James called this the I-self. Moral licensing is a self-as-object process, in which people want to see themselves in certain positive ways (e.g., ethical), so that when they behave ethically they are free, at least temporarily, to behave in not so ethical ways. Ego depletion is a self-as-subject process, in which having exerted self-control in the service of regulation makes people, at least temporarily, less capable of doing so.

The founding father of social psychology, Kurt Lewin, famously proclaimed that, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” Accordingly, the distinction between moral licensing and ego depletion lends insight into the applied question of how to mitigate the tendency for ethical leader behavior to break bad. The moral licensing explanation suggests that one way to go is to make it more difficult for bosses to make self-attributions for their ethical behavior. For instance, suppose that an organization had very strong norms for its authorities to behave ethically. When authorities in such an organization behave ethically, they may attribute their behavior to the situation (strong organizational norms) rather than to themselves. In this example authorities are behaving morally but are not licensing themselves to behave abusively.

The ego depletion explanation suggests other ways to weaken the tendency for bosses’ ethical behavior to morph into abusiveness. For instance, much like giving exercised muscles a chance to rest and recover, ensuring that bosses are not constantly in the mode of exerting self-control may allow for their self-regulatory resources to be replenished. It also has been shown that people’s beliefs about how ego depleted they are influences their tendency to exert self-control, over and above how ego depleted they actually are. In a research study appropriately titled, “Ego depletion—is it all in your head?,” Veronika Job, Carol Dweck, and Gregory Walton found that people who believed they were less ego depleted after engaging in self-control were more likely to exert self-control in a subsequent activity. People differ in their beliefs about the consequences of exercising self-control. For some, having to exert self-control is thought to be de-energizing whereas for others it is not believed to be de-energizing. Bosses who believe that exerting self-control is not de-energizing may be less prone to behave abusively after exerting the self-control needed to behave ethically.

Whereas we have focused on how Dr. Jekyll can awaken Mr. Hyde, it also is entirely possible for Mr. Hyde to bring Dr. Jekyll to life. For instance, after behaving abusively bosses may want to make up for their bad feelings about themselves by behaving ethically. In any event, the case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde may not be so strange after all. We should not be surprised by inconsistency in our bosses’ moral behavior, once we consider how taking the high road may cause them to take the low road, and vice versa.

BrocknerJoel Brockner is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at Columbia Business School. He is the author of The Process Matters: Engaging and Equipping People for Success.

This article was originally published on Psychology Today.

Leah Boustan: What Mid-Century White Flight Reveals about the Trump Electorate

BoustanIn the months since Donald Trump’s surprise win of the U.S. presidency, two prevailing explanations for the electoral upset have emerged: either Trump voters were swayed by racism or by economic anxiety. Trump’s campaign embraced a series of racist stereotypes—Mexicans are criminals; blacks live in inner-city hellholes—but it also promised to bring back jobs to America’s declining manufacturing regions.

History suggests that the real story is probably a mix of these two explanations. Historical events that we have attributed to racism are often partially motivated by economic concerns. Looking back, we can see the reverse is also true; decisions perceived as strictly economic calculations can be tinged by racism.

One such example is white flight from central cities. In the mid-20th century, the share of white metropolitan households living in cities fell from 64 percent to 36 percent. White flight is typically attributed to racist attitudes of white residents who worried about a black family moving next door; Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to white suburbanization as a “triumph of racist social engineering.” But a closer reevaluation of this chapter in urban history reveals that white flight was motivated by both racism and economic anxiety.

In 1940, the majority of African Americans still lived in the rural South. At the time, even northern cities like Chicago and Detroit, which today have large black communities, were less than 10 percent black. Prompted in part by new factory positions opening during World War II, large waves of black migrants left the South.

Black migration definitely coincided with white relocation to the suburbs. But, many white suburban moves were unrelated to black arrivals, driven instead by rising incomes after the War, the baby boom, and new highway construction. Indeed, suburbanization was prevalent even in cities that received few black southerners, like Minneapolis-St. Paul. But there is a strong relationship between the number of black migrants to a northern city during this period and the number of whites who chose to relocate to the suburbs. For every black arrival, two whites left a typical city, a figure that puts a precise value on what contemporaries already knew: when black people move in, white people move out—à la the Younger family in A Raisin in the Sun.

Still, only a portion of white flight can be traced to the classic dynamic of racial turnover. Cities were simply too segregated by race for many urban whites to actually encounter black neighbors. In 1940, the average white urban household lived more than three miles away from a black enclave. Yet despite substantial distance from black neighborhoods within the city, many white families chose to relocate to the suburbs as black migrants arrived.

Why did white households flee black neighborhoods that were miles away? Changing city finances played a role. As southern black migrants settled in northern cities in large numbers, this lowered the average income of the urban population. Cities responded with a combination of higher property taxes and shifts in spending priorities. Indeed, some white households left cities to avoid this rising tax burden, an economically motivated choice for sure, but one that cannot be fully separated from race and racism.

We can learn a lot about the fiscal motivation behind white flight by focusing on the choices of white residents in neighborhoods on city-suburban borders. Peripheral urban neighborhoods shared the racial composition and housing stock of their suburban counterparts, and enjoyed the same local parks, bus lanes and shopping streets. Yet, by crossing to the suburban side of the border, families could buy into a different local electorate, one that was more racially homogenous and better-off, and thus able to afford quality public schools and lower property taxes. (As an aside, I personally lived in three of these border areas—Cambridge-Somerville, MA; Minneapolis-Edina, MN and Los Angeles-Beverly Hills, CA—and found crossing the border to be imperceptible on the ground.)

Houses on the suburban side of the border are always a little more expensive because they offer access to suburban schools and other public goods. Using data on 100 such neighborhoods, I found that this cross-border housing price gap grows by a few percentage points as black migrants flow into the city – even if new black arrivals live miles away. White households were willing to pay more for suburban houses not only to escape black neighbors but also to join a different tax base.

The debate about how Trump prevailed is currently a stalemate between those who point to real sources of economic anxiety and those who fall back on “it’s racism, stupid!” But casting blame on other racial groups during times of economic downturn is a tried-and-true political tool. Even if the major source of job loss in U.S. manufacturing has been automation, it is relatively easy to encourage voters to blame Chinese manipulation or greedy immigrants. Trying to separate racism from economic anxiety can obscure more than it reveals. History instead urges us to consider how economic concerns and racial animus intertwine.

**

BoustanLeah Platt Boustan is professor of economics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She is the author of Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets.

Benjamin W. Goossen: How to Radicalize a Peaceful Minority

There is no better way to turn a religious minority against a nation than by maligning, detaining, and excluding them. While Donald Trump claims his ban on immigrants from seven predominantly-Muslim countries will make Americans safer, history suggests that nativist policies will backfire. Consider the case of perhaps the world’s least likely national security threat: pacifist Mennonites.

PUPinions

A poster for the 1941 Nazi propaganda film, “Village in the Red Storm,” depicting the suffering of German-speaking Mennonites in the Soviet Union, in which the protagonists valiantly give up their pacifism to fight for their race

Members of mistreated groups—whether Mennonites a century ago or Muslims today—can and sometimes do turn on hostile governments, often with alarming speed. At the beginning of the twentieth century, no one would have associated Mennonites, a small Christian group dedicated to nonviolence and charitable works, with hate speech or mass murder. At the time, most Mennonites lived peaceable existences in rural, German-speaking enclaves in Europe or North America.

When the First World War generated a global wave of anti-German and anti-pacifist sentiment, however, tens of thousands—especially those in Central and Eastern Europe—turned to militarist German nationalism.

The shift was as swift as it was shocking. “We have imbibed the notion of pacifism with our mothers’ milk,” a respected Russian Mennonite leader named Benjamin Unruh wrote in 1917. “It is a Mennonite dogma.” Yet by the Second World War, Unruh had become a prominent Nazi collaborator, aiding ethnic cleansing programs that deported Poles and murdered Jews to make way for “Aryan” Mennonites.

How could diehard pacifists turn their backs on the peaceful teachings of their faith?

Mennonites like Unruh, who had once considered violence an unforgivable sin, could be found in military units across Hitler’s empire, including on the killing fields of the Holocaust. Unruh’s own home community near Crimea—once a bastion of pacifist theology—became a model colony under Nazi occupation, generating propaganda for dispersion across the Third Reich and providing a pipeline for young men to join the radical Waffen-SS.

PUPinions

A flag raising ceremony in the Mennonite colony of Molotschna in Nazi-occupied Ukraine in 1942 on the occasion of a visit from Heinrich Himmler

Demonizing Muslim refugees today grants legitimacy to a violent fringe—one already on the lookout for recruits. These are the same tactics that, in the months before the Second World War, prompted a small number of disaffected Mennonites from places as diverse as Canada, Paraguay, Brazil, Poland, and the Netherlands—as well as my own hometown of Newton, Kansas—to travel to Germany to support Hitler’s war machine.

Most Mennonite congregations worldwide, even during the darkest days of the twentieth century, retained their pacifism. And today, the global church has taken steps to address its partial legacy of German racism. This history nevertheless demonstrates how individuals or communities can discard peace-loving traditions; by the height of Nazi expansion, one fourth of the world’s Mennonites lived in—and frequently praised—Hitler’s Germany.

Scapegoated by nativist politicians, members in Eastern Europe and sometimes beyond saw the Third Reich as a refuge from humiliation, deportation, torture, and travel bans. Despite the harrowing experiences of more than 100,000 Mennonites in the Soviet Union—where families faced civil war, famine, and ethnic cleansing—countries like the United States generally closed their borders to the destitute. Canada, which in 1917 had disenfranchised its entire Mennonite population, likewise banned refugees at various points during the 1920s and 1930s.

1930 propaganda image originally subtitled “A German Death Sentence” depicting the suffering of Mennonites and other German-speakers in the Soviet Union

Letters and diaries show how some pacifists, denigrated in the East and barred from the West, became radicalized. One man recalled the shame of imprisonment in communist Ukraine. “So, you’re a German?” a Bolshevik interrogator asked, before beating him senseless. Secret police particularly targeted Mennonites who had tried to emigrate, accusing them of “carrying out of counter-revolutionary fascist activities”—even though most initially had little enthusiasm, let alone contact, with Nazi Germany.

“I was no enemy of the Soviets,” another victim of wrongful arrest reported, “but now that I’ve come to know them, you’ll find I’m a true enemy. Now I’m a Hitlerite, a fascist unto death.”

Targeting immigrants and refugees from war-torn Muslim countries gives terror groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda exactly what they want. Just as twentieth-century governments across Europe and the Americas needlessly alienated their Mennonite subjects and excluded Mennonite migrants, President Trump’s grandstanding harms those among the world’s least threatening and most vulnerable populations, in turn making all of us less safe. This is how to radicalize a peaceful minority.

ChosenBen Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, forthcoming in May from Princeton University Press.

William G. Howell: Unilateral Politics Revisited (and Revised) under Trump

The election of Donald Trump clearly marks a break with, if not a repudiation, of the past. But even in these white-knuckle days of his early presidency, we also can discern familiar features of executive power and the politics of unilateral action. Not everything about Trump is new. And if we want to get serious about fashioning a response, whether in support or opposition, we must resist the temptation to treat Trump as purely an aberration.

Let’s begin with the recurrent, if not the customary. Trump is hardly the first president to traffic in nativist appeals, to call for a reordering of national priorities, or to renounce, if only rhetorically, the powers and privileges of a self-interested class of political experts in favor of a supposedly forgotten people. Trump is following a populist path previously trodden by the likes of Andrew Jackson, Williams Jennings Bryan, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan.

Nor is Trump the first president to launch his presidency with a flurry of policy initiatives. Nearly all modern presidents go out of their way to project an image of energy and command the moment they move into the White House. And rather than work directly with Congress, many of them, like Trump, choose to hit the ground running through administrative fiat rather than legislative engagement.

To be sure, Trump failed to deliver on his campaign promise to overturn Obamacare on Day One. But he did direct the federal bureaucracy to ease up on its implementation until Congress gets around to dismantling it. He then put a freeze on regulations currently under consideration and established new protocols that require federal agencies drop two old regulations for every new one they adopt. Trump accelerated the permit process for private companies building the Keystone Pipeline. He reinstated a ban on funding for international family planning agencies that provide information about abortion services. He formally withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He reconstituted the organization and membership of the National Security Council. He instituted a ban on refugees and immigrants coming into the country. In just the first two weeks of his presidency, he did all this and more.

To advance this expansive agenda, Trump drew upon the full arsenal of unilateral directives available to presidents. He issued executive orders, proclamations, national security directives, and memoranda. And like his predecessors, he fabricated altogether new power tools—in this instance, National Security Presidential Memoranda, for which the Pentagon appears to be the primary audience.

Trump also isn’t the first president to invite controversy through unilateral action. Harry Truman desegregated the military, Bill Clinton extended federal protections to hundreds of millions of acres of public lands, George W. Bush directed substantial federal funds to religious organizations, and Barack Obama imposed all sorts of new environmental regulations at times when legislative action on these matters was altogether unthinkable.

We also have witnessed before the kinds of institutional checks that now frustrate Trump. Indeed, they are the essential elements of any theory of unilateral action. Presidents push outward just as far as they can, the adjoining branches of government offer variable amounts of resistance, and in the exchange, the reach and meaning of presidential powers are defined.

But not all is familiar. This go-around, the fallout of unilateral action is a good deal louder and more disruptive than at any other time in modern American history. Never before have so many protests been voiced, so much opposition rallied, so much confusion sowed in the aftermath of orders issued this early in a presidential term.

Just hours after Trump issued his immigration ban, U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly, a Barak Obama appointee, intervened and issued a temporary stay. A week later, U.S. District Judge James Robart, who George W. Bush appointed to the bench, expanded the stay nationwide. In the intervening days, impromptu protests and legal clinics sprouted up in airports across the nation. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates refused to defend the order in court, an act of defiance for which she was promptly fired. Members of Trump’s own administration professed to have learned about the order through the media. Within the State Department, over 1,000 people signed a petition against Trump’s agenda. This past Saturday, then, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it was suspending all efforts to enforce the immigration ban.

This is not normal. Far from it. In the wake of most executive orders, broad acquiescence, if not perfect silence, typically sets in. Past presidents, after all, have made a point of vetting their orders with policy experts, ensuring their legality with the Office of Legal Counsel, conferring with key partners and adversaries, and then adjusting accordingly. This advance work has not been in the service of governing cooperatively or ceding ground to political opponents. Rather, it has enabled these presidents to discern exactly how far they can push policy without being subsequently overturned, and then prepare those individuals charged with defending and implementing these orders.

What, then, are we to make of the chaos and fury born of Trump’s early actions? One line of thinking points toward an administration wholly unaware of the president’s position in our system of separated powers and entirely insensitive to the costs of bureaucratic resistance, judicial intervention, and mass protest. The tumult of these past two weeks, by this accounting, reflects poorly on an inexperienced and impetuous man with little regard for the rules of procedure and governing norms of American political institutions.

We have before us plenty of evidence to support this line of reasoning. But there are other possibilities to consider. Maybe Trump (and those who advise him) are quite deliberately trying to escalate the fight with his adversaries. Having inherited a bureaucracy not of his making, Trump may be searching for ways to identify those who will stand with him and those who will merely stand in the way. Nothing draws out a lurking enemy quite like an open battle.

Alternatively, Trump may be trying to lure his opponents into a pitched fight that will do lasting damage to their reputations. A press that misreports—as it did in claiming that Trump removed a bust of Martin Luther King from the Oval office—and a protest that turns violent—as occurred in Berkeley, CA—provide all sorts of fodder for a president bent on discrediting the mainstream media and restoring law and order to the country.

Instead, Trump may be playing to a base that cares less about policy than about waging an existential war on Washington. The dustups caused by these unilateral directives may not productively change policy, but in the eyes of Trump’s supporters, they may serve as proof positive that their man is righteously renouncing the discredited rules of a broken political system.  

We don’t know what exactly Trump is up to. It’s possible that we’re witnessing gross incompetence. Alternatively, we may also be seeing the initial gambit in a new and larger political struggle.

In either case, the spectacle is new, and its stakes are enormous.     

Thinking about the PresidencyWilliam Howell is the Sydney Stein Professor of American Politics at the University of Chicago. He is the author or co-author of three Princeton University Press books that focus on different facets of presidential power: Power without Persuasion: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action (2003); While Dangers Gather: Congressional Checks on Presidential War Powers (2007); and Thinking about the Presidency: The Primacy of Power.

 

Colin Dayan: White Dogs on Track in Trump’s America

“Prejudice sets all logic at defiance.”
—Frederick Douglass

Since Donald Trump has brought Frederick Douglass back among the living—“an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more”—I begin with this epigraph. Trump is illogical. Yes. Trump is prejudiced. Yes. But more than that, he might just be our consummate white supremacist. “Bad logic makes good racism,” as I wrote in The Law is a White Dog.

Trump creates a reality that flies in the face of logic. The most fantastic fictions are put forth as the most natural, the most reasonable thing in the world. These fictions endure today in a lexicon of degradation well honed and reiterated by Trump. They create the stigma that adheres to radical states of non-belonging, summoned by him in names such as “thugs” or “criminals,” “rapists” or “terrorists.” Old inequalities and racial discrimination are repackaged in unexpected forms. But these inventions succeed only because they reflect the visceral approval of Trump’s constituency.

Shock and awe: Trump’s extravagant performance of cruelty, outright racism, and rule by executive decree in apparent defiance of law has been called a “constitutional crisis,” described with such adjectives as “unprecedented,” “un-American,” or “unpatriotic.” But we should not forget that his relentless generalizing operates under cover of excessive legalism. Perhaps excess is key to his success. America has always been excessive—not least in its institutionalization of slavery and its subsequent practices of incarceration, unique in the so-called civilized world.

So let’s take a few steps back. Is his touted ban on Muslims unusual? Not at all. Is his specious argument for torture out of the ordinary? Not at all.

Trump’s ban is brutal, but let’s face it, this country boasts a long, sordid history of evacuation. Blood as menacing taint was used during the forced repatriations of Haitians described as “boat people,” “the new migrants,” the “Haitian stampede.” The forced repatriations of Haitians in 1991–92 and the effects of arguments heard by the Supreme Court in March 1993 concerning those placed in custody at Guantanamo (and later on concerning forced removals, in 1994) were not the first nor would they be the last time the US banned “refugees” from our shores. Let’s not forget that as early as 1824, when Thomas Jefferson reflected on emancipation, he asked how “the getting rid” of “people of color” could best be done? He reckoned that in Haiti one might find fit “receptacles for that race of men.”

We have a heritage in America of torture and exclusion. These practices hide behind a veneer of legitimacy just as an idealized federal Constitution long ago abetted both discrimination and inequality. And though we deplore Trump’s wayward antics as a lapse from our normally high standards of respect for human rights, we need to consider the harm that a broad consensus of this country’s citizens has time and again meted out to those considered disposable, dangerous, or unfit. Again, when we hear that Trump’s executive orders are illegal or beyond the rule of law, we need to look hard and long at this country’s history of abusive treatment and discriminatory actions, especially in its prisons and detention centers.

Trump believes that torture—specifically banned interrogation methods such as waterboarding—works. But can it ever be legal? Let’s recall how George W. Bush attempted through White House lawyers to legalize torture. The infamous “torture memos” redefined the meaning of torture and extended the limits of permissible pain. Yet, and this matters, unprecedented as they appeared at the time, they relied—in their often ingenious legal maneuvers—upon at least 30 years of court decisions which gradually eviscerated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.”

Bush needed the so-called “torture memos” (sounds so quaint now) to skirt the rule of law, but this new dispensation needs none of it, since Trump and his cronies have already summoned the sometimes amorphous, always definitive moralistic standards that circumvent the basic tenets of constitutional law. Depending on vague and undefined legal provisos proclaimed by the executive, this regime depends on arbitrary willfulness backed up by police power, or in the case of what Trump calls the “carnage” in Chicago, his tweeted resolve to “send in the Feds.”

Police power is state power, ostensibly activated whenever there is any supposed threat to the health, safety, or welfare of citizens. Since 9/11, the so-called war on terror has widened the net: alleged terrorists, enemy aliens, illegal immigrants, all tarred with the same brush, are easily cast outside the pale of empathy.

Terror and legality go hand in hand. They always have done. Whether we look back to the law of slavery, to the legal fiction of prisoners as slaves of the state, to legalized torture in the “war on terror,” or to the discriminatory profiling and preventive detentions that we characterize as “homeland security,” we see how our society continues to invent the phantasm of criminality, creating a new class of condemned.

The ban and the wall are not exactly new stories. “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”—unless they’re Mexicans, Central Americans, Haitians, blacks, or other undesirables. As I said, we have a long tradition in this country of excluding people of color. But more recently, we have moved on from mass deportations of illegal immigrants. As a “consequence” (in the parlance of border patrol agents) of entering the United States illegally, many tens of thousands of Latinos are regularly subjected to brutal treatment by US Customs and Border Patrol. Trump’s executive order on January 27th barring immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, supported by nearly 50% of American adults, invites bigotry and its attendant techniques of violence and repression.

Legal rituals give flesh and new life to the remains of lethal codes and penal sanctions. The stigma of slavery—and its legal machinations—has never left us. Its ghosts still haunt our law and hold us in its thrall. The difference now is that Trump incarnates in his person and his words not just prejudice, but bad logic and maleficent law. He is wanton. There’s a lot of history in this word, in its hints of depravity, effeminacy, frivolity, and excess. The term also refers to pitilessness. Glee and malice work together in the abuse of those targeted for humiliation. Trump boasts, blusters, struts, and lies. This lethal affectation is his power.

Colin Dayan is the author of The Law is a White Dog.Dayan