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Turkey Summons U.S. Ambassador Over Embassy Brawl

Turkey summoned the U.S. ambassador to Ankara on Monday to lodge a formal complaint with the U.S. for how it handled a brawl outside the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., last week. Protesters who were demonstrating against the visit of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were beaten by members of his security detail, though it’s still unclear how the fight started. Nearly a dozen people were injured, and the incident has threatened an already tense diplomatic relationship.

Turkey’s complaint comes days after the U.S. summoned the country’s ambassador to Washington, and after several prominent U.S. lawmakers, including Arizona Senator John McCain, called on the U.S. to kick out the Turkish envoy. “We should throw the Turkish ambassador out of the country, we should identify those people that performed these unlawful acts of beating people up and they should be charged,” McCain said.

Summoning the U.S. ambassador John Bass is a way for Turkey to lodge a formal complaint, but it also threatens to make an already-tense situation worse. Last week, Erdogan visited Trump with little official controversy, despite Trump’s decision earlier this month to arm Syrian Kurds, whom the Turkish government sees as terrorists. But protesters had gathered outside the embassy during Erdogan’s visit to denounce his growing authoritarianism. The president has cracked down on dissenters since the failed coup to oust him last year, and reports say about 50,000 have been arrested.

The protest was peaceful until Erdogan returned from his visit to the White House. Then, several Turkish guards in suits rush the crowd and kicked, punched, and choked several demonstrators. The fight was recorded by journalists, and some videos show Erdogan watching as his guards beat the protesters. Local police struggled to control the fight, and arrested two protesters, as well as two Turkish security guards. The two guards were briefly detained, but they had diplomatic immunity, and were released, according to The New York Times. They later left the country. After the fight, D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham released a statement saying, “We intend to assure that there is accountability for anyone involved in this assault. Yesterday we witnessed what appeared to be a brutal attack on peaceful protests.”

Turkey, however, has its own version of events. In its summons, the Turkish Foreign Ministry criticized “the inability of U.S. authorities to take sufficient precautions at every stage of the official program.” Turkey also claimed the protesters were affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Ankara views as a terrorist organization. The state-run Anadolu news agency also released an edited video that framed the fight as one between protesters and pro-government counter-protesters. It blames protesters for starting the fight by throwing water bottles at security guards.

A statement from the Turkish embassy in Washington called for a full investigation into the violence.

The Supreme Court Finds North Carolina's Racial Gerrymandering Unconstitutional

You don’t see a Kagan-Breyer-Ginsburg-Sotomayor-Thomas majority often in U.S. Supreme Court decisions, but today that quintet joined together to deal a blow to North Carolina Republicans. In the decision in Cooper v. Harris, the eight-member pre-Gorsuch roster upheld a district court’s ruling that two congressional districts in North Carolina were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, putting an end to one part of a six-year saga that began with redistricting in 2011.

The two districts in question, District 1 and 12, were drawn in 2011 after the last Census and the 2010 midterms, as part of a nationwide and well-funded push by Republicans to reshape electoral maps and solidify a partisan advantage. In North Carolina, the state and federal congressional redistricting efforts also played part in the state’s ongoing conflicts over voting rights, and both sets of maps eventually found their way to state and federal courts.

The state Republican-led General Assembly made further tweaks to congressional districts that were already highly gerrymandered, and created a web of districts with little geographic coherence, in the process packing more black voters into certain districts and diluting their voting strength in others. District 12 already took the shape of a river cutting through the middle of the state prior to redistricting, but Republicans condensed its shape to connect black communities without picking up white voters in between. At times, the district was barely wider than the I-85 corridor that connected major black community centers in North Carolina’s Piedmont region.

(image)Source: North Carolina State Board of Elections

Republicans pursued the opposite tactic with respect to District 1, trimming its low-density eastern regions to add almost 100,000 people from black neighborhoods around Durham. The result in both of these districts was black majorities among the voting-age population, with the black voting-age population (BVAP) increasing by four percentage points in District 1 and a whopping seven percentage points in District 12.  

Drawing electoral districts based on race is not prohibited under the Constitution or the Voting Rights Act, but court interpretations of the VRA provide a three-item test (known as the Gingles test, after the 1986 Thornburg v. Gingles case) of when creating majority-minority districts is acceptable or even necessary for protecting racial minorities. Those conditions are the compactness or coherence of the minority group in question, the political cohesion of that group, and the likelihood of white voters tending to vote against that group’s preferred candidates if given a majority.

Indeed, Republican lawmakers tried to use the Gingles preconditions and the Voting Rights Act to provide legal cover for their maps, releasing a joint statement saying “the State has an obligation to comply with the Voting Rights Act,” and claiming their new maps were actually fixes to older VRA violations by previous state legislatures. But when plaintiffs from the gerrymandered districts sued the state, the Middle District court of North Carolina found their reasoning was more likely to have been aiming at racial dilution in other districts. In District 1, the court found, white voters often tended to vote along with black voters to elect “crossover” candidates, which means that the new district boundaries clearly didn’t meet all of the Gingles preconditions.

District 12 was a trickier case to analyze since its boundaries have already been subject to Supreme Court oversight and review. A prior Court decision found that the district’s extreme shape could hold on the grounds of partisan gerrymandering—which, within limits is accepted as constitutional—since it provided a safe seat for Democrats. Before the district court, Republicans claimed their changes to District 12 were built to maximize partisan advantage. The court, however, found that public statements from the redistricting chairs, State Senator Robert Rucho and State Representative David Lewis, admitting that District 12 was a remade as a VRA majority-minority district, as well as testimony from plaintiffs and data showing black voters in the general region were almost four times more likely than white voters to live in District 12, were enough evidence to constitute a racial gerrymander.

In upholding the lower court’s decisions, the Supreme Court issues one more blow to Republicans in the state, who last week vowed to fight back when the Court denied their 2013 voter-ID law a review after it was rejected by lower courts. Now, the district maps for the state General Assembly are the main outstanding item before the Court. For the immediate future, North Carolina will use maps based on redrawn legislative districts for the 2016 election that eschew the extreme shapes of the 2011 redistricting for districts with actual geographic coherence. But there’s only two more federal elections before the next round of redistricting in 2021.

Celine Dion Saved the Billboard Music Awards

The Billboard Music Awards is where you can have all your worst suspicions about today’s pop music confirmed. The biggest current stars seemed disposable as they performed in Las Vegas Sunday night: Drake let waterworks replace showmanship as he rapped in the middle of the Bellagio’s fountain; Lorde took the concept of a fake karaoke bar to its least exciting conclusion; Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran gave new meaning to “phoning it in” by just having overseas concerts simulcast on ABC. The worst set—Drew Taggart of the Chainsmokers mumbling millennial Mad Libs about premature nostalgia while climbing a staircase and then sitting down—felt like a satire on the overrating of white male mediocrity. Still, hosts Ludacris and Vanessa Hudgens pantomimed breathlessness throughout the night. Each muddled performance, we were told, was “epic.”

One song actually was epic, though. And befitting various pre-made narratives about national malaise, it came from a Canadian balladeer rehashing an adult-contemporary hit of two decades ago. Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” saved the Billboard Music Awards, and watching it might now save your Monday. (The full version is 1 hour and 17 minutes into ABC’s telecast.)

Dion was once a divisive cultural figure, seeming to embody pop’s sentimental excesses in one quivering human. These days, though, she’s taken on elder-stateswoman vibes as a generation of stars raised on her music have loudly proclaimed her influence and critics have given her new respect. There’s also the matter of personal tragedy. In January of 2016, her husband René Angélil died from cancer. Just months later she was at the Billboard Music Awards, powerfully belting Queen’s “The Show Must Go On,” launching her as a new icon of perseverance.

She returned to the Billboard stage on Sunday for the 20th anniversary of Titanic, and the occasion might suggest the main value of her performance would be time travel. Clips of young Leonard DiCaprio and Kate Winslet indeed played behind her—yes, including the “king of the world” moment. The now-unfashionable production choices of the original recording (those dewy keyboards!) remained in this arrangement, somewhat endearingly. But the startling thing about the performance was how arresting it was on its own terms, in the present.

Visually, we got pop opulence so well-executed that it transcends kitsch. Dion stood behind and then under a jeweled curtain hanging from an enormous chandelier(or jellyfish). Her dress from Stephane Rolland Haute Couture was a white winged sculpture, strikingly asymmetric in its evocation of the angelic. The woodwind player performed on a darkened stage across the room, allowing for high-drama camera swoops. All of which is, of course, preposterous—as preposterous as the song itself.

(image)Chris Pizzello / AP

Dion mostly stood still, her vocals doing more than execute on the song’s original power. The overplayed smash somehow sounded new, with her injecting into it greater quantities of her oft-imitated tics: those Quebecois inflections and yodel-y way with syllables. The lyrics about everlasting love, in the context of her recent familial loss, necessarily took on new meaning (Dionheads know it was Angélil who pushed her to record the song in the first place). For the grand final chorus, the lighting changed and the room was lit up with disco-ball sparkles; Dion was on the verge of tears.

But Hudgensactually was in tears by the end. Ludacris seemed, for once in the ceremony, truly wowed as he asked for an extra round of applause. Backstage, Dion proceeded to mint another memorable moment: As Cher, recipient of the same Icon Award that Dion won last year, performed “Believe” onstage, Dion sang along in front of a crowd of reporters. In instantly viral videos of the moment, you can see the wings of her dress wiggle as she bops along to another diva-goddess giving another showcase of resilience. “My Heart Will Go On” played as solemn and this backstage vignette did not, but both stood out amid Sunday night’s din for simply seeming genuine.

A Possible Hate Crime at the University of Maryland

A student visiting the University of Maryland was fatally stabbed over the weekend in an attack authorities are investigating as a possible hate crime.

“We have no doubt that Sean Urbanski with a knife stabbed Richard Wilbur Collins III and killed him—we know that to be a fact,” David B. Mitchell, the university’s police chief, said Sunday in a press conference. “The question is: Well, why did that happen?”

Collins, a 23-year-old ROTC student from Bowie State University, was visiting the College Park campus for commencement weekend when he was approached by Urbanski, a 22-year-old UMD student. Urbanski told Collins, who was waiting for an Uber ride at approximately 3 a.m. Sunday morning with two friends, to “step left, step left if you know what’s good for you.” Collins refused, after which Urbanski pulled out a knife and stabbed Collins in the chest.  

Collins, who was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army and was due to graduate Tuesday, was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.  

This is 2nd Lt. Richard Wilbur Collins III. Police say he was fatally stabbed by a suspect who belongs to "Alt-Reich" Facebook group #WBAL

— Vanessa Herring (@VanessaWBAL) May 22, 2017

Urbanski reportedly fled the scene, but was later picked up by police, arrested, and charged with first and second-degree murder and first-degree assault. He is being held without bail.

Police confirmed that Collins and Urbanski did not know each other prior to the attack, and called the incident, which was captured by a surveillance camera, “totally unprovoked.”

Though authorities originally said there was no indication race played a role in Collins’s killing, Mitchell said Urbanski’s membership in a Facebook group dubbed “Alt-Reich Nation” prompted authorities to investigate the murder as a possible hate crime.

“When I look at the information that's contained on that website, suffice it to say that it’s despicable, it shows extreme bias against women, Latinos, persons of Jewish faith, and especially African-Americans,” Mitchell said, adding the FBI’s digital-forensics team would provide technical support.

The attack is not the first racially linked incident to take place on UMD’s campus in recent months. A noose was found earlier this month at one of the university’s fraternity houses—an incident the university’s president called “despicable” and one that police are investigating as a hate crime. There have also been at least three incidents of white supremacist fliers being posted on campus.

The Finale of “The Greatest Show on Earth”

After a run of 146 years, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, known as "The Greatest Show on Earth," has come to an end. The final sold-out performance took place in Uniondale, New York, on May 21, 2017. Years of battles with animal rights activists had led the circus to retire its performing elephants last year, which appeared to worsen already-dropping attendance numbers, sealing its fate.  One of the two Ringling Bros. traveling circus units put on its final show in Rhode Island earlier this month, and the other unit closed the circus down last night with a grand finale in New York.

The Westernization of Emoji

When the restaurant Fortune Cookie opened in Shanghai, in 2013, local patrons were mystified. The food was Chinese, but also not Chinese at all. Dishes like crab rangoon, sticky orange chicken, and fortune cookies, are staples of American Chinese food. They’re rarely found in China.

Fortune Cookie’s owners wanted to introduce China to Chinese food as Americans know it—characterized by startlingly sweet flavors and laughably huge portions. For authenticity, the restaurant’s owners had to import ingredients like Skippy peanut butter and Philadelphia cream cheese. And when restaurant staffers first saw the white-and-red takeout boxes, some of them gathered around to take photographs. The cardboard containers seemed like something out of a sitcom to Chinese workers, who had only ever seen them before on American television shows like Friends and the Big Bang Theory, Fortune Cookie’s owners told news outlets at the time.

“I never saw any fortune cookie in my life until I was a teenager,” said Yiying Lu, a San Francisco-based artist who was born in Shanghai. Lu encountered her first fortune cookie when she left China and moved to Sydney, Australia.

Now, the fortune cookie she designed for the Unicode Consortium will be one of dozens of new emoji that are part of a June update. Lu also created the new emoji depicting a takeout box emoji, chopsticks, and a dumpling.

The irony, she says, is that two of the four new Chinese-themed emoji—the fortune cookie and the takeout box—are not Chinese Chinese, but instead reflect Westernized elements of Chinese culture. “It’s kind of like Häagen-Dazs,” Lu told me. “People think its Scandinavian just because of the two dots in the name, but it’s American. It’s the same thing with the takeout box. The Chinese takeout box is completely invented in the West. And the fortune cookie was invented by a Japanese person, but it was popularized in America.”

Emoji, too, were invented by a Japanese person before becoming hugely popular in the United States. For people outside of Japan, emoji were a charming and mysterious window into Japanese culture. The fact that they weren’t globally representative was part of what made emoji fascinating to people in the Western world.

Shigetaka Kurita, who designed the first emoji in 1999, never expected them to spread beyond Japan. But they did. And now they’re everywhere, thanks to the widespread adoption of the smartphone.

“The whole reason emoji are taking off the way they are is largely because of Apple, which is an American company,” said Christina Xu, an ethnographer who focuses on the social implications of technology. And although the Unicode Consortium—which standardizes how computers communicate text and agrees upon new emoji—it an international group, most of its voting members are affiliated with American companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Oracle, and IBM. “So even when it is about other cultures, it’s still about America,” Xu said.

Xu, who was born in China and grew up in the United States, says she has “mixed feelings” about the fortune cookie and takeout box emoji, and the extent to which they reflect how Westernized emoji seem to have become in the nearly two decades since Kurita’s first designs.

“I lump the fortune cookie and takeout box into American emoji in the same way that the taco emoji is about the American experience,” she told me. “Because there is this funny sense of feeling like we somehow deserve [certain emoji]. The outrage about the lack of the taco emoji was such a Bay Area thing—like it is inconceivable to us that we could lack representation of things that are central to our specific experience.”

“I identify as Chinese and Chinese American,” she added. “And as a Chinese American, I don’t really feel like we deserve a fortune cookie. It seems so limited. There are 1.5 billion Chinese people all around the world and there are more universal signs of our shared culture than a takeout box or fortune cookies. Those things are so specific to a narrow band of the Chinese experience.”

On the other hand, she says, they’re just emoji. And the fixation with depicting ever more emoji, and ever more realistic emoji, has taken away from some of their inscrutability—which was always a core part of their appeal.

“They accumulate whatever culture gets hanged onto them, and that is the fun part,” Xu said. “So this idea that we’re going to somehow create a truly diverse emoji set, when the concept of diversity itself is so essentially American? It’s almost a disguised form of American cultural dominance. It’s going to a place where it’s overly deterministic.”

Lu, who is also known for her design of the old-school Twitter fail whale, stumbled into emoji art by accident. It all began in a conversation with Jenny 8. Lee, who runs the literary studio Plympton, about how useful a dumpling emoji would be. The pair then launched a Kickstarter campaign advocating for the dumpling with a small group of emoji enthusiasts.

The first dumpling design Lu created had heart eyes. “That one was inspired by the poop emoji because it has a really funny face and it’s just the circle of life,” Lu told me. “You eat a dumpling and it becomes poop.”

The anthropomorphized dumpling didn’t last.

(image)Lu’s first two designs of the dumpling emoji (Yiying Lu)

Emoji food typically don’t have faces, the Unicode Consortium told her, and most foods are portrayed at a 45-degree angle.

(image)Emoji foods are often depicted at a 45-degree angle.

“So I said, ‘Okay, let me do research,’” Lu said. The research involved looking at (and eating) a lot of dumplings. “But it was hard! I had to figure out how do I represent the little folds in a way that it’s still abstract enough and simple enough but iconic enough.”

(image)Lu’s final dumpling design, which was accepted by the Unicode Consortium. (Yiying Lu)

Lu says the dumpling project was a way of making her own “little contribution to cross-cultural communication in the age of globalization,” and notes that she relied on others for cultural feedback in her subsequent designs. The first chopsticks she created were portrayed as crossed, which is considered impolite. Someone pointed this out to Lu on Twitter in response to the draft image. “I was born in China!” she said. “I thought I knew my root culture pretty well, but no! I was wrong.”

(image)In Lu’s initial design, the chopsticks were crossed. (Yiying Lu)(image)Lu uncrossed the chopsticks for her final design. (Yiying Lu)

Lee, who is the author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, says she’s “very proud” to have played a role in bringing the dumpling, takeout box, chopsticks, and fortune cookie to the realm of emoji. (She's also working on making a documentary film about emoji.) And as a non-voting member of the Unicode Consortium’s technical committee, Lee knows first-hand how seriously the group weighs issues related to representation.

“We had this big long debate about whether zombies and vampires can take race,” she told me, referring to the forthcoming zombie and vampire emoji. Ultimately, the consortium decided that people can select different skin tones for zombies and vampires—but not for genies. “They’re just blue,” she said. “The genies are raceless.”

(image)Yiying Lu and Jenny 8. Lee pose with Lu’s dumpling design. (Yiying Lu)

“The people who fight the hardest for certain emoji are usually trying to fight for representation for themselves in some way,” Lee told me. “Most linguists say emoji are not currently a language—they’re paralinguistic, the equivalent of hand gestures or voice tone. But for people who use them, it’s almost like fighting for a word that [shows] you exist. When you come up with a word to describe your population, it’s a very powerful thing.”

Powerful but also impermanent. Language changes constantly. Cultural context shifts. Back in Shanghai, Fortune Cookie stayed open longer than its initial critics predicted, but it still didn’t last. The restaurant closed abruptly last year. Its owners said at the time they’d decided to move back to America.

Why So Much Is ‘Bonkers’ Right Now

On Friday, as a capper to a week that included a steady stream of breaking news about the doings of the Trump administration, Mother Jones sent a note of reassurance to its readers: “It’s Not Just You,” the magazine declared: “This Week Was Bonkers.” Vox, the same day, reporting on the movies of the Cannes Film Festival, announced that “Netflix’s Okja is a bonkers corporate satire starring Tilda Swinton and a superpig.” The Daily Beast, on Monday morning, wrote about David Lynch’s newly returned show, announcing that “Twin Peaks Is Back and More Delightfully Bonkers Than Ever.” The conservative political strategist Rick Wilson recently described the current situation of many of the president’s supporters in the government: “They’re afraid of Donald Trump going crazy,” he said—“you know, ripshit bonkers on them.”

“Ripshit bonkers” is an especially felicitous turn of phrase—Wilson later told the linguist Ben Zimmer that, as far as “ripshit” went, “my first memory of that word was from my (very) German great-grandfather when I was a child”—but “bonkers” requires no extra decoration. It describes things that are amusingly wacky, and, in the least literal of ways, insane: In some small sense, the past week was crazy. The movie was crazy. The new Twin Peaks is crazy.

But “crazy” is a fraught word, these days—and only partially because of its long history of undermining women, as a group. To call a movie or a TV show or a news event “crazy” is also to make light, or at least to run the risk of being seen as making light, of mental illness. Same with “insane.” Same with “wacko.” While “bonkers,” too, has a whiff of that connotation—“crazy, mad” is the brief definition Merriam Webster offers of “\ˈbäŋ-kərz,” and Urban Dictionary helpfully connects the adjective to, among others, “batty,” “bananas,” “cracked,” “crazed,” “demented,” “flipped,” “insane,” “maniacal,” “screwball,” and “unhinged”—it is farther removed from mental illness than its many semi-synonyms. “Bonkers,” coming as it does from the verb “bonk,” has a certain zaniness written into it, suggesting craziness of a decidedlywhimsical strain. “Fans went bonkers when their team won” is how Merriam-Webster uses the word in a sentence.

So “bonkers” has risen steadily in English usage in recent decades, and only partially because, as Bob Dylan might have put it in an early draft of the song, the times, they are a-bonkers. The Huffington Post, in March, offered “4 Reasons Why Trump’s Budget Is Bonkers.” The comedian Jennifer Saunders titled her recent memoir Bonkers: My Life in Laughs. The New York Times columnist Charles Blow, last year, argued that “‘Bernie or Bust’ Is Bonkers.” Cracked lists “4 Ways A Normal American Day Is Absolutely Bonkers to Others.” Jezebel features a “Bonkers” tag. And people on social media regularly assess the news in terms of its relative bonkers-ness—using the colorful adjective at once to undermine events as happenings and to elevate them as entertainments.

— Joy Reid (@JoyAnnReid) May 17, 2017

It's hard to overstate how bonkers this is.

— Carlos Maza (@gaywonk) May 12, 2017

WH press briefings, summarized:

REPORTER: Trump tweeted [bonkers tweet of the day], what did he mean?

SPICER: Tweet speaks for itself.

— Parker Molloy (@ParkerMolloy) May 12, 2017

"The President has nothing further to add to that." on recording devices, threatening Comey, sending tweets. #bonkers

— Jonathan Capehart (@CapehartJ) May 12, 2017

Even the most mundane passages about Trump are bonkers. This is a guilty idiot trying to convince himself he’s neither.

— Jamison Foser (@jamisonfoser) May 12, 2017

Another thing that gives “bonkers” its appeal in American English: The word is imported from the British version of the language, in the rough manner of “cheeky,” and “fancy,” and “twit,” giving it the soft sheen of the foreign. “Bonkers” seems to have appeared in the U.K., for the first time, around 1945: That year, a Daily Mirror article noted, “If we do that often enough, we won’t lose contact with things and we won’t go ‘bonkers.’” (What activity “that” was referring to has, sadly, been lost to time).John Osborne’s 1957 play The Entertainer used it (“We’re drunks, maniacs, we’re crazy, we’re bonkers, the whole flaming bunch of us”), as did Kingsley Amis’s Take  Girl Like You, in 1960: “Julian’s absolutely bonkers, too, you know.”

The precise etymology of “bonkers” is unknown, but it likely came about the way Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of Forces’ Slang, hinted at in his 1948 definition of the term: “Bonkers, light in the head; slightly drunk. (Navy.) Perhaps from bonk, a blow or punch on the bonce or head.” (“Bonkers” might also be connected to the other verbal senses of “bonk”—to have sex with, as in Mary Roach’s delightfully titled book, or more recently, in endurance sports, to hit a wall.) The word, with its multi-dimensional utility, quickly crossed over to the U.S.; its first known citation in America came in 1965, from the New York Times reporter Israel Shenker, who availed himself of the word’s alliteratively poetic possibilities: “In Paranoia, his newest picture,” Shenker wrote, “Italy’s Marcello Mastroianni goes slowly bonkers sharing bath, bed, and Bedouin with three co-stars.”

Since then, “bonkers” has enjoyed life on both sides of the Atlantic, as an adjective and a proper noun: It has given its name to a board game, and an animated TV show, and a children’s party venue in Columbia, Missouri, and a late, lamented brand of chewy candy:  


In the TV commercials for the Starburst-esque treats, Bonkers’ tagline was “Bonkers! Bonks you out!” And that is the sense that is often employed today, as American citizens—members of the media both professional and not—take a look at the world swirling around them and decide that things are, indeed ... yeah. The media? Apple’s new campus in Cupertino? A conspiracy theory about Avril Lavigne? The president? Bonkers all, the people decide. And yet—here is one more benefit of the bonk—the people haven’t, in the end, decided much at all.

“Bonkers” is, despite its zeal for the zany, notably hesitant. It resists making a value judgment. It throws up its hands. “Crazy,” even disentangled from its psychological sense, has a moral valence. So does “insane.” “Bonkers,” though, marvels at the thing while doing very little to judge the thing. It suggests a kind of assessment fatigue on the part of its user, a tendency to find current events not straightforwardly good or bad, but simply abnormal. So the Brits, nearly a century ago, created a word would become uniquely suited to this American moment: a time when news can be so often confusing, and overwhelming, and, all in all, a little bit bonkers.

Mother, Wife, Slave

“Having a slave gave me grave doubts about what kind of people we were, what kind of place we came from,” Alex Tizon wrote in his Atlantic essay “My Family’s Slave.”

A thousand objections can be leveled against that piece, and in the few days since it was published, those objections have materialized from all quarters. It’s a powerful story, and its flaws and omissions have their own eloquence. For me, the most important failure is that Tizon seems to attribute Lola’s abuse entirely to another culture—specifically, to a system of servitude in the Philippines—as though he believes, This doesn’t happen in America. But that system is not only in America, it’s everywhere. It ensnares not only immigrants, but everyone.

In fact, Tizon passed away just days before Politico published an exposé of the U.S. Au Pair program, a program in which foreigners (usually young women) stay with a host family in exchange for housework and childcare—a type of “cultural exchange” meant to build good relations between countries. But the program is rife with abuse: au pairs have reported being illegally worked for endless hours, starved, humiliated, threatened with deportation, and not compensated. “They think we are slaves,” says one. The host families who mistreat them are often upper-class white Americans. Although many au pairs report good experiences, the failures Politico documents illustrate that crippling exploitation can fester even in a supposedly regulated program in ordinary households of long-assimilated Americans.

When Tizon was young, the only point of comparison for his family’s exploitation of Eudocia Tomas Pulido—called Lola throughout his account—was the slave Pompey in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a John Wayne movie he sees on television. It’s not clear from his essay whether the adult Tizon learned much about systems of domestic-labor exploitation across the globe: the mistreatment of au pairs in the U.S., the plight of migrant domestic workers abroad, or the epidemic of abusive marriages in which undocumented wives are cut off from society in ways that mirror Lola’s isolation.

Tizon chose a frame for his essay that omits these systems entirely. In doing so, he missed an opportunity to capture the full context of Lola’s enslavement: that she was his third parent, his true mother, and his biological mother’s battered wife.

Indeed, many of the tactics that Tizon’s biological parents employ to keep Lola trapped are straight out of the same playbook used by the abusive spouses of undocumented wives and the very worst host families of au pairs: Lola is prevented from assimilating into society, she does not have access to her own finances, she cannot leave the house because she cannot drive. Her immigration status is wielded as a weapon against her. She is physically intimidated and verbally abused; she is beaten down day by day so that she will continue to take care of the children and do the work that the abusers cannot or do not wish to do.

But she lavishes affection on the Tizon children, and the children love her in return. Because the biological parents leave the domestic sphere to Lola, she is closer than either of them to the children: “She got to know the details of our lives in a way that my parents never had the mental space for,” Tizon writes.

The young Tizon fights back his tears while trying to defend Lola, only for his parents to then accuse Lola of turning him against them. His biological mother torments Lola all the more, in retaliation, if the children try to intervene or help Lola with her work.

Tizon and his siblings ask Lola why she stays with their biological mother, and she replies, “Who will cook?” and “Where will I go?” When Tizon reflects on the past, he wonders if he should have told others about what was happening to Lola, exposing the family to the threat of deportations.

Tizon’s emotional turmoil and self-loathing can be read as self-serving, but they also echo common experiences of children who witness intimate partner violence. In a way, “My Family’s Slave” is one more addition to a body of literature in which sons grapple with having to watch their fathers beat their mothers. Who will cook? Where will I go? These statements are likely familiar to anyone who has tried to convince a victim of abuse to leave their partner. And the choice to hide abuse, rather than to risk deportation, is particularly familiar in the context of an immigrant family.

Although Tizon calls his biological parents “Mom” and “Dad,” both figures come off as distant and relatively uninvolved. The essay is not kind to his biological mother, even with his much-criticized attempts to humanize her, including a passage where he describes reading her diaries. Tizon seems surprised at the love and care his biological mother expresses about her children, as surprised as he is by the accounts of the friendships she has formed with other women at work. “Mom had a life and an identity apart from the family and Lola. Of course.”

Tizon admits to, at times, feeling real hatred for his biological mother. In contrast, the most negative emotion he feels about Lola is annoyance when she moves in with him: He is annoyed that she tells him to wear a sweater, annoyed that she gripes so much about his father and stepfather, annoyed that she fills his kitchen with disposable containers. These are the emotions a child feels about an aging, hoarder parent who comes to live with them.

Whether or not he realized it, Lola was his real mother.

Tizon uses “Mom” and “Dad”—parental titles—to refer to two distant figures. And when he looks at Lola’s domestic work and emotional labor—acts that are coded in our culture as motherly love—he thinks to himself, “That is servitude.”

But is he wrong? Marriage, for most of human history, has been a gross violation of human rights. Women were sold or given to men by their parents. Their bodies were used to cook, to clean, to make children and to take care of them—all for free. Violence and exploitation are not incidental to the feminized labor that is coded as motherly love, but historically inseparable from it.

Tizon’s love for Lola, and whatever love Lola bore for him, are not incidental to the violations of her rights. Their bond is not a poignant coda that helps to mitigate the horror of her enslavement. Nor is it an inconvenient detail in a bigger story of oppression. Their mother-child connection was the basis, the cause, and the reason for her exploitation.

The romantic mystique around familial love is used to gloss over matters such as compensation and humane treatment. “Embrace of the kinship idiom can deter [au pairs] from complaining about their living and working conditions,” writes the law professor Janie Chuang of the U.S. Au Pair program. When Tizon accuses his biological mother of owning a slave, she defends herself by claiming that he will “never understand” her special relationship to Lola. What’s wrong with working your mother for 15 hours a day, anyway? It’s all in the family.

* * *

By the time I was born, my extended family in Korea neither arranged marriages nor had servants. But “My Family’s Slave” dredged things up that I had not thought about in a long time. My own late grandmother, the proud matriarch of a large family that included 20 grandchildren, was only 15 when she married my 26-year-old grandfather. He had already been widowed twice by then, and had two small children that needed to be taken care of. He liked the look of my grandmother, and asked her parents if he could marry her. She rarely spoke of her deceased husband, and when other grandchildren attempted to record her life story, they couldn’t get very far before she broke down in tears and refused to continue.

I will never know the full story about my grandmother and grandfather. But I know something was terribly wrong. I feel cheated that I will never get to know the truth, and at the same time, I am relieved that I will never have to reckon with whatever their relationship was.

Unconscionable exploitation runs with the long familial ties that stretch through the centuries. Some people, particularly newer immigrants to America, are much closer to that exploitation than others. But everyone, somewhere down the line, owes their birth and very existence to someone’s degradation.

These days, marriage is thought of as a partnership premised on consent. Motherly love is thought of as something good and pure. An innocent child’s trust is thought of as enriching a mother’s life. In truth, we are poison to our own mothers.

Romantic beliefs about marriage are either modern developments, or, in the case of many families, outright lies painted onto the facade of domestic violence.

To outsiders, Tizon’s biological mother got to live an enlightened modern life. She was an immigrant woman who became a doctor against the odds. Her diaries speak of empowering friendships built with other women in her workplace. To them, she may have been a pioneer, a trailblazer, a female role model. But she achieved this off Lola’s back. The ambitious lady doctor got to have it all because of the enslavement of the woman who played her stay-at-home wife.

When I first read “My Family’s Slave,” I came away convinced that Tizon had died without coming to the realization that Lola was his true mother. Now I am merely unsure. Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s obituary in The Seattle Times six years ago omits mention of the horrific abuse Lola suffered over the decades. (The obituary section is not a place known for soul-baring honesty). But it does say something that Tizon neglects to clarify in his piece: It defines “Lola” as the Tagalog word for “grandmother.”

Since Tizon’s piece was published, I have heard from countless Tagalog speakers on social media about the meaning of “Lola.” Most agree that the correct translation is “grandmother.” Others say that it is an ambiguous honorific for any older woman in a household. Some explain that it is a term of respect and veneration. A few have told me that it is a familial term applied to maids and domestic workers, similar to how “auntie” is used in other cultures. One American woman, who worked as an au pair in Italy, says that she knew a Filipina au pair there who introduced herself as “Lola.”

The ambiguity of “Lola” reminds me that there are aspects of “My Family’s Slave” that are opaque to me as a cultural outsider—for example, distinctions between types of domestic servitude, the legal protections that apply to some but not others, or the concept of reciprocity as utang na loob. I am increasingly convinced that Tizon’s lack of explanation in this case is an intentional omission, that he believed that the very meaning of “Lola” is too close to the problem and too fraught to unpack in an English-language publication for American readers.

And in the end, how much does it really matter what his Lola meant to him? His essay is imbued with the sense that he failed her. Loving someone as your mother—no matter how genuinely she loves you back—does not make up for her enslavement.

How Women Mentors Make a Difference in Engineering

For some women, enrolling in an engineering course is like running a psychological gauntlet. If they dodge overt problems like sexual harassment, sexist jokes, or poor treatment from professors, they often still have to evade subtler obstacles like the implicit tendency to see engineering as a male discipline. It’s no wonder women in the U.S. hold just 13 to 22 percent of the doctorates in engineering, compared to an already-low 33 percent in the sciences as a whole.

Nilanjana Dasgupta, from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, thinks that mentors—people who can give advice, share experiences, or make social connections—can dismantle the gauntlet, and help young women to find their place in an often hostile field.

In a year-long study—one of the strongest yet to look at the value of mentorship—Dasgupta showed that female engineering undergraduates who are paired with a female mentor felt more motivated, more self-assured, and less anxious than those who had either no mentor or a male one. They were less likely to drop out of their courses, and keener to look for engineering jobs after they graduated. “Often, science is messy and things don’t turn out neatly,” Dasgupta says. But in this study, “it was very gratifying how clean the results were.”

She sees mentors as “social vaccines.” Just as medical vaccines prepare the immune system to deal with infections, good mentors inoculate the mind against the stultifying effects of negative stereotypes. “And this study isn’t just about women,” adds Radhika Nagpal, from Harvard University. “It’s about all the groups who have been historically and legally excluded, and are now slowly entering a world from which their members were barred. There’s a famous saying: You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Between 2011 and 2015, Dasgupta and her colleague Tara Dennehy recruited 150 women who enrolled in the university’s engineering course, and randomly assigned them to either a female mentor, a male mentor, or no mentor. The mentors were all high-performing senior students who shared the same majors as their mentees. After a brief training session, they were asked to meet with their charges once a month, and help them to wrestle with academic problems, develop long-term plans, find a social network, and more.

A year later, Dennehy and Dasgupta surveyed the volunteers. Compared to their mentor-less peers, the students with female mentors felt more accepted by their peers and less invisible. They were more confident in their engineering skills, and more likely to think they had a talent for the subject. They were more likely to think that their ability to overcome their academic challenges outweighed the stress and uncertainty they felt.

“It’s not that having a female mentor increased belonging or confidence—it just preserved it,” Dasgupta notes. This is a critical point. Without any mentorship at all, the volunteers felt increasingly anxious, under-confident, and out of the place through the year. But the mentors helped to straighten these arcs that, by default, veer towards exclusion and attrition.

That has long-term effects. As the months wore on, Dennehy and Dasgupta found that women without mentors increasingly thought about switching majors, and became less keen on pursuing graduate degrees in engineering. By the end of the first year, 11 percent of them had dropped out. By contrast, the students with female mentors remained equally committed to their fields, and every single one of them stayed the course.

Why? The answer had nothing to do with academic performance: The students’ actual grades had no bearing on their odds of staying in engineering. Instead, “the active ingredients are belonging and confidence,” says Dasgupta. “Humans are social animals. Our ability alone doesn’t determine whether we stay in or leave a field. It’s ability mixed in that feeling that these are your people, this is where you belong. Absent, that even high-performers might not feel motivated to stay.” Which makes you wonder: How many brilliant minds have been lost from engineering and other STEM disciplines because those disciplines didn’t create spaces for them?

Dennehy and Dasgupta also found that male mentors were somewhat of a mixed bag. In some measures, they were just as effective as female mentors. In others, they were indistinguishable from having no mentor at all. And in some cases, they were worse: They actually increased women’s anxiety about their performance over time.

Why? Dasgupta expected that the female mentors would provide more social and emotional support—but that wasn’t the case. The mentors all kept diaries about their conversations with their mentees, and these revealed that both genders largely talked about the same kinds of academic problems. And the mentees themselves felt that the male mentors were just as supportive and available as the female ones. Instead, Dasgupta speculates that the men just couldn’t act as role models in the same way that other women could, and so couldn’t catalyze those all-important feelings of belonging.

That’s not to say that the men have no role to play. “They could connect women to other women in engineering, or to female faculty who could do the work of social belonging in a way that the male mentors can’t provide themselves,” Dasgupta says.

Lin Bian from the University of Illinois, who recently showed that gendered stereotypes about intelligence take root at the young age of 6, says that Dasgupta’s study reveals how “role models inoculate women against negative beliefs during critical transitions.” The start of college is one such transition—a point when life gets upended, and when people feel a surge of uncertainty about their place in the world. That’s when mentoring can make the most difference.

“It makes an incredible case for near-peer mentoring to increase the graduation rate of women in engineering degree programs,” says Sheila Boyington, the president of the Million Women Mentors initiative. “While much of the study is indeed intuitive, it affirms a well-defined path forward for universities to follow if they want to increase diversity in STEM.”

And although mentoring is just one of many possible solutions, “it’s not an either-or situation,” says Nagpal. “We need to do everything, like mentoring, fighting sexist exclusionary behaviors, training men to behave better, and investing money in better practices. We need to make up for century of neither-nor.”

The Federal Prosecutors Backing Jeff Sessions on Mandatory Minimums

Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recent directive to federal prosecutors to seek the harshest charges and sentences against defendants drew swift opposition from criminal-justice reform advocates both in and outside of government. The policy contrasts sharply with recent efforts to reduce America’s prison population—a goal that’s made odd bedfellows from across the political spectrum—and effectively rolls back Obama-era sentencing reforms. Not surprisingly, former Attorney General Eric Holder chimed in with a rebuke, saying in a statement that the directive was driven by “voices who have not only been discredited, but until now have been relegated to the fringes of this debate.”

One such controversial voice is the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, a union-like organization representing a conservative bloc of AUSAs, the trial lawyers who litigate on behalf of the U.S. government in federal cases. The group has long lobbied for policies that give federal prosecutors more power in the courtroom and against reforms, like those generated under the Obama administration, to limit the use of mandatory-minimum sentences and give prosecutors more discretion, particularly with nonviolent drug offenses.

But while its members constitute a minority of these lawyers—roughly 1,500 of the 5,000 total AUSAs nationwide—the group’s relatively small size does not seem to correlate with its level of influence in the Trump administration. Indeed, some members of NAAUSA, along with other federal prosecutors, were contacted by the Justice Department before Sessions’s memo was released, the group’s president, Larry Leiser, told me in an interview. Though he declined to confirm whether the department solicited input on the policy shift, he claimed it was met with “overwhelming” support.

There’s good reason for the memo to be popular with his organization, aside from its ideological underpinnings: Leiser’s predecessor works alongside Sessions in the Justice Department, and the attorney general’s memo marked the first time that the group’s fingerprint was traceable on federal policy under the new administration. (A Justice Department official declined to comment on NAAUSA’s purported role in the directive’s crafting.)

Only three years ago, Washington Post columnist Radley Balko described the association’s lobbying efforts against lighter sentences for nonviolent drug convictions as “more of a death rattle than a significant pushback against reform.” NAAUSA was one of seemingly few groups opposed to a sentencing-reform bill that had broad bipartisan support in Congress before becoming stuck there last year. The legislation united, as Matt Ford recently put it, “figures ranging from Barack Obama to the Koch brothers.” In a letter to Holder protesting his support for the bill, NAAUSA defended mandatory minimums as only used to sentence “the most serious criminals” and as measures to “protect law-abiding citizens and help hold crime in check.”

That viewpoint has found new life in the Trump era. Sessions, who was one of the NAAUSA’s few allies in Congress and similarly opposed the sentencing bill, became the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer earlier this year. And he took with him the group’s former president, Steven Cook, who testified against reform in the Senate and whose “arguments on behalf of [his organization] laid the groundwork” for the current push for stricter policies, as The Trace reported. In March, Sessions appointed Cook deputy associate attorney general, putting him in charge of addressing urban violence.

Watching Cook ascend with Sessions seemed to verify the administration’s intention to turn back the clock on criminal-justice reform for Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which has lobbied against NAAUSA for years. “It wasn’t like I thought Sessions was going to turn around and become some reformer,” Ring said. “But it made it real.” AUSAs are hired to carry out government policy, not influence it, he said, making the group’s presence in Washington “strange”: “You don’t see career bureaucrats at the Commerce Department go to the Hill and lobby against NAFTA when the administration they work for supports it.”

Plenty of lawyers remain on the sentencing-reform side of the argument. “Prosecuting everyone without having to execute sound judgment is easier in many ways, but isn’t how we truly make our communities safer and how we rebuild trust,” said Miriam Krinsky, a former AUSA in California. “Bottom line, what’s going to happen is this is going to put a lot of people in jail,” Thomas Bergstrom, a former AUSA in Pennsylvania, told the National Law Journal. “It looks like all U.S. attorneys are going to be under the thumb of the attorney general.”

Some lawyers are even scrambling to push cases through before the new policy takes effect. In Florida, the acting U.S. attorney for the state’s Middle District sent defense lawyers a letter telling them they have just two weeks to finalize plea deals.

Leiser, who took over NAAUSA’s reins when Cook left, disputed the notion that his group will have more influence because of Cook’s power in the Justice Department. But he did say, somewhat paradoxically, that he expects its “voice to have more of an impact” because the new administration is “receptive” to members’ positions.

In Leiser’s view, the notion that mandatory minimums too severely punish nonviolent drug offenders with lengthy sentences—which is generally accepted among public-policy experts—is misleading. “Drugs by their very nature are violent,” he told me, echoing a claim Cook made in a Fox News interview last June. Leiser added that drug trafficking “requires the kind of violence that is necessary to survive in competing with other drug traffickers—in getting people to pay you the money they owe you.”

During the Obama administration, the number of drug cases prosecuted at the federal level dropped. According to Justice Department data, there was a 20 percent decline between 2012 and 2015. The federal prison population fell under Holder’s tenure for the first time since 1980. There are currently 188,686 federal inmates, down from a peak of 216,000 in 2013.

Leiser told me Sessions’s directive will ensure the law is implemented evenly in jurisdictions across the country. The cost of incarceration should not be measured in dollars, he said, apparently referring to arguments that mass incarceration hurts public coffers in addition to its other drawbacks. Rather, the cost should be “in terms of the horrific damage that drug addiction has done to our society—not only the people who are addicted, but the people who love them and care for them.”

With sentencing concerns now off its plate, NAAUSA has a policy recommendation coming soon on asset forfeiture, another powerful prosecutorial tool that allows governments to seize the property, cash, and other assets of those accused of crimes. Its use has been heavily criticized by reformers and federal watchdogs as a revenue-generating machine, allowing governments at all levels to make money from people who in some cases won’t ever be charged with a crime. “We believe that asset forfeiture is a good and viable tool, but some changes need to be adjusted to make it fairer,” Leiser said. That position puts NAAUSA in an unusual place: between reformers who loathe the practice and an attorney general who supports it.

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