Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sunday Reading

Liar, Liar — Jonathan Chait on the serial mendacity of Donald J. Trump.

Donald Trump is a wildly promiscuous liar. He also has disturbing authoritarian tendencies. Trump’s many critics have seized upon both traits as his two major disqualifications for the presidency, yet both of them frustratingly defy easy quantification. All politicians lie some, and many of them lie a lot, and most presidents also push the limits of their authority in ways that can frighten their opponents. So what is so uniquely dangerous about Trump? Perhaps the answer is that both of these qualities are, in a sense, the same thing. His contempt for objective truth is the rejection of democratic accountability, an implicit demand that his supporters place undying faith in him. Because the only measure of truth he accepts is what he claims at any given moment, the power his supporters vest in him is unlimited.

Trump lies routinely, about everything. Various journalists have tried to tally up his lies, inevitably giving up and settling for incompletesummaries. Some of these lies are merely standard, or perhaps somewhat exaggerated, versions of the way members of his party talk about policy. (The “real” unemployment rate is as high as 42 percent, or his gargantuan tax-cut plan “will be revenue-neutral.”) At times he engages in especially brazen rewriting of his own positions, such as insisting he opposed the Iraq War when he did not, or denying his past support for universal health insurance. Some of his lies are conspiracy theories that run toward the edges of respectable Republican thought (Barack Obama was actually born abroad) or even well beyond it (Ted Cruz’s father may have conspired to kill John F. Kennedy). In all these areas, Trump has merely improved upon the methods used by the professionals in his field.

Where he has broken truly unique ground is in his lies about relatively small, routine matters. As I’ve pointed out before — it’s become a small personal fixation — after Mitt Romney mocked the failure of Trump Steaks, Trump held a press conference in which he insisted Trump Steaks remained a going concern, despite the undeniable fact that the business no longer exists. (His campaign displayed store-bought steaks for the media, not even bothering to fully remove the labels of the store at which they purchased them.) The New York Times actually reported this week that Trump had displayed his steaks, without mentioning the blatant deception. Another such example is Trump’s prior habit of impersonating an imaginary p.r. representative while speaking to reporters. Obviously, the practice itself is strange enough, but the truly Trumpian touch is that he admitted to the ruse publicly, and then subsequently went back to denying it.

The normal rules of political lying hold that when the lie has been exposed, or certainly when it has been confessed, the jig is up. You have to stop lying about it and tell the truth, or at least retreat to a different lie. Trump bends the rules of the universe to his own will, at no apparent cost. His brazenness is another utterly unique characteristic. His confidence that he can make the truth whatever he wishes at any moment, and toggle back and forth between incompatible realities at will, without any cost to himself, is a display of dominance. Possibly Trump’s most important statement of the campaign was his idle boast that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue without losing any votes.

Finally, there is Trump’s habit of settling all disputes with his own peculiar form of ad hominem. He dismisses all criticisms of his statements and his record with an array of put-downs, and likewise confirms all endorsements with praise. Anybody who disagrees with Trump is ugly, short, corrupt, a loser, a habitual liar, a total joke, and so forth. People who support him are smart, beautiful, fair, esteemed, etc. But politics being as it is — and, especially, Trump’s positions being as fluid as they are — the composition of the two categories is in constant flux. One day, you are a failing, ridiculous, deranged liar, and the next day a citizen of the highest regard. Trump literally called Ben Carson a “violent criminal” and a “pathological liar,” akin to a “child molester.” When later accepting Carson’s endorsement, Trump praised his “dignity.” Once Trump mocked Rick Perry as a moron who wore glasses to look smart and who should be required to take an IQ test to participate in presidential debates. Now he is a “good guy, good governor.” This is the pattern Trump uses to dismiss all media criticism, or to amplify friendly coverage. Every reporter or publication is either pathetic and failing or fair and wonderful, and the same reporters and publications can be reclassified as one or the other as Trump sees fit.

1984 is a cliché for invoking totalitarianism, and in any case, Trump is merely an authoritarian and a bully, not a totalitarian. (A totalitarian government, like North Korea, exerts control over every aspect of its citizens’ lives; an authoritarian one, like Putin’s Russia, merely uses enough fear and violence to maintain control.) Nonetheless, the novel does capture the relationship between dictatorial authority and the power to manipulate any fact into a binary but permeable scheme:

The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia. Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford were guilty of the crimes they were charged with. He had never seen the photograph that disproved their guilt. It had never existed, he had invented it. He remembered remembering contrary things, but those were false memories, products of self-deception.

Truth and reason are weapons of the powerless against the powerful. There is no external doctrine he can be measured against, not even conservative dogma, which he embraces or discards at will and with no recognition of having done so. Trump’s version of truth is multiple truths, the only consistent element of which is Trump himself is always, by definition, correct. Trump’s mind is so difficult to grapple with because it is an authoritarian epistemology that lies outside the democratic norms that have shaped all of our collective experiences.

Magnetic Personalities — M.R. O’Connor in The New Yorker on nature’s GPS system.

Every three years, the Royal Institute of Navigation organizes a conference focussed solely on animals. This April, the event was held southwest of London, at Royal Holloway College, whose ornate Victorian-era campus has appeared in “Downton Abbey.” For several days, the world’s foremost animal-navigation researchers presented their data and findings in a small amphitheatre. Most of the talks dealt with magnetoreception—the ability to sense Earth’s weak but ever-present magnetic field—in organisms as varied as mice, salmon, pigeons, frogs, and cockroaches. This marked a change from previous years, Richard Nissen, a member of the Institute, told me, when a range of other navigation aids were part of the discussion: landmarks, olfactory cues, memory, genetics, polarized light, celestial objects. “Everyone now seems completely sold on the idea that animal navigation is based on magnetism,” Nissen said. Human-centric as it sounds, most of the conference’s attendees believe that animals possess a kind of compass.

Scientists have sought for centuries to explain how animals, particularly migratory species, find their way with awesome precision across the globe. Examples of these powers abound. Bar-tailed godwits depart from the coastal mudflats of northern Alaska in autumn and set out across the Pacific Ocean, flying for eight days and nights over featureless water before arriving in New Zealand, seven thousand miles away. If the birds misjudge their direction by even a few degrees, they can miss their target. Arctic terns travel about forty thousand miles each year, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again. And odysseys of this sort are not limited to the feathered tribes. Some leatherback turtles leave the coast of Indonesia and swim to California, more than eight thousand miles away, then return to the very beaches where they hatched. Dragonflies and monarch butterflies follow routes so long that they die along the way; their great-grandchildren complete the journey.

Although the notion of a biocompass was widely disparaged in the first half of the twentieth century, the evidence in favor of it has since become quite strong. In the early nineteen-sixties, a German graduate student named Wolfgang Wiltschko began conducting experiments with European robins, which he thought might find their way by picking up radio waves that emanated from the stars. Instead, Wiltschko discovered that if he put the robins in cages equipped with a Helmholtz coil—a device for creating a uniform magnetic field—the birds would change their orientation when he switched the direction of north. By the start of this century, seventeen other species of migratory bird, as well as honeybees, sharks, skates, rays, snails, and cave salamanders, had been shown to possess a magnetic sense. In fact, practically every animal studied by scientists today demonstrates some capacity to read the geomagnetic field. Red foxes almost always pounce on mice from the northeast. Carp floating in tubs at fish markets in Prague spontaneously align themselves in a north-south axis. So do dogs when they crouch to relieve themselves, and horses, cattle, and deer when they graze—except if they are under high-voltage power lines, which have a disruptive influence.

The only problem is that no one can seem to locate the compass. “We are still crying out for how do they do this,” Joseph Kirschvink, a geobiologist at the California Institute of Technology, said. “It’s a needle in the haystack.” Kirschvink meant this almost literally. In 1981, as a Ph.D. student at Princeton University, he proposed that magnetite, a naturally occurring oxide of iron that he had found in honeybees and homing pigeons, was the basis of the biocompass. Even a handful of magnetite crystals, he wrote at the time, could do the trick. “One equivalent of a magnetic bacteria can give a whale a compass—one cell,” he told me. “Good luck finding it.” Even in animals smaller than a whale, this is no easy task. Throughout the two-thousands, researchers pointed to the presence of iron particles in the olfactory cells of rainbow trout, the brains of mole rats, and the upper beaks of homing pigeons. But when scientists at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology, in Vienna, took a closer look, slicing and examining the beaks of hundreds of pigeons, they found that the iron-rich cells were likely the product of an immune response—nothing to do with the biocompass. The study’s lead researcher, David Keays, has since turned his focus to iron-containing neurons inside the pigeons’ ears.

The search for the biocompass has extended to even smaller scales, too. In 1978, the German biophysicist Klaus Schulten proposed that birds’ innate sense of direction was chemical in nature. According to his theory, incoming light would hit some sort of sensory mechanism, which Schulten hadn’t yet pinpointed, and induce a transfer of electrons, triggering the creation of a radical pair—two molecules, each with an extra electron. The electrons, though slightly separated, would spin in synchrony. As the bird moved through the magnetic field, the orientation of the spinning electrons would be modulated, providing the animal with feedback about its direction. For the next twenty years, it remained unclear which molecules could be responsible for such a reaction. Then, in 2000, Schulten suggested an answer—cryptochromes, a newly discovered class of proteins that respond to blue light. Cryptochromes have since been found in the retinas of monarch butterflies, fruit flies, frogs, birds, and even humans. They are the only candidate so far with the right properties to satisfy Schulten’s theory. But the weakest magnetic field that affects cryptochromes in the laboratory is still twenty times stronger than Earth’s magnetic field. Peter Hore, a chemist at Oxford University, told me that establishing cryptochromes as the biocompass will require at least another five years of research.

At the conference, the magnetite and cryptochrome researchers made up distinct camps, each one quick to point out the opposing theory’s deficiencies. One person stood alone: Xie Can, a biophysicist at Peking University. Xie spent six years developing a kind of unified model of magnetic animal navigation. Last year, he published a paper in Nature Materials describing a protein complex that he dubbed MagR, which consists of iron crystals enveloped in a double helix of cryptochrome—the two main theories rolled into one. Xie has yet to win over other researchers, some of whom believe that his findings are the result of iron oxide contaminating his lab experiments. (Keays has said that he will eat his hat if MagR is proved to be the real magnetoreceptor.) But at the end of the conference, with one mystery of animal navigation after another left unanswered, Xie told me that he felt more confident than ever of his and his colleagues’ model. “If we are right, we can explain everything,” he said. Michael Walker, a biologist at the University of Auckland, was more circumspect. If history is any indication, he said, many of the current hypotheses about how the biocompass works will turn out to be wrong.

“We Will Not Be Ignored” — Amanda Hess in the New York Times on the rising visibility of Asian-American actors.

Asian-American actors 05-29-16When Constance Wu landed the part of Jessica Huang, the Chinese-American matriarch on the ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” she didn’t realize just how significant the role would turn out to be. As she developed her part, Ms. Wu heard the same dismal fact repeated over and over again: It had been 20 years since a show featuring a predominantly Asian-American cast had aired on television. ABC’s previous offering, the 1994 Margaret Cho vehicle “All-American Girl,” was canceled after one season.

“I wasn’t really conscious of it until I booked the role,” Ms. Wu said. “I was focused on the task at hand, which was paying my rent.”

The show, which was just renewed for a third season, has granted Ms. Wu a steady job and a new perspective. “It changed me,” Ms. Wu said. After doing a lot of research, she shifted her focus “from self-interest to Asian-American interests.”

In the past year, Ms. Wu and a number of other Asian-American actors have emerged as fierce advocates for their own visibility — and frank critics of their industry. The issue has crystallized in a word — “whitewashing” — that calls out Hollywood for taking Asian roles and stories and filling them with white actors.

On Facebook, Ms. Wu ticked off a list of recent films guilty of the practice and said, “I could go on, and that’s a crying shame, y’all.” On Twitter, she bit back against Hollywood producers who believe their “lead must be white” and advised the creators of lily-white content to “CARE MORE.” Another tip: “An easy way to avoid tokenism? Have more than one” character of color, she tweeted in March. “Not so hard.”

It’s never been easy for an Asian-American actor to get work in Hollywood, let alone take a stand against the people who run the place. But the recent expansion of Asian-American roles on television has paradoxically ushered in a new generation of actors with just enough star power and job security to speak more freely about Hollywood’s larger failures.

And their heightened profile, along with an imaginative, on-the-ground social media army, has managed to push the issue of Asian-American representation — long relegated to the back burner — into the current heated debate about Hollywood’s monotone vision of the world.

“The harsh reality of being an actor is that it’s hard to make a living, and that puts actors of color in a very difficult position,” said Daniel Dae Kim, who stars in “Hawaii Five-0” on CBS and is currently appearing in “The King and I” on Broadway.

Mr. Kim has wielded his Twitter account to point to dire statistics and boost Asian-American creators. Last year, he posted a cheeky tribute to “the only Asian face” he could find in the entire “Lord of the Rings” series, a woman who “appears for a glorious three seconds.”

Other actors lending their voices include Kumail Nanjiani of “Silicon Valley,” Ming-Na Wen of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and Aziz Ansari, who in his show, “Master of None,” plays an Indian-American actor trying to make his mark.

They join longtime actors and activists like BD Wong of “Gotham”; Margaret Cho, who has taken her tart comedic commentary to Twitter; and George Takei, who has leveraged his “Star Trek” fame into a social media juggernaut.

“There’s an age-old stereotypical notion that Asian-American people don’t speak up,” Mr. Wong said. But “we’re really getting into people’s faces about it.”

This past year has proved to be a particularly fraught period for Asian-American representation in movies. Last May, Sony released “Aloha,” a film set in Hawaii that was packed with white actors, including the green-eyed, blond-haired Emma Stone as a quarter-Chinese, quarter-Native Hawaiian fighter pilot named Allison Ng.

In September, it was revealed that in the planned adaptation of the Japanese manga series Death Note, the hero, a boy with dark powers named Light Yagami, would be renamed simply Light and played by the white actor Nat Wolff. In “The Martian,” released in October, the white actress Mackenzie Davis stepped into the role of the NASA employee Mindy Park, who was conceived in the novel as Korean-American.

The list goes on. In December, set photographs from the coming “Absolutely Fabulous” film showed the Scottish actress Janette Tough dressed as an over-the-top Asian character. Last month, Marvel Studios released a trailer for “Doctor Strange,” in which a character that had originated in comic books as a Tibetan monk was reimagined as a Celtic mystic played by Tilda Swinton.

And in the live-action American film adaptation of the manga series Ghost in the Shell, scheduled for next year, the lead character, Major Motoko Kusanagi, will be called Major and played by Scarlett Johansson in a black bob.

Studios say that their films are diverse. “Like other Marvel films, several characters in ‘Doctor Strange’ are significant departures from the source material, not limited by race, gender or ethnicity,” the Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige said in a statement. Ms. Swinton will play a character that was originally male, and Chiwetel Ejiofor a character that was originally white. Paramount and DreamWorks, the studios behind “Ghost in the Shell,” said that the film reflects “a diverse array of cultures and countries.”

But many Asian-American actors aren’t convinced. “It’s all so plainly outlandish,” Mr. Takei said. “It’s getting to the point where it’s almost laughable.”

Doonesbury — Play safe.