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Erin Blakemore
Erin Blakemore is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist. Her work has appeared in publications like The Washington Post, TIME, mental_floss, Popular Science and JSTOR Daily. Learn more at erinblakemore.com.

Between Life and Death, There’s San Francisco: A Reading List

They came in the tens of thousands, pushing baby carriages and packing roller skates. All in all, an estimated 200,000 pedestrians crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on May 27, 1937, its first day in business. The bridge was already a San Francisco landmark—a flaming, burnt-orange beacon conceived a decade earlier by Leon Moisseiff, who had engineered the Manhattan Bridge. It was a graceful design, but suspension bridges still weren’t entirely safe—the engineer’s Tacoma Narrows Bridge would fail spectacularly only a few months after it opened in 1940.

The Golden Gate also has a dark side. To afford a view of the city, the bridge has a low barrier that is easy to scale. (In “Jumpers,” the New Yorker’s Tad Friend meditates on the bridge’s reputation for death—for the families and friends of those who succeed in their jumps, it’s an indelible monument to their loved ones’ pain.) This month, city workers will finally begin the installation of a new barrier, a grey netting that will blend into the water without obscuring the view. Officials hope it will finally reduce suicide rates on the deadly bridge.

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Rich Teeth, Poor Teeth: Life Along the Dental Divide

She means well, but I dread the dental hygienist. The judgmental tone in her voice is probably just exhaustion; the only dentist I can afford to see has an office that’s a in perpetual spin of budget-seeking patients. I’m one of scores of people who’ll sit her the chair today, and whenever I leave, I hear someone standing at the dreaded reception desk trying to argue their way out of a bill in an embarrassed tone.

Sometimes I’m in that corner too, wheeling and dealing for a way to swing basic treatments with money I don’t have. To my shame, I often go months or even years between routine cleanings, opting to spend money on debt or bills or food instead.
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Donald Trump’s War With the Past

Yes, it was only last week—nine days to be exact, but who’s counting?—that President Trump committed the historical equivalent of hurling a live grenade into a crowd when he ventured into an improvisational analysis of the Civil War during an interview on Sirius XM radio. “People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War?” he said to the interviewer. “Why could that one not have been worked out?” It was a comment that poked the bee’s nest of public opinion and pushed the Civil War back into feverish public debate.

It’s been easy to dismiss President Trump’s comments as ignorant non-sequiturs or a childish attempt to divert attention from more pressing political issues. After all, there’s an entire field of inquiry devoted to asking exactly those questions about the Civil War, and scholars have devoted their lives to that question—but given Trump’s staunch anti-intellectualism, it’s not really surprising that he’s never bothered to notice. “Donald Trump has always acted in the moment, with little regard for the past…” wrote Marc Fisher in the Washington Post a day after the firing of FBI Director James Comey. But the Civil War, it seems, is an endless trauma to American democracy. As the republic reconsiders it again and again, it continues to mirror our understanding of the country we currently live in.

Perhaps, as Jon Meacham suggested in TIME after the president’s remarks, Trump was simply looking for himself in history—a plausible theory given the president’s perennially self-centered worldview. But by overlooking the war’s relevance and refusing to acknowledge slavery’s role in its birth, the president wasn’t merely sidestepping the issue; he was using tactics similar to those employed by “Lost Cause” revisionists and Confederate holdouts for generations, in which the cause of the war is questioned, reimagined, or willfully forgotten.

Our current decade marks the 150th anniversary of the war. Biographies, histories, and reconsiderations have come in measured steps and harsh reckonings—and discussions of memory, cause, conflict, reparation, and reconciliation have made it clear this war must continue to be discussed.

Conflicts rarely have only one cause, just as more than one thing can be true at a time. As Tony Horwitz wrote in The Atlantic in 2013 on the anniversary of the war’s start, slavery may not even have been central to Northerners’ experience of the Civil War. It was a kind of midwife, though, a stage on which a nation barely a century old played out its conflicts over sovereignty, autonomy, and national identity. Slavery as an institution concerned itself with just those questions. It used the bodies and labor of people stolen from their homes, excluded from equal society, and refused a personal identity.

In the summer of 2015, after Nikki Haley, then governor of South Carolina, announced the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol, Ta-Nehisi Coates collected the words of Confederate leaders who stated clearly that slavery was central to the identity of Southern states, which viewed it not just as an inalienable economic asset but as the very basis of white equality. The existence of slaves meant that white men could sidestep industrialized slavery of their own; the institutions’ proponents freely admitted that it upheld and enabled their quality of life.

Once slavery was abolished, the certain supremacy of Southern white men was threatened and the institutions it propped up were no longer guaranteed. The Confederate cause went from vaunted reason to fight to a heroic struggle that was snatched from its champions, spawning Lost Cause revisionist rhetoric that centralized the white Confederate experience. And as soon as the war ended, another one began, this one concerned with textbooks, memorials, and the “official” historical narrative.

Revisionists knew what they had lost. They knew that it would do them no favors to admit they had fought and lost a war over the right to oppress others. And so they turned toward telling their own story through the lens of states’ rights, a perspective that made room for the Confederacy to reintegrate into the union and still maintain face.

In documents like the “Confederate Catechism,” which was used by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1920s to mobilize and coordinate their stance on the war, slavery was cast as a mere side player in a war that was necessary for peace. History as weapon was embraced as a matter of religion. As Tracy Thompson notes in her book The New Mind of the South, the UDC didn’t just educate its own. It shaped the war’s public image through decades of grassroots organizing and struggles to include the “right” version of history in textbooks.

Trump’s no-big-dealism is a more plausibly deniable form of that same beast. Downplaying slavery, whether in textbooks that omit it or comments that ignore its existence with wide eyes, calls 150 years of historical reckoning into question without saying a word. It invites people to start from square one—sidestepping, perhaps, the abundance of historical evidence and analysis that already exists.

If Civil War history is a graveyard, it’s one still strewn with fresh graves. It will haunt us until we face it down collectively, reconciling its truths with the world we have constructed around its gates. The president is not the first person who’d rather avert his eyes than look inside—even though Trump whistles blithely by, it doesn’t mean the cemetery ceases to exist.

Further Reading:

 

This Land Should Be Your Land: A National Parks Reading List

When President Obama walked out of the Oval Office earlier this year, he left behind more land protected under federal law than any of his predecessors. President Trump appears intent on challenging that legacy, recently ordering a sweeping review of national monuments with an aim to “balance” the protection of these lands. (The Bureau of Land Management also recently added banners to its website to evoke the wondrous vistas of coal mining and oil drilling.)

It’s not yet clear whether Trump will actually try to revoke Obama-era designations—or whether he’d succeed if he does—but the land protected under federal law has been a mix of majesty and mystery ever since Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act designating the nation’s first national park. Writers have used their craft to ask fascinating questions and expose the weird underbellies of national parks, monuments, and federal lands since long before Trump ever expressed an antipathy toward them.

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Letting Go As a Way of Living: Writing About Radical Forgiveness

When Cliff and Wilma Derksen’s thirteen-year-old daughter didn’t come home one afternoon in 1984, they faced every parent’s worst nightmare—the eventual discovery that their child had been abducted, tortured, and left to freeze to death in the harsh Winnepeg winter. They could have chosen to dwell in the unendurable sorrow of that new reality, but the Derksens took another path, writes Jana G. Pruden for The Globe and Mail: They decided to forgive the man who tormented and killed their daughter.

Their 33-year-long journey may be almost unimaginable to anyone who struggles with forgiving others. It’s hard enough to forget an imagined slight or overlook a harsh word, much less extend anything but hatred to a person who destroyed another human’s life. But strangely enough, the Derksens are not alone. Though the road they walk is largely uncharted, they do so as part of a long line of victims who have not just forgiven, but embraced the perpetrators of unthinkable acts—people who somehow find grace in the darkest human emotions.

How did they do it? For the Derksens, the answer was part religion, part personal resolve. After speaking with the father of another murdered child, they decided to forgive no matter what, even though they had no idea what that might mean. And as the years go by, their seemingly simple choice becomes more and more complex.

There was so much to forgive, and it went far beyond forgiving the brutality of a stranger they did not yet know. There were the police, for not believing them when they said Candace wouldn’t have run away, for implying that they were bad parents, and for focusing so long on Cliff as a suspect. For not finding her when she lay in a shed not more than 500 meters away from home. There were their own actions and choices, for the small things said and done, for not picking her up that day. There were the friends and family that disappointed them, the media that sometimes got things wrong. The strangers who piled on more hurt with false confessions and crank phone calls. There were the years Cliff spent under suspicion, even after a polygraph declared him a truthful man.

Forgiveness was not something to be done only once. It had to be a constant choice, letting go as a way of living.

The Derksens’ forgiveness is not an event, but an endless process that has changed over the years. Now that their daughter’s killer could walk free, they are once again being forced to confront their decision to forgive—this time at much closer quarters than the decades they spent having no idea who murdered Candace.  Forgiveness allowed the Derksens to survive, yet Pruden paints a picture of mercy that, no matter how radical, is under continual threat.

But what if forgiveness is also an attempted shortcut at healing? In a November 2015 cover story for TIME magazine, “How Do You Forgive a Murder?” reporters David Von Drehle, Jay Newton-Small, and Maya Rhodan interviewed the families and survivors of the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church. Just days after Dylann Roof gunned down their loved ones at a Bible study, a few of the family members stood before Roof at a bond hearing and told him they forgave him.

Somehow—perhaps the idea was planted by the judge’s remarks—Nadine Collier was able to recognize the wreckage this man had made not just for her and the other survivors but in his own life. “I kept thinking he’s a young man, he’s never going to experience college, be a husband, be a daddy. You have ruined your life,” she recalls thinking.

What she said at the podium, while choking back sobs, came out like this: “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again—but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”

Since that day, Collier has had many hours to reflect on those spontaneous words, and she says she has no reason to regret or revise them. They expressed a sense of loss and absence that remains unfilled months later, as well as her desire to move beyond the horror—a desire she still feels keenly. And she believes that her mother might have said something similar if she had lived.

For those who forgave Roof publicly, the choice to do so was a matter of freedom, of refusal to be bowed by a 21-year-old’s racially-motivated hate crime. Their decision to forgive—made in a split second in an emotionally harrowing moment—gained national attention. But for those who did not or could not make that choice, both the forgiveness and the fame that came along with it are discomfiting. If forgiveness really is a choice, their story suggests, so is the refusal to reconcile. The Charleston families who are less ready to forgive suggest that to do so might lead to forgetfulness—and lay claim to a path that is theirs to direct and experience.

Not everyone occupies the place of forgiver, though. When Darin Strauss struck and killed one of his high school classmates in an unavoidable car accident, he was saddled not just with his own guilt, but also with the ramifications of a community’s unwillingness or inability to forgive.

Strauss, who discussed his experiences on a 2008 episode of This American Life, and later in the memoir Half a Life, has lived with his actions for more than twenty years. And though he has eventually forgiven himself for what he now sees as a freak accident, his interactions with the family of the girl he killed—including their years-long lawsuit against him—illustrate the tense gray area of life without reconciliation.

Should we forgive? Not everyone is cut out for mercy and certainly they’re not required to be. Whether an act is unforgivable depends entirely on the circumstances, and the victims. But the experiences of those who have lost everything raise intriguing questions about the choices we do and do not have—and what might change if we walk a largely uncharted road.

Further reading:

File, Deduct, Hide: Six Essential Stories About Taxes

Today is Day 85 of the Trump Administration, and like a sailor condemned to four years at sea we carry on, stooped and weary from the weight of this albatross around our necks—Donald Trump’s taxes.

We know they exist—but what does their existence even mean any more? We’ve seen a few pages here and there, sent as proof of life to the New York Times and waved around by Rachel Maddow. In a bid to bring attention to President Trump’s noteworthy silence on his financial position, a tax march will take place on April 15 worldwide in response to a single tweet by a Vermont law professor.

Taxes are at once no one’s business and everyone’s business. We all pay them: how we pay them, what they are used for, what we want them to be used for, and what the government would rather do with them instead, is the Great American Story.

1. “Tax Time” (Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, November 2012)

Lepore takes the long view on taxes with a history of how the U.S. decided to levy an income tax. It’s easy to dismiss taxes, she argues, and much harder to defend them. But that’s not a problem our ancestors shared—despite opposition to King George’s levy on goods like tea, the founding fathers had no problem squeezing the rich with large indirect taxes for market exchanges such as imports. More than a century later, the constitutional amendment that made income tax the law of the land wasn’t even an issue in Congress. But taxes have since become a bone of endless contention, especially as they concern how much rich and poor should pay. Lepore weaves a deft story to tell us exactly why.

Taxes dominate domestic politics. They didn’t always. Since the nineteen-seventies, almost all of that talk has been about cuts, which ought to be surprising, because more than ninety per cent of Americans receive social or economic security benefits from the federal government. Americans, though, find it easier to see what they pay than what they get—not because they aren’t paying attention but because the case for taxation is so seldom made.

2. “Too Rich to Live?” (Laura Saunders and Mary Pilon, The Wall Street Journal, July 2010)

One of the most hotly contested forms of taxation is the estate tax, when a dead person’s estate is transferred to another person. Though the idea is thousands of years old and the American permutation has been around in some form or another for a century, the tax was gradually phased out starting in 2001. But when it came back in 2011—the product of impermanent legislation—the rich who stood to lose the most from the transfer of their substantial assets bucked.

It didn’t matter; the tax became permanent in 2013. But when Saunders and Pilon interviewed dying people and their potential heirs on the eve of the tax’s return, they found a strange phenomenon—people who make life-or-death decisions about their health and end-of-life care based on the potential of saving their heirs money on taxes.

In 2009, more than a few dying people struggled to live into 2010 in hopes of preserving assets for their heirs. Clara Laub, a widow who helped her husband build a Fresno, Calif., grape farm from 20 acres into more than 900 acres worth several million dollars, was diagnosed with advanced cancer in October, 2009. Her daughter Debbie Jacobsen, who helps run the farm, says her mother struggled to live past December and died on New Year’s morning: “She made my son promise to tell her the date and time every day, even if we wouldn’t,” Mrs. Jacobsen says.

In New York the lapsing tax spawned a major family conflict, according to one attorney. As a wealthy patriarch lay dying at the end of the year, it became clear that under the terms of the will his children would receive more if he died in 2010, while his wife (not the children’s mother) stood to benefit if he died in 2009. The wife then filed a “do not resuscitate” order and the children challenged it. The patriarch lived a few days into 2010, but his estate, like Mrs. Laub’s, remains unsettled given the legislative uncertainty.

3. “The Throwaways” (Melissa Chadburn, The Rumpus, January 2012)

Taxes are a matter of life and death not just to the wealthy, but to the people who need tax-funded social services to survive. Chadburn, who endured horrific abuse and a traumatic stint in foster care, considers what taxes mean to the people she calls “the throwaways,” those who depend on the small sums of money that anti-taxation advocates fight not to have to pay. As disparities between poor and rich grow, she argues, taxation can be seen as a revolutionary lifesaving act, a statement about the very worth of the people it helps.

Strangely, it was for dreams like these—the simplest dreams of rest, of feeling, of safety—that I first began to look at taxes. Taxes are the tool that makes these dreams of ours possible. Shelter for everyone, food for everyone, taxes ensure public safety. And what about love? Love is given and received. Love is not a solitary act. Love requires people to commune with one another.

My previous associations with taxes were shame and guilt and trickery. Then I looked at my history with money and public funding in general. Some people have argued that we are a nation of self-interested people. People who only care about themselves. Their own well-being.

I disagree. I think we are better than that but have been assaulted by the overwhelming personification of Greed….It’s our first lesson in pain.

4. “Tax Hero” (Planet Money, NPR, March 2017)

Despite the stakes of taxation, the act of filing taxes can be unbearably mundane. But there’s a darker side to doing taxes—the poor pay a disproportionate amount to tax preparation firms that gouge them on relatively simple filings. Enter Joseph Bankman, a Stanford tax law professor who thought he’d figured out a simpler way. But as Planet Money reveals, simpler isn’t always better for those who benefit from the current, complex system. His fight for painless filing became a legislative battle—and his opponents were a strange coalition of their own.

5. “Mossack Fonseca: Inside the Firm That Helps the Super-Rich Hide Their Money” (Luke Harding, The Guardian, April 2016)

While your average Joe struggles to pay the tax preparers, there’s a shadowy world of ultra-wealthy corporations and individuals who’ll do anything they can to not pay taxes at all. Last year, the lid on one of these complex tax-avoidance schemes blew open when 11.5 million documents—now known as the Panama Papers—were leaked, revealing inside information on over 200,000 offshore shell corporations that exist to help the one percent sidestep their tax obligations.

The Guardian won a Pulitzer for their groundbreaking investigation of the Panama Papers (Here’s a breakdown of how they got the scoop—and an in-depth podcast that tells the entire sordid story behind their award-winning investigation.) One of their most fascinating stories was about Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm that helped the rich find tax-friendly parking places for their cash. Harding tells the story of a company that’s part financial services provider, part peddler of international intrigue—one that’s marketed directly to Americans with money to hide.

Mossack Fonseca’s leaked emails reveal the extraordinary measures that some of its well-heeled clients took to keep their financial affairs secret. Especially the Europeans and Americans, who have latterly found themselves under scrutiny from their own governments.

One theme that emerges is anxiety. Wealthy individuals with “undeclared” offshore bank accounts are afraid they might get rumbled.

Another theme is victimhood. The super-rich, it appears, feel they are being unfairly picked on—persecuted even.

6. “Donald Trump Tax Records Show He Could Have Avoided Taxes for Nearly Two Decades, The Times Found” (David Barstow, Susanne Craig, Russ Buettner, and Megan Twohey, The New York Times, October 2016)

What happens when a tax evader is not an average citizen but the President of the United States? Of course, the answer is “we don’t know yet,” because we have no idea what’s in Donald Trump’s personal tax returns. Despite Rachel Maddow’s overhyped scoop on a few pages from Trump’s 2005 return, nobody’s been able to get ahold of what could be the most sought-after documents in modern history. And thus, we don’t know what wealth the President has to brag about—or hide.

After receiving several pages from Trump’s 1995 returns from an anonymous source, Barstow, Craig, Buettner, and Twohey hypothesized that back when he was a mere real estate mogul, the president used a $916 million business loss to cancel out his tax debt for decades. Is it true? Until Trump comes forward with his tax returns, there’s no way to know. But journalists won’t stop piecing the story together—and if the tax march is any indication, citizens won’t stop insisting that he tell the truth about his financial situation.

But the most important revelation from the 1995 tax documents is just how much Mr. Trump may have benefited from a tax provision that is particularly prized by America’s dynastic families, which, like the Trumps, hold their wealth inside byzantine networks of partnerships, limited liability companies and S corporations.

The provision, known as net operating loss, or N.O.L., allows a dizzying array of deductions, business expenses, real estate depreciation, losses from the sale of business assets and even operating losses to flow from the balance sheets of those partnerships, limited liability companies and S corporations onto the personal tax returns of men like Mr. Trump. In turn, those losses can be used to cancel out an equivalent amount of taxable income from, say, book royalties or branding deals.

 

Are Regular Russians Ready to Take On Vladimir Putin?

The Russian presidential election is a year away, but protests have already begun. Last week, images of Russians being carried and even dragged from Moscow’s Red Square spread throughout the Western media. Then came the crackdown—blocked access to web pages and social media showing the photos, and a criminal case against the protesters. Earlier this week, the square was nearly empty despite another planned action.

The protests demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and objected to widespread corruption, but they also served as a rare moment of rebellion in a country that rarely dares defy its leader, President Vladimir Putin.

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We’re Living in the Golden Age of the Corporate Takedown

Miki Agrawal, co-founder and “She-EO” of menstrual underwear phenom Thinx, raised eyebrows when she stepped down from her role in the company in early March. Agrawal had long been infamous for her company’s boundary-pushing ads and her well-publicized hesitance to use the word “feminist.” Within days of Agrawal’s announcement, Racked published a gripping article examining corporate dysfunction and alleged sexism at Thinx, and Agrawal struck back with a lengthy post on Medium that detailed her “incredible ride” with the company. “I didn’t put HR practices in place because I was on the road speaking, doing press, brand partnerships, editing all of the creative and shouting from the rooftops about Thinx,” she wrote. Less than a week later, Agrawal was accused of sexual harassment by a former employee.

Such is the power of the corporate hit piece: Fueled by eyewitness accounts, scorned ex-employees, and juicy tidbits about a CEO’s bad behavior, a corporate identity that took years to build can unravel in days. These piquant stories might smack of a slow-motion trainwreck, but they satisfy more than our inner gossips and gawkers. Today, the myth of a CEO is often of their own making—once minted by years of climbing the corporate ladder, now CEOs are made in weeks or months. CEO, we are told, is less a work status than a state of mind.

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Why We Still Can’t Quit F. Scott Fitzgerald

It’s been almost a century since a 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald penned “The I.O.U.,” a short story that pokes fun at the publishing industry’s obsession with sensation over substance. But until now, you couldn’t read it; it was among Fitzgerald’s still-unpublished papers. Last week, the long-lost story appeared in The New Yorker, another chapter in what the magazine calls its “imperfect romance” with the author. In 1925, Fitzgerald was “was a little too famous to appear often in its upstart pages,” though they were able to snag two poems and three “humorous short stories” before he died in 1940. Read more…

Voices from the Last Days of Obamacare: A Reading List

Repeal and replace: Republican candidates used these three words throughout the election cycle almost as an incantation. There was no other option for dealing with Public Enemy #1: Obamacare. When President Trump took office they became a battle cry for Republicans intent on undoing his predecessor’s signature legislation.

But what would repeal and replace look like? Last week, the House Republicans unveiled draft legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act, seven years in the making. The American Health Care Act shares part of the old plan’s name, but not many of its current features. Everything from the insurance mandate to Medicaid expansion is missing from the new plan, and leaders from both sides are unhappy with the half-baked results. Read more…