Weekly Review — December 24, 2013, 8:00 am

Weekly Review

More NSA surveillance targets are revealed, violence in South Sudan, and claims of U.S. virgin births

An American Mastiff.

An American Mastiff.

Newly released intelligence documents revealed that between 2008 and 2011 the U.S. National Security Agency and the U.K. Government Communications Headquarters tapped the phones of a former Israeli prime minister, the vice president of the European Commission, the French petroleum company Total, the German Embassy in Rwanda, Unicef, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, the Taliban’s ministry of refugee affairs, and an Estonian “Skype security team.” An independent advisory panel released a report to President Barack Obama recommending new restrictions on the NSA’s domestic wiretapping; a federal district judge ruled in a lawsuit that the NSA’s phone-surveillance program was likely unconstitutional and ordered the government to destroy the phone records of two plaintiffs; the British News of the World tabloid was revealed to have tapped Kate Middleton’s phone prior to her marriage to the Duke of Cambridge; and Target confirmed that hackers had compromised approximately 40 million credit and debit cards belonging to people who shopped at its stores between November 27 and December 15.[1][2][3][4][5] The Obama Administration announced that it would allow people whose health-insurance plans were canceled because of reforms associated with the Affordable Care Act to claim a “hardship exemption” in order to avoid the requirement that they sign up for coverage by December 23.[6] During a routine traffic stop in Northampton, Massachusetts, police seized thousands of bags of heroin labeled Obamacare.[7] Obama commuted the sentences of eight prisoners who had been convicted of crack-cocaine offenses, and Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a law granting amnesty to prisoners convicted of hooliganism, triggering the release of 30 Greenpeace activists and two members of the punk band Pussy Riot.[8][9] The Indian government revoked the identity cards it grants to U.S. diplomats and removed the concrete security barriers surrounding the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi after an Indian official was arrested in New York City for lying on her visa application, then strip-searched. “There is a remarkable and almost charming egalitarianism in it,” said an American defense attorney. “Everybody is treated in exactly the same disrespectful, casually brutal, and arrogant fashion.”[10][11][12]

Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a suspect in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was ejected twice from the courtroom at the U.S. military base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, after he repeatedly shouted about being tortured when asked by his trial judge whether he understood his rights.[13] Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula apologized for the behavior of a renegade fighter who attacked patients and personnel at a military hospital during an assault on a defense-ministry compound in Yemen earlier this month.[14] In South Sudan, as many as 500 people died in violence following a failed coup attempt reportedly led by the country’s former vice president, and three American aircraft sent to evacuate U.S. citizens retreated under small-arms fire from the ground.[15][16] Uganda passed a law making “aggravated homosexuality” punishable by life imprisonment.[17] The LGBT magazine The Advocate named Pope Francis its person of the year.[18] The United Methodist Church defrocked a Pennsylvania pastor who had officiated his son’s same-sex wedding, and students at a Catholic high school in Washington State staged a walkout to protest the dismissal of the school’s vice principal for marrying his male partner.[19][20] New Mexico’s state supreme court legalized gay marriage, and county clerks in Utah began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex partners after a federal judge ruled that the state’s law restricting marriage to heterosexual couples violated the U.S. Constitution. “Me and my new husband!!” tweeted one man about a photo taken with his partner. “My polygamous Mormon great grandparents would be so proud!”[21][22][23] American conservatives defended Phil Robertson, the star of the reality-TV show Duck Dynasty, who was suspended by A&E for making homophobic comments in an interview with GQ. “It seems like, to me, a vagina — as a man — would be more desirable than a man’s anus,” said Robertson. “But hey: sin, it’s not logical.” “It is remarkable,” said Newt Gingrich. “There’s sections where he sounds like Pope Francis.”[24][25]

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The United States announced that it would be sending three openly gay athletes in its delegation to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, and NBA hall-of-famer Dennis Rodman held tryouts for a North Korean basketball team that will face former NBA players in an exhibition game in Pyongyang.[26][27] North Korea sent a fax to the South Korean government warning that it might strike without warning, and researchers at York University in Toronto encoded the lyrics to “O Canada” in vodka and transmitted them across several meters of open air. “Imagine sending a detailed message using perfume,” said one engineer. “It is an incredibly simple way to communicate.”[28][29] The Supreme Court of Canada struck down the country’s antiprostitution laws.[30] At least 20,000 Germans received letters demanding they pay fines for viewing copyrighted pornography online.[31] A study published in the Christmas edition of the British medical journal BMJ found that nearly 1 percent of pregnant young American women claimed to have been virgins.[32] The man whose 86-year-old grandfather was chosen as the winner of Howard Stern’s “Get My Grandpa Laid” contest claimed the prize of sex with two prostitutes from Nevada’s Moonlite BunnyRanch after his grandfather died while choking during a celebratory steak dinner.[33] Christian radio host Harold Camping, who predicted at least six failed apocalypses, died, as did a woman denied the right to die by the Irish Supreme Court in April.[34][35] Authorities in Spain arrested a youth soccer coach after a thief who had broken into the man’s home discovered footage of him sexually abusing children. “I’ve had the misfortune of having the tapes fall into my hands,” said the burglar in a letter to police, “and feel obligated to present them to you so you can do your job.”[36]


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Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the partisan divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans often fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting worldviews. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs — and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.

Yet we know that people do change their minds. We are constantly molded by our environment and our culture, by the events of the world, by the gossip we hear and the books we read. In the essays that follow, seven writers explore the ways that persuasion operates in our lives, from the intimate to the far-reaching. Some consider the ethics and mechanics of persuasion itself — in religion, politics, and foreign policy — and others turn their attention to the channels through which it acts, such as music, protest, and technology. How, they ask, can we persuade others to join our cause or see things the way we do? And when it comes to our own openness to change, how do we decide when to compromise and when to resist?

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
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On a balmy day last spring, Connor Chase sat on a red couch in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Columbus, Ohio, and watched the traffic on the street. His bleached-blond hair fell into his eyes as he scrolled through his phone to distract himself. Waiting to see Mimi Rivard, a nurse practitioner, was making Chase nervous: it would be the first time he would tell a medical professional that he was transgender.

By the time he arrived at the Equitas Health clinic, Chase was eighteen, and had long since come to dread doctors and hospitals. As a child, he’d had asthma, migraines, two surgeries for a tumor that had caused deafness in one ear, and gangrene from an infected bug bite. Doctors had always assumed he was a girl. After puberty, Chase said, he avoided looking in the mirror because his chest and hips “didn’t feel like my body.” He liked it when strangers saw him as male, but his voice was high-pitched, so he rarely spoke in public. Then, when Chase was fourteen, he watched a video on YouTube in which a twentysomething trans man described taking testosterone to lower his voice and appear more masculine. Suddenly, Chase had an explanation for how he felt — and what he wanted.

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In the summer of 2016, when Congress installed a financial control board to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, I traveled to San Juan, the capital. The island owed some $120 billion, and Wall Street was demanding action. On the news, President Obama announced his appointments to the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera. “The task ahead for Puerto Rico is not an easy one,” he said. “But I am confident Puerto Rico is up to the challenge of stabilizing the fiscal situation, restoring growth, and building a better future for all Puerto Ricans.” Among locals, however, the control board was widely viewed as a transparent effort to satisfy mainland creditors — just the latest tool of colonialist plundering that went back generations.

Photograph from Puerto Rico by Christopher Gregory
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In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
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After losing their savings in the stock market crash of 2008, seniors Barb and Chuck find seasonal employment at Amazon fulfillment centers.

Cost of a baby-stroller cleaning, with wheel detailing, at Tot Squad in New York City:

$119.99

Australian biologists trained monitor lizards not to eat cane toads.

Trump tweeted that he had created “jobs, jobs, jobs” since becoming president, and it was reported that Trump plans to bolster job creation by loosening regulations on the global sale of US-made artillery, warships, fighter jets, and drones.

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HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

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"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

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