TikTok Tangles, Melon Mania, and Slow Speeds: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From seeding new speech rules to cultivating new image standards, we learned a lot over the last seven days
We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.
The ad that birthed a half-century's worth of free speech jurisprudence. What TikTok user will create this century's landmark First Amendment test? (Looking at you, Eric Johnson.)
Supreme Sullivan Susceptibility
A cornerstone of First Amendment law is the 1964 Supreme Court decision in New York Times Company v. Sullivan. A brief summation of the case: On March 29, 1960, the Times ran a full-page advertisement soliciting funds to help defend Martin Luther King and the broader Civil Rights movement in the South. L.B. Sullivan, Public Safety Commissioner of Montgomery, Alabama, wasn't named in the ad yet felt that the Times libeled him. Sullivan demanded a retraction of the ad, the Times refused, so he sued for $500,000—nearly $4 million when adjusted for inflation, the Times reported in 2017. A jury awarded Sullivan his damages, Alabama's state supreme court upheld the decision, and when the Times appealed the case ended up before the Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the Court found that Alabama's libel law was unconstitutional. But more importantly, it created the "actual malice" test for libel and defamation against a public official (a test later expanded to public figures). In other words, "the target of the statement must show that it was made with knowledge of or reckless disregard for its falsity," per the Oyez summation of the decision. In the nearly six decades since Sullivan was decided, more case law has been added to it to truly enshrine the "actual malice" test into First Amendment protections. But two current Supreme Court justices—Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch—have publicly mused if Sullivan's time has come and should be reconsidered.
Normally I'd say this is just strict constructionist thinking. And, indeed, Thomas invokes the original intent of the Constitution in his reasoning. “There appears to be little historical evidence suggesting that the New York Times actual-malice rule flows from the original understanding of the First or Fourteenth Amendment,” Thomas wrote in his 2019 concurrence in Kathrine Mae McKee v. William H. Cosby, Jr. (Yes, that William Cosby.) But, in his dissent in Shkelzen Berisha v. Guy Lawson—a case the Court refused to hear on actual malice grounds—Thomas raises an intriguing argument: "The proliferation of falsehoods is, and always has been, a serious matter. Instead of continuing to insulate those who perpetrate lies from traditional remedies like libel suits, we should give them only the protection the First Amendment requires." It's a line that Gorsuch followed, in his dissent, to highlight his doubts about Sullivan's suitability for our current media environment. “What started in 1964 with a decision to tolerate the occasional falsehood to ensure robust reporting by a comparative handful of print and broadcast outlets has evolved into an ironclad subsidy for the publication of falsehoods by means and on a scale previously unimaginable," he wrote. Thomas pointed to Pizzagate in his reasoning, and it's hard to argue that politicians and celebrities should be forced to prove they aren't actually sex trafficking pedophiles when faced with an army of trolls spreading that libel around the internet. Sullivan served a crucial purpose in 1964, and has remained useful for decades. But should it remain sacrosanct because of the good for speech its protections provided? Or should it be replaced with something better equipped to meet our current moment? It's a debate that mirrors the one around Section 230 and the liability of social media companies for what happens on their platforms. In neither instance is there an easy answer. But it should make for a rollicking debate—and, hopefully, a clear-eyed resolution that further enshrines, rather than erodes, our constitutional freedoms. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
Detail from the cover of Parag Khanna’s book "Move: The Forces Uprooting Us.".
Hit the Road
After a long day of grading thousands of AP exams, you know what a bunch of college professors and AP teachers do to unwind? Invite guest speakers for a deep dive on AP class content, of course! That’s how I found out about Parag Khanna’s book Move: The Forces Uprooting Us. It won’t be published until this fall, but Khanna gave a preview talk at this year’s AP Human Geography reading, echoing his Aspen Ideas Festival appearance last month. “I’m going to explore how deep forces such as demographics and climate change are reshaping the American Dream,” Khanna promises. He points out that declining birthrates and a large drop in migration are leading toward a long-term drop in population. And that’s running up against the challenges of climate change. More Americans, Khanna argues, need to think about moving for greater opportunity. “I believe we have to redefine the American Dream around mobility and skills, not just home and degrees. People have to be empowered to go where they can learn new skills and find higher-paying jobs,” Khanna said. “Physical mobility is essential to economic and social mobility.”
The number of Americans moving for work or family reasons has been declining for decades, leaving more people rooted in particular places even when they don’t have great prospects for success. Pushing against that trend could lead to more economic dynamism and greater environmental sustainability. I’m not yet ready to pack my family into an RV and strike out for the open road, but I appreciated Khanna’s reminder that humans are always on the move—for all kinds of reasons—and that there’s no reason to expect today’s borders or economic zones to remain fixed as global health, trade patterns, and climate concerns continue to shift. For a couple centuries now, managing rapidly growing populations has been the big issue for most of the world. As the global population peaks over the next few decades then begins to decline, the question of where and how we want to live will come into sharper focus. —Eric Johnson
The seedless watermelon is humanity's second-best melon innovation. The first? Unquestionably the square watermelon, seen here in a Tokyo department store in 2001.
Bananas for Watermelons
Last week, I wrote about sneezing science and the incredible depth of specialization in academia. But it isn’t just universities that have niche interests and highly focused expertise. ’Tis the season for picnics, which means the fine folks at the National Watermelon Promotion Board are working overtime to keep Americans well informed on the virtues of Citrullus lanatus. I read in The Atlantic that 90% of all watermelons consumed in the United States are seedless, and yet our dominant image of a watermelon slice remains the seeded variety. Stephanie Barlow, senior director at the Watermelon Promotion Board, is working on it, encouraging more visuals of the seedless watermelons that actually show up at our backyard bbqs and church socials. Even though seedless watermelons are more versatile from a culinary standpoint, “the visual of the seeded watermelon slice prevails,” Barlow tells The Atlantic.
I absolutely love that we live in a country—in an economy—big enough for people to make a living thinking about these things. The Watermelon Promotion crew has been developing recipes based on the new Disney-Pixar movie Luca, which features a few fleeting scenes of Italian watermelons. And they’ve got pages and pages of watermelon-themed lessons for teachers and parents, surely designed to induce some healthy cravings along the way. There’s even a stable of official watermelon influencers. “When it comes to watermelons, we eat the fruit, but we also consume the image,” writes Ian Bogost in The Atlantic. Lofty thoughts to garnish your summer treat. —Stefanie Sanford
In this photo illustration, the TikTok app is displayed on an Apple iPhone on August 7, 2020, in Washington, DC. If your phone doesn't have TikTok, are you an out-of-touch Luddite? Maybe, but not because you refuse to use TikTok—that's totally OK.
TikTok Morality Challenge!
I’ve been reading Meghan O’Gieblyn’s work for a long time. Her essay collection Interior States brought a meditative sensitivity to midwestern life, a dose of pragmatism informed by a small-town childhood and an ingrained skepticism for the cultural enthusiasms of the urban centers on America’s east and west coasts. “To live here is to develop a wariness to all forms of unqualified optimism,” O’Gieblyn wrote about the midwest. “It is to know that progress comes in fits and starts; that whatever promise the future holds, its fruits may very well pass by, on their way to somewhere else.” So it was a stroke of brilliance when Wired, America’s official journal of techno-optimism, hired O’Gieblyn to be a kind of in-house philosopher, answering reader questions that landed somewhere at the intersection of tech support and existential angst.
“Do I Have a Moral Obligation to Be On TikTok?” is a perfect example. A 30-year-old reader wants to know if they should try to keep up with the latest tech, the latest media platforms, the latest trends in online culture and communication. “Shouldn’t I stay current, the better to relate to—and thus support—the inheritors of the earth?” the reader asks. I’m not too worried about the inheritors of the earth, but I share some of the concern about falling out of the conversation, becoming obsolete before my time because I don’t like carrying a smartphone and refuse to follow my friends’ Instagram accounts. It felt freeing to read O’Gieblyn’s assurance that staying current is simply impossible as you age. “When major technological innovations arrived every few hundred years rather than every decade it was reasonable to assume that your children and grandchildren would live a life much like your own,” she writes. “This relationship to the future has become all but impossible in our accelerated digital age.” The generational divides are deeper than they used to be because the pace of change is faster (or certainly feels faster), which leaves both older and younger people feeling a bit unmoored. “I suspect that your life would come to seem more meaningful if you focused less on keeping up with transient fads and considered instead whether you have acquired any kind of lasting knowledge that might be useful to the next generation,” O’Gieblyn advises. “If it’s true that the pace of modern life is accelerating, it would make sense that the longing for continuity would be felt most acutely by the young.” Is she getting that right? I have no idea—I’ve already aged out of the digital-native bracket at the ripe old age of 35. That’s fine by me. I’ll take a book of essays over TikTok, anyway. —Eric Johnson
Reject the cult of busyness—unleash your inner Marge Simpson!
Going Into My Tortoise Shell
There was very little good that came out of the first months of the pandemic—especially if you lived in New York. But one indisputable positive was that dead-eyed tunnel vision/I’m-walkin’-here! performative culture of busyness just… stopped. Sure, there was nowhere to go. And if you were in white-collar work and were fortunate to stay employed your home became your office. Still, when you went outside, it felt like you had more time—certainly more physical space thanks to social distancing—to get to wherever you were going. Which could be nowhere in particular! Suddenly, you could just wander to be with your thoughts or with your family without the pressure of gettingthererightnowbeforeeveryoneelse. You could experience the city, your neighborhood, like never before. You could hear birds, and actually stop to listen to them (when ambulances weren’t wailing by). It was remarkable. And now that we’ve deemed the pandemic over (Delta what?) that relative slowness—in how we get around, how we work, how we consume—is over, too. It’s a drag and has been hard to accept, especially since it feels like a forced reentry.
Living in NYC and wanting just a marginally slower life can often feel like tilting at windmills—perhaps its the tug of the Mediterranean part of my makeup—so it was with great relief that I read Shayla Lee’s excellent feature in Vice on how the pandemic changed our relationship to the cult of busyness. It’s a great read on an emotional level, but it also left me feeling expanded. For instance: Today we fetishize always-on productivity as a marker of wealth and accomplishment (hi, LInkedIn!), but in the 19th century leisure time was such a marker of privilege that Victorians would walk leashed turtles as a show of just how lazily they could go through life. *mind-blown emoji* The article is also a necessary reckoning with just what a busy-first culture has wrought and how some people are trying to reclaim their time and sanity. It made me feel less alone as the gears of hustle culture get switched back on. But it also gave me lots to think about, like the concept of deceleration, and what it will take to throw a wrench into those gears. “Social systems can change,” Steven Taylor, a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, told Vice. “They’re influenced by the people who live within that system. Changes in attitudes lead to changes in behavior. And both attitudes and behavioral changes lead to changes in social structures.” Sounds like it’s time to start up a turtle club. —Dante A. Ciampaglia