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Amor Mundi: Tyrannophobia


The disgusting events in Charlottesville this weekend have the makings of an inflection point. The “Unite the Right” torch parade on Friday night and the planned but canceled rally in front of the Robert E. Lee statue on Saturday were some of the largest and most public actions of the fascist white power movement in the modern United States. Screaming “white power,” and chanting “You will not replace us” and the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil,” the many-hundreds strong torch-brandishing marchers on Friday night were at once angry and organized. The next day the rally was canceled before it began, but in the lead up, some of the scheduled speakers spoke on Twitter. David Duke said:

“This represents a turning point for the people of this country, We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump. Because he said he’s going to take our country back. That’s what we gotta do.”

The Unite the Right March showed the white power movement in all its fascist and hate-filled disgrace. But it hardly united the right. Senator Orrin Hatch tweeted, “Their tiki torches may be fueled by citronella but their ideas are fueled by hate, & have no place in civil society.” And Hatch added, “We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.” Other Republican Senators including Cory Gardner, John McCain, Rob Portman, Chuck Grassley, and Marco Rubio all called the marchers out as hate-filled white supremacists and domestic terrorists. Even Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated

“The violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice. When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated.”

If the marchers united the right, it was thankfully only true in the sense that at least some Republican politicians finally showed the courage to step up and condemn white nationalism, fascism, and terrorism that are growing and publicly mobilizing in the United States.

There was one glaring exception, of course, to the willingness of Republican politicians to unite against the rising tide of race-fueled fascism. President Donald Trump, who calls himself the mouthpiece of the movement, was pointedly silent on the question. He condemned violence on all sides in anodyne words. “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!” Later, he added, “The hate and the division must stop and must stop right now. We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides.” Unlike other Republicans, Trump would not mention the white nationalists, their fascist tactics, or their racist views. According to an article in the Washington Post, when asked “whether he wanted the support of white nationalists, dozens of whom wore red Make America Great Again hats during the Charlottesville riots, Trump did not respond.” Even after 20-year old James Alex Fields drove his car into a group of anti-protesters killing one and injuring 19, President Trump refused to call the action what it was, an act of homegrown, fascist, and racial terrorism.

There are optimistic and pessimistic reads on the events in Charlottesville. Optimistically, the Unite the Right rally has united the opposition. The number of prominent Republicans who have publicly distanced themselves from the President is noteworthy and important. In spite the President’s silent support for the marchers, there is a small albeit influential core of Republican leaders willing to stand up and confront the dangerous rise of bigotry-fed fascism. Once again, we see that as weak as our civic culture and civil institutions are, they still have some hold in times of crisis.

Pessimistically, President Trump has once again shown himself to be a willing enabler of an undeniably racist, anti-Semitic, and fascist movement, one that provides a meaningful part of his voter base. The leaders of the Unite the Right march specifically tied themselves to President Trump. They shouted ‘Heil Hitler” and “Heil Trump.” I have written before of the danger in the President’s refusal to condemn hateful acts:

While the president has not offered anything like a racial, antisemitic, or islamophobic justification for slavery, expulsion, or genocide, his flirtation with those on the alt-right who do make such justifications is supremely dangerous. The distance between an ideology of superiority and inferiority on the one side and mass expulsions and genocide on the other is morally vast but practically narrow. At one point during the campaign, Trump floated and then rejected the idea of a Muslim registry in the United States on national security grounds. What happens after the next terrorist attack? That President Trump has thus far refused to explicitly condemn ideological and physical attacks against Muslims is perhaps the greatest cause for alarm concerning the totalitarian potential of his movement.

The mobilization of race as an ideological ground for the elevation of one group over another is not simply prejudice. It is a justification for violence and a potential precursor for totalitarian and fascist politics. It is no accident that the march in Charlottesville turned violent.

On this point, however, it is important to admit that the beginnings of the violence was two-sided. Who knows who started it, but according to news accounts, anti-protest groups attacked the protesters with pepper spray and projectiles. This of course allows President Trump to get away with the false equation of condemning violence on all sides. But we must also admit, that these attacks on the marchers were wrong. They tactically played into the marcher’s desire to show the intolerance of liberal culture. And They reject the fundamental value of plurality that democratic culture must uphold. Most importantly, however, the violence on the left and the right threaten to escalate what has so far been largely a war of ideas into a war for the streets.

Street violence was at the very center of the rise of the fascists in Germany. The Nazi’s mobilized “Brownshirts”—the SA—and marched them into communist and social democratic strongholds seeking to provoke the communists and social democrats. These groups then mobilized their own street gangs and civil disputes turned into violent struggles. This is part of the fascist game plan, to break down the foundation of liberal and democratic civility, to turn arguments into battles, and to insist that political questions cannot be trusted to persuasion but must be won with weapons.

It is likely bad timing that this same weekend that saw the violent mobilization of a fascist mob, Samuel Moyn and David Priestland argued in an op-ed in the New York Times that we should all worry less about the threat that Donald Trump’s Presidency poses to our democratic insitutions. For Moyn and Priestland, the United States is wrongly suffering from what they call “tyrannophobia”:

“Since Donald Trump’s election, the United States has been gripped by tyrannophobia. Conspiracies against democracy are everywhere; truth is under siege; totalitarianism is making a comeback; “resistance” is the last refuge of citizens.

Tyrannophobia, the belief that the overwhelmingly important political issue is the threat to our liberal freedoms and institutions, has always been a powerful force in the United States. As history has shown, however, its tendency to redirect our attention from underlying social and economic problems has often been the real source of danger. It is easier to believe that democracy is under siege than to acknowledge that democracy put Mr. Trump in power — and only more economic fairness and solidarity can keep populists like him out.”

Read the rest of Roger’s essay on Medium.

Read It

James Damore, an engineer at Google, wrote a memo raising questions about the way Google speaks about and tries to address diversity. The media frenzy and chaos that ensued presented his memo as a “screed,” and a “manifesto”; the memo was characterized widely as “anti-diversity” and “unsourced.” All of these characterizations are patently wrong. As Conor Friedersdorf wrote in The Atlantic, “I cannot remember the last time so many outlets and observers mischaracterized so many aspects of a text everyone possessed.” Of course, one problem is that few people read Damon’s memo. First because it was long (10 pages); and second, because when the memo was published by the website Gizmodo, it was published with the links, charts, and sources removed. Whatever one thinks of the memo, it is well worth reading in its entirety. —RB

“People generally have good intentions, but we all have biases which are invisible to us. Thankfully, open and honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us grow, which is why I wrote this document​​. Google has several biases and honest discussion about these biases is being silenced by the dominant ideology. What follows is by no means the complete story, but it’s a perspective that desperately needs to be told at Google.

Google’s biases

At Google, we talk so much about unconscious bias as it applies to race and gender, but we rarely discuss our moral biases. Political orientation is actually a result of deep moral preferences and thus biases. Considering that the overwhelming majority of the social sciences, media​, and Google lean left, we should critically examine these prejudices:

Left Biases Right Biases
Compassion for the weak Respect for the strong/autority
Disparities are due to injustices Disparities are natural and just
Humans are inherently cooperative Humans are inherently competitive
Change is good (unstable) Change is dangerous (stable)





Neither side is 100% correct and both viewpoints are necessary for a functioning society or, in this case, company. A company too far to the right may be slow to react, overly hierarchical, and untrusting of others. In contrast, a company too far to the left will constantly be changing (deprecating much loved services), over diversify its interests (ignoring or being ashamed of its core business), and overly trust its employees and competitors.

Only facts and reason can shed light on these biases, but when it comes to diversity and inclusion, Google’s left bias has created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence. ​This silence removes any checks against encroaching extremist and authoritarian policies. For the rest of this document, I’ll concentrate on the extreme stance that all differences in outcome are due to differential treatment and the authoritarian element that’s required to actually discriminate to create equal representation.”

Let's Do Some Research

In response to the Google Memo, Google’s Diversity officer asserted that the memo “advanced incorrect assumptions about gender.” This unargued assertion has led to an incredible outpouring of writing on the psychological field of gender differentiation, something many of us likely knew little about. It turns out that while it is clear that women rival and even exceed men in scientific and technical ability, it is also clear that most women choose different paths. Why that is the case is fully unclear. Four psychologists offered their considered opinions on how men and women differ with regard to technical ability and interest on the website Quillette. The most helpful account I’ve come across is an extremely well-researched and sourced argument by Sean Stevens and Jonathan Haidt. Stevens and Haidt review approximately 20 meta-analyses of scientific papers to parse the state of scientific research on the question of biological and social gender differentiations. The core of the essay is a long section in which they analyze the abstracts of 20 meta-analytical studies and color-code the statements supporting Damore’s theses in green and those critical of his theses in red. This is extremely revelatory. In the end, Stevens and Haidt conclude that “Damore seems to be correct that there are “population level differences in distributions” of traits that are likely to be relevant for understanding gender gaps at Google and other tech firms.” —RB

“Damore challenges the way that Google is currently pursuing diversity–with a heavy emphasis on implicit bias training–and its assumption that gender gaps necessarily show the existence of some form of bias. Damore argues that a company that was completely free of bias and discrimination would not end up with a 50/50 gender split in all job functions because there are population differences in some traits that might influence the jobs men and women seek out and succeed at. His memo is structured as an argument against a position he refers to as “the extreme stance that all differences in outcome are due to differential treatment.”

Is Damore correct that such “population level differences” exist? It’s very hard to evaluate empirical claims about politicized topics because everyone can “cherry pick” the studies that support their side (for longer discussions, see here and here). The best way to establish the truth in such cases is to examine meta-analyses, which are studies that integrate the findings from many other studies.

We list all the relevant meta-analyses and large sample studies we have found so far in section 2, below, along with their abstracts. But first, in section 1, we collect all the commentary we can find from experts who are writing about the Google memo specifically. And finally, in section 3, we give our own views about how to make sense of the complicated and conflicting set of research findings. If you think we have left out any major experts or meta-analyses, please let us know in the comments at the end, and if appropriate we will add it to this list.  We intend this post to be a living document that brings together in one place the best empirically grounded arguments on all sides. It will be updated regularly….


The research findings are complicated, as you can see from the many abstracts containing both red and green text, and from the presence on both sides of the debate of some of the top researchers in psychology. Nonetheless, we think that the situation can be greatly clarified by distinguishing abilities from interests. We think the following three statements are supported by the research reviewed above:

  1. Gender differences in math/scienceability, achievement, and performance are small or nil. (See especially the studies by Hyde; see also this review paper by Spelke, 2005). There are two exceptions to this statement:
    A) Men (on average) score higher than women on some tests of spatial abilities, such as the ability to rotate 3-dimensional objects in one’s mind. This ability may be relevant in some areas of engineering, but it’s not clear why it would matter for coding.
    B) There is some evidence that men are more variable on a variety of traits, meaning that they are over-represented at both tails of the distribution (i.e., more men at the very bottom, and at the very top), even though there is no gender difference on average. There is an ongoing debate about whether or not this is true across nations and decades; We are currently reviewing this literature, and will post our conclusions and links to studies next week.
  2. Gender differences in interest and enjoyment of math, coding, and highly “systemizing” activities are large. The difference on traits related to preferences for “people vs. things” is found consistently and is very large, with some effect sizes exceeding 1.0. (See especially the meta-analyses by Su and her colleagues, and also see this review paper by Ceci & Williams, 2015).
  3. Culture and context matter, in complicated ways. Some gender differences have decreased over time as women have achieved greater equality, showing that these differences are responsive to changes in culture and environment. But the cross-national findings sometimes show “paradoxical” effects: progress toward gender equality in rights and opportunities sometimes leads to larger gender differences in some traits and career choices. Nonetheless, it seems that actions taken today by parents, teachers, politicians, and designers of tech products may increase the likelihood that girls will grow up to pursue careers in tech, and this is true whether or not biology plays a role in producing any particular population difference. (See this review paper by Eagly and Wood, 2013).

In conclusion, based on the meta-analyses we reviewed above, Damore seems to be correct that there are “population level differences in distributions” of traits that are likely to be relevant for understanding gender gaps at Google and other tech firms. The differences are much larger and more consistent for traits related to interest and enjoyment, rather than ability. This distinction between interest and ability is important because it may address one of the main fears raised by Damore’s critics: that the memo itself will cause Google employees to assume that women are less qualified, or less “suited” for tech jobs, and will therefore lead to more bias against women in tech jobs. But the empirical evidence we have reviewed should have the opposite effect. Population differences in interest may be part of the explanation for why there are fewer women in the applicant pool, but the women who choose to enter the pool are just as capable as the larger number of men in the pool. This conclusion does not deny that various forms of bias, harassment, and discouragement exist and contribute to outcome disparities, nor does it imply that the differences in interest are biologically fixed and cannot be changed in future generations.”

Show Some Respect

SI Neg. 83-14878. Date: na. Grace Murray Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard, c. 1960. Grace Brewster Murray: American mathematician and rear admiral in the U.S. Navy who was a pioneer in developing computer technology, helping to devise UNIVAC I. the first commercial electronic computer, and naval applications for COBOL (common-business-oriented language). Credit: Unknown (Smithsonian Institution)

Cynthia Lee has been a female engineer in tech companies and now teaches computer science at Stanford. She admits that despite what some of the commentary has implied, the manifesto is not an unhinged rant. Its quasi-professional tone is a big part of what makes it so beguiling (to some) and also so dangerous.” Lee concedes that many of the points made in the memo are correct. Nevertheless, it is no doubt the case that Lee and many other women in the technology fields are regularly subjected to conscious and subconscious words, gestures, and innuendos that question their abilities. There is a real worry that a memo like the one written by Jason Damore will serve to justify those unjust assumptions. That would be sad. More likely, however, it is the over-the-top reaction to the memo and the firing of Damore that will make it seem like Damore and men like him are being unfairly silenced that will most likely contribute to an increase in sexism in technological workplaces. That sexism exists is clear. Lee offers five reasons that she argues justify the outrage she and others feel at Damore’s memo. Reason one is fatigue: women in tech are bombarded with colleagues who delegitimize their skills and qualifications and are tired of defending themselves. —RB

“It’s important to appreciate the background of endless skepticism that every woman in tech faces, and the resulting exhaustion we feel as the legitimacy of our presence is constantly questioned. I could fill a memoir with examples just from my own life, but the manifesto led to a few more instances. After one man on Twitter repeated that it was irrational for any one woman to take offense at a discussion of women’s characteristics “on average,” I responded:

That tweet captures a lifetime of being a woman in tech. (A subsequent tweeter said that, my CV notwithstanding, the “jury’s still out” on whether I’m qualified.)

To be a woman in tech is to know the thrill of participating in one of the most transformative revolutions humankind has known, to experience the crystalline satisfaction of finding an elegant solution to an algorithmic challenge, to want to throw the monitor out the window in frustration with a bug and, later, to do a happy dance in a chair while finally fixing it. To be a woman in tech is also to always and forever be faced with skepticism that I do and feel all those things authentically enough to truly belong. There is always a jury, and it’s always still out.

When men in tech listen to the experiences of women in tech, they can come to understand how this manifesto was throwing a match into dry brush in fire season.”

Thinking Women Sciences

In an interview, the science fiction writer Jeff VanderMeer argues for a crucial distinction in how we deal with the laws of the universe, on the one hand, and science as a human institution, on the other:

“It should be totally fine to question the objectivity of scientists and, as the artist Anicka Yi has noted, the power structures in scientific institutions. The physical laws of the universe are objective, but human beings in any context are not. That includes with regard to science. Why have there been so few women scientists in many branches of science until recently? Why do so many women give evidence of unequal treatment? To some extent, the supposed objectivity of science has given a lot of extra cover to very subjective and eccentric approaches to exploring aspects of ourselves and the universe around us. That’s fertile territory for fiction writers, or at least for this particular fiction writer. The irrationality of human beings, the illogic of decision-making, which I’ve seen firsthand in institutions that supposedly make decisions based on objective logic. Once you realize there’s less logic in human institutions than you once thought, you see the narrative potential in just about everything around you. Sometimes, in fact, it seems as if the human world runs on inefficiency and erratic behavior.”

The Memory Of Justice

The Memory of Justice, Marcel Ophul’s masterful documentary about the Nuremburg tribunal and the effort to judge Nazi war criminals, has been restored and reissued. The Memory of Justice is often criticized for placing American war crimes in Vietnam and French war crimes in Algeria alongside the German crimes in the Holocaust. The art critic Harold Rosenberg worried that Ophuls was “lured into a near-nihilistic bog in which no one is guilty, because all are guilty and there is not one who is morally qualified to judge.” One hears in such a critique an echo of Hannah Arendt’s insistence that we reject the idea of collective guilt and refuse the false claim that where all are guilty no one is guilty. For Arendt, to say that all are guilty is to deny the need for judging those actually at fault.

At the same time, Rosenberg’s attack on Ophuls equally recalls the attacks on Arendt after she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, for her insistence that we take serious the responsibility of those Jews who collaborated with the Nazis in rounding up the Jewish people and administering the death camps. Just as Ophuls did not equate crimes in Vietnam with the Holocaust, Arendt never equated the responsibility of Jewish collaborators with the guilt of the Nazis. But she did believe that those Jews who collaborated could still be judged. Similarly, as Ian Buruma writes, Ophuls raises the question of how to judge war crimes of all kinds. —RB

“If The Memory of Justice has a weakness, it is that this second half of the film, concentrating on French and American war crimes, is not quite as gripping as the first half about the German legacy of Nuremberg. Perhaps Ophuls’s heart was not in it to the same extent. Or perhaps no matter what one thinks of My Lai or Algiers, they are overshadowed by the sheer scale and savagery of the Nazi crimes.

Then again, pace Rosenberg, Ophuls doesn’t suggest that they are equivalent. What is comparable is the way people look away from, or justify, or deny what is done in their name, or under their watch. The wife of a US marine who died in Vietnam, living in a house stuffed with flags and military memorabilia, simply refuses to entertain the idea that her country could ever do anything wrong. More interesting, and perhaps more damning, is the statement by John Kenneth Galbraith, an impeccably liberal former diplomat and economist. His view of the Vietnam War, he tells Ophuls, had been entirely practical, without any consideration of moral implications.

Vietnam was not the Eastern Front in 1943. My Lai was not Auschwitz. And Galbraith was certainly no Albert Speer. Nevertheless, this technocratic view of violent conflict is precisely what leads many people so far astray under a criminal regime. In the film, Ellsberg describes the tunnel vision of Speer as “controlled stupidity,” the refusal to see the consequences of what one does and stands for.

This brings to mind another brilliant documentary about controlled stupidity, Errol Morris’s The Fog of War(2003), featuring Robert McNamara, the technocrat behind the annihilation of Japanese cities in World War II and the escalation of the Vietnam War in the 1960s. To him, the deliberate killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians was a mathematical problem. Only many years later did he admit that if the US had lost World War II, he could certainly have been indicted as a war criminal.”

Tyrannical Thinking

Samantha Hill offers an account of the Twitter war between Mary Beard and Nassim Taleb.

Unreflective and ahistorical scientific treatment of individuals erodes the possibility of truth, and reinforces dangerous stereotypes about whiteness and beauty, reducing individuals to character traits, which have very real political consequences. This Twitter exchange between Beard and Taleb is what happens when the conversation between academic fields is foreclosed by haughty claims and ad hominem attacks. Beard’s reply to Infowars was reasonable, but reason quickly devolved into petty hubbub. Taleb shifted the conversation away from Beard’s claim to “Historians” in his first response, and continued to dismiss all history as anecdotal. Beard’s point in her original post was that there were dark-skinned people in Roman Britain. Taleb’s response to Beard was an attack against the merits of Beard and the humanities more generally. He maintained that science and statistics are real while history is “just anecdotal reasoning” and “bullshit”. This kind of argument that goes after the individual instead of what is actually said, reducing an open statement to a universal claim, is characteristic of what Arendt called tyrannical thinking. It is an exercise in reductive logic that erodes our ability to discern between fact and fiction. And it is a form of thinking that prevents us from coming together in a public space to engage in collective conversation, appreciating differences of opinions instead of negating plurality.

Negative Enlightenment

Il’ja Rákoš reads the Hungarian writer Lazslo Krasznahorkai:

“To misread Krasznahorkai as merely, or primarily, a political writer is to risk squandering the profoundly personal nature of his stories. More tragically, it is to foist a kind of sloppy activist, and determinately secular métier onto one of contemporary literature’s most sophisticated exponents of the sacred. It is to miss his elegant, if troubling, depiction of the regrettable distance at which the sacred is held from the greater part of contemporary cultural production. With his repeated exploration of the importance of the sacred to life and culture, Krasznahorkai is among the more godly godless authors you’re likely to meet. These, I submit, are what, in a widely publicized quote, W.G. Sebald was hinting at when he said that “Krasznahorkai’s vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.”

Though lacking his predecessor’s mad religious zeal, like Gogol Krasznahorkai directs his most consistent and pointed critique against a kind of indolence that results in spiritual vacuity, servility to baser human drives, and incurious acquiescence to the pull of a morally and aesthetically baffled culture. Although clearly no fan of conspicuous consumption, his hard appraisal of the same is more than just fashionably provisional snobbery toward rough-grind economics. Rather than limit his focus to the corrupting power of capital, he would have us seek out worth that lies beyond the realm of what is bought, sold, traded, stolen, corroded, and corrupted.

Often cursorily compared to writers like Thomas Bernhard and William Gaddis, Krasznahorkai employs nothing of the former’s self-crippling contempt for the church, and serves as a proper antipode to the latter’s flippant disregard for all things spiritual. His protagonists are not polemical, but confessional. His motif has more in common with Cormac McCarthy’s via negativa to enlightenment, populated by an absent god, human savagery, holy fools, ersatz messiahs, sacred texts, and the unwashed but heroic who are consumed by the task of making things right. But when making things right proves, as it inevitably does, beyond the capacity of a Krasznahorkai protagonist, it is madness, exile, and ruin that follow.”

Becoming Asian-American

Jay Caspian Kang, reporting on the trial of five members of an Asian-American fraternity at Baruch College following the death of a pledge in a hazing incident, reflects on what Asian-American identity is, where it comes from, and how it works:

Asian-­American’’ is a mostly meaningless term. Nobody grows up speaking Asian-­American, nobody sits down to Asian-­American food with their Asian-­American parents and nobody goes on pilgrimages back to their motherland of Asian-­America. Michael Deng and his fraternity brothers were from Chinese families and grew up in Queens, and they have nothing in common with me — someone who was born in Korea and grew up in Boston and North Carolina. We share stereotypes, mostly — tiger moms, music lessons and the unexamined march toward success, however it’s defined. My Korean upbringing, I’ve found, has more in common with that of the children of Jewish and West African immigrants than that of the Chinese and Japanese in the United States — with whom I share only the anxiety that if one of us is put up against the wall, the other will most likely be standing next to him.

Discrimination is what really binds Asian-­Americans together. The early scholars of Asian-­American studies came out of the ‘‘Third World Liberation Front’’ of the late ’60s, which pushed against the Eurocentric bent of the academy. When Asian-­American-­studies programs began spreading in California in the early ’70s, their curriculums grew out of personal narratives of oppression, solidarity forged through the exhumation of common hardships. ‘‘Roots: An Asian-­American Reader,’’ one of the first textbooks offered to Asian-­American-­studies students at U.C.L.A., was published in 1971; the roots of the title referred not to some collective Asian heritage but, the editors wrote, to the ‘‘ ‘roots’ of the issues facing Asians in America.’’

The project of defining Asian-­American identity was largely limited to Ivy League and West Coast universities until 1982, when Vincent Chin, who worked at an automotive engineering firm in Detroit, was beaten to death by assailants who blamed Japanese competition for the downturn in the American auto market. When Chin’s killers were sentenced to probation and fined $3,000, protesters marched in cities across the country, giving rise to a new Pan-­Asian unity forged by the realization that if Chin, the son of Chinese immigrants, could be killed because of Japanese auto imports, the concept of an ‘‘Asian-­American’’ identity had consequences.”

Posted on 13 August 2017 | 8:30 am

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