Welcome to TIME’s subscriber Q&A with editor-at-large for TIME, David Von Drehle, who wrote this week’s cover story, The ISIS Trap. He is the author of four books, including Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year and Triangle: the Fire That Changed America. His other stories can be found here.
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flfoghorn asks, David, why does there seem to be a disconnect between journalists and “pundits”? Journalists get severely punished when they err while pundits say what they want whether it’s true or not and get off unscathed. Why would anybody want to be a serious journalist anymore?
Hi, and thank you all for reading TIME and Time.com. It’s an honor to write for you and I’m glad to take your questions. Here’s my advice for a happier life: Stop watching 24-hour cable “news.” You know, most people don’t watch it. At any given moment, roughly 99 percent of Americans aren’t watching cable news. So they aren’t listening to hours of analysis from the pundits who, as you point out, don’t necessarily know what they are talking about. If you must watch, then I suggest one simple rule: the more you see a person on TV, the less you should pay attention. Almost nothing newsworthy ever happens inside a television studio. So people who spend all their time in studios probably don’t know much about the news. As for being a serious journalist—I am lucky enough to know a lot of them, and they are some of the most interesting people I know. It can be very hard work, especially the part about keeping an open mind. But for the right person it is a dream job and always will be.
deconstructive asks, David, thanks for your previous books, especially Triangle. As an architect (albeit an unemployed one, but I digress), I tend to study human disasters like fires, etc. where business greed is enabled by design flaws to create tragedy – like Triangle, Iroquois Theater, Titanic, Coconut Grove, Hamlet chicken factory fire, Beverly Hills Supper Club, etc. (Hint – means of egress, people!) While safety laws are now in place, alas, lax enforcement can still create problems, but at least we now have rules that did not always exist back in Triangle’s day.
But today, while fire is not the greatest threat to worker safety, what do YOU think is, especially to the poorest workers at the bottom of the social ladder – like similar to the poor young women at Triangle? Also note that economic harm is still a threat to the bottom workers thanks to decades of low wages, though some states’s rising minimum wages and most recent moves by employers like Walmart and TJ Maxx – however reluctantly – may help turn the tide. But what other threats are still out there and not adequately addressed? Thanks.
Thank you so much! March 25 will mark the 104th anniversary of the Triangle Fire, and I agree with you completely as to the legacy of that horrible event. American workplaces are much safer than they were a century ago—and where they are unsafe, we have laws in place and we can address the problem through enforcement. I hope that the same will soon be true of factories in the developing world, where working conditions often resemble ours of the bad old days.
To me, the greatest danger facing today’s workers is retirement savings. Life expectancy is longer. Health care is more expensive. But the idea of working a full career for one employer and retiring with a defined pension is slipping into the past. I would love to see more creative thinking around the problem of how we can continue to grow the economy while enabling working-class and middle-class Americans to save more money.
PaulDirks asks, It is a well documented peculiarity of human beings that they are absolutely terrible at evaluating risk. Certainly the massive Ebola outbreak in America taught us as much. It seems to me that ISIS snuff videos are relying on the same phenomenon. Do you, as a journalist, consider it one of your responsibilities to tamp down on panic when it manifests itself or is it more important that your competitors are fanning the flames, so it’s in your interest to ‘follow the trends’ wherever they may lead?
I think one of our most important jobs is to help TIME’s readers make sense of the world and understand what are the real threats and opportunities. I and my colleagues certainly tried to do that during the Ebola epidemic. In that case we tried to focus on the danger faced by West Africans, the unsettling failure of established public health agencies like the World Health Organization, and the importance of a competent response in our globalized world. We’re trying to do the same now with the ISIS problem, where the immediate danger is not to American cities, but to the future of the Middle East.
deconstructiva asks, David, thanks to you and Alex Altman for covering the Ferguson protests. Alas, that area has not been significantly rebuilt and redeveloped – and as other St. Louis journalists like Sarah Kendzior has noted, nor have many other declining areas of the St. Louis area – so do you see an eventual repeat of more government problems, police injustice, and thus more protests – either in Ferguson or nearby St. Louis areas with same problems? Or as we saw in NYC and elsewhere, will other cities also “face their turn” of social unrest as social injustice remain unresolved? Or just go back into a hibernating mode and let problems simmer until the cycle repeat? Given government inaction thanks to GOP obstruction at national and state levels, I don’t see problems being solved on a mass scale for a long time.
I appreciate the shout-out for Alex, who did a wonderful job of reporting from Ferguson. To my first questioner: there’s a fine, young, and serious journalist for you.
I hate covering riots, and you have put your finger on the reason why. They are so destructive of the very neighborhoods and communities where they erupt. Over a lot of years as a reporter, I’ve covered riots from Miami to Los Angeles, from Brooklyn to St. Louis. And I have yet to see a community that wasn’t worse off when it was over. Businesses don’t want to locate to a riot zone. Families don’t want to move to one.
You earlier mentioned my book about the Triangle Fire. A main point of that book was that disciplined, patient political organizing can produce lasting change. You could tell the same story by writing about the Civil Rights struggle, or Mandela, or William Wilberforce and abolition—any of a huge number of reform movements. Riots are negative, even nihilistic events. Positive change comes from positive action.
MrObvious asks, Have any reporter ever reminded a politician that passing legislation that forbids Sharia Law or promotes Christianity that it’s a waste of time since it’s illegal according to the constitution?
Well, we try. Sometimes, in my experience, we find that grandstanding politicians are not really interested in the fine points of Constitutional law.
deconstructiva asks, David, thanks for your earlier book on Lincoln. Now, naturally using that as a lead-in to today’s politics, we know that today’s Republican party is not the same as the party that Lincoln led back in his day. Simply put, what happened along the way? We know that for a long time the GOP has been in bed with corporate interests, has long had racist overtones with the Southern Strategy, and now has teavangelical interests embedded as Establishment old-school GOP members infight with the Tea Party. This wasn’t what Lincoln had in mind, no? So what do you think went wrong? Thanks.
Thank you for reading Rise to Greatness. You are right that the Republican Party, like the Democrats, have been through a lot of shifting coalitions over the past 150 years. Lincoln surely would have been surprised to know that his party would one day become the dominant party among white voters in the former Confederacy. But he was never one to say no to any votes.
What was most important to Lincoln was that the United States live up to its promise to be a place where every human being has an opportunity to make his or her own destiny. Born into poverty and denied an education, Lincoln understood that for most of human history, his beginnings would have been his fate—a life sentence in the prison of poverty and ignorance. The United States was a new creation, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He also knew that political liberty is rooted in economic liberty—the right, as he put it, to eat the bread that comes from the sweat of one’s own brow. To the extent that either party today is dedicated to those principles of economic liberty and political equality, Lincoln would approve.
Mantisdragon asks, Why does the GOP House hate America and want to see it attacked?
WASHINGTON — House Republican leaders are refusing to support legislation that funds the Department of Homeland Security without imposing immigration policy restrictions, a sign that the department is headed for a partial shutdown Friday night. The legislation is all but guaranteed to pass the Senate. But in the House, it’s a very different story.
I wish everyone in Washington would swear off the habit of playing Russian roulette with funding bills. And also the habit of exaggerating their criticism of their opponents.
Yogi asks, If the Kurds continue performing the leading role of military, police, and governing force in northern Iraq, including their lead in ground troops in the offensive in Mosul, do they finally have the power to initiate independence? Will the US ever change their stance and allow Kurdish independence?
This is a great question. It has been pretty obvious for quite a few years—at least to me—that an independent Kurdistan would very quickly emerge as one of the best-governed states in the region. However, the idea is anathema to Turkey, and Turkey is an increasingly critical piece of the geopolitical puzzle. I think presidents from both parties are likely to move with extreme caution in doing anything to endanger the stability of Turkey.
sacredh asks, Do you think that the GOP candidates will damage each other enough in the primaries that Hillary will have a relatively easy time of it or do you think that this might be a close election?
I think we are a pretty evenly divided country, with the GOP enjoying a slight edge in the down-ballot races and the Democrats having a head start in presidential races. So I will always bet on a fairly close race. That said, if Senator Clinton could create a wave around the idea of electing the first woman president, I think it could be quite powerful in an electorate where women voters outnumber men.
deconstructive asks, David, after watching ISIS tragedies and then stepping back and looking at broader picture of Middle Eastern fighting over time, I wonder how much ties in with the fundamental split between Sunnis and Shia fighting over the ages (as opposed to simple foreign invasions). Do you think their split will remain practically forever? While their permanent split into two different Islamic religions may seem unlikely, it did happen to the Christian faith thanks to Martin Luther. Of course, when Protestantism was born, wars literally broke out all over Europe. Now today, Protestants and Catholics are no longer fighting with bullets (except for past events like Northern Ireland, and that ended too). Might we see Sunnis and Shia finally stop fighting too, either through peaceful resolution or just going their separate ways as two religions, or other means? Or is that region doomed to indefinite pain?
I have been surprised and saddened to see how deep and violent the division is between Sunnis and Shia. Even worse, though, is the deeply cynical abuse of those divisions that many Middle East rulers employ to hold power. Divide and conquer is the first rule of government in far too many regional capitals. If we could somehow begin to see a more enlightened and positive brand of government take root there, maybe the religious strife could be cooled. But it is certainly boiling now, alas.
Thanks again for the questions! Keep reading!
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