Hashtag Activism & Visiting North Korea

15 May 2014



Hashtag activism will not save the more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by terrorist group Boko Haram. But the #bringbackourgirls hashtag is not meaningless, as some of its critics contend. Hashtag activism is a gateway between politics and popular culture, a platform to educate the ignorant and draw attention to the operation of power in the world. And when it shines a spotlight on a burning crisis in Africa that has been raging for years, that matters.

“Bring back our girls” began in late April as a Nigerian rallying cry intended to spur immediate action from the inept government. The mantra found its way to Twitter as #bringbackourgirls, and went viral after news broke that Boko Haram planned to sell the girls into marriages for $12 each, according to Time. For two weeks, the story – and the hashtag – have dominated traditional Western media and social media.  As First Lady Michelle Obama delivered the President’s weekly address last week, she held a handwritten sign emblazoned with the hashtag. Celebrity entertainers have taken the message to their fans, reaching millions.

The heart of the struggle is in Nigeria. And the people suffering this horrible tragedy should and must remain the center of this story. So the question is whether this global outpouring of sympathy (largely manifested on social media) can help to deliver the missing young women to safety.

Hashtag activism is a gateway between politics and popular culture, a platform to educate the ignorant and draw attention to the operation of power in the world.

Of course, millions of Americans tweeting about a country that most of them cannot find on a map is hardly a weighty gesture. And even if the resulting media pressure contributes to a more effective military response to this act of terrorism, no social media campaign will change the deep-seated political, economic, and social conflicts at the root of this horror.  But #bringbackourgirls does serve a purpose.

Hashtag activism’s most important function is to divert public attention to new subjects, and in ways that stir conviction. It contributes to a process of “agenda setting” that drives the news media. The media you consume may not dictate your views, but it does focus your attention by elevating stories and topics.  It tells you what to think about and what is important. Pre-Internet, elites and major media outlets performed this function. Today, hashtag activism is a form of agenda setting in which regular people may participate and lead – and sometimes excel.

True, hashtag activism is not magic pixie dust that can rescue these young women, democratize governments, or decisively alter complex social events all by itself.  But that is a false standard to use in measuring its value. The social media mobilization around #bringbackourgirls has reset the agenda of Western media. Attention is on Africa. And in the sentiments, articles, and discussion flowering around the hashtag is a picture of the social and cultural conflicts in Nigeria:  the wide inequalities of the region, the brutal form of terrorism practiced by Boko Haram, corrupt and incompetent government, and the agonizing plight of women caught in these struggles. The measure of this campaign’s importance will be whether these lessons stick and we continue to pay attention to Nigeria in the future.  The #Kony2012 campaign did not result in the capture of Joseph Kony. But it did inform millions of people about violence in Central Africa.

Digital activism is a new tool that enables bottom-up and leaderless movements to emerge.

Still not convinced this social media stuff is significant? Consider measuring the power of digital agenda setting by the force of the response against it. Take, for example, the role of social media in Turkey’s anti-corruption movement. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan first called Twitter an enemy of the public and then temporarily blocked access to the site before critical elections. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has followed in the footsteps of many authoritarian nations and signed a law requiring that all influential online voices register with the government. Power is closely linked to the distribution of information. The Internet is only the newest technology to demonstrate this truth and elicit a reaction from those who seek to have or hold power.

This kind of reaction happens not because digital activism is a sufficient condition for transformative change. It obviously isn’t. This kind of reaction happens because digital activism is a new tool that enables bottom-up and leaderless movements to emerge. This power exists despite the fact that hashtag movements alone cannot organize or sustain conventional political institutions. At present, they are strongest in calling attention to injustice and demanding change. That is a good start.

About the Author

Ben Scott
Ben Scott is Senior Advisor to the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation and directs the European Digital Agenda program at the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung in Berlin. Previously, he served as an advisor on technology issues at the US Department of State.

Mapping Modi’s Motives


Narendra Modi, the man most likely to be declared India’s next prime minister, has spent much time in the public eye in the past eight months. India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claims Modi has logged 300,000 kilometers and addressed 437 rallies while on the campaign trail.

Yet critics and supporters alike say not much is known about the post-election plans of the charismatic and controversial BJP candidate. One satirical website, narendramodiplans.com, pokes fun at this ambiguity, inviting viewers to click on a moving button for details into Modi’s agenda.

India will announce the results of its general elections for the Lok Sabha, or the lower house of Parliament, on May 16. All signs suggest the ruling Congress party is positioned for a historic loss, due to stagnant growth, persistent inflation, and frequent corruption scandals during the last few years. While some caution is in order — polls are often unreliable in India and political parties often pay for newspaper coverage – polling figures suggest that the BJP and its allies are positioned to win the 272-seat parliamentary majority needed to form a government.

All signs suggest the ruling Congress party is positioned for a historic loss, due to stagnant growth, persistent inflation, and frequent corruption scandals during the last few years.

What exactly would a Modi win mean for India? Despite the lack of details on his post-election plans, Modi’s record in office as chief minister of Gujarat and his public appearances do provide some clues into his leadership style and agenda. Here are five things a Modi win would likely mean for the world’s largest democracy:

1. Modi would pursue reform — though he may have to bypass the Parliament to do so.

Modi almost surely understands the urgency of making accomplishments in the first 100 days and beyond. This election has turned on his promise to reinvigorate India’s stagnating economy, and his ability to remain in power for a full five-year term and potentially win a second would depend on making visible progress on this front.

Whether Modi could enact policy changes and maintain a position as prime minister hinges partly on the margin by which the BJP wins. If the BJP underperforms in the polls, the party may have to rely on coalition partners in the Lok Sabha that are not as friendly to reform, like the Trinamool Congress of West Bengal, to form a government. A large, unwieldy coalition could slow, and even prevent, the reforms that many expect Modi to pursue to reinvigorate the economy — such as minimizing red tape in approvals of business and infrastructure projects, and opening India to foreign investment.

If the BJP and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance, its center-right coalition, win more than 272 seats in India’s lower house of Parliament on their own, however, Modi would have the means and the mandate to make bolder moves within his first 100 days in office.

Whether Modi could enact policy changes and maintain a position as prime minister hinges partly on the margin by which the BJP wins.

But even then, the BJP’s scant presence in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament, could prevent big structural changes. The BJP and its allies control only 61 of the Rajya Sabha’s 250 seats, while the Congress party alone has 72. Both houses of Parliament and the executive must pass any bill for it to become an official Act of Parliament.

Does that mean Modi would be ineffectual? Not necessarily. Arvind Panagariya, a Columbia University economist who is seen as a potential advisor to Modi, argues that the next central government could ignite a series of radical and beneficial reforms by empowering states to amend central laws as they are applied within their jurisdictions. In other words, Modi might be able to use “executive solutions,” working with chief ministers to implement economic reforms in spite of an unwieldy Parliament.

Beyond the vote count, both skill and luck would play a role in whether Modi is able to pursue reform. For example, forecasters predict the monsoon season, which typically runs between June and September, could be short and relatively dry this year. That would aggravate food inflation and reduce rural incomes, slowing the Indian economy and reflecting poorly on Modi’s record. However, early success would have a reinforcing dynamic for Modi, smoothing the way for later reforms.

2. A renewed focus on administration and governance.

Modi is often described in the West as being pro-reform, and he is a member of India’s economic right, which believes in prioritizing growth over redistribution. But Modi has not yet articulated a clear economic philosophy, and his positions on many specific policies remain unclear.

Modi might be able to use “executive solutions,” working with chief ministers to implement economic reforms in spite of an unwieldy Parliament.

What is clear is his talent as an administrator. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi demonstrated an interest in why policies fail and a willingness to critically engage with technocrats in designing policy. Some of his greatest accomplishments were administrative changes that helped advance productivity and attract business, such as ensuring 24/7 electricity in Gujarat.

As prime minister, expect Modi to continue to pursue his area of expertise: rooting out administrative inefficiencies. These changes could lead to more pragmatic and business-friendly policies, such as streamlined approvals for infrastructure projects.

Whether Modi would tackle India’s extensive subsidy programs, pass the goods and services tax, and undertake other measures that economists recommend to ensure macro stability is less certain, says Arvind Subramanian, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

3. The rise of a more “muscular” nationalism.

The BJP is a Hindu nationalist party that believes in India’s self-reliance and rightful position as a global power. It advocates scrapping Article 370, which gives semi-autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, and a foreign policy based on nationalist principles.

Modi, too, wears his nationalism on his sleeve, says Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Modi favors a robust military; he has said he wouldn’t allow India to “bow down”and has warned China against expansionism in India’s northeast.

Yet many say this stance does not rule out the possibility of closer foreign partnerships, especially when it comes to business and investment. Despite his nationalist streak, Modi’s talent in bringing foreign investment to Gujarat has led many to forecast closer business ties between India and the U.S.China,Japan, or Pakistan.

Modi favors a robust military; he has said he wouldn’t allow India to “bow down”and has warned China against expansionism in India’s northeast.

“I don’t think it’s going to mean that India becomes more militaristic — far from it,” says Dhume. “But I think you’re definitely going to see an India that is much more overtly concerned with things like territorial incursions and terrorist attacks.”

4. India’s massive welfare programs would continue.

Despite his rightist economic leanings, Modi has promised not to overturn any of the massive social welfare schemes of the Congress-led government and has even said he would increase agricultural support prices for farmers.

Many economists criticize programs such as the national rural employment guarantee scheme, which promises 100 days of guaranteed labor to rural households, and the food security bill, which aims to provide cheap grains for 70 percent of India’s population, as well-intentioned measures that actually result in massive waste and opportunities for embezzlement. Yet rolling these programs back in a country that is home to one-third of the world’s poor is very unpopular politically.

“Nobody in India gets elected by promising to cut government benefits,” says Dhume. “This is still a very poor country. Most of the attacks on Modi, as is natural, have come from the left, so he’s been quite careful in protecting his left flank.”

Still, Modi’s leadership would likely mean less emphasis on the Congress party’s “one-size-fits-all” redistribution schemes and more on policies that focus first on stimulating growth. As Panagariya suggests, Modi might accomplish this by giving the states more legislative autonomy and greater control over their own financing.

Supporters say a renewed focus on growth is what India’s sluggish economy and indebted public sector need.

Supporters say a renewed focus on growth is what India’s sluggish economy and indebted public sector need. Critics worry that greater incentives for businesses will eat away at resources for helping the poor and point out that, under Modi’s leadership, Gujarat’s performance on social indicators lagged behind its progress on growth and governance.

5. Some disillusionment is inevitable — but opportunities for success abound.

Expectations in India for the new government are sky-high. Some of the reforms most necessary to reinvigorate the economy — such as loosening the tight labor standards that deter manufacturers from setting up shop in India – will be politically difficult, if not impossible.

Even if Modi’s government wins a majority, he would not govern unencumbered. His efforts would face friction from the Congress party and its allies, as well as from the non-BJP governments that will rule India’s biggest states, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Tamil Nadu.

Modi would also likely face pressure from rivals within his own party; unlike the Congress party, the BJP has no political dynasty to designate its champions, and it features much more internal competition. He might also have to guard against efforts to derail his economic agenda by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s militant sister organization, and other right-wing Hindu nationalist groups in the Sangh Parivar.

But India also has an abundance of “low-hanging fruit” that an effective administrator such as Modi could capture. Improvements could be made in virtually every sector — whether health, education, poverty, infrastructure, electricity, growth, business friendliness, or the legal system, said Pravin Krishna, a professor of international economics at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Modi has not indicated that he connects with any of these issues above the others, but that he would push forward on all of them and see how far he gets.

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

About the Author

Peter BergenDirector, International Security Program
Peter Bergen is the Vice President and director of the International Security Program at New America, CNN's national security analyst, and a fellow at Fordham University's Center on National Security. He is a print, television and web journalist, documentary producer and the author or editor of five books, three of which were New York Times bestsellers.
Ana Swanson
Ana Swanson is an editor of Foreign Policy's South Asia Channel and an MA candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Follow her on Twitter at @AnaSwanson.

Does This Look Like Public Housing to You?

This is part of a Weekly Wonk series, Globalization’s Canary: Singapore at 50.  In the half-century since its independence, the strategically-located city-state has leveraged its access to the global economy, and a number of innovative policies on issues ranging from housing to savings and social cohesion, to become one of the world’s most affluent societies.  As they prepare to celebrate their milestone, Singaporeans are in a reflective mood, taking stock of what’s been accomplished, while also expressing some unease about the sustainability of their current model going forward.  In that same spirit, New America’s Asset Building Program Fellow Monica Potts breaks down whether Singapore’s public housing system could be transferable to the U.S.

Public housing in Singapore is no Fort Apache or Cabrini Green.  Unlike in the United States, developments are designed for the masses, rather than the few. And they’re intended to confer homeownership rather than provide low-cost, short-term rentals. The newer apartments are bright and upscale, with Ikea-like infrastructure and a spacious sky deck that looks out at the small city-state.

Today’s system took root long before Singapore gained independence. The British government began building public housing to move low-income people out of slums and solve a housing shortage in the 1930s. After the devastation of World War II and the Japanese occupation, the housing shortages were even more acute. It was a bigger problem than the private market could solve. When Singapore gained partial independence, in the late 1950s, it established government entities to build housing for low- and middle-income families: In 1960, this became the Housing Development Board, which still exists today.

Unlike in the United States, developments are designed for the masses, rather than the few.

Today, the government owns 80 percent of the land in Singapore and is the largest real estate developer. Publicly built housing is available only to citizens or permanent residents, which make up about 3.6 million of the country’s 5.5 million population, but income limits are very high: $10,000 a month in Singapore dollars. (about $8,000 US). Private institutions provide mortgages, and buyers can borrow without penalty from their compulsory, government-managed savings account (to which their employer also contributes). There are also subsidies and other supports available for lower-income families, and the prices of units in public housing are informed by the market price but typically set at a lower level than what the private market would demand.

In exchange for such a huge transfer of wealth—which is essentially what this is—owners must remain on the property for five years. They retain any increase in property value on the secondary market. If they want to sell it, they must sell it to a citizen and the housing authority can intervene to make sure the buyer won’t alter the racial mix. Those limitations can depress the value of properties owned by Malays or Indians, the country’s two biggest minority groups. (Seventy-five percent of the island’s population is Chinese.)

Homeowners can also rent their properties on the secondary market. The private rental market in Singapore is uncontrolled, and the super high rents help make Singapore one of the most expensive cities in the world. This is, in part, because the secondary rental market is open to the city’s nearly 2 million foreign workers, who are unable to buy public housing and must fight for properties in the relatively small private market or on the secondary rental market. There is little help for low-income foreign workers, the people from developing countries like India or the Philippines who come to work in low-skill, low-wage jobs like construction. The government says employers build dormitories for them, but those dorms are subject only to building codes, and there’s no regulatory mechanism for making sure employers build enough space for their employees.

Could this large-scale public housing system work in a United States city? First, it’s important to note that, in Singapore, the city and country are one and the same, making the politics less complex.  Second, the notion of that much subsidy for housing is a non-starter in the U.S. Congress, though the federal mortgage interest deduction helps subsidize home-buying across all income brackets.  (Studies show, however, that most of those subsidies go to families with incomes in the top 20 percent, because they are more likely to receive tax deductions than lower-income families.) To build and subsidize that much public housing would be a massive development undertaking and subsidize homeownership on a bigger scale than the country has ever done. In the past few decades, state and local governments have shifted away from building and operating housing projects for low-income families and instead subsidize them in the private rental market. The largest is the federally-funded Section 8 program, which provides about $27 billion a year.

The notion of that much subsidy for housing is a non-starter in the U.S. Congress.

Three-quarters of it goes to families who make less than 30 percent of the median income of the area they live in. Outside of that program, rental housing is increasingly unaffordable, even for families who make more than that. Nationwide, a worker would need to earn $18.92 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rates, more than two-and-a-half times the minimum wage. For homeownership, most federal, state, city, and nonprofit programs simply work to provide subsidies or financial counseling to help lower-income families buy a home on the private market with a private mortgage.

Governments of more liberal cities, along with nonprofits, have moved in to fill this gap. About 800,000 homeowners in the U.S. have homes through some sort of help from an economic co-sponsor. Among them are those granted deeds with provisions that ensure the property will remain affordable after they sell. One model is a housing trust, homes for which ownership is split between the owner and the trust. Schemes are set up so that ownership is heavily subsidized for the working class, but if the owner wants to sell after four years, most of the appreciation goes back to the trust and the home is kept affordable, so that the second buyer receives the same help and subsidies. So far, however, housing trusts are still only in a few cities and states, and with credit tight in the wake of the Great Recession, home ownership is out of reach for many Americans, and rents eat up as much as half of monthly incomes.

This story resulted from a trip to Singapore sponsored by the Singapore International Foundation, a public, non-profit institution.  

About the Author

Monica Potts
Monica Potts is a fellow with the Asset Building Program at New America and is a senior writer at the American Prospect, where she has written extensively about challenges facing families in poverty.

The North Korea Playbook


New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter and guests explore the ideas and policy challenges that not only dominate today’s headlines, but will shape our future. Subscribe to the Weekly Wonk Podcast in iTunes.

For the first time in years, American diplomats seem optimistic about the future of Iran-U.S. relations. Could our progress there help us deal with North Korea? Suzanne DiMaggio, the director of the Southwest Asia Program, shares what lessons she learned from a recent trip to Pyongyang – and why she’s increasingly confident the U.S. and Iran will reach an official nuclear agreement this summer.

Later, as school draws to a close, we look back at a conversation from earlier this year, about how to make our schools better, with Teach For America Founder Wendy Kopp and Education Policy Program Director Kevin Carey.

How Wheeler Can Save the Open Internet


Tom Wheeler is having a bad month. The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission proposed a new net neutrality rule that has angered open Internet advocates and big companies. Opponents say that the rule would enable Internet Service Providers to charge different rates depending on the type or origin of the online content, thus creating “fast lanes” for those companies that could pay more, and leaving everyone else in the slow lane. Sure, big companies can cough up the extra fast lane cash, but the next startup probably can’t. And that’s a problem.

Now, Wheeler’s in a tough spot. He’s been accused of breaking President Obama’s campaign promise to keep the Internet open, and is facing a potential revolt by his fellow FCC commissioners.

Luckily, Tim Wu, the Columbia University Professor and New America Fellow who coined the term net neutrality, has a solution for Wheeler. In the New Yorker this week, he laid out Wheeler’s contingency plan.

“…The alternative is to toughen up the rules. Wheeler had repeatedly said that he believes in the open Internet; he could clarify his rule and say that it presumptively bars most forms of discrimination and forbids blocking traffic from some content providers. Something like that would likely satisfy much of the opposition, but it would come with its own political challenges. It might be vulnerable to another court challenge, and Wheeler may need to invoke the F.C.C.’s full authority (Title II—the sixteen-inch guns), yielding a political backlash from the other side.

Wheeler is in a bind. But here’s a solution. The chairman should, as just suggested, toughen up his proposal to presumptively outlaw fast lanes and degradation schemes. Then he should specify, as a legal matter, that his rules rely on 706 authority primarily, but are also backed up by the full force of the Commission’s authority, should 706 authority fail. Wheeler has already said that Title II authority is “on the table,” but he should make this explicit by doing what Congress does routinely, which is pass laws under more than one basis of authority, to best insure the law’s survival (lawyers call this arguing in the alternative). Interestingly, for reasons I’ll describe, this proposal may actually reduce the odds that the telecom industry challenges the rules in court.”

Read the full piece here.

For more on the net neutrality debate, check out Open Technology Institute Policy Analyst Danielle Kehl’s take on what the FCC might learn from recent Internet regulation debates in the EU and Brazil.

MyRA for Renters? Sounds Familiar


Josh Barro has an interesting column for the New York Times this week on how we can promote savings for renters. Homeownership, he acknowledges, is a method of “forced savings”: “Every month, you write a check to the bank, part of which goes to pay interest, and part of which goes to reduce the balance of your loan. Over time, you own more of the home. In a country that doesn’t save enough, forced saving is a real virtue of owning a home.” Renters miss out on that built-in wealth-building opportunity.

Barro goes on to present a creative idea to help renters save too: “Why not also allow landlords to participate in myRA, with tenants able to roll a retirement savings contribution into their rent checks?” MyRA is a proposal from the Obama administration that would improve access to retirement savings accounts through the workplace for employees who are currently underserved. (MyRA also happens to be the topic of a new policy paper that my colleagues put out this week, which you should read here.)

I agree with Barro that building a savings option into the act of paying rent is a good idea. Automation helps people do something they likely wouldn’t consciously do otherwise. In fact, it’s such a good idea that the federal government has been doing something very similar for over 20 years, through its Family Self-Sufficiency Program.

FSS is run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and allows low-income households participating in rental assistance (the Housing Choice Voucher Program or public housing) to build up their savings while they work on economic goals, like getting a better-paying job, earning an educational credential, paying off debt, and more. So where does the “forced savings” come in?

All rental-assisted households must pay 30% of their adjusted income to their landlord (or the housing authority, in the case of public housing). That means if a person’s income goes up, so does their rent payment. (Insert the muted sobbing of economists here.) The FSS program changes all that by establishing an escrow account for each participant. In FSS, when a participant’s income goes up, the housing authority deposits a credit amounting to the difference between the baseline rent and the new higher rent into that account on behalf of the tenant. (Just for the purpose of illustrating how this works, let’s say you came into the program earning $100/month and thus paying $30 in rent. If your income doubles to $200, rent becomes $60 – but in FSS that new $30 goes into your escrow account.) At the end of the allotted five years in the program, if the participant has met the established goals (which include sustained employment, staying off cash welfare assistance for 12 months, and other personally defined goals), they graduate, receive a check for the value of the escrow account, and can use the funds to purchase a home, a car, open a retirement or college savings account, or pursue another financial goal that makes sense for them and their family.

If that sounds good, you might be wondering why we aren’t doing more of it. FSS only serves roughly 69,000 families out of the millions receiving rental assistance, due in large part to funding constraints. FSS certainly isn’t perfect, and I’ve detailed a number of these issues in this policy paper from a few months ago. Barro’s proposal to open myRA up to renters has the potential to be very effective, but why not expand on an existing successful initiative to give renters an opportunity to save?

This post originally appeared in the Asset Building Program’s blog, The Ladder

About the Author

Hannah Emple
Hannah Emple is a policy analyst with the Asset Building Program at the New America Foundation. She provides research, analysis, and programmatic support on a range of topics related to household economic security and federal asset building policy. In particular, she focuses on U.S. housing policy, racial wealth disparities, and strategies to improve public benefits programs to promote the financial stability of low- and middle-income families.

Family Tree Obsessed


Alex Haley, author of the hugely popular 1976 book Roots, once said that black Americans needed their own version of Plymouth Rock, a genesis story that didn’t begin—or end—at slavery. His 900-page American family saga, which reached back to 18th-century Gambia, certainly delivered on that. But it also shared with all Americans the emotional and intellectual rewards that can come with discovering the identity of your ancestors.

No one knew it at the time, but Haley’s bestseller—and the blockbuster television mini-series that aired a year later—were the beginnings of a genealogy craze that would sweep the nation.

Four decades later, genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the U.S. after gardening, according to ABC News, and the second most visited category of websites, after pornography. It’s a billion-dollar industry that has spawned profitable websites, television shows, scores of books, and—with the advent of over-the-counter genetic test kits—a cottage industry in DNA ancestry testing.

Genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the U.S. after gardening, according to ABC News, and the second most visited category of websites, after pornography.

During and after the 2008 presidential campaign, the press had a field day researching the family histories of Barack and Michelle Obama. Indeed, the winner of that election first came to the public eye as the author of Dreams From My Father, what he called an “autobiography, memoir, family history, or something else” that was essentially the tale of a young man desperately trying to find his own identity by exploring his unknown family past.

Genealogy has always had a following in the U.S. But prior to the civil rights movement, which encouraged racial and ethnic minorities to embrace their previously marginalized identities, the study of family history was largely the province of white social climbers and racists. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with millions of southern Europeans arriving on American shores, white elites often sought to maintain their social status by promoting a definition of whiteness that excluded newcomers. Genealogy became a way for them to prove their credentials and gain entry into such hereditary societies as the Daughters of the American Revolution, which was founded in 1890 and stood for, in the words of its president general, “the purity of our Caucasian blood.”

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, such bald-faced white supremacy was in retreat, the vibrant immigrant identities of the early 20th century had largely been assimilated, and the women’s movement was challenging old-fashioned gender roles. In other words: The very institutions that once defined our ancestors’ identities were very much in flux.

Prior to the civil rights movement, the study of family history was largely the province of white social climbers and racists.

All this tumult is what made “identity crisis” and “finding yourself” household terms. The publication, production, and popularity of Roots were part and parcel of a newfound need to locate oneself in uncertain cultural terrain.

The great irony is that many Americans—particularly those who were several generations removed from the immigrant experience—were trying to find personal meaning in their ancestry long after their heritage ceased to play a meaningful role in their lives. In 1986, psychologist Roy F. Baumeister concluded rather cynically that genealogy’s popularity stemmed from the fact that it was the only “quest for self-knowledge” that boasted a “well-defined method,” whose “techniques were clear-cut, a matter of definite questions with definite answers.”

Religion and technology helped make the search for those answers even easier. In the 1960s, the Mormon Church—which espouses the doctrine of baptism of the dead by proxy and encourages its members to research their unbaptized ancestors—opened branch genealogical libraries throughout the country. In the 1970s, these libraries began to receive more and more non-Mormon patrons.

In the 1990s, digital technology and the Internet revolutionized the way large amounts of information could be reproduced, transferred, and retrieved. Moving genealogical databases online then made it possible for tens of millions more Americans to research their families in the comfort of their own homes. A hobby once dominated by persnickety elites was now fully democratized and focused on identity rather than pedigree.

Moving genealogical databases online then made it possible for tens of millions more Americans to research their families in the comfort of their own homes.

A few years ago, my father spent a year researching his family roots. At the end of his journey, he presented each of his children with an ornate album containing his findings, which reach back to the early 18th century in what is today Chihuahua, Mexico.

While I admired the work he’d done and thought most of what he’d found pretty cool, none of it struck me as having the power to change the way I saw myself in the world. But that was before I looked more closely at the photocopy from the 1900 census he had placed under a laminated sheet. It was then that I discovered that my great-grandfather Federico Rodriguez, who worked as a smelter in a large copper mine in eastern Arizona, had arrived in the United States as early as 1893. Before, I had thought both my mother’s and father’s families came to the U.S. in the 1910s during the Mexican Revolution. We hadn’t known much about the paternal side of my dad’s family.

But suddenly, there it was: proof that my dad’s grandfather was living and working and raising a family in Arizona 19 years before it became a state of the Union.

It’s silly I know, but every time I fly to the Grand Canyon State, I’m tempted to get off the plane wearing one of those black Pilgrim hats with buckles. Now I understand why so many millions of Americans love it. Genealogy is fun.

This article was originally published in Zócalo Public Square.

About the Author

Gregory Rodriguez
Gregory Rodriguez is a senior research fellow at New America. He is also the founder and publisher of Zócalo Public Square and the executive director of the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University.

The American Idol Lesson for All of Us

My redemption came on a bleak January night at a DC saloon.  As I prepared to take the stage – a tiny, carpeted step in the corner – some patrons focused more on their burgers and fries, unaware of my moment. Others crowded the step with expectation and beers in hand.  At an earlier performance, a large, older woman had flung her bra at my competition, grinning at me and giggling conspiratorially.

As the emcee announced my name, and the lyrics to Ace of Base’s “I Saw the Sign” began to roll across multiple screens, I took a deep breath, and uncoiled. I was off the beat a bit, and my soprano register was a little strained, but the crowd gave me a roaring, drunken, dive bar applause. Of course, half the crowd (age range: twentysomething to fiftysomething) were wearing the colored T-shirts of DC’s competitive karaoke league.

My first thought, as I beamed at the crowd and took a bow: “Take that, American Idol.”  The show deflated my teenage dream, and prodded me to pick a new one. It’s a moment most of us face at some point – whether or not it’s initiated by a television producer. The question is when we can reclaim what’s lost and settle the debt.   Even as the 13th American Idol waits to be crowned next week, I’m thinking back to the hundreds who never even got the first gold piece of paper way back in week 1. When will they be redeemed?

My first thought, as I beamed at the crowd and took a bow: “Take that, American Idol.”  

My Idol dreams walked into St. Louis’ cavernous football stadium on August 8, 2004. I was 16.  It was the last time I sang solo in front of an audience until that January night in DC.

The summer of 2004, I spent my days riding my bike to driver’s ed and working shifts at Dairy Queen. Even my endless supply of blizzards and dip cones couldn’t stave off suburban boredom. I was searching for an adventure.

When I discovered that American Idol tryouts would be held in St. Louis, a short-ish trip from my house in the Chicago suburbs, I knew I had to get there. I’d been singing since I was 9 – in musicals and traveling choirs. At the time, though I never would’ve admitted it, I thought I had a chance at being the next Kelly Clarkson– or, at least, making it past a couple of rounds. After all, the runner-up in 2003 had been a 16-year-old.

My dad agreed to accompany me – and encouraged me to write about the experience for the newspaper where he worked. That piece is still online – and it’s why I can still recount many of the details.

For ten hours (I was No. 14,882 in line), I waited in that stadium, which reeked of nachos and nail polish.

I was 16.  It was the last time I sang solo in front of an audience until that January night in DC.

Everything about me was distinctly anti-popstar  – my choice of song (Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me), my conservative outfit (jeans and a long white dress-shirt combined with a cloying charm bracelet), and, most of all, my confidence deficit. Idol hopefuls run a confidence surplus, to put it mildly. I felt less assured. Why didn’t these people look more nervous? What was wrong with me?

Finally, after the producer of the show told us all, “If you suck, don’t worry! Suck even more than you ever have before!”, it was time to sing in front of the judges.

Contestants had to make it through a couple of initial tryout rounds before singing for Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson – the original TV judges. So for this round, I sang in front of two of the show’s producers (one, a wan British woman, the other, a middle-aged guy who looked “like he wanted to scream and/or leave”).

And then, the inevitable news, delivered by the British judge:  “Thank you so much for trying out for American Idol. You are not what we are looking for at this time. “

Back then, I told myself I was happy to have had the experience. True. But, in my heart, it told me to make a choice. Mine: “I should stop singing.”

Finally, after the producer of the show told us all, “If you suck, don’t worry! Suck even more than you ever have before!”, it was time to sing in front of the judges.

Many of us are taught, from an early age, to focus on the pastimes we excel at, and to dismiss the activities that we struggle with.  That behavior is reinforced by the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Childhood fantasies of astronaut and movie star run up against the cold calculation of how to best leverage your skills, and assess the odds, to make a living.

This can happen, if you’re as over-serious as I was, as early as middle school, when you start to craft your identity. At this stage, we begin to derive pleasure from external validation – a teacher or coach telling us we’ve got talent.  Our internal sense of what brings us joy – regardless of any aptitude – starts to feel far less important.   Sure, you may have fun painting. But you’re not very good, according to your teacher. So if you’re not going to be an artist, what’s the point?

Even before my tryout, I was starting to get negative signals. I didn’t make the more competitive choir, and was even overshadowed by far more talented peers on the B-team. American Idol was the final verdict, and it told me: Stop wasting your time.

So, like we all do, I began to focus my energy on activities that I thought I could fashion into a career. I’m a journalist and I don’t regret making that choice.

Many of us are taught, from an early age, to focus on the pastimes we excel at, and to dismiss the activities that we struggle with.

Still, I missed singing. After college, I talked about missing it so much that a friend of mine signed me up for that competitive karaoke league. At first, I was purely excited. This would be fun. And then, I began to raise the stakes. What if I could win this…and show everyone that I’m good at singing after all?  I was still operating under the misconception that pleasure flowed from victory, that being good at singing would permit me to enjoy it. Singing and stinking at it felt, well, a little sad and delusional.

At the end of that January night in DC, I waited nervously as the competition organizers announced the soloist who earned the most votes that evening. This person would win a pair of concert tickets, and, of course, lots of glory.

They announced my name.

This is it! I marveled. American Idol, be damned!  I sang all the way home. And I sang all weekend. To friends. Alone in my apartment. I chatted with a friend about starting an a cappella club. Maybe I didn’t stink after all!

And then, a week later, I got a surprising email. “Last week, we accidentally called out the incorrect top soloist,” wrote the District Karaoke representative. “However, since we announced it, we still want to honor it!”

He was offering me pity concert tickets. Because, once again, I had lost.

This time, I laughed. My victory may have been fleeting, and false. But the joy I had rediscovered in singing was real.  We all give up on something. Having a chance to relive that dream, and rekindle its passion, is all we can ask.

About the Author

Elizabeth WeingartenAssociate Editor
Elizabeth has worked on the editorial staffs of The Atlantic magazine, Slate magazine, and Qatar Today magazine in Doha, Qatar. She is  associate editor at New America, and the associate director of the Global Gender Parity Initiative.

How to Survive a Twitter Fight


The Challenge: Arguing on social media is like riding the wrong way in a bike lane. Everyone sees you, nobody thinks you’re cool, and chances are you will crash. The golden rule of surviving a twitter argument is avoiding them altogether. But on occasion, there comes a time when you need to put on your battle gear and defend your honor.

The Wonk: Justin Lynch, Social Media Coordinator at New America

The Tip: Even when you’re in a fight – don’t act like you’re in a fight.

Remember that thing about not taking twitter too seriously? It’s true. You could try and go the route of articulating a serious response that addresses criticism, but it’s nearly impossible to do in 140 characters. So don’t even try. Instead, a sarcastic and witty response keeps the mood light, and usually makes the other person look like a fool. A great case study is zappos.com. After Kanye West criticized some of their products, Zappos crafted a witty and brilliant response and won the day. In other words, DO maintain a jovial tone at all times.

DON’T take it personally. Twitter is a scary place, and rarely follows any sort of logic. Sometimes the tweets from New America go viral when they really shouldn’t. Other times, tweets that have all of the elements to take off go nowhere. Recognize that more often than not, criticism on twitter is out of your control. Learn to enjoy the ride.

DO use links to articles to defend your main point.  It’s hard to craft a coherent argument in 140 characters. Not only is linking to articles is a great way to overcome this barrier, but it shows that you have support.

DO recognize when it’s time to address criticism – outside of the Twittersphere. Remember Howard Dean from the 2004 presidential elections? Chances are, you remember the clip of Dean screaming into the microphone. The Dean press team’s failure to address this minor incident caused it to gain traction on cable TV, and became the narrative for his campaign. Now, its all anyone can remember about the man who was the Governor of Vermont. A good rule of thumb is that when criticism shifts from fringe commentators to mainstream media, it’s time to write a blog post from your point of view. Then, tweet it out.

DON’T say anything you wouldn’t say in person. It’s easy to attack someone on the internet without ever meeting them, but chances are, those reading your profile in turn won’t want to meet you.

DO choose your opponent wisely. A solid rule of thumb: if a user has more Twitter followers than you and a solid reputation, consider responding.

DON’T think that you can win an argument on twitter. There are no winners of fights on social media, only survivors.

DO stay away from using caps lock. Capital letters don’t make your argument stronger, they just make it look like you have a broken keyboard.  I’m looking at you, Kanye West.


Correction: This piece incorrectly stated that Howard Dean ran for President in 2000. Howard Dean ran for President in 2004.

About the Author

Justin Lynch
Justin Lynch is the Social Media Coordinator at New America.

Net Neutrality, World Wide

The Shot (n): An image that speaks.

Where should FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler turn for a solution to his net neutrality woes? He might try looking south. Open Technology Institute Policy Analyst Danielle Kehl explains what lessons the U.S. might learn from Brazil’s recent Internet victory.

For more on what the FCC might learn from new Internet rules around the world, read Danielle Kehl’s piece in The Hill.

About the Author

Danielle Kehl
Danielle Kehl is a policy analyst in the Open Technology Institute at New America where she works on technology policy. Her main areas of focus are U.S. broadband policy and Internet freedom. Her writing has been published in a number of outlets, including the Journal of Information Policy, Slate, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.