The December 2021 issue of The Atlantic: The Commons

autocrats win

Dictators have joined forces to advance their nefarious interests and undermine liberal democracy around the world, Anne Applebaum said in December.

Great article detailing how the world is changing and we don’t pay enough attention to it. Every member of Congress should get a copy in the mail, as should every member of the board of directors of every major corporation in this country.

John N. Powers
Wittenberg, Wis.

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I appreciate Anne Applebaum’s insights into the rise of selfish and dangerous autocrats. She helpfully points out that there is no particular ideology associated with these leaders and their regimes; the common denominator is their tendency to increase power, usually to the benefit of themselves, their families, and their cronies.

I take issue with his criticism of “part of the American left” for abandoning the idea that America should more vigorously promote democracy abroad. I agree with the need to vigorously defend democracy, both abroad and at home. But ignoring our country’s mixed history – which is indeed mired in “genocide, slavery, exploitation and not much else” – is a little misleading. While I do not wish to dismiss the ideals of self-government embodied in our Constitution, we ignore our own sins at our peril.

We had to resist the expansionism of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but we tended to support many unsavory regimes that committed horrible crimes against their own people as long as they followed a pro-capitalist, anti-communist line. Our nation has struggled to win the political struggle that accompanies counterinsurgency warfare by sustaining corrupt and brutal kleptocracies at least as disturbing as those that Ms. Applebaum rightly concerns. If we are to unite with our allies against such nefarious players, some recognition of our own sins of omission and commission may be necessary.

Ed Behan
Fort Collins, Colorado.

Anne Applebaum’s insightful account of the rise of autocrats will resonate in thoughtful circles for some time to come. It omits, however, several key reasons why the United States has lost its global credibility and will likely continue to do so.

We lose our credibility when we install or support governments that the governed have no say in choosing. We lose credibility when we provide billions of dollars to oligarchs and juntas simply for tolerating US military presence and operations. We lose our credibility when we send foreign aid to governments on the condition that they use it to buy American-made industrial and military equipment. We lose our credibility when we outsource peacekeeping and other activities to private mercenaries.

We would do well to correct our own practices instead of wringing our hands over the success and advancement of the autocrats of the world.

Gerald F. McAvoy
Bethlehem, NY


What we learned by fact-checking this issue

In “My Personality Transplant”, Olga Khazan explores whether we can change the key traits that make up who we are. She discusses the theory of “post-traumatic growth”, which posits that adversity can lead to positive transformation. That difficulties have a silver lining is comforting, but does growth require suffering?

Hopefully not. A 2018 meta-analysis dispelled the common misconception that negative life events have a greater effect on people than positive ones. Researchers have found that major life events of both types can produce higher self-esteem and better relationships. Yet far more research has been devoted to the impact of difficult times than the impact of happier times (an example of what scientists call “negativity bias”), even though for most d ‘between us, good things happen much more often.

The change that emerges from positive experiences also has a name: post-ecstatic growth. In 2013, clinical psychologist Ann Marie Roepke coined the phrase, finding that “our best moments can inspire us, connect us to something bigger than ourselves, and open our eyes to new possibilities.”

michelle ciarroca, Senior Associate Editor

Questions and answers

In December, Ariel Sabar wrote about Matthew Bogdanos, who works in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and is on a mission to prosecute dealers and collectors who traffic in looted relics of ancient civilizations (“The Antiquities Cop”). Here, Sabar answers a reader’s question about his article.

Q: The question of the legitimate ownership of antiquities is far from settled. In many cases, the artifacts were removed from their resting places decades ago with the full knowledge and consent of the authorities in power at the time. In other cases, today’s unstable political situations in countries of origin have shown that their governments are unstable custodians of historical treasures.

Antiquities trafficking is a prosecutable offense, but does pursuing legal remedies make sense in most cases? The law is applied on the assumption that a country that exists today “owns” what is or has been unearthed within its borders, but should that be the case when the current inhabitants of a region are not necessarily the true descendants of the original creators of the object?
Michael P. Lustig, New York, NY

A: Museums, dealers and others skeptical of the movement to return antiquities to their countries of origin have made similar arguments. But proponents of repatriation take a different view: First, the “authorities in power at the time” were in many cases colonial overseers, like the 19th-century Europeans who oversaw excavations on the “behalf” of the Egypt while thwarting archeology by Egyptians and pharaonic artifacts. West. Second, it is possible both to recognize that a country owns antiquities and to worry about – and, ideally, help improve – its ability to care for them. Finally, although the “true descendants” of a former sculptor or tomb designer may be debatable, ownership is a legal concept defined by a patchwork of current laws. When Matthew Bogdanos, the head of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, comes before the judges to argue that an item has been stolen, he relies on New York law, the laws of foreign heritage and legal precedents. He sees broader ethical issues as going beyond his tenure as a prosecutor – and as a recipe, as he put it in one of our interviews, for “analysis paralysis.”

Behind the cover:

Finding happiness is complicated at the best of times, even more so during a prolonged pandemic. For our March cover, Christine Walsh, Atlantic‘s senior photo editor, suggested using a maze to represent the challenge. We asked design studio HunterGatherer to bring the idea to life: an intricate, concentric maze with a smile at its center.

Olivier Munday, design director