One Nation Under Guns

The Atlantic

Since the horrific murders at Sandy Hook Elementary a decade ago, America has seen hundreds more mass shootings, a sharp rise in gun deaths generally, and an alarming turn toward gun-glorifying political extremism. Yet we still depend on hundreds of laws that keep guns out of crowded public places, stop teenagers from buying handguns, and prohibit criminals from arming themselves with assault rifles. Now, because of a recent Supreme Court ruling, many of these remaining regulations are in danger of being dismantled. As bad as America’s gun-violence problem is, it could be about to get much worse.

Less than two years after the appointment of President Donald Trump’s third pick for the U.S. Supreme Court created a 6–3 conservative supermajority, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion in the case New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen. The Court could have issued a narrow decision and directed New York to be more lenient in issuing concealed-carry permits. But as in the Dobbs v. Jackson decision on abortion, which came a day after Bruen this year, the conservative majority seized an opportunity not to adjust precedent incrementally, but to destroy it completely.

For public safety and gun policy, the Bruen opinion is proving nothing short of seismic. Even as the nation struggles with yet another series of mass shootings, courts across the country are rushing to deal with a spate of lawsuits and motions that will create regulatory chaos over firearms. Many of these cases are tailored to produce appeals that may ultimately go up to a Supreme Court predisposed to the broadest possible interpretations of Second Amendment rights.

In the Bruen opinion, Thomas made clear that, henceforth, the Court’s conservative majority would judge all firearms regulations by a new originalist standard: If there is no historical proof of a gun law linked to 1791 or 1868—the years when the Second and Fourteenth Amendments, respectively, were ratified—then any modern law restricting firearms is liable to be ruled unconstitutional. Never mind that any teenager with a modern AR-15 rifle can fire several times every second, whereas a well-trained 18th-century soldier could fire a musket, at best, three or four times a minute.

[Aaron Tang: What if the Court saw other rights as generously as gun rights?]

An effect of the Thomas opinion is to press judges in lower courts into serving as historians and archival researchers. To decide new gun cases, they must go searching for precedents among incomplete or nonexistent records, some of which are centuries old and difficult to decipher. The results are likely to shock Americans who rely on long-established public-safety laws to protect children in schools and citizens who gather in churches or attend sports events and the like. Instead of making it more difficult for a troubled 18-year-old to become a deadly mass shooter, this Court has made it much easier—all in the cause of empowering an unrepresentative, radical pro-gun minority of Americans whose vocal demands about their right to bear arms have found sympathetic ears on the Supreme Court.

Several cases already give us a glimpse of the future under Bruen. In West Virginia, a judge recently ruled unconstitutional the federal law that mandates serial numbers on guns, because he can find no evidence of a statute requiring firearms to carry a serial number dating to 1791. If that judge’s decision is upheld, police detectives will find it almost impossible to solve gun crimes, because serial-number records are the basis for most such investigations.

In Texas, a judge just struck down the prohibition of gun ownership by domestic abusers. His reasoning derives from the regrettable truth that spousal abuse was not a criminal offense in the 1700s. This decision is set to undo laws across the nation that have prohibited more than 300,000 gun purchases by abusers—and at a time when recent data show a steep rise in the number of women, including Black women at a disproportionate rate, killed by a male gun owner in their lives.  

In New York, in October, a judge ruled that guns must be allowed in places of worship, because he couldn’t find any old laws that prohibited armed parishioners. Laws that regulate magazine capacity in several states are also currently facing challenges, which could mean that no state or municipality could regulate the sale of 30-round, or even 100-round, magazines for any sort of gun, including the AR-15s preferred by mass shooters who desire to inflict as much carnage as they can without having to pause to reload (a moment that makes them vulnerable to citizens fighting back to subdue them).

[Read: Have the justices gone gun-shy?]

Another Texas law prohibiting teenagers from carrying handguns was recently struck down because young men alive at the time of our founding faced no such regulation. Similar cases are making their way through other courts, which, if they stand, could not only permit 18-year-olds to buy handguns (the current national law mandates a minimum age of 21), but also imperil hope of imposing a national age restriction on the sale of AR-15 rifles. Meanwhile, in several states other suits are threatening to overturn laws that regulate the sale of those same assault rifles.

Other likely Bruen-induced outcomes include lawsuits to end all background checks, based on the absurd argument that running background checks on gun sales violates the Constitution because no nationwide computerized database of criminal records existed at the country’s founding. That such a lawsuit would not only threaten efforts to close the gun-show loophole but also aim to eliminate the entire background-check system—the same one that has stopped millions of dangerous criminals from purchasing guns—reveals just how far the Bruen decision is moving the needle.

For most Americans, this survey of the post-Bruen lawfare should sound shocking and dangerous. But it’s a dream come true for extremists who place gun rights at the forefront of their culture-warring. They see an opportunity to grasp a wider victory from the way Bruen alters the foundation of a long-accepted balance between individual rights and society’s need to ensure collective safety. This same reordering of values and priorities lies at the heart of efforts to dismantle government influence more generally, including over environmental protections and public-health mandates.

These new attacks are so extreme that even laws supported by the gun industry are coming under threat. Until not so long ago, an overwhelming majority of leaders in the firearms industry, in which I spent more than 25 years as a sales executive, accepted the necessity of regulations like the ones that flowed from the 1939 Supreme Court case U.S. v. Miller, which upheld the 1934 National Firearms Act. That statute severely restricted the sale of sawed-off shotguns, silencers, and fully automatic weapons such as the “Tommy guns” used by criminal organizations like Al Capone’s.

Miller thus clarified the balance between individual freedoms and collective safety as a sound constitutional test for all gun laws. This finding led to other bedrock laws such as the federal background-check system, or NICS, which was instituted in 1998. This statute protected citizens by making it harder for criminals to obtain firearms, while also providing reasonable liability protection for responsible gun manufacturers. Up until the late 2000s, most people I knew in the industry approved of laws enabled by the Miller standard that helped prohibit “bad guys” from buying guns.

Unfortunately, for three decades, the industry was also partnering with the National Rifle Association—at a time when the organization was radicalizing a political base that became hell-bent on destroying those laws. The first big victory for this coalition came in 2008 with the Supreme Court’s D.C. v. Heller decision, which reinterpreted the Second Amendment to establish a broader individual right to own a gun for self-defense.

Heller was just the start. While the NRA helped rally opposition to newly elected President Barack Obama, fringe actors and conspiracy-theory-mongers were empowered to make guns a totemic issue for the right. As the NRA’s power grew, judges who hoped for advancement—as far as nomination to the Supreme Court—got the message, and started issuing more radical decisions on gun rights as a way to keep their names at the top of lists of potential nominees.

Brett Kavanaugh, then a federal judge on the D.C. Circuit, illustrated this trend when he wrote a dissent arguing that courts should cease to rely on constitutional tests for gun laws that balanced public safety with Second Amendment rights—the foundation of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller. After President Trump announced his pick of Kavanaugh, the NRA’s leader, Wayne LaPierre, was quick to call on members to urge senators to confirm him. The NRA played an equally prominent role in the nomination processes of Trump’s other two justices, spending millions in partnership with the Federalist Society to promote Neil Gorsuch and rallying confirmation votes for Amy Coney Barrett.

The NRA’s political effort helped create the current Supreme Court majority that elevates the rights of gun owners above almost all others. For now, the results are manifesting in the lower courts. How this conservative-dominated high-court bench will ultimately rule on each Bruen-inspired challenge is not certain, but one thing is: Those cases now racing up through the circuits will quickly force the justices to decide whether they were serious about undoing the balance of Miller.

This is no quibble or nicety. The justices will be forced to decide whether we are to be a country that must allow armed citizens in every grocery store, church, or park. They will be forced to decide whether we must expand the right of open carry to every state in the nation, including its largest metropolises, with all the potential for mayhem that portends. They will be forced to decide whether we must abandon laws that prohibit abusers from buying guns and killing their spouses or that prevent troubled teenagers from arming themselves with AR-15s. Given the gravity of it all, perhaps the NRA is right about this much—more than any other part of the Constitution, it is the Second Amendment that determines whether we are to govern ourselves or not.

We Living Things Are an Accident of Space and Time

The Atlantic

Like many people on planet Earth, I have been spellbound by the first pictures from the James Webb Space Telescope: the lacelike windings of galaxies, the apricot filaments of nebulae, the remnants of exploded stars. A less picturesque, but still revolutionary, part of Webb’s mission is the search for signs of life elsewhere in the universe. The telescope goes about this momentous quest by analyzing the starlight passing through the atmospheres of distant planets. Each kind of molecule leaves its own telltale imprints on traversing light, and some molecules, such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and methane, may indicate life forms on the planet below. Indeed, Webb has already found evidence of carbon dioxide on at least one planet beyond our solar system.

Considering the billions of planets in our galaxy, and the billions of galaxies in the observable universe, few scientists believe that our planet is the only habitat with life. Nonetheless, finding definite evidence of living things elsewhere in the cosmos would have deep emotional and psychological import, as well as philosophical and theological meaning. Such a finding would force us humans to reconsider some of our fundamental beliefs: How do we define “life”? What are the possible varieties of life? Where did we living things come from? Is there some kind of cosmic community?

In fact, recent scientific research suggests that life in the universe is rare. A few years ago, using results from the Kepler satellite to estimate the fraction of stars with possibly habitable planets, I calculated that, even if all potentially habitable planets do in fact harbor life, the fraction of matter in the universe in living form is exceedingly small: about one-billionth of one-billionth. That’s like a few grains of sand on the Gobi Desert. Evidently, we living things are a very special arrangement of atoms and molecules.

Life may be even rarer than that. In the mid-1970s, the Australian physicist Brandon Carter pointed out that our universe seems particularly fine-tuned for the emergence of life. For example, if the nuclear force holding the centers of atoms together were a little weaker, then the complex atoms needed for life could never form. If it were a little stronger, all of the hydrogen in the infant universe would have fused to become helium. Without hydrogen, water (H2O) would not exist, and most biologists believe that water is necessary for life. As another example of fine-tuning: If the observed “dark energy” that fills the cosmos, discovered in 1998, were a little larger than it actually is, the universe would have expanded so rapidly that matter could never have pulled itself together to make stars, the essential nursery for all the complex atoms thought necessary for life. But with a slightly smaller value of dark energy, the universe would have expanded and recollapsed so quickly that stars wouldn’t have had time to form.

Carter’s observation that our universe is finely tuned for the emergence of life has been called the anthropic principle. A profound question raised by the principle is: Why? Why should the universe care whether it contains animate matter? The theological answer to this question is a cosmic form of intelligent design: Our universe was created by an all-powerful and purposeful being, who wanted it to have life. Another explanation, more scientific, is that our universe is but one of a huge number of universes, called the multiverse, which have a wide range of values for the strength of the nuclear force, the amount of dark energy, and many other fundamental parameters. In most of those universes, these values would not lie within the narrow range permitting life to emerge. We live in one of the life-friendly universes because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to ask the question. Our existence, and our universe itself, is simply an accident, one throw of the cosmic dice.

[Read: Why Earth’s history appears so miraculous]

A similar line of thinking could explain why planet Earth has such favorable conditions for life: liquid water, moderate temperatures (at the moment), plentiful oxygen for higher-level metabolism. The obvious explanation is that there are many planets, even in our own solar system, that do not have liquid water or pleasant temperatures or oxygen atmospheres. Those planets do not harbor life. We are here, to build houses and write novels and ask questions about our own existence, because we live on one of the small fraction of planets that have the right conditions for life. In sum, animate matter is not only rare in our particular universe, but seems to be nonexistent in most possible universes.

At the time that Carter published his paper, I had recently finished my graduate work and was doing research in astrophysics at Cornell University.

During my two years at Cornell, I lived in an apartment with a large picture window facing Cayuga Lake. Every day, the lake looked different, as if painted by a new artist. I spent hours when I should have been pondering equations staring out at the lake, its fluctuating colors and textures.

At Cornell, I met a number of scientific titans, such as Edwin Salpeter, Thomas Gold, and Hans Bethe. Gold, a theoretical astrophysicist and biophysicist born in Vienna in 1920, I got to know pretty well. Tommy was not particularly adept at mathematical calculations, but he was a brilliant and daring intuitionist. Barrel-chested and ruddy-faced when I knew him, with a broad smile, he had strong opinions about nearly everything and did not shirk from thumbing his nose at the scientific establishment. He rapidly threw out new ideas, like darts at a dartboard. Most of them missed the bull’s-eye, but not all.

In 1948, Gold partnered with other astrophysicists to challenge the Big Bang theory with a counter theory called the “steady state” theory of cosmology. That theory proposed that the universe never had a beginning. It appears unchanging, even while expanding, because of a hypothesized constant creation of new matter. Steady state was eventually proved wrong. In 1968, Gold correctly hypothesized that the newly discovered pulsing radio waves from space were produced by rapidly rotating neutron stars. In the 1970s, Gold argued that the oil found on Earth did not originate from the decomposition of organic material, as most geologists believe, but was present deep underground when the planet first formed. He even persuaded the Swedish national power company to drill an exploratory well in a meteor crater. The interpretation of the sludge brought forth was highly controversial, and the company went bankrupt.

[Read: Where science and miracles meet]

I have vivid memories of standing in Tommy’s office, attempting to solve a problem with equations on the blackboard, when he would brush me away with exasperation and pronounce the answer simply by visualizing the problem in his head. Such physical intuition can be found in most scientists, but Tommy possessed it to an astounding degree.

Tommy was also good with his hands. He once showed me a beautiful, three-legged chair he’d designed and built, and he explained that all chairs should be made that way. Even if the three legs are not the same length, their ends will sit stably on the floor because three points (the ends of the legs of the chair) define a unique plane (the floor). Add a fourth leg—a fourth point—and, unless it is cut exactly to the right length, its end will not lie in the same plane as the first three. The chair can then wobble back and forth among its four legs, the ends of any three of them lying in the plane of the floor, but the fourth being out of place. In other words, three legs allow only one solution for the position of the chair, but four allow for several.

Thinking back on Tommy’s three-legged chair, I realize that it was a perfect metaphor for the single and unique universe that most scientists dreamed of. Physicists, and especially theoretical physicists, would like to think that there is only one possible universe consistent with the fundamental laws of nature, like one unique solution to a crossword puzzle or a chair with only three legs. If so, we would be able to calculate why our universe must be as it is.

The possibility that there may be many other universes with different properties, many different solutions to the same fundamental laws of nature, deeply disturbs many scientists. It’s a bit like going into a shoe store and finding that size 3 fits you, but sizes 6 and 11 fit equally well.

Modern physicists take great pride in being able to calculate everything from “first principles”—that is, from a few fundamental laws. For example, a physicist can calculate how fast a ball hits the floor when dropped from a height of three feet using a principle known as the “conservation of energy”: The total energy in a closed system is constant, even though that energy may change form. The conservation of energy, in turn, follows from an even deeper principle called “time invariance”: The laws of nature do not change from one moment to the next.

Using basic principles, physicists have been able to calculate the color of the sky, the detailed orbits of planets, the strength of magnetism in an electron, and many other phenomena. But if there are many different universes consistent with the same starting principles and laws, then the fundamental nature of our universe is incalculable. Some basic properties of our universe would have to be accidents. Physicists hate accidents. If there were too many accidents, nothing would be predictable. Wheelbarrows might suddenly float in the air. The sun might come up some days and not others. The world would be a frightening place.

There’s one more disturbing aspect of the multiverse idea. Even if this multitude of other universes are real, there may well be no way to prove or disprove their existence. By definition, a universe is a self-contained region of space and time that cannot send a signal to another such region even into the infinite future. Thus, a universe cannot communicate with another universe. The hypothesized boatload of universes must be accepted or rejected as a matter of faith. Just as scientists do not like accidents, they dislike being forced to accept things they cannot prove. But the multiverse, and other aspects of this strange cosmos we find ourselves in, may be not only not unknown to us at this moment, but fundamentally unknowable. Although such a notion goes against the long tradition of science, it does offer a bit of humility, which is good medicine for any profession.

[Read: Don’t be afraid of the multiverse]

The multiverse hypothesis is not accepted by all scientists. But one thing is almost certain: Life in our universe is extremely rare. I have already explained that life is rare in space—only a small fraction of matter exists in living form. Life is also rare in time, in the long unfolding history of the universe. At some point in the future, in perhaps a few hundred billion years, after all of the stars have burned out and all sources of energy have been exhausted, life in our universe will end—not just life similar to that on Earth, but life of all kinds. The “era of life” will have passed.

What should we make of this realization? For me, it offers a feeling of kinship with all living things. We living things are the only mechanism by which the universe can observe itself. We living things, a few grains of sand on the desert, are that special arrangement of atoms and molecules that can attempt to fathom and record this dazzling spectacle of existence. In a limited but real sense, we living things help give the universe meaning. Without us, the cosmos would merely be.

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Escape From Hong Kong

The Atlantic

To avoid drawing unwanted attention, Tommy and the four others dressed as if they were heading out for a leisurely day. It was July 2020, and the weather was perfect for some time on the water. The young men acted as though they knew one another well, and were excited to reconnect. But inside, Tommy felt panicked and desperate. He was about to attempt an escape from Hong Kong, where he faced a near-certain jail sentence for his role in the prodemocracy protests there. He feared that he, or one of these strangers, might have been tailed by police to the docks.

In the scenario that kept replaying in his head, officers closed in on the men as they stood next to their boat, a roughly 20-foot rigid speedboat laden with jugs of extra fuel and fishing equipment. Tommy—who asked to be identified by a nickname—didn’t allow himself to relax until the boat sped away from land, the coastline shrinking behind them and the blue sky stretching out in front.

As the boat’s hull slapped against the rolling swells, the life vests the men carried flew overboard, but they didn’t bother to turn back. One leaned over the edge and peeled identifying numbers off the boat’s bow, hoping for an extra layer of anonymity. They took turns driving—the young men had learned their elementary boating skills from watching videos on YouTube and had practiced a handful of times. No matter who was behind the wheel, they kept the engine throttle wide open and scanned the horizon for trouble. The whipping wind and the din of the motors made communication nearly impossible. The sun set. The lights of fishing boats and enormous shipping vessels bobbed up and down.

Tommy lost track of how long they’d been driving the boat—at least 10 hours. When the GPS unit showed the vessel leaving Hong Kong waters, they finally eased off on the throttle. “We knew we were safe,” Tommy later told me. They passed around snacks and water, then introduced themselves to one another, sharing their real names for the first time and explaining their reasons for undertaking such a perilous journey: All were prodemocracy activists looking for safety on the island of Taiwan. Their bid for freedom, however, would soon draw in the United States.

Hours earlier, one of Tommy’s green Vans sneakers had sailed over the side of the boat and into the water. No one had considered stopping to retrieve it. Now, in spontaneous, rowdy celebration of their nearly completed escape, the group peed on the remaining shoe, then kicked it overboard—a memory that Tommy would laugh about later.

Their plan had been fairly simple: If they made it this far, they would turn off their engines, and call a contact in Taiwan who would alert the coast guard to their presence. When the authorities arrived, they would claim they had run out of fuel on a fishing trip and needed to be towed to shore. Only once on land would they divulge their true stories. Tommy gazed upward as they waited for the coast guard to arrive. The light pollution radiating from Hong Kong normally obscured his view of the stars. But here, in the open water, he could see the whole sky.

When the Taiwanese coast guard appeared, the five men waved flashlights to attract attention. Their plan fell apart almost as soon as the authorities reached their boat. The coast guard had extra fuel on hand, and initially offered to simply transfer it over, then send the wayward boat on its way. As the coast guard crew spoke to the young men, however, they grew suspicious. What were the five doing in the area? Why were they carrying so few supplies and traveling in an unmarked boat? “They knew that we weren’t just out fishing,” Tommy told me.

The young men fessed up, telling the sailors their real intentions. They had been among huge crowds of people who since the spring of 2019 had taken to the streets to call for democracy in Hong Kong. Now they feared for their safety as Beijing not only stamped out the protests, but moved to decimate all dissent in the city. The Taiwanese coast guard brought the group ashore where they were questioned by military officials. The next day, they were moved again by ship. Tommy slept on and off. He wasn’t sure where they were heading.

Eventually, he and the others were deposited in rooms that reminded him of the dorms at his university back in Hong Kong. They had no computers and no internet access. Government officials—Tommy isn’t sure who they were—came and went, asking more questions. Eventually, the five men were allowed to watch TV and read articles from Apple Daily, the now-defunct prodemocracy newspaper. As their confinement stretched into months, Tommy, who had been an arts student before he abandoned his studies, sketched to pass the time.

Some of the young men wanted to stay in Taiwan, but others hoped to resettle elsewhere. They were given English lessons by a tutor. The materials, for reasons none of them understood, covered the history and geography of Boston, and how to navigate the city on public transportation. To mark New Year’s Eve, Tommy shaved off his long hair. He wanted a symbolic new start. Two weeks later—about six months after he’d fled Hong Kong—the journey to freedom that started on a small boat would end on a commercial flight that touched down in the United States.

Hong Kong was long a magnet for people seeking opportunity and running from persecution. Residents of mainland China fleeing the violence and political purges of the Cultural Revolution swam toward the city’s lights—Tommy’s grandmother among them. In the late 1970s, thousands packed into ships, many of which were cramped wooden fishing boats, to escape to Hong Kong from Vietnam as that country’s war ended. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, student activists from China snuck into Hong Kong.

Now the fleeing has reversed, as Beijing’s crusade to strip Hong Kong of its defining freedoms has created a wave of exiles. “It is still beautiful,” Kwok Ka-ki, a former prodemocracy lawmaker, told me of the city, “but underneath, everything has changed.” Soon after we spoke, he was arrested, and now faces charges under a draconian national-security law imposed in 2020, an effort to extinguish any form of political opposition wholesale.

At Hong Kong’s airport—even as it is crippled by stringent COVID regulations—crowds gather nightly to board flights abroad, aiming to join the tens of thousands who have already left. Among them are parents worried about the city’s more nationalistic curriculum, activists escaping the ever-shrinking space for dissent, and former prodemocracy legislators who have seen their colleagues locked up.

Over the course of several years living in and covering Hong Kong, I have met countless such exiles. Some want nothing more than anonymity in their new countries, hoping to put the movement behind them. Others remain deeply involved in activism from abroad, setting up organizations and creating online initiatives. They share an acute feeling of isolation and sadness, unmoored from a place they once believed they could help save.

Three in particular are fleeing almost certain jail time after joining in prodemocracy demonstrations and agitation, their stories highlighting the gulf between Hong Kong’s promise and its reality today. They either escaped aboard a tiny boat, ultimately crossing a vast distance, or tested U.S. border policy by illegally slipping into America on land. One later spent months walking from New York to Florida on foot to raise awareness of Hong Kong’s plight. “You think this is crazy?” Tommy said to me when I marveled at the riskiness of his trip. “Imagine how I feel.”

The exiles—all of whom, like Tommy, asked to be identified by nicknames to avoid retribution from Beijing and pro-China groups—are each grappling with their newfound freedom in different ways, at times clashing with other members of the Hong Kong diaspora over how best to help their home city, and wrestling with guilt for those left behind. They have put their fate in the hands of the U.S., a country they still see as a beacon in their fight against China.

Almost as soon as Tommy and his fellow travelers were escorted ashore in Taiwan, officials there began working to resolve the geopolitical dilemma the group had inadvertently set off. Beijing had baselessly accused the U.S. and Taiwan of fomenting the Hong Kong protests, so a public announcement about the five could further inflame tensions. Taiwan—which lives under Beijing’s constant threat of forceful reunification with mainland China—sought American help. The State Department worked with a Hong Kong lobbyist in Washington, D.C., to begin planning the group’s transfer to U.S. soil.

In January 2021, the men boarded a flight from Taipei to New York City. Through all those months in limbo in Taiwan, Tommy had been unable to directly contact his family. He had rehearsed cracking a joke to tell them he was fine, but when he landed in the U.S. and finally spoke to them on the phone, he broke down crying.

Adams Carvalho

On the surface, Tommy and Ray have a lot in common. Both have family members who fled mainland China for the relative safety of Hong Kong (albeit decades apart), and both grew up on tales of Chinese Communist Party abuse. And though the men’s paths did not cross in Hong Kong, they were both active participants in the city’s protest movement. Tommy had been among those who broke into the Legislative Council building; Ray was one of the students who occupied a university campus in a days-long siege.

But the two are also very different. Tommy is a wiry, bespectacled 24-year-old, whereas Ray, 20, is stocky and gregarious, a bit of a smartass. Tommy was riven with fear and uncertainty during the months it took him to plan his escape from Hong Kong; Ray seemed to me to be totally unbothered by the risks he had taken.

Ray fled Hong Kong aboard a plane bound for London in August 2020. After arriving and looking up Britain’s asylum-acceptance rates, he turned his sights to the United States. But the Trump administration had banned flights from Europe as part of efforts to curtail the coronavirus pandemic, so after a few months in Britain, and some scheming with an eccentric Chinese activist and immigration lawyer he connected with on Twitter, he boarded another flight, this one bound for Mexico. He would cross into the U.S. on foot.

Ray first attempted the crossing soon after arriving, in January 2021. He walked for hours after being dropped near a crossing point by a smuggler. It was frigid and windy. To avoid detection, he trekked in complete darkness. But no one stopped him, and eventually he arrived at a gas station in Southern California, where a contact met him. He fell asleep during the car ride north and awoke only when the driver announced, “Welcome to L.A.”

From there, he initiated an asylum claim, which likely would have inched through the bureaucracy were it not for Ray’s own impatience. Holed up in an Airbnb east of Los Angeles, he killed time watching cable news. He was particularly infatuated with debates over immigration. On one show, liberal-leaning politicians claimed the American system was so dysfunctional that migrants detained after attempting to enter the U.S. would likely be granted asylum faster than those who arrived without incident. Hearing this, Ray devised a new plan.

In early February, he headed back to the border, walked into Mexico, and then, after a few days, tried crossing into the U.S. again. This time, he hiked across a stretch of hills outside Mexicali and used a flashlight to catch the attention of a group of border guards. When they got ahold of him, he explained his situation in English, hoping to find a compassionate audience. Instead, the oldest-looking of the three turned him around, menacingly warned him not to try crossing again, and watched as Ray trudged into Mexico. Again.

Undeterred, Ray waited a few days and revised his tactics. He took a new route and this time, after flagging down some border guards, pretended not to understand English, speaking to them in Cantonese, the dominant language of Hong Kong. Carrying only his mobile phone and a few other possessions, he feigned ignorance—and had to stifle a laugh—when one of the agents said, “I caught a ninja!” The border guards finally resorted to using a translation app to pepper him with questions.

Authorities took him to a detention center where he was held for eight days with about 20 other men. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in San Diego where he was soon transferred was far better. After interviews with U.S. officials, he walked out of Otay Mesa Detention Center in mid-April 2021. The asylum process typically takes from six months up to several years, according to the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group. It took Ray just 63 days.

Since the start of the 2019 protests, the U.S. has consistently called for China to preserve Hong Kong’s independent press, judiciary, and rule of law. Time and again, American officials and politicians have criticized Beijing for its crackdown. Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in 2019, which put the city’s special trading privileges with the U.S. under greater scrutiny, and compelled the U.S. to level sanctions against Hong Kong officials responsible for human-rights abuses. If these measures were designed to curtail China’s actions, however, they failed. Beijing has brushed them off as little more than a nuisance.

Stories such as Tommy’s and Ray’s suggest the U.S. is fulfilling its obligation to Hong Kong’s prodemocracy movement. The means they took to get to the U.S., though, were drastic and almost impossible to replicate. A truer test of American mettle is the countless others like them who remain in limbo, victims of a broken and deeply politicized American immigration system. These people stood up to Beijing’s authoritarian might and, knowing they would likely lose, fought for their freedoms anyway. Yet U.S. lawmakers from both parties who once cheered them seem to have largely moved on.

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed the House of Representatives by a 417–1 vote in November 2019, but the bipartisanship was fleeting. At the time, few were more eager to bash China than Senator Ted Cruz, who flew to Hong Kong at the height of the protests and dressed in all black out of “solidarity” with the demonstrators. The marches were “inspiring,” Cruz said then. About a year after he proclaimed Hong Kong to be the “new Berlin,” however, he showed the limits of his support. In December 2020, he killed a bill that included provisions for temporary protected status for Hong Kongers and expedited certain refugee and asylum applications. It had previously passed in the House.

A few months before Cruz shot down the bill, saying it was a ploy by Democrats who support “open borders” to make “all immigration legal,” a group of Hong Kongers, among them an American citizen, sought protection in the city’s U.S. Consulate but were turned away. One was arrested by the Hong Kong authorities and sentenced to three years and seven months in jail.

Last August, the Biden administration made a small concession, blocking the enforced removal of many Hong Kong residents from the U.S. for a period of 18 months. The White House said in a memo that “offering safe haven for Hong Kong residents who have been deprived of their guaranteed freedoms in Hong Kong furthers United States interests in the region.” Getting in, however, remains a challenge.

Adams Carvalho

Kenny, a 27-year-old former civil engineer, took the same route as Tommy to flee Hong Kong; he was on the same boat. But while Tommy soon decided that he liked New York, Kenny felt restless.

Kenny had stayed fervently involved in the Hong Kong prodemocracy movement when he was resettled, initially in Arlington, Virginia. He joined protests and tried to spread his message on social media. But he wanted to do more, and staying planted in Arlington while trying to sound the alarm seemed ineffective. So he settled on the most American of pastimes, a road trip—but without that most American of possessions, a car. His first walk was a 10-day trek from the White House to New York City. He hoped that by speaking to ordinary Americans, he could raise awareness of the crackdown under way in his home city. A few months later, Kenny set off on an even more ambitious route, from the Pentagon all the way to Miami. In all, he estimated, he would walk more than 1,000 miles.

Kenny documented his movements on Instagram, posting videos and photos of the people he encountered and the places he passed through. He snapped pictures fit for a tourism ad for rural America: rolling cornfields, Amish families standing near their horse-drawn buggies, red-painted barns. He embarked on his walk with his face completely covered by a reflective sunglass shield that looked like it was borrowed from the prop closet on a cyberpunk film set, and a thin flag pole jutting from his backpack adorned with two black banners that read Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times, one in Chinese and another in English.

His unusual appearance attracted attention, not all of it welcoming. In Maryland, someone called the police on him as he knocked on doors looking for bandages. On the eighth day of his walk to Miami, a stranger pulled a gun on him as he tried to hide near the man’s garage during a rainstorm.

As he moved farther south, Kenny found people to be more accommodating, which he’d expected, and more informed about the prodemocracy movement, which he hadn’t. Often, though, he was downbeat, discovering that many Americans had the luxury of not knowing or caring what was happening on the other side of the world.

He felt more optimistic when a worker at a sports bar in Moncure, North Carolina, told him he had followed the news about Hong Kong, and gave Kenny slices of pizza and an orange soda. In Glynn County, in southeastern Georgia, Kenny spent the night with firefighters who let him sleep in the firehouse. In Florida in mid-October, a woman invited him to sleep at her house. He stayed for three days, met her family, and joined them on a trip to a park where he spotted a manatee in the water. He documented the sighting with an Instagram post punctuated by a string of exclamation points. In all, the walk lasted 66 days.

As he navigated America’s roadways, a court case about him in Hong Kong carried on. Kenny had been among a group of demonstrators who, rallying against a government decision to ban face masks at marches, had assaulted a police officer after the officer grabbed a protester. Video of the skirmish, filmed by a passenger on a nearby bus, was picked up by international news outlets. Kenny was arrested but released on bail, which is when he began trying to escape Hong Kong by boat, eventually succeeding on his fifth or sixth try. (Earlier failed efforts cost him a small fortune.)

Days after his outing to the park in Florida, sentences were handed down against two of Kenny’s co-defendants. One was given seven years in jail, the other sent to a rehabilitation center. Kenny told me he had no regrets about fleeing, that he wanted to look forward. “This is why I decided to walk—because I don’t want to think back or live in a constant state of regret,” he said. He later admitted that he did at times feel guilt about leaving, but he tried to bury it, preferring to focus on forward action. “I’m thinking: What can I do on their behalf?” he said. “This is my purpose.”

In some—extremely limited—respects, he has succeeded, telling individual Americans about a fight for freedom half a world away that many of them are unaware of. I spoke with one of the people who met Kenny on his walking tour, Nicholas Kiernan, who said he had initially driven past Kenny in Northern Virginia in late August while on his way to work. Kenny’s peculiar appearance caught Kiernan’s attention. He resembled “a Google mapping device,” Kiernan told me. “He looked wild.” About a half hour later, Kiernan, a land surveyor, was still thinking about the odd character from his morning commute when Kenny stumbled onto Kiernan’s worksite. Intrigued, Kiernan hopped out of his truck to ask Kenny what he was up to.

Kenny showed him photos of the Hong Kong protests, explaining to Kiernan, who knew nothing about what was happening there, about how police had cracked down on demonstrators. “It was thought-provoking stuff,” Kiernan recounted. But perhaps more than anything, Kiernan said he was impressed by Kenny’s courage—sleeping in a tent and carrying a heavy backpack for miles at a time, speaking to total strangers in a foreign language in a new country. “It takes heart to be able to do something like that.”

Additional reporting by Karina Tsui.

Dianne Feinstein Is the Future of the Senate

The Atlantic

Look, it’s right there in the name: “Senate,” borrowed from the Romans and meaning a council of elders. More than ever, the label fits. This is the oldest Senate, by average age, in American history, at 64 years. Jim Inhofe and Richard Shelby, both 87, have announced plans to retire. Chuck Grassley, 88, is running for reelection this fall. But even he is a shade younger than Dianne Feinstein, also 88.

On Thursday, the San Francisco Chronicle published a remarkable story about Feinstein, California’s senior senator. Some of the best Washington coverage is found in the stories that reveal to the public what people inside politics are saying privately, and reporters Tal Kopan and Joe Garofoli got people to share deep concerns about Feinstein’s fitness to be a senator. In the opening of the story, an unnamed Democratic member of Congress from California recounted that “they had to reintroduce themselves to Feinstein multiple times during an interaction that lasted several hours.” (Feinstein did not grant an interview to the Chronicle, but she said in a statement that she has no intention of stepping down. “There’s no question I’m still serving and delivering for the people of California, and I’ll put my record up against anyone’s.”)

The question of what to make of senators like Feinstein, who have no desire to leave the Senate but whose ability to do the job is in doubt, is not new. But no one has come up with any good answers so far, and the matter will only become more pressing as Americans live longer and the average age of senators advances.

[Read: Thad Cochran, the last of the naive Republicans]

Even at their best, not all members are particularly sharp or engaged in policy details, it must be said; Tommy Tubervilles do manage to get elected. But for most of her long and impressive career, Feinstein was known for her acuity. “She was an intellectual and political force not that long ago, and that’s why my encounter with her was so jarring,” the member told the Chronicle. “Because there was just no trace of that.” At times, Feinstein seems to be her old self; but disconcertingly often, she seems confused or relies heavily on staffers.

Although the story lays concerns out in more detail, and with more insider Democratic discussion, the whispers about Feinstein’s decline are not new. A 2020 New Yorker story covered some of the same ground. She raised eyebrows with her praise for Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings—a process her party colleagues hated—and with her meandering questions in some sessions.

The issue is not Feinstein’s past record, though, but her present and future. And refusing to know when to leave is a tradition as venerable in the Senate as Feinstein. Over history, 301 senators have died in office, and while some were struck down by accidents or illnesses long before their time, others were quite elderly. Some have remained mentally sharp but physically ill, jeopardizing their ability to serve; others have stayed physically fit but struggled mentally.

In 2014, my then-colleague Molly Ball wrote about attending Thad Cochran’s campaign events in Mississippi and noticed him slipping. “As he made his way toward the exit, the senator held out his hand to me. I had met and interviewed him less than half an hour before. ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ he said with a kindly smile. ‘I’m Thad Cochran.’”

[Derek Thompson: Why do such old people run America?]

The Cochran campaign protested, and he won reelection, but ignoring Cochran’s problems was impossible. In 2017, he missed several weeks while ill, and when he came back he seemed confused about work. In one case, he voted in favor of an amendment before staffers corrected him to vote no. The same month, a Capitol Hill pharmacist told STAT News he routinely sent Alzheimer’s drugs to congressional offices. Cochran finally retired the following spring, and died in 2019.

Strom Thurmond, the oldest senator in history, held on even longer, staying in office until he was 100, despite documented concerns about his fitness for the job. He’d said he wanted to die in office; instead leaving office seemed to spell the end for him, and he died shortly after retirement.

Several years later, Robert Byrd eclipsed Thurmond’s record to become the longest-serving senator. By the end of his term, the West Virginian was frail. In 2008, the Senate allowed proxy voting for one day to allow him to vote from a hospital; in 2009, with Democratic priorities on the line, he was wheeled into the Senate to cast votes shortly after being discharged from care. Byrd died in 2010, while in office. Last year, Democrats experienced a mild panic when Pat Leahy, 82 and the president pro tempore of the Senate (a title afforded the most senior member of the majority) was hospitalized, though he soon recovered. Assuming Leahy serves out his term, he’ll soon pass Thurmond in the record books for the length of his tenure.

To some critics, the questions about Feinstein are unfair or even sexist. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell offered a quasi-dismissal of the story on Twitter, writing: “I understand concerns about Dianne Feinstein but read whispers about her in this Senate context: at least 50 senators are 100% dependent on staff, most senators are over 90% dependent on staff & Strom Thurmond died in office in 2003 at age 100 long after obvious mental decline.” In fact, this only underscores the danger: None of this is reassuring, and if Feinstein is not an outlier, the challenge is even steeper than many citizens might realize.

[Read: A push for normalcy tests the gerontocracy]

The senescent Senate is just one example of America’s larger political gerontocracy problem. Joe Biden was once the sixth-youngest senator in history; now he’s the oldest president, and if Donald Trump had won reelection, he would have claimed that dubious honor. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 82. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is 80. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is a comparative spring chicken at 71, though that makes him considerably older than every single member of the first Senate.

But structural elements of the Senate make it particularly susceptible to the ravages of age. Voters simply have fewer chances to conclude that a politician is no longer up to the job. Members serve six-year terms, and the difference between a candidate’s ability at ages 68 and 74, to say nothing of 82 and 88 or 84 and 90, could be considerable. Incumbency also gives senators a huge advantage, leading them to stick around longer. Feinstein faced the stoutest challenge of her Senate career in 2018—and still won by a very comfortable 8 percent.

If voters aren’t well-positioned to solve the problem, who is? In theory, the Senate could expel a member. In practice, no senator has been tossed for anything other than involvement in insurrections, and not since the Civil War. Term limits might seem alluring, but length of service and age don’t necessarily correlate. Age limits could be a better option, but they raise their own questions, since some members lose their touch young, while others remain sharp much longer. Besides, any change would require a constitutional amendment, since the Supreme Court ruled in a term-limits case in 1995 that no law can establish limits on congressional service stricter than what is laid out in the Constitution.

The prospects for any constitutional amendment in the current political climate seem dim, and one can assume that many senators—as well as aspiring senators—would do their best to resist such an amendment: After all, why limit themselves, especially if they have no plans to become senile? This debate is sure to continue, though, as aging senators offer many more opportunities to search for a solution.

Justice for Pamela

The Atlantic

Throughout the Hulu series Pam & Tommy, Pamela Anderson spends a lot of time as the only woman among crowds of men. A table full of male lawyers press her into a lawsuit that devastates her public image. More lawyers subject her to a brutally misogynistic deposition. Television affiliates gather around her like a magazine cover come to life. And of course, her Baywatch producers surround her on the beach, cutting any meaningful acting from her script and posing her as a literal object for the camera. “I can move myself,” Lily James’s Anderson uncomfortably reminds a crewman when he attempts to physically reposition her.

The series, which just aired a devastating sixth episode and concludes on March 8, shows audiences a version of Pamela Anderson many haven’t had the chance to see before. She’s not just a blonde bombshell finding her path as a sex symbol. Pam & Tommy’s Anderson is a self-possessed, ambitious woman whose instincts and intelligence should prevail over the boardrooms of men—if only so much of her existence weren’t about pleasing people.

There’s a painful irony then, that a show about Anderson’s victimhood came about against her wishes and from a largely male production team. (Pam & Tommy was initially announced in 2018 with James Franco directing and starring as Tommy Lee. He left the project after accusations from female students of his acting school.)

The show tells the backstory to the infamous sex tape of newlyweds Anderson and Lee. Stolen and sold on the web, it arguably marked both the first viral celebrity sex tape and the first revenge porn of the digital era. Set in the Wild West days of the early internet, Pam & Tommy chronicles how the tape opened up questions of celebrity and privacy that we still grapple with today.

Without Anderson’s approval though, does Pam & Tommy just repeat the exploitation it depicts? Recent works such as Framing Britney Spears and American Crime Story: Impeachment also retell a chapter of ’90s tabloid scandal. The show’s eponymous tape entered the world at a moment that lacked a moral framework for the technology enabling its spread. Are we similarly at a moment where retelling personal histories—even those of celebrities—should be more sensitive to their subjects’ privacy?

Three staff writers for The Atlantic debate that question and break down Pam & Tommy on an episode of The Review, the magazine’s culture podcast. Listen to Sophie Gilbert, Shirley Li, and Spencer Kornhaber here:

Subscribe to The Review: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Pocket Casts

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Sophie Gilbert: We are here today to discuss Pam & Tommy, the Hulu miniseries. It tells the story of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s infamous sex tape and stars Lily James and Sebastian Stan as the celebrity couple and Seth Rogen as the disgruntled contractor who sells the stolen tape on the internet. Pam & Tommy is obviously based on a true story, loosely but fairly on a magazine story in Rolling Stone that came out in 2014 that focused on Rand Gauthier, the character that Seth Rogen plays. He is the disgruntled contractor whom Tommy Lee stiffed on a job and forced off his property with a shotgun to the face. Rand decided to get his revenge and steal the safe from the couple’s property that turned out to contain a tape.

It led to the first instance of a celebrity sex tape really going viral. When I was writing about the series, I thought about it as the first real instance of revenge porn in mainstream American culture. And so it’s an interesting topic to consider now in this moment of 1990s/2000s revisionism, where we’re thinking about the stars whom we did wrong at the time and weren’t sensitive to. But of course, Pam & Tommy comes with an asterisk, which is that it has not been made with Pamela Anderson’s approval. She ignored all efforts from the cast and crew to reach out to her during the process, and has said that she really sort of resents the existence of this series that digs into a moment in her life that she felt was very humiliating and punishing and sort of obviously a gross invasion of her privacy. So this show comes with a lot of factors to consider, but I wanted to ask before we get into that context: What did you make of it purely as a work of entertainment?

Shirley Li: Whenever I see a TV show that’s inherently buzzy because of its subject—that’s not necessarily recognizable [intellectual property] but a recognizable scandal playing the role of recognizable IP—I want it to make the case for it being a series. And the first couple of episodes seemed to point in a direction that this would not be a show that’s full of bloat. And it starts petering out for me by the end. But I’m curious what Spencer thinks.

Spencer Kornhaber: I have to say: I enjoyed it. I went into it with similar reservations about this crop of shows and movies over the past decade that have kind of straightforwardly tried to re-create scandals from history and teach us something about them but end up feeling like rehashes or too in the weeds, or even distorting reality in the attempt to entertain.

Gilbert: What are some examples that come to mind?

Kornhaber: I mean, the People v. O. J. Simpson series by Ryan Murphy comes to mind, as does the whole American Crime Story franchise by him. We just did a House of Gucci podcast, and I had my problems with it. The Crown is in this genre.

Li: Other Craig Gillespie work like I, Tonya—that was a film that didn’t come with the asterisk that Sophie mentioned at the top because Tonya Harding was fully on board with having her side of the story told in a film adaptation. But that too was another retelling of a tabloid scandal.

Kornhaber: Yeah, I was concerned that Pam & Tommy would just be the Wikipedia entry, but the show is fun and weirdly lovable in many parts. You do want to know what happens and you do care about these characters. Reading the original Rolling Stone story this was based on, it’s actually pretty true to what happened. Some things changed, but generally in the direction of making Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee a little more sympathetic. It felt like it was walking on this tight wire the whole time. I kept expecting it to fall off and it never quite did.

Gilbert: One of the things I really did appreciate about the show is it’s useful as a guide to how the internet went wrong. It’s set in 1995 and 1996, the earliest days when you still had dial-up modems. And you get to see the first days of the internet as this Wild West where anything could happen and anything could be sold. All the rules that applied to ordinary life—legal injunctions and copyright laws and privacy laws—didn’t exist on this new frontier. It blew everything up. It blew up privacy. It blew up celebrity culture. It blew up porn. All in ways that I think we’re still struggling to deal with.

Kornhaber: It starts from a very simple thing, which is the sex tape. It seems like a just salacious story, but it really does follow these threads about privacy and celebrity culture, but also what it meant for the actual people involved.

[Read: Pam & Tommy and the curse of the '90s bombshell]

Li: The show does really reconsider Pamela Anderson as a character. But it also starts with a zippy I, Tonya energy from Gillespie. And when it gets to Anderson’s background and the reconsideration of her, the two elements did not marry into a cohesive show for me.

It’s telling the feminist branch of the story instead of showing it, whereas the internet-culture story is fascinating because it’s really showing there. The scandal hurt Pamela’s reputation more than Tommy’s because of her gender, and the show asks her to be the person telling the audience these things. And I wish it didn’t treat her and Taylor Schilling’s character as mouthpieces to get these moments in. They feel like sprinkles, as if someone forgot to fully bake them in.

Gilbert: Yeah, I wrote in my review about how, because Pam comes to represent so many things—including all the terrible things that happen to women on the internet—you kind of lose a sense of who she is. Even me calling her “Pam”—that’s not her name. That’s the tabloid nickname for her. You lose a sense of who she is that I think maybe would have been more present if she had been on board.

That said, who gets to tell whose story is something we haven’t necessarily figured out. Monica Lewinsky was an executive producer on the recent season of American Crime Story: Impeachment, which focused largely on her, to the detriment of the show. I think it actually would have been a better, more compelling show if it had focused more on the Clintons and less on Monica. Maybe that’s a terrible anti-feminist thing to say, but that was how I felt watching it.

Li: I agree, Sophie. We haven’t figured out this question. We haven’t figured out the right way to make these shows in a way that yields a product that doesn’t, while you’re watching it, remind you of whatever happened behind the scenes. I couldn’t finish Impeachment, first because I didn’t enjoy watching the destruction of Monica Lewinsky, but there was also this nagging idea of, Is this the full story or am I watching something dishonest?

And I think, as Pam & Tommy went on, that question came back but from the other direction: Is there a point to watching this if I know Pamela Anderson didn’t have a say in any of this? I don’t know what the solution is. In the case of I, Tonya, the screenwriter said he fact-checked everything in that film with Tonya Harding. It’s called I, Tonya, not I, Nancy, so he didn’t go to Nancy and check everything from her end. Tonya signed off on her truth and Jeff Gillooly signed off on his, so his screenplay is everything that they believe and the audience can take away whatever they believe from it. And that’s a mixed bag that I guess clears everyone, but I don’t know if it does either.

Gilbert: Memory is so fallible. Personal narrative is not always trustworthy. Everyone has their own agenda. And so I think there is a huge gap in Pam & Tommy without having Pamela Anderson’s approval that is hard to get past. But at the same time, it’s really hard to know what to do with these kinds of stories if the people that they are about don’t want them to be told. It’s like those early days of the internet: We haven’t figured out a moral framework for this entirely.

Kornhaber: Right, we can’t live in a world where we can’t make movies about famous people without their approval. We have to start from that.

Gilbert: But also: Is it the right thing to do, necessarily?

Kornhaber: Yeah, absolutely. And then you enter questions of: What are you doing with that story? Are you just replicating it? Are we basically just watching the sex tape again? She objected to it being put out there, and it’s basically another act of titillation.

With this show though, I think the answer is no. It’s straining to make all of these points about what happened and put it in a greater context. It may not completely succeed at that, but it really changed my perception of Pamela Anderson. I don’t know a lot about her or about this story. Even the fact that they didn’t intentionally leak the sex tape is a very basic fact that now, pop culture can really believe. They’ve said it all these years, but this show can really define that as fact in people’s minds.

And whatever it’s doing with her character, it’s making her seem sweet and smart and ambitious, and it’s driving at how absolutely painful it was to have this happen to her. And it’s pretty astute about the reasons why it was painful. Maybe she was somewhat ashamed of this footage coming out, but she’s more aware of how it’s going to damage her career and how people see her when she walks down the street. It’s a really wrenching thing to see. And she may feel like it’s condescending or turning her into a symbol of something she doesn’t want to be a symbol of—and I hope she speaks her piece on that—but it was helpful to me. When I’m watching the show, I think they want to do right by her.

Gilbert: Yeah.

Li: I do appreciate the show’s intentions. It does do a good job of simply showing the job of being a celebrity like Pamela Anderson. You can see in Lily James’s performance the sheer exhaustion of having to sell yourself and your image. She’s constantly defending her worth.

Gilbert: Watching her on the Baywatch set with the male producers and directors all standing around, every time she walks up to ask them about her monologue, they just stare at her cleavage. And then I remember that this was a show that I watched as a child, that 15 million people watched in England. It was on Saturday nights and little kids would get together and watch the show that was basically hot people in swimsuits running. You really sense in the show how crazy Hollywood was in that era and how this sweet woman just wants to do her monologue. She just wants to act. Just wants to be appreciated for being more than a sex symbol, while she also doesn’t reject the idea of being a sex symbol whatsoever. In the third episode, she has that amazing speech with her publicist about Jane Fonda and all the multitudes that she contains. And you believe she’s capable of being more, but no one will give her the opportunity.

Kornhaber: It is getting at this question of, “What are we going to allow our bombshell female celebrities to do as they mature and want to do different things in their career?” It makes me think of our girl Kim Kardashian, who is probably the closest thing we have today to Pamela Anderson, and how she’s embarking on this legal career that people aren’t taking that seriously. I thought it was so amazing that Pamela’s publicist asks her, “Who’s your role model?” and Pamela says, “Jane Fonda,” and completely spells out how she’s one of the few examples we have of society allowing a woman to get past the prejudices keeping them from being seen as a full human in the public eye.

Li: But that moment also worked because you feel sad for Pamela Anderson because she does not get the career that Jane Fonda had. And in Episode 6, you see more of her backstory and get the sense that she looked up to someone like Jane Fonda. And this isn’t to discredit Fonda, but she came out of Hollywood royalty. She had a safety net. Someone like Pamela Anderson from Ladysmith, British Columbia, in the outskirts of Vancouver, just doesn’t have that safety net. Everything that she’s reaching for that Jane Fonda got, Anderson just doesn’t have the same resources for.

Kornhaber: The show ends up being a tragedy. Pamela doesn’t get the career that she wanted. There’s this horrible motif of Pamela being like, “It’s just going to blow over.” She’s almost praying for everything to be fine and no one to care about this tape. But scene after scene, that optimism is torn away. And yeah, Episode 6, surrounding this deposition taken for a lawsuit that Pam and Tommy filed against Penthouse, the porn magazine that wanted to republish images of the video, is just so brutal. It’s horrible.

Gilbert: The questions that lawyer asks are just brutal. And then they make her watch portions of the sex tape in front of them to identify people.

Kornhaber: You just want to punch that lawyer through the screen.

Gilbert: It’s vicious misogyny. Real woman-hating bullshit.

Kornhaber: The lawyer is essentially, like, spelling out the logic of misogyny as it fell upon her. It’s this deductive reasoning that says, “You are a worthless piece of trash and you have no rights.” You do learn a lot about how they were pioneering privacy rights and the legal system with this case. No judge would side with this couple whose possessions were stolen and whose most intimate things were plastered everywhere. Judges were buying this argument that it’s a First Amendment commentary. It’s a republished sex tape.

Gilbert: Let’s return to that first question: Have the motivations actually changed in revisiting these incidents, or is it just about a different kind of exploitation? I think this is a really fascinating and urgent question. I don’t know that there’s an easy answer. Obviously, we don’t need someone’s permission to tell a story about them on the internet, especially if the story itself has valuable things to say—which I think this one does—but there is the queasiness that this is a story about someone who is exploited and, while the people involved have said that they’re very much on her side and they want to show her side of things and validate her perspective for the first time almost, I mean, you cannot respect someone’s privacy while making a miniseries about them and about their exploitation without their permission. And for me, it’s a very tricky question to think about when you’re watching the show. I did enjoy it, like you both did. I have my quibbles with it too. On the whole, I found it fascinating. But when it comes to the exploitation question, I don’t know what to make of it.

Kornhaber: Well, yes, it is exploitative. It absolutely is. However, I think most storytelling that’s based in reality is exploitative in some way. Turning something that happened into entertainment is bending the truth. You’re taking liberties with people’s lives. You’re stealing souls with the camera. All that. Joan Didion said that anytime that she wrote, she was doing that. We all have to live with this uncomfortable reality that there is always a trade-off. But in this case, and ideally in the best cases, the trade-off involves honoring the person who’s being exploited and not making their life worse, and maybe even preventing worse exploitation from happening. And I would say this is raising consciousness about the morality of sex tapes, about the way that we treat women and the way we treat celebrities. There’s a lot in here that hopefully will lead to people checking themselves. And so, I’m not a Saint Peter. I can’t say whether or not this is a bad example of the genre. I feel bad for Pam if she doesn’t like it. I would feel bad for Pam anyways from watching the series.

The Dark Reach of the Internet’s First Viral Sex Tape

The Atlantic

The Hulu miniseries Pam & Tommy could have had a fascinating focus. We see glimpses of it in the first minute, on a grainy TV screen where Jay Leno (played by the comedian Adam Ray) is interviewing Pamela Anderson (Lily James). “Speaking of sex, and I have to ask,” Leno says, throwing his hands up and down in the faux-innocent shrug of someone just asking questions. “The tape.” The audience audibly inhales. Anderson, whom James imitates in uncanny fashion—the protruding tongue, the hands perched nervously on crossed legs, the slightly hunched posture—plays similarly dumb. “What tape, Jay?” she breathes. Leno casually twists the knife. “What’s that like?” he says. “What’s it like to have that kind of exposure?” The camera zooms in on Anderson’s pained face as she grapples with her response.

The choice to mediate our first glimpse of Anderson through multiple screens is, perhaps, telling; it has a distancing effect that keeps her at arm’s length. Pam & Tommy is an eight-part miniseries about how an intimate home movie—made by Anderson and her then-husband, the rock star Tommy Lee, on their honeymoon—became the first viral celebrity sex tape. With the Leno scene, the show suggests sensitivity for Anderson’s plight (the tape was stolen by an irate contractor and sold online without her consent). Then it abruptly changes course. The scene that follows, set one year earlier, shows a carpenter, Ran