Article of the Day: 1/20/20 Who is my neighbor?

How 17 Outsize Portraits Rattled a Small Southern Town

By Audra D. S. BurchJan. 19, 2020, 3:00 a.m. ET


Newnan, Ga., decided to use art to help the community celebrate diversity and embrace change. Not everyone was ready for what they saw. 

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NEWNAN, Ga. — It was the Saturday afternoon that this small Southern city had been dreading. A group of neo-Nazis promised to hold a rally in downtown Newnan to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday and rail against illegal immigrationand the removal of Confederate monuments.

Newnan had prided itself on its quiet charm. It offered small-town living just 40 miles southwest of Atlanta and had earned the nickname “City of Homes” for its antebellum architecture. Now, on a spring day in April 2018, a neo-Nazi group had assembled in a park near the courthouse, the leader having said the group preferred to hold rallies in predominantly white towns. 

But it turned out that only a few dozen white nationalists attended the rally, and the Newnan they had imagined no longer existed. Its population had more than doubled in less than 20 years, drawing an increasingly diverse collection of newcomers. Newnan was changing and many in the community wanted to embrace that change more openly. A year after the white nationalist rally, the town made an effort to do so by putting up 17 large-scale banner portraits, images of the ordinary people who make up Newnan. 

They hang from the perches of brick buildings around downtown. There’s Helen Berry, an African-American woman who for years worked at a sewing factory. Wiley Driver, a white worker who folded and packed blankets at a local mill before his death in 2017. Jineet Blanco, a waitress who arrived in Newnan carrying her Mexican traditions and dreams. And then there were the Shah sisters.

A portrait of Aatika and Zahraw Shah wearing hijabs was displayed on the side of an empty building in downtown Newnan. The sisters were born in Georgia and had lived in Newnan since 2012, after they moved from Athens, Ga. They attended a local high school in the county. Their father, an engineer, moved to the United States from Pakistan, as did their mother. 

The reaction to their portrait was fast and intense. James Shelnutt was driving through downtown when he saw it. “I feel like Islam is a threat to the American way of life,” he said. “There should be no positive portrayals of it.” Mr. Shelnutt turned to Facebook, encouraging residents to complain. The thread quickly devolved into anti-Muslim attacks and name-calling. Some posters referred to Sept. 11 and argued that believers of Islam were violent. 

One woman said there were not enough Muslims in Newnan for the Shahs to be included in the art installation in the first place.

The portraits were meant to be inclusive, upend stubborn preconceptions and unravel the cocoons people had created within the community. And they did — but they also exposed how immigration and demographic change have recast the racial dynamics that once defined America, adding new layers of anxiety on the old tensions that persist across the country and in small towns like Newnan.

Old Newnan vs. New Newnan 

“I do not know if Newnan had looked at itself this closely before now,” said Robert Hancock, a lawyer and real estate consultant who, as president of Newnan’s Artist in Residence program, helped commission the installation. 

Newnan was a hospital town that treated soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. The town found its prosperity, in part, in the cotton industry, and at one point, Newnan was one of the wealthiest towns per capita in the United States. 

When Mr. Hancock moved to town in 1986 there were about 12,000 people. The population today is pushing 40,000, with the biggest growth spurt occurring between 2000 and 2010. In that decade alone, the population doubled.

White people still make up more than half the population, but the newcomers are largely from other backgrounds. The share of Hispanics has more than doubled, while the Asian population, although still small, grew more than fivefold between 2000 and 2017. In that same period, the black population dropped from about 42 percent of the population to 28 percent. 

The sheer size of the town’s growth has led some to bristle. “People are wrestling with the numbers, asking themselves, ‘Is this going to make us more like the big city we don’t like?’ and ‘How can we keep this small-town feeling?’” said Cynthia Jenkins, the first African-American woman elected to the City Council, in 2003. “If there are less people in the grocery store I recognize, then are we getting too big?”

“Seeing Newnan,” as the art installation is called, was created by the photographer Mary Beth Meehan. Mr. Hancock and Chad Davidson, director of the University of West Georgia’s School of the Arts, were in Providence, R.I., for an art conference in 2015 when they saw one of Ms. Meehan’s installations.photophotophotophoto

William Widmer for The New York Times

Clifton Fisher and Monique Bentley

Jane Bass

Rev. Jimmy Patterson

Rev. Rufus Smith Sr.

Mr. Hancock was drawn to the beauty of the portraits, but he was also thinking about his almost exclusively white world in Newnan. “My children told me, ‘Dad, you are so open, but your circle is not inclusive,’” he said. “When I thought about it, they were right.” So he reached out to Ms. Meehan and told her about Newnan. 

He told her about the town’s race and class tensions, about the old Newnan versus the new Newnan, how residents who grew up here have watched the population explode. And yet, “I just felt like we were living apart,” Mr. Hancock said. “We were in these little bubbles. I thought this project could pierce the bubbles.”

Ms. Meehan arrived in Newnan in 2016 as part of the Artist in Residence program. She had done similar portraiture projects in her hometown, Brockton, Mass., and most recently in Silicon Valley. In Newnan, she was met with both open arms and some suspicion — she was a white liberal from the North who had not spent much time in the South.

“The thinking was, Is this person going to portray us as a bunch of racist rednecks?” Mr. Hancock said. He even remembers wondering out loud more than once if he had done the right thing by hosting the project. Would it celebrate Newnan’s growth and diversity, or reinforce its differences?

Mary Beth Meehan’s portrait installation posed questions about Newnan’s changing identity.
Mary Beth Meehan’s portrait installation posed questions about Newnan’s changing identity.William Widmer for The New York Times

‘People Needed to Open Their Eyes’

Ms. Meehan was in Newnan for the big moments and the small. A fall high school homecoming. The reunion of a class from 1954 who attended an all-black high school. Sunday morning services at a church attended by descendants of early settlers. The 2016 election night that ushered in President Trump.

She spent more than two years visiting Newnan, witnessing the kind of moments that offer hints about a community’s identity. Newnan was the right place for the project. “Newnan was ready to begin this conversation, and the evidence is that despite the tensions and difficulties, the people ultimately didn’t shut me down,” she said. “They kept inviting me back.”

Ms. Meehan had already started editing several of the photos in the series when she made one of her last trips to Newnan in October 2018. Zahraw and Aatika were among the subjects she photographed during that trip, and when she showed their portrait to Mr. Hancock a day later, he paused. 

He thought about Newnan’s conservative culture — Mr. Trump carried the county by about 70 percent. “I knew instinctively that the picture was going to be controversial,” he said. But Mr. Hancock decided that he did not want to pander to irrational fears and that the sisters would be among the portraits to make the final cut. “People needed to open their eyes and see what a beautiful, diverse place we live in,” he said. 

The Shahs had lived with stares and insensitive questions about their religion and traditional hijabs since they began wearing them in the sixth grade. But much of Newnan had welcomed them, they said. “I can’t tell you how many times a person would say that we are literally the first Muslims they have ever met,” said Zahraw, 20. “We did a lot of teaching.” 

A few Newnan residents protested the sisters’ banner in Mr. Shelnutt’s Facebook post, questioning whether they were actual Newnan residents or if they were even American. photophotophoto

Mary Beth Meehan

Zahraw and Aatika Shah

“I knew instinctively that the picture was going to be controversial,” Robert Hancock, one of the community leaders who commissioned the installation, said.

“But people needed to open their eyes and see what a beautiful, diverse place we live in.”

The post drew nearly 1,000 responses, most of them defending the sisters and accusing Mr. Shelnutt and others of being out-of-touch racists who were resistant to change and religious freedom. Mr. Shelnutt, who grew up in Newnan and owns a small construction company, denied being racist. “I do not feel like the two women in the photo are radical or dangerous,” he said. “I just do not think Newnan should be pushed to embrace Islam.”

The backlash made the sisters realize that much of Newnan didn’t know Newnan. They said it felt especially painful to be singled out. “We have been here seven years,” said Aatika Shah, 22, “and now because they have never seen us and then saw our picture, they somehow think we don’t belong.”

Growing Pains

Ms. Meehan had hoped her portraits would force people to see one another, perhaps for the first time. But she also knew there were risks if the portraits did not match a viewer’s perception of Newnan. She spent hundreds of hours talking to residents, and so often the conversations veered toward race.

When Ms. Meehan met the Rev. Jimmy Patterson, whose portrait drapes a building just off the court square, he told her about his own epiphany related to race. As the pastor of First Baptist Church of Newnan, he was one of several ministers who led a unity service to protest the neo-Nazi rally in 2018.

He used that occasion to apologize for a dark chapter in his family’s history: One of his ancestors had owned enslaved people in a nearby county, and in researching his genealogy, Mr. Patterson, who is white, found a will bequeathing them to family members. He kept the will secret for 13 years, telling his family about it only days before going public. Mr. Patterson believed the time had come for him to reconcile with the past.

One by one, he began to read the names in the will, humans considered property, lumped in the same category as cattle and furniture. Some people in the church gasped. Some began to cry as Mr. Patterson talked about the sin of racism, passed down almost like an heirloom, and all the years it had taken him to unlearn his own prejudices. And then he asked for forgiveness.

Ms. Meehan’s portraits, which will come down in June, have already had a lasting effect on the town. They have prompted deep conversations between people who had never met. “The truth is, these conversations are hard and uncomfortable and awkward but we need to lean into it,” said the Rev. David Jones II, the pastor of Newnan Presbyterian Church, who plans to use the art installation to organize a retreat about race, gender and identity this year. “We need to talk about who lives in our community and if they are different, why does that make us uncomfortable?”

Alain Delaquérière contributed research from New York.

Opionion Piece of the Day: 1/19/20

How Did Americans Lose Faith in Everything?

By Yuval LevinJan. 18, 2020

John J. Custer

Americans are living through a social crisis. We can see that in everything from vicious partisan polarization to rampant culture-war resentments to the isolation, alienation and despair that have sent suicide rates climbing and driven an epidemic of opioid abuse. These dysfunctions appear to have common roots, but one symptom of the crisis is that we can’t quite seem to get a handle on just where those roots lie.

When we think about our problems, we tend to imagine our society as a vast open space filled with individuals who are having trouble linking hands. And so we talk about breaking down walls, building bridges, leveling playing fields or casting unifying narratives.

But what we are missing is not simply greater connectedness but a structure of social life: a way to give shape, purpose, concrete meaning and identity to the things we do together. If American life is a big open space, it is not a space filled with individuals. It is a space filled with these structures of social life — with institutions. And if we are too often failing to foster belonging, legitimacy and trust, what we are confronting is a failure of institutions.

This social crisis has followed upon a collapse of our confidence in institutions — public, private, civic and political. But we have not given enough thought to just what that loss of confidence entails and why it’s happening.

Each core institution performs an important task — educating children, enforcing the law, serving the poor, providing some service, meeting some need. And it does that by establishing a structure and process, a form, for combining people’s efforts toward accomplishing that task.

But as it does so, each institution also forms the people within it to carry out that task responsibly and reliably. It shapes behavior and character, fostering an ethic built around some idea of integrity. That’s why we trust the institution and the people who compose it.

We trust political institutions when they undertake a solemn obligation to the public interest and shape the people who populate them to do the same. We trust a business because it promises quality and reliability and rewards its workers when they deliver those. We trust a profession because it imposes standards and rules on its members intended to make them worthy of confidence. We trust the military because it values courage, honor and duty in carrying out the defense of the nation and forms human beings who do, too.

We lose faith in an institution when we no longer believe that it plays this ethical or formative role of teaching the people within it to be trustworthy. This can happen through simple corruption, when an institution’s attempts to be formative fail to overcome the vices of the people within it, and it instead masks their treachery — as when a bank cheats its customers, or a member of the clergy abuses a child.

That kind of gross abuse of power obviously undermines public trust in institutions. It is common in our time as in every time. But for that very reason, it doesn’t really explain the exceptional collapse of trust in American institutions in recent decades.

What stands out about our era in particular is a distinct kind of institutional dereliction — a failure even to attempt to form trustworthy people, and a tendency to think of institutions not as molds of character and behavior but as platforms for performance and prominence.

In one arena after another, we find people who should be insiders formed by institutions acting like outsiders performing on institutions. Many members of Congress now use their positions not to advance legislation but to express and act out the frustrations of their core constituencies. Rather than work through the institution, they use it as a stage to elevate themselves, raise their profiles and perform for the cameras in the reality show of our unceasing culture war.

President Trump clearly does the same thing. Rather than embodying the presidency and acting from within it, he sees it as the latest, highest stage for his lifelong one-man show. And he frequently uses it as he used some of the stages he commanded before he was elected: to complain about the government, as if he were not its chief executive.

The pattern is rampant in the professional world. Check in on Twitter right now, and you’ll find countless journalists, for instance, leveraging the hard-earned reputations of the institutions they work for to build their personal brands outside of those institutions’ structures of editing and verification — leaving the public unsure of just why professional reporters should be trusted. The same too often happens in the sciences, in law and in other professions meant to offer expertise.

Or consider the academy, which is valued for its emphasis on the pursuit of truth through learning and teaching but which now too often serves as a stage for political morality plays enacted precisely by abjuring both. Look at many prominent establishments of American religion and you’ll find institutions intended to change hearts and save souls frequently used instead as yet more stages for livid political theater — not so much forming those within as giving them an outlet.

Artists and athletes often behave this way too, using reputations earned within institutional frameworks as platforms for building a profile outside them. When he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the former Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg implored fellow players to remember “that learning how to bunt and hit-and-run and turning two is more important than knowing where to find the little red light on the dugout camera.” When vital institutions across American life fail to produce people who remember that, they become much harder to trust.

The few exceptions to the pattern of declining confidence in institutions tend to prove this rule. The military is the most conspicuous exception and also the most unabashedly formative of our national institutions — molding men and women who clearly take a standard of behavior and responsibility seriously. And that can help us see what we might do to help alleviate the social crisis we confront.

All of us have roles to play in some institutions we care about, be they familial or communal, educational or professional, civic, political, cultural or economic. Rebuilding trust in those institutions will require the people within them — that is, each of us — to be more trustworthy. And that must mean in part letting the distinct integrities and purposes of these institutions shape us, rather than just using them as stages from which to be seen and heard.

As a practical matter, this can mean forcing ourselves, in little moments of decision, to ask the great unasked question of our time: “Given my role here, how should I behave?” That’s what people who take an institution they’re involved with seriously would ask. “As a president or a member of Congress, a teacher or a scientist, a lawyer or a doctor, a pastor or a member, a parent or a neighbor, what should I do here?”

The people you most respect these days probably seem to ask that kind of question before they make important judgments. And the people who drive you crazy, who you think are part of the problem, are likely those who clearly fail to ask it when they should.

Asking such questions of ourselves would be a first step toward grasping our responsibilities, recovering the great diversity of interlocking purposes that our institutions ought to serve, and constraining elites and people in power so that the larger society can better trust them. It would not be a substitute for institutional reforms but a prerequisite for them.

And asking such questions is one thing we all can do to take on the complicated social crisis we are living through and begin to rebuild the bonds of trust essential for a free society.

Yuval Levin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs and, is the author of the forthcoming “A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream.”

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Article of the Day, January 10, 2020: We Are Moving

How Fast Is Earth Moving?

By Elizabeth Howell June 23, 2018

A view of Earth from space as seen by NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR, a million miles away.

A new time-lapse videos combines 3,000 images from the DSCOVR satellite’s EPIC camera to show a year of Earth’s rotation, as seen from a million miles away.(Image: © NASA Goddard via YouTube)

As an Earthling, it’s easy to believe that we’re standing still. After all, we don’t feel any movement in our surroundings. Yet when you look at the sky, you can see evidence that we are moving. What exactly is the speed of Earth around the sun?

Some of the earliest astronomers proposed that we live in a geocentric universe, which means that Earth is at the center of everything. They said the sun rotated around us, which caused sunrises and sunsets — same for the movements of the moon and the planets. But there were certain things that didn’t work with this vision. Sometimes, a planet would back up in the sky before resuming its forward motion.

We know now that this motion — which is called retrograde motion — happens when Earth is “catching up” with another planet in its orbit. For example, Mars orbits farther from the sun than Earth. At one point in the respective orbits of Earth and Mars, we catch up to the Red Planet and pass it by. As we pass by it, the planet moves backward in the sky. Then it moves forward again after we have passed.

Related: How Big is Earth?

Another piece of evidence for the sun-centered solar system comes from looking at parallax, or apparent change in the position of the stars with respect to each other. For a simple example of parallax, hold up your index finger in front of your face at arm’s length. Look at it with your left eye only, closing your right eye. Then close your right eye, and look at the finger with your left. The finger’s apparent position changes. That’s because your left and right eyes are looking at the finger with slightly different angles.

The same thing happens on Earth when we look at stars. It takes about 365 days for us to orbit the sun. If we look at a star (located relatively close to us) in the summer, and look at it again in the winter, its apparent position in the sky changes because we are at different points in our orbit. We see the star from different vantage points. With a bit of simple calculation, using parallax we can also figure out the distance to that star.Click here for more videos…This video will resume in 18 seconds

How fast are we spinning?

Earth’s spin is constant, but the speed depends on what latitude you are located at. Here’s an example. The circumference (distance around the largest part of the Earth) is roughly 24,898 miles (40,070 kilometers), according to NASA. (This area is also called the equator.) If you estimate that a day is 24 hours long, you divide the circumference by the length of the day. This produces a speed at the equator of about 1,037 mph (1,670 km/h). [How Fast Light Travel?]

You won’t be moving quite as fast at other latitudes, however. If we move halfway up the globe to 45 degrees in latitude (either north or south), you calculate the speed by using the cosine (a trigonometric function) of the latitude. A good scientific calculator should have a cosine function available if you don’t know how to calculate it. The cosine of 45 is 0.707, so the spin speed at 45 degrees is roughly 0.707 x 1037 = 733 mph (1,180 km/h). That speed decreases more as you go farther north or south. By the time you get to the North or South poles, your spin is very slow indeed — it takes an entire day to spin in place.

Space agencies love to take advantage of Earth’s spin. If they’re sending humans to the International Space Station, for example, the preferred location to do so is close to the equator. That’s why cargo missions to the International Space Station, for example, launch from Florida. By doing so and launching in the same direction as Earth’s spin, rockets get a speed boost to help them fly into space.

How fast does Earth orbit the sun? 

Earth’s spin, of course, is not the only motion we have in space. Our orbital speed around the sun is about 67,000 mph (107,000 km/h), according to Cornell. We can calculate that with basic geometry. 

First, we have to figure out how far Earth travels. Earth takes about 365 days to orbit the sun. The orbit is an ellipse, but to make the math simpler, let’s say it’s a circle. So, Earth’s orbit is the circumference of a circle. The distance from Earth to the sun — called an astronomical unit— is 92,955,807 miles (149,597,870 kilometers), according to the International Astronomers Union. That is the radius (r). The circumference of a circle is equal to 2 x π x r. So in one year, Earth travels about 584 million miles (940 million km). 

Since speed is equal to the distance traveled over the time taken, Earth’s speed is calculated by dividing 584 million miles (940 million km) by­­ 365.25 days and dividing that result by 24 hours to get miles per hour or km per hour. So, Earth travels about 1.6 million miles (2.6 million km) a day, or 66,627 mph (107,226 km/h).

Sun and galaxy move, too

The sun has an orbit of its own in the Milky Way. The sun is about 25,000 light-years from the center of the galaxy, and the Milky Way is at least 100,000 light-years across. We are thought to be about halfway out from the center, according to Stanford University. The sun and the solar system appear to be moving at 200 kilometers per second, or at an average speed of 448,000 mph (720,000 km/h). Even at this rapid speed, the solar system would take about 230 million years to travel all the way around the Milky Way.

The Milky Way, too, moves in space relative to other galaxies. In about 4 billion years, the Milky Way will collide with its nearest neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy. The two are rushing toward each other at about 70 miles per second (112 km per second). 

Everything in the universe is, therefore, in motion.

What would happen if Earth stopped spinning?

There is no chance that you’ll be flung off to space right now, because the Earth’s gravity is so strong compared to its spinning motion. (This latter motion is called centripetal acceleration.) At its strongest point, which is at the equator, centripetal acceleration only counteracts Earth’s gravity by about 0.3 percent. In other words, you don’t even notice it, although you will weigh slightly less at the equator than at the poles.

NASA says the probability for Earth stopping its spin is “practically zero” for the next few billion years. Theoretically, however, if the Earth did stop moving suddenly, there would be an awful effect. The atmosphere would still be moving at the original speed of the Earth’s rotation. This means that everything would be swept off of land, including people, buildings and even trees, topsoil and rocks, NASA added.

What if the process was more gradual? This is the more likely scenario over billions of years, NASA said, because the sun and the moon are tugging on Earth’s spin. That would give plenty of time for humans, animals and plants to get used to the change. By the laws of physics, the slowest the Earth could slow its spin would be 1 rotation every 365 days. That situation is called “sun synchronous” and would force one side of our planet to always face the sun, and the other side to permanently face away. By comparison: Earth’s moon is already in an Earth-synchronous rotation where one side of the moon always faces us, and the other side opposite to us.

But back to the no-spin scenario for a second: There would be some other weird effects if the Earth stopped spinning completely, NASA said. For one, the magnetic field would presumably disappear because it is thought to be generated in part by a spin. We’d lose our colorful auroras, and the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding Earth would probably disappear, too. Then Earth would be naked against the fury of the sun. Every time it sent a coronal mass ejection (charged particles) toward Earth, it would hit the surface and bathe everything in radiation. “This is a significant biohazard,” NASA said.

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