The Big Stories This Week: Obama in Hiroshima, Lego Debates, and More

The Politics of Saying Sorry

This week, Obama visited Hiroshima—the Japanese city on which the U.S. launched the first-ever atomic bomb strike—becoming the first sitting U.S. president to do so. There, he laid wreaths at a memorial to victims of the blast, met with survivors, and pushed for an end to nuclear warfare. One thing he didn’t do? Apologize for the attack.

Should he have? Uri investigated the international “politics of apologizing”: “Setting aside the arguments for and against the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what makes apologizing different for countries than for people?” And Alan compiled photos of Hiroshima—then and now.  

Berning Bridges

Another week down, still no Democratic nominee. “Is Sanders—the onetime liberal gadfly whose views few of his colleagues heeded—simply enjoying the spotlight’s validating glow for as long as it lasts?” Molly asked. “Or is he as delusional as some of his dead-ender fans? It’s impossible to tell.”

Either way, it’s probably not good for the party. And “with Trump stirring in these early polls, that healing process can’t start too soon to soothe the nerves of anxious Democrats,” Ron wrote. Last week, Clare hit on this: “As the Sanders campaign presses forward, it must carefully consider whether the senator’s ambition for a political revolution is a goal best achieved by actively stoking the anger of his supporters—and, in a sense, encouraging them to tear it all down.” Readers are weighing in on the race here.

Brick by Brick

“If you want to look at how a toy evolves over time, Legos are probably your best bet,” Julie wrote. She and Adrienne both delved into the plastic-brick manufacturer’s transitions over time—and what they say about our society.

In 2012, the company launched its Friends line—which “includes a pop star’s house, limousine, TV studio, recording studio, dressing room, and tour bus; a cupcake cafe; a giant treehouse; a supermarket; and a hair salon”—targeted at young girls. Still, “Lego hasn’t been able to shake the perception that original Legos are for boys,” Adrienne writes. “Friends, not surprisingly, hasn’t helped.” Despite the rosy release, the overall amount of plastic weaponry in Lego sets has only increased: As Julie reported,“the proportion of sets [since 1978] that included weapons increased by an average of 7.6 percent annually.”

Above All, Calories

Counting calories just got a lot easier, literally: Michelle Obama, the healthy-eating movement’s leading surrogate, unveiled the FDA’s new label design, featuring a significantly enlarged calorie reading.

But James critiqued the changes: “Calories are one metric to consider among many—they tell us nothing other than, if we were to set fire to this food, how much energy would be released?”

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Obama’s Historic Hiroshima Visit

President Obama became the first sitting American leader to make a trip to Hiroshima, the Japanese city bombed by the U.S. with a nuclear device in 1945.

At a ceremony at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Obama and Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, stood in front of the eternal flame. The American president laid a wreath at the memorial; the Japanese leader also laid a wrath there.  

He then signed a guest book at the memorial: “We have known the agony of war. Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace, and pursue a world without nuclear weapons.”

At a news conference Thursday in Japan, which he was visiting for a meeting of the Group of 7 industrialized nation, Obama provided the rationale for why he’s the first American leader to visit the memorial: “Part of the reason I’m going is because I want to once again underscore the very real risks [of nuclear weapons] that are out there and the sense of urgency that we all should have.”

You can watch Friday’s ceremony here:

Obama has made clear that he won’t apologize for the bombing on August 6, 1945, that ultimately led to Japan’s surrender in World War II. Two other American presidents have visited Hiroshima: Jimmy Carter visited on May 5, 1984, long after he’d left the White House. Richard Nixon went on April 11, 1964, four years before he won the presidential election.

Iceland’s Isolated Beauty

What happens when Iceland, an island nation with 330,000 residents, starts welcoming 1.2 million tourists a year? Feargus O’Sullivan, of our sister site CityLab, explains:

This is raw-boned, hardscrabble country, both thinly populated and thinly served by public amenities. That’s much of its attraction, of course—the idea of having ancient lava fields, raging waterfalls, and mossy ravines more or less to yourself.

You’re far less likely to be alone nowadays, though, and many of the easier-to-access areas are groaning under the pressure of not being as unfrequented as they once were. Land at some beautiful spots is being trampled by too many feet, while basic facilities such as parking and toilets are limited. This has led to unfortunate incidents that include desperate tourists turning the graves of Iceland’s greatest poets into an impromptu bathroom. Less gross but also less forgivable are tourists who drive off-road, damaging fragile landscapes and thus partly ruining the wildernesses that they have traveled so far to witness.

An Atlantic reader feels the irony:

When I first went to Iceland in the ‘60s it was not unusual to find attractions like Gullfoss to be virtually free of visitors. In contrast, on my most recent visit, lines of people shuffled past key spots with just enough time to get their selfie. Now I am sorry that I kept telling everyone just how great Iceland is.

If you have a related anecdote from your own visit to Iceland you’d like to share, drop us an email. We published one in our February 1893 issue.

William Edward Mead, writing about Iceland’s literary culture, was shocked at the barrenness of the landscape, finding it distinctly “unfavorable … to literary fertility” and other scholarly pursuits. “The country is little better than a desert,” he wrote. “People with so little to make life attractive might be pardoned if they were to sink into a stolid indifference to everything but the struggle to keep alive.” Yet the beauty of such harsh, isolated country is also evident in his description:

The only inhabitable portion is a narrow strip of pasture land extending like a green girdle round the coast and up the deep, narrow fiords. The interior of the country is a howling waste of sand and ice, traversed by darting glacier rivers, and utterly incapable of supporting more than a few scattered inhabitants. […]

The farmhouse where I spent more than a fortnight [is] distant a day’s ride on horseback from Reykjavik. Behind the house rises a naked, precipitous ridge of basalt, a quarter of a mile high, sweeping in a magnificent unbroken curve from the bold headland that juts into the sea to the upper waters of the Laxá. Before the house stretches the long, narrow fiord, swarming with sea-birds that circle endlessly about the double cascade foaming down from the river into the sea.

It’s a place that takes its romance from its solitude—and Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden, who visited Iceland in 1936, captured that lonely beauty in his poem “Journey to Iceland.” Iceland, to Auden, with its “sterile immature mountains” and “abnormal day,” is a place for travelers who want to reject the world—a kind of alternate reality, whose purity rubs off on people.

For Europe is absent: this is an island and therefore
Unreal. And the steadfast affections of its dead may be bought
By those whose dreams accuse them of being
Spitefully alive, and the pale

From too much passion of kissing feel pure in its deserts.

Auden later revised that stanza to read “this is an island and therefore / A refuge”—a small change, but a telling one. After all the only truly solitary journeys are imaginary ones; the mind is the most isolated country of all; and the best place to get away from people, tourists or otherwise, may be the refuge of your own thoughts. As Auden closed his poem:

Again the writer
Runs howling to his art.

You can read the full text of “Journey to Iceland” (or listen to Auden reading it) here, and you can see some of its sights for yourself in the video below.

The New Taliban Leader

The author Moira Weigel argues that the various courtship rituals of the past hundred-odd years have reflected the labor-market conditions of their day.

Love, it turns out, has always been a lot of work.

While every generation will lament anew the fact that finding love is hard, history seems to indicate that this particular social ritual never gets any easier or less exciting. In Labor of Love, a new book documenting the history of dating in America, Moira Weigel, a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at Yale University, confirms this lament: Since dating was “invented,” it has always been an activity that required a lot of effort.

As part of her research, Weigel read dating-advice books from the 1800s and hundreds of articles on dating from teen and women’s magazines over the years, and she found two common themes: First, there is usually an older part of the population that perceives dating to be “dying,” or, at least, as not being done “appropriately.” Second, Weigel found that the way people date has almost always been tied to the market forces of their era.

When Nativism Becomes Normal

An unprecedented refugee crisis, economic inequality, and fears of terrorism are helping stoke the rise of extreme anti-immigrant politicians across Europe and the United States. Hungary’s Viktor Orban, France’s Marine Le Pen, Austria’s Norbert Hofer, and yes, Donald Trump, are riding a much-remarked surge in popular support, with Hofer just losing his presidential bid by a razor-thin margin. All have embraced extreme nativist rhetoric, but meanwhile a different nationalist experiment is already running its course, and uprooting thousands on the basis of their ancestry, under a leader who is by most accounts a moderate technocrat. And the Dominican Republic’s President Danilo Medina just claimed a landslide reelection victory.

Medina is no fiery demagogue. He’s bespectacled and mild-mannered. His politics are centrist, his economics neoliberal, his public appearances reliably chaste. Medina’s administration, which began in 2012, has presided over what’s now one of the fastest-growing economies in Latin America. It raised the minimum wage, increased funding for welfare programs, reduced crime, and built 2,500 new schools—all of which could make it easy for Dominicans to overlook having the largest stateless population in the Western Hemisphere in their backyard.

Is Eastern Europe Any More Xenophobic Than Western Europe?

The crisis—in which thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent have been stripped of their citizenship and “repatriated” to Haiti—exposes the photo-negative relationship between the two countries sharing Hispaniola, an island about the size of West Virginia. In 1960, the Dominican Republic and Haiti were utterly comparable: two plantation societies, both former European colonies. Real per capita GDP was the same in both, at just below $800 annually. Both countries suffered under brutal strongmen. In Haiti, development was neglected by the Duvaliers, the father-son dynasty that ruled from 1957 to 1986. Across the border, the Trujillo and Balaguer regimes, which ruled on and off from 1930 to 1994, promoted Dominican agriculture, industry, and public works (while otherwise consolidating a crony plutocracy). By 2005, the Dominican Republic’s GDP had more than tripled. Haiti’s had halved. The Dominican Republic is now considered a middle-income country, and Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

The contrast is visible from many points along the 234-mile border dividing Hispaniola. To the east, lush green forest cover is irrigated for the Dominican Republic’s banana farmers. To the west it’s almost sepia-toned: Vast tracts of land have been cleared for charcoal, Haiti’s primary cooking fuel, resulting in arid soil and sediment-loaded rivers.

Antihaitianismo is as old as the Dominican Republic, which won independence from Haiti in 1844. (After Haitians expelled the French and established their own country in 1804, they invaded and conquered the eastern part of the island, then a Spanish colony, in 1822.) Haitian immigration to the Dominican Republic took off during the early 20th century. Faced with drought, Haitian peasants would cross the border to work the zafra, or sugar-cane harvest; many stayed and put down roots. During the Trujillo regime, antihaitianismo was public policy. In 1937, on direct orders from Trujillo, the Dominican military committed an act of genocide, ordering laborers in the borderlands to say the word for “parsley” and executing those whose pronunciation betrayed their Haitian origins. As many as 20,000 people were killed in what became known as the Parsley Massacre. Still, overpopulation, poor infrastructure, and the lack of wage labor continued to drive the most desperate Haitians across the border into the Dominican Republic.

And it’s back across this border that many have crossed, since some 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent were stripped of their citizenship in 2013. For most of its history the Dominican Republic offered birthright citizenship, except to those born “in transit,” such as the children of diplomats and tourists. In September 2013 the Constitutional Tribunal, the Dominican Republic’s highest court, expanded that caveat to retroactively include everyone born to undocumented immigrants since 1929. “Nationality … is not only a legal bond,” the court argued in its ruling, but involves among other things “a set of historical, linguistic, racial and geopolitical traits.” Those who do not share these traits, it implied, do not share Dominicans’ “particular idiosyncrasies and collective aspirations.”

to the economy, as well as by the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The expat intellectuals Junot Diaz, a Dominican American writer, and Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian American writer, criticized the ruling in The New York Times and in congressional testimony, calling it an example of “appalling racism.” (The reaction from the U.S. State Department has been subdued.)

Medina hit back, charging critics with threatening Dominican sovereignty. In June 2014 the legislature attempted to mitigate the situation by passing a special naturalization law, which allowed those affected by the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling to register as foreigners and re-apply for Dominican citizenship from scratch by June 17, 2015. But the naturalization process proved prohibitively complicated. To date, it is not clear how many people have received documentation, and how many are still waiting. Meanwhile Dominican officials have reportedly admitted to deporting some 14,000 people since June 2015, and claimed that an additional 70,000 left voluntarily. The Dominican embassy in Washington declined to provide updated estimates or a comment on the record.

Of the 12 judges who presided over the 2013 ruling—La Sentencia TC 168-13, often just called La Sentencia—only two dissented on the grounds that stripping people of citizenship en masse “injures human dignity.” Much of the Dominican electorate does not share these misgivings. In this year’s presidential campaign, the major opposition candidate, businessman Luis Abinader, criticized President Medina’s immigration policy as “not strict enough,” calling for intensified border security and more scrutiny over naturalization. Minor Dominican political parties run the gamut on immigration. On the far right, the National Progressive Force requested UN intervention to stop what it deems a Haitian invasion. The more moderate Opción Democratica party broke away from Medina’s Dominican Liberation Party over its handling of La Sentencia. On the anti-immigration side, there is debate between nationalists, who see the issue as a matter of sovereignty, and blatant antihaitianistas.

Across the border, then-president of Haiti Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly denounced La Sentencia as “civil genocide.” Later Martelly’s foreign minister declared via Twitter that “The Haitian state does not receive persons at risk of statelessness.” After the registration deadline passed last June, thousands in makeshift camps along the border became officially stateless.

* * *

The southernmost crossing point on Hispaniola lies between Haiti’s Anse-à-Pitres to the west, and the Dominican Republic’s Pedernales to the east. The area is a critical hub for the transfer of goods from the Dominican Republic into Haiti’s Sud-Est Department, the area hardest hit by the 2010 earthquake. The local economy is consolidated in the bi-national market, a vast open-air bazaar where merchants sell dry goods, produce, staples, and secondhand clothing.

At least four informal settlements of refugees have sprung up in the area around Anse-à-Pitres, a little over a mile northwest of the border. Two of the settlements, Parc Cadeau 1 and 2, now quarter nearly 4,000 refugees, many of whom used to be vendors at the market. They were born to Haitian parents, or had Haitian grandparents, but had lived east of the border all their lives. They cut sugar cane, worked construction, sharecropped Dominican fields, or tended cows and goats in the foothills. Now their fields are deserted, their cattle stolen, their jobs abandoned, and for the first time, they live west of Rio Pedernales, in extreme poverty.

died of cholera, most of them children.

Without documentation, the refugees find themselves in a double bind. Language barriers and resource scarcity keep them from settling west of the border. Bureaucracy and intimidation keep them from returning to the Dominican Republic. Meanwhile the Haitian government, such as it is, has failed to accommodate them.

So they wait in limbo, in coops of tarp and corrugated tin.

Back in Santo Domingo, we spoke with government officials, activists, taxi drivers, artists, old money, drunks, teenagers, their parents, and grandparents. After learning why we’d come to the island—to see the material conditions on the border—a few people spoke passionately from one side or another, but most carried on in abstractions, as if the crisis was somewhere far away. Even the island’s most progressive news outlet,, neglected to mention the situation in its roundup of last year’s political scandals.

Standing outside a bar in the colonial zone, fashion designer Ana Granata put it bluntly: “Few people care about this problem here in the capital.”

Clearly immigration issues in the Dominican Republic are different from those on the ballot in Europe, which in turn are different from those in the United States. But as a case study of applied nativism, the country demonstrates the consequences of xenophobic policy, and how ordinary, well-meaning people in a modern democracy learn to accept them.