1. How to survive your family's Thanksgiving arguments

    Thanksgiving is upon is. Families will gather this week to eat, drink, reminisce — and, inevitably, argue about what's going on in the news. Here are some topics that are likely to come up at your family's feast, and some pointers for how to respond to what your relatives may say.

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  2. Thanksgiving arguments

    Midterm Elections

    The midterm elections this year were quite a drubbing for Democrats. Some of your relatives might want to gloat about the results, and the Obama fans might not want to talk about politics at all.

    Your brother says: "These elections were absolutely pointless and won't make any difference at all. I stayed home and you should have, too."

    Response: Oh, he is so, so wrong. For one, next year's GOP-controlled Senate will certainly have enough votes to pass a measure fast-tracking the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Its supporters argue that it would help create a ton of jobs, and its opponents argue that helps facilitate the cooking of the planet — so either way, it matters. Beyond that, the GOP's new control of the Senate gives the party increased negotiating leverage to attempt to push their policies on Obama across the board. And of course, if a Supreme Court justice retires or dies in the next two years, the GOP Senate takeover could block a liberal justice from winning approval, and prevent a host of 5-4 court decisions on issues like abortion or campaign finance reform from being overturned.

    Furthermore, there's more to life than Congress — there were gubernatorial and local elections that might actually affect everyday life a whole lot more. State and local governments set school funding. They make regulatory decisions that affect local economies. They set many policies on criminal justice, marriage, or abortion too.

    Plus, in certain states voters had the opportunity to vote on whether to legalize pot. That's pretty cool, right?

    Your uncle says: "It's over for Democrats. Since they got destroyed this year, they're doomed in 2016, too."

    Response: He's totally right that the midterm results were a disaster for a Democratic Party — but two years is an eternity in politics. It wasn't too long ago that the Democrats had a terrible year in the 2010 midterms, and a good year in 2012. As Dartmouth political science professor Brendan Nyhan writes, midterm results "tell us relatively little about the coming presidential election." The current demographics of the Republican coalition appear to give it a turnout advantage in the midterms, but many more young and nonwhite voters tend to turn out in presidential years.

    Furthermore, midterm and presidential outcomes appear to be driven by somewhat different dynamics. Midterm results seem to be driven by presidential approval — which is bad for Democrats right now — but presidential-year results appear to be much more driven by the state of the economy. And as Matthew Yglesias has written, the economy's doing better now than it was when Obama won reelection in 2012. So if you want to know how 2016 will turn out, the economy will be your best clue.

    Your sister-in-law says: "Democrats would've kept the Senate if they were more progressive! They were silly to run as Republicans lite, rather than boldly standing up for progressive ideas."

    Response: It's easy to say that that's what Democrats should have done. But there are a few problems with this argument. First of all, President Obama's unpopularity seems to have been a main factor in the midterm results. And he's supported a bunch of progressive ideas that haven't been put into law — cap-and-trade, immigration reform, campaign finance reform, a new increase in the minimum wage. If merely advocating for these policies is enough, why isn't he more popular?

    Then, you have the problem of the Senate map. Democrats representing some of the reddest states in the country were up for reelection this year — and Obama is even more unpopular there than he is nationally. These candidates spent a lot of money polling the public to help guide their campaign strategies, and they all concluded that moving to the center was their best chance of winning. Sure, most of them lost in the end — but if they ran as unabashed liberals they might have lost by a whole lot more.

    Furthermore, Democrats lost governor's races in blue states like Maine, Maryland, and Massachusetts too. With only a few exceptions, the party performed weakly across the board. It needs to figure out how to get its voters to turn out in the midterms — while still appealing to the swing and independent voters likely to actually decide the outcome.

  3. Thanksgiving arguments

    Hunger Games

    At Thanksgiving, your family members will probably want to talk about current events. And there will be no bigger cultural event Thanksgiving weekend than the release of Mockingjay, the third movie of the Hunger Games, which barreled into theaters November 21 (setting itself up for a monster Thanksgiving haul).

    Your father-in-law says: "The Hunger Games books and movies are about fomenting distrust in the government."

    Response: Well, he's right.

    And he'd probably enjoy the books.

    It's completely fair to say that The Hunger Games is about what happens when you begin to trust the government too much. After all, the reason the Hunger Games exist is because the Capitol uses it to keep a stranglehold over the Districts.

    The movie's marketing plays up this idea of a government trying to keep its citizens in check. One ad features a brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) sending out "messages" from the Capitol:

    But the government isn't the only bad guy in the series. The story that Mockingjay explores is that no one can be trusted, and how Katniss Everdeen chooses to deal with this fact of life. She soon finds out that trusting District 13 is as difficult as trusting the powers that be at the Capitol.

    That's the thing — when the dust settles in the Hunger Games, there is no right or wrong side to be on. Winners of the Games aren't happy, losers are dead, rebels don't know what they're fighting for, and the Capitol is filled with terrible people. There is no decisive choice, or clear-cut winning side here.

    Your sister-in-law says: "I'm worried about how the story glamorizes violence."

    Response: There is a lot of violence in the Hunger Games, because it is a competition where children are killing other children. And that's morbid if you start to think about it happening in real life. It's also a bit macabre to think that Katniss Everdeeen, a murderer, is a role model.

    But Suzanne Collins, the author of the books, wants to make clear that this violence is awful — she is by no means glamorizing it.

    For example, in the very first book we see the character of Rue killed in an abrupt and surprising way. It's one of the most powerful moments in the entire series, and the most haunting part of the first two movies. Ask any fan about Rue, and you might induce tears.

    If this book were glamorizing violence, it would downplay Rue's death. But it doesn't. There are moments in text and in the film where her death is remembered and is treated as a galvanizing force to stop the Games.

    The Hunger Games series also plumbs the depths of Katniss's PTSD, making clear that these Games have a toll. Even though Katniss's kills came as retribution or defense, Katniss still has nightmares about the Games and a guilt over the people who died. Collins's point is about showing the hell of violence, not glamorizing it.

    Your uncle says: "These books are trash, because kids read trash, and kids read The Hunger Games."

    Response: This type of thinking is actually very common when it comes to Young Adult literature, and even extends to things like graphic novels and comic books.

    The really simple answer here is that kids are reading, and it's better for kids to be reading than not reading. And according to Scholastic, the percentage of boys (especially) and girls who read for fun is in need of improvement:



    But that probably won't suffice to convince your uncle of the merits of The Hunger Games.

    What you're probably going to want to talk about is how Young Adult literature has long been a vessel for complex ideas. The Hunger Games primarily explores the themes of death, class, and government, not unlike YA books like The Giver, Lord of the Flies, and books like Huckleberry Finn and To Kill the Mockingbird, which straddle the line of YA and adult fiction.

    And yet YA books tend to get the short shrift. Harper Lee reportedly said in a conversation with journalist Marja Mills that To Kill a Mockingbird would have been considered YA if it were published 10 years later, and that many adults wouldn't have read it.

    If what's keeping adults from reading quality books is the age designation on them, then maybe we need to rethink the way we think about books … while eating another helping of stuffing, of course.

  4. Thanksgiving arguments


    Given the millions of people who watch the NFL on Thanksgiving, there's a pretty good chance that your family's TV set will be tuned to football at some point on Thursday. And given the many controversies that have flared up this past year, there's an even better chance you'll find yourself discussing concussions or domestic violence.

    Your niece says: "I'm worried about concussions and player safety."

    Response: Concussions have become a big issue for the NFL for good reason: research is showing that many players are suffering long-term problems like depression and dementia after suffering repeated blows to the head on the field. A few players have even committed suicide, and autopsies on their brains showed they had a degenerative brain disease called CTE.

    The NFL has addressed this by banning particularly vicious hits and making some slight rule changes, but some researchers are concerned that many routine, relatively mild hits over time can also lead to CTE. If this were true, then football might be fundamentally dangerous for the brain. All this has some people questioning the basic ethics of football and the future of the game.

    Still, for good or bad, there's a reason why your family is probably talking about football today - it remains the most popular sport in the country. To get an idea of just how popular: today's regular season games will probably draw more viewers than game 7 of the World Series. If fans are going to abandon the sport out of concern for concussions, it isn't happening yet.

    Your sister-in-law says: "I won't watch a second of a sport played solely by violent criminals."

    Response: This one is tough. On the one hand, a number of NFL players have recently committed violent, indefensible acts that merit this sort of criticism. It goes way beyond Ray Rice (the running back who was caught on camera knocking out his wife and was subsequently suspended). Several other players have committed domestic violence in the past year, and the NFL has a long, ugly history of ignoring this issue until public pressure forced the league to punish players appropriately earlier this year.

    On the other hand, a lot of commentators have pointed out that ultimately, we're talking about a handful of players in a league made up of hundreds. And a lot of other players, indeed, are model citizens who, as far as we know, don't commit domestic violence — or any other crime.

    What does the data say? Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight has done a thorough analysis of NFL players' crime rates, for both domestic violence and other charges. He found that for most crimes, players have low arrest rates compared to all men aged 25 to 29:


    However, this gap between the average NFL player and the average American male is smaller for domestic violence than any other crime. And it's important to keep in mind that wealthier people have lower crime rates as a whole - and when you compare NFL players to all men in the top income bracket (over $75,000 of income a year), the gap disappears. Given that players make dramatically more than that (there isn't crime data available for their income bracket), it's very likely that they have much higher rates of domestic violence that comparably-wealthy men in the US.

    To sum up: no, not all NFL players commit domestic violence. However, players as a whole do at disturbingly high rates, and for years, the NFL essentially brushed it under the rug while aggressively punishing things like marijuana use. On the whole, the NFL has a domestic violence problem.

    You father-in-law says: "The NFL is just a big money-grab that fleeces taxpayers."

    Response: For once, your father-in-law is onto something. Let us count the ways that the NFL steals taxpayer money:

    1) The simplest one is the most incredible: the NFL operates as a tax-exempt nonprofit. Yes, the gargantuan sports league that takes in about $9.5 billion annually and pays its leader Roger Goodell $44 million per year doesn't pay taxes. However, this only applies to the league's national offices - the individual teams, which ultimately take in most of the profits, do pay taxes. Still, it's estimated that revoking the league's non-profit status could generate about $109 million in tax revenues over the next ten years.

    2) Much more importantly, most NFL teams take in money from states, counties, and local municipalities as part of sweetheart stadium deals. The state of Minnesota, for instance, just gave the Vikings $506 million for a new stadium. In other words, the state gave a wildly lucrative business hundreds of millions of dollars to replace an existing facility that was built just 30 years ago, also with taxpayer money. In many cities, special deals and leases also let teams avoid paying local property taxes. All this money gets taken from programs that benefit the public, and ultimately goes towards enriching owners, both through gate revenues and ever-increasing team valuations.

    3) Finally, the NFL gets permission to act as a monopoly through a special act of Congress. When the NFL and competitor AFL merged in 1966, Public Law 89‑800 was passed, giving the league various antitrust exemptions. Among other things, it allows the league to package the TV rights to its games together and sell them exclusively to specific broadcasters - which is why you need DirecTV to see most out-of-market games, and can't watch them on cable.

  5. Thanksgiving arguments


    On August 9, in Ferguson, Missouri, an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. On November 24th, a grand jury decided not to charge Wilson with a crime for killing Brown. Both events sparked protests in Ferguson, and tensions have been high in the small town for months. This will almost certainly come up at your dinner.

    Your father-in-law says: "They decided a long time ago that Wilson would walk free. Of course he wasn't indicted! The system is fixed! Wake up!"

    Response: You can validate his frustration. After all, it is true that it was easy to predict that Wilson would not be indicted for Brown's death.

    Underlying his comments is probably an understanding that the decision was made within a criminal justice system that is largely unfair to African Americans, whether they're suspects or victims.

    However, there's no need for a conspiracy theory to explain this, no big secret to "wake up" to, and no carefully hidden, shady agreement that guaranteed a particular outcome in this particular case (at least as far as we know).

    Especially now that the evidence the grand jury saw has been released, there's actually a certain amount of transparency about what took place.

    Your father-in-law's sense of a "fix" might come from what he's heard about some controversial choices in the case. For example, prosecutor Bob McCulloch decided to use a grand jury to decide whether to indict Wilson, instead of simply issuing an indictment himself.

    Beyond that, instead of presenting an advocate's case to the jury about what charge would be the best fit for Wilson, McCulloch chose to show the jurors every single scrap of available evidence and leave them to make their own decision about the appropriate charge, if any. This evidence included a large volume of witness statements that naturally have some inconsistencies, and allowed McCulloch to call the accounts of those who said Brown surrendered with his hands in the air and was shot in the back "unreliable."

    It's true that his approach made it less likely that Wilson will be indicted, Kevin Curran, president of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers told Vox in September. But the key thing for your uncle to understand is that, although the prosecutor's tactics have raised a lot of questions, few would argue that they were actually illegal.

    So, the real tragedy for those who see the result as unjust is not that there was some shady backroom agreement. You might encourage him to focus his frustration less on what they decided and more on the legal system under which we all live. In any case, assure him there's no Thanksgiving detective work needed to understand what happened here.

    Your uncle says: "I'm angry that Americans aren't standing behind Darren Wilson. He's a standup cop who was just trying to do his job. I'm outraged that anyone would criticize a law enforcement officer."

    Response: You can appeal to your uncle's sense of law and order by reminding him of this: police officers have to follow the law in the course of their duties, and there are specific guidelines that govern when it is okay to shoot to kill, and when it isn't.

    People's anger that Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown has little to do with their level of respect for law enforcement workers, or whether they think their work is generally important or heroic.

    Rather, the debate has been about whether the shooting was legal, according to the laws that govern Wilson's job — and whether those laws might need to change. As Vox's Dara Lind explained in a piece on what's called "justifiable use of force" by police officers, Supreme Court precedent and police department guidelines each offer standards that govern when a police officer can kill someone. Both kinds of standards boil down to an assessment of whether Wilson had an "objectively reasonable" belief that Michael Brown represented a threat at the time that he shot and killed him.

    Maybe your uncle, like the grand jury, thinks that Wilson had an "objectively reasonable" belief that Brown put his life in danger. Others have come to different conclusions. Even now, with all of the evidence seen by the grand jury available to the public, there won't be a consensus on this topic. You can explain to him that this assessment has little to do with whether anyone likes, respects, or appreciates police officers in general.

    Your cousin says: "Rioting doesn't help. Why do those people have to destroy their own community? That's insane. "

    Response: You can tell your cousin that he's right: destroying property cannot do anything to change a court's decision or improve the underlying conditions that have colored the response to Michael Brown's death and its aftermath. He's made a fairly superficial point about what happened in Ferguson when things took an unusually violent last night, with cars and building set on fire, and police reports of over 100 shots fired. Still, once you agree with your cousin's general premise — "yes, it's unfair to business owners," and "yes the community will suffer economically" — you might be able to encourage him to take a more nuanced look at the situation.

    First, tell him that "rioting" is not a fair characterization of the Ferguson demonstrations as a whole.  While it is true that looters destroyed property in the days following Brown's death, this wasn't a major feature of the majority of the protests. (It's also worth mentioning that Ferguson residents worked to stop the looting that did occur.)

    What might have given the impression that protesters in August were violent  was that police used militarized tactics, including tear gas, against peaceful protestors, and even arrested journalists who were reporting on the confrontations. Yes, there was chaos, but the term "riots" isn't an accurate description of what happened.

    In November, on the other hand, the reaction to the grand jury deciding not to indict Wilson did lead to vandalism and arson. According to reporters on the scene, the crowd damaging property Monday night had little in common with the ones who had consistently demonstrated since August. MSNBC's Chris Hayes and others described the crowd from November as younger and less organized, than the overwhelmingly peaceful protesters who'd taken the lead after Brown's death.

    Your niece says: "My teacher said Michael Brown was a thug. He was a bad guy, right?"

    Response: You can ask your niece what she knows about the case, and confirm that Brown is in fact the primary suspect in a robbery of a convenience store that occurred the day he was killed. However, you should mention that the police officer who shot him wasn't necessarily aware of that.

    Ask her: even "bad guys" have a right to live, right? After all, it would be a very scary world if everyone who someone else decided was a "bad guy" got shot and killed.

    Explain that we have courts, and juries, and judges, to make sure that if someone is punished, that punishment is as fair as possible. Generally, the size of the bad thing needs to match the size of the punishment. And in America, we don't kill people for things like robberies (or for using drugs — something else she might have heard Michael Brown did).

    Also, discuss the idea that whenever someone calls someone else a "thug" or a "bad guy," we should always question whether they are really talking about that person's actions, or whether they are reacting to stories they have heard about people who are a certain gender, a certain age, or have a certain color of skin. Tell her that part of the reason this case got a lot of attention is that many people are worried that Brown's skin color — more than anything about the type of person he was — contributed to his being killed.

  6. Thanksgiving arguments


    Anyone who brings up immigration at the Thanksgiving dinner table probably isn't looking to have their mind changed. A tremendous recent news story that brings up enduring questions of race and identity in America? Not exactly the stuff of cool, reasoned debate. But that doesn't mean you can't have a good conversation about it: here's how to turn potential shouting matches into thoughtful discussions.

    Your father-in-law says: "This president has gone off the deep end! He's trampling on the Constitution by legalizing all these illegal aliens. Obama? More like Obamnesty!"

    Response: Let's take these issues one at a time. First of all, you can try to challenge you father-in-law's use of "illegal alien" if you think your father-in-law is the sort of person who'd stop using it if he found out it wasn't actually the official legal term — but you might want to let it slide.

    Second of all, what President Obama announced last week isn't actually legalization of anyone. What Obama is extending to some 4.3 million more unauthorized immigrants is a three-year grant of protection from deportation — called "deferred action" — with a work permit that's valid for the same time. It doesn't change them from being unauthorized immigrants, and it can easily be reversed or revoked.

    That's important, because the president simply doesn't have the power to turn unauthorized immigrants into legal ones. But the executive branch does have the power to decide who should and shouldn't be deported, and it has the power to decide to give some form of temporary protection to unauthorized immigrants in the second category. For better or worse, the Immigration and Nationality Act gives a ton of power to the executive branch on immigration issues. That's why even many conservative legal scholars agree that what Obama's doing is legal and constitutional — even if they personally don't agree with it.

    If your father-in-law thinks it's inappropriate to protect millions of people from deportation, you might want to ask him how much effort he thinks the government should be putting into deporting them. Deporting 11 million people would cost hundreds of billions of dollars — does he think that's worthwhile? Currently, there's enough money to deport about 400,000 people a year — should those slots be reserved for criminals instead of parents of US citizens? Is it important to him that every unauthorized immigrant feel that deportation is a constant threat? What would satisfy him?

    Your uncle says: "Obama's doing all of this backwards. The most important thing is to secure the border. Then, once the border is secure, we can think about what to do with people already here. Bam. Fixed."

    Response: The question to ask here is, "How do you define ‘secure'?"

    Both Democrats and Republicans have been trying to come up with metrics to define "border security" for more than a decade. But nothing they've come up with has been satisfying. If you're apprehending more immigrants, does that mean you're doing a better job — or just that more people are coming over? If you can see immigrants crossing the border, but can't physically apprehend them, is that an improvement?

    You can't totally seal the border. There are plenty of things and people who need to move back and forth: truckloads of goods, people who live on one side of the border but work on the other, people who are legally allowed to come into the US. And some people who come into the US without papers are actually following the law — if they're coming to seek asylum, for example.

    Until people can agree on a good definition of "border security," it's not going to be possible for Congress to come up with a bill that would actually fix the problem.

    Your cousin says: "I don't get it. Isn't this going to make more immigrants want to come here illegally, because they can get protected?"

    Response: You probably want to clarify that Obama's new executive action doesn't apply to anyone who's coming in the future. The unauthorized immigrants who will be eligible for deferred action fall into the following groups: they are immigrants who came to the US before 2010, and came when they were 15 or younger; or they are immigrants who came to the US before 2010, whose children are US citizens or green-card holders. In fact, the Obama administration (which has already put a lot of effort into deporting people who are apprehended at the border) has a new set of priorities for who will be deported — which could put future border crossers in even more danger.

    When most critics of the administration's plan ask this question, they don't mean that future unauthorized immigrants will actually be eligible for protection. They mean that the hope of future protection will be enough to make people want to come to the US illegally who wouldn't come otherwise.

    This sounds logical, but is it actually the case? Tell your cousin what happened after the 1986 Reagan "amnesty" — which also raised concerns that it would inspire future unauthorized migration. It doesn't appear that it did so. Instead, the wave of unauthorized migration to the US peaked from 1996 — when a law passed that made it much harder to "get legal" if you were an unauthorized immigrant — to 2006 or so.

    Experts agree that the biggest pull for migrants, authorized or otherwise, is the state of the US economy (compared to the economies in their home countries). That's not something immigration policy can control — and besides, it would be foolish to tank the US economy just to deter unauthorized migration. But the wave after the 1996 law suggests that people want to be with their families — and if they can't cross the border back and forth to see their families, they'll bring their families here. If that's true, all Obama did last week is extend protection from deportation to people who would be here regardless.

    Your cousin might not be persuaded. So ask her: what would it take for her to go somewhere without papers? Would she be willing to risk it for the chance of protection from deportation, 20 or 30 years down the road? Would she do it for family? For a job? To flee persecution?

    Your sister-in-law says: "I'm really worried that the Republicans will take back the White House in 2016 and will just reverse everything Obama just did. What happens then?"

    Response: This is definitely a possibility! For better or worse, the flip side of President Obama's broad authority to choose who should be protected from deportation is that President Ted Cruz (for example) would have the authority to come into office in 2017, scrap everything Obama's done, and start over.

    That's going to be a problem in getting people to apply for the new protection-from-deportation program — which they have to do if they're going to actually get protected, or get work permits. Is someone who's lived in fear of the government for years really going to hand over all her personal information — information that could be used to deport her — in exchange for a few years of protection?

    Just stripping protections from unauthorized immigrants isn't the same as ordering them deported, of course. Hypothetical President Cruz would still have to decide if it was worth spending limited deportation funds on parents of US citizens, simply because he had their information, instead of convicted criminals or new border crossers. (You might want to bring your father-in-law into this conversation: how would he make that choice?)

    But this is a serious question for immigrants themselves — and for both political parties. Should Democrats be emphasizing the threat of a President Cruz, so that Latinos will turn out to vote in 2016? Or should they be emphasizing the safety of the program so that more immigrants will sign up now? And should Republicans be openly threatening to use this information against immigrants if their party wins the presidency — or is that an immoral line to cross?

  7. Thanksgiving arguments

    Common Core

    Kids are out of school for Thanksgiving, but that doesn't mean arguments about education won't come up at the dinner table. And from confusing homework assignments to political pontificating, the Common Core has been a hot issue this year.

    Your niece says: "Why do I have to learn fractions on a number line and read more nonfiction in school?"

    Response: Somehow, the Common Core is written about more as a political phenomenon than an educational one. So it's important to know that it does two new things in American education. The most obvious one is that in 43 states it sets common benchmarks for what students should know and be able to do in reading and language arts at every grade level. In the past, each state set its own standards for what students should be learning.

    The Common Core also calls for shifts in how those subjects are taught. Math focuses on fewer concepts in each grade level, but it goes into them at greater depth. The goal is developing kids' "number sense" — flexible skills that they can use to apply math in everyday life. They're encouraged to learn multiple methods in elementary math, including some that can be confusing to adults.

    But if your niece hopes this means she'll get out of long division or memorizing multiplication tables, she's wrong. Students are still expected to learn the traditional methods for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. And they still have to memorize the times tables.

    Students are also expected to read more nonfiction. Elementary teachers in particular are supposed to emphasize stories and nonfiction equally, a big shift, particularly for younger kids. The nonfiction emphasis is controversial with some teachers, who worry that it will destroy kids' budding love for learning by requiring them to read dry, scientific texts.

    Your uncle says: "Why has President Obama appointed himself school superintendent and had the federal government write standards for what kids should learn?"

    Response: President Obama bragged about how many states had adopted the Common Core in his 2012 State of the Union address, and it's come back to haunt him. But the federal government wasn't involved at all in the writing of the standards. The Common Core started as a group of states working together through two national groups: the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

    The US Education Department thought the standards were a pretty good idea, and offered several healthy incentives for states to adopt them. States had to adopt "college- and career-ready standards" to compete for Race to the Top grants or to get waivers from No Child Left Behind.

    In theory, states could have written their own standards to meet the criteria, as Minnesota did. They didn't have to adopt Common Core. But the federal encouragement certainly helped. The Next Generation Science Standards, a shared standards effort that didn't have the Education Department nudging states to sign on, has attracted just 12 states. When the Common Core was most popular, it had 45 states on board.

    Your sister-in-law says: "This is all President Bush's fault for enacting No Child Left Behind. Why do we need all these standardized tests anyway?"

    Response: Ah, Common Core: the one thing that can bring angry conservatives and angry liberals together! It's true that No Child Left Behind has had an indirect role in the Common Core's prominence, because NCLB required states to test all students annually between grades 3 and 8. The Common Core will just replace the old set of tests states used to use with a new set.

    Kids do take a lot of tests these days: up to 20 standardized tests per year, according to a new study from the Center for American Progress. That doesn't include the time they're spending on test prep. Those aren't all state tests — they also include district-level tests that aren't required by federal law. But it's pretty clear that students are taking more tests than they used to, and studies have found that alters how much time schools spend on reading and math versus other subjects.

    Even education reformers are starting to agree that there should be less testing — though they don't agree on how that should be accomplished. Passing rates on state tests correlate closely with factors like income. But if you test every year, you can find out whether students are improving from year to year, even if a school's passing rates are still low.

    The Common Core changes the tests that students will take beginning this year. But it doesn't change the requirement that students are tested in the first place.

  8. Thanksgiving arguments


    Arguing about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is practically Thanksgiving tradition in many American households. Demographic trends mean that families are often divided by age or religion in their views of the conflict. Different people can have vastly different understandings of the basic facts based on what media outlets they view. And this topic is famous for being unusually contentious, for reasons that have as much to do with human psychology and feelings of tribalism as with the actual Middle East.

    Your uncle says: "Why is Obama throwing Israel under the bus?"

    Response: Uncle Joe is probably upset that an anonymous Obama administration official called Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "a chickenshit" recently, and he's right that President Obama and Netanyahu have a terrible personal relationship. But there's a few things you could say to try to calm him down.

    Nations are bigger than their leaders' personal relationships, and President Obama is objectively pro-Israel on the big issues. He's spent huge amounts of money buying Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system, publicly backed Israel's war this summer with Gaza (something just about every other nation on Earth furiously condemned), and has maintained crucial diplomatic support for Israel at the United Nations, including by defunding a massive UN development agency because its members had voted to symbolically recognize Palestine. The US has an extremely pro-Israel foreign policy, and if anything it's become more that way as Obama has backed off his peace efforts.

    But your uncle isn't totally wrong: there is friction. It's mostly over Iran. Netanyahu wants the US to bomb Iran, Obama wants to strike a nuclear deal with the country instead. Ever since Obama gave up his big push for Israel-Palestine peace during his first term, that disagreement has driven nearly all of the enmity.

    In any case, a great deal of the deterioration in the relationship has come from Netanyahu, who has been publicly undermining President Obama since 2011. In May of that year, Netanyahu publicly lectured him at a press conference and gave a speech on the floor of Congress scolding the president. He appeared to all but endorse Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential election — something that, beyond being way outside of normal protocol, was naturally going to be awkward if Obama won.

    Your cousin says: "The root problem is that Israelis are peace-hating racists who want to kill all Palestinians" or "Palestinians are war-loving terrorists who want to kill Israelis." (maybe you have two cousins)

    Response: Let your cousin know that he or she is mistaking the violent, anti-peace, minority fringes of Israeli and Palestinian politics for their societies' very different mainstreams. And that's exactly what those fringe groups want.

    There are a few events you can tell your cousin about that are really important for understanding how the mainstreams became so apathetic, and how the fringe groups dominate the conversation. First, in November 1995, an Israeli far-right extremist assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin over Rabin's efforts to strike a peace deal. Second, in February 2006, the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas launched a series of bus and suicide bombings in Israel, killing dozens and chilling the Israeli public's support for peace.

    This all crystallized during what's called the Second Intifada, in the early 2000s. Palestinians, outraged that the Oslo Peace Process had failed to bring peace and had seemingly institutionalized the occupation, staged mass protests. Both sides blame one another for the Palestinian protests and Israeli crackdowns escalating into such horrible violence, including Palestinian terrorist attacks and brutal Israeli military assaults. But when it was over roughly 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were dead.

    Ever since, Israelis have generally believed that peace is desirable but not workable because Palestinians would reject it in favor of violence. Palestinians, who have seen the smothering force of the occupation worsen since the Second Intifada, and have seen Israeli settlements in the West Bank grow, increasingly believe that Israelis wish to make the occupation permanent. The publics on both sides agree that they would like peace in theory, but they believe the other side cannot be trusted to deliver it. On both sides, then, it's the extremists who are most active and who end up setting the agenda.

    Your sister-in-law says: "Americans would know the truth if only the media weren't so biased in favor of Israel."

    Response: Your sister-in-law is not completely wrong about how the media often covers Israel. Americans who turn on their TVs are far more likely to see an Israeli face than a Palestinian, and thus to hear the Israeli viewpoint. That's probably not the result of deliberate media bias, though: Israeli leaders are democratically elected, tend to be skilled at navigating the American press, and Israelis and Israeli society can feel more familiar to Americans, and thus more relatable.

    Gently remind your sister-in-law, though, that this effect can cut both ways, and in ways that suggest the media might not be so inherently biased after all. During this summer's Israel-Gaza conflict, American media coverage so emphasized the Palestinian perspective of the conflict that it spurred a meta mini-genre arguing that Israel was losing the "media war."

    This didn't happen because the media suddenly went from being biased in favor of Israelis to biased in favor of Palestinians. The fighting was largely located within Gaza and most of the deaths were Palestinian, including hundreds of children. UN refugee buildings were destroyed by Israeli bombs. American media covered all of this closely because it was major news, and the effect was that Palestinian faces and thus Palestinian viewpoints dominated the coverage for a time.

    Still, you might suggest to your sister-in-law that, even if American media coverage can be unbalanced on Israel, and while that might play into American public opinion on Israel, she could have that backwards: it may be that preexisting "pro-Israel" attitudes in the American public at large nudge media coverage in the same direction.

    Causes of those American attitudes toward Israel are complex, but they go back to a magical time before cable TV news: major factors include the 1970s shift in American foreign policy to draw closer to Israel as a Cold War bulwark in a region with heavy Soviet influence and a 1980s movement to support Israel driven by evangelical Christians, who remain the most staunchly "pro-Israel" electorate in the US.

  9. Thanksgiving arguments

    Bill Cosby

    Bill Cosby's Thanksgiving special has been "indefinitely postponed" after sexual assault allegations against him became major national news. But that doesn't mean the story is going away. With new accusers still coming forward, your relatives will probably want to discuss what happened.

    Your father-in-law says: "If these allegations are true, then why would these women wait so long to come forward?"

    Response: Some of the women have answered this question: they knew that Bill Cosby was a beloved, powerful figure, and they thought that meant that no one would believe them if they came forward with their allegations.

    There's reason to believe that they were right about that. One of the accusers, Barbara Bowman, wrote in the Washington Post that she did try to come forward. She told her agent, who did nothing. (He had professional ties to Cosby.) She also went to see a lawyer, who accused her of making the story up. Their dismissive responses, she said, "crushed any hope I had of getting help; I was convinced no one would listen to me. That feeling of futility is what ultimately kept me from going to the police."

    But maybe this question is really trying to ask something else: shouldn't we be worried these women are making their stories up?

    We can't answer that question for sure, because these are allegations, not proven facts. But it's worth considering what would need to have happened for them to be completely made up. More than 20 women from around the country, with no other connection to each other, would need to have independently decided to accuse Cosby of assaulting them. The statute of limitations for lawsuits is long passed, so there's little chance that this could lead to financial gain. Going public opened them up to harassment and character assassination. What would be the reason for so many women to make these accusations up?

    Your cousin says: "Doesn't 'innocent until proven guilty' mean anything anymore? Bill Cosby hasn't been convicted of any crime, so why are we acting like he's guilty?"

    Response: Innocent until proven guilty is an important idea, but it applies to criminal convictions, not personal opinions.

    It's true that Cosby has not been convicted of any crime, and so in the eyes of the law, he is innocent. But all that means is that he can't be subjected to criminal punishment. It does not mean that no one can discuss the allegations against him, or form a personal opinion about whether they are true.

    Your sister-in-law says: "Does this mean that I can't watch the Cosby Show anymore?"

    Response: That depends on your concerns about the show.

    If you're concerned that watching the Cosby Show will lead to Bill Cosby making more money, and you don't want that to be a part of that, then you probably don't need to worry. TV syndication deals get negotiated as packages, so it's likely that Bill Cosby already cashed his checks from the channels that rerun the show, and watching now won't make that much difference. (By contrast, buying tickets for Cosby's current standup tour probably would send more money his way, so if you're trying to avoid doing that, then skipping his shows is probably the way to go.)

    If your concern is that your enjoyment of the show has now been tainted by the knowledge that so many women have accused Cosby of terrible crimes, then there is no easy solution to that problem. Some people will be able to separate the art from the artist. Others will find that more difficult.

    Finally, if you really want to watch the show, but you are worried that people will judge you for watching it, then you should feel free to remind those who judge you that Bill Cosby was not the only person who worked on the sitcom. It contained many other fine performances, including the excellent Phylicia Rashad as feminist icon Clair Huxtable.

    Your uncle says: "Shouldn't these women have taken personal responsibility for their own safety? Why were they reportedly in the limo/hotel room/Cosby's house in the first place?"

    Response: There is no need to discuss the behavior of Cosby's alleged victims. What matters here is that he allegedly sexually assaulted them. There is no level of "irresponsibility" that makes sexual assault acceptable or legal.

    When allegations like this come out, it's common for people to analyze an alleged victim's behavior as a way to assess her credibility. It's hard to figure out whether a stranger is credible without knowing anything else about her. And it might be tempting to look for reasons to give Cosby the benefit of the doubt, because he's a beloved cultural figure.

    But it's also worth remembering the dark side of Cosby's status. He is accused of targeting women who were much younger and less powerful, enticing them with promises of mentorship or career assistance, and then assaulting them. That is the behavior we should be concerned about. Not the alleged victims'.