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It's too hot. Our sundress season of discontent isn't helping

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It's too hot. Our sundress season of discontent isn't helping

A woman on TikTok asked: What is a sundress? Ten million views later, the debate is still raging. Above, Four models in summer dresses in 1972.

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“What is a sundress?” wondered a young woman in plaintive tones on TikTok. “I own every dress. Which is the sun one?”

Nearly 10 million views later, that burning question continues to light up social media. Reaction videos included an influencer in Atlanta spelling out how “sundress season” in her Black community means Skims-style dresses that are long and tight, rather than flowy skirts with a fitted bodice. A good-natured, self-described mansplainer admitted that, although no expert in women’s fashion, he knows what he likes. Specifically, what he called “milkmaid style” dresses, preferably in yellow. “Cause we are simple,” he says. “Yellow, sun.”

Taylor Swift in a sundress at The CMA Music Festival on June 13, 2010 in Nashville, Tenn.

Taylor Swift at The CMA Music Festival on June 13, 2010 in Nashville, Tenn.

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Which cuts to the crux of the sundress stakes. It’s not just what a sundress is, says Vox writer Rebecca Jennings. It’s who a sundress is for.

“Some men were complaining that women aren’t wearing sundresses ‘like they used to,’” Jennings notes. “Which feels like a very reactionary response to changing gender dynamics.”

Models Endy Cartnell (left) and Selina, on the King's Road, Chelsea, London in 1973.

Models Endy Cartnell (left) and Selina, on the King’s Road, Chelsea, London in 1973.

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Jennings traced the early days of what we now call the sundress in an expansively researched essay called “The sundress discourse, explained.” The garment, she wrote, became a summer staple in the postwar period, popularized by pioneering female sportswear designers such as Claire McCardell and Carolyn Schnurer.

“They’re dresses that were meant to be worn without these fussy undergarments,” she explains, meaning without girdles or even pantyhose. The designer Lilly Pulitzer, known for her bright prints and boutique-y brand, helped make sundresses, at first a style associated with children, respectable even for grown women.

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A mother and daughter in 1955.

A mother and daughter in 1955.

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The sundress as male fetish object joined the cultural conversation through the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Jennings says. In a 2010 episode, the resident toxic male creep does a whole bit about sundresses. And since then, the mainstream cultural discourse around the sundress has changed accordingly, as reflected in some of the TikTok videos responding to the original query.

Disputes over sundresses right now are really about contemporary concerns, Jennings suggests, ranging from fast fashion to obsessions over gender norms. But, she adds, none of this should stop sundress fans from reaching for that lightweight little frock in the closet designed with hot weather in mind. “It’s not the sundress’s fault,” she points out, with a laugh.

American actress, singer and dancer Marpessa Dawn pictured on a balcony on June 1, 1960.

American actress, singer and dancer Marpessa Dawn pictured on a balcony on June 1st, 1960.

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Edited for radio and the web by Jennifer Vanasco.

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These dictators are different. 'Autocracy, Inc.' explains how

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These dictators are different. 'Autocracy, Inc.' explains how

Naval vessels participate in a Taiwanese military drill near the naval port in Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan on Jan. 27, 2016.

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The United States and other major democracies face the most challenging geopolitical landscape in decades. The crises include a bloody battle for land in Eastern Europe that challenges the principle of territorial sovereignty, the risk of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the coming years and a brutal war in Gaza that could still spread.

We are in a new era, but how do we define it, and what is the fundamental threat?

Several recent books tackle this crucial question. New York Times White House and National Security correspondent David Sanger calls this historical moment “New Cold Wars.” He sees the U.S. defending the West against a rising China and resurgent Russia. CNN anchor and Chief National Security analyst Jim Sciutto calls it “The Return of Great Powers.”

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In her new book, the Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum takes a different, more sweeping view. We are not in Cold War 2.0, she argues, but a battle for the future world order against what she calls “Autocracy, Inc., The Dictators Who Want to Rule the World.

Autocracy, Inc., is not a club. There are no meetings like SPECTRE in a James Bond movie, where villains give progress reports on their kleptocratic gains and attacks on democracy. Instead, Applebaum writes, it is a very loosely knit mix of regimes, ranging from theocracies to monarchies, that operate more like companies. What unites these dictators isn’t an ideology, but something simpler and more prosaic: a laser-focus on preserving their wealth, repressing their people and maintaining power at all costs.

These regimes can help each other in ways large and small, Applebaum writes.

Countries such as Zimbabwe, Belarus and Cuba voted in favor of Russia’s annexation of Crimea at the United Nations in 2014. Russia gave loans to Venezuela’s authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro, while Venezuelan police use Chinese-made water cannons, tear gas and surveillance equipment to attack and track street protesters.

Of course, U.S. companies have also supplied authoritarian regimes. When covering the crushing of the democracy movement in Bahrain during the Arab Spring, I rummaged through bins of empty rubber bullet canisters made by a company in Pennsylvania.

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More recently and more alarming, though, have been China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin’s June visit to North Korea, which the U.S. accuses of supplying weapons to Russia.

But Autocracy Inc., uses more than conventional arms to attack democracies. In order to retain power and build more wealth, autocrats also undermine the idea of democracy as a viable choice for their own people. Fearful of its former Soviet republics drifting further West – see Ukraine – Russia and its three main TV channels broadcast negative news about Europe an average of 18 times a day during one three-year stretch.

Autocracy, Inc.

China extends its message through local media and helps other dictatorships. After satellite networks dropped Russia Today – RT – following the invasion of Ukraine, China’s StarTimes satellite picked up RT and put it back into African households, where it could spread Moscow’s anti-Western, anti-LGBTQ message, which resonates in many African nations.

The goal is not to persuade people that autocracy is the answer, but to encourage cynicism about the alternative. Applebaum says the message is this: You may not like our society, but at least we are strong and the democratic world is weak, degenerate, divided and dying.  

How did the world end up here?

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Applebaum is strong on how Western misjudgment and greed enabled and empowered autocrats over the decades. A working theory in Washington and Berlin was that greater economic integration and dependency between the West and China and Russia would serve as a glue and deterrent, making conflict too costly. But Europe’s dependence on Russian gas predictably backfired. Moscow used it as a source of blackmail following the invasion of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, corporate America’s heavy investment in China helped fuel the country’s extraordinary economic rise, but didn’t lead to the desired political results. Instead of becoming a more liberal, Western-friendly regime, the Communist Party became a more powerful rival. Among other things, Beijing used its new wealth to build islands in the South China Sea and a blue-water navy to challenge America’s.

At just over two hundred pages, Applebaum’s book is slender. She might have done more to detail the boomerang effect of globalization. When American companies exported jobs to China, they cut labor costs, boosted profits and lowered prices for consumers. Those business decisions devastated communities built on everything from auto plants to furniture factories.

That sowed the seeds for the populist backlash in 2016 that continues to roil the country to the benefit of America’s authoritarian opponents.

What is to be done? First, make life harder for dictators.

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Applebaum says democratic nations have to make it more difficult for kleptocrats to stash their money overseas. She suggests an international coalition of treasury and finance ministry officials across Europe, Asia and North America work to strengthen transparency and tighten laws together.

This will be tough. Kleptocrats make lucrative clients for lawyers, financiers and real estate agents. One of London’s unofficial industries is money-laundering. And, in a complex political landscape, it can be useful for democracies to work with corrupt regimes to achieve bigger goals.

Another way to combat dictatorship is for democracies to deliver at home, as Charles Dunst argues in Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman. Political grid-lock, income inequality, stagnant wages and rising crime can provide fertile ground for populists.

Anti-incumbency and accountability have stood out as themes during this epic year of elections as voters punished long-serving parties, such as the Conservatives in the UK and the African National Congress in South Africa.

More broadly, Applebaum says, democratic countries need to reduce their economic dependence on authoritarian rivals. Europe’s reliance on Russian gas was an embarrassing and costly lesson. Minerals could prove another one for the United States.

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Today, the U.S. only produces 4% of the world’s lithium and 13% of its cobalt, while China processes more than 80% of all critical minerals.

With the world’s next geopolitical fault-line perhaps lying in the waters around the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea, this kind of math just doesn’t figure.

Frank Langfitt is NPR’s Global Democracy correspondent. Previously, he spent nearly two decades reporting overseas, based in Beijing, Nairobi, Shanghai and London. In February 2022, he covered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

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LVMH Shares Slump 6% After Missing Q2 Estimates

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LVMH Shares Slump 6% After Missing Q2 Estimates
A lack of visibility for the second half of the year beyond the easing of comparative figures — as the Chinese post-pandemic lockdown bounce tapered off a year ago — is unlikely to improve investor sentiment regarding the high end sector, Citi analyst Thomas Chauvet said in an emailed note to clients.
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Expert on dictators warns: Don't lose hope — that's what they want

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Expert on dictators warns: Don't lose hope — that's what they want

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands during a meeting in Beijing on Oct. 18, 2023.

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When we think of dictators, often the image that comes to mind is of a lone strongman, whose main concern is holding power within his own borders. But Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anne Applebaum says today’s dictators are actually working together in a global fight to dismantle democracy.

In her new book, Autocracy, Inc.: The Dictators Who Want to Run the World, Applebaum describes a “network of convenience” that exists among various autocratic states, including Russia, China, North Korea, Turkey, Hungary and Venezuela among others.

“There isn’t a secret room like in a James Bond movie where all the leaders meet; it’s not like that,” she says. “It’s like a big corporation that has different companies, and each company does its own thing, but they have loose ties, and they cooperate when it’s convenient.”

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Applebaum says alliances among the global autocracy center on issues of military influence, kleptocracy and defeating democracy — and she sees a link between former President Donald Trump these concerns.

“Simply being someone who’s interested in using foreign policy to make money for oneself. I mean, that already makes Trump similar to a lot of Central Asian leaders or Africans, not to mention Putin,” she says.

Looking forward, Applebaum says she hopes her book helps re-engage people who may have become cynical by the political process. “What the autocrats — whether they’re in American politics or in Russian politics or in Chinese politics — what they want is for you to be disengaged. They want you to drop out,” she says. “I want people to be convinced that ideas matter, that we’re going to have to defend and protect our political system if we want to keep it.”

Autocracy, Inc.

Autocracy, Inc.

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Interview highlights

On how the Russian war in Ukraine is a war between autocracy and democratic world

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In the last few years, [Putin] had begun talking about the end of the democratic world or the end of Democratic dominance. … The war was an attempt to show that he doesn’t care anymore about the world that was created in 1945. He doesn’t care about the UN charter. He doesn’t care about UN documents and organizations that use the language of human rights. He doesn’t care about the so-called unspoken rule or unwritten rule that we don’t change borders in Europe by force. … He’s going to show that NATO is powerless, that it’s a paper tiger, and that none of the international institutions can control him because he stands for a new order and a new future. And he has used that language. And his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, specifically said this war is about a new world order.

On how Putin set the example for leaders to use money to gain power

In my view, the rise of these new forms of autocracy were made possible by the nature of modern financial transactions. If you look closely at the rise of Putin … he began essentially by stealing money. He stole money from the city of St. Petersburg. He took it out of the country. He laundered it through Western institutions, brought it back in, and he and others, mostly in the former KGB who were doing this, eventually enrich themselves. And they enrich themselves using Western partners, Western companies, connections to the Frankfurt Stock Exchange.

They were enabled in this process by Western financial institutions — German, European, American. And, first of all, that gave them a certain cynicism about the Western world. So, “OK, you guys talk about democracy and transparency, but you’re perfectly willing to help us steal.” … You can see modern dictators also beginning to learn this, also beginning to understand they can use tax havens or they can filter their money through Western banks so that there are different ways of stealing and hiding money. And it’s become something that people imitate really around the world.

On what she calls “information laundering”

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I should start by saying that the autocratic world takes ideas very seriously and takes information seriously, and thinks a lot about how to get their message not just to us, but to Africa, to Latin America, to other countries around the world. They invest in it heavily. The Chinese have invested in a huge network of television and radio and website and newspaper and other forms of broadcasting in Africa, in Latin America, in Asia and elsewhere. They have content-sharing agreements with different newspapers around the world. Their wire service, Xinhua, is very cheap and easy to get hold of, very often cheaper than AP or Reuters. And they also think about how they can get information to people, in a way that they accept.

They have an idea that you want information to seem native, that it will seem local. And so they would rather have an African newspaper write something positive about China or write something negative about America, rather than it coming from a Chinese source. And the Russians in particular, have enthusiastically run with that idea. And they have also begun pretty systematically to create websites, newspapers and other forms of media that look like they are Ecuadorian or Peruvian or they’re in Arabic, or they’re in French. … And they look native. They’re using local languages, but they rely on, as I said, on Russian narratives and especially on these authoritarian narratives about how about the degeneracy and decline of America in the West, about the superiority of autocratic states.

On an autocratic strategy that relies on lies to control the political narrative

Trump began his presidency with a lie about how many people had appeared on the National Mall for his inauguration. … It was a very stupid lie. I mean, who cares how many people were in the National Mall? But he wanted the U.S. Park Service to lie about it, and he wanted his press spokesman to lie about it. And again, that was partly to show who’s in control here? I’m in control, and I get to decide what the truth is. And it’s also to confuse people and alienate them from politics. I mean, during the Trump administration, we spent a lot of time arguing about what was true and what wasn’t. …

Constant lies also create this kind of cynicism and apathy. It’s a way of keeping people out of politics and preventing civic engagement. I mean, a lot of these authoritarian states know that … [the] biggest threat to their power is their own people. And so their goal is to prevent people from ever organizing, from ever being engaged, from ever caring at all. And one of the ways they do that is through this constant stream of lies that make people feel like they’re simply unable to know anymore what’s true and what’s not.

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On how political arguments went from policy to culture wars

The way we did politics even 10 years ago, which was we argued about real things. Right? We argued about health care. We argued about infrastructure investment. … So that was the stuff that politics was supposed to be about once. Politics isn’t about that anymore. Once it’s about existential questions and identity, and once it’s only culture wars which are easily exaggerated …. then you’re in the realm where it’s much easier for demagogues and for people who are good at evoking and creating emotion to win arguments. And I think it just took a long time for the opposition forces to understand how this works.

Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.

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