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The House passed Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package
President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi discuss the Covid-19 relief package in the Oval Office on February 5. | Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images Democrats’ sweeping pandemic stimulus package now heads to the Senate. Democrats have gotten over an important hurdle in Covid-19 relief: The House of Representatives just passed its version of the $1.9 trillion stimulus package, sending it off to the Senate. The bill passed around 2 a.m. on Saturday morning, in a 219-212 vote, with every Republican voting no. Democratic Reps. Jared Golden of Maine and Kurt Schrader of Oregon also opposed the bill. The bill includes some big-ticket items that would deliver important relief to businesses, workers, and the broader economy. It includes $1,400 stimulus checks for those making up to $75,000, $400 expanded weekly unemployment insurance benefits through August 29, and billions of dollars for arenas such as schools, state and local governments, and restaurants. It also increases Affordable Care Act subsidies for low- and middle-income Americans and expands both the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit. The bill also includes a $15 federal minimum wage, though the provision is dead in the Senate. The Senate parliamentarian ruled on Thursday evening that the minimum wage hike cannot be passed under the rules of budget reconciliation. In a statement on Thursday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said he is “deeply disappointed” in the ruling but noted that House Democrats will pass the bill as is, even though it will ultimately change in the Senate. “Gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour remains a centerpiece of House Democrats’ economic plan and would provide a major boost in income to 27 million Americans while lifting nearly a million out of poverty,” he said. Senate Democrats are considering some workarounds on the minimum wage, though it’s unclear if they will stick. Now that the House has passed a version of the bill, it will head to the Senate, which is likely to make some changes to the text. After that, it’s likely to get bounced back to the House, which would need to pass whatever the eventual agreed-on version of the legislation would be before it lands on President Joe Biden’s desk. The clock is ticking: Expanded and extended unemployment insurance under the last $900 billion stimulus package, passed in December, ends on March 14. Democrats do not want to push workers off an unemployment cliff. You can find a complete look at what’s in the House bill here. Democrats are taking a big swing here Biden first introduced his proposal for a sweeping $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package in January, which the congressional plan largely mirrors. Democrats and many economists have for months argued that the risk on the federal government’s pandemic response is doing too little, not too much, to help the country and the economy. Many lawmakers feel the government undershot its response to the 2009 Great Recession and incorrectly assumed they’d have multiple chances at major legislation. They’re determined not to make that mistake this time around. “We can’t do too much here,” Biden told reporters in the Oval Office in early February. “We can do too little and sputter.” Democrats, including the president, have argued that it’s an important moment for deficit spending to help people in need, also noting that interest rates are low and are expected to stay that way for quite some time. “Every major economist thinks we should be investing in deficit spending in order to generate economic growth,” Biden told reporters in January. To be sure, Democrats and the White House have received some pushback. Republicans have broadly criticized the Democratic proposal.A group of 10 Senate Republicans put forth a counteroffer to Biden’s $1.9 trillion package, proposing instead a $600 billion bill that would have addressed some immediate public health needs, such as vaccinations and testing, and food aid. But it shrank spending in areas such as unemployment, stimulus checks, and schools, and left out state and local aid altogether. Some economists who are more centrist or even Democratic have questioned whether the legislation is too ambitious. Larry Summers, an economist who served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, wrote an op-ed warning the bill might cause future inflation or make less politically palatable further stimulus. Summers’s concerns, while not out of left field, are not necessarily widely shared — many economists pointed out that a little bit of inflation would indeed be good, and the Federal Reserve has tools to combat it. Before Summers’s op-ed was posted, Austan Goolsbee, another Obama economic alum, published an op-ed in the New York Times warning that the country could fall into a double-dip recession, meaning the economy could get better and then fall again, and called for a proactive response from the federal government. He wrote that a “wait and see” approach on a relief program “has been proved to be deeply wrong since the pandemic began,” and noted that the virus has caused people to withdraw from the economy. “Much damage has already been done — and it is evident not only in lost jobs but in lost income and lost companies,” he wrote. “This harm could have been prevented. It definitely should not be repeated now.” There is plenty of space to debate what’s in the legislation, what should be there and what should not. Some provisions, such as higher ACA subsidies, the expanded child tax credit, and the expanded earned income tax credit, are only temporary, and it’s unclear whether they’ll last beyond the next year or two. The House bill cut off a month of expanded unemployment insurance, which Biden initially proposed extending through September. Democrats also opted against including automatic stabilizers in the bill, which would tie supports such as unemployment insurance to economic conditions rather than arbitrary end dates. That the House has passed a version of the package doesn’t mean the process is over — there’s still quite a way to go before it lands in the Oval Office — but it’s an important step.
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FDA advisers unanimously recommend Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine doesn’t require a booster shot, circumventing the two-dose problems posed by its competitors. The company plans to seek FDA approval in early February. | AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images/Getty Images The FDA could make an emergency use authorization as soon as this weekend, paving the way for distribution. A panel of expert advisers to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) voted unanimously on Friday afternoon to recommend the one-dose Covid-19 vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson for an emergency use authorization. The next step is for the FDA to accept the recommendation, which could happen as soon as this weekend, clearing the way for distribution. Earlier this week, the FDA posted a briefing going over the results of the phase 3 clinical trials of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which included 40,000 participants in several countries divided randomly into placebo and treatment groups. The most important finding: The vaccine was 100 percent effective after 28 days at preventing deaths and hospitalizations from Covid-19 among the clinical trial participants who received the treatment. (Two vaccine recipients were hospitalized with Covid-19 two weeks after receiving the injection.) The vaccine was also 66.1 percent effective at preventing symptomatic Covid-19 illness after four weeks, with consistent results across all age groups. When looking at blocking severe and critical cases of Covid-19, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 85.4 percent effective. Mathai Mammen, global head of research and development for Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies, said during a press conference last month that the vaccine also had “plain vanilla safety results,” with the vast majority of recipients experiencing no problems. Most of the reported symptoms were mild, including fatigue, arm pain, and fever. The efficacy levels against severe to critical Covid-19 changed depending on where the vaccine was tested. It was 85.9 percent in the United States after four weeks, while in South Africa, where a coronavirus variant with worrisome mutations that help it escape vaccines has been spreading widely, efficacy against severe disease was reduced to 81.7 percent. Health officials say that while the Johnson & Johnson efficacy results are not as high as those from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, the two vaccines that have already received emergency use authorizations from the FDA, the new vaccine’s performance is still superb. “If this had occurred in the absence of a prior announcement and implementation of a 94, 95 percent efficacy [vaccine], one would have said this is an absolutely spectacular result,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during the press conference last month. The vaccine was developed by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a division of Johnson & Johnson based in Belgium, together with Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. But unlike the vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech,Johnson & Johnson’s doesn’t require a booster shot, circumventing the two-dose problems posed by its competitors. There’s no need to track people down for their second dose, which means more people could be vaccinated faster. The shots also don’t require deep-cold storage, which means they’re less costly and somewhat easier to distribute. “It’s a complete game changer,” said Georgetown University health law professor Lawrence Gostin. “It completely changes the equation.” The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is also different in another way. It uses an adenovirus vector to deliver instructions for making the spike protein of the coronavirus, which is also less expensive to manufacture than the mRNA platform used for the other vaccines. (It’s estimated to cost around $10 per vaccine dose — roughly half the cost of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.) Johnson & Johnson has promised enough vaccines for 20 million Americans by the end of March and 100 million Americans by the end of June despite production challenges. It would be a huge boost to the 65 million Covid-19 vaccine doses that have been administered in the US so far. So even with an overall efficacy level that’s lower than the two other vaccines on the US market, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could become a major player. It’s the vaccine that “can increase equity,” said Saad Omer, the director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, particularly “if it’s deployed strategically in nations that are hard to reach and where that would be a particular challenge under a two-dose schedule.” Johnson & Johnson expects to distribute a billion doses of its vaccine worldwide this year. But as amazing as it is to see several effective Covid-19 vaccines developed in record time, it’s now clear that the technology alone won’t save the day. An orchestra of supply chains, manufacturing, logistics, staff, and public trust needs to harmonize in order to actually get billions of shots into arms around the worldand finally draw the pandemic to a close. And we also have other hurdles to overcome: controlling the spread of variants that seem to be threatening the effectiveness of all the vaccines we have. What we learned about the safety and efficacy of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine Johnson & Johnson launched separate clinical trials testing both a one-dose and a two-dose regimen to see how well these strategies provided long-term protection against Covid-19. The one-dosephase 3 trial arm yielded efficacy results first. But hints that this vaccine could be safe and effective have been trickling out for months. The company published some of its early phase 1 and phase 2 trial data in a preprint paper in September, and the final version of the paper in January, in the New England Journal of Medicine. The papers showed the vaccine was well tolerated among the participants, and seemingly very effective: With one dose, after 29 days, the vaccine ensured that 90 percent of participants had enough antibodies required to neutralize the virus. After 57 days, that number reached 100 percent. “When I looked at that, I thought, wow, this Johnson & Johnson product is very powerful after the first dose in terms of immunogenicity,” said Monica Gandhi, a professor of global medicine at the University of California San Francisco. “The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines needed two doses to get that level of [virus] neutralization.” Like Pfizer/BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson “didn’t rush to phase 3 [trials],” said Hilda Bastian, a scientist who has been tracking the global vaccine race. Instead, it tested multiple vaccine doses and candidates at the outset to figure out which might perform the best in humans, and then proceeded through clinical trials. The vaccine was also tested in nine countries — the largest single international phase 3 trial in the world, with more than 60,000 participants — meaning many ethnic groups were represented in the data, Bastian said. “As if all that’s not enough, it’s one of the ones that could be manufactured in South Africa and other places,” since Johnson & Johnson has manufacturing capacity around the world, even in countries hard-hit by the pandemic that have been waiting for vaccine supplies, she added. The day this vaccine gets approval “is going to be a big day for the future of this pandemic [and] a ticket out of this disease for a larger part of the world,” said Nicholas Lusiani, a senior adviser at Oxfam America. How adenovirus vector vaccines work Part of the appeal of this vaccine lies in the technology behind it. Adenoviruses are a family of viruses that can cause a range of illnesses in humans, including the common cold. They’re very efficient at getting their DNA into a cell’s nucleus. Scientists reasoned that if they could snip out the right sections of an adenovirus’s genome and insert another piece of DNA code (in this case, for a fragment of the new coronavirus), they could have a powerful system to deliver instructions to cells. For decades, scientists have experimented with adenovirus vectors as a platform for gene therapy and to treat certain cancers, using the virus to modify or replace genes in host cells. More recently, researchers have found success using adenoviruses as vaccines. Already, an adenovirus vector vaccine has been developed for the Ebola virus. In addition to Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca/Oxford, CanSino Biologics of China is also developing an adenovirus vector Covid-19 vaccine; Russia’s Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine uses this platform, too. To make one of these vaccines, the adenovirus is modified so that it can’t reproduce but can carry the instructions for making a component of a virus. In the case of Covid-19, most adenovirus vector vaccines code for the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, the part the virus uses to begin an infection. Human cells then read those instructions delivered by the adenovirus and begin manufacturing the spike protein. The immune system recognizes the spike proteins as a threat and begins to build up its defenses. Since adenoviruses exist naturally, they tend to be more temperature-stable than the synthetic lipid nanoparticles that are used to deliver the mRNA in the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines. “The nice thing about the adenovirus vector vaccines is that they’re a little more tolerant to a longer shelf life, to the conditions of storage,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University. Adenovirus vector vaccines can be stored at refrigerator temperatures, while mRNA vaccines need freezers, with Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine requiring temperatures of minus 80 degrees Celsius. This helps lower the cost and complexity of manufacturing, distribution, and administration of adenovirus vector vaccines compared to other platforms. And simply having another vaccine on the market,made by a major pharmaceutical company with its own manufacturing infrastructure, is a big step forward. “The more vaccine doses we can have, the better,” Rasmussen said. Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images An Army National Guard specialist gives directions at one of four mass vaccination sites opened by the Washington state Department of Health on January 26. What comes next The next challenge for Johnson & Johnson, after getting a green light from the FDA, is actually delivering doses to millions of arms. But with three vaccines eventually on the market, should people hold out for any one vaccine in particular? “Right now when people ask me, which, you know, which vaccine should I get? It’s pretty easy to answer that question because it’s whichever one you get offered,” said Paul Sax, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Vaccine supplies are limited, the transmission of the virus is high, and hospitals are close to capacity, so few people can be picky about what they get. On the other hand, once vaccine supplies stabilize, having multiple vaccines with different characteristics could allow doctors and public health officials to optimize how the shots are distributed. “If the efficacy [of a given vaccine] is lower but still pretty good, there may be a scenario that one vaccine is recommended for low-risk populations and another one is for a high-risk population,” Omer said. Though the Johnson & Johnson vaccine does have some key advantages over its competitors, it could face some of the same distribution snags that have hit other vaccines, like miscommunication between the government and hospitals, and production hurdles. Researchers say that all the manufacturers also need to start working to get vaccines to the rest of the world. The new variants that have emerged in the UK, Brazil, and South Africa and have been detected in other parts of the world are reminders that the virus continues to evolve, and that a partially vaccinated population could exert more selection pressures that accelerate these mutations. So vaccination has to happen fast, and globally — and Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine may be a critical tool to do this. “Long term, we need to be thinking about getting vaccines out equitably to the entire world, and having vaccines that are easier to distribute in terms of the cold chain requirements is going to be huge in that regard,” Rasmussen said. But even as these vaccines roll out, there’s still more to learn: how long protection from vaccines last, whether there are any rare complications to consider, whether they prevent transmission as well as disease, and how well these vaccines work against the new variants. There are already some troubling signs of how these variants might eventually be able to evade vaccines. Continuing clinical trials will be critical, Sax said. “You know, we’ve got millions of people who’ve received these vaccines already, which is exciting,” he added. “We’re on our way.”
This March, the Vox Book Club is going deep on gender, power, and corruption with The Power
The Power by Naomi Alderman | Back Bay Books Read along with us as we delve into Naomi Alderman’s award-winning dystopia. The Vox Book Club is linking to to support local and independent booksellers. As we head into March, the United States enters its first-ever Women’s History month with a woman serving as vice president. Kamala Harris is now officially in office, and we have been given a month to think about the history of women in America — four years after a man who was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women defeated the first major-party woman candidate for the presidency. So this March, in particular, is an interesting time to consider institutional power, the ways in which women have historically had very little of it, and what our world might look like if and when that changes. That’s why the Vox Book Club will spend the month reading Naomi Alderman’s The Power. In The Power, Alderman, who is a protégé of Margaret Atwood’s, imagines a universe in which women en masse develop a genetic mutation that allows them to electrocute people. The balance of power between the sexes abruptly stutters and shifts, and the world begins to reshape itself on a fundamental level. The result is an exploration of the ways we gender power and of power itself and all the ways it corrupts and can be abused. We’ll have tons to talk about together, and at the end of the month, we’ll discuss the book with Alderman herself, live on Zoom. You can RSVP to join us here. Here’s the full Vox Book Club schedule for March 2021 Friday, March 12: Discussion post on The Power published to Thursday, March 25: Virtual live event with author Naomi Alderman at 12 pm Eastern. RSVP here. Subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to stay up to date on all the books we’re reading.
CPAC organizers begged attendees to wear masks — and got booed
Ted Cruz at CPAC on Friday. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images CPAC 2021 shows how conservatives have learned nothing about the coronavirus. One of the most enduring clips from the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference was Mick Mulvaney dismissing the coronavirus pandemic as a media-driven “attempt to bring down the president.” More than 500,000 deaths and a year later, the first full day of the CPAC 2021 in Orlando, Florida, illustrated how little conservatives have learned. Throughout the day on Friday, speakers characterized the coronavirus — which continues to claim more than 2,000 lives each day in the US — as something that only liberal wimps worry about or, more nefariously, as little more than a pretext Democratic public officials have used to shut down businesses and schools. This type of rhetoric might seem absurd to people who take science and public health seriously, but it doesn’t to CPAC attendees. One of the most memorable scenes from Friday’s festivities came early on, when event officials had to take to the stage and beg people to respect “private property rights” and “the rule of law” by wearing masks while walking around the hotel where the conference is being held. Unhappy attendees responded by booing and yelling “freedom!” CPAC officials have to remind attendees to please, for the love of God, comply with the hotel's rules and wear a mask. Unhappy people in the audience yell "freedom!"— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 26, 2021 People could be excused for experiencing some cognitive dissonance. The speakers who came before and after that incident demonstrated that enduring a year-long pandemic hasn’t motivated conservatives to take basic public health practices more seriously. “This is just dumb” Notably, a trio of Republican senators was among the worst offenders when it came to spreading Covid misinformation on Friday. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) got the morning going by bragging not only about going to church “during a time of Covid” but also about singing during the service. “I even dared to sing in church, contrary to California doctrine,” he said. But it has nothing to do with “California doctrine,” whatever that is. Singing in church was linked with superspreader events in the early days of the pandemic last spring, so public health experts recommended against it, and some states banned it (until a Supreme Court ruling in November found such bans to be unconstitutional). It’s not safe, unless you’ve already been vaccinated — which Lankford has been, but most Americans still have not. Lankford’s comment set the tone. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) began his speech by cracking a joke about his decision to travel to Mexico for a family vacation last week while millions of his constituents languished without power. He then pretended to not understand why it’s important to wear masks during a pandemic, describing it as “strange” that restaurant-goers are required to wear masks in many states unless they are eating or drinking. “You walk in, you gotta put your mask on — sadly, I’ve got two — you walk in, you gotta put your mask on. You sit down, you can your mask off. See, apparently, the virus is actually connected to elevation,” Cruz quipped, adding later: “This is just dumb.” Ted Cruz is now owning the libs by pretending he doesn't understand why it's important to wear masks during a pandemic— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 26, 2021 Later, Sen. Tom Cotton mocked Maryland officials for state public health guidelines that ended up prohibiting CPAC from having the conference in its usual location just outside Washington, DC. “Even though cases are plummeting and vaccination rates are surging, we are still banned from getting anywhere near our nation’s Capitol,” Cotton said, as if the fact that daily new cases and deaths are down from where they were two months ago is a good reason to immediately drop all public health guidelines. Tom Cotton is out here pretending he doesn't understand how pandemics work— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 26, 2021 In hindsight, CPAC 2020 was one of the earliest indicators that Republicans would politicize public health responses to the coronavirus pandemic by framing any measure that closed businesses or schools as an impingement on their personal freedoms. That mentality went on to infuse a reelection campaign in which Trump spread disease and misinformation across the country at rallies that made a mockery of basic public health measures. But even after Trump’s defeat, conservatives’ approach to the coronavirus pandemic remains unchanged. It’s still Trump’s party in more ways than one Beyond making a mockery of coronavirus, another big theme from Friday was speakers pushing the same lies about the 2020 election and the January 6 insurrection. Wayne Dupree, a conspiracy theorist who once claimed the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting was a false flag, used a panel discussion to try to blame antifa and Black Lives Matter for an insurrection that was perpetrated by Trump supporters. Later, a panel discussion that was entirely devoted to “How Judges & Media Refused to Look at the Evidence” of election fraud had to be interrupted on Right Side Broadcasting’s CPAC stream so hosts could distance themselves from the panelists’ claims. (Voting machine companies have filed and threatened billion-dollar lawsuits against individuals and media organizations that have falsely claimed machines were rigged against Trump.) Wow. Right Side Broadcasting cut away from the big lie CPAC panel discussion so hosts could read a disclaimer protecting the network from legal liability.— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 26, 2021 And, of course, the day was infused with lots of culture war grievances about everything from social media companies having the temerity to fact-check Trump to Mr. Potato Head’s genitalia. Matt Gaetz brought up Mr. Potato Head's junk because of course he did— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 26, 2021 The big takeaway from all this is that conservatives haven’t even tried to learn lessons or make adjustments following an election cycle in which they lost control of the White House and the Senate. Like it was last year, CPAC 2021 is a cultish celebration of Donald Trump that will be headlined with a speech by the former president — an embodiment of a movement that stands for little more than owning the libs.
Vox’s audience support program, explained
You can now support Vox’s vital explanatory journalism with a financial contribution. Here’s how — and why we’re asking. Vox is launching a program to help keep our explainers and every facet of our journalism free during a time when everyone needs and deserves access to the most important information of the day. Thank you to those of you who have asked for a way to financially support Vox’s journalism. Our mission — to empower our audience through understanding — has never been more clear, and we are so honored that you want to play an important role in it. Of course, we couldn’t launch this new initiative without first … explaining it. So here’s everything you need to know about Vox’s new contribution program. Why launch this contribution program now? Vox began reporting on this pandemic on January 6, 2020, and since then, the demand for our explanatory journalism has grown every day. Audiences are finding our style of breaking down complicated information into clear, concise explainers essential to understanding this evolving story. On March 10, before social distancing was as widely enforced across the US, Vox published a piece that exemplifies our expertise in taking scientific information and formatting it in a way that is accessible and clear. How canceled events and self-quarantines save lives, in one charthas been viewed more than 9.4 million times (two posts from former President Barack Obama didn’t hurt). Our subsequent video on the same topic has been viewed more than 6.2 million times on YouTube and translated by our audience into more than 75 languages; both the Italian state police and the Department of Health in the Philippines made their own version of the video to inform their public. It’s clear to us, and millions of you, that this work is important. We want to keep providing you with free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Doesn’t Vox make more money when more people read, watch, and listen to it? It’s true, more people have turned to Vox than at any other time in our six-year existence. Vox provides all of its content free — and we are committed to keeping it that way. Vox Media has a very diversified business, but without a subscription product or a paywall at Vox, advertising is still a major revenue source for our network. But while the economic crisis continues, we can’t rely on advertising dollars alone as the public need for our service grows. That’s why we are turning to you, our loyal audience, for support. How will contributions be used? Your support will enable our staff to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts where we’ll continue to cover the ins and outs of this crisis. Here are a few examples of what your contribution could help us do: Continue to produce science explainers that clarify this moment and enable you to keep yourself and your family safe. So much is still being discovered about this virus and how it impacts people. And whether it is an explainer on how the virus spreads, what symptoms to look for, why testing has lagged, how soap works, or how to safely social distance, we will be here for you with key information you need now. Explain the biggest obstacles America faces battling this deadly pandemic and the key lessons the US should learn from health care systems around the world. We have all seen the ways coronavirus is testing the American health care system, from hospital capacity issues to shortages of equipment needed to keep our health care workers safe. Vox has always been known for our deep, wonky expertise on health care policy. We are uniquely suited to explain the biggest obstacles America faces battling this deadly pandemic and the key lessons the US should learn from health care systems around the world. Create distinctive coverage with altruistic values at the core. Our Future Perfect vertical is highlighting the ethical rules of social distancing, why sending Americans checks is a good idea, how to use mindfulness in a pandemic, and how you can help AI predict the spread of coronavirus. We are covering this pandemic with a global perspective, and will ask the important questions of how we can all act to reduce the most suffering in the world right now. Produce compelling content for audiences on the platforms where people — especially young people — spend their time. It’s important to combat misinformation with high-quality journalism. Vox’s video team is best in class at answering big questions about the issues that matter most. With our YouTube-native journalism and our sharp news explainers on Facebook, we are able to reach a much younger demographic. On YouTube, where 40 percent of our subscribers are under 25, we’re seeing the incredible reach of our videos on how soap kills the coronavirus, how coronavirus is worse than the flu, and what it means to “flatten the curve.” These three videos alone have been viewed more than 20 million times on YouTube. We’re in a unique position to spread valuable, trustworthy information to a crucial audience on platforms where disinformation often thrives. Your financial contribution will support all of our work across our website, YouTube, and podcasts. Is this contribution tax-deductible? No, your contribution is not tax-deductible. This is not a charitable donation. Even though there is no tax break, there is the benefit of knowing you’re stepping up to do your part to make sure the public is informed. Thank you. How does someone make a financial contribution to Vox? Glad you asked. Click here to contribute. And thank you so much.
The case against caring about the Golden Globes
The 78th Golden Globes take place on February 28, 2021, and they’re going to be as weird as ever. | Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images They’re a punchline for a good reason. The goofiest major entertainment industry awards show — the Golden Globes — is once again upon us. This year they feel even weirder than usual. The ceremony is normally in January, but the 2021 edition was postponed for two months to keep pace with the Globes’ desire to influence Oscar voters, whose 2021 ceremony was also postponed for two months due to the pandemic. Hosts Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are splitting duties from opposite coasts. And since it’s not safe to gather a ton of people inside one theater, none of the traditional open-bar chaos will ensue, though that’s no guarantee that people won’t be getting sloppy on their webcams. The Golden Globes can be fun to watch, but that doesn’t erase the fact that they’re — well, let’s not sugarcoat it. They’re super annoying. Recent news has underlined the many reasons why: They’re corrupt, the organization that gives them out is pretty shady, and the nominations are frequently so off-the-wall that people usually spend more time arguing about them than consulting them as a helpful guide for catch-up viewing. In terms of honors, they mean very little, but we keep talking about them every year mainly because they air on TV. So if you catch a critic or an awards-season watcher rolling their eyes at the mention of the Golden Globes this weekend, don’t be too surprised. Here are a few reasons the whole shebang can get under the skin of people who care about movies and TV, and why you shouldn’t take snubs on Globes night too seriously. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images This year’s Golden Globes ceremony is being telecast live from New York and Los Angeles. The stage (this one in New York’s Rainbow Room) looks a little different. The organization that gives out the Golden Globes is secretive and very small The Golden Globes are given out by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), a group that was formed in 1943 with the following as their stated purpose: to “formalize their relationship with the studios and facilitate their work of interviewing movie stars and film directors for publications around the world.” Today there are 87 people in the group (none of whom are Black), though they don’t publish their membership list and journalists have to investigate to figure out who is currently involved. The qualifications for admission seem simple on the surface: You have to be a journalist who lives in Southern California and covers Hollywood for a non-American publication. But not everyone in the HFPA really fits those qualifications, as a 2015 Vulture investigation found, as did a more recent Los Angeles Times investigation. Some members are full-time journalists at high-profile publications; others are actors, producers, and socialites. But as with any group, there are other rules that are more opaque, and just meeting the criteria doesn’t ensure you’ll get in, as Norwegian entertainment journalist Kjersti Flaa discovered. She sued the HFPA in 2020, claiming that it embodied a “culture of corruption.” A federal judge dismissed the suit in November, though the Los Angeles Times reported on February 21 that the suit spurred some current members to voice concern about the group’s corruption. (More on that in a moment.) P. Lehman/Barcroft Media via Getty Images The red carpet at the Golden Globes in 2020. It’s worth noting that the HFPA is hardly the only group of journalists that gives out awards within the entertainment industry. I belong to two groups (the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics) that honor films. There are dozens more for both TV and film. Some of those awards are considered quite prestigious. But none of them pop up in the consciousness of the average American the way the Golden Globes do, for one big reason: They’re not presented on TV. The organization that gives out the Golden Globes is also corrupt The Golden Globes’ TV slot is a big reason the awards loom large in the cultural imagination. The show has aired on television for decades, but the telecast really grew in 1995, when it moved from TBS (a cable station) to NBC (a broadcast network), where it now airs annually. And according to the Los Angeles Times, NBC pays a lot for that privilege: The HFPA’s contract with NBC has ballooned in recent years. Last fiscal year, the organization pulled in $27.4 million from the network, up from $3.64 million in fiscal 2016-2017, according to a budget document. As of the end of October, the HFPA had just over $50 million in cash on hand, internal financial documents show. The LA Times also found that while the HFPA uses some of the money it collects from NBC for philanthropic purposes, the organization also earmarks a lot of it to pay its members for serving on various committees, as well as to pay its board: Two dozen members on the foreign film viewing committee in January each received $3,465 to watch foreign films, according to a monthly treasurer’s report. There is a travel committee that pays those on it $2,310 a month to control the budget and approve membership excursions (despite the pandemic-era halt on travel, payments continued throughout 2020). Members of the film festival committee and the archives committee earn $1,100 and $2,200 a month, respectively. Former presidents and other members are paid $1,000 a month to serve on the history committee. ... Additionally, members received a total of $585,000 in the fiscal year ending June 2020 for contributing articles to the HFPA’s website and doing other web-related jobs, more than double the level from four years earlier. Members who moderate news conferences receive $1,200 a month to do so, according to a monthly treasurer’s report. “The website has become an extremely important source to generate income,” said one current member. “If you write eight articles, you can get close to $3,000 a month. But if you spend any time on the website, it’s not that impressive.” This sort of arrangement is, to put it mildly, very unusual. It’s worth reading the full, deeply reported LA Times article, which goes into far more detail and helps paint a picture of how much money the group pays to itself. Journalist Mark Harris summarized the circumstances succinctly on Twitter as most Golden Globes voters being “indirectly compensated employees of NBC”: One takeaway from this fascinating/appalling @LATimes investigation of the Golden Globes: Most Globe voters are essentially indirectly compensated employees of NBC.— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) February 21, 2021 However, the big paycheck that NBC hands over to the Globes, while unusual, is not necessarily the most ethically dubious part of the awards. The bigger issue — which is the most wide-open of Hollywood secrets — is that HFPA members are routinely courted by studios with lavish gifts. Hollywood’s celebrities have often noted this publicly, as Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff noted in 2016, when actor Denzel Washington discussed this practice onstage at the Globes themselves while accepting the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award: The poorly kept secret of the Golden Globes is that they can be bought. Voted on by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the awards are famous for the lengths to which studios will go to woo the group’s membership — which usually numbers around 90. The most famous incident involved young actress Pia Zadora, who won an award in 1982 amid accusations that her husband had paid for it with an elaborate promotional campaign. Other stories abound. Here is just one: In 1999, HFPA members were given 82 Coach watches, valued at more than $400 apiece, as part of a promotional campaign for Sharon Stone’s performance in The Muse. (Stone was nominated but didn’t win.) The LA Times noted that in 2011, the group’s publicist “filed a lawsuit alleging that members accepted money, vacations, gifts and a host of perks ‘provided by studios and producers in exchange for support or votes in nominating or awarding a particular film’”; he also alleged that members were selling red-carpet access to media. And even those who receive the awards often know there’s something fishy going on. In a 2014 interview with Playboy, Gary Oldman said that the Globes are “a meaningless event,” and that “the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is kidding you that something’s happening. They’re fucking ridiculous. There’s nothing going on at all. It’s 90 nobodies having a wank.” In 2018, he thanked the HFPA as he accepted an award for his performance in Darkest Hour. Comedian Ricky Gervais, who hosted the awards from 2010 to 2012 and insulted all kinds of people in the process, has also weighed in — in 2012, when he decided to insult the Globes, too: For any of you who don’t know, the Golden Globes are just like the Oscars, but without all that esteem. The Golden Globes are to the Oscars what Kim Kardashian is to Kate Middleton. A bit louder, a bit trashier, a bit drunker, and more easily bought. Allegedly. Nothing’s been proved. The HFPA’s membership and corruptness help explain why the Golden Globe nominations are frequently bizarre The nominations for the Netflix show Emily in Paris, one for Best Comedy or Musical TV Show and one for its star, Lily Collins, are a couple of the biggest 2021 Globe head-scratchers. The show was a popular binge-watch for a pandemic-weary audience, who catapulted it onto the top 10 most-streamed Nielsen list in October, but it was barely tolerated by critics and, if you tracked its reception on social media, you know a sizable swath of the audience watched just to make fun of it. Even if you liked Emily in Paris, it was hard to deny the show was little more than vapid, amusing trash. (Naturally, it’s already been renewed for a second season.) So how did it nab nominations for a technically prestigious award? The LA Times was once again on the case: In 2019, more than 30 HFPA members flew to France to visit the set of the new series “Emily in Paris.” While there, Paramount Network [which produced the show and then sold it to Netflix] treated the group to a two-night stay at the five-star Peninsula Paris hotel, where rooms currently start at about $1,400 a night, and a news conference and lunch at the Musée des Arts Forains, a private museum filled with amusement rides dating to 1850 where the show was shooting. “They treated us like kings and queens,” said one member who participated in the set visit. Ah. Now, it is true that a small group of voters is more likely to swing toward idiosyncratic left-field picks than a larger and more diverse group might. It’s also true that studios find ways to butter up voters all over the industry, appealing to everyone from guilds to larger critics’ groups to the Motion Picture Academy and the TV Academy, often through cocktail parties and fancy meet-and-greets. Stephanie Branchu/Netflix Lily Collins in Emily in Paris. But it’s also true that there’s a specific reason the HFPA is targeted with particularly lavish gifts, the likes of which most awards voters can only dream of (or scoff at) receiving. There just aren’t a lot of people in the HFPA. So it’s easier to target them with fancy gifts than, say, the nearly 10,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who give out the Oscars, or the roughly 25,000 members of the TV Academy. And that’s particularly important when it comes to films. One reason the Globes retain clout is that they’re timed to happen within a few days of when the Oscar nomination voting window opens. In 2021, the Golden Globes are on February 28; Oscar voters will begin submitting their nominations ballots on March 5. (The Emmys are in September, so the effect is less direct, though a Globes win certainly can contribute to a network executive’s decision to renew a show for another season.) As I’ve written in the past, there’s an incentive to win a Globe because it might raise the profile of a film in the mind of an Academy voter ahead of the Oscars: While the Golden Globes aren’t established“predictors” for the Oscars, they can still influence the Oscars. A surprise win at the Globes, if it inspires enough Academy members to watch a film they haven’t yet seen, or to reconsider a film or performance they had forgotten about, could give a film the extra nudge it needs. And a good speech from a winner could function as a de facto audition for an Oscar night speech. (A bad one might have the opposite effect.) So lavishing gifts upon the HFPA can have an effect on a film’s Oscarchances, and as long as awards campaigns function like political campaigns, studios will keep employing teams of publicists to woo voters and boost profiles. The Golden Globes are out of step with the entertainment industry at large The insularity of the HFPA, the barely-secret-almost-bribes, the many other allegations of corruption — all of this combines to make for a strange set of nominations and awards. But it also means the Globes are fundamentally out of step with the entertainment industry at large. That is particularly noticeable in 2021. In 2020, many of the year’s best films told stories about Black people, and were often written and directed by Black artists. But as the New York Times noted, those were largely absent from the nominees: In a marquee year for Black ensemble films like “One Night in Miami,” “Da 5 Bloods,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Judas and the Black Messiah,” the Golden Globes picked absolutely none of them for the best-drama final five, instead selecting “Nomadland,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “The Father,” “Mank” and “Promising Young Woman.” (The same five movies were nominated in the screenplay category, too.) Though “One Night in Miami” scored a director nomination for Regina King, and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and “Judas and the Black Messiah” earned key acting nominations, their exclusion from the top category is still eyebrow-raising. Even more bizarrely, Spike Lee, whose children Satchel and Jackson are serving as this year’s “Golden Globes ambassadors” (meaning they will assist in the ceremony and raise awareness around social justice causes) did not earn any nominations for his highly praised film Da 5 Bloods, which has been earning awards both for its performances and the film overall from critics and industry guilds. Steve Granitz/WireImage Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee at the 2019 Golden Globes. Similarly, the film Minari — a highly lauded drama about a Korean-American family that was written and directed by an American (Lee Isaac Chung), financed by an American company (A24), and is set in the Ozarks — was scuttled into the Best Foreign Language Film category instead of competing in the Best Drama category, typically a more sure pipeline to a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. Its actors didn’t earn any nominations. But Music, the widely disparaged, criticized, and just plain bad musical directed by Sia, earned two nominations, one for the overall film in the Best Comedy or Musical category and one for lead actress Kate Hudson. It seems deeply unlikely that Music will show up in the big categories at the Oscars, because as middle-of-the-road as the Academy’s taste sometimes is, its voters only rarely nominate something quite as terrible as Music. (Rarely.) That’s not to say that idiosyncratic picks are bad. Nor does it mean that all awards-giving bodies ought to nominate the same films — that would make awards season extraordinarily boring. But the problem is that the Golden Globes are seen as a prominent honor that actually says something about the best the entertainment industry has to offer. And it’s shown, for decades, that it simply doesn’t deserve that reputation. If the goal is to inject some variety and spice into awards season, there are more interesting options. Guilds like the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild give out their own awards, and the results sometimes highlight films that are otherwise missed. The Independent Spirit Awards, which are usually presented the night before the Oscars, are always fun; the Gotham Awards, which happen in December and whose eligibility requirements place restrictions on the production budget of the winners, frequently highlight movies and shows that otherwise may have been missed. But the main reason anyone talks about the Golden Globes is that the awards are on TV, and the main reason the awards are on TV is that people keep talking about them. As a piece of entertainment, they’re always strange, weird, pretty harmless fun. But if you want to be directed to the best that TV and movies have to offer, look elsewhere. The 78th Golden Globe Awards will air on NBC on February 28 at 8 pm ET.
Such a pretty face
Ilustrations by Deja Doodles Culture tells us bodies like mine are impossible to love. Don’t believe it. My first love went to art school, and early in our courtship he invited me to a student show of his photography. Haunting photographs hung on the walls, a ghostly kind of self-portrait of his changing body. He had started testosterone shortly before we met, and the double-exposed photos seemed to show his body as a specter as the hormones took root. We lived two states away from each other and on the weekends would meet in the middle in Boston, spending long days together. He wrote me letters nearly every day, and I responded like clockwork. His love letters landed like a blow, knocking the wind out of me. I wrote back on thick paper, sometimes sprayed with perfume. He put the letters up around his bedroom mirror. You say such nice things about me. I figure if I keep looking at them, I’ll start to believe it. Over time our Boston rendezvous turned into weekends at his apartment. We would lie together in his tiny bed and daydream of my postgraduation move to Boston. I started researching jobs, and he started looking for apartments. But every time I imagined our future, I couldn’t imagine myself. This beautiful life belonged to someone else, and he deserved someone better. Someone easier, prettier, cooler, and, of course, someone thinner. I have always been fat. Not chubby or fluffy or husky or curvy — fat. As I write this, I weigh 342 pounds and wear a women’s size 26. My body mass index (BMI) describes my body as “super morbidly obese” or “extremely obese.” Although my body is not the fattest in existence, it is the fattest the BMI can fathom. Three years ago, I weighed just over 400 pounds and wore a size 30 or 32, depending on the cut of the clothing. At my high school graduation, I wore a red wrap top in the highest size I could find at the time—a women’s 24. For me, the size of my body is a simple fact. I do not struggle with self-esteem or negative body image. I do not lie awake at night, longing for a thinner body or some life that lies 100 pounds out of reach. For me, my body isn’t good or bad; it just is. But I had never seen a fat woman in love — not in life, not in the media. I had never seen fat women who dated. I had never seen fat women who asserted themselves, whose partners respected them. Because this was uncharted territory, I assumed it was also unexplored. My risk-taking resolution ebbed from my broad, soft body. How could he love me if it meant loving this? Despite having what was described as a “very pretty face,” I was constantly reminded that my body was impossible to want. We were dating at the height of popularity of sites like Hot or Not and TV shows like The Swan. Everywhere I looked, bodies were openly critiqued and ranked, and mine steadily landed near the bottom of the scale — 2, 3, 4. His thinness alone earned him a much higher standing. In the cruel calculus of dating and relationships, our numbers didn’t match. But it wasn’t just him. I had learned that I was undesirable to almost everyone. For years, my body took center stage in my dating life. Dates constantly commented on my size, a knee-jerk reaction to their discomfort with their own desire. Over time, I came to experience any attraction as untrustworthy, as if danger lurked nearby. In retrospect, I worried for my bodily safety, as if only violence could develop an appetite for a body as soft as mine. And I worried that I would become a sexual curio, more novel than loved. Desire for a body like mine meant my partners were irrational, stupid, or resigned to settling for less than they wanted. In the years since my first breakup, I had struggled to accept interest where I found it. No matter how a potential partner looked, no matter how enthusiastic they were, I couldn’t trust their attraction. I shrank from their touch, recoiling from their hands like hot iron, believing their interest to be impossible or pathological. Any intimacy required vulnerability, and vulnerability inevitably led back to humiliation. This is among the greatest triumphs of anti-fatness: It stops us before we start. Its greatest victory isn’t diet industry sales or lives postponed just until I lose a few more pounds. It’s the belief that our bodies make us so worthless that we aren’t deserving of love, or even touch. As these little fissures opened into wounds, I dressed them by retelling the story of our relationship. It had always been impossible, too beautiful and tender to be true. Maybe he had taken pity on me, doing a charitable deed by showing affection to a pitiable fat girl. I told myself he didn’t want to be with me. I told myself he was too gentle to do what he knew needed to be done and dump me. I told myself the best thing I could do for him was leave. So I did. I didn’t know how to be loved. I couldn’t see it happening. So I broke both of our hearts. Later in my 20s, after briefly dating a friend of a friend, I decided to return to dating apps. I was on Bumble for less than a day when I matched with someone. I sent him a message — just a waving-hand emoji, to see how he’d respond. This was the informal first step of my screening process. He didn’t make it to the second. I said hello. He said: I love my women fat. Big girl usually means a big mouth too. Even a nice handjob is better when there’s a chubby hand doing the work lol. Usually bigger girls are better at pleasing their men though. Welcome to dating apps. Like any woman, I’d come to expect explicit photos, unwanted advances, and, when I dared decline, epithets. But I also faced messages like these, tinged with entitlement to my fat body — a body that they expected was theirs for the taking simply because of the size of it. In their eyes, I wasn’t a new land to conquer. No, I would go willingly, grateful for their conquest. But more than that, this message mirrored so many experiences I’d had before. It echoed fraternity brothers’ “hogging” competitions to bed fat women, their “pig roasts” to see who could sleep with the fattest woman, the endless barrage of fat jokes on TV. It echoed the man in a bar who asked me for my number, face kind and expectant, before retreating to his friends to report back on their dare: He’d gotten the fattest girl’s number. It echoed the formerly fat date who’d complimented me on my confidence, told me he “used to be like that, until I realized I wanted anyone to fuck me ever,” then asked me back to his place. It echoed the concerns from family and friends, dangling the promise of a loving, healthy relationship at a lower weight: I just want you to find someone. Then, on top of all that, messages like these. Messages that received my body like tissue: plentiful, accessible, disposable, trash. Fat people aren’t the only ones who live with the repercussions of anti-fatness in our relationships. Those messages also land hard with people who date us, love us, marry us, sleep with us. They get trapped, too. After all, in our cultural scripts, a fat partner is a failure at best, a shameful, pathological fetish at worst. Desiring fat people is something deviant to be hidden, to find shame in, to closet. Deja Doodles But the data and research around sexuality paint a wholly different picture. In A Billion Wicked Thoughts, computational neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam analyzed history’s largest data bank on pornography viewers. They found that regardless of gender and sexual orientation, porn searches for fat bodies significantly outpaced searches for thin bodies. In fact, fat porn was the 16th most popular category, outranking categories like “anal sex” (18), “group sex” (24), “fellatio” (28), and “skinny” (30). “For every search for a ‘skinny’ girl,” they wrote, “there are almost three searches for a ‘fat’ girl.” Despite being surrounded by women of all sizes, viewers opted instead to drive their desire into safe, siloed, and one-sided experiences, away from the prying eyes of the world around them. While Ogas and Gaddam’s research speaks only to sexual desire (not romantic attraction or aspirations), it certainly indicates that our cultural scripts around size and desire — that is, that thin people are inherently desirable and fat people are categorically undesirable — are rooted more in perception than in research. The findings in A Billion Wicked Thoughts point to the idea that fat bodies may be among the most widely desired, but that desire may be repressed, possibly due to pervasive stigma. Many men who are attracted to fat women find ways to express that desire while sheltering themselves from judgment and stigma including secret sexual relationships with fat women, too afraid or disgusted to elevate those encounters to full-fledged relationships. In “Secret Relationships With Fat Women,” Virgie Tovar recounted the patterns of one such relationship of her own. “Everything was intimate and magical when we were alone, and then all of a sudden it would stop being that. I would go from being a charmingly eccentric bohemian to being a monstrously crass bother.” When attraction to fat people is discussed, fetishism is never far behind. Fetishism isn’t in itself necessarily pathological; fetishes can be as simple as consensual kinks, particularly intense attractions, or simple preferences. But when fetishism is brought up with respect to fat attraction, it gathers like a storm cloud. To be clear, there are attractions to fatness that take such specific forms that they are undeniably fetishistic. Feeders, for example, long to feed their “feedees,” deriving pleasure from watching their fat partner eat and, in some cases, from watching them gain more and more weight. Squash fetishes, on the other hand, indicate a desire to be sat on or pinned beneath their partner’s body. Some fat people happily engage with these fetishes and find fulfillment (or paid work) in their role. Some do not. But many fat people have felt fetishism thrust upon them without their consent. Fat fetishism has deep roots for many fat people, especially fat women. For some, size, desire, shame, and sex are a rat’s nest, hopelessly entangled. People who internalize anti-fat stereotypes — including the pervasive cultural belief that fat people are categorically unattractive or unlovable — are more likely to binge eat, as are survivors of sexual assault. Fat acceptance spaces frequently include heartbreaking stories of people whose partners kept their relationships secret. Worse still, some tell stories about working up the courage to share their experiences of sexual assault only to be categorically disbelieved. Given the pervasiveness of their experiences, is it any wonder that some fat people come to experience anyone else’s desire for them as predatory? Of course, not all fat people have lived these sex and relationship horror stories. But many of us have become so acculturated to them that we come to describe the vast majority of fat attraction as fat fetishism. When fat sex and dating are discussed, there’s rarely room for simple attraction. But thin people are frequently attracted to other thin people without garnering suspicion of fetishism. They may find themselves drawn to brown-haired people, muscle-bound bodies, or tall partners. They can speak freely of the physical characteristics they like best: chiseled jawlines, long hair, slim legs. In the world of thin people, these are types, a physical attraction so universal that it is neutral. Everyone, we are told, has a type. But if a thin person is reliably attracted to fat people, that type curdles and becomes something less trustworthy: a fetish. Fat people are so categorically undesirable, we’re told, that any attraction to us must speak to a darker urge or some unchecked appetite. I reject the notion that fat attraction is necessarily a fetish: something deviant, tawdry, vulgar, or dangerous. I choose to believe that my body is worthy of love — the electric warmth of real, full love. In many ways, it’s not that simple. But in some ways, it is. I choose to believe that I am lovable, as is my body, just as both are today. I believe that I deserve to be loved in my body, not in spite of it. My body is not an inconvenience, a shameful fact, or an unfortunate truth. Desiring my body is not a pathological act. And I’m not alone. Despite the never-ending headwinds, fat people around the world find and forge the relationships they want. There is no road map, so we become cartographers, charting some new land for ourselves. We live extraordinary lives, beloved by our families, partners, communities. Fat people fall wildly in love. Fat people get married. Fat people have phenomenal sex. Fat people are impossibly happy. Those fat people live in defiance of the expectations set forth for them. Their fat lives are glorious and beautiful things, vibrant and beyond the reach of what the rest of us have been trained to imagine. Let’s imagine more. Aubrey Gordon wrote under the pseudonym Your Fat Friend. Her work has also been featured in Self, Health magazine, and Gay Mag, among others. This essay has been excerpted from her new book, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat, reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
Why Democrats are blasting Biden’s attack against Iranian proxies in Syria
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Budget Committee chair, arrives to a hearing regarding wages at large corporations on February 25. One day later, he came out against President Joe Biden’s Syria strike. | Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images It’s not clear that the president’s decision was legal. President Joe Biden is facing heat from fellow Democrats and law experts over his Thursday airstrikes against targets in eastern Syria tied to Iranian-backed militias, namely because they say he had no real legal justification for the attack. The administration said the seven 500-pound bombs dropped on facilities two militias used to smuggle weapons were designed as a message: Attack US troops in the region and you risk retaliation. Over the past two weeks, Iranian proxies have fired rockets at anti-ISIS coalition forces outside Erbil, Iraq — killing a Filipino contractor and injuring US troops — and near the US Embassy in Baghdad. “President Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said in a statement hours after the strikes, calling them a “proportionate military response.” As of now, no deaths have been confirmed — the Pentagon is still assessing that — though US officials said they suspect the strikes possibly killed a “handful” of people. Congressional Democrats denounced the strikes almost immediately, saying the US is not at war with Syria and that lawmakers didn’t authorize any attack on Iranian-backed militants. As a result, they essentially argue Biden ordered an illegal launch. “Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), a longtime advocate for bolstering Congress’s role in authorizing military operations, said in a Friday statement. “Our Constitution is clear that it is the Congress, not the President, who has the authority to declare war,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) added on Friday. Criticism continued in the House. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a leading progressive foreign policy proponent, stated, “There is absolutely no justification for a president to authorize a military strike that is not in self-defense against an imminent threat without congressional authorization.” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) also highlighted a 2017 tweet from current White House press secretary Jen Psaki that criticized then-President Trump’s decision to bomb Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack. “What is the legal authority for strikes?” Psaki asked, noting “Syria is a sovereign country.” “Good question,” Omar tweeted in response on Thursday night. Great question.— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 26, 2021 Vice President Kamala Harris, then a senator, also questioned Trump’s 2018 bombing of Syria after another chemical weapons attack, tweeting, “I am deeply concerned about the legal rationale for last night’s strikes.” While many Republicans showed their support for the attack, the pushback over Biden’s first known strike reflects a decades-long debate over what the president can and can’t do with the largest military in the world. Biden’s decision in Syria just provided the latest flashpoint. It’s therefore worth looking at each side’s main arguments. They’ll dominate not only the discussion about this strike but future ones over the next four years, too. The Syria strikes reanimated the presidential vs. congressional war powers fight A National Security Council spokesperson told me the administration has two main legal arguments for why Biden had the authority to retaliate against Iranian-backed proxies operating on the Syria-Iraq border. Both of them rely on the idea that responding to the last two weeks’ attacks on coalition facilities counts as self-defense. Regarding domestic law, the spokesperson said, “the President took this action pursuant to his Article II authority to defend U.S. personnel.” Simply put, Article II of the Constitution names the president as the commander in chief, thereby giving him ultimate authority over all military matters. US troops were endangered by the proxies’ actions in recent weeks, and so he had every right to defend them from future attack, the argument goes. Importantly, the White House isn’t claiming it had the authority to drop bombs on Syria, just that the US had a pressing need to act in self-defense. As for international law, the spokesperson said “the United States acted pursuant to its right of self-defense, as reflected in Article 51 of the UN Charter.” That article states, in part, that nothing in the UN’s laws “shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.” (We’ll come back to the full first sentence in a moment.) By citing this provision, the administration is basically making the same argument as it did in domestic law: The proxies threatened US troops, and so America has the right to use force to defend them. Congressional Democrats (and some Republicans) aren’t buying those arguments, though. Their case, based mostly in domestic law, stems from Article I of the Constitution, which states that only Congress can declare war or authorize military operations. There are some situation-dependent caveats to this, but that’s the main point. Over the decades, Congress has abdicated that authority, rarely taking war votes while allowing the president to wield the military as he sees fit. The Korean and Vietnam wars, for example, were conducted without congressional approval. And the 2001 authorization passed to greenlight operations against al-Qaeda after 9/11 continues to be cited for counterterrorism operations around the world, even when al-Qaeda wasn’t the target. Lawmakers have slowly begun to claw back their authority. In 2019, Congress passed a “War Powers Resolution” to block Trump from involving the US military in Yemen. Trump vetoed the bill, however, and without the supermajorities needed to overrule that veto, those offensive operations continued until Biden stopped them earlier this month. Still, it was a signal that Congress would rise against a president abusing his legal mandate. Also in disagreement with Biden’s team are some law of war experts. Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor at Notre Dame and co-author of Self-Defense Against Non-State Actors, told me she agrees that the president should come to Congress when there is time to seek authorization. There was in this case, she contends, as the aggressions weren’t happening now but rather occurred over the past two weeks. That’s something Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) picked up on in his Friday statement. “Retaliatory strikes, not necessary to prevent an imminent threat, must fall within the definition of an existing congressional authorization of military force,” he said. “Congress should hold this administration to the same standard it did prior administrations, and require clear legal justifications for military action, especially inside theaters like Syria, where Congress has not explicitly authorized any American military action.” But O’Connell’s main critique is that the White House got the international law wrong. As promised, here’s the first sentence of the UN Charter’s Article 51 in its entirety: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.” O’Connell said the attack wasn’t on the American homeland, and the US surely had enough time to work with UN Security Council partners to punish Iran using diplomacy — not force. That means Biden’s team either willingly misread what that provision says or didn’t comprehend its true meaning. “They are citing the correct sources of law,” O’Connell said, but “they are wildly misinterpreting them.” “They are undermining their attempt at becoming a leadership team for the international community in promoting good order, stability, and the rule of law,” she concluded. Of course, the president had more than legal argument on his mind when making his decision to drop bombs. As president, it’s his responsibility to protect Americans wherever they are. He also surely didn’t want Iran to believe it could threaten US troops with impunity. Risking Congress denying an authorization request might send Tehran that exact signal. But even Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, couldn’t define what imminent threat US forces faced in Syria or Iraq, except to say the Thursday attack was meant to deter future Iranian assaults on Americans. Which means the debate over when a president can authorize a strike by himself and when he must ask lawmakers for permission is alive and well during the Biden years. It’s raging already, and will surely continue in the years to come.
US releases unclassified report blaming Saudi’s crown prince for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder
A demonstrator dressed as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with blood on his hands and holding up a picture of Jamal Khashoggi, protesting outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, on October 8, 2018. | Jim Watson AFP via Getty Images Classified intelligence reports blamed Mohammed bin Salman for the Khashoggi plot. Now there’s an unclassified version of that intelligence. The Biden administration has just released an unclassified version of an intelligence report confirming who ordered the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi: It was Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. That conclusion was an open secret, as news reports shortly after the grisly assassination cited classified intelligence pointing to Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to by his initials, MBS) as having personally ordered the killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. That intelligence included, among other things, information about the crown prince’s phone calls in the days before the murder, and calls by the kill team to a senior aide to the crown prince. After a 2018 CIA briefing on the classified intelligence, retired Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), then the Senate Foreign Relations chair, said there was “zero question that the crown prince directed the murder.” But this is the first time the public can an unclassified intelligence report on the murder for itself. While parts of the three-page document is redacted, it states up front that “We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” Based on MBS’ control over the country’s intelligence and security sectors, the report continues, it was “highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.” The ODNI has released its report on the killing of Khashoggi. Key takeaway: "We assess that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi."— Kevin Liptak (@Kevinliptakcnn) February 26, 2021 Despite having been fully informed of the classified report’s conclusions in 2018, the Trump administration refused to severely punish Saudi Arabia for the murder of the Virginia resident or to directly blame MBS. Instead of curtailing US-Saudi ties, then-President Donald Trump said it was better to maintain friendly relations in order to keep cashing the kingdom’s checks. “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country,” he told reporters shortly after the murder from the Oval Office, referring to his desire to sell $110 billion worth of weapons to the Kingdom. “It would not be acceptable to me.” Trump was so proud of the decision not to punish MBS or his country that Trump later bragged to reporter Bob Woodward later that “I saved his ass.” President Joe Biden has taken a different tact. After calling Saudi Arabia a “pariah” during the campaign, in power he’s curtailed MBS’s access to the Oval Office, making clear that Biden considers his direct counterpart in the country to be MBS’s father, King Salman, the man who actually sits on the Saudi throne. As for MBS, his counterpart is Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. The crown prince, after all, is his nation’s defense minister. The US also ended its support for Riyadh’s offensive operations in Yemen, which began during the Obama administration, though the US military will still help protect Saudi Arabia against regional threats. The State Department plans to announce possible retaliations against Saudi Arabia on Friday, roughly an hour after the report’s release. Politico reports that the US will sanction Saudi officials involved in the plot — but not MBS — and there will be a new policy called the “Khashoggi Ban” which will allow the State Department to “restrict or revoke visas” to people who target dissidents and journalists extraterritorially. A new State Department policy named the Khashoggi Ban will also be unveiled today, which will allow State to restrict and revoke visas to any individual believed to be involved in targeting/harassing/surveilling dissidents and journalists extraterritorially.— Natasha Bertrand (@NatashaBertrand) February 26, 2021 The public reveal of the unclassified Khashoggi intelligence, as mandated by Congress and promised by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, is yet another signal of a frostier US-Saudi relationship. Both nations will remain partners, but MBS is surely an unwelcome interlocutor for this administration, and perhaps future ones. You can read the redacted, unclassified intelligence report below:
Democrats’ remaining options for raising the minimum wage, explained
The progressive group Our Revolution holds $15 minimum wage signs outside of the Capitol complex on February 5, calling on Congress to pass a minimum wage hike as part of the Covid-19 relief bill. | Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images Democrats haven’t given up on increasing the minimum wage just yet. The Senate parliamentarian on Thursday dealt Democrats a disappointing blow in the fight for the $15 minimum wage — ruling that it can’t be included in a Covid-19 relief package if lawmakers want to use budget reconciliation. That decision likely means that the $15 minimum wage is effectively dead — for now. As Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has said repeatedly, 10 Republican senators are not going to sign on to this type of increase, meaning lawmakers won’t be able to get the 60 votes it needs to pass through regular order. Given this dynamic, Democrats are now scrambling to figure out how they could still push for some kind of minimum wage increase via either the relief package or a standalone compromise bill with Republicans down the line. “We are not going to give up the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 to help millions of struggling American workers and their families,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement. A couple of options have been floated, but none appear to have the full support of the party’s caucus just yet. One of the most straightforward possibilities — which progressives have pushed — is for Democrats to simply ignore the decision of the parliamentarian and include the $15 minimum wage in the bill anyway. That suggestion has garnered pushback from moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), however, a sign that it probably won’t happen. Sanders has also posed another option: He’s said he’ll introduce an amendment to the relief bill, which would establish a tax penalty that incentivizes large corporations to pay their workers a $15 minimum wage and gives small businesses a tax credit for doing so. That change wouldn’t set a new federal standard for the minimum wage, but it could help nudge businesses into offering their employees better pay. Schumer, too, has offered his backing for a plan that dings corporations that don’t raise their wages. Ultimately, Democrats may have to consider a potential compromise with Republicans to advance any type of standalone change to the minimum wage. Thus far, five Republicans — led by Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) — have backed legislation that would increase the minimum wage to $10 by 2025, a change that would also be tied to immigration enforcement. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), too, has introduced a bill that would require a $15 minimum wage at companies that make $1 billion or more in annual revenues. Such limited changes, though, fall far short of what many Democrats have been demanding, suggesting that the minimum wage could be among the policy areas that build the case for eliminating the filibuster down the line. Were Democrats to take that route, they’d be able to approve all types of legislation, including a $15 minimum wage, with 51 votes. Following is a rundown of ideas that have been suggested so far. Fire or ignore the parliamentarian Because the parliamentarian’s decision is simply advice and not a binding verdict, Democrats still have the option of either firing her or ignoring her guidance, though they probably won’t do so. Many progressives have called for Democrats to keep the $15 minimum wage in the bill despite the parliamentarian’s position, a move that would likely prompt a challenge from Republicans on the floor. If a challenge is lodged while the bill is being debated, Vice President Kamala Harris — or whoever is presiding over the Senate — is able to overrule that challenge, effectively preserving the $15 minimum wage. Then 60 votes would be needed to nullify Harris’s decision. There is some precedent for ignoring the parliamentarian, as the Washington Post outlines: Parliamentarians have been ignored in the past, like in 1975, when Vice President Nelson Rockefeller ignored the advice of the parliamentarian as the Senate debated filibuster rules. [Current parliamentarian Elizabeth] MacDonough has been overruled twice before: in 2013, when Democrats deployed the so-called nuclear option to eliminate filibusters to approve presidential nominees, and in 2017, when Republicans expanded the filibuster ban to include Supreme Court nominees. And progressive leaders have been vocal about wanting to pursue this route. “We can’t allow the advisory opinion of the unelected parliamentarian to stand in the way,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal said in a statement. Manchin and Sinema, though, have already said they won’t violate the sanctity of the reconciliation process, suggesting they would not back such a move. The Biden administration has also said it intends to follow standard procedure. While moderate senators’ disagreement wouldn’t prevent Harris from overruling the parliamentarian’s advice, Democrats could risk losing their votes on the broader relief bill if they took that approach. Democrats could also fire the parliamentarian, an act that former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott actually did in 2001, after the official stymied the passage of Republican tax cuts. Such an effort would also likely prompt moderate blowback — and is seen as unlikely as a result. Tax companies that don’t pay $15 Sanders has indicated he might get creative on finagling an indirect way to raise the minimum wage through the tax code. In a statement on Thursday evening, the Vermont independent said he disagrees with the parliamentarian’s decision and that he is going to try to get around it. “In the coming days, I will be working with my colleagues in the Senate to move forward with an amendment to take tax deductions away from large, profitable corporations that don’t pay workers at least $15 an hour and to provide small businesses with the incentives they need to raise wages,” he said. “That amendment must be included in this reconciliation bill.” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, echoed the possibility and said he is “looking at a tax penalty for mega-corporations that refuse to pay a living wage” in a statement. A senior Democratic aide also confirmed that Schumer is looking at a provision to penalize corporations that won’t pay workers $15. Basically, this would translate to a tax on companies above a yet-to-be-determined revenue threshold that have employees paid at less than $15 an hour. Wyden said in a statement that he is working on a “plan B” that would impose a 5 percent penalty on corporations’ total payroll if workers earn below a certain amount, and the penalty would increase over time. He said he would seek to put in place safeguards that stop companies from, for example, replacing workers with contractors whom they pay less. He said he would also seek to “incentivize the smallest of small businesses” to raise wages through an income tax credit equal to 25 percent of wages up to $10,000 a year to small businesses that pay workers better. Raising wages through taxes could fall within the bounds of budget reconciliation, because it has direct fiscal implications, though there’s some debate as to whether the parliamentarian might rule against it, too. It’s not entirely dissimilar to what Republicans did in their attempt to repeal the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act when they enacted the 2017 tax cuts. They weren’t able to directly scrap it through reconciliation, but they reduced the penalty for not having health insurance to $0. It’s not clear whether moderate Democrats would get on board with such a solution and raise taxes. And the clock is ticking on getting a bill to President Biden’s desk — expanded unemployment insurance under the last bill ends on March 14. Compromise with Republicans Barring any additional action on the relief bill, Democrats may face a less palatable option: compromise legislation with Republicans. This week, multiple Senate Republicans put out messaging bills signaling their interest in increasing the minimum wage — though their proposals are much narrower than what Democrats have backed. As Vox’s Gabby Birenbaum reports, the legislation from Romney and Cotton would raise the minimum wage to $10 by 2025, instead of the $15 proposed in Sanders’s bill. Additionally, it would require employers to use the E-Verify system, which would bar businesses from hiring undocumented employees. Because of both the more conservative increase that’s proposed in this bill and the immigration enforcement component, Democrats aren’t expected to be very supportive. A new bill from Hawley would also require corporations that have $1 billion or more in annual revenues to pay a $15 minimum wage, and provide tax credits to small-business employees who make below the median wage. Hawley’s measure has an immigration enforcement piece, too: Any potential credits wouldn’t be accessible to undocumented people. These bills indicate that at least six Republicans are interested in some type of action on the minimum wage, though that still falls short of the 10 who’d be needed to approve a bill via regular order. Plus, the proposals they’ve put out have already prompted progressive blowback because of how restrictive they are. Scrap the filibuster The parliamentarian’s ruling kicked up an ongoing debate among Democrats: whether it’s time to eliminate the filibuster and make it possible for any bill, not just ones under budget reconciliation, to pass under a simple majority. The Senate makes its own rules and can change them with a majority vote at any moment. If Democrats really want to pass the minimum wage — or plenty of other pieces of legislation, really — with 51 votes, they can. In an interview with Politico, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) suggested they might go that route on the minimum wage. “If we can do it through reconciliation, great,” she said. “If we can’t, then we need to tackle the filibuster issue and then pass minimum wage.” She isn’t alone in drawing attention to the filibuster. In a tweet on Thursday, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) wrote, “The filibuster was never in the constitution, originated mostly by accident, and has historically been used to block civil rights. No legislatures on earth have a supermajority requirement because that’s stupid and paralyzing. It’s time to trash the Jim Crow filibuster.” Many other lawmakers followed suit. End the filibuster.Raise the minimum wage.— Senator Alex Padilla (@SenAlexPadilla) February 26, 2021 We need to abolish the filibuster.— Jamaal Bowman (@JamaalBowmanNY) February 26, 2021 Again, abolishing the filibuster doesn’t have the support of the entire Democratic caucus. Sinema told Politico recently that she wants to strengthen the filibuster and “restore the 60-vote threshold for all elements of the Senate’s work.” Manchin has made quite clear he doesn’t want to scrap the filibuster, either. Whatever happens with the minimum wage, this conversation isn’t going away: The filibuster is going to stand in the way of much of the Democrats’ agenda.
Biden’s secret weapon for criminal justice reform
President Joe Biden at a White House event to sign an executive order on the economy on February 24. | Doug Mills/Pool via Getty Images The president has the power to help reverse mass incarceration — but Biden hasn’t used that power yet. As a senator in the 1980s and ’90s, Joe Biden spearheaded many of the laws that escalated America’s war on drugs — including mandatory minimum sentences and other harsh penalties that fueled a population explosion in federal prisons. Since then, Biden has acknowledged he got some of this wrong. Now he has a chance to right those mistakes — and to do so without Congress — by tapping into the president’s vast pardon and commutation powers. Historically, presidents have used these powers in one-off cases to reduce criminal penalties deemed excessive or unfair or for personal or political favors. But some advocates have argued for a ground-up rethinking of clemency: The president could reform the whole process to systematically cut sentences for federal inmates caught in the frenzy of America’s drug war and mass incarceration. Rachel Barkow, a New York University law professor and expert on clemency, told me there are essentially two important pieces to reform. First, changing the process. Currently, the Department of Justice’s Office of the Pardon Attorney oversees clemency requests. But the Justice Department is also the agency that prosecuted the people asking for a reprieve. That conflict of interest helps explain why the pardon office is understaffed and moves slowly, leading to the current petition backlog of 14,000. The Justice Department “is a biased decision maker,” Barkow said. “States don’t have it set up that way. It’s kind of an oddity the federal system ended up like that.” The president could move the process out of the Justice Department. For example, he could set up an advisory board that would handle clemency requests before they go to the president’s desk, as Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) proposed during their presidential campaigns. Then there’s the question of who gets clemency. This has been a wildly inconsistent process throughout US history — sometimes coming down to the president personally knowing a petitioner. But the president or his advisory board could set standards, targeting inmates with long sentences (especially for nonviolent crimes), those under mandatory minimums, or people who have been rehabilitated in prison. Biden, at least, supports using clemency powers for some of these ends — saying in his criminal justice reform plan that he’d use his clemency powers “to secure the release of individuals facing unduly long sentences for certain non-violent and drug crimes.” But since taking office, Biden hasn’t made any public moves in this area — although his staff is reportedly working on it behind the scenes. Biden could be waiting for his attorney general nominee to get Senate approval. Or he could be concerned about the political risks: If an inmate he releases goes on to commit a crime, it could fuel a backlash. (The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.) Advocates want Biden to act quickly. They point to epidemics of Covid-19 in jails and prisons, which could be eased if there were fewer people in those settings to spread the coronavirus. And they argue that acting too slowly would repeat the mistakes of Biden’s predecessors, who, if they moved on clemency at all, did so too late during their terms to do the long, hard work of broader reforms. Clemency wouldn’t address mass incarceration or the drug war all on its own — especially since it’s only relevant for federal inmates, and the vast majority of people incarcerated are held at the local or state level. But clemency reform could help. And while the White House works out what it’ll do on the issue, thousands of people who could get a reprieve — some of whom are in prison due to laws Biden led the charge on — are waiting to hear back. Sign up for The Weeds newsletter. Every Friday, you’ll get an explainer of a big policy story from the week, a look at important research that recently came out, and answers to reader questions — to guide you through the first 100 days of President Joe Biden’s administration.
A Trump judge’s order striking down the federal eviction moratorium, briefly explained
A woman carries out the family cat after sheriff’s deputies arrived to serve an eviction order to remove her family from their home on September 15, 2011, in Centennial, Colorado. | John Moore/Getty Images The opinion is embarrassingly wrong. For nearly a year, millions of Americans who are unable to pay their rent due to the economic crisis triggered by Covid-19 have had some protections against eviction. Both the CARES Act, which became law last March, and the second Covid relief bill, which was signed in December, included temporary moratoriums on many evictions. In the interim periods when these statutory safeguards against eviction are not in effect —the CARES Act’s moratorium expired after 120 days, and the second relief bill’s moratorium expired on January 31 — the Centers for Disease Control imposed a similar moratorium using its own authority, citing a federal law that permits the CDC director to “make and enforce such regulations as in his judgment are necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases.” On Thursday evening, a Trump-appointed judge on a federal court in Texas handed down a decision that calls into question the legality of these moratoriums. Currently, there is no congressional moratorium on evictions in place, only the CDC moratorium, although it is likely that the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill currently being negotiated in Congress will implement a new statutory moratorium. Though Judge J. Campbell Barker’s order in Terkel v. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only explicitly strikes down the CDC’s moratorium, Barker’s opinion is fairly broad and suggests that congressional regulation of evictions may also be unconstitutional. His opinion, if embraced by higher courts, could endanger any federal regulation of the housing market, including bans on discrimination in housing. The implications of Barker’s opinion, explained The opinion is a mélange of libertarian tropes, long-discarded constitutional theory, and statements that are entirely at odds with binding Supreme Court decisions. The thrust of Barker’s Terkel opinion is that the Constitution’s commerce clause, which provides that Congress may “regulate commerce ... among the several states,” is not broad enough to permit federal regulation of evictions. But, as the Supreme Court explained in United States v. Lopez (1995), the commerce clause gives Congress broad authority to regulate the national economy — including any activity that “‘substantially affects’ interstate commerce.” Though Lopez struck down a federal law prohibiting individuals from bringing guns near school zones, the Lopez opinion emphasizes the breadth of Congress’s power to regulate the economy. “Where economic activity substantially affects interstate commerce,” Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the Court, “legislation regulating that activity will be sustained.” To get around decisions like Lopez, Barker argues that evicting someone from a home that they pay thousands of dollars a year to rent is not an “economic activity.” “The law at issue in Lopez criminalized the possession of one’s handgun when in a covered area,” Barker wrote. “The order at issue here criminalizes the possession of one’s property when inhabited by a covered person. Neither regulated activity is economic in material respect.” Merely quoting this argument is enough to refute it. Again, Barker claims that removing someone from a home that they rent, for money, because that individual failed to pay the agreed-upon sum of money, is not an economic activity. But just in case it isn’t obvious that Barker is wrong, the Supreme Court’s decision in Russell v. United States (1985) directly contradicts him. Russell held that “the congressional power to regulate the class of activities that constitute the rental market for real estate includes the power to regulate individual activity within that class.” Barker’s opinion is still wrong even if you accept his claim that evicting someone from a rental home is not an economic activity. In Wickard v. Filburn (1942), the Supreme Court held that Congress’s power to regulate commerce extends to a farmer’s decision to grow wheat for personal use. Although this wheat was not sold on the commercial market, the Supreme Court explained in Wickard, “home-grown wheat ... competes with wheat in commerce,” and thus can affect the price of wheat in the national market. As the Court later summarized the Wickard opinion in Gonzales v. Raich (2005), Wickard stands for the proposition that Congress may regulate non-economic activity when that activity, “when viewed in the aggregate,” has a “substantial influence on price and market conditions.” Thus, in order to affirm Barker’s opinion, an appeals court would need to conclude that all the evictions that take place in the United States do not have a substantial impact on the American housing market. Again, to describe Barker’s opinion is to refute it. Barker’s decision is the second opinion this week from a Texas-based, Trump-appointed judge that blocks a federal policy while relying on dubious legal reasoning. On Tuesday, Judge Drew Tipton handed down an order blocking a 100-day pause on deportations announced on the first day of the Biden administration. Tipton’s order is at odds with a long line of Supreme Court decisions holding that courts should be extremely reluctant to force the government to bring immigration enforcement actions against individual immigrants. Both Tipton and Barker’s orders will appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, one of the most conservative courts in the country, and then potentially to a Supreme Court where Republicans hold a 6-3 majority. So there is no guarantee that either decision will be reversed by a higher court. It’s unclear whether Barker would have reached the same conclusion if Donald Trump were still president — both the statutory and CDC moratoriums originally took effect under Trump. But Barker and Tipton’s orders are both previews of what President Joe Biden is likely to experience for the rest of his presidency: Trump judges who, in their zeal to limit the federal government’s power, arguably take leave of their obligation to follow the law.
Why Putin wants Alexei Navalny dead
Navalny’s movement is unlike any in recent history. In August 2020, Russian politician Alexei Navalny was campaigning in Siberia when he suddenly fell ill. He collapsed, was rushed to a hospital, then evacuated to Berlin, Germany, where doctors concluded that he had been poisoned with a lethal nerve agent called Novichok. It was not completely unexpected. In recent years, a number of Russian dissidents and defectors have been poisoned. And Navalny is the most outspoken critic of the country’s president, Vladimir Putin. In less than 10 years, Navalny has risen from blogging about corruption to being the face of Russia’s opposition movement. When he was poisoned, he was organizing a campaign that threatened Putin’s party in elections across the country. Watch the video above to find out how Alexei Navalny built a movement unlike any in recent Russian history, and how he became Putin’s greatest threat. You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube. Subscribe for the latest.
Should we be more careful outdoors as Covid-19 variants spread?
The spread of more contagious Covid-19 variants has renewed questions about outdoor transmission risk. | Getty Images What to know about your risk among friends, runners, and passersby outside There have been some bright spots recently in the fight against Covid-19: Infection rates are dropping in most states, more and more Americans are becoming eligible for vaccination, and the Food and Drug Administration now says the Johnson & Johnson vaccine meets the requirements for emergency use authorization. Meanwhile,new research finds that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are not only effective at preventing illness, hospitalization, and death, but they’re probably quite effective at preventing transmission, too. But the optimism is tempered somewhat by the spread of more contagious Covid-19 variants, like B.1.1.7 and 501Y.V2, initially discovered in the UK and South Africa, respectively. Experts say the B.1.1.7 variant could be dominant in the US by March. That means we need to be more careful about protecting ourselves. To do that, public health officials are recommending that people make a greater effort to avoid indoor spaces like grocery stores and double-mask when going indoors in a public setting. Which has some people wondering: Should we be more careful outdoors, too? Do we now need to stay more than 6 feet away from our friends around that fire pit? What about those joggers who seem to be perpetually running toward us, unmasked? Epidemiologists say they’ve been seeing these questions pop up a lot, and while it’s totally understandable to wonder about outdoor risks, it’s also somewhat misguided. “There seems to be a bit of a fuss about needing to be more wary of transmission outdoors, but I don’t know where that has come from,” Richard Lessells, an infectious disease specialist at University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, told Vox. “Based on the evidence, we still think risk of transmission outdoors is very substantially less than indoors, and there’s no reason to believe the new variants change that equation substantially.” Muge Cevik, a virologist and physician at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told me there are “many things to worry about — outdoor brief contact is not one of them.” Therefore, outdoor risk is negligible unless it involves close interaction or you are in a crowded or semi-outdoor environment. For example, walking on the street with no f2f contact, or passing by a jogger, the risk is very low as the duration of interaction is brief. (7/n)— Muge Cevik (@mugecevik) January 11, 2021 That’s because, as I’ve explained before, a perfect sequence of events has to happen for a virus to move from an infected passerby outdoors to you. The passerby has to spray out enough particles to be able to kick-start an infection. The virus inside the particles has to survive as sunlight, wind, and other forces work to decay and disperse them. The particles have to land in your upper throat or respiratory tract — or on your hands, which you then use to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth — and they have to get past all the barriers to infection in the respiratory system, like nose hairs and mucus. Then they have to dock up with your cells’ ACE-2 receptors and use them to enter the cells. Even given what we’ve learned over the past months about airborne transmission, this is a pretty arduous sequence for viral particles to execute properly. “The volume of distribution of gases within an outside space, particularly with a wind factor, makes this risk very low,” Cevik said. “A variant may be more transmissible, but physics has not changed.” Low risk is not zero risk, of course. Close or prolonged contact with others (especially unmasked) or settings where there are lots of people should be avoided even if outdoors. But the main risk we have to worry about is still indoors. What makes the new variants more contagious? We know that the new variants spread between people more easily — but how do they do so? We’ve got some preliminary clues, but we still don’t have conclusive answers. Angela Rassmussen, a Georgetown University virologist who agrees there’s minimal risk outdoors, nonetheless warns that there’s still much we don’t know about the new variants. “It’s really hard to say if we need to be more careful with outdoor interactions with the new variants because we don’t know the mechanism by which they are more transmissible,” she told me. “Is it that people shed more virus? The virus is more efficient at causing infections? Is the virus more stable in the environment?” Since January, Cevik has suspected that the virus has gotten better at binding to the receptors in human cells. Both the B.1.1.7 and 501Y.V2 variants feature a lot of mutations in the virus’s spike protein, the piece that fits into the receptors. And if a variant is better at attaching to receptors, then once people are exposed to it, they may be more likely to get infected — even if the sick person they’ve encountered isn’t shedding more virus. New lab research has demonstrated that increased receptor binding is in fact happening with these variants. There may be other factors at play, too. Better receptor binding could influence the infectious dose (the amount of virus needed to launch an infection). It could also lead to a longer infection. Some new data gathered from NBA players suggests that with B.1.1.7, people stay infectious for longer, which could be upping the transmissibility: People may think they can safely stop quarantining after 14 days, but then they pass the infection on to others. (This is already sparking debate about whether we should extend quarantine guidelines, but it’s worth noting that the NBA evidence is from only seven players, a very small data set.) Further studies on more potential processes underlying transmission — like how fast the variants replicate in the body and how long the variants survive in the environment — are pending. Cevik says we’ll be able to understand these dynamics more in a few weeks. So, for now, what should we do outside? The variants make everywhere a bit riskier than before. According to Boston University epidemiologist Eleanor Murray, “It’s still unlikely that you would get infected passing an unmasked jogger, but the risk of that is now a bit more like passing two unmasked joggers.” But the ways the virus spreads are still the same. So, Rasmussen said, “I don’t think that staying 6 versus 10 feet [apart] matters much outdoors. What might be more useful to think about is the nature of outdoor contacts. Are there lots of people? Are they wearing masks? Is it fully outdoors or in some kind of partial enclosure?” The experts I spoke to recommended sticking to smaller group sizes and wearing a mask outdoors (at least one mask; two if you want to be extra careful). After all, if the variants lead to higher community prevalence in your area, you’ll be more likely to come across someone who is infectious. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the greatest risk is still indoor interactions. “The main risk with the variant, I would say, is indoors now, because earlier evidence suggests that it clusters more in households compared to older variants, and more people are spending time indoors now,” Cevik said. “We are seeing significant outbreaks in nursing homes and hospitals due to the new variant.” So it makes sense to cut ourselves some slack outdoors, and avoid shaming others for their outdoor activities. “There’s a delicate balance between preventing infections and increasing lockdown fatigue,” she wrote. “People do not have unlimited energy, so we should ask them to be vigilant where it matters most, which is indoors, while giving them a break outdoors.”
Virtual tips are helping content creators actually make money
Tetra images RF/Getty Images We’re not used to paying for social media posts or streams, but it’s now easier than ever to send someone a little cash. Over the summer, Cherry Horne became hooked on watching Twitch streams of seasoned dancers playing Just Dance. She’d purchased the game herself on her PlayStation 4 as a quarantine workout, and the streamers became her source of motivation. She started tipping the streamers, since it felt like “a natural extension of [her] gratitude,” in addition to paying a monthly subscription to access exclusive content. Horne tips about two or three times a month and approaches tipping not just as a financial gift, but as creative encouragement; some of her favorite dancers, she told me, are new to streaming, with fewer than a thousand subscribers. “If I’m entertained or enjoying the content you’re providing, I want to tip you to help support your work,” Horne said. “I also think tipping is a great way to build community and practice mutual aid. This pandemic has been hard financially on a lot of us and many people have turned to various forms of online work to survive.” Horne worked as a stripper before the pandemic, and once lockdown orders came down, transitioned to online sex work on OnlyFans. Virtually tipping dancers on Twitch, she joked, felt like the pandemic version of tipping a stripper at a club. Most people likely associate tipping with service work, seeing it as a cash bonus for polite or prompt customer service. It is common courtesy, especially in pandemic times, to tip restaurant workers, hairdressers, tattoo artists, hotel staff, drivers, and other workers in customer-facing roles, and in some states, millions of workers depend on tips to earn a decent wage. Under current federal law, employers are only required to pay $2.13 per hour in direct wages, if that amount combined with the tips an employee receives equals the federal minimum wage. Virtual tip jars or donations, however, are usually one-way exchanges. Unlike service tips, these are based on an individual’s performance or entertainment value. It’s akin to putting money into a street-side musician’s hat or guitar case; tips are expressions of support from fans and viewers, who sometimes receive shoutouts or extra attention in return for their donations. These microtransactions are not a new phenomenon for content creators and influencers with substantial followings. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2017 that musicians, comedians, and other independent creators have earned tens of thousands of dollars through frequent streams on apps like YouNow and (which merged with, now TikTok, in 2018). The pandemic has only magnified people’s sense of economic precarity. However, this type of creative, content-driven labor has been bolstered by the generosity of online communities. Self-monetization is easier, and arguably more acceptable, than ever, particularly in a time when fewer people are interested in pursuing aspirational, unpaid work. More seem comfortable with publicly sharing their Venmo and CashApp usernames to receive monetary aid from strangers in times of crisis. Mutual aid networks have flourished. The popularity of these peer-to-peer payment tools have facilitated a new form of social crowdfunding, wrote Jenna Drenten, a consumer sociologist, in the Conversation. While virtual tipping is not the same as crisis crowdfunding, the idea is similar: People are relying on a network of supporters to partly or entirely bankroll their hobby or creative endeavor. “I think tipping is crucial for all creators, big or small,” said Horne, who tips streamers based on her own creative income. “Tips make more of a life-changing difference to small creators. $100 might not mean very much to someone with thousands of fans, but to someone smaller, that money could be used for a week of groceries.” A person doesn’t need to be “internet famous” or have an established social media presence to rake in tips — although fame certainly helps. Asian Andy, a Twitch streamer and YouTuber with more than 1 million followers, recently earned $16,000 in tips during one of his “sleep streams.” “We’re seeing an unbundling of the Kickstarter crowdfunding experience,” said Hugo Amsellem, writer and researcher of Arm the Creators, a blog on the creator economy. “The pandemic is accelerating everything. Creators are potentially struggling a bit more, and there is an incentive to do a live stream or put up a membership option. For fans, they are stuck at home and spending less on going out, getting drinks. Tipping the creators — their digital friends — is one way for fans to unleash their buying power.” “Tipping the creators — their digital friends — is one way for fans to unleash their buying power” For years, Twitch streamers have set up donation links on their profiles through third-party tools, or solicited tips directly through Twitch’s currency system, Bits. Major platforms, like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, have since developed their own tipping systems for live broadcasts or exclusive content. The audio chat app Clubhouse is reportedly introducing a tipping feature, in addition to subscriptions and ticket sales, to future iterations. Twitter is launching a subscription feed called “Super Follow” with a tipping function, and Soundcloud is working on a payment system that allows fans to pay artists directly. Old and emerging platforms alike seem to be encouraging virtual tipping and alternative monetization methods. They have a financial incentive to do so, as virtually all companies take a percentage of money earned: YouTube pockets 30 percent of tips through its “applause” function, as does Twitch for its “cheer” function; TikTok takes a 50 percent commission when TikTokers convert digital gifts into cash. Amsellem believes that it is in major platforms’ interests to lean into creator-friendly monetization features. At the start of the pandemic last spring, for example, Soundcloud and Spotify began allowing artists to add a direct support link on their profiles. Still, Amsellem thinks advertisers will remain a priority, since most social companies rely on ads as a key source of revenue. “Who is the customer for Twitch or YouTube?” he said. “Strategically, there is more to be done with the consumer in mind, rather than the creator.” Some streamers are gravitating toward tools that streamline payments from fans, sometimes bypassing big platforms entirely. For example, StreamElements, a tool that streamers use to better manage live broadcasts, developed a tipping plug-in that alerts the streamer of a donation and its corresponding message. “The idea of delivering a tool that will help creators with everything the platform doesn’t provide them is very powerful because most people aren’t interested in limiting themselves to just Twitch or YouTube,” said Doron Nir, CEO of StreamElements. More people are optimizing featured links in their social media bios, even if there is no direct tipping feature. Last May, a TikTok user added her Venmo handle to her bio for a week as a social experiment, and received more than $500 from strangers. It’s common practice for artists to plug their Venmo or Ko-fi handles through link optimizers, like LinkTree or Flooze, that allow users to promote multiple links at once. Sites like Ko-fi or Buy Me A Coffee encourage supporters to tip in small cash amounts, while currency systems on TikTok and YouTube — which are purchased with real money — offer a more gamified experience. On a TikTok livestream, for example, a fan can give “gifts” that can be converted into cash for the TikToker. Most of these transactions for small streamers and artists generally range from $5 to $20, but they’re a crucial revenue source for those starting out. A Twitch user named Sarah, who streams full time under the username Sizzsarz, told me that tipping was her only source of income when she began in 2014. “Now that I have grown into a more successful streamer, I would say that tips make up around 30 percent of my overall income,” she said. Twitch viewers I’m genuinely curious, what preferred method do you like to use when supporting streamers?— Sizzsarz (@sizzsarz) September 25, 2020 The rise of virtual tipping and other alternative forms of self-monetization is a means for content creators to “wrest back some of the power from the platforms,” said Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor in Cornell’s communications department. Duffy recently completed a study that surveyed creators and influencers on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube; she found that income uncertainty was a major concern across all platforms. “Especially in cases when the algorithm changes, a person’s income stream can be severely severed,” she said. “This tipping system, regardless of whether the platform pays the influencer, allows them to directly connect with the audience and diversify their income stream.” It’s not likely that streamers or creators can make a living entirely on tips. But these small amounts, as Sarah mentioned, can help them envision a full-time career. That’s a good thing, since people are no longer entirely creating content for free early on. “Young people have been encouraged to create content, to burnish their self-brand, and build themselves as entrepreneurs with the promise that their work will eventually be compensated,” Duffy told me. “They’re essentially tasked with doing free labor in the service of consumer culture.” Optimists like Amsellem and Nir of StreamElements believe that over the past year, consumers have grown accustomed to, and are even demanding more, digital content. “They’re willing to pay for it, and democratic creator platforms have seen an explosion in growth,” Nir told me. “All these features, like tipping and subscribing, are going to become fully commoditized over the next few years … now that people’s digital consumption habits have changed.” Still, Duffy thinks it’s important for content creators to hold a healthy degree of skepticism toward new products. “Even if a platform is not immediately requiring creators to give them a cut back, it falls along the Silicon Valley model of scale first and then revenue later,” Duffy said. “When the job economy looks so bleak, it makes sense people are seeking out more promising livelihoods that allow for autonomy and creative self-expression. It’s important to consider who benefits from all of this: What does the promise of success look like, and how does that map onto reality?”
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The internet’s most beloved fanfiction site is undergoing a reckoning
Sad times with AO3. | Archive of Our Own A million-plus-word story is holding AO3’s community hostage. The Archive of Our Own — the beloved, Hugo-winning fanfiction platform shorthanded affectionately as AO3 — was famously created by fans, for fans. It’s run by a fandom nonprofit, coded and moderated by volunteers, and reliant on its huge community of users to help it carry out its mission of preserving and protecting fans’ work. Because the history of fandom includes a long lineage of fanfic authors fighting for the right to write and publish fanfiction without facing deletion and/or legal threats, AO3’s rules are incredibly permissive: “Our goal is maximum inclusiveness,” explains the platform’s Terms of Service. Longstanding calls for AO3 to more closely moderate fics with toxic elements, for example, have generally been met with a polite but firm “no” from AO3 according to that mantra — a variant of the classic free-speech idea that permissiveness and openness, not restriction and censure, will bring the most benefit to the community. Basically, if it’s a fic, it can stay. Until now, that permissive approach has worked well for most AO3 users. But lately, the site’s approach to moderation, curation, and what even counts as fanfiction have all been thrown into upheaval and caused widespread consternation — all thanks to a single fic. Over the past few months, this fic has enraged users, become a target of ridicule and harassment, and been the subject of so many abuse reports filed by members of the AO3 community that moderators reportedly stopped accepting complaints about it. On February 21, the moderators reportedly suspended it for a month on a technicality — but this hasn’t fixed the problem, and its author has vowed to return with a vengeance. What’s wrong with the fic in question, and why is it such a powder keg? As I reported on the situation in search of answers, my perspective shifted: I thought this was a story about website moderation, taxonomy, what performance art looks like on the internet, and an online community’s complicated growing pains. And it is all of those things. But it’s also a story about ethics, kindness, and connection within a community plagued by toxic abuse, and how a single disruptive user can undermine everything that community purports to stand for — even if the upheaval ultimately leads to something better. Meet the most controversial fic on AO3 Since it first appeared in October 2019, “Sexy Times With Wangxian,” or STWW, has become notorious across AO3. That in itself is unusual, because most AO3 users stick to their own fandoms and don’t pay much attention to what’s happening in others. STWW belongs to the fandom for the wildly popular Chinese TV series The Untamed, and the “Wangxian” in the title refers to the ship name for the show’s beloved main romantic pairing. It’s a very long fanfic, over a million words, and contains more than 200 chapters of porn featuring The Untamed’s large cast in endless permutations and sexual scenarios. All that, by itself, isn’t enough to make STWW remarkable — not on a website as wild and unpredictable as AO3. Yet the fic has become impossible for many AO3 users to ignore thanks to a unique quirk: Its author has linked it to more than 1,700 site tags (and counting). A quick note about AO3’s tagging system: It is designed to let users tag creatively and freely. So you can add useful tags, like pairing labels and character names, but you can also toss in personalized tags for fun and creative expression, from “no beta readers we die like men” to “I wrote this at 4am on three bottles of Monster Energy and zero sleep don’t judge.” The tagging system is in service of the site’s total permissiveness — you can write anything you want in tags. But for the site to function, tags still need to be useful for navigation. So AO3 has hordes of volunteers known as “tag wranglers” whose sole job is to sort through the massive number of fic tags on the site and decide which ones will actually help users find what they’re looking for. Those tags are then made “canonical,” which means they’ll become universal tags that every user can sort through. They’ll also appear within a list of suggested tags as you type. If I start to type “hospital” while tagging a fic, AO3 will return canonical tag suggestions like “Alternate Universe — Hospital,” “Hospital Sex,” and “Hogwarts Hospital Wing.” That makes it easy to determine whether your fic fits tags the community is already using. AO3’s tagging system is so organized and thorough that it has won widespread acclaim from fields like library science and internet infrastructure. But it still has its limits — and with more than 1,700 tags, “Sexy Times With Wangxian” has revealed what some of those limits look like — in some cases quite literally. For example, here’s how STWW’s tag list displays on even a very, very big screen: fuck it. sexy times with wangxian on the 27” LED monitor— klee (@huaIing) February 19, 2021 The tags are so numerous, they can’t fit into a single screenshot on a large monitor. Here’s a quick scroll through the entire thing: ignore shinee in the background but yeah— klee (@huaIing) February 19, 2021 Now, imagine looking at AO3 on your phone, trying to scroll past this wall of tags to get to the next fic on the page. Remember that none of those words in the image and video above are the actual fic — they’re just the navigation tags for the fic. Nearly all of them are tags that other people actually use to navigate AO3 and find fics of interest to them. And because STWW has become so extensive and uses so many tags, its description has created a massive visual and infrastructural disruption for users across the platform. The fic is now linked to numerous fandom categories it doesn’t really belong to, and in recent weeks, it has grown and begun to encompass more and more fandoms. Consequently, what started out as a problem for The Untamed’s fandom has abruptly become a problem all across the platform. Guides to how to block the fic have cropped up. For example, I use a Chrome extension that blocks fics with too many tags (you can specify how many tags is too many — I picked 50); there’s also simple site code that you can add to your custom site “skin” to block the fic completely from search results, as well as other workarounds. But the usefulness of these options is limited. Site skins only work for logged-in users. Website extensions don’t work on mobile. Many other workarounds aren’t compatible with adaptive technology like screen readers used by disabled people and others — and if you think having to scroll past the tags on a phone is obnoxious, imagining getting stuck on it while a screen reader laboriously recites all 1,700 tags out loud. It’s perfectly likely that the fic’s author, an AO3 user whose handle is virtual1979, had no idea what kind of havoc they were wreaking when they started tagging their work in this fashion. In an interview with Vox, they described themselves as “a casual reader” before all this. “I’m not an active part of the community of fic writers,” they told me. Virtual1979 is an Asia-based writer of Chinese descent; internet sleuths have alleged that they are a 41-year-old long-time member of fandom from Malaysia. But since virtual1979 started posting chapters of “Sexy Times With Wangxian,” AO3 users have asked them repeatedly to stop — and they’ve not only refused, but continued to expand STWW to add more tags and fandoms. Their defiance has generated sustained furor over the fic. Many users have started referring to it simply as “the wall of tags.” One person on Reddit literally dreamed about A03’s moderators stepping in to help. Fandom blog site the Geekiary published an angry rundown of the situation, noting, ”I have not sat down and done the math, but at this time I’ve probably spent 20 or so minutes of my life just trying to scroll past the fic.” Predictably, “Sexy Times With Wangxian” has come to be perceived by many as an act of pure trolling — as though virtual1979 is just trying to rile up the AO3 community. There’s just one problem: The author is technically not trolling, but using AO3’s tagging system exactly as it’s intended. And that’s a whole different issue. The disruption caused by “Sexy Times With Wangxian” has led to a referendum on AO3’s community standards and abuse on the platform As the fic’s notoriety has spread, so have the imitations. In the last week alone, AO3 has had to remove at least two instances of actual trolling inspired by STWW: One user uploaded the entirety of The Great Gatsby, and another uploaded the entirety of 1984 — both as tags, meaning every word of each novel was turned into a tag and thus took up a huge amount of space on the site’s related navigation pages, just as STWW does. But there’s a big difference between STWW and its clearly performative troll off-shoots, both of which have since been removed. STWW arguably hasn’t broken any rules about tagging, and its author insists they’re using the site exactly as it’s designed to be used. In theory, it’s hard to argue with that. The fic is a million words long, after all, and you can fit a lot of accurately tagged topics into a million words. Virtual1979 stressed to Vox that contrary to the widespread belief that they’re trolling, they aren’t tagging their fic simply to be performative. “I’m not tagging to beg for attention, please make that very clear,” they told me. They explained that they tag the way they do for personal preference, for purposes of clarity, and because they like the feeling that comes with finding out that one of the tags they’re using is already canonical and being used by others in the AO3 community. “For me, tagging is a personal choice,” they said. “I tag as I go along ... It’s a bit of a routine, also a bit of discovery.” As for their habit of adding even more fandoms to the fic itself and then adding new tags so that even more AO3 users have to confront it, virtual1979 insisted this approach is about variety and the fun of a challenge. They acknowledged the controversy around their fic but emphasized that they were operating completely within AO3’s rules. “If AO3 has a category or a big red warning checkbox to say ‘click this to read crazy fics’ then I should put my fic in there,” they joked. “People are free to search (my) fic or exclude the fic using tags.” Virtual1979 also remained steadfast when I pointed out that their fic was breaking the site for disabled users, stressing that the onus should be on AO3 — not them — to make enforceable site changes. That’s actually a very popular idea. Many, many AO3 users have long argued that the site needs to change in exactly the way STWW’s critics want it to, though for much different and more serious reasons. Throughout 2020, during sustained discussions across social media about structural racism and other toxic elements in fandom, AO3 users repeatedly requested that the site add basic features that could help users avoid involuntarily engaging with fics they found toxic or harmful. For example, currently there’s no real way to officially sanction a writer who includes racist elements in their fanfiction — the site’s abuse policy FAQ doesn’t mention race, and there’s currently no way to “warn” readers about racially charged elements in a fic. (You can warn readers about other controversial fic content, like character deaths, non-consensual scenarios, and underage characters.) And there are many readers who’d like to avoid engagement with fics and authors they deem to be racist. Among these wide-ranging discussions, one of the most frequent requests was for a function to block or hide individual users and their works — a function that would incidentally be incredibly handy in the case of a single author building a giant wall of tags. In other words, the “Sexy Times With Wangxian” situation has direct links to earlier discussions about race and community moderation on the platform. The one good thing I could see coming from the wall-o-tags fic is so many ppl complaining about a specific fic/user that AO3 finally puts time into being able to block/hide a user. Something previously asked for as a bare minimum tool to help deal w/ racism & harassment.— ifreet (@injiver) February 21, 2021 Beyond annoying lots of AO3 users, what virtual1979 has inadvertently done with their fic is reveal how susceptible AO3’s hands-off moderation stance is to being exploited and damaged by bad actors. Even if virtual1979 is not intentionally trolling, they have undermined AO3’s ability to claim that its stance of total permissiveness is one that brings the most benefit to the entire community. ao3's laissez faire method of moderating their website is seriously going to bite them in the ass Very soon and part of it is going to be sexy times with wangxian;s fault. Youll see— cell block tango (@ogshipping) February 20, 2021 It’s not clear whether any planned changes are in the works as a response to STWW’s continued existence. But its notoriety and the groundswell of calls to take action against it feel like a watershed moment for AO3 and its community. And things look promising. In response to a request for comment, a spokesman for the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), the nonprofit that runs AO3, hinted to Vox in an email that changes could be on the way: Due to PAC’s [the OTW’s Policy and Abuse Committee’s] confidentiality policy, PAC can not comment on any cases, and at the moment, there is nothing in the TOS about limiting tags. There will be a post coming next month from AD&T [the Accessibility, Design & Technology committee] that will address site features such as the block user function. If the site really is on the verge of adding new site features as a result of the STWW situation, then it’s important to be clear: What hundreds of fans couldn’t do in 2020, during months of discussion about racism on AO3, “Sexy Times With Wangxian” has done in basically a few weeks. It’s swayed members of the community to favor the idea of greater hands-on moderation for individual fics and writers, and more functionality that will allow users to customize their experience reading the site. These exact concepts met tremendous resistance last year when many fans argued that such an approach would make the community safer and more inclusive, and that change was necessary. Lori Morimoto, a fandom academic who was involved in the earlier discussion, didn’t mince words about the inherent hypocrisy of the controversy around STWW. “The discussions of the fic were absolutely riddled with people saying they wished you could block and/or ban certain users and fics on AO3 altogether because this is obnoxious,” she wrote to me in an email, “and nowhere (that I can see) is there anyone chiming in to say, ‘BUT FREE SPEECH!!!’” Morimoto continued: But when people suggest the same thing based on racist works and users, suddenly everything is about freedom of speech and how banning is bad. When it’s about racism, every apologist under the sun puts in an appearance to fight for our rights to be racist assholes, but if it’s about making the reading experience less enjoyable (which is basically what this is — it’s obnoxious, but not particularly harmful except to other works’ ability to be seen), then suddenly our overwhelming concern with free speech seems to just disappear in a poof of nothingness. Virtual1979 may have achieved that magical poof simply by promising to keep expanding the number of fandoms they tag their fic into indefinitely, until they get bored or AO3 changes its policies. But if the site’s tagging infrastructure is altered or a blocking or filtering function is added, it will be hard not to see this episode through a cynical lens: That the OTW systematically rejected and bypassed the sustained voices of so many fans, including Black fans and other fans of color, for months — until their needs and desire for a safe space abruptly aligned with other fans’ annoyance and inconvenience. Despite everything, the AO3 community has found ways to rally around the “Sexy Times” pushback with grace and creativity What’s perhaps ironic in all of this is that virtual1979 wasn’t a member of the AO3 community before they joined in 2019, out of their growing interest in The Untamed. “When I searched for The Untamed fics, AO3 seems to appear at the top of Google search,” they recalled. “I see people recommending fics with links to AO3. [The site’s] reputation as a safe haven for [adult-rated]-fics and their mission about archiving fannish/transformative works drew me in.” Now, though, after what they describe as months of intensifying harassment and requests to remove their fic or the tags — which they’ve ignored — virtual1979 is less invested in engaging with other readers and writers. “I guess any bridge that remained between me as a casual writer, and the readers who may be fans or not, has burned down,” they said. Despite what virtual1979 told me, however, it’s hard to believe they’re as antisocial as they claim. After all, the joy they get out of tagging — the reason the entire AO3 community is in this mess — stems from recognizing that they’re part of a larger community of people, all using the same tags. I’ve experienced that same joy many times on the site; it’s meant to be a feature, not a bug. What’s entirely unsurprising, but always remarkable, is that out of the anger and ire people feel toward virtual1979 and STWW, the fandom community has done what it usually does and turned an ugly situation into something positive. Since “Sexy Times With Wangxian” became a whole Thing, it has spawned memes, spinoff fics, and a frankly fabulous fic prompt generator that scans all of the STWW tags and chooses some at random for you to write fics around. Just now I got the tags, “Foursome – M/M/M/M,” “I’m Bad At Summaries,” “Cryptography,” “Body Dysphoria,” and “Organs.” Outstanding. tag yourself as sexy times with wangxian tags i’m shame, “some plot,” 69 (sex position), hand & finger kink, attempt at humor, and inaccurate christianity— (@WUJlBOT) January 31, 2021 The fic also inspired a rival “Bland Times” fic movement, prompted by a Twitter joke that became a real fic and grew into an entire challenge that caters to fandom’s love of soft fics where the stakes are low and inherently peaceful. This all leaves me feeling strangely poignant — both frustrated and hopeful for the future of the AO3 community. Because even though the controversy around “Sexy Times With Wangxian” is technically just about tagging, it’s really about the painful, even absurd way that meaningful change happens, with subtext about the ways we reach out to and connect with other people online. In this case, virtual1979 wasn’t intending to subvert and overhaul an entire fanfiction community with thousands of members, but that may be just what they’ve done. And whether or not they feel like part of the AO3 community after all this, I can’t think of anything more in keeping with the spirit of AO3 itself than that.
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What companies can do to speed up board diversity
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, companies promised to make their boards more diverse. | FangXiaNuo via Getty Images Companies promised to make their boards more diverse. Here’s how to actually do it. After a national reckoning in the summer of 2020 following the police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests around the country, public and private companies alike vowed to add Black directors to their corporate boards. Some promising developments suggest greater board diversity could actually happen. There are also other ways companies could hurry it along. Nasdaq submitted a proposal in December that would require companies listed on its exchange to report their board diversity and have — or at least explain why they don’t have — at least one person who identifies as a woman and one person who identifies as an underrepresented minority or LGBTQ person on their board. Investment companies BlackRock and State Street are asking companies they invest in to report their board diversity and improve it. Most notably, California passed a law requiring businesses headquartered there to have at least one board member from an underrepresented community by the end of 2021. The diversity of a company’s board is important for a number of reasons. A company’s board of directors is in charge of representing shareholder interests and making sure the company’s financials are accurate, as well as picking the company’s CEO and holding that person to task. The board sets the tone for the whole company, and its members serve as an example for what the company stands for. “Employees, customers, and investors are diverse,” Nell Minow, vice chair of Value Edge Advisors, a consulting firm specializing in corporate governance issues, said. “If the people playing this essential role are not diverse, how are they going know what they need to know to do their job? They aren’t.” Indeed, a board affects how a company functions and how well it performs. A number of studies, including ones by McKinsey & Company, BCG, and Deloitte, have shown a correlation between diverse leadership and a company’s financial performance. Stocks for socially responsible companies that abide by certain criteria for environmental, social, and corporate governance, or ESG, are outperforming their peers. “Now that we know diverse boards perform better financially, they have a fiduciary responsibility to diversify,” Stephanie Lampkin, founder and CEO of diversity analytics and hiring software company Blendoor, told Recode. Despite all this, boards are too often woefully white and male. Nasdaq found that in the six months prior to its diversity proposal, 75 percent of companies listed on the exchange wouldn’t have met the proposal’s arguably easy diversity requirements. Women hold only about a quarter of board seats at the biggest 1,000 companies in the US, according to corporate governance data firm Equilar. While there’s slight variation by industry, it’s uniformly low. The same goes for ethnic diversity. Board representation of Black, Latinx, and Asian people is typically way lower than their representation in the population at large. And while diversity has ticked up, change has been very slow going. What companies can do to speed things up Many companies have made excuses for why their boards aren’t diverse, and their reasoning generally boils down to a couple things: 1) It takes time, or 2) There aren’t enough diverse people in the pool. Fortunately, both those problems are solvable. Companies often point to the fact that they can add diverse candidates only when board seats open up. However, there’s nothing obligating board members to keep nominating themselves at the end of their typically one- to three-year terms. Of course, having a seat on a board comes with a lot of perks, such as pay and stock options, so board members are loath to give that up. So instead of waiting for members to leave, companies could potentially add more board seats and fill those with diverse candidates. Companies could also install tenure limits to accomplish the same goal. The average director tenure is currently around eight years, down from nine and a half years in 2015, according to Equilar. Limits could ensure more turnover. Then there’s the pipeline problem: Companies often look for CEOs and former CEOs to fill board seats. The chief executive role is a rarified position that also suffers from a lack of diversity, so using a feeder pool known for that is a bad place to start. Instead, companies should continue to look further afield for new board members. Broadening their base of board candidates to include general counsels, law school professors, heads of charities, cyber security experts, and business school professors, among others, will lead to greater diversity of thought as well as of gender and race. Otherwise, what’s the point? In Minow’s words: “Why not just have one person on the board if they’re all coming from the same place?” There’s huge moral and financial pressure on companies right now to diversify their boards. Some are making progress, but it might take some more systematic change before we get to more diverse, inclusive corporate boards from the companies who promised it last summer.
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Rush Limbaugh and the echo chamber that broke American politics
Rush Limbaugh smoking a cigar in his radio recording studio. | Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images A historian of talk radio explains how the medium became a powerful alternative reality machine. Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh died last week. Whatever you think of Limbaugh, he was the face of modern right-wing radio and his success coincided with a conservative takeover of an important but largely invisible force in American politics. Glance at a list of the top 15 talk radio programs in the country and you’ll notice something immediately: All but a couple are conservative. If that sounds surprising to you, it shouldn’t. Conservatives have dominated the medium of radio for well over half a century, and while you might think of radio as a relic of the electric age, it remains a powerful force in American politics. It’s hard to appreciate the reach of talk radio if, like me, you don’t listen to it and don’t know anyone who does. Although the industry has been ailing over the last several years, tens of millions of Americans still listen to it each week (a precise number is hard to come by, but it’s massive) and many of them are listening to a lot of it. For better or worse, talk radio does as much to shape the reality of millions of Americans as any other medium in the country. So why did it turn out this way? A recent book by Paul Matzko, called The Radio Right, tries to answer this question and a whole lot more. It’s a fascinating history of right-wing radio in the US, from its rise in the 1950s through the Vietnam Era and into the age of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. It’s also a look at the psychology of right-wing radio and why it’s so good at pulling listeners down rabbit holes of conspiracy theorizing. And despite the sagging numbers, the rise of podcasting is basically an extension of the radio format, which means it isn’t going away. I reached out to Matzko just a few days after Limbaugh’s death to talk about the roots of today’s right-wing echo chamber and why he thinks the real power of radio is the illusion of intimacy it creates between the host and the audience. If you wanted to build an alternative reality machine, Matzko argues, it’s hard to beat modern talk radio. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows. Sean Illing We’re talking just a few days after Rush Limbaugh died. How would you describe the impact he had not just on the evolution of talk radio but on contemporary conservatism? Paul Matzko Limbaugh is the non-politician with the most influence over American politics for the last 30 or so years. And it’s not just his outsized influence on right-wing politics, which is obviously immense, but I think you saw politicians from both sides framing their issues based on how they thought it would play on Rush’s show and shows like that. It’s hard to measure the impact here, but talk radio — and Rush in particular — had an inordinate effect on the American political landscape by occupying such a large space in the public conversation. As far as his influence on conservatism, I think of it this way: Not that long ago, to be conservative meant relatively little in terms of support for immigration. During the Reagan era, for example, the Republican Party actually tended to be more pro-immigration than the Democratic Party, mostly because of traditional Democratic ties to organized labor. But today, we live in a situation in which to be a Republican is to be hostile to immigration reform of almost any kind. It’s a massive ideological transformation and I really do think talk radio in general, and Rush in particular, is one of the biggest reasons for it. Sean Illing Is Rush the most significant actor in the history of talk radio? Paul Matzko There were people before him who had larger audiences at various points in time, but the longevity of Rush, the fact that he’s been dominant on the airwaves for 30 years, is totally unprecedented. So I could point to someone like Carl McIntire, a right-wing religious broadcaster in the ’60s, or Father Charles Coughlin, a far-right broadcaster in the ’30s, as people who had greater reach at their peaks, but it’s kind of like comparing Michael Jordan to LeBron James. Jordan may be the greatest, but LeBron has done it at almost the same level for so much longer. The duration of Rush’s career is unmatched, and for that reason I’d say he’s the prime actor, or the most influential actor, in the history of right-wing radio. Sean Illing Rush is often assumed to be the face of the modern right-wing radio revolution, and maybe he is, but the story of conservative talk radio goes back many more decades. What happened in the 1950s? Paul Matzko The great irony is that it was sort of accidental. In 1945, 95 percent of all radio stations were affiliated with one of the big networks, like CBS or NBC. By 1952, it’s less than half. And the reason is there was a huge pivot from radio to television. Everyone thought radio was a dying medium. So as the big networks fled radio for TV, you had all these smaller, more local stations popping up and applying for licenses from the FCC. The irony is that the decline of radio, due to the rise of television, lowered the barrier to entry to radio, allowing previously excluded and marginalized voices to enter the fray. This is the thing that saves radio. And it just so happens that forces on the right, especially religious broadcasters, had a ready-made audience waiting in the wings and radio was just way cheaper than television, so they developed an outsized presence right from the start. Sean Illing For several decades, there was a policy called the Fairness Doctrine that required broadcasters to be balanced in their coverage and present something like both sides of so-called “controversial issues.” And the Kennedy administration leans into this in the ’60s to beat back the growing influence of conservative radio. It was a constant pain in the ass for right-wing broadcasters, but the policy was finally ended by the Reagan Administration in 1987. What happened then? Paul Matzko Well, you really couldn’t have modern talk radio, or any overtly political talk show, under a rigorously enforced Fairness Doctrine regime. It’s telling that, even before the Fairness Doctrine was formally repealed for broadcast, we had a natural experiment that showed the difference between cable and broadcast television. Cable in the late ’70s is exempted from compliance with a variety of FCC rules for things like obscenity, which is why you could swear on cable, but you couldn’t swear during primetime on television. Cable was a Fairness Doctrine-free zone — which is why a lot of the interesting innovation and experimentation in political comedy, in political talk, is done on cable in the ’80s and ’90s. And this is exactly what happens with talk radio once the Fairness Doctrine was removed in 1987. The enforcement had been waning ever since the late ’70s, because Jimmy Carter’s FCC was basically refusing to consistently enforce it anymore. But when it’s finally off the books, there’s an explosion in talk radio and a wave of highly political, highly biased radio programs. This is really the birth of what we think of as modern talk radio. Sean Illing Was talk radio the original echo chamber on the right that made Fox News such a profitable business model? Paul Matzko Talk radio built an audience of millions of people who were only interested in conservative points of view, and then Rupert Murdoch comes along and says, “How about we have TV for these people as well?” In that sense, the answer to your question has to be “yes.” Now, it’s also possible to exaggerate the effect. On the one hand, it’s true that an echo chamber of predominantly right-wing talk radio creates this community of people who only want to consume conservative content, and then that alternative media ecosystem extends naturally into TV. But if you look at the history of right-wing broadcasters, you can see that an echo chamber is already in place even as far back as the ’60s. A lot of it was built through newsletters and newspapers and other forms of media. What talk radio makes possible is way more of this. And the thing about talk radio is that you can have it on all day. It’s such a uniquely saturated media landscape. This is what makes radio new and so powerful in terms of building that alternative reality or echo chamber. Sean Illing Why doesn’t a comparable echo chamber ever spring up on the left? Paul Matzko Talk radio, in the ’80s at least, was a lot more ideologically diverse than it is today. It really isn’t until the ’90s that conservatives completely own it. And again, it’s for an accidental structural reason. If you ask Rush Limbaugh why the right won radio in the ’90s, he would have said, “Well, it’s because there’s a silent majority of average Joes who aren’t being served by the lamestream media.” That’s his version. The reality is that if you’re a station owner, and you’re looking for the programs that you can sell the ad slots for the highest dollar value, you pick a right-wing host because they have the entire right scope of the political spectrum. But if you choose a left-wing talk radio host, you have a natural competitor that’s subsidized by the government, which is a center-left National Public Radio affiliate. Left-wing talk radio has a baked-in competition for viewers and the right-wing doesn’t. This wasn’t the intent of NPR — it’s just an unintended consequence. Sean Illing How do you distinguish the “demand” for conservative news from the “supply”? You could say that talk radio tapped into the issues that conservative Americans cared about, or you could say that talk radio engineered the demand for that content and then made lots of money supplying it. Paul Matzko I tend to lean toward the supply side. There is always some kind of demand for a conservative response to whatever’s happening. But the sort of phony outrage we see today, the outrage that’s tied to the daily news cycle, that’s a new thing that conservative radio hosts have engineered. They have to have something to be outraged over every single day. And they just jump from one thing to the next. So is it a demand shock that’s driving that? Or is it the fact that we now have this whole infrastructure of right-wing hosts and pundits who make a living off of ginning up outrage? It’s probably a bit of both, but I think we underestimate the supply side. Sean Illing Even today, with so much attention on cable and the internet, do you think talk radio remains the biggest echo chamber in American politics? Paul Matzko Oh, for sure, and it’s not even close. Of the top 15 talk radio shows, only one of them is politically progressive. I can’t think of any other mass media sector that is that skewed. Television isn’t. Newspapers certainly aren’t. Radio is absolutely unique in this way. Sean Illing Why do you think radio, more than any other medium, is so good at not just drawing listeners in but keeping them there? Paul Matzko Radio offers a simulacrum of intimacy. If I go to read the transcript of our conversation, I’m not going to say, “Honey, you know what? I really feel like I know Sean and Paul on some sort of intimate, personal level.” But if I heard our conversation, I heard our voices, and I heard it day after day after day, for several hours at a time, I’d really feel like I know Sean and Paul. Rush Limbaugh was on the radio for three hours a day, five days a week, and so are most of these hosts. So the intimacy effect is multiplied. And when you realize that it’s not just Rush, it’s all these other shows that draw in millions of the same listeners, you can grasp how pervasive and powerful it all is. Sean Illing Talk radio shows also excel at making the listener feel like an insider, like they have access to the “real world” in a way that outsiders don’t, which is fertile soil for hysteria and conspiracy theorizing. Paul Matzko It’s a natural medium for conspiracy theories to flourish. Conspiracy theories will flourish anywhere — they’re like a plant that can grow out of any little nook or cranny. But talk radio is a natural home for it because, again, that feeling of intimacy, that feeling of you know this host, you trust this host. And everyone else who isn’t part of the radio elect are just blind and lost sheep. Sean Illing What does the future of right-wing radio look like in the digital age? Do you expect it to persist as a dominant political force? Paul Matzko The average age of a talk radio listener is their mid-60s. So at a minimum, given the average life expectancy, you’ve got another decade or two to go. There will be new fans, but audience numbers have been declining since the 2000s. Ad revenue for talk radio has been falling. It is a sector in decline. But I think what’s important to note is that podcasting really is just talk radio that’s not live. It’s a different delivery mechanism. You download it, rather than being transmitted. But there’s no real difference between, say, Pod Save America and traditional talk radio. Sean Illing That seems important because, for whatever reason, the podcast space hasn’t been monopolized by the right wing. Left-leaning podcasts are incredibly popular. So there’s much more ideological diversity now, and that’s probably a good thing. Paul Matzko Exactly, which goes back to the point I was making earlier: Talk radio’s conservative skew is really a product of unintended consequences of regulatory and structural decisions made in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. It didn’t have to be that way. And podcasting clearly isn’t that way. It’s a much more diverse space. But if the future of talk radio is podcasting, as I believe, then we’ll see a huge shift in resources and advertising dollars over to podcasting. And if that happens, we can probably expect to see podcasting replicate a lot of the norms and habits of traditional talk radio.
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Is this the Covid-19 endgame?
Covid-19 cases are down from their winter peak but still high. Experts wonder: Will the pandemic keep improving, or does the US risk another surge if reopening goes too fast? | Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images Why experts believe life could be “normal-ish” by fall — and why they fear it won’t be. Are we in the endgame now? The Covid-19 pandemic in the United States has decelerated from its winter peak. On January 8, the country saw more than 300,000 new cases — a single-day record. Also on January 8, the US peaked at nearly 250,000 cases a day based on a weekly rolling average, according to Our World in Data. As of February 24, the US is averaging a little more than 68,000 new Covid-19 cases every day. Hospitalizations have also decreased (to about 54,000 patients currently hospitalized, down from a peak of 130,000 in mid-January), as have deaths. The improvement in the pandemic is significant. It’s likely attributable to a combination of people staying home after the winter holidays and more Americans gaining protection against future infection (whether through infection or vaccination). The big question now is whether we’re seeing the beginning of the end. As more people are vaccinated, will this downward trajectory continue, or even accelerate? Or will case numbers start to level off and stay high (relative to most of 2020) for months? The progress should be celebrated. Hospitalizations and deaths, arguably the more important metrics, are also way down. As more people get vaccinated, those numbers should continue to fall, as the approved vaccines have proven exceptionally effective at preventing the most serious illness. The US is now averaging about 1.3 million shots every day; with some improvement, the country may be able to deliver enough shots to reach herd immunity by the fall, according to some rough estimates. But there are already signs that some states, particularly in the Northeast, are beginning to see cases plateau. A plateau would mean a more drawn-out final stage of the pandemic until widespread protection is reached — and more sickness and death than we’d see if cases keep falling. And it was a very real fear for the half-dozen public health experts I spoke with for this story. “I think that you could call it an endgame, but it might take a long time,” Bill Hanage, a Harvard epidemiologist, told me. “I think we have passed the worst of the pandemic, but there is the potential for local bushfires to spring up.” Experts worry people will relax their social distancing or mask-wearing too quickly, giving the virus more opportunities to spread. The more infectious new variants will continue to become more dominant and could exacerbate community transmission if people stop taking precautions. Still, the general attitude I detected from epidemiologists is one of guarded optimism that the pandemic is entering its last stage — paired with anxiety that these final months could be more painful than need be if people get complacent. “We need to take the pandemic seriously and not let up on our prevention efforts,” Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told me. “At least until our case numbers are much lower than they are now.” Cases are going down nationally. But the decline may be tapering off. The national numbers speak for themselves: The US is now seeing about one-fourth as many daily new cases as it was six weeks ago. But that progress is more a representation of just how bad things got in December and January than it is an acceptable level of infection on its own terms. Right now, the national caseload is at roughly the same level as in the weeks before Election Day, which nobody would have called acceptable at the time. As Vox’s German Lopez has reported, every state in the country except for one — Hawaii — still has too many daily new Covid-19 infections, according to benchmarks set by experts. “We’re still far from being out of the woods,” Tara Smith, a professor at the Kent State University College of Public Health, told me. “It’s better than where we were for late fall and early winter, but not nearly back to our lowest level of spread.” National data can also obscure some of the important trends happening at the regional and state levels, where experts see indications that cases are not falling with the same speed. Look at the Northeast: The average number of daily new cases dropped from 28,000 on February 1 to 19,400 on February 14. But the improvement seems to be slowing down in the back half of the month, with new cases in the region hovering right around 16,000 as of February 23. Cases have actually risen in Connecticut and Rhode Island over the past week. And while case numbers are going down a bit in several states in the region, including New York, Massachusetts, and Maine, the declines have been smaller than in other parts of the country. Covid Tracking Project “The Northeast in general appears to be settling down into a plateau,” Hanage said. Yet those states are pushing ahead with reopening: Massachusetts is moving into a new phase, allowing indoor performance spaces to hold events at 50 percent capacity. New York is now permitting more indoor dining. Several experts told me they are also watching Florida, where the new B.1.1.7 variant is spreading rapidly and Gov. Ron DeSantis has been generally lax about social distancing and mask measures throughout the pandemic. New cases are down just 12 percent in the last week, and the state has one of the higher rates of new cases per capita outside of the Northeast. So, there are already some potential trouble spots worth watching. But fortunately, the country has some important things working in its favor that could prevent these outbreaks from spiraling out of control again. The reasons for optimism about the pandemic winding down The way the Covid-19 pandemic ultimately ends is the virus runs out of people to infect. Every day, more Americans are gaining protection from the coronavirus, making it more difficult for it to spread. There are the 28.4 million people who have had a confirmed case of Covid-19, for starters — likely an undercount, however, given the inadequate testing in the United States. A study published in JAMA last month estimated that, as of mid-November, the real number of infections had reached 46.9 million, a number that would have only grown since then. In addition, roughly 45 million Americans have received at least one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, which gives them some level of protection against the virus. We are nowhere near herd immunity yet (generally thought to mean at least 60 percent of the population has protection against the virus, and we may need closer to 70 or 80 percent for a virus as infectious as SARS-CoV-2), but the number of people who are vulnerable to the coronavirus is shrinking. People may also be socially distancing more than they did around Thanksgiving and Christmas, when indoor gatherings seemed to drive the winter surge. As the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson observed, public health officials have cited Google mobility data showing less movement as one likely explanation for the downturn in cases. People may be nervous about the surge or the variants, but other factors might be in play, too, such as a normal post-holiday lull, or the bad weather across much of the country. The result is the same: The reduction in activity means fewer opportunities for people to spread the virus to one another. Polling also continues to show most Americans say they are wearing masks every time they leave their house. These behaviors are hopefully having the desired effect and helping to lower transmission. “We’re reaping some benefit from changes to individual behaviors and policies that occurred during and after the December and January surge in cases,” Michaud told me, “which eventually helped drive down transmission through things like greater adherence to masking and social distancing in many places.” The warming weather should also work in our favor. While scientists still don’t perfectly understand how seasonality affects Covid-19’s spread, hotter temperatures will make it easier for people to gather outside, where the virus has a harder time moving from person to person. The reasons for concern that the US will enter a long plateau Experts still worry the end of the Covid-19 pandemic will be more protracted than necessary if local officials and individuals are too cavalier about resuming public activities and relaxing social distancing. The problem starts with how many people are still susceptible to the virus. If we combine the numbers above on real infections and vaccinations, somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 million to 120 million Americans probably have some immunity to the coronavirus. But that still leaves 200 million people who don’t. Yet people and politicians may look at the dropping case numbers and, after a year of quarantine and economic turmoil, be eager to get life back to normal as soon as possible. It’s a pattern we saw last year, when states started reopening businesses even while public health experts warned the virus wasn’t contained. The dips didn’t last and cases rose again. Recent policy changes, such as New York City’s plan to permit movie theaters to hold screenings at limited capacity and Iowa lifting its mask mandate, suggest that the country might repeat the same cycle over the next few months. “The risks come from reopening too soon and removing mask and distancing requirements,” Smith said. “I’m worried about complacency as cases decrease. It seems we haven’t yet learned the lessons of the pandemic, that if you start trying to return to ‘normal’ too soon, cases creep back up again.” Any slowdown in the vaccination campaign would also lengthen the pandemic. For now, there is plenty of demand for the vaccines and more supply on the way. People seem to be growing more comfortable with the idea of getting the vaccine. But the US may reach a point, before too long, when it has more shots than people willing to take them. David Celentano, who leads the epidemiology department at Johns Hopkins, said that if 20 percent to 30 percent of Americans remain hesitant about getting the vaccines, “we are in for trouble.” So to keep up momentum, we need to remain vigilant about wearing masks and maintaining distance when we’re with people outside our household. We need to stick to outdoor activities as the weather makes them more palatable. And we need to keep getting our vaccines in order to keep building toward the herd immunity that will eventually bring the pandemic under control and allow life to return to normal. Several of the experts I spoke with said they saw autumn as the critical moment in the pandemic. If over the summer we can keep cases suppressed while continuing to vaccinate people at a high rate, by the time the weather turns, the situation could be very different from 2020. Smith told me she had hope for a “normal-ish” late summer and fall. “One of the best-case scenarios is that next fall, this will be like the flu,” Hanage said. “I think that will have been a good place to have reached.”
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How Dolly Parton became a secular American saint
Dolly Parton at the Mill Run Theater in Niles, Illinois, in 1977. | Paul Natkin/Getty Images Why everyone loves Dolly now. “I’m sick of Dolly, ain’t you?” said Dolly Parton to the New York Times Magazine in 2020. Few people are. Dolly Parton is in the midst of a career revival that has seen her hailed as a kind of secular country-pop saint. And what’s not to love about Dolly? Dolly is the living legend who sells out arena tours in her 70s. She’s the songwriting genius who wrote “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” on the same day. In recent decades, feminists have begun to reclaim her as a feminist icon. She is an impeccably dressed glamour queen, a business titan whose brand includes her own theme park, a philanthropist whose literacy program has sent free books to millions of children, and on top of all that she helped fund Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine — and then refused to jump the line to get a dose early. She is so beloved that WNYC devoted a full podcast series to investigating how a single figure could be adored by both blue and red states. Dolly Parton is, as the New York Times put it in 2019, the rare musical icon who is able to “get her victory lap while she’s still around to bask in the glory.” Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix via Getty Images Dolly Parton arrives in London in 1977. But Parton knew what she was talking about when she suggested to the New York Times last fall that people were starting to get sick of her. She has now achieved the sort of hysterical and highly trendy adoration that can shade into overexposure in the blink of an eye — even for a legend with a reputation as durable as Dolly Parton’s. The pressure on Dolly Parton to be the single person who can unite a fractured America is so high, there is a slow and uneasy creep of incipient backlash all around her. There was the discontent after Parton reworked her iconic “9 to 5” worker’s anthem into “5 to 9” to honor the side hustle for a Super Bowl ad. There are the whispers about the dinner show that used to be called Dolly’s Dixie Stampede. There is concern that the labor conditions at Dollywood aren’t ideal. watching Dolly Parton go from "secret feminist" to "unproblematic fave" to "NOT a socialist, ACTUALLY" was almost worth the cost of being on this website lol— Madeline Leung Coleman (@madelesque) February 2, 2021 Dolly Parton is beloved because she has devoted her career to standing for love. And, usefully, she is willing to be ambiguous about what exactly that love means and how much it includes people that those on different sides of the political aisle consider their enemies. But in a post-Trump America, is Dolly Parton’s love enough? “If I was trying to really impress men or be totally sexy, then I would dress differently” Dolly Parton wasn’t always so uncontroversially adored. She spent much of her early career worshipped by her country base while the rest of the country treated her as a walking boob joke, or even less than that. In her 2020 study of Parton’s career, She Come By It Natural, Sarah Smarsh notes that in the 1970s and ’80s, during interviews with Barbara Walters and Oprah, both interviewers “asked [Parton] to stand up so they could point out, without humor, that she looked like a tramp.” But in recent decades, everything that makes Dolly Dolly has swung back into trend. “One reason Parton’s approval rating is so high, though” Lindsay Zoladz posited in the New York Times in 2019, “is that all the attributes that used to set her up for criticism — the outrageous, hyper-femme style; the unapologetic business savvy needed to pull off her late-70s pop crossover; even the so-what acknowledgment of her own cosmetic surgery — are no longer taboo.” Dolly Parton often explains that she modeled her look after the town tramp, who as a small child she thought was the most beautiful person she’d ever seen, and that she knows straight men don’t find it attractive and doesn’t care. “If I was trying to really impress men or be totally sexy, then I would dress differently,” she told Playboy in 1978. But why bother? “I’m already married and he don’t mind how I look.” Library of Congress, Music Division An undated image of Dolly Parton in a fuchsia suit. For decades, this acknowledgment played as tacky or trashy. But in the 2010s, it came to be seen as empowering, even feminist: Dolly dresses for herself, not the male gaze. And Dolly’s self is a celebration of the artificiality of femininity and glamour, a finding of authenticity in what is fake. That’s downright avant-garde. Moreover, Parton’s hard-nosed and palpable ambition might have once been seen as cynical. But in today’s rise-and-grind culture, they are aspirational. Dolly knows where the money is, and she follows it. Who can fault her for that? Parton’s 21st-century career revival got an extra assist when she brought in internet-savvy new management in 2004. Up to that point, she had no website and little merchandise, and when she toured, her ticket sales were in the low thousands per venue. Then she hired Danny Nozell, who often says in interviews that he strategically charted a new generation of Dolly fans through a combination of targeted touring, TV marketing, and “heavy viral advertising.” (This strategy perhaps explains the number of really very good Dolly Parton memes out there.) View this post on Instagram A post shared by Dolly Parton (@dollyparton) By 2006, Parton’s tours were selling out again. In 2009, she started selling out stadiums. In 2014, she headlined the Glastonbury Festival. So as the zeitgeist shifted into a mode more receptive to Dolly Parton’s genius than previous decades had been, she was prepared to meet it. The mainstream embraced Dolly Parton, and she embraced it back. In Come By It Natural, Smarsh describes seeing a bunch of cynical New Yorkers live tweet Dolly’s Pure and Simple concert tour in 2016: “That majestic bitch just started playing a goddamn PANFLUTE [sic],” one tweeted. “Dolly Parton, sitting in a pew onstage, just got a stadium full of Nyers to shout ‘Amen,’ ” said another. And then: “Nothing says #Pride like a stadium full of gays singing ‘Here You Come Again’ with Dolly Parton.” Suddenly two New York acquaintances I didn’t realize knew one another were tweeting an exchange. “Her voice is perfect.” “Dolly forever! Who knew she was such a storyteller?” “About to fling myself at the stage.” Smarsh, who grew up in rural Kansas — Dolly country — recalls being shocked to see such earnest Dolly Parton worship from these coastal elites. “I guess I figured that Dolly Parton would only be loved ironically in some places,” she writes. But Dolly Parton forbids irony. That’s part of her magic. And for the past half-decade, coastal America and heartland America alike have loved her fully, earnestly, and unironically. “Really, who could fail to love Dolly Parton?” To love Dolly Parton is to love her image, which is simultaneously unchanging and evolving, over-the-top obvious and opaque. “There is no aura of mystery … about Dolly Parton,” wrote Roger Ebert in 1980, as he interviewed Parton on the 9 to 5 press tour. “What you see is what you get.” But as the interview continued, Ebert’s sense of who Dolly was shifted. She seemed perfectly authentic, but also somehow fictional. “She speaks in that cornball Southern accent, but with perfect clarity and timing, so that she isn’t just answering a question, she’s presenting a character, she’s onstage,” he wrote. “A fascinating phenomenon took place among the journalists at the table. Only moments ago, they were asking routine questions. Now they’d been enlisted as part of the act. They were falling into the rhythm of the performance, feeding her straight lines.” Parton’s sense of the character she was playing was so strong that everyone else had to play along, too. What else do you do when faced with Dolly Parton? Dolly Parton forbids irony. That’s part of her magic. It’s not that she’s doing “Dolly Parton” as a bit, exactly. Dolly exudes authenticity. But she does seem to have a clear sense that when wielded strategically, her outrageous public persona can offer plenty of cover to shelter behind. This contradiction is part of the dance Parton has done throughout her career. She shows up in her teased wigs and plunging necklines, makes a boob joke before anyone else can make it (“Now that we’ve got that off our chest!” is a recurring Dolly-ism), and appears to be entirely straightforward and understandable. It’s only after she’s done talking that you realize how much she’s successfully hidden away. For example: her husband Carl Thomas Dean, to whom she’s been married since 1966 and who is almost never photographed in public. Her political beliefs, which, outside of a vocal support for LGBTQ rights, remain a mystery (she will not discuss Trump). Her private life. View this post on Instagram A post shared by Dolly Parton (@dollyparton) “Her physical appearance has always seemed to me like a metaphor for her actual person,” wrote Hadley Freeman in the Guardian in 2019: “she gives a lot of good — and distracting — front, but the reality is definitely obscured.” In the absence of reality, rumors flourish: that Parton’s arms are secretly covered in tattoos. That no one has ever seen her real hair. But as reality remains unknowable, Parton keeps finding new and fascinating angles in her elaborate star image for the public to play with. “She doesn’t reinvent herself but instead periodically turns her prismatic image so that it reflects a different light,” argued the New York Times Magazine in 2020. At the time, the part of Dolly’s identity that was most in the light was her work as a songwriter, which is why you probably heard often last year that she wrote “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene” in the same day. This year, with Covid-19 vaccines all over the news, it’s her work as a philanthropist that is most often in the headlines. And as Parton’s image shifts, there’s one idea that keeps glittering at the center of her star, almost as constant as her stylized femininity. Throughout her career, in profile after profile, people who talk to Dolly Parton come away talking about an aura of love that surrounds her. This aura is, perhaps, the visceral sense that Parton is being entirely honest when she says, as she often does, that she “loves everybody and wants everybody to love me.” In 2008, Roger Ebert returned to his 1980 Dolly Parton profile, noting that it had missed something he considered very important: her presence, which he writes “enveloped” him. “This had nothing to do with sex appeal,” he says. “Far from it. It was as if I were being mesmerized by a benevolent power. I left the room in a cloud of good feeling.” Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images Dolly Parton hugs Mick Jagger backstage after a performance in New York in 1977. Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP Emmylou Harris, left, and Linda Ronstadt present Dolly Parton with the MusiCares Person of the Year award in 2018. Ebert adds that when he spoke with his writing partner Gene Siskel about Parton the next day, Siskel reported the same feeling: “This will sound crazy,” he said, “but when I was interviewing Dolly Parton, I almost felt like she had healing powers.” “Really, who could fail to love Dolly Parton?” mused the Guardian in 2011. “Well, aside from the Ku Klux Klan who, as if to confirm that it had a combined IQ in the single digits, has held demonstrations at Parton’s theme park, the inevitably named Dollywood, because of her annual Gay Day.” “I say this with humility and as someone who is not a believer,” Dolly Parton’s America host Jad Abumrad told Billboard in 2019: “There’s something very Christ-like about her.” But America in the 21st century is no time for a secular pop saint. And there’s a dark side to Dolly’s ability to appeal, Christ-like, to all people at all times. “I don’t want to offend anybody. This is a business.” The first suggestion of a Trump-era backlash to Dolly Parton came in 2017, with the tale of the attraction that was then called Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. “Advertised as an ‘extraordinary dinner show … pitting North against South in a friendly and fun rivalry [link removed],’ Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede is the Lost Cause of the Confederacy meets Cirque du Soleil,” wrote Aisha Harris in a viral article for Slate. “It’s a lily-white kitsch extravaganza that play-acts the Civil War but never once mentions slavery.” In the Dixie Stampede, racing piglets named Robert E. Lee and Scarlett O’Hara faced off against piglets named Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, while the cheering audience was instructed to pick a side. The bathrooms featured a white sign on one door saying “Southerners Only” and a black sign on the other saying “Northerners Only.” “This was, at best, horrifyingly tone-deaf,” Harris concluded. Shortly after Harris’s article came out, the attraction changed. While the retitled “Dolly Parton’s Stampede” continues to market itself as a rivalry between North and South, it no longer includes references to the Civil War, and its antebellum nostalgia has been transformed into Gilded Age nostalgia. The restrooms now have a kitschy cowboy theme. (A “history” lesson involving magical Indigenous people, however, remains.) Treat your little cowboy or cowgirl to a holiday feast and an amazing Christmas adventure at Dolly Parton's Stampede— Dolly's Stampede (@DollysStampede) December 20, 2020 “There’s such a thing as innocent ignorance, and so many of us are guilty of that,” Parton said to Billboard of the controversy in 2020. “When they said ‘Dixie’ was an offensive word, I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to offend anybody. This is a business. We’ll just call it The Stampede.’ As soon as you realize that [something] is a problem, you should fix it. Don’t be a dumbass. That’s where my heart is. I would never dream of hurting anybody on purpose.” Parton was speaking to Billboard in July 2020 as the country was engulfed in protests following the police shooting of George Floyd. The interviewer asked her what she thought of the movement. “I understand people having to make themselves known and felt and seen,” Parton said. “And of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!” This kind of deft political quasi-answer is the sort of move Parton’s been pulling her entire career. She expresses empathy rather than solidarity — she understands why people have to make themselves known, even if she’s not showing up at a protest herself — and she affirms that she loves everybody. And since she loves everybody, of course their lives matter. When Parton happens to offend, as she did with the Dixie Stampede, it’s an accident. And when she rebranded the Stampede, she presented it both as a decision in keeping with good Southern manners (she doesn’t want to offend) and a practical business decision that no one should take personally. Her actual thoughts on the antebellum nostalgia in which the original attraction trafficked she kept to herself. “I’ve got as many Republican friends as I’ve got Democrat friends and I just don’t like voicing my opinion on things,” she told the Guardian in 2019. “I’ve seen things before, like the Dixie Chicks. You can ruin a career for speaking out.” Parton meets any attempt to force her hand at a political statement with a quick and charming two-step. At the 2017 Emmy Awards, she reunited with her 9 to 5 co-stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin to present the award for Best Supporting Actor, only to find Fonda and Tomlin united in speaking out against Donald Trump. Wally Fong/AP Jane Fonda, left, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin seen together promoting 9 to 5 in 1980. “Back in 1980, when we made that movie, we refused to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” Fonda said, quoting one of the repeated lines of 9 to 5. “And it’s true in 2017 we still refuse to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” Tomlin said, to vociferous applause. Parton, between Tomlin and Fonda, went wide-eyed and took a step back from the microphone, although she continued smiling gamely. Fonda threw an arm around Parton’s shoulders as she went on with award show patter about best supporting actors, and then Parton stepped forward with her go-to deflection move: a boob joke. “Well, I know about support,” she cracked, gesturing to her chest. “Hadn’t been for good support, Shock and Awe here would be more like Flopsy and Droopsy!” Then she informed the crowd that she was sure Tomlin had been referring to the villainous 9 to 5 boss Mr. Hart with that little quip. “How about a shoutout for [Hart actor] Dabney Coleman out there?” And finally, just for good measure, she threw in a sex joke, too. “I’m just hoping that I’m going to get one of those Grace and Frankie vibrators in my swag bag tonight.” “I just did not want everybody to think that whatever they think is what I think,” Parton told the Guardian of the incident in 2019. “I don’t really like getting up on TV and saying political things. I don’t even want to make a deal out of it, but I want people to know I’m my own individual self. Even though [Fonda, Tomlin, and I] may agree on a whole lot of things — and they may have more agreement [between] themselves because they’ve been together for longer — I still have my own thoughts and my own way of doing things. It’s not a matter of being disrespectful, it’s just, OK, that’s what they said, I’m not getting involved in it.” Parton’s response to Tomlin and Fonda’s anti-Trump statement functions as a sort of Rorschach test for the viewer: You can read whatever you like into it. “First off, Dolly Parton didn’t do anything wrong. I guess some wanted her to spit in Lily’s Tomlin’s face for disrespect, but guess what, that’s not Dolly’s style,” read a blog post on Saving Country Music arguing that Trump-supporting Dolly fans had nothing to be angry about. “So you know, get the hell over it. Dolly Parton is a gift bestowed to us otherwise downtrodden and depressed apes moving about the crust of the godforsaken earth with slumped shoulders, looking for meaning and respite from boredom, and I’ll be damned if a bunch of tight asses will run her down for something she didn’t do.” America in the 21st century is no time for a secular pop saint Meanwhile, in She Come By It Natural, Smarsh reads Parton’s vibrator joke as subversively feminist, and subliminally anti-Trump in its own way. “Hers was the least directly political comment of the three,” Smarsh writes. “It was also the one most assured to vex a man like Donald Trump — in whose eyes women exist for his pleasure, diminish in value as they age, and need a man to achieve sexual pleasure. What’s more anti-Trump than a rich seventy-one-year-old woman fantasizing about a sex toy on national television after his name was invoked?” Parton’s refusal to take any explicit public political stance has served her well for most of her career. Unlike younger stars, like Taylor Swift, she took little heat for refusing to endorse Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in the 2016 election. When she said she’d be happy to stand behind Clinton “if she gets it” before Clinton had officially clinched the Democratic nomination, Parton was quick to clarify herself: She meant that if Clinton became president, Parton would support her whole-heartedly. Then she threw in another boob joke. “I try not to get political,” she said, “but if I am, I might as well just run myself ’cause I’ve got the hair for it, it’s huge, and they could always use more boobs in the race.” “Both-sides-ism rarely feels as benevolent as it does when coming from Parton,” mused the New York Times in 2019. But as Parton’s 21st-century career revival continues, viewers are willing to see more sinister undertones in her “both-sides-ism.” After all, what do we do when “both sides” includes neo-Nazis and armed insurrectionists waving Confederate flags at the Capitol? In a close reading of Parton’s career on Longreads in 2018, Jessica Wilkerson grapples with her own lifelong Dolly fandom, and specifically with the way the idea of whiteness underlies Dolly’s image. “She’s embraced by feminists and queer folks at the same time she is declared a queen by Confederate apologists,” Wilkerson writes. “Dolly-as-mountain-girl anchors her to an ancestral white home in the imaginations of white people, while her class-conscious and gender-transgressive performance of whiteness becomes a signifier for white progressives who embrace gender fluidity and working-class iconolatry.” In Wilkerson’s reading, Dolly is able to flirt with both sides of the political aisle — but at a cost. “Dolly Parton has built her empire on and with the debris of old, racist amusements and wrapped it in working-class signifiers and feminist politics,” Wilkerson concludes, nodding to Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. “I ignored that fact for a long time because it didn’t fit the script of the feminist, working-class heroine I had conjured. But I also ignored how others’ attachment to Dolly is exactly because of her embrace of Dixie and her complex celebration of whiteness. And I have ignored how whiteness clings.” Elsewhere in the article, Wilkerson investigates labor conditions at Dollywood, which Parton established in her hometown to bring jobs back to the area. Labor conditions there, Wilkerson finds, are not Edenic: It’s hard work, low pay (although above minimum wage), and patchy benefits. “Dolly Parton promised jobs to her community; she did not promise well-paying jobs,” Wilkerson writes. “And while Dollywood does not pay the worst wages in Sevier County or in the theme park industry, the wages are significantly lower than those they replaced as the economy shifted from manufacturing to tourism.” The idea that Parton’s theme park is not a labor paradise is probably not enough to get Dolly Parton canceled.Neither is the idea that she refuses to talk politics in public, or that she allows racists to like her, or that she rewrote her labor rights anthem to help sell Squarespace. But it is the sort of thing that makes the reflexively trendy worship of Dolly — like a recent petition to replace all Confederate monuments in Tennessee with statues of Dolly, “the ‘Jesus of Appalachia’” — start to feel a little lazy, even cartoonish. Chris Walter/WireImage via Getty Images Dolly Parton in 1978. Dolly Parton is a brilliant artist, and she also seems to be a nice lady who is doubtless doing her best for all her many fans. But asking her to solve America’s fractured social landscape and calling her Jesus is putting a lot on her. It’s putting a lot on anyone. And Parton knows it. Parton’s internet-savvy management is well aware of the potential damage it might do even to a living legend of Dolly’s stature for her to court overexposure. Last November, Novell told the New York Times that Parton’s team planned to pull back from the public eye in 2021, “to avoid oversaturating the market.” Not long after, the news broke that Parton had helped fund Moderna’s Covid vaccine. Dolly Parton, it seems, just can’t help but keep giving us all what we want. In January, the Tennessee state legislature considered a bill to put up a statue of Parton on the Capitol grounds. “At this point in history, is there a better example, not just in America but in the world, of a leader that is [a] kind, decent, passionate human being?” posited Democratic Rep. John Mark Windle. ”[She’s] a passionate person who loves everyone, and everyone loves her.” Parton asked the legislature to remove the bill from consideration. “Given all that is going on in the world,” she said in a statement, “I don’t think putting me on a pedestal is appropriate at this time.” ❤️— Dolly Parton (@DollyParton) February 18, 2021 So perhaps it’s up to the public, after all, to let Dolly take a break, and to let her leave us alone long enough for us to stop worshipping her and start missing her. But will we? Or will we keep craving ever more Dolly Parton? Will we always keep asking her to come back to heal our wounds?
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Bias, disrespect, and demotions: Black employees say Amazon has a race problem
Amazon’s downtown Seattle campus. | Meron Menghistab for Vox Interviews with diversity managers and internal data obtained by Recode find that Black Amazon employees are promoted less frequently and are rated more harshly than non-Black peers. When Chanin Kelly-Rae started working at Amazon in 2019 as a global head of diversity in the company’s cloud computing division, she had big ambitions for her new job. She had nearly two decades of experience leading diversity and inclusion efforts inside important institutions, like Washington state’s governor’s office, but she’d never worked at an influential global business leader like Amazon. But less than a year later, Kelly-Rae quit. Her tenure inside the company convinced her that Amazon’s corporate workplace has deep, systemic issues that disadvantage Black employees and workers from other underrepresented backgrounds. And she was dismayed by her perception that Amazon leadership was unwilling to listen to internal experts about how to identify and fix these problems. “Amazon was not doing things in a way that represents best practices that would advance diversity and inclusion in any way that is meaningful and thoughtful,” she told Recode. “Let me add: Amazon appeared to be taking steps backward instead of forward.” Meron Menghistab for Vox Chanin Kelly-Rae was a head of diversity for Amazon Web Services in 2019. Kelly-Rae, who is Black, is one of more than a dozen former and current Amazon corporate employees — 10 of whom are Black — who told Recode in interviews over the past few months that they felt the company has failed to create a corporate-wide environment where all Black employees feel welcomed and respected. Instead, they told Recode that, in their experience, Black employees at the company often face both direct and insidious bias that harms their careers and personal lives. All of the current and former employees, other than Kelly-Rae, spoke on condition of anonymity either because of the terms of their employment with Amazon or because they fear retribution from Amazon for speaking out about their experiences. Current and former Amazon diversity and inclusion professionals — employees whose work focuses on helping Amazon create and maintain an equitable workplace and products — told Recode that internal data shows that Amazon’s review and promotion systems have created an unlevel playing field. Black employees receive “least effective” marks more often than all other colleagues and are promoted at a lower rate than non-Black peers. Recode reviewed some of this data for the Amazon Web Services division of the company, and it shows large disparities in performance review ratings between Black and white employees. “We struggle to bring [Black] folks in because there’s not a whole lot of desire, in my opinion, to go outside of our normal practices,” a current Amazon diversity manager told Recode. “And then when they do get here, it’s harder to get promoted, harder to get top-tier rated, and easier to get lowest-tier. All those things combined make it so folks don’t wanna stay. And folks will leave Amazon and go take on more senior roles elsewhere.” Amazon spokesperson Jaci Anderson provided Recode with a statement that said: “We disagree with this characterization of Amazon’s culture and believe that it misrepresents the facts and is based on the views of a small number of individuals.” Amazon’s statement continued: We work hard to build an inclusive culture that welcomes, celebrates, and values all people, but we’re disappointed if even one person has a negative experience. Teams across Amazon have hired hundreds of thousands of Black employees and thousands of Black managers, and our retention data and employee surveys illustrate that they have similar attrition rates and greater job satisfaction and feelings of inclusion than their non-Black colleagues. We recognize we have work to do, including increasing Black representation at all levels, and we set — and met — aggressive goals to double the representation of Black Vice Presidents and Directors in 2020 and are committing to do so again in 2021. We encourage anyone to compare our goals and progress towards achieving those goals with other large employers. Some of those who spoke to Recode recounted what they saw as biased interactions inside Amazon’s corporate offices, including a white male manager who told a Black female employee, unprompted, that his ancestors “owned slaves but I’m pretty sure they were good to their slaves.” Others described microaggressions like being called out by managers and peers for not smiling or being friendly enough. They told Recode that even when they reported these kinds of interactions to human resources, the offending colleagues often faced few or no repercussions, especially in cases where there were no other witnesses. Many of these employees work or worked for Amazon Web Services, the division of Amazon that is run by longtime Amazon executive Andy Jassy, whom Jeff Bezos recently announced will succeed him as Amazon CEO later this year. Still, several said they believe that Jassy cares about systemic racism impacting Black Americans inside and outside of the company. Isaac Brekken/AP Andy Jassy, then the CEO of Amazon Web Services, announces a new initiative with the NFL in 2019. The employees Recode interviewed said the racial bias they encountered at Amazon affected them in a multitude of meaningful ways: Four of the Black women who spoke to Recode said they sought mental health counseling while at Amazon, either solely or in large part because of their experience working at the company. Some workers said treatment from colleagues and managers compelled them to leave the company, even though they’d once viewed it as the opportunity of their dreams. And some stuck it out at the company by transferring roles, and even taking demotions, to escape toxic bosses. One current employee said she’s still at Amazon because she believes she can make a difference. “Changing the system from inside tends to be most effective,” she said. Some of those interviewed said that not all teams and managers perpetuate these racial biases at the company. And several told Recode they were heartened when company leaders, including Bezos, spoke out publicly last year to condemn police killings of Black Americans and to support the Black Lives Matter movement. But they all said their view is that the company is plagued by systemic issues that disproportionately harm Black employees — and several faulted the company’s senior leadership team, known as the S-team, for not focusing enough on identifying and implementing the right strategies to fix the biases. Some employees also told Recode that they think the human resources division has not done enough to root out employees that they feel have discriminated against them or their Black colleagues. And these issues extend far beyond Amazon’s corporate workforce, as seen last spring after Amazon fired a Black warehouse manager named Christian Smalls, who had organized a small employee walkout at a facility to protest what the group said were inadequate health protections for workers during the early weeks of the pandemic. Amazon’s top lawyer, David Zapolsky, later referred to Smalls as “not smart, or articulate” in notes from a meeting with Bezos and other company leaders. After these notes leaked to the press, Amazon white-collar employees fumed over the treatment of Smalls and Zapolsky’s choice of words, which were viewed as offensive at best and racist at worst. These allegations matter because the company is the second-largest private sector employer in the US, and how Amazon hires, treats, and retains Black employees directly impacts the hundreds of thousands of people who work for the tech giant. Beyond that, Amazon’s runaway success makes it a model for other businesses that try to emulate its internal culture and labor practices. But it also matters because Amazon runs businesses across varied industries — from retail to media to cloud computing to facial recognition software — and the decisions its leaders make, and experiences and points of view that inform their decisions, have the power to positively or negatively affect tens of millions of other Americans far outside of Amazon’s walls. Kelly-Rae, for her part, said Amazon’s massive reach and power come with great responsibility. “They have access to our lives in more ways than any other company,” she said. “The best thing they can do when creating opportunity is make sure that opportunity is enjoyed universally and not kept from some because of who they are.” “Amazon is really good at things it wants to be good at,” she added, “and if Amazon decided it really wanted to be good at this, I have no doubt it can be.” “You don’t need the data” Kelly-Rae was only a month into her job as a diversity and inclusion leader for a department in Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing division, when she started to realize the work ahead would be daunting. She had gathered with the rest of Amazon’s diversity and inclusion employees at the company’s Seattle, Washington, headquarters for an inaugural all-staff meeting in January 2020, shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic turned the world upside down. The teams had gathered for the first-annual internal diversity summit to share feedback, learn from their peers and leaders, and discuss goals and the right strategies to meet them. During a Q&A session with employees at that summit, tensions rose as employees started questioning Beth Galetti, Amazon’s head of human resources and a member of Bezos’s S-team. According to three people who were present at the event, some employees were concerned about what they saw as a lack of resources for diversity and inclusion work, and they wanted to know why Amazon has for years failed to hit certain S-team goals related to the percentage of job applicants from underrepresented racial backgrounds who get an in-person interview. The conversation reached a boiling point when Galetti was asked why D&I employees at Amazon who work outside of the HR department don’t have access to more granular data about the demographics of the workforce across different management levels. At the @SeattleChamber #RLC2017 where Beth Galetti, Amazon’s SVP for HR, talks about our leadership principles and our investment in talent.— Jared Axelrod (@JaredAxelrod) October 20, 2017 “You don’t need the data to do your job,” was Galetti’s approximate response, the three sources said. “That left everyone in the room aghast,” Kelly-Rae told Recode. “If the data doesn’t matter, then that body of work doesn’t matter.” Those in attendance said the response was shocking not only because Amazon leaders boast about the central role data plays in everything the tech giant does, but also because data analysis is crucial in identifying problems and opportunities in diversity and inclusion work. “That’s the antithesis of what you would say about anything at Amazon,” a current Amazon diversity manager told Recode. The Amazon spokesperson said employees at the summit misunderstood Galetti’s intent and that she meant it wasn’t necessary to access the requested data to know Amazon needs to make progress in D&I, or to prove to company leaders that more needs to be done. After Galetti’s comment, Kelly-Rae raised her hand to explain to Galetti the importance of such data. She then approached Galetti afterward to introduce herself, and to offer to continue the conversation at a later date. “She told me when I was at Amazon longer, then I could talk to her,” Kelly-Rae told Recode. “And she walked away from me.” Kelly-Rae left Amazon in September after just 10 months; she is now focused exclusively on a consulting business she founded 20 years ago, Chanin Kelly-Rae Consulting. She says the comments by Galetti, who is white, were one of the earliest signs in her brief tenure at Amazon that led her to believe the executive team was not truly interested in making it a priority to attract and retain employees from underrepresented backgrounds. Meron Menghistab for Vox Chanin Kelly-Rae now runs her own consulting business based in Seattle. On the surface, Amazon’s diversity statistics look better than most tech giants: In 2019, 26.5 percent of employees identified as Black. But the main reason for that is the disproportionate number of Black workers employed in Amazon’s lower-paying front-line workforce — the hundreds of thousands of workers who pick, pack, and ship orders out of Amazon warehouses and, in some cases, deliver them to customer doors. (Amazon hasn’t publicly released data on the racial breakdown between its corporate and front-line workforces since 2016.) Around 11 percent of Amazon managers in 2020 were Black, including both corporate staff and front-line warehouse and physical store positions. (Black Americans make up 12 percent of the entire private sector workforce across the US, but just 7 percent of managerial roles, according to new research from the consulting firm McKinsey.) In 2020, Amazon said it doubled its number of Black directors and vice presidents and would aim to do the same in 2021; Amazon has around 400 vice presidents globally, but only around a dozen are Black. But even directors and VPs aren’t necessarily at the top of Amazon’s hierarchy, where corporate employees are slotted into Levels 4 through 12, which is occupied solely by Bezos (and soon, presumably, future CEO Jassy). The top leadership team, the S-team, is composed of about two dozen executives, including everyone at Level 11, and a select few VPs, who sit at Level 10. This exclusive group meets regularly to discuss long-term ideas as well as pressing issues, and to also set goals for important initiatives across the company. But the S-team hasn’t set a similar goal of doubling Black representation for themselves. Only this summer did Amazon finally name its first Black leader to the S-team: Alicia Boler Davis, a vice president who runs the company’s warehouse network worldwide. Amazon’s spokesperson said the company has not set a goal to double Black S-team representation in 2021 but declined to provide a reason. Win McNamee/Getty Images Former VP at General Motors, Alicia Boler-Davis, far right, attends President Obama’s State of the Union address in 2012. Beside her is Warren Buffett’s secretary, Debbie Bosanek (far left), and Laurene Powell Jobs, founder and chair of Emerson Collective. For Kelly-Rae, this goal to double the company’s Black VPs and directors is not enough. “If Amazon was to ever enjoy wholesale success in diversity and inclusion programming, they need to have experienced D&I practitioners represented at every level,” Kelly-Rae told Recode. “They need someone on the S-team.” For other Black managers in the division, Galetti’s “you don’t need the data” moment was an inflection point for a different reason. “That, for me, was transformative,” a current Amazon diversity manager told Recode. “I thought, ‘Shit, if I can’t get buy-in and help from [Galetti], where do I go?’” Down-leveling All 10 Black employees who spoke to Recode said either they or Black colleagues they know were hired at lower levels in Amazon’s internal hierarchy than their qualifications justify. At Amazon, your level means a lot: It dictates a role’s importance, salary range, and additional compensation (usually in the form of Amazon stock). Coming in at a lower level can set back your career at Amazon by years. “I think there are very serious systemic issues around leveling,” Kelly-Rae said. This observation isn’t merely anecdotal. Kelly-Rae’s former role as a diversity and inclusion manager gave her specific insight into some ofthe company’s internal hiring and promotion practices. “It is not uncommon for women, and especially Black women, to have a role advertised at one level but extended an offer at a position that is lower.” Such a move even has its own name among Amazon employees: down-leveling. Sources told Recode that’s what happened with Black employees who joined Amazon in 2016 when it acquired Partpic, an Atlanta-based tech startup founded by two Black entrepreneurs. Multiple former Amazon employees familiar with the situation told Recode that both Partpic founders left after approximately three years because they had negative experiences at Amazon. They said the startup’s co-founder/CEO at one point took a demotion so that she could remove herself from a toxic working relationship with a disrespectful boss. And they said she spent considerable time during her tenure fighting for promotions for several employees who had PhDs but were down-leveled when they joined. Sources said Amazon slotted several Black Partpic employees with PhDs into Level 4 roles when they joined the company — the lowest level for any corporate employee, including those who have just finished their undergraduate degree. Another employee, Partpic’s chief technology officer, was placed at Level 5 though some of her peers at Amazon with similar education and work backgrounds were working at Level 6. (She was eventually promoted to Level 6, but it took two years; she later transferred to AWS.) Sources told Recode that the other Partpic co-founder left, in part, because he felt misled and disrespected when Amazon quickly killed the startup’s core technology shortly after it launched as a standalone feature in the Amazon shopping app. Both Partpic founders declined to comment. And for Kelly-Rae, down-leveling wasn’t just something she observed happening to other Black Amazon employees. She said it happened to her. When she received her offer to join Amazon in late 2019, she confronted an unpleasant surprise: Despite her almost 20 years of experience, Amazon slotted her into a management level that was lower than the one a recruiter originally described. That meant a lower salary and fewer shares of Amazon stock. Kelly-Rae’s best guess as to why she was down-leveled? “Culture fit,” she said. This kind of down-leveling can happen at Amazon, in part, because of the company’s hiring process. Interviews are conducted not only by recruiters and hiring managers, but also by soon-to-be peers of the candidate and at least one person outside of the immediate team, called a “bar raiser.” Amazon told Recode these bar raisers are trained, in part, to identify potential bias during the interview process. A single interviewer taking part in what Amazon calls the hiring “loop” can essentially vote against hiring a candidate, or can recommend that a candidate get down-leveled. Candidates are not told why they are being slotted at a certain level, or one lower than the one they were first told. Anderson, the Amazon spokesperson, would not confirm or deny Kelly-Rae’s specific claim. She acknowledged that it’s common for candidates to be down-leveled during interview processes, but said this is something that happens to employees from all backgrounds, and that candidates are sometimes even up-leveled. Kelly-Rae said two AWS VPs, including a hiring manager, later acknowledged that she should have been brought on at a higher level, but they hadn’t rectified the mistake by the time she left. Amazon judges its version of “culture fit” by evaluating job candidates, and existing employees during performance reviews, on some of the company’s 14 leadership principles. Several former Black employees pointed to these principles as possible tools for discrimination, and said they could provide cover for some managers to use them against Black employees. The most problematic leadership principle according to these former employees is“Earns Trust,” which reads in full: “Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.” “If you talk to people across Amazon, they’ll say that if the company ever wants to weaponize a leadership principle, the one they go to often is Earns Trust,” Kelly-Rae said. “What does it mean? It’s a catchall. It means nothing so it can mean everything. Someone can say it if they don’t think you are a team player. They can say it if they don’t believe you’ll fall in line. They can say it if they believe you’re someone who pushes back too much. And they can say it if you are someone who doesn’t push back enough. They don’t have to quantify it or qualify it.” Three other former Black Amazon employees interviewed by Recode said the Earns Trust leadership principle was used as reasoning to try to push them, or Black colleagues at the company, out. A Black former Amazon employee told Recode that a director once told them and other Black employees in a candid conversation about the downsides of the company’s values system that “the one they use against Black women specifically was Earns Trust.” After hearing this, this employee said they started pushing back on Earns Trust in hiring and feedback processes because they realized it was “used as a scapegoat. Because no one really dives deep into what that leadership principle means, no one questions it.” Only 15.3 percent of Black employees were given a “top-tier” rating in AWS in 2019 compared to 22 percent of white employees Anderson, the Amazon spokesperson, said when the leadership principles were last revised, in 2015, the S-team evaluated the values to ensure that the importance of diversity and inclusion was incorporated. She pointed to the “Are Right, A Lot,” principle, which says that “leaders are right a lot” but also “seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.” Some Amazon employees lobbied management this year for the addition of a 15th Leadership Principle that explicitly relates to the idea of inclusion. “Many of us strongly feel the need to explicitly define inclusion in the Amazon Leadership Principles,” a group of Amazon employees wrote in an internal 12-page document featuring anecdotes of racism and gender discrimination inside the company, according to Business Insider. Amazon leadership has not adopted it. Kelly-Rae’s personal experiences, as well as what she observed around her as a diversity leader, convinced her that she shouldn’t just quietly leave Amazon. “Sometimes you need people willing to be brave to say there’s a lot of stuff that is wrong that needs to be looked at critically in order to be fixed,” Kelly-Rae said. “I am willing to put my neck out and to put skin in the game, because if leaders in the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s didn’t do it, then I wouldn’t be where I am today. I am putting my neck out so that in five years or 10 years or 20 years, someone will look back and say, ‘I’m glad that somebody put their neck out to effect meaningful change so that we can continue to move forward as a society one organization at a time.’” Promotions? Good luck. The level that an employee is slotted into when they join Amazon wouldn’t be such a big deal for these employees if getting a promotion wasn’t such an ordeal. But Amazon is notorious in the tech industry as a difficult place to get a promotion for people from all backgrounds. And diversity and inclusion experts who’ve worked at Amazon said this already steep challenge is even harder for Black, Latinx, and Native American (BLNA) employees. They told Recode that internal data shows promotion rates are lower for Black employees, as well as Latino and Native American employees, when compared to employees of other races at the company, such as whites and Asians. For this reason, the current diversity manager who spoke to Recode tells Black friends who apply to Amazon that they should not accept any employment level at the company where they won’t be happy remaining “for the long run.” Amazon performance reviews also seem to show signs of bias, according to internal data viewed by Recode. In AWS, for example, 12.7 percent of Black employees received the lowest rating — dubbed “least effective” — in annual performance reviews for 2018, compared to just 6.6 percent of white employees. The overall internal goal for this tier is 5 percent of employees. Similarly, only 14.5 percent of Black employees were given a “top-tier” rating in AWS that year, compared to 21.8 percent of white employees. Amazon’s internal target for this tier is 20 percent. Performance ratings for 2019 also showed disparities, though slightly smaller. Around 10.2 percent of Black AWS employees received a “least effective” designation, compared to 6.2 percent of white employees. Meanwhile, 15.3 percent of Black AWS employees received the highest performance rating in 2019, compared to about 22 percent of white workers. Recode also viewed partial data for 2020 that suggests the gap is slowly shrinking but that disparities along racial lines remain. Amazon disputed all of this data but declined to provide alternate information. “It is not uncommon for women, and especially Black women, to have a role advertised at one level but extended an offer at a position that is lower” An Amazon diversity manager also stressed that the company-wide disparities in ratings according to race might be even worse if not for a practice in which higher-ups at Amazon sometimes instruct lower-level managers to reevaluate grades if the racial or gender disparities in annual reviews for a given department are too great. Of the performance review disparities, this diversity manager said: “That affects your eligibility for promotion, your income, and, in my opinion, just your well-being. The challenge is when we push back and say, ‘Hey, this shouldn’t be the case; the curves should be equitable on racial and gender lines,’ the feedback is always the exact same thing: ‘Perhaps they don’t meet the bar.’” The idea of “meeting the bar” also comes up in conversations related to recruiting new employees out of historically Black colleges and universities, according to this manager. Amazon has in recent years put more effort into recruiting from HBCUs and last year created a two-semester entertainment industry program in Los Angeles in partnership with Howard University. But it is not uncommon for business managers at Amazon to question the idea of hiring for corporate roles from HBCUs that are not as well-known as Howard University or Spelman College. A common rhetorical question from managers, according to this internal source: “Do these universities meet the bar?” The diversity manager said that this kind of blanket skepticism of an entire institution was unique to HBCUs below the very top tier, and not expressed for lesser-known universities that aren’t HBCUs. Anderson, the company spokesperson, argued that this type of anecdote is not representative of Amazon’s relationship with HBCUs, and noted that Amazon hosted its first annual career event for more than 200 HBCU students from dozens of colleges in early 2020. The diversity manager disagrees: “In my opinion, it’s coded language to say these students are not the caliber of students we go after.” One current Amazon employee, who is a Black woman, shared an experience with Recode that fits into this pattern. She told Recode she believes race played a role in her inability to get a promotion. Although she was on a promotion track, when she got a new white male boss, she said he repeatedly moved the goalposts on what she needed to earn the promotion. After pushing back again and again, she ultimately transferred to another team, where she still works. Looking back, she believes he was taken aback that she fought for herself and didn’t back down. “I don’t think that these people ever thought I would push it as far as I did,” she said. “They didn’t think that — no offense — a little Black girl was going to do shit. Historically speaking, white men especially felt that with people of color, ‘I own your body, mind, labor, and output, and how dare you challenge me on this.’ The fact that I was vocal when there were problems and I made waves because things weren’t right — this person didn’t like that I challenged him.” She has since found a new team and manager that she enjoys working with, and hopes that continuing to speak up internally will help spur some positive change at Amazon. At the same time, she believes that talking about her experiences publicly can also help pressure the company to make positive changes. “I have been at Amazon long enough to actually see change happen because of articles being reported,” she added. Eyes wide open Several of the Black current and former employees who spoke to Recode said that when they decided to join Amazon, they knew it had a reputation for a cutthroat culture — regardless of race — and that the tech giant, like its Big Tech counterparts, had shortcomings when it came to hiring Black employees and managers into corporate roles and then retaining that talent. But considering the pay, the type of work they would do, and the boost Amazon would bring to their résumés, they felt the opportunity would be worth it. But some say the discrimination they encountered at Amazon was worse than they could have imagined. They said it took a toll on them both at work and at home, negatively impacting their health and personal relationships. Their troubling experiences are varied, but many share common themes. One Amazon employee who is a Black woman says she has heard two white colleagues proclaim that they do not believe in corporate diversity efforts. Two Black women said coworkers touched their hair without asking. Three Black women told Recode that either coworkers or managers have told them at various times to smile more or be more friendly. And several Black women told Recode that they’ve had to deal with white colleagues and managers stealing credit for their work. Dee Dwyer for Vox Many former employees spoke to Recode on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “I think the ‘accomplishment’ of getting a corporate role at Amazon — the best-paying role of my life — and the opportunity to do something at a scale I never imagined, ended up with pain and trauma I could not have anticipated,” a Black female PhD who worked at Amazon for several years told Recode. “I’ve never felt more used and disposable in my life,” she added. Another Black female Amazon employee detailed interactions with a white manager, on DiscoTech, a website created last fall for employees toanonymously share stories about discrimination they’ve encountered working inside large US tech companies. “He would say ‘You know I’m a good guy right? My ancestors owned slaves but I’m pretty sure they were good to their slaves,’” the anecdote on DiscoTech reads. “Seeing as how he’s a manager and I’m an individual contributor, I wondered if he saw me as a slave. I asked him ‘What is it about me that makes you feel comfortable saying these things to me?’ His reply, ‘because you look safe and smart.’ As a lighter skinned black woman, I felt he shared this because his default perception of black people is that we are ‘dangerous and not smart.’” The anecdote continued: “He then goes on to tell me, ‘I have a friend who is black as night but I don’t care if you’re purple or polka dot; I don’t see color.’ I confronted him about his offensive comments and he apologized. He had to go to mandated D&I training. The company didn’t acknowledge the totality of his comments and cherry picked the one they would address him about.” A person familiar with the incidents confirmed them to Recode last year. In a statement, the company said: Amazon works hard to foster a culture where inclusion is the norm for each and every one of our 950,000+ employees, and these anecdotes do not reflect our values. We do not tolerate any kind of discrimination in the workplace and investigate all claims reported by employees to Amazon Human Resources or through our anonymous Ethics Hotline. “There is no quick fix” The employees who’ve stayed at Amazon are sticking it out for now and looking for any signs of positive change. One bright spot was the appointment of Boler Davis, the global warehouse chief, to the S-team in August. Others are also holding out hope that Jassy, Bezos’s successor, will play a direct role in pushing diversity and inclusion initiatives forward at the company. While many of the sources who spoke to Recode told stories of discrimination inside of AWS, several said they believe Jassy cares about systemic racism impacting Black Americans inside and outside of the company, based on notes he’s sent to employees over the last year and his role as executive sponsor of company’s Black Employee Network affinity group, which has 34 internal chapters in various US cities and countries around the globe. But they were skeptical that one person, even the CEO, could turn the ship completely in the right direction. In 2020, Amazon began requiring all employees to take diversity and inclusion training, and signed up as a launch employer for a third-party racial equity evaluation called the Management Leadership of Tomorrow’s Black Equity at Work Certification. Amazon also held a virtual “career enrichment” summit called Represent the Future that was attended by 5,000 Black, Latinx, and Native American professionals interested in learning about working at Amazon. Well-deserved recognition for a terrific leader. We have a lot of work to do, Angelina, but committed to working with you & the entire Amazon Black Employee Network (BEN) to make meaningful change.— Andy Jassy (@ajassy) December 4, 2020 Some employees also hope Amazon’s goal of doubling the number of Black VPs and directors leads to more promotions and hiring of lower-level Black employees. But Kelly-Rae, the former AWS diversity manager, said that although those goals sound great, they have significant limitations. One of the biggest issues, according to her, is thatthere are not S-team leaders whose compensation or job security is tied to building a more diverse and inclusive company. (Starbucks, for example, announced in October that the compensation of top company executives would be affected by diversity and inclusion successes or failures.) The Amazon spokesperson said that, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests last year, a majority of the leaders in this exclusive group started meeting every two weeks with HR and D&I leaders to evaluate diversity goals and new investment opportunities, while discussing how to remove roadblocks to progress. Another former Amazon diversity and inclusion employee said they’re bothered that the goal of “doubling” Black representation has become a boasting point for some at Amazon. They said they heard an AWS business leader brag about how the goals would be perceived externally, saying that “No other company can say that they’re doubling their number of Black VPs.” We're at @Code2040 as part of our #WIRED25 festival. Mimi Fox Melton, Senior Director of Community Mobilization, says that according to research by the Kapor Center, on average people of color leave the tech industry within 3 years of entering.— WIRED (@WIRED) October 12, 2018 “I think that tying executive compensation to any sort of goal is effective,” said Mimi Fox Melton, the acting CEO of Code2040, a nonprofit focused on racial equity in the tech industry. “And certainly at Code2040, what we’ve found is that efforts at a company where the C-suite has not bought into the importance ... of racial equity, fail — period.” Fox Melton added that the goals need to be tied to metrics that go deeper than mere hiring or retaining numbers, and should track “the material experience of those people at work and whether or not those people are experiencing cultures that help us contribute to the fullness of our capacity.” New research from McKinsey found that only 23 percent of Black employees across the US private sector believe that they receive “a lot” or “quite a bit” of support from their respective employers to advance their careers. If Amazon took steps like tying leadership compensation to such goals, or stood out as a leader in the space in other ways, it would be sending a message internally, but also in the broader tech industry. “If a big company, in particular, really dedicated itself and put its weight behind diversity and, more specifically, racial equity, it would send shockwaves throughout the tech industry,” Fox Melton said. “Hopefully they would share their successes and failures and really pave the path that others follow.” “One of the biggest challenges for companies is that there is no quick fix,” she added. “It’s not going away with three or four years of minimal effort.” Several of the Black employees who spoke to Recode acknowledged that Amazon isn’t alone among the tech giants when it comes to diversity issues and accusations of internal racial discrimination. Current and former employees of tech giants, including Google and Facebook, have made such claims in the past year. But they believe that should only raise the bar for Amazon to be a leader in this work, and take actions that back up its words. “The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop,” Amazon wrote in a blog post last year. “Together we stand in solidarity with the Black community — our employees, customers, and partners — in the fight against systemic racism and injustice.” Kelly-Rae believes Amazon can be a model for other tech giants because it is already a proven leader in industries as varied as online retail, cloud computing, and video streaming. “Tech is collectively looking for a solution, and if one of them presents the solution, others will follow,” she said. But to accomplish this, “what is required is a robust strategy where there is accountability at every level,” she told Recode. Meron Menghistab for Vox “Sometimes you need people willing to be brave to say there’s a lot of stuff that is wrong that needs to be looked at critically in order to be fixed.” —Chanin Kelly-Rae Kelly-Rae said she worked with many colleagues who were striving to make Amazon a more inclusive and equitable company for all people, no matter their race or gender. But she fears little progress will be made if the company’s top leadership team doesn’t do more. “I think they believe that diversity and inclusion is just recruiting and training,” she said. “I think they think that’s all that it is. I sent an email to Jeff Bezos, and copied Andy Jassy, that said, ‘You don’t respect the discipline of diversity management or you don’t understand it.’” Company-wide goals that the S-team sets carry a lot of weight, and new ones related to race may have a positive impact on the experiences of Black Amazonians. But Kelly-Rae said from her career-long experience, Amazon cannot transform into a company with a level playing field for allemployees if the top leadership team does not include an executive with expertise in the field. “If HR is important, they have an executive on the S-team,” Kelly-Rae said. “If infrastructure is important to Amazon, they have representation on the S-team. And more importantly, they make data-informed decisions and there’s a senior person having to produce based on data.” “People track things,” she added, “that matter to them.”
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Black Americans have disproportionately suffered from pollution. It’s time for a new policy.
Environmental justice activist Sharon Lavigne stands outside her home in St. James, Louisiana, on February 23, 2021. | Julie Dermansky for Vox Marrying civil rights and environmental protections could close the gap on health disparities caused by industrial polluters. Sharon Lavigne has lived in St. James Parish, Louisiana, a predominantly Black community, all her life. She remembers when the air wasn’t covered with thick gray smog, when the water was still safe to drink, when the gardens were productive and fertile. But now, she says, “we are sick and we are dying.” Lavigne has watched her neighbors die from cancer and suffer from respiratory illnesses. About five years ago, she too was diagnosed with pollution-linked autoimmune hepatitis, with tests showing she had aluminum inside her body. The reason for the community’s decline in health, environmentalists say, is a burgeoning fossil fuel industry right in their backyards. Over the past three decades, roughly 150 chemical plants and refinerieshave been building facilities up and down the 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River that straddles New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which includes St. James Parish. According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), seven out of 10 US census tracts with the country’s highest cancer risk levels from air pollution are located in this corridor, known as “Cancer Alley.” So when Lavigne heard that the Taiwanese plastics manufacturer Formosa was going to build a $9.4 billion petrochemical complex just two miles from her home, she retired from her teaching job in 2018 and started the faith-based environmental justice group RISE St. James to fight the new development project. Formosa’s vast 2,400-acre site, currently marked off with fences, sits on two former 19th-century sugarcane plantations and a burial ground for the enslaved, which the company failed to disclose until RISE St. James filed a public records request. Still, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality approved permits last year for Formosa to build the complex of 14 plastics plants, despite the company’s own models revealing that it could more than double the amount of toxic pollutants in the area and emit more of the carcinogenic chemical ethylene oxide than almost any other facility in the country. A view of St. James Catholic Church near a field of oil storage tanks. The predominantly Black communities of St. James Parish and the rest of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley are not alone in this problem. According to the National Black Environmental Justice Network, Black Americans in 19 states are 79 percent more likely to live with industrial pollution than white people. Researchers also found that Black people breathe 56 percent more pollution than they cause, whereas white people breathe 17 percent less pollution than they generate. Lavigne said industries “come to Black communities because they think no one’s going to say anything. They think no one is going to fight.” Environmental groups like RISE St. James usually have one ally in their corner when fighting industrial polluters: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a bedrock law that requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of proposed infrastructure such as the construction of major highways, prison complexes, airports, pipelines, landfills, and refineries. Passed by Congress in 1969, NEPA, followed by the Clean Air and Water Acts, was part of a broader plan to protect the environment from any point source of pollution or contamination. The law is not perfect, though. Since the link between racism and the environment didn’t click for many in the late 1960s and ’70s, when these environmental laws were created, NEPA’s lack of civil rights protections resulted in the further oppression and exclusion of Black communities across the country. Polluting industries would set up shop in marginalized neighborhoods with no regard to the systemic injustice baked into the fabric of the community,and there was little recourse to stop these polluters from doing so. But with the rise of the environmental justice movement in the late 1970s, Black environmentalists and policy experts began floating the idea of stronger environmental policies that draw from the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The idea was to protect historically disadvantaged neighborhoods from racist policies that could exacerbate a community’s social and environmental burdens. “People often forget the legacies of slavery, of Jim Crow segregation and out of that chain, laws that were deeply entrenched within the social structure of the Southern environment that worsened our quality of life,” said Beverly Wright, the founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, who has advised President Joe Biden on environmental justice policies. “That legacy resulted in communities that had been inundated with toxic facilities, impacting our health, the value of the homes where people live, causing them to have higher cancer rates, and to eventually be relocated from within the midst of these facilities.” A roadside view of Cargill industry on River Road in Gramercy, Louisiana, on February 23, 2021. The Sunshine Casino and Truck Plaza along LA-70, also known as the Sunshine Bridge, near the Mississippi River. With a new Democratic administration, activists say now is the time to marry civil rights protections with NEPA.Strengthening NEPA — often called the “Magna Carta” of environmental laws — by invoking the Civil Rights Act would give underserved populations, like St. James Parish, a greater chance of eliminating the legacy pollution that has choked their communities. Adding these protections, without creating an entirely new policy, wouldn’t be very complicated for the Biden administration to do. It wouldn’t even need the help of Congress. The birth of the environmental justice movement started with Black people Environmental injustice — the disproportionate harm that low-income communities and communities of color face from both the causes (fossil fuel pollution) and effects (extreme heat and severe flooding) of climate change — has long been a product of systemic racism. For instance, a 2019 study found that redlining, the government-sanctioned effort to segregate communities of color that began in the 1930s, is a strong indicator of which neighborhoods suffer the most from extreme heat. While white neighborhoods historically received more community investment in clean green spaces that help cool the area, Black neighborhoods were deprived of resources and slotted next to traffic-choked highways and other industrial infrastructure. Fossil fuel companies exploited this segregation. In places like Mossville, Louisiana, a small, unincorporated town founded by formerly enslaved people in 1790, nearly all its Black residents have been bought out by the South African petrochemical giant Sasol to build a gargantuan chemical complex. A similar scenario played out in the East End neighborhood of Freeport, Texas, labeled as the “Negro District” in the 1930s. Housing, residents, and once-thriving businesses in East End have dwindled, a trend recently accelerated as officials voted to use eminent domain to expand the port’s shipping channels to make room for large polluting industrial ships. Such systemic injustices are as old as America. But there’s growing scientific awareness and pushback against these inequities. Environmental lobbying groups had long been overwhelmingly white, focusing more on nature conservation and less on community impact. It wasn’t until recently that Big Green groups began to reckon with their racist past. In the wake of last summer’s nationwide protests for racial justice, for example, Sierra Club put out a statement that acknowledged the role it played in perpetuating white supremacy in the movement. Meanwhile, environmental justice pioneers such as Wright and Robert Bullard, a professor of environmental policy at Texas Southern University, have put out academic research on the ties between systemic racism and its environmental impact on vulnerable communities, which has led to more people being educated and involved in making those connections. It wasn’t until Lavigne attended a community advocacy organization meeting in 2017, for instance, that she linked what’s been happening to their environment and public health to industrial pollution in her backyard. “Environmental justice is not a footnote anymore; it’s a headline,” Bullard said. “Over the last four decades working on this, I realized while we’ve been able to make a lot of changes over the years, there’s still a lot of work that still needs to happen — and it needs to happen in warp speed, because we don’t have a lot of time since climate change is with us right now.” The modern environmental justice movement is often traced back to 1978, when a private contractor hired by a transformer-manufacturing company discharged a carcinogenic chemical known as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) in 14 counties in North Carolina. In response, alarmed residentsbrought a barrage of complaints and lawsuits against the state and involved parties. This litigation led the state to excavate the 31,000 gallons of soil laced with toxic PCBs, but they needed a place to put it. They chose the small Warren County town of Afton — an overwhelmingly Black, rural, and poor community — as a “suitable” home. Mapping Inequality; public domain The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) map of New Orleans. Neighborhoods color-coded in red, or “red-lined,” alerted loan officers and real estate workers of areas that were considered high-risk, leading to discriminatory lending practices. The Marathon Refinery in Reserve, Louisiana, behind the Zion Travelers Cemetery on February 23, 2021. Many environmental scientists questioned just how suitable the location was. Warren County’s Black community was especially agitated. Afton residents relied on the town’s local wells for drinking water, which could be contaminated by this landfill.For six weeks, residents alongside civil rights groups across the country protested the move. Black activists linked their arms and lay on the ground to block the 6,000 dump trucks rolling into their backyards, headed for the newly constructed hazardous waste landfill. Hundreds of protesters were arrested. “The truth of the matter is that the only way that we got communities of color, especially Black folks, involved in the [environmental justice] movement was by making them see that there was a discriminatory aspect or civil rights violation involved,” Wright said. “So when we talk about some communities having cleaner air than others, it’s because of discriminatory policies and for certain it goes directly to civil rights.” In court hearings, NEPA was a first line of defense for communities fighting the landfill. But North Carolina courts carved out an exception to requirements that the state prepare an environmental impact statement, claiming that formal compliance with the law was unnecessary. It was clear to community members and activists that the decision was more politically motivated than based in science: Majority-white governmental institutions, likely sympathetic to corporate interests, ultimately allowed a Black, poor, rural, and politically powerless community to be home to a toxic landfill. Though the residents of Warren County lost and the toxin-laced soil ended up in the landfills, the incident is still studied by environmental researchers as the hallmark of the environmental justice movement. It was the first major environmental disaster in which civil rights groups, environmentalists, and Black residents fought in solidarity against an act of environmental racism, a term unused until much later. Today there continues to be no shortage of polluting facilities and infrastructure — factories, highways, waste incinerators, and refineries — being built and erasing low-income communities of color, especially Black neighborhoods. Historians and environmental experts say regulatory agencies, industry executives, and politicians believe it is easier to build in these communities, since many cannot afford to hire legal expertise, or do not have the means to fight back. “These communities who are affected by disparities in air pollution or just toxic contamination, in general, come from a place of feeling that they are being discriminated against or somehow treated differently from white people,” Wright said. Activists call these places “sacrifice zones,” but industrial giants have underestimated how much these typically segregated Black communities will fight for clean air and water, even if they have to do it on their own. Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images Protesters march to raise awareness of the high lead levels in city water in Newark, New Jersey, on August 26, 2019. Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images Volunteers help distribute water at Asbury United Methodist Help Center in Flint, Michigan, on October 20, 2020. For example, in Port Arthur, Texas, its predominantly Black residents are challenging the mammoth oil and gas refineries that dot the port’s skyline and cover the area in thick gray smoke. In Philadelphia last year, Black activists led the fight to shut down the largest oil refinery on the East Coast after years of suffering from facility explosions, bad air quality, and pollution-linked asthma and cancer. In Flint, Michigan, the water that the city’s predominantly Black residents had been consuming for years has resulted in serious public health and environmental issues,particularly lead poisoning, that government officials both exacerbated and tried to ignore. Residents are still fighting for a large class-action settlement and government accountability today. Why it’s vital to marry two historical policies for environmental justice legislation Although NEPA has long been a vital tool to shield communities from forms of environmental racism, it isn’t a foolproof policy. It requires federal agencies to prepare an environmental impact statement that describes any environmental or public health ramification that a development project would pose; however, what a state or federal agency does with these reports is left entirely to their discretion. This often means that projects often go forth, regardless of community concerns for potential environmental and public health impacts. In most cases, the decision-makers behind the NEPA process also have financial ties to oil and gas lobbyists or the fossil fuel industry. Additionally, the public comment process required under NEPA raises accessibility questions, since state agencies tend to hold hearings far from the proposed site and don’t actively reach out to communities for public input, making it difficult for impacted communities to engage in the review process. These loopholes then make it easier for agencies to approve permits for development projects. What is in communities’ favor is that the NEPA process can take years, allowing room for activist protests. This has been a major concern for polluting industries, and it was the driving reason behind the Trump administration’s decision to slash the mandated timeline under NEPA review in 2020. Trump’s environmental agenda focused on weakening, rolling back, and dismantling more than 100 critical environmental regulations, such as the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the NEPA. His administration’s overhaul of the Magna Carta environmental policy included narrowing the scope of the environmental review process, limiting consideration of safer project alternatives, and scrapping the requirement to evaluate any project’s contribution to climate change. While Biden might be able to reverse the previous administration’s new rules, another Republican president could undo it again through the same process. That’s why, environmental justice advocates say, vulnerable communities need a stronger policy now. Bullard said that taking an integrative approach toward strengthening environmental regulations such as NEPA to include a racial justice framework is the best way to address the historical neglect in pollution-burdened communities. He and Wright believe the early steps the Biden administration has taken in centering environmental justice across his climate and economic agendas, as well as appointing Michael Regan, the first Black man, to lead the EPA, creates an urgency to right the wrongs of the previous administration. “As climate policies get pushed out, what often gets lost is the policy framing of climate which has historically been more about dealing with just the science — the parts per million, the greenhouse gases — and not, until the last five to 10 years, the justice framing or equity framing,” Bullard said. “We have to come up with frameworks that would allow the environmental justice part to get lifted up into the climate framework, because it is a racial justice issue.” Some policy experts say that applying Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — which prohibits federally funded entities from discriminating on the basis of race in their programs, policies, and projects — to NEPA would help dismantle the environmental inequities rooted in systemic racism that communities face. Title VI alone outlaws intentional discrimination, which many activists allege happens whenever an industrial facility sets up shop in marginalized communities like Afton and St. James Parish. The task of strengthening NEPA under the Biden administration — including adding back the Trump administration’s removed regulatory requirements and adding a civil rights protection mandate — would fall under the domain of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). The council would need to solicit new rule recommendations to the bedrock policy, propose new regulations, gather public comments, and conduct public hearings, which could take roughly a year. Biden’s new offices of environmental justice under the EPA and Justice Department, which he included in his sweeping executive order on climate change, could also look into avenues that could solidify and protect these vital changes. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris arrive in the State Dining Room for Biden’s address on climate change at White House on January 27, 2021. The Mosaic Faustina Ammonia Plant on River Road in St. James, Louisiana, on February 23, 2021. In drafting the rules for NEPA to include civil rights protections, CEQ can conduct a Title VI or disparate impact analysis to identify the cumulativeenvironmental and health impact of adding another pollutingfacility within a community. If the chosen location is an overwhelmingly Black community already inundated with polluting facilities, for instance, then the state agency shouldn’t be allowed to approve permits to develop another project since it will only compound the area’s underlying environmental and health conditions. To enact more permanent change than what can be done through executive action, there are several bills floating around Congress. In February 2020, Democratic Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona and Donald McEachin of Virginia introduced a comprehensive bill called the Environmental Justice for All Act — which came as a result of community engagement and more than 350 public comments from community members and leaders of the environmental justice movement. The bill strengthens NEPA and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and codifies Bill Clinton’s longstanding 1994 executive order that directs federal agencies to identify the disproportionate environmental and human health impacts of any federal actions on low-income communities of color. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has also introduced a separate environmental justice bill that includes reinstating giving individuals the right, under the Civil Rights Act, to bring actions against entities engaging in discriminatory practices. These are effective yet ambitious policies in addressing the environmental harms Black and other marginalized communities often face. But they may take some time for Congress to take up, despite overwhelming support from Democrats and environmental activists. Adding and strengthening NEPA with civil rights protections, though, does not need to go through Congress — just the CEQ review process that Biden could get started on once his nominee to head the CEQ, Brenda Mallory, the first Black woman to lead the office, gets confirmed. Bullard is hopeful that Biden will carry out his environmental justice promises: “Knowing the history of the environmental justice movement, it’s very important to see how the climate-framing in this new administration, and the policies as they get moved out, that they have taken that justice lens,” Bullard said. Lavigne and the rest of the activists in St. James Parish will continue to hold their ground — and to hold the administration accountable. “Industry will continue to sacrifice Black people’s lives to make billions of dollars off of our community,” Lavigne said. “It’s the new form of slavery. I want President Biden to come down here in Cancer Alley to see what we’re going through.” A landscape view of CF Industries in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, on February 23, 2021. Julie Dermansky is a independent photojournalist and multimedia reporter based in the News Orleans, Louisiana.
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Biden launched airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Syria to “send a message”
President Joe Biden speaks before signing an Executive Order on the economy at the White House on February 24. The next day the US military bombed Syria. | Doug Mills/Pool/Getty Images It’s the first known military action of Joe Biden’s presidency. President Joe Biden on Thursday launched military airstrikes against two Iranian-backed militias in Syria, in retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq last week that injured US troops and killed a Filipino contractor. In the strike, Biden’s first known military action since taking office, the US hit a facility used by the groups Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada to smuggle weapons. As of now it’s unclear if anyone was hurt or killed, though US officials expect about “a handful of people” may have died, the Washington Post reported. A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about sensitive discussions, told me the administration’s thinking behind the airstrikes was that they needed to “send a message that the US will not turn a blind eye to attacks on our forces by Iranian-sponsored militias.” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said the president ordered the “proportionate military response” to send “an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq.” The strikes occurred around 6 pm Eastern time, though the retaliation had been planned over several days, according to the Wall Street Journal. Some experts are already applauding the president’s decision. “This was a golden move by the Biden administration,” said Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shi’a militias at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, because it let Tehran know the new American team is willing to strike Iranian-linked targets wherever they operate throughout the Middle East. “This is the administration saying ‘we mean business.’” It was also a way of sending that message without angering Iraq, Smyth added, which bristled at US airstrikes on Iranian proxies in Iraq during the Trump administration, seeing them as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Targeting a weapons facility in Syria avoids that problem. The question now is what the retaliatory attack might mean for the Biden administration’s effort to reenter the Iran nuclear deal. Washington agreed to join an informal meeting with Iran brokered the European Union, but Tehran said it was still “considering” the offer. It’s possible that the regime might balk at future talks after Biden’s action. Even so, it seems Biden calculated that protecting US troops operating in the Middle East from attacks by Iranian proxies takes priority over that diplomatic process. In so doing, he became the latest president to order a military operation in the Middle East.
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Coming soon to Twitter: Tweets you have to pay for
Twitter “Super Follows” feature was announced at an investor event. | Screenshot for Twitter’s Analyst Day Presentation Twitter, a notoriously public platform, is building a walled garden. Twitter thinks your tweets — or at least some of them — might actually be worth something. At a virtual event for investors Thursday, the company announced that it’s planning to debut a pay-for-posts feature, called Super Follows, in which users will be able to pay the people they follow for their best tweets. With Super Follows, Twitter will allow users to make money from content that they make exclusive to particular followers. Sample screenshots released by the company show that the payment scheme could take multiple forms. For instance, a follower could pay a creator they follow on Twitter a few dollars a month to access that user’s exclusive newsletter or to see special tweets only available to Super Followers. They might also be able to join a particular group or access a badge that shows they support that creator. The idea that you would pay someone for their tweets might sound far-fetched, but a Twitter spokesperson told Recode that the goal is “rethinking the incentives of our service.” Basically, the premise seems to be that this pay-for-post feature will help build more specific communities around specific topics. Another change coming to Twitter: a group-like tool called Communities. We don’t know much about this yet-to-arrive feature — Twitter says more information is coming later this year — but the idea seems to be a more private and more controlled way for communities to get together on Twitter outside the public view. “[I]t still can be hard to find and connect directly with people who share your interests in focused conversations,” a company spokesperson told Recode. “This year, we’re making it easier for you to discover, participate, and form conversations with communities that share your interests.” Twitter’s new Community feature was announced at a virtual investor event on Thursday. Neither of Twitter’s newly announced features is currently available, but the company says it will reveal more information in the coming months. Still, Thursday’s announcement is a sign that Twitter wants to be more than an incredibly public online discussion space and that the company is leaning into the smaller “micro-communities” that organically form on its platform. After all, someone might jump on Twitter to see the latest in global news, but someone’s also on the site because they’re following a particular set of users and influencers, whether they’re posting about Tesla or Taylor Swift. The arrival of Super Follows and Communities comes as Twitter has moved to mimic closed-off features available on other platforms. At the end of last year, Twitter launched “Fleets,” Snapchat-like stories that disappear and are only available to followers. The company’s also in the midst of expanding its new Spaces tool, small audio-based rooms that function much like the new app Clubhouse. And, following in the footsteps of services like Substack, Twitter earlier this year purchased the email newsletter service Revue and is working on integrating subscription-based newsletters directly through their public Twitter accounts. Twitter’s recent moves also indicate the site hopes to add more layers to its historically public platform. All signs indicate that at the end of 2021, a user with a particularly promising tweet will have much more control over the audience that gets to read it, from being able to charge people for that content to sharing the post in a more private Community to even posting it in an ephemeral Fleet. The move to more closed-off content means Twitter will also encounter more challenges, like the proliferation of misinformation and noxious (or even dangerous) content that can foment in private online spaces. (After Fleets debuted, some pointed out that the closed and short-lived nature of the content could make it easier to spread misinformation.) It’s also not clear how adding more payment-based components will impact the famously free platform. In the meantime, if you’ve got a perfect post in mind, Thursday’s announcement indicates it may be worth holding onto it a little bit longer. The reward could be more fruitful than just “Likes” and retweets. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.
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To all the clothes I’ve loved before
Getty Images Reconciling the sweatpants-wearing me with the fashion-loving woman I was just a year ago is an existential crisis like no other. I’ve never been one to put too much stock in the idea that clothing has to be practical. Scrolling back through photos from those blissfully naive first months of 2020, my outfits make that much clear: There’s the faux-pearl bra top and holographic motorcycle jacket I wore to a friend’s birthday party; the leopard-print creeper shoes that carried me through 30,000-step days in Tokyo; the pink, bedazzled thrift store blazer I wore one night at Mardi Gras that I like to think would have made Dolly Parton proud. A year later, I have a hard time reconciling that person with the me who wakes up every morning and decides between two pairs of sweatpants and the leggings I wore to bed the previous night. What last spring felt like isolation’s small silver lining — a break from the societal demands of presentability, a chance for eyelashes to regrow and skin to reset after years of extensions and makeup — now feels like another way the pandemic is chipping away at the person I thought I was. It’s not that I have anything against sweatpants. I’m not a Grinch who hates comfort. I just liked them a lot more when I had a reason to wear anything else. Without dinner parties, concerts, weddings, conferences, happy hours, business trips, coffee dates, vacations, or countless other social activities, there aren’t many occasions left for which to dress. I understand that, for some people, it’s freeing not to worry about what to wear or whether this thing goes with that. For a sea of others, including me, it’s been destabilizing: Looking at my closet, many of the pieces I once carefully selected now feel like they belong to another life. Fashion, for all its flaws, can be joyful and creative; it can make us feel like we’re part of a community. I wonder, sometimes, if that same joy, creativity, and community will still be there on the other side. And while this time of isolation could be a rare opportunity for all of us to figure out who we are when we truly dress for ourselves, for me, dressing up at all feels futile when there’s nowhere to go and no one to see. Style, after all, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Clothes are a form of self-expression, but they are also central to our identity because they shape how others see us, says Carolyn Mair, a behavioral psychologist and author of The Psychology of Fashion. Our brains are designed to form split-second judgments based on appearance. For better or worse, she says, our external selves — including the clothes we wear — are “the gatekeeper to being liked or disliked, being wanted or unwanted.” “We have a sense of identity ourselves by what we’re trying to project, and our identity is also reinforced through the feedback of others,” Mair says. This may help explain why, while fashion may not rank high on everyone’s list of what’s been lost during the pandemic, for some it has felt like a significant blow. On social media, celebrities and everyday users alike have bemoaned how the pandemic has laid waste to their style. “I’ve forgotten the purpose of 90% of my clothing. Only like 3 shirts even make sense any more,” radio host Jess McIntosh tweeted. “There used to be an organizational axiom that if you haven’t worn a piece of clothing in 6 months, it’s time to get rid of it,” replied one follower. “Except that now describes literally every piece of clothing in my closet, all of my accessories, and most of my shoes.” For comedian Ashley Nicole Smith, the style crisis hit in October. “Am I the only one? After six months of working from home I have... no idea what my personal style is anymore? How do I like to dress? I like... comfortable.... that’s all I’ve got,” she tweeted. And in one meme that went viral in December — comedian Lorena Pages’s “love it, couldn’t wear it” — Sofia Vergara, Shay Mitchell, an internet-famous greyhound, and thousands of other Instagram and TikTok users lamented a year of unworn looks. With nowhere to wear party dresses or high heels — or even “hard pants,” for that matter — these clothes have piled up in warehouses, leaving brands and retailers grappling with the question of what to do with so much excess inventory. So many people are at home reevaluating their wardrobes and looking to make some money off the many pieces they no longer wear that resale sites have seen a flood of supply; no telling whether there’s enough demand to meet it. Claudia Stevens, a hairstylist in Toronto, Canada, says she was always a very intentional shopper before the pandemic. She could go whole seasons without buying anything new because the pieces in her wardrobe were classic and felt so her. After salons closed last spring and the city went into lockdown, though, that relationship started to shift. Suddenly, nothing she tried on felt right. At first, she chalked it up to pandemic weight gain — maybe, she thought, it was just that her clothes literally didn’t fit right — but then she noticed the same sensation even with pieces that draped perfectly. “I just didn’t feel connected to that part of who I was,” she says. “And when I would try to put something together the same way I would have [before lockdown], it’s like the second those pieces hit my body, I felt almost strangled.” The fashion industry, which once dictated what we’d all be wearing a full season in advance, is experiencing its own existential crisis. Many designers have taken the opportunity of the pandemic to slow down the pace of their collections, produce fewer styles, and sync up the deliveries of seasonal pieces like coats and swimsuits with the arrival of fall and summer, respectively, rather than putting them on sale months in advance. When Katrina Orsini moved home to her parents’ house in Connecticut last March, she expected to be there for a few months. She’d lost her job in events and, with no paycheck coming in, broke the lease on her Brooklyn apartment, packed a bag with a few basics — T-shirts, sweatshirts, sweatpants — and put the rest of her belongings in storage. It didn’t take long before the erosion of her sense of physical identity — the absence of the lipstick she usually wore even on trips to the bodega, the jeans and heels she’d sealed away — started to get to her. “I’m a huge lipstick person,” she says. “And I went through this phase when [people started wearing] masks where I was trying everything to hold on to that.” Armed with various shades of lipstick-colored embroidery thread, she made masks embroidered with lips and a nose ring like her own. Still sensing a void, she tried painting her nails and watched the polish chip away without anyone else ever seeing it. She accumulated a collection of wigs — some blonde, some colorful, always with the strong blunt bangs she’s never been bold enough to try for real — and, before beginning her job as an adjunct last month at Parsons School of Design, she was consumed with the idea of wearing a different wig each week to virtual class. At least, she reasoned, the wigs would add variety and a sense of change, the exact things life in semi-lockdown is sorely lacking. Denied our usual outlets for self-expression, we’re all finding our own ways to cope. Jasmyn, a Chicago gamer who also goes by the handle CakePop, found herself missing the joy and excitement of getting ready for a night out with friends. She was strict about staying safe in quarantine, and her work attire (first scrubs, then work-from-home sweats) didn’t lend itself to self-expression, so she turned to Animal Crossing. The ultra-popular Nintendo Switch game allows users to design their characters’ outfits or style them in a nearly endless array of wardrobe options. “A lot of people set up their character’s look and they’ll change it every so often,” says Jasmyn. “I change clothes every day that I play the game. So when I open the game, I go to my closet in my Animal Crossing house and I put together a different outfit before I go about my island chores.” In the real world, with salons due to reopen once Covid-19 case numbers are low enough, Stevens is wrestling with how she’ll get dressed every day, especially in an industry where there’s an expectation to look the part. “I can’t imagine going back to work and picking anything from that wardrobe. It’s so foreign to me right now,” she says. “I wear all of those things now and I’m like, ‘What the?’ It feels heavy and strange and kind of makes me think, ‘Who was I really dressing for?’” It’s not lost on us that this question of whose gaze we’re courting as we get ready for the day is one that only tends to be asked of women. Even in lockdown, when the only eyeballs many of us regularly encounter are those of our partners, families, or pets, it’s the absence of others’ gaze that can throw us off balance. “It’s weird for that to be then taken away so abruptly,” says Orsini. “I still now, a year later, am thinking about what it is I actually love about lipstick.” The lack of visibility can be positive for some women, says Mair, especially those who have been disadvantaged by societal beauty norms. Ideally, it can mean we’re judged on our thoughts or contributions instead of what we look like. “All the values that I think are far more important than appearance in real terms can come to the fore,” she says. On the other hand, humans are visual creatures — as much as half of our brains are dedicated to processing visual information. When we don’t have opportunities to present ourselves to the world and receive feedback, we lose an important tool for negotiating and clarifying our identity. This isn’t only true for people who have spent the past year at home: Essential workers who have spent the pandemic in scrubs and uniforms also haven’t have had the chance to do their makeup or put on their favorite shoes for a night out to remind themselves of who they are outside their grueling jobs. Jessica LaVoy, a bartender in Chicago, says that between work and quarantine, she’s spent most of the past year in either a uniform or sweatpants, a fact that’s taken a toll on her self-esteem. With bars now open again where she lives, the only feedback she’s getting is from the older men who come into the bar. “I’m getting hit on all the time, which can be very uncomfortable,” she says. “I would much rather take a look in the mirror and see myself in my favorite H&M shirt, going out to hang out with my friends, knowing that I look good for myself.” That feeling of self-confidence is hard to come by in isolation. And even after this is over, the comfort of a favorite outfit no longer feels a given: What if your favorite shirt isn’t your favorite anymore once going out with friends is safe again? For now, I’ve found solace in this: I may now have no use for 90 percent of the shoes I own, but I can raid my girlfriend’s beanie collection and wear a new color every week. Salons may be a distant memory, but I can touch up my hair with purple Manic Panic at home. And while I don’t know who we’ll be or what we’ll wear on the other side, I can only hope it involves more bedazzled blazers. Hilary George-Parkin covers fashion and consumer culture for publications including Vox, Glamour, Fashionista, and CNN. She last wrote about a shoe that’s taken over urban streets for The Highlight.
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The wild and irresistibly saucy tale of the curry con man
Hanifa Abdul Hameed for Vox J. Ranji Smile served Indian food and tall tales to a hungry American public. Was he the first “celebrity chef” or a crook? The truth is complicated. In the fall of 1901, a false prince was turning heads in New York high society.Blessed with an aquiline nose and teeth as white as caster sugar, he cut a striking figure. He coiled his mustache into tight curls and often costumed himself in shimmering silk robes and turbans. He told people his name was Prince Ranjit of Baluchistan. Media reports even identified him that way — at least initially. More discerning folks recognized him immediately. He was no prince at all, but a chef — and quite an accomplished one at that. Two years prior, he had grabbed headlines as Joe Ranji Smile, sometimes shortening the Joe to “J.” He was a cook at Sherry’s, a tony Manhattan establishment, and he hailed from what was then colonial India but is today Pakistan. As an 1899 article syndicated in papers across the country surmised, this colorful man who dazzled diners with his “curry of chicken Madras” and “Bombay Duck” was “the first India [sic] chef America has ever seen.” Smile spoke about the dishes he made as if they possessed the potency of superfoods. “If the women of America will but eat the food I prepare, they will be more beautiful than they as yet imagine,” he promised in that same article. “The eye will grow lustrous, the complexion will be yet so lovely and the figure like unto those of our beautiful India women.” Such pieces on Smile highlighted the novelty of his “trendy” Indian cooking to white Americans, sure, but also elements that had nothing to do with food at all. Smile’s position at Sherry’s made him the subject of splashy profiles in fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, yet he was dubbed a “chef who makes a strong appeal to the eye as well as to the palate.” His actual food — the “snowy mound” of white rice, per the Bazaarpiece, drowned in “the golden brown of the sauce of the curry of chicken, or lobster, or veal” — was often secondary to the glamorous way he looked and carried himself. The media penchant for tying a male chef’s talent to his sexuality — the kind that built and bolstered the machismo and rakish public personas of figures like Bobby Flay or the late Anthony Bourdain — may seem like a rather recent phenomenon. But the story of Smile and his remarkable ruse shows that fawning over male chefs, and the ache to anoint them celebrities, is a very old American pastime. In fact, it’s a practice that predates the advent of food television, stretching back over a century. Smile actively courted journalists’ attention, using his notoriety to advance both his native land’s cooking and his own name. Members of the press were content with the arrangement, too, for a time. Smile’s decline was as precipitous as his ascent. After spending a few months abroad in 1901 and returning to America with the curious new moniker of “Prince,” he toured America giving cooking demonstrations for housewives, working in restaurants, and even trying to mount some ventures of his own. But legal skirmishes tainted him in the eyes of the press: He found himself entangled in immigration law while also being accused of exploiting workers he’d smuggled into America from his native country. He also had a habit of taking a series of young, white brides. In the early 20th century, white Americans began to view immigrants from India as “racially unassimilable laborers who competed unfairly with white workers and sent their money home,” Erika Lee and Judy Yung wrote in the 2010 book Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America. Though the country took to Smile’s food, America was growing less friendly to people of his kind, which also may have informed the newly hostile tone that journalists took in reporting on him. Members of the media who had once pampered the chef with attention suddenly found glee in poking holes in his narrative. In spite of these prejudices, Smile’s preternatural ability to make headlines is partially why numerous scholars, among them the authors Colleen Taylor Sen of Curry: A Global Historyand Sarah Lohman of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, have called him America’s first celebrity chef. Smile’s stardom is remarkable considering that he was brown, Muslim, illiterate, and what many would now refer to as an undocumented immigrant It’s risky to definitively classify any person as the “first” to accomplish a major feat because it often erases prior figures in history. But if you buy the assertions about Smile, it may help make sense of this current moment in American dining, when stories of worker exploitation and abusein restaurant kitchens are finally demolishing the fragile myth of the lone genius (often male, often white) celebrity chef. During the heat of the Me Too movement in late 2017, accusations of sexual assault leveled against the once-renowned chef Mario Batali expedited his exit from the public eye; the past year alone has seen greater scrutiny of chefs who were once media darlings, including Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Abe Conlon, and David Chang. Smile’s story mightlead you to believe that the phenomenon of the celebrity chef in America has, from its onset, been predicated on an individual’s skill to manipulate the masses — a talent that Smile had in spades. But it is only with an assist from the media that many keep the grift going. That Smile could climb to such summits of stardom is remarkable considering that he was brown, Muslim, illiterate, and what many would now refer to as an undocumented immigrant. Given the scandals that trailed him and his series of seemingly calculated deceptions, it might be easy for some to just write off Smile as one would a man selling snake oil. But thinking of Smile as a con man only tells half the story. The narrative around Smile’s origins changed depending on the source. He was, according to Lohman’s book, likely born to a Muslim family on May 11, 1879, in the city of Karachi. Scholars like Lohman have suspected his original surname was Ismaili. But the story gets murky when it comes to his parentage. A 1901 Boston Daily Globearticle wrote that his father had been a merchant. But in 1904, the Philadelphia Inquirersaid his father “once reigned in Marochi, India,” while in 1907, the Washington Post identified Smile as “fifth son of the late Ameer of Beluchistan.” In 1910, the Detroit Free Press had his father’s name as Haji, his mother’s as Princess Zora; a 1912 New York Herald Tribunearticle repeated this claim, naming him as the “son of Princess Zora Kahlekt and the Ameer Haji Narbeboky of Beluchistan, British East India.” Smile’s whimsical tales found a willing audience in journalists who reported his words with little pushback. A 1919 profile in Varietywould paint a fanciful picture, placing him in a royal family in Punjab before “[h]e left his home when he was a boy, wandering into the hills, becoming lost and finally picked up by bandits, who held him for a ransom approximating $100,000 in American money, when learning who he was.” The bandits eventually stranded him in the mountains, the Varietypiece said. He wandered the jungle in those years and even forgot his real name until an English colonel rescued him at 16, taking him to Burma. The elaborate story strains credibility, and the American media’s willingness to print it was evidence of its exoticizing attitude toward people with roots in what was then called India. As for where and when his zeal for cooking developed, the Varietyaccount said that “the instinct to prepare Indian dishes was inherent with him,” as if he’d been blessed with a gift awaiting a proper platform. What few accounts dispute, however, is that he found that stage in London in the 1890s. There, he cooked professionally at the Hotel Cecil and the Savoy, establishments where he reportedly served upper-crust clientele like England’s aristocracy and members of the royal family. Maybe that’s where he got the name Ranji Smile. In a 1901 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, a columnist would claim he christened the chef as Ranji upon meeting Smile at the Hotel Cecil in 1897, naming the chef after a famous cricketer of the same name who bore a passing resemblance to Smile. The Smile surname may have come a bit later, from the British food journalist Nathaniel Newnham-Davis, who, in his book Dinners and Diners: Where and How to Dine in London, called him “Smiler.” Both writers agreed on his prodigious culinary gifts (Smile would have been in or around his 20s when he was cooking in London). The Inquirerwriter observed that “this graceful and Chesterfieldian young Oriental” was “an undoubted artist at the game of curry building.” Newnham-Davis wrote that Smile “thinks that I should not go to the Savoy for any other purpose than to eat his curries.” Most articles on Smile were scant on any details about his food. “It is a mistake to boil curries,” he’d say in that widely syndicated 1899 article trumpeting his arrival in New York. “They should simmer gently and not lose their favor.” Description of his curry’s makeup was minimal; the story simply stated that Smile would take a diner’s plate and plant a circle of “the whitest, flakiest curried rice, in the center of which he places a bit of chicken.” His other dishes bore names like “Muskee Sindh,” “Bombay Duck,” and “Lettuce Ceylon,” leaving food historians today to parse what they really were. Lohman wrote in her book Eight Flavors that she believed Muskee Sindh was a dish of white fish that Smile poached in a storm of onions, tomatoes, ginger, chilies, cilantro, and turmeric. As Sen wrote in a 2006 article for the magazine Food Arts, Bombay duck was usually a “dried, pungent salted fish” that got fried, but Sen theorized that Smile more likely made it into a “curried duck” to appeal to British and American palates. “Lettuce Ceylon,” both Lohman and Sen seem to agree, may have just been a salad. In any case, the gushing reviews that Smile received in London caught the eye of the American restaurateur Louis Sherry. After a visit to London, he lured Smile to his eponymous Manhattan restaurant in the autumn of 1899. American outlets treated Smile as a creature of curiosity, seizing on his looks. “This foreign cook is a very handsome representative of his country—clear, dark skin, brilliant black eyes, smooth black hair and the whitest of teeth,” read one article. Smile arrived at patrons’ tables “immaculately arrayed in a heavy white linen India costume, with a gorgeous turban of white all outlined in gold braid.” In that early account, it was evident that Smile saw himself as far more than a chef. He was a personality, keenly aware of how to market himself. “I must think out each day something new and very novel, because, dear me, the American public must be entertained as well as fed,” he said. Making a living as a chef in America wasn’t just a job, Smile understood; it was a performance. Hanifa Abdul Hameed for Vox Smile dropped off the radar of the American press until late 1901, when he reemerged in New York under the name “Prince Ranjit of Baluchistan.” Smile had just returned from London, where he and a mighty entourage of more than 20 of his fellow countrymen apparently rented out 23 hotel rooms under that princely name. But he reportedly dodged questions about who he really was. “The India Office has issued an official announcement that there is no such Indian chief as Prince Ranjit of Baluchistan,” a New York Timesreport on his arrival in New York read. The paper still made sure to note that he was “a man of fine physique, dark-skinned and handsome.” That article made no mention of Smile being a chef, which feels fitting. In keeping with the modern archetype of the celebrity chef, he was growing a cult of personality that extended far beyond his food. And when he spoke about his royal ancestry, unsuspecting onlookers took him at his word. Until they didn’t. “Ex-Waiter, Not a Prince,” a later headline in the Timesblared. There was a tinge of nastiness to the piece, which downplayed Smile’s talents as a chef, diminishing him to “a former servant in a Fifth Avenue restaurant” who had the wild dream of opening his own place. Smile explained that he’d left America that May to go back home to collect some money he’d inherited — though, in actuality, he may have been recruiting cooks for that new restaurant. Over the next few years, legal trouble brewed for Smile. Just months after his rearrival, a New York Tribunearticle identified him as the proprietor of a Fifth Avenue restaurant (other reports suggest it was called the Omar Khayyam, funded by two wealthy brothers, Roland and Stanley Conklin), where, among other purported offenses, seven men from Smile’s native country alleged that “they had been inveigled ... by Smile under false representations.” Smile had apparently met the men in Bombay and told them he was a prince. A few months later in 1902, he and the Conklins faced a fine of $15,000 for importing 15 contract laborers from India. Smile, along with the men whom he’d hired as waiters, faced deportation on suspicion of violating the Alien Contract Labor Law, a restrictive 1885 mandate that forbade any individual or entity from bringing immigrants to America with the promise of contract work. A year later, he was once again under investigation for breaching that same law. His restaurant, according to a Timesarticle, had failed, thus leaving 15 “stranded Hindus” scrounging for work in America. Many in Smile’s circle were allegedly deported following that case. Smile, though, was spared, and he seemed determined to make America his home. In 1904, he’d apply for citizenship. His bid wasn’t successful, likely because he wasn’t white.(Less than 20 years later, in 1923, a landmark Supreme Court decision would also strip Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh immigrant, of citizenship on the grounds that he wasn’t white, barring future attempts of people from India to become American citizens.) But that didn’t deter him. Smile embarked on a tour of the country, his presence at department stores and hotels marked by a series of ads. His mythology swelled in the years that followed. A 1907 Washington Post article said that King Edward VII himself dubbed Smile “King of the Chafing Dish.” And Smile himself spoke of his cooking talents as if they were God-given. “When I was a baby I used to cry,” he said while touring St. Louis that year. “They wouldn’t know what I was crying for. Then they would give me something to mix and cook, and I would be happy and keep quiet.” A 1910 piece in the Posteven named him as a graduate of Cambridge University. No aspect of Smile’s romantic exploits went unexamined by the papers, either. They named a couple of would-be brides: an American woman named Rose Schlacter (sometimes spelled Schlueter) in 1905, a Welsh woman named Anna Maria Washington Davies in 1910. Both were in their early 20s. According to later reports, though, neither marriage materialized; instead, he found love in 1912 with Violet Ethel Rochlitz, an up-and-coming Broadway performer. Per a Times article documenting the wedding, he was 30 at that time, and she 20. But more legal commotions awaited him. In 1915, he found himself arraigned in a New York City court for being unable to pay a $6.50 bill at a restaurant in Manhattan. The Times took delight in reporting on this incident; “Self-Styled Prince Arrested When He Refused to Pay Dinner Check,” laughed a headline. Smile said that he’d been dining innocently enough until a clan of admirers rushed to his side upon learning they were in the presence of a supposed prince. They took advantage of him by eating and drinking on his dime, he insisted, deserting him to pay the bill. The magistrate dismissed him, but the incident left him humiliated. He was determined, however, not to become a laughingstock. “I’m good for $6.50,” he announced to the magistrate, “but I’m hanged if I’ll let them make a fool of me.” Records of Smile in the American press are spotty following that case. There were more ads over the next few years showing that he was cooking at hotels across the country. There was even another marriage in 1918, to a 19-year-old named May (sometimes spelled Mae) Walter, when Smile was well into his 30s. (Rochlitz had died.) Months after the marriage, though, his young wife slapped him with a warrant for disorderly conduct. America, meanwhile, was becoming even more inhospitable for people of Indian origin. The Immigration Act of 1917 effectively barred immigration from what was then India to the United States. Smile seemed to do anything he could to stay in America, filling out a draft card in 1917 at the start of World War I. There’s no indication, however, that he fought in the war. Smile was occasionally still catnip for prurient gossip. In 1920, the New York-based columnist O. O. McIntyre wrote that Smile was “[g]arbed in oriental robes and turbans. Goes from one cafe to another making Indian dishes. Married three white women.” Mentions of him in the media petered out throughout the 1920s. The Times of India listed him as a passenger on a ship due to arrive in Bombay at the end of July 1929, implying that he went home. No news followed until spring 1937, when a series of notices in the Brooklyn Daily Eagleindicated that his wife, May, was requesting an annulment of their marriage. And that was the last time the American press made mention of J. Ranji Smile — at least by that name — in the early 20th century. There are certain things you can glean about Smile’s life if you take these archival texts at face value: That he was a charismatic figure who bewitched white America. That he was a phony who swindled gullible Americans to further his own name. That he was a Lothario, seducing young women as if it were a sport. But a skeptical reading of these records might guide you to a more complex truth: Smile became an object of mockery for his primarily white, well-off American audience. He faced enormous challenges as a man who was brown, Muslim, and unable to gain citizenship. Smile lived in America during an era of great turmoil for people who looked like him. As a figure of history, Smile is beguilingly difficult to categorize, both a pioneer and a prevaricator. “[H]e must have been incredibly charismatic — he truly, truly was a star,” Lohman says of Smile in a phone conversation. “And he was also such a mess.” She hesitates to label Smile as a crook, speculating on the traumas he may have endured trying to assimilate in America. Lohman, who has compared Smile to “a Food Network star,” argues that there’s symbolic power in designating him as America’s first celebrity chef. “His whole spirit and identity challenges the contemporary notion of who an American is and what American history is,” she says. “His story says that immigrants and people of color have been in this country all along, and have been part of this story all along, too.” The modern avatar of the celebrity chef, in the view of the historian and author Paul Freedman, began taking shape in the 1960s with the rise of the French chef Paul Bocuse, who propagated the image of “the chef as artist, as creator of things never seen before,” Freedman says. “And then — this is further developed by Ferran Adrià at El Bulli — is the chef as genius.” The media has played an indispensable role in creating these stars, just as it did in Smile’s time. “The media’s the oxygen,” Freedman says. “But the media at different times wants different things in response to what it perceives what the public wants.” “[H]e must have been incredibly charismatic — he truly, truly was a star. And he was also such a mess.” The question of what the American public desired from Smile has weighed on the author Vivek Bald for more than a decade and a half. “To simply describe Smile as a conman is to flatten the complexity of his situation as a dark-skinned Indian Muslim immigrant man in turn-of-the-century New York,” Bald writes in an email. To believe it is to dismiss xenophobic, racist realities that Smile, and others like him, had to contend with in America at the time. Bald, who’s been at work on a book tentatively titled The Rise and Fall of Prince Ranji Smile, first came across a reference to Smile in 2004 when working on his 2013 book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America. He was struck by the tone of New York Times articles he found on Smile. “It was as if Smile were the butt of some ongoing inside joke among New Yorkers,” Bald says. Bald doesn’t deny that Smile did engage in a con on some level, using the “prince” designation to woo women (and workers). But Smile also “embodied a larger contradiction in Americans’ regard for Indians at the turn of the century,” Bald says. “In Smile’s day, South Asians appeared in the US imagination as mystics and yogis who possessed valuable ‘ancient wisdom’ or as elegant princes who lived in the enviable surroundings of lavish palaces, but, just as often, they were represented as heathens and criminals or as dour, turbaned migrants coming to take away ‘American jobs,’” Bald explains. Smile sat between the two. But he shrewdly played into those tropes — ones that Americans had inherited from the British. Doing so was part of the bargain that surviving in America required. “Smile was simply using the fantasy as a way to carve out a place for himself in a United States where the popular agitation against Asian immigration was getting stronger and more violent with each passing year,” Bald says. This is why Bald views Smile sympathetically: Smile “was always on the verge of having that all stripped away, and being revealed as ‘just a cook,’ ‘just a servant,’ ‘just a laborer.’” After all, Smile found himself working at the whims of white men like Louis Sherry and the Conklin brothers. They occupied a higher station in American society than Smile ever could by virtue of their whiteness and their access to capital. Smile’s possibilities were always more finite than theirs for reasons he couldn’t control. Bald hasn’t confirmed what happened to Smile at the end of his life, facts like when or where he died. He hypothesizes that Smile either went back to his home country under his birth name (which is still undetermined) or continued to eke out a quieter existence in the United States, far from the limelight. Bald has made peace with the possibility that he may not find firm answers. “In some ways, it may be fitting that he only existed in the US imagination — and historical record — to the extent that Americans could invest him with meaning and identity, and that he slipped away by becoming illegible to them again,” Bald says. Historians may never resolve the perplexing questions around Smile’s life. But this much is certain: For a brief time, Smile served Americans exactly what they wanted. Mayukh Sen is the author of the forthcoming book Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America (W.W. Norton & Company, November 2021). He has won a James Beard Award for his food writing, and he teaches food journalism at New York University.
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