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The Atlantic Elevates Denise Wills to Editorial Director, Sarah Yager to Deputy Executive Editor, and John Swansburg and Bhumika Tharoor to Managing Editors
The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, has announced a number of promotions and new roles for the senior-most editorial leadership of The Atlantic, bringing a restructure to the top of the masthead to unify story-making across all platforms.Denise Wills, who has been deputy editor of the print magazine since 2018 and was previously the features editor, is being promoted to the new role of editorial director, and will help supervise the story-producing functions across every platform. Sarah Yager is being promoted to deputy executive editor, managing the art and photography, copy, and fact-checking teams. John Swansburg is being elevated to a managing editor with a focus on the print magazine. And, Bhumika Tharoor is being promoted to managing editor, leading strategy, subscriber growth, and audience habit. With these promotions, executive editor Adrienne LaFrance will oversee all of editorial, reporting to Goldberg, and the print-magazine staff will now report through LaFrance.Wills’s promotion to editorial director, which is a new role at The Atlantic, is meant to bring more ambition, vision, and clarity to The Atlantic’s journalism across every platform. She will work with editors throughout the organization to refine and improve feature-making capabilities and processes, particularly at the initial idea-and-assignment phase. Wills joined the print magazine in 2014, having previously been an editor at Politico Magazine and Washingtonian. She has played a central role in leading The Atlantic through some of its most consequential years, and previously led a cross-platform initiative to boost some of The Atlantic’s most ambitious reporting.As deputy executive editor, Yager will manage the crucial cross-platform desks of art and photography, fact-checking, and copy, working closely with the leadership of those three teams. She has been a managing editor since 2019, overseeing editorial operations and standards across the newsroom. She started at The Atlantic as a fellow, and was a fact-checker, story editor, and managing editor of the magazine.Swansburg becomes a managing editor with a special focus on print, and in this role will work across platforms to better integrate the print magazine with The Atlantic’s other journalism platforms. He will oversee the making of the print magazine each month, and manage the print team’s senior editors. Swansburg has been with The Atlantic since 2017, and previously spent 10 years as an editor at Slate.Tharoor, who was most recently senior editor of strategy, becomes a managing editor with an expanded portfolio of strategic responsibilities related to subscriber growth and retention. She joined The Atlantic in 2018 as deputy director of Talent Lab, a newsroom team focused on diversity, talent acquisition, and staff development. Tharoor previously worked at CNN and The Washington Post.A number of writers and editors have joined The Atlantic’s editorial team this year, including senior editors Daniel Engber from Wired, Honor Jones from The New York Times, and Chris Ip from Engadget; staff writers Caitlin Dickerson, Jennifer Senior, and Katherine Wu, all formerly of The New York Times; staff writer Tim Alberta, formerly of Politico; and Aithne Feay, who joined The Atlantic’s experimental-storytelling team. This month, The Atlantic launched the first chapter of “Inheritance,” a project about American history, Black life, and the resilience of memory; and began the weekly podcast The Experiment: Stories From an Unfinished Country in partnership with WNYC Studios. The Experiment explores America’s promise through riveting, surprising, and even surreal stories.
The Problem With This Kids’ Show Isn’t Just the Giant Penis
The world of Danish children’s television is not for the prudish. Kids who turn on the tube in Denmark might be greeted by gratuitous flatulence, cursing, casual nudity, or cross-dressing puppets. One show centers on a pipe-smoking pirate who wallops ninjas and flirts with Satanism. In another, an audience of 11-to-13-year-olds asks probing questions about the bodies of adults who disrobe before them. As Christian Groes, an anthropologist at Denmark's Roskilde University, told me, Danish children’s television is not unlike an LSD trip: “Everything is possible in that universe,” he said, loosely quoting a friend, “and people won’t complain about it.”But people did complain when the Danes debuted a kids’ animated series in January featuring a protagonist with an absurdly long, prehensile penis.The show, which is produced by DR, the same Danish production company responsible for the pirate and strip-down shows, was written for 4-to-8-year-olds. It centers on the eponymous John Dillermand, a mustachioed claymation character whose last name translates roughly to “penis man.” (In Danish, diller is a silly, cheeky bit of phallic slang, the equivalent of pee-pee, willy, or weiner in English.) Gifted, or perhaps cursed, with a retractable phallus that seems capable of extending at least 20 times the length of his body, Dillermand must navigate life alongside his über-ostentatious junk, which at times has a mind of its own. His schlong graffities walls, digs up gardens, lassos a moving caravan, and even coils itself into a bobbing, seaworthy boat—not always with Dillermand’s permission.Scandalized viewers criticized Dillermand as inappropriate, tone-deaf, and a jarring choice on the heels of the country’s growing #MeToo movement. But the series’s creators, and many bemused fans, defended it as a subversive comedy that has served up opportunities for parents to have frank and unsqueamish conversations about anatomy with their kids.“The series is about being true to one’s self,” Morten Skov Hansen, the head of DR Ramasjang, the company’s kids’ channel, told me in an email. “It’s as desexualized as it can possibly get.”While I don’t speak Danish, the tone of John Dillermand is not easily lost in translation: The show isn’t about sex. It’s about taking responsibility for your actions, and the awkward realities of inhabiting a human body. But in every minute of the Dillermand jaunt, there’s also a reminder that male bodies are still allowed freedoms that female ones are not.John Dillermand is, in some ways, a throwback to the man-children who have dominated kids’ TV across continents and decades. Dillermand, who is middle-aged, lives with his remarkably spry great-grandmother (oldemor, in Danish), and retains the worldview of a young boy. He is clad inexplicably in a red-and-white striped swimsuit (which graciously accommodates his elongating appendage, because a nude penis would have been a bridge too far), and occasionally a pom-pommed beanie. A character reminiscent of Mr. Bean or Inspector Gadget, he lacks street smarts and maturity, and innocently sees the world as his playground.Were Dillermand typically endowed, he might be merely bumbling or pitiable. But his giant penis—billed in the show’s theme song as the largest in the world—won’t allow him to languish in anonymity. A manifestation of his id, his pecker acts of its own accord. It’s sassy. It’s hedonistic. It’s got an appetite (for food, mostly), and isn’t afraid to buck social norms to sate it.This tension between man and member drives the show’s zany plot. After Dillermand’s penis plucks an ice-cream cone from a child’s hand and flings it onto a stoplight, Dillermand must redirect traffic and set the situation right. When the diller nearly drowns several kids, John wrangles it into a makeshift propeller to airlift the children to safety. Dillermand’s penis wields weapons with abandon—a dagger, a chain saw, a rifle. It provokes animals and bullies children. It steals. It commits acts of violence. It even terrifies Santa Claus (who mistakes the penis for a snake) so badly that he tumbles down a chimney and injures himself.Dillermand has enough self-awareness to occasionally bemoan the shenanigans of his wayward penis, pulling his hat over his face and groaning, “Ugh, that dumb diller.” It’s often Oldemor who must remind her man-child great-grandson to pak den væk—put it away!—when Dillermand’s diller runs amok. “What will the neighbors think?” she screeches. But Dillermand always comes through in the end, picking up a lesson or two about conscientiousness along the way.Christen Bach / DR RamasjangIn the months since its premiere, John Dillermand has accumulated a veritable cavalry of tiny fans. Anne Sofie Pleidrup, who lives with her husband, her son, 6, and her daughter, 7, in Denmark, told me that her entire family has been enjoying the show. Both her children are creeping up to the age when anatomical differences are starting to fascinate them, and she was delighted that “they found the same punch lines funny.”Dillermand embodies a child’s view of the human body: strange, impossible, invincible, hilarious. He validates the idea that the diller is okay for kids to discuss. Children have parroted the show’s theme song to their parents, requested Dillermand-themed cakes, and packed superlong penises onto snowmen. “It’s removing some of the stigma about talking about a penis—it’s just a body part,” Eileen Crehan, a sex-education researcher at Tufts University, told me. With a squint, one could imagine Dillermand’s genitals as an extra-long arm or leg. By Danish standards, Dillermand is actually “fairly mild,” Andreas Lieberoth, an educational psychologist at Aarhus University, told me. He and many other experts I spoke with shrugged the series off as no big deal—just the latest in a long line of edgy or bodily brazen Danish shows.The show's success could also be read as a testament to Denmark’s progressive approach to sexuality and autonomy in general. Sex education has been a requirement in Danish elementary schools since 1970 (a year after the country became the world’s first Western nation to legalize pornographic imagery). It's hard to imagine Dillermand sitting well in countries with a more fraught approach to sex, such as the United States, where “we sexualize everything,” Hilary Reno, a sexual-health expert at Washington University in St. Louis, told me. But in Denmark—where people boast of their frisind, a free-spirited, open-minded approach to life—kids begin discussing love, sexuality, relationships, and consent as early as kindergarten, learning while young that their bodies are things to be acknowledged, not repressed.Perhaps in this context, a penis does not have to be a sexual device—especially when viewed through the eyes of a 4-year-old. “It’s a good message for bodies in general,” Kathryn Macapagal, a sexual-health researcher and clinical psychologist at Northwestern University, told me. “Your body gets you into trouble, but it can also do lots of amazing things.” Dillermand himself learns this lesson: After trying to barter his penis away at a flea market, he ultimately accepts and embraces his misbehaving pecker, hijinks and all.Yet despite its candy striping, John Dillermand’s penis is, in the end, still a penis. The diller acts as if morally bankrupt; it is recklessness incarnate. It threatens, perhaps even overtly, to absolve men of responsibility. “To me, this penis is out of control,” Crehan said. Despite its lighthearted tone, John Dillermand—a show about men, dreamed up by men—reinforces the bottom line about male sexuality: It’s so uncontrollable, it can demand its own television series.Some of the trouble can be traced back to the pure creep factor of the main character. Dillermand, despite his apparent age, is jobless and friendless. He piddles the day away on the front lawn, playing pranks or practicing badminton with his only willing athletic partner, who is—surprise!—his own penis. While Oldemor urges him to rub elbows with doctors and lawyers, Dillermand manages to befriend only a lonely young boy, with whom he filches candy from a shop.And Dillermand himself is not completely sexless. In one episode, he nurses an obvious crush on his thankfully age-appropriate neighbor Yvonne. His penis, by and large, behaves itself. But the character’s desires evoke the discomfiting possibility of an unwelcome advance nonetheless.Groes, the gender scholar, worries that the diller’s presence is so commanding that it actually distracts from the rest of the show’s content. When Groes’s 8-year-old son watched the show, “he didn’t get it,” Groes told me. “Because the attention was on something else, which was funnier, stranger, and weirder.”Adalsteinn Hallgrimsson / DR RamasjangAt its worst, Dillermand, inadvertently or not, threatens to reinforce the same “locker-room tendencies” the Western world has hoped to move away from, Groes told me. “It’s probably the most classic stereotype you can come up with: a man having certain abilities because he has a big penis.” Dillermand’s life revolves around the power of his appendage. The show ultimately glorifies the consequences of an uninhibited penis, rather than grappling with them. Dillermand’s predicament, Groes said, is a “classic macho claim: ‘I can’t control my penis.’”DR, the company behind the show, has argued that Dillermand and his penis could have "easily" been swapped out for a female-bodied character. And yet, on one point, every person I spoke with agreed: Reimagined with a biologically female lead, John Dillermand would not have worked. Even in Denmark, vaginas and vulvas aren’t considered innocent or endearing enough to delight young minds. Diller jokes are embedded in the cultural zeitgeist; the word itself is emblematic of contrarian playfulness and parody. But the Danes I talked with told me that the impish female counterpart of the word diller does not exist.“There is still shame with talking about women’s genitalia in public spaces,” Crehan said. An especially large vagina might be labeled as a signal of looseness and corruption—a dangerous “weapon” used to exert undue influence over others.The idea of a massive, magical vulva taking the place of Dillermand’s penis is difficult to even envision. In the days after the show premiered, the Danish internet overflowed with memes flaunting female versions of Dillermand, some sporting the appropriately gigantic genital accoutrement, or a tangle of unspooling breasts. But “would people receive it the same way with a vulva or vagina reaching out to grab a kid’s ice-cream cone? I don’t think so,” Macapagal told me. From there, the possibilities start to spiral: Would Carol’s clitoris have been celebrated for taming a lion? Would audiences have laughed to see Vicky’s vulva stabbed, smashed, or electrocuted?This imbalance is a reminder of the dominance of masculinity, Groes said. Although the sexuality of the penis can be toggled on and off, female genitalia occupy a cultural space with decidedly less dynamic range. The sexuality of women is still taboo enough that it is most easily ignored; when it is offered a modest fraction of the spotlight typically reserved for men, it is excoriated for its audacity. While the nuanced lore of the penis thrives, female genitals are struggling to shed their “hypersexualized” identity, says Rachel Hardeman, a reproductive-health-equity researcher at the University of Minnesota.In John Dillermand, the female presence is so starkly absent that one cannot help but confront the reasons it has been erased. The show isn’t uncomfortable because it’s so radical to make a children’s series about a penis, but because it’s decidedly not.
1 h
How Do You Recalibrate With a Murderer?
Today the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released its report on the murder of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. If the report were the denouement of a dinner-theater murder mystery, most of the audience would be so confident of the conclusion that they would already be walking out to the parking lot. The Crown Prince ordered it. In the Consulate. With the bone saw. Even the Saudi government admits most of these details—with the exception of the claim that the order to kill came from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 35-year-old de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.The public version of the report is barely longer than a page and contains no real secrets. It answers none of the outstanding questions about Khashoggi’s assassination: Why did the Saudis kill Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate—the one building in Istanbul where no one could doubt that the perpetrators were Saudis? Why didn’t they send a lone, untraceable gunman to shoot him dead in the street? Instead, they sent a kill squad approximately the size of the Glenn Miller Orchestra. The assassins flew on chartered aircraft, together, back to Riyadh. In identifying Bin Salman as the figure responsible, the report hedges slightly, confirming only what we already knew: that bin Salman ran a tight operation, and those who killed Khashoggi were loyal to him. It is therefore “highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.”[Graeme Wood: Jamal Khashoggi’s murder remains a mystery]The most important questions unanswered by the report are moral and political. How many dead dissidents is too many? Khashoggi wrote columns for The Washington Post (or he at least signed them; the Post has reported that staff at an organization funded by Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Qatar proposed and even drafted some columns), and as a fellow writer, I put a hard limit on murdered journalists at zero.White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Saudi Arabia should expect a “recalibration” in bilateral relations. The implication of this statement is that the knobs that govern that recalibration can be turned more than a smidgen in either direction without wreaking havoc on other American foreign-policy interests in the region. In some ways, those relations have never been better: Bin Salman’s violence against political opponents coexists with a dramatic expansion of the social freedoms available to Saudis (including Saudi women), as well as a diversification of the economy away from oil. The crown prince has branded those improvements as his own, and has made them over the objections of other royals. They will be the hostage of any reset. If he goes, they go too.What would recalibration look like? First, banish any thought of formal punishment by Saudi Arabia itself. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, in the true premodern sense, and bin Salman is the law. Remember all of the legal dickering in the United States about whether the Department of Justice could indict a sitting president? A Saudi prosecution of the crown prince for murder would involve a legal short-circuit; the crown prince cannot prosecute himself, any more than he can tickle himself or sneak up on himself. Absolute monarchy is a terrible system of government for precisely this reason. If bin Salman is someday in a position to be prosecuted, it will be because the Saudi monarchy has been overthrown—and in that case, he will have much more serious issues than the Khashoggi affair.Then consider the more realistic options. The United States could implore Saudi Arabia’s ruler, the 85-year-old King Salman, to demote Mohammed bin Salman and remove him from the line of succession. (“The message to the Saudis has to be to get rid of this guy,” Sarah Leah Whitson, a colleague of Khashoggi, told The New York Times.) This option brings us only millimeters closer to reality. In the almost four years since bin Salman officially ascended to the role of crown prince, he has relentlessly hacked at the legs of all who might step in as his rival. These include, most prominently, the very princes who would have served nicely as alternatives to bin Salman. He sidelined and arrested Mohammed bin Nayef, his predecessor as crown prince and a favorite of Western spy agencies; Khashoggi’s patron, the former intelligence chief and diplomat Turki bin Faisal, was never close to the throne, but he too found himself jettisoned to the outer orbits of power. Bin Salman has spent his rule eliminating alternatives, and killing Khashoggi was part of that process.If bin Salman has rendered himself indispensable, can the United States at least make him regret his crimes? The Department of the Treasury announced further sanctions against members of Bin Salman’s circle. To sanction him personally would entail the mother of all Magnitsky Act designations. The many foreign officials designated under the act as human-rights offenders—and therefore barred from all business in the United States—do not include anyone like bin Salman, who is both a man and a state. What does it mean to sanction the absolute monarch of a country that does $28 billion in trade with the U.S. and keeps the world’s energy markets supple and predictable? The United States now produces about 68 percent more oil than Saudi Arabia, and that undercuts Riyadh’s economic leverage. But Saudi Arabia still has, almost uniquely, the ability to open or close the throttle of its production at will, and that gives it market-determining powers that other countries, operating at full throttle, lack. We will miss those powers if they disappear because Saudi Arabia grows distant as a partner.And then there is Saudi Arabia’s role as a geopolitical partner on the axis that runs from Cairo through Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi. President Joe Biden’s foreign policy is sure to include greater engagement with this axis’s principal enemy, Iran. Iran and Saudi Arabia are the great zero-sum relationship in U.S. policy in the Gulf—and now that we’re no longer pretending that Saudi Arabia isn’t killing its dissidents, Iran will enjoy the shift in favor. The shift need not be total: If the ideal number of murdered dissidents is zero, then Saudi Arabia is closer to that number than Iran. The Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen, a humanitarian catastrophe perpetrated in part with American weapons, needs to end as soon as possible, and one way to punish Mohammed bin Salman would be to pressure him to let it end with an Iranian victory. The consequence of that will probably be more Houthi missiles raining down on civilian airports in Saudi Arabia. A Houthi victory would also confirm the wisdom of Iran’s policy of waging war in its near-abroad—a policy that has (to date) left Syria, Yemen, and Iraq littered with corpses. The United States assassinated this policy’s architect, Qassem Soleimani, a little more than a year ago. Nudging bin Salman out of Yemen would honor his legacy.[Hassan Hassan: What’s missing from the Saudis’ Khashoggi story]Murderers should be called murderers—frequently, and to their face. Today the State department announced a tool called a “Khashoggi ban,” to bar travel to the United States by those who kill or harass journalists. These are welcome measures, but minor ones. Underlying geopolitical reality remains unchanged. And the reality in Saudi Arabia is that the United States is, not for the first or last time, stuck in a miserable situation, and the end of this sordid episode will probably be an American official shaking hands, once again, with a murderer.
2 h
We Already Know How Vaccinated People Should Behave
Editor’s Note: The Atlantic is making vital coverage of the coronavirus available to all readers. Find the collection here. Every day, more than 1 million American deltoids are being loaded with a vaccine. The ensuing immune response has proved to be extremely effective—essentially perfect—at preventing severe cases of COVID-19. And now, with yet another highly effective vaccine on the verge of approval, that pace should further accelerate in the weeks to come.This is creating a legion of people who no longer need to fear getting sick, and are desperate to return to “normal” life. Yet the messaging on whether they might still carry and spread the disease—and thus whether it’s really safe for them to resume their unmasked, un-distanced lives—has been oblique. Anthony Fauci said last week on CNN that “it is conceivable, maybe likely,” that vaccinated people can get infected with the coronavirus and then spread it to someone else, and that more will be known about this likelihood “in some time, as we do some follow-up studies.” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky had been no more definitive on Meet the Press a few days before, where she told the host, “We don’t have a lot of data yet to inform exactly the question that you’re asking.”At this point in the pandemic, with deliverance in sight for so many people, the vagueness can justifiably be maddening. For a year now, the public-health message has been to wait. First we waited until it was safe to go outside. Then we waited for vaccines to be developed, tested, and approved. Now people are being asked to wait their turn to get vaccinated; then to wait a few more weeks until they’ve received their second dose; and then two weeks more to make sure that their immune responses have fully kicked in. And finally, when all that waiting is done, we’re supposed to wait for “some time” more?The experts urging patience are, of course, correct. There are myriad details of physiology and molecular immunology that remain to be understood, and we do not know how quickly transmission rates will drop as large numbers of people get vaccinated. At an individual level, though, the proper advice on what constitutes safe behavior does not depend on any scientific study whose results are pending. It depends on what’s happening in the world around us.As you’ve heard ad nauseam by now, the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines were developed at record speed. They were created in the heat of an emergency, while thousands of people were dying every day, as a way to stop the carnage. They are proving remarkably effective at this.The vaccines were never expected to block infection by the virus altogether, explains Stephen Thomas, the chief of the infectious-disease division at SUNY Upstate and the coordinating principal investigator for the Phase 3 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine clinical trial. “I don’t really think that’s feasible or plausible,” he told me. Most vaccines work by training the body to prevent a virus from replicating to such a degree that a person gets sick. They don’t typically prevent a person from getting infected; they simply make that infection less consequential, and enable the body to clear it more quickly.If a vaccine could reliably prevent future infections from ever taking hold, it would provide what’s known as “sterilizing immunity,” Syra Madad, an epidemiologist at NYC Health + Hospitals, told me. This is an uncommon occurrence. The measles vaccine is often cited as an exception, but she says that there is no reason to expect the COVID-19 vaccines to fall into this rare category.Indeed, there is no obvious mechanism by which they could. “To generate sterilizing immunity in a mucosal space using a vaccine that’s injected into your muscle is extremely difficult,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University, told me. She said that early evidence in rhesus macaques has suggested that the AstraZeneca vaccine could provide sterilizing protection, but only when administered as a nasal spray. Other researchers have begun to work on nasally delivered vaccines that could theoretically serve to coat our mucous membranes with antiviral armor, though there is no certainty that this approach would be effective at preventing severe disease.So it’s safe to assume that the current batch of COVID-19 vaccines won’t stop viral transmission outright. But it’s also safe to assume that they will reduce that transmission to some extent, because they impede viral replication. “It is highly plausible that a vaccine that prevents disease by lowering the amount of virus in a person could also lower that person’s ability to infect others through the same mechanism,” Thomas said. The tricky part is determining the degree to which this happens.“No definitive clinical trial can give you this evidence,” Rasmussen said. The trials were really designed for speed and safety, so the researchers were most concerned with looking for symptomatic COVID-19 or adverse reactions, not asymptomatic infections. To know how often vaccinated people were asymptomatically carrying the virus, researchers would have had to test each of the tens of thousands of people in their clinical trials as frequently as possible.Some ongoing trials have taken to swabbing the noses of vaccinated people occasionally, and this could add insight into how common it is for people to carry the virus after vaccination. Early evidence from Johnson & Johnson’s clinical trial, for example, suggests a significant reduction in transmission after vaccination, though this remains to be verified. Still, occasional testing is bound to miss cases of infection, and finding some virus in some noses doesn’t tell us how infectious the owners of those noses might be—or whether they’re infectious at all.The only way to answer this question for certain would be to run a “challenge” trial in which vaccinated and unvaccinated people were deliberately exposed to the virus under similar conditions, and then tested to see what percentage of them got infected. That’s just step one. Then the vaccinated-but-infected people would need to hang out with a bunch of unvaccinated people to see if they got infected, and at what rate. This is not going to happen. Challenge trials are ethical minefields in normal times; at this point, any study that involves withholding a vaccine from a control group would be difficult to justify.More trial data are expected over the next few months, and these may help narrow our uncertainty. It would certainly be useful to get a better sense of whether the risk of catching COVID-19 from your grandmother, for example, drops by something like 90 percent once she’s vaccinated, or whether it’s closer to 10 percent—but that number isn’t going to be exact, and it won’t be static, either. Even if we could somehow run the sort of challenge trial described above, whatever value it produced could change as new variants of the virus take hold, and it might well vary across regions with different patterns of prior infection, behavioral norms, local weather, and other variables we don’t even know to look for.All of this is academic. Whatever trial data might arrive in the coming months won’t change the practical advice: As long as a lot of virus is still circulating in a community and many people remain unvaccinated, the mere fact that some have protection will not mean that it’s responsible for them to forgo precautions and do whatever they like.A different kind of data, though, will offer that reassurance and certainty. This is what we’re really waiting on. “We will absolutely get to a point when we can say that vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks,” Madad said, but that will be driven largely by changes in the number of cases, and in the vaccination rate. The sooner we can drive the former down and the latter up, the sooner normalcy returns. As populations draw closer to herd immunity, the chance of a vaccinated person both carrying the virus and coming into close contact with a nonimmune person will become so low that the guidelines will change. But as long as the virus remains omnipresent, the risk of getting infected (and transmitting) the virus after being vaccinated remains too high to countenance.This message need not be seen as pessimistic or ambiguous. It tells us very clearly that our social lives can resume, but only when the whole community is ready. The turning point does not arrive for individuals, one by one, as soon as they’ve been vaccinated; it comes for all of us at once, when a population becomes immune. How quickly this occurs depends on how reliably those vaccines reduce transmission. But it will primarily be a function of how quickly people get access to vaccines, how much immunity already exists in a population, and how much attention is given to basic preventive measures that should never go away, such as well-ventilated workspaces and responsible sick-leave policies. Much of this is in our hands now. We are not waiting on a clinical study; we are waiting on one another.
3 h
The Five Fallacies That Hamstrung Our Response to COVID-19
When the polio vaccine was declared safe and effective, the news was met with jubilant celebration. Church bells rang across the nation, and factories blew their whistles. “Polio routed!” newspaper headlines exclaimed. “An historic victory,” “monumental,” “sensational,” newscasters declared. People erupted with joy across the United States. Some danced in the streets; others wept. Kids were sent home from school to celebrate.One might have expected the initial approval of the coronavirus vaccines to spark similar jubilation—especially after a brutal pandemic year. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the steady drumbeat of good news about the vaccines has been met with a chorus of relentless pessimism.The problem is not that the good news isn’t being reported, or that we should throw caution to the wind just yet. It’s that neither the reporting nor the public-health messaging has reflected the truly amazing reality of these vaccines. There is nothing wrong with realism and caution, but effective communication requires a sense of proportion—distinguishing between due alarm and alarmism; warranted, measured caution and doombait; worst-case scenarios and claims of impending catastrophe. We need to be able to celebrate profoundly positive news while noting the work that still lies ahead. However, instead of balanced optimism since the launch of the vaccines, the public has been offered a lot of misguided fretting over new virus variants, subjected to misleading debates about the inferiority of certain vaccines, and presented with long lists of things vaccinated people still cannot do, while media outlets wonder whether the pandemic will ever end.[Conor Friedersdorf: The public-health value of speaking plainly]This pessimism is sapping people of energy to get through the winter, and the rest of this pandemic. Anti-vaccination groups and those opposing the current public-health measures have been vigorously amplifying the pessimistic messages—especially the idea that getting vaccinated doesn’t mean being able to do more—telling their audiences that there is no point in compliance, or in eventual vaccination, because it will not lead to any positive changes. They are using the moment and the messaging to deepen mistrust of public-health authorities, accusing them of moving the goalposts and implying that we’re being conned. Either the vaccines aren’t as good as claimed, they suggest, or the real goal of pandemic-safety measures is to control the public, not the virus.Five key fallacies and pitfalls have affected public-health messaging, as well as media coverage, and have played an outsize role in derailing an effective pandemic response. These problems were deepened by the ways that we—the public—developed to cope with a dreadful situation under great uncertainty. And now, even as vaccines offer brilliant hope, and even though, at least in the United States, we no longer have to deal with the problem of a misinformer in chief, some officials and media outlets are repeating many of the same mistakes in handling the vaccine rollout.The pandemic has given us an unwelcome societal stress test, revealing the cracks and weaknesses in our institutions and our systems. Some of these are common to many contemporary problems, including political dysfunction and the way our public sphere operates. Others are more particular, though not exclusive, to the current challenge—including a gap between how academic research operates and how the public understands that research, and the ways in which the psychology of coping with the pandemic have distorted our response to it.Recognizing all these dynamics is important, not only for seeing us through this pandemic—yes, it is going to end—but also to understand how our society functions, and how it fails. We need to start shoring up our defenses, not just against future pandemics but against all the myriad challenges we face—political, environmental, societal, and technological. None of these problems is impossible to remedy, but first we have to acknowledge them and start working to fix them—and we’re running out of time.The past 12 months were incredibly challenging for almost everyone. Public-health officials were fighting a devastating pandemic and, at least in this country, an administration hell-bent on undermining them. The World Health Organization was not structured or funded for independence or agility, but still worked hard to contain the disease. Many researchers and experts noted the absence of timely and trustworthy guidelines from authorities, and tried to fill the void by communicating their findings directly to the public on social media. Reporters tried to keep the public informed under time and knowledge constraints, which were made more severe by the worsening media landscape. And the rest of us were trying to survive as best we could, looking for guidance where we could, and sharing information when we could, but always under difficult, murky conditions.Despite all these good intentions, much of the public-health messaging has been profoundly counterproductive. In five specific ways, the assumptions made by public officials, the choices made by traditional media, the way our digital public sphere operates, and communication patterns between academic communities and the public proved flawed.Risk CompensationOne of the most important problems undermining the pandemic response has been the mistrust and paternalism that some public-health agencies and experts have exhibited toward the public. A key reason for this stance seems to be that some experts feared that people would respond to something that increased their safety—such as masks, rapid tests, or vaccines—by behaving recklessly. They worried that a heightened sense of safety would lead members of the public to take risks that would not just undermine any gains, but reverse them.[Julia Marcus: The danger of assuming that family time is dispensable]The theory that things that improve our safety might provide a false sense of security and lead to reckless behavior is attractive—it’s contrarian and clever, and fits the “here’s something surprising us smart folks thought about” mold that appeals to, well, people who think of themselves as smart. Unsurprisingly, such fears have greeted efforts to persuade the public to adopt almost every advance in safety, including seat belts, helmets, and condoms.But time and again, the numbers tell a different story: Even if safety improvements cause a few people to behave recklessly, the benefits overwhelm the ill effects. In any case, most people are already interested in staying safe from a dangerous pathogen. Further, even at the beginning of the pandemic, sociological theory predicted that wearing masks would be associated with increased adherence to other precautionary measures—people interested in staying safe are interested in staying safe—and empirical research quickly confirmed exactly that. Unfortunately, though, the theory of risk compensation—and its implicit assumptions—continue to haunt our approach, in part because there hasn’t been a reckoning with the initial missteps.Rules in Place of Mechanisms and IntuitionsMuch of the public messaging focused on offering a series of clear rules to ordinary people, instead of explaining in detail the mechanisms of viral transmission for this pathogen. A focus on explaining transmission mechanisms, and updating our understanding over time, would have helped empower people to make informed calculations about risk in different settings. Instead, both the CDC and the WHO chose to offer fixed guidelines that lent a false sense of precision.In the United States, the public was initially told that “close contact” meant coming within six feet of an infected individual, for 15 minutes or more. This messaging led to ridiculous gaming of the rules; some establishments moved people around at the 14th minute to avoid passing the threshold. It also led to situations in which people working indoors with others, but just outside the cutoff of six feet, felt that they could take their mask off. None of this made any practical sense. What happened at minute 16? Was seven feet okay? Faux precision isn’t more informative; it’s misleading.All of this was complicated by the fact that key public-health agencies like the CDC and the WHO were late to acknowledge the importance of some key infection mechanisms, such as aerosol transmission. Even when they did so, the shift happened without a proportional change in the guidelines or the messaging—it was easy for the general public to miss its significance.Frustrated by the lack of public communication from health authorities, I wrote an article last July on what we then knew about the transmission of this pathogen—including how it could be spread via aerosols that can float and accumulate, especially in poorly ventilated indoor spaces. To this day, I’m contacted by people who describe workplaces that are following the formal guidelines, but in ways that defy reason: They’ve installed plexiglass, but barred workers from opening their windows; they’ve mandated masks, but only when workers are within six feet of one another, while permitting them to be taken off indoors during breaks.Perhaps worst of all, our messaging and guidelines elided the difference between outdoor and indoor spaces, where, given the importance of aerosol transmission, the same precautions should not apply. This is especially important because this pathogen is overdispersed: Much of the spread is driven by a few people infecting many others at once, while most people do not transmit the virus at all.After I wrote an article explaining how overdispersion and super-spreading were driving the pandemic, I discovered that this mechanism had also been poorly explained. I was inundated by messages from people, including elected officials around the world, saying they had no idea that this was the case. None of it was secret—numerous academic papers and articles had been written about it—but it had not been integrated into our messaging or our guidelines despite its great importance.Crucially, super-spreading isn’t equally distributed; poorly ventilated indoor spaces can facilitate the spread of the virus over longer distances, and in shorter periods of time, than the guidelines suggested, and help fuel the pandemic.Outdoors? It’s the opposite.There is a solid scientific reason for the fact that there are relatively few documented cases of transmission outdoors, even after a year of epidemiological work: The open air dilutes the virus very quickly, and the sun helps deactivate it, providing further protection. And super-spreading—the biggest driver of the pandemic— appears to be an exclusively indoor phenomenon. I’ve been tracking every report I can find for the past year, and have yet to find a confirmed super-spreading event that occurred solely outdoors. Such events might well have taken place, but if the risk were great enough to justify altering our lives, I would expect at least a few to have been documented by now.And yet our guidelines do not reflect these differences, and our messaging has not helped people understand these facts so that they can make better choices. I published my first article pleading for parks to be kept open on April 7, 2020—but outdoor activities are still banned by some authorities today, a full year after this dreaded virus began to spread globally.We’d have been much better off if we gave people a realistic intuition about this virus’s transmission mechanisms. Our public guidelines should have been more like Japan’s, which emphasize avoiding the three C’s—closed spaces, crowded places, and close contact—that are driving the pandemic.Scolding and ShamingThroughout the past year, traditional and social media have been caught up in a cycle of shaming—made worse by being so unscientific and misguided. How dare you go to the beach? newspapers have scolded us for months, despite lacking evidence that this posed any significant threat to public health. It wasn’t just talk: Many cities closed parks and outdoor recreational spaces, even as they kept open indoor dining and gyms. Just this month, UC Berkeley and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst both banned students from taking even solitary walks outdoors.[Read: America is trapped in a pandemic spiral]Even when authorities relax the rules a bit, they do not always follow through in a sensible manner. In the United Kingdom, after some locales finally started allowing children to play on playgrounds—something that was already way overdue—they quickly ruled that parents must not socialize while their kids have a normal moment. Why not? Who knows?On social media, meanwhile, pictures of people outdoors without masks draw reprimands, insults, and confident predictions of super-spreading—and yet few note when super-spreading fails to follow.While visible but low-risk activities attract the scolds, other actual risks—in workplaces and crowded households, exacerbated by the lack of testing or paid sick leave—are not as easily accessible to photographers. Stefan Baral, an associate epidemiology professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that it’s almost as if we’ve “designed a public-health response most suitable for higher-income” groups and the “Twitter generation”—stay home; have your groceries delivered; focus on the behaviors you can photograph and shame online—rather than provide the support and conditions necessary for more people to keep themselves safe.And the viral videos shaming people for failing to take sensible precautions, such as wearing masks indoors, do not necessarily help. For one thing, fretting over the occasional person throwing a tantrum while going unmasked in a supermarket distorts the reality: Most of the public has been complying with mask wearing. Worse, shaming is often an ineffective way of getting people to change their behavior, and it entrenches polarization and discourages disclosure, making it harder to fight the virus. Instead, we should be emphasizing safer behavior and stressing how many people are doing their part, while encouraging others to do the same.Harm ReductionAmidst all the mistrust and the scolding, a crucial public-health concept fell by the wayside. Harm reduction is the recognition that if there is an unmet and yet crucial human need, we cannot simply wish it away; we need to advise people on how to do what they seek to do more safely. Risk can never be completely eliminated; life requires more than futile attempts to bring risk down to zero. Pretending we can will away complexities and trade-offs with absolutism is counterproductive. Consider abstinence-only education: Not letting teenagers know about ways to have safer sex results in more of them having sex with no protections.As Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, told me, “When officials assume that risks can be easily eliminated, they might neglect the other things that matter to people about their lives: staying fed and housed, being close to loved ones, having fun. Public health works best when it helps people find safer ways to get what they need and want.”Another problem with absolutism is the “abstinence violation” effect, Joshua Barocas, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and Infectious Diseases, told me. When we set perfection as the only option, it can cause people who fall short of that standard in one small, particular way to decide that they’ve already failed, and might as well give up entirely. Most people who have attempted a diet or a new exercise regimen are familiar with this psychological state. The better approach is encouraging risk reduction and layered mitigation—emphasizing that every little bit helps—while also recognizing that a risk-free life is neither possible nor desirable.Socializing is not a luxury—kids need to play with one another, and adults need to interact. Your kids can play together outdoors, and outdoor time is the best chance to catch up with your neighbors is not just a sensible message; it’s a way to decrease transmission risks. Some kids will play and some adults will socialize no matter what the scolds say or public-health officials decree, and they’ll do it indoors, out of sight of the scolding.And if they don’t? Then kids will be deprived of an essential activity, and adults will be deprived of human companionship. Socializing is perhaps the most important predictor of health and longevity, after not smoking and perhaps exercise and a healthy diet. We need to help people socialize more safely, not encourage them to stop socializing entirely.The Balance Between Knowledge And ActionLast but not least, the pandemic response has been distorted by a poor balance between knowledge, risk, certainty, and action.Sometimes, public-health authorities insisted that we did not know enough to act, when the preponderance of evidence already justified precautionary action. Wearing masks, for example, posed few downsides, and held the prospect of mitigating the exponential threat we faced. The wait for certainty hampered our response to airborne transmission, even though there was almost no evidence for—and increasing evidence against—the importance of fomites, or objects that can carry infection. And yet, we emphasized the risk of surface transmission while refusing to properly address the risk of airborne transmission, despite increasing evidence. The difference lay not in the level of evidence and scientific support for either theory—which, if anything, quickly tilted in favor of airborne transmission, and not fomites, being crucial—but in the fact that fomite transmission had been a key part of the medical canon, and airborne transmission had not.[Renee DiResta: Virus experts aren’t getting the message out]Sometimes, experts and the public discussion failed to emphasize that we were balancing risks, as in the recurring cycles of debate over lockdowns or school openings. We should have done more to acknowledge that there were no good options: only trade-offs between different downsides. As a result, instead of recognizing the difficulty of the situation, too many people accused those on the other side of being callous and uncaring.And sometimes, the way that academics communicate clashed with how the public constructs knowledge. In academia, publishing is the coin of the realm, and it is often done through rejecting the null hypothesis—meaning that many papers do not seek to prove something conclusively, but instead, to reject the possibility that a variable has no relationship with the effect they are measuring (beyond chance). If that sounds convoluted, it is—there are historical reasons for this methodology and big arguments within academia about its merits, but for the moment, this remains standard practice.At crucial points during the pandemic, though, this resulted in mistranslations and fueled misunderstandings, which were further muddled by differing stances toward prior scientific knowledge and theory. Yes, we faced a novel coronavirus, but we should have started by assuming that we could make some reasonable projections from prior knowledge, while looking out for anything that might prove different. That prior experience should have made us mindful of seasonality, the key role of overdispersion, and aerosol transmission. A keen eye for what was different from the past would have alerted us earlier to the importance of presymptomatic transmission.Thus, on January 14, 2020, the WHO stated that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” It should have said, “There is increasing likelihood that human-to-human transmission is taking place, but we haven’t yet proven this, because we have no access to Wuhan, China.” (Cases were already popping up around the world at that point.) Acting as if there was human-to-human transmission during the early weeks of the pandemic would have been wise and preventative.Later that spring, WHO officials stated that there was “currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection,” producing many articles laden with panic and despair. Instead, it should have said: “We expect the immune system to function against this virus, and to provide some immunity for some period of time, but it is still hard to know specifics because it is so early.”Similarly, since the vaccines were announced, too many statements have emphasized that we don’t yet know if vaccines prevent transmission. Instead, public-health authorities should have said that we have many reasons to expect, and increasing amounts of data to suggest, that vaccines will blunt infectiousness, but that we’re waiting for additional data to be more precise about it. That’s been unfortunate, because while many, many things have gone wrong during this pandemic, the vaccines are one thing that has gone very, very right.As late as April 2020, Anthony Fauci was slammed for being too optimistic for suggesting we might plausibly have vaccines in a year to 18 months. We had vaccines much, much sooner than that: The first two vaccine trials concluded a mere eight months after the WHO declared a pandemic in March 2020.Moreover, they have delivered spectacular results. In June 2020, the FDA said a vaccine that was merely 50 percent efficacious in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 would receive emergency approval—that such a benefit would be sufficient to justify shipping it out immediately. Just a few months after that, the trials of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines concluded by reporting not just a stunning 95 percent efficacy, but also a complete elimination of hospitalization or death among the vaccinated. Even severe disease was practically gone: The lone case classified as “severe” among 30,000 vaccinated individuals in the trials was so mild that the patient needed no medical care, and her case would not have been considered severe if her oxygen saturation had been a single percent higher.These are exhilarating developments, because global, widespread, and rapid vaccination is our way out of this pandemic. Vaccines that drastically reduce hospitalizations and deaths, and that diminish even severe disease to a rare event, are the closest things we have had in this pandemic to a miracle—though of course they are the product of scientific research, creativity, and hard work. They are going to be the panacea and the endgame.And yet, two months into an accelerating vaccination campaign in the United States, it would be hard to blame people if they missed the news that things are getting better.Yes, there are new variants of the virus, which may eventually require booster shots, but at least so far, the existing vaccines are standing up to them well—very, very well. Manufacturers are already working on new vaccines or variant-focused booster versions, in case they prove necessary, and the authorizing agencies are ready for a quick turnaround if and when updates are needed. Reports from places that have vaccinated large numbers of individuals, and even trials in places where variants are widespread, are exceedingly encouraging, with dramatic reductions in cases and, crucially, hospitalizations and deaths among the vaccinated. Global equity and access to vaccines remain crucial concerns, but the supply is increasing.Here in the United States, despite the rocky rollout and the need to smooth access and ensure equity, it’s become clear that toward the end of spring 2021, supply will be more than sufficient. It may sound hard to believe today, as many who are desperate for vaccinations await their turn, but in the near future, we may have to discuss what to do with excess doses.So why isn’t this story more widely appreciated?Part of the problem with the vaccines was the timing—the trials concluded immediately after the U.S. election, and their results got overshadowed in the weeks of political turmoil. The first, modest headline announcing the Pfizer-BioNTech results in The New York Times was a single column, “Vaccine Is Over 90% Effective, Pfizer’s Early Data Says,” below a banner headline spanning the page: “BIDEN CALLS FOR UNITED FRONT AS VIRUS RAGES.” That was both understandable—the nation was weary—and a loss for the public.[Read: A quite possibly wonderful summer]Just a few days later, Moderna reported a similar 94.5 percent efficacy. If anything, that provided even more cause for celebration, because it confirmed that the stunning numbers coming out of Pfizer weren’t a fluke. But, still amid the political turmoil, the Moderna report got a mere two columns on The New York Times’ front page with an equally modest headline: “Another Vaccine Appears to Work Against the Virus.”So we didn’t get our initial vaccine jubilation.But as soon as we began vaccinating people, articles started warning the newly vaccinated about all they could not do. “COVID-19 Vaccine Doesn’t Mean You Can Party Like It’s 1999,” one headline admonished. And the buzzkill has continued right up to the present. “You’re fully vaccinated against the coronavirus—now what? Don’t expect to shed your mask and get back to normal activities right away,” began a recent Associated Press story.People might well want to party after being vaccinated. Those shots will expand what we can do, first in our private lives and among other vaccinated people, and then, gradually, in our public lives as well. But once again, the authorities and the media seem more worried about potentially reckless behavior among the vaccinated, and about telling them what not to do, than with providing nuanced guidance reflecting trade-offs, uncertainty, and a recognition that vaccination can change behavior. No guideline can cover every situation, but careful, accurate, and updated information can empower everyone.Take the messaging and public conversation around transmission risks from vaccinated people. It is, of course, important to be alert to such considerations: Many vaccines are “leaky” in that they prevent disease or severe disease, but not infection and transmission. In fact, completely blocking all infection—what’s often called “sterilizing immunity”—is a difficult goal, and something even many highly effective vaccines don’t attain, but that doesn’t stop them from being extremely useful.As Paul Sax, an infectious-disease doctor at Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital, put it in early December, it would be enormously surprising “if these highly effective vaccines didn’t also make people less likely to transmit.” From multiple studies, we already knew that asymptomatic individuals—those who never developed COVID-19 despite being infected—were much less likely to transmit the virus. The vaccine trials were reporting 95 percent reductions in any form of symptomatic disease. In December, we learned that Moderna had swabbed some portion of trial participants to detect asymptomatic, silent infections, and found an almost two-thirds reduction even in such cases. The good news kept pouring in. Multiple studies found that, even in those few cases where breakthrough disease occurred in vaccinated people, their viral loads were lower—which correlates with lower rates of transmission. Data from vaccinated populations further confirmed what many experts expected all along: Of course these vaccines reduce transmission.And yet, from the beginning, a good chunk of the public-facing messaging and news articles implied or claimed that vaccines won’t protect you against infecting other people or that we didn’t know if they would, when both were false. I found myself trying to convince people in my own social network that vaccines weren’t useless against transmission, and being bombarded on social media with claims that they were.What went wrong? The same thing that’s going wrong right now with the reporting on whether vaccines will protect recipients against the new viral variants. Some outlets emphasize the worst or misinterpret the research. Some public-health officials are wary of encouraging the relaxation of any precautions. Some prominent experts on social media—even those with seemingly solid credentials—tend to respond to everything with alarm and sirens. So the message that got heard was that vaccines will not prevent transmission, or that they won’t work against new variants, or that we don’t know if they will. What the public needs to hear, though, is that based on existing data, we expect them to work fairly well—but we’ll learn more about precisely how effective they’ll be over time, and that tweaks may make them even better.A year into the pandemic, we’re still repeating the same mistakes.The top-down messaging is not the only problem. The scolding, the strictness, the inability to discuss trade-offs, and the accusations of not caring about people dying not only have an enthusiastic audience, but portions of the public engage in these behaviors themselves. Maybe that’s partly because proclaiming the importance of individual actions makes us feel as if we are in the driver’s seat, despite all the uncertainty.Psychologists talk about the “locus of control”—the strength of belief in control over your own destiny. They distinguish between people with more of an internal-control orientation—who believe that they are the primary actors—and those with an external one, who believe that society, fate, and other factors beyond their control greatly influence what happens to us. This focus on individual control goes along with something called the “fundamental attribution error”—when bad things happen to other people, we’re more likely to believe that they are personally at fault, but when they happen to us, we are more likely to blame the situation and circumstances beyond our control.An individualistic locus of control is forged in the U.S. mythos—that we are a nation of strivers and people who pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. An internal-control orientation isn’t necessarily negative; it can facilitate resilience, rather than fatalism, by shifting the focus to what we can do as individuals even as things fall apart around us. This orientation seems to be common among children who not only survive but sometimes thrive in terrible situations—they take charge and have a go at it, and with some luck, pull through. It is probably even more attractive to educated, well-off people who feel that they have succeeded through their own actions.You can see the attraction of an individualized, internal locus of control in a pandemic, as a pathogen without a cure spreads globally, interrupts our lives, makes us sick, and could prove fatal.There have been very few things we could do at an individual level to reduce our risk beyond wearing masks, distancing, and disinfecting. The desire to exercise personal control against an invisible, pervasive enemy is likely why we’ve continued to emphasize scrubbing and cleaning surfaces, in what’s appropriately called “hygiene theater,” long after it became clear that fomites were not a key driver of the pandemic. Obsessive cleaning gave us something to do, and we weren’t about to give it up, even if it turned out to be useless. No wonder there was so much focus on telling others to stay home—even though it’s not a choice available to those who cannot work remotely—and so much scolding of those who dared to socialize or enjoy a moment outdoors.And perhaps it was too much to expect a nation unwilling to release its tight grip on the bottle of bleach to greet the arrival of vaccines—however spectacular—by imagining the day we might start to let go of our masks.The focus on individual actions has had its upsides, but it has also led to a sizable portion of pandemic victims being erased from public conversation. If our own actions drive everything, then some other individuals must be to blame when things go wrong for them. And throughout this pandemic, the mantra many of us kept repeating—“Wear a mask, stay home; wear a mask, stay home”—hid many of the real victims.[Read: The good news of COVID-19 is sticking, for now]Study after study, in country after country, confirms that this disease has disproportionately hit the poor and minority groups, along with the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to severe disease. Even among the elderly, though, those who are wealthier and enjoy greater access to health care have fared better.The poor and minority groups are dying in disproportionately large numbers for the same reasons that they suffer from many other diseases: a lifetime of disadvantages, lack of access to health care, inferior working conditions, unsafe housing, and limited financial resources.Many lacked the option of staying home precisely because they were working hard to enable others to do what they could not, by packing boxes, delivering groceries, producing food. And even those who could stay home faced other problems born of inequality: Crowded housing is associated with higher rates of COVID-19 infection and worse outcomes, likely because many of the essential workers who live in such housing bring the virus home to elderly relatives.Individual responsibility certainly had a large role to play in fighting the pandemic, but many victims had little choice in what happened to them. By disproportionately focusing on individual choices, not only did we hide the real problem, we failed to do more to provide safe working and living conditions for everyone.For example, there has been a lot of consternation about indoor dining, an activity I certainly wouldn’t recommend. But even takeout and delivery can impose a terrible cost: One study of California found that line cooks are the highest-risk occupation for dying of COVID-19. Unless we provide restaurants with funds so they can stay closed, or provide restaurant workers with high-filtration masks, better ventilation, paid sick leave, frequent rapid testing, and other protections so that they can safely work, getting food to go can simply shift the risk to the most vulnerable. Unsafe workplaces may be low on our agenda, but they do pose a real danger. Bill Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard, pointed me to a paper he co-authored: Workplace-safety complaints to OSHA—which oversees occupational-safety regulations—during the pandemic were predictive of increases in deaths 16 days later.New data highlight the terrible toll of inequality: Life expectancy has decreased dramatically over the past year, with Black people losing the most from this disease, followed by members of the Hispanic community. Minorities are also more likely to die of COVID-19 at a younger age. But when the new CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, noted this terrible statistic, she immediately followed up by urging people to “continue to use proven prevention steps to slow the spread—wear a well-fitting mask, stay 6 ft away from those you do not live with, avoid crowds and poorly ventilated places, and wash hands often.”Those recommendations aren’t wrong, but they are incomplete. None of these individual acts do enough to protect those to whom such choices aren’t available—and the CDC has yet to issue sufficient guidelines for workplace ventilation or to make higher-filtration masks mandatory, or even available, for essential workers. Nor are these proscriptions paired frequently enough with prescriptions: Socialize outdoors, keep parks open, and let children play with one another outdoors.Vaccines are the tool that will end the pandemic. The story of their rollout combines some of our strengths and our weaknesses, revealing the limitations of the way we think and evaluate evidence, provide guidelines, and absorb and react to an uncertain and difficult situation.But also, after a weary year, maybe it’s hard for everyone—including scientists, journalists, and public-health officials—to imagine the end, to have hope. We adjust to new conditions fairly quickly, even terrible new conditions. During this pandemic, we’ve adjusted to things many of us never thought were possible. Billions of people have led dramatically smaller, circumscribed lives, and dealt with closed schools, the inability to see loved ones, the loss of jobs, the absence of communal activities, and the threat and reality of illness and death.Hope nourishes us during the worst times, but it is also dangerous. It upsets the delicate balance of survival—where we stop hoping and focus on getting by—and opens us up to crushing disappointment if things don’t pan out. After a terrible year, many things are understandably making it harder for us to dare to hope. But, especially in the United States, everything looks better by the day. Tragically, at least 28 million Americans have been confirmed to have been infected, but the real number is certainly much higher. By one estimate, as many as 80 million have already been infected with COVID-19, and many of those people now have some level of immunity. Another 46 million people have already received at least one dose of a vaccine, and we’re vaccinating millions more each day as the supply constraints ease. The vaccines are poised to reduce or nearly eliminate the things we worry most about—severe disease, hospitalization, and death.Not all our problems are solved. We need to get through the next few months, as we race to vaccinate against more transmissible variants. We need to do more to address equity in the United States—because it is the right thing to do, and because failing to vaccinate the highest-risk people will slow the population impact. We need to make sure that vaccines don’t remain inaccessible to poorer countries. We need to keep up our epidemiological surveillance so that if we do notice something that looks like it may threaten our progress, we can respond swiftly.And the public behavior of the vaccinated cannot change overnight—even if they are at much lower risk, it’s not reasonable to expect a grocery store to try to verify who’s vaccinated, or to have two classes of people with different rules. For now, it’s courteous and prudent for everyone to obey the same guidelines in many public places. Still, vaccinated people can feel more confident in doing things they may have avoided, just in case—getting a haircut, taking a trip to see a loved one, browsing for nonessential purchases in a store.But it is time to imagine a better future, not just because it’s drawing nearer but because that’s how we get through what remains and keep our guard up as necessary. It’s also realistic—reflecting the genuine increased safety for the vaccinated.Public-health agencies should immediately start providing expanded information to vaccinated people so they can make informed decisions about private behavior. This is justified by the encouraging data, and a great way to get the word out on how wonderful these vaccines really are. The delay itself has great human costs, especially for those among the elderly who have been isolated for so long.Public-health authorities should also be louder and more explicit about the next steps, giving us guidelines for when we can expect easing in rules for public behavior as well. We need the exit strategy spelled out—but with graduated, targeted measures rather than a one-size-fits-all message. We need to let people know that getting a vaccine will almost immediately change their lives for the better, and why, and also when and how increased vaccination will change more than their individual risks and opportunities, and see us out of this pandemic.We should encourage people to dream about the end of this pandemic by talking about it more, and more concretely: the numbers, hows, and whys. Offering clear guidance on how this will end can help strengthen people’s resolve to endure whatever is necessary for the moment—even if they are still unvaccinated—by building warranted and realistic anticipation of the pandemic’s end.Hope will get us through this. And one day soon, you’ll be able to hop off the subway on your way to a concert, pick up a newspaper, and find the triumphant headline: “COVID Routed!”
5 h
Get a Heat Pump
If you’re like me, you know that getting rid of your car is one of the best things you can do for the climate, and also that you will never do it. This is a car-oriented country, and a car-oriented time. But in 2019, the private cars and light trucks that ordinary people drive for work and shopping and leisure were responsible for about 15 percent of U.S. fossil-fuel-energy use. Electric vehicles get a lot of press, but less than 1 percent of energy used for transportation came from electricity. Personal transportation is a large contributor to carbon emissions in America; it’s also the hardest to give up.But trading a gasoline automobile for an electric one (or for a bus or train) isn’t the only way ordinary citizens can contribute to fossil-fuel reduction. Decarbonization has two pillars: First, generate electricity from energy that does not emit carbon—renewable sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal instead of fossil fuels. That requires legislative and regulatory change. Second, use electricity to run as much of your personal life as possible.That’s where ordinary people like you and me can contribute. At least 7 percent of U.S. fossil-fuel energy is used for something fairly banal: residential space and water heating. Put differently, making relatively smaller, cheaper, and easy changes to home heating in America could reduce fossil-fuel use nearly as much as taking half of all private vehicles off the roads. If you want to do the most immediate good for the planet, replace your aging gas furnace with a new, electric appliance.You can heat a building in many ways. A boiler heats water and cycles it through radiators that heat rooms. A furnace transfers heat to air, which it then pushes through vents into living spaces.Most American homes run these devices by burning fossil fuels. Depending on your geographic location and the age of your home and its systems, those fuels might include distillate fuel oil (mostly still used in the Northeast), propane (common in rural areas), or natural gas (common everywhere else). Every one of these releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when burned.But boilers and furnaces aren’t your only options. Instead of heating the air, heat pumps move heat from one place to another by converting a substance called refrigerant between its liquid and gas forms. Your refrigerator is a heat pump. So is an air conditioner. Both of those devices pump heat in reverse: Warm air is absorbed by the refrigerant coils and pumped out. Your fridge and AC unit move heat in only one direction. But a heat pump can do both, meaning that the same appliance can heat in the winter—even in very cold climates—and cool in the summer. (“Heat pump” is a terrible, confusing name for these gadgets.)Heat pumps have been around for decades, but they didn’t used to be very efficient, especially in extremely cold weather. That’s changing. Now some cold-climate heat pumps can transfer heat effectively in subzero temperatures. An oil- or gas-fueled furnace (or other backup heat sources) might be required on the coldest days, but on all the others, your heat can be electric.In Maine, the lack of natural-gas infrastructure made it easy for the state to encourage electrification of home heating. Central air is uncommon in the state, and installing a heat pump adds cool air-conditioning for free. Maine’s electricity grid is already very clean, and these new heat-pump devices are much more efficient than window AC units.Michael Stoddard, the executive director of the Efficiency Maine Trust, the state’s energy-efficiency organization, told me that more than 60,000 heat pumps have been sold to Mainers in the past seven years. Some Mainers have been burned by the high cost of heating oil, a commodity whose price fluctuates. State-sponsored consumer-rebate programs, including one that offers up to $1,500 back on purchases of heat pumps, has also driven recent adoption of the devices. Stoddard worried that participation in the state’s incentive programs might dry up because people wouldn’t want to spend the money during the pandemic. “Instead, participation has doubled,” he said. People were stuck at home, some with extra money to spare, given their stimulus benefits and reduced spending. And parts of Maine can still reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.Does carbon reduction itself motivate Mainers to adopt heat pumps? “I’m confident the answer is that it is evolving,” Stoddard hedged. But even if residents aren’t making green-energy choices with decarbonization in mind, the success of incentive programs such as the Efficiency Maine Trust’s have helped the state advance more aggressive policy proposals. In the weeks prior to our conversation, Stoddard told me, Maine had just completed a new climate action plan, and decarbonizing heating systems was among its top three mitigation recommendations. “Now you have everybody talking about this as if it’s just a thing we have to get going on,” he said.Elsewhere, switching to a heat pump is a tougher sell. Natural gas pollutes less than distillate, and it doesn’t suffer the commodity-price fluctuations that have helped shift homeowners off heating oil in the Northeast. And more than 60 percent of the U.S. residential market already has air-conditioning, according to Paul Camuti, the chief technology and strategy officer at Trane Technologies, which manufactures HVAC systems. That means the benefit of added air-conditioning from a heat-pump switchover doesn’t apply to many American homeowners.Even so, electric utilities have strong incentives to move homeowners to electric heat: They can sell them more electricity, for one thing. And they can realize their own decarbonization goals more rapidly. For both of these reasons, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) in central California has adopted some of the country’s most aggressive rebate incentives for heat pumps, as much as $3,000 on heat-pump space heaters and $2,500 on heat-pump water heaters. According to Scott Blunk, SMUD’s strategic business planner of electrification and energy efficiency, the incentives can make the payback almost immediate.The water-heating program has been the most popular, probably because the incentive provides the most benefit at the lowest cost to homeowners and contractors. Electrifying water and space heating is still unfamiliar to many people, and Blunk speculated that giving them a reason to try the technology might warm them up, as it were, to other gas-to-electric conversions. Heat-pump space heating is entirely viable in central California, where the temperature doesn’t drop below freezing that often. Even without the incentives, replacing an air-conditioning unit and a furnace with one heat pump can save a lot of money in the long run, since the heat pump can do the job of both.As was the case in Maine, Sacramento is leveraging the success of its electrification programs to shift corporate strategy and state policy. The energy code for 2023 is currently being developed in California, and it is making the rollout of electric devices easier. Adjusting the baselines of reasonable energy need can make room for electrifying more home devices. And making electric-appliance installations easier for builders encourages them to recommend cleaner appliances. In addition to reducing carbon emissions directly, every heat-pump installation has an incremental effect on the viability of policy changes.You don’t have to get rid of your old appliances right away, either. “To hit our decarbonization goals, we don’t need to take out someone’s perfectly good water heater,” Blunk told me. “We just need to replace it with an electric one when it goes out.” That’s an easier pill to swallow for homeowners, who can think of the incremental cost of electric conversions as a small premium over the money they were going to spend on a replacement device anyway. Rebates and incentives sweeten the deal.Sacramento power burns no coal, and runs roughly 50 percent carbon-free, thanks in large part to hydroelectric power. Blunk calculates that a new-construction home on the grid might reduce its carbon output from 2.5 to 1.1 tons of carbon a year, and a 1978 home’s could drop from 5.2 to 2.5 tons. Because 80 percent of the region uses natural gas for space and water heating, electrification could substantially reduce fossil-fuel use there.Unfortunately, many Americans still don’t trust electric and renewable sources for heating. Some blamed Texas’s widespread outages during a severe storm this month on the failure of wind turbines, but that’s not right: The state still relies largely on natural-gas energy for electricity. And even gas-burning furnaces require electricity to work, making those appliances no less unreliable if the power goes out for an extended time, as it did across much of the state. Amid climate change, gas isn’t an answer so much as just another problem. “Electrifying buildings and vehicles while switching to climate-safe clean electricity while adapting our infrastructure to a changing climate will be deeply challenging,” David Pomerantz, the executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, told me. “But relying on gas in a changing climate would also be deeply challenging.” Electric power is fundamental to everything we do, making widespread reform of the grid and the tools that use it even more urgent. Instead, we expend energy glorifying electric cars. For this year’s Super Bowl, General Motors spent millions on a star-studded ad celebrating its ambitious electric-vehicle plans. It was surprising, but not out of place. Less surprisingly, no heat-pump ads aired during the big game. Even if trust in the grid can be improved, electric heat faces one big problem: Transitioning off natural gas just isn’t as sexy as solar panels or electric cars. Unless you’re a contractor or an HVAC nerd, you probably don’t think much about your heating and cooling systems. They are hidden in attics and basements and utility closets, tucked away on roofs or in side yards. These machines go almost entirely unconsidered unless they break down. Nobody shows off their new water heater when friends come over the way they might show off a Tesla in the garage.Unlike solar panels, clean upgrades to home appliances also don’t produce social-signaling benefits—the neighbors can’t gawk at your greener home, and you can’t take pride in passersby noticing it. How do you make a heat pump sexy? “I don’t know,” Blunk admitted. “I think the closest we have is cooking.” He means the blue flame of a stove, the only place in the home where a resident can see and hear and feel natural gas at work. Stove-top cooking is so essential to justifying home gas service, the fossil-fuel industry has poured resources into preserving the appliances’ appeal.Even SMUD’s executives felt protective of kitchen gas. “You’re never going to get rid of my gas stove,” Blunk recalled them saying. So he bought them portable induction-cooking units (a kind of electric stove that transfers heat directly to cookware) to demonstrate that modern electric cooking heat wasn’t like the old wire coils they might remember from the 1950s.Natural-gas cooking is responsible for only 2 percent of residential natural-gas use—far less than space and water heating. Still, converting from a gas cooktop to an electric-induction one can have a substantial, if different, impact. For one part, there are health benefits: Igniting open-gas fires in your home produces pollution that can exacerbate asthma. But from a sustainability perspective, the kitchen is the place where people develop an emotional relationship to natural gas. The blue flame lapping over the sturdy cast-iron grates imparts a sense of power and control to cooking, just as the rumble of a carburetor on a muscle car does to driving.That makes the induction cooktop the Tesla of the natural-gas-decarbonization movement. It’s the device you can brag about while also showing your friends and family that electricity is just as good as gas for cooking, if not better. “When I first got my induction,” Blunk told me, “I had a party and invited all my friends over.”Brian Keane has built a whole organization around that idea. SmartPower, a nonprofit renewable-energy outreach and marketing company, helps municipalities and utilities get their citizens and customers interested in clean energy. “Americans listen to what friends and co-workers are doing. That’s the pressure point,” Keane told me. And when it comes to energy, once you’ve taken action, whether that be installing a smart thermostat or replacing a combustion furnace, the best thing to do is tell a friend or colleague that you’ve done it. This is particularly important for renewable energy in the home, Keane said, because no brand name is associated with it. Nobody knows what furnace or water heater they have. “There’s no Coca Cola, no Pepsi.”SmartPower has run a series of marketing campaigns for solar adoption around the country, many of which amount to better-funded and more-formal versions of Blunk’s induction-stove house party. Sometimes they hold block parties when the panels go up on the first roof in a neighborhood, or host house parties with a utility-bill reveal (really!). People used to want to wait for a technology to be widespread, but Keane thinks that lifestyle-technology turnover has entered the home. “Apple is always coming out with a new iPhone,” he tells homeowners; a water heater is no different. “You could keep waiting, or just buy this one. It’ll work for 20 years.” Averaging across campaigns, SmartPower’s solar programs were found to increase the rate of solar adoptions in a municipality by nearly 1,000 percent.Camuti, the Trane HVAC-equipment executive, agrees that the change in perception about heating and cooling in the past decade has been dramatic. “I relate this directly to the availability of online information,” he told me. People still ask dealers, tradespeople, or contractors what they should buy, which makes upstream incentives from states and utilities to those agents extremely important. “But people go online and ask if there is a better choice,” Camuti said. “We are starting to have a relationship with them.”There are some lessons for homeowners. First, there is benefit in advocating for home upgrades on your block, at your workplace, and in your family. Some people are interested in clean energy for its own sake, but many more are motivated by doing something beneficial for their communities. And emissions reductions positively impact a local environment before the global one. Second, lower-impact but more-visible upgrades, such as induction cooktops or solar water heaters, might become the gateway to abandoning natural gas. Nobody thought they wanted or needed an internet-connected thermostat before Nest came on the scene, after all. But it was stylish and functional, and many smart-home rollouts began from that unlikely start.If you’re building a new home, it’s easier to skip natural gas entirely. Not running a gas line will save thousands of dollars, and it will prevent you from ever installing gas-burning appliances. But for existing homes, you should abandon the idea that a solar roof or an electric car is the only path forward. Replace your gas cooktop and show it off to friends, or on Instagram. Blog or podcast or post on Facebook about it, so that human experiences will come up in search results when people go hunting for their own products. If your gas furnace or air conditioner or water heater is near the end of its lifespan, replace it with a heat pump. And if not, plan to do so when it conks out. If you live in a large population center, do these things sooner, because your action will send faster signals to utilities and governments that the tide is turning. If you want to do your part to reduce carbon emissions, do what you can to wean yourself off the gas you use in your home, not just the kind you put in your car.
5 h
The Books Briefing: The Many Sides of Loneliness
I’m alone now much more than I used to be. I cook alone, work alone, and occasionally walk alone. The pandemic has limited my social life and forced me into a period of isolation, just as it has for so many others. Sometimes this solitude feels like a restorative pause; other times it just feels lonely.Literature can capture the breadth of these experiences. Some writers explore the nature of solitude by focusing on those living extremely isolated lives. The journalist Michael Finkel profiled a hermit who lived entirely alone for 27 years (excluding one encounter with a passerby) in The Stranger in the Woods. In the fictional The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland, the novelist Nicolai Houm also follows a solitary character—this time a creative-writing professor who ends up isolated in the Norwegian wilderness. In other books, writers explore more uncommon experiences with aloneness. Ruminative works that combine elements of fiction and memoir by writers such as Karl Ove Knausgaard and Chris Kraus feature narrators who emphasize their distance from other people. The novelist Amy Tan says that she writes strong characters by focusing on their uniqueness—all the factors that make them different from others.Kristen Radtke’s upcoming book Seek You: Essays on American Loneliness covers a broad range of these lonely experiences. In 2018, the author asked people about the loneliest they’d ever felt. The answers, some of which are excerpted in The Atlantic, are quietly sad, showing the emptiness of moments without companionship. ​Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is How Beautiful We Were, by Imbolo Mbue. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email. What We’re ReadingADRIAN TOMINE Lessons of the hermit “The Stranger in the Woods … combines an account of [Christopher] Knight’s story with an absorbing exploration of solitude and man’s eroding relationship with the natural world.”
6 h
Mars Is No Earth
There’s no place like home—unless you’re Elon Musk. A prototype of SpaceX’s Starship, which may someday send humans to Mars, is, according to Musk, likely to launch soon, possibly within the coming days. But what motivates Musk? Why bother with Mars? A video clip from an interview Musk gave in 2019 seems to sum up Musk’s vision—and everything that’s wrong with it.In the video, Musk is seen reading a passage from Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot. The book, published in 1994, was Sagan’s response to the famous image of Earth as a tiny speck of light floating in a sunbeam—a shot he’d begged NASA to have the Voyager 1 spacecraft take in 1990 as it sailed into space, 3.7 billion miles from Earth. Sagan believed that if we had a photo of ourselves from this distance, it would forever alter our perspective of our place in the cosmos.The Pale Blue Dot photograph that inspired Carl Sagan’s book of the same name. (JPL-Caltech / NASA)Musk reads from Sagan’s book: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.”But there Musk cuts himself off and begins to laugh. He says with incredulity, “This is not true. This is false––Mars.”He couldn’t be more wrong. Mars? Mars is a hellhole. The central thing about Mars is that it is not Earth, not even close. In fact, the only things our planet and Mars really have in common is that both are rocky planets with some water ice and both have robots (and Mars doesn’t even have that many).[Read: Can we still go to Mars?]Mars has a very thin atmosphere; it has no magnetic field to help protect its surface from radiation from the sun or galactic cosmic rays; it has no breathable air and the average surface temperature is a deadly 80 degrees below zero. Musk thinks that Mars is like Earth? For humans to live there in any capacity they would need to build tunnels and live underground, and what is not enticing about living in a tunnel lined with SAD lamps and trying to grow lettuce with UV lights? So long deep breaths outside and walks without the security of a bulky spacesuit, knowing that if you’re out on an extravehicular activity and something happens, you’ve got an excruciatingly painful 60-second death waiting for you. Granted, walking around on Mars would be a life-changing, amazing, profound experience. But visiting as a proof of technology or to expand the frontier of human possibility is very different from living there. It is not in the realm of hospitable to humans. Mars will kill you.Musk is not from Mars, but he and Sagan do seem to come from different worlds. Like Sagan, Musk exhibits a religious-like devotion to space, a fervent desire to go there, but their purposes are entirely divergent. Sagan inspired generations of writers, scientists, and engineers who felt compelled to chase the awe that he dug up from the depths of their heart. Everyone who references Sagan as a reason they are in their field connects to the wonder of being human, and marvels at the luck of having grown up and evolved on such a beautiful, rare planet.The influence Musk is having on a generation of people could not be more different. Musk has used the medium of dreaming and exploration to wrap up a package of entitlement, greed, and ego. He has no longing for scientific discovery, no desire to understand what makes Earth so different from Mars, how we all fit together and relate. Musk is no explorer; he is a flag planter. He seems to have missed one of the other lines from Pale Blue Dot: “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”Sagan did believe in sending humans to Mars to first explore and eventually live there, to ensure humanity’s very long-term survival, but he also said this: “What shall we do with Mars? There are so many examples of human misuse of the Earth that even phrasing the question chills me. If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if [they] are only microbes.”Musk, by contrast, is encouraging a feeling of entitlement to the cosmos—that we can and must colonize space, regardless of who or what might be there, all for a long-shot chance at security.[Read: Elon Musks’s boldest announcement yet]Legitimate reasons exist to feel concerned for long-term human survival, and, yes, having the ability to travel more efficiently throughout the solar system would be good. But I question anyone among the richest people in the world who sells a story of caring so much for human survival that he must send rockets into space. Someone in his position could do so many things on our little blue dot itself to help those in need.To laugh at Sagan’s words is to miss the point entirely: There really is only one true home for us—and we’re already here.
7 h
The Call That Saved My Father-in-Law’s Life
Cavan / RUNSTUDIO / Getty / The AtlanticThe call came in at 7:42:02 p.m. on March 21, 2019.A man in his early 60s had just sat down to dinner with his daughter and her boyfriend at an otherwise empty North Brooklyn restaurant, when he suddenly slumped in his chair. The daughter shouted at a hostess to call 911. Within seconds—by precisely 7:42:16, according to my review of the incident—a New York City Fire Department emergency-response unit had acknowledged the assignment, and would arrive on the scene some two and a half minutes later. In the meantime, a dispatcher stayed on the line.“Is this for you, or someone else?” the dispatcher asked the hostess.“For someone else,” the hostess replied. “Is the person breathing?” the dispatcher asked.Confusion. Was the man having a seizure? Before long, it was established that he was not seizing and was unconscious. He had no discernible pulse. The dispatcher instructed the daughter and boyfriend, both in their 30s, to ease the man down to the hardwood floor, belly-up, and expose his chest.The event was one of the more than 350,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests that occur annually in the United States. They are a leading cause of death, and only about one in 10 victims survives. Without early 911 access and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)—the first two links, followed by early defibrillation, in the out-of-hospital “chain of survival”—death is certain.Over-the-phone CPR instruction by a dispatcher, also known as telephone CPR or T-CPR, can enable a caller to become a lay rescuer, and by doing so make the difference between life and death. Early CPR performed by a lay rescuer is associated with a roughly twofold increase in the chances of survival.However, T-CPR is not as widespread as most 911 callers might expect. I would know. The boyfriend in this story? That’s me. The man was my girlfriend’s dad, Todd. For him to have a shot at survival, either my partner or I would need to intervene.I was about to perform CPR on my future father-in-law.Many dispatchers are trained to recognize signs of cardiac arrest from an oral description and then direct callers to begin CPR—even callers who might be in shock, as my partner and I were. But there is no universal requirement for dispatchers to do this. Few of the dispatch centers that have implemented T-CPR protocols deliver instructions consistently, and fewer still have strict quality-improvement measures in place. On the night of Todd’s cardiac arrest, I was fortunate that my hands were guided by the right dispatcher.According to Robert Fazzino, a paramedic and the FDNY medical-affairs representative who procured our incident report, the hostess handed the cordless phone to my partner, Lex, who then handed it to me. Kneeling over Todd’s tensed body, I wedged the receiver between my right ear and shoulder. The dispatcher told me to interlock my hands—one atop the other, at the midpoint of the nipple line—and get ready to start pumping up and down, hard and fast.The clock was ticking.This wasn’t the first time I’d been involved in an emergency that required CPR. When I was a teenage pool lifeguard, a 74-year-old swimmer fell unconscious one summer afternoon. After I pulled her out of the water, five other guards and I performed CPR on her for several long minutes until paramedics arrived. She died days later. Now here I was again, face-to-face with someone clinging to life—only this time, it was a loved one, and my training was rusty.In my lifeguarding days, I was regularly drilled on the CPR procedures for infants, children, and adults. Was it 15 compressions to two breaths for an adult? Or 30 to two? I was blanking. “What are the ratios?” I blurted out.The dispatcher, realizing I was at least somewhat CPR conversant, seized the moment. No breaths necessary, he said. “Just stay on my count.”That’s exactly what I did, according to the call audio. I counted aloud with the dispatcher, using my upper-body weight to press down on Todd’s sternum, before releasing: down and release, down and release. One and two and three and four and five and six …Time slowed. I closed my eyes. Don’t stop, I thought. After what felt like an eternity, I heard sirens approaching.“The public assumes that if they call 911 and someone’s in cardiac arrest that they’re going to get [CPR] instructions,” says Michael Kurz, a University of Alabama cardiologist and the volunteer chair of the American Heart Association’s T-CPR Task Force. “That’s not the case. It is the minority of cardiac arrests that receive that instruction.”If I’ve learned anything in the weeks and months I’ve spent reconstructing the events of that evening, and researching the availability of T-CPR nationwide, it’s that we were very, very lucky. Dial 911 to report a cardiac arrest, and depending on where you are—a big city, a rural town, or somewhere in between—you may be told to wait until help arrives, to stand idle as your loved one’s fate hangs in the balance. Why didn't that happen to us?One day in August 1974, a panicked mother called the fire department in Phoenix, Arizona. A dispatcher listened as the woman explained that she and her husband had just pulled their 2-year-old son from the family swimming pool, and that the toddler was turning purple. “He’s not breathing!” she shouted.“I want you to stay on the line,” the dispatcher said, noting the caller’s address. “I have a medic that is going to give you some help while I send someone.” The phone was passed to a department paramedic, Bill Toon, who had just clocked in.As Toon wrote in Principles of Emergency Medical Dispatch years later, the department’s single paramedic unit was far enough away that the odds of it arriving in time to help were slim. “The dispatchers had little or no training in this area at this point in time,” he added.Toon took it upon himself to assist the family until the paramedic unit arrived.“I began to give the caller a crash course in CPR because the only real chance the child had of surviving was with his family doing the saving,” Toon wrote. After about a minute of over-the-phone instructions, Toon heard the toddler start to cry—a relief, because if he could cry, he could breathe. “That was a pretty sweet sound for everyone involved,” Toon recalled.The three-minute, eight-second call was a signal moment in the emerging field of pre-arrival instruction and T-CPR. Toon’s ad hoc actions were remarkable because T-CPR protocols did not yet exist, making the episode’s recording an instant historical artifact. As Audrey Fraizer wrote in The Journal of Emergency Dispatch in 2019, word of the event made the national rounds and, as she later told me, helped in the push to standardize care in emergency dispatching.By the early 1980s, the emergency medical system in King County, Washington, had become the first to implement a T-CPR script for dispatchers fielding cardiac-arrest calls. In the time since, T-CPR’s spread has been significant, albeit somewhat haphazard. A 2015 evidence review conducted by the American Heart Association suggested that, despite “rapid and widespread adoption,” dispatcher CPR instruction “does not lead to more successful resuscitations or improved survival.” But in Arizona, the birthplace of the practice, out-of-hospital cardiac-arrest victims who were provided with T-CPR were almost 65 percent more likely to survive than those who didn’t receive T-CPR, according to a February 2020 AHA T-CPR policy statement. Those who survived were also far less likely to have suffered brain damage.Eight states—Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin—currently require emergency dispatchers to provide T-CPR. But other states and jurisdictions—Arizona and New York among them—do not. The dispatchers in these states, says April Heinze of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), a nonprofit that works to standardize 911 services, are going to send help, but until the ambulance arrives they may not be able to assist callers much.To be sure, about one-third of the emergency dispatch centers in the U.S.—approximately 2,000—provide some sort of medical advice via telephone, helping bystanders assist someone who is choking, seizing, or even giving birth. Of those, “many do so without being required by law,” Heinze told me last spring. In her home state of Michigan, she added, more than 70 percent of dispatch centers provide these services, despite no mandate to do so. “Many others probably also do telephone CPR just because they know that’s the right thing to do,” Heinze, a former longtime 911 dispatcher, said.Only recently has there been a proper drive, spearheaded largely by the AHA, to integrate T-CPR into the national 911 system, which itself dates back to only the late 1960s. “The push for telephone CPR just happened within the last year or two,” Heinze told me. “Legislation is very slow. It doesn’t happen overnight.” That at least eight states have T-CPR-specific legislation on the books, well, “I think that’s actually pretty good, to be honest with you.”Still, nearly 50 years since Bill Toon’s impromptu T-CPR guidance, fewer than half of those who experience cardiac arrest outside of a hospital in America receive bystander CPR. Lay-rescuer rates are especially low in minority communities, due to both a lower overall availability of T-CPR and a widespread fear that involvement with a 911 call will lead to encounters with police or immigration authorities. The main obstacle to scaling up T-CPR, however, remains the patchwork nature of 911 itself. Though the national system is coordinated by the Federal Communications Commission, 32 states have adopted “home rule,” meaning that 911 and other services fall under local or regional control. As a result, implementing universal, consistent T-CPR programs is slowed by funding and staffing shortages and communication problems.The AHA has argued that T-CPR is overwhelmingly cost-effective compared with other measures designed to reduce the time to first chest compression. Yet states and localities have limited budgets for new emergency-services initiatives. And 911 dispatchers, who are in short supply nationwide, were overburdened even before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. They are at the crux of a tightly choreographed feat of adrenaline, transportation, and communication; a high-stress job performed on marathon shifts, with varying degrees of training, and for low pay. Given the existing demands on dispatchers, who are disproportionately women, some are understandably wary of being held accountable for negative outcomes. “If anything goes wrong,” Heinze said, “the liability then falls more on the dispatcher than it does on the organization.”Complicating matters is the fact that none of the nearly 6,000 emergency dispatch centers in the U.S. operates in exactly the same way. So when a 911 call from one area is routed to a dispatch center in the next town over—a not-uncommon occurrence—a caller may be transferred from a dispatcher trained in T-CPR to one who is not. And by the time responders arrive, it could be too late for someone like Todd in the throes of cardiac arrest.Even when a bystander is lucky enough to connect with the right dispatcher, there are many points when things can go wrong. The reality is that not all bystanders can or will act.Some simply aren’t physically capable of doing so. CPR requires two hands and has been compared to shoveling snow or walking through sand; one must push down 2.5 inches on the victim’s chest 100 to 120 times a minute in order to generate enough cardiac output. “It’s very tiring,” Fazzino, the FDNY liaison, explained.Others might be concerned about infection risk, a worry inflamed by the coronavirus pandemic. Still others might be hesitant to perform CPR for fear of inadvertently causing physical harm, or of interfering with what they believe fate has decided for the victim.To avoid these pitfalls in the course of T-CPR, dispatchers such as Adolfo Bonafoux don’t ask many questions once they’ve established that someone is calling on behalf of a person who is not breathing. “I will tell you what to do,” says Bonafoux, who fields emergency medical calls at the heavily fortified, Bronx-based PSAC II, one of New York City’s two public-safety answering centers.By not asking questions or for a caller’s permission, “it takes the option away from you,” Bonafoux explained to me. “You’re more willing to act and follow my direction. Because if I give you the choice, you’re gonna stop and think. You’re gonna start to weigh all the variables. And that time is very valuable.”Bonafoux is a former U.S. Army medic with 20 years of emergency-medical-service experience. He joined the FDNY in 2007, first as a paramedic and then, after being injured in the field, as a dispatcher. (He has formal training in, among other things, T-CPR protocols, a requirement instituted by the department’s medical directors.) Technically, he’s what’s known as an ARD, or assignment-receiving dispatcher. He isn’t the first person a caller talks to—that would be a police dispatcher, who discerns whether the caller needs to speak with the police, the fire department, or emergency medical services, and notes the caller’s location. Bonafoux receives the medical calls transferred from that police dispatcher, and handles the pre-arrival medical portion of the relay.“My philosophy is if you’re not willing to do it, you’re going to stop me,” Bonafoux said. “Obviously I can’t force anybody over the phone to do anything. So I take an aggressive stance. A lot of times people, in a pressure situation, they’ll just do. They won’t hesitate, they won’t think about it, they’ll just do.”Following Todd’s accident, I suspected that simply asking “What are the ratios?” had indicated to our dispatcher that I was familiar with CPR. And because of that baseline, it didn’t take much to get me to go.Bonafoux later confirmed that hunch. He was the voice on the other end of the line, who walked us out of the depths of what Lex and I have taken to calling the Bad Night. “Muscle memory,” he said. “Once you have done it before, you remember it. Your brain starts remembering it. Your body remembers how to do it. That all contributed to the success of your father-in-law.”The first responders, a paramedic team, arrived on the scene at 7:44:55 p.m., followed by the engine company, an FDNY lieutenant, and basic and advanced life-support units.“From the time that the call comes in to the time that somebody is actually standing there, a professional provider, is [about] four minutes,” Fazzino told me over the phone, as he paged through our case file. The “real magic,” he said, is in that response time.I remember a paramedic from the first unit crouching beside me, slinging a life-support bag off her shoulder and asking how long I’d been going at it, before relieving me. “Would you have guessed that was, you know, two and a half minutes of CPR you did?” Fazzino asked. “You get that serious fight-or-flight adrenaline rush. Your sense is enhanced. It becomes very surreal.” What felt like an eternity was really 150 seconds.By 8 p.m., Todd had been shocked seven times with a portable defibrillator—typical, Fazzino said, for ventricular fibrillation, the kind of electrical disturbance of the heart that Todd experienced. Responders, now numbering at least a half-dozen, ran Todd’s electrocardiogram. That included the multiple defibrillation attempts, medications administered, and intubation.Start to finish, the event clocked in at about 35 minutes, on par for this type of resuscitative effort in the field. Total call duration, including the T-CPR? Six minutes.By 8:20 p.m., Todd was loaded into an ambulance. Lex and I got into a second ambulance, which followed closely as our caravan sped toward NYU Langone, the nearest hospital, about 10 minutes away. Port Authority officials temporarily halted Queens-Midtown tunnel traffic to allow us to slip through. I remember the lights streaking past our windows.Todd was shocked an eighth time after being reeled into the emergency room. A long night was still ahead of us. But he now had a pulse—a testament to the help we’d gotten in those crucial first moments. Without T-CPR, “God forbid, what could have happened to your father-in-law?” asked Democratic Representative Norma Torres of California. “You wouldn’t have had somebody talking you through that.”Torres, a former 911 operator in Los Angeles, is the lead sponsor of the 911 SAVES Act, a bipartisan bill that aims to reclassify 911 operators and other public-safety telecommunicators as “protective service occupations” under the Office of Management and Budget’s Standard Occupational Classification System. As it stands, dispatchers like Bonafoux are classified more as office secretaries. Torres wants to change that federal labor designation—with no disrespect to secretarial workers, she said—to encourage states to recognize dispatchers as crucial workers, recognition that in some states could exempt them from government furlough. Without dispatchers, Torres said, “we can’t get the help that we need.” A recently formed NENA-AHA working group, meanwhile, is focused on further standardizing T-CPR. (The AHA, for its part, has also launched Don’t Die of Doubt, a campaign to address the “alarming drop” since the start of the pandemic in 911 calls and ER visits by people needing urgent medical care after a stroke or heart attack.) But it would seem that scaling up T-CPR is as much about recognizing and supporting dispatchers as it is training lay people in CPR, something Lex and I have undertaken in the aftermath of our experience.Here’s what I do know: The FDNY location from which the responding units were dispatched, is mere blocks from the restaurant. NYU Langone happens to be one of the country’s top cardiac-care hospitals, too. Not only did I have the advantages of previous CPR training and Bonafoux’s experienced help, but we were in the right place at the right moment. Both luck and privilege—our well-appointed location, my previous training—were on my family’s side.But the further I dig into the night of March 21, 2019, the clearer it becomes that I won’t ever be able to fully account for what transpired. I’d been on the fence about joining Lex and Todd for dinner, but made the last-minute decision to go. What if I hadn’t? It’s also entirely possible that, had Lex not immediately cried out for someone to call 911, kick-starting the “chain of survival,” this story would have a much different finale.I asked Fazzino how many out-of-hospital cardiac arrests were reported in New York City in 2019, and of those patients, how many survived until either emergency services arrived or they reached a hospital. He couldn’t say for sure, but noted that the “vast majority” of patients behind such emergency requests that come into the city’s two call centers ultimately do not make it.Of the minority of people who do survive, how many of them get to go home? That number, Fazzino said, is even smaller. Todd did what many people have not, “which is to cross the line and then come back to tell the story about it.”The first night at the hospital, Todd was put into therapeutic hypothermia—“on ice,” the doctors called it—in an attempt to redirect blood from the rest of his body to his brain. We were told he would stay in this medically induced coma for up to 72 hours. The next morning, less than 18 hours after his heart gave out, he woke up on his own. I can still see the look of surprise and excitement on the attending nurse’s face. “Who did the bystander CPR?” one of his doctors asked. Lex pointed at me. “Well done.”The following evening, in a quiet moment in a hospital lounge, Lex and I decided to get married. Todd was able to come to the wedding, three months later.“By the way,” he said, shortly before being discharged. “Thanks.”
9 h
The Unmaking of American Cynicism
On Tuesday evening, at the start of his Fox News show, Tucker Carlson shared the results of an investigation that he and his staff had conducted into a well-known agent of American disinformation. “We spent all day trying to locate the famous QAnon,” Carlson said, “which, in the end, we learned is not even a website. If it’s out there, we could not find it.” They kept looking, though, checking Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Twitter feed and “the intel community,” before coming to the obvious conclusion: “Cable news” and “politicians talking on TV,” Carlson said, must be responsible for the lies running rampant in America. “Maybe they’re from QAnon,” he added. “You be the judge.”This anti-investigation, like so much of what happens on Carlson’s show every day, was funny right up until it was frightening. (Just before informing his viewers of his inability to locate, Carlson had attempted a rebranding of disinformation itself: “Freelance thinking,” he called it.) The most basic of good-faith searches would have revealed the reality—and the danger—of a widely believed conspiracy theory positing, in part, that Democrats eat children. But reality is not Carlson’s project. Destabilizing it is. Fox’s most popular personality, his show’s marketing literature will tell you, offers “spirited debates” about the news of the day. In truth, Carlson is simply selling cynicism. Night after night, he informs you that the ways you might have of understanding the world and yourself within it—politics, culture, science, art, the news, other people—are not to be trusted. The only American institution that remains worthy of your confidence, in the bleak cosmology of Tucker Carlson Tonight, is Tucker Carlson.[Read: The prophecies of Q]I mention Carlson’s act not because it is extraordinary, but because it is banal. Topple the media is about as Propaganda 101 as it gets. It’s the Lügenpresse, it’s Newspeak, it’s the coup leaders heading straight for the TV station. Cynicism is, among other things, a habit of disordered vision: It looks at friends and sees foes. It looks at truth and sees deceit. Cynicism, at scale, makes democracy’s most basic demand—seeing one another as we are—impossible. And America, at the moment, is saturated with it. Cynicism makes daily appearances on Fox (and on Newsmax, and on One America News Network). It was the molten core of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the only real message Rush Limbaugh had to give. It lurks in the language of QAnon. It lives in the Big Lie. It seethed in the violence of the Capitol insurrection. It has made suspicion an easy sell. “From falsehood, anything follows,” posits a law of classical logic. It is called the principle of explosion.The era of Trump seemed as though it might offer, for a time, a wide-scale reckoning about truth and the facts it comprises. Soon after the United States elected a reality star as its president, George Orwell’s 1984, that fable of state-sanctioned delusion, rose to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list. (One spike in sales came just after Kellyanne Conway, attempting to justify the new administration’s lies about its inauguration-crowd size, coined the term alternative facts.) The phrase fake news, wielded by a president who treated ignorance as an art form, settled into the American vernacular; “The truth is more important now than ever,” a New York Times ad campaign replied.The reckoning, as so often happens, never completed its accountings. What those years primarily achieved was to remind Americans of how profoundly vulnerable they were to those who would try to deceive them. The Russian government, having been caught sowing mistrust in 2016, found a more sweeping means of manipulation in 2020. Fact-checkers noted when Trump told his 1,000th lie as president, and his 10,000th, and finally his 30,573rd. Their labors chafed against one of his presidency’s abiding perversions: The more widely accounted his corruptions were, the less accountable to them he seemed. That remained the case even as the casualties of his falsehoods mounted. The lies Trump told about COVID-19 exacerbated a deadly pandemic. The gaudy fantasies he spread about a “stolen” election proliferated for months. Their result was unthinkable and almost inevitable: A mob, believing the stories it had been sold, attacked the government.Lies are not semantic. Lies can lead to violence—in some sense, they are violence. They are as destabilizing to the social environment as guns can be to the physical: When someone is armed with a willingness to deceive, nobody else has a chance. And cynicism, that alleged defense against duplicity, can have the upside-down effect of making the cynic particularly vulnerable to manipulation. One of the insights of Merchants of Doubt, Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes’s scathing investigation into the American tobacco industry’s lies about its products, is that the deceptions were successful in part because they turned cynicism into a strategy. Faced with a deluge of studies that made the dangers of smoking clear, tobacco firms funded their own—junk research meant not to refute the science, but to muddle it. The bad-faith findings made Americans less able to see the truth clearly. They manufactured doubt the way Philip Morris churned out Marlboro Lights. They took reality and gave it plausible deniability.Trump’s Big Lie worked similarly. He understood, with the fabulist’s blithe intuition, how many people had a vested interest in unseeing the election’s obvious outcome. He took for granted that Fox and other outlets would repeat the fantasies so dutifully that soon, in their hermetic worlds, the fictions would seem like facts. Trump’s legal team filed 62 lawsuits alleging election fraud and lost 61; the resounding defeats made notably little sound. In early December, The Washington Post reported that 220 Republican lawmakers were refusing to say who had won the election. In mid-January, a poll asked likely Republican voters whether they continued to question the election’s results; 72 percent said they did.The Big Lie did not, in the narrow sense, succeed. Joe Biden was inaugurated on the appointed day, and Trump now leads his legions from the craggy shores of Mar-a-Lago. But nor did the lie end. He is spreading it, still. Compliant news outlets are giving him a platform to do so. (On OANN, this week, he said: “The election was stolen. We were robbed. It was a rigged election.” On Newsmax: “We did win the election, as far as I’m concerned. It was disgraceful what happened.” On Fox: “Rush thought we won, and so do I.”) The merchants of doubt, understanding that “truth in advertising” applies to goods but not to facts, keep right on selling their wares.[Read: Do you speak Fox?]Trump’s second impeachment dwelled within the cynicism, too. Democratic prosecutors presented raw footage of the mob’s violence and Trump’s incitement of it (video evidence, in a typical trial, being considered a compelling way to prove that alleged events actually happened). Trump’s lawyer dismissed the video as the slick work of a “movie company.” Here, again, was doubt offered up as a reason to unsee the obvious. The jurors in this particular trial had lived its events themselves. The facts were plain; that didn’t matter. Presented with all the evidence, 43 U.S. senators chose instead to look away.But partisanship! you might say. And I know, I know—you’re right, of course. But “partisanship” can be a strain of cynicism too. It can insist that only half the world’s facts are worth seeing. And it can claim that there are things more important than truth. “What happens when you’re wrong?” Joey, the son of the tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor, asks in the 2005 film Thank You for Smoking. Nick has just given Joey a lesson in the art of unfalsifiable-claim making. Joey has been slow to learn it. “See, Joey, that’s the beauty of argument,” Nick says. “When you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.”Last Tuesday, as a winter storm left millions of Texans without water or power or heat, the state’s governor, Greg Abbott, made an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. Here was the message the leader chose to convey that evening, as his constituents chopped down fences so that they might burn the wood for warmth: “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.”Abbott was manipulating the truth (the claim that the disaster was caused by malfunctioning wind turbines has been thoroughly debunked). But he was also attempting to manipulate people’s compassion. The facts were plain: People were freezing. People were dying. Abbott tried to blur the picture. He tried to turn the blunt fact of human suffering into an airy ideological debate. Why focus on the day’s emergency when the real crisis is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?The historian Daniel Boorstin, in his 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, described the pseudo-event as a manufactured product: an event that is created only to be covered by the media (and the noun equivalent of the adjectival “famous for being famous”). Abbott’s appearance was an inversion of that idea. Here was the actual event, real and hard and happening; there was the leader—someone with direct authority over the course of that event—attempting to de-manufacture it. Abbott, unable to deny the facts of the crisis, instead sought refuge in cynicism. He stood athwart history, yelling, “Stop looking!”[Read: ‘The Image’ in the age of pseudo-reality]The Image is often cited, correctly, as an early entry in the literature of post-truth America. But its insights, today, are as relevant to the national heart as they are to the national mind. Misdirection was at play when children were torn from their parents and held in cages at the U.S. border—and when a slew of Fox personalities insisted that the real story was not their suffering, but rather their mendacity. (“These child actors weeping and crying on all the other networks 24/7 right now,” Ann Coulter said, speaking directly to Trump—“do not fall for it, Mr. President.”) Misdirection was at play when Marjorie Taylor Greene, now a member of Congress, reportedly claimed that the shootings of children in Newtown and Parkland had been staged. Cancel culture, too, can be a means of misdirection: The idea might once have been nuanced but now often amounts to an excuse for strategic unseeing. Summoned cynically, it permits the consequence for harm done to take precedence over the harm itself. It defends the status quo. It is, predictably, a regular topic on Tucker Carlson’s show.A public that doesn’t know how to look at things squarely is a public that is primed to be manipulated. Distorted vision can easily morph into disordered compassion. Framing Britney Spears, a new and widely watched documentary, is ostensibly about the star’s legal status and the battle over her controversial conservatorship. Its broader subject, though, is the ease with which cynicism can curdle into cruelty. One of the film’s most gutting scenes comes early on, as a teenage Spears is interviewed by Diane Sawyer. The journalist treats her like an idea rather than a girl, her questions terse and very personal. (At one point Sawyer asked Spears to comment on the opinion, expressed by a politician’s wife, that Spears should be shot for being a bad role model.) The exchange—Spears cried during the interview—sets the tone for the film’s thesis: American culture, not terribly long ago, was able to look directly at a young woman in pain and see not a person but a punch line.“We are all the unreliable narrators of each other’s stories,” the conceptual magician Derek DelGaudio remarks in In & of Itself. The show, a compilation of his live performances that recently began streaming on Hulu, does for magic what Nanette did for stand-up and what Fountain did for art: It uses the tools of its craft to question the craft. It talks about magic as a way to talk about trust. DelGaudio, over the course of the show, does card tricks—one of them turns the audience themselves, effectively, into playing cards—and tells deeply personal stories. He offers meditations on what it feels like to be seen, and to be overlooked. He cries. He makes his audience cry too.In & of Itself, which premiered off-Broadway in 2016 and ran through 2018, coincided with a time when America was reexamining the interplay between illusion and reality. Now, as Americans reckon with miasmic mistrust, the show provides some clarity about the mechanics of manipulation. The magician understands roughly the same principles that the propagandist does: P. T. Barnum argued that what he was selling, as he charged people for the thrill of being tricked, wasn’t really the trick itself; it was the opportunity for them to investigate the terms of the fakery. Audiences didn’t want to see the “Fiji mermaid,” the creature he billed as a mystical wonder, so much as they wanted to see how Barnum had constructed the lie. Later, Hannah Arendt would find similar insights in her assessments of propaganda and politics: “Instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them,” Arendt writes, people “would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”[Read: The paranoid style in American entertainment]Today, the exhaust of their observations is visible far beyond American politics. Reality TV long ago gave up trying to fool audiences into thinking that its dramas are “real”; instead, the genre presents riddles to viewers, daring them to decide for themselves what is true and what is a lie. (Consider, too, that QAnon works in similar ways.) The Masked Singer and its sibling series, The Masked Dancer, which just wrapped its first season on Fox, take a similarly forensic approach to entertainment. The singing/dancing competitions feature a series of celebrities in identity-disguising costumes (a monster, an ice cube, a hammerhead shark) who perform routines and are voted off the show, week by week. The point for viewers is to guess their identities before the masks come off.Entertainment can have a candid kind of eloquence; they’re revealing, these ways people choose to spend their time when they’re not spending it on something else. The Masked franchise is a straightforward competition series in the American Idol vein, but it has also spawned a world beyond the television: social-media accounts and message boards dedicated to mining each episode for clues. The franchise has been a hit. That could well be because its solvable mysteries channel some of the frequencies of this cultural and political moment—a drive for knowingness, an assumption of ambient manipulation. It takes for granted that its audiences are experts about the lives of the famous people in their midst. It assumes its viewers’ savviness. It is premised on Americans’ assumption that they are always, somehow, being a little bit lied to. (Some other recent products of American pop culture: Big Little Lies, Pretty Little Liars, Lie to Me, House of Lies, The Lie.)And yet, crucially: The Masked franchise rejects cynicism. Its tone is deep, almost saccharine, earnestness. Person and persona, illusion and delusion, suspense and suspicion—these are the distinctions the shows explore each week. A recent episode of The Masked Dancer revealed that the moth who had previously shimmied to “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” was … the former abductee and current child-rights advocate Elizabeth Smart. The reveal was, even for The Masked Dancer, pretty shocking. Asked why she had decided to do the show, Smart replied that her grandmother had recently died. “She never let a moment pass her by,” Smart said, “and so when this opportunity came along, I thought, I live a pretty serious life, and I’m going to take this opportunity and just have fun.”[Read: Are we having too much fun?]Trauma, repackaged as a two-step: Is that cynicism, or something else? The celebrities who appear on The Masked Dancer will do so, of course, for lots of reasons they won’t mention on the show’s stage: money, flagging careers, the finicky nature of fame. Onstage, though, the show is coming to the same conclusion In & of Itself is: that there’s a crucial distinction between savviness and cynicism. Smart may have joined the show’s cast for several reasons, but one of them—maybe even the main one—might just be that she wanted a cathartic reclamation of fun. The Masked Dancer, in that sense, is doing the work that many other recent pieces of culture, including The Great British Baking Show and Ted Lasso, have engaged in with their own varied spectacles. They’re trying to teach us to trust one another again.The dynamics of all this are pretty straightforward; American pop culture is reacting to American news culture. It’s no coincidence that kind TV, a genre that is less about topic than tone, rose to prominence as TV news—cable news, in particular—became meaner and more mistrustful. And it’s no surprise that Tucker Carlson, who just lived through the same years everyone else did, took as the message of those years that cynicism sells. (One of his recent assessments of “the media”: “Imagine a drunken teenage border guard at the crossing between Togo and Burkina Faso shaking you down at midnight as you pass through.”)Carlson talks that way because he can. He implies to his viewers, every night, that they might talk that way too. The world of Tucker Carlson Tonight is angry but also very easy. If you reject facts as the instruments of a biased media, you can say pretty much anything, as long as you say it interestingly. If you brand yourself as an entertainer, not a journalist, you can spread falsehoods in the name of fun. Truth has obligations that opinions do not. Fox, the network, is learning that all over again: The election-security firm Smartmatic, its reputation caught in the tangled web Fox wove as it repackaged the Big Lie, is suing Fox for $2.7 billion.It might be tempting to look at that development and see a measure of accountability—wild claims made answerable, cynicisms squelched by truth. But the suits will not save us. The entertainer answers to no court of law. And he knows that cynicism, a means of seeing nothing, will remain a powerful sell. What will follow the Big Lie? One answer is that Fox News finally found a way to hold Carlson accountable for the role he has played in breaking Americans’ trust: Last week, it gave him a promotion.
9 h
A Riot in Eutaw
Granddaddy’s voice was raspy; love laced his hello. His throne, a maroon recliner, filled the corner of the den in his ranch-style home. On a typical summer afternoon—during one of our weeklong sojourns back to Montgomery, Alabama, from wherever the Air Force took my dad—my cousins and I would be sprawled across the floor, keeping up a ruckus.In the evening, Granddaddy would fumble with the remote, his hands worn from years working on the telephone lines for South Central Bell, and turn on the news. He would shush all of us; this was one of his favorite times of the day. Granddaddy always wanted to know what was going on, even if he could already tell you why it was happening. He was full of the wisdom of a man born into the sharecropping South of 1931.People like him—folks from the Black Belt—have a long memory. They know how history can ripple through time; how politicians and private actors bend systems to maintain control; and how racism and white supremacy are at the root of it all. They know a naked power grab when they see one, because they have seen so many.They know the towns—Eutaw, Eufaula, Mobile—where massacres and riots changed the course of history. Scholars call these events critical junctures; Granddaddy just knew them as the reasons things were the way they were.Granddaddy’s knowledge of the way things were meant he was not fond of Montgomery Mayor Emory Folmar, who led the city from 1977 to 1999. “He just tries to scare people,” he’d say with a tinge of disgust, his eyes locked on the TV screen. Folmar’s smirk creased at the edges, projecting an air of benign affability, but he ran the city like the military; police officers on the evening shift wore SWAT-style uniforms. His argument for aggressive policing hinged on the idea that the city was dangerous. For more than 20 years Folmar kept his seat as mayor by sowing division, stoking alarm, garnering significant support from white Montgomerians while showing little concern for his Black constituents.Folmar’s years in leadership were emblematic of a southern political legacy: drawing on white people’s fear that they had something to lose—money, jobs—if Black people were ever afforded equal rights. Such a strategy had worked in Alabama for more than a century; it had been effective north of the Mason-Dixon Line as well. In some ways, the legacy Folmar had inherited started in Eutaw, not far from where Granddaddy grew up.For years, I watched my granddad lean forward in that maroon recliner and shake his head. I was young, though. He died in 2009, before I thought to ask him what life was like growing up—what led to the way things were. Around the same time, I went off to college, driving along I-20 through Sumter County after Mississippi turned into Alabama. Trees shaded the highway as I passed signs for Eutaw, in neighboring Greene County.There was knowledge in the Eutaw soil, I was certain. It would teach me what Granddaddy knew.[Read: American democracy is hanging by a thread]Alabama hid aspects of its history for years, omitting them from textbooks and disregarding them in classrooms, which meant Black people learned their history from one another—perhaps while sitting at the feet of their elders, who would explain that it didn’t have to be this way.Just after the Civil War, the nation went through a moment of radical political reimagination. Southern states were forced to introduce progressive measures to their constitutions in order to be readmitted to the union. In Alabama, that meant establishing free public schools and granting Black men the right to vote, among other things. But the progress was tenuous; in some ways, its undoing began when a mob murdered Alexander Boyd.White people in Greene despised Boyd, a white Republican serving as county solicitor, and his politics. They disapproved of his associations with Black Republicans, and especially his investigation into the murder of Samuel Colvin, a Black man who was lynched by members of the Klan and shot 16 times. Boyd, they thought, was close to finding out who’d killed Colvin, and his mission to get justice for a Black man was upsetting the order of things.On March 31, 1870, a band of night riders crossed into Greene County at Cotton’s Bridge—roughly 19 miles north of Eutaw, the county seat. They made a beeline for the Cleveland House, a hotel where Boyd was staying. Just before midnight, about a dozen Klansmen burst into Boyd’s room, on the second floor. The posse was intent on hanging Boyd; Boyd was intent on fighting back. Bystanders heard a scuffle, then screams, then a gunshot. A minute or so passed, then came more shots. Boyd lurched into the hallway. The last shots riddled his skull. The Klansmen mounted their horses and rode back across Cotton’s Bridge toward Pickens County.That wasn’t the only incident of Klan violence in the area that night. The same evening, Klansmen found James Martin, a Black leader in Greene County and member of the Union League, a multiracial social and political organization that was gaining traction throughout the South. After a flurry of gunshots, Martin was never seen again.Alabama Governor William Smith appointed a special representative to investigate Boyd’s murder—though not Martin’s—and a grand jury was convened to hear the arguments. After 12 days of deliberation, the jury did not think that any Greene County resident could have been responsible. They declined to indict anyone for Boyd’s murder. There would be no trial.Such impunity became its own version of proof—Klan members saw how much they could get away with. Though most local white people did not engage in explicit acts of violence and many despised the Ku Klux Klan’s methods, the historian William Rogers wrote, “they did not take effective action against the Klan. Instead they rationalized. Accepting the situation as unnatural and temporary, native whites believed that order, stability, and the rule of law would return once the [white] population resumed political control.”[Read: The magazine that helped 1920s kids navigate racism]After Boyd’s murder, Alabama careened toward the November 1870 election, when voters would pick a new governor, state legislature, and congressional delegation—each of which were led by Republicans at the time. Democrats knew that if they hoped to win power, they couldn’t ignore Greene County, whose population was nearly 80 percent Black.Rather than trying to win the freedmen’s support, Democrats leaned into scaring them away from the polls. Only one Black man from Greene dared to attend the state’s Republican convention that summer; upon his return, white terrorists abducted him from his home, beat him, and tossed him down the shaft of a well.By October 1870, Alabama Republicans were nervous. The string of prominent murders in Greene had blunted the morale of Black voters, and if Black folks in Greene didn’t show up to the polls, Republicans stood no chance at victory.Party leaders began circulating handbills for a rally in downtown Eutaw to excite voters. Governor Smith would attend, as would prominent Republican members of Congress. About a week after Republicans announced their event, Democrats began advertising their own gathering in Eutaw at the same time and place. The makings of conflict were set.On October 25, both parties kicked off their rallies outside the courthouse in Eutaw. Roughly 200 Democrats gathered on the north side of the building; their meeting was dwarfed by the gathering of nearly 2,000 Republicans, almost all of whom were Black, on the south side.The Democrats disbanded first. White men—many of whom had been drinking—began to trickle to the south side of the courthouse. Some pushed their way to the front of the audience; others heckled from the periphery. The Republican Charles Hays, the district’s representative—who was hated by local Democrats for his moderately progressive racial politics—got up to thank the audience and adjourn the rally. But as soon as he stood to speak, a Democrat yanked Hays to the ground.The county sheriff ran to arrest the man who’d pulled the congressman off the stage; Black audience members tried to protect Hays. A shot rang out, the bullet soaring over the heads of the predominantly Black crowd, then more shots—these went directly into their bodies. Black men stampeded away from the courthouse as bullet after bullet rained down on them. One senator in attendance later recalled that several white men organized themselves into a line and “fired upon that fleeing crowd of colored men as though they had been a gang of wolves or hyenas.”Federal troops, who had been in and out of Eutaw after Boyd’s murder, came to quell the riot. But the mob had already inflicted its damage. Testifying later before a congressional committee that was investigating Klan violence, Hays said that at least four Black men had been killed and more than 50 had been injured. Senator Willard Warner, who had spoken at the rally, told the committee, “To see man after man in that crowd falling and scrambling away with his wounds, while a set of demons stood deliberately firing and shooting them down, is such a spectacle as I hope to never see again.”[Read: A forgotten Black founding father]Two weeks later, on November 8, 1870, Alabama held its election. Smith, the Republican governor, lost to his Democratic opponent by a total of 1,409 votes. In a special election in 1869, Representative Hays had carried Greene County by more than 2,200 votes; in 1870, he lost it by 35. In Sumter—Hays’s home county, which he’d won by 1,763 votes in ’69—he lost by 648. Hays ultimately won a majority in the rest of his district’s counties and retained his seat by fewer than 2,000 votes. But the effect of the reign of terror was clear: Black people had been kept away from the polls through lawless violence.And yet the number of ballots cast in the 1870 election was roughly the same as the number of ballots cast in 1868. An advantage for Republicans in either Greene or Sumter would have meant two more years of a Smith governorship. Republicans believed that the election had been stolen; historians agree.Eutaw changed Alabama. Scholars glean a lot of lessons from the riot, and others that followed it—in Eufaula and Mobile and elsewhere—but when I asked Bertis English, a history professor at Alabama State University, about it, he stressed that local white folks who did not fire their guns into the crowd were equally complicit. “It’s not just the mask-wearing Klansmen” who were to blame, English said. “It’s ordinary individuals who are tempted to preserve what they refer to as the ‘southern way of life,’ and to solve the ‘Negro problem’ by keeping them in their proverbial places.”The terror campaign of 1870 ended the promise of Alabama’s brief Reconstruction era, allowing the so-called Redeemers to pry Alabama from the hands of reform. This was the critical juncture that led to the way things are.Now, each time I return home to Alabama, I think about Granddaddy, about why it didn’t have to be this way.The Eutaw riot occurred squarely in the middle of Reconstruction—when the extent of laws protecting recently freed Black people and the political power they were amassing in the South were tested. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, ratified in 1865, 1868, and 1870, respectively, gave America a second chance to live up to its founding ideals by granting Black people equal rights of citizenship. The Enforcement Act of 1870, which protected Black citizens against attacks by state officials and groups like the Klan, added weight to the government’s promise. When I think about Eutaw, I remember how America rejected the opportunity it had.Eight days after the riot, the government filed federal charges against several white Democrats, including a man named John J. Jolly, for violating the free-speech rights of the speakers at the Eutaw rally, and the assembly rights of those gathered there. The Democrats were indicted for four separate crimes.In elucidating the charges, John P. Southworth, the district attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, posited that where state officials failed to protect the rights of men—even when those rights were violated by private actors—the federal government had the responsibility to step in under the Enforcement Act to prosecute the offenders. Southworth’s path was novel, but he believed he could secure a conviction.The case, which would become known as U.S. v. Hall, seemed doomed from the beginning. Finding people to sit for the jury was difficult: Some citizens said their summons never arrived; at least two would-be jurors were threatened. Meanwhile, witnesses were not offered any protection, and many refused to testify. One, Arthur Smith, was forced into hiding. William Cockrell and his son, both witnesses to the carnage at Eutaw, testified, but on their way home, a band of Democrats clubbed the elder Cockrell in the back of the head with a pistol.The defendants’ lawyers tried to get the case thrown out. They argued that the Fourteenth Amendment, despite offering “equal protection” to all people, did not guarantee Black people the protections laid out in the Bill of Rights. But the judge pushed back on the objection. “All rights which are protected against either a national or state legislation may fairly be said to be secured rights,” William Woods, the circuit judge, wrote.Woods’s declaration was remarkable for its simplicity. As the historian Eric Foner writes in The Second Founding, the Reconstruction amendments were dynamic; they were picked apart after passage and subject to divergent interpretations. Woods’s response to the Democrats’ objection hinted at progressive hopes for how far the amendments could go. He was acknowledging what the government owed its citizens—the full right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and reaffirming the government’s role in protecting those rights.But ultimately the trial was fruitless. The jury found the defendants not guilty, and the rioters celebrated. “We congratulate the gentlemen from Eutaw on their full and complete and honorable triumph,” the editors of the Montgomery Advertiser wrote. Impunity reigned.[Read: Stories of slavery, from those who survived it]Meanwhile, Woods’s interpretation faded from memory. Despite the judge’s expansive reading of the Fourteenth Amendment, that the federal government had a responsibility to protect its citizens from private violence, the Supreme Court would not take such a broad view. “The court is increasingly saying, no … murder is a violation of state law, and the Constitution does not expand federal jurisdiction over things like that,” Foner told me. “And that really limits the ability of the federal government to come in and suppress violence.”With neutered federal protections, the lawless reign of paramilitary groups such as the Klan flourished in the South. The power dynamic in Eutaw had been flipped on its head. Jolly, the Klan member who had been indicted in Eutaw, ran for office the same year he was acquitted. Black political power was stymied for more than a century.Granddaddy took me to church with him on Sundays in Montgomery, in a small brick chapel on Decatur Street. It’s where I learned my hymns and that too many perfumes combined can fill up your lungs like smog. The preacher would flip open his Bible. “Weeping may endure for a night,” he would say. I’d look at Granddaddy, who always knew the verses. He’d join the congregation: “But joy cometh in the morning.”August 11, 1969, must have felt like morning in Eutaw.Bodies packed into the courthouse. Sweat dripped from the folks braving the balmy Alabama heat. It was a day of celebration. They called it “Independence Day”—complete with a parade, speeches, and a ball. A century later, Greene remained roughly 80 percent Black, and after a special election, six of the seven seats on the county commission were held by Black farmers. For the first time, Black people controlled a county government in Alabama. “To me, the Greene County victory is more important than the mission of Apollo 11,” Ralph Abernathy, the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said during his speech that day. “The astronauts found only rocks covered with dust on the moon. In Greene County, we found human beings living a life of misery and poverty, exploited by the white power structure over which poor Black people had no control.”Local white folks were notably upset. “This is the white man’s country—this is not the Negro’s country,” D. W. Bailey, the city clerk in Eutaw, told The Atlanta Constitution as he was writing payroll checks.Still, for much of the county, it felt like a chance to breathe. Black residents would finally control their fates. They would be responsible for bringing jobs and relief programs to the area after years of neglect. One obstacle remained, though: Eutaw. Despite county-wide victories, Eutaw proper—the county seat—was controlled by an all-white city council, and had a white mayor. For a decade and a half after that Independence Day in August 1969, Black residents in Greene County would protest the city’s political makeup as a vestige of an era not long gone. By 1984, they were tired of waiting.The plan to fix the issue was simple. Representative Lucius Black of York, Alabama, in Sumter County, sponsored a bill in the Alabama House that would annex several predominantly Black areas into Eutaw. At the time, the city’s population was almost evenly split between Black and white residents. The annexation would nearly double the city’s population, creating a majority that looked more like the rest of the county. Mayor Joe Sanders protested. “It would bankrupt the city of Eutaw to give the same services to these people,” he said. Fear and scarcity had always worked as tools to drive opposition to progress. Why not try them again?[Read: A priceless archive of ordinary life]For several months, the bill was held up by a white state senator, Earl Goodwin—who’d represented Eutaw until a state-wide reapportionment in 1983. On May 9, 1984, more than 200 Black Eutawans marched to city hall to protest the delay. Eutaw’s all-white city council was a “segregated island in an integrated sea,” the Reverend Joseph Lowery, Abernathy’s successor at the SCLC, said during the protest.After an extended filibuster, Goodwin relented. A county-wide referendum was required to annex the predominantly Black areas. It passed. Black representatives made quick work of the next election, winning seats on the Eutaw city council.But investigations arose as swiftly as the victories did. The Justice Department under President Ronald Reagan launched voter-fraud probes in five predominantly Black Alabama counties, including Greene. In 1985, an all-white federal jury convicted a longtime voting-rights activist in Eutaw, Spiver Gordon, who had won a seat on the city council in 1984, of abusing the absentee-voting process. Gordon, with the help of John England Jr., among the first Black students to graduate from the University of Alabama’s law school, sued. “The suit contends the Justice Department for years ignored complaints from blacks about whites abusing absentee ballots to retain political control in poor, mostly black counties,” a Selma Times-Journal summary of the case reads. “But after blacks gained control of many public offices in those counties, the suit said, the Justice Department under President Reagan suddenly became concerned about allegations of blacks abusing absentee ballots.”The psalm says joy comes in the morning, but it doesn’t say it always lasts.Rarely a week goes by when I don’t think about what Granddaddy saw—what he knew. The playwright Lorraine Hansberry once wrote, “The New South slams up against the Old.” Even as Black folks have had their rights expanded, explicit voter-suppression efforts have sought to curb them. America has a tradition of mucking up its critical junctures.On October 9, 2019, I could not muster more words than “Wow.” Steven Reed had just been elected the first Black mayor of Montgomery in the city’s 200-year history. I pulled out my phone to call my mom. It had been only 20 years since Emory Folmar was the mayor. We laughed thinking about what Granddaddy would have had to say about it. He might have worried, the same way Black folks his age worried when Barack Obama was elected president. White people have not historically taken this sort of Black advancement lying down.I’d begun digging into what happened at Eutaw by then. I knew more of the story—why things were the way they were and how significant that 1870 election was.More than a year later, Raphael Warnock became the first Black Democrat to represent a former Confederate state, and Georgia’s first Black senator. The day after Georgians made history, insurrectionists rioted at the Capitol.I have to imagine Granddaddy would have seen that coming.[Next: Read Thomas Healy on a 1970s utopian Black city]
Photos of the Week: Giant Teapot, Arizona Sunset, Egyptian Goose
Marco Restivo / Barcroft Media via Getty Moving a home through the streets of San Francisco, ski jumping in Germany, hiking the Great Wall in China, visiting a ski resort in Tehran, opening a “hug room” in Rome, taking a vaccination selfie in Spain, surfing in front of Mount Fuji, walking a snow maze in Manitoba, and much more.
The Atlantic Daily: A Guide to America’s Awkward, Semi-Vaccinated Months
Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.February 25, 2021A possibly beautiful summer is ahead, but, first, Americans have to get through an awkward season of pandemic life. Our writers lay out how to think about safety in a semi-vaccinated world.America is inching toward relief. But this moment doesn’t look the same for everyone.The current chapter—in which some Americans are fully vaccinated, but not enough to protect the wider population against the coronavirus’s spread—is new territory. The rules of pandemic life are changing once again.Here are a few things to remember as America takes its next, awkward steps toward normal. One principle can help you—whether you are vaccinated or not—navigate this new phase. “When deciding what you can and can’t do, you should think less about your own vaccination status, and more about whether your neighbors, family, grocery clerks, delivery drivers, and friends are still vulnerable to the virus,” Rachel Gutman writes. Vaccine makers don’t need a perfect dosing regimen. They need an effective one. Vaccination is about data, but also trust, Katherine J. Wu explains: “In the absence of public trust, even an immunologically ideal vaccine-dosing regimen won’t be the one that protects the most people.” Vaccines might never bring us to herd immunity, but they can still help end the pandemic. “The role of COVID-19 vaccines may ultimately be more akin to that of the flu shot: reducing hospitalizations and deaths by mitigating the disease’s severity,” Sarah Zhang wrote earlier this month. Don’t forget about the global picture. As one expert told James Hamblin, many low-income countries may end up far behind in vaccine distribution. That's dangerous for the world: “Providing the virus with new places to spread will allow it to linger with us indefinitely. The longer it sticks around, the more time it has to mutate—which is bad news for the entire world, Americans included,” James notes. One question, answered: Why is Europe doing so much worse than the United States when it comes to vaccine rollout?Our staff writer Olga Khazan writes: Despite lost doses and frustrating vaccine websites, the U.S. is vaccinating its residents faster than any member of the European Union—which may be surprising, given that so many European health-care systems are touted as being more efficient than America’s. … This story is more about the foibles of the European Union than the triumph of the United States. The EU worried that if it left each of its member countries to acquire vaccines for itself, smaller and poorer nations wouldn’t be able to buy enough. European leaders bet that, by negotiating for vaccines as a bloc, they could match America’s purchasing power. Read Olga’s full story here.Tonight’s Atlantic-approved isolation activity: Listen to the latest episode of The Experiment, our new podcast with WNYC Studios: Filipino nurses have taken some of the hardest jobs in U.S. health care—and they’re dying of COVID-19 at alarming rates. Why?Today’s break from the news: Go ahead and fail: Our happiness columnist Arthur C. Brooks on how you can muster the courage to mess up.
The Winter Surge Is Melting Away
Coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths all fell for the fourth consecutive week.
Listen: Infections, Vaccinations, and Other Questions
On this episode of the podcast Social Distance, listeners with mild COVID-19 cases call in with their questions. James Hamblin explains why he thinks the summer could be wonderful. And Maeve Higgins shares nun news from Ireland.Listen to their conversation here:Subscribe to Social Distance to receive new episodes as soon as they’re published.What follows is a transcript of the episode, edited and condensed for clarity:Maeve Higgins: I’ve been dying to tell you about the latest Irish news. Ireland is under pretty severe lockdown at the moment. You’re not allowed to move from county to county. But some nuns put this video online of them performing an exorcism in Dublin, and they’re not from Dublin.James Hamblin: Oh, and you’re not allowed to … do exorcisms outside of your locality?Higgins: I mean, you’re allowed to, but you’re just not allowed to break COVID guidelines to go and do an exorcism.Hamblin: What happened to them? Are they in trouble?Higgins: Nothing’s happened to them. The government was already keeping an eye on them. It’s just these two nuns. They’re in a group called the Carmelite Sisters of the Holy Face of Jesus. And they got in trouble just before the Christmas holidays too, because they were selling potions online, so the nuns were, like, known to the authorities and then they broke the COVID rules and came and did an exorcism.Hamblin: Speaking of religion and COVID, when we talk about people forgoing vaccines, religious exemptions have been a huge thing here in the United States for kids going to school unvaccinated. I’m foreseeing some pretty big debates in the coming months and maybe years about requirements for vaccination and religious beliefs. There’s going to be a lot to unpack there.Higgins: There is. And Jim, I read your piece about how a COVID-vaccinated summer could be wonderful. And I want to ask you about population-level immunity. You wrote that “no other country has endured so much death and illness. But for all the failures that led to this point, the U.S. does finally seem to be experiencing some protective effects of population-level immunity.” Could you tell me more about that?Hamblin: The numbers in the U.S. look really promising. Cases are going down really quickly and deaths are plummeting because, among those cases, the high-risk people are being vaccinated or have been vaccinated. Add to that the effects of places that have already been hit really hard, where the virus seemed to be kind of burning out, at least temporarily, on its own.And you’ve got warm weather on the horizon where people could be outside. It’s a coalescing moment, and I don’t know that it’ll last, but things are looking really promising for the summer. And I’ve been trying to deal with how you genuinely let yourself be pulled forward by the hope and joy in being able to do things that we couldn’t do for a long time, while not getting complacent and declaring things “over” or repeating the same mistakes we’ve been making for the last year.Higgins: So many people are still catching and experiencing COVID. And we get so many brilliant messages from listeners, so I thought it could be really fun to hear from them today.Hamblin: Yeah, that would be great. Honestly, the voicemails we get are my favorite part of this whole podcast.Higgins: The first caller is a 68-year-old in central Pennsylvania. His name is Patrick. And he recently got a mild COVID case and wanted to talk about his immunity—and if and when he needs to schedule a vaccination appointment.Hamblin: Hello, Patrick. How are you feeling?Patrick: Not too bad, actually. I had a fairly mild run of this, and the only symptom left over is sort of a foggy-headed lightness. I can give you a pretty concise timeline [of my illness]. In the vaccine rollout here in this area, my wife was entitled to a first shot. She got her first Moderna shot on January 23 and showed her first symptoms of COVID on the 29th. On the 31st, she tested positive and went through a 10-day period where she had mild symptoms. I tested twice negative during that period. On the 13th of February, I started showing symptoms and tested positive on the 14th.Higgins: You tested positive on Valentine’s Day?Patrick: I did.Higgins: And you got it from your wife?Patrick: (Laughs.) I did.Higgins: Patrick, I’m sorry. What a gift.Hamblin: Well, I’m glad you’re both doing okay now. I hope things continue to improve for you. And so you’re specifically wondering about vaccination now, after having gone through this?Patrick: Yes. For both of us. My wife’s already had her first shot. She’s due for her second. Should she get it? And I actually have an appointment scheduled for March 3 that I haven’t canceled yet. And I’ve heard several things from primary-care doctors. And I’m just curious to see what your take is.Hamblin: Well, I never want to contradict anyone’s own doctor, because everyone has unique considerations. What’s the gist of what you’re hearing?Patrick: [That I should wait] three months. And the reason given to me is: “because you would have the immunity, and that is the current guideline.” So at least part of that answer has to do with current distribution protocol, I suppose.Hamblin: So with a lot of diseases, you don’t want to get vaccinated right after you’ve had it, because there can be an increased rate of side effects. If you already have high levels of this acute immune reaction going on, and then you get vaccinated, your body could react more strongly than it would otherwise. We don’t know a lot yet about how that would work with this vaccine, because it’s so new, and I think it’s very reasonable to wait that amount of time.I doubt that it would be a high-risk thing to go ahead and get it. But I also would expect that you have enough protection, having just been sick, that it would be almost impossible for you to get a serious bout of COVID in that time. You are protected, essentially, at least from severe disease. So I don’t think you can go wrong by waiting that period. I certainly wouldn’t wait a year. I wouldn’t expect the immunity that you’re going to have after this infection lasts extremely long or is going to be 100 percent. We’re not seeing people have reinfection cases really shortly after being sick, so I think that should be reassuring.Patrick: What about my wife’s case of getting a second shot?Hamblin: People seem to be pretty well protected after the first dose. The second dose is yet another exposure to this spike protein, which you just naturally got. They’re not exactly comparable, but I expect the effect is similar. It’s like your immune system is doing push ups: Is it better if you do 10 or 20? Sure, do 20 if that makes you stronger, but 10 also is nice. I wish I could be more definitive here. And if there were a serious risk in either direction, I would definitely tell you. But I don’t see one.Patrick: Thank you both for doing this. I’ve followed this podcast since the beginning, and it’s been quite helpful.Hamblin: That’s great to hear. It’s been a pleasure to do. And it’s great to hear from you.Higgins: Okay, Jim, now we’re going to hear from Camie in Idaho.Hamblin: Hi, Camie. How are you feeling?Camie: As well as can be expected, I guess, under the circumstances. I definitely don’t have it as bad as many people have had it. So we feel very blessed.My husband was in quarantine for 10 days. I’m actually in quarantine for 21 days because of underlying health conditions. My doctor just wants to be on the very safe side, which I appreciate. And that started me thinking that, when we’re done with this, what does that mean? Should we be just disinfecting when we recover, just like with any cold or flu? How much of this is sticking to surfaces, and what exactly do we have to clean? It made me think also about when the cruise ships came back and they were finding active, live coronavirus weeks and weeks after.Hamblin: Are there other people in your household?Camie: No, it’s just my husband and I, but we have a new grandbaby. We want to go see her, and I don’t want to inadvertently infect her when we go see her eventually.Hamblin: Absolutely. This has been a point of a lot of confusion over the course of the pandemic. I and most other people making recommendations this time last year were much more about surfaces, about hand hygiene, about sterilizing high-touch surfaces. And then, over the course of the year, it’s really turned out that the virus doesn’t linger very long on surfaces. And when it does, it doesn’t seem to happen in infectious doses. You’re just very unlikely to get enough of a viable virus onto your hand after you touch something and then touch your face and infect yourself.There are other infections that certainly work that way. But just because you are able to detect some RNA of that virus on, say, a cruise-ship doorknob or something, that doesn’t mean that someone who touched that would get sick. It’s kind of a fine distinction, but we had to play it safe at the time. So we sort of overestimated that and didn’t pay enough attention to air. It seems like surface transmission can happen from touching something, but it would have to be within a very short period. Say, someone came into your office right after you’ve been working at a desk for eight hours and then for some reason had to put their face onto your desk.Briefly touching a handrail as you went down a staircase and then someone coming by an hour later and using that same handrail—that seems like as close to a zero percent possibility as possible. And so the time period in which the virus is persisting on surfaces at all is short enough that once you and your husband are clear of needing to quarantine, the surfaces in your house should not be expected to contain any lingering virus.Camie: Should we stay away from the grandbaby, even after my 21 days of quarantining?Hamblin: If you’re going to see people, stay outdoors, wear a mask, don’t have prolonged close contact unless this person is in your tight bubble and you’re all being really vigilant. But no, there’s no reason to expect that you’re at any increased risk of infecting other people in that period.Higgins: Camie, thanks so much. And I hope you just feel 100 percent really soon.Camie: Thank you so much. I so appreciate your help. Wonderful to talk with you.
A Golden Rule for a Semi-Vaccinated World
The past 11 months have been a crash course in a million concepts that you probably wish you knew a whole lot less about. Particle filtration. Ventilation. Epidemiological variables. And, perhaps above all else, interdependence. In forming quarantine bubbles, in donning protective gear just to buy groceries, in boiling our days down to only our most essential interactions, people around the world have been shown exactly how linked their lives and health are. Now, as COVID-19 vaccines rewrite the rules of pandemic life once more, we are due for a new lesson in how each person’s well-being is inextricably tangled with others’.This odd (and hopefully brief) chapter in which some Americans are fully vaccinated, but not enough of us to shield the wider population against the coronavirus’s spread, brings with it a whole new set of practical and ethical questions. If I’m vaccinated, can I travel freely? Can two vaccinated people from different households eat lunch together? If your parents are vaccinated but you’re not, can you see them inside? What if only one of them got both shots? What if one of them is a nurse on a COVID-19 ward?After asking four experts what the vaccinated can do in as many ways as I could come up with, I’m sorry to report that there are no one-size-fits-all guides to what new freedoms the newly vaccinated should enjoy. Still, there is one principle—if not a black-and-white rule—that can help both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated navigate our once again unfamiliar world: When deciding what you can and can’t do, you should think less about your own vaccination status, and more about whether your neighbors, family, grocery clerks, delivery drivers, and friends are still vulnerable to the virus.The COVID-19 vaccines are fantastic. The shots that are currently available are tremendously effective at protecting the people who get them from severe illness, hospitalization, and death—all the things we want to avoid if we have any hope of fully reopening society. Even so, advice on what people can do once vaccinated gets complicated. Those who are vaccinated can still be infected by, and test positive for, SARS-CoV-2; they’re just way, way less likely to get sick as a result. The sticky element is whether not-sick-but-still-infected vaccinated people can spread the virus to others and get them sick. So far, the early data have been promising, showing that the vaccines stop at least some transmission, but the matter is not scientifically settled.[Read: The one area where the U.S. COVID-19 strategy seems to be working]This leaves us in an awkward situation. Getting vaccinated means that your choices no longer endanger you much, but they still might make you a risk to everyone else. To put this in more concrete terms: If a vaccinated person goes out to eat, they can’t yet be sure that they’re not carrying the virus and spreading it to their unvaccinated fellow diners and the restaurant staff, or that they won’t pick up the virus at the restaurant and bring it home to their unvaccinated family.So, first, a very broad guideline for navigating a world in which vaccinations are rising and infections are dropping: Whether you’re vaccinated or not, how much you can safely branch out in your activities and social life depends on the baseline level of virus in your community. You can imagine that, in pandemic life, each of us has been dealt a certain number of risk points that we can spend on seeing friends outside, going to work, sending the kids to day care, and so on. If you or someone you live with is especially vulnerable to the virus, you might choose to spend fewer points by getting groceries delivered; if you live alone in an area where very few people are sick, you might choose to spend more points by forming a bubble with friends. The vaccine delivers you a huge number of bonus points, if you’re lucky enough to get one. And when spread of the virus is low, everyone gets more points.Saskia Popescu, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at George Mason University, told me that everyone, vaccinated or not, should try to keep track of three metrics in your area: The number of new daily cases per 100,000 people, the rate at which people transmit the virus to one another, and the rate at which people test positive for the virus. Popescu said that there are no magic numbers that would immediately bring the country back to pre-COVID life, but she’ll feel better about reopening when we hit daily case rates of just one to two per 100,000, transmission rates of .5 or less, and test-positivity rates at or below 2 percent. (As of last week, no U.S. state had reached the trifecta, and the country as a whole is still far from it.) Many local public-health departments regularly provide these numbers.[Read: A simple rule of thumb for knowing when the pandemic is over]You might be tempted to factor vaccination rates into your safety equation too, but Whitney Robinson, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, told me that those numbers shouldn’t be anyone’s main safety indicator. That’s because vaccine distribution so far has been concentrated in particular social networks (for instance, health-care workers) and demographic groups (notably the white and wealthy), so an entire community won’t necessarily reap the benefits that a local vaccination rate of 15, or even 50, percent might imply.Knowing the overall risk of infection in your area is at least a first step toward making better decisions about whether you should host that birthday party or take Grandpa out to lunch. Even for people who are vaccinated, all of the public-health experts I spoke with emphasized, it’s still important to not throw caution to the wind. If vaccinated people flock to indoor restaurants or go unmasked in a crowd, they’re not just risking infecting others if they can indeed spread the virus, Popescu said. They’re contributing to a sense that life as we knew it before March 2020 is back, despite the fact that more than 65,000 people are still contracting the virus each day. Simply returning to our old habits would be deadly.That doesn’t mean that any loosening up is off the table for the vaccinated. Far from it—plenty of public-health experts have argued that vaccinated people safely seeing relatives or returning to the office can benefit everyone, because seeing how much the shot improves life will persuade more people to take it. Downplaying the vaccines’ success could discourage people from getting them, because if it won’t change their lives, they have no incentive.The best way forward for us all is for vaccinated people to spend their extra risk points in ways that don’t put unvaccinated people in danger. As you consider whether you should do things that you wouldn’t have done before the vaccine, think creatively about how you can make those things safer for everyone involved. “Grandparents really want to be able to go hug their grandchildren,” Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me. “I don’t have a problem with that.” But consider asking Grandma and Grandpa to wear masks during that hug, or meet you outside, or avoid sleeping over. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve developed an arsenal of strategies to make particular settings and activities safer. The vaccine is an extra-strong weapon against transmission that some people can deploy, but that doesn’t mean they need to discard all of the other ones to use it.[Julia Marcus: Vaccinated people are going to hug each other]How many of those methods you choose should depend on how many vulnerable people you regularly come into contact with. A vaccinated oncologist who lives with her immunocompromised sister is going to behave differently from a vaccinated retiree who lives alone. That said, there are plenty of settings, such as restaurants and stores, where you don’t know or can’t control how many vulnerable people are around you. For that reason, small private gatherings where you can adjust your anti-spread tactics to accommodate everyone’s risk factors are a safer first step toward normalcy than activities such as concerts, indoor dining, or big weddings. Travel in small groups might be a nearer goal, too: Popescu said she hopes that by the end of the year, she can take a vacation in another state with her husband without worrying that she’s “being a bad steward of public health.”Playing it safe, even as you loosen up a little, is the best way to ensure that someday, you will again live in a world with bars and birthday parties and movie theaters. It’s also the best way to keep yourself from getting sick with COVID-19 in the future—regardless of whether you’re already vaccinated. No one knows exactly how long you’ll be protected against serious illness if you get a vaccine (or were previously infected), simply because no one has been vaccinated for more than seven months yet. Given what we do know so far, the most likely way for a vaccinated person to get seriously ill from the coronavirus would be if they encounter a variant that the vaccine they received doesn’t effectively protect against. Such variants are much more likely to emerge if the virus is allowed to rage in particular places or groups before the overwhelming majority of the world’s people can be vaccinated.As Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health, put it, “In the context of epidemiology, we’re all in the same boat.”
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Why a Disgraced Musician Is Dominating the Charts
It’s no exaggeration to say that one of the biggest artists in American music right now is a disgrace. Three weeks after the 27-year-old country singer Morgan Wallen said a racial slur on camera, his second studio album, Dangerous: The Double Album, is at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. His singles have been bobbing in the country-music top 10 and the cross-genre Hot 100. Billboard’s ranking of the most popular artists in the United States had him in the top spot for five straight weeks. Thousands of people are, at this moment, streaming Wallen’s songs, buying his records, and watching his music videos—putting money in the pockets of someone who has admitted to saying one of the most noxious things imaginable.So whatever happened to cancel culture?A former Voice contestant with a broadly appealing sound, Wallen had only recently achieved superstardom when, on February 2, TMZ posted a video of him yelling the N-word to a friend outside his house two days earlier. It wasn’t Wallen’s first scandal. In May, police arrested him for alleged drunk and disorderly conduct, and in October, Saturday Night Live disinvited him for violating the show’s COVID-19 safety rules. He apologized for those incidents and continued on his ascent, but when he was caught shouting slurs after a night of partying, the music industry’s reaction was swift and decisive.Major radio networks stopped playing his songs. Streaming services took him off their official playlists. The Academy of Country Music disqualified him from this year’s awards consideration. His booking agent quit, and his record label, Big Loud, suspended his contract. In a five-minute Instagram apology posted February 10, Wallen said that he accepted whatever “penalties” his deeds merited and asked that fans not defend him.Coming after a year in which country music’s—and America’s—racist history was under a microscope, the industry’s disavowal of Wallen seemed intended to send a message that times are changing. The singer-songwriter Luke Combs apologized for previously featuring the Confederate flag in performances; stars such as Maren Morris began saying that Wallen’s offense was a sign of a racist status quo that needed to end. A press release from the Black Music Action Coalition praised the industry’s expulsion of Wallen, saying, “The message was loud and it was clear: racism will no longer go without consequences.”[Read: Country music can no longer hide its problems]Wallen’s fans appeared to want to send a different message. Sales of Dangerous: The Double Album tripled in the days after the TMZ video was posted. Streams of Wallen’s music videos shot up as well. The listenership boost more than offset Wallen’s loss of radio spins, major-label marketing, and streaming-service support. With six weeks in the country’s top spot, Dangerous is the longest-running No. 1 album for a male artist since Drake’s Views in 2016. In the nine days after TMZ published the video of Wallen, his music brought in more than $2 million.What’s going on? One common theory from inside and outside the industry is that Wallen’s continued popularity is a referendum on “cancel culture,” that poorly defined but ubiquitous topic of argument. For example, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said that listeners “are fed up with the ‘cancel culture’ trying to destroy people’s lives and careers because they made a dumb mistake for which they have publicly apologized.” Really, though, Wallen’s situation simply shows the term’s incoherence. Conservatives often portray “cancellation” as the fascistic tool of an all-controlling elite, and progressives often reply that cancellation is another word for healthy things such as consequences, accountability, and justice. Yet powerful forces in media and entertainment have hardly erased Wallen for his offense, and whatever consequences Wallen is facing seem at least equal to the rewards that he appears to be reaping. As it so frequently happens lately, the term cancel has hijacked a much thornier discussion about culture itself.Wallen’s post-scandal streaming success has plenty of precedent: Even when movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have dominated headlines, the music-listening public has kept playing supposedly cancelled hits.In the months after the 2019 HBO documentary Leaving Neverland gave major airtime to child-molestation allegations against Michael Jackson, the late pop star’s catalog became more popular in sales and streaming as his estate loudly contested the film’s assertions. The same sort of boost—by an order of millions of streams—happened to R. Kelly after a Lifetime exposé aired around the same time that criminal charges of sexual assault were filed against the R&B singer (he denies the allegations). After a patch of bad publicity for Justin Bieber, including a video of the singer making a racist joke as a teenager, he leveraged his apology tour into one of the biggest hits of his career. Post Malone still reigns after having said sorry for a video in which he used the same slur that Wallen did. Scan the pop charts on any given week and you’ll find names such as Chris Brown and Tekashi 6ix9ine: convicted abusers who thrive despite constant criticism and calls for boycotts.Abuse is a different offense than saying a slur, but each post-scandal musical success is alike in demonstrating the maxim that all publicity is good publicity. Headlines stir up curiosity and trigger an itch to listen to memorable melodies. Tunes grab the ear before the brain can compute who’s singing them, and thanks to headphones, music can be a particularly personal and private medium. Listeners who have kept Wallen in their playlists or have sought out his hits in recent weeks might well be doing so with indifference to his controversy, with separate-the-art-from-the-artist principles, or—and this is the big one—with total ignorance. One recent survey found that only 18 percent of country listeners who were familiar with the name Morgan Wallen knew that he’d been dropped from radio rotation.Some portion of that 18 percent, however, has taken an activist approach, creating a lucrative backlash to the backlash. The day after the TMZ video was posted, sales of Wallen’s albums—which had already been outpacing most other music in 2021—rose 1,221 percent: a number so stark that it indicates a concerted effort. (One thing to keep in mind, though, is that in this era of generally low album sales, that percentage increase represents only 7,435 more units sold.) Radio stations that dropped his music from rotation found themselves swamped with angry feedback from listeners demanding his return to the airwaves. “In a lot of [controversies], you can say it’s the vocal minority speaking up,” a media executive told Variety. “In this case, with Morgan, it doesn’t feel like the number of people [demanding his immediate return] is a minority.” This reaction has precedent too: Die-hard fans of Michael Jackson and R. Kelly were extremely vocal about streaming their embattled idols’ music and buying their albums.[Read: It’s not callout culture. It’s accountability.]Whatever the reason for Wallen’s enduring popularity, it shows the limits of the power wielded by the music industry’s kingmakers. Digital listening gives consumers a new ability to make or break stars: A song such as Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” can blow up without being spoon-fed to the public by labels. Streaming services themselves don’t enjoy total control either. When Spotify announced in 2018 that it would stop promoting the work of abusive artists, the ensuing criticism was so intense that the company walked back the policy within weeks. Streaming services have now removed Wallen from the playlists that they promote to hundreds of thousands of users, but the ability to fully yank his music from availability likely lies with his record label.That label, Big Loud, is presumably still profiting from Wallen’s music, even though it says that it has suspended Wallen’s record deal indefinitely. What suspension means, exactly, is not publicly known. What it sounds like is a public-relations measure that leaves the door open for Wallen to return to stardom. Is there any doubt that such a return will happen after a little bit of time and a redemptive interview or two? Almost from the moment that Wallen’s TMZ video was posted, fans—and some fellow artists—have been talking about the need for forgiveness and the inhumanity of condemning someone for a mistake. The long history of musicians continuing to prosper after a “mistake” indicates that such calls are probably redundant.Wallen himself knows how easy a comeback can be. In October, after partying maskless and kissing random fans days before he was scheduled to perform in the quarantine bubble of SNL, Wallen put out a solemn apology video. In it, he said that he was going to take some time off to reevaluate his priorities, because “I think I have some growing up to do.” A little more than a month later, he was re-invited to SNL, on which he acted in a skit that made light of his transgression. Weeks after that, he put out Dangerous, and weeks after that, he was shouting the N-word on the street.The public is going to listen to catchy music by charismatic people regardless of what the media say or what big corporations do. That doesn’t mean a star’s conduct should go unscrutinized—especially when that conduct indicates a broader problem. In his latest apology video, Wallen said that his offense was the result of a 72-hour bender. But Maren Morris hit on an important subtext of the situation when she tweeted, “We all know it wasn’t his first time using that word.”We all know—who can argue with that? Scroll through any Wallen-related comment thread lately and you’ll see that the defenses fans furnish for Wallen rest on the idea that his use of the slur wasn’t that big of a deal. They portray it as casual, flippant, unthinking (and tend to add, uselessly, that Black rappers say the same word all the time). According to Billboard, the insurance company SpottedRisk “rated Wallen’s use of a racial slur as Tier 3 out of 7 in its Public Outcry scoring system, reasoning that it was perceived to be directed at a friend and that the public expected this kind of behavior from Wallen.” All sorts of assumptions are embedded in such expectations—and the point of public-outcry campaigns is to make people aware of such assumptions.“When I read comments saying ‘this is not who we are’ I laugh because this is exactly who country music is,” the Black country singer Mickey Guyton tweeted after the TMZ video was released. “I’ve witnessed it for 10 gd years. You guys should just read some of the vile comments hurled at me on a daily basis.” The coming weeks and months will see whether the discourse now unfolding in Nashville’s public forums and behind-the-scenes dealmaking sessions will result in a culture less hostile to Black performers. Wallen’s removal from radio and awards consideration sends a clear signal—but it doesn’t solve the problem Guyton tweeted about. What remains is the challenge that entertainers, businesses, and activists alike always puzzle over: how to change a culture.What’s striking is that a big part of Wallen’s appeal in the first place lay in how he resisted cultural change. Country music is generally in love with location and tradition, but Wallen’s lyrics are especially fixated on the idea that he’ll never move on from the place that raised him, and that that place will always stay the same. It’s now hard not to hear the 2018 track “The Way I Talk,” a salute to his own accent, somewhat differently than before: “It sounds a little bit like my daddy / It don’t cuss around my mama / Some words you’ve never heard / ’Less you come from down yonder.” By attempting to put Wallen’s career on ice, the country-music industry has forced a discussion about why the most hateful word in America turned out to be part of the way Wallen talks. Some of the people still playing Wallen’s music may want that discussion silenced—but really, they’re only amplifying it.
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The Republican Party Is Now in Its End Stages
We are living in a time of bad metaphors. Everything is fascism, or socialism; Hitler’s Germany, or Stalin’s Soviet Union. Republicans, especially, want their followers to believe that America is on the verge of a dramatic time, a moment of great conflict such as 1968—or perhaps, even worse, 1860. (The drama is the point, of course. No one ever says, “We’re living through 1955.”)Ironically, the GOP is indeed replicating another political party in another time, but not as the heroes they imagine themselves to be. The Republican Party has become, in form if not in content, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of the late 1970s.I can already hear the howls about invidious comparisons. I do not mean that modern American Republicans are communists. Rather, I mean that the Republicans have entered their own kind of end-stage Bolshevism, as members of a party that is now exhausted by its failures, cynical about its own ideology, authoritarian by reflex, controlled as a personality cult by a failing old man, and looking for new adventures to rejuvenate its fortunes.No one thinks much about the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, and no one really should. This was a time referred to by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, as the vremya zastoi—“the era of stagnation.” By that point, the Soviet Communist Party was a spent force, and ideological conviction was mostly for chumps and fanatics. A handful of party ideologues and the senior officers of the Soviet military might still have believed in “Marxism-Leninism”—the melding of aspirational communism to one-party dictatorship—but by and large, Soviet citizens knew that the party’s formulations about the rights of all people were just window dressing for rule by a small circle of old men in the Kremlin.[David Graham: Trump thinks he’s found a new defense]“The party” itself was not a party in any Western sense, but a vehicle for a cabal of elites, with a cult of personality at its center. The Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was an utterly mediocre man, but by the late 1970s he had cemented his grip on the Communist Party by elevating opportunists and cronies around him who insisted, publicly and privately, that Brezhnev was a heroic genius. Factories and streets and even a city were named for him, and he promoted himself to the top military rank of “Marshal of the Soviet Union.” He awarded himself so many honors and medals that, in a common Soviet joke of the time, a small earthquake in Moscow was said to have been caused by Brezhnev’s medal-festooned military overcoat falling off its hanger.The elite leaders of this supposedly classless society were corrupt plutocrats, a mafia dressed in Marxism. The party was infested by careerists, and its grip on power was defended by propagandists who used rote phrases such as “real socialism” and “Western imperialism” so often that almost anyone could write an editorial in Pravda or Red Star merely by playing a kind of Soviet version of Mad Libs. News was tightly controlled. Soviet radio, television, and newspaper figures plowed on through stories that were utterly detached from reality, regularly extolling the successes of Soviet agriculture even as the country was forced to buy food from the capitalists (including the hated Americans).Members of the Communist Party who questioned anything, or expressed any sign of unorthodoxy, could be denounced by name, or more likely, simply fired. They would not be executed—this was not Stalinism, after all—but some were left to rot in obscurity in some make-work exile job, eventually retiring as a forgotten “Comrade Pensioner.” The deal was clear: Pump the party’s nonsense and enjoy the good life, or squawk and be sent to manage a library in Kazakhstan.This should all sound familiar.The Republican Party has, for years, ignored the ideas and principles it once espoused, to the point where the 2020 GOP convention simply dispensed with the fiction of a platform and instead declared the party to be whatever Comrade—excuse me, President—Donald Trump said it was.[Read: The hole where Donald Trump was]Like Brezhnev, Trump has grown in status to become a heroic figure among his supporters. If the Republicans could create the rank of “Marshal of the American Republic” and strike a medal for a “Hero of American Culture,” Trump would have them both by now.A GOP that once prided itself on its intellectual debates is now ruled by the turgid formulations of what the Soviets would have called their “leading cadres,” including ideological watchdogs such as Tucker Carlson and Mark Levin. Like their Soviet predecessors, a host of dull and dogmatic cable outlets, screechy radio talkers, and poorly written magazines crank out the same kind of fill-in-the-blanks screeds full of delusional accusations, replacing “NATO” and “revanchism” with “antifa” and “radicalism.”Falling in line, just as in the old Communist Party, is rewarded, and independence is punished. The anger directed at Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger makes the stilted ideological criticisms of last century’s Soviet propagandists seem almost genteel by comparison. (At least Soviet families under Brezhnev didn’t add three-page handwritten denouncements to official party reprimands.)This comparison is more than a metaphor; it is a warning. A dying party can still be a dangerous party. The Communist leaders in those last years of political sclerosis arrayed a new generation of nuclear missiles against NATO, invaded Afghanistan, tightened the screws on Jews and other dissidents, lied about why they shot down a civilian 747 airliner, and, near the end, came close to starting World War III out of sheer paranoia.[Read: How the GOP surrendered to extremism]The Republican Party is, for now, more of a danger to the United States than to the world. But like the last Soviet-era holdouts in the Kremlin, its cadres are growing more aggressive and paranoid. They blame spies and provocateurs for the Capitol riot, and they are obsessed with last summer’s protests (indeed, they are fixated on all criminals and rioters other than their own) to a point that now echoes the old Soviet lingo about “antisocial elements” and “hooligans.” They blame their failures at the ballot box not on their own shortcomings, but on fraud and sabotage as the justification for a redoubled crackdown on democracy.Another lesson from all this history is that the Republicans have no path to reform. Like their Soviet counterparts, their party is too far gone. Gorbachev tried to reform the Soviet Communist Party, and he remains reviled among the Soviet faithful to this day. Similar efforts by the remaining handful of reasonable Republicans are unlikely to fare any better. The Republican Party, to take a phrase from the early Soviet leader Leon Trotsky, should now be deposited where it belongs: in the “dustbin of history.”
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Go Ahead and Fail
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.For years, I was haunted by a fear of failure. I spent my early adulthood as a professional French hornist, playing in chamber-music ensembles and orchestras. Classical music is a perilous business, relying on absolute precision. Playing the French horn, prone as it is to missing notes, is a virtual high-wire act in every concert. I could go from hero to goat within a few mistakes during a solo. I lived in dread, and it made my life and work misery.Fear of failure is not just a problem for French hornists. Looking bad in front of others is arguably the most common dread people face. This explains why, for example, researchers have found that public speaking is college students’ most common fear; some scholars have famously asserted that people fear it even more than death. And dread about failing doesn’t just afflict the young or inexperienced: According to a 2018 survey conducted by Norwest Venture Partners, 90 percent of CEOs “admit fear of failure keeps them up at night more than any other concern.”This particular brand of anxiety appears to be on the rise. According to the World Bank, the percentage of American adults who see good opportunities to start a business but indicate that fear of failure would prevent them from doing so has been increasing for the past two decades. It is approaching the world median, in spite of the fact that the U.S. has long prided itself on being a land of intrepid entrepreneurs.There are a few possible explanations for this increase. Social media threatens to make every slip-up an extinction-level event, socially and professionally. Meanwhile, a generation of overprotective Baby Boomer parents have shielded their Millennial and Gen Z kids from the small risks and failures that build the emotional fortitude required to withstand the inevitable, larger failures of adulthood.[From the May 2020 issue: What happened to American childhood?]To the extent that this trend extinguishes entrepreneurial behavior, it’s bad enough for our future. But I am less worried about the effect on start-up enterprises than on the enterprise of building happy lives. Fear of failure can have surprisingly harsh consequences for our well-being. For some, it can lead to debilitating anxiety and depression, a diagnosable malady called atychiphobia. But even before it reaches that point, it can steer us away from life’s joyful, fulfilling adventures, by discouraging us from taking risks and trying new things.The fear of failure has a number of sources, not all of which are obvious. At first thought, it might seem like it is the dread of some known, bad outcome. For example, I might be afraid to give a presentation for my boss because if I fail, I won’t get a promotion, with clear implications for my career.But the fear of failure seems to actually be about unknown outcomes, at least for those who are most anxious. In one recent study conducted at University College London, psychologists devised an experiment in which participants had to decide between a series of gambles with guaranteed rewards and a set of bets with potentially higher wins and losses. Based on this, they found that people who suffered from anxiety were the most unable to estimate the best probable reward, which is consistent with earlier research. The implication of this risk aversion is that if you are particularly anxious about failing, it’s the uncertainty about whether you will do so that bothers you more than the actual consequences.[Read: Fear can make you a better person]Researchers have also found that people who strongly fear failure have a composite of two personality characteristics: low achievement orientation (that is, they don’t take much pleasure from accomplishments and meeting goals) and high test anxiety (a fear of not performing well at a crucial moment). In other words, they’re motivated less by the possibility of winning and gaining something of value, and more by their anxiety about the possibility of messing up. Those are some of the same personality traits that drive perfectionism, and can show up in low achievers and high achievers alike.In fact, perfectionism and the fear of failure go hand in hand: They lead you to believe that success isn’t about doing something good, but about not doing something bad. If you suffer from a fear of failure, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Where striving for success should be an exciting journey toward an amazing destination—as the climber George Mallory said, to ascend the mountain “because it’s there”—it feels instead like an exhausting slog, with all your energy focused on not tumbling over a cliff.[Read: The problem with being perfect]Surprisingly, people who fear failure do not need to extinguish the fear itself—to become more fearless—in order to make themselves happier. Instead, the best way to tame a fear of failure is to hone courage. Stanley Rachman, a psychologist, showed this in his research in the 1980s and then in the following decades on people in dangerous professions, such as paratroopers and bomb defusers. They too tended to fear failure—and messing up in such cases might be dire indeed. But they were able to tap into reserves of courage to act anyway. As Rachman argues, fearlessness is abnormal, and even dangerous, because it leads to foolish risk taking and bad leadership. Courage, on the other hand, helps you to balance prudence and resolve, even if the only thing you’re defusing is an office conflict.The good news is that all three of these drivers—an aversion to uncertainty, an attachment to the appearance of perfection, and a lack of courage—are qualities most of us would rather rid ourselves of. Facing the fear of failure is more than just dealing with a problem; it is an opportunity to grow in virtue. You can start this growth with three practices.1. Focus on the present.I once had a conversation with an oncologist about what it’s like to give people a dire, late-stage-cancer diagnosis. He said that some of his patients—people with a particular need to control tightly all parts of their lives—would immediately go home and start researching their prognosis on the internet. He would counsel them not to do this, because it would only make them sick with worry.Instead, he told them, start each day with this mantra: “I do not know what will happen next week or next year. But I know I have the gift of this day, and I will not waste it.” He said it helped not just their outlook about the disease but also their overall approach to life. I recommend this same refrain to anyone suffering from a fear of failure. Own the unknown future through gratitude for the known present, and watch your happiness rise, as you enjoy what you have in front of you.[From the April 2004 issue: The case against perfection]2. Visualize courage.Remember that one of the most common fears of failure involves public speaking. Even the thought of giving a speech in front of a group makes some people panic. The solution to this problem is simple: exposure. That doesn’t mean you need to haul a soapbox to your town square every day; just simulating a speech environment using virtual reality has been shown to lower people’s fear significantly.Anyone can use this idea, even without strapping on a VR simulator, through simple concentrated imagination. Instead of avoiding the source of your fear even in your own mind, spend time each day visualizing scary scenarios, including possible failures. Picture yourself acting with courage, despite the fear. I did this extensively early in my teaching career, imagining everything from the prosaic (forgetting my notes) to the absurd (realizing after an hour-long lecture that my fly was unzipped the whole time—something that subsequently happened in real life). I soon found that I was, in fact, more courageous in front of the class as a result.3. Litanize humility.In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Satan is depicted as a victim of his terrible pride by being frozen from the waist down—fixed and in agony—in ice of his own making. Fear of failure and perfectionism are like that prideful sea of ice, freezing you in place with thoughts of what others will think of you—or, worse, what you will think of yourself—if you do not succeed at something.There is a solution that follows Dante’s Catholic sensibility, but that in reality need not be religious at all. An early-20th-century Spanish cardinal, Rafael Merry del Val y Zulueta, composed a beautiful prayer called the “Litany of Humility.” The prayer does not ask that we be spared humiliation, but that we be given the grace to deal with the fear: “From the fear of being humiliated, / Deliver me, O Jesus.” It continues: Deliver me from the fear of being despised. From the fear of suffering rebukes. From the fear of being calumniated. From the fear of being forgotten. And from the fear of being ridiculed.Make your own version of the litany of humility, religious or not, and recite it each night. Even if the items seem ridiculous to you (“From the fear of messing up my PowerPoint presentation, deliver me”), if you want relief, you have to state your desire. Only then will your fear cease to be a phantom menace and instead become concrete—and thus conquerable.If all of the above strategies seem too time consuming, there is one last, tried-and-true method to develop courage in the face of failure: fail. And then, survive what the dark unknown truly holds. That is what eventually cured me.As I started by telling you, my music career was made miserable by my terror of mistakes. But at least my mouth was occupied with the instrument, so I didn’t have to speak publicly—that really freaked me out. Both those fears came together one fateful day at a chamber-music concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. I was slotted to give a short speech—maybe two minutes—about a piece my ensemble was to play. I stepped out of my chair and walked to the front of the stage, shaking in fear. Then I lost my footing, and literally fell into the audience. Decades later, I can still see it happening, in slow motion. As the audience gasped, I jumped up, my horn badly damaged and my arm injured, and shouted, ridiculously and implausibly, “I’m okay, folks!”[Read: Love is medicine for fear]Years later, I look back on that experience and laugh. But it wasn’t just funny—it was an incredible gift. Since scoring a perfect 10 in humiliation that day, I care very little about looking ridiculous. I take more risks and show my personality in ways I don’t think I would otherwise. Failure set me free.
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Ban All Big Mergers
The oil giants ExxonMobil and Chevron each have assets valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Last year, The Wall Street Journal recently revealed, the two companies considered what would have been among the largest corporate mergers in history—a deal that would have reunited parts of the Standard Oil empire that federal trustbusters broke apart in 1911. In the end, ExxonMobil and Chevron didn’t attempt the transaction. But had the companies insisted on it, today’s antitrust authorities probably would have permitted the tie-up. Mergers among the very largest corporations are rarely stopped. Our research found that, out of the 78 proposed mergers from 2015 to 2019 in which the smaller firm was valued at more than $10 billion, the federal government attempted to block a grand total of only five on antitrust grounds and successfully stopped just three of them. In February 2020, a district judge allowed T-Mobile (with a premerger equity valuation of more than $50 billion) to acquire Sprint for $30 billion and gave control of the national wireless market to just three carriers.As evidence mounts that corporate consolidation and concentration raise prices to consumers, eliminate jobs, depress wages, marginalize independent businesses, and breed economic and political inequality, Democrats in Congress, possibly in collaboration with some Republican colleagues, appear poised to crack down on monopoly and prevent further consolidation. At the top of this agenda should be a law that simply and unambiguously prevents all megamergers—which we would define as transactions in which the acquirer and the target each has more than $10 billion in assets.[Read: The rise and fall of the word ‘monopoly’ in American life]Such a rule would have stopped dozens of mergers that were completed in the second half of the 2010s, including the acquisitions of SABMiller by Anheuser-Busch InBev, Aetna by CVS, and Monsanto by Bayer. In general, corporate consolidation does not improve business productivity. Melissa Schilling, a business professor at New York University, has concluded that “most mergers do not create value for anyone, except perhaps the investment bankers who negotiated the deal.” Those findings make the government’s willingness to rubber-stamp so many recent mergers all the more remarkable.The Congresses that enacted the nation’s antitrust laws understood that unchecked corporate power makes a mockery of democratic norms. In 1890, Senator John Sherman, an Ohio Republican, helped develop the nation’s first federal antitrust act in response to the rise of corporate and financial titans such as J.P. Morgan. Sherman insisted that the country’s economic life should not be dominated by “a few men sitting at their council board in the city of New York.” In a 1958 decision, the Supreme Court echoed this theme, stating that “the Sherman Act was designed to be a comprehensive charter of economic liberty” that aimed to provide “an environment conducive to the preservation of our democratic political and social institutions.”Sadly, that tradition gave way in the 1970s and ’80s, as federal judges, the Justice Department’s antitrust division, and the Federal Trade Commission all came under the spell of dubious interpretations of history and economic theories strikingly tolerant of mergers and monopolistic practices. Without strong evidence that mergers will raise consumer prices and reduce economic output, federal antitrust agencies and courts hesitate to act even against companies that dominate their market. For the Justice Department, the FTC, and courts reviewing merger matters, considerations of political power, including the absolute size of the corporations involved, are irrelevant.The history of consolidation in the oil industry is revealing and suggests that an ExxonMobil-Chevron merger is not far-fetched. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the FTC permitted very large oil and gas corporations to merge on the condition that they sold off gas stations, refineries, and other assets to “preserve competition” in markets where they were head-to-head competitors or in a position to exclude rivals.The tolerance of mergers has spread corporate concentration and its attendant inequality into virtually every corner of the economy: health care, airlines, cable TV, and now the internet, where Amazon, Facebook, and other sprawling new monopolists reign. A small clique of executives and financiers makes key decisions in our economy. Many figures across the political spectrum are now urging a return to the kind of antitrust enforcement that once helped preserve a variety of independent businesses in every community.Among these voices, for example, is Senator Elizabeth Warren, who called for tight merger restrictions for companies that have more than $40 billion in annual revenues. In a fall 2019 presidential-candidate debate, she said: “We need to enforce our antitrust laws, break up these giant companies that are dominating Big Tech, Big Pharma, Big Oil, all of them.” Earlier this month, Senator Amy Klobuchar, together with four co-sponsors, proposed including a corporation’s absolute size in merger analysis. In October 2018, Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a bill that would break up the largest financial institutions in the United States and establish a cap on size going forward.[John Newman: What democratic contenders are missing in the race to revive antitrust]Although conservatives in the United States have generally supported Big Business interests, more voices on the right are grafting concerns about corporate power, particularly in digital markets, onto an otherwise standard right-wing agenda. Although former President Donald Trump’s administration had a poor antitrust record against large corporations and supported pro-monopoly reinterpretations of the law, it did file landmark suits against Google and Facebook in the closing months of 2020. Embracing some forms of economic populism, media outlets such as The American Conservative have also become supporters of renewed antitrust enforcement.Building on ideologically diverse opposition to corporate consolidation, Congress should pass legislation that strikes at mergers, a major contributor to the curse of corporate bigness. A ban on mergers involving companies that have more than $10 billion in assets might be a somewhat arbitrary line to draw—Congress could reasonably choose a higher or lower threshold—but the formulation and administration of law, which establishes the rules of a market, requires a degree of line-drawing. Anyway, the status quo, in which virtually every merger goes forward, almost regardless of the potential damage to customers, suppliers, rivals, workers, and even democracy, is arbitrary in its own way and runs contrary to the public interest.Under the legislation we propose, a future merger between Chevron and ExxonMobil would be plainly illegal. Even if they agreed to sell some assets to a third party—as many merging companies do—the two oil titans would not be able to get their transaction past the antitrust authorities. The companies probably would not even contemplate such a combination in the boardroom.By establishing a bright line, an outright ban on the largest mergers would reduce the role of contending lobbyists, lawyers, and rented economists in merger cases, thereby making the whole process clearer, faster, more predictable, less expensive, and less subjective, as we explain at greater length in a recent law-review article. A ban on megamergers would reduce the amount of money and human energy currently wasted in putting together unproductive consolidations. It would help end the arms race of consolidation, in which mergers beget mergers as firms try to keep up with ever larger and more powerful corporate rivals, suppliers, and customers. By potentially channeling these resources into new productive capacity and technologies, the law could result in a real increase in society’s overall wealth and pace of progress.
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Listen: The Sisterhood
Listen and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google PodcastsAt the start of the pandemic, Jollene Levid and her mother, Nora, found themselves glued to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s nightly press conferences. In a press conference late last March, Garcetti announced a new milestone: the first health-care worker in Los Angeles County to die of the disease.“When I heard him say that, I realized that he was talking about Auntie Rosary,” Jollene Levid says, speaking about Rosary Castro-Olega, a 63-year-old nurse who came out of retirement to work in hospitals strained by the pandemic. Castro-Olega’s death helped inspire an online memorial called Kanlungan, which honors the lives of health-care workers of Filipino descent.This week on The Experiment, the story of why so many people—many of them women, many of them nurses—have left the Philippines to work in the American health-care system, and why they have been so disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic.Be part of The Experiment. Use the hashtag #TheExperimentPodcast, or write to us at episode was reported and produced by Tracie Hunte and Gabrielle Berbey, with editing by Julia Longoria and Katherine Wells. Fact-check by William Brennan and Stephanie Hayes. Sound design by David Herman.
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The Atlantic Daily: 14 Fixes for Pandemic Monotony
Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.The prognosis is good, really good: Cases are falling and summer 2021 looks to be incredible. Now we’ve just got to get through the spring.If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of being isolated for another few months, or have simply run out of activities to do in your home, let us help. Below, our writers and editors offer their best suggestions for making it through this stretch.1. Take a neighborhood plant walk. I have taken up night walks, wandering the empty streets of Oakland and Berkeley after my kids go to bed. Every once in a while, I find a succulent from a neighbor and snip just a tiny piece. Then, I take it home, stick it in water, and wait for its roots to sprout and grow down. Eventually I plant it in the tiny garden that I've built. — Alexis C. Madrigal, staff writer 2. Then: Build on your indoor garden. Grow it; don’t throw it: Plant some kitchen scraps (lemon seeds, lentils, celery stalks, avocado pits) and watch new life happen in days, no extra soil or pots required. — Shan Wang, senior editor 3. Call someone. Pick up your phone and call—actually call; don’t text—a friend just to catch up. Any time I have talked to a friend during this pandemic, I have found the conversation restorative, grounding, and gratifying. Plus, you never know when the person on the other end of the line really needs a friend, too. — Rebecca J. Rosen, senior editor 4. Make pierogies. One weekend, perhaps seized by the spirit of some ancient Polish ancestor, I found myself irresistibly drawn to the idea of making pierogies. The little dumplings require an astonishing amount of time and patience, at least by my standards, but the process is meditative, and at the end, you have something delicious for the freezer. Any filling works. I’ve followed recipes from the Gefilteria and NYT Cooking. — Emma Green, staff writer 5. Take a fake commute. I learned this trick from one of my favorite newsletters, Girls’ Night In: If you're working remotely, create a daily commute and take a walk around the block in the morning. Quarantine has blurred so many work-life boundaries that even a pretend journey can feel refreshing. — Marina Koren, staff writer 6. Learn about cicadas. Maybe you or your kids are fascinated by bugs. If so (and if an overabundance of insects isn’t too biblical-plague-esque for you), now’s a perfect time to study up on them before your spring hikes: The Brood X cicadas are emerging for the first time in 17 years. (Did you know that there are also 13-year broods?) — A.C. Valdez, senior podcast producer 7. Host a standing Zoom get-together. A group of my friends organized a standing nightly Zoom meeting for the month of February as part of a plan to revive a college tradition. This structure has (perhaps ironically) recreated both the consistency and the spontaneity that I’ve been missing socially. The meetings are planned, but it’s always a surprise who will show up. They help to fight against the instinct toward self-isolation by removing any barriers to seeing friends: Someone will be on the call each night. — Kate Cray, assistant editor 8. Change up your hair (but don’t give yourself bangs). Every day is the same. Every day is overwhelming. You scroll through Instagram, bored, procrastinating, and see the same ad as always, for brightly colored hair dye, until one time you hit Purchase. Why not? It turns the floor of your shower purple; now you’ve got Saturday-night plans. And the next time you see yourself in a mirror, you smile—for once, not everything is the same. — Karen Ostergren, deputy copy chief 9. Play video games. Video games are fun! Remember fun? They take you away from your stupid home; they give you a sense of forward motion, even when you’re sitting on your couch. You could spend these long, boring pandemic days yearning for your old life or beating yourself up for not being more productive, or you could just play Pokémon. A pandemic is no time to overachieve. — Julie Beck, Family editor 10. Take on a home-improvement project. The most satisfying things that I’ve done for myself in the past year have been a series of small home-improvement projects, such as swapping out my kitchen faucet for a model with a higher neck and spray nozzle. DIY projects work on several levels—they give you something new to learn, they require you to put down your phone and focus on the task in front of you, and they provide the satisfaction of solving a problem whose solution you can see and appreciate every day. — Amanda Mull, staff writer 11. Buy new socks. This is sad, but even the smallest novelties help. I ordered two pairs the other week just to have something to feel excited about. — Paul Bisceglio, Health, Science, and Technology editor 12. Set micro-goals, and track your habits. I know, I know. This seems like the kind of toothless advice that the worst person you know would offer on LinkedIn. But it works: My habit calendar guided me through a turbulent January, forcing me to take five-minute stretch breaks and get outside once aper day. Crossing my daily tasks off also helped me visualize the passing of time. — Caroline Mimbs Nyce, senior associate editor 13. Do a clothing-and-other-items-that-can-be-donated purge. The pandemic is nothing if not clarifying, and one thing it’s helped me realize is that I have too much stuff. Twice this past year, I’ve gone through my belongings—clothing, books, kitchenware, decor—and separated out items for donation. Hopefully, my neighbors will find them as useful or educational or beautiful as I once did. — Nora Kelly Lee, senior editor, Politics 14. Volunteer. Many organizations offer creative ways to serve the community while staying safe. You can organize a contactless food drive, tutor a student over Zoom, or answer a domestic abuse hotline. I consistently find a deep sense of purpose and connection in meeting and helping my neighbors. — Katie Martin, associate art director One question, answered: Once I get the vaccine, what precautions do I still need to take?Our staff writer Sarah Zhang responds: If you and a small group of friends are all fully vaccinated, congrats. You can relax precautions among one another. If you’re with unvaccinated people, though, remember that your risks are smaller, but not zero. Your chance of getting sick is significantly reduced (by about 95 percent), and your risk of infecting others is likely also much lower. (That exact statistic is still unknown, but is probably less than 95 percent.) Your tolerance for these risks might depend on whether the unvaccinated people you’re with are at risk for COVID-19 because of other reasons. I think there’s another reason to keep wearing masks in public, at least for now. The strangers around you in a grocery store have no way of knowing whether you’re vaccinated. Wearing a mask is also a signal that you take the virus seriously and believe that we’re in this together—because we are. We can all get back to our normal lives when enough people have been vaccinated that the coronavirus no longer poses much of a threat in schools, workplaces, or even a big, crowded party. Tonight’s Atlantic-approved isolation activity: NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, took the plunge to the red planet last week, and the high-definition footage of its descent is something to behold.Today’s break from the news: I Care A Lot, Netflix’s new neo-noir film isn’t just about a merciless scammer who takes advantage of the elderly; it’s about the broken bureaucracies that enable her abuse.
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