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Paxlovid Is a Game Changer and a Head-Scratcher
The first data on Paxlovid, out last November, hinted that the COVID antiviral would cut the risk of hospitalization and death by 89 percent. Pundits called the drug “a monster breakthrough,” “miraculous,” and “the biggest advance in the pandemic since the vaccines.” “Today’s news is a real game-changer,” said Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer, which makes the drug. The pills are “a game changer,” President Joe Biden repeated a few months later.Now, finally, the game is being changed. The government has ordered 20 million courses of Paxlovid, committing half of the $10 billion in additional COVID funding that is being negotiated in the Senate; and Pfizer says that the number of patients taking the drug increased by a factor of 10 between mid-February and late April.But as the treatment spreads, so too does confusion over its effectiveness and side effects. Patients have complained of a bitter, metallic taste, or one like grapefruit juice mixed with soap, the whole time they were on the drug. More concerning, some have reported experiencing a second round of symptoms, and going back to testing positive, when the pills were done, a phenomenon that’s become known as “Paxlovid rebound.” Meanwhile, Pfizer has never published any final data on the use of the drug by vaccinated patients, leaving medical professionals with little information about how the drug works for people who have received their shots—which is to say, most of the adult population in the U.S. “We’re all riding on hope at this point,” Reshma Ramachandran, a family-medicine doctor at Yale, told me.[Read: Paxlovid mouth is real—and gross]An individual patient would never know if Paxlovid worked for them, because you could never say how sick you would have gotten if you hadn’t taken the pills. If the drug doesn’t really do that much for vaccinated people—if it fails to have meaningful effects on their risk of severe disease, and doesn’t help resolve their symptoms—then giving it out widely could be a waste of the dwindling resources the United States has committed to fight the pandemic, not to mention physicians’ time and patients’ sense of taste. And because people who have just recovered from COVID might reasonably believe they’re in the clear, and mingle with abandon, surprise cases of Paxlovid rebound could end up causing more transmission. “We continue to monitor data from our ongoing clinical studies and post-authorization safety surveillance,” a Pfizer spokesperson told me in an email, noting that cases of viral rebound “are being reported at a rate consistent with observations” from the company’s published clinical trial.Taste disruption (a.k.a. dysgeusia) is the most straightforward of the Paxlovid mysteries, because any sudden onset of soapy-grapefruit-penny flavor can be attributed to the antiviral with a decent amount of confidence. In its only published trial of the drug, conducted in unvaccinated, high-risk patients, Pfizer found that 5.6 percent of Paxlovid-takers experienced dysgeusia, compared with 0.3 percent of those who got the placebo. If you apply that rate to the hundreds of thousands of people who have now received the drug, you might expect to see some tens of thousands of cases by now. Given how people like to kvetch on social media, that side effect could very well seem like it’s occurring in a lot more than one out of 18 patients. Perhaps all that’s going on here is that rare events seem common on a large scale. Perhaps! But I’ve heard from dozens of patients on the drug in the course of my reporting, and every single one told me that they’d suffered through at least mild dysgeusia. Paul Sax, the clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told me he suspects “way more than half” of the people who’ve taken Paxlovid have experienced the taste.As for rebound, a Pfizer executive said during an earnings call this month that the company had taken a “preliminary look” at its trial data and concluded that viral loads bounced back up in about 2 percent of patients. He also said they saw “the same or close to the same percent in the placebo arm.” (These findings have not been published.) “Reports from the beginning of the pandemic suggested some participants exhibit fluctuations in nasal viral RNA, and these fluctuations could be a phenomena [sic] of the disease itself,” the Pfizer spokesperson told me. In any case, if you apply that measured rate of 2 percent to the population who have now taken the drug, you’d expect thousands of people to have experienced Paxlovid rebound by this point (and many, many more cases of rebound occurring among all the COVID patients who didn’t take it).The real number is—well, we have pretty much no idea what the real number is. The federal government is not tracking Paxlovid rebound in any public-facing database, and the CDC released an advisory on Tuesday saying the agency doesn’t know whether a recurrence of symptoms can be connected to the drug. The agency also clarified that “Paxlovid continues to be recommended for early stage treatment of mild to moderate COVID-19 among persons at high risk for progression to severe disease” and that anyone who rebounds should isolate for another five days. No researchers have yet published studies measuring the prevalence of rebound, but a good number of clinicians and Paxlovid patients are convinced that it’s higher than 2 percent. “To trust that number would’ve been to not believe my eyes,” Bob Wachter, the chair of medicine at UC San Francisco, told me.In an attempt to find some clarity, Wachter decided to poll his Twitter connections on whether they’d taken Paxlovid and rebounded. (I’m legally obligated to tell you that Twitter polls are neither scientific nor particularly reliable—which Wachter knows perfectly well.) Of the respondents who said they had taken Paxlovid, 45 percent rebounded; Wachter said he guesses the real proportion is closer to 10 or 20 percent. A few hours after we spoke, Wachter tweeted that his wife, who had recently finished a course of the antiviral and recovered from COVID, just tested positive again.In short, Pfizer’s clinical-trial results may not be matching up with physicians’ and patients’ real-world experience. When I asked the company why, the spokesperson replied, “We cannot speculate on why some people may or may not experience dysgeusia, but we can reiterate that 5.6% of participants in a well-controlled clinical trial experienced that event compared to 0.3% in the placebo arm.” As for rebound, he said, the company continues to monitor the data but hasn’t yet seen any unexpected numbers. “We are actively reviewing but, thus far, have not seen an association with subsequent severe disease (i.e., hospitalization or death),” he added. Discrepancies between the trial data and real-world experience might arise from the timing of the original research. Pfizer announced its results in early November, which means that participants received Paxlovid to help fight off infections caused by the Delta variant, which is naught but an unpleasant memory today. Three Omicron subvariants are currently floating through Americans’ airways. Perhaps one of them simply causes more rebound cases than Delta did, by keeping viral levels high enough that five days of antiviral therapy are not enough to wipe it out. Anthony Fauci announced last week that the National Institutes of Health is in talks with Pfizer to test out a longer course of Paxlovid to see if it reduces rates of rebound. (“We will share updates when we have them,” the Pfizer spokesperson said.) In the meantime, Bourla, Pfizer’s CEO, has suggested that those who experience a rebound should simply take another round of Paxlovid. But the FDA was less than enthusiastic about the idea.Patients’ immunization status remains the most obvious difference between Pfizer’s published clinical trial and present-day reality. That study was conducted exclusively in unvaccinated participants who were at high risk of complications from COVID. The drug is now authorized for use in vaxxed and unvaxxed patients alike. Could this explain the apparent gulf in the prevalence of bad tastes and rebound? Ali Ellebedy, an immunologist at Washington University in St. Louis, told me he couldn’t imagine any direct link between vaccination and Paxlovid rebound or dysgeusia. And if anything, he said, immunological principles suggest that, compared with unvaccinated people, the vaccinated should have fewer cases of rebound, not more. Then again, “with COVID over the last two and a half years, we have been wrong—I have been wrong—so many times,” he said.Providers are certainly anxious to know how many of their vaccinated patients experience Paxlovid rebound. But on a more basic level, they’re anxious to know how well the drug works in vaccinated people at all. “We really know nothing about the magnitude of its benefit or its risk in people who are vaccinated, let alone triple or quadruple vaccinated,” Walid Gellad, who directs the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing, told me. Without that information, if a doctor has to decide whether to prescribe Paxlovid to a patient who’s eligible, “you make your best guess,” Gellad said.Pfizer has hinted at some sunny results in vaccinated people, but no data have been made publicly available. Also, way back in December, the company said it had finished enrolling participants for a follow-up study of Paxlovid in people who are not at high risk of severe COVID. But then, a few months later, it changed the eligibility criteria to leave out anyone who had received a vaccine dose in the preceding 12 months..Today, that follow-up trial is still listed as in the “recruiting” phase on Reshma Ramachandran said the changes are a “red flag” that Pfizer might have uncovered some preliminary results among vaccinated participants that weren’t so flattering. David Boulware, a clinical-trial expert at the University of Minnesota, told me that he thinks the rationale for Pfizer’s actions is “pretty obvious”: The company will have an easier time proving the drug works in people who are more likely to be hospitalized—that is, the unvaccinated (and those whose vaccinations are more than a year old). “From a pure researcher perspective, I can understand exactly why they did this. But from a public-health and just, like, being-a-physician perspective, it’s a terrible idea.” The Pfizer spokesperson told me that the company had limited enrollment to patients who had not received a vaccine dose for at least a year in order to “enrich the study population for individuals whose immunity may be waning and who may be at elevated risk of severe COVID-19, hospitalization or death.”To make the best decisions possible regarding prescribing Paxlovid, doctors and patients would need to understand how common rebounds are, whether the drug causes them, and whether people are infectious during the rebound period. They’d also need to know whether the drug has any meaningful benefits for people who have gotten a primary vaccine dose or booster shot since May 2021. Boulware said he expects researchers in the United Kingdom to have data on Paxlovid’s efficacy in vaccinated people within the next couple of months. Gellad is also eager to know whether Paxlovid helps stave off long COVID, a hypothesis that would by definition take months or years to test. Ali Ellebedy is curious about whether taking Paxlovid dulls a patient’s immune response to the virus and therefore could leave them more vulnerable the next time they encounter it.Until those questions are answered, the providers I spoke with are all erring on the side of prescribing Paxlovid. “You’re kind of stuck as a prescriber,” Gellad said. Doctors could wait and advise their vaccinated patients not to take the drug until they’re certain it’ll help, but vaccinated people are still getting sick, developing long COVID, going to the hospital, and dying. To draw a balance between caution and action, Ramachandran said that when she prescribes Paxlovid to her vaccinated patients, she also explains that the clinical trials weren’t conducted in people like them, and so exactly what they’ll get out of the drug is uncertain. “When we’re trying to look for options for COVID-19, especially for treatment, we just have so few options,” she said. For now, Paxlovid is the best bet.
Rats Learned to Hide and Seek. Scientists Learned Way More.
Before they could do anything else, the neuroscientists had to teach the rats how to play hide-and-seek.Michael Brecht at the Humboldt University of Berlin concocted the idea. His student Annika Reinhold trained six of their lab rodents to scurry around a room filled with obstacles and cardboard boxes, and either locate the hidden human or find a hiding spot themselves. As I reported in 2019, the rats picked up the game in mere weeks. They clearly understood the rules and played strategically, starting their searches in past hiding locations or keeping quiet while hiding. And they had fun. Once found, they’d sometimes prolong the game by running away and hiding again. When they eventually reunited with Reinhold, they’d jump in place excitedly—a behavior known as Freudensprung, or “joy jumps.” And they didn’t need to be conditioned to play with edible treats; tickles were enough of a reward.The researchers enjoyed themselves too. But they were also working toward one of neuroscience’s most elusive goals: studying the brains of free-moving and naturally behaving animals. Traditionally, experimenters have been limited to highly artificial settings. They train mice and rats to do basic tasks—pressing a lever, say, in response to simple stimuli such as light or sounds—then measure their brain activity and average those measurements over hundreds or thousands of repetitions. This approach produces results that are less likely to be statistical flukes, but it’s also rather reductive. It collapses the complexity of animal lives into the simplest of actions. And it just can’t be used to study some of the most interesting behaviors of all, including play. Play is about freewheeling spontaneity; brain research usually involves control and conditioning. How could the latter ever be used to investigate the former?[From the March 2019 issue: A journey into the animal mind]Unexpectedly, hide-and-seek offered a way. Juan Sanguinetti-Scheck and his colleagues implanted wireless electrodes into four of the playful rodents—specifically in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a brain region involved in social interactions and decision making. As the animals hid and sought, the electrodes continuously recorded the activity of about 30 individual neurons in their PFCs. Sanguinetti-Scheck collected those data before the coronavirus pandemic started; then his colleague Bence Bagi did something unusual with them.Typically, researchers look at how animals’ neural activity changes when they do something specific, like scurrying into a hiding place. Bagi did the opposite. He started with the raw data from the electrodes, and trained an algorithm to identify moments when the PFC neurons fired in distinctive ways. He then cross-referenced these “brain states” against videos of the hide-and-seek games to see what the rats were doing at the time.One brain state appeared whenever a rat was “running in a determined fashion,” Sanguinetti-Scheck, who is now at Harvard, told me. Another occurred when the rats, which were kept inside a box at the very start of each game, first poked their heads out. Yet another showed up whenever the rats approached or interacted directly with the scientists. Even though every game of hide-and-seek was different, and the rats were free to do what they liked, their PFCs still buzzed in consistent ways during specific events. That’s a “potential milestone in neuroscience,” Sergio Pellis, a neuroscientist at the University of Lethbridge who studies rat play and wasn’t involved in the study, told me. It means that neuroscientists can look inside the chaotic brain of a freely playing rat and find genuine signals amid the noise—all “in a rigorous way,” Emily Dennis, a neuroscientist at Princeton who was also not involved in the study, told me. “I find it incredibly exciting.”[Read: So what’s the point of playtime?]This approach also allows scientists to look past their human biases. The usual neuroscientific paradigm—start with behavior, then look at the brain—relies on people correctly interpreting a very different species’ actions. But Sanguinetti-Scheck and Bagi’s reversed process let the rats’ own brains reveal what the rodents were doing, without researchers and their preconceptions getting in the way. “We can discover things that are more than just the things we set out to discover,” Sanguinetti-Scheck said. For example, two distinctive brain states occurred whenever the rats were walking along or exploring a wall—behaviors that the researchers hadn’t thought to pay attention to. But it makes sense that walls matter to rats; they navigate the world with touch-sensitive whiskers.So far, the team can correlate patterns of brain activity with what the rats are doing. But the scientists don’t know what those states actually represent. Does the shift from one state to another mark a moment when the rat decides to undertake a new course of action, or when the rat’s understanding of the game is changing? These are still open questions, and the hide-and-seek experiments get the team closer to answering them. So will other new techniques such as DeepLabCut, an AI-based tool that can track animal movements, which allows neuroscientists to analyze a creature’s behavior with the same sophistication that they can now bring to neural recordings. Sanguinetti-Scheck imagines a future where researchers can study the brains of not just free-moving animals but free-living ones too.[Read: In defense of play]“Neuroscience is experiencing a paradigm shift toward the study of more natural behaviors, and [this study] raises the bar substantially,” Shreya Saxena from the University of Florida, who was not involved in the study, told me. She hopes it’ll inspire younger neuroscientists to embrace “joie de vivre” in their work. For centuries, researchers have investigated the inner workings of the brain by studying confined animals doing simple and specific things that they’ve been trained to do thousands of times over. Scientists will uncover much more when they can truly watch brains doing what brains evolved to do—driving animal bodies as agents of agency, possibility, and flexibility. And perhaps, as the hide-and-seekers did, they’ll have more fun in the process.
America Needs Anti-Racialism
President Joe Biden has declared war on white supremacy. Shortly after the hideous racist massacre in Buffalo, New York, he urged his fellow citizens to banish this hateful ideology from our public life: “We need to say, as clearly and forcefully as we can, that the ideology of white supremacy has no place in America.” But what exactly do we mean by white supremacy, and what would it mean to bring it to an end?Debates over race and racism—their importance to U.S. history, their salience for present-day politics, and what steps the government should take to address them—are central to our politics. Although there is widespread agreement that the state of race relations in America is a matter of urgent concern, there is deep disagreement over the nature of the problem. Is it the persistence of racial disparities in income, wealth, and elite representation, regardless of whether they’re the product of state-enforced racial discrimination or the uneven distribution of social capital across families and informal networks at a given point in time? Or is the problem the brightness of the boundaries separating minority ethnic groups from the societal mainstream? Call this the distinction between anti-racists and anti-racialists. Both want racial progress, but they have a drastically different understanding of what racial progress would look like.[Ibram X. Kendi: The double terror of being Black in America]In some circles, the default position is the ideology known as “anti-racism,” often derided by its critics as “wokeness.” According to prominent proponents of this view, such as the Boston University professor and Atlantic contributing writer Ibram X. Kendi and the New York Times Magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, racism is the defining fact of American life, and the old color-blind liberalism is woefully insufficient to address it. The only way our racist history can be overcome, in their view, is for Americans to become more explicitly conscious of race and racism, embrace educational paradigms that center race, and pursue policies that aim not for equal treatment but for “equity,” or equal outcomes among groups. As Kendi summarized this position, “the only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination.”Over roughly the past decade, anti-racism has made huge inroads in liberal institutions, including universities, media, and the Democratic Party. This shift has trickled down through the wider Democratic electorate, especially among educated and affluent Democrats, for whom anti-racism has become an intellectual lodestar. Consider the Biden administration’s “equity agenda,” an ambitious effort to embed race consciousness in federal policy making. At the state and local level, a rising generation of progressive elected officials has embraced decarceration and depolicing to address disparities in criminal-justice outcomes. Many have also sought to dismantle selective public education and the use of standardized testing on broadly similar grounds. Bracketing the question of whether anti-racism offers an accurate diagnosis of contemporary American life, it has a clear appeal to certain powerful constituencies, which have been willing to advance its tenets even when doing so has proven politically costly.What is less understood, however, is the opposition to liberal anti-racism. Over the past two years, we’ve seen a wave of parental complaints and legislation against anti-racist school curricula (“critical race theory,” or CRT), and backlash against politicians and district attorneys who have adopted anti-racism-inflected approaches to crime and public safety. One of the more striking illustrations of this phenomenon can be seen in progressive San Francisco, where local voters ousted three of the city’s school-board members in a successful recall effort in February. The recall received particular support in precincts with larger proportions of Asian and Jewish voters, many of whom were reportedly alienated by, among other things, the school board’s decision to end selective admissions at the renowned Lowell High School. Judging by recent polls, a similar coalition is poised to recall Chesa Boudin, San Francisco’s district attorney and an exemplar of the anti-racist progressive-prosecution movement, next month.[Annie Lowrey: The people vs. Chesa Boudin]In the eyes of the anti-racists themselves, the campaigns against CRT, affirmative action, and progressive criminal-justice reform are just racism—a form of “white backlash” against the growing political power of minorities, which is all the more insidious for professing to be “color-blind.” Slightly more difficult to account for is the fact that, on many sensitive racial issues, nonwhite minorities are aligned against the positions of the progressive anti-racists. In a Pew Research Center survey from April, for instance, 59 percent of Black respondents, 68 percent of Hispanic respondents, and 63 percent of Asian respondents agreed that race should not be a factor in college admissions. Research from Zach Goldberg, a doctoral student in political science at Georgia State University, has shown that white liberals consistently express stronger agreement with many tenets of the anti-racist worldview than do minorities. More generally, as the Democratic Party has become more and more identified with anti-racism, it has actually shed support among nonwhite people, especially Hispanics.Some anti-racists have sought to explain away these phenomena by invoking concepts such as “multiracial whiteness”—the idea that minorities adopt “white” values in order to curry favor with a white-supremacist system. There’s a grain of truth there, in that many nonwhite people really are aligned with the mainstream American values derided by liberals as racist. But a better way to interpret their worldview—and that of many of the top critics of liberal anti-racism—is that it’s not racist at all. Instead, it’s what I call “anti-racialism.”If liberal anti-racism is grounded in the idea that raising the salience of race is essential to achieving racial justice, anti-racialism holds that heightened race consciousness, and the racialization of disparities and differences that would obtain in any culturally plural society, more often than not cuts against fostering integration, civic harmony, and social progress. Among anti-racist scholars, efforts to lower the salience of race tend to be denounced as manifestations of “laissez-faire racism,” as they ignore or downplay the cumulative and multidimensional nature of racial disadvantage. Yet anti-racialism is a potent political force precisely because it resonates with important aspects of our country’s new racial landscape.First, anti-racialism speaks to the emergence of a new multiethnic mainstream, which marks a departure from the system of minority- and majority-race relations that prevailed for most of American history. Put simply, mainstream American culture is no longer “white” in any narrow sense. Here it’s useful to draw a distinction between whiteness and mainstreamness, a more inclusive and capacious concept. In 2020, the legal academic Ian Haney López and the human-rights lawyer Tory Gavito, both of whom have long been involved in progressive political organizing, reported that though one-fourth of Latinos identified as “people of color,” a large majority disagreed. “They preferred to see Hispanics as a group integrating into the American mainstream, one not overly bound by racial constraints but instead able to get ahead through hard work.”[Adam Serwer: Demography is not destiny]This idea of an expanding mainstream is central to the work of the sociologists Richard Alba and Victor Nee, who’ve defined it as “that part of American society within which ethnic and racial origins have at most minor impacts.” For Americans who’ve been fully incorporated into the societal mainstream, ethnic identity is more voluntary or symbolic than a powerful force that constrains their choices. In The Great Demographic Illusion, Alba underscores that the American mainstream is not coterminous with whiteness. “Just as the white Protestant mainstream that prevailed from colonial times to the middle of the twentieth century evolved through the mass assimilation of Catholic and Jewish ethnics after World War II,” he writes, “the racially defined mainstream of today is changing, at least in some parts of the country, as a result of the inclusion of many nonwhite and mixed Americans.” This is especially true of Americans with roots in Latin America and Asia. Among Hispanic and Asian Americans, intermarriage rates now match or surpass those of Italian and Jewish Americans from the postwar era, a powerful indicator of their incorporation into the mainstream.Granted, one could argue that the divide between Black and white Americans is simply being supplanted by a divide between Black and non-Black Americans that is no less pernicious or impermeable. Consider that the intermarriage rate among Black Americans lags noticeably behind that of other minority ethnic groups, even after accounting for cross-group differences in educational attainment and income. In The Diversity Paradox, the sociologists Jennifer Lee and Frank Bean dub this phenomenon “black exceptionalism,” and it is one of many reasons our discourse over race relations continues to center Black Americans. Even if we accept that some Black Americans are being incorporated into the expanding mainstream as residential integration, rising educational attainment, and geographic and social mobility continue to take hold, the intense racial isolation experienced by most Black descendants of enslaved African Americans remains an important social fact.Nevertheless, there have always been Black conservatives who embrace an anti-racialist perspective. For example, when asked if Black Americans should work their way up without special favors the same way the Irish, Italians, and Jews did, a statement that would be considered beyond the pale in many elite media and academic institutions, the 2020 American National Election Survey found that about 20 percent of Black respondents agreed or strongly agreed with that statement; another 20 percent said they neither agreed nor disagreed.Though ideologically conservative Black Americans remain underrepresented in elite discourse, they’re playing an important role in urban Democratic politics. This is especially true in the intensifying debate over crime and disorder, in which a multiethnic coalition of anti-racists calling for decarceration—on the grounds that mass incarceration disproportionately burdens Black Americans—finds itself arrayed against a muliethnic coalition of anti-racialists demanding reinvestment in policing—because all citizens, regardless of color, deserve to be safe from criminal violence.Might this inchoate contest between anti-racists and anti-racialists augur a larger realignment? The answer is far from clear. The main challenge facing anti-racialism today is that it is still a non-elite phenomenon. Although it represents the unarticulated common sense of vast swathes of the electorate, it has few high-status champions and scant presence in mainstream media. For ambitious people looking to ascend through prestigious legacy institutions to positions of national influence, it is simply not the done thing to dwell on the ways in which the current progressive consensus is unrepresentative of how most Americans, including many Americans of color, think about race. But when politicians—including conservative politicians—articulate these values, they can appeal to the untapped anti-racialist majority.
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Find Your Midlife Transcendence
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.The dirty secret of social scientists is that a lot of research is actually “me-search.” Many of us tend to study aspects of life that affect us personally, looking for solutions to our own issues. In that spirit, I celebrated my 58th birthday last week not with a toupee or red sports car, but rather by investigating how to have the best possible midlife crisis.The midlife-crisis phenomenon has taken on almost mythic proportions in the American psyche over the past century. The term was first coined by the Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques, who noticed a pattern in the lives of “great men” in history: Many of them lost productivity—and even died—in their mid-to-late-30s, which was midlife in past centuries. The idea entered the popular consciousness in the 1970s when the author Gail Sheehy wrote her mega–best seller Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. Sheehy argued that around the age of 40, both men and women tend to descend into a crisis about getting old, running out of time to meet their goals, and questioning life choices. She based her work on in-depth case interviews with 115 individuals, the most famous of whom was the auto entrepreneur John DeLorean. He went on to become infamous in 1982, when, at the age of 57, he was arrested for attempting to sell about 60 pounds of cocaine to undercover federal agents.[Read: How the midlife crisis came to be]For years, scholars mostly didn’t challenge the conventional wisdom that a traumatic midlife crisis was normal, if not inevitable. More recently, however, many have found that a “crisis” is not our unavoidable fate. With knowledge and effort, you (and I) can make two crucial choices that can lead to harnessing the changes and difficulties of aging to instead design a midlife transcendence.Want to stay current with Arthur’s writing? Sign up to get an email every time a new column comes out.The timing of midlife is very subjective. As the psychologist Daniel J. Levinson aptly defined it 30 years ago (and as others have since validated), middle age is when “one is no longer young and yet not quite old.” This leaves a lot of room for perception. In a 2000 survey by the National Council on Aging, nearly half of the respondents ages 65 and older considered themselves middle-aged, as did a third of Americans in their 70s. For me, 58 feels just about right: My life-insurance company tells me that I can expect to live to 98, given my health and personal habits. I started my adult life at 19, when I left school and started working full-time. So the halfway point of adulthood for me is 58.5.Whether it becomes a crisis or not, midlife is indeed a difficult time for many. One common reason is what psychologists have called “sandwiching”: As you raise your kids, you are also saddled with the care of aging parents. According to findings from the 1995 National Survey of Families and Households, about 40 percent of people in their early 40s have both parents alive; about 80 percent of people in their late 60s have no parents alive. During the intervening years, adults spend an average of 2.5 hours a day in unpaid care of a family member. The burden of caregiving can be even more overwhelming for those with little time or limited financial resources.[Read: The real roots of the midlife crisis]These challenges are compounded by a strange and very personal shift that starts around your 40s: The skills you honed in early adulthood start to wane. If you don’t focus on the abilities that grow as you get older, you might perceive aging as an unmitigated loss, which will be a source of suffering. But you can work to avoid that fate by making two wise decisions about how to think about midlife.The first decision: Choose to focus on what age gives you, not what it has taken away. The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson believed that midlife presents a crossroads with two paths forward, which he called generativity and stagnation. My own research bears this out, and shows that the path you take is largely up to you. Stagnation, which can lead to a crisis, happens when you try to fight against time, whether you’re desperately trying not to look older or struggling against changes in your skills and strengths. Generativity comes from accepting your age and recognizing the new aptitudes and abilities that naturally develop after age 40 and get stronger through your 50s and 60s. These include the growing ability to see patterns clearly, teach others, and explain complex ideas—what psychologists call “crystallized intelligence.”[Read: The kind of smarts you don’t find in young people]The second decision: Choose subtraction, not addition. Early in life, success usually comes from addition: more money, more responsibility, more relationships, more possessions. Life in early adulthood is like filling up an empty canvas. By midlife, however, that canvas is pretty full, and more brushstrokes make the painting worse, not better. This explains why studies find that the most common concerns reported by middle-aged adults involve getting everything done in their busy life, their energy level, job complications, and insufficient sleep.Midlife is the point at which your medium of choice should change from a canvas to a sculpture, in which the work of art appears as a result of chipping away, not adding. This is hard to do when you have accepted a lot of responsibilities at work and at home. But I have found that in many cases, the most important impediment to chipping away is a belief that success = more. In middle age, this is bad math. Work to change your objective by stepping away from voluntary duties and responsibilities, and making more time to think, read, love, and pray—the work that you need to do to reengineer you.[Read: The seven habits that lead to happiness in old age]You can take these steps on your own if you want, or get assistance from the growing number of organizations designed to help you along this path, such as the entrepreneur Chip Conley’s Modern Elder Academy or my own university’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, two programs I have personally participated in. But even if you do nothing at all, a terrible “crisis” is hardly inevitable, nor even especially likely for most people. Writing in the journal Motivation and Emotion in 2000, the Cornell sociologist Elaine Wethington found that 90 percent of Americans are familiar with the idea of the midlife crisis and describe it pretty accurately from a psychological standpoint. But only 15.5 percent of men and 13.3 percent of women reported suffering one.In fact, for most people, life gets better starting in middle age. Over the years, people tend to get happier, more creative, less neurotic, more agreeable, and more conscientious. On average, research suggests that people get steadily psychologically healthier after 30, and well into old age. Most likely, there will be no full-blown crisis even if you just let nature take its course. Pursuing generativity and subtraction will make the second half of life that much better.[Read: An ode to middle age]Looking for joy in middle age might sound like putting lipstick on a pig, looking for a few scraps of happiness in an obviously unhappy period of life. But midlife is not a pig (unless you like pigs), and no lipstick is necessary. You will inevitably face hardships and challenges, just like at any other point in your life. But if you make the right choices, midlife may just be the best opportunity and biggest adventure you have had in decades.
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Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Is the 20th Century’s Last War
Nearly 80 years on from the end of World War II, it is striking how much of that conflict remains with us. This is of course true in terms of historic legacy—politicians who compare themselves to Churchill, for example, or fears of German power within Europe.But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine makes clear that we still live in World War II’s shadow in other ways too. The Russian military, for example, shares many similarities with the great armies of that period. The country’s ground forces are built around large numbers of heavy armored vehicles, most famously tanks, and concentrations of heavy artillery. Much like the German Wehrmacht’s plans for attacking the Soviet Union in 1941, the Russians expected to blast holes in Ukrainian lines with their big guns, and then move tanks and armored personnel carriers through the gaps to make rapid advances, with Russian fighters and bombers in support. Even the Russian navy, with its large surface vessels not too dissimilar in shape and size from those you could have seen in the Pacific or North Atlantic in the early 20th century, was discussed as a force capable of launching an amphibious assault on the Ukrainian coast, much as the Allies did on D-Day in June 1944.We know now that none of this worked out quite as Moscow had planned. In part, this is because of the basic inadequacies of the Russian military, which have revealed themselves to be manifold. Yet to focus on these factors would be to ignore a deeper shift under way, one that holds out the prospect of reshaping both the structure and expectation of militaries around the world.Russia’s botched invasion and Ukraine’s remarkable fortitude in fighting back have illustrated the diminishing power of the heavy and expensive unit of military power, its role challenged by nimbler, easier-to-use—and, crucially, cheaper—systems. Tanks, fighter jets, and warships are being pushed into obsolescence, giving way to new tools of conflict. In the process, we are seeing the very nature of combat change. In fact, we may be witnessing in Ukraine the final war of 20th-century militaries.This transition is most evident with the tank, the king of the land battlefield since World War II. At the time of its invasion in February, Russia held not just a significant numerical advantage over Ukraine in terms of the number of tanks in its arsenal, but a qualitative edge as well—Russian tanks were judged to be some of the best in the world. What we have seen, however, is a tank massacre: Tallies of Russian tank losses range from 700 to 1,200, an enormous loss out of a total arsenal of perhaps 1,500 that took part in the initial invasion. The tank’s vulnerabilities—it is ill-suited to many types of terrain, inflexible in its movements, and the opposite of stealthy—have been known for years, but until this war they had not been exposed so clearly. During World War II, the Germans developed an excellent and cheap handheld anti-tank weapon, nicknamed the Panzerfaust, which struck fear into the hearts of many American, British, and Soviet tankers. However, the Panzerfaust had an effective range of only 30 meters when it was first deployed, and technological advancements extended that to only 100 meters by the end of the war. If a soldier using a Panzerfaust missed (or even hit, it must be said), it was likely to be the last thing he ever did. In Ukraine, by contrast, many Russian tanks have been picked off at distances of two miles or more, by small groups of well-concealed Ukrainian soldiers using handheld anti-tank weapons.This swing in favor of smaller and cheaper defensive weapons has been matched in the air. The Russian air force, which was expected to dominate, has been significantly disrupted by Ukraine’s use of a range of cheaper systems, again including a number of handhelds, among them Stinger missiles that have been in service for almost half a century. Such systems render Russian pilots incapable of carrying out patrols, restricting them to quick point-to-point missions. By neutering Russian airpower, including helicopters, in places such as the Donbas, Ukrainian forces have retained desperately needed mobility. So even when the Russians do make advances, the Ukrainians can adjust. Along with their low-cost anti-air equipment, the Ukrainians have also made good use of cheaper unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to scout Russian positions and launch attacks where possible. On the seas, the story has been similar. Maybe the most shocking moment of the war so far was the sinking of the Russian Black Sea flagship Moskva, apparently by a homemade Ukrainian anti-ship missile. If Western reports are to be believed—Kyiv has steadfastly refused to comment on its role in the vessel’s sinking—the Ukrainians used two relatively cheap systems to destroy the Moskva: They employed a drone to distract the Moskva’s defensive systems, then hit the ship with two missiles—leading to a catastrophic internal fire and the eventual sinking.This wide-ranging success of cheaper, simpler systems against the ostensibly more advanced (but more expensive) equipment that is a feature of the world’s great militaries is something that has been prophesized for decades, since the advent of the Panzerfaust. If it is now a reality, that has significant implications for how armed forces the world over plan and strategize. As the counterinsurgency expert T. X. Hammes has argued, the improvement of defensive firepower has made forward movement very difficult, changing the balance of modern warfare very much against the attacker. What the Ukraine conflict has revealed is that this shift might be even more dramatic than most have imagined, a change that for the past few decades has been obscured by the overwhelming battle-winning (if not war-winning) capabilities of the American armed forces. The U.S. has held such a marked technological, logistical, and training advantage that its large offensive forces were typically able to thwart the efforts of forces using smaller and cheaper equipment. Going forward, however, the Russian experience is probably more instructive for all states—even the U.S. (American struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan point to even its enormous advantage eroding.) The effectiveness of defensive firepower will only improve. Anti-tank weapons will achieve longer ranges, and their detection ability and accuracy will get better. Drones will be able to stay in the air for longer and avoid detection better, while increasing their lethality and improving their own computational performance. The ability of both to destroy heavy land vehicles while remaining unseen will improve. The massacre of Russian vehicles we have seen in Ukraine will become the norm, not the exception. Navies that want to risk having their ships near the shores of a well-armed enemy will need to contend with huge salvos of anti-ship missiles and even anti-ship drones, far more than their anti-missile capabilities can now handle. This has consequences around the world: If the Chinese were rash enough to attempt an amphibious assault on Taiwan, or the U.S. were rash enough to send large carrier battle groups to the Chinese coast in a battle over the South China Sea, the result would be the Moskva many times over.The future shape of militaries is open to debate. What is clear, though, is that investing in large World War II–era materiel such as the heavy tank, enormous aircraft carrier, and super-expensive fixed-wing aircraft has never been riskier. As far less expensive but still lethal systems continue to improve, the investment that will be required to protect larger, more expensive weapons systems will be financially crippling, even for the American military. Instead, political and military leaders will need to start conceiving of an entirely different battlefield, full of lighter, smaller, more mobile, and in many cases autonomous or remotely operated weapons. In essence, they will need to prepare for the first wars of the 21st century.
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Why Gun Control in America Is So Hard
After each of the repeated mass shootings that now provide a tragic backbeat to American life, the same doomed dance of legislation quickly begins. As the outraged demands for action are inevitably derailed in Congress, disappointed gun-control advocates, and perplexed ordinary citizens, point their fingers at the influence of the National Rifle Association or the intransigent opposition of congressional Republicans. Those are both legitimate factors, but the stalemate over gun-control legislation since Bill Clinton’s first presidential term ultimately rests on a much deeper problem: the growing crisis of majority rule in American politics.Polls are clear that while Americans don’t believe gun control would solve all of the problems associated with gun violence, a commanding majority supports the central priorities of gun-control advocates, including universal background checks and an assault-weapons ban. Yet despite this overwhelming consensus, it’s highly unlikely that the massacre of at least 19 schoolchildren and two adults in Uvalde, Texas, yesterday, or President Joe Biden’s emotional plea for action last night, will result in legislative action.That’s because gun control is one of many issues in which majority opinion in the nation runs into the brick wall of a Senate rule—the filibuster—that provides a veto over national policy to a minority of the states, most of them small, largely rural, preponderantly white, and dominated by Republicans.[David Frum: America’s hands are full of blood]The disproportionate influence of small states has come to shape the competition for national power in America. Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections, something no party had done since the formation of the modern party system in 1828. Yet Republicans have controlled the White House after three of those elections instead of one, twice winning the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. The Senate imbalance has been even more striking. According to calculations by Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the political-reform program at New America, a center-left think tank, Senate Republicans have represented a majority of the U.S. population for only two years since 1980, if you assign half of each state’s population to each of its senators. But largely because of its commanding hold on smaller states, the GOP has controlled the Senate majority for 22 of those 42 years.The practical implications of these imbalances were dramatized by the last full-scale Senate debate over gun control. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, the Senate in 2013 voted on a measure backed by President Barack Obama to impose background checks on all gun sales. Again assigning half of each state’s population to each of its senators, the 54 senators who supported the bill (plus then–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who opposed it only for procedural reasons) represented 194 million Americans. The remaining senators who opposed the bill represented 118 million people. But because of the Senate’s filibuster rule, which requires the backing of 60 senators to move legislation to a vote, the 118 million prevailed.The outcome likely would not differ today. Last year, the House passed legislation to expand and strengthen background checks. But it, too, has been blocked by a Republican filibuster in the Senate.That impassable opposition reflects the GOP’s reliance on the places and voters most deeply devoted to gun culture. Polling last year by the Pew Research Center found that the share of Republicans who live in a household with a gun (54 percent) far exceeds the share of Democrats who do (31 percent). (In all, Pew found that four in 10 adults live in a house with a gun and only three in 10 own one.) A 2020 Rand Corporation study found that the 20 states with the highest rates of gun ownership had elected almost two-thirds of the Senate’s Republican lawmakers (32 of 50) and comprised about two-thirds of the states that President Donald Trump carried in the 2020 election (17 of 25). In an almost mirror image, the 20 states with the lowest rates of gun ownership had elected almost two-thirds of the Senate’s Democratic lawmakers (also 32 of 50) and comprised about two-thirds of the states Biden won (16 of 25). The 20 states with the lowest rates of gun ownership have more than two and half times as many residents (about 192 million) as the states with the highest gun-ownership rates (about 69 million). But in the Senate, these two sets of states carry equal weight.In their opposition to gun control, Republicans in Congress clearly are prioritizing the sentiments of gun owners in their party over any other perspective, even that of other Republican voters. The Pew polling found that significant majorities of Americans support background checks (81 percent), an assault-weapons ban (63 percent), and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines (64 percent); a majority also opposes concealed carry of weapons without a permit. Majorities of Republicans who don’t own guns shared those opinions, as did Democratic gun owners, by even more lopsided margins. Even most Republicans who do own guns said in the polling that they support background checks and oppose permitless concealed carry (which more red states, including Texas, are authorizing). Despite all of this, Republican elected officials, in their near-lockstep opposition to gun control, have bent to groups like the NRA in equating almost any restrictions as a sign of disrespect to the values of red America.Even though the NRA has weakened institutionally, its influence inside the GOP has been magnified by the reconfiguration of American politics along geographic lines. When Congress, during Clinton’s first term, created the national background-check system through the Brady Bill and later approved a ban on assault weapons (which has since expired), significant numbers of congressional Democrats representing rural constituencies opposed the legislation, while significant numbers of Republicans with big suburban constituencies supported it. But three decades of electoral re-sorting has significantly shrunk both of those groups. As a result, when the House passed its universal-background-check bill in 2021, only eight Republicans voted for it, while just a single Democrat voted against it.[Clint Smith: No parent should have to live like this]The Senate’s small-state bias is impeding legislative action on other issues on which Americans broadly agree, including climate change, abortion, and immigration. As with gun control, polls consistently show that a majority of Americans support acting on climate change, oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, and back comprehensive immigration reform, including offering legal status to undocumented immigrants (especially young people brought into the country by their parents). The House has passed legislation reflecting each of those perspectives. The Senate’s inaction on these issues again reflects the outsize influence of those states with the highest gun-ownership rates—which also tend to be those enmeshed in the fossil-fuel economy, with high shares of culturally conservative white Christians and low shares of immigrants.If there is any hope for congressional action on gun control in the aftermath of the Uvalde tragedy—or another mass shooting in the future—it almost certainly will require reform or elimination of the filibuster. Otherwise, the basic rules of American politics will continue to allow Republicans to impose their priorities even when a clear majority of Americans disagree. The hard truth is that there’s no way to confront America’s accelerating epidemic of gun violence without first addressing its systemic erosion of majority rule.
At the Graveyard With Anne
I like to stroll the graveyard in the middle of townWith my friend Anne, though we seldom agreeOn what an epitaph we happen to read implies.I’m inclined to find the one-line gravestone,Dr. Noah Vedder, M.D., as sadly comic.If we can’t take our money into the dark,I read it as saying, at least we can take our titles.But Anne, whose sympathies are arousedMore quickly than mine, reads it more darklyAs confessional. Here is the man’s admissionThat he saw himself as a better doctorThan he was a friend, or father, or husband,A better listener in his office than at home.If his kin were responsible for the inscription,Its terseness, I say, may suggest they were movedMore by duty than they were by love.But for her, its terseness seems to implyTheir painful acknowledgement that no praiseInscribed on the stone would keep their friendFrom being forgotten soon after they would be.And behind this truth she hears a protest:If the world were fair, he wouldn’t be sentencedTo endless retirement but allowed to practice,In a life beyond this one, the profession he loved.What use would a doctor be, I ask, in a realmWhere bodies are laid aside? But for her the point isThat those who knew him were certain that ifSuch a realm existed and a doctor were called for there,He’d volunteer, glad to hold office hoursAnd glad after hours to visit patientsToo sick to leave home,However modest the streets they lived on,However winding and poorly lit.
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Trump’s Double Defeat in Georgia
Last night’s primary in Georgia was a big, fat disappointment for former President Donald Trump: Governor Brian Kemp beat his Trump-endorsed opponent. And in a much more surprising turn of events, Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state who refused to play along with Trump’s election-fraud fantasy, won his race too.Raffensperger defeated Representative Jody Hice—a four-term congressman and a loud supporter of Trump’s election fever dream—by 20 points. Almost no one would have predicted this kind of comeback last year, when all of Trumpworld had trained their ire on Raffensperger. Combined with Kemp’s primary triumph, Raffensperger’s win could suggest that Trump’s influence in Georgia—and voters’ desire to relitigate the 2020 election—is waning. “Raffensperger’s election is a great barometer for the intensity of that issue with Republican voters today,” Brian Robinson, a Georgia Republican political consultant, told me. “It just shows that a lot of the air is out of the balloon. The intensity has dissipated.”A quick refresher: On January 2, 2021—almost two months after the election had been called for Joe Biden—Trump called Raffensperger. The phone call, which Carl Bernstein later dubbed “worse than Watergate,” was an hour-long persuasion campaign. Trump flattered Raffensperger; he threatened him; he asked him to please, please just “find 11,780 votes” that would make up Trump’s margin of defeat in Georgia. Remarkably, Raffensperger, a fellow Republican and one of Trump’s earliest supporters, stood firm. Georgia’s election results were correct, he told the president, and the process had been totally aboveboard. “Well, Mr. President,” Raffensperger said, “the challenge that you have is, the data you have is wrong.”[Read: Trump supporters explain why they believe the Big Lie]We know about this call because someone recorded it and shared it with the press. The conversation earned Raffensperger praise from Democrats and many Republicans, but also unbridled outrage from Trump’s allies. Last year, those allies made Raffensperger enemy No. 1. Hice, a 60-year-old pastor and four-term Republican representative, was one of four candidates who jumped into the secretary-of-state race. In his campaign announcement, Hice accused Raffensperger of creating “cracks in the integrity of our election,” immediately, earning him Trump’s endorsement. Hice had proved himself to be a “staunch ally of the America First agenda,” Trump said in a statement. And Hice really had: He was one of 147 members of Congress to object to the counting of the 2020 Electoral College votes; he also shared (and deleted) an Instagram post ahead of the January 6 Capitol riot saying, “This is our 1776 moment.” In the past two years, Hice has not backed down on his election-fraud claims, even as multiple state audits led by Republican officials have failed to turn up any proof of widespread fraud. “This last election should not have been certified without proper investigation,” Hice reiterated this month in a debate. “The allegations were tremendous. They were all over the place, and they still are.”Hice’s continued assertions of fraud in spite of all evidence are a familiar refrain in American politics these days; a song that any Republican candidate eager for Trump’s endorsement must learn by heart. Hice is just one of dozens of Republicans singing it as they run for election-oversight positions across the country. Two-thirds of all races for governor and secretary of state, along with half of all attorney-general races, involve a candidate who has publicly questioned the integrity of the 2020 election, Joanna Lydgate, the CEO of the nonpartisan States United Democracy Center, told me. Georgia is one of nine states where election deniers are running for all three of these pivotal roles. “The positions work together,” Lydgate said. “Having an election denier in any one of these positions can undermine efforts from the others.”[Read: Trump’s next coup has already begun]Raffensperger tried to strike a careful balance during his campaign. He kept to a conservative message and attempted to court the Trump base, while still refusing to go along with the stolen-election lie. He also endorsed a state voting law that instituted new regulations for mail voting and limits on the use of ballot drop boxes, among other changes. “Despite getting praise from many political corners, and many adversaries, he never started dancing to the sound of their applause,” Robinson said. In the weeks after the Trump-Raffensperger call, the secretary’s reelection chances seemed dim. But in the past several months, Raffensperger and Hice have been polling within a narrow margin of each other, with the most recent poll showing a one-point difference between them. Raffensperger had broad support: He polled better than Hice among moderate Republicans, Democrats, and independents, Andra Gillespie, a political-science professor at Emory University, told me. “Just because Trump was mad didn’t mean his endorsed candidate was going to become the far-and-away leader of the pack,” she said. “That hasn’t materialized at all.”The Georgia results add to a growing body of evidence that Trump’s power as a kingmaker—or at least, his power to carry out a political vendetta—has weakened. Kemp angered Trump in 2020—apparently by not working hard enough to flip the election—so Trump endorsed Kemp’s opponent, fellow Republican and election-fraud-Kool-Aid-drinker Senator David Perdue. Last night, Kemp won every single county reporting in Georgia. Two other Trump-endorsed gubernatorial candidates have lost in state primaries so far this cycle in Idaho and Nebraska, and Raffensperger’s primary win adds one more notch to Trump’s losing tally.Trump’s endorsement still gave a boost to a few of his down-ballot picks. And these results don’t necessarily mean that his fans love him any less; it might simply be that they are tired of looking backward. Georgia Republican voters interviewed this month told The Washington Post that there was probably election fraud in 2020, “yet they are exhausted by [Trump’s] singular obsession with it and are ready to move on.” Others warn against reading too much into this. Hice ran a bad campaign, Jay Williams, a Georgia GOP consultant, told me. He wasn’t running ads, and he wasn’t holding daily campaign events. “The media want to simplify everything, and it doesn’t really work that way,” Williams said. Not everything can be explained by Trump.Raffensperger will still face a challenge in the November general election, when he’ll have to win over a broad coalition of Georgians to defeat the Democratic nominee for the post. Right now, many pivotal races in Georgia could go either way; Kemp’s forthcoming face-off against the Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams is considered a toss-up. But both history and economic conditions are on Republicans’ side this year. Come autumn, if the winds are blowing right, Raffensperger and other GOP nominees up and down the Georgia ballot will be swept into office.Election conspiracists lost last night in Georgia, and it’s possible that the salience of the entire stolen-election narrative has declined in the state. But that isn’t the case nationwide. Election deniers all over the country are running successful primary campaigns. During the last presidential election, a handful of elected officials, including Raffensperger, chose to hold the democratic process above their own political preferences. Next time around, a different handful of people—in Arizona and Michigan and a number of other states—might choose differently.
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The Grotesque Envy at the Heart of Men
This story contains spoilers for the film Men.Alex Garland’s film Men has a deceptively simple premise: A woman rents a home in the English countryside to recuperate after a personal tragedy but is soon stalked by several residents of the town. The horror movie is replete with jump scares and potent dread. The biggest quirk is that all the characters threatening her—including a lecherous vicar and a leaf-covered monster—are played by one actor, Rory Kinnear. That phenomenon goes unaddressed for most of the film, until the aggressively bizarre last scenes. There, the movie’s villains are revealed to be more worthy of pity than terror.When we spoke, Garland told me that he intended the ending to be an “inversion” of typical horror tropes: Instead of needing to defeat a powerful enemy, Harper (played by Jessie Buckley) is confronted with how weak this creature truly is. Indeed, Harper doesn’t really have to do much in the final act of the film. After initially trying to flee her attackers, she is cornered at the vacation home, where she passively witnesses a nightmarish labor. In the climactic scene, Kinnear’s characters literally give birth to one another, in an accelerated chain of gruesome pregnancies and deliveries.[Read: Alex Garland knows you might hate Men]Just what the hell is going on? Garland’s film is designed to spur chatter among audience members exiting the theater, much like his previous works Ex Machina and Annihilation (both of which also concluded with shocking, visceral face-offs). Garland seems less concerned with whether the events in Men are actually happening or are instead unfolding in Harper’s head, a way of unpacking her grief over the loss of her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). We learn through flashbacks that after she asked him for a divorce, James struck her and then seemingly died by suicide—although Harper at one point confesses that she’s not sure whether he intentionally threw himself off their apartment building or simply fell.For most of Men, the connection between this traumatic incident in Harper’s past and the characters tormenting her in the countryside is unclear. Along with the evil vicar and the naked, mute “Green Man” monster, Kinnear plays a foul-mouthed child, a tutting policeman, a bartender, an aggressive townsperson, and her posh and awkward landlord, Geoffrey. They’re all warped reflections of a traditional image of England, in a landscape where beautiful, rolling hills obscure a blinkered, malevolent society. The vicar presents as a caring adviser but soon becomes scornful; Geoffrey is chummy as he shows Harper around his fancy home at the beginning of the film but attempts to run her down in his car by the end of it. A24 James haunts these exchanges only through Harper’s intrusive flashbacks—at least until Harper stabs the Green Man in the hand while trying to escape him, leaving a long gash down his arm that resembles an injury James sustained during his death. A little while later, the Green Man’s body starts to morph, revealing a pregnant belly. He rapidly gives birth to the schoolchild, who in turn births the vicar, who then spawns Geoffrey. The final person to emerge from that goopy succession is James, who calmly sits down beside Harper. With equal composure, she asks what he wants. He says he wants her love, a request she seems uninterested in. Soon after, the title card pops up with a cut to black.Walking out of my screening, I joked that the title should come with an exclamation point, and maybe a rolling-eyes emoji. Harper is under siege by multiple manifestations of toxic masculinity—lechery, neediness, condescension, even Geoffrey’s uncomfortable banter. Though the men, boy, and creature are wildly different, their weird birthing sequence, paired with the film’s pointedly simple title, underscores an elemental bond between them, a shared yearning for attention and love that can quickly turn hostile.Beyond that throughline, the movie’s symbols are shrouded in ambiguity. The scariest character, the Green Man, has origins in ancient folklore and architecture from many parts of the world, but his motivations in Men, much like the figure’s historical meaning, are profoundly elusive. As man has evolved from the naked, explicitly barbaric mold that the film’s Green Man seems to embody, he’s taken more palatable forms. But in the finale, Garland seems to be intentionally framing them as all part of the same lineage of behavior. The camera also repeatedly turns to the image of the Sheela na gig, a folkloric carving of a woman squatting and holding open her vagina that Harper sees at the local church. As with the Green Man (whose face is also etched into the church walls), historians aren’t quite sure what the Sheela na gig represents—possibly a fertility idol, perhaps a warning against the sins of lust. In this film, contrasted against the climax of male pregnancy, she appears to be an emblem of vaginal envy, of man’s thwarted desire to create rather than destroy.Despite these resonances, Men is still foundationally mysterious, a film where any answer feels broad and theoretical. Perhaps that’s why the movie hasn’t gone over too well at the box office, opening to a lackluster $3.3 million this weekend and a D+ CinemaScore (an exit survey for theatrical audience-goers). But since I saw it a few weeks ago, I’ve enjoyed swirling its strange conclusion around in my head and reveling in Garland’s daring inversion in which the assailant is not destroyed but merely examined. The final message of Men is that for all their scary intent and brute-force behavior, men are inherently, almost cosmically pathetic creations. It’s a funny, ironic, and mordant note to end on after the 90 minutes of unrelenting menace that came before.
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The Abortion-Rights Message That Some Activists Hate
The end of Roe v. Wade would be a devastating defeat for abortion-rights advocates and the millions who support a federally guaranteed right to terminate a pregnancy. It might also be the last, best hope for Democrats seeking to mobilize a frustrated, angry electorate and maintain their slim majorities in Congress this fall.Democrats appear to have settled on their message for targeting these voters, judging by the ads that the party and its candidates have already produced in the three weeks since the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that would overturn the landmark 1973 ruling in Roe. An initial spot from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee opens on an image of matches about to be struck, with a narrator warning: “If Senate Republicans win in November, they will light women’s rights on fire.” Ads from Senators Catherine Cortez-Masto of Nevada and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, two of the party’s most vulnerable incumbents up for reelection this year, hone in on GOP proposals to “criminalize abortion” and ban the procedure with “no exception for rape, incest, or human trafficking.”The commercials all highlight Republicans’ most extreme positions on abortion, darkly warning about the consequences of electing them to govern. That focus is surely familiar to voters, because it’s been the Democrats’ go-to tactic on abortion for years. Many abortion-rights activists, however, are sick of hearing it.“These are scare-tactic videos meant to frighten people,” Kate Kelly, a human-rights activist and progressive campaign organizer, told me after I played her the ads from Cortez-Masto and Hassan. “I don’t want to hear, This is what these dumb and terrible bad men think,” she said. “I want to hear: What is your solution?”Kelly works with Shout Your Abortion, an activist group that seeks to normalize abortion and expand access to the procedure even where it is now all but illegal. To the organization’s founders, airing ads that highlight the most right-wing GOP laws and proposals, such as those that bar abortion even in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is threatened, “stigmatizes everyone else who wants to get an abortion or needs an abortion,” Kelly said. “Focusing on the very extreme and tragic cases of rape or incest says that those are the people who are worthy and deserving. And the discourse has moved so far beyond that.”Democratic candidates, she said, should instead tell voters what they have done to secure access to abortion in their states and what they plan to do if abortion becomes illegal, even if that means “defying unjust laws.” Kelly and other abortion-rights advocates want to see politicians move beyond Roe v. Wade and the Constitution itself to frame access to abortion as a human right.[Read: The GOP’s strange turn against rape exceptions]The largest abortion-rights advocacy groups, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL Pro-Choice America, have in recent years changed the way they talk about abortion, although perhaps not as much as activists want. In addition, top Democrats leaders such as President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are more likely to actually say the word abortion rather than dance around it with euphemisms like “a woman’s right to choose” and “reproductive freedom.” The Clinton-era formulation “safe, legal, and rare” went out of fashion during the Obama years, and more recently the House Pro-Choice Caucus demoted the word choice in favor of decision. (No update on whether the caucus plans to change its name.)The message that Planned Parenthood is using ahead of the Dobbs decision has been tested with the help of Geoff Garin, a longtime Democratic pollster. “We’re going to present a core proposition to our voters,” Jenny Lawson, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes, told me: “Who should have power and control over your bodies, your future, and your lives? Should it be you, or should it be politicians who want to interfere?” The abortion-rights movement has long based its argument in the language of civil liberties, but advocates have now added strains of anti-government populism to match the mood of voters.For all the talk about how advocates should talk about abortion, however, Democratic strategists say the conversation may have moved further left than the polls have. Abortion rights remain broadly popular, but voters’ views on the issue are complex.In a recent poll by The Atlantic’s polling partner, Leger, 74 percent of respondents said that they backed the right to an abortion, and a clear majority opposed overturning Roe v. Wade. But just 45 percent of people supported the right to an abortion “in most or all cases,” while 29 percent said they approved of abortion “only in restricted cases.” Those findings are similar to what other polls have shown in the weeks since the leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion. Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist and former top aide to Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, told me that the great majority of the country falls between two extremes on abortion. “They don’t want to criminalize abortion,” she said, “but nor do they want to shout their abortions.”That presumption is informing Democrats’ decisions on the ads they run this year, as is the belief that painting Republicans as extremists on abortion has worked for them in the past. Smith recalled Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, when the party tried to tie virtually every Republican candidate in the country to the comments of Missouri’s Todd Akin and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock, who each lost an election they were favored to win after defending abortion bans even in cases of rape.Democrats face a tougher challenge this year, when the political environment favors Republicans. The same polls that show solid majority support for abortion rights also indicate that voters are split between whether they plan to vote for Democrats or Republicans, suggesting that many people are placing a higher priority on economic issues such as inflation and might support candidates who oppose their personal position on abortion. Democratic strategists have taken some solace in polling following the leaked Dobbs opinion in which voters ranked abortion high on a list of issues most important to them in the midterm elections. A Reuters/Ipsos survey last week showed that a much higher percentage of Democrats than Republicans cited abortion as an important factor in their vote, suggesting that the issue might drive progressives to the polls in a year in which Democrats are otherwise struggling to motivate their base to turn out.The other major factor that could work in the party’s favor is the element of surprise, Garin told me. Polling has shown that despite years of warnings from abortion-rights advocates, most voters did not believe that Roe would be overturned. “The fact that it was unexpected makes the impact of the decision even greater,” Garin said.The key for Democratic candidates, he said, is to keep the shock and anger as fresh in voters’ minds in November as it will be in June, when the actual decision is expected. Advocates for gun control, for example, have seen Democrats pledge to make the issue an electoral flashpoint in the immediate aftermath of a massacre then spend their ad money elsewhere when voting begins. “It’s really important for Democrats to stay with this and not move on to the next thing,” Garin said.Different messages might work with different audiences, he acknowledged. But he defended the kind of message that some abortion-rights advocates detest—highlighting the most extreme Republican positions on abortion. “The reality of electoral politics,” Garin told me, “is that often what drives votes is the fear of what the other candidate is going to do.”At the core of the dispute between Democratic Party strategists and abortion-rights activists is a sharp disagreement over the definition of success. The strategists defend messaging that has worked to defeat Republican ideologues in close races and given Democrats, at least for now, the presidency and narrow majorities in Congress. But to people like Amelia Bonow, the founding director of Shout Your Abortion, the story of abortion politics over the past several years is one of resounding defeat. Democrats might have won power, but in a few weeks they will likely lose the fight for abortion rights. A continued reliance on the same stale message in the months ahead, she told me, would be foolish.“Democrats have failed their base and the American public in just a catastrophic way by failing to protect our most basic rights to autonomy and self-determination while they have control of the House and the Senate and the White House,” Bonow told me. “Frankly, I think it’s on every Democrat to make the case for their own existence in the aftermath of such a failure.”
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‘The Guy With the Gun Is Now Running Hong Kong’
Counting the votes cast in Hong Kong’s chief-executive election last week took just 23 minutes. There was no hyperefficient voting technology or army of poll workers. The speed was due instead to the paltry number of ballots: Only 1,461 needed to be tabulated, and they listed just one candidate. So with a vote share that would make a dictator grin (99.2 percent), John Lee became the fifth person selected to lead the city in the postcolonial era.Lee takes office this summer, when Hong Kong will mark 25 years under Chinese rule, the halfway point of the “one country, two systems” experiment that was meant to grant the city a high degree of autonomy, a moment rumored to be marked with a visit from President Xi Jinping. Lee’s elevation is reflective of the distrust and paranoia that has flourished in Beijing and among Hong Kong’s political elites since the 2019 prodemocracy protests, which he helped both trigger and eventually put down.The foreign connections that have been one of Hong Kong’s defining features are seen now in a more suspect light—possible weaknesses to be exploited in an unstable world where China is under constant threat and where the city will need to be less reliant on the West, particularly the United States. Even as officials speak of exiting strict pandemic protocols that have isolated Hong Kong for years and of a need to reinvigorate it as an international business center, the overriding priority will be that of law and order. This will be maintained through a sprawling, powerful security apparatus, backed up by a judicial system that embraced Beijing’s draconian new national-security law while at the same time discovering a penchant for oppressive colonial rules once wielded by the British. On all counts, Lee—a former police officer and security chief who is already subject to American sanctions—fits the bill.Though none of Lee’s predecessors were elected through genuine democracy, they all made attempts to balance the desires of Beijing’s leaders and Hong Kong’s people, desires that were often at odds. In the city’s new iteration, this will be less necessary. Lee will likely work to portray the chief-executive role as strong and nonpolitical, supported, more so than challenged, by an obedient legislature—all with the knowledge that the chances of any popular pushback are exceedingly scant. Lee’s vision of Hong Kong is a dark one, and Beijing has cast him as the only patriot strong enough to enact it. The Chinese authorities want “someone who can stand firm against any pressure coming from the outside, protect the interest of the country, and keep away foreign interference,” Jasper Tsang, a former president of the legislative council and the founder of the city’s largest pro-Beijing political party who supported Lee’s election, told me. “This is what is needed now.”Lee, 64, attended a Jesuit all-boys school and, upon graduating, joined the Hong Kong Police Force in 1977, when Britain still ruled the city. By the late 1990s, he was involved in some of the city’s biggest cases, including the pursuit of Cheung Tze-keung, a gangster known as “Big Spender” for his lavish gambling habits. Cheung had undertaken a string of brazen airport thefts and abductions, kidnapping two tycoons in 1996 and 1997, respectively, and extracting tens of millions of dollars in ransom for their releases. Lee led a stakeout that uncovered a massive cache of explosives belonging to Cheung, who was caught soon after on the mainland. He was swiftly tried, found guilty, and executed by firing squad.Lee’s background and education are very much unlike those of Hong Kong’s previous chief executives—and, from Beijing’s point of view, that is a strength. Whereas prior leaders studied at places such as Harvard and Cambridge, or were Fulbright scholars, Lee obtained a master’s degree through an Australian distance-learning program. Previous chief executives were businesspeople or career bureaucrats. By contrast, Lee’s blue-collar background in the police and his lack of connections to political and business elites have been touted by pro-Beijing pundits, who say that he will be unencumbered by the vested interests who hold substantial power in the close-knit world of Hong Kong politics.Lee rose through the force’s ranks over 35-odd years, but in 2011 was passed over for police commissioner in favor of a more operationally focused and charismatic candidate, a former colleague said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivities. Another former officer described Lee as tough and competent, but with a temper that sometimes flared because of his chronic back pain. Occasionally, during one of these outbursts, Lee would toss a stack of files into the air. “I hope he has learned to control himself better,” this person told me, “otherwise Hong Kong is in for an interesting time.”His path to the top of the police at a dead end, Lee joined the government. In a profile of Lee published after he was named chief executive, Ta Kung Pao, a state-controlled newspaper in Hong Kong, highlighted his role in outlawing the Hong Kong National Party in 2018. The small, fringe group had advocated for Hong Kong’s independence from China, a position that is viewed as a redline for Beijing. The following year, Lee played a leading role in responding to the enormous prodemocracy demonstrations that swept Hong Kong for months, after helping spur them on.In February 2019, Hong Kong’s Security Bureau, which Lee was by then leading, delivered a paper to the legislative council’s security panel outlining why changes were necessary to the city’s extradition policies. Mundanely titled “Cooperation Between Hong Kong and Other Places on Juridical Assistance in Criminal Matters,” the paper proposed reforms driven by the murder in Taiwan of a young pregnant Hong Kong woman by her boyfriend, who fled back to the city and confessed to the crime, creating a quagmire: The crime was not committed in Hong Kong, so he could not be prosecuted in the city, yet no framework existed for sending him back to Taiwan to face justice. The cause was quickly taken up by pro-Beijing politicians.The proposed legislation, largely unnoticed at first, included provisions whereby suspects could be extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China, which has a separate judicial system. While the bill alarmed prodemocracy figures, who saw it as eroding the wall between Hong Kong’s common-law courts and the mainland’s opaque system, wealthy business people were at first the fiercest critics. Many trace their fortunes to investments made on the mainland at a time where bribery and corruption were commonplace. They feared that they could be targeted in Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crackdown and brought to the mainland for trial. Lee was tasked with selling the bill to skeptical foreign consulates and chambers of commerce, working with business leaders to create carve-outs, though doubts remained over why the bill was necessary at all.Like the outgoing chief executive, Carrie Lam, who refused to back down on the legislation as protests escalated, Lee hardened his demeanor when faced with criticism. Lee’s backers claim that he was instrumental in putting down the ensuing demonstrations, the biggest in Hong Kong’s history, marshaling the police to use aggressive, violent tactics to stamp them out. This assessment is certainly true, but incomplete. It fails to reckon with or account for Lee’s role in exacerbating the demonstrations, through his work with Lam to push the bill forward despite mass protests that eventually escalated into acts of violence and vandalism.HK01, a centrist newspaper, wrote an editorial in 2019 ripping Lee for his performance and his flippant dismissal of people’s concerns about police conduct during the protests, describing him as “just one of the incompetent officials” among “a group of ‘John Lees’ whose heads are extremely in the clouds, leading Hong Kong into chaos.” On the streets, Lee was mocked as Pikachu, the chubby yellow rodent Pokémon, a play on his full Chinese name John Lee Ka-chiu. (The name may not have been as original as protesters thought: One of Lee’s former colleagues told me that fellow members of the force called him that decades earlier.) By the time the protests were quashed, done in by a combination of the pandemic and the national-security law imposed by Beijing, the reputation of Hong Kong’s police was ruined, the confessed murderer was living freely in the city, and Lee had been promoted to the city’s No. 2 position.He carried his harsh tone and dark vision of Hong Kong to the new role. Lee pledged to relentlessly pursue the “cowards” who fled the city to escape possible jail time and welcomed the arrest of seven journalists, calling them “evil elements” who themselves had damaged press freedoms. Ta Kung Pao’s profile of Lee listed the closing of Apple Daily, a prodemocracy newspaper, as among his major accomplishments.Nearly 200 people have been arrested for alleged national-security crimes, according to an analysis by Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law. “The vast majority of arrests targeted activities that would be considered peaceful and constitutionally-protected exercise of basic political and civil rights in other jurisdictions,” two academics from the center wrote this year. “In fact, such activities would have been protected in Hong Kong itself prior to the NSL’s enactment in July 2020.” Lee was among several officials placed under U.S. sanctions after the law was imposed. In modern Hong Kong, however, this albatross around his neck may be more a medal of valor, one that helped rather than hurt his chances for advancement. Having already been sanctioned, Lee has removed a possible pressure point at a time when Beijing is growing more concerned about the threat of sanctions, given the impact they have wrought on Russia following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.Beijing clearly “wants to keep the current level of control,” Liu Dongshu, an assistant public-policy professor at the City University of Hong Kong, told me. This goes far beyond just stopping protests and ridding the legislature of opposition, and extends to dismantling the bonds and shared identity forged among Hong Kongers during the 2019 protests. This week, for example, state media warned that taxi drivers and shops displaying any prodemocracy symbols could be violating the national-security law.In a rare moment of introspection, Lam admitted in 2020 that Hong Kong’s chief executives “have never succeeded on any occasion when it comes to [the] very sensitive Hong Kong–mainland relationship.” She cited numerous failures that have befallen her and her three predecessors, showing the limitations of the role despite all having the backing of Beijing as well as a political field tipped heavily in their favor.With a legislature now stripped entirely of opposition, pro-Beijing outlets have pushed the narrative that the government will be more efficient and better able to improve livelihoods. The authorities, this narrative goes, will in turn be able to win over a population that has faced down rubber bullets and tear gas, voted for prodemocracy candidates in a landslide in the city’s last free election, and seen their freedoms torn away.For some issues, this is likely true, though not necessarily good. Lacking a prodemocracy opposition, a batch of subversion and security legislation—which triggered huge street protests in 2003 and helped to prematurely end the career of the city’s first chief executive—will finally pass. A “fake-news law” will probably also be implemented, a development that has raised concerns among Hong Kong’s already beleaguered press corps. Additional controls on the internet appear imminent.Lee has made no efforts to reach out to the few remaining members of the prodemocracy parties, which have been decimated by the national-security law as well as the reengineered election system. Unsurprisingly, he has said that he will not pursue political reform toward universal suffrage, the city’s most vexing issue.Yet even with a legislature that is trending toward a rubber stamp, there are certain issues that cannot be quickly or easily solved. Strict pandemic regulations have kept Hong Kong largely cut off from the rest of the world, and damaged the economy: Unemployment has ticked up to 5.4 percent, just one of the challenges weighing on growth. It is uncertain how or when Lee will be able to fully open the city to the mainland, let alone elsewhere. Lee has also pledged to tackle the city’s exorbitant housing prices, but that will require challenging the confraternity of real-estate tycoons and their gilded heirs who are obscenely powerful, and tackling artificial land scarcity that keeps prices so high. The city has also become drastically more unequal in terms of income and wealth since the 1997 handover, but the authorities have shown little interest or appetite in addressing this shift.Whatever his efforts on these issues, however, Lee’s overarching vision is unquestionably antidemocratic, and subservient to his ultimate masters—not Hong Kong’s people, but Beijing’s leaders. This city was never the beacon of liberal democracy existing on the border of an autocracy, as its most vocal proponents like to claim, but it was still free. The press could criticize the authorities, the police were held to account, and the courts operated according to the rule of law. John Lee’s elevation makes clear that this prior golden era of sorts is over, and a new one is under way.One former pro-Beijing lawmaker and businessman, like others I spoke with, told me that he was cautiously optimistic about Lee, that perhaps with the right team and guidance he could steer the city through its many issues. But, he admitted, to people outside the city, “the image is that the guy with the gun is now running Hong Kong.”
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Why Biden Is Right to End Ambiguity on Taiwan
“White House Walks Back Biden Taiwan Defense Claim for Third Time in Nine Months” was the patronizing headline the New York Post applied to its report on President Joe Biden’s Taiwan comments at a regional summit in Tokyo. The story line was preset: semi-senile president blurts unscripted comment, is corrected by his staff minders.But if you reread Biden’s repeated comments on Taiwan, you see a policy that is clear, considered, and consistent.In August 2021, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Biden whether withdrawal from Afghanistan might embolden China against Taiwan. Biden replied: There’s a fundamental difference between—between Taiwan, South Korea, NATO. We are in a situation where they are in—entities we’ve made agreements with based on not a civil war they’re having on that island or in South Korea, but on an agreement where they have a unity government that, in fact, is trying to keep bad guys from doin’ bad things to them. We have made—kept every commitment. We made a sacred commitment to Article Five that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with—Taiwan. It’s not even comparable to talk about that. In October, Biden restated his commitment even more forcefully and clearly, this time at a CNN town hall moderated by Anderson Cooper. An audience member asked, “China just tested a hypersonic missile. What will you do to keep up with them militarily? And can you vow to protect Taiwan?”Biden answered: Yes and yes. We are—militarily, China, Russia, and the rest of the world knows we have the most powerful military in the history of the world. Don’t worry about whether we’re going to—they’re going to be more powerful. What you do have to worry about is whether or not they’re going to engage in activities that will put them in a position where there—they may make a serious mistake. And so, I have had—I have spoken and spent more time with Xi Jinping than any other world leader has. That’s why you have—you know, you hear people saying, “Biden wants to start a new Cold War with China.” I don’t want a Cold War with China. I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back. We are not going to change any of our views. Anderson Cooper then intervened to clarify: “So, are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if—” Biden: Yes.Cooper: China attacked?Biden: Yes, we have a commitment to do that. Now, in May 2022, Biden has repeated the pledge. At a news conference Monday in Tokyo, Nancy Cordes, of CBS News, asked, “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?” Biden answered, “Yes.”Cordes followed up: “You are?” Biden answered: “That’s the commitment we made.”Not only the Biden-skeptical New York Post but other media organizations, too, have treated these words as an unintended mess that he’d need to “untangle,” as the CBS anchor John Dickerson phrased it. But if there is a tangle, it’s not Biden’s fault.U.S. policy toward Taiwan is often described as “strategic ambiguity,” usually understood as “The U.S. will defend Taiwan but won’t say so.” But behind this U.S. ambiguity has stood a prior Chinese ambiguity. China’s version of strategic ambiguity simultaneously: proclaimed Beijing’s theoretical sovereignty over Taiwan, but refrained from overt actions to assert that sovereignty. In return for that ambiguous Chinese policy, Taiwan would refrain from challenging China’s sovereignty claims and the U.S. would refrain from any formal commitment to Taiwan’s security.[David Frum: This is no time for protectionism]Under the rule of Xi Jinping, China has progressively reneged on the second half of its strategic ambiguity. China has ordered bigger and bigger incursions into Taiwan’s air-defense zone. China has the means to mount a naval blockade of the island. It has mounted sustained and aggressive cyberattacks. Throughout, Chinese leaders have growled explicit threats of armed force. Taiwanese officials describe the present situation as the most dangerous of the past 40 years.So Biden is not leading this particular diplomatic two-step. Biden is not really initiating anything at all. As China jettisons its prior strategic ambiguity, so Biden has been pushed away from American strategic ambiguity. As Chinese threats of aggression have become more explicit, so, too, have U.S. promises of defense become more explicit.Biden was also pushed and pulled by two other factors. Donald Trump, in his presidency, also walked away from “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan—but, in his case, toward outright abandonment of Taiwan. “Taiwan is like two feet from China. We are eight thousand miles away. If they invade, there isn’t a fucking thing we can do about it.” Those words were uttered by Trump in private, according to a book by the Washington Post reporter Josh Rogin. But Biden had to worry that Trump communicated his feelings to Xi in their private conversations. If so, the credibility of the American commitment needed to be reaffirmed by Trump’s successor.In another theater, the Russian invasion of Ukraine raised fresh questions about U.S. intentions. Ukraine was not a formal U.S. ally before the Russian invasion. The U.S. accordingly provided Ukraine with weapons and supplies to defend itself, but did not intervene directly. That careful delineation—no U.S. forces for non-ally Ukraine—had to raise questions within the Chinese leadership about whether the U.S. might follow a similar policy toward Taiwan, also not formally a U.S. ally. Biden may have felt it urgent to dispel any doubts on that score.[Read: The lessons Taiwan is learning from Ukraine]“Strategic ambiguity” was a policy initiated by President Jimmy Carter to assure China of respect while protecting Taiwan from invasion. It worked for a long time. But there was no guarantee that it would work forever. President Biden had good reason to worry that the four-decades-old policy was losing its effectiveness in the face of rising Chinese assertiveness. New times may call for new measures to keep the old peace.For all portrayals of Biden as decrepit and doddering, it’s worth observing that he launched his new approach at an ingeniously propitious moment. For China, with its people restive under COVID lockdown, its economy slumping toward zero growth and possibly outright recession, its authoritarian partner in Moscow entrapped in a losing war, this is about as shaky a moment as any since Xi assumed power nearly a decade ago. Biden laid down his new rules at a moment of unusual vulnerability for China. By the time the Chinese have a better opportunity to act, the more explicit U.S. policy will have become a settled fact.Biden’s aides are right, in a way, that he has not changed anything. As Biden said, the commitment was there before him. Now it’s just more visible than it used to be. His words in Tokyo were not a gaffe, not a blurt. They were a restatement of a message that needed to be heard, delivered at an opportune time.
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